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THE Honourable George Vincent Angus, ascending by means of the automatic lift to his rooms, which were situated in the upper regions of the Bellevue Flats, caught the gleam of a brilliantly polished oblong strip of brass affixed to one of the dark mahogany doors on the first floor. He touched the button which arrested the progress of the elevator, and, stepping out, crossed the thickly-carpeted corridor and studied the very neat, obviously new, name-plate.
"Mr Peter Bragg," he murmured to himself. "What a name!"
Whereupon he rang the bell, which was immediately answered by a most correct-looking manservant of middle age.
"Is Mr. Peter Bragg at home?" the visitor enquired.
"Have you an appointment, sir?" the man countered.
"I have no appointment," Angus confessed, "but I have a great desire for a word with Mr. Peter Bragg. My name is of no consequence. I shall not detain your master for more than a few minutes."
"I will enquire through the secretary, sir, whether Mr. Bragg is able to see you," the butler conceded. "Will you step into the waiting-room?"
He threw open the door of a small but handsome apartment on the right-hand side of the hall—an apartment furnished and panelled throughout in light oak. A table stood in the middle of the room piled with magazines, few of which appeared to have been opened. There was a general air of stiffness and newness about the furniture—as though it had been bought for show and not for any practical use.
"What the devil does this fellow want a waiting-room for?" Angus reflected, as he stood on the hearth-rug gazing around him. "Doesn't look as though anyone had ever been inside the place either."
The butler, reappearing before he had time for any further speculation, bowed respectfully.
"Mr. Bragg will see you, sir," he announced, with the air of one bringing good news.
Angus was ushered into a large, impressive-looking apartment opening out from the waiting-room. A man was seated at a handsome rosewood desk nearly in the middle of the room, with his back to the light—a desk upon which stood a telephone, a set of push-bells, a pile of papers arranged with methodical care, several cardboard folders similar to those used in Government offices, and very little else. He looked at his visitor through horn-rimmed glasses without changing his position.
"You wish to see me?" he enquired. "My name is Bragg."
Angus acknowledged the information courteously and sank, uninvited, into a high-backed chair placed at a convenient distance from the table.
"Very glad to make your acquaintance." he murmured.
Mr. Peter Bragg coughed slightly. He was short and inclined towards a certain rotundity of figure, clean-shaven, of pink and white complexion, and of singularly youthful appearance—an effect which his glasses seemed designed to counteract. He was wearing the right sort of clothes, but in a sense he seemed almost as new as his furniture.
"What might be your name and the nature of your business?" he enquired.
"Business? Oh, I haven't any business," Angus admitted carelessly. "Mere matter of curiosity, my looking you up. Seemed such a queer thing, you see, a fellow having a brass plate outside his door in the Bellevue Flats. Of course you know that no doctors or dentists or those sort of people are allowed here."
Mr. Peter Bragg had the air of one endeavouring to be patient with an impossible person.
"Do I understand you to say that you rang my bell and introduced yourself here for the sole purpose of asking me why I chose the most ordinary means of indicating my exact whereabouts to my friends?"
"Something like that," Angus assented, with unabated good-humour. "It's a very nice plate—lettering in quite good taste, and all that, so long as you have to have it. Unusual name yours, by-the-by. Seems to me I've heard it before somewhere."
"Will it be of interest to you," the young man at the table asked gently, "if I confess that I find your visit something of an intrusion?"
Angus smiled at him pleasantly, and the smile of a young man as good-looking and agreeable as the Honourable George Vincent Angus was a hard thing to resist.
"Don't get huffy," he begged. "Have a cigarette?"
Mr. Peter Bragg waved away the proffered case.
"Thank you," he declined. "I seldom smoke during the daytime."
Angus selected a cigarette for himself, tapped it on the arm of his chair, lit it, and, leaning a little further back, assumed a more comfortable position. His involuntary host watched him with impassive expression.
"Quite a friendly call, I can assure you," the former continued. "I'm a sort of neighbour, as I explained, only I camp out in the attic. I say, you wouldn't mind taking off those spectacles for a moment, would you?"
Mr. Peter Bragg hesitated, but finally complied. His visitor rose to his feet, sat on the edge of the rosewood table, and, leaning over, patted him on the shoulder.
"Pudgy Pete, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "I knew there was something familiar about you. I believe I christened you myself. Fancy your not remembering me!"
"I remember you perfectly," was the composed reply. "You are the Honourable George Vincent Angus, second son of Lord Moningham, and you were expelled from Marlowe's during my second year."
Angus indulged in a little grimace.
"No need to drag up those trifling indiscretions of youth," he murmured deprecatingly. "You went on to Harrow afterwards, didn't you? That's where I lost sight of you."
"I went to Harrow." Peter Bragg admitted. "Owing, I suppose, to family influence, you were received into Walter's, and afterwards at Eton."
"Family influence had nothing whatever to do with it," Angus protested cheerfully. "My cricket worked the oracle. Besides, all that I had done was to lock old Marlowe up and take his class the day he wouldn't let us go to see the football match."
"A gross act of insubordination in which I am thankful to remember that I took no part," Peter Bragg declared.
"Oh, shut up!" his visitor enjoined. "Anyway, here we are now, and let's get back to it. What the devil do you mean by sporting a brass plate outside that magnificent mahogany door of yours, and why have you what your butler calls a 'waiting-room'? I can understand a pal dropping in to see you now and then, but why on earth should anyone 'wait' to see you?"
Peter Bragg leaned back in his chair. The tips of his fingers were pressed together. His nails were almost too well manicured.
"You always were a curious, interfering sort of chap, Angus," he remarked. "I see you haven't changed."
"Not in the least," was the prompt admission. "Just the same as ever. Pudgy. If a thing interests me, I like to know all about it. Now be a good little man and tell me what you are up to."
"I have established myself," Peter Bragg announced, with an air of some dignity, "as a consulting detective."
"As a what?" the other gasped.
"As a consulting detective, or investigator, if you prefer the word. My headquarters are in the Strand, where all the routine work is done. This is my West End branch, where I interview important clients."
Angus stared at his late schoolfellow for a moment incredulously. Then he suddenly began to grin, and afterwards to laugh. He laughed long and pleasantly, but his mirth was apparently not infectious.
His companion's frown deepened. Angus slid from the table, resumed his chair, crossed his legs, and leaned back with the air of one whose sense of humour has been pleasantly stimulated.
"Come to remember it," he reflected, "you were always reading detective stories at school. Marlowe must have taken a whole library away from you at different times. Tell me. Pudgy—I'm not mistaken, am I?—you were at the bottom of every class there, weren't you?"
"I believe so."
"There was some question before my unfortunate little affair of your being asked to leave, eh? 'abnormal lack of intelligence,' the old man use to say you displayed."
"I was not a success at school," Peter Bragg condescended to admit. "Many men, though, who have prospered in the world exceedingly, have commenced life in the same fashion."
Angus nodded sympathetically. He had still the air of a man moved to gentle but continuous mirth. A twinkle of humour remained in his eyes. The idea of Pudgy Pete as a detective appealed to him irresistibly.
"I trust for your own sake, Peter," he said, "that you are not—er—dependent for your livelihood upon success in your profession?"
"My livelihood," Peter Bragg confided, "is already secured. My uncle—"
"My God, of course! Bragg's Knife Polish, wasn't it? The old man left you a matter of half a million, didn't he?"
"He left me a considerable fortune," was the somewhat stiff admission.
"I see," Angus murmured. "So you're taking this up just as a hobby. Any clients yet?" Peter Bragg coughed.
"You will excuse me," he begged, "if I refrain from discussing the details of my business with you. A certain amount of secrecy—"
"Oh, chuck it, Pudgy," his visitor begged, lighting another cigarette. "You always were a funny boy, and with all that money why shouldn't you play at doing what you want to? Won't you get a little bored with it, though—sitting here waiting for clients?"
"I don't anticipate having to wait very long," was the calm reply. "I took over the business of Macpherson's, Limited, with all their staff, and there is always plenty doing there in a minor sort of way. They consult me occasionally, and I deal with the important cases here."
"You mean to say that you have already an established organisation?" Angus demanded.
Peter Bragg made no immediate reply. He rang one of the bells by his side, and almost at once, through a door communicating with an inner apartment, a young woman appeared. She was plainly dressed, and her dark, chestnut-coloured hair was brushed severely back from her forehead, as though to attract as little attention as possible to the fineness of its quality. She was creamily pale and she wore tinted glasses which one instinctively felt were unnecessary. In movements and speech she was a study of quiescence.
"Has number seven report come in yet. Miss Ash?" her employer asked.
"Ten minutes ago, sir."
"Bring it, please."
Her errand was completed in an incredibly short space of time, considering that she had not once given the impression of haste. Peter Bragg opened the folder which she had brought, straightened his spectacles upon his nose, and, after a glance at his visitor, commenced to read.
"At three o'clock yesterday afternoon," he began—"having lunched at the Ritz, by-the-by—you arrived at Ranelagh intending to play polo against the Incogniti. You found, however, that a back had already been chosen, and you decided to wait for Saturday's match. In the bar afterwards—"
Angus was leaning forward in his chair. His indifferent expression had vanished. He was staring at his erstwhile school-fellow in frank amazement.
"Let me finish, I beg of you," Peter Bragg went on, with an expostulatory wave of the hand. "In the bar afterwards you met a Captain Milner with whom you had a somewhat prolonged conversation, chiefly concerned with a string of polo ponies which are up for side somewhere in Gloucestershire. Later you found your father, Lord Moningham, on the lawn, and had tea with him. Then, at Lady Sybil Fakenham's urgent request, you made up a four at tennis. You had your flannels in the dressing-room, but you were obliged to borrow some shoes. Towards six o'clock you drove back to town, dined at Moningham House and returned to your rooms for a short time, where you received a visitor. Afterwards you supped at the Embassy with friends, called in at your Club, and arrived back here shortly after two. Correct, I think."
Peter Bragg pushed the folder away from him and leaned back in his chair. Angus had risen to his feet. He was a little bewildered, more than a little inclined to be angry.
"Will you explain," he demanded, "what the devil you mean by having my footsteps dogged?"
"There is no law, you know, against anything of the sort," was the good-tempered reply—"nothing to prevent my having your movements watched if it amuses me. Let me remove any anxiety you may feel, at once, though. We have nothing against you. You are not one of our cases, nor, I hope, are you likely to be. The fact of the matter is that I never allow our City staff to be idle, and whenever we have a man doing nothing I turn him on to the first person I can think of, and demand a report. He never knows whether the thing is serious or not and it keeps him from rusting."
The position as between the two men had become curiously reversed. It was Peter Bragg now who was good-humoured, airy, and indifferent, his companion whose face had darkened, and who had shown signs for several moments of annoyance if not of anger. Suddenly, however, the humour of the situation appealed to him. He burst out laughing.
"Do you mean, after all, then, Pudgy," he exclaimed, "that I am to take you seriously? Gad, I wish you'd take me into partnership,"
Peter Bragg took off his glasses and wiped them, looking more ridiculously youthful than ever.
"Oh, I'm in this thing seriously enough as you may find out some tiny or another," he declared. "I have proved to you that I have an organisation. Perhaps you'd like to be present whilst I interview a client. Sit down again, do. Light another cigarette if you want to,"
He touched a bell. The butler entered almost immediately. "Is Miss Burton in the waiting-room?"
"You can show her in."
Angus rose uncertainly to his feet.
"I say, if she's really a client, she won't want me here," he observed. "I'll toddle off."
Peter Bragg motioned him back.
"I have a particular reason for wishing you to remain," he confided.
There was no time for further protest, for the door had already been opened and the young lady was being ushered in. Both men rose to their feet. She came timidly forward.
"This is Miss Burton, is it not?" Peter Bragg said. "My name is Bragg. I am very glad to meet you. Please take a seat. Permit me to introduce my friend, Mr. George Angus. I will explain his presence later."
The girl accepted the chair which Angus had offered her. She looked up at him with a timid little smile.
"You remember me, Mr. Angus?" she asked.
"Of course I do," he answered, with a sudden wave of recollection. "You were governess to my sister's children, weren't you? Spent a summer at Moningham once?"
"Your sister was always very kind to me," she said. "Unfortunately, as the children grew older my French wasn't good enough. I have been for two years now with Mrs. Goldberg in Gloucester Terrace."
Angus looked at her kindly. He had indistinct but pleasant memories of the timid, blue-eyed young woman whom his nieces had adored. He turned towards his old schoolfellow.
"I think I'll be getting along, Peter," he suggested. "If Miss Burton wishes to consult you, I am sure she would rather see you alone."
"Unless the young lady feels that way about it, I should prefer you to remain," Peter Bragg announced. "Two heads are better than one, and I have an idea that you may be interested in her story. Have you any objection to Mr. Angus's presence, Miss Burton?"
She shook her head. The look of trouble which had been in her face when she had first entered the room had returned. Her eyes were dim and her forehead wrinkled. She was obviously very nervous.
"I don't mind in the least, Mr. Bragg," she assented. "I don't know whether anyone can help me, though. It all seems so terrible."
"Please tell your story." he directed. "Tell us in as few words as possible, but leave nothing out."
She clasped her hands in front of her. She sat looking at neither of them—looking at one particular spot in the wall.
"I am quite poor," she began. "The few relatives I have are not very near ones, and they are also poor. I was happy at Lady Cranston's. I have been miserable ever since. A few months ago piece of very good fortune came to me. The only nice man who ever visited at Mrs. Goldberg's, began to take some notice of me. To my surprise, one day he asked me to marry him. We were to have been married next Thursday."
She paused and showed signs of breaking down.
"Now the trouble, please," Peter Bragg demanded briskly.
"Eighteen months ago," she went on, "I met a man in the Park, where I used to walk sometimes in the evening. He looked nice and he obviously wanted to speak to me. My life with Mrs. Goldberg was very unhappy. I never had a moment's pleasure, or anyone to say a kind word. I let him speak to me. We became very friendly. He was always sympathetic, and that counted for so much. He didn't want to marry me—I think he was married already, but separated from his wife. I went on seeing him even after I knew. We had dinners together, and very often he used to beg me to go away with him. I never meant to. I don't think I ever should have done, but my life was so dreary that I couldn't break off with him altogether. I used to write him letters—foolish letters, and a great many of them. One day, as I was reading the morning paper, I had a terrible shock. I saw that he had been run over by a taxi-cab in St. James's Street and killed."
Angus ventured upon a murmured word of sympathy: Peter Bragg remained silent.
"We were leaving for Scotland the next day," she went on, "and when we came back after three or four months, Mr. Poynton, the gentleman I am engaged to, began to call. I suppose it was very heartless of me, but I had almost forgotten about Mr. Sinclair—that was the other gentleman's name—when last week I received this letter."
She handed it across the table. Peter Bragg smoothed out the folds and read aloud:
"It is dated," he announced, "from number eleven, Dinsmoor Street, West Kensington, and it is signed," he added, turning over the sheet, "by Philip Drayton, Major—
"My dear young Lady,
"I am writing you with the utmost reluctance a letter which I fear may distress you, and which certainly treats of a very disagreeable affair. An old servant of mine, George Roberts, lies ill in a London hospital. He is penniless and has apparently a family dependent upon him. He has in his possession a packet of letters written by you, addressed to his late employer, a Mr. Sinclair, who was killed in a taxi-cab accident. The scoundrel should, of course, have returned them to you, and he assured me that he fully intended to do so. Now, however, he has met with unexpected reverses, and although I must do him the justice to admit that he seems heartily ashamed of himself, he insists upon having a thousand pounds far them, or inviting a Mr. Poynton, to whom I think you are engaged, to purchase them at that price. I did my best to make Roberts see the enormity of his proposed action, but he insists upon it that his first duty is to his wife and family whom he is leaving penniless. I have persuaded him to entrust the letters to my care, and I think you had better come and see me and discuss the matter.
Peter Bragg folded up the letter and returned it.
"The matter," he pronounced, "is one of blackmail pure and simple. Scotland Yard would deal with it in a moment. The trouble is, as you have no doubt already realised, that you would become involved in the publicity which would follow."
"That is why I came to you," the girl explained eagerly. "I don't want to prosecute."
"Have you any money at all to pay for the letters?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Not a penny," was the despairing reply. "I had thirty pounds saved, and I have spent that for my trousseau."
"Are the letters very compromising?" Angus interposed. She blushed slightly.
"They would seem so to Mr. Poynton," she admitted. "He is very strict indeed. They were very foolish. Anyone reading them might easily misunderstand what had really happened."
"Did you go and see this Major Drayton?" Peter Bragg asked.
The girl shook her head.
"I came to you instead. It didn't seem to be any use. I couldn't raise a thousand pence."
Peter Bragg touched a bell and rose to his feet.
"You will return here, Miss Burton," he directed, "immediately I send for you. Until then, leave the matter entirely in our hands. Go on, of course, with the preparations for your wedding, and, unless there is anything which you ought to confess—and I gather that there is not—do not mention the matter at all to Mr. Poynton."
The butler was already on the threshold. With a confused word of thanks, she took leave of the two men and left the room.
"Well, I'm damned!" Angus exclaimed, as soon as the door was closed. "Old Phil Drayton, of all men in the world! Belongs to one of my clubs—or rather one I used to belong to. Doddering old fellow, he seems, but I should never have thought that there was any harm in him. Makes a bit buying and selling antiques—generally fakes. Well, I'm damned!"
"We have now to consider," Peter Bragg mused, "how we can get hold of those letters."
THE young man in the dark clothes, and with the upper part of his features obscured by a black silk mask, subsided with a little sigh of content into a well-worn easy-chair in the shabby back room of number eleven, Dinsmoor Street, West Kensington. He buttoned his coat and patted a slight protuberance in his breast pocket with satisfaction. The man seated opposite to him—a white-haired, pathetic-looking figure—made some slight movement, only to shrink back shuddering in his chair as he looked down into the very ugly black cavity of the bull-nosed automatic pistol.
"Put that thing down," he begged tremulously. "I can't do more than I have done. I've given my word of honour not to move or raise my voice."
"For a military man, Major," his vis-à-vis observed, "you seem to be a little nervous."
"You know me, then?"
"Quite well by reputation. Until now, I must confess, only as a retired military man of limited income with a passion for collecting antiques. I regret that I cannot view with similar sympathy your latest exploit."
"If the young lady had come to see me herself," the Major declared, "I should not have been hard with her. I can assure you that I would have shown her every consideration. In trying to arrange the matter between her and Roberts, I was acting entirely in her interests."
"It is a subject," the marauder observed, rising in leisurely fashion to his feet, "which we will not discuss. I am always willing to believe the best of everyone."
"Who the devil are you?" the Major demanded abruptly. "Every now and then your voice sounds most unpleasantly familiar."
"Don't worry to find out, my dear sir. You will only waste your time. Look upon me as a nightmare of your fancy who has paid you a brief visit and departed with your priceless vase. As for the letters, you can always believe that you threw them on the back of the fire—a generous action. Major, but why not? I am quite sure that at some time or another during your life you were capable of it."
The Major sighed.
"I have not always been a pauper," he confided bitterly. "Poverty is a cruel taskmaster."
The intruder slipped his pistol back into his pocket and picked up from the table by his side a porcelain vase of strange orange and blue colourings. He passed his hands over it critically.
"So this is Armadi porcelain?" he observed. "A strange design and texture. You must not fret about your loss, Major. After all, as our interview has passed off without disturbance and I am able to depart without leaving indications of my burglarious effort, I imagine—"
He broke off. His whole frame seemed suddenly to have become rigid, hid expression one tense effort at listening. There was no doubt about it. Down the front stairs, outside in the hall, came the sound of soft, descending footsteps. He glanced at the clock. It was five minutes past one.
"I thought you told me there was no one else in the house except yourself?" he said swiftly.
"No one except my niece," the Major reminded him. "I warned you that she might hear us. That is she coming down the stairs now."
The masked man picked up the vase, moved quickly across the room and turned off the light. He stood a little away from the door his back to the wall, watching. The major, still carefully refraining from any sort of movement, showed fresh signs of terror.
"My niece may be difficult," he faltered. "She is young and impetuous. Be careful with her, and for God's sake don't carry that vase as though it were a ginger-pot."
"What do you mean by difficult?"
"She has courage."
The door was suddenly opened, and the marauder's scheme of darkness was frustrated by the light from the hall which shone full into the room. Framed in the doorway stood a very handsome and very determined-looking young woman, wearing a rose-coloured dressing-gown and slippers, and with her dark hair gathered together with a ribbon of the same colour. She looked into the room with amazed eyes, at the bureau still in disorder, her terror-stricken uncle, the masked man with the vase. A cry broke from her lips.
"Madam," the burglar assured her, "you have nothing to fear."
"But you have," was the swift retort. "Put up your hands!"
The girl's arm flashed out—a very beautiful white arm where the wide sleeve of her dressing-gown had fallen away. Gripped in her fingers was an ancient, but still formidable-looking revolver. The masked man obeyed her behest but in a fashion of his own. He held the vase which he had been carrying in front of his face.
"Young lady," he warned her, "if you shoot you will destroy what I am credibly informed to be a most priceless example of Armadi pottery."
"What are you going to do with it?" she demanded. "It belongs to my uncle."
"Alas," the other replied, "it did! At the present moment, it belongs to me—by right of possession. We collectors are compelled sometimes to use violent measures. Will you be so good as to step a little to one side?"
He moved closer to her. The hand which still gripped the pistol trembled noticeably.
"Stay where you are!" she ordered.
"But why should I?" he protested. "I want to go home. It is, believe me, past my usual hour for retiring. It is one o'clock—very late for a member of my profession. You should know that all burglaries which are in the least up-to-date nowadays are committed between eight and ten in the evening."
He spoke slowly, with a note of banter in his tone, yet all the time she felt his eyes watching her, felt that he was seeking his moment for escape.
"Put down the vase and you can go," she proposed.
"My dear young lady," he protested, "do you realise that, for the purpose of acquiring this unique specimen of porcelain, I have run the incredible risk of breaking into your house to-night and of terrorizing your uncle. If you shoot me the vase is smashed. For that reason I possess myself of a spurious courage."
She raised the pistol once more, but it was too late. The burglar had risked everything upon one moment of incredible swiftness. There was a firm grip upon her wrist, an arm around her shoulder. She was completely powerless.
"Need we argue about this little matter?" he continued persuasively. "I have the vase. It is on the carpet for the moment, but it is now my property. Your uncle is resigned to its loss. Let me pass. If I might give you a word of advice, in future see that there is always whisky and soda upon the sideboard. The modern burglar appreciates such attention."
She struggled in his grasp, but she was helpless. He did not at once make his escape, however. His right hand stole out, and he brought the door to within a few inches of closing, so that the room was in darkness. She felt him bending over her, caught the faint perfume of verbena from his shaven chin or hair. His eyes with their grim setting flashed into hers, and what she saw there seemed to drain the last atom of strength from her limbs. She felt her heart throbbing.
"Don't be foolish," he whispered. "The vase is mine, fairly taken in open warfare. Better resign yourself. It is always possible for you to return my visit, to come and fetch it back."
She felt his breath upon her face, an odour of lavender as though the mask had been kept in a perfumed drawer. Another whiff of that cleanly verbena. Then there was a wild, impossible second. His arm had held her even more tightly. His lips had brushed hers, lingered there, clung for one long, breathless moment. Then she gave a little gasp. She was free, and outside in the hall she heard the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps, the closing of the door.
THE attractively secretive young lady who filled the post of secretary to Peter Bragg came noiselessly into the room where Angus and he were engaged in close conversation on the following morning, and laid a slip of paper before her employer. The latter glanced at it and passed it on to his companion, whose lips were pursed for a moment in a reflective whistle.
"The devil!" he exclaimed, under his breath.
"You can show Miss Drayton in," Peter Bragg directed.
Angus glanced uneasily towards the door.
"The question is whether I hadn't better make myself scarce," he muttered.
Even as he spoke, however, there was ushered in a remarkably handsome and apparently very angry young lady. Both men rose to their feet. She acknowledged their greeting and accepted a chair.
"You are Mr. Bragg, I suppose," she said, addressing him. "I have come to consult you upon a private matter."
"I am entirely at your disposal, madam," was the measured rejoinder, "and I can see you alone if you prefer it. This gentleman and I, however, were discussing a prospective partnership. Permit me to introduce Mr. Angus—Miss Drayton."
"I have no objection to Mr. Angus's presence," the young lady conceded, looking hard at him.
There was a moment's silence. The frown upon the girl's face seemed to deepen. Angus, however, remained entirely at his ease, and presently she looked away.
"The matter upon which I have come to consult you, Mr. Bragg," she began, "is a curious one. My uncle, Major Drayton, is, for his limited income, an ardent collector of works of art—especially of Oriental porcelain, last night our little house in West Kensington was broken into and a very beautiful vase, which my uncle valued highly, was stolen. We saw the burglar, in fact, he rifled the room in my uncle's presence, and he got away with the vase. He was armed, and although I threatened him with an unloaded revolver, he only laughed at me."
"Why then have you come to me and not to the police?" Peter Bragg asked bluntly.
"Because, for some extraordinary reason, my uncle absolutely refuses to report his loss," the young lady explained. "He won't allow me to go to the police station, or to give any information. I know that he is fretting all the time so I thought that I had better come to you."
"You have shown, if I may say so," Peter Bragg declared, "an unusual amount of common-sense."
"An unusual amount," Angus reiterated fervently. "These antiques are almost impossible of recovery in the ordinary way. The police might possibly have traced the burglar, but you would never have seen your Armadi vase again."
She looked at him fixedly.
"How did you know it was an Armadi vase?" she demanded.
"But my dear young lady," Angus pointed out, without hesitation "you described it as such directly you spoke of your loss."
"I don't remember doing anything of the sort," she declared.
"If you will allow me to say so," Peter Bragg interposed, "I think that my friend Angus is right. I certainly heard the term."
"It seems very extraordinary," the girl murmured, still a little uneasy. "I shall begin to believe that I talk in my sleep next."
"Did the burglar leave anything behind which would afford you a clue, or have you any noteworthy recollection of him?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"He was young," she replied, "and rather tall. He wore a mask over the lower part of his face, so it was difficult to get any definite idea about him, but I should think that he was what would be called in his world, a somewhat superior person—a dealer in antiques himself, perhaps, or something of that sort."
"No other impressions?" Angus ventured.
"None, except that he used either a shaving cream or a hair-wash perfumed with verbena."
Angus moved slightly further away.
"It isn't much to go on," he remarked. "Would you know his voice again, if you heard it?"
"I'm afraid not," she acknowledged. "It was a voice which had some quality, but it was obviously disguised."
"At what sum does your uncle value the vase?" Peter Bragg asked.
"Well, he is rather vague about that," the girl admitted. "He bought it very cheap indeed, but I believe he was hoping to get five hundred pounds for it. We are very poor and I know that the loss is worrying him."
"I think that he can spare himself any undue anxiety," Peter Bragg pronounced. "An Armadi vase can scarcely be concealed. Your description of the young man is helpful, too. Now tell me, which do you want the more—the return of the vase or the punishment of the burglar?"
The girl's eyes were lit for a moment with something which was half anger and half a curious sort of regret.
"The young man was for a moment terribly rude," she declared—"most offensive—yet on the whole I think I would rather have the vase back again."
Peter Bragg touched the bell.
"You shall have a report from us in twenty-four hours," he promised. "In the meantime our fee for a consultation—"
"But I haven't any money with me," she exclaimed in alarm.
Angus leaned over and whispered; the other nodded gravely.
"My friend here," he announced, "is interested in your case. He has an idea that he can bring it to a successful conclusion. We will therefore waive the matter of a fee for the moment."
The young lady held out her hand gratefully. Angus remained in the background and contented himself with a bow. Nevertheless, she looked at him for a moment steadily before she left the room.
"I'm afraid you're rather an amateur at this sort of thing, Angus," Peter Bragg remarked coldly, as soon as they were alone. "You were giving yourself away the whole of the time."
Angus was gazing out of the window, watching the street.
"A damned good-looking girl, that!" he murmured. "Did you notice her eyes, Peter? I can assure you last night when she came into the room in that rose-coloured dressing-gown—imagine her in rose-colour, Peter!—I nearly dropped the beastly vase, and chucked the whole show."
Peter Bragg glanced at him suspiciously.
"I trust," he said, "that you are not in the habit of allowing sentiment to interfere with business. By-the-by, you were just going to tell me about this vase. Where does it come in, and what on earth made you bring it away?"
"Curiously enough, to please the old boy," Angus explained. "He's obviously a beginner at this blackmailing game, and he was terrified to death lest his niece should guess what it was he's been burgled for. He knew very well that the vase was a fake and practically valueless, so when he realised that the game was up and that I was going to have the letters he begged me to pinch it. The old boy's no fool, either. He'll tell everyone he's been burgled for the sake of his vase, and they'll think he gets hold of some good stuff now and then."
The secretary glided in, and once more handed a folded piece of paper to her employer. He looked at it and passed it on to Angus. The two men exchanged startled glances. Angus indulged in a low whistle.
"This is a sort of situation," his companion murmured, with an air of satisfaction, "which I love to handle. Let the gentleman be shown in."
The girl made her silent exit, and a moment later the butler threw open the door.
"Major Drayton," he announced.
The Major, in the strong morning light, was a wan, almost a pathetic figure. His thinness seemed more noticeable than ever. His clothes, though carefully tended, were shabby. He returned Peter Bragg's greeting nervously, and accepted the chair into which he was waved, with diffidence.
"You wish to consult me, Major—er—Drayton?" Peter Bragg enquired, glancing at the slip of paper in front of him.
"In the strictest confidence," the Major replied, gazing hard at Angus.
"That is just as you wish, of course. Mr. Angus, however—by-the-by, Mr. Angus—Major Drayton—is at the present moment discussing the matter of a partnership with me. I am showing him some of the details of my business, and I can assure you that you can speak with the utmost freedom before him."
"I believe," the Major murmured, "that I have met Mr. Angus. There is something about him which seems to be curiously familiar," he went on, gazing across the room in a puzzled fashion.
"We have met not once but a good many times, Major," Angus assured aim. "I used to be a member of the Stadium Club, which you sometimes, I believe, frequent."
The Major appeared relieved.
"I remember, of course," he admitted. "I wondered where it was I had seen you. Certainly if Mr. Angus is likely to become associated with your business, Mr. Bragg, he can remain. I am not proud of my story—it might, almost be called a confession—but such as it is, gentlemen, I should like to get it off my chest."
Angus resumed his seat, and the Major continued.
"I had a friend," he explained, "named Sinclair—Tom Sinclair—lonely sort of chap, but a good fellow in his way. He was run over by a taxi-cab three or four months ago, and he sent for me. I was just in time. He was desperately ill, but quite conscious. He seemed to have no relatives, but there was a little girl of whom he was very fond. He hadn't much money to leave, and it happened, as he had just sold out his share in a business, it was all in the bank. Whilst I was there he sent down an open cheque for two thousand pounds, put the notes in an envelope as soon as he received them, and handed them over to me."
The Major paused to dab his forehead with his handkerchief. Angus was sitting very still, his cigarette burning unnoticed between his fingers; Peter Bragg's face behind his big glasses was expressionless.
"Nasty job, telling you this," the Major continued, his voice shaking painfully. "Sinclair handed me over, too, a packet of the girl's letters he wanted me to return to her, and I was to let her have the money with his love. We made a parcel of the lot. I took them home with me, and—well, for a time nothing happened."
"Do I understand," Peter Bragg asked, "that you made no effort to find the young lady?"
"I rang up the address in Gloucester Terrace the next morning," the Major confided. "I can assure you, gentlemen, that if I'd got into touch with her that day she'd have had notes and letters straight away. It turned out, though, that she was a governess with some people called Goldberg, and that they had all left for Scotland a few hours before I rang up. They seemed uncertain about giving me the address, and I am afraid I didn't press them. I decided to wait until the girl came back to London."
The Major threw away his cigarette. Somehow the taste of it was wrong. The sound of his own words and the silence of the other two men distressed him.
"I've been damned hard up all my life," he went on, "but never harder up than the day those two thousand pounds came into my hands. I was practically living on a pound or two a week belonging to my niece. Mind you, I didn't touch the money, but when the girl came back, instead of doing the honourable thing, I became nothing more nor less than a dirty criminal. I wrote her—I tried not to frighten her in my letter, but I invented some lie about Sinclair's servant. I said nothing about the money, but I told her that I had the letters, and that his servant wanted money for them. I asked her to come and see me. The trouble was that she didn't come."
"What exactly was your scheme if she had come?" Angus asked curiously.
The Major seemed to have shrunk in his chair. The words left his lips with difficulty.
"I was going to make her pay a thousand pounds for the letters out of the two thousand," he confessed. "I reckoned that the thousand pounds she would have left would be a godsend to her. She was going to marry a rich man, and I was almost a pauper. There's a pottery sale next week with some wonderful pieces, and I've never had enough money—but there, we'll leave it at that! I've no excuse. The worst of my story is to come."
"The worst!" Peter Bragg murmured.
"A tragedy has happened," the Major groaned. "Last night my house was broken into. The burglar discovered the sealed packet and went off with it."
"The notes and the letters?" Angus asked.
"Both. He was armed and there was nothing I could do. She lost her money, and God knows where the letters are."
There was a long silence. The Major's head disappeared in his hands; his shoulders heaved convulsively.
"There was also a little matter of a vase," Peter Bragg remarked presently.
The Major looked up and stared.
"How did you know anything about that?" he demanded.
"Your niece has been here," Peter Bragg explained. "She wanted us to try to get the vase back again for you. She knew nothing of course, about the rest of the business."
The Major's hands were shaking; his voice too, was tremulous.
"I begged the burglar to take the vase," he confessed. "I didn't want Marjorie to think that there was anything else I had worth taking."
The sliding door was softly opened. Miss Ash, crossing the floor with noiseless footsteps, laid another slip of paper before her employer. Across it was written in every possible place, "Urgent."
"The little governess!" Bragg whispered.
There was a moment's silence. Then Peter Bragg left his place and laid his hand not unkindly upon his client's shoulder.
"Major," he said, "we may be able to help you. Please be so good as to step into the waiting-room for a minute or two."
The Major rose unsteadily to his feet and allowed himself to be led into the waiting-room. Little Miss Burton came in like a whirlwind, her blue eyes wide open, a roll of banknotes in her hand.
"My letters!" she exclaimed. "They were all in the packet you sent, and look what else! Money! Bank-notes! Two thousand pounds!"
"Can you," Peter Bragg asked, "bear a shock, provided it is a pleasant one?"
"I have my letters back," she cried in ecstasy. "I can bear anything."
"The notes are yours," Peter Bragg confided. "They were left for you by Mr. Sinclair. He seems to have died without friends or relatives and he wished you to have his money. There has been a little delay in handing it over, and a little trouble about your letters because the trustee was not quite honest. Now that you have both, are you prepared to forgive him? He seems thoroughly repentant."
