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Title: The Lady in Blue Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201411h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 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. Borrowed Plumes
II. The Ivory Mask
IV. A Press Mystery
V. The Torn Cuff
VI. What The "Herald" Knew
VII. "Find The Lady"
VIII. "Number 17"
IX. "The Stage-Box"
X. The First Avenue
XI. "Not Known"
XII. Baris Court
XIII. The Woman Speaks
|XIV. The Woman In Blue
XV. Drawn Blank
XVI. Enter The Princess
XVII. A Woman's Way
XVIII. Something Like A Clue
XIX. The Black Mackintosh
XX. The Woman In The Rusty Bonnet
XXI. Clutton Takes A Hand
XXII. The Spider's Web
XXIII. Baiting The Trap
XXIV. The Trap Stands Open
XXV. The Turning Screw
XXVI. A Desperate Step
|XXVII. The Beckoning Hand
XXVIII. In The Trap
XXIX. Taking The Risk
XXX. Polly To The Rescue
XXXI. Towards The Light
XXXII. A Matter Of Conscience
XXXIII. The Shadow Of A Crime>
XXXIV. A House Of Sorrows
XXXV. Steeped To The Lips
XXXVI. A Smashing Blow
XXXVII. A Double Life
XXXVIII. The Naked Truth
Rupert Kelso shivered as he settled himself in his seat. Outside it was raw and damp, with the streets streaming with moisture; indeed, it was more like November than June, but there, in the supper room of the Regent Restaurant, everything was warm and bright and alluring to a degree. It was a glorious change for Kelso, after three years' hard work in Nigeria, and he was appreciating it to the tips of his long, brown fingers. He had a pleasing vision of colour in which coral pink predominated, a dazzling kaleidoscope of silken draperies broken here and there by the flashing of many gems. For it was Sunday evening, in the height of the season, and the most exclusive restaurant in Europe was thronged. As a matter of fact, Kelso was very lucky to be there at all, and he was congratulating himself that he had come here with Mark Denver, the brilliant and popular dramatist, who was welcomed everywhere and who always commanded that which less-favoured mortals sighed for in vain. But then, Denver was something more than a successful playwright; indeed, some day he would be the Earl of Denver, and his mother's fortune rendered him independent of the profession which he had adopted. He and Kelso had been at Harrow and Trinity together, and the warm friendship which had sprung up there had never slackened. It was good to be home again, good to feel the glow and thrill of life and once more to be in touch with civilisation.
For some little time Kelso sat there, taking in the whole vivid scheme of colour until gradually everything seemed to narrow down into the focus of one beautiful, pathetic, pleading face. It was a white face with the faintest touch of colour in it, and framed in a mass of glorious chestnut hair. Kelso noted the ivory smoothness of the brow and the eyes blue and clear like pools of blue under a summer starlight sky. It seemed to Kelso that it was the most dainty and fascinating face that he had ever seen. The red lips smiled from time to time, but the smile was unsteady; indeed, it had been the half-unconscious appeal of those eyes that touched Kelso even more than the girl's beauty had done.
She was sitting very close indeed, so close that it was possible to distinguish the pattern of the embroidery on her corsage and to note the purple shadow of the lashes that fringed her eyes from time to time. She was not alone, for at the table with her was a young man immaculately dressed, vapid and expressionless in the well-bred way, and, as Kelso glanced at him with a certain faint contempt, he was conscious that the young man was just as disturbed and uneasy as the girl on the opposite side of the table.
The third member of the party at that table was entirely at her ease. She was magnificently, not to say daringly, dressed, and her bosom literally blazed with diamonds. There was, moreover, a diamond in her dusky hair, before which all the rest of the stones seemed to dwindle and grow pale, like rush lights by the side of an electric flare. There was no occasion for Kelso to ask Denver who this woman was, for he recognised her at a glance. Blanche Trevenner, of operatic fame, had been a great theatrical star long before Kelso had left England, and, apparently, she was still riding high in a firmament of her own.
"Wears well," Denver said, as if following his friend's thoughts. "And yet she must be thirty-five if she is a day."
"Yes. Still at Covent Garden, I suppose?"
"Well, no. Between ourselves, my dear fellow, the divine Blanche's voice is not exactly what it was. It takes a good judge to note the difference, but, still, there is the difference, and that's why the great diva elected to leave the operatic stage to shine resplendent in musical comedy. It sounded all very pretty and patronising and caused a good deal of stir at the time. Really, it produced an enormous increase of salary, which our fair friend sadly needed, for she is up to her neck in debt, though you wouldn't think it to look at her this moment."
"You are right there," Kelso smiled. "Those diamonds!"
"Yes. Then, you see, they may be diamonds and they may be paste."
"Not the one in the hair," Kelso exclaimed. "I don't profess to be a judge, but I wouldn't mind gambling on the integrity of that tiara arrangement. But, to tell you the truth, Mark, I am a great deal more interested in that exquisitely pretty girl on the other side of the table. What a lovely face it is, with its suggestion of sorrow and that appealing look in those blue eyes! Do you mean to say that you haven't noticed her?"
Denver fitted his glass carefully into his eye.
"Well, upon my word, I hadn't," he confessed. "Yes, exactly as you say. Poor little girl, I wonder what's the matter! I give you my word that this is the first time I have ever seen Audrey Blair without a smile on her face."
"You know her, then?" Kelso asked eagerly.
"My dear chap, of course I do. There is no actress of repute that I don't know. What? Yes, I admit that she doesn't look like it, but she is quite one of our leading lights in musical comedy. Three years ago no one had ever heard of her, and now, next to Blanche Trevenner she is reigning favourite at the Sovereign Theatre. No, I can't tell you anything more about her besides that. Where she came from I haven't the slightest idea. And no one seems to know where she lives. She appears at most social functions and then, discreetly, vanishes as mysteriously as Cinderella. Of course, there are all sorts of stories told about her, the most popular one being that she supports a decayed aristocratic family, who would all die with shame if it became known that they had a relative on the stage. At any rate, the girl's a lady, despite the fact that she did start her career in an East End music-hall. She may be a trifle vain and a little extravagant in dress, but, beyond that, she's all good and pure, I'm sure. If you like, when we reach the liqueur and coffee stage, we will go across and join them."
Kelso accepted the suggestion eagerly enough. He was more than anxious to make the acquaintance of the girl with the pathetic face and pleading eyes. There was something about her that appealed to him as no woman had ever before. He was no squire of dames, no drawing-room lounger, agile amongst the teacups, and, hitherto, women had not troubled him at all. But the sight of that exquisite face, under the glory of red-gold hair, set him thinking of other things besides big game and the love of adventure. He was thinking now of that fine old place of his down in the west, and how shamefully he had neglected his responsibility towards the estate of late years. After all said and done, there was no place like the old country, and a man might do far worse than marry and settle down.. .. .
He came out of his dream, presently, to find himself bowing before Madame Trevenner and shaking hands with Audrey Blair. The vacuous-looking young man glanced gloomily from his coffee cup and stammered something which sounded like a welcome. He appeared to be making some sort of a struggle to throw off the mantle of depression, which seemed to fit him as well as his perfectly-cut dress coat. The only persons of the party who appeared to be entirely at their ease were Blanche Trevenner and Denver. There was some tragi-comedy going on here, and the keen eye of the dramatist was quick to detect it.
"What have we here?" he asked gaily. "Positively, I behold Miss Audrey Blair without a smile upon her face! Mr. Reggie Hermann, too, appears to be plunged in the depths of deep despair. Is there anything seriously wrong with the diamond market? Or has there been a big burglary at Hatton Garden?"
"Oh, yes," the young man addressed as Hermann groaned. "And if there's a bigger fool than myself in London——"
The speaker broke off abruptly as he caught the look of pleading anguish in Audrey Blair's blue eyes. He flushed red, and uncomfortably bent over his coffee cup again.
"Then it is a tragedy?" Denver went on. "Rupert, you must know that our young friend here is the son of Montague Hermann, the diamond merchant, who finances kings and embarrassed governments—for a consideration, of course. It is popularly supposed from time to time that many regalias find their way to the strong rooms of Hermann House in Hatton Garden. One of Mr. Herrmann's specialities is Russian Grand Dukes."
"That's the cause of all the trouble," Hermann blurted out. "I——"
Once more Audrey Blair turned an appealing face to the speaker. Vivid lightnings seemed to blaze and play in Madame Trevenner's black eyes, as she glanced at young Hermann.
"The absurdity of it," she cried. "Now let me call your attention to the tiara I am wearing in my hair. Mr. Hermann had the audacity to tell me that the family diamonds of a certain Grand Duke are at present in the custody of his father. For what purpose or for what reason it matters nothing. It is sufficient that the statement is made. In the innocence of my heart I asked my young friend Audrey Blair and my young friend Reggie Hermann to sup with me here this evening. In their honour I wear the most precious possession I have, which is my diamond tiara. And my guests do not appreciate my consideration in the least. When they join me at my table here, Audrey turns white and faint, and Reggie stares at me, as if his eyes would drop out of his head. They tell me in effect that the tiara that I am wearing was, till a day or two ago, safely locked away in a vault at Hatton Garden."
"Well, was it?" Denver asked dryly.
"How could I possibly tell?" Blanche Trevenner went on. "It is a strange coincidence, but, obviously, no more. The jewels were a present to me by the Grand Duke whose name I will not—yes, I will. The tiara was given to me by the Grand Duke Oro some little time ago. Does not everybody know that he has been my intimate friend for years? Is it not a well-known fact that he would have married me could he have secured the permission of his sovereign?"
"That's true enough," Denver smiled. "Everybody is aware of that. I suppose it's possible, after all, that the tiara might have a duplicate somewhere."
"A million to one against it," Hermann said gloomily. "Some people have the cheek of the——"
Once more he broke off and lapsed into silence. Kelso sat there quietly trying to gather up the threads of the story. So far, he was merely bewildered and puzzled by what was taking place. Doubtless, he would find out presently, when he and Denver were alone once more. Judging from the queer, dry smile on Denver's lips the latter had a clear idea of the source of the trouble.
"Well," he said. "It's not difficult to settle the matter one way or another. Why not call in an arbitrator in the person of the Grand Duke himself?"
"Oh, it would be too utterly childish!" Madame Trevenner cried. "Still, anything to oblige my young friends. But, unfortunately, the Grand Duke is not in England. To tell you a secret which must not go any further, my dear Oro has managed to get himself into a tremendous mess. I trust to the honour of you all not to let this go any further. The Duke has deemed it prudent to vanish for the time being. It has been given out that he has gone somewhere, in the wilds of South America, or on an exploring expedition. Otherwise, what is suggested would have been easy."
Denver smiled as he polished his glass and placed it in his eye. As a matter of fact, he was enjoying the situation immensely. Here was something on the border line between comedy and tragedy, a piquant situation which appealed to his dramatic instincts. And he saw further into the heart of matters than the actors in the drama gave him credit for. For the moment he was an actor amongst the rest, and, did they but know it, the master of all.
"There I think you are altogether mistaken," he said suavely. "As a matter of fact, the Grand Duke is in London, at the present moment, or, at any rate, he was last night."
As the words came smoothly from the speaker's mouth, he gave a rapid glance in Madame Trevenner's direction. It was as if he had dealt her a swift and unexpected blow. He saw her wince and shiver, he saw the colour leave her cheeks, he noticed the terror in her eyes. It was only a moment before she recovered herself and smiled bravely in Denver's face.
"You are having a little fun at my expense," she laughed.
"Indeed, I am not," Denver insisted. "The Grand Duke dined at my uncle's house and went on to the Sovereign Theatre afterwards. I was at the same dinner table, and ought to know."
"I am tired of the subject," Madame Trevenner said coldly. "And the waiters are beginning to put out the lights. Will somebody kindly call my car?—Mr. Kelso, perhaps."
Kelso hurried towards the vestibule, followed by Madame Trevenner, and Hermann sat in the deepest gloom. Denver ranged himself alongside Audrey Blair and looked down at her inquiringly. Something in his glance seemed to give her courage.
"It's true!" she whispered passionately. "Stolen from my dressing-table by that woman. Ask no questions, for pity's sake, and, for the love of heaven, help me to get it back again."
The passioned intensity in Audrey's voice touched Denver and appealed to his kindly nature. Cynical and worldly as he was, he had every sympathy with those in distress, and that Audrey Blair was in sore need of a friend he did not doubt. Something very much out of the common had happened which he would know all about in good time, but this was no place for the interchange of confidences. He smiled down into the anxious, white face.
"You must tell me all about it," he said. "I can do nothing to help you unless I have some sort of idea as to the source of the trouble. And you will have to be very candid with me. I've got a pretty shrewd idea of the cause of the dilemma—a trouble which, obviously, Hermann shares with you. I suppose you are not engaged to him by any chance?"
There was a ghost of a smile in her blue eyes.
"How ridiculous!" Audrey murmured. "Just as if anybody could be engaged to a silly boy like that! We are very good friends, of course, but nothing more. It is all my fault, but that does not make me feel any the less helpless. Oh! I must get that gem back at any cost. It was stolen from my dressing-table in the most unblushing fashion, and I—I dared not protest. I was compelled to stand there and watch it done. You heard what Madame Trevenner said, you heard the audacious way in which she declared that the tiara had been given her by the Grand Duke. And she thought that she was quite safe, because she believed that his Highness was thousands of miles away. Did you notice how frightened she was when you told her the contrary? I believe you know a great deal more about this matter than you pretend, and that's why I'm asking you to help me. And there is not a moment to be lost."
"You mean that we must begin now?" Denver asked.
"I do. Before I sleep to-night, if it is possible for any one so distracted to sleep——"
"Very well, then, I will get rid of the others and you had better come round with me to my flat. Oh, I see you don't like the idea, but what else is there to be done? It might be better perhaps for me to come round to your house?"
Audrey hesitated, and a dash of colour crept into the cheeks. It was not till after Denver had spoken that he remembered the mystery that surrounded Audrey Blair's residence. No one knew where she lived or whence she came, or, indeed, anything at all about her, except the fact that she was a beautiful and brilliant actress. Denver was a little inclined to blame himself for his want of tact.
"I don't want to force your confidence," he said; "but I cannot help you unless you assist me. Believe me, I am not in the least curious, but I am anxious to be of use. You must either come with me or I must go with you. Now, which is it to be?"
"I know, I know!" Audrey whispered. "If you dreamt how I was situated you would be sorry indeed for me. I know that people wonder who I am and whence I come; I know they regard the secret of my house as a pose; but, believe me, it is nothing of the kind. Therefore, I must come to you. I will be round at your rooms in half an hour, and I shall bring with me the lady who looks after me and who has been my constant companion for years, so, if you don't mind, I should like Mr. Kelso to be present. It may be only fancy on my part but I am sure he would be a good friend. Now, will you please find my car for me?"
Blanche Trevenner had gone off a moment or two before, and Reggie Hermann was nowhere to be seen. Kelso was standing on the pavement waiting for the others. A small, dark car pulled up by the side of the kerb, and Audrey jumped in. Kelso caught a glimpse of a faded-looking figure inside the car and the outline of a white, wax-like face fringed with grey hair. Without another word being said the car sped away, and Denver placed his hand in Kelso's arm. He looked just a little bewildered.
"Is this a comedy or a tragedy?" he asked.
"That is precisely what we have to find out," Denver replied. "At any rate, that dear little girl is in bitter trouble, and she has paid me the compliment of asking me for my advice. Moreover, she has taken rather a fancy to you, and suggested that you should be present and hear the story. She is coming round to my flat presently with her companion. Very wisely, I think, young Hermann has been left out. So come along, and over a whisky and soda and a cigarette, I will tell you all I know."
They were seated presently in Denver's luxurious smoking-room, and there the latter proceeded to outline the strange story, as far as he knew.
"It is quite a romance," he said. "Upon my word, it has the making of a remarkably good play. To begin with, we have a beautiful and talented young actress who is very near the top of the tree in her particular line. She is unmistakably a lady, and, assuredly, well connected. Yet three years ago she was singing in an East End music-hall. Her photographs are everywhere, and, despite the fact that her name is a household word, nobody has the smallest idea who she is or even where she lives. She comes down to the theatre every night in a modest-looking car, attended by a faded lady, who invariably wears white satin, and who always waits for her outside the theatre, till the performance is over. I suppose you have read Dickens' 'Great Expectations,' haven't you?"
"Half a dozen times," Kelso said. "But what's the connection between that book and Miss Blair's companion?"
"Well, I've caught sight of her once or twice, and she always reminds me of Miss Haversham. We shall know more about her presently, because she is coming round here with Audrey Blair."
"Really!" Kelso exclaimed. "And I take it that the trouble admits of no delay. You are a much cleverer chap than I am, Denver, and I have no doubt that you have a pretty fair idea as to the source of the mischief. As I have the privilege of being taken into the confidence of Miss Blair, perhaps you wouldn't mind giving me a few hints as to how matters stand."
"Well, it's more or less guesswork, of course," Denver went on. "But in some way or another our fascinating little friend found herself in possession of that tiara. Mind you, it is no ordinary ornament. It actually forms part of an imperial regalia, and, I have not the smallest doubt that the Grand Duke stole it, though, of course, there has never been any open scandal."
"The Grand Duke is a shady character, then?"
"My dear fellow, he is one of the biggest black-guards in Europe. To put it bluntly and tersely, he is a born wrong 'un. He has no respect for his word; he would as soon betray a friend as an enemy, and no one who ever came in contact with him has a good word to say on his behalf. He dare not show his face in the land of his birth, where he is execrated equally by peer and peasant. I have heard the most disgraceful stories about him."
"I am sorry to hear all this," Kelso said uneasily. "I don't like the idea of an innocent and beautiful girl like Miss Blair being in any way mixed up with a yahoo such as your Grand Duke seems to be. Surely, she can know nothing of his real character?"
"I am not so sure that there is anything between them," Denver smiled. "You find it hard to believe that, don't you? You want to know how it is possible for a young and popular actress to be seen in public wearing imperial diadems without being on the best of terms with the owner. In the face of that you would be astonished to hear that Miss Blair does not even know the Grand Duke by sight, and yet I am quite prepared to believe it. In fact, my theory goes all to pieces if it is not so. And, moreover, Blanche Trevenner knew this perfectly well, or she could never have played her part so boldly or so successfully. Now, I want you to bear in mind the fact that a few years ago the Grand Duke was very much enamoured of Blanche Trevenner. They were seen together everywhere, and he made no secret of the fact that he was going to marry her. But this was just a little more than the imperial court could stand, and the power behind the throne put pressure upon his Highness. They let him know pretty plainly that if he carried out his intention they would sequester his estates and leave him without any money at all. Of course, this was a weapon that the Grand Duke had to respect, and, in the end, he and the lady parted, with a great deal of anger on her side, for, being a woman, she could not quite understand the situation, and she was under the impression that Oro was merely trying to repudiate his bargain."
"All this is very interesting," Kelso murmured. "But it does not explain how the tiara came into the possession of Miss Blair, or why it was stolen from her in such a barefaced fashion. It was stolen by a woman who was fully aware of the fact that she could walk off with it with a comfortable conviction that not a word would be said. And, yet, at the same time, Miss Blair could stand on the stage, before hundreds of eyes, and wear that tiara in her hair. Upon my word, the more I think it over the more mysterious it becomes. Then I'll ask you another question. Where does that poor, feeble creature, Hermann, come in? Why should he be so fearfully depressed and downcast over the matter? Is he engaged to Miss Blair?"
"Not a bit of it. But everything will be made plain presently. I won't spoil your appreciation of the story by saying too much now. I can hear the lift coming up, and I should not be surprised if it contains the ladies we are waiting for."
A moment later Audrey Blair entered, followed by her companion. As a rule, the fascinating little actress filled the eye to the exclusion of other things, but for the moment the attention of the two men was riveted upon the woman who followed her. She was tall and straight with a rigidity that suggested a casing of whalebone. She was slim and spare to the point of emaciation. She was clad in some thick and glossy satin garment, faded by age and years to a dingy yellow hue, and her face was so still and motionless as to suggest that it was covered with an ivory mask. It was a face still as death under a ragged fringe of grey hair, and, from the dead ghastliness of the features, there shone a pair of black eyes that scintillated and flushed with sudden fires. She bowed without a word, and she was introduced to the two men, introduced simply as 'my companion' and nothing more. She allowed herself to so far bend as to take a chair, where she sat erect and frigid, on the very edge, much as if she had been a broken stick. From the moment she entered till the interview was over, not one word escaped her, nor did she appear to take the faintest interest in the conversation; indeed she might have been no more than an artist's lay figure, save for the liquid fire in the dark eyes, blazing from behind the ivory mask. She held Kelso in a fascinated grip, to such an extent that he had to avert his glance from her before he could bring himself to take an intelligent interest in the conversation.
"Oh, I quite see that there is no time to be lost," Denver was saying. "But you will have to be quite candid with me. Now, why should you be afraid of Blanche Trevenner? You see, I am putting you quite pertinent questions. Has she got some power over you which enables her to walk off with a valuable tiara like that, fully under the impression that you dare not protest? Mind you, I believe every word that you say. Now, do you regard the missing ornament as your own property?"
"Oh, good heavens, no!" Audrey exclaimed. "Why, I haven't the remotest notion—at least, I hadn't till to-night——"
She broke off with some confusion, and the hot blood flowed into her face. It seemed to Kelso, who was watching the scene intensely, that the girl's anxious face was turned upon the woman opposite, as if in fear. But the frozen figure sat there on the edge of her chair, like a body bereft of its soul.
"Go on," Denver said encouragingly. "Please don't be afraid of me. Now, let me help you a bit. Am I right in assuming that you don't know the Grand Duke even by sight, and that you had not the remotest notion that you were wearing his property when you appeared on the stage with the tiara in your hair last night?"
"That is true enough," Audrey stammered, "though I am sure no one else would believe it. I could not understand what it meant last night when the Grand Duke's card was brought round to me with a request that I would see him. I was too dreadfully upset over the loss of the gems to think of anything else. Therefore I told the messenger that there was no reply. Three minutes later I left the theatre myself. What has happened since that moment you know as well as I do. Oh, can nothing be done to get those stones back?"
"I am not discouraged," Denver said. "But, now, will you kindly tell me where you got the jewels from?"
Again the warm colour flooded Audrey's cheeks.
"It was all stupid vanity," she murmured. "It was the first night of our new piece, and I thought how nice it would be. .. So I asked Reggie Hermann to lend me some diamonds. He borrowed them from his father's strong room, and he was to have had them back to-day. I didn't know who they belonged to, and, well, I didn't care. But now they're gone, and that silly boy who trusted me will be ruined. What am I to do? Oh! what am I to do?"
Her head fell forward and she burst into tears.
It was with something more than pity in his heart that Kelso stood there watching the slim, shaking figure before him. Audrey Blair was paying a heavy price for that which, after all, was little more than vanity. He could see the same regret in Denver's eyes, a strange contrast to the cold, hard impassiveness of the strange woman, seated silently on the edge of her chair as if she belonged to another world. But it was no time to waste upon idle sentiment. Something would have to be done, and done at once.
"It is easy to be wise after the event," Denver said. "This is exactly what I expected. It is quite plain now how easy it is for Blanche Trevenner to laugh at you and defy us all. She knows perfectly well that the Grand Duke is more or less powerless. And that's not the worst of it. I am betraying no secret when I say that Miss Trevenner is in dire need of money. At the present moment she would do almost anything to obtain a few thousands. It won't be very long before that tiara is broken up and the stones sold separately. The Duke won't mind so very much because he will look to the elder Hermann to recoup him. We shall have to move very carefully indeed. It is perhaps fortunate that Blanche Trevenner does not know that she has two resolute men to deal with. She will count upon the probability of Mr. Reggie Hermann being afraid to take anybody into his confidence."
"Can't you do anything now?" Audrey asked.
"I am afraid not," Denver went on. "I shall have to think out some plan. It would be the greatest mistake in the world to go to Blanche Trevenner and accuse her bluntly of the theft. We shall have to use far more diplomatic methods than that. We must lay a trap for her—indeed, strategy is the only way out. Once the tiara is in our possession again, we can laugh at her. I'll see young Hermann in the morning and ascertain how long it will be before the loss of the gems is discovered. Then I'll sit down and scheme out a plot much in the same way as I would work out a play."
"Then there's no more to be said now?" Audrey asked. "There is no way in which I can help you?"
"I am afraid not. The best thing you can do is to go home to bed and leave Kelso and myself to talk the matter over."
Audrey rose wearily and crossed the room in the direction of the frozen automaton sitting erect on the edge of her chair. In her turn the quaint figure rose and moved swiftly towards the door. A moment or two later Denver and his guest were alone.
"Well, this is a pretty nice mess," he said. "Take another cigarette, will you? Now, look here, Kelso, I don't care twopence about young Hermann, but I have a strong liking for the poor little girl, and I will do a good deal to get her out of this mess. I don't mind telling you that the part I like least relates to the Grand Duke himself. Unfortunately, for all parties concerned, the Duke was at the theatre last night, and, of course, tumbled to the fact that little Audrey was wearing his jewels. He didn't go round and protest like a decent fellow would have done, but sent a message round asking Audrey Blair to see him. He was not so much concerned for the recovery of his gems as the possibility of getting that little girl into his power. He's a brute of a man, a regular tiger that ought to be shot at sight and thrown into the nearest ditch. Just imagine a poor, frightened child under the thumb of a creature like that! I tell you, the prospect troubles me a great deal more than the chance of an open scandal. You may be pretty certain that the Grand Duke will be at the Sovereign Theatre to-morrow night, bent on an interview with Audrey Blair. It is rather a fortunate thing that he doesn't know where to find her except at the theatre. I think the best thing you can do is to see Hermann to-morrow and act as my representative. Meanwhile, I'll make it my business to keep a keen eye on the Duke. He's pretty certain to be at Lady Goring's big dance to-morrow night. In fact, everybody worth knowing will be present. Did you get a card?"
"Oh, yes," Kelso said. "To tell the truth it is not very much in my line, but the Gorings are old friends of my people, and I could not very well refuse."
"It's just as well you didn't, as things have turned out. You had better trot along now and see Hermann in the morning. You ought to catch him before he goes to business. Then we can meet later in the day, and, if anything prevents us, remember that I have a box at the Sovereign for to-morrow evening, and you can join me there."
Kelso went off presently and thence to bed, to sleep as best he could. The strange story to which he had listened had made a profound impression upon him, and all his sympathy had gone out for the girl, whose simple vanity had brought so much sorrow on her sunny head. Kelso was not an impressionable man, and hitherto women had troubled him but little. He had preferred a life of sport and adventure, he had turned his back upon the simple joys of an existence in the country; but now he was beginning to think about his duty to the family property, and all this had been brought about by a beautiful face and a pair of blue eyes, mutely appealing to him for help and protection. Up to now he had laughed at the class of society man who prefers to select his wife from the chorus of a musical comedy, but then it seemed to him that Audrey Blair belonged to a different class altogether. To begin with, she was unmistakably a lady; there was something fascinating in the mystery that surrounded her, even in the strange creature whom she had chosen for her companion.
Kelso was thinking this over as he made a somewhat less hearty breakfast than usual, and then hurried off to Dover-street, where Denver had informed him Hermann had his luxurious retreat. He found the man in question seated moodily at the breakfast table, smoking a cigarette and toying with a cup of coffee. By his elbow was a decanter of brandy and a liqueur glass, which had been filled not for the first time. Hermann was inclined to resent this intrusion, and took no pains to conceal the fact. He was comparatively new to society and its ways, but quite aware or the fact that the circle in which he now found himself resented his intrusion, and suffered him merely for the sake of his money. He was a vapid youth of small ambitions, the greatest of which was to marry into some old family and forget the fact that his race was the oldest in the world. In some vague way Kelso's cool aloofness irritated him. He pointed to the cigarette box.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
"I think it is rather the other way about," Kelso answered coldly. "You may possibly think that I'm interfering with your business, but when I tell you that I am concerned on behalf of Miss Blair, you may change your mind. Last night she told Mr. Denver and myself the story of the trouble. I am not saying that she is not largely to blame, but I think you'll admit that you were still more foolish to lend those diamonds, even if it were only for one evening. Of course, you know that the Grand Duke was present at the Sovereign on Saturday night, and identified the stones. Otherwise he would hardly have asked Miss Blair to see him."
Hermann groaned aloud. There was not an atom of fight left in him. He no longer resented the presence of this stranger; indeed, he was only too ready and willing to accept help from any quarter.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "Heavens, what a fool I've been!"
"Men in love, will do foolish things," Kelso smiled.
"But I ain't," Hermann protested. "I'm not quite such a fool as that. These little actress girls are all very well to knock about with, don't you know; but we don't marry them. They're all right in their class, and Audrey Blair's a good specimen——"
"Miss Blair is a lady," Kelso said icily. "I much prefer to keep to the point. Miss Blair is most anxious to get those diamonds back again, and Mr. Denver and myself have promised to do everything to assist. We have a dangerous and unscrupulous woman to deal with, and it will be necessary to fight her with her own weapons. We shall have to get the jewels back much in the same way as they were stolen. I feel uncomfortably conscious of the fact that I am being dragged into a vulgar conspiracy, but that is not the point. To my mind the greatest danger lies in the fact that the Grand Duke knows that somebody or other has parted with his tiara, and he thinks that it is still in the hands of Miss Blair. Now I want you to tell me, exactly, how long we have before the thing reaches an open scandal. You'll have to be quite frank with me. I want to know how those diamonds came into your possession?"
"They were never in my possession at all," Hermann said sulkily. "If you must know it, we are diamond brokers, and, at the same time, advance vast sums of money on family treasures. We're not supposed to do that through Hatton Garden, so, for the purpose, we run a big place in Bond-street. That is how the Grand Duke came into our hands. A little while ago he wanted an immediate cash advance of ten thousand pounds, and we lent it him on the tiara. I had the business in hand myself and I placed the jewels in the safe, of which, of course, I have one of the keys. All the trouble arose one evening last week at a theatrical supper party. It began in the way of a joke, but, before the party broke up, I had pledged myself to lend Audrey Blair something very magnificent, in the way of a diamond ornament, to wear on the first night of the new play. As I was under the impression that the Grand Duke had left England, it seemed to me to be quite safe to use his jewels. Of course, I never dreamed that Blanche Trevenner knew so much, and it did not occur to me that she would be audacious enough to steal the tiara. But there it is, and, if the story gets out, the old man will be furious. The loss of the money will be bad enough, but it will be the damage to the business that will hit hardest. I shouldn't wonder if he chucks me out, stops my allowance, and all that sort of thing, don't you know. I dare say I can manage to keep the thing dark for two or three days, that is, of course, if the Grand Duke doesn't decide to take a hand in the game."
Hermann went drifting on in the same mournful strain, but Kelso was no longer listening. Nothing was to be gained now by prolonging the interview, and he took his departure presently, with the intention of seeing Denver without delay. But Denver, apparently, was otherwise engaged, and, when the hour to dress arrived, he was still invisible. So there was nothing, therefore, but an early meal and a visit to the Sovereign Theatre. It was some minutes past eight when Kelso entered the box, but Denver had not yet arrived, neither had the curtain gone up, but the packed audience were already giving signs of impatience. And then, in some strange, inscrutable way, tongues began to buzz, and the audience thrilled, as crowds do in the knowledge of some impending disaster. Something evidently had happened, but, up there in the box, Kelso was too aloof from the rest to gather exactly what it was. There was a long pause, and then the stage-manager appeared before the curtain.
"A most unpleasant thing has happened, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I have no doubt that it will be explained satisfactorily, but Miss Audrey Blair has disappeared from the theatre. She was in her dressing-room a little time ago, ready for her part, and now she has vanished. She must have left the theatre dressed just as she was, but though I have questioned everybody closely, nobody seemed to have witnessed her departure. As she was ready to play, her understudy did not remain, and, consequently, it is impossible for us to go on with the piece. If——"
But the rest of the sentence was drowned in the clamour which broke out from the excited audience. Kelso was conscious of the fact that some one was grasping him by the arm, and he turned to find Denver standing behind him. From the expression of his face he had heard all that had passed.
"This is a pretty business," he said. "Come round behind with me, and we will make inquiries."
But the stage-manager had very little to say and very little to add to what he had already told the audience.
"Miss Blair came down to the theatre as usual," he explained, "and went at once to her dressing-room. As you know, she comes on very early in the piece, and she was dressed for her part before eight o'clock. I saw her when she came in, and she seemed to be unusually quiet and depressed. Beyond saying that she had a slight headache she did not complain. How she managed to leave her dressing-room and get away through the stage-door without anybody seeing her is a mystery. And yet everybody swears that nobody left the theatre. I am absolutely bewildered."
"Did she have a visitor or a letter of any kind?" Denver asked.
"I believe there was one letter," the manager said. "Now I come to think of it, I saw an envelope lying on the dressing-room floor."
Denver asked to see the envelope. When it was produced, he turned over the flap and regarded it more or less critically. Without a word of explanation he returned it to the stage-manager, and, placing his hand in Kelso's arm, led him into the street.
"The plot thickens," he said. "We'll have a taxi as far as my rooms, and discuss this business until it is time to go to Lady Goring's dance. We shall see the Duke there."
"What's he got to do with it?" Kelso asked.
"Well, his monogram was on the back of that envelope. It looks as if we are going to have an exciting evening."
But Kelso was hardly listening. In his mind's eye he could see Audrey's piteous, pleading face and the look of dumb misery in her blue eyes. It came to him as a kind of shock to discover that this girl meant more to him than the average woman appealing to an honest man's protection. He knew nothing about her. She appeared to have been an absolute mystery to everybody, and he had not spent more than three hours in her company, all told. Why, then, should he be so miserably anxious about her? What was there about her that appealed to him as none of her sex had ever appealed to him before? He was asking himself these questions as the taxicab sped along in the direction of Denver's rooms, and Kelso was not the kind of man to shirk these problems. By the time that the cab stopped, he knew that Audrey Blair was the one woman in the world, so far as he was concerned. True, he knew nothing of her history, true she had mixed herself up in what promised to be a terrible scandal, but all the same he did not doubt her for a moment. A woman with a face as good and true as hers could do no wrong. So he could not bring himself to believe that Audrey had vanished in this bewildering fashion from a fear to face the consequences of her folly. Beyond doubt, she had been spirited away in some fashion, and, probably, the Grand Duke was at the bottom of the mystery.
He cursed himself for his own helplessness and lack of initiative. But, then, there was nothing to go upon; indeed, here he was striving to solve a mystery surrounding a girl whose very home was apparently known to nobody. Possibly relatives might come forward to-morrow; but Kelso was disposed to doubt it. Again, she might be without a single relation in the world—a thing that was highly probable. There was only the woman in the ivory mask, but she was both deaf and dumb, so far as Kelso knew to the contrary.
He flung himself moodily down into a chair and waited for Denver to speak. He knew that his friend was a great deal more clever and resourceful than himself, and, besides, Denver's knowledge of London was as extensive as it was peculiar.
"What do you make of it?" he asked.
"I am absolutely puzzled," Denver confessed. "The thing is beyond me altogether. When you come to think of it, there is no real reason why that poor child should be afraid of the Grand Duke. If the worst came to the worst she could tell him the truth, and, what's more, her story would be bound to carry conviction. No, there's a good deal more here than appears on the surface. If you ask me to hazard a theory, I should say that His Imperial Highness could tell us a great deal, if he liked to speak. My advice would be to watch him carefully. I dare say you might say that this is no business of ours, and that in any case——"
"I should not say anything of the kind," Kelso interrupted. "It's our bounden duty to do what we can for that poor child. Of course, if her relations come forward, it is a different matter."
"No relatives will come forward," Denver said with decision. "I feel it in my bones. I dare say you will call me quixotic, but if you feel as I do——"
"Perhaps I feel a great deal more," Kelso confessed. "My dear fellow, I have never been a woman's man, as you know. I have come to look upon myself as a confirmed bachelor, and, in the last few hours, I have changed my opinion—changed my opinion, because a pretty face and a pair of pathetic blue eyes have come between me and my self-love. I dare day you may think me an arrant fool, Mark, but I would do anything for that girl. I would gamble on the fact that she is all a woman ought to be. I don't care a hang about the mystery that surrounds her. I am not frightened by the basilisk with the ivory mask, and I am not disposed to blame the touch of girlish vanity that has been the cause of all this trouble. I am going to get to the bottom of all this mystery, and you are going to help me."
"I should have done so in any case," Denver replied. "My dear boy, we are wasting time here. Let us go on to Lady Goring's dance. I know the Grand Duke will be there, and we may pick up a clue. At any rate, we can follow him after he leaves—though, to tell you the truth, I am not keen on this amateur detective business."
Kelso rose to his feet at once. Anything was better than this miserable inaction. The hope of finding anything amongst the fashionable crowd was slender; but, still, there was no saying what fortune might have in store. They found themselves presently entangled in the stream of cabs and carriages which gradually converged upon the pavement in front of Lady Goring's magnificent house facing the Green Park. A curious crowd had gathered there watching the guests as they hurried across the strip of crimson cloth leading to the marble steps. Inside the brilliantly-lighted hall, decorated with blooms and ferns, a small regiment of footmen in blue and gold liveries stood on either side. As Denver and his companion made their way up the wide staircase they were conscious of a buzz of excitement which was going on all round them. Even Lady Goring herself, a stately, handsome figure in white and silver, and usually the most calm and collected of women, seemed for once alert and eager.
"So good of you to come," was her greeting. "I hardly expected to see you, Mr. Kelso. No, I am not going to ask you to dance, because I have plenty of young men quite ready for that sort of thing. Everybody seems to be tremendously excited over the disappearance of that pretty Miss Blair. I have just been talking to Mr. Everest, the lessee of the Sovereign Theatre, and he is as much puzzled as everyone else. He is cynical enough to think that there is an advertisement behind it all. But I don't agree with him, because I know Miss Blair very well, and I'm sure she would not lend herself to anything so vulgar. I do hope nothing has happened to her. I was quite looking forward to seeing her here this evening."
A bevy of fresh arrivals swept Denver and Kelso on the crest of a wave of silks and satins and billowy chiffons into the spacious reception-room beyond. A band was playing somewhere in the distance, and, at the end of a palm-decked corridor, Kelso could see a whirling maze of colour in the ballroom. Lady Goring was too finished a hostess to fuss over her guests. It was immaterial to her whether they danced or not, and, if they preferred any other form of amusements, they were there in plenty. Here were card-rooms and cosy corners, refreshment-rooms, and wide lounges, where people could sit and talk. In one of these stood a picturesque, grey-haired man, who came forward as he caught sight of Denver.
"That's John Everest, of the Sovereign Theatre," Denver explained hurriedly.
"Perhaps he will be able to tell us something. Do you see the little man, with the round shoulders and ragged moustache, talking to the lady in blue? He's not very distinguished-looking, and his clothes fit him only where they touch. But, all the same, that is our quarry—the Grand Duke Oro."
The distinguished-looking lessee of the Sovereign Theatre had very little to say. He was naturally distressed and uneasy, in regard to Audrey Blair's amazing disappearance, but he could assign no reason for it whatever.
"I've just come back from the theatre," he explained. "When I discovered what had happened I went down there with one of the Scotland Yard officials. The more we inquire into the affair the more amazing it becomes. Miss Blair was at the theatre at ten minutes to eight fully dressed for her part. You know what the dress was—a flimsy, spangled affair, bound to attract immediate attention anywhere outside the theatre. Her dresser had left her, and she was sitting in her dressing-room, waiting for her call. The boy knocked three times without getting an answer, and then he fetched the dresser. Miss Blair's room was empty, nor was there any sign of her whereabouts. The costume in which she had come down to the theatre was lying about, together with her hat and gloves and her outdoor shoes. She must have gone along the passages and stage door exactly as she was. The stage doorkeeper declares that he never left his box the whole time, and that nobody passed him either way between ten minutes to eight and the moment when he was informed that Miss Blair was no longer in the theatre. Now you are a dramatist, Denver, and this mystery should appeal to you. Can you think of any theory, however extravagant, to account for this amazing occurrence?"
"For the moment I am not going to try," Denver said. "Miss Blair has been with you for a year or so now, and I presume you know as much about her as most persons. Who are her relatives?"
"Nobody seems to know," Everest replied. "She appeared in public first in an East End music-hall, then at the Colossus, and I gave her the first engagement she ever had in musical comedy. She does not even employ an agent. I haven't the remotest notion where she lives, or even in what part of London——"
"Where does she bank, for instance?" Denver interrupted.
"Ah, that's another side of the mystery. I happen to know that she does not keep a banking account. Though she draws some scores of pounds a week in salary, she always take it in cash. You see, it is no business of mine, and I have never asked any questions. Now, is there anything else I can tell you?"
"Yes," Denver said. "What is your private opinion of the Grand Duke Oro? Do you know anything about his private life, and has he ever been behind at the Sovereign?"
"No, he hasn't," Everest said curtly. "The man is an utter scoundrel—one of the last persons in the world whom I would allow to pass the stage door, for I am very particular, as you know. But isn't yours a somewhat remarkable question?"
