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Title: Paul Quentin
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Paul Quentin
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in The Star (Christchurch, N.Z.) in serial format commencing
Saturday 2 January, 1909.

*



CHAPTER I.--THE YELLOW DINNER.


John Dugdale was more than anxious. He was brave enough in ordinary
circumstances, but the idea that he would presently be handed over to
the police as a swindler paralysed his nerve centres and set him
trembling from head to foot like a weak woman. It occurred to him
suddenly that no one would believe what he said, while the telegram in
his pocket proved nothing. It was a humiliating position to be placed
in, and Dugdale felt that his testimonials and his public services in
South Africa would count for very little when he came to stand in the
dock and tell his story to a magistrate.

He toyed moodily with the flowers on the dinner-table. In a dreamy sort
of way he noticed how well the vivid crimson of the carnations blended
with the shades of the electric lights. Everything was daintily
appointed. The dinner had been excellent, the coffee a poem. The amber
and gold liquid in his liqueur glass trembled and shimmered in the
light.

Dugdale, immaculately dressed, was as fine and handsome a figure as any
in the dining-room of the Blenheim Hotel that night. He glanced at the
pink and silver menu and calculated that his dinner would cost at least
three sovereigns. And beyond one solitary sixpence he had not a single
coin in the world.

He would have to explain matters soon. He would be compelled to send for
the manager and describe how the unfortunate situation had come about.
In confirmation of his story he had the telegram from Mr Theo Isidore in
his pocket. Mr Isidore was a well-known frequenter of the restaurant,
and a customer to be respected. A millionaire, he had more or less made
the place. Most of his dinner-parties there were described at length in
the Press. They were feasts of Lucullus--nothing in the extravagant days
of ancient Rome could have been more wickedly costly. Dugdale had looked
forward to dining this evening with the epicure. He had known Isidore
years ago when the latter had been a struggling business man with a
dubious reputation. The two had never cared for one another; in fact,
there were many reasons why Dugdale did not care to disguise his
contempt for the man who, by an unexpected turn of Fortune's wheel, had
been lifted into power and position.

There were few things to-day in which Isidore had not taken a part. At
the moment he was engaged in an attempt to 'corner' the English Press
and get every journal of note into his own hands. But this
Dutch-American was not having it entirely his own way, for there was a
powerful combination against him, and the public were watching the
combat with the keenest interest. Isidor's new venture, the 'Marlborough
Magazine' had caused a tremendous sensation. When it appeared it looked
like being a brilliant success from the start. This was the engine by
which he hoped to hoist his schemes, the means by which he was going to
kill the rest of the magazine products in the market. Readers had been
promised a magazine the like of which they had never seen before; nor,
were they disappointed.

The publishing world stood aghast when the first copy of the
'Marlborough' was issued. On the face of it, the enterprise spelt ruin.
It was magnificently turned out. The price was popular and the
illustrations throughout were in colour. Nothing better had ever been
done since the days of Baxter. It was impossible to produce a magazine
like this without colossal expense, but apparently Isidore knew his own
business and boasted that the magazine had come to stay. That day it had
become known that the second monthly part of two millions had all been
sold out, and in honour of the occasion Isidore was entertaining his
editor and staff and some of his contributors at the Blenheim that
night. The proprietor himself was not present; indeed, he rarely showed
himself to his subordinates except in the way of strict business. The
staff could go and make merry if they liked and he was ready to meet the
expense.

Dugdale sat nervously in his chair watching the brilliant group at a
table near his. To him it was a strange coincidence that he should be
sitting worried to his wits' ends, whilst the servants of the man who
had brought all this trouble about sat happy and contented so near to
him. He wondered vaguely if they would help him.

Delicate and awkward as his position was, it was capable of explanation.
Dugdale had returned from South Africa, despondent and almost hopeless.
He had been searching for employment until his last sovereign had gone.
He had put his pride in his pocket at length and written to Theo Isidore
for assistance. He was prepared to do anything in the way of honest
work, however menial. No reply had come for the best part of a week, and
then appeared a belated telegram asking Dugdale to meet him at the
Blenheim at eight o'clock on that evening to dinner.

Here was a chance at last, but it cost Dugdale every farthing he
possessed to get his wardrobe together and make the kind of appearance
expected in so fashionable and exclusive a restaurant. Now, as he waited
for his host, a telegram arrived to say that Isidore had been detained
and that Dugdale was to go on with his dinner.

Quite contented, he examined the menu and dined as he had not done for
years. Like most men with a good digestion and a clear conscience, he
appreciated the perfectly-cooked food and exquisite wines, and it was
not till he was finished that he began to grow anxious. A waiter was
hovering about him in a slightly suggestive manner; indeed, the man's
thoughts were plainly expressed on his face. A dull colour rose to
Dugdale's cheeks as the waiter pointedly asked if there was anything
else he could get. Dugdale caught his lower lip between his teeth.

"Yes," he said, "I will have another liqueur."

For a moment the waiter hesitated and Dugdale knew exactly what was
passing through his mind. As the man turned slowly away Dugdale walked
across to the flower-decked table, where the staff of the 'Marlborough'
were dining.

"Excuse me, sir," he said to the man at the head of the table, "but can
you tell me where I can get in touch with Mr Isidore? I came here by
appointment to dine with him, and he has wired to me that he has been
detained. You see, it places me in a very awkward position. I have dined
and if Mr Isidore fails to put in an appearance I shall be responsible
for a sumptuous repast. Unfortunately, I have--that is--well, to be
frank, I haven't the cash to pay for it."

The chairman listened superciliously.

"How long is it since you received the telegram?" he asked.

"About an hour ago," answered Dugdale, conscious that the rest of the
party were listening with smiles of malicious amusement. The president
laughed.

"Won't do, my friend," he said curtly. "Mr Isidore is in Paris. He has
been there a week."

The coldly-uttered words struck Dugdale like a whiplash. He felt the
blood creeping to his face again. A wild desire to smash the glasses and
upset the flowers and damage the smug faces around possessed him. True,
he had not been called a swindler in so many words, but that was exactly
what the man at the head of the table meant to imply. Dugdale crept back
to his own seat and glanced despairingly about the room. Presently his
eyes lighted upon one man seated alone, a slim, tall man, with a
dead-white face lighted by a pair of fine clear blue eyes. He looked
like a man who had just come back from the other side of the grave, and
the pallor of his face was rendered all the more striking by the silvery
brilliancy of his abundant hair. He might have been an invalid, who had
come there for rest and recreation. There was something wonderfully
powerful about his face, too. His chin was square and resolute, with a
smiling mouth that seemed capable of hardness and determination. On the
whole it was a fascinating face, but at the same time there was
something about it that repelled Dugdale. If a man could be said to
possess the beaute du Diable this was visible on the features of the
stranger. Evidently he had been listening and intuitively Dugdale felt
that he was enjoying the situation. Dugdale moved uneasily in his chair,
for the waiter was coming back with a sheet of paper in his hand, which
gave Dugdale a chill down his spine. He braced himself for an effort.

Someone detained the waiter for an instant, and Dugdale had time to make
up his mind what to do. He saw the tall man with the silver hair and
blue eyes rise from his seat and walk languidly away. A moment later
another waiter came along and handed Dugdale a small leather case, the
corners of which were bound in gold. Dugdale looked at it in a dull,
mechanical fashion.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"I beg your pardon, sir," said the waiter, "but you dropped this. A
gentleman who has just been dining here saw it fall from your overcoat
pocket and picked it up. There was a crush in the vestibule at the time,
and he had some difficulty in identifying you, sir. He says that for a
time he forgot he had your note-case in his pocket, but hopes his
absent-mindedness has caused you no inconvenience."

Dugdale's fingers closed convulsively over the note-case. He waved the
waiter aside and pressed his finger on the turquoise snap. Inside the
case were three five-pound notes and a scrap of paper, obviously torn
from a news-sheet with a few words, scribbled in pencil:--

"May a stranger be permitted to be of service to you? He appreciates the
position you are in and trusts you will use the enclosed and return it
at your own leisure."

The flowers and lights and shimmering crystal whirled round Dugdale for
a moment. Then a thrill of gratitude brought the tears to his eyes. He
knew perfectly well whom he had to thank for this. He recognised the
delicate way in which the thing had been done. He no longer envied the
noisy party at the opposite table, the luxurious Yellow dinner which
would be duly chronicled in every paper to-morrow. He forgave the editor
of the 'Marlborough' his insolent suggestion. His coolness had returned
by the time the waiter arrived with the bill.

"It is evident that Mr Isidore is not coming," he said, "and I had
better pay for the dinner myself. By the by, do you know who was that
gentleman at the table with the orchids? The tall gentleman with the
white face and silver hair."

The waiter took the banknote with ill-concealed relief.

"Oh, yes, sir," he said. "I know who you mean. That was Mr Paul Quentin.
You must have heard of him, sir."




CHAPTER II.--JEKYLL OR HYDE?


Dugdale nodded, but wondered where he had heard the name of Quentin
before. It came to him later as he strolled back towards his humble
rooms. He recollected that it had appeared in the papers a good deal of
late. Nobody seemed to know quite who he was or whence he came. Even his
nationality was more or less obscure. But he was supposed to be rich and
eccentric. He was credited with the invention of more than one
scientific appliance, and was supposed to be in England now with a view
to developing something or other which was to revolutionise the uses of
electricity. The man had travelled a vast deal in foreign parts and was
believed to possess an intimate knowledge of the East and its mysterious
ways; in fact, so Dugdale had gathered, he was a scientific adventurer,
ambitious to make his mark. And, Dugdale admitted, a man with a face
like Quentin's was capable of any intellectual achievement. His
fascinating yet curiously repellant countenance was constantly before
Dugdale on his way homewards.

He was conscious, too, that he did not feel all the gratitude he should.
He was glad enough to get the money; indeed, at the moment he would have
taken it from anybody. In a thoroughly illogical way, however, he wished
that it had come from someone else.

At any rate, his duty lay plainly enough before him. He would have to go
to Quentin's place to-morrow to thank him for his kindness and return
the balance of the money. It was not until he reached home that he
recollected he had no notion of where Quentin was staying. But that
matter might be solved by a visit to a friend of his, a free-lance
journalist, who knew everybody and where everybody was to be found.
Quentin had been somewhat shy of interviewers, but Macpherson had
managed to get enough out of him to form an attractive column for his
favourite paper.

Macpherson proved communicative. He gave a graphic description of
Quentin, and where he could be seen. An hour later Dugdale knocked at
the door of a gloomy-looking house in Glover Street, where a staid
housekeeper in black opened the door and shook her head dubiously when
Dugdale asked to see Mr Quentin.

"I don't know whether you can see him or not, sir," the woman said. "As
a rule, he dislikes callers, and gives orders that they are not to be
admitted. But perhaps you would like to see his secretary, Mr Grenadus?"

"He would do as well, perhaps," Dugdale said.

He was shown into a pleasant room on the second floor at the back of the
house, beyond the window of which was a conservatory filled with
gorgeous tropical flowers. There was no view beyond these. The glass of
the conservatory was stained a pale pink, so that the light from the
room itself was dim and almost sombre. The apartment was magnificently
furnished in Oriental style, and reminded Dugdale of a place in Smyrna
where he had once passed a few weeks. A man seated at a writing-table
rose and bowed slightly, and Dugdale half extended his hand. Then he
drew back with a puzzled expression.

"I beg your pardon," he murmured. "For the moment I thought I was
speaking to Mr Quentin himself."

The man smiled. His features certainly bore a remarkable likeness to
those of Quentin. There was the same refinement, the same clearness of
outline, the same suggestion of intellectual strength. There was the
strong jaw and straight red mouth, but the hair was a curly black and
the eyes were dark brown, with specks of yellow in the iris. No doubt a
relation of Quentin's, Dugdale thought; then realised that it was no
business of his in any case.

"We are rather alike," the stranger smiled. "But my name is Grenadus. I
am Mr Quentin's private secretary, and you may say anything to me you
would say to him. But why take the trouble to come here, Mr Dugdale? I
assure you there was no hurry. Mr Quentin is only too pleased to be in a
position to accommodate you. No thanks, please."

"This is extraordinary," Dugdale murmured. "I see you know everything,
and I will be quite free with you. It was exceedingly considerate of Mr
Quentin to help me; indeed, I am at a loss to know why he should assist
me at all."

"Quentin is a law unto himself," the private secretary said. "He never
does anything like other people. Of course, I can't say, but I fancy he
is interested in you. I understand you have a good record, and that you
are looking out for something to do. Now I wonder if you would like to
undertake a commission for my employer? I must tell you that there is an
element of danger about it. You will have to be discreet and silent and
do exactly as you are told. In this matter you may see Mr Quentin or you
may not. At the present stage everything is left to me."

"Anything that is honest," Dugdale began. "I am----"

"Oh, quite so," Grenadus interrupted with a queer smile. "That goes
without saying. If you are willing to undertake this commission I shall
be glad to engage you at once. Let us assume that you have had a
retaining fee of fifteen pounds, and that you are to be paid at the rate
of two hundred pounds a year for expenses. Does that satisfy you, Mr
Dugdale?"

"It is more than satisfactory," Dugdale replied.

"You have a deal to learn," Grenadus continued with the same dry smile.
"You might have asked double the money and got it. But that does not
concern me. We must have a gentleman, which you are, a man of courage,
where again you fulfill the requirements. That, you can be discreet and
silent, your record in South Africa shows. I believe you are well
acquainted with Mr Theo Isidore."

"Oh, assuredly," Dugdale said with a red face. "My experiences with him
seem to be unfortunate. I don't know whether he really sent for me last
night or whether I was a victim of a cruel hoax. But it serves me right.
I ought never to have written to that man."

"You appear to dislike him, then?"

"Very much indeed. He is a thoroughly bad lot despite his money. When I
first knew him he was in a very different position from what he now
fills. I should never have approached him at all except that I was
penniless and reckless, and now, thanks to Mr Quentin----"

"Quite so, quite so," the secretary broke in. "We won't go into that
again. Perhaps you wonder why I mentioned Mr Isidore's name, but I am
coming to that. I suppose, like everybody else in London, you know all
about the 'Marlborough Magazine.' Whatever you may think of Mr Isidore,
you are bound to admit that it is a wonderful publication. Those
coloured illustrations are perfect works of art. One wonders how much
Isidore will drop over the venture. But, still, that is no business of
ours."

"I have seen the first number, of course," Dugdale said. "I see there is
a flaming account in to-day's papers of the Yellow dinner at the
Blenheim last night. Isn't that a copy of the second number on your
table?"

Grenadus smiled as he stretched out a long thin hand and took up the
magazine, the yellow cover of which was now familiar enough to the
public. He turned over the highly-calendered pages till he came at
length to the oracle of which he was in search. He beckoned Dugdale to
his side.

"I want you to look at this," he said. "Perhaps you have already read
the number?"

"Not yet," Dugdale admitted. "You see I couldn't afford to buy it, and I
haven't been in one of the libraries."

"Well, take this away with you. I want you to read the story entitled
'The Purple Curtain.' Like the rest of the contributors, the writer
prefers to remain anonymous; indeed, that is the stipulation which
Isidore makes. The story is a good enough one of the dramatic kind,
though I am afraid there is nothing in it which is likely to help you in
the search which you are about to undertake on our behalf. Still, one
never can tell, and you had better read the story carefully. But what I
wish to call your particular attention to is this illustration. As you
see, it represents a pretty girl looking out of the window of an
old-fashioned house. In one corner is an old piece of French furniture
on which stands a vase. Now tell me, have you ever seen a vase like that
before?"'

Dugdale turned with the greatest interest to the picture. On the face of
it there was nothing out of the common, but the deep impressive note
which had now come into Grenadus's voice was not without its effect. The
picture in the 'Marlborough Magazine' was a striking one. The girl's
figure stood out lithe and dimly grey against the background, but what
did appeal to Dugdale was the vase in one corner, which was drawn with
an elaboration of detail that left nothing to be desired. The vase
appeared to be some two feet in height, and was supported by three
ormolu dragons quaintly intertwisted. The colours stood out with a
fidelity and realism which pointed to the original being an actual work
of art. The pedestal was slightly chipped, and a small fragment of the
cover was missing.

"Evidently of great value," Dugdale murmured. "Yes, I saw something like
it years ago, when I managed to gain admission to the Summer Palace at
Pekin."

"Absolutely correct," Grenadus said in the same curiously dry voice.
"There were only two of those vases ever made--the one you saw at Pekin;
the other forms the subject of this illustration. That was drawn from
the real thing itself. The vase mysteriously disappeared some years ago
from a private collection, and has never been heard of since. That it is
still in existence this drawing in the 'Marlborough Magazine' clearly
proves. Now, I want you to take this away with you and study that
priceless piece of china till you are familiar with it in every detail.
When you feel competent to deal with the matter I will give you your
instructions."

"But I am equal to that now," Dugdale urged. "Did I not indicate the
origin of the vase at a glance? And if I saw the real thing I should not
be at all likely to be deceived, seeing that I recognised it from a
water-colour drawing."

"True," Grenadus said thoughtfully. "And now, before you begin, there is
one thing I must warn you against. On no account are you to make any
inquiries through the publishers or printers of the 'Marlborough
Magazine.' That is a sine qua non. Now, if you will excuse me for a
moment, I will go into Mr Quentin's room and speak to him. I should like
to consult him before going farther. Of course, it is a mere matter of
form."

Grenadus disappeared, leaving Dugdale hopeful but anxious. The secretary
came back a moment later with a smiling air. He took a cheque book from
a drawer and filled in a draft for fifty pounds. This he handed to
Dugdale with an intimation that it was for current expenses.

"But what am I to do?" the latter asked.

"Do!" Grenadus echoed. "Don't you understand? It will be your task to
find the Dragon Vase."




CHAPTER III.--A DAUGHTER OF THE SOUTH.


On the face of it, the commission looked simple, but from the very first
Dugdale could not rid himself of the feeling that there was something
sinister and underhand in it. Probably Quentin was a crank and a
faddist, a china maniac who did not care about showing his hand. And so
far as Dugdale could see, when he had traced the Dragon Vase, his
mission was at an end. At the same time, it was like searching for a
needle in a haystack and for the moment he was utterly unable to tell
how to begin proceedings. He spent the best part of the day in thinking
the matter out, deciding at length that Macpherson was the person most
likely to help him. He found the genial Scotsman taking his ease at one
of the minor literary clubs, and under the seal of secrecy disclosed the
matter to him.

"It is very strange," Macpherson said. "Still nothing ought to surprise
an old hand like myself, and I'll not say a word about it to anybody, my
boy. What you want to get hold of is an expert in Oriental china. I
don't mean a man who writes books which he gets up in the museums. You
want an authority who is accustomed to handle these things. If you have
got nothing particular to do this evening, I can put my hand on the very
person you want."

"Is he a dealer?" Dugdale, asked.

"It isn't a he at all, sonny; it is a lady. She is a bit of a mystery,
too. Frankly, I don't like this commission of yours much, and I only
hope it won't get you into trouble. Paul Quentin is a queer sort, and
there is something behind him that I can't make out. You know I
interviewed him for our paper. I was with the man for the best part of
an hour. It seems impossible that I could have made a mistake in the
description of him. Murray, of the 'Telephone,' tells me that the Paul
Quentin he saw was entirely different from my man. My man had a pallid
face and grey hair, wonderful silver-grey hair it was, too, Murray
swears that his Quentin had fair hair and grey eyes. But you have seen
Quentin?"

"Only just for a moment," Dugdale said. "It was at the Blenheim
Restaurant, as I told you. Most assuredly he had silver-grey hair and
blue eyes, as you say. When I called upon him in Glover Street he was
not to be seen, and I got my commission from his secretary Grenadus."

"Well, I don't like it," Macpherson repeated. "If you ask me, you are in
with a funny lot and you had best be careful. Still, needs must when a
certain gentleman drives, and I dare say you will come out of it all
right. What you should do first is to see this china expert, who will
tell you more in an hour than you can teach yourself in a month. If you
have nothing on hand to-night I can introduce you to the lady."

"She is a friend of yours?" Dugdale asked.

"Well, no, she isn't. She is a mystery. But no one worries about that
when London is full of them. She calls herself Rachel Varna. She is a
rare beauty of the Southern type, marvellously intellectual and
vivacious. There isn't a better dressed girl in London, but no one knows
who she is or where she comes from. It is my belief she is a kind of
Cinderella. She is to be met with at nearly all the smart subscription
dances. She always leaves early and nobody has the least idea where she
lives. I know she is a great authority on china, because when I was
writing a series of articles about certain eminent collections Rachel
was of the greatest possible assistance to me. I don't believe there is
a single branch of the subject of which she is ignorant. You had better
treat her quite in the spirit of bon camaraderie, but don't be
inquisitive and don't follow her. Meet me here to-night at ten o'clock,
and we shall go to the Magpie Dance at the Whitehall Rooms, where Rachel
is sure to be in evidence. The Magpies are a colony of artists who have
more money than genius, but their little dances are wonderfully well
done, and you are certain to enjoy yourself."

"I shall be glad of the chance," Dugdale said grimly, "especially when I
think of the time I have had lately. I'll be here at ten."

Punctuality was not one of Macpherson's virtues, and it was nearly
eleven o'clock before the Whitehall Rooms were reached. Some two hundred
people were gathered on enjoyment bent, and for the most part they
appeared to be carrying out the programme successfully. Quite a
sprinkling of well-known society people were present. There were plenty
of smart toilettes, one of which stood out conspicuous from the rest and
arrested Dugdale's eye immediately. It was a dress of coral pink,
wonderfully light and artistic, and worn by a dark girl with raven hair,
and the most magnificent pair of eyes Dugdale had ever seen. The girl
was seated by herself and watching those around her with infinite
amusement. There was a faint smile on her lips and a suggestion of lazy
scorn in her eyes. Dugdale jerked his head in her direction.

"I suppose that is not Miss Varna by any chance?" he whispered.

"Oh, yes, it is," Macpherson responded. "Come along and I'll introduce
you at once. You are in luck."

The girl looked up with a dazzling smile that fairly thrilled Dugdale.
There was no scent about her, but she seemed to diffuse an atmosphere
which was peculiarly her own. Dugdale could compare it with nothing he
had ever noticed before.

"Why are you not dancing?" Macpherson asked.

"For the simple reason that there is no one in the room I happen to
know," the girl said, in a low, sweet voice. "And you don't dance
yourself, do you?"

Macpherson shook his head resolutely.

"No," he said; "but perhaps my friend here does. I wonder if you would
help him. To be candid, I brought him here to-night on purpose to see
you. This is Mr John Dugdale, and for the moment he is interested in
Oriental china. He is looking out for a certain type of vase, and I told
him he could not do better than ask your advice. He is a novice at the
game."

The dark eyes flashed with kindly interest.

"I'll do what I can," Rachel said. "Besides, I don't feel a bit like
dancing this evening. Now you run away and leave Mr Dugdale to me."

Dugdale sat down by Miss Varna's side feeling that the gods were kind to
him. He was by no means insensible to the beauty of the girl. It
flattered him to find that she was taking an interest in his adventure.

"It is rather a strange story," he said, "and I am afraid I must not
tell you how it came about. But I am looking for a peculiar form of
Dragon Vase, of which only two are known to exist. One is in this
country, the other I know is in the Summer Palace at Pekin, because I
saw it with my own eyes. Perhaps you can guess what I mean?"

As Dugdale turned eagerly to his fair companion he saw to his surprise
that the beautiful carmine flush had faded from her face and that her
cheeks paled to the hue of old ivory.

"The Dragon Vase," Rachel Varna said in a whisper. "Do you really mean
what you say, Mr Dugdale? But, no, it is impossible, incredible. We must
be thinking of different things. Would you mind describing the object of
your search?"

"I can do better than that," Dugdale replied. "I can show you exactly
what it is like. I can send you a drawing of it if you are interested.
Possibly you have seen a copy of this month's 'Marlborough Magazine?'"

Once more the white and the roses were at war in Rachel Varna's cheeks,
and she was breathing rapidly through parted lips. Dugdale noticed the
uneasy fluttering of her hand.

"There is no need to ask further questions," she said. "I see we are
both thinking of the same thing. I have seen the 'Marlborough Magazine'
for this month, and an illustration of the story called 'The Purple
Curtain' contains a drawing of the Dragon Vase, in every respect----"

"That's it," Dugdale said, eagerly. "The very thing. It is rather
strange that I should have seen one of the pair in the Summer Palace at
Pekin and that I should be in search of its fellow. But I suppose you
know the history of these wonderful specimens of Chinese ceramic art?"

"I may say without boasting that there is practically nothing about
china that I don't know," the girl replied. "I am in a position where I
am bound to learn all about it. From my childhood I have been brought up
in the midst of artistic things. Is it a secret who your principal is in
this matter?"

The question was asked with a vivid eagerness that puzzled Dugdale.
Rachel Varna seemed to be hanging on his rely.

"I am afraid I cannot tell you that," he said regretfully. "I am very
sorry to appear discourteous, but that must be my secret. I suppose
there is no doubt that the vase drawn in the 'Marlborough Magazine' is
actually the fellow to the one in the Summer Palace at Pekin. It seems
fascinating, but isn't it possible that the 'Marlborough Magazine'
artist copied it during a flying visit to Pekin?"

"No, I don't think so," said the girl promptly. "I don't see how any
artist could paint a vase like that from a casual glance. It would have
to be done elaborately and carefully. And, besides the colouring is
absolutely correct. A photograph would be altogether useless. You may be
quite sure, Mr Dugdale, that the artist used for his model the missing
Dragon Vase."

"Oh, it is missing, then?" Dugdale asked.

Rachel Varna laughed a little awkwardly.

"I didn't mean to say that," she said. "The vase in question was stolen
some years ago from the collection of a wealthy man who is now dead. The
robbery caused a great sensation at the time, because the piece of china
is unique. There is nothing like it in Europe for size, for colouring or
beauty of outline. If the Dragon Vase came into the market now I should
not be in the least surprised to find that it fetched six figures. You
are incredulous."

"Well, I am," Dugdale admitted. "Six figures!"

"Well, why not? More than one piece of china has changed hands lately
for sixteen or seventeen thousand pounds. You would have collectors from
all over the world after it. And think what a splendid opportunity it
would be for the millionaire to advertise his wealth!"

"I hadn't thought of that," Dugdale confessed. "At any rate, you know
now what I am looking for, though I cannot tell you the name of the
person on whose behalf I am engaged. Perhaps you can tell me where the
missing vase is?"

Dugdale put the question half in jest. He was surprised to see how
seriously it was taken. There was something almost of terror on the
girl's face as she turned her splendid eyes on him.

"You must not ask that," she whispered. "It is not fair. I have told you
all I can for the present. I have let you know that the thing you are
looking for is more valuable than half a dozen historic diamonds. It is
a thousand pities that there is a flaw in the cover of the vase, but in
the course of a few days I hope to see that matter----"

The girl paused and bit her lip, conscious perhaps that she was saying
too much. Then she turned the conversation gaily but resolutely and
began to talk of other things with wit and brilliancy. Dugdale was too
fascinated by the grace and beauty of his companion to keep a cool,
level head. He had never seen any one like Rachel Varna before. He had
never seen a girl at once so beautiful and so alluring. He had a fair
knowledge of society and its ways. He knew that the girl was perfectly
dressed and that there was no flaw in her manners. He laid himself out
for enjoyment. But, with all his questions, he left off at the end of an
hour as wise as he had begun. Who Rachel Varna was he had not the least
idea. He went off presently at a hint from the girl that she would like
an ice, and when he came back she had vanished. Macpherson, with an
amused look in his eyes, indicated the vacant seat.

"Gone 'like the baseless fabric of a vision leaving not a wrack
behind,'" he quoted. "My dear fellow, for the sake of your peace of mind
do not allow your thoughts to dwell upon Rachel Varna. She is like some
beautiful dragon-fly; she emerges from the pool of obscurity to dazzle
and coruscate, and when you think you have her in your hand she becomes
elusive as a beam of sunshine."

Without knowing why, Dugdale felt irritated. It seemed to him that he
had been fooled. He managed to avoid Macpherson, and presently took his
overcoat and left the rooms. He was restless and uncomfortable. He could
not get Rachel Varna out of his mind. He would not have hesitated to
follow her, if he had had the chance. Hardly knowing in which direction
he was walking, he strode along till the streets began to get meaner and
narrower, the roads more dirty, and the locality less desirable. In
front of him a woman in a black cloak trudged along. Dugdale vaguely
noticed her stout, serviceable boots and heavy cloak. Out of the
darkness there came one of those prowling night hawks who render the
dark hours of London hideous and repulsive. The first whine for
assistance turned to a threat as the villain realised that he had the
lonely passenger entirely at his mercy. There was a little cry for
assistance, and Dugdale crept silently forward. The next moment the man
was lying on his back in the gutter, and the woman, with a broken murmur
of thanks, hurried along.

Only for a moment had Dugdale caught sight of her face, but it sufficed.
Despite the middle-class garb and the thick respectable boots, he
recognised the delicate features of Rachel Varna. He dropped back
feeling satisfied that the girl was secure in her disguise. It was not
for him to show that he had penetrated that disguise, for he had made up
his mind to follow her home. He dropped behind until the figure of
Rachel Varna was nearly out of sight and then saw her disappear into an
overhanging doorway at the side of a low-browed shop which bore over the
casement window the name of Varna, and the information that he was a
dealer in gold and silver and precious stones. For the present Dugdale
had learnt enough. He would look round casually in the morning and drop
into the shop on some pretence or another on the off-chance of seeing
Rachel again.

It was nearly eleven o'clock next day before he was able to put his
project into execution. When he reached the shop he was surprised to see
behind the small leaded panes a dazzling array of antique gold and
silver ornaments and precious stones. As he entered the establishment
Rachel herself came from behind the desk and looked questioningly at the
intruder. She was plainly enough dressed, but nothing could deprive her
of her beauty or her air of distinction. The exquisite features coloured
slightly, and there was anger as well as reproach in the dark eyes.

"Why do you come here?" the girl whispered.

"How did you know I did come?" Dugdale said somewhat lamely, "I mean you
have no right to imply that I followed you here."

"But, all the same, you did. I suppose you recognised me last night. It
was not a pretty thing to do, Mr Dugdale, and I am not at all pleased
with you."

"I am sure I beg your pardon," Dugdale said contritely. "In any case,
let me assure you that your secret is safe in my hands. And, besides, it
is natural that a girl should like a little change sometimes. I dare say
it is a monotonous kind of life you lead here----"

Dugdale paused, and the words died away upon his lips, for he was
absolutely fascinated by a small object which lay on the counter, a
round, flat lid evidently belonging to some pieces of china, a lid of
the most extraordinary Mazarin blue, decorated with figures and
butterflies of various shades. The thing was beautiful in itself, but
what astounded Dugdale was that a small triangular piece of the cover
was missing, exactly as in the case of the Dragon Vase depicted by the
artist of the 'Marlborough Magazine.' Dugdale had hardly time to avert
his eyes from this object before the figure of a bent old man with
shining bald head and long, straggling grey beard tottered into the shop
from behind the desk. In a way he bore a ridiculous resemblance to
Rachel Varna, much as the caricatures of some prominent statesman bear
to the real personality.

"He is back again, my dear," the old man said in querulous accents which
shook with fear. "The devil has come back again. He is in my private
office and I don't know what to say to him. Oh dear, oh dear, what have
I done that I should be persecuted in this way? Why does this devil of a
man worry me?"

"Soothe yourself, father," Rachel said imperturbably. "I will go and
speak to him. And you, sir? It will be as well if you keep in the
background."

The girl slipped calmly away, leaving Dugdale staggered and surprised.
Why had Rachel Varna conveyed this warning to him? For it was a warning,
as her speaking eyes told him. Almost instinctively he stepped back in
the gloom at the end of the counter whilst the old man stood wringing
his hands and wiping the moisture from his yellow forehead. The silence
of the shop was broken by angry voices in the inner office, and one of
the voices struck on Dugdale's ears with a sound both familiar and
sinister. Where had he heard it before? Surely he connected it with his
call upon Paul Quentin. Yes, undoubtedly, it was the voice of the
secretary Grenadus. But it was not Grenadus who emerged from the office
and strode angrily along the shop--it was the pale, languid, bent form
of Paul Quentin himself. The sombre light fell upon his face and the
silver-grey hair and the figure shone out like one of Rembrandt's
portraits. Without saying a word to anybody or looking from side to
side, and as his shadow cleared the window the old man ceased to wring
his hands and a wonderfully alert look came into his rheumy eyes.

"You are a wonder, my dear, a positive wonder. But perhaps you will
attend to this gentleman whilst I pack up the parcel to go to
Silverdale."

As the old man spoke he laid his hand on the china lid tenderly and
lovingly. Dugdale waited for Rachel to speak. Her eyes flashed as she
pointed to the door.

"You had better go," she said in a sibilant whisper. "You have done
mischief enough for one day."

Feeling small and mean, Dugdale crept from the shop.




CHAPTER IV.--THE MISTRESS OF SILVERDALE.


Beads of perspiration broke out on Dugdale's forehead and an unusual
glow suffused his cheek. He was aware of a sudden feeling of shame, but,
uneasy as he was, he saw that the girl was moved by something besides
anger and contempt. There was a look of almost pitiable appeal in her
eyes. Even at that moment Dugdale was conscious of her beauty. She
looked so dainty and refined and thoroughbred in her simple black dress.
She was out of keeping and yet absolutely at home in those quaint old
surroundings. Really, she was part and parcel of the picture. She seemed
to be a kind of spirit of the place. The casement windows, the dull
ceiling rafters, and this sombre flash of gold and silver and jewels in
the bow-fronted window appeared to be all part of the same exquisite
melody. As Dugdale lingered, the old man recovered himself, his business
instinct being aroused anew. He passed a trembling hand over the yellow
dome of his head. His grey beard was wagging up and down as if his
toothless gums were chewing some indigestible food.

"My dear," he protested in a thin, piping voice, "why do you want to
send the gentleman away? Probably he is a good customer, and we need
them sorely, oh yes, so very sorely. What would you have, sir? We have
everything here; not that they belong to us, oh no. We are far too poor
for that. The great houses trust us, and we sell upon commission."

But Dugdale was not listening. He turned to Rachel Varna with an
imploring look in his eyes.

"I must see you for a moment," he whispered.

Just then a customer rustled into the shop. She came with a whirl of
silks and floating draperies, haughty and imperious, and subtly scented.
A pair of horses jingled their silver harness at the door. Dugdale
recognised the newcomer as a Society leader. He wondered what she was
doing. It made no difference to her that a stranger was present, for she
produced a bundle of banknotes and threw them carelessly on the counter.

"I want my emeralds, Joseph," she said. "Do you hear? I want them at
once! Here is the money."

With a delicate tinge of pink on her cheeks, Rachel turned to Dugdale
and motioned him to a long, low room at the back of the shop. As he
stood there he could hear everything that was being said. He began to
understand now that Joseph Varna was something more than a mere
retailer. He was evidently a financier, and did considerable business
with Society women in need of money. The shop was out of the way and
therefore all the more convenient. Dugdale thought he knew where Rachel
obtained her beautiful dresses, and how she could afford to indulge her
social fancies.

There was something in the room that attracted Dugdale's attention to
the exclusion of everything else. It was lighted only from the roof. A
long counter ran round three sides of it, and china and bric-a-brac of
every kind and description were displayed. It did not need an authority
to inform Dugdale that he was looking at an almost priceless collection,
for his inherent artistic instinct told him that. There were plates and
dishes and cups and vases from all parts of the world, some quaint and
crude, others dainty and exquisite in their colouring. As Dugdale made a
more careful examination he saw that, for the most part, these objects
were damaged. Seated at one end of the room, working away with blue and
paint, and some strange white powder, was a young, sullen-looking man
with an enormous thatch of rusty red hair. From the way the man's long,
dexterous fingers worked, he was evidently an expert. He was putting a
three-cornered patch in a Nanking plate with a neatness and dexterity
that fairly astonished Dugdale. The latter made some complimentary
remark, but the workman shook his head and touched his ears slightly.
Then he pointed to his mouth, from which signs Dugdale concluded that he
was both deaf and dumb. He fell to his work again, taking no further
notice of Dugdale.

A moment or two elapsed before Rachel Varna came in. She looked worried
and anxious, and did not appear to be listening to the pretty things
that Dugdale was saying about the contents of the room. She realised his
meaning presently.

"Oh, yes," she said absently. "Nearly all the damaged china of real
value in London passes through our hands. Our assistant is the finest
workman in the world. Look at this."

She picked up a dainty plate of the Ming dynasty and handed it to
Dugdale.

"You cannot see a flaw in it," she said. "And yet, when that plate came
to us, it was in four pieces. Do you know, Mr Dugdale, I am sorry you
came here."

"Why so?" Dugdale asked.

"I may go farther," the girl continued, "and say that I am sorry I ever
met you. I ought to have declined to give you any information, but I
happened to know what you were doing, and what you are after. I know you
are poor and ambitious, and that you are anxious for something to do.
But you had far better have gone on as you were, far better have starved
than taken service under Paul Quentin. I am betraying my trust by saying
so much, but I like you, and it is my duty to warn you. I pray you to
stop before it is too late. Make whatever excuse you like, say anything
so long as you refuse to carry out Paul Quentin's orders."

"You have said too much or too little," Dugdale replied sternly.

"I can tell you no more. I dare not tell you more."

"I am flattered," Dugdale answered. "But it is impossible to do what you
suggest. I have taken Mr Quentin's money, and have already spent some of
it. Besides, I am under obligation to him. He did me a great service two
nights ago and I cannot forget it."

"Are you sure of that?" the girl asked.

She might have said more, but the old man was calling from the shop, and
Rachel held out her hand. Dugdale had ample food for thought as he
walked slowly along the street, for that strange and earnest warning was
ringing in his ears. Logically, it was foolish enough, and yet it
tallied exactly with his own instincts. He could not have told why, but
though he had never spoken to the man, he nevertheless disliked and
distrusted Paul Quentin. On the other hand, the man had come to his
assistance at a critical juncture, and had helped him in a most
considerate fashion. Then there flashed across Dugdale's mind a
suspicion so shrewd and at the same time so unworthy, that he felt
ashamed of his thoughts. Suppose the whole affair had been cleverly
engineered! Suppose Quentin had sent the telegram purporting to come
from Theo Isidore! Suppose the incidents had been stage-managed! Dugdale
put the matter from his mind sternly.

"I am getting too suspicious," he muttered. "Besides, I dare say
Rachel's reason was only a woman's one after all. Still, I am glad I
went down to that little shop, because my visit there has given me a
clue. I am certain it was the lid of the missing Dragon Vase that I saw
on the counter. Now where did the old man say it was going? Silver
something or other, wasn't it?--Oh, yes, Silverdale. I'll just look
Silverdale out in Bradshaw and start my campaign there tonight."

It was getting dark before Dugdale seated himself in the corner of a
second-class carriage on his way to Silverdale. He had not read the
story in the 'Marlborough Magazine' which was so singularly connected
with the Dragon Vase, but he recollected that he had a copy of the
magazine in his pocket. He took it out presently, and turned to the
story in question.

It was by no means a bad romance, and had for its motive the perilous
position of a young girl who desired to convey to a third party some
idea of her danger without betraying the fact to the villain of the
piece who was present at the time. The work was neatly done, and Dugdale
was interested in spite of himself. He came to the crux of the story
where the explanation was given in a few words. The paragraph seemed to
appeal to him, and the sentences ran through his brain in an odd kind of
jingle, just as one is haunted by some nonsense rhyme which recurs again
and again with irritating frequency.

