Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership


Title: The Light Beyond
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1202021.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2012
Date most recently updated: June 2012


Production Notes: 
[Ebook editors note:--
Pages 74 and 75 of the page images used to create this ebook were missing.
I have not been able to obtain a complete copy of the book.]


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

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

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

Title: The Light Beyond
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim


*


HODDER AND STOUGHTON LIMITED
LONDON

1928


*




BOOK I



CHAPTER I


Of the three men who lunched together at the corner table at the Ritz,
Raoul de Fontanay was perhaps the most distinguished in appearance,
Henry Dorchester the best-looking, and Van Stratton the most attractive.
In their outlook upon life, as well as in their personal tastes, they
were so far removed from one another that their friendship was an easy
thing. Not one of the three was in the least disputative, and
controversy merely added an appetite to discussion. They even ventured,
on this particular May morning, to speak of the other sex.

"To lunch without women," Raoul de Fontanay observed, "is now and then a
relief."

"If one would converse seriously," Dorchester assented, "it is a
necessity. Women are too distracting. They force our thoughts into an
absolutely fanciful groove. They make rational conversation impossible.
I am convinced that the realisation of this fact is the reason why our
forefathers banished them from the dining-table at the earliest possible
opportunity."

"Better not let any of my countrywomen hear you speak like that," Van
Stratton observed.

The Frenchman smiled.

"Your countrywomen are adorable," he declared, "but if they have a
fault, it is that they take themselves too seriously. They will not
admit or recognise the impassable boundaries which divide the sexes. I
cannot talk to a woman seriously; I need a man to understand what I am
aiming at--to understand what I would hope and work for. Woman is our
best helpmate when she leaves our careers alone, when she is simply
amusing and beautiful, and perhaps affectionate."

"That is all very well for one's mistress," Dorchester conceded, "but no
one in this country, at any rate, can altogether keep his wife out of
the serious side of his life."

"You English!" Raoul de Fontanay murmured, with a little shrug of the
shoulders. "Ah, well!...Still, as we must talk of women, let us ask one
another this; we are all fond of them, and yet not one of us is married
or even engaged. How does that come about?"

"I shall marry some day," Dorchester announced. "Up to now, my work has
been too absorbing."

"I have looked around," Mark Van Stratton admitted, "but so far--well,
there doesn't seem to have been anything doing. I admire Frenchwomen
more than any in the world, but they're a trifle too exigeant for us
Americans. They either keep you dangling at their heels all the time, or
else, in the most charming way possible, fill your place. The English
girls I have met are all right for sport, but they are either too
reserved, and cold, or so slangy they're almost incomprehensible, and a
bit too quick off the mark. I suppose when I do marry, it will be one of
my own country-women."

"As for me," Raoul de Fontanay pronounced, "I am the only one of us who
has a logical reason for his celibacy. I shall never marry, because
there is something ugly to me in infidelity, and I am too conscious of
my limitations. I could never be faithful for a lifetime, or a quarter
of it. What about you, Mark?"

The young American had been looking steadfastly across the room. His
face had become curiously intent, his eyes fixed. He did not reply for a
moment. Then he drew a little breath, and answered without withdrawing
his gaze.

"I could be faithful all my life," he declared, "to the girl who has
just come in, and whom I shall probably some day marry--the girl in grey
with the chinchilla furs and the rose-coloured hat."

The speech itself might have sounded banal, but for Van Stratton's
intense earnestness--an earnestness which his two friends realised from
the first.

"This is distinctly intriguing," Raoul de Fontanay declared, thrusting
his monocle into his eye, and looking across the room.

"Thrilling," Dorchester assented. "A trifle on the melodramatic side,
perhaps, but atoned for by Mark's obvious earnestness. Would it be
possible, without exciting too much attention, to indicate the favoured
lady?"

"You cannot possibly mistake her," Mark replied, "There is no one else.
She is just sitting down now, facing you, at the table by the window,
with an elderly man. She is in grey, with some chinchilla furs, and a
sort of crushed rose-coloured hat. She is not the most beautiful, but
she certainly is the most attractive girl I have ever seen in my life."

De Fontanay glanced in the direction indicated and his manner changed a
little. He dropped his monocle, and whistled softly under his breath.
Dorchester seemed to have caught his friend's enthusiasm.

"She's awfully good-looking," he pronounced, "like a piece of Dresden
china. Who is she, Mark?"

"I don't know--yet."

"I do," de Fontanay answered. "I know her name, at any rate. That is her
father with her."

"Tell us her name then--quickly," Mark demanded.

De Fontanay's surprise was obvious.

"Do you mean to say that you neither of you know who he is?"

"I have no idea whatever," Mark confessed.

"Neither have I," Dorchester affirmed.

Raoul de Fontanay sipped his wine approvingly. He had a sense of the
dramatic, and he paused for a moment to give weight to his
words--besides, the wine was of a wonderful vintage, and far too good to
be hurried over.

"That," he confided, "is one of the best known men on paper and the
least known personally in the world. The Press, when they try to find
adjectives for him, are sometimes lyrical, sometimes hysterical.
Sometimes he is the world's greatest hero, the mightiest potentate of
modern times; at others he is the direct descendant of Barrabas, riding
one of the evil steeds of the Apocalypse, spreading ruin and destruction
over a stricken world. It depends entirely upon which side of the market
you are on. That is Felix Dukane."

"Felix Dukane!" Mark gasped.

"Dukane!" Dorchester repeated wonderingly. "He isn't in the least like
what I expected."

"There is a personalty to excite one's imagination!" de Fontanay
continued. "He is very seldom seen in a restaurant--very seldom seen
anywhere, as a matter of fact. They say that he has never been
interviewed in his life, and that he beat the only photographer who ever
succeeded in taking a snapshot of him, with a loaded stick which he
always carries, and smashed the camera. Look at those shoulders! You
would have to respect them if you were his enemy, for he is really
prodigiously strong."

Mark's national respect for wealth kept him a little awed. Dorchester's
imagination was fired with this unexpected encounter with the "Mystery
Man" of the world.

"Felix Dukane!" the former muttered. "The only man who single-handed has
ever created a panic in Wall Street."

"It isn't his enormous wealth alone," de Fontanay observed, "but he has
the power of raising more money than any other born financier. If he
speaks the word, the banks in London, New York and Paris obey. I should
call him the most unwholesome factor in modern finance. It is a wicked
thing for any one man to be able to influence the money market of the
world in the way he does."

"I wonder," Dorchester reflected, "what he is doing in London?"

"I, too, am curious," de Fontanay confessed, "for, to tell you the
truth, it is the one city which he dislikes, and seldom visits. There
must be some mischief brewing."

Mark remained profoundly uninterested in all such considerations.

"Say, Raoul," he demanded, "how is it, if you know the old man, that you
have never met the daughter?"

"Alas," the Frenchman replied, "how does one obtain the chance?
Socially, Dukane does not exist. People in every capital have grown
tired of sending him invitations; he never even answers them. I chanced
to see them both in Monte Carlo last season. They arrived in his yacht,
and they left within the week--people said because he was annoyed it the
sensation his presence had created."

"Of what nationality is he?" Mark enquired.

"No one knows exactly. I believe his passport would describe him as
English. His wife, I know, was a Greek. She was the daughter of a former
Prime Minister. I never saw her, but I remember her being spoken of in
Paris as a famous beauty."

"Listen here, Raoul," Mark continued, "if you've never met the daughter,
do you know the father well enough to present me?"

De Fontanay shook his head thoughtfully.

"I am afraid that I do not," he acknowledged. "With anyone else in the
world, I would try to gratify you, but Felix Dukane is a law unto
himself. Observe the way he looks round the room. His stare is
absolutely stony. He has probably recognised me long ago, but I doubt
whether he will take the slightest notice of my existence."

"That seems unfortunate," Mark said doggedly, "because I've got to get
to know her somehow, and it must be soon."

"As a matter of fact," Dorchester affirmed, with unusual seriousness,
"I, too, am interested."

The service of luncheon proceeded, but the continuity of the discussion
between the three men seemed to have become broken, and conversation was
only fitful. The attention of both Dorchester and Mark seemed entirely
engrossed by observation more or less surreptitious of the table at
which Felix Dukane and his daughter were seated. De Fontanay, whose turn
it was that day to be host, suffered their neglect patiently, and even
watched them both with slightly cynical amusement. As they passed out of
the restaurant at the conclusion of the luncheon, he took each by the
arm, and spoke half banteringly of their obsession.

"My friends," he said, "it is a fact that both of you regard women a
little more seriously than I--racial instinct, perhaps. Well, let me
tell you this: the joy of a woman's love is great, but the joy of such a
friendship as exists between us three is, I think, a greater thing. You
will not forget it, either of you?"

"Of course not," Dorchester assented firmly.

"Sure thing," Mark murmured a little mechanically.

"That being clearly understood," de Fontanay continued, "I will expose
myself to rebuff, and do my best to present you both to the young lady.
We will take our coffee at one of the lower tables. The opportunity will
thus occur."



CHAPTER II


The three men found a table in the lounge which commanded a view of the
departing guests, and the eyes of two of them scarcely ever wandered
from the exit to the restaurant. They still conversed, but in a
disconnected fashion, and under Mark's manner there was always a vein of
almost feverish impatience. At last the inevitable happened.

"They're coming right along now," the latter declared eagerly, "You'll
have to look alive, Raoul. The old man seems to be in a hurry."

De Fontanay, with a little gesture of resignation, rose to his feet, and
the two young men leaned forward, their eyes fixed upon the advancing
pair. There was not the slightest personal resemblance between father
and daughter, Felix Dukane was a short man, powerfully built, with a
head large in proportion to his body, and a protruding under lip. He had
masses of grey-black hair, a pallid complexion and cold, grey eyes, set,
as he walked down the carpeted way from the restaurant, in a hard,
unseeing stare. The girl by his side possessed without a doubt those
insidious gifts of charm which, coupled with an exquisite physique alike
defy description and disarm criticism. She was a trifle taller than her
father, slim, with light brown hair, coiffured in the Italian fashion,
hazel eyes, which looked about her with pleasant curiosity, the smooth,
perfect complexion of youth and health, a mouth large, but wonderfully
attractive, with indications of humour in its sensitive corners. Whilst
her father's one object seemed to be to get out of the place as speedily
as possible, to look at no one, to remain unrecognised if possible, she,
on the other hand, showed some disposition towards loitering, and was
obviously taking in her surroundings with a certain amount of interest
and pleasure. De Fontanay, summoning up all his courage, as he
afterwards confessed, intercepted Dukane with a courteous bow, and
outstretched hand.

"This is the first time, I think, Mr. Dukane, that I have had the
pleasure of meeting you in London," he remarked. "You will remember that
we met at the French Embassy in Rome, and subsequently at the
President's week-end party at Rambouillet. My name is de
Fontanay--Colonel Raoul de Fontanay."

"I remember you, Colonel," Dukane admitted, without rudeness, but
certainly without enthusiasm.

"You will perhaps give me the great pleasure," the other continued, "of
presenting me to your daughter?"

The introduction was made, stiffly enough by Dukane, but accepted with
obvious pleasure by the young lady. The three stood talking together
pleasantly enough, yet even then the final issue of de Fontanay's
efforts on his friends' behalf appeared to be in doubt. Felix Dukane's
manner had lost none of its brusqueness, and he showed distinct signs of
a desire to escape. The two young men in the background sat and watched
anxiously, conversing in nervous undertones.

"I am forced to acknowledge, Mark," Dorchester confided, "that you have
better taste than I gave you credit for. With one possible exception, I
should say that Felix Dukane's daughter is the most attractive young
woman I have ever seen."

"I guess that shows you don't know what you're talking about then," was
the gruff retort. "There couldn't be an exception."

Dorchester tapped a cigarette upon the table, and lit it.

"The times have gone by," he answered, "when it would have been my duty
to encase myself in unwieldy armour, mount a spirited dray horse and
perform prodigies of valour with the most ineffectual weapon the mind of
man ever conceived, to prove--Mark, they're coming! Good old Raoul! He's
brought it off!"

De Fontanay had indeed succeeded, by the only strategy possible--by
making a request and anticipating the reply. The girl had readily enough
followed his lead. The enterprise was smoothly and successfully
concluded.

"Mademoiselle," de Fontanay said, "will you permit that I present to you
my two friends--Lord Henry Dorchester, Mr. Van Stratton--Miss Dukane,
Mr. Felix Dukane. I have persuaded Mr. and Miss Dukane to take coffee
with us."

Attentive waiters hurried up with chairs, and the little party subsided
into a semicircle, the cynosure for many eyes as the identity of the
small man with the big head, the "Mystery Millionaire" of finance began
to be whispered about. Dukane responded to his host's courteous attempts
at conversation with cold monosyllables. He had the air of a man who is
unwillingly submitting to a social act which he would have avoided if
possible. It was Dorchester who first engaged the young lady's
attention. They talked for several moments of trifles. Then during a
temporary lapse in the conversation, she turned with a flash of
graciousness towards Mark, as though desirous of including him.

"You are an American?" she enquired.

"I am," he answered, "although I am afraid not a very patriotic one.
Most of my time is spent over on this side."

"I was in New York last year," she confided. "A very wonderful place! My
father was immersed in business all the time, however, and I was a
little dull. Tell me--your friend Lord Henry's profession, I know; only
last week I heard him speak in the House of Commons; and Colonel de
Fontanay is of course a famous soldier--how do you interest yourself in
life?"

For a moment, Mark was taken aback. The directness of the question, the
friendly yet inquisitive regard of her bewildering eyes almost
embarrassed him.

"I am afraid," he confessed, "that I am rather what the\' call over here
a 'slacker.' There are more of them on this side than in my country, as
a rule. Of course, there was the War. Since then I haven't done anything
particular."

"You play games, do you not? I have seen your name amongst the polo
players. I think I saw you play once at Ranelagh."

"It is quite likely," he admitted.

"But when the season for games passes?" she persisted. "How do you spend
your time then? You have still perhaps business affairs to attend to. In
your country these become so absorbing that you men sometimes find
leisure for little else."

He shook his head.

"I know better than to attempt anything of the sort," he confided."
Banking in Wall Street is rather too intricate an affair for an amateur
to meddle with. When I left college, I went to Washington for a time. I
had some idea of studying diplomacy. They sent me down to two places in
South America, but I couldn't seem to make good anyway. Then the War
came, and since then--well, I've just drifted around."

She had the air of beginning to lose interest in him. Mark noticed it,
and sought desperately to re-establish himself.

"Of course," he argued, "it's all very well for Dorchester. He is living
in his own country, and he has his own interests and the interests of
his class to work for. For me there is nothing. America doesn't need men
of my kind, who have no commercial training. If I were to try, for
instance, to manage my own affairs over there, it would simply mean that
money would be wasted."

"A somewhat indolent excuse," she murmured disapprovingly. "Why not
return to diplomacy?"

"I thought of it once," he admitted.

She turned away, and addressed some remark to de Fontanay, whose gallant
efforts to entertain Dukane had come momentarily to an end. Mark had a
queer and disconcerting feeling that he had somehow fallen into
disfavour with the one person in the world he was most anxious to
conciliate. He watched her admiringly, the eloquent turn of her head,
her white neck with its single row of beautiful pearls, her full,
unbecarmined lips, the transparent, untouched complexion. He watched her
smile, and found it adorable--a smile accompanied by the deepening of
the fascinating little lines at the corners of her eyes. She was
discussing with de Fontanay the poetry of a Russian whom they had both
met in Paris, and for the first time Mark realised that she possessed,
notwithstanding the precision of her speech, distinct traces of a
foreign accent--an accent, however, which seemed to make her voice even
more attractive. He leaned forward, and, taking his courage into his
hands, addressed her father.

"You live in Paris, don't you, sir?" he asked. "I remember once having
your house in the Bois pointed out to me."

"It is my headquarters," Dukane admitted. "I have, however, a
pied-à-terre in a good many places. Just now my affairs make it
necessary that I stay some time in London."

"You are spending the season here, you and your daughter?" Mark
continued eagerly.

Dukane knocked the ash from the cigar which de Fontanay had persuaded
him to light.

"I don't know what you mean by the 'season,'" he answered. "Social
things do not interest me. I am here for another six weeks, or two
months, until certain affairs in which I am concerned are concluded.
When they are, I shall get away as soon as I can. The English climate
and cooking are the worst in the world. What did you say your name was?"

"Van Stratton," Mark replied, a little taken aback by the abruptness of
the question.

"And you're American? Are you connected in any way with the firm of Van
Stratton and Arbuthnot of Wall Street?"

"My grandfather founded the business, I am the only Van Stratton left."

"Your grandfather then," Felix Dukane declared, "was one of the
shrewdest men of his generation. You have still interests in the firm?"

"All my interests are in it," Mark assented--"my financial ones, that is
to say. I am not a banker myself though."

Felix Dukane looked at him keenly--appraisingly, as Mark felt. There was
something covert about the intensity of his regard.

"It is a pity," he said. "I could give you good advice. Your people are
still money-makers, but they are too conservative. Modern banking
requires new methods."

The girl turned suddenly back to Mark. She had apparently concluded her
conversation with de Fontanay, who was leaning back in his chair with
the satisfied air of one who has just produced a successful repartee.

"Colonel de Fontanay is too literary to be human," she declared. "Are
you a great reader, Mr. Van Stratton?"

"I am afraid not," he confessed, a little gloomily, "and I am afraid
that, except for one or two of my favourites, what I do read in a
general way could scarcely be called literature."

She concentrated upon him a regard which might almost have been termed
critical. He was over six feet, with broad shoulders and long athletic
body, with the blue eyes and fair hair of his Dutch ancestors, but
little of their stolidity. His expression at the moment was certainly a
little anxious and discontented, but he had by no means the appearance
of a man lacking in intelligence. De Fontanay had bravely resumed his
attempts at conversation with Dukane, a passing acquaintance had paused
to speak to Dorchester. Mark and his companion were practically
isolated.

"Should you very much resent a word of advice from a complete stranger?"
she asked, dropping her voice a little.

"If you mean yourself, I should welcome it," was the eager reply. "You
see, if you took so much interest in me as to offer it, I should feel
that after all we were not complete strangers. I don't feel that way
myself at all."

She laughed softly. His intense earnestness redeemed his speech from any
suggestion of impertinence.

"Very well then," she continued, "I will speak to you not as a stranger,
but as a friend. If, by any chance, the opportunity should come for you
to take up some useful work--I do not mean wasting time in Bolivia or
Ecuador or one of those terrible countries, but if at any time you
should have a position offered you which meant a certain amount of
responsibility, but which occupied some of your idle time, promise me
not to refuse it."

He was a little bewildered, but he did not hesitate.

"I won't refuse anything," he assured her. "If I am offered a job as
Consul to the North Pole, or President of the United States, I'll take
either on if you wish me to."

"Brave man!" she murmured, under her breath. "Don't forget."

She rose to her feet in response to an imperative gesture from her
father, and after farewells, which the latter's impatience restricted to
the merest conventionalities, they took their leave. The three men
resumed their seats.

"Well?" de Fontanay enquired, as he lit a fresh cigarette.

"She is just as wonderful as I knew she would be," Mark declared
fervently.

"She is the most attractive human being I have ever met," Dorchester
pronounced. "Ambitious, too,--no use for idlers. She is coming down to
the House to hear me speak one day next week. I warn you, Mark, that if
you are in earnest, you may possibly find in me a rival."

There was a gleam of cynical amusement in de Fontanay's eyes as he
leaned back and laughed softly.

"I suppose in your way," he mused, "you are both of you eligible enough
'partis.' You, Henry, the son of a peer--second in succession,
by-the-by, aren't you?--and Mark here, a millionaire. All the same," he
went on, with a note of seriousness in his tone, "when Estelle Dukane
makes up her mind to marry, her father could buy her a kingdom if he
chose. If either of you two are in earnest, take my advice and forget
it."



CHAPTER III


Mr. Stephen Widdowes, Ambassador from the Government of the United
States to the Court of St. James, a pleasant, dignified-looking man of
slightly over middle age, was standing upon the pavement waiting for his
car as Mark left the hotel. The latter raised his hat respectfully, and
would have passed on. The Ambassador, however, detained him.

"Just the man I was looking for, Mark!" he exclaimed. "Are you in a
hurry for half an hour?"

"Nothing whatever to do, sir, this afternoon," was the prompt admission.

"Step in and drive round with me to Carlton House then," the other
invited. "I have a few little matters to look after down there. They
won't take me more than a few minutes. Brownlow was writing to you this
evening."

Mark, mystified but interested, accepted the invitation, and entered the
car. During the short drive his companion spoke only of the weather and
some mutual family friends. Arrived at the Embassy, he led the way to
his own study where Brownlow, his private secretary, was at work.

"Anything urgent?" the Ambassador enquired.

"Nothing of any importance, sir. They have rung up from Whitehall once
or twice, but we were able to deal with their enquiries."

"That's good. You know Mark Van Stratton?"

The two young men exchanged greetings.

"Of course you do, though," the Ambassador continued, "you were at
Harvard together, weren't you, and you must have met here. Give us a few
minutes, Brownlow. I want to have a word or two with this young man."

"I have to go down to the Consul's office, if you can spare me for half
an hour, sir."

"Capital! Don't be longer if you can help it."

Mr. Widdowes waited until the door was closed. Then he motioned his
visitor to a chair and seated himself at his desk.

"Am I correct in believing, Mark," he began, "that you have so far
imbibed English habits as to be living the life of a gentleman at ease?"

"Well, that's one way of putting it, sir," the other admitted. "Since
the War I am afraid I have led rather a useless existence."

"Should you like some work?"

The question was so unexpected that it came almost as a shock. Mark's
thoughts flashed back to the Ritz, to the girl leaning towards him, her
earnest, almost mysterious admonition. If this was coincidence it was
coincidence of an amazing sort.

"What kind of work, sir?" he enquired.

"We need help here badly," Mr. Widdowes explained. "We have all we can
do at any time. They don't overstaff us, as you know, and perhaps you've
heard--we've lost Dimsdale. Influenza, or something of the sort. He's
going home by the next steamer."

"Sorry to hear that, sir," Mark ventured. "He always seemed so keen."

Mr. Widdowes sighed.

"Well, anyhow, he's gone, and I don't know exactly where to replace him
for the moment."

"Do you think I should be of any use, sir?" Mark asked eagerly.

"Of course you would," was the prompt reply. "Anyway, I want you to try.
You could relieve Brownlow here of some of the social stunts he has to
get up for Mrs. Widdowes--takes him half his day sometimes to make out
her party lists. The work won't be strenuous, of course. All that we
need is someone who knows the social ropes pretty well, and can keep a
still tongue in his head if any other little matter happens to come
along. Can you dine to-night?"

"I have no engagement, sir."

"Capital! We'll have a further talk after dinner. Come early--say, about
a quarter to eight. Mrs. Widdowes may want you to help her. She misses
Ned rather when we have guests."

Mark was dismissed with a kindly nod, and walked out feeling a little
dazed. With his hands thrust into his overcoat pockets he stood upon the
pavement for several seconds. The Ambassador's offer was not, after all,
such a surprising one, as Mark was on cordial terms with the family, and
the suggestion of his re-entering the diplomatic service had once or
twice cropped up in the course of conversation. The coincidence was that
the offer should have come on this precise day. "She couldn't possibly
have guessed," he reflected. "It's odd, though--damned odd!"...

Instead of turning back into Pall Mall, Mark descended the steps and
turned towards the Strand, meaning to call upon some friends in the
Savoy Court. After a few yards, he turned up the collar of his coat, for
the mist which had been hanging about all day was changing into rain,
and towards the river there were signs of fog. He had only proceeded a
short distance, however, when a long two-seater car, driven by a girl,
passed him at a great speed and suddenly, with a discordant grinding of
brakes, was brought to a standstill by the kerb a little way ahead. The
girl looked round and waved to him. Mark, recognising her with a thrill
of pleasure, raised his hat and hurried forward.

"Have I splashed you?" she asked. "If so, I am very sorry. It was
wonderful seeing you so unexpectedly. Jump in, please."

Her invitation, surprising though it was, seemed as she delivered it, to
be the most natural thing in the world. Mark obeyed without hesitation,
and in a moment they were off again. She was seated very low amongst the
cushions, and was completely enveloped in a macintosh driving coat, but
she wore no veil, and he realised at once that there was a change in her
since luncheon-time. She had lost that becoming tinge of colour, her
eyes were set and her expression strained.

"I cannot talk to you yet," she explained during the short distance they
traversed before reaching the Arch. "I wish to drive as quickly as I
can, and the traffic is always terrible getting to Northumberland
Avenue. I am taking you down to my father's office in Norfolk Street."

"Is there anything wrong?" he asked anxiously.

"Yes," she admitted, "but I cannot tell you about it now."

"Don't worry," he begged her. "If I can help I'll be proud. Get right
along with your driving. If you're stalled I can take the wheel. I have
one of these cars myself."

She nodded, but it was soon very clear that she needed no help. She
threaded her way through the maelstrom of traffic to Northumberland
Avenue with scarcely a pause, and, regardless of the disapproving glance
of the policeman on duty, swept down on to the Embankment, raced along
under the arch, and bearing a little to the left, turned up one of the
streets leading to the Strand. At the third house on the left she
paused. There was a powerful-looking commissionaire at the door, but no
brass plate, or any indication as to the nature of the premises.

"This is where my father interviews people whom he does not wish to meet
in the city," she confided. "Come this way, please."

Mark followed her into the building. There was nothing whatever to
denote the fact that he was in a private retreat of one of the world's
great millionaires. The tesselated stone floor was uncovered. The two
rooms through which she led him contained only half a dozen men working
at separate desks, and three or four stenographers. She knocked at an
inner door and, without waiting for a reply, threw it open.

"Please come in."

They entered a comfortable but by no means luxuriously furnished
apartment. Estelle closed the door, and sank into a chair a little
breathlessly. Her father sat at a table upon which were several
telephones, a banker's directory and a few other cloth-bound volumes. He
looked up coldly at their entrance, without showing any particular sign
of surprise or curiosity. Impossible though it must have been, it seemed
to Mark almost as though he might have been expected.

"Olsen had left," the girl announced. "I must have missed him by five
minutes. I found Mr. Van Stratton in the Mall. I don't know why I
brought him, but I did. I have told him nothing."

Felix Dukane eyed the young man with a frown which was almost a scowl.
Mark, who was already sufficiently confused was unable to indulge in
even the faintest surmise as to the nature of the thoughts which were
passing through the other's brain. He seemed to have become an object of
speculative interest to the great financier but nothing in the latter's
demeanour afforded the slightest indication as to the cause for such
interest.

"Since the young man is here," Felix Dukane decided grudgingly, "we had
better perhaps go upstairs and explain our dilemma."

He rose to his feet, unlocked the door of another exit from the room, by
means of a key attached to his watch chain, and led the way across the
hall to a small automatic lift into which he motioned his two companions
to precede him. Mark, upon their upward journey, ventured upon a
somewhat bewildered question, but the girl only shook her head. Her
self-control seemed for the moment to have deserted her. Her lips were
quivering, and there was an expression almost of horror in her eyes.
More than ever Mark wondered how she had been able to drive with such
success through the crowded streets. Presently the lift came to a
standstill. They all stepped out into a little hall thickly carpeted and
having an appearance of luxury which the downstairs premises had
entirely lacked. With another key Mr. Dukane opened a heavy oak door,
leading into an apartment which, from the number of books which lined
the walls and the comfortable easy-chairs, might have been a man's
library. The furniture, however, was in disorder, a couch was
overturned, and a small table was lying on its side with a vase of
flowers beside it from which the water was trickling across the carpet.
Suddenly Mark received a shock. Upon the floor, behind one of the
chairs, was the outstretched figure of a man, a rug covering the upper
part of the body.

"Good God, what's happened here?" Mark cried.

"I have had the misfortune," Dukane explained in his hard dry tone,
"during a somewhat heated altercation, to kill an importunate and
annoying visitor."



CHAPTER IV


There was a brief period of horrified silence--the girl leaning against
the side of an easy-chair with her head turned away, clearly on the
point of a breakdown, Felix Dukane standing like a statue with his under
lip thrust out, Mark, dumb as much from sheer surprise at this
unexpected termination of his little adventure as from any sense of
shock. But only a few feet away, lay without a doubt damning evidence as
to the truth of Felix Dukane's confession. Mark found himself dwelling
curiously upon unimportant details; the neat patent shoes, the
monogrammed socks, the carefully pressed trousers of the prostrate
figure. He roused himself at last to speech.

"Look here," he expostulated, "you're not serious? You may have hurt
him. He can't be dead."

"I tell you that he is dead," Dukane insisted harshly. "I did not mean
to strike so hard, but he had made me very angry. I struck him on the
side of the head behind the ear, and he went down like a log. It is the
second time he has tried to blackmail me. This time I lost my temper."

"But what are you going to do about it?" Mark ventured. "Have you rung
up for a doctor, or for the police?"

Dukane scowled contemptuously.

"What would be the good of that?" he demanded. "The doctor could tell me
no more than I know--that the man is dead. As for the police they are
the last people to be dragged in. Do you suppose I want to be marched
off to the Courts, and charged with manslaughter or murder?"

"Is there any other way?" Mark asked bluntly.

"Of course there is," was the angry rejoinder. "If the person whom my
daughter went to fetch had not by some evil chance left for Paris this
afternoon, he would have done everything that is necessary. The question
is, are you man enough to take his place?"

"What do you mean?"

Dukane suddenly gripped his arm and Mark realised the other's enormous
muscular strength. The fingers seemed to crumple up the flesh and almost
crush the bone beneath. He turned him towards the window.

"Look there," he pointed out hoarsely. "You see what's coming?"

Mark glanced towards the river. Already the lamps across the bridge were
shining dimly through a bank of yellow-black fog. Patches of it hung
over the water, and even in this narrow thoroughfare the opposite houses
were barely visible. Dukane pointed upwards. Above the roofs it hung
like a descending curtain, solid and fearsome.

"In half an hour," the latter continued, "no man in the streets will see
another. Think! You drive a little way in the car below--where you will.
You take--it--with you--anywhere, away from here. Who is to know? You
look strong. You could lift a thing like that with one hand. What about
the bridge, the river?"

"Say, is this a serious suggestion?" Mark gasped.

"Of course it is. Do you think I want to go into the dock and be charged
with killing a creature like that. They might not punish me. The man is
scum, I tell you, but I am in the midst of negotiations upon which the
future prosperity of Europe may depend. If I am interrupted now it may
mean ruin to thousands. I tell you that it is the work of my life, which
draws near to the end," he went on, his voice suddenly strident. "Every
hour of my time is pledged. Besides, my name! The thing might not be
properly understood. There are risks I can't speak of."

Involuntarily Mark turned his head, and as he did so the girl came
towards him. All that wonderful light, the expression which had played
like some inner sunshine around her lips and eyes, had gone. The life
was drained from her. There remained still, however, the nameless
unanalysable appeal which seemed to have drifted to him from the moment
of her entrance across the crowded restaurant.

"Of course this must all sound like madness," she said, "but help
us--oh, help us, if you can."

"I should very much like to," he assured her gravely.

"A scandal just now would mean such terrible things for my father," she
went on, "and it would do no good. The man is dead and there is an end
of it. You will not run a great risk. If you are discovered you can say
that you were on your way to a hospital, and we will tell the truth. But
you will not be discovered. You will save us from a great disaster, and
you will do nobody any harm...It is so much to ask of a stranger, and
yet, when I saw you in Pall Mall just now I remembered what you said to
me an hour or two ago. I remembered--"

The pause was unaccountably eloquent, thrilling in a mysterious,
unexpected way. She was offering nothing, promising nothing, and yet he
felt an overmastering impulse to do her bidding, to run any risk, to
establish himself in her life--her benefactor, the man who had not
failed her in this terrible moment.

"If you are Mark Van Stratton," her father intervened, "I cannot bribe
you. You must have all the money you need in life, but if there is any
other way--"

"You cannot bribe him, father," she interrupted. "He is going to do this
for us, for my sake. Will you render me this great service and become my
friend for always, Mr. Mark Van Stratton? I have faults--many--but no
one in the world has ever called me ungrateful."

Her hand had slipped from his shoulder and her soft, caressing fingers
lay upon his. Her eyes now had lost the glaze of horror. They had
opened. They were full of appeal. They pleaded and promised at the same
time. Mark had no more thought of hesitation.

"I shall do what you ask me," he declared, taking her other hand for a
moment into his. "Only not in the river. That seems too horrible. I will
find a safe, quiet place somewhere."

"You will never regret it," she whispered.

"I am to take your car?"

"Why not? You say that you can drive it, and it will save time. There
are piles of rugs and the seats are very low. Even when you drive you
seem to be lying down."

"And from here to the street?"

"The lift we came up in is a private one," Dukane explained. "No one
else is allowed to use it. These few rooms are my haven of escape from
people whom I do not wish to see. The commissionaire outside I have sent
away. All you have to do is to carry him down, cover him up in the car,
and drive off. You will be perfectly safe. Look outside."

Mark glanced through the dripping windows. The atmosphere was becoming
denser, the street lamps diffuse patches of sickly yellow. There were
shouts in the street, and the roar of the traffic had subsided into a
rumble, almost a silence. Even inside the room little tongues of fog
seemed to have found their way.

"What I am asking you to do," Dukane repeated, "is not only for my sake.
It is for the sake of millions of others. My work cannot be stopped."

"I will do it," Mark promised. "The sooner I start the better. If the
fog becomes worse I may not be able to drive the car at all. Is there
petrol?"

"Full up," the girl answered.

"What shall I do with the car afterwards?"

"Leave it in any garage you Uke," she begged. "I can send for it."

Within the room now the darkness was becoming every minute more dense.
Mark stooped down and lifted the man from the floor; a slight frail
creature he seemed. His complexion was fair, almost sandy, his features
insipid, his mouth twisted as though in pain. There was a cruel wound at
the back of the head with a few drops of blood. Nothing more. His weight
to Mark was negligible. Dukane held open the door whilst the girl looked
out. She crossed the passage, held her finger upon the knob and the lift
came rumbling up.

"There is no one whom you could possibly meet," she whispered. "This
part of the premises is completely cut off. Even my maid is at the hotel
where we have rooms--not here."

He nodded and stepped into the lift carrying his burden, nerved for his
task by her final glance of gratitude. Down below all was as Dukane had
said; an empty passage, the car waiting at the kerb, its lights throwing
strange little ineffective halos across the gathering wall of darkness.
Mark laid the recumbent figure upon the seat, covering it to the throat
with rugs, and climbed over the other side into the driver's place,
Dukane, who had followed him down, stepped back coughing heavily.

"I have a private wire here, 1000 Y Gerrard, if it should be necessary
to communicate with me," he confided.

"I'll remember," Mark promised.

"You will never regret this. Van Stratton," were Dukane's valedictory
words.

"I hope not," the young man answered...

And then the drive commenced which Mark remembered for the rest of his
life. Choosing the side streets he crawled down on to the Embankment, up
Northumberland Avenue, there to find a holocaust of motionless traffic,
men shouting, women crying with fear, shadowy figures waving torches
passing here and there, escorting a string of taxicabs and cars. Somehow
or other he reached Pall Mall and crept up St. James's Street into
Piccadilly, only to find things worse. He had finally set his mind
against Dukane's first suggestion. The river was too terrible a thought.
He would carry this thing through according to his own ideas. Slowly he
felt his way down to West Kensington, and there a sudden slight
uplifting of the fog enabled him to pass through Hammersmith and over
Hammersmith Bridge at a reasonable speed. Round Ranelagh and Barnes,
though, the darkness was almost impenetrable. Twice he was obliged to
get out to locate with difficulty the kerbstone. At the crossroads by
Roehampton Lane he turned to the right. Things were a little better here
and in the course of time he reached the entrance of Richmond Park. To
his immense relief the gates still stood open and, unobserved by anyone,
he stole in, travelled on towards the Kingston Gate for about a mile,
and then brought the car to a standstill by the side of the road. There
was not a visible object anywhere and scarcely a sound, until a deer,
attracted by the lights, came close up and then cantered off. Otherwise
it seemed as though he had wandered into a new and strange world,
peopled by an unimaginable silence. Mark was a young and strong man to
whom nerves were a thing unknown, but for a moment, as he sat there, he
shivered. The completion of his task seemed grotesque, like a hideous
fragment of nightmare. The thing had to be faced however. He descended,
stumbled round to the other side of the car, lifted out his burden,
carried it a little way across the turf, and finally rested it with its
back to a tree. When he stood away he was surprised to find that
although the exertion had been slight enough there were drops of sweat
standing out upon his forehead. He thrust his hand into his pocket,
found his case and lit a cigarette, clambered round the car and opened
the door. Then he stood suddenly still, for of all the horrors of the
day the one he had now to face seemed to him the greatest and most
incredible. From a few feet behind him, out of the darkness, came the
sound of a feeble voice.

"Don't leave me here. Give me some brandy. Oh, God, my head!"



CHAPTER V


After the first shock of finding his charge alive, Mark was conscious of
an immense sense of relief. The drama of his ghastly drive was
lightened. He realised the idiocy of having accepted the frantic story
of a terrified man and girl as to what had happened, to have been
satisfied without a doctor's verdict of the death of the man.
Nevertheless, the first few seconds were extraordinarily thrilling. He
stepped back to the tree and stood leaning down with his hand upon its
trunk, looking at the recumbent figure. The commencement of the
conversation naturally presented some difficulties.

"So you're not dead?" he ventured a little clumsily.

"I am one of those who take much liking," was the weary reply. "Who are
you? A friend or an enemy? You mean to finish what he began? Why? I have
not done you any harm."

"I am certainly not your enemy, or any man's that I know of," Mark
assured him. "You are perfectly safe with me. If you can lift your arms,
put them round my neck, and I will carry you back to the car."

The man obeyed feebly, and Mark made him as comfortable as he could
amongst the cushions. He was still ghastly pale, and the wound on his
head had recommenced to bleed slightly. Mark tied it up with his
handkerchief.

"We'll stop at the first pub," he promised, "and I'll get you some
brandy."

"And--afterwards?"

"I'm damned if I know. Where do you live? Where do you want to be
taken?"

There was no reply. The man had closed his eyes again and appeared to be
only partially conscious. Mark drove slowly back through the Park and
out into the streets until he came to the lights of a public house. The
man drank the brandy which he procured, drowsily, a few drops at a time.

"Soon I shall be all right," he murmured. "God! My head!"

They made their laboured way back through Hammersmith and Kensington.
After they reached Hyde Park the fog was less dense, and progress
comparatively easy. Mark pulled up by the side of the road.

"Look here," he suggested, "shall I take you to a hospital?"

His companion shook his head.

"Home then? Tell me your name and where you are staying?"

There was still no reply. The man seemed to have relapsed again into a
comatose state. Mark glanced thoughtfully across towards the Hospital
and remembered the questions he would probably have to answer. He
started the car again, drove on to Curzon Street, and pulled up before
the door of his own little maisonette.

"Andrews," he told his servant, who admitted him, "I have a gentleman in
the car who has met with an accident in the fog. Help me in with him.
We'll get him upstairs and then telephone for a doctor."

It all seemed perfectly natural. Within a few minutes the injured man
was comfortably in bed, and shortly afterwards, in response to the
telephone call, the doctor made his appearance.

"I picked this poor fellow up in the street," Mark explained. "I fancy
he had been having a row with someone."

The doctor nodded.

"Any quantity of accidents a day like this," he remarked beginning his
examination. "Is he a friend of yours?"

"A complete stranger," Mark admitted. "I suppose I ought to have taken
him to a hospital."

"Good thing you didn't. They're all chock full. He's had a terrible
knock here."

"Serious?"

"He'll be all right in time. Touch and go, though. Better let me send in
a nurse, if you don't mind, to dress this. She'll take all the
responsibility."

"Fine," Mark exclaimed. "And, doctor."

"Well?"

"There's no need for me to make any report, is there, about having found
him? If he has any complaint to lodge against anyone he can make it
himself when he recovers."

"No need for you to do anything of the sort," was the prompt reply, "So
far as I'm concerned an accident in the fog is all I want to know. You
weren't the aggressor, I suppose?"

"I can assure you that I wasn't," Mark declared. "I couldn't hit
anything that size."

The doctor paused to write out a prescription.

"I'll send a nurse in half an hour," he promised, "and I'll be round in
the morning. Don't bother about the fee now. I'm busy. There'll be
plenty of time for that. He'll do nicely. I shouldn't be surprised if he
slept."

The doctor took his leave and Mark, having rung for a servant to sit
with the unconscious man, made his way downstairs into his own little
library and threw himself into an easy chair. Presently Andrews entered
noiselessly, carrying a tray upon which were glasses and a cocktail
shaker.

"A good strong Martini," his master ordered.

"Tell me, what time is it?"

"Half-past six, sir. You'll excuse my reminding you that you're dining
at the American Embassy. One of the secretaries rang up about an hour
ago to ask you to be there punctually..."

Mark drank his cocktail and took off the telephone receiver from the
instrument by his side.

"1000 Y Gerrard," he demanded.

A strange voice answered the call.

"Van Stratton speaking," Mark announced. "Are Mr. or Miss Dukane there?"

"Mr. and Miss Dukane have both left."

"Where are they? Where can I find them?"

"We have no information."

"But the matter is important," Mark ventured.

"We have no information as to the whereabouts of either Mr. or Miss
Dukane when they are not here."

"But I have information of the utmost importance for Mr. Dukane. You
must tell me where to get at him," Mark persisted.

"Mr. Dukane has a private wire for his own use during the occasional
hour or so a day which he spends here," was the uncompromising reply."
Apart from that his instructions are absolutely final. He is very much
engaged and troubled with too much correspondence. He does not allow
messages or his address to be given. Please ring off."

Mark abandoned his effort and lit a cigarette. Dorchester was announced.
The latter flung himself into an easy chair with the air of one
thoroughly at home.

"Your cocktails are better than anyone's, Mark," he confided. "I
couldn't help coming round, even in this beastly fog. What did you think
of our new friends at close quarters?"

"Well," Mark answered, "he seems just as disagreeable as he appears and
she just as charming."

Dorchester stretched out his hand and took a cigarette.

"The fellow's a big pot, you know."

Mark nodded. He was more in the humour for listening than talking.

"Tell you something I heard about him this afternoon," Dorchester went
on, "Mind you, I don't know whether it's true or not. They say that he's
been rather shy of the big things lately, gathering in his money from
every quarter of the world. Do you know why?"

"Haven't the least idea," Mark acknowledged.

"They say," Dorchester continued impressively, "that he's at the bottom
of all this speculation against the franc. That's the gossip in Paris,
anyway."

Mark was thoughtful for a moment.

"I don't see that there's money to be made out of that," he commented.

"That's because you're not a financier," Dorchester declared. "Of course
we don't know what his scheme is, but we do know that we have to be
buying currency all the time to pay America, and a low franc suits us
all right. I can't imagine Dukane standing in with our fellows though."

"Dukane doesn't cut any figure in international politics, does he?" Mark
enquired.

"I don't imagine so," Dorchester answered. "I should think he's simply
out for an enormous coup. They say that even the first of the
Rothschilds never had a brain for finance like his...What about a round
of golf to-morrow morning, if the fog lifts?"

Mark shook his head.

"I guess I'm through with that for a bit. Do I strike you as having the
necessary qualifications for a diplomat, Henry?"

"No one on God's earth less so," was the fervent reply.

"No need to be rude about it," Mark complained. "Anyway, I'm roped in
for the job. They are overworked at the Embassy and I'm going to do the
social stunt and any other odd piece of work that turns up. Start
to-morrow. Room of my own, official air, lady secretary, edited visiting
lists, shake hands with everybody. You know the sort of thing!"

"Keep you out of mischief, anyway."

"You needn't be so beastly superior about it all. I was in the Service
before the War began. I shall never forget the seven months I spent at a
wretched little place in South America. By-the-bye, have you any idea
where the Dukane's are staying?"

"Neither I nor anyone else, I should think," Dorchester replied
gloomily. "Not only his business transactions, but his whole private
life seems to be one huge camouflage. X wanted to have my people call,
but it doesn't seem possible. I believe they move from hotel to hotel
every day. What are you doing to-night?"

"Dining at the Embassy," Mark answered. "I've got to be there to have a
talk with Mrs. Widdowes first, too."

Dorchester finished his cocktail and rose to his feet.

"I shall be down at the House until late," he announced. "What's the
hospital nurse doing on your stairs?"

"One of the maids has influenza," Mark answered coolly, as he rang the
bell. "I think I was rather an ass to take on a house. Service flats
save you a lot of trouble. Sure you won't have another cocktail?"

Dorchester shook his head.

"Must keep my brain clear," he confided. "The British public needs
guiding and something tells me that to-night mine is the voice which
will do it."

"You can't monopolise the House," Mark warned him, as they strolled into
the hall. "You spoke a few nights ago."

"The voice of young England--" Dorchester began--"I say, what the
devil's that?"

A door upstairs had been opened and the sound of a deep troubled groan
travelled out from the room behind.

"My invalid, I suppose," Mark answered.

Dorchester stared at him for a moment incredulously, and then shrugged
his shoulders.

"Not my business, anyway," he remarked, as he took his leave. "Pretty
deep bass voice that, though, for an invalid maidservant."



CHAPTER VI


Mrs. Widdowes possessed most of the qualities desirable in the wife of a
popular Ambassador, combined with a singular and entirely individual
charm. She was inclined to be fussy about details, however, and Mark was
not sorry when his half-an-hour's conversation with her before dinner
was at an end.

"What about to-night's party?" he enquired.

"Quite informal," she answered. "There are only three interesting
people. One is Baron Machiowinscki, the Polish banker. He came to see us
several times in New York."

"I have heard of him," Mark acknowledged. "They say that he lost
everything during the War, and has made another fortune since."

Mrs. Widdowes indulged in a significant grimace.

"I know very little about any of these people," she confessed, "and
though I suppose it's silly nowadays, I'm not very fond of entertaining
foreigners all the time. The really interesting people who are coming
to-night, however, are Felix Dukane and his daughter."

"Felix Dukane and his daughter--dining here to-night!" Mark repeated
breathlessly.

"They are coming quite informally," Mrs. Widdowes confided. "We haven't
even exchanged calls or anything. George has been asked from home to try
to get some information from Mr. Dukane and thought the simplest way was
to invite him to dine."

"Shall I be seated anywhere near the daughter?" Mark enquired.

Mrs. Widdowes glanced at the list which lay upon the table,

"Opposite. We are so small a party that we have only one married woman,
so Miss Dukane has to sit on George's left. You don't know her by any
chance, do you?"

"I met her at luncheon-time."

"I have never even seen her," Mrs. Widdowes admitted. "Is she
attractive?"

"I should say so!" Mark replied, with restrained, but obvious
enthusiasm.

Mrs. Widdowes glanced once more at the list.

