LORRIMER caught sight of his man in a corner of the big reception room and lounged over in his direction. The other appeared to be discussing some abstruse semi-colon which might or might not add a significant flavor to the last thing in the way of Shavian comedies. Evidently, Mr. Ned Smith was a versatile person, for the last time that Lorrimer had met him was in the Persian Gulf in the midst of a technical discussion on gun-running and the best small arms weapon to place in the hands of raw troops.
Who Mr. Ned Smith was or where he came from Lorrimer had not the smallest idea. Nor was it an easy matter to place his nationality. He did not look like a Chinaman nor yet a Jap, still the Tartar blood was in his body somewhere. It was his rippling fair hair that added to Lorrimer's mental confusion. There were other people interested in Ned Smith besides Lorrimer, and amongst these was a no less distinguished person than the Mongolese Ambassador. That same person came up to Lorrimer now and entered easily into conversation with him. His Excellency Sing Li was a polished man of the world, with a perfect command of excellent English.
"You are a remarkable man, Lorrimer," he said. "And in your time appear to have met some remarkable people. Now, do you happen to know the picturesque- looking person who is at present discussing theatrical matters with Lady Sheraton?"
Lorrimer shrugged his shoulders a little impatiently. As an old diplomatist himself, he had very little sympathy with the supersubtlety of the Oriental mind.
"Considering that you saw us together in Paris two years ago, the question is rather superfluous," he said. "You want me to do something for you. What is it?"
"Well, I want you to bring me in contact with Mr. Ned Smith. I have an idea he may be useful to me just now. As you know, Mongolese affairs are not too rosy; in fact,—"
"You are on the verge of a revolution."
"Well, let it go at that," the Ambassador admitted. "And I believe that Mr. Ned Smith can give me some valuable information. Do you happen to. know who he really is?"
"Mr. Ned Smith, I suppose," Lorrimer said drily.
* * * * *
STRANGELY enough this answer did not appear displeasing to Sing Li. Half an hour later the three men were discussing matters generally, over cigarettes. On the whole, it was an entertaining conversation between three brilliantly intellectual men. Lorrimer said little—he was too intently engaged in watching the other two. It reminded him of a game of chess between two masters. Outwardly the two Orientals were friendly enough, much as if they were fencing in the dark. The Ambassador rose presently.
"I'm sorry to have to leave you," he said. "I shall be glad if you two gentlemen will do me a favor. I should like to carry this discussion a little further in another place. Will you both dine with me at the Embassy on Thursday night at eight o'clock. That will be this day week?"
"I shall be delighted," Ned Smith said. "I am sure that we could exchange valuable information. Only unfortunately I am engaged for days ahead. If you could say Thursday fortnight, it would afford me great pleasure to dine with you."
The Mongolese Ambassador said Thursday fortnight accordingly, and went his way. Ned Smith watched him with a certain suggestion of malicious mischief in his dark eyes.
"That will give another week," he said, speaking as if to himself. "I beg your pardon, Lorrimer—I forgot you were here for a minute. Whatever you do, don't forget to keep that appointment for this day fortnight. I can promise you a certain interesting evening. His Excellency is perhaps the most daring and audacious man in London at the present moment—with the possible exception of myself. And, by the way, when I was here two years ago, there were strange stories afloat in connection with the kidnapping of the revolutionary leader, San Te. They said that he was last seen alive in a cab outside the Embassy. Several questions were asked about it, I remember. Did anything ever come of it?"
Lorrimer shook his head. He remembered the circumstances distinctly enough. And he had little doubt in his mind that the rumors were true. Still, nothing had been proved, and the story had been gradually forgotten.
"I shall be there," Lorrimer said. "Good night."
For the next few days Lorrimer saw nothing of Ned Smith. He saw little or nothing of the Mongolese Ambassador either, for that shining light of diplomacy had his hands full just now. There was no doubt of the fact that the reigning dynasty was trembling to its fall. The great rebellion roared over the face of the land like a yellow flood. On every hand the revolutionaries were progressing. The good work done by that famous refugee, Hi See, was bearing abundant fruits now, and it only needed his presence to carry the new flag to victory.
Of Hi See the most extraordinary stories were told. He seemed to bear a charmed life, he had had many a hairs-breadth escape, and the mere rumor of his being seen in one province was certain proof that he was somewhere else fanning the flame of revolution. For the last twelve months he seemed to have disappeared altogether. He had been heard of in Paris and Berlin, and wherever he had been seen there came arms and money and abundant assistance for the progressive party. The mere fact that his personality was so shadowy only tended to render him more God-like and heroic in the eyes of his followers. He was known to be a man of education, too, a gifted linguist, and it only needed his presence in the Mongolese Empire now to complete the victory. Like most men of his class, he had his enemies, and there were scores of his countrymen in every capital in Europe who would have murdered him cheerfully out of pure patriotism, to say nothing of the desire to hypothecate the price of ten thousand pounds which had been placed upon his head.
