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Title: The Councillors Of Falconhoe Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100071h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. 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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I - A Pink Carnation
II - "Tell England"
III - Fairbourne Castle
IV - For The Night Only
V - The Uncut Emerald Again
VI - A Chance To Live
VII - Falconhoe Manor
VIII - Whilst The Fates Sleep
IX - The Imps O' The Moon
X - The Lengthening Thread
XI - The Next Move
XII - The Thread Lengthens
XIII - Thieves In Counsel
XIV - In Old Madrid
XV - The Lure Of The South
XVI - The Drama In The Stalls
XVII - The Story She Had To Tell
XVIII - Mainly Biographical
|XIX - On The Way
XX - The Jelicorse Way
XXI - Jelicorse Sees His Way
XXII - The Start Of The Quest
XXIII - The Cradle Of His Race
XXIV - A Voice From The Grave
XXV - Vickers's Story
XXVI - The Treasure-Seeker
XXVII - A Triumphant Progress
XXVIII - Circe!
XXIX - Exit Hommany
XXX - Vendetta
XXXI - In Wax
XXXII - A Sudden Check
XXXIII - Rogues In Council
XXXIV - Impulse
XXXV - A Question Of Proof
XXXVI - The Silent Witness
XXXVII - It Might Have Been Worse
Secret service did not end with the close of the Great War, and some alluring adventures in the highway and byways of diplomacy are narrated in "The Councillors of Falconhoe," the new serial story by Mr. Fred. M. White, publication of which will begin in the columns of the "Herald" on Friday. The story opens in the cardroom of the Mars and Jupiter Club, London, where a few diplomatists are enjoying a quiet rubber of bridge, and the reader's interest is held from the start in an atmosphere of excitement. Hilary Jelicorse, the central figure in the story, after exciting adventures in the war, is unable to settle down to the comparatively peaceful routine of the Foreign Office. He prefers to work through other channels for the Foreign Secretary, and in the book is engaged thrillingly in countering the machinations of those who would throw Europe further towards the abyss. With him are a miscellaneous assortment of people, also unable to adjust themselves to humdrum life after the hectic years of war adventure. The Ladies Peggy and Joan Pevensey, twin daughters of the Duke of Fairbourne, after thrilling exploits in Serbia, are anxious to assist him. Then there is the impecunious nobleman, Nelson, compelled by circumstances arising out of the war to act as a waiter in the Hotel Agincourt. Mingling with them, and all involved in the exciting plot, are prima donnas, Spanish grandees, German plotters chafing under defeat, and others.
Falconhoe is an old manor house on the high cliffs, not far from the lovely village of Lynton, in North Devon. It is a secluded and romantic spot of England, and here Jelicorse has started, with his associates, as a sort of international detective agency, with branches all over Europe, private service of aeroplanes, and wireless to Berlin, Vienna, and Rome. A beautiful ancient emerald, won by the opera singer, Inez Salviati, has an important bearing upon the story. A fascinating woman is this Salviati, with her slim, graceful figure, dark, intelligent eyes, and smile that is both mocking and elusive. She has worked on secret missions with Jelicorse in Mexico City and elsewhere, and she plays a large part in the present adventure. Readers of the story will probably agree that its subject matter has a perennial fascination, that the plot is excitingly developed, and that Europe, as always still offers superb attractions to the man of adventurous imagination.
—The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1922
It was drawing near to the dinner hour and the bridge players in the smaller cardroom of the Mars and Jupiter Club had fined down to one table, and there the rubber was in its final stage.
"Your call, I think, Marquis," the man on the left or dealer suggested. "What, an original call of three spades?"
"Even so, Colonel," the Marquis of Navarro smiled blandly. "The time passes, and dinner draws near. So I take the risk."
"'Fraid I shall have to double you," Colonel Philip Enderby, late of the British army, drawled.
"Not a free double," his partner, Major George Farncombe, once of the Army Intelligence, hinted. "However—"
The fourth man at the table regarded his companions serenely through his monocle. This was Hilary Jelicorse, lately attached to the Foreign Office and gently squeezed out some time after the peace celebrations. He described himself whimsically as one of the unemployed who was unhappily precluded from accepting the dole. And there is many a true word spoken in jest.
"Don't redouble, Marquis," he implored. "If you do and it comes off, I am a ruined community."
"But that is precisely what I am going to do," the Marquis of el Navarro laughed. "Look at my hand, partner."
They were old friends these, who had seen much service and shared many perils in the hectic years 1914-18, though the Marquis was a Spanish grandee and presumedly neutral. And even now, in the year of grace 1922, there was much to be done, and el Navarro had come over to London to discuss a matter that had a sinister bearing on the future peace and prosperity of Europe. What that project was he had yet to learn, nor was he disposed to make much of it.
He made his contract with one overtrick, and took up his winnings as the others rose from the table. The big clock on the Adams mantelpiece drowsily proclaimed the half-hour after 7 on a drift of silver bells. The Marquis still had a few minutes to spare.
"I am very curious to know why you Falconhoe Councillors summoned me from the seclusion of my palazzo in Madrid," he said "I am dining to-night with the Spanish Ambassador, so must be moving shortly. Give me a hint, Jelicorse. Is it trouble in Russia or Germany? But that would seem to be impossible."
"Why?" Jelicorse asked. "Suppose I told you that there was danger from both—in league together. I am just back from Germany, and I know what I know. I have in my mind's eye a fine old castle near Findsburg, in Prussia, where there are concealed many heavy howitzers and where the employees on the estate are camouflaged units of the once famous Iron Division of Brandenburg. Multiply that little lot by ten thousand and then ask yourself questions. And then imagine those infuriated Junkers in accord with Russia, with a perfect understanding with Lenin and his fellow-fanatic Trotsky. They were at Brest-Lovitsk and afterwards. What then, Marquis?"
The dark eyes of the Marquis gleamed. Despite his age, the old spirit of adventure was deep in his breast. Moreover, he knew the men he was talking to intimately. Neutral as he was supposed to be, he had done his share and more in the cause of freedom on behalf of democracy. Meanwhile time was drifting on.
"It sounds promising," he murmured; "I mean it sounds sinister. But in a few days I go with you to your stronghold at Falconhoe, and there you shall tell me everything. For the moment au revoir."
"I must be off, too," Jelicorse remarked when the Marquis had departed. "What a linguist that chap is! His English is as good as ours at least. Are you two going to dine here? You are? Good! Then I can get you on the 'phone if I need you. So long."
An hour later Hilary Jelicorse lounged into the palm room of the Agincourt, and took his place at a small table which had evidently been reserved for him. He dropped into his seat and surveyed the big throng of diners seated round the small tables under the shaded lamps and half hidden by banks of flowers. With the ripples of laughter and the half lights on colour and glittering gems it was as if there were no such things as trouble and care and hardship in the world.
But Jelicorse had not come there to indulge in any cheap philosophy of that kind, though his own poverty since the Great Upheaval had been bitter enough. And both Enderby and Farncombe were in similar sorry case. The country that was to be such a paradise for heroes to live in had proved, for the present at any rate, a sorry land for Jelicorse and his peers.
But Jelicorse was here to-night with a stern definite object, and he put such thoughts resolutely from his mind. And then as the dinner moved on he realised that his quarry was not coming that night. Once he had come to this conclusion he turned his mind to what was going on around him. And as he did so his attention suddenly froze and concentrated on a table a little way off—a table where three people were seated, a women and two men.
The woman was young, not more than twenty-five at the most. A slim, graceful woman, with a figure as perfect as that of the Venus of Milo, but tall and willowy, and with features as regular as those of the earlier Greeks. Very dark she was, dark eyes full of fine intelligence and intellect, and a smile both mocking and elusive She was laughing with almost childlike vivacity and enjoyment when her face first riveted Jelicorse's attention.
One of the men with her was young, with the subtle suggestiveness of birth, and high breeding. There was a certain haughtiness about his clean-shaven face which spoke of one born to the purple and in the habit of being obeyed. Spaniard or Italian beyond doubt. Then he turned slightly and Jelicorse recognised the young Duke of Lombaso, a Spanish grandee with royal blood in his veins.
It had been part of his business during the strenuous years to know all sorts and conditions of men, especially those who counted in the councils of Europe, and so the features of the young Duke of Lombaso were more or less familiar. His mother had been a princess, and her son had inherited her beauty. He was an attractive figure enough in his pride of manhood and race, though now he was laughing and smiling as if his fair companion was the one thing in the world that counted. Educated at Eton and Christ Church, his English was perfect, and his knowledge of English ways and sports complete.
The third person of the party was big and bluff, with a certain coarse arrogance that suggested the Prussian type as the world knew it at its best, or worse, before Armageddon. There was something cruel and sinister in his thick features and the insolent upward brushing of his thick reddish moustache, after the manner of Wilhelm before he fell, like Lucifer, never to rise again.
"Oh, oh," Jelicorse murmured to himself, "Count Andra Barrados, what are you doing in that galley? If it comes to that, what are you doing in London at all? If necessary, I will have you deported, my half-bred Prussian. But not yet, not yet."
For quite a long time Jelicorse watched the triangular dining party as if he were a spectator in the stalls studying a problem play. Then with a quiet gesture he summoned a waiter hovering near, and more or less disengaged, and ostensibly laid a ten-shilling note by the side of his plate.
"Alphonse or Carl, as the case may be, though I hope not Carl, do you feel any wild desire to earn that interesting scrap of paper?"
He spoke softly without looking up, and the waiter smiled. It might even be said that he grinned. He was a quite nice-looking waiter, with clear blue eyes and the trim, erect figure of one who has known the stern discipline of the barrack square. He looked far more like a gentleman than half the men guests dining there.
"What is it that you want, sir?" he asked.
"You see the lady over there dining with those two gentlemen. Will you find out for me if she is staying in the hotel? That's all."
The note and the waiter vanished simultaneously. In a few minutes the waiter was back again. He glided up to Jelicorse's chair, absorbed apparently in his duties and quite in the best manner of his tribe. He spoke in a bare whisper.
"Signorina Inez Salviati is staying in the hotel, sir," he said. "And alone, save for her maid. She is here to fulfil an engagement at Covent Garden Opera. If there is anything else, sir—"
"Good man," Jelicorse murmured. "There is one little thing more. At the next table whence the festive diners have departed I notice a little arrangement of pink carnations. Could you hypothecate one and bring it here without unnecessary ostentation?"
The waiter thought that he could and did. Jelicorse removed the flimsy laced rag and his finger bowl from his unused dessert plate, and stripping four petals from the beautiful hot-house bloom laid them in a sort of square in the centre of the plate.
"Rather neat, Alphonse, what?" he smiled. "A new idea in table decorative art. Now I want you to take this plate and exchange it for the one in front of the lady yonder. Just as it is without disturbing my pattern. Not difficult, Alphonse, I think, because—. I am afraid that you are not listening, Alphonse."
"Why, good Lord, sir—" the waiter began. Jelicorse looked up swiftly and as quickly down again. But in that fraction of time he had seen all he wanted.
"This is a strange world, Niel, otherwise Alphonse," he murmured with the same absent air. "And I'm not sure that Wilhelm did not remodel it after all. But what is Sir Niel Nelson, Bart., doing in the guise of a waiter at the Agincourt?"
"Broke," the man addressed as Niel Nelson snapped. "Poor enough before the big trouble. Joined up, as you know, in the early days, and kept hanging about Mespot till lately. Now money all gone, stocks eating their heads off, and no dividends in the garden. Old place mortgaged to the crest tiles, and with this infernal taxation, glad to part for enough to put me square. Brought up to do nothing, and not sponging on friends. Managed to get a billet here, but no worse off than thousands of sound chaps. Recognised you when you came in and didn't look at me. Should have said nothing if you hadn't asked me to work the old secret sign dodge you put me up to when we had that little adventure together in Constantinople in 1916. Couldn't help crying out for the life of me."
Jelicorse listened with head bent over his plate.
"Rotton hard luck," he murmured. "But if you are good for one of the old stunts I think I can make an opening for you. Meanwhile we are wasting time. Get on with it."
From under his brows Jelicorse watched the progress of events at the table where the three people were dining. He could see the girl laughing and chatting gaily, and catch some or the sallies that came from the Duke. The man with the hard, cynical face and the aggressive, upturned moustache smiled in his sinister fashion, but seemed more intent on weighing up his companions than entering into their sparkling discourse. He had the furtive watchful air of one who half expects to be detected in some crime.
The waiter stopped by the table and dexterously shifted the dessert plate for the one he carried behind him and displayed the four petals to the view of the one to whom obviously they were intended to convey either a message or a warning. Jelicorse intently watching, saw her stop in the midst of some gay remark and change colour. Then before her younger companion could gather anything as to the cause of her confusion she had swept away the pink petals and was her smiling self again. At the same time those wonderful alluring eyes of hers swept the dining room slowly until at length they rested on Jelicorse for a fleeting instant and a message was flashed back to him, a message that he perfectly understood.
The girl turned with perfect composure to her companions.
"Mes amis," she murmured with a regretful droop of the exquisite lips, "this evening so delightful must end."
"End!" the Duke cried. "I had hoped that it was just beginning. Surely you would not be so cruel—"
"But, alas, it is not in my hands," Inez Salviati replied. "I am but the slave of my public, for, behold, we singers are not our own masters. For some time now Monsieur Bragand of the Grand Opera House, Paris, has been regarding me reproachfully from his corner seat and waiting for the business interview I promised him. I beg you to leave me here, dear friends. As I am staying here in the hotel there is no need for your escorts."
Jelicorse watched the little comedy from out the corner of his eye. Almost he could hear the words spoken. Then he turned to the handsome young waiter by his side. He took a card from his case and slipped it across the table.
"Call at the address about midday to-morrow," he said. "You will not be on duty at that hour. There are big things about to happen, Niel Nelson, and there may be a place in the ring for you. At any rate, I think I can promise you a better job than this."
The other man murmured his thanks, but Jelicorse was not paying the least attention—he was too busy watching the trio at the table on the far side of the gangway. He saw the young Duke of Lombaso bending over the hand of the singer as he murmured his regretful adieux: he saw the Prussian Count swagger insolently as he nodded familiarly to the girl, and swaggered still more aggressively as he glanced at the rest of the diners there with a deep hatred in his heart for everything that savoured of things English. The freedom of London was his again after the lapse of the bloodstained years, for we are a long-suffering, forgiving race, but the best clubs, the exclusive circles, the royal enclosures of Ascot and Goodwood, would never be his again. And deep down in that black heart of his, Count Andra Barrados hated the Anglo-Saxon conqueror more than ever. It was all so different to what he and his congeners had planned. But for the stress of dire circumstance he had never shown his face in the proud city on the Thames again.
He was gone at last and his companion with him, and the swinging door had closed behind them before Jelicorse moved from his place and crossed over to where Inez Salviati was now seated alone. She welcomed him to her side with a smile that went to his head like so much wine. There was something intoxicating about her dazzling, compelling beauty. In a flame-coloured dress relieved only by one uncut emerald at her breast, she stood out from the rest as a thing apart. The marvellous regularity of her features might have been almost too perfect had it not been for the expression, that almost indescribable charm which is more alluring than the artistic conception of the perfect in human loveliness. There was a soul shining behind that smile and a rare intelligence in the dark liquid eyes. There was something more, too, but Jelicorse was too pleased to see Inez once more to think of personal things.
"Four years," he murmured as he took his seat. "And, behold, the lovely bud has opened into the perfect blossom. A strange contrast, my dear Inez, to our last meeting."
"Say our last parting," Inez cried with her most dazzling smile and a warm welcome in her dark eyes. "We were at the crisis of the world's affairs then. The fate of freedom was trembling in the balance. It looked as if America had come in too late. Would she have come in at all but for you and me? You have not forgotten the good work we did together in Mexico City. An English gentleman and a mere girl who had one ambition—to sing before the great ones of the earth. The contralto in a travelling opera company. And now I am on the threshold of my triumph."
She spoke with but the trace of a foreign accent, and her English was as pure as that of her companion.
"And since that eventful night in the gardens of the Plazo we have never met," she went on. "Not even to shake hands over our good work. Why did you so disappear, amico?"
"Alas, I was snatched away at a moment's notice," Jelicorse explained. "You remember how it was with us, a sign, a whisper, a nod in the street and five minutes later we were off across the far side of the globe. The sign came, Inez, and I had no time even to write a line, and even that might have been dangerous. Until chance brought me here tonight I had lost sight of you. And now, judging by the company you keep, little Inez Salviati is famous or on the way."
"Then you have not heard? You have been too busy perhaps. Behold, I am made. My world tour has been a triumph. Soon I go to Madrid as prima donna. If I please them there all is plain before me."
"And the old days are forgotten, perhaps," Jelicorse sighed.
"But never. Ah, I was happy then despite the danger."
Jelicorse looked up swiftly.
"You are on a tour of Europe," he said. "It may be that you go to Berlin and Munich and Vienna?"
"To all three, my dear Hilary. If there is anything I can do for the sake of old times I am ready to—"
"Then listen. But, no, one cannot talk here. I must see you elsewhere. Inez, the peace of Europe stands in dire peril, though most people would scoff at the idea. And you can help to save it. None will suspect, you can move freely down the world because you are, as they will think, just a singer. What a chance? I can't tell you yet, perhaps not for weeks, but when you are in Berlin—my dear girl, where did you get that uncut emerald from?"
Inez flushed almost indignantly. The question so abruptly flung at her fair head seemed to sting her.
"Does it matter?" she shrugged. "Is it that you have any right to ask? You are my good friend, but—"
"Well, of all the meetings!" a gay voice broke in. "Inez Salviati, what on earth are you doing here? And Mr. Jelicorse too. I am going to insist on an explanation. Come on, Peggy. They don't seem glad to see us, but you never know."
The angry colour of Inez's cheeks bred of Jelicorse's pointed question died away and a pleased delighted surprise lighted her eyes.
"Peggy Pevensey," she cried. "And Joan, too. Ah, how the sight of you brings it all back."
Two girls stood smiling there, two girls exactly alike save for the fact that one was fair with blue eyes and the other of a darker hue with hazel hair and eyes to match. They were rather small, with slender figures, smiling in an audacious way like schoolboys on some adventure, but proclaiming breed and blood in every line of them. The fine, dainty features clean cut, the little mouths and the short upper lips carried their own conviction. They carried with perfect naturalness the easy self-possession of caste, despite their detached air of aloofness and the fact that the hair of each was bobbed. There was something almost smacking of the convent about their plain black evening dresses, which were absolutely devoid of ornament, but the cut was there, the cachet of Paris which transforms hopsacking or the discarded sails of Thames barges into "clothes." Thus Lady Peggy and Lady Joan Pevensey, the famous twin daughters of his Grace the Duke of Fairbourne, aged twenty-four years.
"Well," Lady Peggy cried, "this is a meeting. The last time we three were together was at Ushkub in 1918. Ah, those were days. And our adventures in Serbia! There was some sort of fun in motor driving those days. And now you are a celebrity, Inez. Already the darling of a hundred opera-houses. Have you come to London to charm the ears of society? I should just love to hear you sing as you did at nights in that dreadful place, but unless you give me a free pass I shall never find the cash to pay."
With this open confession Lady Peggy dropped into a chair and helped herself deliberately to the contents of Jelicorse's cigarette case. She might have belonged to some detached world where trouble and anxiety had no being. In another chair opposite her sister smiled benignly, also with one of the man's cigarettes between her dainty lips. Nothing seemed to worry this smiling, inconsequent pair.
"Now you know all about our monetary affairs," she said in a tone that might have reached the ears of a dozen diners. "We are poor Amazons broke in the wars. Now how much do you think his grace of Fairbourne has to live on. And keep us in the style we have been accustomed to? Four thousand a year! Not a bean more. With taxes and all that sort of tosh that is all that is left. My dear Hilary, what do I care if the proletariat does hear? All the world knows it. No doubt it will all come right in the course of half a century or so, but where shall we two be then, poor things?"
"It's true, Hilary," Lady Peggy smiled as if the family cataclysm were some exquisite joke. "There is a gathering of the family clans going on in a private sitting-room upstairs from which Joan and self escaped. So we came down here to see if there was any fun moving, and fell into the hands of you two darlings. Hilary, can't you give us some sort of a Foreign Office job? Something in the spy or secret service line. Our French is perfect, and for three years just previous to 1914 we were at school in Bonne. Then nearly three years with the forces in Serbia. Be a little gentleman, Hilary, and help us, or necessity will throw us to the profiteers who made fortunes out of our calamities. I don't want to advertise myself as a girl of old ducal family, young, fair, and cultured, willing to exchange hearts with some presentable war profiteer with a million made for choice in the bacon trade. Hilary, it's very serious."
There was a certain amount of meaning behind Jelicorse's smile. He knew, nobody better, that great events were in the scale of the anguished nations, events which might never be recorded in the newspapers of the day, but which, if not checked, might set weary Europe in a blaze once more. He knew these laughing girls, too, and the fine things they had done in the past, and what high courage and daring they concealed under the mask of Comus. And he knew also what a woman might accomplish when it came to the matching of wits with a set of men fighting with their backs to the wall for all that was left of their old power and prestige and glory.
"The thing is not impossible," he murmured thoughtfully. "We are not out of the wood yet by any means. But what would his grace say to you two being sent to Austria, for instance, on some mission by no means beyond the personal danger mark?"
"My dear Hilary," Lady Joan drawled. "We are no longer in the dark ages when girls called their fathers 'papa' and spoke only when addressed. The war killed all that. Honestly, there is nothing left to Peggy and myself but bonnets and teashops. I mean as business propositions. I did have a lovely dream once of an old Tudor house in a hunting country, with some few thousand acres of shooting, with a perfectly-fitting husband to match, but what has become of him I haven't the faintest notion. If you think—"
She broke off suddenly and gripped Jelicorse by the arm.
"That man over there," she gasped. "The handsome waiter with the sad Russian eyes. Call him over here, Hilary."
The dining-room of the Agincourt was practically deserted now. It being the slack hour when most dinners were over and the tide of supper parties not as yet due. As Lady Joan pointed to the unfortunate Niel Nelson, Jelicorse understood.
"Better not worry him," he murmured. "Rather embarrassing in the circumstances. Besides, I promise you a chance of speaking to Niel Nelson in more fitting surroundings. Yes, it's poor old Niel right enough. Everything gone, no money left, no profession, and—"
"Call him over here," Lady Joan commanded imperatively.
"Oh, all right," Jelicorse shrugged. "But he won't like it. Don't forget that though he was once a baronet living in an old Tudor house in good hunting country and-er-fond of a certain lady, shall we say Ermyntrude? he is a waiter at this moment and likely to be prosaically sacked if he is detected in the act of chatting with the hotel customers. Don't be selfish, Joan."
"But, my dear man, if one isn't selfish these times, how is one going to live? Look at that poor boy with his melancholy Slav eyes, his mother's eyes, and weep for him and his class. Oh, I know that the late Lady Nelson was not of the blood, but she was a Russian princess and a darling. Come here, Niel."
Niel Nelson came eagerly and yet with lagging footsteps. He had the fear of the head waiter no longer before his eyes, in fact he had forgotten that omnipotent functionary altogether.
"Queer sort of a meeting, isn't it?" he laughed unsteadily.
Lady Joan regarded him with a watery smile. Perhaps she was thinking of the old Tudor house and the misty mornings when the scent was breast high and Niel was piloting her over a big grass country in the days which seemingly were gone for ever. And Jelicorse watched with a real sympathy for the dead romance.
There were big things coming and great chances in the near future for those who knew how to grasp the golden opportunity. Only he and one or two others knew how big the prospects were. And here was the help that the Councillors of Falconhoe needed. Jelicorse knew that he could count on Niel Nelson for one, he was sure of Inez Salviati for another. But what about these girls? The woman in international intrigue was a tradition and a sheer necessity, and the Pevensey twins had proved themselves a score of times. Were they not through the Serbian campaigns? Had they not faced worse than death over and over again without flinching? And their French and German were beyond reproach. Yes, they would do, but what would the Duke of Fairbourne have to say about it? It was at that very moment that Lady Peggy answered the question for him.
"We are so glad to see you again, Niel," she said. "So glad to mingle our patrician tears with yours, old thing. In the spacious days we went to the block together, at least our ancestors did, now we go to the workhouse together instead. Joan and myself had arranged to go chicken farming in—in Timbuctoo, wasn't it, Joan?—but Hilary Jelicorse has a better 'ole than that, or so he declares. I do hope that you are coming along."
It was all frivolous nonsense, of course, but there was a deal of feeling behind it, as Jelicorse knew, only too well.
"Pretty rotten, isn't it?" Nelson laughed. "But one has to live, and I flatter myself that I look quite nice in my waiter's kit."
"You don't," Lady Joan cried. "A blind man could see that you are a gentleman. It's a crying shame after your war record."
"Tell England," Lady Peggy interposed. "Tell England."
"I have," Nelson said. "I was telling England for four years and about ten millions of us formed the chorus. But it seems to me that Britannia is a little deaf."
"The yelling of the politicians and the screams of those wonderful journalists who could rule the world single-handed has destroyed the old lady's sense of hearing," Jelicorse remarked sarcastically. "But we are all in the same boat, Niel. And things are going to happen before long if our rulers are not wise to the signs on the political horizon. We shall want men and women to help or I am altogether wrong in my calculations. Inez will help, I know."
"That I will," Inez cried. "But for my career and those professional engagements which I have contracted—"
"I would not have those cancelled for a moment," Jelicorse interrupted. "They will help, they will throw dust in the eyes of the new foe. Sounds mysterious, but I will make it plain presently. But what will his Grace of Fairbourne say?"
"He won't say anything," Lady Joan laughed. "He is too busy scheming how to keep his dear old ducal head above water. Besides, you can't order Dames of the British Empire about like mere dutiful offspring. And, really, Hilary, you can't appreciate how bad things are with us at present. It's different with you."
"Oh, is it!" Jelicorse said grimly. "I have had to let my place for five years and the same remark applies to both Enderby and Farncombe. We have pooled resources and taken an old manor house on the high cliffs not far from the lovely village of Lynton in North Devon. Place called Falconhoe Manor House. Most secluded and romantic spot in England. There we have started as a sort of international detective agency with branches all over Europe. Parties waited upon by our own line of 'planes. Wireless to Berlin and Vienna and Rome. Our wireless must be seen to be believed."
"I'd love to," Lady Peggy cried.
"You shall," Jelicorse promised, "but not yet. Niel is coming down there, as I can find a job for him. You three might make arrangements to stay for a short time at the Windy Bay post office where they let rooms in the summer. Ideal spot and fine bathing. As we have no chaperon at the Falconhoe house we can't offer you all that hospitality. And if things go as I expect they will, there will be some well-paid posts going before long. Adventures on the continent, thrilling episodes after the manner of the creap Press, intrigues to solve, in fact the whole gamut of the sensational novel. Come in with us and prevent another European war. It's a great deal nearer than you imagine, as Count Andra Barrados could have told Inez just now if it had been worth his while."
"You mean that, Hilary?" Inez asked eagerly,
"I do indeed. That man is one of the most infernal scamps in Europe, and he is in the conspiracy up to his neck. But more of this at another time. The place is filling up with the supper crowd, and Niel will be getting into trouble. Now, if you ladles will be so good as to clear out and get back to your tents I shall be grateful. Inez is staying in the hotel, and she will follow in a few minutes. Niel, the head waiter is scowling at you."
Niel Nelson vanished discreetly, and the ladies Pevensey followed close behind. Jelicorse detained Inez for a moment.
"I asked you a question just now," he whispered. "I wanted to know where you got that emerald from. Won't you tell me?"
"Indeed not," Inez said with cold dignity. "You have no right to ask. Old friends as we are, there are limits—"
She swept past him without another word.
In a fold of the hills not far from Plymouth and overlooking the famous Sound stood the main seat of his grace the Duke of Fairbourne. There the race had been cradled since the days of Warwick the Kingmaker, and there they might have flourished prosperous and undisturbed for many more centuries had it not been for the ambition of a monarch who mistook his vocation and realised too late that every man who rules a great kingdom and has a weakness for playing at soldiers is not necessarily a Napoleon.
All the same, he had a sort of left-handed revenge upon the titular rulers of the country which he hated most and which brought his pride tumbling in the dust. The ravages of the Great War hit them almost as much as they had bankrupted his beloved junkers, and nobody had felt it more than the Duke of Fairbourne.
It is, of course, a very pleasant and soothing thing to have an income of 100,000 pounds a year and half a dozen palaces in various parts of the country, but when the aforesaid income is reduced to about a third by a crushing income tax, plus land burdens in a like proportion, then the palaces may become a source of loss and anxiety instead of a thing of pride and joy. And no member of the House of Peers had suffered more in this respect than the duke in question.
For the moment, at any rate, he was making the most of his time at Fairbourne Castle. He had had a series of interviews with his trustees, and Lady Peggy had not been very far wrong when she told Jelicorse that her father had not more than five thousand a year to call his own. Some of the other houses had been let, and no doubt, before long, the same fate would overtake Fairbourne. It was impossible, of course, to deal with any of the magnificent family treasures, because those were heirlooms, and could not be disposed of. Perhaps in the course of time things would right themselves, but for a good many years to come the head of the noble clan would be hard put to it to keep his head above water. Unless his only son, who, however, does not come into the story, married a rich American, or the daughter of some gilt-edged profiteer, he would be likely to share the general blight. And when Lady Peggy informed Jelicorse that she and her sister Joan were faced with the necessity for getting their own livings, she had not been very far from the truth.
Meanwhile, Fairbourne lay sleeping in the sunshine, a long, low, rambling house, partly of mediaeval structure and partly Georgian, fronted by a noble stone terrace and below that the gardens, and then again the sweeping expanse of park almost overlooking the sea. It was the sort of place that required an army of retainers, gardeners, and the like to preserve it in anything like dignity, or even ordinary neatness. There was nothing about it, at any rate at present, to suggest the canker that was eating into the bud of this beautiful flower.
A couple of deck chairs at the bottom of the stops leading to the rose garden were occupied by Lady Peggy and Lady Joan, who were more or less busy discussing their future prospects. There certainly had been something alluring in the possibilities of the scheme which Jelicorse had foreshadowed in the course of the meeting in the dining room of the Agincourt. He had only hinted very vaguely at what might happen, but he had certainly suggested secrecy and danger, and to two girls who had seen and endured so much during the Great War this had been almost entrancing.
"Oh, anything is better than a life like this," Lady Peggy was saying. "Of course, if it hadn't been for that wretched war I should have been only too glad to get back to the old order. And what a grim joke it all is. Fancy meeting Niel Nelson with his family and record getting a bare living as a waiter in a restaurant. And yet that is better than hanging about borrowing money off your friends. My dear Joan, what are you going to do about that unfortunate young man of yours?"
"I don't know," Lady Joan sighed. "Oh, you can laugh if you like, but there isn't much comedy about it. So far as I am concerned, there never was anybody like Niel."
"Oh, we all say that. But what became of all his mother's money? Of course, he told us that he had had to let his own place to save it from being sold; but she was a rich woman. I know she wasn't a royal Russian princess, but she was a princess, and her jewels were magnificent. Wasn't she in Russia at the time the revolution broke out?"
"I never liked to ask," Lady Joan said sadly. "Indeed, there wasn't anybody I could ask. We don't discuss these sort of questions. How many of our Russian friends perished miserably in those dreadful days, or have disappeared, never to be heard of again? The tragedy of the Czar and his family was not the only one. If Niel's mother could have got away in time and brought all her treasures with her, there would be no occasion for poor dear Niel to be getting his living by accepting tips in a London restaurant. I daresay it will come right in time, but I very much doubt it. We shall have to look to you to restore the family glories. I suppose when it comes to the pinch you really will marry the Duke of Lombaso."
Lady Peggy shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
"I suppose I shall," she said. "He is quite a nice boy, and the fact that he was educated at Eton and Christ Church makes all the difference. He is a thorough sportsman, Joan, and, if it is worth mentioning, his mother is a Spanish royal princess. They are immensely rich, of course, and, oh, dear. It's all very distressing. If one could only forget—"
"Ah, you are thinking of Tony Vickers now," Lady Joan said with a certain boyish sympathy. "Poor old Tony, I often wonder what became of him. It was very strange how he vanished that way. Just he and a handful of men coming back from a successful raid across No Man's Land, and never to be seen or heard of again. Of course, I know it is a horribly sordid idea, but the last time I saw Tony alive he told me that he had made a will leaving everything to you in case he died."
"Oh, don't talk about it," Lady Peggy murmured.
"But, my dear, I must. I have had it on my mind for years. What became of that will? Of course, I know that everything went back to his mother again, poor dear soul, and I shouldn't wonder if she makes you her heiress. I know it is very horrible, but one has to think of those sort of things."
Lady Peggy rose abruptly and walked in the direction of the house. Lady Joan had touched a tender chord. It was not often that the name of Tony Vickers was uttered between the sisters after this lapse of time, and Joan was bitterly regretting that she had mentioned it. But the Duke of Lombaso was expected at the castle that afternoon, and though the subject had never been mentioned between Fairbourne and his family, it was tacitly expected that something would come of this visit. Indeed, it was a prospect that most girls in Lady Peggy's position would have reached eagerly for with both hands. And yet, just then, she wanted to be alone with the memory of her dead soldier.
It was later in the afternoon that a big car drove up to the main entrance of the Castle, and a young man alighted. Except for his dark eyes and black hair, he might have been the typical English aristocrat who lives the clean open-air life and devotes himself entirely to sport. He came forward eagerly with outstretched hand as his host advanced to greet him.
"Ah, here we are," he cried in perfect English, "I have managed to get away from London at last, you see. So I hastened down here to pay my respects to you all, and give you my mother's kindest regards. She was very particular about that."
"Ah, she would be," Fairbourne said. "Bless my soul, it must be four years since I saw her last."
There was nothing of the conventional duke about the head of the house of Pevensey. He might have been a prosperous farmer in his shabby sports suit and brown gaiters, a rather stout, rosy-cheeked man, with old-fashioned side-whiskers and hair which was beginning to go grey over the temples.
"But come in, come in," he said. "You are just in time for tea. Had a good journey, I hope."
"Oh, I came down in my car," Lombaso said. "And I had company as far as Saltash. Count Ardra Barrados was with me. He said he had some sort of business there, so I gave him a lift from town. I wonder if you would mind asking him to come over here and dine and sleep. He has done one or two little things for me lately, and I feel rather under an obligation."
"Oh, certainly, if you wish it," Fairbourne said. "But I have met the man before, and I cannot say that I like him. Of course, you don't know it, but Barrados was one of that gang of German junkers who infested places like Saltash and Plymouth and disappeared a few days before war broke out. Still, I suppose we mustn't keep that spirit for ever, and if you like to ask Barrados over here for a night, I have no objection. He won't mind coming at your invitation without getting a line from me."
And so it came about three days later that Count Andra Barrados found himself for the first time for nearly eight years under the roof of an English gentleman again. There was nothing particularly attractive about the man with the hard, rather brutal face and insolent moustache, brushed up after the fashion affected by his late master, but he went out of his way to make himself agreeable, so that Fairbourne was satisfied. Not that he liked the man, not that anybody would have liked the man who had any knowledge of the world, which, apparently the young Duke of Lombaso lacked. At any rate, the dinner passed off pleasantly enough without any allusions to the past, or any conversation which might become controversial.
"You used to spend a lot of time in England, Count?" Fairbourne said when the coffee had been handed round and the footmen had gone. "Is it your intention to stay long? Would you like to settle down here altogether? England is no Paradise at present, but on the whole, about the best country in Europe to live in in these times. We are normal, at any rate."
"Are you quite sure of that?" asked the Count with a faint suggestion of a sneer. "Is England quite the well-ordered nation your Press pretends it is?"
The Duke flushed slightly; as the typical Englishman of the upper class, he resented criticism of this kind.
"Quite sure," he said shortly. "Of course we have had our anxious times, especially with the working classes. Those enormous war wages, you know. But that is all passing away. We are setting an excellent example to Europe, which must be followed by the other nations—even Russia is beginning to see the light. And now that war is a thing of the past—"
Count Barrados smiled rather evilly, and passed his hand across his moustache to hide the bitter lines that trembled about the corners of his mouth.
"Are you quite sure of that?" he asked. "What do you know about Russia? What does anybody know about Russia? Oh, yes, I am aware that your people have penetrated as far as Moscow and Petrograd, and, of course, those kind gentlemen who are feeding the starving children there have gone even farther. But Russia, as a whole, is as much a sealed book to civilisation under Lenin and Trotsky as is the city of Mecca to the Christian world. For all you know to the contrary, those people may have a couple of million men ready to spring at the throat of Europe at any moment. Why, the Red Army does consist of two millions of men, and Trotsky makes no secret of the fact. Let us suppose no has got two millions more hidden away, trained men, mind you, all of whom took some part in the Great War, and behind them are scores of secret munition factories working night and day. Say Trotsky gives the signal, tell me where you are then."
"But the thing is a nightmare," the Duke protested. "All Europe would rise like one man, we should mobilise our fleet and a blockade would do the rest. Don't forget, my dear Count, that your own country is in terror lest the Bolsheviks should break out afresh and infect the whole of Germany with the disease which is eating out the heart of Russia. Your present rulers have said so."
"Ah, rulers indeed," Barrados said with a bitter sneer. "The sweepings of the country. Idle scum calling itself Socialist. Ah, I tell you the time will come—"
He broke off abruptly, shaking from head to foot with a rage that held him in a fierce grip. He would have liked to have said much more, but he checked himself and proceeded more slowly.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "But when I think of what is and what was, I cannot contain myself. But mark you this, Duke, there is very little difference between the present rulers of Germany and the scoundrels who have Russia by the throat. Suppose they make common accord? Suppose there is a treaty signed between Germany and Russia? In ten years' time we shall put Russia on her legs again, we shall dominate that country, yes, and practically rule her. It will mean the richest population in the world, and two hundred millions of people thinking as one. Then, supposing that our class grasp the reins of office once again. Ah, my dear Duke, there is more than one way of taking what the French used to call la revanche. Who could stand up against us?"
"It's a dream," the Duke said.
"Very likely," Barrados sneered. "But such dreams very often come true. What do you think, Lombaso?"
"Oh, don't drag me into it," the young Spaniard laughed. "You see, I am supposed to be a neutral, though I could tell you a story or two if I liked. At any rate, I sincerely hope not. It would mean the end of civilisation. It would mean the disappearance of our class entirely. I want to forget all that sort of thing—I came over here because I love the English, and because I am a sportsman above everything."
"That is all very well," Barrados replied. "But you can't stop war. My dear Lombaso, your ancestors and mine, and the Duke's here, lived on war. It was our recognised profession. We could not join the peasants in their archery and bear-baiting, but we could fight, and, incidentally, made what you call a jolly good thing out of it. It's in our blood, I tell you, hereditary instinct, and, despite the lesson of the last eight years, we shall be at it at intervals so long as the world lasts. You are talking absolute nonsense when you tell me that there will be no more wars. We may have another in the next five years."
"Hoping it, perhaps," Fairbourne flung out curtly.
Barrados looked at him with a sinister smile. Before he could reply a footman entered with a card.
"Mr. Jelicorse to see you, your grace. Shall I ask him in?"
"By all means," Fairbourne said. "In here, Waters. And you might bring a wine-glass or two as well."
Jelicorse came jauntily into the small dining-room, with its quaint carved walls covered with figures of the chase and archers in fighting garb, and the fine old carpet on the solid floor. A litter of dessert lay scattered over the circular table and the candles in the big silver branches made subdued rings of light.
"Awfully sorry and all that sort of thing, Fairbourne," he said smilingly. "Fact is I had some slight matter of business in this neighbourhood and when I had finished I went to Jocelyn's place and dined there, intending to push on as far as Weymouth before camping for the night. Had trouble with the car just outside your village, so pushed my man into the local inn and came here with my suit-case cadging a bed for the night."
Fairbourne professed himself to be delighted—as indeed he was. He knew Jelicorse intimately and all about the fine work he had done through the medium of the Foreign Office throughout the war. As a one-time Under-Secretary to that department, Fairbourne had done his own bit there, from the breaking out of hostilities until after the armistice. He welcomed Jelicorse with open arms.
"Delighted, my dear follow," he cried. "We can see to all that presently. Sit down and help us to finish the port—you may never have another chance. Lombaso you know, of course."
The young Spaniard gave Jelicorse a friendly grin.
"Rather," he grinned. "There was a time and not very long ago when Jelicorse and myself were in a little venture—"
Lombaso broke off and grinned again but more sheepishly this time as he caught the warning gleam in Jelicorse's eye. The warning glance took in Barrados who sat there without taking the faintest notice of the newcomer with his glass, which he had filled more than once, in front of him.