Denver frankly admitted that it might be, and begged to be excused from going into further details for the moment. Somebody else coming up at this instant claimed Everest's attention, so the discussion abruptly ceased. On the far side of the room, the little, bent man with the ragged moustache was still deep in earnest conversation with the lady in blue. As Denver and Kelso lounged across in the direction of the lady in blue, the Grand Duke rose.
"Very well," the two men heard him say, "I will go and get it for you. In the small conservatory at the end of the picture gallery. A feather fan with gold sticks, eh?"
The lady in blue smiled sweetly. Kelso noted the fact that she was dark and handsome, and that her black eyes held that which was more than mere amusement. It seemed to him that the glance that she threw in the Grand Duke's direction was full of menace, that the eager quiver of her lips concealed a threat. It was only in passing that he noticed this, but it came back to him afterwards.
"Who does she happen to be?" he asked.
"That I can't tell you," Denver replied. "I don't think that she matters for the moment. Let us stroll along and keep our eyes upon our friend with the ragged moustache. It is just possible that we might find something of interest in the little conservatory, at the end of the picture gallery."
They sauntered on behind, stopping to exchange a word here and there to some acquaintance; but, though they waited the best part of ten minutes, the Grand Duke did not emerge from the dimly-lighted retreat, whence he had gone in search of the fan belonging to the lady in blue. Nearly half an hour passed, and Kelso began to grow impatient. It was just possible, perhaps, that the Duke was keeping some assignation there, a suggestion that Denver was inclined to favour. He turned eagerly towards his companion.
"I'm glad you thought of that," he said. "I'll stay here and watch, while you stroll back along the corridor. You had better stand before one of those open windows, looking on to the Park, as if you were enjoying the cool evening breeze, and nobody will notice you. If you keep your head out, and your back to the people you won't be recognised. I dare say all this is a hideous waste of time, but one never can tell."
Kelso kept his vigil faithfully enough for some time, despite his feeling of restlessness and impatience. His mind was so far away that he did not heed the shouts of the newsboys down below, selling some late papers, on the strength of the latest sensational tragedy. Then out of the din a name arose that seemed to strike him like a blow between the eyes. He must be dreaming, he must be in the grip of some strange nightmare.
"Terrible tragedy in the West End!" one voice rose in a scream above the rest. "Sudden death of His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Oro. The dead man found in a conservatory. 'Evening Herald,' special! Terrible tragedy! Special!"
Kelso straightened himself suddenly and passed his hand across his eyes. The next moment he was inclined to laugh at this startling story. Then he turned to see Denver standing behind him, together with his host, Lord Goring. The latter's face was white and ghastly, and his lips were quivering.
"Did you hear that or am I mad?" he whispered. "How do they get it? How do they know? I didn't know myself three minutes ago. I was the first to find it out."
"Is it true?" Kelso exclaimed.
"The Grand Duke is dead," Goring whispered hoarsely. "He is lying in the conservatory at this very moment."
Goring was restraining his feelings with an effort. He usually was one of the coolest and most collected of men. Indeed, he had gone through more than one campaign as a war correspondent with credit to himself. But now he was shaking from head to foot with the horror of this discovery, which seemed for the moment to quite unman him. It was difficult for Kelso standing there to realise that he was face to face with a ghastly tragedy. Outside the newsboys were still bawling the startling story at the top of their voices. Inside there was light and laughter and the soft strains of the band, as if no such thing as trouble existed anywhere.
At any moment the news might come home to the assembled guests and turn rejoicing into sorrow. Goring made a quick motion of his hand in the direction of the open window.
"For heaven's sake, close it," he whispered. "We must try and do our best to break this thing gently."
"But are you quite sure the man is dead?" Denver asked.
"My dear fellow, I have had too much experience in that direction to make mistakes. I knew the Duke was dead directly I looked into the conservatory. But come with me and see for yourselves. And look here, Kelso, close that door and put the key in your pocket. We don't want anybody interfering with us just for the moment. This ghastly business has been a terrible shock to me. I thought I was hardened to all kinds of horrors."
The cries of the newsboys were dying away in the distance now, and once more the roadway was quiet. There was little chance of interruption, so that the gaiety and laughter were going on downstairs, whilst three men behind the locked door were face to face with stark murder. For a glance at the body lying on the conservatory floor showed unmistakably that it could be nothing else. The little glasshouse had been built out over the porch at the end of the corridor. And there was no other way into it, except by the corridor, so that the miscreant responsible for this cold-blooded crime must have actually passed Kelso as he stood there looking out through one of the corridor windows. He had not noticed anybody in particular; indeed, he could only remember hearing passing footsteps twice, but he had seen nobody, for the simple reason that he had not wished to be identified himself, and had therefore kept his back studiously turned upon the light. All this, of course, would come out in due time, but for the moment the three men were more concerned with the body lying there before them.
There was no sign of a struggle and no suggestion of violence. The pots of roses and carnations and palms were undisturbed, and one or two chairs distributed about the place did not appear to have been moved. On a large skin rug the body of the dead man was lying face downwards, and between his shoulders were a gash and a deep red stain, which showed that a knife had been driven between the ribs with great force and had no doubt reached the heart. For the rest there was nothing in the nature of a clue, and the Grand Duke lay just as if he had been overtaken by fatigue and had fallen asleep. Beyond all doubt the fatal blow had been one which left no time for anything in the shape of a struggle.
"He must have gone down like a stone," Goring said. "I should say that death took place in a few seconds. But what a ghastly business! Fancy—oh, I don't like to think of it! Still, we can't stand here like this all night. I must find some excuse for getting rid of our friends downstairs, and, as soon as they are gone, I will telephone for the police. I hope nobody heard what those boys were shouting. Now come and help me."
Downstairs the dance was in full swing, and the ballroom floor was one changing mass of colour. There was no sign here of anything but happiness and enjoyment, no suggestion of the mute and hideous mystery of the conservatory overhead. Still, there was that on Goring's face which was unmistakable as he threaded his way through his guests. At the same moment the music ceased and the wave of dancers surged from the ballroom and overflowed, chatting and laughing, into the corridor.
"What is the matter, Goring?" some one asked smilingly. "Why this skeleton at the feast?"
"I have some exceedingly bad news," Goring said gravely. "The Grand Duke Oro is dangerously ill. His condition is exceedingly critical. I am afraid I shall have to ask you to cut these festivities short. In the circumstances I make no apology, but you'll see for yourselves exactly how it is. I know it is very inconvenient, but there are two telephones in the house, so it will not be difficult to send for two or three cars at the same time. I am sorry——"
But nobody appeared to be listening. In that strange, swift fashion by which the tale of disaster spreads, everybody seemed to know, almost simultaneously, what had happened. The noise and chatter died away, a heavy silence hung in the air, and then, almost imperceptibly, the rooms were drained of their gay tide of humanity, and Goring was left alone with his wife, together with Kelso and Denver. Lady Goring was white to the lips, her eyes dark with terror.
"It is worse than you say," she stammered. "The Grand Duke is dead. Instinctively, I seem to know it."
"It is even worse than that," Goring explained. "The Grand Duke has been murdered. Murdered here in this house, in the little conservatory at the end of the corridor, where any chance guest or passing servant might have seen what was going on. Kelso here was standing within a few yards at the very moment the crime was taking place, yet he saw and heard nothing. The whole thing was almost incredible. But we are wasting time here talking like this. I ought to have sent for the police long ago. I should have done so, only it seemed better to me to get all our guests out of the house in the first place. You had better go to your room and leave us to meet the people from Scotland Yard."
Lady Goring was taking it very well; perhaps the full horror of the tragedy had not yet come home to her. It seemed strange to stand there in those flower-decked rooms so suggestive of good fellowship and hospitality, and yet so strangely empty. A few puzzled-looking servants flitted about, and in the big hall a knot of footmen were whispering together. The butler, passing along, was stopped by Goring and told exactly what had happened.
"You had better tell the test of them," he said; "and everybody except yourself can go to bed. When you've done that, call up New Scotland Yard on the telephone and ask them to send some one round here at once. That's all for the present."
There was nothing to do now but to wait the arrival of the police. The three men stood there discussing the affair under their breath, pending expert opinion, but the more they dwelt upon it the more inexplicable it appeared to be.
"It is almost incredible to me," Kelso said. "There was I within a few feet, and yet I saw or heard nothing. I did not even notice anyone going to the conservatory or anyone returning from it. And the murderer must have passed me twice. It might have been his footsteps that I heard, and probably it was, but more than that I can't say. I should make a very bad witness, and should not be the slightest use to the authorities."
"I quite see that," Goring said. "Now I should like to know what the Grand Duke was doing in that little nook all by himself. Why did he go there? Do you suppose that he made an assignation with somebody? And there is no getting away from the fact that the poor fellow met his death at the hands of one of my guests. It's a horrible thought. But there is no other theory to account for it. In a way, the fact ought to narrow down the police inquiries very considerably. Nobody could say that the crime is a political one, or that it was committed by some anarchist. If we could only find out who it was who lured the Duke——"
"But I can tell you that," Kelso broke out eagerly. "Strange that I should have forgotten the incident, even at so disturbing a moment as this. Denver and myself were standing by the Grand Duke early in the evening, and he was sitting and carrying on quite a pronounced flirtation with a fair lady in a blue gown. I haven't the remotest notion who she was, but perhaps Denver——"
"Not I," Denver interrupted. "As to that I am as much in the dark as you are. I noticed the lady, of course, and I should recognise her again. She had evidently been up to the conservatory herself for some reason or another, and had left her fan there. She asked the Duke to fetch it. Indeed, I heard her do so. Of course, I didn't take any notice of her at the time, because it was such a trivial incident. The Duke got up to fetch the fan and Kelso followed him at a distance."
"But what on earth for?" Goring asked.
"Perhaps I had better be candid. I am going to rely upon your discretion, Goring, and tell you something which, at present, has no particular bearing upon this case. At least, I don't think so. If later on I find that it has, then I will give you permission to speak. Meanwhile, my information is in strict confidence. One does not want to enter into a discussion on the bad taste of speaking ill of the dead, and so I need not remind you that the Grand Duke was an unprincipled rascal—and thereby hangs a tale. Kelso and myself came here to-night with the intention of keeping a close eye upon His Imperial Highness. We are under the impression that he held the key to a mystery which has a direct bearing upon Kelso's future happiness. Therefore, as soon as the Duke disappeared, my friend here followed him. And that is why he was in the corridor just now. He has told you all he knows, and it seems to me that for the moment it is up to us to concentrate our attention on the lady in blue. I would suggest that she left her fan behind her on purpose, and that she did so in order to lure the Duke to his destruction."
"Surely a dangerous thing to do," Goring said. "Anyway if the fan is up there still, we shall easily find out who the owner is. It is pretty certain that the Duke did not bring it back."
In the midst of this discussion Inspector Stead, of Scotland Yard, put in an appearance. He listened patiently enough to the story that Goring had to tell, and then a move was made towards the conservatory. But there was nothing here to help, and no clue of any sort, except one slight and insignificant item, which came to light when the body was moved. The left-hand shirt-cuff had been torn from the sleeve, and no trace of it was to be seen. Beyond this there was no suggestion of a struggle.
"Do you attach any importance to it?" Goring asked.
"I should say none," the inspector replied. "But I can't do much till the doctor arrives. After that, perhaps, I may be able to speak more freely."
Kelso looked eagerly around the little conservatory and exchanged a significant glance with Denver. The latter's vivid imagination was at work now on a theory or his own. Inspector Stead seemed to attach little or no importance to the fact that one of the dead man's cuffs was missing, but this certainly appealed to Denver's dramatic instincts. He could see for himself that the shirt-cuff had been removed by force and violently torn away, which would pre-suppose that the murderer was a person of some considerable strength. It was no great task for a born weaver of plots, like Denver, to construct a romance from this slender material. He looked around him to see if he could see anything of the missing band of linen, but for the moment, at any rate, he looked in vain. Possibly the murderer had put it in his pocket; but, on the other hand, it was hard to believe that anybody could have the slightest use for an article so trivial as a cuff from a clean dress-shirt. Still, it was impossible to tell, and Denver would have given something to have the lost rag in his possession at that moment.
He was wondering why Kelso was half smiling. But Kelso's eyes were a great deal keener than his. They were eyes strained to look for danger everywhere, and almost instantly they had discovered a tiny white spot in the centre of a bank of maidenhair fern. In a dim sort of way Kelso was following the working of his friend's mind. Stead was there to inquire into the mystery surrounding the tragic death of the Grand Duke, but there was something else to be discovered, too, and this was Kelso's own private business. Stead had made light of the affair of the torn cuff, but evidently Denver held another opinion, and if Kelso could help him he was going to get his chance. A moment afterwards, therefore, the torn cuff was safely tucked away in Kelso's pocket.
His task in getting it was rendered all the easier by the appearance at that moment of the police surgeon. This official made his examination in his rapid, professional manner.
"Must have been instantly killed," he said. "The murder was evidently committed with a stiletto. A powerful blow which penetrated to the heart. Oh, dear no; I should say it was almost impossible for a woman to have done this."
"I merely threw out the suggestion," Goring said, "because my friends here tell me that a lady guest of mine might be able to throw some light on the mystery. For the moment I haven't the remotest notion who she is, except that she attended Lady Goring's dance this evening, and that she was dressed in blue. A few minutes before I discovered that the murder had taken place this lady was overheard to request the Grand Duke to fetch her fan from this very spot. It so happens that Mr. Kelso here followed the Grand Duke by chance into the corridor, and must have been standing only a few feet away when the crime itself was taking place. He was looking out of the window, unfortunately, and though he heard somebody go by, never saw them. I don't know if Inspector Stead regards this as of any importance."
"Well, yes," the Scotland Yard man said. "You tell me that his Highness actually came for the fan, my lord. It doesn't require much intelligence to know that he didn't return with it. In that case the lady's fan ought to be here."
But the closest possible search of the conservatory failed to show any signs of the missing fan. Inspector Stead was looking grave now, for here was something to go upon.
"Looks like a carefully thought-out affair," he said. "I suppose that the lady in blue really was one of your invited guests, my lord? I presume she didn't get here——"
"Such an idea never occurred to me," Goring answered. "Of course, I know such things have happened. Her ladyship was entertaining at least fifteen hundred friends this evening, and, in such a crush, a well-dressed adventuress might manage to get in without attracting any attention. Lady Goring is a little absent-minded, and has a terribly poor memory for faces. Perhaps, Inspector, you remember there were one or two scandals of this sort last season."
"That's precisely why I mentioned the matter, my lord," Stead said. "It's quite evident to me that the Grand Duke was lured up here to look for something which didn't exist. If my preliminary theory is worth anything, then the lady in blue would be much too clever to leave behind anything so incriminating as a valuable fan. And now, my lord, I'll not trouble you any longer for the moment. There will have to be an inquest to-morrow, but if your Lordship does not care to have the inquiry here, I will have an ambulance sent round at once, and the body can be moved."
Goring hastened to say that he had no objection whatever, and Stead, together with the police surgeon, took his departure. It was getting late now, and there was nothing to detain Kelso and Denver any longer. They turned out into the road presently, and Denver hailed a passing taxi.
"What are you going to do now?" Kelso asked. "Why did you tell the driver to take us as far as Fleet-street?"
"Because I am going to see Fosbrook, the editor of the 'Evening Herald,'" Denver explained. "At this hour he is invariably to be found in a club close by his office. You seem to have forgotten that the most inexplicable feature of this extraordinary case has been entirely overlooked. I want to hear Fosbrook's explanation as to how it came about that his paper, containing the news of the Grand Duke's death, was on sale before the murder was actually committed. If I had told you this in a casual way you would have laughed at me. But you, of all men, are in a position to know this is indisputable. You know that, some minutes before you followed the Grand Duke into the corridor, the news of his death was actually being printed in Fleet-street. I am not going to say that Fosbrook is in any way a party to the crime, or that he took a hand in it for the sake of getting a sensational newspaper scoop, but he must know where the item of news came from, and who sent it in. Therefore, I am going to see him."
"But, surely, he would have verified such an item first?"
"Oh, Fosbrook would not worry about a little item like that. The 'Evening Herald' is a sensational rag, and battens on this kind of thing. Fosbrook would think nothing of contradicting the story to-morrow if it turned out to be untrue. People buy the paper principally for its racing tips, and Fosbrook knows what a short memory the public has; besides, he is an American, and has not been trained in the English school of journalism."
Half an hour later the two friends were seated in the waiting-room of the club, talking to a little man with keen grey eyes and a waxed moustache, whom Denver introduced to Kelso as Fosbrook. At first the editor listened languidly enough, but, as the story that Denver had to tell gradually unfolded itself, his manner changed, and he followed every detail with the greatest eagerness.
"That's a mighty tough yarn," he drawled. "Do you mean to tell me that the victim of a cold-blooded atrocity was still alive after I had actually passed the story for the composing-room? You are asking a sane man to believe a proposition like that?"
"Nevertheless, I am prepared to verify it," Denver said curtly. "Perhaps when you hear what my friend has to say you will be less cynical. It's your turn now, Kelso!"
Kelso told his side of the story quietly enough. When he had finished Fosbrook held out his hand.
"I apologise," he said. "The drinks are on me, boys. No? Well, it is getting late. Now, look here; in all the course of a long and checkered experience, I've never heard of anything like this. As a journalist it appeals to me that there's a fine story in it, but, unfortunately, I do not know the right man to tell it."
"You mean to say you don't know the name of the correspondent who is responsible for your paragraph of to-night?" Denver asked.
"That's a fact. Now listen to me. A year or two ago I had a letter from an unknown journalist, containing some most sensational copy. A man, who called himself Pascoe, asked a certain price, and the money was to be sent care of some advertising agents. I asked for the man to come and see me and verify his copy, but he refused to do so, and I lost a real scoop. The next time my man made me an offer I accepted it, and, from time to time he sends me some really wonderful stuff. I believe that man knows more of the secret history of Europe than any living soul. Why, occasionally, he has sent me copy, written as if a certain event had already happened, and asked me to hold it back for a couple of days on the chance of things not turning out trumps. But never once has the chap been wrong; indeed, his intelligent anticipation amounts to positive genius. But I've never seen him. Indeed, any attempt on my part to do so has always been followed by a threat that he will take his copy elsewhere. I don't in the least know where he lives, though, on one occasion, when he sent in some copy it contained, evidently by accident, his visiting card and the address, No. 17, Rosemead Avenue. But for that I shouldn't even know what his name is. Of course, I am telling you all in confidence."
"But, surely, you can get at the man?" Denver asked. "I suppose, like other journalists, he has a weakness for being paid. There must be some address where you send him his money."
"Which he's always changing about," Fosbrook went on. "Generally, it is some little newspaper shop where they take in letters. If the man thought he was watched he wouldn't call for his letter, or, perhaps, he would send a small boy for it and hang about in some dark corner till he thought it was safe to take it. And there's another thing—I've got my paper to think about. I don't want to lose the most valuable correspondent I have, to say nothing of the fact that I can't see anything to connect him directly with the tragedy at Lord Goring's house. If you like to investigate for yourself, you may. At any rate, I've given you the man's name, and put you on the track of his address. I dare say, all the same, that you will have some difficulty in finding the particular Rosemead Avenue, for, in all probability, there are hundreds of them scattered about the suburbs. Good-night, and good luck to you."
There was nothing for it now but for Denver and Kelso to turn their steps homeward. It was nearly three o'clock, and as neither of them had eaten anything since dinner the evening before, Denver suggested a snack in his own rooms.
"I can give you something cold and a drink," he said. "On the whole we are not doing so badly, but I should like to know what became of that missing shirt-cuff?"
"You needn't worry," Kelso said. "I've got it in my pocket."
Denver nodded approvingly. In the ordinary course of things Kelso's statement would have come as a surprise to him, but this had been such a night of astounding things, that the mere finding of the missing shirt-cuff was as nothing by comparison. At the same time, the quick-witted dramatist had formed a theory of his own, and the missing strip of linen was an integral part of it. Still, Kelso had undoubtedly taken a risk in coolly appropriating this important piece of evidence, and Denver congratulated him accordingly.
"How did you manage to get hold of it?" he asked. "I don't mind telling you I was looking everywhere for the thing. Stead seemed to attach no importance to it, but I should not be surprised to find you had laid your hands on a valuable clue. There can be no doubt whatever that the murderer was anxious to get hold of the missing cuff——"
"Might he have not been more anxious still to get hold of the missing links?" Kelso suggested. "I mean, of course, the missing sleeve-links. I haven't got them in my pocket. I should rather be inclined to believe that the criminal found what he wanted and threw the torn cuff carelessly amongst the ferns. But, frankly, I can't make head or tall of it. It amazes me to think how the thing could be done. The murderer, or murderess, must have been absolutely sure of their ground."
"No more sure of their ground than the strange journalist who wrote a brief history of the affair before it happened," Denver said. "I dare say we shall get to the bottom of it in time. Meanwhile, it is the fate of poor little Audrey Blair that worries me more than anything else."
Kelso rose from his seat and paced impatiently up and down the room. He was more uneasy and anxious than he cared to confess even to Denver. It seemed to him that he had stepped into another world, full of deceit and treachery—a world that he had never seen before. Hitherto, life had moved on oiled wheels for him, and such adventures as he had met had been deliberately sought for. But, then, these were mere episodes, merely stories to gossip over in the smoking-room and forget the next day; and now, in the course of a few days, he had met the only woman who had yet appealed to him, and had lost her almost before she was found. The tragic occurrence of an hour or two before had stirred him all the more deeply, because he could not rid himself of the thought that Audrey Blair was in the hands of the same determined scoundrel who had struck a fatal blow at the Grand Duke under the roof of one of the most exclusive houses in England. In the face of what had happened Kelso could not argue in any other way. In some strange fashion the Grand Duke most certainly held some power over Audrey, or he had conveyed to her a terrible warning, for, almost as soon as she had received his letter, she had vanished from the theatre.
And yet, so far as Kelso could remember of the interview which had taken place at the Regent Restaurant when the theft of the diamonds were disclosed, he had gathered from Audrey that she did not know the Grand Duke, even by sight.
And here, all the same, appeared to be a connecting link between that titled scoundrel and the little actress, whose name was now on everybody's lips. There was another side to the mystery, too—Audrey's strange reticence as regarded her past and the people to whom she was related.
"I don't know what to think of it," Kelso burst out. "Everything is so utterly puzzling. Ever since fate dragged me into this strange tangle, I have been asked to take everything on trust. I have been asked to believe things that the ordinary man of the world would laugh to scorn. If the case applied to anybody else, I should turn my back on it with contempt. And, yet here am I, with all my worldly knowledge, over head and ears in love with a beautiful girl and prepared to trust her implicitly, though every sane impulse prompts me to get out of the country and think no more about it. But it's no use, Denver, old chap. I've just got to go on and do my best, at any hazard, to save that poor girl from the perils that surround her. I know that she is innocent. Good heavens! the greatest cynic on earth couldn't look into those blue eyes and doubt it for a moment. And here am I wasting time, carrying on like a lovesick boy, whilst the girl is in danger. I suppose I took a certain amount of risk in concealing from our inspector friend the fact that I had picked up the torn cuff and hidden it in my pocket."
"Well, let's have it, anyway," Denver suggested.
Kelso produced a slip of white linen from his pocket and handed it across the table. Denver smoothed in out and examined it carefully under a shaded reading lamp. Kelso was looking on, more or less indifferently, though it seemed even to him that he could see something that seemed like faint pencil scratches on the glossy linen.
"I thought so!" Denver exclaimed. "I felt pretty sure we should find something here. That's one of the advantages of possessing a vivid imagination. Now come here and read for yourself. Tell me what you can see. You can read the words, can't you?"
Kelso bent eagerly over the table. He could see two figures, a one and a seven, evidently hastily scribbled with a pencil, followed by the word 'Rose,' and, after that, a trailing scrawl, as if the writer of the memorandum had either been satisfied with his work or suddenly interrupted before the sentence was finished.
"It looks to me like something about seventeen roses," Kelso muttered. "Not very illuminating, is it? It might be some very mysterious password, connected with a secret society. Upon my word, that's not a bad idea of mine, Denver. This Grand Duke of ours was a very shady sort of character, and he might have been connected with some revolutionary characters. Indeed, the manner of his death points strongly that way."
"It might," Denver said drily. "If there did not happen to be a much more plausible explanation. Without appearing to be more than unduly conceited, it seems to me that my solution of the riddle is a great deal more plausible than yours. We went round this evening to see Fosbrook, of the 'Evening Herald,' mainly to discover how on earth it was that some journalist connected with the paper could dare to forecast the death of the Grand Duke before it happened. You will remember that Fosbrook was quite frank with us and told us all he could. He gave us the name of his mysterious correspondent and an address, through which it might be possible to trace him. Do you happen to remember what that address was?"
"17 Rosemead-avenue," Kelso said.
"Precisely. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, this unfinished scrawl means '17 Rosemead-avenue.' At a guess I should say that the Grand Duke was interrupted before he had time to finish the rest of the address. There must be scores of Rosemead-avenues within a ten-mile radius of Charing Cross, and a more explicit address would have made matters easier for us. Still, we have made an important discovery, even if it is only the connecting link between the murdered man and the journalist with the extraordinary and authentic information. Now, if you like to help me, I propose that we carry on a private investigation of our own, leaving our friend Stead to go his own way and follow up his own clues. It won't do any harm to have two sets of detectives at work."
"I want nothing better," said Kelso. "And I am pretty sure that you are right. What is the next thing to be done?"
"Go to bed," Denver observed dryly. "There is nothing else that we can do at this late hour, and after a night's rest we can do no better than attend the inquest on the Grand Duke to-morrow. In the light of this important discovery of ours, we may get hold of a further clue."
But the police inquiry was quite formal, and nothing transpired to feed the popular appetite for sensation over a case which, by this time, was being widely and eagerly discussed all over civilised Europe. There was one fact that struck the more thoughtful newspaper reader, and that was the absolute aloofness of everybody connected with the Russian Government. No legal representative attended on behalf of the dead man's relatives; indeed, the Embassy itself did not trouble to send even an attache. So far as they were concerned, the Grand Duke might have been no more than a mere Slav emigrant who had been picked up in the gutter. Attempts were made, of course, to draw some expression of opinion from the Russian police, but beyond the cold official statement that there was no information, there was not a word said. Doubtless, there were funds enough available to bury the dead man, but it was quite plain that the funeral would take place on British soil, just as if the murdered man had been a middle-class person of no importance. It came about, therefore, that at the end of an hour or two's inquiry, the inquest was adjourned, and the reporters went empty away, or, at any rate, with material barely sufficient to make a paragraph. Inspector Stead had not hit upon anything in the shape of a clue, and no mention was made even of the lady in blue, though, on this point, Inspector Stead appeared to be curious when the last reporter had vanished, and he found himself alone with Lord and Lady Goring, together with Kelso and Denver.
"You will excuse me, my lady," he said, "but I shall be grateful if you will answer me a few questions on a point which it would have been unwise to mention at the inquest. Of course, your ladyship knows a great deal more than the general public, and I believe Mr. Kelso told you everything that happened, from the time he came here on the night of the dance till the moment when Lord Goring found the body of the Duke. Your ladyship will doubtless remember that the Grand Duke went up to the conservatory for the express purpose of fetching a fan, which belonged to one of your ladyship's guests. I understand that the lady in question was dressed entirely in blue. I don't say that this lady can tell us anything very important, but you will see that she must be found and asked a few questions. Now, can your ladyship place her?"
"I'm afraid not," Lady Goring said. "Quite fifty of my friends were dressed in blue. Perhaps if Mr. Kelso could give me a more detailed description I might be able——"
"She was tall and very slim," Kelso exclaimed eagerly. "Her hair was very fine and abundant, and parted very much on one side. There was a tiny mole under her left ear, and—I beg your pardon——"
For a sudden exclamation had escaped Lady Goring's lips, and she exchanged a startled glance with her husband. It was only for a moment, and then she was her cool, collected self again.
"I am afraid I cannot help you," she said. "Like most people, I have far more acquaintances than friends. So many people were here the other night whom I hardly know by sight. Really, Inspector Stead, you are merely wasting your time. The fair-haired lady in blue conveys absolutely nothing to me at all."
Inspector Stead appeared to be anything but satisfied. Apparently, he had seen nothing of the glance that had passed between Lady Goring and her husband; but it did appear to him that her ladyship was a little anxious to close the discussion. Nevertheless, the most minute description of the lady in blue failed to touch a responsive chord in Lady Goring's memory. She reiterated, with some asperity, the statement that her acquaintances far outnumbered her friends, and that scores of invitations to the dance had been sent out merely to please certain people who desired one of the coveted cards for others, with whom the hostess of the evening was hardly on bowing acquaintance. There was nothing unusual in such things.
"There were fifteen hundred guests," she said. "If you had asked me to go round and name them all I could not possibly have done so. Besides, this has happened more than once. Impudent impostors have found their way into these big parties, without the host or hostess being any the wiser. After what Mr. Kelso says, I have not the smallest doubt that this is what has happened, and, so far as I am concerned, there is nothing more to be said."
The inspector departed on this hint, and Kelso and Denver left the house a few minutes later. It was their intention to go as far as the Sovereign Theatre, on the bare chance that the manager might have heard something of importance.
"The plot seems to be thickening," Denver said. "I can speak freely to you, and I am going to do so. Would you be surprised to hear me say that I have good grounds for believing that Lady Goring knows a good deal more than she cares to disclose?'"
"I am glad you mentioned it," Kelso said. "As a matter of fact, I was going to make the same suggestion. You heard how she cried out when I went on to describe the lady in blue, and you probably saw the glance that she exchanged with her husband."
"It was not lost upon me," Denver said dryly. "But the mystery is that Inspector Stead did not notice it, too."
"All the same, I don't think he did. Still, I wouldn't mind making a small bet that Lady Goring could tell us the name of the lady in blue, who sent that poor wretch to fetch her fan. The first natural question that arises in one's mind is why this lady does not come forward and disclose her identity. There may be great political objections, of course, but in a case like this nobody should stand on ceremony. Still, if this unknown fair one thinks that she is safe, she will probably take no trouble to hide herself away, which means that before long we shall be pretty sure to come in contact with her, though, for the moment, it only adds to the complications."
There was nothing more to be said for the present, and nothing to be gleaned from the manager of the Sovereign Theatre. Nobody had seen or heard anything of the missing actress, and, at the end of half an hour, the friends went empty away through the stage door into the narrow street beyond. At the corner, a slight, pretty girl, with a pale face and pathetic brown eyes, stared about her, as if eagerly waiting for some one. As she caught sight of Denver she darted across the road and stood in front of him.
"May I speak to you a moment," she gasped. "I don't suppose you will remember me, Mr. Denver, but I am Polly Elkin. Many months ago, one night, you were down behind at the Brixton Palace, and you were very kind to me about a little song I sang. And I presumed to ask you if you could do something for me. It was very good of you to give me a note to the manager of the Sovereign, but it is only the last week or two that he could find anything for me to do. I am going on in the new front piece which they are rehearsing now. Of course, I am not getting much, and I'm glad enough to earn a few shillings in an evening show in a dreadful little place called the King's, at Balham."
"Glad to hear what you say," Denver said; "but, meanwhile, as my friend and I are somewhat busy——"
"Oh, please don't go yet!" the girl said imploringly. "I did not stop you to talk about myself, indeed I didn't. I am so distressed and worried that I don't know what to do. You are a great friend of Miss Audrey Blair, so you won't laugh at me when I tell you that I believe I know where she is."
"Oh, really!" Denver exclaimed. "This must be looked into without delay. Now, Miss Polly, there's a very cosy restaurant just round the corner, and if you will do us the honour of lunching with us, we shall be proud. You needn't be in the least nervous. We will have something to eat first, and then you can tell your story afterwards."
It was quite a different Polly Elkin who sat opposite the two friends after a substantial luncheon and a glass of wine.
"I am feeling better now," she smiled. "You see, I can't call myself exactly a friend of Miss Blair, though she has been very, very good to me. There's no reason why she should have been, but she's always that to everybody. When I began to come round to rehearsal some days ago, I had just been laid up, and I know I was looking very white and shaky, and she seemed to notice it, so more than once she asked me to have tea or lunch with her. Ah, I expect she knows what it is to be out of a shop and live on dry bread and weak tea for weeks at a time. But she was downright kind to me, and I feel ready to do anything for her. Of course, I never realised that she was in any sort of trouble, and I am never at the theatre in the evening, because I am still doing my turn over yonder at night till my time is up. When I heard that Miss Blair had gone off, or had been kidnapped, or whatever it is, you could have knocked me down with a feather."
"Yes, we all feel like that," Denver said. "We are both friends of Miss Blair's, and are very anxious about her. But you didn't stop me this morning just to tell me this, I suppose?"
"Well, no," the girl replied; "but, still, I must tell you my own way. And when I do you must promise me not to mention my name, because, after all, I might be altogether wrong in what I think. Mr. Denver, have you ever been inside the King's Music Hall at Balham?"
"I have never even heard of the place," Denver confessed. "It's not one of the Syndicate halls, surely?"
"Dear me, no! They call it Balham, but, really, it's somewhere off the High Road, in the low part, where few respectable people are to be found, and the audience is a pretty rough one on a Saturday night, I can tell you. All the same I am precious glad of the few shillings that I earn there. Then, you see, I am accustomed to that style of audience, and the dreadful remarks they make don't worry me very much. But I'm always fearfully sorry for the new-comers who have to make a start there. Why, I've known them break down in the middle of their turn and cry like children. Some of them have been very nicely brought up, too. Sometimes there comes an extra turn, which generally means a beginner. Last night we had one in the shape of a sketch—what you call a monologue—and a little song from a flower-girl, who was a cripple. A dainty, pathetic thing it was, and very well done, too. Thinks I to myself, if that's the work of a novice then she's born to the stage and likely to go a long way. The artist was very nervous, and, just for a minute or two, it looked to me as if she would get the 'bird' as a certainty, for that sort of thing doesn't cut much ice at the place I am speaking about. But it was the real thing, and, after a minute or two, began to fairly knock them. When the turn was finished you might have heard them yelling a mile off."
"Very interesting," Denver observed. "But what has all this to do with the matter we are discussing?"
"I am sorry, but I must tell the story my own way. Everybody in the theatre was howling with delight, except me, and I sat there trembling from head to foot, as dumb as an oyster. Not that I didn't thoroughly appreciate the show, because I did. But I had seen something that turned me faint. I wanted to call out and tell everybody about it, and a precious fool I should have looked if I had done so. You see, nobody would have believed me; indeed, I am not sure I should have believed myself. It seems an impossible thing to happen, but I sat on there saying nothing to anybody, and keeping my eyes open, because I meant to make sure that I was right before I went on to speak my own little piece."
"Stop a minute," Denver interrupted. "Before we go any further I should like to know the name of the talented artist, who made such an impression upon that hardened audience."
"That is exactly what I failed to find out," Polly went on. "Of course, you know that with an extra turn the name is never given, and does not appear on the programme. I did manage to get a word with the manager, but he told me to mind my own business, and not ask a lot of silly questions. All I could do was to hang about on the off chance of seeing the new performer when she came out of the dressing-room which the management had given her. It is only a little box of a place, but she had it all to herself, which is by no means a common thing for a novice. When she did come out I went up and spoke to her, but she took no notice of me except to say that I must have made a mistake, and, upon my word, when I heard her voice I began to believe that I had. I couldn't make a fuss behind the scenes, because it might have brought about the very thing that I was anxious to avoid, so I humbly begged pardon, and said that I saw I was wrong. It didn't much matter, because I knew that the management were not likely to let a 'find' like that slip through their fingers, and that we should be certain to meet again, when I might have a better opportunity of speaking. And now I come to the point. The performer in question was very pale and dark, and looked thin and poverty stricken. She might have been a middle aged governess, or something of that sort, who had taken up the stage late in life. But I've seen some clever 'makeups' in my time and you can't deceive me as easily as all that. Now, I feel absolutely certain that the woman who pushed hurriedly by me was nobody else than Miss Audrey Blair. I don't know whether I ought to have told you this or not, but I was bound to tell somebody or burst. I lay awake all night thinking about it and I had just been round to the theatre to get Mr. Denver's address when I was told he was actually in the house. There are pressing reasons why I can't say any more, perhaps I have said too much already. Possibly even now I have made a terrible mistake. But if you two gentlemen like to go down to Balham this evening and see for yourselves——"
"Oh, we will," Kelso said. "At any rate, there will be no harm done. What do you think, Denver?"
"By all means," Denver replied. "If you can't tell me the performer's name, do you happen to remember the title of the sketch?"
"Oh, yes," the girl said. "She called it 'Number Seventeen.'"
"No getting away from that number," Denver reflected.
It certainly was a remarkable coincidence that the number seventeen should have cropped up again so significantly. Kelso and Denver exchanged glances but, so far as the girl was concerned, the information she had imparted conveyed little or nothing to her. Now that she had finished her story she seemed less eager and animated, and her white face had the same drawn and anxious look as when she had stopped Denver outside the theatre. It occurred to him that she was in trouble of some kind, entirely apart from her anxiety on Audrey Blair's account.
"I have told you all I can," she went on. "Of course, I may be wrong, but I do believe that it would be worth your while to follow it up. I am only a poor girl, and I can't do very much; besides, there are reasons why I can't be seen taking any part in this business. Mine has been a hard life, and I have had a great struggle to get where I am. You don't know what it is to live with a drunken father who ill-treats you if you can't give him any money. And I have got a brother, too—the less said about him the better."
"I am sure we are greatly indebted to you," Kelso said gently. "And I am quite sure that we will do anything to help you. You can make your mind quite easy. You shan't be dragged into this business if it is possible to do without you. I don't know what Mr. Denver thinks, but I am disposed to go to this music-hall to-night."
"The sooner the better," Polly said. "There's one thing I might suggest. Don't forget the sort of place you are going to visit, and don't turn up there in evening dress. The 'King's' audience will probably resent anything like that."
There was no more to be said or done for the moment, and a little later on Kelso and Denver were making their way in the direction of the latter's rooms. There were one or two points to discuss, and neither of them felt inclined to think of anything else just now beyond the mystery which surrounded the disappearance of Audrey Blair. For some time they sat opposite each other, smoking in silence, and turning the matter over in their minds.
"It seems to me," Kelso said at length, "that there is only one mystery, after all. At first, I thought that the murder of the Grand Duke was a startling occurrence quite outside the puzzle which is worrying us so terribly, but I don't think so any longer. That poor girl must have known something about the Grand Duke; yet it will be very hard to prove it, and there is another thing which we seem to have lost sight of altogether. What, in your opinion, is the origin of all this trouble?"
"My dear fellow, that's just what we've got to find out."
"Ah, but you don't mean exactly what I do mean, where did the mischief begin? To my mind there would have been none of these complications had not Audrey Blair persuaded young Hermann to lend her those diamonds. If she had not worn them then Blanche Trevenner would never have stolen them, and we should not be worrying ourselves as we are at this moment. All of which brings me to the point."
"You don't suggest that Blanche Trevenner had anything to do with the murder of the Grand Duke?" Denver asked. "Oh, my dear fellow, let's keep to one thing at a time."
"That's exactly what I am doing. Only it seems to me that we are allowing an important weapon to rust by not making use of the woman who was the origin of all our anxiety. It seems to be common knowledge that for some time Blanche Trevenner was on terms of the most intimate friendship with the Grand Duke Oro. It was something more than a newspaper gossip that he was going to marry her at one time, and I have not the slightest doubt that she enjoyed his full confidence. She is a clever, scheming, designing woman, and would have fully appreciated the advantage of knowing all about the Duke's past. I am certain she could tell us a great deal that we could make good use of. And she would be perfectly ready to place this information at our disposal——"
"If we paid for it—certainly," Denver said cynically. "That's not at all a bad idea of yours, old man. Our fascinating friend is exceedingly hard up, as you know, and, at the present moment, would stick at nothing in return for a good round sum of money. You leave her to me. I'll see her some time to-morrow and talk the matter over. Meanwhile we've got to make the best of the information which little Polly Elkin has given us. I dare say any outsider would laugh at us for going out on such a wild goose chase, but Polly's story is so incredible that I feel inclined to believe it. Yet, why a girl of Miss Blair's talents should be masquerading in a slum music-hall is more than I can understand. It's just possible, of course, that she's afraid of being recognised if she appeared before a West End audience, but, beyond that, I can see no object in what she is doing. Can you enlighten me?"
"I think I can," Kelso said, quietly. "When people do this kind of thing there is invariably one motive—an urgent need of money. Miss Blair suddenly ceases to draw her salary from the Sovereign Theatre; there are cogent reasons why she must remain hidden for the present, but there is the problem of the bread and cheese to be faced all the same. I don't suppose she has saved any money; indeed, few people on the stage ever do, and it is more than likely that she has other people depending upon her! But all this is mere talk. How are you going to dress to-night?"
They talked the matter over for some time, finally deciding upon something old and shabby in the way of a lounge suit and tweed cap. This, together with a pipe each of the bulldog breed, would be quite sufficient to protect them against anything offensive on the part of an audience which would be inclined to resent anything in the shape of social distinctions.
