MRS. SHAN VANDERDKLE passed out of the palatial establishment of Macon. Freres in the Rue Rovill with some half-million dollars worth of pearls in her pocket. Nothing romantically historic, but really fine graded stuff which had taken years to collect. Nor was she particularly intrigued as to the settings. She 'guessed' that Tiffanys could see to it when she landed in New York. In the meantime, she was going to London for a spell.
It was Monsieur Jules Blinn, chief assistant, who saw her into the limousine waiting at the kerb. Then, without waiting to don his glossy hat, he walked down the street to the nearest telephone call box and asked for a certain number. Then—
"Is that you, M'sieur X?" he asked. "Z speaking, but yes. Ze madame she make ze purchase. Tres magnifique. Ze whole suite, yes. She take them wiz her to her pension unset. It is enough!"
The voice at the other end or the wire replied that it was. Whereupon, the immaculate Jules smiled and returned to his lawful vocations. With any average luck he was going to put something like six thousand pounds in his pocket.
Just how this was to be achieved calls for something in the way of explanation. Had they chosen, the Customs House authorities in New York could have given it. They could have told you, for instance, that the great game of jewel smuggling across the Atlantic was never more popular than at the present moment. Also, that great ladies with fathomless purses did not disdain to take a hand at the sport.
Now, some little time ago, the New York Customs awoke to the fact that in one way and another the State was being defrauded of something like ten million dollars a year by these gilt-edged smugglers. It was a pastime that hardly came within the criminal code, but none the less annoying for that. So it came about that wealthy ladies buying jewels in Paris and London were carefully shadowed, and it became discreetly known that shop assistants might add to their incomes without hindrance to present employment by reporting quietly in certain quarters as to big deals in gems on the part of America's fair citizens. And when it became known behind select counters that one fortunate assistant had netted over five thousand pounds as his share of a raid on a society lady smuggler in the New York Customs, being twenty-five per cent. of the spoil, other bright spirits began to sit up and take notice.
It was a ridiculously easy way of making money. Merely to report to a sheltered address on the purchases of certain ladies who were in Europe buying gems of price, and then, if a smuggling stunt was attempted, draw the the alluring percentage without coming out into the open to give evidence. It was a neat little scheme and New York Customs were reaping the benefit of it.
And this was why Monsieur Jules Blinn had spent a few moments in calling up a certain modestly anonymous individual at an address that New York had thoughtfully provided for such occasions.
Now, it is only fair to Mrs. Shan Vanderdkle to say that when that spoilt child of fortune came to Europe in search of some fine gems she had not the slightest intention of defrauding the revenue of her native land, or anybody else. She, of course, knew all about the heavy duty on precious stones, and wistfully recognised the necessity. Not that she wanted to pay it in the least. Neither did Mr. James Starlinger, for the matter of that.
Starlinger and his wife were two polished, travelled Americans staying at the Ritzor, and the lady of the pearls found them there when she returned from Paris. It took very little time for something like a friendship to spring up, which was only natural, considering that the Starlingers had taken up their abode at the Ritzor with the sole intention of establishing friendly relations with Mrs. Shan Vanderdkle. They knew precisely what she was doing in Europe and still more precisely, what had been her business in Paris.
To put it candidly, Starlinger and his wife were professional smugglers of jewels. It was a regular profession they had followed for years, and the Customs House authorities of New York were perfectly aware of the fact. But, up to the present moment, the authorities had had the worst of the game.
"So now you understand all about it," Starlinger said to the pearl lady, as they sat over an intimate luncheon in the grill room at the Ritzor. "You see, I have been perfectly frank with you, because I want, if possible, to save you paying something life a hundred thousand dollars when you get to New York. That is, of course, for duty. And, even after paying my fee, you would be more that half that sum in pocket."
"You mean. I should have to hand the stones to you—"
"Yes, that's the idea. And, when we reach New York, I hand them back again. You give me a cheque and there is an end of the business. Oh, you need not be afraid—we shall all travel on the same boat, quite openly, though, mind you, I shall be watched by one of the Customs House experts."
It sounded very thrilling to the lady of the pearls, all so open and above board that, after a little hesitation, she agreed to fall in with the suggestion. There was a certain amount of risk, of course, but this made the adventure all the more alluring.
