EVERARD DIX was exceedingly sorry, but so far as he could see there was no help for it, as he explained to his friend, Max Clayton, as they sat over a cigar in the former's comfortable flat after dinner. Max Clayton was a writer of some repute, with aspirations in the direction of the stage, and Everard Dix had promised to finance the new comedy which was destined to mark an epoch in the history of the drama. And so on.
"It's a blow," Clayton murmured. "It's a blow, and there's no getting over it. But I know you too well to think that you would let me down without some very good reason."
"Oh, there's reason enough, all right," Dix groaned. "And I owe you an explanation. Now, you know what my business is, don't you?"
"Oh, something to do with paper, I believe," Clayton said vaguely. "Something in the City."
"Yes, we make paper, but only of a peculiar kind. It's the sort of stuff that bank notes and exchequer bonds and all those kind of things are printed on. With the possible exception of the Bank of England note paper, there is nothing like it, and we have always boasted that it cannot be forged. And that, my dear chap, is where we made a mistake, and that, indirectly, is why I can't let you have the money."
"That is interesting. Go on."
"Recently we lost one or two big contracts in America because a clever gang there have been extensively forging gold dollar bonds on a splendid imitation of our paper. Most of our paper has been supplied to a firm called Goldsack, in Liverpool, who are probably the biggest printers of Government and bank securities in the world. Amongst their secrets is a marvellous ink, the ingredients of which are only known to the heads of the firm themselves, and with that ink, plus our paper, we were able to laugh at forgers. But not now. My idea was to get a new paper that would only take the Goldsack ink, and that if the printing was tampered with the forgery would be detected at a glance. And I managed it."
"Then what have you got to worry about?" Clayton asked.
"Well, my idea was to get a paper that would show forgery by heat or damping, so that they would change colour. In other words, supposing you warmed one of those securities, or wetted it with a moistened finger, the ink would change colour, that is on a genuine bill. If the thing was a forgery then there would be no change. And I did it."
"Well," Clayton said. "If you've done that you ought to be a jolly sight better off than ever."
"I did it, and sent on a specimen of the work to Goldsack's in Liverpool. But it never got there. Three specimens went through the post, and none of them were delivered. Then we tried registering. The postman who delivered the registered letters was waylaid in a business lane in Liverpool, and robbed of his bag. That had been fairly early in the morning, before people were about, and not so difficult as it sounds. I telephoned Goldsacks, but I'm not quite sure they believe my story. Our paper is perfect, and I can do all we claim in connection with Goldsack ink. But I can't get the specimen up to Liverpool. I don't want to go myself, because those chaps will be watching me, and I don't feel inclined to trust anybody else. Now, can't you think of some scheme to get to Goldsack's without incurring the suspicions of those rascals? I don't want them to know anything about it. I want to make them feel that we have dropped the whole business, as it is too dangerous to go on with. You are an ingenious-minded chap, who has written a good many clever stories—can't you show me a way? It's worth thinking about, even if only for your own sake."
Clayton helped himself to a fresh cigar, and smoked thoughtfully.
"Did you ever read a story of Poe's called 'The Purloined Letter'?" he asked.
"I can't cay I have," Dix said languidly.
"Ah, well, that's a pity. It's all about a clever political Johnny who stole a compromising letter which he had to use daily, and which he hid from the police, who were searching for it day and night. They couldn't find it, because he had put it in a place where everybody could see it. It doesn't sound very much told in bald words, but it is one of the most convincing stories, in the English language."
"I begin to see your drift," Dix said more enthusiastically.
"Here, let me have a chance. And if you'll give me a dummy parcel, a kind of forgery of what I have to deliver, put up in a separate envelope with your seal on it, then I think I can properly fool those chaps. It's just as well, perhaps, in that envelope, to write a few lines to the effect that you have done the best you could, but that you regret to say that so far your efforts have not been crowned with success, and that in the meantime you are sorry that pressure of other business—well, you know what I mean. Give me that, and the real thing in another sealed envelope, and if I fail, well, I do."
Dix smiled behind his cigar.
"Oh, my dear chap, don't be absurd," he said. "You must come to grief. Why, you couldn't keep it secret for five minutes. Everybody would know what you are going to do, and you will be robbed of that paper long before you get to Liverpool. Besides, you have been in and out of my office every day for the last fortnight, and if there is treachery, as I suspect, then the foe will be certain to have a tip, and keep their eye on you if it gets known that you are even contemplating going to Liverpool. Oh, it's impossible."
"Look here," Clayton said eagerly. "I can only fail, like the rest of them. I want to walk into your office in my own inconsequent way, and ask you before your staff if you've got the stuff ready for me, as I propose to go to Liverpool, say, the day after to-morrow. You can frown and look annoyed, and take me into your private room, and there hand over to me the real thing. But the skeleton envelope must reach me without any one being any the wiser. I wonder if you'll give it to me to-night?"
