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Title: A Secret Service Author: Fred Merrick White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000221.txt Language: English Date first posted: April 2010 Date most recently updated: April 2010 This eBook was produced by: Lyn Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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Ida Vanstone looked out over the dismal array of chimney pots, saw the drifting pall of smoke like the shadow of her own hopes and fears, and, for the first time in her life, was afraid. And yet she could have ended it all had she liked; a sheet of notepaper and a penny stamp would have finished this struggle and privation. Ah, anything but that! She thought as she watched the smoke-wreaths whirling under the leaden March sky. It was a strange position for a girl, well bred and well nurtured as she was. Still, the fact remained that she had parted with her last coin and there was no prospect of another penny. And, to add to the rest of her troubles, she was several weeks in arrears with her rent, and unless it was forthcoming on the morrow she would be turned out into the street. The position had been hopeless from the first. She had left home with her eyes open—she had not underrated the struggle that lay before her. But anything seemed better to her than the loveless marriage into which her father was attempting to force her. She had fought against it with the courage of despair.
"Nothing will induce me to marry him," she had assured her father. "I will rather go out and earn my living."
Robert Vanstone placidly sipped his port. There was a peculiar smile on his handsome, cynical face.
"Very well, my child," he answered. "You can't say that I prevented you. I have told you exactly how matters stand; if you don't marry Wilfred Avis I am a ruined man. I shall have to part with all my luxuries, sell this beautiful, old house, and end my days in some shabby foreign watering-place. But, of course, that gives you no concern. You have had everything you have asked for during the last twenty years, and when I beg for a little return like this you refuse. Avis declared last night that he would release me the moment you consented to be engaged to him. Upon my word, I don't see why you shouldn't humor him to this extent."
"And break my word afterwards, father?"
"Why not?" Vanstone retorted, coolly. "My dear girl, what does it matter? Isn't it the privilege of your charming sex to change your mind? Avis is a hard man, and he's got me into a tight place—but I don't feel in the least melodramatic about it. With a bit of luck I should have had him in a tight place. It's all part of the game, as you would know if you had been venturing in the city as long as I have. But what's wrong with Avis? He's a fine looking chap, enormously rich, and half the girls of your acquaintance would be only too glad of your chance. And let me tell you this—Avis can have a title whenever he wants it. No man knows more of the working of the Secret Service than he does—but perhaps I'm saying more than I ought to. Now, do be sensible, Ida."
"I don't love him," the girl replied quietly. "I might go further, and say I don't like him. Oh, perhaps I shall learn your worldly cynicism in time, and come to believe that money is everything, and honor and honesty of no account. We shall see, father. You have thrown down a challenge, and I accept it. I'm going to earn my own living, to try to turn my sketching to account."
"In that case you must look to me for nothing."
"So I understand," Ida went on. "I may succeed or I may fail, and if I do utterly fail, and have to ask your assistant then I will return home, and, if Wilfred Avis is still in the same mind, become his wife."
"Vanstone smiled as he helped himself to another glass of port. He glanced complacently around the dining-room with its mellowed oak walls and the velvety mez-zo-tints upon them, on the silver and glass and the litter of dessert on the table. Comfort and luxury and artistic surroundings were to him as the very breath of life. For them he was prepared to sacrifice everything that the man of honor holds most dear. With all his cleverness, however, he had that certain vein of indolence which always stands in the way of victory. No one could plan a finer coup than Vanstone and no financial adventurer could carry it so far. Then perhaps a day's pleasure would lure him from his post just when his presence was most essential. He had, too, that contempt for other people's ability which so often is fatal to success. But as regarded his worldly knowledge and cynicism, there was no question.
"I'm infinitely obliged to you, my dear child," he said. "To put it brutally, I look upon the thing as done. It will only mean a little patience on Avis' part and when you marry him you will do so gladly instead of—well, against the grain. Your poor mother was the same at one time, and yet she was happy enough."
"I suppose she was," Ida remarked doubtfully.
"Of course, she was. Now, don't let's pursue this unpleasant subject any further. And, please don't make a scene. You are going away to earn your own living, but when you want me, send me the inevitable letter, and I shall be pleased to come and, er, er, take you out of pawn."
"And if I succeed, father?"
"My dear child, that contingency is too remote to be considered. Kindly pass me the cigarettes."
This incident rose painfully and clearly before Ida's eyes as she sat in the gathering darkness, gazing with despairing eyes across London. For six months she had been struggling on, hoping against hope, and getting each day deeper and deeper into the mire of despair. It had not taken her long to discover the cruel difference between the work of a talented amateur and the slick smoothness of even a second-rate professional artist. She tried her hand at nearly everything, and always with the same result. At first editors had been kind, but the time came when Ida found it impossible to pass beyond the office-boy. In the six months she had not earned as many pounds; she had learnt the dire straits of poverty; she could enter the swinging doors of a pawnshop without a blush. The end had arrived. She had literally nothing except the clothes she stood up in, nothing but her youth and her beauty and her fine courage, which as yet was not entirely broken.
"I won't go back," she determined. "I'll try something else. Why has it taken me six months to find out that my artistic work is worthless? I'll go into service; I'll scrub floors before I own myself defeated. I wonder if I went to a registry office—" She put on her hat and jacket and went down the dingy stairs, and paused outside a room, and listened. She heard someone moving about and caught the whirr of a sewing machine. She hesitated for a moment and then opened the door and looked in.
"Are you very busy?" she asked.
A pair of pathetic brown eyes were lifted from the sewing machines and a wan, beautiful, pallid face smiled.
"Well, I am," the seamstress said. "I wonder if you would help me a bit. I have been doing pretty well nothing for the last week and now everything comes with a rush. I've been in bed for about three days with that dreadful rheumatism and my fingers have grown terribly stiff."
"Oh, I am so sorry!" Ida said. "I ought to have come and seen you before. I don't know why I didn't."
The slim, pale girl smiled again. Elsie Harness was not much older than Ida, but she had seen a great deal more of the world's misery and distress. There was a tragedy hidden, somewhere, but concerning her past Elsie had said nothing. The girls had drifted together, and there was a bond of sympathy between them, but they had not yet reached the stage when confidences are exchanged.
"Would you be angry if I spoke plainly?" Elsie asked.
"I don't think so," Ida smiled. "I'd rather be scolded than left alone with my own troubles. What is it?"
"Well, then, you didn't come to see me because you are too proud. Oh, I respect your pride, my dear! It's about the only thing I have left. You can't keep these things secret, especially when we have a coarse-minded, hard-hearted landlady who does not keep her lodgers' affairs to herself. I know all about it. If nothing turns up before to-morrow, Mrs. Preece will turn you out. You need not blush!—I've been on the verge of a like catastrophe many a time. Now, do let me help you. Because, if you do, you can help me. Let me pay that horrible old woman the rent you owe. You can work it out, and, besides, if I don't have you. I must ask somebody else. I would much rather have a lady like yourself than a girl who has been in some factory. Because, you see, I am a lady, too."
"I knew, that from the first," Ida said. "But, my dear girl, how can I take the money that you earn so hardly?"
"Nonsense! Didn't I tell you that I must have an assistant? The doctor says it is positively dangerous to go out in these east winds and I am actually losing work because I cannot fetch it. I could easily earn three times as much if I had some help with the machine. You see, I am a dress designer. Some of the big houses in the West-End send me a mass of beautiful materials and I blend them together. I suppose I have an eye for that sort of thing. It makes such a wonderful difference just how a piece of embroidery is inserted here or a splash of color sewn on there. I want someone who will save my poor fingers and fetch and carry for me. Now, will you do it?"
Ida bent over the table and covered her face with her hands. The blessed relief moved her to tears. It seemed as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, as if somebody had removed the iron hand winch had been gripping at her heart for weeks. The night and the fog and the dread thought of the Embankment no longer oppressed. For she intended to accept Elsie's offer, and was grateful for an opportunity which a while ago she would have spurned.
"You are very good to me," she whispered. "You will never know how thankful I am. Tell me what you want me to do, and I will put heart and soul into it. I wish you to feel you have made no mistake to-night."
"The obligation is all on one side," Elsie retorted. "Just look at this. Here is a costume I am finishing of a lady who is going to a charity ball to-night. It was made for her by one of the best houses, and when it was done she didn't care about it. It did not convey the distinctive note she required, and the stupid man milliner confessed he did not understand what she meant. He said it was one of the most beautiful gowns they had ever turned out, and so it is. Nine out of every ten Society women would only be too pleased to be seen in it. It is a wonderful black Grecian drapery, but, to my mind, a little bit too sombre. It needs a red woman to wear that costume, and I understand that Miss Valerie Brune is very dark—but I'll put on the dress and you shall see. I should like your opinion."
Elsie wreathed herself in the soft folds and stood where the light fell fully upon her. Her lithe, slim figure showed to great advantage; she seemed to be transformed, to have become another creature altogether.
"Oh, it is exquisite!" Ida cried. "My dear Elsie, how beautiful you are. I never realised—"
"Would it had been otherwise!" Elsie said quietly. "But we won't go into that. You see, I am fair, and that is why the dress suits me. Let me put it on you, and if you look at yourself in the cheval glass there you will appreciate what I am saying. You are a dark beauty, with something of the South about you."
"My mother was an Italian," Ida explained.
"Ah, that is where you get those liquid eyes and that perfect olive complexion. Now, I just wrap the drapery about you—so, and fasten it with a few safety pins. One of the advantages of this costume is that it will fit anybody if it is properly adjusted. Turn to the glass and you will see for yourself what I mean. You are a pretty girl, Ida, and colouring is perfect, but all that soft, dead black makes your complexion look almost muddy. Suppose we have some spots of white and some of this marvellous embroidery. You see it is green and gold and red and a trifle audacious. I place some of it round your neck, and again at the hem of the skirt. Now, look at this green sash—did you ever see anything more beautiful? That is the best of dead black for a background—one can be so daring with it. There, what do you think of the combination? A moment ago you were merely a pretty girl, and now you are a dazzling, beauty who might have stepped out of one of Raeburn's frames. You must admit that there is an extraordinary difference."
Ida gazed at herself in the long glass opposite. Her lips were slightly parted, and a delicate flush mounted her cheeks.
"Is that really me?" she exclaimed. "Elsie, you are a positive enchantress. I wouldn't have believed you could have made such a change with a mere handful of embroidery!''
"Ah, but such embroidery!" Elsie laughed. "No, don't take it off yet. I want you to be my model for a bit. I have another inspiration. When I have everything to my mind I'll tack that stuff on, and then you shall use the machine for me. By the way, have you ever done any sewing?"
It was a consolation to Ida that she could give Elsie that assurance. For the next hour or two they worked rapidly and silently, until at length Elsie pronounced, with a sigh of satisfaction, that the work was finished.
"You don't know what a relief that is to me," she said. "I should never have got it done if you hadn't come to my assistance. I had faithfully promised that the dress should be delivered at 45A, Grosvenor-square by 11 o'clock to-night. I want you to take it there and show Miss Brune all the tricks of it. You will have to act as a sort of lady's maid, but I hope you won't mind that; you won't be nervous?"'
"I'm ready to do anything," Ida declared. "If you only knew what a fate you've saved me from to-day! So long as Miss Brune doesn't recognise me I shan't mind a bit."
"What! Do you know her?"
"Oh, dear no, I never heard her name before. Only it is curious you should mention 45A, Grosvenor-square, because some friends of my father's live there. I heard they had let their house for six months. It will be very strange to go there as a milliner's assistant when I have been actually a guest under the same roof."
Nevertheless, Ida felt somewhat nervous when she rang the front door bell of the great house in Grosvenor-square. There was a chance her friends had left the servants behind, and she might be recognised. But the manservant who opened the door was a stranger to her, and a foreigner at that. He was a tall, thin man, with hard, glittering eyes, and a face like a mask. There was something in his manner, too, which did not suggest the typical manservant. His English was fairly good, and his accent did not lack refinement. He gave Ida an impression of unreality such as one gathers from the portraiture of a servant on the stage. In the large, brilliantly-lighted hall, with its pictures and statues and banks of flowers, other servants lounged, all of them quiet and subdued, with the same air of gentility about them; indeed, Ida might have been an expected guest from the courteous manner in which she was escorted to the drawing-room.
Miss Brune was engaged for the moment, she was told, but would not keep her long. A blaze of electric lights flooded the drawing-room, and through a pair of double doors another fine room could be seen. Here also the lights were fully on, but, so far as Ida could see, the place was empty. It was all very beautiful and very familiar, yet so strangely grand and impressive after the shabby attic in which Ida had lived so long. As she sat in the shadow at a screen, she was conscious that somebody had entered the further drawing-room. Her quick ears caught the rustle of a skirt, then a soft and liquid voice was heard, evidently issuing orders in a tongue which Ida took to be either Spanish or Italian. Presently a door closed softly and, as Ida turned her head in the direction of the inner room, she saw a woman standing there with a letter in her hand.
There was something about this woman that immediately riveted her attention. She was not particularly tall or commanding, her face was pale, and her eyes were dark and brooding. She seemed to read the letter more than once before she tore it into fragments and tossed them into the fire. Then another door opened and the woman was no longer alone. A man was by her side—a fine, well-made man in immaculate evening dress, sleek, well groomed, and unmistakably English. He occupied such a position that Ida observed his face in profile, and noticed that the features were hard and hawklike, and the clean-shaven lips were pressed firmly together.
"Well," the man said, and there was a challenge in the word, "Well, you see I am here. I knew you couldn't manage without me. You are a wonderful woman. Valerie, but there are times when you are too clever."
The woman laughed mirthlessly.
"Yes, and there are times when you are too exasperating. There are times when I hate you, when the blood rises before my eyes, and when I am dangerous, my friend. I will do you a mischief one of these days. It will be inevitable if you drive me too far. I know you think you can play for the cause, and for your own band at the same time, but you will find that it is impossible. It does not suit you that I should go to this dance to-night, and you are here to try to prevent me. Bah! Was there ever yet man born of woman who could prevent Valerie Brune from doing anything she had made up her mind to do? Of a certainty you are not that man. Whatever the consequences, I am going. And some day, the world may know the reason why. Leave me, please, for I have no time to waste. Will you go, or shall I summon my servants?"
"Oh, there's no occasion for that!" the man said. "You are doing a mad and foolish thing, and I have done my best to prevent it. Good-night, my dear Valerie."
He went silently from the room, and Valerie Brune came through the folded doors. She started slightly as she caught sight of Ida, and there was a questioning gleam in her eyes.
"You have brought my dress?" she asked. "I had forgotten you for the time. Did you hear what was said in the other room? But what does it matter? A child like you would not understand. Now stand there in the light so that I can see your face. Good heavens!"
Valerie Brune was staring intently at Ida, and the latter's eyes were full of strange amazement.
"Why, you are me!" cried Valerie Brune. "You are me and I am you— never was there such a likeness so strange and wonderful! A shop assistant from Bond-street who in the living image of Valerie Brune! Are you of my nationality, too?"
"My mother was an Italian," Ida said quietly. "But I should prefer not to discuss it, madam. As you remarked. I am only a shop assistant, who has come with your dress to see it properly fitted on."
"True, true!" Valerie Brune answered with a certain brooding thoughtfulness. "There is a time for everything, and there is always to-morrow. Will you take the dress out and put it on? You are like me in figure as in face. Lock the door in case we are interrupted. I have a whim to see you in that dress, and I will help you with it—Ah, yes, marvellous! They told me of a wonderful woman who can make crystals into diamonds, and behold, she has done it. My dear child, you look wonderful. I positively envy you."
"Is not that my role?"
"Not to-night, at any rate. Now let me speak freely. If I hurt your feelings, pray forgive me. There has come, to me an idea, an idea that must be carried out, you understand. You are a shop assistant, and therefore poor. You will do anything for money so long as you come by it honestly. You are my twin in everything, and therefore you have courage. For there is danger in this thing, mark you, though it will bring you more money than you've ever seen in your life. Now, are you ready to put yourself in my hands and do exactly what I ask?"
Coffee, liqueurs, and cigarettes had been handed round, and Sir Walter Devant's guests were lounging carelessly at the perfectly appointed dinner-table. It was not a formal party, and the meal had been laid out in one of the morning-rooms of the British Embassy in Berlin. From the point of view of popular fiction, Sir Walter was not a great Ambassador. He had few of those subtle qualities which people like to read about: it had never been his mission to make history, and he had few dramatic triumphs to his credit. There was nothing mysterious or sinister about him; he was a plain, hearty, commonsense Englishman, who played his cards openly and straightforwardly—but he knew every move of the game, nevertheless. The underground wire-pulling and the network of intrigue, without which successful diplomacy is impossible, he was content to leave to his subordinate. In his day he had been a noted sportsman; he was still a fine fisherman and shot, and if his appointment had been, as critics said at the time, a "job," few of them now declined to believe that Walter Devant was a success. To begin with, he entertained royalty, for he was a man of means, and Lady Devant was one of the most popular figures in European society.
However, there was a suspicion of anxiety on the Ambassador's face as he sat chatting with his friends, and Arnold Gray did not fail to notice it. As a matter of fact, it was his business to study the moods and changes of his chief. That was why he was there. For three years he had been Sir Walter's private secretary and enjoyed his confidence to the full.
Devant had no secrets from him, and left everything largely in Gray's hands. They had come to understand one another so completely that they could hold a conversation over the heads of other people without so much as a word being spoken. Scientists may be able to explain this phenomenon, for between kindred souls this mental telepathy certainly exists.
To all appearance Gray was interested only in his cigarette and the glass of Chateau Lafitte he was listlessly fingering. A thin-waisted Austrian attache, was eagerly discussing some proposed sporting expedition with him when the latter suddenly turned his head. For some time he had been wearing and watching for he knew not what, for the ambassador's preoccupation had not been lost upon him. He heard his own name mentioned, and, strained his ears to listen, though apparently absolutely fascinated by his companion's conversation.
"I tell you we shall all come to it in time, prince," Sir Walter was saying to the dark, black-bearded Russian by his side. "I recognised years ago that our only chance of salvation was to inoculate Europe with the virus of sport. If we can do that we shall be far safer so far as Germany is concerned, than if we built a hundred Dreadnoughts. They used to laugh at me in the Foreign Office in the old days—they regarded me as a humorist. But we've done it, or, at any rate, it's done itself. The Russians and the Germans and French are quite as absurd as we are on the subject of sport."
"Vive le sport," the prince said with has glass to his eye, "and above, all, Vive la golfe. But for that I should not be here now enjoying the exquisite bouquet of this marvellous claret. Ah, golf, what should we be without thee."
"Oh, it cuts two ways," the ambassador laughed. He glanced out of the tail of his eye, and saw that Gray was listening. "Yes, it certainly cuts both ways. Take my secretary, Gray, for instance. Would you believe that he had the audacity to ask for a week's leave for a pilgrimage to St. Andrew's to defend some challenge cup at present in his possession. And, mind you he prefers the request quite as a matter of course. What would Palmerston have said to that?"
Gray laughed as in duty bound. He conveyed admirably the suggestion of an upper schoolboy asking a favor from his headmaster. As a matter of fact he had made no such request, and, indeed, this was the first he had beard of it. All he knew was that pressing need had arisen for his presence in England, and that his chief was talking to him over the heads of the other guests. One or two letters had reached Sir Walter with the coffee, and these he had opened and glanced over carefully. They lay on the table as if of no importance whatever.
"And when do you go, Gray?" The prince asked. "I know his excellency will not refuse."
"Oh, he'll want to be off to-night," Devant said. "We are all schoolboys when sport is in question. Come, Gray, am I not right? Do you travel this evening?"'
"I should like to, sir."
"Well, well, we won't pursue the painful subject. Take these letters, and have them answered before you leave. I have jotted down one or two instructions on the back of one of them. And, by the way, if you go into the library you might bring me the box of cigars on the table. They are something very special from Havana."
Gray vanished without a further word.
He knew he must undertake a journey to England immediately, and he needed no one to tell him that the occasion had arisen in connection with one of the letters he held in his hand. When in the library he skimmed the letters rapidly, but there was nothing in them to enlighten him. Then, very carefully, he deciphered a few lines of shorthand which Sir Waiter had scribbled while talking to his guests.
The message was quite plain:—
"I wish you to go to London at once. I learnt something to-night, which I had no time to discuss with you. Take the packet of pink papers from the left-hand drawer of the safe and convey them to London as soon as possible. If I were you I wouldn't go by the direct route, as I have a strong conviction you will be followed. I shrewdly suspect that our friend the King of—you now—is exceedingly anxious to see these dispatches. Therefore you had better break your journey at Paris to throw any shadowers off the scent. Cross to Dover by day and take the evening train to Charing Cross. I think we shall manage to fool his Highness; at any rate for the moment. On your way to the station call at the Reuterstrasse and see X. I believe he wants you to take a package to London for a certain Princess. I don't know, but I imagine the package may contain something rather valuable in the way of jewellery."
Gray dropped the message into the heart of the fire and returned gravely to the dining-room with the cigars. Within an hour he was speeding towards the station with the two precious packages safely stowed away in a pair of inner pockets. He chose his route carefully— a weary, roundabout route, which landed him in Paris two days later, utterly tired and worn out. There was time for a comfortable sleep, a bath and a luxurious meal, and dusk next evening found him walking off the pier at Dover in the direction of the train. So far the journey had been uneventful and dreary to the verge of monotony. He chose a corner seat in a first-class corridor, and lighted a cigar. It looked as if he would have all the compartment to himself, for the train was far from crowded, when another man, clean-shaven and alert, peeped into the carriage. As Gray caught sight of him, he nodded and smiled.
"Are you coming in here, Evans?"
"I don't think it would do, sir," the other man said. "If there are any hawks about it might make them suspicious. I picked you up in Paris and have been following you—a precautionary measure, for I'm acting under instructions from the chief. And I'm not quite sure that there are not one or two hands on board the train now. Thought I'd let you know, sir."
The man passed on as if looking for a seat, and presently the train glided off into the night. It was by no means a fast train, albeit by courtesy an express, but in the ordinary course it would not stop short of Charing Cross, and Gray settled down in the corner with a "Sportsman." For a time his senses were keen enough, then gradually he grew drowsy and his eyes closed. A sleepy unconsciousness held him before he came to himself with a start. "This will never do," he said. He had slept well the night before, and there was no reason why he should be tired. There was nothing to suspect, for was he not alone in the carriage and the trusty Evans only a few yards away? Once more his eyes closed, and this time he slept in earnest. The train fought its way through the night against the bitter east wind, till the speed began to slacken and just outside a tunnel pulled up altogether. Out of the darkness shone tiny points of flames where lanterns were waving to and fro on the down line. One or two curious passengers shook themselves free of their wraps and looked out, eager to know what had happened.
"Nothing to worry about, gentlemen," the guard explained. "One of the platelayers found an obstruction on the line. Looks as if a block of stone had fallen off a passing goods train. Might have been serious if it hadn't been seen in time. All clear in front these, George?"
A hoarse voice out of the darkness shouting an assent, the guard climbed into his van and waved his lamp. The train, gathering speed, thundered through the tunnel, the passenger settled down once more, and by and by the twinkling vanguard of London's lights began to appear. A few coaches behind the carriage in which Gray had made himself comfortable, Evans had been seated over a book. As far as he was able to see, nobody had approached the rear end of the train. Still it would be as well to know that Gray was safe. Evans lurched along the corridor and looked into the first-class carriage.
The compartment was empty!
Not a sound escaped the sleuth-hound of the service. He crossed to the opposite door and tried the latch. The handle was turned and the door absolutely secure. Gray had not gone that way. And there was no sign of him, nothing but a torn envelope, the address gone, and only the monogram on the back remaining.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine, Piccadilly, as all the world knows, is the sporting outfitters' shop, which is run by the Honorable John Glasgow. The Honorable John, familiar to a wide circle of friends as "The Mixture," which is a pun when you come to think of it, is the third son of the Earl of Clyde, and in his day was an Admirable Crichton in the world of sport. There is no occasion to tell the public that John Glasgow was a triple blue and a test match player. To the man in the street, however, he merely represents the typical, healthy British animal who has only one object in life.
It was considered a pretty brainy idea when be started business on his own account, which did surprisingly well. If society women could make money out of hats, he argued, there was no reason why a society man should not make money out of hats, especially when he was a finished judge of the article. And for some years now John Glasgow had been making several thousands a year at 999, Piccadilly. He lived over the shop, and had a comfortable set of chambers and a suite of offices devoted to the requirements of a sporting agency. Many of the finest deer forests, grouse moors, and Continental game preserves passed through his hands, for Glasgow was popular, and boasted more acquaintances and a greater knowledge of Europe than any man of his time.
He appeared to be a chubby-faced, rotund, good-natured man, but he was something more than that. It had been his pose to call himself a sportsman and nothing else. He had always affected that sport and brains were absolutely incompatible. This pose suited him, because, unknown to any of his friends, he was practically at the head of the Secret Service. Under him were a dozen lynx-eyed assistants, who constantly travelled Europe from end to end—in the interests of sport, of course, or so people thought. But these assistants, invariably public school and Varsity men, and field experts themselves, easily commanded the entree to the best houses on the Continent.
Glasgow sat at his desk in his private room, talking over matters with Inspector Trafford, of Scotland Yard.
"Now, look here, Trafford," he said, "this is your business and not mine. As I have already told you, Mr. Arnold Gray left Berlin three days ago carrying important dispatches to the Foreign Office here. You people never interfere with the diplomatic side; it is your peculiar view that the Secret Service doesn't exist. In an ordinary way your interference would be a nuisance to us. But when a valuable and trusted diplomatic servant disappears, then we slide discreetly in the background and you come on the stage. I want you to forget for a moment what you said about the dispatches. I simply inform you that my friend, Mr. Arnold Gray, either fell out of a train or was thrown out of a train whilst travelling between Dover and Charing Cross. That he was in the train when it started I can prove. And, er—um, an assistant of mine, called Evans saw him and spoke to him as the train was starting."
"Did the train stop at all, Mr. Glasgow?"
"Well, as a matter of fact it did, though usually a non-stop. An obstruction was found on the line and the train pulled up for a few minutes. You will probably agree that the obstruction was placed on the line on purpose. But that's in your department. No one knows as yet that Gray has disappeared, and at present I don't propose to make it public property. If you can find Gray, or his body, before those confounded newspapers hear of the affair I shall be infinitely obliged to you."
"Is there any sort of clue?"
"None whatever. Evans told me he felt suspicious when the train stopped, and he it was who discovered that Mr. Gray was missing. And that's all I can tell you. You have a free hand to do what you please."
Trafford departed a moment or two later and Glasgow returned to his desk. He had hardly taken up his pen when his private telephone rang.
"What is it?"
"Is that you, Glasgow?" a voice asked. "It's Hepburn. Hepburn, of the 'Daily Sentinel.' What's that? Oh, yes! I'm absolutely alone in the office. I suppose you are, too. Then I can speak freely. One of our 'specials' has just come into the office with what looks like an exclusive story. He's a good man, and reliable, and I've never known him stick us with anything in the way of a fake yet. I don't know how he manages it, but he's up against some very queer people, and from time to time brings us some exceedingly odd stories. What he's told me is this—He says that Arnold Gray was sent from Berlin suddenly three days ago with most important dispatches for the Foreign Office. He declares that Gray was spirited out of the express between Dover and Charing Cross, and has not been heard of. The poor chap may be dead or he may not, but that does not affect the truth of our man's story. There's about a column of it altogether, and it's real live stuff. It will make the feature of to-morrow's paper."
Glasgow swore softly under his breath. This was the thing he had dreaded from the first, the contingency he was most afraid of. If he could have his own way there would be a rigid censorship of newspapers, and nothing should be published likely to do any harm to the country.
"Oh, your man's very clever, no doubt," he said. "But one of these days you newspaper people will bring about a European war. What will you gain by publishing that?"
"My dear chap, we are a business proposition, not an Imperial Defence League. I didn't call you up to chortle at your expense, but to consult you on the matter. If you tell me it will do any harm, then I will suppress the story. You can rely on my man keeping his mouth shut. We may be commercially minded, but nobody can say we are not patriotic."
"That's really very good of you." Glasgow responded gratefully.
"I'll run round and have a chat with you. I know that after 10 o'clock at night's your busy time, but you can give me a few minutes. As your writer knows so much, he may have a clue. Of course, I don't want this thing spoken about. You've helped me several times, and I think I have done my best to return your good offices. You are one of the very few outsiders who know of my connection with the Secret Service. I'll be round in about ten minutes."
Less than a quarter of an hour later Glasgow was closeted with the editor of the "Daily Sentinel." On the latter's desk was a proof of the journalist's story. It contained a good deal of information which was new to Glasgow.
"This seems to be a mighty shrewd man of yours," he said. "I wonder if he'd come over to us. A hound with a nose like his would be very useful in my pack. Besides, he could pick up lots of things he could make use of in a journalistic way without injuring us. You might give me an introduction."
"Certainly not," Hepburn smiled. "Why should I sacrifice the most brilliant man on my staff? Moreover, I doubt if you'd get on with him. He's a queer, taciturn chap, and between ourselves, has served a term of penal servitude. He always declares he was innocent of the charge against him, and I have heard others say the same thing. Still, the trouble has soured and disappointed him, and he would resent anything in the way of discipline. I'm afraid he wouldn't do."
"Then you don't know where he got the stuff?"
"My dear fellow, I haven't the slightest idea. If I began to make impertinent enquiries, my man wouldn't come near the office again, and I should have the pleasure of reading his next story in a rival sheet. I'll see him if you like, and tell him that for diplomatic reasons the article can't go in, which will not annoy him in the least because he's already had his cheque. He told me earlier in the evening he had built up his story out of a torn envelope which had come into his possession. It must have been a very fine piece of reasoning, precisely worked out, because there is no denying that Arnold Gray has disappeared. Of course, the writer must have known where to get the bulk of his information, otherwise the envelope would have been no use to him."
"And, what became of the envelope?"
"How should I know. Destroyed by this time, I expect. And yet I recollect that my man had it in his hand. He seemed rather proud of this exploit, and said more in ten minutes than I have heard him say in the last year. Now, what did he do with that envelope? A scrap of paper would not interest me, as I had the story red-hot upon my desk. The writer must have chucked it away, because he was making a cigarette as he went out. I wonder if he dropped it in the wastepaper basket. Half a minute and I'll look. It may be here after all."
A moment later Hepburn held up triumphantly the back of a torn envelope. It was composed of handmade paper of a pale grey shade with a small red monogram on the flap. Two tiny points of flame seemed to light in Glasgow's eyes as he slipped the paper into his pocket. For the rest his face was calm.
"This may be of use," he said. "You never can tell. Thanks ever so much. I'll be off now."
He made his way back as fast as a taxi could take him to his rooms. There he laid the fragment of the envelope on his table and examined it through a powerful glass. The investigation seemed to please him, for he smiled as he took down the receiver of the telephone and called a number.
"Is that you, Number Three?" he asked. "Mr. Glasgow speaking. Go round to 45A, Grosvenor-square, at once, and ascertain where Miss Valerie Brune is to-night. If she's at home, well and good; if she out, discover where she has gone and how long she is likely to be. Then ring me up from the nearest call office."
The reply came ten minutes later. Miss Brune has gone to the charity ball at Covent Garden, and her return was uncertain.
Glasgow grabbed his hat, raced down the stairs, and hailed a passing taxi.
"Take me to Covent Garden," he said. "No, not the Opera House. I want Barker's, the costumier. Half a sovereign if you get me there inside ten minutes."
Ida, bewildered and confused, almost incapable of following what was said to her stared at Valerie Brune with a pathetic enquiry in her eyes. A few hours before she had been a mere waif and stray, a human derelict floating down the stream of life to a sea of oblivion and darkness. Now here she was caught up suddenly out of the commonplace and thrown into the very vortex of adventure. She did not know whether to feel glad or sorry, eager or ashamed. And yet, with it all, she was conscious of an intense, overpowering curiosity. She was young and strong, for she had not stepped over the dreadful hunger mark, with its hideous temptations, and courage was still with her.
Six months ago she would have looked forward to an adventure like this, and she had been learning things lately, and a sense of peril restrained her.
Valerie glanced at her impatiently.
"Well, you heard what I said." she exclaimed. "There is danger, of course, but if I am any judge of character, you won't mind that. Come, a girl in your position ought not to hesitate. It is no business of mine to enquire how you come to be in your present situation, but I dare swear you were not born to it."
"Does that matter?" Ida asked coldly.
"I beg your pardon. I ought not to have made that remark. But I am sure you have ambition, and cannot wish to be a shop-girl all your life. If you will place yourself in my hands I will make your fortune. You shall go back and live amongst the people whom you have been accustomed to mix with. There's nothing I will not do for you. I am rich. Could I afford to live in a house like this if it were otherwise? And with all my faults my enemies cannot say that I am ungenerous, or that I am not a good friend to those who serve me well."
"Oh, I believe that?" Ida said. "I'm not afraid of danger. I've been on the verge of starvation too long to dread anything except an utter lack of money. What I fear is that you are asking me to do something wrong."
"Do you mean criminal?"
"I do. If you can convince me—" "You must take my word for that. I am not asking you to do anything that should bring you within the meshes of the law. If, by any chance, trouble of this kind arise, I am prepared to take the blame. Now listen to me—by-the-way, you have not told me your name."
"My name is Ida Vanstone."
"Indeed. I expected you would give me quite another name. Pray give me all your attention. I daresay you think I'm to be envied—young, single, rich, good-looking, and full of life, and courage. And yet I am desperately situated, watched, and conspired against, without a friend in the world to help me. If I could only get away from this house to-night for a couple of hours alone. I believe I could save the situation. But I must make no mistake; there must be no possible chance of those who are spying against me guessing my designs. That is why I want you to take my place and go to this dance."
"But the likeness between us is not so great as you think." Ida protested. "Your imagination has colored your judgment. At a short distance we might be taken for one another, and there is where your scheme is weak. Miss Valerie Brune must have scores I of friends, and a good many of them will be at the dance."
"No doubt, but that won't make any difference. I am supposed to be a creature of moods. Rich young women with good looks are allowed these peculiarities. I do not choose to dance; I choose to remain aloof from the rest and sulk. I refuse to speak to anybody, and at two o'clock in the morning I leave by myself. I come back here in a taxi. Or, rather, you return in a taxi, because I am really giving you instructions. I am telling you exactly what has to be done to-night. When you leave Covent Garden you are to arrive here precisely at quarter past 2. I shall be back by that time, and when the cab pulls up at the door—will let you in."
To her astonishment Ida felt herself falling in line with this strange adventure. The other girl's magnetism was carrying her away. After all, there could be no very great danger, and, even if the imposture were discovered, the consequences were not likely to be serious.
"Very well," she said. "I will place myself in your hands. But, first of all, I must be allowed to write a note to my friend, Elsie Harness, who will wonder what has become of me. If you will have that dispatched, then I shall be ready to take your place. I can say no more than that."
"And the remuneration?" Valerie asked.
"That I leave entirely to you. I am penniless. An hour or two ago I was face to face with starvation and a bed on the Embankment. I have not been used to privations of this kind. I left home to earn my own living as best I could, rather than marry the man my father tried to force on me. Things have changed somewhat, and I have the prospect of a pittance at least—"
"Stop!" Valerie cried. "You distress me beyond measure, and none the less because I've been through it all myself. There was a time when I ran about the streets of Rome barefoot, a time when I travelled Europe with a vagabond theatrical company. My child, you shall have a hundred pounds to begin with, and more, much more, later. Now come into my room, for there is no time to be lost. I will find everything necessary—I should say my clothes would fit you very well. When you are ready I will leave you in my bedroom—I will vanish by the servants' entrance, and you, for the time being, shall be Valerie Brune. If you muffle yourself well nobody will notice the difference; then you will ring the bell and ask if the car is ready. It sounds delightfully simple, does it not? When you arrive at Covent Garden all you have to do is to dismiss the motor and tell my man you will not require him to fetch you back. The rest I think I can leave in your hands. Above all, you are to remain apart from everybody, you are to be Valerie Brune in one of her most tiresome moods. I assure you, my dear child, these moods can be very bad indeed sometimes. Any of my friends will tell you that. Now come along."
A strange eagerness, a strong desire for the wild adventure thrilled Ida. She was young and supple, and her spirits were rising. After the past awful six months it would be exhilarating to enjoy a passing glance of life at its best again. It would be good to get out of the drab surroundings which were stifling what was brightest in her. It was bracing to find herself in that luxuriously-appointed bedroom, with its brilliant lights and the fire dancing and reflecting in the silver fittings of the toilet table. There was something soothing in the touch of silken drapery and the dainty gloves and shoes which Valerie produced for the inspection of her new-found confederate. Ida gasped, positively gasped, presently as she glanced at herself in the long mirror.