From this point Dugdale read no farther. The yellow-covered magazine was
suddenly wrenched from his hand, and laid dogs' eared and tattered upon
the opposite seat. He speedily realised what had happened. For the
express had pulled up with a series of jolts and jerks. There was an
awful silence for a moment, and then arose cries and groans and pitiable
appeals for assistance. The second-class carriage was tilted on one
side, and to Dugdale's astonishment he saw that the blue cloth cushions
were torn and twisted. He caught a glimpse of the next compartment
through a fracture in the panelling and noticed that one of the
pictorial advertisements had been torn through the middle. The floor of
the carriage was gleaming with splinters of glass, and Dugdale was
wondering where the jagged cut in the side of his face had come from.
Then the electric light went out, and all the horrors of darkness were
added to the catastrophe. There were gleams of swaying lanterns by and
by, and a hoarse voice from the gloom proclaimed that things were not as
bad as might be expected. Dugdale wondered whereabouts he was. As far as
he could calculate, he must be very near to his destination. He looked
at his watch, but in the collision it had stopped.

Dugdale pulled himself together, and managed to scramble out through the
window on to the cutting below. Though dazed and bewildered, in a
mechanical kind of way he slipped on his overcoat, and even placed the
'Marlborough Magazine' in his pocket. A knot of men had gathered round
two or three inanimate objects lying on the grass. A worried railway
guard announced that the engine had left the line, and that three of the
passengers had been injured.

"Can I do anything?" Dugdale asked.

"Of course, you can," the guard replied. "You can go and summon
assistance, Lord knows, we want it badly enough."

Dugdale's eyes were getting accustomed to the gloom. He scrambled up the
bank and crossed a meadow towards the main road. It was close upon
eleven, but he had not the least notion where he was, for the district
was absolutely unfamiliar. All he could do was to make for the nearest
house, and rouse the occupants. With luck, he might strike a decent
establishment where they had grooms and horses, and possibly a motor or
two. With such assistance it would not be difficult to beat up all the
doctors in the neighbourhood. Other men had started out at the same time
as Dugdale, and he could hear them calling to one another as they made
their way across the meadows.

His luck seemed to be in from the start. He had not proceeded more than
two hundred yards along the main road before he came to a trim-looking
lodge inside a pair of handsome iron gates at the head of a well-kept
drive which, doubtless, led to a house of importance. Dugdale thundered
on the door of the lodge, but no reply came. The people were away, or
the place was empty. With a sigh of impatience he turned from the door,
and hurried along the drive until he came to the house. Here his errand
was not likely to be in vain, for there was a light in the big hall, and
in the long low windows on either side of the entrance. He seemed to
have found the sort of house he was in search of. Away to the right
amongst the trees, he could see the roofs and pinnacles of a large range
of stabling. It was a fine house, too, long and low, and creeper-clad,
nestling in the midst of towering elms, thick and sombre in their summer
foliage. Dugdale was shy and retiring as a rule, as globe-trotters are
often apt to be. But he gave a long pull at the bronze pendant and heard
the clang echoing in the distance. Though the house was full of light
and brilliancy, there was no response to his imperious summons, and he
rang the bell again and again.

"Are they all drunk or dead?" Dugdale muttered savagely. "I couldn't
make more noise if I tried. Well, I must go and investigate for myself."

The people of the house could not have gone to bed, and left the lights
up, for one or two of the windows were open, and the conservatory was
finely illuminated. Dugdale could see the gleam of the electrics as they
shone through the ground glass in the sides of the big winter garden.

He was reckless and desperate, as the quaint handle on the front door
yielded to his touch, and he entered a great square hall which carried
upwards to the roof. Galleries looked down into the hall and all were
brilliantly lighted. Dugdale had made no mistake in the house, for all
around were evidences of luxury, refinement, and artistic taste.

But it was no time to admire the pictures and china, or the marvellous
daintiness of the floral decorations. Dugdale was feeling very like a
man who has been invited to spend a weekend at a country house, only to
find that his host and hostess have gone off without giving notice of
their change of plans. These people, he thought, had no business to be
so careless and callous with death and destruction so close at hand.

With this sentiment uppermost in his mind, he opened one of the oak
doors leading from the hall. A slit of light underneath the door
impelled him to do this. He expected the room would be a blaze of
softened illumination.

He was not far wrong. The apartment, was the drawing-room--a magnificent
apartment, panelled in oak and lined with priceless pictures. It
reminded him of a show house where trippers and holiday-makers are
allowed on certain days under the guidance of a watchful cicerone. But
about this room there wasn't the cold preciseness which one usually
associates with show houses. To begin with, the place was pleasantly
warm. It was fragrant with blooms, lavishly displayed in bowls and
glasses. A log fire burned on the wide hearth; in fact, the room was too
warm and Dugdale was grateful for a breeze that fluttered in through the
conservatory, and played with the purple silk blinds which hung over the
entrance thereto. With a mixture of diffidence and thankfulness Dugdale
encountered some one at last.

"I beg pardon for intruding like this," he stammered. "I would not have
come, but for sheer necessity."

The woman by the fireplace said never a word. She glanced at the
intruder in a dull, listless way, almost as if she had not seen him at
all. She was seated by the side of the blazing logs in an upright carved
oak chair of the Stuart period. Annoyed as he was, Dugdale did not fail
to notice the exquisite carving of the chair, and how perfectly it
suited the woman sitting in it.

She was tall and slim. Her face was coldly beautiful, and her skin was
pale to the verge of whiteness. Her eyes were large and dilated, and
though she sat unmoved, Dugdale fancied she was breathing quickly, as if
under the influence of some powerful emotion.

She was in evening dress, too, attired in a robe that was black and soft
and clinging. She was none the less beautiful because she was devoid of
jewellery. Nevertheless, Dugdale could not avoid thinking that diamonds
would become her, that she should have a collar of the flashing stones
about her throat, and a star or two in her raven hair.

"Do you hear that, Dr Prince?" the woman said. "Don't you think you had
better go at once?"

For the first time Dugdale saw that the lady in the oak chair was not
alone. Standing on the other side of the fireplace, half in the shadow,
was a tall spare man with clean-shaven face and refined intellectual
features. He might have been an actor, but it was not so that Dugdale
placed him. He had, perhaps, too severe a professional air for that. His
grey frock suit fitted too well, his tie and collar were too plain and
restrained. On the whole, Dugdale would have guessed him to be a doctor
of the Harley Street stamp. He stood with the faint suggestion of a
smile upon his face, and gave Dugdale the impression of activity,
strength and courage. There was nothing about him to suggest the
abnormal, except for the tightness of his lips, and a strange flickering
gleam in his steel-blue eyes. And Dugdale knew intuitively that the
woman in the armchair was afraid of the man by the fireplace, and would
have given much to be rid of his presence. Dugdale repeated his remark.

"I am sorry," the man said, "but it is impossible. I cannot leave at
present. I don't know whether you are nervous or not, sir, but I have a
smallpox patient in the house. In the circumstances, you will understand
how I am situated."




CHAPTER V.--"THE PURPLE CURTAIN."


Dugdale could have sworn afterwards that he had half expected some such
reply. He stammered an apology and turned and looked at the doctor
again. At any other time he might have betrayed his astonishment in the
discovery he was about to make. For this grave, professional-looking man
in the close-fitting grey frock was actually wearing a string of
diamonds round his neck, and a star of the same stones glittered on his
forehead, attached by a band of black velvet. Dugdale wondered whether
he had not strayed into a private lunatic asylum. But there was no hint
of insanity in the cold, hard beauty in the armchair, although there was
nothing very human about her except a half-pathetic, half-pleading look
in her dark eyes. Then Dugdale saw something more. He saw that this
mysterious Dr Prince carried something gleaming in his right hand, which
the trained eye of the traveller immediately recognised as a small,
ivory-handled, silver-plated revolver.

Here was an adventure, then. Here was a high comedy which might at any
moment materialise into tragedy stark and ghastly. Dugdale's errand
faded from his mind. He began to realise that his presence here might be
more necessary than the fulfilment of his original errand. His muscles
stiffened, and his courage came back to him.

"I am very sorry to hear what you say," he observed. "You will know why
I came. Doubtless, by this time there are plenty of willing hands on the
scene of the accident. If I can do anything here, pray command my
services."

"Won't you sit down?" the woman in the armchair said coldly. "In any
case, I take it you have nowhere to go. Therefore, you had better stay
here."

"That is very kind," Dugdale acknowledged.

"Not at all; I could not do less. If there has been an accident to your
train, of course you can't get farther to-night, and I shall be pleased
to offer you accommodation."

So this was one point gained, Dugdale thought. He was speaking evidently
to the mistress of the house. The woman looked very young to be the
owner of this wealth and luxury, and obviously was still unmarried.
Dugdale resolved to see the thing through. Something warned him he would
have to move cautiously. Some subtle self-conscious impulse informed him
that the woman trusted him, and she was appealing to him for assistance.
On the other hand, the whole thing might turn out to be like a situation
from some brilliant farce. But that did not account for an eminent
physician wearing diamonds round his neck and carrying a silver-plated
revolver in a fashionable drawing-room.

"May I ask how the case occurred?" Dugdale asked.

"It is simplicity itself," Dr Prince replied. "An hour or so ago a
message came from Miss Pearson here to my friend Dr Harper, with whom I
was staying. One of Miss Pearson's servants was taken suddenly ill, and
my friend was sent for. Unfortunately, he had gone to London on an
important consultation, and perhaps fortunately I was at home. At any
rate, I came to see the patient. At a glance I saw how grave the case
was. The poor man is in for an attack of smallpox of a very malignant
type. It was essential that the patient should be removed at once, so I
sent for the ambulance without delay. I was indiscreet enough to let the
other servants know what was the trouble, and they have lost their heads
entirely. With the exception of the poor fellow lying upstairs, Miss
Pearson has not a single domestic on the premises. They fled like a
flock of sheep, leaving all their belongings behind them, and have gone
goodness knows where. It was in vain that I protested; in vain that I
assured them that the case had not assumed the contagious stage as yet.
I think that Miss Pearson will tell you that I have stated the case
correctly."

"If you say so, it must be true," Miss Pearson said listlessly.

Dr Prince smiled and bowed. At the same time, Dugdale knew that he was
lying. He knew that the girl's noncommittal reply was intended to convey
to him a warning. Palpably, there was something terribly wrong, or how
was the shimmering fire of the diamonds round the doctor's throat, or
the gleaming revolver in his hand to be explained?

"It is a distressing case," Dugdale agreed.

"For the moment, yes," Dr Prince said with a smile. "But the ambulance
will be here before long, and the patient removed. It will be difficult
for Miss Pearson to obtain a fresh set of servants."

Dugdale uttered some commonplace reply. He was racking his brains to get
a comprehensive grip of the situation. Despite Miss Pearson's haughty
indifference, he could see how quickly she was breathing, how tight and
convulsive was her hold on the arms of the old oak chair. She turned to
him with one quick, flashing glance, and bade him be seated.

"We must make the best of the situation," she said. "No doubt it is a
strange experience, but you see how helpless I am. I can do nothing."

Dugdale saw that clearly. He knew perfectly well that there was peril of
some kind before him, and that the girl was doing her best to put him on
his guard. If there were tragedy here, it was attuned to a fine setting.
And yet it was almost impossible to associate crime and violence with
these beautiful and restful surroundings, the pictures and china, and
the purple silken curtains rustling in the breeze over the door of the
conservatory.

"I suppose I ought to apologise," Dugdale said, "but really, in such
abnormal circumstances, I may be allowed to take off my overcoat."

"You find it rather warm?" the girl asked. "By all means take your coat
off. Is that the 'Marlborough Magazine' in your pocket? It contains a
strange story."

The question was put with a zest and keenness which puzzled Dugdale. By
way of doing or saying something, he took the yellow-covered periodical
from his pocket and handed it to his hostess. Dr Prince looked on with a
benign smile. He was walking up and down the room restlessly.

"Which story do you allude to?" Dugdale asked.

Miss Pearson turned over the leaves with restless fingers.

"This is the one," she said. "It is wildly sensational, of course, but
it struck me as being original and clever. Perhaps you read the story in
the train."

She handed the magazine back to Dugdale opened at the spot which she had
indicated. It was as he had expected. He knew that she was referring to
the tale called 'The Purple Curtain.' He did not need any subtle
instinct to tell him that. Nor was he in the least surprised to find
that this startling adventure of his was more or less mixed up with his
original expedition. Yet he hardly cared to trust himself to speak, and
waited until he felt sure that he had his voice under proper control.

"Curiously enough, I had begun it," he said. "I was rather taken with
it. I have the best of reasons for being interested in the story, though
I cannot tell you why. By the way, do you happen to know how far I am
from Silverdale?"

The girl elevated her eyebrows.

"Which do you mean," she asked, "the station, or the house of that name?
Because my estate is called Silverdale, and you are in Silverdale at the
present moment."

Though Dugdale half anticipated this reply, he was none the less
startled by it. He fluttered the pages of the magazine over with his
finger, and turned to Miss Pearson.

"Do you wish me to read the story now?" he asked.

"It would be as well," the girl said with a strange forced laugh. "You
will excuse me, I know, because you will understand why I do not feel
inclined for conversation. Never mind about the conventions. Perhaps a
little later when we have rid the house of this terrible trouble----"

Mary Pearson paused and looked meaningly at Dugdale. Dr Prince was still
striding up and down the room, and it suddenly struck Dugdale that the
girl was talking to him in two languages. Surely she was alluding to her
uncanny visitor when she spoke of the trouble. For some cogent reason,
the mistress of the house wanted him to read the story and wanted him to
read it now. Perhaps there was a hidden message underlying the cold
print, though Dugdale could find none so far as the Dragon Vase was
concerned. But this was an entirely different matter and Miss Pearson's
woman's wit had hit upon this method of conveying the sense of her
danger to a third person without the knowledge of the man who was pacing
to and fro with a shining revolver in his hand.

And, then, Dugdale began to understand. He grasped the possibilities of
the situation almost before he had read a dozen lines. The crux of the
story was jingling in his head again in the same meaningless, irritating
way it had done in the train. He came upon the passage almost
immediately. Then he gave a smothered gasp as the magazine fell to his
knees. For this was what he read:--

"In a sudden flash of inspiration he saw it all. The girl was signalling
to him beyond all question. She was attempting to convey the peril of
her position without betraying the fact to the man with the green eyes.
He would know how to act now...."

Dugdale got it with a vengeance. Tense and thrilling as the situation
was, he did not fail to admire the alert wit which enabled the girl even
in the midst of her danger to convey to him unheard everything that she
wanted to tell him. It was providential that he had a copy of the
'Marlborough Magazine' in his pocket. Doubtless, the girl had read the
story quite recently, and recognised instantly a method of deliverance.
And now he knew as much as she could have told him, had she burst into
torrents of speech and risked her life and Dugdale's by doing so.

In a flash he had seen everything. The well-groomed, quietly-dressed
doctor, with the pale face and ascetic air, was a lunatic, and of the
most dangerous type, too. His very coolness and quietness told Dugdale
that, for Dugdale was a man of many experiences and had not travelled
the world over to no purpose. Under his eyebrows he watched the slim and
restless figure pacing up and down the room. He flashed a swift
comprehensive glance towards Miss Pearson. He saw the answering smile in
her eyes. He knew that she was trusting him implicitly.

His plans would have to be carefully and cunningly laid. In point of
strength the mad doctor was easily Dugdale's match, so that if it came
to a struggle for possession of the revolver, he was not likely to
prevail. Such a struggle was out of the question, especially as Miss
Pearson was present. Dugdale knew that he would have to try some other
way.




CHAPTER VI.--THE DRAGON VASE.


There was plenty of time; in fact, time was in his favour. He knew that
there was something to learn, and that without the slightest suspicion
being aroused in the breast of the man with the revolver, who still
pursued his promenade.

"A very good story." Dugdale said indifferently; "but rather
far-fetched. I can understand how it would get on anybody's nerves late
at night. I hope that it didn't serve you so."

"Indeed, it did," Miss Pearson replied. "I am not likely to forget it.
Every sound I hear sets my nerves throbbing. I am like Edgar Allan Poe
when he wrote that verse in 'The Raven.' You know the one I mean?"

"I am afraid I don't," Dugdale answered.

"I thought you would. It is this one:--


And the silken, sad, uncertain rustle of each purple curtain,

Filled me--thrilled me, with fantastic terrors never felt before.


Do you follow me?"

Dugdale followed rightly enough. He turned his glance towards the purple
curtains hanging over the conservatory door. He saw them fluttering in
the breeze. He knew as certainly as if the girl had put it in the
plainest words that the key to the situation lay behind those rustling
draperies. He checked a wild impulse to rise to his feet and satisfy
himself there and then. More prudent counsel prevailed. But cool and
collected as he was, he felt a thrill creeping up his spine to the roots
of his hair as his imagination played freely on what lay behind those
fluttering hangings. It was the more necessary to observe caution, for
the doctor stood by smiling as if more or less interested in the
conversation. There was a paternal look upon his face, but the hand that
held the revolver was hard and knotted, and the gleam in the dark eyes
had not lessened or softened for an instant. Dugdale had formed his line
of action. He might have waited longer, but his experienced eye told him
that the strain was growing more than the girl could bear. She had held
to her high courage as women will do when they are alone, but now that
she had a man to share her peril the links of her endurance were
stretched to the breaking-point. Casually, enough, Dugdale rose to his
feet, and strode across the room.

"Don't you find it warm, Miss Pearson?" he asked. "Would you mind if I
drew the curtains back?"

Prince laid a detaining hand upon his arm.

"No," he said emphatically. "I am sure that Miss Pearson decidedly
objects."

There was challenge in the speaker's voice and Dugdale hesitated. Then
there came an extra puff of wind from the outside, and the curtains
streamed out into the room like purple banners. They disclosed a small
room beyond brilliantly lighted. In the centre of the room a man in
livery lay half back in a chair. He appeared to be young, he was
clean-shaven. There was a hideous wound in the centre of his forehead
from whence the blood had trickled over his face. The man was huddled up
in his chair, stiff and motionless. It was only for an instant that this
weird vision disclosed itself before the breeze died down again, and the
curtains fell back in their place. But the doctor had seen it, and each
knew what was passing in the mind of the other. For an instant there was
a dramatic pause before the doctor's arm came up sharply, and Dugdale
saw that it was time to act. He jumped suddenly forward without a word
of warning, and caught the doctor by the throat.

There was no disguising the matter now, no time to play for diplomacy.
Almost before the hideous picture had been shut out, Dugdale knew that
it would be a fight for life between his opponent and himself. He was
thinking no longer about the girl. The beautiful vision of the
perfectly-appointed room faded from his eyes. He saw nothing but a keen,
hard, clean-shaven face set murderously close to his own. He could feel
nothing but an arm twisted about his neck, gripping with a force of
steel and whipcord.

"Why did you come here?" a hoarse voice whispered in his ear. "Why
didn't you stay away, you fool?"

"I don't understand what you mean," Dugdale stammered, never letting his
grip slacken for a moment.

"Oh yes you do. You understand perfectly well. Ah, I see what she meant
now. I know all about the rustle of the purple curtains. I was a dolt
and an imbecile not to guess it when she spoke. Now then, it is you or
me!"

Dugdale wasted no breath in further words. He wanted all his strength
and resolution and cunning to get the better of the man who held him in
such a close grip. There was no longer any doubt what price the loser
would pay for failure. They swayed backwards and forwards over the
treacherous polished floor. Dugdale could feel the carpet slipping under
his heel, and a queer cry rose to his lips that he might not be the
first to fall. The unuttered thought had barely escaped him before he
came down with a hideous crash with the full force of the doctor's
weight upon his chest. With every nerve and muscle bent and warped to
the exclusion of every thought and feeling he was not unmindful of a
subtle perfume which assailed his nostrils. Dimly he wondered what it
was, and why the woman he had come to save was so near him. He seemed to
see the motion of her arms, and the play of light on her dazzling
shoulders. The doctor had his right arm free. There was a blinding flash
and a report, and something hot and stinging seared Dugdale's cheek.

"Turn over on the other side," a voice whispered. "I have hold of his
arm. Do you hear me?"

Dugdale heard clearly enough. He caught a muttered oath from his
assailant. He felt the grip on his neck relax, and he knew that his
chance had come. His right arm was drawn back, and he jabbed out
viciously with all the force of despairing anger and caught the doctor a
shrewd blow on the apple of his throat. He heard the snort and gurgle
which followed. He felt a slackening of the muscles of the man who held
him, and instantly he was kneeling upon Dr Prince's chest and holding
his head upon the floor. A blind triumph filled him. He raised the lean,
close-cropped head, and brought it sharply upon the boards twice with a
quick thud. He saw the life and colour rush from the madman's cheeks,
and the eyes turned up till nothing but the quivering whites remained. A
second later he was on his feet panting and trembling, with Miss Pearson
leaning heavily on his shoulder.

"You have killed him," she gasped.

"I think not," Dugdale said. "It is an old trick I learnt in the States.
He will be quite right in a minute or two. Meanwhile, I had better
remove his revolver, and tie his hands. Will you pull down one of those
curtain cords? They will suit my purpose. And let me congratulate you
upon the pluck----"

But Dugdale was talking to empty air, for the girl had swayed towards
him, and if he had not caught her, she would have fallen to the floor.
Her eyes were closed, and she appeared to be half-insensible, though she
was muttering something which Dugdale could not catch. He bent closer to
listen and presently the words began to be more coherent and logical.

"Don't let him have it," she said with her eyes still closed, "whatever
you do, don't let him have it! It does not belong to him. Whatever they
may say, it is ours, and always has been ours. Send him away before it
is too late."

Dugdale's position was sufficiently awkward. Prince lay grinning
horribly, his eyes rolling from side to side, and every now and again he
uttered some fearful threat. Dugdale was at his wits' end to know what
to do, or how to act for the best. It was useless to ring, seeing there
was not a servant in the house. He durst not leave the half-fainting
girl whilst he went for assistance. From the bottom of his heart he
longed to know what the girl was talking about, and what it was that she
was afraid of losing.

"Courage," he whispered, "courage. Hold up your head and try to realise
there is no longer any danger."

The words gave her fresh strength, for she opened her eyes and smiled
faintly. She murmured that the room was hot and close, and that she
needed air.

Accordingly, Dugdale laid his fair burden down on a sofa and crossed
over towards the purple curtains, still fluttering in the breeze. A cry
of half-inarticulate rage broke from Prince, as Dugdale drew them aside.

But the latter did not hear. He was too astonished to grasp anything for
the time. In the alcove behind the curtains where the electric light was
burning, the figure of a young man lay partly on the floor, partly on a
chair--a young man dressed as a livery servant, and, to all appearances,
dead. But it was not this that excited Dugdale's surprise, for he saw
before him a latticed window and against this a quaint Chippendale
stand. And on the stand stood an object gleaming in gold and blue and
purple.

It was the Dragon Vase!




CHAPTER VII.--"HE IS NO FRIEND OF MINE."


It was an exciting moment for John Dugdale. He did not know whether to
be glad or sorry. It was nice to be successful. It was good to feel that
he had started so well in his quest. But, on the other hand, the spirit
of adventure was strong upon him, and it looked as if his new occupation
were over almost as soon as it had begun. He did not doubt that this was
the Dragon Vase. He could identify it by the little claws which he
already knew of. He was struck by its rare beauty and the richness of
its colouring.

And yet the whole affair was puzzling to a degree. How came the vase
here, and why was it exposed in this careless manner? Here was a
priceless work of art placed on a pedestal in a prominent spot, as if it
were some piece of ordinary earthenware worth a few shillings. The
servants must have known its value. They must have had rigid
instructions not to touch it. Every visitor to the house with any
pretension to taste must have noticed that marvellous specimen of the
ceramic art. Moreover, they would have talked about it. It must have
been a matter of common knowledge that Miss Pearson possessed this
treasure. There was no reason why it should not have been alluded to in
a score of papers and magazines.

And yet Paul Quentin's secretary, Grenadus, had spoken of the Dragon
Vase as if it had been spirited away from some collection and hidden by
the thief. Dugdale had heard of such things. He had read of instances in
which rich men otherwise of the highest integrity had deliberately
stolen curiosities from private and public collections, and had hoarded
them away for their own delectation. Grenadus had hinted as much. He had
impressed upon Dugdale the extreme need for caution. Indeed, Dugdale had
been warned that he was to make no inquiries which could lead anybody to
guess at the object of his search.

Yet here, undoubtedly, was the very vase he was looking for, exposed
where everyone could see it. Dugdale laid his hand upon the gleaming
paste; he could feel the sharp edges of the brushwork. He stood in
fascinated astonishment and admiration. Then he bethought him that this
was neither the time nor the opportunity for a close examination of the
vase. The young man lay prostrate at his feet, white and unconscious. A
few yards away Dr Prince was still struggling with his bonds. Any action
on Dugdale's part would have to be postponed. Prince was safe and Miss
Pearson had recovered her self-possession. Therefore, it was obviously
Dugdale's duty to attend to the injured man.

He raised his head and a queer, inchoate murmur came from the stranger's
lips. He was dressed in the livery of a servant, but, as far as Dugdale
could judge, he did not look like a man who had passed his life in a
menial capacity. The features were good, though perhaps a little
effeminate. Still, there was a well-bred look upon them and a certain
suggestion of insolence filled the pair of grey eyes which opened
presently and regarded Dugdale vacantly.

"You will get into trouble," the young man muttered. "There is certain
to be a bother, and if there is don't blame me. Mind, I did my best."

The rest of the speech was incoherent, but Dugdale noted the refined and
delicate way in which the words were enunciated. Still, it was part and
parcel of Dugdale's strange adventure and he was long past astonishment
of any kind. All he could do was to unfasten the young man's collar, and
place him in a more comfortable position.

Beyond this he could do little. Any hasty movement might prove fatal. He
resolved to leave the servant till he could procure assistance. He
resolutely put all thoughts of the Dragon Vase out of his mind. There
was plenty to do before he could turn his mind in that direction again.
He hastened back into the drawing-room. Miss Pearson stood by the
fireplace. Prince lay on his back still tugging at the cords that bound
him.

"Well?" Miss Pearson asked. There was a touch of apprehension in her
voice. "What have you found?"

"I hardly know," Dugdale murmured. "There is a young man behind the
curtains, one of your servants, who is in a critical state."

Mary Pearson looked at the speaker in a dazed way as if trying to follow
what he was saying. She was more than alarmed, and Dugdale thought she
was trying to conceal something.

"A servant of mine?" she faltered. "Wounded!"

"Yes," Dugdale replied impatiently. "A young footman, I should say.
Quite a handsome lad. I suppose he came to your help, and got the worst
of it."

"Oh, yes," Mary Pearson said. She was speaking mechanically. "He came to
my assistance, of course. He could do nothing else. It would have been
cowardly, wouldn't it?"

The girl shivered from head to foot as she finished. The dull look in
her eyes cleared away. She laid a pair of trembling hands upon Dugdale's
shoulders. He could feel their warm pressure; he could catch the glint
in the beautiful eyes. He thrilled from head to foot with sudden
admiration for this lovely woman.

"I implore you to help me," she said passionately. "Don't ask questions.
Try to think the best of me. It must be amazing to you that a girl in my
position should be without friends. I dare say you think you have
dropped in upon a set of lunatics! You might think worse than that. But
all this is capable of explanation, and I shall be able to satisfy you
when the time comes. It is imperative that we should have a doctor at
once. That poor young--young fellow lying yonder must be attended to
without delay. I am not afraid to stay here alone. I can use that
revolver if the occasion arises. You will meet someone who will direct
you to the nearest doctor. Oh, don't stay. Please don't stay. There is
no occasion to worry on my account."

"You are very brave," Dugdale said, "but I am afraid I can't do what you
require. I could not leave you alone in this house with that madman. I
should never cease to blame myself if anything happened to you. I must
not go."

"Oh, indeed, you must, you must. You don't realise what delay may mean.
And if anything happened to my poor--that is, to my servant--I should
never a know moment's peace again."

Dugdale shook his head slowly. He was accustomed to act in a crisis. He
knew what it was to take his life in his hands. To a certain extent Fate
had made him master of the position. He was not going to act
impulsively. He stood rapidly summing up the situation in his mind. He
was trying to ignore the beautiful pleading eyes bent upon him, when
suddenly there came a knocking at the front door, and a man's voice was
heard calling to know if anyone were on the premises. A cry of delight
broke from Mary Pearson's lips.

"Oh, how fortunate!" she exclaimed. "How very fortunate! That is dear
old Dr Harper himself. Will you ask him to come in?"

Dugdale returned with a man of some fifty years of age, tall, vigorous
and athletic. This was an ally after his own heart.

"What on earth is the matter, my dear child?" Harper cried. "What has
become of all your servants? There is not a soul at the lodge, and I
have been ringing the front-door bell for nearly ten minutes. I got back
to London this evening quite unexpectedly, to find an urgent message
from you awaiting me."

"But you sent Dr Prince," Miss Pearson exclaimed.

"Indeed, I didn't. Dr Prince is at my house now. It was he who gave me
the message. He might easily have taken my place, but I suppose he
didn't like to."

Mary Pearson laughed unsteadily. Now that all danger was past she was
weak and exhausted. She contrived to take Harper by the arm, and direct
his attention to the dark figure of the madman who lay upon the carpet
still struggling with the bonds that held him.

"Then who is this?" the girl demanded. "What is he doing here? He came
to my house saying that you were in town and that he had taken your
place for the time. He told me that he was your friend, Dr Prince."

Dr Harper screwed a glass in his eye and bent over the black figure
lying there as if it were some new and interesting specimen of animal
life the like of which he had never seen before.

"He is no friend of mine," he said slowly. "He is a total stranger. Add
to that, he is not in the least like Prince. Now, my good man, give an
account of yourself. What are you doing here? Who are you?"

The man on the floor cast a murderous glance at the speaker, but made no
reply. He was grinding his teeth together savagely. His exertions had
brought out the great veins on his forehead until they looked like
knotted whip-cord. Harper turned to Miss Pearson for an explanation.

"Remarkable!" he said. "Incomprehensible! The poor man looks like a
lunatic. And yet there seems to be method in his madness. And he must
know me, or he could not have used my name. What does it mean, Miss
Pearson?"




CHAPTER VIII.--NO NAME.


Mary Pearson shrugged her shoulders. She was still white, but was
getting a grip upon herself.

"I am as much in the dark as you are," she said. "But I had better begin
at the beginning. One of my man-servants is ill upstairs, and I sent for
you to come and see him. I don't know who went, but probably one of the
footmen. He came back a little later saying that you were out of town,
but that a Dr Prince who was staying with you had volunteered to come
over and give an opinion upon the condition of my servant. It was this
man who came. He looked like a doctor, and had the manners of a doctor.
He was so nice and sympathetic that I had no suspicion of anything being
wrong."

A queer sort of chuckle came from the figure on the floor.

"Oh, he was not a bit like this at first," Mary went on. "He saw the
invalid and came down with the alarming information that he was
suffering from virulent small-pox. He made no secret of the fact. He let
the servants know, with the consequence that ten minutes later they had
all left the house in a body. Before I could grasp what had happened I
was alone with a stranger. In a few minutes I awoke to the fact that I
had a lunatic to deal with. It was very dreadful. But for the advent of
this gentleman I don't know what would have happened to me."

Dr. Harper turned on Dugdale sharply.

"Do you know Miss Pearson, sir?" he demanded.

"Not until an hour ago," Dugdale explained. "The train I was in met with
an accident, and I turned into the fields not knowing in the least where
I was. I struck this house and rang the bell, and though I rang again
and again no one replied. As the place was all lighted up, it occurred
to me that something was wrong. I took the liberty of walking in, and I
found Miss Pearson confronted by a raving lunatic armed with a revolver.
But for a marvellous exhibition of courage and intelligence on Miss
Pearson's part you might have asked in vain for any explanation of these
happenings. She managed to convey to me what was taking place, and more
by good luck than anything the else I got this queer customer and his
revolver. But I fear that a tragedy has not been averted, for, unless I
am mistaken, a young servant of Miss Pearson's is lying behind those
curtains at the point of death. I suppose he interfered for his
mistress. Is that so?"

Mary Pearson nodded, but said nothing. She appeared to be on the point
of an outbreak. Her face was pale and her lips quivered.

"God bless my soul! is that a fact?" Harper asked. "I will attend to the
young man at once. But how this fellow got here, how he managed to
intercept your message, and pass himself off as my friend Prince, beats
me altogether."

"Be careful, oh, be careful," Mary Pearson cried. "'That poor young man
is no common servant. He is--oh, I cannot tell you who he is. I want to
tell you, Dr Harper, so that you may be prepared for any eventuality
that----"

But Dr Harper was not listening. He threw the curtain back and
disappeared into the alcove. Then a long, painful silence followed,
broken only by the stentorian breathing of the man on the floor as he
tugged at his cords. At the end of ten minutes Dr Harper reappeared,
with a reassuring smile.

"I managed it by myself," he said. "There is not so very much harm done
after all. I'll send in a nurse whom I can depend upon. Meanwhile, I
have taken the opportunity of seeing your other servant in his bedroom."

Mary Pearson flashed a look of gratitude at Harper, a look that slightly
puzzled Dugdale. The gratitude appeared to be so heartfelt as to be out
of all proportion to the service rendered.

"I do not know how to thank you," she murmured. "Is the poor man very
ill? Is it smallpox?"

"Not a bit of it," Harper said breezily. "You don't mean to say you
supposed it was. I didn't, after what you told me. Why, don't you see
this is part of the scheme? That fellow lying on the floor is no more a
lunatic than I am. At any rate, he is a particularly clever one if he
is. He obtained admittance under the pretence of being a medical man and
cunningly contrived to get rid of your servants so that he could have
you at his mercy. Now, what did he want?"

Dugdale fancied Miss Pearson evaded the question.

"What is my servant suffering from," she asked.

"Oh, influenza. Nothing worse. He'll be all right in a day or two. And
now I'll go down to the village and bring your servants back. My dear
young lady, you may shake your head, but you can't stay here without
servants. Of course, they behaved abominably, and I know you are all the
more hurt because you behave so well to your people. Be advised by me.
Besides, what are you going to do with this gentleman? He is stranded."

"Don't worry about me," Dugdale said hastily.

"Oh, yes, yes," Mary Pearson cried. "I should be wanting in common
gratitude if I did not do my utmost to repay your kindness. You must
stay here, of course. After what has happened I could not sleep in the
house, unless I had some one whom I could depend upon. But, tell me,
what do you propose to do with this man?"

"Lock him up in one of the bedrooms, and hand him over to the police,"
Harper said promptly. "We shall soon know who he is, and what he
wanted."

Miss Pearson fell in eagerly with the suggestion. Indeed, it seemed to
Dugdale that she was almost too eager. In some strange way she was
relieved; indeed, Dugdale thought, she would have had no objection to
allowing the man to go scot free.

"Well, that is settled," Harper said cheerfully. "Now, Mr Dugdale, you
take his feet, and I'll take his head, and we shall be able to put him
in a place of safety till we can hand him over to the police."

Dugdale needed no second bidding. As he bent over the man, the spurious
doctor cast an imploring glance at Miss Pearson. And as Dugdale turned
he could have sworn that he saw the girl's stately head bend as if in
recognition of the look. It was only for a moment, but Dugdale could not
free himself from the haunting suspicion that Mary Pearson could have
told more about the identity of her visitor had she chosen. It was not a
pleasant thought. He had conceived so high an admiration for Miss
Pearson that anything in the nature of a compact between her and this
murderous-minded stranger filled him with uneasiness.

He put the matter out of his mind, trying to convince himself that he
was mistaken and that the thing was the outcome of his over-heated
imagination. At the same time, he noticed that the stranger had suddenly
grown quieter and no longer struggled to release himself from his bonds.
The light of malignant anger had died out of his eyes and the big veins
no longer stood out prominently on his forehead.

"This way," Harper said with grim cheerfulness. "Up these stairs. I know
this house almost as well as I know my own. At the end of the corridor
is a strong room, where the Pearsons of bygone days kept their
prisoners. Our friend will be safe there."

The stranger was dumped down unceremoniously on the floor and the key
turned upon him. Harper appeared to be satisfied. He wiped his heated
brow and chuckled to himself.

"We have disposed of him, anyway," he said. "What a precious lucky thing
it was you happened along! You have good pluck, too. I love a man who
knows how to act in an emergency. But I see you have been a soldier. I
judge that by the way you carry yourself and the tan on your face.
Nobody ever got a complexion like that in England."

"I served in South Africa," Dugdale explained. "I had four years of it.
I was not in a regular force, and when the war was over there was no
more need of my services and I drifted home again. I had not the
remotest idea what I was going to do. It is only lately that I have
found employment. I suppose you are an old friend of Miss Pearson's?"

"Ever since she was born," Harper said breezily. "She is a splendid
creature. She has wonderful health and ought to be one of the happiest
girls alive. But there is a skeleton in every closet, my dear sir, and
experience teaches me that the larger and more elaborate the cupboard
the more grim and grizzly the skeleton. Bless my soul, what am I talking
about? That's a nice way for a family doctor to speak of a patient. But
let us go downstairs and assure Miss Pearson that we have secured the
prisoner safely, then I will hunt up those confounded servants. What a
set they are! And yet some of them have been at Silverdale for years."




CHAPTER IX.--GENUINE OR NOT?


Harper went off to the village and searched for the missing servants. He
would not part with the key of the strong-room, declaring to Mary
Pearson that he knew her better than she knew herself and would give her
no opportunity of showing mercy to the person who had come so near to
bringing about a hideous tragedy. He would be back as soon as possible,
he said, and would bring with him a nurse to attend to the injured
footman. There was a peculiar inflection in Harper's voice as he made
this remark and Dugdale observed the delicate colour creep over Mary
Pearson's face and neck.

"That is very good of you," she said. "Meanwhile, if you will excuse me,
Mr Dugdale, I will run up and see how my poor servant is getting on. I
hope you will make yourself at home."

Dugdale murmured some suitable reply. For the next half-hour or so he
wandered about the drawing-room admiring the pictures and art treasures.
Then he passed behind the screen and made a careful examination of the
Dragon Vase. He knew that he was not mistaken, that he had come upon the
object of his search. Everything was exactly as it had been depicted in
the 'Marlborough Magazine,' even to the missing bit. Evidently the
artist had done his work with loving fidelity. Dugdale gloated over this
marvellous piece of art and, indeed, was examining it so intently that
he did not see that Miss Pearson was behind him. He turned with a start
as she touched him on the shoulder. The girl's face was cold and
haughty. She seemed to be regarding him with displeasure not unmingled
with contempt.

"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I hope you don't think I am unduly
curious, but I am greatly interested in these things, and if I were
rich, collecting them should be my hobby. This is the most beautiful
thing of its kind I have ever seen. It fascinates me."

"Indeed," Mary Pearson said with overdone coldness. "I suppose it is
beautiful, but it strikes me the collection of these articles nowadays
is a mania. I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but my servant had to
be seen to. I am thankful that he seems better, and since Dr Harper has
sent in a nurse there is a good deal off my mind. Most of the servants
have come back, and are preparing something in the way of a dinner. I
shall be glad if you will join us. Dr Harper has your bag, and the
butler will show you to your room. Dinner will be ready in half an
hour."

Dugdale was about to assure Miss Pearson that the village inn would be
good enough, but he was loth to drop a splendid venture at the very
outset. And, besides, the heroine, young and beautiful, fascinated and
attracted him. He began to be sorry that he had taken up this mysterious
quest on behalf of Paul Quentin. Was he not there on false pretences? He
had won Mary Pearson's sympathy and regard by his ready courage, only
apparently to deceive her. From the bottom of his heart he wished he had
not found the Dragon Vase here. He felt certain that that magnificent
ornament would be the cause of trouble between them.

Yet he could not go back. He was a young man, with the full flow of life
rushing through his veins. He would have been more than human had he not
felt warm admiration for the beautiful girl by his side. So he let
things take their course. He expressed his warm thanks for Mary's
kindness.

"You are very good," he said, "and I shall be glad to stop as long as
that man is on the premises. It is necessary that you should have
somebody here."

The delicate colour faded out of Mary Pearson's face.

"Don't mention him," she said. "I had almost forgotten his existence. We
can discuss matters later."

