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Title: Hardy's Big Coup
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100791
Language: English
Date first posted: December 2011
Date most recently updated: December 2011

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Hardy's Big Coup
Author: Fred M White

*

(Author of "The Robe of Lucifer," "A Crimson Blind," "A Satisfactory
Reference," etc., etc.)

*

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal, N.S.W., Saturday
16 August, 1902.

*



CHAPTER I.


Clifford Hardy choked down the horror that knocked at his lips for
expression. He had come eastwards in search of paragraphs--come out
hungrily and fiercely as a man does who is near starvation, and lo, he
had found one. Since the cruel indiscretion that had cost him a post on
the 'Telephone,' and practically ruined his reputation, he had had no
shuddering luck like this.

Instinctively Hardy began to cast round for a clue. He found it.

On the floor lay the body of a murdered man, and also on the reeking
floor lay a long white suede glove--a dainty affair of the finest
quality, soft, scented, redolent of Bond-street--the sort of glove that
only smart women wear--the sort of glove that costs anything up to two
guineas a pair. The third finger was missing, cut off clean at the
palm--a right-handed glove.

Hardy folded up the thing, and placed it in his pocket. He yelled loudly
for assistance, and immediately the doorway became filled with
eyes--dreadful, fierce, bleared eyes, for the most part.

"I turned in here to avoid a street row," Hardy explained, impartially,
but awkwardly, to the eyes, "and I found this. Does anybody know him?"

A tall spare man, with a suggestion of militarism about him, pushed
forward. His shining attire was eloquent of the direst poverty, yet
under happier circumstances he might have been a Caesar, Hardy thought.

"I know the man," he said. There was the real ring of command in his
voice. "He was called Ratski--he was a teacher of languages. A
fellow-countryman of mine also. We are both Asturians."

"I fancy I have seen you before," Hardy said. "The Exile World of London
always has a strange fascination for me, and in happier times I studied
it with a view to a book on the subject. Latterly, however, I have been
so busy gathering the bare bread of life that----"

"You speak bitterly, Mr. Hardy."

"Ah! you do know me then! Give it a name. I never forget a name."

"Paul Demeter. You will recollect now, saving me from the polite
attentions of those dock savages two years ago. I am sorry you were so
cruelly used over that Presidential interview."

Hardy fairly gasped. How on earth did this seedy foreigner know of that
fiasco in America! How did he know that Hardy had been sent to America
by the 'Telephone' in search of certain political information, and there
Hardy, owing to sudden illness, had deputed his task to a
fellow-journalist, who had betrayed him shamefully and obliquely held up
the 'Telephone' to public derision. All of which accounted for Hardy's
sudden 'debacle;' and yet this fallen Asturian knew all about it!

Hardy fumbled in his pocket. There was tenpence in copper there. Would
it not be judiciously invested upon this dilapidated Roman
centurion--this man with the commanding eye and voice of a Wellington?

"A little glass of brandy?" he suggested.

Demeter bowed. He led the way to a foreign restaurant, where the brandy,
unlike the company, proved to be beyond suspicion.

"Make use of me," Demeter said. "We are both poor comrades in
misfortune."

"Tell me all about the murdered man," Hardy asked. "If I can get a
column or two of this in a dozen papers to-morrow I shall be enriched by
twenty pounds. If I can only procure some decent clothes again I shall
have a chance. The editor of the 'Wire' wants me. Only I've got to make
some kind of a splash first."

"It was a political crime," Demeter said.

"With a woman at the bottom of it?"

"Ah, you smile. You know something. Give me your confidence."

By way of reply Hardy produced the long suede glove. He had quite
forgotten to hand it over to the police. Demeter took it with careless
curiosity and spread it out on the grimy marble table. Then his face
changed--the character of the man had utterly altered.

"There are bigger matters than mere murder here," he said. "Let that
pass. If you have courage and a few pounds to spare, I can give you that
which will make the editor of the 'Wire' your slave for life. Only you
must be discreet and silent; you must forget what you are going to see
to-night. Alphonse!"

The sleek waiter came silently. Was it possible to find a copy of the
'Morning Post' on the premises. Alphonse would get one for M'sieur
assuredly. When the paper came Demeter scanned the fashionable
intelligence intently. His stern features lit up presently in a smile.

"The search is ended," he added. "I know my London fairly well; but you
know it better. Will you be guided by me?"

"I am entirely in your hands, friend Demeter."

"Good. There are certain places, so I am informed, where you can hire
dress suits. Can you find the money?"

Hardy fumbled for his watch. The watch was gold--a presentation one, to
which he had clung desperately--the one link that held him to
respectability.