"It's wonderful," she cried, "what dress does for women! Do you know I feel I could go through anything, now? And yet in my shabby attire I was almost ashamed to offer my drawings even to a halfpenny paper."
"Ah, that is the right spirit!" Valerie said. "Well. I'm going to leave you. With this dark cloak and hood I can leave the house and nobody will be the wiser. All you have to do is to muffle yourself up in that cloak so that only the tip of your nose peeps out, and ring the bell. The fewer words you say the better."
As it happened there was no occasion to say anything. Almost as soon as Ida pressed the bell the door opened and a neat-looking maid came in. Ida rose languidly to her feet, and immediately the maid came forward with a ticket of admission in her hand.
"The car is already waiting, madam," she said.
With a wave of her hand Ida intimated that the maid should lead the way, and a few moments later she was being whirled along towards Covent Garden. There was no nervousness about her, nothing but an eager desire to see this thing out to the bitter end. It seemed to her that she had gone through it all before, and that she was familiar with every phase of it. She would know exactly what to do, exactly how to play her part. There was a possible chance that she might be recognised by some friend, but this only added piquancy to the venture.
It was, as Ida had expected, a mixed crowd. Some thousand or more guests had gathered in the sacred name of charity, high-born men and women rubbing shoulders with the middle-classes, and here and there an over-dressed woman or two; in fact, quite the Covent Garden crowd that always assembles at such functions. Ida wandered about the rooms without attracting undue attention and without molestation of any kind. She was enjoying herself immensely, keeping a bright lookout for casual acquaintances so that she might be able to avoid them. No doubt it would grow monotonous presently, but meanwhile the gay dresses and the flashing lights, the strains of the band, and the rippling laughter' carried her forward, resistlessly, and perhaps a trifle recklessly as well. It was such a startling change from the painful struggle of the last few months; it was such a scene as might—
Ida pulled herself up with a start. Within a few yards of her she caught sight of the man with the firm lips and hatchet face whom she had seen in the drawing room, at Grosvenor-square. He was talking to another man—a rather small, insignificant-looking person with dark, restless eyes and a discontented, sensitive mouth. The first man turned as if Ida's glance had drawn him by some magnetic force, and he smiled meaningly. There was something mocking in the wave of his hand and Ida's spirits sank a little.
"This is unexpected." she told herself. "I shall have to be careful. That is the man who almost forbade Valerie Brune to come to-night." She moved from the other and seated herself more obscurely. A moment later and the man with the discontented mouth was whispering in her ear.
"I must speak to you," he said. "Follow me to the conservatory. I have news of Arnold Gray for you!"
Ida bit her lip between her teeth sharply, and only with the greatest difficulty suppressed a cry. Fortunately her back was towards the speaker so that he could not get a glimpse of her white, startled face. Evidently this man knew Valerie Brune and had something of the last importance to say to her. Whether he was a friend or an enemy of the girl whom she was impersonating Ida could not speculate. At any rate, he must not be allowed to guess that he had made a mistake.
"What now?" Ida asked impatiently. "Why do you worry me at such an inconvenient time?"
"Surely I'm speaking for your good," the man replied. "Don't say you've never heard of me, of Ralph Arnott, before."
Ida was on the qui vive; she must quickly grasp her chances. It was plain that whoever this man was he had never met the real Valerie Brune in the flesh.
"I am not going to pretend ignorance," she said. "Go on."
"Well, you will not deny that I have been of considerable service to you, and I should have come to see you before now did I not agree with you that such a course might be dangerous. I have managed to shake off George Heathcote. I sent him on a fool's errand, and he won't be back just yet."
So, Ida thought. George Heathcote was the man with the hatchet face and compressed lips. This was so much gained anyway. If she preserved her present attitude of languid indifference, and did not ask too many questions, all might be well.
"Before we go any further," she said, "I assume you do not want Mr. Heathcote to know that you have spoken to me. Is that correct, Mr. Arnott?"
"Of course it is." the man called Arnott responded. "If I knew how far you trusted Heathcote—"
"Then I may tell you I don't trust him at all. I don't mind confessing that I dislike him exceedingly."
"Yes, I understood you'd quarrelled. Miss Brune, that man's a traitor. He professes to be devoted to our interests, but he has been playing for his own hand all the time. With him it's entirely a matter of money. It's a hateful thing to see a man who poses as a patriotic Englishman trafficking in his country's naval and military secrets."
"But you can stop that, Mr. Arnott," Ida hazarded.
"I can and I can't. He is using me for his own base purposes. If he liked he could give me information which would clear my name and enable me to hold up my head in the world again. As it is, I have to fetch and carry for Heathcote, to do his slightest bidding, to become a paid spy in the service of a foreign country in the hope that some day he may toss me the key to my freedom."
"But that is very wrong." Ida protested.
The man with the discontented mouth laughed mirthlessly.
"That is a quaint remark to fall from the lips of Valerie Brune," he said. "My dear lady, you must not pose before me. Don't forget that I also have lived in Berlin."
Ida smiled in a non-committal fashion. She was discovering singular things. Beyond question she had fallen into a nest of spies; she was in the heart of some mysterious intrigue, and could see danger looming in the distance.
"We are none of us as bad as we are painted," Arnott went on. "I believe neither of us would be quite as we are had not fate been too strong for us. Oh, it was all very well for you to suggest that I should hold my hand! Put yourself in my place. Five years ago I was one of the happiest of men. I had the journalistic ball at my foot, and was engaged to one of the dearest and sweetest girls Devon ever produced. And at this moment I am a convict, a man whom everybody despises with the solitary exception of the editor of my paper. I'm an innocent man. I daresay the girl is still waiting for me; in fact, I know she is. But I vowed that I'd never go near her until I had proof of my innocence. That is why I have mixed myself up with this dirty spy movement. I tell you this because I have heard of many things to your credit, and know that you have been forced by sheer weight of circumstance into a life that you loathe. But if I could only get these papers out of Heathcote, even if I had to buy or steal them, I should go back to my clean life again. It ill befits an Englishmen to join in a conspiracy with a foreign Power to damage his own country."
Ida was beginning to see more clearly that this man was telling the truth, she did not doubt for a moment. He had an air of sincerity that carried conviction with it. But she must not allow her heart to run away with her head. She must bear in mind that she was Valerie Brune, a brilliant and successful international spy, and that the man at her side was steeped to the lips in the same intrigue.
"Yes, we are both the victims of fate," she said thoughtfully.
"Personally, I am tired of it. But you did not bring me here to indulge in vain regrets, I suppose. Didn't you say that you had news of—?"
"Arnold Gray. Certainly; I am obliged to you for bringing me back to the point. Now, with one or two exceptions, I am the only person who knows where Gray is. You heard all about that mysterious train business?"
"Only a garbled version. I had other things to worry me at the time. Tell me precisely what happened. I think I ought to know."
"Well, Gray came from Berlin with important dispatches. But I needn't tell you that, because it was you to whom the information first came. When these dispatches are in our possession we shall be in a position to command as good many thousand pounds. During his journey from Dover to Charing-Cross Gray disappeared. At present the matter is in the hands of Scotland Yard. The public know nothing about it, though that is not my fault, because I supplied the information to my paper. When Gray had vanished I didn't see why I couldn't kill two birds with one stone, but for reasons which I do not understand, and which do not interest me, my editor suppressed the story. At any rate, Scotland Yard are quite non-plussed. They know that Gray disappeared from the train. There was not a door open or a window down, and the detectives are at their wits' ends for a theory. You see, a man doesn't throw himself out of a train and then turn the handle afterwards, and for the present purpose I think that's enough. We could give Scotland Yard a good deal of information if we liked, and, in a day or two I've no doubt we shall do so, but not until we've found the dispatches."
"Oh! You can't find them, then?"
"Not so much as a line. We know he had them with him. We know that he could not possibly have passed them on to anybody else, and yet they have vanished in a most extraordinary way. That brings me to the point. If you don't get hold of them, Heathcote will. I want you to go and see Gray—"
"Go and see him!" Ida exclaimed.
"Yes, in leaving the train he met with an accident; in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he's very bad—something almost in the nature of a fracture, I understand. They managed to get a doctor to look after him. One can always do that when money is no object. I think it very desirable that you should see him."
"What time to-morrow, do you suggest?"
Ida asked the question as casually as she could. She was a little confused and bewildered, and Arnott's startling reply did not render her any the easier.
"To-morrow may be too late," he said abruptly. "I want you to go now. You are so marvellously quick in these matters, and your intuition amounts almost to genius. If you cannot find these papers no woman can. Besides, when I heard you were coming here to-night I arranged everything for you. I have only to step outside and give the signal to one of our men, and a motor is at your disposal. I have procured wraps for you and here is the address on this card."
Not for a moment did Ida hesitate. She would see this adventure out. If there were anything wrong, it would be her duty to expose it. Besides the danger ahead was no greater than the danger of the moment. If Heathcote returned and insisted upon speaking to her, it was inevitable he would discover he had been deceived. So far she would keep her word. She would not betray Valerie Brune if she could help it. There was something, too, in the thought of this young English diplomatist, wounded and a prisoner, which appealed both to her womanliness and her imagination. She threw her wrap about her head.
"I will go at once," she said. "Indeed, the sooner I'm off the better. It is of the utmost importance that I should be back in Grosvenor-square by a quarter past 2. Lead the way, please—it will be as well that we should not be seen together."
The keen breath of the east wind on Ida's face was grateful, as she was borne eastwards, where the streets grew meaner and more narrow, until at length the motor stopped before a dilapidated house looking on to the river. Bidding the driver wait, Ida's knock at the door was answered, after a long interval, by a villainous-looking old woman, who peered into the darkness while she shaded her smoking lamp with a hand yellow and skinny as the claws of a falcon. She was about to close the door again when Ida produced a card. The woman's face changed from a truculent frown to a smile, which if possible, was still more unpleasant.
"Oh, come in your excellent ladyship!" she said. "Come in, it's not often I see the likes of you in my poor little 'ouse."
"How is the patient?"
"Which, I don't deny, your excellent ladyship, 'e's bad," the woman whispered. "The doctor's with 'im now. Perhaps you'd like to speak to the gentleman yerself?"
"I think not," Ida said hastily. "Shew me into a sitting-room, and I'll wait till he's gone."
From overhead there came the sound of voices and the old woman grinned. There was an evil light in her eyes.
"That's 'im," she croaked, "a'talking in 'is delirium. E'll let it all out presently."
Ida shuddered violently. Had she acted on the spur of the moment she would have rushed from the house to the motor and returned home fully resolved to have no more to do with this ghastly business.
After all, she was under no obligation to Valerie Brune. She had gone into the affair out of sheer good nature, and, perhaps, in the hope that she might be able to help Elsie Harness. At any rate, she never expected to find herself face to face with a tragedy. It was her duty to place the facts at once in the hands of the police. But by adopting such a course she might do Valerie Brune an injustice, and cause her serious trouble. She would wait a little longer.
Looking round the dingy, dirty room she saw the cobwebs hanging on the walls, and the discoloured ceiling, and felt it almost impossible to breathe freely in that close foul atmosphere. Late as it was, she heard children whining and quarrelling below, and the sick man moaning. Her senses were alert for what might happen next.
"Would you take a chair, your ladyship?" the old woman suggested.
"The doctor may be some time. Did you bring any money with you? Because I haven't got anything left, and the gentleman upstairs is expensive. Just a five-pun note?"
"I have no money with me." Ida explained. "I had to come here in a great hurry."
The old woman evinced some anxiety.
"There's no danger, I suppose, my lady?"
"I know of no danger except the risk we always have to take," Ida said cautiously. "You shall have money all right. Go upstairs and ask the doctor how much longer he is likely to be. I cannot stay indefinitely, as I must be home at two o'clock. I came here to fetch something. You know what I mean."
Apparently the old woman did, for her one eye gleamed, and she shook her head regretfully.
"We can't find it anywheres, your ladyship," she said. "We've searched and searched, but it's nowhere to be found. Mr. you-know-who says as its all my fault. I believe he thinks as 'ow I took it myself. As if it would be any use to an ignorant woman like me. Why I can't even read. Pay me any money, I says, and I can keep my mouth shut with the best of 'em. But I don't keep no papers about, thank you. The police is too partickler for that. And they've been 'ere a few times afore. Accused me of doing a bit o' smuggling they did. But, Lor' bless your ladyship, they never found nothing. Still, they've not their eye on the place, and when anything comes into my 'ands in the way o' business I gets rid of it as soon as possible. It's my opinion as the gentleman didn't bring them papers with 'im at all."
"All this is very annoying," Ida said. "Now let me clearly understand how matters stand. In the first place, how did Mr. Gray come here? Who brought him?"
The woman cocked her head cunningly and winked her solitary eye. She looked like some evil bird of prey.
"I dunno, your ladyship," she leered. "I dunno nothin' as amounts to anythin'. It ain't for a poor lone body like me to ask questions. But I did 'ear one or two remarks all the same. The gentleman met with an accident—fell out of a train or something like that. Perhaps 'e didn't want 'is friends to know as 'e was in England, p'raps 'e'd got 'imself into trouble. Anyway they finds 'im by the side o' the line and they brings 'im 'ere. They knew I'd be a mother to 'im."
Ida shrank away in disgust. There was something almost loathsome in the manner in which the woman spoke. The smoky lamp was beginning to burn lower, and the room reeked with the smell of it. Ida's overpowering impulse was to get out of this as soon as possible, but her curiosity and a womanly desire to help the sick man upstairs kept her lingering. She could not bring herself to quit the house.
Probably the patient was a gentleman who had fallen into the hands of a gang of rascals who had obviously plotted to do him a mischief, and who might have murdered him by this time if they had only obtained possession of the mysterious papers to which the one-eyed crone had alluded. Ida decided to stay until she had seen the doctor. Not that she expected to learn much from him, for no respectable practitioner would have lent himself to a mysterious case like this. The medical man came downstairs a few moments later. He stared at the sight Ida, and removed a dilapidated cap.
"I should like a few words with you," Ida said. "My good woman, will you kindly leave me alone with the doctor?"
The woman vanished up the grimy stairs, and Ida turned sharply towards her dissipated-looking companion. It was as she had expected.
The doctor proclaimed abject poverty in every line and seam of his shabby garments, and his receding chin was adorned with a ragged beard of some days' growth. His eves were red and heavy and the restless trembling of his capable-looking hands told its own story. For the rest he did not lack refinement, and was evidently a man who at one time had been accustomed to mix in fairly good society; in fact, ignorant of the world, as she was, Ida felt that she knew this man's story without a word of explanation.
"I am interested in your patient," she said. "We need not go into details, but I have come to see him, By the way, the woman here did not mention your name."
"Doctor Truscott," the man stammered. "Matthew Truscott at your service."
"You are properly qualified, I suppose?" Ida had touched a tender spot, for the sallow cheek flushed an indignant pink.
"I am a Doctor of Medicine of London University," he said. "I am telling you the simple truth. You are wondering what I am doing in these parts?"
"It would be a natural curiosity, Dr. Truscott."
Truscott hesitated for a moment.
"I will be candid with you," he replied "I have not had the pleasure of speaking to a lady for so long that I felt embarrassed when you addressed me, and you will pardon me if my curiosity may also be troublesome. This is a strange place to find a M.D. of London attending a patient, but it is a still stranger place in which to meet a lady of your standing in society. If you will be frank with me, madame, I will be frank with you. I won't ask your name—"
"I appreciate your delicacy," Ida smiled "Briefly, as I have said, I am interested in your patient. A few hours ago I was not interested in him, but time presses and we need not go into that. Doesn't it strike you as peculiar that a gentleman like Mr. Arnold Gray should be hiding in a slum like this? I understand that he is exceedingly ill, but his proper place is with his friends. Does this not occur to you?"
"Well not to the same extent," Truscott said. "You see, doctors come in contact with such strange things that they become case-hardened after a time. I have a practice of sorts here, and was called in to see Mr. Gray. I didn't even know his name till you mentioned it. I was told that there had been an accident and, that there were reasons why the patient's friends should not know anything about it. I come here twice a day, and am paid a guinea in advance for each visit. I have a wife and child dependent upon me, and there are times when it is difficult to obtain food for them. A few years ago when I was practising in the West End—"
Truscott broke off abruptly and his voice trailed away into a whisper. Ida laid her hand upon his arm.
"I am very, very sorry," she said gently, "I am afraid my curiosity has carried me too far."
"Mine is by no means an unusual case. I was getting on too well. I worked too hard, and dared not take a holiday till I was thoroughly established. Then, because I was afraid to touch stimulants. I had recourse to drugs. Only a small dose at first, and well. I'm not going to weary you with the story. I am a dreadful-looking wreck. I know, but that is because I have recently conquered my foe, and my system is on the verge of collapse. But I am getting better. I am beginning to pull myself out of the rut and perhaps in time—. Goodness knows why I've told you this story. Perhaps it's because you look so kind and sympathetic, perhaps because it's good to speak to one of one's own class again. I agree with you as regards my patient. The case has given me a good deal of anxiety, but in my position I am powerless, and I am only too delighted to find a lady coming to the rescue. It has eased my mind immensely."
"I suppose he is very ill?"
"Well, he is and he isn't. There has been a slight fracture of the skull, and this has affected the brain. There are moments when the patient is semi-conscious, but these intervals are not frequent. Some days must elapse before Mr. Gray can be taken away. So far as the people in the house are concerned, they can do nothing with him. Even in his present state he is afraid of them and mistrusts them. On the other hand, with me he is quite different. Once or twice I have seen glimpses of reason, and he has asked me questions which show me that he has something on his mind. It is clear that he has lost something of special importance. When the brain is in that condition it doesn't do to treat a man's ramblings too seriously, and my patient always talks in the same vein. Throughout all his conversation there runs a constant allusion to a fawn coat. What he means I haven't the remotest idea. But I need not tell you that I have not mentioned this fact to anyone in the house."
"I think I understand,"' Ida said, "I wonder if there is any objection to my seeing Mr. Gray?'"
"Not in the least," Truscott replied. "Perhaps you would like to go up. It is the first door at the top of the stairs. I'll keep the woman talking and take care that you are not disturbed. Possibly you may be able to do some good."
"Ah, then I'd better see him at once,"
Ida ran up the rickety staircase. In front of her, out of a door that was slightly open, there came a flood of clear, yellow light. As she pushed her way into the room she saw standing on the floor a standard lamp with a green silk shade. It looked startlingly out of place until she observed that the room was comfortably, not to say luxuriously, furnished. There was a thick carpet on the floor, some good prints on the walls, and in the modern grate a bright fire burnt cheerfully. The bed was of brass, and the coverlet was clean and white, as if fresh from the laundry. Lying on his back there, with face turned upwards, lay the patient. His eyes were open, but there was no expression in them, and it was plain that they saw nothing. The man muttered from time to time, but the words were slurred, and Ida could not catch the meaning. Her heart overflowing with sheer pity and womanliness, she approached the bed and laid a cool, slim hand upon, the patient's burning forehead.
"I am sorry for you."
For a moment a flash of consciousness crept into the man's eyes, and he turned eagerly to her.
"Ida Vanstone!" he murmured. "Dear little Ida."
It was only for an instant, and then his eyes closed wearily, as if he were spent for want of sleep. Ida dropped on the bed and covered her face with her hands. The discovery left her faint and dizzy. For Arnold Gray was an old acquaintance, if not, indeed, something more. Strange she should overlook the similarity in names! Her friend had been Arnold Grey Fraser, but she had not associated him with the Arnold Gray of this dramatic and thrilling adventure. It all came back to her now the pleasant summer holiday she had spent two years ago, with a relation of her mother's at Folkestone, when Arnold Fraser had come into her life. There had been picnics and boating excursions, and evenings on the pier in moonlight, and one delirious night when he had kissed her under the silent stars. And she, well, she had kissed him, too, and he had spoken of the time when he would be free to come and claim her, and meanwhile it was to be a delicious secret between them. He had told her how he was in the diplomatic service, that he was poor and ambitious, but that be enjoyed the confidence of his chief, and that he hoped soon to be in a position to make a home, and he had left Ida no doubt as to who should be its mistress. He had spoken, too, of a rich, eccentric aunt who might leave him money some day. Was it possible that that day had arrived, and that with his aunt's fortune he had dropped the name of Fraser and become simply Arnold Gray?
But, be that as it might, here was the man to whom Ida had given her heart, whom she had waited for, and in whom she had the most implicit confidence. It had been their tender fancy, if self-denying, that neither word nor sign should pass between them till Gray was ready to come to her and carry her off to the ideal home they had planned together. Ida knew that this time would come, and the thought had cheered her immensely during the past weary months. And she had found him, the man whom she loved, sick almost unto death and surrounded by the direst peril. Her heart sank at the contemplation of it. How could she get him away from here, she who was alone in the world and practically penniless? She could not go to Valerie Brune for help, because in a vague way she felt that the latter was somehow responsible for all that had happened to Arnold. Still the omen was good. Surely some unseen power had brought her here at the eleventh hour; clearly this mysterious power would befriend her.
But it was not the time to mope or lament: she must resolutely banish the past and fix her eyes firmly on the future. Something must be done and that before long.
She laid her hand upon Gray's forehead again, and at the cool and soothing touch he opened his eyes once more.
"Don't you know me, dearest?" she whispered. "It is Ida, sent here by Heaven to help you."
"Ida! Ida!" the sick man murmured. "Where have I heard that name? Folkestone...one night...yes, yes. So you have come back to me, my dearest one. If I could only think! But I can't find the coat. I hid it myself."
"Suppose I try to find it," Ida suggested.
"Oh, do! It matters nothing to me what happens then. You can take care of it, and hide it till I can think of the best thing to be done. I don't know what's in the coat, but I know it's something of importance, and when it's in your possession I shall feel easier in my mind."
"You are not safe here, Arnold."
"I think I am. I think I am, when I can think at all. Ah, it's all getting cloudy and confused again! Try to find the coat, oh, try to find it! No, I'm not going to be moved; I'm in too much pain. Why do you always pull me about in this way?"
He was rambling once more as Ida could plainly see. She wondered whether there was anything in this business of the missing coat, or whether it was a pure delusion. Racking her brains for a clue, presently something like an inspiration came to her. Why was it, she wondered, that Arnold was so anxious not to be moved?
She imagined his pain might be simulated.
There was no twitching of the limbs, none of those sighs and groans and quick catchings of the breath that accompany physical torture. Had Arnold contrived to drag himself from his bed and concealed the coat between the mattresses? Some sub-consciousness, no doubt, was working in his brain. With an effort Ida managed to raise the top mattress and dragged from under it a long dust coat!
She thrilled with triumph as she laid it on the floor. Here was a great discovery! Perhaps the pockets contained priceless documents, papers of the last international importance. Eagerly Ida dived her hand into the pockets. But though she searched again and again, not so much as a scrap of paper rewarded her efforts. She laid the coat across the bed and tried with all the blandishments at her command to bring Gray back to semi-consciousness again. It was some time before she succeeded, then produced the coat for his inspection.
"That's it," he whispered. "How clever you are!"
"But I can find nothing in the pockets."
"It does not matter in the least. I can't explain to you now because I seem to be in a mist. But it is safe, absolutely safe as long as that coat is in your keeping. I shall be better soon and then I will come and tell you everything. Only don't part with it—whatever you do, see that that coat does not leave your possession. I can't think why you are so careful with it, but—but—"
He closed his eyes, and Ida bent over him till at length she saw that he was sleeping easily and lightly as a little child. It would be cruel to disturb him again, for he was getting the rest his jaded brain so sorely needed. The weight was off his mind, and he was enjoying the refreshing slumber which made for health and strength.
Ida brushed his forehead lightly with her lips, and turned to leave the room. She felt that Arnold would do now; nothing ill could happen, and she trusted he might soon be in a fit state to be removed. She was glad she had made friends with the doctor and had won his confidence. She would obtain Truscott's address from the evil-looking woman downstairs. She paused on the landing, for she heard heated voices below, and the high-pitched tones of the old crone carried to her ears. She seemed to be very excited.
"Oh, you can say what you like!" she cried. "There's nobody in the 'ouse besides me and the children not in bed yet, drat 'em! The doctor's gone. There was a young lady, but I dunno what's become of 'er. And if you search the 'ole place for what you're after you won't find it, because it ain't 'ere. Diamonds, indeed, bits o' glass I call 'em. Only good enough for kids to play with."
"You old fool," a rasping voice replied. "You don't know what you're talking about. Come along, Avis. I'll search the house through if I have to stay here all night."
Ida reeled against the banisters, and would have fallen had she not clutched them. Verily, it was a night of startling surprises! Events had followed so fast and furious that she was ready for almost anything now. Nor did she need anyone to tell her that the speaker downstairs was her father. He had Avis with him, too—the dark-browed, oily, inscrutable man, who coveted her and was scheming to make her his wife. The mere horror of his presence turned her sick and faint.
Two men were coming upstairs and would enter Gray's bedroom. Ida darted into it to hide behind the window curtains. One side of the room formed an alcove with a window that looked into the yard below and a basement room where were four children at play. These must be the children the old woman had alluded to, and, despite her anxieties, Ida could not help wondering what sort of house it could be where bairns were allowed to play about at midnight. She felt safer when she discovered a flight of steps leading downwards from the alcove. She pulled herself together, determined to trust to her courage and fertility of resource to deliver her from peril.
The two men were in the room now talking in undertones which Ida had some difficulty in following, but she caught the name of 'Gray' more than once, and some allusion to a 'princess' which she could not in the least comprehend. Nor had she the smallest notion what the men wanted. She heard them moving about, searching here and there, and a smothered oath or two reached her. Then for a time there was silence.
However, she would not move until she was obliged, as she hoped she might hear something of importance. As she glanced casually towards the lighted basement below she caught the flash and glitter of some sparkling objects with which the children were playing.
About the same time that Ida reached Covent Garden, John Glasgow's taxi pulled up in front of the famous costumier's, almost within a stone's throw of the building where the dance was taking place. If Glasgow was in a hurry he did not show it, for he strolled into the establishment with the air of one who is in two minds whether he should go on with his project or not. An attendant came forward and asked his business.
"Well," he said, "I thought of going to the dance next door, but it's late, and I must be satisfied with something simple in the way of costume—dignitary of the Church or something of that sort. No, stop!—I had forgotten that a disguise is necessary. I must have beard and plenty of hair on my face. Can you suggest a dress that would not interfere with the freedom of my limbs? I may be called away at any moment, and must be able to leave at once without exciting any notice or comment."
The assistant cogitated for a moment.
"What do you say to a Thames pilot?" He suggested. "You could have a beard and a moustache, and a semi-yachting costume, which you could easily cover with a double-breasted coat. All you would have to do would be to put on the coat and remove your beard."
"Excellent!" Glasgow exclaimed. "Get on with it as soon as you can. I suppose I can come back here later and change if necessary?"
Glasgow, however, knew perfectly well there would be no difficulty about that, for he was a good customer; indeed, he had found it far easier to obtain his disguises from a professional costumer than to litter up his own rooms with them. Here they looked upon him as a good-natured, eccentric sort of person, with a mild passion for fancy-dress. He nodded at himself approvingly as he contemplated the clever disguise in the long mirror. Within a few minutes he was rubbing shoulders with the dancers and keeping a keen eye open with a view to contingencies. He was looking for more than one person, and presently he had them all under observation. He smiled behind his hand as he made out the woman in the marvellous black dress with the exquisite embroidery. He did not know, of course, that the figure which he took for that of Valerie Brune was in reality Ida Vanstone's. So far he had every reason to be satisfied with the way in which matters were going. He ranged up presently alongside a guest in semi-military uniform and addressed him apparently quite casually. But there was something in the speech which instantly attracted the other's attention.
"Mr. Glasgow, I think?" he said. "Allow me to compliment you upon, your admirable—"
"Yes, pretty good disguise, isn't it?" Glasgow asked. "You look very well, too, Everard. I suppose Walters and the rest are here? Good. No, you haven't very much to do to-night. You see the lady yonder with the black dress and the embroidery?"
"Miss Valerie Brune, yon mean, sir."
"My dear fellow, you know a little too much. Take my advice—in this business never know too much. Now go away and give the others their instructions. If the lady in black attempts to leave the ballroom let me know at once. The same remark applies to the two men I told you about. So long as they are under your eyes they cannot be doing much mischief. I sent you their photographs, because I had ascertained that they would be here to-night. I don't suppose they will trouble to come in costume; indeed, there's no reason why they should."
"They've been here some time, sir," the other said. "There are half a dozen of us in the room, so they won't have much opportunity to slip away. Is there anything else I can do?"
"Yes; you can find Mr. Adrian Scott, for me. Come and tell me where he is and don't be long."
A minute or two later Mr. Adrian Scott, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was accosted by a seafaring man, who begged the favor of a few minutes conversation. They threaded their way into one of the refreshment-rooms and sat down at a table.
"Really a clever disguise, Glasgow," the official said when Glasgow had made his identity known. "You would pass anywhere. Have you any news?"
"As regards Arnold Gray? Well, I can't say I have. It is one of the most baffling mysteries that ever came under my department. Mind you, I have my own ideas. I don't imagine that he has fallen into the hands of any of the well-known international spies. I haven't made enquiries, but I guess the dispatches have not yet been made use of. In other words, I shouldn't be surprised to hear that the papers are still missing."
"My dear fellow," Scott exclaimed. "In the ordinary sense of the word the papers are not dispatches at all. It is only in novels that secret treaties on which the fate of Empires depends are stolen by melodramatic spies. Besides, the fate of Empires doesn't depend on sheets of notepaper. The document entrusted to Arnold Gray was purely of a domestic nature. I need not remind you that royalties quarrel amongst themselves just like ordinary folk, and as the crowned heads of Europe are all closely related there are very pretty bickerings sometimes. To prevent a nasty misunderstanding, to put it mildly, it was necessary that certain very intimate documents should be conveyed without delay from Berlin to London. If unscrupulous people obtain these documents sooner or later they must become public property. There are publishers of newspapers in England and America, especially America, who would not think twice of giving L20,000 for those letters. I believe that somebody found out exactly what Gray was carrying, hence all the trouble. Don't you agree with me?"
"Not for a moment," Glasgow said cheerfully. "On the contrary, I am delighted to hear what you say. What you tell me almost convinces me that Gray has been the victim of fate in her most sportive mood. Now you have your methods and I have mine, and we are too clever to disclose our business secrets to one another. But I think you may rest assured that the documents you speak of are not likely to see the light of day. Further, I conjecture that the people into whose hands Gray has fallen were not on the lookout for those documents, and did not even know of their existence. It was intimated to me by code cable three or four days ago that Gray was leaving Berlin with precious things, and would have to be looked after. I arranged all that with three of my staff in Berlin by the same code, and I planned to have Grey watched when he reached England. Observe, I had three men in Berlin. One man's coffee was drugged, the second man met with a taxi accident on his way to the station, and the third was so hustled at the barrier that he lost his train, and Gray travelled to Dover without any protection whatever. You must admit that this is very disturbing. But you see, I happen to know the names and have the photographs of all the spies and dispatch thieves who are worth troubling about. I happen to know, too, that perhaps the cleverest pair of the lot were in Berlin when Gray left, or rather, I should say, they left Berlin on the same train. The men I speak of don't handle anything unless it's on the grand scale. As a matter of fact they rather despise official papers—Government bonds are more in their line, and international information, which may be made use of on the Stock Exchange. If anything but of the common occurred, like a fresh understanding over Turkey, for instance, and these people got to know of it, yon can imagine the magnificent coups they'd bring off. I know they've been in one or two big train robberies. Would you like to have a look at them?"
"You don't mean to say they are here?" Scott asked.
"Certainly they are, and in the conventional garb of English gentlemen, too. They are men of birth and education, and one of them happens to be exceedingly well connected. Ah, unless I'm greatly mistaken, here they are!"
As Glasgow spoke two rather striking-looking men lounged into the refreshment room and took their seats at an adjoining table. They called for coffee, liqueurs, and cigarettes in a bored sort of way; there was nothing to indicate that they were anything but ordinary society men killing an hour or two in the orthodox fashion. They would never have been mistaken for the class of men Glasgow had described. He turned his back upon them as he spoke.
"You can study them for yourself, Scott," he said. "I know their faces well enough already. The tall man with the fair moustache and rather refined features is Robert Vanstone. Usually he lives in the country on an estate which has belonged to his family for generations. He gambled most of his patrimony away, and probably would have disappeared altogether had he not come in contact with the other man whose name is Wilfred Avis, an American, formerly a professor in one of their universities. There's not a man who has a greater knowledge of crime and criminal methods than this Avis. Even when he was at university he helped the police to solve crimes which had baffled them entirely. There was some scandal, I forget what, and Avis vanished. From that time he began to devise the crimes and conspiracies which previously he had been instrumental in solving. Now if you went up to these two men and asked them point blank what their business was they would tell you that they were outside brokers and financial agents, trading under the style of Vanstone and Avis. They would be telling you no more than the truth, for they have a suite of offices in the city, where they keep a staff of clerks and do quite a large business. I don't suppose they make much profit there, and I know that they often cause their clients' losses themselves, but that does not hurt them, because they pose as men doing an honorable and straightforward business, and thus have an excuse, for frequent visits to the Continent. Now there is no question that these two well-dressed quiet-looking chaps at that table are responsible for the disappearance of our friend, Gray."
"And are in possession of the papers?"
"No," Glasgow said emphatically. "Nor are they in possession of what they are desperately anxious to find."
"You are exceedingly mysterious," Scott smiled.
"My dear fellow, in my business I must be. I am certain I have solved the problem so far; only you must not ask me too many questions. On the contrary, I fetched you to ask you questions. If I am only left alone I shall get to the bottom of this business yet. The great thing I am afraid of is that the story of Gray's disappearance may become public. One clever journalist has nosed it out already, and had I not been on friendliest terms with the editor of the 'Daily Sentinel' it would have been blazed over England before now. I don't anticipate that anything tragic has happened to Gray; I believe he has been spirited away and is detained in hiding became his persecutors have failed to obtain what they expected to get. I am convinced that somehow he has cleverly checkmated them. Before the night is over I hope to advance this mystery several stages. In that case I shall come and see you in the morning and tell you what has taken place. You said the missing papers had to do with that very choice, and piquant thing, a piece of family scandal. Now there's nothing people enjoy more than a scandal, especially if it is connected with Royalty. Would you mind telling me in strictest confidence whether this domestic impasse is not connected with Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn, who is the sister of His Majesty—"
Scott's glass dropped from his eye in astonishment.
"Upon my word, you are a most wonderful fellow, Glasgow! I had no idea you chaps knew as much."'
"My dear man, that is just what we are here for. I flatter myself that our service is a great deal more useful than yours. But I want to impress upon you that I can do nothing unless you give me your entire confidence. I don't mind confessing that my suggestion about the Princess Zena Victoria was a mere shot. But, you see, I and my subordinates hear practically everything. We are bound in the course of business to take heed even of kitchen gossip when it comes from a royal palace, and, of course, when not actually engaged in friendly rivalry we learn a thing or two from the rank and file of the foreign secret services. Now I know that for some time past the Princess has been far from happy. There have been rumors of a romantic love affair between her and a certain Count who is far below her socially. She is very beautiful, but exceedingly headstrong, and has pronounced views upon woman's place in the cosmic scheme. There is not the slightest doubt that the Princess has made up her mind to marry her Count, and his Majesty, her brother, has other views. For a while he kept her practically a prisoner until she escaped to England. The papers don't call it an escape, but that is what it comes to. Tell me, haven't you had complications over this?"
"We are having them now," Scott said sorrowfully. "You know what His Majesty is—the greatest autocrat in Europe—and he insists upon our deporting his sister. We can't do that, but it makes it exceedingly awkward for us with all this trouble in the Balkans. And now I'm going to be very candid indeed. His Majesty holds the correspondence that passed between the Princess and the Count. But, not to be behindhand in the fray, the Princess contrived to get at a private safe of her brother's and fished out reminiscences of an old love affair of his. Nothing bad, you understand, but quite enough to give rise to a good deal of ridicule, and ridicule is perhaps the one thing in the world that his Majesty is afraid of. So up to now honors are pretty equally divided. But why are you so anxious to know this?"
"Because it bears on the mystery of Arnold Gray. I don't believe Gray would have disappeared if it hadn't been for the princess. Which brings me to the point. Can you procure me an interview with her?" Scott showed signs of embarrassment. For some reason best known to himself, Glasgow appeared to be enjoying it.
"Take your time," he said: "Pray, don't commit yourself. Besides, you haven't finished your story yet."
"You are the very devil!" Scott exclaimed. "I believe you are only playing with me. I am firmly convinced that you know all about it. I can't get an interview with the princess for the simple reason that, like our friend Gray, she has vanished utterly and entirely."