"But surely you know Barrados?" Fairbourne exclaimed.
"Certainly I do," Jelicorse smiled. "On the contrary, it is he who seems to have forgotten me."
"I beg your pardon," Barrados said, forced at length to speak. "But the last time we met was not exactly a friendly encounter."
"You are right there," Jelicorse laughed. "But surely you have forgotten that long ago. In those days we were enemies. Dashed funny thing war, isn't it? Here I was not so many years ago, playing golf with Count Barrados on the South-East Coast. Deal and Sandwich and Princes. Then, all at once I am invited to cut the throat of the man who was my partner in some corking good foresomes. However, it is all over now."
"Are you quite sure of that?" Barrados asked thickly.
"Oh, surely, yes. You were very fond of the South-East Coast just before the War, Count. You had many friends in that neighbourhood whose houses you stayed in. Would you mind my saying that I didn't think that you were quite fair in so doing? I mean in the circumstances that followed so quickly afterwards."
"All is fair in love and war," Count Barrados replied.
"Ah, there is an admission," Jelicorse smiled. "As an old diplomat, I am delighted with it. All fair in love—and war. Precisely. We can talk it over in a friendly way now, but you have just told us, in as many words, that previous to hostilities you were engaged near one of our vital arteries in, shall we say picking up information. And why?"
"Well, why'" Barrados demanded.
"My dear sir, you have just told us. All's fair in war. You said so. And yet you would have denied that Germany brought about the trouble. All the time you and your fellow aristocrats knew exactly what was going to happen. But I don't want to labour the point, especially in another man's house. But there it is."
"Ah, you are too clever for me," Barrados said with something like a sneer. "But don't you be quite sure that the trouble is over yet. I hope our host will excuse me retorting, but Mr. Jelicorse has touched me on rather a tender spot. My dear sir, you don't suppose that a country like Germany is going to take this lying down for ever. Why, if I had two hundred thousand pounds—but I haven't and the odds are that such a sum will never come my way again. I am practically bankrupt. You all know what happened to my property and to my estates when the revolution broke out. Everything confiscated, and only a partially looted castle left to me. I am an extinct volcano."
"It seems to be the common lot," Jelicorse remarked. "We are all in the same boat. But, my dear sir, you don't mean to suggest that you could start a fresh European war with two hundred thousand pounds? It sounds like a story."
"Yes, but I could make it a fact," Barrados cried. "You are a clever lot in your Foreign Office, but you don't know everything. Even the Councillors of Falconhoe are ignorant of some things. And, by the way, how is the partnership going?"
"Oh, so you know all about it?" Jelicorse asked.
"There are few things in international politics that I don't know all about," Barrados said boastfully. "I have heard of your Devonshire retreat and the romantic spot where you, together with Colonel Enderby and Major Farncombe, plot all sorts of things. International detectives you call yourselves, don't you? Branch offices all over Europe. Family scandals hushed up, and revolutions suppressed at a moment's notice."
"Eh, what's that?" Fairbourne asked.
"Oh, it's perfectly true," Jelicorse said good-humouredly. "When our grateful country had no further use for our services said grateful country told us so in a letter of poignant regret, but none the less definitely for that. So we had to go and fend for ourselves as best we could. Old schoolfellows and college chums, you know. Broke to the world. What with income tax and local taxation, we couldn't muster a thousand a year between us. So we let our places off, and started a sort of scientific monastery at Falconhoe Manor, which, as you know, is close to Lynton. And unless I am greatly mistaken, we are going to make history. However, I am talking secrets out of school. Shall we join the ladies?"
They drifted off into one of the small drawing-rooms presently, and there the ladies Pevensey welcomed Jelicorse warmly. They were frankly delighted to hear that he was spending the night there, and when that matter had been satisfactorily arranged the small house party broke up into groups, but not before Jelicorse had taken the Duke of Lombaso aside and given him a few words of warning.
"Look here, my young friend," he said. "You will have to be careful. I wasn't particularly pleased to find Barrados here, and indeed I don't know how that truculent rascal managed to find his way into a house like this."
"I am afraid I am responsible for that," Lombaso explained. "He is a bit of a sweep, but he is a relation of mine, and rather a near relation, too. I suppose he is related to half the great families of Europe. You see, he happened to be in this neighbourhood, and I couldn't help doing the civil."
"Yes, but what is he doing here?" Jelicorse asked. "He is up to some mischief, I am certain. A man who abused British hospitality as he did in the early part of 1914 is capable of anything. Now, look here, Lombaso, your country was neutral during the war, and, so far as your king knew to the contrary, you personally were playing the part of a looker-on. But we know that you were one of us, and we know what fine work you did in the Argentine, where you were supposed to be looking after some kind of property there. You and I had some pretty exciting adventures together, and may have again."
"Ah, those were times," the young Duke grinned. "But do you mean to say there are big things doing again?"
"Most assuredly there are. There is danger ahead for the whole civilised world. Just imagine Germany and Russia putting up an alliance. No, I am not going to say another word, except this—Barrados knows all about it. He is one of the prime movers in the business, though he is an aristocrat, and professes to despise the present German Government. He hopes, when the time comes, to sweep that aside and replace it with the Prussian heel. Now, don't forget what I have told you, and don't let Barrados know that you suspect him. For the moment, that is all."
Lombaso moved off and joined the girls at the piano. There they stood chattering for some little time, until the billiard room was mentioned, so that a little time afterwards, Jelicorse found himself alone with the two girls.
"At last," Lady Peggy cried. "Now, Hilary, tell us all about it. We are dying to hear, at least I am. Oh, can't you give us something to do at once?"
"But why this breathless hurry?" Jelicorse asked.
"Just listen to the innocence of him," Lady Joan cried. "Anyone would think that he was a child. Can't you see what is going on under your nose? Can't you understand that Lombaso has come down here on matrimony bent? I don't really believe he is any more in love with Peggy than she is with him, but as it will be more or less of a State alliance, nothing will be allowed to interfere with it. And this poor dear sister of mine doesn't know whether she is standing on her head or her heels. If she could only get away for two or three months, the evil day would be postponed. And you promised us."
"My dear girls, of course I did, and I am not going to disappoint you. Things are beginning to move already. When I told the Duke to-night that my being here was entirely an accident to my car, I was using a—well—terminological inexactitude. I can't tell you why I had to adopt that strategy, because the point isn't worth discussing. But within the next two or three weeks you will both be far enough away from the Castle. Now, my dear Joan, I wish you would go into the billiard-room and leave me to have a little talk with Peggy. She will tell you all about it afterwards."
Lady Joan turned away obediently, and closed the door of the small drawing-room behind her.
"Now, then," Jelicorse said eagerly. "The curtain it going up, and the drama is about to begin. The same old drama of intrigue and mystery and adventure. Here we are, fighting for our country as we fought not very long ago, and here is the villain of the piece under the same roof as the two aristocratic heroines who are taking their part in his undoing. I mean you and Joan. Let us say that he has in his possession at the present moment some papers which it is necessary for us to see."
"You don't mean to say he has?" Peggy said breathlessly.
"Indeed I do, my fair confederate," Jelicorse laughed. "And I have got to see them. I am the chief conspirator, understand. Now, what you have got to do is this. I don't in the least know what room I am sleeping in to-night, and so far as I can gather, no arrangements have been made. Now, I want you to so contrive that my bedroom is in the same corridor as that of Barrados. Now that ought to be an easy one for you."
"Indeed it is," Lady Peggy murmured. "I will go and see to it at once. It is not the sort of thing I generally interfere in, but if this means that you are going to carry out your promise to Joan and myself, then you can count upon me implicitly. You must get me away from here, Hilary, you must get me away before Lombaso has spoken. It's very dreadful, but of course I shall have to say yes, and the longer I can postpone it, the better. Stay here until I come back. I won't be more than a minute or two."
Jelicorse sat there smoking his cigarette and turning things over in his mind until Lady Peggy came back.
"It is all arranged," she whispered. "The Count's bedroom is next to yours, and there is a balcony running all along that wing. I have even been in the Count's bedroom and broken the lock of his window. So there! Vive la guerre!"
There was no sign on Jelicorse's face as he lounged into the breakfast-room the following morning to show whether or not he had succeeded in his rather dangerous venture of the night before. Nor did Barrados appear to be in the least disturbed. It was therefore up to Lady Peggy and her sister, who, needless to say, had been made au fait with what was going on, to wait until such time as Jelicorse was disposed to speak. This would not probably be long, because Barrados would be on his way back to town some time before the luncheon hour. At Lombaso's request, the Duke had asked Barrados there for the night, but he had not the slightest intention of extending the visit, and, indeed, he had already seen to it that no obstacle should be placed in the way of the Austro-German's departure. It was, therefore, some time after eleven o'clock when Barrados made his adieux, and his car disappeared down the drive in the direction of the main road.
"Well, he's gone, at any rate," Lombaso said, as he and Jelicorse strolled up and down the terrace smoking their after-breakfast cigars. "And now, perhaps, you may be disposed to tell me something more than you did last night."
"I could tell you lots of things that would astonish you," Jelicorse smiled. "I mean personal matters. But they can keep for the moment. I mean every word of what I said last night. Now, the question is, are you with us?"
"With you? Of course I am. Wasn't I with you all through the war? Didn't I do good work in the Argentine, to say nothing of that Salonica business? And what about that fortnight you and I spent together in Constantinople? Lord, what a spree it was, Jelicorse! We two passing ourselves off as chiefs from the Sudan, and penetrating right into the Sultan's Palace. Taking our lives in our hands every moment. The fact is, I can't settle down to the old sporting life. After what I went through with you and those two thundering good sportsmen, Enderby and Farncombe, shooting and hunting and golf seem like kids' games. Even my trip to Uganda last year was tame. When a chap takes to brandy he never cares for light wines again, and that is me all the time. For the sake of the country which has educated me, and for the sake of freedom, I ran the risk of being disgraced in the Spanish court, and now that the war is over I am no longer afraid of that. Fact is, I never did care a damn about the Royal displeasure, except for my lady mother's sake. Now, tell me all about it."
"Well, there is nothing really definite to tell, so far," Jelicorse replied. "But I do know that Germany is on the verge of concluding a treaty with Russia. She is going to recognise the Soviet Government—"
"Which Germany created herself," Lombaso said shrewdly. "Oh, I don't forget that Lenin and Trotsky were two German Jews, sent to Russia and kept on the top of the wave by German money and a stiffening of German soldiers in the Red Guard. Of course, I know that the Brest Treaty was mere eyewash. I suppose this new treaty is ostensibly a commercial one."
"That's it," Jelicorse went on to explain. "The world will be able to see that, but they won't see the secret compact behind it. I mean the real offensive and defensive alliance, which will practically mean that Russia becomes a German province. Before the Power from the North knows where she is, she will be under the iron heel of Prussia, and then, with two hundred millions of men, you can imagine what will happen in ten years' time. There is only one thing that stands in the way. The Prussian aristocracy which is engineering the business is a bankrupt one. They dare not go to the present German Government for any money, because that would expose the whole of the scheme. The Socialists would be up in arms at once, and the proposed treaty would be a mere scrap of paper. It will be that in any case, or the Russians don't know it. You heard what Barrados said last night. You heard what he boasted he could do if he had two hundred thousand pounds. It was an idiotic remark to make, especially in my hearing, and I suppose I have to thank Fairbourne's excellent port for it. And Barrados means to get that money. He will get it by fair means or foul, and I have a shrewd notion of the way in which he is going about it. It is just one of those little clues that fall unexpectedly into the hands of those who know how to look for them. But I am not going to say any more about that, because I really don't know. In the course of a few days I shall probably be on the Continent, together with my colleagues, Enderby and Farncombe, and if you like to take a gun and join the shoot, so to speak, I shall be only too glad to have you in the party."
"Done," Lombaso cried. "Done, and double done. I am absolutely at a loose end just now, and if there is anything going with a spice of real danger in it, you can count me in.
"That is a bargain then," Jelicorse said as he extended his hand. Then a sudden thought occurred to him and he smiled. "Look here, my dear chap, there is one proviso I must make. I don't want any of love's young dream business mixed up with this."
"What does that mean?" Lombaso asked.
"Oh, well, one hears all sorts of rumours. You see hints in the Press sometimes. For instance, the Duke of Lombaso is staying at Fairbourne Castle, where Lady Peggy Pevensey is acting as hostess for her father. Society rubs its eyes and begins to take notice, and Society will be confoundedly annoyed if it doesn't wake up some morning to read one of those little paragraphs under the Court Circular in the 'Morning Post.' My dear chap, I am not vulgarly curious, but at the same time, I am not in the least anxious to have a newly engaged young man in my entourage."
Lombaso smiled and coloured slightly.
"Oh, these things do happen," he said. "My mother has been worrying me for years to get married and settle down. Vast family interests, half a dozen estates in different parts of the world, and the succession to think about. Of course it is quite natural for my mother, the Princess, and really it is a duty that I owe to my race. But somehow or another I seem to have had no time to think about women. I am much keener on winning the amateur golf championship. But when I do marry it will have to be a girl approved of by the powers that be. A sort of state marriage on a small scale. But one thing is certain. When I do put my head in the noose it will be an English girl who pulls the cord tight. I have put my foot firmly down on that point. So the last time I discussed the matter with my mother she mentioned several names which would have her approval. The Pevensey girls for two, with Lady Peggy for preference. So I suppose that will be it. But dash it all, old chap, I don't think she likes me a bit in that way, and I don't feel any sort of wild thrills when I come into her dainty presence, as the novelists call it. However, there is no hurry, and I think you are right in suggesting that I come with you without any ties of that sort."
"Then that is settled," Jelicorse said. "You had better stay on here two or three days, and I will drop you a line when I want you. Is that quite satisfactory?"
"Well, no, it isn't," the Duke said. "I must get back to Madrid before the end of the week. There are several things there claiming my attention, amongst other things the opening of the new opera house, where Inez Salviati is going to sing. I faithfully promised my mother I should be back for that. The King will be present, and it is really a command performance."
Jelicorse smiled again behind his hand. All this was no business of his, of course, but he had not forgotten the night of the Agincourt where he had seen Lombaso dining with Inez and Barrados. But these are the sort of things a diplomat does not speak of, and now that he had successfully cleared the ground for Lady Peggy, Jelicorse was not disposed to dwell on the point.
"That's all right then," he said. "Perhaps on the whole it would be better to have you in Madrid. I should not be at all surprised if the first act of the drama is played out there. Now then, let us go and make ourselves agreeable inside."
It was an hour or so later, and just before lunch, that Jelicorse found himself alone with Lady Peggy.
"What have you two been conspiring about?" she asked.
"Ah, that you will know all in good time," Jelicorse said. "But one thing I can promise you. You will not be asked to become Duchess of Lombaso on this occasion. That fact I have established beyond a doubt. Diplomacy, my child, diplomacy. When the big struggle comes, Lombaso is going to help, and I don't want any love-making intervals. You understand?"
"I think I do," Lady Peggy said with a sigh of relief. "It is a reprieve, at any rate. But what about that proposed visit or ours? I mean our visit to Falconhoe Manor."
"Oh, of course," Jelicorse said. "You two are coming, and so is Inez Salviate. You can stay at the post-office there, which is a charming retreat, and where you will be quite well looked after. In fact, the people there cater for visitors. There is no reason why you shouldn't come and dine with us occasionally. And now, my dear Peggy, please, your serious attention. You know perfectly well in the sort of adventures we are familiar with, that occasionally one has to watch even one's own colleagues. Not necessarily because you suspect them. Now, no one could doubt the loyalty of Inez Salviati, but she is a woman, and inclined to have little secrets of her own. It may occur to her that these secrets have no bearing on the big issue, but that is for the chief intriguer like myself to decide."
"You want me to find something out for you, then?"
"Most emphatically I do. Now, you turned up at the Agincourt the other night when Inez was dining with Lombaso. Did you happen to notice a certain jewel that she was wearing at the time?"
"Ah, you mean that big uncut emerald," Lady Peggy cried. "Of course I noticed it. Any woman would."
"That's it," Jelicorse murmured. "She wouldn't tell me, but I want to know where that stone came from. In fact, I must know, and your first task is to find out."
"Oh, I will find out easily enough," Lady Peggy said confidently. "You leave it to me, Hilary."
"Then we can consider that done," Jelicorse said. "Just find out, and make no comment whatever. When you have done that the game will be started in earnest, and it will be no fault of mine if you are not rewarded when the time comes."
Had he wished it Jelicorse might have remained in the Foreign Office after the Armistice. The imperturbable little man in the eyeglass, with his wide knowledge of languages and human nature, had done great things during those terrible years, but now that things had gone back to the normal the dreary routine and red tape had no attractions for him and he resigned. For a time he regretted this step and its consequent cutting off of a regular and steady income, the more so because his own resources were severely crippled by the crushing burden of income tax and other handicaps which are painfully familiar to most of us to-day. No doubt it would all come right in time, but meanwhile Jelicorse had to live, and after letting his small family property on a long lease he was only too glad to join forces with his tried friends Enderby and Farncombe, who were exactly in the same position. They had found what they wanted on the coast of North Devon, where they could work in comfort and without being spied upon by curious people, and where Enderby, the man of practical science, worked at his many inventions. There at Falconhoe Manor they had their wonderful helicopter 'plane, which was to make a sensation whenever Enderby chose to take the public into his confidence. They had their complete set of wireless, both telegraphic and telephonic, by means of which they were in touch with friends and confederates in most of the capitals of Europe. There were months at a time when they did not move beyond the grounds of Falconhoe, but there were other times when they were scouring half Europe on some diplomatic errand, on behalf of the Foreign Office, in connection with the French Government, and, in fact, the heads of the Entente nations. There were many perilous corners to turn yet before the nations sat down in amity together again, and, wherever an ugly intrigue showed its head within two thousand miles of London, then the Councillors of Falconhoe were invariably called in. Nobody knew this, though signs were not wanting that certain factions in Europe were on the track of the secret. For instance, Barrados knew. How exactly he obtained his information, Jelicorse did not know, and he did not very much care. Still, it was annoying to think that one of the men whom it was most necessary to keep in the dark should have hit upon the trail. However, he had been foolish enough to boast about it in Jelicorse's own hearing, and forewarned is forearmed.
There were other occasions when the Councillors embarked on private business, and these excursions into the unknown were highly remunerative, so that, on the whole, the triple partnership promised to restore the Councillors to that financial prosperity, the lack of which had forced them into their present path. And now big things were looming on the horizon, and before long the Councillors would find themselves with their hands full. Meanwhile, Jelicorse was at a loose end for a day or two, his colleagues were down in Devon, where he proposed to join them at the end of the week.
He was sitting in the dining-room of his lodgings in Mount-street one afternoon, awaiting the coming of Niel Nelson. Just before the latter arrived the afternoon post came in. There was nothing of any great importance from the official point of view, so that Jelicorse turned to those envelopes which were apparently of a more social and friendly nature. The first envelope he slit contained a note from Lady Peggy Pevensey.
"Dear Hilary (she wrote),—
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but I had more trouble in getting that little bit of information than I had expected. However, by patience and perseverance, I have managed to worm out the truth, without arousing our dear Inez's suspicions. I didn't like doing it a bit, but still, I promised you, and here is the information that you require. Of course, I ought to have been furious to discover that Inez obtained the thing we know of from the Duke of Lombaso. In other words, the young man who deigns to honour me with his (official) affections is actually carrying on an intrigue with another girl who is one of my friends. But, somehow, I am not so angry as I should be, because I have a feeling that there is no harm in it. I cannot tell you any more, except that the ornament in question is a sort of mascot, and I don't believe that it has finally passed out of the Duke's possession. Why you want this information, and why you have gone out of your way to make all this mystery about it is past my small understanding, but there you are, and make the best of it.
"However, you have been very kind to me, and I am more than grateful. But don't forget your invitation to Falconhoe. In fact, I have already anticipated it. The Duke went off a few days ago, and we parted exceedingly good friends, without any embarrassment on either side. And that is what comes of being members of a caste of Vere de Vere. In a humbler walk of life I suppose I should have said good-bye to him with my thumb in my mouth. However, you have succeeded in postponing the evil day, and I cannot sufficiently thank you. I suppose I shall have to marry him some time or another, if I am to save the family from absolute ruin. I never yet heard of a duke in a workhouse, though I can imagine dear old daddy bearing his misfortunes as his ancestors did about the time of Charles I. But because there hasn't been a duke in a workhouse, I don't see why there should never be. However—
"You will be surprised to hear that Inez is still here, and that she hopes to join us at Windy Bay—in fact, we took the small car over the day before yesterday, and spied out the promised land. What a lovely spot it is, and that dear little whitewashed post-office where we arranged to take rooms for a week is absolutely ideal. We are looking forward to quite a good time there, so please get back to Falconhoe as quickly as possible, and telegraph me as soon as you arrive there. Mind you, I shall expect to hear all about the great adventure which you are planning for us, and I have already given dear old daddy a hint or two as to what is going to happen. He just shakes his head and says he doesn't know what we modern girls are coming to. So that's that."
It was at that precise moment that Niel Nelson put in an appearance. He came in cheerfully enough, and quite happy with a prospect at last of being able to do something to restore his fallen fortunes. At any rate, he had cast off the garb of a waiter for ever, and professed himself to be entirely at Jelicorse's disposal.
"Well, here I am," he said cheerfully. "I have managed to redeem my wardrobe from the care of mon oncle, and that leaves me with just sufficient money to get down to Falconhoe."
"Oh, you needn't worry about that," Jelicorse said. "You are now in the employ of the Councillors of Falconhoe, at a salary of four hundred a year, and all expenses paid. Now sit down and have a cigarette, and let us talk things over. Now I am going to ask you a very delicate question. After the revolution in Russia broke out, did you ever hear anything directly or indirectly about your mother? You know what I mean."
Nelson drew a long deep breath.
"I hate even to think about it, Jelicorse," he murmured. "You know what happened to the Czar and his family... well, there is little doubt that that is exactly what took place with regard to my mother and her servants in the castle near Moscow. There is no doubt they were all brutally murdered—"
"And robbed, I presume? Of course, you can't tell me what became of all the property?"
"No, but I can guess," Nelson said grimly. "Of course, everything was confiscated for the benefit of the Soviet Republic. I suppose no Princess outside royal blood ever had such a collection of jewels as my mother. She trusted her own people implicitly, and I have no doubt that all those gems were actually in the castle at the time of the tragedy. It seems an unfeeling thing to say, but if those had been saved I should be a wealthy man to-day. But please don't let us talk about it."
"Very well," Jelicorse said, having gained his point. "You will understand later on why I raised the question. And now I want you to begin work at once. I want you to go round, just about teatime, to a little restaurant in Genoa-street, Soho—I think the name of the place is the Martini—I want you to sit there, smoking a cigarette and having a cup of tea and reading your paper. I can't describe the men you will meet, because they probably will be disguised, and they won't know you till you speak."
"But what am I to say?" Nelson asked.
"Well, nothing, in a manner of speaking. They will come and take their seats in the little alcove, at the back of the restaurant, and you will be at the next table, the only other table, in fact. Possibly somebody else may be sitting beside you, but that doesn't matter very much. If the right men turn up, they will presently begin to talk about birds. Directly one of them speaks of a black eagle, then you interrupt. You ask him if the black eagle is a bird ever seen in Europe. You can, of course, apologise for interrupting the conversation, and say that you are interested in the subject in an amateur kind of way. One of the men you are after will probably make some reply, and I want you to remember carefully exactly what he says. It may be a long conversation—on the other hand, it may only consist of a few words. And when the speaker has finished all he has to say he will turn his back upon you, and after that the sooner you are back here the better."
"By Jove," Nelson smiled. "Sounds like a chapter out of a sensational story."
"And so it is," Jelicorse said drily. "The most sensational story that Europe has heard since 1914. Now, off you go, and after you come back we will have some dinner, and catch the evening mail to Exeter. To-morrow we foregather at Falconhoe, and there we stay till the signal comes. That is all for the moment."
Niel Nelson wandered out into the street, turning over this strange mission in his mind. It was not the first time that he had come under the influence of the three mystics who now formed the Councillors of Falconhoe. During the war he had helped Jelicorse more than once, and he was only too anxious to be of further assistance. And if there were big things moving, then there was a lure before him that he would not have missed.
He came presently to his destination, a mean little eating-house in Soho, in which was a fair sprinkling of shabby-looking foreigners, drinking, and smoking, and playing their eternal dominoes. As he glanced into the alcove at the top end of the room he saw three or four of those unsavoury exiles seated at the nearer table, whilst the other one at the far end of the alcove was empty. He pushed his way towards the table and took his seat quietly, facing the wall. He had hardly settled down over a cup of coffee and the evening paper, when two men passed him, and flung themselves down at the upper table. They were both foreigners, thin and tall and bearded, and it seemed to Nelson that they were in disguise, but of that he could not be sure, and he knew that he would not even have suspected it but for the hint which Jelicorse had given him. They began to speak in more or less indifferent English, and Nelson thrilled as he heard birds mentioned.
"I tell you it is a fact," the taller of the two men said. "I have seen, and I know. The black eagle is a migratory bird, which accounts for the fact that it is occasionally seen all over Europe. I have seen it myself, Michael."
"Excuse me, sir," Nelson said as coolly as he could. "You will pardon my interfering, but I am interested in the great game birds. Is it actually a fact that the black eagle occasionally flies over Europe on its way to the north?"
The stranger fixed Nelson with a piercing stare.
"That is so, monsieur," he said slowly. "I have seen it myself. And you may take it from me that the black eagle flies eastward. He is flying eastward at this moment."
With that, the dark man turned his back almost offensively, as it seemed to Nelson, and the latter heard no more. Obviously the conversation was finished, and five minutes later Nelson finished his coffee and sauntered slowly out.
The Councillors had made no idle boast when they declared that Falconhoe was one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in Europe. It lay on a ledge, half-way down a wooded slope, and below it was the sea, creeping into a tiny cove over gigantic masses of rock, where it was possible, at the right time of year, to get excellent bathing when the tide was at the flood. Just above the beach nestled a pair of white cottages where Colonel Philip Enderby, the mechanical genius of the trio, kept his wonderful helicopter aeroplane, and had his engines and store batteries, by means of which the powerful wireless station at the back of the house itself was equipped. The manor was approached by a narrow road, some thousand feet above the sea, and fringed on both sides with larches and pines. As the path trended downwards, it narrowed between great woods, consisting of most of the forest trees, forming an arch overhead, the little dales and hollows of which were fringed with all sorts of dainty ferns. A little mountain stream wended its way down the precipitous slopes, and emptied finally in lace-like waterfall on to the beach. Just above the house was a long whitewashed cottage, standing in an old world garden, and this served the dual purpose of a post-office and a summer boarding house for such visitors as were fortunate enough to obtain accommodation there. The manor house lay perched upon a plateau of rock, much as if some giant hand had scooped it out with a purpose, and there the long grey building lay, looking out over a sea of foliage, and blue and grey and lichen, the whole forming a prospect in its summer greenery that would be hard to imagine. Immediately in front of the house was a broad drive, and under that a well-kept sunken tennis court, where the Councillors kept themselves fit with hard exercise in the intervals between tea and dinner. There were not many bedrooms, perhaps a dozen altogether, with an up-to-date bathroom, and four living-rooms, dining-room, drawing-room, library, and the fourth, the noblest of the lot, given over entirely to Enderby and his mechanical appliances. It was here that he sat most of the day, with a receiver about his ears, listening to everything that went on all over Europe, and translating as much as was important to his colleagues.
They were waiting on events now, they were passing their own messages back to Rome and Vienna and Berlin, even as far as Constantinople, over a whole network of intercommunications which were covered by their agents everywhere. It was about 5 o'clock on that sunny afternoon that Enderby closed the door of his workshop behind him and went out on to the terrace where Jelicorse and Farncombe were seated waiting for their tea. A stiff old butler, obviously a soldier who had suffered in the wars, came out with an occasional table and began to lay the meal.
"Oh, here you are," Jelicorse said. "I heard a car stop half-way up the hill a little time ago, apparently outside the post office. I shouldn't wonder if our fair visitors have arrived. If so, they are just in time."
The still air was broken a minute or two later by chattering voices, and down the drive came the three expected guests. They were loud in praise of the beauty of the landscape, and the serene quietness of the house, before they settled down to the tea table and conversation became general. Jelicorse noted with a quiet smile that Inez Salviati was still wearing the uncut emerald, which in some mysterious way she had obtained from the Duke.
"Now let us hear all about it," Lady Peggy cried. "We are all here now, and Inez is just as keen on the adventure as Joan and myself. Now, confess, was there ever a more ideal spot in which to hatch a conspiracy? If I were a man, as hard up as you people are, I would turn Falconhoe Manor into the headquarters of a gang of aristocratic burglars. You have got all the audacity and brains, and not an ounce of nerves amongst the four of you. Why, with that wonderful helicopter of Colonel Enderby's you could plan a burglary in Edinburgh and be back here again before daylight."
Philip Enderby lay back in his chair and extended his six feet four of lean manhood, and laughed all over that long solemn face of his. He seemed quite intrigued with the idea.
"Now that is not a bad suggestion," he said. "Nobody has suffered at the hands of the beastly profiteers more than we have. Whilst we were saving Europe, those chaps were stealing it in chunks and hiding it in their pockets. And that is why we are all so infernally poor. But you don't speak feelingly, Lady Peggy."
Lady Peggy shook her bobbed head merrily.
"Oh, don't I?" she cried. "Ask Joan. Why, I am going to immolate myself on the altar of matrimony to save the family from going in a long procession to the workhouse. That is why I am heart and soul in this adventure. I am like the Spaniard who put off what he ought to do to-day until to-morrow, on the off-chance of not having to do it at all."
"Well, there are worse philosophies," Farncombe observed. "But look here, you girls, you don't seriously expect that we are going to tell you all our plans. Why, we haven't made them ourselves. At the present moment we are watching the enemy. When he makes his first move then it will be time for us to start. All I can say is, keep your eye on Barrados."
"That is right," Jelicorse remarked. "But you need not be afraid. There will be plenty of exciting adventures before long. We may have to start this very night. Nelson here brought me a bit of information the day before yesterday, which we regard as being of the highest importance."
"You will not leave me out?" Inez Salviati asked.
"Leave you out," Jelicorse cried. "Most assuredly not. I regard you as the finest asset we have. You will be in Madrid and Rome and Berlin and Dresden on that triumphant tour of yours, and who will imagine that the great prima donna has so far forgotten her dignity as to be dabbling in the little schemes of the Councillors of Falconhoe. Oh, yes, Inez, yours is going to be a star part."
"And where do we come in?" Lady Joan asked eagerly.
"Oh, don't you worry about that," Nelson smiled. "I don't know much about it yet myself, but I do know something about the part which has been cast for Peggy and yourself, and it will be my pleasing duty to act as your shadow and see that you don't get into any danger. I shall rather like that."
"Now, that is very sweet of you, Niel," Lady Joan said almost lovingly. "I began to think that fate had parted us two for ever. It was very hard lines on you, Niel."
"Just as hard upon you, my dear," Nelson replied.
"Well, really," Lady Joan expostulated.
"Oh, well, we are all friends here together, and you know very well, Joan, that if I hadn't lost everything in England, and all that property in Russia which was coming to me, we two would have married and settled down long ago. Now, when we get to Germany, where we shall be going later on, we have got to keep an eye on the main chance. Loot the German National Bank, or something of that sort. Borrow Enderby's helicopter and raid the ex-Kaiser's hoard in Holland. Anything, as long as we can make money."
"Ah, it sounds like a dream," Lady Joan sighed. "But, really, things are so desperate that I shouldn't mind becoming a lady burglar myself. I think every girl ought to learn some profession, and the get-rich-quick idea always appealed to me."
They sat there for a long time, chatting inconsequently in the sunshine, and admiring the wide expanse of cliff and tree and sea that lay before them. Then Lady Peggy jumped up and demanded to see Enderby's workshop without further delay.
"You will find it rather dry," Enderby said. "It's all so highly technical. You see, we are by way of being pioneers. Some day, and that before very long, our equipment of wireless telephony will be as commonplace as the typewriter. We shall be all able to buy our own instruments and to sit in our own homes hearing everything that goes on all over the world. However, we are in advance of anything else in this country, and we can talk to Berlin and Rome, much as I am talking to you girls now."
"Is that really so," Lady Joan cried excitedly. "Come on, you others, let's go and listen. If we are lucky enough, we may perhaps hear what the Pope is going to have for dinner. And what a splendid medium for gossip. Fancy lying in bed in the morning and hearing all about the Princess of Gotha's new wig, or what the King of Maraturia is going to do about that little card scandal."
Enderby led the way into his workroom, which appeared to be one mass of wires and burnished steel, and brass instruments of weird design, and then for an hour or so patiently explained them to his more or less bewildered hearers. He set certain machinery in motion, and then invited Lady Peggy to come forward and place the receivers over her ears.
"Now, don't be afraid to speak out," he said. "You are through to Madrid. You are on to the palace of the Marquis el Navarro."
"Oh, the darling," Lady Peggy cried. "It's years since I saw him last, and then I was just out of the schoolroom. Do you mean to say that I am going to speak direct to him?"
"Indeed I do," Enderby laughed. "I have told him you are here, and of course he is delighted. Now, you can just say what you like, whilst we all turn our back upon you, and we shan't hear a word. You needn't speak above a whisper, and if there is any scandal we shan't be any the wiser."
And for the best part of half an hour Lady Peggy sat there entranced. From time to time the others could see her lips moving, but no more. Then presently, with rather a pulled expression of face, the listener lifted the receivers from her ears and turned eagerly in Enderby's direction.
"The Marquis says there is somebody listening in," she explained. "Or perhaps I am not doing the right thing. He told me to cut out the circuit because he wanted to speak to you."
Enderby went across to the instrument and listened intently for a few seconds. Then he cut out once more and turned to his companions with something like enthusiasm on that usually grave face of his. He was not a man given to the expression of emotions.
"It marches, mes amis, it marches," he cried. "El Navarro has just told me that the black eagle has reached Petrograd. A few days, and we shall be in it up to our necks."
A few golden days drifted on in that remote paradise beside the North Devon sea during which time the Fates appeared to slumber, a way they have before the happening of great events. The womenkind came down from their eyrie amongst the sleepy woods, where the long white cottage stood amidst its wonderful greenery looking down the glades of fern and heather with the mountain stream brawling noisily to the beach, where it fell in a glittering cascade to the sands.
They played tennis, they bathed, and lingered in the sunshine as if there was not a single care in the world. To Niel Nelson especially it was a wonderfully happy time. He was saying as much to Lady Joan one afternoon when they had wandered along the fringe of woods by the cliff path towards Heddon's Mouth.
"I suppose you can't quite understand what this is to me?" he asked. "I shall wake up presently and find myself back in that confounded restaurant again. What a life!"
"Yes, poor boy, it must have been dreadful," Lady Joan smiled with the sweetest sympathy. "Do you know, I think Fate has been particularly unkind to us. I was looking forward to settling down in that lovely old house of yours—"
"Do you think you would ever settle down, Joan," Nelson asked.
"Of course I should," Lady Joan cried indignantly. "With a house like yours, and the hunters you used to keep, what could any girl want more? But we have one consolation at any rate—you haven't sold that old place, and things may come right even yet. I hope you won't think I am impatient, Niel."
"Then you are going to wait for me?" Nelson risked.
"Of course I am. I don't care how long. Well, perhaps that is not quite true, but you know what I mean. There was never anybody else but you, Niel, since we were kiddies together. And perhaps these wonderful adventures which we are embarking upon will make our fortunes. I don't exactly know how, but perhaps we shall come upon some buried treasures. I hope we shall have to go to Russia. Why, there must be as much treasure buried there as ever the old pirates buried in the islands of the old Spanish Main. It sounds like a book, doesn't it? You and I together going through all sorts of adventures, perhaps bearding the Bolshevik leaders in their den and getting away with a bushel of diamonds. I don't think I should be quite content with less than a bushel. Then you could turn the tenants out of your house, and we could go back there and be happy ever afterwards. That is my dream."
"And a very beautiful one it is, too," Nelson smiled sadly. "But you never know."
They sat there in the sunshine building their castles and oblivious to the flight of time. When they got back again to Falconhoe, the tennis was suspended, and the conspirators were having tea on the terrace in front of the house. Something apparently had happened, for the tea party seemed to be under a cloud, and Inez Salviati especially seemed depressed. There was no sparkle in those wonderful eyes of hers, and every trace of vivacity had vanished from her face.
"What on earth is the matter?" Lady Joan cried.
"Alas, I have to leave you." Inez explained. "I have just had a horrible telegram. It appears that almost at the last moment they are changing the opera with which the season in Madrid was to be opened, and I have to go over there and rehearse at once. To-morrow morning I turn my back upon this wonderful place, which seems to have almost got into my bones."
"Then you really will be sorry to go away?" Jelicorse asked.
Inez flashed him a glance which conveyed nothing to the others, but which Jelicorse understood. He had known this beautiful creature ever since her eighteenth year, when he had met her in Mexico on his secret mission six years ago, and when she had come to him a sort of social revolutionary, aflame to take her part in the struggle for the world's freedom. Then she had been no more than a little singing girl on the vaudeville stage in Mexico City, with the world before her and quite alone, for her father had been dead some months, and she had to fight a lone hand for herself. Jelicorse had smiled at first, but not for long. He soon came to realise the amazing intelligence and courage underlying that frail, graceful body. Nobody but himself knew, or ever would know, what Inez had done for the Great Cause. In Mexico, in New York, and after that in European cities, she had played her part, travelling as a singer in opera companies with her neutrality never for a moment suspected. And gradually a wonderful understanding had sprung up between these two, though no word had been said, on either side, but they knew well enough that when the trouble was all over, and the world had settled down again, Inez' career as a public singer would finish. And now she was going off hotfoot to Madrid, with a little secret at the back of her mind which she had not confided to the man whose opinion she valued above all things. Why she had sought to conceal from him the story of the uncut emerald Jelicorse did not know, but he had a very strong suspicion, a suspicion that was leading him to look months ahead, as a born diplomat should. He was not annoyed or hurt, because he felt that the incident was an innocent one, and that he would hear all about it from Inez in good time.
"So I am going away," she said. "I have been so happy here that I almost wish I had never come. What a glorious place it is, and what wonderful air. But, alas, I have other things to think of. To-morrow I shall be miles away."
"And so we all shall," Lady Peggy said. "We have stayed here too long already. I tell you what we will do, Inez, we will take you as far as Taunton in the car, and see you safely into the train. The holiday is over."
So it fell about the following morning that the little party broke up, and the Councillors of Falconhoe with their new assistant went sternly back to work again.
"Not that we shall be here very long ourselves," Enderby remarked. "Certainly not longer than another fortnight."
"Yes, I can guarantee that," Jelicorse put in. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, things will begin to move just before the opening of the new Opera House in Madrid. Never mind how I know it, but I feel it in my bones. However, everything is absolutely ready, and we shall be able to start at a moment's notice. And now, I want you to listen to something I have got to say. I have had a letter specially sent over from Lynton which contains rather a good offer. It may take us a week, but certainly not longer. Do you fellows think it safe to take it on? I mean, do you think that we can risk the chance of a week's delay in the other business?"
"Is it worth while?" Farncombe asked.
"From the vulgar mercenary point of view, yes. There is the best part of a thousand pounds hanging to it. The Grand Duke Sven—"
"What?" Nelson cried. "Sven? Why, I thought he was dead. I thought he had perished with all the rest of them."
"Nothing of the kind," Jelicorse went on. "He was one of the very favoured few who escaped by way of Siberia and Vladivostok to America. I think he must have got away by the skin of his teeth—indeed, I know he lost everything he had, and when he got over to the other side, he fell in love with a Miss Fair, the only child of Peter Fair, of the Fifth Standard Bank, and married her. The old chap died about a year ago, and the Grand Duke and his American missus are now settled down in Park Lane. Surely you must have heard all about that, Niel?"
"Indeed I didn't," Nelson protested. "I had not the remotest idea the man was alive. You see, I have been so busy the last two years scratching about in the underworld for a bare living that I have lost sight of my own class altogether. Lord, I have done all sorts of things, driven a taxi, been out with a busking company on Margate sands. I can tell you that I was quite the fashionable tenor amongst the proletariat, and I should probably have gone on with it if the manager had not sloped one morning with all the takings. And so the Grand Duke Sven is actually alive, and as well off as ever he was. Well, It's a funny world. Do you know that man's Russian estates march with my mother's? When her father died Sven became her trustee. Really, I must contrive to see him, because he may he able to give me some information with regard to a very sad and anxious time. I don't want to dwell upon it, but you chaps know exactly what I mean."
