Clifford Hardy choked down the horror that knocked at his lips for expression. He had come eastwards in search of paragraphs—come out hungrily and fiercely as a man does who is near starvation, and lo, he had found one. Since the cruel indiscretion that had cost him a post on the Telephone, and practically ruined his reputation, he had had no shuddering luck like this.
Instinctively Hardy began to cast round for a clue. He found it.
On the floor lay the body of a murdered man, and also on the reeking floor lay a long white suede glove—a dainty affair of the finest quality, soft, scented, redolent of Bond-street—the sort of glove that only smart women wear—the sort of glove that costs anything up to two guineas a pair. The third finger was missing, cut off clean at the palm—a right-handed glove.
Hardy folded up the thing, and placed it in his pocket. He yelled loudly for assistance, and immediately the doorway became filled with eyes—dreadful, fierce, bleared eyes, for the most part.
"I turned in here to avoid a street row," Hardy explained, impartially, but awkwardly, to the eyes, "and I found this. Does anybody know him?"
A tall spare man, with a suggestion of militarism about him, pushed forward. His shining attire was eloquent of the direst poverty, yet under happier circumstances he might have been a Caesar, Hardy thought.
"I know the man," he said. There was the real ring of command in his voice. "He was called Ratski—he was a teacher of languages. A fellow-countryman of mine also. We are both Asturians."
"I fancy I have seen you before," Hardy said. "The Exile World of London always has a strange fascination for me, and in happier times I studied it with a view to a book on the subject. Latterly, however, I have been so busy gathering the bare bread of life that—"
"You speak bitterly, Mr. Hardy."
"Ah! you do know me then! Give it a name. I never forget a name."
"Paul Demeter. You will recollect now, saving me from the polite attentions of those dock savages two years ago. I am sorry you were so cruelly used over that Presidential interview."
Hardy fairly gasped. How on earth did this seedy foreigner know of that fiasco in America! How did he know that Hardy had been sent to America by the Telephone in search of certain political information, and there Hardy, owing to sudden illness, had deputed his task to a fellow-journalist, who had betrayed him shamefully and obliquely held up the Telephone to public derision. All of which accounted for Hardy's sudden 'debacle;' and yet this fallen Asturian knew all about it!
Hardy fumbled in his pocket. There was tenpence in copper there. Would it not be judiciously invested upon this dilapidated Roman centurion—this man with the commanding eye and voice of a Wellington?
"A little glass of brandy?" he suggested.
Demeter bowed. He led the way to a foreign restaurant, where the brandy, unlike the company, proved to be beyond suspicion.
"Make use of me," Demeter said. "We are both poor comrades in misfortune."
"Tell me all about the murdered man," Hardy asked. "If I can get a column or two of this in a dozen papers to-morrow I shall be enriched by twenty pounds. If I can only procure some decent clothes again I shall have a chance. The editor of the 'Wire' wants me. Only I've got to make some kind of a splash first."
"It was a political crime," Demeter said.
"With a woman at the bottom of it?"
"Ah, you smile. You know something. Give me your confidence."
By way of reply Hardy produced the long suede glove. He had quite forgotten to hand it over to the police. Demeter took it with careless curiosity and spread it out on the grimy marble table. Then his face changed—the character of the man had utterly altered.
"There are bigger matters than mere murder here," he said. "Let that pass. If you have courage and a few pounds to spare, I can give you that which will make the editor of the 'Wire' your slave for life. Only you must be discreet and silent; you must forget what you are going to see to-night. Alphonse!"
The sleek waiter came silently. Was it possible to find a copy of the 'Morning Post' on the premises. Alphonse would get one for M'sieur assuredly. When the paper came Demeter scanned the fashionable intelligence intently. His stern features lit up presently in a smile.
"The search is ended," he added. "I know my London fairly well; but you know it better. Will you be guided by me?"
"I am entirely in your hands, friend Demeter."
"Good. There are certain places, so I am informed, where you can hire dress suits. Can you find the money?"
Hardy fumbled for his watch. The watch was gold—a presentation one, to which he had clung desperately—the one link that held him to respectability.
Hardy found himself struggling into clean linen and dress clothes presently with a feeling that he had been dreaming evilly, and that he had come back to potential things again. He allowed himself to be shaved, his hair trimmed; then he went in search of his companion. Demeter came forward. It was Demeter, for the mouth and the features were the same. Otherwise he was changed beyond recognition.
