KITTY Foster looked just a little guilty as she met the eye of her cousin. As a rule, she was a girl who did not allow herself to be carried away with any gushes of feminine enthusiasm. But, then, Count Boris Stephanoff was an exceedingly handsome man, and there was something in his melancholy air and dark eyes which made him popular wherever he went. For the rest, he moved in very good society. He was supposed to be exceedingly wealthy, and he certainly posed as a patriot. It was only during the last week or two that he appeared to have singled out Kitty Foster for especial favour, so that people began to ask themselves questions, and Kitty was in a fair way to have her pretty head turned. After all said and done, there is something alluring to the spectacle of a handsome man, who is supposed to have left his country at the dictates of his conscience. There were certain people, on the other hand, who proclaimed the man to be no better than a brilliant adventurer, who, on the strength of an elegant manner and some dubiously acquired wealth, had skilfully managed to engineer his way into society. But society, in its easy-going way, showed no signs of asking questions, and so long as the count choose to inhabit a suite of expensive rooms at the Carlton, and gave the most excellent dinners, what did the rest matter? If he liked to play at Socialism, there was no reason why he should not indulge his vanity, and if he had an occasional weakness for addressing anarchist meetings down Peckham Rye, that was his lookout.
It was astonishing in how short a time this handsome, persuasive Russian had made a distinct niche for himself in the fabric of society. He was always so terribly in earnest, too, so that he began to gather around himself certain disciples who deemed it to be the thing to join in the social movement. Chief amongst these satellites was Kitty Foster, to the great disapproval of her cousin, Gerald Forsyth, a distinguished ornament of the British Corps Diplomatique at Vienna. There was something cynical about his smile now, something that aroused Kitty's anger, as he strolled to her side just as Count Stephanoff turned away. Kitty nodded coolly enough, though it was fully six months since she had last met her cousin; indeed, she had not the remotest idea till the last moment or two that he was back in England.
"Let us get out of this crush and chat awhile," Forsyth suggested. "I don't suppose you want to dance any more this evening. And, besides, I presume you have given up all those frivolities since you have joined the followers of that fellow, Stephanoff."
"You know nothing about him," Kitty retorted.
"My dear girl, that is a point distinctly in his disfavour," Forsyth said, coolly. "I haven't been knocking about the courts of Europe all these years for nothing. If I don't know a cosmopolitan like that, you may be sure he isn't worth knowing. And there are scores of people here to-night, who are equally ignorant."
"The man is a great patriot," Kitty said, warmly.
"Really! Now, wasn't it Dr. Johnson who said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel? Frankly, my dear child, I don't like it at all. I am sure the less you see of that man the better. Oh, I don't know anything, but my instinct rarely plays me false in such matters. Now, look here, Kitty, we have been pretty good friends, and we have had few secrets from one another. Now, tell me honestly—isn't that man making use of you for some purpose?"
Kitty Foster was too honest to deny the truth. In some strange way her cousin had hit upon the correct solution of the problem.
"I won't deny it," she said; "in fact, I don't want to deny it. What I am going to tell you now is distinctly a point in the count's favour. You would think a man like that would have taken care of his money, seeing that before he was exiled from Russia all his estates were confiscated. He had barely time to get away with certain articles of personal property, such as family jewels, and the like. I understand that the Stephanoff stones are very fine indeed; in fact, if they were properly sold they would realise a fortune. And yet, Count Stephanoff is so deeply in earnest that he is trying to sell those jewels now wholly and solely to provide means for furthering the cause that he has so deeply at heart."
"He told you all this?" Forsyth asked, quietly.
"Certainly he did," Kitty went on. "I don't believe anybody else knows a word about it."
"But why did he tell you?" Forsyth persisted. "You can't buy these precious heirlooms, you know."
Kitty laughed and shook her head. "Of course not," she exclaimed. "But then, you see, I might be in a position to find a purchaser. There are scores of women in society to-day who would give their ears to possess those diamonds, and that, between ourselves, is the suggestion the count has made to me. He shirks with horror at the idea of exposing these things for sale in a public auction room. He says he would never cease to regret it if he had reason to believe that those historic gems were destined to grace the neck of some pork millionaire's wife from Chicago. What he would like to do is to dispose of these gems by private contract to somebody of real position, or, at any rate, to somebody who has the cause of freedom generally at heart."
