THIS thing was horrible, incredible! At first everybody refused to believe it. Men whispered it going up to business in tram and train: nobody seemed to be quite sure. It was as if some great royalty had been suddenly stricken by the hand of death. Such things happened, even to kings. But nobody had ever associated Lena Mars with a tragedy like this. She was a veritable queen of lightness and laughter, the acknowledged comedienne of two continents. There had never been anybody like her before; she was all the great ones in her own charming person. Only last night she had raised her audience to the wildest pitch of enthusiasm in her new comedy.
And now she was dead. She had been picked up dead, murdered, in the street!
By midday all the evening papers had it. Certainly here was a most amazing state of affairs. The great actress had left the theater shortly before midnight. She had managed to shake off a wild crowd of admirers on the plea that she was supping with a friend at the Olympic. A taxi had set her down before the doors of that famous restaurant, and subsequently she had been seen to enter. But no friend awaited her there, and no supper had been ordered. Lena Mars had vanished from the Olympic in the most mysterious manner. The hall porter who had admitted her was prepared to swear that she had not quitted the place.
Two hours later—to be precise, at 2:16 a.m.—the policeman on duty in Lanchester square found a huddled heap of humanity lying on the pavement at the corner of Lanchester place. He had noticed nothing a quarter of an hour before. He was surprised to find a woman richly dressed, her evening gown being covered with a long black cloak. A black lace mantilla had been pulled over her splendid hair. The diamonds in her corsage, about her throat and on her hands were untouched.
Clearly robbery was not the mainspring of the tragedy. There was no weapon to suggest suicide. X 75 bent down to examine the body more closely.
He was not new to the force; he had seen many strange things in his time, but he caught his lip between his teeth and wiped his forehead. There was a tiny blue stain in the center of the white brow, a wet crimson mass at the base of the scalp where the fair hair was all bedabbled. The woman lying there had been shot through the brain. X 75 blew his whistle, and presently there appeared a sergeant and two constables.
"It's Lena Mars!" X 75 gasped. "Dead. Killed the last quarter of a hour. Shot through the brain. And robbery's got nothing to do with it"
The sergeant muttered something not complimentary to his subordinate. A moment later he had cause to change his opinion.
"You're right," he whispered. "Clutter, fetch the ambulance."
Half an hour later Captain Trevor Heaton was on the spot. The chief commissioner was away on sick leave, and Trevor Heaton was taking his place. It was the biggest case he had tackled single handed, and he realized his responsibility. Unpleasant things had been said on his appointment, but the chief was satisfied. He had no love for amateurs, as a rule, but Heaton was something more than that. He was a born criminologist.
"This is really an awful thing, Robertson," he said to the detective to whom the details had been delegated. "I was in the theater tonight. A marvelous triumph. Never saw anything like it in my life before. Got any details yet?"
"A few, sir," Robertson explained. "Miss Mars had no appointment at the Olympic. No supper was ordered for her. Impossible that any friend of hers could have forgotten."
"Quite," Heaton agreed. "People don't forget appointments with celebrities like Lena Mars. What a sensation this will create tomorrow! Besides, if this friend had been detained he or she would have been certain to send a message. How long did Miss Mars stay at the Olympic"?"
"The hall porter doesn't know, sir," Robertson explained. "She went there all right. He didn't see her go out"
"Was she carrying anything at the time, Robertson?"
"I asked that question, sir," Robertson went on. "Miss Mars appears to have had a heap of some kind of wraps in her hand. Naturally the hall porter"—
"Quite so, Robertson," Heaton Interrupted. "He wouldn't notice. Miss Mara had those wraps in the taxi with her. There were the cloak and the lace mantilla. They would squeeze up to nothing in the hand, though they were capable of enveloping the unfortunate lady from bead to foot. Palpably they were her disguise. Her visit to the Olympic was a mere blind. She wanted to throw people off the track and keep some appointment that it was imperative should remain a secret. She probably turned into one of the ladies' dressing rooms at the Olympic and waited her chance. Muffled from head to foot, she walked out of the place without being recognized. She went on to the appointment that led to her death. She must have been shot point blank as she turned out of Lanchester place. Did the constable who found the body happen to hear any report?"
