The stories in this series were first published in The Strand Magazine from November 1920 to August 1921 under the general title "Mr. Cray's Adventures." They were collected and published in book form by Hodder & Stoughton in 1925 with the title changed to "The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Cray." The present RGL edition was produced from digital image files of The Strand Magazine and includes all of the original title graphics and illustrations. It has been expanded to include an illustrated interview with Oppenheim that The Strand Magazine published while the series was running.— RG
THE long Continental train drew slowly into Victoria Station, and through a long vista of wide-flung doors a heterogeneous stream of demobilized soldiers, nurses, "Wrafs," and other of the picturesque accompaniments of a concluded war flowed out on to the platform. The majority lingered about to exchange greetings with friends and to search for their luggage. Not so Mr. James P. Cray. Before the train had come to a standstill, he was on his way to the barrier.
"Luggage, sir?" inquired a porter, attracted by the benevolent appearance of this robust-looking, middle-aged gentleman in the uniform of the American Y.M.C.A.
"Checked my baggage right through," Mr. Cray replied, without slackening speed. "What I need is a taxi. What you need is five shillings. Let's get together."
Whether he was serving a lunatic or not, the five shillings was good money and the porter earned it. In exactly two minutes after the arrival of the train Mr. Cray was on his way to the Milan Hotel. The streets were not overcrowded. The driver had seen the passing of that munificent tip and gathered that his fare was in a hurry. They reached the Milan in exactly nine minutes. Even then Mr. Cray had the strained appearance of a man looking into futurity.
He stopped the man at the court entrance, fulfilled the latter's wildest dreams with regard to emolument, and presented himself eagerly before the little counter.
"Key of eighty-nine, Johnson," he demanded. "Get a slither on."
"Why, it's Mr. Cray!" the hall-porter exclaimed, after a single startled gaze at the new-comer's uniform. "Glad to see you back again, sir. Here's your key, sent over half an hour ago."
Mr. Cray snatched at it.
"Any packages?" he demanded over his shoulder, as he made for the lift.
"A whole heap of them, sir," was the reassuring reply. "All in your room."
Mr. Cray slipped half a crown into the lift-man's hand, made pantomimic signs with his palm, and they shot upwards without reference to the slow approach of a little party of intended passengers. Out stepped Mr. Cray on the fourth floor, and his face beamed as he recognized the valet standing before number eighty-nine.
"Hot bath, James," he shouted. "Set her going."
"Certainly, Mr. Cray, sir," the man replied, disappearing. "Glad to see you back again."
"Gee, it's good!" the new-comer exclaimed, dashing into the bedroom. "Off with the ornaments."
No convict ever doffed his prison garb with more haste and greater joy than did Mr. James P. Cray divest himself of the honourable though somewhat unsuitable garments for a man of his build which he had worn for the last twelve months. The absurd little tunic looked shorter still as it lay upon the bed, his cowpuncher hat more shapeless than ever; his ample breeches—they needed to be ample, for Mr. Cray's figure was rotund—collapsed in strange fashion as they sank upon the floor. Naked as the day on which he was born, Mr. Cray strode shamelessly into the bathroom.
"Get me some clothes ready out of those packages, James," he directed. "Bring a dressing-gown and underclothes in here. Get busy."
Then for a quarter of an hour Mr. Cray steamed and gurgled, splashed and grunted. His ablutions completed, he dried himself, thrust his legs into some white silk pants, drew a vest to match over his chest, and trotted into the next room. He was still in a hurry.
"Dinner clothes, James," he ordered. "Slip over a white shirt. Speed's the one and only."
"You're in a hurry, Mr. Cray," the man observed, smiling, as he handed him over his garments.
"I've been in a hurry for twelve months," was the feeling reply.
Ten minutes later, Mr. Cray left the room. The strained expression was still in his face. He rang for the lift, descended like a man absorbed with great thoughts, walked through the grill-room, climbed the stairs, passed through the smoke-room, and reached the bar before he slackened speed.
"Why, it's Mr. Cray!" one of the young ladies declared.
"Two dry Martinis in one glass," Mr. Cray directed, reverently. "Just a squeeze of lemon in, no absinthe, shake it till it froths."
The young lady chatted as she obeyed instructions. Mr. Cray, though a polite man, appeared suddenly deaf. Presently the foaming glass was held out to him. He raised it to his lips, closed his eyes, and swallowed. When he set it down, that look had passed from his face. In its place shone the light of an ineffable and beatific contentment.
"First drink in twelve months," he explained. "Just mix up another, kind of quietly, will you? I'll sit around for a bit."
"Mr. Cray! Mr. Cray! Mr. James P. Cray!"
Mr. Cray, who was engaged in a lively conversation with a little group of old and new acquaintances, broke off suddenly in the midst of an animated chapter of reminiscences.
"Say, boy," he called out, "who's wanting me?"
The boy advanced.
"Lady to see you, sir, in the hall," he announced.
"Have you got that right, my child?" Mr. Cray asked, incredulously.
"Mr. James P. Cray, to arrive from France this evening," was the boy's reply.
"That's me, sure," the person designated admitted, rising to his feet and brushing the ash from his waistcoat. "See you later, boys. The next round is on me."
Mr. Cray made his contented but wondering way into the lounge. A tall and very elegant-looking young woman rose to her feet and came to meet him. Mr. Cray's eyes shone and his smile was wonderful.
"Sara!" he gasped. "Gee, this is great!"
"Dad!" she replied, saluting him on both cheeks. "You old dear!"
They went off arm-in-arm to a corner.
"To think of you being here to welcome me!" Mr. Cray murmured, ecstatically.
"And why not?" the young lady replied. "If ever anyone deserved a welcome home, it's you. Twelve months' work in a Y.M.C.A. hut in France is scarcely a holiday."
"And never a single drink," Mr. Cray interrupted, solemnly.
"Marvellous!" she exclaimed. "But was that necessary, dad?"
"Well, I don't know," he admitted. "I guess they don't all know how to use liquor as I do. Some of the lads out there get gay on nothing at all. So the day I put the uniform on, I went on the water-wagon. I took it off," he murmured, with a reminiscent smile of joy, "an hour and a half ago. Where's George?"
"Sailed for the States yesterday."
"You don't say!"
"He's gone out to Washington on a Government commission. He'd have been here—sent all sorts of messages to you."
"Not ashamed of his disreputable old father-in-law, eh?"
"Don't be silly, dad. We're all proud of you. George has said often that he thinks it fine for a man of your age and tastes to go and work like that. What are you going to do, dad, now?"
"Order dinner for us two, I hope, dear."
"Just what I hoped for," she declared. "I think it's wonderful to have our first evening together. What are your plans for the future, dad? Are you going to stay over here for a time?"
"Why, I should say so," was the prompt reply. "You've heard what's got the old country?"
"You mean about Wilson?"
"Gone dry!" Mr. Cray exclaimed, in a tone of horror. "All the bars selling soft drinks. Tea-fights at the saloons, and bad spirits at the chemist's. That's what the old women at home did while we were out fighting."
"I'm afraid mother was one of them," Sara observed.
"Your stepmother's crazy about it," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "She's president of half-a-dozen prohibition societies. She's now working the anti-tobacco stunt."
"She doesn't say anything about coming over, I suppose?" the young woman asked, a little timidly.
"I should say not," Mr. Cray replied, with a little shiver. "She's too busy over there."
Sara, slipped her hand through her father's arm.
"Well have a lovely time for a month or two, dad," she said. "You know how happy I am with George, but this English life is just a little cramped. I suppose I must have a little of your wandering spirit in me, dad. Anyhow, for just these few months let's see a lot of one another. You're just as fond of adventures as ever, aren't you?"
A slow smile parted Mr. Cray's lips, a fervid light shone in his eyes.
"Sara," he whispered, "after the last twelve months I'm spoiling for some fun. But you, my dear—you're Lady Sittingbourne, you know, Got your husband's position to consider and all that."
She laughed in his face.
"You can cut that out, dad; for a time," she said. "Come along, now. We'll talk over dinner. I'm nearly starving, and I want to know if you've forgotten how to order."
As they took their places at a table in the corner of the restaurant, Sara exchanged friendly greetings with a girl a short distance away, who was dining alone with a man.
"Lydia Donvers," she whispered to her father. "Lydia's rather a dear. She was at that wonderful school you sent me to at Paris. She's only been married a year."
"They don't seem to be living on a bed of roses exactly," Mr. Cray commented, glancing at the young man. "Seems all on wires, doesn't he? Has he had shell-shock?"
Sara shook her head.
"I don't think he did any soldiering at all," she replied. "He volunteered once or twice, I know, but he couldn't pass the medical examination. He was in one of the Ministries at home."
Cray's interest in the couple evaporated. Without being a gourmand, he loved good cooking, civilization, the thousand luxuries of a restaurant de luxe. He ordered his dinner as he ate it, slowly and with obvious enjoyment.
Nevertheless, he happened to be looking across the room when a small page-boy in black livery approached the adjoining table and presented a note to Donvers. He saw the look in the young man's face as he received the envelope, tore it open, and glanced at the card inside. Mr. Cray forgot his dinner just then. It was as though tragedy had been brought into their midst. The young man spoke to the girl hesitatingly, almost apologetically. She answered with pleading, at last almost with anger. Their dinner remained untasted. In the end, the man rose to his feet and followed the boy from the room. The girl remained.
"Queer little scene, that," Mr. Cray whispered.
"I can't think what's the matter with Lydia," she said.
"Kind of annoyed at having their little feast broken into, I guess," her father murmured, soothingly.
Sara said nothing, and for some moments her father sought and found oblivion in the slow consumption of a perfectly cooked sole colbert.
"Gee, this fellow is the goods!" he murmured, appreciatively. "If you'd seen what they've been giving us over there! Good solid tack enough, but after the first month everything tasted alike. Thought I'd got paralysis of the palate."
"And nothing to drink, dad?"
"Not a spot," declared Mr. Cray, with frenzied exaltation.
"I'm worried about Lydia," Sara confided.
"She does look struck all of a heap," Mr. Cray assented.
"I'm going across to speak to her, if you don't mind."
"Sure!" Mr. Cray acquiesced, with his eye fixed almost reverently upon the grouse which the maître d'hôtel was tendering for his inspection.
"Don't wait for me, dad," she begged.
"I won't," he promised.
Mr. Cray ate his grouse with the slow and fervid appreciation of the epicure, an appreciation unaffected by the fact that within a few yards his quick sensibility told him that words of tragedy were being spoken. It was obvious that Sara's friend was confiding in her, and it was obvious that the confidence was of tragical interest.
In the midst of it all, the young man who had been called away returned. He had the look of a man making a strong effort to control his feelings. Mr. Cray, who had seen much of life during the last twelve months, recognized the signs. Not a word was audible, but when Sara, after her friend's husband had been presented to her, engaged him in earnest conversation, Mr. Cray began to understand.
"A little job for me," he murmured to himself, as he sipped his champagne. "Pity about Sara's grouse, though."
She returned presently, and it was obvious that she had much to say. Mr. Cray was firm.
"Not a word, Sara," he insisted, "until you have eaten your portion of grouse. Charles here has kept it hot for you. Not a word! I'm the stern father about that bird. What you've got to say will keep ten-minutes."
Sara obeyed. She generally obeyed when her father was in earnest. It was not until she found herself trifling with a soufflé, a dish for which her companion had no respect whatever, that she was permitted to unburden herself.
"Lydia is in great trouble, dad," she confided. "There is something wrong with her husband. She doesn't know what it is, but he came home a fortnight ago looking as though he had received a shock, and has never been the same man since. This is the third time he has been fetched away from a restaurant by a page in that same livery."
"I saw you talking to him when he came back."
"I asked him right out what was the matter with him, and I told him about you, dad—told him how clever you were at getting people out of difficulties, and how you didn't mind a little risk if there was an adventure at the back of it. I think I impressed him. He says he can promise you all the adventure you want, and they are coming here to take their coffee."
"If this isn't some little burg!" Mr. Cray murmured, ecstatically. "Just two hours under the fogs and the wheel begins to turn!"
The arrival of Gerald Donvers and his wife, just as coffee was being served, did not seem likely to contribute in any way towards the gaiety of Mr. Cray's evening. The young man at close quarters seemed more distraught than ever. He ignored his coffee, but drank two glasses of liqueur brandy quickly. His wife scarcely took her eyes off him, and Sara's attempts to inaugurate a little general conversation were pitifully unsuccessful. Mr. Cray took the bull by the horns.
"Say, Mr. Donvers," he began, "Sara here tells me that you're up against a snag somewhere. If there's any way I can be of service, just open out. You and I are strangers, but anything my daughter says goes, so you can count on me as though I were an old friend."
"You are very good," the young man replied, without enthusiasm. "I am in a very terrible position—through my own fault, too. I am to attend a sort of investigation to-night, and I am invited to bring any friend I like who isn't connected with any of the Services. If you'll come along I'll be glad, but I tell you frankly that I don't think the shrewdest man in the kingdom would be of any service to me."
"That sounds hard," Mr. Cray observed, "but if I'm not butting in I'll come along, with pleasure. What time is this showdown?"
"We shall have to leave in five minutes," the young man answered, with a little shiver.
Mr. Cray withdrew the bottle from his companion's reach.
"Take my advice and leave the strong stuff alone," he said. "If your trouble's as bad as it sounds, you'll want your head clear."
Donvers became no more communicative in the taxi-cab which drove them presently to a gloomy house in one of the southern squares. They were admitted by a soldier man-servant, who ushered them into a sombrely-furnished library on the ground floor. A man who was seated at a desk—a grim, soldierly-looking person in the uniform of a colonel—glanced up at their entrance and nodded curtly. Seated in an arm-chair was a pale-faced young woman in widow's weeds, who turned her head away at their entrance.
"You have brought a friend?" the Colonel inquired.
Donvers nodded in spiritless fashion.
"Mr. James Cray—Colonel Haughton. Mr. Cray is an American and has not been in England for a year."
Colonel Haughton touched a bell by his side.
"Show the young lady in," he directed the soldier-servant who answered it. "How much of this affair do you know, Mr. Cray?" he added, coldly.
"Not a diddle," was the emphatic reply. "I wanted Mr. Donvers to put me wise on the way down, but he said he'd rather leave it to you."
Colonel Haughton made no reply. There was a knock at the door and a young woman was ushered in. She was fashionably dressed, and her face was familiar enough to anyone studying the weekly papers. Mr. Cray recognized a compatriot at once. The woman in the chair glanced up at the girl and then away. Every now and then her shoulders shook. The Colonel pointed to a chair.
"Will you be seated, Miss Clare?" he said. "You gentlemen please yourselves. I propose to recapitulate this unfortunate case for your benefit, Mr. Cray. I have my own idea as to the course which Donvers should adopt."
"Go right ahead," Mr. Cray invited, genially. "I'm kind of cramped in the legs with travelling to-day, so' I'll take an easy-chair if there's no objection."
"During the war," Colonel Haughton said, speaking in sentences of sharp, military brevity, "Donvers here held an appointment in a certain British Ministry. It was his duty frequently to bring despatches of great importance to a branch of the War Office over which I presided. On one occasion, Donvers appears most improperly to have broken his journey at Miss Clare's flat in Clarges Street."
"There was no breaking the journey," Donvers interrupted. "My instructions were to deliver the despatches into your own hands, and when I got to the War Office you were out for an hour. I went up to have tea with Miss Clare instead of waiting in the office."
"Mr. Donvers left his wallet of despatches hanging in Miss Clare's hall," Colonel Haughton continued, "a disgracefully careless proceeding. When he found me at the War Office that evening, he handed me two envelopes instead of three. He said nothing to me about the third, but, realizing the loss, returned to Miss Clare's flat and searched his own rooms. Miss Clare knew nothing about the missing despatch; Donvers could discover nothing in his rooms. In the meantime, a prisoner in the Tower was shot at midnight that night. The contents of the letter which never reached me would have saved him."
The woman in mourning began to sob. Donvers wiped the perspiration from his forehead.
"Say, that's bad," Mr. Cray admitted.
"Owing to information patriotically tendered by Miss Clare," Colonel Haughton continued, "a constant visitor to her flat was arrested soon afterwards and dealt with in the usual way. He admitted having opened the despatches which he found in Donvers's wallet and making use of their contents. The one which he could not open he took away, and, finding it of no interest to his cause, destroyed it. The situation, therefore, amounts to this. Owing to the criminal carelessness of Donvers, a young American, whose innocence was beyond doubt, was shot for a spy."
The woman in mourning looked up. Her eyes flashed fiercely across the room.
"My husband!" she sobbed. "All that I had in the world!"
Donvers looked at Cray as though pleading for his intercession. The latter turned to the young woman.
"Madam," he said, "may I ask your name?"
"Ellen Saunderson," was the tearful reply. "My husband was Joe Saunderson. He was as innocent as you or I. The letter which never reached Colonel Haughton would have proved it."
Mr. Cray fingered his chin thoughtfully.
"Shot for a spy, eh," he ruminated, "and that letter contained reports which would have saved him? Say, that's hard! Has any official notice been taken of this matter?" he continued, turning to the Colonel.
"Mr. Donvers came to me shortly afterwards," the Colonel proceeded, "and confessed that he had lost one of the despatches and entirely failed to trace it. A few days later, the contents of that despatch reached me officially. I advised Mr. Donvers to tender his resignation, which he did. Communications have passed in secrecy between a certain department of the American Secret Service and our own concerning this unfortunate mistake. It has been decided, for obvious reasons, that it shall not be made a Press matter. The question we now have to discuss is the amount of compensation which shall be offered to Mrs. Saunderson."
The woman turned away wearily.
"Compensation!" she murmured, bitterly. "That won't give me back Joe."
"I regret to say," Colonel Haughton continued, "that I am not able to procure for Mrs. Saunderson any official recompense. On the evidence presented, the shooting of Joseph Saunderson was amply justified, and it is the official view that, if recompense be tendered to the widow, a mistake is admitted which might later have serious consequences. Mr. Donvers has made an offer which Mrs. Saunderson rejected with scorn. I will be perfectly frank to all of you. My interest in this matter is to see Mrs. Saunderson receive adequate compensation, and further, in the interests of my Department, to see that this matter is forgotten. If Mrs. Saunderson is not satisfied, she will probably drag in the matter which, not for Donvers's sake but for the sake of the Department, it is my wish to conceal. Mr. Donvers has offered—what was the sum, Donvers?"
"Five thousand pounds," the young man replied. "It is half the spare money I have in the world."
The woman turned round with a sudden burst of passion.
"You and your spare money," she exclaimed. "Do you think your spare money, as you call it, will bring back Joe—the husband I lost while you stayed flirting with this hussy here?"
Miss Clare frowned, and her fingers twitched nervously.
"No shadow of blame can be attached to Miss Clare in this matter," the Colonel intervened, coldly.
"Or to anyone, I suppose?" the woman scoffed. "Look here," she went on, facing Donvers, "I don't want your money—I'd rather work my fingers to the bone than touch a penny of it—but I want to punish you, and if you're a poor man, so much the better. Ten thousand pounds I want from you by midday to-morrow, and if I don't have it, my story goes to the newspapers for the world to read."
There was a silence. Donvers turned towards his companion.
"How are you fixed financially?" Cray asked him.
"That five thousand pounds is my limit," Donvers replied, bitterly. "If I have to find the rest, it will break up the business I've just started and beggar me altogether."
"And why shouldn't you be beggared?" the woman demanded, her hands working nervously and her eyes filled with hate. "That's what I want. That's why I say I'll have ten thousand pounds to-morrow if it means your last sixpence."
There was an uneasy silence. Mr. Cray gathered up the threads of the situation.
"It don't seem like there's any more to be said," he declared. "If you'll bring the lady along to my rooms at the Milan Hotel to-morrow at twelve o'clock, Colonel, I'll go into this young man's affairs in the meantime and give him the best advice I can."
The Colonel glanced at his engagement-book.
"I will come," he promised, "but it is the last minute I can promise to give to this unfortunate affair. It must be concluded then, one way or the other."
He touched the bell. His soldier-servant opened the door. Cray and his companion hurried off, The latter groaned as they reached the street.
"Very kind of you to come along, Mr. Cray," he said, "but you can see for yourself how hopeless the whole affair is. Not only have I got to go about all my life with the memory of that poor young man's death on my conscience, but if I find that ten thousand pounds I shall be beggared. There's only one way out that I can think of."
Mr. Cray was leaning back in a corner of the taxi-cab which they had just entered, his chin resting upon his folded arms. The young man watched him furtively, It was not until they neared the Milan, however, that Mr. Cray spoke.
"There may he another way," he ventured. "I promise nothing, but be at my rooms at twelve o'clock to-morrow to meet those people, and in the meantime don't make a fool of yourself. You'd better bring me a statement of just how much you've got, five minutes before that time."
Mr. Cray retired early, thoroughly enjoyed his first night in his luxurious bedchamber, was up betimes, and spent a busy morning. At five minutes to twelve Donvers, looking ghastly ill, presented himself and handed over a folded slip of paper.
"I've put down everything I'm worth there," he said. "If I have to find a penny more than that six thousand pounds, I'm done. I've come to the conclusion," he went on, "that the fairest way will be to divide all I've got between that woman and my wife, and—disappear."
"Sit down," Mr. Cray replied. "I'll make the bargain for you."
There was a ring at the bell a moment or two later, and Mrs. Saunderson was ushered in. A single glance into her face robbed Donvers of any hope he might have had. She was still lachrymose, but her face was set in hard and almost vicious lines. Colonel Haughton arrived a few minutes later. He received Mr. Cray's welcome frigidly.
"I desire," he said, refusing a chair, "as speedy a conclusion to this affair as possible."
"Miss Clare not coming?" Mr. Cray inquired, with unabated geniality.
"There is no necessity for her presence that I am aware of," the Colonel replied. "The only question that remains to be decided is whether Mr. Donvers here is prepared to satisfy Mrs. Saunderson's claims."
Mr. Cray was suddenly a different man. The smile had left his broad, good-natured face. His tone was still brisk, but as cold as the Colonel's.
"Colonel Haughton," he said, "you want a show-down. Here it is. The whole thing is a ramp. Joe Saunderson was never shot, and you know it. Neither was he ever married."
"What the devil—" the Colonel began.
"Chuck it!" Mr. Cray interrupted. "Miss Clare, as you call her, is married to one of the worst crooks in the States, although you, Colonel, seem to have ruined yourself trying to support her for the last few years. This woman was once her understudy, and is a very fair actress still. Joe Saunderson was in charge of the coffee-urn in one of my Y.M.C.A. huts, and I heard the story of his detention and release a dozen times. Now what are you going to do about it, Donvers? Its up to you."
Donvers suddenly reeled and would have fallen but that Cray caught him and laid him upon the couch. He forced some brandy between his teeth. In a minute the young man opened his eyes, the colour came hack to his cheeks. He looked around him. Save for their two selves the room was empty.
"Mr. Cray!" he gasped. "Is this true?"
"Bible truth," Mr. Cray declared cheerfully.
"But Colonel Haughton? He's a well-known man—a D.S.O.—head of his Department."
"I guessed he was the goods," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "They do give us the knock sometimes, you know, these men whom no one would suspect."
Donvers was on his feet now, going through all the phases of a rapid recovery to sanity.
"And you actually knew this Joseph Saunderson?" he exclaimed, wonderingly.
"One of my washers-up," Mr. Cray explained with unabated cheerfulness, "who was promoted to the coffee-urn two months ago. I've heard the story of his arrest a dozen times. What about going and looking for your wife, eh? I gave the ladies a hint that there might be something doing in the way of a little luncheon."
Mr. Cray led the way to the lounge, where Sara and Mrs. Donvers were seated.
"You go and take your wife off somewhere, Mr. Donvers," he said, "and don't let us see you again for an hour or so. If you wish it, we'll all dine together."
"At eight o'clock, here," Donvers declared enthusiastically. "I'm host, and I promise you Jules shall do his best. I'll try and say the things I ought to say to you then, Mr. Cray. I'm going to take Lydia right off home now."
Mr. Cray nodded sympathetically, and drew Sara away.
"It's a long story, my dear," he told her, "but things are fixed up all right for young Donvers. He hasn't a worry left in the world. You shall have the whole story over luncheon."
Sara grasped her father's hand.
"Dad," she exclaimed, enthusiastically, "you're a marvel! And to think that we have three months together!"
That night Colonel Haughton, D.S.O., shot himself in his study, owing, it was stated, to financial troubles and general depression, and Miss Clare accepted a suddenly proffered engagement for the States. Gerald Donvers's dinner-party, however, was not postponed.
AFTER two theatres and a music-hall on three consecutive nights, Mr. Joseph P. Cray and his daughter Sara decided to spend a quiet evening. They dined in the restaurant at the Milan, and afterwards selected two comfortable easy-chairs in the lounge. They watched the people for some time in silence. Mr. Cray in particular was a little distrait.
"Dad, I believe you're planning something," Sara remarked, as she lit her second cigarette.
"Not guilty," her father assured her.
"Then tell me just what you were thinking of?" she insisted.
Mr. Cray removed the cigar from his lips.
"I was just wondering," he confessed, "whether it would be possible to combine a little harmless excitement with a certain measure of—er—pecuniary benefit."
"But you don't want money, dad?"
Mr. Cray coughed.
"I'm not qualifying for the poor-house yet awhile," he admitted; "but at the same time, if there were shekels about, I should be a willing collector."
"Business is all right over in the States, isn't it?" she inquired.
"Booming," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "There's more money coming to me over there than I should care to think about spending, but it's like this, Sara. If I should be cabling for supplies just now your stepmother would be wise to the fact that I've quit France. She's a busy woman, but she might take it into her head to take a quick trip over."
"Good gracious, dad, don't suggest such a thing!" Sara exclaimed hastily. "You can have all the money you want from me."
"Nothing doing, my dear," her father assured her. "I'm a bad hand at borrowing. On the other hand, it would certainly add a little spice to any little adventure that might come along if I were able to supply my immediate necessities out of it."
Sara glanced through the glass partitioning at the opulent-looking crowd who dined, at the women in the lounge with their profusion of jewellery, the men, many of them with the hard, acquisitive expression of the day-by-day City man.
"There's plenty of money about, dad," she observed.
Mr. Cray thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets and rubbed two half-crowns together.
"Sure!" he murmured. "Just a touch of inspiration's all that's needed."
Sara left him for a while, a few minutes later, to go to her room. She was staying at the hotel whilst her house in Charles Street was being renovated. Mr. Cray exchanged his cigarette for a fat cigar and ruminated.
Towards him down the broad carpeted way came Mr. Sinclair Smith, erstwhile of the Stock Exchange, and the Honourable Charles Frinton, of no occupation. Mr. Sinclair Smith was of florid complexion, with a tight mouth, narrow eyes, and an embonpoint righteously earned. The Honourable Charles Frinton, whose capacity for enjoying the good things of the world was a trifle in excess of his companion's, was as thin and pale as a man may be. He, too, however, possessed that slight narrowing of the eyes and indrawn lips which betoken the professional money-getter. They were, in fact, birds of a feather.
"It seems a pity," the Honourable Charles Frinton sighed, as they looked around for a seat, "that we should be spending money on one another, Sinny."
"Your fault," was the terse reply. "The supply of mugs up West seems to be running out."
Arm in arm, they slowly approached the easy-chair in which Mr. Cray was seated. Frinton pinched his companion's elbow.
"There's the type I should like to get hold of," he said, enviously. "Easy, benevolent, opulent. Why can't you drop a few of these into the bag, Sinny?"
"Shut up, you fool!" was the muttered reply. "Can't you see he thinks he knows us?"
Mr Cray's welcoming smile was the bland expression of the lonely and gregarious man.
"Say, I'm not mistaken, am I?" he said, as the two men came to a standstill before him. "Met you about two years ago, sir," he went on, addressing Sinclair Smith, "at the American Bar with some of the boys. We had one or two together. Sit down, gentlemen," Mr. Cray continued, without waiting for any reply. "My daughter's chair, that, but we'll get another when she returns. I remember now," he went on, reminiscently, "it was the night before I put on my uniform."
"I remember perfectly," Mr. Sinclair Smith acknowledged, shaking hands. "Permit me to introduce my friend, the Honourable Charles Frinton—Mr.—er—dear me, I had your name on the tip of my tongue just now.'
"Cray," was the prompt response—"Mr. Joseph P. Cray."
"So you've been serving, sir?" Frinton observed, after they had settled down.
"American Y.M.C.A., sir," Mr. Cray confided; "a most uncomfortable uniform for a man of my figure, and at times a very miserable job, but I'm through with it. I took off my uniform less than a week ago. I went right into that little Paradise of a bar, and I drank my first cocktail for twelve months. Gee! I can feel the glow of it now!"
"You mean that you were on the water-wagon, as I believe your country people call it, for all that time?" Sinclair Smith inquired.
Mr. Cray was the epitome of stout and contented virtue.
"Not one drop of hard liquor passed my lips all the time I wore Uncle Sam's uniform," he declared.
Mr. Sinclair Smith summoned a waiter.
"An appreciative Englishman," he announced, "is going to offer you as much as you can drink of the best brandy in London."
As much as Mr. Cray could drink was a pretty tall order, as his host was presently to discover. The acquaintance, however, proceeded by leaps and bounds, and when Sara presently returned she found her father in his element. He rose to his feet with expansive pride.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I'd have you shake hands with my daughter, Lady Sittingbourne—Mr. Sinclair Smith—the Honourable Charles Frinton. Gentlemen I met here, dear, before I went to France."
The little ceremony was pleasantly performed. Mr. Frinton, as became his position, inaugurated the conversation.
"Any relation to Sir George Sittingbourne in the Blues?" he asked, deferentially.
"My husband," Sara explained. "He was wounded in '15, you know, and became military A.D.C. at Washington. He's out there now."
Secure in his temporary absence, Frinton magnified his slight acquaintance with Sara's husband into an intimate friendship. The little party soon became on the best of terms. Long after Sara's retirement for the night they finished the evening in Mr. Cray's sitting-room. When they parted even the hard-headed Frinton, and Sinclair Smith, a past-master in the art of avoiding drink, were incapable.
"See you to-morrow, old sport," Frinton declared, standing on one leg and balancing himself against the door as he shook hands with their host.
"If you don't look me up in the City, we all meet here at one o'clock," Mr. Sinclair Smith said, all in one breath.
Mr. Cray watched them on their tortuous way towards the lift, waved his hand in farewell, returned to his easy-chair, and helped himself to a final whisky and soda.
"Smart chaps, very, and good company," he ruminated; "but they take their liquor poorly for Englishmen."
Luncheon that next day was a gay and festive meal. Sara was amiable and brilliant. She spoke of City finance with the bated breath of an ignoramus, and she was perfectly prepared to accept her two hosts as prototypes of its genius. Once or twice the thought of what George would have said if he had seen her in such company troubled her slightly, but on the whole she rejected that he belonged to a different side of her life, and that she was really only indulging for a very brief period that unquenched love of adventure in which she had revelled during her younger days.
"I wish dad would do something in the City while he's over here," she observed, with a little sigh. "Why don't you, dad? You know you always have what you call a flutter in Wall Street when you're in New York."
Mr. Cray smiled.
"It's not so easy to get on to anything worth taking an interest in over this side," he remarked. "Besides, I don't understand the English share market."
The moment appeared to have arrived for which Mr. Sinclair Smith and the Honourable Charles Frinton had been marking time.
"Do you think your father would really like a little flutter, Lady Sittingbourne?" the latter asked. "Not a big affair, mind, but a thousand or two profit certain—perhaps a little more later on."
Mr. Sinclair Smith laid down his knife and fork.
"Charlie," he exclaimed, "you're not—"
"Yes, I am! Why not?" his friend interrupted, gazing admiringly into Sara's eyes. "Corton's no pal of mine, and I never gave him a word of encouragement."
"But I did," Mr. Sinclair Smith confessed, doubtfully. "I promised to meet him to-night and let him know how far we could go."
"You can tell him the whole thing's off," the other declared, ruthlessly; "that is to say, if Mr. Cray here fancies the proposition."
"Say, gentlemen, put me wise about this," that gentleman begged, eagerly.
Mr. Sinclair Smith shrugged his shoulders.
"Mr. Cray," he said, "you're a very good fellow, and I quite share Frinton's admiration for your charming daughter, but as a rule, to be perfectly frank with you, we reserve our little side-shows for our older friends, especially when the plums are sticking out. However, Frinton's said the word and I won't go back on him. Ever heard of the Idabo Rubber Plantations?"