"Sorry, I can't put you on her other side, Mark," she observed. "It
doesn't work out, though. It is one of the penalties of being something
like an inmate of the household, as you will discover, that you have
sometimes to make yourself agreeable to the dull people. However, you'll
have a chance to talk to her afterwards. We must go down now..."

In the drawing-room, Mark, as he talked on unimportant matters with
Brownlow, was conscious of a sense of excited anticipation which almost
bewildered him. His mind was filled once more with vivid impressions of
the girl who had taken so unexpectedly a wonderful place in his life and
thoughts. He pictured her as he had seen her for the first time,
entering the restaurant, and recalled the curious thrill which had
struck a new note amongst his emotions, which had kept him almost
spell-bound during their brief interview. Then he remembered the mute
tenseness of her expression as she had turned round from the low driving
seat of her automobile in the Mall, and half invited, half ordered him
to take his place by her side; and afterwards the breathless seconds in
that strange sitting-room, with the fog growing denser outside and the
sense of tragedy within. To-night, in a few months--any moment--he would
see her under entirely different conditions. He found his mind dwelling
with singular persistence upon trifles--what coloured dress she would
wear, how she would arrange her hair. Yet when she at last came into the
room, followed by her father, he noticed none of these things. He knew
later that she was wearing black, that her pearls were marvellous, that
her hair lent itself naturally to the mode of the day. In those first
few seconds of her coming, however, he could only realise with poignant
disappointment that the very gracious smile with which she greeted the
other people presented to her faded almost entirely from her lips as
their eyes met.

"Mr. Van Stratton, you know, I believe," her hostess concluded.

"We met at luncheon to-day, didn't we?" was the indifferent assent.

Mark murmured something conventional, and immediately afterwards dinner
was announced. He took in Myra, the somewhat youthful daughter of the
house, who had been his protegee since childhood, and did his best to
listen to her rather voluble chatter. All the time he was puzzled, even
distressed. The fascinating little smile which in conversation so seldom
left Estelle's lips, was absent if by chance she looked across the
table. Her eyes met his once, and remained unmagnetic and aloof. Once he
ventured to address her, but her reply was monosyllabic. A few places
from him Felix Dukane sat by his hostess's side, taciturn, almost
morose, as he talked in a somewhat stilted fashion of subjects which he
obviously found uninteresting. One of the other guests, conveniently
placed for intercourse with him, was a great English banker with an
historic name, but all his attempts to discuss even indirectly the great
problems of finance were absolutely unsuccessful. Dukane was living up
to his reputation; a hard, impenetrable person, without the desire or
the capacity for social amenities. He was everything that might have
been expected, perhaps, but the more Mark considered his daughter's
manner, the more puzzled he became. At least, she might have vouchsafed
him one little kindly glance of understanding, even if she preferred to
ignore everything else. On the contrary, when the women left the room
she avoided his eyes with a persistence which sent him back to his place
disheartened and depressed.

The after-dinner interval was fortunately short. Felix Dukane drank no
wine and refused to smoke. In a few minutes his host rose to his feet.

"Mr. Dukane and I are going into the study," he announced. "You will
perhaps join us, Baron, and you, Mark, if you like, can come along, too.
You want to be off, I know, Brownlow. Mark can do anything necessary,"

"If you wouldn't mind excusing me, sir," Brownlow assented. "Mrs.
Widdowes was anxious that I should take Myra on to the dance at Apley
House."

Crossing the hall, Mark did his best to detach Dukane for a moment from
the others, but absolutely failed. There seemed to be some understanding
between father and daughter to utterly ignore the happening of the
afternoon. Mark relapsed into gloomy and silent resentment. At his
Chief's request he passed round the cigarettes and cigars which were set
out upon the sideboard and, helping himself to a liqueur brandy, took a
seat at a writing-table in the background, in case he should be
required.

Mr. Widdowes, with a facility which amounted almost to genius, threw off
the mantle of the ambassador and became a private American citizen, as
he stretched himself out in his easy-chair and puffed contentedly at his
cigar.

"It's very good of you to have come along this evening, Mr. Dukane," he
said, "I couldn't help thinking that a few minutes' friendly chat
between us at the present juncture of affairs might save a whole lot of
misunderstanding in the future."

There was no response in Dukane's manner to the geniality of his host.
He had refused an easy-chair, and was seated without any measure of
relaxation at the table in the middle of the room. He had declined both
cigars and liqueurs, and his coffee remained as yet untasted.

"I could scarcely refuse a conference with the representative of a
Country which numbers amongst its citizens so many of my friends and
competitors," he commented dryly.

Mr. Widdowes frowned.

"But my dear Mr. Dukane," he pointed out, "I want to make it quite clear
to you--I hoped that my little invitation had already done so--that, for
the purposes of our conversation, I am entirely an unofficial person. I
have no Government instructions of any sort, I simply wanted a friendly
chat as regards certain of your activities in Drome."

"You wish to speak to me, I take it, then, unofficially," Felix Dukane
observed, "Why?"

"Don't you see," the Ambassador explained, "that a frank and friendly
conversation may clear away certain misunderstandings which if they were
allowed to develop might necessitate official action?"

Dukane almost smiled; at any rate, his lips parted, although any
impression of humour was entirely lacking.

"What official action," he enquired, "could you ever take with regard to
me? I am a private individual. I doubt whether anyone knows for certain
of what Country I am a citizen. The Government--especially the
Government of a great Country like the United States of America--can
scarcely make use of the weapons of international diplomacy against an
individual."

"The situation is unique, I grant you," Mr. Widowes assented,
good-humouredly, "but you must remember that you are a very exceptional
individual, Mr. Dukane. You appear to have set yourself to acquire the
whole of the assets of a Country where considerable American interests
exist. One hears of millions of acres of fertile country, of mines, and
a whole province of oil producing land, passing into your possession. A
dozen times within the last few months, American citizens have been
denied an option on various territories in this Country. The strongest
representations to the court of Andropulo, by our representative there
have failed to evoke anything but evasive replies. What does it all
mean, Mr. Dukane? Are you aiming at taking your place amongst the
royalties or dictators of Europe, by right of purchase? If so, you'll
have to set up a court, you know, and invite foreign representatives.
Other people have an interest in Drome. You can't treat a whole kingdom
like a country estate."

"Isn't my money," Felix Dukane enquired, "as good as the money of these
American citizens you speak of? Why shouldn't the Government of
Drome--if they prefer it--do business with me instead of with your
Country people. I don't buy on behalf of your competitors, I don't buy
to increase the wealth of any other European Country. I buy for my own
hand, and I buy where and what I choose. If the mines of Drome are in
the market, and please me, I buy. If her wheat lands seem to me a good
investment, I buy. Is your Country going to war with me because I get
ahead of her citizens?"

The Ambassador, still unruffled, knocked the ash from his cigar. Dukane
rose to his feet.

"Mr. Widdowes," he went on, "I came here at your invitation, and I
listened to what you had to say. I need no information from
Machiowinscki. I may not possess an army or a navy or an air force, but
I have my own secret service. I could tell you of that meeting of
bankers in New York who sent a representative to Washington, which
resulted in this--unofficial--invitation of yours. I could tell
Machiowinscki a few things about the visit of certain American
exploiters to his capital, and their influence upon his presence here, I
will content myself by saying that I do not work in the dark because I
work alone in life. It is my glory and my pride to do so. Such success
as I achieve, I achieve alone. If ever I fall--and I feel indeed, a
Daniel," he concluded, with that ghost of a smile, "when I think of the
Goliath you, Mr. Widdowes, unofficially represent--I fall alone...May I
be permitted to pay my respects to Mrs. Widdowes? I am an early man, and
I am convinced that any further discussion on this subject would be
futile."

Mr. Widdowes rose at once to his feet, and accompanied his guest
courteously towards the door.

"I am sorry I can't make any impression upon you, Mr. Dukane," he
regretted. "I am not talking about Washington, but our people on the
other side as a whole would have much appreciated a plain statement from
you as regards your intentions. You have the right, of course, to keep
your own counsel."

"As you do yours when it suits you," was the somewhat gruff rejoinder...


The drawing-room was unexpectedly empty when the three men reached it.
Mrs. Widdowes looked up from her writing-desk.

"Your daughter has gone on to the ball at Apley House with Myra and Mr.
Brownlow, Mr. Dukane," she announced. "I was to tell you that she would
only stay an hour, and Mr. Brownlow will see her to your hotel."

Felix Dukane received the news without any sign of interest. Mark
frowned gloomily. His hostess smiled at him.

"Why don't you go on there for an hour, Mark?" she suggested. "You're an
official member of the household now, and we're all invited if by any
chance you didn't have a card of your own."

"Why, I'd like to," Mark assented eagerly, "if you're sure it would be
all right."

There was a brief interchange of farewells. Afterwards Mark followed
Dukane out into the hall, waited whilst he took his overcoat and hat
from a servant and stood upon the steps with him.

"I have something to tell you, sir," he confided, under his breath.
"Will you drop me at Apley House? It's only a short distance."

"You didn't fail, I hope?" Dukane asked anxiously.

"It wasn't that," Mark replied, his voice a little unsteady with the
import of the news so long repressed "The fellow wasn't dead."

If the announcement was any relief to Felix Dukane he certainly showed
no signs of it. He stood for a moment perfectly still, drawing on his
gloves and frowning gloomily. Then he motioned his companion to enter
the car which had just drawn up.

"When did you find that out?" he demanded.

"Just as I was leaving him," Mark explained. "I got him out to Richmond
Park all right, propped him up against a tree in a lonely place, and was
just starting in my car to drive away when he called after me."

"You had to go back, of course?" Dukane enquired bitterly.

"Why sure!" Mark answered. "I couldn't leave him there to die."

"Rubbish!" Dukane scoffed. "I told you what sort of a creature he was.
What did you do with him then?"

"Well, I thought of a hospital," Mark confided, "but then I realised
that there might be too many questions asked, so I took him back to my
house. He has a doctor and a nurse, and is being well looked after
there. They seem to think that he will be all right in a week or so. I'd
have told you all this before, but I couldn't get a word either with you
or your daughter. I telephoned from Curzon Street, but your people would
give me no information as to your whereabouts."

Felix Dukane scowled out into the darkness. He had the air of a man
confronted with an ugly problem.

"My hand weakens with the years," he muttered. "If I had the chance
again I would strike harder."

Mark felt a sudden impulse of revulsion against his companion. He had
expected relief, and found nothing but a ferocious disappointment.

"Is there anything more you wish me to do in the matter?" he asked, as
the car stopped before the great porticoed front of Apley House.

"Keep him where he is if you can, until I have made up my mind," Dukane
enjoined. "If you could prevent his communicating with anyone so much
the better."

"I'll do my best," Mark assented, a little dubiously, "but it's
difficult in one's own house, and the man is still very ill."

"Difficult!" Felix Dukane repeated angrily. "You don't know what this
means, what that man stands for. He is a venomous creature, a
professional spy and blackmailer, but if he chooses, if he says the
right word to the right person, he can set all Europe ablaze. Where is
your house?"

"20b, Curzon Street," Mark replied.

Dukane nodded and turned away. Mark felt himself dismissed, and stepped
out of the limousine, the door of which a footman was holding open. A
moment or two later he was ascending the broad stairs of Apley House.



CHAPTER VII


Mark spent a disconcerting and profitless hour watching Estelle Dukane
dance and avoiding so far as possible his own obvious duty to his
acquaintances that he might be free to claim her if ever the chance
arose. At the end of that time, however, despairing of a better
opportunity, he took his courage into his hands, and boldly approached
her as she sat with her most recent partner in one of the ante-rooms.

"May I have this dance?" he begged.

Even whilst she was apparently hesitating, the music struck up, and he
took her firmly away. As soon as they were safely in the crowd he
whispered in her ear.

"I have some news for you. I have told your father. You must spare me a
minute after this dance."

She looked up at him with a queer disturbance in her eyes. He had an
idea that she, like her father, found something sinister in his avowal.

"You did not succeed?" she exclaimed. "You have bungled that affair,
perhaps?"

"So your father seemed to think," he replied, a little bitterly. "I
should have thought my news would have been good."

"Well?"

He waited for a moment, until they were outside the throng.

"The man is alive," he confided. "He will probably live."

"Alive!" she repeated incredulously.

"He is at my house in Curzon Street now. He has a hospital nurse with
him, and the doctor says he will recover."

She seemed suddenly tired.

"Let us sit down," she suggested. "You dance very nicely, but this has
upset me."

They found some chairs in a retired corner, and she accepted a glass of
champagne from a footman who was passing.

"Of course, in a way I am glad," she confessed, "and yet--well, it makes
complications. What are you going to do with him?"

"What can I do?" he asked. "I shall keep him until he is well. Then he
is free to go wherever he wishes. So far as I can tell he does not seem
vindictive. He has said nothing to the doctor about how he received his
hurt, and I have explained that I picked him up in the fog. He has not
contradicted me."

"No, I do not suppose he will tell," she reflected. "That is not the
danger."

"Is he really what your father called him--a blackmailer?"

"One of the worst type," she answered. "And the trouble is that he has
brains. He has accomplished a wonderful piece of work. I do not wish to
talk of him any more for the present, I am anxious to hear what my
father has to say."

There was a moment's pause.

"Do you care to dance again?" he ventured.

"Presently, perhaps, I am a little upset. Go on talking about anything."

"How is it that it is so difficult to see anything of you?" he asked."
Have you no house, no friends here?"

"Very few," she admitted. "London has never attracted me. We spend most
of our time, when we are not travelling, in Paris."

"How do you amuse yourself? How do you pass the time here?" he enquired.
"You don't play games I am sure. You must do something."

"Have you not guessed?" she replied. "I am my father's confidante in
everything he undertakes. He never plans an enterprise without talking
it over with me."

"It seems a curious life for a girl like you." he observed. "To watch
you as you have been this evening, talking to all these men, and
dancing, one would never imagine that you cared for anything more
serious in life."

"I have my moments of frivolity," she answered. "The worst of it is that
I never know when they will arrive."

"To-night, for instance?" he suggested.

"I came on here," she confided, "only because I wished to meet a friend
who has arrived in London. Lord Dorchester is trying to find him for me.
If he succeeds you must go away at once, please."

"Who is he?" Mark asked irritably.


"Prince Andropulo of Drome. I want to talk to him."

"Well. I hope Dorchester doesn't find him then," Mark declared, "because
I want to talk to you myself."

"What about?" she asked. "You are not interested in high finance, are
you?"

"Is Prince Andropulo?" he rejoined.

She smiled.

"Perhaps not directly," she admitted, "but he will be king before long
of an undeveloped country. My father thinks that with capital Drome has
a great future."

"I am not interested in Drome," Mark confessed, "and even if I were
there are other things I would rather talk to you about."

"As for instance?"

"Yourself."

She had relaxed a little and was leaning back in her chair. The air of
aloofness which all the evening had hurt and puzzled him had gone for
the moment, and her eyes were watching him quizzically. Her smile mocked
him.

"What interest can you have in me?" she demanded. "I have scarcely known
you more than a few hours."

"I have this interest, he replied: that some day I am hoping to marry
you."

She laughed: gaily this time and without reserve.

"Delightful!" she murmured. Now you are beginning to amuse me. I love
this Anglo-Saxon candour. Would you be just a little premature, I
wonder?"

"I am not making you a proposal," he reminded her, unless you feel
disposed to give me a little more encouragement. I am simply warning you
that some day I shall. I felt it directly you came into the restaurant
at the Ritz. I even ventured to say something of the sort."

"To Lord Dorchester and Colonel de Fontanay?"

"Yes."

"You took rather a liberty, did you not?"

He shook his head.

"I don't think so. As a matter of fact, Henry Dorchester has pronounced
himself my rival."

"A nice boy!" she murmured. "I have been dancing with him. He is not
like you, though. He does not waste his time playing games. Even
to-night he has been at work down in the House."

"I, too," Mark announced, "am a working man."

"Since When?"

"Since this morning. Not half an hour after I left you, Mr. Widdowes
asked me if I could come into the Embassy for a time. They are
overworked there, and Dimsdale, one of the secretaries, has crocked up.
I thought of your advice, and didn't hesitate. All the same it was
rather a coincidence, wasn't it?"

"I suppose so," she admitted. "Are you going to work at the Embassy
itself or are you going abroad for them?"

"I shall do whatever I am told," he answered. "So far my first job has
been to go through a list of American tourists and discover who can be
invited to a mere 'At Home,' who must be invited to lunch and who to
dinner."

"It doesn't sound exciting," she laughed.

"Before you are snatched away from me, there is something I want to ask
you," he begged, changing the subject abruptly. "I have been thinking
about it all day. Was your advice to me altogether a coincidence?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you spoke to me of what you call my idleness. You begged me if
any work were offered to take it. Within an hour's time that work was
offered. Had you any idea that such a thing was about to happen?"

"How could I have?" she rejoined. "I am a complete stranger to the
Widdowes. We dined there to-night only because Mr. Widdowes wished to
have an informal talk with my father."

"But I still ask you whether you had any idea?" he persisted, dimly
apprehending a certain evasiveness in her manner.

She shook her head.

"You must not ask me silly questions. Be content with knowing that I
much prefer you as you are. I like men who are workers. Many of the rich
idlers of your sex who do nothing but hunt and shoot and play polo are
picturesque enough, but they are not my type...Now, shall I give you one
more word of advice."

"Do."

"If you have the choice, drop this social work. It is not of very great
consequence, is it, and you look so steady and responsible that I'm sure
before long they would trust you with more important matters."

"I certainly will if I can," he promised. "I think Dimsdale used to do
some of the Chief's private correspondence when they were busy. I may
have a chance of taking his place."

"If that is offered, accept it," she begged earnestly. "Ah, here comes
the person I want to see, at last!"

She looked across the room towards a sallow-faced man, young apparently,
with black hair brushed smoothly back, dark eyes, and a very bored
manner. There was nothing in his dress to offend the _convenances_ but
there seemed to be a sort of Orientalism about the size of his studs,
the rings he wore on the little finger of each hand. He had the face of
a young man in the early thirties, but the heavily-set figure of one ten
years older."

"That is the Prince," she pointed out. "Get up at once, please. Go
straight over to him, and tell him that Miss Dukane wishes to speak to
him. Hurry, please, before anyone gets hold of him. And you had better
stay away."

"Shan't I be allowed one more dance?" he pleaded. And how are you
getting home?"

"Mr. Brownlow and Miss Widdowes have promised to drop me," she said.
"You shall have another dance afterwards if it is possible, but do not
interrupt me when I am talking to Prince Andropulo, unless I call you."

Mark performed his errand and watched from the background whilst the
Prince, who had hurried eagerly to Estelle's side, bent low over her
fingers and raised them to his lips. His dark eyes glittered. It was
obvious that the meeting was of import to him. Mark turned away with a
black look upon his face. Myra, who was dancing with Brownlow, suddenly
beckoned to him.

"Alan," she begged, "go and find another partner, there's a dear. We've
had four running, and a girl in her first season can't be too careful.
Come and dance with me, Mark, and tell me why this scowl?"

They moved off to the music, after a good-humoured protest from the
discarded young man.

"Well, I don't know, Myra," Mark confided. "I don't feel at my best
to-night, and that's the truth. Am I getting too old, I wonder, for
these big dances, where one knows so few people?"

"They aren't so much fun as the small ones," she admitted. "Tell me,
what did you think of Miss Dukane to-night?"

"I found her very attractive," was his prompt confession.

"I think she is almost the prettiest girl I have ever seen," Myra
decided, "and yet there is something about her face--what is it, I
wonder?--which seems a little hard. I think it must be her mouth. One
moment, she is smiling, and the next--well, those little lines looked to
me as though they might be cruel. I am not at all sure that if I were a
man I should care to be in love with her. Mark, shall I tell you a
secret?"

"Go right ahead, don't tell me, though, that Alan Brownlow has proposed
to you--forward brute!"

She laughed.

"Nothing to do with me at all. It's about you yourself. I don't think
it's really a secret, or I wouldn't dare tell you, and to-morrow you'll
know, anyway."

"I'm getting terribly curious."

"I'm telling you," she went on, after a moment's pause, "because you
look rather bored to-night, and it may interest you. I believe dad is
going to offer you some much more important work with someone who is on
his way over from America. Mummie is to have someone else go through her
visiting lists."

Mark was conscious of a curious little thrill. His eyes wandered away in
search of Estelle.

"Extraordinary!" he muttered.

"Why extraordinary?" she asked. "I think it's very natural. I suppose
it's a sort of private secretaryship."

"I haven't had much experience of that sort of thing," Mark reflected
dubiously.

"I don't think it's very difficult. From what Ned used to say you don't
have much to do except wait about until your Chief is inclined to be
eloquent, and then boil down the result to a typist. It must be rather
thrilling, though, when there's anything really going on."

"I think it's fine!" he declared.

"Don't know anything about it to-morrow," she enjoined.

"I won't breathe a word," he promised. "You're a dear for telling me."

Alan Brownlow discovered them presently, and they lingered for a few
minutes in the refreshment room. Afterwards, Mark strolled out and found
Dorchester with de Fontanay. The three stood talking for a time, Mark
especially watching, with gloomy eyes, Estelle, who was dancing with the
Prince. Presently she passed them, apparently oblivious of their near
presence, leaning back a little and laughing into her partner's face.
Mark scowled openly. Dorchester frowned his disapproval. De Fontanay
shook his head.

"Idiots, both of you!" he sighed. "You are already advanced a stage
towards trouble. Can you not realise that there goes a woman who was
born to break hearts?"



CHAPTER VIII


Mark was a little shocked at his guest's appearance when, in obedience
to a somewhat urgent summons, he presented himself in the latter's room
soon after ten o'clock on the following morning. The doctor had paid his
visit, and departed, leaving a fairly favourable report. The nurse, too,
as she prepared to take her temporary leave, was encouraging.

"The doctor thinks that there is no longer any fear of concussion," she
confided, under her breath, as Mark held open the door for her. "He is
very weak, though, and seems dazed at times, and afraid of unwelcome
visitors. He likes to have the door locked."

Mark, after he had humoured the sick man's whim, and turned the key,
took a seat by the bed.

"Better not talk too much," he advised his guest. "That was rather a
nasty crack you had."

"Do you know my name?" the other asked abruptly.

"No idea. Perhaps you'd better tell it to me in case there are
enquiries."

"Brennan--Max Brennan. Can you guess at my nationality?"

"I should have thought that you were English, or perhaps Colonial," Mark
ventured.

"God knows what I am. You shall judge for yourself. My mother was a
Russian, and my grandfather an Armenian. I have in my veins the blood of
the Slav, the Teuton, and the decadent Asiatic."

"Then I congratulate you upon speaking English so perfectly. You have
not even the trace of an accent."

"I had, but I have lost it. You see, I was one of those who practically
made their homes in England before the War, for a purpose. That's all
over. My Secret Service work now is done in other directions. I set
myself a few years ago a great task, and in that task I have
succeeded--a little too well to please Felix Dukane."

"Secret Service work nowadays seems a trifle out of date," Mark remarked
doubtfully.

The sick man turned in his bed, and looked at his host fixedly.

"Who and what are you?" he demanded. "An American?"

"My name is Van Stratton," Mark replied. "I am an American, as you say."

"I think," Brennan continued, "that the Atlantic must be the widest
ocean in the universe. It seems to keep so many of you Americans in a
state of not understanding. Can you not realise that there are other
wars waged than those which are waged with the paraphernalia of
destruction--wars underneath the surface of society, quite as
devastating as any campaign that was ever launched, only with different
weapons? Propaganda instead of cannon, bribery instead of poisoned gas.
You understand?"

"I should have thought that you were exaggerating, but I understand,"
Mark admitted.

"I have fought in those secondary wars all my life," Brennan confided, a
little wearily. "I ought to know, they wouldn't even let me into the
army. I was too valuable. They called me 'The Little Ferret.' There
wasn't much I couldn't find out if I set my mind to it."

"Are you sure you are not talking too much," Mark warned him.

"The doctor seems to think that you're getting on very nicely, but you
had a nasty knock, you know."

"I'll come to the point, then," the other acquiesced, "although it is
odd that my brain clears as I speak. What have you to do with Felix
Dukane? How long have you known him?"

"A matter of twenty-four hours."

The man on the bed was plainly intrigued.

"You speak the truth?" he demanded.

"Why not? I was introduced to Mr. Dukane and his daughter after luncheon
at the Ritz, yesterday. An hour or so later the young lady stopped her
automobile in the Mall and invited me to enter. She brought me to
Norfolk Street, told me that she and her father were in trouble, and
begged for my help."

"This is interesting," Brennan murmured, "Go on."

"Dukane thought that he had killed you. The idea was that I should take
your body and leave it in some remote place where it might appear that
you had met with an accident during the fog."

"That is all your acquaintance with or knowledge of the Dukanes?"
Brennan persisted almost incredulously.

"Absolutely."

He lay for a moment silent, with knitted brows.

"Can you explain them," he went on, "why they should have appealed to
you for help of so extraordinary a character?"

Mark reflected for a moment. The man on the bed was beginning to
interest him. He was evidently leading up to something. He decided to
tell the truth.

"I think," he confided, "Miss Dukane realised that I admired her very
much and that I was likely to do anything she asked."

The sick man considered his reply thoughtfully.

"Yes," he observed, "that is reasonable enough. Estelle Dukane has
turned a great many heads--broken a great many hearts, one could say, if
it weren't that such things are out of date. For your own sake, young
man, I hope that you are not serious.

"Why do you hope that?" Mark demanded.

Brennan raised himself a little in the bed. His thin, shapely hands fell
one upon the other as though to give weight to his words.

"Men and women," he confided, "I have studied all my life. In each woman
I have found something good, in each--even the best of them--a little
bad, but never before have I known a woman--a girl, for she is scarcely
more than that--with a stone in place of a heart. In appearance she is
the beautiful image of her beautiful mother, who, although she was of
Grecian birth, was a Parisienne at heart. Inside, she is her father over
again. You have done me a kindness, young man. I would be doing you a
greater if you believed me. Her eyes may promise you the things you
desire, her lips may even hint at them, she may have moments of curious
kindness, but never for one second will her heart beat faster for any
man, never will the thrills of romance, the really beautiful things of
life, take their place in her brain, as with other women when love
comes. She is a schemer of her father's type, body and soul."

The man spoke almost fervently, and, when he had finished, closed his
eyes as though exhausted. Mark, dogged and unbelieving, nevertheless
felt the chill of his words.

"Well," he muttered, "let that pass. Is there anything more you want to
say to me?"

"Of course there is," was the almost impatient response, as Brennan
raised himself once more in the bed. "I have sent for you because in
this last great enterprise of mine I have played a lone hand, and there
is no one else in this Country I could trust. I have to take a risk with
someone. I am taking it with you."

"Better get on with it then," Mark begged. "I have to leave here in a
few minutes."

"The doctor speaks hopefully," Brennan continued, "but I know something
of surgery and anatomy. There are two things I fear--loss of memory or a
long period of unconsciousness. Lest either of these should come to me,
I have something to say to you. Are you listening?"

"Naturally," Mark assured him.

"Yesterday, I gave Felix Dukane the surprise of his life. I told him of
my successful enterprise. I told him of the amazing discovery I had
made--a discovery which would shock all Europe and of the corresponding
revelations which I was in a position to make. The fate of the world for
the next twenty years depends not upon the League of Nations or the
Peace Conference, or any of those old ladies' meetings, but upon me--Max
Brennan."

Mark looked downwards at the man upon the bed a little doubtfully.

"Isn't that going rather far?" he ventured.

"It is the plain, unvarnished truth," Brennan insisted. "A dozen words
from me, and the proof, mark you--the proof which I hold--and either the
war cloud would once more roll over Europe or Felix Dukane would face
black ruin. He knows it. He never even for a second doubted my word.
When I sought my interview, I meant to sell to him, and the little group
who are most interested, the information I have collected, for two
hundred and fifty thousand pounds. That was my price. They would have
given it to me, I am sure, but in his anger, Dukane lost control of
himself. I spoke a word he hates. He became for the moment a madman. He
struck me with that loaded stick before I was prepared--and here I am."

"With secret information worth a fortune still in your possession," Mark
observed, with the tolerant good nature of one humouring the sick.

"I said that I went to Dukane prepared to sell the result of my labours
for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds," the man on the bed declared
feverishly. "It is worth countless millions. It is worth the future
history of a nation. It concerns matters at which no one could guess. It
reveals the most gigantic intrigue in all history--an intrigue at the
nature of which no human being has ever guessed. If I die or lose my
memory, I shall make you my heir. If I do not, for the present, I keep
my secret."

Mark looked at his companion with some anxiety. During the last few
minutes, he had grown even paler, and his words were coming with more
difficulty,

"See here," he advised, "you had better quit talking now. I'll come in
again later on."

Brennan rolled up one sleeve of the pyjamas he was wearing. Above his
elbow was a plain, heavy band of iron in the form of a bracelet with a
fiat top. He touched a spring, and the latter rolled back. Inside was a
key.

"This," he confided, speaking now with almost unnatural restraint, "is
the key of the Safe number 323, in the Chancery Lane Deposit Company.
Kindly oblige me by taking possession of it. If I lose my memory or die,
fetch my papers, read them, realise that I have told you the truth, and
act as you will."

There was a knock at the door. Mark unfastened it, and the nurse
entered.

"I think," she decided, with a glance towards the bed, "that our patient
has perhaps talked long enough."

"Quite right," Mark agreed, as he prepared to leave the room.

The nurse bent over the invalid, felt his pulse and poured out a glass
of medicine.

"I'm all right," the sick man murmured, with a sigh of relief. "To be
tired is nothing, I have no longer the great fear."



CHAPTER IX


Mark, upon his arrival at Carlton House later in the morning found from
the nature of the work awaiting him that Myra's anticipations were fully
verified. In every respect it was of an entirely different character to
his yesterday's start, and the state of absorption into which it threw
him was a distinct relief after the poignant sensations of the last
twenty-four hours. He had no longer to light angrily against what seemed
to him in his saner moments an absolute obsession, no longer to spend
the time sorting out the memory of a few kind words and glances from
amidst a tangled mass of indifference. All his life, women had spoilt
him. He had every advantage in the world to offer, and he found the fact
recognised. Now, for the first time, he was confronted with an entirely
altered situation. Estelle Dukane's indifference was too natural to be
altogether assumed. He had an uneasy conviction that he was not of her
type, that his whole outlook upon life, his views and even his
character, would have to be modified before she would find him in the
least degree acceptable. In a few hours he had entirely lost his
self-confidence, free always from any objectionable features, but a
valuable aid to his dignified progress through life. He mistrusted
himself, and even a brief period of forgetfulness was welcome...

Towards the end of the morning, Mr. Widdowes came unexpectedly into the
room where Mark was working, accompanied by a small, rather shrunken
man, pallid, with smoothly-brushed grey hair, and keen eyes, imperfectly
concealed behind gold-rimmed spectacles. His appearance, though by no
means insignificant, gave little indication of the fact that here was
one of the most brilliant brains of the Western world.

"Good morning, Mark," the Ambassador greeted him as the latter rose to
his feet. "How's the work?"

"Quite all right, thank you, sir," was the prompt reply. "I don't think
I've made an absolute hash of anything yet."

Mr. Widdowes turned to his companion.

"Mark," he continued, "I should like you to know Mr. Hugerson, who is
over here from Washington upon an official mission."

"Glad to meet you, young man," Mr. Hugerson said, as Mark came forward
with extended hand. "I used to know your father well. He wasn't quite
such a giant as you, but he was a pretty useful half-back in my last
year, and he developed a wonderful head for figures later on in life.
Seems to me," he added with a twinkle in his eye, "I've heard of you
more as a sportsman than a diplomat."

"I'm afraid that may be so, sir," Mark admitted deprecatingly. "I was in
the Service for a short time after I left Harvard though, and I am very
glad to have made another start, even though it's rather late."

"Work's good for all of us," Mr. Hugerson pronounced. "I am sixty-three,
and I have never stopped. I don't imagine really that the men of our
nation have the instinct for leisure. You pick it up like a germ on this
side though, if you stay over long enough."

"I don't mind work so long as it's worth while," Mark confided. "If Mr.
Widdowes is able to make use of me, I'm perfectly happy here."

"Oh, we'll make use of you all right," his Chief promised, "if we only
keep you as a chucker-out. We get shorter-handed every day. You know
Rawlinson's laid up with the flu' now, I suppose?"

"I heard so this morning. That's too bad!"

"I'd offered him to Mr. Hugerson here, if he needed any help," Mr.
Widdowes went on, "and help he certainly will need presently. How should
you like to take his place?"

"Nothing I should like better, sir, if Mr. Hugerson is willing," Mark
declared promptly. "I don't know exactly what sort of work it is, of
course," he added, after a moment's hesitation.

Mr. Hugerson toyed for a minute with his under lip.

"Well, we'll talk about that later on," he said. "Most people have an
idea of what my mission on this side is. I never was much of a
diplomatist. Figures have been my joy and my hobby in life."

"The whole world knows that sir," Mark acknowledged.

Mr. Hugerson smiled.

"Unromantic things I suppose they must appear to the uninitiated," he
observed, "but where international finance is concerned--well, we'll
talk about that later on. Jove, how I used to admire your father. Van
Stratton. He had a wonderful head for figures, but in his younger days,
he was a greater athlete than mathematician."

"You coaxed your boat yourself, sir, the year they beat Yale," Mark
reminded him.

"Bully for you, my lad!" the other exclaimed. "George this lad's got the
makings of an Ambassador in him after all. He remembers the right
things."

"Come along and have luncheon, Mark," the Ambassador invited...

Myra, next whom Mark found himself placed, was inclined to be
admonitory.

"One dance the whole of last evening," she reminded him, "and I am your
Chief's daughter! Do you call that diplomacy? You really ought to have
devoted yourself altogether to me with a view of rapid promotion."

"One couldn't get near you," he grumbled.

"You should have arranged with me beforehand."

"But I didn't know that I was coming until the last minute," he reminded
her. "It was your mother who suggested it. I hadn't an invitation of my
own at all."

"You and Henry Dorchester were as bad as one another," she complained."
You both of you stood about and gazed at that little Dresden doll
beauty, Estelle Dukane. Henry did his duty by me though. I wish he
danced as well as you."

"When do we have another opportunity?" Mark enquired.

"That will come soon enough. The only worry is whether you'll be able to
keep your eyes off that amazing young woman, and devote yourself a
little more tome. Mother," she went on, "have you heard the awful thing
that's happened to Mark. For the first time in his young life I believe
that he has lost his heart."

"To you, I hope, dear," her mother remarked pleasantly. "I think you'd
make an admirable son-in-law, Mark."

"I'm always hoping," he confessed, "but you can't marry into the
nursery. Grow up a little, Myra dear, and learn to take life seriously."

"That's all because I discovered his secret," she laughed. "Never mind!
I should make you a much better wife, and it seems to me that she's got
what I call a bizarre taste in men. When we wanted to bring her home she
went off with that Eastern prince--after dancing with him half the
evening too."

Mark felt a ridiculous sinking of the heart. The question he had been
longing to ask was miserably answered.

"I wondered what had become of you all," he admitted. "I danced once
with Edna Worthington. Then she wanted a sandwich or something, and when
we got back you'd all disappeared."

"How you must have cursed the girl who wanted a sandwich or something at
the wrong time!" Myra exclaimed. "I don't believe you enjoyed yourself a
bit last night."

"Is she allowed to come down to all her meals?" Mark asked his hostess.

...

[Ebook editors note:--
Pages 74 and 75 of the page images used to create this ebook were missing.
I have not been able to obtain a complete copy of the book.]

...

regretfully. "You're not missing anything, my friend--not in the way of
grace of manner or personality, or conversation--there's no doubt about
the man's financial genius. Other men can talk money. He can produce it.
Of course, we know what he's up to now more or less, but he wants to be
on the safe side according to any move Washington may make. That's why
he's all the time fencing with me. Fortunately there's a clear line. So
much may he know and no more."

"The day after I complete my investigations," Mr. Hugerson declared, "I
insist upon meeting the man."

"You shall," the Ambassador promised. "You shall also meet the prettiest
girl I ever saw in my life--his daughter."

Myra sighed.

"A pity about father," she whispered to her neighbour. "Since he met
mother and I did him the honour to become his daughter, he seems to have
lost his taste. Do you think she is the prettiest girl you ever saw in
your life, Mark? Look well at me before you answer."

"I'm afraid I do," he admitted.

Myra stretched across the table for a chocolate and sighed once more.

"After this," she murmured, "it is either back to the nursery for me or
a nunnery. Unless--"

"Unless what?"

"Unless I can convert either you or Henry. I should prefer you because
you know all the new steps, but nowadays girls can't choose..."

The Ambassador left the room arm in arm with Hugerson. His face was a
little grave. He had not disclosed everything which had been written
upon that slip.

"James," he confided, "there is someone trying to play the devil with us
at the London Embassies. We know about Dimsdale. The poor young fellow
threw himself overboard last night, directly the steamer left
Southampton, and this morning one of the Italian secretaries blew his
brains out just as they were about to arrest him."

"Guess I'm glad so long as I've any secrets to handle that I'm going to
have Mark Van Stratton," Mr. Hugerson observed laconically.



CHAPTER X


Mark, as he swung round the corner from Queen Street that evening in his
two-seater Rolls-Royce, found the space in front of his house occupied
by a large limousine. He pulled up behind and, opening the door with his
latchkey, was confronted by an utterly unexpected spectacle. In the
semi-circular white stone hall, Estelle Dukane was standing, engaged in
what seemed to be almost a heated colloquy with Andrews. In the
background stood Robert, holding tenaciously to the banisters; half-way
up the stairs, the nurse. At the sound of the opening of the door a look
of relief was immediately visible on the faces of all three. Estelle
turned lightly round. For the moment Mark almost failed to recognise
her. She was angry and most of her charm seemed to have disappeared with
the tightening of the mouth, the cold blaze of the eyes. It was back
again, however, directly she saw him. She held out her hand and laughed.

"My friend," she complained, "your servants are very rude to me. They
will not let me have a single word with the poor man upstairs, who
happens, after all, to be an old acquaintance of mine, and whom I am so
anxious to see."

Mark handed his hat and cane to Robert.

"I am sorry," he apologised, "but our invalid is not allowed to see
anyone. The doctor was insistent."

"Ah, well, if I may not, I may not," Estelle observed with a resigned
little shrug of the shoulders, "So this is your house, Mr. Van
Stratton," she continued, looking around at the choice engravings upon
the walls, the heavy rugs and the masses of palms and flowers.

"Very charming!"

"You'll come in for a moment," he begged, throwing open the door of his
library.

"Why not?" she assented. "If you would like to be very sweet you can
offer me some tea? My head aches. Everything annoys me. Your servants
were so stupid."

He followed her into the room, installed her in his easy-chair, rang the
bell and gave the necessary orders. She loosened her fur coat, and
finally at his suggestion, abandoned it altogether. She was wearing a
silk knitted gown of soft grey, and as she leaned back in the depths of
the chair her body seemed more than ever the body of a very young girl.
From under the shaded lamp, however, she looked at him with the eyes of
a woman who mocks.

"Well," she asked, "aren't you surprised to find me here?"

"Surprised and very happy," he assured her enthusiastically.

She suddenly frowned.

"I wanted to see that man," she declared. "I wanted to see him very
much. Is he going to live or die?"

"I think that he will live, he is in danger of an illness, however. That
is why he must not be seen."

She indulged in a little grimace.

"That may be one reason. There is probably another."

"Well, it is his own wish," Mark confided. "He insists upon keeping his
door locked, and he is in my house as a guest. When I think how nearly I
dumped him in Richmond Park, and left him there to die I feel that I owe
him something."

"The blame would not have been yours," she reminded him. "It would have
been ours. He is of that class of men who take their lives into their
hands and deserve death at any moment. It is odd that you should defend
him--against me, too!"

"What do you want of him now?" Mark enquired. "His life?"

"Not at all," she replied coldly. "I am quite indifferent as to whether
he lives or dies. I simply want his silence which he came to sell and
which my father ought to have secured at any price...May I smoke?"

He gave her a cigarette--the best brand in the world--from a sandal
wood box covered on the outside with gold filigree work of a wonderful
design, and lit it from a softly-burning Turkish lamp. She leaned back
in her easy-chair with a little murmur of content. Her eyes travelled
round the room and became lit with a faint surprise.

"Did you take this house furnished?" she enquired.

He shook his head.

"No, I furnished it myself. I don't like living amongst other people's
things."

"Why, you're quite an artist!" she exclaimed. "Your bronzes are all
beautiful. That Psyche is amazing, and those two ivories--perfectly
placed and wonderful work. Your silverpoints, too. Who told you that
little man Daunont was the most wonderful creature in the world?"

"I liked them," he replied. "I bought them before he was famous."

"And your colouring," she went on in a tone of satisfaction. "A deep
brown is so restful. It suits me too. Not a single piece of your
furniture wrong! I shall have to correct my impressions of you, Mr. Van
Stratton. I thought that you were a great, rather clumsy athlete,
beautifully strong, and picturesque--oh, yes, quite attractive in your
way, but also--well, a little difficult for us people who have French
blood to appreciate. But I'm getting to like you better. You must have
taste. And these books, too! Do you read Verlaine and Gautier? The
volumes seem well-worn."

"French is my only accomplishment," he confessed. "I lived in Paris for
so long, and I flew for France before we came into the War."

"Certainly I must change my point of view," she decided. "I'm getting to
like you better every moment. If there is really anything good to eat
for tea I shall be in danger--grave danger!"

Almost as she spoke Andrews entered solemnly, followed by his underling.
Together they arranged a table drawn up to the fire. Estelle laughed
with an air of almost feline content.

"These dear little muffins!" she exclaimed, as the men left the room.
"And what cakes! My head is being turned, Mr. Van Stratton. You are
apparently a man of understanding. Why did I not know last night, when I
did not wish to dance with you, that you had a room like this and read
Verlaine, and could give me such a tea."

"I can give you many more such surprises," he assured her. "I have a
really beautiful house, or rather a villa, at Beaulieu, and although I
suppose you would never go there, I have a house in New Hampshire which
is quite a show place."

"Paris?" she enquired.

"A bachelor apartment only. Fortunately I am not tied to any place or
Country. When you make up your mind to marry me it will be for you to
decide."

"Marriage," she reflected stretching out her hand for another muffin,
"is a very serious thing."

"For a woman," he rejoined, "it is inevitable. Life for a man as a
bachelor is possible. For a woman, spinsterhood is sheer barbarity."

She leaned back in her chair and considered his words. There was an
abandon about her pose which stirred him to a vague uneasiness. More
than once he had fancied that it amused her out of sheer perversity to
affect an unnatural role. It was as though she had detected and found
pleasure in mocking at a certain strain of inherited puritanism, the
remnants of which he still possessed.

"I puzzle myself," she admitted. "I believe I am a woman as
others--sometimes, alas, I know it--and yet I dread marriage. Marriage
is the end of all individuality, especially--forgive me--with men like
you. You are what I should call enveloping. You would leave me scarcely
a breath in my body, or a thought in my brain, and I want to live and
think for myself. Life just now with me is, as it has been during the
last four years, a huge and fascinating picture puzzle. The fingers that
move the pieces may be my father's, but I, too, watch. I see many things
that he overlooks."

"But what does it all lead to?" he asked curiously. "You don't want
money. You have all the money in the world now, they say. Personally, I
am sorry I about it. I have enough for both of us. What is the end and
aim of it all?"

She laughed, her head thrown back; the laugh with its spice of mockery
which he half loved and half hated.

"One has to go back to the kindergarten to talk to you sometimes," she
declared. "That is because you have only one idea--the idea to marry me.
It is flattering, but it closes your eyes. Think now. You shall have a
simile which appeals to you. You risk your life going into the bush to
kill tigers. The actual killing is nothing. You go for the tracking, for
the sport of it, for the thrill when you raise your rifle, the danger if
you miss, the added thrill of success when you kill. What is the skin to
you? What the dead body? Nothing. It is the environment that counts. So
it is with me and my life. I live by my father's side. One day we are in
New York. There comes another and we are in Constantinople. We find
ourselves in Paris or Madrid. We loiter incognito in Berlin, and all the
time we are in touch with great things. Because you see, after all,
money is a great thing. Every human being, every commercial undertaking,
every nation wants money. We watch and scheme. We listen. We choose our
time of advantage and there is no single bank in Europe can compete with
us. There is the pulse of power in such a life."

"Well," he sighed, "I can't argue. I can only tell you that it seems
like this to me: that your sense of values is wrong. You are devoting
your life to a sport which is scarcely a sport at all. Finance may be
attractive to a certain type of brain, but it has nothing to do with the
world beautiful. You have. You are laying a crust over yourself day by
day, in an unwholesome quest. Turn your thoughts somewhere else. Try to
live for once in beautiful places and amongst beautiful things. Give
your life to me and I promise that I will put it to better use."

"Sometimes," she confessed, setting down her empty tea cup and selecting
a cigarette, "you astonish me. There must be something in you, Mr. Mark
Van Stratton, which I have not yet appreciated. Do you know," she went
on, "I have always rather prayed that a god might come down to earth and
lift my feet and myself right above it. I have not seen any signs of him
yet. Do you think that you might be that god?"

"I am," he assured her. "They say that love makes men like gods, and no
one could love anyone as I love you."

"I cannot remember," she reflected, "that you have often mentioned the
fact."

"That is because I know that there is nothing so wearisome in this world
as for a woman who does not love to be told of his love by a man who
does," he answered promptly.

"You read too much fiction," she declared.

"I don't read half a dozen novels in the year."

"Anyhow, you have me in the wrong perspective," she persisted. "As I am
at present I am a hopeless person. I may change. When I was a child I
was different. I even believed in fairy stories. I may believe in them
again. Just now I do not. I am full of other thoughts."

"What sort of thoughts?" he enquired.

"I want to be perfectly certain that if that man | upstairs dies, the
knowledge he carries about with him dies also."

"Why is this such an urgent need?" he ventured.

"Because I want to help on a little the greatest scheme we--that is my
father and I--have ever conceived," she replied. "There is practically
only one person in the world who could wreck it--that miserable little
creature whose life you are so concerned about. My father was mad to
lose his temper with him at that particular moment. You said just now
that I did not love you. You were perfectly right. I do not. Then, on
the other hand, I love no one else, and love might come any day. It
might even come along the highroad of gratitude. You could help me if
you would."

"The man is my guest," he reminded her with a certain sternness. "He is
safe where he is until he is able to fend for himself."

"You should make no mistake," she expostulated. "I wish him no personal
harm. My father has a violent temper or we should not be in this
difficult position. He would not listen to my father now, but he might
to me. I wish to obtain possession of his papers, either by strategy or
to buy them. Take me up to his room, Mr. Mark Van Stratton. Let me speak
to him."

"I cannot do that," Mark regretted.

"Not even when it is I who ask you this as a favour?"