The constable had heard nothing. For the present there was no more to be done. It remained now to find the enemy who had done this thing. Who was it who had gone so far to get Lena Mars out of the way? And why? Lena Mars was at the head of her profession; she was running her own theater to enormous business; she had heaps of admirers ready to gratify her lightest whim. And, so far as Trevor Heaton knew, the breath of scandal had never touched her; it was very hard to assign a motive for this terrible tragedy, to imagine the kind of enemy who had done this thing.
Had Lena been afraid of anybody? Certainly there was one person in the world who could compel her to keep a secret assignation. Perhaps she had a blackguardly husband in the background, or perhaps some early letters in the hands of a scoundrel. But these people do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; besides, Lena Mars' famous diamonds had remained intact. Certainly it was a baffling mystery.
London talked about nothing else all the next day. The inquest was formally opened and adjourned for a week. The medical evidence was of little use. Lena Mars had undoubtedly been shot through the brain by a small-caliber revolver bullet, and the missile itself was not to be found. The greater part of the afternoon Heaton spent at the dead woman's flat looking over her private papers. He might have spared himself the trouble, for there was nothing here likely to be of the slightest assistance to him.
The only thing was a puzzling telegram from Paris containing a date and an hour, also the signature "Zora." Heaton wondered where he had heard the name before. It flashed upon him presently that this was the name of a famous agent connected with the French secret service department. He folded ap the telegram thoughtfully and placed it in his pocket. It might possibly be of use to him later on. The only outstanding feature of his search had been the amazing number of bills he had found. The whole place was littered with them and many clamoring for payment Later on in the afternoon Heaton went down to the theater and sought an interview with the manager.
"I am going to ask you a pointed question, Mr. Rosscommon," he said. "Is it a fact that Miss Mars was heavily in debt?"
"Lord bless you. they all are," Rosscommon said cheerfully. "They wouldn't be happy without it. I should say that the poor girl was up to her neck in it. It makes me tired to think of the way the money was squandered. It gives me many an anxious moment, I can tell you. Of course, there are always plenty of people to help—princes and dukes and cabinet ministers, even men like Sir Charles Scarborough—"
The manager pulled up discreetly and coughed. He had forgotten for the moment that his visitor had of late had his name coupled with that of the daughter of Sir Charles Scarborough, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Heaton appeared not to have noticed the indiscretion; his face was sternly thoughtful, but he was startled all the same. Here was one of the illuminating flashes that frequently burst from the darkest clouds.
It was rather a shock to find that the grave and reserved Foreign Secretary was on such familiar terms with Lena Mars. Sir Charles Scarborough came of a Puritan stock and professed a dislike for the frivolous side of life. It was a mild grievance to him that his only child, Constance, was so devoted to field sports. She was a beauty in her way, very clear-minded and possessed of the reputation that she would have cheerfully faced death before disgrace.
No words of love had, passed between Heaton and Constance Scarborough yet, but there was something like an understanding between them. Heaton found himself alone in the drawing room at 7:30 o'clock. He had come a little early, more or less by arrangement, to get a few quiet words with Constance. She came in presently, a tall and graceful figure in her somewhat plainly cut evening dress. Heaton was struck by the pallor of her face, the sparkle of her eyes. It seemed to him that she was keeping a certain guard upon herself.
"I hardly expected you tonight," she said.
"Why?" Heaton asked.
"Well, I thought that you would be too busy. Haven't you got this dreadful Mars business in hand? The papers say so. They are full of it."
"Oh, well, I have done all I can for the moment" Heaton explained. "If they want me at Scotland Yard they know where I am to be found. What do you think of it?"
"Dreadful, of course. I suppose you haven't found any clew?"
"Nothing that you might call definite. But I begin to have an idea. It is only pure theory so far, of course, but it looks like working out correctly. It's a little strange that the poor woman should be found so near here."
The strange gleam came into the girl's splendid eyes again. Heaton could read fear and defiance there, and withal a certain wilful tenderness.
"That woman had an enemy," she said—"a bitter enemy. You may laugh at me, but I feel quite sorry for the author of the crime. Oh, it sounds wild and emotional, I know, but I am—"
"You are justifying a murder," Heaton said coldly. "Do you understand that?"
Constance laughed. There was something hard and bitter in her mirth. She passed her hand across her splendid eyes as if to wipe out something. Heaton could see that she was trembling; there was a curious sensation at his own heart, a throbbing in his throat.