"You seem to have learnt your lesson pretty thoroughly," Forsyth said, thoughtfully. "One might actually hear you quoting the very words of our distinguished patriot. And so, after all, to put it plainly, you are about to join the ranks of the honest brokers in society. I suppose you will have a commission if you bring off what the count considers to be a satisfactory deal?"
"You are absolutely horrid," Kitty said, indignantly. "The thing has never been mentioned. I don't suppose I should even have given it a second thought if the name of Mrs. Hammersleigh had not flashed into my mind."
"Which Hammersleigh is that?" Forsyth asked. "Do you mean the lady who is building herself a house in Park lane—wife of that ironmonger fellow who made such a pile out in America, by sweating his workmen, and then wormed his way into society afterwards by certain glaring acts of what he called philanthropy? I suppose a woman like that would think nothing of a hundred thousand or two."
"That is the Mrs. Hammersleigh I was thinking about," Kitty explained. "Of course, she is vulgar and ostentatious, but, really she is not a bad sort, and I know that she would very much like to possess a collection of jewels having a history attached to them. We should be doing Mrs. Hammersleigh a kindness, and getting a great deal more money for the gems at the same time. At any rate I have spoken to Mrs. Hammersleigh about it, and I am going to dine there the day after to-morrow, to discuss the thing thoroughly. Count Stephanoff has been asked to join us, and he has promised to bring his family gems with him. You need not be in the least alarmed, my dear cousin, I am acting on the dictates of friendship alone; indeed, I think it very flattering of the count to take me into his confidence."
Forsyth made no reply for a moment or two. He was apparently thinking deeply. There was a queer, dry twinkle in his eye which Kitty did not appear to notice.
"We won't say any more about it," he remarked. "By the way, where is Mrs. Hammersleigh living till her house is finished? I suppose I shall have to give her a call, though we haven't met for such a long time. Don't be at all surprised if I drop into dinner the evening after to-morrow. You see, if I have a weakness, it is for old historic diamonds."
THE elaborate dinner was drawing to a close now. The cigarettes were on the table, and Count Boris Stephanoff bowed gracefully at an intimation from his hostess that he might smoke. The handsome Russian was absolutely in his element now. He had dined wisely and well; indeed, for a passionate patriot, whose whole heart and soul was in the future of his beloved country, he had a very nice discrimination in food and the choice of his wines. He sipped his liquor luxuriously. He was pleased to approve of the flavour of Mrs. Hammersleigh's cigarettes.
During the whole of the meal nothing whatever had been said in connection with the diamonds. That matter could be discussed in the drawing-room later on.
Meanwhile, Stephanoff sat there smoking and chatting as if he had not a single care in the world. There was something in his low, sympathetic voice which appealed to his companion.
Mrs. Hammersleigh rose at length, the fair embodiment of good-natured middle-age, blessed with a fair digestion, and absolutely unlimited means. For a woman who had began life in the deeper depths she possessed a deal of inherent good taste; indeed, she was a born expert, as most of the West End dealers knew. She liked her money's worth, and usually contrived to get it, though, on the present occasion, she was prepared to stretch in the amount of the cheque she was disposed to write for the Stephanoff diamonds. Of historic gems she possessed very few, and here was an opportunity of obtaining a large collection with a minimum of trouble. Suspicious of most people and most things, Mrs. Hammersleigh took absolutely for granted everybody whom she met in society, if a man or woman happened to be there, then their claims to be considered persons of importance were to be taken as a matter of course. Just for the moment, Count Stephanoff stood on a very high pedestal in her estimation indeed. She smiled upon him sweetly.
"You will come up as soon as you are ready," she murmured; "then we will have a look at those wonderful stones."
It was quite half an hour later before the Russian lounged up the stairs, and found a seat in the drawing-room. He fell to talking, in his usual easy fashion, on a score of topics, not one of which bore the least relationship to the business in hand. Mrs. Hammersleigh began to fidget in her chair uneasily.
"Don't you think we had better get to business?" she suggested.
"Positively I had forgotten all about it," Stephanoff smiled. "Let me play the part of a conjurer."
From various inside pockets he proceeded to produce half a dozen shabby looking flat cases, which he opened one by one and laid on the table by the side of his hostess. The shaded electric lights played on the streams of livid fire, sparkling in all the colours of the rainbow—purple, and green, and gold. Stephanoff had by no means exaggerated the beauty of his gems. They danced and sparkled there like things of life. Mrs. Hammersleigh swooped upon them as a hungry hawk might have pounced upon a pigeon. For once in her life she forgot to bargain. For once she was given over to whole hearted admiration. Stephanoff stood there, pulling carelessly at his moustache, as if utterly indifferent to the impression which his diamonds had made.