"Really?" Glasgow smiled. "The plot thickens with a vengeance. Has the princess been spirited away by the same gang? Do they hold her prisoner too?"
"My dear fellow, I am at a loss to account for it," Scott said. "All I can tell you is that the princess has vanished and no trace of her can be found. She came over here with a maid and an old companion, and put up very quietly under an assumed name at Rimmer's Hotel. Sometime yesterday the princess went out shopping. She was alone and told her people that she did not expect to be back much before dinner time. At 10 o'clock she had not returned, and shortly before 11 she 'phoned that she would be away for a few days, that they were not to worry about her, and, above all, that they were not to communicate with the police. The poor old companion came to the Foreign Office this morning and saw me. You recognise the necessity of keeping this absolutely quiet so far as the public are concerned, but it has been a terrible worry and anxiety, as you can imagine."
"I shouldn't worry if I were you," Glasgow said drily. "You need not believe me, but this is about the best thing that could have happened. Thank you so much for your information. Excuse me." At that moment the man in the semi-military uniform came into the refreshment room and gave Glasgow a quick, almost imperceptible sign. The latter rose and drifted towards the ballroom, followed a stride later by his faithful subordinate.
"Well, is there anything doing?" Glasgow demanded.
"I think so, sir," the other said. "The lady in black has been holding a most confidential conversation with a rather shabbily-dressed man whose face is not familiar to me. She is going somewhere, for her companion has gone out to get her a taxi. She would not be leaving unless something of importance was on. Would you like me to follow, sir?"
"No, I'll follow myself." Glasgow said promptly. "Here is my ticket— go to the cloakroom and get my coat. Then pick up a taxi and bring it round to the front entrance. Don't be long—if you can get the taxi first it will be of some assistance to me. Wait here till I return." A minute later and Glasgow's taxi was moving eastwards, keeping the motor in front carefully in sight. Glasgow was disposed to congratulate himself upon his disguise, which was not only clever and effective, but also calculated to attract no attention when the thick coat was buttoned about him and the collar turned up. If he were bound for an adventure in the East-End, as he confidently surmised, his present garb would pass without exciting the slightest curiosity.
He smiled as he remarked the narrower streets down which he was now passing; his look was alert as the motor in front pulled up, and he made a careful note of the number of the house which he saw the woman in black presently enter. He did not stop his taxi until he had passed the house by a good two hundred yards, and then he jumped out and handed the driver half a sovereign.
"Stay here," he said, "for an hour. If I come back then there will be another half-sovereign for you. If I do not return in the specified time, don't wait any longer."
The street was deserted when he went back to the house the woman in black had entered. The lamps were few and far between, and he easily hid in a recess leading to a warehouse door and watched the house without being observed. For a considerable time Glasgow remained there patiently, but there was no sign from the house opposite, except that a shabby-looking figure emerged and went rapidly up the street. As the figure vanished into the darkness something like a shadow crossed the road, and Glasgow permitted himself a smile of satisfaction.
"I shall know who he is," he murmured. "Ah, this is beginning to grow interesting! Here they come."
Two other men were walking down the middle of the street. They were muffled to the throat in heavy overcoats, with caps drawn over their eyes, but Glasgow's quick glance detected the patent leather shoes and the black trousers that go with evening dress. The two men halted within a few yards of him, and he could hear all they said.
"This is the place," Avis said, for it was he. "The old woman will be quite alone by this time, and we must make her speak. She will never expect us to turn up here."
"Have you a revolver?" Vanstone asked anxiously. "I can't say I like it altogether."
"Revolver!" the other man sneered. "Why, I never carried such a thing in my life. No criminal worthy of the name ever worried himself about firearms. They lead to murder, my friend, and bloodshed is a thing no artist will tolerate. Come along!"
They disappeared into the house a little later, and Glasgow emerged from his hiding-place. He studied the situation for a moment or two, then made his way round to the back of the house. He did not fail to note the dim light in front and the brilliant one behind, nor did the glimmer in the basement escape his attention. He had the ghost of a plan in his mind, and was waiting events. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed without any sign from the house, then suddenly he heard a muffled shout or two and a woman's voice raised in a piercing scream. With unerring instinct Glasgow darted to the back door, and stood there alert and quivering, like a hound waiting for his quarry to break cover.
On the opposite side of Grosvenor-square from that occupied by Valerie Brune, there is a house painted white and gay with flowers, which usually attracts the passer's attention. Here Baron Ruperra has his residence, and here he gives those select little dinner parties which are the envy of his friends and acquaintances. The baron keeps a French chef, and report has it that this pampered menial is in receipt of at least a thousand pounds a year. This may be so, because the baron is a financier of repute, and, unlike most foreign capitalists, his title is both ancient and genuine.
As most people who study that kind of thing know, the Ruperras have played no small part in making the map of Europe. During the last century or two they have figured largely in every rising and insurrection, generally not to their own advantage, for the Ruperras have always been on the losing side, though occasionally the losers are not the sufferers in the long run. The present holder of the title up to ten years ago had played a not inconspicuous part in the politics of his native land; indeed, time was when he had looked like becoming Chancellor to one of the strongest dynasties in Eastern Europe. Nobody, not even the Foreign Office, knew the whole of the story which culminated in Ruperra's downfall. He had been strapped of his honors and estates, and had come to England with a limited knowledge of the language, ten pounds in his pocket, and an indomitable courage which was all his own.
If he could not lead men in actual warfare any longer, he could at any rate successfully raid the world of finance, and this he had done. He started as a clerk in a city office, and within ten years had floated half a score of international loans. At forty-five Ruperra was a power in financial circles; in fact, he was one of the men who counted, as also did his wife, on the social side of the medal.
For the rest he was a small man, dark, wiry, and energetic, and with a quickness and grasp of things that rendered his work a pleasure rather than a toil. Therefore he could always find plenty of time for the theatre and the grouse moor. His wife had come to England with him, a dainty, fairy-like, little blonde, whose pretty innocence covered an intellect as keen and elusive as a minnow. They were an exceedingly well-matched pair, very devoted to one another, and popular, as they had every right to be.
Ruperra had come home from the city to lunch, as was his usual habit. He always contrived to run back in his big car for an hour or so, declaring that the change of atmosphere was the best tonic he knew. For once in a way there was no guests at the midday meal, so that Ruperra had his wife to himself. He had lunched lightly as was his invariable custom, had finished with a couple of hothouse peaches, and lounged at the table over his cigarette and small cup of black coffee.
"You are thoughtful, my husband," the Baroness said. "Ah, that is not part of the bargain! It is not for thee to be triste, my Carl. The atmosphere of the city goes not well with peaches and the beautiful orchids which I arranged for you, with my own hands. Unless perhaps it is that you have some confidence to make to me."
"Queen of my heart!" the baron exclaimed. "Did I ever embark upon anything without consulting thee? Is there anything that I have to conceal?"
The baroness shook her head reprovingly.
"At one time, no," she said. "I thank thee, Carl, for this opportunity of speech. Ah, you cannot blind me! For months lately I have noticed that thou hast thy thoughtful moments, and never was the shadow of business to darken the house. For ten minutes not a word hast thou spoken."
The baron helped himself to a fresh cigarette.
"I am glad there is no one here to-day, because I have something to say to thee," he said. "For some little time past things have not been going well. As thou knowest, I am a daring speculator, and for years everything has come my way. Oh, no, I'm not ruined! Never shall I be that. Thou shalt always have thy diamonds and thy motor, and the house wherein to entertain thy friends. But I do not like to be beaten, my Marie. It is as if someone can read my thoughts, as if someone had tampered with my trusted servants. But that is not so. So many things I have refused to touch have turned out well, while several things I have gone into have done badly. I ask myself who is taking advantage of my errors in judgment? It is not a nice feeling that. I mean the constant making of mistakes. Three or four things I bring out—big things appealing to a continent—and they are attacked from a mysterious quarter. They droop, they languish, and I have to put in my own money to save them. It does not do for anyone to sneer at a reputation like mine. Again, the thing which I hold to be hopeless turns out good, and I have to confess that it was offered to me and rejected."
"Then, are the people operating against thee, Carl?"
"No, I cannot say they are operating against me directly," the Baron said calmly. "Rather do I feel that they are laughing at me in their sleeves. Now I have to find out who are these people that can afford to flout my good things on the market, and that which I would not touch with a pole they make into fine successes. There is only one thing to be done, my Marie, and I have to do it myself. I have to take one hundred, two hundred, lists of shareholders and tabulate them. Behold for yourself that the work is enormous. Days and days and nights and nights I have given to it. I have to reject the ordinary investor as a mere nothing. There I come gradually down to the men in the city who get their living much as I get mine. I have to find one or two names which recur again and again in those schemes which I have regarded as failures. And behold I make hundreds and hundreds of combinations. At times I am on the wrong track, and the work has to be done over again. This is why I look so thoughtful, why my mind has been occupied."
"You are not afraid of these, Carl?"
"Dear heart, thy Carl is afraid of no man. But be does not like to be baffled, he does not like to be mystified. Besides these people are in the way. Let me know who they are and I can deal with them. But as I said before, the work is enormous. Still, I think I have solved the puzzle, I think my mind is illuminated. In all my recent combinations two names stand out prominently. I have worked up to them in a score of ways. I have even gone so far as to get a great mathematician to help me. Only mark, I've given him figures instead of names, and his deductions are the same as mine. Ah, yes, I have the men at last! There are three of them altogether!"
"Are they known to me, Carl?"
"One of them very well indeed, the others not at all. But we will come to the first presently. The other two constitute a firm of brokers in the city whose names are Avis and Vanstone."
"Yes? A familiar combination."
"Oh, not at all, not at all! Apparently a small firm of the greatest respectability, doing a legitimate business showing a small margin of profit. I daresay if one went into their books these would disclose a surplus of two or three thousand a year. I know the partners have been speculating largely and have done very well. Without the most exclusive information they would have lost heavily. Every now and then, too, those people become possessed of Cabinet secrets. If there is going to be trouble in Europe they know it. If an old standing political sore is to be operated upon, they know the name of the diplomatic surgeon. Now it is not strange, my Marie, that these respectable, humdrum stockbrokers, who probably live snugly in some suburb, should have this mine of information at their command. Take, for instance, a recent happening. It came to my ears through a secret channel that in the Bohn territory, where Princess Zena Victoria has large estates, traces of oil have been found. I lose no time and investigate for myself. I find a vast fortune waiting me in the hills yonder, and I procure my concession. I have in the hollow of my hand one of the greatest things since Standard Oil. I want six millions of money and I go to my select syndicate to get it. Then suddenly thousands of shares are on the market. When I come to dive below the surface behold here are our friends Avis and Vanstone and that other one again. Then it comes out that the Princess has had a violent quarrel with her brother, the King, and fled the country—some love affair, but you can tell me all about that. And this is not the worst, for if the King confiscated his sister's estates, my option will not be worth the paper it is written on."
"It is very disturbing, my Carl. When I see the princess—"
"Worry her not at all. At least not, yet. Now, how do these men find out these marvellous things? I, who have been in European politics all my life, am a mere child by the side of them. If I can discover their methods, which I think I can through that other one who comes here—"
"Carl, you make me curious."
"Well, I will keep thee in suspense no longer. The other one who comes here is George Heathcote. He is in league with this Avis and Vanstone and by their work he benefits. There is no need for thee to protest. My mathematical formula is too exact to make mistakes."
"But it seems incredible," the baroness cried. "Mr. Heathcote always bewails the fact that in business he is an idiot the most deplorable. He has the artistic temperament, and it is only by dealing in pictures and china and such like beautiful things that he gets a living. Fortunate for him it is that he has an eye for these things. Besides, he knows the princess well. Was not his sister her greatest friend? Did she not tell me so? And is he not looking for the princess now? Oh, thou are mistaken, my dearest Carl."
The baron shook his head resolutely.
"There is no mistake," he said. "Art thou sure that Heathcote doesn't know where the princess is?"
"I am sure he does not. I am certain he would give much for the information."
"I have not the slightest doubt of it," the baron said drily. "And this is where I get what the English call 'my own back.' There are other people who are devoted to the princess. Do not forget that she was an old schoolfellow of your own. If you would like to see her at any time—"
"Carl, I should love to do so."
"Then you shall," the baron said. "Before you sleep to-night. Now listen to me carefully."
Baroness Ruperra had spoken no more than the truth in stating that Heathcote made an ostensible living by dealing in the fine arts quite in a gentlemanly way. He was a man of distinguished family, as poor as it was proud, so that he was brought up to do nothing and rub along as best he could on a small allowance, rarely, if ever, paid.
He maintained a set of expensive chambers in town, was exceedingly well dressed, and mixed with the best people. As a bachelor, who was also a good shot and dancer, he was a welcome guest at most country houses and exclusive dinner parties in town. But if meals, with the exception of breakfast, which he seldom touched, cost him nothing, rent and taxis, railway fares, clothes, and cigars have to be paid for, and there were times when ready cash was absolutely essential.
There are divers tortuous underground ways of obtaining money, with all of which Heathcote was familiar. He had served a number of years in the diplomatic service, and might have done well but for a certain moral obliquity which led eventually to his services being dispensed with. But for the fact that he was a Heathcote with influential relatives, there must have been a scandal, not to say a prosecution. Dealing in official secrets and using them for gambling purposes is an offence which cannot be overlooked, and Heathcote was thrown on his own resources. He returned to England with a knowledge of three languages and a wealth of shady experience which enabled him to keep his head above financial waters. Had he been taken in hand earlier and brought up to a profession, he might have adorned it; so it was, he had to thank a keen eye and innate sound judgment in art both ancient and modern for a living. Of late his acquaintances noted that his circumstances seemed to be easier, and ugly stories no longer floated about as to unpaid card debts and open accounts on the racecourse. Heathcote enjoyed his own shooting this last season, and had even passed his time pleasantly enough at Monte Carlo. He was breakfasting leisurely in his room on the morning of the Covent Garden ball, and lounged in his chair smoking a cigarette with the air of a man on the best of terms with the world. His valet presently announced that Mr. Avis was waiting below.
"Show him up," Heathcote said curtly.
Avis came into the room and carefully closed the door behind him. He had the furtive air of one who mistrusted, and who is mistrusted by everybody else.
"You needn't be afraid," Heathcote smiled contemptuously. "There is nobody listening. Well, you've made a nice hash of this business. I take all this trouble and get all this information, and you let Gray slip through your fingers like an eel. What on earth were your men doing?"
"Are you quite sure he did slip through out fingers?" Avis asked. "I admit that we can't find the stones—what am I talking about?—I mean papers, of course. Those letters, you know."
For a moment the cool and elusive Avis looked a little disconcerted.
Heathcote's eyes narrowed, and a black frown settled on his forehead.
"What dirty, underhand game are you up to now?" he demanded. "What stones are you speaking about? Oh, you made no mistake when you mentioned the word! Stones and papers are two entirely different things. That's the worst of you and Vanstone—you pretend to lay all your cards upon the table, and directly my back is turned you put your heads together to deprive me of my share of the plunder. This isn't the first time it's happened by chalks. Now, out with it."
"There's nothing to out," Avis said sulkily. "I was thinking of something else. It was a slip of the tongue. Besides, what's the good of our quarrelling? You put us on the track of those letters and showed us how to get them. If they were in our possession we could sell them for thousands, and make as much more by queering one of Ruperra's deals."
"Oh! That's all very well," Heathcote said irritably. "The question is, where are the letters?"
"I don't know," Avis confessed. "I am positive they were in Gray's keeping when he left Berlin. Vanstone and I watched him as a cat watches a mouse. As far as we know, he did not communicate with a single soul till he reached Dover. He didn't post a letter to anybody, either."
"Well, not being a fool, naturally he didn't. You are a long time coming to the point. Gray has vanished, and for diplomatic reasons, the Foreign Office is keeping the information to itself for the present. But you know what's become of him and what happened to him between Dover and Charing Cross. Oh, I don't want to know where he is— it's enough for me to know that you fellows put the rule over him! The question is, did you get what you want? The rest matters nothing."
"We didn't," Avis said, sullenly. "You see, we couldn't appear ourselves, and had to leave it to the people we generally employ. We can trust them, because papers are of no earthly use to them. But when they came to go through Gray's belongings they couldn't find so much as a single envelope. And, mind, I promised them five hundred pounds if they brought the documents along. There's no question of it, Heathcote; Gray managed to dispose of those papers somehow. But who has them, and where they've got to goodness only knows. If they have found their way into the Foreign Office—"
"Well? They haven't," Heathcote said curtly. "I know that for an absolute fact. If I could only trust you—"
"You suggest we are playing you false?"
"My good man, it's no use your trying the high line with me. You would throw me over to-morrow or shoot me from behind a hedge if it suited your purpose. But I suppose I must take your word for it that the papers are lost. What's the next move?"
"Oh, the next move is with you," Avis grinned. "As they say in the picture puzzles, 'Find the princess.' If we can't have the letters we must have the woman who stole them."
"Sounds plausible enough," Heathcote sneered, "but there is just a little difficulty in the way. It is a strange coincidence that both the papers and the princess have disappeared simultaneously."
"That's a lie, friend Heathcote."
"Oh! Is it? If you don't take that back I'll break that ugly neck of yours."
Avis mumbled something by way of apology, and Heathcote went on once more quietly.
"I am telling you the literal truth," he said. "We know perfectly well that the princess was staying at Rimmer's Hotel, because you saw her there yourself. Directly she reached England she wrote asking me to call upon her. She's practically alone and friendless and was very grateful for my advice. Now if you grin at me again like that I shall do you a mischief. I have advised her about her financial affairs many times. I was to see her again and in the meantime she has vanished. She walked out of her hotel on a shopping excursion and hasn't been seen since. That is the bedrock truth, whether you believe it or not. Now, what's the next move?"
"I don't know," Avis said disconsolately. "I wonder if that cunning devil Ruperra knows anything about it."
"Well, the same idea has occurred to me," Heathcote answered. "The best thing I can do is to find out. I am going to the show at Covent Garden to-night, and I have an invitation to sup with the Ruperras in their private box. It will be a good opportunity for asking a question or two."
Avis went on his way, leaving Heathcote to his own disturbed thoughts. Somebody was behind this mysterious business, somebody bent on checkmating him. The subject was still uppermost in his mind as, soon after midnight, he went along the corridor to the Ruperras' box. He could not complain on the score of his welcome, for Ruperra met him with outstretched hand. For him the baroness had her sweetest and most fascinating smile. With a wave of her hand she indicated the vacant seat by her side. There was no light in the box except the pink-shaded electric light in the centre of the table on which the daintiest of suppers was set out. Out of range of the light and back in the shadow a quaint-looking figure in the guise of a Dresden china shepherdess was seated. So far as Heathcote could make out she was very old, for her hair was white, and innumerable lines and wrinkles scored her face.
"I don't think you've met Miss Kaufmann before," the Baroness said.
"A very, very old friend of my mother's. Now, madame, won't you break your rule for once and sit down to supper with us? Surely it will not hurt you."
But the old lady murmured something to the effect that she was in the hands of her doctor. She would be quite happy watching the dancers. With a hand significantly laid upon her forehead, the Baroness delicately conveyed a hint that the ancient dame was suffering from mental trouble. Then supper went gaily on amidst a sparkle of conversation, accompanied by the music of the band from the ballroom below.
"So you've heard nothing of the Princess?" the Baroness was saying. "Most mysterious case."
"Very," Heathcote said as he rose to his feet. "No, really I can't stay longer. I have a particular appointment which I must keep. But the Princess will turn up again. Of all the silly, romantic, little fools I've ever met she's the greatest. If I had my way I'd lock her up. It would be a kindness to kidnap her and take her home again. Here was I on the verge of pulling off a good thing—I mean as far as she is concerned, you know—when she disappears in this extraordinary way, leaving me bewildered and helpless. But I must be off now. Thank you so much for such an exquisite hour. If I do stumble upon the Princess' hiding-place I will let you know. Her vagaries must have cost you a pretty penny, Baron, or rumor is more unreliable than usual."
"We make our money by turning our misfortunes to advantage," the Baron said calmly. "If you must go, good-night."
As the box door closed the Baroness turned eagerly to her companion in the Dresden shepherdess attire.
"Well, Princess," she cried. "Pray what do you think of your adviser-in-chief now?"
Meanwhile Ida waited in the house by the river uncertain how to act, anxious as to the immediate future. It seemed to be years since she had set out on her errand to Grosvenor-Square. Yet, only a few hours since she was alone in the world, wondering whence her next meal would come and where she should find shelter for her head. So far the fates had not been altogether unkind. She had saved herself from the dreadful catastrophe, and had a feeling that she had made a powerful friend. She was, however, still dubious whether Valerie Brune had deliberately drawn her into this peril or not, but inclined to think that this mysterious woman meant her no harm. By this time she was past feeling anything in the way of surprise, and fear had long since left her altogether. Whatever happened, neither her father nor Wilfred Avis must see her here. That the two were planning something mean and dishonorable she did not need to be told. More than once in the past she had suspected that they were banded together for some illegal purpose. She was glad she had left her old home and had decided to face the world boldly. In any case it was her duty to see that right was done. It was doubly her duty now when the man she loved was in peril of his life. For the moment she would postpone escape by the dingy staircase. Under the friendly cover of the darkness she might hear something which could be turned to advantage later. She trembled from head to foot, but not with fear, and strained every nerve to hear what was going on in the bedroom.
"It's a nice muddle," Avis growled. "It's a rotten risk to take, especially when you get no result."
"The old woman has the stones," Vanstone replied.
"I don't believe she has," Avis went on. "What could she do with them if she had? If she tried to dispose of them she wouldn't get fifty sovereigns, to say nothing of the risk of trouble with the police. You can put that idea out of your head. We promised these people five hundred pounds to carry out our scheme and keep Gray here till the thing has blown over. He's tricked us, that's what he's done. He left Berlin with a lot of cheap theatrical rubbish and managed to have the real stones conveyed to London some other way."
"The Princess hasn't them, anyhow," Vanstone said.
"How do you know that? Did anybody tell you or is this guess work? Don't you know that the Princess has vanished and that even Heathcote hasn't the remotest idea where she is. It's a fine mess."
"Then what's the good of wasting time here?" Vanstone burst out. "Let's get back again."
Avis dropped his voice to a whisper. Only with the utmost difficulty Ida followed what he was saying.
"We're not wasting time," he went on. "I called on Heathcote this morning to see whether he had found out anything about the missing diamonds, and I very nearly gave myself away. I didn't mean to mention the diamonds at all, but stupidly forgot that the stones were a side show belonging to us, and that Heathcote had no idea they had left Berlin. I think I managed to allay his suspicions, but he's such a shrewd chap you never can tell. He wasn't concerned about the diamonds; what he's after is certain papers which really were the cause of Gray's coming to England. We never troubled about them."
"How could we when we didn't know?"
"We know now, however, and Heathcote thought we knew, which comes to the same thing. Gray lies there practically a dead man, and he has those papers somewhere. My idea is to hunt around till we find them. We've got plenty of time and precious little fear of interruption."
"I don't mind." Vanstone muttered.
"Just as you please; but if Gray wakes up and stops us—"
"Wake up? Not he. There's no chance of that. He'll probably be unconscious for days. But enough of jabbering."
The sound of voices ceased and Ida heard stealthy footsteps shuffling about in the bedroom. Below in the basement the grimy children were still going on with their game. Did they ever go to bed? Ida wondered. Was it nobody's business to look after them? She saw the gleam of the oil lamp glistening on the stones with which the children were playing. She half smiled to herself as she considered what the men in the room would say or do if they could stand by her side for a moment. Unless she were greatly mistaken, she fancied she had solved one part of the mystery. On the other hand, possibly her father and Avis were right, and Arnold had fooled them all.
Nevertheless she would join the children at play, and make sure for herself.
Very carefully and cautiously she crept down the stairs, fumbling her way along in the pitchy darkness. She heard things rustling behind the wainscot and felt stealthy movements about her feet. She shuddered as she realised that the horrible place was swarming with rats, and had to fight hard to keep down the scream which rose to her lips. She was more nerve-racked and terrified than she had been at any moment since she started. But it would never do to collapse or lose her head, for Arnold Gray was in peril and his whole future was in her hands.
She drew a deep breath of thankfulness when she reached the bottom of the steps at last, and fumbled for the door, which yielded almost instantly to her touch. She was in a greasy ill-paved yard, but the purer air stimulated her like wine. Another door led down to the basement, and Ida opened it without the slightest hesitation. She held her breath sharply as the hot steaming, vitiate atmosphere struck her like a blow. Four ragged, shrewd-looking children stopped their play and stared at her as she entered. They were not in the least astonished, and certainly no suggestion of fear lay in their dark, wolfish-looking eyes. There were two girls and two boys, the eldest not more than twelve, though their wizened features, narrow brows, and hungry eyes, made them appear very old. Hard pressed and distracted as she was, Ida could not repress a feeling of pity for these waifs and strays of lost humanity.
"Go on with your game," she said, "I came down to see what you were doing. You are not afraid of me?"
"Ain't afraid of anythink," the elder girl said truculently. "An' I knows 'oo you are. I do."
"Really?" Ida smiled. "Well, who am I?"
"You're the district visitor, you are. You comes from the Mission 'Ouse at Shadwell. Wot's become of the old 'un? 'Er wot used to bring granny soup when she broke 'er leg."
"She couldn't come to-night," Ida remarked. "So I'm here instead. Will I do as well?"
"Give us a penny!" the other small girl said shrilly.
"I haven't any pennies with me to-night," Ida smiled, "but I will give you sixpence each to-morrow if you do what I want you to. Now where shall I meet you to-morrow morning and give you a whole two shillings between you?"
The smaller girl would have spoken again, but a sharp blow on the head from her sister silenced her. She took it as a matter of course, uttering not the slightest sign of pain or protest. There was something so animal like about it that Ida shrank back aghast.
"Eleven o'clock outside the Green Man public-'ouse," the elder girl said in a business-like way. "But look 'ere lidy, wot 'ave we got to do fer you? You never gets nuffink for nuffink in these parts; not arf you don't."
"Well, I want you to tell me what game you are playing, and to show me the pretty stones you are using. Such nice, shining stones, they are! Where did you get them?"
"The bloke in the best bedroom upstairs," the girl said. "Met with a haceddent, 'e did. Fell down the ladder of a ship and 'arf bashed 'is brains aht. Somebody's pying fer 'im till 'e gits well. Lor, less yer, there's lots of chaps 'em wot meets with haccidents. But granny don't mind so long as they py. An' 'im wots upstairs gave granny these bits o' glass. They're sort o' diamonds wot actresses wears on the stige. There was a lot o' piper in the box wot they come aht of. Like to buy 'em?"
"What do you want for them. Five shillings?"
"Done along with yer!" the girl said eagerly. "That's seven bob, mind. An' you've got to meet us wiv it, tomorrer morning ahtside the 'Green Man' an' 'and it over. An' don't yer ferget to be there."
"What will granny say?"
A cunning gleam came into the child's eyes.
"Granny wont know noffink abaht it," she said. "We'll tell 'er as some o' the boys on t'other side o' the wharf pinched them bits o' glars, an' she'll smack our 'eads 'an tell us to be more carful next time. Lord bless yer, lidy, if she knew as wot we'd got that money she'd ave it aht o' us fore you could say 'knife.' 'Ere Aggie, an' yew Bill, jes' git them stones together, an' give the lidy the cise they come in. The bit o' piper I tole you abaht's inside."
"'An there's a golden crown on the cise ahtside," the second girl volunteered. "It's under my bed."
From under the ragged, dingy apology for a bed the child produced a square red morocco box, which, surely enough, had a gold crown stamped upon it, with a monogram underneath. Ida's heart beat faster as she took it in her hand and pressed the spring. Inside were small velvet nests layer under layer, such as are usually found in a jewell-case. And, here was the piece of paper—assuredly in Arnold's handwriting.
Ida carried the paper towards the lamp. It was in the form of a letter as follows:—
"My dear Child,—If I can get the contents of this little box to you in time for your theatricals I hope that you will wear the marvellous jewels, and that your part of the runaway princess will be a great success. I think the stage jewels are very good, indeed, they look more like the real thing than any I have ever seen. I am sure that when you are on the stage lots of people will imagine you are wearing the family diamonds. I will tell you when we meet where I got them. It is a romance connected with a famous actress whom a real Prince was in love with. Didn't you say that the Princess in the play had to produce her jewel-case on the stage? I seem to have some recollection of it. At any rate I've had this case done up and a crown and monogram stamped on the outside. Next time I see you I may tell you a story about some real diamonds I once had charge of, but only if you are very good, and have not forgotten your uncle, Arnold." Ida, read the letter twice, trying to grasp its full significance. Had she run all this risk for nothing? Probably the gems so called were only worth a pound or so, and yet there might be a sense in this letter which she could not fathom. It might mean nothing, or it might convey a pregnant message to some diplomatic colleague able to read between the lines. For all she knew they might conceal a cunning cipher.
Be that as it may, these ornaments had no business here. They had not fallen into the hands for which they were intended, and Ida determined to go on with her project, and take the stones away with her. They were piled upon the table in a glittering heap, a diadem, a necklace of four rows of stones, some brooches, two or three pairs of earrings, and a handful of loose stones, which had been wrenched from their settings. Nothing apparently had been lost for the settings were with the other things. In the rays of the smoky oil lamp the mass seemed to gleam with myriad colored fires. Ida was no judge of these things, though she had at one time possessed a little jewellery of her own, but it was hard to believe that these were only mere gauds designed for theatrical purposes. With loving care she replaced the various articles within the receptacles which had been made for them, and snapped the lock.
"I think that's about all," she said. "I know where to meet you to-morrow morning, and if I cannot come myself I will send someone else with the money. Mind, this is a secret between us and you are not to tell anybody."
"'Oo are yer gettin' at?" the elder girl asked contemptuously. "As if we should give it away. Why we shouldn't 'ave a farthin left five minutes arterwards. Don't yer fret yerself abaht that, lidy."
Ida concluded that she had nothing to fear so far as the children were concerned. She must now hurry back in the motor to Grosvenor-square. She had not the remotest idea where she was, and when she went out into the darkness it might be impossible to find the car. To do so she could have to return by the way she had come, and the thought of that rickety stair with its swarm of rats filled her with shuddering dismay. Besides her father and Avis might still be in the room where her lover lay. Happy thought, she would engage the services of one of the children as a guide.
"Now come and let me out," she said. "Let me out quickly so that nobody can see us. I want to go to the front street because a friend of mine lent me a car to come here and it has been waiting for me all the time."
The elder girl smiled in her cunning way.
"I thort there 'ud be somethink o' the sort, lidy," she said. "Come along o' me an' I'll show yer to yer kerridge."
Ida turned towards the door. She was more than anxious to get away from this sordid misery, from the atmosphere that seemed to choke her, and make her sick and dizzy every now and then. With her hand on the door she paused as a great outcry arose in the room where Arnold Gray lay. She saw figures crossing the window and heard a voice raised in protest; then before she knew what had happened the smoky lamp was extinguished and she was dragged backwards by four pairs of eager hands. She would never have believed that these half-fed little skeletons possessed so much strength.
"Yer can't go yet," the elder girl whispered fiercely. "You'll 'ave ter wait a minute or two. They're comin' dahn 'ere."
"What is it all about?" Ida asked.
"I dunno. We never do know nuffink. But there's often a row when anyone's ill 'ere. Now don't stand there. I tell you they're coming dahn the stairs. Git under my bed. You'll be safe there. I'll pull yer through orl right."
"But you're dressed," Ida pleaded faintly.
"Bless yer, we never takes our clothes orf 'cept in the summer. Nah, then, under yer goes."
There was no help from it, no escaping from the danger of the situation. In a dazed kind of way Ida found herself under the mass of rags and tatters called a bed.
She heard the children creep into their corners then the door of the room was thrown violently open and two or three people entered. Somebody struck a match and the oil lamp once more gave out its smoky blare.
"I tell you it's all true," a woman's voice protested shrilly. "You can stay here a month if you like. I'd say the same thing if I were on my dying bed. It was a lot o' rubbish wot I gave to the children to play with."
"What a liar you are," the voice of Avis broke in. "That stone we found upstairs in the bedroom was one of the real things and worth a penny."
"I didn't know it," the woman said.
"Of course you didn't," Vanstone interrupted. "Anybody could see that. Be reasonable, Avis. Do you think the old hag would have left the stone lying about if she had thought it was genuine? It doesn't stand to reason."
"Ah, you're a gentleman, you are!" the old woman cried. "Didn't you offer me five hundred pound an' no question asked if you got what you wanted? Where are the likes of us to get rid of diamonds? D'yer think I should be fool enough to 'and over a fortune to my grandchildren to play with? And 'ere they are, as good as gold; and bin asleep for hours. I'll wake 'em up if you like."
"Shake the little demons," Avis said. "We'll see what they've got, anyway. Now you reptiles, get up."
A snore or two and a yawn followed. It was so artistically, so cunningly done, that Ida, shaking and quivering in her foul hiding place, could not repress a certain feeling of admiration. The two older children sat up presently, grumbling and protesting, and the younger pair began to whine.
"Here, we've got something to say to you," Avis said. "We want to know about those bits of glass your grandmother gave you to play with. Where are they?"
"Ain't got 'em," the girl said sulkily. "Ain't 'ad 'em all day. We was playing with 'em ahtside on the wharf, when some of the Ockley-street gang comes along an' pinched 'em. Took the 'old bloomin' lot, they did."
"Cise and all," the elder boy supplemented.
"Upon my word," Avis broke out passionately, "these children are as glib liars as their grandmother."
"Liar, yerself!" the elder girl cried, seizing the opening promptly.
"Liar yerself, yer skinny little beast! 'Oo are you wot comes 'ere waking up children in their sleep? Look, at me fice. See that mark on me fore'ead. An' these cuts on the back o' me 'and, an' 'ow did I get 'em? You lunno, an' you don't care. I got 'em trying to sive them 'ere bits o' glars, an' them marks was given me by young Ginger of Ockley-street. The first time I meets 'im alone I'll cut 'is life out."
It was wonderfully amazingly done—the fierce sincerity and vindictiveness of it astounded Ida as she lay trembling beneath the rags. She was beginning to understand the point of view of the outcast poor and what a potent weapon a lie is in their hands. She felt a little guilty too, for she herself had inspired this exhibition of prevarication. Even Avis, suspicions and unbelieving, was shaken by the extraordinary outburst.
"That won't do," he said. "Come, give us the case, and I'll hand you a sovereign in exchange."
Ida's heart stood still. Surely these children brought up anyhow, would betray her now without the slightest compunction. She heard the chink of gold as it passed from Avis' pocket to the grimy hand of the chief performer in the sordid drama. Then she heard the coin tinkling against the wall as the girl threw it passionately from her.
"I'm a liar, am I?" she cried. "Very well, Mister—that's the sort o' liar I am."
With an oath on his lips, Avis dragged his companion away. They whispered for a moment together, then hurriedly left the room, taking the complaining old woman with them. She blew out the lamp before she went, leaving the room in darkness.
"That was a bit of orl right, miss," the girl said. "But mind, you've got to add the quid to the seven bob termorrer."
"Oh! Yes, yes," Ida whispered. "You shall have it."
She could stand it no longer. Gathering up her belongings, she burst from the room and ran out into the night. But a pair of arms caught her and a friendly voice whispered into her ear.
Ida made no effort to free herself from the grasp of the man who was holding her under cover of the darkness. She had not the least fear of hurt or violence; she was too bewildered to think coherently at all. Anything was better than that dreadful house with its poisonous atmosphere, than the rags and filth and the moral condition with which these unfortunate children were surrounded.
"You are not afraid of me?" the voice said.
"I don't think so. You say you are my friend, and I want one badly."
"I am not your enemy," Glasgow answered. "You are perfectly safe. Stay here, while I see whether the coast is clear."
A cry of dismay rose to Ida's lips. She had suddenly remembered that in her hurry to bolt from the house she had left the things for which she had risked so much. The red morocco case with the gilt lettering was under the ragged bed and Gray's coat had also been forgotten. Without these her labor would be entirely in vain. If she lost them her whole evening would be wasted. Perhaps it did not matter so very much about the jewel case, because its contents might prove of no account, but the long fawn coat was different. Gray had been so particular about that, so desperately anxious to know that it was in safe custody, for, when he had realised that, he had fallen at once into a deep, refreshing sleep.
Glasgow did not fail to notice Ida's agitation.
"You are distressed about something?" he suggested. "Can I help you? I know perfectly well who you are. That much I can tell you. Although you have given me a great deal of trouble, my sympathy is entirely with you in fact. I think we are both working to the same end though our methods are different. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid," Ida said. "In the hurry of leaving I've forgotten something. There are two things I must recover, and they are in the basement of the house. But you are as helpless as I am."