"Well, if we decide to take this matter up, you will have every opportunity," Jelicorse said, "in fact, I propose to ask him to come down here."
"What's the trouble with him?" Enderby asked.
"Oh, it is a matter of Jewels again. We don't seem to be able to get away from that sort of thing. There is not too much information in the letter, but, from what I can gather, the great man is anxious to recover the family gems. It seems that his wife is set upon it, and from all accounts it was a fine lot of stuff, too. Historic for the most part, and therefore having a sentimental interest. And so far as I can make out, the gem of the collection is a pearl necklace which has been traced into the hands of a certain English merchant called Hommany—Samuel Hommany."
"Oh, I know all about him," Farncombe cried. "A scoundrel if ever there was one. A sort of half American who took out naturalisation papers in England some fifteen years ago, and has been suspect ever since. Sort of chap that the Foreign Office keeps a keen eye on. Very rich, of course, and worth five times what he was when the war broke out. He had branches in Berlin and Petrograd, and did business of an extremely shady nature. He belongs to that poisonous class of man who owns to no country and boasts of no patriotism, and who plays for his own hand entirely. Two years before the war broke out we very nearly laid him by the heels in connection with some drawings that disappeared from Woolwich, and found their way to Berlin. We couldn't find out during the war that he was actually trading with the enemy, but we knew perfectly well that he was, and I can vouch for it that he was in Russia for more than a year after the treaty between Russia and Germany was concluded at Brest. You may bet your life that Hommany was hand in glove with all the poisonous Bolshevik scoundrels who were gathered round Lenin and Trotsky for their own ends. Of course, you know perfectly well that not one of them cares a damn about Russia. They are after the loot, and nothing else. Why, I could tell you where scores of them keep their English banking accounts, men who before the war were ready to cut anybody's throat for sixpence. They are a shrewd, cunning lot, who know perfectly well that the day of reckoning is coming, and when it does they will leave Russia like so many rats—fat, greasy rats with plenty of food stored away for the rainy day. Now, at a guess, I should say that Hommany went out to Russia with a trunk full of English Treasury notes and bought up looted gems right and left. He would probably get them at his own price, and no doubt the famous pearl necklace is among the rest of the loot. Oh, I know the brute, sort or man who welcomed the war, and regarded it as a gift from Heaven for a machine for trebling his wealth."
"No doubt you are right," Farncombe said. "But the question is, shall we take it on? What does the Grand Duke want us to do?"
"Well, as far as I can make out, he wants us to steal the necklace," Jelicorse said drily. "He doesn't propose to pay Hommany anything for it, because it doesn't belong to the blackguard. He regards Hommany as just a receiver of stolen goods. If he takes proceedings, then there will be a lot of fuss and scandal, and perhaps the Court will decide against the Grand Duke after all. So it is up to us to lay a little trap for Hommany, and get the necklace back. When he realises that it is gone, he will put up with the loss all right, and all the more so because his wife and family are beginning to climb socially. Now, what do you chaps say?"
"We'll take it on," Enderby spoke for the others. "But if we do, it must be done at once."
The Grand Duke Sven and his beautiful American wife had been dining with some intimate friends at the house in Park-lane a few days later and a great reception was to follow. It was getting late when a taxi-cab containing four members of the Imps o' the Moon pierrot troupe moved slowly along Park-lane in the direction of the house where the reception was being held. They had been more or less commanded to the house in question, there to give a performance before the Duke's five hundred odd guests.
Villars Croft, the moving spirit of the troupe, stared out of the window and waved his hand comprehensively.
"We are getting on, dear brethren," he said. "From the sands at Ilfracombe to Malakoff House, Park Lane, is no mean step. Of course, everybody knows that we are of the salt of the earth and the children of a hundred earls, so to speak, but that does not prevent us from having our own livings to get. Rather a new idea ours, the Imps o' the Moon, recruited exclusively from the ranks of the aristocracy, and the adventure likes me much. But don't forget, my friends, that if we fail in this business we shall probably face, not the footlights, but the presiding magistrate at Bow-street. In other words, we are embarking on crime. Still, it means a hundred pounds apiece for us, and just at this moment I would do a whole lot of queer things for a hundred quid. That is why I jumped at the chance when my dear old pal Jelicorse came and expounded the scenario."
"Spoken wisely," Birk Cteven cried. "I think we are all agreed with the honourable member. But don't you think, dear boy, that we are looking for a needle in a bundle of hay. How are we to know, for instance, that the pearl necklace will be present at the reception to-night? And if we fail to get it this evening, are we going to have another chance?"
"Assuredly," Croft explained. "That is part of the bargain. The first thing is to locate the necklace. If it is here to-night, then the Grand Duke will point it out to us, and it will be up to us to got hold of it as best we can. You see, they called us in because we have caught on. We really are the fashion. The Imps o' the Moon have appealed strongly to the romantic public, and still more strongly to the poisonous class of snob who, having made tons of money during the war, is pushing his, or her, way into society. Very well then. We have books up for a whole series of visits to country houses where, out of sheer necessity, the effete aristocracy of this distressed country are entertaining the gilded profiteer. And that is where we shall get Hommany sooner or later."
"It seems like a sound scheme," Cteven, the tenor of the party, laughed. "I wonder if the Grand Duke will remember me again. I saw him once or twice years ago, when I was at the British Embassy at Petrograd. Quite a good chap, I thought."
"Did you ever meet the Grand Duchess, Villars?" Geraldine Croft, the dainty soubrette of the company, asked her husband.
"No," Villars replied. "I haven't."
"But I have," Cteven's wife put in. "I met her in New York when I was with our Embassy."
Mrs. Cteven, called Lune, after her Japanese mother, looked up at her husband and smiled. Time was when she had been the guarded flame in the household of a Japanese nobleman of the old school, and the apple of her father's eye until Birk Cteven had spirited her away to Europe at the risk of his life and married her in Paris. It had been all right before the war, and even for some little time afterwards, yet now Cteven and his wife had been glad enough to throw in their lot with the Imps o' the Moon, where Cteven's light, pure tenor and Lune, with her wonderful Japanese dances and quaint folklore songs to native music, had proved quite necessary to the company.
It was these people, therefore, all of them well known to the Councillors of Falconhoe, who had come quite willingly into the scheme for the recovery of the famous pearl necklace.
More than that, the sinister Hommany was at present the tenant of Villars Croft's fine old Place in Yorkshire. And because the Imps o' the Moon were going on there in the course of their northern tour, Jelicorse had grabbed at the dual opportunity with both hands.
The taxi pulled up at length before the great house in Park Lane, and the four pierrots, in their uniform of grey and silver, made their way up the staircase, where the host and hostess were welcoming their guests, shaking hands with those they knew, and smiling on the various climbers who were not actually in society, though they were all prepared to pay handsomely for that more or less doubtful privilege. It being to a certain extent a charity entertainment, the company was a curiously mixed one, celebrities rubbing shoulders with social aspirants, notorious war profiteers with their resplendent womenkind, Cabinet Ministers, popular authors—in fact, everybody anxious to be seen under a Grand Ducal roof. Brilliant lights played on banks and wreaths and flowers, and on the dazzling display of gems with which so many women there were adorned.
"So good of you to come to our aid like this," the Grand Duchess murmured, as she held out a long, slim hand to Geraldine Croft. "Where have you been all this time, Gerald? Ah, Mr. Cteven, you are also quite a stranger. And how is my dear little Japanese butterfly? Sven, my dear, I think you have met the Ctevens."
The dark, thin man with the thin, sensitive, artistic face by the side of the Grand Duchess bowed.
"The pleasure is mine," he murmured. "Of course I have heard all about your charming romance, Mr. Cteven. So this is the dashing cavalier who braved the wrath of—but, Mr. Cteven, it is strange if we have not met before. Not quite in your present guise, but in comedy-drama circumstances in Petrograd."
"I knew you would recognise me, sir," Cteven said. "Ah, those were stirring times."
"We must have a chat about them," the great man said. "When all this motley mob has gone we will smoke a cigar together with Villars Croft whilst the Duchess entertains Mrs. Cteven and her friend Mrs. Croft. Times are sadly changed for us all but we can still get some enjoyment out of life."
"A queer menagerie are they not?" the Duchess smiled. "Still it does not matter so long as we spoil the Egyptians. The display of jewels on those new rich is positively barbaric."
"Isn't it?" Geraldine laughed. "Look at those pearls. I have never seen anything like them. Villars, isn't the girl with the pearls the daughter of our tenant, Mr. Hommany?"
"Quite right," Croft agreed. "Bertie Fitzhurst is evidently making the running there. Quite the devoted swain, what?"
"Well, our poor little Bertie must marry money, or soil his delicate hands with work. These Hommanys are quite vulgarly rich, Clytie, though I need hardly tell you that."
"So I am told," the Grand Duchess observed. "Then, you see, we take an especially keen interest in the Hommanys. I suppose I am correct in assuming that that man made most of his money in Russia at one time or another?"
"I understand the brute is half Russian," Croft murmured. "His mother was, at any rate. He piled it up during the war, and he was wise enough to see what was coming. He was out again there at the time of the revolution, and goodness knows what bloodshed and horror he saw. I shouldn't be at all surprised to find he had a hand in it himself. You see, he is quite the substantial British capitalist now, and despite his wealth, he won't be happy until he does me out of my little estate."
"But look at the pearls those women are wearing," the Duchess cried. "Both mother and daughter. They are marvellous. No wonder poor little Bertie Fitzhurst is dazzled. Sven, did you ever see such pearls in all your life?"
The Grand Duke Sven turned a glance in the direction of a negatively pretty girl who was seated a little way off, obviously flattered by the attentions of the Honourable Bertie Fitzhurst, who was notoriously in search of a wife with money. Then the great man's expression changed from one of bored indifference to a livid interest, which lighted him up like a flash.
"Once," he said, under his breath, "that was round the neck of one who was very dear to me. When I say once, I mean that was the last time I ever saw it. I am speaking of that necklace. My dear, can't you guess what it is?"
"The Katherine pearls," the Duchess gasped. "The same. Once seen, there is no possibility of a mistake. Now, Croft, you know what to do."
Croft gave the desired assurance, as did the rest of his party. They passed along presently into the model theatre which had been built at the back of the house, and there for the best part of two hours held the mixed audience in fits of laughter. It was the first appearance of the Imps before a critical social gathering, and at the end of it, Croft gave a sigh of relief and triumph. There would be no further anxiety so far as his troupe was concerned, and there was a matter of five hundred pounds to come besides.
The last of the motors had taken up its load at length, and Malakoff House had lapsed into its usual decorous silence. In a small library, the Grand Duke was regaling Croft and Cteven with some of his choice Corona Coronas and a special whisky which, contrary to the usual regulations, was not thirty degrees under proof. His face was unusually stern, and that pleasant smile of his had given place to a black frown between his brows.
"Now, let us get to business," he said. "I understand that you are prepared to run certain risks with regard to that necklace. Having seen it once, you will never forget it. Of course, unless some miracle happened, you could not have carried out your little scheme to-night, but I should very much like to know what you suggest as to the real attempt."
"We have thought that all out," Croft said. "And we shall get your pearls in a few days, when we start on our northern tour. Jelicorse will keep you au fait with what is happening. On a certain date we go to a certain house in Yorkshire, where we are being put up for three nights. The people are friends of ours, and I could easily arrange for the Hommanys to be asked. I don't think we need worry ourselves as to what the reply will be. And in three days all sorts of things happen."
"It sounds promising," the Grand Duke murmured. "Get on with it, and spare no expense. If you want money, write to me at once. Whatever happens, I must have those gems back again."
It was not a boast so much as an actual fact that Jelicorse stated when he told the Councillors that he had the records of all Europe's master criminals at his finger ends.
He did not, of course, mean that those wily scoundrels who preyed on ordinary humanity in the shape of vulgar swindles or international thieves, practising the old devices which will be ever successful so long as the average crop of fools is born into the world, but the type which is a cut above these predatory scamps, and embraces political intrigue and the many ramifications of European politics. It was these big things that most appealed to the Councillors of Falconhoe, and it was rarely indeed that they touched anything else. But now and then Jelicorse, as managing director of the guild, inclined favourably towards a mere adventure mainly because it sometimes led them on to the track of some wily secret service man of foreign birth, whose secrets might be useful in future activities. And because of this he was inclined to lend a favourable ear to the advances of the Grand Duke Sven in the matter of the Katherine Pearl Necklace.
It was a famous historical gem, and had once adorned the throat of Katherine the Great herself. How it had found its way into the family of the Grand Duke matters little, but there it had been at the time of the Russian Revolution, after which it had been stolen, only to appear again as the property of the profiteer, Hommany.
As a matter of fact, the Grand Duke Sven had not been absolutely sure of his ground until the night of the reception in Park Lane, to which Hommany's wife and daughter had been bidden, entirely with a view to setting that point once and for all. Of course, Hommany's better half was a long way, as yet, from being actually one of that exclusive circle, but in a big crush this did not much matter, and there are ways of working these things without actually shedding the light of a royal countenance upon social aspirants of the Hommany class. It had been Jelicorse who had inspired this part of the scheme, feeling quite sure that if the actual Katherine necklace had passed into Hommany's possession, it would certainly be worn on that auspicious occasion. And, as events turned out, Jelicorse had been absolutely right.
The rest had been comparatively easy. He knew Croft and Cteven and a score of others who were absolutely prepared to do almost anything to keep their heads above water, in consequence of the financial stress which had followed on the Great War. And the mere fact that Croft and his wife and the other two had embarked in life as professional entertainers suggested the rest of the plot to the ingenious mind of Hilary Jelicorse. So far, everything had gone smoothly, and now it only remained to lay hands upon the Katherine necklace without fuss or scandal, and in such a manner as would compel Hommany to put up with his loss and pockets the same without making himself unduly unpleasant. With any luck, the whole scheme would go through before it was necessary for the Councillors to proceed with the more important work they had in hand. In a few days the Imps o' the Moon would be on their way to Yorkshire to fulfil a three days' engagement in a great country house there, and even at the last moment Jelicorse had had no difficulty in getting an invitation conveyed to Hommany's wife and daughter. They would not hesitate to accept it, of that he felt certain, and once he knew this for an actual fact, he went round within an hour to the flat in Sutton Street where the Imps o' the Moon were quartered.
Early next morning, the very last word in the way of caravans was moving on its well oiled bearings under the guidance of Iko Shimitzan, the little Japanese servant who had followed his beloved mistress into exile, and was now engaged as chauffeur, dresser, and general factotum to the Imps Vaudeville Company. He had no scruples of any kind where the wishes of Lune were concerned, he had no curiosity, and would cheerfully have committed murder had Mrs. Cteven asked him to. He was therefore an invaluable member of the party.
It was late the following afternoon when the motor caravan arrived at its destination.
"We are now approaching the ancestral domicile, known to antiquarian fame as the Chantrey," Croft explained to the others, as he pointed to a great block of buildings looming in the distance, beyond a pair of magnificent iron gates. "A structure that is none the less remarkable because the chief member of the Imps o' the Moon spent most of his boyhood there. Need I say that I am alluding to myself? As a matter of fact, Lord Countisbury was my guardian."
"Ah, poor lad," Geraldine Croft sighed. "He had something to guard in those days. I wonder what he would say if he knew what we were after at the present moment."
"But then, you see, he doesn't," Croft said coolly. "And if he did, I don't think he would be exactly unsympathetic. When we silently fold our tents and steal away like the Arabs in the poem, we disappear with the priceless Katherine necklace concealed in our little spare wheel."
"And if the pearls fail to adorn the swanlike neck of Hommany's offspring, what then?" Cteven asked curiously.
"Of course it will, my dear chap," Croft laughed confidently. "I don't suppose Mrs. Hommany is quite a fool. She must know that she and her daughter have been taken up entirely for the sake of their money. She will come down here with every stone she possesses. Mrs. Merdle will be nothing to her, and of course, the precious child will wear the pearls."
"And there is a plan in what you call your mind?" Mrs. Cteven lisped in her musical voice.
"There is a plan, madame, in what I call my gigantic intellect," Croft said severely. "No, let me be honest, at least as honest as I can afford to be. The plan really emerged from the fertile brain of dear old Jelicorse. It will be put in execution to-night, when you and me and Birk here are doing our trio and Gerald is at the piano. The Marguerite Trio, I mean. I know that the stage will be as usual in the old refectory, because there are a couple of rooms behind where we shall dress. In the men's room Iko Shimitzan will be ready to do his part, in which he has been thoroughly coached. We are not going to take any risks, because Hommany might warn others of his kidney that there is a plot on foot to loot the fraternity to which he belongs. And as I know the house so well, I am going to commit the actual deed. Now, a little note in Bertie Fitzhurst's handwriting—"
"Yes, but stop a minute, Villars," Cteven cried. "Why should he write to her? Is he one of the house party? Mean to say that the siege of the heiress is not still going strong?"
"Well, it isn't," Croft laughed. "Jelicorse has seen to that. Through one of his many confederates, he has managed to drop a hint to Pa Hommany as to Bertie's financial standing, and an intimation that there is a bigger fish to be landed. So Bertie has got his conge, and therefore will not be one of the house party. But Bertie is still hopeful, and he and the fair one still meet on the sly. Oh, I know exactly what I am doing."
"Am I to add forgery to my other crimes?" Cteven asked.
"Exactly so," Croft agreed. "When we have had our tea, I will show you exactly what I want done. That pretty talent of yours for copying handwriting is going to prove invaluable."
At nine o'clock precisely the Imps o' the Moon troupe found themselves in their dressing-rooms behind the impromptu stage with a large and fashionable audience ready to welcome them. So far, they had not met any of the house party, though their host had welcomed them in his own hospitable manner.
"Sorry I didn't ask you to dinner," he said. "But I didn't think you could be here in time. Fact is, we had rather a scratch meal, so as to be ready for the show at nine o'clock, and there you are. But there will be quite an elaborate supper afterwards, and I think I rather like the effect if you sat down with the rest of us in those very becoming costumes of yours. Anything else I can do for you? Well, you know all about the house, and how to find your own bedrooms. When the mob has cleared off a bit, we shall be able to have a quiet chat together. Funny thing for people in our position to have to get a living nowadays, isn't it?"
"But you are all right," Croft exclaimed. Lord Countisbury shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, as things go, I suppose I am," he said. "But what with the income tax and one thing and another it's devilish hard to keep one's head above water. I am dashed if you people are not a good deal happier than I am. However, I must go off and look after my menagerie. The queerest lot of people, Geraldine, I give you my word. Of course, there are some of the old brigade here, but the rest must be seen to be appreciated."
"Yes," Croft said doubtfully. "One has to mix up with some very poisonous swine in these days."
Muttering something to the effect that it could not be helped, Countisbury drifted away in search of his guests.
"Poor old Countisbury," Cteven laughed. "But we are all in the soup together. Here you are, Villars, this is the letter that you asked me to write. It wasn't difficult, because dear Bertie is not much of a hand at a pen, and that round schoolboy scrawl of his presented no great trouble."
Croft placed the letter in a convenient spot, then through a small hole in the curtain, he studied the seating of the audience whilst Geraldine was playing the overture. He could see the stream of guests pouring in, some of them quite familiar, and others, more resplendent, in glittering gems and obviously ill at ease, despite their airs of assurance. And then his keen eye lighted on the substantial figure of Mrs. Hommany, with her daughter in tow. One glance was sufficient. The girl was wearing the famous pearls and Croft drew a deep breath as he saw them glimmering, faint and rosy under the electric light.
"The Lord has delivered them into my hand," he murmured.
With so many personal friends of Croft's and the Ctevens in front, a favourable reception was assured, and from the first moment of the rising of the curtain the applause was loud, and, in this instance, at any rate, deservedly so. Beyond all doubt the brilliant assemblage was really enjoying itself, and the first sign of what Croft called the Marguerite trio, now almost a classic, was awaited with flattering impatience. It was quite a simple affair—merely a case of a country girl with a healthy longing for the great world and ready to risk a great deal to attain it.
To her enter two suitors, an Englishman and a Frenchman, typically attired, with flattering gifts, and each trying to outbid the other. There were frequent rushes to and from the stage by the gay Lotharios with bigger gifts each time, and as each was outbid he disappeared, to return with something more tempting, but in each case always in the spirit of burlesque. Lune Cteven, in the role of Marguerite up to date, made a pretty and fascinating picture as she sang her quaint little lilting air with apparent indifferent to ardent lovers, whose language she plainly did not understand, while she herself looked for all the world like a brilliant little butterfly, painted by a Japanese artist on a sheet of rice paper. The music was entirely in keeping with the dainty little scene, and Geraldine Croft's playing of the piano was absolutely faultless. It was all most excellent fooling, and the delighted audience fairly rocked with laughter.
"We seem to have got across all right," Cteven whispered to his stage rival. "I wonder what they would say if they could see the other side of the picture. And what do you think of the necklace?"
"Tell you later on," Croft said briefly.
The performers on the stage were keyed up now, and the nervous tension carried over the footlights to the crowd gathered there as if they were all part of the orchestra playing on the same stringed instruments. The accord was a perfect one, as was always the case where the Imps were concerned, indeed it was this magnetism that had already made them famous. It was a sort of hypnotism, and this was precisely what Villars Croft had been playing for.
He could make out dimly those rows of men and women in shimmering silks, and the white expanse of shirt fronts which made a foil for the background of restless diamonds flashing on corsage, and in the hair of the women there as they swayed with laughter. He could discern Countisbury standing in the background, and more and more Mrs. Hommany and her daughter loomed up against the oak panelling of the old walls, until at length it seemed as it the whole of the concert room was made up of one vast pearl necklace. Then, a few moments later, when the scene was nearly at its climax, he became aware of the fact that a footman was threading his way through the audience until he came to the spot where Hommany's fair daughter was seated, and discreetly placed a note in her hand. It was so dexterously and skilfully done, that if he had not been actually expecting the very thing to happen, he would not have noticed it at all. Nor did the rest of the audience apparently, for the servant vanished as if he had been no more than the mere shadow of himself.
Croft, as if nothing had happened, and as if he was concerned only with the part he was playing, strolled on in his pleasing baritone until he had finished the verse in this part of the passionate extravaganza, then made one of his lightning exits, but not before he had seen Miss Hommany rise and make her way stealthily towards the door of the concert room. Almost before Croft had vanished Cteven was on the stage. It was his turn to simulate a wild, dramatic passion in his delicate tenor, with the same touch of burlesque in it. The whole thing had been rehearsed to perfection.
Croft burst into the dressing-room where Iko Shimitzan awaited him. The little Jap was all nods and smiles.
"Hurry up as if the devil were after you," Croft said. "There is not a moment to lose. Ready, Iko?"
Iko moved swiftly. He was as noiseless as a humming bird and as agile. He pointed to a set of clothes laid out on the dressing table, and Croft literally flung himself at it. A moment later and the big dormer window at the back of the dressing-room slid noiselessly open and Croft vanished. At that very instant Cteven appeared, and Iko fell upon him with a certain wild fury, but all with method and not the slightest suggestion of noise. Then for the next five bursting minutes Iko was involved in a perfect tangle of garments, like some juggler involved in a mass of knots.
The silent maelstrom was finished almost in a breath, it seemed, and a moment later the three performers were on the stage drawing to a brilliant climax in the scene. Then suddenly from the back of the auditorium arose a piercing cry, and the artist at the piano abruptly stopped. The quartette on the stage rose and came down to the footlights.
"I have been robbed," a sobbing voice walled. "My pearls! They have been stolen from me. That horrid man—"
"Turn up the lights," Countisbury commanded, "and close the door. See that nobody leaves."
Instantly the old refectory was a blaze of light. The four performers on the stage looked down upon a scene of picturesque confusion, with a brilliant skein of guests clustering round a weeping girl with her face hidden in her hands. But those wonderful pearls were no longer round her neck. Countisbury came forward and laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"This is a most unfortunate business," he said. "I don't want to suggest for a moment that everybody should be searched, but really, in the circumstances—"
"But it was not in the hall that I was robbed," the girl wailed. "It was in the garden outside the French window of the oak breakfast-room. I just stepped through it—"
"Would you mind telling telling me what you were doing there?" Countisbury asked. "Yes; I saw you go out. But why did you go? Did the footman bring you a note?"
"Y-yes, he did," Miss Hommany blushed. "He brought me a note from a gentleman that I know—"
Mrs. Hommany, who had been swelling visibly for some moments, suddenly burst her bonds. She was no longer the humble climber waiting on events and enduring all sorts of slights on her upward path—she was the congenial wife of a profiteer, and all she could think of at that moment was the loss of personal property amounting to countless thousands of pounds.
"Ah, I know all about it," she screamed. "It was that there Fitzurse. Out with it."
"He sent me a note," the love-sick maiden sobbed, "by one of the footmen. Because he wasn't invited here, he came down especially to see me. You know how fond I am of Bertie."
"The note," Mrs. Hommany demanded. "Hand it over."
From her corsage the distracted girl produced the letter. Mrs. Hommany read it in stony silence. Then:
"So that's the way you are carrying on behind my back, is it?" she shrieked. "I'll prosecute him."
"But Bertie wasn't there," the girl sobbed. "That letter must have been a forgery. Directly I got outside a man got hold of me and threatened to gag me if I cried out. Then he unclasped the pearls and ran in the direction of the lodge."
"What sort of a man?" Countisbury asked.
"A big man with grey hair and spectacles. He spoke like a German. I was too frightened to notice anything else."
"A regular plant," Mrs. Hommany groaned. "One of the swell-gang as knows all about society. If the police was half sharp, and know'd what they was about—"
"Why not 'phone to them now?" a drawling voice asked.
Croft stepped down from the stage into the hall.
"May I express our sympathy," he murmured politely. "Perhaps in the circumstances, the rest of the performance—"
"The rest of the performance ain't of much interest to me as far as I am concerned," Mrs. Hommany cried. "Lord Countisbury, what are you going to do about it?"
Countisbury spread out his hands helplessly. "What can I do about it?" he asked. "It is most regrettable, I am afraid your daughter is not altogether blameless in the matter. All I can suggest is that we send for the police at once. Croft, I am very sorry, but I think, in the circumstances, the best thing you and your friends can do is to go back to your caravan for the night, at any rate. The idea of going on with the performance is out of the question."
"I think we all agree on that point," Croft said softly. "Perhaps to-morrow night—"
But the exodus had already begun. Half an hour later the Imps o' the Moon were supping in the caravan off an exquisite impromptu meal which the resourceful Iko had prepared for them. The little Jap himself was not to be seen. He had evidently gone off upon some mission of his own.
"Well, that's that," Croft said as he emptied a glass of champagne. "And a thundering good that, too. There won't be any more show up at the house, and we will just jog along to our next stand. Meanwhile, I can get in contact with the Grand Duke and let him know that we have been successful."
"Yes, it came off all right, didn't it?" Cteven smiled. "And wonderfully simple."
"Yes, it's simple enough when a man like Major Jelicorse thinks it out," Geraldine laughed. "But I don't think we could have put up anything half so good ourselves. Of course, forging that note in Bertie's handwriting, and getting it conveyed to that silly girl was a thing that anybody might have done, but the other part, ah, that is where the genius came in."
"Yes, that is all very well," Croft protested. "But I don't think that anybody but ourselves, or anybody not so well rehearsed as we are could possibly have worked that robbery and apparently all of us on the stage from the time that that note was handed to the offspring of the house of Hommany, till she came back into the room crying out that she was bereaved of her treasure. But upon my word, it was almost too easy. There was I, in my lightning disguise as a big spectacled German, waiting for my prey to fall into my hands. I don't think the whole thing took me more than thirty seconds. To remove those pearls and get back again was the simplest thing in the world. Not that I felt particularly proud of myself when I'd done it, and two minutes after that I was on the stage again in my proper costume, and nobody noticed it."
"And never will," Cteven laughed. "Who could possibly guess that in that quick change scene I doubled Villar's part with my own, changing twice in a few minutes, and being back on the stage again whilst my colleague was lifting the swag. I flatter myself that I played the part of the dapper Frenchman and a fair Englishman in such a way that it deceived everybody in the house."
"Yes, but you couldn't have done it without the help of Iko," Mrs. Cteven laughed. "He must have worked like lightning. Really, there are very few things that wonderful man can't do."
There was something in the tone of the speaker's voice that seemed to cause a wonderful amount of amusement to the four people seated round the tiny table. They were still talking it over when the door of the caravan burst over and Iko fell in. With one sweep of his hand he seemed to wipe out his yellow face and small slanting eyes, and Jelicorse stood confessed.
"Is there anything wrong?" Croft demanded. "Nothing whatever," Jelicorse said coolly. "The pearls are safe in the spare wheel, and there is an end of that. But I have made a great discovery. There is a man called Count Barrados actually staying up at the big house. Now, Croft, I have done you a good turn, and I want you to repay it. Come with me very quietly, because there is no time to be lost."
Cteven filled a glass of champagne and handed it over to Jelicorse. The Imps o' the Moon tenor was in hilarious mood, and not in the least disposed to further adventure that night. They had done an excellent stroke of business with a comedy side that appealed very strongly to every member of that light hearted community, and they were not averse to make merry over it.
"Why this indecent haste?" Cteven inquired. "Surely you don't want to drag us into danger so soon after our brilliant coup? Who is this mysterious Barrados anyway? A cloak-and-dagger name like that sounds ominous. No bloodshed for me, dear boy."
"Besides, you can't go off seeking for mine host of yonder great house in your present costume," Croft pointed out. "It would mean giving the game away utterly. By Jove, Jelicorse, you are our old and faithful Iko to the life! I take off my hat to you as a master of make-up. Is there anything you can't do? It was a bad day for the Foreign Office when they allowed you to leave the service."
"Precisely what I told them at the time," Jelicorse smiled. "But they would not listen. Well, perhaps on second thoughts I am in less of a hurry than I imagined. And really, for the moment, I had forgotten all about this disguise. There is one thing I am rather anxious about, because I don't mind telling you people that there are tremendous events hanging upon this successful little comedy of ours. Now, when I took on this business of the Katherine Necklace I had something in my mind far more important than restoring the stolen property of the Grand Duke. I thought the scheme out very carefully, as you know, and it has been amply justified by events. Before going any further I want to be assured that the Japanese, Iko, is to be trusted."
"Oh, absolutely," Mrs. Cteven declared. "He would do anything for me, and he would die rather than betray a secret."
"Very well, then. It became necessary for the success of our scheme that I should impersonate him. You were going to get him out of the way, as a necessary precaution. You know what I mean—it would never do for anybody to find out that there were two Ikos. Now, what did you do with your Japanese servant to ensure his not being seen until myself as a substitute was out of the way? You must see my point. Where is he now?"
"Oh, that's all right," Croft explained. "One Jap is very much like another, and at the present moment Iko is hidden away in Limehouse at a Japanese boarding-house there as a sailor looking for a ship. And there he will stay until he is wanted. I don't think you need give yourself any more anxiety about that, Jelicorse. But what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to go up to the house and see Countisbury. Take him on one side and tell him that I want to see him privately. You must do this in such a way as not to excite the curiosity of the man called Barrados."
"That is all very well," Croft said. "But how am I to know which is Barrados?"
"You can't mistake him when once seen," Jelicorse went on. "He is big and coarse of feature, a typical German with hair a la Brosse, and a genuine ex-Kaiser moustache. What on earth he is doing up here I don't know, and indeed I was astounded to see him. I was under the impression that he was in Petrograd."
"A German," Cteven cried. "A German here, and a Junker at that! Well, of all the infernal cheek!"
"He doesn't call himself a German," Jelicorse said. "If you asked him, he would say he is an Austrian, and hint to you that he and his peers were dragged into the Great War at the tail of Germany. He would make you believe that from the very first he knew how the business would end, and that he hates the Prussian as much as any of us. He is quite useful at a lie like that, but though he lives, or did live in an old family castle down in the south-east corner of Europe somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Austrian Tyrol, he is all German on his mother's side, and was in it up to his neck. We met more than once during the big struggle, and he loves me none the more because I always got the better of him. He spent the whole of 1913-14 in England in a big furnished house he took on the East Coast, and there is little doubt that he was one of the German Government's most important spies. Of course, Countisbury doesn't know this, or the fellow would not be here. I dare say Countisbury met him somewhere and in that hospitable fashion of his gave him a general invitation to Yorkshire. You see I want to tell Countisbury all this in my own way. I dare not go up to the house in my own person, because the last thing in the world I want is for Barrados to know that I am on his track again. Only a day or two ago he was in Petrograd, I know for a fact. That information was conveyed to one of my agents by another agent in a little restaurant in Soho. Barrados is up to terrible mischief in Russia, and something very disturbing must have happened to have brought him hot foot to England again. I can't tell you people much, because all this is absolutely confidential. But this I can say, Barrados is mixed up with this man Hommany."
"What, is he a German, too?" Geraldine asked.
"No, but he is half a Russian, and a poisonous skunk at that. He was one of the moving spirits of the Revolution. Entirely for his own gain, I may tell you, and when he had filled his pockets to bursting point, he dropped quietly out of it, and Barrados knows it. If I had to give an opinion I should say that Barrados came down here on purpose to meet Hommany. He must have discovered in some way that the man's wife and daughter would be here, and in his own cool fashion have invited himself to stay with Countisbury, and thus kill two birds with one stone."
"But Hommany is not here," Cteven pointed out.
"No, but he will be before long," Jelicorse said shrewdly. "Depend upon it that he will turn up directly he discovers the loss of the Katherine Necklace. How he obtained possession of it in the first place is one of the things I have to find out. Meanwhile we are wasting time. I will just go and change into my own things and then we will set out on our little business."
At the back of the motor-caravan was a trailer, and attached to this the cramped quarters in which the Japanese servant spent the night and performed his toilet. It was here that Jelicorse washed off his disguise, shampooed his hair, and returned in a quarter of an hour in his usual garb. Then he and Croft set out under cover of the darkness and walked up to the house, where Croft rang the bell, whilst Jelicorse waited for him in a little arbour that was concealed by a growth of shrubs. To him presently came Countisbury, still puzzled and bewildered, and wanting to know what all this mystery meant.
"I seem suddenly to have dropped up to my neck in a sea of intrigue," he said "Tell me all about it, Jelicorse. Oh, I know you are a mystery man. But what has it got to do with me? And what is the connection between this solemn drama and the loss of Miss Hommany's pearl necklace?"
"We will come to that presently," Jelicorse said. "Croft, you had better go back to the caravan. I shan't want you any more for the present, but I may to-morrow."
"Righto," Croft said, as he vanished into the darkness. "If there is any fun going please count me in."
Countisbury turned eagerly to his companion.
"Now then," he said, "let's have it. Why couldn't you have come up to the house in the ordinary way?"
"Simply because that man Barrados is staying with you," Jelicorse said. "You know he is a German, don't you?"
"Indeed I don't," Countisbury declared. "I have known him on and off for years. Man related to most of the big families in Europe. One of the Austrian nobility who was dragged into the war at the tail of the Prussians."
"Oh, was he, indeed?" Jelicorse laughed. "He was a spy of the most poisonous type, and at the present moment he is one of the heads of the Secret German Society formed to put the Kaiser back on the throne. Yes, and if certain of our statesmen don't wake up they will do it. The last thing in the world I want is for Barrados to know that I am in the neighbourhood. I must be in a position to watch him without his being aware of the fact. I suppose you haven't heard anything yet about the missing necklace?"
"Not a word," Countisbury said. "Most mysterious. It must have been a very carefully laid scheme by someone who knew all the facts. Those two unfortunate women were evidently followed here by the gang who forged that letter, and, no doubt, by this time they are far enough away. But what I can't understand is Mrs. Hommany's objection to calling in the police. And Hommany himself is just as determined."
"Hommany himself," Jelicorse cried. "You don't mean to tell me that he is down here?"
"Of course, he isn't. At least, he didn't come with his wife and daughter, as you are probably aware."
"I am aware of it," Jelicorse said drily. "But how do you know he doesn't want the police called in? I know why he is so averse to such a step, but it is certainly news to me to hear that you know all about it."
"Well, it's simple enough. I wanted to telephone to York and personally explain to the Chief Constable there what had happened, and ask him to take the matter in hand at once. But, strange to say, Mrs. Hommany objected; indeed, she seemed to be quite agitated about it. She would do nothing until she had called up her husband in London on the telephone, and when she got through and told Hommany what had happened he took the same view. I spoke to him myself. He said there were reasons why he preferred to wait before the matter was made public, and told me that he was starting at once for my house by car. As far as I could gather, he will be here just after breakfast. But tell me, Jelicorse—"
"I know exactly what you are going to say," Jelicorse interrupted. "Hommany dare not make the matter public, for the simple reason that the pearl necklace came into his possession in an underhanded, not to say infernally dishonest manner. And when I tell you that the pearls in question form the famous Katherine Necklace you will understand what I mean."
"Good Lord," Countisbury cried. "Is that a fact?"
"It is a fact, my dear chap, and no one knows it better than Hommany. And if Barrados doesn't know it as well, I'd eat him, Kaiser moustache and all."
"What, do you suppose he stole it?"
"I am quite sure he didn't," Jelicorse laughed, with a meaning that his companion, of course, could not understand. "But never mind that for the present. I wanted to watch Barrados, and I am still more anxious to watch him and Hommany together. Now, look here, you must keep Hommany here to-morrow, and not let him get away till the next morning. Keep Barrados too. Then leave them together to-morrow night in your smoking-room, under the pretence that you want to go to bed early. You will have to smuggle me in an hour beforehand, into that big oak cabinet of yours that stands between the two windows. It is a long time since I was in your house, but I see that it is there still."
"Oh, yes. Now, let me be quite sure of what you want."
"I want to come up to-morrow night about ten o'clock and hide in the cabinet. You had better leave one of the windows open leading to the terrace, and I will see to the rest. Are you agreed?"
"My dear fellow," Countisbury said. "I will do anything you like. It won't be difficult to manage what you ask, and the sooner it is over, the better. I am not accustomed to entertaining spies and pearl thieves. I much prefer their room to their company."
It was shortly before ten o'clock on the following morning that an elaborate and flamboyant car stopped before the great portico of the big house, and a large man, with red face and small, cunning eyes, rolled majestically out, almost into the arms of the butler, who was waiting to receive him. It was the first time that Hommany had ever been inside the historic mansion of one of England's oldest nobility, and, in the ordinary course of things he would have felt the importance of the occasion, and expanded accordingly.
But just now he was far too agitated for that. He was too disturbed even to bully the well-trained servant and impress upon him in his own truculent manner what an exceedingly important personage he was, for Mr. Hommany was shaken to his soul by the events of the night before. He had not only lost a piece of property which was worth anything up to a hundred thousand pounds, but he had lost it in such a way as was likely to cause certain inquiries which would place him in an exceedingly awkward position, unless he could damp down the scandal and keep it from reaching the ears of those importunate pressmen whose noses for sensations of that kind are almost phenomenal.
Accordingly, it was a rather suppressed and subdued profiteer who found himself a few minutes later listening to Countisbury's apologies and explanations.
"That is very good of you, my lord," he said. "But there are reasons, very urgent reasons, why I don't want the police to be consulted in the matter. Later on perhaps. Business just now is in a very critical condition, and if certain enemies of mine knew that I was a hundred thousand pounds poorer—"
Hommany winked and nodded, and Countisbury assured him that he perfectly understood.
"Of course, you do as you like," he said. "But perhaps you would prefer to see your wife and daughter first. You see, as a bachelor, I can't do much entertaining, especially as my sister, who keeps house for me, had to leave this morning. You will find your family in one of the morning rooms at breakfast. They are being entertained by a friend of mine, Count Barrados."
"The devil they are," Hommany burst out. "Do you mean to say Count Andra Barrados is here?"
Countisbury assured his visitor that such was the case. He did not fail to notice how alarmed and disturbed Hommany appeared to be by this harmless piece of information. Countisbury shrugged his shoulders, when at length Hommany disappeared in charge of a footman on his way to breakfast.
"Well, it is no business of mine," he told himself. "But I seem all at once to be entertaining some very queer visitors. Once they are out of the house, I will take precious good care they don't come back again. Really, that democratic sister of mine might be a little more chary with her invitations. One has to know all sorts and conditions of people nowadays, but surely the line can be drawn at German spies and Jewel thieves."