They made their way shortly before nine o'clock in the direction of Balham, and not without some difficulty arrived in the vicinity of the King's Theatre. This they found to be a plain, dingy structure, set in the heart of mean and shabby streets, foul and reeking, and overrun with struggling humanity. It seemed almost impossible to conceive that this rookery of slums could have been found in any London suburb. But there it was, and, moreover, it was no time to waste in idle speculation. The first reeking house had just poured its tide of unsavoury pleasure-seekers on to the greasy pavements, and the equally malodorous flood was surging forward to take its place. Denver and Kelso found themselves caught on the crest of the wave and carried forward into the vestibule, where the unwashed crowd were clamouring for stall tickets. The stalls appeared to be quite the most popular part of the house, and, therefore, with a view of doing in Rome as Rome does, Denver put down a two-shilling piece, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was entitled to a shilling change. He was saved any trouble on this point for, as he turned away, a grimy paw shot out and the shilling vanished with a celerity that had something almost uncanny about it. Beyond question Polly Elkin had not in any way libelled the class of patron that affected the King's Theatre.
But if the two adventurers found nothing in common between themselves and the people round them, they were agreeably surprised when once they found themselves inside the theatre. It was a building of fine proportions, spacious, brilliantly lighted, and decorated in white and gold—an arrangement which might have done credit to any West End house of entertainment. There were scores of tables dotted about the floor, and most of the seats around them were already occupied by the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, for a stall seat meant, at any rate, temporary prosperity, and was envied accordingly by the occupants of the gallery, who could not afford more than a humble threepence. There were no boxes, with the exception of two on either side of the stage but these were both empty, and the curtains of one were closely drawn.
Denver dropped into a seat before a small oval table and Kelso faced him. They had hardly taken their places before a hawk-eyed waiter pounced upon them, and desired to know, with the manner of a man who took no refusal, what they were going to drink. After a hasty glance at his neighbours, Denver decided upon two bottles of beer, which appeared to be the popular beverage.
"Now we shall be left in peace," he said. "I suppose they would throw me out of the place if I asked for such a thing as a programme. This place looks very nice and attractive, but there will be an atmosphere here presently that you could cut with a knife. I was once in one of these places, Tottenham way, looking for local colour in a play, and I couldn't stand it after the first ten minutes. If the worst comes to the worst we shall have to take it in turns. It we only knew when to expect this mysterious 'No. 17' arrangement I shouldn't feel quite so impatient."
"I don't see any sign of a programme," Kelso said. "But, surely, those hand bills lying about will tell you something."
From the floor Denver took up a blue printed sheet of coarse paper and scanned it eagerly. As Kelso suggested, it was the nearest thing in the shape of a programme that the management afforded its patrons, and was apparently supplied free of cost. But a close perusal of the blurred type gave no indication of anything which was likely to be of the slightest interest to either Denver or Kelso. It was just possible, of course, that there world be no repetition of the mysterious extra turn, which had so excited Polly Elkin and brought her hot foot in search of Denver earlier in the day. There was nothing, therefore, but to wait with dogged patience for what the programme would disclose. To Denver, at any rate with his vivid imagination and his knowledge of human nature, the audience was not without its fascination. It was far more interesting than the dreary turns reeking with vulgarity and pointless wit turning inevitably upon the subject of intoxication. There was something almost sad in its very drabness and want of point, but it seemed fit food enough for the intellectual digestion of the audience, for they rocked with laughter and applauded the red nosed comedians, who would not have been tolerated for a moment in any other civilised country in Europe.
"Well, what do you think of it?" Denver yawned. "How does Demos strike you when he is bent on enjoying himself?"
"I suppose he is enjoying himself," Kelso said dubiously. "The whole thing makes me sad. I dare say that if I——"
He broke off suddenly as the curtains of the closed box were drawn back and two persons took their seats. The one was a middle-aged man with shiny red hair plastered over his forehead, a sharp-faced man wearing tinted spectacles. The woman seemed to be younger, as far as Kelso could judge, but her head was swathed in a red wrap, and he could get no more than a glimpse of her features. She loosened the wrap for a moment, so that she could push back her hair, and then replaced it. Kelso started violently.
"See the woman in the box?" he whispered. "Denver, I have found our missing friend the lady in blue."
Here was something, at any rate, vastly more entertaining and exciting than the lucubrations of the red-nosed comedian, who was convulsing the house with a story of his woes in connection with a partner of his joys and sorrows, and an all too fascinating lodger. The artist might have been miles away for all the attention he was getting from two of his audience.
"Are you quite sure?" Denver whispered. "I suppose you are alluding to the lady in the box. You don't happen to know who her companion is, by any chance?"
"Oh, never mind about him. He looks harmless enough—quite middle- class and respectable. But I'm not mistaken as to the lady. I told you that she had fair hair, parted very much on one side, and waved in a remarkably fascinating way over her forehead. I happened to glance at her as she came into the box quite in a casual fashion, and just at that moment she was obliging enough to loosen her wrap, so I saw her put her hair back precisely as she did the night she was talking to the Grand Duke. Evidently it is a little trick of hers. And, anyway, it was quite good enough for me, for it brought the whole thing back to my mind in a vivid fashion. I have not the slightest doubt that the woman sitting there is the missing lady in blue, who sent the Grand Duke to his death, or, at any rate, was responsible for that fatal journey of his. Now, I should like to know what you make of it."
"Upon my word, I don't know what to think of it," Denver admitted. "These discoveries come after one another so rapidly that one has hardly time to think. At any rate, the situation is a little embarrassing. If we hadn't come here on an exclusive and peculiar errand I should suggest sitting quietly till the lady left and following her home afterwards. But if we did that, we should defeat our own plan. At the same time, it is quite essential that we should not lose sight of your fair friend. All we can do for the moment is to wait upon events. I suppose there's no chance that the lady in the box has spotted you? It is long odds that she read your evidence and mine, given at the Grand Duke's inquest, and she might have noticed you standing close by when she sent that unfortunate man on his fatal errand."
"She might," Kelso admitted. "Still, in a crowded place like this it would be very difficult——"
He stopped abruptly and lowered his eyes, as if to read the programme lying in front of him.
"I begin to believe you are right," he whispered. "Don't look towards the box, because I am sure that woman is watching us. I happened to glance up just now, and she was regarding me most intently. We shall have to be careful."
Denver shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing to be done for the moment. Perhaps before the evening was over he might hit upon some scheme whereby it would be possible to kill the two birds they were after with one stone. And just for the moment, too, further discussion was stopped by a late-comer, who had drawn a chair up to the little table where the conspirators were seated, and had given his order to a hovering waiter with the air of a man who was in no immediate hurry to move. He was a small man with a mass of long black hair, his lips and chin hidden behind a tangled black moustache and beard. He spoke with a guttural accent and carried his profession written all over him, for beyond all doubt he was a struggling musician with whom the world had apparently gone none too well. He smoked a thin, rank cigar, of the type known as a 'Vevey Fin,' and drank his tankard of lager slowly.
The performance apparently interested him not at all, for his back was turned towards the stage. Presently he fished from his pocket a stump of a pencil, and began to make notes on the back of the grimy programme. He appeared to tire of this after a time, for he threw the sheet of paper carelessly on the table and, finishing his beer, rose from his chair. Just for a moment he held a grimy forefinger on the programme and glanced significantly at Kelso, whose eye he happened to catch. Then he drifted out through the thick haze of tobacco smoke and was seen no more.
"What do you make of that chap?" Denver asked. "A theatrical orchestra artist out of work to a certainty."
"I am not so much concerned with what he is as what he was doing here," Kelso replied. "Don't lift your eyes to that box opposite, and in a minute or so pick up the programme that our long-haired friend was scribbling on and pretend to read it. Unless I am greatly mistaken you will find something exceedingly interesting there."
Denver yawned and stretched himself as if utterly bored and weary of the whole performance. He felt rather than saw the eyes of the woman in the box upon him as he lazily reached out his hand and took up the programme, which he appeared to be scanning with contempt.
But it was not the face of the programme that he was studying. His interest was concentrated upon the message on the back.
"You are quite right," he said. "Our unknown friend came here on purpose to give us a warning. He says we are in danger here, and suggests that it would be wise for us to clear out as soon as possible. It's very good of him, of course; but I don't quite see how it's going to be done. Now, shall we face the thing out, or do you think that discretion would be the better part of valour? We might disappear quietly and come back here to-morrow night in disguise. What do you say?"
"We might do that," Kelso said. "But the odds are a million to one that we shall never see the lady in blue here again. Besides, the whole thing might be nothing more than a bluff to get us out of the way. We can't hang about outside on the off chance of following the lady in blue home, because if we have been spotted here we are pretty sure to be shadowed. Of course, the right thing to do is for us to get back West and take Stead into our confidence. He knows a great deal more about this side of detective work than we do, and, yet, at the same time, I've set my heart upon finding Audrey Blair myself. I couldn't go away from here to-night without thoroughly testing Polly Elkin's information. So, if you don't mind the chance of a rough and tumble, count me in."
Denver nodded approvingly. He had no mind to turn his back upon the adventure in this half-hearted way. Besides it was getting late and the extra turn might come on at any moment. They sat there with dogged patience for another half hour with no sign of trouble, and then there lurched up the floor a big, powerful-looking fellow, who came violently in contact with the little table, and thence cannoned heavily on to Denver. Almost in the twinkling of an eye a free fight was taking place on the floor, not only between the newcomer and Denver and Kelso, but with others who a minute or two before had been outside the sphere of the disturbance. Blows were being struck right and left. One or two women were screaming violently, and gradually Denver and Kelso were being pressed back against the wall. Even then, in the heat and excitement of the moment, Kelso glanced at the box, and it seemed to him that the eyes of the woman there were turned upon him with a smile of amusement and contempt. But there was little time to give to the lady in blue, for now the weight of numbers was telling its tale, and the two friends were heavily pressed, when, suddenly, without the slightest warning, the lights all over the house went out with a snap, and the whole place was plunged into a thick unsavoury darkness.
Kelso and his companion, with their backs pressed to the wall, seemed to feel something giving way, and then they dropped back panting and breathless down a short flight of steps into a passage which smelled comparatively sweet after the foetid atmosphere of the music-hall. Then something went snap like the lid of a box and the roar of voices died away in the distance. As the two friends scrambled to their feet they heard the scratching of a match, and, looking down, saw a small boy regarding them with every sign of satisfaction on his dirty, grimy, prematurely old face. He was dressed in a mass of rags, and, probably, during the whole of his fourteen years had never once known the virtues of soap and water.
"Yer sife now," he said. "When I see yer with yer backs to that door and the loight went aht, I jest turned the knob, and 'ere yer are. You come along o' me and I'll put yer through."
"You are a clever chap," Denver said. "What's your proper name, Tommy, and who sent you here to help us?"
"It don't matter what me nime is nor the nime of my client neither," the youth said truculently. "I was told ter keep me eye on yer, an' I bloomin' well done it. I suppose yer thinks as becos' you're wearin' old togs and got pipes shoved in yer fices that yer wouldn't be tiken fer toffs, eh? That's jest where yer perishin' well wrong. Now yer come along o' me and don't ask any more fool questions. I'm going to see yer sife."
Denver and Kelso followed meekly enough. They found themselves presently in a kind of blind alley at the back of the music-hall, where their guide hustled them into a deep doorway, which was so thick and black that it was impossible for either of them to see a hand before them.
"Yer jest wite 'ere," the youth said. "Nobody ain't likely to come this way becos' it only leads to the back of the stige. If yer sti 'ere ten minutes they'll think you got awiy, and they won't trouble any more abaht yer. Then I'll come and fetch yer and show yer the wiy inter 'igh street. So long!"
The precocious youth vanished into the darkness, and for some minutes afterwards nothing could be seen or heard. Then from the back of the stage came the sound of footsteps, muffled and hollow, on the stone floor, and two figures appeared in sight, one of them carrying an electric torch, the rays of which cut a clear path through the velvety darkness. Kelso and Denver clutched each other's arm simultaneously as they recognised the lady in blue and her red-headed companion. They were scarcely out of earshot before, with a common impulse, the watchers were after them. There was no longer the faintest chance now of seeing the turn which they had come to witness, but, since fortune had thrown this chance in their way, they were not going to return without some results.
They threaded their way through the mean roads until, without being molested, they reached the High Street. Here the two in front of them entered a taxi that was obviously waiting for them, and were whirled away without loss of time. It took the best part of a minute or two before another taxi could be engaged, and then began a stern chase, which lasted for a good hour. The taxi in front vanished from sight round a double turning, and the pursuing driver pulled up with an admission of failure.
"Never mind," Denver said. "We'll get out here. They must be very close, anyway. What's this street called?"
"This, sir?" the driver asked. "This is Rosemead Avenue."
"That's very interesting," Denver said. "Still, the name is not exactly historic, and I have no doubt that it might apply to a great many other places around London. Would you mind telling me precisely what the post-mark would be?"
"We are still in Balham, sir," the driver said. "For some reason or another the driver of the first cab went a long way round. I should say that we can't be more than a couple of miles from where we started. Shall I drive you back, sir?"
Kelso listened to all this with a good deal of impatience. Evidently they had failed in their mission, and there was nothing for it now except to get back to town without further delay. From Kelso's point of view the evening had been a disastrous failure, and he was just beginning to realise how deeply disappointed he was. He stood there moody and silent, in the faint hope that Denver might have some brilliant proposal to make, and, indeed, the latter showed no particular sign of being beaten.
"I don't think we shall want you again," he said to the driver. "It is fairly obvious from what you say that the driver of the first taxi cannot have gone very far. Now, I suppose you know the neighbourhood pretty well? This doesn't look to me like a main road, and, therefore, I suppose it ends somewhere or another."
"That's right, sir," the driver said. "This is what's called Baris Court Estate. I suppose that most of the houses here have been built about twenty years, but there's been nothing doing for a long time now. They tell me that the property's in Chancery or something of that sort. When I was a boy here the Baris Court family were the big people; there was a scandal or a murder or something, and they left the neighbourhood. Then the old house was partly destroyed by fire, and after that no more places were built. If you go across the avenue you come slap to open fields."
Denver took a sovereign from his pocket and handed it to the driver. He appeared anxious to get rid of him now, and dismissed him with an intimation that he could keep the change.
"Have you got some idea in your head?" Kelso asked as the taxi purred away in the distance. "I suppose you propose to walk home, otherwise you would have kept the cab."
"Oh, we are not going to walk home," Denver said cheerfully. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, we haven't finished by a long chalk. Didn't you hear what our driver said? I wanted to get rid of him because there is a very fair chance of the taxi we lost sight of coming back this way. Indeed, I gathered that he must come back this direction. When he does it's long odds that the cab will be empty, and unless the driver is different to most of his class, a judiciously expended half-sovereign will give us all the information that we need. So, if you don't mind, we'll just hang about here and smoke a couple of those excellent cigarettes of yours."
Kelso raised no objection. Anything was better than returning to London with the consciousness of defeat. It was getting very late and the broad avenue was absolutely deserted. It was quite a good class of suburban thoroughfare with fine, well-built houses set well back from the road, and each of them apparently surrounded by five or six acres of land. A few hundred yards further on another road crossed the avenue at right angles, so that some of the numbers were on the far side of this thoroughfare. So far as Kelso could judge, it was across this boundary that No. 17 lay. At any rate, it would be worth while presently to stroll on and take stock of the mysterious house that kept cropping up so strangely in these investigations. But, first of all, it was necessary to wait on the off-chance of the missing taxicab turning up again. Nor was their patience unduly taxed.
In the distance they could hear the hum of the car and catch the gleam from the lamps far down the avenue. The driver came along leisurely, and slowed down evidently with the idea that there was a possible fare for him.
"Just a moment," Denver exclaimed. "We don't want your car, but you could make another half-a-sovereign in another way. Here it is. Where did you put down the lady and gentleman that you drove from High Street, Balham, just now? That's all I want to know."
"Number seventeen, sir," the man said promptly. "It's about 200 yards away on your right, main entrance a little off the road. Oh, thank you, sir! Goodnight, sir!"
The man drove off evidently well pleased with his good fortune. Denver smiled as he threw away the end of his cigarette.
"Now, that's what I call a piece of of real good luck," he said. "But, then, good luck always does follow if you seek it hard enough. We seem to have struck quite a good neighbourhood here—not at all the sort of locality that one would associate with a vulgar crime. And here are all the elements of the mystery again—a decayed old family, a mysterious old house in ruins, and all the rest of it. Come on and see what fortune has in store for us."
But when the avenue was crossed and two pairs of big oak gates numbered respectively fifteen and sixteen, in big gold figures had been located, there came a sudden blank. A little further on was number eighteen, surely enough, but where was the missing seventeen?
Nothing in the shape of an entrance beyond a narrow pathway that looked like a passage to a back door could be noticed. It was all very strange and mysterious, and puzzled the seekers after knowledge not a little. They stood there hesitating as to what to do next, and they were still debating the question when a policeman on his round came by. Denver accosted him pleasantly:
"Look here, officer," he said; "so far as I can make out, some felonious individual has stolen a house. At any rate, my friend and I can't find number seventeen. We are interested in the property, but that is a detail. Where's the house gone?"
"Well, sir," the officer replied, "as a matter of fact, there isn't any seventeen. If you were to address a letter to that number in the avenue it would come back to you through the post office marked 'not known.' Years ago there was only one house here, and that was a big place called Baris Court."
"Ah!" Denver said carelessly, "I know; the fine old mansion that was unfortunately destroyed by fire."
"Well, sir. I would not go so far as to say that it was destroyed," the policeman went on; "but there was a great deal of damage done, and, for some reason, the house was never put in repair again. Then the family left the neighbourhood, and, I believe, went abroad. Old inhabitants about here talk about a scandal, but I never heard the truth of it. When the houses in the avenue were finished and numbered, seventeen was purposely left out by the post office people, because that really represented the old Court."
"Then how do you get to the house?" Denver asked.
The policeman indicated the narrow path in front of him.
"That's the only way," he said. "The old lodge was pulled down years ago, and never rebuilt. If anybody did buy the Court, there would be just room to make a drive in, and no more. It's a pity, because it's a fine old place, and must stand in quite a hundred acres of ground. But perhaps you know it, sir?"
"Oh, I shouldn't like to say how many years it is since I was here last," Denver said diplomatically. "Is it empty still? Any caretakers, or people of that sort?"
"I wouldn't like to say for certain. I have heard that some poor relations of the family have furnished a room or two, and that they manage to get on without servants. Perhaps once in six months I see a gentleman coming up the path."
"I wonder if I know him?" Denver said casually. "What is he like?"
"A middle aged gentleman with glasses. Rather a sharp face, and looks to me like a barrister. He's got red hair, and——"
But Denver was no longer listening. Here was information of a not unexpected character, and something that might be followed up without further delay. It was necessary, in the first place, to get rid of the policeman, which was not a difficult matter, and once this was done Denver turned eagerly to Kelso.
"More good luck!" he exclaimed. "We've learned more the last ten minutes than we have picked up in two days. Don't you see that we have located the whereabouts of the lady in blue, to say nothing of her companion, the red-headed man? What do you say to having a look round the house? It's evidently a rambling old place, with plenty of cover, and I don't suppose there will be any danger. All the same, I should feel a little more comfortable if I had a weapon in my pocket. Still, it doesn't much matter."
"As a matter of fact I have got an automatic with me," Kelso said. "One gets in the habit of carrying these things in the parts where I have spent the last few years. But, unless I am greatly mistaken, here is another interruption."
A messenger-boy on a bicycle came rapidly down the avenue ringing his bell loudly. He jumped off his machine and approached the two men standing there with the air of absolute assurance, which is one of the marks of all his tribe. He was dressed in a uniform of sorts, and on the band of his pill-box cap, in gold letters, were the words, 'Evening Herald.'
"I've come for the copy," he said shrilly. "Number seventeen, ain't it?"
Kelso looked at the speaker in pure astonishment. The interruption fairly threw him off his mental balance for the moment. He was trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, wondering why and how it was that the 'Evening Herald' should be back again into the story, and making nothing logical of it at all. But Denver's mind was moving much more rapidly. To him this was a new and ingenious situation in the drama, and already he began to see how he could use it to the greatest advantage.
"You are a very smart boy," he said. "Now, how did you manage to get here? You haven't ridden all the way from London?"
"Didn't have to," said the boy, with some contempt. "Rode my bike to Ludgate 'ill station, trained to Balham, and 'ere I am; and I'm waitin' for that copy, let me tell you."
"Oh, you mean the copy that Mr. Fosbrook is expecting from Mr. Pascoe, eh? Is that what you mean?"
The boy nodded shortly and held out his hand.
"Oh, not so fast as all that," Denver went on. "The fact is that the copy isn't ready. You are to go back to the office and tell Mr. Fosbrook that the matter he wants will be forwarded by post the first thing in the morning. Tell him that Mr. Mark Denver sent the message. Now, don't forget—Mark Denver."
The boy nodded, and rode off without another word.
"That was very clever of you," Kelso said admittingly. "I should never have been able to grasp the situation and turn it to account like that. Even now I only have a dim idea as to what scheme you have in the back of your mind."
"As a matter of fact, so have I," Denver admitted coolly. "Now, before that boy came up, I was trying to see if I could fit that red-headed man into the story. He suddenly appeared on the scene to-night as a new character, and, therefore, for the moment puzzled me. But seeing that he was on such familiar terms with the lady in blue, and seeing also that he must have been party to the little scheme for putting us off the track to-night, I am forced to the conclusion that he is one of the principal characters. But I didn't expect to find in the personality of the red-headed man that mysterious journalist who is known as Mr. Pascoe. And I should very much like to have the pleasure of a few minutes conversation with Mr. Pascoe. I wonder if we can manage it."
"Aren't you rather jumping to conclusions?"
"Oh, I don't think so. In any case, my assumption need not carry us off the track. Now, let us look our facts in the face before we go any further. The murder of the Grand Duke is anticipated in the 'Evening Herald' by a mysterious journalist, named Pascoe. We know this to be a fact, because Fosbrook told us the whole story quite candidly. You know that the murdered man was sent to his death by the lady in blue. You, this evening, positively identified the woman in question, and you saw her in company with a red-headed, sharp-featured man wearing glasses. You are also aware of the fact that these two people are at present somewhere on the premises of the romantic ruin which is called Baris Court. You heard the policeman say that, so far as he knew, nobody lives at Baris Court, except a red-haired man who wears glasses and who looks likes a barrister. Fosbrook told us that the only address that Pascoe seemed to have was 17, Rosemead Avenue, somewhere or another, and we've found it. We are absolutely confirmed by the appearance of our young friend the messenger boy. Now I want you to realise the cold fact that we have actually located the residence of the man who can tell us all about the murder of the Grand Duke Oro. I am hoping that perhaps he could enlighten us as to the reason why Audrey Blair vanished so mysteriously, after receiving a letter from the unfortunate Grand Duke. I propose to call and ask him."
"Well, I certainly admire your colossal impudence. Still, there is nothing like audacity, and I am quite prepared to back up your suggestion. But won't this man Pascoe be considerably annoyed when he finds that you have sent his messenger away empty-handed?"
"Possibly," Denver said coolly. "But we must take the risk of that. I am now rather inclined to think that Fosbrook sends a messenger out here on the chance of picking up certain copy, and that the boy has instructions to wait a certain time—but that's all guesswork. Now, come along with me, and let us carry the adventure a stage further. Goodness knows what we might discover if we only go about the business boldly."
It was by no means a dark night, so that it was possible to see the way clearly enough along the narrow, weed-grown path, which terminated presently in a broken and rusted iron gate, by the side of which was a tumble-down thatched cottage, which had once evidently been a lodge. Beyond this was a wide avenue, almost entirely covered with grass, and flanked on either side by a row of remarkably fine elms. At one time this had formed the park round the house, and was comparatively neat, since it consisted entirely of meadow grass. Some distance away was a ring fence, and behind it what at one time had been trimmed lawns and well kept gardens, but which was now a wilderness of weeds and nettles. Behind this again was the house, looking stark and black with gaping windows like sightless eyes gazing blankly out on the desolation below.
Of one of the wide wings of the house nothing remained now but bare, blackened walls. There was no roof, either; but the centre of the house seemed largely to have escaped the ravages of the fire, for the tiled roof still stood and the windows here had blinds behind them. It was some little time before Kelso and his companion could make out any sign that the place was inhabited; indeed, they reached the wide, moss-strewn terrace before they could make out a thin streak of light showing through a crack in one of the rotting blinds. The whole place had an unmistakable look of decay and desolation.
"Rather forbidding, isn't it?" Denver asked. "It may be more cheerful inside, but I doubt it."
As he spoke he laid his hand upon the rusty bell-pull and tugged at it vigorously. From somewhere in the distance came an answering toll, like a dirge tolling for some departed soul. The last knell had died away into silence before the door was thrown back on its creaking hinges and a man appeared carrying a small oil lamp in his hand. It only wanted a casual glance to identify him with the red-haired man whom they had seen in the music hall.
He looked at them over his glasses with a certain bland curiosity, which had nothing of annoyance or anger about it. Indeed, his features were absolutely expressionless.
"And what may you be wanting here?" he asked.
"We came to see Mr. Pascoe," Denver said coolly. "We are anxious to discuss a matter of importance with him. As a matter of fact, I believe I am speaking to Mr. Pascoe now."
"It is always well to be sure of one's fact," the man with the lamp said in a curiously dull but somewhat contemptuous tone. "It usually is one of the privileges of youth, I believe. And what if I tell you that Mr. Pascoe is not here?"
"I should be under the painful necessity of disbelieving you," Denver said in his blandest manner. "Doesn't it occur to you that we are wasting one another's valuable time?"
"True, I had forgotten that. Will you gentlemen kindly step inside? I may mention, incidentally, that this is the first time for twenty-odd years that any stranger has been under this roof. Would you be good enough to come this way, and, perhaps presently I shall be able to convince you that your information is not quite so correct as you imagine it to be."
Without another word the red-headed man went away across the hall towards the room on the left. The hall itself was destitute of furnishings of any kind with the exception of the thick pile carpet on the floor. The big room on the left was a noble apartment with oak-panelled walls, and depending from them was a number of the finest mezzotints that Denver, who flattered himself that he was a connoisseur of such works of art, had ever seen. The furniture was entirely carved oak, the cabinets and sideboards carried many fine specimens of old blue and Nankin china. The red-headed man motioned his visitors to a chair on the other side of the fireplace, and begged them to excuse him for a moment.
He had hardly left the room before the door opened again and another man entered. His high forehead and round, massive head was absolutely devoid of hair, save for a grey fringe round his ears, and in striking contract to this was the black moustache which concealed his mouth and gave a certain air of militancy to his appearance. His thin nose was high and curved like the beak of a falcon—not that there was anything predatory about him—on the contrary he gave the impression of a man of power and position, who is accustomed to command and be obeyed. But for a certain shabbiness in his raiment and a certain tired weariness in his eyes, he might have passed for a general, a governor of a Province, or even an ambassador representing some great nation. But whatever his present position in life might be the man was a gentleman who, at some time or another, had mixed on equal terms with the great ones of the earth. There was just the suggestion of a faint cynicism curving his lips as he bowed gravely to his visitors.
"Good evening gentlemen," he said, not altogether without a shade of patronage in his voice. "I am told that you want to see me. Before going any further, surely, you must know that this call of yours is a gross and unwarrantable piece of impertinence. And neither of you have the excuse that you don't know any better. Surely, Mr. Denver, a man of your social position can have no excuses to offer. And I knew your father well, Mr. Kelso. He would never have been guilty of an outrage like this."
"Upon my word, sir, you are making me feel very uncomfortable," Denver said frankly. "But, you see, there's an old proverb that says 'Needs must when the devil drives.' We have the most pressing reasons why it is necessary for us to have half an hour's conversation with the talented and distinguished journalist who is known as Mr. Pascoe."
"So I understand," the other man went on. "But now let me remind you of another famous quotation—'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' By accident, or by the decree of fate, you have penetrated the heart of a secret that has been successfully preserved for over twenty years, but this is by the way. Certain questions you may ask, but it does not follow that they will be answered. And now will you please to put those questions."
"Pardon me," Denver objected, "we came here to see Mr. Pascoe."
"And you are talking to him at the present moment. You seem surprised at that statement. You have naturally made up your mind that the gentleman with the auburn locks was your man. It is not always safe to go by appearances. Now if you please——"
"You mean that I am to come to the point?" Denver asked. "Well, sir, I will ask you a straight question. Have you at any time of your life, come in contact with the Grand Duke Oro? I mean the man who was murdered at Lord Goring's house an evening or two ago."
"Oh, yes; I may say I knew the man you are speaking of quite intimately five-and-twenty years ago. In those days he gave promise of a distinguished career. But there is strange blood in that branch of the family, and I was not surprised when the Grand Duke developed another side to his character, and, in fact, proved himself to be the scoundrel that he was. If you——"
The speaker broke off abruptly. From somewhere, in a distant part of the house, there came the sound of a piercing scream, followed by a growl, low and threatening, and then laughter, clear and loud and hysterical. The man standing there in the room moved impulsively in the direction of the door.
"I must ask you to excuse me a moment," he said hoarsely. "I may even have to detain you for ten minutes."
He vanished, closing the door behind him. Scarcely had his footsteps died way before another door at the far end of the room opened, and a woman in shabby white looked in. Her face was deadly pale and waxen, her eyes were now dull and expressionless, very different from what they seemed at the first meeting in Denver's rooms.
"Look!" Kelso whispered. "It's the woman with the ivory mask."
There was still a suggestion of death and disaster in the eyes of the woman as she stood there, almost like a statue, gazing at the two men. It was almost as if she had expected to see them there, although, not by so much as the lifting of an eyebrow, did she express the least surprise. For a moment or two she gave no sign; then she raised one of the long skeleton-like hands and beckoned mysteriously. Kelso and Denver looked at one another, hesitating what to do next. Then there came a still more imperious summons, and with a common impulse both of them moved forward.
The woman put up her hand as if to stop them, and then pointed a finger as if it had been a weapon, at Kelso's face. It began to dawn upon him now that he was to be the chosen individual.
"It's uncommonly awkward," Denver muttered. "She evidently wants you; but, what for, goodness only knows. The question is whether it will be wise to follow her or pretend not to understand what she means. In any case, I don't suppose our host will like it, yet, on the other hand, there might be a fine chance here of finding something out. If you like to risk it——"
"I am going to," Kelso said curtly. "This is no time for the nice observance of social amenities. Besides, you can explain to our friend Pascoe that we are in search of Miss Audrey Blair, and that we are fully aware of the fact that the lady, yonder, acts as her companion. Yes, I think I'll risk it."
Denver shrugged his shoulders indifferently. As a matter of fact, he was quite of Kelso's opinion. Whilst this hurried conversation was going on, the woman with the ivory mask stood there with no shade of expression on her face, and yet evidently comprehending what was taking place. As Kelso walked towards her, she turned and led the way into a corridor, which opened presently on to a broad landing with a number of doors opening upon it. One of these she entered and beckoned to Kelso to follow. A moment later the door was closed behind her, and he found himself in a darkness which, like that of Egypt, could be felt. The air was close and musty, with a suggestion of decay about it. There was a suggestion, too, of space and breadth here, and this began to disclose itself, dimly and gradually, as Kelso's companion struck a match, and began to light a number of wax candles in tall sconces, fixed at intervals along the dusty oak floor.
The woman glided from one part to another until, at length, she had lighted a hundred of the wax candles, or more. She made no noise; she was like some great white, ghostly spirit as she flitted from one point to another. Finally, at the far end of the room, she lighted a row of candles in front of what appeared to be a green baize curtain, then she vanished entirely down a flight of steps, and for a brief space was seen no more.
"I shall wake up presently," Kelso told himself. "This must be a dream. It couldn't possibly happen in a civilised country. Good heavens, what is she up to now?"
For the green baize curtain suddenly parted and disappeared, disclosing a set drawing-room scene, furnished with something really exquisite in the way of Empire furniture. The silk-panelled walls were hung with oval water-colours and with Venetian mirrors. It seemed as if nothing had been spared to make the set complete. But over it all hung the same close and musty atmosphere. The picture frames were grey with dust, and it lay like a bloom on the fine tapestry with which the chairs were upholstered.
Into the middle of the picture came the faded figure of the woman with the ivory face, curtseying, bowing, and muttering to herself, as if she were going through a part. She carried in her hands a bouquet of roses made of silk, in which she hid her face for a moment. Beyond all question the scene was real enough to her, and she gave Kelso the impression that she was back again with her own vanished youth, in a world far enough remote from this. It was only for a moment or two, and then she seemed to realise that she was in the presence of an audience of her own choosing. She beckoned to Kelso imperiously, and he climbed over the footlights and took the chair his companion indicated.
"Do you think I'm mad?" she asked abruptly.
Her voice conveyed a strange impression of coming from a long way off. It was low and hoarse, and yet not altogether devoid of musical quality. From start to finish she spoke in the same muffled way, spoke as if she were some lost soul, without future and without hope. There was something infinitely pathetic about it.
"Well, really," Kelso stammered. "You see all this is very startling and unexpected. Quite a picturesque theatre you have here. I suppose you are very fond of theatricals?"
It was all very stupid and commonplace, but, for the life of him, Kelso could not think of anything appropriate to say.
"Years and years ago," the woman went on, "I was born in this house. Would you think to look at it now that these cold and dreary rooms once echoed with the sound of mirth and laughter? Ah, it is seldom that I speak, seldom indeed that I break the silence, unless there is some urgent need. To-night is the first time I have opened my lips to a human being for years. Why am I speaking you will see presently. This is the first time that anyone besides myself his been in the theatre of Baris Court for a longer time than I care to think of. But this is my room, and none would dare to enter without my permission, indeed, they could not, seeing that I always carry the key. When you stood there just now and you saw me come on the stage, you thought that I was playing a part. And so I was. I play it night after night, to the rats and mice and beetles that form my only audience. I play the part in the comedy that I wrote myself, as I played it on the fatal night when my soul died, and my heart froze within me, and life suddenly stopped, like a clock with a broken spring. Ah, you are a young man, with all the world before you, and you smile to hear me talk like this."
"I beg your pardon," Kelso said. "Let me assure you that I am very far from being amused."
He spoke sincerely enough, for there was something weirdly impressive in the scene, tawdry and theatrical as it was, to say nothing of the woman's vehemence. Mad in a fashion she undoubtedly was, but there was much method in it, the method of one who had suffered deeply, and who has never ceased to brood upon her wrongs. An infinite pity for this poor, pathetic figure shone in Kelso's eyes, and she seemed to notice it, for she drew near to him and laid a yellow hand upon his arm.
"I am going to tell you my story," She went on; "you will know why, presently. Now look at me, I am a poor faded creature with a face like a mask, and yet there was a time, and not so long ago, when he used to say that my skin was like rose petals scattered over newly-fallen snow, and my eyes like a forest pool. And I believed him, fool that I was! I was a wilful, headstrong girl then, and for the sake of peace and quietness they usually allowed me to have my own way. But there was one point from which I could not move them. I was crazy to go on the stage. They laughed me to scorn. They pointed out to me that I was a Bariscourt, and that for five hundred years no member——But you can imagine all that. Still, they could not cure me of my craze for acting, they could not stop me from writing plays, neither did they try to do so as long as I confined my energies to the house. They fitted up this theatre for me, they allowed me to give performances among my friends, and in a way I was happy, although I refused to believe it. It in only now that I realise how really happy I was."
She broke off for a moment to pace restlessly up and down the stage, murmuring and whispering and making great play with the bunch of artificial roses. For a moment she seemed to have forgotten all about her companion; for a moment she was back in the happy past again. Absolutely mad, no doubt, Kelso thought, but with a strange streak of sanity running through it all. Then she dropped back into a chair again and turned her hard eyes upon Kelso.
"Do you know you are very like him," she said. "That night we met round at your friend's rooms I was struck with the resemblance. You are not quite so handsome, but your eyes are more steadfast, and your lips more firm. But in those days I could see no blemish in him at all. To me he was not so much a man as a god. It seemed to me that he had stooped to earth, and, when he told me that he loved me, there was nothing more to wish for. Did I tell you that he was an actor? No. Well, he was—and is. There is no reason to tell you his name. You can see what bliss it was to me to be engaged to a man on the stage, a man who could help to get my plays produced, and thus bring me the fame that I longed for. Of course, our engagement was a profound secret, for my people would not have heard of it for a moment. Still, to me the future looked rosy enough. I was writing a comedy then. It was going to set the world ablaze and place me on the same level as Sheridan and Goldsmith. He read my comedy and prophesied all the great things that I desired. I did not know then that he was fooling me, and that he only meant to marry me for my money. I was blind, and he was blind to the knowledge that ruin was not far off, and that a disgrace was coming which was to humble the proud house of Bariscourt in the dust. There was no cloud on my horizon then. We had got together quite a brilliant company to produce the new comedy. There were professional men and women, and one of these latter, quite a young girl, of whom I was jealous, for it seemed to me that he paid her far too much attention. On the night I speak of, this bare and desolate place was full of well-dressed men and women watching the progress of the play, and applauding as one's friends do. I, poor fool, took it all to be sincere and genuine. I played the big scene and, as I came off the stage, it seemed to me that the whole world was lying at my feet."
She stopped a moment and raised the artificial roses to her nose.
"And then suddenly the brilliant bubble broke. For there behind the stage I saw my lover with his arm around the waist of that young girl; I saw him stoop and press his lips to hers. Ah, there were two fools in the world that night! I stood there almost unable to breathe, almost unable to believe the cruel things that he was saying. He was marrying me for my money. He cared nothing for me. He laughed at my poor silly play. And he told the girl there what would happen when he could take a theatre of his own with money of mine. And the cruellest part of the whole thing was the knowledge that what he was saying about my play was true. The scales seemed to suddenly full from my eyes, and I saw how poor and tawdry a thing it was. Then I ran forward and caught that girl in my arms, and shook her in a Paroxysm of madness."
All Kelso's sympathies were aroused now. He had forgotten everything in the vivid interest of the moment; he did not even stop to wonder why he had been chosen as the recipient of these strange confidences. He was anxious to hear the end of the story.
"There is very little more left to tell," the woman went on. "I was mad with rage and jealousy—call it wounded vanity if you like. I am told that there was a short struggle between us, in which a lamp was upset, and the long lace scarf that I was wearing round my neck caught fire. Then I was ill for weeks, quite unconscious of what was taking place around me, and when I was well enough to understand, they said that I had been badly burned and that my beauty was gone for ever. That they told me the truth you can see for yourself. Not that I minded in the least. For, when my heart was dead, and life held no further happiness, what was the use of mere physical charm to me? There was no scandal. Nobody except the persons chiefly interested knew what it was that had brought the accident about, and they were not in the least likely to hear the story from me. Nor was the man who wrecked my happiness, or the foolish girl he had entangled himself with, likely to tell the truth. My people were glad enough to hear that I had lost my craze for the stage. Soon after that, the shadow of disgrace and ruin fell over the house, and there were other things of deeper import to grapple with. And now you know my story."
"It is indeed a sad and harrowing one," Kelso said, "and you have all my sympathy. You will pardon me for saying that you would hardly have told me all this unless you had some motive for doing so. You see, a stranger like myself——"
"You are hardly such a stranger as you think," the woman interrupted. "And you are quite right in believing that I have some motive in telling you all this. It was quite by accident that I found you were here this evening, and I took advantage of my—I mean Mr. Pascoe's absence from the dining-room to snatch this opportunity of speaking to you. Now, I know you are deeply interested in Audrey Blair. Am I right when I say that you love her?"
It was a direct challenge, and brought the blood into Kelso's cheeks. But he did not shrink from the issue.
"Would it astonish you if I said yes?" he asked. "Do you believe in love at first sight? I should have laughed at it myself a month ago. I have never been what is called a ladies' man, and, hitherto, most of my time has been given up to sport. When I met Miss Blair, there was something about her that appealed to me at once. Perhaps it was that she was in bitter trouble; perhaps because those blue eyes of hers appealed to me. It is a romantic story altogether. I may be wrong, it is true, but I feel that I cannot look into that girl's pure and innocent face and believe her to be anything worse than guilty of a girlish folly. But you know all about it. You know the trouble that that passing vanity has led to. And you can imagine my feelings when Miss Blair disappeared in that mysterious manner from the Sovereign Theatre. I have promised to help her, in fact, I am doing my best to help her at the present moment. That's why I'm here. If I felt her to be less good and pure than I know her to be——"
"There is not a sweeter and nobler girl in the world," the woman interrupted, "and that is why I am so anxious that your zeal should not outrun your discretion. Oh, I can be sane and shrewd enough when I am not brooding over my own affairs. There was no one more anxious to help Audrey than myself, but it will have to be done with the greatest possible care and caution. I dare say you regard her as the daughter of some professional man, or something of that kind, but that is where you are mistaken. Audrey belongs to one of the most distinguished families in England. I leave you to guess what family I am alluding to. It is because I do not want you to go too far that I am telling you all this. Now I am going to tell you another thing which may strike you as a most remarkable coincidence. I told you that the man to whom I had given my heart had abandoned me for an actress, who was little more than a child, at any rate in years, and now I am going to give you her name. She is known on the stage to-day as Blanche Trevenner."
"That is a remarkable thing," Kelso declared. "Strange that this woman should be the means of injuring two members of one family. I am taking it, of course, that Miss Blair is a relation of yours.