"I'm not so sure of that," Glasgow replied. "If you will describe them to me—"
"Just a moment," Ida whispered. "I think I hear someone calling me. Yes, I'm certain of it. Please remain here for a few minutes."
Glasgow raised no objection, and Ida crept out cautiously into the darkness. She fancied she could make out a dim, little figure a few yards away.
"Is that you, lidy?" a husky voice asked.
"I'm here," Ida replied.
The figure came up to her boldly. It was the elder of the two ragged girls.
"Well, you are a clever one, I don't fink," she whispered hoarsely.
"'Ere you comes along mikin' all this fuss abaht a few bits of glars and chuckin' yer money abaht ter git 'em, an' then you goes an' leaves 'em behind yer. An' ain't this yer overcoat?"
Ida heaved a sigh of thankfulness.
"The coat is mine," she said. "And it is very good of you to take all this trouble. But how did you manage to find me? Did you see where I went?"
"Bit o' luck, lidy, I know'd as you couldn't be far off. But don't yer git wasting yer thanks on me 'cause there's nuffink to thank me for. Do yer suppose I don't understand? Oh! I'm fly. I tumble to it. If you'd gorn orf without them things would you 'ave turned up with the money in the mornin'? I don't fink."
"Then you would have been wrong." Ida said gently. "And you are a very good girl to keep your promise when that gentleman offered you the sovereign."
The child chuckled with precocious amusement.
"You're a pretty green 'un," she said. "If I'd done that, wher'd your seven an' twenty bob 'ave come in? Why, I should 'ave lost seven bob on the deal. An' granny would 'ave pocketed the quid orl right. If I was as soft as you I'd go aht an' drahn meself. Now 'ere's yer bloomin' jewel case, an' yer overcoat, and don't yer fergit to show up ahtside the pub to-morrer mornin'. So long!"
Without another word the child vanished, leaving the jewel case and the fawn overcoat with Ida. So far all was well, and nothing remained but to return to Grosvenor-square. Directly the child had gone Glasgow came out of the hut and stood by Ida's side. He led the way in the manner of one who knows round the house into the street. In the distance the lights of the motor shone brilliantly.
"You're going back to Grosvenor-square, I presume?" Glasgow said.
"Might I come a little way with you?"
Here was another surprise on this night of surprises. This stranger, who appeared to be in some way connected with yachting, knew where Ida was going, and yet, so far as she could tell, she had never seen him before. Despite his beard and heavy moustache, he had the appearance of a gentleman; indeed, there was something about him that appealed to Ida, yet it behoved her to be cautious. She had set on a mysterious errand, she had placed her services at the disposal of Valerie Brune, and she must be loyal to the woman who was her employer.
"Certainly, if you wish it," she said.
"I will drop you anywhere you please. I am going back to Grosvenor-square, and if the clock on that church is right, I have no time to spare."
The motor started, the electric light illuminated the inside, and Glasgow turned to his companion with frank admiration in his eyes.
"Do you know," he said, "it seems to me that we ought to be better acquainted? We are both in the same line of business, and though we are rivals, we may help one another. Any man, however successful, would be proud to have your assistance, Miss Brune."
Ida gasped. For the moment she had forgotten herself and the role she was playing.
"I am not Valerie Brune."
It was Glasgow's turn to start. He looked at the girl with an undisguised stare.
"Upon my word, you're right," he cried. "Well, my dear young lady, whoever you are, you have succeeded in surprising me, and I assure that is not easily done. I notice what a difference there is, though at a little distance you would pass for Miss Brune anywhere. May I ask your name? Don't think me rude."
"I fail to see how it concerns you," Ida said coldly, "but as I have nothing to conceal, I may tell you that my name is Ida Vanstone."
Once more Glasgow was astonished. It was a night of surprises for him as well as for the girl by his side.
"I know a man called Vanstone," he said, "Mr. Robert Vanstone, who lives near Hindhead."
"You are speaking of my father."
Glasgow inclined his head without speaking. He was rapidly working out this fresh complication in his head. When he said he knew Robert Vanstone he was not speaking without book. Ida would have been astonished and more than a little pained and ashamed, had she known how complete a record of her father's past career lay concealed at the back of Glasgow's mind. He was speculating how far the girl shared in her father's scheme. How much did she know, and was she an accomplice, despite her innocent appearance and the frankness of her eyes? With his vast knowledge of human nature, Glasgow was not easily deceived, and in the course of his many adventures he had met these innocent-looking people and, as a rule, had suffered at their hands. But it seemed to him that Ida was different from the rest, a certain aloofness and simplicity about her impressed him considerably in her favor.
"Of course, I don't know what you've been doing to-night," he said, "but at the risk of appearing impertinent I'd like to ask one question. Tell me, how did you obtain that red morocco case? I've seen something like it before. Red morocco cases with royal crowns stamped on them are not common objects in riverside slums."
"I admit it," Ida said calmly, "and I will be perfectly candid. I was at the slum, as you call it, because duty took me there. A few hours ago and I should have smiled at the mere suggestion, that all the wonderful experiences I have passed through to-night lay before me. But," she broke off, "it matters to nobody, least of all to you, what I was doing at the dreadful house where you found me. Besides, you have not even told me your name."
"I cannot possibly do it," Glasgow answered. "In the interests of my country, at present my name must remain unknown. But I want you to believe that you are dealing with a gentleman, and I may go so far as to tell you that my father is a member of the House of Lords, and that I am trusted by men high in the service of the State. I assure you, Miss Vanstone. I am exceedingly anxious to help you, and that is why I am asking you to tell me how that red morocco case came into your hands."
"While I was watching in that house, I saw some children playing with the stones. I offered them a shilling in exchange and the offer was accepted. The stones are nothing to me, and I know nothing whatever about them, but I have a fancy that they are more valuable than they seem, and if my suspicions prove correct, I shall take the case to Scotland Yard. It is an extremely simple story when it comes to be told. But what would you do if you were in my place? You seem to understand these things."
Glasgow hesitated before he replied.
"I'll try to be magnanimous," he said. "If I were you I should keep them and leave Scotland Yard alone, for the time being. Now, since you have gone so far, you might let me peep inside the casket."
Ida smiled as she lifted the casket on to her knee and pressed the spring. The ornaments were in their places, and from their velvet bed glistened in streams of many-colored fire. As he looked, Glasgow drew his hand down his face, fearful lest Ida should see the eager gleam in his eyes. He bent over and took up one article after another, twisting and turning them so that the electric lights might fall upon the facets and fill them with a blaze of liquid glory. For Glasgow knew there was not the faintest doubt as to the genuineness of these stones. Nor had he the faintest doubt that she knew where they came from. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Ida the exact truth. Then caution and his long training came to his assistance and he paused. After all, the girl was a stranger to him, and her apparent candor might be only intended to deceive. Besides, a pretty scheme was beginning to evolve itself in his mind.
"They look very nice," he said carelessly. "Indeed, they might almost be the real things. But I am no judge of precious stones. The best thing you can do is to have them valued. If they prove of no great worth there will be an end of the matter. If, on the other hand they are real, Miss Valerie Brune will tell you what to do. Show them to her when you go back tonight. But I suppose you found some sort of clue in the case, didn't you?"
"Nothing to convince me that I had discovered a lost treasure," Ida answered. "Quite the contrary. As you seem to know so many people, perhaps the name of Mr. Arnold Gray is familiar to you?"
Glasgow nodded. He could not trust himself to words. For this was another dramatic surprise. He was seeking high and low for Gray, and this innocent girl spoke of him in quite a casual way.
"Do you know him?"
"I've met him several times," Ida said. She was angry and annoyed to find herself blushing, and still more angry to see that her companion noticed it. "He and I are very, good friends. Do you know him?"
"There is no man for whom I have a greater regard and liking," Glasgow replied. "I have known him all my life, and was at school with him. I would give a good deal to ascertain where he is?"
This man might know much, Ida thought, but he did not know everything. So far she had trusted him, but Arnold Gray's life was precious, and she would confide in this stranger no further. She would show him the letter that was in the casket, but beyond that she must be silent.
"This casket till quite lately was in Mr. Gray's possession," she said. "He apparently intended it as a present for a girl friend of his who is about to appear in some private theatricals. The letter is in the bottom of the casket; you can see it if you like. Let me get it out for you."
But Glasgow extracted the letter himself with fingers that trembled, though never so slightly. He was stumbling quite by accident on a clue of the last importance. Surely, this girl must be all that she appeared. If she were not truthful and innocent she would never have trusted him to this extent. By the light of the lamp Glasgow read the letter more than once and cherished a profound admiration for the writer, which, however, he did not disclose to his companion. He dropped the letter back into the case and snapped the clasp.
"That seems to settle it," he said. "Our friend Arnold Gray would know more about the value of the casket than anybody else. Would you mind stopping the car and putting me down here? Goodnight, and thank you very much, Miss Vanstone. You have been very frank with me and I assure you that you will lose nothing by it. We shall meet again before long, and when we do I will try to show you that I know how to appreciate a service."
He touched his peaked yachting cap and strode away towards Piccadilly. The clocks were striking half-past two when the car swung into Grosvenor-square, and Ida, tired and worn out, found herself standing on the doorstep waiting. Almost immediately the big door was thrown back, and Valerie Brune stood there with an eager smile upon her face. She slipped her arm through Ida's, and led her upstairs to an exquisitely-furnished boudoir, where a dainty little supper for two was laid out. Valerie forced her friend into a chair and proceeded to remove her wraps.
"I was getting positively alarmed about you," she said. "I could not understand why you did not return. But I won't say any more till you've had some supper. You took absolutely fagged out. What are you doing with that morocco case and the overcoat? Where did they come from?"
"Presently," Ida pleaded. "Do you know till I saw the supper I had no idea how famishing I am? I have had nothing to eat since tea time this evening, and that only consisted of bread and butter. I haven't sat down to a meal like this for nearly six months. When I made up my mind to leave my father's house—but you don't know anything about that."
Valerie discreetly asked no questions. She plied Ida with chicken and salad, and things light and toothsome in the way of confections, and insisted that the girl should drink a couple of glasses of champagne. By the time the meal was finished all the difficulties and danger of the evening were forgotten, and Ida thought she and strength and courage to go through them again.
"Now let us talk," Valerie said, as she lighted a cigarette. "I have arranged for you to sleep here this evening if you like. Tell me all your exploits. I am sure you've had an adventure. Your eyes would not look so bright or your cheeks so flushed otherwise. But it was no part of the bargain for you to have adventures. I reserve these for myself. In fact, my life is one long adventure. As you may have guessed, there are powerful reasons why I should have a free hand to-night for an hour or two and be in a position to disappear unwatched, whilst the spies who never leave me alone night or day relaxed their vigilance under the delusion that I was enjoying myself at Covent Garden. Well, I did have that precious hour or two, and I made a glorious use of it—as certain people will discover to their cost before long. My instructions to you were plain—you merely had to pose as me and take care that no one detected the deception. You were to hold yourself aloof from everybody on the plea of a headache, or tantrums, or some such pious fiction, and return here at a quarter-past two. Instead of which you have been having adventures. Please tell me all about them."
"I have spent an evening that would sound wild in the pages of fiction," Ida said. "For some time I did exactly as you told me, and was beginning to feel quite lonely until I saw the gentleman who was here to-night. I mean the man with the hatchet face and thin lips."
"George Heathcote!" Valerie exclaimed. "You don't mean to say he came up and spoke to you? If he had he would have seen through the deception at once. Then I should have had all my trouble for nothing."
"Oh, I did not give him the opportunity!" Ida said. "I saw him, but I don't believe he recognised me. I was especially careful to watch him that I might keep out of his way. After a while another man came up and entered into conversation with him. He was a man with sombre eyes and a moody expression."
"Ah! That sounds like Ralph Arnott, the journalist."
"You have guessed it correctly," Ida said.
"What! Did he speak to you?"
"Later he did. But first of all he got rid of the gentleman you called Heathcote. Then he introduced himself. He cannot know you very well, because there was no doubt that he thought I was Miss Valerie Brune. He was very candid and told me a great deal of his history. It seems the poor fellow has been in gaol, but he assured me, that he was wrongfully convicted. He told me a certain amount of his love affairs, too. He told me also what a hatred and contempt he has for Heathcote. I gathered that Heathcote has in his possession certain documents which would enable Mr. Arnott to hold up his head before the world again. But he won't part with these because Mr. Arnott is useful to him in the way of business. But I daresay you know this as well as I do."
"Indeed, I don't," Valerie Brune said. "As a matter of fact, you are giving me some priceless information. Mr. Arnott is one of the most brilliant and most capable journalists in London, and his knowledge of international intrigues is profound. I have never met him, but I am convinced that he knows as much about me as I know about myself. But go on. Tell me what all this leads up to. I will not interrupt again."
From that point Ida told her story without a further word from Valerie Brune. The latter sat listening with eager, parted lips and glowing eyes until the story was finished. Then Valerie broke in with a smile upon her face.
"You have not been altogether candid with me," she said. "It is nice of you to tell me that you have met Mr. Arnold Gray before, but you might complete your confession by adding that you are in love with him."
"You cannot possibly know that."
"Oh! Yes I can." Valerie laughed. "I inferred as much from the way you mentioned his name and the blushes on your cheek. I don't believe you would have told me about him at all only you want my assistance to take him away from that horrible place. Don't consider me callous or hard-hearted, but I have every reason to believe that Mr. Gray is perfectly safe for the present. Don't think me mad when I tell you he's better off where he is. I can't give you my reasons, but you will learn that I am right. Now let me have a look at those paste diamonds, you seem to have taken a great risk to obtain possession of theatrical gems."
Ida laid the morocco case on the table and opened it. Valerie Brune cried aloud as she saw the glittering stones.
"Oh, you wonderful creature!" she exclaimed. "You marvellously clever and most fortunate young woman! This is one of the brightest evenings of my life. I would not have missed this for twice ten thousand pounds."
Glasgow was asking himself a good many questions as be hailed a loitering taxi and went off towards his rooms. He was doubtful whether he had pursued the proper policy, for he had taken a good many risks in the last hour or so. Could he trust Ida or not? If not, then he had committed a grievous error of judgment, and one which might be fraught with disastrous consequences before long. If, on the other hand, he had been correct in his reading of the girl's character, then he had played a master stroke. He was like a man who had made a large fortune at business and who was now embarking on a fresh enterprise which called for a heavy outlay in the way of advertisement. Still, the thing was done, and he would have to see it through.
It was half-past two before he reached his rooms. The blinds were down, but the electric lights were gleaming in half a dozen offices where his men were at work.
By night and by day Glasgow's business never slept, the telephones were always going, and now that the wires reached as far as Paris and Berlin, the work was still heavier and more irksome. To his superiors Glasgow boasted, not without truth, that he had all Europe under his eye; no conspiracy or political intrigue remained long concealed from him. He knew that he was on a very big thing now. A weary eyed secretary glanced up from his desk as Glasgow entered the room.
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Roscoe," Glasgow said. "But I have been detained longer than I expected. I wish you'd get on to Charing Cross railway station and ask them to have a special ready to take me to Dover in half an hour."
Roscoe looked a trifle less bored.
"Is it something very particular?" he asked.
"Well, yes. I think I've got to the bottom of the Gray trouble. Gray himself will keep for the present, for nothing serious is likely to happen to him. I am pretty sure I know where those missing papers are, and they can remain for the present, too. We shall know where to put our hands upon them when the time comes. Now get on the telephone."
"I never could see what all the fuss was about," Roscoe said.
"Surely, no international complication could arise over a handful of foolish love letters."
"My dear fellow, that is exactly where you are mistaken. Of course, I know we are supposed to spend most of our time in hunting after stolen secret treaties which only exist in the novelist's imagination. I won't say that the peace of Europe depends upon those letters being recovered, but it might be a serious matter for the British navy some day if they are not restored to the Royal personage who wrote them. You are fond of a plot, Roscoe, and there's one for you. See if you can solve it. In his salad days a certain ruler writes some exceedingly foolish but quite harmless notes to a little actress person. That's the initial note for you. Work out the rest. Sounds conventional, doesn't it? If our administrators weren't such fools, it wouldn't matter, but being mere blind politicians who can't see an inch beyond the party point of view, it matters a great deal. You will see later how I shall use those letters when they fall into my hands. It is always the case that the highest patriots must blush unseen. Now, please, get on to the station, and when you've arranged for my special 'phone to the Admiralty Pier at Dover and tell the people there that I shall be down in an hour and a half, and that I shall expect the Gipsy to have steam up for a dash across to the Hook. I must be in Berlin tomorrow night, and nobody is, on any account, to know that I've left London at all. I'll get you to smuggle my bag down to the taxi. You might see that a few sandwiches are put inside and a flask of brandy, for I feel as if I haven't had anything to eat for days."
Roscoe took these orders calmly, for sudden, hawk-like swoops of his chief were no novelty to him. Half an hour later Glasgow was en route for Dover, and at 7 o'clock in the next evening he presented himself at the embassy in Berlin and sent in his card bearing a pseudonym which was not in the least like his own name. His Excellency would not see anybody at that time, the hall porter said, least of all an insignificant private individual, but he would take the card in. He was not aware that the card bore a private mark, and was astonished to find that his Excellency would see his visitor at once. Sir Walter Devant rose from his chair and shook hands warmly with the intruder.
"I am exceedingly glad to see you," he said. "In fact, you are the one man I have been praying for. Is this a case of mental telepathy?"
"We don't give it that name in the service, Sir Walter," Glasgow replied. "I came over to see you because I have made certain important discoveries, in consequence of which I wish to suggest a certain step to you. Can you accompany me to England, or, at any rate, get as far as London, within the next day or two? I know this is a tall order—"
"But you wouldn't give it unless you felt sure of your ground," the ambassador interrupted. "I've never known you commit an error of judgment, Glasgow. And I really are fearfully disturbed over this unfortunate disappearance of Gray. I hope he has not been—"
The ambassador broke off ominously.
"He hasn't been murdered, if that's what you mean," Glasgow replied.
"I happen to know that he is in comparative safe quarters. I don't say that they are desirable, but I think we can eliminate the dagger and the bowl business. I could have had Gray in my hands any time the last few hours if I liked. I didn't like, because by so doing I should have put the clever scoundrels who are engineering this business on their guard. I want them to believe that we are utterly bewildered and that they are the last people in the world whom we suspect of this outrage."
"But meanwhile, my dear fellow, they are going on with their schemes. If they part with those papers we are done. The King will never forgive his sister, she will lose her hold upon him, entirely, and her vast estates will be confiscated. Of what use will our port in the Mediterranean be then?"
"I see your line of argument," Glasgow said. "But, you understand, those people haven't got the papers. 'The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,' and in this case it is literally true. Gray took no risks, and he fooled them by a plan of his own. They, are searching for the papers high and low, as I happen to know, and they are not likely to find them, as I know also. Of course, we could settle the whole thing in a few hours but I want to lay those fellows by the heels and see them placed in a position where they can't worry me for many a year to come, they are the cleverest gang I've ever been up against and give more trouble than all the rest of the cosmopolitans put together. So long as no convictions are recorded against them, any State is ready to employ them, but when they are earmarked for what they are, their occupation will be gone. It isn't all poetry being a spy, Sir Walter. He can be honest and devoted to the service of his State, but if he is found out, his State repudiates him without mercy, and he can rot in a foreign prison for all it cares. His one great crime lies in being found out. I want these men to be found out. There are only two of them, which should make my task all the easier. I will drop upon them when the time comes, but I wish to lay a trap to catch them with those papers in their hands."
"It sounds plausible," Sir Walter said with some reluctance. "They are a very enterprising lot. On his journey to London, Gray was shadowed by trusted servants the whole distance. Yet these people kidnapped him as if he'd been a child. By the way, he carried something else besides papers."
"That I am also aware of." Glasgow smiled drily. "Incredible as it may seem, our thieves did not even succeed in getting hold of them. You are speaking, I presume about a case containing stage diamonds?"
"Let it go at that?" the ambassador acquiesced.
"But they must have been imitation, Sir Walter, because there was a note in the casket to say so. It was a letter written in Gray's handwriting, and in fact, I've had it and read it. The people into whose possession the stones passed took it for gospel and virtually threw the case on the rubbish heap. Oh, it is quite safe now! I would rather not answer questions on this head, if you don't mind. If you will come in with me, I promise to hand over the papers to you. I think you will know how to use them to advantage."
"I certainly could do that," Sir Walter said drily. "For the life of me I cannot understand the affair. Gray had not the least idea he was going to England till within half an hour of his start, and half an hour before that I did not dream of telling him. Now those people could not have known when I didn't know myself. Those letters were not safe in my possession—that's why I sent them over to the—to London. When I heard that they were lost I went through a very bad quarter of an hour indeed. I fully expected to hear within a day or two that the King had recovered his missing property. If he had done that, the Princess' case, as regards her own vast estates, would have been hopeless. He would never forgive her for the step she had taken, he would confiscate the estates and leave her to all intents a pauper. He would be within his rights to do so, and we as a power could not resent it. With the confiscation of the estates, that mining concession to Baron Ruperra would lapse also. As you know, for a long time our Government has been urged to take steps to provide us with a free and ample supply of oil fuel for the navy. Nothing has been done to secure it. We cannot rely upon America, or Mexico, or Russia, because these fields are in the hands of syndicates, and syndicates are not patriots. If we were involved in a European war, our navy would soon be at a standstill. Yet at one time it looked as if I had saved the situation."
The Ambassador spoke in tone of emotion. He paced rapidly up and down the room, as if oblivious of the presence of his companion.
"It is a popular superstition," he went on, "that nations are ruled by kings and Cabinets. Nothing of the kind. Every nation is ruled by its capitalists. When it suits their purpose these people can alter the map of a continent without war and without the loss of life. History teaches us this, and every diplomatist worth his salt knows it. Occasionally you meet with a capitalist who is a patriot also, but he does not keep on offering advice when he finds that it is ignored and that his financial rivals, less scrupulous, are outstripping him in the race. For years past our Government has been warned that all the oil supply in the world is being gradually acquired by companies or private persons. Now, Ruperra is a patriot. It is true he is only a naturalised Englishman, but he has the interest of his adopted country at heart. He became tired of pointing out the suicidal folly of the Government, and finally he came to me. He came to me for two reasons—firstly, because I am on the spot; and, secondly, because the baroness is a bosom friend of Princess Zena Victoria. He pointed out to me that the princess had a vast tract of sterile country apparently worthless, with a fine seaboard on the Mediterranean. He also pointed out that this desolate country is amazingly rich in oil. But I think I'm only refreshing your memory when I tell you this. At any rate secret investigations have been made, and it has been proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the Princess' property contains one of the finest oil tracts in the globe. It is all the more valuable because it lies on the coast, and— well, I need not describe its advantages to you. Ruperra has obtained this concession, and is willing to hand it over to the British Government on exceedingly favorable terms. This makes it essential that those letters should be recovered. If they can be produced, the King will be brought to reason; in fact, I know he's ready to do anything to recover the letters. So, my dear fellow, if you can accomplish this blessed consummation I will return to England with you with pleasure."
"Then, I think, you can regard it as done," Glasgow said thoughtfully. "But we'd better not return together. Still, that's a detail. Now I'm going to show you something. I want you to trust me. Sir Walter, and to allow me to put certain questions to you without your asking too many in return. Have you ever seen this before?"
As he spoke, Glasgow took a case from his pocket and from it produced a photograph. Sir Walter took it to the light and examined the features of a woman thoughtfully. There was a suggestion of harshness on his face as he spoke.
"I recognise it." he said. "It recalls some of the saddest days of my life. That is the woman whom my poor boy was so infatuated about four years ago. I have never met her face to face, but I have a very acute recollection of the day Geoffrey came to me and showed me a cabinet picture of the same woman. I do not deny her beauty; it is indeed an exquisite face, and shows marked intelligence, but a strolling player, my dear fellow! A girl who had mixed with the riffraff of the Continent from her childhood! And the ridiculous story that she was of gentle birth! Oh! I assure you Geoffrey was full of it. She was an orphan, he told me: parents had perished in some terrible vendetta. He was wild to marry her, of course. He implored me to see her, and was certain that if I did so I would withdraw my opposition at once. I refused point blank. I told the boy that if he married that wretched woman he would no longer be a son of mine. He took me at my word. He left my house there and then and I have never seen him since. I have heard from time to time of his being mixed up in all sorts of political intrigues, and wherever he went that woman seemed to follow him. She was his evil genius, Glasgow."
"He did not marry her?"
"Well, no. I suppose she was too cunning for that. To be Lady Devant some day did not satisfy her ambition, for the title would have been a barren one without any money to guild it. But if you happen to know what has become of that wretched boy I pray you tell me. I have not heard a word of him for two years; he may be dead for all I know."
"Your son is not dead, Sir Walter," Glasgow said quietly. "But we will come to that presently. He was quite right when he told you that the original of this photograph was of gentle birth. It is true that her parents died in the way he mentioned, and it is true also that for years the child was dragged about Europe in the company of strolling players. But she is wealthy enough now, and has made her money honestly, too. Did you ever hear of Valerie Brune?"
"Good heavens! You don't mean to say—?"
"I do. Sir Walter. It doesn't matter what her name was originally, but Sir Hugo Brune, the great explorer, was a cousin of her mother's, and when he died he left her his money. Now she calls herself Valerie Brune. I don't suppose there is a woman in Europe who has had more political adventures than she. And let me tell you she declines to touch anything that is in the least dishonorable. She has done some daring things in her time, but always for the right. She would have dropped it all long ago but for one thing."
"And what is that?"
"She is in search of your son. She is genuinely in love with your boy, Sir Walter. She would have married him without a penny, only she was not rich herself then, and was afraid of standing in your boy's light. In many of his political excesses she checked him, and then she lost sight of him altogether. But that was through no fault of hers. That was brought about by a poisonous scoundrel called George Heathcote, who, I believe, is a relative of yours."
"I am sorry to say he is," Sir Walter replied. "Strange how these threats are interwoven with one another! But why do you tell me this story, Glasgow? What has Miss Brune to do with the present trouble? Where does she come in?"
"Well, I can't give you chapter and verse for that," Glasgow said.
"But you will find that she does come in presently, and that to a very powerful extent. One of the reasons why I want you to come to England is that I may introduce you to her. You must try to overcome your prejudice against Miss Brune."
"I am in your-hands, Glasgow, but I fail to see what I will gain by this step."
"Well, please don't forget that for some year or two past George Heathcote has been the Princess' adviser. This is largely a comedy of disappearances, and the Princess has vanished also. Whether or not she has found out Heathcote and run away from him I can't say. But this I do know—Miss Brune can find the Princess for us at any moment."
The Ambassador rose from his chair and began to pace the room restlessly. He seemed to be debating something in his mind.
"I think you are right," he said at length. "In fact I am sure of it. There is nothing of importance going on here just now, so that I can take a few days' leave with a clear conscience. I will start early to-morrow if you wish. Unless something comes in the way I will call at your office after dinner, not to-morrow night, but on Thursday. I am willing to be guided by you, and if you can find that unfortunate boy—"
"I pledge my word on it," Glasgow said earnestly. "Only you promised not to ask too many questions. It will all come right, though, I fear, there will be both difficulty and danger before us. I did not dare to write, and that is why I came to see you. If you have no more to say I'll go. With luck I shall be at home to-morrow without anybody's knowing I had left London."
Exactly eight-and-forty hours later Sir Walter Devant presented himself at Glasgow's office and sent in a message. It was nearly midnight before Glasgow intimated that it was time to move.
"We are going into danger," he said. "At least it is a responsibility when one is answerable for the safety of an Ambassador. No, I don't think there's any occasion to carry a revolver. At the same time a change of clothing is desirable, and I have some rough-looking garments which will lead people to suppose that we are two-sailors."
"We are going to the docks, then?" Sir Walter asked.
"That's so, and, moreover, we shall visit one of the roughest places in London. I want to assure you that Arnold Gray is safe, or comparatively so. You shall ascertain that for yourself."
"We are about to visit him?"
"That depends on circumstances. I hope to show you where he is, and perhaps something else. Will you please don these garments? They look rough and disreputable, but they are perfectly clean, and you will find them comfortable."
"Lead the way," Sir Walter exclaimed. "I am quite ready. The spirit of adventure is beginning to stir within me."
They journeyed by taxi most of the way, and after dismissing the conveyance, walked along the narrow, grimy streets, now practically deserted except for an occasional policeman. These Glasgow carefully avoided until he came at length to the house by the side of the wharf. It was in darkness, not so much as a glimpse of light being visible.
"A sufficiently repellant place," Sir Walter said. "Do you mean to tell me Gray is here?"
"I have not committed myself, so far," Glasgow replied. "But let me take you round to the back of the house. I have been here before, and if I am to do a little amateur burglary, I favor the entrance near the river."
Cautiously they picked their way to the back of the house. Here Glasgow tried a door, which, yielded to his touch. Breathless with excitement, he rejoined his companion presently.
"Gone!" he whispered. "There's not so much as a piece of coal left on the premises!"
Ida was amused at Valerie Brune's enthusiasm. She had reached the stage at which surprises were becoming a matter of course. Throughout this wonderful night they had come one after the other thick and fast, and if Valerie had told her these were some of the Crown jewels she would not have been troubled with any doubts.
"I am glad you are pleased," she said "I gather from what you say that I have done well. Not that I take credit to myself for anything of the kind. But tell me, have I discovered anything of real value?"
"My dear child, the stones are genuine. I know that because I have seen them all before. I have had the jewel-case in my hands many a time. I am trusting you with great secrets, and I hope you will respect them. The mystery is, why you were allowed to bring them to me at all. Not that I mistrust you—I am thinking of that mysterious person to whom you gave a lift as far as Piccadilly. I would give much to know who he was. Why did he allow you to bring these things here, knowing that you would hand them to me? It looks to me like a trap. And what finer trap for the ordinary woman than a casket of diamonds! We shall have to be careful. So much I have told you, and with it for the moment you must be satisfied."
"But you know who is the owner of the diamonds," Ida said.
"I do, but it is just as well that I should keep the information to myself at present. I don't want you to mention this incident to a soul. These things are safe in my charge. You have rather anticipated events as far as I am concerned, and I will take you into my confidence a little further. I want your assistance in a matter which concerns me and other people very closely indeed. That you have courage and resolution you have already proved. In the course of your reading I suppose you have come across the name of Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn?"
"I see the newspapers sometime," Ida replied.
"Then you know what I'm referring to. The princess is young, beautiful, and romantic. I suppose princesses are made of different stuff from what they used to be, for Zena Victoria has caught the prevailing fever, and claims the right to be a mere woman like the rest of us. A great many royal women lately have defied fine conventions and thrown in their lot with ordinary men. Some of the marriages have been happy, and some have ended in unpleasant scandal. But, be that as it may, Princess Zena Victoria has made up her mind that when she marries it will be entirely to please herself. Her brother, the King of Bohn, on the contrary, is one of the most autocratic and most arbitrary of men. He believes in the divine right of kings as well as other exploded theories. Hitherto the women of his House have always married blindly and obediently, but when the King told his sister that he had chosen a husband for her, she flatly rebelled and informed him that she had already made her choice. She was actually promised to a certain Count, whose name we need not mention. To put it vulgarly, there was a most frightful row. The King placed his sister under arrest, and she was kept in prison like an ordinary criminal. She managed to escape, however, and fled to Paris. But the King ordered her back and threatened that, unless she returned home, prepared to obey his wishes, he would confiscate her estates. She replied that if he made her love story public property she would acquaint the world with a few details of one of his little romances. She was in a position to do it. She had appropriated certain of his letters for this very purpose, and these letters, were entrusted to Arnold Gray to bring to London. It is clear as noonday that the outrage was committed on Mr. Gray in order to secure these letters. We shall come to the bottom of all that presently. Meanwhile the Princess is in London, but very few people know where she is."
"Surely, this is ridiculous!" Ida cried. "You don't mean to tell me that the Princess is in any danger so long as she remains in London. Who would do her harm?"
"Well, her brother, the King of Bohn for one. He would kidnap her without the slightest compunction. I was instrumental in frustrating one of the plots to do so. After that the Princess disappeared, and they are looking for her in vain. They would never guess she was hiding in this house; they would laugh the idea to scorn. They give Valerie Brune credit for a good deal more brains than that. And because they are so very clever and so very wise and farseeing, the Princess is absolutely safe here and has been for some days."
"It is incredible," Ida soliloquised. "Only a few hours ago I was a poor, little, insignificant artist, struggling to make a shilling or two, and in hourly dread of being homeless, and now I am mixed up in an extraordinary intrigue which brings me in contact with European rulers. I suppose I shall be able to realise it all presently. If you want my assistance why you shall have it gladly. But don't you think your are rather rash? Consider what would happen if your servants—"
"Oh! My servants are different from other people's. They are part of my staff. The footman who opens the door and the butler who presides at the sideboard are men of education. It is all a portion of my system. One or two women in the kitchen may be employed in menial duties, but they would never know anything. There isn't a man about the place who is in ignorance of the identity of my guest. Two of them were instrumental in bringing her here. Come up with me to the drawing-room and see the Princess for yourself. You will find her wholly charming and within a few minutes become her devoted slave like the rest of us."
As the two entered the drawing-room together a slight figure rose out of an armchair by the fireside, and eagerly threw aside the book she had been reading. Ida had a vision of a dark face in a frame of golden hair; she saw a pair of liquid eyes which were ever changing and filled now with laughter, now with mischief, and again with a wistful pathos all their own.
"Here's another friend for you, Princess," Valerie said.
With a quick impulse the Princess took Ida by the hands and kissed her on each cheek.
"I am delighted, I am grateful," she answered. "One has so few real friends that they come as a gift from Heaven. Ah, it is only we who are born to the purple who know how hard it is to find sincerity! You know my story?"
"Yes, Miss Brune has been telling it to me."
"Then the good Valerie trusts you, too. Was there ever a case like mine before? Why should I not please myself? I love the Count and he loves me, and there is no more to be said. Why can't they leave me alone? Does it make any difference to my brother whom I marry? No! Yet he tries to kidnap me and take me home, and, failing that, he confiscates my estates. But I have a weapon in my hand. Oh, yes! I make Europe to laugh at him consumedly. And my brother, he is a dignified person; he takes himself what you call very seriously. Then he attempts to drag me from London. I thought I had a friend here called George Heathcote. But I am fresh from a scene where Mr. Heathcote said in my presence that I was a little fool, and that it would be better if I were smacked like a naughty child and sent to bed. Ah, but he knew not that I was listening. He did not know that I was there in disguise and that my good friends the Ruperras had arranged the scene so that my eyes should be opened. And that man, who is supposed to be my friend, was only recently engaged in a plot to smuggle me to the coast and put me on a yacht belonging to the King, my brother."
"But that is why I took the advice of my friends and disappeared. That is why I am here. There are brave men about me who watch over me night and day, and Valerie has provided me with disguises, so that I may take the air and laugh at my pursuers. I pass my brother's spies in the street, and smile as I do so. If I could only get hold of those papers, then I would feel absolutely secure. But when I was escaping I had to leave them in Berlin, because I dare not cross the frontiers with those precious documents in my possession."
"Mr. Gray was to bring them to me, but, alas, I understand that he has met with a sad accident! It is very distressing. Someone must have discovered he was my friend, that my safety was in his possession. Once those papers are mine, then I send my ultimatum to my brother. I tell him that the papers are with friends; I say that if anything happens to me they are published for all the world to read. If he dares confiscate my estates the publication shall not be long delayed. So, you see, we have to find Mr. Gray, we have to relieve him of his responsibility; but who is to do it? That is a question I ask myself till my head aches, but no reply comes. My friends, can you help me?"
"I think so," Valerie said thoughtfully.
"I have been talking to Ida, and she has given me an idea. To-night she met with a journalist named Ralph Arnott, who has helped me more than once, though I have never spoken to him. I know he will help me again, because the one object of his life is to get George Heathcote under his thumb and crush him. He will stick at nothing to attain this object. Apart from that, he is an exceedingly clever man, and has a wonderful knowledge of underground politics. I know where to find him, and, if you like, I will ring him up."
"Is there any necessity?" Ida asked. "Surely, we know where Mr. Gray is. We have only to tell our story to the police and in the course of a few hours—"
"Stop, stop!" Valerie cried. "Remember that 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' Probably Mr. Glasgow is moving in this matter on behalf of the Foreign Office, and if we upset his delicately-laid plans we shall be sorry for it afterwards. Why, the mere fact that the disappearance of Mr. Gray not becoming public property is in itself a proof to me that Mr. Glasgow has the case in hand. We must not move clumsily. At any rate, let us see what Mr. Arnott has to say about it first. Shall I try for him on the 'phone?"
