FOR scenic purposes the grill-room of Caro's Restaurant consisted of an exceedingly pretty girl in a tailor-made costume and a nice-looking, clean-shaven man in a blue serge suit. There were tables, of course, and red-shaded lamps on little flower-decked tables, a few ubiquitous waiters, and the usual flavour of bygone food. The crowd consisted of other diners, but the man in the blue suit was not in the least concerned with these—indeed, he was ungrateful enough to wonder why the pretty girl with the intelligent grey eyes had seated herself at his table when there were so many places to spare. It was not until the fish was finished that the girl looked up and addressed her companion demurely by name. "I am afraid you are offended with me, Mr. Roscoe," she said.
"Well, no," the man said. "On the whole, I think not. By the way, you are quite sure my name is Roscoe?"
"Of course," the girl smiled. "Mr. Paul Roscoe. Don't you remember that adventure in Norway many years ago, when you saved our party after the fall of the avalanche. I think it was the bravest thing I ever saw. And you were so modest about it, too. You disappeared before any of us could thank you."
"It sounds very nice," Roscoe murmured. "I mean, it's very flattering to one's vanity. I hope you will give me the credit for no desire to pose, but I had quite forgotten all about it. In fact, to tell you the truth, I was not quite sure who I am till you addressed me by name. I suppose there is no doubt whatever that I really am called Roscoe?"
The girl looked up swiftly. But no smile lurked in her companion's eyes—he was cool, but grave.
"Why do you speak so strangely?" she asked.
"Well; I don't mind telling you," Roscoe said. "By the way— Thank you very much. Miss Lucy Lake, of The Daily Telephone. I have never met a lady journalist before. But I like your face, and I think I can trust you. If I don't trust someone, I shall go mad. Now, three days ago, late in the evening, I woke up from a sleep on the Thames Embankment, and since then I have lost my identity. I was dressed as you see me now, I had a few sovereigns and my watch and chain in my pocket, together with a card-case containing some pieces of pasteboard bearing the name 'Paul Roscoe.' For the first time in my life I regretted the fact that it is one of my silly habits not to have an address on my cards. I suppose it is because I change my lodgings so frequently. At any rate, there I was, absolutely alone in London, with no idea of where I lived and where I came from, except that my name was probably Paul Roscoe. But then I might have been anybody else—it might easily have been some other chap's card-case. I gathered I had met with an accident, because, if you look at me closely, you will see that I have a long strip of plaster under my hair, and uncommonly tender the place is. You can imagine what I felt at the time."
"How deeply interesting!" the girl cried. "What did you do then? You did not go to the police, because—"
"Because the police are looking for me," Roscoe smiled, as the girl hesitated. "I am quite aware of that fact. But why they want me, and what I've done, goodness only knows. I don't feel a bit like a criminal, I don't feel as if I had committed any crime. Do I look like a thief?"
"No," Lucy Lake laughed, "you don't."
"Precisely my opinion," Roscoe said. "But don't you think we are getting on rather too fast? Let me go back to the beginning. As a matter of fact, I did not go to the police. I did not feel in the least nervous, because, you see, I had money on me, and I thought that, perhaps, in an hour or two my memory would come back to me. But it did not, and here I am now, feeling like a grown man who was born at the beginning of the week. I can recollect nothing that happened before Monday evening. I walked about till quite late, and then I decided to look for lodgings. But though a man may be well dressed and have money in his pocket, he can't walk into any place at eleven o'clock at night without a portmanteau, even if it happens to be filled with bricks. So I decided to go to one of the Rowton Houses and take a bed-sitting-room there. I knew I could get this for a shilling a night, and that I could obtain my food from the nearest cookshop. You see, the advantage of the Rowton Houses is this—you can go there in rags or in dress-clothes, and nobody is in the least curious. When I woke in the morning, my mind was as blank as ever. But I felt perfectly fit and well, and inclined to let the adventure take its course. I read the papers to see if anybody was interested in the noble family of Roscoe; but no one seemed to be worrying about me till the third day, when I saw a notice issued by Scotland Yard to the effect that one Paul Roscoe had absconded from his lodgings, and that fifty pounds reward was offered to anybody who would give such information as would lead to his—or, rather, my—arrest. This was sufficiently alarming, and none the less so because I had not the remotest notion of what I'd done. Now, do you happen to know?"
