LADY CONWAY drew her cloak closer around her. Really, the weather was most annoying. Why are the elements so republican, and why do they disturb aristocratic picnics the same as they do the cottage of 'Arry and 'Arriet!
"I hope that I am not causing you inconvenience," quoth her ladyship.
The girl to whom Lady Conway spoke did not seem to be overcome by the greatness of her visitor, although the latter had confessed her rank and station. An aristocratic flavor and odor of wealth seemed to permeate the sitting-room of the cottage where Lady Conway was sheltering from the storm. Doubtless the other patrician revellers had found havens elsewhere.
"You have not been living here long—er—Miss Anthony."
Corona Anthony's cheek dimpled. An audacious observer might have said that she was laughing at the questioner. A feeling of annoyance possessed Lady Conway. People in cottages, especially in cottages contiguous to Sir Robert's estate, were not prone to treat her in this way.
"I gather that you are not purely English?" the visitor proceeded.
"Unfortunately, no. But your people are very kind to us."
Lady Conway felt a little inclined to box Corona's ears. She was puzzled; and few of us enjoy that sensation. The whole thing savored of mystery. The cottage was small the kind of tenement which in the country produces about 10 per annum, and yet the furniture was exquisite.
There were few pictures on the walls, but they were gems. As the wife of an ex-Ambassador who knew the East well, Lady Conway was not blind to the fact that Conway Court contained nothing finer or more costly in the way of a carpet than the Persian square on the cottage floor. Those bronzes were beyond all question Cellinis.
To a certain extent all this was a grievance. So was the beauty of Corona. A girl living in a 10 cottage had no business to be so lovely as Corona. Her features had the high patrician cast of the Greek; her hair was as the glory of the summer morning; she moved about the room with the grace and ease of a cat. With Marion Crawford and Turgeneff in her mind, Lady Conway found her thoughts gravitating in the direction of Nihilism. Some of these foreign desperadoes were fairly well born, and money was always ready for political crime. Being of a passing generation Lady Conway had, of course, read 'Idalia.' Corona Anthony was Idalia revised, and brought up to date.
On the whole, Lady Conway was by no means sorry when the passing thunder-cloud had spent its force, and she was free to seek her picnic party once more. The sun shone brightly upon the hanging woods beyond the river, already the short springy turf was drying fast under the warm rays. At the trysting-place the revellers had already foregathered.
There were Sir Robert Conway, big and pompous; his son Robert, a natty young man, with a pleasant, handsome face and a frank smile. Most of the girls regarded Bob Conway tenderly—it is a way they have with good-looking youngsters who are heirs apparent to fat investments and ancient acres. There were nice-looking women, a few diplomats, and Ivan Lobanoff.
The latter, an attache of the Liberian Embassy, came sliding up to Lady Conway, who spoke highly of the fascination of Lobanoff's manner. He had a slim waist, a sleek head, and a fearfully waxed moustache. Some people averred that he was not troubled with many scruples. They were wrong, inasmuch as he had no scruples at all.
"We have missed you," he said. "We were beginning to get alarmed."
"To tell the truth," Lady Conway remarked. "I have had an adventure. Robert, who are those people who have taken the Red Cottage?"
"Really, I cannot say, my dear," Sir Robert replied. "Magness says they are foreigners. So long as they pay their rent regularly it doesn't matter. Why?"
"Because there is a girl there. A most beautiful girl, who looks like a lady. But you must have seen her. Is she not lovely?"
"Not bad," said Bob. "Dark, isn't she? I've almost forgotten."
Lobanoff smiled. He sidled up to Bob like a cat. He never walked boldly up to anybody, like other people. He seemed to regard others as his mice.
"You overdid that, mon cher," he whispered. "Oh, yes; I understand."
But Corona Anthony was already forgotten. There were other things to occupy the general attention. And so the afternoon passed away until the carriages came and drove the Conway house party home to dinner. Sir Robert, who found picnics to be out of his line, crept into the library for a cigar before dressing. There he found Lord Maltravers, Envoy to the Court of Arsenia, now in England on leave, supposed to be connected with some important treaty.
"Just the very man I wanted," said the latter. "Have you looked over the papers."
"I have, my dear Mal; I congratulate you. The thing will be a great triumph for you; a fine thing, commercially speaking, for England. It will represent the first reversion of Paris or Vienna."