"Valerie is wonderful," the Princess remarked. "She makes no mistakes. I am in your hands, my dear, entirely."
Arnott was available, and would come round at once if Miss Brune wished to see him. He had just returned from the office of his newspaper, and if he could render any assistance he would be only too pleased. He arrived about ten minutes later, and as he entered the drawing-room he paused in some confusion, looking from his hostess to Ida. He was clearly puzzled.
"I fear," he observed, "that I have been led into a great indiscretion to-night by the extraordinary likeness between you two ladies. I see now that it was not Miss Brune I met at the ball. I hope my mistake has caused no ill consequences. But Miss Brune is so clever—"
"That is very nice of you," Valerie laughed. "As a matter of fact, my place was taken this evening by Miss Vanstone."
Arnott's face darkened.
"Did you say Vanstone?" he asked. "Are you a daughter of Mr. Robert Vanstone, the stockbroker?"
"He is my father." Ida explained.
"Please don't let there be any misunderstanding," she went on, as she noticed the suspicious wrinkling on Arnott's forehead; "I wish to be quite plain. There are many matters in which my father and I do not agree at all. That is why I left home to earn my own living. Practically my father and I are strangers. I have had many exciting moments this evening, Mr. Arnott, and before we go any further it would be as well if I told you what I have seen and done. I think you ought to know because but for you I should not have been through those adventures at all. And perhaps it was natural that you should take me for Miss Brune."
Rapidly Ida gave Arnott a sketch of the night's doings, saying, as she ended, "There, now, you know everything."
"And now you also know why I sent for you, Mr. Arnott," Valerie added. "Miss Vanstone wished to communicate with the police, but I decline to do so because I feel positive that if we interfered we shall spoil some very delicate work on the part of the Secret Service generally and of Mr. John Glasgow in particular. Of course, they know that Mr. Gray has vanished, and they must have grave reason for keeping the fact secret, or the aid of the press would have been invoked before now."
"Would you mind if I don't discuss that at present?" Arnott asked.
"You are perfectly right, Miss Brune. I wrote a special article about Gray's disappearance for my paper, and the editor suppressed it at the instigation of the Secret Service. But I don't object to tell you this much—George Heathcote and two of his friends are at the bottom of the whole business."
"And the name of those friends?" Valerie demanded.
"Perhaps it will be better to be candid," he said at length. "The names of the others are Wilfred Avis and Robert Vanstone. I am very sorry to have to say this in Miss Vanstone's presence—"
"Pray don't apologise," Ida cried. "I am as anxious as anyone else for this mystery to be cleared up. Mr. Gray is a great friend of mine, and his present position fills me with the deepest anxiety. If there is anything to be done—I shall be only too glad—"
"For the moment, nothing," Arnott interrupted. "Miss Brune is right, and if we obstruct the Secret Service we shall commit a serious error. But I have my own methods of finding things out. One or two of the subordinates are in my pay; in fact, a torn envelope which one of them found in the carriage in which Gray travelled first put me on the track. I will make certain enquiries and let you know the result in a day or two. Can I do anything else for you before I go?"
"Yes," Ida said. "You might be so good as to walk as far as my lodgings with me. It will only take me a few minutes to change this dress, and I hardly like to be alone in the streets so late." Ida was surprised to find Elsie waiting up for her, though it was now near break of day.
"You've given me a rare fright," Elsie said, "Miss Brune sent word that you were detained, but when the hours went by and you did not return I began to imagine all sorts of things. What have you been doing? Why are your cheeks so pink and your eyes so bright? Have you been having adventures? Please tell me?"
"Arabian Nights!" Ida laughed unsteadily. "I have lived through about three-quarters of a sensational novel. If you are not too dreadfully tired I will tell you all about it, because I am sure everything will be perfectly safe with you."
For the next half-hour or so Elsie listened with rapt attention. It was only when the name of Arnott was mentioned that she betrayed more than merely human interest. The color left her face and her breath came faster.
"It is very strange and mysterious." she said. "But didn't you tell me that the man who started you on your wild journey was called Ralph Arnott? What was he like?"
"A slight dark man, with extraordinarily penetrating eyes. They are dark and broody eyes, but wonderfully intellectual, and there must once have been a strange fascination in them. But the poor fellow has suffered terribly. He told me he had been the victim of a great misfortune, but that there was a man who could restore his good name if he liked. I mentioned the man's name to you—Heathcote."
Elsie dropped her face on her hands and burst into tears.
"It's the same," she sobbed. "Oh, it must be the same! Years and years ago when we were children he began to write for the papers. He always used his first two names—Ralph Arnott. So he's been found at last."
"You seem deeply interested," Ida said. "Indeed I am, for Ralph was, nay, is, the man to whom I am engaged. When the great trouble fell upon him I was in Paris learning my business. You see, my father had died a little time before, and when his effects at the rectory were sold and his debts paid there was nothing left for me, and I had to turn my back on dear old Devon and fend for myself. Ralph was always extraordinarily sensitive, and when that misfortune overtook him he wrote me a letter declaring that everything was over between us, and until he had cleared his name he would not see me again. When I went to the prison he declined to meet me. His advice to me was to forget all about him and make some other man happy. If I were still single when he regained his freedom and his good name he might come to me, but he held out little hopes of that. From that day to this we have never met. You must bring us together, Ida, you must indeed. I want to convince him that what has happened makes no difference to me. I wish him to know that he is spoiling my life as well as his. It seems to me that one can carry trouble too far."
The next day appeared strangely flat and unprofitable to Ida after her delirious whirl of adventure. It was strange also that two more days should pass without any sign from Valerie Brune. She was dreadfully anxious and worried, too, about Arnold Gray and examined the morning and evening papers closely, but there was not a line of illumination. She was flinging the 'Evening News' aside almost impatiently when a paragraph, caught her eye.
"There was a strange scene in Oxford-street this afternoon," it ran, "between an elderly woman of somewhat faded appearance and an excited foreigner carrying on his head a collection of plaster castes which he had for sale. It appeared that the woman was looking into a shop window when the itinerant merchant accosted her, and excitedly demanded whether or not he was speaking to the Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn. On being told to mind his own business he laid violent hands upon the woman and succeeded in displacing a wig that she was wearing, to the great amusement of a large crowd which had quickly assembled. The woman appealed to the police for protection, and, as the vendor of plaster casts declined to remove himself elsewhere, he was taken into custody, struggling violently and protesting against his treatment. When the police looked round for the woman she had vanished. The incident is a little singular when it is remembered that the princess is believed to be in London, hiding from her friends and relatives. As she is known to be fond of such disguises there may have been something in the allegation of the plaster-bust merchant after all. We understand the police are investigating the matter."
Ida read the paragraph twice, and was about to pass the paper to Elsie, when the landlady pushed her head in at the door, with a curt intimation that an old woman wished to see Ida. A dilapidated figure staggered into the room, and dropped into a chair. Her hat, veil, and wig were pushed aside, and the half-frightened, half-mirthful features of the princess were disclosed.
"Oh, such a time!" she cried. "One of those spies have recognised me. He tried to seize my hand, but he went too far and the police arrested him. I dare not go back to Grosvenor-square in case the house is watched. I have been wandering about for hours. Then I recollected Mr. Arnott told me yesterday where you lived. I am sure I reached here without being followed. You must let Valerie know where I am at once. Everything seems to have gone wrong the last few days. Mr. Arnold Gray has vanished altogether. One of Valerie's men was down near the house, and he says that the place is deserted. The people have cleared out, and we shall have to start again from the beginning."
This was startling intelligence indeed. If Gray had been spirited away from that house by the riverside, then the good work of the last few days was wasted—perhaps irretrievably! Ida bitterly blamed herself now for not keeping in touch with those precocious children; in fact, it flashed upon her that she had not even kept her promise in the matter of payment for the diamonds. Could she possibly find them? Then the room door opened again, and a raucous voice informed Ida that a child was asking for her at the street door. With a cry of delight she recognised the elder of the two girls.
"Well, you're a nice 'un," the child said shrilly. "You're a pretty bilker. Now, none o' yer lip—fork out that seven-and twenty bob and 'a done with it."
At the moment the child's implication of bad faith did not strike Ida, for here was something in the way of good fortune which she had not expected. The girl was angry with her, of course, which was only natural in the circumstances, for Ida had made a deliberate promise which, apparently, she had as deliberately ignored. She saw the quivering anger on the girl's face, and the passionate determination blazing in her eyes. But Ida was not troubled about that at all. She was trembling, with hope that the waif could tell her where Arnold Gray might be found. He had been spirited away, by some enemy, the situation had been complicated in an unexpected manner, and Ida was now in a position to command information for which the Foreign Office would gladly have paid a large sum of money.
"Come inside," she said. "Let me see, what did you tell me your name was?'
"I didn't tell you my name was nuffink," the girl answered angrily.
"Still, it's Annie if that's any use ter you. You needn't arst me wot the next nime is, 'cause there ain't none. An' I shan't come inside, not me. Orl I wants is them shiners, an' I don't move till I gets 'em."
"Then you must stay here till I go up stairs and fetch the money," Ida replied. "I'm very sorry, I forgot all about it, but I've had so many things to think about." The child winked knowingly and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. Ida thought she bore a strange resemblance to an angry little ape chattering behind bars.
"Orl right," she said. "You can't get away from 'ere withaht my seein' yer, an' that's one comfort. Cut erlong."
Ida raced breathlessly up the stairs and burst eagerly into the little sitting-room.
"Here's an extraordinary piece of luck," she cried. "I seem to have found Arnold Gray before he is lost. There is a child down below—one of the children I told you about, from whom I got—"
Ida broke off in some confusion. She had come very near to telling the princess the story of the diamonds, though she had promised Valerie Brune to keep the matter a profound secret. So far as the jewels were concerned she had not mentioned them even to Elsie.
"Oh, I forgot!" she said. "You don't know anything about the children. Well, they were of considerable assistance to me, and I promised them some money. I hadn't any with me at the time, and, really, the whole thing had escaped my memory. Goodness knows how the child found me out, but there she is on the doorstep in a state of fury accusing me of all sorts of dishonesty. I am afraid I shall have to borrow some money from one of you."
"Oh, I have heaps!" the princess said. "There is a large purse full of gold. My dear child, take what you want. But I don't see how this is going to help you."
"It seems pretty plain to me," Ida said. "The people with whom these children live have Arnold Gray more or less a prisoner. They have taken alarm and moved to another house. Naturally, the children have gone with them and that poor little waif downstairs can tell me. You will help me now—"
She took the money from the princess' purse without further hesitation, and hurried into the street. A glittering sovereign, and a half sovereign besides, she placed in Annie's grimy paw. The child's expression changed like magic.
"I began to think you was a wrong 'un," she said graciously.
"You needn't apologise," Ida smiled. "The fault is entirely mine. Now, how did you find me out?"
"Arst the doctor," Annie said. "E ain't a bad sort, 'e ain't. Gives me a penny 'e does, every time I fetch the strange man's mid'cine, an' I told 'im as you'd guaranteed me a shillin' an' that maybe you're a friend o' 'is. 'E said you was a Miss Valerie Brune wot lives at 45A, Grosvenor-square."
The information was startling. It was, indeed strange the doctor had discovered so much. But it would not be policy on Ida's part, to render this precocious child uneasy by useless questions.
"What happened then?" she asked.
"Oh, I goes there. Bold as brass I knocked at the door an' arsts to see the lidy. An' I did see 'er, too. As like you as two peas she is. An' she gimme somethink for meself an' sends me rhand 'ere."
"Now, I understand," Ida smiled. "How are your brothers and sisters? I must come down and see you again some afternoon. Let me see, what is the address?"
"Taint the sime." Annie whispered. "We've moved. Went orf quiet like in the night an' no questions arst. An' don't you be too knowin', lidy. If there's somfink good goin' I can easy come 'ere an' fetch it. Or I can meet yer."
"Perhaps that would be best," Ida agreed. "Now, how would you like to leave London and go and live in the country? Wouldn't it be nice to have a little cottage there and have nothing to do all day but look after the rabbits and poultry, and have plenty to eat and games to play?"
The child's face softened.
"Went to the country once," she said jerkily. "One o' them missions took a lot os us. It wer jus' prime. But you're avin' a gime wif me. Nah, come orf it."
"Indeed I'm not," Ida said earnestly. "There are one or two things you can do for me, and you can have lots and lots of money for it. Do you think you could assist me, at 9 o'clock to-night outside the public house you spoke of? The 'Green Man,' wasn't it? What street did you say?"
Annie gave the desired information, being no longer alert or suspicious.
"Orl right," she said. "I'll be there. You can trust me as long as there's any money knockin' arahnd."
She gave a patronising nod of her shaggy head and waltzed carelessly off down the street to the accompaniment of a distant barrel organ. In a few words Ida related the circumstances to her companion.
"Well, what will you do?" Elsie asked.
"Find where Arnold Gray is before I sleep to-night," Ida declared.
"I will meet that child at 9 o'clock but, of course I shan't go alone. Oh, if only I had a few pounds to spare just now, what a lot I could do."
Without the slightest hesitation the Princess snatched up her purse from the table and thrust the contents into Ida's hands. She would take no denial, she would be positively angry if Ida returned so much as a penny. Besides it was only a trifle of forty pounds after all. And what was that to a woman who frequently spends as much on an idle whim before breakfast?
"There, that is settled," the Princess finished gaily. "I stay here till dark, and then with the aid of a taxi smuggle back to Grosvenor-square myself. As to you, my brave young creature, what is going to happen? You are after adventures—I see the light of battle in your eye. You go to rescue a brave man from his enemies. But I pray you not to go alone."
"I've not the slightest intention of doing so," Ida assured her. "I will not boast, because my plan may fail."
About an hour later, before the Princess took her departure under the cloak of night, Ida summoned up courage to interview her truculent landlady. The payment of the overdue rent, and the sight of two or three golden glittering sovereigns had a marvelous effect upon the woman with the hard face and greedy eyes, and she became complacent almost to the verge of amiability.
"I daresay I can manage it, miss," she said. "In fact, I'm sure I can. I've got a very nice bed and sitting-room on the first floor, and I never was one for asking questions. Keep yourself to yourself was always my motto. A week's rent in advance is only fair between both parties."
"Well, that's settled at any rate," Ida said to herself thankfully, as she made her way upstairs again.
"And now what will you do?" Elsie asked. "Whom will you take into your confidence?"
"Ralph Arnott," Ida answered boldly, "and a little later Mr. Truscott, the doctor. I feel pretty sure I can rely upon him. But Mr. Arnott is my man, and I mean to ask him to come round here to see me. I remember the number which Valerie Brune gave on the telephone last night when she was calling him up, and I will pay the fee at the nearest call office, and see if I can get in touch with him. There is not a man I would rather have at the present moment than Mr. Arnott. Now, can you guess what I'm going to do?"
"Something desperate by the look of you," Elsie said.
"Indeed, I think it is. I will bribe that child to take me to the house where Arnold Gray is hidden and bring him back here at any cost. I have arranged matters with our delightful landlady. She was quite civil, not to say servile, just now when I paid her, and, in short, is ready to do anything for money. I told her I expected an invalid friend here, and I paid for the rooms in advance. She won't say anything as long as she makes money out of it. And now for the telephone and Mr. Arnott!"
"And ask him to come round here," Elsie suggested timidly.
"Well, my dear girl, why not? You've got to meet him some time or other, and he owes you something more than an apology. No, I won't hear another word."
Though it was an hour before Ida returned, within that time she had not only spoken with Arnott on the telephone, but had had a brief interview with him at the office of the "Daily Sentinel." He had been quite willing to fall in with her suggestion and had sketched one or two improvements on the original programme which met with Ida's approval.
"He'll be here immediately," she explained. "I did not tell him that I had a pleasant surprise for him. I do hope you're going to be sensible."
Elsie raised no protest, though she sat strangely thoughtful and silent. As the clock struck 8 Ida disappeared downstairs and returned presently with Arnott.
"This is my friend, Miss Elsie Harness," she said. "I understand she's an old friend of yours, Mr. Arnott."
The blood slowly ebbed from Arnott's face, leaving his features pale and drawn, in strong contrast with his dark eyes, and the mass of raven hair upon his head. Then he flushed a pale, shamed red as he turned to Ida. Reproach and perhaps a hint of anger lit up his eyes.
"Is this fair?"
"Why not?" Ida challenged, "I am asking you to help me and am advancing your own cause at the same time. You were candid enough with me at the dance the other night, and I want you to be equally candid now. You were bound to meet Miss Harness sooner or later, and circumstances will bring you here a great deal in the future I hope. Besides, you owe Miss Harness an explanation. If you will excuse me I will leave you to make it."
Ida closed the door and left Elsie and Arnott face to face. The girl stood pale and trembling and Arnott saw tears in her eyes. But those eyes were brave and steady, and faced his unflinchingly.
"This is a strange meeting," he observed.
"There are stranger things," Elsie said. "And it seems to me that you are one of them. Did you ever hear of the luxury of grief?"
"I don't understand."
"Oh, yes you do, Ralph—you understand me perfectly well! You have deliberately wrapped yourself up in the mantle of your own trouble, you have hugged it to your breast forgetful of your duty to yourself and to me. What right have you to spoil my life as well as your own? I know what you would say—you would say that you offered me my freedom, that if I were of the same mind when your name was cleared you would come back if I asked you. Do you believe that a true woman would regard that as a kindness? Do you believe that I thought you guilty? I never did, and you know it. Your greatest curse has always been that morbid vanity of yours. I see you have some of it still. Are you the only man in the world who has ever suffered innocently? Are you doing well?"
The last question struck Arnott with the force of a blow.
"Y-yes," he stammered. "I did well from the very start. You see, I could give certain papers exactly what they wanted because I had secret sources of exclusive information. Oh, yes, from a material point of view I've done well enough! I suppose I must be making fifteen hundred a year or perhaps more."
"Really? Ralph, look at me. Look at me and tell me what you see. Am I as pretty as I used to be?"
"More so," Arnott cried with a touch of passion in his voice. "In my eyes you will always be beautiful. If you think that I have ceased to love you—"
"Oh, I don't, I don't! But that is the cruelest part of the tragedy. You love me much, but you love your own vanity far more. And I—I am not what I used to be. My cheeks are pale and my eyes are red, and I am fading away for want of proper care and freedom from anxiety. Oh, I could get health back, I know! Let me go into the country again and breathe pure air let me live as a woman ought to live, and I know that my lost youth is waiting for me. Do you know the bitter struggle I have had? Do you know that I have had to fight hard for my living for the last four years and that sometimes I have been without food? And while this anxiety has been killing me, the man who ought to have stood by my side and shielded me from these troubles has been actually earning something like L30 a week. Why that is as much as I earn in six months. There were others before me came into my life and I might have been—but we won't go into that. I am suffering for the crime of trust and confidence—I am suffering because I gave a man my heart who asked for it, and who turned his back upon me when misfortune came his way. He had made up his mind that I should feel the misery of it all, as well as he. That is what you've done for me, Ralph."
Arnott stood with lowered head and no reply upon his lips. He was in the thick of a mental storm and his mind was being illuminated by flashes of blinding light. He was grouping his way through cloud and darkness into sunshine. He had done all these things and more. He pleaded 'guilty' to every count in the poignant indictment. What a coward, what a blackguard he had been, to be sure! If the girl still loved him and believed in him, then the rest of the world mattered nothing.
"By heaven! You're right," he broke out presently. "Elsie, what a selfish scoundrel I've been! I wanted you all the time—how badly I cannot tell you. To clear my name has become an obsession with me; blocked out all my mental horizon and I could see no farther. If I had had you with me—"
"Oh, say no more!" Elsie cried. "If I seem to be angry with you I understand all the same. But I do grudge the wasted years, the years you have torn up deliberately and thrown behind you. And now—oh, my dear boy—"
She held out her trembling hands to him, and he caught them fiercely in his own. She swayed towards him and her head dropped on his shoulder as if it had been that of a tired child. Arnott bent over her tenderly.
"And you've actually forgiven me?" he whispered. "Elsie, what a fool I've been! But you shall go away from here, you shall not endure this miserable existence any longer. For I can give you all you ask, and more."
Elsie lifted her wet eyes to his, and their lips met; then she put him gently from her.
"I owe all this to Ida," she said. "Because I do owe her so much I must not be selfish in my happiness. For she is in trouble, too, and there is much to be done. You will help her, Ralph, won't you? She relies upon you entirely."
"I will do all I can for her," Arnott declared. "Do you mean to say that there is anything between her and Arnold Gray?"
"Don't waste time asking all these questions. Here she is. Perhaps she will tell you herself."
Ida entered the room with a somewhat successful attempt to look prosaic and business-like.
"I see you have settled your troubles," she smiled. "Now, Mr. Arnott, perhaps you will help me with mine. I have already explained to you what I want. You were good enough to say you would accompany me on my adventures. I should like Dr. Truscott to be of the party, but I don't see how we are to find him."
"That is easily managed," Arnott said. "You say that his name is Truscott, that he's M.D. of London, and that he practises somewhere by the docks. If I phone to the office they can look him out in the medical directory. But if I were you Miss Vanstone I shouldn't go at all. I think you would be far better advised if you left it to the doctor and myself."
"There I altogether disagree with you," Ida said. "To begin with, how would you recognise the child? Even if you could recognise her, she would never give you her confidence. She would become suspicious at once and would lead you astray. A more consummate little actress I've never met. It is almost shocking to note how cleverly the lies come tripping from her lips. The idea of doing without me is out of the question. I'm not in the least afraid."
"Of that I am certain," Arnott said admiringly. "Don't you think we'd better be off? I'll get a taxi and ring up the office for Truscotts address. Then I'll look into a post office and ask the doctor to meet us outside the 'Green Man' at half-past nine. No, I won't: I'll wire him. He may be a bit late, but I daresay we can manage to detain the child till that time."
As a matter of fact it was nearly half-past nine before Ida and her companion found themselves opposite the flaunting public-house known as the "Green Man." Blazing with lights, it stood out in the centre of the dreariness and hopeless' misery of the rest of the street. Five, ten minutes went by, and as yet there was no sign of the child. Ida was beginning to grow anxious and uneasy when she caught sight of a ragged little figure, picked out like a cameo against the back-round of electric light. She darted across the road and caught Annie by the arm.
"I thought you were not coming."
"Bin 'ere since nine," the child said half defiantly. "Bin withchin' 'ere nearly a quarter of an hour."
"Then why didn't you come and speak to me?"
"Nah, wot d'yer tike me for? One o' them innercent kids as the mission reader tells abaht, or wot? I thort as you tole me you was comin' dahn 'ere alone. Oo'a that bloke struttin' abaht on t'other side o' the road? None o' them school board horficers or hindustrial hinspectors fer me. I ain't goin' inter no 'ome an' so I tells you strite. I don't want to learn ter write and sew and 'ave to find meself in a barf every diy."
Ida smiled in spite of herself.
"I made you a promise, and I'm going to keep it," she said. "The gentleman across the road is a friend of mine and has nothing to do with industrial schools. When I said I would take you into the country I meant it. But there are lots of things to be done first, and I want you to help me. Where are you living now?"
"'Ide Park!" the child said promptly. "Sometimes there and sometimes in Bucking'am Palis. It orl depends on the mood I'm in. Gen'ly I prefers the Palis."
The child was still suspicious and uneasy. As Ida glanced across the road she was relieved to see the shabby, untidy figure of Dr. Truscott, who was conversing earnestly with Arnott.
"Why, there's our friend the doctor," Ida said. "Come, you can trust him even if you won't put your confidence in me! If he says it's all right, will you be guided by what I say? I particularly want to see the gentleman—the gentleman who is lying ill in your house, I mean. If you can find some way for me to see him I will give you anything you want. If there is any danger—"
"Not arf," the child said grimly, "there ain't."
"Oh! Then there is danger?"
The child caught her breath sharply. She had grown serious and paled under her dirt, and her lips trembled.
"Orl right," she whispered. "I'll chanst it, if you will. Arst them coves to step this wy."
The Honorable John Glasgow strode along in the direction of Grosvenor-square with the air of a man who has no trouble in the world, and whose life is given over entirely to pleasure. His morning coat fitted him to perfection, his glossy hat gleamed in the sunshine, and the perfectly creased trousers terminated in a pair of patent-leather boots. Apparently he was nothing more than the society man going off to lunch with friends. As a matter of fact, that was exactly his object. He stopped presently and rang the bell of Baron Ruperra's house, and for the next half-hour or so was discussing small talk with his hostess. It was nearly 2 o'clock before Ruperra rolled up in his big motor, full of apologies for the delay.
"My dear Baron, don't mention it," Glasgow said. "It is a mystery to me how you get away at all. You really are a wonderful man! How many City magnates manage to lunch at home in the course of a year?"
"They would be better if they did," the Baron replied. "I value this break in the middle of the day above all things."
The exquisite appointed luncheon was finished at length, and the Baroness had flitted off, a dainty figure in sables, to a matinee, and the men were left alone over their cigars and coffee, and some mysterious liqueur which the Baron only gave his friends on state occasions. Glasgow elevated his eyebrows as the curious-shaped bottle was put before him.
"So we are in for a strenuous afternoon, Baron," he said. "You have lured me here under false pretences, and the Baroness' absence is part of the conspiracy. I expected to be only an hour or so at the outside, and really I have most important work to do. I can't stay long."
"My dear fellow," the Baron said solemnly. "Nothing in your own office is half so important as the work you are going to do here this afternoon. And behold, I am giving up all my time to it, too. Where shall we begin? Shall we talk about Arnold Gray? By-the-way, is there any news of him?"
"None whatever," Glasgow confessed. "For three days I have been hopelessly baffled. What is more, I am afraid I have made our Ambassador in Berlin look foolish. He took it very well, but the fact remains."
"Ah, then, there is no news! But you do not think those people have obtained possession of the letters?"
"I am certain they haven't done so. If they had, they would have disposed of them before now. They not only failed to get the letters, but they have lost touch of the princess' diamonds, which were to have formed part of the plunder. You see, Heathcote and those stockbroker friends of yours were in a joint conspiracy to secure the letters. Vanstone and Avis knew that the diamonds were coming, too, but decided not to tell Heathcote, so honor amongst thieves does not count in this case. I have found a man who is frequently employed by these people, and I got all this information out of him. So far as those papers are concerned, the other people are as much in the dark as we are."
Ruperra smiled as he reached for a fresh cigarette.
"It is comforting to know that," he said. "But in any case it would not have prevented me from acting. Your Government does not realise how dangerous is the delay. I have thought out a way of check-mating Vanstone and Avis, and teaching them a lesson they are not likely to forget for many a long day. Behold, my dear friend, the chance of making a great deal of money."
From a large envelope in front of him the Baron produced a huge proof sheet, which in fact represented the front page of the "Daily Sentinel."
"Now, look at this," he cried. "This is the prospectus of the Mediterranean Oil Fields, Limited, and the public are asked to subscribe for fifteen million one-pound shares at par. There are five million preferred ordinaries which the proprietors reserve for themselves. But do not let me bore you with city jargon. To-morrow, unless I give orders to the contrary, every important newspaper in Europe will have that prospectus. There are some great names on the directorate, as you see. On the strength of those names alone the money will be subscribed in London four or five times over. The prospectus contains no figures and the minimum of information. We ask the public to trust us and they will do so. Now, my dear friend, within half an hour my confidential secretary will ring me up and ask for orders. If I say 'wait' then we shall delay; and if I say 'go on,' well, the thing's done."
"You are a bold man, Baron."
"I flatter myself there is no bolder in the City of London. But go on, my dear Glasgow."
"Certainly, if my advice is worth anything. I take it that you are backing this issue with a good deal of your own money."
"I'm backing it with all I have."
"And if it fails?"
"Then Baron Ruperra is a ruined man. But it is not going to fail. I will prove that to you presently."
"Well, candidly, I wouldn't put a penny into it." Glasgow said frankly. "Don't mind my speaking plainly. This seems to me an absolute gamble. Oh, I take it you are convinced that the petroleum is there! But your entire success depends upon a bundle of letters hidden somewhere in the East of London. If those letters are never found your position will be untenable. If they are found and the enemy get hold of them, your position will be equally untenable, because they will be sold to some publisher and given to the world. If they fall in the hands of the Princess your venture will be a brilliant success. My dear Baron, there are two chances to one against you, and that is why I would not touch the thing on any account. If fortune bring up one or other of those chances on the other side you will be finished, and the King of Bohn will be an object of ridicule and will vent his spite upon his sister the Princess. And this brings me to the point. The King will take his revenge by confiscating those estates, in which case your option is not worth the paper it is written on. It will be of no use to appeal to Germany, because she will be pretty sure to find some excuse for backing up the King and getting the concession for herself."
"Then you think I'm a lunatic?"
"We all make mistakes at times," Glasgow said guardedly.
The Baron brought his fist down on the proof with a crash. His mouth was grim and his eyes had narrowed to little points of flame. He spoke almost in a whisper.
"I am making no mistake," he declared. "I have thought this all out. In your simplicity you think that it is a King or a Cabinet who has the power to say, 'Let there be war,' or 'Let here be peace?' There is not a monarch in Europe who could do it, my dear Glasgow. Say he makes up his mind to open a campaign against his royal neighbor. It does not suit the great commercial houses of England; the monied magnates of London and Paris and Berlin shake their heads. We do not meet, we do not write letters. But there is our wonderful freemasonry all the same. Then, behold, there are difficulties. It suddenly becomes impossible to raise loans. The vast establishments which turn out the munitions of war find they have contracts which close their hands for years. Then the smaller ambitious fellows come along and say, 'We can do this and that if we have the money.' But, strange to say, they have no money. And this, my dear fellow is where my venture ceases to be a gamble. Once let this money be put up and I care nothing whether the King repudiates the option or not. Such pressure will be brought to bear upon him that he will have to recede from this position though he were the Emperor of Russia ten times over. Every Government in Europe will be forced to take a hand in the business of bringing the King of Bohn to his knees. We will open the eyes or the British public to the present danger, and show them how to be patriots and money-makers at the same time. Come, you remember the time when it was said that nothing would induce the British Government to occupy Egypt. Bah! Was the nation only to be used as a pawn in the game of recovering the lost money of speculating bondholders? The thing was impossible, but then while the controversy was still going on the apparently impossible thing was done. And all the world recognises the wisdom of that step to-day. Now, what have you to say?"
"Upon my word, I believe you are right."
"Right, my dear fellow! Of course, I'm right. Ah, but it does not end there! I mean to have those men, Heathcote and Avis and Vanstone, under my thumb. So often lately have they got the better of me that they will leap at this fresh opportunity. They will say 'Ruperra is mad.' They are convinced they are going to obtain those letters. Their idea will be to offer them for a huge sum to the King of Bohn, and when that is done my option will be mere waste paper. Meanwhile they will sell shares in the new company as long as they can find customers to buy them. They will sell them by the hundred thousand, and then when it is too late they will realise their mistake. They will be called upon to deliver, and unless they can buy for pounds what they are selling for shillings they will be utterly and entirely ruined. They have dared to pit themselves against me, and I shall have them in the hollow of my hand. More than this, my dear Glasgow, I shall be able to rid you of two exceedingly dangerous opponents. I will force those men to come out into the open, and everybody will know them for what they are. Now I should like to ask you a question. My wife has been telling me about the Princess' missing diamonds, and I believe she had her information from Valerie Brune. Is it a fact that that child I've been told about really succeeded in getting hold of the genuine diamonds—"
"As a matter of fact she did," Glasgow said, "and she showed them to me. But perhaps, I'd better tell you the story," which he proceeded to do in as few words as possible ending with an obvious, "quite a romance, isn't it. I ought to have taken possession of those stones but I didn't. I let Miss Vanstone take them back with her, feeling sure that she would give them to Valerie Brune."
"And she did so?"
"Certainly, Miss Brune has them now. The Princess does not know that, because if she did she would want to pawn them as she is somewhat short of money. Do those diamonds form any part of your scheme, Baron?"
"We will come to that presently," Ruperra said drily. "Now, shall we go and have a chat with Miss Brune?"
"You know her as well as I do," Glasgow said. "Why not give her a call on the 'phone? If she happens to be at home we can go across there."
Valerie Brune was not only at home, but would be delighted to see the Baron and Glasgow. There was something like a challenge in her eyes as she held out her hand to Glasgow.
"Is this a plot against my peace of mind?" she asked. "When two such brilliant intellects invade me, I naturally ask myself questions."
"We come with a flag of truce," Glasgow said. "You are an old antagonist Miss Brune, and have caused me more than one sleepless night, but I am bound to say you always fight with the cleanest of weapons."
"Believe me I am no antagonist of yours," Valerie retorted. "If I have seemed to be so it is only because appearances are deceptive. Some day I may tell you what has been the whole object of my life during the last three years."
"I think I know," Glasgow murmured.
Valerie's face flushed and moisture gathered in her eyes suspiciously suggestive of tears.
"It is your business to know everything," she granted. "Yes. I think you've guessed the truth. I was dreadfully disappointed Sir Walter had to hurry back to Berlin without seeing me. I had hoped so much from the interview which you wrote and told me you had arranged. I believe I could convince Sir Walter—but don't let me be selfish. You did not come here to discuss my sentimental affairs. Baron, what can I do for you?"
"Well, Miss Brune, you can answer me a plain question," Ruperra said. "I have been hearing from Glasgow about a journey taken by a young lady who was masquerading as yourself. I hear she obtained possession of certain stones which she innocently believed to be paste. Now, tell me, have you these stones, and are they as valuable as I hope they are."
"They are locked up in my safe," Valerie said, "and they are certainly very valuable indeed. They were the Princess' diamonds which Mr. Arnold Gray brought with him from Berlin. I haven't told the Princess because she is so impulsive and extravagant, and the time will probably come when she will need money badly."
"Can I have a look at the gems?" the Baron enquired.
"Why not? The Princess is upstairs in her bedroom, and knows I'm engaged on private business. She is not likely to interrupt us. I will fetch the gems."
Valerie came back presently and laid the case upon the table. The Baron examined them thoughtfully, then turned to Valerie with a question on his lips.
"I am about to make an extraordinary request," he said. "Miss Brune, how far do you trust me?"
"As far as I would trust myself," Valerie smiled. "I would place myself and my affairs in your hands with confidence. I can't say more than that."'
"I won't ask you to go to that length," the Baron replied. "You will find my request startling enough as it is. I want you to lend me those jewels for about a fortnight. I must have them just as they are, case and all. I know my suggestion sounds totally unreal and absurd, but if you will entrust those stones to me for a short time I think I can go a long way towards righting a great wrong. You needn't come to a decision now—think it over for a day or two."
"You are a very clever man, Baron,"' Valerie said thoughtfully. "On the whole, the cleverest man I've ever met. I know you would never make a request like this unless you had the gravest reason for doing so. You can take the case now if you like. All I ask you to do is to give me a receipt for it."
If Glasgow had any curiosity as to what was in the Baron's mind it remained ungratified, for the jewels were not alluded to again. It was a strange thing altogether, but not stranger than the next remark of the Baron's.
"Well, good-bye for a few days, my friend," he said. "I have made up my mind to go on with my scheme, and everything is so far advanced that my presence in the city will not be necessary for the next day or two. Entre nous, I am leaving London this afternoon for Bohn. I will pay my agents there a surprise visit, and when I come back—"
The Baron paused significantly as he held out his hand to Glasgow. An hour or so later he was speeding towards the coast, and within the next two days had landed from a small fishing boat on the bleak and barren coast line of where Bohn touches the Mediterranean. A few dismal huts and a knot of depressed-looking fishermen on the dilapidated stone quay were the chief objects in the view. But in his mind's eye Ruperra saw many things beyond this dreary desolation. He saw wharfs and shops and the shipping of the world in the magnificent natural harbor, and the time to come when this little port should be of importance in the march of civilisation. For once there was something tangible to attract the attention of the fishermen, one or two of whom gazed with languid curiosity at the powerful touring car standing at the top of the village street. A big man, with dark beard and keen, grey eyes touched his fur cap as the Baron, carrying his own bag, reached the car.
"Well, Denton," Ruperra said, "you see I've got here at last. How are things going?"
"Nothing to grumble at, Baron." The man addressed as Denton replied.
"I've had some amount of anxiety with the hands lately. These ignorant peasants are all very well, but they are ridiculously superstitious. Of course, I realise the necessity of employing nobody else who is likely to spot our game, but these people think we are doing wrong by getting the oil, especially when a fire breaks out. Then they think the end of the world's coming and swear we are releasing evil spirits and all sorts of nonsense."