Dugdale came down to the dining-room half an hour afterwards. He found
himself in a magnificent room, for the most part in darkness except for
the shaded lights on the dinner-table. He was going to enjoy himself. He
banished all thoughts of his mysterious quest from his mind, and was
disposed to regard himself as favoured by the gods. His appetite was
none the less keen because he had waited so long, and he did justice to
the dainty dinner. The wines left nothing to be desired, and his hostess
was sweetly gracious. Every moment that passed revealed some fresh
charm, so that when the meal was finished Dugdale was very much in love.

"There are cigars and cigarettes on the sideboard," Mary Pearson said,
"and I believe the claret is something exceptional, though I never touch
it myself. Will you have your coffee here or in the drawing-room? I am
gong to stroll in the grounds a bit. It is such a lovely evening that it
seems a pity to be in the house."

"May I join you?" Dugdale said eagerly. "I shall enjoy my cigarette so
much more in the open air. And as to coffee, I rarely take it. Don't say
no."

Mary Pearson smiled sweetly. She lingered in the hall to throw a wrap
over her head, and together they stepped out on to the terrace which
looked over a wild expanse of beautiful garden lying still and peaceful
in the moonlight. As Dugdale stood by the girl's side he considered
himself as the luckiest of mortals. But a few hours ago he had been face
to face with starvation, his situation critical and desperate. And now
here he was clothed in purple and fine linen, an honoured guest in a
beautiful old house with one of the fairest women in the world by his
side.

"Isn't it lovely?" Mary said.

"Exquisite," Dugdale murmured. "You love this place?"

"Oh, dear, yes, every inch of it is sacred to me, every yard is full of
the happiest associations."

"I can quite understand that," Dugdale said with a sigh, "and I think
you can understand how it appeals to me. I love the country. I was
brought up in it and I hate the town. Years ago we had a place not
unlike this. My father's house was in Yorkshire. Dugdale Place was close
to Filey."

"So you are one of the Filey Dugdales," Mary cried. "Why, my father was
at Cambridge with yours. Didn't your father meet with some
misfortune?--oh, I beg your pardon."

"Not at all," Dugdale said gently. "The question was quite natural. My
father was foolish enough to believe there was coal on his estate and
ruined himself in looking for it. I found myself five years ago facing
the world with nothing and, like many other young men, drifted out to
South Africa in the hope of finding fame and fortune. As a matter of
fact, I found nothing but hard work and plenty of it, and when I came
back to England the other day I was face to face with the problem that I
had nothing and no means of earning my bread. I thought that after
Modder River--but that is nothing."

Mary's eyes gleamed with a tender light.

"Oh, yes it is," she said. "I remember all about the Modder River. So
you are the Dugdale who behaved so well over the matter of the wounded
there? And they sent you home with no recognition at all? What a shame!"

"I was mentioned in despatches," Dugdale said with some bitterness.
"What more can a man want?"

"Well, I call it disgraceful," said warmly. "I am so glad I met you. It
seems a sort of Providence that you should come here this evening. Don't
you think so?"

Dugdale laughed unsteadily.

"Perhaps it is," he said. "But it is calculated to disturb one's peace
of mind. You see for a penniless man like myself, it is hardly a good
thing to find oneself the guest of a beautiful woman who has a fortune
and a fair estate. You have been very good and kind, and I am more glad
than I can tell you to discover that you are the daughter of my father's
old friend, Pearson. But I mustn't stay here. I shall have to go
to-morrow. I am out on business which must not be neglected.
Besides--people----"

Dugdale paused and bit his lip. The girl laughed gently and flashed a
challenge from her eyes.

"Oh, go on," she said half-defiantly. "You were going to say that people
will talk. Well, let them. What does it matter what they say?"

Dugdale had no reply for the moment. He might have said a good deal if
only he had let himself go. They had wandered across the park until they
came to a fence, on the other side of which stood a large house in its
own grounds.

"Whose place is this?" Dugdale asked.

"Oh, that belongs to Lord Passmore. He is by way of being a friend of
mine. I am afraid he wastes more money than he can afford in the
collection of works of art. He is a connoisseur of china. There he is
walking down the lawn. I would speak to him, only I especially dislike
the man he is with."

"Who is it?" Dugdale asked.

"Mr Theo Isidore. I believe he is a financier. But you have probably
heard of him."




CHAPTER X.--THE VOICE OF THE CHARMER.


Dugdale listened to this statement calmly. In other circumstances he
might have marvelled at what appeared to be a coincidence, but, really,
there was no coincidence about the matter. For some time he had begun to
recognise that he was merely the slave of circumstance. He felt sure
there was some power behind urging him on and watching his every
movement. From the first he had conceived a high opinion of the mental
qualities of Paul Quentin. He was either a man of the highest integrity,
or a cold-blooded scoundrel who was using Dugdale for his own ends. To a
certain extent Dugdale inclined to the latter opinion. He had by no
means forgotten what he had seen in the establishment of Joseph Varna or
the warning which Rachel Varna had given him.

He had chosen deliberately to ignore this mainly for the simple reason
that he was not his own master. Had something else turned up he might
have declined the proposal of Grenadus, but nothing else had presented
itself, and the prospect of starvation had been coming unpleasantly
close.

Still, it was not pleasing to find that Isidore was so near a neighbour
of Miss Pearson. Dugdale had a resentiment that he was going to see more
of that astute financier. Meanwhile, it behoved him to keep his own
counsel and gain as much information as possible.

"Do you know Mr Isidore?" he asked.

Mary Pearson shrugged her shoulders.

"To some extent, yes," she said. "I try to keep on fairly good terms
with most of my neighbours. I have known Mr Isidore for some time, and I
rather like his wife and daughters. She is quite a lady, and the girls
are, simple and natural. It was my aunt who called upon them. She lives
with me and looks after my house. She has gone to London for two or
three days, or you would have seen her."

It struck Dugdale that the girl was wandering from the point, and that
she was somewhat restless and hurried.

"No doubt," he said. "But I asked you what you thought of Mr Isidore.
You evidently don't like him."

"Well, I don't," Mary said with a sudden outburst of candour. "There is
something about the man that repels me. He is insolent and rude, and has
a way of looking at you that makes you feel hot all over. I believe he
is very wealthy, but no one seems to know how he made his money. And,
shrewd as he is, he is a man of the most elementary education. I am
always rather amused by men of his class. They are materialistic to the
back-bone, have no sort of feeling for anything but money, and yet find
it incumbent upon them to invest vast sums in art treasures. Mr
Isidore's house is full of the most beautiful things, but I am sure he
only likes them because of their cost. His place is a mile or two away."

"That is pretty well what I expected," said Dugdale, "but I don't
understand how a man like Isidore comes to be on such familiar terms
with Lord Passmore. Everybody knows what a good old family the Passmores
are. I should not have thought the holder of the title would care to
make an intimate friend of Theo Isidore."

Mary shook her head sorrowfully.

"No, you wouldn't, would you?" she asked. "But, unfortunately, the
Passmores are poor and the present earl is trying to supplement his
income by dabbling in City matters. He is a scholar and virtuoso. He has
something to do with the National Gallery and the art treasures of the
British Museum. No doubt it is scandal, but people do say that Lord
Passmore makes most of his money by buying works of art for the new
millionaires. But let us go a bit farther. They are coming this way."

The keen eye of the capitalist detected the flutter of Mary Pearson's
dress. He hailed her with insolent familiarity. The slender aristocratic
figure by Dugdale's side bowed. He was conscious of a feeling of
resentment. He was, however, not anxious for an encounter with Isidore
just then. But the man of money had crossed the rustic footbridge which
divided the two properties and was holding Mary Pearson's reluctant
fingers in his own.

"You are out late," he said with easy impertinence, "and not alone,
either. Ah, well, one can only be young once. Upon my word, my dear
lady, every time I see you I wish I had been born twenty years later.
But who is this?"

The blood flamed into Dugdale's face. He had never perhaps hated Theo
Isidore more than he did at that moment. The little man stood jaunty and
conceited-looking, like a too-familiar waiter in his evening dress. The
light of the moon fell on his cunning face and restless dark eyes.

"Oh, so it is you?" he cried. "My word, Dugdale, you are more fortunate
than when I saw you last. You hadn't a penny to bless yourself with
then. It was near Johannesburg where we met last, wasn't it? I remember
it well."

"So do I," Dugdale said with a laugh. "You were making a fuss because
you couldn't get a caddie to carry your golf clubs, and I offered to do
it for half a crown. I wanted the money badly enough, too. I recollect
the secretary of the club telling you that you ought to be thankful to
have anything to carry, seeing that only a year or two before you had
been glad enough to carry two pennyworth of bread and cheese in a
handkerchief for your midday meal."

The bitter jibe was uncalled for, but Dugdale hated and despised the man
who had maliciously attempted to degrade him in Mary Pearson's eyes. The
taunt struck home, for Isidore's face grew hot and his eyes flashed
angrily. He could see that Mary Pearson was biting her lips. Even the
tall stately figure by his side was smiling behind his hand.

"Ah, you were always a good fighter, Dugdale," Isidore managed to say.
"But that tongue of yours will get you into trouble some day. Miss
Pearson, may we come as far as your house? Lord Passmore has been
telling me about a picture in the library which I am anxious to see. You
might be disposed to sell it."

"I might," Mary said with some contempt, "but I don't think it in the
least likely. But it is too late to come up now. Mr Dugdale, don't you
think we had better return?"

"Delighted so far as I am concerned," Dugdale said drily.

They walked on in silence. Dugdale saw that Mary Pearson's beautiful
face was troubled. Something had vexed her.

"I hope I have done nothing wrong," Dugdale said contritely. "I trust
you don't think I was very rude to Isidore. But his speech and manner
were so offensive that I couldn't help myself. I might have said more."

"Oh, I don't blame you in the least," Mary exclaimed. "He was odious.
The insult was so uncalled for, too. In the circumstances, I think you
behaved very well. And there is no disgrace in being short of money. But
did you really offer to carry his golf clubs for him?"

"I did," Dugdale replied. "And I carried them, too. What is more, he
gave me half a crown which I spent on the first good meal I had had for
two days. And when I found my way back to England I applied to him for
something to do. It sounds strange, I dare say, but if I had not done so
I should not be here to-night."

"Is there a story behind it?" Mary asked.

"Oh, dear, yes, quite a romance in its way. If you care to listen I
shall be glad to tell you."

Mary Pearson's dark eyes answered for her, and as they walked back home
in the moonlight under the spreading beeches Dugdale told her of his
unpleasant adventure at the Blenheim Hotel and its singular ending. He
told the story very well. When he had finished he was surprised to see
that Mary Pearson was regarding him with a shadow of anxiety on her
face.

"It is very, very strange," she murmured. "It looks to me as if you had
been the victim of a conspiracy. Do you think that there is any
understanding between these two men? I mean between Mr Isidore and this
mysterious Paul Quentin."

"I should say not," Dugdale replied. "I should think they would be
rather antagonistic."

"Perhaps so," Mary said after a pause. "But you have not told me what it
was that Mr Quentin wanted you to do."

Dugdale hesitated. He had half a mind to take Mary into his confidence,
but he did not see how he could do that without violating the confidence
reposed in him. Besides, how could he tell her of the business of the
Dragon Vase when the very object was in her possession?

"I am sorry," he stammered. "But much as I should like to I am afraid I
cannot do that. Perhaps later--how beautiful the lake looks in the
moonlight!"

"Very," Mary said, with a queer smile. "Now let us go in. It is growing
chilly."




CHAPTER XI.--A CRITICAL OPINION.


It was late, and Mary Pearson hinted to her guest that she was in the
habit of retiring early.

"Not that that need trouble you," she said. "I am only too anxious that
you should do exactly as you please. If you like to sit up and smoke,
pray do so. The butler will give you everything you want, and you know
the way to your room."

Dugdale expressed his thanks. He did not feel disposed to retire yet. He
was far too excited. Moreover, he was a man who could do with little
sleep, four or five hours at the outside being all that he required. He
thought he would like to sit for some time in the library. The place
attracted him. The walls were lined with volumes and there were some
excellent pictures. The butler came in presently with cigars and
cigarettes and a tray containing a spirit stand and glasses. Miss
Pearson nodded approval.

"I think you have all you want," she said. "Now you will excuse me if I
run away. Well, what is it?"

A liveried servant hurried breathless into the room.

"I beg your pardon, miss," he said, "But there is a gentleman asking for
you. He says he is very sorry to disturb you at this hour of the night,
but his business is important."

"Indeed," Mary demanded, "what is his name?"

"Dr Prince, miss, a friend of Dr Harper's,"

In spite of a feeling of anxiety Mary Pearson found it difficult to
repress a smile.

"Another Dr Prince!" she exclaimed. "Mr Dugdale, it is a good thing you
are staying the night here. But perhaps this is the genuine article. Ask
the gentleman in, Martin."

The servant bowed and withdrew. He reappeared presently with a tall
professional-looking man, whose somewhat severe features were anxious
and disturbed.

"I am sure I must apologise for this intrusion," he said. "But in the
circumstances I could do nothing else. My name is Prince and I am at
present staying with my friend Harper. He told me all about the
mysterious person who came here and did me the honour of assuming my
name. I presume this gentleman is Mr Dugdale."

Dugdale bowed.

"Thank you, sir. I shall probably be compelled to enlist your services
again before long. Dr Harper has told me what happened. Then he went to
the nearest police station, so that Miss Pearson might be rid of the man
who caused her so much anxiety. I don't know how it occurred, but on the
way my friend's dogcart collided with a motor and Harper was rather
badly knocked about. He is at a loss to understand the accident, seeing
that the motor overtook him upon the open road when he was on his right
side. He declares that the car ran into him deliberately. At any rate,
the people, whoever they are, didn't stop. They went straight on,
leaving Harper lying in the road."

"What a monstrous thing!" Mary Pearson cried indignantly. "Were they
sober? Did anybody recognise them?"

"Unfortunately not," Prince went on. "They appear to have got clean
away. Harper is lying at a small hotel about five miles from here, and I
don't think it will be possible to move him for a day or two. He sent
for me at once, and as soon as I had made him comfortable he insisted
upon my coming here and telling you what had happened. He thought you
would be wondering why the police had not turned up to remove your
prisoner. Perhaps one of your servants will ride over and see to it,
Miss Pearson. I don't suppose you would care to go to sleep with that
man in the house."

Mary Pearson shuddered slightly.

"No, indeed," she exclaimed. "I couldn't do it. I am only too thankful
that Mr Dugdale is still here. And perhaps he will sit up until the
police come."

"Of course I will," Dugdale said promptly. "I should feel culpably
guilty if I neglected any precaution. Perhaps Miss Pearson will let me
ring the bell for one of the servants and tell him what to do."

Dr Prince nodded approvingly. He rose to his feet declaring that he must
return to his patient. Mary Pearson scribbled a note which she handed to
a waiting servant with a request that he would see to it at once.

"I seem destined to give trouble all round," she said. "Are you sure you
don't mind, Mr Dugdale? If you are tired I will get the butler to sit
up."

"Not in the least," Dugdale protested. "And in no circumstances would I
go to bed until that man was in custody. You had better send one of your
servants upstairs, and I will pass the time here till the police arrive.
We had better not shut up the house. You will be quite safe."

Mary Pearson held out her hand. She was smiling gratefully and her
thanks were warm and sincere.

"Then, good-night," she said. "We will meet at breakfast. Perhaps
tomorrow I shall be able to thank you for all you have done for me. But
for your coolness and courage and your wonderful quickness of perception
I should have been killed to-night. Of that I have no doubt."

Dugdale could think of nothing appropriate to say. He could only hold
the girl's hand in his and look down foolishly into her face. Perhaps
his eyes conveyed more than he intended, for Mary's face flushed and she
withdraw her fingers quickly. The next moment Dugdale was alone.

Thus far it had been a splendid adventure. In all his experiences he had
never gone through anything like it before. It seemed like a dream. A
few hours before he had been walking the streets of London desperate and
penniless. Now he was comfortably seated in this beautiful mansion, well
fed and well clad, and claiming as a friend one of the loveliest women
in England.

Where would it end? To remain longer would be dangerous to his peace of
mind; in fact, his peace of mind was destroyed already. He tried to
argue himself out of his passion, and cynically to point out to himself
his folly. And yet, why not? He was poor, it is true, and the girl was
rich. But other poor men had married rich women. And such marriages had
turned out happily. Mary Pearson liked him, he was sure of that. She
appeared to lose her coldness and haughtiness in his company. She had
shown her gratitude plainly. She would recognise him as a man not likely
to sell himself for money. But, then, for all Dugdale knew to the
contrary, Mary Pearson might already be engaged to some lucky man, and
Dugdale smiled as he thought of it.

He rose to his feet, and began to pace up and down the room. He opened
one of the windows leading to the terrace and looked out on to the
moonlight. Perhaps the cool air would calm him and restore his
commonsense to its normal level. As he stood looking at the landscape he
was surprised to see two figures in evening dress crossing the terrace.
There was no trouble in recognising them as Lord Passmore and Theo
Isidore. The latter pulled up and held out an unlighted cigarette.

"This is lucky, Passmore," he said. "My matchbox is empty, and there is
someone at that window. One couldn't very well go and ask for a light at
this time of night, but since somebody is at hand--Oh, it is Dugdale.
Isn't that you, Dugdale?"

"Yes, Mr Isidore." Dugdale replied. "I was admiring the beauty of the
night before turning in. I think everybody is in bed. Did you want
anything?"

"A light," Isidore said promptly. "I'll come in and fetch it. Oh, you
needn't be afraid. This is not the first time I have been in the house,
and now that I am in the library I am not going away till I have seen
the picture that Passmore spoke about. Which is it, Passmore?"

Dugdale was about to protest, but changed his mind. He was not master of
the house, and if the capitalist thrust his way in it was hardly for him
to object. At any rate, it would only be a few moments. The long, slim
figure of Lord Passmore paused on the frame of the window, but Isidore
dragged him forwards.

"Oh, come on," he said impatiently, "what are you hanging back for? We
are not burglars. Now, which is the picture you were speak about?"

Lord Passmore looked round the room through his eyeglass.

"It isn't here," he said. "Oh, I recollect now: Miss Pearson had it
moved into the drawing-room. She placed it in the alcove leading to the
conservatory. I fancy she thought the light was better there."

Isidore was not to be denied. He seemed to know the house fairly well,
for he walked towards the drawing-room, calling to Lord Passmore to
follow. The latter smiled uneasily at Dugdale, who shrugged his
shoulders.

"Our friend is so impulsive," his lordship remarked. "I suppose he is so
used to having his own way that he sometimes forgets the--er--etiquette
of good society. I suppose we had better humour him. He seems to want a
critical opinion."

"As you like it, my lord," Dugdale said drily. "I can give you a
critical opinion, though not perhaps on art matters, but I will ask you
to make your visit as short as you can."




CHAPTER XII.--THE PEER'S STORY.


Lord Passmore smiled, and there was a tinge of colour on his cheeks.
Isidore had walked boldly into the drawing-room and switched on the
electric lights. He was looking round for the picture when Lord Passmore
indicated the alcove and drew the curtain so that the full flow of the
light could fall upon the canvas.

"There!" he said. "That is the painting I mean. It is a perfect example
of the master's work; indeed, it is the finest bit of colour I have ever
seen. Mr Pearson had a marvellous eye. He seemed to know by instinct
where these things were to be found. I should think no man bought his
treasures so cheaply. And yet he made extraordinary mistakes."

"Everybody does," Isidore said with his head on one side. "I suppose
that picture is all right, but it doesn't appeal to me."

"Perhaps not," Lord Passmore said drily. "But, regarded from your point
of view, it would be cheap at twenty thousand pounds. What do you think,
Mr Dugdale?"

"I agree with you," Dugdale said warmly. "I admire these works for their
beauty, not for their cost. Yet I suppose everybody does make mistakes
at times. One hears of them constantly, even amongst the professional
experts. But wherein did Mr Pearson fail? Surely there is nothing wrong
here."

Lord Passmore turned away from his contemplation of the picture and
fixed his glass more firmly in his eye. He stretched out a long, slim
hand towards the Dragon Vase.

"Well, there is a case in point," he said. "My friend Pearson was known
as an expert on two continents. Some of the biggest dealers in the world
have taken his opinion in preference to their own. I have known him pick
out a forgery which was a thing of absolute beauty in itself. The
British Museum and many of the great galleries on the Continent have
profited by Pearson's advice. But when he made a mistake he stuck to it
with the greatest tenacity. He honestly believed that he was right, and
perhaps the greatest mistake he ever made in his life was over the
Dragon Vase. The thing is an absolute forgery."

"Forgery!" Dugdale exclaimed, "Impossible! I am certain, my lord, that
it is nothing of the kind. I am not much of an authority, but I know
better than that. Only two of these vases were ever made, and they were
both originally in the Summer Palace at Pekin. I had an opportunity of
inspecting the one which is still there, and I know that I am right."

Lord Passmore turned eagerly to the speaker. "Ah! that is interesting,
he exclaimed, most interesting. I would give a good deal to have had
your opportunity. It wouldn't have changed my mind, however, for I
happen to know who made this vase. I never told Pearson so because these
things upset him terribly. Besides, he was exceedingly obstinate, and
wouldn't have been satisfied with the proofs, however clear and
convincing. A few years ago the ceiling of my bedroom needed repairing.
Now that ceiling is by Tintoretto, and is worth almost a fabulous sum.
The damp had got in at one corner, the colours had faded, and I was
greatly concerned about it. I was advised to call in the services of a
young Italian artist who had made a reputation in the Royal Porcelain
Factory at Sevres. I was naturally dubious, but ultimately decided to
give the young workman a trial. From the very first I saw that I had an
exceptional artist to deal with, and allowed him to have his own way. He
restored my ceiling in the most marvellous fashion; indeed, I defy
anybody to say what the damage was and where the original work left off
and the restoration began. I made a friend of that young workman; he
taught me much that I had never known before. He told me, to my profound
surprise, that his forte was the designing and painting of pottery. It
appeared that at one time he had fallen rather low and had been employed
by a scamp in Paris to execute copies of celebrated vases and the like.
He told me particularly of one which he had made and which had passed
into the hands of a wealthy collector for a large sum of money. He
described the thing so accurately that I was driven to recollect that
Pearson had recently acquired a vase which might have been the same
thing. When I came to talk it over with my workman he declared
positively that he had made that identical piece of china. I didn't
believe it at first, but when he told me of a certain private mark he
had placed on the forgery I had an opportunity of testing for myself
whether he was speaking the truth or not."

"One moment, please," Dugdale exclaimed. "Did the workman ever come
here?"

"He was never inside the house," Lord Passmore went on solemnly. "I did
not tell him that I had a friend who had purchased his forgery. But he
informed me what the mark was two tiny lozenge-shaped indentations with
his initials on each. These were just inside the lip of the cover, and
before long I made it my business to see if I could find these marks. I
don't ask you to take my word for it. Take off the cover and see for
yourself."

In spite of his coolness, Dugdale's fingers trembled as he lifted the
cover. It was impossible to doubt the truth of Lord Passmore's story. He
could have no interest in fabricating a narrative like this. He had made
no effort to cheapen the Dragon Vase with a view of obtaining possession
of it for himself. He spoke naturally as a gentleman would who was
merely relating a unique piece of history. Dugdale turned the cover over
and held it to the light. Surely enough, there were the very marks that
Lord Passmore had spoken of clearly indented on the cover. The initials
were perfectly plain.

"This is amazing," Dugdale admitted. "Here is the mark you speak of, and
yet I am bound to confess I never saw such a forgery before. It must
have cost hundreds of pounds. The painting alone must have cost a small
fortune."

"Precisely," Lord Passmore said drily. "And then it would sell for three
or four times the money. I need not ask you, Mr Dugdale, to say nothing
of this. Perhaps it was indiscreet to mention it at all. Now, Isidore,
are you going to stay all night? It is getting very late and we have
some way to go."

Isidore indicated that he was ready at any moment. He had not paid the
slightest attention to what Lord Passmore had been saying. He had been
wandering round the room admiring the pictures, and probably calculating
what they would cost when they were bought and how much more they would
fetch when they came to be sold. They passed out of the house together,
leaving Dugdale regarding the Dragon Vase with a fascinated gaze.

He was troubled by the story he had heard. It had been told with a
clearness and emphasis from which there was no escape. Lord Passmore had
proved his point up to the hilt and yet Dugdale hesitated to believe it.
He knew that there were elaborate forgeries and that some had deceived
boards of experts. But when he came to look upon that thing of beauty
with its magnificent depth of colouring he was shaken and uncertain in
his mind. He knew that it was almost impossible in these days to obtain
those amazing colours, the secret of which was a lost art. He knew that
the same remark applied to certain forms of stained glass. He knew that
the ancients had cunning mixtures and minerals, the manufacture of which
had vanished for ever.

"The story is impossible," Dugdale muttered. "But the more I puzzle over
it the more confusing and bewildering it gets. It seems to me----"

Dugdale broke off abruptly and bent down to examine the stand on which
the vase was placed. Then he saw to his astonishment that the great mass
of china had been turned, so that the tiny flaw was lost to sight. This
could have been no mere accident, for the vase and its pedestal were
extremely heavy, and any adjustment must have demanded considerable
physical strength. As far as Dugdale knew, nobody except the servants
had been in the drawing-room since the dramatic happenings earlier in
the evening. Which inmate of the house, then, was so deeply interested
in the Dragon Vase and its romantic history?

It was idle to stand there debating it. Dugdale went slowly back to the
library, turning out the lights behind him. He glanced up the staircase
with its mass of pictures and statuary. It struck him how strangely
quiet the place was. He wondered how the sham Prince was getting on in
the strongroom; how much longer the police would be before they took him
away. And above all, he wondered at the chain of extraordinary
circumstances which had brought him to Silverdale. As he paused to
admire various things of art and beauty around him, he thought that he
heard the sound of a door stealthily opened overhead, that he detected
the sound of furtive footsteps. Then there was the creaking as of
someone opening a window. A moment later a gush of cold air poured down
the staircase--beyond doubt a window had been opened.

Dugdale stood with nerves quivering. In ordinary circumstances there was
nothing suspicious in the opening of a window. But these were not
ordinary circumstances. Nor was the sound of smashing, breaking glass
which followed.




CHAPTER XIII.--A PUZZLE FOR DUGDALE.


Dugdale had an uncanny sense that he had been waiting for this incident.
This was, of course, a mere figment of imagination, but his nerves were
strung up and a haunting suspicion of impending evil was upon him. He
had no fear in his heart, but only a peculiar assurance that he had not
yet finished his night's adventures. Therefore, sound of smashing glass
came to him as a relief. At the same time, he was annoyed, for the
household had gone to rest, and it seemed a pity they should be
disturbed.

Still, it was foolish to remain debating as to what had taken place. The
sound of smashing glass was followed by a tense silence all the more
impressive for its very suddenness. Dugdale crept into the hall hardly
knowing which way to turn. With his limited knowledge of the house it
was impossible to locate the quarter from whence the sound came. He
would have to find that out for himself. Still the amount of glass
destroyed had been considerable; indeed, such a noise could not have
been caused by the mere breaking of a window. Dugdale remembered that
there were a good many greenhouses and conservatories about the house,
and no doubt the accident had occurred in one of these. Possibly there
might be other marauders about besides the spurious Doctor Prince.
Indeed, it was on the cards that the madman might have had an accomplice
who was now trying to find out what had become of him.

Dugdale stood for a moment hesitating which way to move next. The hall
was but dimly lighted and the passages leading out on either side were
in absolute darkness. Several minutes elapsed before Dugdale could find
the electric switches. He had cause to bless the inventor of electric
lighting, for here was illumination enough and to spare without the
slightest noise on his part. Evidently he had turned on some controlling
switch, for the lofty corridors were all ablaze. He could see down a
kind of glazed verandah with magnificent flowers blooming on both sides
and this glazed corridor appeared to terminate in a conservatory, which
was now filled with points of flame. He was on the right track, Dugdale
thought. He hurried along, determined to investigate the affair to the
end. But so far as he could make out, there was no one in the
conservatory and the door at the far end was locked. There seemed to be
nothing there except the masses of blossom and delicate ferns. At the
same time Dugdale noticed that the ferns were swaying as if some light
wind were blowing them. Dugdale knew there was nothing more fatal to the
constitution of ferns than a strong draught and he began to wonder if a
careless gardener had left a light open. But the lights were closed
firmly for a draught. Utterly puzzled Dugdale proceeded to turn the key
in the door and go outside. He could see by the lights through the glass
that the conservatory was a sunken one with glass terraces above on
three sides. Probably the place had been erected to conceal an ugly
spot, but this speculation did not trouble Dugdale at the moment. He saw
it was possible for any one to fall off the terrace to the top of the
conservatory, and also there was a risk of the same thing from more than
one bedroom window on that side of the house. Perhaps some animal had
slipped from the terrace on to the roof of the glasshouse. A cat might
have done so and managed to escape.

Dugdale returned to the conservatory, by no means satisfied with this
theory. He began a closer investigation, pushing his way behind the
stages on which the flowers stood, and here at length he came upon
something which suggested a solution of the mystery. There was a large
hole in the roof of the greenhouse which had been hidden by the foliage,
and immediately beneath this hole sat a man with his head in his hands.
The discovery was so dramatic and unexpected that Dugdale could only
glance at the intruder with open-mouthed amazement. There were no marks
upon the stranger. He did not appear to be cut in any way, but was in a
dazed condition, as if he had been partaking freely of intoxicants.

"Who are you?" Dugdale demanded. "What are you doing here?"

The question was repeated two or three times before the man looked up.
Then he smiled oddly and caught his breath quickly. There came over his
face a look of mingled dismay and sullen anger. It was only for a second
and then the expression changed to what might have passed for a smile.

"The question is natural," he said, "but the explanation is not
difficult. Isn't it strange that I should meet you here like this, Mr
Dugdale?"

Dugdale was dumbfounded. He had gone through a series of extraordinary
adventures lately. He had told himself that he was proof against
surprise. But he was astonished now.

"Mr Grenadus!" he exclaimed. "Grenadus, by all that is extraordinary.
But what are you doing here?"

Grenadus sat nursing his chin and apparently enjoying the sensation his
appearance had created. He seemed to be quite at home, as if the whole
thing had been the most natural in the world.

"It is strange," he said. "But truth is stranger than fiction. And I
might retort by asking you a question. What are you doing here? I
thought you were on business for Mr Quentin, and here you are a guest in
a beautiful country house bent upon enjoying yourself."

"Not, quite that," Dugdale said cautiously. He had been on the point of
telling the truth, but a sudden sense of prudence restrained him. "I am
here by chance. There was an accident to my train and I called at this
house to obtain assistance. The lady asked me to stay the night and I am
doing so. But how do you know that it is a beautiful house? Have you
been here before?"

Grenadus shook his head

"Never," he said emphatically. "As to its being a beautiful place, I
gathered as much from the size of the ground and the amount of glass. I
am in the same position as yourself. Your train broke down and the same
fate happened to my motor. I saw no prospect of getting a shelter for
the night until it occurred to me that my acquaintance Lord Passmore
lived close by, and I set out to find his house. I met some
muddle-headed rustic who put me on the wrong track, and for some time I
have been wandering about in the dark. I found a terrace at length, and
not knowing where I was I stepped off and fell through the roof of this
conservatory. I might have been killed. As it is, I am merely bruised
and shaken. I am sorry to give such a prosaic ending to my adventure.
Probably you thought you were about to encounter some desperate burglar
and cover yourself with glory in the eyes of the charming young
lady----"

"How do you know of the charming young lady?" Dugdale asked.

For an instant Grenadus looked confused.

"Oh, I was putting a suppositious case," he murmured. "I give you my
word that I have never been here before. And if there isn't a charming
young lady, all I can say is there ought to be. I only hope I have not
caused unnecessary alarm in the household. I trust I didn't wake
anybody?"

The question was asked eagerly; indeed, Dugdale could not help noticing
how anxious his companion was. He mistrusted the man, though he would
have found it hard to say why. Grenadus' explanation was plausible. He
was cool and collected, and from the very first had not shown the
slightest signs of dismay. This being so, his present anxiety was
somewhat out of place. Why should he be so eager to know whether he had
caused any alarm in the household? These thoughts passed rapidly through
Dugdale's mind and he hoped he was keeping them to himself. He replied
casually.

"Oh, that is all right," he said. "Probably no one heard you but myself.
I was sitting up late smoking a cigar; indeed, I was just about to
retire when I heard the noise. As it took me ten minutes to trace the
source of the trouble, and as I heard no sound of people moving I
conclude that nobody else is aware of what has happened."

The suggestion of anxiety faded from Grenadus's face. He looked quite
natural now, but Dugdale was not to be deceived. He had an uncomfortable
feeling that Grenadus had known all along that he was in the house.
Otherwise, he must have shown more astonishment at meeting Dugdale in
this unexpected fashion. Grenadus rose to his feet and walked towards
the door.

"I think I had better be going," he said. "I am glad not to have
disturbed anybody and I will leave you to explain in the morning. I
suppose you haven't had any luck?"

"On Mr Quentin's business, you mean?" Dugdale asked. "You could hardly
expect me to have a good report yet."




CHAPTER XIV.--ON THE ROAD.


Grenadus smiled casually.

"No, I suppose not," he observed. "But there is plenty of time for that.
Now if you will show me how I can reach the road I shall be obliged. No
further experiences for me this evening and the sooner I get back to my
motor the better I shall be pleased. It is possible my man has repaired
the damage by this time."

Dugdale explained that he a stranger to the locality but would do the
best he could. It was not difficult to reach the high road, though
Dugdale was uneasy about leaving the house and front door open. Still,
the place was brilliantly lighted and any wandering thief would hesitate
to enter so long as all the electrics were blazing. His piloted Grenadus
on to the main road and the latter turned abruptly to the left with a
few words of thanks.

However, Dugdale was not satisfied. There was more there than met the
eye. He had a haunting feeling that Grenadus was deceiving him, that for
some reason or other Paul Quentin's secretary was following him. Of
course, the episode in the conservatory was an accident pure and simple.
But there were suspicious circumstances about the affair, enough in
themselves to put Dugdale on his guard. He allowed himself to act upon
the spur of the moment, heedless that he was leaving Silverdale to the
mercy of any night prowler. He could still discern the dim outline of
Grenadus's figure in the distance and, stepping on the ragged patches of
grass in the roadside, stole stealthily after him. For the best part of
a mile the chase continued until Grenadus suddenly stopped and lit a
cigarette. Immediately another figure appeared and Dugdale saw that
these two men were no strangers to one another. He was close enough to
hear what was said. He had only to step into the ditch under the dense
shade of a cluster of hazels and thus follow everything without fear of
detection.

"Where have you been?" Grenadus asked sternly. "A nice mess you've made
of things."

"I didn't," the other man said sullenly. "I did all you told me to do. I
left the little bag in the conservatory."

"Oh, I found that easily," Grenadus replied. "But why didn't you give me
warning? Why didn't you tell me that infernal roof wasn't safe? I left
everything to you and you told me that you knew all about the house."

"The roof was safe enough," the other man said.

"Oh, really? I wish you had been there instead of me. I can only tell
you this--the confounded thing gave way directly I stepped upon it, and
I fell through with noise enough to wake the dead. If it hadn't been for
a heap of rugs and cushions on the floor I might have been killed."

"And a very good thing, too," the other man broke out. "More than one
man would be the happier for the knowledge. I tell you the roof was safe
if you had only kept to the crossbars. But you never do anything like
anybody else."

Grenadus laughed as if he had been paid a compliment.

"You are in one of your gloomiest moods, my good Bassano," he said. "Is
the artistic temperament very much in evidence this evening, or are you
grieving for your beloved Italy? I make every allowance for your
feelings, but I do not permit you to speak to me in this fashion. I am
not very amiable myself, and when I am not amiable, dear Bassano, other
people generally suffer. You have been guilty of gross neglect, and I am
afraid I shall have to give you a lesson. You ought to have been on the
spot, you ought never to have gone a yard away. I came very near to
trouble this evening at the hands of the very man whom I have gone out
of my way to befriend."

A harsh, croaking laugh broke from Bassano's lips.

"God help the people you go out of your way to befriend," he said
hoarsely. "Far better for them to take a pistol and blow out their
brains. I never knew a man or woman yet who came under your influence
who would not have given years of their life to be able to say they had
never met you. Mr Dugdale is a young man as brave and honest as the best
of them. I dare say he thanks his stars for the chance of serving Paul
Quentin. He is full of gratitude for the kindness he has received from
Mr Quentin, but if he knew half as much as I do he would throw that
money back in your teeth and break stones by the roadside instead. Curse
the day I came across Paul Quentin, I say. I was happy enough in my way
then, and had fair prospects. And now what am I but a slave and a tool,
with the assurance of a prison at the end? But I shall finish it some
day, I know I shall. I shall grow reckless and desperate. There will be
a knife to my hand and a quietus to the career of Paul Quentin and Tony
Bassano."

The last few words came with a hissing whisper so low and intent that
they almost escaped the listener's ears. He heard Grenadus laugh. Then a
swift sentence came from his lips in a language which Dugdale did not
understand, but which he supposed to be Italian. The words had an
extraordinary effect upon Grenadus' companion, for he suddenly staggered
back with his hands above his head as if to ward off some cruel blow.

"No, no," he whimpered, "don't say that again. For the love of God,
don't repeat it. I want to forget all about it. I want to wipe it from
my mind. I strive to do so with all the will at my command, and for a
day or two I am almost happy. Then I wake up in the night and it stands
by my bedside and I sweat and tremble like a child frightened by a cruel
nurse."

The words poured passionately from the speaker's lips. He was
transformed and humbled. Dugdale would have given a great deal to know
the meaning of the swift cutting sentence which had reduced this man
from the semblance of a strong human being to a whipped and whining cur.
Grenadus appeared to be satisfied, for he merely laughed and laid his
hand upon the shoulder of his companion as one might do with a dog that
has been thrashed for some trivial fault.

"There, there, that will do," he said. "I know perfectly well that you
don't mean a word you say. You may kick against the pricks, my dear
Antonio, but it is only for the moment, and I know I can win you back
again. But don't forget yourself another time, and don't leave so much
to me. I daresay it is a compliment for you to believe that I could get
out of a corner, however tight. But even I am only human, which same
remark applies to my master, Mr Paul Quentin. And, really, you haven't
so much to grumble at. You are on the high road to fortune and you will
make more money in a year with me than you would in ten with your brush
and your knowledge of works of art."

The listener's curiosity was stimulated afresh. He began to have a dim
understanding of what was taking place. His whole adventure had been
connected with a work of art and Grenadus was employing as his tool and
accomplice a man who was a keen judge of such matters. Dugdale could
make out, though dimly, the outline of the man who stood by Grenadus's
side, and it struck him that there was something familiar in the shape.
He could not make it out definitely, but was determined to satisfy his
doubts before he returned to Silverdale. At any rate, he was aware that
he had a daring and unprincipled scoundrel to deal with. He began to
understand that he, too, had become a tool of Paul Quentin without being
aware of it. He had been anxious for occupation. He had been ready to
undertake anything that would provide his daily bread, so long as the
work was honest and clean.

But here was something that was neither honest nor straight. Whatever
Paul Quentin might be, it was evident that Grenadus was a rascal;
indeed, no sane person could doubt that after listening to the talk
between the secretary and his companion. If Dugdale had acted on the
impulse of the moment he would have seized upon the first excuse for
abandoning his quest and left his future to take care of itself. He
could not believe now that Grenadus' appearance at Silverdale was an
accident. He was certain that it was part of a plot to obtain possession
of the Dragon Vase. Dugdale would have got out of the trouble by giving
the police a hint of what was taking place. But he had met Mary Pearson
and that made all the difference in the world. The girl was young and
nearly friendless. She was surrounded with enemies and she had been more
than kind to John Dugdale. It was, therefore, his plain duty to help her
to the limits of his power.

He set his teeth together and resolved to see the thing through to the
end. He had been warned in time and it would go hard with him if he did
not get the better of these two cunning villains. He watched Grenadus
light another cigarette and hand his case to his companion. Then,
another light flashed out and Dugdale plainly distinguished the features
of Bassano. Another surprise awaited him.