Hardy found himself struggling into clean linen and dress clothes
presently with a feeling that he had been dreaming evilly, and that he
had come back to potential things again. He allowed himself to be
shaved, his hair trimmed; then he went in search of his companion.
Demeter came forward. It was Demeter, for the mouth and the features
were the same. Otherwise he was changed beyond recognition.

Here was either a great statesman or the finest actor in Europe. Hardy
rubbed his eyes and gasped with astonishment. Of all the strange things
the Exile World of London had held for him, never was there a stranger
one than this.

"What am I to call you?" Hardy stammered.

"Merely address me as 'Baron,' nothing more," Demeter replied. "For the
rest, you are to be discreet and silent and follow my cue in everything.
Come along."

A cab was called, Demeter giving the directions in so low a voice that
they were lost on Hardy. With a heart beating strangely fast, Hardy
found himself presently driving along, his silent companion opposite
him, and the blinds of the four-wheeled cab closely drawn.




CHAPTER II.


The cab paused at length, and Demeter alighted. Under the lamplight he
looked more imposing and commanding than ever. Yet there was a flush on
his thin cheek, and his hands trembled.

There was an open doorway with the hospitable strip of crimson across
the flags; behind, a great house, the hall all gay with flowers and
palms, and electric lights gleaming down on pictures and statuary. A
footman looked like awkward interrogations, but Demeter's clear, strong,
commanding eye froze him into acquiescence.

"Pure audacity is the gift of the gods!" Demeter murmured. "First let us
raid the supper rooms."

The supper rooms were found at length. Hundreds of gaily-dressed people
were swarming through the magnificent suite of rooms and now and again
some man of presence would regard Demeter in a puzzled kind of way and
pass on. A Cabinet Minister focussed him with rimless monocle, a Marquis
nodded, but Demeter seemed to see nothing but the game pie on his plate.
He tossed off one glass of champagne swiftly; the rest of the meal was
moistened with water.

"You don't know where you are?" he asked Hardy.

"My dear Baron, I haven't the slightest idea."

Those slim fingers dropped on Hardy's arm. Following Demeter's glance,
he saw that a woman had come into the supper room alone. She was tall,
and wonderfully fair, almost Albino; her pale blue eyes had a steely
glint in them, the small, smiling mouth was framed for cruelty and
kindness alike. A striking woman, a woman who would have been singled
out for observation anywhere in any garb. In her scarlet silk and red
flowers, and magnificent diamonds, she seemed to fill the eye to the
exclusion of everything else.

"Her name matters nothing," Demeter whispered; "After to-night you are
to forget everything but her marvellous personality. For ten years she
has practically ruled the kingdom of Asturia, and that is all you need
know. To-night her reign ends, and mine--But she is coming this way. We
shall have much to say to Countess Matalie."

She came gliding along, like a swan on the river. The supper room was
practically empty; the artistic confusion of wine and fruit and flowers
gleamed under the frosted electric lamps. A faint haze of cigarette
smoke hung on the air. The woman would have passed Demeter had he not
spoken to her.

"Sit here!" he said quietly. "It is a pleasant corner."

There was a ring of command in his tone that brought the woman up all
standing. A ghastly whiteness rendered her fair beauty almost repulsive.

"An unexpected pleasure," she said. How deep, yet caressing her voice
was. All the silver in it rang and vibrated like chords in perfect
harmony, "My dear Prince----"

"For to-night only. I came to see you,"

"I am flattered. Time was when you were somewhat prejudiced against me.
Is this gentleman here to see fair play between us?"

"This gentleman is here by the accident of circumstance. It was he who
found the dead body of Nicholas Ratski a while ago. It will be news to
you, of course, that your old enemy, Ratski, has been murdered. Do you
remember Malmaison?"

A warm flush spread over the woman's face, followed by a deadly
paleness. Demeter leaned back in his chair, eyeing her mercilessly.

"We will not recall the incident," he said. "It was there that you lost
the third finger of your right hand. And such a hand! Countess, please,
remove your right glove."

The woman laughed uneasily. Something had really moved her at last.

Hardy saw the lithe fingers at work; he saw the peachy blossom of the
skin as the long glove peeled away; he saw one finger whiter and more
stiff than the others, and he saw that the third finger of the glove was
missing. At any rate, he was wide enough awake now.

"The Countess is always gloved thus," Demeter explained. "The pressure
on the artificial finger does not admit of the coverings being intact.
Hardy has something in his pocket which will astonish you--nothing less
than a long suede glove precisely similar to those you are wearing--with
the third finger of the right hand missing. Hardy, the Countess would
like to see that glove."

Hardy produced it without a word--indeed, he had no words just now. He
was staggering along in the blinding light of a triple discovery. He
knew now why Demeter had brought him here; he knew the mystery of the
dead face that had smiled at him so recently; he knew that silence was
going to be bought for a price. He knew certain other things also; but
they were far better relegated beyond the limbo of wasted speculation.