"Not even when it is you."

There was a brief silence. Her face had grown hard. He saw lines about
her mouth which he had never noticed before. She threw her cigarette
into the fire.

"I do not know why I waste my time here with you then," she observed
curtly.

"Out of your kindness, I hope," he ventured. "Because you know that your
being here has given me so much pleasure."

She listened without a smile, without an answering look.

"Has he made you the trustee of his secret?" she demanded suddenly.

"Under certain conditions," he acknowledged, "it will come into my
hands. If he loses his memory or dies I am to become his legatee, and,"
he added, "I shall be a faithful one."

She shook some cigarette ash from her gown as she rose to her feet.

"Whereabouts amongst the treasures of your life," she asked coldly, "do
you rank this affection of which you speak?"

"Next to my honour and to that small amount of conscience which every
man is allowed," he answered, "and only next because a stain on one
would be a stain on the other."

She held out her arms for her coat.

"Convincing," she murmured, "but just a little magniloquent. I am very
angry with you, but some day I honestly believe that I may marry either
you or your friend, Lord Dorchester. Last night I thought it would be
he. This afternoon you have been so brutal to me that I think it may be
you...Tell me how your career in diplomacy progresses?"

"I have made the most rapid advancement of modern times," he confided.
"Yesterday I was an assistant tame cat, a compiler of dinner lists, a
possible chucker-out. This morning I have been asked to do secretarial
work for Mr. Hugerson, who is over from Washington on a special
mission."

She suddenly let slip the coat which he was in the act of folding round
her.

"You speak the truth?" she demanded.

"Absolutely," he assured her. "Mr. Hugerson is one of my father's oldest
friends. Rawlinson, the man who was to have looked after him, has fallen
sick. I am to take his place."

"Decidedly," she murmured once more, "the chance grows that one day I
may marry you."

His arms slid round the shoulders of the smooth sables in which she was
now enveloped. For a moment it seemed as though she were yielding. The
arms crept further, further. She was imprisoned, yet apart from him by
reason of her head thrown back, the warning in her eyes.

"Not just yet, please," she begged, laughing up at him. "Ring now for
your servants. That poor Prince Andropulo! I forgot all about him. He
waits outside in the car."



CHAPTER XI


Mr. Hugerson was his usual calm and neatly garbed self when he made his
reappearance at Carlton House, but his three weeks' travelling had
apparently tired him. His manner, too, as he greeted Mark and threw
himself into an easy-chair, lacked a little of his former alertness.

"Did you get my despatches, Mark?" he enquired.

"Seven altogether," was the prompt reply. "One from Paris, two from
Rome, one from Athens, one from Vienna, and two wirelessed. I did my
best to follow out your instructions."

"Guess I'd better look through the results," Mr. Hugerson suggested.

Mark spoke down his table telephone.

"Quite a wonderful typist, the Chief let me have," he confided. "She has
been private secretary to two or three Cabinet Ministers, and one Prime
Minister, and never known to make a mistake. She does most of our
confidential work here."

"That sounds good to me," Mr. Hugerson admitted. "We want someone we can
trust just now."

There was a knock at the door, and a young woman entered carrying a
note-book and an official-looking folder. Mark rose to his feet.

"Good morning, Miss Moreland," he said. "This is Mr. Hugerson. He would
like to look through the drafts I sent on to Washington compiled from
his cables."

"I have everything here," was the quiet reply.

Mr. Hugerson adjusted his spectacles, and the girl sank a little
listlessly into the chair which Mark had placed for her. She was dressed
with the severe simplicity of her class and profession--a plain black
gown, unrelieved even at the neck. She wore no ornaments, her hair was
of a dark brown shade, almost black, and, notwithstanding some slight
irregularity of feature, was brushed severely back from a high forehead.
Her eyes were large, almost beautiful, and her eyebrows faint lines of
silk. Her mouth, although in itself shapely, was discontented and
ungracious, her cheek-bones slightly prominent, her figure unduly thin.
Her silk stockings seemed to be a concession to the demands of the
times, and she wore shoes heavy enough for the country, with low heels.
Her hands were remarkably well shaped, her fingers long and capable.

"Busy, Miss Moreland?" Mark enquired.

She shook her head.

"Mr. Widdowes has told me to keep myself free for any work you and Mr.
Hugerson might have," she replied.

The latter looked up from his folder.

"A very excellent transcription," he announced approvingly. "Lock these
up, Mark, if you have a safe. I'd be glad if you'd come back in half an
hour, young lady," he added. "I'll just shape out my ideas some."

Miss Moreland rose and departed, as unobtrusively as she had come. Mr.
Hugerson looked after her thoughtfully.

"That's the type we need in the States," he remarked. "I'll bet she never
opens her mouth too wide."

"She's a wonder," Mark declared enthusiastically. "It's my belief she
knows more of the business of this Embassy than the Chief himself."

Mr. Hugerson produced a tortoiseshell tobacco-box, rolled a cigarette,
and lit it.

"Well, Mark," he observed, "this has been a queer run round of mine.
I'll have to go to Paris again, twice I guess, before I send in my final
report, but so far as I can see at present, things seem to have got into
queer shape over here. We never did set much store by all these
associations and leagues, but I guess, if they're going to function at
all, they'll have plenty to do within the next few months."

Mark listened respectfully. Mr. Hugerson had the air of one collecting
himself for some mental effort.

"I wouldn't like to go quite so far as this officially," he went on,
"but it don't seem to me that I can find a single satisfied Government,
a single Country that's hung up its hat upon the peace peg, and don't
want any more war. Things are as near a scrap as possible between Italy
and Turkey, and if the great man of Italy has his way, there will be
war. Drome's the mystery Country, rolling in money all of a sudden, army
all paid up, two brand new cruisers in Phaleron Bay, business all
booming. Politically there's trouble brewing there. They tell me they'll
have a monarchy back in a month or so. They've something up their
sleeve. I couldn't make cut what it was until I got there. I know now.
I'm not sure that it wasn't worth while making the trip to find out.
There's one man believes in the Country all right."

"Dukane?" Mark enquired.

Mr. Hugerson nodded.

"He's working quietly--working through the National and two other
banks--but the money's simply flowing into the Country. I guess I'll
have an interesting report to make back home. I met Hiram Browne at the
Hotel Grande Bretagne. I'll say he was pretty well the maddest man in
Europe. He's been waiting round there for three weeks, with the money in
his hand--ten millions--for the Mount Dragma concessions, and he says
the Government have just turned him down, after having practically
invited him to come over. I found out something else, too, but I guess
that'll have to go home."

"Who's our man at Drome?" Mark asked.

"Hopkins," Hugerson replied thoughtfully. "He's a good man, but not
enough training--brought up in business, and didn't go into diplomacy
until he'd made his pile. He's tumbled on to one thing, though, and I
believe he's dead right there--there'll be no settled peace in Europe
whilst--well, not just yet, at any rate...Send for the young woman,
Mark, I'll get going...Wait a minute, though," he added, "I'll just have
a word with Widdowes first."

"Will you go round to his room?"

Mr. Hugerson rose to his feet. Before he could reach the door, however,
it had opened to admit the Ambassador.

"Well, was the young man's work all right?" the latter enquired.

Mr. Hugerson smiled pleasantly.

"Why, sure it was!" he declared. "He figured out twelve despatches from
those cables of mine, and I am able to cable the confirmation right
away. Good work, young man!"

Mark beamed with pleasure. The Ambassador nodded his congratulations.

"There was just a word I wanted to have with you, Widdowes," Mr.
Hugerson went on. "I've given you an abstract of my ideas already. Now
I'm going to take the matter up with Washington. This young woman, Miss
Moreland--she's all right?"

The Ambassador smiled.

"I should say that, leaving out Mark and myself, she's the safest person
in the Embassy. She was private secretary to a Cabinet Minister through
the War, and I can tell you that we had to bid money to get her over
here. She's the sort that never opens her lips. There's no one I'd
sooner trust, Hugerson. That's why I made her over to you."

"That's enough for me," Mr. Hugerson declared. "I'll get to work now."

"See you at luncheon?" the Ambassador asked.

Mr. Hugerson shook his head.

"I guess they've been a little interested in my trip at Downing Street,"
he observed. "I found two notes waiting for me. I'm lunching with the
Foreign Secretary at the Carlton. I shall be back again this afternoon.
What are we going to do about this fellow Dukane, Widdowes? They're full
of him over at Paris."

"We'd better wait and see what Washington says," Mr. Widdowes suggested
thoughtfully.

"I figure it out," Mr. Hugerson reflected, "that his commitments in
Drome must reach over fifty millions, and if it's true that he's at the
back of this other business, he must be handling half the sterling in
Europe. They say he never takes a partner either. I shouldn't have
thought any one man could carry such a load."

"He's too clever to get caught," Mr. Widdowes declared.

"Maybe."

Miss Moreland, whom Mark had summoned, made her appearance, and the
Ambassador took his leave. Mr. Hugerson rose to his feet. His lean
fingers were busy with the tobacco box, his eyes were fixed thoughtfully
upon the young woman who stood waiting for him.

"I understand you're entirely at my disposition. Miss Moreland," he
said.

"Those are my instructions, sir."

"I want you to have one of your typewriters moved in here then," he
continued, "and I shall give you down a rather lengthy despatch to
Washington. You will take it down at first in the rough. Afterwards I
shall go over it, making some revisions, and I shall then require you to
re-type it in two copies. One you will hand to Mr. Van Stratton here for
his safe, the other we will put into an envelope for Washington. Is that
clear?"

"Perfectly."

Mr. Hugerson deliberately finished rolling his cigarette and lit it.

"Miss Moreland," he concluded, "I think myself very fortunate that Mr.
Widdowes was able to spare you to me for the next few days. I needed
someone, as I told him, who could be absolutely and entirely relied
upon, someone who was not only scrupulously honest, but someone who,
when they left the building never remembered. That was how we used to
put it in the Secret Service Department at Washington, during the War.
We needed clerks who 'never remembered'!"

Miss Moreland smiled very faintly.

"I learned the art myself in Downing Street," she assured him. "I am not
likely to forget it here."



CHAPTER XII


At six o'clock that evening, Mr. Hugerson, who had been steadily
dictating in his low, drawling voice for almost three hours, rose
abruptly to his feet.

"Finished for the day," he announced. "I'll leave the notes of my last
visit to Paris until to-morrow. How many pages of stuff have you got
there, Miss Moreland?"

"Nineteen," she replied.

"Have them put in the Embassy safe for me, please, Van Stratton," Mr.
Hugerson begged. "At what time can you start in the morning, Miss
Moreland?"

"At any hour you choose," she answered indifferently.

"At half-past nine, then."

He strolled across the room, glanced through several of the loose pages,
and nodded.

"Not much revision necessary here, I fancy," he remarked, gathering them
into a little pile and handing them to Mark. "Take care of these, young
man."

"They'll go right into the safe, sir," Mark promised. "If you'll come
with me as far as the Chief's room, you can see them locked up."

"Guess I'd better," Mr, Hugerson decided.

The two men parted company a few minutes later. Outside, Mark paused for
a moment to light a cigarette. Miss Moreland, whom he had encountered
upon the threshold, stretched out her fingers.

"Give me one, please," she begged, somewhat to his surprise.

He reopened his case with alacrity. She was in the act of passing on
with a nod of thanks, when he stopped her. Under her black hat, her
complexion seemed paler than ever--almost unnaturally tired.

"Can I take you home anywhere?" he asked. "I have a car here, if you
don't mind a two-seater."

"It is very kind of you," she said doubtfully. "I was just wondering
whether I wouldn't indulge in a taxi. The air of those close rooms
sometimes almost stifles me."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," he insisted, with cheerful emphasis."
You'll come with me."

"I live at Battersea," she told him--"Cyril Mansions. It is really
quite an easy run from here, past the Houses of Parliament, and down on
to the Embankment."

He helped her into the low, luxurious seat of his Rolls-Royce, and they
started off at once. She leaned back with a little exclamation of
pleasure. Presently, however, she raised herself in her place. Already
the damp wind had brought an unexpected tinge of colour into her cheeks,
and the lustre was returning to her eyes.

"Are you the Mr. Van Stratton one reads about in the papers?" she
enquired. "Polo player and millionaire, and all that sort of thing?"

"I suppose so," he admitted. "You see, I am abandoning my evil ways,
though. So far, my work hasn't been very strenuous, but I am hoping soon
that they will find me more to do."

She seemed a little unenthusiastic.

"Work alone with nothing outside is sheer and wretched drudgery," she
said tonelessly. "Fortunately for you, you have the other things in the
background. Your life of pleasure may' have been wearisome at times, but
at any rate it would be free from tragedy."

"Tragedy?" he repeated.

"The tragedy of loneliness," she answered.

He was for a moment made almost uncomfortable by the bitterness of her
tone.

"But surely your life is in every way unique," he pointed out. "You are
quoted everywhere as a prodigy. You have worked for such interesting
people, and worked always so wonderfully."

"I have," she admitted, "and yet I am thirty years old, and an ordinary
woman."

"You mean that you are not engaged to be married, or anything of that
sort?" he asked, rather clumsily.

"That is what I do mean," she confessed. "I wish I were."

The usual banalities were impossible. He held his peace until they
reached the bridge.

"You have friends, I suppose?" he ventured. "Why not work a little less
and go out a little more. One meets people that way."

"The old maid's quest!" she scoffed. "Thank you! I should hate it. I
should hate the preparing myself for the sacrifice--having my hair done
d la mode, spending more money than I can afford on clothes, and making
myself agreeable to people I should probably dislike."

"Do you live alone?" he enquired.

"I do. I have a little sitting-room, a smaller bed-room, a bathroom
through the doorway of which you could scarcely squeeze your way, and a
tiny kitchen. I had a canary once, but I forgot to feed it, and it died.
Occasionally someone who wishes to be kind offers me a cat or dog. I
refuse because I couldn't look after them. There are my rooms, at the
top of that block of flats," she pointed out. "I shall climb up there
now, and if I have any enterprise in an hour or two, I shall take a bus,
come over to a restaurant, have a little dinner alone, and walk back. If
the enterprise doesn't materialise, I shall cook myself an egg and go to
bed. To-morrow morning I shall be back at Carlton House at the usual
time, and hammer into type the rest of Mr. Hugerson's adventures."

"You must admit they're interesting," he ventured.

"They're interesting enough," she confessed, "but, like everything else
that comes to me in life, they come second-hand."

"I suppose you have some amusement outside your work? Books, for
instance?"

"I have had no time in my life for reading. You cannot begin to read
fiction unless you develop a taste for it young. I needed my brain for
other things in the days when I was more ambitious. Now there is--just
nothing."

He slackened down in front of the building to which she had pointed.

"One evening," he asked, "would it amuse you to come out and dine with
me--do a play or something of that sort?"

She laughed bitterly.

"My dear man!" she exclaimed. "Think how absurd! I have one evening
frock, dating from somewhere about war time, I think. I haven't one of
the proper etceteras to wear. I have never even been inside the sort of
fashionable restaurant you would frequent. I can't dance, and I can't
converse after the modern fashion. If you took me out, people would look
at you as though you had lost your senses."

"Say, you're getting too bad!" he remonstrated, as he brought the car
slowly to a standstill. "Anyway, I'd very much like to take you, if you
are game to come. I'll risk the frock, and we'll go somewhere quiet."

"All right," she laughed nervously. "If you're equal to it, I am."

He sat and considered for a moment.

"I'm never quite sure of my time," he confided, "because you see I'm
sort of a tame cat at the Embassy, and if they need me to dine or
anything I have to be there. To-night I know I'm free. What about
to-night?"

"It doesn't give me much time to patch up my raiment," she reflected, a
little doubtfully.

"We needn't dine until late. We can leave the theatre for another time."

"I believe I'd rather dine and watch the people," she confessed.

"It's now a quarter to seven," he announced, glancing at his watch,
"I'll be round here for you at half-past-eight."

"If you haven't repented, I'm on the top floor. You'll see my name on
the door."

"I'll come right up, then," he promised, "and don't mind keeping me
waiting a few minutes if you want to. I'll call in at Giro's and order a
table on my way back."

She turned away abruptly, coming for a moment or two into the full
stream of light from an electric standard. Mark was puzzled as he threw
in his gear. Tears are always a puzzling thing for a man to understand.



CHAPTER XIII


Mark was genuinely surprised at his companion's appearance when he led
her up the stairs at Giro's to the secluded table he had reserved in the
balcony. Her black dress may have seen better days, but it was well
made, and she herself, with her long, slim body, disposed of to better
advantage under the clinging georgette, was almost graceful. She wore no
jewellery, and her hair was still arranged with uncompromising severity,
but its quality was fine and glossy and the general effect not without
distinction.

"I hope you'll like it up here," he said as they took their places. "I
half believed what you said about your frock, and I thought you'd like
to be somewhere a little out of the way. Of course I can see now that
you were making fun of me."

She smiled at him gratefully.

"I shall love it up here better than anywhere," she assured him,
glancing over the balcony. "One can see everything and not be stared at.
And my frock is seven years old, whether you believe it or not. The only
lucky thing is that the fashion is coming back again and I haven't had a
chance to wear it very often."

"And now for dinner," he suggested, handing her a menu, and taking one
himself.

She laid hers down helplessly.

"I've never been in this sort of a place before," she confided, "you
must do all the choosing. I like everything."

"Two cocktails, not too dry," he ordered, "A bottle of Pommery 1911, and
to eat--"

He selected the courses of their dinner carefully and with frequent
references to her. Then they sipped their cocktails and watched the
people. There was an awkward interlude of a few moments only: it seemed
difficult in these surroundings to attain to the intimacy of their
conversation driving home to Battersea in the twilight. Yet somehow or
other they drifted back into it with very little effort.

"You were secretary to a great man towards the end of the war, weren't
you?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Yes, I was in Paris with him. It was quite an experience for me. I had
scarcely any friends there and I didn't get on very well with the people
immediately round me. They all had their own friends and their own
little affairs. I seemed always to be the one left out. I think I was
glad to come home."

"I can't understand that at all," he told her frankly.

She smiled at him, showing very beautiful teeth, and he understood it
less than ever.

"Well, you see," she explained, "it was, I think, partly my own fault.
Up to the time when one is thirty, when the dread of perpetual
spinsterhood becomes a real live thing, one is just a little too
critical, a little severe on life. I wanted to be engaged like the
others but I wanted to choose for myself--something rather better, I
suppose, than my station or looks called for--and all of a sudden I woke
up and I realised what had happened. I was middle-aged."

"Thirty years old is nothing for a woman," he protested.

"Thirty years old for a woman who has never even had a sweetheart," she
rejoined, "is at any rate the dotage of young womanhood. The only man I
could have married I should have had to buy, by working for him as well
as for myself. I see him still every two or three months."

"Come, that's something," he said. "Tell me about him."

"What there is to tell isn't exciting," she confided. "He is a clerk
down in the city, about my age, better-looking than he deserves to be
considering his habits. He makes a reasonable salary and spends every
penny of it upon himself. I don't suppose he has five pounds saved in
the world. I used to see him a little oftener--not much. We were never
really intimate. He wasn't my sort, but he was at any rate a man and I
liked him a great deal better than I ever let him know. The last time we
met he told me he was looking out for someone with money--that he
couldn't marry without it."

"Well, I don't think much of him then," Mark declared good-humouredly.
"Rule him out."

"I can't," she answered, "because he is the only man I have ever seen I
felt I could marry. He doesn't want me, or if he does he doesn't want me
poor. So that's an end of it."

"You'll meet plenty of other men in time," he assured her,

"I never meet any," she replied. "I had the misfortune for years of my
life to be utterly devoted to my work, and to forget that there was a
real world moving around me. I woke up a little late. Nov/, during the
last year I have developed a new terror in life--the terror of
loneliness."

"Well, you're not going to be lonely this evening, at any rate," he
reminded her. "Here comes the caviare. Have you really never tasted it?"

"Never," she admitted. "It looks awful."

He laughed.

"Wait till I spread some on hot toast and butter for you. You'll like it
all right."

Conversation became suddenly easier. With the first glass of wine they
left serious topics alone. Soon the orchestra began to call to the
dancers, and Frances leaned over watching them with fascinated eyes.

"Even though it is only for this once in my life," she said, as she
sipped her wine, "I shall be eternally grateful to you for bringing me
here. One hears about these sort of places so often, and nobody has ever
invited me to visit one."

"On my honour I don't understand it," he declared.

"Men are always afraid of me," she sighed. "They think I am too serious
for flirtation, and too unattractive to be taken seriously. And I am not
at all sure that I am really a serious person at heart," she went on. "I
started life that way and I expect I've grown to look forbidding. Do you
think if I were to shingle my hair and use a little rouge and lip stick
I would collect a few admirers?"

"You would lose one, at any rate," he rejoined. "Your lips are perfect
without any of that carmine stuff, and pallor is most fashionable
nowadays. It is these girls who sit up until all hours of the morning
who have to paint another face on them every day when they get up."

"You're very encouraging," she smiled--"and I never tasted such
delicious food in my life. I haven't tasted champagne either since
Armistice Day."

"Have you no relatives at all?" he asked.

"An aunt in Australia. I was born in Jersey--an only child. My father
and mother both died there. I came to London when I was eighteen years
old and went to a girls' hostel. From there I started to work. I suppose
in that I was successful. Anyhow work is the only thing that has ever
found any place in my life."

"Work has only just crept into mine," he confessed. "I've had a little
more than three weeks of it."

She laughed.

"Do you really call what you do 'work'?"

"Not what I've done to-day perhaps, but Mr. Hugerson wanted me to stay
around. Mighty interesting stuff that was he was giving down."

She was suddenly mute, her head was moving to the music. Her eyes
drifted towards the dancers.

"I believe you want to dance," he exclaimed.

"I can't," she confessed, a little bitterly.

"Have you never tried?"

"Oh, I have tried alone, and with another girl."

"Come on!" he insisted. "That's just the easiest foxtrot that was ever
played. Don't be nervous. Dancing is one of my tricks. I'll take you
round."

She rose hesitatingly.

"I know nothing whatever about it," she warned him. "I might perhaps
keep in time with the music."

"You know quite enough about it for me," he told her, a few minutes
later. "Just one little break when we started, and now I'll back us
against any couple in the room. You don't need to know steps when you
can move to the music like that,"

They danced until the orchestra stopped and two encores afterwards. When
they abandoned the floor Frances's eyes were almost lustrous and there
was a delicate pink in her cheeks. She ran on ahead up the stairs with
the grace of a young girl.

"Never in my life," she confided, as she sank into her place, and
watched the champagne being poured into her glass, "have I enjoyed
myself so much."

"Say, that's fine!" he exclaimed. "We'll dance again directly."

She was looking intently over the balustrade. Something of the lightness
passed from her face. She leaned a little further forward.

"The young man we have been talking about is down there," she told her
companion. "You won't like him. I don't know why I still rather like him
myself, but still there it is!"

"The young man with the fair moustache with the elderly lady and two
young women?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Terrible people, I know! They live at St. John's Wood. They have heaps
of money and the father gives him orders in his business. He always
thinks he'll be allowed to marry one of the daughters. I know he won't
because they are Jews and very strict."

Mark studied the young man curiously; an ordinary, rather
dissipated-looking person, of apparently about thirty years of age, with
a weak, good-humoured face, and a figure which had evidently suffered
from lack of exercise. He was making himself very agreeable to his
companions and was undoubtedly a great success with them.

"He doesn't seem a bad sort," Mark pronounced. "A trifle frivolous for
you, I should have thought."

She looked at him reproachfully.

"But the text of all I have been saying to you this evening," she
reminded him, "has been that I am disgusted and tired of my own lack of
frivolity. I'd cultivate it in a moment if I could. I'd flirt, let any
reasonable man make love to me, do anything to find a little colour in
life. I have ruined my best years doing correct things in a severe way."

"See here, don't overdo this," he advised seriously. "Of course I don't
believe all you say, but a girl like you is far too good to go chucking
herself away upon anyone."

"I don't care," she exclaimed, a little hardly. "I'm sick of my
goodness, as you call it. I have tried it and I have found life
thin--thin and cold. If I had had time," she went on, "to develop tastes
for books, for pictures, opportunities to travel--why then everything
would be different. But a working girl can't get those things into her
life. Therefore she can't be independent. She must have the other
things."

"Some day," he threatened, "from a vast experience of life of which you
know nothing, I shall read you a severe lecture. In the meantime would
you like to dance again?"

She looked at him with a queer little smile.

"I should like nothing on earth so much as to have him see me dancing
with you," she confided.

He led her downstairs and they danced four times without leaving the
floor. The young man whom she had pointed out watched them with
stupefied eyes. Frances waved her hand to him gaily, and he had barely
presence of mind enough to respond.

"My début in the gay world has been a success," she laughed, as they
climbed the stairs again. "He did very nearly once take me to the Palais
de Danse at Hammersmith, but he discovered that I had never had a
dancing lesson in my life so he backed out. This is a little better than
the Palais de Danse, isn't it?"

"I wonder if anything could be done about that young man?" he reflected,
after a few minutes' pause. "What sort of business is he in?"

"He's a traveller for a firm of wholesale stationers in Clerkenwell,"
she said. "He has been there for three or four years now. Were you
thinking of buying him for me?"

"Would you like me to?"

"It's a quaint idea," she ruminated. "I don't know. I'm not really quite
sure. Just now I don't think I should...In any case, we're talking
nonsense," she added. "Tell me, isn't that Felix Dukane down there? I
thought he was never seen in a restaurant."

Mark looked downward. The already familiar thrill, half of pleasure,
half of pain, suddenly gripped him. To the principal table on the other
side of the room, which had been kept zealously reserved, Estelle was
being ushered by Mario himself, and a little retinue of waiters. Her
father, grim and unbending, took the place on one side of her. Prince
Andropulo, as usual, sleek, immaculate but vaguely unpleasant, seated
himself on the other. Estelle, apparently in one of her gayest moods,
was laughing and talking to her companion, whilst her father studied the
wine card.

"Yes," Mark replied, "that is Dukane, and Prince Andropulo of Drome--and
Miss Dukane."

"You know them?"

"Yes."

She studied his expression a little wonderingly.

"You don't mind their seeing you here with me?"

"Why, surely not!" he answered emphatically. "Was I looking glum? I
simply hate that fellow Andropulo."

"He doesn't seem a pleasant person," she admitted.

Estelle glanced up just then and nodded to him with a little questioning
wrinkle upon her forehead. Dukane, if he recognised him, took no notice.
Prince Andropulo adjusted his horn-rimmed monocle, but Mark had already
turned away.

"They are a strange trio," he remarked, "especially the Dukanes. They
could enter any society they wanted to here, but they avoid it all the
time. Felix Dukane thinks of only one thing in the world--money-making."

"He is a terrible man," Frances murmured. "The most unscrupulous person
who ever breathed, they used to say at Versailles. He has a small army
of spies, and when he can't get the information he wants honestly, he
buys it. And look at him! What good is wealth bringing him in life?"

"He doesn't want anything," Mark answered, "except just the joy of seeing
his great plans develop. It is the girl I can't understand."

She studied his momentarily gloomy countenance.

"Are you interested in her?" she asked.

He nodded.

"I am sorry," she sighed. "I don't know her, of course, but I am sorry."

"Why?" he enquired. "Don't you find her attractive?"

"Wonderfully. There is no one really like her in the room, but--"

"Well, out with it," he insisted. "You needn't mind me. I've only known
her two or three weeks and she hasn't much use for me."

"I shouldn't think that she had any human use for any man in the world,"
Frances pronounced. "There are just a few people I've seen in all my
life whom I should say were utterly heartless. She is one of them."

Mark drank his wine thoughtfully.

"You're not the only one who's told me that," he confessed. "But there
it is. I shall have to find out. We can't alter these things, you know.
I am older than you, and I've had more flirtations than I'd like to own
up to, but I've never felt anything before like I do now. There's more
pain about it than pleasure. I suppose that's because I know
instinctively or fear instinctively, what you others tell me."

"I am sorry," she murmured once more.

"Meanwhile," he went on, "this young man of yours keeps on looking up
here with longing eyes."

"I'm afraid he wants to come and talk to me," she confided. "He got up
just now, but I waved him back. Shall you mind if he does, or must you
be rude to him?"

Mark laughed heartily.

"My dear," he begged, "let him come by all means. I'll even allow him a
dance with you."

"But I'd rather dance with you," she confessed, "even after what you've
just told me."

He avoided the suddenly softened beauty of her eyes.

"Don't disappoint him," he urged. "He is on his way here already,
looking a little nervous, but hopeful."

The young man presented himself. His name, it appeared, was
Howlett--Sidney Howlett. He accepted an introduction to Mark with bluff
cordiality.

"Never was so surprised in my life as to see you two up here," he
declared. "I hadn't any idea you cared for dancing, Miss Moreland?"

"I have never had much opportunity to find out whether I did or not,"
she replied, a little dryly.

"Well, come along and let's see what we make of it," he proposed.

She glanced once more at Mark, and he waved them courteously away. For
the first few minutes of their departure he felt the relief of solitude.
There was anger in his heart. What was she doing here with that man
again, pouring out her sweetness upon him--smiles that meant nothing,
looks that meant less, still wastage, something a little lost from the
great reserves! He looked frowning downwards. The party of three seemed
suddenly a little bored. Estelle was keeping time to the music with her
fingers. An impulse of courage seized him. He rose from his place,
descended the stairs, approached the table, bowed to Estelle and turned
to her father.

"May I be allowed to dance with Miss Dukane?" he enquired.

Felix Dukane scowled at him. Mark, however, held out his hand to Estelle
as though taking consent for granted. She was obviously doubtful, but
half rose and then glanced towards Andropulo.

"Do you mind?" she asked.

He made some inarticulate response, having just at that moment been
served with a dish which demanded attention. She rose without any
evidence of enthusiasm, passed in front of her father and yielded
herself to Mark's clasp. They moved off to the music.

"Why on earth did you have to ask that fellow whether he minded or not?"
Mark complained irritably, as soon as they were out of hearing.

She laughed.

"Well, he might have wanted to dance with me himself. After all you're
an intervener, aren't you?"

"Not half so much of an intervener as I should like to be," he declared.

"You know perfectly well that you do not deserve that I should dance
with you," she said. "Yon do not merit anything from me at all. You say
'No' to everything I ask. I wanted really to see your invalid. You
forbade it."

"Bother my invalid!" he answered. "Heavens, how divinely you dance!"

"You are not so bad yourself," she assured him. "Tell me about your
companion? I am curious."

"I met her for the first time since I went to the Embassy. She has been
Secretary to two Cabinet Ministers and is, I believe, marvellously
clever. She is shorthand secretary to my temporary chief--Hugerson."

She was obviously startled.

"Hugerson? The man who is over on a special mission from Washington."
she exclaimed.

"That's the chap," he acknowledged. "Old friend of my father's, as it
happens."

"It is, after all, a very small world," she reflected.

"It may be a very small world," he agreed, "but there are too many
people in it. Prince Andropulo, for instance. Where can I see you
to-morrow?"

"Why to-morrow?"

"Because I want to see you every day, and to-morrow is the next."

"Is it my fancy or are you a very persistent person," she enquired.

"I shall be persistent until you take me seriously," he warned her. "You
treat me now--well, as though I were talking nonsense all the time. Some
day or other you will have to make up your mind that I am in earnest."

"To what extent?"

"To the extent that you are the first woman I have ever loved in my
life," he answered, stooping down to whisper in her ear.

For a moment she seemed disturbed. She snatched one glance
upwards--almost a natural glance--a glance of wondering curiosity, with
just a tinge of something softer in it. Then she swung away from him a
little in the dancing, and laughed into his eyes.

"This is wonderful!" she exclaimed. "What is my proper answer?"

"Your proper answer is to ask me to call and settle matters with your
father," he replied promptly.

"My father, as you know," she reminded him, "has awkward habits with
undesirable callers. I should try correspondence."

"You permit me?" he demanded eagerly.

"Don't be absurd," she replied. "I haven't the least idea of marrying
anyone, and if I had I haven't made up my mind which I like best--you or
Prince Andropulo, or your friend Lord Dorchester. And, in any case, my
father couldn't spare me...If you didn't dance so well I should make you
take me back now, because the Prince is scowling. As it is, however, I1
think we will dance the encore."

The music started again and they danced in silence for several minutes.

"Tell me some more about Hugerson," she begged, a little abruptly.

"I can only tell you what everyone knows--that he has just returned from
a trip upon the Continent."

"You could tell me more interesting things than that about him if you
chose."

"Possibly," he admitted, "but I am sure you wouldn't ask me."

She indulged in a little grimace.

"Rather early days, isn't it, for you to adopt an official manner?" she
scoffed. "I think you are the most obstinate young man I ever met."

"I am the most faithful," he assured her.

"A thoroughly Anglo-Saxon quality. I am not sure that fidelity ranks
amongst the virtues in France."

"Listen," he pleaded. "We have wasted our time talking nonsense. The
music is coming to an end. Can I see you to-morrow, and where, and when?
And can I really write to your father and say that I want to marry you?"

"You are ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "How do I know whether I can see
you to-morrow or not? I have no idea what I am doing. Besides, you won't
tell me anything about Mr. Hugerson. Now please go away nicely and thank
me for my dance."

He conducted her to her table, and bade her a formal farewell. She
laughed up in his face at his obvious discomfiture.

"It is so hard to believe," she whispered, "that you have ever lived in
Paris. You seem to understand Frenchwomen so little."



CHAPTER XIV


Frances was already in her seat when he regained his table. Mr. Sidney
Howlett had taken his departure.

"Well?" he enquired, as he seated himself and poured out some wine. "How
did it go?"

"Moderately," she confessed. "He doesn't dance nearly as well as you,
and he was desperately inquisitive. What does it matter to anyone with
whom I come here or why you should have asked me?"

"He isn't jealous, by any chance, is he?" Mark enquired.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"He is so thoroughly masculine," she answered. "What he could have had
he has never valued until now when he sees someone else paying some
slight attention to it. Then he begins to think. When he discovered that
you were the great Mr. Van Stratton, millionaire, polo player,
diplomatist now--I didn't tell him for how long--he was terribly
impressed. I can see him asking himself: if she is attractive enough for
him to bring out to a place like this, why haven't I brought her? He is
just beginning to wonder whether he hasn't missed something."

"Your analysis of the young man's character," he remarked, "may be true,
but it is scarcely flattering."

"I know him so well," she sighed. "He has some good points. I have, as I
told you, a kindly feeling for him, but he will never be anything but
what he is. No one could improve him. No one could move him out of his
rut. If I marry him he will come home late at least three nights in the
week, he will seldom take me out, he will expect good food, he will go
to a football match on Saturday afternoons, and if he takes me for a
walk some time on Sunday he will spend the rest of the day either
playing golf on the town course, or billiards in a public-house. If we
have children he win consider them a nuisance and he will stay away from
home a little more often. If he has money enough he will get drunk now
and then. He will consider that he has performed the whole duty of life
if he snatches a kiss in the passage before he rushes off to the city in
the morning. So many men salve their consciences with that kiss."

"You're not painting a very alluring prospect of domestic happiness,"
Mark observed. "If this is how you really feel I don't think I should
rush into it."

"It is better than loneliness," she declared. "If there was anything
else offered, perhaps I should prefer it--but it is the loneliness, the
icy fingers on my heart that I fear. To escape from that I would do
anything."

"Loneliness is a purely relative phrase," he sighed. "One can be lonely
in the midst of everything that is wonderful in life, for the sake of
one person. One can be mad enough, foolish enough," he went on, "to make
that one person the whole guardian of one's happiness. It is foolish,
but we others can do that in the midst of a full life, and also find
loneliness."

The people were thinning out. Estelle, with her two companions, had
departed, without an upward glance. Mark paid his bill.

"Your young man," he observed, "looks up here often."

She nodded.

"I know. He pretends he has something important to say to me and wants
to take me home."

"I'll let him, and lend you the car, if you like," Mark suggested. "I
can easily get a taxi."

She laid her hand upon his; the first time either of them had indulged
in the slightest familiarity.

"Please don't suggest anything of the sort," she begged. "You have given
me the most wonderful evening of my life, but you would spoil it if you
sent me home with anybody else. Besides, I have already told Mr. Howlett
that you are taking me home--sheer vanity--and that if he wants to see
me particularly, I will dine with him to-morrow night."

They descended the stairs and took their places in Mark's limousine
which rolled up almost at once. A slight rain was falling, and the
streets were practically deserted.

"I am the most inexperienced person in the world," she confessed. "A man
once tried to hold my hand in a taxi in Paris, and I was angry. Now,
please, I want you to hold my hand. Do you mind?"

She gave it to him, and leaned back with a little sigh of content, her
head very near his shoulder.

"It has been like a beautiful dream," she told him. "I don't know why
you asked me to come. I can't imagine what made you. Was it sheer
kindness?"

"What an idea!" he remonstrated. "It was more like selfishness. I had a
free evening, and I felt sure we should enjoy being together. You will
come again?"

"As often as you ask me."

They left the Embankment, and crossed the bridge. She drew a little
closer to him.

"This is where I begin to get lonely," she confided. "Do you see how
tall and grey and sombre all the buildings seem here, and the trees, how
comfortless and how they drip? Look, too, not a soul in sight! People
hide around here. I think I have walked up my stairs at night a dozen
times, and never seen a soul."

"Perhaps this loneliness," he prophesied, "will not last so very long
now. I think you will find that Mr. Sidney Howlett will be round to see
you very soon."

"Perhaps so," she answered listlessly. "I am not sure, though, whether I
ever want to see him again."

They drew up at the entrance to her flats. She stepped down on the
pavement in front of him and moved swiftly to the door. He followed,
after a moment's hesitation.

"What about saying good-night to your host," he suggested.

"You must come up the stairs with me," she insisted. "I do it so many
times alone, and half afraid, that to-night I will be escorted. I will
go up comfortably and safely and feeling warm inside. Do you mind?"

"Mind? Why should I?"

She passed her arm lightly through his. As they reached the fifth floor
she pointed to a little card and handed him a key.

"That is my room," she said. "Open the door, please."

He obeyed, acquiescent but vaguely uneasy. Inside everything was a model
of neatness and discomfort. A little fire, however, was burning in the
grate.

"You see," she sighed, "it is just as I told you, isn't it? Listen!"

There was no sound to be heard. Even the faint roar of distant traffic
seemed like an under-note of silence. He stood there with his hat in his
hand, his muffler still round his neck, his coat buttoned up. Her hand
suddenly gripped his.

"On Armistice Day," she confided, "two men kissed me. They were both
drunk. In Paris later a man tried to, and I was angry. Once, since then,
Sidney Howlett kissed me downstairs when he said good-night to me. A
dreary record, isn't it?"

He held her fingers firmly and smiled down at her.

"If this had been three days ago," he told her, "I know very well how
wonderful it would have been to have changed that. But you realise what
has come to me. I told you. I wouldn't hurt you by offering what you
would know belonged to someone else in my thoughts even if it never
reaches her."

She was herself again. With a curious and vigorous effort of will she
passed her arm through his and led him lightly to the door.

"You are the dearest person," she declared. "I shall live until you take
me out again, and to-morrow I shall help you if you need help. Do you
mind turning out the light on the bottom floor there?"

She stood in the open doorway so that he could see his way down the
first flight. He looked back and waved his hand. The memory of her
farewell smile, as she stepped back, brave and cheerful though it was,
filled him with an indefinable sense of reproach.



CHAPTER XV


Frances Moreland arrived punctually at her rendezvous on the following
evening, took off her gloves, laid them by her plate, and looked around
her almost wistfully. There was in her grey, thoughtful eyes an
expression of half-agitated reminiscence. It was the same little
restaurant, with its Soho-like bustle and its shaded lights, its coarse
but clean linen, the few flowers stuck in cheap vases, the monotonous
collection of fruit, the chameleonic expression of the short, pudgy
proprietor, whose eyes were everywhere, all geniality and smiles for his
guests, all severity and angry glances for a delinquent waiter. The
smell of food, the haze of smoke, the chatter of voices, pitched in a
somewhat higher key than an ordinary English restaurant, all brought
back to her mind the first time she had dined there with the man who was
now her companion--the first time and many times since.

"So we're really here again," she observed. "It must be nearly a year."

"The time slips by," her _vis-à-vis_ admitted. "Shouldn't have thought
it had been as much as that, though."

"A year within a few days," she reflected.

He straightened his tie and glanced at himself in the mirror by their
side.

"Well," he remarked, "we've neither of us done so badly, eh? Both of us
learned a thing or two since then! You've got on, of course, better than
I have in a way, but I haven't done so badly. I'm earning at least three
quid a week more than I used to, and some extras. I've stumbled across
rather a good thing in that way. There's no doubt about it," he went on,
"if you're clever and keep your eyes open in this world things come to
you."

"What sort of things?" she asked.

"Outside ways of making money," he explained glibly. "Some time I'll
tell you about 'em. You don't look a day older, Frances."

"Don't I?" she answered, also with a side glance at the mirror.

"There's something about you," he continued, leaning a little forward,
"makes you quite different from other girls--the sort of girls one takes
out, you know; doll themselves up no end, use stuff on their lips and
cheeks and have their hair done all stiff and wavy by a hairdresser. I
used to think--you won't be cross--that you looked a little
old-fashioned. Damned if I don't think you're just clever, Frances.
You've got what they call 'style'--something superior, you know. I have
never forgotten what a shock it gave me to see you sitting up there last
night with that young American toff. Why, I was thinking a lot of myself
because I was at Giro's at all, and there you were drinking champagne
and dancing away as though you had been used to it all your life."

"It was quite a wonderful evening," she remarked thoughtfully.

He looked across the table with something which was almost a scowl.

"I say, Frances, there's nothing between you and that young fellow, is
there?"

"A certain amount of friendship, I hope," she answered.

"You see," he proceeded earnestly, "you don't know much of the
world--not as I do. That young fellow was one of the American Polo team
last year. He's a millionaire, and they say he's just joined the
American Embassy. Those fellows want keeping in their place, Frances,
what?"

"I have never found the need with Mr. Van Stratton," Frances rejoined,
her reminiscent smile a little tinged with bitterness.

"Seen him since?"

"I was working within a few feet of him this morning, as I have been
every day for the last three weeks. He talked for a quarter-of-an-hour
afterwards," she replied. "He asked me when I was ready to come out to
dinner again with him."

"What did you say?"

"I said any evening he was good enough to ask me."

"You know this won't do," Mr. Sidney Howlett grumbled, leaning across
the table. "It's not like you either, Frances. You can't be going about
with more than one man at the same time."

"Can't you?" she replied carelessly. "I think I should find it quite
easy, provided they asked me. Must I remind you that it is a year within
a week since you did me the honour to seem even aware of my existence."

"I've made a bad break, Frances," her companion acknowledged. "I like
frankness, and when I'm wrong I'm ready to admit it. We didn't get on
very well the last time we met, and I thought it best to keep away for a
bit."

"We didn't get on very well," Frances rejoined, "because I told you that
with the six pounds a week I was earning and the eight pounds a week you
said you were making, it seemed to me that we ought to be thinking about
getting married, if ever you meant to get married at all. I was lonely,
and I was idiot enough to be frank about it. You agreed to think the
matter over, and you went away. I heard nothing of you at all for over
two months, and then I received a sort of half-hearted invitation to
tea."

"We won't go into all that," he begged. "What I felt was, Frances, that
before we got married and settled down we ought to have had something
saved."

"I had two hundred pounds in the bank," Frances observed. "If you had
nothing it was your own fault."

"I am hoping very much," he confided significantly, "that before very
long we shall have a great deal more than that in the bank. However, we
must see how our friend Giovanni has been getting on with his cooking.
Soup looks all right."

They commenced their dinner, the young man disposing of his _petite
marmite_ with audible enthusiasm. Conversation with the service of food
became a little more general and a trifle disconnected. Frances alone
preserved still that faint air of aloofness, as though her actual
presence there were in a way accidental. Her large eyes wandered
everywhere throughout the room. Not even the famous chianti brought a
flush to her not unbecomingly pale cheeks.

"Glad to be here again?" he asked.

"Very," she answered. "It seems quite natural."

"Poor sort of show after Giro's," he ventured.

"In a way, yes," she admitted. "In a way, no. I think this is more our
entourage."

Sidney Howlett fumbled with his tie.

"I don't know," he said complacently. "One must see all sides of life of
course, if one wants to get on in this world. I must say I felt quite at
home at Giro's. It's a club, you know. Some day or other we might join."

"We might," she murmured enigmatically.

"Of course the food here is good of its sort," he went on, attacking his
fish, the mysterious origin of which was concealed by its filleted
condition and an amazing superabundance of sauce. "I wouldn't say
anything against it, and after a long day's work, and you there,
Frances, and a bottle of wine, why, just anything tastes good to me."

"You're improving in conversation," she remarked. "Is that Miss
Hampstead's tuition?"

"I wish you'd believe me, Frances," he assured her earnestly, "when I
tell you that that little affair is ORPH--off. I have had some big
orders from old Hampstead, at a time when I needed them, too, and I make
myself useful by taking the old lady and the girls out now and then when
the old man's tired. It's good business for me and it suits them. All
the same, those girls will have twenty thousand pounds each when they're
married--Jewesses, too. What do you think would happen if I were ass
enough to propose myself? Why, I should just get shown the door."

"It seems a pity," Frances sympathised. "The smaller one--the one who
doesn't squint--might almost be nice-looking if she didn't wear such
terrible clothes."

Mr. Sidney Howlett coughed. He had secretly thought their clothes rather
smart.

"Well, anyhow, that's that!" he wound up. "What's more important,
Frances, is about you and me."

"What about us?" Frances queried with interest, but without excitement.

The arrival of a dismembered chicken in a brown pot proved a hindrance
to intimate conversation for a time. A forlorn-looking salad followed,
and wine glasses were replenished. Mr. Sidney Howlett v/as reminded
again of his long day's work, and his consequent appetite. He showed
admirable powers of concentration.

"One more course, and then dessert," he announced. "Things here haven't
changed much, have they, Frances?"

She shook her head. There was the same elderly cashier taking a
benevolent view of her clients from a raised desk, a Swiss lady with
gold-rimmed spectacles, and severe but kindly expression, and one or two
_habitues_ of former days. The head waiter was changed, but two of the
other _maítres d' hôtel_ had recognised and welcomed them.

"Yes, it all seems about the same," she admitted. "We are the people who
have altered, I suppose."

"I shouldn't say we'd done much of that," he observed. "I don't feel any
different."

"I do," she acknowledged. "In a way, I've had a bad year, Sidney."

"A bad year!" he repeated. "Come, I like that! You've had your
photograph in several of the illustrated papers--'The Premier Lady
Secretary' they called you in one. You've been working for Cabinet
Ministers and all sorts of toffs, and now I hear you have been specially
engaged to work for this man Hugerson at the American Embassy. A bad
year! I like that, I must say!"

