MONTAGUE BREST—Monty to all his friends, and they were many—laid down his cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and swore.
"Ruth," he exclaimed, "I'm done! I'm a fraud! I can't make head or tail of it. Tomorrow I'll have to resign, and then God knows what we shall do. Curse that yellow-skinned, slobbering Manchu, or whoever sat down and wrote this farrago of rubbish to His Majesty's Government. I'm beat, Ruth! I can't make a word of sense of it."
She had crossed the room, and was already leaning over him, her arm around his neck. She looked at the long, stiff sheet of paper, covered with what seemed to be cabalistic signs, and she laughed outright.
"Monty, my dear," she remonstrated, "how could anyone in the world expect you to make sense of such a medley."
"Well, the Foreign Office does, for one," he assured her gloomily. "It looks like the outside of a Chinese teapot to us, but it's Tibetan all right. I daren't say I cannot do, it. I've had too many failures lately. I thought I might be able to make something of it, but I can't. I can't make sense of the opening paragraph, even."
She patted his cheek soothingly. She was a very pretty girl and her voice would have been enough to make most men forget their troubles.
"I shouldn't worry, dear," she advised. "The F.O. would never seriously complain of a man for not being able to make sense of that."
He rose to his feet, and nervously lit another cigarette. The small sitting-room was already thick with tobacco smoke.
"But that's just what they will do, Ruth," he complained. "You see, I made a mess of the Afghan cable. They made use of a word I never heard of, and if I confess to another failure here, they'll think I'm a fraud so far as the Asiatic languages are concerned."
"Let's telephone to Mr. Odane," she suggested. "He offered to help you at any time."
The young man's face lighted.
"It's an idea, Ruth," he admitted. "He's not so good at the Indian dialects as I am, but he's a marvel at Chinese. This certainly seems a good deal more like his touch than mine."
"I'll ring him up," she decided. "Don't you worry."
She threw open the door of the little sitting-room, and made her way to the telephone instrument at the end of the narrow passage. She was back again in less than two minutes.
"He's coming, Monty," she announced triumphantly. "He seemed only too pleased. The idea of a manuscript you couldn't make anything of intrigued him immensely. Let's have another look at the beastly thing."
They pored over it together—an official-looking document, covered with curious characters, scratched on a home- made paper which was half yellow, and half white. Ruth's finger lingered at the middle of one sentence.
"There's an Englishman's name," she pointed out. "The only thing anyone could make any sense of—printed in English characters too—BRETTON. I've heard it before somewhere."
"There's a Colonel Le Bretton, a great explorer," her brother reflected. "By Jove, I should wonder if it were he. He started off a year ago for Mount Everest, or somewhere around there. The man who went through Abyssinia a few years ago, you know. I—"
He broke off in his sentence.
His sister was not a nervous person, but the sound of her shriek filled the little room. He started to his feet. She was staring at the bay window, across which the curtain was only half drawn. Her eyes were filled with a very definite terror.
"For God's sake, what's the matter, Ruth?" he exclaimed. She pointed to the narrow slit of exposed window-pane.
"There was a man there, looking in," she cried. "I saw his face distinctly."
Brest hastened from the room, along the few feet of passage, and threw open the front door. He looked up and down in vain. Their house was the last but four in a long row of seven-roomed villas near Barnes Commons and the space opposite was still unbuilt upon. There was not a soul to be seen except a man and a girl strolling arm in arm, passing from under a lamp-post into invisibility. He closed the door, and returned to the sitting- room.
"Ruth, my dear, you're fancying things," he told her. "There isn't a human being in sight."
"A man looked in at the window," she insisted.
"Then he climbed up the side of the house on to the roof. There was no other means of getting away."
She lit a cigarette, and laughed nervously.
"I hope I'm not beginning to see things'."
"There was nobody there," he assured her. "Look here, Ruth, there's one thing you've got to promise me. Whatever happens, in no case—not under any circumstances—must you ever let a soul know that I consulted Odane about this manuscript. I should get the sack straightaway."
"Am I a gossip?" she scoffed. "Did you ever know me to talk?"
"Never," he acknowledged. "The new regulations are very strict, though. It is ridiculous that you shouldn't be able to ask help of a man in Odane's position, but it would cost me my job if they knew I'd done it."
"Then they never shall, dear," she promised. "I'll get the whisky and soda out for Mr. Odane."
She patted his cheek. He looked at her in surprise.
"Why, Ruth," he exclaimed, "your hands are as cold as ice, and you're trembling. What's the matter?"
"I'm not used to visions," she confided with a little shiver.
TWO hours later, Mark Odane, Professor of Oriental Languages and a scholar of some repute, confessed himself partially beaten.
"I'll have to take the thing home, Monty," he announced finally. "I've got some dictionaries there that will help, and a phrase book in manuscript. I'll do it for you—word for word, too—but you'll have to give me a few hours. I can't stay any longer now. I've got a committee meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. Lend me your dispatch box."
"You must take it away, I suppose?" the young man asked wistfully. "It's against the regulations."
"I can do nothing here," Odane admitted. "Besides, who cares about those regulations? They are broken every day. You know that. Say good-by to your sister for me, there's a good fellow."
The Professor hurried out to his taxicab. The young man saw him off, and watched the vehicle turn the corner. There were a few promenading couples on the waste piece of common opposite —not another person in sight. He closed the front door, and called up the stairs to his sister: "Gone to bed, Ruth?"
"Long ago," came the sleepy reply. "Good-night, and don't forget to lock up."
He made his way back to the sitting-room, mixed himself a whisky and soda, and settled himself in an easy-chair, with the evening paper. The cricket scores failed to interest him. The Stock Exchange news left him unmoved. The illness of a great statesman did not affect him in the least. He was conscious of a curious tingling of the nerves. There was something—what was it that had happened that evening? He remembered suddenly Ruth's moment of panic, and smiled. Then, conscious of what seemed to be a draft, he turned his head. The newspaper slid from his nerveless fingers. Before he could call out, there was a hand upon his throat, and the glitter of steel before his eyes. Almost immediately the room was plunged into darkness. He could see nothing but the dim shadow of the man leaning over him, in whose grasp he was like an infant.
"I want the paper you brought home this evening from the Foreign Office. Will you give it to me? Decide quickly. If you refuse you have less than ten seconds to live."
The grasp upon his throat relaxed a little. He was able to mumble.
"It isn't here. I have had to pass it on to someone else."
There was a brutal, choking sound, a short laugh of contempt.
"Usual thing to part with manuscripts from the Foreign Office, isn't it? Five seconds left. Will you give it to me?"
"I swear that it isn't here."
In the darkness, the thread of steel was like an electric shaft. Then that one, long-drawn-out moment of hideous pain, and blackness greater than the gloom of the room. The young man lay a crumpled-up heap upon his easy-chair, and his visitor proceeded with his task.
DETECTIVE Inspector Stimpson suddenly abandoned the attitude of casual caller which he had assumed during the first few minutes of his visit to Sir Jasper Slane, his acquaintance and occasional fellow worker. He drew his chair nearer to the desk. He was a small, sandy man, neatly dressed, with a freckled face and a mass of unruly hair. His queer, shrewd little eyes were studying Slane speculatively.
"Sir Jasper," he acknowledged, "we are in some slight trouble down at the Yard."
"The Montague Brest affair?"
"It isn't only that. Let me explain. If you'll believe me. Sir Jasper, there is scarcely a job done in London that we don't know who's behind it, even when we can't get the evidence to make an arrest. There are plenty of people walking down Piccadilly and Bond Street at this moment whom we know to be guilty of certain offenses. We can't touch them, but we don't worry. Their time will come.
"Just now, we're up against a different proposition. There's a new body of criminals at work, and they've got us guessing. They don't link up anywhere with any of the old gangs. My conviction is that this new crowd comes from a different class of society altogether. I'll give you one example: There's an amazing packet of precious stones—mostly rubies—being discreetly offered amongst the high-class fences, and the curious part of it is that they don't correspond in the least with any missing jewelry we have on our list. They are far more magnificent, and unique.
"Where did they come from, Sir Jasper? Certainly they are not being handled by any one of the known jewel thieves in Europe. That's why I'm pretty well convinced that there's a new organization at work with whom we have not yet clicked."
Slane, from the depths of his easy-chair, smiled in tolerant and comprehending assent. He was a cheery-looking person, with humorous eyes and mouth, the complexion of a Devonshire farmer, and with scarcely a line upon his face. There was nothing whatever in his appearance to suggest any abnormal intelligence. Only every now and then, at odd moments, there was a quick flash of his blue eyes, a tightening of the lips, an incisive word, the subtleties of a partially concealed personality.
"I shouldn't be at all surprised. A very intelligent assumption of yours as a matter of fact. We've too many amateur bookmakers, wine merchants, stockbrokers' representatives, motor car agents, and all that sort of thing. Why not a course in crime for the indigent aristocrat? Your idea appeals to me, Stimpson!"
"Then perhaps you will help me to find out who killed Montague Brest." Sir Jasper leaned back a little in his chair.
"I am not a detective," he observed.
"What else are you, Sir Jasper?" his visitor asked him bluntly.
"I am interested in research," was the indulgent reply. "It amuses me to attempt to solve any social problem which is baffling my friends. Criminology attracts me. The science of detection excites my admiration, but I am not a detective, Stimpson. You will never find me in competition with Scotland Yard."
"That may be so, but it was you who discovered, and returned to her, Lady Darnwell's jewels after we'd been months trying in vain. It was owing to your influence that Maurice Grayson left the country at a moment's notice, and—"
"That will do," Slane interrupted. "Precisely what do you want of me this afternoon? You haven't traveled all the way up to Hampstead for the sake of a friendly little chat?"
"You have this immense advantage over us," the detective continued thoughtfully, avoiding for the moment a direct reply. "You are able to penetrate easily and naturally into a class of society from which we are debarred. It isn't that we can't go there, but when we do we are noticeable, and our quarry is on guard all the time. Club life, too, is unfortunately barred to us. Now you are a member, I believe, Sir Jasper, of the Lavender Club."
"No place in London where I am happier," was the enthusiastic admission. "A very delightful gathering of cultured cosmopolitans, Stimpson. You must dine with me there one night."
The detective shook his head.
"No place for me, sir," he acknowledged frankly, "but we have come now to the object of my visit. We were talking a few minutes ago about the murder of Montague Brest. I should like you to go to the Lavender Club as often as you can during the next few days with this idea always in your brain—that one of those with whom you are lunching or dining, or playing bridge, or drinking a cocktail, killed, or knows who killed, Montague Brest. You are something of a psychologist. I will leave it at that. At the end of a day or two, ask yourself which of the men with whom you have conversed could possibly have been the murderer? Tell me their names. A little tactful and harmless espionage will hurt no one."
"Anything to go on?" Slane inquired, with a sudden gravity.
"A trifle, sir. No more than that."
The other considered for a few moments.
"What you ask is, after all, not a difficult matter," he decided, "and commits me to nothing. I will do as you wish."
DINNER at the long table at the Lavender Club was always a cheerful affair. That particular night it was even hilarious. Two of the most popular men in the Club—Sir Jasper Slane, who rejoiced in the dual nicknames of "the tec" and "the Bart" and Colonel Le Bretton, the explorer, generally called "the tramp"—sat opposite to one another, and the conversation and chaff centering around them was insistent. A popular play had just come to the end of its run, and a famous actor, Harold Tennant, was able to dine at a reasonable hour, a circumstance of which he showed his appreciation by an inspiring appetite and thirst, and a continual flow of anecdotes. Several other well-known members of the Club had moved up their chairs to join the cheerful company. The atmosphere was charged with the genial spirit of club life at its best.
"I sometimes wonder, Le Bretton," Sir Jasper Slane observed, "how you manage to pass the time in the tranquillity of London after these hair-raising expeditions of yours."
Le Bretton, a long, lean sunburnt man, with sunken eyes, protruding eyebrows, and a disfiguring scar on one side of his face, which effectively concealed his natural expression, sipped his wine approvingly, and smiled.
"So do a good many other people," he observed. "Traveling's really my hobby, but the vital savor of life is variety. One has to come to London, for instance, to drink vintage port, and, so long as I don't have to stay here too long, I am perfectly comfortable in my little flat dictating lies about my adventures in the daytime, and joining some of you fellows at night."
"The ideal modern Münchausen," Harold Tennant pronounced. "We all read them, of course, but you don't suppose that anyone really believes these amazing stories of yours?"
"I should be very hurt if they did," was the calm retort. "Every traveler must write with imagination. Bald facts would interest no one. Oh, London suits me all right for a time. What I wonder is, how the Bart here passes his evenings when there are no jewels to be restored, or family mysteries to be solved, or aristocratic sinners to be caught and cast out. You must have a dull time between cases, Slane."
Sir Jasper grinned amiably.
"I am always preparing for the next one," he confided.
"The real sleuth hound is always agog," a noble lord, who was president of the club, remarked. "Goes about scenting crime and mystery all the time, don't you, Bart?"
"Jolly useful chap to have about the place," a member of the committee put in. "They tell me there hasn't been even a spoon stolen since his real profession became known."
Sir Jasper sighed.
"My profession," he decided, "is becoming difficult. Years ago, there was a certain pleasing ingenuousness about the criminal, and a certain amount of science about the detective. The latter generally got his quarry in the long run. Today it is the criminal who has the science and the detective who is left guessing. The betting odds have changed at least twenty-five per cent.
"Look at the Montague Brest case, for instance. Who killed Montague Brest? There's a mystery for you, if you like—a pleasant, insignificant young man occupying a minor post in a Government office, stabbed through the heart in his study in a seven-roomed villa at Barnes. No evidence of any visitor, no robbery, so far as anyone knows, nothing to steal apparently, for he and his sister seem to have been in straitened circumstances. The cleverest detective in Scotland Yard has even confided to me that he doesn't know where to start his investigations. That's a mystery worth solving. Who killed Montague Brest?"
A small man, pale, almost anemic in appearance, who had been dining alone, seated just outside the enchanted circle, had been listening with absorbed attention to Jasper Slane's speech. In the momentary silence that followed it, he replenished his glass from the modest half bottle of claret which stood by his side, and leaned towards the little group.
"I think that I can tell you," he said quietly.
There was a sudden paralysis of attention, a dramatic dumbness of mind and thought. They all stared at him.
"It's Professor Odane," his neighbor whispered to Jasper Slane. "Oriental languages, and that sort of stuff. Got a Chair somewhere. Doesn't often come in here. Quite a decent chap, but he must have gone balmy."
Slane, the first to recover himself, leaned tolerantly forward in his place.
"You mean that you have a theory, Odane, I suppose?" he suggested. "Move up and join us."
The little man, glass in hand, rose and accepted the invitation.
"Another decanter of port, and a glass for Mr. Odane," Jasper Slane ordered from the steward. "You mean, I suppose," he repeated, looking across at the newcomer, "that you have a theory."
"I have something more than a theory," was the calm reply. "I know who killed Montague Brest, and why."
A thrill shivered through the circle. Odane was not very well known—a recent member, in fact—but he had occupied a Chair at one of the Universities. He was a man of repute, and his manner was convincing. Le Bretton rose to his feet. It was a June night, and the room was warm.
"Let's have a little air for a few minutes," he proposed, crossing the floor, and throwing open one of the windows. "I've lived in the open spaces too long to stand these stuffy nights.. . . Whew, that's good!"
He returned to his place. Odane, the small man with the shrewd eyes, incisive voice, and almost waxen pallor, had become the center of attention.
"Were you at the inquest?" Jasper Slane asked him.
"Unofficially. I knew more about Montague Brest, perhaps, than anyone else. He was a neighbor of mine at Barnes, and I knew something of the work upon which he was engaged. I went to the inquest to see if there was any evidence offered. When I found that there was none, I decided to wait for a short time before I spoke. I see no one here whom I could suspect of a breach of confidence. In an hour or two's time, I have an appointment with an important person at the Foreign Office, and I shall be able to lay before him certain information which I believe beyond a doubt will lead to the arrest of the murderer. The whole affair will be public property before the morning, so I see no reason why I should not confide in you."
He was silent for a moment, glancing behind as though to assure himself that the waiters were out of hearing. Then he looked at the expectant little group of faces by which he was surrounded.
There was Harold Tennant, the actor, the humorous lines gone now from his face, his expression stern and eager; Jasper Slane, as tranquil and genial as ever, but rigid in his attention; Le Bretton, with a suggestion of slight incredulity about his cynical lips, leaning towards the window as though to enjoy the freshness of the night air; Matterson, the musician, his crumpled hair all awry, his mouth open, staring through his enormous spectacles like a frightened child; Jarrett, the sculptor, sprawling across the table, also open-mouthed and breathless; Holland Gordon, the novelist, his thin, esthetic face drawn into intense furrows.
They were all old members of the club, men of repute, and to be trusted. The little man who had cast this bombshell into their midst raised his glass and drank slowly of its contents. It was as the glass left his lips that the amazing thing happened. There was seen something like a flash of lightning, dimly heard the singing sound of a bullet. The glass was shattered into a thousand pieces. The little man gave one groan, and fell backwards in his chair—dead.
JASPER SLANE, seated in the smoking-room of his Hampstead residence a few mornings later, glanced from the card which he held in his hand to the young lady in black clothes, who had just been ushered in. Perhaps because he saw that she had violet eyes, and was on the point of tears, he rose quickly to his feet, and placed a chair for her by the side of his desk.
"Miss Brest?" he repeated. "You must forgive me if I find the name interesting. Am I to understand that you were related in any way to the young man who—to Montague Brest?"
"I was his sister."
There was a momentary silence. The girl was very pretty and very distressed. Sir Jasper could see the tears dimming her eyes, and he decided that perhaps speech was best.
"Everyone was so sorry to hear of the tragedy of your brother's death," he ventured compassionately. "He was likely to have done so well."
"He was very clever," she agreed, "but he was always very nervous about his position. He was good at Chinese, and a great many of the Indian dialects, but he knew very little Afghanistan and Tibetan."
"I see," Jasper Slane murmured. "Well, I wonder who does? Now, my dear young lady," he went on, "I should like you to feel that you are with a friend. Tell me in your own way, just as you please, why you have come to me."
"I had to come to see someone," she told him, speaking almost in a whisper. "I dared not go to the police. I have heard that you are so clever in arranging things just outside the law. That is why I came to you."
"Capital!" he declared. "You shall have my help, if help is possible. Don't hurry. Tell your story your own way, and in your own time."
"How kind you are," she murmured. "Well, on that awful night, Montague brought home, as he used to sometimes, a manuscript from the Foreign Office to translate. Directly he opened his case, I heard him groan. It was in Tibetan."
"Hard luck!" Jasper commiserated. "What did he do about it?"
"He telephoned at once for a friend," she confided. "You know that is against regulations, and he made me promise upon my honor that, whatever happened, I would never let anyone know that he had shown the document to anyone else."
"I see," Jasper Slane reflected. "So that was why you gave no evidence at the inquest."
"That was why," she admitted. "It may have been wrong of me, but I kept my word to the dead. Besides, when the inquest upon Monty was held, nothing had happened to the other man—his friend. I knew that Monty was alive and well, even happy, after he had left, so you see there didn't seem any reason why I should not keep my word and forget his visit."
"Precisely," Slane assented. "Well, to continue. The friend came, and what happened about the manuscript?"
"He was very interested. He took it away, and promised a translation within three days."
"And the name of the man?"
"It was Mark Odane, who was murdered at the Lavender Club two days ago," she replied, in an awe-stricken tone.
Slane was very grave indeed.
"This is a very serious affair. Miss Brest," Slane said.
"I know that it is," she acquiesced. "That is why I felt that I must not keep my promise to Monty any longer. I know, of course, why he asked me to make it. You are never allowed to let a document pass into anyone else's hands. Now Mr. Odane took that manuscript away with him."
"Has no one from the Foreign Office been to you to ask for it?"
"Of course. A gentleman came down with the police before anything had been touched. I think they took it for granted that it had been stolen by the man who murdered Monty. As a matter of fact, I know that it wasn't. I know that Mr. Odane took it away with him."
"That Tibetan document seems to have been badly wanted by someone," Slane reflected. "Miss Brest, I am afraid your story will have to go to the police."
"If you think it ought to," she assented with a little sigh.
She looked at him wistfully.
"Will they do anything to me for not telling the truth the first time?" she asked timidly.
"Nothing whatever," he assured her. "I'll keep you out of it altogether if I can. From the police point of view I think it was an excellent thing that you didn't give your evidence at the inquest."
She almost smiled as she bade him good-by.
"You have been so kind to me," she said gratefully. "Thank you very much."
When she had gone, Sir Jasper Slane rang the bell.
"Densham," he directed the young man who answered it, "get down to Scotland Yard as quickly as you can, and bring back Inspector Stimpson. If he is not in, wait for him. You understand?"
"Perfectly, sir," the young man assented. "But here is Mr. Stimpson. He has been waiting to see you."
Slane pushed the boy out of the room, and dragged Stimpson in.
"A coincidence!" he exclaimed. "I was just sending for you. Sit down."
He almost forced his visitor into a chair.
"Listen," he enjoined. "The Brest murder case—here it is, made simple for the young—a kindergarten. Brest took home with him from the Foreign Office a document for purposes of translation. That was his job there—a specialist in Oriental languages. He found that it was in Tibetan. He failed to make sense of it, and he sent for Odane, who is supposed to have every Asiatic language at his fingertips. Odane found it none too simple, and took it away with him.
"Later on, Montague Brest was murdered, and his study ransacked. No result. Odane completes the translation, and on his way to keep an appointment at the Foreign Office oh Tuesday night dines at the Lavender Club. He hears us talking about the Brest murder. He is a recent member of the Club, and as yet without any standing there. The chance of creating a sensation is too great for him. The key to the murder lies in the dispatch forwarded from the authorities in India, the translation of which he has now just completed. He is on the point of enlightening us all, when what happens? He is shot by someone outside in the street.
"Listen, Stimpson. Do you know who opened the window? Of course you don't. I was there, thanks to you. I saw it. It was Le Bretton, the explorer. . . . No, don't interrupt me yet. Just get this into your mind. Le Bretton returned only six months ago from Tibet."
"But Le Bretton—Colonel Le Bretton—he is a very distinguished man!" the detective remonstrated. "They say that he is to be knighted as soon as his book comes out. He was received at Buckingham Palace a few weeks ago."
"Quite so," Slane assented irritably. "It seems a ridiculous situation, doesn't it? On the other hand, just get the facts into your head. They send us from India a dispatch arrived from Tibet. It is taken home for translation by a young official who is murdered. He had no other possessions of value, so it is obviously the document that was wanted. That document has been handed on to another man who is also murdered. You will regard it, I presume, as a coincidence," Slane concluded sarcastically, "that Colonel Le Bretton was in the room when the second murder took place, that the murder itself was committed just as Odane was about to reveal to us the nature at least of the document, and that it was Le Bretton himself who opened the window which facilitated the murder."
"Do you think he could have had any idea of disclosing information contained in the document if it concerned Le Bretton in any way," Stimpson asked shrewdly, "while Le Bretton himself was of the party?"
"I don't think that he knew Le Bretton from Adam," Slane replied. "He was a very new member, and Le Bretton is a very occasional visitor."
"All this is very interesting as the foundation for a theory," Stimpson admitted, after a few moments' reflection, "but there's nothing definite in it, is there? You can't expect me, for instance, to arrest Colonel Le Bretton."
"Whoever spoke of arresting him?" Jasper Slane demanded. "Your job now is not to do any promiscuous arresting, but to try and discover the whereabouts of the translated document, which Odane probably had with him the night he was shot."
"I'll get to work on that," Stimpson promised. "Tell me, as a matter of curiosity, where did you get your information from?"
"Privileged for the present," Slane replied. "When it becomes necessary, you shall know the whole truth."
SLANE had something of a shock when he glanced at the card which was brought in to him one afternoon toward the end of the week. There it was, however, in black and white:
COLONEL LE BRETTON
TRAVELERS' CLUB NORFOLK
"The gentleman is waiting outside, sir," the clerk announced.
"He can come in," Slane decided, after a moment's hesitation.
Le Bretton entered the room, carrying his hat and stick in his hand. His dark serge suit was exceedingly well-cut, his linen and tie well-chosen—a presentable-looking person enough he might have seemed but for that disfiguring scar which gave an ugly twist to his lips, even in repose.
"Hope I'm not bothering you, Slane," he apologized. "The fact of it is I made up my mind just on impulse that I'd like to have a few minutes' chat with you."
"There's no one I'd rather have seen just now," Slane acknowledged. "It's an odd thing, but I was thinking of you not ten minutes ago. Do sit down."
Le Bretton relapsed into a chair and leaned back in the manner of one thoroughly at his ease.
"You were there that night at the Lavender Club," he began. "That's really what made me think of coming to you. You saw what happened. I feel in a way rather stupidly responsible because I opened the window—not that I think that made any real difference. The fellow had already asked for Odane and was waiting for him in the street, when he noticed that the window was open, and took what he thought was a better chance. Have you any theory about that murder, Sir Jasper?"
"I say, are you consulting me professionally?" he asked, with apparent carelessness.
"As a matter of fact, I am," Le Bretton replied. "At any fee you like to name, in reason. I can generally think clearly enough for myself, but just now I admit I am bothered. There's no doubt that Brest was murdered by someone who wanted to get hold of a document he brought home from the Foreign Office. He didn't get it, because Brest had already passed it on to this little fellow Odane, who was a kind of pal of Brest, as I dare say you know, and who often helped him with his translations. Odane went on with his job after Brest had been killed, and was on the way to the Foreign Office with the translation—had it actually in his possession—when he was shot."
Slane sat watching his companion, who smoked thoughtfully, for a moment or two before he continued:
"Nothing of importance was found upon Odane when he was searched, but no one thought of his mackintosh until afterward. That, for some reason or other, he had hung on the same peg as mine. I suppose we both started in that shower. The mackintoshes were as nearly as possible identical, and when I got home I found a bulky envelope in the pocket. I drew it out, and looked at it. There was no address. That being so, what would you have done, Sir Jasper?"
"I suppose I should have opened it," Slane admitted.
"I think that anyone would," Le Bretton agreed. "At any rate I did, and you can imagine what a shock I received when the first thing I saw in the middle of the first page of the document was my own name."
"Ah!" Slane murmured.
"I read the document through," Le Bretton continued. "It may have been wrong, but that is what I did. Since then I have found myself placed in a very difficult and awkward situation. That is why I have come to you for advice."
Slane seemed to have retired behind the mask of a strange and stony repression. His face had lost all its human lines. No sign of sympathy or understanding shone from his eyes.
"With the authorities at Tibet, I might explain," Le Bretton went on, "I am on evil terms. They have accused me, or rather two members of my expedition for whom I am held responsible, of having stolen large quantities of jewels and the sacred Buddha from the Holy Temple of Lhassa. I may tell you that none of these are practicable exploits for any sane man.
"That dispatch if properly translated and read at the Foreign Office would have done me a lot of harm. I tore it up."
Slane leaned a little forward in his chair. There was a lump under the carpet, and his foot pressed it—once, twice, three times.
"You have come to me for my advice," he said. "Very well, I will give it to you. I should surrender to the police at once."
Le Bretton half rose to his feet. His eyes were aflame, his mouth more crooked than ever.
"What the devil do you mean?" he demanded. "What have I got to surrender to the police for? Why, I was in the room when Odane was shot from the street, and the night when Montague Brest was murdered I was speaking before the Royal Geographical Society."
Slane opened one of the drawers of his desk, and drew out a slip of paper.
"I have been interesting myself a little in your affairs," he said. "Your record of your movements on those nights is quite correct, but three out of the eighteen members of your expedition—I have a list of their names here—are living in the neighborhood of your house in Highgate, and have been concerned in some very interesting little exploits lately. Wolf, without a doubt the actual murderer of poor Brest and Odane, was arrested this morning.
"Your intelligence department is pretty good, I have no doubt, Colonel Le Bretton," Slane continued, "but it has had one slip- up. Odane was on his way to the Foreign Office when he dined at the Lavender Club, but the substance of his translation had already been in the hands of the Foreign Office since the afternoon. From what I gather, the charges against you and the members of your expedition seem to have been a great deal more serious than your own account of them, and there is a packet of rubies on offer in London which has already been identified."
Le Bretton drew from his waistcoat pocket a battered silver box, opened the lid, and balanced a small black pill between his thumb and forefinger.
"You are certainly a man of some intelligence, Slane," he remarked. "Overzeal on the part of my followers—that is what I must suffer for. You see. Wolf's name was mentioned in that dispatch more than once. It was he who cut the Priest's throat, and brought the jewels away. All the same, I suppose I shall have to accept the responsibility. How long have I?"
"Only a few seconds," Slane said. "Detective Stimpson with his men are downstairs."
Le Bretton swallowed the pill, and tossed the box across to Slane.
"Everyone who travels in countries where torture is rather the fashion has to carry these," he confided. "You lead an adventurous life yourself, Slane. You may find one useful some day."
THE quaint invasion of his otherwise empty carriage at one of the small stations between Cromer and Melton Constable, at first a mildly annoying episode, became to Jasper Slane, a few minutes later, a matter of benign and tolerant curiosity. It was evident that his prospective fellow-passengers were people of local consequence. First of all, a porter opened the door, and, glancing around, surreptitiously dusted one of the seats. Then a chauffeur in black livery deposited two dressing- cases and a kit bag upon one of the vacant places. As soon as he stood away, the station- master appeared, hat in hand. Following him, a solemn-faced, clean-shaven functionary in black cut-away coat, gray trousers and black bow tie, stepped into the carriage, and, turning round, extended his hand to the very diminutive person lingering in the background.
"If you will permit me. my lord," he murmured, in a deep, sonorous voice.
His lordship, helped by the stationmaster from behind and this obvious manservant in front, stepped into the carriage without any manifest need of such assistance. He was very small indeed—scarcely more than five feet high, with the sort of skin which looks as though hair had never grown upon it, a sensitive mouth and the eyes of a child. He was dressed in an old-fashioned tweed suit, of pepper-and-salt design, with broad- toed shoes, a four-in-hand tie of black satin of such dimensions that it seemed almost like a stock, and his hat was a flat-topped bowler of a fashion long since discarded. He wore heavy dog-skin gloves, and he might very well have stepped out of one of Punch's cartoons.
He sank into his corner seat, and turned toward the station- master. Jasper Slane almost started at the sound of his voice—unnaturally high-pitched, the thin treble of a child.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Stationmaster," he said. "We shall be very comfortable, I am sure. My trunk is safely in the van? .. . Good! . . . Mason," he added, turning to his companion, "you have remunerated the porter?"
"Certainly, my lord," replied Mason. The little man raised his hat pleasantly, the servant winked at the stationmaster, and the train glided off. Jasper Slane resumed his reading, but found it almost impossible to keep his eyes from straying toward this strange couple. The master drew from his pocket a Christie's catalogue, in which, after the first few moments, he seemed completely absorbed. The servant respectfully unfolded the morning paper, and began to read. So the journey commenced, placidly enough. Its end was to be otherwise.
It was not until nearly midday that Jasper Slane rose and stretched himself. His diagonally-placed vis-à- vis was still deep in a perusal of the catalogue, whilst his manservant had closed his eyes in slumber. Slane, disturbed by the frantic whistling of the engine, leaned out of the window and thereby probably saved his life. There was a final screech of the locomotive, a violent succession of jolts, and a sensation of delirium, as though that quiet, well-behaved country train had suddenly gone mad. Then the compartment seemed slowly to break up around them. A portion of the luggage racked behind the pompous- looking domestic was smashed in half by some obtruding force, and the man, with a groan, collapsed on to the floor.
Then they ceased to move. The carriage was inclined at a perilous angle toward the ground, and looked as though it might turn over at any moment. There was a terrific babel of shouting and groaning outside, and the hissing of escaping steam mingled with the slow crunching-up of woodwork. The accident, however, so far as they were concerned, seemed to be over. Jasper Slane, holding on to his end of the luggage rack, stared around him in dazed fashion. The manservant upon the floor was bleeding from the forehead and unconscious. His master was doubled up in a most extraordinary attitude upon the crumpled remains of the seat which he had occupied, his legs in the air, his knee almost touching his chin. He had apparently escaped being crushed to death by a trifle. He turned his head, and looked at Jasper Slane.
"Please help me down," he begged, in his funny, piping voice, without the slightest trace of emotion or distress.
Slane did as he was bidden. He took the little man almost in his arms, and deposited him upon the one seat which remained intact. Then he turned toward the door.
"I'll see if I can open it," he suggested. The rescued man took no notice. His eyes were fixed upon the figure on the floor.
"Is he badly hurt, do you think?" he asked.
"I shouldn't think so," was the consoling reply. "He only seems to have that head wound."
"Do you think he will have to go to the hospital?"