"They called it robbery with violence," the girl said.
"Is that a fact?" Roscoe asked blankly. "Then I am mad—Broadmoor is my place. I ought to be locked up. I can only admire your courage in calmly talking to me like this."
"I am a journalist," the girl said. "I have only just joined The Telephone, and I am anxious to make good. To get hold of a really fine story means so much to me. I may tell you that the mysterious disappearance of Paul Roscoe has gripped the popular imagination. Some crimes do."
"Oh, come, I say!" Roscoe protested.
"Well, you see," the girl apologised, "I must for the moment regard you as a case. Robbery with violence has actually been committed, you have disappeared from your lodgings, and the police are looking for you everywhere. I had only a vague idea that you were the Mr. Roscoe I knew; but when I came by blind luck into this restaurant here, and saw you sitting at this table, I was sure of my ground, especially when I saw you had shaved off your moustache. That was a foolish thing to do."
"Do you think so?" Roscoe asked forlornly. "Well, perhaps I was a bit nervous. You see, I had money, and it was easy enough to buy a few necessaries, such as shirts and collars and toothbrush, to say nothing of a safety razor. But I have not made the slightest attempt to hide myself—my presence here proves that. I dare say that's why the police have not picked me up. And, you see, there was always the chance of running up against someone who knew me—yourself, for instance."
"It really is a most remarkable case," Lucy said, with professional enthusiasm. "I am speaking now, of course, as a journalist. As a woman, I sympathise with you deeply, and I feel quite sure there is a hideous mistake somewhere. But had not you anything about you to prove your identity beyond a card-case? I thought all men carried a lot of letters in their pockets."
"Oh, thanks for reminding me," Roscoe exclaimed. "There was a telegram. I dare say, when I got it, it was intelligible enough, but it's so much Greek to me now. As a personal favour, tell me what you make of it."
Roscoe flattened the telegram out on the table. The postmark was Birmingham; it was addressed to one Roscoe at the lodgings which he had, so to speak, evacuated, and ran—•
ARRANGE FOR YOU TO SEE VENDOR TO-NIGHT.
WHATEVER YOU DO, BRING THE GOODS WITH YOU.
WILL MEET YOUR TRAIN. WALTER.
"Now , what do you make of that?" Roscoe asked. "Who the Dickens is Walter, and what is he so anxious for me to take to Birmingham? Did he meet my train by which I did not arrive, and has he communicated with the police? Now, how I got that telegram I have not the remotest idea. And there's another thing—in one of my side coat-pockets is a piece of a broken plate. Now, where on earth did I get a piece of broken plate? Why—oh, why did I put that platter in my pocket?"
Miss Lake's eyes lighted up swiftly. She bent forward eagerly and grasped Roscoe by the arm.
"I hope you did not throw that away?" she whispered.
"Well, I did not," Roscoe said. "Here it is. And, in some vague way, I seem to feel that I am, or was, a judge of old china. You see, this piece has been part of a plate which has been broken and most cleverly mended without the aid of rivets. You can see that by the brown edges of the paste. I should say that the plate had been dropped, and that the shock had detached this fragment without further damaging it. It looks to me like a bit of the famous apple-green which is one of the characteristics of Chinese pottery belonging to the Ming Dynasty. You will see that there is a curious thread of gold running through it— indeed, I should not be surprised to find that this plate at one time had formed part of the famous Middleton dinner service. There was one plate missing in that amazing collection, but I am so misty and confused that I can't work it out anyhow. Now, do you happen to know anything about Oriental china?"
"Absolutely nothing," Lucy Lake admitted. "Now, in return, would you mind answering a question for me? Is the name of Sir Peter Mallison at all familiar to you?"
Roscoe rubbed his forehead vaguely.
"It is, and it is not," he whispered. "When you spoke of the man, a flash of lightning seemed to dart through my brain, but everything is dark again now. As I told you, I recollect nothing prior to the time when I woke up on the Thames Embankment on Monday night. Now, is there any sort of connection between that piece of apple-green platter and the source of my trouble? You seem to know everything, and, if you will tell me, I shall be exceedingly grateful. What have I done?"