"Not if Lobanoff knew," Maltravers smiled.
"No, he would not hesitate to steal the papers. Just now the fellow's presence in the house constitutes a positive danger. I feel perfectly certain he was at the bottom of the disappearance of those precis notes in Berlin that caused so much trouble when I was there years ago. Why my wife asked him to come down just now I can't imagine."
"My dear fellow, your wife said the same about yourself. The man seems to have actually invited himself. I wonder if he knows about those papers. But Vickers comes to-night and leaves with them tomorrow."
"Good! Take my advice, and give Vickers a hint. You'd better have the papers now."
Sir Robert proceeded to unlock the safe in a corner of a library. But the papers in question were not to be found. The pallor of Sir Robert's face was reflected by the dead whiteness of Maltravers'. In silence every paper was turned out, but no draft treaty was to be found amongst them.
"I'll take my oath," Sir Robert remarked in trembling tones, "that I placed the documents there last night at eleven. I locked up the safe carefully, and put the key in my pocket. I had one cigar in the smoking-room afterwards."
"Ah! That would be after all the rest of us had gone to bed. Were you alone."
"No, Lobanoff was with me. I dropped to sleep for a few minutes over my cigar, and when I came to myself Lobanoff had gone. But the key of the safe was in my pocket. I found it there this morning."
"Tell me, did you feel tired and heavy when you woke?"
"Well, yes, come to think of it. But I fail to see—"
"Pshaw! Lobanoff's presence here is explained. Russia is at the bottom of it, of course. You were drugged with some potent yet transient poison. Don't look like that, my dear old friend; I cannot blame you. I am ruined."
"Who speaks about ruin?"
The two old men turned with a start. Bob stood there. Moved by the impulse of a sympathetic longing, Sir Robert told the story.
"What an infernal shame!" Bob cried. "Of course, it is not for me to advise you, but if I were you I would go on just as if nothing had happened. Don't let Lobanoff see you have discovered your loss. We may hit upon some way of getting the document back. We might pay him off in his own coin."
"Not in my house," Sir Robert said, sternly.
"All the same the lad is right," Maltravers replied. "Heaven grant that there may be some way found out of the difficulty."
Hearts may ache and eyes smart with tears restrained, but men must dine. Under the pools of light cast by shaded lamps the guests sat and chatted merrily. None were more gay than Sir Robert and Maltravers. Diplomacy formed the staple food for conversation. The State of Sparta gave a start to the discourse.
"Depend upon it," Maltravers remarked, "that the late King Hugo did a wise and patriotic thing when he resigned the throne and went into voluntary exile. He had done the fighting and his exit soothed wounded pride, and made the way clear for the needed social reforms. A man in a million."
Nobody seemed to combat this statement, and the meal proceeded. King Hugo's utter disappearance had created a profound impression three years before, but it had become ancient history by this time, and some of the younger men were playing with their cigarette cases impatiently. Lady Conway took the hint, taking a rustling train of silks and scents after her.
One or two of the men drifted out on the terrace. Bob drifted further still, and that was out into the park. Once out of sight he began to slide along more quickly, until he came under the shadow of a spreading oak, where he he paused.
A minute or two later and a girl joined him. It was Corona Anthony. A rare smile trembled on her lips, there was a proud, yet shy, welcome in her eyes.
"How good of you!" Bob whispered.
"Say rather how good of both of us," was the reply. "And how wrong of both of us."
"Why? My dear Corona, if you only knew—"
"My dear Bob, if your mother only knew!"
She had him there. But youth is ever sanguine, and Bob had always been a spoilt boy from the early days.
"My mother will come to love you yet," he cried.
"Never so much as you do," Corona said decisively. "No, I shan't let you kiss me. I am not going to be kissed until—well, until your mother says you may. And now tell me all the news. I am always interested in the doings of great people."
Almost before Bob was aware of the fact, he had told the story of the missing treaty. Corona surprised him by the intelligent interest she betrayed, and the comprehensive grasp of the whole question at issue.
"I know the country well," she said. "My father—but never mind my father. The question is—whom do you suspect?"
"Well," Bob replied, "there is a man called Lobanoff—"
"Lobanoff! Ivan Lobanoff! Did I hear the name aright?"
Bob regarded the speaker with amazement. She seemed to have grown inches taller. She might have been a queen rebuking a criminous subject. With a ring of command in her voice, she turned to Bob.