"Oh, I can, of course."
"Then let me have it, and I will go to Liverpool by the night mail the day after to-morrow, having first come round to your office openly as arranged. Then, on the following evening, you dine with me at the Café Royal, and see me into a taxi on the way to Euston. Before I go, I shall openly ask the waiter to give me one of those glass flagons of special whisky they keep, and you will see me throw it into the bag by my side. Then all you've got to do is to go quietly to bed, and I'll come round within a week and collect that thousand pounds as per contract. Oh, you needn't worry, I'm not going to fail."
"Oh, very well," Dix said finally. "I'll make up a parcel now for you to take away, and the next scene of the comedy had better take place in my outer office after lunch on Thursday afternoon, which I think is the day you propose to go to Liverpool."
* * * * *
There were a score or more of clerks in the outer office as Clayton entered, on the following Thursday, including Dix himself, who had apparently just come back from lunch. Clayton hailed him in his usual free and easy style in a voice that could be heard all over the office.
"Well, here I am," he cried. "And I haven't much time to lose. I might, with any luck, be able to meet you this evening at the Café Royal for a mouthful of dinner before I catch the Liverpool express, but it is only a sporting chance, and if I am not there by 8 o'clock don't you wait. You had better give me those papers now—"
Dix frowned, and appeared to bite his lip. He glanced somewhat uneasily round the crowded office, and signified to Clayton to follow him into his private room.
"I suppose you know what you are doing," he said, dubiously. "I have put myself into your hands, as I said I would, but it looks to me as if you were simply asking for trouble. Didn't I tell you I suspected treachery in the office?"
"It's all a part of the programme," Clayton explained. "And all a part of the scheme I hinted at the other night. The master's voice, and all the rest of it. Now, give me that other parcel. I suppose it's all right. I guess you have got the genuine article this time?"
"Sure thing!" Dix responded. "And if you are successful you get the cheque, and I make—well, goodness knows how much. But tell me—"
"Not a single word, my boy. Now, you turn up at 8 o'clock, and don't worry yourself any more about it until you see me in London again."
It was a little after 8 that Clayton bustled into the Café Royal, and took a seat at a table where Dix was already waiting him. He was, apparently, in the highest spirits, he spoke freely in that somewhat strident voice of his, he did ample justice to a good dinner, and subsequently turned to the waiter with an order for one of those special flagons of whisky for which the house is famous. It came presently in the form of a little round flat bottle, the sort of thing that used to be called a pocket pistol, and this Clayton dropped carelessly into the kitbag that stood by the side of his chair. Half an hour later he got into a taxi, and made his way to Euston station. There he entered the express train, and placed this bag in a corner seat inside a first class corridor carriage. Then, as there was plenty of time to spare, he walked off down the long platform, apparently in search of papers. The guard's whistle had already gone when he boarded the train again and took his seat in the carriage.
The compartment was no longer empty. On one side of him was a well-dressed woman, more or less elaborately clad in furs, and on the opposite side a youngish man, well turned out and aristocratic-looking, who carried about him a subtle suggestion of the army. Just as the train was about to move out of the station the inspector came to examine the tickets, and the man on the opposite seat suggested that the inspector would be the richer by half a crown if he placed a reserved label on the carriage window next to the corridor.
"I hope you don't mind, sir," he said, as he turned smilingly to Clayton. "You see, we shan't be in Liverpool till 4 o'clock in the morning, and my wife and I hope to get a little sleep. People are fond of wandering about in these corridor trains from one compartment to another—"
"Oh, certainly," Clayton said. "That's rather a good idea of yours. I never thought of that. But, then, you see, I am not much of a traveller."
There was a certain amount of fitful conversation afterwards between the three occupants of the carriage, then gradually it ceased, and Clayton's companions appeared to slumber. It was nearly 12 o'clock before the dramatist reached his bag down from the rack, and proceeded to take a liberal portion of the special whisky from his flask, which he diluted in a travelling cup with a small quantity of soda. Then he finished his cigar, made himself as comfortable as possible, and in turn closed his eyes.
When he came to himself again the train had come to a standstill, apparently in some terminus, and Clayton came out of a confused dream to find that a porter was standing over him. Then, in a dazed kind of way, he heard the man's voice.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said. "But this train 'as been in for quite ten minutes. I shouldn't 'ave known you'd been 'ere at all, sir, only I 'appened to look into the carriage to see if there was any stray newspapers lying about. You must 'ave been very sound asleep."
"I suppose I was," Clayton admitted. "You don't mean to say that it is past 4 o'clock?"
"Ten minutes past, sir. But aren't you well?"
"I do feel most uncommonly stupid," Clayton said. "Here, take my bag and put it on a taxi."