"We're not great on rubber over the other side," Mr. Cray replied, "but I do just know that the Idabo is a sound concern."
"Ten thousand of the new issue are coming on the market this week," Mr. Sinclair Smith confided. "I don't know how you manage these things over on the other side, but the directors don't want the market disturbed, and they're handing them out in big blocks. Frinton and I have five thousand each. There's another five thousand to be bought for prompt cash."
"And the price?"
"Thirty-seven and sixpence," Sinclair replied. "You can see what they stand on the market in this morning's paper. Forty-one offered."
"I don't quite get the hang of this," Mr. Cray confessed. "Just why are you offering these shares at three-and-sixpence less than the market value?"
"Because the directors don't want the market price disturbed," Mr. Sinclair Smith explained. "They've taken nearly all the new issue themselves. These are just a few over which they've been handing out to their friends. If you take this five thousand you'll have to pay prompt cash for them, but they'll stand you in a profit on to-day's price of over eight hundred. On the other hand, we shouldn't expect you to put them on the market, except in very small lots, for the next fortnight."
"And supposing they go down in the meantime?" Sara asked,
Mr. Frinton smiled.
"Your father can get all the information about Idabos he wants to," he suggested "but as a matter of fact, if you like a little gamble yourself, Lady Sittingbourne, I'll bet you five hundred that Idabos are higher sooner than lower in a month's time."
"This sounds good to me," Mr. Cray confessed. "I'll have a look at the tape presently."
"That's right, no hurry," Mr. Frinton said. "Sinny, you're host. I think another bottle of this Château Yquem. And, Lady Sittingbourne, we really ought to apologize for talking shop."
"Indeed you needn't," Sara protested. "As a matter of fact, it is my fault entirely. It is nice of you to help dad to make a little money."
"Perhaps I wasn't thinking altogether about your father," the Honourable Charles Frinton ventured.
"It isn't money, of course," Sara went on. "Dad's got plenty of that But it does give him something to do and think about. Men are so much better when their thoughts are occupied, don't you think so?"
"That depends," the young man replied, with an impressive sigh. "Sometimes a man's thoughts are rather a hindrance to his day's work."
Sara laughed gaily.
"You London men are terrible," she said.
"There's only one fault about us," Frinton declared. "We're too impressionable."
Sara laughed softly and looked down at her plate. It was indeed a gala luncheon for the Honourable Charles Frinton and Mr. Sinclair Smith.
After luncheon they adjourned to Mr. Cray's sitting-room, where their host, with some pride, produced a small portable typewriter, stuck in a sheet of paper, and hammered out the following document:—
I, Joseph P. Cray, and we, Charles Frinton and William Sinclair Smith, agree severally, the former to purchase and the latter to sell, shares to the value of ten thousand pounds in the—
"How do you spell Idabo?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"I-d-a-b-o," Mr. Frinton said.
—Idabo Rubber Plantations. Payment in full to be made in cash on production of the share certificates, and two hundred and fifty pounds (250) deposit to be paid by the said Joseph P. Cray on the signature of this document.
"You Americans know how to tie a thing up tight," Mr. Sinclair Smith remarked, laughing, as he signed his name.
"Something of a lawyer, aren't you, Mr. Cray?" the Honourable Charles Frinton added, as he too appended his signature. "Do we want a copy of this?"
"I haven't any carbons," Mr. Cray replied, "but I guess my cheque will do for your half. I'll just put the document in the drawer here until we clean the deal up."
"That will be quite satisfactory," Mr. Sinclair Smith said; "but there's one rather important matter, Mr. Cray—when will it be convenient for you to clear this business up? Frinton and I paid for our shares yesterday."
"As soon as I've had time to walk down to the Bank of England I guess things can be arranged," Mr. Cray promised. "I've a credit here for pretty well as much as I should care to draw."
Their eyes rested upon him almost hungrily. Both for a moment had the same feeling—they had touched him too lightly, and alas! in all probability they would have no other opportunity.
"What are you doing this evening, Charles?" Mr. Sinclair Smith asked his companion in an undertone.
"Dining at Doncaster House," the other confided. "The Duchess—well, you understand."
Mr. Sinclair Smith nodded,
"I promised Joel too—but there, Charles, I think we ought to clear this business up. You know what Sir William said—that they might ask us for these shares back again if they weren't cleared up within a few hours. Could you see us between six and seven, Mr. Cray?"
"Sure!" that gentleman assented, rising from the table where he had been writing a cheque. "Here's your two hundred and fifty pounds. I'll get down to the Bank presently, and we'll all meet and have a cocktail together, eh? You must let me come down and see you in the City some day, Mr. Smith. I guess I'd be interested in studying some of your English methods."
"We'll give you a City man's lunch any day later in the week," Mr. Sinclair Smith promised, as he thrust the cheque into his waistcoat pocket.
"I hope we'll see your charming daughter again," the Honourable Charles Frinton remarked, as they said good-bye.
"Why not fix up a little dinner for this evening?" Mr. Cray invited, hospitably. "Sara'd be tickled to death. We might go to a music-hall afterwards."
The Honourable Charles Frinton looked the picture of woe.
"Alas!" he regretted, "not this evening. I have some relatives who are apt to be a little exacting."
"And I have an appointment with a very big financial man," his friend confided; "a deal in property, I don't mind telling you, that runs into a couple of millions or thereabouts."
"Say, you boys do handle the stuff!" Mr. Cray said, admiringly. "Till six o'clock, then, and good luck to you. I'll pay my respects to the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street."
Left to himself, Mr. Cray turned the key in the lock, lest by some chance one of his guests should return. Then he thrust the piece of paper once more back into the typewriter and, adjusting it carefully, struck a single letter. Afterwards he placed the document in his pocket, caught up his stick and hat, and sauntered out into the Strand. His journey Citywards, however, extended no farther east than Somerset House.
After the mise-en-scène was set that evening Mr. Cray's heart misgave him. "I guess you'd better not figure in this show, Sara," he said to his daughter, who was occupying an easy-chair in his sitting-room. "There's no telling how those two skunks may pan out. They're soft stuff to look at, but you never can tell."
Sara showed no signs of moving.
"Dad," she reminded him, "I've been with you in some tougher corners than you'll find yourself in this evening. And you know what I told you. If I can't gratify this morbid craving of mine for a few last glimpses into Bohemia, I shall never settle down and make George a respectable wife. Besides, you'll want me to mix the cocktails, and I want to see whether Mr. Frinton will remain the perfect gentleman."
"I guess there'll be more tears than blows," said Mr. Cray. "Stay where you are if you're set upon it."
"I intend to," Sara declared sweetly.
The two visitors were very punctual. They arrived, indeed, five minutes before the time. Mr. Sinclair Smith made profuse apologies.
"The fact of the matter is," he explained, "both Mr. Frinton here and I are hard pushed this evening. We shall just have to finish our little piece of business as quickly as we can, and if you, sir," he added, turning to Mr. Cray, "and your daughter will honour us by dining at the Ritz to-morrow night, we shall be charmed. We can then celebrate this little occasion more adequately."
"It's a date, sure," Mr. Cray promised, exuberantly. "No need to keep you gentlemen over this little business, either. I've a packet of notes here, and I see you've got the shares there. Spread them out on the table, sir. Let's have a look at them."
Mr. Sinclair Smith reverently produced a thick pile of brand-new copperplate share certificates. They were very clean, very artistically executed, and evidently of recent issue. Mr. Cray, with the notes bulging from his pocket, began to count. The two men stood over him.
"One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred—" Mr. Cray stopped short.
"What's wrong?" Mr. Sinclair Smith asked sharply, trying to keep the note of anxiety from his voice.
"It's this durned spelling again," Mr. Cray explained, with puckered brows. "These share certificates seem to be spelt without the final 'r.'"
"That's the way the plantation's spelt," was the sharp reply. "I told you so when you made out the agreement."
Mr. Cray stopped his counting and felt in his pocket.
"I don't seem, somehow, to remember that," he said, pensively.
He spread out the agreement, with its Somerset House stamp, upon the table. The faces of the two men who stared at the spot to which Mr. Cray's fat forefinger pointed were a study. Without a doubt, the name of the rubber plantation there was "Idabor," and below it were their signatures.
"It was spelt 'Idabo' when I signed," Frinton exclaimed at last.
"I'll swear it," Mr. Sinclair Smith echoed. "The agreement's been tampered with."
Mr. Cray returned it reflectively to his pocket.
"I guess you two gentlemen don't know how to spell your own property," he said, pleasantly. "Now I'll just put you both wise as to what made me so plumb positive. It's this report from my stockbroker."
He held a sheet of paper before him and read out its contents:—
IDABOR RUBBER PLANTATIONS.
Capital three hundred thousand pounds. A fine commercial undertaking. Full particulars in Rubber handbook, sent herewith. Present price of shares round about forty-one. Should recommend purchase.
IDABO RUBBER GROUNDS.
A derelict concern, nominal capital sixty thousand pounds, with a large number of unissued founders' shares. Shares not quoted on Exchange, as property considered valueless.
"I got that from my stockbroker this afternoon," Mr. Cray explained. "That's why I knew for certain that it was Idabor shares and not Idabo we were dealing in."
Mr. Frinton had turned very pale. He sank suddenly into an unoccupied chair. For the purposes of any further controversy he was down and out. Mr. Sinclair Smith made as good a showing as could reasonably have been expected.
"Mr. Cray," he confessed, "the shares we meant to plant you with were the Idabo Rubber Shares. Frinton here and I were had with them—cost us a cool ten thousand. We were the mugs that time. We made up our minds to pass them on if we could to another mug. We selected you."
"That seems to have been a little unfortunate," Mr. Cray observed, with a smile.
"You've tumbled to it, and there's nothing more doing," Sinclair Smith continued. "Here's your two hundred and fifty pounds deposit," he added, throwing the cheque upon the table. "Come on, Frinton."
"Stop a minute," Mr. Cray called out. The two men, who were well on their way to the door, paused.
"I can't see my way through quite to the end of this little matter yet," Mr. Cray explained. "By this document here you seem bound to deliver to me five thousand Idabor shares at thirty-seven and six, to-day's price forty-one, profit to me eight hundred and seventy-five pounds."
Mr. Sinclair Smith stared at Mr. Cray for several moments. Once he opened his lips, glanced at Sara, and closed them again. Mr. Frinton's rejoinder was on the weak side.
"Those were Idabos, and you know it," he muttered.
Mr. Cray shook his head.
"Idabos doesn't sound reasonable," he protested, gently. "They could be bought by the thousand for fourpence a share, and you were proposing to sell them to me for thirty-seven and sixpence. I feel sure that no one would believe it possible that you two gentlemen would make such a suggestion as that. Idabors my agreement says, and Idabors I want—or eight hundred and seventy-five pounds."
Then both men forgot the presence of a lady and began to talk. Sara leaned back in her chair with the air of a pleased and gratified audience. Mr. Cray, too, showed not the slightest signs of wishing to interrupt the dual stream of eloquent abuse. When the two men were silent at last through lack of breath, he made his first remark.
"I am not a bargainer, gentlemen," he said. "There seems to have been a little mutual misunderstanding in this deal, but the fact remains that I am entitled to the delivery of five thousand Idabor shares from you at thirty-seven and sixpence, or the profit on them—eight hundred and seventy-five pounds. I am not a hard man. I will take five hundred pounds cash."
A secondary burst of eloquence was less original but more abusive.
"You're a damned sharper!" Mr. Frinton wound up.
"A low confidence-trick man," Mr. Sinclair Smith finished, with a glance at Sara, "you and your—"
Mr. Cray took a step forward. Mr. Sinclair Smith did not finish his sentence. He took a step backwards towards the door. Mr. Cray threw it open and stood there. He was still smiling, but his smile had qualities.
"At nine o'clock," he said, "my solicitor is looking me up for a friendly chat. A cheque for five hundred pounds any time before that hour will see you through this trouble. You'll find the lift round to the right. So long, boys!"
Mr. Cray returned with beaming face.
"Sara," he said, looking towards the sideboard, "give her a shake."
At a quarter to nine that evening, while Mr. Cray and his daughter were dining at a corner table in the grill-room, a note was brought to him. He tore open the envelope. Inside was a cheque for five hundred pounds. He thrust it into his waistcoat pocket, produced the one which he had written for two hundred and fifty pounds, and passed it to Sara.
"Your share, my dear," he said. "Let us drink the health of those two philanthropists."
"You dear, clever father!" she murmured, enthusiastically.
THE meeting between Mr. Cray and Mr. Edward P. Wallin, of Seattle, was a touching and wonderful thing. It took place on the pavement of the Strand, about fifty yards from the entrance to the Milan, the occasion being a gentle stroll on the part of Mr. Cray towards one of the reopened hotels in Northumberland Avenue, which was reputed to possess a wizard in the art of cocktail mixing. They recognized one another about ten yards off, and their greetings were vociferous and idiomatic.
"If it isn't Ed!" Mr. Cray exclaimed, in great excitement. "Welcome to the gay little burg!
"Joe, old sport, if this isn't bully!" was the prompt and hearty response. "Put it there, my son of the Stars and Stripes. Why, I thought you were handing doughnuts to the boys out in Cologne."
"Demobbed two months ago," was the cheerful reply. "I had twelve months of it steady."
"Gee! but you're a wonder! I guess the Milan's the nearest."
Arm-in-arm, the two men swung along the pavement, Mr. Wallin a somewhat smaller and plumper edition of his old friend. Their faces exuded good-humour and goodwill. Both were filled with the joy of meeting a friend and fellow-countryman in a strange city.
"Ed," Mr. Cray observed, "they've hit it up for us on the other side."
"It's a sure Hades!" the other groaned. "You have to have a pain in your stomach and drop in at the drug store to get a drop of rye or Scotch, and even then you feel like hiding behind the show-case. And I tell you, Joe, to see the boys lapping up soft drinks and getting gloomier all the time is just one over the limit. No one's got used to it yet. We go about kinder dazed."
Mr. Cray glanced at his watch as they reached the Milan bar. He led the way to two easy chairs and beckoned to a waiter.
"Two Scotches-and-soda, Tim," he ordered, "and in a quarter of an hour see that Coley hits us up two dry Martinis with some stick in. Afterwards we'll have a bite of luncheon in the Grill Room."
The programme was approved and carried out. About half-way through the meal Mr. Cray asked a momentous question.
"Say, what's brought you over, Ed?"
Mr. Wallin laid down his knife and fork and groaned. His eyes were fixed with an indescribable expression upon the figure of a woman a short distance away.
"That," he replied. "Her!"
Mr. Cray turned in his chair. A smartly-attired young woman, who had paused upon the threshold looking around the room as though in search of someone, was now approaching their table.
"Why, Mr. Wallin," she exclaimed, as she shook hands, "I had no idea that you were staying here!"
"I'm not," he replied, "I'm just having a bite with a friend. I'd like you to know Mr. Joseph P. Cray—Miss Nora Medlicott."
Mr. Cray rose at once to his feet and shook hands with Miss Medlicott. She was very good-looking, her expression was pleasing, and her manner friendly.
"I'm glad to know you, Mr. Cray," she said. "Are you, by any chance, related to Mrs. Georgina Cray, the Vice-President of the Women's Kill-the-Drink League?"
"My wife," Mr. Cray faltered.
Miss Medlicott shook hands with him again.
"I am proud to know you, sir," she declared. "Your wife has done a great work in Oregon."
"Sure!" Mr. Cray murmured, his tone singularly lacking in conviction. "I've been kind of out of things for the last twelve months."
"Mr. Cray has been over in France, doing Y.M.C.A. work," his friend explained.
"Exactly what I should have expected from Mrs. Cray's husband," the young lady declared, approvingly.
"You'll sit down and have some lunch with us, Miss Medlicott?" Mr. Wallin begged.
The young lady appeared to hesitate. She glanced once more around the room.
"I promised to lunch with some of the crowd," she said, "but—"
Her eyes suddenly fell upon the bottle of Scotch whisky which Mr. Wallin had vainly tried to conceal behind a newspaper. Her manner stiffened.
"We'll send this right away," the offender promised, eagerly. "I'm not accustomed to it in the middle of the day, but Mr. Cray here has a touch of rheumatism."
"Touch of what?" Mr. Cray asked, blankly, and received a kick on the shins for his obtuseness.
Miss Medlicott smiled gravely at him.
"You mustn't think I'm over-prejudiced, Mr. Cray," she said, "but I am a great believer in total abstinence. I have many friends, however, who do not share my views, amongst them Mr. Wallin here. I do not, however, sit down at a table, if I can help it, where alcoholic liquors are being consumed."
"We'll soon make that all right if you'll join us,". Mr. Cray promised, pushing the bottle heroically away.
"In any case," Miss Medlicott replied, smiling, "there are my friends. Good-bye, Mr. Cray. You will come and call, won't you, Mr. Wallin?"
"Sure!" that gentleman assented, eagerly. "I'll be round to-morrow afternoon."
The young lady departed. Mr. Cray looked after her regretfully. "Say, that's a pity, Ed!" he said. "A real stunner, if ever I spoke to one, and a bee in her bonnet like that!"
Mr. Wallin groaned.
"And I love her, Joe," he confided. "I've asked her to marry me six times, and I've come over here because I couldn't bear to think of her in London and these foreign places and me back in Seattle. Sometimes I think I'll have to take the pledge."
Mr. Cray coughed. He found advice difficult.
"It's a serious step, Ed. Men at our time of life ought to be careful how we trifle with our constitutions."
Mr. Wallin helped himself to whisky.
"You're right, Joe," he agreed, "but I do sure love that girl."
"How do you stand with her?" his friend inquired.
"All right, I guess, except for this craze of hers," was the doleful reply. "I can't see that it's her fault. Her father and mother are crazy about it. She's been brought up in the atmosphere."
"She seems a nice girl, too," Mr. Cray sighed.
"If she'd only leave off trying to convert me!" Mr. Wallin murmured.
Mr. Cray finished his whisky-and-soda and displayed an interest in the waiter's suggestion as to liqueurs. The matter having been satisfactorily dealt with, he proceeded to the reconsideration of his friend's dilemma.
"Ed," he said, "have you ever tried to convert the young lady?"
"Will you tell me how to start about it?" Mr. Wallin asked, drearily. "The poor girl doesn't know the taste of wine or liquor. Nothing of the sort has ever been allowed in the house since she was born. I'd as soon think of offering her a cocktail as of handing her poisoned chocolates, and I guess she'd feel the same about it."
"What sort of a crowd is she with over here?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Why, there's her father and mother, a reverend gentleman, two elderly men, and Hiram Croft, the Senator. I guess he's in the same boat that I am."
"A rival, eh?" Mr. Cray observed.
His friend assented dolefully.
"And looks like landing the goods. There they all are, over at the round table."
Mr. Cray studied them thoughtfully.
"Lot of deadheads," he declared. "Why, Miss Medlicott is the only live figure there. She don't belong, Ed."
"It's a cruel hobby, that water-drinking," Mr. Wallin remarked. "Seems to link them together, though."
"You mean to tell me that sandy-haired, melancholy-looking dyspeptic is your rival?" his host went on. "Gee! Ed, you ought to put it over on him!"
"He's the big noise when he's on the platform."
"Sure, but the girl isn't going to live with him on a platform! What are they all doing over here, Ed?"
"Some fool's stunt," Mr. Wallin replied. "They're collecting recipes of temperance drinks. The idea is, when they find one that goes, to form a company to manufacture it. Something that's cool and thirst-quenching in summer, and warm and vitalizing in winter—see the ads. that Hiram Croft is always drawing up."
"A new soft drink, eh?" Mr. Cray said, thoughtfully.
"That's the idea. They're going round the English manufacturers, and if they can't find anything they're going on the Continent."
"A new soft drink, eh?" Mr. Cray repeated. "There's money in that, Ed."
"Sure," Mr. Wallin assented, "or Hiram Croft wouldn't be in it. He's some water-drinker, and he cuts out the hard stuff all right, but his nose follows the dollars all that time. Pa and Ma Medlicott know that, too. My little pile isn't much by the side of his."
"Ed," his friend said, firmly, "if you let a whimple-faced, anaemic-looking weed like that rob you of a fine girl like Miss Medlicott, I've sure done with you."
"Do you think I want him to have her?" Mr. Wallin asked, almost indignantly. "Do you think I've followed her over here for nothing? Say, you always were a slick sort of chap, Joe. Do you think you could help me?"
Mr. Cray stretched a pudgy but muscular hand across the table.
"I do think so and I will, Ed," he declared. "Put it there."
The Hiram Croft-cum-Medlicott party occupied a large round table in a corner of the restaurant. Mr. Wallin and his companion paused before it on their way out.
"I want you all to know my friend, Mr. Joseph P. Cray," the former said, with his hand on Hiram Croft's shoulder. "Mr. Cray has just returned from a year with the Young Men's Christian Association out at the Front."
Mr. Hiram Croft shook hands. The introduction was made general.
"Any relation, may I ask?" Mrs. Medlicott began, adjusting her pince-nez.
"My friend Mr. Cray," Mr. Wallin interrupted, proudly, "is the husband of Mrs. Cray, the Vice-President of the Kill-the-Drink League."
Mr. Hiram Croft shook hands with him again.
"This is a privilege, Mr. Cray," he said.
Everyone seemed pleased and happy. A chair was brought for Mr. Cray, who looked round at the table with its four goblets of iced water with an inward shiver. There was a good deal of general conversation, which Mr. Cray dexterously brought up to a certain point.
"Mr. Croft," he said, "I am one of those men who before the war had been accustomed to use liquor in moderation."
Mr. Cray, in the eyes of everybody, became a very black sheep indeed. Everybody's manner stiffened perceptibly. It was hard to connect an even moderate use of strong drink with the husband of such an inspired dry prophetess as Mrs. Cray.
"When I took up my post for the Y.M.C.A.," Mr. Cray continued, "I cut it right out. During my year in France not a drop of liquor of any sort passed my lips. Being naturally of a somewhat thirsty disposition, I developed a strong interest in temperance drinks."
"Sure!" Mr. Hiram Croft murmured, with returning tolerance.
"The subject of temperance drinks," Mr. Medlicott announced, "is one which is at the present time engaging a large share of our attention."
"So I understood from my friend Mr. Wallin here," Mr. Cray said. "I gathered that you were over here looking out for a thoroughly satisfactory recipe for a non-alcoholic beverage."
"Do you know of one, Mr. Cray?" Miss Medlicott asked, with a smile.
"Madam," the gentleman addressed replied, solemnly, "I do."
"Say, this is very interesting," the Senator remarked. "Can we be introduced to it, sir?"
Mr. Cray drew his chair a little closer up to the table.
"Mrs. Medlicott and gentlemen," he said, "it is, in a sense, a most extraordinary thing that I should have come into touch with you. I claim to have discovered the most wonderful, refreshing, thirst-quenching, and exhilarating beverage the world has ever known. I hold the recipe of it, and I value that recipe at a good many million dollars."
"Large figures," Mr. Croft murmured.
"If the beverage," Mr. Cray proceeded, solemnly, "stood on the market according to my directions and sold at even a moderate profit, its sales throughout the world would be colossal. But," he went on, "all this is talk. I am prepared to prove my words. I ask you, Mrs. Medlicott and gentlemen, have you yet discovered a satisfactory non-alcoholic beverage?"
"We have not," Mrs. Medlicott admitted.
"We were inclined to favour a certain brand of dry ginger ale," Mr. Croft observed, "but we have come to the decision that its after-effects are deleterious."
"A sense of inflation," one of the old gentlemen murmured.
"A tendency towards pains in the lower regions," Mr. Medlicott admitted, frankly.
"In short," Mr. Cray summed up, "you have not yet found what you are looking for. Now, I have brought my recipe back from France, and, although I have not yet sold a single bottle, been near the advertisers, or mentioned it to a soul, I have a plant near London, and I shall be starting out shortly to manufacture on a very small scale. I invite you, ladies and gentlemen, to dine with me in the restaurant of this hotel at eight o'clock next Wednesday night, when my daughter, Lady Sittingbourne, will be proud to be your hostess. You shall then test my beverage, and if you find it what you are looking for, there shall be no question of dollars between us. I will give you the recipe."
Mr. Hiram Croft shook hands with Mr. Cray for the third time.
"Sir," he said, "if you are not led away by the enthusiasm of the discoverer, you are one of the world's benefactors."
"You have spoken, sir," Mrs. Medlicott declared, "as the husband of Mrs. Cray should speak."
"In short," Mr. Medlicott declared, "we accept your invitation."
Mr. Cray received his guests on the appointed day in the sitting-room of his suite. He presented them to his daughter, and as soon as they were all assembled he stood by his little sideboard and addressed them.
"Mrs. and Miss Medlicott and gentlemen," he said, "I can assure you that I feel it a very great honour to entertain you all tonight, but I do not want you to lose sight for a moment of the fact that in a sense this is an educational, and I trust you will find it a deeply interesting, gathering. I am going to disprove everything that has ever been written about alcohol."
"Hear, hear!" Mr. Hiram Croft murmured.
"Now," Mr. Cray continued, smiling, "you are all doubtless aware of a long-established habit amongst our country people of taking a cocktail before dinner. However one looks upon it, the habit itself is, without doubt, a pernicious one."
"Deplorable!" Mrs. Medlicott murmured.
"Unhygienic," one of the old gentlemen echoed.
Mr. Cray signified his unqualified assent.
"Still," he continued, "one function of this cocktail is on the surface a pleasant one. A little party of friends such as the present one meets, a little tired with the day's toil, shy, perhaps, from an imperfect acquaintance with one another, depressed with business worries, physically, perhaps, and mentally weary. Alcohol, in the shape of a cocktail, has its functions upon such an occasion. We have heard the hearty laugh, we have seen the lightning change, the smile of relief, a spirit, perhaps, of good-fellowship, incited by this evil means. Now, my friends, I propose to show you how something of the same sort can be incited without recourse to this bane of our days, alcohol."
Mr. Cray lifted a napkin from the top of a dozen or so of glasses which stood upon a silver salver upon the sideboard. The glasses were filled with a pale amber liquid, on the top of which was floating a small piece of lemon. Very proudly indeed Mr. Cray handed a glass to each of the little company. They all accepted it with a smile of pleased interest.
"Now this," Mr. Cray announced, "is the subject of my first recipe. It is, I claim, pleasant to the taste, stimulating, refreshing, and entirely harmless. It is quite inexpensive to produce, and if you share my enthusiasm for the beverage of which you will presently partake, the recipe for this slight appetizer shall also be yours. Mrs. Medlicott—Miss Medlicott—gentlemen!"
They all tasted critically, tasted again, and set down their glasses empty. Then they all looked at one another. Mr. Wallin was the only unenthusiastic person.
"I'm afraid I'm all for a dry Martini, Joseph," he admitted, "although I must admit that this is a pleasant little appetizer so far as soft drinks go."
"Your taste, sir," Mr. Hiram Croft said, severely, "is vitiated. The beverage of which we have just partaken, Mr. Cray," he added, looking hard at the sideboard to see if there was any more, "represents, I consider, a remarkable discovery. I find it exceedingly pleasant and, if I may say so, stimulating, without the noxious after-taste of alcohol."
"I think it is perfectly delicious," Miss Medlicott pronounced.
"Most soothing," Mrs. Medlicott agreed.
"Mr. Wallin's criticism," Mr. Medlicott said, regarding him steadily, "only proves how a taste for the really good and pure beverages of life may be destroyed by reckless indulgence in alcohol. I consider this beverage which you have offered us, Mr. Cray, a most marvellous discovery. I offer you my congratulations. I am impatient to become acquainted with your other and main discovery."
"I am most gratified," Mr. Cray declared, beaming. "If you will follow me, then, we will now get along to the restaurant."
The little party made their way along the corridor to the lift and thence to the restaurant. There was not the slightest doubt that the truth of Mr. Cray's contentions was already becoming evident. The two old gentlemen, who brought up the rear arm-in-arm, looked a great deal less like college professors, and surveyed the gay scene in the foyer with critical and appreciative eyes. Mr. Hiram Croft talked the whole of the way. He was even genial to his rival, Mr. Wallin.
"It is my belief, sir," he said, "that your very interesting friend, Mr. Cray, has made a marvellous discovery. I have suffered from dyspepsia all my life. Meals have been a trouble to me instead of a pleasure, I have seldom anticipated the partaking of food except with dread. To-night I have quite a new feeling. I am hungry, I am looking forward to my dinner. If this sensation lasts I shall hail Mr. Cray as one of the benefactors of his generation, and I shall make it my business, too, as a Senator and a man of some note, Mr. Wallin, in our great country, to see that your friend's discovery brings him the fame to which he is entitled."
Mr. Wallin listened with respect to his companion's eulogy. Mrs. Medlicott, who walked at Mr. Cray's right hand, talked to him all the time with marked graciousness. She did not once raise her pince-nez to gaze with disapproval at the somewhat exotic evening dresses of the other guests in the foyer. Her mouth had lost its severe curve, and she, too, seemed full of pleasurable anticipation. Miss Medlicott, who walked on the other side of their host, was inclined to be a little thoughtful. She, too, however, was in the best of spirits, and a little cry of admiration escaped her lips when, escorted by many bowing waiters, they were ushered to a private room opening out of the main restaurant, in the centre of which was a large table beautifully decorated with great clusters of red roses, and with a little American flag rising from a fancy edifice in the middle. There was a general murmur of interest when, as they sat down, gold-foiled bottles, one to every two persons, were discovered around the table.
"So this is the great discovery," Mrs. Medlicott said, smiling. "The bottle presents a most attractive appearance."
"I am glad that it meets with your approval," Mr. Cray replied. "I have instructed the waiter not to open any of it until after the soup, as the contents are slightly aerated."
Mr. Hiram Croft looked a little disappointed. He ate his oysters and swallowed his soup with almost tumultuous eagerness. A little murmur of deep interest escaped from everyone when, with the serving of the fish, a dark-visaged potentate dexterously opened one or two of the bottles and glasses were filled.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Cray said, "this may be an epoch-making dinner in the history of American temperance. If you approve of this beverage, as I trust you will do, there may soon come a time when it will become a familiar feature upon the sideboard and dinner-table of every self-respecting American citizen. My best wishes to all of you!"
Glasses were clinked all round the table. Mr. Cray drank with Mrs. Medlicott and Miss Medlicott, Mr. Wallin drank with Mr. Medlicott, the two old gentlemen drank with one another, Mr. Hiram Croft drank with everybody. When he set down his glass it was empty. His words reflected the expression of pleasure on everyone's face.
"Mr. Cray," he pronounced, "there can be no manner of doubt about the qualities of this remarkable beverage. I hail you, sir, as one of the greatest discoverers of the age, one of the greatest friends American temperance has ever had."
"Let us drink," Mrs. Medlicott purred, "to Mrs. Cray. What would she not give to be with us to-night!"
"To Mrs. Cray," the senator assented, waving his refilled glass, "Vice-President of the Kill-the-Drink League. Also to her worthy husband, Mr. Joseph P. Cray," he added, bowing to his host.
The toast was duly honoured, and the conversation continued on cheerful and optimistic lines. After his first glass Mr. Cray turned to Mrs. Medlicott.
"Madam," he said, "I trust that it will not offend your susceptibilities in any way if Mr. Wallin and I, who you know are not abstainers, take a glass of champagne?"
Mrs. Medlicott shook her head at him, but her expression, as well as her tone, was kind and genial.
"Why, you must please yourself, Mr. Cray," she replied. "I am thankful to say that I am not a prejudiced woman."
Mr. Cray bowed, and the waiter filled his glass and Mr. Wallin's with champagne of a well-known vintage. Mrs. Medlicott sighed.
"Everyone to his taste," she said, "but it does astonish me, Mr. Cray, that when you have a harmless and non-alcoholic beverage of such marvellous properties as the one which we are now drinking, you should prefer to drink wine and face the after consequences."
"Wine doesn't disagree with me, madam," Mr. Cray declared, mildly.
Mrs. Medlicott squeezed his arm in friendly fashion.
"Joseph Cray," she said, "I take an interest in you because I know your wife."
Mr. Cray sighed.
"I suppose Amelia has to be in it," he murmured.
Mrs. Medlicott shook her head playfully.
"Why, Mr. Cray," she exclaimed, "you are getting me all confused. Now listen to me, there's a dear man. Statistics—"
Mr. Hiram Croft's sonorous utterance suddenly descended upon them like a mill-stream, sweeping away the froth of lighter conversation. One hand fondly embraced the stem of his wineglass, with the other he beat time upon the table.