"Perhaps I had better tell you," Lucy said. "About eight o'clock on Monday evening you went round to St. Peter's Court in Kensington, which is a large block of flats, and you went by appointment to see Sir Peter Mallison, who resides there."
"It's strange how illusively familiar the name is," Roscoe murmured. "Most irritating, I call it."
"It is, perhaps, not so strange as you think. I see I must treat you as one who hears all these details for the first time. But it is a fact that you went round to St. Peter's Court to see Sir Peter, who is one of the most famous collectors of coins and works of art in Europe. He is a very old man, who lives alone in his flat, where his wants are looked after for an hour or two a day by a charwoman, and his meals are sent in from an adjacent hotel. The old gentleman has been the mark of thieves more than once, and especially lately, because it has leaked out that he has recently bought a valuable collection of gold coins. Amongst his other treasures he happened to possess the missing plate from the Middleton dinner service. Sir Peter only found that out lately, and, when he did so, he made up his mind not to sell it to the owner of the Middleton china unless he could get a fancy price for it. I understand that two hundred guineas was what he was asking— an exorbitant price for a plate—but, on the other hand, its possession would enhance the value of the great service by quite a thousand pounds. Now, I know—for I've had it from the police themselves—that you, or, at any rate, somebody calling himself Paul Roscoe, wrote and asked Sir Peter for an appointment last Monday evening, to go into the question of the purchase of the plate. That letter was found by the authorities when they were called into St. Peter's Court on Tuesday morning by the charwoman. Sir Peter lay on the carpet in his bedroom; he had evidently been severely ill-treated, and up to to-night had not regained consciousness."
"Oh, I'm mad!" Roscoe said. "I am suffering from delusions. You are an illusion—a beautiful one, of course, but a figment of the imagination, all the same. Of course, the police found my letter, and that's why they are after me."
"You are suffering from no delusion," Lucy said sympathetically; "your deductions are too logical for that. As a matter of fact, your letter was found, and so were the fragments of the historic plate, with the exception of the piece on the table. Moreover, the gold coins are all missing, and so far have not been traced. No doubt by this time they have been melted down. Some reporter, a little wiser than the rest, found out the history of the apple-green plate, and wrote quite a nice little story around it. It was a neat and clever piece of work, and appealed strongly to the popular imagination. This is why everybody is talking about the missing Paul Roscoe, who is walking round London quite ignorant of the fact that he is a fugitive from justice."
"But the thing's incredible!" Roscoe cried. "I suppose the assumption is that I hit that poor old gentleman on the head and walked off with his collection of coins. If I were as clever as all that, why did I leave behind me the very thing I went to fetch? Besides, had I intended to rob the chap, I should have never been idiot enough to send him a letter. And what price that nasty wound in the side of my head—I mean the blow that has deprived me of my memory? I must have walked away from St. Peter's Court and gone straight to some doctor's surgery. He would never have sent me out in the street unless he had deemed me capable of finding my way home. Has this doctor turned up? Has he been to the police? You know so much about the case that you may be able to tell me. Of course, you may also think that I am trading on your credulity—"
"One moment," Lucy interrupted. "You see the lamp on the table, don't you? Would you mind taking out the electric bulb? It seems to me to need cleaning. Thank you very much. Now, do you know what would happen if I took this knife and connected the positive and negative poles at the point of contact?"
"Oh, that's easily answered," Roscoe said. "You would fuse the wires and plunge the whole place in darkness."
"That is precisely what I am going to do," Lucy said coolly. "As a matter of fact, two detectives have just come into the room, and I have a strong suspicion they are after you. Call me selfish, if you like, but I cannot have my story spoilt by any clumsy interference. Now, then, quick!"
