BUSINESS was not all that it might be, and Mr. John Lenham, sole surviving partner in the firm of Mayfield and Co., of Bond Street, sat in his private office pondering over the problem of cutting down expenses. Really, nobody seemed to want anything in the way of expensive jewellery, for times were bad, and even the foreign colony in Park Lane was feeling the pressure. No doubt the demand for fine diamonds would revive some day, but, meanwhile, the house was hardly paying its expenses. Mr. Lenham thought of his expensive stock and sighed. He sighed for the good old times when—but it was no use to think of that.
From where he sat he could see into the street. He was not to busy that morning, and he was interested to see a carriage and pair of horses draw up before the palatial establishment. Really this looked quite like the old thing. A property turned out equipage before a Bond Street shop was getting as rare as a black swan.
And there was something out of the common in this particular equipage. It had an air of distinction about it, a flavor of old times; not exactly unique, perhaps, but suggestive of the old nobility before Park Lane came into existence and the governing classes took to dabbling on the Stock Exchange. Mr. Lenham was a well-read man, and he instantly thought of Thackeray.
There was nothing shabby about the carriage, though it was mounted on leather springs. The paint work was quite fresh, the varnish glittered in the sun, the harness on the big grey horses was of silver. The coachman had that subtle blend of bishop and prosperous hotel proprietor that coachmen used to have in the days before Shoreditch invaded Belgravia. The footman was only a little less dignified. Mr. Lenham was interested. He was reminded of the stories that his father used to tell.
He was not in the least surprised, therefore, to see descending from the carriage a most delightful old lady in a drawn silk Victorian bonnet. Her hair was beautifully white, her cheeks glowed with a fine healthy red. For the rest, she was clad in satin. She looked very sweet and amiable and refined, and yet withal surrounded by an atmosphere of the most tremendous dignity. It seemed rather incongruous that she should be followed by an immense black-muzzled brindled bulldog.
"Now I wonder who she is?" Lenham pondered. "Aristocrat to her fingertips, quite a survival of the good old school. Mr. Hoggenheimer doesn't dine with her."
Mr. Lenham had not long to wait for enlightenment on the point. A natty, frock-coated assistant rapped on the office door.
"Lady Mary Mountroyal would like to speak to you, sir," the assistant explained.
The name struck a familiar chord. The head of the Mountroyals, of course, was the Duke of Ravenspur, who had many relations. Rapidly Mr. Lenham fluttered over the pages of his Debrett. Lady Mary appeared to be the aunt of the present Duke, and her residence was Strathallen Castle, in the county of Inverness. She appeared to live there with her sister Susan. Here was some of the very best blood in the kingdom.
Mr. Lenham came in with his most grave and courteous manner to the counter. The dainty old lady seated there smiled quite pleasantly.
"It is very many years ago since I was here last, Mr. Lenham," she said. "Really, I am almost afraid to count them. It was in your father's time."
"We have been favored with much Mountroyal patronage, my lady," Lenham said.
"Yes, so my sister, Lady Susan, reminded me. She insisted that if we were to buy this present we should come here. For the bride, you know."
"I am afraid that I don't quite follow, my lady," Lenham murmured.
"Now, that is very stupid of me," Lady Mary replied. "That which is a great event to us is merely an incident in your large business, Mr. Lenham. I am not going to say that we altogether approve of the match; but there it is. My great-nephew, Lord Hindhead, is going to be married, you know. He is at present in America with his father."
Lenham had grasped it now. Lord Hindhead was the future Duke of Ravenspur, and latterly he had become engaged to a great American heiress. Unless the papers were greatly mistaken, he was about to marry a hundred million dollars. The ceremony was to take place in New York in the course of a few weeks.
"Lord Hindhead is a customer of ours," Lenham said.
"Quite so. Now, I may tell you, Mr. Lenham, that Hindhead is a great favorite of ours. The dear boy spent a deal of his youth with us at Strathallen—he was delicate in those days. We should have much preferred to see him marry at home, but we are getting old-fashioned, and, really, nobody takes any notice of what we say. We have sounded our great nephew and he does not seem to want anything for himself. He would much prefer that we sent the bride something. We thought that was rather nice of him."