Clayton stumbled out of the carriage in a dazed sort of way, and lurched along the deserted platform very much like a man who is getting over a fit of intoxication. His head was aching, and there was a nasty taste in his mouth. But this was not troubling him much, nor the fact discovered later on that the sealed packet which he had carried in the breast-pocket of his overcoat was missing. Apparently his travelling companions had vanished some time before, without making any attempt to wake him, and Clayton's thoughts were just a little confused as he drove along through the streets in the direction of the Adelphi Hotel. There he registered and went straight to bed, where he remained till well into the afternoon, by which time he was practically himself again. He partook of a hearty lunch, and then called for the local directory. He was busy for most of the afternoon and the best part of the evening, but apparently so pleased was he with the result of his labours that it was early in the following week that he made his way back to London again. During that time he made no attempt whatever to communicate with Dix, and it was Wednesday afternoon before the found himself free to call up Dix on the telephone, making an appointment to meet his friend at the latter's flat at 7 o'clock in the evening.
"Are you quite alone there?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," Dix said. "I am using the private 'phone of my own office. Yes, I'll see you at 7 o'clock; in fact, you'd better come round to dinner."
"That's all right," Clayton said. "And you mind it's a jolly good dinner, too, because I've earned it."
"Oh, you have, have you?" Dix asked. "Why on earth didn't you send me a wire, or call me up on the telephone. I've been worried to death about you."
"Not good enough," Clayton explained. "You might have been out, and possibly the very man in your employ whom you suspect might have answered the telephone. But I'll tell you all about it when we meet this evening. Ring off."
Dix did so reluctantly. He was waiting in his flat impatiently enough for Clayton to put in an appearance, which the latter did all in good time, though he refused to say a single word till he had done ample justice to a good dinner, and was lying back in his chair with a choice cigar between his lips.
"Now then, out with it," Dix said. "Or I shall do you a violence. Did you manage it?"
"In one word, I did," Clayton replied. "I handed over that skeleton security to old Goldsack himself, and gave him a pretty general idea of what was going on. When the old chap properly realised what a desperate gang we had been up against he was properly impressed. Of course, he treated me as your confidential agent, and I was permitted to see all the tests that your work was put to. No, you needn't ask any questions, they were all absolutely successful, and Goldsack told me that in future they would have no hesitation in using your new paper for all their best impressions. So you see I did get the thing through, as I said I should, and, what's more, those enemies of yours have gone off under the impression that all your efforts have been failures, and that they can return to the States under the happy delusion that they can continue their forgeries with impunity. Well, if the American police do their duty, the whole of the gang will be laid by the heels before many months are up. The best thing you can do is to sack the people you suspect, because you are likely to have some pretty fat orders from old Goldsack at an early date."
Dix drew a long breath of relief.
"Well, that's all right," he said. "My dear fellow, you have put me under an obligation that I can never repay. Of course, you shall have the money for your comedy, and more if necessary, and even then I shall be in your debt. But I don't quite understand how you worked it, all the same."
"Well, I came here to tell you," Clayton said. "And it's very simple, after all. Now, I knew perfectly well, from what you told me, that I should be followed to Liverpool. One of your clerks gave the game away after I was in your office last week, and we were shadowed to the Café Royal. In my overcoat pocket I had the dummy parcel, and in the lining of my kit bag was the real thing. When we were at the Café Royal I spotted the people who were after us. They were seated at the next table, and heard every word we said. They saw me take that parcel out of my overcoat pocket and put it back again. And, of course, they heard me order that whisky. When I got to Euston station I posted the genuine papers to myself, after taking them out of my kit bag and re-addressing them to the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, to make sure. When I returned to my carriage, there, sure enough, were the two people, a man and a woman, who had been dining at the Café Royal. Of course, they'd seen me put my kit bag in the corner of the carriage, but they didn't mind that. And I didn't mind the man tipping the guard to put a reserved notice on the carriage, because he said he and his wife wanted to sleep. Directly after we got to the Café Royal they also ordered a flagon of whisky, which, no doubt, they doctored on the way to Euston with the dope they had prepared for me, and when my back was turned, and my kit hag proving to be unlocked, the flagons were changed. You see, that prevented any violence, which people of that sort always avoid if they can. So, apparently, I walked into their trap with my eyes open, and when I was under the influence of the drug they took the bogus envelope out of my overcoat pocket, and, of course, from their point of view, all was lovely in the garden."
'"That stuff might have killed you," Dix exclaimed.
"Oh, no, those kind of people don't go in for drama like that. I guessed I was going to be drugged, and took the stuff because I wanted these people to know that I was insensible when they robbed me, and not shamming. And, besides, it was experience. I know now what it feels like to be drugged, and therefore, if ever I write about it, I shall do so at first hand. So you see, like a conjurer, I forced my card on those people, and they took it quite innocently. So there you are, that's the whole story. Anybody could have done it."
"Could they, indeed!" Dix murmured admiringly. "Well, I beg to differ. But, at any rate, you have earned your money, and I shall be only too pleased to pay it to you."