"But how did you do it, you wonderful people?" she cried, throwing her arms around Mr. Bragg's neck. "Forgive him? Of course I will. I'd forgive anyone for anything, I'm so happy."
Peter Bragg disengaged himself.
"Gratitude of this sort," he said stiffly, "is due not to me, but to my friend here, Mr. Angus, who undertook the adventure of recovering the letters and stumbled upon the notes."
She stretched out her hands towards him. Angus grasped them and raised her fingers gallantly to his lips.
"It was nothing at all," he assured her. "We arrange little affairs like this every day."
"And now," Peter Bragg suggested, "if you will come into the next room, you will find Major Drayton—the person who kept you temporarily out of your money and letters—waiting to beg for your forgiveness. You must remember that you are very young," he went on, in his most middle-aged tone—he was himself twenty-six—"so please allow a man of experience to give you a word of advice: when restitution has been made and genuine repentance shown, forgiveness is an excellent quality."
She looked up with shining eyes.
"My letters and two thousand pounds!" she exclaimed once more. "I'm brimming over with forgiveness."
Peter Bragg ushered her into the waiting-room, closed the door and came back.
"Events," he remarked, "appear to have developed along satisfactory lines."
Angus laid his hand upon his friend's shoulder.
"Pudgy," he confided. "I think I should like this business. If you're really in earnest about a junior partnership, I'll come in."
The Major walked home jauntily. He had argued for half an hour, but in his waistcoat pocket reposed the price of many a spurious Armadi vase. Then, in his niece's drawing-room he met with a further surprise. Upon the little table in the centre of the room was the Armadi vase, filled with the most amazing profusion of dark red roses, and before them stood Marjorie with a rapt expression upon her face.
"My vase!" the Major exclaimed.
"And roses," she murmured—"from the burglar!"
"GOOD morning, Pudgy. Gorgeous day, ain't it?" an insinuating voice remarked.
Peter Bragg glanced up from the volume he was studying and eyed his partner with a frown of disapproval. Angus's costume suggested a mind more fixed upon golf than the serious affairs of life.
"Thought I might run down to Ranelagh for the morning, if there's nothing fresh doing," the latter observed.
"Come in and shut the door," Peter Bragg insisted, throwing the volume he was reading to the further end of the room. "I am greatly disturbed. I fear that I shall have to get rid of Miss Ash."
"Get rid of Miss Ash, the perfect secretary, the little grey mouse of the building?" Angus exclaimed. "Why, what's she been up to?"
"Nothing at all," was the sombre reply. "The only thing is I've just finished the sixteenth volume of collected stories dealing with the operations of the amateur detective and in every one the chief marries his secretary. It's getting on my nerves, No one could possibly marry Miss Ash."
Angus strolled over and seated himself on the edge of the table.
"I'm not so sure," he reflected. "Miss Ash always seems to me to be rather living up to her idea of the perfect secretary when she is here. I should like to meet her out on the razzle-dazzle before I confirmed your point of view."
"You would never meet Miss Ash out on the razzle-dazzle," Peter Bragg declared confidently. "And as regards your round of golf you may have to postpone it until this afternoon, unless you choose to leave me alone to interview a French lady with a most intriguing voice—at least it sounded so over the telephone. I confess that I should prefer your presence."
"If there's anything doing," Angus conceded, with laudable resignation, "the golf can go hang. I haven't got a match, anyway. What is it?"
"A Mademoiselle Lenclos rang up about ten minutes ago to ask for an interview. I gathered that she was employed in a Hanover Square dressmaking establishment."
"That setting pleases me," Angus confessed, opening his cigarette-case. "I shall remain to help you. Have you any idea as to her particular line of trouble?"
"None whatever. She appeared distressed."
"They all do. There goes the bell! . . ."
Mademoiselle Julie Lenclos was somewhat of a revelation even to Angus, whose experience of her sex was wide and varied. She was a very beautiful young Frenchwoman, dressed, although it was barely half-past ten in the morning, in the very height of fashion. She crossed the room to the chair which Peter Bragg had invited her to take, with a swaying little movement of the hips which was the latest mode of progression amongst the sirens of the stage. Her use of cosmetics was judicious but manifest. She was without a doubt a strikingly attractive young person as she disposed of her long, slim body in the client's chair and, crossing her legs, displayed the lavish perfection of her silk-clad limbs. Angus felt his enthusiasm for golf wane.
"Mademoiselle Lenclos," Peter Bragg remarked, looking at the slip of paper upon his table. "What can we do for you, Mademoiselle? I am Mr. Bragg, and this is my partner, Mr. Angus."
Angus bowed and straightened his tie as he met the pleasantly challenging flash of a pair of wonderful dark eyes. Mademoiselle spoke very correct English, but with a strong French accent.
"I am in much trouble, Mr. Bragg," she announced. "I speak to you, do I not, in confidence?"
"In absolute confidence," they both assured her.
"I am the premier mannequin at Monet's, in Hanover Square," she continued. "I have been there for a year, and I have brought them much business. My—" she hesitated for a moment—"my husband lives in Paris. He searches there for models and brings them over to London."
"You are married?" Peter Bragg observed.
"In my profession," she confided, "it is very much as on the stage. We keep those little affairs to ourselves. You see, much is done by influence. You gentlemen will understand what I mean—" her eyes rested upon Angus—"when I say that a girl who is not known to be married has better opportunities of business in the world."
"Quite so," Angus murmured sympathetically.
"Um!" Peter Bragg interjected.
"Messieurs will understand also," she went on, after a moment's pause, "that in my business it is sometimes a little difficult to keep—I think you say at arm's length—all the offers one receives from gentlemen who profess to be admirers. My husband is of a jealousy enormous, and to keep friends with him I have to be very careful. There is employed at our establishment in Hanover Square a young man named Paul Bonnaire. He is, messieurs, a great artist."
"He designs ladies' clothes?" Angus suggested.
"Divinely," Mademoiselle asserted with enthusiasm. "He never fails. His ideas are from heaven. His draperies, his curves, the simplicity yet elegance of his touch, it is all too wonderful. He is a great artist."
"And also a friend of Mademoiselle?" Peter Bragg asked.
"Also," she admitted, "a friend of mine. I accept his companionship often during my husband's absence because it gives me excuses for refusing others less desirable."
Her eyes rested first upon one and then upon the other of the two men as though seeking for encouragement and understanding. Nothing could penetrate behind the deep glasses of Peter Bragg, but Angus inclined his head slightly in gentle but regretful sympathy. Mademoiselle understood the inner meaning of that expression, and permitted a faint smile to part her lips.
"I have already, have I not, explained," she went on, "the terrible jealousy of my husband? When he comes to London we used often to dine at restaurants, and there were often scenes. I wear the dresses of the house—it is the wish of Madame—and I cannot help it if attentions are offered me which I do not encourage. That, however, makes my husband furious. Lately he has insisted upon dining at a little café off Shaftesbury Avenue, where we take a salon to ourselves. Here alone he is content. The cooking, I confess, is excellent, and it is something that Henri does not sit glaring round the place."
"What might be the name of this café?" Angus enquired diffidently.
Mademoiselle looked at him with reproof in her large brown eyes.
"It may have to be," she said, "that I must disclose it. For the present we wait. In a foolish moment, I speak, however, to Paul—to Monsieur Bonnaire—of the place. It was one night when we were plagued with too much crowd and too loud music. I consent to take him there. Afterwards I realise the imprudence, for my husband is too well known to the patron. However, the harm is done, we go, again and again. Three days ago Monsieur Bonnaire departs to visit important clients in Rome. Yesterday, to my great surprise, who should arrive in London, without models, without reason, but my husband."
Peter Bragg settled himself down in his chair with the air of one who would have said, "Now we come to something." Angus ventured upon a little murmur of sympathetic interest,
"My husband," she proceeded, "he arrives in a strange mood. I have known him when he has been furiously jealous and I have feared him less. He asks me a few questions. He is so silent that he terrifies. Last night we dine at the café and I am more than ever afraid. There are many little salons. Always he and I have occupied number thirteen. When I have dined with Paul it has been number fourteen. For no reason whatever that I can see, my husband last night insisted upon being served in number fourteen. We dine there, and he behaves very strangely. He is sometimes silent, sometimes he talks wildly. He drinks more wine than I have ever seen. He is absent for half an hour whilst he talks to the patron. He has no air of enjoyment, yet for to-night he has ordered the same salon. We dine there again. He will not listen to a theatre or one of the gayer places. Behold now, the tragedy arrives! To-night Monsieur Bonnaire returns, and I have appointed with him that he comes direct to the little restaurant where he will expect to find me waiting alone in number fourteen."
"An embarrassing situation," Peter Bragg admitted, "but surely you have many means of letting Monsieur Bonnaire know that it would be—er—better for him to stay away?"
"But I ask myself what it means?" she cried, holding out her hands. "I had his address in Rome, but he left there yesterday. Sometimes from Paris he flies, sometimes he comes from Ostend. All that I know is that I have promised to be in number fourteen at nine o'clock to-night, and he will surely be there."
"The affair appears to present no special difficulty," Peter Bragg observed. "In the first place, I presume it is impossible for you to meet the trains yourself?"
"Absolutely. This is the first time since his return that my husband has allowed me out of his sight for a quarter of an hour. Madame desired a consultation with him, and I jumped into a taxi to visit a client. I must be back again in a quarter of an hour, and from that moment I shall not even be able to speak to anyone without his overhearing."
"In that case," Peter Bragg advised, "you must write a few words to this Monsieur Bonnaire, and it will be our business to see that he gets them. You must describe him as accurately as you can, and provide us with a photograph, if possible. My agents shall be at Croydon and at Victoria, and will meet every incoming train and aeroplane. There appears to me to be very little chance that we shall not be able to intercept your friend."
For the first time she appeared a little relieved. She looked around the room for a moment as though seeking for some place of concealment and, finding none, stepped to the back of her chair, placed her foot upon another and, with a little apologetic murmur, thrust her hand down the top of her stocking and produced a small snapshot.
"I have brought this with the utmost difficulty," she confided. "Monsieur Bonnaire is slight and fair. He has blue eyes, delicate hands and features. He is always dressed with great perfection. He is a young man très elegant. The more I think of him the more it makes me shiver to imagine what might happen if the two should meet in Henri's present mood. My husband is a very large man, and exceedingly powerful."
Peter Bragg and Angus both studied the snapshot which the former had taken into his hands. It represented a peculiarly vapid-looking young man, foppishly dressed, with curly hair and an impertinent simper. Angus half closed his eyes with a suppressed shiver, whilst his partner pushed pen and paper towards their client and watched whilst she scribbled a few lines.
"With this and your description, Mademoiselle," Peter Bragg announced, as he accepted the note and placed it with the photograph under a paper-weight, "I think you may rest in peace. It is exceedingly improbable that Monsieur Bonnaire will present himself at your restaurant to-night."
She rose with a little sigh of relief.
"Your fee," she began.
"The matter may not be concluded. Come and see us when all is well."
"Please do," Angus echoed.
She looked across at him and smiled. Angus took it upon himself to see her to the door.
"Madame might tell me the name of the café," he begged, under his breath.
She looked up at him, a provocative little gleam in her eyes. "That, monsieur, might take someone else?"
"You know better."
"When I return, then," she whispered as she passed through the door. "Monsieur must be discreet."
She departed, leaving behind a trail of some delicate perfume and a distinct impression of disturbing femininity. Angus strolled back into the room.
"By Jove, I wouldn't have missed that!" he exclaimed enthusiastically. "Pudgy, old thing, isn't she a ripper?"
Peter Bragg was already busy with the telephone.
"We'll have Havers, Rivington and Bishop up here," he announced. "Between them they can cover all the ground. Of course, to have made an absolute certainty of the thing we should have insisted upon knowing the name of the restaurant and had a man outside there too.
"Disgusting-looking little bounder," Angus murmured, glancing at the snapshot, and throwing it down with a grimace.
"There's no accounting for tastes," was his partner's sententious comment.
No young man in the world was less liable to nerves or nervous apprehensions than the Honourable George Angus, yet he awoke the next morning with a start and a vivid sense of horror. It seemed to him in his waking dreams that he had seen a small man being beaten to death by one so much bigger and superior in size and physique that it was like a rat being pounded viciously by a man with a stick. He pictured to himself a stuffy little sitting-room, a waiter with only sufficient courage to shout from a safe distance for help, and the wonderful eyes of Mademoiselle Lenclos aflame with horror. He smiled to himself as he realised the source of his sudden hallucination, but its effect remained with him, and he descended to the consulting-rooms of the firm at least half an hour before his usual time. His partner had not arrived, but Miss Ash, the perfect secretary, presented herself almost at once with two folders under her arm.
"Reports from the Strand house this morning just come in, Mr. Angus," she announced. "They are all three identical. The young man whose description was given does not appear to have arrived. Headquarters are meeting all further trains and aeroplanes until further notice."
Angus was conscious of a sudden return of his sense of apprehension. He took up the morning paper and glanced it rapidly through. There was nothing in its contents of an alarming character.
"A lady has rung up," Miss Ash continued—"the young lady who was here yesterday morning. She urgently wished to speak to you. She said she would ring up again."
The telephone bell tinkled, and Angus picked up the receiver.
"It is the gentleman who was kind to me yesterday?" a distracted voice demanded. "Monsieur, I am terrified. Tell me at once—Monsieur Bonnaire?"
"All trains were met and both aeroplanes," Angus told her. "Monsieur Bonnaire did not arrive."
"It is impossible," was the quick reply. "You have failed. He would come—oh, I know he would come. Listen. I have a quarter of an hour. I take a taxi, I come at once."
"I shall be here," Angus replied.
She arrived, without a doubt in distress. There were dark lines under those beautiful eyes. Angus would have shown her the reports, but she waved them away.
"I know Paul," she insisted. "It was arranged that we dine together at nine o'clock yesterday evening. He would be there. Something has happened to him."
"Where were you and your husband last night?" Angus asked.
"My husband's behaviour," she confided, "is of the most extraordinary. Again we dined at the café, in number fourteen. All the evening he was like a man noisy with wine. He laughed and shouted and kept opening champagne which we could not drink, and every now and then he broke off and listened as though he were expecting someone."
"I have every confidence in our agents," Angus assured her consolingly. "I cannot believe that Monsieur Bonnaire arrived yesterday."
"He might have come from Harwich," she answered. "He is like all artists, most unreliable. He wanders from place to place as it pleases him. But Monsieur, it is this which terrifies me: my husband he knows. I read it in his manner. He knows."
"How much is there to know?" Angus asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"What does it matter?" she rejoined. "It is what he believes. If he knows that I have dined there alone with Paul, that I was expecting to dine with him there last night, it is enough. If he would speak I I could bear anything better than his present mood."
"What is he proposing to do to-night?"
She gave a little cry which was almost a sob.
"The same thing! He has ordered the dinner. He went to see the patron. He has even chosen the wines. And as for me, whilst he eats and drinks and watches me, I can do nothing. I am in torture. Last night, when nine o'clock struck I thought I should have called out, shrieked, at the horror of it. I am not hysterical, monsieur. I am a woman of common-sense, but I am afraid."
"But what do you suppose can have happened to Monsieur Bonnaire?"
"I can suppose nothing," she admitted. "That is the terror of it. I can imagine nothing. I know only that I am afraid."
"I think you had better tell me the name of the restaurant," Angus suggested. "We will have some enquiries made there. It is just possible that Monsieur Bonnaire will have sent a message direct."
"It is the Café Guido, in Half Dean Street," she confided. "It is rather a narrow opening, and the restaurant is on the left. Straight up the stairs are the salons."
"Is there any way in which we can communicate with you if we have any news of Monsieur Bonnaire?" She shook her head despairingly.
"I can think of none. Except for a few minutes or so like this, Henri never leaves my side. He is terrifying. When I have the chance I will ring you up. Always send a message if there is news. Your men may watch if you will, but I know, I feel Paul is in England. You do not understand, monsieur—he is a man of sentiment, not a man of commerce. We were to have dined together last night at nine o'clock, and there is nothing in this world would have kept him away. You will forgive, but I must hurry."
In the depths of her despair, she produced her vanity case on the way to the door, touched her lips for a moment with the stick, and glanced critically at the effect. She closed the case with a little snap, smiled up at Angus with mechanical coquetry, and departed.
Peter Bragg, when he arrived a few minutes later, listened to his partner's account of Mademoiselle Lenclos' visit, and studied the reports in silence.
"I find nothing here," he declared at last, "to justify any sort of concern. My agents make no mistakes. It is impossible that the young man should have arrived at Victoria or at Croydon. Ergo, I do not believe that he is in England. The young lady with the guilty conscience is alarming herself unnecessarily. I see no further scope for action on our part."
"I might be able to find out if he really has returned," Angus reflected.
"You can take over the affair if you wish to," Peter Bragg suggested. "It does not greatly concern me. There is nothing in it which appeals to the scientific side of our profession."
"Very well," Angus assented. "I will make a few enquiries on my own."
"Do. You're not a young man without experience, or I should perhaps feel it my duty to warn you that ladies of the type of Mademoiselle Lenclos with a husband in Paris and a lover in London are a little dangerous."
"I like dangers," Angus replied, taking up his hat.
Without any particular difficulty he was able to persuade his sister, Lady Ella Moningham, to accompany him to the establishment Monet where she was a valued client. The information he casually sought was readily vouchsafed. Monsieur Bonnaire was without a doubt the artist of the place. He was at present on the Continent. He had been expected home last night, but so far had not arrived. He might possibly be at his rooms, and putting in a late appearance. He was not of punctual habits, The address of his rooms was easily obtained, and during the afternoon Angus presented himself at a sedate little block of flats in Bayswater, and received the information that Monsieur Bonnaire had been expected to return last night, but had not done so. By this time Angus was in a more reasonable frame of mind. He had decided that his partner's view of the case—that the affair was not likely to contain any elements of possible interest—was the correct one. Nevertheless, he carried out his original intention. At nine o'clock that evening he excused himself from dining with a friend, and made his way to Half Dean Street. He found the café, passed up the passage, where a commissionaire relieved him of his coat and hat, and stood upon the threshold of the restaurant gazing around. The place was crowded with a throng of apparently the better-class tradespeople of the district, with a sprinkling of less easily distinguishable clients. There was scarcely a table vacant, and for a moment his presence was unnoticed. Then two people entered behind him and pushed their way forward. A fat little man with a black moustache, seated at a desk, sprang to his feet and hastened to greet them. Angus found Mademoiselle Lenclos standing by his side, and with her a great bearded Frenchman—a man gross almost in his size, with masses of black hair and resonant voice. There was a gleam of fear in Mademoiselle Lenclos's eyes as she recognised her neighbour, but Angus looked coldly away without any form of interest or recognition. Meanwhile the patron and her companion stood shaking hands and talking rapidly. Angus, without appearing to listen, heard every word. It was a conversation of the usual type—congratulations from Madame's husband upon the prosperity of the place, a remark or two about mutual friends in Paris. All the time Madame stood listlessly by. A waiter approached Angus, but he waved him away. He was better content to linger where he was for the moment.
"The salon, monsieur," the patron went on, concluding his conversation with his friend, "awaits you. Dinner is prepared—all that you desire. Louis himself arrives. It is well."
A maître d'hôtel from upstairs came hurrying into the room. With bows and smiles he preceded monsieur and madame as they turned away. The patron went back to his desk. Attracted, however, by the sight of an unusually distinguished-looking visitor, he paid his respects to Angus. The latter leaned towards him confidentially.
"You are very full here," he said. "I should like a salon. I'm expecting a lady."
The patron smiled. It was quite possible. Monsieur could certainly be accommodated. Would he give himself the trouble to mount?
Angus followed him outside, and Louis, who had completed his task of escorting his other clients to their salon, was summoned. He conducted Angus to the first floor.
"Number fourteen," the latter observed, pausing as they passed along the passage—"my lucky number at roulette—it is free?"
"Alas, monsieur," the maître d'hôtel regretted, "number fourteen is occupied."
"Thirteen also. Monsieur can have number twelve."
Angus was shown into a salon—an unwholesome-looking little apartment with red plush couch, drawn blinds, a bare table-cloth, bare walls, and two exceedingly uncomfortable easy-chairs.
"Monsieur is expecting a friend, perhaps?"
"Leave the door open, and I will receive her when she arrives," he said. "In the meanwhile show me the menu."
He ordered the best dinner the place could offer, with champagne and a cocktail for himself, the latter to be served immediately, and slipped a pound note into the man's hand.
"The lady may be delayed," he explained. "Put the caviare on the table, and leave me alone."
The maître d'hôtel, with a liberal tip in his pocket, was all amiability. Angus lit a cigarette and waited for his cocktail. Through the open door he could hear continually the sound of the Frenchman's booming voice, the occasional laughter, the jingle of glasses. He listened at first idly, afterwards with a growing curiosity. There was something about the tone of the man, its note of forced though uproarious gaiety, the continual popping of corks, which seemed to him somehow unnatural. Mademoiselle Lenclos' description of the previous evening, and her terror, suddenly surged back into his mind. All the time there came no sound from number thirteen.
Louis presently reappeared. His attitude was sympathetic.
"The lady monsieur was expecting has not arrived?" he enquired.
Angus shrugged his shoulders.
"I am afraid," he said, "that it will be no use waiting for her now. You had better serve dinner."
The manner of the man underwent a change. His tone became apologetic.
"It is impossible to serve monsieur alone," he announced. "It is a rule of the house."
"Why the devil not?" Angus demanded. The man shrugged his shoulders.
"Our salons are nearly always taken," he confided, "and there was at one time a little trouble with the police. It is established now as a rule of the house that any gentleman dining here must be accompanied by a lady."
"But supposing she doesn't come," Angus protested. "Surely I'm allowed to eat my dinner."
"It will be served downstairs, monsieur."
There was a knock at the door which Louis at once threw open. Outside was a woman, a slim, attractive figure in her plain black evening gown and small hat. The maître d'hôtel drew a sigh of relief.
"The lady, monsieur," he announced. "Dinner shall be served at once."
Angus, who had risen to his feet, stared at the newcomer in amazement. There was something familiar about her inscrutable smile and the quiet grace of her movements, but for a moment he was unable to believe his senses. She came a little further into the room, and smiled up into his face.
"I hope you were expecting me," she said calmly. "I'm not very late, am I?"
The waiter had departed. Angus permitted himself to be astonished. "Miss Ash!" he exclaimed.
"Of course," she murmured, taking the vacant chair and raising the glass which contained his untasted cocktail to her lips. "You seem to have made your plans quite well, Mr. Angus," she continued, "but you cannot know much of this sort of place or you would understand that it is not permitted for a man to dine alone in a private room."
"So the waiter was just telling me. But how on earth did you know I was coming here—how on earth did you know anything about it?"
"I read Mr. Bragg's précis of the case this evening," she explained. "I came to the conclusion that he was wrong, and you were right in following it up. I knew, of course, what you would do. I thought I had better come in case I was wanted."
For a moment he had forgotten even why he was there. He was finding out new things about Miss Ash. She had grey eyes with dark lashes, a sensitive mouth, a wonderfully clear complexion, the delicacy of which was enhanced by the slight touch of colour upon her lips. She was eating caviare now, and watching him with something of that inscrutable look in her eyes.
"Tell me how far you have got?" she invited.
He accepted what had seemed to him the impossible. He was dining alone with Miss Ash in a very shabby salon, and Miss Ash was no longer a nonentity, but a very attractive person.
"They are in the next room but one, this Lenclos woman and her French husband," he confided. "Can't you hear them? It's the intervening room I'm wondering about. You notice how quiet everything is there, and yet they tell me that it is occupied."
The door was opened by a waiter bringing the first course of their dinner. Louder than ever they could hear the laughter of the Frenchman, the semi-hysterical voice of his companion, the jingling of glasses. As soon as they were alone Miss Ash looked up at her companion.
"There is something going on," she declared with conviction. "That man is not talking naturally—neither is the woman."
Angus rose impulsively to his feet, but she waved him back.
"There is no hurry for a few minutes—and I am very hungry. Petite marmite is my favourite soup. Whatever is happening had better develop a little."
He sat down again.
"But what can be happening?" he demanded.
"In five minutes," she proposed, "you can try to discover."
She finished her soup, rose to her feet and opened the door, noiselessly, as usual. She listened for a moment.
"You did well to come here," she acknowledged. "There is no one about at present. I will keep guard, and let you know if anyone comes up the stairs. See who is in the room between."
He stole past her and softly turned the handle of number thirteen, only to find the door locked. He looked back at her, and she nodded understandingly, stepped into their own salon, drew the key from the inside of the door and handed it to him. It turned in the lock of number thirteen without difficulty, and together they crossed the threshold. The room was in darkness, but from the first Angus felt the presence of some other person. He touched the switch and flooded the room with light. A smothered exclamation broke from Miss Ash's lips. In an easy-chair placed close to the wall which separated the room from number fourteen was a puny little man, ghastly pale, with frightened eyes, gagged and tied hand and foot.
"What the devil!" Angus began.
The young man moaned faintly. It was evident that his strength was nearly exhausted. Miss Ash, who had slipped out of the room for A moment, returned with a knife. Angus cut through the cords and released the gag. The victim staggered to his feet with a groan, only to immediately collapse. Between them they supported him into their salon, forced a few spoonfuls of soup between his teeth, and followed them up with a glass of wine.
"Are you Paul Bonnaire?" Angus asked.
The young man nodded. He drank more of the wine thirstily.
"How long have you been in that room?"
"Since yesterday evening. I came to order dinner. Whilst I was sitting there, they did this."
Paul Bonnaire mclined his head towards the wall. Monsieur Lenclos was laughing more loudly than ever. There was the sound of the popping of yet another cork.
"He and the patron. I want to get away. Will you go downstairs with me and put me into a taxi?"
"What are you going to do about it?" Angus asked. "Shall you report to the police?"
The young man considered for a moment.
"There is something to be done," he muttered, "At present I am not sure."
He took a few more spoonfuls of soup and another glass of wine, and then rose to his feet with a little sob. The voice of the Frenchman in number fourteen, harsh with meretricious gaiety, was once more audible.
"I can't stand any more," he faltered. "Take me down and find me a taxi, please."
Angus wrapped him in his own overcoat and led him down the stairs. They passed the entrance to the restaurant unnoticed. The commissionaire was momentarily off duty, but Angus found a taxi, and gave the address. The young man sank into a comer wearily.
"I don't know who you are, sir," he said. "You have been very kind."
"That's all right," Angus assured him. "I'll send for my coat sometime."
The taxi-cab drove away, and Angus once more climbed the stairs. He found Miss Ash engaged upon her second course. He seated himself opposite her, and laughed softly.
"Well," he said, "having completed the business of the evening, let us now drink to our better acquaintance, Miss Ash."
She raised her glass composedly.
"You didn't recognise me at first, did you?"
"I certainly did not," he acknowledged. "There has never been anything, if you will allow me to say so, in your deportment at Bellevue Mansions to suggest your—er—your present self."
"I have always been told," she said, "that the first duty of a secretary was to leave her individuality at home—physically and temperamently."
"You certainly succeed," he observed.
"It gives one only a few hours in which to live one's natural life," she sighed. "One has to make the most of them."
Dinner became almost a cheerful meal. Angus was amazed to find himself embarked upon a mild but pleasant flirtation. With the arrival of coffee she broke it off to ask an abrupt question upon a subject which they had hitherto almost ignored.
"What did you think of that young man?" she asked.
"A pitiful little bounder," Angus pronounced—"frightened out of his life, too."
She stirred her coffee reflectively.
"I'm not quite so sure. I watched him when he was sitting here. He was thinking hard all the time. When you led him out of the room he half turned his head towards number fourteen."
"All that I noticed about him was his anxiety to get away," Angus olmnrvrd dryly.
She remained silent. Presently she shrugged her shoulders. Whatever her ideas might have been she dismissed them.
"A dress designer, a man milliner and a mannequin!" she murmured. "Why should one worry about them, except professionally? May I have one of your cigarettes, please, Mr. Angus."
It was about an hour later, just as Angus was preparing to ask for the hill, when they became aware of the sound of stealthy footsteps outside. Miss Ash was the first to hear them. She listened for a moment, and then, crossing the room towards the door, opened it softly. Angus, close behind her, realised that someone had turned out the light. He felt for the switch and found it. Outside number fourteen, with his hand upon the door knob, was Paul Bonnaire, carefully, almost foppishly, dressed in dinner-clothes. Even at that distance they could see the light flash upon his jewelled buttons and studs. They saw it flash, too, upon something else—something which he gripped tightly in his right hand. Even as they stood there he threw wide open the the of the room.
"Quick!" Miss Ash cried.
Angus sprang forward. The little scene was there framed in the doorway—scene of drama and terror. His companion's scoffing words flashed through Angus's brain at that moment. "The dress designer, the man milliner and the mannequin " were for that moment at least human beings. The great bearded Frenchman was cowering back upon the sofa, his mouth open, his eyes staring and filled with horrible fear;. The woman stood upright as a marble figure, her arms outstretched towards Bonnaire. Her cry was the first thing that broke that terrible stillness, Then the shots! The Frenchman had leapt up with the pain of the first bullet crashing into his body, only to collapse a moment afterwards, a shapeless, distorted mass of flesh, the frenzied fear of death glaring from his eyes. By this time Angus had reached Bonnaire—too late, however, to avert the tragedy. The woman was standing after her first shriek, silent, her arms still outstretched towards her lover. Whether she had been doomed in his thoughts or not, no one could surmise. As he realised the presence of the newcomers, Bonnaire turned the pistol upon himself, pulled the trigger, and sank into the arms of the woman by his side, his dying fingers yielding without a struggle the weapon which Angus wrenched away. The woman looked across at the latter, and there was a light of incipient madness in her eyes, in the sound of her laugh. She snatched up her vanity-case, gazed into it critically, dabbed powder on to her cheeks, touched her lips with salve.
"Get me a taxi, please," she directed.
MR. PETER BRAGG'S expression was without a doubt gloomy. He pushed his letters impatiently on one side and leaned back in his chair, his hands in his pockets and a frown of displeasure upon his rather bushy eyebrows. He even removed his horn-rimmed spectacles and wiped them painstakingly.
" What's wrong, Pudgy?" his friend and partner, the Honourable George Vincent Angus enquired, discarding his Sporting Life and making preparations to face the morning's work by lighting a cigarette and strolling over to his partner's desk.
Peter Bragg made no direct reply.
"It would afford me great pleasure, Angus," he said, "if you would sometimes remember that a nickname applicable at a preparatory school is scarcely in order when applied to a man at the head of a great undertaking and your—er—senior partner."
"Sorry, old chap. Get it off your chest. What's wrong?"
"If there is one class of misdemeanour," Peter Bragg declared, "which makes absolutely no appeal to me, it is a jewel robbery."
"Bit hackneyed," Angus agreed sympathetically.
"Notwithstanding my passion for detective stories," Peter Bragg continued, "such a title as The Lost Emerald, The Rajah's Diamonds, The Missing Necklace, puts me dead off at once even though by one of my favourite authors. There is something about this class of crime which has ceased entirely to appeal to the imagination. Every possible trick in connection with the pilfering of jewels has been made use of and done to death."
"I quite agree. Now what about it?"
Peter Bragg picked up a letter from amongst the heap by his side.
"A distinguished client is arriving within a few minutes," he announced, "to consult us as to the loss of a diamond necklace."
"Who is the Johnny?" Angus demanded. "Do I know him?"
"It is possible that you may," his partner admitted. "It is the Duke of Cumberland."
"Good old Rattles!" Angus exclaimed. "So he's been stung, has he? Any particulars?"
"None whatever," Peter Bragg replied, exhibiting the letter. "His secretary writes that his Grace the Duke of Cumberland will call at ten-thirty this morning to consult me as to the possible recovery of a missing diamond necklace."
"Half-past ten already," Angus observed, glancing at his watch. "I'll go in and have a chat with Miss Ash whilst you receive your august client."
"Nothing of the sort. Without desiring to be unduly critical, Angus, you devote too much of your time to sitting in Miss Ash's easy-chair and interfering with her work."
"Intriguing sort of person," Angus admitted.
"If she is intriguing it is for me to discover the fact," Peter Bragg declared. "She is my secretary, not yours. Personally I have failed to discover the qualities which you suggest."
"She don't let herself go with you. Keeps to the little grey mouse and that sort of thing. She told me only the other day that her idea of the perfect secretary was a colourless and sexless negation. I must say in business hours she plays the part pretty well."
"How much do you know of her outside business hours?" Peter Bragg asked suspiciously.
"There was that night when she came to the Café Guido," Angus reflected. "I tell you, Pu—Peter—she looked ripping. Not the ordinary type of good-looking girl, you know, but something different, something that set you wondering what it would be like to hold her hand and that sort of thing."
"Shut up 1 " the other enjoined. "Here's the Duke."
The Duke was ushered in; a still youthful-looking man, a little tired about the eyes but bearing his forty-two years well enough. He shook hands stiffly with Peter Bragg and recognised Angus with surprise.
"Hullo, George!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"Partner in the firm," was the cheerful reply. "I told you I'd got a job."
"You amaze me," the Duke confessed, accepting the client's chair. "I thought that your profession, Mr. Bragg, required a high order of intelligence on the part of its votaries."
"Don't you queer my pitch," Angus grumbled. "My friend doesn't understand chaff."
"Far be it from me," the Duke declared earnestly, "to interfere with any effort you may be making, George, to earn an honest living."
Peter Bragg coughed. He was flattered that his partner should be on such intimate terms with his distinguished client, but he thought it time to assert himself.
"Concerning this loss of your Grace's?" he began.
"It's a damned annoying business," the Duke confided. "I dare say Angus here will appreciate the situation more precisely even than you. These are the facts. Last Wednesday I gave a party at Cumberland House. It wasn't altogether a Bohemian party but it was of that order. My guests consisted of those friends of mine who know how to enjoy themselves and don't draw the line too strictly as regards the conduct of life. You follow me, Mr. Bragg?"
"Perfectly," Peter Bragg assented. "I gather that her Grace was not present."
"Her Grace," the Duke continued dryly, "is on her way home from India. She will arrive within ten days. It is for that reason that the matter concerning which I have come to see you is somewhat urgent."
Peter Bragg nodded. The Duke accepted a cigarette from Angus's case and lit it.
"We danced and played the usual jinks," the former continued. "Late in the evening I showed some of my guests the contents of my jewel chest. A lady who is a very intimate friend of mine persisted in trying on a certain diamond necklace which is an heirloom, and of which my wife is very fond. Rather foolishly 1 let her keep it on for a time. Twice during the evening I asked her to take it off, and each, time she begged to be allowed to wear it a little longer. In the end she slipped away without saying good-night to me, smd when, as the last of my guests were leaving, I was called to the telephone, she spoke to me from her house in Hertford Street. I need not detail the conversation. She told me that I owed her a birthday present, which was perfectly true, and that she had decided to keep the necklace. Then, she rang off."