The lights went out—darkness fell like a blow. Roscoe felt himself dragged by the arm along the floor, and a moment or two later he was being urged across the road through a mass of traffic. Then something seemed to strike him violently on the back of the head, and when he came to himself, he was seated in a taxi under a battery of curious eyes, and Miss Lake was quite coolly giving directions to the driver. All this Roscoe watched with an odd feeling of detachment. So far as he could understand, a policeman was saying that Dr. Frant's house was only just round the corner. In the same apathetic way, Roscoe found himself presently lying on a couch in a consulting-room, with a little keen-eyed man diving a set of long fingers into various parts of his anatomy. Then for the first time one of the inquisitive digits touched the plastered spot on his head, and the rising surgeon looked grave.
"Hello, hello, hello!" he muttered. "Look here, Miss Lake, the smack our friend got on the head from a passing horse is nothing; but this other place is serious. Now, would you mind telling me, sir, where you managed to get sand-bagged?"
"Don't ask me," Roscoe said indifferently, "I don't know."
He lay there, taking no interest in the proceedings. He had a strange obsession that he was somebody else, that he was in a dream, and that the other people were talking behind curtain upon curtain of pink gauze, and the knowledge that someone had been plugging his ears with cotton-wool. Then presently it was borne in upon him that he was the subject of a discussion.
"Oh, dear, no, Miss Lake," Frant said. "He is not going back to his lodgings. He is going straight away to a nursing home on the other side of the road, and within an hour I am going to operate upon him. You see, I spent a year or two in San Francisco, and Mr. Roscoe will not be the first patient I have had who has been murderously assaulted with a sand-bag. No, it won't be a serious operation; there is a slight displacement of bone, where that sticking-plaster is, that presses on the brain. Roughly speaking, the bone will want forking up. Our friend will be as right as possible in a week. I'll just telephone to the hospital for the anaesthetist and a colleague of mine, and meanwhile we'll get Mr. Roscoe ready for the fray."
Roscoe was quite resigned now. It seemed to him that he was the sport of fortune— a helpless cork tossed on the waves of chance. He felt curiously indifferent to whatever happened. He was not nervous or excited—indeed, all the elaborate preparation interested him in a languid way. He was lying on a table presently, and someone was feeling his pulse. Then someone else placed a curious sort of inverted cup over his face, and told him to breathe easily. All the lights in the world and all the lamps of the universe went out, and everything was finished....
When Roscoe came to himself, he was lying in a neat little bed in a cool, sweet room filled with brilliant sunshine. He could feel the morning breeze cool and refreshing upon his face, he could hear the leaping life of London from the outside. Everything was plain enough now—the cotton-wool had gone from his ears, and the pink gauze no longer veiled a keen and joyous world from his eyes. He lay there very still, very contented and happy, and gradually his mind began to reconstruct things. At first it was all a curious medley of grey facts heaped together like the tangles of a jig-saw, and then outstanding parts began to marshal themselves into mathematical figures. Here were a telegram and a letter; here also were a set of chambers filled with all kinds of beautiful objects, a tall man with an air of settled melancholy, a man in evening-dress, wearing a heavy, drooping moustache. Came presently in the procession another man, diminutive and active, very dark and with slanting, sinister, almond-shaped eyes. Then an apple-green plate lying broken in fragments on a Persian carpet...
From that point reconstruction became easy. The real Paul Koscoe lay on his bed with a full knowledge that he was twenty-six years of age, that he was the Honourable Paul Roscoe, a Cambridge graduate and an old "Rugger" Blue, also that he was a man of considerable private means, and that people spoke of him as one of the finest experts in Oriental china. Also that telegram had come from Walter Helmore, a beastly rich young merchant, who was going to marry Roscoe's sister, and that the Middleton dinner service in its complete state was going to be one of the presents to the bride. Then into the picture came the pretty face and sweet intelligence of Miss Lucy Lake. Ripping girl that! Real good plucked 'un, too. Evidently had saved him from a nice mess. He went over the whole ground now, from the moment when he had arrived at Sir Peter's flat till he had lain on the operating-table in an adjoining room. His eye was clear and his smile pleasant as the white-capped nurse came in to see how he was getting on.
"Absolutely top-hole!" Roscoe said. "Never felt better in my life. If you give me some breakfast—a whole lot of breakfast —I shall be awfully obliged. And then, if it's allowed, I should like to see The Telephone for last week."