"Statistics," he interrupted, "have proved to the conviction of every thinking man the evil and the horror of indulgence in alcoholic beverages of any sort. Mr. Joseph P. Cray here has swept away the last excuse of the wine-drinker. He has provided us with a beverage generous in its qualities, exhilarating in its after-effects, delicious to the palate. This beverage," he continued, looking earnestly at the bubbles in his glass, "has none of the thin acidity of most temperance drinks. It has none ofsh—I beg your pardon," he said, holding his hand before his mouth and correcting himself with prenatural gravity. "It has none of the thin limpidity of the aerated waters in ge-general use. If I were to search through my vocabulary for a single adjective, or rather epithet, to apply to this wonderful refreshment, I should call it—inspired."
"Bravo!" exclaimed the two old gentlemen from the other end of the table.
"How eloquent you are, Mr. Croft!" Miss Medlicott murmured.
Mr. Croft dived for her hand under the table, and very nearly lost his balance. The young lady drew a little farther away.
"What I should like to know," Mr. Medlicott demanded, "is what can alcohol give us that we do not find in this simple beverage?
"What indeed?" Mr. Cray murmured, under his breath.
The Senator straightened his tie, which he was surprised to find had gone round to the back of his neck.
"Mr. Cray," he declared, "is the world's greatest benefactor. He has dug a grave for alcohol, he has signed the doom of hard drinks. You agree with me, gentlemen?" he asked, leaning over and addressing the two gentlemen with strained politeness.
"Sure!" they exclaimed, with one breath.
"I am glad to hear that," Mr. Croft said, severely. "For a moment I fancied that you were not in sympathy with our enthusiasm."
"That's where you were dead wrong, then, Croft," one of them replied.
Mr. Croft looked round the table.
"If anyone has anything to say against this beverage—" he continued, with the air of one spoiling for a fight.
"I thought it a little insipid," Mr. Wallin commented. "I was glad to get a glass of champagne afterwards."
"Inshipid?" Mr. Croft repeated, severely. "Mr. Wallin, you surprise me."
"Not nearly so much as you're surprising me," that gentleman replied. "I haven't seen you look so well or talk so well for ages."
Mr. Croft smiled. He looked steadily at Miss Medlicott's hand, as though meditating another dive. She promptly withdrew it and moved her chair a little nearer to Mr. Wallin's.
"It was a pleasing custom in my younger days," Mr. Croft said presently, as the wonderful repast drew to a finish, "to—er—shing shongs—I beg your pardon—to sing songs at the conclusion of a feast of this description—college songs generally. Can anyone oblige?"
Everyone seemed willing to oblige at once. Mr. Cray struck the table with his fist, however, and demanded silence for Mrs. Medlicott, and Mrs. Medlicott, interrupted with little bursts of laughter which necessitated her stopping sometimes to wipe the tears from her eyes, warbled a strange ditty in which the moonlight, a coloured gentleman of amorous propensities, and a chicken seemed inextricably mixed. Mr. Cray roared a buccaneering ditty, and Mr. Croft, in a reedy falsetto, essayed a well-known darky melody. Presently Mrs. and Miss Medlicott retired into the little withdrawing-room opening out from the suite, Mr. Croft, supporting himself by the back of the chair, throwing amorous kisses at the latter's retreating figure. His eyes returned to the sideboard, and rested there with marked satisfaction.
"Two more bottles," he declared. "We'll give thish beverage a thorough tesht, Mr. Cray."
Mr. Cray signed to the waiter. Then he rose to his feet. Miss Medlicott was standing on the threshold of the withdrawing-room, beckoning imperatively to him.
"If you will excuse me for one moment, gentlemen," he begged.
"For one moment, but never a life-time," warbled Mr. Croft. "Come back shoon, old dear."
Mr. Cray approached Miss Medlicott with some apprehension. She drew him inside the little room. Mrs. Medlicott was lying on the couch with her eyes closed, and snoring melodiously.
"Dear host—" Miss Medlicott began.
Mr. Cray saw that the young lady's eyes were dancing with humour, and he felt relieved.
"Will you give me the recipe of your temperance beverage, please?" she said.
"I will if you promise to marry Mr. Wallin," he replied.
She laughed softly.
"He hasn't asked me lately," she said.
"If he asks you to-night?" Mr. Cray persisted.
She looked back into the room. The two old gentlemen were sitting arm-in-arm, telling one another stories. Mr. Medlicott, with a cigar in the corner of his mouth and a beatific expression upon his face, was leaning forward in his chair, listening to Mr. Hiram Croft telling a story in a confidential and suggestive undertone. Mr. Wallin, pink and white and wholesome, was looking a little bored.
"I agree," she whispered.
Mr. Cray drew a paper from his pocket.
"You take four bottles of old champagne, one pint of brandy—" he began.
"No more," she interrupted. "Take my advice and tear it up. Fetch Mr. Wallin."
"Ed," Mr. Cray called out softly, "will you step this way?"
MR. JOSEPH P. CRAY followed the usual routine observed by members of the "Americans in London" Society on the occasion of their weekly lunches. He left his coat and hat in the cloakroom, and deposited the ticket which he received in exchange in his waistcoat pocket. Afterwards he slipped into the ante-room, where a little crowd of men were thronging around a narrow counter, exchanging hearty greetings and indulging in various forms of pre-luncheon nourishment. Mr. Cray, who had a mesmeric way of getting served over the shoulders of waiting throngs, disposed of a small cocktail in a matter of seconds, made his way to the reception-room, where the guest of the day stood by the side of his host, exchanging platitudes and handshakes with the little stream of arrivals, and a few minutes later wandered into the luncheon-room, where he discovered the round table for four at which he was placed, exchanged friendly greetings with the two men who were already in their seats, recognized the fact with a little sigh that they were not kindred spirits, and glanced with interest at the vacant place on his right hand, no claimant to which had as yet arrived.
It was a crowded gathering, and it takes some time for six hundred men to take their places and be seated. Mr. Cray studied the menu with mild approval, glanced through the wine list, and decided to postpone for the moment his decision as to liquid refreshment, and finally, yielding to an impulse of not unnatural curiosity, he raised the card which reposed upon the tablecloth opposite the vacant chair on his right and read it:—
MR. OTTO M. SCHREED.
The four walls of the banqueting-room fell away. The pleasant hum of voices, the clatter of crockery and the popping of corks fell upon deaf ears. Mr. Cray's blue eyes were set in a steady stare. Gone his morning coat, his irreproachable linen and carefully-tied tie, his patent boots and well-creased trousers. He was back in the tight, ill-fitting khaki of months ago, a strange, sober figure in the midst of the bustle of life, Yet living under the shadow of death. He stood at the door of the canteen and he saw them marching by, a long, snake-like procession, some singing, some shouting cheery greetings, some pale and limping. Back to the opening in the hills he could trace them, the hill which had once been a forest and now seemed as though a cataclysm had smitten it, a nightmare of bare stumps, of shell and crater holes. The whole horizon seemed streaked with little puffs of smoke. The sound of the guns was incessant. There were times when even the ground beneath his feet shrank. The boys were on their way to the mess tents after a stiff twelve hours. He stepped back into the canteen, tasted the coffee in the great urn, ran through the stock of extra provisions, looked carefully round to see that all was ready for the hordes of his customers who would presently throng the place. They came much sooner than they should have done, a little sullen, many of them cursing, pushed and struggled for a place at the counter, swept him clear of the whole of his stock of extra provisions. He could hear their voices.
"More of that filthy tack!"
"Say, there's some of those chaps at Washington deserve to swing!"
"What is it to-day, boys?" Mr. Cray asked.
There was a string of lurid adjectives. Mr. Cray looked as concerned as he felt.
"More of that stinking beef, eh?" he asked, sympathetically.
He was met with a chorus of groans. A score or more had left the counter already, ill before they could reach their coffee. He heard the curses of further hordes struggling to get in. Then the scene faded away. He walked down the great impromptu annexe to the hospital and spoke to one of the doctors. The doctor's adjectives made the words of his patients sound like the babbling of children.
"More cases of that bad beef," was the plain English of what he said. "We are just in the one corner of the line, too, where we can't rely on stores for a few days. Curse the man who ever made the stuff, and the Government inspector who passed it."
There was a little movement by Mr. Cray's side. He glanced up. A tall, well-built man of early middle age was taking his seat. The two men exchanged greetings.
"Mr. Otto Schreed?" Mr. Cray observed.
The man winced a little, but acknowledged his identity.
"And your name?" he asked.
"Mr. Joseph P. Cray," Mr. Cray replied. "We seem to be neighbours, Mr. Schreed. Will you join me in a bottle of wine?"
"That's a great idea," was the hearty response.
So Mr. Cray did what those few months ago he would have deemed impossible—he fraternized with Mr. Otto Schreed, of Chicago, exporter of tinned beef. They talked together of many subjects. Their conversation was the conversation of two patriotic and high-minded Americans, with the obvious views of the well-meaning man. Mr. Schreed, encouraged towards the end of the meal by his companion's friendliness, and warmed a little by the wine which he had drunk, became confidential.
"Say, it's a hard question I'm going to put to you, Mr. Cray," he said, lowering his voice a little, "but does my name suggest anything to you?"
Mr. Cray took up the card and looked at it.
"Can't say that it does," he replied, "except that your front name reads German."
"That ain't it," the other observed. "My father was a German all right, but I was born in Chicago, and I am a good American citizen. It isn't that. I was one of the unlucky devils that got into some trouble with the Government contractors."
"And I was one of those," Mr. Cray mused, "who spent a hundred dollars cabling to the head of the Y.M.C.A. in the States exactly my opinion of you." But aloud, Mr. Cray's words betrayed nothing of this fact.
"Say, that was hard luck!" he admitted. "How did it happen?"
"Just as those things do happen," the other explained, "however almighty careful you may be. We were canning night and day, with Government officials standing over us, and Washington wiring all the time, 'Get a move on. Get a move on. We want the stuff.' I guess some of the foremen got a bit careless. I was worn out myself. The weather was moist and hot, and a load or two of stuff got in that shouldn't. Not but what I always believed," Mr. Schreed went on, "that the complaints were exaggerated; but anyway the Y.M.C.A. busybodies over yonder took it up, and they got me before the Court."
"Did it cost you much?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"They fined me fifty thousand dollars," the other replied, "and I had to sell out. Just at the time, too," he went on, gloomily, "when one was making so much money that one couldn't count it."
It was just at this moment that Mr. Cray was on the point of raising his voice and of speaking words which, without doubt, would have led to his neighbour's precipitate ejection from the room. And then something struck him. There was something more than the natural humiliation of a punished man in Mr. Schreed's drawn face and furtive expression. There was something beyond the look of the man who has done wrong and borne an unacceptable punishment. There was still fear; there was still terror of some unnamed possibility. Mr. Cray saw this, and he held his peace. He took his thoughts back a few months to the little conversation he had had with the doctor in that impromptu hospital. He recalled the latter's impassioned words, and he choked down certain rebellious feelings. He decided to offer the right hand of fellowship to the unfortunate Mr. Otto Schreed.
Mr. Otto Schreed was alone and friendless in a strange city, with the shadow of disgrace resting upon his unattractive name. He was more than disposed, therefore, to accept the advances of this genial and companionable new acquaintance. He was not by disposition a gregarious person, but he was too uncultured to find any pleasure in books or pictures, the newspapers of London were an unknown world to him, and a certain measure of companionship became therefore almost a necessity. It appeared that he was staying at the Milan Hotel, and it was quite natural, therefore, that he should see a great deal of his new friend during the next few days. He was not at first disposed to be communicative. He said very little about his plans, and he asked a great many personal questions, some of which Mr. Cray evaded, and others of which he answered with artless candour. Mr. Cray's connection with the Y.M.C.A. and his work in France was not once alluded to.
"Say, what's keeping you over here?" Mr. Schreed asked one day. "You've nothing against the other side?"
"Haven't I!" Mr. Cray replied. "That's where you're making the mistake of your life. I am not a drunkard," he went on, warming to his subject, "but I am a man who loves his liberty, and I hate a country where the bars are crowded out with soft drinks, and where the darned waiters wink and jerk their thumbs round the corner towards the apothecary's shop when you want a drop of Scotch. I am over here, Schreed, my lad, till the United States comes to its senses on the liquor question, and over here I mean to stop until then. What about yourself?"
Mr. Schreed had been exceedingly close-mouthed about his own movements, but this morning he spoke with more freedom of his plans.
"I am not so strong as you on the liquor question," he admitted, "but I feel I have been hardly done with over there by the Government, and I'm not hurrying back yet awhile. I thought some," he went on, after a moment's pause, glancing sideways at Mr. Cray as though to watch the effect of his words, "of taking a little tour out to the battlefields of France."
"That's quite an idea," Mr. Cray admitted, with interest.
His companion looked around to make sure that they were alone.
"I don't mind confiding to you, Cray," he said, "that I have another reason for wanting to get out there. When the Stores Department discovered that something was wrong with those few thousand tins of beef of mine, they burnt the lot. They sent a certificate to Washington as to its condition, upon which I was convicted and fined, although I was well able to prove that the week the defective canning must have been done I was taking a few days' vacation. However, that's neither here nor there. I made inquiries as to whether any of it was still in existence, and I was told that before any had been opened a matter of fifty tins or so had been doled out in some French village where the peasants hadn't got any food. Nothing was ever heard about these."
"I see," Mr. Cray murmured, and there was nothing in his face to indicate that he had found the intelligence interesting.
"I kind of thought," Mr. Schreed continued, "that I'd like to look around over there, and if any of those tins were still in existence I'd buy them up and destroy them, so as to avoid any further trouble. You see, they all have my name and trade mark on the outside. The Government insisted upon that."
"Rather like looking for a needle in a haystack," Mr. Cray remarked.
"Not so much," the other replied. "I know the name of the place where our men were billeted when they opened the stuff, and the name of the village to which they sent fifty tins. I thought I'd just look around there, and if there are no traces of any—well, I've done the best I could. Then I thought some of coming home by Holland."
"Business in Holland, eh?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Not exactly business—or rather, if it is, it wouldn't take more than an hour or two," Mr. Schreed announced.
"When did you think of going?"
"Next week. They tell me they're running some tours from Paris out to the battlefields. The one that goes to Château Thierry would serve my purpose. The worst of it is I can't speak a word of the lingo."
"It's dead easy," Mr. Cray observed. "I've been going to Paris too many years not to have picked up a bit."
"You wouldn't care about a trip out with me, I suppose," Mr. Schreed suggested, "just in a friendly fashion, you understand, each paying his own dues?"
"I don't know," Mr. Cray replied, cautiously. "Next week did you say you were going?"
"I'm fixing it up to leave on Wednesday."
"It's some trip," Mr. Cray said, thoughtfully.
"A day or two in Paris wouldn't do us any harm," Mr. Schreed remarked, with a slow smile which degenerated into a leer.
"We'll take a bite together at seven o'clock to-night," Mr. Cray decided, "and I'll let you know. I don't know as I can see anything to prevent my going, providing I can get accommodation. I might be able to help you with the language, too. Finish up in Holland, you said, eh?"
"I don't know as you'd care to go up that far with me," Mr. Schreed said, doubtfully. "I sha'n't be stopping there, either. You might wait in Paris."
Mr. Cray smiled beatifically.
"Paris," he murmured. "Gee! I think I'll go, Schreed."
Mr. Otto Schreed was both surprised and gratified at his companion's proficiency in the French language and his capacity for making travelling endurable. Their journey to Paris was accomplished under the most favourable circumstances, and by dint of a long argument and great tact the very inferior accommodation which had been secured for them was cancelled, and rooms with a small salon and bathrooms en suite provided at a well-known hotel. As a guide to Paris itself, except to the American bars and the restaurants pure and simple, Mr Cray was perhaps a little disappointing, but his companion himself, during those first few days, was restless and eager to be off on their quest. On the third day Mr. Cray announced their imminent departure.
"Say, I've done better for you than these Cook's chars-a-bancs," he announced, triumphantly. "I've engaged a private car, and we can get out to Château Thierry, see the whole of that part of the line, visit the village you were speaking of, and get back before nightfall. Some hustle, what?"
"Fine!" Mr. Schreed declared, showing every impatience to depart. "Does the man speak any English?"
"I don't know as he does," Mr. Cray admitted; "but that don't matter any, I guess, as long as I'm around all the time." Mr. Schreed seemed a little disappointed.
"How about making the inquiries in these small grocers' shops, or what you call them?"
"I shall be along," Mr. Cray reminded him. "You can stand by my side and hear what they say."
So the pilgrimage started. Mr. Cray felt a great silence creep over him as he stood once more on well-remembered ground. It was a bright day in early October, and the familiar landmarks for many miles were visible. Behind that remnant of wood a thousand Americans had been ambushed. On the hillside there, a great mine had been sprung. Down in the valley below, the corpses of his countrymen had lain so thick that Mr. Cray found himself remembering that one awful night when every spare hand—he himself included—had been pressed into the stretcher- bearers' service. He grew more and more silent as they neared their journey's end. Mr. Schreed appeared to be a trifle bored.
"Lutaples is the name of the village we want," he announced, as they began to pass a few white-plastered cottages.
Mr. Cray nodded.
"I know," he said, reminiscently. "Our canteen was in the hollow, just at the bottom there."
"Our canteen?" Mr. Schreed repeated.
"The American canteen," Mr. Cray explained. "I've been making inquiries for you. So far as I can gather, there was only one shop in Lutaples at the time, and it's up this end of the village. However, we'll soon find out all about it now."
They stopped at a small estaminet, and here trouble nearly came, for no disguise could conceal from the warm-hearted little landlord the kindly, absurd fat man in tight uniform who had fed him and his wife and children and left them money behind to make a fresh start. Fortunately, however, Schreed had lingered behind, making a vain attempt to converse with the chauffeur, and Cray had time, in a few rapid sentences, to put a certain matter before his friend Pierre. So that when Schreed returned and took his seat by Cray's side before the marble table in the village street, Pierre was able to serve them with liqueurs and speak as though to strangers. Mr. Cray conversed with him for some time.
"Well, what does he say?" Schreed asked eagerly, when he had gone in.
"There was only one grocer's shop in the village at the time we were in occupation," Mr. Cray explained, "and the majority of the stores presented by the Americans were handed over to him for distribution. There's the store, plumb opposite—Henri Lalarge. Epicier."
"That mean 'Grocer'?" Otto Schreed asked.
"Some of it does. Let's be getting along."
Mr. Cray led the way across the cobbled street. M. Lalarge was short, fat, and black-whiskered. As they entered his shop the landlord from the estaminet opposite issued from the back quarters.
"What's he been doing over here?" Schreed demanded, suspiciously.
Mr. Cray shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose these fellows all live on one another's doorsteps," he observed.
The result of the landlord's visit, however, was that, although the tears of welcome glistened in the eyes of the warm-hearted M. Lalarge, he greeted the two men as strangers. Mr. Cray, having satisfied himself as to his companion's absolute ignorance of the language, talked fluently to the grocer in rapid French. Presently he appeared satisfied, and turned to Schreed.
"He says he had fifty tins," he explained, "but they were distributed half an hour after he received them. The complaint was made from some of the villagers, and the unopened tins were returned and burned. There is a chemist's shop at the farther end of the village, where it would be as well to make inquiries. The chauffeur might take you there and I will explain to him what you want to ask for. Meanwhile, I will see the curé."
Mr. Schreed saw nothing to object to in the arrangement, and drove off with the chauffeur. M. Lalarge, with the tears streaming down his cheeks, threw his arms round Mr. Cray and kissed him.
"Heaven has brought you back!" he exclaimed. "Our deliverer—our Saint! But how thin—how wasted!"
"Simply a matter of clothes, Henri my boy," Cray assured him. "Uncle Sam used to pinch us a bit tight about the loins. And now how goes it, eh?"
"Thanks to the benevolence of monsieur, everything prospers," M. Lalarge declared. "His little loan—but give me time to write the cheque—it can be paid this moment."
"Not on your life!" Mr. Cray replied, vigorously. "Not a franc, Henri. We both did good work, eh, when those guns were thundering, and dirty Fritz was skulking behind the hills there? Finished, Henri. I am a rich man, and what you call a loan was my little thank-offering. We did our best together for the poor people, you know."
"But, monsieur—" the little grocer sobbed.
"About those tins," Mr. Cray interrupted. "You have two?"
"I kept them, monsieur," the man explained, "because I read in the paper that some day inquiry might be held into all these matters."
"And an inquiry is going to be held," Mr. Cray declared. "What you have to do, Henri, is to pack those two tins securely and send them to me by registered post to the Ritz Hotel, Paris."
"It shall be done, monsieur."
"Were there any who died after eating the stuff?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Two," the little grocer answered. "They are buried in the civic cemetery. One has talked but little of these things. The Americans came as saviours, and this was an accident."
Cray glanced down the street. His companion was still interviewing the e chemist.
"One petit verre, Henri," he said, "for the sake of old times."
M. Lalarge threw aside his apron.
"And to drink to the great goodness of monsieur," he responded.
Mr. Otto Schreed was in high good-humour that evening, on the way back to Paris. He insisted upon paying for a little dinner at the Ambassador's and a box at the Folies Bergères. He spent money freely, for him, and drank far more wine than usual. As he drank he expanded.
"It is like a nightmare passed away," he confided to his companion. "I know now that no one else in the world will ever suffer because of that terrible mistake. There is not a single tin of the condemned beef in existence."
"A load off your mind, eh?" Mr. Cray murmured.
Mr. Schreed smiled a peculiar smile.
"For more reasons than you know of, my friend," he confided. "Now my little trip to Holland, and after that I am a free man.'"
"When are you off there?" his companion inquired.
"The day after to-morrow—Thursday," was the prompt reply. "And, Cray—"
"Something bothering you?" the latter remarked, as Schreed hesitated.
"Just this, old fellow. My little trip to Holland is unimportant in its way, and in another sense it's a trip I want to do alone. Do you get me?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray replied. "I am no butter-in. There are some of the boys in this gay little burg I haven't had time to look up yet. When shall you be back?"
"Monday," was the eager reply—"Monday, sure. I'll go alone then, Cray. I guess it would be better. But look here. Get together a few of your friends, and we'll have a little dinner the night of my return. At my expense, you understand. You've been very useful to me over here, and I should like to make you a little return. Ask anyone you please, and take a couple of boxes for any show you fancy. It isn't the way I live as a rule, but I've a fancy for making a celebration of it."
"That's easy," Mr. Cray declared. "It shall be some celebration, I can tell you. We'll dine in the hotel here, and I promise there shall be one or two people you'll be interested to meet."
So on the Thursday morning Mr. Otto Schreed started for Holland, and Mr. Joseph P. Cray, with a brown-paper parcel under his arm, set out to pay a few calls in Paris.
When Mr. Otto Schreed made his punctual appearance in the hotel salon on Monday evening at a few minutes before eight he found Mr. Cray and three other guests awaiting him. Mr. Cray was busy mixing cocktails, so was unable to shake hands. He looked around and nodded.
"Glad you're punctual, Schreed," he said. "Pleasant trip?"
"Business turn out all right?"
"Couldn't have been better. Won't you introduce me to these gentlemen, Cray?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray replied. "Gentlemen, this is Mr. Otto Schreed of Chicago—Colonel Wilmot, of the American Intelligence Department, Mr. Neville, of the same service, and Dr. Lemarten."
"Delighted to meet you all, gentlemen," Mr. Schreed declared.
His outstretched hand was uselessly offered. Neville and Colonel Wilmot contented themselves with a military salute. The Frenchman bowed. Mr. Schreed for the first moment was conscious of a vague feeling of uneasiness. He turned towards Cray, who was approaching with a little tray upon which were four cocktails.
"Hope you've ordered a good dinner, Cray," he said, "and that these gentlemen are ready to do justice to it. Why, you're a cocktail short!"
Colonel Wilmot, Mr. Neville, and Dr. Lemarten had each accepted a wineglass. Mr. Cray took the other one.
"And, dash it all! the table's only laid for four!" Schreed continued, as he gazed with dismay at the empty silver tray. "Is this a practical joke?"
Mr. Cray shook his head.
"One of us," he confided, "is not having a cocktail. One of us is not dining. That one, Otto Schreed, is you."
Schreed was suddenly pale. He backed a little towards the door, gripping the back of a chair with his hand.
"Say, what the devil does this mean?" he demanded.
"You just stay where you are and you shall hear," Mr. Cray replied, setting down his empty glass. "I worked out at that little village of Lutaples for the last year of the war—ran an American canteen there for the Y.M.C.A. I was there when your filthy beef was unloaded upon the boys. I saw their sufferings."
"God!" Schreed muttered beneath his breath. "And you never told me!"
"I never told you," Cray assented, "although I came pretty near telling you with an end of my fist that day at the luncheon club. Glad I didn't, now. When I tumbled to it that you were scared about any more of those tins being in existence I began to guess how things were. I came over with you to be sure you didn't get them. I got two tins from M. Lalarge, and a nice tale he had to tell me about the rest. Dr. Lemarten here analysed them and prepared a report. He's here to tell you about it."
"The beef was poisoned," the Frenchman said, calmly. "My report has been handed to Colonel Wilmot."
"It's a lie!" Schreed declared, trembling. "Besides, this matter has been dealt with. I have paid my fine. It is finished."
"Not on your life," Mr. Cray replied. "Ten thousand tins of your bully beef, Otto Schreed, contained poison. No wonder you were glad to get out of it, as you thought, with a fine. Now we'll move on a step. You've just come back from Holland. You may not have known it, but Mr. Neville here, of the American Intelligence Department, was your fellow-passenger. You cashed five drafts at the Amsterdam Bank, amounting in all to something like five hundred thousand dollars of American money. Half of that went to your credit in London, the other half you've got with you. Blood-money, Otto Schreed—foul, stinking blood-money!"
Schreed was on the point of collapse.
"You have employed spies to dog me?" he shouted.
"We don't call the officers of the American Intelligence Department spies," Mr. Cray observed, coldly.
"Otto Schreed," Colonel Wilmot said, speaking for the first time, "I have a warrant for your arrest, and an extradition warrant from the French Government. You will leave for Cherbourg to-night and be taken back to New York."
"On what charge?" Schreed faltered.
"Political conspiracy—perhaps murder."
Colonel Wilmot walked to the door and called in two men who were waiting outside. Schreed collapsed.
"I've two hundred and fifty thousand dollars here," he shrieked. "Can't we arrange this? Cray! Colonel Wilmot!"
The two men were obliged to drag him out.
Mr. Cray moved to the window and threw it open.
"What we want," he said, "is fresh air."
Colonel Wilmot smiled.
"He was a poisonous beast, Cray," he said, "but you've done a fine stroke of business for the United States Government, and we're anxious to drink your health."
Two waiters, followed by a maître d'hôtel, were already in the room. The latter came forward and bowed.
"Monsieur est servi," he announced.
Mr. Cray, newly arrived from Paris, sat in the lounge of the Milan, talking to his daughter, Lady Sittingbourne.
The latter was a little distressed.
"I am worried about George, dad," she confided. "When did you say the Mauretania arrived?"
"Docked in Liverpool midday yesterday," Mr. Cray replied. "The special arrived in London last night."
"George cabled me from New York that he was sailing on her," Sara continued, "and I have heard nothing since. I sat at home all last night, and all to-day up till four o'clock. Then I telephoned the Cunard Steamship Company and they told me that he was on board. They knew nothing else, of course."
Mr. Cray admitted to being a little perplexed himself. "I suppose he'd have to go to Downing Street first," he observed.
"I thought I'd allowed plenty of time for that. Why, dad—"
Mr. Cray was leaning forward in his chair. He, too, was staring in some bewilderment at the tall, good-looking man who had just descended the steps and, with a companion by his side, was making his way towards the restaurant. There was not the slightest doubt that the man was Sir George Sittingbourne, or that his companion was an extremely good-looking woman of somewhat flamboyant type.
"George!" Sara exclaimed, breathlessly. "What on earth does this mean?"
She rose impulsively to her feet. Her husband turned and glanced in their direction. He took not the slightest notice either of his wife or his father-in-law. The woman by his side plucked at his arm to ask him a question, and he smiled into her face as he leaned down.
"Gee!" Mr. Cray murmured. "This is bad!"
"It's disgraceful—horrible!" Sara cried. "So this is why George hasn't been home!"
Mr. Cray pulled himself together.
"George isn't that sort, my dear," he declared. "There's something queer about it. Let's sit and think for a moment."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," Sara insisted. "I shall go straight in and confront him. I will let him know that I saw him with my own eyes."
"If your ladyship will excuse me!"
Both Mr. Cray and his daughter looked round. Standing behind their settee was a small, dark man of unobtrusive manners, dressed in an unobtrusive dinner suit, and with a faintly deprecating smile upon his lips.
"I regret so much," he went on, "being compelled to make my little explanation here. I called in Curzon Street, but found that your ladyship had just left. I wish to have a word with you in reference to your husband."
"My husband?" Sara repeated, blankly. "Who are you?"
"My name is King," the young man replied. "I am connected with the Intelligence Department."
Neither Sara nor her father felt capable of any comment. The situation so suddenly disclosed had taken their breath away.
"Your husband," Mr. King continued, smoothly, "after a very successful visit to the States, has met with one of those misadventures on his homeward journey to which we are all of us sometimes subject. An autograph letter which he was conveying from a certain person in Washington to the Prime Minister, and to obtain which was the object of his mission, was stolen from his person during the last day of his voyage home."
"What has that to do with my husband's presence here with that—that woman?" Sara demanded.
"Sir George sought the aid of my department by wireless," Mr. King replied. "I boarded the steamer in the Mersey and at once realized the probable thief. The woman whom he is dining with to-night sat at his table and occupied the next stateroom to his. She is an Austrian: It will be sufficient if I tell you that if she had been found in any of the allied countries during the war she would have been shot at once as a spy."
"What is her name?" Sara demanded, a little irrelevantly.
"She has many," Mr. King answered. "She calls herself at present Mrs. Jacob Weiller, from Chicago."
"And why is she dining alone with my husband?"
Mr. King smiled inscrutably.
"Even the most successful Secret Service agents in the world," he said, "have their weak point. Mrs. Weiller, although she must be forty years old, preserves a romantic disposition. From my inquiries on the ship, I learned that she has pursued your husband with attentions from the day the steamer left Sandy Hook, attentions which I might add were obviously undesired. It was my advice at once that your husband should not lose sight of the lady. I may tell you that while he engages her attention at dinner, her rooms are being thoroughly searched by our agents."
"Say, this affair becomes interesting!" Mr. Cray declared, his natural instincts asserting themselves. "I guess you are satisfied now, Sara?"
"I suppose so," she admitted, with a shade of doubt still in her tone.
"Then let's just have a word or two more about this matter," Mr. Cray went on. "Searching the lady's rooms is all very well, but can't she have sent the letter away somewhere?"
"It is impossible that she should have parted with it," Mr. King pronounced. "I myself left the steamer by her side. I travelled in the same compartment from Liverpool; I did not move a yard away from her on Euston platform. Sir George escorted her here in a taxicab, from which I watched her myself alight in the entrance hall of the Milan, and went up in the lift with her to her room. Since then she has been surrounded by a cordon of our best agents. She has posted three absolutely harmless letters to personal friends, each of which has been read."
"What about her person?" Mr. Cray demanded. "Surely she would carry a letter as important as that about with her?"
"An agent of ours," Mr. King explained, "at once took the place of the chambermaid on her floor, and has rendered her since her arrival the most intimate personal services. The letter is not concealed upon her person."
"How large a thing is it?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"It is a bulky document," Mr. King replied. "There are eighteen pages of ordinary letter paper enclosed in a long envelope. It is altogether a packet of some bulk."
"The stewardess on the ship—" Mr. Cray began.
Mr. King smiled.
"We make our mistakes," he interrupted, "but in our way we are thorough. Every person with whom she came in contact, during the last day of her voyage has been dealt with. Excuse me for a moment."
Mr. King sauntered across the foyer to where a recently-arrived prototype of himself had lit a cigarette and was ordering a cocktail. There was a few minutes' casual conversation between the two men, after which Mr. King returned.
"The search of Blanche Weiller's room," he announced, "has revealed nothing. I think, in the circumstances, Lady Sittingbourne, disappointing though it may be to you, the best thing you can do is to return home. We will send your husband after you as soon as we can spare him."
Sara made a little grimace.
"I don't see what good he can do if your agents have failed to discover the document," she observed, rising reluctantly to her feet, "and in any case I haven't had any dinner yet."