"That is all," he said. "Of course, as you are aware, the great amount of value goes in a small space. Apart from the artistic beauty of the gems, it seems to me that their price is absurdly exaggerated. It is almost incredible to imagine that anybody would be glad to give a hundred and fifty thousand pounds for a few stones like those."
Stephanoff dropped the remark quite casually. And yet there was a finality about the sum he mentioned which admitted of no argument and no compromise. With perfect good breeding he was informing Mrs. Hammersleigh what he wanted for his treasures. And the lady was not disposed to believe that he was putting an exaggerated value on the stones. She was still gazing at them when with deepest admiration when the door opened and a footman came in.
"Mr. Gerald Forsyth," he announced.
Forsyth strolled into the room quite coolly and casually, as if his appearance there had been the most natural thing in the world. He nodded coolly enough to Kitty, then he held out his hand warmly to his hostess.
"I seem to have come just at the right time," he said. "Perhaps you will be good enough to introduce me to Count Stephanoff."
The Russian murmured something as to the meeting being a pleasure. Yet, at the same time, he appeared to be somewhat ill-at-ease, and disposed to shuffle somewhat over the business which had brought him there this evening. In the most casual way he bent down and began to close the covers of the various cases, Mrs. Hammersleigh held out a fat, protesting hand.
"No, no," she cried; "it is a sin and a shame to hide those beautiful gems away, and, besides, there is no reason why Mr. Forsyth should not know what we are doing. The count is desirous of disposing of his family jewels, and I have almost agreed to buy them; in fact, I don't think I could possibly part with them now. Are they not altogether magnificent?"
Forsyth examined the cases coolly through his eyeglass. "Stupendous," he said. "And yet it seems to me that I have seen something very like them before. But I recollect that when I last had the pleasure of handling these things there was also a necklace with three large black pearls in it. Probably the count has forgotten to take it from his pocket. The mistake is quite a natural one amongst such an embarrassing show of riches as this, or perhaps the necklace has been forgotten. Are you quite sure, count, that you haven't got it in your pocket?"
There was a distinct challenge in the question, a steady gleam in Forsyth's eyes which was not lost upon Kitty Foster. With a sudden strange apprehension that something was about to happen, the girl turned swiftly to the count. She saw that his face had grown pale, and that his lips were trembling. In a way which was almost mechanical, he passed his hand behind his back, and produced another case from a pocket in the tail of his coat.
"Most extraordinary thing on my part," he said, with an uneasy grin. "Just for the moment I really—er—had actually forgotten the necklace. I hope Mrs. Hammersleigh will forgive me. I hope she will not think I am guilty of keeping anything back."
"She wouldn't," Forsyth said, airily. "Anybody can see from the expression of your face that the thing was a pure oversight. And now, if you will excuse me, I should like——"
What Forsyth might have said was cut short by the entrance of the footman, bearing on a silver salver a card on which a few words were hastily scribbled in pencil. This card the footman handed over to the Russian.
"A gentleman downstairs to see you, sir," he said, "on most important business. He said he is very sorry to trouble you at this time of the evening, but he will not detain you more than five minutes. Shall I say you are coming?"
The Russian cast a hasty eye over the pencil message, and crushed the card in his hand. He pitched it with apparent carelessness into the fireplace, where it fell short, and lay there unnoticed.
"If you will excuse me one moment," he said to his hostess, "I will leave these things in your hands for a minute or two."
The minutes passed on. There was the sound presently of the closing of the front door, and Forsyth turned to his companions with a genial smile.
"He isn't coming back again," he said. "My dear Kitty, you have seen your passionate patriot for the last time."
"BUT what does it all mean?" Mrs. Hammersleigh protested.
"It means that that man is found out," Forsyth said, coolly. "It means that those gems are no more his than they are mine. As a matter of fact, they are all Lady Courtfield's. Oh, I don't say that Stephanoff is altogether an impostor. I understand he is well born, and all that kind of thing, but the fellow is an impudent thief, and has been so for years. I have to thank my cousin here for putting me on the track the first time. For when she told me the romantic story of the disinterested patriot and his family gems, I began to prick up my ears. You see, it is about six months now since Lady Courtfield lost her jewels. I am one of the few people who know anything about it, because, you see, Lord Courtfield is my chief at Vienna. Lady Courtfield came to England for a long visit, and she brought her gems with her. She didn't keep them in the house, but, whenever she needed the stones for wear, she always sent a trusted messenger to the bank with a letter or fetched the things herself. After she had been in England some little time she had occasion to return to Vienna in a hurry, and, of course, she could not come away without her diamonds. Judge to her surprise when she went down to the bank to get them to find that they had altogether vanished."