Now, Hi See had recently issued a manifesto to his followers, in which he announced his intention of placing himself in command of the revolutionary movement within the next month. And this would have to be prevented at all costs, because, once it was accomplished, it would merely be a question of how long it was before the progressive party occupied the capital. And thus it was that every Chinese Embassy in Europe was straining its nervous system to lay hands on Hi See. Whether or not his premature taking off would have effectually stemmed the flowing tide was somewhat dubious. But it was held in high Mongolese diplomatic circles that the pleasing spectacle of Hi See's head on a pole might induce a reaction in favor of the reigning dynasty. In this year of grace the capital towns of Europe have reached a state of high refinement. But that proud boast would not have saved Hi See's skin once he had ventured across the threshold of the Mongolese Embassy.
Still, with all the cares of state upon his shoulders, his Excellency welcomed his guests with a charming smile and a manner which appeared to be free from trouble. He had put away his own gorgeous national dress for the nonce, and appeared in the conventional evening garb of an English gentleman. The dinner, too, was quite Occidental; in fact, but for the presence of three or four Mongolese servants, the Oriental atmosphere was entirely lacking.
The conversation was general enough for the time being, but as the meal drew to a close the inevitable politics came up for review. Here were three men of the world who had surveyed mankind from China to Peru, and to whom high diplomacy in most countries of the world was an open letter. They sat there over coffee and liqueur and cigarettes, for the conversation was growing interesting, and no one seemed disposed to move.
* * * * *
"SHALL we adjourn," the Ambassador suggested; "or would you prefer to continue the discussion here?"
"This is very delightful," Ned Smith murmured. "I always prefer to sip my coffee and smoke my cigarette when I am at the table. Moreover, we have not the charming sex to consider. It is sometimes an advantage for one's host to be a bachelor."
"The bachelor has no cares," Lorrimer said.
The Ambassador laughed none too pleasantly.
"Has he not?" he asked. "There are few men in London to-night who have more than I. But it is a great consolation to feel that I am going to get rid of one of them before daybreak."
"This sounds interesting," Lorrimer smiled. "Won't your Excellency be a little more explicit?"
The Ambassador smiled a curious smile as he reached for a fresh cigarette and poured out another liqueur.
"Why not?" he said. "Now, what would you consider to be my greatest anxiety for the moment?"
"I think I can guess the riddle," Ned Smith said quietly. "You are talking about the infamous rebel, Hi See."
"That is correct," the Ambassador laughed. "If we could get rid of him, most of my country's trouble would be over."
"Our friend would be flattered if he could only hear you," Ned Smith said. "I perceive that this would make an ideal prison-house for the moment. I notice that the shutters of this room are made of steel, and so, if I mistake not, is also the front door, judging by the way in which it closed behind us to- night. One would hardly dare in an atmosphere like this to say anything unflattering about the reigning Mongolese dynasty. Hi See would be equally impotent here once he was your prisoner. Not that you can ever hope for that."
"I'm not so sure," the Ambassador said softly. "I'm naturally of a sanguine temperament, and if the opportunity came, I should not hesitate. I should—"
A soft-footed servant came in at that moment with a telegram, which he handed to Lorrimer. As the latter took the orange-colored envelope from the salver, Ned Smith put a detaining hand and pitched the telegram carelessly into the centre of the table. His face had suddenly grown grim and set; there was a look of angry displeasure on the Ambassador's features.
"May I be permitted to be rude just for one moment?" Ned Smith said. "May I ask you to ignore that telegram for a time? I have reason to believe that the message is of no importance. At any rate, I know it was sent under a misapprehension. Now as to this Hi See. Suppose he were here at the present moment. You couldn't do anything with him so long as Mr. Lorrimer knew the circumstances in which he came. Now I happen to know a good deal about Hi See. He is the last man in the world to put his head in the net. And yet he would have not the slightest hesitation in coming here if he thought that it would serve his purpose to do so. I suppose you've never met him, Lorrimer?"
"I never had the good fortune," Lorrimer said.
"Oh, you will before long," Ned Smith went on. "No, please don't touch that telegram just yet. Let me tell you a little more about Hi See first. I won't go into a biographical sketch, because the papers have done all that more or less untruly. I do happen to know that every Mongolese Embassy in Europe has had a try for him. If only he had fallen into the trap he would have been a dead man long ago. He would have been murdered in London or Berlin or Paris, and not a soul been any the wiser. As a rule, the servants of the Embassy are to be trusted to keep silent. But, after all, there is even a better plan than a crude, vulgar murder. The man might be kidnapped here under the very eyes or the authorities, and taken back home without anybody being in the least the wiser. I know what I am talking about."
"Are you speaking from a brief?" the Ambassador sneered.
"No, from personal experience," Ned Smith said quietly. "As a matter of fact, I am Hi See."
* * * * *
LORRIMER started to his feet, then as suddenly sat down again. Here was drama red-hot to his hand. The face of the Ambassador paled a little, though his face was hard and resolute.