"Well, it won't last much longer," the Baron said. "By now all Europe has been discussing the Mediterranean Oil Fields, limited. It is public property, and we shall have thousands of able-bodied men flocking here from all parts of the world looking for work. That is one reason why I decided to come out. We must be very careful or we shall have a famine here, or worse. The railway does not touch us within two hundred miles, so we shall have to organise a system of motor vans to fetch stores and tents, to say nothing of tools and the machinery we shall require. But these details were thought out long ago. The question is, have you enough labor to go on with?"
"I'll manage that all right, Baron," Denton explained. "There's the large convict prison, where they haven't enough work for the poor wretches to do. I have made a contract to employ five hundred of them regularly and, on the whole, I find them very satisfactory. One great advantage they have—they don't talk. You will find my quarters rather rough and ready, but I can give you a bed and food of sorts, and the hut is quite warm."
Mile after mile the big car sped along the dreary roads over the flat, monotonous country until darkness fell and it seemed as if civilisation were blotted out altogether. They came at length to a low hut surrounded by a number of outbuildings, and here the car stopped. The hut contained only one room, the floor of which was covered with sheepskins, in the centre of which stood a stove, white hot and throwing out a grateful heat. With the aid of a frying-pan Denton cooked some tinned ham and preserved eggs, which, together with some coarse-looking bread and a bottle of crude wine, formed the entire repast. But the Baron was too tired and hungry to be particular. When the meal was dispatched he smoked his pipe and listened more or less drowsily to Denton's story. Nevertheless, he crept from the sheepskins soon after dawn the next morning and was out on the oil fields long before breakfast.
There were no signs of a colossal industry at present, nothing but pieces of machinery and ranges of huts, where peasants were sluggishly doing such work as had been given to them. The Baron shrugged his shoulders: he was a man of action and this indifference irritated him.
Early as it was, a gang of men in hideous yellow dress was at work half a mile or so away. They really were at work and the fact filled the Baron with satisfaction. He could guess who they were, for half a dozen men in sheepskin coats and semi-military hats stood looking on, keeping watch and ward, rifle in hand.
"I'll go and see them after breakfast," the Baron told himself.
"Those poor wretches are earning their money."
Denton was emphatically of the same opinion. He smiled with pride at the success of his scheme as he stood by Ruperra's side, amongst the convicts an hour or so later. They were not an inviting-looking lot, but here and there a gaunt and pallid face appealed to the visitors for sympathy. One man, hollow eyed and clean of limb, came close alongside them, pushing a wheelbarrow. He did not pause, he hardly turned his head, but he seemed to thrill as Denton's English accent struck upon his ears.
"Don't take any notice of me," he said, "and don't look round. You are in danger here, gentlemen. Unless you are careful and your arms are good, you are not safe."
He pushed on without another word towards a pile of rubbish on to which the wheelbarrows were being emptied.
"That's uncommonly strange," the Baron exclaimed. "I wonder what he meant. And how did an Englishman like that get here. He is a gentleman, too, if I'm not mistaken. Don't move, he will be sure to return this way when he has emptied his barrow. We must have some more information. I should like to get to the bottom of this."
The man came slowly back with his barrow and the Baron began to speak directly he was within earshot.
"We may be able to help yon," Ruperra said. "Who are you and how did you get here?"
"That is a long story," the convict replied in a low voice. "I fear little help can come my way. As to the rest, my name is Geoffrey Devant, son of the German Ambassador."
He moved on with his barrow, leaving the two men in absolute amazement.
Ida stood on the pavement trying to read something of what was in the child's mind. Certainly Annie had never appeared so serious before. If there was danger, she would be prepared to meet it.
"Very well," Ida said. "I don't want to get you into trouble and I should like to help you if possible."
"I ought not ter do it, lidy, I ought not ter do it, indeed; they'd kill me if they only knew wot I was up to. An' if I could only git aht of it I'd run erway termorrer. But people like you can't know wot the life is."
The child's voice shook and tears gathered in her eyes. She was showing a depth of feeling which Ida had not given her credit for. It might not be difficult to induce Valerie Brune to take an interest in these poor little waifs and strays, and Annie would be entitled to more than ordinary consideration if her good offices led to the freedom of Arnold Gray.
"I will be your friend," Ida said, "I will take all of you away from the dreadful life you are leading. Now wait here a moment whilst I talk to these gentlemen."
Annie nodded obediently and Ida turned eagerly towards Dr. Truscott.
"This is my friend, Mr. Arnott," she said. "He has been good enough to come to help me. We are both deeply interested in your patient—I mean the gentleman whom I saw in the house by the river the other night. Are you still attending him? I ask because I have been told—"
"If you can give me any information about him I shall be exceedingly grateful," Truscott said. "The case has been worrying me dreadfully. I went to see him as usual, and, to my astonishment, on the occasion of my last visit I found the house empty. The people had cleared out, and, though I made many enquiries, nobody could tell me anything about them. They had simply disappeared and so far as I could discover none of the neighbors had seen the furniture taken away. I'm not quite blameless, for I ought to have consulted the police on the matter. I waited to see whether you would turn up again, and I was exceedingly thankful when I recognised you just now. You see, Mr. Arnott. I am very unpleasantly situated here. I ought really to have a practice in the West-End, but I need not go into the circumstances which have made me a slum doctor. It is hard to make a living in these parts, and the guineas I received for attending my mysterious patient were more than welcome. I won't deny that my suspicions were aroused, and that the first time I was called in I ought to have told all I knew to the sergeant at the nearest police-station."
"Oh, I don't know!" Arnott said. "If you had done that more harm than good might have resulted. It is possible your patient did not wish to be identified. I understand he was fairly well looked after. If his friends knew—"
"Some of them did," Ida interrupted. "Perhaps I had better be a little more explicit with you, doctor. Your patient was Mr. Arnold Gray, of the Diplomatic Service. Certain documents which he was conveying to England are missing, and we suppose he was attacked and wounded by the people who brought him here. There are pressing reasons why the matter should not be made public. But now that these people have disappeared, taking Mr. Gray with them, the case assumes a much more serious aspect. Mr. Gray may have been murdered for all we know, and we are here to-night to try to discover the facts. By good luck one of the children connected with that mysterious house came to see me. Usually she is fearless and impudent enough for anything, but when I suggested just now that she should take me home with her she was positively frightened. But she's going to do it all the same, and I want both of you to come along with me. I am sure there will be trouble."
"In that case I think I can be of assistance," Truscott said. "I am a pretty familiar figure in these parts, and can go where I like without attracting attention. If you are ready we ought to get to work."
Ida beckoned Annie to her side.
"We are quite ready now," she said.
The child nodded darkly and led the way. Ida fancied the neighborhood was dimly familiar to her, and the impression grew a certainty presently when the lonely house by the river came in sight. Annie went straight to it and opened the door. The place was dark and deserted. There was no sign of life about it, and it looked as if the child might be playing some trick upon them. Arnott took a box of matches from his pocket and struck a light.
"What do you mean by this?" he asked. "The people we are looking for are not here."
"That's orl you know abaht it, mister," the girl said. "Put a match ter this 'ere an' I'll show yer."
From her pocket she produced the end of a wax candle and held it out for Arnott to light. Then she went down a flight of steps into a dingy basement room, in the corner of which was a cupboard. Inside the cupboard, under a litter of rubbish, was an iron ring, to which the child pointed.
"That's it, mister," she said. "You pull that up, an' don't yer mike any noise abaht it neither. There ain't nobody abaht jes' nah, 'cept grannie, an' she's ill o'bed with a bad attack o' the rheumatics.
"And the other children," Ida asked. "Dahn at Shadwell, bein' looked arter by a sister o' father's," the child explained. "I'm s'posed ter be dahn there, too, but nobody tikes no notice o' me. If I was ter be aht orl night they wouldn't worry, an' if I wasn't ter go back at all they wouldn't be sorry. An' I ain't sposed ter know anyfink abaht this. They jes' tole me as they was goin' ter move 'ouse 'an we kids was ter clear aht till they was ready to 'ave us back agin."
"But where does this trap door lead to?" Arnott asked, "Is there a robber's cave or something of that sort underground?"
"Smugglers!" Annie whispered. "S'pose you didn't think there was no such thing on the Thames, but there is. Wen father was alive 'e got 'a living by it. That there passidge leads to another 'ouse by the side o' the water, an' there's another passidge under a hempty ware-'ouse where they keeps a boat which they use at low tide. You jes' go dahn an' do what yer want ter do. It ain't no business o' mine, an' I arsts no questions so long as I gits pide. An' if any on 'em comes back I'l let yer know. An' there ain't no time to be wisted."
Arnott lifted up the trap and disclosed an iron stairway leading into a dark, stone-flagged passage. It was an adventure after the heart of the journalist, and he descended the ladder without any hesitation. The doctor followed, and Ida last. They would have dissuaded her, but she would take no denial.
"No, I cannot stay behind," she said "It would be simply horrible, waiting here. If there is danger I much prefer to share it. But surely you want a light of some sort."
Arnott produced an electric torch and pressed the button. So far as they could see by the dazzling ray of light, the passage ran for a hundred feet or so. The roof was arched and composed of stone, and was evidently of ancient origin. The place was rather suggestive of the crypt of a church, for there were rude carvings here and there, doubtless the work of some long departed monastic hand.
"I imagine there must have been a priory here in the old days," Arnott said. "That would account for these passages. In the civil war they would be very useful for smuggling fugitives into boats and conveying them down the Thames. But here is a flight of steps and a door. We shall have to be careful."
From under the door a chink of light put into the darkness. Arnott raised the latch and pushed the door inwards. It gave upon a kitchen and thence into a passage which lead to two fair-sized living rooms. No one could be seen, and the place appeared to be vacant. But there was a lamp here and there, and as Ida looked round she recognised more than one familiar article of furniture. She was soon satisfied that the goods and chattels of the deserted house had been conveyed hither by means of the passage.
"We had better stay here for a little," Arnott said. "Do you expect to find Gray upstairs, Miss Vanstone?"
"It will be a great blow to me if I don't." Ida answered. "Why should these people leave their house in this mysterious manner unless Mr. Gray had something to do with it? If they had disposed of him otherwise they might have stayed where they were. What puzzles me is that they have apparently disappeared from the locality, and yet here they are within a stone's throw of their old house, though, according to Dr. Truscott, they have not been seen by a neighbor for some days."
Arnott pointed to the windows of the kitchen, which were closely shuttered.
"Probably every window in the house is closed in that way," he said.
"Now, Miss Vanstone, are you going to look for Mr. Arnold Gray? And what do you propose to do with him when you find him? Are we to take him with us?"
Ida was not prepared with any suggestion for the moment, but, all the same, it was her intention to remove him. She ran quickly up the stairs, and paused on the landing. She heard groans and sighs from someone close by, and these sounds she rightly interpreted as proceeding from the rheumatic old woman. Two other doors were open, but a third was locked. The key was in the lock outside, however, and Ida thought she was nearly at the end of her search. She turned the key and opened the door gently. The room was brilliantly lighted, and in an armchair by the fire a figure was seated. As he raised his head Ida knew she had found Gray. As he looked at her she was rejoiced to see the light of reason in his eyes.
"Arnold, don't you know me?" Ida cried.
Gray struggled feebly to his feet. He looked terribly worn and spent. His face was white and hollow and he could only stand with an effort. He passed his hand over his eyes, and then, as he identified the visitor, something like fear crossed his features.
"Ida!" he whispered. "Ida! Is it really and truly you? My nearest girl, how did you get here? Do you realise the terrible danger you are in? These people would cut your throat, and throw you into the river if they thought you would betray them."
"I don't think it as serious as all that," Ida smiled. "Besides I've been here before."
"Been here before? What in this house?"
"Well at any rate in another house close by. The same people are looking after you. Do you remember my coming to your room? Do you remember telling me something?"
"Then it wasn't a dream after all!" Gray cried. "I've been trying over and over again to recollect the details of the strange dream I had that night. I seemed to be in trouble about something, I seemed to have something to take care of which I had to hide from certain people. Then you came and I gave it to you. It is mixed up in an extraordinary way with an overcoat—a fawn overcoat I used to wear when travelling. You found the missing overcoat and took it away. What makes me sometimes think it was more than a dream is that I can't find the coat anywhere. It will be a great relief to hear from your own lips that you did take that coat away with you."
"It's perfectly safe," Ida said. "I've been waiting for an opportunity to see you and to learn what I have to do with it. I heard from Mr. Glasgow—"
"So you've met Glasgow? You could not have a better friend. He knew that I was here?"
"Yes, and was dreadfully upset when he could not find you. Do you know why these people changed their house, and why there is all this mystery?"
"Oh, don't ask me!" Gray said irritably. "I daresay Glasgow had excellent reasons for not coming to my aid directly he knew where I was. Anyhow, you can tell him the letters are all right, and that he shall have them all in good time. But what the Princess will say when she knows that her diamonds have been stolen—"
"They are not stolen, Arnold. I found them; they are in safe custody, and the Princess can have them at any time."
"Oh, I shall be able to grasp it all presently!" Gray said. "You will be telling me that you know the Princess."
"I should be telling the truth if I did." Ida smiled. "But don't you think you'd better hear the story?"
Gray listened with frank, open-mouthed astonishment to her hurried statement.
"You are a wonderful girl," he said, "and I am exceedingly proud of you. Now what do you suggest, what do you propose to do? Do you want me to come with you? These people are not unkind to me, but, all the same, I am a prisoner. I don't know whether I ought to go or not. Ah, and before I forget it, there's another thing I must give you!"
As he spoke Gray opened the back of his watch and took out a few sheets of exceedingly thin paper, which appeared to be covered with minutely-written cipher.
"Give these to Glasgow," he said. "It is of great importance he should have them without delay. When he has them it doesn't matter much whether I stay here a bit longer or not. I hope that—"
Gray broke off suddenly as a sound below struck his ear. Somebody was speaking in a loud, angry voice; something that sounded like a blow was struck, and then there came the sharp crack of a revolver, followed an instant later, by the sound of falling glass. Instantly Gray crossed the room and blew out the lamp.
"I feared something like this." he whispered. "Those men have come back, and probably that blackguard Avis is with them. There is another ruffian called Vanstone. Rather singular he should have the same name as yours."
Ida made no reply. She was trembling from head to foot with shame and disappointment and fear. She felt her lover's arm about her, and his lips upon her cheek.
"You mustn't stay here. You are not to consider me for a moment. I shall only be a drag on you, I doubt whether I could walk down the stairs. Please don't stop. I should never forgive myself if anything happened to you. It is imperative, too, that you do not meet those ruffians. Heaven only knows what is going on downstairs. If you know the way out—"
Ida clung despairingly to Arnold. It seemed hard to lose him now that success was so near, and he so ill and suffering and needing her care. There was a strange, ominous silence below, and as Ida crept cautiously on to the landing, the noted with apprehension that the house was in absolute darkness. It was difficult to know how to act for the best. She was desperately anxious to know what had happened to her friends. Perhaps Arnott had fired the revolver shot, though the odds were distinctly against such a supposition. They could only wait and see how events shaped themselves.
"This is terrible," she whispered. "The darkness is full of horrors. I will never forgive myself if anything happens to my friends. I cannot escape, and at the same time I ought not to remain here." Gray stretched out his hand, and caught Ida by the wrist. Then he placed her in the armchair, and sat down beside her with his arm about her shoulder.
"Why not?" he asked. "My dearest girl, I may be selfish, but I forget every thing else in the joy of having you by my side. Besides, you are safe here. Nobody ever comes near me except to place food outside my door, and occasionally the old woman exchanges a few words with me when she's doing out my room. They think that I am worse than I really am and so they do not keep a very close watch on me. If you stay till daylight, escape will be easy. I can't light the lamp again, because I have no matches. Besides, if your friends have left, they will be certain to come back before long with assistance."
"Can't you see I ought not to be here?"
"My dearest girl, why not? It is not as if we were strangers, and some day you will be my wife."
Gently but firmly Ida removed the encircling arm and rose to her feet. She could not remain. Even for Arnold's sake, she would have to be firm.
"Really, I insist upon going," she said. "I will grope my way out of this house, dark as it is."
She eluded her lover's outstretched hand. His touch made her weak, the pressure of his lips on her cheek seemed to deprive her of strength and resolution. It would be better to go at once without another word. She could hear Gray's thrilling whisper and his words of endearment as she grasped the stair-rail and crept cautiously to the passage below. The place was still in utter darkness and though the door of every room was open no sound came from any of them. As Ida went on inch by inch her foot struck a soft yielding object, and something between a sigh and a groan rose from the floor. It was not easy to suppress a cry from her lips. For beyond question, a man lay on the floor, wounded and unconscious. Ida shuddered as she realised that the doctor or Arnott might be lying helpless at her feet. Quivering in every limb, she crept round the body, and then a yard or two further her foot struck something that tinkled on the floor. Possibly it was a weapon of some sort, and Ida groped for it eagerly. She knew as much about firearms as a child did, but there would be some comfort in carrying a weapon in her hand.
But it was no weapon that Ida was holding in her shaking fingers. It was an electric torch, probably the one Arnott had brought with him. With the risk of discovery vividly before her, she pressed the little button. She must know the truth; she must know whether the man lying at her feet was a friend or foe.
With a feeling of almost hysterical thankfulness she recognised that the man was a stranger. He lay on his back with his white face turned upwards; his eyes were closed, and his breathing was stertorous. At the same instant a low chuckle came from one of the dark rooms, and a voice broke the silence.
"What have we here?"
Ida raised her torch and glanced around eagerly. She saw a door at the end of the passage, and ran towards it. It gave instantly to her touch. On the far side another passage leading downwards till it opened into a small shed, the floor of which appeared to be under water. This was the way to the river evidently, for there were two boats, and in front of them was a kind of grating, under which it was easy for the boats to enter the river in the present state of the tide. There were no oars in either boat; probably they were lodged in the tall locker at the back, but Ida did not hesitate. She heard steps behind her clanging down the passage. Her fingers trembled as she untied the painter and scrambled into the foremost boat. Grasping the grating firmly and drawing the boat along vigorously, she was borne, an instant later, into the open and drifted, helpless and alone, on the black bosom of the stream. Almost before she realised what had happened the second boat shot forth in pursuit. A light flashed out, followed by another light from a black galley opposite.
"What's this?" a hoarse voice commanded. "Stop, both of you, or there'll be trouble. Do you know you are talking to a Thames Police wherry?"
The challenge from the police boat held no terrors for Ida. She had nothing to fear from the authorities; indeed, her anxiety lay with the boat behind her. There might be an awkward explanation, but once she was in the hands of the police she would be free from danger. She waited for the flash to come again, then it seemed as if a great black wall had suddenly risen from the river, and cut her off from safety. It had not occurred to her at the moment that the boats were drifting, and that they were lying now against the side of a big tramp steamer. Below this was a mass of shipping and some slack water formed by a warehouse jutting out into the stream. So far as Ida was concerned, the police wherry might be at Gravesend for any chance of rescue from that quarter. As the other boat overtook her she felt the bow grating against her own frail craft. A second later a rough hand was hid upon her shoulder. It was so intensely dark lying against the huge black hull that she could make out nothing. The arm tightened about her waist and a voice hissed an order in her ear—
"Don't struggle," it said. "If you do that we shall all be in the water, and you don't want to drown any more than we do. Stand up, but be careful. If you give us what we want it will be all right."
There was no alternative but implicit obedience. The mere thought of the cold, black river numbed Ida's courage. The steady suck of the tide as it gurgled past the warehouses had an ominous sound, and the breeze sweeping over the misty surface chilled her to the bone. As she rose tremblingly to her feet she was swung out of her boat into the other one and placed not too gently in the stern.
"That's better," the voice said. "Goodness knows what would have happened to you if we had not come along. Now, who are you, and what is your name?"
Not even for her freedom could Ida have spoken just then. She thought she recognised the voice, and, if her surmise were correct, her situation would be more deplorable than ever. So long as it was dark she could conceal her identity, and might even make her escape by some extraordinary good fortune, but until it was forced from her she would not give these men her name.
"It does not matter," she said.
Would these men in their turn recognise her? She wondered. Would the tone of her voice convey anything to them? Still, had she only known it, so far there was no cause for anxiety. Her voice was trembling with cold and anxiety.
"Perhaps it doesn't," the man opposite her said. "You can call yourself Jones or anything else so far as we are concerned. Well, Miss Jones, I am going to ask you a few questions. How did you manage to get into the house yonder?"
"I came there with my friends," Ida explained.
"Oh, we know all about that? You accompanied the doctor and Ralph Arnott. We shall know how to deal with you at the proper time. The doctor doesn't count."
Ida was silently thankful for the news. Seemingly nothing serious had happened to her allies.
"But that's not the question," the man went on. "How did you get there? Who showed you the way? We won't stand any nonsense. You've got to tell us, because big interests are at stake. Give us the information we want, and we'll put you ashore now. If you decline to speak we must take steps to make you, and it will be easily done, I assure you. A little chloroform on a pad of cotton wool, a big cloak, a row down the river, and a voyage on a yacht, and one thing is done. You wouldn't like to be landed on the coast of Corsica without a shilling in your pocket, eh?"
The words were uttered in a fierce whisper; evidently they conveyed no idle threat. The chill breeze swept across the river, the tide sucked and gurgled, but Ida made no sign. Come what might, she would not betray the child who had taught her the secrets of that silent house beside the river.
"I decline to tell you," she said. "Nothing will induce me to speak. I had my own reasons for coming to the house—"
"To see Arnold Gray," the other sneered.
"Don't be a fool," the second man muttered.
"There's nothing to gain by concealing names," the ringleader said.
"Whom else did she come to see? What was she doing upstairs? Well, I mind how she got into the house. She did get there, and there's an end of it. But she didn't come for the fun of the thing. You have some papers in your possession, young woman—some papers that Gray gave you to take care of. We must have them before you go."
Ida had forgotten about the thin sheets of paper which Gray had entrusted to her. The recollection of them gave her quite a shock. It was incredible that these men should know of their existence, but there seemed to be no limit to their knowledge, however it was acquired.
"You don't deny it," the man continued. "By your silence you admit it. Come, we will drive a bargain with you. Hand over those papers, and we will put you ashore at once. We won't ask any questions, and we'll give you a hundred pounds for yourself. I call that a fair offer."
"I shall have nothing to do with you," Ida said. "If you care to treat me in this way, I must put up with it."
"What's the good of hanging about like this?" the second man burst out impatiently. "Let's pull down the river as far as the yacht. We can have it all out there in warmth and comfort."
"What about the other boat?" the ringleader asked.
"Oh! Tow her behind. Then we can drift back presently on the ebb. Not that it matters—we might sink them both so far as that goes. Since our hiding-place has been discovered, half its value has gone."
The other man grunted approval, and presently Ida heard the plash of oars as the boat began to move. As they emerged from under the shelter of the tramp, a blazing eye of flame suddenly searched the muddy current, and the two boats were picked out clear as a cameo.
"Here's a bit of luck!" a voice said. "The very people we're wanting! Now drop your oars or it will be the worse for you! We've been on the lookout for you for days. Come! Heave to!"
The police boat crept alongside, and the occupants of the other craft were bundled in without ceremony into the wherry. A heavy cloak lay on the seat beside Ida, who flung it over her head and drew it tightly round her face. She heaved a sigh of almost hysterical thankfulness, for surely, she must be on the road to safety at last.
"One of you tumble into that boat and tie her up to the nearest place you can find," the officer in command of the police boat directed.
"This is an outrage," the foremost of Ida's captors declared. "What do you charge us with? We were going down to our yacht, and found this young woman drifting in a boat without any oars. We are people of standing, well known in the city. My name is Wilfred Avis, and this gentleman is my partner, Mr. Robert Vanstone."
"I dare say," the inspector said stolidly. "Don't doubt it for a moment. But your boat came out of a secret waterway leading to a house we've had our eye on for some time, and that's why I'm taking you into custody. I suppose you've got a proper explanation, and the proper place to give it is at the station. So we are all going to the Thames police-station."
Ida, cowering under her cloak, and intensely grateful for the disguise of it, listened with vivid interest. What would her father and Avis say if they knew what the black garment covered? Luck seemed to favor her, and it was possible she might not be identified by the two men whom she dreaded more than any in the world. She sat shaking with excitement as she racked her brains for some method of telling her story without the others hearing it. It was of the last importance that her father and Avis should not know she was mixed up in this mysterious business.
An inspiration came to her in the small, white-washed office while the sergeant in charge was listening to his colleague's account of the affair. She put her hand to her head and groaned faintly.
"I'm not feeling very well," she mumbled. "I—I think I hurt myself in the boat. If I had a glass of water, and could speak to one of your—"
"Looks like a case for one of our female assistants," the sergeant said promptly. "Brown, take this girl into the wardresses' room. They'll look after her there."
"That won't do," Avis cried. "She has some papers that don't belong to her. She's a spy, that's what she is, in the pay of a foreign Government. If you search her, you'll find what I say is true. Don't you let her off as easy as all that."
The sergeant looked up suspiciously. He was finding out things. The case was rather over his head, so wisely enough he made no comment.
"All right," he said. "Brown, ask them to keep a sharp eye on the young woman."
With the officer's hand on her arm Ida was led into an inner room where a shrewd-featured woman with a not unkindly face removed her cloak, and offered her a glass of water. The woman's face changed slightly as Ida's features were revealed. Evidently prisoners of this type were not common in the Thames Police-station. Half an hour passed away, then the sergeant in charge entered the room.
"You heard what that man said just now," he remarked. "I suppose you have no objection to being searched?"
"They called me a spy," said Ida quietly. "Well, I am, and here are the papers to prove it."
The sergeant looked at Ida with astonishment, and a touch of admiration in his eyes. He had not expected to strike a case like this. His experience was mainly with river thieves, saccharine smugglers, and the like, and higher flights in the region of political misdemeanors were only known to him by hearsay. He had read a good deal on the subject, however, and, in accordance with such preconceived ideas as he had formed, Ida appeared the beau ideal of the international spy. She was a lady, too, and the sergeant had always been led to believe that people in the highest walks of life were usually employed in negotiations where the secrets of diplomacy were concerned.
"I have to warn you, miss," he said. "Take my advice, you say no more. But I must have your name and address."
"Which I refuse," Ida answered quietly.
"Think better of it," the sergeant mildly expostulated. "It don't make it any easier when accused folk won't give their address. Look at those gentlemen who were in the boat with you. When we found they were telling the truth and really were respectable, we let them go. I don't say they may not be charged with something or another in a few days, but being City men in a good position my inspector was able to act upon his own authority. If you tell me who you are—"
"You are very kind," Ida replied "but I must decline to do anything of the sort. I have told you that I am a spy and have produced evidence to prove it. If you wish to have me searched for further documents I shall have no objection. Take these papers to your inspector at once and ask him to get into touch with the Foreign Office."
"Very well, miss," the sergeant said almost regretfully. "Of course, you must have your own way. But we shall have to detain you for a day or two."
"What is the usual procedure?"
"You will be brought up to-morrow morning before the magistrate, charged on your own confession with being a foreign spy in the possession of State papers. You will probably be remanded for a week. After that—"
The sergeant shrugged his shoulders as if he disclaimed any farther responsibility. It was a nice plight, but Ida decided to make the best of it. Nothing should induce her to disclose her name, for such a course might be fraught with serious consequences. Possibly she could count upon some assistance from Glasgow; indeed, she expected it if he should learn the line she had taken. She might seek leave to write a hurried explanation to Glasgow, but such a course might do more harm than good. There would be little hardship in a few days' confinement in gaol. No doubt her friends would make enquiries, but there risks existed in any case. She felt chilled and cold when she entered a whitewashed cell and heard the key turn in the door behind her.
An hour or so later Glasgow was closeted in his private room with the inspector from the Thames Police-station.
"Well, Graham," he said, "what do you want? I got your mysterious message on the 'phone, and that is why I asked you round."
"Well, sir, it's like this," Graham explained. "The Thames police have had their eye for some time upon a riverside house where we know that a clever gang of smugglers are at work. They have a secret waterway to the river, and we've been watching it night and day. This evening two boats came out, one with a girl and the other with two men. As there were no oars in the girl's boat we conclude she was trying to escape. Anyway we picked up three of them and took them to the station. The men made no end of a fuss, and asked us what they were charged with. It was a bit awkward, for there was nothing we could charge them with. They might have had no connection with the gang we are after. Still, they had come out of the same house, and that was suspicious. All we could do at the time was to take their names and addresses and let them go."
"I don't see how this affects me," Glasgow said slowly. "As you may, or may not know, my work is entirely connected with the Foreign Office."
Graham intimated that he had heard so. At the same time he was not aware that he was addressing the head of the Secret Service.
Then he resumed his own story. "I was coming to the point when you interrupted me, sir. The girl was muffled up in a cloak, and, I fancied, seemed exceedingly anxious that the two men should not see her face. On the plea of illness she was taken to the wardress' room, but I understand there was nothing the matter with her. She refused her name and address, but frankly admitted that she was a spy in the pay of a Foreign Government, and without any hesitation handed over some papers containing a cipher, which she bade us send to the Foreign Office. A very cool hand. I should say."
"Do you mean to say she volunteered the information?"
"Not exactly that, sir. She confirmed it. Then men who were with her, or rather one of them, accused her of being a spy and advised us to search her."
Glasgow looked interested for the first time.
"Oh, really?" he said. "You have bagged higher game than you shot at. Do you remember the names of the two men?"
"I've got them on a slip of paper here." Graham said. "They are two city stockbrokers in business together—Mr. Wilfred Avis and Mr. Robert Vanstone."
Glasgow appeared to have dropped his cigarette and to be busy fumbling for it on the floor. He did not wish the inspector to see the amazement depicted on his face. Here was priceless information presented by Graham under the impression that the names were a mere detail. By the time Glasgow had recovered his cigarette and replaced it in the holder his quick mind had grasped the whole situation.
"Sounds respectable enough," he said, "but you never can tell. Perhaps these immaculate stockbrokers were having a flutter in saccharine on their own account. So you think the girl did not want them to see her face. What was her name?"
"She positively refused her name and address, sir."
"Yes! What is she like?"
Graham sketched a portrait which Glasgow had no difficulty in recognising. He was relieved and annoyed at the same time. If Ida Vanstone had the Foreign Office ciphers, it was certain she could have got them from no one but Gray, and for the last few days Glasgow had been baffled in his search for Gray. While he had been plunging about for a clue Ida had found the key. It would have been far better, for her had she communicated with him through Valerie Brune. Apparently she had preferred to take matters into her own hands, and had thus brought about a situation which might be fraught with extreme peril for more than one of the parties in the drama. Still, she had acted with much discretion. By extraordinary luck or skill she had concealed her identity from her father and Avis, and by surrendering those documents had made sure they would be delivered into proper hands.
"I happen to know something of this case, Graham," Glasgow said. "I have been of some service at times to the Foreign Office. Did they retain those papers or have you got them?"
"I didn't go to the Foreign Office," Graham explained. "When I told them my story on the 'phone they referred me to you. I was instructed to come here and give you all the information and hand over the papers. If there is nothing else I can tell you, sir, I must go back to my work."
Glasgow was not sorry to be left to himself. He wished to think the whole thing out. His course became clear after a while, and he reached over for his telephone and called up Valerie Brune.
"Is that you?" he asked. "Are you quite alone? I want to tell you something. I have just had information that Ida Vanstone is in the hands of the police. She has been arrested as a foreign spy, and certain papers were found in her possession. As a matter of fact, she voluntarily gave them up. What? Oh! Absolutely! This has come as a surprise to me, but Miss Vanstone must have behaved exceedingly well. She has refused her name and address, and for the next few days, I fear, she will lave to stay where she is. I want to warn you against making enquiries. If you begin to do that the girl's identity will be known and my difficulties will be enormously increased. So, please, remain quiet and ask no questions. One thing is certain Miss Vanstone knows where Arnold Gray is; in fact, she could have got the papers from nobody else. I will go and see her to-morrow afternoon. I will have no trouble in getting an order for an interview. What? Yes, I think so. Patience and prudence now, and we shall disentangle the whole thing."
At 4 o'clock the next afternoon Glasgow walked quietly into Ida's cell. She was looking pale and drawn, for the ordeal before the magistrate had been a trying one, though it had only lasted half an hour or so. She had been firm in her refusal to give her name and address, and, at the instigation of the police, the magistrate had remanded her for a week.
She jumped to her feet as Glasgow entered.
"Mr. Glasgow!" she exclaimed. "How did you—"
"Never mind that," Glasgow said. "You have been splendid. Continue this for another week and all our troubles will be ended."
The mere statement that a spy had been arrested on a charge of trafficking in State papers had caused a considerable sensation. The newspapers had disposed of the case in a few lines, for no evidence of any kind had been tendered, and the remand was a formal one. Nevertheless, people discussed the affair with a solemnity befitting the occasion. The spy mania was in the air; there had recently been other arrests both in England and on the Continent, and the wildest rumors were afloat. The fact that the spy was a woman added piquancy to the charge. Some of the cheaper sensational papers professed to give details. The woman was an international spy of marvellous beauty and high intelligence. She was well born too, and at home in the atmosphere of Courts. It was easy for papers of this type to indulge in pungent particulars of this kind, for news was scarce, and anything in the nature of an appetising paragraph was welcome. One of the evening sheets went so far as to publish a photograph and tabloid biography of the spy.
Glasgow had anticipated something of the sort, but it had gone further than he had expected. He feared what would happen at the adjourned hearing of the charge. The reporters would turn up in force, and it was inevitable that a photograph would be smuggled out of court. There was only one thing for it, and that was to arrange for the hearing to take place a day sooner than had been announced. In his official position Glasgow contrived to bring this about; indeed, he did more. There was no occasion now for Ida to remain in gaol. She was represented by counsel and her application for bail was not opposed by the police. There would be trouble over this with the press, but the chagrin of the editors caused Glasgow no anxiety. For the most part he looked upon newspapers as his natural enemies. Besides, bail in a very substantial amount was forthcoming, and Glasgow flattered himself that he had managed this business successfully.
He would have felt somewhat less satisfied had be known that the brief proceedings had been watched by George Heathcote. It was one of those accidents that upset the best-laid schemes, and Heathcote had gone home in a thoughtful frame of mind. He did not even trouble to remain to hear the case in which he himself was indirectly interested. That would keep for the moment. He called up Vanstone and Avis on the telephone, with an imperative request that they would come round at once. He refused to discuss his business over the line. It was urgent, and if they did not care to see him it would be all the worse for them.
Ten minutes later the partners' taxi drew up at Heathcote's rooms. They entered with a jaunty air as if they were well satisfied with themselves; indeed, things had been going remarkably well with them for the last few days.
"Well, what's the trouble?" Avis demanded airily, "upon my word, one would think we had nothing else to do but run after you. All the time we are here we are losing ten pounds a minute. Why didn't you come to us?"
"You'll know in a few minutes," Heathcote said grimly. "You'll burn your fingers interfering with Ruperra's schemes before long."
"We'll risk it," Vanstone answered. "We've done well enough up to now. Take this last exploit—I mean the Mediterranean Oil Fields. Why, the thing is foredoomed to failure. The concession will be rescinded and the shareholders will lose their money. We are selling night and day. We shall go on selling as long as anybody will buy. Why? Because those documents are lost and will never be heard of again. When the King of Bohn is sure of his ground—as he will be before long he will laugh at Ruperra, and we—we shall make goodness knows how much. Avis puts it at a couple of millions. In a week we shall be buying back Mediterraneans at two for three ha'pence. Ruperra and his following will have to make good the loss for the sake of their own reputation. My dear fellow, don't come teaching us how to make money in the city."
There was an ugly smile on Heathcote's face.
"There's another side to the medal," he said. "Suppose for a moment that the concession holds good after all. Suppose that Ruperra manages to pull it through. He's a marvellous man, mind you, and, these accidents will happen. I should like to know where you'd be then. Not only would both of you be smashed, but you'd be hard put to it to escape prosecution."
"That's all rot," Avis sneered.
"Really? I think I can show you that it isn't. There is no denying that we are still more or less in Arnold Gray's hands. If he can produce those letters then you are done. And I am done, too, for that matter. You think the letters are lost. The other night you nearly got yourself into serious trouble in connection with a little boating expedition on the Thames. The police have their eye upon you, and a prosecution may follow yet."
"It was rather awkward," Avis confessed. "Still, we know the worst of that. The worst would only mean a heavy fine for saccharine smuggling, and it would be regarded in the city as a joke."
"That's all very well as far as it goes," Heathcote said, impatiently. "We know the smuggling is a mere blind to conceal more serious matters. You are forgetting that row in which Jim Farrant was injured and Arnott and the doctor got clear away after a futile attempt to rescue Arnold Gray. There was somebody else in the house with them, whose very existence you have forgotten. I mean the girl whom you accused of being a spy."