"How did you know that I was at the American Embassy?" she enquired
curiously.

He smiled in mysterious fashion.

"Wait until dessert," he enjoined. "I shall have something to say to you
then."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"As a matter of fact," she confided, "when I was speaking of having a
bad year, I didn't mean with regard to my work. I was thinking about my
life, inside. I have been wretchedly lonely."

"I'm sorry about that, old girl," he ventured.

"I have worked very hard all my life," she went on. "I have read very
little and I haven't had time for much thinking. In the gulf of this
last year I seem to have stumbled against all sorts of new emotions, new
miseries. There must have been some sort of change inside me. I don't
know. From twenty-eight to twenty-nine isn't a particularly eventful
epoch of anyone's life, yet it seems to have been one of my milestones.
I never thought there was so much pain in the world that didn't come
from actual trouble, so much pain that sort of woke up inside one for
want of things."

He stared at her, his weak eyes blinking quickly. She seemed to be
looking through him. He reached out and patted her hand across the
table.

"Poor old thing!" he murmured. "Shouldn't have left you alone all this
time."

"It was scarcely you personally," she told him. "It was the things you
represented. You see, for two or three years we were together a good
deal and with that amazing, inconsequential narrowness of women I forgot
to notice that there were other men in the world, and then you stopped
coming and it was a little late."

The young man's hand caressed his stubbly moustache, carefully cut to
imitate the military style of a few years ago. On the whole this was
rather flattering.

"Well," he said, "if you've had a bad year, Frances, I should like to
make the next one a good one for you. I believe I see a way in which if
I can bring you to my way of thinking we might get married in about six
months--get married comfortably, mind, with a little house of our own,
anywhere you like to choose. They're opening up some new places about
fifteen miles out on the Great Northern--slap up little houses, cement
fronts and gables and a garden, with fields all round, and cheap season
tickets--regular little garden cities where they've got a cinema and
golf links and tennis courts of their own. And my work being a bit
independent, I needn't go in Saturdays, and, if my scheme comes off, now
and then not on Mondays, either. What about that? Sounds all right,
doesn't it?"

The smile at the corners of her lips puzzled him. He could never have
realised the conflict between her two selves; the primitiveness of the
woman and the mockery of her brain.

"What is this scheme of yours, Sidney?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"Not here. Too many ears around. Tell you going home."

They drank coffee, smoked several cigarettes, and Sidney Hewlett chatted
for a few minutes in a lordly fashion with the proprietor, explaining
that the more important class of customers with whom he was now in touch
demanded entertainment further West--Giro's and those sort of
places--but he'd be back as often as he could. Frances listened with the
old smile upon her lips. She made no objection when he slipped his hand
under her arm, as they left the place. They walked to Oxford Street, and
took a bus to Battersea.

"I'd have taken you to the pictures, Frances," he told her, "but I'd
really like to get this talk off my chest."

"You're making me very curious," she confessed.

"Well, you won't have much longer to wait," he pointed out, as they
crossed the river, eight aside in a crowded bus, steaming with the odour
of macintoshes and wet umbrellas.

Frances drew a sigh of relief when they alighted.

"You're coming up then?" she asked.

"If I may."

They mounted the five flights of stone stairs and entered her simple
little apartment. She lit the lights, turned on the gas stove and
glanced speculatively into her cupboard.

"I used to keep a bottle of whisky for you," she observed, "but I've
nothing of that sort now. If you want some more coffee late."

"Capital!" he declared. "Now come on, old girl! You know how I used to
like to have you."

He seated himself in the easy-chair, with a foot-stool close to his
knee. She hesitated for a moment.

"I'm not quite sure, Sidney," she said.

He laughed and drew her down, advancing his knee for her support. She
sat with clasped hands, looking away into the further recesses of the
little room.

"It's like this, Frances," he began. "The city's a queer place. You come
across all sorts of people. For instance, in a coffee house where I go
to play draughts sometimes, or dominoes, for half an hour after lunch,
now and again I take one or two of the smaller customers with
me--there's a funny old man I've known by sight for years. Lately he's
begun to talk. I'm not quite sure that he is English. He talks all
right, but he hesitates for a word occasionally. He surprised me the
other day by asking where was the young lady I used to bring to dinner
at the Pomme d'or. I told him I hadn't been seeing so much of you, and
he laughed at me. 'More fool you!' he said.

"There's a young lady, who, if she chose, could make your fortune."

"I make your fortune!" Frances repeated wonderingly,

"That's how he begun. Of course I asked him what he meant, and at first
he wouldn't tell me. When he did--well, I was fairly taken aback,
Frances, to think that he should know all the things he did. He knew
your name, and he knew the names of everyone for whom you'd worked. He
knew that you were doing this job for the American, Hugerson. He even
knew--and that's more than I did--what the nature of it was."

"What is it?" she asked incredulously.

"You are taking down what they call a precis of Hugerson's visit to
different parts of Europe," he replied, "records of his conversations
with various politicians, his opinion as to whether they're straight or
not, extracts from the Consular reports of some of the Countries. Sooner
or later, he will probably let the cat out of the bag as to what he
really believes about the existence of a secret treaty between Italy and
Drome, and he will probably have a lot to say if he hasn't said it
already, about the internal conditions of Drome, and the elbowing out of
American capitalists. What about that, young lady?"

She looked up into his face in blank amazement.

"But who is this wonderful friend of yours?" she gasped.

"Is he right?"

"Very nearly."

"Well, to tell you the truth, I haven't any idea who he is," Howlett
admitted. "Anyway, he knows things, doesn't he?"

"He certainly does," Frances acknowledged. More than is good for him, I
should think."

"A few days ago," Sidney Howlett continued, "he spread himself. That's
what he did--he spread himself. He asked me to dine with him at
Frascati's, and he made me a proposition. Now, take this quietly,
Frances. We're ordinary human beings, you and I, and we've got to live
like other people and money ain't too easy to get. It's just having a
bit of money that makes us able to do things or not to do them. Take it
easy!"

"I am prepared for anything," she assured him.

"You use clean carbons, of course, all the time. He wants you to use a
fresh one for each page you put in your typewriter, and from now on
he'll buy them from you. As he points out, there's no risk in that. Used
carbons are worthless things. He's not asking you to sell a copy of your
work. He's asking just for those used carbons from now until Hugerson
has finished his reports, and he'll give us--listen, Frances--ten
thousand pounds for them."

She sat quite still, stunned for a moment, unable to analyse her own
sensations, to feel anything clearly. Out of the confusion of her mind
she ventured an almost automatic question.

"But what on earth could he do with them?"

"He has a machine--he or his friend, or whoever it is behind him,"
Sidney Howlett explained, "that applies great pressure or something of
the sort, on to a peculiar paper, and which can reproduce the impression
of anything. It was a French discovery a few years ago."

Frances relapsed once more into silence. Once, during the War, when she
had been secretary to a famous man, something of this sort had occurred
to her--an offer of a pearl necklace for a copy of a single letter, an
offer inspired by a fantastic journalist on the staff of a newspaper in
bad repute with her chief. She remembered the volcano of scorn she had
poured out, her almost tigress-like attack upon the man. There was
nothing of this in her veins now. She simply felt numbed.

"Ten thousand pounds," he went on, gaining confidence by her
speechlessness, "is what I call absolute and luxurious security. We will
buy a house and either a small car or a motor cycle and side-car. Then
we invest say seven or eight thousand and we know that whatever happens
we have a nice little income there and we can afford to face anything. I
go ahead with my work cheerfully, and you can have a little servant and
live like a lady, do just as much as you want to, and if you want to
keep on with your job and come up with me in the morning and back at
night for a time, why, there's nothing to stop it--not at first. I hope
there would be later."

"Don't, Sidney," she begged. "I can't bear it for a moment. Do you mind
just letting me think?"

He threw away the extinguished cigar he had been holding, and lit a
cigarette. Crouched at his feet, her eyes wide open, her hands clasped
in the little room where she had woven so many sad dreams from which she
had gone so often weeping to bed in the room where those grey waves of
tragic loneliness had first broken over her, had become continually her
horrible visitants, had threatened almost to engulf her, she considered
the nightmare of his words. She remembered a time not so many hours ago
when she had vowed herself to sin or to crime or to any form of
ill-doing to escape from the black thing she feared. Now the chance had
come--brought by the man she half despised, half unworthily
loved--come with the pictures of the little house, the babies, the
fuller, simpler, absurd life ridiculous Nature had made the best.
Suddenly she sprang up, a sense of stifling at her throat, and pushed
open the window. Across the way the wet leaves of a tall grove of elm
trees were rustling together, rain was still visible, falling round the
lamp posts, the policeman's cape below shone in the reflected light. Her
temples were throbbing, but as she stood there her brain seemed to
clear. Curiously enough, all her indignation had gone. Perhaps she felt
it would have been wasted upon the man who sat there waiting for her
answer.

"Do you know who your friend's employers are, Sidney?" she asked him.

"Not on your life," was the prompt reply. "I don't know that I want to
particularly."

"I am trying to think," she reflected, "to whom this information could
be of such importance."

"Ask me another," he demanded. "To me it's a looney business, but I
don't mind telling you that when I said so to our friend, he passed me
across a hundred of the best to show that he was in earnest. Fifty will
be yours, to-night, Frances, if you come over."

"One of the American attaches," she reflected, "has already been sent
away in disgrace for imparting information, and a young Italian is
supposed to have shot himself."

"You don't run any risk," he pointed out eagerly.

"No one would ever dream of the carbons being worth anything."

"I'm not thinking of my personal risk," she answered. "I'm wondering how
much harm this might do."

"What's the good of worrying about that?" he argued. "I tell you this
world was never built for those who are always thinking about other
people. It's a world of egoists, it's a world where unless you push for
yourself, no one else is going to see about it for you. You and I have
got our chance, Frances. It's up to us to take it."

"How do you know that your friend will keep his word?" she asked. "Ten
thousand pounds is a great deal of money."

"He'll pay five thousand down with the first sheets of carbon I send
him--to-morrow's, if we start to-morrow; the other five thousand pounds
the day Mr. Hugerson finishes. You haven't destroyed any carbons, have
you, Frances?" he added eagerly.

"No, I haven't destroyed any," she admitted.

"And you always use fresh ones? I remember you telling me so."

"Yes, I always use fresh ones."

"That's all right then," he declared, with a sigh of relief. "Of course
he didn't stipulate about the work that's already done, but it's just as
well to have the lot. I tell you what I'll do," he went on eagerly."
I'll prove I mean to play fair. You shall hold the whole of the first
five thousand. I'll pass the money over to you directly I get it, and
we'll go and look at houses next week. We'll spend nothing except on our
joint account. How's that?"

"It seems fair," she acknowledged.

She closed the window and returned to his side.

"Supposing I decide, Sidney," she began--

"I meet you when you come out to-morrow," he interrupted. "You just hand
me over the carbons when we get into a safe place, and that's all there
is to it. We'll meet somewhere for supper, if you like, and I'll give
you the five thousand. I'd take you down to the city, you could see the
man for yourself, but I think you're best out of it."

She sighed.

"Very well," she decided, "you can meet me, anyhow. I may change my
mind, but I don't think I shall."

He passed his arm round her waist. Their lips met. She accepted his
kisses quietly at first, then, with almost a note of passion she
returned them fervently, and afterwards drew gently away. Hopelessly
commonplace though he was, he had wit enough to appreciate the wonderful
light in her eyes.

"You're fond of me still, Frances?" he asked, a little breathlessly.

"Yes, dear," she confessed, leading him to the door. "I'm fond of you,
and I'm fonder still of the things you represent, and I hate more than
anything on earth or in hell what you may save me from."

She listened to his steps descending the stone stairs; firm, heavy
steps, not too buoyant, but with a man's weight above them. Then she
turned back and locked the door.



BOOK II



CHAPTER I


Raoul de Fontanay studied his companions thoughtfully as the three men
once more seated themselves at their accustomed table in the restaurant
of the Ritz Hotel. There was a distinct change in their demeanour since
their last celebration. Mark was unusually silent and absorbed: Henry
Dorchester almost morose.

"If I were to be born again," de Fontanay declared, with some asperity,
as he unfolded his napkin, and glanced at the menu, "I would be a
Mohammedan. Women in these Christian Countries occupy too large a share
of our thoughts and interests. Man's metier after all, is
accomplishment. The playthings of the world should be kept in their
places."

"This from a Frenchman!" Dorchester exclaimed. "An adorer of the sex!"

"In their place, yes," was the prompt rejoinder. "I have told you many
times what my idea of that place is. Yet you two, whom I once fancied my
disciples, have forgotten."

"I have come to the conclusion," Mark declared, "that the average
Frenchman has no sentiment."

"Ah!" de Fontanay murmured.

"He is a hunter of women," Mark continued, "a reveller in their caresses
and embraces, but it is the sex which appeals to him, not the
individual."

"I am inclined to agree with you," Dorchester assented, "He misses the
great pleasures, but he saves himself the pain."

"You two," de Fontanay pronounced deliberately--"you are the worst, of
course, Mark--are like a couple of love-lorn lunatics. You both have one
of these absurd fancies for the same woman--a fancy which you dignify by
the name of 'Love,' but which as neither of you know anything about her,
is a sort of conglomeration of passion, and sentiment, wholly created by
your imaginations. Love, if it exists at all, is of slower
growth...Henri," he added, turning round to a hovering _maître d'hôtel_,
"the caviare is not so small as last week. How does that arrive."

"The perfect caviare," Henri confessed, "is hard now to find. One does
one's best."

"Perfect! Who expects perfection?" de Fontanay grumbled. "Nothing that
is left in the world these days is more than a substitute for the things
which went before. Let us, however, cease being cynical. Mark, my
congratulations! You are an instance of how malleable we all in effect
are. A few weeks ago, you had the appearance of a pleasure-loving young
athlete, _et voilà tout_! To-day you have cultivated the air and manners
of a diplomatist."

"That's right! Chaff away!" Mark grumbled. "All the same, I wish I'd
never left the Service."

"Which do you find the more interesting--the social side of it, or your
special job?" Dorchester enquired.

"The work with Hugerson, of course," Mark replied. "But how did you know
anything about it?"

"One hears things," his friend observed, with a little wave of the hand.
"Hugerson's a tremendously interesting personality, Mark. I'd like to
meet him. A man whom Washington can trust to flit about in the different
Countries of Europe and pronounce judgment not only on their financial
possibilities, but on their political aspirations, must be a man with
insight."

"Hugerson is undoubtedly that," Mark assented.

De Fontanay moved uneasily in his chair.

"Yet how can a stranger come here," he demanded, "and in a few weeks,
perhaps in a few months, sit in judgment upon the Countries of Europe?
What does he know of their racial prejudices, of their sense of values?
He can just take out the statistics of their taxation, the amount of
their imports, the normal revenue, and behold he comes to a cul-de-sac.
He cannot realise how passion can influence unheard of millions, how
racial hatred can sweep aside material barriers."

"We are on the borderland." Henry Dorchester observed, picking up the
menu, "of controversial subjects. Let us agree that it is impossible to
reduce the interests of different Countries to a common denomination,
and let us take it for granted that Hugerson has sufficient genius to
realise that. To-day," he added, "I have ordered a Chateaubriand. A
Chateaubriand requires digestion. We must avoid subjects likely to stir
the feelings unduly, or to provoke disputative discussions. Digestion
must be our aim. Let us speak, therefore, of the subject at which Raoul
has hinted in his opening remarks this morning. Tell us exactly, Mark,
what it is that appeals to you so much in Estelle Dukane?"

Mark's seat commanded the entrance to the restaurant. He suddenly sat
upright. His sombre expression was transfigured.

"Herself!" he exclaimed.

She came swinging down the room. Prince Andropulo in the rear, an
obsequious _maître d'hôtel_ in advance. She was wearing a rose-coloured
costume trimmed with grey fur and she walked with the spring of perfect
health; the movement of one happy to be alive. Her eyes looked
graciously on every side, her lips were ready to smile. Her way led her
past the table where the three men sat, and she stopped at once,
regardless of her companion.

"You three nice people!" she exclaimed, as they rose to their feet. "How
faithful you are to one another. You lunch together here always?"

"At regular intervals," de Fontanay told her. "It has been a custom of
ours since the war."

"What a friendship!" she murmured. "And you," she added, smiling up at
Mark, "how goes the new career? All your time is now occupied? Yes? You
have no time even to think of your old friends, or your new ones?"

"My career has not so far made very strenuous demands upon me," Mark
replied, a little taken aback.

"My father has gone to Paris this morning," she went on. "I am staying
with Prince Andropulo's mother at Claridge's. If you have time, come in
and see me, Mr. Van Stratton--and you, too, Lord Dorchester. Colonel de
Fontanay knows he is always welcome at any time."

"When may I come?" Mark asked, with eager directness.

"Well, I won't promise you tea, because I hate it," she confided. "The
hour before I change--say from six to seven, finds me always at home and
always ready to be entertained. _Au revoir_, all of you."

She passed on and they resumed their seats. Mark, notwithstanding his
elation, scowled as he watched the Prince holding her chair.

"Curse that fellow!" he exclaimed. "What on earth does she want to come
out with him for?"

"You will never," de Fontanay pronounced, "be able to judge Mademoiselle
Dukane by ordinary standards. She is a Parisienne to the finger tips and
to be a Parisienne means that she is going to do just what she chooses
somehow or other. _Par exemple_, a married Frenchwoman who has made up
her mind to deceive her husband, does so, but if she has a kind heart,
she shows it by being even more amiable to him, and by taking extra
pains that he never discovers her infidelity."

"These are interesting generalities," Dorchester observed, "but I agree
with Mark. I can't see what pleasure she finds in going about with a
fellow like that."

"You ignore one of the guiding principles of her life," de Fontanay
reminded his two friends. "They say that she is her father's associate,
almost his partner, in many of his great enterprises. You may be very
sure that they want something from Prince Andropulo, I suppose he will
reign some day and there is a great deal of undeveloped wealth in his
Country. If all the rumours one hears are true, Felix Dukane has already
discovered that."

"And according to other rumours," Dorchester added, glancing around and
dropping his voice a little, "Hugerson didn't waste his time in Drome.
You know all about that, Mark."

Mark shrugged his shoulders.

"Mr. Hugerson's reports, of course, are private," he said. "I don't put
them into shape, either. Miss Moreland does that."

De Fontanay sipped his wine approvingly, and set down the glass.

"Talking of women," he remarked, "that is another thing in this Country
which surprises me. In France, we should never dream of dictating
important Government reports to a young person of the other sex."

"Miss Moreland," Mark pointed out, "is in her way quite unique."

"Everybody knows her," Dorchester put in. "She has been private
secretary to two Cabinet Ministers--one the Premier--and did wonderful
work at the Peace Conference."

"As a matter of fact," Mark went on, "I was thinking about this the
other day, but I came to the conclusion that it would be absolutely
impossible to tempt a woman like that. She must earn a great deal more
money than she can spend, and I can assure you of my own knowledge that
she has no frivolous tastes. Imagine, for instance, that Felix Dukane,
who might be supposed to be interested, wanted to ascertain Mr
Hugerson's conclusions on certain European matters a little
beforehand--I can quite understand that it would be a great advantage to
him--what sort of a bribe could he offer to a person in that position?
He might just as well talk to Hugerson himself."

"Theoretically, I agree," de Fontanay assented dubiously, "and yet when
one comes to the inner shades of diplomacy, I have never felt the same
confidence when the woman creeps in. I must confess I was surprised when
I heard--quite by chance--that she was practically established as
Hugerson's private secretary and was preparing a precis of the whole of
his conclusions for Washington. I should have thought that one of the
permanent secretaries of the Embassy would have done that."

"I don't believe," Dorchester asserted, "that in the whole of the
American Embassy they could find anyone so quick or so accurate. I know
that when she was private secretary to Johnson-Mairs, he declared that
in four years she had never made a mistake of any sort, taken down a
wrong word or left one out. Her shorthand is simply magic, and her
discretion unimpeachable. No, I should say Hugerson had been lucky to
get hold of her. What do you think, Mark?"

Mark had been silent for the last few minutes. He answered now almost
with reluctance.

"Why, of course you're right," he conceded. "I just can't imagine anyone
seriously doubting Miss Moreland's honesty any more than they would her
capacity. I haven't seen a whole lot of her, but what I have seen is
simply beyond criticism. There's just one other way of looking at it
though. Hugerson knows better than any of us, but I can't help feeling
that a report of such importance as he is engaged upon at present should
be drafted by a permanent official. It seems scarcely fair on the girl
herself to place such a tremendous responsibility upon her. Supposing
anything did leak out before the report reached Washington, for
instance? She would naturally come under suspicion, and she might not
have been responsible in any way. It might have been just a word from
Hugerson in one of the places he's been visiting, just a sentence
overheard by one of the hangers-on where he was calling, or even one of
the men himself with whom he has had dealings. All the same, she'd get
the blame." De Fontanay sipped his wine.

"The subject interests me," he confided, "because I happen to know that
there are several bidders for early information as to some of Hugerson's
conclusions...However, enough of politics. Mark, to America; Dorchester,
to England."

"Raoul, to France," they both reciprocated.

Their usual toasts were drunk, and presently they rose from the table.
Estelle, looking thoroughly bored with her companion, was leaning back
in her chair. She waved her hand to them gaily, and her lips moved as
though to remind Mark of the evening. He made his way presently back to
the Embassy, conscious of a sudden relief from the depression of the
last few days. He had a conviction that Andropulo was, after all, only a
pawn in the game upon which Estelle and her father were engaged. And
before the great battle developed, the pawns had usually vanished from
the board.



CHAPTER II


Mark, ushered upon his arrival into the drawing-room of an imposing
suite upon the first floor of Claridge's Hotel, was received in due
course by Estelle, who introduced him to an elderly and even fatter
replica of Prince Andropulo.

"Let me present Mr. Van Stratton--Her Majesty, the Dowager Queen of
Drome. I know you don't care about tea, Mr. Van Stratton. I wonder
whether you would like to dance for half an hour?"

"There is nothing in the world I should enjoy more," he assured her,
after he had raised to his lips the pudgy fingers extended to him by
Andropulo's mother.

"We will go downstairs at once, then," she suggested. "From here the
music sounds entrancing. I have already made our excuses to her
Majesty."

Estelle laid her fingers upon his arm as they passed along the corridor:
a note of familiarity which brought him a curious thrill.

"You see, Madame doesn't quite understand the Bohemian life which father
and I have chosen to lead," she explained. "I suppose we could have all
the friends we like. We prefer none. It seems it is not _convenable_ for
me to receive you in my suite, and as the dear old lady thinks that some
day I will marry her son she has planted herself there. I thought you
would find dancing more amusing than a conversation _à trois_."

"I would indeed," he assured her. "And perhaps we might find a corner
and talk for a few minutes ourselves now and then."

"What do you want to talk to me about?" she asked.

"For one thing I should like to tell you just what I think of you," he
answered, as he rang the bell for the lift.

"And then?"

"I would like you to tell me just what you think of me."

She laughed softly.

"You are very frank."

"A national characteristic," he confided, lowering his voice and
glancing round. "You know quite well that I want you to marry me."

"But I do not want to marry anybody," she protested.

"You must some day."

She sighed.

"I suppose so...Tell me why you want to marry me? Just because I am
pretty? That is not much, you know. There are beautiful girls in
London--any quantity of them. Mine is not a wonderful type."

"It is just because you are yourself," he confessed. "You are the most
attractive thing I ever saw. You can look things out of your eyes which
would turn any man's head. Sometimes I wish you wouldn't do it."

She laughed.

"But then you must remember I am French. I know that I flirt. If I were
engaged to you, you would probably be jealous."

"In time," he assured her, "you would care for me so much that you
wouldn't look at these other men."

"Then life would be very dull," she complained. "Again I must remind you
that French women are not like that. We must flirt after marriage just
as much as before--perhaps a little more. It is the only thing which
keeps us young."

"I fancy there are a few other things in life I could give you to think
about," he declared.

She made an entrancing little grimace.

"I think," she told him, "that the lift is here and I can hear the
music."



"Of course," Estelle admitted, half an hour later, "it would be a great
thing to have one's husband dance as wonderfully as you."

"It would be a marvellous thing," he rejoined, "to own anyone who feels
like you do in one's arms."

"I suppose I shall have to think about it," she sighed, "some day. But
then you know, there's Lord Dorchester. I couldn't bear to make him
unhappy."

"You could flirt with him to a modified extent after we were married,"
Mark suggested.

"Do you suppose," she asked indignantly, "that any man would be
satisfied to flirt with me to a modified extent?"

"Perhaps not. But if you were married to me no one would do more."

There was a pause in the music. They seated themselves in two convenient
chairs.

"Now that we have found a quiet little corner," she said, her manner
suddenly more serious, "let us talk for a moment. Do you really know
that you could give much pleasure by just a few words?"

"Whatever you want in this world," he began breathlessly.

"You must not be so precipitate," she interrupted. "You do not quite
understand yet. I may not be able to make you understand at all. But you
could help my father and me, and in a way which would do no one any
harm."

He looked at her anxiously.

"You mean--my guest? He is getting better, but there is nothing to be
done with him at present. He has a strange fit just now. He does not
wish even to see me."

She shook her head.

"I was not thinking of him," she said. "I was thinking of your new
position as assistant secretary to Mr. Hugerson."

He stiffened at once, unconsciously, but with some premonition of
disturbance.

"Not much of a position, I am afraid," he confided. "Mr. Hugerson likes
me round because my father was an old friend of his. I just fetch and
carry books from the library, messages to the Chief, statistics from the
bureau, and odd jobs of that sort. Miss Moreland does ail the work."

"Really?" she murmured coldly.

"It's the truth," he asserted. "I can't use a typewriter."

"You're in the room a great deal of the time, I suppose? You have
perhaps gathered what Mr. Hugerson's impressions are of, say the
financial position of Drome?"

"Everything that Mr. Hugerson says," he assured her, "when it isn't
addressed to me, comes in at one ear and goes out of the other. They
tell me that's the first lesson in diplomacy, and you must remember I'm
only in the nursery,"

"Nevertheless," she said, "I shall ask you a question. Does Mr. Hugerson
know how much money my father has invested in Drome? Does he know the
number and amount of the concessions which we hold? Does he know, does
he believe that there is any understanding between the Republican
Government of Drome, General Matteos, who represents the Royalist
interests, and the Government of Italy? We all know that those are some
things he came over to enquire about. How much has he learned, and what
is he going to do about it?"

Mark seemed to have grown suddenly older. He looked away from his
companion, across the crowded lounge, where people were seated in
pleasant groups, drinking tea or cocktails, on into the dancing room,
from which came the rhythmical music of the orchestra. She waited for
speech, and finally questioned him impatiently.

"Why do you not reply?" she demanded. "Why do you sit there and say
nothing?"

"To tell you the truth," he admitted, "I was half hoping to hear you say
that you were not in earnest."

"But of course I am in earnest," she insisted. "You say curious things
to me sometimes. You try to make me believe that you care. If you do,
why should I not ask you anything--everything in the world? I may put
you to the test, may I not?"

Her forehead was wrinkled. She had an air of almost pathetic lack of
understanding. Mark himself felt suddenly older, a little tired with the
world which a few minutes before had seemed so wonderful. So this was
the reason of her kindness! He was to be made use of, cajoled into
dishonour! He looked once more at her. What he saw surprised him. He had
expected that slight tightening of the lips, the hardness which
sometimes came into her eyes. Nothing of the sort was apparent. Her
smile was inviting, almost affectionate, her expression tender, her eyes
sweet. Her attitude made it even more difficult.

"You must see," he protested, "that even if I were in a position to know
these things, I could not disclose them."

"But why not?" she reasoned, still without resentment, without a trace
of anger. "I have heard of men doing all sorts of things to prove that
they really cared. This is not so hard. It would not hurt a soul. In
fact it would do good."

"I have learned very little of the result of Mr, Hugerson's mission," he
said, this time firmly enough. "The little I have learned, I could not
possibly divulge to anyone."

For a moment there was silence. He did not dare to look at her. He felt
the change without seeking for its signs. Presently she rose.

"Let us dance," she suggested.

They made their way back to the room and danced, still in absolute
silence. Mark was acutely conscious of his companion's altered attitude,
of an entire departure of the ecstasy of the earlier part of the
afternoon. Her eyes no longer met his as he looked down, her lips no
longer broke into a happy little smile at the rhythm of the music. She
glanced around all the time as though searching for interest or
amusement elsewhere. Her feet followed his mechanically. She expressed
no pleasure when they paused for the encore. She danced as one dances
from a sense of duty. Afterwards, when he led the way back to the
lounge, she chose a more public seat.

"I daresay you would like to go presently," she remarked, glancing at
the clock. "You are probably dining somewhere, and so am I."

"Are you dining with that fellow Andropulo?" he demanded.

"Why not?" she rejoined. "He deserves that I should. There is nothing in
the world he would not do if I would promise him what I nearly promised
you. Besides, Prince Andropulo is my friend."

"I am sorry to hear it," he declared.

"Really, you are impossible," she complained. "It is I who should be
bad-tempered, and not you."

"Because I refuse to do a thing no honourable man would think of doing?"

"_Oh la, la!_" she scoffed. "Don't be so stiff and wooden. Every action
in the world becomes different according to circumstances. You simply do
not understand. The truth is that you do not care enough. Why should
you? You have not known me very long. I am not a very wonderful person,
after all."

"Perhaps you are not," he agreed, a little hardly. "I don't think at
this moment that you are worth everything I feel for you, and yet I know
I couldn't feel as I do, in the way I do, if there wasn't something
there I haven't got at yet. If I could make you care you'd understand,
but I should never make you any fonder of me by doing such a thing as
you've asked me this afternoon--even if you gave me the husks of your
gratitude."

She shook her head.

"There is no mystery about me," she said coldly. "I am just a very
natural person, a little spoilt, perhaps, who likes her own way and
likes the people who give it to her. I am not so angry with you as you
think, Mr. Mark Van Stratton. I am just sorry for your limitations. I
should like to see in you a man who when he loves or says he loves,
gives all. Perhaps then you might discover in me that something which
you say is there, and which I do not know of. If you found it, it would
be yours."

Dorchester, arrived breathless from the House of Commons, lingered upon
the threshold for a moment, and, seeing them, dropped his eye-glass and
approached. Estelle welcomed him gaily.

"Come," he declared, "you've been monopolising Miss Dukane long enough,
Mark. You won't mind my having a dance?"

Mark rose to his feet, assenting dumbly. Estelle nodded her farewell.

"It will have to be almost the last one," she confided, "so I will say
good-night, Mr. Van Stratton. I have to change early."

She held out her arms to her partner and they moved off. Mark remaining
where he was for a few moments, watched them dance, watched her laughing
up into her partner's face, her entire attention apparently riveted upon
him, watched him lean down to respond--the whole pantomime of dancing
between intimates. Then he turned around, took his hat and coat from the
_vestiaire_ and left.



CHAPTER III


An elderly man-servant, in dark, worn plum-coloured livery, opened the
door of de Fontanay's little suite in the Marylebone Road, in response
to Mark's somewhat impatient ring, a few minutes later. The faint
querulousness of his expression disappeared as soon as he recognised the
visitor.

"Monsieur will be pleased to enter," he begged. "Monsieur le Colonel
takes his bath--an affair now of a few moments only,"

Mark passed through the door, which the man held open, into a small, but
comfortable sitting-room, furnished tastefully enough but with scant
indications of luxury. Beyond were folding doors which concealed the
sleeping apartment and bathroom. He threw himself into an easy-chair,
refused a cigarette, and lounged there with his hands in his pockets. In
a few minutes, de Fontanay, wrapped in a dressing-gown, made his
appearance. The two men exchanged the usual laconic greetings of old
friends.

"Rather early for a cocktail," de Fontanay observed, drawing up a chair.
"What about a whisky and soda?"

"I didn't come for a drink," Mark replied. "I came for a talk, if you're
not busy.

"It is my greatest compensation for living a life of comparative
idleness," de Fontanay declared, "that I have always the time to welcome
my friends."

"I'm not so sure about that life of idleness," Mark confided a little
drily. "Anyway, that's not my business. I wanted to talk to you for a
minute or two about my new job, and I wanted to ask you a question, as
man to man, about Estelle Dukane."

"What do you want me to tell you about Estelle Dukane, that you have not
found out for yourself?" de Fontanay demanded.

"I want to know whether I was wrong--whether I am wrong about her now,"
Mark confessed dejectedly.

"Treating you badly, eh?"

"Rottenly."

De Fontanay flicked the ash from his cigarette.

"It is the French side of her which you do not understand," he
explained. "But then it always comes back to the eternal doctrine which
I am continually preaching to you and Henry. You take your women too
seriously. You expect too much of them. You bore them with your
expectations. The true Frenchwoman wants to be the partner of your
pleasures, not the partner of your life. Why, you behave as though you
might even expect her to take early breakfast with you."

"These after all are merely generalities," Mark pointed out, a little
bitterly. "What I want to find out is whether Estelle Dukane is a
typical Frenchwoman, possessing all these failings which you demonstrate
so eloquently, or whether she is in any way the woman I believed her to
be."

"I will compose myself to be serious," his friend promised. "I will tell
you this--that I really do not know. She has at times puzzled me. I will
recount to you the one thing which leads me to believe that there may be
hope for you."

"Go ahead," Mark begged.

"She was in Florence last Spring with her father, and I came across them
once or twice there. I remember one morning, I had wandered into the
Ufhzzi Gallery, or the Pitti--I do not remember which--a little earlier
than the crowd, and I found her seated there. She did not see me, and I
kept purposely out of sight, because, psychologically I was a little
interested. She was studying one of the 'Madonnas'--I think it was the
most motherly of them all, the Raphael 'Mother and Child.' I watched her
for a minute or two from the distance and I saw something in her eyes
which I have never seen since and which I imagine she chooses to keep
concealed. Still it was there because I saw it. Since then I have always
half believed that she is not exactly the--you will forgive me--the
heartless little _mondaine_ she tries to appear."

"If I hadn't believed something of the sort," Mark declared earnestly,
"I could never have cared for her as I do. For some reason or other,
though, she shows me nothing except either the most frivolous side of
herself or the most selfish."

"The caprice of her sex," de Fontanay observed. "As you have doubtless
discovered there is nothing bores a woman so much as too many evidences
of affection from the man whom she is only just beginning to like. The
way to win the heart of a Frenchwoman is to keep her amused. There are
more hearts won with witty speeches than tender ones in Paris."

"I suppose," Mark said gloomily, "you think you know the devil of a lot
about women, Raoul?"

"The time has evidently arrived," his friend rejoined, "When you need
the soothing influence of a cocktail. I have given you the encouragement
you came to get--more than you had hoped for, I should imagine. I should
think it quite probable from what I know of Estelle Dukane, that there
is some part of herself which she keeps entirely in the background, but
if you want my advice, don't go about your love-making in such deadly
earnest. You wouldn't do yourself any harm if you dropped it altogether
for a week."

There was a pleasant sound of tinkling ice in the background, and
presently the elderly manservant made his reappearance through the
folding doors, carrying the two cocktails on an old-fashioned tray. He
served them with an air reminiscent of the Faubourg, left the shaker
upon the table and took his leave. De Fontanay lit a cigarette and
leaned back in his chair.

"And now about your job, Mark?" he asked.

"It grows more interesting every day," Mark confessed, "and every day I
realise how damnably ignorant I am. What's all this trouble about the
franc, Raoul?"

De Fontanay's face darkened.

"It is trouble of a very simple, but a very venomous nature," he
declared. "It is trouble caused by the fact that I think no Country in
the world has more enemies, is more hated, than my own."

"I don't see why that should be," Mark reflected.

"This is the third attempt," de Fontanay went on, "to break us.
Internally, our people are working as they have never worked before.
They are producing more, they should be earning more, and all the time
the prices mount and mount until the manufacturer who has to buy a
single article of raw goods from abroad finds his profits disappear.
Even the common necessities of life have almost doubled in price."

"But someone must be making money out of it," Mark ventured.

De Fontanay's eyes flashed.

"Someone is making money out of it," he acknowledged fiercely. "They are
all making money out of it. The enemies of France, a secret gang of
miscreants, are speculating upon every money market in the world. What
do you suppose I am here in London for, Mark? Well, you wouldn't know.
I'll tell you. We're not a nation of assassins, but war is war. This is
the very foulest sort of war which is being carried on now. We found one
of the Agents a few weeks ago. He'll never speculate again, for himself
or anyone else. The others are clever. They work all the time through
puppets, but money such as they are handling will speak in time."

"For a banker's son," Mark said thoughtfully, "I am kind of an ass at
finance, but surely you've got rich men in France. I don't see why you
shouldn't catch these people out. The Government--"

"We won't talk any more about this business," de Fontanay interrupted."
I am too much in the thick of it to speak discreetly. Tell me about your
job."

"Mighty interesting! And it gets more interesting every day," Mark
confided.

"I suppose you know why you got it?"

"Well, in the first place." Mark explained, "because Dimsdale got into
trouble, and Rawlinson caught the flue, and Hugerson happened to be a
pal of my father's."

De Fontanay shook his head.

"Rawlinson," he confided, "will never return to the Embassy. His career
is ended."

"What, Jerry Rawlinson!" Mark exclaimed. "What's wrong with him?"

"What's wrong with the whole world of politicians and diplomats
nowadays, I wonder?" de Fontanay sighed. "We've had terrible scandals in
Paris the last few weeks. Part of this vicious speculation in francs has
been due to sheer treachery. The thing seems to have spread everywhere
though. I don't know what special sin Dimsdale committed, but everyone
knows--your own Chief wouldn't deny it if you asked him--that Rawlinson
was caught with Embassy papers on the Continent when he was supposed to
be having ten days' leave at Monte Carlo. Then there was Matorni--Count
Matorni--he was one of the most popular young Italians in London, but,
like most Italians of good family, he hadn't a sou. He blew out his
brains to escape arrest."

"I am sorry," Mark exclaimed. "I never knew Matorni, but
Rawlinson--Jerry Rawlinson! I was at Harvard with him, and he very
nearly got into the polo team. I always thought old Jerry was one of the
best!"

"So he was in the beginning," de Fontanay agreed. "He got into the wrong
set though, and London is no place for a poor man. Your Chief treated
him very leniently, and I would not myself mention it if it were not
bound to come out within the next few weeks."

Mark was beginning for the moment to forget his own trouble. There were
new lines about de Fontanay's face. He felt somehow or other as though
the life which he had hitherto taken so lightly, was after all a more
serious thing, as though he had been walking about in a world whose
tragic side he had completely ignored.

"Raoul," he admitted, a little humbly, "I'm afraid I'm a great
ignoramus. What's it all mean? Whilst war was in the air, one was
prepared for all this sort of trouble. Nowadays though, the whole work
of the world seems to be for peace. Plans of battleships and
fortifications and airships are all out-of-date. What is the scheming
about?"

De Fontanay smiled wearily.

"The period of war may have passed for a time," he agreed, "but another
passion, as cruel and as devastating has taken its place--the passion of
greed. Every Country in Europe thinks it has been robbed by the War. The
great banking houses, to whom war came really as a god-send, have to
find some other way to use, or rather misuse their unwieldy holdings.
Just now, France is the chief victim. I don't mind confessing to you,
Mark, that if I find the man who is responsible for our franc crisis, I,
or any member of my Service, would consider him and treat him as a spy
under the most stringent rules of war. The franc to-day is a hundred and
sixty, and someone or other has used thirty million pounds to drag it
there. That man, if we discover who it is, will be no safer than the man
who sold the plans of Nauberge."

Mark was suddenly tense in his chair. A queer unframed suspicion seemed
to have been caught up in a glint of de Fontanay's eyes, and answered.
The latter held out his hand.

"Don't mention any name, Mark," he begged. "Remember, I warned you
against the man from the first. It was only last night a telephone call
came through from Paris--"

De Fontanay broke off in his sentence, and listened. The outer door of
his little apartment had been suddenly opened and closed. There was a
knocking at the inner door; not an ordinary, tentative knock of
invitation, but a succession of blows, dealt on the panels as though in
desperation. De Fontanay sprang to his feet, anticipating Gaston, the
man-servant's slower progress, and threw open the door. Estelle stepped
lightly across the threshold, the shadow of the old, maddening smile
upon her lips, as she looked up at de Fontanay.

"Close the door quickly, please," she begged. "There are some
inquisitive people about."



CHAPTER IV


It seemed to Mark, in those few seconds of agonised astonishment, as
though every muscle in his body went hard and tense. His heart was
pounding against his ribs. He saw the faces of the two--Estelle's and
his friend's--through a red mist. Speech of any sort was impossible.
Estelle, quitting the proximity of the door, suddenly recognised his
presence, recognised also at the same moment the blaze of passion in his
clear eyes and what it portended.

"Incorrigible!" she exclaimed.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"I might tell you to mind your own business," she answered coldly. "As a
matter of fact you will soon know. Can you fight, you two?"

"With one another?" Mark asked, looking across at his friend.

"Idiot!" she scoffed. "To protect me."

"What from?"

"Listen. You will probably find out," she replied.

There was the sound of a heavy fall in the room above, something which
might have been a muffled revolver shot. De Fontanay opened the drawer
of his bureau, took out an automatic pistol and a box of cartridges. He
handled another which he offered to Mark.

"Will you have a gun, my young friend, to deal with this mysterious
menace," he enquired, "or will you rely upon your Herculean strength?"

"If there's any fighting to be done I'll fight with my fists," Mark
declared. "But what does it all mean? Whom is there to fight, and what
the devil is Miss Dukane doing here?"

Estelle took no notice of him. She was listening intently to the sounds
of disturbance above. De Fontanay turned to her and repeated Mark's
question.

"Will you pardon me, mademoiselle, if I enquire what you are doing in
this building at all?"

"I will tell you--certainly. I received a telegram which was waiting for
me in my room when I had finished dancing this afternoon. It was from my
father in Paris. He told me to call at number eight flat in these
mansions at half-past-six to-night with a certain sum of money, and to
receive from a man who vas passing by the name of Johnson, a roll of
papers."

She was distracted by a renewal of the sounds above, They all listened.
Heavy furniture was being dragged about. There were footsteps passing
backwards and forwards in every direction: an angry voice, another in
pain. De Fontanay's fingers tightened upon the handle of his automatic.

"Would you," he begged, "kindly warn us what we lave to expect?"

"I had only just time, as Mr. Van Stratton must know," Estelle went on,
"to write out a cheque for the money, jump into a taxi and drive here. I
noticed when I entered that there was a man loitering on the pavement,
watching, and another studying the names on the board in the hall below
whose face I did not like. However, I was here, so I went up. The man
Johnson was expecting me. There were two others with him. Johnson was a
big, fat man, a foreigner of some sort. It was he who talked with me:
another listened at the door. I handed him the cheque. He was like a
madman. It was notes he wanted--notes. Of what use was a cheque? I
explained that I had only just received the telegram. He and the third
man talked for a time. At last they seemed to agree. They handed me some
papers and I gave them the cheque. Just as I was leaving the bell of the
fiat rang. All three men were terrified. They were forced to open the
door, however, for the bell kept on ringing. Two men entered, and the
moment Johnson caught sight of the foremost there was a panic. He
snatched up a gun but the other two pulled it away from him. Whilst they
were all shouting I slipped round them, slammed the door and ran
downstairs. That is exactly what happened."

"You did me the honour," de Fontanay observed, "to remember my poor
abode."

She nodded.

"Considering that I saw the name on the door as I passed up the stairs
it is not wonderful."

The tumult in the room above had ceased. They heard a door open and
close, then the sound of descending footsteps. There was a brief
conversation with someone on the stairs, after which the bell rang. De
Fontanay held up his hand. No one moved. Along the little outside
passage Gaston passed to answer the summons. They heard a peremptory
voice at the door, a faint protest from Gaston. Without waiting to be
announced two men, in plain clothes but with an undoubtedly official
appearance, entered. The foremost of them all, a tall, broad-set man,
dressed in a dark-blue serge suit, thick black overcoat and a bowler
hat, stood for a moment surveying the company, his eyes travelling
swiftly from one to the other, taking in apparently every detail of the
room. He waved his hand a little contemptuously at de Fontanay's
revolver.

"You can put that away," he directed. "We are not bandits."

De Fontanay made no movement.

"It is interesting to know what you are not," he observed, "but since
you force your way into my private apartments it would perhaps be still
more interesting to know what you are."

"I am Inspector Grierson of Scotland Yard," was the laconic reply. "I am
acting in support of my companion who belongs to a kindred service."

"And your business here?"

"Is with that young lady," the Inspector answered, indicating Estelle.

De Fontanay unloaded his pistol, and thrust it back into the drawer.

"Proceed," he invited. The Inspector stepped into the background. His
companion, a slim, well-dressed man, evidently occupying a different
station in life, took a step forward.

"Miss Dukane, I believe," he said.

"That is my name," Estelle admitted.

"You visited the flat above this evening with a view to obtaining
possession of some documents for which you paid the sum of five thousand
pounds. Your cheque will not be cashed. I must ask you for the return of
the documents."

"I do not understand you," she declared, frowning. "If I choose to pay
for something which Mr. Johnson has and which he sells me, what business
is it of anyone else's?"

"Miss Dukane," the other replied patiently, "it is a great deal the
business of other people, because the document you were purchasing from
Mr. Johnson contains stolen information, stolen from the Bank of
England, which the Government of this Country does not propose to allow
in circulation."

"If you believe that I have any such papers," Estelle protested, "I can
assure you that you are mistaken."

"That is not our conviction," was the prompt rejoinder. "You paid over
the cheque. It is only fair to assume that you received the _quid pro
quo_. It would perhaps save time if I were to assure you that my orders
are entirely definite. I must take those papers from whoever has them at
any cost."

"It is necessary that you find the person first," Estelle exclaimed
defiantly.

"That, I venture to think, is already accomplished. You have had no
opportunity of disposing of them since you left the flat above as you
were watched by the man who was posted on the stairs to prevent anyone's
escape. Furthermore, as you would not have been allowed to leave the
building and we have searched the whole fiat above and satisfied
ourselves that the papers are not there, we are forced to the conclusion
that in return for your cheque for five thousand pounds they are now in
your possession."

"I know nothing of them," she asserted.

"If you persist in that attitude," her interlocutor decided, "we have no
alternative but to search you."

"That is what you would not dare to do," she retorted indignantly. "If
either of you venture to offer me such an insult you will regret it for
the rest of your lives. My father--"

"Miss Dukane," the other interrupted, "we know very well that your
father is a man of great influence. The law, however, has its
necessities. We do not propose, either I or the Inspector here, to touch
you. You will simply remain where you are whilst the Inspector
telephones to Scotland Yard for a woman searcher."

She glared at him for a moment without speech. Once more, Mark, watching
her closely, wondered at those suddenly apparent lines at her mouth. She
turned to de Fontanay.

"Colonel de Fontanay," she appealed, "can they do this?"