"Very likely, for a few days."
Then a curious thing happened. His neighbor looked across at Slane and smiled happily.
"That will be very pleasant," he said. "I hope they look after him well there, but it will be very pleasant. In the meantime I had better have the keys."
He went down on his knees upon the floor, felt in the injured man's pockets, and drew out a bunch of keys. He placed them carefully in his own pocket, and, without even a second glance at the unconscious servant, turned toward Slane with the smile still lingering upon his lips.
"Do you think we shall be kept here long?" he inquired.
Further speech just then was not possible, for someone had wrenched open the door, and they descended on to the track. The accident, after all, proved to be only a minor affair, but there was the usual miserable period of waiting around, and Slane, being something of a surgeon, busied himself in attending to several of the less severely injured. Presently a relief train appeared, in which he found an empty carriage, and seated himself once more in the corner.
Just as the whistle had blown, he heard an agitated little voice:
"Can I get in, please? Please, can I come in? Please open the door."
Just in time, a guard came running up with two dressing-cases, and, with Jasper Slane's assistance, the little man climbed into the compartment. He was still wearing his beatific smile.
"They have taken Mason off on the ambulance, train," he confided. "He is still unconscious, and the doctor said, he thought he might be in the hospital for at least a week."
Where are you going?" Slane asked.
To London," the squeaky voice piped out. "I am going to the great china sale tomorrow. Do you collect china. sir?"
"Well, I'm afraid I'm not a collector," Slane confessed, "but I have one or two rather good pieces of Ming."
His companion's eyes shone.
"Ming," he repeated. "I can tell you all about Ming."
"Have a sandwich first," Slane invited, drawing a package from his pocket."
"Thank you very much indeed, sir. I will eat a sandwich with pleasure. I do not know what arrangements Mason had made about luncheon. Will you tell me your name, please? Mine is Aberway—the Marquis of Aberway."
"Mine is Jasper Slane."
The Marquis stopped eating his sandwich. He looked hard at his vis-a-vis.
"Jasper Slane," he reflected. "Now that is very curious. Someone has told me something about you, Sir Jasper. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I made up my mind once to write to you, only I could never find your address. You are not a doctor?"
"No, I am not a doctor," Slane acknowledged. "I am really nothing very much professionally. Occasionally, if there is a case in which I am interested, or if any of my friends is in trouble through no fault of his own, I try to help him, if I can do so without interfering with the law."
"A private detective!" the Marquis exclaimed exultantly. "That was it. I remember thinking how strange it was—a baronet, but a private detective."
"Have another sandwich," Slane suggested. His companion accepted the offering almost mechanically.
"Jasper Slane," he repeated once more. "When we get to London, may I come and see you?"
Slane handed him a card.
"Delighted to have—you look in at any time. I have a little house in Hampstead. It's rather out of the way, so you'd better telephone before you come."
"Hampstead is not far," the Marquis observed. "You must allow me—you must really allow me—one moment, please."
He fumbled with the fastenings of one of his flat dressing- cases, opened it, and triumphantly produced a bottle of white wine and some glasses.
"You will drink a glass of wine with me," he begged.
"Rather!" Slane accepted. "I was just wishing that I had brought my flask."
The Marquis produced two glasses and filled them. Jasper Slane stared at the label on the bottle, which was brown with, age, and almost illegible, sipped his wine appreciatively, and studied the label once again.
"This is a very marvelous wine to be drinking in a railway carriage," he remarked.
"I am glad that you find it so," was the gratified reply. "It is Château Yquem of a very old vintage. I know very little about wines—only that I am fond of them. If Mason were here, I should have had to drink mine with water. I am glad that Mason is not here. I hope that he will be ill for a long time. It would not distress me if he were to die."
Slane looked curiously at his companion. He was obviously entirely In earnest.
"If you don't like him," he inquired, "why don't you get rid of him?"
The Marquis laughed—a queer, metallic little sound it was, like a child's titter.
"Get rid of Mason," he repeated. "Why it was her ladyship who engaged him. She sent away Craske, who had been with the family for thirty-five years. If I told Mason to go—"
He paused, took another mouthful of sandwich and drank some more wine.
"This is all so exciting," he confided, "that I forgot myself. You must excuse me. Sir Jasper."
"Supposing you tell me all about Ming china?" the latter suggested good-naturedly.
The Marquis finished his sandwich, wiped his fingers with his handkerchief, replenished his companion's glass, and his own, and began. The words tumbled from his lips like a cascade—periods, dynasties, private marks, texture, color design—all like the waters of Lodore—speech which seemed to grOw shriller with eloquence, never deeper than the treble of a child Of eight. He was still in full swing when they ran into King's Cross Station.
"What a pity!" he sighed, looking around him. "I must come and see you, and tell you some more. You should understand all about china. Sir Jasper. I will come and see you, and we will go together to the museums."
"In the meantime, can I be of any assistance to you now?" Slane offered as he glanced out at the crowded platform. "I imagine you are not used to traveling without a servant."
The Marquis chuckled.
"I have not been a yard without Mason since he came to me," he confided. "I hope very much that he dies. Good-afternoon, Sir Jasper Slane."
He removed his strangely-shaped hat with courtesy, superintended the disposal of his bags, and disappeared.
Slane watched him step into a taxicab.
THAT was the last the world saw of Henry James Marmaduke, Marquis of Aberway, for some weeks to come.
WILL THE GENTLE.MAN WHO TRAVELED IN THE RELIEF TRAIN TO LONDON WITH THE MARQUIS OK ABERWAY AFTER THE RAILWAY ACCIDENT NEAR MASSINGHAM ON THE 17TH INSTANT, COMMUNICATE WITH THE MARCHIONESS AT ABERWAY HOUSE, BERKELEY SQUARE.
A very tired but very beautiful lady of foreign appearance roused herself languidly from her environment of silk sheets, lace-edged pillows and perfumed coverlet to swear softly at the somber apologetic figure leaning toward her.
"Marie!".she exclaimed. "But this is unforgivable! It is not yet eleven o'clock, and you disturb me like this!"
"Milady," the maid apologized, "there is a gentleman below who has already been waiting some time. He offers a card, but his errand with you concerns, he says, an advertisement which appeared in the Times this morning."
The Marchioness became suddenly wide awake. She raised herself in bed.
"Is he the man, do you think, Marie, who traveled with my husband to London?"
"One imagines so."
"Draw the curtains," the Marchioness ordered. "Turn on my bath. Be polite to monsieur. Beg him to wait for a few minutes only. Say that I was a trifle malade, and resting, but will hasten now. Give him papers, magazines, make him comfortable. Then fly back. A negligée will be sufficient."
Confusion reigned thoughout that very beautiful bedroom, bathroom and boudoir for the next three-quarters of an hour. At the end of that time. Sir Jasper Slane rose with an irritated frown to be greeted by the outstretched hands and the apologetic smile of one of the most beautiful women in London.
"But Sir Jasper," she exclaimed, "how ashamed I am! For myself, I was at that terrible party at Bledistow Palace last night, and afterward—well, what does it matter? I was asleep when you came, but I have hurried—believe me. I have hurried. Now tell me. You traveled up to London after the accident, with that strange husband of mine?"
"I certainly did," Slane admitted.
She sank on to a divan a few feet away from him.
"Tell me—tell me quickly," she begged. "Did he talk to you? Did he tell you what he was going to do?"
"I understood," Slane replied, "that, he was going to buy china at Christie's most of the next day."
Up went her eyebrows. She extended her hands.
"Never did he go near Christie's!", she cried. "Neither, when he arrived in London, did he come here—his own house. No one has heard of him. Yesterday, I put an advertisement in the Times, and I telephoned to Scotland Yard. Sir Jasper, my husband has disappeared."
Slane smiled sympathetically.
"Do you know," he confided, "it rather occurred to me from the way he was behaving that he was contemplating something of the sort."
"But how extraordinary," she murmured. "Tell me. Sir Jasper, you had some conversation with him. How did my husband impress you?"
"Like an elderly schoolboy who has escaped from his schoolmaster and meant to play truant for a time," was the prompt reply. "I know nothing definite about the matter, of course. Your husband talked more about china than anything else, but from the remarks he made when he saw his servant unconscious, with a wound in his head, and knew that he had to be transported to a hospital, I gathered that his attitude toward him was not altogether friendly."
"Henry is so foolish," she faltered with a tender little uplifting of the eyebrows, "there is no one in the world so devoted to him as Mason."
"And how is Mason getting on?"
"He is still in the hospital. My great concern is with my husband. You are sure. Sir Jasper, that he gave you no idea whatsoever as to what he meant to do?"
"Not the ghost of a one."
The Marchioness extended her beautifully shaped hands.
"Here is his house," she said. "His rooms are all prepared for him. The car was waiting at the station. You are sure that he had no injury in the accident which could cause forgetfulness?"
"None at all," Slane declared confidently. "So far as we were both concerned, the accident was more comic than anything else."
She sighed in disappointment. "You do not seem able to help me very much," she complained.
"How can I help you further?" he rejoined. "You advertised in the 'agony column of the Times for the man who traveled up from the scene of the accident to King's Cross with the Marquis of Aberway. I hurried round, and what I have to tell, I have told."
She looked at his card again.
"Sir Jasper Slane," she meditated. "The name seems somehow familiar to me."
His gesture was entirely noncommittal. She reflected for a moment.
"Tell me, have you not a profession?" she asked.
"I am a private detective when I find a case which interests me," Slane admitted.
"I knew it!" she exclaimed excitedly. "You were a witness in the Le Bretton case. I shall offer you a thousand pounds reward to find my husband."
Jasper Slane rose to his feet.
"I will hurry," he announced, "or Scotland Yard may get ahead of me. One thousand pounds, dead or alive, eh?"
"Dead or alive," she repeated.
He left her with a disagreeable impression—a queer instinct of repulsion against the callousness with which she had dispatched him upon his errand.
HENRY JAMES MARMADUKE, Marquis of Aberway, was at no time a person of particularly dignified appearance, but his attitude in the small parlor, seated upon his haunches and endeavoring to spin a refractory top for the benefit of three shouting children possessed elements of the ridiculous. His absence of self-consciousness, however, redeemed the situation.
At his visitor's entrance, he laid the top on its side, patted the nearest child on her head, and rose to his feet.
"Sir Jasper Slane!" he exclaimed, in that strange, piping squeak. "Now, how did you find me, I should like to know?"
"Well, I was offered a thousand pounds, for one thing," was the good-humored reply. "That quickens the wits."
"Come with me," the Marquis invited, leading the way across the passage, and opening another door. "You see, I have a little parlor to myself here. Not much room for a big man like you, but very snug for me."
A neatly-dressed woman was bending down, attending to the fire. She curtsied as the two approached.
"Craske wished to know if there was anything he could do about this gentleman, my lord," she asked, looking at Jasper in belligerent fashion. "He slipped in before I could say a word."
"Nothing at all," the Marquis assured her pleasantly. "He is my friend, Emma. I shall enjoy a few minutes' conversation with him."
The woman curtsied once more, and left the room.
"Old servants of mine," the Marquis explained. "Craske was the family butler, and the best in the world. He left at her ladyship's wish—not mine. He may return—who knows? I feel that things are going to be different. . . . So you have seen my wife. Sir Jasper. Did she seem very worried at my disappearance?"
"So much so that she offered me a thousand pounds' reward if I could find you."
The little man smiled knowingly.
"The thousand pounds' reward was not for finding me. Sir Jasper," he declared. "It was to find out whether I had the keys."
"The keys?" Slane repeated, mystified.
"Yes, the keys. You have not forgotten that when Mason was lying there groaning, I went through his trousers pockets and found a bunch of keys. Here they are."
He produced them, attached by a chain to his trousers button.
"Her ladyship would give a thousand pounds for these, I believe," he went on. "You didn't happen to mention that I had them, did you, Sir Jasper?" he added anxiously.
"I certainly did not."
"You showed an amazing discretion," the Marquis acknowledged, in a tone of relief. "It is what I should have expected from you, Sir Jasper. You're a very shrewd man, I am sure."
"Look here," Slane inquired, "how long are you going to stay here?"
"I am very happy with my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Craske," the Marquis confided. "I am studying Chinese at the Museum opposite. Already I have been able to decipher several inscriptions which I have never properly understood. That takes quite a great deal of my time. Still, everything must come to an end, especially now that you have discovered me. But, Sir Jasper—Sir Jasper, please grant me a great favor. Before you go back to my wife to claim that thousand pounds, will you accept a small commission from me?"
Slane smiled encouragingly.
"I will, if I can, of course," he promised. "What is it?"
"I am going down to Norfolk this morning—starting at once—back this evening. One half-hour in the house alone. That is all I want. We come back together. You shall return in triumph. I will go with you to Berkeley Square."
"Well, that sounds simple enough," Slane agreed, "but why do you want to go all the way down there for such a short time?"
The Marquis swung his bunch of keys, and laughed his shrill little laugh.
"Some day you shall understand," he promised. "Very soon, too. I may need your help. You see. We start at once."
He pointed out of the window. A large, expensive car was drawn up at the curb.
"We can lunch at Newmarket," he went on, "have a cup of tea at home and be back for dinner."
Slane reflected for a moment. As it happened, he had nothing particular to do that day.
"All right. I'll come," he decided.
The Marquis rang the bell. An elderly man who had the unmistakable air of a butler answered it, brought him a coat and hat, and escorted them respectfully to the car. The Marquis leaned back in his place with a shrill titter.
"This is going to be very funny," he declared. "This is an expedition I shall enjoy. And let me tell you something, Sir Jasper. In Norfolk I was ill. Here I am feeling better every hour. . . ."
At half-past three they entered the first of the series of lodge gates which led to the house. Afterward they passed into a domain of greater dignity studded with magnificent trees, and finally emerged in front of a great mansion. A surprised servant answered their summons. The Marquis tripped across the hall like a schoolboy.
"Bring me a knife, Robins," he ordered the footman.
The man obeyed in stupefied silence. The Marquis calmly hacked in two the main telephone cord.
"Tell Mrs. Simmons or somebody to send tea to my small study as soon as possible," the master of the house ordered. "I am going to the butler's pantry."
"Certainly, my lord," the man replied. "I am afraid you will find the door of the butler's pantry locked, though. Mr. Mason took the keys away with him."
The Marquis produced the keys, and indulged in one of his peculiar staccato chuckles.
"Might I inquire how Mr. Mason is, my lord?" the man ventured.
"Mason is getting on very well," the Marquis announced. "You needn't wait, Robins. The little business I have in the butler's pantry I shall do alone. Show this gentleman into the small library. Just five minutes, that is all."
In less than that time, the Marquis, with the keys once more attached to his chain, entered the room where a footman and a maid were arranging tea.
"Let the chauffeur have anything he wants," their master directed. "Bring cigars and whisky for Sir Jasper here, and tell Mrs. Simmons that I wish to speak to her." . . .
In ten minutes, Mrs. Simmons, the housekeeper, who showed signs of having changed her dress in a hurry, made her appearance. Her august master greeted her in friendly fashion, but his tone when he spoke was, for him, exceptionally grave.
"Mrs. Simmons," he announced, "I have disconnected the telephone. I have done so for reasons of my own. I do not wish any mention to be made to any single person of my visit here. I do not wish even her ladyship to be informed—or anyone. You understand me?"
"I understand, my lord," the woman assented, a little diffidently, "but you will forgive me if I point out that all the papers are speaking of your disappearance since the railway accident. Surely it would be a great relief to her ladyship?"
"I dine with her ladyship tonight," the Marquis interrupted. "My orders—and I have seldom given orders here lately, as you know, Mrs. Simmons—are to be obeyed literally. Any person who telegraphs, or speaks now or at any future time, of my visit here today, will leave the house within an hour. That, I hope, is understood."
The housekeeper, trying in vain to conceal her bewilderment, curtsied and backed away.
The journey back to London was accomplished without a pause. As they neared the outskirts, however, Slane broke a rather lengthy silence.
"What about announcing your return to life. Marquis?" he asked.
The latter smiled.
"I myself will proclaim your triumph," he decided. "You shall put me down at Berkeley Square. You admired my wife, I trust, Sir Jasper? I met her in Bucharest years ago. She is a Roumanian, as I daresay you have heard."
"I fancy that I have heard something of the sort," Slane acknowledged.
"I have met some Roumanians whom I have liked," the Marquis reflected, "but I am not sure about the men. My wife's cousin, now—Prince Pitescue—he is a great deal with us, but I fear that he does not appeal to me. You shall judge for yourself. You shall tell me what you think of him. You are free for this week-end, I hope. I need your services. I insist upon having them."
Slane, who had an idea of a week-end at Rye, hesitated.
"Well, I am not sure," he demurred. "What for?"
"You have earned a thousand pounds from her ladyship for finding me," the Marquis chuckled. "How she will hate paying it! I shall give you a thousand pounds now to be my companion and protector for five days. We shall spend the week-end at Aberway Court, and you will come down on Friday. Your duties will not be strenuous, but do you know. Sir Jasper, just for a day or two, I would rather not be in the house alone with her ladyship and the Prince. Something might happen. I might need support. I should like a friend near."
The car pulled up in front of Aberway House in Berkeley Square. Its master descended briskly. He held out his hand to Slane.
"I thank you very much for your company today, Sir Jasper," he said. "You will not fail me on Friday?"
"No, I'll come," Slane promised.
JASPER SLANE duly traveled down to Norfolk by the three-o'clock train on the following Friday afternoon. He was met at the wayside station by the Marquis, who piped out the shrillest but most hospitable of greetings. He trotted by Slane's side along the platform, obviously pleased and contented with his visitor.
"We are a very small party," he announced, as they took their places in the car—"my wife, her cousin Prince Pitescue, of whom I spoke to you, yourself and myself. You play billiards?"
"Rather fond of it," Slane admitted. "I'm only average form though."
The Marquis beamed with pleasure.
"My favorite recreation," he confided. "After dinner, we will have a game."
"What about your man Mason?"
"He's hanging on still," was the cheerful reply. "That injury must have been greater than it seemed. I called at the hospital, but he won't be allowed to see anyone for a fortnight. Really most providential, his little accident! Did you get your thousand pounds, Slane?"
"I did," Slane acknowledged, "but I returned the check to your wife. The thing was ridiculous. Fifty guineas I shall send in a bill for. That will more than pay for my time."
"We'll see," the Marquis chirped. "There may be a few other little things to straighten out, eh?"
The Marquis, in high good humor, ushered his guest across the hall, and, preceded by an august major-domo, conducted Slane to his very delightful suite of rooms. He glanced at the clock.
"Short coat tonight, please," he begged. "We are quite alone. A little old-fashioned in our hours, I am afraid. Dinner at eight. I hope you don't mind. Cocktails at a quarter to eight in the library. Robins," he added, turning to the footman who was in attendance, "see that Sir Jasper lacks nothing."
The Marchioness was, without a doubt, a wonderfully beautiful woman. She wore black that night, a marvelous setting for her priceless pearls and her almost golden hair. She came forward to meet Slane, and shook hands with him as with an honored guest.
"And you sent back my thousand pounds, you bad man!" she exclaimed. "It was not kind of you. It was quite worth that to get my dear husband back again."
"I am afraid it was a little too easy a task," Slane replied. "You see, I happen to know one of your husband's hobbies, and I felt sure that he would be somewhere round the Museum."
"I am keeping up my Chinese," the Marquis confided, smiling. "I find it most interesting. Anita, my dear, don't forget to present Sir Jasper to your cousin."
"Of course not. Sir Jasper, this is Prince Pitescue. He has just left our legation in London, and is hoping to be sent to New York. You have perhaps met."
"I think that I have not had the pleasure," the young man murmured regretfully.
Slane shook hands, and disliked his new acquaintance on sight. The Prince had the sallow complexion, dark eyes, and rather too full red lips of his country. His attire was elegant, almost foppish. He was evidently a frequent visitor, and had the air of being very much at home—so much so that he seemed to regard his fellow guest almost as an intruder. The conversation had scarcely passed the monosyllabic stage when it was interrupted by the arrival of cocktails. Two of these stood together upon a corner of the tray; the other two, a little way apart. The Marquis smiled as his wife took one of the former.
"In Mason's absence," he explained, "it is my wife who prepares the cocktails. Very good we find them too. You observe that our glasses are not scanty in size. That is because we never serve more than one. That is yours. I hope you approve."
"Excellent! One of the best Martinis I have had for a long time. Why is it, however, that mine is quite clear, and yours a little cloudy?"
"Mine," the Marquis confided, "contains just a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. In fact we three have all the same idiosyncrasy—just a touch of indigestion now and then—nothing serious. You, Sir Jasper, look far too healthy to need anything of that sort."
"Oh, I sometimes take a dose of bicarbonate of soda," Slane admitted, "but I must confess that I never heard of taking it in cocktails."
"My wife's idea," the Marquis chuckled. "I used to shy at it. Now we none of us mind—even our young friend here, who at his age—how old are you Rudolph? Twenty-nine?—should know nothing of illness. It is, however, a habit," he went on, his voice seeming to reach even a higher altitude, "in which I am not sure that I persevere. Sometimes I fancy—especially since Mason left—that I feel a slight pain—nothing to speak of. No reflection upon your skill, my dear. Still, my digestion is better. Why interfere with it?"
"So is mine," the Marchioness agreed. "I think we might leave off dosing our cocktails for a time. We'll see—after tomorrow. . . ."
Dinner was announced—a wonderful banquet served in the large dining-room, generally called the banqueting hall. As the meal progressed and the daylight faded, candles in silver candelabra of great height were lit upon the table.
The food was wonderful, and Jasper Slane, who was a constant "diner-out," found himself drinking wines of which he had heard but which he had never tasted. The service was noiseless and perfect—the men in their somewhat worn but picturesque livery passed backward and forward like shadows. The Marchioness at times seemed vaguely uneasy. She watched Slane half curiously, half suspiciously—more than once she and the young man exchanged a rapid glance of mutual comprehension. All the time, the Marquis, in his high-pitched childish treble, talked nonsense, yet nonsense which seemed as though it might have some underlying purpose. The meal moved with a sort of effortless grace of service and luxury to its appointed end. Fruit, hot- house peaches and muscatel grapes, port in amazing decanters, and old madeira, were placed upon the table.
"The last of my '68," the Marquis indicated shrilly. "For you alone, I fear, Sir Jasper. One glass, perhaps, for me. The Marchioness knows nothing of port, nor, I am afraid, does Pitescue. '68 Cockburn—never been touched since it was laid down."
"It is marvelous," Slane truthfully admitted, as he sipped his wine.
The Marchioness and her cousin drank madeira. The latter lit a cigarette. His host made a grimace, but forebore from comment. He raised himself higher upon the cushion which was always placed in his chair.
"Listen," he enjoined, "I am going to tell you something which seems to me very strange—you, particularly, Anita —you and Rudolph."
He looked around. The servants had departed. For long afterward, that scene was to remain in Slane's memory, chiefly on account of its dramatic setting—the cathedral-like room, with its cloistered ceiling, the small, round table, a little pool of shaded illumination in the midst of a gloom almost mysterious, three white faces, two of them growing paler with every spoken word.
"Before I went to London," the Marquis began, leaning forward, "I was not well. For four days I had been taking this bicarbonate of soda mixed for me with my cocktail by Mason, and I had pains which I could not understand, and a weakness which seemed to be increasing hour by hour. Yet all the time, you two," he went on—"you, Anita, and my young friend Rudolph—you thrived on it. Young and blooming, both of you are, of course, whilst I am elderly. Still the difference puzzled me—so now I have played a trick upon you," he chuckled. "Tell me, Anita—tell me, Rudolph—how have you been feeling since we came down here, these last five days?"
There was a brief but tense silence. The expression of somewhat bored indifference with which the Marchioness had been listening passed from her face. She stared at her husband. The Prince laid down his cigarette. He, too, leaned forward.
"What do you mean?" the Marchioness asked shrilly. "I have not felt well. I never feel well in the country—but what of it?"
"I have suffered from headaches," the Prince confessed. "Early though we have retired, I have awakened the last two mornings with a very bad headache."
"On Thursday morning," his cousin added, "I nearly sent for the doctor. I had a pain over my heart, and a giddiness which was incomprehensible. What do you mean, Henry?"
The Marquis rocked from side to side of his cushioned chair with silent laughter.
"Last week," he confided, "when I was lost, I came down here. I went to Mason's cupboard."
"You did not have the keys," his wife broke in swiftly.
"Ah, but I did have the keys," he went on, smiling. "I took them from Mason's pocket when he was unconscious. Do not interrupt me, my dear. Let me have my little joke. I opened his cupboard and I saw that there were two bottles there—one blue and one white—both filled with white powder. Both were labeled 'bicarbonate of soda,' but one was also labeled—'For Lord Aberway only.' I—listen, Slane, for this is funny—I changed the contents. These two have been taking my bicarbonate of soda for five days. I have been taking theirs, and I feel well. Really I have never felt better. I could walk for miles. I was longing to play tennis this afternoon when I passed the Vicarage and saw all the young—Anita! Anita! What is wrong?"
The Marchioness' scream rang through the room. She half rose to her feet, pointing to her husband, but words, seemed to fail her, and she collapsed across the table.
"Rudolph!" she moaned.
The young man, who had already left his place, took no notice of her. There were drops of sweat upon his forehead. He rushed madly toward the door, shouting. Halfway there, however, he stopped and staggered back again.
"Where is there a doctor?" he cried. "Where is one to be found? Why don't you do something, Anita? This is your fault. It is you who are responsible. Why do you not send someone for a doctor? Oh, my God!"
His knees were shaking. His voice died away into a whimper. He collapsed into a chair. The Marquis touched Slane upon the shoulder.
"Come with me," he invited. "They are better left alone. They must have much to say to one another. We will have our game of billiards."
Slane, somewhat dazed, still lacking full comprehension of the inner meaning of the drama at which he had assisted, followed his host across the hall. The latter threw open the door of the billiard room, turned on the lights, and began carefully to chalk a cue.
"Any one of those is good," he said, indicating a row of cues which hung upon the wall. "You should give me something but I will try you level."
Slane pulled himself together.
"Marquis," he demanded, "do you suspect that one of those bottles really contained poison?"
"Of course it did," was the shrill reply. "Shall I break, or will you?"
"But you can't leave them like this if they are really poisoned," Slane expostulated. "You must find doctors."
The Marquis dragged out a stool from under the table, and touched Slane upon the shoulder.
"My friend," he said, "they would have given me months of agony, and a place in the family vault. I shall give them an hour in which to suffer, and no more. See—I play."
He mounted the low stool, which was specially made with squat, flat legs, and gave an accurate miss in balk.
"You mean?" Slane began.
"Trust me," the Marquis begged. "I am a quaint little man. I have my ways. Trust me."
There was commotion throughout the house, but they played their game of billiards without interruption. At the end, when the Marquis had won by over forty points, he regretfully laid down his cue.
"My friend," he said, "I see that you are upset. Now, come with me."
He led the way back to the dining-room. The Marchioness—the central figure in that little pool of shaded light—sat still in her place, white as death, her hand pressed to her heart, breathing convulsively. The young man was sprawling over the table, apparently drinking everything within reach.
"The doctor!" he shrieked. "Will he never come? Is there no antidote for this accursed stuff!"
"Antidote for sodina!" the Marquis exclaimed, closing the door. "Sodina is a poison invented by the Medicis, they say, found still in Italy—can be bought, too, I think, in Bucharest. A harmless-looking white powder, though six doses will suffice to kill the strongest man, and leave no trace behind. But it is not sodina that you have drunk, you—nor you, Anita. It is not the poison of which I have had four doses, and of which six would have killed me. For all your fancied pains, what you took tonight is bicarbonate of soda. You will not be much the worse for your experience unless you frighten yourselves to death. He-he!"
Anita looked strangely up. A light suddenly flashed into the glazed eyes of the young man, though he was still shaking from head to foot. Neither of them was capable of speech.
"You poor fools!" the Marquis scoffed. "I guessed the truth. I went to London to save my life, not to buy china. When the accident happened to Mason, the chance to teach you a lesson was too tempting. The poison is in a safe place, but you have taken none of it. I filled both bottles when I got back here with bicarbonate of soda. You have had your hour of fright—many would say that you deserved a stern lesson. The car which was supposed to fetch a doctor, waits, by my orders, still at the door. You can take it as far as you like, Pitescue. There are night trains running from Petersborough."
The young man stumbled from the room. He was tall and elegant, yet as he passed the little Marquis he seemed insignificant. The latter looked toward his wife.
"Your cousin is, I fear, somewhat disturbed," he said. "He forgot to invite you to accompany him."
The passion flamed from her eyes.
"He is a coward!" she cried. "Oh, God, how I hate cowards! Henry, if I go—and I deserve that you should send me away—it will not be with him."
The Marquis rang the bell. Almost immediately a footman appeared.
"Robins," he directed, "will you tell her ladyship's maid that her ladyship is fatigued, and will retire at once."
The man bowed and departed on his errand.
The Marchioness rose tremblingly to her feet, and moved toward the door, and again, as she passed the man who held it open for her, he seemed to gain in stature and dignity. She stooped down and kissed his hand. He bent his head gracefully, and closed the door behind her.
"And now, my dear Sir Jasper," he proposed, in his highest, shrillest tones, "we will have a serious game. We will play two hundred up, and I shall give you thirty, but you must allow me my stool and the rest. Robins," he added, as the man reappeared, "serve refreshments in the billiard room. Do not forget the Napoleon brandy."
INSPECTOR STIMPSON to see you, sir."
Sir Jasper Slane removed the pipe from his mouth, dropped the Times, and looked over his shoulder toward the door. It seemed an odd time for Stimpson to have traveled up to Hampstead—only a little after half past nine—and an odd morning for anyone to be about except of necessity, for the window-panes were streaming with rain. Slane scented urgency.
"Show him in, Parkins," he enjoined. The butler, in discreet silence, ushered in this unexpected visitor, and retired, closing the door behind him. Slane half rose to his feet, and pointed to a chair. "Good morning, Stimpson," he greeted him. "You're by way of being an early bird, aren't you?"
"I am indeed, Sir Jasper, and a wet one."
Slane waved his hand toward the table. "Had breakfast?"
"Two hours ago, thanks. Sorry to disturb you so early, but I looked in to ask you if by any chance you know anyone of the name of Frostland?"
"Never heard the name in my life," was the confident reply. "Sit down and help yourself to a cigarette, and tell me why you should think that I had."
The Inspector accepted a chair, but declined the cigarette.
"Well, the fact of the matter is," he confided, "that the Frostlands—Mr. and Mrs., I understand—live only a hundred yards or so from here, and your card is adorning their hall table." Slane shook his head.
"Never heard of the people, Stimpson," he reiterated. "I haven't the faintest idea how they got hold of a visiting card of mine."
The detective scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"You don't call on newcomers to the neighborhood, or anything of that sort?" he ventured.
"Don't be an idiot," was the good-natured retort. "As you know very well, I'm a bachelor, Stimpson. It isn't likely I should waste my time going round paying visits upon people who come to live in Hampstead."
"If you care to put on your coat and hat," Stimpson suggested, "I might be able to show you something rather interesting. It doesn't matter about the weather. I have a taxicab outside."
"I'm with you," Slane assented promptly, rising to his feet. "I was just wondering how to get through the morning. I'm an all- weather golfer, but this is a little too thick even for me."
He rang for his hat and mackintosh, and in less than five minutes the taxicab deposited the two men before a small house at the end of a side street in the immediate neighborhood. The front door stood ajar. The Inspector pushed it open and then closed it behind them. An agitated charlady was seated upon the stairs, shivering.
"No one been here?" Stimpson inquired curtly.
"No one been near the place, sir," the woman replied, "and the sooner I can get out of it the better I'll be pleased. Mysteries is the things I 'ate."
The detective unlocked the door of the sitting-room. Before he opened it, however, he turned to his companion.
"Better take a brace, sir," he advised. "It's an ugly sight."
Slane nodded, but, prepared though he was, an exclamation of horror escaped from his lips as the two men entered.
"Nice sort of hullabaloo here last night," Stimpson continued. "I haven't touched anything more than I could help, but you can see for yourself that it was more than an ordinary roughhouse. What do you think about it. Sir Jasper?"
It was several moments before Slane replied. The sitting-room had all the appearance of having been the scene of a cataclysmic and bloodthirsty struggle. The table was overturned, and there were broken glasses and stains upon the floor. There were other stains, too, of a more terrifying character—a smear of blood upon the back of an easy-chair, a little pool upon the carpet, big drops across the strip of linoleum. Most of the ornaments were smashed, and there was scarcely a chair left whole or standing upright. Across the gilt-framed mirror was a great crack, and even here there were more spots of congealed blood.
"Whom did you find here?" Slane asked.
Slane turned incredulously toward i his companion.