All the same, Countisbury kept a pretty close eye upon his guests during the rest of the day. After what he had promised Jelicorse, it was assuredly part of his duty to see that Hommany and Barrados had no opportunity for anything in the way of a long and intimate conversation. If they were afforded that, probably the very thing that Jelicorse wanted so much to hear might have been arranged before the evening, and that secret seance in the smoking-room rendered unnecessary. There was no great difficulty in persuading Hommany to stay over the night and take his family back to town in his car in the morning, indeed, the bloated profiteer jumped quite eagerly at the suggestion. Despite his anxieties and worries, he fully appreciated the importance of passing even a few hours under the roof of Countisbury Castle, and he lost no time after lunch in borrowing some of the castle notepaper and envelopes under the plea that a busy man like himself must answer certain important letters and catch the post which went out at 4 o'clock.
"Oh, certainly," Countisbury said, smiling to himself. "My dear sir, you will find everything you want in the library. There is an official post-office in the hall, and you can post the letters yourself. If they are very confidential you will have the satisfaction of knowing that nobody has the key but the postman. You will be absolutely uninterrupted till tea time, because I am going to have the pleasure of taking the ladies round the park. I cannot allow them to leave until I have shown them the lions of the place, and I am going to ask the Count to come along with me."
Barrados gave a none too eager assent, indeed it seemed to Countisbury that he looked decidedly sulky. Hommany, on the other hand, appeared to be not displeased by the arrangement.
"Then that is settled," Countisbury said. "We will ramble about the park all the afternoon, then after tea we will play billiards or bridge, and perhaps amuse ourselves the same way after dinner. But there is one thing I will ask you gentlemen to bear with me. I am notoriously an early man to bed, and if I leave you in the smoking-room shortly after 10 o'clock, I hope you won't regard it as a personal matter."
Barrados smiled for the first time.
"Not I, my dear fellow," he said. "It is an excellent practice and I wish that I could follow it myself. But I am one of those unfortunates who cannot sleep for more than two or three hours at a time. Besides, I shall quite enjoy an hour or so with Mr. Hommany, who is such an authority on Russia. The Russian problem is to me a wonderful fascination."
Therefore, when shortly after 10 o'clock that evening Countisbury made his apologies and sauntered carelessly from the smoking-room, Barrados turned almost menacingly to Hommany.
"Now, then," he said. "Why have you been keeping out of my way? Rather curious, isn't it, that fate should bring us together in this striking fashion? You might have known that you could not keep putting me off like this. What are you going to do about it? What have you got to say?"
"Nothing," Hommany muttered. "Except that you may think you are going to drag me into your wild-cat schemes, but I warn you that you will do nothing of the kind. You think that you can perform miracles with a million pounds, and bring about the revolution of the world. You see that Prussian mad dog of yours back on the throne of Germany, with thirty million trained men behind him, recruited from Germany and Russia."
"I don't think anything about it," Barrados said. "Given brains and patience, and five years, and the thing is done. But I must have that million, and you are going to find it. I can see my way to put my hand on a quarter of the sum, which will all have to go in preliminary expenses, because the devil of it is that we Prussian and Austrian aristocracy are all paupers to-day. Wilhelm could find the money if he would, but he is too cowardly and cautious to do anything of the kind."
"And that is the puppet you would set up again," Hommany said bitterly. "A fine Caesar, truly."
"Oh, I know he is only a thing of straw, and we can easily get rid of him when the time comes. But he is something to gather round, like a kind of political Guy Fawkes. And you are going to find the money I speak of."
"I'll see you in hell first," Hommany muttered.
"Oh no you won't, my bloated friend. I had a pretty firm grip upon you a little time back, but it is ten thousand times as strong to-day. I have just come back from Petrograd. I had to come back because the wolves were on my track, which fact I found out just by happy accident, so I doubled my trail and returned to England. Then I came up here, where I practically invited myself, and by the greatest luck in the world I was present last night when your daughter lost her necklace. Now, supposing I tell the story of that necklace, and how it came into your possession? Suppose I go to Park Lane and call upon the Grand Duke Sven and tell him that my friend Hommany has been gloating for the last few months over the possession of the far famed Katherine gems. Yes, I know they are no longer in your possession, and that you are never likely to see them again. In fact, you dare not set an inquiry on foot. If the whole truth came out, you would be socially damned, and your wife and daughter would go back to the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers with whom they associated a few years ago. Come, Hommany, don't be a fool. I have got you in what these English call a cleft stick, and you will have to do exactly as you are told."
"I won't," Hommany cried. "I tell you it is a mad venture and will end still more disastrously than the great plot of 1914. Man, are all lessons lost upon you? You started to conquer the world after twenty years' preparation, with the most wonderful army ever seen. Five or six millions of men, trained to the moment, and the second best navy in the world. You started with Europe utterly unprepared, and yet, where are you to-day. Down and out bankrupt in honour and reputation and purse. But you never learn anything, you Germans. You think that you, a mere adventurer, have found a talisman that will bring military despotism back again. You fool. Be content if you can put your hand upon a quarter of a million of money to restore your own fallen fortunes with it."
"You are wasting time," Barrados said coolly###. "Do you think I am going to forgo my revenge when I have it in the hollow of my hand? Ah, I have some scores to wipe out, my friend, and they will be washed out in blood and tears. Yes, and they will be washed out, too, with a million of your money. You see, I know all about you, Hommany. Let a few words escape my lips and the great war millionaire will spend the next ten years of his life in jail. That is all I have to say. Think it over, my friend, and be wise. Tomorrow you leave for London but before you go I must have your definite decision. For the moment I want none of your company, and you want none of mine. I am going to bed."
With that Barrados tossed his cigar in the fireplace and swaggered from the room followed a moment later by a dejected Hommany. Then the door of the oak cabinet opened and Jelicorse came swiftly out. There was a smile on his face as he crept towards the window and thence out into the stillness of a perfect night.
If Hommany hoped to get away from Yorkshire the following morning without encountering Barrados again he was doomed to disappointment. The latter, on the very best of terms with himself, swaggered out on to the terrace when Hommany was waiting for his car and accosted him gaily. The insolent sweep of his upturned moustache was more in evidence than ever, and his smile more insulting.
"Well?" he suggested. "Well? You have been thinking it over, my friend, and you have concluded that—"
"I have concluded nothing," Hommany grunted sulkily. "It's too big a thing to be settled off-hand like that. When you prove to me that you have the preliminary expenses, which means over two hundred thousand pounds, according to your own showing, then I might listen to a real business proposition. But you can't get over me with anything less than that, Barrados."
"I shall be able to convince you in a week. I shall be able to show you a banker's deposit note for that amount. Meanwhile family business takes me to Madrid."
"Ah, you will be happy there," Hommany smiled. "No awkward questions asked in Spain, no cold shoulders for one who has been convicted of betraying a nation's hospitality. So long as you keep clear of Italy and France you will find companionship amongst neutrals who regard Count Barrados as a gentleman. What?"
Barrados smiled behind clenched teeth. Hommany should pay for all this latter on, and meanwhile he could take it quietly.
"Very well, my friend," he said. "Sooner or later you will have to do as you are told, and I can watch you wriggling about like this and laugh. We shall see later on; within a fortnight's time I shall be in your City office with my part of the contract fulfilled, and then you will have to do yours."
Without another word Barrados swaggered away, not perhaps so easy in his mind as he appeared to be. A little later on, to Countisbury's infinite relief, he took himself off and the same evening was back in London. He had not told Hommany anything but the truth when he said that he was going to Madrid where he had business of the largest importance. He had come back from Petrograd more or less against his will because things there had not shaped precisely as he had expected. To begin with his movements had been watched, a fact that had been borne in upon him within a few hours of his arrival in the City on the Neva. And this was the last thing he had expected. His journey to Russia had been a secret one, even from the small but powerful body in Germany who stood behind him. And yet within a few hours of crossing the Russian frontier his movements had been reported in London.
He would have given a great deal to know who was the presiding spirit behind this interest in his movements. The British Foreign Office, no doubt, acting through their agents, though as yet he had not included the Councillors of Falconhoe amongst those whom he had real cause to fear. But things had fallen out rather better than he had expected, and now he was on his way to Madrid, where, at any rate he calculated that he would be no longer watched. On the face of it there could be no connection between a German-Russian conspiracy, and his presence in the capital of a neutral country like Spain. Moreover, in Madrid he had many friends. Spain had been strictly neutral during the war and most of its leading spirits were not concerned with the movements of a man like Barrados. During the great conflict he had been in the city more than once, moving freely amongst relatives and friends and more or less welcomed because of his birth and connections. He belonged to one or two good clubs there, and the best society was open to him.
Three days later he was settled down in his hotel there and ready to set one of his big schemes in motion as soon as the hour was arrived, which, according to his calculation, was not likely to be very long. Meanwhile he prowled about the city, making discreet inquiries here and there, and keeping a sharp eye open for anything that might turn up.
It was after luncheon on the third day that he found himself at a loose end in the big public gardens which were known as the Plazo Marco. It was a quiet afternoon, sunny and warm, and at that hour of the day the beautiful gardens with their shady walks and secluded corners were almost empty. Barrados strolled along one of the alleyways smoking his cigarette, when he pulled up suddenly and stepping behind a tree, began to make his way through a sort of grass shrubbery to a seat a little way off where two people were apparently engrossed in earnest conversation.
Skirting the shrubbery stealthily, Barrados worked round a small ornamental piece of water, until, from the far side of it, looking through a screen of leaves, he could distinctly see the faces of the two people seated almost immediately opposite to him. One of them was a man, young, handsome, and well set-up, and the other a girl with beautiful features and dark expressive eyes, who was laughing and talking to her companion with great vivacity and spirit.
"Ah, I thought I wasn't wrong," Barrados muttered to himself. "The Duke of Lombaso, beyond the shadow of a doubt. And philandering almost openly with Inez Salviati. Ah, it is a good thing to be an opera prima donna, especially when she is as young and beautiful as our dear Inez. But, my child, if you think anything will come of that, you are vastly mistaken. Dukes, especially Spanish ones, with royal blood in their veins, and a royal princess for a mother, do not marry opera singers. It is a very pretty bit of comedy as it stands, and, upon my word, I can wish for nothing better. If my suspicions are correct—"
Barrados broke off and discreetly stole away from the park back to his hotel. Fortune was playing into his hands, and he was not the man to miss a chance like this.
Meanwhile utterly oblivious of Barrados or indeed anybody else, the two young people sat there chattering and laughing in the sunshine. That he had no business there the young duke of Lombaso knew perfectly well. But he was young, reckless, and handsome, and he was over head and ears in love with Inez Salviati. It was a hopeless infatuation from the first, and Lombaso was wilfully closing his eyes to the real situation. He was an honourable young man enough and there was nothing sordid or in any way sinister about his passion for the young opera singer. He knew perfectly well that any move towards rebellion on his part would incur the instant opposition of his mother, and probably his Sovereign would have something to say about it. But when a man is young and ardent, and he is looking into a pair of the most beautiful eyes in the world, he is not apt to consider anything that the ruling powers might say. And the mere fact that Inez regarded him as nothing more than a friend did not tend to decrease his infatuation. There was only one man who had ever touched the singers heart, and that man was Hilary Jelicorse. But that is another story.
"Do you know," Inez was saying, "that it was quite a relief to me to get a quiet hour or so to myself. Thank goodness, the rehearsals are nearly over, and three nights from now I shall know my fate. They tell me that you Madrid people are the most critical audience in the world. If I please you I please everybody."
"You certainly please me," Lombaso laughed. "But you don't think you are going to fail, Inez?"
"How can I tell, how can anybody tell? Yes, I know what you are going to say. I have been successful everywhere I have gone yet, but, remember, this is the first time I have come before a really discriminating audience in the capital of a great country. However, I shall very soon know."
"I know now," the Duke cried. "You cannot fail. With a voice like yours, failure is out of the question. And, again, one so young and so beautiful as yourself—"
"What has beauty got to do with it?" Inez asked. "It is the voice that is everything. It isn't as if I could afford to dress myself in the beautiful clothes that most prima donne possess, which means a great deal more than you think. And, of course, I ought to have the most exquisite jewels. Do not forget that the papers always rave about a singer's jewels, and yet, behold, I have not one to call my own. I suppose you won't mind my wearing the uncut emerald that you lent me?"
"Mind, of course, I don't. Are they your favourite stones?"
"There is nothing like them," Inez cried. "Besides, they suit me. If ever I am successful, and great good fortune comes my way, then I shall spend most of it on emeralds. But, alas, that day is still a long way off."
Lombaso looked up eagerly.
"Now, let me do something for you," he said. "I have hinted at it more than once, but you either don't understand, or you are afraid of hurting my feelings. Dear girl, you know perfectly well that I am ready to do anything for you."
"Yes, I know you are," Inez sighed. "But I mustn't listen to you when you talk like that. We are great good friends, and we never can be anything else."
"But Madame Patti was the personal friend of Queen Victoria," Lombaso pointed out.
"Oh, yes, I know that, and the Queen was in the habit of speaking of her as 'my dear Adelina.' But everybody understood, Patti perhaps best of all. It is one thing to be persona grata at Windsor, but if the great singer had forgotten herself, or if one of the blood had fallen in love with her, what then?"
"But what has that got to do with what we are talking about?" the Duke said evasively. "We were discussing emeralds, the stone that you adore. The only stones—"
"Ah, perhaps all the more because I have none," Inez laughed.
"But you will some day, and in the meantime why not borrow some. You want to make a great impression on Saturday night, you want to capture Madrid as you have captured—well, no matter. One friend doesn't give another money, but there are occasions when he lends it, and if some sister-artist of yours was in need of that sort of thing and you had it, you would surely not grudge her the use of it for a night or two. Why, there is no more in it than one sportsman lending another his gun."
"I suppose not," Inez admitted. "If you put it in that way, it is merely an act of friendship. But, my dear Duke, I don't know anybody who would lend me a set of emeralds."
"Oh, yes, you do," Lombaso laughed. "I will. Now, don't says no, because I have set my heart upon it. The Lombaso emeralds are famous. There are no stones like them. And some of them really belong to the Spanish Regalia. I need not go into the reason now why my mother has them, but they will go back to the Crown after her death. I can borrow them without anybody being a bit the wiser for the night of your debut and the next day I can have them back again. No one will recognize them, at least, no one will guess what they really are. Now, don't say no, please."
Inez drew a long deep breath. The temptation was great, the risk was small, and nobody would suffer in the least. She felt like another Marguerite in the presence of this handsome pleading young Faust who was so anxious to do her a kindness.
"I wonder if I dare," she sighed.
"Dare, of course you dare," Lombaso cried. "Indeed, there is nothing to dare about. Now, don't refuse me, Inez, let us consider the matter as definitely settled."
"Very well." Inez murmured softly. "I am almost afraid of what may happen, and yet I don't know how to say no. But I shan't be happy till you have the emeralds back again."
It was about the same time as this compact was made in the secluded garden that Jelicorse was in London, having first of all ascertained that Barrados had not returned to Petrograd but had gone on to Madrid. There was hardly any movement on the Count's part that Jelicorse was not familiar with, through those many agents of his, and now he felt that he could safely run down to Falconhoe for a few days and take up the Count's tracks when it was necessary to do so once more. The following evening found him on the terrace at Falconhoe watching a three-handed game of tennis, between Enderby and Farncombe and Nelson, as if they were no more than three placid commonplace English gentlemen, taking a little vigorous exercise before dinner. The game was finished presently, and for some little time the conspirators stood chatting together.
"Then you haven't wasted your time," Enderby asked.
"Indeed I haven't," Jelicorse replied. "To begin with, I have had the pleasure of handing the Katherine Necklace back to its proper owner, who behaved very handsomely indeed. If we liked, we could afford to take it easy for a good many months to come."
"Which we shall not be able to do unless I am greatly mistaken," Farncombe said. "However, we may have a few days in peace and quietness. I am getting quite rusty for want of exercise. It is very alarming, but I have lost my back hand stroke altogether."
"Terrible calamity, isn't it?" Enderby smiled.
"That was a very neat little scheme of yours, Jelicorse. From what you tell me even Countisbury was not in the least suspicious."
"Oh, he wasn't," Jelicorse said. "He was just as much upset as everybody else. But it was worth a fortune to watch Hommany's face. However, I will tell you all about that after dinner. I have got a whole lot of things to tell you. I don't think that Farncombe will play much more tennis this summer. As you already know, Barrados is at the bottom of a deep scheme, and I can assure you that his gang mean business. However, I will just go in and have a bath now, and we can discuss the thing later on."
They did discuss it at some length, not only that evening but for the three nights that followed. They, and they only, knew the great danger that was hanging over Europe, and it would be up to them when they got the proper authority to expose the conspiracy and lay the conspirators by the heels.
"It seems almost incredible," Enderby said, as he lay back in his chair with a big cigar in the corner of his mouth.
They were seated in the large workroom where all the apparatus was, and from time to time Enderby turned away from the rest to send or receive one of those cypher messages which were coming in or going out to all parts of the world. It was only in the evenings this happened, unless by special arrangement, and it was such a commonplace thing that the Councillors took very little notice of it. Enderby closed down and came back to his seat again.
"Quite incredible," he observed. "But like most incredible things, absolutely true."
"That it is," Jelicorse went on. "I have worked it all out in my mind, and I think I know now exactly how the game is to be played. There is a great deal more than meets the eye in this treaty between Russia and Germany. I want you to bear in mind in the first instance that it was the old German Government under the Kaiser that engineered the treaty of Brest. Russia for the moment had broken down, her troops were in a state of semi-mutiny, mainly because they were being underfed, and practically without rifles or shells. That was the result of the great explosion at Putiloff, when the best part of a year's reserves of explosives was destroyed. That, of course, was an act of treachery. Still, it paralysed Russia for the time being, and none of her allies was in a position to help. Oh, it was all cunningly planned out. The Russian Government fell shortly afterwards, and the reins dropped into the hands of Kerensky, who was no Communist, and quite prepared to form a constitutional Government under the direction of the Duma. But then Kerensky and his friends had no money and very little influence, and they were beset from the first by traitors in the pay of Germany. Why, whilst Russia was still in the war, German agents by the hundred were moving freely across the frontier, most of these being Prussian officers, who very soon began to get a grip on the army. Then came the breakdown, and Lenin and Trotsky, with millions of money behind them, entered Russia and placed themselves at the head of affairs. I need not tell you these men are not Russians at all—they are German Jews, and almost as much under the heel of Germany as they were, say, five years ago."
"Yes, that is right enough," Enderby said thoughtfully. "If my information is correct, something like a hundred thousand of Germany's best troops dribbled across the frontier, each knowing exactly what he was going to do, and these were the men who formed the backbone of the Red Army which are masters of Russia to-day. I don't say they stayed there, because there was no necessity, once that Trotsky's red butchers were properly organised. Anyway, that farcical treaty at Brest was signed after two or three weeks' talking with the tongues in the cheeks of the contracting parties, and the doom of old Russia was sealed."
"Yes, that is so, unfortunately," Farncombe said. "But I don't quite see what the next move is."
"Yes, that is because you don't know quite as much as I do," Jelicorse cut in. "All this time Germany has had to wait upon events. She wanted to know exactly how she was going to be treated after the armistice, and when she found herself at the end of her tether she arranged the treaty which has been pigeon-holed in Berlin for the last five years. Oh, Fritz is no fool, and if this thing isn't stamped out at once, then we shall find ourselves face to face with another European conflagration."
"As bad as that?" Farncombe asked.
"Indeed, I think so. The great trouble is that Barrados and his lot have no money. They were all ruined by the war, and they are all as hard up as we are. They must have something over a million to start the wheels going, and they dare not apply to the present German Socialist Government because they would stop the whole thing at once. The German people, as a people, don't want any more war, but they do want Russia open to trade with, and that is why they are so keen on the treaty. But trade was the last thing the Russian Government thought of when the treaty was first born. So there you are. All Germany keen on the treaty, but the late rulers keen to use it for military purposes. What they see in their mind is a huge Russo-German army of perhaps thirty million men, trained to the hour, and armed to the teeth. They think that Russia, being a sealed book to Europe generally, can conceal huge territories where men are being trained, and aeroplanes built and huge stacks of ammunition gathered together without the secret crossing the Russian frontier. Upon my word, come to think of it, the thing is not so fantastic as it sounds. Germany could gradually draft a million trained men to somewhere in central Russia and mix them up with the Russian levies. And don't forget that there must be six or seven million men in Russia to-day who have been under arms. Also don't forget Germany's marvellous organising genius. Granting this thing can be kept quiet for three years—and it is easily possible—the plan will be perfect. And by that time Russia will be turning out enough grain for food to supply the world. Every requisite for war is there, even to gold and silver, and once this was in train, then Germany, by which I mean the Germany that has swallowed up Russia, would turn to Europe and say, 'What about it? Here we are, the strongest fighting force the world has ever seen, armed to the teeth with inexhaustible supplies and with food enough to last for ever!' Now, I ask you, what could we do in the face of that."
"But it is only a scheme yet," Enderby said.
"Oh, I know that," Jelicorse admitted. "It is no more than a scrap of paper burning in a powder factory. If we can put our foot on that piece of paper now, there is an end of the danger, but if we allow Barrados and his gang a few months' liberty to move as they please, then it is the powder factory itself that we shall have to put out. If Barrados can get hold of the million or so that he wants, then we shall be up against it."
"Yes, but can he get it?" Farncombe asked.
"Didn't I tell you about Hommany? Of course I did."
"I had forgotten Hommany for the minute," Enderby replied.
"Well, for the moment," Jelicorse went on, "Hommany is the danger. He didn't want to have anything to do with the business, and he would get out of it if he possibly could. He is just a mere money-making machine without country or patriotism, or feeling of any kind, save for his own pocket. But you see, Barrados has got him in the toils, and unless something happens Hommany will be forced to disgorge the necessary funds. Oh, he will fight all right, and it may take a few weeks to drag the cash out of him. But it will be dragged out of him eventually."
"But wasn't there some stipulation?" Enderby asked, "in that conversation you listened to? Didn't Barrados agree to find the first two hundred thousand pounds?"
"He certainly did," Jelicorse explained. "And I have a very shrewd suspicion as to how it is going to be done. Barrados is at the present moment in Madrid, where I have him under observation, and I shall be extremely surprised if we don't hear of a startling development in the Spanish capital before long."
Enderby rose from his chair at the tinkling of a bell, then for the next five minutes he appeared to be listening intently to an incoming message on the telephone.
"Well, there you are, Jelicorse," he said presently. "You are a lightning prophet. The Marquis el Navarro has just called us up. Something very sensational has happened in Madrid, and he wants us to get out the Helicop and start at once. Nelson, you had better come, too, but you will have to go by train. Now, boys, no time to be lost; we must, whatever happens, find ourselves in Madrid to-morrow morning before daylight."
Inez Salviati accepted the Duke's offer of the family emeralds more in a spirit of adventure than out of vanity, or at least the natural vanity that goes with successful youth. Had she fully realised the value of the loan she might have been more chary of accepting it. That they would be something out of the common she knew, but that the Lombaso emeralds were historic and known all over the world as quite the best of their kind was beyond her knowledge. Neither had she been particularly impressed when the Duke informed her that they were part of the Spanish regalia. Perhaps she did not quite understand precisely what that meant. At any rate, she was only going to wear them once, and after that great night they would be restored to their rightful owner again.
And Inez, to say the truth, was too much engrossed in her own affairs just then to think about anything else. She was on the verge of gratifying her dearest ambition, and was now looking eagerly forward to the success which her masters had predicted for her when the Great War had put an end to many dreams of a similar sort. And now she could see her goal in front of her, and she was reaching eagerly out for it. Another few hours, and she would know definitely whether she was going to take her place at the head of the great singers of the world, or merely lapse into the rank and file of those who were merely spoken of as having talent. But she was exceedingly anxious to make a deep impression, which was the main reason for accepting the almost boyish offer that had been thrust upon her by Lombaso.
He came round to the rather obscure hotel where she was staying late in the afternoon with something of the air of a conspirator. It was dull and cold, for spring was late that year in Madrid, and its peculiar form of mistral was blowing and bringing in its train a black mist, which threatened a dark evening.
"Not very promising," Lombaso said. "It will be as black an night before dinner time. However, we shall all be there, except my lady mother, who hardly ever attends this sort of function these times. Just as well, perhaps, though I don't suppose she would recognise the emeralds, which she would probably put down as mere imitation. Here you are, Inez. Would you mind my coming round here after supper, so that I can take the cases back again?"
"Mind?" Inez smiled. "It is the very thing I want you to do. You had better have supper with me for a change, and let me act as hostess. I think I shall dress here and go down to the Opera House all ready for the stage. I am not particularly anxious to have these emeralds in my dressing-room where all sorts of people come, and as I can wear them in both acts, I shan't part with them for a moment. I don't think you need worry."
"Oh, I am not worrying in the slightest," the Duke laughed. "There is nothing to worry about."
He went off presently, highly pleased with himself, and drove almost directly to the great big stone palace on the outskirts of Madrid, which had been the town residence of the Dukes of Lombaso any time the last five hundred years. He passed through the great hall with its ancestral portraits and priceless tapestries, up to his own room, where he dressed for dinner. He came down presently to one of the smaller dining-rooms, where he found his mother awaiting him. To his surprise, and somewhat to his uneasiness, she was in full evening toilet, and with some of the finest of the family diamonds in her grey hair.
"What, mother mine," he cried. "Are you going out?"
"You are late again." the Duchess said coldly. "This is the third time within a fortnight that you have kept me waiting for dinner. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, but really; I do object to be kept waiting."
The Duchess spoke frigidly enough, and there was something like keen displeasure on that fine handsome face of hers. She belonged entirely to the old regime, she was aristocratic to her finger-tips, and, like the rest of the Bourbons from whom she was descended, she had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing in the years which had torn the Continent of Europe to pieces. She had no sympathy whatever with the democracy; she had regarded the war as an intolerable nuisance, and a direct infringement of her own dignity and convenience. If she had any sympathy at all, it was with the royal poltroon, skulking in his palace at Dorn, because, from her point of view, kings could do no wrong. And if Wilhelm of Germany had it in his mind to deluge Europe in blood, doubtless it was to some good purpose and ultimately for the benefit of poor human nature. With her son's more modern views and his keen love of sport, she had no sympathy whatever. Secretly, she regarded him as a degenerate, and an unworthy upholder of the glories of his race. But he was her son after all, and so she was graciously pleased to make allowances.
"You asked me just now if I was going out," she went on more amiably. "I am. I have made up my mind at the last moment to go and hear this singing woman at the opera. They tell me that she is something out of the common. I have arranged so as to have a stall next to yours, so that we can go together."
The Duke professed himself to be delighted, which was a mere figure of speech. He was not in the least delighted; on the contrary, he was just beginning to understand the folly of what he had done. However, it was too late to think about that now, and all he hoped was that the gods of happy chance would be on his side, and that the Duchess would not notice the emeralds which Inez would be wearing. He would have to chance that now.
"I shall be honoured by your company, mother," he said. "Yes; I understand that Inez Salviati will make a great impression."
"From what I know of her, which is very little, except what I have read in the papers, she is rather above the usual class of singers socially," the Duchess murmured.
"Indeed she is," the young man cried eagerly. "Inez Salviati is a lady, quite a lady."
"Ah, then you know her," the Duchess said coldly. "Really, I cannot understand the mentality of you modern young men. However, I suppose it is no use my talking. If you will know these sort of people, you will. But then you only fill their heads with all sorts of ridiculous ideas."
Lombaso murmured something diplomatic in the way of a reply, and went on with his dinner. He could only hope that the evening would pass off without any awkward incidents.
A blaze of light filtered through shades of pink and green and pallid blue, with here and there a touch of orange, and the dainty sheen of the inner shell of some ocean pearl flashed from the big electroliers on the fashionable sea of humanity gathered in the Opera House to hear the new creation of a great composer and do homage, or turn indifferently, from Inez Salviati as the case might be. Her fame had travelled far, though this was her first appearance in the capital of a great country, and therefore she would have to be something very much out of the common to appeal to an audience so exclusive and critical. She was challenging comparison with the great contraltos of the past, and she would stand or fall entirely on her own merits.
From floor to gallery not a seat was vacant. In the royal box the great personages had already gathered, the bewildering glances of white fell on white faces, and breasts still more snowy, under a tangle of vivid flame, heaving and weaving like some brilliant coruscation of tropical birds, as the facets of diamond and ruby and emerald caught the beams of light, as if they, too, had been things of life. The last few bars from the orchestra stole away, and a sort of hush came over the brilliant assembly, a hush that had something electric in it, a tension not to be conveyed in words, and the overture was finished.
The Duchess of Lombaso stirred impatiently in her red stall. She looked the grande dame she really was, a royal princess with the proud blood of old Castile in her veins, and she was not accustomed to be kept waiting. Why this delay in raising the curtain, she wondered? A little frown gathered in her delicate brows under the crown of snowy hair, and her coronet shook, as if angrily, so that the diamonds shivered like living fire.
"Is it that the woman has already given herself the airs of a diva?" she asked. "Really, my dear Carlos, you and your friends spoil these people. Why does she keep the stage waiting?"
"I don't suppose she is," the Duke smiled. "You seem to forget, mother, that the prima donna is not usually on the stage when the curtain goes up."
"Ah, you are loyal to your friend," the Duchess exclaimed. "May I ask where you met the lady?"
"Oh, that is easily answered," Lombaso said. "You might not care to receive her, but I met Inez Salviati at the house of your friend the Marquis el Navarro a week or two back. And you would not suggest, mother mine, that he is the sort of man to commit social solecisms, would you now?"
"El Navarro's blood is as good as any in Spain," the Duchess admitted. "Also, he is my best friend. But he was ever eccentric in such matters. Madre de Dios, what has happened?"
A wave seemed to be passing over the audience, a sinister premonition of coming disaster. Strange murmurs came from behind the curtain, the great cloth bellied as if tossed by a wind. Wildly agitated voices could be heard, and then a sort of shuddering echo that shaped itself in the mind rather than on the lips in the dread word fire. The whole audience billowed with the flash of gems and the gleam of gold, and with one accord they leapt to their feet, and swayed towards the exit.
"Sit down," the Duke commanded. "There is no danger. There is no suggestion of fire."
The clear, imperious voice acted like magic in the fears of those who had given way so thoughtlessly to what might have developed into a panic. Then an attendant stepped in front of the stalls and cried out that there was nothing wrong. On that instant, the curtain went up, and disclosed an empty stage.
But only for a moment, only for a moment, and Inez Salviati stood there, looking down upon the audience, no longer afraid, but quivering with anticipation. In that dazzling focus of light she posed there, facing her patrons as if carved out of stone. She was dressed in some fancy-dress, picturesque Zingari costume, as if ready for her part, but her face was innocent of make-up, and her peasant dress was torn and disordered. On one white brow was a scar, freshly made, and from it the blood trickled.
"I am Inez Salviati," she said, as if struggling for composure in the face of some great personal danger. "I came here to-night to sing your beautiful music of this new opera to you, who I hoped were to be my good friends. For that purpose I came thousands of miles. A little time ago I left my hotel in a hired motor all ready dressed for my part, as you see, and because I wear this costume in both acts. I wore round my neck and on my arms some beautiful emeralds, which I had—"
She broke down for a moment, and Lombaso started violently. He was looking at Inez with starting eyes.
"Good Lord," he muttered in English. "Good Lord. That's fairly torn it. What did you say, mother?"
"I said nothing," the Duchess replied. "But I should like to know why this so greatly disturbs you."
"Don't you think you might wait to hear what the girl has to say?" Lombaso suggested. "But, oh Lord, that's torn it."
"I am driven to the Opera House," Inez went on, "in a taxi, which is obtained for me, and until we come to a dark part in some street, the Plaza San Stephano, all goes well. It is a very dark night, as you know, and we have to go very slowly. Then there is an obstruction in the way, and my driver gets down to remove it. Instantly he is attacked by a man with a black beard, a man very tall and powerful. With a blow my driver is insensible, and I am dragged from the car and a hand presses over my mouth. I fight hard, because I know what is coming, but all in vain, because I am just a child in the hands of a giant. The emeralds had gone from my neck and arms, and the man has vanished like an ugly dream."
Inez broke off for an instant, as if overcome with her emotion, and shot one appealing glance into the uneasy eyes of the young man sitting below her in the stalls. It was a message to Lombaso, and he understood it at once. Somebody, by some means or other, had found out about the emeralds, and now no doubt they were lost beyond recall. He would never see them again.
"And that is all I can tell you," Inez cried. "Directly I get over the shock, and my driver in well enough to resume his seat, I come down here to tell you this, and to tell you that it is impossible—oh, I cannot play to-night."
With that impassioned cry, Inez rushed into the wings and was seen no more. A murmuring wave of sympathy followed her, but there was no sympathy or pity in the cold breast of the woman who was seated there by Lombaso's side.
"What is wrong?" she demanded. "Are you ill, Carlos? As there will be no performance to-night, you will go to the theatre telephone and ask for my car at once. See to it before the others get in front of you. And when you have done that you will see me home. There is something wrong here, and it is you who know all about it. I have a right to know, and I will."
There was command in the last words, and the Duke bowed before it. There were reasons, vital reasons, why he should see Inez at once, but duty came before that. He would drive his mother to the palace and get back to the Opera House, perhaps before Inez had left. There was no time to be lost.
But not yet. The stately lady with the white hair, leaning on her ivory-handled stick, led the way to her own sitting-room, through the long corridors, and passed a line of footmen in their scarlet liveries, until at length she closed the door and dropped into a seat wearily. For the first time, it struck the Duke uneasily that his haughty, imperious mother was growing old.
"Now, Carlos," she said. "You have something to tell me. Don't forget that I too have lived in England. Why did that dramatic woman's story move you so strangely? Why did you cry out, 'Good Lord!' in the way you did? But perhaps the whole thing is an advertisement. I am told that these singing women are not averse to that sort of thing. And yet your face, Carlos, your face. Ah, tell me, if it is anything but disgrace—"
"I am rather afraid it is, carissima," Lombaso murmured. "And you will share my opinion when I tell you that Inez Salviati was speaking the truth when she said that she had been robbed of some priceless emeralds, emeralds lent by a friend of hers. Mother, perhaps you can guess who that friend was."
"What, you?" the Duchess cried. "Great heavens, and where did you get priceless emeralds from, unless—unless—"
It was a mere woman in distress now, who lay back, half fainting, in her chair, gazing almost piteously at her companion.
"The royal emeralds?" she whispered.
"The royal emeralds, mother," the Duke confessed. "I lent them to Inez for to-night's premiere. I wanted her to be at her very best, and as she had no real gems I borrowed yours. I have my late father's duplicate key to the safe, you remember. And as you were away until last night—"
"What is this woman to you, Carlos?"
The words came with cutting coldness from the speaker's lips. She had thrown off her temporary weakness, and was her hard, cold, regal self again, like some stately figure in wax, her eyes clear and gelid, a triumph of race and breeding over the human emotions that tore her to the depths of her mother's soul. For this beloved son had dealt her a deadly blow, and her heart was bleeding silently.
"Don't make it worse than it is, caro mio," the Duke said hoarsely. "To me Inez Salviati is nothing save that she is the only woman that I can ever love."
"And you have known her but a few days, my son."
"As if that made any difference, madre. Inez is a lady, she has some of the best Andalusian blood in her veins, though her father was but a ranchero in Mexico. Oh, not blood like ours of course, but it is there. When I marry it will be with his Majesty's approval, as we are so near the throne. But Inez Salviati will never be forgotten. And surely, proud as you are, you would not argue that even a Duke of Lombaso is great enough to demand the right of a morganatic marriage?"
"So you stole the emeralds for her instead?"
"I borrowed them, yes. But she did not know; she thought they were mine, to do as I pleased with. Mother, you must not be under any delusion on that score. I will not hear of such a suggestion. But does it not strike you that we are wasting time? While we talk here the thief is getting farther away."
"Yes, unless the thief is a woman who has invented this strange story. Oh, I grant you it sounded convincing enough, but then Inez Salviati is an actress."
"An actress, yes, and a lady also. Besides, what could she gain by such a thing? She would know, if she were aware of all the facts, that she would never be allowed to leave Spain with those emeralds in her possession. And there is no advertisement in the affair. Oh, it was a robbery all right, and you are keeping me here whilst we ought to be consulting the police."
"My dear boy, are you mad?" the Duchess cried. "The police? Preposterous. Are we to tell them that you have disgraced your name by giving away that which really belongs to the Crown of Spain? Ah, no, whatever happens, the police must not be informed. If the worst comes to the worst, I will go to the King, and tell him the whole sordid story."
"Yes, but not till we have made an attempt to get the emeralds back," the Duke urged. "I will search all Madrid for them. I will take the miscreant by the throat and choke him."
"And meanwhile?" the Duchess asked in the same cold, frozen voice. "My unhappy boy, you don't seem to realise what a terrible scandal it will be. The police must not know, nor the Cabinet either. Try and think of something more original. Meanwhile, I must be alone to think this matter over. But stop. Miguel el Navarro, ah, that is the man we want. Please get the Marquis on the telephone and ask him to come round to me at once. There is nobody else in the world I would rather trust."
It was still comparatively early when el Navarro reached the palace. The scene in the Opera House had only taken a few minutes, and the great clock in the tower over the castle was droning 10 in its sleepy fashion as Navarro arrived. He was met by the Duke, who gave him a hurried account of the tragic events of the evening, and a few minutes later he was bending over the Duchess's white hand, which he raised gallantly to his lips.
"I came at once," he murmured. "Is there anything I would not do for you, Maria? Is it not for your sake I remained single all my life? The stricken Carlos has already told me the outline of the story. Mind you, I will answer for Inez Salviati as I would answer for my own honour. Nor does she care for Carlos as he does for her. There is another man—But that is also another story. Ah, I was a fool not to guess how this thing would go."
"All this is idle," the Duchess sighed. "The scandal must be prevented at any cost, and the police must not know. But who else can we depend upon to save our good name?"
"Ah, there perhaps I can find what you need," the Marquis said thoughtfully. "This is an ideal case for the Councillors of Falconhoe. If they fail, then everything is lost."
"Who are these wonderful men you speak of, Miguel?"
"Let me tell you a little story," the Marquis went on, "a story, going back to the summer of 1914. You remember what happened then, Marla? Liberty lay prostrate with a knife at her throat, and it was up to every man who loved his freedom to help. Oh, I know all about honourable neutrality, but if the black dog of Potsdam had emerged victorious, it would not have been long before our turn came. But perhaps you don't agree with me."
"I have read something like that," the Duchess said with faint sarcasm. "There is too much talk about the rights of the democracy. Perhaps if Wilhelm had been successful the world had been a more pleasant place to live in. He would never have allowed all these strikes and labour unrest which have deprived us and our class of nearly all we possessed. And yet, one never quite knows. But I am interrupting you, Miguel."
"Ah, well. But to resume. If you remember, about that time I disappeared, on my way to the Argentine, people thought. But not so. I was in Berlin, in Vienna, in Constantinople, taking my life in my hands for the good cause. And you were the first in Spain to know that, Maria, though Carlos could tell a story if he liked. Anyway, the right prevailed, and civilisation was saved. Ask Carlos to tell you the part he played."
"I may have guessed," the Duchess whispered. "But I have never dared to ask him for his confidence."
"Perhaps it was as well. Carlos did not learn cricket and tennis and polo in England for nothing, and he knows these Councillors as well as I do. They made history, they altered the map of Europe, though the fact has never become public. Now, would you like them to come over here at once and place this case in their hands?"
"Oh, anything," the Duchess cried. "Anything in the world you like. But I fear that nothing can save our honour now."
"Come, come," el Navarro said, "You must not take that despondent view of the situation. It is not like you, and, besides, don't forget what there is at stake. Now, tell me, has Carlos any suspicions? Somebody must have known what he was going to do, and somebody must have known that he took the emeralds. From what I can gather, they were in your strong-room."
"They were," the Duchess explained. "Only Carlos and myself have keys. He has his father's key, which is a sort of tradition in our family. So far as I know, he took the stones without mentioning the matter to anybody, and I am quite certain that he would not have taken anybody into his confidence. The girl, must have told somebody—"
"I wish you would not keep harping on that point," el Navarro said a little irritably. "I have told you that Inez Salviati is a lady, and I am sure if she had known that the emeralds were more or less Crown property, she never would have consented to wear them. You can understand the girlish vanity that prompted her to accept your son's offer. No, there is something deeper than that."
"But how?" the Duchess asked. "If the matter was mentioned by neither my son nor the unfortunate girl, then how could anybody possibly have known what was taking place?"