"Have you made any attempt to see her since?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Naturally. I have been to see her twice-once with my lawyer. She simply treats the affair as a tremendous joke. 1 have never been parsimonious in my gifts, and she cannot understand that this particular necklace is the property of the Duchess and cannot be disposed of."
"The lady has claims upon you?" Peter Bragg asked bluntly.
The Duke had the air of finding the question impertinent, but after a moment's hesitation he answered it.
"She has," he admitted. "I have never refused any ordinary request of hers. This is a different matter."
"Are we," Peter Bragg ventured, "to know the lady's name?"
"I imagine that that will be necessary. It is Lady Katherine Somerby."
"Good old Kate!" Angus murmured under his breath.
"I can understand," the Duke remarked a little coldly, "that the humour of the situation may appeal to you, George, but I want you both to understand that I am in deadly earnest. I want that necklace back again."
"Are you prepared to go so far as to prosecute the lady?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"I am not," was the curt rejoinder. "If I were I should have gone to Scotland Yard instead of coming to you. The circumstances of our friendship make such an action on my part impossible. Nevertheless, I repeat that I want the necklace back again."
Peter Bragg reflected for a moment.
"I presume you have tried all ordinary methods? For instance, you have offered Lady Katherine her choice of other articles of jewellery?"
"I have made every effort of that sort. It is the necklace and nothing but the necklace with her."
"Lady Katherine is a difficult nut to crack," Angus mused.
"She is a lady of determination," the Duke acknowledged. "She has announced her intention of taking a trip to the States in three weeks' time. It is my opinion that she is going there in order that during her absence the matter will have time to blow over."
"Are Lady Katherine's jewels insured?" Angus asked.
"Not to my knowledge," the Duke replied. "I have never heard her mention the fact."
"Are there any other particulars," Peter Bragg enquired, "which your grace could impart likely to help us in our efforts?"
"I can think of none. All obvious methods seem hopeless. Her maid, for instance, has been with her for fifteen years and is a devoted servant. She keeps her jewels in a safe which is as burglar proof as my own and it is my belief that she does not intend to wear the necklace in public until her return from the States."
"Has this little affair," Angus ventured, "interfered with your— er—cordial relations?"
The Duke coughed.
"I have not seen Lady Katherine for two days," he admitted. "She has rung up twice. To-night I was to have dined with her."
"And are you going to?"
"I have not quite made up my mind."
"Go through with it," Angus begged. "I have the glimmerings of an idea, Rattles, although of course it may not come to anything. Still, take my advice. It can do no harm. Dine with her and be, as far as you can, your old self. Affect to accept the situation."
"It will be rather like burning my boats, won't it?" the Duke suggested doubtfully.
"Do you think you have a ghost of a chance of persuading her to give you the necklace back in exchange for something else?"
"Not an earthly!"
"Then you're doing no harm," Angus pointed out. "And if there's anything in my idea at all you're giving my scheme a leg-up by appearing to be reconciled."
The Duke rose to his feet.
"Well, Mr. Bragg," he said, "if by any chance your firm should succeed in this matter you will find my recognition of your services generous. I admit that I am putting a difficult proposition before you but I feel sure that you will do your best."
"It will be a privilege to exert ourselves to the utmost on your behalf, your Grace."
The Duke shook hands, and exchanged a careless nod with Angus. The butler showed him out and they listened to the descent of the lift. Mr. Peter Bragg turned to his associate.
"If you really have an idea, George," he conceded, a little stiffly, "you have the advantage of me. Short of burglary I can see no method of obtaining possession of the necklace."
Angus was for once almost modest.
"Of course I don't know whether my idea's a damned bit of use, Pudgy," he confided, "but here it is...."
Lady Katherine was an exceedingly good-natured person, but even she was a little ruffled when she swept into the morning room of her house in Hertford Street at twelve o'clock on the following day to receive her too early caller. She held out her hand affably enough but she indulged in a grimace of annoyance.
"My dear George," she protested, "what sort of a person do you think I am? Fancy sending up a card at eleven o'clock—"
"A quarter past," he interrupted.
"A quarter past eleven then—to say that you wished to see me on business. In the first place what business could you possibly have with me or anyone else, and in the second place, if you wanted to see me why couldn't you have taken me out to lunch or tea and a dance. Sit down, for heaven's sake, so long as you are here. What's it all about?"
"My dear Kate," Angus explained, "when I sent word to say that! I wished to see you on business it was a perfectly honest statement of the facts. We cannot possibly discuss business at lunch or at a thé dansant. Let us finish with the commercial side of the affair and I am entirely at your disposition."
"Well, that's something," she admitted, with a complacent little] sigh. "Now please explain yourself. The word business in connection with you intrigues me."
"I don't know why it should," he complained. "I am not the eldest son, and according to the governor his taxes eat up all his income and a little bit round the corner. However, as you know, we'r3 all doing something nowadays—selling automobiles, champagne, or touting for bets. I'm in the insurance business."
Lady Katherine half closed her eyes.
"The insurance business!" she murmured. "Any business at all for you, George! How sweet! Go on, please, and tell me where 1 come in."
Angus solemnly opened his pocket-book and produced a card printed that morning at red-hot speed at a small printing establishment. Lady Katherine read it out slowly:
The Honourable George Vincent Angus,
Protective Insurance Company,
100, Cornhill, London, E.C.
"My God!" she exclaimed. "What does this mean? And what do you protect?"
"You, my dear lady," he said earnestly—"you and your belongings! You, from any evil that could possibly happen; your belongings from any possible loss that might accrue to you from their untimely diappearance. Honest, Kate, to cut the gabble, my job is to insure people and I get a jolly fat commission out of it. I can insure you against death, measles, permanent disfigurement, railway accidents, twins, house burnt over your head, loss of your jewellery or any other of those trifling misfortunes likely to happen to the modern young woman."
She began to laugh, softly at first, but more heartily later.
"Ring the bell," she directed. "Groves must make us a cocktail. I am feeling very unwell this morning, and I must get used to this attitude on your part."
Angus did as he was bidden. The butler duly appeared and received his instructions.
"Spare me the rest," Lady Katherine begged, "until I have received alcoholic stimulus. Where were you yesterday evening and the night before? Rattles gave us a wonderful party last week at Cumberland House."
"Never asked me," Angus grumbled. "I think he knows I'm too fond of you."
"Rubbish! Well, anyhow, yesterday evening?"
"Yesterday evening I was out trying to get a Johnny up at Hampstead to insure his house."
Angus shook his head gloomily.
"The only thing I'm doing any good with," he confided, "is the jewellery insurance. That is really a good egg. You can wear all your priceless things down at Whitechapel, if you like, and all that happens if you lose them is you have the fun of replacing them. I think this insurance of jewellery stunt will break my people sooner or later."
"Explain it to me the moment I have drunk my cocktail," she bogged. "As it happens I am a little interested."
The cocktails were duly brought. With a dividend in their glasses the two young people faced the situation with renewed spirit.
"It is this jewellery insurance," Angus went on persuasively, "I should recommend to you, Kate, more particularly than anything. I don't want to bother you about the other things; I expect your agents look after that. Perhaps you have an insurance on your jewellery?"
"I haven't—not a penny—never thought it worth while."
"Well, listen. All you have to do is to let me run through your little lot and you tell me the values, or approximately, what you gave for them."
"I didn't buy them all myself," she murmured, glancing reflectively at the ceiling.
'' That don't matter. We can easily get at the values," he assured her. "After that I lump the things up. Say you've got thirty thousand pounds' worth. I give you a policy. You pay me about a hundred pounds—no hurry about the premium—you can date the cheque on a bit, if you want. And then you can go and lose the whole bally lot and get the boodle."
Lady Katherine was impressed.
"It sounds all right," she admitted. "I lost two of my pearls last week."
"You'd have had the cash for them if you'd been insured with us," Angus pointed out, "and you could have spent it on something else if you'd liked."
Lady Katherine toyed with the remainder of her cocktail.
"As a matter of fact, George," she confided, "my stock of jewels has been added to very considerably during the last few days."
"All the more reason for you to insure," he persisted eagerly.
"You see, Rattles rather spread himself the other night," she went on. "He gave me the necklace I have been wanting all my life."
"You don't mean the Madras Necklace!" he gasped.
"That is just what I do mean," she admitted triumphantly.
Angus's whistle was long and expressive.
"My dear Kate," he said emphatically, "if you wear that necklace without insuring it you will commit a positive crime. Have you any idea of its value?"
Her eyes glistened.
"Tell me, George dear?" she begged.
"I should value that necklace," he pronounced, "at something like twenty-five thousand pounds."
She finished her cocktail with a little purr of content.
"Well, there it is," she assured him. "It's upstairs now in my safe."
"I consider my visit," Angus declared, "to have been a dispensation of Providence. Let your maid bring down the lot. I'll run through them and give you a policy on the spot. Then you'll be safe."
"You're a dear, George," she said, "but the safe is screwed into the wall. You'll have to come up to my bedroom."
George rose to his feet promptly.
"I may have my faults," he admitted, "but I am not lacking in courage."
She boxed his ears and they marched up the stairs together. Her maid, who was busy in the room, fetched the keys and brought the cases one by one into the adjacent boudoir. George producing his pocket-book, made careful note of the various contents. They came at last to the necklace. Lady Katherine took it out of its case almost reverently. She held it up to the light, held it against her neck, and then passed it over to her companion. His first touch seemed embarked upon in entirely the same spirit of veneration. Suddenly his face changed. He lowered the necklace for a moment under the table, brought it again into the light, adjusted his monocle, hurried to the window and stood there for several moments. When he came back again there was a certain limpness in his manner which intrigued her.
"What's the matter, George?" she asked.
"Nothing," he assured her. "Nothing at all."
"How much are you going to put the necklace down for in the valuation?"
"I really don't know," he answered evasively. "Perhaps—well, Why not leave the necklace out?"
She stared at him.
"Leave the necklace out? What do you mean?"
"I don't know," he repeated miserably. "You see, Kate, I'm a pal and all that, but this is a matter of business, isn't it?"
"Well, we're treating it as such, aren't we?" she demanded.
"You wish me to?" he asked wistfully.
"Of course I do."
He had the air of a man making great demands upon his courage.
"Well, look here, Kate," he said, "between you and me that necklace is a fake."
"Don't be absurd," she scoffed.
"But I know it is a fake," he insisted. "It is a copy of what all the deallers know as the Madras Necklace which Rattles gave his wife when they were married. You know she's just been out to India? "
Lady Katherine nodded.
"She's on her way back."
"I ask you," George demanded, "would she be likely to have gone out to India, where everyone knows faked jewels from real ones, wearing the copy of the necklace. She took the real one and left this at home. A perfectly natural thing to do. I can't believe, Kate, that Rattles really gave you that as the real thing."
Lady Katherine thought hard for several moments. There were two little lines by the side of her lips which came into evidence, two or three more in her forehead which suddenly showed. The softness in her eyes had departed. Her brain was busy. Involuntarily she gave an impression of what she would become in, say, a matter of half-a-dozen years,
"George," she said, "I can't believe you. Rattles was perfectly furious when I marched off with the necklace and insisted upon sticking to it. He owes me a present, so I helped myself, but he's offered me anything else I liked in its place."
Angus smiled dubiously. He passed his arm through Lady Katherine's.
"Perhaps he doesn't know himself," he suggested. "The Duchess is no fool, you know."
There was a brief silence. Lady Katherine, with the necklace in her hand, walked to the window and back again. She looked at the gems in the darkness and in the light.
"Look here, I tell you what," Angus suddenly exclaimed. "Naturally, as we insure jewels, we've got an expert on the premises. Cleverest chap there ever was! He's never been deceived yet. Let me telephone him. He knows nothing about the facts. He shall come here—I left him in the office—I should think he could be here in ten minutes. We'll simply put it to him: are these real gems or aren't they? That ought lo be sufficient, oughtn't it? Personally it doesn't make any difference to me. I shouldn't insure them, but for your sake I think it ought to be cleared up."
"For my sake it shall be," Lady Katherine agreed. "Go into my room and ring up your friend."
They carried the case downstairs and acting upon a hint from Angus the butler paid them a second visit.
"If I thought Rattles dared play me a trick like that!" Lady Katherine murmured, with gleaming eyes.
"My dear Kate," Angus protested earnestly, "don't get away with that idea. I tell you that honestly I don't believe Rattles knows. I'm not very well acquainted with the Duchess, but that's just the sort of trick she would play on him, and I don't believe for a moment she'd go to India without her necklace."
The butler presently made his appearance with an announcement:
"The gentleman your ladyship was expecting."
Mr. Peter Bragg stepped in. Angus rose at once to his feet.
"Mr. Bragg," he said, "let me present you to Lady Katherine Somerby. Lady Katherine was on the point of concluding an insurance; with me of her jewellery, but she wished me to include a necklace here concerning which I, being, as you know, not an expert, feel that I ought to have a second opinion."
"In plain words, Mr. Bragg," Lady Katherine intervened, placing the necklace in his hands, "will you take that to the light or the dark; or wherever you please, and tell me whether those are real gems or imitation. I will tell you frankly that it is supposed to be the Madras Necklace belonging to the Duke of Cumberland."
Mr. Peter Bragg bowed gravely.
"Lady Katherine," he said, "if this is the Madras Necklace of the Duke of Cumberland, I shall be in a position to tell you so within thirty seconds. If it is an imitation I shall still occupy no more of your time. Permit me."
He took the necklace to the window, stood there for the briefest possible period of time and, returned. He laid the necklace upon the table with an almost contemptuous flick of the hand.
"This necklace, Lady Katherine," he announced, "consists of gems of artificial manufacture. I think I recognise the maker—a Jew named Artenfeldt in Hounslow who has once or twice deceived experts. He has a considerable connection with the aristocracy in duplicating their precious possessions."
Lady Katherine remained quite silent for several seconds. Then shd closed the case with a snap.
"You see, Kate," Angus explained apologetically, "I couldn't very well include that necklace in the policy at anything more than a hundred pounds or so, could I?"
"Naturally not," she admitted. "Send your friend away, please."
Mr. Bragg departed with a curt nod of thanks from Lady Katherine; and a stealthy wink from Angus. The former crossed the room towards her writing-table.
"Will you execute a little commission for me, George," she begged.
"Glad to," he answered.
"What did you say the name of, your insurance company was?" she enquired.
"The—" Angus made a desperate grab for the card which was still lying upon the table—"'Protective Insurance Company.' First class, I can assure you. Never failed to pay a claim yet."
"Very well," she answered, "you can come round again to-morrow morning and bring me a policy. I may have something else to put in then, At present, if you'll be a dear, you'll take this note and the necklace—I'll do it up presently—round to Rattles."
"You won't get me into any trouble with Rattles?" Angus begged nervously. "I want him as a client."
"Certainly not," she assured him. " That won't be my line at all."
Lady Katherine dashed off her note, packed up the necklace very tidily and dismissed her caller.
"If you would like to dance at Claridge's at half-past four—" she suggested.
"I should be delighted."
The Duke of Cumberland emerged from the front door of his town liousc and paused disconsolately upon the steps, wondering where to lunch, just as Angus drove up in a taxi, with a small brown paper parcel in his hand. The Duke's eyes were glued upon the packet.
"You haven't got it, George?" he exclaimed.
"Come and see for yourself," Angus invited modestly but triumphantly.
The Duke pushed him into a morning room, tore off the brown paper and opened the case. Without a doubt the gems of the famous Madras Necklace flashed up at him.
"My God, are you a magician!" the Duke exclaimed.
"Read the letter," Angus suggested.
The Duke opened the envelope, and, for his friend's benefit, he read the contents aloud:
"'Forgive me, please, I couldn't really do such a horrid thing. I think tt must have been jealousy. The idea that Mona should always wear the necklace, when I wanted it so much, maddened me. But you were right. It belongs to her and I mustn't have it. You can give me what you like instead. Those emeralds you spoke of yesterday would be wonderful.
"'We dine to-night, of course.
The Duke breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"Tell me, George," he insisted, "how the devil did you manage it?"
Then for several moments Angus thought very hard. Rattles was a pal and a good sort; Lady Katherine was also an old friend whom he had treated badly. Atonement was due. He came to a great decision.
"Rattles," he confided, "I argued for nearly an hour. I prevailed upon her better nature."
There were tears in the Duke's eyes.
"Damn it all! " he exclaimed. "I'll buy her the emeralds this afternoon. And you—well, come and have lunch, old chap."
NEITHER Mr. Peter Bragg nor his partner, the Honourable George Vincent Angus, will ever forget the moment when their client, Mr. Matthew Makepiece, having been formally announced, seated himself in the customary chair, made careful disposal on the carpet of a pair of thick kid gloves, a grey felt hat of outrageous shape, a formidable-looking ash walking-stick, and, finally, pulling down his waistcoat, opened up the business of his visit.
"May I enquire if you gentlemen are specialists in divorce?"
"Divorce?" Peter Bragg repeated, a little doubtfully.
"Divorce?" Angus murmured, with a faint note of wistfulness in his tone.
"That's what I'm after," the other announced. " I'm a country man. Maybe you've judged that by my clothes. I live down in Cambridgeshire and I've made a tidy bit of brass, fruit farming. I've been on the Town Council for fifteen years and I'm an alderman this day."
"Indeed," Peter Bragg murmured. "As a matter of fact," he went on, "divorce is not one of our specialities."
"Maybe you can put me on the right track," Mr. Matthew Makepiece observed, producing a huge bandanna handkerchief from his pocket and regarding it thoughtfully—"me and my missus—well, why shouldn't I have her in?"
"Where is your wife?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"I left her on the mat outside," Mr. Makepiece replied, rising to his feet and crossing the room. "Here, Martha!" he called out. "You come in!"
A woman who seemed ordained by nature to be the wife of Matthew Makepiece promptly entered. She was inclined to be stout, with a pleasant face, blue eyes and masses of rich brown hair, and she wore the clothes of the best draper in a small country town. She seemed doubtful about dropping a curtsey, but refrained. Angus placed a chair for her.
"You see," her husband continued, "we've been married twelve years, me and the missus, and what I say is twelve years with one woman's enough for anyone."
"That's what I say, too," Mrs. Makepiece assented, smoothing out her skirt. "Don't let there be any mistake about it. We're both of the same mind. If so be as they'd chosen to make Matthew mayor this November, why I'd have waited one more year and willing. But there ain't any sign of such a happening. He's not pushing enough, isn't Matthew."
The maligned man blew his nose.
"There's wheels within wheels in political circles," he confided solemnly, "and there's things I could tell about the sneaking ways down in Sleeford that'd open some people's eyes. Howsomever, it's mil that we're here to talk about."
It was a slack morning with the firm and Peter Bragg was mildly amused.
"Can't you explain a little more clearly what it is you want," he suggested. "It appears to me that you should have gone to a lawyer."
"Lawyers!" Mrs. Makepiece scoffed. "Nice fools they be! We went to old Mr. Parton, in Sleeford, and he just laughed at us. He didn't seem to understand matters right and proper. He said divorces weren't for the likes of us. Why not, I should like to know? Why should the aristocracy have all the liberty? A divorce is what we want and we've got the money to pay for it."
"Good for you, old lady! " her husband approved. "See here, Mr. Bragg," he went on, "I've got a pal what knows the ropes, and he told me how to go on. 'What you want,' he said, 'is first to make up your minds which is to divorce the other. Then, if it's you, you takes a young gal down to some seaside place, books a double room in your own name, keeps the hotel bill so as to have it ready, and there you are!' "
"But I don't quite understand," Peter Bragg ventured. "Have you two quarrelled?"
"Quarrelled?" Mr. Makepiece repeated. "I'm not saying as there's been anything to quarrel about exactly."
"Except the way you've been put back from being made mayor because of the time you spend in 'The Three Crowns,'" his wife declared.
"Or the way you can't keep a servant-girl for longer than a month, scolding all the time," her husband countered.
"These details are of no consequence," Peter Bragg intervened. "As a matter of fact, you seem to both want a divorce without either having any adequate reason for it."
"What I say," Mr. Makepiece insisted, "is that twelve years is long rnough to live intimate with any female. At the end of that time, if you haven't quarrelled serious, it's best to part and have a look round, so to speak."
"A look round!" the lady snorted. "You've been doing that all the time."
"And what about Tom Brown a-hanging about the place until I can't bear the sight on him?" her husband demanded.
"I'm really afraid," Peter Bragg pronounced, "that I am not in a position to help you. My advice to you would be to continue as you are. You've both been married long enough to understand one another's ways, and you will probably be far less happy with anyone else. Besides, there is the money question."
"There bean't no money question," Mr. Makepiece declared. "I took stock last Christmas and I'm worth all of sixty thousand quid, Besides the house and a good bit of farming property. What I say is I'm willing to give the old woman twenty thousand pounds, and with that she can find another husband if she wants one, or live alone comfortable and decent."
Mrs. Makepiece showed signs of becoming indignantly eloquent, but Peter Bragg hastily intervened.
"I can do nothing for you," he decided. "I should advise you to go to a lawyer and see what he has to say."
His clients were evidently disappointed.
"What they did tell me was," Makepiece persisted stubbornly, "that a private detective was the man I wanted—that any decent firm would have 'em in stock, so to speak—co-respondents of either sex."
"And had you decided," Angus enquired, with a suspicious twitch at the corners of his mouth, "which of you was to divorce the other?"
"Going to toss for it. The old woman's idea."
Mrs. Makepiece cast a shy but admiring glance towards Angus.
"I don't know as I mind which it is," she admitted, "so long as I can choose my own co-respondent—look him over first, so to say."
Peter Bragg, who was really a very well-behaved person, gave vent to sentiments, of a high order.
"Mr. and Mrs. Makepiece," he said, "you are very foolish people. You have come here on an absurd errand. I recommend you to go back to Sleeford and forget it. If you carry out your insane project you will have to seek assistance in some other direction."
Mr. Makepiece—a little crestfallen—picked up his hat and other belongings—his wife, with obvious reluctance, also rose to her feet. She glanced once more at Angus.
"It's a pity," she sighed.
"Come along, Martha," her fellow conspirator enjoined. "We're wasting the gentlemen's time. I reckon we'll take our business where they ain't so independent."
They took their leave. Angus leaned back in his chair and laughed heartily.
"Who shall say that our profession is without its humorous side?" he demanded. "I think we might have touched the old man for a little of his sixty thousand, Pudgy."
"An affair entirely beneath our consideration," Peter Bragg replied with dignity. "Besides, they'd have wanted to make it up again before they ever got into Court."
"Still, fees are fees," Angus murmured. "Someone will soak them all right."
It was about a fortnight later when Angus, paying a flying visit to a famous hotel at a South-Coast watering place, found Mr. Makepiece seated alone and a little disconsolate in the crowded lounge. He was dressed in the same rather loud check suit and his flat-brimmed hat and ash stick were on the floor by his side. He recognised Angus at once and greeted him vociferously.
"Here!" he exclaimed. "Sit down and have a drink, mister. You remember my coming to call on you? The little chap with big glasses wouldn't take my job on. Well, here I am."
"Enjoying your qualifying round, eh?" Angus observed.
"I don't know about that," Matthew Makepiece replied, snapping liln fingers loudly at a passing waiter. "Give it a name, mister."
Angus hesitated. His sense of humour, however, and a certain kindliness checked his first impulse to pass on.
"I'll have a whisky and soda, please," he said. "Where's the lady?"
Mr. Matthew Makepiece became confidential.
"She's a real slap-up 'un—toney as you like," he declared. "Can't say we're getting on as well as I would wish. She seems cross with me because I haven't got a dress suit and she's all the time off dancing with toffs. There she is—her with the yeller hair."
Angus caught sight of the young woman in question and groaned Inwardly. The particular toff in whose arms she was reposing at the moment, was a pallid young man with a hooked nose and black, curly hair. The girl herself was too obvious for description. She was over-rouged, over becarmined—clothes and all she reeked of the Tottenham Court Road. Directly she saw Angus engaged in conversation with her temporary protector, she paused in the dance and came towards them. Angus's heart sank and he regretted the whisky and soda.
"My new missus," Matthew Makepiece introduced, grinning. "Pal of mine, Mr. Angus, Betty."
Angus bowed and indulged in some hopelessly obvious remark. The girl beamed cordially.
"I hope you dance, Mr. Angus," she gushed. "It's so stupid of Matthew not to, isn't it? And to come down without any clothes. One must dress for dinner in these places. It makes such a difference," she went on, eyeing Angus's very correct attire admiringly.
"I used to dance a little, but just at present I've rather a game leg," Angus ventured. " If you don't mind, Mr. Makepiece, I'll let that whisky and soda go and see you later. I have some friends waiting for me."
"Don't hurry," the pseudo-Mrs. Makepiece begged, with a languishing glance.
"We're certain to meet again," Angus replied, taking a polite but firm farewell.
There was still a quarter of an hour before the friends whom he had Invited to dine with him could arrive, so Angus made his way into the bar. He had just ordered his cocktail when he was suddenly aware of something familiar in the appearance of the stout lady seated on the next stool. Her smile of welcome was mingled with a dash of coyness, She held out her pudgy hand.
"You don't remember me," she said. "Mrs. Makepiece, you know. We came to see you—me and my husband—but you couldn't do anything for us."
"I remember you perfectly," he gasped. "You—"
He stopped short. Mrs. Makepiece was dragging at the coat sleeve of a very battered old Lothario who was seated by her side.
"This is Mr. Fortescue," she said—"Mr. Angus. Mr. Fortescue is shall I say my fiancé," she wound up with what was almost a blush.
"My God!" Angus exclaimed under his breath.
"Have one with us, sir " Mr. Fortescue invited.
"I know what you're thinking," the lady went on, brimming over with amiability. "It's about Matthew, isn't it? Of course I didn't know he was coming to the same place, but it don't make any difference that I can see."
"Please excuse me," Angus ventured. "I don't really know much about the divorce laws myself, but you can't both do this sort of thing, you know."
"And why not?" she retorted. "What's good for 'im's good for me."
Angus swallowed his cocktail hastily.
"Very kind of you, I'm sure," he said. "You'll excuse me now, won't you. As I said, madam, I really know nothing about the law. I had a sort of idea that one of the parties had to be innocent."
"And who says I ain't," Mrs. Makepiece demanded, the aigrette in her hair shaking violently.
"The lady, during her visit here, is under my protection," Mr. Fortescue intervened, with a strong Cockney accent.
Angus made a precipitate farewell and hurried off. In a distant corner of the lounge he could see Matthew Makepiece still sitting alone whilst his siren was still whirling round in the arms of her escort.
"What's wrong with you, George?" one of his friends enquired, coming up unexpectedly.
"Something damned funny," Angus replied, "but I shall appreciate the humour of it better when I get a little further away."
Peter Bragg groaned as he laid down the telephone receiver, one morning about a week later.
"Here's your friend, the market gardener from Sleeford, back again," he announced, turning to Angus who had been on the point of leaving. "Put your hat down and support me."
"What, Matthew Makepiece?" his junior partner exclaimed. "Good old sportsman!"
Mr. Matthew Makepiece was shown in. He was still wearing clothes of a conspicuous pattern and country cut, but he had a crumpled appearance. He had the air of a man overtaken by unexpected misfortune. His hair was as stubbly as ever and he preserved something of his swagger. On the other hand there was a gleam of anxiety in his bright, deep-set eyes. He wore the same or a similar hat.
"Servant, gentlemen," he greeted them, with an air of levity which did not altogether ring true. "Here again for a bit of advice, you see. There was nothing doing in fees last time, but I'm ready for you now directly you say the word."
"So far as I remember, Mr. Makepiece," Peter Bragg said, a little wearily, "we were unable to offer you either assistance or advice on your previous visit, and that being so, the matter of fees did not arise."
"A doctor charges just the same when he tells his patient that he can't do him any good," was the blunt reply. "Anyway we'll see about that later. P'raps you can tell me what this is."
He threw a piece of blue paper upon the desk. Peter Bragg picked it up and scrutinised it.
"I am not a lawyer, as you seem continually to forget," he announced eventually, "but this appears to be a citation of you as co-respondent in a divorce case brought by one Ernest Josephs, generally known as Ernest Fortescue, against his wife."
"What the h—— do you think of that?" Mr. Makepiece exclaimed indignantly. "When you couldn't do anything for me I went to a firm who advertised in the Sporting Times, down in Adam Street, off the Strand. They took me on all right. They found the lady and off I went with her. The other gentleman knows all about that," he added, turning towards Angus—"run across him at the same hotel. Not on the same sort of job, I 'ope. Blast! "
"I certainly did meet you down at the 'Gigantic!' didn't I?" he said. "But what's that got to do with this divorce case? I see that your wife doesn't seem to be in it."
"Not she!" was the indignant rejoinder. "That'll come later very likely. What's happened now is that the husband of the young lady supplied by the office I went to seems to have brought a citation against me for divorce. Why, I paid the office fifty guineas for 'er to go down with me. I didn't even sleep in the same room. God 'elp me if I did!"
There was a moment's silence. Angus, whose shoulders were twitching convulsively, had turned his head away. Peter Bragg, whose sense of humour seemed to be momentarily dormant, was frowning.
"I cannot see why you have come back to us, Mr. Makepiece," he said, "but since you are here, supposing you tell me precisely what did happen between you and this young lady whom you—er—hired?"
"Here's all that happened," Mr. Makepiece expounded with the air of a man deeply wronged: "I took her down to Brighton first-class, Pullman, drinks in the car, everything slap-up style, booked a room at the hotel with her by my side—Mr and Mrs. Makepiece. We went up in the lift together and as soon as we got in the room she stuck me for a tenner. Mind you, I'd paid fifty guineas at the office, but she said she only got a small share of that, and she wanted something for herself. Well, I gave her a tenner and that was an end of that. Then she began to make a fuss because I hadn't any evening clothes. We had dinner—two bottles of champagne—the best stuff I could find. Then we went out in the lounge and she began dancing with a lot of young rips. I sat there until I nearly fell asleep. When I got up to the room she'd had her clothes moved out and I've never seen her since."
Angus came back into the limelight. His lips were still twitching but he managed to infuse a little sympathy into his manner.
"Damned hard luck," he commiserated. "Anyway, you were well rid of the young woman."
"That's all right, but what am I going to do about this?" Mr. Makepiece demanded, once more producing the paper.
"Tell me the name of the firm of detectives to whom you applied?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Josephs & Co. Smartish people they seemed, too."
"Very smart indeed, I should think. Still it's not playing the game to provide you with a young woman and charge you full price and then for this sort of thing to happen."
"Well, what can I do about it?" Mr. Makepiece asked.
"Do nothing for the moment," the other advised. "I will confess that I am now more interested in your affairs. I don't care for the firm of Josephs & Co. How long are you remaining in London?"
"Until this matter is settled," was the dogged reply. " I'm me own master, fortunately. My money's being made for me down yonder whether I'm there or not."
"Leave your address with my secretary as you go out," Peter Bragg invited, "and I will send for you as soon as I have decided upon a course of action. You will probably hear again from Messrs. Josephs & Co. before long. If you do, let me know."
Mr. Makepiece picked up his extraordinary hat and took his leave in deep gloom. Peter Bragg leaned back in his chair.
"A sheer case of conspiracy," he announced judicially. "Those people Josephs & Co. are always sailing near the wind."
"I wonder what has become of the dear lady?" Angus speculated.
"We shall see her again," was his partner's confident prediction.
At four o'clock that afternoon, Mrs. Makepiece fluttered in upon them. She was wearing, considering the amplitude of her figure, a ridiculously short skirt and flesh-coloured stockings. The hand of inexperience had applied colour to her cheeks and lips, some minor artist in the profession had shingled her luxurious hair. Angus gasped when she was shown in, and even Peter Bragg was thankful for his concealing spectacles. Only her good-humoured smile remained the same and there was a note of shamefacedness about that.
"Didn't expect to see me again, gentlemen?" she ventured airily.
"I must confess, Mrs. Makepiece, that your visit is a surprise," Peter Bragg replied. " n our previous interview I told you that the business upon which you desired to consult us was not in our line."
"Perhaps this is," she answered, throwing a letter upon the table. "What do you think of that?"
Peter Bragg read through the letter. It was simply a request from a firm of solicitors, carrying on a business in a somewhat obscure quarter, to be favoured with an interview at Mrs. Makepiece's earliest convenience.
"You went?" he enquired.
"I went all right," was the indignant reply. "What do you think the wretches had the cheek to tell me—a miserable-looking, yellow man, with a hooked nose and Jew written all over him? He had the cheek to tell me that a lady client of the firm had discovered that I had spent a week-end down at Brighton with her husband, and that unless I could satisfy her that it was a case of mistaken identity she was commencing an action at once, naming me as co-respondent."
"No other alternative?" Peter Bragg suggested gently.
"That was what those people sent for me for. The man said he didn't want to put it on paper. He thought he could square the lady for a thousand pounds."
"This is very unfortunate," Peter Bragg murmured. "And now tell me, what about your husband's divorce suit? Is he bringing one against you or are you bringing one against him?"
"We've fairly mucked that," the lady declared. "Your young gentleman here gave me a straight tip but I didn't believe it then. I've found out since that he was right. Only one of us ought to have done that week-end business. Now we've both done it neither can get a divorce from the other. We're fairly in the soup."
"Precisely what happened at the Hotel Gigantic between you and Mr.—er—Fortescue?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"What do you suppose happened?" the lady asked defiantly. ''What sort of a woman do you think I am? I let 'em all 'ave a good look at me when I signed the register and we went upstairs. We had the luggage put in the room, and as soon as it was all fixed up I says to 'im—'out of this you gets, my man. I don't share rooms with no one. We've done all that's necessary.' "
"What did he say to that?"
"Stuck me for twenty quid. I'd paid the proper fee, too. However, it wasn't worth while quarrelling about. I'd got to be seen with him at dinner and that sort of thing, so I gave him the money and told him to go down and wait for me in the bar.... I don't see anything to laugh at, young man," she wound up, a little severely, frowning across at Angus.
"But I do! " he exclaimed. "Mrs. Makepiece, you must forgive me, but it is funny—it really is!"
Mrs. Makepiece snorted.
"Well," she said, "there's some as can read Punch. I can't, and I never could. And I don't see anything funny about me having to part with a thousand pounds or getting my name in the papers as a co-respondent or whatever they call it."
"What was your answer to this firm of solicitors?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"I told them I'd take forty-eight hours to think it over, and I hopped it round here. You two seemed decent sort of fellows, anyway."
"Capital! We'll see what action it is possible to take to relieve you in the matter," Peter Bragg promised.