"Put the glove on," said Demeter to the Countess; "put it on."

That long trembling hand crept out again. In a dazed kind of way, the
Countess rolled the soft kid up her shapely arm. The fit was absolutely
perfect, the gloves an absolute match.

"Where did you find this?" she stammered at length.

"In the room of the man you call Nicholas Ratski," Hardy explained.

"You have said enough," Demeter muttered significantly. "Once that glove
is in the hands of the police investigation follows, and the political
career of a beautiful and charming young lady comes to a sadly abrupt
termination. You understand, Madame?"

"You will let me keep the glove, Prince. Surely you don't imagine----"

"That you actually killed Hermann, no. You may retain the glove, at a
price."

"Your price? Quick--say it."

"Good! My friend Hardy is a journalist. Also he is a perfect
stenographer. You will tell him and me the heads of the infamous treaty
just concluded between John of Asturia and the Emperor of Austria. We
shall require as much of the text as you remember, not only as a
guarantee of good faith, but also for publication."

The thing was out at last. Here was Hardy's great scoop ready to his
hand, in the professional enthusiasm of the moment he had no thought of
the woman opposite. She had collapsed into her chair, a mere woman,
pleading with a strong man for mercy.

"If I refuse?" Madame said tentatively.

Demeter flipped a filbert away with a contemptuous gesture.

"You are not going to refuse," he said. "You are not going to force me
to tell the story to the police. In any case they will receive you with
open arms in Vienna. Better Vienna than the Central Criminal Court.
Come, I shall not further insult you by asking for your decision."

Still the countess hesitated. Demeter held out his hand.

"Then give me the glove," he said sharply.

A deep, passionate sigh broke from the countess. She held up her right
hand half-sadly, half-admiringly. Then her lips moved.

"It is so perfect a fit," she murmured. "I never had a better. On the
whole, sir, I have decided to keep the glove."

She covered her face with her hands, and two tears trickled through her
fingers. Demeter looked on, curiously analytical, yet utterly unmoved.
Hardy's notebook filled rapidly.

* * * * * * *

The supper room was empty now, and from a distance came the sound of
music, a chatter of voices, the silken swish of dainty draperies. A
dragon orchid fell from an electric epergne with a suddenness that
fairly startled Hardy. Almost mechanically he placed the glorious bloom
in his buttonhole. He was anxious to be away now, fearful lest anything
should come between him and the 'Wire.'

"I am very poor," the woman said, presently. "And I am burning all my
boats. If I had money, say 500----"

"I have no money to give you," Demeter interrupted impatiently. "Later
on, perhaps. But you must do the best you can."

He turned to Hardy and noted his desire to be gone. Something like a
smile crossed his stern lips. Those deep-set eyes seemed to see
everything.

"Would you mind leaving me with this lady for a little time?" he asked.
"I have a few words for her private ear alone."

Hardy wanted no second bidding. Demeter was telling him to go as plainly
as possible--cutting a path for retreat for him in fact. As he rose,
Demeter followed him to the door.

"Where shall I see you again?" Hardy asked.

"You will not see me again," was the stern reply. "You have to forget
everything--myself most of all. Now go."




CHAPTER III.


Hardy passed into the big office, where the green shades were down, and
a score of white-faced men worked silently. The hum of machinery in the
basement was plainly audible, and a steady stream of boys passed and
re-passed through the clanging swing doors. A man with a white face and
weary eye looked up and asked Hardy's business.

"I've got to see Sutton at once," said the other, crisply.

The weary-eyed man had some doubt of it. But for the dress clothes and
the flaming orchid he would have been rude. The editor was dreadfully
busy, and a long queue of visitors had been repelled from his doors. If
there was any message or any manuscript or thing of that kind----

"I tell you," Hardy put in, "that I am going to see Sutton. Tell him
Clifford Hardy is here, and that he has got the thing agreed upon."

The little great man, genius of the 'Wire,' beamed at Hardy from behind
his glasses, and crisply asked his business. Hardy, laid his notebook on
the table, and proceeded to read the data of the Austro-Asturian treaty
without delay.

"Well?" Hardy inquired, when he had finished. "Well?"

"Wonderful!" said Sutton, totally unmoved. "A wonderful coup. Nothing
like this has happened since the Declaration of War by France against
Germany. But, all the same, I don't believe a single word of it."

"You don't? Why?"

"Because John of Asturia wouldn't commit regal suicide like that."

"But, my dear chap, this is to be a secret treaty. Still, if you won't
take my word, and you won't use my information, I can take it
elsewhere."

Sutton showed signs of vitality at length; the mere man was creeping
from behind the armour of the editor.