"Oh, it is not entirely out of the question. There are certain international thieves who have the most expert and intimate knowledge of the world's famous jewels. They make a study of it, and a good many of them could tell you what they are like, even to the settings. I need not ask if you have worn those emeralds in public. I mean on great State occasions."
"Oh, many times," the Duchess admitted.
"Very well, then. You might have been at a State concert or a command performance in the Opera House, seated, for all you know, next door to some famous thief. Ah, my dear Maria, some of these men are highly educated, and would pass in any society. It would need hardly more than a glance for the trained eye to recognise the Lombaso emeralds. A mental photograph, and one never forgotten. You are, of course, aware that Inez Salviati is staying at a rather obscure hotel, and no doubt your son has told you that she dressed for her part before she went to the Opera House. We will imagine, if you please, that one of these expert thieves was dining in the same room. He recognises the Lombaso emeralds, and lays his plans at once. He has the best part of an hour before him, and the night is made on purpose. The fog has cleared off now, but you know how thick it was earlier in the evening. There is little doubt, to my mind, that this is a case of ordinary burglary, committed by some exceedingly daring and audacious thief, who is probably not very far off. He will be so certain that he is safe, that for his own sake he will hang about Madrid for a few days. You might argue that he was known to the police—which is probably the case, only we dare not call them in—and would tell himself that any precipitate disappearance from Madrid would draw suspicion on his head at once. Of course, this may be all conjecture on my part, but I don't think I am very far wrong, and that is why I suggest sending for the Councillors of Falconhoe."
"But they will be days getting here, Miguel."
"They won't, Maria, they will be under my roof long before breakfast to-morrow morning."
"Miguel, the thing is frankly impossible."
"It is not. It is a practical suggestion, and if you will give me leave, I will see that it is carried out at once. Now, let me tell you something about these people. Before the Great War began, they were just three English gentlemen, living each on his own small property, and given over entirely to sport, save one of them, who was a mechanical genius in an amateur way. The other two were citizens of the world, and officers of the British Army. They speak every language under the sun pretty well, and on behalf of their country, have had amazing adventures in Asiatic kingdoms, generally disguised as natives. The great Lord Kitchener was the pioneer of that sort of thing, and frequently spent months in an Arab village passing as one of themselves. Both Farncombe and Jelicorse followed in the same footsteps. They can tell all sorts of strange things; they are masters in the art of disguise, and during the war they were all over Europe and a part of Asia. You can imagine, then, that they are just the sort of people we want. But the great genius of the trio is Colonel Enderby, the inventor of a marvellous aeroplane, to say nothing of certain developments in wireless telegraphy and telephony. Like the others, he speaks a dozen languages, and can pass for an Arab or a Hindoo indifferently. No one will ever know what he did for his country during the war. Farncombe was in the Army Intelligence Corps, and knows Europe from Dover to Suez, and Jelicorse, who had an appointment in the Foreign Office, was a sort of detective inspector to the British Army. He is a man of marvellous brain power."
"And you think they can help us, Miguel?"
"I have not the slightest doubt about it. After the big trouble was over, these three fellows found themselves very poor men. So they clubbed together and bought a lonely old manor house on the coast of North Devon, where they could shoot and play golf, and conduct their scientific experiments, especially with regard to wireless and aviation, and thus carry on communication with sympathetic friends all over Europe. They have a series of wireless installations extending from Devon to Constantinople, and this is why they are employed in all sorts of delicate diplomatic intrigues by the British Government. Of course, you are more or less wrapped up in cotton wool here, and know very little of what goes on outside Spain, but there are deep conspiracies going on, especially in the conquered countries, which are likely to keep Europe in a state of ferment for years. For instance, you don't suppose that Germany is going to take all this lying down. But I am rather wandering from the point, I am merely trying to show you what an asset for permanent peace the Councillors of Falconhoe are."
"Then you are in communication with them?"
"Very much so, my dear Duchess. I may say that I am one of their agents. I have one of their wireless plants in my grounds, so has Prince Beppo Mariani in Rome, and so has Selim Hassan in Constantinople. There is even one in Berlin, though the authorities there don't know that. And no day passes without some sort of conversation between us. Our power is immense. The Cabinet here realises it, and so does London and Paris. When international diplomacy fails the Councillors are called in, and they have had no failure yet. With Europe practically in Enderby's workroom, the ramifications are amazing. I will give you a case in point. A short time ago some enterprising journalist, without any patriotic pride, obtained possession of an important document dealing with International disarmament. This man, being the type he is, was prepared to sell it to the highest bidder. The publication would have had disastrous effect in Japan. The Councillors were consulted, and within ten hours they had reached Bucharest in that marvellous helicopter of Enderby's, and the missing documents were in their possession."
The Duchess smiled for the first time.
"You give me hope, Miguel," she said. "Pray do what you think best. Send for these gentlemen at once. It seems almost incredible to me, but if you say they can be here early to-morrow morning, and get to work without delay, I will believe you."
"Then I will go at once," the Marquis said. "And you can rest assured that within an hour, the Councillors will be on the way to Spain in that wonderful Helicop machine of Enderby's. But before I go, I should like to have a few words with Carlos. He may have overlooked some detail, insignificant in itself, but of the greatest importance to our investigators. I suppose he is in the Castle at the present moment."
"I believe so," the Duchess sighed. "It is a terrible business altogether, and I would give anything to end this dreadful suspense. Mine has not been a happy life, as you know, Miguel, and when the good God sent me a boy in my late womanhood, I began to think that the world was a good place to live in after all. And I never dreamt that Carlos would stab me in the heart like this. Send for your Councillors by all means, and tell them that I will pay ten thousand English pounds if they will save my house from dishonour. Only don't bring them here."
The Marquis shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Am I not telling you that you are dealing with three English gentlemen?" he asked. "They, of course, cannot work for nothing. But to put it in the way you suggest would be an insult. You will have to see them, and you will have to extend to them the same hospitality you would to anybody else in your own class."
The Duchess made an assenting gesture, and a few moments later Lombaso entered the room. In answer to the Marquis's questions, he was absolutely sure that he had never mentioned the matter of the emeralds to a soul. Moreover, he had taken the cases containing them from the strong-room at a time when none of the servants were about. He had locked himself in the room, and when he emerged the cases containing the stones were safely hidden in the pocket of the overcoat he was wearing at the time. And he was equally sure that Inez had not discussed the matter with anybody. She would hardly tell anyone that she was wearing borrowed jewels, and besides, so far as Lombaso knew, she had not a single friend in Madrid besides himself.
"Ah, it is just as I expected, Maria," the Marquis said. "Some brilliant thief must have had the good fortune to notice those stones when Inez was dining before going to the Opera House. It is just an well to know this. And now, I will go off at once and get in communication with my good friends in Devonshire. Carlos, you had better come with me. You may possibly be wanted."
"With pleasure," the Duke said. "But what are you going to do? What wonderful scheme is in the back of your mind?"
Enderby was not the sort of man to waste time. He gave a few crisp, curt orders to the old soldier who acted as general factotum at Falconhoe Manor, and whilst the others were throwing a few things into a suit-case, he hurried down the slope to the shelving rook just above the beach to the whitewashed cottages where the Helicop was stored. Half an hour later the machine had been run out on to a wide stretch of lawn beyond the tennis court, and was tuned up under the powerful rays of a searchlight, so that in ten minutes she was ready for flight.
It was a machine entirely of Enderby's own invention, built of aluminium with large hollow struts, and the double casing of the 'plane contained a powerful gas, evolved out of Enderby's own mind which was wonderfully light in lifting, so that in the Helicop he possessed a machine which was not only driven by enormously high-powered engines, but which, owing to his gas, was lighter than air. If anything happened to the engines, there was no more chance of the machine crashing than if she had been a dirigible in a gale of wind. And she was a helicopter in the best sense of the word. She had the power of rising from the ground in eccentric circles, and as perpendicular as a bird rising from a twig. She could lift off a patch of ground not more than twice the area of her wings, and drop down again as easily, so that she could have landed on the deck of a battleship, or even a destroyer, without the slightest danger of damage. Moreover, her wings were folding, as was the body of the car, and with seating accommodation for three. She could be packed at almost a moment's notice, and transferred from place to place on the waggon of a train. Enderby smiled to himself as he saw how smoothly everything was working.
"It's all ready," he said, as he walked back into the workroom. "I am sorry we can't take you, Nelson, but we are only built to carry three, so you will have to go by train. We shall want you, unless I am greatly mistaken. Take the car, and drive yourself to Taunton. Leave the car there, and get on to Southampton by train. From there you can take the boat to Brest, and directly you get to Madrid report yourself at the residence of the Marquis el Navarro. I think that is about all."
Five minutes later and the three adventurers were on their way. The 'plane rose almost noiselessly, for the engines were working with amazing smoothness, when she turned her nose towards the south, and sped across the sea. Hour after hour went quietly on, with now and again a message out of the ether for the listening ears of Farncombe, who was being steered from Madrid, until at length the soft purple velvet of the night against the pallid stars began to whiten, and just before dawn appeared a light, softly luminous like some moth attracted to a planet all aflame. At this sign Farncombe touched Enderby on the shoulder, and the engine of the Helicop began to slacken. For the luminous moth down below lay in the Marquis el Navarro's ground, and as the 'plane swooped down, nearer and nearer to the earth, four glittering, blinding points shot upwards, some twenty yards apart, and the night hawk, hovering over them, began to spin round like a great top in dazzling concentrics, until it dropped, light as a thistledown, in the very centre of the guiding beacons. Then a voice spoke.
"That you, Marquis?" the unseen speaker asked. "Good. Here we are, and no time lost either. Where's the garage?"
"Ah, the new Helico engines," el Navarro cried. "I have been longing to have a sight of the wonderful Helicop. To see your lights a mile ahead, and then to watch you spin down as if sliding along a watch spring without a hair's deviation—amazing! Then the new engines are all you claim for them?"
"And then some," Farncombe laughed, "only the inventor here is too modest to say so, eh, Enderby? At 10.30 last night we were seated in our library at Falconhoe Manor when your call came, and now it is not much after 4 a.m. Two hundred miles an hour. What price that for moving, Marquis? Let's get the old 'bus packed up, and then we can talk business."
The wings of the amazing Helico plane were folded back like some graceful bird, and the whole stowed away in the aerodrome attached to the Palazzo Arco, which was the name of the Marquis's seat on the outskirts of the capital. A few minutes later the three voyagers were in the great dome library with its thousands of priceless volumes, peeling off their heavy coats and helmets and goggles. There were no signs of servants, for the Marquis had wisely sent these to their night quarters long ago, and it was he himself who dispensed the necessary hospitality. He was not anxious for his domestic staff to know in what way the Councillors of Falconhoe had arrived. Secrecy and swift decision were absolutely essential to the success of his scheme.
And nobody would have guessed the strange events of the last few hours had they seen the three men seated in the library in the same immaculate evening dress in which they had been attired only a few hours before in their quiet retreat on the North Devon coast. First, Philip Enderby, the man of science and inventor or the Helico engines, which enabled the new 'plane to shut off when moving at dazzling speed, and come to earth in a series of giddy spirals and land, as the designer claimed, practically in the centre of a pocket handkerchief. Enderby, tall and gaunt, with his six foot four of lean manhood, long of face and heavy of limb: and in contrast to him, Farncombe, light and compact, with the face of leather-coloured mahogany, tanned by tropical suns in many climes, the man who could live and work and plan on a handful of dates for a week, and who never knew the meaning of the word thirst. Last, and by no means least, Jelicorse, trim and faddy as to his clothes, with small, fair moustache, and inevitable monocle ever in his eye. He was the sleuth of the party, his detective and analytical faculty was uncanny, and his instinct almost amounted to second sight.
"Now tell us all about it," Jelicorse began. They had all refreshed themselves, and the cigarettes had gone round and the whisky and soda were on the table. "Tell us why you sent for us in this breakneck hurry, Marquis. Something of the largest importance, I suppose? Has Wilhelm stolen away from Holland, and has Prussia risen on the side of the monarchy?"
"Nothing quite so big as that, I am afraid," the Marquis smiled. "As a matter of fact it isn't political at all."
"So I gathered from your rather agitated message," Enderby said. "The line was not quite clear, and I was getting somebody else's call all the time. Still, my dear fellow, we are always quite ready to consider a commercial proposition."
"Well, it's hardly that either," the Marquis explained. "You fellows are doing wonderful work for civilisation, and the betterment of stricken humanity. And you will have to do a lot more before the old order of things is restored. I want you to take a hand in something that sounds like romance. It is rather painful, but if I may venture to introduce a sordid element, you will be well paid. Has either of you ever met the Duke of Lombaso's mother?"
"Once," Jelicorse said with a wry face. "That is, I was once in the same room with her. I was once in the same room with Queen Victoria, for the matter of that, and she didn't frighten me half as much as the Duchess did. A cold, hard woman, I should say, and absolutely eaten up with family pride."
"Not just at the present moment," el Navarro said drily. "In fact, she is overwhelmed with trouble. To put it plainly, that infatuated young ass Lombaso was fool enough to borrow the dynastic emeralds and lend them—"
"By Jove," Farncombe cried. "Do you mean the Lombaso emeralds that are practically Spanish Crown property?"
"The same," el Navarro went on. "Without saying a word to anybody, he took the emeralds from the strong-room and lent them to a lady who is singing—"
"Do you mean Inez Salviati?" Jelicorse broke in.
"I do. Mind you, she is quite innocent in the matter. It was only a little vanity on her part."
"That I am sure of," Jelicorse, said almost combatively. "I am not going to sit here and hear a word said against Inez Salviati. She is perhaps more than a friend of mine, and nobody knows her record better than myself. And if the Duchess is under the impression that Inez—"
"But she isn't," the Marquis hastened to say. "As it was her first appearance here, Inez was naturally anxious to make an impression, and saw no objection when the Duke suggested that she should wear the emeralds. My dear Jelicorse, I know Inez as well as you do. Her late father was a friend of mine, and if I had not been living here en garcon, I should have offered her the hospitality of my palazzo."
"I beg your pardon," Jelicorse apologised. "But I am afraid I am a little bit touchy on the subject of Inez."
"Oh, quite so, quite so," the Marquis smiled. "Well, she wore the emeralds to-night—in fact, she wore them at dinner in her hotel. Some super-thief must have spotted them; anyway when she was going to the Opera House in a thick fog her motor was pulled up and she was violently robbed of the stones by a man who got away, leaving no trace behind. Of course the Duke had to tell his mother all about it, and now you know exactly how things stand. I suggested sending for you, and the Duchess expressed herself willing to pay ten thousand pounds for your services. That, I take it, is if you are successful."
"Well, I suppose beggars can't be choosers," Enderby said. "Great ladies are great ladies all the world over, and I suppose the Duchess merely regards us as a sort of glorified police. Well, let it go at that. But we are not prepared to take the business on without some sort of understanding. For instance, it may be necessary for one of us to see the Duchess, painful as it may be to her. Is there any objection to that?"
"No, I think not," the Marquis said. "What the Duchess is so afraid of is an open and public scandal."
"Quite so," Jelicorse remarked thoughtfully. "But you see, my dear Marquis, somebody does know already. I am alluding, of course, to the thief himself. He never took all that risk on the off change of picking up what might have been a handful of stage emeralds. An artist like that knows exactly what he is after."
The others nodded approvingly. The psychological side of the mystery would be entirely in the hands of Jelicorse, and the others looked to him with rapt attention.
"You see what I mean, Marquis," he went on. "He knew, not guessed; he knew. That is, the thief knew. But how? Where did he get his information? What clue had he to go on? This is the first question we have got to answer. I rather flatter myself that I can answer it now; but there are more sides to the question that one. Did the Duke talk? Did he take anybody into his confidence? Did he drop a hint at the club by any chance? He is rather an impulsive youth, and regards everybody as being as straightforward as himself. He might have mentioned the matter quite casually, even in a public restaurant. Is he handy by any chance? If so, I should like to have a word with him."
The Marquis rose and crossed over to his telephone standing on a bracket in a corner or the library.
"I don't suppose our young friend has gone to bed," he said. "At any rate, I will try and get him."
The unhappy Lombaso had spent the early hours of the morning pending the arrival of the Councillors of Falconhoe in mournful confabulation with the Marquis, until, quite exhausted by his efforts to think out some scheme, he had gone home with the intention of seeing his friend again later on. As a matter of fact, el Navarro had said nothing to him as to the advent of the Councillors, thinking it better not to do so for the moment. Nor did he mention them when trying to get Lombaso on the telephone.
That was not a difficult matter, early as it was, for the young Duke had not gone to bed, and was still sitting up in his private apartment when the message came. He would only be too glad, he said, to come round at once, anything better than sitting there eating his heart out and waiting on events.
"That will be all right," the Marquis said as he returned to his companions. "Lombaso will be along in quarter of an hour. Meanwhile, have you anything to suggest?"
"I have a great deal to suggest," Jelicorse said meaningly. "But I can't get much farther till I have seen the Duke. I have my own theory of the matter, and, indeed, I saw one or two little things in London a week or two back which I hope have put me on the right track. But, first of all, I want you to know that Inez Salviati is a perfectly innocent agent in the matter. I cannot sufficiently impress that upon you. All the same, I think we are going to find her very useful. She was useful enough in the old days, when she was acting under my instructions in New York, and, indeed, she was quite a thorn in the side of Bernsdorff, though he didn't know it. However, we need not go into that."
"As I told you before," the Marquis said, "her father was my friend. When I heard that she was coming to Europe I went out of my way to make things as pleasant for her as possible. I knew what a career she had before her, and I am greatly disturbed to think that it should be interrupted in this way. And, whatever happens, and whatever my friend the Duchess of Lombaso may say, Inez must still have her chance. In the circumstances, one could not expect her to sing last night, but I understand the performance will take place to-morrow. Then she goes on to Berlin."
"Perfectly right," Jelicorse said drily. "She does go on to Berlin. And I tell you it is absolutely essential that nothing should stand in her way. I want her to go on to Berlin, and I want her to stay there a few months as she has planned to do. Marquis, Inez Salviati is not only a great artiste who is going to have a triumphal progress through Europe, but she is as much as ever the friend of freedom, and the agent who is going to save the world for democracy yet. You may say this is all by the way, but it has a most important bearing on the case, and I am looking to you, apart from this most unfortunate business of the emeralds, to help us with every means that lies in your power."
"And indeed you may," the Marquis cried. "You will tell me all about that presently perhaps. Meanwhile the business in hand calls for attention. You can appreciate what will happen if these emeralds are not found. You are my last hope. If you fail, then the Duchess will have to throw herself upon the mercy of the King, and her heart will break with shame and humiliation. It is indeed a desperate business."
"I quite appreciate that," Jelicorse said. "However, for the moment, I don't think we shall need to thrust ourselves upon the gracious lady in question. Sooth to say, I would rather not meet her if it can be avoided. I have heard her spoken of as the proudest and haughtiest woman in Spain."
"Ah, in a measure that is true," El Navarro said. "But she is passionately fond of her boy, and the disgrace will kill her. Does your boasted science come in here, Enderby? I have asked the Duke to come along, and he will be here any moment now."
"It is just possible that the science you speak of will play an important part," Enderby replied. "Marquis, the time is coming when science is going to kill crime. Most people take the wonders of the last half-century for granted, but the police of Europe are not so indifferent to the resources which men of research have placed in their way. Consider what my new Helico 'plane means. With half a dozen of them at various points, we can annihilate space. By a sort of relay race, aided with wireless, we can breakfast in London and lunch in Constantinople, dine in Calcutta and spend the next day in Melbourne. Not the same men, of course, but each carrying the news which is conveyed by the last voyager. A great crime is committed in London to-day, and the criminal flies to New York. Four days before he can land, I am in America with my proofs—what chance has he? The 11th of November, 1918, did something besides save civilisation, it put a stop to many great inventions that were in the making. Two or three of mine, for instance, because I had my future to worry about, and because that was vital, and because I had no paternal government behind me to pat me on the back and say go on, I had almost succeeded, by a combination of Xrays and the ordinary camera, in taking photographs through brick walls—say, place a camera in your garden and photograph us here in this room. I tell you that even thought photography is no idle dream, and painless gas is in the near future. And yet you ask me if science is going to play a part in this missing emerald problem. I think it will, and I think it is going to save Europe from the new terror."
"But gas in warfare will never be used again," el Navarro said. "It was such a damnable business—"
"But not the gas I am working on," Enderby smiled. "Mine is absolutely harmless to human life. I shall be able to chloroform whole armies, and disarm them, as if they were infants innocently asleep. My gas came too late for Armageddon, but I have proved it beyond a doubt. It paralyses motion of all kinds—yes, even mechanical traffic—and yet leave no one a penny the worse. Now, will you be good enough to look at this?"
From his waistcoat pocket Enderby produced a small oval of silver, about the size and shape of a lemon, with a cap at one end, which covered a series of fine holes like a pepper box.
"I press this spring and twist the cap, and instantly every one in the room, with the exception of myself, is incapable of motion. But first I place this tablet in my lips, and I am immune because within the tablet is the antidote. With this simple apparatus one is perfectly safe from the most dangerous and cunning criminal. But there are many of these things locked up in the safes of the War Office in case of future trouble. Still, what is all this I am speaking of? A mere waste of time."
"Yes, you are quite right there, Enderby," Jelicorse said. "Now, Marquis, let us get on. We will begin with the certainty that Inez Salviati is innocent, and did not realise the value of what she was wearing. Moreover, she regarded the emeralds as merely a loan. The thief knew better. But what I cannot understand, knowing Inez so well, is why she lost her head and indulged in that dramatic outburst on the stage of the Opera House."
"I asked her about that," el Navarro explained. "The child was half beside herself. Her great chance was slipping, and she was wild to make good. Besides, in doing what she did, she was telling Lombaso at the first possible moment exactly what had happened. She knew he would be there, and understand. That was the story she told me at her hotel when I called to see her some hours ago, and I believed her implicitly."
"Of course you did," Jelicorse said, "However, we shall know more about it when the Duke arrives."
A few minutes later Lombaso came into the library, looking the picture of misery and as unlike his ordinary self as it was possible to be. Then his whole expression changed as he caught sight of the three men surrounding the Marquis.
"What is the meaning of this?" he cried. "Jelicorse here, and these other gentlemen? Ah, now I understand. These are the mysterious and formidable Councillors of Falconhoe."
"They are," the Marquis explained. "And they have come here to-day at my instigation to save your reputation."
"Egad, it will take them all their time," Lombaso said in his excellent English. "However, that is very kind and thoughtful of you, Marquis, and I will do my best to show my appreciation. Some day, perhaps, I shall pluck up courage to tell his Majesty what I was really doing during the War, when I was supposed to be looking after my property in the Argentine. I was there, as Jelicorse knows, together with the Marquis. Now, which is the wonderful Enderby, and which is the equally famous Farncombe?"
It was the old Etonian who was speaking now, and not one of the grandees of Spain, and the hearts of the Councillors warmed to him. He seemed boyish and eager to tell all he knew.
"The blame is mine, my dear Jelicorse," he declared to his examiner-in-chief. "I met Inez some time ago and fell madly in love with her. But I am, unhappily, a royal duke, at least practically so, and you know what that means. The King would never... but the suggestion that Inez should have some great display of jewels on her opening night was really inspired by a remark that was made to me in the club by Viscount d'Amaule. The Frenchman, you know. A small party of us had an invitation to witness the dress rehearsal of the opera, and during the performance d'Amaule declared that the Gipsy heroine ought to have some emeralds to set off that dress of hers. On the spur of the moment the wild idea of lending her our family treasures flashed into my mind. That is why I offered Inez the emeralds. It is not often, gentleman, that Carlos, Duke of Lombaso, stops to think twice. The thing was as good as done."
"But surely you didn't tell them all that?" Jelicorse asked. "You don't mean to say that you took any of your friends in the club into your confidence?"
"Certainly not," the Duke explained. "There were four or five of us standing round watching the performers on the stage, and I merely suggested that the difficulty might be overcome."
"And what did your friends say to that?"
"They didn't say anything, they merely laughed."
"Um, were they excited about it? Did you show in your manner that you had something unusual on your mind?"
"I might have done so. I am very impulsive and excitable, as you know better than I can tell you."
"Never mind that now," Jelicorse smiled. "Tell me exactly who was your party at the Opera House at the time. I mean everybody who was in earshot of what you said."
"My dear sir, you are not seriously suggesting—"
"I am not suggesting anything, I am asking for information. Look here, Lombaso, things are very different from what they used to be. Men do things to-day they would not have dreamt of 10 years ago, and poverty is always a great temptation. Possibly there was some one, even in your exclusive circle, who read your mind, and decided there and then that the emeralds—"
"Good heavens, I never thought of that," the Duke cried. "Let me think a minute. There was d'Amaule, of course, and Ferrini, and St. Amacio, with Vercemos, and I think that is all."
"Think again," Jelicorse said.
"Oh yes, there was one more who heard what was said. A man named Barrados, Count Andra Barrados. You know him."
"Yes," Jelicorse said drily. "Go on."
"You are sure that no one else could hear you?"
"Absolutely certain. We were seated in the back row of the stalls, and nobody else was within yards of us."
Jelicorse asked no further questions, and only his comrades familiar with his methods knew that he was not altogether disappointed. He lay back in his chair, reached for a cigarette from a silver box, and lay back luxuriously.
"To-morrow morning," he said, "you must ask me to have breakfast with you. And, by the way, when I say to-morrow morning, I mean this morning. I suppose all the men you speak of are members of your club. And which is the club? Which is most popular with you young men of fashion just now?"
"Oh, the Polo Club. It is the last word," the Duke laughed. "We are all members except Barrados. But then, as he is one of ourselves, we make him an honorary member."
"Well, that doesn't matter for the moment. I am going to breakfast with you at the Polo Club at about 11 o'clock. I shall expect in that gilded quarter to hear all the latest gossip. Beyond doubt, the dramatic events of the Opera House will be a subject of discussion for some time to come."
"They will be talking of nothing else," the Duke said.
"So I should have expected," Jelicorse said drily. "But when I do come, it will not be as I am at present. I shall arrive in disguise, and you are expecting a harmless elderly Englishman called Professor Smith, an old tutor of yours in your Oxford days, to whom, as in duty bound, you are showing your hospitality. There are reasons why I don't want anybody to know that I am in Madrid. If certain people here were aware that the Councillors of Falconhoe were on the spot complications might ensue. The rest you can leave to me. I have brought with me all the disguise that is necessary, and when Professor Smith is announced you will greet him and begin to talk about Oxford. Meanwhile, I don't think there is any occasion to detain you any longer. Oh, yes, there is just one thing else I should like to know—Inez Salviati went to the Opera House in her stage attire, mainly because she had no occasion to change her dress for either act. She wore the emeralds while she dined. Did she happen to see anyone in the room during the dinner hour whom she knew?"
"I don't think so," the Duke said. "She would probably have told me if she had. It is only a small hotel where she is staying, and if any friend of hers had been present she must have noticed it."
"One thing more, and then we can snatch an hour's sleep," Jelicorse observed after the Duke had gone. "Without making any fuss about it, Marquis, I want you to obtain for me, before I breakfast to-morrow morning at the Polo Club, a list of the visitors staying at the Hotel Dom Jaime, where, as you know, Inez is staying, and also, if possible, the names of any outsiders who might have dined there last night. Any competent head waiter would know, unless one or two casual guests dropped in."
"Oh, I don't think we shall have any difficulty about that," the Marquis said. "As a matter of fact, the major domo of the Dom Jaime is a relative of my house steward, and he will do everything that is necessary."
Shortly before 11 o'clock, Jelicorse, securely disguised, found himself seated in the palatial dining-room of the fashionable and exclusive Polo Club as the Duke's guest, amidst a host of well-dressed men, who formed the cream of Madrid society. He was supposed, of course, to be entirely ignorant of Spanish, though there was not a word that passed that he failed to understand. The big room was alive with gossip, and, as Jelicorse had expected, there was practically one theme of conversation, and that was the dramatic happening in the Opera House on the night before. He could hear it buzzing in his ears all round. But he sat there, bland and mild, in his silver hair, and beamed upon the assembled exquisites through his big horn-rimmed spectacles, whilst he dribbled on about Oxford in his own tongue, whilst the Duke bent towards him with the air of a young man who is doing his duty to one who was boring him to extinction. Then gradually a little group of men gathered round the table where the Duke was seated. It was quite evident that his infatuation for the fair singer was an open secret, and remarks were made accordingly.
"They were your emeralds, perhaps, Carlos?" one of the young bloods asked knowingly. "At least, that is what everybody is saying. Is it so, my friend?"
"Everybody can go to the devil," Lombaso said good-humouredly. "Where should I get emeralds from?"
"Where from? You have stacks of family jewels."
"Not mine. Oh, no, not mine. And don't forget, d'Amaule, that it was you who made the suggestion when we were watching the rehearsal in the Opera House. Ah, you have got into a mess, my friend, and you want to put it on someone else. Or maybe that remark of yours inspired St. Amacio, or again, Vercemos."
"Not I, Carlos," came from both listeners. "Ah, here is Barrados. Perhaps he can enlighten us. Barrados, were you the Curtius who leapt into the breach?"
The big man with the arrogant, insolent face, and the aggressive upturned moustache, smiled scornfully. The sham Professor Smith regarded him with mildly inquiring eyes.
"Ah, you are disposed to be funny," Barrados said coldly. "A poor devil of an Austrian Baron, with nothing left but the shell of his property, and estates coolly confiscated by his late tenants, is in no position to lavish gems on spoilt opera singers. It is all I can do in these times to keep myself."
"Yet you run a string of polo ponies, don't you?" the Duke smiled. "Come, they are not kept for nothing."
"Which, alas, I am disposing of to-day," Barrados said, tugging moodily at his moustache. "Then I leave here, and, after a visit to my melancholy ruin on the Polish frontier, I adventure to America, where the beautiful heiresses flourish. It is the only chance I have of rehabilitating my fallen fortunes. I can give the lucky woman a fine old title and castle which has more than once played its part in history. I shall permit her to restore it if she likes. But matrimony, my dear friends, is the one way of escape, and I am already resigned to it. In three days I sail from Barcelona."
Professor Smith, mildly gazing round the room, and apparently ignorant of what was being said, smiled softly to himself as he listened. Not for one moment did Barrados imagine that he was giving his bitterest enemy priceless information. That he was sailing from Barcelona with a view to reaching the Polish frontier by sea, Jelicorse knew to be an absolute lie. Nor had Barrados the slightest intention of crossing the Atlantic. That expedition, it was true, might come off before long, but there was much ugly work and mischief to be done before Europe would see the last of the Baron. Then the spoilt children of fortune drifted away, and no sooner had they merged in the crowd than Jelicorse rose from his seat and held out his hand to the Duke.
"Well," the latter asked eagerly. "Well?"
"Not so bad, by no means so bad," Jelicorse whispered. "My time this morning has not been wasted. If you will be good enough to have a car called, I will go back to my friends and the Marquis. Provided that no one knows that my colleagues are in Madrid, and I don't see how anybody can, I have every hope of success. There is a long and dangerous journey before me, but when I come back to Madrid, within the next few days, I shall be greatly disappointed if I don't bring the emeralds with me."
"What, you actually mean that?" the Duke cried eagerly. "Do you mean to say that you have found out enough here this morning, listening to all that idle chatter, to place you on the right track? If you have, then you are indeed a wonder. Why, so far as I can recollect, nothing was said. Chaff, it you like, but there was nothing in that."
"Oh, wasn't there," Jelicorse replied with a dry smile. "I am not going to tell you anything, my friend—on the contrary you are going to tell me something. Do you remember the night you were dining at the Ambassadors in London with Inez Salviati?"
"Very well," the Duke said. "You came along and interrupted us, and presently you were joined by that unfortunate young man Niel Nelson. But what of it?"
"What was Inez Salviati wearing? I don't mean her dress, because no man could remember that. What was she wearing in the way of ornaments? In the way of jewellery, I mean."
"Oh, ask me an easy one," the Duke exclaimed.
"Then let me give you a hint. She was wearing one stone only, suspended round her neck by a thin gold chain, and that ornament was a large uncut emerald."
"That is true," the Duke said a little uncomfortably.
"It was an exceedingly valuable emerald, as I could see at a glance. It could only have come from one collection, and that collection is, or was, in Madrid."
"Peccavi," the Duke admitted. "I am the sinner. You are quite right, Jelicorse, I took that stone to London to have the setting mended, and it does belong to our family. I mean, it is my mother's own, and not one of those regalia gems. I showed it to Inez, who fell in love with it, and I told her she could have it to wear as long as I was in London. When I returned home I took it with me. But you don't mean to tell me that you have built up a big theory on a little thing like that."
"I am not going to tell you anything," Jelicorse smiled. "At least, not at present. Now, put your valetudinarian friend into a taxi and send him back from whence he came. As the poet says, 'Mighty contests rise from trivial things,' and the sooner I am on the track of those great events the better."
It seemed to Jelicorse that he had enough, and more than enough, to get along with. A little while and he was back again with the other Councillors in the house of the Marquis, where he informed the rest of the conspirators exactly what had happened.
"And what do you make of it?" Enderby asked.
"Quite a lot," Jelicorse said drily. "In the first place I have discovered the thief who stole the emeralds. The mere fact that I knew who he was before was not of much use to me unless I could prove it. It is a risky thing to arrest a man on suspicion, first of all because you look like a fool if you are wrong, and secondly by so doing you alarm the real culprits, and put them on their guard. And in this particular case we don't want to arrest anybody, which somewhat handicaps us, as you know. Our game is to pounce down upon the thief just at the moment he thinks himself most safe, and choke the plunder out of him. He will know perfectly well that he is safe from prosecution, and when we convince him that we know everything he will hand over the stuff at once."
"Yes, but who is he?" Farncombe asked.
"Mean to say you haven't guessed? Why, Barrados, of course. Mind you, I can't take too much credit to myself for spotting him, because I had a clue shoved under my nose in London."
"With that, Jelicorse proceeded to tell the rest of the party the story of the meeting with Barrados and Inez Salviati and the Duke of Lombaso in the dining-room of the Ambassadors when the girl was wearing the famous uncut emerald.
"You see, I spotted that," Jelicorse went on. "I know quite a lot about stones, and when I saw what Inez was wearing and realised the company she was in, I knew that she had got the emerald from Lombaso. Yes, and Barrados knew it too. I watched him eyeing it from time to time with a look on his face there was no mistaking. By some means or another, he managed to find out what Lombaso was going to do. And you heard Lombaso tell us of the conversation in the Opera House. Barrados came over here on purpose to lay his hands upon the famous stones. You know what he wanted the money for. And all that talk of his about selling his polo ponies and going to America was so much bluff. I feel convinced that he is taking ship at Barcelona with the intention of landing at Corfu. Thence he will go through Bosnia and Hungary to his castle, which is about a hundred miles from Cracow. There, no doubt, he will meet his confederates. It is a quiet spot, just on the Polish border, and that was the way a great number of the Russian aristocracy escaped from the revolution, carrying as much treasure with them as possible. It was an underground railway, so to speak, and all tight till the Bolsheviks put a stop to the proceedings. Heaven knows how many brutal murders and robberies took place within a few leagues of Barrados's castle. However, we need not go into that. Barrados will be off in a day or two, and some of us will have to follow him. My idea is to beard him in his own den, quite unexpectedly, and force the stones out of him. He won't go for a day or two, because he has one or two matters to settle up, and, besides, he thinks he is absolutely safe. Now, Marquis, what about the list of people who were dining at the Don Jaime on the night of the robbery?"
"Oh, I have managed to get that," the Marquis said.
With that, the Marquis smilingly produced a paper from his pocket and handed it over to Jelicorse.
"Ah, just as I thought," Jelicorse said. "Barrados did dine at the hotel last night. The rest was easy; all he would have to do was to rush to his quarters and disguise himself. He would have no trouble in finding out how Inez proposed to get to the Opera House, and the night was absolutely made for it. Now we know to a certainty. I am going to follow Barrados, and in the meantime he will not be lost sight of. I will see to the rest. Directly Barrados is on board his steamer, I shall ask you, Marquis, to lend me one of your high-powered cars, and with any luck we shall be in the neighbourhood of Barrados's castle before he is. And I shall take Nelson with me. He is more active and young than the rest of us—"
"And as to his courage there is no doubt," Enderby smiled.
"I have proved that before," Jelicorse said. "He ought to be here some time to-morrow with any luck."
"You had better not take any risks," Enderby said. "In case of accidents, I will give you one of these little gas bombs of mine and a box of the lozenges. You know how to work it, don't you? You can slip the cap off with the thumb and finger, even when it is in your pocket, then you press the spring at the broad end, and the thing is done."
For the next twenty-four hours Farncombe, in one of his disguises, kept Barrados in sight. He was shadowing the man when he took his passage from Barcelona to Corfu, and, having ascertained the exact moment when the boat sailed, went back to the residence of the Marquis, to find that Nelson was awaiting him. And Nelson was only too eager for the adventure.
"By Jove, this is like old times," he laughed. "Something worth living for. Very different to pottering about a restaurant serving the idle rich with food they don't want. I am ready for anything, and the sooner we start the better."
It was late the same evening that the big car containing the two adventurers set out on its Journey. It would take them quite five days to reach their destination, and by careful calculation Jelicorse made out that they would be in the neighbourhood on the evening when Barrados reached his residence.
"Now, I don't think we have got anything to fear, when once we are there," Jelicorse explained to his companion as they drove along. "I have been in touch through the Marquis' wireless with one of our friends in Warsaw. He knows all about the castle, and practically how it is run. It was half ruined in 1917, when the Hungarian peasantry laid violent hands on Barrados's estates, and left him with nothing but the castle and a couple of men servants. I believe those men servants are there to-day, and one of them is quite an old man. The people in the neighbourhood don't trouble anything about Barrados now, and his coming and going excites no attention, which is precisely what he wants. It is there, no doubt, that he is going to meet some of his confederates. He will show them the emeralds, and thus convince them that they have at least a quarter of a million to go on with—that is when the emeralds are sold to some American millionaire, which I have no doubt Barrados has already arranged for. My idea is to force our way into the castle, and into Barrados's presence. In case he has laid any trap, with a view to getting people like ourselves out of the way, I had better see him alone. I know he generally spends his evenings in a sort of study on the first floor of the castle, and outside the window is a long stone balcony, which you can easily climb, because the supports are covered with thick ivy. I want you to stand outside the window and watch what is going on. I will manage to get the blinds pulled up all right. You will keep yourself practically hidden under cover of the darkness, but you must watch what goes on like a lynx. At the very first sign of anything like danger to me, you will manipulate that little silver egg which you have in your pocket at the present moment. By the way, I suppose you have quite mastered it?"
Nelson replied that he had experimented with the deadly weapon in question, until it was really familiar, and, having satisfied Jelicorse, the car plunged on through the night, and well into the next day before they found themselves crossing the Italian frontier and pulling up in the neighbourhood of a large old-fashioned Inn, where they proposed to breakfast and spend the next few hours in the rest they were beginning to need.
Outside the Inn in the courtyard stood a long grey car, obviously of English make, with a chauffeur busily engaged in some small matter of repair, and as obviously English as was the car which he had in his charge.
"Here, I don't like this," Jelicorse whispered. "I have been here before, and our worthy host might recognise me. I will stay where I am, whilst you engage the chauffeur in question and find out who he is, and, more particularly, who is the wealthy Englishman for whom he is driving."
Nelson came back a few minutes later, and Jelicorse turned to him with an eager question in his eyes.
"Well," he asked. "Did you find out?"
"Certainly I did," Nelson smiled. "The owner is an English millionaire who has considerable interests in Russia, and he is on his way there via Cracow. Name of Hommany."
"Oh, the devil," Jelicorse cried. "I had half expected this. We mustn't stay here another moment."
He threw a few directions to the chauffeur and a minute or two later the car was speeding on its way.
"But what does it all mean?" Nelson asked.
"Well, it means that we devilish near put our heads in the lion's mouth," Jelicorse said grimly. "You know what Barrados is after, you know the great scheme to link up Germany and Russia and place the two countries once more under the iron heel of militarism. If they only could get command of Hommany's money, the thing is as good as done. But so long as they have no money, we are quite safe. I know that Barrados has Hommany in his power. Perhaps I had better tell you how."
Jelicorse went on to tell his companion the story of the Katherine Necklace, and how it had been recovered for its owner by an ingenious scheme of his own invention.