Three days later Mr. and Mrs. Makepiece, in accordance with a brief letter from the firm, presented themselves at Bellevue Mansions. Mrs. Makepiece arrived a few minutes after her spouse, who regarded her abbreviated skirt, her flesh-coloured stockings, her shingled hair and the embellishments of her person with unmistakable admiration.
"You're looking well, old girl! " he remarked.
"You're looking the same yourself, Matthew," she replied, glancing lovingly at the familiar check suit.
Peter Bragg tapped upon the table to attract their attention.
"I have good news and bad for you both," he confided. "Which will you have first?"
"The good news," Matthew Makepiece insisted. "I can't sleep o' nights for thinking of that damned divorce case. Me a co-respondent at my time of life, with a hussy like that, and a couple of thousands pounds to pay as like as not! "
"And me," his wife groaned, "with a nasty, jealous woman trying to make out that I wanted her weedy, worn-out old roué of a husband!"
"I have investigated the matter," Peter Bragg announced, "and you can both set your minds at ease. The letter from the solicitors which you, madam, brought me, was just as much a bluff as the divorce case brought against your husband. It would have been easy to prove that this was a case of attempted blackmail, but as a matter of fact it was easier still to wipe the whole affair out. The lady with whom Mr. Makepiece travelled to Brighton and the gentleman who accompanied Mrs. Makepiece are husband and wife."
"That's damned funny!" Matthew Makepiece muttered, trying to puzzle it out.
"The element of humour again presents itself," Peter Bragg continued, "when one comes to the bad news. Are you prepared?"
"Much as I ever shall be," Matthew Makepiece declared. "Let's have it?"
"Your own scheme and the scheme of your wife for a divorce have been rendered abortive from the fact that instead of one of you compromising yourself and the other suing, you have both compromised yourselves, and therefore neither of you is in the position to sue. I am sorry, but those are the facts."
Mr. Makepiece glanced across at his wife. Decidedly that short skirt was most becoming, and he had never imagined that legs clad in flesh-coloured silk stockings could be so attractive. The hair, too! Why couldn't she have had that cut years ago. That little bit of touching up was just what he had always admired in a woman. He drew a letter from his pocket and threw it carelessly into her lap.
"Just cast your eye through that, Martha."
She picked it up, read it through, and gave a little scream.
"They've chosen you as mayor after all, Matthew! " she cried.
"Got the invitation this morning," he announced.
She rose to her feet, and, with a deep sigh of content, crossed the room and patted her husband's back.
"That divorce was a silly idea, Matthew," she confessed.
He reached for his pocket-book with his disengaged hand.
"How much do we owe you, guv'nor?" he enquired of Peter Bragg.
"MR. HENRY PITT," Peter Bragg read out, studying attentively the card which his visitor had presented.
"My name," the new comer acknowledged, dropping into the client's chair.
There was a brief silence. Mr. Henry Pitt was a small, nervous man with watery blue eyes, insignificant features, an untidy red moustache, and a thin crop of hair of the same colour. His physique was puny, his carriage unimpressive, and his apparel not only shabby but ill-selected. He had by no means the appearance of a likely client.
"What can we do for you, sir?" Peter Bragg enquired, with some asperity.
"They tell me that you undertake all sorts of commissions. Have you anyone on your staff who would go as far as to commit a murder, and what would it cost me?" was the unexpected rejoinder.
"If your suggestion is seriously meant," Peter Bragg replied coldly, "it would probably cost you a term of imprisonment when I disclosed your proposition, as I certainly should do, in the proper quarters. It is our business to detect crime, not to commit it."
"I fancy," Angus observed, strolling over from his chair and smiling sympathetically at this dismal-looking little visitor, "that Mr. Pitt is not literally in earnest."
"I don't suppose I am," the other admitted grudgingly. "Still, if by any chance anything were to happen to the person I have in mind, there'd be no mourning worn in my office."
"Have you any business of a definite nature to place before us?" Peter Bragg asked stiffly.
"I have," the little man replied, with unexpected spirit, "or I shouldn't have come. I have a partner—his name is Frederick Sinclair Hope. He doesn't hold as many shares as I do in the business, but he has a goodish few. He has been with me now for over three years."
"What is your business?"
"Produce merchants. It's rather a line of our own. We deal chiefly in imports from East India."
"And what is your grievance against Mr. Hope?" The visitor signed.
"My real grievance," he confided, "is that ever since he came we've been losing money. We don't seem to be able to make a deal, buying or selling, that goes right. That may not be his fault, of course. I ain't come here to grouse, anyway. There's something else I've got against him, and that's where I need your help. Would you believe me, Mr. Bragg—that man is driving me pretty well crazy through sheer common or garden curiosity."
"Explain, if you please."
"Can you believe this? At five minutes to three every afternoon for the last three years, on every business day, he takes up his hat and leaves the office. At five minutes past four he returns. Not one day a week, mind, or one day now and then, but every mortal day upon the calendar, and that's been going on for three years. He's never volunteered a word of explanation as to where he was going or what he was going to do. He simply disappears. If anybody wants to make an appointment between those hours he declines."
"Have you ever asked him where he goes to?"
"Of course I have. I've asked him a score of times in all. He only smiles, or mutters something about a matter of private business. Once, when I was a little irritated because we were busy, he as good as told me to mind my own affairs. He told me that he was a partner in the firm, not an employee, and that his time was his own to do what he liked with."
"Have you formed any idea yourself as to what he does?"
"Something like a hundred, and dismissed them all one by one. He's not the sort of man to play cards or billiards in the middle of the day. He is either a toff or thinks he is, and all his friends are up in the West End. What can a man do with one hour a day in the middle of the afternoon five days a week, right in the heart of the City?"
"It seems a little inexplicable," Peter Bragg confessed.
"It's right on my nerves. You're private detectives—well, find out for me what Frederick Sinclair Hope does between the hours of three and four, and name your fee."
"The commission appears to me to be one which we could accept," Peter Bragg observed, after a moment's reflection. "I should like a few more particulars. What aged man is your partner?"
"He pretends to be a good deal younger, but I shouldn't think he's far off the same as me—fifty-one."
"Has he any marked tastes?"
"I've never seen him in my life outside business hours," Mr. Pitt confided. "I live with my daughter out Kilburn way. Mr. Hope is a bachelor and has a flat somewhere in the West End. He ain't my sort at all. If ever I've seen him reading the newspaper when he's been through the markets it's the social bits he turns to, and he dresses every morning as though he were going to a wedding, instead of to sell coffee. He wears an eye-glass, too, and has the name of his club printed on his cards."
"Tell me the name of your firm and the address of your business premises," Peter Bragg invited.
"Pitt and Hope, Limited, 18, Grassmary Lane," was the prompt reply.
"And your commission to us is that you want to know what your partner, Mr. Sinclair Hope, does between three and four each day of his life."
"I want to know like hell," Mr. Pitt admitted, tugging at his straggling red moustache. "I began to want to know after the first week. Sometimes after the first year I felt I couldn't stand it any longer. Now, after three years, I'm going crazy about it. Leaving out Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, I reckon that for over two hundred consecutive times at three o'clock he has taken up his hat and without a word of explanation gone out. Never once in that two hundred times has he been later in returning than five minutes past four. Then back he goes to work as though nothing had happened. It's got on my nerves to such an extent that I shall do something foolish about it before long. I'm sure of that."
Peter Bragg glanced through his notes.
"I anticipate no difficulty in procuring for you the information you desire, Mr. Pitt," he announced. " I will drop you a line to your private address when I have information to offer you."
Mr. Pitt rose to his feet with a little sigh of content.
"And may it be soon! " he exclaimed fervently, as he made his adieux.
Four days later Mr. Henry Pitt was ushered into the same room in the Bellevue Mansions at about the same hour in the morning and, after a brief greeting, was invited to take the same client's chair. He sat there blinking rapidly, his nervous little eyes fixed upon Peter Bragg. He seemed out of breath, as though he had run upstairs. His hat badly wanted brushing, his necktie was ill-arranged, his linen not altogether irreproachable. For a business man his appearance was questionable.
"Well?" he exclaimed anxiously, running his hand through his thin wisps of hair. "Well, what's the news, Mr. Bragg?"
The latter consulted the report by his side.
"Your partner, Mr. Pitt," he announced, "spends the hour between three and four each day at the offices of a business with which he is connected in Mason's Alley."
"A business? Mason's Alley?" Mr. Pitt gasped. " Why that isn't fifty yards away from us."
"The firm there with which Mr. Hope is connected," Peter Bragg continued, "trades under the name of Tuke and Co., Ltd. They appear to be produce brokers and bill discounters."
For a moment all the nervousness seemed to pass from the face of the little man in the chair. He stopped blinking and sat like a carven image.
"Tuke and Co.?" he repeated, in a low tone. "Did I hear you right, Mr. Bragg? Tuke and Co.?"
"That is the name. They are not in a large way of business, but commercially their reputation is excellent. They have a capital of thirty thousand pounds, all paid up, the great majority of the shares being in the hands of your partner, who does not appear, however, to have any official position in the firm. It has been a matter of unusual difficulty to gain information concerning them, as their business seems to be conducted with a great deal of secrecy. There is a man named Tuke, for instance—a kind of manager—who receives all clients, although he seems only to act upon instructions from some mysterious principal, who is undoubtedly Mr. Hope. Mr. Hope himself is there, as I have said, from three to four each day, but it is only upon very rare occasions that he does anything beyond directing the business from behind closed doors."
Mr. Pitt rose to his feet. He seemed to be short of breath again, and a new expression had found its way into his face.
"You must excuse me," he begged, "if I am a little upset. The information you have given me is startling."
Peter Bragg made no comment; Angus, however, hovering in the background, was intrigued.
"Why startling?" he enquired.
Mr. Pitt moistened his lips and resumed his seat.
"This firm of Tuke and Co.," he explained," has for a long time been a mystery to us—to me especially, and my cashier and our traveller. They have done their business—either buying or selling—always during the afternoon, and in a manner which, if you follow me, has always been prejudicial to our own transactions. The price of some of our smaller articles of produce is very much affected by any knowledge of impending purchases. I am beginning to understand what it all means. Tuke and Co.—or rather my blackguardly partner—has simply used his knowledge of our morning transactions, of such contracts as we have accepted or refused, to make profits for Tuke and Co. during the afternoon."
"But surely," Angus pointed out, "what he gains with Tuke and Co. he loses with you."
"He has only a third share in our business," Mr. Pitt explained bitterly—" less than that, as a matter of fact, as he sold some of his shares not long ago—but he owns the whole of Tuke and Co. Furthermore, our credit has not been so good lately and we have been obliged to seek financial accommodation outside. Some of our paper is discounted with Tuke and Co. They have made us pay through the nose for it, too, by God!"
Angus murmured a word of sympathy. There was something pathetic about the sight of the little man who was groping now for his hat.
"Our fee for the enquiries will be twenty-five guineas," Peter Bragg announced.
Mr. Pitt counted out the notes. Then he took up his hat.
"I am much obliged to you, gentlemen, I am sure," he said. "At any rate you have solved the problem which has disturbed me for so long. I know now where Sinclair Hope spends the hour between three and four."
Mr. Henry Pitt lived in a gloomy, smoke-stained house in one of the backwaters of Maida Vale. The dining-room in which he spent that evening was in itself an epitome of discomfort and untidiness. The carpet was threadbare and ill-swept, the furniture was old and shabby, without having become so gracefully. The fragments of an insufficient and ill-served meal set out upon a crumpled cloth remained upon a corner of the table. The ornaments upon the chimney-piece were of the tawdriest description. The pictures upon the walls, the frames of which were in most cases peeling and the glasses cracked, were seedy reproductions of Victorian gloom. Pitt, without alcohol, tobacco, book or newspaper, had spent three hours in a horsehair easy-chair with a great gap in its side, drawn up over a torn fragment of rug to a smouldering fire. There was no indication in his face as to the direction in which his thoughts had been wandering. He remained the same nervous little man, blinking occasionally as he watched the sooty bars, glancing up now and then at the hoot of a passing taxi. At midnight one stopped. There was the sound of a key in the door. A moment or two later a girl swung into the room.
"Hullo, dad 1 " she exclaimed. "You not gone to bed?"
He turned around and looked at her. She was a handsome girl of a type which seems somehow to have become evolved by the fashions of the day. She was showily dressed—a pink theatre wrap over a pink dance frock. She was possessed of shapely and well-displayed legs, pale cheeks with a little over-much colour upon her lips, brown eyes, a trifle furtive in their expression. She swung the door to behind her and glanced discontentedly around.
"What a filthy room!" she complained. "Dad, can't you afford to do something about it?—to move, or at any rate get a decent servant? Your dinner looks as though it had been foul."
"It always is."
She laid a collection of jingling, showy baubles upon the table, from which she selected an imitation gold case, drew out and lit a cigarette. The moment seemed to her to be auspicious for framing the thought which had been in her mind for some time.
"If you have really made up your mind that you won't or can't move out of this miserable house, dad, or engage a decent servant, I shall share some rooms with Molly Fell. She has the offer of some in Bayswater that aren't half bad."
Then Mr. Pitt spoke up for the first time. His daughter almost dropped her cigarette in her amazement.
"Go and sit down in that chair," he ordered.
She stared at him. His finger was outstretched and his hand was not shaking. There had been a curious note of command in his tone. Slowly she obeyed him.
"How long have you known where Sinclair Hope spent that hour between three and four?" he demanded.
She recognised the fact that she was in for a disagreeable few minutes. After all, however, it was bound to come sometime.
"Ever since I went to Mason's Alley, of course," she replied. "It was Mr. Hope who engaged me. He offered me a great deal more than you were able to pay, dad, and shorter hours. The only condition he made was that I never mentioned to anyone the fact that he had an interest in the firm."
"An interest in you, too, hasn't he?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "We are good friends."
"Whom have you been out with to-night, dressed like that?" he demanded, staring hard at her carelessly crossed legs.
"One of my boy friends," she answered.
"Why don't you ask them here sometimes, instead of going out night after night?"
She looked around contemptuously.
"Because I'd be ashamed to. This room, for instance is wretched; it isn't even clean."
"Whose fault is that? You're the woman of the house—supposed to be. If the furniture's on its last legs, if I can't afford a decent servant, it's Sinclair Hope who is responsible. You know what's going to happen to Pitt and Hope, Ltd., don't you? Well, I'll tell you. We're practically insolvent. We're losing money every day. We're going up the spout. That's where we're going. Don't interrupt me. I'll tell you why. Tuke and Co. have done it on us, and they've done it on the day by day information that Sinclair Hope has gained with us and used for Tuke and Co. "
She was a little nervous, but she had ideas of her own.
"Mr. Hope is a very clever business man," she said. "If he saw things were going wrong with your firm, you can't blame him for buying shares in another."
"Rubbish!" Pitt exclaimed sharply. "Why did he keep his connection with Tuke and Co. a secret? I tell you if it were an ordinary partnership business instead of an incorporation he'd go to prison for conspiracy. That's what he'd do."
"But he has money in Pitt and Hope, too," she argued. "Why should he try to break up his own business?"
"He has five times as much and more in Tuke and Co.," was the bitter reply. "Now listen here, Bessie. I haven't done with you yet. I've ruin to face and Sinclair Hope to deal with, but before I go down I mean to know the rest. You don't wear clothes like that and come home in taxis every night upon your salary at the office. Where do you get it from? Does it come from Hope?"
He rose to his feet and came towards her. She was half-terrified, half-defiant.
"Some of it, yes," she admitted. "Why not? I may be going to marry him some day."
He seemed suddenly to have grown in size—the poor little insignificant being, for whom her wannest feeling had been one of kindly contempt. His hands were gripping her shoulders, his face close to hers.
"Tell me the truth," he demanded. "If you lie I shall know, and I'll kill you. The truth!" She hesitated for a single moment, and lost her nerve. She obeyed.
The metamorphosis of Henry Pitt continued. He arrived at his office in Grassmary Lane two hours after his usual time on the following morning, glanced through the few letters which were placed before him, and sent a polite message, requesting the favour of a visit from his partner. Mr. Sinclair Hope, a very tolerable imitation of the man of fashion, with thin, cynical features and unpleasant mouth, dressed with scrupulous nicety, his approaching elderliness cunningly concealed by the efforts of coiffeur and tailor, strolled in with a careless word of greeting to his partner, the little man whom he secretly despised more than anyone on earth. As soon as he was well in the room. Mr. Pitt locked the door.
"Sit down there in my chair," he directed, dragging another one to the opposite side of the desk.
Mr. Sinclair Hope stared at him. He had never imagined it possible that his partner could issue a command, and issue it in such a tone.
"What the devil do you mean?" he demanded, moving, however, a little closer to the chair in question.
"You'll find out when I've done with you," was the curt retort.
Some portion of the man's amazement vanished. The poor little fool had found out, of course. Well, it had to be some day. He seated himself as desired and smiled across at the locked door. The idea seemed to him humorous.
"Look here, Pitt," he said, "let's discuss this matter like reasonable men. I can guess what's up, of course. You've found out about my having a packet of shares in Tuke and Co.
"You are Tuke and Co. You practically started and own the firm. You've used the brains of this business on their behalf."
"Come, come!" Hope protested patronisingly. "I am not even a director of the firm. I simply happen to hold a considerable number of shares."
"I know all about it. I've been to see a lawyer this morning. You've kept on the safe side legally. You're a cunning dog, Hope. You've squeezed this business dry for the sake of Tuke and Co. That order for East Indian spices last week, for instance—it belonged to us. You saw that we never got it. You worked it through Tuke and Co. Pretty sort of scoundrel, aren't you?"
Sinclair Hope rose to his feet.
"I say," he protested, "I see no reason why I should sit here to be abused by you. I am like everyone else in the world—I'm out to make money for myself. It's no part of my business to take care of other people's."
"Sit down!" thundered Mr. Pitt.
His partner stared at him open-mouthed.
This little man with fierceness bristling all over him was unrecognisable. He sat down. Mr. Pitt calmly produced two documents from his pocket and passed them across the table.
"You had better look these through," he suggested, "because presently you are going to sign them."
Mr. Sinclair Hope adjusted his monocle and took up the topmost of the documents with the air of one disposed to humour a petulant child. After the first few lines the slight frown upon his forehead deepened. About half-way through his reading it disappeared altogether. When he had finished he burst out laughing.
"Capital! " he exclaimed. "So we are to amalgamate. Tuke and Co. and Pitt and Hope, shares to be pooled, profits to be divided from the first of January last twelve months. Capital, Pitt! What do I do with this little effort at humour?"
"Sign it," was the brief response. "First though you had better read the other one."
The other document consisted of a few lines only, but certainly when Mr. Sinclair Hope had read those few lines he did for a moment flinch. He threw it down, however, with a little exclamation of contempt.
"So you know about Bessie, too?"
"I do. I forced the truth out of her last night. What have you got to say for yourself? Any reason why you shouldn't sign?"
Sinclair Hope shrugged his shoulders. On the whole, as a man of the world, he preferred to say nothing.
"She was a respectable girl when she worked here," her father went on. "She did her job well and looked after the house, too. It was a decent place to live in then. It's a pig-sty now. I thought those flowers you sent sometimes and the boxes of chocolates were just kindness. I ought to have known better. A dirty hound like you doesn't given anything away for nothing."
"Look here, Pitt "
"Shut up! When she told me she'd been offered thirty shillings a week more than we'd been giving her, I was hurt, but I let her go. The business couldn't afford any more expenses. It was you yourself who decided that. She never told me until later where her new place was. You found it easy, I suppose, when you got her there to yourself."
Sinclair Hope tapped with his polished ringer nails upon the table.
"My dear Pitt," he said, a little condescendingly, "I sympathise
with your feelings as a father and all that, you know, but Bessie is
twenty-five years old—old enough to know her own mind—and girls
Down came Mr. Pitt's queer-looking little fist upon the table.
"Not another word! Remember you're speaking of the girl you're going to marry."
Sinclair Hope gave a very fair imitation of a yawn.
"Look here, Pitt," he begged, "let's come to an understanding. It seems to me you're trying to play the bully. The whole thing is farcical. I haven't the faintest intention of signing either of those precious documents of yours. Get that into your head. Now, what about it?"
Mr. Pitt's hand dived into his pocket and he produced a brand new, fully loaded, wicked-looking automatic pistol. "This!" he replied.
The man on the other side of the table nearly fell off his chair. He stared aghast and with fascinated eyes at the weapon.
"Take care, Pitt! " he exclaimed. "What the h—— are you doing with a thing like that?"
"I will tell you," Pitt replied, and his tone at last had become quite calm. "You are no fool, Hope, when it comes to grasping a situation. Try to get this properly. It's important. I'm broken in business, and I've lost the only relative I have in the world—my daughter. What have I left to live for? Nothing. I'm not proposing to kill you in any fit of anger. I'm going to kill you coldly and deliberately if you don't sign those papers. I swear before God Almighty that I mean what I say. Do you believe me?"
Those weak little blue eyes were glittering with purpose. Sinclair Hope looked into them, and he did believe.
"Don't you know that if you did that," he faltered, amazed at the weakness of his own voice, "you'd hang for it?"
"I shouldn't," Mr. Pitt replied indifferently, "because I should shoot myself afterwards. You think I haven't the courage? I can assure you that I have. Are you going to sign?"
Sinclair Hope deliberated. Finally he took up a pen with affected unwillingness. There was a cunning gleam in his eyes. To the man who watched him his thoughts were reflected there.
"Under compulsion," he muttered.
Henry Pitt leaned across the table.
"After all, Hope," he said, "you're a simple fellow. You think you're clever, but you're not—when a mug like I can read your thoughts. Your idea now is to sign those documents. You're then going to clear out and shelter yourself behind your lawyers. You will probably apply for a summons against me, and in court you will declare that you are in bodily fear of your life. They'll bind me over or something, won't they? Look here, Hope—listen!
The little man's voice had become charged with a thin, vibrant note of purpose. His words carried immense conviction.
"They couldn't keep me in prison," he pointed out. "You might get a week or a month longer to live, although I don't think it would be as much as that. You can't keep a policeman on either side of me. You can't wear a bullet-proof suit day and night. If you don't sign those papers you'll go in fear of death every hour from dawn to darkness, because as surely as we two sit here at this table I swear before God that I shall kill you. Nothing can alter that—nothing. You might hide for a little time, but even then you'd have to leave the country, give up the life you love, give up this money-making, and in the end I should find you. It isn't I who decide whether you shall live or die; it is for you to make up your mind."
Sinclair Hope felt for a moment at his collar. More than ever it was borne in upon him that this insignificant little man whom he had always despised had become his master. He dipped a pen in the ink.
"Wait a moment," the other interrupted, rising to his feet. "I have brought a friend to witness this."
He crossed the room, unlocked the door and signed to someone outside. George Angus entered, very debonair, with a bunch of violets in his buttonhole and a general air of good-humour and well-being. Pitt led him to the table.
"This is my friend Mr. Angus—my partner, Mr. Sinclair Hope," he announced. "Mr Angus will witness these two documents."
"Very glad to indeed," Angus acquiesced. "Quite a pleasant way out of a difficult situation."
Sinclair Hope moistened his dry lips.
"May I ask, sir, whether you are aware of the nature of the pressure which has been placed upon me?"
"I know all about it," Angus admitted. "Mr. Pitt and I have spent an hour or so together this morning."
"And you approve ?"
"Entirely. The law's so damned unfair," Angus went on, leaning back in his chair and hitching up one of his trouser legs. "Sometimes a man of spirit like Mr. Pitt has to take things into his own hand. You see, without a bob in the world, at Mr. Pitt's time of life, and losing his daughter and all that, he'd probably commit suicide anyway, so he may just as well make use of his desperate state to try to do himself a bit of good. Follow me?"
"Do himself a bit of good?" Sinclair Hope repeated in a dazed tone. "By becoming a murderer?"
"No need to use ugly words," Angus protested. "There's no absolute standard of crime, you know. It might be a moral peccadillo on Mr. Pitt's part to insist upon your sharing his departure from the world, but there's a kind of justice about it, isn't there? Besides, there's another point of view. Supposing you decide to believe that Mr. Pitt is bluffing —which he isn't—and you take this matter to court and say that your signature was obtained by threats. Mr. Pitt here will place the facts in the possession of his lawyers, and the whole of the transactions between Pitt and Hope and Tuke and Co. would be disclosed as well as your relations with Miss Pitt. Legally you might win your case. From an actual and social point of view you would cease to exist as a respectable member of society, just as I honestly believe you would cease to exist as;a human being the first time Mr. Pitt was able to find you. So there you are, you see. Good reasoning, don't you think? A bit of the primitive sprung into our everyday life. Much better than the Law Courts."
Sinclair Hope swallowed hard, took up the pen and scrawled his name across the bottom of both documents. Angus followed suit.
"As a matter of form, Mr. Hope," he said, "I must ask you whether you have affixed your name to these documents willingly and without compulsion."
Sinclair Hope nodded. At that moment of his greatest humiliation he found himself admiring the cut of Angus's grey tweed suit, the ease and nonchalance of his manner.
"Yes, I am signing them of my own free will," he admitted.
There was the sound of a taxi stopping outside, swift footsteps in the outer office. The door was opened and closed. Bessie, pale and breathless, advanced towards the desk. An expression of relief shone in her face as she looked at the three men. Angus alone rose to his feet and bowed.
"I'm sorry," she faltered. "I didn't mean to rush in like this. I was frightened."
"Frightened?" her father repeated.
"I saw you come out of that gunsmith's shop," she told him. "I went in and they told me that you had bought a pistol there and some cartridges. I went to Mr. Hope's rooms—but you weren't there. I couldn't help it. I'd been everywhere I could think of. I had to find you."
Mr. Pitt produced his new acquisition from his pocket, gingerly extracted the cartridges and handed it across to his daughter.
"You may keep it, if you like, my dear," he said simply. "Hope and I have decided to settle our differences in another fashion."
Sinclair Hope, whose brain had been working rapidly during the last few minutes, rose to his feet. He had a new feeling, almost of admiration, for his partner, and in the light of it he was inclined to be ashamed of his own misdeeds. Bessie, too—it was for his sake she had been agitated, and she certainly was looking remarkably pretty. If a man like Angus could look at her so admiringly she must be out of the ordinary. A wave of something like generosity mingled with his instincts of self-preservation. What he had signed he would respect.
"Your father has been very angry with me, Bessie," he said, "and not altogether without reason. We have now come to an understanding. Whilst you are here, and before your father and this gentleman, I wish to ask you whether you will marry me. We have spoken of this before, but I think it is time that we had a definite understanding."
She came happily over to his side.
"You mean it?" she whispered.
"Of course, my dear," he replied, passing his arm round her waist.
Angus produced his cigarette-case and handed it around. Sinclair Hope looked at the coronet with awe-stricken eyes.
"Are you the Mr. Angus," he asked deferentially, "whom I saw playing polo once at Ranelagh—son of Lord Moningham?"
"I'm the chap," Angus admitted, with a friendly smile. "I'm in business as an enquiry agent now with an old school-fellow—Peter Bragg. Mr. Pitt came to consult us last week. It was one of our chaps who tumbled to your being Tuke and Co. between three and four of an afternoon."
Sinclair Hope coughed. This was a little matter that belonged to the past, and it was the present in which he was interested.
"I saw you once, too, at the Wanderers' Club," he continued, lighting one of the precious cigarettes, "A friend of mine is a member there."
"Very likely," Angus replied affably. "Look here, I tell you what," he went on, with a sudden inspiration. " This has been an awkward little business. Let's settle it up the only proper way. We've got a ladies' room in the Wanderers'. We'll all go there and have lunch and drink a bottle to the engagement, and another to the new firm."
Mr. Pitt looked ruefully at his clothes, but Angus, whose admiration and liking for the little man had increased steadily since he had been dragged out of bed that morning at nine o'clock to interview him, only laughed. Sinclair Hope, the ambition of whose life it had been to cross once more the portals of the Club, straightened his tie and tried hard to conceal his gratification. After all, there must be something more in his quaint little partner than he had ever imagined, if he was able to attract such consideration from a young man in Angus's position.
"I shall be dehghted," he answered.
"I'll use your 'phone, if I may," Angus suggested, moving across the room towards it.
Sinclair Hope extended his left hand towards Bessie and leaned across the table towards his partner.
"No ill-feeling, eh, Pitt?" he begged. "You can afford to forget. You've won. We'll take that empty warehouse of Griffiths' across the way and work this business for all it's worth. I've got very reliable information, and there's a lot of money coming our way in ginger during the next few months."
Henry Pitt had the largest soul which ever existed in a small man. He stretched out his hand and grasped his partner's. The latter was filled with a generous purpose.
"The amalgamation will bring you back the profits I have skinned you of lately," he said, "but I tell you what I'll do. I'll buy Bessie's ring this afternoon with the profits of that last deal in spices."
Angus turned away from the 'phone.
"That's all right," he announced. "I've got my car outside, and I'll tool you up. We'll stop at the Carlton and have a cocktail first. Our barman at the Club is a poor shaker. Mr. Hope can sit in front with me, and Mr. Pitt can have a palaver with his daughter," he added, with a kindly glance towards the little man.
Mr. Hope reached for his hat. His cup of bliss was full. He thought once or twice of those signatures on his way up West, but his last lingering regrets passed as he leaned over to wave his hand and nod to two of his acquaintances in Piccadilly.
Angus, pleased with the world and himself, happy at the freedom from sartorial restraint indulged in at this, his favourite annual holiday, strolled along the lawn at Goodwood towards the Grand Stand, his card in his hand, waiting for the numbers to go up for the next race. At the corner of Tattersalls' enclosure, he came face to face with Charles Hunley, the famous K.C., a fellow-member of his club, but a man with whom he had only the slightest acquaintance. Rather to his surprise, the barrister stopped him. The usual casual greetings were exchanged, and afterwards Hunley took his companion by the arm, and led him back along the lawn.
"I wonder, Angus," he asked, "whether you remember the Coulson case, about four years ago?"
Angus shook his head.
"Can't say that I do," he confessed. "What sort of case was it?"
"I suppose it was before you entered upon your peculiar line of activities," the K.C. mused. "The case was the Crown versus Coulson, and I was for Coulson."
"And the charge?"
"Murder! We got it reduced, during the hearing, to manslaughter, and the jury, if they could have done so, would have let the man off altogether. Would it bore you if I just run over the case for a minute? I'll tell you why afterwards."
"Of course not," Angus replied. "The numbers won't be up for another quarter of an hour. Have a cigarette."
He passed his case. The two men sat down upon an unoccupied seat, and Hunley looked thoughtfully for a moment out across the richly wooded country towards the Solent.
"Coulson was an accountant's clerk," he began, "married to an actress—dead wrong 'un, I should say the lady was. He came back one night and found her in flagrante delicto. Coulson was a small man, but as brave as a lion. He went there and then for his wife's lover, and they had the hell of a time of it. The other fellow was twice his size, but just as Coulson was passing out, he snatched at a heavy copper ornament on the sideboard, fetched his opponent one just at a particular spot at the back of his head, and, in short, killed him. Coulson himself was in hospital for five weeks before he could be tried, and if the judge and jury could have had their way I don't believe he'd have gone to prison for a day. As it was he was charged as soon as he could stand up, and got the lightest possible sentence—three years, with a strong recommendation to mercy. That was about two years and six months ago."
"With good behaviour remittance," he remarked, "he'll be out directly."
"He's out now," Hunley announced. "I've just seen him."
"Where? On the course?"
The barrister nodded.
"I went up to bet with Sammy Martin in Tattersalls' ring," he confided, "and I noticed that he had a new clerk. I didn't recognise him at first. He's a pale, undersized, shrunken little fellow. Then he looked up, and I knew him. He knew me, too."
"Rather a come-down for him, isn't it?" Angus suggested. "I should have thought if his case had excited so much sympathy one of his pals could have found him a better job."
Hunley looked for a moment idly into the faces of the passers-by.
"I'm afraid it's one he chose himself, Angus. You see—I kept my mouth shut, of course, for I wasn't going to do anything to aggravate the case against him—but it fell to my lot to tell him at the hospital that the man was dead, and that he'd be charged with murder.
"Nasty job that!"
"Yes, but not in the way you'd have thought," Hunley continued, taking out his glasses for a moment and looking at the numbers which had just gone up. " 1, 3, 5, 8, 11. If you want to be off I'll finish presently."
Angus glanced at his card.
"Nothing doing," he decided. "There's only one horse in it and no place betting. I shall have a rest. Besides, I'm interested in what you are tellaing me."
"Well," Hunley proceeded, putting his glasses away, "I rather funked telling him, but he simply raised himself a little in bed and smiled. 'That's good news,' he said. 'I was afraid I hadn't the strength left.' 'You know what it means?' I warned him. He looked at me for a moment as though he didn't understand. 'You think I mind being tried for murder?' he asked. 'Tell me,' he went on, 'do you think they'll hang me?' 'Not a chance of it,' I assured him. 'The charge will probably be reduced to manslaughter, and on the judge's summing up I should say that you'll get a light sentence.'
"He smiled again. It wasn't a smile, Angus. It made me curious at once to know what was at the back of his mind. And then I asked him point-blank. He hesitated only for a moment. 'The first luxury I shall enjoy when I am free,' he confided, 'will be to kill Ada. I hadn't the strength that night.' ... The man's character came out in the evidence. He was a mild little inoffensive accountant's clerk, saving money every week, wonderful at his job, thought the world of by his employers—they paid for his defense, by the bye—a man whom all his neighbors liked, although the men called him rather a milksop, and he lay there, just come back from the borderland between life and death, and in perfect sincerity he told me that the only regret he had was that he hadn't been able to kill the woman with whom he'd been living for eleven years!"
"He has probably changed his mind after all this time in prison," Angus observed.
Hunley shrugged his shoulders.
"Maybe," he admitted, "but I fancy not. I spoke to him just now. He pretended not to recognize me, but I tell you, Angus, there was exactly the same look in his face when I talked to him that day in the hospital and when I said good-by to him before he went down to the cells."
"What has become of the woman?" Angus asked.
"That is where the drama of the thing comes in. She is here, on the course, and I am perfectly convinced that Coulson has only accepted this job with a bookmaker because he knows that sooner or later he'll come across her. Racing—it came out at the trial—was her downfall. She could never refuse an invitation to a race meeting. It was there she met the man whom he killed, and I'm very much afraid, from the look of things, that she's found another protector of the same kind."
"Have you ever spoken to her?" Angus asked. "She ought to be warned."
The other nodded.
"I shall do that," he said. "I thought I'd tell you this, Angus, because one or two of your little exploits have come my way, and I felt that this was the sort of affair which might interest you. Knowing the man, I'm afraid there's nothing we could do, unless we could keep them apart, and I honestly tell you that I don't believe that's possible. I have the feeling that if she were to change her name and bury herself in San Francisco or New York, or find her way to the Falkland Islands or the steppes of Tatary, he'd find her. He's that patient, dogged sort. He'd come quietly along one day, and before she knew he'd be there with that queer smile of his. I'd do anything to prevent trouble, because I rather like the little fellow. He's been treated leniently once, but if he kills the woman he'll swing for it."