"She is my niece, which is about all I can tell you. Why she chose to disappear is a family matter, and that I cannot go into, even with you; but you can rest assured that no harm has come to her. You must be content to know that there are good reasons why she plays on the stage under an assumed name, and why her real identity has been so jealously guarded."
"I think I understand," Kelso said. "Of course, if you can give me an assurance that Audrey is quite safe——"
"I can give you the fullest assurance in the world. If you like, you shall see Audrey herself and speak to her. But it must only be for a few minutes. Indeed, I am running a great risk now."
Kelso stared in astonishment at the speaker. All this was so utterly unexpected that he was at a loss for words. He stood there all alone now, for the woman had vanished through a door at the back of the stage, and Kelso had the theatre to himself. It was hard to believe that he was a central figure in a real, live, palpitating drama. There was something strangely frippery and artificial in this brilliantly upholstered stage, in the dim, musty atmosphere pierced here and there by a gleam from one of the candles. It was hard to realise that the hustling, commonplace world was revolving outside, and that noisy London was, so to speak, just round the corner. It was deadly quiet there, too, save for the scratching of mice behind the wainscote, and, once or twice, the squeak of a rat. In an unconscious way Kelso wondered how Denver was getting on, and what plausible reason the latter had found to account for his friend's absence. But all these thoughts vanished a moment later, when the silk-panelled door at the back of the stage opened, and Audrey came shyly and slowly towards him.
Her face was white and drawn; there were dark rings under her eyes, which met those of Kelso bravely and steadily, whilst a little colour crept into her cheeks, as she held out her hand. Kelso could see that her lips were trembling, and that the blue eyes were moist. On the impulse of the moment he took both those slender hands in his, and held them firmly in his own strong grasp.
"If you only knew how glad I am to see you," he faltered. "But then there are some things that cannot be said in words. Since you disappeared I have not known a single happy moment. I have imagined all sorts of horrors; but tell me, what happened to you."
"Nothing happened at all," Audrey whispered. "Oh, if I could only make you understand how deeply grateful I am to you for all your wonderful kindness! There is no girl in England to-day who needs a friend more than I do, and to think that I should have brought all this about by a mere piece of girlish vanity. Yet, glad as I am to see you, I would give a great deal not to have seen you here to-night. This is a house of mystery, a house of shadows, with a curse lying upon it. You would hardly associate me with such a place, would you? I often wonder what the public would say if they knew the truth. What would they think of me if they realised that I hate the theatre and feel the greatest contempt for the people who sit and applaud me night after night? And yet, because the money is sorely needed, I must go on. At least, I had to go on as long as I could continue to appear at the Sovereign Theatre; but I have put a stop to that now by my own stupendous folly. I thought I was safe in my hiding-place, but the mere fact that you are here this evening shows me how mistaken I am. And it shows me, too, that the life I am leading now is an impossible one. I wish I could tell you everything, and I would, but my lips are sealed. I know that my unfortunate aunt has been telling you a great deal, and I am going to ask you to forget it. If only those diamonds could be regained from Blanche Trevenner I should have at least one great weight off my mind. Do you really think it can be managed, Mr. Kelso? It is a hateful thing to say, but I cannot help feeling that the tragic death of the Grand Duke gives us a little more breathing time."
"I had almost forgotten that for the moment," Kelso said, "but if I am to help you, you must be quite candid with me. On the night of your disappearance a letter was delivered to you in your dressing room, written by the Grand Duke. I don't wish to be unduly curious, but if you could tell me what that letter contained——"
Audrey shook her head sorrowfully. With an almost imploring gesture, she laid her hands on Kelso's arms. Her lips were quivering now, the blue eyes were very sorrowful and earnest.
"I cannot tell you, indeed I cannot," she said piteously. "The secret is not my own. It may be, after I say this, that you will feel how impossible it is to trust me any more."
Kelso caught the two trembling hands and laid them on his shoulders. There was something in his eyes, as he looked down, that set Audrey quivering from head to foot, and filled her with a sense of pleasure and happiness, which was not altogether free from fear.
"I would trust you with my life," he whispered. "Oh, my dearest girl, cannot you see that I love you? Don't you know that from the very first there could be no one else but you? I daresay this may sound wildly extravagant, but I must speak, I must tell you the truth. I know that I ought to have waited, but you looked so lonely, so utterly pathetic, and so lovely, that my words escaped me sooner than I had intended, so you need not tell me anything unless you like, because I am going to trust you implicitly, whatever you may say or do. I don't believe you have anything to fear. And if you were my wife—no, I mean, when you are my wife—there will be no more occasion to think of money."
"But I am a thief!" Audrey cried. "I have not been ashamed to appear in public wearing jewels that do not belong to me. And yet you tell me that you love me. Oh, if I could only believe!"
She said no more, for Kelso bent over her and, taking her in his arms, pressed his lips to hers. He thrilled to feel her yielding to his embrace; his pulses quickened as the pressure on her lips was returned. Then he saw the dawn of a smile in her glorious eyes, and the dainty carmine flush in her checks.
"It is very, very wrong," Audrey whispered; "but such happiness for a girl, all alone in the world——"
She stopped and started back as the door opened, and the woman in the ivory mask came in with beckoning forefinger.
The beckoning forefinger was not to be ignored.
Just for a little time Kelso had entirely forgotten the strangeness of his surroundings, and the possible danger which might lurk in this gloomy and mysterious old house. It had been enough for him that Audrey was found, and that, so far, all the acute anxiety as to her welfare was at an end. But there would be a long way to go, and many obstacles to smooth away, before the path to happiness was cleared again. For there were strange secrets here, and, perhaps, even the shadow of crime. Later on, he might induce Audrey to tell him everything, but there was no time to think of that now.
"I must be going now," he said, "indeed it was hardly wise of me to come at all. But I can't part with you like this, Audrey. You belong to me now, and your future is mine. I must know when and where we can meet again."
"It would be safe to come at any time," Audrey whispered. "No, I cannot see you except in the day-time. The afternoon would be better, perhaps. When you pass the old lodge you will see an overgrown pathway on the left, which leads to a summer house. No one ever goes there, and it will be quite safe. I will make a point of going as far as the summer house every afternoon. Oh, I know this is utterly wrong of me, but I cannot deprive myself of the only friend I have in the world, and besides, there is such a lot I have to say to you. And now you must go."
"Ay, indeed he must," the woman in the ivory mask added. "Ah, what a thing it is to be young! You think that yours is all the misery and unhappiness in the world, but so long as you have that gallant lover by your side you have not much to fear, and very little to ask for. But it will all come right in the long run if you only trust one another. Time is now pressing."
"Good-bye," Audrey said hurriedly. "I'm all the happier for your coming. And perhaps to-morrow afternoon——"
Her voice fell into a whisper, but the smile on her face and the light in her eyes were better than all the words. She turned and vanished through the stage door, leaving Kelso and his strange companion to follow.
"Go on," the woman said. "Right down the corridor, and the third door to the right will lead you into the dining-room. I must stay here and put out the candles. Every night in my life they are lighted in the hope, perhaps, that some day they will prove a beacon to the lost honour of my house.. .."
She rambled on incoherently, no longer a sane creature, but the mad woman whom Kelso had seen fretting her little hour upon the stage. He could hear her crooning some fragment of a song to herself, as she flitted through the gloom, extinguishing the lights, and the same feeling of vague unreality was upon him once again. He was back into the world again directly he opened the door of the dining-room and saw Denver and Pascoe seated there.
There was no sign of annoyance or anger on the latter's face. He no longer seemed to resent this unwarrantable intrusion, or the liberty which had been taken with his house.
"We've been waiting for you, Mr. Kelso," he said. "I was not surprised, when I came back here, to find Mr. Denver was alone. I should not have been surprised, indeed, if both of you had been pressed into the service of my unfortunate sister. I presume that she has been showing you over her theatre."
"But I understood," Kelso stammered, "that I was the first person for many years——"
"Yes, that is one of her delusions. Very few people have seen the inside of that dreadful place, but every time a relation happens to come along, the visitor is sure to be conducted to the place where you have been and told the story. Unfortunately part of it is true enough—I mean as to the unhappy accident which converted my poor sister from a bright and charming girl into a morose and unhappy madwoman. Unfortunately she found that there were strangers in the house and commenced to make a scene, so I thought it best to humour her. You will see that this is a somewhat humiliating confession to make, but circumstances have, more or less, forced my hand. Now, if you please, we will talk about something else—your reason for being here this evening, for instance. I didn't want to discuss it till you were both here, for I still regard your presence as a distinct intrusion. Now, Mr. Denver."
The speaker turned to Denver with a haughty suggestion that the latter did not fail to understand. They were back in the world now, and outside the realm of romance and imagination.
"Quite right," Denver said. "I have no doubt that, were I in your place, I should feel precisely the same. I should have made my position clear long ago, only you preferred that my friend Kelso should be present when I did so. Now I presume that the name of Miss Audrey Blair is quite familiar to you."
Pascoe started violently.
"You are treading on very dangerous ground now," he said hoarsely. "You may not be aware of the fact, but you are asking me questions which concern the very honour of a noble family."
"I am sorry," Denver said; "but these questions must be answered. Believe me, I am making no threat when I say that we are here to-night with an honest and sincere desire to avert what looks like being a terrible scandal. I implore you, sir, to be candid. I want you to feel that you are dealing with gentlemen who are not here from any motive of idle curiosity."
"May I make a remark?" Kelso asked. "It may simplify matters if I do. You are a journalist, Mr. Pascoe."
"Not in the ordinary sense of the word," Pascoe replied.
"But surely you have a high reputation with one leading journal?" Kelso urged. "I am alluding to the 'Evening Herald.' We were only talking to Fosbrook about you a little while ago. He told us that some of his most brilliant coups had been entirely due to information supplied him by a retiring journalist, whom he knew under the name of Pascoe. He also told us that this gentleman had taken the most elaborate precautions to conceal his identity. If this is not so, then there is no more to be said."
For the moment Pascoe seemed to lose something of his dignity, and he was palpably uneasy and disturbed.
"Perhaps I had better admit it," he said. "I am Mr. Pascoe, Fosbrook's correspondent. But in the strict sense of the word I am no journalist; indeed, I loathe and abominate the whole tribe. There is no man living who has suffered more at the hands of the Press than I have. But it so happens that a good portion of my life I have lived abroad and, during that time, I mixed freely with many prominent politicians. I am, besides, a student of international politics, and I am able, from time to time, to give Mr. Fosbrook some really startling information on current affairs. For this information he pays me very handsomely; indeed, the money I derive from the 'Evening Herald' is my sole means of support. Why I prefer to remain so modestly in the background is my own business, and, on that point, I should refuse to speak, even if you drag me to a court of law. Now, having admitted so much, perhaps you will proceed with your cross-examination."
"Thank you very much," Denver said. "If I may be allowed——"
"One moment," Kelso interrupted. "Permit me to clear my point up first. I asked Mr. Pascoe if the name of Miss Audrey Blair was familiar to him. I will answer the question myself. The young lady in question is Mr. Pascoe's niece, and she is under this roof at the present moment."
"Thank goodness for that," Denver said fervently. "I suppose you are quite sure of your facts, Kelso?"
"I have been just talking to Miss Blair," Kelso explained. "I want Mr. Pascoe to thoroughly appreciate the position. I want to ask him if he is aware of the fact that Miss Blair, as she calls herself, has been for some time a popular figure on the stage at the Sovereign Theatre? I presume Mr. Pascoe reads the papers as well as writes for them, in which case he must know that all London is discussing the disappearance of the lady in question. Surely you must know that, sir?"
"Oh I do, I do!" Pascoe groaned.
"And do you know the reason for the disappearance?"'
"I am also aware of that, gentlemen. I know that you have no desire to humiliate, me but I am feeling my position acutely. Audrey told me what she had done, and no one more bitterly regrets that act of foolish vanity than herself. But surely something can be done. There must be some means of forcing that vile woman to disgorge the property she stole from my niece. There are reasons why I am powerless to interfere, and I shall be more than grateful if I could enlist the assistance of you gentlemen——"
"That is precisely why we are here," Denver interposed. "You seem to know us both, and you must, therefore, be aware of the fact that I am a more or less successful dramatist. Through my connection with the stage I became acquainted with Miss Blair, for whom I have the highest respect. Of course I have known for some time that hers is an assumed name, and that she was particularly anxious for the public to know as little as possible about her people. We have been quite good friends for a long time, and when the Trevenner woman stole those diamonds Miss Blair came to me to help her. Mr. Kelso, here, knew all about it, and volunteered his assistance. We had a consultation in my rooms, at which young Hermann was present——"
"No, no," Kelso exclaimed. "No one was there with the exception of Miss Blair and her companion, Miss Pascoe."
"Quite right," Denver corrected himself. "At any rate we talked the matter over, and it was left to us to see what we could do. Then came the next night, when Miss Blair disappeared so mysteriously from the Sovereign Theatre, after getting a letter which was sent to her by the Grand Duke Oro."
"There is no reason to make the mystery worse than it is," Pascoe protested. "Surely you are not going to suggest that my niece had anything to do with the strange murder of the Grand Duke! You might put many constructions on that letter. When I was a young man I knew a good deal about theatres, and, in my day, it was a common thing for popular actresses to receive letters from admirers whom they did not know even by sight. I told you that the Grand Duke was a blackguard, and therefore—but we need not pursue the subject. This is the first that I have heard about any letter."
"Did you mention it to Miss Blair, Kelso?" Denver asked.
"Only quite casually. I wasn't with her more than five minutes altogether. But now that you have touched on the subject of the Grand Duke's death, don't you think it would be just as well to discuss the other strange coincidence? I mean the strange story that Fosbrook had to tell us."
"I had almost forgotten that for the moment," Denver said. "And now, Mr. Pascoe, I come to a very strange matter. As you are probably aware, the Grand Duke Oro attended a big party at Lord Goring's house, where he met his death. He was murdered in the little conservatory, at the end of a corridor, and at the moment of his death my friend here was standing close by. He must have been within a few yards of the scene when the actual crime was taking place, but he heard nothing and saw nothing, though the assassin himself must have passed within inches of him. Kelso was up there, as a matter of fact, keeping a close eye on the Grand Duke. Rightly or wrongly, we had an idea that he might be of considerable assistance to us in our exertions on behalf of Miss Blair. And now I come to the most remarkable point of the story. Almost simultaneously with the discovery of the dead man's body, the newsboys in the street below were selling 'Evening Heralds' containing a brief account of the crime."
"Impossible!" Pascoe cried. "Incredible!"
"I can only repeat my previous statement," Denver went on. "There are three witnesses to prove it, and, indeed, we could have three hundred if we wanted them. Just picture the cool audacity of it. Think of the confidence of those criminals. They laid their plans so carefully, they were so sure of their ground, that they actually sent an account of the tragedy to the newspapers, or rather a newspaper, before the fatal blow was struck."
"One moment," Pascoe exclaimed. "No responsible editor would ever dream of printing a story like that unless it was properly verified, or it came from a correspondent in whom he had the most implicit confidence. I speak with authority."
"That is quite right," Denver went on. "There's no getting away from the fact that Fosbrook did publish the story before the crime was committed, and, knowing Fosbrook very well, I called upon him and asked him to explain. He told me that the copy came from what he regarded as an inspired source, and that he had published it without the slightest hesitation. Need I ask if you can guess the name of this correspondent?"
Denver spoke in low, harsh tones, for he had reached the crisis now, and was regarding the man opposite him with alert and eager eyes. But there was no change in Pascoe's face, no sign of fear or guilt, nothing but dignity of bearing, tinged slightly with what was no more than a healthy curiosity.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he said.
"Then I must speak still more plainly. Fosbrook mentioned your name, sir. He said the story came from a man named Pascoe, who, he believed, lived at a place called 17, Rosemead Avenue, though he could not tell us in what part of London it was situated. In other words, he said the story came from you, and there the interview terminated. I daresay the point is capable of explanation, though I must confess that on the face of it——"
"Gentlemen," Pascoe exclaimed, "there is some terrible mistake here. I am prepared to give my word of honour that the paragraph in question never emanated from me. I had not the remotest idea that anything had happened to the Grand Duke till I opened my paper the following morning. For the moment it matters little or nothing what the connection is between his Imperial Highness and my own family. For heaven's sake let us clear up one thing at a time. I want you to believe me when I say that I had nothing whatever to do with the sensational paragraph in the 'Evening Herald.' Some enemy must have discovered my connection with the paper, and made use of my name to get the story through. A murderer or murderess who could have planned so remarkable a crime must of necessity be of high mental calibre. Possibly there are socialists who like to surround crime with an air of extraordinary mystery. Given plenty of money, it would not be difficult to work the scheme. You see I do all my work on an ordinary typewriter. I send it to the office of the 'Evening Herald' without a covering letter, and with no more than my name and address—or the address that I use for the time being on the front page. You can see, knowing what I've just told you, how easy it would be for these people to send in that report, and get it printed, as if it came from me. So far as I am concerned there is an end to the mystery. But I would have given a great deal for it not to have happened. For many things must see the light now which I had hoped were buried for ever. I shall have to call upon Mr. Fosbrook, of course. If he has kept my copy, which I have no doubt he has done, it will probably be easy to prove that I use a different sort of typing-paper—but all this is by the way."
Pascoe spoke calmly enough, and, indeed, there was the impress of truth on every word that he said. Denver was at some loss to know whether he was disappointed or not. It certainly was more satisfactory to discover that one of Audrey Blair's relatives was no party to this amazing tragedy; but, on the other hand, Pascoe's statement merely added to the complexities of the situation; still, at the same time, there was a good deal more that called for inquiry.
"I hope you believe me, gentlemen," Pascoe said.
"I do for one," Kelso replied, "but, if you'll pardon me, I propose to trouble you a little further. Now the other night at Lord Goring's, when I was keeping an eye upon the Grand Duke, I saw that he was talking to a lady in blue. Whether she noticed me or not I cannot say, though I am inclined to think that she did, as I hope to prove to you presently. It was she who sent the Grand Duke up to the conservatory to fetch her fan. Now it is only a fair assumption that she either left the fan there on purpose, or that she sent his Highness to meet his death. Since then little or nothing has been heard of the lady in blue, though one would have naturally expected her to have come forward seeing that she was the last person to speak to the murdered man before he died. I mentioned this to Inspector Stead, who has the case in hand, and I described the lady in question most minutely to both Lady Goring and the inspector. Lady Goring professed herself quite unable to recognise her guest from what I said. I say 'professed' advisedly, because I have an uneasy feeling that Lady Goring could say a great deal more if she liked. She seemed to think that the lady in blue might have been some impudent impostor, who was imposing as an invited guest. But Denver and myself have another theory, and we've had some confirmation of it this very night. For the moment it does not very much matter what business took us to an obscure music-hall called the King's Theatre, somewhere in this locality, but we were there, and in a stage box were a man and a woman. The woman I'm prepared to swear to as the lady in blue, and the man was the red-haired gentleman who opened the front door to us this evening. I am succeeding in interesting you, Mr Pascoe?"
"Immensely," Pascoe said duly, "Please go on."
"Not only did I recognise the lady, but she recognised me. Probably she was afraid of being followed, which she certainly would have been, had she not managed to bring off rather a clever diversion. But you see we had unknown friends who helped us, and, after a little trouble, we picked up the trail again, and here we are."
"And you think that the lady in blue is here?" Pascoe asked.
"I don't say she is now, but she certainly was," Kelso went on. "I think we have told you quite enough to show you that we have not come here out of any vulgar curiosity. You must see that the matter can't rest here; you must realise that at any moment the police may be coming along, making all sorts of awkward inquiries. Surely you must see the advantage of helping us to prevent a scandal. I for one, regard you as quite an innocent party, though you must admit that appearances are very much against you. If we could have the opportunity of a few words with the lady in blue——"
"You shall," Pascoe said curtly. "If you'll excuse me for a moment I will go and see her, and give her a general idea of what has happened. I am more or less in your hands now, and I feel quite sure that I can regard you as my friends."
Without saying more, Pascoe left the room and returned presently with the tall, elegant woman with the fair hair, whom Kelso recognised at a glance as the woman in blue. Perfectly self-possessed and at her ease, she was exquisitely dressed in some filmy confection, which set off her perfect figure to advantage. She might have been an adventuress, but, be that as it may, she was evidently a woman who knew the great world, and was quite capable of moving in it to advantage. There was a smile on her face, and a gleam of amusement in her eyes, which was not without a certain suggestion of malice.
"I am charmed to meet you," she said, in perfect English, which, nevertheless, suggested the foreigner. "I had not expected to have seen the gentlemen so soon; but you have been too clever for me, and, behold, here we are. And, now, what can I do for you? Is it that I can help you to solve some mystery?"
"I am sanguine on the point," Denver said drily. "If you will be good enough to favour me with your name——"
"Prince," the woman said. "Mrs. Prince. Does that convey anything to you? No, I thought not. And now I am going to appear to be exceedingly rude. I have stayed here too long, and I must get back to London without delay. It will be the easiest thing in the world to talk as we go along, and, if you gentlemen would like a seat in my motor, I should be charmed to accommodate you. At this moment my car waits for me at the top of the avenue, and, as I've only to put on my shoes, we can start at once. Otherwise, you may be permitted to call upon me tomorrow."
It seemed to Denver and Kelso that there was no time like the present, and a few minutes later they found themselves seated opposite to the lady in blue, in the very last word in the way of luxurious motoring attractions. The woman seemed to be entirely at her ease, with the smile still on her face and the mischief dancing in her eyes. She turned to Denver gaily.
"One question," she said. "Have you yet made up your mind how you are going to recover those jewels from Blanche Trevenner? Or shall we discuss the question when we get home?"
She was not eager for a reply and, until London was reached, said not another word. It was a fine house at which the car stopped presently, with bowing servants in the hall, and a maid who addressed the lady in blue as "Your Highness." Then she smiled again gaily.
"You are welcome," she said. "And now let me introduce myself properly. I wonder if the name of Princess Zaroff conveys anything to either of you two gentlemen?"
The name conveyed nothing to Kelso. He was no society man and he had been out of the country too long to be able to speak with authority as regards Mayfair and its inhabitants. He glanced at Denver, whose eyebrows went up sharply, with the suggestion of one who has heard something more or less astonishing.
"Really," the latter said, "I am very pleased to meet you, Princess. I have heard of you, of course, and we have several mutual friends; but I did not even know you were in England."
"I am likely to be here for some time," the Princess said. "As a rule, I am essentially a bird of passage. But since my husband's death I have had a good deal of business to transact in England, and that is why I have taken a house in London. But we can go into all these interesting details after we have had some supper. There is a charming little morning-room upstairs, next to the library, and I always take my meals there when I am alone."
She led the way up the wide marble staircase, lighted brilliantly by shaded electric lamps mounted on marble statues. Accustomed as Kelso and Denver were to luxurious establishments, the house in which they were now seemed to stand out beyond anything that either of them had ever seen before. Everything, from the pictures on the walls to the carpets on the floor, was in good taste and perfect harmony; the suggestion of great wealth and unbounded resource being apparent. It was evident that the Princess Zaroff had the command of everything that goes to make life most enjoyable. She led the way smilingly to a small room upholstered in grey and silver, the panels being paintings by Watteau, and the carvings about them had evidently been designed by the cunning hand of Cellini himself. Small as the room was, the art centres of the world had evidently been ransacked to make up the grateful and harmonious whole. To Denver, at any rate, the room was a pure and unalloyed delight. He was getting over his first feeling of uneasiness and astonishment and was beginning to revel in this new phase of the great adventure. It needed no acute perception on his part to perceives that here was an antagonist worthy of his steel. Perhaps the Princess read something of what was passing through his mind, for she flashed him a laughing challenge as she took her seat at the supper-table.
"Now let us sit down and enjoy ourselves," she said gaily. "For the moment we are close and intimate friends. What we are likely to be afterwards lies in the discretion of you two brilliant and accomplished gentlemen. But first supper."
Half a dozen liveried servants had busied themselves laying a small oval table with a dainty and alluring meal. Once they had finished their task the Princess swept them from her room with a wave of her hand. As the door opened Kelso had a glimpse into a noble dining-room, on the far side of the corridor, where he could see two or three men working by the light of shaded lamps, and from somewhere close by came the clicking of a typewriter. The Princess followed Kelso's glance, as she seemed to follow everything in that alert way of hers, and flashed a dazzling smile at him across the flowers on the supper table.
"Yes, I am a woman of affairs," she said. "I have quite a large staff here. My correspondents are all over the world. Who says that no woman is capable of transacting a man's business? Ah, my husband, the Prince, could have told you another story!"
They sat round the table chatting lightly and easily of the things that did not matter, until the servants came in with the coffee and cigarettes. As she sat there, the Princess might have been no more than the ordinary society butterfly entertaining a couple of polished and cheerful companions. She was brilliantly witty, with a charm that was all her own. She was beautiful, too, as she sat there under the discreetly shaded lights, but Denver's cool and critical eye could see the little defects as an expert gardener finds out the little spots and blemishes upon the fairest fruit. To Kelso, the Princess was a young woman in the full flood of her beauty. But Denver knew better than that. He was telling himself cynically that this Princess was perilously near to fifty, and that she was extremely fortunate in her maid and her intimate knowledge of the art of making-up.
"And now let us be practical," she said. "Am I wrong in assuming that you have been hunting London up and down for the lady in blue? Are you pleased now that you have found her?"
"I'm not dissatisfied," Denver said drily.
"Just so. But what are you going to do with her now that you have found her? Am I to be handcuffed and taken down to Scotland Yard to be handed over to Inspector Stead in triumph, as the murderer of the Grand Duke Oro? Honestly do you really believe that I had any hand in that unfortunate man's death?"
"I don't know that I believe anything," Denver said cautiously. "You see, my friend Kelso and myself are merely investigating. It pleases us to undertake a little detective business."
The Princess smiled as she blew a cloud of smoke from her nostrils. She seemed infinitely amused.
"Then you are not going to be candid with me?" she asked. "Ah, well! it does not in the least matter. And it needs no very clever person to see that the death of the Grand Duke troubles you gentlemen not at all. We have to go back to the first principles. We naturally ask ourselves why two young men of wealth and leisure are neglecting their pleasure and amusements for the mere sake of finding out the why and wherefore which surrounds the death of one who was certainly no ornament to the sphere in which it pleased Providence to call him. Why do these gilded young men do these things? The answer jumps to the eye. There is a woman at the bottom of it all, of course, and a very foolish young woman, too, be it said. Shall I give her a name?"
"Is there really any occasion?" Kelso asked stiffly.
"Ho, Ho!" the Princess laughed gaily. "Here's another confession. How pleasant a thing it is to be confronted at times like this by a simple-minded English gentleman! No reason for subtlety when one wants information. So Mr. Kelso is in love with our dear little Audrey Blair and he is working night and day to get her out of a mess in which youth and vanity have involved her. Now, that is a very kind and thoughtful thing to do, and I am quite sure that Audrey is to be congratulated on her champion. Incidentally, she is a sweet and charming girl, and I wish her every happiness. But look you, there is what our American friends call a long row to hoe before that happiness is attained. You have a bold and daring woman to deal with in Blanche Trevenner, and there is a task to be performed before she relinquishes those regal diamonds. But, seriously, you don't really think that the death of the Grand Duke has any bearing upon your little comedy? Why, one is a drawing-room comedietta and the other a huge European melodrama! One is played on a tablecloth and the other on a continent. Oh, you boys, you make me laugh—you bring a smile to my face!"
Denver writhed uncomfortably. Like most clever men he was by no means blind to his mental attributes, and the feeling that this woman was playing with him did not tend to soothe a natural and healthy vanity.
"What would you have?" he asked. "In the course of our inquiries, following the disappearance of Miss Blair, we find that she had received a letter from the Grand Duke which was delivered to her dressing-room on the last night she visited the theatre. We know that the Grand Duke was going on to Lady Goring's party, and we decided to keep an eye upon him. Now, my friend Kelso stood close by you when you were talking to the Duke, and he heard you send him for your fan. What happened afterwards is known to everybody. The lady in blue vanished mysteriously, and nothing further is heard of her till we run against her quite by accident this evening in an obscure music-hall at Balham. She sees that she is recognised, and, for some very good reason, has no wish to be followed. It may offend you to hear me say so, Princess, but your mode of getting rid of us certainly did not err on the side of gentleness."
The Princess smiled again. She did not seem in the least disconcerted. On the contrary, she was enjoying the situation.
"Oh, my people blundered!" she said. "Did you really think that that little scene was got up entirely for your benefit? Absurd! But some of these days I will tell you the story. I saw that Mr. Kelso recognised me; but, for the moment I could not place him. In other words, I did not know where I had seen him before. It did not flash upon me until Mr. Pascoe told me that two gentlemen wished to speak to me, and then I remembered. But you'll never make a diplomatist, Mr. Kelso. When Lady Goring let you see that she did not want her guest in blue dragged into the story surrounding the death of the Grand Duke Oro——"
"I felt sure she could say if she liked!" Kelso exclaimed.
"Really, in that case don't you think it would have been far better to have said nothing? Lady Goring is a great personage and the wife of a man who has represented his country in two European embassies, so she would be the last woman in the world to compromise her position. You might have seen that. You had the wit to discover that Lady Goring didn't wish to speak; indeed, she was quite concerned about it. But why should this candour be all on one side? Why don't you tell me that you regard me as an accessory, before and after the fact, to the murder of the Grand Duke?"
The Princess was carrying all before her now. She sat there, with a smile on her face, calmly smoking a cigarette and enjoying the discomfiture of the two young men opposite. They might have been the culprits and she the avenging angel chosen by a wise Providence to bring them to the bar of justice.
"My dear little men," she went on, "you are very clever, and up to a certain point you have done exceedingly well. But, now, all unconsciously, you are like two children who have accidentally found some sticks of dynamite, and in the joy of your heart you are proposing to light the fire with them. Do you want to make a conflagration that will make an explosion noisy enough to be heard from here to St. Petersburg? Oh, you don't know what forces you are playing with! At the present moment, you stand in terrible danger from a quarter of which you know nothing. Follow up Blanche Trevenner if you like, but, for heaven's sake, leave the other side of the case alone. In any circumstance you must make me a promise. You are not to tell a single soul a single thing about the lady in blue. She is dead and buried, if you like so to put it. I have taken her place. Now, let me have that assurance."
The smiling mask had dropped from the face of the Princess. She spoke in tones of passionate sincerity; her dark eyes glittered and flashed as she made her imperious condition. Almost to his surprise Denver found himself giving the desired assurance. He could see for himself that there was no acting here, and that nothing in the way of fear was the mainspring of the woman's warning. She was not thinking about herself.
"Very well," he said. "So far as I am concerned the promise is made with pleasure. But one thing I should like to know—what became of the missing fan?"
"Oh, I see you are still incredulous," the Princess said with a return of her smiling manner. "You think that the fan was a mere myth, invented for the purpose of inducing the Grand Duke to enter the little conservatory? If the lady in blue had been the woman that you took her for, then you would have been quite justified in believing that the fan had no existence, and then you would have been wrong. I did leave a fan that I valued highly, and I would give a good deal to have it back again. I don't mind telling you that there were reasons why I wanted the Grand Duke to visit the conservatory alone. But it was assuredly not that I wished him to meet with foul play. Nobody was more shocked than myself when I heard of the tragedy. And now, for the moment, there is no more to be said. Come and see me again in a day or two, and perhaps I may have some good news for you."
The dismissal was a smiling one, but it lacked nothing in the way of finality, and a few minutes later the two friends were walking down the deserted street in the direction of their rooms.
"That is a most striking and remarkable woman," Kelso said. "I felt quite like a child in her presence. In fact I think we both did. Do you happen to know anything about her?"
"Only some more or less authentic club gossip. I understand that she is an Englishwoman who went on the stage in Paris, where she made something of a name. You can see perfectly well that she is a lady—I mean, it isn't only the veneer that a clever woman picks up by contact with the great world. There are the little things which only breeding can give. But for the moment this doesn't matter. Zaroff was a statesman and a cunning old diplomatist who has left his mark on the history of Europe. He never held any exalted office, but, to the last, he was in the confidence of his sovereign and most of the underground work was his. He was known to have no money and no family estates, but he always lived in splendour, which he maintained to the very last. People say that his wife helped him and that she enjoyed his fullest confidence. After what I saw and heard to-night I have come to the conclusion that she is a glorified and brilliant police spy, and that she is in London on a secret mission, which would account for the lavish way in which she is living at the present moment. Don't ask my opinion on the present tangle, because it is utterly beyond me. If you take my advice you will let the Grand Ducal business alone. And you won't worry about Pascoe, the Journalist, or the mysterious house at Balham either. The Princess is perfectly right. For the moment we have only one object in view, and that is to get hold of those diamonds and see that they pass into Hermann's safe custody again. I shan't be able to do anything tomorrow, because we are introducing some new songs and business into the show at the Sovereign, and I want to be at the theatre. If you must see me, come round to the stage door and send in your card. Good-night, old chap, and keep your pecker up. We certainly are getting on."
It was about nine o'clock on the following evening that Denver turned into the Sovereign Theatre. The house was full, and everything was going well, as the smiling face of the manager testified.
"Nothing could be better," he said. "In fact, there was no occasion to drag you down here at all."
"Still, now that I am here, I had better have a look round," Denver said. "Don't let me keep you from your work."
He strolled into the wings while a chorus was waiting for their cue to go on. A little apart from the others stood Polly Elkin in a gorgeous Eastern dress and nervously playing with a fan which she carried in her hand. Her face was bright and radiant, the restless, pinched look no longer dominated her features, and she smiled with pleasure as Denver came near.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he asked. "And who is responsible for these happy smiles?"
"Nobody but yourself, Mr. Denver," Polly replied, "it all came with that note that you gave me to give to the manager here. You know he gave me a part in the new front piece, and yesterday I actually was offered a speaking part in your comedy. One of the girls is ill, and that's why I am getting my chance this evening. And I mean to make the best of it. It is a terribly hard job to find the money for all the little odds and ends, but I managed it somehow. You wouldn't think to look at me now that I live in an attic in a Balham slum, would you? I wouldn't tell you all this if you hadn't been so good to me. And what a selfish girl I am to be talking here all about myself, as if I were the only girl in the world. Did you do any good the other night, Mr. Denver?"
The girl asked the question eagerly enough. She was evidently anxious to know the very latest as regards the fate of Audrey Blair.
"Very little, I am sorry to say," Denver replied. "The only thing I can tell you is that no harm has happened to Miss Blair, nor is there any likelihood of such a thing. With that you will have to be satisfied. As to the rest we found ourselves rather in trouble during our visit to the King's Theatre."
"Oh, I know all about that," Polly said eagerly. "I was afraid that the audience might discover you were gentlemen and resent your presence there. You ought to have put on some sort of disguise. But did you do any good? Did you see the turn I spoke about?"
"Well, no, we didn't," Denver admitted. "The row broke out comparatively early in the evening. Once these fellows started they made a dead set on Mr. Kelso and myself, and we were hard put to it to get away without damage. A ragged urchin managed to get us through an emergency exit and smuggled us into a dark corner till the row was over. I don't know why the young beggar should have taken our part, but he did, and we are considerably in his debt. I wonder if you can find out the boy's name. He must have thought us exceedingly ungrateful, for we promised to stay where we were until the coast was clear, and I fully intended to give him a sovereign when he came back. But there were urgent reasons why we could not remain, and I shall be exceedingly obliged to you if you will find our small friend and ask him to come round to our rooms any morning after eleven o'clock. Can you do this?"
Polly's face had suddenly grown anxious and uneasy.
"I know the boy quite well," she said. "To tell you the truth, it was I who asked him to keep an eye on you. I was a bit afraid there might be trouble, and I was right. But if I were you I would not have that boy round at your rooms. If you want to give him something you had far better let me take it. There are reasons, very urgent reasons—oh, you do not know the class of people who live in our neighbourhood. You don't know what's going on there. I dare not speak of it; it would be as much as my life is worth to whisper a single word. Besides, you might get the boy into trouble. If they watched him and followed him to your rooms——"
Polly's tones were low and pleading, and she seemed to be in the grip of some unknown and deadly fear.
"Oh, very well," Denver said good-naturedly. "I am sure that I have no wish to get anybody into trouble. I will see you before the show's over and give you a sovereign to go on with."
"Oh, thank you so much!" said Polly, evidently greatly relieved. "I am certain that you are doing the right thing, and I should prefer that you gave me the sovereign all in silver. If some of the people down our way knew that the boy had changed a piece of gold he would be robbed of all he had, for a certainty. He is a good lad and an honest one, despite the fact that he is clad in rags and hardly ever knows what it is to have a decent meal. If you could do something for him later on, but not just yet."
Polly darted on to the stage, just in time to take her place in the front row of the chorus, and Denver turned away wondering how much further these strange complications would lead him. He was still thinking the matter over as he made his way round to the front of the house. There was a man in the stalls with whom he wanted a word, and he edged quietly along the gangway into a vacant seat by his friend's side. It only needed a word or two to get all the information he required, and then he turned and leisurely surveyed the house, as far as it was possible to do so in the dim light. He could make out the boxes fairly well in the reflected glare of the footlights, and he could see in one of these Princess Zaroff seated alone. She was dressed entirely in black, and, for ornaments, wore no more than one diamond star in her fair hair. As the curtain came down on the second act, and the lights flashed all over the house, Denver could see from the smiling glance in the Princess's eye that she had recognised him. She slightly raised her head and elevated her eyebrows, which signs he rightly interpreted to mean that she wished to see him in her box. She welcomed him cordially enough, and indicated a chair by her side. It seemed to Denver that she was, if possible, brighter and more animated than usual, and that she was feeling a thrill of excitement altogether out of keeping with the importance of the occasion.
"I am so glad I saw you," she said. "I wanted to ask you a question. I suppose you have a few minutes to spare?"
"My time is wholly yours," Denver answered. "And now what might this important matter of yours refer to?"
"It has to do with this charming comedy of yours in a way. We will come to it when the curtain goes up again. I suppose you begin the third act in the traditional manner, with the whole of the chorus on the stage? Ah, yes, I thought so!"
The curtain was up again, and the chorus, in a charming kaleidoscope of colour, weaved in and out about the stage. In front Polly Elkin and half a dozen more dancing girls were going through a graceful evolution with their fans.
"Now, this is where we come to it," the Princess said eagerly. "You asked me last night what had become of my fan. Well, perhaps that girl there in the red and gold kimono can tell you, because she has it in her hand at the present moment."
"Polly Elkin!" Denver cried. "Oh, the thing is impossible!"
"Are you quite sure of that?" Denver asked excitedly.
"Perfectly. It isn't that the fan is so extraordinarily valuable, but, in a way, it is quite unique. I dare say you have heard it said that at the time of the French Revolution writers of certain books, published on behalf of the people, had them bound in the skins of aristocrats. Isn't it actually on record that this happened in the case of one of Rouseau's books? I am not quite sure of the name, but, at any rate, I know that it applies to one revolutionary writer. And that's the legend connected with my fan. It may not be true, but there is no doubt that the pictures on the fan represent scenes that are supposed to have happened in the Bastille. The sticks are in the form of chains and the handle is a fetter. If you will take my glasses you will see for yourself."
Denver took the gold-mounted opera glasses and focussed them on the fan in Polly Elkin's hand. It was just as the Princess had said, and there was no longer reason to doubt her statement.
"Quite right," he admitted. "Doesn't this strike you as an extraordinary coincidence?"
"Well, no. Life is full of strange coincidences. We smile at them when we meet them in fiction, but take them entirely for granted in the columns of the daily papers. At any rate, the girl is using the fan that so mysteriously vanished from Lord Goring's house. You will see that the matter cannot rest here."
"Oh, quite so. You have your own reasons for saying as little as possible of what you know in regard to the death of the Grand Duke Oro, but even in my ignorance I can see that you have stumbled on a valuable clue. If you would like to have a chat with the girl without arousing her suspicions I shall be very pleased to arrange it for you. As a matter of fact, Miss Polly Elkin only appears once more, and she has generally left the theatre half an hour or so before the performance is finished."
"That is very good of you," the Princess said. "In any case, there is no hurry. Miss Polly Elkin with her appealing eyes looks quite charmingly innocent. But one never can tell, and if you do happen to know anything about her——"
"Nothing but what is good," Denver interrupted. "She comes from some place in the south-west, and I believe that she has a dreadful time of it with a drunken reprobate of a father and a brother who has, in the picturesque language of his class, 'done time.' I should rather judge that the girl has seen better days. Anyway, her manners are quite good, and she speaks excellent English. I know that she has a terrible struggle, but she has kept herself to herself, and, indeed, I have a high opinion of the girl. One thing I am certain of—your fan found its way into her hands through nothing wrong on her part."
"That I am quite prepared to believe," the Princess said. "But I must have my fan back, and, what is a great deal more important, I must know where the girl got it from. I think you had better leave her to me. If you bring us together after she has finished dressing I will manage the rest."
There was nothing else for it, and some three-quarters of an hour later Polly Elkin, greatly wondering, found herself seated opposite the Princess in the box.
"I dare say you will wonder why we asked you to come here," Denver said. "But it so happens that the Princess Zaroff wanted to ask you a question or two. There is no occasion for me to remain, so I will just leave you together. You did very well to-night, Polly. I could see you made quite an impression on the audience."