He extended his hands regretfully.

"I fear so, mademoiselle," he admitted. "It is the fortune of war."

Mark took a step forward. He looked at the two men as though measuring
his strength against theirs.

"If you will say what you wish," he began, his eyes fixed upon
Estelle's--

"Do not be absurd, my friend," de Fontanay intervened. "In no reasonable
Country does anyone resist the law. To do so can only result in
discomfiture."

Mark's gaze remained fixed upon the girl's. She shrugged her shoulders.
Then, with a little gesture of anger, she stood away from the table
against which she had been leaning, thrust her hand into the inner
pocket of her fur coat and drew out a thin roll of papers.

"You are disgusting!" she exclaimed, bursting into tears, and throwing
the papers upon the floor.

The man who had been questioning her stepped forward. He picked up the
papers and, with the aid of an unexpected monocle, which he withdrew
from his waistcoat pocket, glanced through them. Apparently satisfied,
he folded them up and placed them in an inside pocket of his coat.

"Miss Dukane," he said, "the papers appear to be those of which we are
in search. We have nothing more to say to you on this occasion. It is
only right to warn you, however, that trafficking in stolen information
of this description is a criminal offence. What steps, if any, the
authorities may propose to take we do not know. You may possibly hear
further from them."

The two men took their somewhat stiff departure. De Fontanay opened the
first door: Gaston the second. They all three listened to the sound of
their receding footsteps.

"I think," de Fontanay proposed, "after these few minutes, not
altogether devoid of incident, we should fortify ourselves. Gaston,
three cocktails."

Estelle, who was now seated upon the edge of the writing-table,
permitted her hand to steal towards the blotting pad. Her fingers sought
for a moment and returned with several sheets of closely-written paper.
She slipped them down into the inner pocket of her coat.

"We will drink," she suggested, "to the unfailing sagacity of those
busybodies, the police."



CHAPTER V


There was a moment of tense silence; a silence possessing peculiar
qualities. Almost instantaneously Estelle realised her error. She
crossed with a jaunty little swing to the hearth-rug, and adjusted her
hat in the mirror. Then, opening her vanity case, she powdered her nose,
touched her lips with a stick, and glanced furtively towards where Mark
was standing still in the same place. De Fontanay, frowning heavily, had
moved a little in front of the door. Gaston made his courtly entrance.
She turned around and received her cocktail.

"Ah well," she said, "I will drink to your health, dear Colonel de
Fontanay, who have given me shelter, and to yours, my dear but rather
gloomy Mr. Van Stratton, who will presently accompany me home, for fear
I should meet with more adventures."

They emptied their glasses almost in silence. Estelle drew her fur coat
closer around her.

"I am now ready, if you please," she told Mark.

De Fontanay shook his head regretfully. He was still standing directly
between her and the door.

"Miss Dukane," he said, "it is unfortunate that you should have invited
to share your secret two men whom honour forbids to ignore it. I am of
the French Secret Service. One of my responsibilities in this Country is
to discover and expose the miscreants--I call them that, although they
are moneyed miscreants--who are endeavouring to obtain a strangle-hold
upon the finances of my Country. My friend, Van Stratton here, has no
official position in the matter, but I know that I can count
sufficiently upon his friendship to assure you that he will not
countenance in any way this buying or selling of stolen information. I
regret that we can neither of us allow yon to leave this room with the
document which you were clever enough to conceal."

She remained with her hand holding her coat in its place, prepared for
immediate departure.

"How do you propose to prevent me?" she asked insolently.

"By placing the truth before you as I have done," he replied gravely.
"Those written words which you purchase to aid your father to make a few
more superfluous millions have cost some man his honesty and would cost
us our honour if we were to allow you to depart with them."

Her eyes blazed with cold anger. Her mouth took an ugly twist. The whole
beauty of her expression was gone. She had the look of one about to
burst into a diatribe of abuse. No words came, however. She restrained
herself, and turned instead to Mark.

"You have developed, my friend," she said smoothly, "the most amazing
gift for silence. What do you think of this foolishness? Are you, too,
one with your friend? A pretty pair from whom to seek help! Do you agree
with him? This talk of honour! It is an absurdity! Why, all that is done
to help my father is done to help the cause of Europe. That is what you
are so foolish not to understand. What he works for is to gain
peace--financially and otherwise--but in order to succeed, he must have
foreknowledge. The English Government have refused to give him their
confidence in a certain financial matter of great import. It is their
own fault if we have had to resort to unusual means."

She had turned now directly to Mark. De Fontanay leaned back against the
wall, watching them both. His fingers toyed with his cigarette case, but
there was anxiety in his eyes. When at last Mark spoke, his voice
sounded unnatural, even to himself: the intonation of it somehow
different. He addressed his friend.

"We don't even know what the papers are," he argued. "I don't see how we
can interfere."

"Then let Mademoiselle show us," de Fontanay suggested calmly. "If we
find nothing in them harmful to the interests of my Country, or to the
cause of peace in Europe, then I have no more to say, and Mademoiselle
is at liberty to depart."

"I don't see that it is our business," Mark reiterated, a little
doggedly. "If these papers refer to any private speculation of Felix
Dukane's, I don't see it's up to us to interfere."

Estelle smiled at him; perhaps the most bewildering smile he had ever
received from her, and the blood began to course through his veins, his
brain to clear, his purpose to become more defined.

"If she hadn't told us," he went on, "we should never have known. If we
had found it out for ourselves it might have been different, but she
trusted us."

"Of course I did," she assented, "I counted you both my friends. Before
my father went to Paris, we knew exactly the sort of document we should
receive, and the names to be mentioned in it. My father himself prepared
the duplicate I carried with me. Naturally, I brought it to-night, and
it served its purpose. Perhaps I was foolish to let anyone know of my
little triumph," she concluded, "but you two, my friends, I never
dreamed that you would take advantage of my confidence."

"We will not," Mark declared firmly.

"The papers," de Fontanay insisted, "must be given up."

Estelle looked from one to the other of the two men; from de Fontanay,
slim, of medium height only, a slightly older man, but evidently an
athlete, to Mark, a young giant, with the physique of a gladiator, the
long, lean body and wonderful shoulders of a born fighting man, and
there smouldered in her eyes something of the cruel joy of the woman who
loves to stir the contending passions of men. Nevertheless, her tone was
gentle, almost pleading.

"Colonel de Fontanay," she begged, "you hear what Mr. Van Stratton Says.
You two must not quarrel about this. You have made your protest. Mr. Van
Stratton sees with me. He has given his word to escort me home safely.
He must do it."

"See here, Raoul," Mark pleaded, "you know how it is with me. I may be
prejudiced. Strictly speaking you may be right. To-morrow morning, if
you like, I'll tell everyone what I've done even if I get kicked out of
my job. We can't quarrel, you and I. We've been through too much
together."

De Fontanay remained silent. His eyes were fixed upon his friend a
little sadly.

"Mark," he said, "I wish we'd lunched somewhere else that day."

"Wishes don't help," was the momentarily bitter reply. "I may wish so
myself before I get through. That doesn't affect this matter. You say it
is dishonourable for us to let her go with the papers. I would be
equally dishonoured if I broke my word and stopped her. I hate to say
it, Raoul, but a scrap between you and me--well, it couldn't be thought
of. Wouldn't do us a bit of good, would it? I know you have a gun there
but you wouldn't use it. Miss Dukane!"

Estelle obeyed his gesture and moved towards the door. Mark left his
place and came between her and de Fontanay. The eyes of the two men met
at closer quarters, and his friend suddenly understood the tragedy which
lay behind Mark's apparent stubbornness. With a gesture of resignation,
he opened the door.

"You are right, Mark," he acknowledged. "A scrap between us would be
only ridiculous. Good-night, mademoiselle. My compliments!"

He bowed so low that he apparently failed to see the fingers she
offered. Mark and Estelle passed out together, down to the street and
into Estelle's taxi which was still waiting. She took her place in the
furthest corner and patted the seat by her side with the hand from which
she had already withdrawn her glove.

"You are a dear thing!" she murmured, with a very soft light in her
eyes. "I am beginning to like you very much."

Her movement towards him was in itself almost a caress. His arms went
round her unchecked. It seemed to him that as her head fell back, her
eyes half closed, her lips came voluntarily towards his. A fierce
satisfaction throbbed through all his senses. At least she was no cheat.
With what she had to offer she was willing to pay.



CHAPTER VI


Seated in the most comfortable chair of Mark's library, awaiting his
return that evening, he found a slim, sprucely-dressed, shaven and
coiffured young man, disfigured only by a neatly-arranged bandage round
his head. Mark, who entered a little dazed, stared at him for a moment
in surprise.

"I report myself as convalescent," the intruder observed, rising with a
low bow. "The doctor gave me leave this afternoon to descend."

"Good God!" Mark exclaimed. "I had forgotten all about you."

The young man seemed hurt.

"Considering that it is only comparatively a short time ago," he
observed, "that you treated me as a corpse and propped me up against a
tree in Richmond Park, thereby running grave risk, your lack of memory
is a little remarkable."

"I admit it," Mark assented. "To tell you the truth, things have been
marching some with me lately."

"For me," Brennan confided, "there has existed, since your first visit
to me, a pleasing sense of security. Since I handed that key over to you
I have slept at night and felt secure by day."

"That's all right, anyhow," Mark told him. "The key is in my banker's
strong-room, and can only be fetched out on your signature or mine."

"An excellent idea!" Brennan approved. "The time, however, is close at
hand when some use must be made of the amazing information I have
collected, or it will be too late. Would you be so kind as to tell me
whether any rumours of a treaty between Italy and Greece have found
their way into the papers and the present price of the franc?"

"I'll tell you nothing of the sort," Mark answered a little brusquely.
"To be frank, I'm fed up with all this sort of thing, and the sooner you
clear out and take your key and sell your information, whatever it is,
the better I shall be satisfied. Ranching is what I was meant for, or
some simple life. All this scheming and intrigue makes me sick."

He rang the bell viciously. His companion shrugged his shoulders.

"_Chacun à son gout_," he murmured airily. "For me, always, if you
please, the life of intrigue. I say this, notwithstanding a pain in my
head still reminiscent of Mr. Dukane's leaden stick, and your kindly
attempt to dispose of my remains in the fog. I am rather like a cat,
though. I am hard to kill, and whatever intrigues may disturb Europe for
the next three weeks, it is I who have the key to the situation."

"Well, you'll have to look sharp if you're going to make use of it,"
Mark confided. "To judge by the newspapers, everyone seems to be rushing
into trouble on their own account."

"Before a fortnight my little bomb shall explode," the other affirmed
confidently. "Either it shall explode or I will become a rich man. It is
hard to make up one's mind. This exploit of mine has been without a
doubt the greatest success of my life. Greatly would I enjoy the triumph
of announcing it, yet money means much in life and I am a poor man."

"So far," Mark observed, taking a cocktail from the tray which Robert
had just brought in, "the possession of this wonderful piece of
information of yours doesn't seem to have brought you much luck."

"It has brought me a smashed head," the other admitted, raising his
glass and bowing, "but it has also brought me the privilege of your
acquaintance. I drink to my host's very good health."

He set down his glass empty, and gazed musingly into the fire.

"From now on," he continued, "I commence to reap the reward of my
exploit. I have to choose between fame and fortune. I think I shall
choose fortune. I shall live in South America. It is after all the
safest, and I think a very pleasant Country."

"You seem to make yourself very comfortable wherever you go," Mark
ventured, as his companion accepted a replenishment of his glass.

"A soldier of fortune," Brennan acknowledged.

"Are you--er--dining in?" Mark enquired. "I mean upstairs with your
nurse, or down here?"

"It will give me great pleasure to join you," was the polite reply.

"I am afraid I didn't quite mean that," Mark explained. "As a matter of
fact I have to go round to the Embassy in a few minutes, and I am dining
elsewhere. Don't think I am inhospitable. Stay here till you're
absolutely well enough to move, but the sooner you get your key and make
your deal for your information, the better I shall be pleased."

The visitor coughed.

"I will confide in you," he said, "that it is my intention to leave
early to-morrow morning. I am sorry that I shall not have the honour of
your company at dinner to-night. It would give me great pleasure to tell
you of my experiences during the war. I might convert you to some
interest in my profession."

"I don't imagine your experiences during the war would make very good
hearing for me," Mark replied. "However, I hope Andrews will look after
you. I must go and change."


Mark, on his way to his dinner engagement, called at the Embassy to
report to Mr. Hugerson. He found Frances Moreland alone in the room. She
was bending over her typewriter, and turned around in almost startled
fashion at his entrance.

"What are you doing here, Mr. Van Stratton?" she asked. "I thought you
said you weren't coming back to-day."

"I had a few minutes to spare," Mark explained, "and thought I'd just
look in and see if there was anything I could do for Mr. Hugerson. Been
busy?"

She looked at the little pile of papers by her side.

"Very," she answered. "Considering how quiet he is, I think Mr. Hugerson
gets through more work in one afternoon than any man I ever knew."

He looked at her a little curiously. She was dressed with more care than
when he had seen her last, and the extreme pallor had left her cheeks.
There was a look in her eyes, however, which puzzled him. The absolute
serenity which had been one of her chief characteristics seemed for the
time to have deserted her.

"Still wandering around Europe?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Mr. Hugerson is an amazing man," she declared "I don't remember anyone
for whom I have ever worked who could have collected so much information
in so short a time, and reproduced it so clearly."

"Knocking off for the night now?"

She nodded, and began to collect the loose sheets.

"I was just going to lock these up," she observed.

Mark glanced at the little pile of papers with a puzzled frown. Then he
turned away.

"Well, good-night, Miss Moreland," he said. "I shall be round to-morrow
morning."

"Good-night, Mr. Van Stratton."...

He met Myra in the hall, just come in from dancing somewhere.

"Stay and dine," she begged. "Dad's taking Mr. Hugerson to the Mansion
House, and Mum and I are all alone."

He passed his arm through hers.

"Myra, dear," he confided, "if the King commanded me to dine at
Buckingham Palace to-night, I should ask to be excused."

She glanced keenly into his face, and shook her head.

"That Dresden Doll!" she exclaimed in mock disgust.



CHAPTER VII


Shortly before nine that evening, Mark arrived at Giro's and spent a
pleasant but agitated quarter of an hour ordering dinner for two. At
nine o'clock he took a risk and rushed down to the bar for a cocktail.
At a quarter-past he began to fidget. At half-past he was stalking
gloomily to and fro in the circumscribed limits of the entrance hall and
becoming an object of some comment. At five-and-twenty minutes to ten, a
radiant vision in an opera cloak of brilliant scarlet, with a retinue of
admiring attendants in her wake, Estelle arrived.

"I'm not late, am I?" she asked, as she offered her fingers. "I really
couldn't remember what time we said."

"Not--particularly," he replied, with a sensation of immense relief.
"Anyway, you're here!"

He led the way to the corner table he had selected. It was not too near
the orchestra and had the advantage of a certain isolation. Estelle
looked around her and approved.

"My last few days of liberty," she sighed. "I am very angry, but for a
time I must live the life of these others, and have a chaperone and go
to those stupid parties one reads about every day. I like to be myself.
I do not like to accept an invitation for weeks ahead and not know who
is to be of the party. I bore myself when I do those things, and yet it
has to be."

"What is happening?" he enquired.

"Father has taken Cruton House for three months," she confided. "We are
going to establish ourselves there at once."

"That barracks!" he exclaimed. "Why, it's the largest house in London."

She nodded.

"I shall not worry myself," she declared firmly. "We take over the whole
staff of servants, a housekeeper, and a major-domo, and a person who
acts as a sort of social secretary."

"It doesn't sound like your father at all," he remarked.

"It is not," she admitted. "He has an idea that entertaining may help
him to round off one of his great schemes. For myself I am not so sure.
From what I have seen of English politicians I do not think that they
can be influenced by social means. Neither can the bankers."

"Still," Mark ventured, "I imagine one is a little better off by being
in touch with all these people. What I'm surprised at is that your
father should change his habits and methods of life so completely and so
suddenly."

Estelle betrayed some curiosity in the menu, glancing it through and
approving with one trifling amendment. She ate her _délices de maison_
in appreciative silence. When she had finished she leaned back in her
place and smiled at her companion.

"I think," she confided, "that one of my father's present schemes means
more to him than anything else for which he has worked in life. It is
not altogether the matter of profit, though that, of course, will be
immense. You know what it is, of course?"

"I have heard that he wants to finance Prince Andropulo's Country," Mark
replied.

She nodded.

"That is what it amounts to," she admitted. "It is the vastness of the
proposition which attracts him, the fact that he is venturing into an
entirely new field of speculation. It is just the same spirit, I
suppose," she went on, watching with interest the careful addition of
some cream into the Bortsch soup, "which appeals to me."

"I call this commercial spirit a most unnatural hobby for a girl of your
age," he complained.

She laughed at him.

"There will be plenty of time for the other things afterwards," she
assured him soothingly. "As a matter of fact we are getting very nearly
to the end. Father has always said that when Drome is an absolutely
self-supporting kingdom, he will marry me to Prince Andropulo and become
Prime Minister. That is why we both take such an interest in Prince
Andropulo."

"You have a fancy for being a queen?"

"The position has advantages," she confessed. "There would he no
competition, you know, or anything of that sort. The only trouble is
that Prince Andropulo is like most of the young men who have been
baulked for a time of their royal upbringing. He has made Paris his
spiritual home, and has lost all the romance of his earlier days. He
knows, for instance, much more about the restaurants and cabarets of
Paris than he does about the ancient cities of Drome."

"He would," Mark assented emphatically.

"A pity you don't like him," she murmured. "In some respects he is an
estimable young man, and an excellent son...Was I really late this
evening? I could not help it. My father arrived home from Croydon half
an hour before I left. He had flown over and he was very much annoyed at
a message which was waiting for him. He has had to go round to see the
Home Secretary. I do not dislike England," she went on meditatively, "as
much as I thought I should, but its official classes do show a most
lamentable desire to interfere with one's liberty of action."

Mark's eyes twinkled for a moment.

"Your father's ideas as to liberty of action might be considered a
little broad," he ventured.

"You are thinking of that poor man Brennan. Well, I suppose that was a
little hasty," she admitted.

"Is it Brennan who is causing the present trouble, do you think?" Mark
enquired. "I had almost forgotten about him until to-night."

She shook her head.

"The trouble is that people do not understand my father's methods," she
explained. "For the purposes of his business and propaganda he has
always had a bureau and enquiry agents and that sort of thing. When he
wants to get into touch with anyone without committing himself he is
then in a position to bring the affair about naturally. It seems that in
this Country there are objections to a private establishment of that
kind--' conspiracy,' they call it, or some such ugly name. Poor dad."
she sighed. "I expect he's having an uncomfortable evening, for he is so
bad-tempered, and he dislikes so much interference from anybody, and as
for me," she added, leaning over suddenly and patting the back of his
hand, "I feel very selfish, because I amuse myself immensely here with
you."

"It is a perfectly wonderful evening for me," he assured her fervently.

"Are you going to get into any trouble on my account?" she asked,
looking at him for once almost gravely.

"I don't think so," he answered. "You see, after all, I am an American,
and it isn't up to me to help the British police. The only thing I am
sorry about is de Fontanay. Say, I'd like to ask you something. Miss
Estelle?"

"I consider," she told him, softly, "that if you wish to, you have
earned the right to call me Estelle."

He raised her fingers for a moment to his lips in ecstatic gratitude.

"Estelle, then. That day when we first met at the Ritz, was it just a
guess on your part that I was going to be offered a job at the Embassy."

She shook her head.

"I knew."

"Rawlinson?" he asked eagerly.

She assented without speech. Her admission was a shock to him. He sat in
silence for several moments, his plate neglected.

"Was Mr. Rawlinson a friend of yours?" she enquired. "If so, I am sorry.
You must admit, however, that he was a poor, weak sort of creature. He
owed money nearly everywhere in London. One of father's agents brought
him along, and I can assure you that he was not very difficult. He would
have sold us every scrap of information he could get together for money
enough to keep that little girl at Daly's faithful to him. We did not
want anything of that sort, though. My father never meddles in politics
proper. He is only interested in the little things that affect his own
financial enterprises."

"Did you single me out," Mark asked grimly, "as being a likely successor
to Rawlinson?"

She laughed heartily, raised her glass and drank to him.

"If ever I did, I can assure you that I have given up the idea," she
confessed. "I have abandoned all hopes of being able to suborn you, Mr.
Mark Van Stratton."

"Mark," he corrected her.

"Very well, then, Mark," she acquiesced. "Besides, although I say little
about it, you must not think that I am ungrateful. You have rendered me
two very great services."

She flung down her napkin. The first bars of a familiar tune crept out
into the room.

"One of ours," she murmured, rising and holding out her arms. "Come! We
dance...!"

They moved off. Even in the midst of his moment of joy--she came so
lightly into his arms--he felt his sense of humour, his growing
understanding of her, irresistibly appealed to by the Frenchwoman's
imperious gesture to the waiter, and the obsequious hastening of their
plates on to the electric warmer which stood by their table.


There were two encores, and it was a quarter-of-an-hour later before
they resumed their places and their dinners.

"Tell me what has become of Andropulo?" Mark enquired.

She shook her head indifferently.

"I have annoyed him," she confided, "and he has gone to Paris. I am not
sorry. Father would like to be Prime Minister of Drome very much, but I
am quite sure that I should not be really happy with Prince Andropulo."

Mark leaned a little back in his place and laughed. He watched the
replenishment of his glass of champagne with satisfaction.

"Estelle," he said, "if I were not in love with you I should find you
the most fascinating study of any woman I have ever met. Not that I know
much about women, because I don't," he added, "but you are different,
you know. You are so subtly ingenuous, to be paradoxical."

"I do not know what you mean," she complained. "When I want things I try
to get them. That is not unusual. I do not think that I am such a
hypocrite as many of the women of your Country who pretend so much
affection for people and things which they do not possess. There are a
few things missing in my character to which you are accustomed.
Otherwise it is not at all a bad one."

"And those things that are missing?" he enquired.

"I have very little sentiment," she admitted, "and what I have is
seriously affected by a somewhat troublesome sense of humour. And again
I think I have some of my father's cruelty. I can be very cruel you
know."

"I can quite believe it," Mark acquiesced feelingly.

"My admirers," she went on, "always end their periods of devotion by
finding me unfaithful. That I deny. I am only unfaithful to what I have
seemed to be, and have not been. No women of any race in the world have
ever bored so many great men into their graves with unwearying and
intolerable fidelity as women of the Anglo-Saxon race. French women are
not at all like that, but they do carry with them, I think--some of
them--a fidelity the nature of which few people understand. It certainly
does not consist in locking your arms around a man's neck and keeping
them there until he can scarcely breathe all through his life."

"Very soon," he asserted hopefully, "I shall begin to understand a
little about you."

"I shall never offer the golden key of myself to any man," she rejoined,
"but I think that I give you more chances than anyone else I ever met.
It rests with you rather, does it not, what use you put them to? You
have a great many prejudices to overcome before you understand, and then
it might not be worth while."

"You have never talked to me seriously before," he reminded her.

"I have never--I have not yet--made up my mind to take you seriously,"
she confided. "There are times when you please me. There are times when
you irritate me beyond endurance. This evening you broke out of
yourself. You did something which showed, from my point of view,
greatness. You see I am grateful. That is why I offered you this
afternoon in that silly taxicab, and I am offering you to-night, dear
Mark, more of myself than anyone else has ever had."

"And that is why," he declared, dropping his voice to a passionate
whisper, "it is to-night I know, beyond any question, that for the rest
of my life you are the only woman I could ever love."

She leaned away from him, her eyes a little averted, a smile upon her
lips which had in its nature something almost reminiscent. The moment
had passed. Presently her head began to move once more slowly to the
music. Without a word, with scarcely a glance at each other, they rose
and danced.

Dorchester wandered in at about eleven o'clock and begged for a seat at
their table whilst he waited for a supper-party.

"A nice nightmare for me to face, this, at the commencement of what
should be an evening of gaiety," he grumbled, as he accepted a glass of
wine.

Estelle threw herself back upon the settee and laughed.

"A nightmare!" she protested. "Never have I been called such a thing."

"The nightmare is seeing you here alone with Mark," he explained
gloomily.

"You do not expect us to go away, I hope," she said, "because frankly, I
shall not. I think we shall probably stay very late. I am enjoying
myself very much."

"You have given Mark all the opportunities," Dorchester complained. "You
forget that I am a working man, toiling for my Country down at
Westminster. When will you dine with me here. Miss Dukane?"

She shook her head.

"Not with you or anyone else for a long time," she sighed. "We are
exchanging Bohemia for the other things. Father has taken Cruton House
for three months, and as soon as we have settled there and I am
installed as hostess with, I believe, one or even two chaperons, I shall
certainly not be able to dine out alone with any young man,"

Dorchester was frankly surprised.

"Well," he observed, "your father is probably the only man left in
Europe who could take Cruton House, but I didn't know that he cared for
that sort of thing. By the by, my sisters are supping here to-night. May
I bring them over. Miss Dukane? They would like so much to meet you. We
might perhaps--er--join up?" he suggested tentatively.

"I should say not," Mark pronounced with decision.

Estelle shook her head sweetly.

"I shall love to meet your sisters," she said, "but we had better leave
it until we are established. To-night must be considered as my last
fling."

"If you have finished your champagne, old chap," Mark put in cheerfully,
"I believe there are some of your party looking around for you."

Dorchester rose to his feet unwillingly.

"We move into Cruton House next Monday, unless father is in prison or
exiled before then," Estelle announced. "He is in a little trouble at
the moment, I believe. You must come and see me directly we are there."

"I shall be amongst your first callers," Dorchester promised. "As for
you, Mark," he added, frowning at him, "you are trying our friendship
very high. I am not one of those generous fellows you only come across
in novels, who swallow their disappointments and shake hands with their
successful rivals. If I drop in for a cocktail to-morrow evening it will
be a piece of great magnanimity on my part. The worst of it is that your
man Robert is the only fellow I know who can be trusted with the
absinthe. _Au revoir_."

"Almost humorous to-night, wasn't he?" Mark observed, as his friend
moved off towards the door.

"Do you think," she asked, "that he likes me as much as you do?"

"I am sure that he doesn't," was the prompt reply. "He was half in love
with Myra before you came. Besides, no one else could."

"Not even Prince Andropulo? He comes, as he tells me so often, of a
passionate race. His mother confides in me three or four times a day
that he would make a wonderful husband for any woman who always obeyed
him and realised what a great man he really was...Surely I know that
little brown-haired girl next to Lord Dorchester--of course, it's Myra
Widdowes! Why does she look at you so sadly, Mark? Conless, have you
been flirting with her?"

He shook his head.

"I don't think," he explained, as he waved his hand to Myra, "that we
understand the word over in the States as you do here. Our young people
are all friends together, and those who like one another best gravitate
towards each other. I have carried her about since she was a
baby--taught her to swim, and play golf, led the cotillon at her
coming-out dance, and all that sort of thing. As to flirting--no, I've
never flirted with her. I don't think I've wanted to flirt with anyone
very much until now."

"Do you dare insinuate that you are only flirting with me?" she
demanded, with a show of indignation.

"You can call it what you like," he answered. "What I want in plain
words is to marry you--to-morrow, if possible."

"And I," she said, rising, "wish to dance. I am not a self-conscious
person, but we are very much the subject of conversation at Lord
Dorchester's table. I cannot make up my mind whether they like my frock
or not. I am perfectly certain that Myra doesn't approve of my hair, and
the tall lady, who is evidently chaperoning the party, is explaining
that she does not consider it right for me to be here alone with you.
She think's it's going too far, even for a foreigner."

"We could put the matter right," he suggested, "by getting a special
licence in the morning and dining here at night."

"An enticing prospect," she murmured, "but there is that poor father of
mine. He wants a king for a son-in-law."

"He'll never get one," Mark asserted.

"I haven't quite made up my mind yet," she reminded him, leaning a
little away in the dance and looking up at him so that her weight rested
upon his arm.

"Make it up to-night," he begged, bending down.

"Do you realise," she confided, "that I am twenty-five years old, that I
received my first proposal when I was seventeen, and that I have been
all these years trying to make up my mind. I can't do it now in five
minutes."

"No reason why you shouldn't do it in one," he rejoined. "Then," he
added, after a glance over his shoulder and a momentary start of
surprise, "I can order another bottle of champagne and invite your
father to drink our healths."

"My father?" she exclaimed.

He nodded and stopped dancing. They were close to their table and a few
yards away, preceded by a _maître d'hôtel_, approached Mr. Dukane.

"This won't mean trouble for you, I hope?" Mark asked, looking down at
her anxiously.

She scoffed at the idea as she welcomed her father with a smile.

"Do not be absurd!" she remonstrated. "I can't imagine why he has come,
but he must join us, of course. We will go on dancing just the same,
though, and I will sit next you."



CHAPTER VIII


Mr. Dukane was, for him, almost gracious. He offered no immediate
explanation of his presence, but kissed his daughter's fingers, shook
hands with Mark, and took the place allotted to him without comment.

"I am thinking," he announced, "of getting myself denaturalised."

"I would not," Estelle recommended. "I do not know exactly what it means
but it sounds unpleasant. Order father some wine, Mr. Van Stratton. I
think that someone has been worrying him."

"Every administrative department of this Country," Mr. Dukane declared,
"is rotten. The rottenest of all is their police department and what
they fatuously call the Home Secret Service."

"Cliquot, 1911," Mark ordered quickly. "Fresh glasses. Fruit. Mr.
Dukane, you'll eat something?"

"I will," the latter assented, stretching out his hand for the menu. "I
crossed in a 'plane which seemed to strike every bad pocket of air in
the skies, reached Croydon an hour late, and then was practically
ordered to Scotland Yard and from there to the Home Office. I'll take
some cutlets and some fruit afterwards."

"Were they very annoying?" Estelle sympathised.

"They were so annoying," her father replied severely, "that I am
seriously considering taking the course at which I hinted. I think that
I will buy a Country of my own and make my own laws."

"I have been telling Mr. Van Stratton about that," Estelle observed."
The trouble of it is that I should have to marry the king, shouldn't I?"

Mr. Dukane indicated by a gesture that he was not in the mood for
frivolities. He leaned across towards Mark.

"I came here to-night," he confided, "to talk with you. Where is Max
Brennan?"

"He is still, to the best of my belief," Mark replied, "occupying my
guest-chamber in Curzon Street. He was gracious enough to invite me to
dine at home with him this evening."

"He would," Mr. Dukane grunted. "If you give him free quarters he'll
live with you for the rest of his life. Is this young man to be trusted,
Estelle?"

"I think so," she answered. "He did me a great service this afternoon,
and he still wants to marry me."

Mr. Dukane brushed the idea aside contemptuously.

"That's nothing," he scoffed. "Lots of them who do not know you want to
do that."

She leaned back in her seat with a little grimace.

"Utterly uncalled for, especially from one's own father," she protested.
"As a matter of fact, Mr. Van Stratton is getting to know me very well
indeed, and the more he knows me the more he wants to marry me. He
mentioned something about a special licence and to-morrow."

"You will kindly refrain from talking nonsense for a few minutes," Mr.
Dukane insisted curtly. "You have had conversations with your guest, I
presume?" he added, turning to Mark.

"Very one-sided ones. I have listened to him quite a good deal."

"You know that on the occasion of his visit to me in Norfolk Street, he
brought me information he wanted me to buy? Unfortunately I lost my
temper and the negotiations did not proceed."

"Yes, I know that," Mark assented.

"We all make mistakes," Felix Dukane confessed. "I made one then. There
was a certain taint of melodrama about his blundering upon the truth
which appealed more to my sense of humour than to my brain. I realise
now that I was wrong. The matter is of tremendous, of vital importance."

"He believes that himself," Mark declared. "Pie seems absolutely
convinced that what he has to disclose will stagger the whole world."

"What's he going to do about it?" Mr. Dukane demanded.

Mark hesitated. Yet, after all, Brennan had made no secret of his
intentions, had not even spoken in confidence.

"I think his idea seems rather to pay a visit to the Financial Secretary
to the Treasury here," he confided.

Mr. Dukane's under lip shot out. There were wicked fires in his eyes.

"Fool! Idiot!" he exclaimed. "What would he get for that? Not one penny.
He'll set the British Government a problem which will only embarrass
them, and he'll ruin the whole of my work out of sheer and imbecile
vanity."

"The matter isn't altogether clear to me, of course," Mark acknowledged,
"but it seems to me that now the fellow is well enough to discuss
things, the best course for you to take would be to re-open negotiations
with him. I warn you, you may find him difficult. He is naturally a
little prejudiced against you."

"I don't see that mere's anything else to be done," Mr. Dukane admitted
grudgingly. "I don't often make a mistake, but it seems I did here.
Where do you say the fellow is now?"

"Still at my house, I believe. He was there when I changed."

Mr. Dukane inspected his cutlets and approved.

"If you two want to do any more dancing," he suggested, "better get on
with it. I am going to ask you, sir, to take me round to Curzon Street,
presently."

"You'll make it a friendly discussion," Mark begged, as he rose to his
feet.

Mr. Dukane grunted assent.

"I'll handle him carefully this time," he promised.


"Estelle, I've never known your father quite so amiable," Mark observed,
as they moved off into the throng.

"That's because he wants your help," she warned him.

"I'll do what I can, of course," Mark promised. "Your father must
understand, though, that violence is of no use now. This chap Brennan
has got his papers locked up where no one except he or I could get at
them."

"He or you?" she repeated.

Mark nodded.

"Yes, he seems to have a sort of fancy to trust me. I suppose these
chaps have to work alone a great deal. He doesn't appear to have had
anyone else to turn to when he was dangerously ill."

"He never has had," she said. "He has always worked alone--generally at
smaller things, though. Once he was one of my father's men. This is
quite the biggest undertaking he has ever brought off."

For several minutes the dancing absorbed them and they were silent. Then
he swung her dexterously out of the crush into a distant corner of the
room.

"It occurs to me," he whispered, "that for the immediate present we had
better avoid the neighbourhood of our table. Your father has finished
his cutlets, drunk his wine, and is sitting there with an air of
expectancy."

"Then it would be better if we went back," she advised him earnestly."
You see he is seldom in so good a humour with anyone. His attitude
towards you to-night was positively benevolent. We must not spoil it.
There will be other evenings."

"As many evenings as go to the making of a life," he answered, obeying
promptly...

Estelle had correctly divined the situation. Her father watched their
return with satisfaction.

"I regret to break up your little party," he said, "but I should like to
be taken to Brennan. I wish to see him to-night."

"I'll take you right along there now, sir," Mark promised, calling for
his bill.

They left a few minutes later, driving to Curzon Street in Mark's car,
which was the first to arrive.

"Is Mr. Brennan still up?" his master enquired of Andrews, who admitted
them.

"He is in the library, sir," the man answered, throwing open the door.

They all entered. Brennan was there, very much at his ease. He was
seated in Mark's favourite easy-chair, his feet poised upon the tall,
leather-bound fender. He was smoking what appeared to be a very
excellent cigar, and a bottle of whisky, a siphon, half empty, and a
tumbler in the same condition were by his side. He turned his head at
once at the opening of the door and when he recognised the newcomers his
hand slipped down towards the pocket of his jacket. Mark at once
reassured him.

"Nothing to fear, Brennan," he said. "Mr. Dukane has given his word as
to that. This is a friendly visit."

"But I do not wish to receive a friendly visit from Mr. Dukane," Brennan
protested, with visible signs of irritation. "My head is still very
painful."

"The whole affair was a mistake," Mr. Dukane acknowledged. "I was too
hasty. I apologise. No need to dwell upon it. You are all right now. You
seem to have found pretty comfortable quarters, too. I've come to talk
business."

"There was a time," Brennan reminded him, "when I came to talk business
with you. I did not like my reception. Now you come to me. Why should I
receive you differently? I am not a strong man like you, nor have I a
young Goliath to protect me, but it would give me great pleasure to make
your head ache."

"Come," Mr. Dukane proposed soothingly, settling himself in the
easy-chair which Mark had drawn up, "let us waste no time. Your visit to
Norfolk Street was an unfortunate incident. Let us obliterate the memory
of it. You came to talk business with me and I was hasty. To-day I
consider the matter differently."

"So do I," Brennan rejoined coldly.

"Yon further angered me," the great man continued, "by asking a lunatic
price for your information. However, that matter I have also
reconsidered. Produce your proofs. I have my cheque-book in my pocket. I
will pay your price."

Brennan sat up a little in his chair. Although he had been lounging
there for most of the evening, and bad not changed for dinner, he still
gave the impression of impeccable neatness. Even his flaxen hair was
unruffled, the bandage neatly tied.

"Is your balance large?" he enquired.

"Speak of things which concern you," was the curt retort. "You asked me
two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I will give it to you. You can
draw the money over the counter to-morrow."

Brennan looked across at Estelle, whom he had more than once, since her
entrance into the room, regarded with admiration. His slim, white
fingers played with his tie.

"Years ago, when I used to serve your father, Miss Dukane," he said,
addressing her, "he was not so foolish a man. He knew what he wanted,
and he generally got it. Now, he has made a mistake. A bargain which is
once refused may never again present itself. What was worth two hundred
and fifty thousand pounds a week ago, may be worth a million to-day,"

"The value of things," Mr. Dukane pointed out, "depends upon what market
there is for them. If you do not sell to me, your only other course
would be to present this document to the Financial Minister at Paris, or
to make a bargain with the sensational press. What good would that do to
anyone? The British and French Secret Services between them might
ultimately dole you out a few hundred pounds, or the newspapers a
thousand or so. You would be throwing away a fortune, and probably, if
you ever went near Paris again, your life."

"You forget," Brennan reminded him, "there are the bankers of the world
who are implicated--the bankers of New York, of London, of Paris."

"The bankers are my business," was Mr. Dukane's impatient reply. "You
know perfectly well that I stand for the money power of the world."

"That fact I realise," Brennan conceded, "and, yet I am inclined to
hesitate. Where there are great money interests, there are usually
others in conflict."

There was a brief silence. Mr. Dukane's under lip was once more pushed
out. His heavy eyebrows were almost joining. His eyes were points of
fire.

"I did ill to part with you, Brennan," he admitted. "You were
irritating, but you were one of my best men."

"I was your very best," Brennan asserted, vaingloriously. "Indeed you
were wrong to part with me. You were wrong, when, after long hesitation,
I came to you in Norfolk Street, to treat me brutally. You made your
third mistake to-night, when you come here and attempt to bargain with
me as if I were a creature without heart or soul, a machine for the
collection of money, a poor creature to be dismissed, beaten or made use
of according to your will. My secrets are my own, Felix Dukane. You can
put your cheque-book away. I do not deal with you. Already I have told
this generous young host of mine that I will not do so. Why does he
bring you here--you and your daughter?"

"It seemed reasonable to imagine you might change your mind," Mark
pointed out. "Mr. Dukane here is surely right, when he says that you
have only a limited market."

Brennan sat bolt-upright in his chair with military stiffness. His
strange eyes flashed. There was a little patch of angry colour in his
cheeks.

"Market!" he repeated angrily. "You make the world stink with your
gabble of money and markets, you people of wealth. Here am I, a poor
man, and I refuse a fortune for the work of my brains; work for which I
risked my life daily, work for which I changed my name half a dozen
times, lived in poverty, spent my last penny, schemed under-ground and
above-ground, carrying my life in my hands a dozen times a week. I won
out. What I won is not to be measured up into pounds, shillings and
pence. It has greater value. Shall I tell you what it means to me?
Revenge! The gratification of my pride, a breath of the real spirit of
living. Do not look at me as though I were a lunatic. I am sane. We may
have our hobbies, even we who work as I do. My knowledge shall be
disposed of honourably, and you, Felix Dukane, brute and would-be
murderer that you are, will fail in the one really great ambition of
your life. You are going to fail because I say so."

Dukane remained throughout the whole of Brennan's harangue motionless,
listening, but with an almost abstracted air. When it was over he turned
to Mark.

"Is this fellow out of the doctor's hands yet?" he asked.

"I believe so," Mark replied.

"And what about that sort of thing?" his questioner added, pointing to
the bottle of whisky.

"He drinks moderately enough so far as I know."

Dukane rose to his feet.

"Very well," he said, "I make you a last and definite offer, Brennan. I
will give you your price--two hundred and fifty thousand pounds for the
result of your work, provided you don't go near the Bank of England or
Paris."

"I reject your offer," was the prompt reply.

"Then," the other warned him, "you will accept my enmity. Few people
have profited by it, Brennan. Is it what you choose?"

"It is what I choose."

"No use my saying a word, I suppose?" Mark intervened, strolling over
from the sideboard, with a tumbler of whisky and soda in his hand.

"You are my host," Brennan replied. "I owe you every courtesy. Speak if
you wish."

"Perhaps I don't know enough of this affair to butt in very
successfully," Mark confessed, "but I can't see, Brennan, that you're
doing anyone in the world a shadow of good by using the result of your
work in the manner you suggest. On the contrary, you will do universal
harm. If there has been any secret plotting amongst any of the nations
upon this side, and you've got hold of the facts, you'll only be running
the risk of disturbing all Europe by publishing them. Besides, what will
you get out of it? Mr. Dukane is right enough there. A few thousands
will be all you'll have to hope for. Take your information to any
official quarter, and you will be in the childish position of cutting
off your nose to spite your face. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds
is worth having nowadays, and you are a young man still. Be a sensible
fellow, and deal with Mr. Dukane."

"It is finished?" Brennan enquired courteously.

"It is all I have to say," Mark admitted.

"Mademoiselle will perhaps like to add her word," Brennan suggested,
turning towards Estelle, who was seated in the background.

"There seems to be nothing left for me to say," Estelle rejoined. "The
cleverest men are children sometimes, but I never came across one
foolish enough to sacrifice a fortune to gratify his spite. No, I have
nothing to say."

"Before we depart," Mr. Dukane asked, "would there be any objection to
my using your telephone for a moment, Mr. Van Stratton?"

"Certainly not, sir," Mark replied, bringing him over a table
instrument.

"I do not often speak myself," Mr. Dukane continued, "Enquire, if you
please, for 150 XYZ. It is a private installation."

Mark took the instrument over. Brennan was listening with mild
amusement.

"Am I concerned in this?" he enquired. "Perhaps you would like me to
leave."

"I should prefer your remaining," was the brusque reply.

"150 XYZ are on the line," Mark announced, a few moments later, passing
over the receiver.

Mr. Dukane nodded and took up the instrument.

"Is that the Chief Commissioner of Police?" he enquired..."Good! Sorry
to trouble you so late. This is Dukane speaking. You will remember that
I had an interview with you to-night on my return from Paris--you and
the Home Secretary."

There was a moment's silence. Brennan was sitting a little forward in
his chair. He had laid down his cigar. His eyes were blinking fast under
their sandy lashes.

"Quite so," Mr. Dukane continued, after a pause. "I have nothing more to
say on that subject. You may remember, however, that during the course
of our conversation, you alluded to the extreme measures adopted by
certain international agents in the pursuit of oddments of information.
You instanced the case of an English officer in Cologne who was murdered
simply because he had succeeded in obtaining the plans of a huge
munition factory to be built in Russia with foreign capital. This
affair, of course, is quite outside the sphere of my interests, but by
the merest chance I happen to know where to put my hand upon the man--"

"Stop!" Brennan interrupted.

Felix Dukane's fingers covered the mouthpiece of the receiver. He
turned his head slowly.

"I shall sell, damn you!" Brennan declared.

Dukane resumed his conversation without change of tone.

"Forgive the interruption," he begged. "I believe I am in a position to
hand you information as to the murderer of that English officer. If I am
satisfied that that is the case I shall take the liberty of asking for
an interview to-morrow...Thank you very much. Good-night!"

He replaced the instrument and turned around.

"The banks," he observed, "open at ten. Would it be convenient if I
called here in my car at that hour?"

Brennan, only the shadow of his former consequential little self,
nodded.

"I shall be ready," he muttered.

Mr. Dukane rose to his feet and Mark accompanied his guests into the
hall.

"Mr. Van Stratton," Felix Dukane acknowledged, I am in your debt."

"I am glad to hear that you consider yourself so," Mark replied
fervently. "I may take the liberty of reminding you of the fact at any
moment."



CHAPTER IX


"You've given me a darned good lunch, sir," Mark acknowledged, as he
helped himself to a cigar from the box which the waiter was offering."
Some of these restaurants in London are pretty good, but at a club like
this they seem to understand man's food better than anywhere in the
world."

Mr. Hugerson roused himself from what had very nearly lapsed into a
brown study.

"You're right, Mark," he acknowledged. "I sometimes think that's the
worst of taking a woman out to lunch or dine. You so seldom find one
with the same ideas of eating and drinking. Do you know that you're
growing more like your father every day?"

"Am I, sir?"

"I was very fond of your father," Mr. Hugerson went on. "I have taken,
as I daresay you know, quite a fancy to you, Mark. That is why I welcome
your aid in getting through my work, that is why I hope Mr. Widdowes
will be able to spare you until I have finished."

"I hope so, too, I'm sure, sir," Mark agreed, a little puzzled. "There's
nothing I'd rather do."

"I think we understand one another, eh?"

"Well, I should hope so, sir."

"Then I can say what I'm going to without fear of this being too great a
shock to you," Mr. Hugerson continued. "Somebody--and that somebody must
either be in the Embassy itself or at the mail office--has been getting
at our stuff."

For a moment or two, Mark was incapable of speech. He sat with his mouth
a little open, his cigar poised between his fingers, his expression one
of blank amazement.

"Say, you're not serious, Mr. Hugerson?" he gasped at last.

"I'm sorry to say that I am," was the grave reply. "Do you ever read the
English newspapers?"

"I'm afraid I don't," Mark confessed--"not regularly. I read the polo
and the golf news, and I generally have a glance through _The Times_
foreign intelligence, but I don't even do that regularly."

"Last week," Mr. Hugerson proceeded, "I advised Washington that a treaty
between Italy and Drome, under certain conditions which I had reason to
believe were contemplated, would be prejudicial to American interests.
Within a few days, the Italian Premier goes out of his way in a speech
he was delivering on foreign relations to allude to this very subject.
He presupposed the very arguments I had advanced, and then attempted to
answer them. How did he know that Washington was at that moment
considering those very points? Then, there is the matter of Drome, and
all these concessions. I reported, advising Washington to regard
unfavourably any change in the present Government, and warned them
deliberately against a return to the Monarchy. Washington has not yet
had time to reply, much less take any notice of my advice, and yet the
press of Drome is full of excited comment on the possibility of American
intervention in their affairs. There are two instances, Mark, absolutely
proving that the substance of my reports have been in some way
communicated to the European agents of the various Countries in
question."

Mark gripped the sides of his chair. He moistened his lips a little. His
companion answered his question before he had been able to frame it.