"Where is the woman?" Angus inquired curiously.
The K.C. rose to his feet and brushed some cigarette ashes from the waistcoat of his neat gray tweed suit.
"She's in the third automobile from the entrance in the front row," he confided, "dressed in rose color—you can't mistake her—with a black hat. Go and have a look at her, and then make a little bet with Martin. You can mention my name. By the bye, are you staying down here?"
"I'm over near Chichester, with some friends," Angus replied.
"We shall meet again then," were Hunley's parting words. "I'm coming every day, and I suppose you will."
The two men separated. Angus strolled from the lawn into the Royal Automobile Club inclosure, and loitered by the third car—an ostentatious-looking limousine, painted red, with brass lamps and showy carriage work. There was no mistaking the woman—a slightly faded type, with masses of fair hair, of which she made a brave display; large eyes, artificially beringed; features which might once have been good but which showed signs now of coarsening. She was standing by the door of the car, her card in her hand, talking eagerly to a man who looked like an overgrown jockey in a consumption—a man with a keen, hard face, thin lips and narrow eyes, but with a pasty, almost green complexion. He was watching the horses go by, and the very way he glanced at them seemed to indicate knowledge. The woman hung upon his scant words.
They seemed to be without any other companions, but a large luncheon basket stood open, and there were two or three empty champagne bottles scattered around... Presently there broke the hoarse murmur of voices which, with the accompanying bugle, denoted the start of the race. The woman thrust her hand into her bag and took out a small handful of notes. She passed them over to the chauffeur, who hurried off toward the bookmakers, who were crowded around the rails. Then she climbed to the back seat of the limousine, and stood there, the glasses glued to her eyes.
Goodwood was at its best that day. The sun was warm, but not oppressive; the south breeze which stole over the open country brought with it a flavor of the sea. The long rows of tents set among the cool of the trees were more than ever inviting. Royalty was present, and the boxes were filled with women in graceful summer costumes. The long season had come to an end, and the world was on holiday. Angus, from the rails in front of the lawn, watched the finish of an unexciting race, joined his friends for a time in their box, and afterward strolled once more to Tattersall's.
Mr. Sammy Martin greeted him cheerfully, and accepted his modest bet with enthusiasm. Angus, while he asked for some other prices, glanced at the little man busy entering his name in a book. For a moment he had almost a shock. He had somehow gathered from Hunley's description that the central figure in this sordid drama was barely more than middle-aged. The man's hair, however, was iron-gray, his face almost phenomenal. He was like the tragical lay figure of some ventriloquist—the perfect human automaton. One could scarcely believe that he really heard or that the words which passed from his lips were not mechanically contrived. Angus made another and a foolish bet for the sake of lingering.
As he turned away he ran once more into Hunley. "Well, I've seen both figures in your little drama," Angus confided as they moved off together to have a drink. "They are in their way interesting. Is there anything to be done?"
"Nothing. I daresay the whole thing will fizzle out. I've been talking to Coulson."
"What did he say?"
"I asked him why he was doing such work when I happened to know that his old firm would have taken him back. His only reply was that he could never bear the life back in his old office. He was perfectly satisfied. Martin told me that he was the best clerk he'd ever had."
"You think he's only taken the job to watch the race courses?" Angus asked.
"I'm sure of it," was the terse reply.
So was Angus sure of it on the following morning before the first race. There was no mistaking the stiff little figure in plain dark clothes and derby of whom he caught sight within five minutes of his arrival. In an unostentatious way he kept him in view for the best part of an hour. He saw him walk slowly past the seats on the lawn, pausing to examine every car, watched him make a circuit of the tents where refreshments were already being dispensed, waited for him half an hour while he made a tour of the grand stand and boxes, and finally, on the other side of the railings, walked in line with him as he made his way slowly toward the front of the R.A.C. enclosure.
Suddenly the red car appeared—open too, as Angus noticed with a little sense of disquietude. The man and woman were there, still alone, the woman in blue with a large picture hat, under which, notwithstanding the brilliant coloring of her lips, her features seemed more pinched and her eyes deeper set even than on the day before. They drove into their place. The man lit a cigar and stood about with his hands in his pockets watching the luncheon basket unstrapped from the back. The woman sat for a moment or two looking into a small mirror and arranging her slightly disordered hair. As soon as she was satisfied, she too stepped to the turf.
And then, up the broad walk between the lines of cars, came the little bookmaker's clerk...
If Angus had expected anything in the nature of a dramatic rencounter, he was doomed to disappointment. The man and the woman stood side by side studying their cards—the man sallower and more unprepossessing in appearance than ever as he puffed stolidly at his cigar without removing it from his lips, his head almost touching his companion's. At first it seemed as though the sinister searcher would have passed them without recognition.
Angus, a little in the background, watched his slow approach, took note of the set immobility of his face. He was looking from side to side without obvious curiosity, yet with an air of patient expectancy. He reached the car. He was in the act of passing when, by some chance, the woman looked up and glanced over toward the number board. She saw nothing of the insignificant little person a few yards away—but he saw her.
Not a muscle of his face moved, not a gleam of satisfaction shone even in his eyes. He slackened his speed, however, drew a pencil and notebook from his pocket and made a note of the number of the car. The man and woman were again busy with their cards, but the chauffeur stood almost in Coulson's way. The latter addressed him, and Angus, by moving a step forward, heard his question.
"Isn't your master's name, Pallett," he inquired—"Andrew Pallett, of Sydenham?"
The chauffeur shook his head.
"We live out at Hampstead," he answered—"Carnsforth Buildings. That's the governor there. Merridew, his name is."
"Thank you very much," Coulson said. "A remarkable resemblance."
He walked on. His search was ended. He looked neither to the right nor to the left. Yet, as he passed within a few inches of Angus, there was not a single sign of satisfaction in his face. He had found out what he had become a bookmaker's clerk to discover, but, so far as outward appearances were concerned, his success had left him indifferent.
He was looking just the same when, before every race, drawn there by some attraction which he failed to analyze, Angus went up to make some small bet. Down in the automobile inclosure, after luncheon, the woman's peaked face became flushed, she exulted loudly over a win, she sat arm in arm with her companion, smoked a cigarette or two, and promenaded the lawn, still gripping his arm, but back in Tattersall's inclosure the little clerk's pencil moved swiftly and always with deadly accuracy. Once more he had become the automaton.
So he remained until the end of the meeting, and Angus' final glimpse of him was as he followed his principal out of the inclosure some time after the last race, a soiled blue mackintosh buttoned up to his chin for shelter against the sudden squall of rain, his satchel under his arm, his eyes fixed upon his employer's broad back. Angus watched the two climb into a car together, and start off Londonward. A few minutes later Angus, driving his own coupé, had to draw up while the stream of automobiles crawled by on their way to the main road. Among them was the red car, also turned Londonward.
Peter Bragg, alias Pudgy Pete, Angus' partner, had absented himself in Monte Carlo for two months during the winter season, so Angus, after Goodwood, found himself with a prolonged vacation on his hands. Yet when he strolled into his office, bronzed and cheerful on the first day of his return to London, he found, seated in his clients' chair, the little man whom he had never altogether forgotten.
"This gentleman is waiting to see you," Peter Bragg explained after he had shaken hands. "He wouldn't confide his business to me—says you would remember him."
"I remember you, of course," Angus said, turning to his visitor. "Mr. Hunley told me your story, and I saw you at Goodwood."
"I saw you too, sir," Coulson observed. "I felt that you were interested—I knew that you were when you waited in the R. A. C. enclosure to see whether I should find my wife and Merridew."
Angus nodded sympathetically. "I hope you've got over all that nonsense you were talking to Mr. Hunley," he said.
"Perhaps I have, and perhaps I haven't, sir," was the quiet reply. "Have you seen the papers this morning?"
"Not yet," Angus admitted.
"Better read about a certain shooting case first, sir, before I explain my business," Coulson suggested.
Peter Bragg passed across the newspaper in which he himself had been engrossed. Angus gave a little start as he read the headlines:
Man and Woman Found Dead in Hampstead Flat
There were very few details. A man named Merridew, a betting agent, and a woman bearing the name of Coulson, although she was supposed to be divorced from her husband, had been discovered by one of the servants at Carnsforth Buildings, Hampstead, dead, early in the morning, both shot through the head. A revolver had been found by the side of the man, and an arrest was expected hourly. Angus threw down the paper and turned to his visitor.
"I have some facts to lay before you," the latter announced calmly. "Please both listen. Two heads are better than one. The woman was my wife. I killed her first lover and went to prison for three years for it. I swore when I came out that I meant to kill her and, if she had found another protector, to kill him also. That is common knowledge. I have loitered in the neighborhood of that flat in Hampstead for weeks, keeping them always in a state of nervous alarm. They have told a dozen people of their terror of me. I visited them at the flat last night. The revolver found by the side of Merridew is mine. I believe that I was seen to enter and leave the flat, yet I did not shoot either of them. They were alive when I left them. I have no idea how they met their death. I know perfectly well that I shall be arrested before the day is over. Will you do what you can for me?"
Angus sat back in his chair. A fit of speechlessness was upon him. His partner leaned across the table.
"Listen," he said. "Let me get this right! You killed the woman's first lover. You went to prison. You threatened to kill her when you came out, and anyone she might be with. You've hung around their flat. You were seen to enter it last night. They are both shot dead. Your revolver is lying on the floor. You were seen to leave the flat. What chance, I ask you, has anyone got to do anything for you?"
"There must be a chance somewhere," Coulson insisted, "because I did not kill them."
"What did you go there for, then?" Peter Bragg asked patiently.
"To tell them that I'd changed my mind. I have turned over a new leaf. I am engaged to be married."
"If your present story is the true one," Peter Bragg remarked, "I think that coincidence has made you the most unfortunate man in the world."
"Listen here," Coulson continued, addressing Angus. "I've heard about you. You're not in this business like the police, to worry along the routine ways. Here is your one chance in a lifetime. On the face of it, it's a hundred to one that I'm guilty. I'm not. Try to find that ninety-ninth thread."
"Can you help?" Angus asked.
The man shook his head.
"I cannot," he admitted. "I am just like everyone else will be. I should believe myself guilty if I didn't know I wasn't."
"I'll do what I can," Angus decided, "but I warn you—"
"You needn't trouble," the other interrupted. "I'm not going to attempt to get away. I shall be arrested before the day is out, of course. I shall spend the night in the prison cells, trying to imagine what happened."
"One word more," Angus begged, with his hand upon the door knob. "There's no question of suicide and murder, I suppose?"
"Why should there be?" was the hopeless rejoinder. "They appear to have been the most devoted couple—never seen apart, and Merridew is supposed to have been a very wealthy man. I'm afraid the neighbors' evidence would soon settle that. You'll do your best, Mr. Angus?"
"I'll do anything that can be done," Angus promised, a little dubiously.
Angus dined a few nights afterward at his club with Hunley.
"So our little friend kept his word," Angus observed.
Hunley nodded gloomily.
"Silly fool!" he muttered. "He got off once, and now he must go and absolutely pay for what he's certain to get. I'd defend him if he had a leg to stand on, but he hasn't. To make things worse, he's lost his nerve—wants to plead 'not guilty.' "
"I suppose there's no doubt that he did do it?" Angus asked.
The K.C. shrugged his shoulders.
"My dear fellow," he pointed out, "he announced his intention of killing them right and left. He's been frightening them to death for weeks. He's somehow or other become possessed of a key to their flat. He's seen to enter it; he's seen to leave. His revolver is found there; the two are dead."
"I know," Angus remarked, "but he says he didn't do it."
The K.C. scoffed.
"Every man's nerve breaks now and then."
"Can I look over the rooms?"
"If you wish to, with pleasure. I'll give you a card to Ryan of Scotland Yard. He's in charge. He'll be there tomorrow, I believe."
Hunley drew his case from his pocket, scribbled on the back of a visiting card, and passed it over to Angus. As though by common consent, they dined thenceforward without a mention of Coulson's name. Angus, however, excused himself from bridge afterward. He spent the rest of the evening in the neighborhood of Carnsforth Buildings.
At eleven o'clock on the following morning Inspector Ryan and Angus ascended by the elevator to the fifth floor of Carnsforth Buildings, and the former exchanged a word or two with the policeman who was on guard at the entrance to the flat. It was that few minutes' conversation which probably saved Coulson's life, for in the interval of waiting and looking around Angus was attracted by the letter chute just outside the door. He studied it for a few minutes thoughtfully. Presently the inspector produced his keys, and they entered the darkened hall and passed into the sitting-room which had been the scene of the tragedy. The inspector took Angus by the arm.
"I don't know that there's much to show you of interest here, sir," he remarked. "The chalk marks show just where each body was lying. Look round the room as much as you like. My job this morning is just to see if there are any bullet marks in the walls. Nothing else has been touched."
Angus, with a little shiver, drew up one of the blinds, and took stock of his surroundings. The room was furnished as might have been expected—with a certain amount of ostentation, but a great deal of vulgarity—heavy plush chairs with carved oak backs, an elaborately carved sideboard, a thick carpet, a number of meretricious ornaments, a piano draped with faded silk, photographs in silver frames, even a few fans upon the walls. In a corner of the room was a small writing table.
"Have you the key to this, Inspector?" Angus asked.
The inspector nodded, and selected one.
"We've been through the contents," he observed. "Very little except bills and sporting tips. We didn't disturb things more than we could help. There wasn't anything to look for, really."
"Just so," Angus murmured.
The inspector turned the key, and the top slid down. Inside there was a blotting pad and an inkstand. The pen, Angus decided, had probably been used within the last few days, and there was still ink in the pot. The blotting pad he lifted out and took to the light.
"There's an address of a letter here, Inspector," he remarked.
The inspector was not greatly interested.
"Might have been written at any time," he commented.
"Besides, we're not looking for the murderer, are we? He's safe under lock and key."
Angus made no reply. He was holding the fragment of blotting paper up to the window.
"This is probably," he observed, "the last letter written by Merridew. He must have had a brother. This is addressed to R. Merridew, but I'm hanged if I can read the rest of it."
The inspector crossed the room a little languidly. He was only concerned with finishing up the technical details of his perfect case. He did his best, however, to decipher the remainder of the address.
"It's R. Merridew, Esquire, all right," he decided, "and it is at some club in W.C.2. Are you attaching any importance to this, sir?"
"This much," Angus said earnestly. "On the face of it, Coulson is undoubtedly the murderer. Curiously enough, however, although he pleaded guilty to the first affair all right, this time he swears that he never killed either of these people. Very well—it's a thin chance enough, but let's give him that chance. If he didn't—if there was anyone else concerned—the last letter written by Merridew might help us."
"That's quite right, sir," the inspector admitted doubtfully.
"It's some club of two syllables in the W. C. 2 district," Angus went on. "Do you mind my turning my men on it while you finish your job here? If I discover the letter, of course I'll do nothing without you."
The inspector smiled.
"Why, you go right ahead, sir," he agreed. "I've got to be able to swear as to the condition of these walls. It will take me about an hour. I shall be at Scotland Yard afterward."
Angus, with the sheet of blotting paper in his pocket, took his leave.
It was barely midday when Angus, with two of his Strand House employees, started the rounding up of all the social clubs in the district comprised by W.C.2; it was nearly ten o'clock when he found himself seated on a hard cane chair opposite the letter rack of the Alpha Club in Henter Street, W.C.2, watching a letter in the rack and waiting for the arrival of Inspector Ryan, Angus himself under the uneasy observation of a seedy-looking hall porter, collarless and unshaven. An occasional member, pausing on his way in or out, glanced furtively toward him.
There were other indications of the fact that the Alpha Club was scarcely an establishment of high social standing, but Angus had only one anxiety—that the letter should remain where it was until the arrival of the inspector. When at last a car stopped outside, not only the inspector himself but also the deputy chief commissioner of police made their appearance. The uniform of the former reduced the hall porter, who had risen to his feet, to stupefied silence. Angus advanced to greet the newcomers.
"There's the letter, Inspector," he pointed out, "which, according to my theory, was written by Merridew, on the night of his death, to his brother. If there is any other explanation of the tragedy besides the obvious one, it is to be found there."
The deputy chief commissioner turned to the hall porter.
"Mr. Merridew is a member of the club?" he inquired.
"He's a member, sir," the man admitted, "but he ain't often here."
"Do you know where he is now?"
"I did hear," the man ventured, "that he was in France somewhere."
"You don't know when to expect him back?"
"Not exactly, sir. There's a good few as calls here says he owes them money."
The deputy chief commissioner withdrew the letter from the rack.
"I'm taking possession of this letter in the name of the law," he announced curtly. "Have you a room here where we can be alone for a few minutes?"
The man, properly impressed, ushered them into a bare little waiting-room, and turned on a jet of gas. The deputy chief commissioner produced a penknife and cut the flap of the envelope. He spread the letter out upon the table. The three men read it together:
9 Carnsforth Buildings,
Hampstead, N. W.
I can do nothing to help you. It's all up with me, anyway. I have spent my last shilling—sold the car yesterday—and Ada knows it. By the time you get this I shall have gone out.
Bob, you've been right to stay free from women. You know what Ada's been to me. Worse and worse, I've been getting for weeks and months. Yesterday I went to a doctor. He didn't spend five minutes over me; looked at me in a queer, old-fashioned sort of way. "Are you honest?" he asked. "You don't know what's the matter with you?" "I'll be hanged if I do," I told him, "or I wouldn't have spent a guinea coming here." "You've either been taking or you've been given arsenic steadily for the last three months," he said. "It's gone too far. I should get into a hospital quick, if I were you. I can do nothing."
Arsenic, Bob! What do you think of that?
It's been a queer night. I got back to Carnsforth Buildings and found Ada dolling herself up to go out. I've got used to that lately. It's that fellow Trumbull she is making up to, but that's all over now. I took her clothes off her, and locked the door. She squealed and cursed, but it wasn't any use. I didn't tell her what I had found out. I left that. I didn't tell her I was broke, although she'd pretty well guessed it, but while we were sitting there, who should come but that little devil Coulson—turned up this very night after all the months we've dodged him. I thought he'd found the courage at last, and I just laughed. It seemed like saving me a job. He came in just in his quiet way, and Ada, she was pretty well scared to death. He took an automatic pistol from his pocket and laid it upon the table. "You don't need to be afraid of me any more," he said quietly. "I've found a girl and I'm going to settle down. As for you, Ada," he went on, "you've been the worst wife to me any man ever had. I've been meaning to kill you both for months— just lingering over it. I was wrong. You aren't worth it. You need never be afraid of me any more. There's my gun. Do as you please!" And with that he turned his back on us and went out. We heard the lift go down. Ada. she was all excited like. "Thank God!" she exclaimed. "Jim, I'll have a drink on that!" She went trembling toward the sideboard, and I picked up the pistol. "There's another besides him means to make an end of you, my woman," I said, "and that's the man you've been poisoning for the last three months." With that she squealed, but I shot her...
I've had three drinks, Bob. I've found a stamp, and I'll shove this in the chute. When I've done that I'm off myself. If there's anything left, it's yours, but there won't be much. So long,
The three men looked at one another. The deputy chief commissioner placed the letter in the envelope, scrutinized the post mark, and, opening the door, called to the hall porter.
"This letter," he asked—"you're prepared to swear that it came through the post in the usual way?"
"I took it from the postman myself, sir." the man replied.
The deputy commissioner shook hands with Angus.
"If there is one thing in the world, Mr. Angus," he said, "which could reconcile us to the activities of you amateur gentlemen, it is the fact that you have vision. You have saved us a bad shock this time, anyhow."
They had passed out into the stuffy little hall, and for a moment Angus made no reply. He was looking at the dilapidated letter rack. But for a chance that letter in its soiled envelope, addressed in shaky handwriting to R. Merridew, Esquire, might have moldered there behind the worn tape whilst Coulson was hanged.
"It's a matter of psychological conviction against circumstantial evidence, sir," he said, after a pause. "Coulson's guilt seemed a certainty, and yet, as man to man, I felt that he was telling me the truth."
"That's where the humanity of the thing comes in, Mr. Angus," the deputy chief commissioner confessed. "As man to policeman, he wouldn't have had a chance."
Two months later M. Coulson, smartly dressed in a light-gray suit with racing glasses swung around his shoulder and carrying his derby in his hand, presented himself at Angus' office. He was accompanied by a very charming young woman, neatly dressed for a day's racing.
"I've called to know what fee I owe you, sir," Coulson announced. "This is my wife—Sam Martin's daughter. She'd like to help me pay it."
"Well, what's his life worth to you, Mrs. Coulson?" he asked.
"Everything in the world," the girl answered.
"How's your book to-day?" Angus inquired.
"We're light on Arioso, sir," was the smiling reply.
"I'll have a fiver each way, then."
"You're on a fiver to nothing, sir," Coulson announced. "And it's the best bet I ever took in my life!"
ANGUS leaned gloomily back in his chair.
"I think I shall hand in my checks, Pudgy," he declared. "I'm no use at this game. I'd better go in for selling wine or automobiles."
"Don't be an ass, George," Mr. Peter Bragg enjoined. "What you want is some work."
"Not a client near the place for a week," Angus continued sorrowfully.
"You might take on some of the Strand House stuff if you cared to," his partner suggested. "There's a heap of divorce-watching going on and a small blackmail affair. Not really worth your time, though. If I were you and hadn't to stay here in case anything should turn up I should keep my hand in on a bit of outside business."
"Well, I'd take up one of these cases where we don't happen to have been consulted, but which the police don't seem to be getting on with. Of course there are disadvantages, because it isn't so easy to get the real information and there's no pay at the end of it. So far as we are concerned, however, that doesn't matter so much."
"Were you thinking of any particular case?" Angus inquired, his interest gently stimulated.
Peter Bragg took up the Times.
"I was," he admitted. "I was thinking of the case of William King. Shall I outline it to you?"
"William King is, or was, a man of forty-four years of age, engaged in the office of a firm of wholesale druggists in the City. He appears to have been a man of high character without any vices, earning a good salary and of a saving turn. He lived at Chiswick in a house which belonged to himself; he was married and had two children, both of whom had started to work. He was a man of domestic habits, a regular attendant at church on Sundays, a member of the local lawn-tennis and golf clubs, and he entered whenever invited into the social activities of the place. His habits were entirely regular.
"He left home at eight o'clock every morning, walked for half an hour and completed the journey to the City by tram, always boarding one at a certain point. He left the office at six o'clock without exception and could be relied upon to reach home by half past seven.
"There was never a shadow of scandal or a suggestion of loose living connected with him. His employers valued his services highly. He had apparently not an enemy in the world. Yet on one Friday, about two months ago, he slipped out of the world. He failed to return home at the usual hour and has never been seen or heard of since."
"I remember seeing some paragraphs about it in the papers at the time," Angus admitted. "Somehow or other, I imagined it would be one of those cases which would inevitably be cleared up in a day or two."
"Well, this one wasn't," Peter Bragg replied. "Now, I don't know how it seems to you, George, but to me there is much more mystery about the disappearance of a man of this type than any other. One is driven to ask oneself what could have befallen him? A man so settled in his life and habits is not likely to have disappeared without a strong motive. Any accident would certainly have been reported. Yet between Gracechurch Street and Chiswick on Friday evening, between the hours of six o'clock—when he is known to have left his work as usual—and seven o'clock, when he should have swung open the gate of his little villa and presented himself in his home, William King seems somehow or other to have stepped off the edge of the world!"
"You make it all sound quite intriguing," Angus admitted.
"If you want a little wholesome interest in life, take it on quietly," Peter Bragg advised. "Go tactfully to the family, explain your position and ask for any information you can get. Try the firm in the same way. Make use of the Strand people—they can always ferret out minor details—and see whether you can arrive at any theory. It will save you from getting stale, at any rate."
"Chiswick," Angus murmured, reaching for his hat. "It sounds familiar."
"You will find Chiswick without difficulty," his partner assured him. "It is not a fashionable quarter, but it is a respectable district situated on the Ealing Road. But take my advice, present yourself there this evening, when presumably the two younger members of the family will be home. In the meantime go and have a game of golf.
"Sound fellow!" Angus observed, closing his desk.
ANGUS played his round of golf, lunched and played again afterward. At seven o'clock—which he deemed a suitable hour—he brought his Rolls-Royce to a standstill outside a neat, rather new-looking villa in one of the byways of Chiswick. He walked up a tiled path and made use of a shining brass knocker. The door was opened in a moment or two by a girl of about eighteen or nineteen years of age.
She was of sallow complexion, a little fat for the fashions of the moment—to which, however, she rigidly adhered. Her hair was bobbed, and there was a presumptive evidence that she had used the lipstick, which she held in her hand, since the ringing of the bell.
"Is Mrs. King at home?" Angus inquired.
The girl opened the door wider. She very much approved of the tone and manner of this new unexpected visitor.
"Will you come into the drawing-room for a moment?" she invited. "Mother's having tea."
"Please don't let me disturb her," Angus begged. "I can wait."
"Who is it, Belle?" a sharp voice demanded from the room on the left-hand side of the passage.
"A gentleman, Mother, to see you," the girl answered, throwing open the door of the room opposite. "Won't you sit down, please," she begged. "Is that lovely car yours?"
"It is," Angus replied. "Are you fond of motoring?"
"I adore it," the girl declared enthusiastically.
IN due course Mrs. King made her appearance. She was a short, hard-faced woman with thin lips, keen eyes, not a gray hair in her head nor a wrinkle upon her forehead. She was neatly dressed in dark clothes, and she was still engaged in the consumption of some portion of her repast.
"I'm Mrs. King," she announced. "What might you want with me?"
"I hope," Angus began, "that you will not consider my visit in any way an intrusion. To tell you the truth, Mrs. King, I and a friend of mine have started in business—just from the love of it—as sort of amateur investigators into crime and disappearances and all that kind of thing. We are both very much interested in your husband's disappearance. Am I right in presuming that as yet you have received no news of him?"
"Not a line, not a word," Mrs. King declared. "What we pay the police for in this country I can't imagine."
"It does seem extraordinary," Angus observed sympathetically. "I wonder whether you'd object to my interesting myself a little in the affair. All that I should require from you would be to answer a few questions."
Mrs. King looked at him suspiciously.
"We've no money to spend on advice or anything of that sort," she warned him.
"We certainly do not require a penny," Angus assured her. "Here is my card to show you that we are in earnest. My friend and I do sometimes take cases professionally, but the matter of your husband's disappearance is one which we should like to look into entirely from a disinterested point of view. We do not require any payment or reward. If we should succeed in obtaining any information, so much the better; if not, it will at least cost you nothing and no harm will be done."
"Take a seat," Mrs. King invited.
"Please do sit down," Miss King begged, wheeling an easy-chair toward him and lingering by its side.
"In the first place, have you a picture of your husband?" Angus inquired.
The girl crossed the room, opened a drawer, slipped a photograph out of a pile and, bringing it over, resumed her place by the arm of Angus' chair. The picture was of an insignificant-looking man of middle height, inclined to be thin, with a slight mustache and deep-set eyes. There was nothing in the features in any way different from the hundreds and thousands of City toilers who at six o'clock might be expected to leave their work in the City for their suburban homes. Nevertheless Angus put the photograph into his pocket.
"I'm supposed to be rather like him," Miss Belle confided, "only that we haven't the same color eyes."
"Your husband's habits, I understand, were most regular?" Angus proceeded, after a short dialogue with Miss Belle on the subject of eyes.
"There was never a more punctual man," Mrs. King averred. "Six days of the week you could set your clock by his comings and goings. Thursday was mail night at his office, and he might come any time. I have known him only a little later than usual, and I have known him not to come home till midnight."
"Financially Mr. King was a saving man, I understand?"
"Fortunately for us all, he was," Mrs. King acknowledged. "We've been putting by for over twenty years or I don't know where we should be now."
"He didn't withdraw any money, I suppose, from the bank before his disappearance?"
"Not a penny."
"There was that five hundred pounds, Mother," Belle whispered.
Mrs. King nodded.
"There's one sum of money we haven't been able to trace," she confided. "It seems he had five hundred pounds on deposit at the bank for some time ago. About a year ago he told the manager he had found an investment and withdrew it. We haven't been able to find out just where he did invest it, but that can't have had anything to do with his disappearance. He couldn't have been carrying all that money about with him for twelve months."
"Naturally not," Angus acquiesced.
For a moment he was silent. He looked around the room and through the window down the street.
The room to him was horrible, the neighborhood depressing, yet to the man whose photograph he had in his pocket it might well have seemed utterly and entirely desirable.
"Your husband had no quarrel with anyone?" he asked.
"Been asked that question a hundred times," Mrs. King replied. "Never that I know of. He was one of the peacefullest men I ever knew."
"And liked his golf and tennis here week-ends?"
"Never missed one or the other. Belle's taken to tennis lately, so he'd often let his golf go on a Sunday and play tennis with her in the afternoon. They both were elected members of the club not long ago."
"Quite a nice club," Miss Belle murmured. "All the best people around here belong. If I only had someone to go there with me now, it would be such a comfort."
"No man," Mrs. King declared with conviction, "could have had a happier home or have lived a more contented life, and what I say is that a man of his character should be easy enough to trace anywhere. Pretty pass things have come to when every day all they can tell me at Scotland Yard is that they are still without news."
"It does seem extraordinary," Angus admitted politely.
"Any more questions?" Mrs. King inquired. "Because if not, I'll finish my tea."
"I can't think of any for the moment," Angus admitted, rising.
"If there are, I can answer them," Miss Belle assured him. "I love to talk about it. One feels one's doing something."
"Wishing you good evening, young man," Mrs. King said, making toward the door.
Angus sprang up, held the door open and bowed his farewells to Belle. She rose reluctantly.
"Sure you wouldn't like to stay a little longer and see if you can think of anything else you want to ask?"
"If there is anything, I'll call again, if I may," he suggested.
He looked back as he started his car to find Miss Belle watching from the window. She waved her hand regretfully. Angus smiled as he raised his hat. His little glimpse of the missing man's home life had been uninspiring.
AT what he thought a suitable hour in the morning Angus presented himself at the offices of Messrs. Gutteridge, Mason & Co., wholesale chemists, sent in his card and asked for a few minutes with one of the partners. A small man, who, it appeared, was Gutteridge, presently received him, and Angus briefly explained his business.
"We are willing to do everything we can to help, of course," Mr. Gutteridge said, twisting the card round in his fingers, "but the Scotland Yard people have pumped us pretty dry a good many times. If the family are sanctioning your intervention, why, of course, we'll answer any questions you like to put. I warn you, however, that nothing we can tell you will throw the slightest light on King's disappearance. It remains as great a mystery to us today as on the first morning when he failed to turn up."
"There is only one question I am going to ask you," Angus said. "That is about his late night every Thursday—shipping night or something."
Mr. Gutteridge stared at him.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"I understand," Angus explained, "that while he left here at six o'clock punctually every night of the week except Saturdays and Sundays, on Thursdays he was detained here sometimes very late indeed by extra work."
"Nothing of the sort," was the sharp reply. "There are no mails out on a Friday, for one thing, and we shouldn't think of keeping an employee after hours if there were."
"Do I understand, then," Angus persisted, with a sudden vast access of interest in the case, "that Mr. King left here on Thursday night at six o'clock as usual?"
"Certainly. There was no reason why he should be later on Thursdays than any other night."
"The Thursday, for instance, before his disappearance?"
"I walked up the street with him myself. It wasn't five minutes past six when we reached the corner."
"I am very much obliged," Angus said, rising to his feet. "Supposing I have occasion, you will not mind my interviewing some of your porters or warehousemen?"
"Ask them what you like," Mr. Gutteridge conceded. "King was a good servant and a steady fellow, and what the police are doing, that they can't find out what's become of him, beats me. I wish you good day, sir."
Angus stepped back into his car and made his somewhat tedious way to Chiswick. He found Mrs. King alone in the house surrounded by utensils for rendering cleaner than ever the already shining interior. She was enveloped from head to foot in an overall.
"You back again, young man?" she remarked, without any marked cordiality.
"Just one question," Angus begged. "The Thursday before the Friday upon which Mr. King disappeared, what time did he get home?"
"Just after midnight—looking tired out too. He drank a bottle of beer before he went to bed, which wasn't his custom, though never a teetotaler."
"I am very much obliged. I hope to have news for you before long..."
A WEEK or so later, his car standing in the street below laden with dressing bags, gun cases and golf clubs, Angus, on his way to Norfolk for three weeks' holiday, looked in to wish his partner good-by.
"Lucky chap!" Peter Bragg grumbled as they shook hands. "Never mind. I'll be after you presently. There's nothing doing here, anyway."
"There's only one thing bothers me," Angus confided, "and that is the King case. I'm almost sorry I ever took it up."
Peter Bragg nodded.
"Nothing more to be done about it, I'm afraid. You made a wonderful start. When you discovered about that Thursday night the man had kept up his sleeve all this time, I thought you were going to romp home a winner."
"I thought so too," Angus admitted. "He must be the most amazingly clever person or he must have had wonderful luck. Here you have a man leaving his office at six o'clock every Thursday for eighteen months except during holidays, and not getting home until about midnight, and yet, now that we know it, we haven't an idea what he did during those five or six hours."
"I couldn't have believed it possible." Peter Bragg admitted. "I'm not at all sure, George, that we ought not to pass on our little bit of information about those Thursday nights to Scotland Yard. The only thing is that I should imagine they've tumbled to it themselves, although how they've managed to keep it from Mrs. King I can't think."
"Let it be now, until I get back," Angus begged. "I'll make one more effort then on new lines... Cheerio, Pudgy!"
"Cheerio, George, my lad!"
IT was distinctly a coincidence that on the night of his return to London, nearly a month later, turning over his evening paper, Angus should come upon the following paragraph:
"The body of the man discovered in the river near Bourne End has been identified by his widow as the body of William King, cashier to Messrs. Gutteridge. Mason & Co., of Gracechurch Street. King disappeared mysteriously some four months ago, since when the police have been vainly endeavoring to discover his whereabouts. From the battered condition of the deceased foul play is suspected."...
On the following evening at seven o'clock Angus paid his third visit to Chiswick. Again Miss Belle opened the door.
"Come in, won't you?" she begged. "I'll fetch Mother directly."
She led him into the little drawing-room. Mrs. King appeared almost at once. Mother and daughter were attired in the somberest black; otherwise they exhibited no signs of deep grief.
"I called to offer you my sympathy," Angus explained. "It must have been a great shock to you, after all this waiting, to discover your husband's face under such unhappy conditions."
Mrs. King remained dry-eyed, but her tone was bitter.