"Oh, that was done partly in the way of spite!" Avis said. "I was confoundedly annoyed about the whole thing, and I really thought the girl might have important documents on her. At any rate, she had seen Gray. Afterwards it occurred to me that he was far too clever to trust his secrets to anyone. They'll make nothing of the girl. When she comes up to-morrow she'll be discharged."
"She won't come up to-morrow, for the simple reason that she was before the magistrates to-day," Heathcote said grimly. "I happen to know there were papers in her possession, because they were mentioned. In fact, I was in court and heard I the whole thing. I was a bit anxious about that assault case in which Jim Farrant's partner is concerned, and thought I'd hear the cause tried. I was surprised when the girl's case was put forward, because I knew that to-morrow was the proper day. It didn't take me long to jump to a logical conclusion. The Foreign Office have humbugged the public and the press because they didn't want the girl to be recognised. All sort of plausible excuses were urged why she should be admitted to bail, and it was evident that the magistrate had been coached for his part. The police made light of the importance of the papers, which, of course, convinced me that they were exceedingly valuable. I don't doubt for a moment that those papers were given to the girl by Gray. She was driven into a tight corner and handed them over to the police, knowing that they would be safe."
Vanstone and his partner looked grave.
"Sounds rather bad," the former said. "By-the-way, what is the girl like? Ravishingly beautiful, of course?"
Heathcote smiled queerly. He was considering how far he could trust these so called friends of his. They had been in business ventures together many a time, but any one of them would have cheerfully betrayed the other two had it been to his interest to do so.
"You must have seen her," Heathcote said.
"We didn't," Avis replied. "It was too dark for that. When the police collared us the girl snatched up a boat cloak and muffled up her head in it. She was very anxious not to be recognised. She contrived to get taken into another room at the station, and we didn't see her any more. Does that satisfy you?"
"Oh, it satisfies me!" Heathcote said significantly. "I'm not engaged in a financial war with Ruperra. I'm not gambling on the chances of some letters turning up or not. About a year ago I came down to your place, Vanstone, and was introduced to your daughter. I was very much struck by her grace and beauty; moreover, I never forget a face. I beg to inform you that the girl you were chasing the other night is your own daughter."
A strange cry crossed Vanstone's lips, and his face paled as he dropped into a chair.
"Impossible," he said hoarsely. "My dear fellow, you must be mad. The thing is ridiculous."
"I've met with stranger things," Heathcote asserted. "I take it from what you say that your daughter is at home, engaged in the simple delights of hockey and golf. What should she know about diplomatic history, eh?"
"As a matter of fact she isn't at home," Vanstone stammered. "I have not seen her for six months or more. We had a serious difference, and she left the house. To be precise, I wanted her to marry Avis. I am under obligations to him, and he made a strong point of it. My daughter refused to listen, and I would not give way. Anyhow, she left home to earn her own living, and I have not seen her since. But I decline to believe—"
"My dear man," Heathcote interrupted, "you can decline to believe what you like. I am telling you the literal truth, and if you like to regard my information as worthless it doesn't matter twopence to me. When that alleged spy was brought forward this morning I was never more surprised in my life. How your daughter managed to be mixed up with Arnold Gray and his friends is a mystery."'
"Stop a moment!" Vanstone muttered "I do recollect my daughter telling me about a man she had met who was in the diplomatic service. But his name wasn't Gray."
"Did it happen to be Fraser?"
"Upon my word, I think it was."
"Well, perhaps you'll believe now." Heathcote said triumphantly.
"Gray's name was Fraser, but he dropped it when he had money left him. Pretty story, don't you think? I should like to know what you are going to do about it."
The partners exchanged serious glances. They could no longer doubt the truth of Heathcote's statement. It was an amazing declaration, too, and the more Vanstone thought it over the more anxious he felt. It was useless to ask how Ida had found Gray, nor how she had come, apparently without making the slightest mistake, to Gray's second hiding-place. Nor could he shut his eyes to the fact that Gray had entrusted important papers to Ida's care. He would have given half he possessed to know what those papers contained. He flung himself back in his chair and broke out into a passion of rage.
"What are all our fools paid for?" he cried. "Why are we lavishing all this money upon them? We spend days working out our schemes, and then they are spoilt at the last moment by a lot of servants who haven't the brains to follow common instructions. We get hold of Gray with the papers upon him, we smuggle him down to the Thames side, we have all the time we need before us, and not so much as the back of an envelope can we discover. Papers don't take up much space, I know, but when it came to the diamonds—"
Vanstone pulled up in some confusion, conscious that he was going too far. There was an evil sneer on Heathcote's lips.
"Go on," he said, "you needn't be shy. I've known for some time that you were killing two birds with one stone. Of course, I was to be kept in the dark about the diamonds, despite the fact that we are all supposed to share equally. But a chance remark of Avis' put me on the track and I took the trouble to ask a few questions. Of late I have spent more time at the house by the river than you have, and a few enquiries—well, there's no occasion to discuss it. You found out from one of our friends in Berlin that Gray was bringing the Princess Zena Victoria's jewels with him to London. The idea was that you should divide that bit of plunder between you. But Gray had laid an artful trap, and the old woman down yonder walked into it beautifully. As a precaution he represented the diamonds as only paste, and the old crone gave them to her grand-children to play with. They appear to have lost the stones, and there was apparently an end of the matter. I have got another surprise for you. Look here." From his safe Heathcote produced a red morocco case with a crown and monogram embossed in gold upon it. He threw the case open before Avis' and Vanstone's greedy eyes.
"There they are!" he said. "There they are, back again in all their glory."
"How on earth?" Avis stammered. "How on earth—"
"I'll be quite candid with you," Heathcote went on. "I got them from Jim Farrant after the rumpus the other night. He decided that it would go wiser to go back to the old quarters. The police were watching the other place, close to the river, and Jim deemed it advisable to lie low for a time where they wouldn't be likely to look for him. He was a bit knocked about in that scrimmage, but contrived to crawl along the passage to the old place, and the woman smuggled in a bed and a few articles of furniture. Perhaps the children had found the stones again, took them back to the house, and left the diamonds there; anyhow, Farrant got them. I was anxious to know whether the children could tell me anything, but I hear they have been picked up by some society or other and sent off into the country. So we needn't worry any more about them. I've seen Farrant two or three times, and as he was very anxious to have the stones out of the house in case of a police raid he gave them to me. I had to pay him something, of course—and whilst I'm about it, I may as well tell you that he is very sore with you people. He says you promised him money which you haven't paid him, and be contends that it is no fault of his if your scheme failed. He did all the dirty work, and now he claims the reward. When I saw him yesterday it took me all my time to keep him quiet. He swore that when he got better he would drop a few lines to the police and tell them a thing or two. If you'll take my advice, you'll go down and put him right without delay."
"Well, I don't mind his having his money now," Vanstone said. "At any rate, you're in luck over the diamonds. I suppose you'll expect to keep them?"
"I'm not as greedy as all that," Heathcote said. "I am prepared to share with you if you will undertake the responsibility of getting rid of the stones. Trafficking in stolen goods is not in my line. I much prefer to leave that alone. Isn't Avis our man?"
"Yes he is, when he gets properly paid for it," Avis said promptly.
"Hand that case to me, and I'll turn it into money before long. I can't afford the time just now, for we are too busy over this business of the Mediterranean Oil Fields. But within a fortnight I daresay I shall be able to go over to Amsterdam, which is the best market in the world for disposing of stolen diamonds. Within a day or two of the stones being in the hands of an expert manipulator, the finest judge in the world would not recognise them."
Heathcote seemed disposed to assent, and a little later the partners returned to their office. But they were not so easy in their minds as they had been an hour before. The knowledge that Heathcote had imparted to them suggested danger. If the letters which Ida handed over to the authorities were the letters upon which Princess Zena Victoria had based so much, then their campaign against Ruperra must collapse. They sat for some time gloomily considering the situation.
"Can't you find your daughter?" Avis suggested. "Exercise parental authority, and all that sort of thing?"
"How can I find her?" Vanstone asked irritably. "By this time she is with friends who will take precious good care that she doesn't fall into our hands. And she must know that we are more or less mixed up with the attack upon Arnold Gray. What you say about parental authority is rubbish. There is no such thing nowadays. I gave Ida the chance and she took it. By some extraordinary means she has got amongst powerful people, and—and—oh! Confound it; the whole thing makes me feel like a perfect fool. Fancy my being face to face with my own child the other night and not knowing it. And she probably laughing at us in her sleeve all the time! Upon my word, I don't half like it, Avis."
For once in a way the ingenious and versatile Avis had no smart advice to offer. Things must take their course, and meanwhile they would go out to lunch. In the street a score of newsboys were hurrying along, shouting their wares as they went. Out of the din the name of Ruperra came prominently, and then another word or two that caused Avis to grasp one of the boys by the shoulder and snatch a paper from him. He stood almost petrified, breathlessly devouring a paragraph in the stop press column.
"Listen to this. Vanstone," he gasped. "Here's a slice of luck. Where do you suppose Ruperra is at the present moment?"
"Somewhere on the south coast, taking a holiday," Vanstone replied.
"So the 'Morning Post' says."
"Well, the 'Morning Post's' wrong. Ruperra's in Bohn, and has been there for some time. Now listen to this and agree with me that the stars are fighting on our side:-"
FEARED DEATH OF BARON RUPERRA.
"'A startling rumor is to hand from one of the coast villages on the Bohn sea board to the effect that Baron Ruperra and his chief steward have been attacked and killed by peasants, in consequence of a quarrel arising out of surveying operations. For some time past the Baron has been making enquiries with regard to mining possibilities in the country, and it is believed that he holds a concession over a vast section of territory there. The peasants are ignorant and superstitious, and have taken umbrage at the use of dynamite in connection with blasting operations. They appear to imagine that there is black magic in the business, and that they are imperilling their future by coming in contact with these high explosives. It is stated that Baron Ruperra was suddenly attacked, and latest advices announce that he was killed and his body subsequently destroyed. Near the spot where the tragedy took place is a large convict prison, and the warders in charge of the prisoners came gallantly to the rescue, but too late to prevent the loss of life. They report that no sign of Baron Ruperra can be found, and there is no doubt but that the great financier has been the victim of a brutal and ignorant murder. It is hoped this shocking fatality will have no effect upon the fortunes of the Mediterranean Oil Fields, Limited, in which the public has lately invested so largely.'"
"Come! What do you think of that?" Avis asked exultingly. "This must have happened some days ago, for at the bottom of the telegram is an intimation that it was delayed in transmission. Cheer up, friend and partner. If this is true, then we have precious little to be afraid of. Let's stroll round and sell a few thousand shares."
But the panic had already set in, and Mediterraneans were a perfect drug in the market. There would be a recovery on the morrow, no doubt, but in the meantime the city was avoiding the venture as if it had been the plague. Men walked about looking depressed and uneasy, and Glasgow, passing through the city on private business of his own, smiled as he saw them.
"What a set of sheep they are!" he said to himself. "How blindly one follows the lead of another! Still, this is sufficiently disturbing. If anything has happened to the Baron, it looks as if I shall have to begin everything over again. And what about those diamonds?"
Glasgow went back to his office deep in thought. His plans had progressed in a manner that had exceeded his utmost expectation. He was genuinely sorry to hear of this trouble, for his admiration of Ruperra was sincere. As he reached his rooms he was informed that somebody from Ruperra's house was asking for him on the telephone. He was almost reluctant to ring up Grosvenor-square. Probably the Baroness needed him. He could picture her grief and despair at the catastrophe. Then as he called the number and gave his own name, he was hailed by a voice that staggered him.
"Yes, it's me," the Baron said. "Besides my wife, you're the only soul who knows I'm in England."
Ruperra glanced cautiously around him. He betrayed no astonishment at the extraordinary statement of the haggard-looking convict. He had encountered too many dramatic surprises in the course of his life to be thrown off his balance by anything. So far as he could see, the warders had noticed nothing of what was going on, and it was imperative that they should be kept in ignorance. If this man told the truth—and Ruperra saw no reason to disbelieve him—then it would be his plain duty to do his best to procure Geoffrey Devant his freedom. He turned the problem over in his mind until the convict returned, pushing his barrow with the aimless, listless air of one who has lost all hope and all desire for freedom.
"I know your father intimately," Ruperra said. "He is a man for whom I have a very high regard. I hope you have done nothing to disgrace him."
"I've been nothing more than a fool," young Devant answered. "I had a delusion in common with other fools that I was a chosen instrument to change the map of Europe. In other words, I'm a political prisoner."
"I'm glad to hear that," Ruperra replied. "I will do my best for you. If I make representations—"
"Absolutely useless," Devant said curtly. "The people here might admit the correctness of your statement, but they would say that I died quite recently, or something of that sort, and beyond doubt that will be the case by the time the question is asked. It is a point of honor that no convict shall leave this place alive. My only chance is an escape, and I'm afraid you are powerless to help me."
The speaker moved on again, uneasily conscious that he was being watched. Nor did he return by the same route. Probably he had learnt too much by experience to do that.
"This is a very odd thing. Baron," Denton said. "Do you know that young man, then?"
"I've never met him before to-day. But you heard who his father is. I know Sir Walter at one time set great store on his son. They tell me he was a very brilliant boy, if a little headstrong and passionate. There was a love story, too, which I need not dwell upon. Sir Walter was dead against the marriage, and I believe that he and his son parted in anger. From that day to this he has not heard from the boy. Sir Walter never mentions his name to any of us, and we concluded there had been some terrible scandal. It is evident that Geoffrey has been concerned in some political conspiracy, and has probably been sent here, without the formality of a trial, to serve a life sentence. I should like to know more about this. I suppose you are on pretty good terms with the authorities?"
"Well, I have to be," Denton explained.
"As I told you before, these convicts are of considerable assistance to me. The man yonder on the pony is most likely to tell us what we want. He's sort of second in command, and I should say has seen fairly good society in his time. Most of those in authority are military officers sent here as a sort of punishment. They stay for long or short periods according to the gravity of their crimes. The warders are soldiers who also have come under the eye of discipline. Let's walk across and talk to Captain Baroff."
The big man with the moody face and sombre eyes dismounted from his pony and gravely saluted as Ruperra came up. He seemed not disinclined to talk.
"Baron Ruperra's name is well known to me, of course," he said. "We are honored by having so distinguished a financier in our midst. Do I understand, sir, that oil has been found in sufficient quantities to pay!"
"Your desert is paved with gold," Ruperra smiled.
"That is good hearing, Baron," Baroff answered. "At any rate, enterprise and capital should bring something like civilisation here. In time one may enjoy a theatre, and perhaps something good in the way of a hand."
"You find it dull, then?"
"Ah! Dull is the word that does not express it. Life is dreary in the extreme. During the twelve months I have been here four of my colleagues have blown their brains out. You little realise what it means to look forward to five years of it."
"You have been here all that time?"
"I have just told you that I have been here but a year. I came practically a young man, but I feel middle-aged already. It is my punishment, you understand, Baron. I was engaged to a girl, with whom my commanding officer fell in love. He goaded me on; no insult was too great; but I bore it till my comrades sneered at me openly for a coward. Then, of course, I played into the hands of the scoundrel, and I—I horsewhipped him and left him well nigh for dead. Because I had some influence they 'promoted' me here—in other words, they gave me five years' penal servitude."
"Horrible!" Ruperra said, shrugging his shoulders. "If it is bad for you, how much worse is it for the convicts? I take it that they are not all villains?"
"By no means. Some are dangerous, but they are all political prisoners. When they come here they remain until they die or go mad. There are men here whom I have known quite well in the past, but, of course, we never speak. My dear Baron, if you can only bring us civilisation you will be enshrined in our hearts as a benefactor for ever more."
Ruperra turned away presently, thoughtful and sorry, too, for all connected with that dreadful prison. The chances against Geoffrey Devant's freedom were something like a million to one, but this was just the kind of desperate enterprise that appealed to the Baron.
"We must get him away somehow," he said. "I shall not rest until I succeed. Unfortunately, we can rely on nobody but ourselves. If what Devant says is correct, our own position is not too safe. I don't like the look of these peasants of yours. A more sullen lot I've never come in contact with. Don't they value the money you give them?"
"They have never seen so much before. They come at the end of the week and collect their wages all right. I daresay we could manage if we could contrive to do without high explosives. When these chaps see half a hillside collapse and crumble at their feet they think we are in league with the powers of darkness. They have sent me one or two deputations, but, of course, I can't take any notice of that. You see, I know really very little about their absurd superstitions, and I can't get anybody to help me. They would remove me if they could, and I don't mind telling you that once or twice lately I have deemed it prudent to sleep at the prison."
Ruperra smiled grimly. This was the sort of difficulty he loved. He would stay for a day or two longer and see whether he could get these people in hand. He had a fair knowledge of their language; indeed, it was not unlike his own. He had been used to leading and dominating men all his life, and was not inclined to be baulked by a handful of ignorant peasants.
"Well, forewarned is forearmed," he said. "I brought a few rifles and some ammunition with me, and they are on the boat at present. We'll take the car and fetch them. If my plan is successful then the car will prove very useful later."
They tramped back to the hut in search of the brown bread and fried eggs and bacon which appeared to be Denton's staple food. When the meal was dispatched they drove down to the sea and returned with the cases of rifles and ammunition just as it was getting dark. As the car turned into the yard a tiny spit of flame stabbed the darkness and Ruperra's cap fell to the ground. He switched off the lamps, and he and Denton lay flat by the side or the car, waiting for the next sign on the part of the foe.
"They seem to mean business," he whispered. "You did not tell me these people were armed, Denton."
"Only comparatively recently. When this part of the world was in insurrection forty years ago the peasants had rifles of a sort, and, I believe, a few of their weapons still remain. As a rule, they are more dangerous to those behind the trigger than to those in front. But that shot came from a revolver. I believe that some enemy of ours has been providing the people with revolvers. Probably that is why I have had a great deal more trouble with the peasants during the last few weeks. The worry appeared to increase a little time ago, after two queer-looking pedlar chaps came along with a van selling goods."
"Oh! I begin to see daylight," Ruperra said. "Some of my own enemies are at work. I have been dogged lately by a very clever and unscrupulous gang, which has given me no end or trouble. If they could stir up strife, Austria might be persuaded to send a regiment of soldiers over the frontier and create a pretext for stopping our operations for a time. I may be wrong, of course, but it looks to me very like it."
"I hope not," Denton muttered. "Anyhow, we can't stay here all night. Those people have probably sheered off by now. We'd better run the car inside and secure the door."
"But if they seize the car—"
"My dear Baron, I don't think they would dare to touch it. Still, they might riddle it with a volley of bullets. A chance shot or two might destroy the tyres, but there happens to be a doorway from the house leading into the shed, and we should hear them if they tried any of their tricks."
It was thrilling work moving about in the darkness with the off-chance of being struck by a stray bullet at any moment. But the car was safely housed at last and the door barricaded. Inside the shed was a way leading to the hut, and once inside, they were safe for the time. The lamp burned brightly, the stove with its wood fire gave out a grateful heat and Ruperra sat down to his dinner with an appetite to which, he declared, he had been a stranger in London. After partaking of a dainty in the shape of dried beefsteaks, Ruperra reclined on the skins and smoked his pipe luxuriously. For an hour or two he lay almost silent, working out his plans. Denton glanced across and raised his eyebrows significantly.
"Do you hear anything?"' he asked.
"Footsteps outside! The trouble is not very far off, Baron."
Ruperra threw his pipe aside and jumped to his feet. As he did so there arose a sound of dropping fire and a patter of bullets on the timber of which the house was built. Denton smiled.
"They can keep up that as long as they like," he said. "If the worst comes to the worst they can only smash the windows. If they only confine themselves to bombardment, we can hold out till morning."
"I suppose they can't hear this at the prison," Ruperra suggested.
"I suppose it's too far?"
"Much too far. But I've got a blue flare or two, and we can send them up if necessary. So far as I'm concerned, I should like to tackle those chaps single handed. To get the best of them would be a fine moral lesson, and if we could pick off the ringleaders we should have very little trouble in future."
The loose firing outside broke out again; there was a sharp crash with the tinkle of falling glass, and a cold, piercing draught caused the stove to roar afresh. Denton drew Ruperra to one side out of the line of the window. Through the broken panes two or three long hairy arms obtruded, and a perfect fusillade of bullets flattened on the opposite wall. The din subsided for a moment, and a guttural voice insolently demanded that the door should be opened without further delay.
"So it's you, Paolo, is it?" Denton asked. "I thought as much. We're not coming out, and you are not coming in. Go back to your huts, every-one of you, and I will deal with you in the morning. You'll be sorry for this before you've finished."
A howl of derision from a score of throats was the reply; a dozen hands and arms up to the shoulder were thrust indiscreetly through the broken window, and a shower of bullets was fired in every direction. One man, bolder than the rest, pushed his head through the opening and fired as Ruperra skipped under shelter of the wall. Evidently this was no attack carried out on the spur of the moment; it had been carefully thought out by men who had made up their minds that their antagonists were unarmed. With a grim look on his face Denton snatched up one of the Winchester rifles and fired half a dozen shots point blank at the window. The face and the forest of arms melted as if by magic, followed by many groans and the hard cry of men in mortal agony. For the next ten minutes not a sound broke the stillness.
"Have they had enough?" the Baron asked.
"I don't think we can flatter ourselves to that extent. We shall not have another frontal attack, but there is another mode of assault which I fear a great deal more. Listen!"
The almost painful silence was broken by the thud of footsteps and what resembled a sudden outburst of heavy rain. The two men in the hut heard it pattering on the roof and running down in streams from the eaves.
"That's curious," Ruperra muttered. "It was beautifully fine when we turned in. I thought you never had any rain here?"
"It isn't rain." Denton said. "Those devils are doing what I dreaded. Can't you smell anything?"
"Petroleum!" Ruperra cried. "Crude oil! Do you mean to say that they are going—"
"To set fire to the hut. Not a doubt of it. This is the only thing I was afraid of. They've got a barrel or two of crude oil, and are pumping it on the hut. When they put a match to it we shall either have to show in the open or be roasted to death. The hut will burn like tinder."
"What's to be done, Denton?"
"The only thing is to make a dash with the car. If we can push out of the shed we can head for the prison. It's a terrible road for half a mile or so, and we daren't light the lamps till we are out of range. It's about six to four the car will capsize before we clear three hundred yards, but with luck we might get through." Ruperra expressed his approval of the suggestion.
"What about those blue lights?"
"By Jove! I'd forgotten them," Denton cried. "They ought to be of use to us now. They won't convey anything to these ignorant louts; indeed, they might frighten them. Stop here while I creep into the loft over the shed and send up the lights from the skylight. If we can hold on for twenty minutes we shall have a body of armed wardens here to teach those chaps a lesson."
Without another word, Denton darted off on his errand, leaving Ruperra to keep guard. The shower of petroleum still rained upon the roof, the assailants leaving nothing to chance. A pallid gleam of light entered the open window and Ruperra's face grew grimmer. Directly a match touched the saturated building he knew it would burst like a bomb. The flames would run from log to log like lightning. And if this happened, what would become of the car? It would take a minute or two to start the engine and get her under way, and once the fire broke out, two minutes would be worth as many hours in other circumstances.
"They've got the match ready. Denton," Ruperra roared. "Start the engine of the car before you do anything else, and see that the door of the shed is unfastened."
"I must have two or three minutes," Denton shouted.
Ruperra replied that the minutes should be forthcoming. Grasping a fully-loaded Winchester, he opened the door of the hut and stepped boldly out. The joy of the fight coursed in his veins, and he felt utterly reckless of the consequences. It was not the first time he had faced an angry mob with a weapon in his hand and with his life in his hands, too, for that matter—and every sense in his body was alert and vigorous. With one swift glance he saw three men carrying improvised torches, and ere they realised Ruperra's presence, he fired three shots with the skill of a past marksman. The first man crashed forwards, shot through the brain; the second collapsed like an empty sack; and the third threw up his hands and fell upon his mate. Then the Baron shot indiscriminately to right and left. But there was no stampede or panic amongst the rest of the fellows. They dropped flat on their faces, and a desultory fire of revolver shots came venomously in Ruperra's direction. He felt a bullet graze his forehead, and was conscious of something warm trickling down his face. At that moment the bleak and barren country was filled with a weird purple light, as Denton fired his signal. As this faded away, the night was the blacker by contrast. From behind the shelter of a rock whizzed a bundle of blaring tow, weighted by a stone. Ruperra stamped upon it with both feet, just in time to prevent the outbreak of a mighty blaze. He had not expected such cunning, and if it were repeated from two or three quarters at once he would be powerless to avert the final catastrophe.
What he dreaded happened an instant later. Half a dozen fiery arcs hurtled towards him and struck the hut in half a dozen places, and, as if by magic, the whole place was enveloped in a sheet of dazzling flame. Though Ruperra turned as quick as thought, the atmosphere in the hut had already become almost unbearable. Denton had started the engine of the car and thrown open the doors and they had barely time to set the motor going when the flames touched them, scorching their clothing with hot and fiery breath. The car bumped over the uneven road for hundred yards or so, picking her way cautiously till she came to a standstill against what appeared do be a heap of rocks. A curse broke from Denton's lips.
"It will be madness to turn on the lamps," he said, "and yet we can't get on without them. In a minute or two the light from the burning hut will help us, especially when that dense smoke has cleared away. At the same time it will disclose our whereabouts to the foe, which will be awkward."
"I don't mind so much about that," Ruperra answered cheerfully. "We can use the car as a cover. I suppose you left the spare rifles and the cartridges under the seat?"
Denton had not forgotten that. When the saturated wood of the hut was well alight, the smoke drifted away, and for three hundred yards the country round showed out as clearly as by day. A yell from the mob betrayed the fact that they had grasped the latest move on the part of the foe, and they moved impetuously towards the car. But a dozen or so of well-directed bullets brought them to a standstill, and they took cover behind the rocks of shale with which the ground was strewn. At long intervals during the next half-hour an occasional shot was exchanged, and then Denton drew a sigh of relief as he heard the beat of hoofs. A moment or two later and a squad of armed warders charged past the car and scattered the peasants in all directions. Other men followed on foot, holding on by the stirrup leathers of their mounted companions.
"I'm glad we are in time, Baron," Captain Baroff said. "I brought all the warders we could spare, and a few of our first-class convicts on foot. These fellows have done a deal of mischief, but you have taught them a lesson. Our men will account for the rest. Don't you think you had better come back to the prison with us? You will be safe there."
"That's very kind of you," Ruperra answered, "but I detect more in this than a stupid outbreak or mutiny. I must return to London at the earliest possible moment. I intend to start the car going at once. When we hit the road, we shall go ahead without lamps until we are outside the danger zone."
The car was started, and they ran for a mile or two before Ruperra turned on the lights. Then a figure rose from the floor of the car and turned a white face upwards.
"Geoffrey Devant!" Ruperra said quietly. "You are very welcome."
The more sensational papers were inclined to be nasty in the matter of the mysterious spy case. They had been unjustly deprived of a very promising sensation. They had concluded that the romance would be worth at least a few columns a day, and behold! The whole thing had fizzled and not a single photograph of the beautiful and talented spy had appeared. True, one enterprising sheet published what professed to be a portrait of the lady, but nobody had been deceived by that stale device.
The shortness of the proceedings and their almost dramatic swiftness had left Ida puzzled and bewildered. The ordeal had ended almost before it was begun, and she hardly realised that she was free until the solicitor whom somebody had instructed to appear for her reminded her of the fact.
"You mean I can go?" she asked.
"Certainly," the solicitor explained. "The case is remanded for a fortnight. During that time you can do as you please, though you had better remain in London."
Ida walked out of the court, glad to find that no one was following her. She would return forthwith to her lodgings. As she went down the steps into the street a neat-looking chauffeur touched his cap to her. "Miss Vanstone, I think?" he said. "If so, Miss Brune has sent a car for you. She would like to see you at once if quite convenient. Will you come this way, miss?"
Ida obeyed without hesitation. She was beginning to feel that during her unpleasant experience her friends had been watching her welfare. Glasgow had told her it was imperative to keep up the part she was playing, and doubtless all this was in the game. Moreover, she had been prepared to sacrifice herself in the cause of truth and justice so long as she was assured of the ultimate safety of Arnold Gray. It was good to find herself in Grosvenor-square again; pleasant even to enjoy the spacious luxuriousness of the big house, and, still better, to find Glasgow eagerly awaiting her in the drawing-room.
"I owe you an apology," her said "I hope I have not appeared the callous official in your eyes, but it was necessary to lay certain people by the heels, people who have baffled us for years. There are three of them, and an exceedingly dangerous combination they are. I don't wish to mention names."
Ida was grateful for Glasgow's delicacy. She knew he was alluding to her father and Avis. But she could not discuss this aspect of the case while other and more pressing matters engaged her attention.
"I'm only too glad to have been of assistance to you," she said. "I suppose the papers I brought to you were of importance. Of course, they conveyed nothing to me."
"They were important in their way," Glasgow said, "though not what I expected. Still, you must have got them from Gray, which means that you know where he is. The first thing to be done now is to find him. Then we can bring him here, where he will be carefully looked after. If you will give me a few particulars, this shall be done at once."
Ida proceeded to explain. The Thames police knew about the smugglers' hiding-place, and if they made a raid upon the house, they would be certain to find Arnold Gray. There were two houses, and it would be well to search them both. Apparently these details had proved sufficient, for later in the day a taxi stopped at the house in Grosvenor-square, and from it emerged a muffled man who walked with considerable difficulty up the steps. Within a few minutes Ida was helping Gray upstairs to the drawing-room. He was pale and drawn, but an eager light filled his eyes, and strength was returning to his limbs. He took Ida in his arms and kissed tenderly.
"Was ever girl so brave as you?" he asked. "What should I have done without you? Glasgow has told me everything. He came part of the way with me. So you ran all the risks for an insignificant man like me?"
"I had to," Ida whispered. "What a difference it makes to one's courage when those we love are in danger! But for one thing I should now be perfectly happy."
"What is that my dearest?"
"The trouble and disgrace of it. I cannot shut my eyes to what must happen to my father. If I only knew where he was I would warn him. I cannot helping thinking at times it were better if we had never met." Gray looked lovingly into the tear be-dewed eyes.
"What does all this mean?" he asked.
The story was told with many breaks and much hesitation on Ida's part. But the love-light in Arnold's eyes dimmed not as he listened.
"I'm very, very sorry," he said. "I know how terribly you must feel it. But as far as we are concerned, does it matter? Need we care?"
"But, my dear boy, think of your career!"
"Do you suppose I'm thinking of that? Besides, how many people will know? And even suppose they do know? I have done fairly well in my profession, and since my aunt's death I have a considerable fortune. My darling girl, you will be the wife of an ambassador yet. Please, don't allude to this again. Did you really imagine I could give you up? My ambition is to marry you and take you into the country to that delightful old house which my kind aunt left to me. When I gaze into your beautiful eyes I seem to feel that I have found my career without going farther. Would you fetch Miss Brune so that I may thank her? It is good of her to invite me to stay here till it is safe for me to appear in public. Do you know at one time I regarded her as one of my most dangerous enemies? I know better now. She may have a passionate weakness for dabbling in political secrets, but I know that her one great object is to discover my old school-chum, Geoffrey Devant. I have been hearing about him from Glasgow. I fancy he had the story from Baron Ruperra. Would my hostess increase my obligations by having lunch sooner than usual? I am most vulgarly hungry."
The next two or three days made a remarkable difference in Arnold Gray. He was nearly his old self again; there seemed to be no trouble ahead excepting the sorrow they all felt at the tragic news concerning Baron Ruperra. They were discussing the event in the twilight round the drawing-room fire before the lamps were lighted when the door opened and a slim, erect figure entered abruptly. The flickering fire-gleams revealed the whiteness of his face. He wore a bandage round his head, and for the moment the party round the fire fancied this was a ghostly visitor.
"The Baron!" Valerie Brune faltered. "Our dear friend the Baton in the flesh! Wonderful! Wonderful! We thought you were dead. The Princess wanted to fit out an expedition to punish her peasantry."
"And you are all glad to see me?" Ruperra cried. "That is good of you. Nobody but my wife and Glasgow and my trusted servants know I am in London. For the next day or two I wish to remain officially dead. Yes, it was an exciting time. They destroyed my manager's house by drenching it with petroleum and setting fire to it. Ah! My enemies have been at work there! But I shall know how to be even with them when the time comes. Fortunately we were well armed, and kept the savages at bay until a body of warders from the convict prison close by came to our relief. They were exceedingly good to us, and even ran the risk of enlisting the better convicts to assist in the fight. The prisoners are men who have erred politically, not criminally, and never has one of them been known to escape. Once a man is entombed there his friends never hear of him again. Now, for the first time in the history of the place, one of those poor fellows has actually got away. Perhaps it was a poor repayment for what these people did for us, but one of the convicts hid himself in my car, and I had not the heart to betray him. When he told me his name—"
Ruperra turned his eager face and dark, penetrating eyes towards Valerie Brune. He saw her start and tremble, and as she rose to her feet the blood left her cheeks.
"Do I know him?" she whispered.
"He says so." Ruperra went on. "He calls himself Geoffrey somebody or other. I took the liberty of bringing him with me, and he is downstairs in the morning-room. If you—"
But Valerie had already gone.
She had forgotten everything except that downstairs there awaited the man she loved so dearly, the man for whom she had been searching throughout Europe all these weary months. For his sake she had flung herself headlong into the wildest political intrigue, and had risked her life and social reputation to get news of him. She had refused to believe he was dead, had always felt certain that in his desperation he had joined some mad enterprise, and that he was hidden away in some such place as that convict prison from which he had escaped. She had blamed herself for the interest she had shown in his behalf, and had bitterly upbraided herself for coming between Devant and his father, and for wrecking his career. And now that Fortune had smiled on her it seemed to be nothing but a mere mockery.
But Geoffrey was found, and her heart sang with joy and happiness as she hurried down the stairs. She opened the door and turned with eager eyes and parted lips to the tall, gaunt figure standing by the fireplace. He held out his arms, and she fell into them, panting and breathless, her dark eyes full of grateful tears.
"And it is really, really you?" she whispered. "Dear boy, I ought never to have sent you away. What misery you have suffered for my sake! If you can really forgive me—"
"My own," was all that Geoffrey said, as he folded the girl to his heart and kissed her passionately.
Ruperra smiled gaily on his bewildered companions.
"Behold, I am the God in the Car," he said. "I am the Chosen Instrument of Destiny. Yet I thought I was a mere commonplace financier. Had anybody told me a few days ago that I should be selected as the intermediary of a tender romance, I should have laughed, but here am I bringing two loving hearts together, there am I rescuing the cavalier from his dungeon and restoring him to the arms of the one woman—"
"But what does it all mean, Baron?" Gray asked.
"Ah! There is my friend Gray," the Baron went on in the same jovial strain. "Glasgow has been posting me in recent events. Permit me to congratulate you upon your escape and the clever way in which you baffled those rascals. You don't follow the true inwardness of my story? You don't guess that the escaped convict I spoke of is Geoffrey Devant?"
"Oh! This is fine," Gray exclaimed. "Well, Geoffrey is a lucky man, and I am sure the time will come when his father will agree."
"My dear fellow. I have every reason to believe that Sir Walter is ready to admit that he made a mistake. At least Glasgow tells me so, and he seldom commits himself without being pretty certain of his ground. Everything seems to be falling out splendidly. In a day or two all things will be explained, and there will be no further anxiety so far as the present tangle is concerned. Meanwhile business takes me to Amsterdam. When I come back I hope to have another little story to tell you all."
By and by Valerie Brune returned to the drawing-room accompanied by Geoffrey Devant. It was nearly dinner time before he had finished his story, and the baron rose hastily, declaring he had not a moment to lose. He contrived to have a word or two with Valerie apart from the rest.
"Before I go to-morrow I will run in and see you," he said. "I want to return the princess' diamonds. I didn't mention the matter before her because you told me she didn't even know you'd got them. Well, they have served one good purpose at any rate. What that purpose is you shall learn in due course. Now I really must go. I have barely time to change for dinner, and Ralph Arnott is coming to see me on important business."
Arnold turned up, looking less depressed and reserved than usual. He had been asking himself a good many questions the last few days, and the more searchingly he examined his mental attitude the more convinced he was that Elsie Harness was right. He had treated her badly in allowing his morbid selfishness and pride to come between her and the happiness which was justly her due. She had poured oil into his wounds as only a loving and forgiving woman can. He was a different man as he entered the drawing-room with Elsie by his side. Though simply dressed, she had a charm of her own. The lines of care had left her face, the lost youth dimpled in the curve of her cheeks again, her eyes were brimming over with happiness. The country house of her dreams was very near now for Arnott had taken a place after Elsie's own heart, and within a month they would enter into possession of it and of each other at the same time.