"And now you will begin to understand," he concluded. "If Barrados likes to speak, then Hommany is socially ruined. I have not the slightest doubt in the world that Hommany is on his way to meet Barrados, and if we have any sort of luck we ought to kill two birds with one stone. But it's going to be a tough job, and I begin to regret now that I didn't bring Enderby and Farncombe with us. If we are discovered, I wouldn't give much for our chance of getting away safely. This complication is an international one, but our first obligation is to get hold of the emeralds, because that was what we were commissioned to do. Once they are in our possession, we can turn to the other side of the medal. Meanwhile, there is nothing for it but to press on, and find quarters for the night a little way off the beaten track, so that there is no chance of Hommany overtaking us."
"I don't think you need worry about that," Nelson said. "From what Hommany's chauffeur told me, they are not likely to leave their present quarters for ten or eleven hours. The trouble with Hommany's car was rather more serious than he thought, and he told me that he would have to make some improvised plug, or something of that sort, before he could go any farther."
"Well, that is good hearing," Jelicorse said. "I am absolutely done up. I have been keeping my eye upon Barrados night and day, and a few hours between the sheets will make a new man of me. Get the maps out and let us see exactly where we are. Then for a good meal and a comfortable bed."
"Quite so," Nelson said. "I don't think I have ever felt more hungry in my life."
The days had come and gone, as the car pushed its way across Europe, till late one evening it pulled up in a lonely road under the frowning heights of the Heinfrau, where wide belts of pines came down under the snowline, and where on a broad swathe of grass and scrub a building loomed through the velvety darkness of the night. It was here that Jelicorse and his companion left the car, some four hundred yards from the great building in question, towards which they crept silently over the grass-covered road, so that the car had made little or no noise. And here the chauffeur was bidden to wait with lights extinguished and the car hidden under the branches of a tree so that no sign of it could be seen.
Even hidden as the landscape was by the cover of the night, everything seemed to convey a sense of decay and desolation. Here was a great stone wall in ruins, and on the far side what had once been a noble park before the revolutionists had invaded it, and cut down every tree for the sake of the fuel which they had so sorely needed. The broad sweep of the drive was ankle-deep in weeds, there was no sign of light or life to be seen, and it was as if the scourge of war had swept the country clean as the back of a man's hand.
The two adventurers pushed their way along more or less blindly, and feeling their way in the dark towards the spot where Jelicorse knew that the house lay.
"Well, I have quite lost my bearings," he murmured. "I am like a ship without a rudder. If one could only see a spot of light somewhere it would be an advantage. I know we are close to the house, you can see the outline of it yourself. But which is the front and which is the back I haven't the remotest idea. Somebody must be in the castle, and if my timetable is correct Barrados must have arrived within the last hour or two. Ah!"
Suddenly a white spot of light shone out like a beacon from one of the upper windows of the castle, and its rays spread over the melancholy landscape like a pointing beacon.
"Well, thank goodness for that," Jelicorse whispered. "Now we do know where we are. That is the window of Barrados's study for a hundred. And by good luck, it is almost over the main entrance. Now, come along."
"You have been here before then?" asked Nelson.
"Oh, I have been here several times. I was here long before Barrados turned traitor to his own country and threw himself into the arms of Russia. He may call himself a German to-day, but he is an Austrian right enough, and in those days was a sort of patriot. He probably would be one still, but for the fact that he lost everything in the war. Oh, Count Andra Barrados and myself have met on several occasions, and indeed, I came here in the winter of 1916 at the imminent risk of my life to try and make history—and failed. There were seven of us altogether, concerned in a plot to detach Austria from Germany, and so lead up to a separate peace. And Barrados was the man who planned the whole thing. He did it for money, of course, and was more or less honestly concerned in its success. When he saw that the scheme was going to fail, he sold his comrades to Berlin for a large sum of money, and they mysteriously disappeared. I never asked what became of them, but I can give a very shrewd guess. So, you see, I am not altogether a stranger to this hospitable house."
They crept on cautiously and quietly, past a blackened lodge with signs of decay all round. They crossed flower beds, now trampled into the mire and covered with foul refuse. In the thin light of the glow in the window, a jagged hole in the roof of the castle was plainly visible. It was much as if the place had been subjected to a siege.
"A melancholy sight," Jelicorse whispered. "A ruined and famine-stricken land, and a fitting end to the last chapter in the history of a great family of nobles. Well, Barrados and his tribe brought it on themselves. Now, you see, Nelson, it is no difficult matter to climb up that balcony and reach the room where the light is. A young man like you would make nothing of it."
Nelson nodded smilingly. He could see in front of the upper windows of the castle the carved stone balcony clad from the ground upwards with the twisting ancient ivy and the same roofed in so as to form a gallery leading from one room to another.
"Oh, that will be all right," he said in Jelicorse's ear. "Don't you worry about me. I shall be up there in a minute or so without making any more noise than a cat. But can't I see a glimmer of light under the big door?"
Surely enough, a thin yellow line showed in the darkness under the great iron-studded main entrance.
"That's right enough," Jelicorse said. "Barrados is upstairs in his room, and I suppose the servants put that light in the hall. The whole place is sinister to a degree. There may be all sorts of things going on inside, but I must take the risk of that. My idea is to pounce upon Barrados in his study and take him entirely by surprise. That will be half the battle. It is impossible for Hommany to have got here yet, and I judge that Barrados' crowd has not arrived yet, or there would be a good deal more light to be seen. Now, my boy, up you go. And when I see you standing on the balcony without rousing the suspicion of the man in the study, then I will ring the front door bell like any ordinary visitor, and ask to see our host. But first of all, be quite sure that you have got your silver egg."
Nelson felt his pocket, and nodded significantly. Then, without further word, he began to make his way very quietly and with infinite care until he reached the balcony without raising the slightest sound. He looked down at Jelicorse and waved his hand. So far, everything had gone well, and Jelicorse's spirits began to rise. Then he turned to the front door and pulled at the old bronze handle that communicated with the bell. It was a long time before any response came, and when it did, it took the form of an aged retainer, bent and palsied and shaken with a terror which he made no effort to conceal. As he threw back the great door, Jelicorse could see one solitary speck of light that seemed to be attached to a flex dangling from the painted ceiling, whilst the big antique electroliers were all in darkness. Here again was eloquent witness of the terror that follows always in the track of famine and bloodshed. The walls bore the marks of bullets, and the fine old family portraits there, the works of many masters, were slashed and torn beyond repair.
"What is it you would have, excellency?" the old man asked with shaking deference.
"I would have speech with your master," Jelicorse answered in the man's own language. "I want to see Count Andra Barrados, and that without delay."
The curt tone of command was not without its effect, for the aged janitor with a cringing bow threw open the door and bade his visitor to come inside.
"My master is here, Excellency," he quavered. "He is alone in his own room. He is but back three hours, Excellency, and I dare not, I dare not—"
The dread silence of the place was torn suddenly by a long deep bay that evidently came from the throat of a hound and rose to a sort of stammer, then ended in a howl so menacing and hideous that Jelicorse was hard put to it to suppress a shudder. He had heard that cry in the castle before, but in those days the house had been full of visitors and servants, and light and life, and its sinister import had been less terrifying.
"Ah, one of your famous bloodhounds, I suppose," Jelicorse said. "You still keep them I see? In spite of all that has happened, the Count has not got rid of that famous strain."
"Even so, Excellency," the aged retainer explained. "There are about three of them left out of the pack, and there are no boars in the forest to hunt now, because when the revolution came the peasants hunted them down for food. And, you see, Excellency, they are a protection, because there are many thieves prowling about, and life is still unsafe, though the war has been over these three years. But it is not wise—"
"I am the best judge of that," Jelicorse said. "Stand aside and let me pass. I have been here before and know my way. If there is any blame, I will take it on my own shoulders."
He made his way up the broad marble steps and along the corridor until he came to the room that he sought. He had not forgotten the way, and if he had, the silt of light under the door would have been sufficient for his purpose. He pushed boldly into the room and confronted the man seated there, the big man with the arrogant moustache that he knew so well. Then, quite coolly, Jelicorse closed the door behind him. He was pleased to note that the window leading on to the balcony was open, for the apartment was close and fusty to a degree, as if it had been closed for a long time, and only recently made free with fresh air.
"What the devil?" Barrados cried. "You are a bold man sir! Ah, one of the Falconhoe Councillors, I see. What can I have the honour of doing for you, Mr. Jelicorse?"
His black eyes glittered insolently, he lay back in his chair with smiling and menacing triumph. At the same time he extended his cigarette case with a pleasant grace.
"Thank you, no," Jelicorse said. "I have come a long way on purpose to see you—to be quite candid, I have tracked you here from Madrid, and I think perhaps you can guess my errand. I have called, Count, for the Lombaso emeralds. Please don't deny they are in your possession, because I happen to know better. I presume that we can settle this matter amicably."
Barrados's expression changed. The scowl between his brows smoothed out, and there was something like a smile on his lips. He had the air of a man who was absolutely master of the situation and in a position to humour his enemy. He lighted a fresh cigarette and lay back easily in his chair.
"You are a brave man," he said. "A very brave man, and I have the highest respect for that sort of thing."
"Yes, I suppose you have," Jelicorse replied. "One generally has for that which we lack ourselves."
At any other time the thrust would have brought Barrados to his feet, but now he only laughed softly.
"Oh, very well," he said. "If that is the line you are going to take, I am not going to try and prevent you. But I will repeat, you are a brave man, Jelicorse. You always were, and your nerve would appear to be as strong as ever. Am I to understand that you have come here all by yourself to defy me, in other words, that you are utterly alone in this business?"
"Well, why not?" Jelicorse retorted. "You are cut off from the world here, in this melancholy ruin, with but one servant in the castle, and he an old one. We are just man to man, and I am quite willing to give you every chance."
"That," Barrados jeered, "is very kind of you."
"Too kind, perhaps. It would have been better for me to have denounced you in Madrid, and have you arrested there with the emeralds in your possession, but you are not going to deny that you got away with the Lombaso jewels."
"My dear sir, why should I deny or admit it. I should like to hear your side of the story."
Jelicorse stood there taking in his surroundings. It was a luxurious apartment enough, lined for the most part with books, and with a good picture here and them on the wall. The window was wide open, and just outside Jelicorse could see the faint outline of his ally watching through the darkness.
"That is quite a fair suggestion," he said. "And I am quite ready to tell you everything. But I shall have to go back a little way. You will recollect the night in the Ambassador's Hotel, when you were dining with the Duke of Lombaso and Inez Salviati. That is where we begin. You are probably not aware that I was in the room at the time, and that after Signorina Salviati dismissed you and the Duke, I took the opportunity of speaking to her. Now, she was wearing a large uncut emerald, which I immediately recognised as being the property of the house of Lombaso. You see, it was part of my business as a sort of amateur detective to know a good deal about historic stones, and I take it that you are not altogether ignorant about such things yourself. You noticed that emerald, and you knew where it came from. You guessed, of course, that the Duke had lent it to his companion, and that she was wearing it out of quite a natural girlish vanity. That much I know. Then I shall have to conjecture. If I may venture to do so, I would suggest that something was said at the dinner in question about the singer's coming appearance at Madrid, and perhaps a hint given that the historic Spanish gems might adorn the young prima donna on her first appearance at the Madrid Opera House. At any rate, she did wear them, and she lost them. With the exception of the Duke and his mother, and one or two other people in the secret, likewise the Councillors, for instance, nobody knew otherwise than that the emeralds were the property of some anonymous friend; but we Councillors, who were called in to get them back again, knew all about it. And the first person I suspected was yourself. Moreover, I knew your reasons for raising a large sum of money, and what was likely to happen when you turned the jewels into cash."
"Ah," the Count cried. "You do, do you?"
"Indeed I do. That dream of yours will never be realised."
"And what dream may that be?"
"Oh, don't let's waste our time fencing," Jelicorse said. "I am speaking of that Russo-German enterprise. The big hidden army, officered by trained Germans, and the great camps concealed beyond the Russian border, and—oh, why waste time talking about it? I traced the emeralds to your possession. I know exactly what happened on the night they were lost, and when you told your friends in my hearing in the Madrid Polo Club that you were disposing of everything and going to America, I knew precisely what your next movement would be. I was at your elbow when you booked your passage from Barcelona to Corfu, and I followed up by car. And now, kindly hand those stones over."
"But suppose they are no longer in my possession?"
"Why suppose anything of the sort when I know that they are? You have only been back here two or three hours. You probably have those cases in your pocket at the present moment."
Barrados smiled with the air of a man who has just made a master move in chess, and waits for his opponent to find some way out of the difficulty. He snapped his fingers twice, and almost immediately some big black object pushed open the door of the library and one of the famous bloodhounds came into the room. He slunk in, tail down and hackles bristling, and at a sign from his master lay crouching on the floor as if ready to spring. His great jaws twitched, and the two rows of shining teeth were bared as the yellow eyes were fixed upon the intruder. They never blinked or varied, and at the slightest movement on Jelicorse's part a deep growl came from the broad black chest.
"Quite a nice dog, don't you think?" Barrados said playfully. "A man who has a companion like that absolutely under control need fear nothing. And there are others."
Barrados snapped his fingers again, and a minute later two other of the huge hounds came into the room and formed a sort or semicircle in front of Jelicorse's chair. He could feel a queer sensation running up and down his spine as he watched those cruel ivories, and looked, apparently fearlessly, into the watching eyes. Here was a situation he had not counted upon, something quite out of the ordinary and a danger so live and terrible that he was hard put to it to preserve his equanimity.
"Well, how do you like it?" Barrados asked jeeringly. "You were good enough to call me a coward just now, and perhaps I am. But I don't think you are feeling very comfortable at the present moment. When you said that I was here in the house alone beyond a servant who is in his second childhood and a sort of congenital idiot he picked up somewhere, you were telling no more than the truth. Your suggestion is that we are man to man, and that you could force me to disgorge. Well, that's right enough, but I think with these faithful allies of mine the advantage is on my side. Your arms are useless. Directly you put your hand down to your pocket one of those dogs will have you by the throat."
"Yes, I suppose he would," Jelicorse said coolly. "But then, you see, I don't happen to be armed."
"So sure of your ground as that, eh? Well, I can afford to be magnanimous. To ease your mind, I will admit at once that my little coup in Madrid was a blazing success. I did get away with the emeralds though I am rather astonished to find out that you know exactly why I wanted them. Not that it matters much, as you will never leave this place alive. Now, look here."
Barrados rose to his feet and crossing over to a desk in one corner of the room, produced therefrom a small dispatch case, the contents of which he proceeded to empty under Jelicorse's eyes. There lay the emeralds which Jelicorse had come half across Europe to regain. They danced and flashed in the light in a score of entrancing shades, as if mocking Jelicorse's endeavour.
"Well, there you are," Barrados said. "Take them if you can. Come, why don't you do it?"
Jelicorse half rose from his seat, and as he did so, one of the hounds jumped to his feet and rushed headlong towards him. Barrados, sneering and grinning like some fiend from the uttermost pit, watched to see what would happen next. Then, as if to prolong the agony, he uttered a sharp command, and the great dog dropped within a few inches of where Jelicorse was seated. Very stealthily, he slid a hand into his vest pocket and placed one of Enderby's capsules between his teeth. Almost immediately there came a slight hissing sound from the direction of the window, and as if some unseen hand had struck him immobile, the dog rolled over on the floor and lay there, stiff and motionless.
"Here, what the devil?" Barrados cried, with his hand to his throat. "What fiend's work are you up to now? I can't breathe, I cant feel any power—"
He stopped abruptly and fell back in his chair. Then the other two dogs rolled over on their sides, absolutely paralysed by the small but powerful volume of gas which came pouring through the window into the room. It was evident that though Barrados could not move hand or foot a single inch, he was perfectly sensible to what was going on around him. His features were convulsed in fear and hatred, and there was a glare in his eyes which was not good for any man to see.
"Gas," Jelicorse said curtly. "A new sort of gas, invented and patented by the Councillors of Falconhoe. The sort of gas that, like a little British army, goes a damned long way. This is the first time it has ever been put in operation, and if my friend, Colonel Enderby, who invented it, could be here, to see its effect, he would be delighted. But don't be afraid; it's quite harmless. You will sleep presently, and when you wake up to-morrow morning you will be just as capable of mischief as ever you were. Wouldn't this gas be a fine thing for your dream of Russian-German Army? Why, you wouldn't want an army at all, except for show purposes. Just half a dozen men on the battlefield, spraying the stuff about, and next morning a great army would be beyond the reach of any sort of mischief. You are a clever man, Barrados, but not half so clever as you think. Oh yes, your eyes tell me the question you would ask if you could. You want to know how I worked it. You want to know by what unseen agency I set the gas free. I regret I cannot gratify your curiosity. Now, I will put the gems in my pocket, and wish you good night."
Jelicorse swept the table clear, then with one backward careless glance strode out of the room and down into the big hall. A minute later, and Nelson, who had climbed noiselessly down from the balcony, opened the door and joined him.
"That was real fine, wasn't it?" he asked, enthusiastically. "A wonderfully clever stunt. Now, what are we going to do next?"
"I am not quite sure," Jelicorse said. "Ring the bell and tell the old servant that his master is ill."
It was not, however, the old servant who answered the summons, but a young man with pale face and thin shrunken limbs, at the sight of which Nelson staggered back with a cry.
"Tony Vickers, by the living Jingo," he exclaimed. "Good heavens, man, how did you get here, and what has happened to you? You look like a ghost just risen from the grave. My dear chap, I am glad to see you, and when Lady Peggy knows—"
The man addressed as Vickers smiled in a faint watery sort of way and looked at his questioner with eyes that had no expression in them. He was the pale carcase of a man almost without volition and apparently, on the verge of mental coma. He cocked his head slightly on one side like a dog that hears some half-remembered voice and strives to fit it in with his canine mentality. A man who had evidently suffered greatly both in brain and body and whose hardships had almost deprived him of thought. He was thin to the verge of emaciation with sunken cheeks and haggard eyes, and here and there his dark hair was plentifully streaked with grey. A man quite young, not more than thirty, and with a frame which once had been a muscular one.
He stood there with his hand to the back of his head gaping round absently, with ever and again a gleam in his tired eyes that showed some sort of comprehension.
"Here, come, Tony, don't you know me?" Nelson said. "Have you quite forgotten Niel Nelson?"
"Nelson, Nelson," the other man muttered vaguely. "Lord Nelson. Battle of Trafalgar. And yet this is not the man you mean. There was another Nelson. Oh, yes, Niel Nelson. Baronet in the same regiment as myself. I forget what regiment it was, and what we were doing. Let me see. Arras. Arras. What do I know about Arras? Ah, a battle. We were fighting the Germans with the French. There were Russians there too. It's all coming back again. I remember you now. My particular pal. We got cut off by the Germans, and they put me to work somewhere in a mine and there was Barrados. I struck him. I think that is why they put me in a mine. My God what a life!"
With that the speaker dropped into a chair, and, covering his face with his hands, burst into senile tears. He was shaking from head to foot with grief and emotion, but gradually his sobs died away, and when he lifted his head again the light of sanity was shining in his tired eyes.
"It's all right, old man, I shall be better presently. I remember it all now—1914 and the outbreak of war. Then the trouble at Arras, in which I was taken prisoner. They spat at us in Germany and Barrados led them on. He was a soldier, too, and I struck the brute. And, my God, I paid for it. Barrados never forgave me, and when the Armistice came I was handed over to Russia as a man who had been plotting against the Soviet Republic. So I was a prisoner again. I don't like to think of the things I saw there, but I learnt certain happenings, and when I managed to escape I found my way here, and because Barrados had no servant I volunteered my services. And the scoundrel didn't know me. You see, it was only for an instant that we were face to face when I struck him, and no doubt the incident soon passed out of his mind. Mind you, I didn't come here without an object, but I was so ill and broken down with my treatment that I couldn't even think. In these parts they regard me as an imbecile, and they are not far wrong. But the sight of an old face and the sound of the good old tongue is doing me more good than all the medicine in the world. Get me away from here, Niel, get me away from here, and let me rest. You see what a wreck I am now, but a week's good food and your companionship will make all the difference in the world."
"This is a strange story," Jelicorse said. "So you are Sir Antony Vickers, whom I have heard Lady Peggy Pevensey speak of often. Come along, Niel, let us get out of this, and take our friend with us. We can afford to stop a few days now, and put up at that hotel we passed about 50 miles back."
With the emeralds in his pocket, and a sense of duty done, Jelicorse led the way back to the car, so that within three hours they were in comfortable quarters, where they supped luxuriously and afterwards found comfortable beds. And the unfortunate Tony Vickers was quite right in saying that good food and sympathetic companionship would be the finest medicine in the world for him. After he had had a night's rest and a bath, and been clothed in such garments as the nearest town afforded, he was ready to sit back in his chair with a cigarette between his lips and tell the story of his many and thrilling adventures.
"After I came out of jail," he said, "I was put to work on the Polish frontier. It is not so many miles away from Barrados's castle, and, half starved as I was, I helped many a Russian aristocrat to get across the frontier with what he could save out of the wreck of his fortunes. And, strangely enough, Niel, accident gave me the chance of finding but all about your property. When I say your property, I mean your late mother's."
"You don't mean that?" Nelson asked unsteadily. "Some day I mean to find out, but I almost dread—"
"Oh, you needn't," Vickers said hurriedly. "The Princess, your mother, was not one of the victims of the revolution. Most of her servants were loyal to her, and perhaps, fortunately, she died before the wave of murder and outrage reached the castle where she lived. She died quite suddenly, and was buried by a priest of the Greek Church."
"Thank God for that," Niel said fervently.
"Oh, there is no doubt of it." Vickers went on. "I had it from one of your late tenants who attended the funeral. And there was one man, a steward, whose name I forget—"
"What, do you mean Stefanoff?"
"Ah, that's the man. An old fellow with a long white beard. He saw what was coming, and by chance it was I who tried to smuggle him across the frontier. As a matter of fact, he was on his way to Western Europe to look for you. He had managed to get hold of all the plate and valuables and jewels in the castle, which he valued at some fabulous sum. They were hidden under a load of vegetables in a cart he was driving. For, you see, he was passing as a sort of gardener. When it transpired that I was a friend of yours, he let me into his secret, and I did my best to get him past the Red Guards on his way to Warsaw. But somebody betrayed him or some servant in your mother's household found out what had happened, and the Red Guard was upon us almost before we knew what was happening. Stefanoff had just time to bury the treasure before the guard overtook him and cut him to pieces before my eyes. Of course, they didn't realise that I had anything to do with the escape, because I was wearing my badge, and they naturally took me for a communist workman. I had a long ragged beard in those days, so that I passed for a Russian all right."
"What an extraordinary story." Jelicorse said. "Do you mean to say that you could take us to the very spot where all Nelson's family treasures are buried?"
"Well, I am not quite sure I could go as far as to say that," Vickers replied. "But perhaps after I have regained my strength my muddled memory will clear, and I shall be able to remember details. All I can tell you is a tall oak tree at the top of a mound, by the side of a ruined tannery. But the miles in between are as vague as a dream. Still, when I am my own man again, I don't think I should mind taking part in the adventure. It isn't the distance so much as the blank in between."
Jelicorse turned eagerly to Nelson.
"When we have time to go into the matter, I should like to follow this up," he said. "That buried treasure is either safe or it has been looted long ago. What I mean is, there is no hurry. What I have to do now is to keep an eye upon Barrados's movements and drop down upon him and his fellow conspirators at the theatrical moment. But it would be great sport to go hunting after all that spoil. It would mean a great deal to you, Nelson. A great fortune like that—"
"By Jove, you are right," Nelson laughed. "If Stefanoff got away with all that stuff, it would be worth very nearly a million. Quite enough, at any rate, to give a humble baronet the right of aspiring to the hand of the daughter of a Duke. I can see Joan's face when she hears the news."
"Nobody will be more pleased than myself," Jelicorse said. "But there is a good deal to do before we can begin to lay the gold leaf upon the frame of love's young dream. Now, I want you two to take the car back to Madrid, and hand the emeralds over to the Marquess. Directly they are safely in her possession, get Enderby to call up our friend who manipulates our wireless in Warsaw. I shall go on there, and send a man I can trust as far as the castle to keep an eye on Barrados. Unless I am greatly mistaken, his next move will be in the direction of Berlin. But he won't leave the castle until he has seen Hommany. He looks to Hommany to find a large sum of money, which will be larger still now that we have recovered the emeralds, and, as you know, Hommany is on his way to meet Barrados."
It was an hour or two later, when all the details had been settled, and the big car ordered round to the portico of the hotel, that another car drove up with much dash and importance, and a big man with a large red face alighted. Through the window of their private room Jelicorse looked out, and grinned over his shoulder as he saw who the voyager was.
"Here he is," he said. "Hommany himself. And on the way to the castle, of course. We shall have to be careful. I don't suppose he will stay here very long; until he does go, we had better lie low. Now then, let's have a bottle of champagne, if they have got it, and drink success to the great venture. As our Premier says, I can see 'the clouds breaking over the hilltops, and the dawn behind the clouds.' Vive le guerre."
The taunt of cowardice which Jelicorse had so contemptuously thrown at Barrados had sunk deeply into what passed for his soul. He knew only too well how true it was. So had his comrades that time he had been in the Austrian Army and, after his treachery, so had his brother officers in the crack regiment in the Prussian cavalry after he had migrated to Germany. He was exactly the swaggering, bragging, cunning type of intriguer that his adopted country needed, and he was therefore pushed into the secret service.
And now for the third time Jelicorse had got the better of him on his own ground. The loss of the emeralds had infuriated him, and his very helplessness added fuel to the flame. What can you do with a man who beards you in your own den and plays tricks with you that suggest something like black magic? The gems so cunningly obtained and so sorely needed as a basis for raising funds for the great conspiracy had vanished beyond recall, and unless Barrados could find something to replace them, it would be a long time before he could see even the budding of his ambition. For he, like the rest of the plotters in Berlin, had the command of very little money, and money was the crux of the whole thing.
Barrados thought the matter over moodily most of the following day. He was none the worse for his experience and quite ready now to take it out of anybody who came along. He was not anxious to measure swords with Jelicorse again, but was waiting with almost feverish anxiety for the arrival of Hommany.
The latter turned up at length later in the day, and apparently in no mood to listen to what Barrados had to say. He had been dragged first to Madrid, and then half across the continent of Europe at a moment when his own affairs needed his most urgent attention. He consented to dine with Barrados with none too good a grace, and to smoke a cigar in the study afterwards. There was a scowl on his big red face, and an offensiveness of manner which the arrogant Barrados found hard to endure. But just then diplomacy was a necessary weapon, and he waited for what Hommany had to say.
It was not very long in coming.
"Now, look here, Count," Hommany said truculently, "I have had about enough of this. To begin with, I don't believe your scheme will come to anything. If I did, I would back it with all the money you need. But whenever you come up against the Allies, you are always beaten, and you always will be. Do you suppose that that bloodstained gang in Moscow will be able to hold a nation in their hands for ever?"
"But they have done it so far," Barrados smiled.
"Yes, so had those French chaps until Napoleon came along. Why, according to their own showing, they are only 1 per cent. of the nation. When some patriot puts a bullet into Trotsky and Lenin, which will assuredly happen before long, then the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. You are not going to ask me to believe that either of the two men I mention is a patriot? Why, they are out for their own hand. They are not real Russians, only German Jews on the make. Oh, I know all about them. Wasn't I in Russia myself a year after the revolution, and wasn't I in their councils? Of course I was. Some time when they see the red light the whole gang will clear out of Russia with all the spoil they can lay their hands on, and we shall never hear of them any more. And what will become of your fine scheme then? Directly that happens, and Russia has something in the form of a free Government, every country in the world will rush headlong to trade with her people again, and, within a week, Europe will know all about the secret camps, and your vast ammunition dumps, and the present German Government will throw you all into gaol."
"Oh, you think so, do you? As long as the Prussian aristocrat—who is a long way from being done with yet—supports the Soviet, so long will it be maintained. What we want is money, and money we must have."
"Meaning that I must find it, I suppose?" Hommany sneered.
"Precisely. You will have to find a million. Oh, I am not going to ask you to take any risk, because in return for your cash you will be paid in treasure. I know pretty well where the treasure is, and if I can't put my hand upon it myself I know a man who can. He is not very far away, and perhaps you would like to hear what he has to say. I mean all the stuff that the steward of a certain princess got away with. You probably have heard of her. She married an English baronet called Nelson."
"Yes, I know all about that," Hommany said. "I was in Russia at the time, and I am aware of the fact that Stefanoff nearly reached the frontier in an attempt to get to England with the treasure and hand it over to the son of his dead mistress. He was cut to pieces by the Red Guard, but not before he managed to hide the stuff, and it has never been found."
"But I can find it," Barrados said eagerly. "The man I speak of will tell you all about it. When he does, I think you will listen to what I have to say."
"Not I," Hommany said. "You don't get anything out of me till I have located the stuff for myself. Besides, you sent me a line to the effect that you already had the equivalent of a quarter of a million in the shape of certain gems which I have a shrewd idea came to you in Madrid."
"What do you mean?" Barrados demanded.
"Oh, I think you know. That dramatic affair in the Madrid Opera House. It was you who got away with those stones, and if you can turn them into money you won't need me for some time."
"Ah well, they have vanished," Barrados groaned. "They were taken from that table yonder under my very eyes. And I was powerless to interfere."
With that, Barrados told the story of his adventure of the previous evening, with rage and bitterness in his heart, as he saw the sneering smile on Hommany's face.
"So there you are," he concluded. "I am in desperate need of money, and, to put it plainly, you have got to find it. I am not asking you to find it all at once, because we are not ready. But I must have a few thousand pounds in the meantime, and unless I do, then London is going to learn all about the secret history of the Katherine Necklace. That means social ruin to your womenkind, and an end of the Hommanys so far as society is concerned. I shouldn't wonder, if the truth was known, that my dear friend Jelicorse was at the bottom of that little business in Yorkshire. They are perfect devils of fellows, those Councillors, and they thwart me at every turn. Now, what about it?"
"You really mean that?" Hommany asked sulkily.
"I mean every word I say. I have got you in my power, and I am going to keep you there. Call it blackmail if you like, but I am going to have that money."
For a minute or so the pair of choice rascals glowered into one another's eyes. They had come to grips at last, and the matter would have to be settled one way or the other.
"Oh, it's no use going on like this," Barrados said. "You might as well take it in a friendly spirit. We have got to pull together to our mutual advantage. Now, would you like to hear what the man you speak of has to say? He is a fugitive from Russia, and he dare not cross the frontier. If he were free to do so, then he could take us to the place where the treasure is hidden, and there would be an end of the matter. Now, as you are still in close touch with the authorities at Moscow, you could smooth the way for the man's return to his own country. At a hint from you no questions will be asked, and you yourself could go and help to get all that mass of valuables into your own hand. If you fail, or there is nothing in it, then there is an end of the matter. But if you succeed you will have the jewels to cover the sum of money which I and my friends demand."
"Which your friends demand, eh?"
"Not a pretty word, is it?" Barrados sneered. "But that is precisely what it comes to."
"Oh, very well," Hommany growled. "I am on my way to Moscow, anyhow. Bring your man along."
Barrados crossed the room and rang the bell. After a short interval the aged retainer put in an appearance, and Barrados gave him a few curt commands in his own language. Five minutes later there entered a small, mean-looking man with a hungry, shifty eye, and a suggestion of deep humility.
"This is the fellow," Barrados explained. "We will call him simply Ivan. He was in the stables of the Princess we were speaking of just now, and, quite by accident, he got on the track of Stefanoff when he was making his way to the frontier. He knows where the treasure is hidden, eh, Ivan?"
"That is so, Excellency," the man said. "At least, I could find it in time. It was a strange country to me, and I am not good at what you call locality. Also, I had to hide some way off."
"You were going to steal the things for yourself, eh?"
"That is so, Excellency," the man said frankly. "But I was being watched myself, so I had to take much care. I know that there was a building and an oak tree on the top of a mound. It must have been within a few yards of that, and in time I could find what your Excellency needs. But behold, I was blind with terror, when those Red Guards cut Stefanoff to pieces, and how I reached Poland I do not know. For days and days I starved, till I reached here and told your Excellency's servant my story. Since then I have been sheltered under this roof, and given the food I needed."
"And now you are ready to show us the hiding-place, eh?"
"Well, perhaps," the little man called Ivan smiled. "I am a poor man, Excellency, and I have no friends in the world. It is a great risk, and I must be paid."
"Oh, the devil you must," Barrados cried. "A few thousand roubles, eh? We might manage to give you that."
"Half," Ivan cried boldly. He was no longer the cringing servile object. "Half. Ah, I know, I understand. There are many things I understand, and you do not give me credit."
Barrados was about to give way to a burst of wrath, when he caught sight of the grin on Hommany's face.
"That is quite fair," the latter said with a subtle wink. "You leave him to me, Barrados. I am crossing the frontier to-night, and I will take Ivan with me. He will be perfectly safe at a word from me to the authorities. Ivan, make your preparations to accompany me within the next two hours. And now go. We will send for you again when we want you."
"You are a bit of a fool," Hommany said, when Ivan had gone. "That Prussian method of your's is not always successful. We shall be able to get rid of that fool for a trifle, and he can go to the devil afterwards for all I care. And now I am prepared to advance you, say, ten thousand English pounds, so that you can go to Berlin and see your friends there."
"Good for you," Barrados cried. "I am at the very end of my resources. I ought to have been in Berlin two days ago. Give me your cheque—I shall know what to do with it."
A fortnight had passed and Inez Salviati was in Berlin. The Lombaso emeralds had been returned to their proper owner, and the subsequent performances in the Opera House on the Monday night had fulfilled Inez' wildest dreams. She had been an instantaneous success, and her reception at the end of the evening had been equal to that generally accorded to royalty. For a week or more crowds flocked to hear her, and the cream of Madrid society delighted to welcome her under its roof. And with her laurels still unfaded, she went on to fulfill an engagement in Berlin.
Not for one moment did Barrados imagine that Inez had the slightest cognizance of the way in which the emeralds had been stolen, or how, by a sort of miracle, they had been returned again to the place from whence they came. In the eyes of Barrados, Inez was just an opera singer, engrossed in her career, and that she had been almost since her girlhood deeply intrigued in the secret service of the Allies he had not the faintest idea. He did not know, for instance, how important a part she had played in New York in the months previous to America coming into the war, and what a thorn she had been in the side of the German Ambassador at Washington. Barrados would have been considerably surprised to know what an important part Inez was playing in the present affair. That he would discover later.
Meanwhile, Inez was in Berlin, keeping a sort of court at the Hotel Adelon, where a few days previously she had been joined by Lady Peggy and Lady Joan Pevensey, who had had their small parts assigned to them by Farncombe and Enderby, who were at that moment modestly keeping from the public gaze in a select boarding-house not very far from Potsdam.
A few days later, and both Nelson and Tony Vickers found themselves under the same roof as Inez. There was no disguise, so far as Niel was concerned, because no suspicion attached to him, and indeed the passage of a few days had made such a difference to Vickers that Barrados would scarcely have known him had they happened to come face to face.
It was quite a happy reunion between Vickers and Lady Peggy. She had, of course, long given him up as dead, and his rather sudden appearance in Inez's suite of rooms had almost been too much for her. But Joy never kills.
"It's like a chapter out of a book," Lady Peggy said with moist eyes and shaking lips. "Now, just sit down, Tony, and tell us all about your adventures."
"That won't take long," Vickers said. "It's a funny thing, but my troubles seem to have got mixed up with Nelson's. Of course, I am all right financially, so we have nothing to worry about, Peggy. But we must not think too much about ourselves just yet. I want to help Niel if I can, and with any luck he will find himself quite a rich man before many weeks have passed."
With that, Vickers proceeded to tell the story of the amazing happenings of the last week or two, and to explain that before very long Niel Nelson's future would be as safely assured as his own.
"Yes, but there is a lot to do before that," Inez said. "If Hilary Jelicorse has made up his mind to recover the property that belonged to Sir Niel's mother, he will do it, if any man on the face of the earth possibly can. Ah, he is a wonderful man that. I don't think there is anybody like him. You see how he got back the emeralds that nearly ruined me, and how cleverly he restored the Katherine necklace to the Grand Duke. But there are great things happening, in which I am deeply interested."
"What, you?" Vickers cried.
"All of us," Lady Peggy said proudly. "We are secret agents for the British Government, and Inez is the leader, so far as we girls are concerned. Oh, it is most fascinating and exciting, just like the war times over again, without the risk of being blown up. And Inez is wonderful."
"I have had much experience," Inez smiled. "It was Mr. Jelicorse who trained me, and he is good enough to say that he is proud of his pupil. Already I know several Prussians in Berlin who are in the great conspiracy to bring about a military alliance between Germany and Russia. There is one old gentleman here, a Prussian of old family, who is the leading spirit. Professor von Dornn, he comes to my receptions. Behold, I am a great lady now, and I have my receptions in the hotel twice a week. Imagine Inez Salviati with her own salon! And yet it is a fact."
"Yes," Lady Joan cried. "And half masculine Berlin is mad about her. We are not without our admirers, of course, and everybody knows who we are, but we are small stars by the side of Inez. It is our duty to play up to her, and listen. You would be so surprised to know what a lot of information we have picked up."
"But to-night we go much farther," Inez said. "I have already discovered that the chief conspirators meet regularly in this very hotel. They call themselves a sort of club, an Epicurean Club, whose hobby is tasting strange foods, a mere camouflage that, but sufficient for the purpose. I have all their names in the back of my mind, and to-night I fascinate my old professor. He will take me into his confidence. I have already hinted that my sympathies are entirely German, and indeed, I have invented a Prussian ancestor on my mother's side."
It was late after the Opera House had closed that a few score of Prussian exquisites and others began to congregate in Inez's handsome salon, there to pay their respects to the latest social favourite. Already Inez had become a sort of cult, so that not to know her was not to be known. She flitted about from group to group in some wonderful Paris confection, dropping a word here and there, and fascinating everybody with her brilliant beauty.
Then, presently, when the conversation became general, and the guests were gathered into little knots, she edged up to one corner of the room, where half a dozen men were engaged in earnest conversation. They were Prussians to a man, big and arrogant, and every one of them with the bearing that spoke eloquently enough of strict military training. There were no Royalties amongst them, but every man there had the cachet of a great name, and every man there, as Inez knew, was burning for the time to come when what they conceived to be the slights and indignities of the past few years would be wiped out in a sea of blood. That they had brought those indignities upon their own shoulders did not seem to occur to them. They had been victims of serious misfortunes, and those misfortunes would be rectified in the early future.
In the centre of the group was an old man with a long silvery beard and short cropped hair.
"Ah, Professor," Inez cried. "What is it that you are conspiring about? Surely an old and tried friend of Germany like myself is worthy of sharing your secret?"
Professor von Dornn bowed and beamed with an almost senile affection over his big silver-rimmed spectacles.
"Me, I would trust you with my life, Signorina Inez," he said fatuously. "Ach, you are indeed a friend. Gentlemen, Inez Salviati is contributing a large sum of money. She has not even asked for what purpose."
"She wouldn't," a harsh voice put in. "Ah, so we meet again, Signorina? I have not seen you since you were treated so infamously by a thief in Madrid."
Inez turned with a fascinating smile.
"Count Barrados," she said. "So you are back again in Berlin. I had not hoped to see you so soon."
"The pleasure is entirely mine," Barrados said. It was quite clear to him that Inez had no suspicion as to the quarter from whence her trouble in Madrid had come. "So you are with us, I understand? Ah, my dear lady, what an asset you would be if you would only consent to throw your lot in with us patriots who are bent upon saving our distracted country. You are now a great personality in Europe, you go from capital to capital in a progress which is absolutely royal. No one would suspect—ah. If only you would deign to shed the light of your countenance—"
"But I thought I had already done so," Inez smiled. "To me the cause of liberty is sacred. It was for love of liberty that my father left his own country. From my earliest childhood it was a gospel which fell on sympathetic ears. Some time perhaps you will tell me everything. But not now; you do not know what spies and listeners there are about."
"I will tell you," the old Professor said eagerly. "You will perhaps permit me to come round some afternoon and give me the great pleasure of a tete-a-tete."
"To-morrow," Inez said with one of her sweetest smiles. "Let it be to-morrow at 5 o'clock."
She said no more for the moment, though inwardly she was wondering what these men would think if they knew how carefully she had been posted in what they were doing. They could not know, of course, that she was in daily contact with Enderby and Farncombe, and that the most recent happening, even to Hommany's journey to Russia, was common knowledge to her. As she stood there, fascinating her audience, a waiter came in with a telegram, which he almost humbly tendered to Barrados. The latter read it, and then with an execration threw it over to the Professor.
As the old man perused the few lines Inez's quick eyes took in the gist of the message.
"No oak tree to be found," (it ran). "No trees for miles around. Building also vanished. Await instructions at Moscow as to what to do next.—Hommany."