Polly's face flushed with this kindly praise. Nevertheless, she was looking a little frightened, and her eyes seemed to grow larger as the name of the Princess was mentioned. The latter smiled in her most engaging way, and obviously was doing her best to put the bewildered girl at her ease.
"We will not mind about the performance," she said. "It will not distress you to miss any part of it. And now, will you listen to me? I daresay you will wonder why I have sent for you like this, so in a few words I will tell you. A little time ago I lost a fan. It was not of particular value, being more in the way of a curiosity. I had almost forgotten all about it till I came here this evening, and then, as I watched that charming dance of yours, I was struck by the fact that you were carrying a fan which bore a remarkable likeness to the one I have lost. Tell me, my child, have you had your fan for very long?"
"Oh, dear, no, your Highness," Polly said timidly. "Not more than three days at the outside. You see, I had to get a fan, and the one I used to-night came to me quite by accident."
"Do you mean to say you picked it up or some one gave it to you?"
"No not that," Polly explained. "You see, for a long time I had been playing at a dreadful place in Balham called the King's Theatre, and the pay was miserable. I had never anything left at the end of the week, except a few coppers, and yet I managed to save a little to buy myself clothing, in case I ever secured a West End engagement. I might never have done so had it not been for the kindness of Mr. Denver. When they gave me a chance here I had to spend every penny of my savings, and, amongst other things, I badly needed a black waterproof. You see, I walk both ways, as far as I can, for even the saving of a tram fare is of importance. I live with my father and brother in a dreadful street, which is over what they call a general store, at least, I mean the rooms we occupy are situated above a sort of shop where they sell all sorts of odds and ends. I bought a pair of second-hand boots there, and a hat and a thin black mackintosh. It is a very good mackintosh, and none the worse because it happens to be of foreign make. When I had purchased these things I had nothing left, and I had no idea where I was going to get my fan from. But when I came to put the mackintosh on I discovered that there was something stiff just inside the hem on the left. In a long narrow pocket I found a fan. It was such an extraordinary pocket——"
"I have seen that sort of pocket before," the Princess said quietly. "Those mackintoshes are made in Belgrade, and the pocket you speak of is constructed to carry a dagger or stiletto or weapon of that sort. I tell you this as a piece of general information. And in this peculiar pocket you have found the fan which you were using this evening? Am I to understand that?"
"Oh, yes," Polly said. "It struck me as being quite a nice fan, and so very uncommon. Of course, I took it back to the man I bought the mackintosh from and told him but he was busy with some other people, and said it didn't matter."
"And so you kept it? I should very much like to have a look at it, and I am just a little curious to see that mackintosh, too."
"But I am wearing it at the present moment," Polly said. "Your Highness does not seem to have noticed that—and the fan is in the pocket. It isn't a very good light here——"
"Oh, never mind about it now," the Princess said. "I take it you are not very particular as to what time you get home?"
"There is no one to care when I return," Polly said sadly.
"Ah, how sorrowfully you speak! But what a lot of lonely women there are in the world; even I—but that's another story. It is just possible for a woman to be lonely even if she is surrounded with every luxury. And now, my dear little Polly, since it is like that, I have a proposal to make which may be greatly to your advantage. I want you to come home and have supper with me. Afterwards I will send you home in a car. I suppose you have your latchkey?"
"There is no occasion for one," Polly said. "The house I live in never seems to sleep. For the most part the rooms over the store are let out separately, and are generally inhabited by foreigners, who work all round the clock. The funny old man who keeps the store has a bed under his counter, and is prepared to serve anybody who rings the bell, even in the middle of the night. But, then, how can great ladies like you be expected to know how the poor live? I dare say you think I am talking a great deal of nonsense."
"On the contrary, I am deeply interested," the Princess said gravely. "I have no doubt that some time I shall find your information most useful. I have reasons why I wish to know how my fan found its way into the pocket of your mackintosh, and how the mackintosh in turn came to be disposed of to that eccentric tradesman who sleeps under his own counter. I don't mind telling you, my child, that there are urgent reasons why I should make sure of these facts."
"Perhaps I ought not to have told you," Polly faltered.
"Oh, I am not going to get you into trouble. You will not appear in the matter at all, and one of these early days you will have cause to congratulate yourself on the fact that you were able to do a service to the Princess Zaroff. And now, my child, am I to have the pleasure of entertaining you at supper?"
Polly hesitated just for the fraction of a second. She was inclined to like this handsome, fascinating woman who was treating her as if she had been an equal. It was early yet, and there was nothing to tempt Polly homewards; indeed, she always went Balham way with regret, and turned her back upon it eagerly. The prospect of supping with a real Princess had something of adventure about it. Perhaps the Princess had some notion of what was passing in Polly's mind, for she turned to her with a certain gravity.
"Then if you are quite ready we needn't wait any longer," she said. "We'll have a taxi back to my house and save the chauffeur a journey. But before we go there's one thing I want you to promise me. You must not tell a soul that you have been to my house, and if anybody mentions the name of the Princess Zaroff in your hearing you are to receive it as if it conveyed nothing to you. Above all things, there must be no gossiping at the theatre. You are young and ambitious, Polly, and if I am any judge of stage matters, I should say that you will go far. I always admire courage and pride, and the way in which you have risen superior to your troubles shows me that you have your share of both. Everybody wants friends, and you are going to find one in me, but you must be discreet and silent. When you turn your back upon my house this evening you are to forget that there is such a person as the Princess Zaroff until she wants you again."
Polly gave the desired assurance, and a few minutes later she found herself in a taxi by the Princess's side. The air of mystery about the whole thing stimulated her, and the suggestion of adventure thrilled her with a sense of keen delight. She fairly gasped as she found herself in the brilliantly-lighted hall with its luxury and splendour, of which up to now she had merely dreamed.
All this was pure, unalloyed delight to the poor, struggling actress. She forgot her fears and thrills in the exquisite enjoyment of all the beautiful things with which she was surrounded. It was like a dream after her own sordid and degraded home; the scent of the flowers seemed to go to her head and fill her with a sort of vague intoxication. It was still more delightful to sink back in the depths of an armchair and watch the servants setting out the supper table in the little pink and silver room opposite the library.
"Now, you just wait here for a moment or two," the Princess said. "I have a few words to say to my secretary, and then my time is entirely at your disposal."
She crossed to the library and closed the door behind her. In the great book-lined room were three or four desks, each with a shaded lamp, but at the present moment the chamber had only one occupant. He was a young man, faultlessly dressed, and looking all that a man should look in evening clothes. He sat at his desk reading some document by the aid of his eye-glass and there was a cigarette between his firm lips. He rose as the Princess entered and threw his cigarette into the fire.
"You have news, madam," he said. "I can see it in your face."
"Ah, you are always a good judge, my dear Spencer," the Princess answered. "It is not every woman of affairs like me who can command the services of a Spencer Clutton. It is one of your assets that you look so typically an English gentleman of the leisured sporting class, and that you conceal behind it the brain of a Machiavelli. Is not that so, my dear Spencer?"
"You flatter me, Princess," the man addressed as Spencer said with a smile. "It is when you speak thus that I know that you are about to honour me with some more than usually delicate or dangerous mission. Not that I mind, of course."
"Ah! for once my Admirable Crichton is wrong. I am pleased because I have entirely by accident found a clue to a mystery which has been puzzling me exceedingly. Now you know why I am in England at the present moment. You know that it is of vital importance for us to lay hold of the people who can tell us all about the murder at Lord Goring's house and the mystery surrounding the death of the Grand Duke Oro. For the moment we are more or less at fault, and when I am at fault it is my practice to leave the big things alone and concentrate myself upon the trifles which fools would say are of no matter. It is when we can explain these trifles that we can proceed to build up the correct reply to the anagram. Now, for some days past I have been asking myself why those scoundrels thought it worth their while to go off with my fan in their possession? Did they take it advisedly, or was it the mere predatory instinct that inspired the action?"
"At any rate, the question is worth answering," Clutton said.
"Precisely, my dear Spencer. I am delighted to find that you accord this feather its proper weight. You will therefore be pleased to hear that the criminals attach no importance to the fan. At any rate, they did not appreciate its value. And I don't know that they knew to whom it belongs."
"You have traced the fan then?" Clutton asked.
"It is in the house at the present moment. I shall have it in a minute or two. Truly, the way in which that little fan has come back to me is quite a romance. I happened to go to the Sovereign Theatre this evening, and, behold, on the stage there was a girl using my fan. I asked Mr. Denver to introduce her to me, and I have brought her home to supper. There is no occasion for you to see her, yet your part will come later on. It appears that this little actress lives in a slum out Balham way, not a hundred miles from Rosemead Avenue, and that she has only been lately taken on at the Sovereign. She is a very nice, honest, and hardworking girl, and she told me quite truthfully how the fan came into her possession. It appears that she purchased a second-hand mackintosh in some slum shop, and that she found the fan in the pocket."
"Hardly a convincing story," Clutton suggested.
"And yet told so candidly and convincingly, my dear Spencer, that it carried conviction with it. It appears that the fan was more or less hidden away in a long, narrow pocket, just inside the edge of the coat. It also appears that the macintosh is of a foreign make. Does that appeal to you, my secretary?"
Clutton rose from his seat and walked up and down the room.
"Now, that really is interesting!" he cried. "So the lady is in actual possession of what we call a Carboneri coat. I am not saying that is absolutely peculiar to the Carboneri, but the fact that the thief who stole your fan was wearing a mackintosh with a dagger pocket turns the searchlight on to a very dark place. Do you want me to follow this up?"
"Later on, perhaps," the Princess said. "I have a fancy for beginning the enterprise myself. I'm in one of my restless moods, and a little adventure would do me good. This mystery has annoyed me, and I have been sleeping badly in consequence. Now, when I give you the signal, you will order a car round to take my new acquaintance home, and give instructions that she is not to be driven too fast. At the same time you will have a taxi waiting for me in the lane at the back of the house, so that I can follow at a discreet distance. I shall leave you at the last to entertain Miss Elkin when I am making my preparations, and you will find some excuse for my not coming back into the morning-room again, after which you will escort the young lady to the car. You will let her know that when I want her again I will write to her at the theatre. As for me, I shall be back some time before daylight. I shall look to you to come down and let me in."
"As you please, Princess," Clutton said. "Personally, I dislike these solitary adventures. They are no work for a woman, and some day they will lead you into serious trouble."
The Princess laughed as she rose to go.
"I never came to harm yet," she said, "and my identity has never been discovered. Besides, these adventures, are the breath of life to me. It has always been the same ever since I left home to get my own living. I can stand a certain amount of this inane society business, but I must have my little escapades, or I should grow old and wrinkled. You need have no fear for me, my dear Spencer. And now I must go back to entertain my young friend."
It was altogether a delightful evening for Polly, and one to look back to with pleasure for the rest of her life. She appreciated the delicate foods on the table, the fine wines, and the exquisite flowers. Her own good taste was innate, and it seemed to her as she sat eating a pear that she must have been intended by nature for this sort of thing. She was behaving well, too—quite easily and unconsciously—a fact which was not lost on her hostess. The clock struck the hour of twelve on a chime of bells, which passed Polly's unheeding ear, and then the door opened and Clutton came in. He intimated that the Princess was wanted on important business, and she arose at once.
"I may be some time," she said; "in fact, I may not come back at all. If I am not here in a quarter of an hour perhaps you will be good enough to order one of the cars round for Miss Elkin."
"Oh, I ought not to have stayed so long!" Polly exclaimed, "Is it really twelve o'clock? It has been such a delightful evening that I have quite forgotten all about the time."
And she forgot it again presently, though Clutton had rung the bell and given his order. He could be a delightful and entertaining companion when he chose, and this little girl with the white face and clear, honest eyes, appealed to him. It was half an hour later before he escorted Polly down to the car and tucked her in a mass of fur rugs as if she had been some person of importance.
"Will you give me the address?" he asked.
"Oh, I could not think of taking the man all the way. Besides, he would be quite shocked if he found himself in our neighbourhood. Please tell him to put me down at the top of High-street, Balham."
The car slid away into the darkness, and presently from the back of the house there followed a taxicab which hung discreetly on the track of the motor in front until High Street, Balham, was reached. There the foremost car stopped, and Polly thanked the chauffeur sweetly.
She blushed to think that she had no money for him, but, had she only known it, the smile was all sufficient.
She walked on rapidly down the now deserted thoroughfare, thinking over the bewildering delights of this perfect evening, and heedless of the fact that someone was walking behind her. The woman following was tall and haggard, with a white, hard face, set in a mass of unruly, black hair, which framed the features half concealed by a rusty crepe bonnet, evidently a survival of the mid-Victorian era. The woman's clothes were rusty and soiled and creased with every sign of hard wear. She gave the impression of being exceedingly poor and needy, and one who generally has come badly out in the hard struggle for life. As Polly turned into an open doorway by the side of an extremely dingy and dilapidated shop the woman paused and looked about her, as if seeking for something. The shop in front was a double-fronted one, the windows filled with a miscellaneous collection of articles, hardly one of which was likely to appeal to an ordinary purchaser. If was an extraordinary collection of rubbish, insufficiently lighted by two dingy oil lamps, the chimneys of which were black with soot. The door of the shop was closed, but in the centre of it was a bell with an intimation underneath on a brass plate that any prospective customer desiring attention might ring. The woman laid her grimy hand on the knob and jerked it violently. She repeated this operation three times before she heard shuffling feet inside and the door of the shop was thrown open. An old man with quaint, frizzy curls hanging round a face yellow and wrinkled as the skin of a melon and ornamented by an enormous curved nose, looked out and demanded the intruder's business none too politely.
"I have come to buy something," the woman said. "Are you too blind to see that I am a customer, old man?"
The shopkeeper shuffled back behind his counter and produced yet another of the dingy lamps.
"Now tell me jest vat it is you vant?" he demanded.
"A mackintosh-coat," the woman said. "One of those with a dagger pocket on the left side. Come, you know what I mean."
The old man's jaw dropped, and he stared at the woman with a blank horror in his beady eyes.
When Spencer Clutton left the diplomatic service, at a comparatively early age, his friends only lamented the fact that he had voluntarily cut short an exceedingly promising career. He possessed youth and brains and breeding, to say nothing of powerful influence. He was already marked out for an important post, and then, without consulting anyone, he sent in his resignation. He was known to be keen on his work, and, though he had little or no money, success was in his grasp.
He had declined to discuss this sudden decision. He showed no regret or disappointment, and from that day forward not a soul had ever known the reason why Spencer Clutton cut himself adrift from all his most cherished ambitions.
He told nobody of the shadow of disgrace that had suddenly clouded the family fortunes; he merely set himself to work to find the means for averting a glaring scandal. Social tragedies of this kind are not so rare as people imagine, and Spencer Clutton was by no means the first promising life to be sacrificed on the altar of family traditions. He had managed to ward off the threatened danger, and nobody but he knew at what cost. It was generally supposed that he had hankered after a life of adventure, and that the conventions had been too much for him. He had in turn been a war correspondent, the head of a revolutionary committee in the Balkan States, and a concessionaire in an oil territory in Mexico. Finally, after years of absence, he had returned to London in the capacity of secretary to the brilliant and erratic Princess Zaroff. All these things, and many more, he had accomplished whilst he was still well on the sunny side of forty years, and ever since he had relinquished his career in favour of a certain commercial enterprise he had been making money. He was quite a wealthy man now, and looking forward to the time when he could turn his back upon intrigue and adventure, and settle down to the life of an English country gentleman. But there were many cords to be unknotted yet, and many meshes to be unravelled before he could finally escape from the net of diplomacy and intrigue. Besides, he enjoyed the life, he took the keenest delight in the battle of wits, and that dizzy progress along the razor edge of personal danger. Moreover, he was in the midst of a complication now, in which he was taking the deepest interest.
Outwardly, he was just the same as he had ever been. To see and hear him in his club, or at a dinner table, would give the onlooker the impression that here was no more than a well-bred, well-groomed Englishman, with perhaps a little more intellect than is generally found in one of his class.
He was seated at breakfast in his comfortable rooms in Orchard Street the morning following Polly Elkin's visit to the Princess Zaroff's establishment opposite the Green Park. And as he partook heartily of his devilled kidneys he was thinking a good deal of the little actress, whose pale face and pathetic eyes were holding him strangely. He was wondering where he had seen her before, and of whom she so strangely reminded him. She seemed to take his mind back into the past quite clearly for a certain way, and then everything became blurred and confused. Clutton hated to be puzzled, but he was frankly puzzled now. He was still trying to fit the pieces together when his man, Rush, came in, quiet and smooth-voiced as usual, with the information that a boy was downstairs and wanted to speak to him.
"Oh!" he said. "Can't he send up a message?"
"He won't do it, sir," Rush replied. "Says he's got to see you, sir. And him just a mass of rags."
The information did not seem to cause Clutton any annoyance, though the conventional manservant appeared to be quite shocked. He never could understand why all sorts and conditions of people called upon Clutton and were almost invariably seen. It was Rush's private opinion that if the rag and bone man who chafered with the cook in the area for the empty bottles had expressed a desire to see Clutton the request would have been complied with without delay. But, then, Rush was merely a servant cast in the iron mould of his fathers, and he had a proper contempt for the waifs and strays of humanity. Clutton smiled good-naturedly.
"I think I would show him up, Rush, if I were you," he said.
Rush's one protest was a half-respectful sniff, and he left the room to return presently followed by a small, half-timid, half-frightened boy clad in picturesque rags. He held in his hand a cheap and grimy envelope which he thrust in Clutton's face, much as if it had been a weapon.
"'Ere yer are, guv'nor," he said. "The lidy wot give me this says as I was to wite for a hanswer. And I was told, pertickler like, as I was to see you. That bloke yonder——"
"I think you had better go, Rush," Clutton said. "This gentleman has evidently come to see me on confidential business. Now, my lad, I should be glad to hear what you want to see me for?"
"I didn't want to see yer," the boy said politely. "I was told as I was to bring back a hanswer. Don't yer think yer had better look inside and see wit the lidy wants?"
Clutton meekly intimated that the suggestion was not a bad one, and proceeded to tear open the flap of the grimy envelope. Inside was what appeared to be a whining, begging letter, ill-written and spelt, and conveyed the intimation that the writer was a charwoman who had once worked in Clutton's rooms, and who was now in the last stage of destitution for the want of a half-crown. There was apparently no more in the letter, but that did not prevent Clutton crossing over to his desk and examining the dingy sheet carefully with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass. Once he had finished this he took a half-crown from his pocket and handed it over to the messenger in the picturesque rags.
"Take that back to the lady," he said, "and tell her I am sorry to hear about her troubles. She can write to me again if she is really in need of assistance. And here's a shilling for yourself. And now be off at once—you understand, at once."
The boy vanished, fearful perhaps that Clutton might change his mind and demand his money back. Clutton crossed over to his writing-table and dashed off a note, which he handed to Rush with instructions to send it by express messenger to its destination at once. Then he stood thoughtfully before the fire, smoking his matutinal cigarette.
"I don't like it," he muttered to himself. "I don't like it a bit. She's got the courage of a Ghoorka and the brains of a Solomon, but some day she will go off on one of these daring expeditions and never be heard of again. Good heavens! if a score of men I could mention only knew where she was at the present moment she would be floating down the Thames before to-morrow morning. I am tired of it, and once this business is finished I shall put the past behind me for ever. And if this coup comes off, she will be one of the richest women in Europe."
Clutton pitched the end of his cigarette in the fire, and for the next two hours sat at his desk writing steadily. The clock was striking twelve when Rush came in with his head in the air and a general suggestion that he had smelt something disagreeable and intimated that there was a foreign party, of the name of Magavitch, waiting down in the hall craving an audience.
"Show him up," Clutton said. "And if anybody else calls I am not in, Rush. Don't forget that, please."
There came into the room presently a bent old man in a suit of shabby black, who grovelled before Clutton and spread out a pair of hands as if he half expected a blow. His yellow face twitched with nervous anxiety, and his snaky black curls vibrated as if a current of hot air was passing over them.
"Oh, good Lord!" he said. "It's Sir Clutton! And 'ow are yer, my honoured sir? Delighted to meet your noble lordship. I am an old man, a poor, broken old man, and the pleasures of my life they are all gone years ago. Therefore, honoured sir, it is one exquisite delight to see you once more."
"What a liar you are, Magavitch," Clutton smiled. "And why do you try to humbug me in this way? You know perfectly well that when you got that sheet of paper this morning with the triple triangles on it and just my address beneath you hadn't the remotest idea who you were coming to meet. And when you came into the room you were frightened enough to sink through the floor. But you didn't dare to disobey the summons. Now sit down in that chair and answer my questions, and see that you answer them truthfully. Did you late last night or early this morning have a visitor?"
Magavitch wriggled about in his chair like on eel.
"You are a vonderful man, Mr. Clutton, a vonderful man. Vy you bother me like this? I am very old now, and all I want is peace and quietness, and just a little fish and the bread to eat him with. Years ago I cut myself adrift from all those others, and I say, behold, in future I am a man of peace."
Clutton, who smiled faintly, seemed to be amused.
"I think you had better go, Magavitch," he said. "On the whole, perhaps you had better return to the little fish and the bread to eat him with. Evidently, I made a mistake in my estimate of your character. I am sorry to have troubled you."
The old man raised his hands in an attitude of supplication.
"Oh, no, no!" he screeched. "Have mercy on me, Sir Clutton. I am a fool to try and deceive you. I did have the visitor last night. There came to my shop, when I was peacefully asleep, a tall woman in black, who wanted—who wanted——"
"To buy a black mackintosh," Clutton interrupted. "What are you stammering about? The lady wanted to buy a black mackintosh with a dagger pocket on the inside of the coat, and knowing that you might be likely to keep such things in stock, came in and asked you the question. I should very much like to have seen your face at that particular moment. Did your hair stand on end, as is usually the case when people see ghosts? By the way, I think it was a ghost that you saw, wasn't it?"
"Zara," Magavitch muttered hoarsely. "Zara come back from the grave. I thought, and all the others think——"
"Oh, do they? Now, will you tell me precisely how many of those murderous ruffians are hanging about Balham today, and precisely what they happen to know in connection with a certain murder which took place a few nights ago in Lord Goring's town house?"
Magavitch rolled his black eyes in an ecstasy of admiration.
"Ain't he vonderful!" he exclaimed, apparently addressing his remarks to the ceiling. "Is there another like him in the vorld? Ah, no! There is but von Sir Clutton, and it is my great privilege to say that he is my friend."
Clutton contemplated the writhing Magavitch much as if the latter had been some quaint specimen on a microscopic slide under the searching analysis of the scientist. He could see the twitching of the thick lips and the oily ooze on the yellow skin. He knew this man inside and out, knew that he was playing on his nerves as if they were so many fiddle-strings, and gradually reducing him to a condition of absolute fear. This was the sort of thing he liked, this was some reward for all that he had given up, and to his mind the subjugation of the wild animal made amends for many past sacrifices and disappointments.
"You flatter me," he said. "But what would your associates say if they could hear your praise of Spencer Clutton? And what would they think of it? What are you thinking about yourself?"
Magavitch gurgled something, presumably of an ingratiating nature, in the back of his throat. But what he really was thinking was the exquisite delight it would be to have this superlative devil by the throat in some dark room, or to catch him asleep in his bed with no one looking on. It was gall and wormwood to Magavitch to know that he was being crushed by that remorseless thumb, and that Clutton was using him as he would have used some clever performing dog. And there was no way out of it either.
"It is very pleasant to see Sir Clutton again," he said.
"Well, it's mutual, anyway," Clutton replied. "But, so far as I am concerned, my pleasure is of a different type altogether. Mine is the joy that the cat feels when it meets the mouse. And you are my mouse, Magavitch, and don't you forget it. If you attempt to fool with me I'll crumple you up like a sheet of paper. Do you hear what I say? You know my power."
"Oh, I do," said Magavitch fawningly. "But, dear sir, you will not be hard on a poor old man who has seen the error of his ways, and only wants to spend the rest of his days in peace. When I got your message my heart was heavy within me. I said to myself the Lord Clutton has found me out——"
"Oh, I did that years ago!" Clutton said dryly. "All the same, it must have been rather a disagreeable surprise to you when you got my message. You thought you were safe. An hour ago I had forgotten your very existence. You might have been dead and buried for all I knew or cared. I had not the remotest idea where to find you. And then the mysterious agency which is behind me suddenly demanded the presence of Magavitch if he were still in the land of the living. And within an hour I know where to find you, and the means whereby I can bring you grovelling to my feet."
Magavitch bowed humbly before this tirade. It was rather cheap and slightly theatrical, but Clutton knew his man, and that this mode of address was far more likely to impress him than any words framed in a more diplomatic spirit.
"Oh, I understand," Magavitch said. "I will answer truthfully any questions that your honourable lordship likes to ask."
"Yes, I thought you would. Now, in the first place how many are there of you at Balham? Are they the old gang, working the old way—and what do they expect to gain? Why did they murder the Grand Duke? By the way you have made a thorough mess of that business, as you will find out sooner or later. But we need not discuss that for the moment. I want you to make a list of the men down Balham way who had a hand in the present affair. You need not trouble about it now. You had better post it so that I can have it the first thing to-morrow morning. And none of your typewritten lists if you please."
"And where would I get a typewriter from?" Magavitch asked almost tearfully. "I tell you I am a poor man."
"You are nothing of the sort," Clutton retorted. "You have been making money all your life. And always by treachery and fraud, and the betrayal of your comrades. For years you have made money as a police spy, and taken your share of such outrages and robberies as came along. If I were only to say one word or drop a hint in certain quarters your life wouldn't be worth a day's purchase. It is all very well for you now that you are old to hide yourself in a London suburb and pass for a poverty-stricken man who grubs a living from the customers of the gutter, but I know a good deal better. I could tell you the names of at least three foreign banks which hold valuable securities of yours. Do you want me to tell you where you have hidden the spoil which fell into your hands after the death of the Grand Duke Oro?"
Magavitch uttered a cry of fear. Was there anything this fiend incarnate did not know? He was shaking in an ague of apprehension from head to foot, the little beads of perspiration were trickling down his nose. It was not for him to know that this last barbed shaft of Clutton's was an arrow from a bow drawn at a venture, but that it had gone home to the feather Clutton could see to his secret delight. He was on the right track now, but it would not be wise to press the advantage unduly.
"Well, if it is a painful subject I won't pursue it," he went on. "Let us revert for a moment to the subject of typewriters. I understand that your people use a Concordia machine?"
"You talk in a language that makes me dizzy," Magavitch wailed.
"Oh, I think not. It is plain to me that the passing of the years has in no way dimmed the razor blade of your intellect. Now, you are not going to be so foolish as to deny that to the forger and the blackmailer the typewriter has proved of valuable assistance. You see, it gets rid of the painful necessity of imitating handwriting and saves all sorts of awkward questions in the law courts. A man need no longer be cross-examined or worried by handwriting experts when he can buy a sheet or two of paper and put his ideas down in printed letters. Nearly everybody uses the typewriter now, and the receipt of a letter so written passes as a matter of course. Now, suppose you wanted to get a paragraph in a newspaper which you knew that the editor would not pass in the ordinary way, how would you set about it?"
"I am an old-fashioned man," Magavitch mumbled, "and these modern ideas they confuse me. I should not have thought of it."
"Perhaps not, but somebody did, and you know it as well as I do. We will take it for granted for the moment that it is necessary to get this paragraph inserted in some leading newspaper in such a way as to cause the editor to believe that it came from some highly trusted correspondent—a correspondent whose work would be published as a matter of course. Such a journalist is discovered and by a fortunate chance his copy is always typed. A sensational paragraph is prepared and sent to the favoured journal, with the writers name typed on the copy. It goes into the paper and causes a great sensation, all the more so because it is in the hands of the public before the actual crime is committed. Now that is a daring thing to do Magavitch. I dare say you thought that this would strike terror in certain quarters, and show how clever and merciless the murderers are, and how certain they felt of their ground. You see, I know a great deal Magavitch."
Magavitch turned and twisted and writhed in his chair. His heart was full of black and bitter malice, but his eyes were troubled and his breath came in fitful gasps.
"There is nobody like your honourable lordship," he fawned. "Nobody in the world. What you speak of, of course you know, but to me all this is as so much in a foreign language."
"What, aren't you convinced yet?" Clutton asked smilingly. "You will be telling me presently that you never heard the name of Pascoe before. Now, you wouldn't ask me to believe that."
Magavitch threw up his hands with the air of a man who surrenders at discretion. All his defences were beaten to the ground and there was nothing to gain and everything to lose by struggling against such merciless logic any longer. It was many years since Magavitch had first tried a fall with the man before him, and in all their battles of wit he could not recall a single instance where he had come out of the encounter without grievous discomfiture. And there were many other cosmopolitan scoundrels who had gone in gaily to win where Magavitch had so signally failed. And where were they all now? Some were dead, some wandering about the world broken and beaten, some lying in the gaols of Europe, whilst others had paid a swift and more terrible penalty.
"I will do anything you like," Magavitch said humbly. "I might have known something like this was coming when Zara walked into my shop so late last night and demanded of me a black mackintosh."
"Yes, rather startling, wasn't it?" Clutton queried. "Did you happen to have any of those black mackintoshes left? I understand that the lady in question wanted a cloak of the Carboneri pattern. Is that correct?"
"Oh, yes, oh, yes!" the badgered Magavitch muttered, showing some signs of temper for the first time. "Why does your noble lordship ask me these questions when, at the same time, he can answer them so much better than I?"
"That is quite right," Clutton said. "And now permit me to ask you a question which you really can answer better than I can. I am told that recently these Carboneri cloaks have gone out of fashion. As stage properties in the great drama of the criminal anarchist they are quite exploded. Therefore, if you have one or two in stock you would sell them to anybody. Now I happen to know that one of these is worn by a young lady who at present is appearing at the Sovereign Theatre. It was not a difficult matter without frightening her to discover where she bought that cloak. Need I say that it came from your establishment? Now, please don't argue, because I never speak without being sure of my facts. It is a second-hand cloak, and I have no doubt that you purchased it for a few shillings. Without prevarication, who did you buy it from? And, if you don't tell me the truth, I shall invite you to leave at once and wash my hands of you entirely. If I adopt that course, you will know pretty well what is likely to happen."
Magavitch grovelled once more. He was ready to do anything or say anything rather than forfeit the confidence of his patron.
"Very well, then," Clutton said. "Give me your address. I will come and see you to-morrow night, soon after tea. Now be off."
Magavitch crept from the room and Clutton reached for his telephone. There was no sign of victory on his face as he called up a certain number. Everything was going well now.
"Is that eleven five six Hatton Garden?" he asked. "I wish to speak to Mr. Reginald Hermann. Oh, that is Mr. Hermann. You know me—Spencer Clutton? Will you come round and see me at once, please?"
A feeble voice at the other end of the telephone plaintively asked for further information. But Clutton had none to offer. He did not propose to discuss matters of deep importance with the chance of somebody hearing what he had to say. And he knew his man. In fact, there were few people of any sort of standing in society or finance that Spencer Clutton did not know. Also, he was perfectly well aware of the fact that young Reginald Hermann would be flattered by the suggestion that he was going to share Clutton's confidence in any form. Obviously, Hermann was both suspicious and frightened, as, indeed, was excusable, seeing that he had the weight of the diamond business still on his mind, and as yet he had not plucked up courage enough to take his father into his confidence. Somewhat reluctantly he agreed to fall in with Clutton's suggestion and promised to come round at once.
It was not the sleek, well-groomed, self-assured Reginald Hermann who came into the sitting-room half an hour later. He looked very nice, he was a credit to his tailor and hairdresser, but his shoulders were bent, and there was a vacant look in his shallow eyes. More or less mechanically he accepted Clutton's proffered cigarette, but there was no flavour in the tobacco.
"I hope there is nothing wrong," he said uneasily.
"Well, things are certainly no worse than they were a week ago," Clutton answered. "I am sorry to have dragged you round here, but my business is far too confidential for the telephone."
Hermann smiled feebly. At the same time Clutton's statement stimulated his vanity. It was good to feel that he shared a secret, however irksome, with a man in Clutton's position.
"I can't think what on earth it can be," he said.
"Oh, I think you know. I am taking it for granted that Blanche Trevenner is still flaunting the diamonds which she says were given her by the late Grand Duke Oro. If you tell me that you have regained possession of them I have no more to say."
"Oh, Lord!" Hermann groaned. "I had no idea this thing was public property. Now it's certain to get into the society papers, and we shall be all ruined. But how on earth you managed to find this out beats me. Did you hear it at the club?"
"My dear chap, the story is not public property. Beyond the leading character in the comedy the facts are restricted to Mr. Denver and Mr. Kelso and myself. In the ordinary course of things I should not have interfered. But my experience of life teaches me that there never was a trouble yet that did not involve another. As far as the diamonds go I am not interested; at least, not directly. But it so happens that, in helping myself, I can help you. Now that we have time before us I think I can see my way to kill both my birds with the same barrel. You want the diamonds back——"
"I'd do anything to get them!" Hermann cried. "I wouldn't stop at anything. I tell you I can't sleep—I lie awake at night, making all sorts of plans. I read a story once about a statesman who had stolen some papers, which he always carried about with him and which were recovered by a bogus lot of highwaymen who pretended they only wanted his money. Not a bad idea, that?"
"No, especially if well told in a work of fiction. But then, you see, such a line of policy is quite out of date to-day. Strategy is the thing. Now, tell me, does your father know about this?"
"Good heavens, no!" Hermann exclaimed. "I haven't dared to tell him. I don't want to do that till the last possible moment. You see, now that the Grand Duke is dead, there is no hurry. And it's just possible that the diamonds may remain in our possession indefinitely. It all depends as to whether or not the Grand Duke made a will before he died."
"Oh, you think so," Clutton asked dryly. "I wouldn't delude myself like that, if I were you. Now, I have been thinking the matter over, and I begin to see my way fairly clear. I am not doing this for your benefit, but because in a most extraordinary way some friends of mine are mixed up in this potential scandal. By the way, do you know that Blanche Trevenner is giving a luncheon party at her country cottage down Maidenhead way tomorrow afternoon?"
"That's no news," Hermann said. "I know a dozen people who are going. And, after all that has happened, she has had the infernal impudence to send me an invitation. There is no limit to the audacity of that confounded woman."
The information seemed to amuse Clutton, for there was a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
"Did she really?" he asked admiringly. "Now, that is a clever move, a really smart piece of strategy. She won't quarrel with you, and she won't admit that you are anything but friends. If trouble comes along she will score a point over that invitation. Of course, you scornfully refused to go?"
"You think I should have made a mistake if I had?" Hermann asked anxiously. "As a matter of fact, I did nothing of the sort. I was so annoyed that I ignored the bally thing."
"You mean to say that you did not even trouble to reply."
"Well, perhaps it was rude," Hermann admitted.
"It was, but we need not go into a discussion on the social side of the business. It's not too late to repair the error even now. I am going to ask you to place yourself entirely in my hands, and if you be entirely guided by me, I think I can promise that you will get your stones back without publicity and even without expense. Now, when you leave here, send Blanche Trevenner a note telling her that quite by chance her invitation to lunch has only just reached you, and that you are looking forward with pleasure to meeting her to-morrow. I also have an invitation, which I have accepted. It is just possible that you may see some fun tomorrow. In any case, you must do as I tell you, and take your cue from me. I have not quite completed my plans yet, but by the morning I shall know what to do, so now I need not detain you any longer. I am exceedingly busy, and directly after lunch I have important business with a firm of solicitors in Bedford Row."
Somewhat comforted by these assurances, Hermann went his way and Clutton returned to his desk. It was later on in the afternoon before he found himself in Bedford Row seated in the private office of Mr. Murray Ellis, the head of the famous firm of solicitors whose business deals almost exclusively with aristocratic scandals and the troubles and tribulations of the stage. Considering his vast experience and intimate knowledge of human nature and its crooked ways, Murray Ellis looked exceedingly young and innocent, which, as a matter of fact, were two assets which he did not in the least undervalue. For the rest he was a good sportsman and a golfer of repute. In the smoking-room or in the field he was a buoyant chatterbox of the frankest possible description. But nobody had ever heard him discuss the affairs of a client or repeat a piece of gossip, however mild it might he.
He greeted Clutton now with a friendly cordiality which he usually reserved for important clients. He pushed the cigarette-box across the table and motioned his visitor to a comfortable chair. He knew the latter's ways, which were ever unconventional and outwardly the reverse of business-like.
"I know you haven't come at this time of day to waste my time," he said. "Have you got anything big for me this afternoon, or is this merely an affair of a paltry six-and-eightpence?"
"You never can tell," Clutton said sententiously. "You never know when the one-act comedy is going to grow into a four-act play. At any rate, I am not going to bore you. I am going to tell you the story of a fool in society, a pretty woman, and a diamond ornament. Fairly familiar components, aren't they?"
"Yes, but like the notes of a piano, capable of variations. It sounds very much like a stage case. Is it to be a cause celebre or the usual whitewashing? And who are the parties?"
"The leading lady is Miss Blanche Trevenner, the soubrette is Miss Audrey Blair, and the principal ass—I mean boy—is young Reggie Hermann. If you will lend me your ear for a minute, I will give you an outline of the situation."
Murray Ellis smiled from time to time as he smoked his cigarette and listened to the story that Clutton had to tell.
"Now, that's just a little out of the common," he said. "My appetite for scandal is a jaded one, and I am always grateful for something fresh in the way of hors d'oeuvres. I suppose you have come to me with a view to getting those diamonds back, and, at the same time, avert anything like a scandal?"
"Well, in a way, yes," Clutton said. "But, on this occasion, I am here not so much to ask your advice as to secure your co-operation. I have my own little scheme for restoring those diamonds to their proper place. At any cost that must be done; at any risk scandal must be averted. I don't mind telling you that there is some black and bitter business behind this, which has one end in mean and petty theft and the other attached to the arms of a throne. I merely tell you this to show you what may happen if this affair is not properly handled. Meanwhile, we are concerned only with the comedy side of it. I have thought my scheme out, and if you can help me I shall be exceedingly grateful. Now, there's no man living who has a more intimate knowledge of the British mummer and his affairs than yourself. I believe you could weigh them all up both morally and financially. Miss Trevenner is no client of yours, and therefore I am not asking you to betray any professional secrets. Isn't the lady very deeply in debt?"
"Scores of them are," Murray Ellis smiled. "It's the artistic temperament, you know. Between ourselves, Blanche Trevenner doesn't know where to turn for money. I suppose in the last year or two I have had occasion to serve 50 writs upon her. You see, it is hardly worth while making her a bankrupt, for in that case her salary would sure to be reduced and the creditors suffer accordingly. Besides, there is always a charge upon her place in town, and we know that those diamonds which the society paragraphists are always writing about are merely paste. Are you going to tell me that the lady has any assets? I should be glad to hear that it is so."
"Well, I know that she's got one," Clutton said. "That little place at Maidenhead, with its fittings and appointments, must be worth a great many thousands of pounds."
"No doubt, but it doesn't happen to belong to the lady. She has it on lease, furnished, from Belmont Fletcher, the American millionaire. He never comes to England now."
"Now that is just where you are wrong," Clutton said. "When Belmont Fletcher was here two years ago he made a perfect fool of himself over Blanche Trevenner. She is nearly old enough to be his mother, but that's a detail. He was just wild to marry her, and loaded her with all sorts of costly presents. He had recently succeeded to his fortune then, and was little better than a raw Western hayseed, as I think they express it out there. The old man made his money out of timber. But young Fletcher was no fool, and the last time he went back to the States he fell in love with an American girl and married her. It was about this time that Blanche Trevenner took the Maidenhead cottage on a lease. She was very careful that the lease should be properly drawn up by a leading firm of solicitors, for, whatever she may be, she has always taken care of her reputation, and no one can fling a stone at her in that respect. She has got plenty of foresight, too. So long as she could flaunt that lease in people's faces she has got a home over her head that can never be touched. But, as a matter of fact, Belmont Fletcher made the whole show over to her by deed of gilt."
"Is that an absolute certainty?" Murray Ellis asked.
"My dear fellow, Belmont Fletcher told me himself. When the scales fell from his eyes, and he realised what a kindness that woman had done him when she refused his offer of marriage, he was so grateful that he made her a present of the cottage. Of course, he didn't boast about it, but I had the story from his own lips in New York two days before his marriage. Really, it was no business of mine, and I always make it a point never to discuss other people's affairs with any one. I little thought that when young Fletcher told me this that the information might prove exceedingly useful one of these days. And I propose to make use of it now."
"It is a neat story," Murray Ellis said. "But it leaves me guessing, and I hate to have to do that sort of thing. I am wondering why Blanche didn't marry young hayseed."
"I have no doubt she would have done so, but at that time she was looking forward with some confidence to calling herself the wife of a Grand Duke. Between two stools, you know. But we are wandering from the point. Now that I have given you this information, and you have something tangible to go on, do you happen to have any client who has a judgment against the lady in question? I mean for a substantial amount, of course."
"Half a dozen at the very least," Murray Ellis said. "I could go in tomorrow, if necessary."