"But aren't you afraid of being caught?" she asked.
"I have never been within miles of it yet," Starlinger smiled. "Now, at the present moment there is a man in this room who is watching us under the impression that I am trying to persuade you to be a party to this little scheme. He knows all about me, which may seem something of a drawback, but, as I know all about him and he flatters himself that I have not the least idea that he is connected with the Customs, that is where I have the advantage. He is a new man, engaged solely to track me across the Atlantic when I sail in a few days on the Auricula. That is the boat we are all going by. Just cast your eye upon the man in the blue serge suit over there, under the palm. His name is Hank Crowl, though he has not the least idea that I am aware of the fact. He thinks he is going to land me presently with Mrs. Vanderdkle's pearls in my possession, but he never made a greater mistake in his life. I have got the sweetest, prettiest little stunt you ever heard of. I am not going to tell it to you because it would make you nervous. Leave it entirely to me, and you will have no cause to be dissatisfied."
The man called Hank Crowl, especially appointed by the New York authorities to keep his eye on Starlinger, was perfectly satisfied with the way in which matters were progressing. He had a free hand, practically unlimited expenses, and, knowing that Starlinger was not leaving England for a few days, decided to slacken the bow, and enjoy himself. He was rather keen on seeing the night-side of London, and all he was seeking was a companion to help him with his laudable pursuit. And in the fine sportsman who called himself Gayford he seemed to have discovered his ideal.
He had found him at a loose end in the lounge of the hotel. From what he could gather the young man was in London on business in connexion with his own firm in Colombo. It was rather a slow, dragging business, entailing a long stay in London, so that Gayford more than once had expressed a half-desire to run over to the States to see if he could pick up a few dollars there. And it was some evenings later, after the conversation previously recorded, that Crowl walked into the lounge of the Ritzor to find Gayford there, seated over a cigar.
"Say," Crowl asked. "Got anything on to-night?"
"Rather expecting to meet a man here," Gayford explained. "If he turns up I'm fixed. It he doesn't then—but what do you want to do? Anything fresh to see?"
Crowl replied to the effect that he thought of putting in an hour or two at Maxton's one of the most rapid and yet sinister night clubs in the West End.
"Well, why not go on there," Gayford suggested. "I can come on about twelve or a bit after."
With that Crowl went on his way, and, shortly after twelve, Gayford put in an appearance at Maxton's. He discovered his new-found friend seated alone in a corner of the big dancing saloon with his head buried on his breast and apparently steeped in a profound melancholy. In other words, the American was monumentally drunk. Gayford exchanged a rapid glance with a waiter close by, and demanded a taxi. He managed to convey his burden to the lounge at the Ritzor, which was now deserted, and intimated to the night-porter that he was going to see his friend up to bed.
"Seems to want a bit of attention, sir," the night-porter said critically. "I have never seen a gentleman much worse."
"Yes, that is why I am going to see him to his room," Gayford said. "I will just remove his coat and shoes and collar, and leave him to himself. Perhaps you will have a look into his room later on. I don't want to be dragged into an unpleasant business. Looks to me as if he was drugged."
With that, Gayford shoved a pound note into the porter's eager palm, and, between them, they got the somnolent Crowl safely to his bedroom. It was considerably more than an hour later when Gayford finally left the room and sought the seclusion of his own apartment.
"I think he will be all right now," he told the night-porter. "I have made him as easy as possible. But one never knows. If there is anything wrong, call me, will you?"
But apparently nothing out of the common happened, and it was a surprisingly fresh-looking Crowl that came down to breakfast the following morning. He crossed cheerfully over to the table where Gayford was seated.
"Oh, here you are!" he said. "What the dickens happened to me last night? I was in Maxton's with a bunch of girls, and we sure did sling the bubbly round. And then, all of a sudden like, my memory seemed to go. When I woke up this morning—"
"I brought you home. Found you sitting in the comer of the dance-room like patience on a monument. If you get hitting it up like this I shall have to take you in hand altogether. I shouldn't mind a run across the water for a week or two. My business is a bit hung up, and I can spare the time."
"Then why not come along?" Crowl said. "You come along with me, and I will show you a bit of comedy later on that will be something to talk about when you get home again. I can't go into details now, but it will be worth your while."