"A very proper sentiment, my lady," Lenham murmured.
"So that is more or less decided. The question is, what shall we send? I confess that Lady Susan and myself have a little difference of opinion in that respect. The present must take the form of stones, of course; and there we part company. I came to you, Mr. Lenham, without saying anything to my sister. I thought that perhaps with your good taste you could help us a little in the selection."
"It would be a great pleasure, my lady. But, first of all, I should like to have some idea as to the amount you are desirous of spending."
"The amount?" Lady Mary asked, vaguely. "Of course. The amount! Well, let us say something in the region of five or six thousand pounds. I fancy my sister will be ready to meet me to that extent. Might I trouble you for a little water for my dog? I fear that poor Captain feels the heat. Lady Susan insisted upon his coming to town with us."
"A remarkably fine specimen of his kind," Lenham said. "So gentle, too."
"Up to a certain point, yes. We have a score or two at Strathallen. Most of the best bulldogs in England trace their decent back to Strathallen blood. It is really very kind of you to take all this trouble, Mr. Lenham. And now, as we have come to town on purpose to buy this wedding present, I should like to see some choice articles of yours. Lady Susan must be consulted in the final choice, but, unfortunately, she has a slight touch of her neuralgia, and cannot get out."
Lenham proceeded to give certain instructions, and speedily the glass counter was strewn with velvet-lined cases in which gems flashed and dazzled. There was nothing in the least common there, everything was of the best. There were necklets and pendants, and strings of glittering stones until Lady Mary was fain to place her hands to her face and protest that the display was too dazzling for her poor old eyes.
"You have really shown me too much," she said. "Even if it were left to myself, I could not possibly make a selection now. I feel as if I should like to take the whole lot. I could hesitate all day between that pendant and the parure of pearls and rubies. It has always been a weakness of mine that I couldn't make up my mind. I begin to feel sorry now that I didn't leave everything to Lady Susan. Perhaps if I saw one of those lovely things by itself I could make a selection. Those emeralds, for instance. My heart goes out to them. If, when my sister comes, you would produce the emeralds and nothing else it is just possible that—"
Lenham smiled to himself. There appeared to be a good deal of guile, after all, in this exquisite old lady, who bore such a strong resemblance, to one of Cosway's miniatures. But in spite of his amusement Lenham kept an eye to business. There was a chance here of selling two wedding presents instead of one.
"I shall be pleased to do as your Ladyship wishes," he said.
"Now that is very kind of you, Mr. Lenham. A little idea has just occurred to me. Could you come round to our hotel about four this afternoon and bring a lot of those lovely things with you? Or you might only bring the emeralds. On second thoughts I should prefer that you only brought the emeralds. I will tell my sister what I have done, and I am quite sure that she will approve of my choice."
Lenham would be delighted, of course. But he was not going to content himself with the emeralds alone. It was just possible that Lady Susan loathed emeralds.
Lenham knew human nature pretty well, and felt certain that Lady Mary was taking advantage of Lady Susan's neuralgia to steal a march on her. Even sisters who are devoted to each other are guilty of these little diplomacies. When Lenham called at the hotel that afternoon he would have a bagful of other stuff with him.
"I will do as you suggest, my lady," he said. "Where shall I call?"
Lady Mary gave the address. The name of the hotel suggested respectable dinginess, but doubtless it had been exclusive enough half a century ago. But then Lady Mary belonged to the type that never changes. She would probably have repudiated the Carlton or the Ritz with scorn. And in any case it did not matter.
At half-past four the same afternoon Lenham found himself in a sitting-room, furnished precisely as it had been furnished any time the last half century. It was on the first floor, and looked out upon dull red brick houses on the opposite side, which, like itself, were a miracle of ugliness. There were the Brussels carpet with the cauliflower roses on a red ground, the crystal chandeliers on the cold white marble mantelpiece, the chairs upholstered in some alleged velvet material. A large circular table in the centre of the room was littered with a mass of shimmering material that was obviously intended for use by the dressmaker. The table was smothered with it, the clinging folds reached to the floor. Before the fire the bulldog Captain lay licking his black muzzle and turning what seemed like a sour bloodshot eye on the intruder. Lenham felt a creeping up his legs.