Inez listened with just a shade of curiosity in her eyes, but seemed to pay no attention to the telegram which had brought a livid grey to Barrados's face, and caused him to break out into a volley of execrations. Anyhow, apparently, it was no business of hers, and if she had been attempting to convey the impression that the incident rather annoyed her, she was certainly succeeding beyond her wildest expectations. All the same, she knew exactly what the telegram meant, and she was going to convey the information on to Enderby and Farncombe without much delay.
Meanwhile, she stood there, a picture of grace and beauty, dominating the hearts of all of them, as she did indeed, with practically every man with whom she came in contact. Indeed, her progress had been absolutely phenomenal. The unknown singer of a few weeks ago was now a sort of queen. Her name was on every lip, her photograph in every shop window, and no paper was complete without a few paragraphs concerning the latest doings and sayings of the great diva. Even in the short time she had been in Berlin she had managed to wind most of the leading men around her little finger, and though the more serious-minded among the governing classes remained aloof, she had no trouble in coming in contact with those whom she most desired to fascinate.
They were, of course, the nobles and men of great families who had helped to rule Germany with a rod of iron previous to the revolution. It had been no difficulty to her to take up the thread of the intrigue where she had laid it down, and under Jelicorse's careful training she knew exactly what to do, and how to go about it. She turned to Barrados with a sympathetic smile, and innocently asked him what was wrong. "Oh, it doesn't in the least matter," he growled. "I am so used to disappointments now that I scarcely notice them."
All the same he was terribly shaken, and he moved off a minute or two later, with most of his friends, leaving Inez with the infatuated old Professor, who was looking into her eyes with a mingled suggestion of paternity and senile affection, which inwardly moved her to laughter, though no sign of it appeared on her beautiful face. Indeed, she was quite serious.
"Oh, I do hope, Professor von Dornn, that nothing has gone wrong. I know that the Count is a great patriot—"
"We all are, we all are, my dear lady," the Professor croaked. "We are prepared to lay down our lives to save the fatherland, and though I shall never live to see it, the time will come when it will be a case of Deutchland uber Alles once again. But this time we will make no mistake. Still, we are all wretchedly poor, and it would be madness to trust the present swine who form what they call our Government. They are traitors, scum, thinking only of themselves and the commercial prosperity of Germany. If they knew what I know, we should be all arrested and shot. It is that we have been disappointed over a sum of money quite sufficient to have set up the new order of things. A million of English pounds. And now it is all gone."
"But you will tell me everything," Inez said coaxingly. "Perhaps I can find it. Tell me of your plans, of your secret meetings, and where you keep your documents. You must have documents, of course. And you must be in correspondence with those men at Moscow who rule Russia to-day. You may have interests in common, but you would never trust them."
"Those murderers," the Professor cried. "No, Ach, they are worse than our own present rulers. They are the opposite of all we stand for. But they must have money, and they must have machinery, so they pretend to agree with us. But when the time comes, and the Iron Heel goes down, as it must, then we will make short work of that canaille in Moscow. We will put their backs to the wall and treat them like dogs. But, dear lady, things move very slowly. We have our weekly meetings of what we call the Epicures Club, and there we lay our plans. It is a room in this hotel with another room beyond, where there is great safe containing everything. To that safe we each have a key, and to the correspondence we each have a cypher. Some time, perhaps, I will show you the room where the Greater Germany will be born."
The old man talked on, until Inez made some excuse for getting rid of him, and, once her guests had departed, retired to her own apartments together with her friends.
"Ah, my dears," she cried. "Things are beginning to move at last. Now, let me tell you all that has happened to-night."
"You really are wonderful," Lady Peggy said admiringly, when Inez had finished. "But when are we going to play our part in the adventure? When will Joan and myself have an opportunity of showing these people that we are two of the finest revolver shots in Europe?"
"I hope never," Inez smiled. "But if the time comes, you shall both know how to act."
It was just after luncheon the next afternoon when Inez, very simply dressed, and obviously desiring to avoid observation, left her hotel and made her way, at length, to the great Berlin street called Unter den Linden. There she took a taxi, and after a drive of a mile or so alighted in Potsdam, where she loitered along the streets until she came to a house in the Albustrasse. There she asked for a name, and a minute or two later found herself face to face with Enderby and Farncombe.
"Ah, you have news," the latter said. "I can see it in your eyes. What is the latest development?"
"You are sure that you are absolutely safe here?" Inez queried. "I know I have not been followed, but I want to know that there is no danger."
"You can make your mind quite easy about that," Enderby laughed. "We are here with friends. The man to whom this house belongs is a German, it is true, but he is all for peace, and did his best to stop the late war. He was one of the few men in Germany who realised what it meant. It is here, under this roof, that we have a wireless station, and whence we can talk with our colleagues all over Europe. Oh, you need not worry yourself in the least about us. Now, tell me, what did Barrados say when he heard the news from the Russian frontier."
"Oh," Inez cried, with just a touch of disappointment in her voice. "Then you know all about that."
"Without boasting, I think we may say that we know practically everything," Enderby laughed. "We know, for instance, that Barrados was at your reception last night, and that his telegram from Hommany was brought round to him."
"You are a wonderful man," Inez said. "It was exactly as you say. I presume that your host is one of the agents of the German Government, and that you are acting on my behalf until you have all the proofs of a great conspiracy in your hands, and Barrados and his friends are arrested."
"That is so," Enderby said coolly. "And, more than that. One or two prominent German Liberals have been murdered lately, and the gang of assassins are financed and directed by Barrados and his crew. It is part of our undertaking to bring these crimes home to the perpetrators. But never mind that for the moment. Barrados had a telegram last night which must have greatly disturbed him. Did you hear anything of it?"
"Indeed I did," Inez laughed. "I actually saw it. It was to the effect that no tree or building was to be found, and that Hommany, who sent the message, waited instructions. Now, do tell me what it all means."
"It is simple enough," Farncombe said. "Somewhere on the Russian frontier a great treasure of jewels and plate is buried. Those jewels are the property of Niel Nelson. But perhaps this is not altogether news to you."
Inez explained that she had already met the man called Vickers, who had told her and the ladies Pevensey all about his hard times as a prisoner of war, and how he had come upon the track of the faithful Stefanoff, who had managed to hide his mistress's valuables before he had been murdered by the Red Guard.
"You see," she concluded, "I know all that side of the story. But what about the tree and the building?"
"Ah, that is the other side of the story," Enderby explained. "We had that yesterday afternoon from Warsaw, through the agency of our friend Jelicorse. He is on the track of that treasure, and if he can find it the conspirators in Berlin will be paralysed for the want of funds. They must have them, because Lenin and Co. are at their wits' ends for hard cash, and they won't move an inch till they have at least half a million. You see, they don't care two straws about Russia; they know that sooner or later their time will come, but they don't mean that hour to arrive until they have feathered their nests. Now I had better explain that when Stefanoff got away with his load he was being followed by a half-witted Serf, who by accident found out what was going on. He dare not go quite near enough to see the exact spot where Stefanoff buried the treasure, but he saw the faithful servant murdered, and hid himself in deadly terror. All he could do was to make a mental impression of the close surroundings of the treasure house, and get away over the frontier as quickly as possible, if he hadn't done so he would have met the same fate as Stefanoff. He located a solitary oak tree and a ruined factory of some sort, and with this clue in his mind bolted to Cracow. By some extraordinary chance or another he blundered on Barrados, and told him the story. And there it stops."
"Not quite," Inez said. "I see what the telegram means now. The factory has been destroyed and the oak tree cut down, so that this man Ivan is utterly at fault."
"Precisely," Enderby said dryly. "No doubt the factory was looted by the starving peasantry, and the contents either used for fuel, or sold. The same fate would overtake the oak tree. It would be cut down and burnt for firewood; no doubt even the roots would be grubbed up for the same purpose. At the present moment Hommany and the man Ivan are pottering about on the Russian frontier, trying to locate the treasure. By this time Jelicorse is not very far off, and he wants Vickers to join him at once, and stay until they have finished what may be a very delicate and dangerous piece of work. I took down Jelicorse's instructions as they came over the wireless, and I have jotted them down here on a piece of paper which I have placed in an envelope. I want you to let Vickers have it without delay."
Inez concealed the envelope carefully, and then went on to tell her allies exactly how matters stood between her and the affectionate old gentleman called Professor von Dornn. Enderby and Farncombe listened with pleasure and admiration.
"Bravo," Enderby said. "You have done wonders. Keep in contact with that, and when the time comes we will lay violent hands upon those documents. Now, do you think it is possible for you to get hold of the key of that safe and also the cypher which is used for the correspondence?"
Inez nodded and smiled brilliantly.
"I am conceited enough to think so." she said. "At any rate I am going to have a very good try."
It was three days later, at a certain given spot, just inside the Polish frontier, where Vickers idled outside a small cafe with a glass before him, as if he had no object in the world except, perhaps, the search for work. He was dressed in the peasant costume of the country, with a sort of rough woollen blouse and a greasy fur cap on the back of his head. He sat there for a long time, looking down a straight deserted road, until at length he descried on the horizon a human figure slouching idly in the direction of the little cafe. There was no one in sight at the moment, save the anxious, worried proprietor and his thin wife. Indeed, Vickers was the first customer they had had all the morning. It was a land of poverty and desolation, and the owner of the cafe must have been hard put to it to make a living in a land from whence the population had been stripped almost bare by the tide of war. It would be a long, long time indeed before that ravaged slice of country would be happy and prosperous again.
The man on the road slouched towards the cafe with half-hesitation, as if he had a mind to pass it altogether. Then he lurched up to the wooden bench, where Vickers was seated, and dropped as if utterly worn out by his side. He was dressed very much like Vickers himself, with greasy, shabby clothing and a dirty face, which had been innocent of a razor for days. He uttered just one word under his breath, and Vickers put out his hand.
"So that's all right," Jelicorse said. "Very pleased to see you so promptly. Are the people inside within earshot?"
"I am pretty sure they are not; you can see for yourself that the man is working in the garden. The woman is upstairs. And, besides, she is extremely deaf. I don't think we need worry about them in any case. They are only too glad to see anybody here who will spend a few coppers."
"Oh, I know that," Jelicorse said. "But it is just as well to be careful. Now, I have been rolling about the neighbourhood for some days. I must have been a score of times practically on the top of the missing treasure, but I am handicapped in the same way as Hommany. I can't locate the stuff, because the landmarks have been destroyed. But it is as broad as it is long, because Hommany and his man Ivan are precisely in the same fix. We are within a couple of miles of the place, and at the present moment Hommany, in a broken-down Ford car, is just over the brow of the hill searching for what he can't find. He may be here at any moment. But he won't recognise us."
"No, I don't think he will," Vickers smiled. "But isn't it rather dangerous for him to be knocking about on the frontier, where there is no law and no police, in a car of any sort? Isn't the man afraid of being robbed and murdered?"
"Oh, he is all right," Jelicorse explained. "He has friends just across the frontier, and a bit of paper with Trotsky's signature on it that is a veritable talisman. He has only to show that to the first Red Guard he meets and he can get all he wants. He could have us both shot at a moment's notice, but if that happens it will be our own fault. You and I are two Polish peasants going to the forests north of Warsaw in connection with some big timber felling operations. We have walked for the best part of two days, and are now thoroughly worn out. We have just got enough money to pay for our supper and bed and breakfast, and we don't know a word of any language besides our own. And I must compliment you on the way you have followed my instructions as to the clothes you are wearing. You would have deceived even me."
Before Vickers could make a reply, there came the distant sound of a motor labouring in obvious distress with the engine knocking fiercely, and five minutes later the shabby, decrepit Ford car pulled up in front of the cafe. Hommany, heavy and sullen, and with a black scowl on his coarse red face, got out and addressed some curt command to the little shifty-eyed man who was at the steering wheel.
"Take the car and put it away in the hut till to-morrow," he said. "I shan't want you again for the present. Go in the kitchen and get something to eat. Not that you deserve it, you thick-beaded lout. Here we have wasted another day because you can't make up your mind what to do, and I have got to live in this pigsty with nothing fit to eat within miles. And look here, my friend, if we come back tomorrow evening without something substantial, I will give you the flogging of your life. You know what it is to have a knout about your shoulders. Well, I can promise you that the last occasion will be child's play to what is coming."
Ivan cowered before his employer's wrath.
"Excellency, I have done my best," he whined. "To-morrow we will try the rising ground at the back of the stone quarry. To-day I found what might have been the root of a tree. And if it is the root of the oak which was cut down, then the treasure is within a few yards of that. If—"
"Oh, go to the devil," Hommany growled. "And tell the man inside that I am hungry."
With that, Hommany passed into the house, taking no notice whatever of the two men seated there. Evidently he had no suspicion of them, for presently, when they sat down at the same table as himself with a mass of broken food before them, he bawled vociferously for the proprietor of the cafe, and demanded to know what that luckless individual meant by permitting two labourers to sit down at the same table with an English gentleman.
"But, Excellency, there is nowhere else for them to go," the proprietor said apologetically. "Behold, I have no other room, and even the kitchen is full. They will go to bed presently, and then your Excellency will have the house to yourself."
Quite stolidly, as if not understanding a word of what was going on, Jelicorse and his companion ate their coarse food, and after smoking a pipe crept up to their room, where Jelicorse carefully locked and bolted the door.
"Now we know where we are," he said. "We must follow those two all day to morrow, and with any luck we can keep them in sight. I am banking on that crippled car. It's sure to break down two or three times, which will give us a chance to keep up with our polite friend Hommany. We need not be afraid of being watched, because there isn't a soul within eight or ten miles of this dreary old shanty. There are leagues of what used to be fertile land over the frontier, absolutely destitute of human life. The peasants are all dead of starvation. Now, I have got a flask of quite good brandy in my pocket, so we will sit down in our straw and drink it. Then for a good night's rest."
They were up again soon after daylight, and before Hommany had made his appearance were over the frontier.
"How did you manage that?" Vickers asked. "How did you manage to cross the frontier?"
"Oh, we Councillors think nothing of that sort of thing," Jelicorse laughed. "You heard me mention just one word to the Guard, and he was satisfied at once. All their signs and passwords are in my possession. Now, that man with a rifle will be three miles away within an hour, and I know he doesn't get back to his post until late in the afternoon. Come along."
It was nearly noon when the twain, seated in a grassy hollow, saw the Ford car limp past. It went on for the best part of two miles, then stopped again, and Jelicorse and his companion could see the little Russian tinkering with the mechanism. Before the car was under way again the pursuers were hidden in some scrub, not fifty yards away. They saw the car abandoned up to its axle in weeds and Hommany and his slave ranging over a grassy slope and searching the ground minutely in every direction. For a long time they appeared to be working with some rough sort of garden tool, and then Jelicorse through his glasses saw the Russian waving what appeared to be the dead branch of a tree in his hand, and for the first time Hommany, with a spade in his hand, digging furiously. The two heads were bent over a hole together for a few minutes and as they straightened themselves up again, the Russian danced round in a sort of frenzy, as if he had suddenly gone mad.
"By the living Jingo I believe they have found it," Vickers cried. "What a day this is going to be for Nelson."
Jelicorse made no reply, for he was too deeply interested in the drama before him. He could see the earth scattered on one side, and after that three big boxes lifted carefully out of the cavern, whilst the Russian kept up his mad dance.
And then the drama began. Hommany crept up behind the whirling body of the Russian, who stopped just for an instant to bend down over the treasure, then a knife suddenly flashed in the sunshine, and its brightness vanished between Ivan's stooping shoulders. He pitched forward without a word, and as he dropped, Hommany thrust the body into the hole with his foot.
Jelicorse leapt to his feet and ran forward, followed instantly by Vickers. So engrossed in what he was doing was Hommany that he was not aware of the newcomers until they were within five yards of him. Then he turned with a snarling curse and, dropping his hand to his side pocket whipped out a revolver. But not quite so quick as Jelicorse was on his. Both pistols spoke almost at the same moment, with Jelicorse's shot first, just by the hundredth fraction of a second. When the smoke had cleared away, Jelicorse was standing uninjured, and Hommany lay on his back facing the sky with a bullet neatly drilled through his brain.
"So that's the end of him," Jelicorse drawled. "It was a question of him or me, only I was a shade too quick for him. And that is the end of one of the most poisonous scum bred by the war. So we'll just bury those two in the same grave."
Jelicorse looked quite coolly down on the dead body of the Anglo-Russian as if it had been no more than the carcase of some vermin. He had had no compunction whatever in firing the fatal shot which had saved his own life, and he regarded the world as being well rid of a scoundrel anyway. Besides, he was used to these adventures, and his companion was hardened by years of suffering and misery to sights which would have lived in the memory of the average man for the best part of a lifetime. Jelicorse put his automatic away and pushed Hommany into the grave which he had dug for himself.
"Those chaps have saved us a lot of trouble," he declared with easy cynicism. "Take the mattock and fill in the hole. Whilst you are doing that I will roll some of those large stones this way and dump them on the grave afterwards. A few brambles on top and the thing is done, unless you have something else to suggest."
"Why not turn out his pockets?" Vickers asked. "You might find some really useful information there."
With an approving smile, Jelicorse proceeded to do as Vickers had suggested. The contents of a pocket-book seemed to fill him with the greatest satisfaction. Evidently he had come on something of the last importance.
"So this chap was in it, too," he murmured. "I might have guessed as much. But let us got along. No time to waste."
"But what about the car?" Vickers asked. "We can't leave that where it is without asking for a lot of awkward questions. And apparently Hommany was known to the authorities in these parts."
"Yes, that is true enough," Jelicorse admitted. "I tell you what, we will use the car ourselves. It's a rotten old thing, but it will serve my purpose. My dear fellow, I don't mind admitting to you now that if we had not been successful in this little business to-day I should have had to chuck it. Of course, I will go a long way to do a good turn to Niel Nelson, and I am just as susceptible to a bit of romance as most people. But, at the same time, I have been neglecting the problem which brought me here. However, let us get along. I want to be on the outskirts of Vienna as soon as possible. This old rattletrap won't get us there, but if we can get as far as Brunn then I know where a car worthy of the name is hidden all ready for me. But perhaps you would like to know exactly what the trouble is."
"Indeed I should," Vickers said.
"Very well, then. Help me to bundle those boxes into the car, and I will tell you all about it as we go along. Never mind about opening them yet. By Jove, what a weight! Heaps of silver plate, I suppose, and all the family gems. I don't think we need waste time in opening them, do you?"
Vickers being quite agreeable, and the cases loaded up, the car was started with little difficulty, and a few minutes afterwards the desolate, sinister frontier was left behind.
"Now, my dear fellow, I am going to tell you a bit of a story," Jelicorse said, as he sat in the driver's seat with Vickers beside him.
"Of course, I have been playing the detective with more or less success for nearly eight years, and, as you can imagine, I have learnt a good deal in that time. One of my most important discoveries is the fact that one thing leads to another. I mean, in pursuing one set of clues the born detective as often as not comes upon some tangled thread which is woven into another mystery altogether. It may be forgotten crime, something that the baffled police had given up. See what I mean? So many big criminals are bound up in other enterprises, and very often if you can't connect them with the problem in hand, you may by sheer luck land your fish on another charge altogether. And I think that is exactly what is going to happen in the present instance. A month ago we never expected to be in Spain, following up the trail of the stolen emeralds. But when we did, and we got them back again, I discovered, to my amazement that the thief was at the bottom of a much bigger thing than that. Barrados is the leading figure in a gang of aristocratic scoundrels who are deliberately removing the members of the German Democratic Government, one by one; and when I found that out, I communicated with the Republican Cabinet in Berlin, and offered to place the resources of the Councillors at their disposal. Needless to say, they jumped at the chance, and that is why we are on our way to Vienna at the present moment."
"I heard something about that in Berlin," Vickers said. "Inez Salviati hinted at it, and so did Peggy Pevensey for that matter. If they are acting as your agents—"
"To a certain extent they are," Jelicorse admitted. "And Inez is doing remarkably good work. Enderby and Farncombe are keeping me regularly posted with what is going on, and I have all my plans laid. I know exactly what Barrados and his gang of assassins will be up to next, and the trap is baited. The trap is not far from Vienna, and if they don't walk blindly into it, then I shall be greatly disappointed."
"Do you mean actually to say that you are in the pay of the German Government," Vickers asked.
"Well, why not?" Jelicorse asked coolly. "The Councillors have got to live, and German money is as good as any other. Besides, the present programme exactly plays into the hands of the Allies. We are not only getting an honest living, but we are doing a great service to humanity simultaneously. Let me explain. The German Government think they have done a great thing in concluding a treaty with Russia. So did the Kaiser, after the Treaty of Brest. As you know, it was a piece of sheer camouflage, concluded with the tongues in the cheek of either party, and with the object of driving Russia out of the war. It was quite successful for the time being, but subsequent events took all the value out of it. Now there is another treaty, which the Republican Government in Berlin regard quite honestly as being an advantageous commercial one. The gang, headed by Barrados, have quite other views. They propose to let the treaty go on, and gradually stiffen Russia with German troops. Then Lenin and Trotsky will be shot, and before that unhappy country knows what has happened, it will be a German province. Then the mask will be cast aside, and the ex-Kaiser will be back again. Now, that is the last thing that the present German Government want. They are sick to death of militarism, and all they want is to restore their fallen prestige through the medium of trade. There are at least a dozen of them who opposed the late war tooth and nail, not but what they would have been perfectly satisfied to take their share of the plunder if the great adventure had turned up trumps. And those men have got to be removed. One by one, they have been removed. There was Ebstein, who was found drowned in the Spree, and Flinburg brutally murdered in the Black Forest, to say nothing of minor actors in the drama. Now, those men were put out of the way by Barrados and his fellow-ruffians, and the German Government know all about it. This is where we come in. We want to catch Barrados and the rest of them red-handed, so that they can be disposed of on the scaffold, without raising any dangerous sympathy for them in the fatherland. They must be wiped out; no long term of imprisonment and all that sort of thing."
"And you are going to do it?" Vickers asked.
"Well, I hope so. The first bit of bait is laid down near Vienna, but the big trap is some few miles out of Munich. I can't tell you any more at present, but you will see what you will see when the time comes, and I shall expect you to play your part in a drama which will for ever scotch the snake called Prussian militarism. Once this is done, then the Russo-German Treaty will be as innocent as a glass of milk."
It was late in the evening before the derelict car contrived at length to reach Brunn, and there in a stable to which Jelicorse went with absolute confidence, they found the high powered motor which carried them all the next day through Southern Germany, until just outside Munich, the car turned into a winding avenue of trees, at the end of which was a great grey stone building, almost a castle, in fact, with a series of extraordinarily large bay windows which opened out on to a balcony which looked over the park. Here a manservant put up the car, and ushered the two Englishmen into the house. They came presently to a bare hall into a large room of noble proportions which had the general air of an office. The furniture was severe enough, with here and there a roll-top desk, and in the big bay window a large table littered with papers. The window opened in French fashion on to the terrace, so that it was possible for four or five men abreast to pass through on to the balcony. The room itself was lighted only by a single electric bulb of low power that hung just over the big table in the window, so that it was full of gloom and shadow, and it was a few moments before the intruders made out the figure of a man writing at the big table in the centre of the window.
The figure rose and disclosed a big frame, bulky and massive, and a dark, sallow face almost hidden in a fringe of hair.
"You see, we have arrived, Baron," Jelicorse said. "Allow me to present my friend Mr. Vickers. Vickers, this is Baron von Eckhardt. Quite at your service."
"That is good hearing," the Baron rumbled deep down in his broad chest. "I have been awaiting you for some time, and began to fear that something had happened. Tomorrow, these men come. I have had that by a sure hand—"
"So have I," Jelicorse smiled. "I have been detained on important business, Baron, but I can assure you that I am in good time. The movements of those assassins are well known to me, and, if my information is correct, at this present moment they are on their way to finish the career of Baron von Eckhardt and strike a blow for what they call the Fatherland."
"Ach, is that so?" the Baron exclaimed. "Fatherland, indeed, it is much they care for their country! All they want is to establish the old regime, and get their heels on our necks once more. I, as you know, Mr. Jelicorse, fought tooth and nail to stop the war, and for my exertions I suffered every indignity. Ach, I knew how it would end. I was not blind to the enormous power of England, and when those who were once my friends laughed and sneered, and said that the English fibre had been sapped by luxury, and that she would not come in, I knew better. But all that is ancient history, and what we have to do now is to place Germany on her feet again, and restore her to her former eminence in the world of commerce. It is the only way in which Germany can be happy, the only way to keep her contented and prosperous, and fill hungry mouths with the food we still lack. And that the Russian Treaty will do. If we can only keep the men you are speaking of in their proper place. They must be killed like rats, we must wipe them out as they have already wiped out some of the strongest men in the country. Ah, democrats, socialists, they call them, but did not your English aristocracy call Lloyd George by the same name twelve years ago? Give the present leaders of Germany their chance, and they will show you what they are made of."
"That is exactly what I am going to do," Jelicorse smiled. "I am striking a blow for you, and I shall strike a still bigger one for my own country, and am well paid into the bargain. You can rest assured, Baron, that within the next few hours that gang will be broken. And now perhaps a little food—"
They dined presently in a small, snug room at the back of the house, and when the cloth was cleared away and the servants had vanished, Jelicorse began to speak more freely.
"Let me explain the situation exactly as it occurs to me," he said. "Now, you are a member of the German Cabinet. Rightly or wrongly, by a certain section of Prussians you are regarded as a traitor to your class and your country. I know you are nothing of the sort, but nothing would convince those Junkers to the contrary. We know exactly what they want to do, and how they propose to do it. We, on the other hand, want to catch the leader of the gang red-handed in their attempt to commit another political murder and hand them over to the authorities. It will be a sensational trial, and one which will thrill the whole civilised world. We want that whole civilised world to know exactly what is going on; and when the trial is concluded, and those men are sentenced to death, both hemispheres will know how malignant a conspiracy had been planned. It will do more good than all the newspaper articles in the world. People of all countries will see then how near we stood to another great war. It will break the backs of the Junkers for all time, and the Russo-German Treaty can proceed without suspicion on the side of the Allies. The thing must be big and spectacular, or the lesson will be forgotten all too soon."
"That is already arranged for," the Baron said, in his deep voice. "But how to catch these scoundrels with weapons in their hands? Ach, that is the question. They come here tomorrow night to murder me, and if they are successful, they will be beyond the reach of the law before my body is discovered."
"But your body is not going to be discovered," Jelicorse smiled. "I don't play with those childish weapons. You will be as safe as if you were in London or Paris."
"Perhaps safer than Paris," the Baron laughed.
"Well, perhaps so. But never mind about that. Those men will come here, all of them probably, and they will reach the spot in two cars. When they come, it will be late at night, after your servants have gone to bed. They will not rouse the house because that would give you a warning, and thus escape what they intend. Now, you will make no sort of effort to stop them. When they arrive you will be sitting there in the window at your correspondence, as if suspecting nothing. I want you to have the blinds up, and the big windows wide open, also I want you to accept my word for it that no harm will come to you. You had better even leave the front door unlocked. They won't attempt to shoot you out of hand, because that is not Barrados's way. He is theatrical to his finger tips, and he never could resist the centre of the stage. I can see him coming in with a drawn revolver, and commanding you to put up your hands. It will be like a chapter from a novel. But you will do nothing of the kind, for reasons which will be apparent later on. Has that big box arrived for me—I mean the one I wrote you about?"
"That is so," the Baron said. "It has been placed in your bedroom, and there it is at the present moment."
"Ah well," Jelicorse said sleepily. "In that case, I think we had better retire. And tomorrow, Baron, you go about your business as if nothing had happened. And myself and my friend Vickers will lie low. We shall not be outside the door all day. I suppose your servants are to be trusted?"
"My servants are beyond suspicion," the Baron said. "I particularly ordered them to say nothing in the village as to my having guests here, and I know that my command has been obeyed. Nobody knows you are under my roof."
"Aren't you going to tell me what the scheme is?" Vickers asked a few minutes later, when he and Jelicorse were alone in the latter's bedroom. "Can't you give me a hint?"
"Oh, I could if I wanted to," Jelicorse smiled. "But why look at the last chapter when you have hardly begun the book? I want to show you what the Councillors can do when once they are in the heart of a big thing. I am going to astonish you."
Not another word would Jelicorse say, except that he was dead tired, and in dire need of a good night's rest.
"You go to bed, my son," he said. "You will know all about it in good time. It is your business to see that nobody interferes with those three boxes. By the way, did you lock them up in your bedroom, as I suggested?"
"They are in the big wardrobe," Vickers explained. "A huge oak affair with a lock which is almost burglar-proof. I don't think you need worry about that."
The next day dragged slowly through, until it was nearing the hour of eleven at night, and once the servants had retired Jelicorse set about making his preparations. He saw that the big window in the office room was wide open, with the blinds drawn, and standing on the terrace, looking in, he could dimly make out the objects there in the low candlepower lamp which burnt through a single flex over the writing table. Then he walked down the steps into the garden, and on a little mound in the centre of the lawn, some twenty feet from the window, he posted Vickers with instructions to lie there without making a sound.
"Can you see into the room?" he asked the unseen Vickers.
"Perfectly," the other replied. "I am practically on a level with the floor of the room."
"Then stay there exactly as you are. I will bring you out a rug presently that you can lie on. Now, I am going to draw the blinds just for one moment, Vickers, and then I will join you."
The window blinds were drawn for a minute or two, and then Vickers, out of the blackness of the night, could see the dark outline of the Baron as he bent over the table, apparently engrossed in a great mass of correspondence. He hardly seemed to move, his shaggy beard and moustache touched the table. Then Jelicorse twisted his lean, muscular body behind the table, and emerged on the terrace. He vaulted lightly to the ground, and, crossing the lawn, lay by Vicker's side on the rug which he had brought with him to protect them from the dampness of the grass.
An hour passed in absolute silence, whilst the figure in the window sat there as if carved out of stone. Vickers could make out no motion of the Baron's hand; perhaps he was so intent on listening for the coming trouble that the rest of his faculties were paralysed. For a long time Vickers watched him in a sort of dazed fascination. Then Jelicorse whispered in his ear.
"They are coming," he said. "You may not hear them, but my trained ear does. Take this little hollow tube, and point the mouth of it towards that window. When I give you the word, press the spring at the end which is in your hand and focus the light exactly on the centre of the window."
Vickers did as desired, shaking from head to foot with on excitement which was far enough remote from fear. Then little sounds began to be heard, creeping footsteps and the snapping of twigs. After what seemed almost an eternity Vickers could make out in the dim light that the door in the room where the Baron was sitting was being cautiously opened, and what might have been three or four heads were pushed into sight. Then the three or four heads resolved themselves into half a dozen men, each with some weapon in his hand, and a deep voice broke the silence.
"And that is Barrados," Jelicorse whispered. "Didn't I tell you he would take the centre of the stage. Just listen to the melodramatic ass. He must have got that out of a book. Pouff, traitor, is he? Betrayer of his country. What an infernal canting humbug. I wonder what he would say if he knew that my automatic covers that black heart of his."
"Yes, but what about the Baron?" Vickers asked anxiously. "He seems to be taking it very coolly. He hasn't even moved. Jolly easy to overdo that sort of thing, what?"
"Now," Jelicorse shouted suddenly. "Now."
Vickers immediately pressed the spring at the back of the tube in his hand, and a great blinding light shot forth. It was a white fierce light, like a midsummer sun, and in it every tiny object in the room was picked out with startling plainness. At the same time Vickers was conscious of a tiny clicking sound in his right car, which went on continuously until Barrados started forward and emptied the magazine of his revolver between the contemptuous shoulders of the man seated at the table. Then a score more shots rang out, and the Baron collapsed like an empty sack and lay motionless on the floor.
"We are discovered, we are betrayed," Barrados yelled. "The police are in the grounds. But they have left it just too late. Now friends, if you would save your lives—"
A single shot rang out through the garden, and one of the assassins, an old man with white beard and silver-rimmed spectacles, gave a choking sob, and lay dead on the door, for Jelicorse's shot had gone clean through his heart. Another fraction of a second, and the room was empty. Scurrying footsteps died away in the distance before Jelicorse rose and entered the room by way of the opened window, closely followed by Vickers.
"Heavens, this is a ghastly business," the latter said. "You have cut it too fine for once, Jelicorse."
"Pick up the Baron's body," Jelicorse said smilingly.
Vickers bent over the prostrate form, then he fairly staggered back with a yell of astonishment on his lips.
"Well, what do you make of it?" Jelicorse asked.
"It isn't the Baron at all," Vickers gasped. "It's a mere effigy; sort of Madame Tussaud business."
"Then I haven't cut it too fine after all?" Jelicorse asked. "Here, where are you hiding, Baron; we want you."
A heavy footstep sounded outside, and Baron von Eckhardt came coolly and unconcernedly into the room.
"My servants," he explained. "I told you that they were devoted to my interests, and when they heard those shots fired they came to see what was wrong. It was well that I was on the first landing, because otherwise there might have been trouble. Then I explained to them as far as I thought it necessary, and they go back again. There is no fear in that direction."
Vickers stood there watching Jelicorse open mouthed, much as if he had been a child fascinated by a conjurer. And, indeed, it was nothing else than conjuring in the highest order, which Vickers had been witnessing for some little time.
"My friend, you see, is a little surprised, Baron. He had not expected developments like these."
"You are right there," Vickers muttered. "I have seen some strange sights in the last two or three years, and I am not easily moved, but this is a fair knock-out. Jelicorse, where on earth did you get that wonderful effigy?"
"Ah, that has all been planned for a long time," Jelicorse laughed. "That figure was made up for me by the famous firm of Clarkson, and considering that they had only a photograph of the Baron to go on, I regard their work as marvellous. It was sent over to Berlin by special messenger, and smuggled here with an eye to the future."
"But surely you couldn't guarantee that things would fall out exactly as you had expected?"
"Oh well," Jelicorse said, "you can't always command circumstances, but you can train them sometimes, and bend them to your will, as a skilful gardener trains a climbing rose. Now, you see, I knew that the Baron here was marked down by that murderous gang for the next victim. That was a mere detective piece of work. You see, the Baron has been a real patriot, and a big stumbling-block in the way of those scoundrels who have coolly made up their minds to remove the whole of the present German Government. You can see how such a coup as that would work in two ways. First of all no man would dare to take office, and in the second place the reign of the Government would naturally fall into their hands. So they made it appear as if the Baron had fled to his lonely country house, and that was just what those scoundrels wanted. As a matter of fact, it was just what I wanted, because I knew they would come down here, and I knew that Barrados was leading them. Being thoroughly acquainted with the psychology of the man, I was sure that he would make a theatrical business of it. A sort of pinckbeck Kaiser, posing as the saviour of his country. But really, there is no need to go on. You saw how beautifully it all worked out, and all we have to do now is to swear information against these men, and have them arrested. I identified the whole lot of them."
"Yes, that may be so," Vickers pointed out. "But it will be only your word against theirs, and who in a German court would believe an Englishman arrayed against a group of Prussian nobility? Besides, you may be pretty sure that they have arranged a most ingenious and convincing alibi."
Jelicorse patted his coat pocket significantly.
"I have a little witness," he said, "that cannot lie, and cannot be cross-examined. When I produce it in court there can only be one end to the case. I am not going to tell you what it is now, but you will see all in good time."
"Ach, dat is good," the Baron said. "Tell me, Jelicorse, where did you get that wonderful searchlight of yours from? It must be equal to thousands of candle power. And all that in a space you can put in your waistcoat pocket."
"One more tribute to the genius of Colonel Enderby," Jelicorse smiled. "But we are wasting time. We have an intruder here, a very silent one, it is true, but if my plan is to succeed, we must see him carefully out of the way."
As Jelicorse concluded, he pointed significantly to the body lying just beside the doorway, and the Baron started forward.
"Ach, Gott," he exclaimed. "I had forgotten all about him. Why, it is the Professor von Dornn!"
"So I gathered," Jelicorse said coolly, as he bent over the body. "I picked him out at once, directly Vickers turned on the light. A dangerous man, Baron, a fanatic and something of a madman. Despite his years, there were occasions when he could rise to great heights, and this apparently was one of them. Quite senile in some ways, and almost childishly helpless in the face of any pretty woman, he was yet a danger and a power. A perfervid royalist, who has been preaching the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings all his life. He is well out of the way."
"But what shall we do with him?" the Baron asked.
"Do with him? Hide the body here for the present. You can trust your servants to keep silent. Almost directly we go on to Berlin, and we take you with us, Baron. Not openly, but furtively, and place you with our friends where you can lie perdu for the time being. Ah, that will puzzle them. They will look in the papers to-morrow or the next day to see the account of the tragedy here, and there will be no account. Then they will send their spies down, wondering what has happened, and those spies will hear nothing. They will be told by your servants that you have gone away on business, and they won't know what to make of it. And you may be sure that they will say nothing of the fact that they left one of the assassins behind them. It will be assumed that the Professor has been made away with, or has gone off on some secret mission."
There was no more to be said and done for the moment, except to wait for the morning, then they would take the car on to Berlin and turn over the Baron to Enderby and Farncombe, who were waiting for that purpose at Potsdam. Before the Baron assumed a disguise which Jelicorse had planned for him, they got down the three boxes of treasure from Vickers's bedroom, and turned out the contents on the big writing-table. There were priceless valuables of all kinds—gold and silver plate, precious stones, emeralds, and rubies, and diamonds, some in their settings and some placed in envelopes as if they had been no more than mere garden seeds. Jelicorse surveyed the glittering pile with the appreciative eyes of a connoisseur.
"Well, our friend Niel Nelson ought to be all right now," he said. "When those things come to be sold at Christie's, they ought to fetch at least half a million. I tell you what we will do. We will take them to our Embassy in Berlin, and hand them over to the Ambassador. Vickers will tell him the story, and Nelson shall confirm it. Then we will get his Excellency to forward the stuff to London, in charge of some official who carries all sorts of things backwards and forwards, and instruct him to deposit the treasure in the Bank of England. That will be a great deal more safe than handling the stuff ourselves."
They pushed on immediately after breakfast, after the Baron had given instructions to his servants, and late in the evening arrived at their destination. And once the treasure had been disposed of, and safely housed, where it would be as secure at if it was already in the bank, they went on to the boarding-house at Potsdam where Enderby and Farncombe were awaiting them. Jelicorse breathed a little more freely after he had smuggled the Baron under the shelter of that friendly roof.
"Well, here we are at last," he said breezily. "Take us into a room where we can talk, and give us something to eat. We have been taking no risk to-day; and not one of us has been out of the car since we started this morning."
"Everything has gone well, I suppose?" Enderby asked.
"Famously. Nothing could have been better. But I am not going to say anything until I have had a meal and a drink."
They sat down presently to a well-covered table, and no word passed for the next half-hour. It was only when Jelicorse was quite satisfied, and he lay back in a big arm-chair with a cigar in his mouth, that he began to speak.
"Everything went like clockwork from the first," he explained. "Not a hitch anywhere. The torch worked magnificently, so did the other little apparatus, for that matter. Oh, I have got evidence in my pocket that will set the whole world rocking when the moment comes to produce it. Those chaps raided the house, and literally shot the Baron's effigy to pieces. It really was quite a comedy. As they would have discovered the trick in another moment, I deemed it prudent to fire a shot into the midst of them. In the light of the torch I could see the colours of their eyebrows. They were so startled and blinded that they could not make out what was going on. They thought the police were firing from the grounds, and so they went off like a lot of rabbits. But not before I had put paid to the account of one of them."
"Do you know who he was?" Farncombe asked.
"That beyond a doubt. It was Professor von Dornn. I shot him right between the two eyes, and he dropped dead without a murmur."
"Did you search his pockets?" Enderby asked.
"Ach, no," the Baron cried. "We forgot it."
"Oh, no, we didn't," Jelicorse laughed. "I did that last night, just after we went to bed. And I have got the cypher for the use of the conspirators in their correspondence with Russia, and what, unless I am greatly mistaken, is the key to the safe in the hotel where they kept their archives. You know the safe I mean. It's the one that Inez Salviati told us all about. Oh, within a day or two we shall have those men by the heels, and there will be an end to the big conspiracy once and for ever."
"Now, that is dashed good hearing," Enderby exclaimed. "It seems to me now that we have very little else to do. I suppose you didn't happen upon that treasure?"
"Oh, yes, we did," Jelicorse went on. "And at the present moment it is safe in the British Embassy here. This has been the greatest and most eventful week in the history of the Councillors. One way and another, it ought to be an absolute fortune for all of us. I don't quite know what the German Government is going to pay us, but a million would not be a penny too much."