"Murdered!" she exclaimed. "And no one brought to justice nor likely to be. Murdered just for the trifle of money he might have had on him."
"You were able to identify him without difficulty?"
"There was no trouble about that," she answered. "A fearful state he was in, but I didn't need to look twice. His clothes, too, told me all I wanted to know. There was the little patch I'd sewn in his trousers leg and the odd button on his waistcoat. There was his pocketbook too, empty though it was, and his business cards still there, and the silver cigarette case I gave him last Christmas."
"I've been away for some time," Angus explained. "I suppose no one has any idea how it was he got down as far as Bourne End."
Mrs. King shook her head.
"A mystery the whole thing is, and a mystery, with our incompetent police, it seems as though it were likely to remain," she declared. "Here William walks out of his office at six o'clock, a respectable, straight-living man on his way home to his wife and family, with perhaps a few pounds in his pocket, and from that day till last week not a thing could the police discover about him. Then they find his body in the river thirty miles away, with his money gone. And it seems to me that's all they can do about it."
"There was no possibility, I suppose, of his having been drowned by accident?" Angus ventured.
"Not a chance," was the emphatic reply. "He'd been battered about the head for one thing, and his money was gone for another. I wasn't so set at first, young man," Mrs. King proceeded, "on your interference, but if you can find the man who killed him I'll take you by the hand and thank you. That I promise."
Angus rose to his feet.
"I don't know that there's much more I can do," he admitted, "but I shall talk it over with my partner. It's a long time ago now, unfortunately."
HE TOOK his leave—Belle, this time, accompanying him to the street to admire the car. He caught a glimpse of them as he swung round the corner, mother and daughter standing together—the mother a grim figure in her unrelieved black, the daughter almost pitiful with her simpering smile, her cheap coquetries and too obvious desire to attract. The sight of them somehow depressed him, as did also the neighborhood. Nevertheless there was a new sense of drama enveloping what before had been a very ordinary though unintelligible mystery...
He found Peter Bragg, back from three weeks' fishing in Devonshire, bronzed and in the best of health. They spoke almost at once of the finding of King's body.
"This case goes to prove as conclusively as any I have ever come across," Peter Bragg pronounced, "that drama lies often behind the lives of many of the most ordinary-looking people—drama at which we should never guess, which we should never suspect. We know enough now to fill in certain gaps. In some way or another this man King, whose life seemed to be a model one, spent every Thursday night of his life with someone under such conditions as to make a bitter enemy.
"You are driven back, Angus, if you are still interested in this case, to the old cry which has practically been the catchword of every one of the great murder cases of the world—'find the woman.'"
"And unfortunately the scent is a little stale."
"We'll draw up a précis of the whole affair within the next few days," Peter Bragg suggested, "and then we'll see whether it's worth while going on with it."
"Capital!" Angus agreed...
Nevertheless, on the following morning he carried out an idea of his own. He drove once more down to Gracechurch Street and, without asking for an interview with either of the partners, inquired for a young porter named Williams, whom he had interviewed on a previous occasion. Williams was soon found and came to him in a corner of the warehouse. He was a tall, rather shy youth, with a pleasant, truthful face.
"Look here, Williams," Angus began, "I came to see you some time ago when there was a question of Mr. King's disappearance, and I asked you, as I asked a good many of the others, whether any of you had ever been able to form any idea as to what Mr. King did with himself on Thursday nights. You answered just like the others, only a little differently."
"How differently, sir?"
"Because you gave me the impression that you were not telling the truth."
The young man considered for a moment.
"That was clever of you, sir," he admitted. "Perhaps I wasn't."
The young man shifted his position a little nervously. He looked around as though to be sure that they were not being overheard.
"You see, sir, it's this way," he explained. "Mr. King was the one gentleman in this place as I liked. He got me my job, he saved me from losing it once when I made a stupid mistake, and he always had a kindly word and a nod. I liked him, and I wasn't going to do anything to give him away. If I had had any idea," he went on, "that he'd come to harm, that anyone had done him in like this, I'd have out with the truth quick enough. As it was, I didn't, because I thought I was doing my best for him by keeping my mouth shut."
"Then you do know something about these Thursday nights?" Angus persisted.
"Just by accident, I do, sir," the young man acknowledged. "About eight months ago was the first time. I was passing by a cinema at the top of Tottenham Court Road, and I saw Mr. King and a young lady get out of a taxi and go in. He didn't see me, and I stepped back so as he shouldn't."
"Any other time?"
"Yes, sir. It was once in the summer. I've an uncle who's a waterman down at Bourne End. I saw Mr. King in a boat with the same young lady."
"Can you describe her?"
"Not very well, sir, I'm afraid. She looked nice, and both times I saw her she seemed cheerful like and happy. She was rather pale, and she was dressed quite—quite the lady."
"Would you know her if you saw her again?"
"I might," was the somewhat doubtful response. "There's no telling."
"You haven't any idea who she is or where she can be found?"
The man made no reply. Presently Angus repeated his question.
"I'd like to think a bit over that, sir," he said at last. "I don't want to do any harm to anybody, and I'll tell you, honest, I don't know whether to answer your question or not."
"You can do nobody any harm," Angus assured him. "All that I want to find out is how Mr. King came by his death. The young lady was not directly concerned in it. We can be quite sure of that—although she may have been the cause of it—but she probably knows the truth. If she hasn't come forward we ought to find her."
"Maybe I'll tell you what I know about her, sir," the young man decided, after another prolonged pause. "I hope I'm doing right. It's only for Mr. King's own sake that I've hesitated. I've seen her when I've delivered goods in a factory in the Bethnal Green Road. She was a typist in the office there, and she used sometimes to sign the delivery sheets."
"Would Mr. King ever call there?" Angus asked quickly.
"I make no doubt he would, sir. We do a lot of business with the firm."
"You'll tell me the name?"
"Levy & Levy, 72, on Bethnal Green Road."
Angus produced his pocketbook, but the young man shook his head.
"I don't want no money for telling you what I have done, sir," he said. "It's the truth about a very sad job. Maybe I ought to have done it before, but if I didn't it was because I liked Mr. King."
He made his escape, and Angus found his way with some difficulty to the Bethnal Green Road. He explained his business in a very guarded manner to one of the partners.
"Tell you all I know with pleasure," Mr. Levy declared, looking with some surprise at this unusual visitor. "Young lady typist you want to know about who was here three or four months ago?"
"Miss Bentley, her name was—as nice a young lady as ever worked for us. She left—let me see—last June. Left unexpectedly: didn't ask for references—said she'd come in for a little money. I wanted her to put it into the business and stay on, but she wasn't having any."
"Do you still happen to have her address?"
"I've got the address of where she was living then," Mr. Levy replied dubiously. "But I don't know as you'll be able to find her from that."
"I might try," Angus suggested pleasantly.
Mr. Levy plunged into the office and reappeared presently with a card.
"There you are," he announced. "What's it all about? Anyone left the young lady another fortune?"
"No such luck, I'm afraid. I'm very much obliged to you, sir."
"You're welcome," Mr. Levy replied, accompanying his visitor to the swing doors and looking out with increased surprise at the Rolls-Royce standing there. "If ever you come across the young lady, give her my respects and tell her her place is always open."
"I won't forget," Angus promised.
UPON a grassy bluff above the small Devonshire village of Sidtree a man and a girl were seated arm in arm, with their faces turned seaward. The breeze from the Atlantic, after a hot day, fanned their cheeks. The peace of the whole countryside, fading gradually away with the setting sun, seemed somehow reflected in their contented faces.
The man was ordinary-looking except for his eyes, which had in them something of the visionary. The girl's expression of complete and unalloyed happiness made her almost beautiful. Down below them was the open gate of the cottage, through which they had issued, with its tiny garden a flare of color.
"I never believed that heaven could be like this," the girl murmured.
The man smiled. No less happy than his companion but more practical, he withdrew his arm from her waist and lit a cigarette.
"I hope too many tourists won't find this place out," he remarked, looking at the Rolls-Royce which had come to a standstill upon the road above.
"I hope not," she murmured.
Then Angus descended and walked into their paradise. The man started as he heard approaching footsteps. The girl's hand stole into his. They hated strangers. Fear came to them when Angus paused in front of them. He looked steadily at the man and then at the girl.
"May I sit down and talk to you both for a few minutes?" he asked unexpectedly.
"Why?" the man demanded.
"Because I have been looking for you for some time. Your name, I think, is Mr. King."
"My name is John Dorwood," the man declared, "and this is my wife."
"In Devonshire, perhaps, Angus said, "In Chiswick I think your name was William King."
They were both silent, and as the light was passing from the day, so the expression seemed to fade from their faces. The man King half rose to his feet, but Angus sat down.
"Look here," he said, "I'm not a detective. I'm not connected with the law. I'm an ordinary human being, and I've been piecing your story together on my way down here. I'd like you to tell it to me."
The man King leaned over and looked eagerly into the newcomer's face.
"I will," he said at last. "You look as though I could tell it to you."
"Tell him everything," the girl begged, clinging to her companion.
"You know who I was," King began—"a clerk at Gutteridge's, a steady fellow, married to a good woman—a good, hard woman. I'd a good, silly daughter, a steady, silly son. I worked week in and week out for twenty-five years. I did my duty always, brought my money back, saved, made a home for them, and all the time there was something inside empty. I never knew what it was. One day I met—the woman who is my wife now," he went on, passing his arm around her waist. "We just talked for a few moments. I felt something different. I met her—met her again—and I knew what I'd been missing in life. I'd no thought of anything wrong. I just cared for her as she cared for me, and Chiswick became hell, my life in my ugly little house with my wife and son and my daughter was hell. It wasn't my fault. I couldn't help it. They just were hell, and every moment I spent with Grace here was such happiness as I had never known: new, softening things in my life, wonderful, beautiful things."
"Go on," Angus begged sympathetically.
"I invented an excuse that one night a week I had to stay at the office late. That Thursday evening I spent always with Grace. In the winter we amused ourselves in London; in the summer on the river. The time came when to leave was agony. I felt that I was capable of any crime just to live the last few years of my life in heaven, and what I did wasn't a crime exactly, although I suppose it was the same thing. One evening—it didn't happen to be a Thursday, but I simply couldn't wait till then to see her—I called round at Grace's rooms and took her down the river. We got as far as Bourne End when it began to mist. I was keeping in close to the bank, and the boat struck something. I put my hand over the side. It was a man."
The girl began to shiver. He patted her encouragingly.
"That's all right, dear," he said... "I dragged him ashore, but he was too far gone. I worked over him half an hour. I know how. And then, as I stood wondering how to get the body to a police station, or where to find help, I seemed to have a wonderful idea. I did it. Grace was against it at first, but I did it. I stripped and I changed clothes with the man. Oh, it was ghastly!" he went on, his voice breaking for a moment. "I put my pocketbook in his pocket and all my trinkets. I wore his clothes, threw his body back into the river, and rowed down to an inn where I told them I'd been overboard and had a ducking. We made a parcel of the clothes, and I got a ready-made suit in the village. It all worked out so well for us. Grace had left her place a week before. She had some money. I had drawn some out of the bank a year ago meaning to keep it for something like this. We just came down here, in an ordinary train like ordinary people, and I've been here ever since—and not a soul has disturbed me."
"And we have been happy," the girl cried—"happier than I ever dreamed was possible."
"And now," King demanded, "What are you going to do about it?"
Angus sat for a few moments in silence. He thought of his last visit to the Chiswick house, the sour-faced woman, the simpering flirtatious daughter. He looked around, and he caught a glimpse of the sweetness of the girl's face. He saw the passionate cling of her arms to her companion, caught the inner meaning of those deep-set, wistful eyes.
"I'm not going to do a thing," he answered, "except to shake hands with you both and wish you happiness."
WELL, any luck?" Peter Bragg asked, as Angus walked into the office two days later. Angus shook his head.
"I'm dead out of luck," he confessed. "I thought I'd really made a discovery, thought I was in for a big sensation, and I found it's a mare's nest."
Peter Bragg concealed his disappointment admirably.
"Well, well," he said. "Better luck next time!"
"I LIKE your car, Peter," the Honourable George Angus admitted, with that slight note of condescension in his tone which pertains to the owner of a Rolls-Royce, "but I am not sure that I altogether approve of your method of driving it."
"What's wrong with that?" Peter Bragg demanded, as he came slowly to a standstill at the rear of a long line of traffic in Piccadilly Circus.
"Lack of dash, laddie," Angus pointed out. "Just that touch of genius which enables a man to slip along, as it were, to make a yard or two on the rest of the traffic. One little spurt and you'd have been across the Circus here without getting blocked."
"In which case," Peter Bragg remarked, gazing downwards, "you would not have become the recipient of a billet-doux from the young lady.in the limousine there."
Angus stared at the little roll of paper, tied, as it appeared, with a black silk shoe string, which lay at his feet. He picked it up just as the policeman in front gave the signal of release, and the double row of cars began to move. He caught only a glimpse of a girl's face looking through the window of a limousine car in the next line, whose eyes seemed to meet his as though with some message. Then Peter Bragg, changing from first to second, lost his speeds, dropped behind and the car shot away up Shaftesbury Avenue.
"I saw her writing it inside," Peter Bragg confided. "She just hung her hand out and dropped it at your feet during that first block."
Angus unrolled the scrap of paper. There were only half a dozen lines, written in pencil and apparently in great haste:—
"I have just tried to call on Mr. Bragg or his partner, at the Bellevue, but I am being watched and I was obliged to give it up. Please come at three o'clock to number 11, Cardenall Mansions."
"Like to see it?" Angus asked.
Peter Bragg shook his head. He had all he could do—perhaps a little more—in guiding his car through the traffic.
"Wait till we get to Ciro's, old chap," he begged. "Do remember that this is the first time I've driven in London alone."
Angus looked meditatively at a great lorry, contact with which they had escaped by a few inches.
"You may thank Providence, my dear Peter," he remarked, "that it isn't your last. Keep her throttled down, mind, and make a wide sweep when you turn into Leicester Square. I'll put my right hand out.... Not so bad. Now be careful how you cross into Orange Street. Let the other traffic pass first.... Good! Gad, we're saved after all, and there's your Johnny waiting. Peter, we'll have a double cocktail in thankfulness for our escape."
"Escape from what?" his companion asked coldly.
"From the accidents involved by other people's unskilful driving," Angus replied, as he led the way down the stairs into the bar.
There was no difficulty about the double cocktails or their consumption. Angus lit a cigarette.
"My nerves now," he announced, "are restored. Read this, Peter, and dare to tell me that the days of romance are passed."
Peter Bragg read the pencilled lines carefully.
"Nothing personal about this," he remarked. "I wonder what the dickens the girl means when she says that she's being watched? There was a man seated by the chauffeur in that limousine who looked devilish like one of my own scouts."
"That is for us to discover," Angus replied. "One of us has to be at number eleven flat, Cardenall Mansions, this afternoon at three o'clock. I vote we toss."
"You can spare yourself the trouble," the other declared. "My place is in the office. Assignations of this sort are for you to deal with."
Angus accepted his partner's decision without demur. His momentary impression of the young woman had been favourable.
"And now," he suggested, "let's lunch."
They found a corner table in the grill-room and proceeded to study the menu.
"Not often we feed together, old dear," Angus remarked. "I votes we do ourselves well."
"It appears to me that you generally do," his companion replied. "My own tastes are more simple. In any case here comes something which should be more interesting to you than food."
Angus glanced across the room at two new arrivals who were being shown to an opposite table. Notwithstanding an impulse of distinct curiosity he succeeded in glancing indifferently enough at the demure-looking young woman who was taking her place by the side of a very immaculately turned out and monocled young man.
"If I am not mistaken," Peter Bragg observed, "that was the young woman who was alone in the limousine in Piccadilly Circus, and who threw the note into the car."
"Amazing how you notice things," Angus admitted. "That, without doubt, is the heroine of my forthcoming adventure. The young man, however, seems to have fallen from the blue skies. He certainly wasn't in the car."
"As a matter of fact," Peter Bragg confided, "he has strolled across from Whitehall. You ought to know him. Isn't he one of your polo and golf-playing crowd?"
"More than ever you amaze me, Peter," Angus confessed. "That's young Sholto Dennis from the Home Office. Terrible ass at polo, but he's got his golf handicap down to two."
"Don't overdo your devotion to your lunch," Peter Bragg advised. "The young man seems disturbed and he has made more than one attempt to catch your eye."
Angus looked up and exchanged a typically British greeting with his acquaintance. He took the opportunity to let his eyes linger for a moment upon his companion.
"Wonder who she is?" he reflected. "Sholto's rather a musical comedy-ish sort of young man and she doesn't seem that type. A bit too intense, eh?"
"I find her a young woman not without attraction," his companion declared. "She is probably engaged in some sort of intellectual work. I should certainly not connect her with the stage."
"I'll tell you all about her in an hour or two's time," Angus promised. . . .
As a matter of fact, however, he was doomed to disappointment. Just after the two men had ordered their coffee, the young woman and her companion arose. They passed out of the room, the girl without a glance in their direction, the young man with a perfunctory nod.
Five minutes later a blue-liveried pageboy made his appearance in the room, discovered Angus and slipped a note into his hand.
"The attendant in the ladies' room gave me this for you, sir," he announced.
Angus unfolded the scrap of paper. There was a single line scrawled in the same handwriting:—
"Please don't come. Hopeless."
Angus remunerated the page-boy and turned to his partner with a little gesture of disappointment.
"So that's that! " he grumbled. "An adventure finished before it's begun."
Peter Bragg took off his glasses and wiped them carefully.
"It may be only postponed," he said. "To atone for your disappointment, George, I will relax so far from my usual midday abstinence as to suggest a 'Fin.' "
"Good lad!" Angus assented with enthusiasm. "We'll spring to the Napoleon."
Angus had intended availing himself of a temporary slackness in the affairs of Peter Bragg & Co. to indulge in a game of golf that afternoon, but curiosity induced him to remain in the office. No further word came, however, from the young lady of the limousine. He was preparing to leave about five o'clock when a card was brought in. Peter Bragg studied it and shook his head.
"No luck for you, George," he announced. "An American gentleman. Well-known name, but I can't place him. Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt."
"Sounds like money," Angus observed.
"Show the gentleman in," Peter Bragg directed.
Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt certainly did look like money. He exuded opulence in the quiet, restrained way of the modern American millionaire. His clothes were carefully chosen, he wore little jewellery, his complexion bespoke the dyspeptic, but his tone and manner were crisp and business-like. He accepted a chair and glanced questioningly towards Angus.
"My partner," Peter Bragg explained.
His visitor nodded.
"That's all right," he said. "I don't care about too many people around in a conference of this sort, but of course a partner's different. I understand, Mr. Bragg, that you're supposed to have the smartest crowd of professional detectives in this country."
"My men have been chosen entirely for their ability, irrespective of any financial considerations," was the studied reply. "If I hear of a really good man I take him whether he is at Scotland Yard or at a rival establishment. What might your business be?"
"Simple enough," the other replied. "On the fourteenth of last month," he went on, producing a pocket-book, "at four o'clock in the afternoon, the secretary of a Cabinet Minister, engaged in transcribing some notes in the committee-room of her chief in your House of Commons, fainted. It was obvious that she would not be able to complete her task, and the young man in charge of the proceedings, knowing that the notes must be finished, sent in to the House for one of the staff of young women who are always there for the convenience of members. This young woman completed the transcription of the notes in question and duly took her leave. I wish to know her name and address."
Peter Bragg considered the matter for a moment.
"Are you inclined to confide in me your reason for desiring this information?" he enquired.
"I certainly am not," was the prompt reply. "Why should you ask for such a thing. I simply require service—ordinary detective service—such as I have described. My reasons for requiring it are my business, not yours."
"In an ordinary way I agree with you, of course," Peter Bragg admitted. "You must excuse the question. We do not usually limit the sphere of our operations. On the other hand, we do not very much care for commissions connected directly or indirectly with public affairs when our client is not of British nationality."
"You make me tired." Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt said mournfully. "What does it matter to you whether I am of British nationality or not? I'm not trying to strike an underhand blow at your constitution. As a matter of fact, although I'm an American, I'm a resident over here, my business is mostly over here, and I'm as British as many of you Britishers. All I want is the name and address of a young woman. That sort of work isn't in my line, but I could find it out for myself if I wasn't particularly anxious not to appear in the affair."
"Supposing I should decide to procure you the information you desire," Peter Bragg asked, "would that conclude our business?"
"Possibly not," the American admitted. "On the other hand you could, at any time, refuse to proceed any further with the matter if you wished."
"Quite true. If you will give me a telephone number I will let you know when to call and receive the information you desire. It will probably be to-morrow."
Mr. Piatt laid a card upon the table. It bore only a private address in Park Lane.
"Between eight and eleven in the morning," he said, "or from four o'clock onwards in the afternoon. Just tell me that you're ready and I'll step round."
Peter Bragg touched the bell; Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt took his leave. For some moments afterwards there was silence between the two partners. Peter Bragg was making idle sketches on the back of the card; Angus, after a few moments' reflection, echoed his unspoken thought.
"She might very well have been a typist," he remarked.
At twelve o'clock on the following morning, Mr. Piatt, in response to a telephone message, presented himself at the Bellevue. Peter Bragg handed him a slip of paper.
"The young lady's name," he announced, "is Miss Ada Malcolm. She is employed by the Holbroke Typewriting and Secretarial Agency and until the day after the date you mentioned she was to be found every afternoon at the House of Commons. Her address is 11, Cardenall Mansions."
"Slick work," Mr. Piatt confessed, producing his pocket-book.
"Twenty guineas," Peter Bragg murmured.
"Steep, but worth it," was the other's laconic criticism, as he counted out the notes.
"And now does that conclude our business, Mr. Piatt?"
"For the present, yes. I'll take a hand in the game myself now I know where to find the young lady."
"I wish you success," Peter Bragg said gravely.
"If I run up against a snag, I shall be round again."
"Whether we are able to accept your further commission or not," Peter Bragg declared guardedly, "we shall be pleased to receive your visit..."
"He'll be back again in a day or two," he mused, after his visitor had taken his leave. "What do you suppose it is he wants?"
"No idea," Peter Bragg confessed. "All that we've succeeded in doing up to the present is in establishing some sort of a connection between your young lady of the limousine and the typist who was called in to do some unexpected work in a committee-room of the House of Commons one afternoon about three weeks ago. Since then the typist in question hasn't been back to her job and the principal of the Agency declares that she's taking a short holiday. That short holiday appears to consist of doing the theatres and restaurants of London pretty thoroughly with your young friend, Mr. Sholto Dennis. Obvious enough on the face of it," he concluded, "except that she doesn't seem that sort."
"She's not bad-looking," Angus reflected. "I like that little tilt to her nose, and she has a delightful mouth. She's one of the few girls in the world who'd be improved by just a touch of cosmetics."
"Perhaps some day you may have the chance to tell her so."
The telephone rang a few minutes later. Peter Bragg who answered the call turned to his partner.
"Lady's voice, in a desperate hurry," he announced—"wants you."
Angus hastened to take the receiver into his own hand.
"Oh, why couldn't you come to the 'phone before," a distressed voice almost whispered. "There's no time to talk now. Please lunch at Ciro's again to-day."
"I'll be there," Angus replied into a dead void.
"The young woman seems to be sticking at you," Peter Bragg observed, as his partner hung up the receiver.
"She doesn't seem to be getting much forwarder with it. Shall you come along to lunch?"
Peter Bragg shook his head.
"I think I'll stroll round to Strand House and talk to Hopkins," he decided. " I'm not very keen on touching anything that in any way concerns Government business, but I should like to know what was doing in what's-his-name's committee-room that afternoon."
"I'm getting a bit intrigued myself," Angus admitted. " We'll compare notes later on. . . ."
Angus's luncheon was not an inspiring one. Satisfied that the young lady of the limousine was not in the grill-room on his arrival, he sat down at the bar outside to have a cocktail. Presently the two people in whom he was interested entered, the young lady in a new and charming costume of petunia-coloured cloth with a slight edging of fur and a hat to match. Her companion seemed even more devoted than yesterday and almost scowled as he caught what appeared to be a look of admiration in Angus's face. The two had been on the point of sitting down to have a cocktail, but Dennis, apparently changing his mind, led the way on to the grill-room. The girl half turned her head. There was the slightest possible elevation of her eyebrows as she joined her escort.
"If I can't get the better of an ass like Sholto," Angus murmured to himself, as he followed them into the room a short time later, "I deserve to be kicked."
Nevertheless no fortune came his way that morning. The girl's eyes strayed once or twice towards his table, but they conveyed no intelligible message. Angus lingered over his meal until their departure and waited again for another quarter of an hour, but this time not even a note came. He made his way back to the office a little disconsolately, only to find that his partner had met with similar ill-success.
"Hopkins is sending a man down to the House," the latter confided, "but he is, like me, not very keen. The Home Services have their own people about, of course, and they'll spot our chap in a moment. They'd be down on him like a ton of bricks if he tried to open up any business."
"We needn't rush matters," Angus declared. "That girl's clever enough. I'll probably bring you the whole story in a day or two."
Peter Bragg coughed.
"The confidence of the young—" he began.
Then the telephone bell rang with an enquiry for Angus. It was the same hurried, familiar voice.
"I want to talk to you, Mr. Angus," it said. " I don't know where we're going before, but we shall be at the Embassy for supper. You know Mr. Dennis. Why don't you come and speak to him?"
"I will," Angus promised, "but here we are—why can't you tell me what it is you want."
"I daren't, over the telephone. Good-bye."
Again a blank.
"To-night," Angus announced, as he put down the receiver, "I shall be a leech. Sholto can be as rude as he likes. He's a regular young cub, anyway. I'm going to have a word or two with that girl, whatever happens."
"It's up to you," was Peter Bragg's laconic comment.
That night for the first time the fates were on Angus's side. Although he reached the Embassy fairly early the place was packed. He stood In the doorway as though looking for friends, and was promptly rewarded. The girl of the limousine, with Sholto Dennis, was seated at a corner table against the wall. Angus strolled in their direction.
"Hullo, Sholto!" he exclaimed, pausing for a moment. "What a mob! "
"Beastly, isn't it?"
"Going on to Lady Arbuthnot's afterwards?"
"I think not. Probably stick it out here."
Angus glanced round the room. A seething mass of newcomers were streaming through the doorway.
"Should you think it awful cheek if I asked if I might sit down for a moment whilst they fixed me up a table?" he asked.
"Certainly not—for a moment," Dennis replied coldly. "We're expecting some friends directly. Mr. Angus—Miss Malcolm."
Angus smiled as he drew up a chair.
"Seen you at Ciro's once or twice lately, haven't I?" he enquired. She nodded.
"Isn't it a fascinating place for lunch?" she exclaimed. "I've only been there twice, but I love it."
Angus had a sudden inspiration. He remembered that Sholto Dennis did not dance.
"Why aren't you two dancing?" he asked.
"Miss Malcolm isn't very keen, and I don't care about it," Dennis answered quickly. "Besides, there's such a crush."
"Couldn't we have just one turn," Angus begged. " You don't mind, Sholto? I'll bring Miss Malcolm back quite safely."
"I don't think Miss Malcolm really cares about it," Dennis repeated, with marked uneasiness.
"One turn," she murmured, rising. "You don't mind, Mr. Dennis? I'll come back directly the music stops. No encores, I promise."
They were gone before Dennis could protest. Angus led his companion into the thick of the crowd.
"Now tell me quickly what it's all about?" he begged. "Only be careful, because old Sholto is watching us. What can I do for you?"
"You can find out an American named Wheeler B. Piatt, who lives in Park Lane, and tell him ten thousand pounds."
"That seems simple. And if he has anything to say to you what do I do about it? Are you never at Cardenail Buildings?"
"Not now," she answered. "I'm watched too closely. I'll telephone. Be careful."
Angus felt a touch upon his arm. He turned around. Sholto Dennis was standing by his side, very pale and obviously desperately angry.
"Angus," he said, "I ought perhaps to have told you—to have asked for your congratulations. Miss Malcolm and I are engaged."
"My dear fellow!" Angus exclaimed. "Delighted, I'm sure. Wish you every happiness, Miss Malcolm."
She looked across at Dennis with a queer little smile upon her lips.
"Of course," she said slowly, "that does alter things rather, doesn't it? Good-night, Mr. Angus."
It was evidently her wish that he went. She seemed indeed to have lost all interest in him. He bowed and went off to join another party of friends.
Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt was an early visitor at Bellevue Mansions on the following day. He wasted no time in preliminaries.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, "you did what you promised, and you were slick about it, too. You found me the name of the girl, but if she were the man in the iron mask she couldn't be guarded more closely. I've tried every way to get in touch with her, and I can't do it. I guess I've got to pass the business up to you."
"I'm not sure whether it will be a commission we can undertake," Peter Bragg warned him. "There's a certain class of business in which we never interfere, but if you will state the case I will give you a reply."
"Very well," Mr. Piatt acquiesced. " You know, of course, that in three months time there's a whole range of new duties coming into force on a dozen manufactured articles. Cars are what I'm interested in. The duty on these has been raised beyond the original McKenna duty. An American car that can be sold in England to-day complete for £208 is going to cost £278. That means that there'll be none sold at all. We've got two months and nineteen days to make deliveries. I'll tell you, gentlemen, I've got a million and three-quarter pounds' worth of motor cars on the seas, in the packing rooms, in the factories. I've suspended American deliveries, I've got special trains running to the steamers, and I've a special steamer starting from Boston bringing nothing but cars, and due to arrive here a fortnight before these duties come into force. I'd got my coat off, I can tell you, and then I received a cable from one of our agents here. He told me there was a rumour—one of your cabinet ministers had acknowledged it openly—that the duties were to be made retrospective."
Peter Bragg nodded.
"I've heard that," he admitted.
Mr. Wheeler B. Piatt was a man of reserved speech and manner, but, he took out his handkerchief, wiped his forehead and struck the arm of his chair.
"I've raced over here to find out the truth," he said. "My God, if they sprung that on us where should we be? I've two hundred thousand pounds' worth of cars landed already, and not one of then should I be able to sell. I've another load reaching Liverpool to-day, two due at Southampton next week, more on the way, and others loading. Do you know what I did when I landed here? Well, I'll tell you. I went right away to see the Minister who's running this job. I put it to him straight. And I got shot out of the door in thirty seconds. I only asked for a plain answer to a plain question. But do you think I could get it? Not on your life!"
"Of course, you know," Angus intervened, "you could scarcely expect our Government to accept your dumping idea with enthusiasm. These duties are being put on to help our industries, and you propose to give them a pretty shattering blow to start with."
"I've always reckoned England a Free Trade country," Mr. Piatt replied. "My proposition was to see that they had a million and a half of money's worth of cars cheaper than they could make them themselves. Who's going to lose by that?"
"Anyway," Mr. Bragg remarked, "you got no reply."
"I got no reply, and there I am—fairly hung up," Mr. Piatt went mi. "Then I began to try the back-door, as I'd had the front one shut in my face, and it was then I heard about Miss Malcolm."
"And just what did you hear about her?" Angus enquired.
"What you folks know already, I don't doubt. They were drafting the notes of the decisions arrived at in the Cabinet Council in one of the committee-rooms of the House of Commons, and some young idiot sent out for a professional typist. That girl knows what I want to know. I can't get at her. You've got to."
"That's all right," Angus volunteered. "She wants ten thousand pounds."
Mr. Piatt's imperturbability was disturbed. He stared across at Angus.
"You've got at her then?" he demanded eagerly.
"I danced with her for two minutes last night—just as long as I was allowed to. What struck me was that she was just as anxious to get at you as you are to get at her."
Mr. Piatt produced an oblong cheque-book, a stylo, and began to write. Peter Bragg stopped him.
"I'm not at all sure that we can proceed further in this matter," he declared.
"And why not?" Mr. Piatt demanded, glancing up, with the pen still in his hand.
"We are assisting in the divulgement of a Government secret to a foreigner," Peter Bragg pronounced.
"Bunkum!" Mr. Piatt insisted. A matter of five thousand Englishmen will get their cars forty or fifty pounds cheaper if I know what to do."
"Can't see that it makes much difference myself, Pudgy," Angus n marked. "It's just whether you look at the matter from a Free Trader's point of view or a Protectionist's."
In any case," Peter Bragg enquired, "how do you propose to approach the young lady?"
"She'll telephone me," Angus announced. "She telephoned twice yesterday. It was she who gave me the tip to turn up at the Embassy Club."
Mr. Piatt laid the cheque upon the table.
"See here," he proposed, "you bring the girl right along and I guess you don't have to interfere at all. I'll do the talking."
Mr. Bragg touched the bell.
"We will act in your interests, Mr. Piatt," he promised, "so far as we can do so comfortably with other considerations. If you part with your cheque you shall have the information you desire."
With which Mr. Piatt was obliged to be content, and took his leave.
"This ought to make things easy," Angus remarked, about an hour later, as he nodded to the butler, and laid a card upon the table. "Show the gentleman in, Groves."
"Who is it?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Sholto Dennis," Angus replied. "Come to remonstrate, I suppose. Gad, he was very nearly shirty last night."
Mr. Sholto Dennis, immaculately dressed as usual, as became a young man in a Government Department, was a study of lugubrious woe. He shook hands gloomily with Angus, accepted an introduction to his partner, and sank into his client's chair. He almost forgot to hitch up his perfectly fitting trousers.
"I say, George," he remonstrated, "you're playing it rather low down on a fellow, what?"
"Don't you believe it, laddie," Angus replied. "I've got my job in life just as you've got yours."
"But if I were to come a cropper over this," Dennis pointed out, "I'd lose mine."
"As bad as that?"
"Of course I made a bloomer in sending out for another typist. On the other hand I had instructions to see that the work was finished before I left. I can't type. None of us can. What's the good when there's a staff of young women waiting there for us? I sent for one quite naturally. The next morning the Chief was like a mad bull."
"Well, well! " Angus murmured sympathetically.
"This is how he laid it across me," the young man explained. "If the Cabinet's decision leaks out through my letting the girl copy the last few pages of the agreement, I get the sack. If I can keep her mouth shut I escape with a reprimand. I went to see the girl, and I must say she grasped the point at once. 'Keep me away from everyone,' she begged pathetically. 'I'll try not to be indiscreet, but nowadays, with crêpe-de-Chine getting dearer every day, and hats fit to wear at such an awful price, money means so much.' She put her little hand in mine, and I've tried to keep her away, but, my God, it's a job!"
"Poor old Sholto!"
"We've shut up her flat. She's staying with my sister. We've got an old dragon from the Home Office—used to be a police-woman—supposed never to leave her for a second when I'm away, but, George, old boy, it seems to me I never am away."
"Is that so?" Angus commiserated.