Mr. Cray took his daughter by the arm.
"We'll go straight into the Grill Room and have a bite, Sara. Afterwards, if I could have a word with you, Mr. King, I'd be glad," he went on. "I am naturally interested in this affair, and it is just possible that I might be of some slight assistance."
King looked a little doubtful. Mr. Cray pushed back his coat, revealing a small medal attached to his waistcoat. The other's manner altered at once.
"For services rendered the American Intelligence Department," Mr. Cray, explained. "I'll look for you about here, eh, in three-quarters of an hour?"
"I shall be very glad of your help, sir," was the quiet reply.
The dinner in the Grill Room was rather a dull meal. Sara was several times on the verge of tears, and her father, although fully sympathetic, was inclined at times to let his attention wander a little.
"It seems positively hateful," the former declared, "to think that I should be up here dining alone with you, and George, who has been away from me for months, is in the restaurant, dining with another woman! Of course, I am sorry that the letter was stolen from him, but I'm sure he took every care of it. I don't see what he can possibly do now towards getting it back."
"It's hard luck," Mr. Cray murmured, soothingly, "but I guess you've got to remember this, Sara. In diplomacy and all Intelligence business, judgment goes only by results. George was entrusted with that letter and he allowed it to be stolen from him. The fault might not have been his. On the other hand, if he doesn't get it back again the black mark's there."
"I call it unfair," Sara protested. "He was so successful with all the rest of his business. They ought to take that into account."
"We'll soon fix that up all right," Mr. Cray promised.
"I know how clever you are, dad," she said, "but I really don't see what you can do here."
"What I should like to do," Mr. Cray remarked, thoughtfully, "is to turn a slight disaster into an absolute triumph. Blanche Weiller, eh? Well, well! The wife of Jacob N. Weiller of Chicago, eh?"
"Do you know something about her, dad? Have you ever seen her before?" Sara inquired.
Mr. Cray smiled mysteriously.
"I think I know as much about the lady as our friend, Mr. King," he said. "I was at Amiens when she was in charge of a French field hospital. She was asked to leave, the day after she arrived—no excuse—not a word of explanation—just her railway pass to Paris, and a hint. She simply faded away. I knew her before that, though. I remember when she had what they call a salon in Washington, some seven years ago."
"You really are rather a wonderful person," Sara observed.
"Nothing wonderful about it," Mr. Cray replied, modestly. "I have a good memory, and I never forget a face."
Sara sighed as her father paid the bill.
"Well, I suppose I'd better go home," she said. "Will you put me in a taxi, dad, and let me know as soon as there's any news?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray promised. "I'll telephone."
Mr. Cray found his new friend studying the tape in the upper hall.
"Say, I'd like to be presented to this Mrs. Weiller," the former said, after they had stood side by side for several moments, both apparently deeply interested by the news.
Mr. King shook his head.
"I am keeping under cover," he replied.
"Sha'n't be butting in," Mr. Cray asked, "if I find my own way there?"
Mr. King considered the point for a moment.
"Not at all," he decided. "You're Sir George's father-in-law. Quite natural for you to speak to him."
Whereupon Mr. Cray descended into the foyer, and after glancing around for a moment as though in search of someone, approached Sir George. His right hand was held out in cordial recognition to Mrs. Weiller. She looked up at him pleasantly, but evidently puzzled.
"Gorge, my boy, glad to see you safely back again," Mr. Cray said. "And—surely I'm not mistaken—aren't you Mrs. Jacob N. Weiller, of Chicago?"
"That is my name," the lady admitted, "but—"
"Why, my dear lady," Mr. Cray interrupted, "your husband and I were at school together, same class at Princetown, and before his marriage we roomed together in New York. Kinder shame I only met you once—out at the Country Club—the Shore Country Club, you know. Luke Hamer was there, and all the crowd."
"Of course, I remember," the lady acknowledged, with a sweet smile.
"Is Jacob along?" Mr. Cray asked, eagerly.
"Not this time."
Mr. Cray remained for a few more minutes chatting on general subjects. Then he took a somewhat hurried departure, recognizing an acquaintance in a distant part of the foyer.
"A dear, friendly person," Mrs. Weiner murmured, toying with one of the stones of her long amber necklace. "To tell you the truth, though, I don't remember him in the least."
Mr. Cray touched King on the arm as he passed him in the upper hall, and led him into the bar. He ordered two Scotch whiskies and sodas and shook his head gravely at his companion.
"Say, Mr. King," he began, "I don't want to seem to be rubbing it in, but you fellows ain't all that smart. You can reckon on handling that letter any time you choose."
Mr. King started a little. His eyes narrowed. He looked at his companion appraisingly. He could not make up his mind whether this was a bluff or whether there was something underneath.
"Where is the letter, then?" he asked.
Mr. Cray smiled.
"I've had a few words with the lady," he went on, thoughtfully. "I talked to her of her husband who never existed, and of a meeting which never took place. She fell to it admirably, and while we talked I looked for that letter. It wasn't so difficult to locate, either."
"Look here," Mr. King said, "that letter consists of eighteen sheets of rather thick notepaper, secured in a long, legal envelope. It must weigh at least six ounces. Now, one of our own women attended Mrs. Weiller from the moment she stepped out of the bath, helped her on with her garments, and never left her for, a single second. From the moment she left the room she was shadowed by one of our men, and I took the business up at the bottom of the lift. Now how can you make out that she has a packet of that description concealed upon her person?"
"Dead easy," Mr. Cray replied. "The only question is do you want to help yourself to the letter at once, or—?"
"Do you want to find out whose game she's playing? In other words, do you want to find out who's paying her to get that letter?"
Mr. King drew a little breath. He was beginning to be impressed.
"There isn't much doubt about that, I fancy, Mr. Cray," he said.
"Why, the woman's an Austrian by birth," Mr. King, pointed out. "She was under suspicion many times during the war. We had evidence only the other day," he continued, dropping his voice a little, "of the renewed activities of the German Secret Service. This woman is directly connected with one of the new chiefs."
"Ah!" Mr. Cray murmured.
"I am treating you with every confidence, you see," his companion proceeded. "It would naturally be of the utmost importance to Germany to know exactly how America stands with reference to the ratification of the Treaty. The matter is urgent, too. I have been expecting her to make some attempt to dispose of her information, this evening. That is why we are here in such force. That is why we want to keep Sir George by her side as long as we can."
"The game seems clear enough, certainly," Mr. Cray observed.
"Now tell me where that letter is?" Mr. King asked, eagerly.
Mr. Cray knocked the ash from his cigar.
"That wouldn't do any good," he declared. "When I say that I know where the letter is, you can figure it out that I'm making a pretty strong guess. If I tell you and I'm wrong, you may lighten up on the job and let the blamed thing go through. You keep her in the net until she attempts to leave the hotel or send a parcel away. We'll have her both ways then. We'll find the letter and we'll find out the agent with whom she is dealing."
"I think I can lay my hands on him," Mr. King observed, calmly. "We're watching him, too, just as closely as we are the woman. If anything passes between those two without being detected—well, I'll resign my post to-morrow.
"Capital!" Mr. Cray murmured, approvingly. "Well, I guess I'll turn in. I like my eight hours when I can get 'em."
"You're not going to tell me where the letter is, then?" Mr. King asked.
"Do you believe I know where it is?" Mr. Cray answered.
His companion smiled.
"To tell you the truth," he admitted, "I don't."
"Then I sha'n't disappoint you if we let things stay as they are until to-morrow," Mr. Cray decided.
Mr. Cray found his son-in-law waiting for him in his rooms. Sir George was standing on the hearthrug with his hands in his pockets, whistling moodily.
"Where's Sara?" he asked, eagerly.
"Gone home an hour ago. We had a bite together in the Grill Room."
"She understood, I hope?"
"More or less," Mr. Cray assured him. "You know what these women are. She may make a bit of a fuss for the sake of making it up afterwards. Are you off duty now?"
Sir George nodded.
"I've done the best I can," he confessed. "The woman's too clever for me. If she's really got the letter, she must have swallowed it."
"Did you suspect her at all during the voyage?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"I suspected everybody," his son-in-law replied. "I made no friends. I didn't speak a dozen words to anybody—until that last day. I had some coffee in the smoking-room which made me drowsy, and afterwards I dozed in my steamer chair. When I woke up, she was in the next chair to mine and the packet had gone from the inner pocket of my coat, where it was sewn in. All the stitches had been cut."
"You didn't feel like having her arrested and searched?" Mr. Cray asked, thoughtfully.
"That was my first thought," Sir George confessed. "Then I looked at my watch and saw that I had been asleep for an hour, so she'd had plenty of time to hide it. I sent the wireless to King, but otherwise I pretended not to have discovered the theft."
"And you can't make anything of her?" Mr. Cray queried.
"Nothing at all," Sir George replied. "I've given the job up and I'm going home. The rest of my mission," he went on, "was completely successful, and I am not the first man in the Intelligence Department who has been robbed. I saw you talking to King," he continued. "Have you any theories?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray assented, cheerfully. "We'll get that letter back all right, and before any mischief's been done. Not only that, but we'll carry the war into the enemy's camp. We'll find out for whom she was working."
Sir George looked at his father-in-law with something of that wondering admiration which he had more than once in his lifetime felt for him.
"Are yon in earnest?" he asked, breathlessly.
"Sure thing," Mr. Cray replied. "I'll lay ten to one I could put my hand on the letter to-night. You get home to Sara now. By the by, are you seeing Mrs. Weiller again?"
"I promised to lunch to-morrow," Sir George replied, moodily. "I don't see that there's any use in it, and I'm a clumsy hand at this sort of flirtation."
"Good boy," Mr. Cray murmured, approvingly. "Get along with you now, then. I'll telephone Sara that you're coming."
Whereupon Sir George departed and his father-in-law went to bed.
At eleven o'clock the next morning there was a slight stir amongst the silent army of watchers who were gathered around the purlieus of the Milan Hotel. Messages came from upstairs, and, somewhat to Mr. Cray's surprise, Mrs. Weiller descended from the lift, talked for a moment with one of the reception clerks, and, passing through the swing doors, asked for a taxi. She was on the point of driving off when King sauntered across to where Mr. Cray had risen from his seat in some perturbation.
"It's all right," the former announced, smoothly. "She was dressed again by our woman, who also packed that wooden box she is carrying with her."
"What's in the wooden box?" Mr. Cray asked.
"Only the amber necklace she was wearing last night. Something wrong with the clasp. She is taking it to the Goldsmith's and Silversmith's."
"Anyone following her?" Mr. Cray, who was half-way towards the door, demanded.
King shook his head.
"She hasn't got the letter with her," he replied. "We don't want to make her suspicious if we can help it. Here—where are you off to?"
Mr. Cray had already accosted a taxicab driver waiting in the courtyard. He whispered a word or two to the man and jumped in.
"Come along, if you want to be in at the death," he invited King.
The latter obeyed with a little protest.
"I don't see what's the use of following her," he declared. "We know where she's gone."
"Gee, but you're dead off it this time!" Mr. Cray remarked, pityingly. "Bet you a dime she doesn't go near the Goldsmith's and Silversmith's, and I bet you another dime she's got the letter with her."
King was dubious, but his companion's confidence somewhat perturbed him.
"Mr. Cray," he said, "couldn't you be a little more explicit?"
"Well, I'll show you one thing, at any rate," was the calm reply. "There's Mrs. Weiller's taxi ahead of us, and, as you observe, we're in Piccadilly, not Regent Street."
"That's so," King observed, uneasily.
"Don't bother me for explanations for a moment," Mr. Cray advised. "I want to keep my eye on that taxi. Yes, I thought so!"
They turned into a well-known thoroughfare, and stopped at a comparatively small jeweller's about half-way down. The traffic was somewhat blocked, and she had entered the shop while they were still some distance behind. Mr. Cray half-rose in his seat. He was a little uneasy.
"Say, has she spotted you yet?" he asked his companion.
King shook his head.
"No, I've been in the background all the time."
"Follow me into the shop, then," Cray directed. "You can ask for something or other. We can't afford to hang about."
Mr. Cray stepped on to the pavement, crossed it with incredible swiftness, and entered the shop. Mrs. Weiller was the only customer present. Before her on the counter was stretched her amber necklace, just drawn from the box. The shopman appeared to be examining the catch. Mr. Cray passed on to the farther end of the shop, but suddenly seemed to recognize Mrs. Weiller and came towards her cheerfully.
"Say, you've soon begun to set the Chicago dollars spinning, Mrs. Weiller!" he said, with a broad smile. "How are you feeling after the trip, eh?"
Mrs. Weiller was not enthusiastic in her response.
"I am very well indeed, thank you, Mr. Cray," she said. "As a matter of fact, I am not here to buy anything at all. I was just having the catch of my amber necklace examined. I have rather a quaint fancy for this sort of thing," she added, touching the beads carelessly.
The jeweller, who had been examining the catch through a magnifying glass, made his report just as Cray inquired of his assistant for some plain gold safety-pins. King, too, entered at that moment and waited at the farther end of the place.
"The catch, madam," the jeweller announced, "is in perfect order, and will stand any reasonable strain. If, as you suggest, it slipped, it must have been imperfectly fastened. If you take care to drive it home, so," he added, "you will never have any difficulty."
Mrs. Weiller smiled and picked up her gold bag. She bought some trifle of jewellery while Cray was selecting his safety-pins.
"Can I send the necklace anywhere for you, madam?" the man asked.
"If you wouldn't mind, a gentleman will call for it in about half an hour," she answered. "I am going shopping and it is really quite bulky to carry about."
"Certainly, madam," the man assented. "What name will it be?"
"Mr. Gerald Thornassen."
Mrs. Weiller received the change from her purchase, and looked around as though to nod to Mr. Cray, but found him absorbed in the examination of some waistcoat buttons. She left the shop and passed out into the street. King for the first time spoke.
"You are letting her go?"
Mr. Cray smiled.
"The letter is here," he said.
A little exclamation broke from King's lips. Mr. Cray moved down to where the jeweller was packing up the necklace.
"May I be allowed to have a look at that?" he asked. "Very fine amber, isn't it?"
"The necklace does not belong to us," the jeweller replied, proceeding with his task. "We cannot allow clients' property to be examined."
Mr. Cray turned towards his companion, and King leaned against the counter. He whispered a word or two to the jeweller, who went suddenly pale.
"I—I really don't understand," he stammered.
"Don't try!" was the brusque reply. "I have told you who I am. If you doubt my word, you can ring up the Department or call in the two plain-clothes officers who are outside by this time. Here is my warrant."
Mr. King drew a small gold medal from his pocket. The jeweller bowed.
"I am quite satisfied, sir," he said. "Pray proceed as you think fit."
Mr. Cray took up the necklace in his hands and felt each of the stones. A beatific smile parted his lips.
"It is as I supposed," he murmured. "See here."
He pressed a hidden catch amongst the links and one of the stones flew open upon a concealed hinge. There was a small hollow space about an inch long and half an inch deep. In it was folded a wad of paper.
"The letter," Mr. Cray observed, "has been cut into symmetrical pieces, each one numbered, and can, of course, be easily put together."
King nodded apprehendingly.
"We will examine it more carefully in a few minutes," he said. "In the meantime," he added, "place the nearest necklace you have to it in this box, tie it up, and address it to Gerald Thornassen, Esq. The other necklace I will take care of."
"You are aware that this is a great financial responsibility, sir?" the jeweller observed, nervously.
"My Department will secure you from any loss," King assured him, with a slight smile. "Better hurry. This man may be here at any moment."
The jeweller obeyed orders. Cray and his companion postponed the examination of Mrs. Weiller's necklace and entered into an exhaustive scrutiny of the whole stock of waistcoat buttons. In about twenty-five minutes the shop door was pushed open and a tall, dark man, wearing a single eyeglass, and fashionably attired, entered the place. King, with the celerity of a cat, disappeared behind a screen.
"I have called for a parcel for Mrs. Jacob Weiller," the man announced.
A package was handed to him and nonchalantly received.
"Anything to pay?"
"Nothing at all," the jeweller replied. "No repair was necessary."
The man left the shop. King glided out of his concealment. His eyes were bright with excitement.
"This is more interesting than I thought," he muttered. "Come along, Cray."
The jeweller leaned forward.
"If this is a criminal affair," he said, tremblingly, "I trust that you will see we are entirely innocent of complicity of any sort."
King scarcely glanced towards him.
"I shall make up my mind about that," he replied, "when I see whether Mr. Thornassen, as he calls himself, has been warned."
Sir George Sittingbourne and his wife arrived at Mr. Cray's sitting-room at a few minutes before one. They found their prospective host with a gum-brush in his hand and a number of sheets of paper before him. He welcomed them triumphantly.
"George," he announced, "your letter, a little damaged, I am afraid, but there it is—quite readable, signature and all. It's taken me over an hour to piece it together."
"My dear man!" Sir George exclaimed, thankfully. "Where in God's name did you get it from?"
Mr. Cray smiled, opened a drawer, and threw a necklace upon the table.
"From Mrs. Weiller's amber necklace, of course."
"Dad," Sara murmured, throwing her arms round his neck, "you're wonderful!"
"Sir," Sir George exclaimed, in a voice choked with emotion, "you're a brick."
They were still lingering over their cocktails before descending to luncheon, when King was ushered in. He closed the door behind him. For such an unruffled person his appearance was almost remarkable. His eyes were bright, there was a look of concern in his face.
"You've pieced it together? Has it come out?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Mr. Cray replied. "You can read it for yourself—that is, if Sir George gives permission. What about Thornassen?"
King drew in a little breath. For a moment he made no reply.
"A German emissary, eh?" Mr. Cray asked.
King shook his head gravely. Already, in his agile brain, the great problems of the future were shaping themselves. He saw the new danger.
"Thornassen," he said, gravely, "deposited the sham necklace—at an embassy—which I must not name."
"An embassy?" Sir George exclaimed.
"The embassy of one of our Allies," King groaned. "May I assume that that last cocktail is for me, Mr. Cray? Your very good health. Will you allow me to express my acknowledgments, and to say that I am only sorry that that little symbol which you carry was not struck at our mint instead of at Washington."
Mr. Cray smiled benevolently.
"That needn't trouble you any, King," he said. "I guess we're all pulling in the same boat."
THERE was not the slightest manner of doubt that Mr. Joseph P. Cray was thoroughly enjoying himself. He sat on the ledge of his box at the Albert Hall, his legs dangling in mid-air, a paper cap with streamers upon his head, and the full joy of living in his blood. At times he played weird ditties upon a tin whistle. At others he threw with unusual skill streamers of gaily-coloured paper half-way across the floor. His cheery, good-natured face was aglow with happiness. He exchanged greetings right and left with perfect strangers. He was at once a notable and a popular figure.
"Yankee Doodle bought a poodle," shouted the Shah of Persia, as he passed with the Queen of Sheba.
"Har, har, har! Var, var, var! Rah, rah, rah!" yelled Mr. Cray.
A little peal of soft laughter close to his ear startled him so that he nearly lost his balance. A filmy grey figure, masked so that only her soft dark eyes were visible, was leaning by his side. She seemed to be enveloped by floating billows of misty tulle Which at no place betrayed the dressmaker's art—a human body moving in a filmy cloud. Her eyes, upturned to his, gave the only clue as to her age and sex, and Mr. Cray found them wonderful.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," he asked, "were you laughing at me?"
"Of course I am," a soft, mysterious voice answered.
"Guess I'm making some, noise," he reflected.
"I like it," was the whispered reply. "Are you very happy?"
Mr. Cray was a little taken aback.
"Just trying to make the thing go a bit," he explained, with a wave of his hand. "Nothing like a noise at a show of this sort. I'm a dandy hand at throwing these streamers. Have a try."
The figure shook her head slightly, but crept a little nearer to him. Mr. Cray was both attracted and intrigued.
"What might you represent?" he asked, diffidently.
"I am a Spirit," she confided. "This moment you see me—a moment later I shall have vanished."
"Don't hurry," Mr. Cray begged, anxiously. "What about a bite of supper?"
"Spirits never eat," was the reproachful reply.
"Or drink?" he suggested. "I've got a few bottles of Mumm 1906 in here. There's some paté, too."
Mr. Cray's attention was momentarily distracted by the passing of some temporary acquaintances, with whom he indulged in a few vociferous amenities. When he had finished, he found to his dismay that his companion had vanished in a most mysterious fashion. He was conscious of a momentary pang of disappointment.
"Some voice, that," he ruminated, "and gee, her eyes! Guess I'll get down and look for some of the crowd."
He was on the point of descending when a soft tapping at the door of the box caused him to change his mind. Somehow or other, the tapping seemed to him as distinctive as the voice. He swung around and opened the door eagerly. The Spirit stood there.
"Come right in, ma'am," he invited, cordially. "Say, this is fine! Take a chair and I'll open some champagne."
She floated in and seated herself, looking more than ever like a grey mist. Her eyes remained upon him while he served her with supper. There was a sort of subdued rapture in her expression, as though she found something almost worshipful in the portly and corpulent figure of her host.
"How's that seem, young lady?" he asked, finally. "A wing of chicken, paté and biscuits on the small plate, and a glass of the boy, eh?"
"It is very kind of you," the Spirit replied. "I did not come here to eat. I came to be near you."
"Say, that sounds good," Mr. Cray murmured, a little embarrassed—he was scarcely used to such complete conquests.
"You are so full of life," she sighed, "so full of splendid and actual vitality. You remind me—ah!"
She broke off and attacked her chicken. She also sipped and apparently approved of her wine. Mr. Cray cheered up. The Spirit business had been getting a little upon his nerves, and he welcomed these signs of indubitable humanity. He filled his own glass and raised it.
"Here's health, wealth, and happiness!" he ventured, in the words of a popular song. "Chin-chin!"
The Spirit sighed, but drank. Then she toyed pensively with her empty glass, which her host promptly filled.
"Health, wealth, and happiness," she repeated, her eyes becoming mistier than ever. "I will drink with you because you wish it, but these things are not for me."
Mr. Cray, adopting the rôle of a man of respectful gallantry, possessed himself of her hand. He was ashamed to realize how relieved he was to find it warm and soft and human.
"See here," he remonstrated, "aren't you overdoing this Spirit business a little? This is a dance, not a funeral. What about a turn on the floor when you've finished that? I'm not a great performer, but I guess there are others."
She looked at him sadly. Her fingers still rested in his comfortable hand.
"I can only dance with one," she sighed, "and you are not he."
"That's too bad," he protested, "especially on a night like this. Husband, eh? Lover?"
She shook her head more mournfully than ever.
"It is someone who claims me," she declared, "who seldom lets me wander far out of his sight. He terrifies me—but I belong to him. Listen!"
Mr. Cray obeyed.
"I don't know that I can hear anything unusual," he confessed. "Music and laughter and popping of corks sound a pretty good chorus to me. Come," he went on, glancing at his watch, "it's close on midnight—what about taking that mask off, eh?"
He stretched out his hand, but she eluded him, flitting away into a corner of the box. Once more she was listening.
"Can't you hear—a sound like the rushing of the angry wind, like footsteps upon wool up in the hills? A voice—listen! Seboa! Seboa!"
There certainly was a voice, although what it was saying was undistinguishable. A masked Satan, in brilliant scarlet, was standing in front of the box. Mr. Cray addressed him affably.
"Were you looking for a Spirit, sir?" he inquired. "She's in here. Step right up and have a glass of wine. I guess this is your friend," he added, turning round to his guest.
Satan made no reply. His eyes were fixed upon the shrinking figure in the corner of the box. As though in obedience to his unspoken command, she passed out and joined him. A moment later they were gliding across the floor, their feet moving to the music—a strange, almost sinister combination. Mr. Cray mopped his forehead, poured himself out and drank another glass of wine, and, stepping out on to the floor, passed his arm round the waist of the first disengaged damsel he came across, and plunged into the revels. But nowhere could he see any signs of Satan and the Spirit.
It was one of the most successful masked balls of the season, and after midnight the fun waxed fast and furious. Mr. Cray found many friends, and entertained hospitably. His curiosity concerning his acquaintance of the early part of the evening, however, remained unabated, and he scanned in vain every one of the boxes, and searched every corner of the dancing floor for a sign of her smoke-grey draperies or the more easily distinguishable scarlet of her companion. He came to the conclusion at last that they must have left early, and he was puzzled to find that side by side with his disappointment was mingled a certain feeling of relief. Mr. Cray was an ardent materialist, and he had no faith in spirits. Her soft voice, with its strange suggestion of coming from some greater distance, and the aroma of mystery by which she had contrived to surround herself, repelled just as much as it had attracted him. He could not make up his mind, therefore, whether he was relieved or disappointed when, during his first period of rest for some hours in the temporarily deserted box, he heard her voice just below the ledge.
"Are you alone?" she asked, softly.
"Sure!" Mr. Cray replied. "Come right up."
Once more she disappeared for a moment and then drifted through the doorway, curiously impersonal, her draperies concealing with matchless art all suggestions of the human figure. She still retained her mask.
"Say, that's against regulations!" he declared, pointing to it. "Masks should come off at midnight. Just let me fix it for you."
She shrank away.
"My mask must not come off," she murmured.
He made a pretence at insisting. She pushed him back. She seemed nervous and terrified, her eyes shone.
"I am in earnest, please," she begged. "Just let me sit here and be near you. Don't speak to me. Don't take any notice of me."
She sank into a secluded corner, and Mr. Cray poured out a glass of champagne, after which he scratched his chin and sat watching her thoughtfully. Her partiality for his society, coupled with her aloofness, puzzled him. Mr. Cray hated to be puzzled.
"I don't quite get you," he admitted. "You don't seem looking for any fun like all the others. What made you come to such a place as this, any way?"
"Don't ask me, please. If you must know, I came because another wished it."
"Chap in scarlet?" he suggested, genially.
She shook her head.
"It was not he—it was Seboa," she told him, in a whisper which scarcely reached his ears.
"Don't know the lady—or gentleman," Mr. Cray admitted, "but, any way, what made you come back to me again? It isn't the wine, because you're not drinking it. You don't seem to want to talk, either."
"It's your vitality," she told him, nervously. "You are full of life—strong, human life. It warms me."
Mr. Cray edged a little farther away.
"I guess this is a stunt I'm not up in," he murmured, weakly.
"Of course you don't understand," she went on, after a moment's pause. "I seem to you like other women, because I eat and drink and dance—but I am not. My life all ebbed out long ago. I belong—somewhere else."
Mr. Cray moved to the farther end of the box. He thrust one leg over its ledge.
"Guess I'll go and collect some of the crowd," he muttered. "You make yourself quite comfortable and stay just as long as you like."
"Don't go," she begged. "Don't leave me."
Mr. Cray hesitated. He was a good-natured man, and the little quiver in her voice sounded very human.
"I'll stay if you take your mask off," he suggested, "and leave off getting at me."
"You shall see me without my mask within a few hours," she promised, "but not here—not now. Please—please stay. This is my dangerous hour."
"Is it?" Mr. Cray murmured, making this time for the door. "If you'll excuse me, I'll just—"
"Dangerous to me, I mean—not to you," she interrupted. "Please do not go. I am afraid of drifting off—of losing myself. My hold upon this frail body is so slight."
"Drink up your wine," Mr. Cray suggested, a little helplessly. "Let me give you a sandwich."
"Oh, you don't understand!" she moaned.
"I'm with you there," he assented, heartily. "I don't."
"How can I explain?"
"I'm not particular how you do it," Mr. Cray replied, "but I've kinder got the idea that you're playing some game on me, and if you're not feeling like putting me wise, I'd just as soon, without wishing to seem inhospitable, that you quit it."
She began to tremble.
"But I don't want to go," she protested.
"Then stay right where you are," he replied, "and I'll take an amble round myself and see how things are looking."
"Would it help you to understand," she asked, "if I told you who I really am?"
"I guess so," he assented. "My name's Cray—Joseph P. Cray, of Seattle, when I'm at home—and I don't take any stock in spooks."
She leaned a little forward. Her eyes glowed as though with wonder of her words.
"I am Seboa," she whispered, "Christine Seboa. Ah, how horrible!"
The box was suddenly and riotously invaded by a horde of a dozen or more revellers. The duties of hospitality for a few moments absorbed Mr. Cray's whole attention. When he looked around, the chair in the corner was empty.
"Hallo! Anyone seen my little cloud drift out?" he demanded.
There was a peal of laughter.
"He means his little sunshine," a fluffy-haired Columbine declared, passing her hand through his arm. "I'm here, dear. No cloud shall ever come between us."
"Say, that's a comfort, anyhow," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "But honest, didn't you see anyone here when you came in—a small person in a kind of grey, billowy muslin, or floating stuff of some sort?"
There was a moment's blank silence, then a roar of laughter.
"Cray, old bean, you're seeing things," hiccoughed a young scion of the Stock Exchange, temporarily gorgeous in ruffles and lace.
"The box was empty save for your gracious self," a flushed and bedraggled Hamlet declared, with his mouth full of sandwich. "To that we can all attest."
"Anyone ever heard the name of Christine Seboa?" Mr. Cray inquired, keeping a tight hold upon himself.
"Christine Seboa?" a monk, who had hitherto been silent, repeated. "She was a wonderful Danish medium, who nearly sent New York crazy last year."
"And where is she now?" Mr. Cray asked.
"She died last November," the monk replied.
Mr. Cray poured himself out a glass of wine, spilling a few spots upon the tablecloth.
"Here's confusion to all spooks!" he exclaimed, drinking it off. "Now," he added, snatching up his trumpet, "let's get outside and make a noise."
They sallied out. The monk, however, detained his host for a moment after the others had departed. He looked around as though to be sure that they were alone in the box.
"Mr. Cray," he said, "you flatter my disguise."
"Not for one second, Inspector," Mr. Cray replied, with a smile. "I'm not quite fresh enough, though, to go bawling 'Scotland Yard' all over the place."
"I apologize," the monk declared.
"Anything special on?"
The monk shook his head.
"There are always one or two of us at these affairs," he said. "I've spotted a couple of well-known thieves already, but there's nothing particular doing. They know we're here all right. I was interested in that name I heard—Christine Seboa."
Mr. Cray looked uneasily around.
"She kinder got me guessing," he confessed.
"Christine Seboa," the monk went on, "was not only a very wonderful medium, but she was also a great collector."
"Jewellery—anything she could lay her hands on," the inspector replied. "It was not until after her death that she was even suspected. They say that she must have got away with a quarter of a million pounds' worth of diamonds from New York alone."
"You're not taking any stock from the fact that she called herself a medium, I suppose?" Mr. Cray inquired.
The monk scratched his chin.
"Men like you and me, Mr. Cray, sir," he said, "who take an interest in crime, are bound to be materialists. Still, I've learnt in my profession never to be obstinate about anything. There are a good many intelligent and well-informed people who believe in spooks, and I am telling you frankly that this Christine Seboa had, without doubt, some exceptional gifts. They say that she could hypnotize a strong man in three minutes."
"You're sure she's dead?" Mr. Cray asked.
"So far as our information goes," the monk replied, "she died in New York last November."
"Then I don't mind telling you," Mr. Cray confided, "that this little bit of grey cloud who's rather got on my nerves this evening—some eyes she's got, but she kept on behaving like a half-baked spook—told me just before you all came in that her name was Christine Seboa."
"That's interesting," the monk acknowledged. "Let's have a stroll round and see if we can see anything of her."
Three times the two men made the circuit of the hall, in vain. The Spirit had disappeared.
Mr. Cray stood on the steps of the Albert Hall at four o'clock that morning, paused for a moment to take breath, and sent a mighty volume of raucous sound quivering through the early stillness.
"Rah, rah, rah! Hah, hah, hah! Rah, rah, rah!"
There was a little commotion amongst the unfortunate bystanders. A pleasant-faced officer in uniform, who was standing on the step below Mr. Cray, with a muffled-up form upon his arm, started as though he had been shot, and nearly dropped the kit-bag which he was carrying.
"For Heaven's sake," he exclaimed, looking over his shoulder, "what are you making that noise for?"
"I want my automobile," Mr. Cray explained, cheerfully. "I've got an American chauffeur who knows the old college call. I guess he's heard me."
"I should say he has if he's this side of the Strand," the officer commented, dryly.
"He's not only heard it but here he is," Mr. Cray observed, complacently, as his limousine stole up through the tangle of vehicles and drew up to the steps. "That's worth a shout, eh?"
There were many in the waiting crowd who looked wistfully at the car, for a drizzling rain was falling and taxi-cabs were scarce. Mr. Cray looked round at the officer and his companion and addressed the former.