A few moments later Lady Mary came in smilingly. "You are very punctual," she said. "My sister and I have a bed-room below this, and I heard you walking about. I have just been giving Lady Susan something for her neuralgia. It makes her very restless and a little ill-tempered. I told her about the emeralds. I am sorry to say that she does not approve of emeralds at all. Still, I am sanguine that when she sees them she may change her mind. If not—"
Lenham signified that it was of no consequence whatever. In any case, he was pleased and proud of the chance of waiting upon Lady Mary. He said nothing as to the contents of the black bag that had been placed on the floor.
"And, besides, there are other things besides emeralds," Lady Mary smiled. "I shall persuade my sister to come and see some of those other lovely things if she is better to-morrow. Still, I have quite set my heart on the emeralds."
"Your Ladyship could not make a better selection," Lenham said. It was time now to unmask his batteries. "I ventured to bring with me in case the emeralds did not—"
"Oh, I am sorry," Lady Mary cried, "That would defeat—but my sister is coming. If you have anything in your pocket that—"
"Not in my pocket, my lady," Lenham explained. "In that little black bag—"
"Then you will be so good as to hide the black bag. How fortunate it is that all this stuff, is littered about. Push the bag under the table. Quick."
Lenham complied discreetly. He laid the bag down carefully in the centre of one of the cauliflower roses and dropped the drapery over it. At the same moment the door of the room opened and Lady Susan came in. She was the exact counterpart of Lady Mary, though her features were a little more commanding and firm. She held a handkerchief to her face, and seemed to be suffering some amount of pain.
"My sister had been telling me what she has done," she said. "It is a great matter of regret to me that Lady Mary has set her mind upon emeralds for this auspicious occasion. In a general way we are devoted to each other; we hardly ever have a difference of opinion. But there are reasons, strong reasons, why I cannot associate myself with a gift of emeralds. If you have anything else with you, Mr. Lenham—"
"But, my dear Susan, surely you will look at the stones!" Lady Mary protested. She spoke just in time to present an indiscretion on Lenham's part. "Without the slightest desire to hurt your feelings, I am sure this prejudice—"
Lady Susan turned with a pallid smile, and said. "For my part, I plead guilty to the charge of prejudice. All the same I am sorry that you should have a wasted journey, Mr. Lenham, and I shall be glad if you will show me the emeralds. I am sure that Lady Mary will never be satisfied till I have looked at them."
Lady Mary checked what was evidently a strong inclination to tears. An unsteady little smile played about her lips. From his pocket Lenham produced the offending case and displayed the beautiful stones on the table. They certainly were very beautiful and very tempting. But Lady Susan's face never relaxed its grimness.
"I have not a word to say against them," she said. "The workmanship is perfect, but I have a strong dislike for emeralds. I am sure, my dear Mary, that you will not make a personal matter of this. We have never had a quarrel yet—"
Lady Mary took a filmy handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it to her eyes. She stood for an instant as if struggling with her feelings, and then with the scrap of lace still to her eyes left the room. Lady Susan sighed.
"An extremely sensitive nature," she said. "Sensitive and tender-hearted from a child! I fear that I have been somewhat hard upon my sister. It is very difficult to know how to deal with her sometimes. Still, I cannot give way on this matter. There are so many lovely things that we might select for Hindhead's bride. If you will excuse me for a moment I'll speak to Lady Mary."
"By all means," Lenham said politely. "Don't let me detain your Ladyship."
A moment later and Lenham had the room to himself. He was feeling quite easy in his mind. He began to see that he was going to sell the emeralds after all. In any case, he was going to sell something. The sisters would probably make up their quarrel, and in the exuberance of their emotion might probably select something valuable from the black bag. But, all the same, the little difference of opinion was some time in healing, for the clock ticked off half an hour and Lady Susan had not returned.
Lenham was beginning to get just a little uneasy. He could not, of course, put his hand on anything wrong. The ladies were here, and under the table was his black bag. Still, the frauds of jewel thieves are many and peculiar, and Lenham felt a strong desire to have a look at the little black bag just to make sure.