It was a pleasant dinner, for the baron and his wife vied with another in rendering Elsie absolutely at her ease, but after coffee, liqueurs, and cigarettes had been produced, and Arnott had closed the door upon his hostess, the baron's expression changed.
"Now down to business, my friend," he said. "I take it you have made up your mind to accompany me to Amsterdam?"
"I am entirely at your disposal, baron," Arnott answered.
"I am exceedingly glad to hear that. I suppose you kept an eye upon those fellows while I was away?"
"They haven't been out of the sight of my men for a single day. With the possible exception of Glasgow, I have a closer acquaintance with underground London than anybody. Your instructions have been obeyed to the letter. To begin with, I had Jim Farrant removed to a place of safety. He is ready to tell us everything; in fact, there's nothing he will not do to save his skin. It has been somewhat difficult, because both Vanstone and Avis know me, and they have more than a notion that I am working against them. It is rather awkward meeting them at that house by the river the other night—I mean the night of Miss Vanstone's adventure, when the river police took her into custody. By the way, Glasgow worked that business very well. He not only successfully deluded the public, but, up to a certain point, humbugged Avis and Vanstone as well."
"What do you mean by 'up to a certain point'?" the baron asked.
"That sounds ominous."
"To an extent it is. I have a suspicion that Vanstone has discovered something of the truth. I believe he knows his daughter was the spy, for he has been asking London all over the last few days to find Miss Ida."
"Is he still in London then?"
"No, he has gone to Amsterdam. Avis was to have gone, but these rascals never trust one another, and at the last moment Vanstone determined to accompany his partner."
The baron rubbed his hands in a satisfied way.
"That is very good," he exclaimed. "If you have followed my instructions carefully we shall bag both birds at the same time. We cannot fail, do you think?"
"It will be horribly bad luck if we do. I have been over to Amsterdam and seen Israels twice. He knows exactly what I want, and is prepared to meet my wishes. As a general rule, Israels will do anything for money. I had all the information that Farrant could give me, and when the Jew heard what I had to say he was quite ready to come to terms. I gave him to understand I was only an agent, and that my principal was prepared to pay a fancy price to gratify his whim. We are to meet Israels the day after to-morrow at 11 o'clock in the forenoon. No one else will be present, of course, for in these matters the fewer people we have to deal with the better. I have got round Israels all right. He was uneasy and inclined to be suspicious at first, but my bona fides was vouched for by one of the biggest rascals in Europe, so I don't anticipate any trouble."
The baron nodded his head approvingly as he reached across the table for a fresh cigarette. There might be some difficulty in reaching Amsterdam unrecognised, but Arnott, with the assistance of Glasgow, managed that. At the appointed hour, the baron and his companion turned into a mean little street, and paused as if to discuss something outside one of the houses. The house was larger and more important than its neighbors, and no doubt had once been the residence of a prosperous tradesman. But the windows were grimy and dirty, and the solid carved oak door had not been painted for a generation at least. A thin, cadaverous, yellow face, with an enormous hooked nose, and a ragged beard, looked out of one of the upstairs windows as Arnott held up his hand. An instant or two later and the door was opened a crack and a hand like a claw appeared on the edge. Without waiting further invitation the baron and Arnott squeezed through, and immediately the door was slammed to and locked. The house seemed to be almost devoid of furniture, for the floors and stairs were bare and echoed noisily to the tread. But Israels led the way to a back room which was furnished as a kind of office, with a desk, a chair or two, and an enormous iron safe, which was let into one of the walls.
"You are welcome, gentlemen," Israels mumbled. "I am alone in the house. I am always alone in the house. If you do everything yourself there will be no fear of your secrets being betrayed. I understand, sir, from your friend, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Smith," Arnott said curtly. "It's as good as any other."
"Er, yes, Mr. Smith. Very cautious man, Mr. Smith. But we are all friends together, for you come to buy what I have to sell, and because you are in this thing with me—"
"We quite understand that," the baron said, "It is gems I want—gems with a history. I am willing to pay a good price for these, because I have in my turn a good customer. If it is rubbish you have to dispose of—"
Israels swelled with dignity, looking not unlike a vulture aping the fashion of a turkey-cock. He waved his long, yellow talons in the air.
"I will show you," he said. "Wait till I show you and your mouths will water. I have them in my safe in the case originally made for them. I have as yet no more than glanced at them. You smile, gentlemen. Perhaps you feel that I am of too confiding a nature for a business like this?"
"Have you paid anything on account of them?" the baron asked.
"Three thousand pounds: all I had to spare at the time. I pay the balance when the deal is settled."
"Well, let's see the stuff," the baron said impatiently. "We are wasting time."
The Jew produced a key from a chain around his neck and opened the safe. Thence, with tender, loving care, he took out a red morocco case with a crown and monogram stamped in gold upon it. He threw back the lid, exposing the gems to view and regarding them with eyes nearly as bright as the dazzling fire of the stones. A mother crooning over her child could not have appeared more loving than Israels at that moment.
"Yes, they look all right," the baron said critically. "But I won't take it for granted that those diamonds are what you say they are merely because a crown is stamped on the case."
With a queer twisted smile the Jew seized one of the stones and touched its edge with a file. He dropped the file and screamed with fear and anger.
"The blackguards! The thieves!" he yelled. "O, Messrs. Brown, whose real names are Vanstone and Avis, you would play this trick upon me, would you? Three thousand pounds for paste! Three thousand golden sovereigns!"
He dropped into a chair, gnawing his nails in impotent fury.
It was a favorite expression of Avis', based upon a good deal of painful experience, that you never can tell what the public will do where money is in question. There are good things they will never touch, and bad things into which they rush headlong. Now Baron Ruperra's were generally good things, and his great Oil Issue had been subscribed half a dozen times over. Having assumed that those all-important letters were positively lost beyond recovery, Avis and his partner had proceeded boldly, and when Ruperra's death had been announced the Mediterranean Company ought to have collapsed like a house of cards. But, strange to say, it did nothing of the sort. In the face of heavy selling the ordinary shareholders remained in a state of stolid indifference. They refused to part with holdings, and by the end of the week Vanstone and Avis were forced to look matters in the face. Generally it was their rule to avoid the city on a Saturday, but they were there on that day, and had the dining-room of the club almost to themselves at luncheon time.
"I don't like it at all." Vanstone said gloomily. "It looks as if we had got ourselves into a very tight place. Even if we obtain a fancy price for those diamonds, we shall have some trouble in pulling through. On the whole, I'll go with you to Amsterdam. I'd like to have a hand in the deal."
Avis smiled unpleasantly, but said nothing. He knew perfectly well what was in the back of his partner's mind. They were still discussing the situation moodily over their coffee and cigars, when Heathcote hurriedly entered the room.
"I thought I'd come and see you," he sneered. "The two cleverest financiers in the city of London! Well, what are you going to do about it? Why have you kept out of my way lately? Perhaps we need not waste time over that. I heard something this morning which gave me a shock, and it will shake you chaps up, too. From a man who is very seldom wrong I heard that our friend Ruperra is not dead." Avis stared blankly at the speaker.
"Mean to say it's a rig?" he demanded. "Ruperra spread the report for Stock Exchange purposes?"
"What fools you smart fellows can be on occasions!" Heathcote said impatiently. "Ruperra's far too big a man to stoop to dirty tricks like that. Of course, it's a newspaper lie. There was probably trouble of some sort and a foreign journalist's imagination did the rest. At any rate I believe what my man says. And there's worse to come. Ruperra may not lend himself to a thing like that, but there is no reason why he shouldn't take advantage of it after it's done. Now I come to the point, Ruperra's been in London for two or three days, and outside his own family nobody's any the wiser. There will be trouble for you bears of Mediterraneans on Monday."
Vanstone groaned uneasily.
"Sounds a wild story," he muttered.
"Please yourself whether you believe me or not," Heathcote retorted.
"Stick your head in the sand like the ostrich, and imagine that no one can see you. Perhaps you'll attend to me more carefully when I tell you that Arnold Gray cannot be found in the house by the Thames, and that Jim Farrant and the old woman are nowhere to be seen. I always warned you what would happen if you played the fool with Farrant. You make use of a man, and then throw him over and make an enemy of him. At any rate, he's gone, and I shall be very much surprised if he hasn't placed himself in the hands of the foe. This might have been avoided if you fellows hadn't been so infernally selfish. What is your programme? For my part I'm taking a long trip to America. I can do my work as well there as here, and the air of the States will suit me better than London just now."
"The rat and the sinking ship," Avis sneered.
"Well, you couldn't have a better simile." Heathcote rejoined. "You needn't worry about me and my share in the sale of the diamonds. Only don't say I didn't warn you."
With a curt nod he turned on his heel and left the room. The partners regarded each other with consternation.
"What shall we do?" Vanstone whispered.
"What can we do except follow Heathcote's tip? He's right about Ruperra—I feel it in my bones. It's all up, my friend; the sooner we act it, the better. If Ruperra's back again we haven't a chance; we can no more meet our liabilities than the rottenest defaulter in the city of London. Let's scrape together what we can and go over to Amsterdam. We can make a few thousands out of the diamonds, and with the money we'll soon teach the Yankees something. I've been to Amsterdam once, as you know. I got an advance on the diamonds from Israels, and through one of his mysterious channels I heard that he has a prospective purchaser who is willing to pay a tall price and ask no questions. Why not cross this evening? Go to the bank and draw all your available money. You'll not want to come back here again." "It seems hard," Vanstone groaned. "Yesterday we had an enormous fortune as good as in our pockets, and to-day we're bankrupt a dozen times over. Don't you think it would be as well to stay and see it out?"
"I don't," Avis said curtly. "One or two of our operations are decidedly fishy. At least the police would say so. We could have hidden them easily if the big thing had come off, but the big thing has failed, and Ruperra has us in the hollow of his hand. I bet any money he's been lying out for us for a long time. He was bound to find out sooner or later who has been spoiling his best deals. And don't forget Farrant and the attack upon Arnold Gray and all the funny happenings by the river. If we remain and defy the police we shall be simply asking for trouble. But if we discreetly disappear, the Foreign Office will see that there is not too much fuss, because they do not wish the public to know too much of the methods by which they get their information. But we are wasting valuable time chattering here. Meet me at five o'clock and we will cross the water this evening."
Late the next afternoon the partners turned into the narrow street in which Israel's house was situated. They stood outside waiting for the signal, and presently the yellow features of the diamond merchant looked through the grimp pane. His eyes gleamed angrily, and his claws seemed to saw the air as he came down the stairs with an agility perfectly marvellous in one of his years. He had nothing to say, no word of greeting, as he clutched Vanstone, and Avis by the arms and dragged them inside.
"What's the matter, with you?" Avis demanded when they were seated in the office. "Why do you look at us like that? You don't mean to tell us you've lost those stones. If you play any of your confounded tricks with us I'll break every bone in your old, ugly body."
"Have I ever played you a trick?" Israels demanded. "How many years is it since we first began to do business together? How many thousands of pounds have you had from me?"
"Not a third of what we ought to have had, Shylock," Vanstone said.
"You are only making it worse. You are a mean old skinflint, and you know it."
"The risk is always mine and never yours," Israels answered. "And there are others unknown to you with whom I have to share my profits. What money have you with you?"
"Precious little," Avis hastened to say.
"You lie," the Jew retorted. He had the calmness which so often marks one who is torn with inward passion. "You lie, my friend. Do you think I know nothing of you? Do you think I have no interest in your movements? Ah! My knowledge of your money market would surprise you. What of the fight you put up against Baron Ruperra? Your fight has failed, as I knew it would. I have my spies, my creatures, in London and other places. You are beaten; you are disgraced; you return no more to London. You come here to collect the money for the sale of those gems, and with that you will make a fresh opening for your talents elsewhere. All you possess you carry in your pockets. If I warn the police you will not leave Amsterdam just yet. You will gain nothing by attempting to deceive me. I will make you understand presently what I mean. Now, have you L3,000 between you?"
"Does it matter anyhow?" Avis asked.
"I have to thank you for the admission. It is good to know that my money is not altogether lost. How much do you expect to take away with you to-night?"
"Ten thousand pounds," Avis suggested carelessly.
"Ten thousand demons!" Israels burst out passionately. He could restrain his frenzy no longer. "You take nothing with you; on the contrary, you leave behind that which you brought. For I tell you that I will have my three thousand pounds back again. Did you think to swindle me with your silly tricks? Did you think that because you bring me diamonds, ha, ha! Diamonds! In a beautiful morocco case with the royal arms and monogram on the outside that would be enough for poor old Israels?"
"It appeared to be," Avis said coolly. As yet he had not grasped the old man's drift. "At any rate it was good enough for you to advance three thousand pounds to me."
Israels spluttered something in his rage. He rose from his chair and opening his safe produced the case with its gold crown and monogram.
He threw open the lid and snatched up one of the stones. With a trembling hand he passed it over to Avis and pointed to a file on the table.
"You have learnt something in the course of your robberies," he said hoarsely. "You know the common test for a genuine stone. Take that file and try any one of them. There is no occasion to be in the least afraid; you cannot make those things of less value than they are." The jaunty smile faded from Avis' face as the highly-tempered file bit into the stone as if it were so much cheese.
"Paste!" he groaned. "Paste! What in the name of fortune does this mean?"
"Ask Baron Ruperra," Israels sneered. "He told me in case of trouble, that I was to refer you to him."
The file fell from Avis' nerveless hand, and the paste gems lay neglected on the table. Israels had struck home with a vengeance. The whole thing was so dramatic, so swiftly unexpected and so disconcerting, that Avis could only groan and look to his partner for support. But if possible Vanstone was in rather worse condition than Avis. It seemed as if the baron had stretched a long arm out from the blue and caught them both in a vice-like grip. How had he worked it? How had he brought this strange thing to pass. Undoubtedly this was the very case which Arnold Gray had brought from Berlin on behalf of the Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn. This was the very case which had been stolen from the diplomatist when on his way from Dover to Charing Cross. And, of course, it was the same case which Jim Farrant had handed over to his allies. Either someone had played a cruel hoax, or the Princess had pawned or sold her jewels, and had them replaced with paste. The money already advanced by Israels would have to be refunded. Paste or gems, the articles were stolen, and if Israels turned nasty, the result would be disastrous. In the background, too, loomed the dread figure of Baron Ruperra. Evidently he knew all about them, and was bent upon treating them as an angler does a trout upon his line.
"Are they really bad?" Vanstone at last enquired, in a tone of hope against hope.
"Absolute rubbish!" Avis muttered. "They might fetch twenty pounds as stage jewellery."
"There you've got it!" Vanstone exclaimed. "Didn't the old woman say they were paste? Wasn't there a letter to that effect inside the case? Didn't the children have them to play with? I left all this to you. You might have troubled to find out whether the stuff was bogus or not."
"Won't do!" Avis snapped. "Didn't we find a genuine stone in the house, valued at five hundred pounds? I tell you we've been the victims of a smarter man than either of us. Now, Israels, listen to me. We bought those stones as genuine. Their case and the crown and monogram deceived me. Otherwise, I shouldn't have brought the stuff here. Oh, but do be reasonable, man! Fancy anyone in his senses attempting to palm off common paste upon a judge like you, though, confound you, you were taken in, too. You barely looked at the stones before you put them away in the safe and handed over three thousand pounds on account."
"I do not argue," Israels said loftily. "I admit nothing, I deny nothing—all I ask of you is to return my money."
"But, if you have seen Ruperra—"
"Did I say I had seen the Baron?" Israels went on calmly. "You are puzzled, baffled, bewildered. So far as I am concerned, you will remain in that condition. Sufficient, you say, that we are all under the thumb of the Baron. You were fools to pit your intellect against his. Give me back my money to the last farthing. If you demur, if you say you haven't it, so much the worse for you. One word to the police and the trouble is there."
"Dry up!" Avis said savagely. "Do you think we don't know when we are beaten? It will clean us out, but you shall have the money." It was a painful proceeding and went desperately against the grain, but the money was paid over at length, and locked up in Israels' safe. A little while later the discomfited partners were seated at a humble meal in an obscure restaurant by the waterside. They had between them barely enough to pay their passage to New York, and the prospect was not alluring.
"What's the next move?" Vanstone asked.
"A new country is very well when you are young," Avis said, "or if you've a snug balance in the bank. But to start afresh in a new country at our time of life, and without money is hopeless. Besides, that devil of a Baron behind us, with his cunning and resources, can reach us at the end of the earth. We have cost him money and anxiety, and have upset many of his pet schemes. The only thing is to return to London and throw ourselves on his mercy. That would appeal to his vanity and perhaps he might give us a fresh start. What do you say?" What Vanstone had to say amounted to a good deal. He did not relish the prospect. It was foolish to go out of their way to put their heads in the lion's mouth, and he dreaded above all things an encounter with the Baron.
"Do as you like," Avis said coolly. "That's my programme and I propose to stick to it. Please yourself."
Very reluctantly, therefore, Vanstone fell into line. He lacked loyalty to his partner, and would have cheated him had he dared without one pang of conscience, but the idea of being left to conduct a lonely fight frightened him.
"Have it your own way," he growled. "You were always too clever for me. It's your infernal cleverness that has landed us in this mess." Baron Ruperra had returned to England satisfied with his trip to Amsterdam, and the trap he had laid for Avis and Vanstone. He had them in every way now, they were entirely in his power, and a word to the police would keep them out of mischief for many years. He was not disposed to be vindictive in the circumstances, for he readily recognised that great consideration was due to Ida Vanstone. He would shield her from scandal and poisonous gossip. He would make his own terms with these men later, would drive them out of the country, and then Ida would be troubled no more.
That the precious couple would approach him sooner or later he felt certain. But he hardly expected a call just after breakfast on the following morning, or the note which Avis sent up by the servant.
"Something pleases thee, my husband," the Baroness said.
"Of a surety, yes," the Baron replied, as he read the letter to his wife. "The previous history of the case I have already told thee. I had not hoped to bring the scoundrels to heel so quickly. They must have been terribly frightened to dare to show their faces in London again. There were many anxious enquiries after them in the city yesterday."
"Thou wilt not be too hard upon them," the Baroness said. "Forget not that one of them is the father of that dear child, Ida Vanstone."
"There lies Vanstone's salvation," the Baron answered gravely. "I know what to do. My plans have been made for a long time." The Baron went downstairs to a room he used as an office, whistling gaily as he went. His manner was easy and almost friendly as he greeted the two shamed-faced men who awaited him.
"This is indeed an unexpected pleasure," he said. "So you have returned to London, gentlemen. I trust you feel none the worse for your trip to Amsterdam? I hope you enjoyed the hospitality of Israel's palatial mansion. His hospitality is sometimes expensive. Did you find it so?"
Avis wriggled uneasily in his chair, and Vanstone sat gloomy and downcast in full anticipation of the worst. That anything good could come out of this interview he did not believe.
"It cost us three thousand pounds," Avis plucked up courage to say,
"It cost us practically all we've got."
"Why worry about it?" the Baron said presently. "Why this grief at the spending of money which does not belong to you? Had it been your own cash—"
The Baron shrugged his shoulders significantly.
"You have come, I suppose, to throw yourselves upon my mercy," continued he. "I am egotistical enough to believe that I can read year minds clearly. Perhaps you have exercised a wise discretion. I don't mind admitting that for a long time you puzzled me almost as much as I have recently puzzled you. I set myself the serious problem of discovering who it was that was constantly getting in my way. Well, to make a long story short, by a process of exhaustion, I elicited you and your methods. And very good methods, too, let me tell you. Only unfortunately your information was based upon stolen documents and the work of international spies, to say nothing of stolen property. That is all very well in its way, but you can't fight in the open with such weapons, and that is how I was bound to have the pull of you in the long run. At the present moment you are bankrupt in estate and reputation, and can never show your face in the city again."
"But that is not sufficient for me. I want to be able to lay you by the heels on a charge of theft. I can do it, as you know, or you would not be here now. It doesn't matter two straws whether you stole real diamonds or paste. Mr. Vanstone looks curious, I notice. I am sorry to disappoint him, but there will not be any explanation. A clever conjuring trick mystifies until it comes to be explained; besides, I may want to use the same process again. From this safe I produce a red morocco case with a gold crown and monogram. This is what you and Farrant were after, and which you believed to be in your possession. These, my dear friends, are the genuine diamonds belonging to the Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn. Have a look at them! Don't they make your mouth water, and wouldn't you like to know how they reached their destination safely in spite of your careful plans to rob Mr. Gray of them? There again your curiosity will not be gratified. It is sufficient that the stones are now out of your reach. Mr. Avis, are you interested in certain letters which a king who shall be nameless wrote some years ago to an actress of some repute? Now, don't be shy. With those letters you were going to ruin my big oil venture. You thought they were lost. If you will look into that safe you will see hanging up a long fawn-colored overcoat which, please take down and give to me. Thanks. Did you ever see it before?"
"Looks like Gray's," Avis said sulkily.
"Yes, here's his name inside the collar. But why—"
"I'm coming to that," the Baron said "I will show you that that coat is worth literally millions. Here is something that I can explain to you."
Ruperra glanced keenly at the two men on the other side of the table. He regarded them as specimens under the microscope, as if he were an eminent scientist examining some new specimen.
"Tell me," he asked, "has either of you ever inspected this coat before?"
Avis shrugged his shoulders sullenly, while Vanstone did not appear to comprehend the question.
"Let me assure you," the Baron went on, "that it will pay you a great deal better to be candid. You were particularly anxious to find those letters. You had a very fair idea of their contents and the use to which they could be put, for if you could have approached the King of Bohn with the letters you could have dictated your own terms to him. It would then have been good-bye to my oil concession, and your raid on my company would have been a gigantic success. Possibly you might have captured the concession for yourselves. But to this end, of course, the letters were necessary. When you got hold of Gray between Dover and Charing Cross the thing looked as good as done. But, unfortunately, the letters were nowhere to be found. It was a great blow to you, but you did not despair, and your search for the missing papers were quite artistic. On three occasions you or someone on your behalf, travelled up and down the line in Mr. Gray's carriage and searched the compartment in a scientific way. There was always the chance of fortune favoring you, especially as Mr. Gray was a prisoner in your hands. It never occurred to you, I suppose, that certain people discovered where Mr. Gray was and deliberately left him with you until it was deemed policy to interfere. The idea was to give you plenty of rope and delude you into the belief that no suspicion attached to either of you. We knew you hadn't the papers, otherwise you would have moved at once. Inference became certain knowledge a day or two later, when that coat came into our keeping. Really, gentlemen, you should have examined it more carefully."
"We did," Avis muttered. "I'll swear there was nothing there.'"
"Then the suggestion is that I am merely talking for the sake of dramatic effect," the Baron smiled. "What a pity neither of you had read a story by the greatest of all detective writers, Edgar Allan Poe, entitled 'The Purloined Letter.' It is a wonderful piece of reasoning, the moral being that the most difficult thing to find is that which is hidden in the most obvious place. I am sure, Mr. Avis, that you did little more than search the pockets of the coat and feel in the lining for the papers. You argued, naturally enough, that Mr. Gray would never carry valuables in that somewhat shabby overcoat. There was so much at stake—the Princess estates, my oil concession, and, to a great extent, the future of the British navy. Almost the fate of a kingdom depended upon those documents. Mr. Gray knew it, Sir Walter Devant knew it, so did the Foreign Office, and the heads of the Secret Service. Now, as you can see for yourselves, there is what appears to be a big ticket on the right hand side of the coat. Put your fingers inside and tell me what you make of it. Is there anything strange about it?"
"I know what you mean," Avis growled.
"It's lined with indiarubber. There's a button to the flap of the pocket, and Gray used it as a tobacco pouch. Lots of travellers in the Far East do the same thing. When you are driving your hands get cold, and it saves a good deal of trouble."
"But I fail to see where a thing like this comes in—"
"That is precisely what Mr. Gray reckoned upon," the Baron interrupted smilingly. "Now oblige me by turning that pocket inside out."
Avis complied sullenly. As he did so the indiarubber lining of the pocket came away altogether in his hand. It had become a tobacco pouch of the largest size, and the indiarubber was of the stoutest quality. At a word from Ruperra, Avis crushed the pouch in his hand.
"We are getting on," the Baron said. "Do you notice anything there? No? Then allow me, please."
He took the pouch in his own hands and turned it inside out. As he did so, a thin inner lining of the same material came away, and behind it lay some letters written on thin, foreign paper. A groan issued from Vanstone's lips.
"What fools we've been," he cried.
"I don't think so," Ruperra said pleasantly. "You see, the double indiarubber prevented the letters from crackling. They are written on such thin paper too, that they don't increase the bulk of the pouch appreciably. The hiding-place is exceedingly ingenious, and it is small wonder that you were baffled. Well, gentlemen, there are the letters which have been the cause of all this trouble and bother. There are only four of them, and they are not long, but to my mind they are the most priceless documents in Europe. They will be cheaply purchased at half the wealth of the British nation. But they are not for sale. They will be handed over to the writer on certain conditions, and my personal triumph will be complete. Now, I'll give you a tip. You have very little money and no credit, but I understand these difficulties can be easily overcome in America. Therefore, whatever you hear or whatever you read, you can be certain that 'Mediterraneans' will be the finest thing in the world. They will be backed by the British Government, and all the strength of the nation will be behind them. Really, it is exceedingly considerate of me to tell you this. But I'm not ungrateful, because you gave me a hard problem to solve and a hard fight, and I love both."
Avis muttered something that sounded like gratitude. His quick and subtle brain was already beginning to penetrate the future. After all, this interview was not as humiliating as he had expected.
"I am much obliged," he said. "But, please go on. You have not finished, Baron."
"Very nearly," Ruperra answered. "I daresay you are under the impression that I am letting you down easily out of sheer good-nature. Nothing of the sort! It frequently happens that a rascal escapes his just punishment, because that punishment may involve innocent people who are dependent upon him. Sometimes it is his wife and sometimes his child. In this case it is a child—a daughter. Do you follow, Mr. Vanstone?"
A red flush crept over Vanstone's face.
"You are speaking of my own girl?" he asked.
"I am," the Baron said sternly. "Now, by the merest accident in the world, by a certain mistake in identity, your daughter became steeped to the lips in the intrigue which during the last half hour I have unravelled. She was alone in the world; she had been driven from home because she preferred freedom to a hateful marriage. I have heard her story from her own mouth, and, without wishing to offend Mr. Avis' susceptibilities, she has had an exceedingly lucky escape. She is a girl of the highest principle, and possesses beauty, intelligence, principle, and courage in the highest degree. It is impossible to estimate what we owe her. It was she who found Mr. Gray; it was she who brought away this coat from the house by the river; and it was she who, taking her life in her hands, found Mr. Gray for the second time. You will be glad to know, Mr. Vanstone, at least, you ought to be glad to know, that your daughter discovered her lover at the same time. It is strange, that Miss Vanstone and Gray should have come to an understanding long ago; it is strange that while you, sir, were planning my ruin and the ruin of thousands of innocent people at the same time your own child was acting as the chosen instrument of Providence in bringing you to your knees and stripping you of all you had. I am telling you this in order that you may be sure that your child's future will be a happy one. Mr. Gray is highly thought of; he will go far in the diplomatic service, especially now that he is a rich man. I don't know whether this will please you or not. If you have any sort of parental instinct, it should."
Vanstone hung his head in shame. He was feeling the exposure a great deal more acutely than Avis.
"I dare say it's all right," he muttered. "And now, sir, if you have nothing further to say—"
"Stop, stop," the Baron cried. His face had grown harder and his eyes gleamed. "I haven't quite finished. I wish neither of you to go away with any delusions. If you think that you are going to start with a clean sheet in America, you are mistaken. For many years you have been a thorn in the side of the Secret Service, not only to the English Secret Service, but to the Continental systems as well. You were not troubled with any conscientious qualms on the score of patriotism, for everything has been fish that came to your net. You were quite prepared to betray your own country if it were to your advantage, and for a long time you were successful. Your office in the city was a very clever blind, and I must compliment you upon the way in which you chose your subordinates. But the inevitable came when the finger of suspicion pointed at you. For months you have been watched hour by hour by the servants of the Secret Service. You have lunched and dined in the same room with the head of that department without having the least suspicion who he was. He has done his work very thoroughly, and to tell what he has against you would fill a large volume. There is hardly an exploit of yours which he could not bring home to you in a court of justice. But there are reasons why this course should not be adopted, and this is where your luck comes in. Besides, my wife and I have taken a great liking to Miss Vanstone, and it is our desire to spare her as much pain as possible. Now you are going to New York, or elsewhere; not that it matters in the least. Wherever you go you will be followed, and the Secret Police will be acquainted with your story. You will be watched night and day until you are too old for further mischief. So long as your hands are clean and you work only for a living, you will be safe. If—"
The door of the library opened, and a servant entered.
"A gentleman to see you, Baron," he said. "By appointment. He gives the name of Heathcote."
The shadow of a smile flickered about the corners of Avis' mouth. Heathcote had crossed his mind more than once during the last hour. It had struck him that Heathcote might have had something to do with the present unhappy situation. If so, his time was undoubtedly at hand.
"A friend of yours, I understand," the Baron remarked. "I phoned him this morning, asking him to call at this time. It is fortunate he should be here, seeing that he also is making arrangements for a trip of some duration to the States."
Heathcote jauntily entered the room, but his face fell and he started as he caught sight of Vanstone and Avis.
"I fear I'm intruding," he stammered. "I rather gathered, Baron, that you had business to discuss with me, but some other time—"
"There is no time like the present," Ruperra said, "since you are leaving for the States almost at once."
"It is the first I've heard of it," Heathcote said.
"Really! Why have you disposed of that beautiful artistic furniture in your flat? Why are you booked to leave Liverpool on Thursday morning? And why did you cable to our old friend, Vandernoop, to meet you in New York? I fear your memory is deficient to-day."
Very red, very angry, and not a little disconcerted, Heathcote, dropped into a chair.
"Ah! That is better," the Baron observed. "Now I want Mr. Heathcote to know why I sent for him. Mr. Avis, will you be good enough to give your friend here, a resume of what has taken place during the last hour or so. You need not spare yourself, Mr. Heathcote, for that matter. I shall enjoy a cigarette, and hearing how the story sounds from your lips. Well, please, go on."
It was by no means a pleasant task, but Avis got through it somehow.
There was a grim satisfaction in dragging the cautious Heathcote into the net and informing him of the sure and certain fate before him if he showed his hand in international politics any further.
"Excellent!" the Baron said as he flicked the end of a cigarette, "excellent! I could not have made the points better myself. I will not detain you any longer Mr. Vanstone and Mr. Avis. Kindly ring the bell and I will ask the servant to show you out. Don't go Mr. Heathcote. Our business has yet to be finished."
Heathcote seemed half-disposed to follow the others, but changed his mind and sank into his seat again.
"I thought I should find you amenable to reason," the Baron expostulated.
"You have heard what Avis had to say. Fortunately there were reasons why he and Vanstone should be let down easily, but these reasons don't apply to you. In many respects you are the worst of the three, for your colleagues do not lack pluck of a sort. I want to warn you that you will share a similar fate if you don't stop this game at once and turn over a new leaf. Don't scowl at me or I'll summon the police, and to-morrow morning you will find yourself in the dock listening to Jim Farrant's story from the witness box. I can be extremely nasty if I like, Mr. Heathcote."
"What is it you really do want?" Heathcote asked sullenly.
"The necessary documents and evidence to clear the character of Ralph Arnott. You will never be able to make use of him again, and it will be no hardship to you if his good name is cleared. You have the necessary documents, I know. The breaking up of your flat will afford an obvious means of discovering the evidence—you find it in a forgotten drawer. You will send the papers to Arnott with a graceful apology, and also write an account of the whole matter and forward it to the newspapers. You will express your profound sorrow and all that sort of thing. Nobody can do it more gracefully than yourself if you choose. I think that's about all, Mr. Heathcote. But see it is done, you rascal and done thoroughly. If you deviate from your promise by so much as a hair's breadth, by Heavens! I'll trap you like a rat. Be off! There has been enough poisonous atmosphere in my house to-day to last me for a long time."
Two or three evenings later Baron and Baroness Ruperra gave a select dinner party. There were few society people present, and no account of the function appeared in the fashionable intelligence. Nevertheless, the company did not lack distinction, embracing, as it did, Princess Zena Victoria of Bohn, his Excellency Sir Walter Devant, British Ambassador at Berlin, and the Hon. John Glasgow, head of the Secret Service. With them were Valerie Brune and Geoffrey Devant, Ida and Arnold Gray, and Elsie Harness and Ralph Arnott. They formed neither a noisy nor a demonstrative party, but they appeared to be satisfied with themselves, and three pairs of bright eyes gleamed with happiness.
"Here is a chance for you, Arnott," the Baron cried. The servants had left the room, the dessert was on the table, and a thin cloud of cigarette smoke drifted about the flowers and shaded lights. "Here is a chance for a journalist like yourself. What a story to tell to the British public!"
"It never can be told, Baron," Arnott smiled. "Of course, if the need to publish the facts ever arose, I should hope to rise to the occasion. But that can never be."
"I call it rather unfair," Sir Walter said. "Why should our dear little spy here be deprived of the pleasure of seeing her portrait in all the society papers?"
"I am quite content as I am," Ida said with a demure glance at Gray.
"Besides, there have been so many spies lately."
"But never a woman one," the Baroness said. As the conversation became general she bent over and whispered a few words in Ida's ear.
The girl looked thoughtful.
"No, I didn't see him," she murmured. "He thought it would be as well on the whole if I didn't. He seems to have realised at last that I was right, and wrote me a nice letter wishing me every happiness; I am sure he meant what he said. Perhaps some day, in the years to come—"
Ida's voice faded away and she turned her head aside for the moment. But Sir Walter took up the thread again.
"Come, Glasgow," he challenged, "you must have examined some romances in your career, but I defy you to produce any so strikingly dramatic as the events of the past few weeks. Only consider what has happened. We have saved the British nation, thanks mainly to the Baron. I have recovered the son whom I never hoped to see again. More than that, a charming woman has been transformed from a desperate political adventuress into a delightful prospective daughter-in-law, whom I hope—"
"That's not fair," Valerie laughed, "and it isn't quite true either. It was entirely your fault, Sir Walter, and you did your best to keep me in the zone of danger and intrigue. You never gave me an opportunity of telling you that I was doing my best to find the man I loved—"
The Princess broke in with a silvery laugh.
"My word, they are egotistical, these lovers. They think of no one but themselves. Everybody else's diamonds are paste—just like the paste that the Baron so cleverly substituted for my own stones. Ah! That was a neat trick, Baron."
"Well, you've got your gems back, Princess," the Baron said. "I hope you'll know how to take care of them."
The Princess shrugged her ivory shoulders carelessly.
"Does it matter much now?" she asked. "I have my estates, and a few stones do not count. For behold! My brother, he comes to his senses. I hear to-night there is to be no more talk of confiscation. My brother wipes his hands of me. He even gives me his blessing when I give my hand to my beloved Rudolph, and will be present at the wedding. Provided he gets those letters back the rest matters nothing. So I, too, become egotistical. Why should these charming, delightful young friends of mine have a monopoly of it? I ask Mr. Glasgow to tell us—"
"Pray ask me nothing, Princess," Glasgow said. "Leave me out of the reckoning. To hear you good people talk anyone would think I was connected with the Secret Service. You might even believe I was a high official. What have I had to do with this? There is not one of you can put your hand upon anything that I have done. I have been useful to the State sometimes, but then I was lucky enough to pick up unexpected information. I implore you to leave me out of it."
"Mr. Glasgow is too modest," the Baroness said as she rose from the table. "But let us respect his feelings."
The men of the party did not linger over their cigarettes and coffee. There were nooks and corners in the suite of drawing-rooms, shady alcoves filled with flowers, and into one of these Ida and Gray strolled presently. They sat for a time in silence—the silence of a perfect understanding. For them it sufficed to be in a world of their own, gazing into each other's eyes with hope and happiness in the future. Gray drew the girl closer to his side and pressed his lips passionately to hers.
"What a wonderful time it has been," he murmured. "How marvellously everything has turned out! Only a few days ago I did not know where you were, Valerie Brune was still looking for her lover, and Elsie Harness was wasting her youth and her eyesight in a dreary struggle with poverty! And it is you, my dearest girl, who have effected this great change."
"Not so!" Ida protested. "It was blind Fate, and nothing else. I did not dream of finding you when I left Covent Garden on that singular errand, and I don't mind confessing that I was horribly frightened. I had not the courage even to turn back. But if I had—"
She paused and looked up into Arnold's face. Happy tears filled her eyes, and her lips were quivering. He gathered her into his arms and put his cheek to hers.
"But you did not turn back," he whispered. "You went on bravely, and found our happiness and the happiness of us all."
That was the real conclusion of the whole matter, and could not be gainsaid.
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