"Stolen!" Mrs. Hammersleigh cried.
"Well, that is what it came to," Forsyth went on. "They had been taken away the day before. The whole thing appears to have been planned in the most careful and thorough manner, and it was worked like this. The day of the robbery happened to be very thick and foggy. About half-past 11 o'clock in the morning a brougham, with a pair of horses drove up to the bank, and a footman went into the establishment with a letter to the client that Lady Courtfield had called for her gems. No great surprise was occasioned by the fact that her ladyship was disinclined to leave her brougham, as the day was so wet and foggy. But even then no precautions were neglected, although the footman was wearing the Courtfield livery, and there seemed to be no doubt as to the identity of Lady Courtfield's handwriting as set out in the letter which the footman had carried into the bank. One of the chief cashiers obtained the jewels from the strongroom, and actually carried them himself into the street. There was no mistaking the Courtfield brougham, to say nothing of the black horses, each with a white blaze on his face and white fetlock. It was almost too dark to distinguish the features of Lady Courtfield, though the cashier professed to recognise her voice as she looked through the window. He says he gave the jewels into the lady's own hands and asked for a receipt. Lady Courtfield pointed out the fact that he had the receipt already and that it took the form of the letter which the footman had carried into the hank. At any rate, no suspicion whatever was aroused, and the thieves got off with the jewels to say nothing of 24 hours' start into the bargain.
"Now, a good many people would have made an instant fuss and outcry, but not so Lady Courtfield. She naturally laid an account of her loss before the police and they advised her to keep the matter entirely to herself. She was quite ready to fall in with the suggestion, because, you see, nothing whatever could be gained by publicity, and there was just the chance that the policy of silence would put the thieves off their guard, and render them more careless in their dealings with the stolen property. So the days went by, and the public got no hint of what had taken place; and, doubtless, by degrees, the thieves began to imagine that Lady Courtfield had gone back to Vienna without taking her jewels with her, and that, down to the present moment, neither she nor the bank had the least idea of the true state of affairs. As it so happens the policy has paid, because you see, at the present moment, I have Lady Courtfield's jewels in my possession, and our clever Russian friend has had all his scheming for his pains."
"But how did, you know?" Kitty burst out.
"Oh, the purest accident in the world," Forsyth explained. "The count has been suspected for some time, for various rumours from the continent have reached us from different quarters. Of course, it was quite natural, feeling so very secure, that the thieves should try and dispose of their property to the best advantage. They felt absolutely certain that Lady Courtfield had not discovered her loss, and here was a chance of making about three times as much as if the gems had been disposed of through the ordinary legitimate channel. And when my cousin here told me about her patriot and the sacrifices he was making for the benefit of his struggling country, then I was suspicious enough to have my own views on the subject. That is why I invited myself here to-night, and why I came just in the nick of time."
"But that card?" Mrs. Hammersleigh asked. "How did the man manage to get warned and slip away just at the moment——"
"Oh, I did that myself," Forsyth said, coolly. "Unless I am greatly mistaken the card is lying in the fender still. I bribed your footman to bring it up in ten minutes' time, because, you see, I didn't want to have a fuss here. I know my class of man pretty well. I felt convinced that directly he read my message on the card he would throw up the sponge without the slightest hesitation. If you look at the card you will see that I merely volunteered to take the custody of Lady Courtfield's diamonds off his hands, and invited him to take himself out of England without delay."
"It should never have been allowed," Mrs. Hammersleigh protested hotly. Perhaps she was regretting the loss of the diamonds to a much greater extent than she was regretting the unfortunate occurrence. "I cannot understand why you should choose to let that man off in such an easy fashion. In my place——"
"In your place, my dear lady," Forsyth said, as he dropped his card into the fire, "I am quite certain that you would have acted in a precisely similar fashion. The count has high connections in the Russian court, and—well, after all said and done, the thing has ended favourably enough. But I don't think that my cousin here will be taking much stock in patriots for the future."
"That, indeed, I shan't," Kitty laughed unsteadily. "And now, if you please, let me try and forget all about it."