"Do you mean to say you found a room like this and no one lying hurt?"
"Not a soul."
"Not a soul."
Slane became every second more alert. This somewhat tawdry apartment, which had seemed like the ordinary shambles of a sordid fight, had suddenly changed its character. An empty house! The thing was unbelievable!
"Tell me what you know about it," he begged.
"It seems that the house is in the occupation of a Mr. and Mrs. Frostland," Stimpson recounted. "Frostland is a commercial traveler, it appears, and is away somewhere in the west of England at the present moment. Mrs. Frostland, according to the charwoman, announced her intention of spending last night with her sister, and went off at four o'clock. The charwoman locked up at five, and left behind her what she is sure was an empty house. This morning she arrives, unlocks the kitchen door, lights a fire, puts a kettle on, comes in here to do her morning's cleaning, and—"
"I 'ates mysteries," broke in a mournful voice from the door. "I come in and down in a 'eap I went. I just shuts the door, and runs down the avenue until I finds a cop. I ain't coming any further inside this room. Blood—that's what them stains are. I knows. I've 'ad to wash 'em out before now. I wouldn't be the one to tidy this up—not if you was to offer me anything on earth."
"It appears that the policeman she found came and had a look," Stimpson continued, "and telephoned at once to the Yard. I came along in a taxi, and as soon as I realized that something serious must have happened, I did as I often do when I don't know anything about the people of the house—glanced through their card plate, and found yours the top one. I knew you lived just round the corner, so that's as far as I've gone for the present."
"I never heard the name in my life, nor can I imagine how these people got hold of my card," Slane insisted. "Have you done anything about Mrs. Frostland?"
"I've sent a policeman to fetch her from the address at Highgate the charwoman gave me. I don't know that I'm in a hurry to see her just yet, though. What do you make of the room. Sir Jasper?"
"There's been a fierce fight here, that's certain," Slane pronounced meditatively. "One man probably got the best of it, for you can see that the furniture down this end is much more knocked about than at the other. What puzzles me, though, is how two men who had fought as desperately as they must have done were both able to get away afterward, and what they were doing here at all if Mrs. Frostland was away for the night, and Frostland was in the west of England."
The detective made no definite reply. His interest just then seemed centered upon local objects.
"There's no sign of any weapon," he pointed out, "and curiously enough no blood stains or anything of that sort in the hall or on the handle of the door, or on the little tiled walk down to the gate. I've tied the handle of the door up for fingerprints, of course, but I had a good look at it first."
Slane moved toward the window.
"It's easy enough to step out from here," he reflected.
"That's what they did, I expect," the other agreed. "I've had a casual look around, but the rain has played the dickens with the whole place."
"I wish you'd open the window," Slane begged.
The detective put on a pair of gloves, and pushed up the sash. Slane stepped out into the garden, absolutely oblivious of the driving rain. He searched the gravel path and little box border closely, without any particular result. The front gate was barely half a dozen yards away. Slane traveled the distance backward and forward several times.
"I'm afraid the rains have queered us," he said. "I can't see a thing here worth taking serious notice of."
Which was perhaps not quite honest of Sir Jasper Slane.
The policeman who had departed in search of Mrs. Frostland returned alone. He shook his head in response to Stimpson's quick glance of inquiry.
"I found Burton Street all right, sir," he announced, "but there's no one of the name of Martin living in Number Twelve. Two maiden ladies there, name of Sinclair. They haven't got a sister—never heard of the name of Frostland. I got a directory at the pub and looked it through. No one named Martin in the street. I made a few inquiries here and there whilst I was about it. No one had ever heard of the name of Frostland."
Stimpson called out to the charwoman, who made her unwilling appearance from the back regions.
"I'm off 'ome," she declared. "That's what I'm doing. I ain't going to tidy up that mess. I wasn't hired to do jobs like that. And who's going to pay me my five shillings, that's what I should like to know? And there's four shillings owing from yesterday."
"I dare say we may be able to arrange that for you," Stimpson promised soothingly. "Look here, Mrs. —"
"Mrs. Oates, my name is," the lady vouchsafed. "'Arriet Oates."
"Very well, Mrs. Oates. This young man has been up to No. 12 Burton Street. There's no one of the name of Martin living there. No one of the name of Martin in the whole street, as a matter of fact. You are sure that you had the name and address right?"
"Sure as I'm standing 'ere, sir," the woman answered confidently. "Mrs. Frostland—a nice madam she is—came down the stairs carrying a small bag. 'Mrs. Oates,' she said, 'I'm kind of lonely, my 'usband being away, and I'm going to spend the night with my sister. If so be that there's a telegraph comes, if you'll bring it up there'll be half a crown extra for you. The address is No. 12 Burton Street, and the name's Martin.'"
"She didn't write it down?" the detective inquired.
"She did not. Not having a defective memory, I didn't ask her so to do."
"Then she gave you a wrong address."
"Nothing wouldn't surprise me about that lady," Mrs. Oates declared. "She probably wanted to make extra sure that I'd believe the story about her sister, knowing well enough that no telegraph was likely to come. I've my own ideas about that lady, and her goings on, though. I'd lay a quart of gin she knows more about Piccadilly than 'Ighgate."
"Tell us what you know about these people," Stimpson suggested pleasantly. "You see, the whole affair is very mysterious, isn't it, Mrs. Oates? Empty house—master away—mistress gone by four o'clock—you leave at five—you arrive this morning as usual—and then this! Someone was here last night after you both left—two people, in fact."
"Don't speak of it, sir," the charlady begged, turning her head away from the room. "It turns me stummick right over—the sight of blood does. As for Mrs. Frostland, I can't bear her, and never could. There never was a yeller-haired woman that took my fancy. Her 'usband's a nice, quiet bit of a gentleman—generally spent Fridays until Mondays here—goes traveling the rest of the week."
"Do you know whom he travels for, Mrs. Oates? The name of the firm, I mean?"
"I do not," the lady replied. "You could put all that I know about the two of them on the top of a sixpence and not notice it. Fond of keeping their mouths shut, they were. One month they've been here, and nine shillings there's owing to me, at this present."
The detective produced a pound note.
"Well, that's that, Mrs. Oates," he said, "and a trifle over for your information. Now tell me about Mrs. Frostland's habits when her husband was away."
"How do you suppose I knows anything about them," the woman retorted. "Five o'clock was my hour for going, and at five o'clock I went."
"Who prepared the evening meal?"
"She went out to restaurants most generally, I should say. It was very seldom I had anything to clear up in the way of cooking in the morning. If you was to see all the dresses in her wardrobe you'd think she was flaunting about all the time."
"Any signs of visitors when you cleaned the room out in the mornings?"
"Sometimes an odd tumbler or two," Mrs. Oates acknowledged, "but what had been drunk out of them I couldn't say, except by the smell I should think it was whisky. Mrs. Frostland kept what she had to drink in that cupboard, and close enough she was about it, too. Locked, you'll find it, as it always 'as been since I've been 'ere."
Stimpson's fingers played with the fastening of the tall, deal cupboard built out from the wall. He produced a little instrument from his pocket and turned it deftly. The cupboard door stood ajar. For the first time, Mrs. Oates seemed to realize that she was in the presence of a master of his craft.
"That's a trick I'd like to learn," she admitted frankly. "Ain't you going to look inside, guv'nor?"
Stimpson's behavior was certainly singular. He suddenly thrust his shoulder against the cupboard door, slammed it to, and once more, with the help of his little instrument, apparently secured the lock. Then he stood away—breathless.
"Anything wrong there, Inspector?" Slane demanded.
The former opened his lips and closed them again. His trembling fingers had evidently missed the catch of the lock. Even whilst they stood there, with their eyes riveted upon the cupboard, the door creaked and swung open, and the body of a man, limp, lifeless, and horrible—the body of a man who had been battered to death—fell soggily onto the carpet. The woman's shrieks filled the room. Then she covered her head with her coarse, sackcloth apron, and rushed away, still crying out at the top of her voice. Stimpson caught at the edge of the table, and turned away his head. Slane alone preserved enough presence of mind to snatch at the tablecloth which lay upon the floor, and to fling it over the prostrate form.
AN HOUR or so later, in Slane's sitting-room, the two men found themselves able to compare notes and to talk once more coherently.
"It's a murder right enough," Stimpson declared, "and a brutal one at that. I'll have to get going, Sir Jasper. It's Mrs. Frostland I want. Who was she, I wonder?"
"Who is Frostland, for that matter?" Slane queried.
"We've got a line upon him all right," the detective confided. "A quiet little man of about forty-two years of age— reticent but amiable—employed by Pfeiffer and Company, Leather Merchants in Bermondsey, and now traveling on their account. They'll be ringing me up here directly, and we shall find out what they have to say about him. But Mrs. Frostland—no one seems to know a thing about her."
Slane produced a packet of visiting cards from his pocket.
"Perhaps I may be able to help you so far as regards the lady," he remarked. "Before we left I was rather curious about my card having been found there, and I looked through the plate. There were the cards of at least a dozen people I know well, and every one of them—curiously enough—a member of my club. What's happened, you can see, is simple enough. The woman had been either in service or secretary or something to one of my friends, and when she left she brought the cards away with her—to give her a social start, perhaps, going into a new neighborhood."
"How are these cards going to help?" the detective asked.
"I'll tell you. Curiously enough, there's just one man who is the intimate friend of all these people and whose card isn't there. That looks to me as though it might have been from his house that they came. I'm going to ring him up as soon as you've heard from your people in Bermondsey."
"Great idea!" Stimpson murmured.
"What links the thing up further still," Slane continued gravely, "is that the murdered man, whom I was able to identify, was almost an employee—a business employee—of the man I'm thinking about."
The telephone rang. Stimpson took up the receiver.
"Is that Pfeiffer and Company?" he inquired. . . . "Good. I'm ringing up from Scotland Yard. I want to ask about an employee of yours—a man named Frostland."
There was a moment's silence, during which someone was apparently speaking fluently from the other end. Stimpson listened with interest.
"Glad to hear such a good account of him," he said presently. "Can you tell me where he is now? . . . Bristol? . . . Just telephoned to you, has he? Doing good business, eh? That's excellent. You don't happen to know anything about his wife or family? . . . No? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to telephone to him to come straight back home. We were called to his house this morning and found that someone had apparently met with a bad accident there. Mr. Frostland had better come back at once, and if you would like fuller particulars, I can give them to you, if you call and ask for me—Detective Inspector Stimpson—at Scotland Yard any time after two o'clock this afternoon. Good-by, and thanks."
"Frostland seems to have been out of it all right," the detective reflected, as he hung up the receiver. "Mrs. Frostland, on the other hand—the disappearing lady—seems to have been very much in it. Unless the charlady's made a mistake, she gave a deliberately wrong address. What about this gentleman friend of yours, sir?"
"I'll ring him up directly," Slane promised, drawing the telephone book toward him. "There was no mystery about the dead man's identity. He was Maurice Klein right enough. I recognized him as soon as I could bring myself to look at him. Well, Maurice Klein was engaged in the box office of the Majestic Theater, which belongs to the man from whose house I think Mrs. Frostland must have come."
"Majestic Theater!" Stimpson exclaimed. "You mean Charles Mariote?"
Slane nodded. He shut up the telephone book, and threw it away.
"I don't think this is quite a case for the telephone," he decided. "I'll go and see Mariote, and meet you in the Strangers' Room in the Lavender Club, at one o'clock."
The detective nodded.
"I feel more like tackling the job now," he confided. "I shall spend the rest of the morning at Elm Villa."
Slane was admitted without delay into the very handsome house in Porchester Terrace owned by Charles Mariote. "The master is out, sir," the butler announced. "But Mrs. Mariote is in."
Slane followed the man into a very luxurious apartment, and settled himself in an easy-chair. In a very few minutes, Mrs. Mariote entered. She was a very beautiful woman, but this morning she was scarcely looking at her best.
"Sir Jasper!" she exclaimed, holding out her hand. "What an unexpected visitor at this hour of the morning!"
Slane wasted no time on preliminaries.
"Maurice Klein," he said, "has been found dead, evidently murdered, in a house not far from mine."
She looked at him in frank horror.
"Dead!" she repeated. "Murdered! Maurice Klein! Where was he found?"
"In a house in Hampstead belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Frostland. Mr. Frostland is apparently a commercial traveler away on his affairs. Mrs. Frostland, to whom he was recently married, seems to have made a rather strange disappearance. I came to ask you whether by chance you have had anyone in your employ lately, or any protegee of any sort, who might have been known to Klein and who has been recently married to this man Frostland?"
Those wonderful eyes, which photographers had immortalized, and which descriptive writers had eulogized for many years, seemed to become set, almost glazed.
"Why do you ask me that question?" she demanded.
"Because of a rather singular coincidence," Slane explained. "On the little hall table of this woman's house there was a plateful of cards—nearly all Charles' friends and mine—and yet not one of Charles'. I formed a theory that someone had brought away the cards—spring cleaning, or something of that sort—as mementos, or to use as a little social leg-up in a strange neighborhood."
"You are a very clever man. Sir Jasper," Mrs. Mariote observed, after a brief pause. "Yes, I can tell you about Betty—Betty Frostland, she is now. She came to me two years ago. Charles brought her to be a sort of assistant secretary and housekeeper. She had had a small part in one of his plays, but she was obviously no good upon the stage, though Charles wanted to do something for her. She was very pretty, and attracted a great deal too much attention in the house. I told her some time ago that she would have to leave. She begged to stay on for another month, and at the end of that time she came and told me that she was going to be married to a commercial traveler named Frostland. I was only too glad to hear of it. I even sent her a wedding present."
"You knew that Maurice Klein was one of her admirers?" Slane inquired.
Mrs. Mariote nodded.
"Do you know of any other great admirers she may have had?"
"Dozens—amongst them, I am very sorry to tell you in confidence, Charles. That is the real reason why I was so anxious to get rid of her."
There was a silence, natural enough at first, but which became suddenly flagrant with ugly possibilities. A curious and repulsive thought was framing itself in Jasper Slane's mind, and, as though by a sort of psychic intuition, some apprehension of it seemed to be making its poisonous way into the brain of the woman seated opposite to him. Presently she rose to her feet.
"Well, I've told you all that I know," she said, ringing the bell—"perhaps exaggerated a little. Charles' flirtations always did annoy me though—unreasonably in this case, I suppose, for I'm perfectly certain that he hasn't seen the girl since she was married. Is it too early to offer you a cocktail, Sir Jasper?"
"Thank you, no," he answered. "I mustn't stop."
The butler appeared at the door. Slane bowed over Mrs. Mariote's icy fingers. Then he took his leave.
Slane kept his appointment with Inspector Stimpson, and gave him an abridged account of his interview with Mrs. Mariote. Stimpson had news of his own. He produced a telegram.
"This arrived at Elm Villa just after I got back. Handed in at the Strand Post Office, and dated nine o'clock this morning."
WHERE WERE YOU LAST NIGHT? WAITED AN HOUR. COME FOR COCKTAIL USUAL PLACE AND LUNCH—HARRY
"Gay little lady, Mrs. Frostland, apparently," the detective reflected, as he folded up the telegram. "Of course it may be a plant."
"Any local news?"
Stimpson shook his head.
"We've had what I call real bad luck there," he confided. "I can't find a soul who saw anyone enter or leave the house during the whole evening."
"Queer thing that!" Slane reflected. "Two men must have entered the house at various times during the evening, and one must have left it even if the lady didn't come back."
"Where shall you be this afternoon?" the detective inquired.
"At home," Sir Jasper replied, looking out at the driving rain. Stimpson, who was obviously worried, took his leave, declining any offer of refreshment. Slane strolled into the little sanctum of sanctums—the bar smoking room, which had no bar. It was occupied by a single person, who was completely hidden behind an early edition of the Evening News.
"Dry Martini," Slane ordered, as the waiter made his appearance. The paper suddenly lowered. It was Mariote who sat there—Mariote, looking very much like a man who had been up all night and was engaged in regretting it.
"Hullo!" he greeted Slane. "Bring me a dry Martini, too, waiter," he called out. "You've heard—about poor little Maurice?"
"I was there when the poor fellow's body was found."
"What?" Mariote almost shrieked.
Slane recounted his adventures, concluding with his visit to Mrs. Mariote.
"Of course she couldn't tell me much," he wound up, "except that she helped me to discover the young woman's identity.
The waiter appeared with the cocktails. Mariote almost snatched his from the tray.
"Two more," he ordered.
The usual crowd was beginning to troop in. Conversation, naturally enough, all turned upon the murder.
"Look here, you chaps," Mariote begged, almost hysterically, "chuck it for a bit! I was very fond of Maurice, and this affair's given me a nasty shock."
Everyone was properly sympathetic, but there were one or two who, on their way to the luncheon room, whispered together. Mariote followed them presently, and sat between Slane and a famous criminal lawyer. Then, abruptly, he left the table.
"Poor chap!" the lawyer remarked. "Artistic temperament, of course, and all that. I didn't think he was quite so keen about Maurice these days. The young fellow was too keen on that little girl of his."
Jasper Slane kept his thoughts to himself. He had very little appetite, and soon concluded his lunch. The gossip all around him hung on the fringe of a dangerous topic, and, without entering the smoking-room afterward, he called a taxi, and drove home. From its place upon a small bookstand he drew out a railroad guide and studied it carefully. As he replaced it, the telephone at his elbow rang. He took up the receiver, and recognized Stimpson's voice.
"That you. Sir Jasper? We've found the lady. We may have done her an injustice this time, it seems. She was knocked down by a taxi last night in the Strand—on her way to that rendezvous, I suppose—and they brought her to Charing Cross Hospital. I'm just off to see her. You'll hear from me later."
"Right-o!" Slane replied, as he rang off. . . .
A moment later, his butler opened the door.
"Mr. Mariote, sir."
The man himself followed close upon the announcement.
"Jasper, old chap," he confided, "I'm in the devil of a mess."
"I guessed it, Charles," was the grave reply, "but how deep is the mess?"
"You've seen the missus. She's told you, of course, that I've always been keen on little Betty. I was doing my best to break it off, but I was furious when she got married. Then I met her one day in the Strand. I found out that she was still carrying on with Maurice. She gave me her address and asked me up to see her. She told me that her husband was away all the week. I declared that I wouldn't go near her. She laughed, and said 'I think you'll come one evening when you're lonely.' . . . I chose last night to pay that visit."
"I got there—rang—no answer. I tried the handle of the door, and found it open. I walked in, and called upstairs. No answer. I opened the door of that blasted sitting-room. My God!"
"Anyone there?" Slane asked.
"Not a soul. Pools of blood, broken chairs, broken glass. I never saw anything so ghastly. Out I went on tiptoe, closed the door, closed the front door, closed the gate, stepped into my taxi, and hopped it."
"Taxi?" Slane repeated quickly.
"That's the devil of it," Mariote groaned. "The fellow's been after me this morning. Wants to know what he's to do. Says he's in debt—owes money for his taxicab. He's had fifty pounds out of me already. He'll probably have fifty thousand before he's done, unless—"
"Have you told me the whole truth, Charles?" Slane interrupted.
"Upon my honor," was the fervent reply.
"Then don't be in such an almighty funk. If you're really innocent we'll get you out of this all right. It's a queer business though. Tell me, do you know of anyone else in the old days who was keen on Betty besides yourself and Maurice?"
"Dozens," Mariote acknowledged, "but not one of them as keen as we were. I'd have stood down all right, Jasper—you know that—if Maurice could have married her, but he couldn't. He's got a wife in Australia."
"Did you ever meet the man she did marry?"
Mariote shook his head.
"I sent them a hundred pounds for a wedding present," he said, "but I didn't go to the ceremony."
"Where were you supposed to spend last evening?"
"At the theater. But I couldn't think of anyone except Betty, waiting perhaps for me in her empty house. Then I called a taxi—and I gave the driver her address."
"And what about when you left Hampstead?"
"I went straight home, drank two whiskies-and-sodas, and went to bed."
"Ever had any sort of quarrel or misunderstanding with Maurice Klein before anyone?"
"Nothing to speak of. I daresay I was a little irritable with him lately."
There was a ring at the front door-bell. Stimpson, accompanied by a respectable-looking man of medium height, of ordinary but pleasant appearance, who appeared to be slightly lame, was ushered in.
"Come in," Slane invited. "This is Mr. Mariote, Stimpson. Inspector Stimpson, Charles."
"And this," he announced, "is Mr. Frostland. He has just arrived up from Bristol. He's on his way to see his wife in the hospital."
"Do sit down, all of you," said Slane, "Mr. Frostland, I am afraid this must have been a very great shock."
"A very great shock indeed, sir," was the quiet reply. "If you would excuse me, I would rather not discuss it more than is necessary. My wife is lying ill in the hospital. I wish to go and see her."
"I shan't keep you more than a minute or two," Slane promised. "You've been working down in Bristol, I understand, Mr. Frostland, for a firm of leather merchants."
"All the week, sir."
"Is there a certain firm of boot manufacturers in Portland Square, Bristol, called May and Mayo?"
"There is," the man replied, looking up in surprise. "A very excellent firm."
"Would they he likely to be users of such commodities as calf kids and glazed kids?"
"Naturally. They are the principal articles used in the manufacture of ladies' shoes. I sold them some yesterday morning."
"Yesterday morning?" Slane repeated with some faint emphasis.
"Yesterday morning, at about half past eleven," Mr. Frostland replied, looking a little bewildered.
Slane rose to his feet. He was standing now between the others and the door.
"Mr. Frostland," he said, "I am sorry, but I am going to make a suggestion to you. You had news in Bristol yesterday afternoon which you didn't like. You went on as usual, though. You pretended that you were tired, and you went to your room soon after you had had your dinner. Instead of going to bed, however, you left the hotel unobserved, and you caught the nine o'clock train to London. You were at your house—Elm Villa—in Brunswick Terrace at half past eleven."
There was complete silence.
"You made there a painful discovery, and you dealt with it after your own fashion. You caught the mail train back to Bristol, and you were in your bed when you were called this morning. In the meantime, however, you had killed Maurice Klein, whom you had discovered to be your wife's lover."
Frostland nodded gravely. He remained, apparently, the least disturbed occupant of the room.
"Quite true, sir," he admitted. "I was hoping I might get to the hospital to see my wife first, after which it was my intention to tell the truth, in case anyone else might be suspected. I received an express letter yesterday afternoon from an old friend who I knew would not deceive me. Afterward I did just about what you have suggested. Forgive me, though, if I ask one question. How did you learn the truth?"
"It was like all these things, far too simple," said Slane. "You left by the window, naturally, and you left very cleverly, for you left no trace behind you except a small, rolled-up business card, which the rain had beaten down into the box border—a card bearing the name of May and Mayo, with the order they had given you that day—yesterday. It was obvious, therefore, that you must have come up from Bristol that evening."
"I thank you very much, sir," Frostland declared. "I have always maintained that it is just these small things which upset one's calculations."
The handcuffs clicked upon his wrists. He looked at them meditatively.
"Perhaps it is better like this," he said. "I have been a quiet-living man all my life, but if I had got to the hospital—well—"
Again there was little emotion in his tone, yet the three men who watched his twitching fingers, and listened to that last monosyllable, shivered.
A LITTLE company of men, among whom was Jasper Slane, trooped out from the dining-room of the Lavender Club and approached the broad staircase which led to the bridge rooms. The hall porter, who had been speaking on the telephone, hurried over to them.
"Sir Jasper," he announced, "you are wanted on the telephone, sir."
Slane paused dubiously. Telephone calls at that hour of the evening were inopportune.
"Do you know who it is?" he asked.
"He didn't mention his name, sir," the man replied, "but I fancy that it was Lord Minchingham's voice. He said that it was an urgent matter."
"Put me in the table, and I'll play the next rubber," Slane begged his companions, with a little sigh of regret. "I don't know what the devil Minchingham wants with me at this time of the night." He entered the telephone compartment, and picked up the receiver.
"That you, Minchingham?" he inquired.
"Wizard!" was the brief response. "I say, Slane, are you doing anything very particular?"
"Well, I was just going to play bridge."
"So were we, but fate seems to have intervened. What I want to know is whether you can come round here, number 6A, Cunningham Mansions, you know."
"Do you mean at once, or later on?" Slane queried with a certain lack of enthusiasm in his tone.
"I mean this minute. Come in the quickest taxi you can find. Something has happened which we don't quite understand. I think you could help us. Awfully sorry, and all that, but—"
"I will come," Slane promised.
He hung up the receiver, sent a regretful message upstairs, put on his hat and coat, found a taxi, and drove to Cunningham Mansions. The building itself, in which the flat was situated, was a comparatively small one. The ground floor was taken up by shops on each side, the first floor by offices, the second floor by a residential flat, and the third by Lord Minchingham's small but famous bachelor suite.
There was a slight air of disturbance, Slane noticed, in the entrance hall. The commissionaire was looking annoyed, and the elevator man distrait. Slane, however, asked no questions, stepped into the elevator, ascended to the third floor, was relieved of his coat and hat by Minchingham's perfect butler, and ushered at once into the library. Minchingham, pale, with a high forehead and languid eyes, slim, debonair, but extremely lethargic, not from mannerism but from real disposition, rose to meet him. He had been seated at a card table, at which were two other men. The third place was vacant.
"Very good of you to come, Jasper," Minchingham said, as he shook hands. "You know these fellows, I think."
Slane nodded, and exchanged greetings with the other two men. One was Goring Brett, who held a permanent post in the Foreign Office; the other was Sir Martin Phipps, a member of Parliament, chairman of many companies, and a well-known figure in the world of finance. Even from the moment of his entrance, there seemed to Slane to be something curious about that third and empty place.
"What are you doing? Playing cutthroat?" he asked.
"We are half afraid there is someone else who is doing that," Minchingham replied, in his high-pitched, bored tone. "We sat down to play a rubber of bridge three quarters of an hour ago —we three and Cartwright. You know Ronny Cartwright, of course?"
"Yes, I know Ronny," Slane admitted. "The cards had just been dealt, when Thomson, my butler, came in and announced that someone wanted to speak on the telephone to Cartwright. He apologized and hurried away, carrying his cards, and sorting them as he left the room. The telephone is in the little hall smoking- room outside, as I dare say you know. I am telling you all this rather carefully because we have so little to go on, and any trifle might give you an idea."
"Well, we waited a minute or two," Minchingham continued, his drawl becoming more pronounced. "We waited five minutes. We waited nearly ten. Then these fellows began to get the fidgets, and I went out. Cartwright's cards were on the small table by the side of the telephone instrument. The front door was open, but he himself had vanished. I rang for Thomson. Thomson knew nothing. I looked round the flat—no sign of Cartwright anywhere. I went downstairs to the commissionaire. The commissionaire had been in his little office for the last three quarters of an hour, and was sure that not a soul had entered or left the building. The long and the short of it is, Slane—it's a damned silly thing to say—but Ronny Cartwright has disappeared."
"Well, he can't have got very far," Slane observed, with a smile.
"That should make the task simpler," Minchingham rejoined, "but all we ask is, find him for us. You know the geography of the place. The ground floor is all let out in shops which have been closed up for at least three hours. The floor above consists of offices, and they have been empty since seven o'clock. The floor above them and immediately under us is occupied by Princess Varnava, a very wealthy Russian-Polish lady who keeps us in touch with the haute monde inasmuch as even Buckingham Palace calls to see her. We two are the only tenants."
"Does Cartwright know the princess?" Slane inquired.
"I am quite sure he doesn't, because only last time he was here he asked, curiously enough who occupied the other flat. Rather got his eye on it for himself, I think, if there had been any chance of the lease falling in. . . . Now, what about it, my friend Jasper? There's the ground floor, with its shops, and the first floor with locked doors, empty; my flat, which you can turn inside out, if you like; the Princess Varnava's, who, as I told you, is thoroughly well-known, leads a very quiet life, and never goes out in the evening. I ask you, where is Ronny Cartwright?"
"WE'LL get to work in a moment," Jasper Slane, who was becoming more and more intrigued, declared. "I hope you won't mind if I try a very short reconstruction."
He subsided into Cartwright's vacant place, helped himself to a cigarette, rose as though to obey a summons from Thomson, or from someone entering the room, and strolled out to the little hall where the telephone was placed. Upon the table by its side were the playing cards, which presumably Cartwright had laid down. He looked them over carefully. They were divided into suits, but there was something unfamiliar about them when spread out in his hand. He realized in a moment what it was. There were only twelve cards. He looked under the table, and upon the carpet—no sign of any other. He laid them down once more, and took the receiver from the telephone.
"Hullo!" he called out.
There was no reply. He tried again and again, pressed the hook down time after time. There was still no reply. He summoned Thomson.
"Thomson, is this the telephone that rang when you fetched Mr. Cartwright?" he inquired.
"Certainly, sir," the man replied. "There is no other in the flat, except an extension to this one which rings into his lordship's bedroom."
"Do you mind," Slane asked, "seeing whether the extension is in order?"
"Certainly, Sir Jasper."
The man went out and reappeared a few minutes later.
"I cannot get any connection, sir," he confided. "It seems as though we were cut off somewhere."
"Your telephone has been tampered with," he announced. "I can't think how his lordship got through to me."
"His lordship spoke from the hall. Sir Jasper," Thomson explained. "He was downstairs questioning the commissionaire."
"You are sure that Mr. Cartwright spoke up here?"
"Quite sure, Sir Jasper. I heard his voice distinctly."
"You couldn't hear what he said?"
"I didn't listen, sir," was the somewhat reproachful rejoinder.
"That's all right," Slane persisted. "but this is rather a serious affair. His lordship tells me that Mr. Cartwright has disappeared. We want to find him. If we could discover whom he was talking with, that might help."
"I am sorry, sir, but I really didn't hear a word."
"Did Mr. Cartwright seem disturbed at all?"
"I couldn't answer for that either, Sir Jasper. I was busy clearing away in the dining-room. I only know that I heard Mr. Cartwright's voice speaking, and about two minutes afterwards, when I came through the hall, there was no one there, and his cards were upon the table."
"What about his coat and hat?"
"They are both here, sir, and if I might venture to point out something, he certainly wouldn't attempt to leave the building without them. It's a cold night, and snowing hard."
"Good," Slane murmured. "Mr. Cartwright is still in the building. Ergo, if we search the building we will find him. . ..
"Well, what about it?" Minchingham asked as Slane reentered the room.
"You are right," the latter acknowledged. "Ronny Cartwright has disappeared, apparently, in the full, dramatic sense of the word. His hat and coat are ill the hall, his cards are still upon the little table, and your telephone has been cut."
They all glanced at one another uncomfortably.
"Look here," Goring Brett observed, "miracles don't happen nowadays. There must be some quite ordinary explanation of this."
"There most probably is," Slane agreed. "Let's set to work to discover it. I suggest, Minchingham, that you three search your own flat thoroughly. Whilst you do that, I'll go and have a word with the commissionaire, and tackle the princess afterwards if necessary."
"That goes," Minchingham assented. "Come along, you fellows."
The commissionaire proved to be a person whom it was impossible to suspect of either inattention to his duties or conspiracy in any shape or form. He was a tall, burly fellow, an ex-non-commissioned officer in the Guards with a formidable row of medals, and a convincing alertness of manner. He declared with emphasis and without reserve that since the entrance of the three bridge guests, no stranger of any sort whatever had arrived at or left the flats. The elevator man was equally certain that he had not been summoned since he had taken the three gentlemen up to the card party, nor had he left his post, except to bring Lord Minchingham down to question the commissionaire. Accompanied by the latter, Slane mounted to the first floor and examined the entrance to each of the various offices. There were no lights burning in any one of them, and the fastening of every lock was secure. Slane descended to the ground floor again with the commissionaire.
"What sort of people are these tenants?" Slane asked. "Respectable lot, eh?"
"They wouldn't be here if they weren't, sir," the man replied confidently. "There's Mr. Hubble, the lawyer. He's got the best suite. I saw him leave early this evening. His articled clerk wasn't long after him, and his two other clerkS and office boy were gone by six o'clock. Then there's a Mr. Simpson—an American film agent. He's been here three years. Him and his young lady typist, they left together somewhere about seven. Then there's another lawyer, a Mr. Swayles, and Mr. Michael— he's a kind of collector of rare furs and Oriental bric- à- brac. There wasn't one of them, sir, who didn't have to produce pretty good references before he got a foothold here."
"I see," Slane murmured. "Then the only two residential flats are Lord Minchingham's and the one below. Now tell me about the tenants there."
"It's a widowed lady, sir," the commissionaire confided, his tone and manner becoming deeply respectful. "She is some sort of princess, I believe, though only Russian. She very seldom goes out, but there's a-many comes to see her. Very kindly, generous lady, sir, and the best tenant these flats have ever had. We gets all sorts of nobility here now and then calling on her."
"What does the household consist of?" Slane inquired.