"That is exactly what I want you to do," Clutton went on. "To-morrow, about two o'clock in the afternoon, the lady is giving a luncheon party, and it will be my privilege to be there as one of the guests. I should like you to do it as quietly as possible. I suppose you could so arrange it that nobody need be any the wiser, and, once you are in possession, I take it that there would be no necessity to do any more for some days."
"Yes, that's all right," Ellis said. "All this sounds a little like a conspiracy, but you are a very valuable client of mine, and I am disposed to stretch a point in your favour. And when I have put my man in, what is going to follow?"
"Well, you get your client's money in the first place. I don't mind confessing that I feel just a little mean in laying this trap for Blanche Trevenner, but there are great interests at stake and I can think of no other way. I know that it sounds very elaborate and intricate, but if you could see into the back of my mind, you would know that this is all very simple."
Murray Ellis asked no further questions. He was quite willing to fall in with Clutton's suggestion. He knew his man far too well to have any fear of the consequences. A few minutes later Clutton took his departure, satisfied, so far, with the prospects of his scheme. He had his hands full now, and to-morrow was likely to be a busy day, for, after the luncheon party, he had to dine out, and in the evening, to carry out his promise to call upon Magavitch at Balham. There might be danger behind this adventure, but Clutton was rather looking forward to that. He was looking forward, too, with pleasure and amusement to the climax, which was likely to follow Blanche Trevenner's luncheon party.
He had not exaggerated when he spoke of the beauties and luxuries which surrounded the cottage at Maidenhead. In the strict sense of the word, the place was no cottage at all. It was a perfectly built house, originally designed and planned by an artist of world-wide repute, who had married a woman of fortune. The cottage had eight or ten bedrooms, a fine hall leading to the reception rooms, and the conservatories were perfect in their way. There was no device for lighting or heating or cooking known to the ingenuity of man, which was not a feature of the place, and the furniture had been chosen by one who possessed not only perfect taste, but the wherewithal to gratify it. The house stood back from the river in its own secluded grounds, so that, save for the bustle and life of the stream, it might have stood in the heart of the country.
It was here that Blanche Trevenner came, whenever she could snatch a few hours from her work in town. She was now waiting for her guests, seated under the shade of a flower-decked veranda, when Clutton made his appearance.
"This is an unexpected honour," she said. "Am I to flatter myself that you came here an hour before the time appointed for lunch for the sake of enjoying my society?"
"Well, that amongst other things," Clutton smiled. "I ought to say 'yes,' but, to be quite candid, I had business in the neighbourhood, which I finished earlier than I had expected, and it did occur to me that I might catch you alone."
"And I am flattered," said Blanche Trevenner gaily. "Let me recommend the cigarettes, and if you desire anything in the way of an aperitif, just press the button of the bell in the pillar by your chair, and the genii will appear."
"Not for me, thank you," Clutton said. "Thank goodness I have an appetite that craves for none of these things. What a fortunate person you are to possess a retreat like this! And what a lot of money it must have cost you!"
"Ah, would that it belonged to me!" the actress sighed. "Still, I have a good landlord. He never presses me for my rent, indeed, I should be ashamed to say how long it is since he saw what you picturesquely call the colour of my money."
"And you treated him so badly, too," Clutton smiled.
The actress shrugged her shoulders and smiled sadly.
"What would you have?" she asked. "He was a mere boy, so many years younger than myself. Some day the world will wake up and realise that I am not so young as I was. They will arch their eyebrows and say that Blanche Trevenner is growing old. Then they will not come and see me act, and managers will decline to give me contracts. And after that there will be nothing for it but the workhouse; for I have lived an improvident life, and, where money is concerned, I am a mere butterfly. It would have been far better for me had I defied the world and married my youthful millionaire."
"Ah, we're all slaves to sentiment," Clutton said drily, "and, really, it must be very awkward when a woman has too many admirers. It must require a great deal of tact to have managed a Grand Duke and a hot-headed young millionaire at the same time."
Blanche Trevenner laughed quite good temperedly. She liked Clutton none the less because he refused to assent to this cheap sentiment or to accept her pretty philosophy at its face value.
"Very well, then," she said, "let us be hard and mercenary, if you like. Let us say that I have been unfortunate in my would-be matrimonial speculations. Still, that affair of the Grand Duke was a terrible business. You will not laugh at me when I say that I was very fond of him at one time. Yes, and he was passionately attached to me. We should have been married long ago but for those terrible ties of State, which you, perhaps, understand better than I do, and then I should have been a rich woman."
"You may be that now," Clutton said thoughtfully. "I am in a position to know a good deal of what is going on in certain exalted circles, and I think you may take it as a fact that the Grand Duke made no will. What a romance it would be if you came forward with a document signed by the Grand Duke, in which he left you all his property! And you really never can tell!"
But there was no answering smile on Blanche Trevenner's lips. She was looking steadily before her with a brooding light in her eyes. Clutton could see that she had grown pale under the artistry of the paint and powder, could see that her hands were tightly clenched, so that the knuckles stood out white and hard. Then she turned to him again and spoke in a whisper:—
"You are a wizard," she said. "Do you divine these things, or are you gifted with second sight? Just for a moment you frightened me—I am always afraid of you, my friend. But I am not going to say any more, except to remind you that many a true word is spoken in jest, and you're not to go away and tell people that Blanche Trevenner is likely to benefit largely through the death of the man that she loved. You will promise me that, my dear friend?"
"Madam," Clutton said solemnly. "I am the soul of discretion. Crowned heads have felicitated me upon that priceless quality. I will not venture even to congratulate you. But who comes here? This does not look like one of your invited guests."
Advancing up the path in the direction of the veranda came a tall, spare man, in silk hat and morning coat, who bore about him the unmistakable suggestion of law and equity. His manner was subdued, but the fashion in which he lifted his hat and tendered a sheet of foolscap to Miss Trevenner showed that he knew what he was doing and that he was quite sure of his ground.
"What is the meaning of this?" the actress asked haughtily.
"I am from the office of the sheriff, madam," the man explained. "This is an execution on behalf of Ressell and Company for four thousand pounds odd, debt and costs. If you are prepared to pay it, I shall be only too happy to withdraw; but I cannot take a cheque—the whole must be paid in cash. Failing that, I must remain here."
"Impossible!" Blanche Trevenner cried. "I have no money, and I am expecting friends to lunch."
The man shook his head and walked deliberately into the house.
With blazing eyes the actress caught Clutton by the arm.
"What is to be done?" she asked hoarsely. "What is to be done?"
Clutton had hardly expected to find that the first shot in the campaign had gone home so disastrously. It was a most unpleasant position certainly, yet there was nothing tragic about it, though Blanche Trevenner seemed to hold a contrary opinion. From the way in which she looked at her companion, and the whiteness of her face, she might have been the victim of some great moral or social catastrophe. But yet these things happened every day, even in the West End of Bohemia. Clutton's air was sympathetic.
"After all, there's nothing to be afraid of," he said.
The woman laughed. For once in a way Clutton had failed in his reading of a phase of character. He had not quite realised the imperious nature of Blanche Trevenner, and her haughty intolerance of the troubles of life. For many years now everything had gone her way; she had been feted and flattered and spoiled. Did she want a thing, she had only to stretch out her hand and take it, though usually there was no occasion to take even as much trouble as this. It was the humiliation, the fear of sneers and laughter, that was uppermost with her now.
"I'm not afraid," she said. "I am angry. I have never been so angry in my life. How dare these people come here, at a time like this? You heard me tell that man that I had friends to lunch, and he walked into the house as if it belonged to him."
"From a legal point of view, I'm afraid it does," Clutton said. "If you cannot pay, the sheriff takes possession. I believe they generally wait eight days, and if the debt is not liquidated by that time, everything is sold."
"The thing is absurd, preposterous!" Blanche Trevenner cried, "Everybody will be talking about it. All my women friends will come to me with pretty condolences on their lips, and, behind my back they will sneer and rejoice. In a short time all the servants will know what has happened, and they will leave me in a body. Oh, yes, I know what it all means. And every little tradesman to whom I owe sixpence will come and sit on my doorstep, waiting for his money. If I had been given time, it would be a different thing altogether. A few days—a week, perhaps. Can nothing be done to stifle this scandal?"
"Oh, I dare say we might manage to keep it quiet," Clutton said. "A friend of mine once had a man in possession of his country house for a whole week, disguised as a masseur. Now this fellow you have here looks very respectable, and might easily pose as a clerk, or secretary, or something of that kind. I believe I've got it. Didn't you tell me, some time ago, that the late owner of this house, I mean the man who built it, had a fine library?"
"There are a good many thousands of books there," Blanche Trevenner said indifferently. "Now I come to think of it, Belmont Fletcher did tell me that he had to pay a large sum for the library. But what have you got in your mind?"
Clutton suggested that there was no time to lose. Blanche Trevenner's guests might be expected to arrive at any moment now, and something would have to be done without delay. Clutton led the way to the library, where they found the intruder seated calmly enough in an armchair, reading a paper. There was nothing truculent or insolent in his manner, though he seemed to be decidedly self-possessed and at home with his surroundings. This was evidently not the first time that he had found himself an involuntary guest in a well-appointed establishment. He rose civilly enough, and waited to hear what Clutton had to say.
"Miss Trevenner has asked me to advise her," he said. "I am afraid it will be a few days before this matter can be settled, and meanwhile we want as little gossip as possible, especially amongst the servants. Now, I suppose you would have no objection to assuming for the moment the position of expert adviser and valuer to a firm of dealers in books, to whom Miss Trevenner has sold this library? Upon my word, you look the part of the librarian to the life. It should work excellently."
"Ah, I am quite sure it would, sir," the man in possession said. "As a matter of fact, books used to be in my line, but I had a misfortune or two, and I was glad enough to accept my present position. As a rule I am only sent to the better-class houses and in my time I have played many parts. It is a horrible life, but I shall enjoy the run of this library for a day or two. If I could have a small bedroom and my meals served here, I should be quite comfortable, and, if I may suggest it, that you regard me as a gentleman."
"No reason even to mention it," Clutton said quietly. "Whatever misfortunes a man has, and however low he may have fallen, he never quite loses the Oxford manner, after he has once acquired it. But, no, you need not thank me—the thanks are all on the other side. A few words from Miss Trevenner to the servants, and your position is assured. There is nothing more, I think."
Blanche Trevenner joined Clutton on the veranda, a few minutes later, with something like a smile on her face. The trouble had been bridged over for a minute, but she was not yet easy in her mind.
"What I should have done without you, I do not know," she said. "Positively, you have saved the situation. But it will be my turn next. How dare those people behave in this fashion? If this house and furniture belonged to me, it would be another matter. Can't I bring an action for damages against them, or something of that kind?"
"Yes, I suppose so," Clutton said. "You have always told everybody that this place belongs to Mr. Belmont Fletcher. He could bring an action for trespass and damages, any way. You had better go to your lawyer to-morrow and explain the situation. Then he can cable to the owner of the house in America for instructions. But, of course, if this house belongs to you, then you haven't a leg to stand on. But that we need not go into."
Clutton spoke quietly enough, but he was regarding his companion keenly all the same. He saw her start and bite her lips; he saw that the gloomy frown was on her face again.
"Perhaps those people don't believe that I am the tenant here. Perhaps they are going to fight me."
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," Clutton said coolly. "Possibly they may be going on some information which they believe to be authentic, in which case you will have to produce your lease, and in the witness-box testify on oath that you are merely the tenant of the cottage. But still, you won't mind that!"
Blanche Trevenner laughed, but there was no mirth in it. She was still simulating a certain forced gaiety, when the guests began to arrive. There were about a score of them altogether. All sorts and conditions of well-known people, and all bent on enjoying themselves. There were a popular actor or two, an author of repute, and a junior member of the Cabinet. Finance was represented there, of course, seeing that no gathering of the kind can he held to be complete without at least one capitalist, and he came in the shape of Philip Ecstein, successful company promoter and, in certain circumstances, a bill discounter and money-lender as well. The last guest to arrive was Reginald Hermann, looking anxious and uneasy, despite an attempt at assurance, and the moral support of his monocle. He took advantage of the general conversation to take Clutton on one side.
"Well, how goes it?" he asked anxiously.
"Exceedingly well," Clutton exclaimed. "After all, it's not much of a scheme, and I'm not in the least proud of it. But it will serve the purpose, as you will see before long."
"Very glad to hear it," Hermann said. "Funny crowd, isn't it? Mystery to me how some chaps get into society. There's that bounder Ecstein, for instance. Nothing to recommend him but his money."
"Rather an asset?" Clutton asked dryly. "My dear fellow, there's no getting away from the golden calf these times. Personally, I am very pleased to see Ecstein here. Unless I am greatly mistaken, his presence is going to make my task a good deal easier. Now go away and talk to somebody else. There's not the slightest reason why our hostess should see us whispering together."
They were all there now, laughing and chattering on the veranda, as if there was no such thing as care in the world. Blanche Trevenner had thrown off her trouble, and her laugh was the loudest and most unconstrained in the babel of noise. They went in to luncheon presently, in the perfect gold and white dining room, where the meal was served at separate tables. There was no form or ceremony, and the guests seated themselves just where they pleased. To all outward appearance the brilliant hostess might have possessed a bottomless purse, for the meal was cooked by a chef of distinction, and the wines were wines of history. The talk flowed on as unrestrainedly as the champagne, till, at length, the coffee and liqueur stage was reached, and a drift of blue cigarette smoke trailed in clouds across the table. Then, with a common accord, they passed out on to the veranda, and sat there in the sunshine.
In one corner Blanche Trevenner lounged back in a basket chair, with Clutton opposite her. There was another vacant chair in the same angle of the flower-decked veranda, and this had been occupied till a moment or so before by the financier Ecstein, who had been called away grumbling to answer the telephone.
"I shall have to send a couple of telegrams?" he said. "No, don't trouble. I have been in your library, and I know where the forms are kept. This is one of the penalties attached to all life in the city. I won't be long."
He came back presently with a peculiar smile hovering about the corner of his thin, humorous lips. Obviously something had amused him, but Ecstein belonged to the type of man who keeps everything to himself, even his little jokes.
"Now that's done with," he said. "And now, with any luck, I ought to have a free and enjoyable afternoon. Anyway, I have turned my back upon the city till to-morrow morning. I've got my launch at a boathouse close by, and I am game to take anybody up the river who would like to have a run."
"Most of my guests are going on to a garden party," Blanche Trevenner explained. "But you can take me for a blow presently, provided you swear to get me back by six o'clock. We won't ask anybody else. When I am on the river I like to have it all to myself, or, at any rate, with only one companion."
Clutton smiled at the end of his cigarette. Everything was going exactly as he could have wished.
"You won't even take me?" he asked.
"Certainly not," Ecstein laughed. "Two's company, you know. You can consider yourself snubbed, Clutton."
Clutton smiled with the air of a man who made up his mind to forgive his enemies. He had not the least desire to accompany his hostess and her capitalist friend on their little trip; indeed, on the contrary, he much preferred to stay away. The conversation had become more broken now, and the little group in the three chairs in the angle of the verandah were drifting from one topic to another, in the idle way that people do after they have lunched well and wisely. Gradually Clutton worked up to his opening, and, before the other two quite realised it, they were discussing the mystery which surrounded the death of the Grand Duke Oro.
"Can't make head or tail of it myself," Ecstein said, as he lay back in his chair smoking lazily. "Dashed funny rumours about it, too. They say that the disappearance of little Audrey Blair was connected with the murder in some way."
"I don't think so," Clutton said. "I happen to know something about it, and you can disabuse your mind——"
"Bet you a monkey there's something in it," Ecstein interrupted. "My dear chap, if you were in the know, like I am, as regards theatrical matters you wouldn't be so cocksure. You can't finance West End theatres without learning a thing or two. And I know as a positive fact that, on the night Audrey Blair disappeared, she had a letter from the Grand Duke."
"Then I'm quite sure it must have been an innocent one," Clutton said. "And I am equally sure that Miss Trevenner will share my opinion. Without the slightest wish to hurt her feelings, I must remind you that she was at one time engaged to the Grand Duke. That she enjoyed his utmost confidence I am certain."
Blanch Trevenner smiled sadly; but her vanity was touched, as Clutton fully intended it should be.
"He had no secrets from me," she said. "All his family history he told me most candidly. I have a great many of his papers now. Perhaps in a short time I shall make some of them public. I am quite sure that one of them would cause a sensation."
"Curiously enough, I also have a mass of correspondence which I had at one time with the Duke," Clutton said. "He was an exceedingly brilliant man, and had he been left to get his own living, would have founded a great career. When I first knew him he was working on a new explosive, with the assistance of an old rascal called Magavitch, who, amongst his many other gifts, possessed a remarkable talent for forgery. He used to write the Grand Duke's letters sometimes, and copy the handwriting so faithfully that even his employer could hardly tell the difference."
Blanche Trevenner suddenly seemed to come out of her reverie. She turned eagerly to Clutton.
"I have heard the Grand Duke speak of the man," she said; "but I believe he is gone to his reward."
"No, I think he in living somewhere Balham way," Clutton said casually. "I understand he keeps a little shop. But aren't we getting off our subject? What were you saying, Ecstein?"
But the rest really mattered nothing. Clutton had achieved his object, and, so far as he was concerned, he would be better engaged in London. It was nearly four o'clock before the guests began to disperse, and Ecstein suggested that it was about time for the little trip on the river. As Clutton said good-bye to his hostess, he did not fail to notice the uneasy glitter in her eye, or the hot dryness of her palm, as it lay for a moment in his. So far as he was concerned the trap was ready, and the mouse was already nibbling the bait. As he glanced back from the drive he saw that Blanche Trevenner and Ecstein were alone on the veranda now, and that the woman showed no disposition to move.
"I am glad they have all gone," she said. "I want to have a little conversation with you. Don't you think that we should be much more comfortable sitting here than rushing about the river in a noisy launch?"
"Just as you like," Ecstein said. "It's all the same to me. I would just as soon sit and smoke here as anywhere else. But what's wrong? You look as if you had seen a ghost."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I am worried," the woman said. "I've had wretched luck lately, and everything that I touch has gone wrong. I must have a large sum of money in the course of the next few days. I want five thousand pounds. Will you lend it me?"
Ecstein smiled at the ingenious suggestion.
"Five thousand quid's a thunderin' big lump of money," he said. "It's only people who earn it who know how difficult it is to come by. You extravagant people never realise the value of it. My dear girl, I am no bally philanthropist. Of course I am in your world, and people are always glad to see me, but there isn't one of the whole gang who wouldn't pass me to-morrow without a word, if I lost everything. I am prepared to pay for my fun, and, in one way or another, I jolly well do it. But I don't lend money in big sums unless I have good security, and even then I'm out for thunderin' big interest. Still, I will help you if I can. I'll lend you the money you want for a year at five per cent, on really good security. Further than that I am not prepared to go."
"How hard people are," Blanche Trevenner sighed. "I suppose you must have what you want? Let me tell you something in confidence. People think that this house is leased by me from an American millionaire, and I let them think so, because it makes my position safe. As a matter of fact the house belongs to me wholly, and I'll mortgage it to you if you'll let me have the money to-morrow."
Ecstein laughed as he flicked the ash from his cigarette.
"Nothin' doin'," he said coolly. "I was in your library just now, writing a couple of telegrams, and I ran across a very old friend there. As a matter of fact, I got him his job in the sheriff's office. I have to levy a good many executions in the course of a year in swell houses, and it's my policy to do the thing with as little worry to my clients as possible. The man in yonder was at Oxford, and I used to have dealings with him at one time. I asked him who he represented, and he told me. I know Murray Ellis quite well, and he is much too cautious and astute a man to shove an execution in here without being sure of his ground. He has tumbled to your little game, my dear. He knows you can't fight him, and if you pay this money, he will be in next week for somebody else. And don't you get carrying this on with any other moneylender, because it's fraud, my child, and you'll land yourself in Bow Street before you know where you are."
Blanche Trevenner bit her lip savagely. She was not in the least ashamed that she had been found out in a deliberate attempt to obtain a large sum of money dishonestly; she was only passionately angry that an untoward fate had intervened between her and her designs. She was angry with Ecstein, too, and showed it.
"It's not the slightest use you kicking over the traces with me," he said good humouredly, "and don't forget that I have caught you out in an attempt to do me in the eye for a big sum of money which you are perfectly aware I should never have seen again. Not that I bear any malice—indeed, I am still willing to help you if I can. Now, have you got anything else to offer?"
"Oh, what can I offer?"' the woman asked bitterly. "Would you have me raise a loan on the security of my diamonds?"
"No, I wouldn't," Ecstein said dryly. "Dear lady, you have nothing to offer but paste. Ah, naughty, naughty! It is quite shocking to hear you use such language. What innocents you women of the world are! Why, if we took everything we met for granted, we Israelites would be all ruined. We appear to be rivals in trade, and indeed we are. But we have a fine system of intercommunication, and there isn't a well-bred wrong'un on the Continent of Europe whose social history is unknown to us. I meet men every day who patronise me and treat me like dirt, little knowing that I could ruin them in five minutes if I wanted to. And this is how I come to know that your diamonds are all paste. Give me five minutes on the telephone and I can tell you where they are all pledged. But you've got one good set left, haven't you? You were wearing a diamond ornament at the theatre the other night which I feel quite sure is genuine. I'd willingly let you have the money on that."
Blanche Trevenner shook her head resolutely. She knew perfectly well that Ecstein was talking of the gems that she had stolen from Audrey Blair. And nothing would induce her to part with these. She was reckless and extravagant to a degree; she was heedless of the morrow, but there were moments when the future frightened her, and she saw black and bitter poverty looming not too far ahead. A long illness, the loss of her voice, a change in the opinion of the fickle public, and she would be among the dingy crowd who crawl hopelessly from one agent's office to another.
But there was another stone in the sling, and this had been uppermost in her mind all the time she had been making her appeal to Ecstein. And now she hesitated no longer.
"I see I shall have to tell my secret," she said. "What if I were to prove to you that before his death the Grand Duke Oro made a will in my favour? I didn't know this till to-day, but I am sure that my information is reliable, and the document itself will be in my hands as soon as I can get it from Paris. If I showed you this, would you let me have the money?"
"Well, that's rather a difficult question," Ecstein said. "If it is a recent will, I might be disposed to consider the matter. But there are always risks of these things being upset, and you would certainly have to pay through the nose for the accommodation. I don't suppose you would mind that, especially as the Grand Duke has left you everything, as you infer. As soon as you get hold of the document, come and see me, and I'll let you know how far I am prepared to go. And now I'd better be off."
With a strange eager gleam in her eyes, Blanche Trevenner watched her visitor till he was outside the grounds. Then she turned into the road and walked rapidly in the direction of the nearest post office, where she asked for a copy of the London Directory. For some little time she searched the closely printed pages anxiously. It was quite ten minutes before she found what she wanted. Here was the name that she required—Simon Magavitch, General Dealer, Hill Lane, Balham. She committed the name and address carefully to memory, and then walked slowly back again.
"I'll go and see him to-morrow," she thought aloud. "This ought to be the best day's work that I have ever done. All I need now are courage and resolution to see the matter through."
It was a matter of no great difficulty for Clutton to see Ecstein that same evening. The financier was by way of being a society man, and was to be met at a great many well-known houses, and latterly he had contrived to find his way into an exclusive club or two. There was not much time to be lost, and it was with a feeling of satisfaction that Clutton ran his man to earth shortly after six o'clock in the card room of the Wanderers' Club. Ecstein had just cut out of a rubber of bridge and was lounging about in search of an appetiser before dinner, and apparently was quite ready to talk to anybody. He hailed Clutton good-naturedly.
"Come and have a small drink," he suggested. "I rather wanted to see you. You are the very man who can give me some information I require in regard to certain Russian concessions which have been offered me. If the things is all right, I can show you how to make a bit for yourself."
Clutton intimated that he would be only too willing to give all the information that lay in his power. It was not for him to say that he was out for information in exchange. On the face of it, what he required was a small and almost trivial thing, though it looked like leading up to great events. There was nothing marvellously clever in the way in which he was playing with Blanche Trevenner, and he was not particularly proud of his diplomacy in this direction; but the thing had to be done, so the sooner the better.
"Now what is it you want?" he asked, when at length he and Ecstein were seated in the smoking-room. "I flatter myself that I know a great deal on the subject of Russia, and I am more or less interested in Oil Concessions myself."
Ecstein stated his wants frankly enough, and Clutton was able to answer all the questions put to him to the other man's complete satisfaction. Then the conversation became more general, until Clutton steered round, discreetly, to the subject of Blanche Trevenner.
Ecstein smiled and nodded mysteriously.
It was one of his weaknesses to cultivate the pose of a man who is behind the scenes, and Clutton had noticed this failing more than once.
"Isn't there something wrong with our fair friend?" he asked, with the air of a man who sits meekly at the feet of superior knowledge. "One is bound to hear rumours. They say that, despite her abnormal salary, she never has a shilling."
"Not worth a bean, I should say," Ecstein replied. "In fact I know she isn't. Things are a long way from being right in that quarter, my boy. Didn't you spot anything this afternoon?"
"Oh, so you know all about it, then?"
Ecstein seemed disposed to fence the question. He answered it by asking another.
"Oh, well," Clutton said, "it isn't worth talking about. But I happened to see your face this afternoon when you came back from our friend's library, after sending off those telegrams, and I wondered if you had tumbled to what was going on."
"Of course I did," Ecstein said contemptuously. "But how did you manage to get to the bottom of it?"
"My dear fellow, I couldn't help it. I happened to be at Miss Trevenner's cottage some time before anybody else turned up, and I heard the whole conversation. Our friend was so angry that she didn't know what to do. She seemed to regard the intrusion in the light of an outrage, and if I hadn't been there, I am pretty sure that Blanche Trevenner would have made a fool of herself. Of course I tried to do my best in the way of a scheme to keep things quiet and throw dust in the eyes of the servants, and I rather flatter myself that my suggestion was a good one. I'm not so sure now, at any rate you seem to have seen through it quickly enough."
"I don't think I should, only I happened to be in the know," Ecstein said. "You see, the man in possession there is a very old friend of mine—in fact, I got him his job. I told Blanche Trevenner so. I thought it would make her easier in her mind."
Clutton smiled to himself. Here was the very opening that he wanted, without the necessity of leading up to it cautiously and discreetly. Ecstein seemed to have made it for him.
"Oh, then the lady discussed it with you. I wonder why she did that. I presume you offered to help her?"
"Not much," Ecstein said coolly. "We don't go out of our way to throw money into the lap of a woman who is fifty if she is a day. No, no! Blanche is too old for tears, and too much made up to touch the hard heart of the man of the world. As a matter of fact, she asked me to help her. A modest little matter of five thousand pounds. She wanted to pay out that execution, and when I asked her what security she was prepared to offer, she told me a long yarn to the effect that the cottage belonged to her, and that it had been a present from Belmont Fletcher. Of course, she didn't want anybody to know this, because it might lead to awkward questions being asked if her creditors turned nasty, and she said I could have the place if I would put up the money. I told her that there was nothing doing, and that I had had a few words with the man in the library. Between you and me she was ready enough to swindle me out of that money. I didn't quarrel with her, of course. But I warned her that, if she tried that game on with some strange money-lender, she might find herself in the dock."
"And that was the end of it?" Clutton asked.
"Oh, good Lord, no! The next game was a try over her diamonds, which, between you and me, are nothing but paste. And I had to tell her so. I offered her the money on the strength of one ornament she wears, but she wouldn't part with that. Then she told me what sounds like a fairy tale. She said that the Grand Duke Oro had left her everything, and that his will was on its way to her from Paris. What price that for a yarn?"
But Clutton appeared to be listening with almost languid indifference. Not a muscle of his face moved, his eyes seemed to be fixed on his cigarette. Yet here was the very information which he had hoped for; here, within a few hours, the seed that he had so carefully sown was actually showing above the soil.
"Oh, I don't know," he said carelessly. "There are many more unlikely things than that. The Grand Duke has no family, and he quarrelled bitterly with all his relations years ago. There is no doubt either that he was very fond of Blanche Trevenner at one time, and I don't in the least see anything far-fetched in her story. If it is a fact, then she is a lucky woman, for the Grand Duke must have left a vast sum."
"Perhaps you are right," Ecstein said, "but before I part with any of my coin I shall want something more than a mere document. Still, it may be true."
So far as Clutton was concerned there was nothing more to stay for. He had obtained the information of which he was in search, and what was more to the point, it had turned out exactly as he had hoped and expected. He drifted away apparently in an aimless fashion as some other members came into the room, and five minutes later he was making his way in the direction of Princess Zaroff's house. The time had come to strike now, and he was anxious to get going as soon as possible.
It was past working hours, and all the desks in the big library were deserted, as he entered the room. Then the door that he had closed behind him opened, and a slim, pale-faced woman entered. She was tall and dark, and carried unmistakably the hall mark of the lady's maid stamped upon her.
"Oh, I am so glad you have come, sir," she said. "I have been trying to get you on the telephone all the afternoon. I had to be discreet for fear anybody else should find out. I must tell you that the Princess has not yet returned."
"You don't mean to say that?" Clutton asked blankly.
"Indeed I do, sir I have been with her Highness for many years, as you know, and she to me has ever been one cause of anxiety. Every time she goes off on one of these mysterious excursions I wait for trouble. Oh, yes, I know her disguises are wonderful, and that she has the heart of a lion, but think of the enemies she has, all ready to do her a mischief! And here I have been waiting all day, a prey to the most dreadful anxiety."
"Oh, I can quite understand that," Clutton said. "There are few mistresses who can boast of a servant so loyal and faithful as yourself, Marie. But don't be down-hearted. Remember that this is not the first time that the Princess has been away for a night; and you look so woebegone that your face would arouse curiosity anywhere. The ordinary servants——"
"Know nothing sir. They are under the impression that their mistress is lying upstairs, prostrated by a headache the most agonising. It is assumed that I wait upon her, and that orders are given for no one else to come near. I take up tea and bread and butter and such light things; but of course I eat them myself. And now, sir, will you please tell me what is to be done?"
"For the present nothing," Clutton said. "Go about your work and keep up the polite fiction that the Princess is no better, and that she may have to remain where she is more or less indefinitely. And bring me to-day's 'Daily Record.'"
Marie vanished, and Clutton paced the library impatiently. He was a great deal more anxious than he appeared to be, for this was an unexpected development, and none the less annoying because it came just at a time when everything appeared to be going so well. During the time he had been with the Princess she had gone off on more than one of her audacious expeditions, and, occasionally had been away for a night, but never before without sending some sign or message for Clutton's guidance. He looked outwardly calm and untroubled enough as he took the newspaper from Marie's hand and proceeded to open it.
It was not till he was alone again that he turned to the agony column and ran his eye down it.
"Oh, come, this is better," he muttered to himself. "She must have been all right at three o'clock this morning, anyhow."
The agony column was made up for the most part of cleverly worded advertisements, but there was one line that fairly jumped to Clutton's eyes. It ran thus:—
"Come and fetch me at once. The Guiding Hand."
Clutton smiled as he threw the paper on the table. There was danger before him, but not so desperate as he had imagined. At any rate, it was something to look forward to.
"Very well," he muttered to himself. "I wonder if this is the beginning of the end. Whether that is so, or not, no one would be more pleased to feel sure of it than myself."
The clocks in the neighbourhood were striking eleven as Clutton pulled up before Magavitch's shop and rang the bell. He jerked it impatiently at least half a dozen times before he heard the shuffle of feet and caught the rays of a lamp under the door. Then Magavitch's yellow face peered out, and there was an uneasy smirk on his features as he recognised his visitor.
"I am honoured," he said. "I am overwhelmed at your noble lordship's condescension. It is many years since my poor shop has been honoured with a patron so distinguished."
"Oh, I know you are glad to see me," Clutton said dryly. "I know how greatly you would have been disappointed, not to say alarmed, if I had failed to turn up to-night. And now I put myself entirely in your power. Nobody knows where I am, and, if I was missed, the police would not have the slightest idea where to seek for me. Now isn't that a candid confession, Magavitch? Doesn't it make you itch to be at my throat or, which would be far more congenial to get somebody else to do the job for you?"
Magavitch stood there grinning uneasily and rubbing one skinny hand nervously on the other. There was nothing in the world he would have liked better than to have taken Clutton at his word, and many others, far more audacious and cunning than the old yellow faced scoundrel, had tried that before, and always with the same swift and tragic result.
"It pleases your honourable lordship to have your little joke," Magavitch said. "And now perhaps you will tell me what it is that I may have the pleasure of doing for you?"
Clutton made no reply for the moment. He was looking around the dingy, ill-lighted shop with a certain idle curiosity. The shop itself was considerably larger than anyone would have judged from an outward glance. It was long, fairly broad, and filled with shelves piled high with all sorts of goods and merchandise, most of it in the last stages of decay. There were narrow passages between the shelves and at the far end of the shop a ladder protruded through the floor, evidently connecting a shop with the cellar beneath. Outside it was silent enough, so silent that Clutton could distinctly hear a mouse gnawing the corner of a box at his feet. With its couple of smoky oil lamps the place had a certain sinister suggestion about it such as Clutton did not fail to notice. He still stared about him with the same air of vague curiosity, he softly whistled a tune as he strolled from one shelf to another. Then, from somewhere in the distance, another whistle sounded and Clutton smiled as he turned and walked down the shop in the direction of the little glass tank which Magavitch used as an office. Though the latter had not the least idea of it, Clutton had learned a good deal in the last minute or two.
He had lost his air of easy indifference now, and it was a keen, hard face that he turned on Magavitch when once they were seated opposite one another in the little office.
"In the first place," he demanded, "where is Zara?"
"Well, I cannot tell you," Magavitch said with outspread hands. "I do not know. She came to me as I said, but it was not many minutes she remained here. She came to buy a black macintosh, and, behold I have not another one to sell."
"I suppose you couldn't tell the truth even if you were on the scaffold," Clutton said, "or perhaps it is your memory that is beginning to fail you. If so, let me refresh it. Zara came here with the intention of obtaining possession of certain papers and documents, which were stolen from the Grand Duke Oro the night that he was murdered in Lord Goring's house. Now don't interrupt me. You know perfectly well that that unfortunate man was killed for two reasons. First of all, you had strong grounds for suspecting that the Duke was about to betray you and your gang to the police. He had got everything he wanted out of you, and naturally wanted to have you all out of the way. That was one reason why he had to die. In the second place, he probably carried about with him certain incriminating documents which in the interests of you and your friends, were far better destroyed. But you didn't want to destroy them all, because some of them could be turned into a considerable sum of money. You knew that, though it is possible that your fools and confederates were ignorant of the fact. Now are you going to deny all this?"
Magavitch wriggled about in his chair. The night was none too warm, but the man's face streamed with moisture. For the best part of an hour he sat there wincing and quivering, under a merciless cross-examination that cut into him like a knife. Bit by bit and sentence by sentence Clutton extracted something like the truth. There are important points yet unsolved, but there were other methods by which they could be brought to light, and the time for that was not yet. Clutton rose from his seat, presently, and intimated that he had finished. Magavitch heaved a sigh of relief.
"I will come and see your lordship off the premises," he said. "It is only right that your humble servant——"
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Clutton said sharply. "You'll oblige me by remaining exactly where you are. I have more than suspicion that I am being watched, and therefore I prefer to leave your shop with as little ostentation as possible. In other words, I propose to sneak away."
Magavitch shrugged his shoulders. It was all the same to him—anything was all the same to him as long as this inquisitive visitor would go away and leave him in peace. He saw Clutton's form disappear beyond the radius of the smoky oil lamp! he heard the shop door open and close, whilst he sat there quivering with rage and shaking a skinny fist in the direction of the unseen foe.
"Ah, if I was the man I used to be," he muttered. "Twenty years ago he would not have dared to address me as he did tonight. I don't think he will come back, and certainly he will get nothing from Zara. Ah, he was so pleased with himself that he forgets Zara. What would he say if he knew the whole truth? He has gone now, and never more will the man trouble me."
Had he but known it, Magavitch was flattering himself. Clutton had opened the shop door and closed it, but not behind him. He had remained crouching there, secure in the knowledge that he was hidden in the black shadows, and that it was not possible for Magavitch to follow any of his movements. He was not in the least afraid of the old man; it would not have mattered very much had his ruse been discovered. At the same time concealment was a part of his settled plan, and there was a good deal to be seen under this mysterious roof before he turned his face westward again. Very quietly and cautiously he crept along the shop, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the piled-up shelves until he reached the ladder, which provided a means of descent to the cellar. Once he was down there in the basement, and concealment was no longer a necessity, he took from his pocket a small electric torch and flashed the light around. There was nothing here in the least suspicious, for the cellar was empty. In one corner was a door which led into a smaller room which might at one time have been used as a wine cellar, for it still contained a bin or two and a few dusty bottles. The keen light of the torch showed another door, which was locked on the outside, with the key still there. Very softly Clutton whistled a bar or two of a song, and almost instantly the next bar was taken up by someone on the other side of the door.
Without hesitation Clutton pushed his way on into a small room which appeared to have no window and no fireplace. There was a shabby carpet on the floor, and an arm-chair, in which a tall, gaunt woman with rugged black hair was seated. The remains of a meal were scattered about on a bare deal table, and the woman herself was casually smoking a cigarette. She smiled as Clutton entered.
"Behold, how Zara has fallen! Now, my dear Spencer, did you ever think it possible that the Princess Zaroff could reach a pitch of humiliation like this? Not that I am in the least afraid. I cannot divine what they expect to gain by an outrage like this. It looks to me like a case of willing to wound and yet afraid to strike. Oh, they're quite ready to cut my throat and bury me in some cellar, but then, you see, there is just the chance that I have left behind me certain instructions in case of accidents. What they would say and do, if they realised that both of us were here, is quite another matter. You see the danger, of course?"
"Oh, I am not blind to it," Clutton smiled. "I am exceedingly sorry now that I did not bring a weapon with me."
"I can show you how to get out of that difficulty," the Princess said. "In the drawer under the counter Magavitch has an automatic pistol with some spare clips of cartridges. I saw it last night before the other man, whoever he was, threw a sack over my head and blindfolded me. When the sack was removed I found myself in this room. No, I was not frightened. I will tell you presently how I managed to get that message to you through the 'Daily Record.' And directly I heard you whistling that tune, I knew that I was safe. Of course, you heard my reply."
"That's the reason why I'm here," Clutton said. "In the ordinary course of things we are quite safe, but those rascals might be encouraged if they knew that both of us were so near. I came to-night to have a little chat with Magavitch, and he is under the impression that I am no longer on the premises. I took advantage of the darkness of the shop to creep back and investigate, because I knew, of course, that you were somewhere near at hand. I got here easily enough, and I could just as easily get back to the shop again and borrow Magavitch's automatic, so, as there is no time like the present, I think I'll go now, that is, of course, unless you want to come along. Perhaps you prefer to get back home and leave Magavitch guessing as to how it happened."
"Oh, dear no," the Princess said coolly. "You and I'll have a great deal to do before daylight. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we are very near the end of our task. And now, go and get that pistol, and I will tell you all afterwards."
A minute later, and Clutton was in the shop again, working his way cautiously round to the back of the counter. He found the drawer, and the first thing his fingers touched inside was the automatic pistol, which he thrust in his pocket. It seemed to him that he could hear the whispering of voices in Magavitch's office. Very slowly he lifted up his head to see. In the little glass tank were two figures, and Clutton smiled as he recognised the second of them. For Magavitch's visitor was Blanche Trevenner!
Clutton crept along under the shelter of the counter. He knew perfectly well what had brought Blanche Trevenner here; indeed, he could pretty well imagine the conversation between her and Magavitch, but, seeing that he was by good fortune on the spot, he had no intention of letting this opportunity slip. For the present, at all events, the Princess would have to wait. It might be just possible to communicate with her by means of a sort of Morse code, which they had found useful on more than one occasion, and this could be conveyed by a series of taps on the floor. In the silence of the place Clutton could hear the scratching of mice and rats, and a queer, thumping noise one of the larger rodents was making, evidently in conveying some food from one place to another. In these circumstances it was possible to use the code without arousing any suspicion on Magavitch's part. Clutton judged that he must be very nearly over the cellar, and therefore his signal should be easily heard. He tapped away steadily for a few seconds, and then stopped. His strained ears caught the sound of a chair being dragged over the floor below, so he knew that he had been understood. There was nothing for it now but to get as near the glass tank as possible and listen to what was going on inside.
Blanche Trevenner was seated by the office table, with Magavitch opposite her. The latter's face was keen and eager, and his manner subtle, yet subservient, as usual.
"I remember, madam, perfectly well," he was saying. "It was in Paris, three years ago. I had the honour, at that time, of being in the service of His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke. It was my privilege to enjoy my master's full confidence."
"Yes, I know all about that," Blanche Trevenner said impatiently. "The Grand Duke was always doing something foolish, and, at that time, he was in great danger. He was suspected and mistrusted both by the Russian police and the revolutionary party, which he was supposed to favour, and, as a matter of fact, he was loyal to neither. You know that as well as I do, Magavitch."
The old man smiled in non-committal fashion.