"Can I give you a lift anywhere, sir?" he asked. "I'm going to the Milan Hotel, but I don't mind a bit out of my way as long as it isn't entirely in the opposite direction."
The officer stepped forward almost eagerly..
"If you could give my wife and me a lift as far as Moon Street, Chelsea," he said, "it would be awfully good of you. I ordered a taxicab, but I'm afraid he's gone off with someone else. My wife's terribly tired, too."
"Step right in," Mr. Cray invited, hospitably. "Tell the chauffeur your number, Captain. Let me give you a cushion, ma'am. Pretty tiring—My God!"
They were all three in the car now, the officer with his head out of the window, directing the chauffeur. A black domino had up to the present concealed the whole of the lady's form, but the eyes, glowing so steadily into his through the folds of her black lace mantilla, were unmistakable. The faintest of weary smiles played upon her lips as she gazed into Mr. Cray's thunderstruck face. The officer withdrew his head from the window.
"Major Hartopp my name is, sir," he said. "I can't tell you how grateful my wife and I are."
"Joseph P. Cray is my name," the other rejoined. "I've come across your good lady before this evening."
"Yes," the Spirit murmured, sleepily, from her corner, "Mr. Cray was very kind to me. He gave me wine and let me sit down in his box."
"And I understood you to say that your name was Christine Seboa," Mr. Cray observed, too eager for some measure of elucidation to be anything but ruthless.
"I am Christine Seboa," was the reply, spoken in a dull, hollow tone. "The whole world knows that."
Mr. Cray glanced across at his male vis-à-vis. Major Hartopp sighed slightly and shook his head, with a warning glance towards the figure at his side, and Mr. Cray, understanding his gesture to mean that his wife was to be humoured, relapsed into silence. The car turned southward, passed down Sloane Street, and plunged into the purlieus of Chelsea, finally pulling up at what was apparently a pleasant, little-frequented thoroughfare.
"You must come in and have a whisky-and-soda," the young soldier insisted, hospitably.
Mr. Cray shook his head.
"I guess it's too late," he replied. "Besides, I'm just as well without any more liquor."
His new acquaintance, however, would take no refusal, and eventually they all descended from the car and passed through a cheerful little hall into a small morning-room, where a bright fire was burning in the grate. Decanters of whisky and brandy, and several siphons of soda-water, were arranged upon the sideboard. The Spirit came no farther than the threshold of the room. She stood looking at Mr. Cray with strange and mournful intensity.
"Good night," she said. "You have been very kind to me."
"Say, won't you take off that mask for a moment before you go?" Mr. Cray begged. "I'd like to be able to recognize you when we meet again."
She shook her head very slightly. Her husband frowned across at her in good-natured annoyance.
"Look here, Mina," he protested, "why don't you do as Mr. Cray asks? I'm pretty sick of the thing myself."
"I cannot," she answered, simply. "I have promised."
"Rubbish!" her husband answered, testily. "There isn't anyone to promise."
"Good-bye, Mr. Cray," she said.
"Good evening, Mrs. Hartopp," he replied, with a bow. "I'd like it first-rate if you and your husband could fix it up to take dinner with me at the Milan one night."
"You are very kind," she murmured, and drifted away.
Major Hartopp drew a little breath of undisguised relief at the closing of the door. He drew up an easy-chair to the fire and almost pushed his guest into it. Then he mixed him a whisky-and-soda of generous proportions, served himself also with liberality, and sank down upon a couch opposite to his guest.
"Mr. Cray," he confided, "I feel that I owe you an explanation."
"I wouldn't go so far as that," his vis-à-vis replied, "but I must admit that your good lady puzzled me some."
"Do you know anything about spiritualism?" Major Hartopp asked.
"Not one darned thing," Mr. Cray acknowledged.
"Neither do I, but it seems that my wife, before I married her, was a medium."
"Holds converse with spirits, and that sort of thing?" Mr. Cray ventured, dubiously.
"Worse!" his companion groaned. "Spirits actually take possession of her, enter into her body, speak with her tongue, crush out her own personality and obtrude their own."
"You don't say," Mr. Cray murmured.
"It seems that she has a personality or spirituality which very few human beings in the world possess," his companion went on. "Hers, they tell me, is one of the few bodies in the world accessible to the sympathetic dead. They seem to have a taste for revelry, too. One of them always weighs in if we are going to a dance or anything of that sort. Christine Seboa turned up at eight o'clock this evening, just as we were settling down to dinner. Completely spoilt the whole pleasure of the dance for me. I hate spooks."
Mr. Cray studied his vis-à-vis for several moments with half-closed eyes. Major Hartopp was to all appearance the perfect prototype of the well-bred, simple-minded, moderately intelligent young British soldier. He had a slight ruddy moustache which went well with his sunburnt cheeks, blue eyes, and fair hair inclined to curl. He looked rather like a spoilt boy who has been defrauded of his evening's entertainment.
"Do you seriously believe what you are telling me?" Mr. Cray demanded.
"Hang it all, man," was the irritable reply, "you don't suppose I should joke over such an infernal business! Until that dreary Christine hops it, my wife will be half asleep and as cold as an icicle. To-morrow she'll telephone to some of these spook lunatics, and they'll haunt the house then for days until Mina is herself again. I tell you I hate the whole infernal business."
Mr. Cray turned his cigar round and round in his fingers, sipped his whisky-and-soda, and pondered. Just inside the room, the kit-bag which they had brought from the Albert Hall had burst one of its fastenings, and a glitter of red, the same colour as the flaming costume of Mephistopheles, showed itself. He opened his lips to ask a question, but decided to postpone it. Major Hartopp was not in the least the type of a Mephistopheles. His florid complexion, his ingenuous, if a little peevish, expression, stamped him as belonging to a different order of being altogether. Everything about him proclaimed the sports-loving young officer, who has done well enough in the Army to have attained his majority and stopped there.
"I can't make out why Mina seems to have attached herself to you so much this evening," her husband ruminated. "She came to see you several times, didn't she?"
"She came twice," Mr. Cray admitted. "She had some supper the first time."
"You aren't psychic or anything of that sort, are you?"
"Not that I know of," was the cautious reply.
"Says you saw her dancing with Satan—what?"
"I saw that all right," Mr. Cray admitted. "A weird-looking couple they made, too."
"Well, no one else did," her husband declared. "There wasn't a Satan there, as a matter of fact."
Mr. Cray's eyes rested upon the gaping kit-bag. He stroked his chin. His whole interest in the evening's adventure was reviving.
"That's so!" he murmured.
"Not a sign of one," the young man continued. "According to Mina, that proves you to be possessed of negative psychic attraction. I don't know what it means, old fellow, but you've got it. She declares that she was drawn to you as a trembling leaf blown by the wind."
Mr. Cray surreptitiously patted his breast pocket, where a slight protuberance indicated the continued presence of his somewhat bulky pocket-book.
"She did kinder stay round in a weird sort of fashion," he admitted. "I thought she was trying to play some joke upon me. I couldn't seem to tumble at what she was driving at, half the time."
"My wife's all right when she's herself," the young man declared, irritably. "It was this infernal Christine Seboa who was trying to rake you into the spook business. Between you and me, I hate the whole thing. Half of it's bunkum, and the other half's unwholesome. Just one more small whisky before you go?"
"Only a spot, then," Mr. Cray assented, holding out his glass. "Not quite so strong this time."
"It's pretty nearly pre-war," his host remarked, as he resumed his seat. "Good God!"
Both men glanced towards the door. The Spirit was standing there—a singular apparition. A white dressing-gown hung loosely down her back, she was still wearing her black mask. Her eyes were fixed upon Mr. Cray.
"You must come," she begged, speaking very softly yet with almost singular distinctness. "You must please come. They will not let me sleep. They call for you all the time."
"I am sorry," was the hasty response, "but I'm just off home. I should have gone before now but your husband's whisky was too good to leave."
Mr. Cray rose to his feet with determination. His host followed his example.
"Mina," the latter protested, "you really must not worry Mr. Cray now. You are quite mistaken in him. He's as much outside all this business as I am."
She shook her head. Her eyes still pleaded with Mr. Cray.
"If you are not happy you shall not stay," she said, "but you must come or they will give me no peace."
"I guess there's some mistake," Mr. Cray declared, coldly. "You'll have to excuse me."
Her distress became almost a paroxysm. She clutched the framework of the door with either hand, barring their egress. Hartopp drew his guest on one side.
"Look here, Mr. Cray," he begged, apologetically, "be a good chap and humour her for two minutes. Just put your head into her little sanctum. She calls it her temple. Maybe that'll satisfy her, and you needn't stay a minute."
"Has she got it into her head that there are spooks there waiting for me?" Mr. Cray queried.
"Of course it's all utter nonsense," the other rejoined, "but she'll never rest now unless you do it. I'll come along as far as the door, anyway."
Mr. Cray shrugged his shoulders, and the little procession, led by the Spirit, passed down the passage by the side of the staircase until they reached a door at the far end.
"Come," she whispered, opening it softly.
Mr. Cray stood by her side. There was no light and the darkness was impenetrable. It was also very Cold, as though the windows were open. The only visible object was the Spirit standing by his side, a pillar of white, her eyes like points of fire.
"Say, what's doing here?" Mr. Cray asked, a little uneasily. "Do your visitors need to come in through the window? I guess—"
"Please be quiet," a low voice begged him. "Be silent for one moment. Listen."
Mr. Cray listened, and it seemed to him that he heard the door close behind him. He half turned around. The curtains were shaking as though a sudden wind were blowing into the room. Then he felt fingers upon the pulses of his wrist, and immediately it seemed to him that they were beating as though they would break through his flesh; fingers upon his temples, and immediately the sense that sledge-hammers were beating there, beating against the nerves of his life. His whole sense of being had become pandemonium. The roaring of a furnace was in his ears. He felt himself sinking down and down into space, falling—lower and lower.
Mr. Cray opened his eyes. There were splashes of daylight in the sitting-room, which made the electric lights look feeble and dim. On the lounge opposite, Major Hartopp was still reclining, although he had changed his dress coat for a dressing-gown and removed his collar. He welcomed Mr. Cray's opening eyes with a little sigh of relief.
"Feeling the better for your nap?" he asked, glancing suggestively at the clock. "My nap?" Mr. Cray repeated, vaguely. His vis-à-vis nodded and stifled a yawn. "You dropped off like a child," he said.
"I don't want to seem inhospitable, but I think you had better wake up now. Your chauffeur has been in twice and he doesn't seem in the best of tempers."
Mr. Cray looked at the extinct cigar which had apparently slipped from his fingers and lay upon the hearthrug, brushed the cold ashes from his waistcoat, and rose to his feet.
"What happened to me in that room?" he demanded.
"Which room?" his host asked.
"The one at the end of the passage, where you and I and your wife went together."
Major Hartopp looked at his guest hard, then he smiled.
"You've been dreaming," he observed. "You haven't left that easy-chair since you arrived, and you certainly haven't seen anything of my wife. She went straight to bed directly we got home."
"Straight to bed?" Mr. Cray repeated, in a dazed tone. "You mean to tell me that she didn't come down here in a white dressing-gown and still wearing a mask, and talk about spooks who were clamouring for me in the morn at the end of the passage?" Major Hartopp stifled a yawn.
"She most certainly did not," he declared, a little testily. "You'll forgive my hurrying you, old chap, won't you?" he went on, leading the way towards the door. "To tell you the truth, I'm dying to get to bed. If I'd had any idea that you were dreaming things, I'd have woke you up."
"Dreaming!" Mr. Cray muttered.
"Sounds like some sort of nightmare," the other observed. "You seemed to be sleeping so peacefully, though, that I hated to disturb you."
Mr. Cray felt suddenly for his pocketbook. It was there in its accustomed place, just as bulky and capacious as ever. Neither had the kit-bag, with its incriminating gleam of scarlet, been removed.
"Not your bag, is it?" Major Hartopp asked, carelessly.
"I hadn't any grip at all," Mr. Cray answered. "Isn't it yours?"
Major Hartopp shook his head.
"Mine was practically empty. All I took in it was a couple of bottles of champagne. I set it down on the steps of the Albert Hall while we were waiting, and must have picked up this one by mistake. I'll send it back presently. Jove, isn't the air good!" he added, as he opened the front door and let in a little of the cool morning breeze. "So long! Look us up some day. You'll find us in the telephone book."
"Sure!" Mr. Cray promised. "Sorry to have kept you up," he added, mechanically.
Mr. Cray sat back in the corner of the car, no longer in the least sleepy, and probably the most puzzled man in London. He had no headache nor any other sign of ill-being such as might reasonably have been expected to remain with a man who had been drugged or otherwise maltreated. The roll of notes remained in his pocket-book untouched. He knew better than anyone else could that he was and had been all the time perfectly sober. What explanation was there for the strange experience through which he had passed? Mentally he tabulated the various questions as they had occurred to him.
1. Was Mrs. Hartopp simply a foolish and hysterical woman who had imposed even upon her husband, and who had attached herself to him out of caprice?
2. Was she really a medium and in direct communication with the world of spiritland, in which up till now he had had no faith?
3. Was she a clever adventuress with fraudulent designs upon him? Against that, his pocket-book and jewellery were still untouched.
4. What was the position of Major Hartopp?
5. Had he really slept in his easy-chair and only dreamed of that brief period of unconsciousness?
There was something in the early morning atmosphere which encouraged common sense. One by one Mr. Cray discarded the suspicions which had grown up in his mind. By the time he had reached his rooms at the Milan Court he had almost forgotten them. With a pleasant sense of anticipatory luxury he undressed and plunged into a steaming bath, lying there for a few minutes with half-closed eyes before stretching out his hand lazily for the sponge and soap. Suddenly he sat bolt upright, gazing at the first finger of his right hand. At exactly the spot where he was in the habit of grasping his fountain pen was a deep smudge of ink. He stared at it in blank and complete amazement, with a host of new ideas rushing into his brain. For of one thing Mr. Cray was absolutely and completely certain—there had been no such blemish upon his finger when he had left his box at the Albert Hall.
Precisely two minutes after the front doors of the South Audley Street branch of a well-known bank had been opened, Major Hartopp descended from a taxi, and, after some fumbling in his pocket produced a cheque which he handed across the counter. The manager glanced at it, turned to another customer a few feet away, who was apparently adding up a list of credits, and, leaving the cheque upon the counter, moved a couple of yards to a position from which he could command a view of a small private office. He made some undistinguishable sign, and a moment later, Mr Cray strolled in. Major Hartopp greeted him affably.
"Morning, Mr. Cray! Up and about early, what?"
"I might say the same of you," Mr. Cray remarked, pointedly.
"This gentleman has just presented a cheque for a thousand pounds, drawn by you," the manager announced. "May I ask if it is in order?"
"It most surely is not," was the forcible reply.
The customer who was counting the credits, and who bore a strong resemblance to the monk of the night before, moved a little back from the counter, standing between Major Hartopp and the door. That gentleman, however, seemed in no wise embarrassed.
"Cheque for a thousand fiddlesticks!" he scoffed. "Look at it again, my dear sir."
The manager glanced at the cheque, frowned in a puzzled manner, and stood for a few seconds with his mouth open, with the air of one stricken dumb with astonishment.
"Have a look at it yourself, Mr. Cray," Major Hartopp continued. "It's a silly business, I admit, but my wife got the idea last night that you were a strong unbeliever. As you know, I'm a bit that way myself, but if that's really your signature, this Christine Seboa is a dangerous sort of a spook."
The three men gazed together at the cheque. It was clearly enough a cheque for one sovereign, made out to Christine Seboa or bearer.
"It can't be my writing," Mr. Cray declared, "because I never remember writing it, but it's the most wonderful imitation I ever saw. Come to think of it, too," he went on, in a puzzled manner, "the only thing that brought me here was some ink on my fingers."
"Oh, you wrote the cheque all right," Major Hartopp affirmed. "It's a trick of one of her spooks. My instructions were to cash this and to ask you to dinner."
The manager for the first time recovered his power of speech.
"The most amazing part of the whole matter is," he declared, "that I could have sworn this gentleman presented a cheque for a thousand pounds."
Major Hartopp smiled.
"I should scarcely have entered into a joke of that sort," he observed. "What about that pound? You signed the cheque all right."
Mr. Cray nodded. His eyes were still fixed upon his indubitable signature. At a sign from him, the manager passed a pound note across the counter, which Major Hartopp folded and passed into his coat pocket.
Dine with us at the Cartlon to-night at eight o'clock, Mr. Cray," he invited, "and I promise you shall have your pound back with interest!"
"I shall be delighted," Mr. Cray murmured.
"See you later, then," the young officer concluded, nodding to the manager and taking his leisurely departure. "Good morning."
Major Hartopp left the bank and they heard his taxi drive away. The manager stood on one side of the counter and Mr. Cray on the other. The inspector strolled up to them. They all examined the cheque for a sovereign.
"This gets me," Mr. Cray confessed. "If that isn't my signature, I'll eat the cheque."
"And if the cheque he showed me three minutes ago wasn't for a thousand pounds, I'll eat it too," the manager declared.
The inspector was called into the inner office to answer the telephone. He was out again in thirty seconds.
"We're spoofed somehow!" he exclaimed. "Major and Mrs. Hartopp are on the Continent. Their house in Chelsea has been taken furnished for a month by a man and woman wanted very badly by the American police. The man is a great sleight-of-hand thief and one of the most dangerous adventurers in America. The woman has robbed them in New York of over fifty thousand pounds on this spook stunt."
The manager suddenly stooped down, picked up a strip of paper from underneath the counter, and held it out.
"A cheque for a thousand pounds!" he exclaimed. "I knew it!"
"Simple as A B C!" the inspector exclaimed. "Our man saw at once there was something wrong. He'd got the other cheque ready, changed it, and slipped the thousand-pound one through the hole in the counter there for pass-books. I'll lay odds, too, he's the man who got away with ten thousand pounds' worth of jewels last night in the costume of a scarlet Mephistopheles."
"I saw him with it," Mr. Cray groaned.
"Where were the cheques?" the inspector asked.
Mr. Cray produced his pocket-book.
"I always have two or three loose ones with me," he explained, "although I'd this roll of notes, as it happened, last night."
The inspector glanced at the notes and turned towards the door.
"I'm off," he exclaimed. "Lost too much time already. Ask Mr. Thomson there to look at your notes."
Mr. Cray produced them. The manager held one up to the light.
"Faked," he exclaimed. "They changed your notes, Mr. Cray, and took out your cheques, but what I can't understand is—how did they ever get you to sign them?"
"I've been worrying some about that myself," Mr. Cray confided.
MR. JOSEPH P. CRAY, Wandering around the world in his pleasant quest of adventures, harmless or otherwise, found himself one March morning on the terrace of the Golf Hotel at Hyères. By his side stood the young man in irreproachable flannels whom he had just intercepted on his way to the tennis courts. It was a somewhat amazing meeting.
"Is it Major Hartopp this time?" Mr. Cray inquired.
The young man signified assent.
"It is only bunglers who keep changing their pseudonyms," he said. "I am not a bungler."
Mr. Cray, for once in his life, was a little taken aback.
"You are taking this pretty coolly, young fellow, aren't you?" he observed. "I suppose you know that for several months the police have been looking for the man who tried to cash a cheque for a thousand pounds on my account, and for the scarlet Mephistopheles who scooped up about ten thousand pounds' worth of jewels at the Albert Hall?"
The young man shook his head gently.
"You exaggerate the position, my dear Mr. Cray," he expostulated. "In the first place, the cheque for one thousand pounds you signed, in the second place, it could never be proved that it was presented, and with regard to the jewels, not one of them has ever been traced, and there is not a shred of evidence to connect the scarlet Mephistopheles with these robberies, or, if it comes to that, me with the scarlet Mephistopheles."
"There is the matter of your past record in America," Mr. Cray murmured.
"There I grant you a trick," the young man interrupted. "If you care to communicate with the police, I will admit that I might find my position untenable. Somehow I do not think that you will do so."
"And why not?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Come this way and I will show you."
The pseudo-Major Hartopp led his companion along the front of the terrace to where a little recess formed a shelter secure from the lightly-moving wind, and where the sun came pouring in, soft and warm and genial. An invalid chair was drawn up against the wall, and lying in it at full length was a woman. Mr. Cray felt a little thrill of pity as the pale, wasted face was turned towards his, and the dark, hollow eyes lit up for a moment with mingled fear and recognition.
"This is the reason why we are here," Hartopp explained. "The doctors told us that nothing but the sun could keep my wife alive. That is why I accepted the risk."
Mr. Cray leaned over the chair.
"I am very sorry to see you so ill," he said.
She smiled at him—a very mirthless effort.
"It was Christine Seboa," she faltered. "She seems to have torn my heart to pieces. Now she has gone and I am myself again. She went too late."
"You must never say that," Mr. Cray enjoined, cheerfully. "This place has cured more invalids than any spot in the South of France."
She looked at him mournfully.
"Are we allowed to stay here?" she said.
"So far as I am concerned, yes," Mr. Cray replied. "I've no call to remember anything I don't choose, and I won't. But before we close up the subject, will you tell me how you got me to sign those cheques?"
"I didn't do it," she assured him. "It was Christine Seboa, and she has gone."
"No chance of her turning up again, I suppose?" Mr. Cray inquired.
The figure in the chair shook her head wistfully.
"My body is not strong enough to hold her," she answered.
Mr. Cray settled down to live the everyday life of the little community. He played golf in the morning, dozed with a cigar in the sunshine in the afternoon, and played bridge in the evening. All the time he kept his eye upon the Hartopps, and by degrees a conviction sprang up in his mind. Although, to all appearance, Hartopp, who was a fine athlete, was engrossed by the care of his invalid wife and the sports of the place, he was in reality at Hyères for some other purpose. He had a habit of absenting himself sometimes for the whole day, of taking long walks into the country and returning with moody, downcast expression. He was persona grata amongst the younger guests, but he took little pains to ingratiate himself with anyone. And just as Mr. Cray watched him, so he seemed at times to be watching Mr. Cray. But for that wan figure, which only the sunlight seemed to keep alive, there were times when Mr. Cray regretted that he had not obeyed his first instinct and sent a wire to Scotland Yard.
"Say, what's your husband got on his mind?" he inquired one morning of Mrs. Hartopp.
She turned her great sunken eyes towards him.
"He is worried about financial matters," she told him, solemnly.
"H'm! I should have thought he'd been set up for a bit," Mr. Cray observed.
She shook her head slowly.
"He has some securities," she explained, naively, "but it is too early to realize upon them yet. You wouldn't care, I suppose, to make an advance upon them?"
"God bless my soul, no!" Mr. Cray declared, a little pettishly. "I'm trafficking with my conscience some, ma'am, if I keep my mouth shut, but you mustn't try to rope me in as a partner."
"You look at these things so unreasonably," she murmured. "You have never lost anything worth speaking of by us."
"Personally, perhaps not, ma'am," Mr. Cray acknowledged, "but I have a conscience."
Then she suddenly saw a bent figure approaching.
"You are a dear thing," she said, "although sometimes you can be very hard. Please go now. Here comes Mr. Homor. He wants to speak to me about his wife."
"His late wife," Mr. Cray observed, raising his hat.
"That is a foolish term," she answered, reprovingly.
Mr. Cray glanced at the gaunt, bent figure approaching, noticed the eager gleam which shone for a moment in the lustreless eyes, and turned away.
"H'm!" he muttered. "I suppose Mr. Homor can look after himself."
On the golf links he found Hartopp practising iron shots, and challenged him to a few holes.
"See here, Hartopp," he said, as soon as they got started, "I kind of take an interest in you and your wife, although the Lord knows why. I guess it's because she seems sick. What's the game with Mr. Homor?"
Hartopp was a little irritable.
"My dear friend," he replied, "there is no game at all. Mr. Homor is interested in Spiritualism and has just lost his wife. Mina is able to console him."
"Anything doing in the way of séances?" Major Hartopp sighed.
"I believe that something of the sort has been arranged for this evening," he admitted. "There are two or three women in the hotel, and one other man, who belong to the cult."
"Are you going?"
"I am not," was the firm reply. "I am very much opposed to the whole business. Besides, I don't think Mina is strong enough."
"Why don't you stop it, then?"
Major Hartopp glanced at his companion almost contemptuously.
"If you know as little of Mina as that," he said, "you've been wasting your time."
"I sometimes wonder," Mr. Cray rejoined, "whether I know as much about either of you as any person with an ounce of common sense ought to."
Major Hartopp played a wonderful approach and watched his ball run to the hole. Then he turned towards his companion, the flicker of a smile upon his lips.
"These flashes of super-intelligence, Cray," he declared, "convince me that you are really a great man. Do you realize that I am three up on bogey?"
That afternoon there was only one topic of conversation in the lounge and on the terrace of the Golf Hotel. It had been privately announced that a small seance would take place after dinner in Mrs. Hartopp's suite, to which various people who had professed themselves interested had been invited. Mrs. Hartopp herself was invisible, resting for the exertions of the evening. Major Hartopp, when spoken to upon the subject, was abrupt and almost rude. It was at this period of his stay at the Golf Hotel that Mr. Cray first came into contact with Mr. George Pomfrey, a middle-aged, quiet-looking man of studious habits and a marked propensity for solitude. He paused before the former's chair on the terrace.
"Are you helping your friends this evening, sir?" he inquired.
Mr. Cray was in rather a bad temper and the question annoyed him.
"How in thunder should I be helping them?" he retorted. "I don't take any stock in Spiritualism, and the Hartopps are only hotel acquaintances of mine."
"Is that all?" the other asked, quietly. Mr. Cray felt the keen grey eyes upon his face and found himself at a disadvantage.
"I met them once in town," he acknowledged.
Mr. Pomfrey passed on, stooping a little, as was his wont, leaning upon his stick, and with a general air of introspection which had been recognized as one of his chief characteristics. Mr. Cray smoked on for some time and then strolled round the front to the side of the hotel. The suite allotted to the Hartopps was on the ground floor for the convenience of Mrs. Hartopp. Mr. Cray studied it thoughtfully. There were windows opening to the ground, in each of the bedrooms and the sitting-room, and on the other side of the bathroom was a small door, through which Mrs. Hartopp's invalid chair generally issued. There were one or two suggestions which occurred to him as he stood there in a ruminative frame of mind.
"Maybe," he decided, finally, "I'll see something of that séance."
Mr. Cray challenged his friend, Major Hartopp, to a game of billiards that evening after dinner. The latter, after one game, in which he gave his opponent a hundred and twenty-five out of two hundred and fifty and beat him by sixty, put up his cue and declined to play any more.
"I am going to bed," he said, shortly. Mr. Cray glanced at the clock.
"Won't you find the séance a little disturbing?" he asked. "Besides, the only pleasant thing about these shows is that they are silent. Spooks don't seem to care about a noise."
The two men parted. Mr. Cray also went to his room, but he emerged a few minutes later by the back entrance and found his way into the grounds. The night was dark and a slight mistral was blowing from the hills. He made his way silently round until he reached the walk in front of the Hartopps' suite. Here he made a careful examination of his surroundings. So far as it was possible to tell, he was the only person who was seeking this illicit means of obtaining information as to the séance. From the chinks in the gaily-lit windows of the main building of the hotel came the sound of the orchestra playing dance music in the lounge. Every now and then he could even distinguish fragments of conversation from the numerous bridge parties. Inside the room, through the inch or two of gaping blind which was his only means of observation, everything at first seemed shielded by a wall of deep black. Presently, however, one by one the white faces of those who sat round the table, blurred and unrecognizable in detail, still became faintly recognizable. Every now and then there was a low murmuring, which he had learnt to tabulate in his mind as the spirit voice of the medium. Everyone seemed deeply stirred, tragically interested. He heard Homor's raucous, trembling voice.
"If I am to have comfort, I must see her. Let me see her for one moment."
Again there came Mrs. Hartopp's voice, faint and weary, yet always with its suggestive, unearthly note.
"I will try. Look away from me, every one, while I try."
It was at this point that Mr. Cray became vastly interested. From the direction of the voice, he gathered that Mrs. Hartopp had been lying upon a couch drawn up close to a screen. Without being able to trace any movement, the white blur of her face seemed to disappear. An intense silence followed. The window of the bedroom on the other side of the door was softly pushed open. Almost immediately the door itself opened several inches. Mr. Cray in those moments forgot his wariness. Through the window stepped an undistinguishable form bearing a bundle on its arm. Through the door came a shadowy figure. And just then, on the top of his head, Mr. Cray received a soft, resonant crack. If was considerably later when he found himself lying on the gravel terrace looking up at the stars.
Very slowly he scrambled to his feet. His head was still aching and was remarkably sore. From the sitting-room window, a few yards away, lights were now burning, although most of the lights in the hotel had been extinguished. He struck a match and looked at his watch. It was eleven o'clock, which meant that he had been lying there for nearly an hour. He staggered to his feet, shook the dust from his clothes, re-entered the hotel, and made his way to his room.
It was a very grim Mr. Cray, however, who strolled out on the terrace the following morning and made his way with a certain ominous deliberation to the little sunny corner where Mrs. Hartopp usually held her court. The corner was more crowded than usual, but the lady in question herself was absent. Mr. Homor was sitting there, however, surrounded by a little bevy of women. Mr. Homor, without a doubt, was a very changed man. On the outskirts of the little gathering the newcomer paused to regard him with wonder. The hopeless, almost pathetic, misery of his face was gone. That wistful fear of impending death, which was always with him, had also passed. He was like a man who on the threshold of the grave had found new hope. He sat there in the sunshine with a serene smile upon his lips.
"Where's the lady this morning?" Mr. Cray asked.
"She is utterly exhausted with the efforts of last night," one of the women told him. "It is very doubtful whether she will be up to-day at all."
"What sort of a show did you have?" Mr. Cray proceeded, curiously.
"It was wonderful!" the woman murmured.
"Marvellous!" another echoed.
"It was without doubt one of the more amazing demonstrations I have ever seen," a man declared.
Mr. Cray opened his lips to speak, and that moment Mr. Homor leaned a little forward in his chair. He looked straight across at Mr. Cray.
"It was more than anything which has been said," he declared. "It was just a miracle. Mr. Cray, I saw my wife—my dead wife whom I lost many months ago."
Mr. Cray held his peace for a moment. Then he ventured a single question.
"Are you quite sure of that, Mr. Homor," he asked.
"I am absolutely and entirely sure of it," was the confident answer. "She came to me out of the shadows of that room, dressed as I remember her best, her hair, her little articles of jewellery, the light in her kind eyes—they were all there. It was unmistakable, and, though it sounded a long way off, I heard her voice."
"Do you carry any picture of her with you?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"There is a picture of her in my room," Mr. Homor replied, "but no one has ever seen it. You are perhaps one of those," he went on, "who find it hard to believe. Heaven knows I found it hard enough until last night! For months I have been carrying with me always the loneliness which is almost worse than death, and the fear of things to come which grows with those who have only a short time to live. And now—look at me. I am a new man. I am content to live or to die. There is no fear left in me."
Mr. Cray stood for a moment gazing at that thin streak of the Mediterranean shining below. All thoughts of exposing the trick which he felt sure he had seen passed away. He said nothing of his own accident, nor did he hint at his own convictions. He nodded his head reverently.
"Say, Mr. Homor, I congratulate you," he said, as he moved on. "Yours was a wonderful experience. It should be helpful to many others."
"I mean to make it so;" was the enthusiastic reply.
On his mechanical way down to the golf links, Mr. Cray was accosted by Mr. Pomfrey, his acquaintance of the previous afternoon.
"Been hearing about the manifestation last night?" the latter inquired.
Mr. Cray nodded, but kept his own counsel. He would have passed on but the other detained him.
"I have been wondering, Mr. Cray," he continued, "whether you could spare me a moment to discuss a matter of some little importance?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray assented. "I'm doing nothing. Get right on with it."
Mr. Pomfrey drew him towards the hotel.
"If you would be so kind," he begged, "please take me to your room. We can speak there without any possibility of being overheard."
Mr. Cray was surprised but acquiescent. Together the two men ascended in the lift and entered the spacious and very pleasant room which had been allotted to Mr. Cray. His guest looked around it appreciatively.
"Very nice quarters." he observed. "Very nice indeed. Now, Mr. Cray, have you any idea what I want with you?"
"Not the slightest in the world," was the truthful reply.
Mr. Pomfrey unbuttoned his coat and showed a small medallion on the inside of his waistcoat.
"In case that does not make things clear to you," he said, "will you allow me?"