"There's a companion—a young lady—her private maid, two women servants and three menservants."
"She's not like most of the Russians, poor, then?"
The sergeant smiled in almost pitying fashion.
"Not she," he declared. "I should say she's got all she wanted."
"Well, I'm very much obliged to you for your information," Slane said, slipping a pound note into his hand. "What you have told me is certainly helpful."
The man looked at the pound note.
"It's too much, this, sir, just for answering a few questions," he remonstrated.
"You shall earn it then," Slane told him, "by answering just one more question. You have one of the new telephone home exchanges here, I see. Very useful things, they are, for small flats. Now, can you tell me why the wire entering Lord Minchingham's number in the case there is cut? There you are, you see—two inches above the stand."
The commissionaire swung round to face the instrument. He stared at the severed cord.
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "It was all right last time I looked that way. I'll swear it was."
"Who else beside Lord Minchingham has been down in the hall?" Slane asked.
The commissionaire's face was a study in bewilderment. He could scarcely take his eyes off the cut cord.
"Why, no one out of the usual, sir. Just me and William, the elevator man. There was the princess' maid went out with the two little dogs, same as she does every now and then. One of the menservants came down to smoke a cigarette, and waited for her out in the street. I can't remember another soul, sir. Certainly, there's no one from outside has entered this building, and no one has left it that hasn't come back."
"Very well," Slane said, "we'll leave it at that. Now tell me. You look like a man of common sense. Where should you think this gentleman, Mr. Cartwright, could have got to?"
"Throwed himself out of one of the windows, I should think, sir," the man replied. "I can't think of any other Way he could have disappeared without passing out of the front door. The only thing that seems to me possible is that he may have been a friend of the princess'. The telephone call may have been from her. He may have .slipped down there, and been taken ill, or something of that sort."
"You will be here for at least an hour, won't you?"
"I'll be here to let you out, whatever time you come down," the man declared vigorously.
Slane took the lift to Minchingham's apartments. Thee three men were there, waiting eagerly for his coming.
"We have searched every corner of the place," Minchingham announced. "Whatever has become of Cartwright, he isn't here. Have you had any luck?"
"None at all," Slane replied. "The princess is our last hope. I am going there now. . . ."
ONCE or twice lately Slane had asked himself, half in derision, whether by continually focusing his mind upon certain subjects he had not become psychic. Certain it was that, after having left Minchingham's flat and commenced the descent of those few stairs which lay between him and his destination, he had a feeling that he was moving toward the solution of this baffling mystery. He paused before the dark mahogany door, and rang the bell. A grave and irreproachably-dressed manservant answered his summons immediately.
"Is the princess at home?" Slane inquired.
The man was obviously surprised.
"Her Highness is at home," he admitted, "but she does not, as a rule, receive. Have you an appointment, sir?"
Slane shook his head.
"MINE is quite unexpected business," he confided. "Please take my card to her, and ask her if she will give me a very brief interview."
The man accepted the card, and disappeared. There was the sound of surprised feminine voices from the room which he had entered. He returned, however, without undue delay.
"Will you come this way, sir," he invited.
He ushered Slane at once into a delightfully comfortable though rather overheated lounge sitting-room. An aristocratic- looking lady, with white hair brushed back from her forehead, dark eyes, dressed simply in black but wearing some very beautiful jewelry, looked across at him curiously. Close to her chair, a young girl also in black, with heavy features, dark, strongly marked eyebrows and narrow eyes, was seated with a book in her hand, apparently interrupted in the task of reading aloud.
"Princess," Sir Jasper said, as the door closed, "I must apologize profoundly for intruding upon you at such an hour. May I explain my errand?"
"By all means," the princess acquiesced, in a voice which, notwithstanding its foreign accent, was very sweet and mellow. "Will you please to sit down?" she added, waving him to a chair. "This is my companion, whose presence you will not mind. Let me hear, please, what it is that you want from me at this strange hour of the evening."
"It is something which will sound to you, I am sure, absurd," Slane confessed, "so I shall first of all tell you of the predicament we are in. My friend who lives in the flat above, Lord Minchingham, had three other men to play bridge with him tonight. Some hour and a half ago—it may be two hours—they were in the act of sitting down to their game when one of the party—a Mr. Cartwright—was summoned to the telephone. He left the room. He did not return. In due course, Lord Minchingham went out to look for him. He had disappeared.
"That, Princess, was an hour and a half ago at least, and both the commissionaire and the elevator man are ready to swear that he has not left the building."
"This is very mysterious," the princess murmured, with the air of one sufficiently intrigued.
"It is almost amazing," Slane agreed. "Cartwright has not left this building. Very well—where can he be? We have explored thoroughly every inch of Lord Minchingham's flat. The offices which occupy the floor below you are every one of them locked, and to the best of the commissionaire's belief their tenants left at the usual time four or five hours ago. You see. Princess, that leaves us in the whole of this building only your apartments. I am going to ask you the great favor to be allowed, in company with one of your servants, to search your flat."
The princess' forehead was wrinkled in surprise.
"But Sir Jasper," she exclaimed, "this is incredible! I do not even know this Mr.—what did you call him?—Cartwright? Why should you imagine that he might by any possibility be in my apartment?"
"Princess," Slane pointed out, "the suggestion seems as incredible to us as to you. Please try to realize our point of view. A man cannot dissolve into thin air, and it has been demonstrated that this gentleman must be in this building, every part of which, except your apartment, has been thoroughly explored. No other situation would have induced me to make a suggestion which I know quite well must sound unreasonable."
The princess glanced at his card.
"I seem to know your name, Sir , Jasper," she mused. "You write, perhaps?"
"Very seldom. A few articles on crime from various angles. I know quite well the Countess Montzini, who is, I believe, a friend of yours."
"Dear Olga!" the princess murmured. "Of course she is. Well, have your own way, Sir Jasper. Ring the bell, Anna. We will hand this gentleman over to Grubling."
"I am exceedingly obliged to you," Slane acknowledged, rising, "and so, I am sure, Lord Minchingham will be. I promise that I will be as little obtrusive as possible."
The princess smiled at him.
"You will find my small apartment of scant interest to you, I fear," she observed. "Search it thoroughly, however, and come and see me before you leave. Sir Jasper." . . .
Grubling, duly summoned, proved to be the usual type of taciturn but perfectly well-trained servant, and was evidently of either German or Russian nationality. He was not the man who had admitted Slane, but appeared to be a sort of major-domo. The princess explained what was required. His stolid features showed no surprise.
"If the gentleman will follow me," he begged, with a stiff bow.
Under his guidance, Slane proceeded to make a careful inspection of the whole flat. The princess' bedroom and boudoir were, as one might have expected, miracles of daintiness combined with a certain sad splendor. Surely, they bore no trace of any masculine visit. The apartment of Mademoiselle Anna was as bare as a domestic's—an iron bedstead, spread, however, with fine linen, an iron cross on the wall opposite, and one beautiful picture of the Virgin. An unused sleeping apartment was stored with a number of priceless pieces of furniture and objets d'art. Cupboards in various places, which Grubling unlocked, were filled with glass and rare china. The servants' quarters were ordinary, but Slane explored them inch by inch even to the telephone closet.
"There remains nothing else, sir," the man announced at last, respectfully. "You have been in every room, and seen every cupboard."
Slane pressed a pound note into his hand. The man accepted the note and opened once more the door of the salon.
"Well," the princess mocked good-humoredly, "you did not find your friend concealed by chance in my bed, or lurking in my wardrobe?"
"My friend does not seem to have had the good fortune to have found his way here at all," Slane confessed. "It only remains for me to ask your pardon for this intrusion, and to thank you most gratefully."
She held up her fingers and he was sufficiently versed in foreign customs to stoop and brush them with his lips. The girl's face, as she bade him good night, was expressionless.
"Come and see me again some day, Sir Jasper," the princess invited. "You must at least come and tell me all about your missing friend and where you found him."
"If you will allow me, I will certainly feel that I owe you that courtesy," Slane replied.
He was on his way to the door, more bewildered than ever. And then, for a moment, he hesitated, and a little thrill stole through his pulse. Upon a round mahogany table stood a great bowl of lilies, and in the shadow of the bowl there was something crumpled up, barely recognizable, which brought the light shooting into his eyes.
He paused, stooped down to smell the flowers, and his fingers closed upon a very unconsidered trifle—something just out of sight of the princess and her companion. Grubling was holding the door open. Mademoiselle Anna had picked up her book, ready to recommence the reading. The princess was leaning back in her chair, daintily smoking a cigarette as Slane, with a farewell bow, passed out.
They were all three waiting for him impatiently when he reentered the library of the flat above. The cards were still upon the table.
"Well?" Minchingham inquired. "Any luck?"
"I don't know. Let me think for a moment. Count your cards, you fellows."
They came to the table, amazed at this strange request, but did as they were bidden, and reported thirteen each. Slane took up Cartwright's cards, which he had brought back from the hall, and let them fall through his fingers, one by one. From his trousers' pocket he produced a crumpled-up playing card with the same back.
"Thirteen," he murmured, letting it drop on the top of the others.
They all stared at him.
"What the devil are you driving at?" Minchingham demanded, taking up the battered card.
"One second," Slane begged, "let's be certain of this. The card you have there, Minchingham, is the two of spades. Has anyone else the two of spades?"
"Not in my hand," Minchingham declared.
"Nor mine," Martin Phipps echoed.
"Nor mine," from Goring Brett.
Slane glanced through Cartwright's hand.
"There is no other two of spades," he announced. "This card, therefore, belongs to Cartwright's hand. He left twelve outside upon the table. When he was called or fetched away, he took this one with him. I found it downstairs in the apartment of the Princess Varnava."
There was a brief period of stupefied silence.
"What the devil did the fellow mean by going down there without a word to us?" Minchingham finally demanded.
"Is he there now?" Martin Phipps asked.
"He is not there now," Slane assured them. "I have explored every inch of the princess' apartments. He is not there. Yet that card which was in Cartwright's hand when he left this room, was in the salon."
"Couldn't have jumped out of a window, could he?" Goring Brett suggested hesitatingly.
"Cartwright is a level-headed fellow," Slane pointed out. "He would hardly indulge in a jump of sixty feet or so on to some spiked railings without some serious object. Nevertheless, I fancy that our next move must be to the street."
"Have you any theory at all?" Minchingham demanded, as they made their way toward the lift.
"Only the ghost of a one," was the frank avowal. . . .
"Any news, sir?" the elevator man inquired, throwing open the gates.
"None at present."
"Has the gentleman turned up, sir?" the commissionaire asked eagerly, as he rose to receive them.
"No sign of hint yet. Don't leave your place there. We're only going just outside."
They stood on the edge of the pavement. It was still a miserable night, but the driving snow had ceased. Slane backed a little into the street, and looked up. On the ground floor were the large plate glass windows of the Hanover Models Limited, above, four dark windows belonging to various offices. Then the windows of the princess' flat, through the drawn curtains of which shone a faint streak of light. Slane called to the commissionaire, and pointed upward.
"Those streaks of light there," ho asked, "belong, I imagine, to the apartment of the princess?"
"That is so, sir," the man agreed. "Now, whose offices are those below?"
"A gentleman named Michael, kind of an agent for furs and Oriental things."
"What sort of a man is he?"
The commissionaire was dubious.
"One of them foreigners, sir," he confided. "Stout fellow, with a beard and kind of a foreign way of dressing. Keeps two clerks there, and a typist."
Slane's interest in the windows seemed to have abated. He crossed the pavement toward the main entrance of the flats.
"Upstairs for a minute," he begged. "Sergeant, we shall be back again directly. Let no one pass out."
"I'll see to that, sir," the man promised.
They shot up to the third floor. As soon as the door of the library was closed behind them, Slane turned to his host.
"Minchingham," he demanded, "have you a weapon of any sort, and an electric torch?"
"I've got one revolver," was the somewhat dazed reply. "Plenty of electric torches. What in God's name?"
"Just a minute or two, there's a good fellow," Slane interrupted. "I may be making an absolute ass of myself, but give me a chance."
Minchingham ransacked a cupboard, and discovered a revolver which he handed to Slane, together with a torch.
"Come along down, you fellows, if you like," the latter invited. "I'm going to listen outside the premises of Mr. Michael. If there's no one there, there's nothing doing."
No one was willing to be left behind. They crept downstairs on tiptoe, found the brass plate indicating the offices of Messrs. Michael & Son, and grouped themselves round the door. There was no light to be seen inside, nor was there at first any sort of sound to be heard. A few breathless moments passed. Then Slane, who had been on his hands and knees on the floor, rose silently to his feet. There was a gleam in his eyes, and a new tenseness in his manner. He beckoned to the others to follow him, and they descended to the hall. The sergeant was still at his post, and the lift man was seated in his chair.
"Sergeant," Slane confided, "there is something wrong upstairs. Take this gun whilst I telephone Scotland Yard."
He crossed toward the telephone, and suddenly the elevator bell rang!
There was a moment's curious silence, broken by Slane, with a quick imperative question.
"Who'd be going out at this time of night, Sergeant?"
"I can't imagine, sir," the man acknowledged.
The attendant banged the iron doors to, and glided up. With only a few seconds' delay the lift reappeared. Out stepped Mademoiselle Anna, in a thick coat, carrying an umbrella, and with a small Pekingese under her arm. She made her way toward the door, but Slane blocked her progress.
"Sorry, mademoiselle," he apologized, "but do you think your little dog could dispense with his exercise tonight? He has already been out, hasn't he?"
She looked at him with flashing eyes.
"He goes out several times every night," she replied. "We are late because you upset the princess. He must certainly go as far as the corner."
She would have pushed her way past him, but Slane did not move.
"Mademoiselle," he said gravely, "the dog, after all, is not a vital affair. An order has been given that no one should leave this place until a certain matter has been cleared up."
Her eyes were filled with wicked anger.
"Who is there to give such an order?" she demanded, making another effort to pass.
Slane held her by the shoulder.
"Mademoiselle," he insisted, "you will not be permitted to reach the street. You will not be permitted to return even from whence you came. Sergeant, take care of this young lady for a few moments. I will hold you blameless in case there is any trouble."
She opened her mouth to shriek, but the commissionaire's hand was upon her lips. Slane stepped past her to the office telephone.
"Give me 1111-Y," he begged. "Quickly, please. It's a police call. . . . That Scotland Yard? . . . Sir Jasper Slane speaking. I don't suppose that by any chance Inspector Stimpson is in? . .. Ask him if he can speak with me. . . . Sent for a taxi, has he? Never mind. Tell him I have urgent business for him. He had better bring three or four men, and come himself to Cunningham Mansions. I'll be waiting for him in the hall. Ask him to make it as quickly as possible."
He rang off. The girl was still struggling.
"Look here," Slane remonstrated, "you'll do yourself no good going on like this. The game's up, whatever it was. Where's Mr. Cartwright?"
"What do I know about Mr. Cartwright?" she fumed.
Slane shrugged his shoulders, and turned away. She looked at him with the hatred of a wild animal. A tense quarter of an hour ensued. Then a motor car, followed by a taxi, drew up outside. Stimpson, accompanied by four constables, hastened in. Words flashed back and forth without prelude.
"Michael & Son?" Stimpson repeated eagerly. "We've had information about them during the last few days. First floor, did you say?"
"Give the inspector your pass-key. Sergeant," Slane begged. "You can let the young woman go now, if you like."
There was no longer any attempt at concealment. They turned on the lights in the corridor as they reached the first floor. Stimpson glanced around.
"I'd keep these gentlemen out of it if I were you, sir," he advised, turning to Slane. "If you've stumbled up against the crowd I think you have, they're likely to show fight."
No one took any notice, and the sergeant, producing his pass- key, opened up the premises of Messrs. Michael & Son. Entering, the little party of men found themselves in a sort of showroom, with glass cases on stands down the center, and a few rare furs hanging on the walls. A touch of the switch and the room was flooded with light. At the same moment, from the transom of the office beyond, a light flashed out and disappeared.
"Send two of your men back to the hall, Stimpson," Slane begged. "There's a trapdoor from the apartment above down to the office here. They may try to get up that 'way, and down the stairs."
Stimpson gave swift orders, and afterwards they pressed forward. The office door was locked, but once more the sergeant's pass-key was successful. Stimpson thrust his gun through the opening, and followed it cautiously. The room was empty except for one man seated in a chair, to which he was closely bound. Dangling from the ceiling was a beautifully made rope ladder.
"Good for you, Jasper, old chap!" Cartwright, who was partially gagged, croaked: "Cut these cords, someone."
The thing was done in a moment Cartwright pointed to the rope ladder.
"Quick, some of you fellows," he enjoined. "There's a trapdoor there to the princess' kitchen. It was that butler of hers who got me. He's just gone up with Michael. Quick, or they'll get down the stairs!"
Slane smiled reassuringly.
"Their welcome's waiting for them in the hall right enough," he promised. "Don't you worry, Cartwright."
"What the devil do you mean by breaking up a rubber like that?" Minchingham demanded.
Cartwright grinned feebly.
"What the devil do you mean by living over a gang of Bolshies?" he muttered. "Lead me to a whisky-and-soda."
ON THE following evening, Jasper Slane was the honored guest at the house of a cabinet minister. Certain matters were there explained to him.
"I should find it difficult," his host declared pompously, "to express to you, Sir Jasper, how deeply indebted the government of this country feels toward you for your services of last night. I will frankly admit that all our own men were on the wrong track. We knew of the existence of this gang—the infinite mischief they were doing—but we never associated the Princess Varnava with anything of the sort. It seems now that she escaped from Russia and saved her fortune by espousing Bolshevist doctrines. By degrees, it appears, so far as I can learn, she actually adopted them honestly and with a certain amount of conviction. Anyhow, she has been furnishing the Soviet people here and in Moscow with amazing information week after week. This last affair—Cartwright has explained that, I suppose?"
"Not thoroughly," Slane admitted.
"Well, there's a steamer coming up the Channel now with a million pounds' worth of Soviet gold on board," the cabinet minister confided. "The Soviet envoy here was beside himself to find out what the Cabinet had decided about seizing it. Cartwright was practically the only man, outside the Cabinet, who knew. He's been followed for days. They got him last night by a most transparent trick."
"Rang me up at Minchingham's," Cartwright intervened from the other side of the table "and gave me the Foreign Office password for 'Wanted immediately.' I recognized the password, which has never yet failed, and did just as I was told—descended by the stairs to speak to a messenger who was waiting in the princess' flat. I just remember hearing the butler behind me whilst I was bowing over her fingers, and the next thing I knew I was in that office below. I sat there with a gun pushed into my ribs for at least an hour, and they were just planning a little further amusement for me, I think, when you fellows came along." Cartwright paused. Then—?
"Tell me," he begged, "how did you tumble to the fact that I was or had been, in the princess' flat?"
"The two of spades—your thirteenth card," Slane confided.
SIR JASPER SLANE welcomed his unusual I visitor courteously but without effusion. Not even to himself would he have admitted the interest and curiosity, tinctured perhaps with a faint sense of uneasiness, inspired by her unexpected presence. She stretched herself out in the chair which he had indicated—a strange figure of a woman, as thin as fleshless bones could make her, with an almost haggard face, destitute of color, pallid lips, a complexion which scorned cosmetics, great glorious eyes of a deep soft hazel shade, seldom open at their widest. Underneath her hat one could guess at her closely cropped auburn hair. Her black clothes had an air of decent but selected shabbiness. "You wonder what I want with you, Sir Jasper Slane?" she inquired. "As yet," he assured her, "I have not asked myself the question. I could imagine half a dozen things. Your visit is certainly a surprise. The last I heard of you, you were in Paris."
"I've been in Algiers since then," she confided. "Tell me, does it amuse you to talk to me, or would you like me to state my business, and go?"
"I shouldn't say that 'amuse' was quite the word," he rejoined, "but a visit from Lady Eve Tregarthen is naturally interesting. You could tell me many things concerning which I am curious."
"If I chose."
"Precisely. I have an idea that you have come to tell me what it pleases you to tell, and not me to hear." She yawned, drew from a shabby bag a crushed up paper packet of cigarettes, and lit one from a worn lighter. "What made you find your way to Raoul Guisol's studio the other night?" she asked. "You weren't exactly in the picture, you know."
"Well, Guisol invited me, for one thing," he replied. "I once bought a picture from him, and he has never forgotten it. I am not sure whether he ever sold another until he had his great success in last year's Academy."
"Oh, yes, he has sold a few," she confided, knocking the ash from her cigarette. "Not many though. So you came because Raoul asked you? Any other reason?"
He smiled across the table at her.
"Isn't this rather a quaint gesture of yours, this visit?" he suggested. "I am not gifted with superhuman intelligence, I know, but on the other hand your attitude seems to me a little ingenuous. And, by-the-by," he added, reaching for a box of cigarettes, "I wonder whether you'd mind—? The smell of that leaf you are smoking is atrocious." She pinched it out with reluctance, and helped herself from his box. "A vitiated taste, I suppose," she admitted. "I like strong Algerian tobacco. Perhaps you're right about the other matter. It's being a little sanguine, isn't it, to expect you to confide your secrets to me? Raoul asked you there, I know, because he doesn't understand; but you weren't exactly a welcome guest to everyone. I dare say you realized that."
"Simply to this extent," he acknowledged. "There was one man there, only recently out of prison—a bosom friend of Guisol's he used to be in the old Paris days—who probably wasn't too pleased to see me. My presence even may have brought him a certain amount of uneasiness."
"Quite possibly," she agreed. "Especially as he is looking out for work, I believe."
"Then I should advise him to start in a new line. Such amazing skill as his can be put to many better uses."
"Can it?" she queried indifferently. "I've always understood that forging bank notes was a fairly profitable occupation."
"So it is for someone," Slane assented, "but you know as well as I do that it is very seldom the artist who reaps the reward. Take your friend Lansen, for instance. They say that when he was caught seven years ago he had turned out over a million pounds' worth of counterfeit notes. He hadn't enough money to pay his lawyer."
"I didn't come here to talk about Lansen. You haven't any absinthe, I suppose?" she asked, looking hungrily around. "Nothing of the sort," he assured her. "A cocktail, if you don't mind waiting, or a whisky-and-soda at once if you prefer it."
"Whisky in a wine-glass, without soda," she begged. "I take my spirits as I take life—neat." He rose and helped her from the sideboard. When he resumed his seat, he leaned a little further toward her.
"Lady Eve," he proposed, "we can save one another time. If you are here to gather from me just how much the police know about Lansen's future plans, just how much immediate danger he is in, you are wasting your time. I have never discussed Lansen with anyone in authority, and my connection with Scotland Yard is entirely unofficial and occasional. I simply remember that Paul Lansen used to be a friend of yours in the Paris days, and if you are still interested in him you can give him the best possible advice to quit. He's too clever for the police ever to lose sight of, and they won't."
She pinched her cigarette into the ash tray, and lit another. "This is very interesting," she observed, "but, as I told you before, I didn't come here to talk to you about Paul Lansen. I came on other business."
He looked at her questioningly, but without speech. She moved uneasily in her chair. Her expression had become tense. "Have you ever heard," she asked, "that I was a friend of ^the man you've all been after for so long—The Lady Bird?"
"I've heard it hinted at," he admitted. "I've never believed it."
"Well, it's true!"
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "You needn't be," she went on defiantly. "My people threw me out long ago. In my way I'm a derelict. I don't care. Life's too short to waste it with people you've nothing in common with. I can't help how I'm made. Crime attracts me—crime that isn't ugly crime—crime as the Lady Bird understands it—crime that stakes its life against the Other man's. "You ought to understand. What are you an amateur policeman for? Just because you love the throb of excitement, the real passion there is in crime which you can't get out of anything else—the throb, man against man, brains against brains, courage against courage—and the triumph afterwards. You sit at home and think about it all, and read the papers, about the clues, possible arrests, the moments of hideous apprehension which the hunted man feels when a stranger looks as though he were going to tap him upon the shoulder." He shook his head. "Lady Eve," he remonstrated, "that's all very well, but not even you could find sport in cold-blooded murder."
"The Lady Bird never killed anyone in his life," she retorted. Slane raised his eyebrows. "There was Doublay, the jeweler, that Police Sergeant at Ludgate, Marks, the bank cashier—"
"Idiot!" she interrupted. "Do you think the Lady Bird is that sort of a person? He is a director of crime, not a criminal. I'll tell you something. You may believe it or you mayn't. I don't believe he's ever carried a gun in his life."
"I am afraid if ever the police find him it will be a little difficult for him to prove that," Slane remarked incredulously. "You can find him if you want to," she said. He leaned a little closer. "You are going to give him away?"
"To you—not to the police."
"What's the trouble?"
"Better not ask," was the curt reply. "I've stood dozens of other women; I've had to. This time there's been something else. You can have the Lady Bird if you want him. I've done with him." He felt her watching him, felt her eyes seeking to read the thoughts at the back of his head. He exercised to the full his capacity for facial self-control. "This is rather a serious business, Lady Eve," he ventured. She blew out a cloud of tobacco smoke. "Do you think I don't know it? Do you think the memory of this afternoon won't torture me for years to come? if I live, which I rather doubt. I don't care. If I could have put a dagger into his throat last night I would have done it. Mind you, I don't think you'll ever take him. You're much more likely to be driven to the cemetery, whilst he's off on the Train Bleu to Monte Carlo. That's not my business though. He'll be at 18a, Willow Walk, Bermondsey, from seven o'clock tonight until midnight."
"What about the reward?" Slane enquired. "There's five thousand pounds in different amounts, you know."
"I don't want the damned money," the girl scoffed. "I want a front seat in the court, and to watch him in the dock." Slane took a long, meditative sip of his whisky-and-soda. "Willow Walk, Bermondsey," he repeated, "between seven and twelve tonight. It's a baddish neighborhood."
"You didn't expect to find him in Pall Mall, did you?" she rejoined sarcastically. "And how do you feel about it," he asked, looking at her with a new interest in his eyes, "now that you've given him away?"
"He's jolly well got what he deserved," was the hard reply. "Shall you be there?"
She laughed in derision.
"I shall not. I shall be lying low in Chelsea for a few days, and^in danger of my life—if I cared much about that— there. However, it doesn't really matter. Go quietly, mind. Leave your taxicab at the corner. Bring as many people as you want to help you if you must, but put them out of sight. You know the Lady Bird. He doesn't leave much to chance." Slane smiled. "I can quite well believe that," he agreed. "You'll go?" she asked, almost fervently. He smiled once more. This time there was a glint of humor in his eyes. "Lady Eve," he confided, "if I go to 18a, Willow Walk, Bermondsey, tonight, I shall do so in an armored car, with the loop-holes closed, and an armed patrol around me. I know very well that the first man to step from security on to the path leading to the front door—of what number did you say?—18a Willow Walk—would be biting the ground before his finger pressed the bell. We are. all fools more or less, but there are not many of us who would be fools enough to believe that you were giving the Lady Bird away." She looked at him steadily, fiercely, but without speech. "I'll admit," Slane went on, "that I knew nothing of your friendship with the Lady Bird, but I did know that for some reason or other I have become obnoxious to him. I can guess why. You see, it was I who recognized Sebastian Ostello, who, Scotland Yard knew quite well, had come over to join the Lady Bird. Back he had to go to Hungary. Then, there's another reason. I've taken to showing myself a good deal more about the West End lately, because it's there I fancy that some day or other we shall find your friend, whose career I have rather a fancy to bring to an end.
"The Lady Bird doesn't like that. He knows very well that I can go where the police can't. There were rumors that something was to happen at the Mulliner party, the other night. I was there. Very annoying for your Lady Bird, without a doubt, to be kept away from that studio party. I think the Lady Bird had his eye upon Lansen. Very paying proposition to get hold of a man like Lansen. I quite understand. I am a nuisance, Lady Eve, and I must be removed, but, believe me, 18a Willow Walk will see nothing of me tonight."
She drained her glass of whisky, and rose.
"I told him it wouldn't be a damned bit of good," she said defiantly. "They none of them appreciate you. Au revoir, dear Sir Jasper. A trip abroad wouldn't be bad for your health, just now."
"And a voyage round the world for you," he rejoined sternly. "I knew your father, Lady Eve. Do you never think of your people when you mix yourself up with this desperate gang of thieves and outlaws? I am not at all sure that I shouldn't be doing you a good turn if I locked the door, and telephoned to my friend Stimpson, at Scotland Yard."
She laughed in his face insolently, challengingly, with a touch of feminine provocativeness.
"Brave men don't turn on envoys," she reminded him.
"But you," he retorted, "were a false envoy. You didn't even come bringing honorable proposals."
She laughed again, her hand upon the door knob, his finger upon the bell.
And yet I shall go," she said, "and you won't attempt to stop me." She threw him a kiss—and went.
An hour later the girl in the shabby black frock and with the wonderful eyes finished her story, leaned back in a chaise longue piled with cushions, and lit one of her evil-smelling cigarettes. Of the two men who had been listening, one—Colonel Charles Donville, D.S.O., tall, with regular but insignificant features, blue eyes, a figure something like a tailor's dummy, and a general appearance, which had earned for him throughout a certain section of London society the nickname of the "Beauty Boy," stood with his hands in his pockets, looking moodily out of the window across the park. The other—Bob Frayson—a pleasant- faced, soldierly looking man, approaching middle age, indulged in a little grimace and threw himself into an easy-chair. It was a very delightfully furnished room upon the top floor of a famous block of flats, and nowhere near Bermondsey.
"Nothing doing then with our friend Slane?" Donville remarked gloomily.
"Seems not," Frayson agreed. "I never thought he'd fall for that Bermondsey stunt."
The girl looked at them through her half-closed eyes.
"My own opinion is," she drawled, "that you'd better leave Jasper Slane alone. He's the sort of man who might hit back—and hard." Donville swung round, and frowned. 'Why the hell can't a man like Jasper Slane mind his own business?" he demanded. "What the devil does he want to turn himself into a man hunter for? Sport, I suppose he calls it. Well, it's up to us to show him all the sport he wants."
"You're quite right, Charlie," Frayson assented. "Fortunately we are on to him now, but that doesn't alter the fact that he is interfering with a good many of our little schemes. I thought we'd got Lansen safely tucked away, but down he comes to that party and spots him at once. Then the Mulliner jewels would have been ours last week, but just as the supreme moment arrived, there was Slane looking quizzically around the room. They were there ready to tumble into our hands but for him."
"You don't imagine that he suspects either of us?" Donville cogitated. "Of course he doesn't, but then you see we can't be continually at a house where something may be doing without his tumbling to it in the long run. I bet he'll remember everyone who was at the Minghamptons' the time you got away with the pendant. We were at the Tindale Sharpes', too. There he was. I bet he hasn't forgotten that either. Now there's this little affair coming on at Grantham House. He'll probably be there. I have a sort of an idea he's working on the principle of elimination. A dangerous fellow, Slane." Donville nodded. "Slane must go," he decided quietly. "We can't afford risks."
"How are you going to get rid of him?" the girl demanded, turning over in her chaise longue. "You won't get him down to Willow Walk in Bermondsey. He isn't a bit like the fly buzzing round the fringe of the spider's parlor." Donville smiled. "When a man has really been in our way," he observed, "we haven't often failed to get rid of him."
"Give him a chance," the girl begged. "Try a word or two of warning."
"No objection to that," Donville assented. "All the same," Frayson observed, "I don't fancy you'll find Slane a man to be intimidated."
"We'll give him a chance before we pass his name in," was Donville's decision.
STIMPSON lunched with Slane one morning that week by special invitation, in the Strangers' room at the Lavender Club. Toward the end of the meal, Slane made a confession. "I think you know. Stimpson, by this time." he said, "that I am not a nervous person." The detective looked at him shrewdly. "What's coming?" he inquired. "I don't know," his host declared. "You or I, or both of us together, have got to find the Lady Bird, and break up the gang, and do it quickly, too, or they'll get me."
"Anything fresh?" Slane shrugged his shoulders. He laid a half sheet of note paper upon the table. "I don't as a rule," he confided, "take any notice of anonymous letters. But I think this one is genuine."
There were only a few lines roughly printed:
Slane, my friend, I'm warning yon to mind your own business. Play golf, shoot and hunt. Those are your natural amusements. Stick to them. Make up your mind quickly. After a day or two London won't be a healthy spot for you.
"Yes, I see the point," Stimpson admitted, holding the epistle up to the light. "Expensive stationery—club paper, I should think."