"Oh, I understand," the girl went on. "Don't you believe that crime is justifiable at times? Can't you conceive a murder that might be condoned? I don't want you to think as a policeman now, but as a mere human being filled with the courage of despair. If the case were yours—"
"You mean that possibly for my sake—"
"I do. Trevor. Suppose I loved you. Well, I do. Trevor, you are making it very hard for me. You should not have kissed me—yet. Suppose you were in bitter trouble. Suppose that a woman had caused it—she threatened to ruin your career—and I knew it, I would not hesitate. To save you I would kill her. I would, I would, I would!"
The last words came in a faint whisper. Constance's face was deadly pale: out of the set whiteness of it her eyes gleamed like stars. Just for a moment Heaton was conscious of a sensation of giddiness. He had the strange feeling that he had gone through all this before. He ought to have been surprised and shocked, but he was conscious of nothing of the kind. The wild delirium of possession was uppermost in his mind. This splendid creature was his. She had confessed her love for him. She had held ont her hands to him, and he had kissed her on the lips. Nothing else In the world seemed to matter now.
"Perhaps you are right," he murmured. "It is not one of the doctrines of my profession. I ought not to be here at the present moment: I ought not—oh. I ought not to do a hundred things. If your father heard you talk like this, Constance—"
Heaton stopped suddenly, for Sir Charles Scarborough was in the room. He came forward in his grave, impressive way and shook hands. A monument of impeccable respectability, Heaton thought The square face, the firm jaw, the patch of gray whiskers— all engendered confidence. The man's air would have inspired trust in the Bank of England. Yet there was a certain twitching of the lips, a suggestion of horror and sorrow in the deep set gray eyes. Sir Charles looked like one who had lost that which is very near and dear to him. His manner was oddly absent. It seemed strange to suggest furtiveness in connection with Sir Charles Scarborough, but it was there. And all the time Constance was watching him steadily.
"I had forgotten that you were dining here tonight" he said. "You are very busy."
"With the Mars case?" Heaton asked. He saw the dull, ashy gray creep over the Foreign Secretary's face. "For ths moment there is not much to be done. They know where to call me on the telephone if they need me. A strange case, Sir Charles."
"Very," Scarborough said. "And nothing stranger than the absence of motive. That I apprehend, will be one of your greatest stumbling blocks?"
Scarborough was speaking in his slow, incisive way, yet his eyes gleamed as he asked the question.
"Have you ever heard of a man called Zora?" Heaton do* manded suddenly.
The Foreign Secretary started. His face turned a shade grayer.
"A spy." he stammered. "In the pay of the French government A most remarkable man, whom our authorities would give much to lay by the heels. I have heard of him."
"I thought that in your official capacity you would," Heaton went on. "If we could catch Zora he would get at least twenty years. He could tell us much about Lena Mars."
A clock on the mantelpiece chimed half past 7 on a peal of silver bells. A solemn butler announced that dinner was served. Scarborough stood there as if he had heard nothing. He came to himself with a start as Constance laid a hand on his arm. He walked into the dining-room with the air of a man who dreams, he ate fitfully and in silence. He started at sounds that came in from the street; the ripple of the front door bell brought him to his feet The butler came in with a square package, heavily sealed, which he laid by the side of Heaton's plate.
"I was to give you this at once, sir," the butler said.
"Would you mind if I opened the letter now, Sir Charles?" Heaton asked.
Scarborough nodded. The table was cleared of all but the wine and fruit; the silver cigarette box stood before the host. Heaton waited till the door was closed. He read his letter in silence. From the bulky envelope he produced another packet jealously sealed. Sir Charles gazed at it with fallen jaw and eyes that seemed to be held by some nameless fascination. His face gleamed moist in the lamplight.
"One of my men brought this to me," Heaton explained. "I am going to tell you something in the strictest confidence, Sir Charles. You were speaking just now of the absence of motive in the Mars case. The absence of motive was terribly against me, but by good fortune I found the motive. It was in the form of a telegram from Zora that I found among Lena Mars' papers. Zora is a spy in the confidence of the French government. That being so, what did he want to make an appointment with Lena Mars for? What had she to do with international affairs?"