"I suppose I had better go on," Hi See said quietly. "Our host here has known for quite a month that I was in London. I don't know how he recognised me, neither does it in the least matter. And I knew that he knew me when you made us personally acquainted the other night. And I was quite aware, too, of the risk I was running in accepting the invitation to dinner this evening. The prison house is secure enough—I am here behind steel bars, and the servants for the most part are prepared to commit anything from arson to murder at the bidding of their master."
Lorrimer looked up, white, but determined.
"You seem to forget that I am here," he said quietly. "I am a British subject in my own capital—"
"Oh, quite so, quite so," Hi See went on. "But perhaps our host would like to take a hand. It seems to me that I am vulgarly monopolising the conversation."
His Excellency shook his head sulkily.
"My turn will come—presently," he said sullenly.
"Then I am to proceed," Hi See smiled. "You were not to be here at all, Lorrimer. The ingenious idea was that you should leave before me and proof would have been given you to-morrow that I did not remain many minutes after you left. You would never have troubled if you had never seen me again. I am a wanderer who comes and goes; nobody knows anything about me, and no questions would have been asked. And now, if you please, you can open that telegram. You will find in it an urgent message asking you to return to your chambers at once. If you don't find the message as I say it is I am greatly mistaken."
Lorrimer tore open the envelope and ran his eye rapidly over the contents. He smiled grimly.
"The tricks are all yours up to now," he said.
"If you call up your flat on the telephone," Hi See went on, "you will find that no such message was sent. The simple scheme was merely to get you out of the way and leave me here alone. It was an excellent idea to invite you to dine here as well as me to-night, and was calculated to allay any suspicions as to my welcome. But that is not the whole of the plot. A day or two ago a Chinaman of low caste was brought here practically on his death bed. He died in the course of time, and a medical certificate was given by the doctor who was called in. The dead Chinaman was smuggled away somehow, but this coffin still remains in the house. It may interest you to know that I was destined to occupy that coffin. I should have been drugged directly you had gone, and to-morrow I should have been taken down to Southampton and placed on board a steam yacht there already, waiting to convey me to my native land. What would have happened afterwards I leave you to guess. And now, seeing that I have said so much, I will leave it to his Excellency to continue. My story is finished."
But his Excellency sat there, saying nothing. An awkward silence followed for a minute or two. Lorrimer would have spoken, but Hi See raised a hand as a signal for him to stop.
"Come, I am waiting," Hi See commanded in a grating voice. "It is for me to command, you understand."
"There is nothing to be said," the Ambassador muttered. "My hands are tied. The presence of Mr. Lorrimer here renders me powerless. But if you are waiting for any apology I have none to make. I can only regret my failure. You, Hi See, are a fellow-countryman of mine, and you understand. If the circumstances were reversed you would take my life with as little compunction as I would take yours. The time may come yet. Gentlemen, you are free to go."
* * * * *
THE AMBASSADOR rose from the table and bowed in the direction of the door. Lorrimer half rose to his feet, but Hi See never moved. He looked up grimly.
"Sit down," he commanded. "Don't dare to move till I tell you. It is your belief that you are the master in this house. For the moment you are mistaken. Mine is the voice of authority. Your Excellency will give me your watch-chain. I desire to borrow from it the key which opens the safe in your study."
Something, like an oath came from the Ambassador's lips. As he rose to his feet again two silent forms came apparently from nowhere and stood on either side of him. Two chill blue circles pressed on his temple, and from under his scowling lids he recognised a pair of the servants who had been waiting on the party during dinner. At a curt command from Hi See he snatched the chain angrily from his pocket and threw it angrily upon the table.
"I thought you would appreciate the argument," Hi See said. "These servants are not yours, but mine. There are four of them here who have been in our pay for years. Two of them are guarding you, and the other two are looking after the rest of the household. By this time I suppose the rest of the servants are peacefully sleeping under the influence of the same drug that would have been administered to me. You will remain here while I spend a few minutes in searching your safe. There I shall find papers and documents of the utmost importance to us. I am sorry to detain you, Mr. Lorrimer; but all is fair in love and war, and it will be necessary, if only for your sake, that I should make good my retreat. Circumstances will prevent me meeting you again in London, but if in the course of time you should ever visit Aria again, I shall be glad to make you the honored guest of the Mongolese Republic. And I should not be surprised to find his Excellency holding office under the Progressive party."
It was a quaint, queer silence that followed. The Ambassador sat there downcast and ill at ease, with the two sentries standing on either side of him. Then Hi See returned, carrying a mass of papers in his hands. He waved the servants aside, and stood there grim and smiling in the doorway.
"I am going now," he said. "The steel shutters are made fast, and I propose to lock this door from the outside. You may find it a little monotonous, but the servants will release you in the morning. And, my dear Lorrimer, I am not behaving so badly to you as you imagine. I know what your Western civilisation calls for, and it would be a great regret to me if I left anybody a chance of saying that you were my confederate in this matter. I wish you good night, gentlemen, and, oh, yes—what was I going to say? I have it—there is something in the Western Method after all!"