"First of all I have to bring the flowers myself in the morning. Then she wants to start out in time for a stroll in Bond Street and a cocktail before we decide where to lunch. After lunch, Ranelagh or a motor drive somewhere, and a little more shopping. Then another cocktail, a look through the theatre list, and we decide where we dine and spend the evening."
"The young lady must be having quite an amusing time," Peter Bragg observed.
"Yes, but what about me?" her victim complained bitterly. "Of course she's all right and that—nice-looking, wears her clothes well, pass muster anywhere, but everyone knows she's not one of my pals. She's neither fish nor fowl, if you understand what I mean. She ain't musical comedy, and she's not exactly Grosvenor Square."
"You seem to be having a pretty good time with her on the whole," Angus remarked.
The other coughed.
"Oh, well, we get on all right now and then," he admitted—"have a bit of fun together, and all that—but I can't give my mind to it. Even when she's touched me for a theatre cloak or a bracelet and we seem really pally, and I say: 'Look here, Ada, straight, are you going to give me your word of honour that what you saw and typed shall never pass your lips?' Do you know what she answers? She just grips my arm and she says—'Sholto, I'd love to promise, but I can't. I'm so weak.' What the hell can one do with a girl like that?"
"It's difficult," Angus admitted.
"And now you fellows are in the game," the young man pointed out in an aggrieved fashion.
"All in the way of business," Angus reminded him. "I don't mind telling you that we've got a cheque on the table there for ten thousand pounds which she is welcome to the moment she is ready to speak."
"Ten thousand devils!" the other gasped. " That's the end of me."
"You know her latest move—her final turn as declared last night at the Embassy? She says I've got to marry her. She gave me the tip that if I didn't introduce her last night as my fiancée she'd make terms with you. George, do you realise, I shall have to marry the girl?"
"Marry her to save her from earning ten thousand pounds," Angus mused. "Well, she's giving up a bit, you know, Sholto. Of course you seem to have been pretty flush lately."
"Oh, the office are paying all my expenses," the young man explained. " I couldn't do any of this on my own. Except for my salary I haven't got a bob. That's what makes the whole affair so filthy. If you're going to flutter that ten thousand quid about I shall have to marry the girl on eight hundred a year, live in Kensington and clean my own boots."
"The girl would be almost better off with the ten thousand pounds, and without you," Angus ventured.
"Then! lose my job," was the dreary retort.
Angus strolled to the window and back, lit a cigarette and passed over his case.
"Look here, Sholto," he pointed out, "you're in it up to the neck, old man. You can't keep Miss Malcolm from coming into touch with either us or our client for two months, can you?"
"I don't suppose I can."
"If you can't, you've got to many her."
"I suppose so."
"So there's no harm in trying what a pal can do for you. Let me see, to-day's Tuesday. Let me take Miss Malcolm to lunch at Ciro's on Thursday. I've got a sort of idea something might come of it."
"You always were a bright chap, George," Dennis declared earnestly.
"Hop it now, then," Angus enjoined, "and I'll see what I can do. I've got to talk matters over with my partner."
At eleven o'clock precisely, three days later, Mr. Piatt was ushered into the office in Bellevue Mansions. He produced from his pocket a formidable-looking roll of notes and deposited them upon the table.
"Ten thousand pounds in good Bank of England stuff," he announced, "better than any cheque in a deal of this sort. You don't think the girl'll back out?"
"She'll turn up all right," Angus assured him.
"This is a matter upon which there must be no misunderstanding," Peter Bragg declared portentously. "I have drawn up here a brief memorandum. You agree voluntarily to hand over these notes to Miss Malcolm on consideration that she tells you the substance of what she typed respecting the decision arrived at by the Cabinet with regard to retrospective duties on articles coming under the new tariff."
"That's right," Mr. Piatt admitted. "Worth the money, too."
Bragg handed him a pen. He glanced through the memorandum and signed it. A moment later Miss Malcolm was ushered in. She was very becomingly dressed but she looked a little frightened. Angus led her to a chair and patted her hand.
"You're quite sure, Mr. Angus," she said, "that I'm not doing a very terrible thing?"
"My dear young lady, I'm convinced of it. Mr. Piatt here has handed over the money which my partner has now in his possession. He has also signed the agreement. If you will kindly tell us what the decision was which you were allowed to type we can get the business over quickly and without fear of interruption."
Miss Malcolm turned towards Piatt.
"There were a lot of arguments used which didn't amount to anything," she said, "but the resolution arrived at was this: that whether the duties were to be made retrospective or not depended entirely upon the amount of merchandise imported between now and the date of the coming into force of the new treaty."
Mr. Piatt gasped.
"Then they never really arrived at a decision at all," he cried.
"I can scarcely agree with you there, sir," Peter Bragg differed coldly. "It seems to me theirs was a very definite decision of a sort. At any rate, whether you have market value or not, you have what you paid for."
Mr. Piatt was a man of big ideas. He sat for a moment in thoughtful silence. Then he rose to his feet.
"Stung but not squealing, young lady," were his valedictory words. "I'd like to say right here, though, that it seems to me there's been a little more fuss made about you than you're worth."
"Mr. Dennis doesn't think so," she replied modestly.
Peter Bragg listened for a moment to the rattle of the lift in which his late client had descended. Then he looked enquiringly first at Miss Malcolm and then at his partner.
"Is it my fancy," he ventured, "or—or—"
Angus interrupted him.
"Pudgy, my friend," he said, "I plead guilty to a slight amount of secretiveness. I found this rumour of a leakage of information was being talked about, and I got the governor to ask Sholto's Chief a question. It seems the Chief had come to the decision that Sholto was a bit of an ass and had made up his mind to give him a scare. From that I guessed that there was no actual decision in the copied stuff, and when I lunched with Miss Malcolm and put it to her straight she confirmed my idea. Thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that as we're paying America thirteen million a year interest there was no reason why a very charming young lady like Miss Malcolm shouldn't get just a flea-bite back, and a matter of ten thousand pounds is just what old Sholto's been looking for for a long time to start housekeeping with. So there you are.... Ready, Miss Malcolm?" he asked, as he took down his hat.
"Where are you going?" Peter Bragg enquired, as he handed the notes over to Miss Malcolm.
"Round to the registry office to see old Sholto through with it," Angus replied. "You can join us at Claridge's later and drink a glass of wine."
PETER BRAGG, returning from lunch, accompanied by his partner, in the middle of a somewhat slack day, found Miss Ash, the perfect secretary, seated in his special chair, speaking into the telephone. Her manner, as she looked up at the entrance of her employer followed by Angus, indicated relief. A young woman of amazingly equable temperament, she was almost flustered.
"Sir James Kenmar is waiting to see you, sir," she announced. "I was just trying to get you on the telephone."
"Kenmar?" Peter Bragg repeated, "I wonder what he wants. Show him in, Miss Ash. Have you met him, George?"
"Once or twice, but not lately. He doesn't go out nearly as often as he used to."
Miss Ash opened the door of the waiting-room and spoke to its solitary occupant in a tone almost of reverence.
Then she stood on one side to let him pass. He was one of the few great actors of the day whose appearance off the stage was at least as impressive as on. He had had the advantage of birth, a public school and college career, and he retained the naturalness of manner which somehow or other his understudies on the stage or in life failed to acquire. He looked hard at Peter Bragg and, recognizing Angus, nodded to him.
"Hullo," he exclaimed. "George Angus, isn"t it? Are you a client too?"
Angus shook his head.
"Glad to see you. Sir James. No, I'm a partner in this show."
"The devil you are! Well, let me warn both of you gentlemen at once then that I'm here to lodge a complaint."
He installed himself in the chair which Peter Bragg had indicated. In the clear afternoon light the lines of approaching middle age were clearly visible on his handsome face. He was still, however, a very attractive-looking man.
"A complaint," Peter Bragg observed. "I don't remember that we have had the privilege of entering your name upon our books."
"If you haven't got it one way you have another," was the prompt reply. "I suppose you know all about it. For two months now, without a moment's cessation, I have been shadowed by one of your infernal men. I have come to ask what the devil it means?"
"In other words," Peter Bragg remarked dryly, "you ask us to divulge the name of our client.
Sir James, notwithstanding a proverbial affability, was not always good-tempered. His tone now was almost angry.
"Client be damned!" he exclaimed. "I'll go before the magistrate if it's necessary, but I will be relieved of this infernal surveillance."
"There is no method of escape for you except by arrangement. Sir James," Peter Bragg assured him. "A summons was applied for once before by a man who was suing for a divorce and was being watched. The application was dismissed at once."
"In any case then," Sir James proceeded, after a moment's reflection, "if you will not undertake to remove your man, I do insist upon knowing who it is who is having me watched."
"At the present moment," Peter Bragg confessed, "I have not the least idea myself. If you like to give me an hour or so to make inquiries at Strand House, I'll see what can be done. At present I am as ignorant of the whole affair as you are."
"At what hour then will it be convenient for you to see me again?" Sir James asked, glancing at his watch.
"At half-past five this afternoon or at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning."
"At half-past five this afternoon I will return."
Sir James departed, leaving an impression behind of dignified but justifiable anger. Peter Bragg spoke for a few minutes to his managers at Strand House on the telephone.
"Rather a domestic sort of chap, Kenmar, isn't he?" he asked Angus, after he had put the receiver up.
"I've always thought so. To judge by the number of photographs you see of him in the home circle he can't have time to be anything else...."
An official from Strand House arrived presently with a little bundle of reports. Both partners studied them carefully. When they had come to an end, Peter Bragg leaned back in his chair.
"Well," he declared, "I had no idea that the life of a popular actor could be so dull. A walk in the park from half-past ten or a round of golf, luncheon at home, half an hour's sleep and then the club. Afterwards the theatre. Then either a little supper party at which his wife always seems to have been present, or else another hour at the club, and home. The same program for five days following! And there isn't a single Sunday upon which he hasn't spent the whole day with his family. Who on earth is paying to have such a paragon watched?"
"We have reason to believe, sir," the man from Strand House confided, "that the name of our client is assumed. He wished to remain anonymous, but we explained that it was impossible. We address our communications to Mr. Mackinden at a post office in Piccadilly. The money is paid always in bank notes in advance."
"Write to Mr. Mackinden at the post office and ask him to call here," Peter Bragg instructed. "The whole thing seems a stupid waste of time, and he is keeping one of our best men out of more interesting work."
At half-past five Sir James presented himself once more. For some reason or other his manner since the morning seemed to have changed. If such a thing had been possible one might have surmised that he was in the least degree nervous.
"Well," he demanded, "have you made up your mind to do as I asked and disclose the name of your client?"
"For the moment," Peter Bragg replied, "I am not able to do that, but I am anxiouswe are both anxiousto meet you in every possible way. I have written to the person upon whose instructions we are acting, asking him to come and see me at once, and I am going to suggest to him that, in view of the reports we have received, this surveillance of your movements is a complete waste of time, apart from the fact that it is annoying to you. I shall ask this person, therefore, if he persists, to employ some other agency."
"And how much the better off shall I be?" Sir James demanded, with a note of anger in his tone. "What I want to discover is the identity of the man or woman who is persecuting me in this manner."
"That I cannot possibly tell you at the present moment," Peter Bragg said firmly. "After my interview tomorrow I may be in a different position." Sir James departed grumbling but with an appointment for the following afternoon.
Punctually at eleven o'clock the next morning, according to an appointment reluctantly conceded, Mr. Mackinden was announced. Both Peter Bragg and Angus received their visitor with some curiosity. Without a doubt he was in a way a personage. He was dressed in somewhat foreign fashion, but with scrupulous care and neatness. His manners were irreproachable.
"It is very kind of you to have come," Peter Bragg found himself saying. "To tell you the truth, we have had a very angry visit from Sir James Kenmar, the actor."
"Indeed," the other murmured.
"As you know, we have been shadowing him for the last two months on your account. The reports, of which you have daily copies, would seem to suggest a life entirely normal and without incident. Might I ask if it is your wish that we should continue the commission?"
"Naturally, until I give you instructions to the contrary," Mr. Mackinden said. "I do not understand why you should ask the question."
Peter Bragg was for a moment nonplused.
"But the man's a model," he pointed out. "There isn't a place he has visited or a thing he has done which could be regarded as in the least degree suspicious." Mr. Mackinden contemplated for a moment the end of his shining patent-leather shoe.
"It appears to me, Mr. Bragg," he said, "that we are slightly at cross purposes in this matter. I take it that you are responsible for making the inquiries, and I for forming an opinion upon them. Your reports have afforded me information which I desired. I am absolutely pledged to their continuance. If, therefore, the object of your sending for me is to say that you wish to retire from the business, I can, of course, employ another agency."
Peter Bragg considered the matter.
"Perhaps on the whole," he decided, "you had better do so. We have kept a faithful record of the movements of a well-known person for some two months without discovering any reason for such surveillance. Under those circumstances, as the person in question has expressed himself annoyed, we should prefer to discontinue our efforts. We are sorry to lose a client, Mr. Mackinden, but Sir James is a person entitled to some consideration."
Mr. Mackinden rose to his feet.
"You are perfectly within your rights, Mr. Bragg," he acknowledged. "I shall shortly issue instructions to another firm."
"That," Mr. Bragg replied, "must be as you wish. Before you leave, however, I should like to ask you this question: Sir James is most anxious to know at whose instructions he has been shadowed for the last two months. Am I at liberty to tell him?"
There was a flash of anger in the visitor's cold gray eyes.
"I should consider your doing so, sir," he pronounced emphatically, "a gross breach of confidence."
"That ends the matter then," Peter Bragg assured him.
The door closed behind Mr. Mackinden. Sir James presented himself that afternoon at the appointed hour. He was as distinguished and as good-looking as ever, but the slight fit of nervousness from which he seemed to have been suffering on his previous visit was still evident. His first question was sharply asked and there was a note of anxiety in his tone.
"Well, have you found out who this Johnny is who's wasting his time and money on me?" he demanded.
"I have had an interview with our client," Peter Bragg confided. "We do not know, however, whether he is acting on his own account or on someone else's and I regret to say that he point-blank refuses to allow us to disclose his identity."
"You mean that you can't tell me who he is?"
"I am very sorry but I'm afraid we can't. On the other hand I intimated that we could see nothing in the reports we had submitted to warrant your being exposed to annoyance, and I have, therefore, told him that from midnight tonight our engagement with him ceases."
"He will only go somewhere else," Sir James muttered gloomily.
"That, I am afraid, is a fact," Peter Bragg assented.
Sir James looked steadily at a calendar across the room.
"Mr. Bragg," he said slowly, after a moment's pause, "you don't want to lose a good client, I suppose. Let me make a proposition to you. Continue the commission on your own account. I promise you I will make no further complaint, butgrant me this one favorlet me be a free man for one dayThursday next, the seventeenth of October."
"I'm afraid I couldn't do that. Sir James," Peter Bragg pointed out. "If I accept the commission, I must accept it in its entirety."
The actor rose to his feet. For a moment he remained deep in thought.
"Mr. Bragg," he said, "if there is no escape from this damnable espionage it would perhaps be better if you continued to act, for the present at any rate, on behalf of my unknown enemies. The idea of a further detective agency being dragged into the matter is simply ghastly. I withdraw my protests. Earn your fees from your unmentionable client, but"
It was evident that at the moment Sir James was almost inclined to extend a certain measure of confidence to his two companions. For no obvious reason, however, he changed his mind. He departed with a farewell glance at the calendar but without another word. Peter Bragg and his partner exchanged a quick look.
"Better send word round to Mackinden that we'll continue the commission," was Peter Bragg's only comment.
Angus, by chance rather at a loose end one afternoon toward the end of the following week, wandered into his club at about six o'clock and played a couple of rubbers of bridge. He had just decided, in common with some kindred spirits, that the hour for a first cocktail had arrived, when a note was brought to him. It was dated from the Imperial Theatre and consisted only of a few lines:
Dear Mr. AngusIf you should happen to be disengaged this evening, you would do me the greatest possible favor if you would spare me half an hour of your time. I inclose a stall for the show. As you may know, I do not appear in the second act, and have an hour to myself. If you would come round to my room at the fall of the curtain of the first act, I should be deeply grateful. Sincerely yours. JAMES KENMAR
Angus scrawled a hasty reply, went home and changed, and at half-past eight was at the theatre. The house, as usual, was packed; the playby a famous playwrightwas an established success, and Kenmar, as the shrewd but kindly diplomat, full of small and lovable humanities, kept the house enthralled.
At the end of the first act, Angus found a manservant waiting for him in the lobby and was taken round to the actor-manager's room. Kenmar, still in his make-up, with a dressing gown in place of the court dress he had been wearing, received his visitor with a cordiality which was almost pathetic.
"It's awfully good of you to come, Angus," he said. "Put the whisky and soda on the table, Richards, and leave us. Come back in time to get me ready."
The man, swift-footed and dexterous, produced decanter, soda water, tumblers and cigarettes, and arranged them upon a small Georgian sideboard.
"See that I am not disturbed," his master directed, as he prepared to leave the room. "You had better remain somewhere about to stop anyone coming in. I saw one of those newspaper men in front tonight."
"I will see that no one disturbs you, Sir James."
The man departed, closing the door noiselessly behind him. Sir James crossed the room and turned the key in the lock.
"That makes a certainty of it anyway," he remarked. "Help yourself, Angus. I never take anything until the show's over, but I'll smoke a cigarette."
He lit one and stood upon the hearthrug looking down at his guest.
"Angus," he continued, "you may think my appeal to you a little extraordinary considering the fact that we are really scarcely more than acquaintances. Still, I must have a confidant. I'm up against a very terrible crisis. You can take it that I am consulting you, if you will, as Bragg's partner, or as a friend. I must have help."
"I'll do what I can," Angus promised.
The slight mannerisms of the actor had fallen away. Sir James told his story as a man face to face with trouble.
"I am fifty-six years old, Angus," he confided. "The papers all lie about my age, but that's the truth." I've been married twenty-four years. I don't need to say anything about my wife. She is one of these sweet, even-tempered, good-dispositioned women who were born to do the right thing, to give their lives for their children and their husbands, and who haven't a selfish impulse in their body. We got on all rightI suppose! I was no better nor any worse than most other menrather better, I thinkuntil one winter eight years ago in New York."
Kenmar paused and changed his position restlessly. Angus, seeking to analyze some faint and unaccountable difference in the man's tone and demeanor suddenly realized that for the moment the actor existed no longer; it was the man speaking out of his bodythe man, a stranger.
"I was out there with my company," he went on"successful as usual, making money as always. It was the ordinary life which had suited me very well up till thenfêted a little, flattered a little, entertained all the time. One night I was taken to a small reception. I met a woman there whose name had driven mine out of the newspapers for several days. I spare you her name; she was a Russian, a princess, and a good deal more of that sort of thing. I will call her Vadia. She became that to me that night. I have never thought of any other name. Angus, this is getting terribly difficult."
The wonderful voice had actually broken. Angus nodded across at him sympathetically but remained silent.
"I've never spoken of her to anyone else," Kenmar continued. "To another man it soundswrong. I haven't any words to make it sound right. You see, in a way I'm a queer sort of person for such a thing to have happened toa popular actor, cramped in life and ideas from one's very environmenta little of the manhood squeezed out here, a little of the imagination from another place. You know what we are, the finished article. I didn't know then; I do nowenough to despise what we may drift into being.... Well, the next day she disappeared. She had to. With the utmost regret in the world the New York police had to tell her that they couldn't defend her. She had .stayed on in Russia with one purpose. Again I shan't weary you. She killed the man who betrayed her family before she left, and in London and Paris and over there she's done more harm to the Bolshevists than any man or woman who ever escaped from that country alive. She went into hiding; I went with her. The newspapers were full of my sudden illness. Fortunately my understudy was good. I was with her until she went to South America. I crept back to the hospital in New York, finished up my tour abruptly and came back to England."
There was another silence. For a simple story, Angus felt the unspoken eloquence of it vibrating in the atmosphere of that queerly modern apartmentthe actor's dressing-room, with its lingering odor of unguents and flowers and stale cigarette smoke, the dressing table with its mummer's outfit, the masculine trifles here and there, the faint note of unreality which not oven Kenmar's masculine enough personality had been able to dispel.
"I don't know what there was in me of hidden greatness," he went on, after a moment's pause, "which brought us together with the first flash of her eyes, the first word she spoke, the first thrilling touch of her fingers. You'll have to take all that for granted, Angus. It has happened to people all through the ages, and even now no one understands. Only this I must have you know and believesince that moment eight years ago I've lived three hundred and sixty-four days of each year waiting, and one day in the most marvelous paradise God could create. Once every yearthe anniversary of that night in New Yorkwe've met. She's come sometimes from the furthest corners of the world. We never write. She knows where I am, and she comes. The understanding is that I never ask for her whereabouts, I never follow her. Twice I have been in outlandish places on the morning of the day, but my message has always come.
"And all these eight years, Angus, she has lived in peril of her life. Some day or other the end will come. Perhaps no one will ever hear of it. You'll see the change in me. Last year, on our last meeting, for the first time in her life, there was a little less fatalism, something that was almost like the shadow of fear in the way she spoke. All over the world they grow richer and stronger, her enemies. She was hounded out of China, escaping death by a miracle. They had a flash of genius at last, these men. When they lost track of her they came to Paris where I was. They were a day too late. Our wonderful twenty-four hours had passed and she was away. This yearnow do you know, Angus," he demanded passionately, "why those men of yours who day after day make their harmless report of my little life are filling me with terror and horror? They know, that if she's alive, nothing will keep her from coming and me from going when the day comes, so they watch me in order to bring about her doom."
His finger shot out toward the calendar upon the wall.
"The sixteenth! Tonight, before, I leave the theatre I shall have my message. It was at five minutes to one that I met her in New York. At five minutes to one tomorrow morning I shall be with her for twenty-four hoursjust twenty-four hours out of the whole year. My understudy will play tomorrow night. I shall be suddenly indisposed. That is, if I go."
"If you go?" Angus repeated, a little dazed.
Kenmar was suddenly ablaze. He stood up. Not even the sound of laughing voices outside in the corridor stojaped him. He struck the table with his fist.
"Don't you see?" he cried out. "When I leave here tonight I lead those blasted sleuth hounds to her hiding place. She will pay for the rapture of our love with her life. Who do you suppose is your nameless, your infamous client? One of that bloody nation of murderers, his fingers itching for her throat, his steel for her body."
"My God!" Angus muttered. There were sounds of increased movement outside, a warning knock at tlie door.
"In ten minutes. Sir James," his manservant announced.
Kenmar made no reply. His eyes, filled with a passionate demand, were fixed upon Angus. The sweat was standing out in little beads upon his forehead. He was like a man gripped in the sway of some terrible emotion. Upon their speechlessness came the anticlimax of a furtive knock on the door.
Kenmar crossed the room and unlocked it. The manservant entered, bearing a note.
"A messenger has brought this for you, Sir James," he announced.
Kenmar snatched at it. He held it in front of hima simple address in violet ink, scratchy characters, a blot in the corner. He held it in front of him until the door closed behind the servant.
Angus gazed at him almost in awe. The storm had passed. The joy on his face was the joy of a child. His lips were quivering, his eyes suddenly youthful. Great actor though he was, there was an emotion here which even his art could never have reproduced as he tore open the envelope and read the few enclosed lines. Angus rose to his feet. He crossed the room and, although they had never been anything more than acquaintances, ho passed his arm affectionately round the other's shoulder.
"You can go where you will tonight, Kenmar," he promised. "No one shall follow you. You can take my word for that."
Kenmar gripped his hand. The gratitude in his face was more than the gratitude a man gives for a life saved.
Angus paused outside the stage door of the theatre to light a cigarette and consider the situation. There was an entire act of the play yet to be produced and a reasonable interval to be allowed for Kenmar to change his clothes. The act, however, was the shortest in the piece, and as it had already commenced it was scarcely safe to reckon upon more than half-an-hour's grace. Unconsciously, during the next fifteen minutes, he paid unwilling tribute to the sagacity of the myrmidon from Bragg's Detective Agency of whom he was in search. There was certainly no one who had the least appearance of loitering about in the street, no one who fulfilled in the slightest degree one's idea of the modern sleuth-hound. Angus began to get worried. Supposing the fellow should make his appearance only at the last second, there would be no time to talk to him.
Then he suddenly realized that a fashionably dressed young man who had just said good-bye to another at a corner of the narrow street had turned back toward the stage door. Something in his bearing was at once familiar. Angus hurried after him.
"Saunders," he said, touching him on the shoulder, "I want a word with you."
"I thought you did, Mr. Angus," the other replied. "That's why I sent my pal away."
"Your pal? There aren't two of you on this job, are there?" Angus demanded. "Certainly not, sir. If I can pick up one, though, I always bring a dummy round for a minute or two. It looks better to be seen talking to someone than to be hanging round alone."
"Well, I'm glad I've found you, anyway," Angus declared. "You can cut out tonight's work. We've decided to abandon our commission."
"You mean," Saunders asked slowly, "that you don't wish me to follow Sir James tonight?"
"You've got it exactly."
The man threw his cigarette away, but he showed no signs of moving. "You'll excuse my pointing out, Mr. Angus," he said, " that when I left the office my instructions stood. Have you seen Mr. Bragg or Mr. Hopkins during the last half hour?"
"I have not," Angus replied, "but you know quite well what my connection with Mr. Bragg is. I am in a position to give orders if necessary, and I do give them to you now. In view of circumstances which have come to my knowledge during the last hour I have decided to take you off this case."
Saunders reflected for a moment.
"You're putting me in a very awkward position, sir," he complained.
"You will be in a far more awkward one if you don't obey my instructions," Angus assured him.
The man glanced toward the front entrance of the theatre. A thin stream of people were already coming out; the whistles were beginning to sound.
"I 'm sorry, sir," he decided. "I've had special instructions about this evening. I've been told to be more than ordinarily careful. Our client has promised me a double fee for my report tonight."
"There won't be a report," Angus insisted.
The man had made up his mind.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but there will," he answered.
Angus glanced up at the stage door. Under the light a tall, familiar figure was standing, pausing for a moment to say good-night to the doorkeeper. He laid his hand upon his companion's arm.
"Look here, Saunders," he promised, "I'll see you through this if you do as I say. I'll guarantee you your place and a hundred quid if you'll come round with me to the Savoy and have a bit of supper."
"Nothing doing, sir," the man replied, turning away with a stealthy glance toward the passage leading from the stage door.
"Then look out for yourself," Angus warned him, with a little groan. Saunders turned around to meet Angus' fist in his face. Exactly as the latter had calculated, with the first sting of pain, he saw red and forgot everything else for the next few moments. There was a scream of delight from the newspaper boys and loiterers of that ilk.
"Two toffs fighting outside the Imperial Theatre!" There was an irregular ring in a few secondsand the two men fought.
Peter Bragg, in the midst of an annoying and disturbing morning, looked up at his partner's entrance with a little gasp of dismay. Angus had a black shade over one eye, a piece of cotton wool strapped on to his cheek, a swollen lip and his arm in a sling.
"What the devil have you been doing with yourself?" he exclaimed.
Angus sank into a chair.
"You should see Saunders," he murmured, with a reflective smile.
"Where have you spent the night?" Peter Bragg demanded. "I sent up to your rooms and over to Moningham House."
"In a police cell," was the cheerful reply. "So did Saunders. Only way to keep him with me, you see. I say. Pudgy, be a good chap and give me a whisky and soda. As a matter of fact, I haven't been to bed at all. I came straight here from the police court. A chemist patched this up last night, but I've got a nurse coming in ten minutes with a doctor pal to fix me up properly."
Peter Bragg rose to his feet, unlocked his cupboard and mixed a generous whisky and soda. He prepared for himself a sherry and bitters.
"I think it only right to let you know, George," he said stiffly, after a mechanical exchange of greetings, "that you have placed the reputation of my business in considerable jeopardy. Mr. Sodor Mackinden has been here twice already, besides ringing me up at my rooms last night. He is threatening to bring an action. And so far as I can see he will be perfectly justified if he does."
Angus drank half his whisky and soda and handled the tumbler containing the remainder lovingly.
"Mr. Sodor Mackinden, as he calls himself, is the representative of one of the rottenest branches of the Bolshevist Secret Service, and what he's out for is nothing more nor less than murder," Angus confided. "It ain't our job. Pudgy, to work for such scum. Still, I admit, on the face of it, you've got a grievance. Here's the story."
Angus told it, pithily and without undue verbiage. Peter Bragg listened to the end in silence. He was indubitably impressed.
"But, George," he protested, "surely it was a bit rough on Saundersa man who was only doing his duty in our employto start a brawl with him in the open street, to say nothing about the damage to your own reputation. What happened?"
"I got five pounds or a month," he confessed.
"Saunders would have had the same, but I took the blame for the whole affairsaid I lost my temper."
"Five pounds or a month!" Peter Bragg repeated in a shocked tone "Why, what on earth will your father say?"
Angus finished drinking his whisky and soda.
"I've got it on the governor all right," he replied. "He went to prison for three days without option on a boat race night thirty-five years ago. He's got the clipping stillseems rather proud of it. Saunders is the only fellow I'm sorry for. He's terrified to face his wife. You'll have to give him a certificate that it was all in the course of business, and I'm going to choose him a gold cigarette case this afternoon. It's all right, Pudgy, eh? You're not going to chuck me out?"
Peter Bragg shook his head. "Under the circumstances," he said, "accepting Kenmar's story as the truth"
"Upon which I'll stake my soul," Angus murmured.
"I should have done precisely the same as youprovided I had the physique, and provided I couldn't have made Saunders see reason," Peter Bragg concluded. "Go up and have your wounds dressed. I'm expecting another visit from Mr. Sodor Mackinden and you'd better not be in evidence."
On his way to his club that evening Angus paused for a moment outside the Imperial Theatre to read a freely displayed notice:
Owing to the sudden but not serious indisposition of
Sir James Kenmar, the part of Lord Dagmar tonight
will taken by Mr. Philip Groves.
Angus turned away with a somewhat wistful smile. A little thrill of romance stole pleasantly through his being. He felt his feet raised from the pavement. He was no longer conscious of any pain from that scar on his cheek. Somewhere under that gray sky which leaned down upon him murkily, a great passion was burning.
ANGUS glanced up from behind the pages of the Financial Times which he had been studying intently and looked across towards his partner.
"Pudgy, old man," he enquired, "do you know anything about hosiery?"
Peter Bragg looked around in some surprise.
"As much as other men, I suppose. I flatter myself, indeed," he
went on, "that I have a somewhat correct taste in socks. I always
get mine at Beale and Inman's. As regards underclothes—"
"Oh, shut up!" Angus interrupted. " I don't mean that at all. I mean hosiery—as one of the great commodities of the land—hosiery, the product of great commercial enterprises. Huge works up North, you know, chock-full of machinery, where they turn yarn into jerseys and underclothes and God knows what, and issue prospectuses and pay enormous dividends and that sort of thing."
Peter Bragg for the first time noticed the paper which his partner was reading.
"What are you doing—quoting from a prospectus?" he asked. Angus shook his head.
"I was looking to see if I could find the price of some shares. Funny thing, but I met three men yesterday, all on the Stock Exchange, and each one of them took me on one side to ask if I had a little money to spare. Perfectly wonderful tip they had—three hosiery companies up in the North somewhere. Shares bound to go up twenty-five per cent, within a month."
"I should stick to the horses," Peter Bragg advised. "You'll lose less."
"Yes, but listen," Angus continued. "I was dining at home last night and there were one or two City men there. That chap Roscoe was one of them."
"Sir Theodore Roscoe," Peter Bragg repeated, in a tone almost of awe. "Marvellous man, George. A real self-made multi-millionaire."
"Well, they asked him about this over the port. There was a banking chap there who asked him point-blank whether a rumour which was going about the Stock Exchange that some very interesting amalgamations were under consideration was true. Pretty snappy, old Roscoe was. Wouldn't answer any questions and asked the banker quite rudely where he'd heard that such a thing was likely? I could have told him that it seems to be all over the Stock Exchange, but he's a formidable-looking old boy, Peter. I should hate to be the fellow in his office who's been gassing. Here's one of the companies," he went on adjusting his monocle and bending lower over the paper. "Leicestershire Hosiery Company, pound shares twenty-eight shillings, plus eighteen pence—went up eighteenpence yesterday, Peter."
"My young friend," Peter Bragg advised, "put that paper away. If there's any cheap money of that sort to be picked up, the Stock Exchange will do it for themselves. It's only when there's a risk they're so anxious to oblige their clients."
"Beastly cynic!" Angus muttered.
There was a knock at the door and the butler entered with a card. The last three or four days at the Bellevue, as also at Strand House, had been singularly devoid of interest. Visitors at the former establishment had been either wine merchants, tobacconists, or advertising agents, and Angus had lost that little thrill which the sight of Groves bearing an oblong strip of pasteboard had usually inspired in him. He glanced expectantly towards his partner, however, before returning to his newspaper.
"Sir Theodore Roscoe," Peter Bragg murmured, laying the card upon the table by his side. "Somewhat of a coincidence, George, eh? Show him in, Groves," he directed. "Show Sir Theodore in at once."
Sir Theodore Roscoe—"the people's millionaire," as he was sometimes called, head of one of the greatest industrial concerns of the Kingdom, man of vast wealth and varying interests—duly entered the room, shook hands cursorily with Peter Bragg and occupied the client's chair. He was a big, broad-shouldered person, fresh-coloured, with bushy eyebrows, a prominent jaw and keen, steel-coloured eyes. Even after years of prosperity, of ungrudging admission to the ranks of any society he cared to enter, he wore his City clothes with an air of distaste, even awkwardness. Yet he presented an impressive, almost a striking appearance as he settled himself comfortably in his chair and, before stating his business, glanced across at Angus.
"My partner, Mr. Angus," Peter Bragg explained.
"Met you last night dining at the governor's, sir," Angus reminded Mm, coming forward and shaking hands.
Sir Theodore nodded.
"I remember," he admitted. "You were sitting opposite to me, weren't you, when Lord Morden asked me those damnably impertinent questions about the Midland Hosiery Companies?"
"I was," Angus confessed. "I didn't understand much about it, of course."
"A man in Lord Morden's position," Sir Theodore declared stiffly, "should know better than to ask questions about an important stroke of business like that before the deals are arranged."
"If you'll forgive my saying so, sir," Angus confided, "there are a good many people seem to know about it. I was given the tip several times yesterday by men who knew something on the Stock Exchange to buy shares in some companies which they said your people were going to take over."
Sir Theodore's eyes for a moment glittered.
"If you take my advice, young man," he said grimly, "you'll wait. I don't know what view my directors may take of the present situation—they'll probably do what I suggest.... I suppose I may take it for granted that from now on anything I say will be treated confidentially?"
"Absolutely," both partners echoed.