With this purpose apparent in his mind he took a step towards the table. As he did so a deep, angry growl burst from the bulldog standing before the fire. The bloodshot eyes gleamed murderously, the animal advanced on tiptoe. It seemed to Lenham as if he were suddenly turned to stone. A profuse perspiration stood on his forehead. With a certain desperate courage he advanced a hand in the direction of the bell. Another angry snarl and a flash of white teeth warned him to be careful.
Lenham took a pull at his courage. So long as he stood perfectly still nothing appeared likely to happen. Meanwhile the clock was ticking on towards five o'clock, and there was no sign of Lady Susan or her sister. Lenham could hear people moving about the house, and this was some sort of consolation to him. He ventured to call out presently; but then every move on his part affected the dog to still deeper animosity. Once more there was the deep growl and the flash of those great white fangs.
There was nothing for it now but to possess his soul in patience. But Lenham felt that he must know something of the fate of the black bag or perish in the attempt. With his muscles set and stiff he shuffled along by inches still he could touch the table. Very slowly and cautiously he managed to remove the black material, and, with his head on one side, look under the table.
He did not cry out; he did not give vent to any display of passion. For some little time now he had known exactly what had happened. At least, he had felt it in his bones that the black bag had gone. And the bag had not only vanished, but under the table was a large circular hole where the floor had been cut away and bodily removed, the carpet with the cauliflower roses into the bargain.
It was quite dark before anybody came into the room and flicked on the electric light. A waitress stood there regarding Lenham with suspicion and astonishment.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Get that dog away first," Lenham said, hoarsely. "I'll explain afterwards. If I move an inch that brute will fly at my throat."
But, strange to say, the bulldog had already vanished. Probably, from his canine point of view, his task was finished. He wagged his fragment of a tail at her and trotted heavily from the room. Lenham wiped the moisture from his forehead, and passed his tongue over his lips.
"Now, listen to me," he said. "I am a jeweller, and I have been robbed by two thieves staying in this house and passing themselves off as Lady Susan and Lady Mary Mountroyal. If you look at that hole in the floor you will see how the thing was done. I suppose it's no use to ask if these women are still in the house?"
"Gone an hour ago," the girl explained. "Sent off their luggage in advance this morning, and left in a taxi about three-quarters of an hour ago. I suppose they forgot the dog."
"No, they didn't," Lenham said, bitterly. "Nothing of the sort. That confounded dog was part of the programme. I daresay the brute knows exactly where to find them. If you have a telephone in the house, ring up Scotland Yard, and say that Mr. Lenham, of Bond-street, is here, and that he has been robbed in this house of some thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery. Of course, you people don't know anything about it; but the fact is there. I suppose that the ladies' bedroom was immediately underneath this?"
The scared-looking waitress responded that it was. At a sign from Lenham she went off in the direction of the telephone. Half an hour later Lenham, the manageress of the dingy hotel, and Inspector Farrow of Scotland Yard were discussing the situation.
"I'll do my best for you, sir," the latter said. "But I'm afraid it's not much good. The whole thing has been too cleverly planned for that."
"You'll not catch the women?" Lenham asked.
"Well, I'm not quite sure that they are women," Farrow replied. "I don't suppose that women could have cut through the ceiling like that, it looks to me as if you have been made the victim of two exceedingly clever actors. We might manage to get a clue by means of the dog, who is doubtless, back with his masters again by this time. On the other hand, they might have destroyed the dog. He served his part, and is not likely to be tried the same way again. They hired the horses and the carriage, and probably paid for them. In a quiet place like this it would be easy for those people to impersonate Lady Mary and Lady Susan Mountroyal, especially as the ladies never came to London from Scotland. On the whole, it's one of the smartest jewel robberies that ever came under my notice."
"And that's about all the consolation I shall get," Lenham groaned.
"I'm afraid so, sir," Farrow responded. "I can't hold out any hope to you; all I can do is to promise that I'll do my best."
The inspector from Scotland Yard is still doing his best.