He handed over a card, which Mr. Cray read in amazement:—
SUPERINTENDENT GEORGE POMFREY,
"Well, you surprise me," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "That's your job, however. What can I do for you?"
"I am here," the detective explained, "in search of certain jewellery stolen from the Albert Hall on the night of the ball in November last."
Mr. Cray nodded.
"I was there."
"You were there," the other continued, "with your friends Major and Mrs. Hartopp."
"I don't know about being with them," Mr. Cray objected. "I met them there for the first time."
Mr. Pomfrey's fingers caressed his chin thoughtfully.
"For the first time," he repeated. "Mrs. Hartopp spent a great part of the evening in your box, and my information is that you left the ball together."
"Sure!" Mr. Cray admitted. "I gave them a lift. If you make inquiries at your headquarters, you will find a little further information concerning the events of that evening."
"My immediate business is to do with the jewellery," was the cautious reply. "Acting upon certain information, I may tell you that in the first place I have searched the suite and luggage of Major and Mrs. Hartopp."
"Not up to the present. With your permission," the man went on, his eyes travelling curiously about the room, "I will now proceed farther with my duty."
A light began to dawn upon Mr. Cray. He gazed at his visitor in amazement.
"Let me get this," he exclaimed. "Do I understand that you are here to search my apartments, that you think I am mixed up in any way with the Hartopps?"
Mr. Pomfrey smiled.
"We don't need to go into that," he said. "You were with them on the night of the robbery, and you are here staying at the same hotel. I admit that I have no search warrant, but if I might offer you my advice—"
"Search, by all means," Mr. Cray interrupted, throwing himself into an easy chair. "When you've finished, I'll tell you a yarn about the Hartopps, which you can verify for yourself when you get back to town."
The detective made no reply. He made a prompt and methodical search of the whole of Mr. Cray's baggage. When he had finished he pointed to a cupboard.
"What is in there?" he inquired.
"Some empty bags," was the prompt reply. "The door isn't locked."
Mr. Pomfrey rummaged about for some minutes. Finally he dragged out into the room a kit-bag.
"Have you the key of this?" he asked. Mr. Cray stared at the bag with a puzzled frown.
"That's not my bag," he declared.
Mr. Pomfrey's manner became a little more constrained.
"There is the same label upon it as the rest of your luggage," he pointed out, "and written in the same handwriting. Also, as you perceive, your initials."
Mr. Cray rose to his feet and examined it in detail. Finally he handed his keys to the detective.
"You can try," he said, simply, "but I don't believe I have one which fits that bag."
The surmise was correct. After a few minutes' manipulation, however, the detective managed to open it with a master-key which he produced from his own pocket. Inside was a black tin box at which Mr. Cray stared in ever-increasing astonishment. Mr. Pomfrey lifted the lid and closed it again almost immediately. A hurried glimpse was quite enough. The box was half-filled with a miscellaneous assortment of jewellery, in the midst of which flashed some very fine diamonds.
"Well, I'm damned!" Mr. Cray exclaimed.
"Have you any explanation to offer?" the detective asked.
"None," was the bewildered reply. "The bag isn't mine, and I never saw the jewels before."
The detective smiled faintly. It was obvious, however, that he too was puzzled.
"Mr. Cray," he confessed, "I'll tell you frankly that I came into this room in the execution of my duty but without the slightest suspicion that I should find here what I was in search of. I must send in my report to headquarters and reconstruct the case in my mind. In the meantime, I don't wish to do anything which might seem disagreeable. You have a very comfortable room here, with a pleasant balcony where you can take the air. If you will give me our parole not to leave it for twenty-four hours, you shall remain undisturbed."
"On consideration that you let me send a telegram of my own to Inspector Johns, of Scotland Yard." Mr. Cray replied, "I agree."
"I will send off personally any message with which you may entrust me," the detective promised.
He left the room, carrying the kit-bag with him. Mr. Cray sat down at his writing-table and wrote a telegram. After luncheon he wrote more telegrams. Somehow or other, the day dragged away. On the following morning he rose at the usual time, breakfasted, and afterwards walked restlessly up and down the room, smoking a cigar. There had come for him no word or message from Mr. Pomfrey. Five minutes after the twenty-four hours had elapsed, he left his room and descended on to the terrace. He went at once to the bureau and asked for Mr. Pomfrey.
"Mr. Pomfrey left by the afternoon train yesterday, sir," the man told him.
Mr. Cray was dumbfounded.
"Did he leave any note or message for me?" he inquired.
The clerk searched the pigeon-hole and produced a note, which Mr. Cray carried out into the sunshine. Its contents were brief and to the point:—
Dear Mr. Cray,—I hasten to let you know that
according to instructions received from headquarters, the matter referred to
between us yesterday will not be further proceeded with.
Mr. Cray wandered mechanically on to the corner where Mrs. Hartopp's invalid carriage was usually to be found. There were several people seated there, but no sign of the person of whom he was in search. An acquaintance welcomed him.
"Thought you'd left, too, Mr. Cray. Didn't see anything of you yesterday."
"I had a slight headache and stayed in my room," was the somewhat grim explanation. "You haven't heard the news, then?"
"Nary a thing!"
"First of all, then, the Hartopps left yesterday by the same train as Mr. Pomfrey."
"God bless my soul!" Mr. Cray exclaimed.
"She looked terribly ill," his informant went on. "They had almost to carry her into the omnibus. Then you haven't heard about Mr. Homor, I suppose?"
"Not a thing."
"His lawyer arrived from London last night. They say that he is much worse. The doctor announced this morning that he could not live through the day."
"Say, that's bad!" Mr. Cray murmured.
"There's a great golf match on this morning—the Costabel pro and a visitor from Costabel, against Dell and Scott."
"I'll stroll down and have a look," Mr Cray decided, lighting a cigar and turning away.
It was very nearly two months later when full elucidation of many perplexing happenings came to Mr. Cray. Newly arrived in Monte Carlo, he made his first appearance at the Sporting Club and mingled for some time with the smartest crowd in Europe. In the act of trying to approach close to one of the roulette tables he was suddenly aware of a tall and elegant woman who had risen from her place at the tables, with her hands fill of notes and plaques which she was carelessly stuffing into a gold bag, Something about her expression puzzled him. Theft eyes met, and a charming smile of welcome parted her lips.
"Why, Mr. Cray!" she exclaimed. "How delightful!"
Mr. Cray shook hands dumbly with this very beautiful apparition. She wore a smart afternoon costume of black and white, a wonderful hat—black with white ospreys. In that very exclusive gathering, her slim elegance, her air of gracious distinction, singled her out for universal notice.
"This is quite delightful," she murmured. "Guy!" Major Hartopp extricated himself from a little crowd and shook hands affably. Mr. Pomfrey followed suit.
"Haven't forgotten me, I hope, Mr. Cray?" he asked, smiling.
Mrs. Hartopp laid her hand lightly upon Mr. Cray's coat-sleeve.
"Let us all," she suggested, amiably, "go and have a cocktail. If this is your first visit, Mr. Cray, you must be introduced to Charles."
They found four seats in the little bar. Mr. Cray found himself seated between Major and Mrs. Hartopp. Mr. Pomfrey strolled away and gave impressive orders to the white-linen-clad celebrity behind the counter.
"I always felt quite sure that we should meet again," Mrs. Hartopp continued, smilingly.
"I guess I was counting on it, too,"
Mr. Cray, who was beginning to recover himself, remarked. "What's that fellow Pomfrey doing here with you?"
"Guy, dear, you explain," Mrs. Hartopp suggested, amiably. "Tell Mr. Cray everything."
Major Hartopp scratched at his stubbly little moustache. "I expect Mr. Cray has puzzled things out for himself long before this," he observed.
"What about that jewellery?"
"Perhaps we took rather a liberty with you," Major Hartopp went on. "We got those few trifles out to Hyères quite safely, but Mina and I weren't feeling quite comfortable, so we thought they would be safer in your rooms, in a bag that—er—might have belonged to you."
Mr. Cray muttered something under his breath and swallowed hard.
"But what about Pomfrey?"
"Ah, yes—Pomfrey!" Major Hartopp repeated. "Good fellow, George Pomfrey."
"One of our oldest friends," Mrs. Hartopp murmured.
"You see, when we made up our minds to leave," Major Hartopp explained, "we naturally wanted the jewels back again, the coast being clear, and all that sort of thing. Pomfrey's done a few stunts with us before, and he undertook to get the jewels back and keep you out of the way in case you were inquisitive at our leaving."
Mr. Cray held himself back with great difficulty.
"I gather, then," he said, "that Mr. Pomfrey is not connected with the detective force?"
"Great Scot, no!" was the emphatic reply. "On the contrary!"
"Just let me get this," Mr. Cray persisted. "Now, that's a police commissionaire over there, isn't it?"
"Of course it is," Mrs. Hartopp assented, with a sweet smile. "He's a dear friend of ours. Should you like to meet him?"
"I may presently," Mr. Cray replied, significantly. "Where are the jewels?"
"Safely disposed of long ago," Mrs. Hartopp assured him.
"This is—er—one of the best markets in the world," her husband observed, "for—delicate transactions of that sort. Lump sum down and no questions asked, you know."
"I see," Mr. Cray murmured. "And you are now engaged, I presume, in spending the proceeds?"
Mrs. Hartopp laughed delightfully.
"My dear man, we don't need to do that," she said. "Didn't you hear about Mr. Homor?"
"I've heard nothing," Mr. Cray assured them. "I've been in Algiers."
"The dear man left me fifty thousand pounds in order that I might pursue my marvellous investigations. Wasn't it perfectly sweet of him?"
Mr. Cray sat quite still. Mr. Pomfrey strolled up, followed by a waiter bearing on his silver tray four tall glasses, filled with cloudy, amber-coloured liquid.
"There are only six men breathing," he announced, impressively, "who could mix this. It's the finest welcome we could give you to Monte Carlo, sir."
Mr. Cray mechanically accepted his glass, but made no response. His attitude remained negative. Pomfrey leaned a little towards him.
"Mr. Cray," he said, "may I speak a plain word to you? You are one of those shrewd, amiable gentlemen of independent means who have a natural taste for adventure and who go muddling about the world, sometimes interfering a good deal in other people's business. You get lots of fun out of it, and from what I know of you, you generally come out on top. From what I know of you further, I believe you to be a latitudinarian. The law isn't always just. The criminal is sometimes a good fellow. Our friends here have been up against you a bit, but you haven't come to much harm. Anything you know that you don't care about, forget. Be a sportsman, and don't look at that glass as though you saw poison inside."
Mina Hartopp leaned a little towards him. Her eyes were dancing with amusement, her smile was irresistible.
"You are really such a dear, Mr. Cray," she murmured. "You won't refuse to drink with me?"
Mr. Cray raised his glass. All four were solemnly clinked together. The moment of tension had passed. As he set his glass down empty, a beatific smile parted Mr. Cray's lips. He made telegraphic signs to the functionary behind the bar.
"You'll repeat that with me," he invited.
"It's pax, isn't it?" Mina Hartopp whispered in his ear.
"Sure!" Mr. Cray promised.
MR. CRAY, his short and rather fat legs dangling in mid-air, was seated on a grey stone wall which bordered a portion of the Corniche Road, smoking a very good cigar, at peace with himself and the world. About a hundred yards lower down, his chauffeur was engaged in tedious but necessary repairs to the limousine car drawn up under the shadow of a eucalyptus tree. Mr. Cray was not in the least hurry to resume his journey. Motoring in these lofty altitudes made no great appeal to him. He was thoroughly contented here, basking in the warm sunlight, enjoying his cigar, and lazily speculating as to the doings of a mysterious crowd of people of whom he could catch glimpses every now and then, moving about behind the trees on the other side of the road.
A gate exactly opposite to him, leading into an orchard, was suddenly opened, and a young woman made her unexpected appearance. She was apparently English, she was becomingly dressed, pretty, although obviously addicted to the use of strange cosmetics, and she crossed the road towards him with a friendly smile. Mr. Cray, whose sole desire at that moment was for companionship, raised his hat.
"Good morning," he ventured.
"Good morning," she replied, pleasantly. "I wonder if you have such a thing as an English match? I can't get these horrid French things to strike."
Mr. Cray produced at once a well-filled box.
"Help yourself," he invited, generously. "Fill your own box if you've got one. There's very little in this quarter of the globe that isn't good enough for Joseph P. Cray, but the match proposition is about as bad a one as ever I've struck."
The young lady accepted his offer without demur, lit a cigarette, and leaped nimbly on to the wall by his side.
"So your name is Joseph P. Cray?" she remarked, affably. "You're American, of course? My name is Daisy Lindel. Ever seen me?"
Mr. Cray shook his head regretfully.
"I can't say that I have," he admitted. "I've a pretty good memory for faces like yours, too. Have you been in these parts long?"
She laughed gaily.
"I didn't mean seen me about, I meant on the films."
"God bless my soul!" Mr. Cray exclaimed. "That's what all those people are doing on the other side of the wood, I suppose. Accounts for your make-up, too."
The young lady nodded, taking out a pocket looking-glass and studying herself.
"I do look pretty beastly, don't I?" she observed, dabbing her face here and there with a handkerchief. "I'd have explained when I came up, but I thought you knew what we were doing."
"That's all right," Mr. Cray assured her. "Glad of your company. I can see you've got a real pretty face under your make-up."
"You Americans are so forward," she murmured.
"We know good things when we see them," Mr. Cray declared. "Doing a film, eh? Well, that's interesting. What's the story?"
"Too long to tell you," she replied. "The point is, there's a murder at that cottage opposite, and the body's dragged out into that wood. They've been hauling a poor fellow about there until he declares he hasn't a sound bone in his body."
"Pretty strenuous, that," Mr. Cray remarked. "Kind of peaceful place for a murder."
They both gazed at the little dwelling opposite. It was a long, one-storey, peasant's cottage half covered with a flowering creeper, with a small garden in front and a gate leading into the orchard.
"Just the kind of place," the girl murmured, "to make one feel really sentimental. One can imagine a perfect love story being lived there, so different from our sordid little flirtations and make-believes."
She looked dreamily across the strip of dusty road and sighed. Mr. Cray sighed, too. "Love is such a wonderful thing," she said, softly.
"Sure!" Mr. Cray agreed.
"Are you married?" she asked, withdrawing her eyes from the clematis-wreathed porch, and gazing into his clean-shaven, good-natured face.
Mr. Cray coughed.
"In a kind of way," he admitted. "That is to say, my wife likes to live in Indiana State."
"Where is that?" she inquired.
"In the United States of America, way back across the Continent."
She looked at him pityingly.
"And you have to come over here all alone!"
"Seems kinder hard luck, doesn't it?" he paid, cheerfully. "The fact is, I haven't been back home since the war. I was out in France with the Y.M.C.A., and when we got through I didn't feel I could face these new laws, monkeying up side-streets for your liquor, or taking a drink behind a screen at a chemist's. Most of my friends were coming across pretty regularly, so I just stayed over on this side."
"I see! Aren't you very lonely sometimes, Mr. Cray?"
He edged a little nearer.
"Sure!" he admitted. "I love company, too. Whereabouts are you folk staying?"
"At the Villa Hyacinth," she told him. "There's a bus runs every hour into Monte, and we have two cars as well, but we really aren't as far out as we seem."
"I'd like it if you could take a little dinner with me one night," Mr. Cray suggested, boldly.
"I'd like it, too," she assented. "I haven't many friends in the company. The producer's very nice, but he has his wife staying over at Nice, and I can't bear the man I do most of my scenes with. Are you free this evening?"
"Sure!" Mr. Cray agreed. "I'll fetch you if you say the word, or will you be at the Hôtel de Paris at eight o'clock?"
"Hôtel de Paris! How delightful!" she exclaimed. "You needn't trouble to fetch me, Mr. Cray, but I'd be glad if you'd take me home. Here comes our photographer. He's going to take some 'stills' of the cottage."
Mr. Cray nodded.
"Someone moving about inside," he remarked, looking at one of the windows.
The photographer arrived, exchanged greetings with the young lady, and adjusted his instrument on the other side of the wall, almost out of sight. He was still busy focusing when, from the side door of the cottage, a young man suddenly appeared, and with a couple of strides reached the middle of the road. He was neatly enough dressed in the blue smock and trousers of the peasant, but his whole appearance was dishevelled and passionate. His black hair was unkempt, his blue eyes were ablaze, his fists were clenched. He was like a man beside himself with anger. He was young, scarcely more than a boy, deeply sunburnt, and with powerful frame and shoulders. As he passed Mr. Cray and his companion he broke into a little stream of furious words. Then he sprang over the wall and disappeared, running down the hillside. Mr. Cray glanced after him, a little puzzled.
"Did you get that?" he asked the girl. "He talked too fast for me:'
"I didn't understand a word," the young lady confessed. "My French isn't any good, any way."
She looked after the disappearing figure.
"He was terribly handsome," she observed. "I wish our camera man had been here."
Mr. Cray nodded.
"He seemed kinder flustered. I guess his déjeuner wasn't to his liking. These foreigners get so crazy over nothing."
"Déjeuner," the girl sighed "Don't! I ate my sandwiches before eleven o'clock."
Mr. Cray smiled. His car had just come into sight, slowly rounding the hill.
"I guess I can fix that," he said. "I've a glass of white wine, and sandwiches enough for a crowd, in my car here."
The girl gazed at Mr. Cray's rotund figure and at the approaching motor. There was a look of adoration in her face.
"You are an angel," she declared. "From the moment I saw you on the wall, I felt that you were meant to bring happiness into my life. You are sure there will be enough sandwiches?"
Mr. Cray smiled confidently.
"I guess you will say so when you see the basket," he replied. "I'm taking a little trip alone to-day, but I expected a friend who had to go over to Nice at the last moment."
"Heaven bless your friend!" the girl exclaimed, fervently. "I am consumed with jealousy, but I will revenge myself by devouring her sandwiches."
"You don't need to worry any over my friend," Mr. Cray declared, as he opened the door of the car and stretched out his hand for the luncheon basket. "Peter Gibson, his name is, of the Gibson Shoe Company, out in Lynn. Some plant he owns, I can tell you."
"I love him for his sex," the young lady declared, accepting a sandwich from the very magnificent collection which Mr. Cray had spread out. "I should have hated you to have been faithless before we met."
Mr. Cray produced a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, and a very agreeable little picnic followed. The photographer, having completed his "stills," was summoned to join in the feast. The sandwiches were followed by cheese biscuits, and fruit which caused the young lady to scream with delight. The photographer took his tactful leave, and Miss Daisy Lindel, who had already explained to her companion at great length the precise reason why she was not playing lead in the present film, now proceeded to confide to him the cause of her family loss of fortune and her subsequent appearance upon the stage.
"The thought of this sort of thing," she declared, biting sorrowfully into a pear, "would have broken my father's heart. However, I'm happy enough. Work is good for us all, and I couldn't sit down and be the only one of my family to do nothing."
These side-lights upon the young lady's family history, and their agreeable little picnic, were suddenly broken into by a further untoward happening connected with the cottage opposite. The front door was thrown open and a woman ran screaming out into the road. Her hands were high above her head, her face seemed distorted with horror. She ran towards the two, shouting and gesticulating, pointing first to the cottage and then down the hill, across the field. Mr. Cray slipped off the wall.
"I can't get all she says," he told his companion, "but it seems that someone has been hurt in the cottage, and she is accusing the young man of having done it. I'd better go and see what's wrong. Jean, you rascal, come here."
The chauffeur made his appearance from the tree behind which he had been consuming his lunch. In something less than thirty seconds he and the woman were in the midst of an impassioned duet, and all three were on their way to the cottage. The young lady sat upon the wall and waited. Down the road came a peasant in a brown linen suit, riding a bicycle.
"It is François!" the woman shouted, waving to him. "Come to me, little one. A terrible thing has happened!"
They waited for François, a giant of over six feet, who dismounted from his bicycle and listened with ejaculations like pistol shots to a repetition of the woman's story. Then they all went into the cottage. The woman threw open the door of the little living-room. Then Mr. Cray saw that they were in the presence of tragedy.
The room, almost painfully neat, was devoid of any signs of a struggle. The white stone floor was spotlessly clean. Strings of onions, a few birds, and a rabbit hung from a beam in the ceiling. There were antimacassars upon the oak chairs, a neat array of crockery upon the dresser. Seated in a high-backed chair was an old man with a long grey beard. His head was thrown back, his eyes and mouth were open. From the left side of his body protruded the hilt of a knife. There was a splash or two of blood upon the floor beneath and upon the side of the chair. He was without a doubt dead. As they saw him, the woman fainted, but recovered again almost immediately to join in the fierce chorus of questions and commentary. Mr. Cray lifted the man's wrist and felt it for a moment. Then he turned away, left the cottage, and walked back into the sunlight. The girl slipped from the wall and came towards him.
"What has happened?" she asked.
"What seems to be a murder," Mr. Cray answered, gravely. "There is an old man there quite dead. I think the woman is trying to say that he was stabbed by his son, the boy who ran past us across the field and into the wood."
"How horrible!" the girl exclaimed, turning suddenly pale. "In that cottage, too, where everything looks so peaceful! Why, it must have been done whilst we were sitting here talking. And that boy! He had such a beautiful face."
"I guess they're a queer, passionate lot, some of the country folk round here," Mr. Cray observed. "If I were you, young lady, I'd just get back to the others now. I guess I'd better go on to the village and get a doctor. Hôtel de Paris to-night at eight o'clock."
"Lovely!" the girl murmured.
They crossed the road together. Mr. Cray held open the gate which led into the wood.
"It's too bad this should have happened," he said. "Kind of broke up our little time together."
She was still pale, but she was rapidly recovering herself.
"Anyhow," she declared, "it has been the happiest half-hour I have had since we've been out here."
She made her way up through the trees with a parting wave of the hand. Mr. Cray turned back and entered the cottage.
At a few minutes before eight that evening Miss Daisy Lindel descended from the omnibus which had brought her from the villa and entered the Hôtel de Paris. Mr. Cray was waiting for her, and together they made their way into the restaurant, where her new friend was received with the deep respect which his knowledge of food and wine, his urbane manner, his discreet but lavish tips earned for him in whatever restaurant he chose to patronize. The head-waiter himself, a very magnificent personage, conducted them to their well-chosen table. Half-a-dozen underlings, of various grades and offices, showed breathless interest in Mr. Cray's deliberately chosen dinner. A gasp of mingled relief and approval escaped from them when the menu was finally laid aside, the last word spoken. They melted away to give place to a solemn-looking functionary with a mayoral chain around his neck. To him Mr. Cray whispered only the magic words "Pommery '06," and then devoted his attention to his companion.
"I am so glad you recognized me without my make-up," she said.
"I should have recognized you anywhere," her host assured her. "Say, what did the rest of the company think about your corning out to dine with me?"
The girl, who was leaning towards her companion with her elbows on the table, twirled a ring absently around her finger once or twice. Then she looked suddenly up and smiled at him.
"I told an awful fib," she confessed, simply. "I told them that I knew you in London."
"Well, well!" Mr. Cray murmured, consolingly. "A little fib like that don't do anybody any harm. From henceforth the date of our acquaintance is fixed—Savoy Hotel theatrical party last September. Now I guess we are well on the way, to being old friends."
She laughed gaily, and became very soon entirely at her ease. She wore a black gown of guileful simplicity, her brilliant hair was becomingly arranged, her eyes were bright and her smile pleasant. Nevertheless, there were odd moments when, notwithstanding her obvious content with her surroundings and with her companion, her face clouded over and her eyes wandered away into space.
"Something on your mind?" Mr. Cray inquired presently.
"It is that boy's face," she confessed. "I can see him now, coming out of the cottage and crossing the road towards us. He was like a madman—the way he jumped the wall and ran down the hillside, muttering to himself. Yet it wasn't a bad face. Tell me what happened."
"Well, I did what I could," Mr. Cray said, thoughtfully. "I went along in the car as far as the nearest village, and brought back the doctor and a gendarme."
"Do they think that it was the boy who did it?" she asked.
"Things kind of point that way," Mr. Cray admitted. "The household consisted of Jacques Cassiat, the murdered man, his second wife, and Jacques, the son by his first wife—the boy we saw. From what someone told my chauffeur it was a miserable ménage. The old man was mean but doting. He wouldn't even pay his son wages for the work he did on the bit of farm, and the woman seems to have helped to make bad blood between them whenever she could."
"And who was the other man?"
"François Lafont, his name was," Mr. Cray replied. "He owns the next plot of land."
The girl shivered a little.
"These things are commonplace enough to read about," she remarked, "but it gives one a strange feeling to have been within half a yard of anyone who has just committed a murder. Did you see how blue that boy's eyes were, and what a finely-shaped forehead he had?"
Mr. Cray sipped his wine thoughtfully.
"I kind of cottoned to that young man myself," he admitted. "So much so that I'm taking a bit of trouble to get at the rights of the matter."
She looked puzzled.
"Yes?" she murmured.
"I'm one of those harmless old blunderers," Mr. Cray explained, "who go about the world poking their noses into other people's business. I've a kind of natural taste for adventures and for straightening out problems when I come across them. I get more kicks than thanks, but I've had some amusement out of it. With regard to this present little affair, there don't seem, on the face of it, much room for interference from anybody. The boy will be arrested probably to-night, and maybe he'll confess right away. If so, of course, there's an end of it. If he don't—if he really has any sort of a story to tell—well, I shall pay a lawyer to get at the rights of it. I have been to the police-station myself already. Say, how would you like to spend the rest of the evening, Miss Daisy? There's the Opera right over the way, or we could go across to the Rooms?"
"The Opera would be heavenly," the young lady declared. "I adore music."
"I took seats on the chance," her host announced. "We'll just have a cup of coffee in the lounge and get along over."
The remainder of the evening passed in the most pleasant fashion. Mr. Cray and his companion thoroughly enjoyed the music, thoroughly enjoyed each other's company, and strolled back towards the Hôtel de Paris about half-past eleven, on excellent terms with one another.
"Just a mouthful of supper across at the Café," Mr. Cray insisted, "and a glass of wine, and I'll take you right back."
"It sounds delightful," she murmured.
They called first at the hotel, at Mr. Cray's suggestion, and in the lounge they were accosted by a tall, dark man dressed in sombre black, with a small black tie, a very high, white linen collar, and carrying a black cape upon his arm: Mr. Cray introduced him to his companion.
"Monsieur Droumbet, the avocat," he explained. "I went in to see him this afternoon, and asked him to let me know of any developments in that little affair we saw something of this morning."
"The young man Jacques Cassiat was arrested at seven o'clock this evening," the avocat announced. "He was seated on a bench on the promenade."
"Did he confess?" Mr. Cray asked, eagerly.
"On the contrary," the avocat replied, "he had every appearance of being shocked, both at the news of the old man's murder and at the fact that he was suspected of it. He declared that he had meant to return home himself later. He admitted the quarrel, but declared that his father was strong and well when he left him."
Mr. Cray smiled.
"This news," he said, "confirms my own impression of the case. I am very much obliged, Monsieur Droumbet. At what hour will the magistrate's examination take place to-morrow morning?"
"At eleven o'clock, monsieur."
"At a quarter to eleven I shall be at your office," Mr. Cray announced.
"I shall await your pleasure, monsieur," was the polite reply.
M. Droumbet bowed first to Miss Daisy Lindel, then to Mr. Cray, and afterwards to no one in particular.
"What's your hurry?" Mr. Cray remonstrated. "We thought of stepping across to the Café de Paris for a sandwich and a bottle of wine. Won't you join us?"
M. Droumbet shook his head. He was apologetic but emphatic.
"Monsieur Cray will excuse me," he begged. "For the visitor those places are very well. For me who practises my profession here, it would be ruin to be seen at them. I shall expect Monsieur Cray at a quarter to eleven to-morrow morning."
He departed with a farewell flourish of the hat. Mr. Cray looked after him with some concern.
"Say, I don't see where his fun comes in," he remarked. "Maybe he keeps canaries, or plays on the piano. Let's be getting across now."
"Are you going to pay him to defend the boy?" she asked, as they stepped back into the scented night, and turned their faces towards the hotel, from which the sound of music travelled to their ears.
"I guess so—something of the sort," Mr. Cray assented.
"You dear, generous man!" she murmured, squeezing his arm.
At the Café de Paris it appeared that Mr. Cray was also a well-known client.
A table in the best part of the room was at once prepared for him, his brief orders met with instantaneous response, and the Bacchanalian high priest who tendered him the wine list received his commands with marks of the deepest respect. To complete his companion's happiness, Mr. Cray proved himself an expert in the modern dances which were being lavishly indulged in, and as he led her, breathless, hack to her place, she declared that she was having the most enjoyable evening of her life.
"Why, if all the crowd aren't here!" she exclaimed a little later, waving her hand towards a distant corner of the room. "There's Mr. Harding, the producer, and Miss May, our leading lady, and Mr. Spens, the photographer, whom you met this morning. They don't seem to be able to find a table."
"Ask them right across," Mr. Cray insisted, hospitably. "We'll find room for them here."
The girl beckoned her friends without enthusiasm.
"You won't be able to escort me home now," she whispered.
"Damn!" Mr. Cray muttered, with mendacious emphasis.
A dozen waiters flew to do their wealthy patron's bidding. The table was promptly rearranged and extended. Pleasant courtesies were exchanged with the newcomers, and the evening proceeded merrily, with Mr. Cray a self-established host. It was three o'clock before the party broke up. Mr. Cray and Spens were the last to leave the room.
"I'm afraid I'm giving you a lot of trouble," Mr. Cray said politely.
The camera man removed a large cigar from the corner of his mouth. Whatever cares he might have had in private life, the memory of them had escaped him. The champagne had been potent and plentiful, and his state was beatific.
"No trouble at all, old boy," he declared. "Pleasure do anything for you. What a night I What a place! What a life!"
The little omnibus rolled off amidst a chorus of thanks from its occupants, and a little bouquet of kisses from the ladies to which Mr. Cray gallantly responded. He watched the vehicle turn the corner of the square. Then he went home to bed.
Even the examining magistrate himself, a grey and ponderous gentleman, seemed conscious of the sense of drama which pervaded the musty room with its high windows and bare, polished floors, in which next morning he conducted his preliminary investigation into the circumstances attendant upon the murder of Jacques Cassiat. Before him stood the wretched youth, Jacques Cassiat, junior, a gendarme on either side; on his left hand, his clerk; on his right hand, installed in a seat of honour, sat Mr. Cray, who, in addition to his passport, made a point of always carrying with him credentials of the highest order. Furthermore, seated some distance away was the widow of the murdered man, with the neighbour, François Lafont. The two whispered to one another frequently. Once, when the boy had burst into a tirade against her unkindness to his father, she had passed her arm as though for protection through her companion's. Neither seemed entirely at ease. Their presence in court during the boy's examination was unusual and unexplained. Neither of them found it pleasant.
The magistrate broke a somewhat prolonged silence, glancing up from the notes which he had made during his examination of the boy. He turned to the latter, pursing out his lips, settling his horn-rimmed spectacles a little more firmly upon his nose, and tapping upon the desk with his penholder.
"Jacques Cassiat," he said, "you are in custody, probably to be charged with the murder of your father, Jacques Cassiat, senior, of the Orchard Farm. You obstinately deny your guilt. Yet it has been proved that you left the house after a violent quarrel with your father, that those quarrels were of almost daily occurrence, and that he was found stabbed in his chair by the first person who entered the room after your departure. In the face of these facts, do you still obstinately deny your guilt?"
"I am not guilty," the boy declared passionately. "I swear that I never raised my hand against him! Before the good God—"
M. Droumbet, the avocat, had risen to his feet. He brandished his arm before the boy's face.
"Remember!" he cried, and the boy broke off in his passionate outburst.
M. Droumbet turned to the magistrate.
"Monsieur le magistrat," he began, and his voice was charged with portentous meaning, "I beg to be allowed to submit evidence on behalf of the accused."
The magistrate nodded. In the background, François Lafont and the woman by his side unlocked hands and sat a little apart. They both leaned forward to listen. The woman's black eyebrows nearly met. The man's lips had parted, showing unpleasant yellow teeth.
"I beg to ask your honour to examine this photograph," the avocat continued, passing one up to the magistrate.
The magistrate studied the picture which had been submitted for his inspection.
"That is a photograph of Orchard Farm," M. Droumbet went on, "taken by a photographer employed by an English cinema firm, who waits without for your examination. I ask you, sir, to look at the window on the left. What do you see?"
"I see," the magistrate replied, "the blurred but distinguishable form of a man—an old man—looking out of the window."