"Dashed if I haven't a great mind to come," Gayford said. "If you are going to start in the course of a day or two—"
"Going to start from Liverpool on Saturday night," Crowl interrupted. "Sail on the Auricula. If you like to go down to the office and book a cabin. I will come with you."
Gayford being quite agreeable, the two set out on their errand. They passed the table in the dining room where the two Starlingers were breakfasting and Crowl smiled to himself as he pictured the discomfiture of that distinguished-looking individual when he came to confront him in the Customs House at New York. But there would be plenty of time for that. Then, on the Saturday morning, Crowl and his companion took train from Euston and, just before dark, found themselves comfortably on board the Auricula. It was a quick and pleasant voyage without any particular incident, so that Crowl had nothing to do but sit down and keep a close eye on Starlinger and his wife. And in this he was backed up by more than one authority on board. There were at least a dozen subordinates moving about the ship, more or less under Crowl's direction, though, as far as anybody could judge, no word had ever passed between them. All the same, the Auricula had been thoroughly searched, and if Starlinger had only known it, so was his baggage, and even the suit-case of himself and his wife in their cabin. Perhaps he did not know this, but if so, he gave no sign.
Crowl made no sign either. He knew, as well as he knew that there was a sky above him, that somewhere on board the Auricula those precious pearls were concealed, and that Starlinger would make every effort to get through the Customs with them. But this time, for once, he was going to be disappointed. He was going to have the surprise of his life. He would not be lost sight of during the whole of the voyage, and when he presented himself at the Customs, he and his wife would be shepherded carefully on one side and searched with a thoroughness that would prevent so much as a pin getting past the eagle eye of authority.
* * * * *
It was still daylight when the ship at length came to anchor and the placid calm on deck had given place to bustle and confusion. Down below in his cabin, Crowl waited. He was just a little eager and anxious, because this was his first big case of the sort, and he was more than anxious to make good. All his preparations were completed, he merely had to step out of the cabin with that neat expanding suit-case in his hand and stand by the long counter where the passengers' intimate baggage was examined, and wait until Starlinger and his wife appeared on the scene. Then, just as he was about to climb on deck, Gayford came through the doorway.
"Well, old man," he said breezily, "are you ready? No use hanging about here any longer, what? Where are we going to stay? What's your usual pub?"
Crowl responded to the effect that he usually put up at the Bilter Mansions when he was in New York. He expected to be there for a day or two on business, after which he was going on to his home in New Jersey. But he made no effort to move, despite all Gayford's signs of impatience.
"Oh, come on," the latter exclaimed. "No sense in hanging about here like this. I am dying to have a look at little old New York. Here, get a move on."
With that, Gayford grabbed his companion's suit case and started for the companionway, carrying a case in either hand.
"I'll carry it, you needn't bother," he said. "What the dickens are you waiting for? Get a move on."
"Well, you see, I have a little business to do first," Crowl said rather hesitatingly. He was beginning to find this breezy companion of his a little bit of an encumbrance. "Matter of fact. I am waiting to see a man—"
"Oh, in that case I'll push on," Gayford cried. "Look here, suppose I pass these two bags through the Customs and then take a taxi as far as Bilter Mansions and book a couple of rooms?"
"Oh all right," Crowl said a little briefly.
At that moment, an official put his head inside the cabin door and nodded curtly in Crowl's direction. Without a reply, Crowl bustled out of the cabin, followed by Gayford, and then proceeded down the gangway and thence into the covered Customs House. A long line of impatient passengers stood there waiting to have their baggage examined, and at the end of the queue, were Starlinger and his wife, bearing their intimate possessions.
"This is going to take a bit of time," Gayford said. "Something special is it? Here, let me get a move on."
He elbowed his way through the crowd and slapped his suit case on the counter in front of one of the officials there. He unlocked the case and flung it wide open, as if defying the enemy on the other side of the mahogany to do his worst. It was a long examination too, though there was nothing in the suitcase except personal belongings. But the official examiner was taking no risks. He probed the suitcase with needles, he measured the thickness of the bottom with a little ivory rule, so that it was a good quarter of an hour before the case was locked again and the official permit stamped on it. Then Gayford returned to his companion, who was standing at the end of the counter with a fine assumption of indifference.
