THE GIRL slipped out of her evening wrap, and stood before Blinn in all that strange seductive beauty of hers, which was at once so apparent and so elusive.
"Mr. Lionel Blinn, I think," she said. "It was very good of you to suggest that we should dine here, at the Ritz. Now, shall we sit down and get on simultaneously with the dinner and the business? My time is limited. I am due at a big function presently on behalf of my paper, the 'Herald.' You want me to smuggle the six finest pearls in the world across the Atlantic and hand them over to Mr. Rufus Steuveyant; is that not so?"
"My dear young lady!" Blinn expostulated.
"Don't be nervous," the girl smiled. "I always believe in letting the enemy see apparently all that I am doing. You see, my position on the staff of the 'Daily Herald' enables me to run backwards and forwards to America frequently. I have always a good excuse for crossing the Atlantic; you know my reputation as a journalist. If I am found out on this occasion, all you have to do is to pay the duty, and take over the pearls, leaving me to get out of the mess as best I can. Now do you see what I am driving at? I want you to put all your cards on the table. I am perfectly aware that you want money very badly, and that you have an option on six unique pearls, which you have provisionally sold to Mr. Rufus Steuveyant. He is purchasing these stones to replace six pearls that were damaged some time ago, and which formed part of the famous Navarre necklace, at one time the property of Margaret of Anjou, and a rare historical gem. This, I understand, is to be a birthday present to Miss Steuveyant from her doting father. Is that about right?"
"Absolutely correct," Blinn murmured. "100,000 pounds is the price to be paid on delivery in New York."
"And that is the subtle distinction," Coralie said. "The old man will pay 100,000 pounds in New York, which means, of course, that if you can smuggle them across the water you can make an extra profit of 20,000 pounds, represented by the amount of duty saved. Now, where do I come in? Halves?"
"Very well," Blinn said. "It shall be as you like, and I will hand over the pearls to you whenever you are ready. I wish you had not chosen this spot to discuss matters. If anybody overheard you—"
Coralie produced a newspaper cutting from the bosom of her dress.
"On the contrary," she said. "The more publicity the better. Now, I know a good deal about you and your affairs, and, being convinced that you would employ me, I wrote this paragraph, which appeared in the 'Herald' this morning. As you will see, it is to the effect that Mr. Steuveyant has purchased those pearls from you, and that they are intended to make good the missing ones in the Navarre necklace."
"You are mad," Blinn gasped.
"My very dear sir," Coralie drawled, "for a stockbroker you are exceedingly simple. Don't you understand that I want to have the limelight concentrated on me? Look across to the fourth table on the left, the table decorated with lilies-of-the-valley. Do you see a young man there, a beautifully-groomed youth, young and good-looking, with eyes like blue agates. That is Mr. Silas Flint, the astutest man in the American Customs to-day. He does little else but travel backwards and forwards on the big liners with an eye to Uncle Sam's revenue account. With Mr. Flint in my eye, I wrote the paragraph which seems to have disturbed you so strangely. And I took good care that Flint should see it. Up to now he cannot prove that I have ever smuggled a stone across the Atlantic, but he knows perfectly well that he has me to thank for one or two successful little ventures. I am quite glad he has seen us here this evening. I wanted him to, in fact."
"Can you cross by the Campagnia on the 14th?" Blinn asked.
"I don't think so," Coralie said. "But I can let you know in a minute or two. But I rather think it will be the Albania on the 19th. Ah, I see Mr. Flint is moving. He is pretty sure to come across and speak to me."
The immaculately-groomed young man with the handsome face and steel-blue eyes lounged smilingly in the direction of the carnation-decked table.
"Ah, Miss Rouget," he said. "Delighted to see you again. Do you happen to be coming our way on Saturday?"
"Saturday week," Coralie corrected. "I suppose you couldn't put off your trip for another seven days, so that we might travel together, could you?"
"I ought not to, but I will," Flint said grimly. "I could not refuse so flattering an invitation."
It was with profound misgivings that Blinn parted with his precious pearls on the morning of the Friday week. At any rate, the die was cast now, and the Albania started from the Mersey with a full complement of passengers, including Flint and the lady with the pearls. That Coralie had the gems in her possession Flint did not entertain the slightest doubt. He knew, of course, that primarily her business was connected with her newspaper, but this was only an excuse to cover a far more remunerative transaction. And Coralie knew that he knew it.