Slane nodded. "I should say," he announced, "that that is a Service Club note paper—either the Rag or the In and Out. Well, I got that note five days ago, and naturally I took no notice of it. Now I'll tell you another thing. By good luck, I'm on the committee here, and I noticed a new waiter on Wednesday at the table where I always lunch. I inquired about him. The steward showed me his references, which were excellent, but I saw he was always particularly anxious to serve me, and I felt a little suspicious about him. I took up his references more closely, and found that they were forged. The day I did so, he disappeared. "I fancy that he was only waiting to shake down here, and, in the language of our friends and criminals, I should have had mine, and no one would have had the least idea where the trouble came from. That isn't all though. Only this morning, I was crossing the road near my house—walking round to the garage—and a taxicab which had seemed to be just driving along at a moderate pace, suddenly accelerated, and came straight for me. I just managed to do a forward spring which saved me. The man was out of sight, of course, before I could even get his number."
Stimpson was looking grave.
"What about a month's holiday on the Continent?" he suggested. "The Lady Bird will keep away."
Slane shook his head.
"The fellows are too clever to run risks for nothing," he declared. "It's clear that I'm badly in their way at the present moment. They've got some scheme pending that they think I shall be more likely to get hold of than your men, and I'm not going away. You can make up your mind about that."
Luncheon progressed to the coffee and liqueur stage. Then, with the door closed, Slane leaned across the table.
"Stimpson," he asked, "is there such a thing as speaking in confidence to the police?"
"Not at the Yard," was the cautious admission. "Here—man to man—I should say there was."
"I have told you about the waiter, and I have told you about the taxi, and I have shown you the anonymous letter," Slane went on. "Now, I am going to tell you what happened the other day, and what has really given me a line on the Lady Bird. You have heard of Lady Eve Tregarthen, I suppose?" Stimpson's eyes flashed for a moment. "Anything against her?"
"Nothing definite," the detective acknowledged, "but she's in our books. She seems to have a most singular penchant for associating with criminals. One of these daring young women of the upper classes, I gather, who have exhausted all the ordinary pleasures of life, and hunt anywhere for new sensations." Slane nodded. "She is a friend of the Lady Bird, Stimpson," he confided. "How do you know that?"
"Because she came to me as an envoy from him. She first of all commenced by admitting her friendship with him. Then she tried to make me believe that they had quarreled finally and desperately. She was out for revenge. I was to make my way down to Willow Walk, Bermondsey, and invite him to take a little stroll up with me to Scotland Yard. It was all very ingenuous, and amateurish, but it was proof, at any rate, that Lady Eve knows who the Lady Bird is. The trouble of it is that she's with different men every night, and the nights one doesn't see her about she's probably with others. To single out the Lady Bird isn't easy, especially as it is quite possible they aren't seen in public together at all. However, the main point remains. She knows who he is."
"Why didn't you let me know at once?" Stimpson remonstrated. "Willow Walk was a trap for you, without a doubt, and I don't suppose the Lady Bird himself was ever there, but, with a well- organized raid, we might have found something." Slane shook his head. "I wasn't professional enough," he admitted. "I refused the invitation, and told the lady my reasons."
"A pity!" the detective murmured. "I don't see that Lady Eve's visit to you helps us much. But," he added, "this might." He opened his pocket-book, and drew from it a small square of tracing paper, on which was marked in thin, purple lines, the plan of a part of the ground floor of a house. He stretched it flat upon the tablecloth.
"We had a man brought in last night," Stimpson explained, "on practically a faked-up charge, because we are sure that he is in touch with the Lady Bird's gang. He was caught trying to swallow this piece of paper. You see the 'G. H.' in the corner? Well, you know the reason the Lady Bird has been so successful with these jewel robberies at evening parties has been his intimate knowledge of all the internal geography of the houses where the raids have taken place. We immediately got a copy of the Morning Post, and looked through the list of forthcoming entertainments. There is to be a reception at Grantham House—'G.H.', you see—tomorrow night. It is to be one of the most brilliant affairs of the season. "I spent most of yesterday afternoon there myself, with this plan. It corresponds exactly with the ground floor. This square here, you see, is the ladies' downstairs cloak room. You enter it from the main hall up this passage. You can leave it, curiously enough, by three different ways. That passage there branches off into two others, one leading to an area, and the other through a private gate to the courtyard. Then, there is also a staircase, very seldom used, leading up to the main reception room in the tapestried picture gallery."
"A find!" Slane murmured. "It is indeed. You know whose house it is, of course?"
"Yes," Slane assented?"the Duchess of Drury's. Thank goodness, I am going to the party." The detective folded up the plan, and put it in his pocket. "You'd have to be in it, of course," he grumbled, "but, for heaven's sake, take care of yourself for the next few hours. It looks to me as if they wanted to get rid of you before then."
"Not a chance," Slane promised. "I shall be there." London's most exclusive and most expensive dinner club was more than usually crowded on the night of the Grantham House Reception, but a table was found at once for such a distinguished trio as Lady Tregarthen with her two companions. Colonel Donville, "The Beauty Boy," and Major Frayson. The latter took up the menu, whilst Donville glanced through the wine list. The girl looked around with her usual air of tired insolence, waving her hand now and then to an acquaintance. Suddenly she became aware of Slane, seated by her side.
"You see," he confided, in a low tone, "I have resisted the temptation of a visit to Willow Walk, Bermondsey."
"You were more wise than usual," she answered, with faint irony. "You know Major Frayson and Colonel Donville?"
"I have that pleasure." Slane admitted as he nodded to each in turn.
"You two idle soldier-lads," she went on, "don't realize what a famous man Sir Jasper is. You have many professions, haven't you, Sir Jasper? Half-a-dozen at least, I believe."
"We all know that Sir Jasper is a famous criminologist," Donville acknowledged. "I read an article of yours lately, Sir Jasper, in one of the London papers, upon clues—how to t r a c k down a criminal, and that sort of thing. Very interesting it was, too."
"I remember it," Slane murmured. "Nowadays, however, criminology is losing its interest. It has become too scientific."
" I t hasn't become scientific enough for them to lay their hands upon the man they call the Lady Bird," Donville observed. "They say that he can almost write to the police and tell them when he's going to attempt a coup, and he brings it off just the same."
"His time will come all right," Slane predicted, as he sipped his wine thoughtfully. Acquaintances came up and surrounded the trio, and Slane, who was supping with a sister who rarely visited London, devoted himself to conversation with her. A few moments later, when they were dancing, she looked across the room at their neighbors.
"Rather an unusual young woman that," she commented. "Who did you say she was?"
"Lady Eve Tregarthen," Slane confided. "She's quite a well- known sculptress—has a studio down in Chelsea, and one in Paris, too."
"And the men? They don't seem like artists."
"They're soldiers, both of them. Donville was in the Coldstreams. 'The Beauty Boy' they call him. Frayson was a flying man."
"A quaint trio! Altogether too advanced for my country tastes," Slane's sister decided. The music of the orchestra grew louder and louder, the popping of corks was insistent, the murmur of conversation a rapidly increasing crescendo of sound. Slane and his sister left comparatively early. As they rose to their feet, Donville leaned a little forward in his place.
"See you at Grantham House later on. Sir Jasper?" he inquired.
"I may look in," Slane observed carelessly. "I avoid that sort of thing as a rule, but it might amuse my sister as she isn't often in town."
"Are they great friends of yours?" the latter asked, as they crossed the floor.
"No, I shouldn't say that they were. Why?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Nothing particular. Only when I glanced back to wave to Alice they were all three looking after you, and whispering. I expect it's a foolish idea of mine, but I should have said that for some reason or other you weren't exactly popular with them." He led her down the passage towards the limousine which was waiting. "For a country woman, Ann," he complimented her, "your powers of observation are almost miraculous." The reconstruction of that world-famous sixty-seconds' raid at Grantham House was difficult, almost impossible in detail until the time came for the trial of the two marauders. Upstairs and from the passageway there was a not the slightest indication of any untoward incident, nor were the festivities for one moment interrupted until the whole affair was over. The one attendant in the ladies' cloak room, who was above suspicion of any sort of complicity in t h e proceedings, was the first to give a reasonably lucid account of what had happened. " I was just leaning forward fastening the clasp of a lady's necklace," she recounted, "when it was snatched from my hand, and every light in the room went out. Then, all at once, I began to hear screams on every side of me. "Someone tried the handle of the door to get out, and found that it was locked, and although I couldn't see anything distinctly, I realized to my surprise t h at there were men in the room. A door leading out from the back which was always kept locked, had been opened, and from the passageway there was a faint stream of light. There were at least four of the thieves in the room, and they were helping themselves to all the jewelry they could find as fast as they could. One of them was talking all the time. He promised that no one should be h u r t unless she resisted or called for help. " I t was all over before one could properly understand what was happening. They knew at once outside that something was wrong, and it couldn't have been more than a minute before they forced the door. No one was hurt, but three ladies had fainted. The two back doors were closed and locked, the robbers had disappeared, and on the outside there wasn't a brooch or a necklace left." . . . Slane knew a little more about it when he plunged from his place of concealment in search of the man whose capture he had set his mind upon. The darkness was intense, but he had marked down the whereabouts of the quiet, soft voice snapping out orders every few seconds. For a moment he had him by the throat, but, taken by surprise though he was, the marauder was too swift and subtle. A single dive, and he had disappeared towards the interior of the room. Pursuit would have been ridiculous. A single flash of a torch, the spit of a bullet, and the thing would have been ended.
Another idea came to Slane, and he crept on tiptoe through an unnoticed door at the far end of the room, which had been marked down in the small plan, and some curtains, into the magnificent picture gallery at the farther end of which his host and hostess were receiving. Four men who were lounging around in apparently purposeless fashion, stiffened to attention at his coming, but recognized him as he stepped out into the light. Stimpson, a little tense, leaned inquiringly forward. A close observer might have noticed that the detective's hand was holding something in his jacket pocket, and that his companions had not entirely the air of guests in a great house. "They're at it," Slane announced quickly. "I nearly got our man red-handed. He slipped away, but, look!" Slane disclosed what he held in his hand, and Stimpson smiled a hard, queer smile. "They must come up," Slane went on. "The doors we marked A and B out into the courtyard are both locked again, and anyone who passed through them is under arrest by this time. The plan of the principals, or of the two principals, was evidently to get up here by the short cut, and establish their alibi. There is nothing else for them to do."
Stimpson suddenly held up his hand in—warning. The curtain concealing the recess shivered just a little. On the other side, the Beauty Boy, with his faithful friend, had paused for a second before entering the reception room. Both were a little breathless. "We'll cut in on the line," Donville whispered. "It's often done. Just a word or two with her Grace, and a drink at the bar. What's the matter. Bob? You're shaking."
"I don't know," the other replied. "Everything seemed to go like clockwork, and yet I fancied that there was someone else in the room besides the women."
"You're quite right," Donville confided grimly. "There was one, at any rate. He grabbed me, but I got away. Hush! There's someone coming up the stairs. Draw the curtain back, Frayson; you're nearest." Frayson obeyed, and the two men stepped right into the room. Upon the threshold they paused—paused to face the crisis of their lives—inevitable, irresistible. The bravest murderer in the world must have felt like that when leaning over the side of the steamer he saw the boat containing the Custom Officers waved back, and the police barge approaching. It was the end. Fate, in a stern little semi-circle—not a smile upon one of those five fixed faces. Not even the light of triumph in Slane's earnest eyes.
Donville dropped his eye-glass, and stood rigid. The fingers of his left hand strayed up to his collar. Slane nodded, and held out a crumpled white cravat. "Too loosely tied, Donville," he remarked. "It came off in my hand." The other four men had drawn a little closer. Donville shrugged his shoulders as he held out his wrists. "It seems ungracious to leave without paying our respects to our host and hostess," he regretted, "but I see that my shirt is a little crumpled—and perhaps, without a tie—you won't mind the back way, Inspector."
SLANE saw tragedy coming to him through the bank of white mist which had fallen suddenly over the marshes. A breath of wind unscreened those ghostly arms; he saw the dim figure of a man, saw the blinding flash of a gun, heard the shrill whistle of a bullet. Once more the wall of floating vapors closed up, and there was silence.
"What the hell do you mean by that?" Slane shouted.
His voice seemed the most ineffectual thing in this wilderness of silence. There was no reply. High overhead, a flight of geese went honking along the shore. From the side of the road came the sibilant, soft suction of the tidal waters, but of human sound there was none.
Slane, who had courage enough, felt only one sensation—anger. He plunged forward blindly, left the road, made breathless passage over the mossy, sea-riven land, only to put his foot deep into a morass, and fall headlong before he had gone a dozen paces. He picked himself up, and listened. Again there was that queer, brooding silence, which at this hour of the evening seemed always to come down from the skies. The cold water chilled him. He stumbled on his way—an undignified object, his clothes soaking, his anger finding no form of expression.
The mist was denser now—so dense that as he struggled toward the rough lane he walked into a startled pony, which galloped off at his touch. With a sense of bewilderment, he strode on until he reached the first gate, grasped the white timber bars and raised his voice again—in vain.
A dog was barking somewhere in the far distance. There was the eternal swish and suction of the waters, the breathing of a cow close at hand—so close that as he pushed the gate open he set the beast stampeding into the mist. The furtive lights of the Dormy House shone dimly now through the hanging gloom. He unlatched the gate and stepped, dripping, into the hall. Harrison, the butler, hastened forward to meet him.
"Harrison," he demanded, "who the hell wanders over these marshes in the mists with a gun, trying to commit murder?"
"A gun. Sir Jasper? One of the duck shooters lost his way, I expect. You don't mean to say he came nigh hitting you?"
"Blast him, he tried to murder me!" Slane cried, the fury still hot in his veins. "It was no shotgun. It was an automatic, or a rifle. Fired a bullet at me through the mist. He couldn't have missed me by more than a yard. What maniacs are there loose in the neighborhood?" Harrison's expression was a little grave as he took Slane's wringing wet coat.
"If you'll come straight upstairs, sir," he proposed, "I'll get you a bath quick. As to whom you might come across on them marshes, God only knows, but there be queer tales at times."
"I'll have the queer tales out of someone," Slane muttered. "I'm no more careful of my life than most men, but I've no fancy to be a target for a lunatic."
"There's a few of the gentlemen, sir," Harrison ventured, "who stay out quite late."
"And why not?" Slane demanded. "I had a late tea, and whisky in the bar, and a chat with Tom Ryder afterward in his workshop. Then I saw the mists come down, and I made for home. Why shouldn't I stay as long as I want to? I'll get to the bottom of this, Harrison."
They had reached the bathroom. The man turned on the tap, and the room was soon full of hissing steam.
"If you'll take your bath, Sir Jasper," he suggested, "you'll find your clothes all laid out for you. I'll bring you a cocktail up, if I may, to keep the cold out, and what there may be to tell I'll just tell you, if the other gentlemen don't, sir."
The evening meal in the long, low dining-room of the Dormy House was always a simple but pleasant function. It was served by Harrison, a maid and a rather clumsy boy, and consisted usually of soup, fish and a joint. Whisky and soda, followed by a bottle of port, was the staple drink, and golf the invariable subject of conversation. Tonight, however, Slane introduced what was evidently a disturbing note. He turned to Major Lyall, the secretary, who sat at the head of the table, and asked him a portentous question. "Why do you allow madmen to go about on the links, Lyall?"
"Can't help it so long as they're not certified, and have paid their subscriptions," was the cheerful reply. "Someone has to lose. Was it the old colonel you were thinking of? I saw him break two clubs this afternoon."
"I am not referring to the usual type of golfing lunatic," Slane continued. "Do you know, I was shot at, at point-blank range, coming back tonight by some beast of a fellow with a gun?" There was a moment's silence, and the secretary—a broad- shouldered man of fine physique, with healthily tanned cheeks, loud voice and breezy manner—seemed unaccountably embarrassed. The other three men showed their interest in various ways. Ferguson, a barrister, clean shaven, a little worn and grizzled, was clearly taken by surprise. The other two men—Paul Fenton, a stockbroker, and Walter Seymour, a lawyer who came from somewhere in the Midlands—seemed to share the secretary's discomfiture.
"What made you come home by the marsh road?" Major Lyall asked, rather with the air of an unsympathetic magistrate cross- examining a witness.
"Well, I suppose I can if I want to, can't I?" was the impatient rejoinder. "As a matter of fact I lost my way. There was one of those beastly sea fogs about, and I didn't realize that I had missed the turning until I was halfway here." The secretary sipped his wine. "You haven't been down for a month or so, Slane," he said. "Otherwise, you'd know that that road isn't safe now for anyone staying at the Dormy House."
"Why on earth not?" Lyall shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I should have thought you'd have found out," he vouchsafed dryly. Slane was puzzled, and a little indignant. "Do you know who the fellow was?" he asked. "I can guess," Lyall acknowledged. "It was Mark Rennett."
"Then I shall take a policeman and have a talk with Mr. Mark Rennett in the morning," Slane declared. "He'd better choose some other form of amusement than mistaking human beings for ducks."
The secretary moved uneasily in his chair.
"THE fellow's a damned nuisance, of course," he admitted, "but he doesn't seem to do any mischief unless some one goes near his cottage. I should leave him alone, I think."
"Why should I?" Slane demanded. "The fellow fired at me deliberately. I'm not going to give him the chance of doing it a second time."
"You'll be all right," -Major Lyall assured him, "so long as you stick to the main road. The fellow's a difficult proposition. He built that cottage of old timbers and beach stones on a piece of reclaimed land twenty years ago, and I don't think anyone could turn him out. He's made a living somehow or other. He's got a boat on one of the reaches, and he can bring fish out of the water and duck from the skies like no ordinary man. He was a civil enough chap, too, until a year ago—used to caddy sometimes when the weather was bad, and knew the game as well as any of us."
"What's happened to him since a year ago?" Slane asked bluntly. There was a moment's silence. Seymour seemed about to speak, but thought better of it. Lyall stretched out his hand for the decanter, and filled his glass. "The fact is," he confided, "that Rennett, although he's a man past middle age, has a wife who in her way is really beautiful. I won't even qualify it. She is an amazingly beautiful human being. One or two of the visitors down here used to go out of their way to stroll home by Rennett's cottage: one especially—a man you know, I think, Slane. If ever he comes back—which he hasn't done for the last eight months—I think Rennett will shoot him. Not that he's really to blame. I don't believe anyone who's stayed here has ever spoken more than a dozen words to the woman. As a matter of fact, Rennett himself—a sour, sullen dog he is—has never made any serious complaint, and I shouldn't imagine he's had any cause to. The trouble is, the man's half a gypsy, and at times he's mad. He's sworn to shoot a n y o n e from the Dormy House who goes near the cottage, and there you are."
"And you put up with it?" Slane asked in amazement.
The secretary laughed a little apologetically.
"I suppose, upon the face of it," he said, "it does seem rather ridiculous, but what are we to do? The man's his own landlord. He can't be turned out, even if one wanted to do it. The grievance against us may have some foundation, or it may not—no one really knows—but so long as he's left alone, he does no harm. He's never raised his gun that I've heard of, or attempted any form of violence against anyone, except—except against one man. Supposing you take your story to the police. He'll just say that he was duck shooting, and didn't notice anyone coming, and all the police can do is to warn him to be more careful in the future."
"They can take his gun license away," Slane pointed out. "I doubt whether they could. In this part of the world it's like drawing a man's teeth."
Slane abandoned the subject. It seemed to him a curious thing that the fact of his doing so was a matter for obvious relief to everyone.
"Playing with us today, Slane?" Penton asked at breakfast-time the next morning. Slane looked over his shoulder from the sideboard from which he was helping himself.
"After lunch," he assented. "This morning I am going to pay a call upon Mr. Mark Rennett."
There was a brief silence. Major Lyall looked up from behind the local paper.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Slane," he advised.
"I'd let the fellow alone," Seymour echoed.
Slane looked at them both curiously.
"Well," he seated himself. "I have my own ideas of what to do when a fellow takes a pot shot at you from twenty yards away, because you happen to be passing near his cottage. If I didn't go to see him, I should go to the police. Perhaps that would be better any. way."
"It wouldn't do any good," Seymour confided. "I know the sergeant here, and I know the policeman. I bet you a fiver that neither of them would go near."
"Well, let's hope it won't be necessary," Slane remarked, settling down to his breakfast. "I shall try the effect of a little gentle persuasion first."
MARK RENNETT'S abode was easily to be seen—a strange, rough-looking structure, standing absolutely by itself near one of the arms of the sea—a muddy ditch now, but transformed into a glittering waterway with the turn of the tide. There was no sign of human life about the place as Slane approached, and he had time to take note of his surroundings. There were several things that surprised him. In the first place, everything was spotlessly neat. In one of the front windows was a great bowl of wild lavender; in another a pot of primroses. A long fishing net, reeking with odors of the sea, was laid out to dry. There had been no attempt to enclose any space for a garden—the door opened on to the soft, spongy turf—but in a sheltered corner, where one might catch the sunlight, there was a wicker chair upon which were some articles of woman's clothing. Slane was in the act of tapping at the door with his stick when it suddenly opened, and he received a shock which bereft him, for a moment, of speech.
Mark Rennett's wife stood upon the threshold looking out at him. Afterward, for his own pleasure, he tried to collect those first impressions of her, and though he never failed to weave them into a wonderful picture, he always felt that in certain mysterious ways memory failed him. To his first surprised fancy she resembled nothing so much as Fra Lippo Lippi's Florentine Madonna. She stood with one hand upon her hip, leaning a little forward, and as she looked at Slane that first gentle smile of inquiry seemed to become to him something subtly different, something which stirred him as he had seldom before been stirred in his life. "What might you be wanting?" she asked.
Her voice was soft enough, but it had more than a touch of the East Anglian accent.
"I wanted a word with Mark Rennett," he announced. "My husband," the woman said, a little uneasily. "He is out along the dyke side. There was a call of snipe this morning—or maybe he fancied it. What do you want with him, may I ask, sir?" She crossed the threshold toward him, and shaded her eyes with her hand, looking down the curving waterway. Slane was speechless. In a dim sort of way, he understood the reticence of the men at the Dormy House. No words could deal adequately with the subject of this woman. "He's not partial to strangers, Mark isn't," she confided, turning toward him, with a faint deprecatory gesture. "I don't know that I'd stay, if I were you, unless the business is serious. He be a violent man, and suspicious beyond all things." Her delicate mouth—heavens, to find such a mouth in such a place!—broke into a smile, her eyes seemed to be asking him for understanding.
"Well, the fact of it is," Slane told her, pulling himself together, "I came to complain. I lost my way and passed along the path there last night, and he shot at me—missed me by no more than a foot or two."
She seemed to treat the incident lightly.# "Mark's peculiar," she admitted. "He has strange ideas in his head—mostly about me. I'd let it be, sir. I wouldn't wait for him now. Don't come this way again by night, if Mark's about."
"That's all very well," Slane protested, with an effort at good-humor, "but one doesn't expect to be shot at just because a madman doesn't like you near his cottage. I very nearly went to the police instead of coming here."
She laughed gayly. "And what did you think they'd do?" she mocked him. "There's old Sergeant Pardowe. He'd tighten his belt, and cough and wheeze, but he'd never step this far across the marshes. He'd wait until he found Mark in a public house, and then have a solemn word with him. Young Clooney would come fast enough if he'd send him, but young Clooney is afraid of Mark. They mostly are," she went on, looking at him with wistful, wide- open eyes, seeking for sympathy. "Mark's so queer about me. The sight of a man near the cottage drives him crazy. Some day there will be trouble."
"It must make life lonely for you," he ventured. Again she laughed, and Slane fought against the stealthy conviction of what that call in her eyes might mean. "There come times," she confided, and there was a magic in her tone which seemed to be telling him that it was for him alone she spoke, "when the wind sets fair, and the boats go out, and Mark must fish. That's in "the full springtime too. He's away for weeks—the springtime when the nights here are soft and velvety, and the stars shine, and one can see the sea and the lights of the boats without moving from my window. I am thankful for those fishing days and nights sometimes, for Mark's a gloomy man." In the distance they heard the report of a gun. Once more she leaned forward and gazed down the waterway. "He's coming back," she whispered. "If I were you, mister, I wouldn't wait. I shan't tell him you've been."
"If you don't mind," Slane insisted, "I should like to stay and see him. I do not wish my visit to be a secret. I came here to warn him."
"He'll take no notice," she assured him. "He's a fearsomely determined man. Do you come from the Dormy House, by chance, mister?"
"I do," Slane admitted. "I'm staying there."
"Then he'll hate you just like the rest of them," she predicted. "He can't abide the sight of a gentleman. I'd rather you went," she begged, moving back a little. "If he sees me here talking to you, there may be trouble, mister. He can't help it. He's like that."
"I'll take my chance," Slane decided. "Or—wait! It's safe going by the side of your creek, I suppose? I can reach the links that way. I'll go and meet him, and then there's no chance of getting you into trouble." She looked upward, her eyes searching for a lark, singing unusually high. At that moment her face was like the face of an angel. She was listening too; her eyes were seeking for something beautiful. "Go and meet him then," she sighed, "if you must. For myself, I should rather everyone left him alone. There's the spring fishing, and the winter fishing, and when he's away I can breathe. When he's here there's always terror in the air."
"I think," Slane remonstrated, "that you get a little over- nervous living here alone and without neighbors. I'll have my talk with him anyway." He lifted his hat. She had drawn back into the shelter of the cottage, out of sight of the distant but approaching figure. She made no reply to his farewell, but with her hand straying back once more to her hip, she stood looking at him, and there was something in the flicker of her eyelids, the promise of her eyes, the faint curve of her lips which an even less experienced man than Slane might have recognized as something akin to the witchery which has set men's hearts trembling and crumbled to dust their wills since the days of Delilah. Slane went tramping across the marshes, with a singing in his ears, but without a backward glance. . . .
MARK RENNETT, at close quarters, had at least personality. In costume and appearance he seemed to be a composite picture of the gypsy and the fisherman. His complexion was swarthy and his hair black. He had a distinctly hooked nose, and a harsh, angry mouth. He wore a fisherman's jersey, sea boots over his trousers, and a red handkerchief around his neck. He was a fine, upstanding figure of a man, with a slight stoop of the neck. His pockets were bulging with the snipe he had shot, and as Slane approached, he brought another one down from the skies, picked up the fluttering little mass of feathers, chucked it into his pocket, and reloaded his gun. Then he changed his course so as to meet Slane.
"What does you want with me, mister?" he inquired truculently. "I don't allow visitors at my cottage."
"You'll have visitors you won't want if you're not careful, my man," Slane replied. "You'll have the police. I nearly went for them this morning."
"Fat lot of good that would do you," the man snarled. "Say your business with me, and be off."
"I shall be off when I choose," was the calm rejoinder. "The marshes don't belong to you, my man, and you'll quit them for prison if you go about letting off firearms as you did last night." Mark Rennett laughed unpleasantly.
"So the marshes are yours and the sea and the air as well, I reckon, mister," he jeered. "Will you fight me for them?"
"We can neither of us fight for what does not belong to either of us," Slane replied. "They are free for me as they are for you, so long as you behave yourself. You fired off a gun last night in the fog which barely missed me."
"Well, if there was a fog, mister, how could I see?" the man demanded insolently. "You saw me right enough."
"Then what were you doing nigh to my cottage?"
"You don't deserve a civil answer," Slane said, "but you shall have one. I missed my way walking from the golf club house to the Dormy House."
"I guessed you was one of those lazy, ball-playing pigs," Mark Rennett gibed. "Nothing to do but eat and drink and knock a little ball about, and skulk after other men's belongings. Sorry I missed you the other night, guv'nor. I could always have said I thought I 'eered duck. You listen to me," he went on, coming half a yard nearer. "It isn't often I get a chance to talk to one of you blokes, except Major Lyall. He's the only gentleman of the lot of you. Minds his own business, he does. Now I've got you here I'm going to tell you summat. You can bawl about the police until your throat aches. I don't care. The police won't touch me. They dursn't. But as for you chaps up at the Dormy House there, I hate the lot of you. D'you hear that? You're a lot of mucking, idling hogs. I beat up one on 'em, come a year ago, and I did my two months for it. I'll swing maybe for the next. So now you know. Get on your ways, mister. You're the first one I've seen as can look a man in the eyes anyway. Keep t'other side of Rennett's dyke, and you'll keep out of mischief." The man strode away. Jasper Slane filled his pipe and turned toward the golf house. Somehow or other he was not utterly convinced that he had had the best of the interview. The memory of that singing bullet still filled him with a curious sort of irritation when he thought of it. He sat on the beach, deliberating what to do, and then fate solved the problem for him. A boy from the Dormy House arrived on a bicycle with a telegram. He was wanted in town, and wanted urgently. He caught the three o'clock train, and for the time being his acutely vivid impressions of the last few hours passed into the background of his mind.
IT WAS May before Slane found himself able to take another few days' holiday. He packed his golf clubs and fishing rods, wrote for his usual room, and traveled down to Norfolk. In the hall of the Dormy House, Lyall met him. "Come down alone?" the latter asked eagerly, as they shook hands. "Didn't seem to be anyone at the junction for here," Slane replied. "I kept the car waiting five minutes or so in case anyone turned up." Lyall drew a little breath of relief. Slane looked at him curiously. "You don't look very fit, old chap," he remarked. The secretary took his arm, and led him to the little smoking-room. He made signs to the steward, and they were served with whiskies and sodas. Slane glanced at the man again. There were deeper lines in his long, narrow face. "I want a change," he confessed. "The solitude and quietness of this place through the winter get on one's nerves. One magnifies little things, and one can't sleep."
"Is that murderous fellow Rennett still tramping the marshes with his gun?" Slane asked.
Lyall's face was like a mask. "That fellow, Slane," he confessed, "is the curse of my life. He'll do someone a mischief some day or other. By the bye, I think you know Ebben—Julius Ebben?"
"Very slightly. I'm really not sure that I have ever met him. He's a banker, isn't he—one of the famous Jew family—A tidy golfer, I believe."
"Yes, he's a scratch player. To tell you the truth, he's one of my troubles just now. He wanted to come down here. I wired that every room was full, and that it was quite impossible. I'm afraid, all the same, he'll turn up. He's one of these persistent devils. You never can get a millionaire to understand that there are things he can't buy. If I had my way," Lyall continued, filling a pipe, "I'd blow the roof off this place before he slept under it."
"What's the trouble?" Lyall smoked gloomily. "Nothing that men of common sense—healthy men like you and me—could understand. It is these romanticists—Jews, artists, chaps of that sort—get the poison into their veins sometimes. Don't let's talk about it. Ebben mayn't come, and," he added, looking out of the window at the storm which had suddenly blown up, "the fishing boats mayn't go out."
"So that's it," Slane murmured softly. A car drove up to the front door, and a soberly dressed manservant descended from the box. A tall man in a huge ulster climbed out and entered the hall. "It's Ebben!" Lyall exclaimed. The door of the smoking-room was thrown open. Julius Ebben entered—a tall, good-looking man, slim and athletic, with bright, dark eyes, just then filled with laughter. "It's no good, Lyall, old man," he said. "You can't rob a man of his week's golf like that. Any old crib will do for me."
"I wired you we hadn't a room, Ebben," Lyall protested. "There isn't a hole or corner for you. You had better have a drink and go on to Hunstanton." Ebben smiled. "Now, Lyall," he begged, "don't be unreasonable. This is Slane, isn't it?" he added, turning to the latter. "Glad to see you. Lyall, you've plenty of rooms, and you know you have, and you can't keep me out of the place. Why, damn it all, I'm a director! Don't be stupid. We'll have a drink together, and you shall tell my servant where to put my things. I warn you though, arguments are no use with me. I shall open the door of every bedroom in the place and select the first empty one I come to."
"There are a lot of fellows coming tomorrow," Lyall muttered ungraciously. "Then perhaps there may be one of them," Ebben declared, "for whom there won't be a room, but first come, first served, you know." Lyall was beaten, and he knew it. He left the room to give some orders. Ebben watched his great, shambling figure with a smile of amusement. "Poor old Lyall," he murmured. "He takes everything so damned seriously. Looks upon us all when we come here as being under his parental eye, or something of the sort—as though we couldn't take care of ourselves."
Four times that evening, between the service of dinner and bedtime, Lyall, on some excuse or another, walked out into the night and stood on the wall, his hands outstretched, his head thrown back, scenting for the wind. The last time he came back, Ebben looked up from the bridge table.
"What about the weather, Lyall?"
"The wind has gone down," was the grumpy reply. "You'll get your golf tomorrow."
But both men knew that it wasn't the golf Lyall was thinking about. They knew it then, and they knew it when, from the ninth green on the following morning, they turned to see the little procession of boats coming down from the harbor along the widening estuary. Along a narrow creek, running at right angles, a single sail was visible, gliding between the two banks of marshy land, down to join the others. The little company of golfers stood and watched it. Not one of them spoke a word. They stood there gazing until the small boat reached the broader waters. After they had driven from the tenth tee, they turned round again. The sail of the little dinghy had been furled. Its solitary occupant had clambered into one of the larger boats. The smaller one was made fast behind. Lyall watched it curiously.