It was all in The Telephone, of course. The erudite reporter with the gift of imagination had made the best of the apple-green plate. It was quite a little Oriental poem in its way, and a discriminating public had evidently appreciated the effort. There was a good deal about the missing coins, to say nothing of the savage assault upon the unfortunate Sir Peter. So far as Roscoe could gather, the aged virtuoso was considerably better, but still was quite unable to give anything like a coherent account of the outrage. There was a good deal also concerning the past record of Paul himself, and many ingenious theories to account for his mysterious disappearance.
He was still turning the matter over in his mind when Dr. Frant appeared, followed a little later by Lucy Lake. A day or two at the outside, and Paul would be free again.
"But shall I?" he asked. "Perhaps I had better tell you all about it. I can recollect everything now. I went to Sir Peter's flat and found the front door open. The bell was out of working order, so I walked in— walked straight into the dining-room—and there, on a table, was the plate I had come to bargain for. I picked it up, to make sure it was the genuine article, and, as I had it in my hand, the door opened and a man walked in. He was a tall, melancholy chap in evening-dress. Behind him came a little man who looked like a Jap. Of course, I suspected nothing wrong. I had still got the cemented plate in my hand, when somebody gave me a tremendous whack on the head, and down I went. After that I seemed to dream a bit. I dreamt that I found myself in the road, with a piece of the apple-green plate in my hand. Really, I suppose those chaps must have flung me outside and left me for dead. Anyhow, in my dream I looked up a doctor, who asked no questions, but patched me up and sent me about my business. As far as I can recollect, he did not seem to be a very observing sort of chap. For the life of me, I could not recollect where I lived and who I was, so I walked as far as the Embankment, where I went to sleep. I dare say Miss Lake has told you all that happened after that. And, by the way, how is the story getting on?"
"Oh, it's going to be great," Lucy Lake laughed. "You will see it all in The Telephone to-morrow. But it's dreadfully selfish of me to be talking like this. You don't know how delighted I am to see that you are so much better. Now, I wonder if you feel up to seeing some more visitors? You have seen them before—they are the two detectives who were looking for you in the restaurant where we were dining last night. If you don't feel up to the interview "
"Oh, let 'em all come!" Roscoe laughed. "I don't mind. I suppose, sooner or later, I'll have to see them."
The two officers listened gravely enough to Roscoe's story. When he had finished, they smiled at one another significantly.
"Now, that's all right," the leader of the two said. "We do get a bit of luck sometimes, and this is a case in point. We know the two men you speak of— in fact, only yesterday we had a cable from the New York police, saying they had arrived here, and asking us to keep an eye on them. If necessary, we were to trump up some charge against them, pending the arrival of witnesses in connection with an extradition case. The big man is called 'The Colonel,' and was at one time in the Army, and the other is a Japanese servant known as 'Harry the Valet.' Been in a good many gentlemen's houses, he has, and his great game is robbing collections and museums. No doubt they were after Sir Peter's coins, and they had probably got hold of them when you interrupted them. At that moment Sir Peter was lying unconscious in his bedroom, and your presence must have been distinctly awkward. Oh, yes, I can see that you have been sandbagged. Of course, we are very sorry to have given you all this trouble, sir, but your mysterious disappearance made it very awkward. Besides, we had to do something to keep the real culprits quiet. But we are on the track of our men now, and if you'll excuse us, sir, we'll just run round to a Bloomsbury boarding-house and make the arrest."
It was a week or so later before Roscoe saw Lucy Lake again. He met her quite casually in the Temple Gardens. That the story had been a great success was evident from her happy expression and the light that sparkled in her eyes.
"My fortune is made!" she said.
"I dare say," Paul said, without enthusiasm. "It all depends on the point of view. Oh, I'm quite well now. But what I want is someone to look after me—I mean in the way you looked after me the other night. I don't feel half so conceited and cocksure as I did. Look here, Lucy, I am a rotten bad hand at beating about the bush, and, besides, the story is not finished. It isn't rounded off properly. You know what I mean. And if you could see a way to finish it—"/p>
"I could not publish it!" the girl laughed.
"Oh, yes, you could," Roscoe insisted. "What's the matter with the front page of The Telephone?"
"Yes, that's just what I mean," said Roscoe.