"This isn't your worry young fellow," Mr. Hugerson said firmly. "I'd
just as soon--I'd sooner suspect myself. You may reckon yourself right
out of it from the start. If I didn't feel that way, we shouldn't be
here lunching together. I should have chosen a different way of
approaching you."

"Thank God!" Mark exclaimed.

"What I want from you is your help. I've got to ask you one question. It
mayn't sound pleasant, but the whole subject is pretty foul. They tell
me that you are on very friendly terms with the daughter of the man whom
I consider one of the most dangerous persons in Europe--Felix Dukane.
You don't ever discuss politics with her, even impersonally?"

"Never, upon my honour, sir," Mark declared.

Mr. Hugerson nodded benevolently.

"It sounds a crazy thing to ask anyway," he observed, "but after all, I
had to remember that you were rather a newcomer at the game. Then we
come to Miss Moreland."

"You know as much as I do about her, sir," Mark pointed out. "She has
credentials such as I should think no other woman has ever possessed in
the world. If she wanted to deal in secret information she could have
made a great fortune during the war."

"Precisely," Mr. Hugerson admitted. "Your Chief has already pointed that
out to me. Besides, character counts for something, and even a few weeks
with a young woman like that is sufficient to give you implicit
confidence in her. Anyway, there we are, Mark! Somehow or other, there's
a leakage. I don't see what I can do about it. I have written one report
myself by hand, and I posted it this morning. It's a bogus one, and if
the trouble's at the mail, or with any messenger from the Embassy to the
mail, or with any official on the boat, we shall soon know, for it is
the sort of thing which would be acted upon quickly. I am going to hold
up a few reports I am particularly anxious about, and, except for that,
there's nothing I can see but to carry on as usual. It didn't seem fair
not to let you know what was going on, but apart from that I don't want
you to worry Keep your eyes open. If you see anything suspicious, let's
hear about it. In the meanwhile I'm for Ranelagh. You'll be looking in
at Carlton House ."

"Why sure, sir," Mark replied. "I'm going back there now. I've got some
Consulate information to mail with Miss Moreland's next report. I went
down to see the Jugo-Slavian fellow this morning."

Mr. Hugerson nodded. He took Mark's arm as they passed down the very
handsome dining-room.

"Not worth while to repeat it, Mark," he said--"but bear in mind that
you're all right, and except that we may have a little trouble in Drome
and Italy, there is no great harm done. See you later..."

Mark, still a little dazed, made his way back to Carlton House and into
the little suite of rooms allotted to Mr. Hugerson. He found Miss
Moreland seated in the smaller of the two apartments, typing busily.
There were three piles of finished sheets on her right, on her left a
neatly arranged stack of carbons. As Mark entered, her hand stole
involuntarily towards the latter.

"How are you getting on, Miss Moreland?" he enquired.

"Very well, thank you," was the somewhat absent reply.

He handed her an envelope which he drew from his pocket.

"There are the particulars you require from the Jugo-Slavian Consul, to
be attached to Mr. Hugerson's report," he announced. "Took me rather a
long time to get, but the fellow kept me waiting nearly an hour."

She opened the envelope and glanced through the sheets which he handed
her.

"This is all printed stuff," she remarked. "I don't suppose a copy is
necessary."

"I should think not," he agreed. "It's public information, but it
doesn't get to the other side. What about driving you home presently?"

She shook her head.

"You're very kind," she said, "but I have another hour-and-a-half's
work, and afterwards I expect I shall be met."

She accepted a cigarette, however, and leaned back in her chair for a
moment with a little gesture of weariness. He stood by her side, looking
through the window across the house tops to where the grey clouds seemed
to lean almost to the chimneys.

"That sounds more cheerful than going home alone in the rain," he
remarked. "Does it mean that you've made it up with Mr. Sidney Howlett?"

"The result of my desperate mood last time we talked," she acquiesced.
"It's a terrible experiment, isn't it? I'm going to marry him."

"The best of luck!" Mark wished her, with a heartiness in his tone which
was obviously a little forced. "Say, I hope it will be all right. Miss
Moreland--sure he's good enough for you, and that sort of thing?"

"He is a man," she answered, "and he wants a home; I am a woman, and I'm
aching for one. I suppose that's where we shall come together and escape
a good deal of friction."

"Is it enough?" he asked gravely.

"God knows!" she replied. "As a rule, we talk too much of these things
beforehand. All that is to be known, we find out afterwards."

He looked around at the neat piles of her work, glanced through several
of the sheets--spotless, and without a single correction.

"Wonderful person, aren't you?" he exclaimed. "Tell me, why do you use
such a lot of carbons?"

She placed them in the drawer at her side, and closed it.

"Just an idea," she replied. "Carbons are not so good as they used to
be, and after all, it costs very little to keep on replacing them. I
like my carbon copies to be very nearly as good as the originals."

"Well, good luck!" he repeated, as he took his leave. "Ask me to the
wedding."


Mark was afflicted with a peculiar restlessness that afternoon. He
called first at Curzon Street, and looked eagerly through the letters
and cards which were awaiting him. Estelle had promised to telephone or
write him as soon as she was free, but up till now there had been no
word from her. There was nothing of interest amongst the little pile of
correspondence awaiting him, so presently he made his way back to
Carlton House, where he was expected to show himself for an hour or so
most afternoons. He paid his respects to Mrs. Widdowes, who was
entertaining a rather large assembly, talked for a time with half a
dozen acquaintances, and was finally dragged into a corner by Myra.

"What a blessed relief to see a human being--and a male one!" she
sighed. "Mark, I am being asphyxiated in an atmosphere of
conventionality. Everyone asks me the same things, and I haven't seen a
man since luncheon-time."

"Let's go round to Claridge's and dance for an hour," he suggested.

She rose softly to her feet, with the air of a conspirator.

"Wonderful!" she exclaimed. "Am I looking too excited? Don't say
good-bye to anyone. Wait downstairs in the hall whilst I put on a hat
and change my shoes. I shan't be five minutes."

She was down in almost less than that time, wrapped in most becoming
furs, her pleasant freckled face alive with animation. She sank into the
seat by his side with a little exclamation of pleasure. Outside in the
streets there was a driving rain, a cold wind and a lowering sky, but
inside the wonderfully cushioned coupe everything was luxuriously
comfortable. There were few pedestrians, but a great block of vehicles
in Piccadilly. They threaded their way slowly as far as Clarges Street,
then shot round and reached Claridge's by skirting Berkeley Square. A
few minutes later, they were dancing in the crowded lounge. They talked
of indifferent things. Myra had just received an invitation to go out to
Cannes, and was hesitating.

"Of course one would love to see the sun," she confessed, "and to get
some tennis out of doors, but London, for all its gloom, is terribly
attractive. I wonder you aren't down there, though, Mark, for the polo."

"I should have been," he told her. "I took my stables and, in fact, some
of my ponies are there now, but this offer came along from your father
and naturally I was very glad to take it. I've been idle long enough."

"To be idle gracefully," she remarked, "is an art which, as a rule, I
don't think we Americans possess. An Englishman's best at it. He always
seems aggrieved when he has to work."

"Henry Dorchester is an exception," Mark reminded her. "He takes to work
like a duck does to water. English politics beat me, though. I've been
down to the House once or twice in the evenings, and I can't see how
they ever get anywhere. They talk and talk--."

He broke off suddenly. Myra, glancing over his shoulder to see the
reason, found herself looking into Estelle's smiling face. She was
dancing with Dorchester, and as though by design the latter whirled her
away at once to the further end of the room.

"Just as I was giving the fellow a pat on the back for being a real hard
worker," Mark observed gloomily, "here he is at a _Thé Dansant_ and the
business of the Country going on anyhow."

"But he doesn't often do it," Myra protested. "At least I've never seen
him here before in the afternoons. I've invited him two or three times
to parties and his replies have been most superior--'Regrets that his
parliamentary duties, etc...' However, I suppose he's really like all
the rest of you--more or less in love with Estelle Dukane. It must be
wonderful to be as beautiful as that and to be the richest young woman
in Europe. Shall we stop for a moment. I'm not really tired, but there
will be another fox-trot soon, and I'm dying for an orangeade."

They sat at a small round table, chatting now and then to passers-by and
exchanging a few remarks themselves. Occasionally Mark glanced
restlessly at the main exit from the dancing-room, through which
presently Estelle and Dorchester appeared. Myra put out her hand and
stopped the former.

"When can we come and see you at Cruton House?" she enquired. "Is it
this week or next that you are moving in?"

"On Monday. Please come the first day you can after that."

"Got to go back to the House," Dorchester sighed, glancing at his watch.
"I'm just taking Miss Dukane as far as the lift."

"Don't go up yet," Myra invited. "Stay with us."

Mark promptly offered her his chair, and Estelle sat down. She and Myra
began to talk and Dorchester took his leave. Mark, in search of another
chair, found Rangle, one of the junior attaches at the Embassy, and
brought him along.

"Wait until I've finished my orangeade," Myra begged, "then I'm going to
dance with Mr. Rangle. He's quite one of my best pupils, aren't you,
Charlie? One thing I insist on, Mark, though: you must take me home.
I'll dance with Charlie willingly, but I wouldn't trust myself to his
driving on a night like this for anything."


"She is a nice girl, your friend Miss Myra," Estelle remarked, as they
followed the others into the dancing-room. "Is she fond of you?"

"Of course not. I explained to you before what pals we had always been.
If she has a fancy for anyone, I think it is for Dorchester. Why haven't
you telephoned? If you wanted to dance, why didn't you let me know?"

She laughed into his face.

"Absurd! Why should I? And besides, I never thought of dancing this
afternoon. Lord Dorchester brought his mother and sister to call."

"I thought you weren't receiving here," he grumbled.

"Nor are we," she assured him. "Unfortunately I descended by the lift
whilst they were handing in their cards. What was one to do? We all had
tea and afterwards his mother and Lady Mary went on to pay some more
calls and Lord Dorchester stayed for a couple of dances."

"It sounds reasonable," he conceded, with a slight access of
good-humour.

"I think," she declared, "that you are a little difficult. Do all these
young women spoil you, Mr. Van Stratton, because you are big and yet
dance rather well?"

"The only person I care a cent about doesn't spoil me," he rejoined with
some signs of relapse into his former gloom.

She smiled.

"Then be thankful for it. To be spoilt is bad for the disposition. Where
do you dine to-night?"

"Nowhere, if there's a chance of dining with you," he answered eagerly.

"Quite the correct reply," she admitted, "but to-night it would not be
possible. The reason I asked is because my father wanted to know a short
time ago where you were to be found."

"What can we do about it?" Mark enquired.

They were near the door and she stopped dancing.

"I will telephone up to the rooms," she proposed. "I will tell him that
you cannot go and see him now as you have a young lady to take home. I
will hint, if you wish, that you are disengaged for dinner. I know that
we are dining alone."

"Do," he begged.

The telephone conversation was short. They were dancing again in less
than two minutes.

"You are to be here at nine o'clock," she announced. "We will probably
dine upstairs in the sitting-room."

"I don't care where we dine," he answered, a little recklessly, "but I
insist upon talking to your father seriously about marrying you."

"Do," she begged. "I think it might be very amusing. I should wait until
after dinner, though, if you do not mind. I saw my father in a temper
once. He broke nearly everything in the room and the man who angered him
went to hospital for a month. Besides, I keep on telling you, I have
almost made up my mind to marry Prince Andropulo as soon as he becomes
King of Drome."

"Pretty rotten choice," he declared emphatically.

"My father would not agree with you. He is very anxious indeed to
develop the resources of Drome, and he has a high opinion of Prince
Andropulo. He says that no one has ever attempted to run the affairs of
a kingdom on business lines, and he believes that he could do wonderful
things."

They stopped dancing. Myra and her partner were approaching.

"You haven't a sister, by any chance, have you?" he asked.

"You know I haven't," she replied.

"Then your father's chances of having a king for a son-in-law," he
whispered, as the little party said their farewells, "amount to
something less than nil."



CHAPTER X


That night on his return to Claridge's at the appointed hour, Mark
realised the truth of some of the stories current as to the difficulty
of obtaining an interview with the great man of finance. Although he
announced himself as having been invited to dine, he was kept waiting in
the hall nearly ten minutes before a dark, bald-headed young man, who
had been pointed out to him once as Mr. Dukane's private secretary,
descended by the lift and introduced himself.

"You are Mr. Van Stratton?" he enquired.

"That is my name," Mark assented.

"I am Mr. Dukane's secretary. He is expecting you to dinner, I believe.
Will you allow me to show you the way to his suite."

Mark followed the young man into the lift and they ascended to the third
floor in silence. A servant was handing cocktails to Mr. Dukane and
Estelle as they entered the reception room.

"Mr. Van Stratton," the secretary announced.

"Glad to see you," Dukane muttered, holding out his hand: a speech which
from him was a distinct effort at graciousness. Estelle contented
herself with a little smile and nod.

"I hope I do not need to apologise," his host continued, as they passed
through the drawn curtains into the room beyond, "for asking you to dine
in private. I find the Press of this Country almost as bad as the Press
of America in seeking interviews and chronicling the doings of anybody
whom they think of the slightest public interest. Even at Giro's, when
you were paying your bill, the wine waiter asked me what I thought of
French Rentes for a rise. This class of person is insatiable. They
batten all the time on the idea that they may get a little free
information."

"Then your friends, too, become troublesome sometimes, I suppose," Mark
suggested--"your acquaintances, at any rate."

Felix Dukane groaned.

"Where money is concerned," he declared, as they took their places at
the small round table lavishly decorated with flowers, "it is a
shameless age. People whom one meets everywhere will risk a snub, will
risk anything for the chance of making a little money. Why they should
persist, I do not know. They say that we who have wealth overestimate
its importance. How can we help it when we see human beings in every
walk of life willing to lose their self-respect for the chance of a word
thrown to them like a bone."

"My manicurist confided to me to-day," Estelle said, "that she had fifty
pounds saved, and if she knew exactly how to invest it so that it
brought in another fifty pounds in about a month or two months' time she
would be able to get married. She was terrified that if she kept her
young man waiting too long he would choose someone else."

"Just about as sensible as the rest of them," her father grumbled. "Of
course I can make any of the gilt-edged securities rise or fall if I
want to, but it is very seldom worth one's while. The financial public
of this Country as a rule have common sense. Now can you guess why I
sent for you, Mr. Van Stratton?"

Mark was a little startled by the abrupt change in the conversation.

"I can't think of any special reason, sir," he acknowledged.

"That fellow Brennan," Mr. Dukane confided, with a ferocious light in
his eyes, and something which was almost a snarl in his tone, "when I
got to your rooms punctually at the time appointed--he had levanted."

"What--before you'd arrived?" Mark exclaimed.

"Before I'd arrived," was the grim response.

Mark was genuinely startled.

"I knew he'd cleared out," he acknowledged, "but I had no idea that it
was before you and he had settled your little affair. I thought you had
him scared stiff."

"I thought so, too. Brennan's no fool, though. He knows very well that
if I informed against him I should lose my last chance of getting those
papers. So he decided to call my bluff."

"And you haven't any idea where he has gone to?"

Mr. Dukane sipped his champagne, with the flavour of which he seemed
satisfied.

"I had all the rat holes stopped in a couple of hours," he confided. "I
had to disobey my friend the Chief Commissioner at Scotland Yard, but I
couldn't afford to let this fellow disappear. I not only know where he
is, but I know what he does from hour to hour. He is living in rooms in
a little street called Rectory Row in Hampstead, and he is losing his
nerve just about as rapidly as a man may. Every now and then he rings up
for a taxi. As soon as it appears, there is another a little way behind,
and a passer-by in the act of entering. Mr. Brennan pays his shilling or
eighteen-pence and hurries back to the house. He is like a scared rabbit
who dares not come out of his hole."

"Are you going to leave him there?"

The under lip shot out: a sign that Felix Dukane was confronted with a
problem.

"That depends," he said curtly.

The servants entered the room with the final course of their
dinner--special asparagus brought by aeroplane from the South of France.
Mark permitted himself to talk with Estelle.

"Are you looking forward to your duties as hostess to half London?" he
asked her.

"Without much enthusiasm," she admitted. "I am to share them, however.
My godmother, the Princess Semendria, is coming to help. It is
unfortunate for me because we are the same style and she always collects
my admirers."

"Is it necessary for me to swear fidelity?" he enquired.

"No, I think I can count upon you," she said coolly. "I'm not at all
sure about Lord Dorchester. I think he rather admires your
pleasant-looking, freckled companion of this afternoon. I am beginning
to believe that all these nice, earnest young men are fickle. Father,
should I be allowed to marry into the British peerage?"

"You won't be allowed to marry anyone if I can help it," was the curt
reply--"certainly not an Englishman."

"What about an American?" Mark asked hopefully.

"Rubbish!" Mr. Dukane scoffed. "However, I waste breath. Serve coffee
and brandy," he directed one of the servants.

Estelle lit a cigarette and pouted.

"For a young girl of a romantic disposition," she observed, "you can
understand, Mr. Mark Van Stratton, that I at times find my father
something of a trial. I promise you one thing, though," she added,
patting his hand gently, "I am not going to be an old maid."

He looked at her for a moment through his narrowed eyes. His bushy
eyebrows seemed to become more prominent, his jaw more stubborn.
Watching him closely, however, Mark wondered whether something of the
hardness had not for the moment left his expression.

"In six months from now," he promised, "I will talk to you about a
husband. That will be time enough."

"Brute!" Estelle murmured, under her breath. "And the first day of
Spring next week! Father, you are really very inconsiderate. I believe
that Mr. Van Stratton would like to marry me. He's a little
old-fashioned, you know, and he said something about asking you for my
hand after dinner."

Mr. Dukane became absolutely menacing. He frowned heavily, and struck
the table with his clenched fist.

"You irritate me when you persist in talking nonsense, Estelle," he
declared.

She sighed, and helped herself to coffee. His host turned to Mark.

"Mr. Van Stratton," he said, a little grudgingly, "I am told that J.
have to thank you for your intervention on my daughter's behalf
yesterday. I meant to have alluded to the matter last night, but events
moved a little too rapidly. I was upset to start with by the ridiculous
interference of your Authorities, and later on that fellow Brennan
played the fool with us."

"It was not much that I was able to do, sir," Mark observed.

"Nevertheless, you saved the situation. The papers themselves were not
of such great importance as I had imagined, but it is necessary that I
am kept _au conrant_ with the affairs of others who are operating in the
same market as myself."

"I knew nothing of the actual circumstances of the case," Mark said. "My
only anxiety was to be of service to your daughter."

"So far," Mr. Dukane continued, "with considerable difficulty, and by
means of methods which have brought me into ill-odour with the
Authorities here, I have contrived to do more for the peace of Europe
than any statesman with an army and navy behind him. I see no reason why
every Country in Europe which deserves it should not begin to feel the
benefits of peace, and be marching forward towards prosperity. I
sometimes think that I am a misunderstood man, but it is for that cause
that I work--I with forces on my side as potent to-day as the armaments
of the past. There is but one event which could bring disaster--if not
complete disaster, at least comparative disaster--upon the present
epoch. That is if this fellow Brennan ventures out of his hiding-place,
opens his bag of poison, and drenches all Europe with its fumes."

"As bad as that?" Mark ventured.

"Absolutely," was the decisive reply. "Brennan could set back the
prosperity of Europe for many years. I shall never regret sufficiently
that I did not strike a little harder when the chance was there. I would
kill him at this moment as I would a poisonous fly. He is a traitor to
everyone he works for. He has no thought except for his own interests.
He has two ideas, and two ideas only in his mind--to make as much as he
can out of his accursed spying, and to be revenged on me. The present
situation is in a sense ridiculous. I have tracked him down. I know
where he is, but I can't strike. The police here are indifferent enough,
but they have intelligence of a sort. I am watching Brennan. They are
watching me and my men. They know they are my men, too. Two or three of
them would be willing to take a big risk for the sake of a fortune, but
unfortunately I am known to be in the background. If Brennan hadn't
apparently lost his nerve, he could walk out of the house in Rectory Row
to-night, and with my men on either side of him could take his taxi to
Chancery Lane, use his key, and defy the lot of us. I couldn't stop him.
My men couldn't stop him: they could only let me know that he had done
it. So far, he doesn't seem to realise the strength of his position. He
probably doesn't know that my men in their turn are being watched. At
any moment, though, he may stumble upon the truth. Then there's
another danger: your friend de Fontanay has a young woman over
here--Mademoiselle Zona Latriche--of whom he sometimes makes very
effectual use. She is there at the present moment with Brennan. The
French are the one nation in the world likely to be violently affected
by the publication of Brennan's investigations. De Fontanay, if he does
not know the whole truth, is shrewd enough to divine a portion of it,
and to realise this. The girl is there with Brennan, working for de
Fontanay. Brennan wouldn't see me, and my men are all known. Quite
naturally, he is prejudiced in your favour. I want you to go down and
try what you can do with him."

Mark shook his head doubtfully.

"If I were still a free lance, sir, I wouldn't hesitate," he said. "Just
now, however, I have particular reasons for not wishing to be mixed up
with anything of the sort."

"_L'affaire_ Brennan doesn't in any way clash with your own activities,"
Dukane insisted. "You are a patriotic young American. It has come to
your knowledge--and I assure you on my word of honour this is the
truth--that Brennan is in possession of information which, if made
improper use of, might break up every effort which has been made to
bring back prosperity to Europe, and involve me personally in something
approaching disaster. I think, therefore, if your interest in my
daughter is anything more than assumed, you are more than justified in
trying to make a deal with the fellow on your own account. Pay him any
reasonable sum. You needn't bring the papers to me, at any rate for the
present. Keep them locked up where you will. That is all that I ask.
Keep them away from the Press--especially the French Press."

Estelle leaned across the table.

"Please help us," she begged. "It may make all the difference."

"I will see you through, if there's any trouble with your Chief," Dukane
promised. "I am dining at Buckingham Palace on Monday, and he is to be
of the party, and with the Prime Minister next week, and the Chancellor
of the Exchequer is giving a luncheon to us on the Monday afterwards at
the Ritz. They know very well that it is I who can clear this mess up,
and if ever your action becomes known I will justify it."

"Please go," Estelle urged once more. "If you hurry, you may be able to
come back and make your report in time to have one dance downstairs
before you leave. You must do this for me."

Mark rose to his feet.

"I'll see what can be done, sir," he promised. "It must be understood,
though, I am acting entirely on my own behalf. If I succeed with
Brennan, I shall probably look through his papers myself, and act
entirely upon my own discretion."

Dukane made a wry face.

"You're stretching a point, young man," he remarked grimly. "However,
we'll let it go at that for the present. Remember, of course, that if
you need money, there's no limit to your credit with me. Seven, Rectory
Row, off St. John's Wood Road. My car is downstairs awaiting, and the
chauffeur knows the address."

Estelle sprang up and walked as far as the door with her hand through
his arm.

"This I shall not forget," she told him softly. "Good luck!"



CHAPTER XI


From the moment of Mark's entrance into the shabby little
sitting-room--it had cost him a sovereign tip to a very dishevelled
serving-maid and a somewhat heated argument with the landlady--he knew
that Brennan was drunk. He felt, too, that his arrival had been
opportune, for by his side on the couch, with her head gently resting
upon his shoulder, sat Mademoiselle Zona Latriche. Upon the table were
the remains of a meal, and two empty champagne bottles, some coffee
cups, a bottle of brandy and a box of cigarettes. Brennan blinked at his
unexpected visitor, for the moment bewildered. The girl's big eyes were
filled with angry apprehension.

"Goliath!" Brennan exclaimed, with clumsy gravity. "Mr. Goliath! Friend
of mine, Mademoiselle Zona. Sit down and have a drink."

"Who is this gentleman?" Mademoiselle demanded, "Why is he here?"

"Friend of mine," Brennan repeated. "All friends of mine. All want the
same thing. Don't want me. I know. Good fellow this, though. Saved my
life. Might have left me out in Richmond Park. Good fellow! Ring for a
clean glass."

"What do you want with Mr. Brennan?" Mademoiselle asked suspiciously.
"He is not well. He should not see visitors. I am here to look after
him."

"He seems all right," Mark said good-humouredly. "I hope I'm not butting
in. I won't stay long."

The landlady entered with a tray of glasses.

"That's right," Brennan approved, speaking a little slower than usual,
and with great distinctness. "Nothing more, thank you, Mrs. Harrison. We
have plenty more wine in the corner...So you found me out, Mr. Van
Stratton?"

"Ah, that is your name," the girl murmured. "It seems that I have heard
of you."

"That is my name," Mark acknowledged, "and I have also heard of you.
Mademoiselle Zona Latriche."

"Good things, I trust?" she asked. "And yet, why should I care? What do
you want of my friend, Mr. Brennan?"

"Well," Mark replied, "when Mr. Brennan asks me I daresay I shall be
able to tell him. Just at present I am drinking his very excellent
wine."

"And quite right, too," Brennan muttered. "Friend of mine. Zona, I told
you that."

"He may be a friend of yours, but he wants something," the girl
insisted, with a flash of her dark eyes.

Brennan laughed until his long mouth seemed like a gash in his face, and
his little red eyes almost disappeared.

"Yes, he wants something. You all want something. It is amazing! Number
seven, Rectory Row! Not a very wonderful address--not a very wonderful
neighbourhood--and I sit here, ready, if I choose, to push my spoke into
the wheels of the world. What a crash!"

"As you are in such a candid frame of mind," Mark suggested, "why not
tell us all about it. Tell us what you are going to do?"

Mademoiselle lifted her head from her companion's shoulder and sat
upright.

"Why should he tell you anything?" she demanded.

"It is I who am his friend. It is I who know what he will do. You others
waste your time."

Brennan sipped his wine gravely, utterly regardless of the fact that he
spilt a great deal more than he drank.

"Funny place, this!" he declared. "Seven, Rectory Row! At one corner of
the street--man waiting. Opposite--another man waiting. A little further
away--English detective watching men who wait. Inside me--poor me!--with
Mademoiselle Zona Latriche and the great Mr. Van Stratton of the
American Embassy, a friend of Felix Dukane. Mademoiselle Zona I love
very much, but if she thinks I do not know, she is foolish. She is paid
to come here. She is paid by the Colonel de Fontanay."

"Imbecile!" she cried indignantly. "I know nothing of what you speak. If
you insult me, I leave."

He suddenly caught hold of her fingers which were feeling his arm.

"Do not disturb yourself, little one," he begged. "I will set your mind
at ease. I still wear the iron bracelet. As to whether you could open it
if you reached it, as to whether the key is still there--ah, well, of
that we will not speak. There is also Mr. Van Stratton, interested in
the same matter."

"I perceive," Mark observed, "that you have no secrets from
Mademoiselle."

"Indeed, why should he?" Mademoiselle murmured, her head resting once
more upon her companion's shoulder. "I love him. We are one."

"That simplifies matters," Mark declared. "If you are one you would
naturally like to share a large sum of money. Mine is a business visit,
Brennan. You have something which, if you are a wise man, you will sell.
I'd like to buy it--to buy it, mark you, for myself, on my own account."

"You hear that," the drunken man muttered, turning to his companion."
That is young America who speaks. It is not diplomacy, but it is
business. He would like to buy."

"But you would not sell," she whispered, with her lips close to his.
"You would not sell what is promised to me."

The words seemed to arouse in Brennan one of those fits of incoherent
anger, slow and unreasonable, which come with partial drunkenness.

"Promised?"

He pushed her away and regarded her severely.

"I have promised nothing," he continued. "Because I let you come here
and let you pretend to be my dearest friend, and whisper about a million
francs between us--what are a million francs?--you think that all is
easy. You are wrong, my Zona--wrong! I have promised nothing."

For a moment it seemed as though Mademoiselle Zona was about to revert
to type. Her eyes blazed, her mouth was like the mouth of a tigress.
Even Brennan, watching her with sullen gravity, drew a little away. Then
she remembered that absolute failure in her enterprise was a certainty
if she yielded for one moment to the passion of mingled disgust and
anger which had flamed up in her heart. Her effort at self-control was
amazing. She sat quite still. Then she began to cry.

"You do not love me," she sobbed. "All you have said is false."

Her inamorato showed signs of attempting some maudlin form of
consolation. Mark, however, intervened.

"Look here, Brennan," he said, "you've been drinking a little too much,
but after all, you're a sensible man. For what purpose did you risk your
life in getting together this information? What did you do it for?"

"Power," was the prompt reply. "I did it to gain power. And I have it. I
can break four of the greatest men in Europe--break them one by one. I
can force a great statesman to commit suicide or see him torn to pieces
by his people. It is I who have this power. I, who sit in this shabby
parlour of number seven, Rectory Row, with spies and police outside and
you two cajoling inside. The quarters are bad, but the wine is good."

"You have drunk quite enough of it," Mark told him bluntly. "We have
talked enough, too. Let's get to business."

"Unfortunately," Brennan sighed, "I am not sober."

"You are sober enough to realise that I am offering you a million
dollars, not a million francs, for the information you have to sell. You
can be a rich man in any city of the world, even in America. Why not
take the money and get rid of us? There may be others who will try other
methods."

"You hear him?" Brennan observed, turning to Zona. "It is the new world
which speaks. Sound, full of common sense! A million dollars! That is
equal to thirty million francs. It seems to be that this is the person
with whom I must deal."

Again there was the flame in her eyes and for a single moment Mark
expected to see her strike the man who mocked her. Instead she folded
her arms round his neck and drew his head down to hers. So they stayed
for several moments, whispering. Mark lit a cigarette and walked up and
down the shabby little room. Its atmosphere sickened him. He was praying
only for escape. Brennan appeared to have sunk into a state of comatose
indecision. Mark paused upon the hearth-rug and looked down at him,
frowning.

"Shall I write my cheque?" he asked.

Brennan thrust away the entwining arms and sat up,

"A gentleman," he said, speaking slowly and with great distinctness,
"never attempts to do business with another gentleman except when both
are perfectly sober. Am I perfectly sober?"

"Sober enough for the purpose," was the impatient rejoinder.

"That is where you are wrong, my young friend," Brennan insisted. "If I
were perfectly sober I should not permit this young lady's embraces in
public. I should not allow her, as I have done for the last few hours,
to continually feel up and down my sleeve and make furtive attempts to
open my bracelet. No, Mr. Van Stratton, I am not perfectly sober. I like
you. I think, since you assure me that you are buying on your own
account, you are the man with whom I shall do business, but it shall be
to-morrow, not to-day. You shall hear from me. I promise you that. In
the meantime, I will put your mind at ease. Until we meet, what I have I
will hold. Even Mademoiselle and I will talk no more of business. We
will open another bottle of wine and we will drink. Have no fear, Mr.
Van Stratton. To-morrow I shall be sober. My respects to the little
crowd outside. You may tell them, if you will, that I am not moving
to-night. I am very comfortable here--plenty more wine to finish. And
listen, I will be more definite. The day of the week is Tuesday. A week
from to-day I will give you an appointment. You shall come and see me
once more. Then you shall know whether I deal with you or not."

He began to doze. Mark, realising his impotence, moved towards the door.

Mademoiselle rose to her feet and walked by his side.

"But for you," she whispered reproachfully, "I should have had what I
wanted of him by now."

"Seems to me your chance is a pretty good one as it is," Mark replied,
glancing back at Brennan stretched in his chair, his mouth open, his
eyes closed.

A little exclamation of disgust broke from Mademoiselle's lips.

"He is too cunning," she exclaimed. "Even if I could find the secret
spring of his bracelet, I do not believe that the key is there. He has
found another hiding place. If I felt sure that it was there I think
that I should take any risk."

Mark shook his head.

"Better be careful," he advised her.

They stood together upon the threshold, looking out into the darkness of
the wet, stormy night. They both felt the relief of the fresh air after
the stuffiness of the little room. Mademoiselle Zona's fingers for a
moment rested upon Mark's arm.

"The great things of the world," she reminded him as she turned away,
"are not won by being careful."



BOOK III



CHAPTER I


There was perhaps some slight and unfamiliar sense of strain during
those first few minutes of their next reunion, a lack of the usual
heartiness in the exchange of greetings between the three friends. Both
Mark and de Fontanay showed signs of the last few weeks' anxieties. Even
Dorchester has lost some of his healthy colour, and there were lines of
added seriousness at the corners of his mouth. It was de Fontanay, as
usual, who restored the situation. As he stood sipping his cocktail he
hummed very softly, almost under his breath, the little French marching
air which only a few years ago had thrilled the hearts of thousands.
Dorchester listened for a moment and smiled reminiscently. The old light
shone in Mark's eyes.

"My God!" he exclaimed. "Do you remember that morning, Raoul, when you
were trying to get the remains of your Cuirassiers across the ridge to
the rest camp, and Henry was using the foulest language I ever heard
trying to get one of his pop guns out of a ditch--"

"And swoop you came down right in the middle of us," Dorchester
interposed, "with a broken wing on your plane. We all thought you'd got
it in the neck, and all you did was to take off that ghastly helmet of
yours and ask for a drink."

"It was a wonderful meeting," de Fontanay reflected.

"And so is this," Dorchester declared. "So are all our reunions. We're
sticking it out all right, too. We've all been faced with incidents
lately. They don't matter. There were incidents then--little
jealousies--sometimes almost a misunderstanding. We lived through them."

They obeyed the summons of the _maître d'hôtel_, and moved on towards
the restaurant, de Fontanay in the middle.

"My dear friends," he said, "after all, it is easy of comprehension this
little cloud which at times depresses us. You see, in those days we had
only one thought, one common aim. To-day, somehow, things have become
different. It is harder for us, for instance, to live through the peace
than the war, because however one looks at it, we three know that the
Countries of Europe are becoming more and more restless under the strain
of a great impoverishment, and that sooner or later evil must come of
it."

"We're the guilty parties, I suppose," Mark admitted, "but after all
nature is a tremendous healer. England has proved that she can't be
taxed out of existence, and France is struggling along pretty gamely,
with the franc at a hundred and fifty."

De Fontanay smiled a little sadly.

"Let us abandon for a time the study of our misfortunes," he suggested.
"We will leave politics alone, and pass to personal affairs. How goes
the deadly rivalry?"

"I have made some slight progress," Dorchester confessed, sipping his
wine approvingly. "Nothing definite, though."

"Same here," Mark acknowledged. "I can't say I like this new move on the
part of our friends of entertaining half London. It opens the field to
too many runners. Henry and I will probably drop behind a bit to-night."

"Of course, we are all going?" de Fontanay enquired.

"Who isn't?" Mark rejoined gloomily. "There have been a thousand
invitations issued. I called the other afternoon and found a string of
automobiles the whole of the way round Berkeley Square, and cards
falling like snowflakes."

"When the richest man in the world," de Fontanay observed--"a man, too,
with an intriguing past and a beautiful daughter--suddenly makes up his
mind to entertain in the middle of a rather dull season, why, he is
likely to create something of a sensation. In Paris his progress would
be slower but none the less inevitable. You know, of course, that
Mademoiselle was presented at last night's Court?"

"I was there," Mark acknowledged gloomily. "I couldn't get anywhere near
her, though."

"You will have to accustom yourself to that," de Fontanay warned him. "I
am fortunately apart from you two in your adoration of the young lady,
but I prophesy a great success for her this season. Within a week her
picture will be in half the illustrated papers. She will be interviewed
in the society journals, and beauty specialists will be praying for a
single word about that really wonderful complexion of hers. I caution
you both that you are in for an uncomfortable time. Personally, I think
it serves you right."

"You're making yourself devilishly unpleasant, Raoul," Dorchester
grumbled. "Why does it serve us right?"

"Because," de Fontanay pointed out drily, "both of you, notwithstanding
the fact that you are young men of intelligence and parts, have been
foolish enough to lose your heads and pledge yourselves to the pursuit
of a young woman concerning whom you know nothing except that in her
Dresden doll sort of fashion she is remarkably pretty. You disappoint
me. Psychologically you interest me; personally you disappoint me. I
still ask myself what there is about Mademoiselle Estelle Dukane to have
created such havoc."

The two young men exchanged pitying glances.

"Raoul would never understand," Dorchester sighed.

"He has no enthusiasms where women are concerned," Mark pointed out. "He
understands and is faithful to one type only."

The Frenchman smiled.

"It is because I understand the type which has produced Mademoiselle
Estelle Dukane," he expounded, "that I marvel at your ingenuousness.
Meanwhile it would be odd if for the third time in succession our little
parties were to be graced by a sight of the young lady. I have my
suspicions about that long table. It looks as though it were reserved
for someone of importance. Victor has twice been in himself to see that
everything is to his liking."

He summoned the _maître d'hôtel_ and inclined his head towards the
table, which was laid for twelve people almost in the middle of the
room.

"For whom is that reserved?" he enquired.

"For the Right Honourable Mr. Fowler King, the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, sir," the man replied. "He is entertaining Mr. Felix Dukane,
the great millionaire, and his daughter."

De Fontanay sipped his wine thoughtfully.

"You see," he pointed out, "the shadow of the end is already drifting
upon the canvas. For some reason or other, Felix Dukane has abandoned
France, and meanwhile, whilst he lunches with the Chancellor of your
Exchequer, Henry, the franc falls and falls and falls. What is moving
behind the scenes is known to one or two people--not, alas, to us."

There was a little stir at the entrance to the restaurant; a very
distinguished company were assembling upon the threshold. In advance of
the party came Fowler King, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, walking
with bent head by Estelle's side. Already his manner indicated a certain
subservience to her charm. Mark exchanged a sympathetic glance with
Dorchester.

"I don't like the fellow, myself," the latter groaned, "but the women
all say that he is the most attractive man in London. Old Dukane would
love to have a son-in-law who was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He could
make out his budget for him."

Estelle looked across at both of them and smiled--a pleasant smile, but
one which conveyed no special message to either. From the further end of
the table Mr. Dukane exchanged a somewhat formal greeting with Mark.

"You don't seem to be very securely established in the old man's
graces," Dorchester remarked cheerfully.

"Mr. Dukane expects a great deal from his friends," was the somewhat
gloomy response.

"So does the young lady," was de Fontanay's dry comment.

Mark flushed guiltily. It was the first time a certain incident had been
referred to between them, even indirectly.

"It was a wretched situation," he ventured, "but I don't see how I could
have done anything else."

"Perhaps not," was the grim reply. "In any case, your intervention was
unfortunate. I am convinced that those papers, unimportant in themselves
though they may have been, would have proved once and for all whether or
no it is really Felix Dukane who is at the bottom of this war against
our finances. One of those men had come from Milan--I found that out
afterwards--and it is from Milan that so much of the selling has come."

"But what could he have to gain by trying to destroy your currency."
Mark argued uneasily.

"One never knows which side of the market Dukane is on," de Fontanay
replied, "but there is always money to be made by anyone who can command
enough capital to raise or depress a nation's currency. The maddening
part of it is that the nation must suffer for a speculator's greed."

"This miserable war," Dorchester observed, "has done nobody any good,
and made all sorts of charlatanism possible in finance. I hope to God we
never have another."

De Fontanay drummed lightly upon the table-cloth with his finger-tips.
In his eyes was a curious far-away light. One might fancy that he could
hear in years to come the rolling of the drums on the banks of the
Rhine.

"The fact of the matter is," Dorchester concluded, "that for all
practical purposes war to-day has become utterly illogical. The more
ruthlessly you punish an enemy, the more trade you lose, and the more
you deprive him of the power of paying back his debts to you. If you
take his territory, the inhabitants become nonproductive. They won't pay
their taxes. You're worse off than you were before. Colonies may give
you a source of raw supply, but otherwise, as a national asset. Colonies
are worth nothing."

The three men had finished their luncheon, and risen to their feet.
Estelle had flashed a quick little smile at them, but her father was
absorbed in conversation with his host. Curiously enough, as they passed
out into the lounge for their coffee, the hum of conversation seemed to
be suddenly abandoned, and in the deferential silence which followed
they distinctly heard Dukane's gruff voice. There was an angry, almost a
menacing note in his tone:

"It seems to me sometimes," he declared, "that the United States is
draining the world of gold, and refuses to join in any of these
conferences because the one thing she would welcome in Europe is another
war. I am not an alarmist, but I should like to tell you gentlemen,
that, in my opinion, England, with her fetish of Free Trade, her
declining--one might almost say moribund--industrial supremacy, and the
huge debt which she is engaged to pay to America, would be more
hopelessly bankrupt in that case than any other Country of Europe."

"Pleasant hearing!" Dorchester murmured, under his breath, as they
crossed the threshold.

"Someone." Mark observed, "has rubbed Dukane up the wrong way."



CHAPTER II


Mark had spent a busy day attending to Mr. Hugerson's correspondence,
which had been more voluminous and even more important than usual. It
was late in the afternoon, after his Chief had taken his leave, that
whilst he was resting for a few minutes and glancing restlessly through
one or two of the morning newspapers, he came across an almost
insignificant item of news, which for a moment brought a catch into his
breath. He read the paragraph again, and rose to his feet, shocked and
disturbed. All the vague suspicions which he had been trying to dismiss
as ridiculous had suddenly blazed up. He felt himself face to face with
a crisis almost insupportable. He read the paragraph again, folded the
newspaper up, and, summoning his courage at last, passed into the inner
apartment where Frances Moreland was at work. She started a little at
his entrance, and her welcome obviously lacked its usual sincerity.

"I haven't seen you all day," she remarked.

"I've been working with the Chief," he announced. "He didn't want to
disturb you. You're on the principal report, aren't you?"

"I'm doing the one which he thinks most important," she replied. "The
account of his interview in Rome is almost verbatim, and very long."

"Is it going to take you much longer?" he enquired.

"Another hour at least."

Mark seated himself for a moment upon the edge of the table. He noticed
with dismay another neat pile of carbons.

"You're still extravagant with these copying things," he commented.

Her fingers drummed the table a little irritably.

"Why not?" she retorted. "As I told you before, I like my third copy to
be as distinct as my first."

"What happens," he enquired, "when I am not here, after you've completed
your two copies and pinned them up? You are not allowed to take them out
of the room, I suppose?"

She shook her head.

"I send for General Acton," she confided. "He comes here, signs for
them, and carries them away. I am practically a prisoner in this room
until they are in his possession. The principle is quite a correct one;
there is no chance then of either one of the copies being seen or
tampered with."

He looked for a moment thoughtfully out of the window.

"And yet," he remarked, "there has been, as I have no doubt you have
heard, a certain amount of leakage with regard to Hugerson's mission.
During the last fortnight, for instance, the currency of Drome and Italy
has steadily risen, and the Jugo-Slavian fallen. You and I happen to
know that that is just what might reasonably happen if Mr. Hugerson's
despatches had been published in the newspapers."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"You can see for yourself," she pointed out, "that any leakage from this
room is impossible. Mr. Hugerson, though, has been going to a great many
dinner parties lately, and he has been entertained all the time by
various of your Cabinet Ministers. It must have been absolutely
impossible for him not to have discussed his travels occasionally. I
imagine he has let fall a hint here and there, and that would be quite
sufficient."

Mark acquiesced thoughtfully.

"I daresay that is the explanation," he admitted, preparing to depart.

"Would you do me a service?" she asked suddenly.

"Of course I would."

"Mr. Sidney Howlett is waiting for me outside. General Acton has just
telephoned up that he can't get here for at least an hour, and I can't
sign off until I have placed these copies of Mr. Hugerson's report in
his hands. I can't even leave the room. I wonder whether you would mind
just taking a note to Mr. Howlett."

"Sure!" Mark promised. "I'll be delighted. I'm leaving directly."

"Come back when you've collected your hat and overcoat. I'll have it
ready by then."

Mark made his way to his room, his hands in his pockets, and a troubled
frown upon his forehead. He locked up his own papers, put on his hat and
coat, and presently returned to Miss Moreland's office. She handed him
the note, and a small packet, neatly tied up and sealed. The copies of
the report were almost ostentatiously still upon the table, a
paper-weight upon each.

"If you will give this to Mr. Howlett," she said, "and tell him that I
am detained, you will save him a long wait, and I shall be so much
obliged."

He glanced towards the table. The little pile of carbons had
disappeared. The drawer, too, which on his previous visit, had seemed
half full of them, was empty. Frances, with an air of complete
composure, was fitting another sheet of paper into her machine,
obviously only waiting for his departure to recommence her work. He
turned slowly away.

"All right," he promised. "I'll find the young man."...

He took his leave and descended to the street. Mr. Sidney Hewlett was
easily discoverable, strolling up and down with his hands in his
overcoat pockets and the fag end of a cigarette drooping listlessly from
his lips. Mark addressed him with as much cordiality as he could
command.

"I've a message from Miss Moreland," he announced. "She asked me to tell
you that she would be another hour or an hour and a half. Better come
and have a drink at the Metropole Bar."

Hewlett was at first a little surprised. Then he recognised Mark and
became at once effusive.

"Right 'o!" he exclaimed. "That sounds all right to me. It's damned cold
out here."

"Step in," Mark invited, leading the way to his car. "It's only a few
yards, but we may as well ride."

Hewlett, a little overawed, seated himself amongst the deep cushions of
the Rolls-Royce. Mark swung round the Mall into Northumberland Avenue,
parked his car at the side entrance to the hotel, and led the way to the
Bar. He chose a secluded corner, signed to the attendant and ordered two
whiskies and sodas. As soon as the man had disappeared he thrust his
hand into his pocket and drew out the note.

"Oh, by the way," he said, "I was to give you this."

Hewlett tore open the envelope unsuspiciously, read its contents through
and frowned.

"Frances says something about a packet here," he observed, looking up.

Mark nodded.

"I have also a packet," he admitted.

The young man stretched out his hand, but Mark made no further movement.
At that moment the waiter served their drinks. They raised their glasses
to each other in mechanical fashion. Howlett's fingers were trembling.

"About that packet?" he asked.

"I'm going to be very frank with you, Mr. Hewlett," Mark said seriously.
"I have always had the utmost esteem and regard for Miss Moreland and it
seems incredible to me that she could be guilty of any action that was
not strictly honourable. At the same time I have certain reasons for
entertaining a very grave suspicion as to the contents of this packet. I
propose that we open it together. If it contains nothing of a
compromising nature I shall owe you both my sincere apologies, which I
hope you will accept. On the other hand, if we find what I have some
reason to suspect may be there I shall have a proposition to make to
you."

Sidney Howlett made an attempt at bluster.

"I can't understand what the devil you're talking about," he declared.
"As a matter of fact there's nothing in the packet worth a snap of the
fingers--nothing at all."

"Then open it or allow me to do so," Mark suggested.

"I will open it when I choose," was the angry retort. "It's no concern
of yours, anyway."

Mark leaned a little over the table.

"You know my position," he said. "I am an American. I am under no
obligation to the British Secret Service, or to the British Police. Not
a soul knows what I am saying to you this evening or of my suspicions.
There is no reason why they should ever know. All the same I am going to
act as I think well in this matter and if you decline to open the packet
I shall do so myself."

"I tell you that it contains nothing of any moment, whatever," Howlett
insisted.