"I wonder," Julius Ebben murmured, "why our friend Rennett is taking his dinghy?"
No one answered, but three other men wondered. The cottage on the marshes seemed dead and lifeless. Not even a wisp of smoke came from the chimney.
THAT evening, the wind had dropped, and the lights of the fishing fleet were dimly visible on the horizon. At night they had disappeared. At the Dormy f House, the time passed apparently in the usual fashion. There were some new arrivals, and three tables of bridge. When Slane retired to bed, Julius Ebben was still playing. Lyall, in a distant corner, was seated with his arms folded, and the air of a watchdog. Slane awoke the next morning to find the room full of sunlight and Lyall's tall form bending over him. Some instinct of apprehension caused him to become suddenly alert. He swung himself out of bed. "What's wrong, Lyall?" he asked. "The inevitable," Lyall groaned. "I thought you'd better see the body before it was moved. These local police are no use, although of course I've sent for them, and a doctor. Come along, man! Into some clothes, quick!" All the usual matutinal instincts were forgotten. In a pair of trousers, a shirt and a pull-over, Slane was prepared in a matter of seconds.
"Tell me about it!" he begged, as the two men left the room.
"Everyone went to bed last night at midnight," Lyall recounted. "I locked up myself. This morning Ebben wasn't in his room. They came and told me. I got up. I knew where to go. He's outside the door of the cottage, dead; Mark Rennett sitting a few yards away, smoking and looking at him."
"And the woman?"
"I haven't seen her." I t was a few minutes before seven o'clock when they reached the hall. Lyall hesitated. "I wonder whether you'd better take a gun?" he said. There were four or five in a corner. Slane handled them thoughtfully. " I t wouldn't be a bad idea," he agreed. "What about this one?"
"Take the next one," Lyall suggested hastily. "Here a r e some cartridges."
"Oh, he wouldn't touch me, even if he were crazy." They crossed the lawn, stepped out on to the marsh, turned a little to the right, and walked in single file along the top of the dyke. Slane saw with a shudder that the dinghy was back, moored in its place. In the distance, they could see Mark Rennett seated apparently on a kitchen chair outside, and something a few feet away from him lying stretched upon the ground. "Where is the woman, I wonder?" Slane muttered. "Inside, I suppose," Lyall answered. "I can't think why the sergeant hasn't come by this time," he added uneasily. They were about fifty yards off now, and he paused. " I don't know why the mischief I should drag you into this, Slane," he continued. "There's nothing to be done, nothing can be done. Ebben's dead. A whole shell of number four shot plugged into his heart at not more than a dozen paces away, I should say."
"What about Rennett? Did he speak to you?"
"Not a word."
"We might have waited for the police and the doctor," Slane meditated, "but now we are here we'd better go on. He might try to get away." They stepped across the last little creek, and drew near to the cottage. Ebben lay, as Lyall had left him, with the latter's coat over his face, one leg doubled up. He seemed to have changed since evening into a suit of rough golfing clothes, with rubber shoes. Opposite to him, Rennett remained seated in his hard-backed chair. He glowered at the two arrivals, but made no movement. Slane bent for a moment over Ebben's prostrate body, raised the coat reverently and replaced it. Lyall was all the time gazing at the cottage. Every one of the windows was framed with coquettish-looking dimity curtains, but there was no sign of life behind. Slane crossed the few yards of turf to where Rennett was seated and, stooping down, picked up his gun, and looked at it. "Where's your wife, Rennett?" he asked. The man, although his eyes had been wide open, started as though he had been awakened from sleep.
"I were watching he," he said. "He's dead."
"I can see that he is," Slane assented gravely. "Where's your wife, Rennett?"
The man glanced toward the sun, and back to the windows of the cottage. "She do sleep steady," he replied, "but it's past seven o'clock in the morning. Give her a call, mister." Slane knocked on the door. When he tried to call out, he was surprised to find his voice tremulous.
"Mrs. Rennett—Mrs. Rennett!"
There was no reply. The man on the chair moved nervously.
"She do be a sound sleeper at times," he repeated.
This time, Slane thundered upon the door. His first blow had scarcely fallen when the door was thrown open. The woman stood for a moment framed upon the threshold. She was wrapped in a strangely fashioned dressing-gown which she clutched tightly around her slim body. Her feet were bare. A breath of wind disclosed her throat. Her hair, unbraided and loose, was in wild disorder. The sun touched it, bringing out red glints of fire. Her large eyes seemed weary with sleep.
"Why, what's amiss?" she asked, in her soft, disturbing voice. "Mark, thou'rt back? I dreamed I heard the dinghy in the creek."
No one spoke for a moment. Her eyes lit as they looked into Slane's. Then, behind him, she saw the body, stretched upon the ground, and shrank a little backward.
"Up to thy killing games, Mark?" she cried. "They'll bring thee to the gallows. Who lies there?"
Still, no one spoke for a moment. Then Lyall stepped forward. He had seen over his shoulder the approach of the little company of men from the village.
"You'd better go inside, Mrs. Rennett," he advised.
She stepped out, and walked swiftly across to the prostrate body. She had the wanton's gift. There was no one there who did not realize that save for that flimsy dressing-gown she was naked. She stooped down, and before Lyall could stop her, raised the coat, and glanced underneath, at Ebben's face. Then she turned around, and looked at them all one after the other. There was no problem picture of modern days, or ancient history, which failed to answer its own riddle so completely as did her expression. For a moment it seemed almost triumphant. Certainly there was in it nothing of pity—very little of horror. Her bare feet flashed over the turf as she turned back toward the door. From there she faced them all. She looked first at her husband, still sitting in his chair.
"Thee had better have stayed with the fleet and caught thy fish, Mark Rennett," she said. "Is this for what you came stealing home on the tide? It sings in your blood, too, though to a different tune, the neap-tide madness?"
Her eyes traveled round the little group once more, but met Slane's fairly, with the witch's challenge flashing from their depths. She closed the door with something almost like a laugh. A few yards away, now, a scattered crowd of the villagers were approaching. A doctor sunk on his knees by the side of Julius Ebben's body, and opened his case which a rough-looking youth had been carrying. A police sergeant whispered on one side with Lyall. The village constable sidled up to Rennett, and possessed himself of his gun, a feat of which he bragged many a time afterward. The sergeant turned away, and approached the man who was still seated.
"Mark Rennett," he said, "I've a few questions to ask you. You needn't answer them unless you choose—may be used in evidence against you afterward." Rennett threw back his head, and laughed. "What's all the palavering about, sergeant?" he asked. "There lies one of them Dormy House muck rats, dead, and in hell by this time, and there's my cottage ten yards away."
"Hold out your hands, Rennett," the sergeant ordered.
The man obeyed. The sergeant fastened the handcuffs with a click. It was perhaps the proudest moment of his life.
"You're a wise man, Rennett, to keep a still tongue in your head, and to give no trouble," he said. "There's a trap on the road. We'll be making for the station."
Rennett had suddenly the appearance of a man who is waking up. He looked at the sergeant with a dazed light in his eyes.
"You be taking me for killing he?" he demanded.
"A still tongue in your head is the greatest wisdom," the sergeant reiterated. "There's many a man has hanged himself with his own lips. We'll be making a move, Bob," he went on, turning to his subordinate, "you stay here, and see that nothing's touched until I return. These gentlemen will walk along with me."
Slane brought up the rear of the little procession. Twice, he deliberately turned and looked at those empty windows. There was no sign of life from behind them, nothing to tell him whether the woman was combing her hair, or sobbing her heart out oh the bed, or shaking with terror in her chair. The garden at the Dormy House was fragrant with spring flowers as Slane and Lyall pushed open the gate. Down the lane they could hear the sergeant's mare trotting off toward the police station. Some of the curious had wandered back on to the marshes. The whole of the little place was in a fever. It seemed to Slane that his companion too had something of the dazed expression of the handcuffed man as he had been driven off to the police station. Slane passed his arm through his as they entered the passage, and stopped to whisper a word or two to Harrison, the steward.
"Just one minute, Lyall," Slane begged. "Come in here."
They entered the bar. The Dormy House was a very well-ordered establishment, and all signs of the last night's festivities had disappeared. The tables were bright and shining. There were no glasses anywhere about. The window was open, letting in the fresh, hyacinth-scented air. "Lyall," Slane asked, "what are you going to do about this?" His companion looked at him with burning eyes. "What do you mean?" he demanded. Slane hesitated. "You shot Julius Ebben," he said. "Mark Rennett came back when it was all over." Lyall sank into a chair. His little groan was horrible in a way, and yet Slane fancied that there was a note almost of relief in it. "It must come out," Slane continued. "When you asked me to take a gun, I felt yours. The muzzle was warm. One cartridge was still in it. Your shoes, reeking wet, were just by the side. I told Harrison not to move them for a moment. Rennett's gun, on the other hand, was fully loaded, and as cold as ice. I heard you leave the house last night, Lyall. It's no business of mine, but I heard you. I am sorry. I can't say more. Rennett would have done it right enough if he'd been there. I wish he had." Lyall rose to his feet. For a moment he leaned out of the window, and half closed his eyes. The breeze was becoming a little stronger, and its fragrance seemed to fill the room. His lips twitched once or twice. Then he moved back to the bar, stretched across the counter, took a bottle of brandy, half filled a tumbler, and drank it as though it were water. "We always blame the woman, Slane," he said, "but if ever one was born without soul or heart, and with a call to evil singing in her blood and out of her eyes, and quivering of her limbs —well, let it go! I suppose it was the solitude here, and it's a strange, lone place through the gray months. You'll give me five minutes upstairs, Slane? I'll leave everything straight. It's the best way."
"I'm damned sorry, old chap," Slane sighed, as he held out his hand. Lyall left the room and in less than five minutes Slane, who had walked out into the garden, heard the sound for which he had been listening. A man stepped through the French windows of the dining-room, his napkin in his hand.
"Did you hear that shot?" he asked.
Harrison, too, was standing in an attitude of startled attention, and, looking into the man's pale face, Slane realized that he, too, knew.
"It seemed to me to come from the major's room," Slane said. "You'd better step up there, Harrison."
IF EVER the conversation in later life turned upon coincidences, Jasper Slane's thoughts traveled back to that night when a suddenly canceled dinner engagement left him free, and he strolled into the box office of the Globe Theater to see if by any chance there was a vacant seat for the famous crook play to which everyone in London was streaming. He found one near the end of the third row, and it was not until the finish of the first act that he was even conscious of his neighbor—a neatly dressed, spruce-looking man of early middle age, a little heavy in the cheek and jowl, perhaps, but with clear, bright eyes, an intelligent forehead and a straight, hard mouth. At the fall of the curtain on the first act he leaned back in his place with a murmur of disappointment. Slane glanced toward him questioningly, and caught his eye.
"Rather thrilling!" he remarked. The other agreed readily.
"It was quite all right until the end of the act," he pronounced. "That third-degree stuff, though, was punk. An American detective who's on the job doesn't act like that."
"Overdid the bullying, eh?" Slane asked. "I rather thought that was what they went in for."
The other smiled. The interval was only a very short one, and few people were leaving their places.
"It was the start of the gruelling that was so bad," he explained. "I tell you there's no honey bee in this world with a sweeter hum than the American detective when he opens up with his victim. He isn't going to bully or frighten him—not he. He'd like to be friendly—like to help him and get him out of any scrape he might get into. He pretends to be the kindest fellow that ever carried a hip flask. That's how he kids the other along, until he feels at ease, and begins to open up a little, maybe.
"They crack a few jokes. They're good fellows together. The detective pats his friend on the shoulder. The poor devil feels he's found a pal who'll help him—and a pal in the Force too! What luck! And so they go on, and all of a sudden the victim, talking now as easily as though he were chatting to his sister, says just the one thing the other's waiting for, and then, like a pistol shot, comes the change. The fellow's dazed beneath a fire of questions. He doesn't know where he is, whether he's on his head or his heels. Before he can collect himself, he's given himself away. A few seconds later, he's given somebody else away. Before the detective's finished with him, he's told the whole story. That's the way they do it in New York. They don't commence by shouting and bullying like that fellow on the stage did."
"How do you happen to know so much about it?" Slane asked with interest.
The man picked up his program. The bells were ringing through the house, and the lights were lowered.
"Ah!" he murmured meditatively, as the curtain went up. . ..
After the next act, his neighbor reached for a hat under the seat, and turned to Slane.
"If you care for a whisky and soda," he said, "I'll tell you how I happen to know."
Slane accepted with a certain amount of alacrity. The two men made their way along the crowded passage to the saloon. Conversation was impossible, and Slane found himself taking the opportunity of trying to place his prospective host. He was a broad-shouldered, well set-up man, a trifle under medium height, and he had the air of having passed much of his life in cruder places. Nevertheless, he wore his well-cut clothes with the air of a man accustomed to them, and seemed perfectly at his ease. He did not attempt the long coat mostly affected by men at fashionable theaters, and his collar, notwithstanding its long points, was that of the variety grudgingly accepted for use in the home dining-room by the arbiters of fashion. Everything about him, however, was very clean and neat. Slane put him down as a successful American business man who had learned enough by travel to conceal the evidences of a possibly indigent youth. His eyes were perhaps his most unusual feature. They were almost as dark as sloes, and they seemed to appear unexpectedly in his head without definite setting like floating pools from which came flashing sudden lights. His voice was never obtrusively transatlantic.
"Guess we'll have to stand up," he said. "No, there's a corner—and a waiter. Two Scotch and soda, waiter."
They were fortunate enough to find two just vacated chairs. Slane offered his cigarette case.
"Now tell me how you happen to know so much about American detectives," he begged.
There was only a second's hesitation, but in that second the other had ascertained exactly who was and who was not within earshot.
"I'm one myself," he confided.
He drew from his waistcoat pocket a small case, and passed a card to his companion. Upon it was engraved in plain block letters:
DETECTIVE EDWARD CROSS
POLICE HEADQUARTERS, CHICAGO
"Well, you ought to know all about it," Slane remarked, as he pocketed the card. "Slane, my name is—Jasper Slane."
"I've had twenty years' experience," the other continued. "I guess I ought to know a good deal about it. Chicago's as good a school as any, these days."
"Are conditions there exaggerated?" Slane asked. "Some of the newspaper stories are hard to believe."
The American laughed—not an effort of mirth at all—a hard and bitter laugh.
"Well," he answered, "you can't believe everything you read. Still! Mr. Slane—I think you said your name was Slane?"
"There's a lot that happens in Chicago that doesn't get into the papers. It's a great place, if you like excitement. But I'm quitting. I've had enough."
The bell rang, and they returned to their places. At the next interval it was Slane who became host. He found the conversation of his neighbor intensely interesting. They left the theater together later on.
"Care for a sandwich and a glass of wine somewhere?" Slane suggested.
"Great!" the other assented heartily. "Wait one moment, will you?"
They stood on the steps of the theater, Detective Cross looking around him. A man on his right, indistinguishable, glided up and whispered in his ear. Cross nodded. Another came from the other side—another whispered word.
"That's all right," the detective said to his companion. "Now I'm ready. Just a couple of reports I had to receive, that's all. How about going to the Milan?"
They entered a taxicab and drove off.
"Reports?" Slane repeated. "I thought you'd retired from the Force—"
Detective Cross moved a little uneasily in his seat. Suddenly he sat up.
"Slane," he murmured—"Jasper Slane. Say, have you got a handle to that name?"
The other nodded.
"Yes," he admitted. "Sir Jasper Slane I suppose you would address me if you were writing."
The detective's face seemed to relax.
"Say, that's great!" he exclaimed, leaning back. "And to think of me sitting next to you at the theater! We don't get many like you over on the other side. I think the professionals would freeze them out, or try to. Sir Jasper Slane—gentleman detective. You were in that Young case—and I always say that they'd never have nabbed Billy Neilson but for your work at the start."
"Neilson was a foul brute," Slane declared. "He deserved what he got."
"Sir Jasper Slane," his companion repeated, as the taxicab turned in at the Milan courtyard. "Well, well! Let's get out at this entrance. I hate the restaurant at this time of night. Too much jazz about it. Can't hear yourself talk. We'll find a quiet spot in here."
They selected a table in the grill room, and ordered a light supper. Detective Cross was obviously very much interested in his companion.
"Have you been down to Scotland Yard yet?" the latter asked.
"Not yet," Cross admitted. "I'd like to meet some of your men, but—of course I didn't know whom I was talking to, or I wouldn't have been so careful—I'm not over hero for my health."
Again those strange-looking eyes were floating round the room. With a curious instinct for selection Cross had chosen a table between two theatrical groups, and out of possible hearing of any outsiders.
"I'm after Chandler," he confided, under his breath—"Josh Chandler."
"What, is he on this side?" Slane exclaimed. The detective nodded.
"He made even Chicago too hot for him. He killed a deputy sheriff last month, and got orders to skip. So he did. We meant to get him, all the same. He shot two of our men the night after. Damned good fellows too! Shot 'em like cold pigs. They'd have torn him to pieces if they'd found him in Chicago. He made a get- away though. I can't tell you now how he managed it, but he's in London."
"Have you any line on him?"
"Not at present. I'm working on one of my own theories. There's one thing Josh could never keep away from, and that was a crook play. He saw every one that came to Chicago, and he'd travel all the way to New York to see a new one. That's why every night I'm here at a crook play. I have a man at each end of the boxes and a man up in the dress circle, and I guess that ought to be enough. Josh wouldn't use a cheap seat. They know where I am, and they'd report after the first act if they came across him. In the meanwhile I'm trying a few other stunts."
"What sort of place do you suppose he'd stop at?" Slane asked.
"Here, as likely as not," was the taciturn reply.
"Have you ever seen him? Any description to go by?"
"Yes, I've seen him," the detective admitted. "I'm not sure that I'd know him at a glance, but I'd know him if I was in his company for five minutes."
The influx of a gay little company of chorus ladies absorbed the whole attention of the American for some time, and conversation during the rest of the service of supper drifted away from the, to Slane, engrossing subject of the famous criminal. Over their cigars he ventured to return to professional matters.
"Surely you ought to call at Scotland Yard?" he suggested. "Isn't it sort of etiquette?"
"Maybe so," the other acknowledged. "But I'm not much on etiquette. I'm here to get my man, and the more I keep away from Scotland Yard the more likely I am to get him. You English are all right. I'm not saying anything against you, but you get so darned superior if you see a man in the same job as your own up against it."
"I think you're rather severe on us," Slane observed. "I know one of the best men at Scotland Yard very well indeed, and I'd like you to meet him."
"What's his name?"
"Stimpson—Detective Inspector Stimpson."
"I've heard of him," Cross admitted. "He's a good fellow. If I have any luck with my job I'll give a little party for a celebration, and you can bring him along."
"I'd like to," Slane agreed, "but—if you'll forgive my saying so, Mr. Cross—I can't understand your not communicating with Scotland Yard in any way. It seems to me that they might give you no end of help."
There was a faint suspicion of banter in his guest's smile.
"They might," he murmured, "but I'd rather get my man myself."
Slane paid his bill, and rose to depart. He took a card from his pocketbook, and laid it upon the table.
"Well," he said, "there's my address and phone number. Any night you feel like it, I'll get Stimpson to come up and dine with us. You won't find him trying to steal any of your thunder. He's a good chap."
Mr. Cross shook hands with his departing host warmly.
"I'll call you up in a day or two," he promised. "If I can't get on without help, I'll ask you to bring Stimpson along, and we'll have a talk. And if," he added, more slowly, "I get my man, then I'll give you both a dinner you won't forget. Good night, Slane—I beg your pardon—Sir Jasper."
"Slane to the profession," was the smiling rejoinder.
It amused Slane, during the remainder of that week, to visit one or two more of the crook plays which were just at that moment so popular in London, and at nearly every one of them he saw Detective Cross, seated always on the left-hand side of the stalls; trim, spruce and intent. Once or twice they exchanged greetings, but the detective had rather the air of desiring to escape observation, and though his manner was always perfectly friendly, there was something about it which warned Slane that he preferred to be left alone. One Sunday evening, however, when passing through the grill-room, a waiter ran after him, and tapped him on the shoulder.
"A gentleman would like just a word with you, sir, if you please," he said. "He is sitting just round the corner."
Slane recognized Cross, seated with a lady. He made his way to the table.
"Want you to know my wife. Sir Jasper," the detective announced. "She arrived from New York yesterday on the Megantic."
The lady was small, dark, inclined to be a little sallow, but with beautiful eyes and an exceedingly vivacious manner.
"I'm very glad to meet you. Sir Jasper," she said, "and I hope you'll try to persuade Ned to do as I want him to do."
"You're on your way to dinner, I can see," the detective remarked, with a glance at Slane's attire. "Sit down for a minute and take a cocktail with us. Waiter, one dry Martini."
Slane accepted the invitation willingly. There was a change in Cross. He was looking a little tired, and he had the air of a man who has passed sleepless nights.
"No luck yet?" Slane asked.
The other shook his head. The woman became almost vehement.
"What luck do you suppose there ever could be," she demanded, "sitting about waiting to be plugged by a tough like Josh Chandler? When I learned Ned had come over here after him, just when he'd made up his mind to retire and take me through France and Italy, I just bought a steamer ticket, got on the Limited, and here I am. Ned's done good work for twenty years. He could take his pension tomorrow. I'm taking him right away."
Slane looked at Cross.
"Have you met with any luck at all?" he asked.
"I can't say as I have," Cross acknowledged, "but I've got ideas, and that's what I'm not often plagued with. I've got ideas all the time that Josh is there, at my elbow—just around the corner—coming round the corner. I'm not a nervous man, but I don't mind confessing that I go round the room with a gun before I get into bed, and I'm on the eighth story of the hotel."
"There's nothing more trying," Slane remarked consolingly, "than sitting about waiting for a man."
"Well, he's not going to do that any longer," the woman announced with decision.
"It's Paris for us Monday, and I'm cabling myself to Chicago to say that Ned's resigned. He's got five more days here, and those are five days too many."
"I can't persuade you to come down to Scotland Yard then before you chuck this job?" Slane asked.
"I don't feel like it," Cross admitted. "I'll tell you what, though, if you'll bring your friend—I forget his name—to dinner next Sunday, I'll hand over all the stuff I've got about Josh. It may come in handy for him."
"I'll bring Stimpson with pleasure," Slane promised, rising to his feet. "Good-by, if I don't see you again until then. And I think you're right on the whole, Mrs. Cross," he added, as he shook hands.
The lady smiled.
"You're awfully nice. Sir Jasper," she declared, "and if you've got a wife or a young lady you'd like to bring round on Sunday—well, bring her. Eight o'clock's the hour."
"I shan't forget," Slane promised.
Stimpson was a little thoughtful as he drove to the Milan on Sunday night.
"I'll be interested to meet your friend. Sir Jasper," he said. "They think a lot of him in Chicago."
"He's rather an impressive man in his way," Slane observed. "Got a bit nervy since his wife came. I saw them both in the grill-room at the Milan last night, and he wasn't looking the man he was the first night I saw him at the Globe."
Stimpson's blue eyes were fixed upon vacancy.
"It's a wearing job," he remarked, "being on the heels of a fellow like Josh Chandler. He kills for the joy of it, and a fellow like that gets out of almost anything."
Slane lit a cigarette.
"You look a little peaky yourself, Stimpson," he observed. "They told me you were having a vacation when I rang up."
"I've finished with that," Stimpson replied, "and since I've been back, I've had a couple of days strenuous enough for anyone. By-the-by, Sir Jasper," he added, as they turned in at the courtyard of the Milan, "there was a rumor this afternoon at the Yard that this fellow Chandler had reached this side after all and that he's been seen in London. Mind you, I'm not talking about it yet, and I've nothing for your friend Cross. If he asks any questions, leave it to me."
"Jealous devils, you professionals!" Slane murmured.
"I don't think," Stimpson confided, "that I shall even mention the subject. I have a sort of fancy for taking Chandler myself, without any interference from Chicago. . . ."
The hall porter at the Milan Court welcomed them smilingly.
"You'll find Mr. Cross up on the eighth floor, sir," he announced.
"Are we to go up, or is he coming down?" Slane inquired.
"I believe you are dining in his private apartment, sir," the man replied.
The two men entered the lift and were whisked upward. A waiter met them on the eighth floor, and ushered them into a large, flower-decorated salon. A round table for four was set in the middle of the room, by the side of which were several bottles in ice pails. A cocktail shaker of unusual dimensions stood upon the sideboard. The atmosphere of the place was festive. Almost as they entered. Cross sallied out from an inner room.
"So this is Inspector Stimpson," he observed, holding out his hand. "Glad to meet you, sir. We've heard of you, of course, in Chicago."
"I have heard of you, also, Mr. Cross," was the courteous reply. "I have heard of several fine pieces of work on your part, too. I wish I could congratulate you upon your success over here."
A momentary shadow darkened the American's face.
"I'm through," he confided. "My time is up. My pension's due, and whoever wants to go after Josh Chandler is welcome to the job. I'm for staying alive a year or two more myself."
Mrs. Cross came smiling in, a dazzling vision of black tulle, slender legs and languishing eyes.
"I am disappointed," she exclaimed, as she held out her hands. "I wanted to dine downstairs and see if either of you can dance. Mr. Stimpson, I'm glad to know you. I've got a bully husband but he's just given in to me on the big things, so I guess he thinks he can do as he likes about this, but if you boys are real sports you'll say something about a little supper party afterward. I haven't had a dance since I left Chicago, and Ned's getting more nervous and stupid every day. Now I'm going to shake you some cocktails. They'll be good, I can promise you."
She kept her word. The cocktails were cunningly mixed, and shaken with a practiced hand. The dinner that followed, watched over by one of the principal head waiters from the restaurant, was excellent and well chosen. The wine was of an old vintage. By degrees Cross began to lose his anxious look. His wife's eyes grew brighter, her laughter freer, the invitation of her lips as she looked across the table more insidious. She flirted indiscriminately with Slane and Stimpson, but she raised her glass more often to her husband.
"He's a dear," she declared. "He's given up his wild goose chase. We're leaving for Paris tomorrow."
Her husband set his glass down. The dinner had reached its final stage. The coffee, according to directions, was steaming upon the sideboard where the liqueurs were also arranged.
"But before I leave," Detective Cross announced, with that peculiar quality in his strained eyes which Slane had first noticed, "I must take you all into my confidence. I have news for you two gentlemen."
His lips curled inward in the travesty of a smile. The glitter in his eyes became more pronounced. He lit his cigar with meticulous care and, rising to his feet, walked toward the door which led into the corridor, and listened for a moment. Satisfied, apparently, he turned the key and shot the bolt. Then he walked softly to the door from which he and his wife had issued—the door leading to the sleeping apartments. This one, too, he locked. Afterward he moved to the window, and looked downward. They were on the top story, and below was nothing but a pool of darkness.
"Sir Jasper," he said, resuming his seat at the table, "and you,, my new friend—although well known to me by name—Mr. Stimpson, this is my news. I have found Josh Chandler."
"The devil!" Slane murmured.
"Congratulations!" Stimpson echoed.
"I have done what no other man in the world could have done," Detective Gross continued. "Chandler, mark you, with seventeen murders, eight bank robberies, three or four abductions, and God knows how many other crimes up against him. I have him safe under lock and key."
Slane set down his cigar which he had just lit. The moments seemed electric. Stimpson was staring out of his wide-set blue eyes. The woman was leaning back in her chair.
"Here in London?" Slane gasped. "Where is he?"
Cross tapped his chest.
"Here, at your service, gentlemen," he announced. "I am Josh Chandler."
Neither Slane nor Stimpson seemed capable of speech. The woman laughed. She leaned still farther back in her chair, her arms hanging over its sides, and she laughed, showing her beautiful white teeth, her eyes alight with a sort of fiendish joy.
"Wonderful, Josh!" she cried. "Wonderful! Now, what's going to happen to you two boobs?"
"In the first place," the man who had been Cross said, his hand disappearing for a second and reappearing with a short- barrelled, little automatic. "In the first place, hands up, you two, whilst I see if either of you has a gun."
Up went Stimpson's hands; Slane, after a moment's hesitation, followed suit.
"Not in my line," Stimpson declared. "I never carry a gun. You probably know that, if you are Chandler. Nor does Slane when he comes to a private dinner party. I'll answer for that."
"Frisk them, Leda," Chandler muttered. With a cigarette drooping from the corner of her lips, she rose to her feet, and felt their pockets, first Stimpson's, then Slane's.
"Not a sign of one," she announced. "Poor lambs!"
"Now, I'm taking a risk with you fellows," Chandler went on. "I'll admit it's a risk, but I've thought out my plans pretty carefully. This room is one of the best in the hotel. Everyone who comes here sits upon the window sill to look down and see the view over the Thames. You're going to sit there, both of you, and you are going down to look at the Thames from the ground. How does that appeal to you?"
"Not at all," Slane declared.
"Heights always make me giddy," Stimpson objected. "I'm not going near the window."
"My last really big crime!" Chandler pronounced, with a boastful smile. "I have several grudges against you, Stimpson. You'd go anyway. I wasn't so sure about Slane, but what happens to one of you must happen to both. I see we have disposed of three bottles of wine, and I shall pour a couple more out of the window. Staggering over there is dangerous, you know, but a bullet in your forehead isn't any pleasanter—"
"I think I'd rather be shot," Stimpson decided. "What about it, Slane?"
Slane prepared to face death.
"Whatever you say, Stimpson," he agreed.
They looked into the dark ugly barrel of the automatic. Mockingly, Chandler stepped back a yard.
"Don't be fools!" he scoffed. "You're dead men in a second if you move."
Stimpson dipped his fingers in the bowl, wiped them with his napkin, and came round the table.
"I'm not so sure," he said.
"Oh, to hell with you both!" Chandler snarled. "I'm sick of you. If you won't go out of the window, you'll go my way."
His face was white and ghastly in the shaded light—the face of a homicidal maniac—the murderer through sheer lust of blood. His hand flashed out.
There was a spit of fire. Stimpson remained upright, blinking a little. Another spit of fire—a third—and a fourth—and suddenly the long reverberation of a whistle which Stimpson had drawn from his pocket. Chandler glared at them both, pale with fury, dumb with sheer amazement.
"Quite useless," Stimpson snapped out. "My dear Chandler, we may be lambs—"
The woman sprang up with a cry. From some place of concealment in her garments, flashed out another glittering little weapon. The same result! And then a curious thing happened. The doors, locked and bolted, slowly opened upon the hinges. There filed into the room a procession of men, stern-faced and capable, slowly filling up the background of the apartment.
"They overrated you in Chicago, Chandler," Stimpson said calmly. "We knew all about poor Cross. He never reached the steamer. He was murdered that night in New York. You haven't been a free man since the day you crossed the portals of this hotel, if only you had known it. My men took the places of every servant upon this floor. You have nothing but dud ammunition, and we've had the hinges of your door ready to lift at any time. We just waited. You know what we waited for."
But if Josh Chandler knew, he never told. He was at the window, mocking, triumphant.
"An American visitor to London," he chuckled. "Too much champagne. That d——d prohibition!"
"Shoot him through the leg," Stimpson shouted.
Too late. Chandler was crashing through the window, and Slane, in whose memory the horror of those few moments lingered for long, fancied that in his last seconds his hands were outstretched toward the woman whose wrists were being firmly held by one of the newly arrived myrmidons of the law.
"I couldn't help it, Sir Jasper," Stimpson apologized, "I had to make use of you, although I had in my pocket the cable from New York telling me of the murder and of Chandler's escape to Europe. I knew what had happened, and I had to finish it so that no one was hurt except Chandler. I made use of you, I know, but we had to wait for the woman. You were seeing so much more of the man than I was, and a monosyllable would have given the show away."
Slane indulged in a little grimace, but he laid his hand forgivingly upon the other's shoulder.
"Anyhow, I am glad I was in at the death!"
JASPER SLANE was pulled up short upon the pavement of Shaftesbury Avenue, a thoroughfare which he seldom used. A pair of wonderful black eyes flashed recognition into his. The slim, small figure, in neat blue serge, was familiar, and the unusual voice, too, brought back a flood of memories, the thrill of which had not yet passed.
"It's Sir Jasper Slane, isn't it?" He raised his hat mechanically.
"We are scarcely likely to forget one another," he replied, with an unusual note of gravity in his tone.
The pavement was crowded. The girl looked around.
"I'd like to speak to you," she said. "Where can we sit down?"
Slane hesitated. There was another memory, too, asserting itself—the memory of that shrill, long laugh ringing through the room of terror with strange inhuman note. His hesitation, however, was merely momentary. They were only a few yards from a well-known grill-room. He led the girl in. They sat at a corner table, and ordered cocktails.
"I had an idea," he said, "that you were in prison."
The girl shook her head.