"Then if I had my way at the present moment," Sir Theodore continued, "I should be inclined to drop the amalgamation scheme altogether. We have now arrived at the reason for my visit to you. A robbery has taken place, either from my offices in Basinghall Street, or from my house in Park Lane. Information of the most confidential nature has been made, comparatively speaking, public property after it has no doubt served the purpose of the thief. I am here to consult you on the matter."
"Pray proceed, Sir Theodore," Peter Bragg begged.
"The affairs of Roscoe's, Limited, are administered by a board of directors numbering seven. For all practical purposes, however, three of us make the decisions, obtaining formal confirmation from a full board afterwards. Some time ago we decided to use a certain amount of surplus capital buying up various mills in Leicestershire and Yorkshire whose competition is frequently annoying. The only question was which of these mills we should buy and at what price. We had a meeting, just the three of us, in the offices at Basinghall Street a week ago and came to certain decisions which I jotted down on paper. We were on the point of calling a Directors' Meeting to obtain formal sanction for the undertaking, when we discovered that the notes I had made at our private conference had been copied by some unauthorised person and had passed out of our possession."
"Not the information only?" Peter Bragg enquired. "You mean the actual document?"
"The actual document has been stolen," Sir Theodore assented, "and a copy left in its place."
Peter Bragg looked a little puzzled.
"Why shouldn't the thief have taken a copy and left you the original?" he demanded.
"A legitimate question," Sir Theodore admitted. "We can only conceive that, having succeeded in making a copy which was remarkably like the original, he at the last moment was either careless as to which he took away with him, or was himself deceived. I, in fact, was the only one who noticed any difference, as the whole thing was in my handwriting. There is a slight tear in the second page, however, of which I have no recollection, and there is a trifling difference in the figuring."
"Before we go into details of the robbery," Peter Bragg remarked, "I should like to be quite clear about one thing. You attribute the rise in the shares of these companies to information dispensed by the thief?"
"There is not the slightest doubt about that. Textiles generally are sluggish. The only three shares which have advanced at all are the three companies mentioned in my document."
"Have they advanced as much as the information would warrant?"
"I can't say that they have," Sir Theodore admitted. " The people who are in possession of the information are too clever for that. They will wait until our decisions have been sanctioned by the full board and then go for the shares bald-headed."
"And where exactly is your loss in the matter?"
Sir Theodore snorted impatiently.
"We are to take the shares over at the market price," he pointed out, "and that market price to-day in the three companies concerned is two hundred thousand pounds more than it was. Apart from that, some of us were proposing, quite legitimately, to purchase blocks of shares ourselves."
"One question more on this side of the matter?" Peter Bragg concluded. "You never had any doubt, I suppose, but that the companies you selected would agree to your terms?"
"There was never any doubt about that at all," Sir Theodore replied, because as it happens, we had secured between us a preponderant vote in each of the companies."
Peter Bragg reflected for a moment.
"Supposing," he said, "that this is a theft of the usual sort—that a secretary or an official in your company has possessed himself of the document and copied it—supposing that by introducing one of our detectives amongst your staff I were able to find the guilty person, exactly how would that help you? The news of your intentions, as is proved by the rise in the shares, has already been made public."
"A very reasonable comment, Mr. Bragg," Sir Theodore observed approvingly. "At the same time, however, there are other considerations. I can, without a doubt, directly or indirectly, ruin the thief if I discover who he is. Naturally such retaliatory measures would depend upon how much mischief he has done. Whoever he may be he's not a fool, or he would never have succeeded. So far the advance in the shares has been something like ten per cent. If the actual document in my handwriting had been shown, the advance would probably have been nearer thirty. If we can discover him before our Directors' Meeting and secure the return of the paper, we can at any rate avoid a portion of the loss."
"The idea was, I think you said," Peter Bragg reflected, "that you should take the shares over at the market price."
Sir Theodore nodded gloomily.
"That," he pointed out, "is where we have been hit. If they go much higher before we can conclude the deal, our profit will have disappeared."
"And now as regards the details of this theft?" Peter Bragg enquired. "How many of the directors were present when you made these pencilled notes which were afterwards stolen?"
"Three of us. In the City, in our own circle, at any rate, we are generally known as the 'Big Three,' probably because whatever we decide goes with the remaining directors. The other two are Sir Henry Moses and Lord Mountleaven. All three of us met in the Directors' Room of my offices in Basinghall Street on Thursday afternoon. Mr. Jameson, the secretary of the Company, was present, and also Sir Philip Groves, our auditor—five of us altogether. I talked to them for some time as to the position of the various companies whose products might be of use to us, and finally, on a piece of notepaper which I drew from the rack, I wrote down the names of the three companies which I proposed we should take over and a brief note as to the terms. I passed this round the table and it was inspected by my two fellow-directors and by Sir Philip Groves. Mr. Jameson was out of the room at the time, and the document was not shown to him. There was no discussion; everyone was agreed, and our meeting was over. I placed the half sheet of notepaper in my pocket-book where it remained throughout the day. When I changed for dinner I withdrew the pocket-book myself, carried it with me all the evening and at night I placed it in a small safe that stands by my bedside which has not only an infallible lock but is fitted with an electric alarm bell. In the morning I took it out and soon after my arrival at the office I deposited the half sheet of paper in the safe of the Directors' Room in Basinghall Street. Twenty-four hours afterwards the movement in the shares began. I went at once to the safe and found the half sheet of notepaper apparently just as I had left it, but there was a tear which I did not recognise, and the shape of some of the figures seemed to be unfamiliar to me. I came to the conclusion at once that I was looking at a copy of my original notes and not at the original itself."
"Who else possesses the keys of the safe, Sir Theodore?" Peter Bragg asked, after a moment's pause.
"Only my cashier, John Spurrell, who has been with the firm for thirty-seven years, a man entirely above suspicion. The keys are attached to a steel chain which he wears and were never out of his possession/'
"Have you any theory yourself, Sir Theodore?" Peter Bragg asked after a moment's pause,
"None whatever," was the blunt response. "Whichever way I look I seem to be up against a cul-de-sac."
"A young man of the highest character and connections. He is also wealthy and ambitious. As a matter of fact he was not in the room when I wrote down the names of the companies."
"I should like," Peter Bragg said, "to see your Directors' Room."
"My car is downstairs," Sir Theodore answered. "I will take you there with pleasure—and your partner, too, if he cares to come," he added, with a glance towards Angus.
The three men drove in Sir Theodore's limousine down to the palatial offices of Roscoe's, Limited, in Basinghall Street. They passed across a marble floor between an array of mahogany desks, to a more silent corridor, on either side of which were solid doors, upon whose panels were painted the names of various magnates of the firm. At the end was a room, the door of which Sir Theodore opened with a key from his chain.
"This, gentlemen," he announced, "is the Directors' Room."
He led the way into a handsome, almost stately apartment, with an oak table in the middle around which were set a dozen chairs. The whole of the wall at one end was taken up by a huge safe. Opposite it hung a fine oil painting of Sir Theodore. Around the other two walls were hung photographs of various properties of the Company in all corners of the earth.
"Will you reconstruct the meeting so far as you can," Peter Bragg suggested. "Call in your secretary, for instance."
Sir Theodore rang a bell, gave some instructions, and a serious-looking young man presently entered whom he introduced as Mr. Jameson. Sir Theodore explained the situation, and seated himself in one of the arm-chairs opposite a rack of stationery. Mr. Jameson took a chair at his left-hand side; opposite, Bragg and Angus represented Sir Henry Moses and Lord Mountleaven respectively. A chair turned up at the far end of the table represented Sir Philip Groves.
"We had been discussing the prospects of the various companies," Sir Theodore announced, "and finally I took a half sheet of paper from the rack and wrote as I am doing now. Whilst I was engaged like this Mr. Jameson received a summons upon the telephone, left the room and did not return until our business was concluded."
"And you wrote in pencil?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Purposely," was the grim reply. "I once had a lesson about blotting pads."
Peter Bragg glanced around the room and afterwards strolled over and examined the safe.
"You're absolutely certain that the pocket-book never left your possession until you reached home that night, Sir Theodore?" he asked.
"Well," he said, "I don't think we need make any further demands upon your time for the present, Sir Theodore."
"What steps do you propose taking?" the latter enquired. " 'll engage anyone you like to send down here as an employee if you think there's anyone who ought to be watched."
Peter Bragg shook his head.
"Not that sort of case, I am afraid, Sir Theodore," he remarked. "We shall have to approach it from a different angle."
"You wouldn't like to put anyone in my house? My servant never even handled the pocket-book, but you can cross-question him if you wish to."
"I don't think your servant could have been concerned in this, Sir Theodore," Peter Bragg replied. "The whole affair is a little unusual, isn't it? We shall have to find an unusual method of dealing with it."
"You'll remember that time presses," Sir Theodore reminded them, as he showed his visitors out. It will pay you to give your whole attention to the matter. Your usual fees you will receive in any case, of course, and there will be a thousand pounds from my private purse, and another thousand from the firm if you can discover the person who copied my figures and is making use of them now."
"A very princely fee," Peter Bragg murmured, as he took his leave.
"What do you think of it Pudgy?" Angus asked, as they clattered back to the Bellevue in a humble taxi. His partner coughed.
"At present," he admitted," I do not permit myself to think seriously. I don't want to get a wrong idea into my head. I'm just sending out feelers."
Angus thrust his head through the open window and stopped the driver.
"That," he said, "must be exhausting. Lucky we're just passing the Carlton. What we both need is a cocktail."
"I do not agree with your presumption that alcohol is a natural incentive to the imagination," Peter Bragg declared deliberately, as he followed his companion. "Nevertheless, on this occasion—"
"Two dry Martinis," Angus ordered.
About an hour after lunch that afternoon, Peter Bragg roused himself from what appeared to be a very peaceful and profound slumber.
"George," he enquired, "do you know any stockbrokers?"
"Heaps," Angus admitted. "Jolly good fellows, some of them, too. Why?"
His partner rang the bell which summoned Miss Ash.
"My cheque-book, if you please," he demanded.
Neat and noiseless as ever, his secretary produced it and laid it upon the table before him.
"Your balance, sir," she whispered, "is ..."
Peter Bragg nodded. He was thinking how pleasant that whisper was and wondering how she arrived at the faint perfume which hung about her severely brushed hair.
"I am not going to dip very largely into it. Miss Ash," he assured her.
"Fill in the counterfoil clearly, please," she enjoined. "I could scarcely read your figures last time."
She disappeared as noiselessly as she had come. Peter Bragg glanced at the clock and wrote out a cheque payable to George Angus, Esq., for a thousand pounds.
"You probably won't want this money, George," he said—"stockbrokers will buy trifles for you without. Still, you had better cash the cheque and have the notes in your pocket. I want you to go to as many stockbrokers as you know and buy in small parcels several hundred shares of Leicester Hosiers, Yates and Perrin, Limited, of Hinkley, and Grateson's, Limited, of Ludborough. Don't buy any two lots from the same broker."
"That's easy business, Peter," Angus agreed. "Might cost you money, though, mightn't it? These shares are all up and if the old man gets a degree more shirty it's odds against the amalgamation coming off."
"It may cost a little money, without a doubt," Peter Bragg assented. "On the other hand, the drop, if it comes, won't be more than a few shillings, and there's two thousand pounds waiting for us if we have any luck."
"I don't quite see the idea," Angus admitted.
"It isn't an idea," his partner confessed—"it's just a feeler. And George—"
"Be here punctually in the morning and accept no fresh business without consulting Miss Ash. I'm going to take three days' holiday."
"Liar!" Angus scoffed. "Where are you off to?"
"On what may probably turn out to be a forlorn hope," Peter Bragg replied with dignity, "the nature of which I am not disposed to declare at present."
In three days Peter Bragg was back again. He said nothing about his journey, but he questioned Angus closely concerning his own operations.
"I have followed out instructions," the latter recounted. "Altogether I have spent about eleven hundred and fifty pounds, and I never bought more than fifty shares from any one firm. I see the price is up again a trifle this morning so there's a small profit on them already."
"That is of no consequence," Peter Bragg replied. "We are not dealing with that in view. Did you get my letter?"
"I did, and in several cases I succeeded. One firm wouldn't tell me anything about the seller—said they didn't know themselves until they got the shares, and that I must wait for the transfers. One other refused point-blank, said it wasn't usual, but all the others came up to the scratch. Curious thing, too, each lot of the other shares, except one, was sold by the same person."
Peter Bragg's eyes glittered for a moment behind his spectacles.
"What was his name?" he demanded.
"Jack Jacobs, of 17, Ludgate Circus."
Peter Bragg spoke for a few minutes on the telephone. Then he leaned back in his chair deep in thought.
"Sir Theodore has rung up twice," Angus confided. "He seemed very curious to know why you'd gone off into the country and what you were doing. He's coming in this morning. I expect that's his ring."
Sir Theodore presented himself a little brusquely. He made no attempt to shake hands with either of the two young men.
"I've been hoping to hear from you, Mr. Bragg," he said, as he threw himself back in his client's chair. "Is it your custom to absent yourself from your office for three days directly you have an important case placed in your hands?"
"I had nothing to report for the moment, Sir Theodore," was the apologetic reply.
"When I put this matter in your hands," Sir Theodore went on, with a certain amount of irritation in his tone, "I hoped that you might consider it of sufficient importance to have devoted your whole time to it. What the devil do you mean by going out of Town within twenty-four hours of taking the job on? Golfing, I suppose, eh?"
"I can assure you," Peter Bragg rejoined quietly, "that I have been doing nothing of the sort. My temporary absence from London was entirely upon your business."
Sir Theodore's bushy eyebrows drew closer and closer together.
"My business? What the devil do you mean?" he demanded. "The theft took place here in London, and the mischief's being done here, too. So far as I can make out, you haven't made a move of any sort. No one from your place has been near Basinghall Street or Park Lane. I ring you up for a little information and am simply told that you are out of Town. What the devil have you been doing down in the country?"
Peter Bragg coughed. "Sir Theodore," he said, "you must forgive ine if, for the moment, I keep my own counsel. I am working in your interests, but I am working in a manner of my own. I have not even confided in my partner here."
Sir Theodore thrust his hands into his trousers pockets and his underlip protruded more than ever.
"Well, I hope to God you're doing something," he said gloomily. "I had a talk with my directors yesterday afternoon, and they're all pretty savage. The shares in every one of those three companies are up between five and seven points since that paper was stolen and copied. The thieving scoundrel, whoever he may be, has helped himself already to nearly half our profits."
"I noticed the rise in the quotations," Peter Bragg admitted.
"I tell you what we decided to do yesterday afternoon," Sir Theodore went on. "We are going to double the reward. Two thousand pounds from each of us, Mr. Bragg. That's worth setting your wits to work about, isn't it?"
"It is an amazingly generous offer. I am glad to say, too, that I have every confidence in our being able to earn it."
Sir Theodore looked at the speaker keenly.
"Good!" he grunted. "If you don't I'm not at all sure that the whole deal won't fall through. Our idea was to take the three concerns over at about the price the shares stood at a month ago, and not for someone cleverer than us to boost them up and make a fortune for themselves. I want the amalgamation, but I'm damned if we feel like being milked like this. Why, they're making fun of us in the City," Sir Theodore went on, with growing anger in his tone. "My own bank manager called me into his office yesterday and asked me why we couldn't have kept the figures quiet until we closed the deal. Kept them quiet indeed! What the hell more could we do? Can you yourself suggest any possible way, Mr. Bragg, in which we could have taken more care of that slip of paper?"
"I certainly cannot. The fact that it should have been taken from your pocket-book without your knowledge during the period of time you have stated presents one of the toughest problems I have ever encountered."
"Nevertheless," Sir Theodore declared, as he rose to his feet, "it's up to you to solve it. Remember, too, that every hour's delay is costing us thousands."
The financier took his leave, still curt and morose. Angus indulged in a little grimace as the door closed behind him.
"Pudgy," he confided. "I don't like that fellow."
"I have never yet met a man worth five millions whom I did like," Peter Bragg replied dryly.
"Five millions! Is he really worth as much as that?" Angus asked, in a tone almost of awe.
His partner leaned back in his chair and played with a letter opener.
"It has interested me," he recounted, "especially as our staff at Strand House has little to do at the moment, to make enquiries about all the people concerned in this affair. One thing I have discovered is that Sir Theodore is a far wealthier man even than people believe. He is almost the largest inscribed holder of War Loan, and, although he has always refused to become a director, he is very nearly the largest shareholder in the most prosperous oil company in the world. His bank deposits, too, I am told, are simply amazing. He likes to keep huge sums of money where he can lay his hand upon them quickly in case anything special turns up. He lent a European Government five millions the other day—a short term loan—absolutely off his own bat. He's a rough chap, George, and disagreeable, but there's a sort of glamour about wealth like that."
Angus nodded sympathetically.
"All the same," he confided, "I don't like his manners...."
At four o'clock that afternoon a report from Strand House was brought in by special messenger. Peter Bragg pored over it for a quarter of an hour with obvious satisfaction.
"Anything doing?" Angus enquired eagerly.
"Just a glimmer of light," his partner admitted. "It may be a will-o'-the-wisp or it may be illumination."
Angus strolled over to the table.
"You're being devilish secretive about this matter, Pudgy," he complained. "Have you anyone from Strand House at Park Lane or at Basinghall Street?"
Peter Bragg shook his head.
"I haven't made a single enquiry at either place," he confided. "I have left all the obvious methods entirely alone. On the other hand, I have one of our shrewdest men and our most beautiful lady assistant haunting the footsteps of Mr. Jack Jacobs, of Ludgate Circus."
"And who the devil's he?" Angus demanded.
"The man who is selling shares in Leicestershire Hosiery, Yates and Perrin, and Grateson's as fast as the market will absorb them. That little piece of information was due to your efforts."
Angus tapped a cigarette upon the desk and lit it.
"I believe you're a damned deep fellow, Pudgy," he observed.
Peter Bragg accepted the compliment as his due.
"I know," he confessed modestly, "when to leave the obvious stuff alone and to start an affair backwards."
"But where the devil does this fellow Jack Jacobs come in anyhow? What's he got to do with the theft of the paper?" Angus demanded.
"The latter part of your question must remain unanswered for the moment," was the quiet reply. "As regards the rest, if you would care to make his acquaintance, do it now. You will have time to catch him before he leaves his office. Your visit may prove interesting."
"What's to be my line with him?"
"In the first place," Peter Bragg explained earnestly, "you must not disclose your connection with Strand House or with me. You must pose as being a member, or better still a half commission man in a stock exchange firm. Tell him that you understand he is a large holder of Grateson's and Leicestershire Hosiery and Yates and Perrin, and ask him whether it would be possible to arrange a deal outside the market. Get him to make you a firm offer, and there the matter will end. You needn't tell him the name of the house you're supposed to be acting for, but keep your eyes open and bring me word what you think of the man and his business."
Angus took up his hat and stick.
"Await my report," he enjoined. "I will make a profound study of this man with the impossible name. I flatter myself that I shall look the part—an aristocratic tout being made use of by my employers. Something of an ass I must seem to be, I suppose. Pudgy, what?"
"Be perfectly natural," was the dry rejoinder, "and please close the door."
Angus had four flights of stairs to climb before he arrived at the offices of Mr. Jack Jacobs, of Ludgate Circus, which, although he was in excellent condition and arrived without breathlessness, rather annoyed him. A small girl advanced to the counter and enquired his business. A rapid glance around disclosed a vista of two typists, one seedy-looking bookkeeper, a couple of youths, and an amazing number of business files.
"I should like to see Mr. Jacobs if he is at liberty," Angus announced.
There was no difficulty at all. Angus was shown forthwith into a bare and dusty-looking office where, at an untidy table, littered all over with papers, a weary-looking man with high cheek-bones, sallow complexion and piercing black eyes, was seated writing. He laid down his pen and looked at his visitor in some surprise, shading his eyes a little with his hand from the light.
"My name is on the card I sent in. I have called to see you on a matter of business, Mr. Jacobs," Angus confided.
The financier waved him to a chair. He seemed very tired and the weariness of his body was reflected in his tone.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
Angus hitched up his trousers at the knees, moved closer to the table, and adopted a confidential tone.
"I'm in with a firm of stockbrokers," he explained—"won't tell you their name for the moment, if you don't mind. I'm only a sort of half commission bloke—you know what I mean—but they've asked me to come and see you instead of sending one of the firm as the business they want to open up is a bit on the q.t...."
Mr. Jacobs again shaded the upper portion of his face with his hand. Notwithstanding his fatigue there was a very bright, enquiring look in his deep-set eyes.
"What is this business?" he enquired.
"My people have been told," Angus continued, "that you are a large holder of Grateson's, Leicestershire Hosiery, and Yates and Perrin—the companies, you know, that Roscoe's are going to take over."
"How do you know that Roscoe's are going to take them over?" Jacobs asked swiftly.
Angus looked at him reproachfully.
"Pretty common property in the City, isn't it?" he rejoined. "Anyway, my people have been told that you hold a good many of these shares. They'd like to have a little flutter in them, but the market, as you know, is a rising one, and if they go to the brokers they'll have forced the shares up many points before they could buy enough to make it worth while. Would you like to make an outside deal, Mr. Jacobs?"
"I should like to know the name of your firm before I answer that question," was the blunt reply.
"I can't tell you that this afternoon. You can take it, however, that they're good for any amount you can mention. If you'll make us an offer of your stock, Mr. Jacobs, instead of dribbling it out on to the market, you shall have our decision by eleven o'clock to-morrow morning, and a cheque for the shares upon delivery, whether it's a thousand pounds' worth or a million."
Mr. Jacobs drew a small ledger from a drawer by his side and studied it for a moment.
"I hold fifty-eight thousand Grateson's, twenty-two thousand Leicestershire Hosiery, and ninety thousand Yates and Perrin," he announced.
"The devil you do!" Angus replied, a little startled. "Isn't that rather a large holding for one man?"
"I have been collecting them," Mr. Jacobs explained, "with a view to this amalgamation. I take it that you are perfectly serious —that you want a firm offer of my holding?"
"That's what I'm here for," Angus assured him.
The man reflected for a moment. Then he drew a sheet of paper towards him, hesitated again, and, crossing the room, studied a tape machine for several moments. Finally he sat down again, wrote for a few minutes and handed the result across the table.
"There you are," he announced. "I meant to hold a little longer, but for a big deal I'll cut my profits. I have made you an offer at slightly under the price of a quarter of an hour ago. What they're going to do on the street this evening, of course I can't tell, but you may take my word for it, prices will be higher, not lower, when markets open to-morrow."
"Until what hour is this offer good?" Angus enquired.
"Until eleven o'clock to-morrow morning. If you'd come twenty-four hours earlier, I could have offered you another fifty thousand Grateson's. I sold them early this afternoon."
Angus glanced around as he folded up the slip of paper and placed it in his pocket.
"You do a big business, Mr. Jacobs," he remarked, "considering the smallness of your premises."
The financier shrugged his shoulders.
"One needs no more in this City than a chair, an office desk, a telephone, pen, paper and ink," he observed, "and one can deal in millions. Until eleven o'clock to-morrow then, Mr. Angus...."
Angus took his leave and returned to Bellevue Mansions. Peter Bragg was deep in the perusal of a report just arrived from Strand House when he entered. He finished it to the last word. Then he turned to his partner.
"Well, what about Mr. Jacobs?" he asked. "Was he a buyer or a seller?"
"A seller," Angus replied, passing over the slip of paper. Peter Bragg studied it and beamed.
"I think," he murmured, "that by to-morrow afternoon I may be able to earn that four thousand pounds."
There was a brief silence. Peter Bragg seemed lost in deep but pleasant reflection. His partner coughed.
"Is it my fancy, old chap, or aren't you being just a bit secretive over this matter?" he complained.
Peter Bragg took off his spectacles and wiped them.
"George," he said with all solemnity, "we're on to a big thing. In its way it's the most serious affair we ever tackled. Forgive me if I go quietly. You will understand later."
Angus nodded resignedly.
"All right, old chap," he agreed. "Work it out as you think best. I'm here if I'm wanted."
On the following morning, Peter Bragg seated himself at his desk with the slightly nervous air of a man preparing to face a crisis. He left his newspapers unopened and spent some time looking through a collection of reports from Strand House carefully edited by Miss Ash. He had vouchsafed only a cursory nod to his partner.
"Anything doing this morning?" the latter ventured to enquire, after he had glanced through his own little batch of correspondence.
"The climax," was the portentous and unlooked for reply. "In a matter of five minutes I am going to confide to Sir Theodore Roscoe the name of the miscreant who helped himself to that inside information."
"The devil! " Angus exclaimed joyfully. "Do you mean to say that we're going to wangle the reward."
"I believe so. The matter presents some difficulties still, but I think that I see our way to that two thousand pounds."
"It seems too good to be true," Angus murmured, as he listened to the ringing of the bell.
Sir Theodore's manner was as brusque as ever. There was a slightly contemptuous note in his tone as he took his accustomed chair. He scarcely troubled to conceal the fact that he was losing confidence in his advisers.
"Well, Mr. Bragg," he enquired, "any news for me this morning."
"In a way, yes," was the obviously unexpected reply. "I think we have reached what will probably turn out to be the solution of our difficulties."
Sir Theodore was like a man electrified. There was a steely glitter in his eyes as he leaned a little forward, almost as much belligerency as gratification in his manner.
"Do you mean to say that you are in a position to tell me how that half sheet of paper escaped from my pocket-book, or the safe, and the information got on to the market?"
"I believe that I am."
"Get on with it then," Sir Theodore enjoined. "Cut it as short as you can."
"It isn't a short story," Peter Bragg warned him, "but I will do my best. You see," he went on, "the case you presented to us was one impossible of solution by the ordinary methods. Provided I was able to accept your statement of what happened as being correct, nothing was to be gained by cross-examining your people in Basinghall Street, or your servants in Park Lane. It was obvious that no one could have opened your safe except the person in authority. It was obvious, too, that no one could have helped themselves to your pocket-book, studied its contents at their leisure and put it back again. All the ordinary procedures would simply have meant waste of time. One had to start, therefore, at the other end of the affair."
"Which end?" Sir Theodore demanded.
"I made it my business," Peter Bragg continued, "to try to get to the bottom of the buying and selling of the shares in those three companies after the information had become whispered around. I found that whilst naturally enough the general public fell easily for the tip of the amalgamation, and bought the shares in reasonable quantities readily enough, one firm, and one firm alone, was continually and steadily selling them. That was a firm of finance agents trading under the name of Jack Jacobs."
"Jack Jacobs?" Sir Theodore repeated. "Who the devil's he?"
Peter Bragg referred to one of the reports by his side.
"Mr. Jack Jacobs appears to have been in business for about five years. You probably may remember. Sir Theodore, that he was once in your employ. His financial standing in the commercial rating books seems to be exceptionally high and his bankers speak of him with the utmost respect."
"I remember the fellow," Sir Theodore admitted—"a pretty shrewd chap, according to all reports. He must have made a fortune last year in rubber. How do you account for the fact, Mr. Bragg, that he was a large and continual seller of shares upon a rising market? Your information is interesting so far as it goes, but the chief thing I want to know is who burgled my safe and rifled my pocket-book? That's where your four thousand pounds comes in."
"I will arrive at that," Peter Bragg promised, leaning a little forward. "This amalgamation has been in your mind, I think, Sir Theodore, for some years. Mr. Jack Jacobs, too, seems to have had an idea that something of the sort might arrive. During the last eighteen months particularly he has been buying continually shares in the three companies concerned almost as they came upon the market. His holding until a short time ago was very large indeed. It was large enough to justify him in believing that if the amalgamation had come off, and the price of the shares at the time had been according to your figures, he would have made a profit of, I think, something like a hundred thousand pounds."
Sir Theodore's face had become like granite. The truculent impatience of his manner had become subdued. Nevertheless, there was something menacing in his silence.
"Now, Sir Theodore," Peter Bragg went on, "you have the name of being one of the shrewdest men alive in the world of finance and commerce, and a month or so ago you did what should have commended itself to any man having the confidence of his shareholders. Some little thing in the reports of one of the companies—I think it was Grateson's, Limited—gave you food for reflection. You disappeared from London, ostensibly upon your yacht. Instead you visited the North of England and you made a close personal investigation into the affairs of the three companies concerned. What you discovered was doubtless a surprise to you. You found heavy stocks of unsuitable raw material, heavier stocks still of manufactured articles the fashion for which had changed. You found excessive figures for good-will and large sums down for machinery which ought long ago to have been scrapped. When you came back you knew very well that the proposed amalgamation would never be carried out. In the meanwhile, however, there was Mr. Jack Jacobs with four hundred and eighty thousand pounds' worth of shares bought in anticipation of that amalgamation, and the interests of Mr. Jack Jacobs and Sir Theodore Roscoe were pretty well identical."
Afterwards both Peter Bragg and Angus were able to recall with wonder the amazing impassiveness, the entire absence of any change of expression, in the face of the man who listened. Only his underlip seemed to have protruded a little further even than usual, and the glitter in his eyes to become more ferocious.
"An informal meeting of the 'Big Three' amongst the directors of the company, Sir Theodore, was held as you have recounted. The figures were laid before them exactly as you have stated, but no mention was made of your visit to the North or of your discoveries there. You were justified in withholding them until you had relieved yourself of that four hundred and eighty thousand pounds' worth of shares, because you knew very well that notwithstanding your attitude at that meeting the amalgamation would never come to pass and that therefore the directors ran no risk of losing their money. You kept a copy of the names of the three companies and of those figures in your pocket-book, and the original you handed over to Mr. Jack Jacobs to make such use of as he thought fit. One can imagine very well how this was done—a whisper over the luncheon table, a word from a stockbroker in the ear of a rich client, a furtive ring on the telephone—all this, mind, with someone in the background who had seen the names of the three companies and the figures in your own handwriting. It doesn't take long for that sort of news to travel about the Stock Exchange, where everyone is hungry for money. The shares didn't rise anything like as fast or to the figure which might have been expected, simply because as fast as there were enquiries for them there was Mr. Jack Jacobs selling. You're clear by now, I should imagine, Sir Theodore. Your Directors' Meeting is due next week and your General Meeting a week afterwards, and to the surprise of the whole financial world you will declare yourself against the amalgamation and the directors will go with you. You will probably now pay an open visit to the headquarters of the various companies. That, of course, is only surmise."
"Finished?" Sir Theodore demanded, in an utterly toneless voice.
"I haven't much to say to you. Where did you get hold of that business about Jack Jacobs?"
"Working backwards again," Peter Bragg confided. "Jack Jacobs was the one man who was selling shares in those three companies. Obviously he knew something. We put Strand House on to Jack Jacobs and found out a few things. He left you at an hour's notice. One of your servants who is still with you remembers his call at your house at midnight and the long interview he had with you. You kept the proofs of the man's misdemeanour and the next week Jack Jacobs started business as a financial agent with plenty of capital. It's been done before, Sir Theodore, hasn't it? A very useful thing to have a dummy working in your interests."
"And I came to you," Sir Theodore confided with the utmost deliberation, "to bluff the others who thought that those figures had really been stolen, and because I thought that you semi-amateur detectives were fools and that there was no chance of your really getting anywhere near the truth. So this is what you call the modern science of investigation, eh?—the working backwards system?"
"It has always been my theory," Peter Bragg enunciated, "that one should search for motives rather than for what are known as clues."
Sir Theodore drew his cheque-book from his pocket and moved to the table. There was a hard, enquiring glitter in his eyes.
"The conduct of a high-class investigation agency, run on the most approved principles, includes, I suppose, the doctrine of professional secrecy?" he demanded, as he handed across the cheque.
"Without a doubt," Peter Bragg assented as he blotted it. "You got rid of your shares which were of doubtful value without loss to anyone except the speculating public. You made use of your directors, perhaps, but you involved them in no financial loss. Your purchase of all those shares on your own account, because you intended to bring about an amalgamation, is a matter of personal ethics with which we are not concerned."
"One more question, Mr. Bragg," Sir Theodore concluded. "You have worked this case, as you admit, by seeking for motives rather than for clues. I am known to be—I believe I am—one of the richest men in this country. Why should you believe that I should take all this trouble to save perhaps fifty or a hundred thousand pounds?"
Peter Bragg smiled.
"Sir Theodore," he replied, "it is my experience that a man's love of money does not depend in the least upon his means. Even though you may be—as I dare say you are—absolutely the richest man in England, I believe that you would work as hard and with as much satisfaction, to save a hundred thousand pounds as though that sum stood between you and ruin. That is probably why you are where you are."
Sir Theodore took up his hat.
"Bright lads!" he pronouficed, and there was a vein of reluctant and admiring good-humour under his concluding profanity: "Blast you both! "
"Pudgy, you're a marvel! " Angus declared admiringly as he watched his partner unlock the mahogany cupboard and produce a gold-foiled bottle of wine and two glasses.
"A success of this kind is certainly stimulating," Peter Bragg murmured, as he filled the glasses. "I desire now, George, a few minutes of your undivided attention."
Angus raised his glass, murmured a word of fervent congratulation, and drank.
"You have it, laddie," he declared earnestly, settling down his half-empty tumbler.
Peter Bragg fingered his tie.
"I should have added, perhaps, your serious attention," he said. "What I am about to say is not a subject for chaff."
"Never felt less like chaffing," Angus assured him. "At the present moment I wouldn't dare to take a liberty."
"I wish to speak a word to you concerning Miss Ash."
"Why not? A paragon of the firm, I consider her. If it's a question of raising her salary—although that scarcely comes within my province—I'm all for it."
Peter Bragg made no direct reply.
"My attention was first called to the young lady," he went on, "in connection with the time when she dined with you at the cafe in Soho and thereby helped you to grapple with the Lenclos tragedy. You found her on that occasion, I believe, well-mannered and modest."
"She was certainly well-mannered," Angus admitted. "The girl has breeding, I am sure. As to being modest, I have too great a regard for her to attempt any liberties."
"Precisely," Peter Bragg observed, a little coolly. "I feel the same way about the young lady myself. I don't mind telling you, George, that on several occasions lately I have dined with Miss Ash. I have even taken her to a theatre."
"Who wouldn't?" Angus rejoined. "I'd take her to-morrow, only she doesn't give me any encouragement."
"She looks upon you, I believe," his partner confided, "with a certain amount of kindliness, but she regards you as a person of frivolous tendencies. Miss Ash is not frivolous."
Angus sighed. "Misunderstood again," he murmured.
"Of course," Peter Bragg went on, a little ruefully, "it's a damned obvious thing I'm going to do, but how are you to escape the obvious nowadays, with half the world writing detective stories. The feminine interest has to come in, so there you are. Of course it's all wrong. The story-writer should take his material from the world of actual happenings and then the thing shouldn't happen at all. As a matter of fact it too often does. It's going to happen with me."
"You're going to marry Miss Ash?" Angus gasped.
"Get out another glass, George," his partner enjoined. "Ring the bell and brush your hat. We're due at the registry office in a quarter of an hour."