Here was either a great statesman or the finest actor in Europe. Hardy rubbed his eyes and gasped with astonishment. Of all the strange things the Exile World of London had held for him, never was there a stranger one than this.
"What am I to call you?" Hardy stammered.
"Merely address me as 'Baron,' nothing more," Demeter replied. "For the rest, you are to be discreet and silent and follow my cue in everything. Come along."
A cab was called, Demeter giving the directions in so low a voice that they were lost on Hardy. With a heart beating strangely fast, Hardy found himself presently driving along, his silent companion opposite him, and the blinds of the four-wheeled cab closely drawn.
The cab paused at length, and Demeter alighted. Under the lamplight he looked more imposing and commanding than ever. Yet there was a flush on his thin cheek, and his hands trembled.
There was an open doorway with the hospitable strip of crimson across the flags; behind, a great house, the hall all gay with flowers and palms, and electric lights gleaming down on pictures and statuary. A footman looked like awkward interrogations, but Demeter's clear, strong, commanding eye froze him into acquiescence.
"Pure audacity is the gift of the gods!" Demeter murmured. "First let us raid the supper rooms."
The supper rooms were found at length. Hundreds of gaily-dressed people were swarming through the magnificent suite of rooms and now and again some man of presence would regard Demeter in a puzzled kind of way and pass on. A Cabinet Minister focussed him with rimless monocle, a Marquis nodded, but Demeter seemed to see nothing but the game pie on his plate. He tossed off one glass of champagne swiftly; the rest of the meal was moistened with water.
"You don't know where you are?" he asked Hardy.
"My dear Baron, I haven't the slightest idea."
Those slim fingers dropped on Hardy's arm. Following Demeter's glance, he saw that a woman had come into the supper room alone. She was tall, and wonderfully fair, almost Albino; her pale blue eyes had a steely glint in them, the small, smiling mouth was framed for cruelty and kindness alike. A striking woman, a woman who would have been singled out for observation anywhere in any garb. In her scarlet silk and red flowers, and magnificent diamonds, she seemed to fill the eye to the exclusion of everything else.
"Her name matters nothing," Demeter whispered; "After to-night you are to forget everything but her marvellous personality. For ten years she has practically ruled the kingdom of Asturia, and that is all you need know. To-night her reign ends, and mine—But she is coming this way. We shall have much to say to Countess Matalie."
She came gliding along, like a swan on the river. The supper room was practically empty; the artistic confusion of wine and fruit and flowers gleamed under the frosted electric lamps. A faint haze of cigarette smoke hung on the air. The woman would have passed Demeter had he not spoken to her.
"Sit here!" he said quietly. "It is a pleasant corner."
There was a ring of command in his tone that brought the woman up all standing. A ghastly whiteness rendered her fair beauty almost repulsive.
"An unexpected pleasure," she said. How deep, yet caressing her voice was. All the silver in it rang and vibrated like chords in perfect harmony, "My dear Prince—"
"For to-night only. I came to see you,"
"I am flattered. Time was when you were somewhat prejudiced against me. Is this gentleman here to see fair play between us?"
"This gentleman is here by the accident of circumstance. It was he who found the dead body of Nicholas Ratski a while ago. It will be news to you, of course, that your old enemy, Ratski, has been murdered. Do you remember Malmaison?"
A warm flush spread over the woman's face, followed by a deadly paleness. Demeter leaned back in his chair, eyeing her mercilessly.
"We will not recall the incident," he said. "It was there that you lost the third finger of your right hand. And such a hand! Countess, please, remove your right glove."
The woman laughed uneasily. Something had really moved her at last.
Hardy saw the lithe fingers at work; he saw the peachy blossom of the skin as the long glove peeled away; he saw one finger whiter and more stiff than the others, and he saw that the third finger of the glove was missing. At any rate, he was wide enough awake now.
"The Countess is always gloved thus," Demeter explained. "The pressure on the artificial finger does not admit of the coverings being intact. Hardy has something in his pocket which will astonish you—nothing less than a long suede glove precisely similar to those you are wearing—with the third finger of the right hand missing. Hardy, the Countess would like to see that glove."
Hardy produced it without a word—indeed, he had no words just now. He was staggering along in the blinding light of a triple discovery. He knew now why Demeter had brought him here; he knew the mystery of the dead face that had smiled at him so recently; he knew that silence was going to be bought for a price. He knew certain other things also; but they were far better relegated beyond the limbo of wasted speculation.
"Put the glove on," said Demeter to the Countess; "put it on."