"The Grand Duke was always eccentric," he said. "A man of great genius, madam, if he had only done one thing at a time. And now will you tell me what I have done to deserve the honour of your distinguished presence. If I can help you in any way——"
"You can. Now you know perfectly well that the Grand Duke was murdered by a gang of his political enemies. I have no doubt that if you liked you could tell me exactly how the crime was committed, and by whom. I should not be surprised to find that you had a hand in the crime yourself."
"But, madam," Magavitch, protested, "you wound me. I was a servant, the most loyal and devoted——"
"You were nothing of the kind. You are a cold-blooded old scoundrel who has always played for his own hand. You cared nothing for your friends, once they had served your purpose. Do you suppose that the Grand Duke didn't know that? He only kept you on because you were useful to him, and there was no one who could take your place. But I am wasting your time and mine. I found you out and came here this evening because I remembered a certain gift of yours, which might be used to advantage. During the frequent absences of the Grand Duke in Paris, you conducted his correspondence. I remember that you could, on occasion, or when occasion demanded it, imitate your master's handwriting so wonderfully that even he was frequently puzzled to detect the difference. I suppose you could do the same now if it was made worth your while?"
Magavitch chuckled greasily. All his cringing, subservient manner dropped away from him, as if it had been a discarded cloak. He was no longer a servant showing his appreciation of his superiors, but a fellow-conspirator, waiting to know where he came in.
"Ho, ho!" he cried. "So we are going to be partners, madam! Share and share alike, eh? Is that what you mean?"
"Not quite," Blanche Trevenner smiled. "As usual, you get the money and someone else takes the risk. And it is the person who takes all the risk who gets the lion's share of the plunder, my good Magavitch. Let us quite understand that."
"Forgery is a nasty thing," suggested Magavitch. "It is punished with long terms of imprisonment. Still——"
"Ah, yes, I see you are quite ready; and I am prepared to pay you ten thousand pounds for your trouble."
Magavitch's eyes gleamed greedily.
"It is a great sum of money," he muttered, "and when people offer so much they expect a lot in return for it. And now will you tell me what it is that you want?"
"I want you to draw up a document which will convince anybody that it is in the handwriting of the late Grand Duke Oro. It must be complete, even to the signature. Now you know quite well that, at one time, I was very nearly becoming the Grand Duke's wife. Thousands of people know it. It was common gossip in those days. The Duke died single, and I don't think that he ever cared for any other woman but me. What are you laughing at?"
"It was the thought that just occurred to me," Magavitch said. "A mere trifle, madam, but sufficiently amusing. Still, so far as the world goes, my late Master's affections were centred upon you, madam. There was a time when he told me that some day you would have all that he possessed. And now you want it?"
"That's exactly what I am here for," Blanche Trevenner said. "Many times the Grand Duke told me that he was about to make a will in my favour. Whether or not that will is in existence does not matter. We have to bring it into existence."
Magavitch drummed softly on the table with his lean fingers. The keen, greasy light was in his eyes again.
"There is no occasion for madam to say another word," he whispered. "We are here alone together in this old house, and there is no one likely to overhear us. I am to forge a will, leaving you everything that the Grand Duke possessed, and, if the fraud is successful, you pay me the sum of ten thousand pounds. On the whole it is a generous offer, seeing that I have not much to do, and that there is no risk to me in the least. I hand the document over to you and you do the rest. It need be only a few lines and the date about the time when the Grand Duke and yourself were in Paris. Could anything be more simple?"
"Ah, that's just what I thought," Blanche Trevenner said. "When can you let me have it? To-morrow?"
Magavitch smiled at the eagerness of the question.
"That is impossible!" he exclaimed. "That document must be a work of art, and works of art are not finished in a day. This must be complete to the last letter; it must be able to stand every test that it is put to. The ink will have to appear faded. It must be written with the right pen, and, moreover, on the right paper. To my mind, this is the most important feature of the whole lot. It is fortunate, my dear madam, that I have on the premises a quantity of the special notepaper the Grand Duke was partial to during the time that he rented that villa in Paris. The address is embossed on the stationery."
"Then the plan must succeed!" Blanche Trevenner cried.
"Softly, softly, dear madam. So far everything is well with an outlook the most promising. But there is one great difficulty which will ask for all our skill and knowledge. Did you ever see a will?"
Blanche Trevenner could not say that she had. She knew that such a document could be made exceedingly simple, and that many notable testaments had been drawn up within the four corners of a half-sheet of notepaper. This being so, where was the difficulty?
"It is a matter of witnesses," Magavitch explained. "No will is legal unless it is attested by two witnesses. And they must be both together when the will is signed, and they must both witness it on the spot. Now, unless you are prepared to buy your witnesses, I cannot see what is to be done."
Blanche Trevenner was staggered, just for a moment. It was as if she had been running joyously and eagerly towards some promised pleasure only to find herself in violent collision with a stone wall. She looked blankly into the yellow face opposite.
"I did not know this," she said. "It is certainly very awkward. Now what do you suggest?"
"That you buy your witnesses. It is the only way."
"Oh, I am quite prepared to do that. But where are they to come from? I cannot think of anybody."
"Madam," Magavitch said dryly, "I will make a bargain with you. We will put down our witnesses at ten thousand pounds each. I will provide one who is dead. There was Count Artim, for instance, who, in those days, was a bosom friend of the Grad Duke. He died mysteriously, as you will remember. But I have somewhere original letters of his, and the imitation of his signature will be no great matter. As I supply this witness, I am entitled to the money he would otherwise receive. Is madam agreeable?"
"Oh, yes, yes!" Blanche Trevenner cried eagerly. "It is an excellent idea of yours, and you are entitled to all the credit of it. And now about the other witness of the document?"
"He sits opposite to you at the present moment," Magavitch said drily. "Behold, I am the other witness to the will. This settles the difficulty, but, as I come now into the danger zone, I think I am entitled to the thirty thousand pounds which I have asked for. The will shall be ready for you the day after to-morrow. But I would suggest, madam, that you do not produce it yourself. Let it appear to be found, quite by accident, in the Grand Duke's flat in Paris, by someone who can post it to you. It makes the thing look so much more genuine. If you leave this little business in my hands, I will see that it is carried out in an artistic manner."
Blanche Trevenner nodded her approval. She would have liked to have had this matter settled at once; but, as long as the ingenious forgery was in her hands within the next eight days, she would be able to save the cottage at Maidenhead from her creditors.
"Very well," she said. "I can see that it will be better to leave the matter entirely in your hands. But let me impress upon you that I must obtain possession of the document within five days."
"And within five days you shall have it, madam."
"Ah, that takes a great deal of weight off my mind," the actress said as she rose from her seat. "I don't think there is anything more to be said or done tonight. Can you think of anything, Magavitch? We must not leave anything to chance."
"There is one most important thing," Magavitch said.
"And what is this new trouble?" Blanche Trevenner demanded.
"This is what you call a story," Magavitch observed with a leer. "On racecourses they speak of it as telling the tale. Does madam imagine for a moment that the Grand Duke's relatives will permit her to take his vast properties without, at least, a protest? Ah, it is all very well for them to turn their back upon him when he is alive; but dead, that is a different matter. You come forward and claim the property, and they ask you all kinds of subtle questions. They will also ask me all sorts of subtle questions, and if we do not tell the same tale, then, assuredly, there will be trouble. Out narrative must be as simple as possible. We fix a day on which the will was made and signed, and that day, of course, we put in as the date. Now let us choose a date when something out of the common happened. Let me call to your mind the night, in Paris, when an attempt was made on the life of the Grand Duke, outside the stage door of the Odeon Theatre, where he was waiting for you, in company with Count Artim. Afterwards you all supped together at the Grand Duke's villa, which I remember perfectly well, as I came in during supper with some letters for my master to sign. He kept me there and gave me a glass of champagne, because he had just scribbled out his will, and I and the Count witnessed it. Now, what think you of that? It is a neat and convincing story. The Duke was afraid lest he might die before he had provided for the woman whom he loved, and, behold, the will is accounted for!"
"Excellent!" Blanche Trevenner cried. "Nothing could be better. Is there anything else you can think of, Magavitch? Is there any other hint you can give me? You will quite see how important it is that I should not come here again, unless it is absolutely necessary, and that the less I see of you the better, so far as our scheme is concerned. Otherwise I will go."
Magavitch was of the opinion that there was nothing else outstanding. He escorted his visitor to the door of the shop, and bowed her politely out. Then he came slowly up the floor again, chuckling to himself as he shuffled along. He seated himself in his office and proceeded to light something rank and strong in the way of a cigar. He had scarcely inhaled the first mouthful of smoke before the shop bell rang again, and, with an oath, he went to answer it. Apparently there was more than one newcomer, for Clutton could hear the sound of more or less excited voices, speaking the Russian language. Then he saw that there were three men altogether, and his heart beat a little faster, as he recognised those dark and sinister faces. He was well aware that, if his presence there was discovered, it would only be a few minutes before life was at an end.
"And what does all this mean?" Magavitch demanded. "Why do you come here so late, and make this infernal noise?"
"We have news, my friend," a black-bearded man, who appeared to be the leader of the three, exclaimed. "A little bird tells us that Mr. Clutton has been seen in these parts. It is even whispered that he visited you not so long ago."
"Well, what of it?" Magavitch asked uneasily. "I tell you my methods are not yours. When I was young and my blood ran hot it was another matter. Now I am old and cautious, so I take a different view. Are you not satisfied, Polski? Are not the three of you satisfied? Between you, you did the Grand Duke to death—you struck a blow for liberty—it was an act to strike terror in the hearts of all our foes. You were so sure of your ground that you could actually publish the news of the crime before it was committed."
"You did that, Magavitch," Polski sneered.
"I was able to help you there, yes," Magavitch said coolly. "When will you learn that I am the heart and brains of this organisation of ours, and why should you go out of your way to look for danger by stirring up the anger of Sir Clutton? Have we ever been able to touch him? Have we ever been able to injure a hair of the head of the woman who calls herself Princess Zaroff? For how many years now has Zara eluded us?"
"We thought she was dead," Polski growled; "but we know better now. Since she is safe in your hands, we will see that she does not escape again. And we want to lay hands on this Clutton. Do you know where he is to be found?"
"He left me a good hour ago," Magavitch said. "By this time, doubtless, he is back in his own house again. And as to Zara, if you think to murder her here in cold blood——"
"Oh, she will keep a day or two," Polski interrupted. "It will do her good to be alone for a time, wondering from hour to hour what her fate is going to be. Presently, I will have a few words with her. Meanwhile, give me those new cartridges. But, if you will tell me where they are, I will get them for myself."
Magavitch indicated one of the topmost shelves.
"They are there in the brown paper parcel," he said. "You will need a ladder to get them. Just behind you there is one, by which I go up and down to the cellar in which Zara is a prisoner."
It was with some difficulty that Clutton repressed an exclamation. Here was an unexpected difficulty, which gave promise of danger. Unless Polski replaced the ladder, how would it be possible to get in contact with the Princess Zaroff again? It was an anxious moment as the ladder was dragged up from the cellar and placed against the wall. The brown paper parcel was transferred to Polski's pocket, but he made no effort to take the ladder back to the place from whence he had borrowed it. He was talking to Magavitch now on quite indifferent topics, discussing some rascality which conveyed little or nothing to the anxious listener.
"But we might talk all night," Polski said. "I am bitterly disappointed to find that we are here too late to lay hands on Clutton. I need something to take the taste of the disappointment out of my mouth. Magavitch here has some excellent brandy, my friends, and he will give to us each all that we require. Lead the way to your sitting-room, comrade, and fill us up with your good liquor."
Here is a chance, Clutton thought. Once these men had left the shop it would be an easy matter to make use of the ladder again, and chance it as to whether these ruffians would notice that the means of reaching the cellar had been replaced. But Magavitch's next word dispelled the hope entirely. He evidently had no intention of entertaining these scoundrels in his own sitting-room. He produced a bottle of brandy and glasses, and invited the others to sit down and drink with him in the office. There was no other course than to devise some other means of reaching the cellar without risk of life or limb. Clutton crawled cautiously across the floor and presently saw the solution of the trouble close to his hand. There were scores of bundles of second-hand clothing on the shelves, and he dropped a pile of these down into the darkness of the vault. He flashed a ray of light from his torch, and could see it was quite safe to drop. He lowered himself noiselessly, and a moment later was with the Princess again.
"Well, is there any news?" she asked eagerly.
"News!" Clutton echoed. "Dear lady, they're actually making history upstairs. First of all, let me tell you that we have Blanche Trevenner in our power. My little scheme has worked out beautifully. We shall only have to ask for the Grand Duke's diamonds, and they will be handed over to us without a word. Then Audrey Blair will be free and our young friend Kelso happy. For over half an hour I listened to the plot hatched between Blanche and Magavitch, by means of which they expect to get possession of the Grand Duke's fortune. Magavitch is to forge a will—oh, well, it's a long story, and I will tell you some other time. No sooner had Blanche Trevenner gone on her way rejoicing than Polski and his two satellites came in. We have been right in our contention from the very start, namely, that the murder in Lord Goring's house was committed by Polski and his confederates. I heard the thing openly discussed. Of course, it was Magavitch who sent the story to the Evening Herald in Pascoe's name. Exactly how the murder was committed I cannot tell you. Still, we have only to give information to the police now and the criminals will be arrested."
"No hurry," the Princess said. "I should like to finish this little story off artistically, but I have changed my mind. After what I have told you, I don't think there is any occasion for me to stay here any longer."
"I'm afraid there is," Clutton said grimly. "They have taken away the ladder leading to the cellar and, what is more, Polski has announced his intention of coming here presently and having a few words with you. I wonder what he would say if he knew that Zara and the Princess Zaroff were one and the same?"
"That sounds ominous," the Princess murmured. "It looks as if we were in for trouble. I hope you found that weapon."
Clutton tapped his pocket significantly. He was quite prepared to fight if necessary, but not as long as it was possible to find some way out of the difficulty. With his torch in his hand he surveyed the damp walls critically, with a view to finding some exit which he had previously overlooked. Then a portion of the brickwork seemed to give way, and in the opening stood a white-faced girl, trembling and shaking from head to foot as if she had come far and fast. An exclamation broke from Clutton's lips.
"Polly Elkin!" he whispered. "In the name of all that is mysterious, how on earth did you manage to get here?"
"Oh, don't stop to ask questions," Polly said breathlessly. "It is only the last half-hour I have been learning things. I have lived in this tumble-down house all my life, and I know all its secrets far better than Magavitch, who is comparatively a newcomer. That is how I found my way here and how I can convey you both to a place of safety without those rascals yonder knowing how you escaped. Hitherto I have been afraid to speak. I have been afraid, for my own sake, to say nothing of my unfortunate father. But the time has come when it is not possible to suffer it any longer. There is no time to be lost. Follow me at once."
Polly led the way into a dark passage, carefully closing the concealed door behind her. Biding the Princess and Clutton to wait a moment she disappeared up a flight of stairs, and came back presently with a candle in her hand. A moment later she conducted her visitors into a large, ill-furnished, sitting-room, lighted by a dingy lamp. A man seated in an arm-chair by the table rose awkwardly and wiped a pair of blood-shot eyes.
"I never expected to see you again, madam," he said.
"Good gracious!" the Princess cried. "I deemed you dead years ago. Spencer, this is Herbert Barriscourt!"
During the last day, at any rate, Denver and Kelso had been making very little progress. Naturally enough, they could not know how matters were going as far as Clutton was concerned, and Kelso, for his part, was beginning to fret under the inaction.
"We seem to have drifted into a regular cul de sac," he said impatiently to Denver. "And I am getting tired of doing nothing. It is trying to have to sit quietly down and be told to wait. If I had my way I should insist upon Audrey Blair coming out openly and telling all she knows."
"Oh, you're getting on!" Denver laughed. "I didn't know that you had reached the stage when you could insist upon our little friend doing anything! My dear fellow, we haven't done at all badly up to now, but you lovers are so impatient. Can't you see for yourself that there are big complications behind this business? It isn't merely a matter of forcing those diamonds out of Blanche Trevenner's possession and getting that young woman of yours out of a mess. You seem to think if you can do that, that nothing else matters. I can see quite plainly what you have got at the back of your mind. Triumph over Blanche Trevenner, then a quiet marriage between Aubrey Blair and yourself, followed by long life and happiness on the family estates. Now, has it ever occurred to you to ask yourself a few questions? Who is Audrey Blair? Who is the mysterious journalist called Pascoe? And what do you make of the silent woman, who runs a theatre of her own in a tumble-down house without servants, the upkeep of which appears to depend entirely upon Pascoe's earnings? And don't forget the lady in blue."
"Oh! I admit that it is most bewildering," Kelso said. "And the lady in blue who calls herself Princess Zaroff——"
"My dear fellow, she is the Princess Zaroff. Let there be no mistake about that. We have it on no less an authority than that of Lord Goring. She is an exceedingly clever woman, and there is no one in Europe who has a greater knowledge of underground politics than herself. Do you follow me?"
"I hear what you say," Kelso replied. "But I don't see what this has to do with my side of the question."
"That is exactly what we have to find out. You don't suppose that Princess Zaroff was at that old house the other night purely by accident? Neither is it logical to suppose that she visited that music-hall place at Balham for sheer amusement. No, there are big things behind this, and we shall have to proceed cautiously. I don't mind telling you that I took the precaution of having the Princess's house watched. My latest information is to the effect that she left home last night disguised as an old woman, and that she has not yet come back. She was seen to enter a shop in a Balham slum kept by one Magavitch, and I believe she is there still. If this is a fact, then she is in considerable danger, for Magavitch is an international scoundrel of the worst type, and he is known as a dangerous criminal. Now, don't you think it would be just as well if we made use of this information? I think you told me that you intended to go down to Balham this afternoon on the off-chance of seeing Miss Audrey Blair. I strongly advise you, if you get an opportunity, to mention what I have just said."
Kelso expressed himself as quite willing to do so, not that he attached much importance to the information. He wanted to see Audrey, he wanted to hear from her own lips that she was not unhappy, and he wandered about restlessly till the time came when he could proceed as far as Balham. It was about three o'clock when he turned into Rosemead Avenue, and there was not a soul in sight as he proceeded down the narrow path which led past the old lodge and into the spacious grounds around Barris Court. The spot was so solitary and wild and desolate, even in the sun's light, that it was hard to believe that the place was practically a part of London itself. From this point not a single house could be seen, the paths were weed-grown and moss-strewn, and the way which Audrey had indicated through the bushes was hardly wide enough to permit of progress. Here was a little glade in the centre of a clump of beech-trees, and by the side of them a little summer-house. Apparently, nobody had been there for years, for the rustic seats were decaying and covered with mould, so that it was necessary to brush them down with a handful of bracken before they were fit to use.
Here Kelso sat for the best part of an hour, impatiently smoking cigarettes. He was beginning to feel that he was having his trouble for his pains, and he was half inclined to go up to the house to make inquiries, when a light shadow crossed the path and Audrey stood before him. He saw the sweet surprise in her eyes and the loving welcome shining in their violet depths. She came towards him with hands outstretched, but he did not seem to see them, and took her in his arms instead. She lay there for a moment with her head upon his breast, happy in the knowledge that his lips were on hers, and that here was someone who in future would protect her against all the troubles of life and trust her implicitly to the end of the world. Just for that moment Audrey forgot everything else.
"I thought you would come," she whispered presently. "I have been telling myself so all the morning, and yet I was almost afraid to come out, fearing I should be disappointed. I told myself that I would stay in the house. But something inside was too strong for me, and here I am. I hope there is nothing wrong."
"Why should there be, dearest?" Kelso asked. "And why does anything matter so long as we are together?"
She laid her hands on his shoulders, and looked up into his face.
"It is all so very wonderful," she said, "it is so amazing that I cannot believe that it is true. A few days ago I was a little struggling actress, working hard for my living and striving to keep a most unhappy household together. And then, by my own folly, I became a thief and an outcast."
"You are nothing of the kind," Kelso smiled. "Foolish perhaps, but nothing more. You have brooded upon this unhappy business until it has got on your nerves. But, believe me, your troubles are nearly at an end. It will not be long before that wretched woman is forced to disgorge the spoil, and then what stands between you and me?"
"Ah, I wish that was all!" Audrey cried. "All my lifetime I have been living in the heart of a dreadful mystery. Ever since I can remember it has been one long struggle to conceal certain secrets from the world, and yet it has been no fault of mine. I have suffered because I am the child of my parents, and because their disgrace and shame are mine. When I tell you everything——"
"But I don't want to know it," Kelso protested. "What possible difference could it make? You are yourself, and there is an end of it. Why should your bright young life be spoiled because disgrace attached to those who came before you? And who could look into those blue eyes of yours and dare to suggest that you are anything but good and pure? Audrey, I care nothing for your parents. If they were both steeped to the lips in crime I should want you just the same. And, if you like, the subject shall never be mentioned between us in future. You shall tell me nothing, not even where you came from, or what is your connection with that gloomy and depressing old house yonder. Now, is that a bargain?"
Audrey shook her head sorrowfully.
"I'm afraid not," she said. "The time is coming now when everybody must know the truth. The old scandal will be revived, and the world will hear that Audrey Blair—oh, I do not want to speak of it! I wonder if you have any idea of the real name of the man who calls himself Pascoe. It must have occurred to you that a journalist with so deep a knowledge of foreign politics must be somebody out of the common. Further, Barris Court is not the kind of place where you expect to find princesses making midnight calls, and, again, you and other people attach a great deal of importance to a letter which I had from the Grand Duke Oro on the night when I left the Sovereign Theatre. Now I am going to tell you what that letter contained. You may be surprised to know that I know the Grand Duke fairly well. He has been in this house many times. It so happened that he was in the theatre the night I was wearing that wretched ornament, and it so happened that he had afterwards seen it in Blanche Trevenner's possession."
"Then why didn't he go to her and ask for it?" Kelso exclaimed. "They were supposed to be the best of friends—indeed, at one time, more than friends. And yet she didn't even know that he was in London. She was quite surprised to hear it."
"The Grand Duke was a law unto himself," Audrey said. "He never did anything like other persons. He was a hateful, horrid man. But I am wandering away from the point. He wrote me a half-friendly, half-threatening, sneering letter, and told me that he was coming round to have a talk after the performance. And I could not stand it any longer. I felt then my mind was giving way. The idea of appearing on the stage as if nothing had happened filled me with horror, and so I vanished."
"But how did you manage it?" Kelso asked. "The whole thing is so mysterious. According to the statement of the stage doorkeeper, nobody came in or went out, and yet you must have left the theatre in your stage attire. How did you do it?"
"My dear Rupert," Audrey smiled. "I did not leave the theatre at all. I was so beside myself with fright that I hardly knew what I was doing. I ran headlong down one of the passages without meeting anyone till I came to a flight of steps leading into some vaults under the theatre, and there I hid myself amongst a lot of old dresses which had been discarded after the run of some previous piece. Nobody thought of looking for me there and I remained hidden till daylight. There was only the caretaker on the premises, so it was easy to elude him and get back into my dressing-room, where I had a second change of clothing. I made myself up slightly, and at seven o'clock in the morning I was on a Balham tram without anybody having the slightest idea who I was. I sat there and listened whilst half a dozen people were eagerly discussing the amazing disappearance of the actress, Audrey Blair. If I had not been so utterly miserable, it would have been quite amusing. I don't think there is any more to tell you. It is a very shameful confession, but if you can forgive it——"
"There's nothing to forgive," Kelso said tenderly. "I am only thinking how much you must have suffered. And here I am quite forgetting one of the main objects of my visit here. I really came to talk about the Princess Zaroff."
A look of alarm spread over Audrey's face.
"I hope nothing has happened to her," she said anxiously. "She is so wonderfully daring and audacious that one never knows what she is going to do next."
"I take it from your manner of speaking that she is a friend of yours?" Kelso said. "Is that really a fact, Audrey?"
"She is more than a friend," Audrey said, "she is a relation. Oh, I dare say the information astonishes you, but you will be far more astonished still when you know everything. But what you say makes me feel very anxious. It would be a great grief to me if anything happened to the Princess; so, if you please, we will forget our own selfish interests and you will tell me what the trouble is. Has anything happened to my—the Princess?"
"Well, I can't go quite so far as to say that," Kelso explained. "You know that Denver and myself have been working very hard to recover the Grand Duke's jewels. In the course of our investigation we have found out a great deal. To begin with, we could tell a story in regard to the murder of the Grand Duke; indeed, for some little time we felt quite sure that the Princess Zaroff had a prominent hand in the crime."
"Oh—ridiculous!" Audrey murmured. "Out of the question!"
"Don't be angry with me," Kelso said. "If you had been in our place you would have thought the same thing. But, however, we know better now, though, mind you, we have not relaxed our watch on the Princess for a moment. And now Denver tells me that the Princess left home last night in disguise and that she has not yet returned. He told me another thing, too. The Princess had been entertaining at supper a minor member of the Sovereign Theatre Company whose name is Polly Elkin. You know her, of course."
A queer smile trembled in the corners of Audrey's lips.
"The world is getting smaller," she said. "Strange how our lives are woven one with the other! But I wonder what Polly would say if she knew the truth. And I wonder what the Princess would say if she was aware of the identity of the little chorus girl whom she has taken up. Perhaps she does know—she is a wonderful woman—and her knowledge of things is vast. But here am I once more wandering from the point. I understood you to say that the Princess had left her house in disguise late last night——"
"Yes, and she has not yet returned. At any rate, there was no sign of her at lunch time. She sent Polly Elkin home in a car and followed her a little later on in a taxi. She was last seen to enter a shop in a low part of Balham. By the way, over this shop Polly Elkin lives with her father and a brother, who is at home at such times as he is not in trouble. The shop on the ground floor is kept by the man Magavitch, and we know that the Princess visited him last night. We know also that she has not left the premises, unless there is some exit which we have overlooked. Denver and I thought you ought to know this without delay."
"Oh, indeed, you are right!" Audrey cried. "It looks as if you have done us a service which we can never repay. But for the moment it is absolutely necessary to wait. There are the most urgent reasons why we cannot take the police into our confidence, so you see that nothing can be done without actual violence—I mean unless you are prepared to go to Magavitch with a revolver in your hand and threaten him if he does not tell you what has happened. In a way you are more or less powerless. I don't suppose that any real harm has come to the Princess, because it would pay Magavitch and those other scoundrels a great deal better to keep her a prisoner. But tonight I can find out everything for certain. It will not be much before midnight. Now will you come back again at twelve o'clock together with Mr. Denver, and see that you are well armed? There may be danger; but on the other hand, possibly I can do all that I want without violence. Oh, you need not be afraid so far as I am concerned I shall be safe enough."
Kelso demurred at this arrangement. The suggestion that Audrey might possibly find herself in danger disturbed him greatly. But Audrey turned a deaf ear to his protests. She looked slight, and frail, and yielding, but there was a certain determination about her which showed Kelso that she was not to be turned from her purpose.
"You are to go away now," she said, with a pretty air of command. "You are to go and leave me, and come back at the appointed time. I hope that you are trusting me——"
"Ah, you are a very woman!" Kelso smiled. "You know how to touch a man in his weak spot, and when you smile like that I cannot resist you. But if you don't know that I trusted you implicitly, then my afternoon has been thoroughly wasted."
She laid her hands upon his shoulders and kissed him on the lips, and without waiting for another word, turned and ran lightly in the direction of the house. She spent the rest of the day in the seclusion of her room; she did not even come down to join the dreary evening meal. The few dim lights that usually burned in the house were all extinguished, and the place was wrapped in darkness when she crept down into the hall and noiselessly opened the front door. She was plainly dressed in a shabby black skirt, and over her head was a dingy shawl. As she emerged into the lighted avenue she looked exactly like some factory girl or laundry hand out on a late errand. She made her way rapidly along till she reached the mean streets, and finally turned into the road in which Magavitch's shop was situated. The place was quiet enough now, and she had it practically to herself. She stood patiently waiting in the shadow of a doorway whilst the minutes crept on, and presently her vigil was rewarded. Coming rapidly down the street was Polly Elkin. She hesitated just for a moment, before opening a side door, and as she stood there Audrey darted across the road.
"I want to speak to you," she whispered. "I want you to appear as if you know me, as if we were acquaintances stopping for a chat. So do not cry out when you see my face."
She drew the dingy shawl aside so that her features were plain for the astonished Polly to see. She started violently, and there was a look of pleasure in her eyes, but no cry broke from her lips.
"Miss Audrey Blair!" she whispered. "Oh, if you only knew how glad I am to see you! I have not been able to sleep for thinking about it. I hope there is nothing wrong. I hope you are not in need of anything. But you are so shabby, if you will forgive me saying so, that I begin to fear——"
"Oh, I am not in want, if that's what you mean," Audrey smiled. "This is part of my disguise. Everything is coming right presently, but in the meantime there is much to do, and you can help me."
"Help you!" Polly cried. "I will do so with pleasure."
"I was quite sure you would, Polly. Now, I know a great deal more about you than you imagine. I know of your father and your brother, and how you have lived here for years, long before this street was the slum it is to-day. The house is an old one, and at one time stood by itself. It was quite a nice place in those days, and one of the Barriscourt's usually lived here. I suppose you know it from floor to garret. I suppose if Magavitch had anybody hidden there you would be able to find the truth?"
"Indeed I would!" Polly said. "There is only one hiding-place that I know of. It has two doors, and the secret of it is only known to my brother and myself. We found it out years ago when we were children, and it flattered our childish vanity to feel that we knew something that the grown-ups had never dreamt of."
"This is far better than I expected," Audrey whispered. "Do I understand that if Magavitch had somebody imprisoned in the place you speak of, you could release them without him being say the wiser?"
"Indeed I could. But why do you ask?"
"Because Magavitch has such a prisoner," Audrey said in the same intense whisper. "And the prisoner in question is no less a person than the Princess Zaroff. You know her. She took you to her house to supper last night and sent you home in one of her cars. For some reason which I have not yet fathomed, she disguised herself and followed you down here. I presume she wanted to know where Magavitch lived without anyone else being aware of the fact. At any rate, she called upon him last night at a late hour, and I have every reason to believe that she has been detained within a few yards from where we stand. And now, will you help me?"
"This is amazing," Polly answered. "First of all you come from out of the clouds and then you tell me that the Princess Zaroff is actually a prisoner under our own roof. But what is the Princess Zaroff to you that you should run all this risk—and there is a risk—on this lady's behalf?"
"You'll have to know sooner or later," Audrey said, "so I might us well tell you now. Before she was married and before she went on the stage, her name was Laura Barriscourt."
Polly could not repress a cry now, it broke involuntary from her lips. It was only for a moment, then she controlled herself; but her face was pale and her eyes troubled and uneasy.
"I am beginning to understand things," the girl replied. "Am I to take it that you are also a Barriscourt?"
"I am the daughter of the head of the house," Audrey said quietly. "And now you know the tie that binds us together. I will tell you presently why it has not been possible for us to come together, before, and how strangely I felt when I met you for the first time at the Sovereign Theatre. But this is not the time or place to talk of these things. If you will help me now, if you will be brave and courageous, we will save the fortunes of the old house yet. I am coming with you, I am coming into the house, and you must hide me somewhere till you can assure me that the Princess has made her escape in safety. Take her into your sitting-room, make her acquainted with your father."
"Is that really necessary?" Polly faltered.
"I am certain of it," Audrey said. "Oh! if it had not been for our miserable pride and self-consciousness, how much bitter trouble might have been saved! And why should our lives be blighted because those before us stooped to dishonour? Now will you please lead the way into the house and find me some dark corner to hide in until you have released the Princess?"
Polly made no further protest. She led Audrey up the stairs and, bidding her wait on the landing, vanished. It seemed some time, but it was not more than five minutes before she was back again with the Princess and Clutton. Audrey drew a breath of deep relief.
The man in the armchair looked up without saying a word. He seemed to be half-dazed like one utterly worn out who is aroused from a deep sleep. He was trying to collect himself and struggling slowly back to the realities of life. He saw the Princess dimly without catching more than a mere suggestion of her individuality. He saw his daughter and Audrey Blair standing side by side, and even he was not blind to the resemblance between them. Their colouring was different and Audrey's features lacked the suggestion of hardness and care which spoilt Polly's more simple beauty. But she was excited now, and a little colour had crept into her face. The colour deepened as she noticed that Clutton's eyes were turned upon her with a little more than friendly admiration.
For some time no one spoke. There were a good many mixed emotions penned up in that mean, ill-furnished room, and nobody seemed inclined to start a conversation. After all it was the man in the armchair who first broke the silence.
"I never expected to see you again, Laura," he said. "I thought that you had passed into a world which was beyond me altogether. Of course, I knew what you were doing, but I thought it best and kindest to leave it to yourself. You can see what I have come to, and how far I have fallen. Many a time I have been tempted to write to you for assistance, but something that I call my pride has prevented me."
"Then there is nothing left out of it all?" the Princess asked.
"You forget that I can touch nothing that apparently belongs to me," the man in the armchair said. "I have only a life interest in the property. And all these years those scoundrels have taken my income, and have hardly left me enough to keep body and soul together. They are here under the same roof—Magavitch and Polski and the rest of them. What would they say if they knew that you were in this room? And why do you come here in this disguise? It is only by your voice that I recognised you. Apparently, those men have never troubled you? Why is it?"
"On the contrary," the Princess smiled. "It is I who have been a trouble to them. There are two persons of whom they stand in deadly fear—the Princess Zaroff and a mysterious woman called Zara. They meet Zara everywhere; she checkmates their plans, she has sent a dozen of them to exile. And it has never occurred to any of them that the Princess Zaroff and Zara are one and the same. Now perhaps you begin to understand why I am here this evening. In my disguise I came here to see Magavitch, and he and his friends dared to lay violent hands upon me. Of course I knew that my life was not in danger, for Zara dead to them is still more dangerous than Zara living. And there was just the chance they could force me to tell them secrets, for which even that old miser Magavitch would sacrifice half his fortune."
"But how did you escape?" the man in the chair asked. "And how did you know that you could find me here?"
"Perhaps I had better explain," Audrey interrupted. "I am more or less responsible for all this. But it seems to me that if we start explaining we can go on all night. Now let me say who I am in the first place. It is only the Princess here who knows. On the stage I call myself Audrey Blair, but really I am Audrey Barriscourt, the daughter of Gordon Barriscourt, the head of the family, who was supposed to have died mysteriously on the continent some years ago. To-day he prefers to call himself Pascoe, and is known better as a journalist than anything else. All of you here, possibly with the exception of Mr. Clutton know the reason for this concealment. When my father goes about he disguises himself in a red wig and spectacles and calls himself by yet another name. It seems to me that years ago it would have been far better to have spoken openly of the family disgrace and accepted such punishment as generally follows a trouble like ours. This concealment bears hardly upon me and, also, upon my cousin here."
"You children don't understand," Herbert Barriscourt said.
"I am not a child," Audrey exclaimed passionately. "I don't believe I ever was one. And the same remark applies to Polly. Did anybody ever know two girls who from no fault of their own had such a dreary childhood as ours, and all because of that absurd family pride? Here you are Uncle Herbert living within a mile of my father, and he close to you, and you both pretending to be ignorant of the other's existence. All this I found out purely by accident. I was sworn to secrecy, and, sorely against my will, I have always kept my word. But fortunately for all of us circumstances have proved too strong. It was only pure chance that I found myself working in the same theatre as Polly. The first time we met I felt inclined to take her into my confidence, but I remembered my promise and refrained. I don't suppose I should have been here now but for the accident of fortune. Of course I have known for years that the Princess was my aunt and when I heard to-day that she was in danger under this very roof, I felt bound to act. I came here this evening and waylaid Polly as she was entering the house. I guessed that the old place would have no secrets from her, and I was right. How right I was the Princess and Mr. Clutton will tell you. Uncle, Uncle Herbert it is useless for you to hide yourself here any longer. You must come with me—you must all come with me at once to Barris Court and thrash this matter out."
"I am an old man," Herbert Barriscourt protested. "I am worn and broken and I want no more than peace and quietness. My child, you have no conception of what I have gone through the last twenty years, for the sake of the old name."
He spoke imploringly, but Audrey was not to be moved. She had suffered too long from this family obsession to have the slightest sympathy for the man in the armchair. As she had truly said, she was no longer a child to be swayed by the whims and selfish fancies of her elders. She could see clearly enough that fate was offering her light and life and happiness, if she only had the courage to hold out her hands and grasp them firmly.
"Oh, I have been told that till I am tired of hearing it," she said impatiently. "Ever since I was old enough to understand everything, the some policy has governed our lives and darkened all the years at Barris Court. My father takes the same view; I cannot get him to see the selfishness of it. Why is my life to be sacrificed? Why should Polly's life be sacrificed? Why should the women of the family be called upon to bear these burdens, whilst the men skulk in the background? Oh, I know that I am taking a great deal upon myself; I know that my words are bitter; but all this has been pent up in my heart for years, and the time has come when I must speak. And why? Because, in spite of everything, in spite of the disgrace and shame, I have found a good man and a gentleman who loves me, and who has asked me to be his wife. And before I do become a wife, the man I love must hear every word of this, and that is why I am asking you to come as far as Barris Court, late as it is. Mr. Kelso and a friend are waiting for us in Rosemead Avenue at the present moment. Now, come."
Herbert Barriscourt rose reluctantly from his chair. Steeped as he was in selfishness and dissipation, those burning words, hot from Audrey's heart, seemed to have shattered the armour of his selfishness and penetrated his soul.
"Very well," he said. "Give me a few minutes to change my coat and make myself respectable. If you want Polly——"
"Of course I want Polly," Audrey said. "What should we have done without her, or you either, for that matter?"
Herbert Barriscourt lounged heavily from the room, followed by his daughter. She also was desirous of making some little change in her toilette. The pinched, pale look had disappeared from her face, her eyes were bright and sparkling.
"This is altogether a remarkable evening," Clutton said. "I know Rupert Kelso quite well, Miss Blair, and you must permit me to say that I regard him as an exceedingly fortunate young man. At the same time, he is a really good fellow, and I am quite sure deserves all the happiness that comes his way. Without being the least offensive, I may tell you that I am fairly well acquainted with the troubles of the house of Barriscourt, and this I am certain of: if the men had possessed half the courage of the women there would have been no scandal, and many years of misery would have been saved."
"This is my grievance," Audrey said half tearfully. "Now take my aunt, the Princess here, for example. When the crash came she faced the world and earned her own living. True, she had an aptitude for the stage, and made a great name for herself, though only a handful of people knew her real position and story. When the time came for me to earn something, I followed her example. It was necessary that I should earn money; but though I have done fairly well, I loathe and detest the work. It will be a happy day for me when I can turn my back upon the theatre for ever."
"It won't be very long now," the Princess smiled. "I had to fling my net very wide and far, and it has taken many years to draw it in; but the circle is a narrow one now, and I can see my fish wriggling in the meshes. You are a dear girl, Audrey, and I am going to be very fond of you; but you have certainly added to my difficulties. We should have had Magavitch and the rest of them gasping on the bank some little time ago but for that little indiscretion of yours in connection with a certain diamond ornament."
Audrey coloured to the roots of her hair.
"So you know all about that, too," she stammered. "I wonder if I shall ever hear the last of it? And do you think you can force that woman to give the diamonds up again?"'
The Princess laughed as she leaned forward and patted Audrey's hot check affectionately. She had stripped off part of her disguise, and stood there smiling with the air of a woman who can see her way to victory complete and absolute.
"Ask Spencer Clutton what he thinks," she said.
"You have absolutely nothing to be afraid of," Clutton said. "It is only a question of hours before those diamonds will be in my possession. When you come to hear the whole story you will regard it as almost incredible. Do you know that your little indiscretion is an important factor in bringing about the liberation of your house from the reign of terror caused by Magavitch and his associates? You can't imagine such a thing, of course, but I assure you that it is literally true. Still, one thing at a time. And now shall we make a move in the direction of Barris Court? I flatter myself that your father will be glad to see us."
"He should have met you long ago," Audrey said.
Kelso and Denver were waiting patiently at the corner of the avenue, and the former gave a sigh of relief when he recognised Audrey and saw her face, shining and happy, in the lamplight. Despite her assurance that she would run no risks, Kelso had been full of misgivings all the evening. He knew perfectly well that Audrey was thrusting her head into a den of scoundrels, and there was no knowing what the issue might be. Now, at any rate, it looked as if she had emerged triumphant, and certainly success had crowned her efforts, for there was not only Audrey herself untouched, but the Princess Zaroff in the flesh as well.
"This looks like a family party," Denver murmured. "I wonder who the tall man in the shabby suit is? And whatever is Polly Elkin doing here? But I suppose we shall know presently."
Audrey made the necessary introductions to the slightly bewildered Denver. He was only just beginning to grasp the possibilities of a story still more exciting than the history of the stolen diamonds. Then Kelso dropped back and detained Audrey, as the others went on ahead. They could hear the Princess talking with smooth swiftness, and Clutton putting in a word every now and again. To all practical purposes Audrey and Kelso were alone in the world, for the avenue was deserted, and the others were by this time some way ahead. Kelso passed his arm round the girl's waist, and drew her close to his side. It thrilled him to see the happy look in her eyes, and the tender smile upon her lips.