"The plot thickens," he whispered. "I am not wasting time. That little
fellow is the workman whom I saw in the shop of Joseph Varna."




CHAPTER XV.--ON DELICATE GROUND.


Nothing further was to be seen or heard, for the two men turned silently
and plodded along the road, and Dugdale had nothing to gain by following
them. Therefore he retraced his footsteps to Silverdale. The house was
entirely as he had left it. He barred the front door and went back to
the library to ponder the matter over a cigar. Suddenly a thought came
to him that caused him to jump to his feet and hurry up the stairs
towards the strong-room, where the pseudo-Prince had been confined.

He had forgotten all about the lunatic. He wondered now why the police
had not arrived. The real Dr Prince had promised to communicate with the
authorities, and that he had not already done so was a matter of
surprise. In all probability there had been no accident to Dr Harper.
Possibly it had been part of some conspiracy; probably several
accomplices were at work in this business. Paul Quentin seemed to be at
the bottom of the whole affair, aided and abetted by his secretary
Grenadus; indeed, the more Dugdale thought over this affair the more
dangerous did it seem. He hurried up the stairs and found the key
outside the door. Taking his courage in his hands he entered and struck
a light. He was not in the least surprised to find the room empty and
the window wide open.

He looked out through the casement on to a mass of glass below. He could
see a hole in the roof. It did not require any great effort to guess how
the sham doctor had escaped.

"Amazing," he muttered. "Inexplicable, extraordinary. It was easy enough
for the so-called Dr Prince to get out this way, but incredible that he
should have chosen precisely the same method that brought Grenadus to
grief. Common-sense refuses to believe that Grenadus fell through the
very same hole by which this lunatic reached the floor in the
conservatory. And there was only one fall that I am prepared to swear
to. Of all the complicated businesses I ever heard of, this takes the
cake. Well, the fellow has got clean away, and there's an end of it. Now
what am to do, rouse the whole household and tell them what has
happened, or wait till to-morrow and send for the police? The worst of
it is I don't know where to find the servants. Probably Miss Pearson is
asleep and it will be a shame to wake her. I'll leave things as they
are. There will be time in the morning."

Dugdale retraced his steps. As he walked along the corridor a door
opened and Mary Pearson appeared. She was wrapped in a loose, white
dressing-jacket. Her beautiful hair streamed over her shoulders. There
was a smile on her lips and she was speaking gaily to somebody in the
room. As Dugdale passed, he had a glimpse of the interior of the
bedroom, and, to his surprise, on a bed he saw the young servant whom he
had discovered lying at the point of death in the alcove leading from
the drawing-room. It was only for a second that Dugdale could make out
the face and figure, for the door of the room closed, and Mary Pearson
stood before it as if on guard. The smile faded from her face, and a
deep crimson blush spread over her features. She was plainly so
distressed and agitated that Dugdale would have passed on, but she
stretched out an imploring hand and detained him.

"Did--did you see him?" she stammered.

Dugdale bowed coldly. For the life of him he could not help it. He was
pained and disappointed, and could not keep his feelings to himself.

"Your servant, is better, I hope," he said. "I trust you will believe
that I am not prying, but I have had another adventure since you retired
to rest. I won't trouble you with the details now, but the lunatic has
escaped."

"Escaped?" Mary Pearson said vaguely. She did not appear to be in the
least alarmed. "Did you say escaped? It seems impossible. But how?"

"From his bedroom window," Dugdale explained. "He got out on the roof of
the conservatory and must have fallen through. I heard the crashing of
glass and went out to investigate. I was some time in discovering where
the trouble was, and when I reached the spot the man had disappeared.
Strangely enough, I found somebody else there, someone whom I happened
to know. I suppose, Miss Pearson, you do not chance to have heard the
name Grenadus?"

"Grenadus!" Mary Pearson whispered. "Grenadus! You don't mean to say that
you have actually----"

The frozen whisper died upon the girl's lips. She stood for a moment
like a statue and Dugdale waited for her to continue.

"Not to-night," she said. "Oh, not to-night. I will try to tell you in
the morning. Please leave me."

She passed her hand wearily across her forehead and seemed to have grown
very white and old. Dugdale could only obey. He sat in the library till
the dawn broke and he heard the sounds of the servants overhead. He was
feeling dull and washed out, but a bath and change of clothing freshened
him up somewhat. He knew that it wanted some time to breakfast, so he
struck out across the grounds for a long walk. The fresh air of the
morning and the brilliant sunshine dispelled his gloomy thoughts. When
he returned at eight o'clock he was himself again.

He stood in the garden amongst the roses admiring the view and presently
became conscious that some one near him was talking in quiet tones. The
voices were somewhat gay, though subdued, and he had no difficulty in
telling that Mary Pearson was one of the speakers.

"My dear, it is not dangerous at all," she was saying. "I am sure you
are right to make an effort like this. Besides, the sooner you are about
again, the better. I don't want anybody to know. Nobody must guess what
has taken place."

"I am sure I hope not," the other girl was saying. "What a merciful
escape it has been to be sure. If I----Oh!"

The speaker suddenly paused as she came face to face with Dugdale. She
was leaning on Mary Pearson's arm. She was draped from head to foot in a
long wrap with a light, fleecy shawl thrown over her head. Her features
were pale and drawn as if she had just recovered from some lingering
illness. But pale and worn as her features were Dugdale was impressed by
their beauty and sweetness. He stood awkwardly as if waiting for an
introduction, but he did not look a whit more confused than were the two
girls.

"I am afraid I am intruding," Dugdale murmured.

"Oh, not at all, not at all," Mary Pearson said with an effort. "This is
my friend, Miss Alice Marna--Mr John Dugdale. Miss Marna has been very
ill, but I hope that her stay with me will do her good."

The girl looked shyly up into Dugdale's face. Then she walked quietly to
a rustic seat and sat down. Dugdale understood her to say that she would
like to be alone. He raised his hat and walked away, but had not moved
more than a few yards before Mary Pearson followed him.

"It is hard to know how to begin," she stammered. "But there are one or
two things I wish to say to you. Perhaps I was a little unwise to bring
Miss Marna from her room, but I thought on such a lovely morning it
wouldn't hurt. She has been ill for some time."

"A long time?" Dugdale asked significantly.

"Well, no, not a long time."

"The result of an accident, I presume?"

Mary Pearson's face suddenly grew hard and cold.

"Don't you think you are unduly curious?" she said.

"No, I don't," Dugdale said boldly. "I believe I have been sent here by
Providence to be your friend. I believe you are in some great and bitter
trouble and that you need a man to give you a guiding hand. I want to be
your friend and I want to help you if I can. Quite unwittingly up to the
present I have allowed myself to be the tool of scoundrels, but I am not
going to back out yet, because I am convinced that these same scoundrels
are enemies of yours as well as mine. I want to help you; indeed, I
would lay down my life to do so. But you must be open and candid with
me. It would be worse than folly to try to deceive me at the outset of
this strange business."

Mary Pearson's face softened.

"I thank you," she said gently, "and all the more so because I believe
every word you say. But tell me, how am I deceiving you?"

"Well, over this matter of Miss Marna, for instance," Dugdale said
hotly. "It is impossible to disguise the extraordinary likeness between
Miss Marna and that young servant whom I helped to carry from the
drawing-room upstairs last night. And when I see you coming out of your
servant's room and hear you speak in tones of friendship I am bound to
seek explanations. Am I justified?"

The colour flamed into Mary Pearson's face again.

"Don't judge me too harshly," she whispered. "I will explain everything
after breakfast."




CHAPTER XVI.--HALF TOLD.


Dugdale felt a little ashamed of himself as he glanced at his companion.
He had, perhaps, gone too far, for in any case it was no business of
his. He had not expected Mary Pearson to yield quite so easily, and
something in the nature of an apology trembled on his lips. Yet he could
not deny that he was acting on the girl's behalf, and that he did what
was intended for her advantage.

"If you don't like to say any more," he observed, "please do not. I may
have gone beyond my rights, but I wish you to believe that my sole idea
is to help you. That you are in distress is certain, and that you have
no one to turn to is equally certain. There is much in common between
us. We are both lonely and friendless, only you happen to be rich, and I
poor. But my poverty is counter-balanced by my being in good health, and
having an accurate knowledge of the world. I may never see you again,
but whether that be so or not I can never forget your kindness."

"But I have not been kind," Mary protested. "I have done nothing. You
came here a stranger----"

"Ah, that is just the point," Dugdale cried eagerly. "I did come here a
perfect stranger, and to all intents and purposes I am one still. For
all you know to the contrary, I may be a mere adventurer who has taken
advantage of a lucky chance to ingratiate himself with you."

"I should not believe it," Mary said gently.

"Thank you very much. But though the fact that I am not an adventurer
may make a difference, I am a soldier of fortune all the same, seeing
that I am utterly poor and friendless--which brings me back to the point
again. I was really very rude to you just now. It is no earthly business
of mine how you behave to your servants, and I have no right to suggest
that Miss Marna is connected with the servant who suffered so severely
last night. But I do want to help you. I believe you are the victim of a
gang of scoundrels. I am sure that I am, though unwittingly. I did not
know till last night what I had undertaken. If you would only confide in
me----"

Mary Pearson held out her hands with a helpless gesture.

"Oh, if I only could," she cried. "But I am not wholly my own mistress.
There are a score of reasons why I ought not to speak. All I can do is
to suffer in silence and hope for the best."

"You have no friends?" Dugdale asked.

"Not in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. There are one or two
relations, of course, and my family lawyer, to say nothing of the old
aunt who keeps house for me. They are useless from my point of view.
They would be helpless if I wanted their assistance, and that, in a
measure, is why I am so glad you came last night. You see, I know who
you are, I know all about your family, and I feel that I could trust
you. But, on the other hand, the secret is not entirely my own. There is
Alice Marna. I am sure she would not thank me to bring her into this
business, though, to a great extent she is mixed up with it. But there
will be plenty of time to talk about this after breakfast. I must go
back to my friend now."

Dugdale walked thoughtfully towards the house. He was feeling easier in
his mind. He had made some progress towards gaining Mary Pearson's
confidence. He did not regret that he had spoken so plainly. Yet how
futile it might be. Dugdale was no fool. He knew his limitations and
weaknesses. He was not blind to the fact that it would be dangerous to
his peace of mind to remain at Silverdale much longer. Hitherto he had
escaped the snares of Cupid. His earlier manhood had been given up to
sport and then unexpectedly he had been forced to give serious attention
to the problems of life. His years in Africa had been strenuous; indeed,
that was the main reason why the beauty and refinement of Silverdale
appealed to him so strongly.

It was all so dainty and pleasant, so like the home which he had sighed
for and which he had carved out for himself in his ambitious dreams. He
stood looking at the long grey front of the house in the morning
sunshine. He noted the mullioned windows with their painted crests, the
thin red line of the ridge tiles, and the graceful droop of the roses
climbing from basement to parapet. He remarked, too, the wide full sweep
of the velvet lawns and the dewy masses of flowers in their beds. Here
was the terrace delicately carved with stone figures at either end. Here
were noble rooms opening on to the suite with the gleam of artistic
things half hidden behind silken draperies. It was an ideal spot, not
unworthy of the mistress of it all.

How well Mary Pearson fitted into the picture. How perfectly at home she
seemed to be. What a magnificent grip of responsibility she had. And she
was beautiful, too--in Dugdale's eyes far more beautiful than any woman
he had ever seen before. No doubt, some day she would marry a man suited
to her by birth and position. For all Dugdale knew to the contrary, her
heart might already be pledged. He smiled almost bitterly to himself as
he thought of his own idle fancies. How could he dare to ask this girl
to share his lot? She would laugh him to scorn. She would dub him a mere
fortune-hunter. She would dismiss him with a few light words and perhaps
a half-contemptuous hand-shake.

Dugdale forced himself to think of something else. He had his future to
consider and he began to see now that that future did not lie with Paul
Quentin. He came in presently to the breakfast-room, where Mary Pearson
was already seated. Alice Marna sat on the other side of the table with
her back to the light, so that it was impossible to scan her features.
The silk shawl was still round her head. She looked down demurely at her
plate and so far as she was concerned the conversation was conducted in
monosyllables.

But Dugdale thought she was faintly amused about something. He seemed to
discern a slight deflection of the lips, as if the girl were secretly
tickled by her thoughts. He could just manage to see under her wrap a
tangle of fair curls and the suggestion of a profile which was
irritatingly familiar to him. He felt sure he had seen it before, but
for the life of him he could not associate it with any one whom he knew.
The speculation lasted him until the meal was over and Mary Pearson
suggested that perhaps he would like to smoke. The terrace stood
invitingly beyond the open windows and Dugdale stepped outside with a
cigarette-case in his hand.

"I can't resist the temptation," he said. "Your terrace is such an ideal
place to sit and ruminate. It is so wonderfully quiet and peaceful, too.
What a paradise for anybody suffering from nerve troubles. You are very
kind to me, my dear lady, but I ought not to stay. Positively it is my
bounden duty to pack up my traps and go at once."

A faint flush crossed Mary Pearson's face.

"Do you want to go?" she asked.

"What a question! Of course I don't. But, then, one never wants to do
the things that are right. If you will tell me where I can find a
timetable----"

"No, no," Mary Pearson cried. "I don't want you to go yet; not till I
have seen Dr Harper again. Anyhow you will stay to lunch?"

A polite refusal hovered on the tip of Dugdale's tongue. As he looked up
he caught a flash from Miss Marna's eyes and an imploring look on her
face. As plain as words could speak she was asking him to stay. It was
very weak and irresolute, but he allowed himself to drift. Nor had he
been wasting time. He had succeeded with his business in a marvellous
fashion. There was no reason why he should not linger and enjoy the
fruits of his success. It would only last a few hours longer. He would
enjoy the society of Miss Pearson while he might. But nothing would
induce him to pass another night under that roof.

He murmured something that sounded like consent, and then, as if ashamed
of his weakness, walked out to the terrace. The sun was shining
brightly. The air was full of the scent of flowers. Away across the
undulating park a small herd of deer was grazing peacefully. With a sigh
of contentment Dugdale sank back on to a garden seat and smoked a
cigarette.

All this brought back recollections of his happy boyhood, of the time
when he, too, had a home, equally beautiful and refined. It seemed years
ago, back in the dark ages, since he stood in surroundings like these.
He wondered how long it would be before a blessed chance gave him a
similar opportunity again. For a long time he sat musing and thinking
over the strange events of the night before, till gradually there rose
in his mind a theory so strange and startling that he was almost
inclined to laugh at his own fervid imagination. Yet he could pick no
holes in his line of argument. He began to see his way still more
clearly, step by step, till Mary Pearson came out of the house and sat
on the seat beside him.




CHAPTER XVII.--A STRANGE STORY.


Dugdale smiled into the face of his hostess. "I dare say you think me
very lazy," he said, "but you can imagine the pleasure this is to me
after the hardships of the last few years. Yet I must not linger here.
It is not just for me to stay with two girls like you. There is no
reason why I should lend censorious tongues----"

Mary threw up her head contemptuously.

"What does it matter," she cried, "so long as one has a clear conscience
and is happy and contented? You asked me to tell you about Alice Marna
and I promised to do so after breakfast. I told her what you said to me,
but she is not willing that her name be brought into the matter. I
assure you that there is nothing wrong----"

"Oh, I know that," Dugdale said hastily. "I see how impertinent I have
been, and yet in a way Miss Marna fascinates me. She reminds me of some
one I used to know, but for the life of me I cannot say who it is. Have
you known her long?"

"For many years."

"And is her real name Alice Marna?"

"No, it isn't," Mary said candidly. "But on that point I am afraid I can
give you no further information. It is five or six years since Alice
came here first. She had had a long illness and she came to recuperate.
My father was a great friend of her father's, though I never saw him,
and I haven't the remotest idea what his business or occupation was. All
I know is that he was an undoubted judge of works of art and that my
father had a great idea of his opinion. Alice never told me anything.
She is an extraordinary mixture of candour and caution. She has
marvellous natural courage and yet in some respects she is timid to a
degree. We are very good friends. She attracts and puzzles and dazzles
me and would do anything in the world to save me pain or trouble. I had
not seen her for two years till last night. She came unexpectedly and
for the moment I didn't know her."

"That I can easily understand," Dugdale said. "I can imagine her being
very clever at disguises, and in the name of common sense why did she
swoop down upon you in that dramatic fashion, and why did she come
disguised as a man-servant?"

The blood mounted to Mary's face again and she looked confused and ill
at ease.

"Ah, that I cannot tell you," she said, "for the simple reason that I
don't know. I asked Alice just now, but she refused to say anything. She
says that the accident last night has impaired her recollection of
things. I don't altogether believe that, but this is a detail. At all
events, she came here last night after my servants had left. She walked
straight into the drawing-room, to my great surprise, disguised as a
man-servant. I have been used to these kind of escapades on her part
before and I regarded the thing as a freak of hers to surprise me. I
know what an exceedingly clever actress she is. But she seemed to be in
deadly earnest last night. She said she had come to warn me of imminent
danger, and almost before I could realise what had happened the dreadful
creature who called himself Dr Prince came in. What took place
afterwards I cannot tell you. It seems like a hideous dream. I suppose
the man must have done Alice a mischief--but, I presume, all that will
be explained presently. I was beside myself with terror and could not
grasp what was going on."

"You behaved splendidly," Dugdale said warmly. "I never saw anybody so
alert and self-possessed. The danger was very real. You behaved
perfectly."

"Did I?" Mary said. "Perhaps I did. It rather reminds one of the brave
deeds one reads about the heroes of which state afterwards that they
have not the slightest recollection of what took place. I give you my
word, Mr Dugdale, I have but the haziest recollection of last night. It
is like a dream."

"Perhaps so," Dugdale agreed. "At any rate, your conduct was beyond all
words. The way you warned me was positively heroic. But let us proceed
with the immediate business of our conversation. Have you found out the
reason why Miss Marna came here in that dramatic way?"

"No, I haven't. I think she could tell me more, but she is suffering
from shock, and is inclined to be hysterical when I allude to it. In a
day or two I may find out more, but at present I am at a loss to know
where the danger lies."

It was a long time before Dugdale replied. He was debating in his own
mind whether it would be right to take Mary Pearson into his confidence.
True, he had started on a secret mission with every intention of keeping
the matter entirely to himself, having regarded his task at the outset
as honourable, strange though it appeared to be. Now he knew better. Now
he knew that his pluck and address were being exploited by a couple of
scoundrels for the purpose of putting money into their pockets. When he
had set out on his errand he had never dreamt that he would find the
Dragon Vase in circumstances like these. He was certain that sooner or
later the cherished art treasure would pass into the possession of Paul
Quentin by dishonest means. And yet he had it definitely upon the
authority of Lord Passmore that the Dragon Vase was nothing but a clever
forgery. Perhaps Mary would be in a position to throw light upon this
dark point. At any rate, Dugdale determined that she should have the
opportunity.

"I am going to tell you something," he said, "that I feel you ought to
know. I don't like the idea of betraying the confidences of my
employers, but these are exceptional circumstances and you are strangely
bound up in the business which has brought me here. You have said your
memory of what happened last night is hazy, but probably you recollect
how you warned me that there was a madman in the house, and that I had
better be careful."

Mary placed her hand thoughtfully on her forehead.

"You have struck a familiar chord," she said. "Let me think...... Oh,
yes, it is all coming back. There was a copy of the 'Marlborough
Magazine' in your pocket. I had been reading a story which impressed me
considerably and it suddenly flashed into my mind that a paragraph in
the story would give you the clue you needed. And you took the hint
excellently. I recollect it now. But why do you ask? Why do you want to
know?"

"It is a wonderful magazine, that," Dugdale said. "There is nothing like
it in the history of current literature."

"Nothing," Mary agreed. "But what has that to do with the subject under
discussion?"

"Ah, you will find it has a great deal to do with it," Dugdale replied.
"In the first place; doesn't it strike you as rather strange that that
magazine should emanate from the brain of Mr Theo Isidore? You all know
about him. He has been here more than once and perhaps I know him better
than you do. Of course, he is losing a lot of money over his magazine,
but he hopes to get it all back later by nobbling the British Press and
putting the profits in his dirty pocket. Still, the public will be
grateful for a magazine like the 'Marlborough.' Now, if it hadn't been
for the 'Marlborough' I shouldn't be here at this moment! If you will
excuse me I will fetch it. I am going to interest you presently."

"I am all attention," Mary said eagerly.

Dugdale stepped through the window into the drawing-room in search of
the fateful magazine which had been destined to produce such an effect
upon his fortunes. He found the book lying where he had laid it down the
night before, still open at the story by means of which Mary Pearson had
probably saved her life. He came out on the terrace again with the
periodical in his hand and turned it back till he came to the page
whereon was the picture of the Dragon Vase. He did not hand it to Mary
for the moment.

"Have you ever heard of Paul Quentin?" he asked.

Mary shook her head. The name conveyed nothing to her. She was listening
intently; her lips parted eagerly and a faint flush on her face.

"Paul Quentin is a very rich man," Dugdale explained. "He is a mystery
and though he lives in London few people have seen him, while those who
have seen him differ as to his personal appearance. One describes him as
dark and of powerful physique, another says that he is inclined to be
lame and that his features are very fair. I can't speak from personal
experience, because my business has been done through his secretary. He
did me a great service a little time ago, and, when I went to see him
and thank him his secretary, Grenadus, offered me work to do. It was
pleasant work, but rather mysterious. I had to find a certain art
treasure, a picture of which appears in the very magazine I hold in my
hand. Perhaps you would like to look at it."




CHAPTER XVIII.--ANTONIO BASSANO.


Mary held out her hand and Dugdale gave her the magazine, opened at the
drawing of the Dragon vase. The girl glanced at it casually at first,
then her dark eyes suddenly lighted up with interest as she gazed at the
page.

"This is amazing," she cried. "Why it is the picture of a corner of my
drawing-room and this is the very vase which stands on a pedestal. Oh,
this can be no accident. The artist must have been in the house. He must
have been here a considerable time, too, because that elaborate detail
could not have been copied at one sitting.

"Unless it was reproduced from a photograph," Dugdale suggested.

"But the colours are so perfect," Mary cried.

"That is true. But it is probable more than one of these vases exists
and possibly the artist got his colouring from the British Museum.
However, this is speculation and waste of time. At any rate, here is the
vase and beyond the shadow of a doubt this drawing was made in your
house. There is no artist's name on the drawing, which rather confuses
matters. But tell me about the Dragon Vase. How long have you had it?
Where did your father get it?"

Mary shook her head.

"I haven't the faintest idea," she said. "It came mysteriously and for a
long time it was hidden in one of the upper bedrooms. My father hinted
more than once that there was some strange history connected with it,
but I was not interested. A few months ago I had the vase brought
downstairs and placed in the drawing-room, because it was lost where it
was. But I am interrupting you. You don't mean to say that you came here
to search for that vase?"

"Well, not exactly, that," Dugdale explained. "All the same I was
looking for the vase. I came here by chance. No, that is not quite true,
either. I was told off to find a house or a district called Silverdale
and started the railway journey which ended in the accident. I blundered
upon this house by luck, but I see I am confusing you and had better go
back to the beginning again. The task set me by Mr Quentin's private
secretary was to find that self-same vase. It was left to my discretion
how I was to proceed and I was to have a free hand in the matter. In
ordinary circumstances I should have reported my find to my employer and
then gone off to seek employment elsewhere. But certain things have
happened within the last few hours to cause me to change my mind. I
believe Quentin and his secretary Grenadus are a pair of scoundrels who
are merely using me for their own ends. I believe they meant to rob you
of that vase, and I don't think they would stick at trifles to get it.
You may laugh at me, but I believe that that madman last night could
tell you all about it. I don't want to alarm you, but I am convinced
that you are in danger. If you take my advice you will send that vase to
your bankers and end the matter. When it is out of the house you will be
safe."

Mary Pearson elevated her eyebrows.

"You have told me too much or not enough," she said. "You fill me with
vague alarm. Won't you tell me everything?"

"Indeed, I have told you all I know," Dugdale said earnestly. "I leave
something to conjecture, because I am not altogether sure of my facts.
Don't you think you could find out where that vase came from. Your
father must have given an enormous amount of money for it, despite the
fact that Lord Passmore thinks it a forgery. But that we can prove
later. If you go through your father's papers or ask at your bankers you
will have no trouble in discovering whence the vase came."

"I will do it if you like," Mary said. "This is a most amazing thing
which you have told me. But why this mystery. Surely it would have been
much easier to steal the vase or employ some expert burglar to do so."

"But you see, the thing is so bulky," Dugdale answered. "It must weigh
upwards of half a ton. The vase is valuable by itself but without its
pedestal it would not fetch more than half its price. Collectors usually
prize these things in proportion to their completeness. For instance, a
first proof old print with the margin cut is worth a few shillings,
whereas complete it is worth hundreds of pounds. The same applies to
antique furniture from which the old brasses have been removed. A
burglar might remove a lot of plate easily, but your vase would require
a horse and cart at the least. Ah, they will take their own time and
gain their end in their own way. I shall not feel easy in my mind till I
hear that your vase has been deposited at your bankers."

Mary shook her head obstinately. Her red lips were tightly closed over
her teeth. There was a fighting look in her dark eyes.

"Why should I?" she protested. "It is intolerable that one should be
worried by these people. They may be clever and unscrupulous, but,
surely, there is some way of laying them by the heels. But now that we
know so much wouldn't it be well to place the matter in the hands of
Scotland Yard? We could keep the vase in its present position as a bait,
and sooner or later they would fall into the trap. I don't like to give
way like this. I would far rather run the risk and get these people
convicted. I am not afraid."

"I don't believe you are," Dugdale said with warm admiration. "But here
is a visitor. I fancy it is Lord Passmore."

As Dugdale spoke Passmore came along the terrace. He looked eager and
excited. He raised his soft felt hat and regarded Mary approvingly
through his eyeglass.

"I am fortunate in finding you at home this morning," he said. "How do
you do, Dugdale? I don't want to interrupt your tete-a-tete, but I am
here on business. In these hard times even men in my position find it
difficult to get a living. That is why I am forced to turn my technical
knowledge to advantage."

"Do you want to sell something?" Mary asked demurely.

"No, my dear young lady, I want to buy," Lord Passmore responded. "I am
after that Cellini bronze. You know the one I mean--it stands on a
pedestal under that Turner in the drawing-room. I am afraid I am a very
bad hand at driving a bargain, though goodness knows I have had plenty
of experience with the dealers. My line obviously is to protest that the
statue is not good enough for your drawing-room, and thus get it at my
own price. But noblesse oblige, my dear child--I can't stoop to those
tricks yet. Still, the fact remains that your father once offered me the
bronze for fifty pounds because he had his doubts about it. I never had,
and I will give you two hundred and fifty guineas for it with pleasure.
I happen to know where the fellow one is, and I shall have no trouble in
disposing of the two for a thousand. Now, my dear child, I am abominably
hard up, and I want that money badly. After this confession, may I take
the Cellini away?"

Mary smiled at this ingenious story.

"Of course you may," she said heartily. "I am not a great admirer of
bronzes, and, besides, I am convinced you are giving me the full value.
But you will never make your fortune in this way, Lord Passmore."

"That is the worst of being a peer," Passmore sighed. "One has to live
up to a code of honour which rarely applies to the lower classes. I will
send you a cheque directly I get back, and, if you don't mind, I will
take the bronze with me."

The trio walked into the drawing-room together. Lord Passmore took down
the statue gravely and wrapped it in paper. Mary stood idly at the
window looking across the landscape. She was thinking of Dugdale's
story. After the manner of his tribe, Passmore wandered round the room
admiring works of art here and there, and calling the attention of
Dugdale to their manifold and manifest beauties.

"Nothing here that is not of the best, my dear sir," he said. "Really, a
very choice collection. There is not a blot upon it, excepting the
Dragon Vase. And even that is so beautiful from an artistic point of
view that one would be justified in refusing to remove it. Still, it
isn't what it professes to be."

"Are you sure of that?" Dugdale asked.

"My dear fellow," Passmore said with great gravity, "I have already told
you. But I don't wonder at your doubts. As a forgery the thing is
perfect, but to prove that I am correct, if you like I will ask the man
who made that vase to come and see you, and then all doubts will be set
at rest. The young Italian workman I spoke to you about is at my house.
I met him by accident this morning. He has been doing a job down here,
and it so happened that I have an old silver porringer which is in need
of repair. I'll bring the man over if you like."

A sudden idea flashed into Dugdale's mind.

"What is his name?" he asked.

"Antonio Bassano," Passmore said. "Classical name, isn't it?"




CHAPTER XIX.--A MASTER OF CRAFT.


Here, then, was another important discovery which bade fair to go a long
way towards unravelling the tangled skein. Dugdale had almost expected
some such reply. At any rate, he had hoped for it. The discovery
entirely changed his point of view, but this did not discourage Dugdale
in the least. At the same time, it started his mind upon another series
of suspicions which later might bring Joseph Varna and Rachel into the
net.

But as Dugdale stood thinking the matter over, and not hearing a single
word that Lord Passmore said, he felt disinclined to believe that these
two people were connected with the plot which Paul Quentin had on foot.
Joseph Varna had impressed him as a highly respectable tradesman, and
probably a wealthy one besides. During Dugdale's one brief visit to
Varna's establishment, he had seen enough to convince him that Varna
was doing business on a large scale with a very influential class of
clients, and business, too, which bore a large margin of profit. If
Varna was closely associated with ladies in position who desired to
raise money on their family jewels, he was not in the least likely to
identify himself with any scheme likely to bring him within the grip of
the law. There were evidences, too, in Varna's shop that he was a man of
private means, and Dugdale was sufficiently a man of the world not to
judge by outward appearances. He knew that it was not the financial
agent whose office was all glitter and expensive furniture who possessed
the greatest capital. He had heard of more than one millionaire
money-lender who transacted his business personally in a single room.

There was another factor, too, and that was the favourable reception
which he had had at the hands of Rachel Varna. The girl was picturesque
and romantic, perhaps, but at the same time she was clever and there was
something in her face which Dugdale had liked. To a great extent he had
thrust himself upon her, he had taken an unwarrantable liberty in
following the girl home, and she might have been justified in giving him
a sharp lesson. As a matter of fact, she had done nothing of the sort.
She had been kind and generous and had gone out of her way to warn him
that he was playing with fire. On the other hand, there was the
knowledge that Paul Quentin was holding close relations with Joseph
Varna, and the fact caused Dugdale some uneasiness. Still, on the whole,
he was inclined to believe that these two people were entirely without
guile in the matter.

But be this as it might, Antonio Bassano appeared to be in it. There
could be no manner of doubt on this point, after what Dugdale had heard
on the previous night between Grenadus and Bassano. No doubt the workman
was being used as a tool by Quentin, and this in itself pointed to the
innocence of the Varnas. Dugdale decided that it would be to his
advantage to see Antonio Bassano. He was struck with the picturesque
figure of the workman during his visit to Varna's shop, but it was long
odds against Bassano recognising him. It was worth risking.

"You interest me exceedingly," he said. "I am bound to confess I still
have my doubts. Of course, I don't speak with any authority, but I can
hardly believe that that vase is a forgery; it is so full of character,
so typical to its age that one feels that it cannot be a modern
production. Still, I know there are instances where even the astutest
connoisseurs have been deceived. I suppose there are half a dozen cases
in which the British Museum authorities have been taken in. I confess I
should very much like to see your workman."

"And so you shall," Passmore responded. "I will get him to come over
this afternoon. After what he says, your doubts will be dispelled."

There was no opportunity to say more on the subject, for Mary Pearson
came up with her hands full of letters and parcels. She held them out to
Passmore.

"Will you do me a favour?" she asked. "I want these posted. Don't you
pass the pillar-box on your way home?"

Passmore nodded and took the letters in his hands. He began to speak
about local matters of a semi-private nature which held no interest for
Dugdale. He strode across the room towards the windows. He could see
Alice Marna walking up and down the terrace, and then it occurred to him
that she was beckoning him in her direction.

Somewhat surprised, Dugdale walked across the terrace. The girl went
down the steps into the garden, where she paused as soon as the house
was out of sight. She looked more tantalising to Dugdale than ever. The
sun was glittering in her eyes and illuminating the soft yellow curls on
her forehead. Dugdale would have given much to see her without the wrap
about her head. He was racking his brains to know where he had met her.
Then, slowly, but none the less surely, it began to dawn upon him.

"Can I have a word with you, Mr Dugdale?" she asked.

"Why, certainly," Dugdale replied.

"I hardly know how to begin," the girl said. "I suppose Miss Pearson has
told you something about me. I dare say you regard me as a very
extraordinary person. But I am not like other people. There are times
when the spirit of adventure comes upon me and I feel bound to start out
on some enterprise or other. They tell me that certain unfortunate
creatures who are afflicted with the drink craze do the same thing. They
are strict teetotalers for months and months, then suddenly they burst
out into all sorts of wild excesses. I am just like that."

"That is a strange frame of mind," Dugdale said gravely.

"Yes, isn't it? But that is beside the point. I happened to overhear
what you were saying to Lord Passmore. He promised to bring Antonio
Bassano to look at some piece of china. Now there are urgent reasons why
Mr Bassano should not come here at all. This is no whim on my part. I am
very much in earnest, and I want you to find some excuse for keeping
that man out of the house. I can't say more, except that you will be
deeply sorry later if you disregard my advice."

Dugdale looked gravely at the speaker.

"This is an extraordinary request," he said. "It doesn't altogether
surprise me, because during the last eight and forty hours all kinds of
amazing things have been happening. Of course, I will do what you ask,
but at the same time I should like to have some information about this
Antonio Bassano. Am I to gather that he is an undesirable character."

The girl hesitated before she replied.

"Well, no," she said at length. "Mr Bassano is a genius. He is not only
a great designer, but a great artist as well. I don't think he would
harm a fly. Yet when he takes a thing into his head nothing will move
him. He would not do anything dishonest unless such an act tended to put
him in a position where he would be free to carry out some pet scheme.
In that case he would stick at nothing. The end would justify the means.
But we are wandering from the point again. I want you to realise that Mr
Bassano must not come here; he must not see me."

"I understand," he said. "It would be awkward if Antonio Bassano, the
artist employed by Joseph Varna, came here and found himself face to
face with Miss Rachel Varna. Is that what you mean?"

With a cry the girl started back and clasped her hand to her face. When
she looked up again there was dismay and distress in her eyes; while
something like a smile quivered at the corners of her mouth.

"Then you have found me out," she whispered. "That is exceedingly clever
of you. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to do so. The only
person I really was afraid of was Antonio Bassano. Do you know that you
are in great danger, Mr Dugdale?"

Dugdale shrugged his shoulders.

"I shouldn't be surprised," he said imperturbably. "I have learnt much
during the last few hours. For the present I hardly know how I stand or
whom to trust. Yes, in turning things over in my mind I have been
wondering whom I could trust in the matter. I have come to the
conclusion that Paul Quentin is a cold-blooded scoundrel, and his
secretary, Grenadus, is little better. I have reason to believe that
Bassano is as bad----"

"No, no," Rachel cried, "I am sure you are wrong. No one could fathom
the tortures of that extraordinary mind, but I am certain that Antonio
means no real harm. You are right about the others; indeed, you will
recollect that I wanted you to have nothing to do with them from the
first. A great wrong is about to be perpetrated, Mr Dugdale, and I am
here at considerable risk to set it right. You can trust me. I swear
that I am your friend as much as I am Mary Pearson's. But whatever you
do, don't let Antonio come here. He must not enter this house if it can
be prevented. Think of some way to keep him where he is. And now I
mustn't stay. Miss Pearson is calling me."

Mary Pearson stood on the terrace with Lord Passmore by her side. The
latter was still holding the letters and parcels in his hands. Dugdale
approached him carelessly.

"Lord Passmore, I have changed my I mind," he said. "If you have no
objection I will come and see your workman. He can tell me just as much
at your place as he can here."




CHAPTER XX.--THE LETTER-BOX.


Passmore was pleased to fall in with the suggestion. It was, perhaps, as
well, he thought. Besides, Bassano was engaged upon a congenial
occupation and would not care to be interrupted.

"Come along, then," Passmore said. "Would you mind carrying these
letters? I have as much as I can manage with the statue."

The speaker turned aside to speak to Mary Pearson, so that Dugdale had a
chance of asking Rachel Varna another question.

"There are one or two things I don't quite understand," he said. "What
is Bassano doing in these parts? I thought he was regularly employed by
your father."

"Not regularly," Rachel explained. "Of course, he could have a great
deal of work at very high prices, but he can never settle down to
anything. As soon as he has a few pounds to spare he disappears, and I
suppose occupies himself with some of his own wonderful schemes. When
his money is gone he comes back again and stays till the exchequer is
replenished. I assure you, he is quite different from most men."

Passmore signified that he was ready to proceed, and he and Dugdale
walked up the main road together. They chatted on indifferent topics,
until they came to the post-box, which Passmore indicated to his
companion.

"I can manage the letters and one of the small parcels," Dugdale said,
"but I am afraid this little box won't go in. Isn't it rather a stupid
thing that country pillar-boxes should be made so small? The idea has
often occurred to me."

"Of course it has," Passmore cried impatiently. "So it would to any man
who has a grain of sense in his head. It is a mile from here to the
nearest post office, and if I want to post anything very little bigger
than a letter I have to send it there. It is most inconvenient. I have
protested against it over and over again, and yet the authorities do
nothing. Every parcel for miles around has to be taken to the post
office. Not that it matters much in the present instance, because I will
put those parcels in my bag and they can go with my own letters. Let us
hasten or we shall be too late for lunch. By the by, are you staying
here?"

"I think not," Dugdale answered. "At any rate, I can't stay with Miss
Pearson. It would hardly be the right thing, considering there are only
those two girls in the house. But I have to transact some business in
the neighbourhood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you will give me
the address of a farm where I can get rooms till the end of the week."

But Passmore would not hear of this.

"Nothing of the sort, my friend," he said. "You must come and stay with
me. I shall be only too delighted to have a congenial companion. I
assure you, you will be doing me a favour. You told me last night you
had spent the last four years in South Africa, and I have no doubt you
will be able to give me certain information I need. I am thinking of
going in somewhat heavily for land speculation there. Come and stay a
day or two with me. I can send round for your traps after tea."

Dugdale hesitated no longer. Here was the very opportunity he desired.
He had made up his mind not to leave the locality for the present. He
wanted to be on the spot to await developments. His commission gave him
a free hand. There was nothing to take him elsewhere.

"You are very good," he said, "and I will accept your invitation with
pleasure. I will run over to Silverdale before tea and get my traps. I
can easily carry them myself."

Passmore expressed himself delighted with the turn of affairs. The rest
of the morning was occupied in an inspection of the house and the many
art treasures which Lord Passmore had about him.

"They are a fine lot," his lordship said. "Fortunately a good many are
heirlooms, and I can't part with them. But as to the rest, they go from
time to time. My estate is mortgaged to its last penny, and I have more
trouble with my tenants than any man in England. Upon my word, it is
like parting with one's children. But needs must when the devil drives,
and one must live. Of course it is very horrible, my dear Dugdale, that
a man in my position should be little better than a dealer in
second-hand furniture and articles of virtu, but there it is. And now
let us have lunch."

There was no evidence at luncheon of any lack of money on Passmore's
part. The meal was beautifully served in the grand old dining-room. The
Queen silver was nearly priceless. As the two men sat down the door
opened and Bassano entered. He made a strange and striking figure with
the sun shining on his mass of red hair, but his features grew sullen
and he drew within himself when he saw a stranger. From the casual way
in which he glanced at Dugdale the latter knew that he was not
recognised. The Italian sat down in silence. He appeared to be
preoccupied. He partook mechanically of the good things on the table.
And yet, though there was nothing about him in the least attractive, he
did not strike Dugdale at all as belonging to the criminal class. A
visionary he might be, and in certain circumstances an enthusiast, but
not a rogue of the cunning type. Dugdale could imagine his laying down
his life for some sacred cause; he could imagine him an anarchist or
something of that kind, but not a man who would stoop to meanness merely
to put money in his pocket.

Passmore talked pleasantly and easily. He threw a word or two from time
to time to Bassano, but the latter replied as briefly as possible and
went on with his meal. It was not till Passmore mentioned the Dragon
Vase that the Italian displayed the slightest interest.

"Does this gentleman know anything about it," he asked.

"I am not a connoisseur, if that is what you mean," Dugdale replied.
"But I have a strong leaning that way, and if I had the means I should
be a collector. But I am interested in the Dragon Vase, because I
happened to see it or its fellow years ago in the Summer Palace at
Pekin."

Bassano looked up eagerly. There was a gleam in his dark eyes.

"You would know it again?" he asked.

"Unquestionably," Dugdale said. "I understood there were only two such
vases made, and I am absolutely certain that one of these is in Miss
Pearson's house at Silverdale at the present moment."

Passmore smiled as he sipped his claret.

"Bassano will tell you a different story," he said. "I brought Mr
Dugdale here on purpose to see you, Bassano. I told him that the vase is
a forgery and that you are responsible for it."

Bassano shook his matted hair.

"Not quite a forgery in that sense," he said. "I made a copy of the
vase, merely a copy, in my spare time with a view to turning out similar
work when I should be fortunate enough to have a factory of my own. It
was a labour of love and an education at the same time. And, mark you, I
sold that vase as a copy. It is not my fault if some unscrupulous person
passed it off upon Mr Pearson as genuine. When his lordship said that
the Dragon Vase was in the house of his friend Mr Pearson, I told him at
once that such was not the case. I proved it to be a forgery, for behold
my own private mark was inside the lid, and there his lordship found it
for himself. He will tell you so."

"I have already done so," Passmore smiled. "And even now Mr Dugdale is
not satisfied."

Bassano looked up swiftly at Dugdale. There was uneasiness as well as
suspicion in his eyes. He brought his hand crashing down upon the table
with unnecessary violence.

"It is so," he exclaimed. "I swear it. Does Mr Dugdale deny that I can
do work as good as that? Does he believe that there is no living artist
equal to those who are dead and gone? Ah, if he thinks so he is vastly
mistaken. I will prove to him presently what I, Antonio Bassano, am
capable of."

"Pray don't be offended," Dugdale said. "Lord Passmore spoke in the
highest way of your work. But I am not satisfied as to this vase.
Perhaps when I have seen you at work, Mr Bassano, I should change my
mind. After all, it would not be very difficult to obtain a lid----"

Dugdale paused suddenly, for he saw that Bassano was looking at him with
a strange, fixed gaze in which terror and passion were mingled. The
Italian waited almost breathlessly, in an attitude of rigid expectation,
for him to continue.

"The signor was saying," he remarked in a smothered whisper, "the signor
was about to observe----"

"Nothing," Dugdale said curtly. "I was perhaps about to go too far. But
I shall be greatly pleased to see you at work. It will be an education
to me."

Bassano appeared to recover himself slowly. He said no more during the
meal. From time to time he looked towards Dugdale as if trying to read
his inmost thoughts. But Dugdale did not mean to betray himself. He had
been on the verge of a terrible indiscretion, and it behoved him to be
careful. He rose presently, and took a proffered cigarette.

"Thanks," he said. "Perhaps Mr Bassano will tell me when he is ready. I
am looking forward with the greatest pleasure to seeing a master
craftsman at work."




CHAPTER XXI.--THE LID OF THE JAR.


Bassano lay back comfortably in his chair smoking his cigarette with
zest. It appeared to be the one part of the lunch which he really
enjoyed. He intimated that he would be ready to begin in about half an
hour, and Lord Passmore nodded approvingly. He had a few letters to
write, he said, and his guest and Bassano might like to be alone
together. They went off presently to a room which had been set apart in
the top of the house for the Italian. In the middle of the room was a
long table on trestles which was littered from end to end with materials
and pigments of various kinds. There were unfamiliar tools, the uses of
which were incomprehensible to Dugdale, and two boxes of oil and colour
paints with a variety of brushes lay one on top of the other. In the
centre of the table was the magnificent porringer upon which Bassano was
engaged. He had been fixing a new handle, the burnishing of which was
just complete. With something like a smile of triumph upon his face he
handed it to Dugdale.

"One of the handles has been broken off," he said, "and got lost. Now
will you be good enough to examine the chasing? Observe, too, the
wonderful trueness of the casting. Ah, there were artists and men of
honour in those days; they did not scamp their work as people do now.
There are not four men alive who could turn out a porringer like this.
Now, Mr Dugdale, will you be good enough to tell me which is the
original handle and which the one that I have just fitted?"

The man was utterly transformed; the sullen look had disappeared from
his face, his features were animated, he no longer looked mean and
undersized, he had become positively handsome. There was a soft
persuasive accent in his voice which strangely attracted Dugdale, who
was beginning to understand why Rachel Varna should take so great an
interest in this man. He comprehended how any woman might be attracted
by him.

"I cannot tell," he said after a few moments' inspection. "The work is
perfect. I believe you are as clever with china as with precious metals.
You work from your own designs, of course?"

Bassano indicated the table with a comprehensive sweep of his hand. With
a tiny, sharp-cutting tool he was remedying some minute defect which his
keen eye had detected on the handle of the porringer.

"You can see for yourself," he said. "There is a portfolio of designs
somewhere. Please do not interrupt me for a moment. It is a small
matter, though really there are no small matters in a profession like
mine."

He dropped into his work again. The smile faded from his lips, and so
instantly and completely was he absorbed that he had forgotten Dugdale's
very presence. But there were plenty of things to interest anyone who
was fond of art, and to Dugdale there was the man himself to study. Here
were drawings of groups in bronze and silver, there pictures complete in
themselves. Obviously, they were all the work of a master of distinctly
original mind. For half an hour Dugdale turned them over, finding
variety on every page. He came presently to a drawing that held him even
more than the others. He glanced at Bassano and saw that with knitted
brows his whole attention was concentrated upon the porringer. There was
no risk of his being interrupted in his close scrutiny of the drawing.
And here, sure enough, was the Dragon Vase itself painted with
minuteness of detail, almost painful in its intensity. Here, too, was a
familiar background, the corner in Miss Pearson's drawing-room where the
vase was standing. Dugdale replaced the drawing and went on examining
the rest of the portfolio. He picked up a study of a head and praised it
lavishly. Apparently Bassano was satisfied with the result of his
labours and looked up with an engaging smile.

"That is from life," he said. "The study of a beggar girl in the streets
of Milan. Some day I shall probably use that on a vase."

Dugdale saw his way. He had lulled to rest any sort of suspicion and he
began to feel delicately towards his point.

"I suppose, like all great artists, you despise money?" he asked. "Is
not that so?"

Bassano gave a quick, short laugh.

"Not at all," he exclaimed. "It is only a fool who despises money. It is
a fool, too, who values it simply for the sake of possession. But no
wise man underrates the blessing of the good, red gold. Was it not your
Empire-maker, Cecil Rhodes, who said that nothing could be done without
it? Ah, he was a great man, was your Rhodes. Without his money he would
never have made South Africa. It is the same with me. I want money, not
for the mere sake of having it, but because I can explore fresh fields
of art. With wealth at my command I could found a new and great school
and leave the world ten thousand times better. You understand what I
mean, Mr Dugdale? In one sense I would do anything for money. Who knows
what one--even one five-pound note might blossom into? Show me a way to
increase my income and I will bless you."

"That is easily done," Dugdale said. "You have some charming studies
here which some day will be reproduced in silver and china. Why not sell
these studies to some of the better-class magazines? You could reserve
the right of reproducing them afterwards."

Bassano gave a queer laugh.

"Ah, you think so," he said. "But I have tried that. It is all very well
for these publishers to prate about art, but they are just as fond of
getting things cheaply as anybody else is. It is the art that sells
which they want."

"Then you have tried it?" Dugdale asked.

"Oh, yes, I have tried it. I sold six of my studies the other day to a
firm that boasts that its work is amongst the best in the world. I did
not ask a price for my sketches; I left it to them. I naturally thought
that they would give me the full value of my work. And what did they
send me? Six guineas--a guinea apiece for those valuable drawings. I was
so disgusted that I allowed the thing to pass. No, signor, I may be poor
and ambitious, but I would rather be a tinker mending silver plates and
dishes than suffer another indignity like that."

"It was very contemptible," Dugdale said sympathetically. "May I ask
what firm you mean?"

"Oh, yes, there need be no secret about it. I sold them to Mr Theo
Isidore for a new magazine. I have not seen a copy of it yet and don't
want to. They tell me it is very fine and beautiful and that Mr Isidore
will drop a lot of money over it. But he knows what he is doing; he will
come out right enough in the long run. But as to his 'Marlborough
Magazine,' I tell you that I spit upon it."

Bassano was speaking from his heart. His speeches indicated the full
measure of his contempt. But Dugdale was not thinking about that, he was
thinking about the discovery he had made and the important point he had
established without arousing the suspicion of his companion, for by a
strange chance he had hit upon the name of the artist who had
illustrated the story in the 'Marlborough Magazine' which had led up to
all these strange events. Possibly the story had been written up to the
illustrations, but that did not in the least matter to Dugdale. He knew
now who had drawn the picture to that particular story. He knew now that
Bassano must be more or less familiar with the interior of Silverdale.
He determined to hazard one more question now that Bassano's mind was
full of his wrongs.

"I hope you won't be insulted," he said, "but does not photography help
you occasionally? I have heard one or two artists speak well of it."

"Oh, yes," he said. "Once or twice I have made use of it. The camera is
not without its advantages. In interiors especially I have found it of
assistance."

Dugdale had ascertained all he wanted to know and was not sorry when
Lord Passmore came into the room and began to ask questions about the
silver porringer.

"Nothing could be better," he exclaimed enthusiastically. "It was a
lucky day for me, when I came across Bassano. Now I don't mind wagering
a small sum, Dugdale, that you can't guess which is the old and which is
the new handle to the porringer. Upon my word, I don't think I should be
able to tell myself. Well, what is it? Didn't I tell you I was engaged?"

A servant entered the room with a card on a tray.

"I beg pardon, my lord," he said, "but the gentleman is downstairs, and
wishes to see you particularly. He says he has come over on his motor on
purpose."

Passmore whistled as he looked a the card.

"I wonder what he wants," he muttered. "What can Paul Quentin require of
me?"




CHAPTER XXII.--FRIEND OR FOE.


Lord Passmore spoke in an ordinary tone, as if the question might be of
interest to his listeners. There was something dramatic and unexpected
about it, for Dugdale was conscious of a thrill. He was not dying to
meet his patron, but sooner or later they would have to meet, and
perhaps it would be for the best he should see him now. Still, Dugdale
would have preferred to choose his own time, and there was the off
chance that Quentin had come to spy on his movements.

This was the effect that the announcement had upon Dugdale, and to his
surprise he saw that Bassano was moved in an altogether different
manner. The Italian threw down the tools he was using and his eyes were
ablaze with anger, yet not wholly anger, for it seemed like the sudden
ferocious temper sometimes born of despair. There are certain people,
quiet enough in themselves, long-suffering and timid, who, when driven
into a corner, are distinctly dangerous. This was the impression that
Bassano gave Dugdale at that moment. He broke out into passionate
speech.

"Send him away," he said hoarsely. "Have nothing to do with him, my
lord. Let your servants kick him off the premises. It will be far better
for you in the long run."

"What is the matter with the man?" Passmore exclaimed.

Bassano's anger fizzled as suddenly as it had risen. His manner changed
to the apologetic, not to say abject. He looked up in Passmore's face as
a dog does when corrected.

"I am very sorry, my lord," he said, "but I know something of that man.
He has employed me from time to time, and always he has treated me
badly. You may do business with him, but he will have the best of you. I
was wrong to speak like that."

Passmore turned away as if the incident was closed. Like most successful
men, he had an exaggerated view of his own shrewdness. He was convinced
that if it came to a deal between himself and Quentin over some art
purchase, he at least would not get the worst of the deal.

"I think you can leave me to take care of myself," he said cheerfully.
"Besides, you need not meet him. You can stay here and go on with your
work."

Bassano smiled bitterly.

"Ah, you do not know Paul Quentin," he said. "Why, even if he had called
at a venture he would find out before he had been five minutes in the
house that I was here. I tell you he can see through stone walls. The
very birds carry messages to him. And he would conclude I was here for
some purpose contrary to his interests. My lord, you had better tell him
that I am working for you and that I have often done so."

"As you will, Bassano," said Lord Passmore. "Like the rest of artists,
you are a strange, incomprehensible creature. I will go downstairs and
interview my distinguished caller. Would you care to come and see fair
play, Dugdale?"

Dugdale agreed. There was no reason why Quentin shouldn't know he was in
the house. There was no need to tell Quentin how successful he had been
in his search. Besides, he was curious to see the man who had sent him
upon so singular an errand. Paul Quentin was seated in one of the small
drawing-rooms. He reclined leisurely in a carved Empire armchair and was
admiring the works of art about him. There was nothing out of the common
in the man's appearance save that when he rose to meet his host he
showed signs of lameness. His fair hair was turning slightly grey, his
blue eyes were mildly innocent. Nothing about him suggested the
brilliant scoundrel or the hard man of the world who stood head and
shoulders intellectually above his fellows. He might have been no more
than an ordinary visitor, the sort of mild, common-place person whose
chief enjoyment of life is made up by a dinner, or a theatre, or an
occasional appearance at an afternoon tea. If he recognised Dugdale he
did not show it. The name conveyed nothing to him.

"I hope you will pardon this intrusion," he said--his voice was smooth
and even--"but I want to consult you, Lord Passmore, on a little
business."

"Private business?" Passmore asked.

"Not at all," Quentin said engagingly. "Mr Dugdale is perfectly at
liberty to hear all I have to say. By the way, the name of Dugdale is
rather familiar. I seem to have heard it quite lately."

"In point of fact, I am considerably in your debt," Dugdale said.
"Possibly you may have forgotten the incident, but I am not likely to do
so. At the Blenheim Restaurant the other night I happened to be so
situated that I could not pay my account. I believe you were there, Mr
Quentin."

Quentin's face lighted up with interest.

"Oh, yes," he exclaimed, "I remember. But, really, that matter is not
worth speaking about. It is a habit of mine to dine at a restaurant. I
love to sit and study the people about me. To my mind, there is no
pursuit to equal the study of human nature. I could see that you were in
trouble and it flattered my vanity to find that I was able to put my
finger on the weak spot. No thanks are due to me. I was merely paying
for my amusement. It was very inconsiderate of your friend all the
same."

"I don't think anyone was to blame," Dugdale said; "at least, not Mr
Isidore."

"Oh, Isidore, was it? But why?"

"Oh, I don't think he had anything to do with it. I know the man very
well; I saw a good deal of him in South Africa when his position was
different from what it is now. I am convinced that I was made the victim
of a stupid hoax, and might have found myself very awkwardly placed
indeed if you had not been at the Blenheim that evening. I have to thank
you also for giving me the chance of earning some money when I needed it
very badly. I dare say, you will wonder why I am here----"

Quentin waved the suggestion aside gracefully.

"Not at all, my dear fellow," he said, "not at all. I am in the habit of
choosing my own agents, and I flatter myself I can tell a man from his
face. Five minutes in his company would suffice me better than fifty
recommendations. I am sure you are not wasting your time. I know you
will be successful and in due course I shall hear everything from my
secretary Grenadus. And now my dear Lord Passmore, to business. I
suppose you are aware that I am a collector of art treasures. It is only
recently that I have taken up this hobby, because up to a few years ago
I was not in a position to indulge my passion for these things. Now I
understand that you are not averse from doing business; indeed, I do not
know why you should be. To my mind it is far cleaner and more honest for
a poor man with a title to do that than allow himself to be placed upon
the the directory of a bubble company just to put money in his pocket."

Passmore looked uncomfortable. Dugdale saw that he did not appreciate
Quentin's florid manner.

"Unfortunately, I am bound to supplement my income," Passmore said
stiffly. "My estates are strictly entailed and it takes all my income to
satisfy the mortgages. I shall be pleased to meet you in any manner you
like. There is nothing very much here at present----"

"I should never have dreamt of coming here in the role of purchaser,"
Quentin cried. "That is, of course, unless you requested me and had some
things to dispose of. What I came to see you about relates to Lady
Sunningdale. I understand she wishes to sell some very fine diamonds and
has asked you to act as her agent in the matter. Surely there is nothing
to be ashamed of. Lady Sunningdale will get much more for her gems
through you than she would obtain from one of the big dealers. Am I not
correct?"

"Perfectly," Passmore said with a puzzled air. "But how do you come to
know this?"

"Oh, I have means of deriving information," Quentin observed. "And what
does it matter so long as my information is correct? The question is,
can I see the jewels and make an offer for them? I know their history
and shall feel safe in your hands. You don't happen to have the diamonds
in your possession, I suppose?"

"Well, hardly," Passmore said. "But I can get them for you if you like.
When do you want them?"

Quentin hesitated.

"Could you manage it this evening?" he asked.




CHAPTER XXIII.--MY LADY'S DIAMONDS.


Passmore appeared to be taken by surprise at the suddenness of the
request. He had lost all stiffness, and had begun to scent a good stroke
of business. He knew, too, that he had a rich man to deal with. At the
same time, there was something unusual in such hot haste, and Quentin
did not fail to see the doubt he had raised in the mind of his host.

"I astonish you," he said, "but I am in the habit of acting on the spur
of the moment. I assure you I am a creature of impulse. At present I
seem to want those gems more than anything in the world. Perhaps in a
week's time I shall change my mind, and be hot-foot in pursuit of
something else. Still, I don't want to put you to any inconvenience;
only I thought it wasn't very far to Lady Sunningdale's place. I know
she was entertaining Royalty last night and in all probability she has
not sent the family gems back to her bankers yet. Now, supposing you
were to send a trusted messenger to Sunningdale House in my motor. The
messenger could be back in an hour or two, and if you could see your way
to giving me a a mouthful of dinner meanwhile I should be greatly
obliged. I am staying at Harefield for the night, and I could take your
messenger in the motor and dress and come back here with him. Then if I
arranged to purchase the jewels we could go to town together in the
morning and settle the business."

Passmore said something about this being very sudden and unexpected, but
he was palpably yielding. Lady Sunningdale's gems were well known, both
for their purity and historic associations, and probably a hundred and
fifty thousands pounds would change hands before they found their way
into the possession of a new owner. Like other leaders of society, Lady
Sunningdale was in urgent need of a large sum of money, and the sale of
her jewels was the likeliest way to raise the wind. At the same time she
dreaded anything in the way of publicity. She knew how her neighbour,
Lord Passmore, supplemented his income, and had placed herself frankly
in his hands. Did he know anybody who was likely to purchase her stones?
She could have disposed of them at Christie's, but such a course would
set the whole world talking, and this was the very last thing her
ladyship desired. It was possible to effect a sale with some rich
parvenue from South Africa or the United States, but these people were
likely to talk; indeed, they were certain to regard the thing as a fine
advertisement and as a short cut into society. On the other hand, Lord
Passmore might know of someone who would buy the stones merely out of
love for that kind of thing.

Lord Passmore, on his side, had been equally frank. He did not think it
was at all possible to find the ideal customer Lady Sunningdale
required. He might have a slice of luck, but he did not expect it for a
moment. Still, if fortune favoured him he could see his way to oblige
her ladyship and put five thousand pounds in his pocket at the same
time. It was small wonder, then, that he should feel inclined to fall in
with Quentin's suggestion and make an effort to procure the diamonds
without delay.

"Really, I don't see why I shouldn't," he murmured. "I could send
Bassano. I have trusted him before."

Quentin appeared to prick up his ears.

"Bassano!" he exclaimed. "Is he here? I mean Antonio Bassano. What a
wonderfully clever workman he is! He has done several things for me
lately. I should like to see him."

"He is upstairs," Passmore explained. "On second thoughts, I think I'll
go to Sunningdale House myself. You can drive me round in the motor.
There will be no occasion to tell Lady Sunningdale that you are outside;
then we can come back by way of Harefield and I can wait in the car
while you change for dinner. You had better go I over to Silverdale,
Dugdale, and fetch your traps."

Dugdale thought that Quentin looked disconcerted.

"Are you staying here?" he asked.

Dugdale replied that he was for the night, at any rate. He was not
mistaken. He saw a slight frown pass over the face of Quentin, and
detected a gleam in his blue eyes. He seemed relieved, too, to hear that
Dugdale was contemplating so short a stay.

"I have a message or two to deliver before I start," Passmore said.
"Perhaps you would like to have a chat with Bassano. Mr Dugdale will
show you the way."

Quentin expressed approval at the idea. They found Bassano still busily
occupied. He looked up as the two entered the room, and for a moment his
eyes were positively murderous. It was only for an instant that he
flashed a challenge in Quentin's direction, then bent over his work
again as if there were no one in the room. Dugdale saw his fingers
tremble. He grasped a sharp-cutting instrument in his hand as if it were
a weapon.

Quentin looked at him with banter in his gaze.

"There, Mr Dugdale," he said, "is the finest workman in England. But
like all great men he has his peculiarities. Your manners, my dear
Bassano, leave a lot to be desired. You might have been polite enough to
say good-evening. Fancy treating a good patron like this. But I make
allowance. I have the artistic temperament myself. What are you working
on?"

"You have a pair of eyes in your head," Bassano said, sulkily.

Quentin laughed. He did not appear in the least put out or annoyed by
the rudeness of his reception, and began to turn over various articles
on the table, commenting gaily upon them as he did so. He picked up
presently a piece of beautifully painted china which looked like the lid
of a large vase. He held it up to the light with his head on one side
and regarded it with the rapt eye of a connoisseur.

"A lovely thing!" he said. "Surely this piece of pottery has a history.
Observe the blend of colours. And yet this might have been made
yesterday and been designed by our friend to take the place of the
missing portion of a vase. Tell us Bassano, is this yours or not?"

Bassano did not heed. Quentin's mocking voice went over his head. Then
he suddenly comprehended what was going on and started to his feet with
an inarticulate cry of rage. He snatched the bit of pottery from
Quentin's hand, and drew back the tool over his head as if it had been a
dagger which he meant to plunge into the heart of his tormentor. The
passion was so fiery and unexpected, Bassano's gesture was so
threatening, that Dugdale jumped forward and clutched him by the elbow.
He had seen men with murder in their hearts before, and this quick
instinct told him that he was just in time to avert a tragedy. But
Quentin stood smiling, not in the least alarmed or annoyed. He appeared
to regard it as a little comedy designed entirely for his own amusement.
Not for a moment did he seem to realise how near he was to peril.

"I thank you," Bassano said horsely. "I thank you, Mr Dugdale. After all
it was not worth while."

There was something so cold and contemptuous and cutting in the speech
that even Quentin might have winced under it. But he stood with the same
easy smile upon his face and the same look of diversion in his mild blue
eyes.

"But you haven't answered my question," he said. "Is that your piece of
work or not?"

Bassano struggled to regain possession of himself. He was breathing very
fast and rapidly, as if he had gone through some severe physical
exertion.

"It is mine," he said. "I designed and painted it. And if you want to
know anything more, it is for a customer who has lost the lid of a
valuable vase. But it is no business of yours. Most of my customers
would not thank me to betray their confidence."

Bassano was speaking now almost apologetically. Dugdale wondered if he
were telling the truth. He was no great judge of such matters, but the
piece of china which Bassano held in his trembling hands seemed to bear
all the marks and evidences of considerable age. He was not allowed to
see it long, for with nimble fingers Bassano encased the object in
silver paper and then in a stout outer covering. Round this he fastened
a string or two of wire and then put the article aside as if the
incident were closed.

"I ought to have sent this off this morning," he muttered. "I must post
it presently. There is a pillar-box close by."

Dugdale was about to remark that the parcel was too big for the
pillar-box, which fact he knew from personal experience, when the door
of the room opened and Passmore came in. He was ready for travelling and
intimated that if they wished to return for dinner there was no time to
be lost. Bassano was bending over his work as if nothing had happened,
though he gave Quentin one deep look as the latter left the room.

"You don't seem to like him," Dugdale remarked.

"Like him!" Bassano said under his breath. "Would you like a wolf? Would
you make a companion of a jackal? Would you be on affectionate terms
with a crocodile? Leave him alone. I could not give you a better piece
of advice."




CHAPTER XXIV.--LOVE OR DUTY?


Dugdale went across the park to Silverdale. He had plenty to occupy his
mind. As time went on the problem was becoming more and more acute. Up
to the present, things had gone favourably for him. It was just as well
that he had come face to face at last with his mysterious employer. As
far as he could tell, Quentin had not followed him with any sinister
intention. Evidently he was in the neighbourhood on business bent. It
was only a coincidence that on coming to purchase Lady Sunningdale's
jewels he had found his agent under Lord Passmore's roof. This would
give Dugdale an opportunity of studying the man whom he had learnt to
dislike and fear.

He packed his traps and despatched them by a servant to their
destination. All he had to do now was to say goodbye to Mary Pearson. He
was glad to find her alone on the terrace sitting in a shady nook
reading a book. She glanced up with a smile as he approached, and
Dugdale thrilled as he saw the look in her eyes. As a rule, she looked
proud and distant. It was only when she smiled that she was transformed.

"I have come to say good-bye," Dugdale said. "You have been more than
kind to me, and I am not likely to forget it."

"Are you really going away?" the girl asked.

"Don't you see that I must?" Dugdale replied. "I can't very well stay
here, and, besides, I know that you are safe, and no longer need a
protector."

Mary was silent for a moment. Dugdale fancied her face was sadder as she
gazed across the sunny park.

"You are very proud," she said.

"Am I? well, it is all I have. Though the few hours I have spent here
have been exciting, they have given me a glimpse of paradise. I never
hoped to be inside a refined English home again. I should be spoiled if
I stayed here longer. Besides, what would your friends say if they knew
you were entertaining a penniless adventurer?"

"You are not an adventurer," Mary protested.

"Indeed, I am," Dugdale went on vehemently. "What else would you call
me? I have no money and no prospects. Even now I am engaged upon an
adventure, which I fear may end in trouble. With the many friends you
have----"

"No, no," Mary cried. "You are mistaken. I have many acquaintances, but
there is hardly a girl that has fewer friends than I. Somehow I don't
possess the art of making friends. I cannot condescend to all the pretty
tricks and ways which make so many women popular, and I hate
acquaintances. I don't know why I am talking to you like this; I have
never done so to anybody before. I shall miss you when you go. In a
strange fashion that I cannot explain, a certain subtle sympathy has
grown up between us. When you came here you seemed to understand me at
once, and I seemed to understand you. And what does it matter what
people think? Why not stay a few days longer? Oh, you must not imagine
that I am making love to you."

The words slipped out of the girl's mouth unintentionally. She had not
the slightest idea of saying anything of the kind. But in an unguarded
moment she allowed her heart to speak instead of her tongue and the
mischief was done beyond repair. A crimson wave dyed her face and neck
and her eyes filled with tears as she realised her indiscretion. But
Dugdale was not looking at her. He was immersed in his own gloomy
thoughts. Then the words appealed to him with almost irresistible force
and he felt himself tingling to his finger-tips.

"I should never dream of such happiness," he said quietly. "But I should
like to stay. I am sure you don't want me to tell you that. I am sure
you cannot realise what an effort it is for me to go away at all. But I
must go because I dare not stay. I am like some of the soldiers in South
Africa. I have seen men undergo the most painful and most dangerous
operations without a tremor, and they have confessed afterwards that
they had been too cowardly to murmur--they were afraid of letting the
doctors know how terrified they were."

"But, surely, this is the highest form of courage," Mary, said, turning
a pair of liquid eyes upon the speaker. "I can understand it, but at the
same time it puzzles me. Why are you afraid?"

"Haven't you answered your own question?" Dugdale replied. "Oh, I don't
fear to remain because, as you say, you might make love to me. I
shouldn't dare to contemplate happiness like that; but I fear to stay
because I might make love to you. I know I should. Why disguise it? You
have been candid with me and I will be equally candid with you. I
thought I was beyond that kind of thing, but I find that I am only a man
after all. I have met with few women and perhaps that is why I have
formed so high an ideal. When I saw you first I knew that I had found
what I had seen in dreams. I dare say this sounds foolish and romantic,
but as I shall probably not see you again it may be forgiven. But,
please, imagine the height of my audacity. Here am I, an absolute
pauper, whose only hope, at the very best, is to earn a living. And here
are you, rich, and young, and beautiful, and ambitious, too, unless I am
greatly mistaken, listening to a man like me talking to you of love. I
hope you won't be offended or displeased."

Mary laughed unsteadily. The crimson wave was alternating with the white
in her face again, but her eyes were brave and steadfast as she turned
them on Dugdale.

"Am I displeased?" she said. "Well, no, I am not. There is something in
your candour which appeals to me. You are a good and true man, and your
only crime is poverty. Do you think that would be a bar to me if I cared
for anyone? A good deal of nonsense is talked about men marrying women
for their money. There are many idle scamps who would be glad of the
opportunity of doing so, but it is a poor sort of doll who can't tell
the real from the false. Do you think that I could not tell if a man
wanted me or if he merely desired my income? I flatter myself I could,
and I know that you are a long way removed from that class of creature."

"You really believe in me?" Dugdale asked.

"Why, of course I do. Do you think I should be talking to you in this
way if it were otherwise? And yet your poverty is the thing which is the
most likely to stand in the way of your happiness. If you cared for a
girl like me----"

Mary paused, conscious, perhaps, that she was going a little too far, or
that she was being carried away by the floodtide of her feelings.

"I do," Dugdale whispered. "I care for you deeply and sincerely. Yet I
have not changed my views in the least. I am going away because I feel
that it will be better for you and for me, and, if you need my services
at any time, you have only to send for me, and I will come at once. But
you won't send for me--unless--unless----"

There was no reason to say more. Mary could read Dugdale's thoughts as
clearly as if they were an open book. She was filled with a happiness
and gratitude that brought the tears to her eyes. "It is not to be yet,"
she thought. But she knew that this man loved her; and she knew that
when she should send for him he would be willing to lay everything at
her feet. And she liked and respected him all the more, too, because he
held his own self-respect as high and as dear as his very love for her.
She had been making love to him, and she was rather proud of the
knowledge. When she looked round again Dugdale was standing up holding
out his hand.

"I had better go," he whispered.

She flashed him one quick comprehensive glance and her trembling fingers
lay in his hand a moment. When she looked up again he was gone, striding
resolutely across the park without a backward glance. He put her sternly
out of his thoughts. He went straight away up to the room where Bassano
was still at work. An idea had come into his mind, one of those quick
intuitive flashes which amount to inspiration; he must obtain his
information by more diplomatic methods.

"The others have not come back yet?" he asked. "By the way, what have
you done with your parcels? I mean the one that Mr Quentin was so
curious about."

Bassano dropped his tools and lighted a cigarette. He glanced up at
Dugdale with a strange smile.

"I have been to post," he said. "It is on its destination by this time."

"Oh, indeed. You have been down to the village?"

"No, Mr Dugdale, I haven't had the time. There is a pillar-box just
outside the gates. I strolled down and did my own posting."

Dugdale pursued the inquiry no further. To a certain extent he was
baffled, but his suspicions were confirmed. He stood watching Bassano,
pondering the thing in his mind.

"I wonder what he has done with it?" he asked himself. "He hasn't posted
it, for the simple reason that it could not go into the letter-box, I
must investigate this for myself."




CHAPTER XXV.--THE FISHING ROD.


Dugdale had no serious cause to suspect that Bassano was wilfully
deceiving him. In ordinary circumstances he might have allowed the
matter to drop, but there was something behind Bassano's lie which might
concern him more deeply. To begin with, he could not see why the Italian
should have shown so much anger because Paul Quentin had picked up the
lid of a jar and asked a few questions about it, except that this
particular lid bore a striking remembrance to that of the Dragon Vase.
Dugdale had formed a theory which he determined to act upon. He had
thought it out carefully, and it seemed so simple and logical that he
wondered how it had not occurred to Lord Passmore. Be this as it might,
Bassano had some powerful reason for getting rid of that curious piece
of china. He had lied about it, for it was impossible to post it in the
pillar-box at the gates. Dugdale thanked his stars that Mary Pearson had
given Lord Passmore her letters to post that morning. Otherwise, he
would not have known that Bassano was telling an untruth; indeed, the
incident of the jar lid might have passed unheeded.

What had Bassano done with it, and what were his urgent reasons for
concealing it? Beyond doubt, he was anxious that Quentin should not see
it again. He must have hidden it somewhere at hand. Possibly he had
taken it to the pillar-box; indeed, the probabilities were strong in
that direction. And when he found he could not drop it through the slit
he must have concealed it. To substantiate Dugdale's theory it became
necessary to find where the lid was hidden. When the article was in his
possession he would be able to settle definitely whether his theory was
correct or not. And if he proved to be right, as he felt sure he was,
his task would be immensely simplified.

Bassano was not in the least suspicious. He sat on the table swinging
his legs backwards and forwards and talking more or less idly to the
artist.

"I wonder that you continue this kind of life," he said tentatively. "A
genius like you ought to be doing better. I hope you won't think me
impertinent, signor, but, really, so ambitious a man----"

Bassano looked up swiftly.

"You think me ambitious?" he asked, "why?"

"Oh, I recognise all the signs. I have not been knocking about the world
all these years for nothing. Now, confess it, would not you give five
years of your life for a good round sum of money to make you independent
of this sort of thing?"

A quick gleam came into Bassano's eyes.

"Would I not!" he said, apparently to himself. "I don't think I would
stick at anything. And what would you do, Signor Dugdale? Say a fortune
is waiting for you. The fortune belongs to someone else, and this
someone else refuses to believe that there is a fortune at all. We will
say that this someone else is rich already. Now would you hesitate?
Would you prove to someone else that here is the fortune, or would you
put it in your pocket and say no more about it? That is the question.
You may say that my duty is plain, but I think that even you would be
tempted, especially if you hoped to leave the world better than you
found it. But behold, I am talking nonsense. You must take no notice of
what I say. It is only my ambitious dreams that make me think these
things. They will never be realised."

Dugdale nodded in sympathy, though he was satisfied that Bassano was not
talking nonsense. He felt sure that this fortune lay before him and that
he was working his way slowly towards it. And in a fantastic way Dugdale
connected the missing jar lid with the mystery. He fell to wondering why
Bassano should have so carefully tied it up with wire. And as he sat on
the table idly swinging his legs a possible hiding-place occurred to
him. He proceeded to feel his way delicately.

"I think I know what you mean," he said. "Like all great artists, you
are a lover of the beautiful, you would like a grand old place like
this, for instance, to work and dream in. Have you seen anything of the
grounds?"

"Not much," Bassano replied. "Only a little as I walked back from the
post. I came by way of the lake. There is a beautiful stream full of
trout. I could see the big fellows under the water lilies, as I stood on
the rustic bridge watching them. Ah, many a trout did I catch when I was
a boy. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have a day or
two's fishing here. I should like to build myself a studio under the
beech tree and spend my time fishing and dreaming and working. It would
be an ideal life."

Bassano's face was lighted up with animation. He looked almost handsome
in his excitement. Dugdale went on to speak of other matters. He had
found out what he wanted and had no wish to awake the Italian's
suspicions.

"I wish I were staying here myself," he said, "but, unfortunately, I
must be off to-morrow. I had no idea there was such good fishing. I
wonder if Lord Passmore would lend me a rod after dinner. It won't be
dark till late this evening, and I might get a fair basket."

Bassano said nothing. The look of animation had faded from his face. He
bent over his work again with knitted brows and concentrated gaze.
Dugdale slipped out of the room and made his way down the stairs. It
wanted an hour or two of dinner-time so that he had ample opportunity
for carrying his plan into effect. Passmore was back again though
Quentin had not put in an appearance.

"Quentin has been detained," he explained. "He sent me back in the car
which has now returned to Harefield for him. He is an exceedingly busy
man. He complained that he never had an hour to himself. What do you
propose to do till dinner is ready? Would you like a game of billiards?
It isn't a very good table, but if you are not particular----"

"I should prefer an hour's fishing if you don't mind," Dugdale
interrupted. "They tell me there are plenty of trout at the head of the
lake. Would you think it selfish if I left you for an hour to try my
luck?"

Passmore applauded the suggestion.

"By all means, my boy," he said eagerly, "I am rather proud of my trout.
But I warn you that they will take a deal of catching. The water is very
fine and there is plenty of fish. I'll ask one of the footmen who is an
enthusiast in angling to lend you a rod and a fly-book, and then you can
try your luck. It will give me an opportunity to write my letters."

The footman came in response to the summons. He proved to be an expert
fisherman. He was willing to fit out Dugdale with the necessary tackle
and give him a few hints as to the best way of getting even with the
wily trout. It was just as well for Dugdale to go alone, he said;
indeed, he was never so successful when anybody was with him.

"I agree," Dugdale said. "My experience teaches me that angling is a
solitary sport. I daresay that I shall be able to give a pretty good
account of myself. I used to do a lot of dry fly-fishing when I was a
boy in the North."

Dugdale set out with his rod and his fly-book bent on a double venture.
He was far from indifferent to the pleasure of the sport, but he had a
second object in view. He went cautiously to work, and for half an hour
enjoyed a greater measure of success than he had anticipated. Then he
laid his rod on the bank and began to scrutinise the smooth surface of
the lake. It lay still and calm as a mirror, dappled here and there by
the great white pads of the water lilies. The placid surface was broken
now and again as some big trout rose and sucked down a fly. But though
Dugdale stood gazing earnestly he could see nothing likely to help him
in his search. He sat down and smoked a cigarette, waiting till the sun
should be low enough to cast a strong sidelight upon the water. He knew,
then, that the tiniest object would stand out in strong relief. He
smiled to himself presently when he made out something like a cork
bobbing up and down by the side of one of the white lily blooms. The
cork was plainly visible, though a few minutes ago it was not to be
seen. There was no other unusual object on the surface of the water.

"That must be it," he murmured to himself. "However, I shall soon find,
out."

He took up his rod again and made a dexterous cast towards the cork. At
the third throw the fly became entangled with the cork, and a steady
pull on the line showed Dugdale that the cork was attached to some
object at the bottom. It only needed a little care on his part and the
thing was done. He began to wind in his reel slowly.




CHAPTER XXVI.--WHAT THE LAKE HELD.


By-and-by Dugdale saw that a line was attached to the cork. Soon he had
it in his hand and drew it in slowly and with infinite care. Presently
there came up from the depths a round object packed in brown paper and
securely fastened with wire. The paper was stripped off at length, and,
surely enough, in Dugdale's hand lay the jar lid that had so excited
Quentin's curiosity, which had so greatly incensed Bassano. Dugdale
wiped it carefully with his handkerchief and proceeded to examine it. He
was no very great judge of such matters, but the lid of the jar seemed
genuine. He declined to believe that such colouring was possible to a
modern potter. There were tints which were not known to current science
and a peculiar richness in the paste inside the lid which only the
flight of time could give. It seemed strange that Bassano should have
been so anxious to keep this beautiful object out of Quentin's way, and
he must have had the most cogent reasons for concealing the lid in the
depths of the lake. What was Bassano afraid of? Why were these
extraordinary precautions necessary?

On that point Dugdale had his own theory. He was going to put it to the
test later. He began to see his way to the bottom of an ingenious fraud,
which was none the less clever because it was so amazingly simple. For
the present he placed the lid in his pocket, packed up his fishing
tackle, and walked slowly towards the house. Half-a-dozen fine trout had
rewarded his efforts, so that no doubt would be cast upon his skill as
an angler. It was past seven before Dugdale got back. His host and Paul
Quentin were walking up and down the terrace, already dressed for
dinner. In the strong light of the slanting sun Quentin looked somewhat
drawn and delicate, though Dugdale thought he bore more than a
superficial resemblance physically to his secretary Grenadus. Their
colouring was different, their eyes varied in hue, but the features were
alike even to a peculiar whiteness of the forehead which Dugdale had
noticed in Grenadus. This peculiarity applied to the right temple,
though the last time Dugdale had come in contact with Grenadus, in the
conservatory at Silverdale, the latter had had a nasty cut over his
right eye, from which the blood was oozing. Dugdale noticed that at the
time indeed it had made a strong impression upon him. It came back to
him now, and he could see under the skin of Quentin's forehead a
suggestion of discolouration, like the dark marking under the hair of a
pure-bred white fox terrier.

"Have you had any luck?" Quentin asked.

Dugdale did not answer. He stood looking from one to the other, as if
suddenly bereft of the power of speech. For an idea had come to him with
such staggering force that he was unable to open his lips from sheer
astonishment. Quentin repeated the question twice before Dugdale caught
the sense of the words.

"Oh, yes,", he stammered, "I have been fairly successful. I have three
brace of fine fish in my basket. The trout were a bit shy and the lake
is very clear. But I am an old hand. If you will excuse me I will go and
dress. It must be near dinner-time."

Dugdale was glad of a plausible excuse to get away. He was still blinded
by the light of what he deemed his greatest discovery. He turned it over
in his mind in the seclusion of the dressing-room.

"It must be possible," he soliloquized; "indeed, now I come to think of
it, the thing is simple. But what a clever idea! How perfectly natural,
and how easily carried out! It puts that man in such a strong position,
too. I feel certain that I am right. It am convinced of it. And yet,
what a difference! It is a difference that would baffle the smartest
detective in London. It will be hard indeed if I don't find out before
the evening is over."

Dugdale strolled on to the terrace presently, looking as if he had not a
care in the world. He stood carelessly listening to the conversation of
his companions, which, for the most part, turned on the subject of
precious stones. Quentin had a lot to say on this point; indeed, he
spoke with the air of an expert.

"What do you think of Lady Sunningdale's stones?" Dugdale asked. "Do
they come up to expectation?"

"He has not seen them yet," Passmore said.

"I am saving that for a bonne bouche after dinner," Quentin observed.
"The examination of such a set of jewels will lend an added flavour to
the coffee and cigarettes. I love most works of art, but nothing appeals
to me like historic gems. They have an air about them which is unique. I
verily believe I could tell a stone with a history even if it had a
modern setting. Lady Sunningdale's jewels are all the more fascinating
because they have seen so many adventures."

"You are right there," Passmore laughed. "It is not generally known, but
they went through an adventure last week. It would have proved a
sensation for the Press if it could have got hold of it."

"Is it a story?" Quentin asked. "Is it a secret?"

"Well, not exactly that," Passmore explained. "But there is the dinner
gong. I will tell you the story while we are feeding. It is quite
interesting."

They filed into the dining-room through the open windows and took their
seats at the table. It was a simple meal, but nothing was lacking that
good taste might dictate and Lord Passmore's wines were beyond reproach.
When they reached the coffee stage Quentin lent lazily back in his chair
and lighted a cigarette.

"The story of jewels," he said. "No, thank you, Mr Dugdale. I won't have
liqueur with my coffee. I am one of the most abstemious men in London. I
take no credit for it; I simply have to be. Just half a glass of
soda-water presently and I shall have finished for the evening."

"I had quite forgotten my promise," Passmore said. "Lady Sunningdale
told me of the affair this afternoon. Last Monday night she wore her
jewels and when she came home she locked them in her safe, not intending
to wear them again till the occasion of His Royal Highness's dinner. By
great good luck she had to go to the safe on Tuesday, and was paralysed
to find that her gems had disappeared. She told her maid, and raised an
alarm at once. And now comes the strangest part of the story. Within two
hours a detective arrived and desired to look at the safe. The first
thing he saw inside after he put the key in the lock were the missing
stones in their cases again. Now, what do you make of that, Mr Quentin.
You are a man of the world, and I understand from what you say that you
are fond of problems of this sort. Now how do you account for it? Do you
think the thief was frightened, and put the gems back before he or she
could smuggle them out of the house?"

"No, I don't," Quentin answered. "I should be inclined to believe that
her ladyship was mistaken. She jumped to the conclusion that the jewels
were missing without taking the trouble to make sure they were not in
the safe. I don't think any thief expert enough to acquire a set of gems
like those would be foolish enough to restore them. What do you say, Mr
Dugdale?"

"Oh, don't ask me," he said. "I am no judge of such matters. I am
inclined to agree with your opinion, Mr Quentin. However, I should like
to know if Lady Sunningdale missed her key or not."

"The key of the safe, you mean?" Passmore asked. "No, she didn't. She is
prepared to swear that the key was never out of her possession. The safe
is one of the latest and most complicated patterns, and the makers boast
that no thief could burgle it without unusual violence. The whole thing
is inexplicable to me. I don't profess to have any sort of solution
handy, and I merely tell it you for what it is worth. Now, would you
like to see the diamonds here, or in the billiard-room?"

"Oh, the billiard-room, by all means," Quentin said. "But I should like
my half-glass of soda before I go."

Passmore asked Dugdale to ring the bell, but the latter took a bottle of
water from a sideboard and opened it. He stood close by Quentin's right
side. He appeared to be very clumsy with the bottle, for the cork
slipped from his hand and a cascade of the fluid shot from the bottle,
and trickled down Quentin's face. It was the work of an instant, and a
moment later Dugdale was apologising and wiping Quentin's forehead with
a serviette. There were marks of a fine pigment on the linen, and as if
by magic an ugly blue and yellow scar stood out on Quentin's right
temple. Then Quentin quickly placed a handkerchief to his face and
hurried from the room.




CHAPTER XXVII.--CONFIRMATION.


"I am realty very sorry," Dugdale said with a fine appearance of
confusion. "I can't think how I was so clumsy. I hope I didn't hurt
him."

"Oh, I don't think so," Passmore remarked cheerfully. "I didn't notice
anything wrong. It might have happened to anybody."

"So far, so good," Dugdale thought. It was evident that Passmore had not
noticed the discoloured scar upon Quentin's temple, but Dugdale had and
the scheme he had devised on the spur of the moment had proved quite
successful. His suspicions were confirmed and he knew how to act. A
minute or two later Quentin came smiling back into the room. There was
not the slightest sign of anger or annoyance on his face. He accepted
Dugdale's apologies with a graceful wave of his hand.

"It is not worth speaking about, my dear fellow," he said. "There is not
the least necessity to distress yourself."

The speaker went on to talk about other matters and as Dugdale glanced
at Quentin, he saw that all trace of the ugly scar had vanished. The
skin was as smooth and clear as it had been before the accident.

Dugdale was no longer puzzled and knew where he stood. He understood
precisely what had happened. He felt he could afford to spend the rest
of the evening watching the development of events. He was curious also
to see Lady Sunningdale's historic gems and wondered whether Quentin
would purchase them or not. He strolled behind the other two as they
entered the billiard-room. By and by Passmore produced from his pocket
some shabby green cases.

"I hope your safe is a good one," Quentin laughed. "It would be awkward
if thieves got in during the night and stole the diamonds. Are they
insured?"

"Not nearly for their full value," Passmore said. "But if there is to be
any awkwardness it will tell against you not me, for I trust you will
buy these gems and take them into your keeping."

"Nothing of the kind," Quentin said, good-naturedly. "You will find me
much too keen a business man to transact matters in that way. I may
purchase the gems; indeed, I think that there is little doubt that I
shall do so. But, before I accept any responsibility they must be
delivered to me at my bankers to-morrow. I throw the onus upon your
shoulders till the transaction is completed."

"That's fair," Passmore exclaimed. "But I am not afraid. I defy the most
expert burglar to get into my safe within twenty-four hours. And I
always keep the key on my watch-chain."

As Passmore spoke, he touched an object hanging from his guard. Perhaps
it was only fancy on Dugdale's part, but he thought that Quentin's eyes
dilated peculiarly and that a significant smile played upon his lips.
But Quentin pursued the subject no farther. He drew the cases towards
him and began to dilate upon the beauty of the stones. He made no effort
to cheapen them and tried to drive no bargain, and when Passmore quoted
an enormous price he merely nodded his head as if the figure were what
he had expected. Plainly he was an expert in such matters, for he
handled the diamonds familiarly and held them up so that they might
display their best effects. Then after a long and careful scrutiny he
laid the beautiful stones on the table and stretched out his hand for a
fresh cigarette.

"It is a big deal," he said, "but on the whole, I am inclined to agree.
The stones are honestly worth the money and you may take it that I will
buy. But there is one stone in this necklace which I don't like the look
of. It may be fancy, but I believe it has a flaw in it. Look and see for
yourself."

Passmore applied the microscope to the stone and shook his head
vigorously.

"Nothing of the kind," he said. "The stone is as pure as the rest. It
has not been tampered with."

"Well, perhaps not,"--Quentin carelessly conceded the point--"but I
should like to be certain. Mr Dugdale, would you mind going to the
dining-room, and fetching me a wine-glassful of water? I want to make a
test."

Dugdale complied none too willingly. He had his own reasons for wishing
to remain where he was. He came back presently with a glass in his hand
and saw Passmore standing with his fingers pressed to his eyes and
staggering slightly.

"Is anything the matter?" he asked anxiously.

"I don't think so," Passmore said vaguely. "I came over faint for a
moment. I don't remember having such a sensation before. I suppose it
was the glass of port I had after dinner. The doctor told me to give it
up and upon my word I think he is right. But I am myself again."

Passmore spoke in his usual cheery tone of voice, and Dugdale let the
incident pass. Nevertheless, he glanced keenly at the diamonds on the
table until he was satisfied that no trickery had been attempted. He had
lost no time in going to and returning from the dining-room. Perhaps he
had been too quick to permit Quentin to carry out any scheme he had in
view. The diamonds lay shimmering and sparkling as Quentin proceeded to
go through some formula of his own with a glass of water. He turned with
an apology to Passmore.

"You are right, and I am altogether wrong," he said. "There is nothing
the matter with the diamond. One gets these ideas into one's head
sometimes. Will you lock them up in your safe? You can consider the deal
as settled, and if you bring the stones to town to-morrow I'll exchange
my cheque. Well, what is it? Have you something for me?"

A footman entered the billiard-room and handed Quentin a visiting-card
on the back of which a few words were scribbled. He read them with a
gesture of annoyance, though Dugdale noticed that he was careful to slip
the piece of pasteboard in his pocket.

"What a nuisance!" he exclaimed. "I was looking forward to spending a
pleasant evening, and now I find I must leave without delay. My
secretary Grenadus has met with an accident. He was motoring to
Harefield to meet me and came to grief on the way."

"I am sorry to hear that," Passmore said. "I hope it will prove nothing
very serious.

"The doctor who sent his card doesn't say. But I must go. Please ring
for my man and ask him to bring the car round as soon as possible."

Dugdale listened with mixed feelings. With the knowledge that he had
acquired he could not make out this last development at all. He would
have given much for a proper grasp of the situation, but that was out of
the question. The diamonds were in Passmore's pocket, but Dugdale did
not feel easy till he knew that they were locked in the safe. He sat
chatting on indifferent subjects with his host until he deemed it
prudent to lead up to his point.

"You are feeling yourself now?" he asked.

Passmore looked at the speaker inquiringly.

"What do you mean?" he said. "Oh, I understand. That little turn of
indisposition? Oh that was nothing. It was rather alarming for the
moment because I am usually so fit. I was bending over the stones,
looking at them, when I suddenly reeled backwards. I believe I should
have fallen if Quentin hadn't caught me. I know it was only for a few
seconds that I lost consciousness, because I grasped both the beginning
and end of a sentence he was speaking. But it has quite gone now. The
attack only justifies the doctor. I shall have to give up port. That
will be a nuisance, for it is the only wine that I care for."

Dugdale murmured what sounded like sympathy. He had his own ideas on the
subject, but it was not wise to produce them. He went on to talk of the
doubt which Quentin had thrown on one of the jewels, and mentioned
casually that the key on Passmore's watch-chain was a small one for so
large and ponderous a safe.

"I should have thought it too soft," he said. "A gold key must be liable
to to get out of order."

"If it were really gold it probably would," Passmore replied. "But, you
see, it is gilt. You can feel the edges for yourself. Try it."

As Dugdale expected, the key was greasy and sticky, as if wax or some
such substance had been applied to it.




CHAPTER XXVIII.--DOUBT.


Dugdale would have been put out and his calculations considerably upset
had there been nothing like this to arouse his suspicions. Though he was
beginning to see his way towards the daylight, he was still groping in
the dark. On the face of it nothing had happened to connect the outrage
due to the spurious Dr Prince with the search for the Dragon Vase. Yet
they were intimately connected, as John Dugdale very well knew. He was
now able to advance a theory at once startling and plausible. By rare
good luck he had found the vase at the very outset of his expedition.
Had he found it still earlier he would have reported his success to his
employer and thought no more about it. His curiosity might have been
excited by a commission so quaint and strange, but in the ordinary
course there would have been no suggestion of anything criminal in
connection with it.

That would have been the probable run of events if Dugdale had
discovered the vase only an hour or so before the advent of the mad
doctor. At first the so-called Dr Prince's appearance had only been a
startling incident in the day's work. Now Dugdale knew better. He had
evidence to prove that Dr Prince was closely associated with Paul
Quentin. He knew that this business of the Dragon Vase went to the root
of the whole matter. He was not sure whether Quentin knew that the vase
had been found, but rather thought not. But that point would be left for
the present. What he had to do was to save the Dragon Vase and keep it
where it was. He had the strongest reasons for believing that the vase
was no forgery even in the face of what had been stated by Lord Passmore
and Antonio Bassano. Dugdale flattered himself he had read Bassano
closely, and knew what was passing in the Italian's mind. Two sets of
people were after the Dragon Vase; they were closely connected; but were
not acting honestly to each other. Whether Lady Sunningdale's diamonds
had anything to do with the main issue or not Dugdale could not tell,
though he suspected that they had. He meant to follow up this affair,
too, on the chance of one clue leading to another. Detectives say it is
a common experience to light on an unexpected crime when searching for
something totally different.

These thoughts passed rapidly through Dugdale's mind as he sat listening
to his host. He had one or two questions to ask, and when these were
answered he had to wait till he was alone in his room in order to think
out some of the obscurer points.

But the evening was young. It was barely ten o'clock, and the weather
was inviting. Dugdale suggested a cigarette outside, and Passmore
acquiesced with alacrity.

They walked up and down the broad gravelled path, and then Dugdale
delicately broached the subject of Lady Sunningdale's diamonds.

"I suppose they are extremely valuable," he said.

"Almost priceless," Passmore replied. "They are very fine. Stone for
stone, I know nothing to beat them. It is a pity to part with such
treasures. But Lady Sunningdale is ambitious, and for generations the
family have entertained royalty."

"And Lord Sunningdale?" Dugdale asked.

Passmore waved his cigarette airily.

"A mere nonentity," he said. "A cipher in his own house. He would be
perfectly happy hunting and fishing. He is the sort of man who would be
content with a thousand a year. His son gives him a good deal of
trouble, though. That young man has been a source of anxiety to his
parents ever since he left school. He was sent down from Oxford under a
cloud and he has been under a cloud ever since. It is a pity, because
Viscount D'Eyncourt is quite a clever youngster. But he has a wild
strain in his blood which will lead him into serious trouble some day.
It is perhaps as well that Lady Sunningdale should sell the family
jewels and clear the mortgages off the estate. If she doesn't, her son
won't when the time comes."

Dugdale nodded thoughtfully. This was not the first time he had heard of
Viscount D'Eyncourt. He remembered the young man had gone to South
Africa rather than face some unpleasantness at home, and D'Eyncourt had
distinguished himself more than once on the front. This was nothing but
gossip, and Dugdale had other things to occupy his attention. As he
walked up and down the terrace, he fancied he detected something white
fluttering at the end of the lawn. At any other time the matter would
not have troubled him, but, full of doubts and suspicions, he drew the
attention to his companion to what he had seen.

"Oh, trespassers, I expect," Passmore said carelessly. "There is a
right-of-way across the park at the bottom of the garden, but it is very
seldom used; indeed, hardly anyone knows about it. I have tried to stop
it more than once, but a Radical neighbour always makes such a fuss that
I had to drop it. It looks as if the people were coming this way."

Surely enough the trespassers turned off the park and walked across the
lawn. Somewhat to his surprise and wholly to his pleasure Dugdale saw
that one of the intruders was Mary Pearson and with her was Alice Marna.
The latter's hair and features were almost concealed under the wrap
around her head. Mary looked confused.

"I suppose you scarcely expected to see us so late," she said, "but it
is such a lovely evening, and my friend wanted to see your house, Lord
Passmore. She has a mania for everything beautiful. She will never be
satisfied until she has been inside."

The girl drew back. She seemed uneasy as Passmore suggested returning to
the house.

"Oh, there is nothing to be afraid of," he said. "I am an old man, my
dear, and have no lady to do the honours of the place, and it will be an
unlooked-for pleasure to enjoy your society."

Passmore spoke with old-fashioned courtesy. Mary Pearson smiled, but her
companion hung back in a most extraordinary way. There was a timidity
and nervousness about her which Dugdale did not understand. From what he
knew and had seen of Rachel Varna she was the last girl in the world
whom he would have charged with embarrassment. And for all her diffidence
her eyes shone with the light of expectation.

"You are not alone," she said, "you have visitors in the house? Perhaps
some other time----"

"Oh, I have no visitors," Passmore exclaimed. "There is nobody here but
Mr Dugdale, with the possible exception of an Italian workman. You need
not be afraid of him, Miss Marna. It sounds dreadful, but he would not
give you even a passing glance. Besides, he is busy upstairs on some
congenial occupation."

Rachel Varna took a step or two forward and advanced by slow degrees
into the great hall. She drew a long breath of delight. Silverdale was
artistic, but it had not the breadth and spaciousness of Lord Passmore's
mansion. Here was the true baronial flavour, the odour and suggestion of
bygone greatness when Passmore's ancestors had been a terror and power
in the neighbourhood. The girl pointed to a suit of armour which had
greatly taken her fancy.

"That is old Venetian," she said. "I know a good deal about these
things. But, surely, the casque is not in keeping with the corselet, you
must ask your Italian about that. It is very presumptuous of me, but
possibly----"

"Oh, not at all, not at all," Passmore cried, delighted to find a
kindred spirit. "Do you know, the same thing has occurred to me? Between
ourselves, I am not infallible in respect of armour. I am glad you
mentioned it, because I can ask Bassano in the morning. He is going to
town early tomorrow, and I shall have an opportunity before he leaves."

All this was conventional, but Dugdale, watching everything with careful
eyes, noticed that this statement afforded some relief to Rachel. Why it
should be so he could not say. Probably she was glad to know that
Bassano would not be there much longer. Possibly the Italian workman was
in her way and in a measure interfered with her arrangements.

"I should love to go over the house," she said vivaciously. "Nothing
would please me better than to wander about these old rooms, especially
in the evening. If we might come in some night----"

"Why not?" Passmore cried hospitably. "Come, let me persuade you ladies
to dine with us to-morrow night. What does Miss Pearson say?"

"Of course she will," Rachel exclaimed. "That will be splendid. Please
don't say no. I don't suppose I shall ever have such an opportunity
again."




CHAPTER XXIX.--VISCOUNT D'EYNCOURT.


Mary appeared to hesitate, but seeing Rachel's dark eyes turned upon her
imploringly, she murmured something that sounded like acquiescence. In
his high-bred, courteous way, Lord Passmore professed himself to be
delighted.

"We dine at eight o'clock," he said. "We will have a simple dinner and
Miss Pearson shall act as hostess. There are some choice wines in the
cellar which I will bring out in honour of the occasion. It is a long
time since I had the privilege of entertaining two such charming ladies
under my roof. Perhaps I might induce you to come an hour beforehand so
that I could show Miss Marna around the house. Well, what is it?"

A servant came out on the terrace with a message that a gentleman was
waiting to see Lord Passmore on important business. Before Passmore
could intimate that he did not want to be interrupted, the visitor
emerged from one of the windows and advanced towards him.

He was a tall, well-built young man, with dark aquiline features and
hard, prominent eyes. He was immaculately clad in evening dress and wore
a light dustcoat and a flower in his buttonhole. He looked
distinguished, but there was something repellent about his saturnine,
intellectual features. Passmore drew back and his face hardened. He knew
who the intruder was.

"I seem to be holding quite a reception this evening," he said. "What
wind has blown you here to-night, D'Eyncourt?"

A peculiar smile crossed the young man's lips. He bowed to the two girls
and glanced somewhat suspiciously at Dugdale.

"A matter of urgent business," he said. "I have just been talking to my
mother, and she has told me of what has taken place to-day. I came to
inform you that she has changed her mind. She wants her diamonds back
again."

Passmore appeared nonplussed.

"I hardly follow you," he said. "Besides, this is not the time or place
to discuss such matters. If you will favour me with your society in the
library----"

The young man laughed curtly.

"Oh, there is no need to make any secret of it," he observed. "In fact,
it is as well the matter should be discussed openly. There is no reason
to conceal that our family is miserably poor. No one but a woman would
try to make herself believe that she could dispose of historic jewels
worth a hundred and fifty thousand pounds without the world knowing all
about it. Why, there isn't a paper in the kingdom but would have the
news before the week is out. I pointed that out to my mother, and she is
not a free agent in the matter. I always contended that the diamonds are
heirlooms, and that no Lady Sunningdale has the right to dispose of
them. My mother wears them now, but when I come into the title they will
belong to my wife if I have the good fortune to be married."

"That would be a risk for any woman to take," Passmore said acidly. "But
the up-to-date young woman is nothing if not courageous. Pray go on."

Viscount D'Eyncourt smiled as if Passmore's saturnine humour appealed to
him.

"Oh," he said, "I know what you mean. But that does not alter the fact
that my mother was selling those jewels to clear off debts, and I don't
choose to allow her to do so. If tradesmen are fools enough to allow
people in our position to owe them large sums of money, they must take
the consequences. I really must ask you to hand those stones over to me;
they are likely to be safe in my keeping."

"Oh, indeed," Passmore said drily. "There are uncharitable people who
might think otherwise. Now, my dear D'Eyncourt, it is no use trying to
bully me. I have had so much experience in this kind of thing that I
know exactly what I am doing. In this respect you will find me an
excellent man of business. I have gone into the matter carefully, and
your family lawyer will tell that the diamonds are not heirlooms. And
you will excuse me if I refuse to take your word as final. Of course, if
you have a note from your mother----"

The pause was significant, and D'Eyncourt's face darkened.

"I have no letter," he said curtly.

"No, and no message, either," Passmore retorted. "The jewels are locked
up in my safe, and to-morrow they will be disposed of in accordance with
your mother's suggestion unless she comes for them herself before
midday. I don't want to be dictatorial, but this is my last word on the
subject."

A strange light laugh broke from Rachel Varna's lips. She seemed to be
amused at something. A mirthful light was dancing in her eyes. But when
she saw that all glances were turned upon her, she became grave and
demure once more.

"I am sure I beg pardon," she said contritely. "It was silly to laugh,
But it is such a strange situation--like a scene from some society play.
And what a beautiful background, too. Lord Passmore, have you really got
Lady Sunningdale's jewels in your possession? Actually, you are selling
them for her?"

Passmore was not particularly pleased.

"You have stated the case correctly," he said gravely. "Lady Sunningdale
has honoured me with her confidence. She has been good enough to trust
me with her family jewels. There is no difference between disposing of
such things and selling a house. It is a question of sentiment. I should
not have mentioned it at all had not Lord D'Eyncourt chosen to bring the
matter up in his own way. As far as I am concerned, the incident is
closed. Now, wouldn't you like to come inside?"

A dark shade passed over Viscount D'Eyncourt's face, and there was an
evil gleam in his eyes as he turned towards Passmore. Mary Pearson,
feeling that the affair was no business of hers, turned into the hall
and stood apparently in rapt contemplation of one of Raphael's cartoons
which decorated the walls. For a moment it looked as if D'Eyncourt were
going to burst out angrily.

"I beg pardon," he said, obviously controlling himself with an effort.
"Perhaps I have allowed my feelings to out-run my discretion. But you
can understand how annoying this has been to me. I should like to have a
word with you in private."

Passmore inclined his head in his courtly fashion.

"Ah, that is better," he said. "Perhaps you will be good enough to come
this way? I won't keep you ladies a moment."

Dugdale was about to follow into the hall when Rachel Varna laid a
restraining hand upon his sleeve. Her eyes were gleaming, though dancing
mirth also lit them up.

"Don't go inside for a minute," she whispered. "Mary can look after
herself. I want to speak to you."

They walked along the patch to the end of the house where no one could
overhear.

"Now confess," Rachel said with that mixture of amusement and
earnestness which most of her friends found so fascinating. "Didn't I
surprise you just now? Of course, I ought not to have laughed in that
silly fashion, but I couldn't help it. The comedy of the situation was
irresistible. Do you know anything about the facts? Viscount D'Eyncourt
made no secret of his errand, so you need not be afraid of betraying
confidences. Is it a fact that Lady Sunningdale's diamonds are under
this roof?"

Cleverly as the question was put, Dugdale hesitated. As Rachel Varna saw
this her face changed colour and flushed slightly.

"I implore you to believe me," she whispered. "Really, I am not asking
you out of curiosity and I want you to trust me. I know you would if you
knew everything, and believe me I can be serious at times. It was only
the comic side that made me forget myself. Really, the audacity of that
young man is delicious."

"What young man?" Dugdale asked.

"Lord D'Eyncourt, of course. But do tell me what you know about this
transaction. From what I can gather, Lord Passmore procured the diamonds
to dispose of to a customer whom he had found for them. Do you know who
the customer is? I thought perhaps you might have ascertained that. I am
very anxious to know."

"I don't know what to tell you," Dugdale said hesitatingly. "Still, it
is bound to become public property in a few days. And you know the
purchaser better than I do."

Rachel drew a long, deep breath.

"Oh, I have my suspicions," she said. "Is it Paul Quentin?"

"That is the man," Dugdale said quietly. He ought to have been surprised
but he was not. "He was here this evening; indeed, I was present during
the negotiation. I will not mention what he gave for them, but it was a
very long price and the deal is to be completed to-morrow morning in
London."

Rachel Varna's face changed with one of those quick variations like an
April sky. Her eyes were dancing again.

"Lovely!" she said. "What a delightful comedy the whole thing is. You
have confided in me, and I will repay your trust. Let me tell you that
at this very moment Lady Sunningdale's diamonds are in the possession of
my father, Joseph Varna. You look incredulous, but it is true. I saw the
whole thing settled from start to finish!"




CHAPTER XXX.--THE SAFE.


"But Passmore doesn't know this," Dugdale exclaimed.

"Of course not. Lord Passmore may be poor, and eke out his living in a
manner which is repugnant to his nature, but he is an honourable man and
a gentleman in his dealings. He has been deceived by a clever trick, as
I shall be able to show you when the time comes. You may take it for
granted that I am telling you the truth. We could not find all the
money, so my father had to call in the assistance of another friend who
does business on the same lines. Between them these two are the best
judges of stones in the world."

"It seems incredible," Dugdale said. "Lord Passmore went to Lady
Sunningdale's and brought the jewels back with him. We all saw them, all
three of us had a good look at them, and Mr Quentin was perfectly
satisfied. So, I am sure, was Lord Passmore. But tell me, how came Lady
Sunningdale to visit your establishment?"

"I didn't say she did," Rachel answered demurely. "I merely remarked
that Lady Sunningdale's jewels were in safe custody in my father's shop.
I won't tell you more at present for several reasons. Did anything
happen this evening after the transaction was finished? Did Mr Quentin
want to take the jewels away with him?"

"Well, no, he didn't," Dugdale explained. "He seemed particularly
anxious not to do anything of the sort. I have no doubt he would have
been allowed to do so had he expressed the wish, but he made a point of
Lord Passmore's keeping the jewels until to-morrow, when the transaction
is to be completed."

A peculiar smile flitted over Rachel's face.

"He is a clever man," she said, "quite the most brilliantly clever I
have ever met. But even the astutest men blunder sometimes, and then our
chance comes, Mr Dugdale. What happened after the diamonds were locked
up in Lord Passmore's safe?"

"Nothing. Mr Quentin was called away in consequence of an accident to
his secretary, Grenadus. He left in a great hurry, and there, so far as
I can see, the matter rests."

Rachel looked disappointed.

"Are you sure you have told me everything?" she asked.

"I think so," Dugdale said. "Oh, no, I didn't. You have been frank with
me and I will be equally frank with you. I distrust Mr Quentin. He is my
employer and I am living upon his money at the present moment. But I
believe him to be a finished scoundrel. I have every reason to think so,
but I cannot go into details. He professed to find a flaw in one of the
diamonds and sent me into the dining-room for a glass of water. When I
came back Lord Passmore complained of temporary faintness, but the
sensation passed in a moment and he thought no more about it. I did,
however, and asked Lord Passmore a question or two about his safe and
where he kept his key. It was on his watch-chain and I was curious
enough to examine it in view of that attack of faintness. I was not
surprised to find that the key was greasy as if a piece of wax had been
pressed against it. If I had any lingering doubts of Mr Quentin's
honesty, they are gone now. Still, as I said, before, I am his servant,
but my mission is nearly ended, for my search is finished. It was a
strange errand."

"Indeed it was," Rachel said. She appeared to be speaking to herself
rather than to her companion. "So you have found the Dragon Vase--is not
that so?"

Dugdale gazed at the speaker in astonishment. He deemed himself to be
proof against all sorts of surprises.

"That is so," he said. "I have found the Dragon Vase; it is in Miss
Pearson's drawing-room. I see you know all about it and you must please
yourself whether you tell me the story or not. But one thing I am
certain of--the Dragon Vase is no forgery. Lord Passmore is convinced
that it is spurious and bases his argument upon the strange story told
him by Antonio Bassano, which, I am bound to confess, takes a great
deal of explaining away. But it so happens that I am able to supply the
explanation. But, tell me, are you afraid of Antonio Bassano?"

Rachel started at the directness of the question.

"I am afraid of no man," she said half-defiantly.

"Perhaps not, but even the bravest of us meets his master sometimes. Of
your spirit and courage I have more than one proof. I would trust you
more implicitly than I would scores of men I know, but you are afraid of
Bassano. You are anxious to come here to-morrow night, but dare not show
yourself until you are sure he will have left, and this in spite of the
fact that your disguise is wonderfully complete. There is only one other
explanation. If you are not afraid of him----"

"I am not afraid of him," she said. "You may be sure of that. What else
could it be besides fear?"

Dugdale hesitated, but it was not the time for the nicer consideration
of Rachel's feelings.

"Love," he said clearly and coldly. "You are in love with him. I am not
surprised. He has many high qualities, and when he throws aside his
reserve he becomes positively handsome. His ambition is boundless. He
will have a great future, especially if he has a wife like you by his
side. But you love him and fear him all the more, because you are
alarmed lest he do something dishonourable and dangerous. I admit that
the temptation is great. With a few thousand pounds he could rise to any
height. You are not sure what he is about to do now, but you have a
strong suspicion. I, too, have more than a suspicion. But by a fortunate
chance I am in a position to prevent that scheme from materialising. I
believe I hold the master card, but the lid of the jar is sufficient."

When Dugdale began to speak, Rachel's eyes flamed with passion and
anger. Her white teeth were set close together, and her lips were
parted. But, as he proceeded, the indignation faded from her face. She
shrank within herself, and her attitude grew meek and yielding.

"You are a brave man," she said, "and a clever one. You ought to go far,
because in your turn you have boundless ambition. But you are proud. You
do not forget that you belong to a good family, and you want to live up
to the traditions of your kin. But that has not prevented you from
falling in love with Mary Pearson. Oh, what fools you men are. She is
waiting for you to ask her and you are too blind and conceited to do so,
because, forsooth! you fear that people will point the finger of scorn
at you and call you a fortune-hunter. What does it matter when you know
perfectly well that you are nothing of the sort, and she knows it, too,
which is much more to the point? Why don't you speak out like a man?
Then you could help Antonio Bassano and me and laugh at Paul Quentin."

Dugdale smiled at this unexpected outburst.

"This is carrying the war into the enemy's camp," he said
good-naturedly. "I don't think I have ever admired your pluck and
courage more than I do at this moment. It would be easy to do as you
suggest and, perhaps, to live happily ever afterwards, as they say in
the fairy stories; but, then, to use one of the colloquialisms of the
day, I am anxious to get my own back. I am being used by Quentin as if I
were a dog, and I resent it. I am not the kind of man that turns the
other cheek, you know. I shall not be content until I have got to the
bottom of this roguery, and when I do, then let Paul Quentin look to
himself."

Rachel gazed at the speaker half-admiringly, half-sadly.

"You are rash to the verge of recklessness," she replied. "I would show
you a way out if it were the slightest use, but I know that it isn't. I
know that you will have your own way and that nothing will deter you.
And yet, what a strange mass of contradictions you are. You have all
this courage and resolution and yet you are afraid to ask Mary Pearson
to marry you."

"Am I, really?" Dugdale retorted. "Hasn't it struck you that my
acquaintance with Miss Pearson has not lasted a week? Oh, I am a
believer in love at first sight and all that kind of thing, though I
should have laughed at the suggestion a few days ago. You, who have
hotter and quicker blood in your veins, take a different view, I know.
But don't let us quarrel. I know you are going to help me and I would go
a long way to help you. Perhaps to-morrow night I shall be able to tell
you more. But let us return to the house. Lord Passmore will wonder what
has become of us."

Rachel Varna appeared to hesitate. She seemed struck with a sudden
impulse. Then she changed her mind and touched Dugdale lightly on the
arm.

"I am glad you feel like this," she said. "I have had a very difficult
course to steer and have tried to do my best for all parties. But I hope
you won't think any the worse of me. It has been hard work for a lonely
woman."




CHAPTER XXXI.--AN UNSUCCESSFUL CAST.


Dugdale was satisfied that he had not wasted his time. The more he dwelt
upon the theory he had conceived, the more certain did he feel that he
was right. The thing was wild and extravagant but no more beyond the
bounds or possibility than scores of things recorded in the daily press
every year. It is only when a new and startling event happens that truth
proves itself stranger than fiction. One point, however, did puzzle
Dugdale--why did Paul Quentin want to gain possession of the Dragon
Vase? The vase had a history, and, so far as Dugdale knew, had only one
counterpart in the world. It was, therefore, not an object that a man
could exploit and show to his friends, unless he had obtained it by
legitimate means.

But Dugdale knew that Quentin had no such honest and straightforward
intention. Perhaps, like many other men, brilliant and otherwise, he had
a twist in his temperament and hankered after rarities so that he might
gloat over them and admire them in secret. Such instances had happened
before and probably would again. But there was no evidence that Paul
Quentin was a rich man. True, he had a reputation for wealth, but this
proved nothing. The records at Scotland Yard teem with the histories of
hundreds of men who have posed successfully as people of large means. It
was more than probable that Quentin was one of these, and Dugdale would
have given much to learn the Criminal Investigation Department's opinion
of him. But, in the circumstances, that was out of the question. For the
present, therefore, Dugdale would have to go his own way and work the
problem out by himself. He found Mary Pearson discussing art matters
with Lord Passmore. She made no allusion to the fact that Dugdale had
been in secret conversation with Rachel Varna; indeed, she glanced at
Rachel with a questioning look in her eyes which was not lost upon him.

"It is getting late," she exclaimed. "Really, we must go. I had not the
slightest intention of staying so long. We must say good-night."

Dugdale volunteered to walk across the park with the girls. He would not
hear of their going alone.

"I'll leave the front door open for you," Passmore said. "You'll excuse
me if I go to bed. I make a practice of not keeping late hours for
anyone."

This was just what Dugdale required. He had his own ideas of what was
going on. He was expecting something sensational to happen before
morning, and the reflection kept him quiet and preoccupied as he
strolled towards Silverdale. Much as he liked Mary Pearson's company, he
was not sorry to say good night to her and turn his back upon
Silverdale. He was alone now for the first time with an opportunity of
thinking out the events of the past few hours.

Though nothing startling had occurred, matters were not standing still.
The problem which occupied his mind to the exclusion of everything else
related to Lady Sunningdale's diamonds. He could not solve it at all.
The transaction had looked plain and simple, till Rachel Varna had told
him that the Sunningdale gems were secure in Joseph Varna's safe. The
girl stated the fact without the slightest fear of contradiction, and as
if it were the most natural thing in the world. And there was no
likelihood of trickery so far as Varna was concerned. The old man was an
expert in precious stones, and in this instance he had not relied upon
his judgment alone, but had called in a business friend who knew as much
about diamonds as he did himself. It was impossible that two such judges
should nave been deceived.

And yet only an hour or two since Dugdale actually had the jewels in his
hands. Lord Passmore had fetched them himself. They had successfully
borne the scrutiny even of Paul Quentin. As he could make nothing of the
mystery at present, Dugdale wisely eliminated it from the scope of his
inquiry. But this did not clear the ground, for beyond all doubt Quentin
was after those diamonds. He would get them somehow. Otherwise, why
should he drug Lord Passmore and take an impression in wax of Passmore's
safe key? Within the next few hours the diamonds would be in London, and
Quentin's labour would be lost unless he acted at once. The attempt must
be made to-night, or it would be futile. For this reason Dugdale decided
that he would not go to bed. He would take nobody into his confidence,
but catch the thieves single-handed. The revolver in his dressing-bag
might be useful. He did not believe that anything had happened to
Grenadus; in fact, he knew that nothing could have happened to him, and
smiled grimly to himself as he thought of what he had discovered. No
doubt Quentin had gone off to complete his scheme, and the message about
Grenadus was only a minor incident in the programme.

Dugdale made up his mind what to do. As he reached the house, he stood
admiring the beauty of the structure in the peaceful stillness of the
night. He might have remained there five minutes or so when a window was
opened softly and a figure appeared.

"They are making an early start," he muttered. "They are more audacious
than I expected. Hallo!"

A moment later Dugdale realised that he was mistaken. The figure was not
going into the house, but coming from it. Then, as the dark outline
crept cautiously over the lawn, Dugdale recognised that his suspected
burglar was no other than Antonio Bassano. The latter moved quietly and
cautiously. He had in his hand what looked like a thick walking-stick.
What was he doing at that time of night? A little later Dugdale
perceived that the walking-stick was only a fishing-rod tied up with
string. Dugdale face relaxed into a grin as he saw Bassano turn off to
the lake. He knew what the Italian was after now, and followed at a
discreet distance. Bassano joined up his rod and fixed a hook to the end
of the line. After the lapse of a few minutes Bassano jerked the line
back and burst into a torrent of expletives in his native tongue.
Dugdale went up to him and touched him gently. Bassano turned round
angrily.

"What do you want?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"

"I might ask you the same question," Dugdale replied. "You are a fine
craftsman and great artist, but you are no fisherman. Perhaps the fish
is not there."

"What fish?" Bassano blurted awkwardly.

"Oh, the particular fish you want to catch," Dugdale replied. "Maybe the
cork has broken away from the line, or a hungry fish has rashly bitten
it in two. There are pike here as well as trout, and pike will eat
anything. I caught one once with a large gravy spoon inside him. Such a
fish might make away even with the lid of a vase."

Bassano's aspect changed. All the anger and sullenness faded from his
face. He glanced apprehensively at his companion and waited for Dugdale
to go on.

"I should give it up if I were you," Dugdale proceeded. "You will catch
nothing to-night. Better come back to the house and let us have a gossip
about fishing in general. I will tell you a good many stories of
extraordinary catches of pike."

Without another word, Bassano put his tackle together and walked back to
the house by Dugdale's side. He allowed himself to be led into the
library, where everything had been left out for Dugdale's delectation.
Bassano was uneasy and smoked a cigarette nervously and obviously till
Dugdale was ready. The latter had in his hand the lid of the jar which
he had fished up from the lake.

"Now I want you to look carefully at this," he said, with a sudden hard
intonation of his voice. "I want you to examine it and tell me if you
have ever seen the thing before. Don't answer hurriedly. Take your time.
We have all the night before us."

Bassano turned the lid over in his hand in a slow, fascinated way, as if
he were afraid of it.

"Where did you get it?" he muttered.

"Oh, I shall come to that presently. What I want to know is whether you
have ever seen it before. Beautiful work of art, isn't it? An antique, I
should say."

Bassano moistened his dry lips.

"I have seen it before," he said sullenly. The words appeared to be
dragged from him. "Oh, yes. Beyond question it is antique. Any judge
would tell you that."




CHAPTER XXXII.--CAT AND MOUSE.


"I thought so," Dugdale said, pleased with the information. "I thought
so directly I saw it. Perhaps you will recollect the first time I saw
it. It was in your room, and your friend and patron, Paul Quentin, was
rather interested in it. You were annoyed at the time. The incident made
an impression upon me, though I hardly knew why. Still, I will try to
explain it by and by. Now, it is singular that a short time afterwards I
fished this out of the lake attached to a string and a cork. Perhaps you
would like to know how I discovered it was in the lake."

Bassano looked up with an expression half-moody, half defiant. He did
not know whether to treat Dugdale as a friend or a foe.

"I should very much like to know," he admitted.

"Very well, you shall," Dugdale said smilingly. "I am going to take you
into my confidence. I don't know whether you are aware of it or not, but
I am in Paul Quentin's employ. I came to accept service under him in
peculiar circumstances. He got me out of a very awkward position, and
for a short time I was foolish enough to believe that his action was
spontaneous and without ulterior motive. I don't think so now. But that
is rather beside the point. On and off Paul Quentin has employed you for
some time and I want your candid opinion of him. So that you need not
fear to speak freely, I may say that I believe Quentin to be an
adventurer of the worst type. I regard him as a polished scoundrel. I
believe he would stick at nothing to gain his own ends. He is dangerous
as well as clever, and in playing my game instead of his I know that I
am running a serious risk. Now then, perhaps you will speak freely."

A change flashed over Bassano's face, his eyes gleamed with anger, and
the lines of his mouth indicated contempt and loathing.

"Oh, signor," he said in a voice scarcely above a whisper, "I warn you
that you are taking your life in your hands. If Quentin only suspects
what is going on, if he only has cause to doubt you, he will have you
removed. You will vanish off the face of the earth and never be heard of
again. It will be all the easier, because you have no friends who are
anxious about your welfare. Ah, you don't know Paul Quentin. The man is
bloodless, insatiable, heartless. Other countries have known him under
other names. Wherever he has gone he has left misery and distress behind
him. He gets you into his power and mesmerises you, so that before you
are aware of it you are in a mesh-work of crime and intrigue. And yet
when you get into trouble you cannot compromise him, you can prove
nothing against him. There are a score of men in prison today in England
who curse the hour they first met that scoundrel. And these are not
wicked men; they would be puzzled to tell you how they fell. You are a
good man signor; have nothing more to do with him. Resign your
occupation and go abroad before harm befalls you."

Dugdale shook his head gently.

"It is too late for that," he said. "If I had only myself to think
about, it would be different. But there is another in whom I am
interested, and she must not be allowed to suffer. And this brings me to
the point. I came here on Mr Quentin's business, on an errand very much
like looking for a needle in a stack of hay. Fortunately, I blundered
upon the proper part of the stack by accident and found the needle
almost before my search had begun. But perhaps you don't follow me."

Bassano shook his head.

"Then I must be more explicit," he went on. "I came here, in search, of
the Dragon Vase. Ah, I interest you, do I?"

For Bassano had sat up with a start.

"I am interested, signor," he said. "That is in my own line."

"That's so, or you and I wouldn't be talking together now. When I called
to see Quentin at first I did not see him, but his secretary, Grenadus.
He gave me my commission as if it were a matter of course. I was to
search for a certain vase, and all I had to help me was a picture of it
in colours in the current number of the 'Marlborough Magazine.' I won't
insult your intelligence by asking if you have seen that picture."

Bassano muttered something under his breath.

"I have seen the picture, yes,' he said.

"That is candid," Dugdale smiled. "The picture has no artist's
signature. And I was expressly cautioned not to glean any information
about the drawing from the office of the 'Marlborough Magazine.' I
understood that Mr Quentin was on bad terms with Mr Theo Isidore, hence
the prohibition. But I felt certain the drawing had been copied from the
original Dragon Vase, and that the artist knew where it was. Probably he
had photographed it and elaborated his picture afterwards. My idea was
to find out the artist, and thus get on the track of the vase. But Fate
willed it otherwise, and I discovered the vase first and the artist
afterwards."

"Then you know the artist?" Bassano muttered.

"I do. Again fortune favoured me. Whilst in the artist's room turning
over some of his drawings I saw the original sketch for the picture. I
didn't say anything to the painter at the time, but more or less
indirectly I managed to elicit the fact that he had had dealings with
Theo Isidore. He wasn't satisfied with the publisher's treatment of him,
and therein I am bound to say that he had justice on his side. But these
points don't concern us at present. You painted that picture. You
supplied the drawings to one of the stories in the 'Marlborough
Magazine.' On that very story all my adventures have turned. But again I
am wandering from the point. What I want to know is this. How did you
get into Miss Pearson's house at Silverdale and photograph the Dragon
Vase?"

Bassano made no immediate reply. He was looking at Dugdale in a grudging
sort of way in which fear and admiration were blended. He was counting
the cost of confession, but Dugdale knew the man was in his power and
did not feel disposed to show any mercy.

"You can take your time," he said "You are not bound to speak unless you
like. But I know everything. I know as much as you do yourself."

Bassano began to speak at length.

"You are wonderful," he said. "Ah, you are a foe worthy of Paul
Quentin's steel. It would be stupid to deny what you say; though I am an
artist and visionary and have little knowledge of the value of money, I
am not a fool. I did make those pictures for the 'Marlborough Magazine,'
and was dissatisfied with the fee I received for them. I remember
telling you about it, though I am sure I made no mention of the journal
to which they were sold."

"There was no occasion," Dugdale said grimly.

"Quite so, signor, I see that now. I go to a great many places. Few of
the large houses in England which contain art treasures are strangers to
me. And some months ago I happened to be here on business for Lord
Passmore. During my rambles I was impressed with the tracery of a window
in Silverdale. I recognised it at once as the work of an Italian called
Zucio who flourished in the sixteenth century, I can show you his work
in different places. Ah! there is nothing like it in the history of
architecture. He was a very great man was Zucio, but he was fond of the
wine-flask and died of drink at the early age of twenty-seven. I asked
permission to take a photograph of that window both inside and out, and
the housekeeper allowed me to do so. Whilst there I was struck with the
corner of the drawing-room where the vase stood, and I photographed that
also. Now you know everything. There was no necessity to conceal these
facts from you. I would have told you at once had you asked me."

"That," Dugdale said bluntly, "is a lie. If I had asked you point blank
for the name of the author of those drawings you would have told me that
you didn't know."

Bassano rose angrily to his feet.

"This is an insult," he exclaimed furiously. "I will not be spoken to
like this. You take advantage of your strength and size, signor."

"Sit down," Dugdale commanded. "Don't talk like that. I say you would
have lied to me. And yet I want to help you. I will be your friend if
you will only allow me. Besides, I have not finished! Let us talk about
the Dragon Vase. What is your opinion of it? Do you think it of unique
value, or is it a forgery? Lord Passmore says it is. What is your idea?"

Bassano looked up again. There was no escape from his merciless
opponent.




CHAPTER XXXIII.--THE MOUSE SQUEAKS.


"There are copies," Bassano said evasively, "copies so wonderfully true
that even the greatest experts are deceived. There are only two
authentic Dragon Vases in existence. I am speaking, of course, subject
to correction. Nobody knows what treasures are hidden in the palaces in
China; probably nobody ever will know, in our lifetime at least. Some
time ago Lord Passmore was telling me of a marvellous Dragon Vase in the
possession of his friend, Mr Pearson. I begged to doubt the genuineness
of this article and Lord Passmore described it at length. Then I was
able to tell him that the work was my own. It does not matter whom I
executed it for; it does not matter whether it was intended to pass for
a copy or whether it was to be sold to some collector with plenty of
wealth but little art knowledge. But if you examine the Dragon Vase in
Miss Pearson's drawing-room you will find a certain mark under the paste
in the lid which I have made peculiarly my own. There are half-a-dozen
dealers on the Continent who would be ready to swear to this. Oh, I do
not seek to excuse my conduct. I despise money for its own sake, but I
know neither peace nor happiness without it. There have been times when
I was prepared to do anything for money, and probably there will be
again. No doubt, in time to come, when I am rich and famous, these
ghosts will rise up against me. But there is the chance that I may be
able to buy them up and destroy them, even if I give twenty times their
value. You see----"

Dugdale waved his hand impatiently.

"Enough, of this," he cried. "I am not here to listen to excuses for
your flaming dishonesty. This is no hour for philosophy. You state
deliberately that the Dragon Vase in Miss Pearson's drawing-room is a
forgery. You say that you executed it yourself on commission from some
unscrupulous dealer who saw his way to make a good thing out of the
transaction. Your private mark is on the lid; you have proclaimed this
fact and the value of the vase sinks into comparative insignificance.
Have I put the case fairly and correctly?"

"Like a born advocate," Bassano said admiringly.

"Very well, then, we will take the matter a step farther. Let us
suppose, for example, that the vase is not a forgery. Let us, for the
sake of argument, say that it is genuine. That being so, it would be
worth twenty thousand pounds."

"Five times that at least," Bassano cried. "Perhaps more. There are rich
American collectors who would not hesitate to expend six figures on such
treasure."

"It is very good of you to strengthen my arguments in this fashion,"
Dugdale said grimly. "We will say that the vase is worth a hundred
thousand pounds--if genuine. If a forgery; then it is worth perhaps as
many shillings. But supposing a clever man of boundless ambition sees
his way to make a fortune out of the brilliant idea which suddenly
occurs to him. Now what couldn't he do with a hundred thousand pounds?
He could found a new School of Art and go down to posterity with
Velasquez and Titian and Rembrandt. He might even be held up to future
generations as the greatest of them all, and if he had the right kind of
wife there is no saying where he need stop. A woman like Rachel Varna,
for instance."

Bassano wriggled uneasily in his chair, like a beetle in the forceps of
a naturalist. It was slowly dawning upon him that in Dugdale he had an
intellectual force to cope with, an antagonist who had brains as well as
courage. He knew now that his soul was being laid bare and that his
inmost thoughts were displayed on the glass plate of Dugdale's mental
microscope.

"I see you know what I mean," Dugdale went on. "It was clear for you
what you could do if you had this money. The bare thought of it has
probably coloured all your dreams. A fine opportunity offered itself to
make this money. We will suppose that you devote a fortnight to making a
wonderfully close copy of the lid of the Dragon Vase. When this is done
it would not be difficult to steal into Silverdale and exchange the
false for the true. Then all you would have to do would be to proclaim
the fact that the Dragon Vase is a forgery and as evidence of this you
would point to your private mark on the new lid. In the course of time
the vase is thrown contemptuously aside in some lumber-room and through
an agent it finds its way into your possession. A few months afterwards
the real vase comes to light and you are a rich man."

"That is possible," Bassano said with a ghastly face. "But such an idea
would hardly occur to one."

"It has never occurred to your?" Dugdale asked.

"No," Bassano stammered. "If it had, I might have succumbed to the
temptation."

A smile flickered over Dugdale's face.

"You are not so astute as I thought," he said. "You forget the evidence
I have in my hand. Something like the true solution of the puzzle
flashed into my mind when Lord Passmore told me the story. When I met
you and recognised you as one of Joseph Varna's workmen I became sure of
my ground. I was certain when I saw the genuine lid in Varna's shop and
inferred that you had been working upon it. It was a brilliant idea and
so artistically simple that it would have imposed upon anybody. It is
like some of those amazing conjuring tricks that fill people with
mystification. Thousands of clever people give the solution up in
despair, and yet when the trick is explained they are aghast at their
own density in not seeing it before. This is precisely a similar case,
and I congratulate you upon your ingenuity."

"I don't understand you," Bassano said sulkily.

"Really? I suppose I must enlighten you still farther. Have you
forgotten how angry you were when Quentin picked up the lid of the vase
which lay upon the table in your workroom? You were alarmed lest he
should discover the truth. But fortunately that was reserved for me. You
were so afraid of Quentin and his possible discoveries that you packed
up the lid of the vase with the intention of posting it. No doubt it was
directed to your lodgings in London. You had two schemes in your mind,
which is why you wired the lid outside the paper. You went off to post
and returned empty-handed. I asked you a casual question and you told me
you had deposited your parcel in the pillar-box. Now by accident I found
that such was not the case, because the lid of the jar would not go into
the pillar-slot. Only a few hours before I had tried to post some
parcels for Miss Pearson, and found it could not be done. It is very
foolish of the authorities to erect pillar-boxes where you can't
despatch anything bigger than a letter or newspaper, and I was annoyed
at the time. You can see now how the incident impressed itself on my
mind, and how useful I found it in your case. I knew that you had not
posted the lid of the vase, and cast about in my mind for the actual
means you had adopted to rid yourself of it. You only wanted to hide the
lid till Quentin was gone, after which it would be safe to regain
possession of it. You have perhaps forgotten the one or two casual
questions I asked you, but when they were answered I knew you had hidden
the lid of the vase in the lake. I put my theory to the test
successfully, as you are aware. Now what have you got to say about it?"

Bassano looked round for some avenue of escape. He found it impossible
to meet the steely glint in Dugdale's eyes. He was fairly trapped, and
he knew it.

"Don't mistake me," Dugdale went on. "I am no enemy of yours. You may
not believe it, but I have a high opinion of you, and I should hesitate
a long while before I did anything that would pain Miss Rachel Varna. I
have put everything very plainly before you, and it is for you to say
whether this thing is going farther or not. You can force me to place
the case in the hands of the police, but such a line of action would
check your artistic career. Now take this in your hand and look
carefully. Here is the lid of the Dragon Vase which I drew up from the
bottom of the lake. You would hardly have the audacity to suggest that
you took all this trouble and secrecy over a copy of a china vase. You
would not insult my intelligence by such an obvious fiction. Here you
are!"

Bassano stretched out an unsteady hand and grasped the lid which Dugdale
held out to him. He turned it over and over, looking at it back and
front tenderly and lovingly, but with a curious touch of fear and
uneasiness.

"What do you want me to say?" he asked.

Dugdale threw up his head impatiently.

"The truth, you fool!" he burst out. "The truth, and nothing else.
Between man and man, is not this the genuine lid of Miss Pearson's
genuine Dragon Vase?"




CHAPTER XXXIV.--CONFESSION.


Bassano's glance wandered from the ceiling to the floor, and back again.
He seemed eager to speak, yet looked as if a sense of shame held him
voiceless. Dugdale, contemptuous and impatient, could not but feel sorry
for the man whom he was inviting to proclaim himself a criminal. He was
not without sympathy for the Italian artist. The man's mind was to a
certain extent perverted. He regarded himself as a being with a mission,
justified in employing whatever means would promote his cause. There are
people like this--people in many ways sincere and honest, who contrive
to approve of wrong-doing, provided good come of it. Bassano was this
sort of visionary. Dugdale read him like a book and put a curb upon his
impatience.

"Let me explain," he said. "You wouldn't do such a thing merely to put
money in your pocket. You wouldn't be guilty of a vulgar crime so that
you might live an idle and luxurious life."

"I would not," Bassano burst out eagerly. "I have a call. I feel sure
that it was ordained that I should do this thing--not for myself, oh,
dear no, but because I might have it in my power to leave the world
better and purer that I found it. I may be a fatalist and a dreamer, but
I am not dishonest."

"Well, that is a very nice point," Dugdale said drily. "And a judge and
jury might need a lot of convincing. Still, you have done nothing as yet
likely to land you in serious trouble, and I am disposed to be your
friend, if you are prepared to prevent this matter from going any
farther. You will have to make amends, and in return I promise to be
silent about this indiscretion of yours. I may find some other way to
help you. It will not be my fault if you don't become famous. But you
must tell the truth."

"I will do so," Bassano said quietly. "You are a clever man, signor, far
too clever for me. It is even as you say. The thing came to me one night
in the light of an inspiration. It is a degrading confession to make,
but more than once I have manufactured pieces of china knowing that they
were to be passed off as antiques. Of course, I was never deliberately
told so, and I might have saved my reputation by protesting my
innocence. But all the while I knew. The money tempted me. I have no
tastes and no extravagances; I can live as cheaply as one of your
agricultural labourers. But money with me vanishes in the most
mysterious way. Therefore when the great scheme came to me I did not
fight against it. The very thought of it swept me clean off my feet. I
walked on air. My head was in the clouds. I should amass a large
fortune. I would found a college for the encouragement of all that is
good and true in art. I would place Europe on the same level as Greece
was in the age of Praxiteles. I could see no other point of view, and it
was all so perfectly simple, too. I had made one copy of the Dragon Vase
so perfect that the man who gave me the commission was filled with
admiration. He showed it to one or two experts as a genuine article, and
they could find no flaw in it. What became of it I don't know. Probably
it is now in America in the collection of some rich ignoramus. When I
learned that the real Dragon Vase stood in Miss Pearson's drawing-room,
the chance of my life had come. I knew that Miss Pearson had no great
love for such things; I knew that I could find my way into the house
easily if I wanted to. And just at that moment temptation and
opportunity arrived together. I was working for Joseph Varna at the
time, and into my hands came the genuine lid of the genuine vase. If I
had hesitated before, I could do so no longer. It would have been almost
like flying in the face of Providence. All I had to do was to make a
copy of the lid and keep the genuine one. In making a copy of the lid I
impressed my private mark upon it and the thing was done. Then, when
Lord Passmore introduced the subject, I had only to declare that the
vase was a forgery and that it was the work of my hands. Was not my
private mark on the lid to prove what I said? Lord Passmore could not
know that the genuine lid had ever been in my hands. I convinced him
that what I said was true; I would have gone before a board of experts
and made them believe the same thing. All I had to do was to wait until
Lord Passmore persuaded Miss Pearson to put the vase aside. Then I could
have bought it at my own price. I could have done this through an agent.
I could have taken the vase across the Atlantic and disposed of it for a
fortune. You may heap reproaches upon my head, but there are thousands
of men, supposed to be honest and straightforward, who would have done
the same thing. You see, to a certain extent I have been living in an
atmosphere of deceit all my lifetime. I know scores of dealers who have
boasted of the tricks they have played upon collectors. I can name you a
score of artists who make a living by such dubious means. And always
before me was the college I was going to found. But that is a dream. I
have been found out, and there is an end of it. I will tell Lord
Passmore if you like. You are quite at liberty to inform him what has
taken place between us. Show him the two lids, and he will see at once
that you are speaking the truth."

"I am glad to hear you talk like this," Dugdale said. "There is very
little more to be said. On one matter, however, I should like some
enlightenment. What does Paul Quentin know about the Dragon Vase?"

Bassano shook his head in perplexity.

"I am not sure," he said. "For some time it has been a puzzle to me.
From what you have told me, it was your mission to discover the
hiding-place of the Dragon Vase. I suppose Quentin got upon the track of
it through that drawing in the 'Marlborough Magazine.' He selected you
as his agent in the matter. Is not this so, signor?"

"That's right enough," Dugdale said. "Of course it was no business of
mine. At first it seemed to me that all I could do was to find the vase
and then report matters to my employer. But on that head there is a good
deal to be said. I suppose Paul Quentin does not regard the vase as a
forgery?"

"I should say not, signor. He has never said anything to me about it. He
is an excellent judge of such things. Probably he intends to steal the
vase. I should not be surprised to learn that such is the case. But the
Dragon Vase is a difficult thing to handle, and it will tax his
ingenuity to the uttermost. Don't ask me what I think of Paul Quentin.
The man is a mystery beyond my grasp altogether. And now, signor, as it
is getting late, perhaps you will excuse me."

There was no need to detain Bassano. Dugdale had ascertained all he
wanted to know. He began to see his way to the end and wanted to be
alone. He bade the Italian good night, dropped into his chair, and began
to ruminate upon the events of the evening. It seemed plain sailing now.
He had solved the mystery of the Dragon Vase and had saved Miss Pearson
from a serious loss. She would be grateful when she knew everything.
Dugdale would have rendered her a service and repay the kindness he had
received from her.

But, on the other hand, within a few hours his mission would be
finished. He would have to go away, and might see Mary Pearson no more.
She would forget him in time. She would marry a man of her own wealth,
and might give an occasional thought to Dugdale, when he was engaged in
the struggle for existence. The thought was not pleasant, and Dugdale
hastened to put it out of his mind. He had other things to occupy his
attention, too--the mystery of the Sunningdale diamonds, for one.

This part of the problem puzzled Dugdale exceedingly. He knew that it
belonged to the same plot, but for the life of him he could not see how
it fitted in. Neither could he doubt what Rachel Varna had said. He
would tell Lord Passmore in the morning and advise him to examine the
gems by the strong light of day. It would be easy to ascertain whether
they had been tampered with or not. By natural sequence, this train of
events carried Dugdale to the conclusion that an attempt would be made
upon Lord Passmore's safe this very night. It would be impossible for
the thieves to postpone the matter for another day, seeing that the
diamonds would be in London within a few hours, and in any case Paul
Quentin had not taken the impression of Lord Passmore's safe-key for
mere amusement.

Dugdale set himself grimly to watch till daylight. He propped the door
of the library open, extinguished the light and sat motionless in his
chair. He had plenty to think about, plenty to keep him awake. His brain
was active enough, and he had not the least desire for sleep.

But, after all, he wasted his time. He heard the clock in the room
ticking steadily, he heard the hours chiming, he saw the light of day
stealing through the windows. He slumbered for a moment lightly, and
when he opened his eyes again the morning glory was there and the birds
were singing outside. Then Dugdale crept up softly to his bedroom.




CHAPTER XXXV.--FALSE OR TRUE?


It was nearly ten o'clock before Passmore came down to breakfast. He was
in his most genial mood, and had forgotten his slight attack of
indisposition on the previous evening. After breakfast was over and the
two men were on the terrace, Dugdale introduced the subject nearest to
his heart.

"What are you going to do to-day?" Passmore asked.

"That depends upon the course of events," Dugdale replied. "Possibly I
shall be in London before night. Or I may be here for some days. But I
have a confession to make to you. You have been exceedingly kind and
considerate to me, and if I kept you in the dark any longer I should be
grossly abusing your hospitality. In the first place, I should like to
tell you the true history of Miss Pearson's Dragon Vase. I have heard
you say that you regard it as a clever forgery----"

"Quite reluctantly, my dear chap," Passmore said eagerly. "It was really
a grief to me to find that I was mistaken. I had conceived the highest
opinion of the Dragon Vase. Besides, one does not like one's judgment
shaken in this fashion. I might have refused to believe what Bassano
said, but his proofs were so overwhelming that I really had no
alternative. You see, there was his mark on the lid of the vase."

"Quite so," Dugdale answered. "I am aware of that. But supposing that
Bassano had stolen the real lid and substituted one of his own instead.
An artist of his capacity would have no difficulty in doing a thing of
that sort."

"Impossible," Lord Passmore exclaimed. "Absolutely impossible!"

"My dear Lord Passmore, we have it on the authority of one of the
shrewdest of men that nothing happens but the unexpected. At any rate,
it has happened in this case, and I will tell you all about it. I have
had my suspicions for some time, and I am bound to confess that luck
more than judgment has served me in getting to the bottom of this
business. But I will begin at the beginning and tell you everything,
including my reasons for coming to this neighbourhood at all. Let us sit
down here in the sun. I can give you the whole story while you are
smoking your cigarette. I think I shall interest you."

Dugdale was perfectly correct. Passmore followed with a flattering
attention. He made no interruption until Dugdale reached the end of his
story.

"Remarkable," he commented. "Strange, indeed. I am sorry to hear about
Bassano, but glad to find out that I was not mistaken. It sounds rather
sentimental, but one cannot judge a man like Bassano by ordinary
standards. I must see him presently, and know what he has to say for
himself. But you haven't finished."

"I begin to believe I never shall," Dugdale said. "The whole thing
bristles with side issues and one mystery leads to another, like one of
those amazingly clever nest of balls which the Chinese carve out of
ivory. You would not believe, unless I gave you my word for it, that
Miss Pearson's friend who is dining here to-night is none other than
Miss Rachel Varna, the daughter of Joseph Varna, whom you know quite
well. I am bound to betray confidences, because I cannot finish without
doing so. But that is no reason why you should let her know. Miss Varna
knows that I am aware of her identity and has asked me to keep her
secret. You know that Joseph Varna deals extensively in high-class
jewels and advances money upon them. I am told that many Society ladies
have dealings with him."

"Absolutely correct," Passmore said. "I have done business with Varna
myself. But why do you mention this matter? What has it to do with the
case?"

"It has a great deal to do with it, as you will hear presently. Miss
Varna was present last night when Lord D'Eyncourt made that attempt to
get his mother's jewels back. I didn't like the young man's manner
myself and I have yet to be convinced that he came on behalf of Lady
Sunningdale at all. I watched Miss Varna's face while he was talking and
noticed that she was not only astonished but amused as well. You can
judge of my surprise when she told me later that Lady Sunningdale's
jewels are in Joseph Varna's possession. He advanced a large sum of
money upon them along with a business friend of his. Now, I put it to
you, Lord Passmore, is it possible for a man like that to be deceived?"

"I should say not," Passmore allowed.

"They wouldn't be deceived, they couldn't be. You may take it for
granted that the jewels are where Miss Varna declares them to be at this
present moment."

Passmore's cigarette slipped from his fingers and lay unheeded on the
path. He was terribly agitated.

"This is a dreadful business," he said. "I don't know what to think
about it. It comes as a shock to hear what you say. And look at the
possibility it opens up. If Miss Varna's statement is true, and I see no
reason to doubt it, what have I got locked up in my safe?

"That is just what I am leading up to," Dugdale murmured. "What have you
got in your safe? You examined those diamonds last night, and so did Mr
Quentin. You were both satisfied that you were handling the genuine
articles. I was about to suggest that it would be wise to unlock your
safe and examine the stones by daylight."

Passmore jumped to his feet excitedly.

"Come," he exclaimed, "let us go now. I shall not know a moment's peace
till I have satisfied myself as to what you say. No, on second thoughts,
you had better stay here. I'll bring the cases out and we can examine
them in the strong sunlight."

Passmore reappeared a moment or two later with the shabby green cases
under his arm. He pressed back the old-fashioned clasp, and the great
stones began to wink and gleam in the sunshine.

"There is no doubt as to the genuineness of the cases anyway," he said.
"And the stones look all right, too. But we can soon put them to the
test. I should have accepted them without the slightest hesitation, but
the application of a file will set the matter at rest at once."

Passmore produced a file and passed it over a facet of one of the
stones. When he held the gem to the light he saw that the sharp keen
surface was dull like powdered glass. A shade of anxiety crossed his
face and his lips trembled.

"By Heavens! you are right," he exclaimed hoarsely. "These things are
only paste. The real gems have been removed from their rare old settings
and these sham stones introduced. But to make assurance doubly sure I'll
try one or two more."

The file was applied again and again with the same result. There was no
longer room for reasonable doubt.

"This is wonderful paste," Passmore murmured. "You can see how easy it
was for us to be deceived last night. One took it for granted that one
had the genuine article to deal with, and, really, if you had not
aroused my suspicions I should never have thought of fraud. It would
have been a terrible business for Lady Sunningdale if I had taken these
diamonds to London this morning and disposed of them to Quentin.
Fortunately, I had a telegram from him just after breakfast saying that
his secretary is so unwell that he doesn't like to leave him, and
suggesting that the transaction be postponed till the same hour
to-morrow. This will give me time to look into the matter. I'll go and
see Lady Sunningdale this morning."

"You don't suppose," Dugdale suggested, "that Lady Sunningdale herself
might have----"

"My dear sir, what are you talking about?" Passmore cried. "Lady
Sunningdale is beyond reproach. I would stake my honour upon her
integrity. Her position places her outside the very notion of
wrongdoing. You don't suppose she would be so idiotic as to try to sell
paste, knowing all the while that her own gems were in the possession of
Joseph Varna! I cannot believe that any woman would be so mad."

"I am sure you will excuse me," Dugdale persisted, "but one hears such
strange stories nowadays. In a moment of sudden temptation, her ladyship
might--but I am annoying you."

"Oh, not at all, not at all," Passmore said in tones which belied his
words. "Even admitting for the sake of argument that Lady Sunningdale is
capable of such conduct, she would never tell that young blackguard of a
son what she had done. She couldn't confide in a man like that. If she
had repented at the last moment, she would have come and seen me, or she
would have sent a private message. She need only have said that she had
changed her mind and there would be an end of the matter. But my firm
belief is that Lady Sunningdale knows nothing whatever about it.
However, there is no great mischief done up to now and I'll drive over
to Sunningdale directly after lunch. I shall be back in time for dinner.
It is no use speculating upon this any farther. I am only too thankful
you were able to tell me so much."

Dugdale was content to let it go at that. For the rest of the morning he
wandered about the beautiful house and grounds waiting on events. He
felt sure that something critical would happen before long, but he was
ready and eager. He would be prepared for Quentin when the moment came.




CHAPTER XXXVI.--AFTER DINNER.


There was no opportunity for Dugdale to hear what his host had to say
about the Sunningdale diamonds, for the first gong had sounded before
Passmore put in an appearance. He looked anxious and worried, but spoke
gaily to his guests who had already arrived. They were standing outside
on the terrace.

"This is very deplorable," Passmore said. "I hope you will forgive me,
but I was called away upon most important business and I have only just
got back. I must leave you to make the best of Dugdale till I have
changed."

The dinner passed off pleasantly. Throughout the meal there were no
signs that Passmore had anything on his mind. There was plenty of
daylight when they had finished. It was a warm evening, and Mary Pearson
suggested coffee and cigarettes on the terrace.

"I don't mean to be left to myself," she said lightly. "We should only
sit in the drawing-room and bore one another. What a good thing it is
this modern fashion of men not staying so long over their wine."

Dugdale was willing to assent to anything. His chance of further
intercourse with Mary was so limited that he was glad to make the most
of the present opportunity. He was not displeased, either, to see
Passmore devoting most of his attention to Rachel. That brilliant
mystery was in her best form this evening. She was perfectly at her ease
and was determined to enjoy herself to the uttermost. She had fallen in
love with the garden, she said; she had never seen anything so quaint
and charming. It was a perfect evening to wander amongst the roses.

"So it is," Passmore said. "If I were twenty years younger, nothing
would give me greater pleasure. I could not have resisted an invitation
like that."

"And, surely, you will not decline it now," Rachel laughed. "You will
not permit me to go alone."

Passmore rose eagerly. A moment or two later he and his companion had
disappeared in the rose-garden. They were a long time away, so long that
the darkness had fallen and the moon was beginning to creep up front
behind the trees before they returned. Here was Dugdale's opportunity,
and he decided not to lose it. The warmth and brilliance of the evening
had got into his blood, and he felt inclined to drift with the tide, for
Mary's dark eyes were turned tenderly upon him, and he could catch the
gleam of her white throat and the movement of her arms. For some time he
was silent. He seemed impoverished of words.

"You look strange and thoughtful to-night," Mary said.

"Do I?" Dugdale asked. "Well, perhaps I am. I have had a good deal to
occupy my attention since last night. Do you know, Miss Pearson, that I
believe I have got to the bottom of the mystery? I have found out all
about the Dragon Vase. I know who illustrated the story which has had
such a strange bearing upon your fortunes and mine. There are other
matters connected with the business, but I cannot go into these at
present. If you care to listen to the story I shall be pleased to tell
it you."

Mary looked up with a smile.

"Of course I shall," she said. "Why, the whole thing is a veritable
romance. Just think of our first meeting. Did you ever read anything
like it outside the pages of a novel? If you had not been so brave and
courageous, so cool and so quick to take up the point, we should not be
sitting here this lovely evening. You came into my life in such an
unexpected way that I cannot believe you are intended----"

The girl paused in some confusion. She had meant to say more, but
changed her mind and a faint flush crossed her face. Dugdale bent
forward eagerly. He was so close to her that his hand touched hers.

"Go on," he whispered. "Please don't hesitate. This is one of those
soft, delicious nights when one ought not to be held responsible for
one's actions. I know what I ought to do--I ought to talk to you in a
cold, commonplace way just as if we were ordinary acquaintances. If I
were going to stay a week longer I would do so, but seeing that I shall
leave to-morrow I feel inclined to give myself a little latitude. I
suppose prudence and caution will come in the morning, but I want to
gather my rosebuds now."

Mary smiled delightfully.

"That is good sound philosophy," she said, "especially when the rosebuds
are ready to be gathered and the plucking can do you no harm. But what
will you think of me if I talk in this fashion? I was going to say just
now----"

"Yes," Dugdale interrupted eagerly. "I want to hear what you intended to
say. Please go on."

"I don't think I ought," Mary said. "Besides, why should it all come
from me......? Very well, then I'll tell you. I was going to say that we
were brought together in such a romantic manner that I felt sure Fate
did not mean us to part again so quickly. Now, there's a nice remark for
a girl to make who has the reputation of being cold and self-contained.
If I had been told a week or two ago that I could make a remark like
that I should have smiled at the suggestion. And when it happens in the
case of a comparative stranger, why----"

"But I am not," Dugdale broke out. "You can't call me a comparative
stranger. I feel as if I had known you all my life. I can't believe that
it is only a few hours since first we met, and I can't believe, either,
that in a short time I am going away and I shall never see you again."

Mary Pearson drew a deep, quick breath. Dugdale could see that her face
was sad.

"Then why do you go away?" she asked. "Why not stay? You told me that
you had no friends, that there is no one who cares about you, that your
welfare and your future are all your own. Why not remain? You could look
after my property. My steward is an old gentleman, and more than once
has asked me to find someone younger to take his place. It is a pleasant
life; there is not too much to do, and there would be plenty of time for
sport. There is such a charming house, too. You might do worse."

Dugdale felt as if the evening were getting into his head. The softness
of the night intoxicated him, but did less damage than the glance of
Mary's eyes and the pleading tones of her voice.

"Are you serious?" he asked, "really and truly serious? Do you know what
this means? I couldn't do it: I could not stay. I have no right even to
think about such a thing. I know you mean all that is good and kind, but
I should never be satisfied; I should want more than you could possibly
give me. Besides, there are other people to consider. The comments of
your neighbours----"

Mary laughed in a light, wholehearted fashion.

"You are hopelessly out of date," she said. "As if it matters in the
very least what people say. When I do something wrong it will be time
enough to dread the tongue of gossip. Besides, it would be an act of
charity on your part to give people something to talk about. Don't
refuse my offer without giving it your consideration."

"I won't," Dugdale answered. "But I know I shall not be able to accept
it. And you know why. It is no use you turning your head away like that
and smiling to yourself. You understand me as perfectly as if I had put
my thoughts in words. Do you know I begin to feel sorry I came here at
all? I should not have known you, it is true, but----"

Dugdale paused and Mary glanced at him. There was something half-demure,
half-mischievous in her look, but Dugdale fancied there were tears in
her eyes.

"Go on," she said, "I am all attention."

Hot words trembled on Dugdale's lips. He was on the verge of a
passionate outburst when the sudden reappearance of Passmore and Rachel
Varna checked him. A servant had joined the other two. He was talking
eagerly and Passmore was listening intently. On the still air, the words
floated to the ears of the other two. Mary could hear the word
'Silverdale' and something else that suggested catastrophe. Passmore
looked white and uneasy as he strode along the terrace.

"I have something serious to tell you, Miss Mary," he said. "Since you
have been out this evening an attempt at burglary has been made at your
house and one of your servants has been badly injured. A footman has
just come with the information and wants me to go over to Silverdale at
once. I hope it is not so bad as he says."

Mary jumped to her feet.

"We will all go," she said.

"I think not," Dugdale replied. He was by far the coolest and most
collected of the party. He took the matter into his hands at once, and,
alarmed and excited as Mary Pearson was, she admired Dugdale all the
more for it. "I will ask you to allow yourself to be guided by me. For
the present you will stay where you are and we will go over to
Silverdale and investigate. I am sure I am right."

"Of course he is," Rachel cried eagerly. "We will stay here till you
gentlemen come back."




CHAPTER XXXVII.--ANOTHER CLUE.


Mary Pearson was genuinely distressed. She sat in her chair looking from
Passmore to Dugdale as if relying upon them, as if she had no resources
of her own to go on.

"Oh, my unfortunate house!" she exclaimed. "What have I done to be
worried and bothered in this fashion? Of late I have had nothing but
unhappiness and misery, and I am sure it is no fault of mine. I shall
never feel easy as long as the place remains unprotected."

A gleam of amusement came into Rachel's eyes.

"You can cure that," she said demurely.

Mary was too distressed to notice the flippancy. Dugdale understood what
Rachel Varna meant and felt uncomfortable. But Mary was looking at him
with imploring eyes, asking him in so many words not to desert her in
this crisis. It was very difficult in this rapid march of events to hold
sternly to his resolution. Fate seemed to be forcing him against his
will.

"You are not afraid?" he asked.

"I don't think so," Mary said somewhat doubtfully. "It isn't fear you
know. I am all right when the trial comes, but there is the horrible
dread that something is going to happen that haunts one long before the
event. Perhaps you don't know what I mean."

Dugdale nodded sympathetically. He knew what the girl meant. During the
stress and storm of the dark times in South Africa he had been through
the same thing himself too often not to to comprehend. And he knew, too,
that Mary could bear bravely in a crisis. He had seen her, and the
recollection was not likely to leave him. But they were wanted
elsewhere, and it was useless to discuss the question further. Dugdale
turned resolutely to the door.

"You will remain here till we come back," he said. "We won't be away
longer than we can help. Are you ready, Lord Passmore?"

Passmore was ready. He was looking forward eagerly to the adventure. As
they walked across the park towards Silverdale, Dugdale, who had heard
nothing or his host's visit to Lady Sunningdale, asked about it.

"Oh, that was driven out of my head for the time," Passmore replied. "I
meant to have told you before dinner, but I was detained, and there was
no opportunity. I could not manage to get back sooner. It was an
exceedingly unpleasant business in fact, I don't remember anything more
distasteful."

"Then you found Lady Sunningdale had----"

"No, my young friend, I didn't," Passmore said sharply. "You can dismiss
such a thing from your mind altogether. As I told you before, Lady
Sunningdale's honour is above reproach, and I see no reason to change my
opinion of her conduct. But nevertheless, it was exceedingly unpleasant,
and I should be very sorry to go through it again. To tell you the
truth, Dugdale, I am not up to these kind of things. I lack the
necessary tact. I cannot feel my way to a point. I am afraid that I am
not a diplomatist. I made a sorry hash of to-day's journey. I could kick
myself when I think of my stupidity."

"In what way?" Dugdale asked.

"Ah, that is the point. Perhaps I was not wholly to blame. At the same
time, I might have guessed what had taken place. I may tell you at once
that Rachel Varna was perfectly right, and that Lady Sunningdale's
diamonds are in Joseph Varna's possession. But, Lady Sunningdale had
nothing whatever to do with it, as we might have known if we had only
given the matter a few minutes' consideration. But I could not get rid
of the impression that Miss Varna was wrong and on that assumption I
acted. Come, you are a smart young fellow, can't you see some other way
of explaining the matter?"

"I can't," Dugdale confessed. "But, tell me, according to what you say,
Lady Sunningdale is innocent of anything wrong and therefore some other
person----"

"Quite right," Passmore said drily. "In suggesting some other person you
have hit the point. Now why didn't you think of that before? Why didn't
we guess who the person was? A child might have done so. And yet we go
blundering on in our self-satisfied way, which has ended in catastrophe
so far as I am concerned. You will have no difficulty now in guessing
who the other person was."

Dugdale whistled softly. The whole thing came to him in a flash and he
could understand Lord Passmore's annoyance and disappointment. He began
to cherish a humble opinion of his own judgment.

"So that is the way the wind blows, is it?" he said. "What have you done
about it? What did Lady Sunningdale say?"