"That man, sir," the avocat declared, "was Jacques Cassiat! And listen," he added, throwing out his arms with a theatrical gesture, "that picture was taken after the wrongfully accused boy there had left the house! The figure at the window is the figure of his father, who went to the window to watch the departure of his son."
"Have you witnesses?" the magistrate inquired.
"The photographer himself," was the triumphant reply, "Monsieur Cray, the American gentleman of great importance who sits by your side, and a young lady from the cinema company. All three will testify that the photographer took up his position and secured his picture after that unfortunate young man had crossed the road and descended the hill."
The magistrate turned towards Mr. Cray, who bowed his head.
"I am prepared to bear witness to that upon my oath," he said.
The magistrate turned back to M. Droumbet.
"This is very extraordinary evidence, monsieur l'avocat," he said. "We are here to sift the matter. If the boy did not kill his father, then who did?"
"Monsieur," was the prompt reply, "before I go farther, I have to request you to remove the gendarmes from guarding that young man, and to place them at the door. I myself will be responsible for Jacques Cassiat."
The magistrate made a sign and the thing was done. M. Droumbet continued.
"Monsieur le magistrat," he pronounced, "perjury has been committed in this court within the last hour. You have been told a lie! You have been told a lie to shield the guilty man!"
There was an intense silence. François Lafont was leaning farther forward in his seat now, breathing heavily. The courage born of the wine shops where he had spent the early morning was evaporating. The woman's eyes were like points of fire.
"The man Lafont there," the avocat continued, with a sudden sweep of the arm, "was in the outhouse, where the woman by his side was washing clothes, whilst the quarrel between father and son was at its height. I can prove that he was there. Let us assume that he entered the house, that he seized the opportunity of that quarrel and that poor boy's precipitate departure to commit the evil deed which secured for him the old man Cassiat's savings, and to make his mistress of to-day his wife of tomorrow."
"A lie!" the woman shrieked. "Monsieur," she added imploringly to the magistrate, "stop that man!"
Lafont, by her side, was shaking like a man in an ague.
"I can prove," the avocat continued, "that that man Lafont left the house after the poor boy Cassiat, that he left it secretly, keeping all the time under cover of the grey stone wall whilst he made his way to his own home. Arrived there, he fetched out his bicycle and came along the road on a casual errand. It was no casual errand, monsieur le magistrat. He came back to see the work which he had done! My facts are facts. The American gentleman of importance who sits by your side can testify to their truth. It was he who saw the man, whom I now accuse as the murderer of Jacques Cassiat, skulking from the house where he had committed that foul deed!"
Lafont was on his feet. The woman was shouting and shrieking at him.
"She made me do it!" he cried. "It was she who placed the knife in my hand! She threw her arms around his neck! She would have strangled him if I had not struck!"
"Liar! Coward! Poltroon!" the woman shrieked, as she fell upon her companion and forced her hands against his mouth. "You give yourself to the guillotine! You have a heart of putty!"
The gendarmes separated them. The magistrate made a sign, and their hands fell heavily upon Lafont's shoulder.
"You confess, Lafont?" the magistrate cried, with outstretched finger. "It is useless to deny your guilt."
"I killed the old man," Lafont faltered, each word seeming to stick in his throat. "We talked of it often, she and I. She put it into my head as she put the knife into my hand."
The woman spat at him. Lafont was marched away. The boy, a little dazed, crept over to where Mr. Cray was seated, and kissed his hand.
"It was monsieur who discovered the truth," he murmured.
"My young friend," Mr. Cray replied, "truth always discovers itself."
The magistrate took up a knife and began to pare his nails.
"A most interesting morning," he said. "Monsieur will do me the honour of taking déjeuner with me?"
"Any morning except this morning, with pleasure," Mr. Cray replied. "It chances that I have an engagement."
"To-morrow, then," the magistrate agreed, rising to his feet. "Au revoir, monsieur! In the name of the Law, I thank you."
Mr. Cray drew a little breath as he left the fusty court and stepped into the brilliant sunshine. Everywhere were signs of a busy and genial life. Women flitted about like butterflies in their pursuit of pleasure. The little tables outside the Café de Paris were almost all taken. Miss Daisy Lindel waved her parasol.
"Is everything all right?" she asked, anxiously.
The sun was very warm and the west wind fragrant. Mr. Cray shook himself free from that web of ugly memories.
"The boy is free," he assured her.
She gave a little sigh of relief, and Mr. Cray seated himself in the chair which she had been guarding. There was an almost feverish zest in the order which he gave to a passing waiter. Then he became conscious that the boy was lingering at the edge of the little array of tables, lingering there wistfully, as though he still had a word to say. Mr. Cray beckoned to him. Jacques Cassiat hastened up and stood there, bareheaded.
"If monsieur would accept my service," he begged, nervously fingering his cap.
Mr. Cray shook his head, smiling.
"Take my advice, Jacques," he said. "Get back to your farm and remember these last twenty-four hours only as a dream."
"It shall be as monsieur says," the boy replied reluctantly; "but monsieur will remember," he added, his, hand pressed for a moment against his heart, "there will be a pain here until the day when monsieur shall require some service of me."
He moved away almost at once and turned up the hill, a strange figure in his peasant's clothes and with his fine, free carriage. They watched him until he was out of sight.
"I should like to see him in a film," Miss Daisy Lindel declared.
Mr. Cray only smiled.
MR. JOSEPH P. CRAY was exceedingly comfortable on board the steamship Omata, homeward bound from Toulon to Tilbury. His state-room was very much to his liking, the boat was clean and not over-crowded, the bartender was a human person with an understanding touch upon the cocktail shaker. The people on board, mostly Anglo-Indians holding official positions, were perhaps a little unsociable, and preserved for the most part that reserved demeanour usual amongst travellers who have had the ship to themselves throughout the voyage towards intruders who have embarked at the last port of call. Nevertheless, Mr. Cray, who had been asked to take a vacant place at the captain's table, found no lack of society. There was a compatriot of his own, a manufacturer of reaping machines, who had just paid an extended and profitable visit to the East, and who was always ready to talk business or to recount his doings in some of the more adventurous cities; also a young invalided officer from the Indian Army, with his delicate sister, an interesting but rather pathetic couple, who had seemed grateful for Mr. Cray's cheerful conversation. There was also a middle-aged lady, returning from her travels, who boasted that she had been in every country of the world—a stalwart and determined-looking personage, who usually wore masculine clothes, smoked very strong cigarettes, and who had looked from the first with eyes of distinct favour upon Mr. Cray's pink-and-white opulence. This lady, in fact—Mrs. Richard Green by name—threatened to be the only drawback to an exceedingly pleasant five days. Already Mr. Cray was beginning to take note of her advances with a vague feeling of uneasiness.
"You seem to me, Mr. Cray," she said, dragging her chair over to his side on the evening after his arrival, "to be a man who is in need of sympathy."
Mr. Cray looked at her furtively. She was about his own height and figure; she wore a grey felt hat, perfectly unadorned, jammed down over her head; her tweed skirt barely reached half-way between her knees and her sturdy ankles. Her eyes, perhaps her best feature, were dark and brilliant. Her cheek-bones were a little high, her jaw-bone bespoke determination. She was not a woman to be trifled with.
"Sure!" Mr. Cray assented, weakly. "We all need that. I guess I get on pretty well, though."
"I suppose you think you do," Mrs. Richard Green rejoined, reprovingly. "You men never know when you're well off, and you never know when you're badly off. You're a poor sort of creature anyhow, to go wandering about the world by yourself."
"I'm not always alone," Mr. Cray protested.
"And who is your travelling companion when you are not?" she demanded.
"Sometimes my wife."
Mrs. Richard Green glared at him ferociously.
"So you are a married man, eh?"
"I am," Mr. Cray admitted, feeling, for the first time for many years, comfortably resigned to the fact.
"Where's your wife, then?" his neighbour demanded.
"In Indiana, U.S.A.," Mr. Cray replied. "She prefers to remain there."
Mrs. Green seemed somewhat mollified. Indiana, U.S.A., was a long way off.
"And meanwhile you go gadding about with any hussy who happens to smile at you?" she asked, sternly.
"I don't know as that's quite fair," Mr. Cray protested. "Young ladies are very pleasant companions sometimes, but—"
"I saw that yellow-headed minx making googly eyes at you at dinner last night," Mrs. Green declared. "Just the sort of baggage you men find attractive, I suppose."
"I don't even know whom you mean," Mr. Cray expostulated.
"Calls herself a colonel's wife!" Mrs. Richard Green scoffed.
Mr. Cray brought up his reserves.
"What about your husband?" he inquired.
"Dead," was the uncompromising reply. "I buried him fourteen years ago. Since then I have led a lonely life."
"You must have done some wonderful travelling," Mr. Cray observed.
"I have indeed," she admitted. "I have been into countries where no woman has ever before set foot. I have shown the world what courage can do. Although I have travelled alone and unprotected, no man has ever dared to molest me."
"You must be very brave," Mr. Cray ventured.
"The man who raised his hand against me would be braver still," she asserted.
"I can well believe it," he agreed, fervently.
"At the same time," she continued, after a moment's pause; during which Mr. Cray had been taking notice of her square-toed, masculine shoes, her thick worsted stockings, and massive limbs, the shape of which was imperfectly concealed by the rather tight jersey and loose skirt, "I am free to admit that the time has come when I am a little weary of my travels. I propose to settle down in London, make friends, and lead a domestic life. For the first time for many years I find myself free, and disposed to seek companionship."
"Very agreeable," Mr. Cray murmured.
"I have the name," she continued, edging her chair a little closer to his, "of being a man-hater. I am nothing of the sort."
Mr. Cray expressed his relief.
"We're pretty harmless, take us all round," he ventured.
"You may or may not be," the lady replied. "I have never allowed a man to take any liberties with me. I don't trust them. At the same time," she went on, "a man has his place in a woman's life, and because I have chosen to keep him outside mine for the last fourteen years, that does not necessarily mean that I intend to preserve the same attitude for the rest of my life. The contrary is the case. I intend to cultivate men friends."
"You may marry," Mr. Cray suggested, trying hard to keep his end up.
Mrs. Richard Green looked at him very hard.
"I may," she admitted. "On the other hand, I may not. I am a woman who is free from all prejudices. Travel has broadened my mind. My outlook is different from other women's. Marriage has its advantages and disadvantages. Besides, the person whom I might choose as a companion," she went on, still looking fixedly at Mr. Cray, "might be a married man."
"Sure!" Mr. Cray assented, a little shaken. "There are many who aren't, though," he went on, with a sudden access of cheerfulness; "in fact, London's full of them Never knew a place where there were so many middle-aged bachelors."
"When I fix my affections upon a man," Mrs. Green said, firmly, "his state will make no difference to me. Married or single, I shall have him. If the law cannot join us, I shall make my own law. That is the sort of woman I am, Mr. Cray. That is the sort of spirit which has brought me safely through savage countries."
Mr. Cray made frantic signals of distress to the manufacturer of reaping machines, who was just passing. The latter responded like a man.
"We are waiting for you forward, Mr. Cray," he announced. "Number one is in the shaker."
Mr. Cray struggled hastily to extricate himself from the rug which enveloped his lower limbs.
"I'll be with you right along," he declared, staggering to his feet. "You'll excuse me, Mrs. Green."
"And what may this number one signify?" the lady asked, disapprovingly.
"Our first cocktail before dinner," Mr. Cray explained. "I guess I'm rather a sinner so far as that sort of thing is concerned," he went on, guilefully. "I try to keep myself down to three before dinner, but it's very often five, or even six."
"It is a habit of which you must be broken," Mrs. Green said, sternly.
Mr. Cray staggered off. He passed his arm through his friend's. With the other hand he felt his forehead, half expecting to find drops of perspiration there.
"Gee, but that's some woman, sir?" he declared.
His companion grinned.
"I heard her asking questions about you. She's got your number all right. Said she liked your mild voice and pink-and-white complexion."
"Let's get right into the bar," Mr. Cray insisted nervously, hurrying along.
At dinner-time that evening Mr. Cray received a further shock. In the chair exactly opposite his own, which had been vacant since Toulon, he discovered Mrs. Richard Green.
"I have changed my place," she announced, graciously. "I thought I should like to come to your table."
The captain, seated a few places away, smiled. The young invalid officer exchanged a glance of amusement with his sister. The manufacturer of reaping machines, who was at a table some distance away, rose and telegraphed his congratulations across the room. Mr. Cray, without knowing exactly why, felt his savoir faire deserting him. The fact that he ate his soup in stony silence did not seem in any way to trouble his opposite neighbour. She eyed with calm and proprietary approbation his well-fitting and carefully-brushed dinner suit, his very handsome pearls, and well-tied bow. She herself was appearing in very different guise. Her skirt was still of the order called serviceable, but she wore a blouse of a shimmery magenta colour, long amber earrings, and a necklace of uncut stones of barbaric character. Her closely-cropped black hair defied any attempt at ornamentation, but in the front it showed signs of straying over her massive forehead in the form of a fringe. Mr. Cray, notwithstanding his qualms, could scarcely keep his eyes off her. The muscular development of her arms was wonderful. She ate her dinner with the calm and healthy appetite of a woman sure of herself and her path in life. The captain made a polite effort to engage her in conversation.
"They tell me, madam," he said, "that you have been a great traveller."
"I have visited every country in the globe," she replied. "I have faced savages, wild animals, and Government House dinner-parties. I am now on my way home to settle down."
She looked hard at Mr. Cray, who writhed in his seat.
"You will be writing another book of travels, I suppose?" the captain remarked.
"In due course," Mrs. Green assented. "I shall first seek for an honest publisher. The sales of my last volume were most disappointing."
The captain, who felt that he had done his duty, turned to another of his neighbours. The young officer addressed Mr. Cray.
"You are just from the Riviera, sir, are you not?" he inquired.
"From Monte Carlo," Mr. Cray told him.
Mrs. Green frowned slightly.
"I look upon the Riviera," she declared, "as a place for idle people to indulge their extravagant habits. A most enervating climate, too."
Mr. Cray remembered that he was a man, and a citizen of the United States.
"I would sooner spend the winter in Monte Carlo than anywhere else in the world," he said, firmly.
Mrs. Green showed no signs of annoyance. Her smile, indeed, was maddeningly tolerant.
"Well," she remarked, "under certain conditions I dare say I should be inclined to modify my impressions of the place. I have no conscientious objections to a little mild gambling. I occasionally indulge in a game of cards myself. But extravagance is a vice to which I have the strongest objection."
"Extravagance," Mr. Cray pronounced, "is what you might term a relative quality. In my younger days I worked hard and established a successful business. I have only one daughter and no other near relatives. It gives me pleasure to spend my money."
"A very bad example to others," Mrs. Green said, severely.
"Guess the others can take care of themselves," Mr. Cray observed. "I was never meant to be a shining light."
"What you need—" Mrs. Green began, portentously.
"Is another pint of that champagne, James," Mr. Cray interrupted, valiantly, turning to the steward. "Madam," he added, looking across the table, "I confess that I am a black sheep. I have every bad habit under the sun—and I like my bad habits."
Mrs. Green was sorrowful but unperturbed.
"You are a very interesting man," she declared, toying with her huge beads and smiling across the table. "I am seriously thinking of taking you in hand."
Mr. Cray's heart sank within him. The woman was like a Colossus. Nothing could move her. He had the sensations of a man pursued by some irresistible force. Mrs. Green lifted her voice, and laid down beneficent but somewhat arbitrary laws as to how a man should live. Mr. Cray listened in rebellious silence.
"Your great country, Mr. Cray," she wound up, "has shown the world what it thinks of liquor."
"In her way she has," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "In my small way, I shall continue to show the world what I think of it. Steward, hurry up with that wine."
Mrs. Green shook her head, but her smile was indulgent. She had the air of a mother watching the antics of a refractory but fascinating child.
"Obstinate!" she murmured. "We will have a little talk after dinner, Mr. Cray. I will make you a little coffee up on deck."
"I never drink coffee," her victim lied. "I always take brandy after my meals."
"In time," Mrs. Green warned him, "the indulgence in spirits to that extent will completely destroy the lining of your stomach."
"Mine," Mr. Cray assured her, recklessly, "is lined with asbestos."
"You remind me," she said, pensively, "of a black man on the West Coast of Africa, whom I treated with medicine of my own concoction. His sufferings were terrible."
"I can well believe it," Mr. Cray assented, fervently.
"Nevertheless, I cured him," she continued, with a note of triumph in her tone. "He died soon afterwards of another complaint. Curiously enough, his savage relatives were so incensed against me that I had to leave the neighbourhood before I had con-chided the notes of my visit."
Mr. Cray gulped down his wine, bowed to the captain, and stood up.
"Guess it's a bit close down here," he Muttered. "I'll take a turn on deck, and a cigar."
"It is the excessive quantity of wine you have drunk compared with the small quantity of food you have eaten," Mrs. Green declared. "No wonder you are giddy! Would you like me to accompany you?
"By no means," Mr. Cray replied, emphatically, as he made his hurried exit.
Mr. Cray was, without doubt, in some respects a weak man. He had conceived a positive dislike for Mrs. Richard Green, and he had abandoned a certain portion of his dinner sooner than be tormented any longer by her conversation. Yet when, a quarter of an hour, later, by a strategic flank movement, she ran him to earth in a retired portion of the ship, he was utterly unable to say those few rude but firm words which he had been repeating to himself ever since his escape.
"I have set the coffee machine going," she announced, "and the steward is bringing us some cups. I am making it a little stronger than usual on your account. If you feel in the least unsteady, let me take your arm."
"I am quite all right, thank you," Mr. Cray assured her. "You'll excuse me if I seem ungracious, but coffee always keeps me awake."
"Mine won't," was the firm reply. "If you stay awake to-night it will be because of the wine you've drunk, or because you've something on your conscience. Mind that coil of rope."
Mr. Cray was on the point of surrender when a saviour appeared. The invalided young officer emerged from the smoke-room and touched him on the arm.
"We are waiting for you, Mr. Cray," he announced. "You haven't forgotten our little game of poker?"
Mr. Cray's wit was as ready as his sense of relief was great. He felt Mrs. Green's hand go out towards him, and he broke away.
"For the moment I had forgotten it," he confessed. "I must ask you to excuse me, ma'am. I have promised to play poker with these boys."
"You can play afterwards," she objected.
"They're delicate young men," Mr. Cray explained; "all go to bed early. You'll excuse me."
Mr. Cray dived into the smoking-room and Mrs. Green went on towards where her coffee-machine was simmering upon the deck.
"You're a good Samaritan," the former declared. "I don't know what's got that woman, but she's a holy terror...Why, you've got a little game of poker," he went on, in a tone of surprise, as he noticed three other young men seated at a table in a corner of the room, counting out chips.
His companion assented.
"It's a very small game," he explained, as he led the way. "My name is Esholt—Captain Esholt—just invalided out and going home to look for a job. My three friends are Mr. Graham, Captain Thomson, and Mr. Leach."
The three shook hands with Mr. Cray, who sat down genially amongst them and gave lavish orders to the expectant steward. They were all very much of the same type as Esholt himself. One of them had been in the Indian Army with Esholt, and the other two, after a period of service, one in Mesopotamia and the other in Egypt, had recently been demobilized.
"We play quite a small game," Captain Esholt repeated, a little nervously. "The fact of it is, we are all of us pretty hard up. We ante two shillings, if you don't mind."
"Quite enough," Mr. Cray agreed. "I like a small game. I'll take five pounds' worth of chips. What's the limit, anyway?"
"Well, we've never made one," the other replied. "We just double, and we don't get very far on that. Straddle when you like, and jack-pots for full hands or better."
"Let her go," Mr. Cray declared, lighting a fresh cigar. "Just the sort of game I like."
The game proceeded for some time with varying fortunes. Mr. Cray, aware of a certain tenseness on the part of his companions, which seemed to him inexplicable in view of the smallness of the stakes, played with an indifference which resulted, as is usually the case, in his steadily winning. During one of those brief periods when he was out of the game he leaned back and took stock of his fellow-players, curiously at first, and then sympathetically. They were all apparently under thirty, they were all either slightly maimed or with partially broken health. Esholt had already confided to him his fears as to securing a berth with his old company, and neither of the others seemed much more sanguine as to his chances of making a fresh start in life. Mr. Cray looked down at his chips and wondered how to get rid of them. Presently he found out.
Esholt was the dealer, Thomson was next to him, and Mr. Cray next. Mr. Cray straddled Thomson's ante, and these two and the dealer alone remained in. Thomson took one card, Mr. Cray kept an ace and drew four. Esholt bet, Thomson doubled. Mr. Cray, picking up his cards, found that amongst the lour he had drawn were another three aces. He doubled again, and Esholt went out, Thomson hesitated. The amount now in front of him was sixteen shillings, and it required another sixteen to see Mr. Cray's bet.
"I'd go quietly, young man, if I were you," the latter warned him. "I've the biggest hand we've seen to-night."
There was a spot of colour in Thomson's pale cheeks. He looked at Mr. Cray with a queer little twitch of the lips.
"I don't want to know about your hand," he said, roughly. "How do I know you're not bluffing? Anyway, I'm seeing your thirty-two and raising it the limit."
"Sixty-four to see, eh?" Mr. Cray remarked. "Well, make it a hundred and twenty-eight."
"Two hundred and fifty-six," was the prompt rejoinder.
"Sorry," Mr. Cray replied. "Five hundred and twelve."
"Fifty pounds," Thomson almost shouted.
Mr. Cray shrugged his shoulders.
"Fifty pounds," he declared, "is a great deal of money at this little game. I shall see you."
He laid down his four aces, Thomson, with trembling fingers, spread out the two, three, four, five, six of spades. Mr. Cray, after a moment's amazed silence, laughed good-naturedly and produced his pocketbook.
"I congratulate you, young-man," he said. "You were in luck to find me with such a big hand."
He paid out the notes and ordered drinks.
The game proceeded. For three or four rounds nothing particular occurred. Then, when again it war Esholt's deal, and the first of a round of jack-pots, Mr. Cray found himself with a pair of kings.
"I open the pot for four shillings," he announced.
"Make it eight," Esholt declared, looking at his cards.
Every one came in. Thomson took three cards, glanced at them and threw in his hand. Mr. Cray took three, and found himself with another king and a pair of aces. Graham on his left, took three; Leach one; Esholt hesitated, picked up his cards again, fingered the pack uncertainly, and then took one. Mr. Cray sat for a moment quite still. He seemed to forget that he was playing.
"You to bet, sir," Thomson reminded him.
Mr. Cray glanced at the chips in front of him.
"Twenty-four shillings," he said, mechanically.
"Forty-eight," from Graham.
"Ninety-six," from Leach.
"A hundred and ninety-two," Esholt declared, glancing at his cards and laying them down again.
"I'm away," Thomson grumbled. "Just my luck with a big pool."
Mr. Cray sat quite still for another few moments. Again he seemed to be suffering from a sort of mental paralysis. He roused himself with an effort.
"Three hundred and eighty-four," he said at last.
Graham hesitated and threw in reluctantly. Leach did the same.
"Double!" Esholt declared.
They all looked at Mr. Cray. He was steadily watching Esholt.
"Twice three hundred and eighty-four is a great deal of money," he said. "However, I must see you, Captain Esholt."
He laid down upon the table his "full house." Esholt turned over his cards one by one. He was deathly pale.
"I have your four aces, sir," he announced. "I kept three and a kicker."
Mr. Cray looked at the cards for a moment and nodded slowly.
"Twice three hundred and eighty-four are seven hundred and sixty-eight," he calculated; "that is thirty-eight pounds eight shillings."
He counted out forty pounds from his pocket-book, received the change, and replaced the book in his pocket. Then he rose to his feet.
"If you boys will excuse me," he said, "I guess I'll just take a turn on deck. The atmosphere in here is a trifle thick. I'll be with you again presently. You can leave me out for a deal or two."
Amidst a nervous and portentous silence Mr. Cray left the room. He walked slowly along the deck, heedless of the drizzling rain and the wind. He was depressed and miserable, yet at that moment it seemed to him that only one course was possible. He was within a few yards of the door of the captain's room when he heard light footsteps behind him and felt his arm grabbed. He turned around to find Blanche Esholt by his side, her hair streaming in the wind, her lips parted, her eyes filled with half-terrified curiosity.
"Have you finished playing, Mr. Cray?" she asked.
"For the present," he answered, lifelessly. "Where are you going now?"
"I was just stepping in to say 'good evening' to the captain."
Her fingers were still gripping his arm.
She drew him to the rail of the ship. Mr Cray found himself welcoming these few moments' respite.
"Tell me about the game," she begged.
"I would rather not," he replied.
"Did they win?" she faltered. "Those boys, I mean—Dick and the others?"
"Yes, they won," he admitted.
"Getting on for a hundred pounds. I was just going to see the captain about it."
"Why?" she almost screamed.
Mr. Cray glanced around to be sure that they were not overheard.
"Because they cheated," he answered, gravely.
She commenced to sob then. She was incoherent, but somehow or other she managed to tell her story.
"I knew they'd be found out," she declared. "It was the stupidest, most idiotic thing. Mr. Cray, will you believe me when I tell you something?"
"I guess so," he promised.
"There isn't one of those boys," she continued, passionately, "has ever before done a dishonourable action. Jack Graham, Sidney Leach, and Phil Thomson are all just in the same boat as Dick and I. They gave up their work for the war, and they can't pick it up again. Not one of them has been able to find a reasonable job since. Dick and I haven't got fifty pounds between us, and not a soul in England to look to, and the others are in the same box. They were talking it over the other night, and Phil Thomson said suddenly that he was tired of being honest, he meant to get the money to live on, somehow or other. Then the others joined in, and Dick explained how easy it was to cheat at cards. And then someone said you were a millionaire, and they've been practising this poker game in their state-rooms every minute of the day since."
Somehow, Mr. Cray's heart began to grow lighter. He patted the girl on the back, then he began to laugh.
"Miss Esholt," he said, "I believe every word of what you have said. I never in all my life—and I've had some experience—saw such a darned poor, bungling attempt at cheating! Why, your brother don't know enough about palming cards to deceive the kids at a children's party, and that other young man, Thomson—why, he trembled like a baby when he showed his hands."
"You won't go to the captain?" she begged, piteously.
"I will not," he promised; "that is, if my talk with the young men themselves is satisfactory."
A dark form loomed up through the shadows. A hand fell upon Mr. Cray's shoulder.
"I heard you were on deck looking for me, Mr. Cray," a familiar voice observed. "I just went down for a moment to put on my goloshes."
Mr. Cray was speechless. Blanche Esholt, conscious of her red eyes, stole away, a proceeding which Mrs. Green watched with satisfaction.
"A forward child, that," she said. "Mr. Cray, I am sure you will be glad to know that I have decided to join your game of poker."
"To do what?" Mr. Cray faltered.
"We will promenade for a moment," she continued, propelling him along. "I feel that you do not altogether understand me, Mr. Cray. I am an independent woman—my life and training have made me so—but I am not averse to harmless recreations. I have played draw poker with the king of a dusky tribe of West Africans and won from him two elephant tusks. I may even say that I am fond of the game. Some day I will teach you poker-patience."
A tremendous idea commenced to dawn upon Mr. Cray. It developed slowly, however.
"You may lose your money, Mrs. Green," he warned her. "These boys play very well.'
"On the other hand," she replied, "I may win some. I am not afraid of my skill in any undertaking in which I may engage. At auction bridge I won four hundred rupees in Burma. I was considered by everybody there a wonderful player."
"I guess we'll start to-morrow night," Mr. Cray suggested. "It's a trifle late."
"We will start in ten minutes," Mrs. Green pronounced. "I shall now go down to my state-room and fetch some money. Kindly prepare the young gentlemen for my coming."
Mrs. Green disappeared down the companion-way, and Mr. Cray made his way back to the smoking-room. The four young men, in attitudes of profound dejection, were seated pretty well as he had left them, except that Blanche Esholt was on the settee by her brother's side. Added to the pile of chips which Mr. Cray had left was the little roll of notes with which he had parted. Esholt rose to his feet as Mr. Cray approached.
"We couldn't have gone through with it, sir," he confessed, "even if you hadn't found us out. There's your money. I can only say that we are sorry. We are entirely at your mercy."
Mr. Cray stood by his chair. The steward had gone into the inner bar. It chanced that there was no one else in the room.
"Will you give me your word of honour, all of you," he said, "never to attempt this sort of thing again?"
The reply was unanimous and convincing. Mr. Cray resumed his seat.
"Boys," he proposed, "I guess we'd better call these chips in and start the game again. Mrs. Richard Green is coming to join us. Don't look so astonished, all of you. Give me the chips. I'm banker for the rest of this trip. Do your best to win, and we'll settle up on the last evening, and whatever you see that you don't understand—well, just put it, so to speak, in your forgettery...To pass the time until the lady arrives, I will now show you a few card tricks. I guess, when I've finished, you'll think it wise to forget the little you know about dealing aces."
Mr. Cray kept his word, and when Mrs. Green, carrying a large reticule and wearing a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, entered the room with an air of determination and a smile meant to be ingratiating, he had reduced his little circle of watchers to a state of amazed stupefaction. He gathered up the cards at the lady's entrance.
"If you'll take this seat opposite to me, ma'am," he invited, "we'll make a start. I'm banker, and, if agreeable, I'll keep an account against you all till the end of the trip."
Mrs. Green took the seat indicated, hung her reticule across the back of her chair, settled her spectacles firmly upon her nose, and counted the chips handed out to her with the utmost care.
"The idea is excellent," she said. "Let the game proceed."
It was the last evening of the voyage—the great steamship was, indeed, being slowly convoyed up the Thames in charge of a pilot. Mr. Cray and his young friends were seated in the corner of the smoking-room which they had occupied every evening. They were awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Green.
"Has anyone seen the dear lady today?" Esholt asked.
"She came in to lunch an hour late, and had dinner in her state-room," Mr. Cray announced, with a grin. "I passed her on deck this morning, but she seems to have become a trifle short-sighted."
There was a little ripple of suppressed laughter.
"I notice that she's changed her place at table, too," Thomson remarked.
Mr. Cray smiled beatifically.
"She gave the deck steward a shilling to put our chairs at the opposite end of the deck yesterday morning," he confided.
"Poor Mr. Cray!" Blanche Esholt murmured.
The door was opened with a firm hand, and deliberately closed again. Mrs. Richard Green approached the table. Determination was engraven in every line of her forcible countenance. Gone were the magenta blouse, the barbaric beads, with those other slight concessions to her sex designed to allure the recalcitrant Mr. Cray. She was dressed in the severe garb in which she proposed to land on the following morning—a plain suit of iron grey, covering without flattery her massive limbs; a hard felt hat, and square-toed shoes. She had the air of one confronted with an unpleasant duty, to the performance of which she was braced only from a high sense of principle and ethical resolve.
"Will you sit here, Mrs. Green?" Mr. Cray invited, rising and pointing to one of the swivel chairs.
"I will not sit down," was the uncompromising reply. "I came here to say a few words, and I speak better standing."
Mr. Cray glanced at a list of figures which he held in his hand.
"Eighty-four pounds seventeen, ma'am, you seem to owe," he announced, with a slightly injured air. "The others have all paid up."
"I, on the contrary," Mrs. Green declared, "shall not pay."
Mr. Cray's benevolent face assumed a remarkable change of expression. He looked at the speaker in pained surprise.
"Madam," he protested, "this is a debt of honour."
"A debt of dishonour I call it," was the spirited retort. "I have consulted authorities upon the subject. I find that poker is an illegal game. I am surprised at you, sir," she went on, directly addressing Mr. Cray, "a man of your age and with your experience of life, taking advantage of these young people here and stripping them ruthlessly of their—their pocket-money."
"We don't complain," Esholt intervened, with the air of a martyr.
"It was a fair game," Thomson sighed.
"I've paid my bit, anyhow," Leach murmured.
"The more fool you!" Mrs. Green declared, standing squarely upon her feet. "What the law of libel may be on board ship I don't know, and I don't care, but this much I'm here to say and I'll say it, and you can any of you treat the matter in any way you think fit. The whole of my money was lost whenever Mr. Cray dealt."
"Do you insinuate, madam—?" Mr. Cray began.
"Shut up!" the lady interrupted. "You can speak when I've finished. That is the bald fact. Every time you dealt I had a good hand and you had a better. You may be what you seem. I don't know. You handle the cards too slickly for my liking, and if you want to know my opinion of you, you can have it."
"My dear Mrs. Green!" Mr. Cray faltered.