Before anyone could reply the telephone bell in the corner of the room rang sharply, and Enderby took off the receiver. He listened with a sudden change of countenance for some minutes, then turned to his companions.
"Something very wrong here," he said. "That was Nelson speaking. He tells me that Inez Salviati has disappeared. All Berlin is looking after her. She left the hotel shortly before seven with the intention of walking to the theatre, and never got there. It is now close on eleven, and there is no sign of her so far. What on earth are we to do?"
Jelicorse jumped to his feet.
"Come along," he cried. "There is no time to waste. Baron, you stay here till you hear from us again. I think I have a pretty shrewd idea of what this means."
It was some hours previously that the would-be assassins found themselves in the room devoted to the bogus epicure club in the Adelon Hotel. They were more or less safe there, because they were regarded by the proprietor as eccentric individuals who gathered there from time to time to dine and test new dishes and recipes gathered from all parts of the world. They had only to proclaim that they wanted so many covers laid any night, and the thing was done. They had come back to Berlin, not by road, but by rail, catching an early express at a junction not very far from Baron von Eckhardt's house, so that they were back again in the metropolis early in the afternoon.
It was no time to think of pleasure, or to dally with personal matters, in face of the situation which had been unexpectedly thrust upon them. They had calculated that the Baron had delivered himself into their hands. He had gone hot-foot off to his country residence, evidently inspired by fear, which was exactly what they wanted. The rest should have been easy enough, they should have removed one of the main obstacles in their path in the dead of night, and left him a corpse in his own library without a single soul being any the wiser.
And then, by some curious mischance, the whole thing had gone wrong. There had been that blinding light, followed by a shot, which had thrown them into a state of absolute panic. For all they knew to the contrary, the Baron's residence might have been surrounded with police, and indeed they held themselves fortunate in getting away without being interrogated. But they had got away, though they had been compelled to leave the dead body of one of their companions behind them, and now they were seated in their own quarters, agitatedly discussing the matter, and quite at a loss to know what to do next. At any rate, they had removed a bitter and defiant enemy, which was so much to the good, though it left a great deal to be accounted for. They were seated in the inner room with the big safe in one corner and a huge bureau, which was supposed to contain the regalia worn by members of the club when they were holding one of their big banquets. Barrados sat at one end of the table, with five men around him.
"This thing has got to be faced," he said. "We were successful up to a certain point, and we did what we intended. Eckhardt is no more, so that we are one step nearer to the realisation of our dearest ambition. I am not quite sure that what has happened to the poor old professor is altogether a calamity. It may be assumed that he was in the Baron's house to gratify some personal vengeance. It may be assumed that there were shots fired on both sides, and that the duel went on until there was no one to fight. Is that the line we take, my friends?"
A tall thin man with a long yellow face seated by the table shook his head somewhat dubiously.
"I don't agree," he said. "That would be all very well but for that infernal light, the like of which I have never seen, and the single shot from the garden that finished the Professor. Ach, there is more in it, my friends, than you think."
"But nothing followed the shot," Barrados urged. "It must have been fired by one man. If there had been many, we should have been pursued in the darkness. Did any of you sitting here see the faintest sign of life anywhere?"
One by one, they declared that they had seen nothing in the way of a human being. For two miles they had raced along a main road, meeting no one, nor had they heard the sound of footsteps from behind. And yet there was not one of them seated round the table who shared in Barrados's optimism.
"Well," the latter declared. "At any rate, there is nothing to connect us with the double murder. Our alibis have been most carefully worked out, and there will be at least a score of witnesses selected from our secret society ready to come forward and swear that we were all in Berlin last night. They are men of the highest rank, having no connection whatever, actively, at least, in certain recent disappearances, and they will be listened to with respect by any jury. We have only to get in contact with them, and warn them that the Professor does not come within what they have to say, and nobody can touch us."
"Only the man who fired the shot," the first objector pointed out. "The man who fired the shot and killed the Professor knows, and, in so strong a light as the one he probably held in his left hand, he would be able to identify us."
"Oh, pooh," Barrados sneered. "Just one man, and he probably of no account. What would he be, compared to the important Prussian nobleman who came forward and swore that we were all at a dance at a certain house last night."
"Ah, I wish I could take your sanguine view, Count," another of the conspirators remarked. "We have bungled the business sadly, and it is plain that somebody knows much more than he should about our movements. Otherwise, the man in the garden would not have been there. Even suppose he is the only one who knows, he is evidently a daring and highly intelligent individual, who will not soon lose sight of us."
"One of those Councillors, perhaps," another speaker suggested.
"Gott. I had not thought of that," Barrados cried. "Curse those fellows, there is no getting rid of them. If the worst comes to the worst, we shall have to bluff it out. Any way, the Baron is dead, and his lips are sealed."
"Are you quite sure of that?" the melancholy man asked. "Barrados, you take too much for granted."
"Granted," Barrados laughed scornfully. "Did not we all empty our revolvers into the contemptuous back of our enemy. Did not you see him collapse on the floor like an empty sack? Then what more would you have? However, I can find out. We will call up our agent, who lives so close to the Baron's house, and ask him if he has heard anything. There is nothing in the papers as yet, but long before this all Munich must have been ringing with the tragedy. But let us make sure."
Barrados crossed to the telephone, and asked to be put through to a certain number, which happened to be that of a small hotel within two miles of Baron von Eckhardt's house.
"There, that's done," he said. "In a quarter of an hour we shall get a reply. Meanwhile, we must go on laying our plans, and after that dine here informally, as if nothing had happened. We shall turn this ugly corner yet."
Fifteen minutes later the telephone rang again, and Barrados picked up the receiver. He listened for quite a time, at first without showing any surprise and uneasiness, and then gradually his expression changed to one of anxious doubt.
"But I don't understand," he was saying. "I asked you a definite question, and you say there is nothing. What do you mean by nothing? Nothing what? Nothing happened? Do you mean to say you have heard no news of a startling nature in your own neighbourhood? Don't be in a hurry to reply; you know what I mean. Think it over."
Barrados stood there, chewing the end of his moustache, and manifesting every sign of impatience. He knew that the reply from the other end would be guarded, but it came presently in a form that shook him with impotent rage. He threw the receiver down on the instrument, and turned to his companions, with a face that was absolutely grey with rage and passion.
"It's these infernal Councillors, I am sure," he said. "Nothing has happened at the other end of the wire at all. There is no outcry from the Baron's house, and, indeed, Zimmermann says that the Baron went off this morning on business and that his servants are not aware of his address. Not a word about a double tragedy, nothing even about the poor old Professor. Now, what the devil does it mean? Is it possible that the Baron is not dead after all? Is it possible that he has disposed of the Professor's body? What in the name of all the foul fiends can one do in a case like this? What is our next move?"
No reply came from the men seated round the table. They looked at one another with dumb, puzzled eyes, and their lips were white with fear and apprehension.
"Has no one anything to say?" Barrados cried. "Scatter far and wide. Go amongst our friends and tell them the story. Instruct them what they are to do. Then you come back and we dine here at 8 o'clock. I will remain and think out a plan of campaign. Don't wait to argue, but go."
Barrados was alone with his own anxious thoughts. He looked round the room, as some foul bird of prey might who finds itself in an unexpected cage. Then his thin lips curled, as he rose softly to his feet, and crossed the room to the great oak wardrobe where the regalias of the club were hanging. He threw the doors back and showed his teeth in a snarl.
"You can come out," he said. "I saw the door move twice. Come out and let me have a look at you."
A figure stepped from the wardrobe, a figure with a white face, but eyes that had no fear in them.
"And what might be the meaning of this, Signorina Salviati?" Barrados sneered. "It seems to me you know too much, or too little. So the great opera singer is also taking a hand in international politics. Is that prudent of you, dear lady? Think of the danger, think of the peril to your career. Surely you would not stoop to accept a bribe from one of the enemies of my country?"
"Perhaps not," Inez replied. "Perhaps I regard you as being one of the worst enemies your country has ever seen."
Meanwhile the forces arrayed against the conspirators now back in Berlin were not idle. True, Jelicorse was playing the leading role, but Enderby and Farncombe were not idle. The Councillors were the various parts of a perfect machine, each of which fitted into its proper groove and worked silently without interfering with the rest of the apparatus. There was much for both Enderby and Jelicorse to do in the capital, where they had the full weight of the secret service of the Republic behind them, it was a critical time for the German Government, beset as it was by difficulties and dangers on every side and hardly knowing whom to trust. The murderous vendetta directed against so many prominent republicans had excited the gravest alarm, and even the police seemed impotent to cope with the danger. It was even possible that the police were hand in glove with the very gang they were out to destroy. Had they also been bitten with the virus of renewed Prussianism? Were they in the conspiracy to make the Russo-German treaty a military one?
It was to answer this vital question that the Councillors of Falconhoe had been called in. They, at any rate, would not be likely to listen to the voice of the tempter; they would be the last men in the world to welcome a new alliance destined from the first to wash Europe in a blood-bath once more. And precisely because of the fear of that calamity, Enderby and his companions welcomed the chance of scotching the deadly snake before it was grown to its full powers. No commission would have given them greater pleasure.
From the very first Inez Salviati had known what was going on, and so, to a smaller extent did the Pevensey girls. They had not had Inez's training, but they were equally resourceful, and as they had been persona grata at Potsdam before the war, most of the aristocracy were known to them personally. It was easy, therefore, for these fascinating and slightly impudent young women to pick up a good deal of information. They knew, for instance, what was the motive behind those frequent dinners of the Epicures' Club; they knew that a big conspiracy was being hatched behind those closed doors, and that the inner room contained archives that certain authorities would give their heads to see. They knew, too, that Inez had fascinated the aged professor, and that she could turn him round her little finger.
On the night of Inez's disappearance, she had gone out presumedly at about 7 o'clock. Lady Peggy and Lady Joan had been out for the afternoon on some delicate business, under the direction of Farncombe, and, just before their departure, Inez had dismissed her maid with an intimation that she might have the rest of the day to herself, so that no one could precisely say at what hour she had left her hotel. She might have had tea in her private room, or, again, she may have had it served in the lounge. Anyway, she had gone, and for that evening, at any rate, there was no sign of her within miles of the Opera House.
For once in her life, she had acted on the impulse of the moment. Despite all her wiles and blandishments, she had not succeeded in obtaining either the cypher or the key to the inner room of the Epicures' Club, both of which she had hoped to obtain from the infatuated old professor. He had gone off, almost at a moment's notice, telling her that be might not be back for a day or two, and upon this information Inez had promptly acted.
She had, at any rate, the key to the two club rooms, so about tea time on the afternoon in question, she made her way quietly into the corridor where the club rooms were situated, and let herself in. She had no great expectation of finding anything out of the common there, but one can never be certain of that sort of thing, and at any rate, it was worth trying. Then the unexpected had happened. Almost before she could realise her peril, the outer room was full of men. She had barely time to hide herself in the big wardrobe before the conspirators had come in. And there she stood for an hour or more in fear and trembling, listening to all that they had to say. If she were discovered now, then she knew exactly what to expect. She stood there, hardly daring to breathe, as one man after another left the room until Barrados was alone there, and, just as she was congratulating herself upon an easy way out of the escapade, Barrados flung back the doors of the hiding-place and confronted her.
"Well, I am waiting for you to speak," he said.
"To what purpose?" Inez asked defiantly. "I suppose you know what I am doing here, and why?"
"Of course I do," Barrados said. "You are here on behalf of those Councillors. You are one of them, and you have been a great asset to them for years. That fact has dawned upon me in the last two or three minutes. It was an excellent idea to have a spy in the shape of a great prima donna, who travels all over the world without arousing the slightest suspicion. But, my dear young lady, you have gone too far this time, and there can only be one end to this adventure of yours."
"Yes, I suppose so," Inez said listlessly. "You would not hesitate to kill a woman at this critical point of your fortunes. But I believe you would much rather not."
"It would be hateful," Barrados smiled darkly. "It would be still more hateful to let you go and take your word for it that nothing you had heard would pass your lips. I never trusted a man in my life yet, and, as for trusting a woman, ah, no. You are going to stay here until we make up our minds what to do with you. Now, don't cry out, unless you want me to lay violent hands on you."
"I have not the slightest intention of crying out," Inez retorted proudly. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Dear lady, I am going to gag you. I won't be any more violent than I can help. Then I am going to tie your hands safely behind your back and truss you up in a chair. The chair will be placed in the wardrobe again, and there you will stay for as long as it is necessary. I shall have to consult my friends about this. At any rate, we shall not dine here to-night as had been suggested, because there are so many other things to do. You will be quite comfortable, at least as comfortable as circumstances permit, until I get back here this evening. It will be late perhaps, but that, unfortunately, cannot be helped. Suppose that we administer a whiff of some anaesthetic, and remove you and the wardrobe bodily to some safe place where we can keep you prisoner. We may have to detain you a week, or we may have to detain you three months."
Inez turned from Barrados haughtily enough and not another word came from her lips till she was lifted bodily, chair and all, into the wardrobe, and there left to her own devices. She heard Barrados' footsteps dying away in the distance, and then some hours or as it seemed, some years, elapsed. She sat there stiff and cramped, and dozing from time to time, until at length she came back to her senses to hear a big clock somewhere in the neighbourhood striking the hour of eleven. And down below, though she was not aware of the fact, two uneasy white-faced girls were discussing her fate. Lady Peggy and Lady Joan had, in fact, been talking about Inez for the last two or three hours. They knew perfectly well that she had been the victim of some foul play, and it needed no great intelligence to connect Barrados with the trouble. Enderby and Farncombe were off exploring every possible avenue, and they had curtly refused to allow the girls to accompany them. They had sat talking until they were reduced to a silence that was almost tearful. It was Lady Joan who had the inspiration.
"What fools we are," she cried, jumping to her feet. "Inez is in the room belonging to that ridiculous club. You have forgotten how many times she has discussed the possibility of exploring them. That is where she has gone, depend upon it. This afternoon Barrados and all his gang were here, and they stayed upstairs till about 6 o'clock. I was having tea in the lounge when they went out. I noticed they didn't look particularly happy, but I thought nothing of it at the time. It's just a chance, Peggy. Let's go upstairs and see for ourselves. If the room door is locked we will get one of the porters to open it. These servants here will do anything for money. Come along."
"What, altogether unarmed?" Peggy asked.
"Oh, dear no. We will take those two little revolvers that Colonel Enderby gave us—those two silent automatics that he gave to us when we were at Falconhoe."
They stole silently along the corridor, until they came at length to the outer door of the clubrooms. Somewhat to their surprise, and greatly to their delight, the door was slightly open, and a silt of light showed behind it. On the table of the outer room was a hat and stick, which the two adventuresses recognised as the property of Barrados.
"He is inside," Lady Peggy whispered. "And, I believe, alone. So we will tackle him at once."
Lady Joan nodded, and on tiptoe they walked into the room. Through an opening in the door they could see Barrados standing with a cynical smile on his lips, and apparently speaking to some person who was quite invisible to the intruders. He turned as the girls entered and curtly demanded their business.
"I don't think you are very polite," Lady Peggy laughed. "We came here, impelled by the same fatal curiosity that got old Bluebeard's wives into such trouble. And now we have come, you will tell us the secrets of the prison house."
"You are in danger here," Barrados said with obvious uneasiness. "You children don't know what you are doing."
"Oh, indeed we do," Lady Joan said. "I assure you we know exactly what we are doing, and what we want. We are more than curious to see the inside of that wardrobe."
Barrados turned on them furiously, with the obvious intention of throwing them out of the room.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Lady Peggy said softly. "Look at this, Count Barrados. It is a small weapon, and makes absolutely no noise. Then look at that little miniature on the wall yonder. If you will watch carefully you will see the head of it disappear. There! That's not a bad shot for a girl, is it? And my sister is equally expert. Now, Count, please let us have no more nonsense. Are you going to open that wardrobe, or are you not? You won't. Very well, then, just keep him covered, Joan, while I do. And if he moves so much as the flicker of an eyelid, don't hesitate to shoot."
Barrados fell back, utterly baffled. He knew when he was face to face with determination, and, maddeningly absurd as it was, he had to stand there like a schoolboy caught in some theft, whilst Lady Peggy threw open the wardrobe door. Then he made a bolt for it, and raced madly along the corridor.
"Ah, you were quite right, Joan," Lady Peggy cried. "Here she is, and apparently little the worse for her adventures."
The gag was removed from Inez's mouth, and a few minutes later she was sitting in her private room relating her adventures. And it was there that Jelicorse eventually found her. He listened till the last word, then turned to his companions.
"The telephone," he cried. "Police Headquarters at once."
A minute later, and Jelicorse was in touch with the head of the German Secret Police, in the Wilhelmstrasse. And a quarter of an hour after that the Councillors were seated in the private office of Herr Shinburg himself.
"Now, gentlemen," he said, "will you tell me in a few words what all the trouble is about? Is it anything in connection with the mysterious disappearances of the great opera singer?"
"Well, indirectly," Jelicorse replied. "Perhaps you will allow me to tell you the story in my own words. If I had been in the Hotel Adelon five minutes sooner I should not have had to trouble you. You were good enough to leave this matter entirely in the hands of the Councillors, and I can assure you that we much prefer to do our own work in our own way. We had hoped not to trouble you until we could put all the strings into your hands and leave you to arrest the gang of scoundrels and deal out justice in your own fashion. Once we have exposed the conspiracy, which was to lead to another great war, and taken our fee for doing so, we regard our task as done. We didn't want to frighten those men; we wanted them to go on as if nothing had happened, until you were ready for the grand coup. But they are alarmed and uneasy. They cannot understand why it is that they have heard nothing of von Eckhardt. By this time all Germany should have been talking about the tragedy. These fellows are very nervous and mystified, because, you see, there is no tragedy. I know for a fact that Barrados telephoned to Munich this afternoon for information from one of his tools there, because Signorina Inez Salviati heard the conversation, and reported it to me."
"But she is missing," the officer protested.
"She was," Jelicorse corrected. "She is now back with her friends in the hotel, safe and sound. I don't think I need go into her adventures just at present, because there are other things more pressing. But I am telling you hard facts. The Signorina was more or less kidnapped by Barrados, so as to secure her silence after what she had overheard, and but for the courage and daring of the Ladies Pevensey, who are two of our most valued assistants, she might still be confined in the inner room of the Epicure's Club, where Barrados discovered her. You see the necessity of hurry, Herr Shinburg. Those scoundrels are thoroughly aroused now. They are frightened to death, and don't know what to do. I think my little comedy in the house of our friend Eckhardt was perhaps a bit too subtle. You see, he and his lot are firmly under the impression that they shot Eckhardt to pieces, whereas he is very much alive, and in Berlin at the present minute. And, again, they haven't the remotest notion what became of the body of Professor von Dornn. Probably most of those men will stay here and brazen it out. They will rely upon some planned alibi in which prominent society people, both men and women, will appear and give the evidence that they have so carefully rehearsed. But if I know anything of Barrados, he will bolt. Within twenty-four hours he will be on his way to the Russian frontier, and once he reaches Moscow we can't touch him. Lenin and Trotsky will see that he is all right. What I want you to do is to have Barrados arrested. He is probably still in Berlin making preparation. But first of all, he will have to warn his comrades, which will take him some time. If you set your bloodhounds on the track at once, you ought to have him by midnight."
Herr Shinburg reached for his desk telephone.
"It shall be done on the instant," he said stolidly. "If Count Barrados is in Berlin we will have him within an hour, and even if he has left the capital he will be detained on the frontier. He is too prominent a person to be overlooked. But what about the others, Herr Jelicorse? I have a shrewd idea who they are, but you have not yet discussed them with me. That we left entirely to you. Perhaps you can throw your net over the lot of them."
"You can make your mind easy about that," Jelicorse smiled. "There were six of them in that attack on von Eckhardt. They may wriggle as they like, and talk as they please, and invent what alibis they choose, backed by the perjuries of all the aristocracy in Prussia. But I shall have a witness that cannot lie, and a little dumb witness that will cover them all with confusion. My dear sir, we have done our work very thoroughly. There are the half dozen I speak of, and as many more besides, all of whom are in Berlin at the present moment. What you have to do is to arrest every member of the Epicures' Club to-night, and detain them till, say, 4 o'clock to-morrow afternoon. Then we will come round here and ask you merely to place a white sheet between these two windows. We will see to the rest. Now, here is a complete list of the members of the club, and the sooner you act the better."
There was no longer any occasion for Enderby and Farncombe to hide themselves away in the seclusion of the boarding-house in Potsdam, so they went back to the Adelon Hotel, and in Inez' private sitting-room there was quite a happy reunion.
"I suppose I am more of a public character than ever," Inez asked. "How are you going to account for my disappearance and the way in which I disappointed my public to-night."
"Oh, that should be easy enough," Jelicorse laughed. "You are suffering from sudden loss of memory. Quite a fashionable complaint, of which even a prima donna need not be ashamed. You have been subject to such attacks since childhood. One of the eccentricities of genius and that sort of thing. So engrossed in the new part, and so eager to give your beloved public the best, that you wandered off and found yourself late at night miles from Berlin. Why, it's done every day."
"Yes, what a happy idea," Lady Peggy cried.
"Yes, and what a topping day it has been," Lady Joan beamed delightedly. "A real adventure with real revolvers, and the scoundrel of melodrama brought to bay by two intrepid girls who bearded him in his own den at the risk of their lives. And now I suppose it's finished," she went on regretfully. "We shall go back to the humdrum life again, and I shall have to marry Niel and be respectable ever afterwards."
"And I suppose Tony will beat me," Lady Peggy said.
"Not unless it's necessary," Vickers laughed, "But what is the next chapter in the story?"
"There is only one more," Jelicorse explained. "We have simply got to have those men arrested, and when I have proved beyond a demonstration that the Epicures' Club is up to its neck in murder, I shall retire gracefully, and as soon as I am back in England again the better I shall be pleased."
"Now, how tantalising," Lady Peggy cried. "Do you mean to say we are not going to be in at the death?"
"What a bloodthirsty idea," Lady Joan protested.
"I don't mean actually the execution," Lady Peggy said. "I mean, aren't we going to be present when the villains are confounded and honest virtue comes into its own. Now, Hilary, I know you have got some wonderful stunt up your sleeve. Do tell us what it is, and do let us be present when you press the button."
"I wish I could," Jelicorse said regretfully. "But that is impossible. You see, the last act takes place in the office of the Chief of Police here, and he would most certainly object. But you shall see the stunt, and you shall see the pretty picture that you are so anxious about. You shall see it in this very room. Meanwhile, I am going to tell you exactly what happened chez Eckhardt. At any rate, it was quite as ingenious as the other little matter we have just alluded to."
With that, Jelicorse went on into a long explanation of recent events, and then almost unkindly suggested that it was time for bed. Early the next afternoon he and the other Councillors, together with Vickers and Nelson, repaired to the Wilhelmstrasse, where they were met with the pleasing information that the whole of the members of the Epicures' Club were safely locked up in the building and that Barrados had not escaped.
"We have got the whole lot of them, gentlemen," Herr Shinburg explained. "The capture is complete. Of course, they are making a great fuss, and we are being besieged by all the leading monarchists to release them on bail. Ach, that would never do. And yet, unless we can at once formulate some serious charge, such as murder, we shall have to comply. Therefore, I am looking to you, Herr Jelicorse, to supply me with real proofs."
"Which I am going to do," Jelicorse said promptly. "I want you to have Count Barrados brought here, because, when the time comes, he is almost certain to desert his companions and turn State evidence. Bring him in here handcuffed, and, oh, by the way, I see you have got the sheet up I asked of you."
With that Jelicorse laid a box on the table, from which he produced a small mechanical instrument, which he proceeded to attach to the socket of an electric lamp.
"Now I am quite ready," he said. "Bring in the prisoner, and seat him on a chair facing the sheet. There will be no occasion to say anything, because, unless I am greatly mistaken, Barrados will do most of the talking."
Barrados came in, sulky and defiant, and a little uneasy as he saw what was going on. Then the door was locked and the shutters closed, and the room plunged in darkness. A brilliant light shone from the little instrument, and half a dozen figures began to move in a white disc on the sheet.
One glance was sufficient for Barrados.
"Mein Gott!" he cried. "What is this? Those devils of Councillors again. Will they haunt me to my grave?"
The cry of mingled surprise and fear and anger which was torn from Barrados's lips was in itself an admission of guilt. And, indeed, there was cause enough for his wonder and agitation. He saw in front of him on the dazzling white disc something in the nature of a moving drama. He was looking into the interior of a room, a massive, well-furnished room, which was strangely familiar to him. It seemed as if he stood outside in a garden on a level with a balcony, on to which opened a great bay window with a large writing table pushed up against it. At the table, with his back to the room, a man sat busily writing. He was an elderly man with sallow cheeks fringed with a mass of dark hair. Then, as the machine clicked on, Barrados could see a door at the back of the room open, and another familiar face look in. And those familiar features were Barrados's own. It seemed almost weird to stand there in the darkness, looking at the counterfeit presentment of himself. There was a fierce gleam in his eyes, and a convulsive setting of the features which was horribly sinister. Had he really looked like that? Barrados wondered. Was that precisely as his face offered itself to observation with the veneer stripped off at the very moment when he held in his hand the revolver which was to end von Eckhardt's career, as the same weapon had ended the career of more than one of Eckhardt's associates?
But there was no time to waste on this problem just now. The machine clicked on, and the drama developed. Barrados was standing in the room, with five other men huddled up behind him, and those others the men who had accompanied him from Berlin on that grim errand. It was easily possible to recognise those acting under Barrados's instructions, for their faces were as plain as his own. Then he saw the little group come forward, and could see his own lips moving as he flung contemptuous and insulting words at the man seated silently in the window. No doubt, von Eckhardt had realised that his hour had come, but he was determined not to show it. Then the revolvers began to spit fire and smoke, and the man at the writing-table pitched down and lay dead on the floor. Almost simultaneously von Dornn threw up his hands and collapsed without a sign. Then the room was empty, and at the same moment the lights went up and the brilliant white disc resolved itself into a plain table-cloth again.
Barrados blinked and scowled, looking into the faces of those round him, and reading his condemnation there.
"And that is all," Jelicorse said. "I think you understand it, Count. You had there a faithful picture of what took place very recently in von Eckhardt's library. You saw the shots fired, you saw the revolver in your own hand, and you saw the victim collapse on the floor, literally shot to pieces. I don't think that your alibi will be much use now."
"The camera cannot lie," Shinburg interposed. "I should like to know how you managed it, Herr Jelicorse."
"Well, that was no great difficulty," Jelicorse explained. "I used a sort of pocket cinema camera, and took my picture with a miniature searchlight, both of these inventions being specially designed for the Councillors by Colonel Enderby. You see, I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I made my plans accordingly. It was at my suggestion that von Eckhardt sat at the table, as if busy writing."
"But we killed him," Barrados blurted out.
"Oh no, you didn't," Jelicorse smiled. "You thought you did, but that is another thing altogether. At the present moment von Eckhardt is safe in Berlin. As a matter of fact, he wasn't in the library when you and your gang entered the house."
"Then who did we shoot?" Barrados demanded.
"A wax model, which came from England. My good man, when we deal with people of your sort we have to take every precaution. But the intention was the same. You thought you had destroyed one of your country's enemies, and that is just where you are wrong. There are more kinds of patriots than one: indeed, a great English philosopher once said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. If he had known you, Count, I don't think he would have had any cause to change his opinion. I might have achieved my purpose in another way, but I was particularly anxious to have that photograph. I wanted to drag the whole of your gang into the daylight, and stamp the seal of guilt upon every one of them. I was taking no chances of your setting up an elaborate alibi with half the aristocracy of Berlin standing behind you and swearing that the whole gang was in Berlin at the time of the murder. Standing outside the window, I could have given you a dose of the same medicine I administered when I called at your castle for certain jewels that we were after. But that would have rather defeated my purpose. I lay out there in the darkness and took those photographs with my camera, whilst my assistant held the light for me. When I fired that shot I intended it for you, Count—it was merely an accident that caused the death of Professor Dornn. Still, it was a happy accident, because you had to leave the body behind, and in one of the dead man's pockets I found not only the key to the safe in the Epicures' Club, but also the key to the cypher you were using in your correspondence with Moscow."
Another quick cry came from Barrados's lips. For the moment he had quite forgotten the danger that lay behind the locked door of the inner room of the Epicures' Club. Even if he had recognised the peril, he would have deemed it absolutely impossible even for the police to read those secrets without a key. And here was the missing link actually in the hands of the police.
"Do you want me to go on?" Jelicorse proceeded.
Barrados shrugged his shoulders with feigned indifference.
"Not as far as I am concerned," he said. "You are an amazingly clever man, Jelicorse, and if I had known what was coming I would have had you put out of the way long ago. And I could have done it, and nobody any the wiser."
"Oh, I know that," Jelicorse said coolly. "But I also know my man. If I had been actually in your power, you would never have pulled the trigger on me until you had had an opportunity of showing me that you were as good a man as I. Something cunning and clever, something to make me look like a fool, something you could boast to your confederates about afterwards. My good man, your psychology is an open book to me. I know that you are a bully and a coward, and I know that if you could have got away from Berlin last night, and crossed the frontier, you would have done so without a single thought for your friends. Once in Moscow, you could have joined the murder gang there, and spent the rest of your life in a palace, waited upon hand and foot by the poor dupes that your German-Jew allies have starved and ill-treated. Now, Count, tell us all about it, and save your own skin. It's all over; you can't even get any help from your friend Hommany. He lies in a dishonoured grave, just over the frontier; in fact, I shot him in fair fight, and, incidentally, recovered all that treasure which you were so anxious to raise money on. More people than one knew about that; in fact, my young friend Vickers did. And he helped me to remove the loot from its hiding-place. By this time it is on its way to London, and out of your reach. There is nothing more to wait for. The conspiracy has failed. Before many hours have passed the whole world will be ringing with this story, and once it is public property the Allies will take good care that nothing comes of your compact with Moscow. The German Government will have none of it. Ask Herr Shinburg here."
"Ach, no," Shinburg spluttered. "It is too dangerous an experiment. It might be that instead of Russia coming under the heel of Prussia, Germany might find herself with a Bolshevik rope round her neck. It is not by using two-edged swords that the fatherland will find peace and prosperity again. And now, Count, you may say as much as you like, or as little. You may perhaps save your neck from the halter, but me, I doubt it very much. Still, there is always a chance."
"Presently," Barrados muttered. "Perhaps when these Englishmen have gone. You say you have all the others."
"Every one of them," Shinburg replied.
He rang a bell on his table, and two subordinates came in, and at the sign of their chief led Barrados away.
"It was a great piece of work," Shinburg said. "And not only Germany, but the whole world has to thank you for what you have done. It is a big price we were prepared to pay, and we shall pay it, poor as we are, to the last mark."
There was something between a grin and a sneer on the policeman's face as he alluded to Germany's poverty, and the Englishmen, seated round the table, smiled broadly.
"Ach, do not mistake me," Shinburg went on. "If I could put my country back where she was in 1914, I would hesitate at nothing. If I and my superiors had thought that Barrados' scheme had been successful, we should be all in it up to our necks. And so would you, gentlemen, too, if the case applied to you own country. There are things done at times like these which, in the enemy, we call treachery, but which, in ourselves, we call pure patriotism. But not so. It would not do; it would only mean bloodshed and misery over again, and the end the same. It will be time enough for Europe to think about Russia and setting her on her legs again when the Moscow rulers are all shot."
"Ah, there I quite agree with you," Enderby said. "But please don't forget who put the Russian rulers in their place."
Shinburg looked up with a fierce light in his eyes.
"Yes, who?" he demanded. "The Prussians. The Prussian aristocrats who were too blind in their arrogance to see what the result would be. They were at the end of their tether; they had either to be destroyed, or work out some dramatic surprise. And so they go on dreaming that nothing would ever happen, the same as Barrados dreamt up to a few minutes ago—like the Bourbons of old, they learn nothing and forget nothing."
"That is very true," Enderby said, "and now, Herr Shinburg, since we have finished our business, and wound up everything satisfactorily all round, I don't think we need detain you any longer. We have fulfilled our share of the contract, and it is up to you now to fulfil yours. I don't think you want us any longer. The little matter of the money can stand over."
The Chief of Police himself accompanied his guests as far as their taxi, and stood with clicked heels on the pavement, bowing profusely, as the cab departed.
"Well, that's that," Farncombe said as he lighted a cigarette. "And now for England, home and beauty. I think we might look forward to a very pleasant and easy summer, don't you know. Falconhoe will be looking at its best when we get back."
"We haven't quite finished," Jelicorse chuckled. "Our next step is to Paris, there to interest the French and American Press. I am going to give those fellows the most wonderful story they have ever heard. This thing in all its details has got to ring round the world, and not until it has done so, and civilisation is thoroughly roused will the menace be absolutely removed."
"By Jove, I hadn't thought of that," Enderby said. "Paris to-morrow, and after that, the matter is out of our hands."
After all, it was not quite so easy as Jelicorse had anticipated. For the moment he had quite forgotten Inez Salviati, and when he thought matters over, he decided against turning his back on Berlin for good, so long as her engagements kept up there. There would be a most sensational trial of Barrados and his crew before very long, and fierce partisanship would be aroused. There could only be one possible end to the trial, but meanwhile the leaders of the monarchist party would leave no stone unturned to save the murderous crew that they regarded as the purest patriots. And once passions were aroused, it might possibly be unsafe for Inez to be left in Berlin alone. Lots of people would know the part she had played in exposing the latest assault on civilisation, and therefore Inez would require to be carefully watched. She had still some days of her contract to run, and Jelicorse would not feel easy in his mind until he had escorted her back to London, where she had a contract at Covent Garden some weeks later. Therefore, it was arranged that the Councillors should remain in the city on the Spree for the moment, though Enderby might take a day or two off to go as far as Paris and interview the journalists there. Meanwhile, both the Pevensey sisters obstinately declined to turn their backs upon Inez, until they could all leave together.
Enderby sat in the lounge of the Paris Metropole a day or two later, the admired centre of a throng of journalists representing every important newspaper in the world.
It was a great story he had to tell them, and the telling of it lasted the best part of two hours. He traced the whole thing from the incident of the stolen emeralds—without, of course, mentioning whose stones they really were—right away through. Jelicorse's adventures with Barrados and the subsequent recovery of that vast amount of treasure just beyond the Polish frontier. And then, skilfully he gathered his threads together, and told of the great conspiracy which was to have made Russia nothing more than a Prussian province. By the time he had finished, he had wrought his listeners up to the highest pitch of excitement.
"No, no, I am not going to tell you any more," he said. "If I start answering questions, I shall have nothing else to do all day. I am going back to Berlin this afternoon, and if you want me again I shall be at the Grosvenor Hotel in London on Saturday for the week-end. And now get busy. Start the wires humming, and spread the light everywhere where a newspaper find its way. Show the world what would have happened if this conspiracy had been successful. Tell England and France and America to take a broader view of the situation, and sink all their differences and money-making stunts for the good of humanity. No more strife for me at present. I am feeling a bit run down. I am like the general in the story leading the forlorn hope, who told his men to fight like blazes as long as there was a chance, and then run for their lives. As he was a bit lame, he intended to start first."
With that, Enderby escaped, and the following afternoon was back in Berlin at a luncheon party given by Inez Salviati in honour of the great occasion. She would be quite pleased, she said, to get away from Berlin herself, but so far she had not suffered any sort of indignity, though it was already common property that she had had a hand in bringing the great conspiracy prominently before an excited and more or less angry populace.
"Well, I am sorry it is all over," Lady Peggy sighed. "It has been a great time, and nobody has enjoyed the dangerous side of it more than I have. Why, already Joan and myself have been asked to write the story of our adventures for an enterprising London paper. And the representative was good enough to say that he would do all the actual writing if we would put our names to it, when we get back home. And we shall have our portraits in all the Sunday papers. Why, we shall be almost as popular as if we were a couple of variety actresses."
"That must be very soothing," Enderby laughed. "But you know the conditions when we allowed you to come into this thing? You were bound to silence. So I am afraid that you won't have the felicity of seeing some smart journalistic work palmed off on a confiding public as the original manuscript of the Ladies Joan and Peggy Pevensey. I don't mind you writing a play round it, and taking the leading parts yourselves."
"Oh, that's all right," Lady Joan laughed. "We really don't mean it. And, to tell you the truth, I shall be glad to get back again. It will be a very different England this time. I am going to have that old Tudor house of mine, and Niel is going to pay for it. I mean, thanks to your finding that treasure, we shall be quite comfortably off. And if we can't afford to keep a butler, then Niel will act in that capacity himself. You see, his training at the Ambassador's needn't be thrown away."
"And I," Lady Peggy broke in, "can look forward to my next meeting with the Duke of Lombaso with perfect equanimity. I might have had to marry him, and I am quite sure that neither of us wanted to reign over the same establishment. So when he congratulates me it will be with absolute honesty."
"But what about me?" Inez asked.
"Oh, you are one of the great ones of the earth," Jelicorse smiled. "The rest of your life will be a kind of triumphant progress, and, from afar, the shining star will be watched by her humble followers on earth."
"Ah, my dear friend," Inez said, a sigh coming from her lips and her glorious eyes turned upon the speaker. "I wish that some of my followers were not quite so humble."
"Do you really mean that!" Jelicorse asked eagerly.
"Of course she does," Lady Peggy said in her charmingly candid way. "And she also wishes that one of them, at least, was not quite so blind. Money isn't everything, you know."
"Ah, how these plutocrats talk," Jelicorse laughed, none too steadily. "A poor man like myself—"
"You are not a poor man," Inez protested. "At least, not poor in my eyes. And where should I have been but for you? It was my first chance that came through your influence, and it was you who taught me what liberty means."
"You were a very apt pupil," Jelicorse said.
"Ah, yes, because my heart was in it. And you are not to speak as if you were old. A man of thirty-eight is quite young. And you are not to think that I mean to spend all my life on a platform. It is not many engagements I shall take. Perhaps only three months in the year, and in the fine weather I should like to build myself a picturesque bungalow on the top of that high cliff looking down on Falconhoe. And then, if some day I marry, my husband and myself can travel all the world over—"
"Now, there is modesty for you," Lady Joan cried. "One of the greatest singers of the world speaks of her future husband as if he came first. You will notice that she said 'My husband and myself.' Oh, the absolutely charming modesty of it."
"Yes, that is all very well," Jelicorse said. "But it would be a tremendous responsibility for any man to have the fortune of calling himself Inez's husband."
"Perhaps," Inez smiled. "But not at Falconhoe. Then, of course, I should be my husband's wife."
"There, Hilary," Lady Peggy exclaimed. "What more do you want the poor girl to say? Oh, I don't care, Joan, it's no use making faces at me. Do you suppose that I don't think of anybody's happiness besides my own. It has been a great romance, but so long as it is not artistically rounded off, I am profoundly dissatisfied with the story. Hilary, do you mean to say you don't know that our dear Inez—"
"Oh, please, please," Inez protested.
Jelicorse hastened to change the conversation, but not before he had exchanged one glance with Inez, in which the future was as assuredly settled as if they had been alone and had talked the matter over for hours. And Lady Peggy smiled as she intercepted the look, and very wisely said no more. She was a discreet young woman, and wise in her generation, and quite content to achieve her end without ostentation or embroidery.
"Well, and so that's that," Enderby said. "Upon my word, I really don't know where Farncombe and myself are going to get the money from to pay for three wedding presents in one year."
"Germany," Lady Joan laughed. "Make Germany pay. Search their pockets. Besides, look what they owe you. If they have any gratitude at all, they will give you at least a million each, and Hilary will have a fine dowry. Now, let us have one tiny glass of champagne, and drink long life, and prosperity to the Councillors of Falconhoe and the friends who have benefited so largely by sticking to them like wax. Gentlemen, here's to you, and may your respected shadows never grow less."
A few days later and the Councillors, accompanied by the ladies of the party, set out for Paris en route for England. It was a sort of triumphal progress, and accompanied, everywhere they went, by newspapers, and still more newspapers. There wasn't a journal in Europe or America for that matter which was not still blaring with the doings and accomplishments of the Councillors of Falconhoe. It was as if the Press would never be tired of their names.
"Well, there is only one thing to do," Enderby said in summing up the matter. "We shall have to turn ourselves into a Limited Liability Company. The public would tumble over one another to get into the big scheme. But, joking apart, it's a really great work we have done, and, to use the jargon of the Press, generations yet unborn will bless the memory of the Councillors of Falconhoe in the name of freedom and civilisation."
For the moment no one spoke, because that which Enderby had said was a true thing.
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