"It seems rather a difficult question to answer," Sir Charles said.
"On the face of it, yes. But having once got my clew the rest was easy. Lena Mars was up to her neck in debt and difficulty. She was lovely and fascinating, and she had a fine courage. She was just the woman that Zora might use for his purpose. He got hold of those papers relating to a proposal for an understanding between this country and Germany as to a settlement of the armament question. At that delicate stage it was essential that France should know nothing. Zora decided otherwise. He picked out Lena Mars as his intermediary. Probably he promised her £100,000 for those papers. And she got them."
"Certain documents are missing," Sir Charles said hoarsely.
"Yes. I was only certain of this when the letter came. We laid a trap for Zora, and he was arrested at Dover this afternoon. He was watched and tracked to a certain place where I imagined the papers were dispatched in waiting for him, and so it proved. It was theory on my part, but my deduction was correct. Zora was arrested with the papers in his hand before he had broken the seal. He knew that his government could not interfere. He knew that that was part of the game. He knew that for the next twenty years he would be an inmate of an English prison. That is why he committed suicide. He took prussic acid before the police could stop him. Perhaps it was as well."
"And—and those papers?" the foreign secretary stammered—"
"Are yours," Heaton said coldly. "I am asking no questions. No harm has been done, and there need not be any gossip. I am not asking how Lena Mars obtained possession of them."
Scarborough grabbed for the papers with a trembling hand.
"It is impossible to say," he murmured. "But you have done me a service I can never repay. If you will be good enough to excuse me for a moment—perhaps I had better go as far as my office. Constance will look after you. There are one or two things I wish to compare—"
Sir Charles hastened from the room. Constance rose from her chair with a challenge in her eyes.
"Come into the drawing room," she said. "I have something to tell you. Please close the door. Trevor, you know exactly how and why Lena Mars died. Tell me the story."
"It is largely a matter of construction," Heaton said. "Your father came under the fascinating sway of that woman. He did not guess what she was after—he thought she loved him. With her beauty and her devilish arts she fooled him. When a man of his type gives way to a passion of that kind he surrenders everything that men hold dear—ambitions, career, honor itself. All was sacrificed to the glamour of the moment. He met her in secret. She came here when the house was asleep, is not that so?"
Constance bowed her bead silently.
"The thing was found out," Heaton went on. "Someone to whom the honor of Charles Scarborough was very dear discovered everything. It was another woman, of course. Seeing how matters stood, she did not disclose anything. She did not plead or scold. She could see how useless it all was. She knew that sooner or later there would be a terrible scandal and that Sir Charles would lose his honor and position. She guessed nothing of the real reason why Lena Mars came here; she only saw the moral side of it. So far as she could tell, there was only one way out of it. Lena Mars must die."
Constance looked up from the seat she had taken with a certain dull approval in her eyes.
"You are a wonderful man, Trevor," she said. "And it is all as you say. Then you did not suspect that my poor unhappy father had any hand—"
"No. He was too far gone for that. And on the night of Lena Mars' death he was from home. It was the—the woman I have spoke of who telephoned to Lena Mars to come here. She came expecting to see Sir Charles, but the—the woman I speak of saw her instead. And the woman followed her into the square and shot her with one of those new air pistols. The woman I speak of is quite a good shot. It was all quite easy, though the crime would be difficult to prove."
"What do you think of that woman?" Constance demanded.
"We will discuss that in the years to come," Heaton said. "In the old days she would have been a heroine; poets would have written epics in her honor. But she took her life in her hands for the sake of her home and those she loved. Perhaps in some fascinating—"
"Trevor," Constance gasped, "Trevor, you don't mean to say that you—"
"Indeed I do," Trevor went on. "Before I came out I wrote my resignation to Scotland Yard. I am pleading my old lung trouble to make an excuse for going to Texas to settle. I couldn't go on with my profession after this. And I couldn't give you up, Constance. Now perhaps you can understand my sympathy with your father. Say I am mad if you like, say that I am wanting in my duty. Constance!"
He held ont his hands to her, and she flitted into his arms.
"I am a murderess," she said firmly—"a murderess! Do you understand?"
"It is all the same," Heaton said a little wearily. "And I love you all the same. I am blinded to the horror of it. And just because I love you, dear, why—"