"Don't 'my dear me!" that lady thundered, striking the table with her fist. "I've formed my opinion of you, Mr. Cray. I believe you to be a professional gambler, and not one penny of my money do I part with."
A sudden wave of emotion seemed to pass over the little company. Blanche Esholt's face was hidden in her handkerchief, Thomson's was buried in his arms. Mr. Cray himself was pained and humiliated.
"That is my decision," Mrs. Green proclaimed, her tone gaining vigour and her manner becoming more triumphant as she noted the effect of her words. "Not one penny of my money shall I part with, and if I were you young people I would go to the captain and force that person to disgorge. That is all I have to say. Except this," she concluded, turning to Mr. Cray. "Take my advice and turn over a new leaf. It is all very well to plunder children, but there are other men and women about with brains besides myself. Some day or other you will be in trouble, and if ever a witness is needed to testify against you, they can call upon Mrs. Richard Green!"
She made a dignified and triumphant exit, but it was some minutes before Mr. Cray, wiping the tears from his eyes, could obtain a hearing. Even the pale-faced little girl by his side was weak with laughter.
"Now I've just a word to say to you young people," he began, seriously. "I want you to understand that though I'm a professional gambler when it suits me, I am also what Mrs. Green believed me to be when I came on board—a pretty wealthy man. I like you boys, and you've helped me through with this little stunt gamely. Now I'm going to do something for you."
There was a dead silence. Blanche Esholt sat upright on the settee, trembling. She alone had any idea of what was coming.
"I've been making a few inquiries, and this is what I propose," Mr. Cray continued. "We want help badly out at my works in Seattle, and if you, Graham and Thomson, care about taking it on, there are jobs for both of you waiting out there, with your passages paid and an advance on account of your salaries. You, Leach, I understand, were employed by the bank in London with whom I have pretty considerable dealings. You don't want to worry any more about your job there, for I guess you get it and you get it quick—within a day or so of our landing. And as for Esholt here, well I've been away from London a pretty good spell, and I guess there'll be correspondence and business enough waiting sufficient for a couple of secretaries. So there we all are, and, as I can't see that we've any of us got any particular worry on just now—Steward, before you close the bar, please, a bottle of that number seventy-four."
This is what Mrs. Richard Green saw when she looked through the porthole of the smoking-room a short time later, attracted by the sounds of unaccustomed revelry. Mr. Cray was in his usual place, with a glass of champagne in his hand, and Blanche Esholt, her arm tightly-drawn through his, was seated by his side, a transformed being, her eyes dancing with joy and gratitude. The four young men, her fellow-victims, were standing up with outstretched glasses, singing at the top of their voices, "For he's a jolly good fellow!" And this notwithstanding her courageous denunciation of a person whose skill in dealing was certainly phenomenal, and whose character she had ruthlessly exposed! No wonder Mrs. Green decided that all young people were fools!
MR. CRAY leaned back in his deck-chair and watched the last blur of land fade away into the mist. He was not in a cheerful frame of mind. Behind him lay the world of adventures, London with its juggernaut of life, its complex colours, its mystery, its everlasting call. There was his year, too, of grim self-sacrifice upon the battlefields of France, the year of his life given splendidly and cheerfully, a fine and wholesome tonic, the stimulus of which still remained. Behind, too, lay that land of pleasure only lately left, the Riviera, with its sensuous joys, its flowers and its perfumes, its Ninettes, its bland incarnation of the whole philosophy of joy. And before him lay a new America, an America which somehow or other he dreaded. Mr. Cray was neither a greedy man nor a drunkard, but he felt a sad conviction that much of that glad spirit of comradeship and good-fellowship must have passed away, withered in the blight of this strange new legislation. It was an unfamiliar land to which he returned, an unwelcome call which he had grudgingly obeyed. The Cray Plant, glutted with dollars made by the manufacture of munitions, required his help in its reorganization. It needed the brains of its founder to open up new avenues of industry. So Mr. Cray was on his way home.
It was the pleasantest month of the year for crossing—the end of May—when the sun was warm but never blistering, when the green seas tossed and murmured before the west wind, which sang him to sleep at night and brought the fresh colour to his cheeks in the early morning. The bartender was an old friend of his, there were plenty of acquaintances on board, his place at the Captain's table was flattering. Yet Mr. Cray was melancholy because the sun sank in the wrong place and the bows of the steamer were pointed in the wrong direction.
It was on the second afternoon out when Mr. Cray, turning carelessly enough to glance at the installation of a fellow-passenger in the steamer chair by his side, received a distinct shock, a shock which was apparently shared by the fellow-passenger in question. She stared at Mr. Cray and Mr. Cray stared at her. The words which finally escaped from his lips seemed inadequate.
"Say, this is some surprise! I had no idea that you were thinking of making this trip."
The slim woman with the brilliant eyes showed distinct signs of embarrassment. She tried to carry off the awkwardness of the meeting with a nervous little laugh.
"We made up our minds quite suddenly," she said, "or rather I suppose I ought to say that our minds were made up for us."
"Major Hartopp is on board, then?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"He is over there, leaning against the rail, talking to the dark, clean-shaven man."
Mr. Cray glanced in the direction indicated and nodded.
"Well, well," he said, "this seems kind of familiar. I had an idea, though, that you two had had enough of the States for a time. Why, it was only three days before I sailed that your husband told me he never intended to return."
She smiled sadly. Her eyes seemed to be watching the glittering spray which leaped every now and then into the sunshine.
"Our journey was undertaken at a moment's notice," she confided. "Here comes Guy. He will be glad to see you."
If such was the case, Major Hartopp certainly managed to conceal his gratification. He received his erstwhile acquaintance's cordial greeting with marked diffidence. Mr. Cray's good-nature, however, was not to be denied. He insisted upon an introduction to their friend—a Mr. Harding, of New York—and did his best to dissipate the distinct atmosphere of embarrassment which he could scarcely fail to notice. He was only partially successful, however, and presently, when Hartopp and his companion had strolled away, he drew his chair a little closer to Mina's.
"Mrs. Hartopp," he said, "your husband and you and I have come up against one another pretty often during the last three months. It seemed to me that we parted in Monte Carlo pretty good friends. What's wrong with your good man, and you, too, for the matter of that?"
Mrs. Hartopp turned her sorrowful eyes upon her companion.
"Mr. Cray," she sighed, "you are one of those men who find out everything. I really don't see that it is of any use trying to keep it secret from you. Guy and I are in a very strange position. You can't imagine what has happened, I suppose?"
"I cannot," Mr. Cray acknowledged. "You've got me fairly guessing."
She looked around as though to be sure that no one was within hearing. Then she leaned towards her companion.
"Mr. Cray," she whispered, "that man—that horrible man, Harding—is no friend of ours. He is an American detective taking us back to New York. We are under arrest."
"You don't say!" Mr. Crap gasped.
"Guy never thought that they would apply for an extradition warrant," she went on. "They did it quite secretly. We were arrested the moment we got back to London."
"Pretty tough," Mr. Cray murmured. "Of course, I always understood," he ventured, a little dubiously, "that there had been some trouble in New York, but I didn't think it was anything they could get him back for, unless he chose to go."
"The only trouble there," Mina declared, "was that he got into a set of people who were bent on making money anyhow, and he was too clever for them. However, I will not weary you any more by talking of our misfortunes. You had better take no notice of us. The truth might leak out, and it would not be pleasant for you to be associated with criminals."
"You can cut that out," Mr. Cray declared, warmly. "If there's anything I can do during the voyage, count on me."
Mina furtively dabbed her beautiful eyes with her handkerchief.
"You are very kind," she sobbed, "but nothing can help us now. Our pictures will be in all the p-papers. Guy will be branded as an adventurer and I as a fraud. You had better take no more notice of us, Mr. Cray. We are not worth it."
Mr. Cray gave a great deal of thought during the next few hours to the matter of the Hartopps' predicament. So far, no one seemed to have surmised the truth of the situation, although the man Harding was never for a moment apart from one or the other of them, and the fact that he was a person of obviously inferior social station made the close intimacy a little remarkable. Towards the close of the second day Mr. Cray deliberately sought Harding out during the half-hour before dinner when he was generally alone. Harding, who did not dress for that meal, was lounging on the promenade deck, and Mr. Cray drew him insidiously towards the smoking-room.
"No cocktails for me," the detective pronounced. "I've had some. I'll take a drop of Scotch whisky with you, though."
They took several drops. The smoke-room was empty, and Mr. Cray very cautiously approached the subject he wished to discuss.
"See here, Harding," he inquired, is this a serious job for Hartopp?
Harding became taciturn.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he declared, cautiously.
"You needn't worry about me," Mr. Cray declared. "I'm in the secret. Mrs. Hartopp told me all about it."
Harding chewed his cigar for a moment and sipped his whisky and soda.
"I guess he'll get five years, perhaps more. She'll probably get a spell herself."
"I'm sorry to hear this," Mr. Cray said. "They're friends of mine."
"That don't alter their being crooks," the other replied, dryly.
"Does New York know that you've got them?"
"Not a word. They didn't believe I'd get the warrant through."
"They don't know that you're on this steamer, then?"
"Nary a one of them I'm going to give them the big surprise."
"What's the charge?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Against him—selling dud bonds. Against her—robbing the old ladies of Brooklyn by pretending she brought spooks to them. They've done some slick things between them, but they're booked for Sing-Sing this time, or my name ain't Silas Harding. Not a drop more, Mr. Cray. I'll be getting a wash before dinner."
Mr. Cray walked the deck moodily. He was a kind-hearted man, and the plight of his companions distressed him greatly. After dinner that evening, whilst Harding was playing poker in the smoking-room, he sat between husband and wife.
"I guess there's nothing to be done about this matter with Harding, eh?" he queried.
Mina's eyes became suddenly bright.
"You're so wonderful, Mr. Cray," she murmured. "I'm sure you have something at the back of your mind."
"Nothing that amounts to anything, I'm afraid," Cray acknowledged. "Harding tells me, though, that he hasn't communicated with New York in any way."
Hartopp looked up eagerly.
"He told us that; I wondered at the time whether he was trying to make an opening for a little negotiation. The trouble of it is that we haven't the stuff handy."
"What about your wife's legacy?"
"They paid five thousand pounds down," Hartopp groaned, "and left the rest in case the relatives disputed the will. If this matter comes out in New York, and Mina's name is mentioned, we shall never see that forty-five thousand pounds. It's the devil's own luck."
"It doesn't seem hopeful," Mr. Cray admitted, "but we've had some fun together, and if I can make Harding see reason, I'll talk business to him."
Mina's eyes shone and her soft fingers clasped his hand. Mr. Cray reciprocated her pressure gently. A little later in the day he approached Harding.
"See here, Harding," he began, "how is it you and your friends the Hartopps are not down in the passenger list?"
The detective produced a particularly black and objectionable-looking cigar, lit it, and stuck it into the corner of his mouth.
"You seem mighty interested in the Hartopps," he observed.
"In a kinder way I am," Mr. Cray admitted. "They're the sort of wrongdoers I've a fancy for. They're sports through and through, and another thing, they're clever."
"Well, between you and me," the detective confided, "I've a sort of sneaking sympathy for them myself, and the reason they're entered on the ship's list as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, and I figure as one Perkins from Chicago, is that I didn't want it to get about all over the ship that they were a couple of criminals whom I was taking back to New York."
"I see," Mr. Cray murmured; "very considerate."
It was about an hour after dinner-time and a dark evening. The deck, however, was still crowded with promenaders. Mr. Cray inveigled his companion into a more retired spot.
"See here, Harding," he continued, "I'm a plain man and I want to ask you a plain question. Had you heard of Mrs. Hartopp's legacy when you started out on this trip?"
The detective rolled his cigar round, pinched it, and expectorated.
"I sure had," he admitted. "How do you figure that comes in?"
"Just in this way," Mr. Cray explained. "You found your warrant granted a little unexpectedly, and you found the Hartopps amenable to reason. You've got them on board here without any fuss, and I take it there isn't a soul on the other side who knows that you're bringing 'em along. In fact, you've fixed it so that if you were to turn up in New York empty-handed, no one would be disappointed or surprised."
"Now let me ask you as man to man," Mr. Cray went on, "didn't it enter into your head that a little deal with the Hartopps might be made, some little arrangement by which they could mingle with the other passengers and slip away at New York, and you could make a little deposit at your bank against a rainy day? How's that, Mr. Harding?"
"I get you," the latter said, calmly. "You're suggesting that I might be bribed to let them go."
"See here, Harding," Mr. Cray argued in his most persuasive tone; "I figured the matter out this way to myself. Harding's a man of, say, forty-five to forty-six years of age, he draws a salary that don't permit of much saving, and when they retire him, in a few years' time, the pension isn't going to keep him in luxury. I take it that it's a man's business as he walks along through life to try and put a bit by when he sees a chance. Here's just one of these chances. The Hartopps ain't criminals at all. They're just easy-living, pleasant adventurer and adventuress, who live by their wits and other people's folly. I haven't got a grouch on 'em, although they nearly cost me a cool thousand. They're not malicious; they're not out to do anyone any particular harm in the world. Are you travelling along with me, Harding?"
"Sure!" was the terse reply.
"Therefore, I say that there's your chance," Mr. Cray wound up.
The detective considered for some minutes.
"Supposing I was willing to talk business," he said, "what would be the price?"
"Two thousand pounds," Mr. Cray pronounced.
"Name your own figure, then."
"It'll cost you five," Harding declared, firmly, "not a cent more or less. We'll call it twenty-five thousand dollars."
Mr. Cray sighed.
"It's a lot of money," he declared.
"It's a big risk," was the terse reply.
"How long can you give me to think it over?"
"I'll meet you here at this time to-morrow night," Mr. Cray promised.
Mina was looking very wan and delicate the next day. Her soft, luminous eyes called Mr. Cray to her side as soon as he appeared on deck. She questioned him eagerly.
"Is there any chance, do you think?"
"The man can be bought," Mr. Cray replied. "The trouble is that he wants a great deal of money."
"Five thousand pounds."
Her face fell.
"It is terrible, that!" she murmured.
"Have you anything at all towards it?" Mr. Cray asked, bluntly.
"You had better ask Guy," she answered. "I never know exactly how we stand, financially. Of course, if only the legacy had been paid we should have been all right."
"Supposing the money was found, have you any place in New York you could get to quickly and lie hidden until you catch a steamer home?"
"We have a certain hiding-place," she assured him. "There would be no difficulty about that. There is Guy over there. Will you go and talk to him?"
Mr. Cray obeyed orders. Major Hartopp took a gloomy view of the situation.
"Harding didn't give us a moment to look around," he explained. "We had barely twenty-four hours' notice before he marched us on this infernal steamer. All the money Mina and I have between us is about ninety pounds in cash, and about a hundred and forty at a bank in London. What's so infernally annoying is," he went on, "they'll never pay over the rest of the legacy if this gets into the papers. They haven't a chance of holding Mina for anything she's done—she's been too clever for that—but the exposure will be quite sufficient. Those Scotch lawyers will fight the case inch by inch sooner than pay over a shilling, if Mina's integrity is once questioned."
"Supposing the money was forthcoming," Mr. Cray said, "your wife says she knows where you could find shelter in New York for a few days."
"Not only that," Hartopp declared, eagerly, "but I could get a passage back on this ship without any questions asked. The purser's a very decent fellow, and I've been having a talk to him about it."
Mr. Cray went back to Mina. She looked at him with very pretty hesitation.
"Does Guy think we could do anything?" she asked.
"The state of your exchequer, unfortunately, seems to place that out of the question," he told her.
She leaned forward. Her hand rested upon his, and the pressure of her fingers became more marked. There was something about the haunting way she looked at him which reminded Mr. Cray of the first time he had seen her at the Albert Hall.
"Dear friend," she whispered, "I am very fond of Guy, in his way. He is a dear, of course, but—I am fonder still of liberty. The charge against me is really a foolish one. The only trouble is that it may spoil my chance of getting that legacy. Couldn't you pay him a little less and get him to leave me out? You could take me back to England with you, and I should be there when Guy's trouble was over."
Mr. Cray, being only human, returned the pressure of her fingers, but he shook his head.
"I guess I'll see you both through this," he promised. "It won't ruin me, any way."
Mr. Cray was met on the dock by Mr. Nathaniel Long, the treasurer of his company, and hurried away into a private room of one of the mammoth hotels. There, with great pride, the latter drew from a small bag a bottle of Scotch whisky. Tumblers and soda-water were speedily forthcoming. Mr. Cray asked the obvious questions concerning this great change which had come to his native land.
"I tell you, Joseph," Mr. Long said, sorrowfully, "it's just as though some silent blight had fallen upon the country. The clubs aren't worth going into. Everybody snaps and snarls and quarrels at the least opportunity. The dinner-parties at the restaurants seem frost-bitten, and it's one of the most painful sights in New York to see Charlie serving out temperance drinks behind the bar of the Waldorf."
"Any decrease in crime?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"Slightly worse, and more suicides. Besides, this drinking in corners is making us seem like a furtive nation. A drink that used to be a mark of good-fellowship is now a vice. The doctors have never had so many cases of indigestion, and there's a wave of melancholia going around. I tell you," Long went on, gazing affectionately at the contents of his tumbler, "it seems a small thing to be driven from one's native land for, but the day I get across to England, sit down in a restaurant, order my cocktail and my bottle of champagne—well, it will be great, that's all there is to it."
"How's business?" Mr. Cray inquired.
"That's what's brought me here," the other replied. "Joseph, the Seattle Power Works have offered to buy us out as we stand, before we start reconstruction, with five million dollars for goodwill and a premium on the stock. I've brought all the figures, and I've got a seat on the Limited to-night. My idea was that you might go right back with me, talk it over on the way, and go into things down there. It's a big chance if you've any fancy for cleaning up."
"It sounds great," Mr. Cray murmured. "Say, Nat, I've given an open cheque for twenty-five thousand dollars on the Merchants' Bank here—lost it at poker on the way over. I guess it's all right, eh?"
"Sure!" was the prompt reply. "We've never less than a hundred thousand dollars there. Did you get amongst pikers, or were you pushing some?"
"I guess the game was all right," Mr. Cray declared. "What time does the Limited start?"
"I'll look after my baggage and meet you at the depot," Mr. Cray promised.
It was exactly ten days later when Mr. Cray, accompanied again by Mr. Nathaniel Long, returned to New York. They spent a solemn but inspiring day at the lawyer's and banker's. When the whole thing was over, Mr. Cray was a richer man than he ever had been in his life. His programme for the evening, although sadly affected, alas! by circumstances, still showed a sense of celebration. After a wonderful Turkish bath, a visit to the barber's and the manicurist, a whisky and soda in his room—an act of debauchery which was entirely flavourless—he met his friend and late business partner, and the two men made their way to the most select restaurant in New York, where a table had been reserved for them. With elaborate care, Mr. Cray wrote out a wonderful menu, ordered with a prodigious sigh a large bottle of mineral water, and, closing his eyes for a moment, drank an imaginary cocktail.
"Joseph, my boy, what are you going to do about it?" Nathaniel Long inquired. "You're in the prime of life and a very rich man. You can acquire a post in one of our great commercial undertakings over here, or you can wander out into the world as you have done during the last few years, looking for adventures. Mrs. Cray don't seem to make any particular claim upon you, especially since this anti-tobacco league was started. You're a free man, Joseph. That's what you are."
"And you?" Mr. Cray asked. "What about you, Nathaniel?"
Nathaniel Long shook his wizened little head.
"I guess that sort of thing doesn't exist for me," he replied, sorrowfully. "I have a wife and eight children. I am trustee of the chapel where my wife worships, secretary of our golf and country club, commodore of the sailing club. I shall just rent a slightly larger country house and take my ease. It is fortunate that I have not your restless spirit."
Mr. Cray was suddenly transfixed. He sat watching with sheer amazement a little party of three who were taking their places at an adjoining table—Major Hartopp, in his unmistakable English clothes, spruce and debonair; Mina, looking ravishing in a wonderful gown of filmy grey; and Mr. Harding, only a somewhat transformed Mr. Harding, in the long dinner-coat and flowing tie affected by the American diner-out. The head waiter himself saw them to their places, an obsequious maître d'hôtel passed on their order to attentive myrmidons. Nathaniel Long followed his friend's earnest gaze with some interest.
"Joseph," he inquired, "do you know the man in the dinner-coat—not the Englishman? You seem to be staring at him hard enough."
"He was on the steamer with me," Mr. Cray acknowledged.
"That fellow's seen the inside of Sing-Sing more than once," Mr. Long declared. "Some crook he is, I can tell you. I don't know what name he goes by now, but they used to call him Slick Jimmy. He seems to have got in with a swell crowd."
"He's never been a detective, by any chance, I suppose?" Mr. Cray asked.
Nathaniel Long smiled.
"I should say not," he replied. "I don't think, even on the principle of 'set a thief to catch a thief,' they'd stand Slick Jimmy in the force."
At that moment Mina caught Mr. Cray's eye and bowed in a somewhat constrained fashion. Hartopp nodded affably. Mr. Harding contented himself with a furtive grin. Mr. Cray drank a glass of water with great solemnity.
"Nathaniel," he declared, "I guess that taste for adventures is fizzling out. I've got to hire a dog and a guardian and live amongst the duds."
"Been stung?" Nathaniel Long inquired, kindly.
Mr. Cray met Mina's tantalizing eyes and looked away.
"Some," he groaned.
IT has been said that success is one of the greatest of a great man's qualities. Certainly most successful men whom I have known have thoroughly enjoyed their success. There is, of course, a common affectation to pretend that no success is worth having, that the game is not worth the candle, and that the prize is always a Dead Sea apple. But this is generally nothing but a kindly pretence intended to solace the unsuccessful. Sometimes, of course, success is so hard to win and the struggle so long and strenuous that, when the goal is reached, the power of enjoyment has departed. But this is the exceptional case. The rule is that success is a very jolly thing to have, and the jolliest sort of success is that which comes to a man whose work brings pleasure and enjoyment to his fellows.
I know no man who more obviously enjoys or more thoroughly deserves success than E. Phillips Oppenheim, the novelist, whose well-conceived, well-constructed stories are so familiar to readers of The Strand Magazine. Oppenheim is a man of fifty-four—of middle height and, in these days, tending to stoutness. But his stoutness is not that of the over-fed, under-exercised townsman, but merely the common evidence of the approach of comfortable middle life. Oppenheim, indeed, like so many other successful writers, is essentially a countryman. For twenty years he has lived away from London, in Leicestershire, in Norfolk, and more recently in Devonshire. Oppenheim is a keen open-air man, an excellent shot, a good golfer, and addicted to sea fishing. He flourishes best in the bracing air of the East Coast, and he found the atmosphere of the West a little enervating and, he says, a little depressing, though I am bound to confess I find it hard to believe that he can be depressed anywhere or in any circumstances. Anyway, he has recently given up his Devonshire home and now lives at Woking, with a little flat in Mayfair, conveniently situated over a famous Bridge club, Oppenheim being, among other things, a conspicuously good bridge player.
As I have already suggested, the quality of the man is cheerfulness. He meets you with a smile that has nothing whatever to do with "company manners." He smiles while he gossips. He smiles when he says good-bye—not the uncomfortable smile that makes you feel that he is glad you are going, but a flattering smile that makes you feel sure that he will be glad when you come again. His most striking feature are his light blue eyes, rather out-of-the- way, steadfast eyes that, as eyes always do, tell a good deal of the man's character. There is a suggestion of the practical in the manner in which his eyes fasten on you as he talks, and Oppenheim is eminently a practical person. He was brought up to be a business man, and he was a business man until he was thirty-five. Even then he did not really cease to be a business man. The modern English writer is generally conspicuously clever in obtaining the full pecuniary reward for his work. If Barabbas is still a publisher, he must certainly be a semi-bankrupt publisher. Men like H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett see to it that they obtain all that their work is worth, and Oppenheim has the same justifiable habit. But while his eyes suggest this business acumen, they also indicate the amazing imagination of a man who can write novel after novel without ever repeating incidents or making characters mere imitations of their predecessors.
Oppenheim's first novel was published when he was twenty years old. He has therefore been writing fiction for thirty-four years, and during this time he has produced no fewer than seventy separate novels and collections of short stories. In a review of his first novel, "Expiation," a writer in the Athenaeum compared the story to those James Payn used to write before he discovered he had humour. Oppenheim has made the same discovery since. Thirty years ago Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with his Sherlock Holmes series, invented the idea of writing a number of short stories each having the same leading characters. Phillips Oppenheim at once realized the advantage of this scheme from the point of view of the story writer. It meant economy in invention. And he was one of the first writers to develop the Conan Doyle idea. Another advantage of a series of short stories with the same central theme is that they make a far better and more interesting volume than a number of stories with different characters, different plots, and written in different veins.
OPPENHEIM'S first story was a sufficient success to convince him that it was worth while to continue writing fiction. He sold the serial rights of his second story for fifty pounds, and two years afterwards he received an offer for the serial rights of a story of two hundred and fifty pounds from the proprietors of the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph. Oppenheim told me that he remembers that, when this offer came to him, he felt that his fortune was made, and indeed it may be said to have been the beginning of his fame. He continued to write serials for the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph for fifteen years, and he recalls the long association with almost affectionate gratitude for the consideration and encouragement he received.
Oppenheim s father was a leather merchant, and after his death his son was compelled for some years to assist in the direction of the business.' But in this, as in almost everything in his life, fortune dealt him the winning cards. His business associates appreciated his talents and made it easy for him to devote a certain part of his time to fiction. . But it was not until he was thirty-five that he was able to retire from business and to devote himself entirely to literature.
I have used the word literature designedly, because the Oppenheim novels have a distinction that makes them different in kind to the rut of popular fiction. The drama is always well stage- managed. Incredible coincidence is rarely, if ever, employed. And the writing has form and style. It is remarkable enough that one man should have been able to turn out two novels a year for over thirty years. It is much more remarkable that there should be no falling off in the character work, and that, on the contrary, his last work should generally be his best. Oppenheim told me that his latest novel, "The Great Impersonation," is the greatest success he ever had. For six months it was one of the six "best sellers " in America and it has had a corresponding sale in this country. Unfortunately, it frequently happens that fiction of the smallest artistic value produces the most satisfactory pecuniary results. "The Great Impersonation," however, has pleased the critics as much as it has pleased the great reading public. Sir William Robertson Nicoll calls it a "mighty yarn," and he says:—
"There are no difficulties in the way of accepting its statements and situations. These are followed out with the most marvellous and meticulous skill. There is not a weak spot in the working out of a difficult and delicate plot. The triumph, however, of the book is its conclusion. The solution of the mystery is reached at last, just as the reader has settled down to believe that there is no mystery at all."
I have quoted this eulogy from a critic of unrivalled authority since it indicates one of Phillips Oppenheim's greatest qualities. His situations may be outside the common experience of his readers, but they are never incredible. He may deal with improbabilities, but he always persuades that the improbabilities are at least possible. Sir William Robertson Nicoll says that he has written "one of the greatest yarns in the English language." Phillips Oppenheim is modest about his achievements, and certainly does not talk readily about his success, but he will admit that he is above all other things a storyteller, and he suggested to me that it is because, unlike the needy knife- grinder, he always has a story to tell that his books are so popular in the United States.
"The Americans," he said, "are great story readers. I don't think thev are much interested in modern introspective fiction. They love colour and movement and situations. Give them that and they are satisfied, and, of course, if you have skill to add to that they are still more delighted. Joseph Conrad and W. J. Locke are the two most popular English novelists in America to-day, and both of them, whatever else they may do, write novels with a full-blooded plot."
No man could have an output equal to Oppenheim's without persistent industry. The novelist who waits for inspiration, and who can never write unless he is "in the mood," will certainly never publish two novels and a volume of short stories in one year. Perhaps it would be truest to say of Oppenheim that he is always in the mood. He is lucky enough to possess a very expert secretary who has been with him for a number of years, and he dictates to her everything that he writes. Sometimes the secretary takes down in shorthand. More often she types straight on to the machine. The novelist's favourite position, while he works, is to sit hunched upon a low easy chair. When he is in the country he will generally work from about a quarter past nine to twelve. Then he will play golf or tennis for an hour or so, returning to work early in the afternoon and going on until nearlv dinner-time. On a good day he will dictate about five thousand words, and an average day will mean about four thousand words. Every third or fourth day he takes a holiday and does no work at all.
In the popular novel the situation is certainly a greater asset towards success than the characterization. It is what the characters do rather than what they are that interests the readers. It might therefore be supposed that the successful popular novelist would begin by conceiving a series of situations, and that he would afterwards invent characters to fit those situations. Oppenheim tells me that his method is exactly the opposite. He begins a novel with two or three characters, and then (to use his own phrase) he lets them rip. When he begins his novel he rarely has any idea what will happen to the characters, what will be the chief situation, what will be the curtains. The characters being created in his brain, he spends his life with them, has them with him as his partners or opponents at golf, takes them with him when he goes out fishing, even has them with him when he goes to bed— always trying to find out what such people would do in certain circumstances. It often happens, he told me, that two entirely different development s occur to him, and he then has to decide what is the most likely and the most appropriate.
Just as it as in real life—to quote George Eliot's hackneyed couplet:—
"Our deeds still follow from afar
And what we have been makes us what we are,"
so the actions of the Oppenheim characters in Chapter One of each of his novels really determine what they shall do in Chapter Two, and so on until the end of the story. The intrigue being constantly in the novelist's mind, he is able to dictate his stories rapidly and sometimes for hours on end almost without hesitation. When, however, the dictation is finished, the stories are very carefully revised, and Oppenheim says that the revision generally takes much longer than the original dictation.
Oppenheim recalls, with perhaps a little satisfaction, that in his "The Maker of History" and other novels he foretold war between Great Britain and Germany ten years before the Great War broke out, and that he did something to back Lord Roberts in his insistent endeavours to persuade this country to prepare for what he believed was an inevitable conflict. Germany, Oppenheim says, realized the part he had tried to play, and he was among those who were destined to be shot had the Germans succeeded in imposing their will on England. So repeated was this German note in his novels that, when war actually began, one newspaper said that it had at least robbed Oppenheim of his vocation. During the war he was among the many novelists who assisted in the work of the Ministry of Information.
"I suppose I must admit," he said, "that my name suggests a German origin, and perhaps it is of some interest that my father and his father before him were both born at Faringdon, in Berkshire, and that I have hardly ever been in Germany in my life."
I asked Oppenheim if he felt that the English reading public was becoming more critical, and if he had noticed any change in public taste during his long, successful career.
"Of course," he replied, "the world is always changing. I myself am very different from the man I was twenty years ago, and I suppose my work must be different too. I fancy that the reading public in England is more exacting than it was, that it is quicker in detecting blunders, that it is more intelligent and critical. My appreciation of these facts leads me to take far more care with the revision of my stories than I used to do. It is a care that I give very willingly, for nothing is more stimulating to a writer than to realize that he will be read critically, and nothing can be more delightful than the whole-hearted appreciation of a really critical public."
Within recent years a number of the Oppenheim novels have been turned into picture plays, and the development of the cinema marks a new era in the novelist's career. I asked him if he found that the picture plays founded on his novels were very unlike the original.
"There are," he replied, "I suppose, inevitably many additions and alterations. At present I know hardly anything of the conditions under which picture plays are produced, and I am having the thrilling experience of learning a new art."
Oppenheim was recently asked by a famous firm of American film producers to supply them with an original plot suitable for a picture play. It was an entirely new task for him. I have already explained that he lets his stories develop from the characters, and that he never begins, as many novelists begin, with a sort of synopsis of the plot. But this is exactly what is required for a picture play—a story told on six pages of foolscap, and told in such a way that it can be cut up into scenes and repeated in pictures instead of in words. Oppenheim confessed that he was delighted to have a new experience, and he added, with his characteristic twinkle, that he understands that his picture play plot has been approved by the authorities.
"Instead of the picture play being made from the novel, as has happened until now with me, the novel will be a sort of development of the picture play, for I certainly intend to use the theme of the play for one of my forthcoming novels."
"If this were to become the rule," I said, "don't you think that the limitations of the cinematograph might have serious and, on the whole, very evil effects on the art of fiction?"
"It is very possible that they might. I am not sure, for the whole thing is quite new to me. But I am conscious of the possibility, and for that reason I am determined, however my cinema work may develop, to continue to write novels which will begin as novels, and which shall be conceived and worked out as novels."
Oppenheim recalls with pride that Sir James Barrie is one of his most faithful admirers. Sir James has all the Oppenheim novels specially bound in similar bindings.