"They didn't send me to prison," she replied. "I've been up before the magistrate three times—this morning for the last time. Chicago doesn't require my extradition. No one has anything against me. Even your frozen-faced magistrate admitted that this morning. He had the impertinence to give me a lecture on keeping good company, and turned me loose."
Slane had no wish to prolong the interview, and his manner proclaimed the fact.
"And now, Mrs. Chandler," he begged. "say what you wish to, please. I have an appointment in a very short time."
"You aren't going to be friendly, then?" she observed.
"Mrs. Chandler," he answered, "quite frankly, I do not think that we have anything in common. I have read your American record. Stimpson got it for me. You seem to have been the associate of criminals all your life. You came to Europe with a murderer."
"You're right, I suppose," she admitted. "It's the wrong half of life that attracts me."
Slane glanced at his watch. She leaned forward, her chin upon her clasped hands.
"Are you Englishmen all as hard to get on with?" she complained. "The American men used to find me attractive enough. Don't I appeal to you at all? I'm lonesome. I want someone to help me get my ticket, and see me off home. You're not even asking me to dinner. No more politeness and talk about engagements, please. You needn't be afraid of me. I have fifty thousand dollars in the bank here, and twice as much in New York. Be human. Stop and talk to me a little while."
"Mrs. Chandler," Slane said, "you're a very attractive young woman without a doubt, but I'm not a boy. I am not a seeker after adventures. That may sound brutal, I am afraid, but then you Americans are plain-spoken sometimes, aren't you?"
"That's true," she murmured, without removing her eyes from his. "I've rather a crush on you though. However, if that's your answer, let it go. But can't we talk business?"
"I don't exactly see what sort of business," Slane admitted.
"Simple enough," she answered. "I won't have anything to do with your friend Stimpson, who trapped Josh, and I won't have anything to do with your filthy headquarters who've been bullying me and trying to get me locked up, but I'll deal with you if you like. Your police are getting flowers thrown at them all the time because they caught Josh. What about Bill Parrot—Gentleman Bill?"
"I never heard of him," Slane confessed frankly.
She laughed shortly, and pointed to a telephone booth.
"Order me another Martini," she directed. "You go to the telephone and ring up your rotten friends. Ask your Mr. Stimpson, or any one of them, whether they want Gentleman Bill, or not. If they've never heard of him, if they don't want him, I won't bother you any more. I'll drink my cocktail, and trot off like a poor little girl alone in the wide, wide world."
Slane hesitated for a moment. After all, this woman had been in the network of that terrible underworld, the fame of which had spread even to Europe. She knew what she was talking about. He rose reluctantly to his feet, ordered the cocktail, and made his way to the telephone. Stimpson was at the other end of the line in a few moments.
"Are you alone?" Slane inquired. "I want to ask you a few questions."
Stimpson's reply seemed to come a little gravely.
"Yes, I'm alone. You're still at the Trocadero, I suppose?"
"How the mischief did you know that?"
"You are being shadowed, or rather the young woman is. You think you met her accidentally, no doubt? You didn't. She's been tracking you down all morning. I'm not sure that she's up to any harm so far as you are concerned, but be careful. What is the game, anyhow?"
"Well, it seems to me," Slane confided, "that she's out for a double-cross. Either a person by the name of Gentleman Bill, or myself."
There was a brief silence at the other end of the telephone. Then Stimpson's voice again.
"You've left the girl while you telephone to me. What was the excuse?"
"To know whether you wanted Gentleman Bill."
"Yes, I want him all right," Stimpson admitted. "It's the Foreign Department really. It's Pulsen who's going at it, but we want him. I'm not sure, though, about your young lady friend."
"Nor am I."
"Look here," Stimpson continued, "it's a quarter to six now. Are you doing anything particular?"
"Keep in touch with the young woman, but get rid of her for the present. I'll see you at Ciro's in the American Bar in half an hour."
"The American Bar at Ciro's," Slane repeated, a little surprised. "That's a new hunting-ground, isn't it?"
"At half past six," Stimpson murmured. "Ring off now, Sir Jasper, there's a good fellow. . . ."
Slane returned to his place. He felt the girl's eyes watching him as he crossed the room.
"Well," she asked, "how did the mention of Gentleman Bill go?"
"Stimpson was interested all right," he acknowledged, "but I fancy he must have another case on. He doesn't seem frightfully keen."
"He will be when you've talked it over with him, as I suppose you will before long," she said coolly.
Her eyes sought his, and there was tenderness enough in their dark depths, whether it was mendacious or otherwise. Her fingers caressed the back of his hand. He was fascinated by the sight of her wonderfully manicured nails, talon-like in length. . . . A man entered from the restaurant end of the place. At that hour there were few people about, and they both turned their heads to look at him. Slane could feel the girl by his side stiffen.
The man lounged up towards them—clean-shaven, thick- necked, with an ugly figure and bulbous eyes. He wore the plain gray suiting of an American business man, but his appearance was that of a fighting man gone morally to seed.
"Hullo, Leda!" he replied. "Who's your friend?"
"Ask me another," she rejoined carelessly. "I came in here because I was sick of being followed, and the gentleman asked me to have a drink."
"Followed?" the newcomer repeated uneasily.
"Don't go out that way," she advised, pointing to the Shaftesbury Avenue entrance. "I don't understand the game, but foreigners don't seem exactly popular over here just now. See you later, Ed."
The man hesitated for a moment. He looked at Slane—a cunning, reflective regard. Then he turned unwillingly away. Even after he had passed out of sight, the girl gazed after him.
"He's the pick of the bunch, he is," she muttered. "If he'd known you were in at Josh's taking, it would have been the little black hole for you, pretty quick."
"You seem," Slane remarked dryly, "to have some queer friends."
"You don't understand," she sighed. "They're killers, these men—every one of them. I'm no chicken. I can stand seeing men get what's coming to them, but I can't make 'em understand that over here they've got to quit. I hate to leave you. I wanted to have a long talk with you, but with Ed around I think you'd better go."
"Where are you staying?" Slane asked. "I imagine that Stimpson would like to have a talk with you."
"Well, he won't have it where I'm staying," she replied shortly. "I'm at the Gigantic Hotel. You'd better not come and see me there, though. Can't I come to you? You needn't be afraid of Ed or any of the gang following. I can give them the slip easy."
"It's a long way out," he warned her. "Number 14 St. James Avenue," she told him, smiling. "I know all about it, you see. Twenty minutes in a taxicab. Can I come to dinner tonight?"
"You can come tomorrow night," he told her. "At eight o'clock."
She looked nervously around.
"And your friend from Scotland Yard?"
"We'll dine alone," Slane promised, "but listen—what am I to call you?"
"Leda," she decided promptly.
"Listen, Leda, then," he continued. "You seem to me to be mixed up with a pretty dangerous gang. If you want to quit, why do it, but I'd be careful how you got seen about with any of us connected with, or friendly with, the police. Your friend who rejoiced in the name of Ed looked a little malicious. He might easily find out who I was. Stimpson would be worse. I think our folk at Scotland Yard are quite capable of dealing with your lot without any information from you. Hadn't you better leave the whole business alone?"
The girl moistened her lips. She looked at Slane long and with a certain mystery in the depths of her eyes.
"If I quit," she said, "I shall be in for it so long as they're going. I shall be in for it just as much as though they knew I'd squealed. And I want to quit—you know why."
Slane was not more impressionable than most men, but he felt a little shiver as her arms for a moment half caressed him. He knew quite well that only the presence of a few stray clients who had just entered, and the waiter who was attending to their wants, had prevented her lips from brushing his.
The fat man, collarless, and in his shirt sleeves, turned away from the window and laid the telescope upon the table. There were big drops of unwholesome sweat upon his forehead. He moistened his protuberant lips.
"Get me a drink, Leda," he demanded.
The girl rose and made her way deliberately to the sideboard. She filled a tumbler half full of whisky and splashed in a little soda water. The man snatched it from her and gulped down three quarters of its contents.
"You're losing your nerve," she observed. "What's the matter with you, Ed?"
The man who had disturbed her with Slane on the previous afternoon looked up from a pile of phonograph records with one in his hand. His fingers were shaking so that it slipped and fell upon the carpet. She looked at both men in contempt.
"Gone soft!" she scoffed. "If you take my advice, you'll quit."
"Maybe you're right, girl," the fat man admitted. "I feel safer in the old burg, even though we're in bad with the cops. I'm for the Atlantic after this."
"You'd never land, and you know it," the other man sneered.
"What d'you mean?"
"Just what I say. There were a couple of bulls on board in New York harbor. Travis was there—the man who turned square. He tapped me on the shoulder just before he went down the gangway. 'You've had all the luck, Ed,' he said, 'breathing the fresh air at this present moment. Breathe it where it's good, on the other side. Don't you try bringing the old man back. It wouldn't go with us.' That's what Travis said to me, and he meant it too."
"We got to live somewhere," the fat man groaned.
"You won't live anywhere long if you don't quit drinking," the girl told him calmly. "Look at you. You're shaking as if you had palsy."
"Ain't I likely to?" he snarled. "Ain't we got the whole thing worked out to a second, and ain't they ten minutes late already?"
"Listen! There's the lift!" she cried softly.
Curiously enough, the same thought seemed to come to both of the two men. Their hands traveled to their hip pockets. They heard the opening of the doors, the rattle of a key in the lock, a familiar whistle. An expression of beatific relief convulsed the fat man's face. The door was thrown open. Two men entered, replicas of Ed, but harder featured.
"Well, well, what's doing here?" the first one exclaimed, throwing a carefully pinned-up cluster of roses upon the table. "There're your flowers, Leda. Some climate this, isn't it? Pretty wet. Jim's gone crazy because he's sold five hundred records."
"You've done it?" the fat man croaked, his voice wheezy with agitation.
"Clean as a whistle," was the cool rejoinder. "Not a hitch anywhere."
"You made a clean get-away?"
"I'll say we did. It was raining like hell. Couldn't see anyone's face for umbrellas. We drove slowly away, changed plates at the Kank Street Garage, and here we are. Look me over, Leda, quick, and Jim as well."
"Any trouble?" the fat man demanded.
"They never got near us. I had to put a second one into the kid near the door. He was trying to crawl to it. All right, Leda?"
"O.K.," she replied. "Let's have a look at you, Jim."
The men were perfectly unruffled—their garments neat and tidy—not even their ties disarranged.
"Pan out to figure?" the man at the table asked.
"Pretty well," the other admitted. "Ninety thousand pounds. That's nearly half a million dollars. We've got to change some of the bank-note figures. When we've done that, there'll be enough to divide. Hell, Leda, why don't you give me a Scotch? Do you think it's such soft work plugging bullets into those fellows that I don't need a drink?" She moved to the sideboard and did as she was told. She looked at the speaker—who went by the name of Gentleman Bill—curiously.
"Some nerve, Bill!" she remarked.
"Wouldn't be in our job long without it, little woman."
He passed his arm around her. She eluded him, and he scowled.
"None of that," he complained sharply. "You and I have got to talk, young woman. Say," he went on, "we've shown these Londoners how to rob a bank, right in Lambeth, too. Slickest thing on record."
"Tell us about it," the fat man begged. "Makes me feel young again."
"We left the car in a side street where the temporary door was," Gentleman Bill continued, raising the glass to his lips. "Then we went in with those checks and that letter of credit. It was two minutes before closing time. The old boy slopped all over us. Of course we could have an account! A new phonograph, eh? Wonderful business!
"He gave us a lot of documents to sign, and sat down at a table. They locked the front doors, and came fussing up. 'We'll let you out at the side,' the old boy told us. We waited until they were all in sight, then Jim took 'em from the right-hand. I started with the old boy, and plugged 'em from the left. Seven of them, and the kid was the only one who didn't go right away.
"We didn't hurry. We cleared out everything from the safe that was worth having, and we left by the side door. Gee, it was raining! We just closed the door behind us, got in the car, and drove off."
They all took more Scotch. They were in a sitting-room on the ninth floor of the Hotel Gigantic, and, notwithstanding the rain, one of them threw the window open a little wider.
""The only trouble is," Gentleman Bill continued, "that they'll know we were Americans. There's never been an English gang cleaned up things like we've done. They don't shoot much over here. White-livered lot of milk-can pinchers—that's what they are! God, I can't taste this whisky!"
"You've had enough," the girl warned him, as he held out his glass. "You might need your nerve even now."
"I should worry," the man scoffed. "I tell you we made a clean get-away. Number plates of the car changed. Johnny, who drove us, is shaved by now, and the car's all cleaned up."
Bill set down his glass.
"Let me look you two boys over again," he proposed.
"Tie, collar, buttons, everything all right," said Bill, looking Jim over. "Shoes? Everything O.K. What about your rubbers?"
"Left 'em outside the bank. No mark in 'em. No maker's name. All the same anyway."
The girl strolled over, a cigarette in her mouth. She, too, examined both men carefully. Then she opened the door and, looking out, passed into the hall. She returned in a moment with a pair of gloves in her hand.
"Whose are these?" she asked.
She held one of them up.
"When did you lose the button?"
They crowded round. The threads were there. The button was missing.
"It was all right when I took my gloves off in the bank parlor," Gentleman Bill muttered. "I never noticed them since. Hell!"
There was a short, tense silence. The fat man was breathing heavily. They were all thinking of the marble floor of the bank, wondering into what crevice a small horn button could have rolled.
"Supposing they find the button," Leda said at last, "I don't see that it's going to harm you, unless they find the glove."
They looked at the glove. The fat man glanced at the fire, but Leda shook her head.
"Give it to me," she insisted, placing it in her bag.
"What are you going to do with it?" Gentleman Bill demanded.
"What do you think I'm going to do with it, you fool?" she retorted. "I'm going to sew a button on."
The strain seemed somehow to be broken. The fat man tittered with laughter. So did the others. There was a knock at the door. The laughter ceased suddenly. Leda relit her cigarette, and put on another record. Gentleman Bill called out "Come in!" just as a key turned in the lock and an attendant entered. He carried in his hand a menu and an evening paper.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he said, bowing. "I thought you'd like the news. Most terrible outrage ever been known in London. A bank robbery of pretty near half a million in your American money, and seven men killed!"
The man handed over the paper. They spread it upon the table, and read the few lines.
"Well, that certainly is some cleanup," the fat man commented. "No arrests yet?"
"Apparently not, sir," the man replied.
"They'll get 'em all right," Gentleman Bill declared. "You can't make a haul like that in England. It's only in the States the crooks have got the upper hand. Who's dining here?"
"I'm not," Leda announced coolly. Gentleman Bill lowered the menu.
"Who says you're not?" he demanded.
"I do," she answered. "I'm going out."
The waiter stood respectfully mute. Gentleman Bill handed back the menu.
"Keep our usual table for four at eight o'clock," he ordered. "We'll eat in the grill-room. Better make it five. The young lady may change her mind. And send up some cocktails. We'll order dinner when we get down."
The waiter bowed and disappeared. Gentleman Bill looked across at Leda. Ed looked at her, too. The fat man scowled at her.
"So you're leaving us?" the former remarked, in a subtly menacing tone.
"I am," she replied, "and what's more there isn't one of you going to stop me. You all go out and pick up your girls and take 'em to dinner when you want to. Why shouldn't I? If I see a chap I fancy, I'm going to dine with him."
She was across the threshold before they could stop her. They heard the outside door slam, heard the lift gate open and shut.
Gentleman Bill began to swear.
The fat man was shaking again.
"And she's got the glove," he muttered.
With a perversity which he would have scorned as a purely feminine feeling, Slane was conscious of something very near disappointment when a quarter past eight arrived, and there was still no sign of Leda. Eventually, Parkins made his discreet appearance.
"Shall I serve dinner, sir?" he inquired. Slane nodded, mixed himself a cocktail, lit a cigarette, and sat down alone. He found himself wondering how the girl would have looked in that vacant place. There was something about her which possessed a distinct if somewhat savage attraction. He gave a little start of anticipation when towards the middle of the meal there was the sound of a car brought to a sudden standstill outside. The door bell rang. A moment later. Parkins was ushering in—Stimpson. The latter's first glance was at the empty place.
"Were you expecting someone. Sir Jasper?" he asked.
"It wasn't a definite engagement. A wild young lady from Chicago had invited herself. Why, what's wrong?"
There was a very sober expression in Stimpson's blue eyes. He shook his head.
"Bad luck," he murmured, "Her days of dining out are over."
"They've got her then—her own gang?" Slane exclaimed.
"I'm afraid so. Do you mind—?"
He went to the sideboard, and helped himself to wine.
"Heard about this Lambeth affair?" he inquired.
Slane shook his head.
"My evening paper hasn't come."
"The worst bank outrage ever known in London," Stimpson went on. "Six clerks and the cashier killed, stone dead. They got in somehow after hours, and shot everyone in the place. That's the American way, you know—no one left to give evidence. Then they cleared off with about ninety thousand pounds in treasury and bank notes, and every negotiable bond in the safe."
"Hideous!" Slane declared. "But tell me about the girl—"
"I'm here because of that. She took a taxicab from the Gigantic Hotel, and all the driver can remember is that she told him to go to St. James Avenue, Hampstead. Halfway there, he fancied he heard a groan. He looked in. She was quite dead—bullet through her head—shot through the window. They were evidently afraid she was coming to squeal. Blast them!"
The distress in Slane's face was a very real thing.
"I wish I'd never encouraged her," he regretted bitterly.
"There was another reason," Stimpson continued. "We found her handbag opened, the contents strewn upon the floor. They were evidently looking for something. After that we had to search her. No luck, though!"
"What did you expect to find?" Slane asked.
"It's a slim sort of clue, of course," Stimpson admitted, "but there was a glove button picked up just in front of the safe. We'd like to find the glove it came from. . . . You'll forgive me, Sir Jasper. This is the biggest thing that's come to me for years."
He rang up the Yard, and spoke rapidly. Then he held out his glass, which Slane refilled.
"You'd better come away from this room with that empty place," he advised. "It'll give you the creeps. I can't promise you'll be in at the taking. It's Pulsen's affair more than mine, but we're going for them."
It was almost midnight when Slane, who had been listening for the telephone, heard instead the outside bell. Parkins, who was still up, answered it.
"A taxicab driver wishes to speak to you, sir," he announced.
"Show him in," Slane ordered quickly. A very respectable- looking but worried man in leather coat and breeches was ushered in. He touched his hat, and waited until Parkins had disappeared.
"I am the chauffeur, sir," he said, "who was driving the young lady."
He broke down for a moment, and looked away.
"Take your time," Slane begged. "Here, have a whisky-and- soda."
The man accepted it gratefully.
"Two hours I was at the police station, sir," he continued, "and, 'pon my word, you'd think I'd done the young lady a harm myself the way they questioned me. I couldn't help it that anyone got on the running board without my hearing them. Anyway, I'm keeping my word to the poor young lady."
He felt in the breast pocket of his coat.
"She seemed kind of scared, sir, when she started," he confided. "When we had gone a little way, she stopped me and made me get down. She shoved this into my hand. 'Listen,' she said, 'if anything happens to me on the way up—I don't suppose it will—take this to the gentleman at Number 14 St. James Avenue. He'll understand.'"
The man handed across a glove, buttonless, with a half sheet of notepaper stuck inside the palm. Slane drew out the paper. He took it to the electric light. It was written clearly but in a thin, spidery hand:
"I am coming to you because I like you, and not because I mean to squeal, but the gang have got it in for me, and there's no telling what they'll do. If anything happens, here's the glove Gentleman Bill wore home this afternoon, and you'll find the whole lot at 89 Hotel Gigantic. They are established there selling the Peerless phonograph and records. Don't you go near them yourself. They're killers, every one of them. I hope I'll tear this up over our cocktails."
There was a mist dimming Slane's eyes as he finished reading. He folded the note up reverently.
He took a couple of five-pound notes from his pocket, and passed them over.
"I only done what the young lady asked me, sir," the man said.
"You've done a great deal more than you can guess at for the moment," Slane assured him, as he showed him out. . . .
Afterwards Slane glanced at his watch, and rang up Scotland Yard.
"Put me through to Mr. Stimpson," he directed. "He will be in his room all night. . . . Good! . . . That you, Stimpson? . . . Listen! I've got all you want. Will you come to me, or do you want me to bring it down?"
"I'm coming to you like a flash," was the terse reply.
A CURIOUS atmosphere prevailed in the big sitting-room at the top of the Gigantic Hotel. The fat man sat hunched in his easy-chair, the epitome of despair. Gentleman Bill, in carefully chosen evening attire, lounged on a couch, going through the evening papers one by one. The third man was writing letters.
"You shouldn't have done that," the fat man groaned. "Bill, you shouldn't have done that. The girl was all right. She was on the square."
Gentleman Bill looked up from his paper.
"Was she?" he rejoined coolly. "She was on her way up to Hampstead, to dine with her fancy man, and who do you think he was. Fatty? I'll tell you. He was a man named Slane—Jasper Slane, with a handle to his name—a bull. On to us. Fatty!"
"She didn't have the glove," the fat man whimpered. "She didn't mean any harm."
Gentleman Bill strolled languidly to the sideboard, opened a bottle of champagne, and poured out half a tumblerful. He was just crossing the room with it when they heard footsteps outside.
"What's that?" Fatty cried.
"Don't be a fool," the latter snarled across the room. "I ordered some supper."
The doors were opened. Two waiters appeared, trundling in a table. For a moment the fat man forgot his troubles.
"Caviar!" he exclaimed. "Good! Say, there are times when you hit the spot, Ed. A little supper was what we all wanted."
The fat man helped himself to caviar. Halfway up to his mouth the piece of toast dropped. He began to shake.
"You shouldn't have done that, Bill," he moaned. "I was kind of fond of her."
The man with the gray face and bulbous eyes leaned across the table.
"Fatty," he said quietly, "I have known men—real men—brought to harm by blubbering, whining chunks of flesh such as you. Bill and I ain't going to run that risk. Do you get me?"
It was a tense, very psychological moment. Apparently all three men were feeling the same about their former chief. They were all leaning towards him, absorbed. The time had come when they had to put the fear of God into Fatty's blood and heart, or trouble might come. And they meant to do it. Upon the door which connected the other rooms, Fatty's eyes seemed set in a horrible stare. His cheeks had fallen more than ever. A streak of red crept through the unwholesome white.
Then they knew. It was one of the moments of their lives when they were caught unawares. The room seemed filled with dark- clothed men. Wherever they looked the lamplight seemed to flash upon the glitter of those leveled guns. Scotland Yard was learning things. Stimpson hadn't brought his men to be shot down like useless beings.
The order came from four corners of the room simultaneously. Curiously enough, the only man who disobeyed was Fatty himself, simply because his brain refused to move. He collapsed in his chair with a bullet in his shoulder blade, only a second or two before the handcuff's clicked upon the wrists of his three companions. His head flopped from side to side in helpless fashion.
"Ed shouldn't have done that," he groaned, just as he was losing consciousness.
JASPER SLANE lowered his Times as his fellow-passenger addressed him. He had no wish to seem lacking in courtesy, but he had all the Englishman's desire to read his newspaper at the earliest possible moment of the day, and without interruption.
"A beautiful country of yours," the stranger remarked, waving his hand patronizingly out of the window. "I like it very much."
Slane murmured his gratification, and prepared to settle down again to the reading of a spirited debate in the House of Commons. His vis-à-vis in the carriage, however, had other ideas.
"What I like so much about England is this," he continued earnestly. "Wherever one travels there are so many like you who go about making games and sport."
Slane was in golfing attire , having played that morning at Rye, and being now on his way back to town. He laid down his newspaper. If the man was a foreigner, he must not be given a wrong impression of an Englishman's manners . There was something a little intriguing, too, in the melancholy-eyed, olive-skinned young man with his close-cropped black military mustache, his air of a somewhat faded elegance.
"We don't find quite so much time for sport as we used to," Slane confided. "Life moves on a little faster nowadays. I have been down at Rye for a weekend's golf."
"Golf," the young man repeated. "I have not golf. I ride the horse most days. You find I speak English good, yes? I was educated at your Oxford."
"You speak very well," Slane assured him hastily. "Much better, I am quite sure, than I could speak your language."
"Mine is difficult," the young man acknowledged, with a little sigh of self-satisfaction.
"I learn languages very much. It is necessary for me."
"You travel a great deal?"
"I must travel," was the somewhat disconsolate reply. "I am what you call an exile."
"Bad luck!" Slane murmured. "What is your nationality?"
The young man sighed, but he seemed not to hear the question. He was gazing at the rows of neat villas, at the tall factory chimneys on the outskirts of the town through which they were passing.
"So much money there is in your country!" he murmured. "So little in mine."
"You should go to America if you want to see what prosperity's really like," Slane suggested.
"It is a long way from home," the young man reflected, "and they tell me that it is a country of strange customs. But I'd like to go there some day."
He produced a gold cigarette case from his pocket, upon which was embossed what appeared to be a foreign coronet, and passed it to his neighbor, who shook his head as he was already smoking his pipe. Whereupon the young man lit a cigarette himself, and sighed once more. He was apparently in a melancholy frame of mind.
"What is your country?" Slane asked.
The foreigner looked at him for a moment a little vaguely. Then he blew away a cloud of tobacco smoke, and shook his head.
"I am here what you call incognito," he confided. "It is best that I do not speak of my country. She has misfortunes. Tell me, are you, by any chance, a friend of your Prime Minister?"
"I certainly am not," Slane declared. "I am afraid my political acquaintances are few and far between."
"That is a pity," the other regretted. "I should like to meet your Prime Minister. I should like to meet him just as I meet you—in this carriage. If I should succeed in interesting him, he might talk. Shall I tell you about your politicians?"
"Go ahead," Slane invited.
"They know nothing," the young man continued, awaking to a certain show of energy, "except what they read in the newspapers. They are governed by newspapers. The man who owns a newspaper is a ruler. The man who owns half-a-dozen newspapers is an emperor. England is ruled by newspapers. That is why I fear it would be no use after all if I did meet your Prime Minister. It would be better for me to meet one of your great newspaper owners, except that I know so well beforehand what he would do. He would pull me to pieces. He would pull my country to pieces. He would pull our government to pieces. There would be—is that good?—hell and thunder to pay."
"They aren't all so bad as that," Slane protested good- humoredly. "Our newspaper men have to be men of brains."
"But your politicians are nincompoops," the other declared in some excitement. "The press sets them up; the press throws them down. They last just as long as the newspaper which supports them decrees. That is what I find out. I come to your country, and I find that out."
"Do you take an interest in the politics of your own country when you are at home?" Slane asked.
"An interest? In my own country I am nothing what count. I talk too much. It is a fault when I get a little excited. Forget what I have said, sir. You English are wonderful. You fill the position to which Germany aspired. You dominate Europe."
He relapsed into silence, and Slane picked up the Times again. At Waterloo Station the latter was not quite sure whether he would not find on the platform the uniformed attendants of some country lunatic asylum waiting for his fellow traveler. In their place, however, a personable young man, wearing a college tie, hurried to the carriage door, welcomed his companion respectfully, and led him away toward a waiting motor car. Slane would probably have forgotten the incident of this strange foreigner altogether but for the fact that, on arriving at his house, his servant placed in his hands an official-looking document which had just arrived from the Foreign Office.
"Sir John rang up himself a few minutes ago, Sir Jasper," the man confided. "He wants to see you the moment you arrive."
Slane broke the seal upon the envelope, and glanced through the few written lines, which were merely a confirmation of the telephone message. He picked up his hat, stepped back into the car, and was driven to Whitehall.
"I came just as I was," he apologized, as he was shown into Sir John's private room.
"Quite right, my dear fellow," the other greeted him. "I wanted just a word or two with you quickly. Just home from a golfing week-end, eh?"
"I've been down at Rye. Wonderful course, but rotten weather until this morning."
Sir John pushed a box of cigarettes across the table.
"I sent for you," the Minister began, "because I believe that you could help us in a little matter concerning which we are in some difficulty. There's a man over in this country from Selm—Prince Francis, as a matter of fact, the King's brother—and we very badly want to know what he's here for."
"Surely your people in X.Y O. Department could find out all they want to know about him?" Slane queried.
"Naturally they could," the other agreed. "So could Scotland Yard. On the other hand, the young man has announced his mission here to be entirely non-political, and he is, I believe, traveling incognito. That being so, we should get into a hell of a mess if it were ever found out that we were officially concerned in prying into his doings here. I want to pry into them all the same, but I want you to do it."
"You've come to the right man," Slane observed. "I've just traveled up from Rye with him."
Sir John raised his eyebrows.
"Do you mean that?" he asked incredulously.
"Well, I traveled up with a distinguished foreigner," Slane recounted, "who told me that he had been educated at Oxford, and refused to tell me his nationality because he was traveling incognito."
The Minister stretched out his hand toward his writing table, reached for a photograph, and passed it to his visitor. The latter nodded.
"That's the fellow," he assented. "Left him at Waterloo half- an-hour ago."
"Didn't give you any excuse for looking him up or anything of that sort, I suppose?"
"Not the slightest. On the contrary he was very civil to start with, but scarcely said good afternoon when we parted. Temperamental sort of chap, I should think."
"He's supposed to be the only one of the royal family with any brains," Sir John confided. "We're in a queer sort of position with regard to Selm, Slane. God knows why, but we floated their last loan, and we're practically their only creditors. They're behindhand with their interest already, and if we have to put the screw on there'll be hell to pay for the simple reason that a country with whom it would be impossible for us to quarrel has secretly and for some unknown reason been acquiring powerful interests there. I've already sent a polite note to Prince Francis—Count Pratzo, he calls himself here—saying that although I have every desire to respect his incognito I should be glad to have an informal chat with him if he would call. His reply was civil but definite. He was here, he said, on business which precluded his discussing the affairs of his country. I want to know what that business is."
"I see," Slane murmured. "I can use M.I.X.O. Branch, I suppose, for anything I want?"
"Unofficially, certainly," Sir John assented. "Do your best, Slane, and let me hear from you as soon as possible."
SLANE, after three or four singularly unsuccessful days, during which every effort he had made to get into more intimate touch with the mysterious visitor from Selm had met with complete failure, had a stroke of luck. He met Louise Drasdaire in Bond Street, found himself promptly recognized, and invited her to dine with him that night. She accepted after only a slight hesitation.
"I come over here," she confided, "to be with a fellow countryman, who pretends to be very fond of me, but who will go nowhere because he doesn't wish to be seen. I think he comes to make some mischief. We will dine somewhere where he is not likely to be. I am tired of those small places in Soho, and hotel rooms. . . . Ciro's? Yes. I have never heard him speak of Ciro's. At nine o'clock."
So Slane, who had a man in hospital, quite properly thrown out by the servants of Prince Francis, during an uninvited visit to his study, and who was finding it exceedingly difficult to learn much of the doings of a young man who seldom left the sitting- room of the hotel where he was staying, discovered himself at last in touch with someone who could, if she would, tell him something about the activities of this elusive personage. She happened, however, to be an old flame, and showed a distinct preference for talking of more personal things. Slane was feeling a little in despair as the evening passed on without any result.
"Why are you so interested in this Prince Francis?" she asked, after one of his seemingly casual inquiries. "He is, I assure you, a very dull young man. He has no money either—unless these Russian friends decide to help him."
"To help him in what?" Slane inquired carelessly.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Who can tell? Something to do with his country. He hopes that they will help to place him once more upon the throne of Selm, I think."
"But what on earth does he want to be back on the throne for?" Slane demanded. "It's a miserable, half-starved country."
"Écoutez, mon ami," she confided, holding his arm, "this you must not tell. Perhaps, if I knew more, I should not tell you anything—but there is something in Selm that is precious, something in which the Russians might participate if they got. Francis back. And now, ask me no more. You are a nice man. I like you very much, but I do not like to tell stories about my friends. I give Francis up when you will, but we will talk no more about him. I do not know why I came to England with him. He is so jealous one has no liberty, and these visits to the shops, always they are coming, but they do not arrive. I tell him that I shall go away with his Russian friend who loves me. Oh, la, la!"
It certainly was "la, la!" Prince Francis, with one of his Russian companions, had paused in front of their table. The Prince was very angry, and a little drunk. He addressed Mademoiselle in fluent and abusive French.
Slane he at first ignored, then, suddenly recognizing him, he completely forgot Mademoiselle.
"It was you, you spy, who traveled with me to London!" he exclaimed. "It is your men whom my servants find always about the place. Soon now you try to learn about me from Mademoiselle, eh? You are a cochon!"
Slane easily parried the Prince's ill-directed blow, and held him at arm's length. The young man was infuriated though, and as Slane rose to his feet, he kicked him on the shins. That, for the next quarter of an hour, was the end of the Prince, who was sent hurtling into the middle of the floor by a straight left-hander. There was commotion, a great deal of talk, and explanations, and finally, the evening being a purposeless one so far as he was concerned, Slane consented to leave. Mademoiselle, offered her choice, very much to Slane's relief, elected to remain.