She also knew that Flint admired her tremendously, and that if she only said the word, she would have the pride of the American Customs at her feet.
And so things drifted on to the night before the end of the voyage. That evening a special show took place in the big saloon. As usual, there was more than one theatrical company on board, including several stars of musical comedy and a group of Spanish dancers who attracted a good deal of attention in London during the past few months. It was a daring and audacious show, Michel Lopez did some astounding things in connection with a number of live cobras with which he appeared on the stage. This was rather trying to the nerves of the more timid passengers, for it was known that the snakes were in full possession of their fangs, and that the slightest accident would probably result in a horrible death to their owner.
"I'm glad that's over," Coralie sighed. "Where does Senor Lopez keep those reptiles?"
"In his cabin, I believe," Flint replied. "Nice sort of companions to pass the night with."
"I was wondering what would happen if they got loose," Coralie said. "Just imagine the panic if they did. I'll get Senor Lopez to give me an interview. I guess I could make a fine column article for the 'New York Mail.' Would you mind getting hold of the Senor for me presently. We might go forward, and have a glass of champagne together."
"Consider it done," Flint said. "When I come to think of it, doesn't old Steuveyant control the 'New York Mail?' You know who I mean?"
Coralie shot a keen glance at her companion. It seemed to her that there might be something behind that innocent question.
"I believe he does," she said. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing. Come along, and I'll fix you up in a comfortable corner of the saloon and bring the Senor round."
The Spaniard was honestly impressed by Coralie's outspoken admiration of his performance, and promised, too, that hers should be an exclusive interview, but shook her head when the champagne bottle was pushed towards him.
"Ah, I dare not, madame. I loff the champagne, but he loff not me. One little glass, and for an hour I am almost intoxicated. I haf the weakest head in the world."
"Oh, nonsense," Coralie smiled. "You don't expect me to believe that a man with a nerve like yours is afraid of a glass of champagne. Your pets are safe enough."
Lopez hesitated for a moment, then, as if hypnotised by the golden flecks in those wonderful brown eyes, lifted the glass to his lips, and drank to the last drop. Then followed five minutes loquacity, couched in the purest Spanish, and shortly afterwards, a precipitate retreat on the part of Lopez in the direction to his cabin.
"Funny thing," Flint said. "Still, I have seem instances of the kind before. Yes, I'll look into Lopez's cabin as I go to bed, just to see that it's all safe. A man in his state shut up in the same cabin with half a dozen high velocity cobras—!"
It was nearly midnight before Flint glanced into the Spaniard's cabin. The electrics were full on, and, in his berth, Lopez was lying outside the counterpane attired only in his pyjamas. His eyes were wide open and staring, and there was a green tinge on his cheeks, and a rigidity of the jaw, which could not have been produced by one glass of champagne. And then, as Flint looked again, he saw the cause of the frozen horror on the face of the Spaniard. For there, curled up on the pit of his stomach, with wicked head uplifted and forked tongue viciously displayed, was one of the cobras. In the far corner of the cabin was the glass case, containing the rest of them, and these, as far as Flint could judge, were safe.
"Good heavens, man," Flint whispered, hoarsely. "Do you understand your danger?"
"Perfectly," the Spaniard said. "I understand. When I got back in the cabin, I was fool enough to feed those reptiles. It was a mad thing to do, as I could hardly see what I was up to. Jane managed to get out. Just see if the other five are there, will you? Everything depends on your coolness now."
With his hair lifting on his scalp, and a pricking sensation playing up and down his spine, Flint tiptoed across the cabin and glanced into the glass tank containing the rest of the reptiles. Holding himself in hand he counted.
"That's all right," he said. "There are five of them."
"Then there's a chance yet," Lopez said between his white lips. "This one here I have only had in my collection about a month. I have hardly dared to touch Jane, though I believe she is getting to know me. When I undressed, I lay down here, feeling hot and uncomfortable, and I suppose it was the warmth of my body that attracted her."
"Yes, but what do you want me to do?" Flint asked.
"Nothing will happen as long as I lie perfectly still. Now, go to the steward, and bring me a shallow bowl and a jug of milk. Put the bowl as near to the cot as you dare, and froth the milk into it slowly. My life is in your hands."
In a sort of waking nightmare, Flint procured the milk, and returned with it to the cabin. Now that the first horror was over, he was as calm and collected as Lopez himself. He poured the milk into the bowl, and, almost immediately, the reptile began to move. Inch by inch, in leaden moments which seemed like hours, the coils were unloosened, and the long, lean head reached over the edge of the cot in the direction of the tempting liquid, then, with a flop, the sinuous body dropped to the floor, and the Spaniard promptly collapsed.