That long trembling hand crept out again. In a dazed kind of way, the Countess rolled the soft kid up her shapely arm. The fit was absolutely perfect, the gloves an absolute match.
"Where did you find this?" she stammered at length.
"In the room of the man you call Nicholas Ratski," Hardy explained.
"You have said enough," Demeter muttered significantly. "Once that glove is in the hands of the police investigation follows, and the political career of a beautiful and charming young lady comes to a sadly abrupt termination. You understand, Madame?"
"You will let me keep the glove, Prince. Surely you don't imagine—"
"That you actually killed Hermann, no. You may retain the glove, at a price."
"Your price? Quick—say it."
"Good! My friend Hardy is a journalist. Also he is a perfect stenographer. You will tell him and me the heads of the infamous treaty just concluded between John of Asturia and the Emperor of Austria. We shall require as much of the text as you remember, not only as a guarantee of good faith, but also for publication."
The thing was out at last. Here was Hardy's great scoop ready to his hand, in the professional enthusiasm of the moment he had no thought of the woman opposite. She had collapsed into her chair, a mere woman, pleading with a strong man for mercy.
"If I refuse?" Madame said tentatively.
Demeter flipped a filbert away with a contemptuous gesture.
"You are not going to refuse," he said. "You are not going to force me to tell the story to the police. In any case they will receive you with open arms in Vienna. Better Vienna than the Central Criminal Court. Come, I shall not further insult you by asking for your decision."
Still the countess hesitated. Demeter held out his hand.
"Then give me the glove," he said sharply.
A deep, passionate sigh broke from the countess. She held up her right hand half-sadly, half-admiringly. Then her lips moved.
"It is so perfect a fit," she murmured. "I never had a better. On the whole, sir, I have decided to keep the glove."
She covered her face with her hands, and two tears trickled through her fingers. Demeter looked on, curiously analytical, yet utterly unmoved. Hardy's notebook filled rapidly.
* * * * *
The supper room was empty now, and from a distance came the sound of music, a chatter of voices, the silken swish of dainty draperies. A dragon orchid fell from an electric epergne with a suddenness that fairly startled Hardy. Almost mechanically he placed the glorious bloom in his buttonhole. He was anxious to be away now, fearful lest anything should come between him and the 'Wire.'
"I am very poor," the woman said, presently. "And I am burning all my boats. If I had money, say £500—"
"I have no money to give you," Demeter interrupted impatiently. "Later on, perhaps. But you must do the best you can."
He turned to Hardy and noted his desire to be gone. Something like a smile crossed his stern lips. Those deep-set eyes seemed to see everything.
"Would you mind leaving me with this lady for a little time?" he asked. "I have a few words for her private ear alone."
Hardy wanted no second bidding. Demeter was telling him to go as plainly as possible—cutting a path for retreat for him in fact. As he rose, Demeter followed him to the door.
"Where shall I see you again?" Hardy asked.
"You will not see me again," was the stern reply. "You have to forget everything—myself most of all. Now go."
Hardy passed into the big office, where the green shades were down, and a score of white-faced men worked silently. The hum of machinery in the basement was plainly audible, and a steady stream of boys passed and re-passed through the clanging swing doors. A man with a white face and weary eye looked up and asked Hardy's business.
"I've got to see Sutton at once," said the other, crisply.
The weary-eyed man had some doubt of it. But for the dress clothes and the flaming orchid he would have been rude. The editor was dreadfully busy, and a long queue of visitors had been repelled from his doors. If there was any message or any manuscript or thing of that kind—
"I tell you," Hardy put in, "that I am going to see Sutton. Tell him Clifford Hardy is here, and that he has got the thing agreed upon."
The little great man, genius of the 'Wire,' beamed at Hardy from behind his glasses, and crisply asked his business. Hardy, laid his notebook on the table, and proceeded to read the data of the Austro-Asturian treaty without delay.
"Well?" Hardy inquired, when he had finished. "Well?"
"Wonderful!" said Sutton, totally unmoved. "A wonderful coup. Nothing like this has happened since the Declaration of War by France against Germany. But, all the same, I don't believe a single word of it."
"You don't? Why?"
"Because John of Asturia wouldn't commit regal suicide like that."
"But, my dear chap, this is to be a secret treaty. Still, if you won't take my word, and you won't use my information, I can take it elsewhere."
Sutton showed signs of vitality at length; the mere man was creeping from behind the armour of the editor.
"If it was right and I lost it I should pine and die," he said. "Would you mind giving me some idea how you got the information?"