AT Hampstead he found at last the report, the obtaining of which had cost him so much trouble. He rang up Sir John, whom he was fortunate enough to find at the St. James Club.
"I'm on the trail," Slane confided. "I'm off to Selm tomorrow."
"The devil you are!" the Minister rejoined. "What on earth is there to be done there?"
"More than here anyway," Slane assured him. "I shan't be able to go within a mile of the Prince again. I was giving his lady friend dinner at Ciro's tonight when he came in and made a scene. After that, I'm not a damned bit of use here, but I think I may be in Selm. I'm catching the eleven o'clock train. I want a large sum of money, or a credit will do, a diplomatic passport, and an X.Y.O. cipher."
"Can't you be a little more explicit?" Sir John begged.
"I'd rather not," Slane admitted frankly. "I'm working on an idea. If I'm right, I think I'll be able to save you a great deal of trouble; if I'm wrong, I'm unofficial, and I shan't do any harm. Could we leave it at that?"
The Minister hesitated, but only for a moment.
"Very good, Slane. Have it your own way," he decided. "There's just one thing, though. When you get to Selm, you must go straight to the Embassy. Houlden's not a bad fellow, though he's a trifle out of date. And remember, Charles is the man we want to back. He's a fool, but he's honest. Francis, as we happen to know, was philandering with a Turkish envoy before these people from Leningrad sent for him."
"Right-o!" Slane replied. "From the little I have seen of Francis, I should say you were right."
SO, at eleven o'clock on the following morning Slane steamed out of Victoria Station upon what was for him rather a novel form of adventure.
Exactly nine days later, a mud-caked, dusty, disheveled- looking figure, unshaven, with torn clothes, and unmentionable linen, limped out of a broken-down touring car in front of the English Embassy at Pratza, the capital of Selm, and was scornfully directed by a footman, who answered the door, to the office quarters. Robinson, the First Secretary, however, who was crossing the hall, had an inspiration. He came forward gasping.
"It can't be—is this Sir Jasper Slane?" he asked.
"What's left of me," Slane admitted weakly. "Can I sit on a chair I shan't spoil, and have a double whisky-and-soda?"
Slane knew a few moments of supreme luxury. A whisky-and-soda arrived as though by magic. The supercilious footman kneeled upon the floor and cut away his boots. He was led to a lavatory and plunged his hands and arms and face into hot water. His collar dropped away from him. His clothes followed. They brought him a warm, long dressing gown, took him back to Robinson's room, and refilled his glass. Sir Robert was there by that time.
"My dear Slane!" he exclaimed. "I am Houlden, you know. They sent me a long dispatch about you. Where on earth have you been?"
Slane was feeling like a man again.
"I tackled this job my own way, Sir Robert," he confessed. "I may have been wrong. I may have been right. I had a hint about the western frontier, and I didn't try it. I came in from the north, bought a car and hired a man who understood a little French, and I have come through the districts I wanted to visit. Everything turned out just about as I expected. What we want to arrange now, as soon as ever I can get some clothes, is an audience."
"We can have that any time you like," Sir Robert assured him. "Your clothes are all here. They telephoned me from the station that they were holding the trunk, so I sent for it at once."
"You were quite right about the possibility of trouble at the western frontier. Sir Jasper," Robinson confided. "One of the only first-class passengers, on the day you should have arrived, was shot there by a soldier on guard. They swore it was an accident, but no one believed them. Since then, there's been an extra passport examination every day, and the trains have never been less than an hour late."
"Whatever your mission here may be," Sir Robert observed, "it doesn't seem to have made you popular with the military party."
"I've discovered that for myself," Slane acknowledged. "I'm afraid I had to shoot a man coming through the Bunja Pass—one if not two. They pretended to be bandits, but I'm pretty sure that they were soldiers of a sort."
"I shouldn't be surprised," Sir Robert reflected. "Ferastor—he is the head of the military party here—is a thoroughly unscrupulous fellow—kill you as soon as look at you if he wanted you out of the way. Come along, Slane, and I'll show you your room. After dinner, we'll have a talk, and Robinson shall arrange for the audience."
AT a little before the appointed hour he descended into the drawing-room. There he received his first shock, for, as the stately major-domo announced him, the only visible occupant of the room—a woman both expectant and impatient—rose to her feet. Slane stood rooted to the spot.
"Louise!" he exclaimed.
She patted the seat by her side on the divan. With a little gesture of the hand she waved away the servants. The room was curiously shaped. The recess in which they sat was deserted. From the main portion came the sound of voices. To all intents and purposes, however, they were alone.
"What are you doing here?" Slane demanded.
"And what are you?" she flashed out. "I knew you were lying at Ciro's the other night. That is why I followed you. It is a pity you did not stay on the Orient express."
"On the whole," he murmured, "I think I am just as well pleased that I didn't."
She swallowed what seemed to be a torrent of words, and struggled for composure.
"What has Francis done to you?" she demanded. "Are you here to bolster up this poor effigy of royalty? What have you to do with all this business? Everything was arranged—everything was well arranged—and then you come! Where have you been since you arrived in Selm?"
"Does a man," Slane asked, "make a confidant of his enemy?"
"I do not wish to be your enemy," she declared. "I wish to be your friend—anything you would have me be—but I want to be Queen of Selm."
A servant appeared hesitatingly in the background. Slane, welcoming the interruption, rose promptly to his feet.
"You make me forget my manners," he confided. "I must pay my respects to my hostess."
Again Louise made an effort to control herself. She rose to her feet and passed by his side into the more important part of the salon. Lady Houlden—a rather tired, fair-haired lady, who did her duty by her husband but preferred Paris to Selm—welcomed him in lukewarm fashion. There were no other guests except Robinson.
Dinner was rather an impressive meal. Notwithstanding its somewhat cellar-like appearance, the dining-room of the old palace possessed a certain air of magnificence, and, after his four days of absolute privation, Slane thoroughly enjoyed his return to civilization. All the time, however, there remained the problem of Louise. Her eyes seldom left his face. When her hostess rose, she paused by his chair and laid her hand for a moment upon his shoulder.
"Will you talk to me for five minutes, please, Sir Jasper, before you go to the palace tomorrow?"
"I am a little afraid of you," he confessed, stooping down and looking into her eyes.
She laughed softly.
"Then there is the spice for our conversation," she whispered, "for you are not a man to avoid danger. I shall wait for you in the salon, and you will come." . . .
An orderly made his appearance with the newspapers of two days before. Sir Robert rose to his feet, and snatched at them.
"Go and flirt with Mademoiselle Drasdaire," he enjoined. "I know she's waiting for you. Afterward come to my room, and we'll talk seriously, if there is anything serious to be said."
"Is Mademoiselle Drasdaire a very old friend of the house?" Slane asked, as they passed along the stone corridor.
"I think my wife has known her for some time," Sir Robert answered, a little wearily. "She comes, as I suppose you know, of one of the oldest families here, although, like everyone else, they have nothing but barren land to live on."
"She interests herself in the politics of the country?"
"There are no politics worth thinking of," was the somewhat bored reply. "The only question is whether Charles or Francis has the better right to the throne. Charles is in possession, so we back him. The other man's been lying low, but if ever he could raise enough money to pay the army, there's no doubt that he could walk back. Really I don't think at Downing Street they care much about it either way. All we want is our debt paid, without embroiling ourselves with any other creditor countries. Come into the library when you have finished."
Louise, after all, seemed to have very little battle left in her. She was seated alone in the salon when Slane entered, and she motioned him to her side with a gesture of almost mechanical courtesy.
"The others will be here in a few minutes," she said. "They have gone into the small room to listen to the wireless. Sit down, Jasper, please. I shall not trouble you much more."
"You never trouble me," he assured her.
"Let us speak plain words to each other," she begged. "Once when I knew you, you were a man. Now you seem to have turned into a machine. I weary myself with appeals to your kindness, to your heart. With that we have finished. You have made up your mind to back Charles, yes?"
"I am a machine," he reminded her, "because, in certain matters, I am a servant. You see how frank I am willing to be with you. I am, at the present moment, a government agent. That means that I have neither will nor initiative of my own. Any question I can answer, any help I could give to you which does not interfere with my mission, is yours. Otherwise, I am, as you would be, dumb."
"Very well," she sighed. "Have you cabled to England yet?"
"Not yet," he answered. "My report is written though—and under lock and key," he added dryly.
"Eh bien, there is still time then," she exclaimed more hopefully. "Supposing, Jasper, that Francis could guarantee the payment of your interest, on the bonds of the English loan, would that induce you to delay the sending of your report for a few days?"
"Not for an hour," he replied firmly.
"You have no kindness, you have no heart!" she declared passionately.
"What has heart to do with it?" he rejoined. "I am out here with a commission from my government. I must fulfill it, apart from any personal feeling I might have."
"You would talk like this if you were in love with me?" she demanded.
"With more regret, perhaps," he acknowledged, "but to the same effect."
They heard the wireless in the next room brought suddenly to a close. Louise rose to her feet. The color seemed to be drained from her cheeks.
"You are a hard man, Jasper," she complained bitterly. . ..
That night Slane slept with his door locked and bolted, and his seldom-used revolver by his side. Once, during the hours of darkness, he leaned forward in his bed, his candlestick in his hand, watching the door handle turn in vain. For the rest of the night he slept.
SELM, according to a certain section of the English press, was a moribund and a decadent country. Nevertheless, there is something impressive always about an ancient kingdom in which the machinery of State is still alive. It was scarcely an audience to which Slane was admitted in the great reception room of the palace; it was almost a council.
The King, even in his brilliant uniform an unassuming and delicate figure, sat at the end of the oval table. On his right sat General Ferastor; on his left, his Chief of Staff; opposite. Prince Radwig, the Prime Minister. Sir Robert and Slane were offered high-backed chairs of great size a little removed from the table. The King, who had shaken hands warmly with Slane upon his presentation, opened the proceedings by introducing him to the others. The Prime Minister welcomed him in colorless fashion, but with a reasonable show of cordiality. The General and his Chief of Staff, on the other hand, were barely civil.
"Sir Jasper Slane," the King explained to his councillors, "is a special envoy from the Foreign Office in London, and arrived here to act in conjunction with our friend Sir Robert. He has, I believe, something to say to us."
Slane rose to his feet, and approached the table.
"Your Majesty," he began, "I can tell you all I have to say in very few words. A little more than a week ago, I was sent for by a high official in our Foreign Office, and, as an ex-member of its Intelligence Department, I was asked to investigate the presence in London, together with a small party of Russian financiers, of Prince Francis of Selm, Your Majesty's brother, and, I understand, the pretender to the throne."
Ferastor moved uneasily in his place.
"The question of succession?"
The King held out his hand.
"It is our wish," he said, "that Jasper is not interrupted."
"I came to the conclusion," Slane went on, "that Prince Francis, in collaboration with General Ferastor, and with the aid of a large grant of money from his foreign friends, was engaged in a plot to force Your Majesty to abdicate, and to obtain for himself the throne of Selm. I asked myself, naturally, what inducement he had been able to offer his associates to engage their aid, and I was sent here to find out. I entered your kingdom. Sir, from the north, and I have come through the regions of Kull and Terbesch."
"There was supposed to be oil there," the Prime Minister remarked. "Some Russians came and spent a fortune searching for it. They broke up their machinery, and went away in disgust."
"They did nothing of the sort," Slane replied coolly. "To use an American term, they bluffed. They hid their machinery, which is in perfectly good condition, and I have no doubt they have plenty more on the way. There is oil enough in the district to pay your debts—the debts of the country, I mean—ten times over."
"It is impossible!" the Prime Minister gasped.
"It is true," Jasper Slane reiterated, returning to his chair.
Sir Robert took his place.
"Your Majesty," he said, "our special envoy has explained his share in this business, and I shall now proceed to address you according to instructions received this morning from England. You are seriously in debt to my country, and the matter is one which has almost led to strained diplomatic relations. I make you this offer: Sign me an option upon these oil-producing lands according to the map which I shall, in due course, present to you. I am instructed by my government to tell you that according to the terms of the treaty, which, in anticipation of your reply, is now being drawn up, we shall exact from you simply the amount of your debt, the arrears of interest, and nothing more. The rest can go to your revenue, and, furthermore, my country will be willing to extend a payment of your debt until the oil wells are. sunk, and everything is in order. The capital to run them will naturally be provided by us, and we will also advance the money owing to your Army and Ministers."
"What!" the General exclaimed, springing to his feet.
"What did you say?" the Chief of Staff demanded eagerly.
"My government is prepared to advance everything necessary to pay the debts owing to the officers of the State and Army, and to put your public services in proper shape, on the security of the options I shall ask for," Sir Robert declared. "Your Majesty, I beg you now for your earnest attention. Prince Francis is already on his way here. He is expecting the help of the Army, which he is proposing to bribe with the money produced from either selling outright or giving an absolute option upon these oil lands to a dangerous nation. Your Majesty, will you put it to General Ferastor, will you put it to his Chief of Staff, will you put it to your Prime Minister, with whom do they throw in their lot?"
There was a crash of fists upon the table. The General twirled his mustache fiercely.
"If Prince Francis crosses the frontier," he threatened, "he will cross it to find himself a prisoner."
The Chief of Staff was equally bombastic.
"The honor of the Army," he declared, wondering how long it would take him to telephone to the frontier—"is unswervingly pledged to Your Majesty's support."
That was the real end of Jasper Slane's mission to Selm, although technically it concluded a month later when the Gazette announced that His Majesty the King had given permission to Sir Jasper Slane, Bart., to accept from the King of Selm the Order of the Golden Cross of that country, for important services rendered.
SLANE, for once in his life, was conscious of a slight breach of good manners as, from the windows of his comfortable sitting-room, he stared at his approaching visitors.
They had arrived in an antiquated vehicle. The leader of the little party of three was an elderly lady, stiff and upright as a dart, who wore a high turban-hat of black velvet, a sweeping veil, a black mantilla, and a black skirt with a suggestion of the hoop.
The lady following her was apparently of about the same age, and was dressed in precisely the same fashion.
Last came a girl between eighteen and twenty, dressed with extreme simplicity, also in black, but in some accordance with modern fashions.
In a moment Parkins appeared, and announced:
"The Ladies' Henrietta and Susannah St. Mallory, and Miss St. Mallory."
Slane bowed, and indicated chairs. The two elder ladies seated themselves. The girl roamed about.
The lady who had first entered opened the conversation:
"You have doubtless heard of our projected visit from Mr. Codrington. He promised to write yesterday."
"As a matter of fact, I have not," Slane confessed. "The afternoon post is on the table. I was just about to open my letters."
He turned over the envelopes; on the back of one was the name of a firm of solicitors of which Mr. Codrington was the senior partner.
He read the few lines hastily:
My Dear Slane,
Whether you will ever forgive me or not, I do not know. Perhaps, if your sense of humor is strong enough, you will even bless my name. The fact remains that I have sent you a couple of clients. What they want I do not know. They refused to confide in me.
They have come up to London from Somersetshire to find, as they term it, a respectable detective unconnected with the police—such a one as they have been reading about lately in the magazines. I gave them your name. As I have said before, I have no idea of the nature of their business, but for the rest, notwithstanding their amazing habits, prejudices, and, I fear I must add, appearance, you can accept them as they themselves desire to be known, as ladies belonging to a great though declining family, daughters of the late Earl of St. Mallory, who once owned half the county in which they live. They are in comparatively reduced circumstances nowadays, but they are able to pay for anything they want. They have been clients of my firm, and the family before them of my predecessors, for many years.
All the same, they refuse to tell me what they want.
P.S.—I hope they arrive in the barouche!
Slane folded up the letter. He caught the girl's covert gaze as he did so, and surprised in the blue depths of her eyes the light of an incipient hostility.
"The letter," Jasper Slane said, "tells me that you are in some difficulty."
"A grave and serious difficulty," Lady Henrietta acknowledged precisely.
"If my advice is of any service to you, ladies," Slane continued. "I shall, of course, be delighted to give it. Perhaps you had better tell me about it."
The girl moved a few steps across the room and flung herself into an easy chair.
"The"whole business," Lady Henrietta declared, "can scarcely be explained here. Our trouble is connected with the Golden Bird of Mallory."
"I am sorry," Slane said. "I am afraid I don't quite understand."
"Perhaps," the girl suggested, "Sir Jasper Slane will say he never heard of the Golden Bird of Mallory?"
"The young lady is right," Slane admitted.
Lady Henrietta looked at him fixedly.
Lady Susannah frankly opened her mouth in incredulous astonishment. The girl laughed.
"Of course, I am terribly sorry," Slane apologised, "but my, knowledge of golden birds is limited to plovers."
"You are not an antiquarian, Sir Jasper?"
"Lady Henrietta," Slane said, "I can only repeat that I never heard of the Golden Bird of Mallory."
"In your profession, Sir Jasper," Lady Henrietta said tolerantly, "you have probably found little time for what in my younger days we used to call the arts and graces of life. The Golden Bird of Mallory is one of the most famous and priceless heirlooms remaining among the ancient families of Great Britain. There are a dozen books in the British Museum which would afford you full particulars of it. Any history of the County of Somerset would do the same. A collection of seventeenth-century volumes concerning it, which we possess at Mallory, is greatly prized."
"Now I think of the matter from the light of an heirloom, I believe my memory is astir. Didn't one of your family in the days of Queen Anne—?"
"King James," Lady Henrietta corrected.
"Tell me about it yourself, Lady Henrietta," Slane begged.
"I will do so," she said, "in as few words as possible. Many volumes have been written concerning the Golden Bird of Mallory. Seven Of the most famous horologists in Switzerland gave their lives to it, and our great-great-great-grandfather dissipated a large share of the family fortunes upon its production.
"The Golden Bird was fashioned in Florence by a worker of metals who claimed to be a direct descendant of Cellini. It was discovered by the third Earl of St. Mallory when he was travelling through Italy on a special errand from the King to the Pope. The grains of madness may have been in his brain before then. One only knows that he hurried over his mission, hastened back to Epgland, raised a large sum of money from his estates, and, returning to Sienna, bought the Golden Bird.
"Before his journey to Italy," Lady Henrietta continued, "this forefather of ours was a beau-about-town and a gambler. From the moment he possessed that bird he was a changed man. London knew him no more. Complaints of his absence came from the court. He took no notice. We cannot disbelieve the written evidence of those days, Sir Jasper, and I ask you to believe that, morning till night, our forefather did nothing except sit in his study with the bird close to him, gazing at it, wondering at it. If he walked in the gardens he carried it. During the day it was on the table before him; at night it stood by his bedside.
"One day Lord St. Mallory, who had scarcely spoken for three days, suddenly leaped to his feet. 'It must sing,' he declared. They thought then that he was going mad. His wife had departed to the gayer life of London. He was almost alone at Mallory. Three or four times that day he is reported to have repeated that one phrase—'It must sing.'
"Next day he ordered post-chaises and express relays of horses to Dover. At night he departed with the Golden Bird. He travelled to Switzerland, and sought out there the great horologists of the day. He left England in 1687, a young man of twenty-eight.
"He returned fourteen years later, a prematurely old man of forty-two, only to find his wife long since dead. He found his estates shrunken, his farms and lands neglected, but he brought back with him the Golden Bird of Mallory, and it sang."
"It did what?" Slane inquired.
"It sang," Lady Henrietta repeated. "Acre after acre of the fruitful lands of Mallory had been sold to keep working those eight Swiss workmen. Every minute of their day was given to the one task. There were three or four failures, but in the end they succeeded. The Golden Bird of Mallory sang. That, Sir Jasper, is half the story. The other half you can only hear at Mallory."
Jasper Slane believed at that moment that the madness of the ancestor found some faint recrudescence in these two amazing old ladies.
He looked across at the girl. Her manner was still, merely indifferent. He decided that an absolutely commonplace attitude on his part was necessary.
"And now what has happened? Is the bird lost?" he asked.
He bitterly regretted his words. He felt as if he had been whistling in a cathedral.
Lady Henrietta's lips quivered.
"The Golden Bird remains at Mallory, Sir Jasper Slane," she said quietly, "yet there has arisen a ascertain circumstance upon which we require advice. We desire to engage you for a visit to Mallory. One day, perhaps, or two would be sufficient. We trust that your fee will not be excessive, but whatever it is we are prepared to pay it."
The girl rose to her feet. She had the flair, the discontented insolence, and the fine looks of an intellectual and reckless prowler into the by-ways of life.
"I am not allowed to talk much," she confided, "but I am going to say this on behalf of my brother and myself—and, after all, my brother is head of the family, even though he's a cripple. What I say is that we don't want any strangers down at Mallory. This thing has come to us. It's a family affair. Let's deal with it alone."
The crushing rebuke which Slane had expected did not come. There was a certain firmness in Lady Henrietta's speech, but also something of tolerance.
"My niece is not concerned in this business," she pronounced. "It is true that my nephew is head of the house, but he is not yet of age. I consider myself the custodian of the Mallory fortunes."
"Really," Slane murmured, "I find my position a little embarrassing."
Lady Henrietta reassured him. "My niece is young. Her view is of no account. My sister and I are agreed."
"But cannot you give me an idea," Slane persisted, "of the trouble?"
"The bird shall sing to you upon the evening of your arrival, and you will remember it until your dying day. We will send to meet you at Mallory station. The train leaves Paddington at twelve o'clock and you change at Taunton. Thursday will be most convenient to us. The fee you will kindly arrange through our solicitor, Mr. Codrington. I think that concludes our business."
"But I am not sure—" Slane began.
"It is very kind of you, but I am busy just now."
"I think that you will be so good as to come," Lady Henrietta predicted, as she turned towards the door.
"Well, it's your own trouble," the girl observed sulkily.
With a flash of the eyes and a half-gesture of the lips which puzzled him, she passed from the room.
WHEN, on the following Thursday evening, Slane descended from the train to the tiny platform of the miniature station, in an oasis of buttercup-bespangled meadows, of apple orchards and cows knee-deep in meadow grass, a Ford car, driven by a chauffeur in worn livery, awaited instead of the barouche.
They entered a very beautiful park. Presently the road mounted and wound through a grove of chestnuts, at the end of which was a great mansion bearing, however, many sad evidences of neglect and lack of repair.
Once inside, Slane followed a footman to a huge apartment in which even the great four-poster bed seemed lost.
"Their ladyships will receive you in the drawing-room at half- past seven," he announced. "Dinner is served at a quarter to eight."
Slane dressed himself in leisurely fashion, then descended and strolled for a quarter of an hour round the gardens.
Suddenly he came face to face with the girl. She was obviously as much surprised to see him as he was to meet her.
"So you've come?"
"I—yes, I've come," Slane agreed. "What a wonderful place it is!"
"It's a wonderful place going as fast as it can to rack and ruin," she said sadly. "That's the curse of the Golden Bird, you know. Never mind. I'm glad to see you for a moment alone. I want to tell you that I hate your coming, and for your own sake as well as everyone else's I advise you to take no notice of any offer they may make you."
"You aren't what I call hospitable," he remarked, wondering how it was possible for a girl so badly dressed to be so beautiful.
"I am as you find me," she answered calmly. "I'm not pleased to see you, neither is Jocelyn. This is a family business in which no one has any right to interfere. Shall we go in? My aunts will be expecting you."
"I think that it is very doubtful that I, at any rate, will interfere," Slane assured her, a little nettled. "I didn't come here of my own will; I came at your aunt's earnest request."
"Who cares why you came? You're here, and I wish you weren't, that's all! Come along! I'll show you the way into the drawing- room."
His two hostesses rose to receive him.
"You are very welcome to Mallory, Sir Jasper," Lady Henrietta said.
"Very welcome," Lady Susannah repeated. She was an insistent echo of her sister.
"This is my nephew," Lady Henrietta announced, turning to a youth who sat in an easy-chair with a rubber-tipped stick by his side. "He desires also to welcome you to Mallory."
The young man rose awkwardly to his feet, and shook hands with an obvious ill-grace. He was good-looking, but pale, with hollows under his eyes, suffering either from bad health or dissipation.
"My nephew," Lady Henrietta explained, "lives chiefly in London or Paris."
Dinner was punctually announced, and a ceremonious procession was arranged into the dining-room.
Slane decided afterwards that it was the strangest meal he had ever sat through. The glass of sherry with the soup bore the name of the local grocer, and was undrinkahle. To his amazement, with the joint he was served with claret of almost incredible age, a Château wine, still soft and velvety.
Lady Henrietta smiled at his signs of appreciation.
"Mallory," she remarked, "once had famous cellars. A little of its old wine still remains."
Towards the end of the meal she addressed him just before rising. "Will you escort my sister and myself to the library, where I shall tell you the trouble we are in?" she asked.
Slane rose at once. It was impossible not to hear the beginning of an altercation between the brother and sister, who remained in their places. Lady Henrietta led the way across the hall to another room.
As coffee was being served to them the young man, leaning on his stick, came in with his sister. Lady Henrietta rose to her feet.
"Sir Jasper," she announced, "I shall show you now the Golden Bird of Mallory."
She unlocked a great oaken cabinet, let into the wall, and lifted out the marvellous presentment of a bird and set it on the table. Slane gazed at it in amazement. It was made like a canary, but six times the size, and even to the most ignorant the fashioning of it was a wonderful thing. Its eyes were startlingly real—of some soft brown stone which seemed to reflect strange lights.
He held it up, and set it down with astonishment.
"This is of solid gold," he gasped.
"Now," Lady Henrietta continued, "I shall tell you of the third epoch of my forefather's madness. First of all, he so loved this bird that he spent an enormous sum in its purchase. Then he had produced its miraculous song. Thirdly—where he got the idea from no one knows—but he ruined this house with his third idea. People have searched through records to find some hint from which he might have derived his unhappy thought, but in vain. You shall see for yourself what I can afterwards explain in a few words. First, the bird must sing. Will you please turn your back for a moment?"
Slane looked out into the darkening twilight. A strange note of music crept out into the room. Susannah touched his arm.
Slane listened entranced. It might have been the song of a bird which had sat on the window-sill of one of the great masters, and had been touched with fire. It reached the end of a prelude, and then—Slane exclaimed in amazement.
As the bird sang, there dropped from its throat on to the table upon which it stood a cascade of glittering stones— diamonds, pearls, amethysts, amber, yellow, golden. All the time its song continued, rising sometimes to the sweetest of high notes, falling now and then to a deep, passionate quiver. The bird sang and the jewels flowed for a period of time at which Slane could never even guess; and then came the fading away of the song, the lower notes, the last sad, almost lamenting, cry. The bird was once more inanimate. The tablecloth all round it was strewn with jewels.
"Amazing!" Slane gasped.
"You can realise, now that I have shown you this, the third idea of Henry of Mallory," Lady Henrietta said sadly. "Jewels must fall from its mouth while the Golden Bird sang. He went back to Switzerland. They did it for him somehow or other, and Mallory was stripped bare—pictures, acres, anything that could be turned into money—so that gems should fall from the throat of his plaything."
"But surely the value of these stones must be enormous?"
There was silence. The young man rose to his feet. They heard the stump of his stick on the floor.
"Aunt," he said harshly, "this is a family affair. We want no detectives about the place."
"Until your twenty-first birthday, sir," she reminded him, "I rule here. There are other rooms in the house."
He turned away. His aunt took up a handful of gems and dropped them carelessly into Slane's hand.
"Sir Jasper," she invited, "look at these."
A strange doubt suddenly assailed him. She nodded.
"You are right," she acknowledged. "These jewels are false. Twelve months ago the jewels that poured from the throat of the Golden Bird were worth enough to buy back the estates and raise our family once more to its rightful position. Today they are worth nothing."
There was deep silence in the room. Then they heard the thump of a stick and the opening of a door. Brother arid sister had gone.
"Who else has access to the Bird?" Slane asked.
"No one except the family and the man who unpacked your bag, who has been in our service for forty-two years. We have no visitors. No guest save yourself has slept in this house for twelve months. Sir Jasper Slane, will you help us to find where those jewels have gone?"
"Let me think this over until to-morrow," he begged.
SLANE saw the dawn break as he walked across the park the next morning, and the dews rise from the lower meadows. Lady Henrietta read the note which he had left for her hours after he was seated in the milk train on his way to London:
Dear Lady Henrietta,
Alas, your problem is beyond me. I cannot accept your commission.
With all my regrets.
NEVERTHELESS, by a strange trick of Fate it was Jasper Slane who solved the mystery of the Golden Bird, and brought back to Mallory its former glories.
Entering the Casino a few months later on the first evening of his annual visit to Monte Carlo, Slane received a shock as he passed through the outer rooms, which for the moment made him feel physically sick. He steadied himself by the back of a croupier's chair, and the people round glanced curiously at this big, bronzed Englishman who had suddenly the look in his eyes of a man who sees a ghost.
Presently Slane recovered himself and walked cautiously towards the table.on his left, which he had been passing.
Seated by the side of the croupier was a woman dressed simply in black. Her face, though her eyes were tired and her coiffure unbecoming, had retained its aristocratic outline. Her utter indifference to her neighbors and surroundings was in itself noticeable. Furthermore, she was playing in maximums, which, in the "Kitchen," is unusual; and notwithstanding the magnitude of her venture, she scarcely even raised her eyes until the ball had ceased to roll and fallen into its place.
Five times Slane watched her lose the whole of her stake. A great pile of plaques which had been in front of her was now so far reduced that, with the sixth spin, she was left almost without a jeton. This time she raised her eyes and watched the progress of the ball. It hovered between two numbers, and finally fell.
Then, for a moment, there was an expression of despair, she withdrew her eyes slowly, and at that moment saw Slane. For a second she looked at him blankly. Then she beckoned him across.
He bent over her hand.
"A great surprise this, Lady Susannah."
"I wish you," she said calmly, "to lend me five mille—five thousand francs."
"Lady Susannah," he remonstrated. "Don't you think?"
"You will lend me that money, please," she interrupted. "I tell you that you will have it back before the end of the evening, only you must be quick. Everything has gone as I had expected, but the change of cycle is late and my capital was a trifle too small. The next stake will be a winning one. That I know. You must hurry, please."
The fateful cry, "Faîtes vos jeux" had already left the croupier's lips.
Slane, abandoning any attempt at argument, produced the five mille. Lady Susannah pushed them calmly towards the croupier.
"Le même jeu," she directed, with no evidence of hurry.
The chef leaned forward and nodded. The croupier himself had hesitated. Simultaneously the opposite croupier uttered the parrot-like call: "Rien ne va plus." The ball fell into its place.
Lady Susannah scarcely glanced up. The croupier by her side hastily arranged a maximum upon one of the central numbers.
"You have won?" Slane asked eagerly.
"Of course I have won," she replied. "I told you I would. Stay where you are, please, although I shall require no more money from you. I may need your help afterwards."
Slane, within the next half-hour, was in danger of being suffocated. News of sensational play had spread, and people were standing seven-deep round the table.
Lady Susannah took no notice. Every time she staked, and her stake varied according to a book which she continually consulted, she won. They changed her milles into ten mille plaques, her ten milles into fifty.
The chef motioned. There came a time when her fingers traced a few figures on the fly-leaf of the book. She added them up, and closed it.
"I have finished," she announced quietly.
She leaned further back in her chair. Slane threw open the window, and called for a waiter. It was too late. Lady Susannah was dead.
SLANE and the girl, a month or so later, munched sandwiches in the shadow of a beech tree. The spring afternoon was warm. For the first time they talked freely.
"You are wonderful," the girl said. "You did everything for poor Aunt Susannah. You brought us back that money and never asked a question. Today I feel like talking."
"Then tell me," he begged, "what on earth first took your aunt to Monte Carlo?"
"I will tell you. Six years ago I had a cousin—an invalid cousin—living in Mentone. Her mother died. It became a charge upon one of the family to spend a month with her each year. My Aunt Susannah went the first year. She had never been abroad before, and you can imagine how flustered she must have been. When the year came round again, however, she volunteered to go once more, and we now know that this time she took some of the jewels, for there was little enough money. She took them, of course, as one realises, merely with the idea of doing what everyone else seemed to find so easy—winning money to restore our fortunes.
"But didn't you guess?" Slane asked.
The girl shook her head.
"I can assure you that each time when she returned she was unchanged. Only there were certain books—we thought they were religious books—which she used to study alone. They are in her room now! Every system that was ever invented, is expounded in them, but also there are hundreds of pages of calculations in her thin, spidery figures. She seems to have taken three systems.
"You remember my first visit here. Why did you hate my coming down so?" he asked.
"Can't you imagine?" she retorted. "Now, take the four of us. Aunt Henrietta never had the faintest suspicion that any member of the family could have taken the jewels, but I knew it could have been no one outside. I thought of Jocelyn, who does gamble in Paris. On the other hand, because I am always grumbling at our poverty, he believed it was I. Poor Aunt Susannah."