"Very well," Mark replied coolly, as he cut the string, "in that case
there is no harm in gratifying a little curiosity, is there?"

He drew out the pile of carbons, neatly arranged, a sheet of oil paper
between each.

"Carbons! Old carbons!" Howlett scoffed. "That's a great find, isn't it?
No use to anybody."

"So I might have thought a short time ago," Mark agreed. "Unfortunately,
however, the Post has given the show away. There was a little paragraph
there this morning pointing out how carbons could be treated with a
certain preparation, and put into a printing press, and under great
pressure the original impressions would be reproduced. It was a
discovery made by an Italian during the war, and led to a certain amount
of trouble then."

Howlett put up his hand to his suddenly damp forehead. His assurance was
gone. He was obviously terrified.

"What are you going to do about it?" he demanded hoarsely.

"It was you, I suppose, who induced Miss Moreland to enter into this
affair?" Mark asked.

"Of course it was," was the somewhat sullen response. "The stuff isn't
worth much, anyway. It will all be published as soon as this chap
Hugerson gets back to Washington."

"Nevertheless," Mark observed drily, "there are circumstances,
especially connected with the money market, when a little previous
information is a wonderful thing. How much were you going to receive for
these carbons?"

"Five thousand pounds," the young man groaned.

"Very well," Mark continued, "if I keep the transaction a secret are you
content to accept the five thousand pounds from me in exchange for the
carbons, instead of from your other client."

Howlett's confidence was slowly commencing to reassert itself. He sat up
and stared across at his companion.

"What's that?" he exclaimed. "Sell them to you instead? What do you want
with them?"

"That's my affair," was the curt reply. "It doesn't matter to you whom
you deal with, does it? You can have the cheque now."

Howlett tugged nervously at his little moustache. He was perplexed but
eager.

"It's a deal," he assented. "We'll call it a deal."

Mark signed to the waiter to replenish their glasses, moved across to a
writing-table at the further end of the room and returned with a cheque
payable to Sidney Howlett for five thousand pounds.

"I've left it open, as you see," he pointed out. "You can get the money
for it to-morrow morning. Now I am going to ask you a question. How are
you going to divide up with Miss Moreland. What is her interest to be?"

The young man hesitated. The cheque was safely bestowed in his waistcoat
pocket.

"We're probably going to get married some time--Miss Moreland and I," he
confided.

"Probably is a little vague." Mark objected. "I happen to know that the
reason Miss Moreland has departed from her principles to this extent is
so that you may have the money to start life together. She has paid the
price and there must be no disappointment. You understand?"

"I shall keep my word, if that's what you mean," the young man muttered.

"I shall see that you keep it," Mark assured him significantly. "The
carbons will remain in my possession until after you have been married.
Let's see, it takes three weeks in England, doesn't it? Say a month
then. A month from to-day I shall destroy the carbons and attend your
wedding."

"You seem to take a great interest in Miss Moreland," Howlett remarked
curiously. "How long have you known her?"

"A very short time, but long enough to respect and like her as I might
my own sister. I think you are a very lucky person, Mr. Howlett."

"Supposing she doesn't wish to be married so soon?"

"I think you will find there will be no difficulty about that."

The drinks were brought and disposed of almost in silence. Afterwards
Mark rose to his feet.

"Not a word to Miss Moreland, mind," he enjoined. "So far as she knows
the deal has been carried out. As soon as you are married and the
honeymoon is over you can tell her the truth."

"I wish I could understand what your game is," Howlett observed
suspiciously. "It beats me altogether. Five thousand pounds is a nice
bit of money to chuck away on those carbons, when you don't mean to make
any use of them."

Mark was busy putting on his coat. Then he drew on his gloves
deliberately.

"There are some things in life," he said, as he turned away, "which I do
not think that you could ever understand."



CHAPTER III


A moment of good fortune befell Mark that evening as he made his way,
one of a swaying multitude, through the great reception rooms of Cruton
House. He was stopped by a polo acquaintance on the fringe of a little
group of minor royalties, and a moment later Estelle herself was by his
side. An unexpected divergence of the crowd and an adroit movement of
Mark's left them almost alone.

"Well," she asked, "enjoying yourself?"

"Not much until this moment," he admitted. "It sounds ungracious, but it
is at least truthful. There are too many people here."

She glanced down the rooms--a vista of countless heads, bejewelled and
coroneted, men in uniform and court dress, of couples swaying to the
music beyond, of a packed concert room in the distance.

"London is a very friendly city," she murmured. "Have you seen my
father?"

"I expect to pay him a visit to-morrow morning," Mark replied. "I have
heard from Brennan, I had a note from him just before I came out."

There was a general movement of the people to hear a great singer.
Estelle drew her companion towards a little recess, now almost
untenanted, and motioned to a footman.

"Serve us with some champagne," she directed. "Tell me at once about
Brennan."

"He seems to have kept his word. He promised, as I told you, that he
would send for me when he was ready to deal. I am to be at the Milan
Court at half-past-twelve to-night."

She laid her fingers upon his arm.

"You must succeed," she begged earnestly. "That woman is still with him,
I hear, and your friend, the Marquis de Fontanay, would give his soul
for those papers. You must secure them. Do you hear--Mark? You must get
them from him."

"I certainly will," Mark declared confidently. "He must mean business or
he wouldn't have kept his word and sent for me. Besides, although the
girl is a danger, of course, I don't think he likes de Fontanay. I'd
back my chance against Raoul's anyway."

"A man of that type has no feelings of friendship," she asserted
earnestly. "He is just a cold-blooded automaton, working for his own
advantage."

"If he were that," Mark observed, "he would scarcely be so obstinate in
refusing to deal with your father."

"My father made one of the few mistakes of his life in quarrelling with
him," she confessed. "Furthermore, there has always been bad blood
between them. We shall have to rely upon you."

She looked suddenly into his eyes, and he was conscious of a curious
relaxation of her occasionally almost aloof demeanour. Her smile seemed
to have a more subtle meaning, her eyes a gentler softness. Even her
body as she leaned a little towards him, seemed to bespeak a new and
very desirable graciousness. She was herself again as she had been
before for a few short hours.

"You must not fail," she whispered. "I cannot tell you how much it means
to us. I know that most people would tell you to-day that my father was
one of the richest men in the world. Perhaps on paper he is.
Nevertheless, it is in Brennan's power to ruin the greatest scheme in
which he has ever indulged, a scheme in which he has invested countless
millions, a scheme the failure of which might mean ruin."

"Ruin!" Mark repeated. "It is incredible."

"The incredible is sometimes possible," she murmured.

And then the drama of it all seemed to sweep in upon him suddenly and he
realised with almost miraculous intensity the haunting anxiety which
during the last few months had carved deeper lines in Felix Dukane's
worn face. From where they sat, retired though the spot was, he could
indulge in a panoramic view of those perhaps the most wonderful
reception rooms in the world. In every direction were moving a constant
throng of men and women; men in uniform and court dress, women in
tiaras, coronets and flashing jewels, in marvellous toilettes, beautiful
with the adornment of art or nature, or both, and in the background the
music, the softly-played music, of the new dance. A thousand lights
appeared to flash from the chandeliers which were the glory of the great
house. It was like a scene from some modern Arabian Nights, the epitome
of all that was delightful and beautiful in the modern world. And
curiously enough, just at that moment there appeared, upon the threshold
of one of the further rooms, the giver of the feast himself--Dukane,
stolid, not without a certain dignity, and by his side a familiar figure
of royalty.

"Ruin!" Mark repeated once more. "Such a thing seems absurd."

Estelle had become curiously and wonderfully human. A certain
indifference amounting almost to hardness, which had at times repelled
him, at times sapped his courage, seemed to have passed from her
personality. She was very beautiful, the light in her eyes had softened,
her mouth had lost its doubtful lines, and acquired a new tenderness.

"It is hard to explain," she murmured, "and although I wish to treat you
with confidence, dear Mark, I would rather not try just now. I would
rather you took my word for it. Will you, please? Mark, you must succeed
to-night."

She suddenly took his hand. He leaned down, and looked passionately into
her eyes.

"Estelle," he promised, "I will buy Brennan's silence, if I have to
shake the breath out of his body to do so."...

A few yards away, Raoul de Fontanay passed, talking earnestly to the
Ambassador of his Country. Estelle drew her hand from Mark's.

"Be careful," she whispered. "That is the one person I fear."

De Fontanay paused, whispered a word to his companion and turning
abruptly, came towards the two. He bowed very low before Estelle.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "I have had the honour of paying my respects to
your joint chaperones, the Princess Semendria, and the Duchess of
Croome, but I have not yet had the pleasure of paying my respects to
you--my hostess."

She smiled as she gave him her fingers.

"We have had to divide ourselves almost into detachments," she
explained. "The Duchess was kind enough to look after some of the
English people whom we scarcely knew, my godmother helped to receive our
European friends, and I just came in where I was wanted. As you see, I
am now neglecting my duties shamefully."

"I will not say that I envy Van Stratton, because he is my friend," de
Fontanay remarked, "but he is at least fortunate. Have you heard the
rumours which are being passed around to-night?"

"I have heard nothing," she replied.

"What sort of rumours, Raoul?" Mark enquired.

"They say," de Fontanay went on, speaking with a certain lightness, but
with his eyes fixed upon Estelle, "that an application has been made to
the League of Nations by one of the signatories, insisting upon an
immediate meeting."

"On what grounds?" Estelle enquired.

"The Country in question," de Fontanay continued, "claims to have
discovered the existence of a secret treaty between two neighbouring
states. There are no particulars, of course: the rumour itself may be a
canard. On the other hand, I notice that the Foreign Secretary has just
left in a hurry."

Estelle yawned.

"Well," she said, "I hope that, whatever happens, these stupid Countries
will keep their quarrels to themselves...Shall we have one more short
dance, Mr. Van Stratton? After that, I must return to my duties."

De Fontanay bowed and passed on. For a moment Estelle's fingers rested
heavily upon Mark's arm.

"Perhaps," she predicted anxiously, "Brennan's message is only to tell
you that he has already sold himself. There was something a little
sinister about Colonel de Fontanay."

Mark shook his head.

"I think not," he answered. "I don't believe de Fontanay would have
mentioned the matter at all if he had really known anything. He was
watching you closely all the time. I think he was just trying to find
out whether you were nervous or confident. I will buy Brennan for you,
Estelle."

They danced amongst the palms, lost units in a swaying crowd, danced to
the fashionable music of the moment, until Mark, in a sudden fit of
exaltation, gathered his partner lightly but firmly into his arms, and
sought the more secluded places.

"If I succeed," he whispered, "you will never be a queen."

"If you succeed," she rejoined, "I hope the man whom I marry will never
believe that I am not."

Her arms pressed his gently for a moment. He forced her eyes to look
into his.

"I'll go there now, Estelle," he promised.

The absence of that faint tinge of mockery left her smile entirely
tender.

"Even for that," she begged, "not until the music stops."



CHAPTER IV


Mark, admitted to the sitting-room at the Milan Court by a very changed
Mademoiselle Zona--Mademoiselle in an evening gown and hat of Parisian
design, a string of pearls around her neck and her hair coiffured in the
latest fashion--came to an abrupt pause as soon as he had crossed the
threshold. Brennan himself carefully dressed in evening clothes, with a
white carnation in his buttonhole, welcomed him with a cordial wave of
the hand--but Brennan was not alone. Raoul de Fontanay who had
apparently just divested himself of his coat and hat was seated in the
opposite easy-chair.

"A little more confidence on your part," the latter remarked, "and we
might have shared a taxi."

"Why couldn't I say the same about you?" Mark retorted, accepting the
chair to which Brennan had pointed.

"It was not for me," de Fontanay observed, with obvious intent, "to
interrupt your very delightful flirtation with Estelle Dukane."

Brennan made a grimace. He turned a frowning face upon Mark.

"You are still intimate with that household?" he demanded.

"With Felix Dukane I have very little to do," Mark replied. "He hasn't
much use for me or I for him. I do not see how my friendship with his
daughter is anyone's concern except my own."

Brennan nodded judicially.

"You are perhaps right," he admitted. "In any case, I think we can now
proceed towards the discussion of that little matter of business which
has brought us together."

"In whose interests, may I ask," Raoul de Fontanay enquired softly,
"does Mr. Van Stratton intervene?"

"An apt question," Brennan admitted. "Yes, a very apt question, because
it leads to something which I have to say. Will you answer Colonel de
Fontanay, Mr. Van Stratton?"

"I am here prepared to bid for what Mr. Brennan has to sell on my own
account, and in my own interests," Mark asserted.

"An incredible statement!" de Fontanay expostulated, throwing his
cigarette into the fire. "Of what possible use could Brennan's
information be to you?"

"That is my business," was the curt rejoinder. "I have the money to
spend, and I am willing to deal with him."

"I suggest," de Fontanay continued, turning to Brennan, "that you ask
Mr. Van Stratton this plain question: is he here on behalf of Felix
Dukane, or on his own account?"

"You anticipate my own intention," Brennan agreed. "I ask you that
question, Mr. Van Stratton, in all earnestness. I will not deal with Mr.
Dukane or any agent of his."

De Fontanay took a fresh cigarette from his case, lit it, and leaned
back in his chair. He was watching Mark closely. Mademoiselle, seated at
the table in the centre of the room, listened eagerly to every word, her
expression tense, almost strained.

"You need not have the slightest fear," Mark declared, with perfect
coolness. "I am not pledged in any way to Felix Dukane, and I shall use
my own judgment entirely as to what I do with Brennan's secrets,
supposing I decide to buy them."

Brennan nodded approvingly. Mademoiselle's eyes flashed.

"But you came first," she persisted, "upon Felix Dukane's account. You
admitted it."

"That is quite true," Mark acknowledged. "It is also quite true that
under ordinary circumstances I might have passed them on to Felix
Dukane, but if Mr. Brennan is inclined to make it a condition of their
sale that I do not do so, I accept it. I'll make a lone deal."

"Men have sometimes broken their word of honour for a woman's sake,"
Mademoiselle declared, with a flickering sob of passion in her tone.

"A man," Mark retorted, "would not have made that speech to me with
impunity."

Brennan tapped lightly with a finger upon the table.

"We waste time," he said. "What I am proposing is a little auction sale
at which you two are the bidders. Colonel de Fontanay, through his
Secret Service agents--to several of whom I take off my hat in deep
respect--knows fairly well the nature of the information I have to
offer. You, my late host, and young friend, Mr. Van Stratton, probably
convince yourself as to the value of my merchandise through the attitude
of Felix Dukane. This I say to you," he went on, with a vainglorious
little twirl of his moustache, "by way of justification. In the course
of my career I have been a naturalised Frenchman, a naturalised
Austrian, a naturalised Englishman. I was born, as a matter of fact, in
Asia Minor, and my grandfather was an Armenian. Of definite nationality
or of patriotism, its fruit, I possess none at all. All the Countries of
Europe, or the world, are as one to me. I sell the fruit of my labours,
that one unparalleled feat in the history of any Secret Service, to the
highest bidder. One exception there has been, and one only--I would not
sell to Felix Dukane or to the Statesman who has become his tool. That
is why I have asked our young American friend on whose account he is a
bidder. I am satisfied with his reply. And one further condition I make.
It is, you would say, a tribute to my vanity. Never mind. The contents
of that box have cost the lives of several of my associates, and that I
myself escaped from a certain Country alive is a veritable miracle. I
offer you here the result of the greatest feat which the art of
espionage has ever accomplished. I demand to be present when the
despatches are opened, that I may read my triumph in the face of their
purchaser."

"I agree," de Fontanay assented.

"And I," Mark echoed.

De Fontanay leaned forward in his chair.

"Brennan," he said, "I do not know to what extent my friend Mark Van
Stratton is prepared to go in this matter, but it is very certain that
the sum which either of us is prepared to pay is sufficient to keep you
in luxury for the rest of your life. I claim that France has the greater
right to the fruits of your labour. If you sell elsewhere, you become a
participant, an aider and abettor in a nefarious plot against her."

Brennan's smile was almost contemptuous.

"The suggestion makes no appeal to me," he acknowledged. "One who has
led my life has outlived conscience. For the last year, I have stood
every day on the threshold of death. Yet, with that atmosphere around
me, I discovered in due course the details of that amazing situation,
the possibility of which my own genius and imagination had constructed.
This is no idle boast of mine. I swear to you that whoever purchases the
key which I shall presently offer, and opens my box, will receive the
sensation of his life. I shall sell to the highest bidder. Kindly make
all your offers in pounds sterling."

"I shall offer you," Mark proposed, "fifty thousand pounds."

Brennan sighed gently.

"In these days," he murmured, "the interest on fifty thousand pounds,
living say in South America, would only supply one with a pitifully
inadequate income, even supposing I were unable to succeed in the desire
of my life and persuade Mademoiselle Zona to accompany me. Mademoiselle
Zona is charming, but she has the Frenchwoman's gift for spending money.
The offer is one which is scarcely worthy of you, my dear Mr. Van
Stratton."

"I propose to double it," de Fontanay announced.

"The proceedings," Brennan admitted, "commence to be interesting. Dear
Zona, if one might trouble you, the wires are already cut--permit me."

He reached towards the sideboard and detached the strings from a bottle
of champagne. Zona filled the glasses and carried them round. Brennan
looked on with a smile.

"That is very good," he said. "We continue this little affair on a
friendly basis. So far what has happened may be treated as a joke. Shall
I prepare myself for a serious bid?"

"Would it be possible," de Fontanay enquired, "for me to have a few
words in private with Mr. Van Stratton?"

Brennan's gesture of refusal was uncompromising.

"Certainly not," he replied. "You are my only two bidders. Is it likely
that I should permit you to come to an understanding. Afterwards what
arrangement you two may make does not concern me. I shall probably be on
my way to a new Country, and, I trust," he added, with a little smile at
Zona, "to a happier life."

"In that case," de Fontanay said, "I shall make you at once my final
bid--the whole extent of the resources which I can command. I offer you
for your papers two hundred thousand pounds."

"A quarter of a million," Mark proposed.

Brennan beamed upon them both.

"Capital," he exclaimed. "The affair becomes of interest. Two hundred
and fifty thousand pounds is not a great fortune as things are to-day,
but it is a sum not to be despised. We have not heard the last from you,
I trust. Monsieur le Colonel?"

De Fontanay rose suddenly to his feet and rested his hand upon Mark's
shoulder.

"I have no money with which to increase my bid, but, Mark, listen to me.
This is not an affair of millions. Can you not see that for yourself? Is
it right of you to use your wealth in an evil cause. You are assisting
towards a great tragedy if you buy those papers. It is not fair to
France, it is not fair to civilisation. Even if you do not hand them
over to him, you are acting on Dukane's instigation. You know what will
happen. You will be Dukane's puppet; you will keep silent at his behest.
This damned ring will continue their conspiracy against France, and God
knows what may be behind it all. You are acting for a man who is nothing
but a great bloated octopus of wealth, a man without ideals or
conscience."

Brennan tapped the table with his pencil.

"Really, gentlemen," he protested, "this seems to me beside the point.
Mr. Van Stratton has offered me two hundred and fifty thousand pounds
for the key of the box in which my papers repose. If you have no further
bid to make, Monsieur le Colonel, let us consider these proceedings at
an end."

De Fontanay's grip upon his friend's shoulder tightened His face was
very white.

"I think I know the truth, Mark," he sighed. "You would put your
infatuation for that girl before your sense of justice, your sense of
honour."

"I am sorry, Raoul," Mark replied. "I don't see why you need assume that
I'm in this only on her account, but if I were I wouldn't be the first
man who forgot everything else in life for a woman's sake. Now I'm going
to write my cheque."

De Fontanay released his friend's arm as though his fingers had been
stung. He crossed the room and whispered in Zona's ear. She leaned over
and spoke to Brennan. He shook his head coldly.

"My friends," he announced, "I have no wish to interfere in that little
argument which undoubtedly has its interest to both of you, but the time
has, I think, arrived for us to conclude this matter. If you have no
further bid to make, Colonel de Fontanay, I shall give up my key to Mr.
Van Stratton in return for his cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand
pounds."

"I can make no further bid," de Fontanay admitted. "My funds are
exhausted."

"In what manner, may I ask," Brennan enquired, "do you propose to hand
over this somewhat large sum, Mr. Van Stratton?"

"I can give you a cheque on the Bank of England for one hundred thousand
pounds," Mark replied, "and a sight draft on New York which you can
clear by cable for the balance."

"I accept your proposal," Brennan agreed.

He offered his place to Mark, who made out the cheque. In the meanwhile,
Brennan spoke through the telephone to the office, and gave a few
instructions. In a moment or two a clerk from below, attended by a
commissionaire, arrived. They handed a little packet to Brennan, who
signed for it, and waved them away, with a word of thanks. On their
departure, he broke the heavy seal, and withdrew the key from the wooden
box.

"This has been in your possession once before," he reminded Mark. "You
know where and how to use it. Let me refill your glasses. A very
pleasant transaction!--Monsieur le Colonel, I regret that you are a
loser in this little deal, but I congratulate my friend Mr, Van Stratton
on his enterprise. A quarter of a million pounds may seem to you a great
deal of money, but there are many ways in which he can recoup himself
within a few hours of the opening of the box. And if you think," he
continued, with an amiable smile, "that I myself have reaped too large a
reward, let me remind you of this: there wasn't a day after I left Paris
last, when I wasn't expecting every moment a hand upon my shoulder. I
could have been trapped very easily, especially during the last
twenty-four hours. You two think, I suppose, that it needs no courage to
do work in the bureau of a statesman under a false name, seeking for
proofs of his treachery. You are wrong. I am not sure that it is not the
highest form of bravery which keeps you with no uplifting thrill of
excitement, apparently plodding along with a hundred others, yet knowing
that the slightest slip, the slightest ill-chance, and the telephone
would ring, and first a great policeman, and then a squad of
soldiers--and the end, within a few minutes. Believe me, Mr. Van
Stratton, I have earned your two hundred and fifty thousand pounds...You
won't finish the bottle, gentlemen? There is another upon the
sideboard."

They bade him a somewhat curt farewell. Zona, who had been seated in a
corner, her face buried in her hands, rose also to her feet. She looked
towards de Fontanay. He shook his head, and she subsided into her place.

"Will you give me a lift home, Mark?" de Fontanay asked.

Mark hesitated for a moment.

"Why not?" he assented. "I was wondering whether it was too late to go
back to Cruton House."

"And announce the success of your exploit," his friend observed
bitterly. "Well, if you do that, you can still drop me on the way."



CHAPTER V


Mark was aware of a curious sense of uneasiness as he reclined a quarter
of an hour later in de Fontanay's most comfortable armchair and watched
his host mixing the drinks at the sideboard. There was something
fantastic about their recent duel; a touch of the sinister about the
insistent invitation which had induced him to mount the stairs. Yet,
when de Fontanay returned and sank wearily into the opposite chair, Mark
could feel nothing but shame for the half-born thoughts in his mind.

"I suppose you will not refuse to answer one question?" the former asked
gravely, as he lit a cigarette. "Whether you were honest in your
attitude or not, you still bought those papers at Dukane's instigation?"

"It was from Dukane I first heard of them, naturally," Mark replied. "It
is entirely his estimate of their value which I have accepted."

"You have bought, as they say in England, a pig in a poke," de Fontanay
observed.

"I suppose I have been more or less of a fool," Mark acknowledged
doggedly. "I went into it at first more or less as Dukane's agent, from
the financial point of view. Now I have promised not to deal with him,
it seems to me I am likely to be much out of pocket. Still, a million
dollars won't break me, and I shall have kept my word."

"There will, I am convinced," de Fontanay declared bitterly, "be a
special hell somewhere in the future for those who have more money than
they know what to do with, and blunder into great affairs."

"I don't want to seem offensive, Raoul," Mark rejoined, after a moment's
hesitation, "but it does seem to me that some of you French people are a
trifle crazy nowadays. You look at everything that happens from one
point of view, and one point of view only--from that of France. No one
wants to destroy France, Raoul--not even her bitterest enemy. This
financial campaign against her she has in a sense brought upon herself
by her own curious methods in dealing with her resources. It isn't going
to ruin her, or anything like it. If you would tax your people properly,
enforce the taxation and insist upon your people making some of the
sacrifices they shirk, no one in the world would play havoc with your
currency. The fact of it is you got a trifle hysterical during the
War--heavens knows I don't blame you--and you've never got over it."

De Fontanay's face had hardened, and all its hues seemed to have
suddenly become deeper. His tone was almost menacing.

"These generalities from you, Mark," he said, "are childish. The fact
remains that you have used your wealth to-night to prevent my carrying
out the instructions of my Government, which were to obtain Brennan's
information at any reasonable cost. Your interest in the whole affair,
however you may argue and try to deceive even yourself, is a profoundly
selfish one. Therefore, although we are friends who have looked at death
together, although it is true that you saved my life, f must tell you
that all personal sentiments in these few minutes fade away. I am forced
to see in you only the enemy of my Country."

Mark stiffened a little in all his limbs. His hand crept down to his
pocket. He had a curious sense of being no longer alone with de
Fontanay. He looked searchingly around. The windows and door were
closed, but the curtains leading to the bed-chamber had trembled.

"You threaten me, Raoul?" he asked, incredulously.

"I must have that key," was the firm reply. "It is not I, Mark, who
needs it. It is France."

"And if I refuse, as I shall do?"

"Think for a moment," de Fontanay pleaded. "You outbid me because of
your wealth. I was driven to argue with you. I was driven to rely upon
your friendship, upon my belief in your sense of honour. Again I was
disappointed. I am driven now to the last and most terrible expedient.
You may not leave this room, Mark, unless you part with the key."

"Is it you and I alone?" Mark demanded.

De Fontanay shook his head.

"It is so I should have preferred it," he answered, "but again I have
not myself to think of. I dishonour friendship for the sake of my
Country."

The words sounded strangely on Mark's ears. For the second time within
the last few minutes he was conscious of a curious buzzing in his ears,
a sensation of intense and unnatural sleepiness. He tried to rise from
his seat and staggered back again. All the time de Fontanay was looking
at him sadly.

"Damn you, Raoul!" he faltered. "I'd rather--have fought."

"I had to choose the safest means," de Fontanay replied, as he watched
his friend collapse.


Mark returned to consciousness slowly, a feeling of languor in his limbs
and a confused sense of unreal noises still echoing in his brain. He sat
up gradually and looked about him. His coat and collar had been removed
and were lying upon the table by his side together with a small heap of
his personal belongings. At the further end of the room, Raoul himself,
a Colonel Jacques de Fayenne, whom Mark knew as his assistant, and a
third man, a stranger, were talking in low tones. By degrees it became
apparent that de Fayenne was urging a course upon Raoul to which the
latter objected.

"You have run this risk for nothing, then!" de Fayenne exclaimed
excitedly. "We are to be fooled by this ignorant young American--you and
I, de Fontanay, heads of the French Secret Service. There is little that
he can have done with the key. He must be made to tell where it is--made
to before he regains his strength."

De Fontanay shook his head.

"He will never tell," he said. "He is a brave man and my friend. I have
gone far enough."

Their voices dropped to a whisper. Mark sat up and examined the contents
of his pockets which were scattered upon the table.

Slowly he picked up his collar and fastened it round his neck, arranged
his tie, rose to his feet and put on his coat. The three men, suddenly
aware of his recovery, broke off in their conversation. De Fontanay came
across the room and stood before his friend.

"Well?"

Mark was quietly stowing away his belongings in his pocket. He made no
answer for a moment.

"Feeling queer?" de Fontanay continued.

"Like the morning after an almighty jag," Mark replied in a colourless
tone. "Can I go?"

De Fayenne stood up. He was a tall, lean-faced man, who had lost one arm
in the war, but had won many decorations and honours.

"Not yet," he answered sharply.

"I can assure you," Mark began--

"We want that key," de Fayenne interrupted.

"The key?"

"We want the key of the safe deposit vault which contains the papers you
bought to-night from Brennan," de Fayenne persisted.

"I gathered that you wanted something that you thought was in my
possession," Mark observed dryly.

"We still want it," the other reminded him.

Mark looked at his opponent speculatively. It was a cruel face, the face
of a man reckless in courage and determined of purpose.

"Well as you see, I have it no longer," he pointed out.

"Then it remains for you to tell us where it is."

Mark smiled.

"If I had wished you to have it," he confided, "I should have brought it
along."

"But how on earth did you dispose of it?" de Fontanay intervened. "You
took it from its packet in the sitting-room at the Milan, and thrust it
into your waistcoat pocket. We left the place together and you did not
speak to a soul."

"The mistake so many people have made about me," Mark explained, as he
finished tying his tie, "is that they imagine because I am big that I am
therefore a fool. I did not think you would go so far as this, Raoul,
although I was quite aware that it wasn't hospitality alone that you
were thinking of offering me this evening. I felt I was entering the
lion's den when I crossed the threshold."

De Fayenne, a light in his eyes more threatening than ever, took his
Chief by the arm.

"De Fontanay," he insisted, "will you explain to your friend that we
waste time. Make him understand that we are serious men and that we must
have that key."

De Fontanay turned reluctantly around. His tone had become almost
appealing.

"Mark," he said, "I know that the money doesn't count for much, but
sooner or later you shall have the quarter of a million you paid for it.
De Fayenne is right to insist upon your giving up the key. We are the
servants of France. It is our duty to risk everything to attain our
purpose. It is our duty even to bring suffering the most horrible upon a
friend if that should help."

"You think that you can torture me?" Mark asked with scorn. "You should
know me better, Raoul."

"I know you well enough, unfortunately," was the sorrowful reply, "these
others do not. De Fayenne has his own methods."

Mark looked across the room. De Fayenne had divested himself of his
coat, as had also the other man. Mark sighed. His knees still felt like
paper. His arm was useless.

"I shall not tell you where the key is," he pronounced deliberately.
"You can adopt what methods of compulsion you desire, and to which my
friend Monsieur le Colonel de Fontanay," he added, looking at Raoul,
"will consent."

De Fontanay turned away with a little groan. Suddenly the three men
stiffened to attention. There was the sound of heavy footsteps outside,
a clamorous ringing of the bell, followed shortly by two short knocks
upon the door. The third man hurried to the window, lifted the blind and
glanced down.

"The police," he muttered.

De Fontanay moved towards the hall. De Fayenne, a few inches of shining
steel in his hand, drew a little nearer to Mark.

"You will not move," he directed. "You will not speak."

De Fontanay opened the outside door. A police officer was standing
there, the rain streaming down from his macintosh cape. It was a supreme
moment.

"Is that your car outside, sir?" he demanded.

"I guess it's mine," Mark acknowledged, raising his voice a little.
"Step inside, officer. I'd like to speak to you about it."

There was a moment's tense silence. One could hear the sound of de
Fayenne's indrawn breath of anger. Nevertheless his arm dropped and the
pistol disappeared. The police-constable entered the room.

"If that is your car, sir," he continued, addressing Mark, "I shall
require your name and address. It has been standing in the street over
two hours."

"I am very sorry," Mark replied. "The time seemed to slip away."

"Dangerous thing to do, sir, leave a car all that time, besides being
against the law," the man went on. "I am sorry to tell you that there
seems to have been a thief at work."

"A thief!" Mark repeated incredulously.

"You had better come down with me at once," the man suggested. "You will
find things in a nice state, your cushions ripped up, and a rare mess
inside."

"I'll come right down," Mark assented, picking up his overcoat and hat,
and moving towards the door. "I was just leaving, anyhow. Good-night,
Raoul! Good-night, gentlemen!"

No one answered. A glance of fierce questioning passed between de
Fayenne and de Fontanay, and the third man crept a little nearer to the
door. De Fontanay shook his head. That ponderous figure with the
dripping macintosh cloak represented an _impasse_. He held the door
open.

"Good-night, Mark," he said. "Sure you won't have another drink before
you go?"

"Not to-night, thanks," was the emphatic reply. "I'm not sure that your
whisky agrees with me."

They passed out together--Mark and the officer. The door closed behind
them. They descended the three flights of stairs into the street, Mark
held his hand to his head for a moment.

"Nothing wrong up there, sir?" the man asked curiously.

"Nothing exactly wrong, officer," he replied, "but these reunions get a
little wearisome at times."

"Seemed to me those two gentlemen were looking a trifle ugly," the
officer observed.

"I think," Mark confided, as he drew in a long breath of the cool night
air, "that they were annoyed with me for leaving so early."



CHAPTER IV


At half-past-eleven on the following morning Mark, with the hall-porter
of the Milan Court by his side, stood awaiting the descent of the lift.
As soon as it had arrived and its solitary passenger had departed, the
hall-porter produced a key from his pocket, unlocked the contribution
box to Dr. Barnardo's Homes which was fixed inside, withdrew a small
object and handed it to Mark.

"That your property, sir?" he enquired.

"That's what I'm looking for," Mark replied, stowing it carefully away,
"Much obliged to you, Harris. You can put this ten-pound note into the
box for the Homes, and here's a fiver for yourself."

The man was not unnaturally a little staggered. He obeyed instructions,
however, and carefully disposed of the five-pound note in a worn
pocket-book.

"I'm sure I'm very grateful to you, sir," he acknowledged. "I don't
think that box has ever had more than an odd shilling or two in it since
I can remember. If I might take the liberty, sir, I would like to ask
how the key got in there?"

Mark smiled.

"To tell you the truth. Harris," he admitted, "I dropped it in on
purpose. I was with a rather strange crowd last night and I knew they
wanted the key. I had a chance of dropping it in unobserved, and it
seemed to me that the box was as safe a hiding place as any."

The man chuckled.

"Very clever idea, sir, if you'll allow me to say so," he observed. "I'm
glad you got it back all right, anyway, and good morning, sir."

He retreated behind his counter, and Mark, re-entering his car, drove to
Cruton House. The great courtyard was filled with tradesmen's and
decorator's vehicles, removing the debris of the festivities of the
night before, and the front of the house was in an almost similar state
of confusion. Mark, on giving his name, however, was conducted without
delay to a room upon the first floor, half library, half sitting-room,
where Felix Dukane was seated at an open desk, smoking a black cigar and
writing. He looked up at Mark's entrance and scowled anxiously.

"Well?" he exclaimed.

"I have been both successful and unsuccessful, sir," Mark confessed.

"Don't beat about the bush," Dukane insisted. "Have you the key to the
safe deposit vault or haven't you?"

"I have it," Mark assured him. "The box containing the papers is
certainly in my possession. No one else can get at them."

So far as a countenance such as Mr. Dukane's was capable of betraying
emotion, it betrayed it then. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh of
relief.

"Why the hell didn't you say so at first?" he demanded.

"Because," Mark replied, "although so far as I know it makes very little
difference--in fact, it is according to our arrangement--I had to give
my word of honour that I was treating for these papers on my own
account. That is to say that they must remain absolutely in my
possession and not be handed over to anyone."

Dukane's under lip protruded.

"What does that matter," he demanded, "so long as the Frenchman hasn't
got them? Have you opened the box yet?"

"Not yet," Mark admitted.

"How much did you have to pay for them?"

"Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds."

"Do you want a cheque?"

"That had better be a subject for future arrangement. The papers are
perfectly safe, at any rate for a day or two. I have pledged my word not
to hand them over to you, so I am not sure that, for the present, I am
entitled to your payment. I am hoping," he concluded, "that our future
relations may be such that financial matters between us become
unimportant."

Felix Dukane relaxed so far as to smile.

"I give you credit for persistence, Mr. Van Stratton," he admitted. "It
is an excellent quality. Lunch with us to-day."

"I shall be delighted," Mark accepted promptly.

"And now that I am once more alone with you, Mr. Dukane, may I take
advantage of the opportunity to ask your consent to Estelle's engagement
to me?"

"Do you imagine that she wants to marry you?" Dukane demanded, regarding
almost defiantly his prospective son-in-law.

"I think she is beginning to," was the equable reply. "Very soon she
will be perfectly willing."

Felix Dukane stroked his chin thoughtfully.

"Do you know that my daughter is the greatest heiress in the world?" he
enquired.

"I am not surprised to hear it," Mark rejoined indifferently. "In a
sense it doesn't interest me. For all ordinary purposes of life I myself
am wealthy."

"Still," Mr. Dukane continued, "the possession of very great wealth
entails certain obligations. My daughter's dowry, not to speak of what
she will inherit at my death, might well be the equivalent of the
national debt of some of these small kingdoms. I have practically made
up my mind, as she has already told you, that she shall marry Prince
Andropulo of Drome, in which Country I have enormous interests."

"A horrible fellow!" Mark observed pleasantly. "She may toy with the
idea for a time, but I am perfectly certain she could never marry him."

"You appear to be a young man who knows his own mind."

"I am."

"I share that quality. When an idea enters my brain and appeals to me, I
generally carry it out. I intend my daughter to marry the Prince."

"That may be your present intention," Mark ventured, "but it is your
daughter who would have to marry him, and not you. I don't think for a
moment, when the time came, that she would ever consent."

"You think not," Dukane countered grimly. "Well, we shall see. You can
lunch with us, anyway. I am in your debt. Frankly I admit that. You are
temporarily out of pocket two hundred and fifty thousand pounds on my
account. As you have given your word you will, I presume, have to remain
in that position for the present, and I don't see what there is I can
offer you beyond a luncheon. You can come out and visit us all in the
East later on if you like."

"Estelle and I will not be living in the East," Mark confided. "I rather
thought of a _pied-à-terre_ in Paris, a villa in Beaulieu, a flat
somewhere near here, or perhaps keep on my maisonette in Curzon Street,
and a real English country house. I have an idea that Estelle might like
to hunt. There will always be room for you."

"She will be able to hunt wild boar in the Andropulo forests," her
father remarked dryly, "and I have already seen the suite in the Royal
Castle which I propose to occupy."

"You won't be the first autocratic father," Mark observed amiably, "who
has had to change his mind."


Mark found Mr. Hugerson seated in the easy-chair of his room, smoking a
cigar and reading a copy of one of his reports. From the adjoining
apartment came the click of Miss Moreland's typewriter.

"Anything for me, sir?" Mark enquired.

"Not a darned thing," his Chief replied, setting down his manuscript."
We are pretty well through, any way. Mrs. Widdowes has been asking for
you."

Mark nodded.

"No fresh leakages?" he enquired, dropping his voice.

Mr. Hugerson shook his head.

"Not that I have heard anything of," he replied. "Sit down and have a
smoke, Mark, if you've nothing to do."

"If you don't mind, sir, I'll go and see what Mrs. Widdowes wants."

Mark paused for a moment at the door to listen to the firm, metallic
jangle of the typewriter. Then he made his way into the hall and met
Myra, just in from riding, talking to her mother.

"Enter Mark, exhausted from his morning's work?" she exclaimed. "Mummie,
I know it's early, but can we have cocktails? I had scarcely any
breakfast, and such a gallop, and that poor young man looks worn out.
Why are you so pale, Mark?" she went on, as they passed into the
morning-room, and she rang the bell. "Is it true that Estelle Dukane is
going to marry Prince Andropulo?"

"I don't think so," Mark replied cheerfully. "I have an idea that she is
going to marry me some day."

"We Americans don't suffer from lack of nerve," Myra laughed. "They say
that Estelle is to be a queen; and Mr. Dukane a sort of comic Prime
Minister. I've been riding with your friend, Henry Dorchester. He seems
rather depressed about it."

"You'll have to console one of us if the worst comes to the worst,
Myra," Mark warned her.

"Yes, but the question is which?" she pointed out. "Are you lunching?"

"Not to-day."

"What a pity," she sighed. "Henry Dorchester is coming, and I should
have liked to have seen you together. One can judge so much better."

"I'm lunching with my future father-in-law," Mark confided.

"Does he know about the prospective relationship?" she scoffed.

"Well, I've told him about it. I'll admit he seems a little sceptical."

The cocktails arrived, and with them Mr. Widdowes. He carried some
official despatches in his hand.

"Any news, dad?" Myra enquired.

"There's a rumour that our Italian friend has been making some bombastic
speeches, and getting into trouble with the Court. They've got the
wind-up in Whitehall about it. It seems that one of the Balkan States
have applied for a meeting of the League of Nations."

"Rather by way of being a little tin god, isn't he, that Italian chap."
Mark observed.

The Ambassador nodded thoughtfully.

"He represents a conflict between brains and a too dominant
personality," he remarked. "Europe has produced several of the type
lately...Staying for luncheon, Mark?

"A little celebration of my own, sir," the latter regretted as he took
his leave.



CHAPTER VII


Mark, finding himself one of a luncheon party of four, with Prince
Andropulo the other guest, did his best, not altogether successfully, to
conceal his disappointment. Estelle rested her fingers upon his arm as
they passed from the salon into the smaller dining-room, and whispered
confidentially in his ear:

"The Prince called on some business and father asked him to stay. You
don't mind?"

"Not if he leaves directly afterwards," Mark replied glumly. "I want to
talk to you."

"I'll do my best," she promised.

After that, luncheon became a more cheerful meal. The four of them sat
at a round table upon which were a centrepiece of priceless lace, blue
glass of Venetian pattern, and a great bowl of blue hyacinths. Prince
Andropulo fully reciprocated and even exceeded Mark's own lack of
cordiality. Felix Dukane, on the other hand, showed most unusual signs
of civility, almost of affability.

"A young man like you," he said to Mark, during the progress of the
meal, "with a clever father and grandfather behind him ought to take up
finance."

"I will, sir, if you will make me a partner," Mark suggested.

Estelle laughed softly. Even her father smiled.

"I might consider it," he observed--"on terms."

"Finance in these days," Prince Andropulo intervened in his rather
guttural voice, "requires brains and technical knowledge of figures."

"You are not, I believe, a financier?" Mark enquired politely.

"I am the ruler of my Country," the Prince answered with some stiffness.
"At present its affairs are being administered by a delegate, but I
expect to be recalled at any moment."

"The Prince's return to his Country," Mr. Dukane explained, "is purely a
matter of arrangement. The people are all tired of a republic. By the
bye. Prince, you may be interested to know that I have received further
reports this morning as to the oil-fields on the western side of the
Kratlin Forests. The reports are on the whole exceedingly favourable."

"There is oil enough in Drome," Prince Andropulo declared confidently,
"to make it one of the richest Countries for its size in the world. It
needs two things only--capital and brains!"

"And a stable government," Mr. Dukane added--"a stable and popular
government--one in which the people have confidence."

"That is also a vital necessity," the Prince agreed.

"I wonder whether one would ever feel really safe in one of those Far
Eastern Countries--Drome, for instance?" Estelle speculated.

"Safe!" the Prince repeated, with a contraction of his eyebrows which
was almost a scowl. "I do not quite comprehend."

"Well, they none of them seem to have absolutely settled down since the
war, do they?" she ventured. "They are always changing their
governments, having revolutions, and that sort of thing. Even you are
practically exiled."

"I should scarcely consider my absence from Drome in that light," the
Prince declared coldly. "I am asked by the Prime Minister of my Country
to travel abroad for some months in order to stop socialistic
machinations against the Constitution. It is perfectly understood that
Drome will be mine again as soon as the present crisis is passed. If,
five months ago," he went on, striking the table with his fist, "I could
have found the money to pay the army and to have bought the two gunboats
Turkey offered us, there would never have been any question of my
leaving the palace. It is a humiliating but true confession that in
Drome to-day money is our direst necessity. We have virgin forests,
priceless timber, with waterways to carry it to the sea, salt mines
which have never been touched, millions of acres of oil-producing lands
which have scarcely ever been tested, copper and tin mines waiting only
for machinery, yet we are paralysed--paralysed for two reasons, first,
because by a gross act of injustice, which before long must be remedied,
the control of the railway is no longer in our hands, and secondly
because all the gold of the world has passed across the seas westward.
America has drained us dry. And when she sends her speculators to
prospect they demand from my people options on ridiculous terms, options
which would mean that all the wealth which naturally and geographically
belongs to my Country must go back to the greediest land on earth for
her eternal aggrandisement. No, I wait. I wait for other things."

"I am an American," Mark observed.

"So I have always understood," Prince Andropulo rejoined briefly.

Mark leaned forward, but he met Estelle's beseeching glance and held his
peace.

"The other things may come," Dukane said thoughtfully. "Meanwhile,
unless some unexpected tragedy occurs, Europe is in for a great revival.
The Locarno peace pact was a great accomplishment, and all Europe needs
now for its rehabilitation is a return in the shape of loans of some of
the gold which has flowed Westwards."

Luncheon had reached its final stage and the cigarettes were passed
around. Prince Andropulo and Mr. Dukane began to discuss some question
of the the national debt of Drome. Estelle rose suddenly and touched
Mark upon the arm.

"Come with me," she invited. "I am bored with the national debt of
Drome. They can come in for their coffee when they are ready."

She led him away, regardless of Andropulo's frown of annoyance. They
passed through the ante-room into a further apartment, a room which had
been the boudoir of one of the former ladies of the house--a room about
which, in the midst of an intense modernity there still hung a faint
flavour of Victorianism, with watercolours upon the papered walls and
stiff, but not ungraceful, furniture. Estelle laughed up at her
companion.

"Well," she asked, "are you grateful? Are you going to leave off being
angry with me?"

"You are wonderful," he acknowledged warmly. "There is only one thing
you can do more--promise to marry me."

"I really think I shall some day," she confided. "Of course I should
rather like to be a queen."

"With Andropulo for king!" Mark scoffed. "Ridiculous!"

"Still," she persisted, "the crown jewels are really very wonderful."

"I'll buy them for you," he suggested. "Andropulo looks the sort of man
who would sell anything."

She laughed.

"They will not let them go out of the palace, or I expect he would have
pawned them before...Tell me about your triumph. You seem to have won
father's complete approval."

"There wasn't much of a triumph about it," Mark confessed a little
ruefully. "I simply put up the money which de Fontanay couldn't raise."

"Poor de Fontanay!" she murmured. "Twice now he has failed, and why
should he worry! France does well enough. Tell me, Mark, when are you
going to actually possess yourself of Brennan's secrets?"

"The day after to-morrow," Mark replied.

"Who's going to be present when you open the box?"

"Brennan," Mark answered; "he insisted upon it."

She leaned a little towards him, listened for a moment to the sound of
the voices in the dining-room, and whispered almost in his ear. With the
lightest of touches she had the trick of suggesting a caress.

"Mark," she whispered, "I wish to come. Can I?"

He shook his head doubtfully.

"You know how difficult Brennan is."

"Not about me," she declared eagerly. "It's only father he can't bear.
In a way it will be almost a historical moment to see papers, hear
things, which would set the world aflame again. Mark, I must be there!"

He turned towards her, and for a single moment, she rested resistless in
his arms, his lips touched hers passionately. Then she gently extricated
herself. There were sounds of movement in the other room.

"Estelle!" he begged. "Just that one word, please."

"Don't be too impatient," she whispered back. "I will tell you
something, if you like. Then you can judge for yourself. I have never
let anyone do that before you--that afternoon in the taxicab. I never
wanted to."