"Fetch that man to me at once," she said. "I will wait here. Go!"
Bob went. He couldn't help it. Had Corona ordered him to burn down the court in the same ringing voice he felt that he must have obeyed. He found Lobanoff hanging over the terrace puffing rings of smoke into the amber air.
"Come along with me," he said. "I want you."
Lobanoff complied without wasting time in questions. But as Corona stepped from behind the tree his gay air vanished. He seemed to be framing words with his lips, but no sound came from them.
"Leave us," said Corona to Bob. "You will please to retire out of hearing, but you need not go out of sight."
Bob complied, wondering. He saw that Corona was speaking words of winged flame.
"You miserable wretch," she was saying. "I am not going to spare you. A pretty servant of the Czar are you—taking his money and plotting for his life. A telegram to the Chief of Police at St. Petersburg, hinting at a search of your headquarters there, and your life is not worth a month's purchase. How do I know this. Your ally, Count Czarny, fell into my brother's hands a while ago, and the compromising papers found on him betrayed you all. False to the Czar as you are to us, why should I spare you?"
"Ah, that accounts for Czarny's strange silence," Lobanoff cried.
Corona smiled meaningly.
"Spare me," Lobanoff went on; "have a little mercy. I admit that my treachery to the—to your father was great, but I have tried to atone. My new life—"
"You lie," Corona cried, "there is no new life for you. As well expect the sun to shine by night. Even here you are playing your vile part. Still, I am prepared to spare your life, for I do hold your life, on one condition."
"Name it, and it is yours," Lobanoff cried eagerly.
"Give me the papers you stole from Sir Robert Conway last night."
The Russian's jaw dropped. He passionately denied the accusation.
"They are in your pocket at the present moment," Corona said, as she prepared to move away; "you dare not trust them elsewhere. But as you seem to have made your choice, so you must abide by it."
Lobanoff collapsed suddenly. He snatched the papers from his breast.
"Take them," he whispered; "take them, and for ever hold your peace."
"The word of an Anthony should suffice for a Lobanoff," Corona replied. "I have no wish to detain you any longer, sir. If you take my advice, you will endeavor to find a more suitable climate elsewhere."
Lobanoff crept away, and presently disappeared. When Bob came eagerly up to Corona again, the ice had melted once more.
"Here are the papers you required," she smiled. "Am I not clever?"
"I am positively afraid of you," Bob replied. "It is like a wonderful romance. How did you manage to coerce that man?"
"That must be my secret for the present, Bob. You may know all some day. Lobanoff once held service under my father. He was guilty of a dual treachery which, if exposed to the Czar, would cause him to end his days in Siberia. I used this threat as a lever, and you have the result in your hands. Lord Maltravers will sleep with an easy mind to-night."
"You darling! And I may tell, then, that you—"
Corona had a sudden relapse into her regal manner.
"You will do nothing of the kind," she said. "If you dare to betray me, I shall never speak to you again. I cannot use this thing as a passport to the good graces of your family. If you only knew my history—"
Corona broke off suddenly. She saw how eagerly Bob was waiting for the rest. Then her lovely face broke into a rippling smile.
"Go home," she said, "go home and ease the mind of that nice old gentleman. I used to know him once, but there is no occasion to recall the fact. Then you can meet me here the day after to-morrow and tell me what has happened. All your guests will be gone by that time, I understand."
Bob found his father and Maltravers in the library. They were still discussing the impasse, and melancholy had marked them for her own. Bob drew the papers from his pocket, and held them aloft triumphantly.
"Who speaks first?" he asked.
Maltravers gave a hoarse cry. He could hardly believe his eyes. When he became a little more composed again he asked how the thing was managed.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Bob replied. "Unfortunately the secret is not my own. Oh, yes, Lobanoff had the papers, and the—a—other person persuaded him to give them up. I congratulate you, my lord."
With which Bob repaired to the billiard room, leaving the two men alone.
"I'm afraid this is going to cause you trouble," Maltravers observed.
"I can't see it," replied Conway. "Why?"
"Because there's a woman in the case. No man could have bested Lobanoff in that way. I'm very sorry, my dear fellow, because I'm the one most to blame."
"Nonsense, old friend; this bother has affected your intellect."
"Let us hope so," Maltravers responded. "Now I'll try one of these Partagas. I think I could appreciate the flavor to-night."