He opened his eyes a moment or two later, and sat up, staring wildly about him.
"Where am I?" he murmured. "Oh, I remember. In the corner of the cabin just opposite you is a forked stick. Throw it across to me. No hurry, the danger is over."
"You are going to kill the brute?" Flint asked.
"No. I am going to catch it. The fault is entirely mine, and it is not Jane who should suffer."
A moment later, and the head of the cobra was dexterously pinned to the cabin floor, and held there in the cleft of the stick. Lopez smiled faintly.
"One more little favour," he said. "Go to the steward and ask him for a small glass of brandy. I want it badly, my friend, and it will not hurt me now, I am sure."
When Flint returned with the spirit, Lopez was in the act of restoring the recreant Jane to her prison house. He appeared to have her firmly gripped by the back of the neck, and then he slammed down the lid and turned the key in the lock.
"I had to force myself to do that, or I should have found my nerve failing me the next time I came to handle my pets in public. And I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Flint. Perhaps you will be seeing Miss Coralie Rouget to-morrow. Will you give her my compliments? Tell her that I think that I can add a chapter most remarkable to that interview of hers."
"By jove, that's not a bad idea," Flint said. "I shall be seeing Miss Rouget in the morning."
In saying this, he spoke no more than the truth, for so far he had been baffled and beaten, and it was his fixed intention not to lose sight of Coralie before he had seen her safely as far as her hotel. Moreover, if the pearls were to be intercepted, there was no time to be lost. He was getting anxious and restless, and the fear of failure loomed over him like a cloud. Was he going to be beaten?
It was 12 o'clock the following day, the Custom's House examination was over, and Coralie had departed to her hotel with a promise to see Lopez later in the afternoon, while Flint made his way with a heavy heart in the direction of his chief's office to confess that 100,000 pounds of pearls had been smuggled into the United States, and that he had been powerless to prevent it. In other words, the pride of the Customs House had met his Waterloo. The chief was duly sympathetic.
"Well, I guess the best of us get done by a woman sometime," he said. "And I calculate that Coralie Rouget is some woman, too. Why don't you fix up a contract? Why don't you marry her? Between you two Uncle Sam would have a good time."
Meanwhile Coralie was ostensibly on her way to see Lopez, and complete the story with which she hoped to make something of a sensation in that evening's edition of the 'New York Mail.' She found Lopez in his sitting room awaiting her. In the corner of the room was the glass and wire case covered with a blanket. Knowing what she knew even then Coralie shuddered slightly as the Spaniard opened the case, and, plunging his hand inside, produced the body of a snake.
"You need not be alarmed," he said. "This is the lamented Jane, who died suddenly in my cabin last night. Only, of course, as our clever friend was not there at the time, he did not know it. Nor does he know that I bought Jane on purpose for the little expedition, and that she has had no fangs for years. She is dead, as you see, because it is necessary. And now, my dear madame, to business."
Saying which, Lopez took the snake by the tail, and, drawing his hand towards the throat, dislodged six small packages wrapped in silver paper.
"Behold your pearls," he said. "Which you will now take to the millionaire who bought them, and collect the promised cheque. Also, later in the day, perhaps you would send me your cheque, and, moreover, there is no reason why you should not draw a handsome sum of money for the story of what happened last night. I think it is what you newspaper people call a 'scoop,' and I am not blind to the advertisement. To tell the truth, few professionals are. I smile to myself when I think of Mr. Flint's face last night."
It was about 6 o'clock the same evening when Coralie daintily tripped up the steps towards the editorial offices of the 'Mail' with her thrilling and exclusive story in her hand. She had killed two birds with one stone, and she evinced no astonishment in meeting Steuveyant himself at the top of the stairs. It might have been a coincidence, on the other hand, it might have been part of an elaborate arrangement. For Coralie said nothing, and merely handed over a small packet to the millionaire, who examined the contents.
"I guess that was smart," he said, "How did you manage it?"
"Ah, that's my secret," Coralie laughed. "I can only tell it to one man, and even he is not likely to know unless I make up my mind to marry him."
"Come and dine with us," Steuveyant said, cordially enough. "Guess my daughter will be glad to meet you on her birthday."
"I should love to," Coralie said sweetly.