"If it was right and I lost it I should pine and die," he said. "Would
you mind giving me some idea how you got the information?"

But Hardy refused to do anything of the kind. The 'kudos' as things
stood would be tremendous. To tell the story would be merely to proclaim
the fact that for once pure luck had been on the side of predatory
journalism. Hardy had got on a pedestal now, and he had not the
slightest intention of coming down again. It is the cracked vase we hang
upon the highest shelf.

"I don't think I dare," said Sutton. "If I had some confirmation--" He
paused, as an excited voice rose high in the silent corridor. It was the
voice of a woman, proclaiming the fact that she meant to see the editor
of the 'Wire' without delay.

Hardy started. A wave of exultation came over him.

"See her!" he whispered hoarsely. "Ask the woman in. She is going to
confirm my story. What magnificent luck! She has actually chosen you out
of all the editors in London to sell her secret to. Here--I must hide
somewhere."

He dived into an inner room as Sutton opened the door. Immediately a
magnificent woman in red and diamonds entered. Sutton bowed gravely. The
head of a great London 'daily' knows everybody worth knowing, and the
countess was no stranger to Sutton, at least by sight.

"Need I mention my name?" the Countess asked.

"You need not," Sutton replied. "You come to see me on business?"

"I do. I have a secret to dispose of--a secret that concerns the future
of Asturia. If I did not need this five hundred pounds----"

"Pardon me, madame," Sutton interrupted, politely; "but has your secret
anything to do with a treaty between King John of Asturia and the
Austrian Court?"

A cry of rage and disappointment came from the woman; her rings
clattered as she smote her hand passionately on the table.

"I have it all here in black and white," said Sutton. "Still, I dare say
we can meet you. My information is totally complete, but my informant
necessarily has not your intimate knowledge of the situation. To-morrow
we shall make a sensation with the news, and the next day we could make
a further great sensation over an interview with you. If you will be
good enough to meet me here to-morrow afternoon I have no doubt that you
will be perfectly satisfied with the remuneration we shall be prepared
to offer you."

The Countess tightened her gloves slowly. A smile came over her face.

"You are very kind;" she said. "I will come. Let me apologise to you for
disturbing you at so busy an hour. Good-night."

"Smart woman!" Sutton murmured to Hardy. "Not the first time she
endorsed a newspaper proprietor's cheque. Well, Hardy?"

"And now, can you find me something to do?" Hardy asked.

"I can," Sutton said with decision. "After tomorrow the Asturian capital
will be the focus of attraction for some time to come. By some means or
another you seem to have got the inside track of Asturian politics, and
I should like you to represent me over yonder. What do you say?"

"Thank you!" said Hardy, quietly.

* * * *

Of course there had been a great sensation; the 'Wire' got its boom, and
portraits of the woman in the case were sold by the thousand. There were
wide issues behind the Asturia-Austro embroglio, and for some days a big
European war hung in the balance. It was then that King John of Asturia
did the one unselfish and disinterested act of his life, by
considerately committing suicide. The wise and good Paul reigned in his
stead, and with one acclaim Poteskin was the cry.

Let the people have Prince Poteskin back again--the one Minister they
ought never to have parted with. King John and the Scarlet Woman, who
had engineered the infamous treaty, had driven Poteskin out into poverty
and exile. Would he ever come back again? All these things disturbed
good Asturians, and from the capital Hardy wrote those dramatic letters
that were going far to make him famous.

But there was one dramatic episode that formed no part of the copy.
Poteskin was coming back; Poteskin was already in the capital, and that
very night would be seen for the first time at the palace. A huge
multitude had gathered there, Hardy amongst the rest. Naturally he was
curious to see the picturesque Poteskin. Would some friend kindly point
out this Wandering Jew of politics to him?

"He is standing close to your elbow," the friend said.

Hardy beheld a tall man in a magnificent uniform, a man with a keen grey
face and dark, penetrating eyes. And those eyes met Hardy's without the
slightest sign of recognition, whilst the mind of the journalist went
swiftly back to a mean, squalid room that framed a dead smiling figure
lying on a long suede glove. Poteskin advanced and stood directly in
front of him.

"Sir," he said, "I fancy that we have met before."

"It is impossible that I could have had the honour or I had never
forgotten it," Hardy replied. "Still, if the Prince says we have met
before, why, then, we have met before--whether we have met before or
not."

The dark eyes smiled for a moment, the lips relaxed.

"Feros," he said, "introduce me to this gentleman. Connected with the
press? Always try and stand well with the press. One of the fraternity
once did me a great service, and I was fortunate enough to return the
favour. Some night, Mr. Hardy, you must come and dine with me, and hear
my story."

The Prince smiled and bowed and passed on.


THE END



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