"I really must kiss you, darling," he said. "I wonder if you know how divine you look? And I wonder if you can guess how anxious I have been all the evening? The danger you ran——"
"My dearest boy, I have been in no danger at all," Audrey assured him. "It was as easy as possible. When you told me where the Princess was imprisoned, I knew exactly what to do. I knew that Polly Elkin lived in the same house, and that she had lived there for years. Why, I can remember the place when it stood by itself. I waylaid Polly when she came back from the theatre, and she told me at once where the Princess could be found, and you see for yourself that she told me no more than the truth. Now we are all going to Barris Court for a thorough explanation."
"But I thought Polly was a stranger to you," Kelso said.
"Polly is not Polly Elkin at all, but Mary Barriscourt. The man by her side is her father, who is younger brother to Gordon Barriscourt, the head of the family. You know him as Pascoe."
"I shall wake up presently," Kelso said. "Go on, dear."
"Oh, I have only just begun," Audrey laughed. "What will you say when I tell you that I am not Audrey Blair; but Audrey Barriscourt, the daughter of the head of the house, and that I was born twenty-two years ago in a foreign capital, at the time when my father was British Ambassador there?"
Kelso gave a sign of astonishment.
All this was like a flood of light to him. His mind went back rapidly along the pathway of the years, and things long forgotten began to rise in dim array before him. There had been a scandal in a certain British Embassy, and the man at the head of it had been suddenly recalled. It was suggested, at the time, that he had been the victim of some malignant form of brain trouble, but people had shaken their heads when it became known that the chief attache, who was the ambassador's own brother, had been compulsorily retired at the same time. There had been no flaming scandal, and such curiosity as had been aroused had been quickly allayed; but there had been high officials and certain personages who had expressed a hope, amounting almost to a command, that neither of the Barriscourts might ever be seen in the great world again. And from that moment they had vanished from their place, and the world knew them no more.
"You are very silent," Audrey said. "I see you know more than I expected, and if you have any regrets, Rupert——"
"Only one, sweetheart," Kelso whispered. "Only one, and that is that I did not meet you before. I don't want to hear another word as regards this part of the story and I don't see that it touched you in the least. What difference does it possibly make to you and me? Of course twenty years is not a long time, as far as things go, and I daresay there are a good many people who know something of this sordid story, and who will prick up their ears when they are told that Rupert Kelso is going to marry a daughter of Gordon Barriscourt. There will be the usual paragraphs in the papers about the latest stage romance; but it will be only a nine days' wonder at the worst. And I know what my friends will say when they come to meet my dear little wife. They will say that Rupert Kelso was always a lucky beggar, and that here he is at it again. If we can only get that little matter of the diamond ornament settled——"
"Mr. Clutton told me just now that I needn't even give it another thought," Audrey said. "He is quite sure that we can have it whenever he likes to ask for it. And then——"
"Ah, and then we shall know what to do. What an extraordinary tangle it all is! At any rate it will be a positive joy to me to take you away from this gloomy old house. Why does your father remain here? It must be a terrible struggle to keep the place going. An establishment like this should command a big income."
"And we have it," Audrey said. "There is money in plenty, both as regards my father and my uncle. But, fortunately, the money came too late to save the scandal, and ever since it has been paid away in the form of blackmail to the scoundrels who had the Princess in their power this evening. I am afraid that you are going to listen to a very sordid story presently, Rupert. For there were worse things done than the mad folly which culminated in my father's dismissal from his post. Still, you know so much now that a little more or less does not matter. And as long as I am happy in your love, and know that I have your confidence——"
There was no time to say any more, for they had come up to the entrance of Barris Court by now, and Audrey bid them enter. In the big dining room they found Gordon Barriscourt writing, under a shaded lamp. There was no sign of the woman with the ivory mask, and Audrey appeared to be relieved as she saw that her father was alone. He looked up coldly from his work.
"What is the meaning of all this?" he demanded. "Herbert, is it possible that you are here? I never expected that you would show yourself in this house again. And I presume the girl with you is your daughter. There was a time when I could, at any rate, count upon my seclusion being respected, but since my sister the Princess came to London, I never know what to expect. Is that Mr. Denver I see, and Mr. Kelso? And there is another gentleman whose face is fairly familiar to me. By heaven, it's Spencer Clutton."
"The same," Clutton said quietly. "I have been looking forward for some time to the pleasure of seeing you, Mr. Barriscourt. But let me assure you that I come with the friendliest motives."
"Don't you think you had better ask all these people to sit down, Gordon?" the Princess suggested. "We are all acting in the best interest of the family. The assurance ought to soothe your pride, Gordon. If you were to give us the least assistance now, we can, once and for all, rid you of the attention of the three scoundrels who have been poisoning your life and keeping you a pauper for years. We are in a position to conclusively conclude that those men were directly responsible for the murder of the Grand Duke, and when I say that, I have said it all. In the course of a day or two they will be arrested, and, if they are not all hanged, they will, without doubt, be shut up for the future. Now, I want you to act in the interests of these young people. As you know, I never cared two straws for the family dignity, though, of course, the family honour was a different matter. When the crash came I went on the stage because it was the only way in which I could see a chance of getting a living. Besides, it helped financially. And in the course of time, I met and married my husband, and became quite a celebrity in my way. You know what Zaroff was—you knew his amazing intellect and courage, and his marvellous acquaintance with the secret history of Europe. All I know I learned from him. I learned how to intrigue and plot and defeat the schemes of our enemies. But all the time I was working to get into my power the man Magavitch and the gang under him who were blackmailing my brothers and living on their incomes. It has taken me just twenty years to bring this about. One by one, I have seen the gang die on the scaffold or in gaol, victims to Zara and her methods, and now there are only three of them left. Within a day or two they will be powerless to do further evil. When once the gaol door closes upon them you will be free, Gordon. You will have the spending of your money, you will be able to repair this old house again, and take your proper place in the world once more. But you must consider these young people. Why should they suffer for your folly and arrogance? You may be surprised to hear that Mr. Kelso proposes to marry your daughter."
"He has never consulted me?" Gordon Barriscourt observed.
"Why should he?" the Princess retorted. "What have you ever done that you should assume the rights of a father? If you had only had the courage to put your foot down, you could have stopped this blackmail long ago. But no, there would have been talk. The family dignity would have suffered afresh. Bah, just as if our honour could be more tarnished than it is! If you tell these people the truth——"
"I will do it," Herbert Barriscourt said resolutely. "Let me speak. Twenty years ago ruin and disgrace stared me in the face. I was ready to do anything to save myself from the consequences of my shame. The wild idea occurred to me to get hold of certain confidential documents, which had been sent to my brother from London, and I persuaded his wife to help me. She was little more than a child in years or knowledge of the world, and she had always liked me. It was an easy task, and within a few hours those papers were mine, and I had sold them to the enemies of my country for money enough to insure my safety. Of course I was found out, I knew from the first that discovery was inevitable. After that I dragged my brother into the same net, and Magavitch, who was then in the employment of his own Government, got on the track of the story, and we had to plunge deeper and deeper in the mire until we were face to face with, not only the scandal, but a criminal disgrace. When we came into the money, which reached us too late to save the situation, Magavitch and his gang marked us for their own. I don't say my brother was not to blame, but the real criminal stands before you. And now I should like to know what is to be gained by the disclosure of all these sordid details? And how does the murder of the Grand Duke restore the family fortunes?"
Back there in the office in Magavitch's shop the three conspirators sat over their brandy, easy in the comforting assurance that their prisoner was safe. It was a long conference, for there was much to be discussed, and quite an hour had elapsed before Polski threw out the suggestion that the moment for interviewing the woman called Zara had arrived.
"I must be in Paris to-morrow," he said, "and I have much to do before I sleep. You, Solari, will go some time to-morrow evening and see the man Pascoe, whom we know to be Gordon Barriscourt. Tell him that more money is required. Let him understand that we must have at least ten thousand pounds within a week. It is a large sum of money, especially as he gave us a cheque so recently, but those people in Paris are pressing, and it is necessary to close their mouths. If you cannot procure the money we must get Magavitch to let us have an advance."
"Impossible!" Magavitch exclaimed. "Where did you get your idea from; why will you always regard me as a man of wealth? I tell you I have nothing. Bah! Would a man who could afford a decent house live in a rat-hole such as this? I have been unfortunate in my speculations, and at the present moment I could not find as much as fifty pounds."
"Lies, all lies!" Polski growled. "We know that you have been making money for years, and some day you will be called to account for it. If you were a patriot——"
"Who speaks of patriots?" Magavitch sneered. "Is there one of us who has ever given a thought to anybody but himself? And if it comes to a matter of mere money——"
"Oh, stop your squabbling!" Solari interrupted. "Drop all this quarrelling and let's get to business. Produce the woman Zara and let us see if we can use her for our purpose. Now, Magavitch, conduct us to her hiding-place without further talk."
Taking one of the smoky lamps in his hand, Magavitch crossed the floor of the shop in the direction of the cellar. He signalled to Polski to bring the ladder, and together they descended to the basement. Magavitch muttered uneasily to himself as they looked around and noticed the bundles of clothing which littered the floor. Certainly they had not been there an hour or two ago, and Magavitch was utterly at a loss to account for their presence now. He stood mumbling and whispering to himself till Polski, losing all patience, grabbed his shoulder and shook him violently.
"What is this, you strange old image?" he demanded. "Why do you gibber in such a fashion? Is it that something has disturbed you, or have you made fools of us?"
"I am alarmed," Magavitch said. "There are things here I do not understand. Behold all those bundles on the floor. An hour or two ago and they were reposing on the shelves in the shop. And here you see them scattered everywhere. I begin to feel very much afraid, my friends, that the bird has flown."
With a snarling oath, Polski bade Magavitch to come to the point at once, without further beating about the bush. The old man with the lamp in his hand shuffled across the floor and threw back the door leading into the chamber in which a little time before Princess Zaroff had been a prisoner. A cry of rage and astonishment broke from his lips as he saw that the room was empty. He was so obviously and genuinely disappointed that even the suspicious Polski could see no signs of collusion.
"She has gone! She has vanished!" Magavitch cried. "It is as if she had melted into thin air. And yet, how could she have escaped? The ladder is in the shop, and there is no other way of reaching the floor above. There is but one explanation I can think of—somebody must have crept into the shop when we were in the office and helped the woman to safety. It might have been done with a rope made fast to one of the shelves overhead."
"Oh, it might have been anything," Polski growled. "It is sufficient for our purpose that Zara is no longer here. I begin to smell danger. Zara finds us out, and she comes here so openly and boldly that the mere suggestion of her presence thrills me with alarm. And suppose that she and the friend that helped her took it in their heads to listen to our conversation when we were drinking our brandy just now; and suppose, again, that that conversation is repeated to those devils at Scotland Yard—what then?"
Magavitch stared blankly at the speaker. His yellow face assumed a shade of grey, while the lamp in his hand trembled. The man Solari seemed equally agitated and uneasy.
"Something will have to be done at once, my friends," he said.
"And you are the man to do it," Polski snapped. "To-morrow I must go to Paris, and Magavitch is too old to get about much; besides, he is well known to our enemies, and they would recognise at once what he was after. It becomes plain to me that Zara was sent here by our arch enemy the Princess Zaroff. For years they have worked together, and where the one is the other is never very far off. It will be your task to shadow the house of the Princess. Now go off home at once, and fortify yourself with a good night's sleep, and all to-morrow, in a suitable disguise, you will watch in the road where Princess Zaroff lives. If you see anything suspicious, you must come here and let Magavitch know at once."
"No, no!" Magavitch cried uneasily. "Such a course would not be prudent. It will be far better for Solari to write to me. Suppose that he is shadowed in his turn. It is all very well for you, Polski, who will be safe in Paris; but if you were in my place you would not be half so cold. But we waste time here."
It was quite early the next morning when Solari presented himself before the Princess's house, in the guise of a hawker. Two hours had gone, and then two men came along the road towards him, a hand grasped him by either arm, and before he could realise what had happened he was hustled into a taxi cab, which was apparently creeping along the road on the off-chance of a fare.
"What does this mean?" Solari stammered. "I demand that you release me at once. I am a Russian subject, and I will appeal to my ambassador. Put me down this moment!'
"Name of Solari," one of the captors said coolly. "Not a bit of use for you to make all this fuss. Pull off his wig and beard, George. Yes, I thought so. You and I have met before, Mr. Solari, though it is a good many years since I gave evidence against you in connection with the Manchester outrage."
"You have a warrant for my arrest?" Solari asked hoarsely.
"Yes, I have in my pocket a warrant for your arrest on a charge of being concerned in the murder of the Grand Duke Oro. I need not remind you that my name is Inspector Stead. You can make a statement if you like, but, if you do, it may be used against you."
Solari fairly wilted, and for a moment collapsed on the floor of the cab. There was not an atom of fight left in him; his swarthy features turned an ashy grey, and his eyes filled with horror.
"Is—is anybody else concerned in this?" he stammered.
"Your friends Magavitch and Polski," Stead explained. "They are probably both in custody by this time."
Solari appeared to be anxious to speak; he glanced from one to the other of his captors, like a frightened hare between two greyhounds. It was quite evident to Stead's trained intelligence that he was on the verge or breaking out into full confession. But the inspector turned from him coldly, as if he refused to listen. Far better to give Solari the benefit of an hour or two in the chill seclusion of a cell, and that period had more then elapsed before Stead sought his prisoner again with a view to see if he wanted anything. Hardened as he was in the ways of crime and criminals, Stead was struck by the change which had come over Solari already. He looked older and more shrunken, the grey pallor on his cheeks had deepened, and his lips had grown loose and shaky.
"It is all up," he said. "I see that you know everything. Perhaps if I tell you the truth it will be held in my favour when my trial comes. The three of us were in it. It was Magavitch who planned the murder and Polski who struck the fatal blow. We hated the Grand Duke because he had made use of us and had cast us on one side as if we had been a pair of old gloves. Besides we knew that he always carried about with him certain papers which it was vital that we should get hold of. We knew some days before that he was going to Lady Goring's entertainment and we laid our plans accordingly. It was not a difficult matter for us three to get into the house. All the catering was being done by a well known London firm, and three of the extra waiters engaged were Poles, who belonged to our secret society. In the place of them came Magavitch and Polski and myself, so there was no one any the wiser, and we were in the house following the Grand Duke from room to room. We saw him talking to the Princess Zaroff, and it was I who heard the Princess ask him to fetch her fan. Previously I had been up to that little conservatory, and in a flash I saw how the whole thing could be done. I passed the word on to Polski, and he followed the Grand Duke up the stairs, as if he were going about his duties. The rest was only a matter of moments. The Grand Duke was stabbed to death, though he did make some show of resistance. Before Lord Goring had found out what had happened, the three of us had left the house. There were so many waiters that we were not missed, and it never seems to have occurred to anybody to connect a hired waiter with a crime. And that is about all, Inspector."
"It is certainly enough for the present," Stead said. "There is the other little matter. In the struggle the Grand Duke lost one of his shirt cuffs. Why was that torn away?"
"Possibly because between the folds of the linen Polski suspected the presence of some document. Once before we conveyed from Paris to London a cipher, written on waterproof paper, sewn inside the cuff of a dress shirt, which was afterwards dressed at a laundry. But I only surmise this."
"It doesn't very much matter," Stead said, "You had better write this statement of yours down and I will witness it. I'll send a man in with paper and pen and ink, and then you shall be left alone for an hour or so. By this time your confederates ought to be in the hands of my men. I congratulate you on having forestalled them."
"You will get no confession from Polski," Solari said, "and Magavitch will not open his lips. I know them."
He turned away without another word, for his lips were trembling now, and something hard rose in the back of his throat. The cell door closed upon him, and again he was alone.
It was somewhere about lunch time that the latest sensation struck London, and in a few minutes everyone was talking of the new and startling development in connection with the mysterious murder of the Grand Duke Oro. The 'Evening Herald' led the way, as usual, with a graphic account of the arrest of Solari, and his subsequent confession. Other journals followed, in due course, with columns more or less relating to the crime, and hardly had these been assimilated before there came a new phase in the story.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when Kelso burst in upon Denver, seated at work in his sitting-room with the very latest edition of the 'Evening Herald.'
"Have you seen all this?" he demanded eagerly.
"Oh, I know all about the arrest of Solari," Denver said. "They were talking about nothing else at the club at lunch-time. All the papers are brimming over with it. It rather amused me to hear the funny things that some people were saying. They would have been rather astonished if they were told all that we know. By the way, have they got hold of the other two rascals yet?"
"Then you haven't heard all the latest," Kelso went on. "There are a couple of columns here about it. I won't worry you with all the minor details, but it seems that Stead's fellows blundered in their attempt to arrest Polski at Charing Cross Station, and he managed to get away in a taxi. They traced him as far as Magavitch's shop in Balham, but not before he had time to warn Magavitch, and, when the police tried to raid the house, the two men inside opened fire on them, and an officer was badly wounded. Those men seemed to be very well armed with the very latest weapons, and there is no doubt that they were quite familiar with them."
"What was the upshot of it all?" Denver asked.
"At the time when the present edition went to press the fray was still going on. It looks to me like a regular Stepney business. According to the 'Evening Herald' there are thousands of people watching the siege. The police have cleared the roadway and have occupied houses opposite Magavitch's house and also some premises in the rear. At all events it is altogether impossible for those scoundrels to get away, and their capture is only a matter of time. I don't blame the police for not taking any unnecessary risks. I had half a mind to go down there myself."
Denver jumped from his seat and pushed his paper away.
"I'll go with you," he said. "We'll have a taxi. My word, talk about truth being stranger than fiction!"
The narrow road opposite Magavitch's shop was black with excited spectators, and it was with great difficulty that the two friends pushed their way to the front. They managed to worm through, at last, under pretest that they had something of importance to say to Inspector Stead, and once within the police zone they could command a better view of everything that was going on. Just for a moment there was a cessation of hostilities, and the tense silence seizing upon the black mass of people there, had something almost sinister in it. A burst of pistol shots from one of the upper windows of the besieged house came as a positive relief. It was answered almost at once by a volley from the house opposite, and then Denver, taking hold of Kelso's arm, pointed to a shattered window, immediately over the shop. Magavitch was standing there, his yellow face convulsed with passion, and his eyes blazing with madness. So beside himself was he that he appeared to be lost entirely to his sense of danger, for he shook his fist at the crowd and poured out a stream of defiance in his own harsh language. He seemed to bear a charmed life for, though a dozen bullets smashed through the window and hurtled over his head, he remained uninjured.
"The fellow is mad, assuredly mad!" Denver exclaimed.
"He certainly seems indifferent to his own life," Kelso said. "The man is furious at losing something which he sets far more value upon than he does upon his own existence. I am told that he is perfectly mad on the subject of money. He is a born miser, and has been after nothing else for years. That is why he is so careless; can you catch what he is talking about?"
Denver shook his head. The stream of invective poured from Magavitch's lips in a shrill scream, which reached the very back of the dense crowd. Then a hand shot out from behind the man in the window, and Magavitch vanished ingloriously. Once more the automatic began to spit and snap, calling for vigorous reply from the police in their coign of vantage opposite. Somebody had produced a rifle or two, and these were doing great damage to the upper part of the shop. Then apparently out of nowhere arose a strange, cracking explosion, such as follows a vivid flash of lightning, and every window in the shop seemed to bulge outwards and fall crashing to the ground. On the heels of the explosion came dense masses of smoke—tongues of sullen red flame crept along the woodwork everywhere. A hoarse cry went up from the dense mass of people. The flames burst out in a roaring mass, behind which Magavitch and Polski could be seen darting here and there like rats in search of cover. A chance shot had evidently penetrated a bomb, or some other form of high explosive, and it was apparent now to the merest child there that the shop and the men within it were doomed.
No longer were they intent upon defending themselves from the attacks of the police, no longer were they giving a second thought to their weapons. At the back of the roaring flames Polski could be seen on his knees with a handkerchief pressed to his face. Magavitch was staggering round in ever narrowing circles. Then he burst through the flames and with a final yell of pain and anger and defiance, flung himself headlong into the street. Almost simultaneously Polski was seen to pitch forward on his face, shot through the brain by a stray bullet, for he never moved again, though the flames were beginning to lick his clothing now, and the black hair on his head shrivelled and vanished. A cry went up for the fire brigade, for there was imminent danger now, in regard to the neighbouring houses, and a sigh of relief presently when the engines came rushing down the narrow thoroughfare.
"I've had about enough of this," Kelso said with a shudder. "Let us get out of it as quickly as we can. I have been in some tight places in my time, and I have seen blood shed savagely more than once, but never anything quite so gruesome as this."
"I've always got a sort of sneaking sympathy for that type of man," Denver said, as he elbowed his way through the crowd. "You are bound to admire their wonderful physical courage and their extraordinary intellectual abilities. Now these were two men who might have achieved anything, and yet they seemed bound to turn their talent in the directions of crime. I suppose it's insanity of a type. As far as I am concerned, I should like to forget all about it. Come as far as my rooms and have something to strengthen us in the way of a drink. I don't usually indulge at this time of the day, but just at present I seem to badly feel the want of it."
There was, however, apparently no chance just yet for the two friends to be left to themselves, for on Denver's desk was a note from Clutton containing an imperative message in the form of an invitation to come round to the latter's rooms not a minute later than five o'clock. Denver tossed it over to his companion.
"It only wants ten minutes to the hour now," he said. "I wonder what's in the wind? It isn't like Clutton to write a note like that unless he has some specially good reason. Finish your drink, and we'll get along without further delay."
But Clutton, however, was not alone. He had prepared a more than usually elaborate and dainty tea, and presiding at the table was Blanche Trevenner, beautifully dressed as usual, but by no means her usual audacious and imperturbable self. There was a heightened colour in her cheeks, and a suggestion of suspicion in her eyes, which grew still more marked as Denver and Kelso entered the room. There was about Clutton an air of suppressed excitement, and a restlessness quite foreign to his nature. He casually laid his hand upon a copy of the 'Evening Herald,' and shook his head. It was evidently a sign that the exciting topic of the day should not be mentioned. Denver gave an answering nod in reply.
"You come at a most interesting moment," Clutton said. "You can mingle your congratulations with mine. It's an ill wind that blows no one good, and the death of the Grand Duke means a huge fortune to our fair friend here. Am I correct?"
"I have just told you so," said Blanche Trevenner coldly. "In a day or two the will will reach me from Paris. It's quite a little romance in its way, and I am quite sure that the story will be interesting to a playwright like Mr. Denver."
Denver responded appropriately. He listened politely to the glib story that Blanche Trevenner had to tell. She had evidently carefully memorised the information that Magavitch had given her, for, without halt or hesitation, she told of the attempt on the life of the Grand Duke outside the Odeon Theatre in Paris, and how the attempted outrage had resulted in the making of the will.
It was quite evident from all this that, though Blanche Trevenner might have heard the account of Solari's arrest, she was in utter ignorance of all that had transpired since, and had not the slightest idea of the dramatic happenings at Balham. As her story proceeded, she lost her air of suspicion, and spoke frankly and naturally. But the fighting look crept back into her eyes again at Clutton's first question. She drew herself up indignantly.
"Don't you think," Clutton asked quietly, "that in the circumstances you can afford to confess a fault and right a wrong? Money will be no object to you in future, and therefore I am going to ask you to return the diamond ornament which you—well, borrowed, from Miss Audrey Blair not so very long ago."
"I expected something like this!" Blanche Trevenner exclaimed, "An obscure actress who runs away because she is afraid——"
"Nothing of the kind," Clutton interrupted. "Miss Blair is with her friends, and has been all alone. If she has suffered in mind or reputation, the fault is entirely yours. Come, you are not going to force us to take extreme measures?"
"So this is why I have been inveigled here!" Blanche Trevenner cried. "Three men against one defenceless woman! And you call yourselves gentlemen! Audrey Blair is an audacious little liar. Those diamonds were given me by the Grand Duke long ago. If he were alive you would never dare to speak to me like this. I only wish he were face to face with us now to confirm me, and to force from you the apology which is my due. I had better go——"
"One moment," Clutton said. "There is someone else I want you to meet. Yes, I hear him outside now."
Blanche Trevenner turned and faced Clutton, white to the lips, her eyes full of some strange, nameless fear. There was a tense feeling in the air, a suggestion that something was about to happen. Then the door was flung open, and Clutton's man stood there.
"His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Oro, sir," he said.
It was as if Clutton had struck the woman a fierce blow between the eyes, for she staggered back and covered her face with her hands, she stood there for the best part of a minute, shaking from head to foot, stripped of her old native audacity, and making a pathetic figure which moved Kelso to sympathy, much as he disliked her and much as Audrey had suffered at her hands. It was quite evident that there would be no further trouble here, and that Clutton's confident statement that he could get the jewels back any time he pleased seemed likely to be confirmed.
Blanche Trevenner lowered her hand slowly and turned a white, stricken face almost imploringly on Clutton. He laid his hand on her arm and placed her gently in a chair.
"There is not very much to be afraid of," he said. "I very much regret that it has been necessary to treat a lady in this way, but you must admit that you have brought it entirely upon yourself. Moreover, it will be your own fault if there is any publicity or scandal. The truth is only known to a few of us, and it is for you to say how much further the other is likely to go. But here is the Grand Duke to speak for himself."
"But I don't understand it," Blanche Trevenner whispered. "The Grand Duke is dead. This is some vile trick you are playing upon me. You are trying to frighten me into a confession. If I am weak enough to play into your hands——"
But Clutton was not disposed to carry the argument any further. He turned to meet the shabby little middle-aged man who came into the room at that moment. He looked strangely unlike a scion of an imperial house in his ill-fitting clothes. With his badly-trimmed hair and ragged moustache, he looked more like an out-of-work shop assistant than the power that he really was. There was an amused smile upon his lips as he flung himself into a chair.
"Well, here I am," he said in most excellent English. "I got your telegram, Clutton, and I have been travelling ever since. Now why couldn't you leave me in peace? It is seldom I am fortunate enough to get a few days entirely to myself, and the first time it happens you drag me out of my hiding place in this cruel fashion. When I read of my death in the London papers, I did think that my life was safe. It sounds rather like a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean. I had fully made up my mind to allow my unfortunate understudy to be buried in my name, and then retire to some sunny spot in the South of France and grow roses. To tell you the truth, I am getting a little tired of a life of adventure, and my nerves are not what they were. I am persecuted on the one hand by relatives and my sovereign's secret police, and on the other by the anarchist crowd that I was fool enough to mix up with in my hot youth. And now you have knocked that pretty scheme on the head. I should very much like to know why."
"The situation was impossible, sir," Clutton said. "Surely you must see that for yourself."
"I daresay it was. But please go on, Clutton. How did you manage to stumble on the truth? Who told you?"
"Well, I got my information in the first place from the Princess Zaroff. No, you need not frown. The Princess is a better friend of yours than you are aware. I don't suppose you have seen the papers, but largely owing to her endeavours the Magavitch crowd has been wiped out of existence altogether. May I understand, sir, that this would make all the difference in the world to you?"
The Grand Duke heaved a great sigh of palpable relief.
"By Jove, yes!" he cried. "Those ruffians have been chasing me for years and for years it has taken all my ingenuity to avoid them. I would have cheerfully forfeited all my fortune could I have changed my identity. I am not saying that they hadn't a genuine grievance against me, but we need not go into that now. And so those blackguards are all dead? Well, I am exceedingly glad to hear it. But how did the Princess——"
"She found it out at Lady Goring's party, sir," Clutton explained. "She had her suspicious, and took the opportunity of engaging your double in conversation. The next morning she told me that the man who had been murdered in Lord Goring's house was not the Grand Duke Oro. She was struck by the wonderful likeness and by the fluent way in which the murdered man spoke of events in your life. The Princess seemed to think that even your own friends would have been deceived by the marvellous likeness. Once we had established the imposture, it was not difficult to track your movements. In the ordinary way we should have kept your secret, but certain events have happened which make that almost impossible. And seeing that we have rid you of all your dangerous enemies, and that you no longer go in peril of your life, we are not asking too much in requesting that you make a public explanation."
The Grand Duke's shrewd little eyes twinkled with amusement.
"It would be rather a joke," he laughed. "And how disappointed certain relatives of mine will be, to be sure! As a matter of fact, the murdered man was an Italian named Karl Lugi. I met him years ago in a little town on the Adriatic. His likeness to me was so wonderful that I really began to believe that here was a brother that I had never heard of. He was a clever, audacious rascal, well educated for his position, and a master of modern languages. He had no money, and, apparently, was anxious to make some without the least scruple as to how he did it. Then it occurred to me that he would be exceedingly useful at such times as it became necessary for me to retire into private life. I should be able to take a holiday without the fear of getting a knife into my ribs every time I took a stroll after dark. And let me tell you that when you carry your life in your hands, as I have done, there are times when it gets on your nerves, and the border line between sanity and madness becomes a very fine one indeed. Well, I made a proposal to Lugi and he jumped at it. When he was dressed in my clothes with his hair cut in my fashion nobody could have told the difference between us. For months I coached him, until at length no friend of mine could have put him a question that he was unable to answer. I paid him a handsome salary, and, in addition, he had the free run of everything at such times as I was lying fallow. With ordinary care he might have been alive now, but he was always a reckless beggar, and cared nothing for the morrow as long as he could get through to-day. And now you know practically the whole story. Having heard it, perhaps you will tell me why I am here."
"This is where other people come in," Clutton exclaimed. "Amongst the rest of them is your friend Miss Trevenner."
The woman looked up anxiously, her pallid cheeks flushing to a rosy red. Up to this point the Grand Duke had ignored her presence entirely, but now there was a suggestion of malicious amusement in his smile as he took her in from head to foot.
"It is a great pleasure to me," he said, "to meet the divine Blanche once more. There was a time when we were friends——"
"Surely, more than that," Blanche Trevenner simpered.
"Oh, well, there is no limit to the folly of the mere man where a lovely and fascinating woman is concerned. Ah, my dear Blanche, circumstances and the machinations of my relations crushed for ever our budding romance. But for that we might be to-day a couple to rival Paul and Virginia and all the rest of them. As it was, we were compelled to part, and I much fear that I thought no more of you till one evening quite lately I saw you on the stage of the Sovereign Theatre. And I am afraid that I was less interested in your physical charms than in a certain ornament you were wearing in your hair. Do you know what I mean?"
"The tiara that you gave me!" Blanche cried audaciously.
"Dear lady, it gives me pain to contradict you. The ornament that you speak of I had committed to the care of a relation of mine, who shall be nameless. 'Oh, my prophetic soul, my uncle,' as Hamlet says. Circumstances rendered it imperative that I should procure a large and immediate loan, and for that purpose I took a quantity of my jewels to a diamond merchant in Hatton Garden. Imagine my surprise when I see you, Blanche, wearing some of those very stones. At first it occurred to me that the relative in question had played me false, or that he was not so financially solid as I had imagined. Now I come to another side of the story. Also I attended the first night of the new piece at the Sovereign and I saw a certain Miss Audrey Blair, a member of the company, wearing those same stones. Now, most people would have made a fuss. They would have demanded an immediate explanation; but that is not my way. I prefer to wait. I did wait a night or two, and then I sent a note round to Miss Blair asking her to give me five minutes of her time. She becomes so frightened that she leaves the theatre, and I cannot follow her up because I am on my way to the Continent within an hour. At that very moment my double Lugi was waiting in my rooms, made up ready to take my place at Lady Goring's party. And now I have come back to England I should like to know what this all means. My dear Blanche, pray enlighten me—do not keep your admirer in suspense any longer."
"As a matter of fact," Clutton said, "I have asked you to come here to hear the explanation. And though she does not know it, Miss Trevenner was requested to be present to confirm what I have to say. Now, in the first instance, the whole trouble arose out of a bit of girlish vanity. For the first night of the new piece Miss Blair was anxious to wear something out of the common in the way of jewellery. It so happens that one of her admirers is a silly young fool, named Hermann, who is the son and partner of the well-known Hermann, of Hatton Garden. Whether he suggested it, or she did, doesn't matter. Anyway, Hermann promised to lend the girl some stones, and he took that ornament of yours. Now, you mustn't imagine that Miss Blair is the type of girl who would do anything wrong, because in every sense of the word she is a lady."
"Nobody even knows what her proper name is," Blanche Trevenner sneered. "And no one knows where she lives."
"There you are quite wrong," Clutton said quietly. "She is the daughter of a man who at one time was a British ambassador, and she lives at a place called Barris Court, which is near Balham. Does the name convey anything to your Imperial Highness?"
"Good heavens, yes!" the Grand Duke cried. "Of course, I know the man well. It is a shameful confession to make, but I am largely responsible for all the trouble in that quarter. If Miss Blair had only known it, she has little occasion to be afraid of me. Still, we don't seem to be getting on. What I want to know is how those diamonds came into Miss Trevenner's hands?"
No further words came Clutton; for the moment, at any rate, he had finished. He had told his story simply and directly, and without prejudice, so far as Blanche Trevenner was concerned, and it was for her now to make her explanation. She looked searchingly from one face to another, but she could see no sympathy anywhere. Her idea had been to carry it through with a bold denial and a high hand. Apparently, it had been a question as to who was to be believed—the well-known and popular leading lady, or the obscure little actress who had only lately emerged from the chorus? It had come as rather a shock to Blanche Trevenner, therefore, to find that Audrey was not only well-born but that she had powerful friends behind her. In every direction the defences were crumbling, and there was apparently nothing for it but a humble and humiliating surrender. Still, she would have one more try to get through.
"Am I to understand," she said, "that the diamonds in question were not given to me by you, Oro?"
"Yes, you are," the Grand Duke answered with some emphasis. "And if you are going to make trouble over it, I shall lay all the facts before Hermann and claim damages for the loss of my stones. As I am not in the least likely to suffer any pecuniary loss, it is a matter of supreme indifference to me how you take it. But there is certain to be a scandal, and your name is bound to suffer."
"Not forgetting that the Grand Duke is alive and that Magavitch is dead," Clutton interpolated. "Surely, that conveys something to you, Miss Trevenner, when I told the Grand Duke just now that Magavitch had been wiped out of existence? He was killed this morning in a free fight with the police, when they were arresting him for the murder of the Grand—I mean the man we know now as Karl Lugi. This being so, I don't think there's much chance of your getting the little document you spoke of from Paris. Shall I tell the Grand Duke about that, or would you prefer to do so yourself?"
A wave of crimson stained the woman's face from cheek to brow, then she grew pale and ashen to the lips. She had not expected this; indeed, for the moment, she had forgotten the audacious attempt to lay hands upon the Grand Duke's fortune. But whence had Clutton obtained this damning information?
She turned a pair of despairing yet imploring eyes upon him, as if mutually asking that her humiliation should go no further.
"What are you talking about now?" the Grand Duke asked.
"After all, I don't think that that very much matters," smiled Clutton. "It is a little secret between Miss Trevenner and myself, and need not be alluded to again."
Blanche Trevenner smiled gratefully. She was nerving herself for an effort, now that she saw that the truth must be told.
"I took the diamond ornament," she said. "Bluntly, and plainly, I stole it. But I will ask you to believe that I would not have done so in the ordinary way, for I am no common thief. You see, I recognised the ornament. In the days when the Grand Duke and myself were something more than friends I frequently tried on those jewels, and when I saw Miss Blair wearing that ornament and remembered that Mr. Hermann was an admirer of hers, I guessed exactly what had happened. I came to the conclusion that the Grand Duke had been raising money with Mr. Hermann's friends, and that the young man had borrowed the tiara for a special occasion. I had the chance of taking it from Miss Blair's dressing room, and I did so. I am sure she would never dare to claim it, and that Mr. Hermann, for the sake of his firm's reputation, would be afraid to take proceedings; and I don't regret it. I have been found out, and the confession forced from me owing to the cleverness of Mr. Clutton. Oh, I know when I am beaten, and before the day is out I will go and see young Mr. Hermann and return the diamonds. And that is about all, and I don't see anything to gain by staying here any longer. No, you need not trouble to escort me to the door. I prefer to go alone."
Blanche Trevenner was speaking smoothly enough now. The worst was over. She had nothing to fear in the way of punishment now, and she was astute enough to see that those in the secret would remain discreetly silent for Audrey Blair's sake. She had herself well in hand now; her lips were steady, and her eyes defiant. With a mocking bow which seemed to embrace the four men there she swept from the room, conscious that her exit was by no means a bad one.
"Well, one lives and learns," the Grand Duke said. "It seems to me that I have got out of this business better than I deserve. And so that pretty little actress girl turns out to be the daughter of my old friend Gordon Barriscourt. If I had only known that, a great deal of worry and anxiety might have been saved. I did hear that Barriscourt was living somewhere in London, and that he was getting a precarious living by his pen. Some little time ago I asked Karl Lugi to trace him for me."
"Did you really?" Denver asked. "Kelso, this accounts for the address that we found on the dead man's shirt cuff. It was rather a fortunate find for us, and I flatter myself that we have made good use of it. Perhaps the Grand Duke would like to hear the story?"
But the Grand Duke did not appear to be particularly interested. What he seemed to want, for the moment, was as much information as he could with regard to the Barriscourts.
"For I owe them much, you see," he said. "But for me there would have been very little scandal. In those days when I wanted anything I was not in the least particular how I got it. I was a blackguard; indeed, as a matter of fact, I am very little better now. I should very much like to see the Barriscourts, and if you can give me their address, I'll go this afternoon."
"I can give you that, sir," Kelso said. "I am calling there myself in Rosemead Avenue presently, and I shall be delighted to drive you down. What do you say, Denver?"
"It seems to me that that is entirely a matter for yourself," Denver said. "For all practical purposes my task is finished, and I am sure that Clutton would say the same thing."
"Quite right," Clutton smiled. "And now I can get back to my own business and that of my partner, the Princess Zaroff."
"Wonderful woman," the Grand Duke said admiringly. "She has more pluck than all the rest of the Barriscourts put together. How much longer is she going on with this game of intrigue? She is getting on in life now, and she must be very wealthy. Much the same remark applies to you, Clutton. If you want to die in your bed——"
"I intend to, sir," Clutton said. "To tell you the truth, with the wiping out of that Magavitch gang our task is finished. It is only a question of gathering up the threads now, and as soon as I have done that I am going to retire to the family property, which I have recently repurchased, and lead the clean and simple life of an English country gentleman."
"Marry and settle down, my dear Clutton."
"Certain, if the right woman will have me," Clutton said gravely. "I am betraying no secret when I tell you that my friend Kelso is going to marry Miss Audrey Blair. You remember Herbert Barriscourt, of course? He also has a daughter, and—well, I don't want to say any more for the moment."
An hour later a taxi, pulled up in Rosemead Avenue, and Kelso led the way towards the house. The door was opened to him by Gordon Barriscourt, who literally staggered back when he caught sight of Kelso's companion. Then his jaw set firmly.
"Don't look at me like that," the Grand Duke said smilingly. "Let me come in and explain. I want to tell you how I have come back from the dead, so to speak. And just remember that your glasshouse is not so robust that you can throw stones at mine."
"I had forgotten it," Barriscourt said gravely. "There is much truth in what you say. If you gentlemen will come into the house——"
But Kelso drew back as he caught sight of Audrey's figure in the hall. He lingered for the other two to precede him, and stopped to speak to Audrey, who awaited him with shining eyes.
"Do come outside with me," he urged. "I find the atmosphere of this place almost stifling. No doubt that now the clouds have rolled away and fortune is smiling once more upon the Barriscourts, everything will be altered; but in the meantime I prefer the fresh air. Let us go as far as the summer-house, and enjoy the last hour of the sunshine, and I will tell you all the wonderful things that have happened. Now what do you say?"
"Oh, I am utterly bewildered," Audrey said as she slipped her hand under Kelso's arm. "And what do you mean by saying that all the clouds have rolled away? And what is the man whom we all thought to be dead doing here? Am I awake, Rupert, or is this all part of some fantastic dream?"
Kelso sat down in the little summerhouse with Audrey by his side. He slipped his arm about her waist, and she nestled her head on his shoulder. It seemed as if nothing mattered just then, as if the weary world had crumbled away, and they were in a paradise that was all their very own.
"Everything has come out all right, darling," Kelso said. "You shall read in the papers for yourself all about the Grand Duke and his escapades, and what happened to the man who has been impersonating him for years. Apparently you have not been out all day, or you would have heard that the police have one of the Magavitch gang safe, and that he has confessed to being party to the murder at Lord Goring's house, and that Magavitch and Polski were both killed this morning within a mile of here, in the act of resisting arrest. So you have nothing to fear from them in future, and therefore your father and uncle will be able to enjoy the use of their own money. It appears that Clutton knew all along that the Grand Duke was not dead, and he induced him to come to London this afternoon to meet Blanche Trevenner, and have it out with her in regard to the stolen diamonds. She made a full confession, and by this time the tiara is back in Hermann's hands again. When I have told you that I think I have told you everything."
Audrey listened with a feeling of happiness and content. There would be no more trouble and worry now, her name was cleared, and the fortunes of the house of Barriscourt restored once more.
"If you only knew how glad I am," she whispered. "And to think that I shall not have to appear on the stage again. That in itself is a joy. And Polly, too! I hope——"
"Oh, Polly, will be all right," Kelso said as he bent and kissed the quivering lips so close to his own. "Clutton will see to that when he has the opportunity, and now let us talk about ourselves. How long is it going to be before——"
"As soon as you like, Rupert," Audrey whispered.
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