"Not even Andropulo?" he laughed happily.

She made a little grimace from her chair behind the coffee tray. A
footman entered with liqueurs, and the voices of Mr. Dukane and the
Prince became audible as they approached. They were still talking as
they entered the room.

"To pay back the interest on the government bonds," Andropulo was saying
eagerly, "would take little more than a matter of three millions at the
present rate of exchange. It would create an unheard of wave of
patriotism, and of loyalty towards the Government throughout the
country. My people are loyal enough," he went on, "but they have been
near to starvation. The dynasty which can show them the land of plenty
is going to be the dynasty which they will accept, and to which they
will adhere."

"Sounds interesting--very interesting," Felix Dukane confessed as he
stirred his coffee. "I have at odd times controlled some of the greatest
industrial enterprises in the world, some whose capital ran into almost
incredible figures, but an entire kingdom, a taxable kingdom, with
undeveloped resources, and a national debt to deal with, is an
absolutely new problem. I contemplate it. Prince, with pleasure. Wait
only one week for my definite reply."

The Prince hurried over to the other side of the room, and bent over
Estelle. Mark watched him with distaste.

"Don't get too interested in that Country of Andropulo's, sir," he
begged.

"I am very interested in it, indeed," was the almost dogged reply."
Don't you get building on the impossible, young man."

"Nothing is impossible if we want it badly enough, sir."

Felix Dukane stood squarely on his feet for a moment with his hands
clasped behind him and his underlip protruding. He had the appearance of
one about to make a pronouncement.

"Young man," he said, "what the people of your Country need is a
setback. You cannot believe that there is anything in the world you
can't have. By following a safe policy for the last fifteen years you
have become the richest and the most powerful country in the world. You
have sent every exchange in Europe rocky because you have stored away
all the gold. Your women have come over here and allied themselves with
all the great names in England, France and Italy, and now you come and
coolly tell me that you intend to marry my daughter--the greatest
heiress in the world. I don't like young men, as a rule. Van Stratton. I
rather like you, but I'm damned if you're going to play your Country's
game and help yourself to everything for which you have a fancy. Now go
away. I have business to attend to."

Notwithstanding this abrupt dismissal, Mark made his adieux with almost
a light heart, for Estelle smiled upon him once more as he had bowed
over her fingers.



CHAPTER VIII


Mr. Hugerson, upon Mark's appearance at the Embassy on the following
morning, was holding what amounted to a formal levée amongst the
secretaries and clerks with whom he had been brought into contact. He
welcomed Mark cordially.

"Glad you're up to time, young man, this morning," he observed. "I've
got my marching orders. Sailing from Southampton to-night."

"Isn't that rather unexpected, sir?" Mark asked.

"I guess our number 7 committee have got the wind up," Mr. Hugerson
declared. "Anyway, they want me back at Washington at once to appear
before a commission. There's very little left that I haven't told them,"
he went on, "but I expect there are one or two things they want to have
from the old man himself."

The little group of visitors dispersed one by one. Mark and Mr. Hugerson
were presently left alone.

"It's this Drome business that's making the trouble, Mark," his Chief
confided. "If there's one thing touches them on the raw in the Senate,
it's when anyone else gets concessions in a foreign Country which they
think ought to have come to Americans. These delegates from the Middle
West stand up and screech like wild men. According to some of them
you'd think that God made the world for Americans, and nobody else was
allowed to live except on suffrance. Of course those last oil
concessions were half promised to an American Syndicate, but if the
Government of Drome chooses to part with them to someone else there's
nothing we can say about it."

"We could send a note," Mark remarked with a smile.

"That's getting to be our habit, the fundamental principle of our
foreign policy is to keep out of all entanglements, alliances, or
treaties of any sort with European Countries. That's all very well, but
if we stand on one side altogether, as we have to, we can't help someone
else nipping in and getting away with the goods. If a Country has
something to sell for good red gold, and has two customers, both with
the money, naturally she chooses the one who can give her a leg-up in
international affairs. I wouldn't be an American Consul these days for
anything in the world."

"Is there anything I can do to help your getting off, sir?" Mark asked.

"Not a thing," Mr. Hugerson replied, holding out his hand. "You can come
down to the station at three o'clock, if you've nothing to do. I'm glad
we met, young fellow, for your father's sake as well as your own. You've
been very helpful to me. Look me up the next time you're over our side,
and if you take this job up seriously, let me know. I might be able to
put something in your way later on."

"You're very kind, sir," Mark declared gratefully. "And as for the work,
it's been fine having it to do..."

Mark, wandering about restlessly for a moment or two after his Chief's
departure, found his way to Frances Moreland's room. He discovered her
seated idly before her typewriter, her great eyes fixed upon the little
strip of river just visible between a gap in the buildings. She welcomed
him without a smile. He almost fancied indeed that she shivered at the
sound of his voice.

"Well," he said, "we've seen it through with Mr. Hugerson then. Great
chap for detail, wasn't he? I expect you got pretty well sick of those
reports."

"I'm glad it's over," she admitted. "In a few minutes I shall put the
cover upon my typewriter, and finish--for good, I hope."

"You're giving up work?"

She nodded.

"I'm going to be married to Sidney Hewlett in a few weeks."

"Well, that's good news," he declared cheerfully.

I hope I'll be invited to the wedding."

"You'd hate it," she assured him. "Sidney has quite a lot of relatives
and we're going to be married from Crouch End."

"Fine!" he exclaimed. "If you don't send me an invitation you'll never
hear the end of it."

She smiled for the first time, a little wanly, and turned towards him.
Her fingers strayed to the box of cigarettes at her side. She lit one,
and leaned back in her chair.

"Mr. Van Stratton," she said, "you always seem to me to be full of
robust common sense. Help me."

"Why, give me a chance," he invited.

"A problem has come into my life--something that is always bothering me.
I cannot make up my mind exactly how much one owes to oneself and one's
happiness as against, say the ordinary schemes of conduct, one's
subscription to the everyday morality of life."

"Make it as simple as you can," he begged.

"In order to make my marriage possible," she continued, "I committed an
unmoral action. I won't specify it. I will not say whether it was theft,
or what. It was without a doubt a wrong and wicked thing to do, and I
did it. If I hadn't, I should probably never have been married. I should
have lost any little chance of happiness which might ever have come to
me in life. I was a long time making up my mind," she went on
thoughtfully. "I know so many people who seem to have led absolutely
good lives and found no reward--women of my own age who have lived
respectably and nicely, helped other people, and afterwards have had to
face an old age of loneliness. I suppose I was wrong. I came to the
deliberate conclusion that an over-rigid subscription to the moralities
of life brings no reward in this world, and I haven't, alas! faith in
any other."

"Every code of morals must be more or less elastic," Mark declared after
a moment's reflection. "If you could do a great deal of good to
yourself, at the expense of a little harm to others, I shouldn't
hesitate. After all, as a happy woman you're an asset to the world. Your
own happiness does good to everyone around you as well as to yourself.
There is always that point of view to be considered."

"It's rather a comforting point of view," she acknowledged.

He seated himself for a moment upon the edge of her table.

"It's sane enough," he contended, "and you want to tack on to it just
one thread of philosophy. If you've counted the cost and done a thing,
wipe out doubts. You can't alter it. It's done. Take what's coming to
you."

She smiled.

"I knew I should find it a relief to talk to you," she confided. "I
shall lay hold of that thread as hard as I can. All my life," she went
on, "I shall suffer just a little. On the other hand, I know that I
shall often be happy. I would rather have the mixture than the grey
days."

"Stick to that," he advised. "You're dead right!"

He took her hand into his, resisting at that moment his desire to tell
her the truth. Her eyes were soft with unshed tears. He felt that she
was very near a dangerous breakdown. On the opposite pavement in the
street below, he could see Sidney Howlett, his hands in his over-coat
pockets, trudging up and down. Mark slipped from the table.

"How long are you going to be packing up?" he asked, in his most
matter-of-fact tone.

"Half-an-hour, I daren't be longer. Mr. Howlett isn't the most patient
of men, and he's been waiting a few minutes already. I told him we'd go
off and look at some furniture."

"I'm leaving in a minute," Mark confided. "I'll talk to him."

"That would be very good of you," she acknowledged gratefully.

He purposely avoided anything more definite in the way of farewells, and
made his way out into the street. Mr. Sidney Howlett welcomed him a
little doubtfully.

"Everything O.K.?" he enquired.

"Everything is O.K." Mark replied a little gravely, "but I want just a
word with you. Let's stroll along the Mall. Have a cigarette?"

Mr. Howlett accepted one readily. He had not the slightest objection to
being seen walking with this very noteworthy-looking young man.

"Preparations going on all right for the wedding, eh?" Mark asked.

"No hitch that I know of," Mr. Howlett replied. "We're going to look at
some furniture this morning--cards being printed for the 15th of next
month. Proud to have you look in and take a glass of wine with us, sir.
It's a trifle out of your beat, perhaps--Crouch End--but my aunt's
running the show. Nice healthy neighbourhood when you get there."

"I'll come if I'm in the Country," Mark promised. "You've seen or heard
nothing more from your friend?"

"Not a thing," Howlett declared. "I just paid him that one visit, told
him that there wasn't gold enough in the Bank of England to buy the
young woman, and that was the end of it."

Mark nodded approvingly.

"As soon as we can," he insisted, "we must relieve Miss Moreland's mind.
She's beginning to worry a little as it is, I'm afraid. You'll look
after her, Howlett?"

"No doubt about that, sir," was the prompt rejoinder. "We ought to pull
it off all right--neither of us too young, and starting as I'd never
hoped to start, with a house of our own, a nice block of War Loan, and
plenty of money in the bank."

"I fancy she'll worry a little until she knows the truth," Mark
observed. "Still, that won't be long. You look after her well, Howlett.
There aren't many women better worth having."

Mark took his leave with a nod of farewell, and Howlett crossed the road
a few minutes later to meet Frances issuing from the official door of
the Embassy. He looked at her with critical eyes, more than ever
convinced of her desirability, yet conscious of a certain elusiveness
which mocked his efforts at comprehension. She had style, he
decided--something indefinable--some charm, perhaps, which he was not
quite capable of understanding. The thought of his own good fortune,
that solid block of War Loan, the little house, already half-filled with
furniture, made a new appeal to him. He took Frances's hand and drew it
through his arm.

"Old girl," he said, "we'll have an early luncheon, do ourselves well at
the Troc, eh, and see about the furniture afterwards. We'll make a day of
it. I can spare the time."

His eagerness was evident, his admiration apparent. Frances drew a
little sigh of content. She had paid her price, but he was her man.



CHAPTER IX


Mark reached home that afternoon to find Robert answering the telephone.

"A lady wishes to speak to you, sir," he announced. "I heard the car
stop, so I told her you were just arriving. You are switched through to
the library."

Mark hurried there, without stopping to remove his overcoat. In reply to
his tentative "Hullo," Estelle's voice came drifting down the wire.

"Do you know that you have been keeping me waiting disgracefully?" she
complained.

"I had to spend the morning at the Embassy, and I have only just
returned," he confided. "Shall I come round and apologise? I was just
going to ring you up."

"I wish you could," she answered, "but I am being taken to a stupid tea.
I do not wish to go, but it is necessary. Would you like to come and
dine?"

"Should I like to dine!" he repeated ecstatically. "What time?"

"At half-past-eight. There will be rather a crowd of people, but
fortunately there is just room for a well-mannered young man who is
something of a conversationalist, and can flirt with his next-door
neighbour if she desires it. I thought of you at once."

"Fine!" he exclaimed. "As it's a large party, wouldn't it be a good
opportunity to announce our engagement?"

"Am I going to have that sort of trouble with you to-night?" she asked,
with mock severity.

"Why call it trouble?" he protested. "When a thing has to be done, why
not face it?"

"But I thought I told you the other day," she reminded him, "that father
is very ungracious about it all. He still thinks he wants to be Prince
Andropulo's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and make a hobby of his
Country."

"Why not, if it amuses him?" Mark rejoined. "We will go and see him for
a fortnight every year. You won't want to stay longer. It's a beastly
uncomfortable Country, and a wretched climate. My programme is best;
Cannes and Egypt in the winter, Paris for a month in the Spring, and
England for the summer, with a little hunting to finish up with."

"It does sound rather attractive," she admitted. "Perhaps father will be
in a good humour to-night. Now, I am going to ring off. You can talk
about your plans for the future to Sybil Loftus at dinner. She will be
your next-door neighbour. It is quite time she was married, and I think
she likes you."

"The Prince will be looking for some consolation soon," Mark observed."
Why not throw them together?"

Estelle, with a little laugh, terminated the conversation. Mark turned
away with a satisfied smile, and took off his overcoat. The world seemed
a very wonderful place just then. On his way to the door, he met Robert,
announcing a visitor.

"Colonel de Fontanay is here, sir."

Mark was for the moment completely taken aback.

"The devil!" he murmured. "You mean that he has called, that he is
actually here?"

"He is in the hall, sir. He preferred to wait there until I had
announced him."

Mark hesitated. He was never afterwards able to account for the singular
reluctance with which he gave the obvious order.

"Show him in," he directed.

If there was any animosity mingled with Mark's surprise, it vanished as
soon as Raoul de Fontanay crossed the threshold. With his palid
complexion and deep-set eyes, he had never been a strong-looking man,
but his appearance now was almost ghastly. His cheeks seemed to have
fallen in. There were faint violet lines under his eyes, a depressing
lifelessness about his tone and manner.

"You consent to receive me, then?" he asked pathetically.

Mark had forgotten all his resentment. He gripped his friend by the
hand.

"Don't be an idiot, Raoul!" he exclaimed, wheeling forward an armchair.
"You played the game all right, even though I was the victim. Nothing
fresh gone wrong, I hope."

"Everything is wrong," de Fontanay replied, as he sank into the chair a
little wearily. "Have you seen the midday telegrams?"

"I haven't seen a midday paper at all," Mark acknowledged.

"The franc is 170, and still falling."

Mark tapped the end of a cigarette a little impatiently upon the table.

"After all, you know, Raoul," he said, "French finance is her own
affair."

"It is nothing of the sort," was the bitter reply. "Not only France's
financial future, but her honour is being gambled in by the man whom you
are shielding."

"Can you prove that?" Mark asked.

De Fontanay unfastened his coat, from the breast-pocket of which he
produced a little sheaf of papers.

"I do not suppose that these will interest you," he admitted gloomily."
After all, it is another Country, not yours, whose destruction is
planned. Nevertheless, for my conscience's sake, I have paid you this
visit, although my knees trembled upon your threshold. You shall read
the letters, you who might have set your heel upon the whole
conspiracy."

Mark moved uneasily in his place and stretched out his hand for the
little packet.

"These reached me yesterday," de Fontanay continued. "Curiously enough a
messenger brought them across by air, and they were in my hands almost
as you were driving away from Marylebone in triumph. You have never
believed in any real chicanery with regard to this continual fall of our
currency. You always professed to believe that it was the result of our
internal politics. Let me hear what you have to say now?"

Mark glanced through the letters, casually enough at first, then with an
interest which became graver and more concentrated with every line he
read.

"These," de Fontanay confided, "are the result of a year's work by
Victor de Fayenne--Colonel de Fayenne's brother. They must carry
conviction, because they are true. In Brennan's box lies the proof of
the whole disgraceful commerce."

Mark read on with an absorbed air, his expression all the time becoming
more troubled. When he had finished, he was silent for several moments.
He looked steadfastly across at Raoul, leaning back in his chair, in an
attitude of complete dejection.

"Do you believe in the truth of this story, Raoul?" he asked.

"Before God, I do," de Fontanay declared. "It was Deselles' mistress who
supplied de Fayenne with a copy of that last letter. It cost two hundred
and fifty thousand francs, but it was worth it. The motion will be
brought before the Senate next week. It will be seriously proposed, by
the head of the party who command to-day a majority, that France
disgraces herself in the face of the whole world by a deed which she
will call 'stabilising her currency.' In plain words, she will tell the
world that she cannot pay, and offer fifty per cent. Her currency is cut
in half. She is to lose for ever her place amongst the nations, that
Felix Dukane and his vicious gang may add millions to their horde, and
Deselles may be in a position to gratify the whims of the most
extravagant woman in the world. Do you think it is fair, Mark, that one
man, already bloated with wealth, should be permitted to gamble, not
with gold alone, but with a nation's honour?"

"Why did you come here to me, Raoul?" Mark asked his friend a little
abruptly. "Why did you bring me this story now?"

"With a very faint and lingering hope," de Fontanay explained. "If I had
been able to convince you of the whole of the truth, before you had made
your arrangement with Brennan, I believe that my appeal to you would not
have been in vain. You would have understood more clearly the nature of
the dastardly scheme which you were helping Dukane to conceal. Then you
would have handed me the papers I require from that box. Even now," he
went on, with a little quiver in his voice, "at the eleventh hour, it is
not too late."

"I have given my word," Mark muttered.

De Fontanay sprang to his feet. He was suddenly electrified. The light
of hope flamed from his eyes. He laid his hands upon his friend's
shoulders. His worn face was transfigured with emotion.

"Mark," he cried, "our friendship began in the thunder of battle and it
has been sanctified by blood. I made one appeal to you, and failed. That
is because I could only guess at the damning facts which now can be
proved. You have still a decision to make, or rather, to unmake. I
implore you by our friendship to do the great thing. It is for the sake
of this girl alone you hesitate. I ask you--I dare to ask you, Mark--to
forget her, to look at this matter as a strong, sane man, to whom chance
has given a great opportunity. Keep silent, and you will become Dukane's
catspaw. You may win the girl, but your conscience will never again be
free. The great thing, Mark! Upon the altar of our friendship, Mark, I
demand from you the great thing!"

De Fontanay stood a little back, his eyes unnaturally brilliant, fixed
upon his friend's, the latter part of his speech broken with emotion. A
bright spot of colour burned upon his cheeks. His lips were as tremulous
as a woman's.

"Mark," he concluded, "this is not the first time that the history of a
nation has been made and changed in strange places, in strange fashion,
by unknown people into whose hands power has drifted almost by chance.
It is a great decision which rests with you now. You must ask yourself,
apart from all sense of friendship, as a man of honour, are you
justified in shielding a miscreant who has so far corrupted a great
statesman that the two between them are contemplating unspeakable
infamy? Are you justified, Mark? You will be a young man still in twelve
or fifteen years, and memory will live with you Think!"

Mark walked over to the window, and stood therefor a moment or two
looking out. Already his decision was taken, although, with it much of
the buoyancy of life seemed to have left him. Presently he turned
around.

"I guess you're right, Raoul," he admitted. "Brennan's box shall be
opened to-night."

De Fontanay crossed the room with uncertain footsteps. His eyes were
filled with tears, which he made no effort to conceal. He passed his arm
through Mark's with all the gentleness of a woman. From under his breath
came a faint reminiscence of that far-away tune. Of words, however, he
was no longer capable.



CHAPTER X


Mark, with a heavy heart and oppressed with a numbed sense of the whole
unreality of life, found himself one of a brilliant gathering that
night. From the first he was flattered even though he was tortured by
the kindliness of Estelle's greeting, the little half-pressure of the
fingers she gave him, the pleasant way in which she introduced him to
those of the assembled guests with whom he was unacquainted. Even Felix
Dukane was for him most genial, accepting Mark's presence with
resignation, if not with enthusiasm. Mark realised with a pang which
tore at his very heart strings that his invitation that night was not
altogether so casual as it had seemed. There was a delightful though
indefinite note of familiarity in Estelle's manner, a faint air of
proprietorship, which a few hours ago would have filled him with joy and
confidence. The Prince, too, was an absent guest. Mark commented upon
the fact as Estelle showed him a little plan of the table, standing upon
an ivory easel.

"Ought I to have asked him instead of you?" she whispered. "Somehow I
thought not--now--and father gave in quite good-naturedly, when I
insisted."

"You wanted me?" he managed to ask.

"It rather looks like it," she confessed, turning away to welcome the
last guest.

At dinner-time, Mark was conscious of contributing his quota to the
conversation with almost unimaginable mechanicalness. He found his
companion, Sybil Loftus, delightful, but a little inquisitive. There
was, in fact, during those days, a general brooding air of mystery about
all European affairs, which provoked curiosity even on the part of the
general public.

"You're in the American Embassy, are you not?" she enquired, during a
pause in the conversation.

"In a very humble capacity," Mark confessed.

"I saw you with Mr. Hugerson the other day," she observed. "Father says
he is one of the most interesting Americans who has ever visited
London."

"Then, without knowing your father," Mark said, "I should put him down
as a very sensible man. I only wish we had more politicians of
Hugerson's type."

"You were his secretary or something, weren't you?"

Mark shook his head.

"I did a little work for him--nothing that counted."

The young woman sighed.

"Dear me," she regretted, "and I did hope you would tell me all about
his mission to Europe! My brother takes a tremendous interest in
international politics, and he's so anxious to know."

"Anyway, I am not a politician."

"But you're a diplomat, aren't you?"

"Even a minor diplomat is not allowed to talk politics at the dinner
table," he reminded her discreetly.

She laughed.

"Then I will tell you of a string of polo ponies I know of down in
Norfolk," she suggested--"none of them up to your weight, I am afraid,
but wonderful animals, all of them."...

Dinner passed cheerfully on to its appointed end; cheerfully as regards
the majority of the guests, even though to Mark it was almost a
nightmare. Felix Dukane, although not loquacious, proved himself an
adequate host, and Estelle, as Mark realised with a little inward groan,
in spite of the simplicity of her black gown and the absence of any
ornament save a single string of perfect but unostentatious pearls, not
only seemed more beautiful than ever, but displayed all the charm of the
born hostess and the tact which inspires a ready flow of agreeable
conversation. The aftermath of dinner was singularly brief. There was a
great political reception to which most of the people were going on,
also a dance. The men lingered only a few minutes or so over their wine
and immediately afterwards there was a general exit. Mark summoned his
courage and approached Felix Dukane.

"I wonder if I could have a word with you before I leave, sir?" he
asked.

Dukane assented, not ungraciously.

"The same old subject, I suppose," he grumbled. "Well, we'd better have
Estelle too, and hear what she has to say."

Again Mark groaned inwardly. He realised that Estelle's influence had
been at work. The battle was won, only to be lost again.

"If she cares to come," he assented. "What I have to say concerns her,
too, to a certain extent."

They drifted into the library, and Estelle, who had joined them, threw
herself into an easy-chair with a little yawn, which was only half
natural. Her lips were curved in a pleasant smile, her eyes were fixed
thoughtfully but kindly upon the man who was fast taking his place in
her thoughts as her lover. Mark himself was desperately uncomfortable.
He had made no plans as to how to commence his avowal. Everything at
first seemed blank before him.

"I am afraid that I am going to displease you very much indeed, Mr.
Dukane," he began.

"You have done that already," was the curt but surprised retort. "Never
mind about the preamble. Get on with what you have to say."

Mark took hold of himself. He kept his head turned away from Estelle.
The disturbance of her presence made his task almost more difficult.

"I wanted to tell you," he continued, "that I have decided to break my
promise, and to open Brennan's box to-night."

There was a moment's silence. It was obvious that both father and
daughter were surprised. Estelle sat up.

"What a shock!" she exclaimed. "And I thought you had come to talk about
me!"

"What the devil is the meaning of this?" Dukane demanded angrily. "It
was agreed between us that you should hold everything up until I gave
the word."

"That was my intention," Mark acknowledged. "Something has happened to
change my mind. A few hours ago, I was shown what I consider convincing
evidence that this continual fall of the franc which is creating such
distress throughout France is the result of a systematic and malevolent
conspiracy."

There was a queer silence in the little room. The words which Mark had
expected would have fallen like a bombshell seemed, for the moment, at
any rate, to have made no impression whatever. Mark, however, glancing
timorously across towards Estelle seemed to read the coming of his doom.

"Where did you get this from?" Dukane sneered.

"Colonel de Fontanay."

"A Frenchman, of course!"

"Mr. Dukane," Mark continued, a little desperately, "every Frenchman is
not an hysterical boob. Raoul de Fontanay is one of my best friends, and
a man whose word can be relied upon. You know what France suffered
during the war; so do I. I was out there from 1915 until the end. I know
what sacrifices she made. Do you think that she deserves, when it is all
over and the war has been won, to be forced back amongst the ranks of
the second-rate nations."

"Who is trying to do that?" Dukane demanded.

"A syndicate of financiers, whose names are to be found in one of
Brennan's documents. That is not the worst, however. Of that I had an
inkling before. What I did not know was that one of the most popular
French statesmen of the day is in league with that syndicate. The
evidence of his complicity is one of Brennan's most treasured secrets.
De Fontanay has demanded that I publish the facts."

"And your reply?" Dukane almost shouted.

Mark moistened his dry lips. He turned a little towards Estelle, as
though to include her in his appeal.

"Sir," he went on, "I beg you to consider for a moment the dilemma in
which I am placed. I fought first for France, and then for my own
country, in what we all consider to have been a very righteous war. For
the whole of the campaign I was in France. I saw her towns ravaged, her
countryside pillaged. I watched her heroic struggles through the years.
I took count of that stupendous roll of her dead. We all made our
sacrifices, but even if we should say that they were equal sacrifices,
it would still be unfair that France should be the one nation, whilst
struggling for rehabilitation, to be assailed in her most vulnerable
point, and to be brought to a position from which she would probably
never recover. I bought those papers from Brennan chiefly, it is true,
for your sake, and because I want to marry Estelle, but I had no idea
that their contents were in any way of a disgraceful nature."

"You acted on my initiative," Dukane reminded him harshly. "You were
only a figurehead in the business."

"At that stage, perhaps so," Mark admitted. "Anyhow, I have succeeded,
as you know. I promised you to keep the box containing these papers
unopened for a month. I am sorry, but I have come to tell you that I am
compelled to break my word."

The silence this time was of a different order. Dukane was breathing
heavily, fighting for self-control.

"You are setting yourself deliberately, you a minnow in the game," he
shouted, his chin out-thrust, his small eyes narrowed to bright points
of anger, "to ruin the greatest scheme I have ever conceived in my
life."

"I regret it more than I can tell you," was the sad acknowledgment, "but
there are some things which one must decide not according to one's
preferences, but according to one's conscience."

"Blast your conscience, and to hell with you!" Dukane thundered..."You
hear this--you hear this, Estelle?"

"I have heard every word," she answered.

"Do you blame me?" Mark appealed, turning towards her, with a little
break in his voice.

She threw the end of the cigarette which she had lit a few minutes
before into the fire, and leaned over to touch the bell.

"My dear Mr. Van Stratton," she said, "I think of you, as I have always
thought of most men at various points in their careers--that you are an
imbecile. I am disappointed. I have rung for your car."



CHAPTER XI


For the first time in his life, Mark, who was somewhat of a stickler in
such matters, crossed the threshold of the famous Cafe de France not
only in tweed travelling clothes, but with the signs of a hurried
journey not yet obliterated. An attendant at the door stretched forth a
patronising but restraining arm; a _maître d'hôtel_, however, who
reckoned Mark amongst the most distinguished of his occasional clients
hastened forward, although he, too, scanned his prospective diner's
attire a little dubiously.

"Monsieur Van Stratton!" he greeted him, with a bow. "A great pleasure,
monsieur I Monsieur has just arrived and wishes to reserve a table
perhaps, for to-morrow, or for later on to-night?"

Mark drew the man on one side.

"Léon," he confided, "it is necessary that I speak at once with Monsieur
Deselles."

Léon shook his head doubtfully,

"Monsieur Deselles is dining here certainly, with Madame," he admitted,
"but it would take courage to disturb him. It is only occasionally that
we are honoured by his presence, and it is understood that so far as we
are concerned he remains incognito."

"Léon," Mark insisted, "you know very well that when I am in earnest
about a matter something has to happen, I must speak to Monsieur
Deselles, without an instant's delay, and in his own interests. You need
not enter into the matter at all; just point him out to me. When you say
that he is with Madame--?"

Léon coughed.

"Madame, his mistress," he explained in a low tone. "She is a well-known
figure in Paris, as Monsieur is doubtless aware."

"Show me where he is sitting," Mark begged.

Léon was faced with the inevitable.

"In any case," he compromised, "there will be no mention of my having
done so?"

"I promise you that faithfully," Mark acquiesced. "You need have little
concern, though, for Monsieur Deselles will not long be a client of
yours."

"Monsieur et Madame are seated at the corner table on the right behind
me," Léon indicated. "It is the table which is reserved for them every
Friday night."

Mark wasted no more time. He threaded his way between the tables, still
crowded with all that was most _chic_ in the life of the Parisian who
dines and is fortunate enough to be able to secure a place in the Cafe
de France. Curious gazes followed him, for his appearance in such a
scene was unusual. The famous restaurant expressed then as always the
last word in the dignity, refinement and luxury of dining. There was no
music, somewhat sombre decorations, French arm-chairs of a faithful
design, glass which was as famous as the vintages poured into it,
service world-renowned for its silence and efficiency. To be sure of a
table at the Cafe de France was equivalent to belonging to one of the
best clubs in the city. At the moment of Mark's entrance, its atmosphere
was perhaps supremely typical. It was past ten o'clock, and the actual
business of dining was in most places concluded. Faint blue clouds of
cigarette and cigar smoke ascended to the decorated ceiling, mingling
with the perfume shaken from the toilettes and coiffures of the very
beautiful women, who lent their graces to their more sombrely attired
companions. There was a sense of leisurely Utopian luxury about this
after-dinner langour, almost a cult of the hour when Sybaritically
ministered to. Mark passed through it all, a stern, pale figure, unusual
in looks, size and apparel, an object of mild speculation to the women
toying with their vanity cases, and their male companions glancing
indifferently through their bills. In the corner indicated by Léon was
seated a man whom Mark recognised at once from the many sketches and
caricatures reproduced of him--a fair, slight man, with a face which
would have been insignificant save for its deep forehead, with small,
fair moustache a little turned up, a general air of elegance,
sufficiently apparent to be disturbing to the Anglo-Saxon standard. By
his side was the most beautiful woman in the room, leaning sensuously
back on the settee, touching with a lip stick her already becarmined
lips. The man watched Mark's advance with a supercilious frown. A friend
who had just strolled up, turned and surveyed him with something of the
same expression. Mark stood before the table and bowed slightly to the
woman.

"Monsieur Deselles, I believe?" he said.

"Not in this place," was the somewhat insolent reply.

"I am accustomed to be addressed only by my personal friends."

"I have important business with you," Mark ventured.

"I transact business only in my government bureau, I beg that you will
seek me there if you have anything to say, and relieve us now of your
presence!"

The third young man dropped his eyeglass and smiled. Mark remained
unmoved.

"My business with you, sir, is urgent," he insisted. "You are
acquainted, perhaps, with Mr. Felix Dukane?"

"There was an instant's silence. Madame's fingers, which had been
holding the lip stick, seemed suddenly frozen.

"I am acquainted with Monsieur Dukane," the minister acknowledged in a
subdued tone, from which the previous note of insolence was now absent.

"I am here on his business," Mark proceeded. "I was with him this
morning. I chartered a plane, and flew over at midday, and have spent
the time since my arrival searching for you."

Deselles glanced at his chance companion.

"If you would excuse us for a few moments, dear Baron," he begged,
"perhaps after all this person may have something of interest to say."

The young man who had formed the third in the little party, raised
Madame's fingers to his lips, and drifted away. At a sign from Deselles,
Mark took his place.

"I do not know you, sir," the former said. "I have never previously
received any message from Monsieur Dukane through you. Have you
credentials?"

"I have none," Mark admitted, "and yet I must tell you that my business
is not only urgent--it is vital. Will you hear the news I bring here,
before Madame, or shall we leave this place?"

Deselles glanced around. His corner, chosen for that reason, was
entirely remote. Of Madame, he seemed not to think. In her eyes,
however, there had already crept something of fear--large brown eyes,
they were, beautiful in their calmer moments.

"I still do not understand your visit," Deselles pronounced, "but the
name of Dukane is a talisman. You can speak."

"I bring bad news," Mark said. "I have broken it to Dukane. He would
have come himself to you, but he has other business these few hours. You
have heard of a man named Brennan?"

"The international spy?" Deselles exclaimed.

"The same," Mark answered. "He has spied to some effect upon Dukane. I
do best, perhaps, to show you this photograph of a letter."

Mark produced his pocket-book, opened it, and passed across the table a
rolled and unmounted photograph. The woman's fingers had been suddenly
clasped together with such force that an emerald ring was biting into
her flesh. Her eyes were riveted upon the few lines of reproduced
handwriting in her companion's fingers. It was he who showed the greater
composure.

"So we have been betrayed," he muttered.

"It is scarcely my affair," Mark pointed out. "These proofs, of what I
suppose even you will acknowledge to be a damnable conspiracy, came into
my hands almost by accident."

"And what have you done with them?" Deselles demanded.

"By this time," Mark replied gravely, "they are in the hands of the
French Secret Service. I promised Dukane that I would do my best to let
you know in time."

"In time!" Deselles repeated in a voice which seemed to come from a
strange distance.

"Your motion was to come before the Senate to-morrow, I believe."

Deselles' fingers played with the reproduction of the letter. Mark shook
his head.

"The original," he confided, "is already in the hands of Raoul de
Fontanay. You are welcome to that copy if you will."

Deselles for a moment sat in deep thought. Then he turned his head very
slowly towards his companion. He saw the livid mark on her fingers where
the ring had cut. He saw, too, without a doubt--for in his way he was
the possessor of great perceptions--something in those suddenly drawn
features, a glaze in the wonderful eyes which told him the truth.
Nevertheless, he said nothing.

"I do not know whether I have to thank or curse you, sir," he said, "but
at least I am glad to have your news before it can reach the Press.
There is no way, no means, by which--"

"No means on heaven or earth," Mark assured him. "Felix Dukane has
offered everything. The thing is already accomplished. De Fontanay is my
friend. Brennan sold me his secret, and de Fontanay possesses it."

Deselles held up his finger to a passing waiter.

"L'addition," he commanded. "Under the circumstances, sir," he added,
turning to Mark, "we need not, I suppose, detain you further."

"I have carried out my mission," Mark assented, rising to his feet. "It
was not a pleasant one, but somehow or other, before to-morrow, it was
necessary that you should know."

"Before to-morrow!...Precisely," Deselles replied, with a bow.

Mark turned away. Madame had half-risen to her feet. Deselles' slim
white fingers touched her wrist, and drew her back. Mark heard his
little speech.

"The next hour, I think, dear Annette," he said, "we will spend
together."


Mark made his way to the small hotel of which he had been a frequent
patron, where he engaged a room and dined. Afterwards he slept a little
longer than he had intended, so that the greyness of the early morning
was passing as he drove through the streets on his way to Le Bourget,
where he had left his 'plane. There were crowds gathered round the
kiosks, boys waving placards right and left. The streams of _ouvriers_
and smaller tradespeople on their way to work seemed paralysed in their
progress, Mark, too, paused and bought the newspaper:

   Monsieur Deselles est Mort!



CHAPTER XII


"No good hoping for Mark, I suppose?" Dorchester asked, as he and de
Fontanay lingered over their cocktails in the lounge of the Ritz.

"I am afraid not," was the regretful reply. "I've tried every way I
could think of--Curzon Street, the little hotel he stayed in after he
flew over to Paris, and the Embassy. For the last three weeks he seems
to have disappeared altogether."

"Have you any idea," Dorchester continued, "what sent him over to Paris
at a moment's notice like that?"

De Fontanay smiled--a thin, peculiar smile, yet not without a certain
quality of sweetness.

"Perhaps I have," he murmured, "but it is his affair...And behold!"

Mark came striding down the vestibule and up the steps, both hands
outstretched. He was looking well but a little thinner. There was an
unaccustomed gravity of expression, too, not altogether unbecoming.

"Congratulations, Henry!" he exclaimed heartily. "I read _The Times_
coming across. Myra is one of the sweetest girls I know. You're a lucky
fellow."

"I feel it," Dorchester declared, "and I thank you, Mark. You and she
are old pals, I know. I'm afraid," he added, after a moment's
hesitation--

"Yes, I read the other paragraph too," Mark interrupted. "Estelle is to
marry Prince Andropulo after all. Well, I'll say that was coming to me.
Fate seems to have set me up against Dukane at every turn of the game
lately. It can't be helped."

"Won't you congratulate me, too?" de Fontanay who had turned aside to
order Mark's cocktail, asked quietly. "The franc to-day is under a
hundred, and our budget passed the Senate with only a few socialistic
votes against it."

"Of course I congratulate you, Raoul," Mark acquiesced. "France was
bound to find herself again, though. Here's luck! Now tell me the rest
of the news."

"It will take us pretty well all luncheon-time," Dorchester remarked."
You know, of course, that your father-in-law who was to have been is
reported to have lost twelve millions of his ill-gotten gains over the
franc business."

"Serve him right for tinkering with that fellow Deselles," Mark
observed, accepting his cocktail. "That was one of the most scandalous
intrigues of the century."

They made their way presently into lunch--the same table, the same
little crowd of waiters, anxious to obey their slightest wish. In a
sense it was very reminiscent of that luncheon party of a few months
ago. Dorchester, however, was the only one of the three who remained
unchanged. Mark had the air of one who had been touched by the fires of
inward living. He seemed to have fined down, to have become at once more
thoughtful and perhaps a little less physically inspired with the throb
of existence. The lines at the corners of de Fontanay's eyes and mouth
were more deeply engraven, an extra grey hair or two had become
apparent. He, also, had the air of a man who had faced momentous days.
Yet in their conversation there was no note of sadness.

"Is it a diplomatic secret, Mark, or an amatory one, as to your
disappearance during the last fourteen days?" Henry Dorchester asked,
helping himself to _hors d'oeuvre_. "We heard about your flight to
Paris--you must have been there the night Deselles blew his brains
out--and since then, silence."

"There is no particular mystery about my movements," Mark replied. "I am
not sufficiently advanced in my profession yet to be sent on secret
missions. I was a little bored with life over here, so I wired for some
clothes, meaning to stay for a day or two when I'd got through with the
little job I went over to Paris about. Then I got a wireless from
Hugerson. It seems that Washington wanted him to come back to Drome and
see the Minister of Interior about some of these concessions. Hugerson
wasn't for it, so he boiled down the thing, and sent me instructions. I
had quite a pleasant week in Prince Andropulo's Country, but as the evil
fates would have it, of course I was dead up against Dukane all the
time. He really had the concessions, but Washington and Wall Street
combined naturally enough knew how to put the screw on, and somehow or
other I don't fancy he can quite bring off his great coupé."

"Even if he doesn't, I don't think he'll worry much," Dorchester
confided. "I heard at the Treasury I yesterday that he's just lent
another European Country sixteen millions off his own bat, and that his
profits in South Africa within the last few months have amounted to more
millions than I'd like to repeat. The fellow's a Goliath!"...

"What are your future plans, Mark?" Dorchester asked presently.

"If Widdowes wants me, I think I shall stay on at the Embassy," Mark
confided; "if not, I may go back to New York, and look into my affairs
there. One of our partners died recently, and I believe they want
someone to look after the European interests of the firm. Anyway, I am
going to get a job of a sort."

"You'll find Widdowes lunching here," Dorchester announced. "The whole
family are invited to the old Duchess's birthday party--big table in the
corner there. They're coming in now."

Mark rose to his feet.

"I must go over and speak to Myra," he said.

"She'll be awfully hurt if you don't," Dorchester agreed. "I'll come
along."

The two young men crossed the room. Mark paid his respects to the
hostess of the party, with whom he had some slight acquaintance, and
afterwards took Myra's hands in his.

"You've made a bad choice," he declared, "and if you'd waited there's no
telling what might have happened, but Henry's quite a good sort, all the
same. Every kind of good wish to you, Myra."

She laughed up at him.

"Of course I'll break it off any moment you say the word!"

"I've always thought," Dorchester observed, "that I should amazingly
like to be the male petitioner in a breach of promise case. Why, I'd
break the family, Myra."

She sighed.

"I suppose I shall have to remain faithful, then," she decided. "You'll
be here for the wedding, Mark?"

"Sure!" he answered. "I must speak to your father."

Mr. Widdowes was very gracious indeed.

"I ought to have reported at Carlton House, of course, sir," Mark
apologised, "but I only reached Croydon at twelve o'clock, and I had
this luncheon engagement here. I was coming round this afternoon."

"That's quite all right," Mr. Widdowes agreed, "look in about four or
later, if you like--better later, in case my womenkind take me down to
Ranelagh."

The two young men made their adieux, stopped to speak to an acquaintance
or two on their way back, and resumed their seats at their own table.
Luncheon was a somewhat protracted meal, but conversation chiefly
centred round the little social circle in which all three had moved.
They spoke no more of serious subjects, until afterwards, when
Dorchester had hurried away to motor Myra down to Ranelagh, and de
Fontanay and Mark walked arm in arm along Berkeley Street.

"All my life, Mark," de Fontanay confessed, after a silence necessitated
by the perilous crossing of Piccadilly, "I shall have one great regret.
You know what that is--yet what could I do?"

"You had no alternative, Raoul," Mark declared. "I should have been
ashamed of myself all my life if with the evidence in my possession, I
had not exposed that plot. It was for Dukane's sake that I gave Deselles
his chance."

"It was as well you did," de Fontanay reflected. "We could scarcely have
made the first move before he was on his feet in the Senate, and once
that proposal had come forward from a man like Deselles, a great part of
the mischief would have been done. Frankly, the man I should like to
have got at would have been Dukane. It was his gold which corrupted the
most promising statesman France has had for a long time."

Mark shook his head.

"I'm not so sure, Raoul," he said. "I have been through the papers. The
first proposals came from Deselles himself. If you ask me who's to
blame, who very nearly wrecked your Country, I should say it was the
woman. They have the knack, some of these French women of poisoning the
brain and blackening the soul of the man who is really theirs."

"I suppose there was no doubt that Deselles killed her?" de Fontanay
mused.

"I should say not the slightest." Mark replied. "Some day, I'll tell you
the story of my arrival in Paris, and my interview with Deselles. When
he realised the truth, I saw him look at her. He wasn't angry--I don't
know what it was in his face--but behind it there was death. Any news of
Brennan?"

"He is on his way to South America," de Fontanay confided angrily. "He
had the sublime impertinence to send me a wireless of congratulation."

Mark chuckled. They had reached Curzon Street, and de Fontanay was
already taking his leave.

"After all," he observed, "Brennan had his points."



CHAPTER XIII


Mark, always beloved of his servants, found cheerful countenances
awaiting him in Curzon Street. Andrews opened the door, his face
wreathed in a welcoming smile. Brandt, the chauffeur was lurking in the
hall, hoping for orders. Mrs. Perkins, the housekeeper, who seldom made
an appearance, came rustling up to pay her respects. Robert was
lingering in the background.

"Everything all right, Andrews?" Mark enquired, after he had shaken
hands all round.

"Everything is quite all right, sir."

"Will you be dining at home, sir," Mrs. Perkins asked.

"I should think it's very likely," Mark replied. "I have no engagements
that I know of at present; I will send you word within an hour."

"The cars are all in excellent condition, sir," the chauffeur ventured.

"You can bring the Hispano round," Mark directed. "I'll just go
upstairs, Robert, and change my clothes--have to report at the Embassy
later on."

"Certainly, sir. I beg your pardon, though, sir--I ought to have told
you before--there is a young lady waiting in the library."

"A what?" Mark gasped.

"A young lady, sir," Robert repeated. "She gave a name, sir, but I
didn't quite catch it. She's been here before, though, so I thought I
was doing right by letting her in."

Mark took a step forward, and Andrews threw open the door. Estelle was
putting the finishing touch to a vase of roses. There were still an
armful upon the table.

"Robert, will you bring me another vase, please?" she ordered.

"Estelle!" Mark exclaimed, closing the door behind him.

She looked up with a start and dropped the roses upon the table.

"Why, they assured me that you weren't expected back until the evening!"

"And if I wasn't--what are--"

He stopped short.

"What am I doing here, I suppose you were going to say? Well, do you
know, I called to ask if you were back, and when I saw how bare your
rooms looked, I went and bought you some roses from the little shop at
the corner of the street. I don't think your housekeeper understands
flowers."

He gazed at her in growing astonishment. Then he came slowly forward,
and she held out her hands. As he drew nearer his wonder increased. It
was Estelle, but surely a different Estelle! There was something in her
eyes which he had prayed for, but had despaired of ever seeing, a
trembling of the lips, a little uncertainty, a complete abandonment of
that gay and wonderful poise, which had always seemed to keep her aloof
from the emotions of everyday life.

"Mark, dear," she complained, "how long you have been away, and how
wicked you have been--not a single line, and you have been doing your
best to ruin us both."

She came into his arms with perfect naturalness, dropping the few
remaining roses she had been holding, the perfume of which seemed to
fill the room. Her surrender, now that it had arrived, was exquisitely
spontaneous, exquisitely complete. Her eyes, her hair, her lips, seemed
to find joy in his touch...

"Of course I don't understand a little bit, Estelle," he ventured at
last, as he drew her towards the sofa, his arm still around her waist.
"Do you realise everything that has happened?"

"Of course I do."

"Yet you come to me?"

"Absolutely!" she answered. "I think I always meant to come to you in
the end."

"But your father?"

"The one thing," she confided as they sat down, "about my father which
you have never understood, is that he has a sense of humour."

"A sense of humour?" Mark repeated, a little dazed.

"Exactly. So long as you were trying to ingratiate yourself with him, he
was difficult, though he always rather admired your confidence. As soon
as you defied him point blank, and threw in your lot with your French
friend, spoilt all his schemes, stripped him of about twelve millions,
rushed over to Paris and forced that poor man Deselles to commit
suicide, he began to rather like you. At any rate, he recognised the
fact that you had exceptional qualities."

"But Drome," Mark gasped--"does he know about Drome? Does he know I was
sent there on purpose to protest against his concessions, and that I
have succeeded in getting most of them cancelled?" She nodded.

"He knows everything," she acknowledged. "To tell you the truth, father
and I are both a little fed up with Drome. You see, something has gone
wrong about a treaty, and one of father's first conditions was that
Drome must gain control of the railways. I don't think the climate would
have suited us, and without that twelve millions I'm not at all sure
that he would have been in a position to have run a kingdom."

"But Andropulo? The announcement of your engagement appeared in _The
Times_ only this morning."

"The contradiction will be there to-morrow," she assured him. "It was
the poor young man's last card. He put it in without telling either of
us. I think that it was rather the end of him with father. Anything else
you want to know?"

"Just one thing," he admitted, taking her again into his arms.

She laughed, with her lips lingering close to his.

"Father declares that you have robbed him of twelve millions," she
whispered, "you have stripped him of all the concessions in Drome it
took him a year and goodness knows how much in bribes to wheedle out of
the Drome Ministry--so, knowing all that, if you still find me in your
room arranging roses, and you do not realise everything, you must be
very foolish!"



THE END



This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia