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Title: Paul Quentin Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200211h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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• I - The Yellow Dinner
• II - Jekyll Or Hyde?
• III - A Daughter Of The South
• IV - The Mistress Of Silverdale
• V - "The Purple Curtain"
• VI - The Dragon Vase
• VII - "He Is No Friend Of Mine"
• VIII - No Name
• IX - Genuine Or Not?
• X - The Voice Of The Charmer
• XI - A Critical Opinion
• XII - The Peer's Story
• XIII - A Puzzle For Dugdale
• XIV - On The Road
• XV - On Delicate Ground
• XVI - Half Told
• XVII - A Strange Story
• XVIII - Antonio Bassano
• XIX - A Master Of Craft
• XX - The Letter-Box
• XXI - The Lid Of The Jar
• XXII - Friend Or Foe?
• XXIII - My Lady's Diamonds
• XXIV - Love Or Duty?
• XXV - The Fishing Rod
• XXVI - What The Lake Held
• XXVII - Confirmation
• XXVIII - Doubt
• XXIX - Viscount D'Eyncourt
• XXX - The Safe
• XXXI - An Unsuccessful Cast
• XXXII - Cat And Mouse
• XXXIII - The Mouse Squeaks
• XXXIV - Confession
• XXXV - False Or True?
• XXXVI - After Dinner
• XXXVII - Another Clue
• XXXVIII - A Misspent Life
• XXXIX - Caught!
• XL - A Double Life
• XLI - Dragged To Light
• XLII - Last Words
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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!
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?"
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."
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."
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."
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."
"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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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?"
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."
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."
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?"
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?"
"Could you manage it this evening?" he asked.
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."
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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!"
"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."
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."
"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.
"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?"
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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!"
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