"Well, she doesn't know yet. I managed to recover myself before it was
too late. I left Lady Sunningdale under the impression that some one had
stolen her diamonds, but that she would get them back again. So she
will--at a considerable sacrifice, but that is another matter. It will
be a great shock to her when she learns the truth as she must sooner or
later. Still, it is as well she should know, if only to guard against a
similar accident in the future. They had friends dining at Lady
Sunningdale's so that D'Eyncourt could not get away till late. But he
will come over later and I want you to be present at the interview. For
the moment we have more important matters to discuss, so we'll drop the
subject."

They had reached Silverdale by now. They found the household in
confusion, with a group of excited servants in the hall answering the
questions put to them by a self-satisfied policeman. From what Dugdale
could gather somebody in authority was expected every moment. Meanwhile,
it was difficult to learn what had taken place. Dugdale detached one of
the most sensible of the footmen and drew him on one side.

"Now," he said, "tell me what has happened. All those people are
chattering so fast that I can't make head or tail of it. Is anybody
hurt?"

The young footman seemed to recognise the voice of command, for he
pulled himself together and began to give something like a coherent
account of events.

"Well, sir, the butler is rather knocked about," he said. "It was only
by accident that he found what was going on. We were playing cards in
the servants' hall and somebody upset a glass of wine over the pack----"

"Oh, you were drinking wine, were you?" Dugdale said drily. "But what
has that got to do with it?"

"Well, sir, we couldn't do without two packs of cards, and one of ours
was spoilt."

Dugdale smiled grimly. The servants in the Silverdale kitchen had a nice
appreciation of what was right and proper. It was high time they had a
master to look after them. And in an inconsequential way Dugdale
wondered whether he would be the master himself.

"Very inconvenient to only have one pack of cards," was his comment. "I
can understand that no well-conducted kitchen could put up with that
sort of thing. What were you playing?"

"Why, bridge, sir, of course," the footman answered. "We wanted another
pack of cards, and the butler said he would get some out of the
drawing-room. He went off to fetch them, but as he was some time gone I
went to see what was keeping him, and found Dawes lying on his back in
the middle of the room, insensible, and with a lump on the side of his
head as big as my fist. There were no signs of a struggle, but Dawes
doesn't know what happened: he is all dazed and confused like. I called
for assistance, and the other servants came rushing in. Then we heard a
smashing of glass in the conservatory, and I was just in time to see a
man rushing away with something in his hand."

"You would recognise him again?" Dugdale asked.

"I am certain of that, sir," the footman said confidently. "He looked
like a gentleman. He wasn't in evening dress, but I am sure he was a
gentleman."

"Is that all?" Dugdale asked. "Is there anything missing?"

"Well, sir, nothing as far as we can ascertain--that is, nothing except
the big vase that stood in the drawing-room. It seems a funny thing to
take, sir, but that is one of the things they were after. The vase is
missing, and at the bottom of the garden we found the marks of a cart
track--like enough a dog-cart which they brought to take the thing away.
I don't see anything else gone."

Dugdale understood the situation. The man was giving him the right
information. He had half expected something of this kind.

"Did they get away with the vase?" he asked.

"No, they didn't, sir," the footman replied. "I either gave the alarm in
time or it was too heavy for them. We found the vase in a bed of roses.
No, sir, it isn't in the least injured. And that is about all I know. I
dare say when Dawes is better he will be able to tell you some more. But
he got a nasty blow."




CHAPTER XXXVIII.--A MISSPENT LIFE.


As far as could be discovered from a close examination of the
drawing-room, no valuables appeared to be missing. When the butler came
to himself, he gave a more or less collected account of the affair. He
had walked into the drawing-room without troubling to turn on the
lights. He could easily go to the card-table, seeing that the room was
so familiar to him. He would have taken what he required and returned to
his company, if he had not heard the sound of somebody breathing.
Consequently he switched on the electrics in the little drawing-room. He
was amazed to see two men standing there engaged in removing the Dragon
Vase from its pedestal. He was so utterly astonished that he had not the
sense to call for assistance, and before he regained his
self-possession, one of the men struck him a violent blow on the head
with what he thought was the butt end of a revolver.

After that he recollected no more. He had fallen in his tracks, like an
ox. The blow had been directed with a purpose. A little more to the
right and it might have proved fatal.

"That's all I can tell you, sir," Dawes said. He sat with his head in
his hands, still faint and trembling from the shock. "It was so
unexpected. I never dreamt there was anybody in the room. I only turned
on the lights to satisfy myself that it was merely fancy, and then I got
that blow on the head. But I don't remember anything else till I came to
myself with the other servants around me."

"Did you have a good sight of the men?" Lord Passmore asked. "Do you
think you would recognise them again?"

"I am certain as to one of them, my lord," the butler asserted. "The
light was full upon his face for a moment; the features appeared to
spring so suddenly out of the darkness that they are photographed on my
memory, so to speak. He was rather a slight man with mild-looking
features and blue eyes, and his hair was turning grey. I should say he
was about fifty. He didn't look a bit like a thief; in fact, he had
rather a nice face. I should have taken him for a gentleman. I only saw
him for a moment, but I could pick him out amongst a million."

There was little more to be said, but Dugdale was not satisfied. He
wanted to know how the men got into the house and whether the
conservatory door had been locked and what precautions the servants had
taken for the protection of the house before they sat down to their
cards. As he anticipated, what was everybody's business was nobody's
business, and so far as the servants were concerned the whole house
might have been stripped during the absence of their mistress without
their being any the wiser. No one had even troubled to turn the key in
the front door.

"Upon my word," Dugdale remarked, "this seems to be a pretty state of
affairs. One reads of the audacity of burglars entering country houses
while the family are at dinner. It sounds very bold and daring, but it
may be the easiest thing in the world. However, I don't think the same
thing is likely to happen again; at any rate, not this evening. We can
leave matters to the police and return to your house. It will be as well
to relieve Miss Pearson's anxiety."

Lord Passmore fell in with the suggestion. It was a bald story they had
to tell, and though Mary Pearson expressed her relief that things were
no worse, she was in no hurry to get back to Silverdale.

"It is most extraordinary," she said. "It seems almost incredible that a
set of expert thieves should come all this way to steal a big thing like
the Dragon Vase, which I understand, is of no great value. And to whom
could the burglars sell it? Nobody would buy it. It would be almost as
much risk as trying to dispose of a stolen elephant. I wonder if you
have any theory, Mr Dugdale?"

Dugdale shook his head discreetly. He could have advanced more than one
plausible theory, but it was not the time and place to do that. Besides,
he did not want unduly to alarm Miss Pearson. She had gone through a
great deal and her nerves needed a rest. There was consolation in the
fact that she was nearly at the end of her troubles, for in the course
of a few hours it would be beyond the power of Paul Quentin to do
further mischief. It would be time enough to explain then to Mary what
had happened. She rose presently and looked reluctantly around her.

"I suppose we had better be going," she said. "You may call me a coward
if you like, but I am not particularly anxious to return to Silverdale.
Oh, I am going all the same. It does not do to give way to timidity of
this kind. But I think I really must take a trip to Paris if only for
the sake of my poor distracted nerves. If there had been a master in the
house this thing would not have happened."

"I will come with you, if you please," Dugdale said. "Perhaps you would
like me to stay on the premises."

Mary hesitated, then shook her head more or less resolutely.

"Oh, no," she said. "I must be firm. Let us go before I change my mind."

She walked out into the hall and thence into the garden. Dugdale
followed from behind with Rachel Varna by his side.

"Don't come," she whispered, "stay where you are. I am sure there will
be work for you here by and by."

Dugdale thanked the girl with a glance. He had forgotten that his
presence in Lord Passmore's house might be urgently needed. It was all
very well to be thinking about Mary Pearson to the exclusion of
everything else, but he remembered that Passmore's safe had not been
attempted yet. Something of the kind was pretty certain to be tried
before morning.

"I had forgotten that," Dugdale said. "Many thanks for reminding me. I
don't suppose anything is likely to happen at Silverdale this evening. I
believe Miss Pearson is nearly at the end of her troubles."

"I am sure of it," Rachel said demurely. "And so would you be, if you
only had the sense to grasp your opportunity, I dare say you think me
very audacious; perhaps I am. But we have both interests in common, and
I'll help you if I can. You have been very good to me, and a man I think
a deal of, and you will not find me ungrateful. But, really, Mr Dugdale,
when I see how foolish you are, I could find it in my mind to shake you.
After that I will wish you good night."

The girl threw a half-mischievous, half-defiant glance at Dugdale as she
tripped after her companion. Dugdale walked nearly as far as Silverdale.
He accompanied them till the lights of the house were in sight, and then
walked back to Passmore's place. He found the latter in the library
smoking a cigarette and glancing impatiently at the clock.

"Are you expecting anybody?" Dugdale asked.

"Yes, I am expecting D'Eyncourt," Passmore said grimly. "I am extremely
anxious to have a conversation with that young man. I have a good deal
to say to him, and I want you to hear it. I don't think he is likely to
be long, though it is getting late. You must possess your soul in
patience. You are going to hear the story of Lady Sunningdale's diamonds
and how they happened to be simultaneously in Joseph Varna's possession
and in my safe at the same time. It sounds rather like a paradox, but
don't spoil it by asking questions."

Half an hour later Lord D'Eyncourt put in an appearance, the swaggering
insolence of his manner contrasting none too pleasantly with a certain
uneasiness and a shifty glance of his eye. His face was red and
inflamed, too, as if he had been fortifying himself for the interview
with something of a spirituous nature. He threw himself down in a chair
and helped himself to a cigarette.

"Upon my word," he said truculently, "it is too bad to bring me all this
way at this time of night."

"There are longer and more unpleasant journeys," Passmore said
significantly. "It is only six miles from your place to mine, but it is
double the distance to Harefield police station. The road is a bad one,
too."

The young man laughed uneasily.

"I don't know what you mean," he muttered. "I will ask you to speak more
plainly, if you don't mind. Besides, what is this gentleman doing here?
I thought I was to see you on private business. I am here at a great
inconvenience to myself, and the least you could do----"

"Enough of that," Passmore said curtly. "You are here because I sent for
you and because you dare not stay away. In the course of a quarter of an
hour, when the drink you have been fortifying yourself with begins to
lose its effect, you will take a less insolent tone. You accused me
before Mr Dugdale of being concerned in a conspiracy to dispose of your
mother's jewels. You said I had them in the house and I thought that
such was the case. But now I know better. The stones are false, and the
real diamonds are elsewhere. I want you to tell me the true history of
the matter."




CHAPTER XXXIX.--CAUGHT!


It looked as if Lord D'Eyncourt were disposed to bluster. Perhaps he
thought better of the matter, perhaps his Dutch courage was already
evaporating, but he looked uneasily from one to the other as if seeking
for a loophole of escape. He was understood to protest feebly against
Dugdale's presence.

"No," Passmore said firmly, "I prefer Mr Dugdale to be here. So far he
has heard everything and he musn't be put aside now. I want you to tell
me how the thing was done. I have a pretty clear idea of the ingenious
swindle, but I wish to have the story from your own lips."

"But it is a family affair," D'Eyncourt urged.

Passmore waved the suggestion aside impatiently.

"I suppose I shall have to speak plainly," he said. "Now listen to me
and don't interrupt. Your mother is a lady for whom I have the highest
respect. She is a great figure in society, and on more than one occasion
has entertained Royalty. But, great as her position is, these things
cost money. Your father is not much of a business man and latterly
things have been going none too well with him. Your mother naturally
objects to remaining under a cloud of debt and she conceives the idea of
selling the family jewels. She is good enough to put her confidence in
me, feeling that the matter will be safe in my hands. She knows that I
can sell those diamonds in such a way that the transaction will not be
blazoned in the newspapers. She asks me to find a purchaser for the
jewels and I do so. She doesn't tell anybody about it, but by some means
you get to hear of it. Now this does not suit your book at all. If the
transaction goes through you stand a chance of finding yourself in gaol
and of embroiling your mother in a terrible scandal. It would be a
scandal that would carry from one end of Europe to the other. It would
be the very thing for the Socialist Press. You are a sorry and
unscrupulous blackguard, D'Eyncourt, but you are not so lost to right
feeling as to be utterly callous to the state of affairs. But, then, you
are between the devil and the deep sea. Your only chance is to try to
persuade your mother not to sell her stones. You implore her to keep
them and when you find she is resolved on parting with them you resort
to threats. But even threats are useless in this case, because your
mother has given up the diamonds and wants the money urgently. It is
most awkward for you, because unknown to your mother, you have had those
beautiful ornaments copied in paste and pledged the real stones with
Joseph Varna as security for a loan of twenty thousand pounds. That is
how the position stands and that is why you were so desperately anxious
to get the diamonds back. You could have refused to hand them to your
mother unless she promised not to sell them, and rather than cause a
family scandal she would probably have given you the desired assurance.
Your mother does not know yet what has happened, but it was only by
great good luck this afternoon that I managed to keep the knowledge from
her. Of course she will have to know and it will be your pleasant duty
to tell her. A pretty blackguard you are to come here swaggering and
threatening honest people like me."

All the fight had faded out of D'Eyncourt. He sat in his chair quivering
and twitching, his moody glance bent upon the floor.

"You are too clever for me," he whined. "Upon my word, I had to do
something. I got myself into a fearful mess and my father couldn't do
anything to help me. If I hadn't done something I should have found
myself in gaol. It really was a devil of a mess, Passmore. I was at my
wits' end to know what to do and then the scheme came into my mind. I
read it in one of the papers. It is a dodge worked by some clever chap
in America. My mother was over in Paris for a week or two, and I managed
to get hold of her jewels. I had them copied. It cost me a thousand
pounds, that joke, but I could afford it, because I pledged the real
stones with Varna for a large sum. Upon my word, when I come to think of
it, I wonder at my own moderation. I could have raised five times as
much, but I didn't. I only took what was absolutely necessary, don't
forget that."

"That was very considerate of you," Passmore said with a bitter smile.
"What you want to imply, I suppose, is that you are not so big a
scoundrel as I take you for. Well, I suppose, there are degrees of
rascality. Now I don't propose to have any more unpleasantness in the
matter and I am going to let you wriggle out. You are a bad lot,
D'Eyncourt, and you'll never be anything else. You have got to go home
at once and tell your mother all about it. Afterwards I will see Lady
Sunningdale and try to arrange things to avoid a scandal. If you don't
do as I tell you, I shall take the first opportunity of informing Joseph
Varna what has happened and leave you to his tender mercies. If there is
one thing in the world that Varna loves, it is money. In the ordinary
course of things he is an amiable old fellow, but if you rob him you are
rousing a tiger whom you will find savage and remorseless. He will
prosecute you to a dead certainty. Now as the thing is done beyond
recall, your best policy is to make terms with your mother. If she won't
help you, you can't expect clemency from anybody else. I have no more to
say except that the sooner you are out of my house the better I shall be
pleased."

D'Eyncourt dragged himself to his feet and made his way sullenly towards
the door. As he left the house Passmore drew a long breath of relief.

"Pah!" he said. "The place is all the sweeter for that young man's room.
Did you ever see a more contemptible scoundrel? And to think it that he
should come here trying to bluff me in that fashion! It is a sad
business, Dugdale, and from the bottom of my heart I am sorry for Lady
Sunningdale. With all his faults, she thinks a lot of her son, and hopes
that when he has sown his wild oats he will become a respectable member
of society. But, mark my words, he'll end in gaol for a certainty. I
blame myself to some extent in this matter. We were both stupid not to
see what had happened. And now to bed. I am tired and disgusted with the
world to-night."

Dugdale asked permission to sit up longer. He hardly felt inclined to
retire. He debated whether he should tell his host of his suspicions and
what he expected to see and hear before morning. But on reflection he
determined to keep the thing to himself. He wanted to tackle Quentin
single-handed and prove that his suspicions were correct without the
intervention of anybody else.

"My dear fellow, do as you please," Passmore said courteously. "Sit up
all night if you like. You will find everything you want on the table
yonder."

Dugdale thanked his host and bade him good-night. He was not concerned
for the present with the spirit decanter or the cigarette box. He knew
that before morning an attempt would be made on Passmore's safe. The
thieves had not been very successful in their raid upon Silverdale, but
that would not deter them here.

Dugdale sat in the darkness repressing his inclination to smoke. He was
grim and resolute. It should be sink or swim; therefore it behoved him
to be careful, and take no unnecessary risks, for there was danger
enough without increasing it by carelessness. He knew that Quentin would
hesitate at nothing if his liberty were at stake. And so Dugdale sat
waiting quietly and doggedly for the slightest sound from the room
beyond the library where the safe was let into the wall.

The clock on the mantelpiece was striking one when Dugdale thought he
heard a window being pushed quietly upwards. Then an unmistakable
draught of air warned him that the hour had come.

Slipping off his shoes, he crept along the corridor until he stopped
before the little room at the back. He heard the sound of someone
feeling and tapping the front of the safe, then he placed his hand
inside the door and switched on the electric light. At the same moment
he closed the door and locked it. Then he turned to find himself face to
face with Grenadus, who smiled as if the meeting were the most natural
in the world. He was not in the least disconcerted, and dropped into a
chair and crossed his feet with a few words about the weather.

"You look rather surprised to see me," he said. "Would you mind calling
Lord Passmore? An unpleasant thing has happened which I should like to
explain."

"Doubtless Lord Passmore would be glad to have your explanation,"
Dugdale said drily. "I will fetch him in good time. But allow me to
congratulate you upon your good fortune. We heard last night that you
had met with a serious accident. It is astonishing how little impression
these things make on some people. It must be a relief to Mr Quentin to
know that you are no worse. Your welfare is very dear to him."

Grenadus's hand began to disappear behind his back. Then Dugdale leaped
at him and caught him by the throat.




CHAPTER XL.--A DOUBLE LIFE.


Grenadus staggered. He was taken aback by the suddenness of the
onslaught, but he made no protest, and Dugdale saw from the gleam in his
eyes that he was only just in time. He knew that Grenadus had a revolver
in his pocket. He was astonished to find how strong his antagonist was.

But, barring accidents, there could only be one issue to the struggle.
Dugdale was all wire and whipcord himself, he was half as big again as
Grenadus and, besides, he was a perfect master of the art of wrestling.
Seeing that his project was futile, Grenadus recoiled and made a grab
with his left hand at one of the electric globes. Dugdale perceived what
was passing through his antagonist's mind. He meant to smash the globe
and plunge the room in darkness, trusting to good fortune later to
effect his escape. Dugdale dragged him backwards into the middle of the
room and gradually bore him to the ground.

Grenadus was struggling desperately, his breath came in quick, fitful
gasps, and his teeth showed like those of a snarling dog. There was
murder in his eyes, but behind it a certain despairing gleam as if he
knew that his time had come.

He was down on the floor at last, his face pinned to the carpet, whilst
with a knee mercilessly pressed into the small of his back Dugdale was
feeling for the revolver. He had it in his pocket a moment later and
then curtly bade Grenadus rise.

The latter swayed as he came to his feet. He gasped and reeled backwards
and forwards as if his heart had failed him as well as his strength and
it was some time before the colour crept back to his lips. He staggered
into an armchair and sat with his head between his hands.

Then he looked up angrily.

"This is pretty conduct," he panted. "This is a nice way to treat one of
Lord Passmore's guests. Are you mad?'"

"I fancy not," Dugdale said coolly. "If there is any mistake, it is
yours, not mine. There is nothing to gain by keeping up this farce, I
assure you. You are no guest of Lord Passmore's, you are only a vulgar
thief come to burgle his lordship's safe. I haven't opened that black
bag yonder, but I know what it contains. It is full of house-breaking
instruments. If I am wrong, I am prepared to apologise and let you go.
But, of course, I am not wrong. I propose to call the police, and give
you into custody. There is something almost amusing in a brilliant
criminal like you risking life and liberty for the sake of a set of
diamonds which are nothing but paste."

A quick cry broke from the other's lips.

"I knew it," he exclaimed. "I felt pretty certain of it last night, but
it seemed impossible to believe that Lady Sunningdale could be guilty
of----"

The speaker paused in some confusion. There was a dry grimness in
Dugdale's smile.

"Oh, she wasn't," he said shortly. "Lady Sunningdale is innocent. But
how do you come to know about it? Surely, you didn't see the diamonds
last night! I was present, and no one was there except myself, Lord
Passmore and your astute employer, Mr Quentin. You don't mean to say
that you are Mr Paul Quentin and Mr Grenadus--two single gentlemen
rolled into one, so to speak."

A sickly pallor spread over the listener's face. He looked helplessly,
almost despairingly about him, then forced a smile to his lips. It was
an engaging smile, too, and might have deceived anybody less well posted
than Dugdale.

"What do you know?" he whispered.

"Well, in a general way, I may say that I know everything. I know all
about the diamonds, for instance. I know all about the Dragon Vase,
too."

"A forgery," Grenadus murmured. "Bassano is quite right. I shall be
equal with him presently."

"I don't think you will," Dugdale retorted. "In fact, I don't think you
will be equal with anything excepting your own record. You are too
dangerous a man to be let loose on society again."

"Now listen," Grenadus burst out. "I see that further concealment is
useless. Do you know that I am rich? Do you know that I could put a
hundred thousand pounds in your pocket, and nobody need be a bit the
wiser. Nobody need know where the money came from. You are ambitious and
clever and might attain to any position with a big bank balance behind
you. Still, being poor----"

"Oh, I am poor enough," Dugdale interrupted. "I think that, for my
position, there is not a poorer man in England. And I am ambitious, as
you say. If the money you speak of were in my pocket, I could buy such
happiness as few people dream of. Without it I must go my own way and
when I have spent a few pounds in my purse I shall have the world to
face again. I shall have to go through the old degradation and drudgery
once more. But even with this knowledge before me, you can't tempt me,
Mr Quentin."

"Quentin?" the other stammered. "What do you mean?"

Dugdale shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, enough of that," he said. "I told you just now that I knew
everything. I have had my suspicions for some time, but they have become
certainties. It was a clever dodge of Mr Quentin to have a secretary
called Grenadus. If Grenadus got into trouble no one would be sorrier
and more surprised than his employer, Mr Quentin, provided that Grenadus
didn't get laid by the heels. I can imagine Mr Quentin's grief and
indignation at finding that his trusted secretary Grenadus was one of
the most audacious criminals of modern times. My suspicions were aroused
by the fact that no two people who had ever seen Mr Paul Quentin could
agree as to his personal appearance. When the solution of the mystery
first occurred to me, it struck me as being almost fantastic. But when,
I came to make an inquiry or two I began to feel more sure of my ground.
I discovered that nobody had ever seen Quentin and Grenadus together. If
Quentin gave an audience to anybody Grenadus was never there and vice
versa. They would pop in and out of the room one after the other, but
never together. Of course, it was no easy matter actually to prove this,
but fortune was kind enough place the clues in my hand. From the very
first I felt pretty sure that Mr Quentin's kindness to me at the
Blenheim Restaurant was no more than a little comedy played to earn my
gratitude and enlist my energies. The same good fortune brought me to
Silverdale, where I discovered the Dragon Vase by the purest accident. I
also came upon you by the purest accident, too. Don't you recollect?"

"I don't know what you mean," the other said sullenly.

"Oh! yes, you do. Probably you struck the track of the Dragon Vase
within a very short time of giving me my commission. You didn't expect
that I should be so quick on the trail. You decided to have a go at it
yourself. That is why you choose to play the part of the sham Dr Prince,
who was staying with Miss Pearson's friend, Dr Harper. That was a
brilliant performance, and I congratulate you upon it. But it was a
cowardly thing to attack the young man whom you took to be Miss
Pearson's servant. Perhaps when I tell you that the young man in
question was no other than Miss Rachel Varna in disguise, you will begin
to see how much I really know."

The man's eyes gleamed.

"Go on," he said, "you interest me."

"No doubt," Dugdale said drily. "I am glad of that, because you have
interested me considerably for some time past. At that moment I had
guessed nothing. I merely thought that a madman had found his way to
Silverdale. It seemed to me that I was saving Miss Pearson's life, and
it was not till the sham Dr Prince had escaped from Silverdale that I
began to get an intelligent grip of the situation. You will remember how
you managed to escape from the bedroom window with the aid of Antonio
Bassano. How much or how little he knows of the truth does not matter
for the present. But you very nearly came to grief, you had a nasty
experience, and I found you on the floor of the conservatory. But,
knocked about as you were, you contrived in the briefest interval to
assume your disguise and stand before me as Grenadus. There was an ugly
cut on the side of your face, but you were Grenadus all the same, and at
that moment I had no real idea as to your identity. I accepted your
explanation and let you go. It was only when I found that the so-called
Prince had escaped also that I began to put two and two together. I was
utterly mystified at first; then the real solution came to me like an
inspiration. I was able to put my theory to the test when Mr Paul
Quentin came to see Lord Passmore about Lady Sunningdale's diamonds.
Your face was made up very cleverly. No doubt Bassano was responsible
for that. But I knew that the mark was on your temple and I was able to
make it out under the strong light of the electrics. If you will
recollect, I had an accident with a bottle of soda water. I splashed
your face with it. It was nothing, but it was sufficient for my
purpose."




CHAPTER XLI.--DRAGGED TO LIGHT.


Quentin showed his teeth in an angry snarl.

"Have you any more to say?" he asked.

"Very little," Dugdale replied. "I have nearly finished. There was
little or nothing to learn, after this. All I had to do was to wait for
your attempt on Lord Passmore's safe, which I knew you would make when
you refused to take the diamonds with you. It was a bit of bad luck that
the diamonds turned out to be paste, but you could not know that, you
were going to keep your money and have the diamonds, too. Probably you
would delay the attempt for another night, because you wanted the Dragon
Vase first. You did not believe that the vase was a forgery until you
had ascertained it for yourself. And even now you have your doubts. To
set them at rest, I may say that the Dragon Vase is no forgery, though
the fault was not Bassano's. It was a bit of bad luck to be interrupted
in your raid on Silverdale and very rough to drop your cigar case and a
signet ring in the struggle. I don't know who your confederate was and
it doesn't very much matter. But if the butler at Silverdale can
recognise you that will suffice. As long as I keep you here in safe
custody I shall have no difficulty in establishing your identity, both
as Quentin and Grenadus. If you got away, I have no doubt that Paul
Quentin could easily bring forward an alibi calculated to satisfy any
jury. But when the paint is removed from your face, and the drugs you
place in your eyes lose their effect, and your hair comes to be washed,
we shall have Paul Quentin in the flesh right enough. Oh, I quite
appreciate what half an hour's liberty would be worth to you. That is
why I am guarding you so carefully and why I took the precaution to
remove your revolver. No doubt when investigations come to be made Paul
Quentin will prove to be a marvellous international thief, for whom the
police have been searching in vain for years. There have been many
instances of the kind in the annals of crime, and I don't wonder at the
authorities being baffled. The way you change your facial appearance is
wonderful. If I remember rightly, the late lamented Charles Peace had a
similar gift. But you have come to the end of you tether, Mr Paul
Quentin. Before long the whole world will know the history of your
career. Now are you ready?"

Quentin made no reply for a moment. He appeared to be carefully weighing
the situation.

"I made a mistake with you," he said slowly. "I ought to have taken you
into my confidence. I ought to have so planned it that you would have
found yourself in a compromising situation in which you would have been
glad to make terms with me. You can smile, if you like. Men as honest as
you have been under my hand before now, especially when they were poor
and struggling and looked like facing a gaol through no fault of theirs.
It is only the first step that counts, the rest of the downward track is
easy, and when you find yourself living in luxury and splendour you
shrug your shoulders and ask yourself whether it matters. Why, man
alive, that is how I began myself. I was as honest as you once. I knew I
had brilliant talents, which I could not turn to advantage. I saw men
with not a tithe of my abilities growing rich, while I did not know
which way to turn to obtain a living. And they were not particularly
honest men, either. They had just brains enough to keep themselves out
of reach of the law. Well, it is a long story and hardly worth the
telling. At any rate, I am what I am to-day. I thought you were brave
and reckless. I thought you would do for me. Where I made the mistake
was in under-rating your mental capacity. Most soldiers are stupid
people--a little narrow and groovy, and perhaps that is why I despised
you. But you have got the best of Paul Quentin, as no man ever did
before. Now what do you know against me, except the matter of the Dragon
Vase and Lady Sunningdale's diamonds?"

"Nothing," Dugdale admitted, "absolutely nothing."

"Very well, then. You have no cause to grumble. I haven't got the vase
and I haven't got the diamonds. In that case you can afford to be
magnanimous. Why not let me go and say no more about it? I can make you
rich, for I am no needy wretch compelled to do this kind of thing for a
living. I made my fortune long ago. I love these adventures for their
own sake. I am not happy without them. You may not believe it, but I am
a man with an incurable sorrow, and these little episodes enable me to
forget. Now don't be rash; don't decide on the spur of the moment; don't
throw away the substance for the shadow. If you hold your tongue and
open that door for me, by this time tomorrow you will be the richer by a
hundred thousand pounds. You are the first man who ever got the best of
Paul Quentin, but he bears no malice, and is willing to pay the price. I
don't mind the money in the least. I will pay that over cheerfully. And,
remember, Miss Pearson and Lord Passmore will not be a penny the worse
for your clemency. Besides, if you listen to the voice of reason you
will be able to marry Miss Pearson without feeling that you have had
designs upon her personal fortune."

The blood flamed hotly into Dugdale's face. He was angry and annoyed, to
think that this man should read him. If there had been a drop of pity in
his heart, it froze now.

"You are wasting your breath," he said. "You can't tempt me in this
fashion! I may be poor, but I have my self-respect. Besides, I have a
shrewd notion that worse crimes than these can be laid to your credit.
No, Mr Quentin, I am not going to allow you to prey on society any
longer. Stand up. Turn your face to the wall and don't move."

Quentin did as he was told obediently. He shrugged his shoulders, and
appeared resigned to the inevitable. Dugdale walked as far as the door
and called Passmore loudly by name. The interview had not taken many
minutes. He calculated that the master of the house was still up. Nor
was he wrong, for Passmore appeared a moment later and demanded what was
the matter.

"One moment," Dugdale whispered. "Will you be good enough to rouse one
of your servants, and send him to Harefield for the police. He had
better bring an inspector with him. I have the sham Dr Prince here, and
I feel pretty sure the authorities will be glad to see him. I have
another surprise in store for you, too."

Dugdale was not mistaken. Passmore wildly exclaimed as he caught sight
of Quentin. He plied Dugdale with a score of questions. Briefly but
clearly the latter told his amazing story. He had hardly finished when a
scared-looking footman entered the room followed by two policemen,
accompanied by an inspector and a little dark man who announced himself
as Superintendent Henson of Scotland Yard.

"I took the liberty of coming over, my lord," Henson said. "I have the
matter of the outrage upon Silverdale in my hands. It was given to me on
my return from America. I have a theory of my own about it and that is
why I came with Inspector Parsons. I think I have met this person
before."

Quentin looked smilingly at the speaker. His easy sang froid was
returning.

"I am afraid you have the advantage of me," he said.

Henson was puzzled. He regarded Quentin with his head on one side, like
a terrier dog. He murmured something about a striking likeness, but was
clearly at fault.

"Try some warm water and a sponge," Dugdale suggested. "Wash his face,
then you may be able to see something that will give you the key you
require."

Quentin laughed; then in an extra-ordinary manner his face changed
completely. He passed his handkerchief over his features and appeared to
wipe off a mask at the same time. Even the colour of his eyes faded to a
lighter blue.

"The game is up," he said. "I recognise when I am beaten. I have had two
great surprises to-night--one to find myself cornered and the other to
find in Mr Dugdale an honest man. I offered a hundred thousand pounds
for liberty and he refused to let me go. I have done no harm to any of
his friends, and he knows that I would have paid him the money. But he
would have none of it. Well, I have had a good time, and I suppose this
was inevitable sooner or later. Now, Henson, do you recognise me?"

"James Logan," Henson cried. "So we've got you at last, have we? I have
suspected this for some time, my lord, but I have not been able to prove
it. This is a bit of rare good luck and I congratulate Mr Dugdale on his
skill. Logan has been far too clever for us, and he might have defied us
for years. Charges against him? There will be five hundred as soon as
America knows we have arrested him. And a bitter, black scoundrel he is,
too. I could tell you stories about him all night."

"I think that will do," Quentin said with some dignity. "I am sorry to
have caused you this inconvenience, Lord Passmore, but it has been in
the way of business. Now, Henson, I am ready for you. Good-night, Mr
Dugdale. I bear you no malice and you are certainly the smartest man I
have ever met. But I am sorry we ever came across one another. It was a
very expensive dinner for me, that dinner at the Blenheim Restaurant."




CHAPTER XLII.--LAST WORDS.


Henson was not far wrong in his statement that Quentin's trial would
prove of international interest. The man's career formed a thrilling
romance. There were scores of episodes, each of which furnished material
for an engrossing volume. There was no end to Quentin's resources, no
limit to his ingenuity. But at the close of a fortnight he was found
guilty and sentenced to a life term, to which he listened with perfect
equanimity and a gay smile. He stepped from the dock and was lost to the
world for ever and in the course of a few days was more or less
forgotten. So many were the charges against Quentin that the affair of
Dr Prince and the attempt on the Dragon Vase, to say nothing of Lady
Sunningdale's diamonds, were never brought up. Besides, Passmore was
most anxious to keep the affair of the diamonds quiet. With his position
and influence he succeeded, but it occupied a deal of his time and for
the next month or two Dugdale saw nothing of him.

Nor was it pleasant for Lord Passmore to have to tell Lady Sunningdale
how her diamonds had found they way into the custody of Joseph Varna.
But the truth had to be told, and the jewels redeemed and then disposed
of to another customer whom Passmore found ready to his hand. By this
time the trial of Paul Quentin was over and the sensation-loving public
had begun to talk about something else.

Bassano's indiscretion, too, had been confined to two people who were
not likely to say anything about it. It was Passmore who obtained for
Bassano an exceedingly liberal commission from a great American
collector and thus paved the way for his marriage with Rachel Varna.
Joseph Varna's advancing years led him to retire from business, and
devote the rest of his life to his own art collection, which was by no
means inconsiderable. Rachel's wedding was a quiet one, attended only by
Miss Pearson, Passmore and Dugdale. After the ceremony was over Passmore
took Dugdale on one side. Mary Pearson had disappeared. She had an
appointment with a friend, she said, and then he was going to Silverdale
without delay.

The excitement was over. John Dugdale had finished his commission. He
found himself face to face with the world once more, with only a few
pounds in his pocket. He was feeling dejected and miserable, all the
more so because the sight of Mary Pearson's pale, beautiful face and
pleading eyes had revived bitter-sweet memories.

"What are you going to do Dugdale?" Passmore asked.

"What can I do?" he answered. "I am alone in the world. I have no
friends in London and my pockets are empty. I have been in
correspondence with an old tenant of my father's who is now farming in
Canada. He is a good sportsman and, I believe, would do anything for me.
I am fond of an outdoor life, I have been accustomed to rough it, and I
rather fancy I shall like the existence out yonder. At any rate I am
going to take up some land and start farming for myself. It will be in a
humble way, but there will be something to do and I shall have plenty to
occupy my mind."

Passmore smiled significantly. It was perhaps as well that Dugdale kept
moodily in front of him and did not notice the expression of his
companion's face.

"It sounds plausible," Passmore assented. "But I should like to discuss
the matter with you. There are one or two points, too, in that Quentin
business that have never been satisfactorily explained. Now that you
have nothing to do for a day or two and I am alone, in that big house, I
want you to come down with me. There is a train at five o'clock."

Dugdale hesitated. He had half a mind to refuse, but he was alone and
time hung heavily on his hands. It was hot and stifling in town and he
sighed for the sweet, open breath of the country. Anything was better
than being stewed up in stuffy lodgings. And, besides, he need not stay
more than a day or two with Passmore. He need not see Mary Pearson at
all. He could say good-bye to her just before he was leaving. Almost
before he knew what he was doing, he consented, and at seven o'clock the
same evening he was walking up and down the terrace in front of the
grand old house dressed for dinner. Ten minutes had barely elapsed when
two figures appeared on the scene, and partly to his delight, partly to
his annoyance, Dugdale saw that one of them was Mary Pearson. He turned
and saw a smile on Passmore's face. The latter appeared to be amused.

"What does this mean?" Dugdale asked.

"Oh, I quite forgot to tell you," Passmore said. "Miss Pearson and her
aunt are dining here to-night."

Passmore went to welcome his guests, and a moment later Dugdale found
himself shaking hands with a gentle-faced, grey-haired lady who seemed
to know all about him.

"I am so glad to meet you," she said. "My niece is always talking about
you. It was wonderfully brave of you. But I see you would rather not
discuss the matter. What a good thing it would be if Mary had a brother
like you, or even a husband. You know we want a man at Silverdale. Mary
has been quite different lately, so restless and nervous."

Dugdale smiled in spite of himself. It looked as if the fates were
conspiring to bring him and Mary Pearson together. He was not aware that
Passmore had arranged the whole business and that the elder lady was in
the conspiracy. For Mary's aunt was inclined to be sentimental. She
would welcome a romance of this kind. Dugdale began to have a faint grip
of this when Passmore and the older lady went off after dinner and left
Mary and himself together. The thing was done so palpably, and
shamelessly, that Mary Pearson laughed.

"You are amused?" Dugdale asked.

"At my own thoughts," Mary said. "Let us go outside, shall we? I would
rather not be indoors on a night like this. But I don't believe you are
in the least glad to see me."

Dugdale swallowed something at the back of his throat.

"You know better than that," he said steadily.

"Well, perhaps I do," Mary admitted. "Oh, I wish you weren't so horribly
proud. Perhaps I ought not to complain, because people tell me I am
proud and self-contained myself. Yet, one can't help it. The proud and
self-contained people are always the most sensitive. I suppose it is
because they expect so much and get so little in return."

Mary was talking quickly and nervously. They were walking side by side
along the terrace till they came to an angle of the house where the
trees grew in profusion around them, and where a stone seat invited them
to sit down and rest.

"We both share the same misfortune," Dugdale said.

"Why?" Mary asked eagerly. "I am sure we both understand one another.
Now, tell me what you are going to do. How long are you going to stay
here? What are your plans?"

Dugdale disclosed his plans so far as he knew them. He saw that Mary was
deeply interested, and spoke from his heart. He was not aware how
closely his companion was following his inmost thoughts.

"But you will be very lonely," she urged. "You will have no congenial
companions, and the work will be dull to a degree. I ought to be
offended with you because you refuse my offer. I cannot see why you
should not accept it. Now, confess, did not you want to accept it?"

"I did," Dugdale said.

"Then, why don't you? Do you want me to ask you again and again? I have
not so many friends that I am anxious to lose them. Oh, won't you stay?"

Again Dugdale hesitated. He saw the rich, red blood rise to his
companion's cheeks and the glitter of half-angry tears in her eyes. And
yet her face was wonderfully soft and pleading.

"It is hard to say no," he pleaded. "But I am ambitious, and it would
take more than that to satisfy me. If I stay I shall want more than the
mere management of your property, and you might find me strong and
masterful, you might find me controlling your life as well. Do you
understand.. .. Mary?"

The girl held out her hands to him impulsively.

"Oh, yes, I understand," she cried. There was a great note of gladness
in her voice. "I understand perfectly. You can't go back now, John. What
must you think of me?"

He made no attempt to draw back. Instead, he reached out eagerly, and
fiercely caught her in his arms. There was a long, delicious, silence.
Then she looked up tremblingly and demurely, her dark eyes brimming with
tears, but her face radiated with a new beauty and happiness that
startled Dugdale.

"You know what I think of you," he whispered, "you have always known. I
am afraid this has been inevitable. Well, I suppose it doesn't matter
what people say. They will think that I married you for your money."

"That is not the truth," Mary said. "They will never know that the proud
and haughty Mary Pearson stooped to ask a man to marry her. You know I
did; you need not shake your head like that. And I have my reward, for I
am the happiest girl in all the world!"



THE END



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