But Hardy refused to do anything of the kind. The 'kudos' as things stood would be tremendous. To tell the story would be merely to proclaim the fact that for once pure luck had been on the side of predatory journalism. Hardy had got on a pedestal now, and he had not the slightest intention of coming down again. It is the cracked vase we hang upon the highest shelf.
"I don't think I dare," said Sutton. "If I had some confirmation—" He paused, as an excited voice rose high in the silent corridor. It was the voice of a woman, proclaiming the fact that she meant to see the editor of the 'Wire' without delay.
Hardy started. A wave of exultation came over him.
"See her!" he whispered hoarsely. "Ask the woman in. She is going to confirm my story. What magnificent luck! She has actually chosen you out of all the editors in London to sell her secret to. Here—I must hide somewhere."
He dived into an inner room as Sutton opened the door. Immediately a magnificent woman in red and diamonds entered. Sutton bowed gravely. The head of a great London 'daily' knows everybody worth knowing, and the countess was no stranger to Sutton, at least by sight.
"Need I mention my name?" the Countess asked.
"You need not," Sutton replied. "You come to see me on business?"
"I do. I have a secret to dispose of—a secret that concerns the future of Asturia. If I did not need this five hundred pounds—"
"Pardon me, madame," Sutton interrupted, politely; "but has your secret anything to do with a treaty between King John of Asturia and the Austrian Court?"
A cry of rage and disappointment came from the woman; her rings clattered as she smote her hand passionately on the table.
"I have it all here in black and white," said Sutton. "Still, I dare say we can meet you. My information is totally complete, but my informant necessarily has not your intimate knowledge of the situation. To-morrow we shall make a sensation with the news, and the next day we could make a further great sensation over an interview with you. If you will be good enough to meet me here to-morrow afternoon I have no doubt that you will be perfectly satisfied with the remuneration we shall be prepared to offer you."
The Countess tightened her gloves slowly. A smile came over her face.
"You are very kind;" she said. "I will come. Let me apologise to you for disturbing you at so busy an hour. Good-night."
"Smart woman!" Sutton murmured to Hardy. "Not the first time she endorsed a newspaper proprietor's cheque. Well, Hardy?"
"And now, can you find me something to do?" Hardy asked.
"I can," Sutton said with decision. "After tomorrow the Asturian capital will be the focus of attraction for some time to come. By some means or another you seem to have got the inside track of Asturian politics, and I should like you to represent me over yonder. What do you say?"
"Thank you!" said Hardy, quietly.
* * * * *
Of course there had been a great sensation; the 'Wire' got its boom, and portraits of the woman in the case were sold by the thousand. There were wide issues behind the Asturia-Austro embroglio, and for some days a big European war hung in the balance. It was then that King John of Asturia did the one unselfish and disinterested act of his life, by considerately committing suicide. The wise and good Paul reigned in his stead, and with one acclaim Poteskin was the cry.
Let the people have Prince Poteskin back again—the one Minister they ought never to have parted with. King John and the Scarlet Woman, who had engineered the infamous treaty, had driven Poteskin out into poverty and exile. Would he ever come back again? All these things disturbed good Asturians, and from the capital Hardy wrote those dramatic letters that were going far to make him famous.
But there was one dramatic episode that formed no part of the copy. Poteskin was coming back; Poteskin was already in the capital, and that very night would be seen for the first time at the palace. A huge multitude had gathered there, Hardy amongst the rest. Naturally he was curious to see the picturesque Poteskin. Would some friend kindly point out this Wandering Jew of politics to him?
"He is standing close to your elbow," the friend said.
Hardy beheld a tall man in a magnificent uniform, a man with a keen grey face and dark, penetrating eyes. And those eyes met Hardy's without the slightest sign of recognition, whilst the mind of the journalist went swiftly back to a mean, squalid room that framed a dead smiling figure lying on a long suede glove. Poteskin advanced and stood directly in front of him.
"Sir," he said, "I fancy that we have met before."
"It is impossible that I could have had the honour or I had never forgotten it," Hardy replied. "Still, if the Prince says we have met before, why, then, we have met before—whether we have met before or not."
The dark eyes smiled for a moment, the lips relaxed.
"Feros," he said, "introduce me to this gentleman. Connected with the press? Always try and stand well with the press. One of the fraternity once did me a great service, and I was fortunate enough to return the favour. Some night, Mr. Hardy, you must come and dine with me, and hear my story."
The Prince smiled and bowed and passed on.