"Evidently took me for one of those smuggling thieves," Gayford exclaimed indignantly. "By James, at this rate, some of those people will be here all night. But say, Crowl, what about your suitcase. How am I going to get that through?"
Crowl smothered an impatient exclamation and flung his suitcase on the counter. At a sign from him, one of the disengaged officials came forward and proceeded to affix the seal on the case without the formality of opening it.
"There, don't stop to talk," Crowl said, as he saw the gaping astonishment on his companion's face. "I will explain it all when we are having dinner to-night. Off you go."
Without another word, Gayford vanished past the barriers and flung the two suit-cases into a waiting taxi. Directly he had vanished, Crowl approached Starlinger and his wife and curtly motioned them to follow. A bunch of officials had gathered round, apparently out of nowhere, and Starlinger smiled as he saw them.
"Why this special attention?" he asked.
"None of that," Crowl snapped. "You just come with me. We want those pearls, my lad. I am not mentioning any names, but you know what I mean. The pearls from Paris."
"Oh, very well," Starlinger said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Come along Naomi, we had better get it over. At any rate, we shall get through a great deal quicker than I expected."
For the best part of two hours, with the aid of male and female searches, Starlinger and his wife were examined to the bone. Their personal belongings were subjected to a scrutiny that was absolutely microscopic. And then, very reluctantly, the eagles relinquished their prey. Without the slightest sign of triumph, Starlinger and his wife passed the barrier and, hailing a taxi waiting there, drove off having given the driver directions to take them to the Armadale Hotel. But strange to say, they never reached that fashionable caravanserai. Without a word said on either side, the taximan piloted down town until they came to a modest apartment house in Lexton Avenue. And here, for the moment they vanished from the ken of the authorities.
* * * * *
It was just one hour later, under cover of the darkness that a manly figure, bearing a suitcase in his hand, let himself into the apartment house and proceeded to the sitting-room upstairs where Starlinger and his wife were seated over a cosy meal. They rose smilingly to greet the newcomer.
"Well, Danster, old man," Starlinger cried.
"Yes, Danster, alias Gayford," the newcomer laughed. "I dare say you wondered where I had got to, but I had to cover up my tracks. And how did you enjoy the third degree?"
"Oh, it wasn't a very pleasant experience," Starlinger confessed. "Still, they weren't quite as bad as they might have been. And they didn't find anything, of course."
"No, of course they didn't," Jackie Danster grinned. "Because there was nothing to find. Now, if they had kept their eye on me and not been so infernally anxious to lay James Starlinger by the heels, they would have done a great deal better, because—"
As he paused, he laid the suit case on a side table and proceeded to open it. Then the contents were thrown out, leaving nothing but the empty receptacle with its leather lining. Then Starlinger took a knife from his pocket, and, cutting some of the stitches in the soft leather, drew from underneath a length of hollow cane, which was plugged at either end with cotton wool. This he removed and shook out the contents.
And there lay Mrs. Vanderdkle's pearls!
For a few minutes the trio stood by the table, more or less lost in admiration.
"It was a great stunt wasn't it?" Starlinger chuckled.
"About the neatest you ever pulled off," Danster agreed. "A real priceless stunt getting Crowl to bring that stuff all across the Atlantic in his own suit case. But you couldn't have done without me, old man. I had to play up to Crowl, and I had to see that he got properly soused that night at Maxton's. And I had to shove the pearls in his own suit case when he was lying insensible in bed, and made a really good job of it."
"And afterwards?" Naomi Starlinger asked.
"Oh, afterwards was easy. It wanted a bit of bluff to get away with that suit-case but I managed it, and I managed it all the easier because Crowl was in such a breakneck hurry to keep an eye upon you and be in at the death when you came to be searched. He let me walk off with that suit-case with the idea of taking rooms at the Bilter Mansions for both of us, and he never dreamt what was in the case, when he got that Customs House johnny to O.K. it. And I flatter myself that my expressions of astonishment when he did so was a fine piece of acting. Lord, if they had only known! The thing right under their nose, and—oh, well what's the good of making a song an dance about it. Anyway, you get your money and I get mine, and all I've got to say is I would like to have a job like this every week of my life. Open that bottle of fizz, old man, and let's drink to Mrs. Vanderdkle and her pearls. Here's luck to both of you. And here's luck to old Crowl, waiting for me so patiently at Bilter Mansions."