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Title: The Thief in the Night and Other Stories Author: Edgar Wallace * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305401h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2013 Most recent update: Aug 2018 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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...also ask your wife where she was on Saturday, the 23rd, when she was supposed to be in the country. I can tell you that she was dining tête-à-tête with a young guards officer at his flat.
A Candid Friend.
LORD WIDDICOMBE put down the letter with a contemptuous smile. For a second he was inclined to tear it up and throw the written venom into the fire. Of this, however, he thought better, and rang the bell for his valet.
"Frank, will you ask her ladyship to be so good as to come to me?"
In a few minutes came Lady Widdicombe, slight and pretty. She was twenty years younger than her lord, but there was no happier pair in the land.
"My dear," said the earl, with a twinkle in his grey eyes, "somebody has been trying to break up our happy home."
He passed the letter to her and watched the anger kindle in her face as she read.
"What a beast!" she gasped. "The 23rd; why, I dined with Ronnie that night, of course!"
"A young guards officer! My stepson!"
Lord Widdicombe chuckled and patted her cheek.
"You're a wicked woman," he said solemnly, "and I've found you out. But who the devil is the writer?"
Lady Widdicombe shook her head.
"It's wicked, abominable," she said vehemently; "of course, it does no mischief where you and I are concerned, but think what it means when that kind of letter goes into a household where suspicion already exists? And by the way, Willie, the burglar has been busy again—Mrs. Crewe-Sanders has lost a most valuable diamond plaque."
His lordship raised his eyebrows.
"Another plaque? That is about the fourth that has been taken in a month—I admire that burglar's consistency; by heavens, he is a gentleman and a scholar compared with A Candid Friend. Don't tell Diana, she'll be fearfully worried."
His wife was silent. She stared through the long french windows across the rain-soaked park, and it was clear that the dismal prospect was not the cause of her absorption.
"I wonder why Diana so dislikes Barbara May?" she asked thoughtfully."
His lordship grinned.
"It is such a joy to find Diana holding strong views on any subject," he said, "that I'll forgive even her dislike of Barbara May. But don't tell her about the letter—I'm sending it up to Scotland Yard. By the way, talking of Scotland Yard, I have asked Jack Danton to come down for the cricket week. It's rum, a fellow like that being in the police."
But Lady Widdicombe was thinking of something else as she drifted out of the library.
She found Diana Wold sitting in the little drawing-room overlooking the rosary—a soddened rosary that bore no resemblance to the lovely pleasuance which the summer would bring—and Diana, looking ethereal in white, had a volume of poetry open on her knees.
She raised her violet blue eyes as her cousin entered, and put down the book.
Diana's beauty was the fragile beauty of delicate china, her quick smile was appealing and just a little sad.
She rose and kissed the other on the cheek, and gave the impression by a certain timidity that she was a little scared of her self-possessed relative.
"Why do you dislike Barbara?" asked Elsie Widdicombe with that directness which was her most disconcerting quality.
The girl laughed, and when Diana laughed she was very beautiful.
"You are so queer, Elsie," she said. "Do I dislike Barbara. at all? Perhaps ...no, I think I just don't like her. She is a charming girl, but somehow we do not harmonize ...we swear at each other like purple and pink. I am the pink. She hates poetry and I adore it. She loves hunting and golf; I like motoring and tennis. I am constitutionally lazy and she is amazonically robust and energetic. Why this interrogation—has Willie been rhapsodizing over Barbara?"
Lady Widdicombe seated herself in the big settee.
"I was just thinking—I saw you had a letter from Mrs. Crewe-Sanders this morning—I had one too. Did she tell you—"
Diana nodded and there was a twinkle in her fine eyes.
"Now I know why you mention Barbara—she was staying with the Crewe-Sanders."
Lady Widdicombe protested, a little feebly.
"Barbara was staying with them," the girl went on teasingly, "and she was staying with the Colebrooks when Mrs. Carter lost her plaque, and she was a guest of the Fairholms when Lady Fairholm lost her plaque."
"Oh yes, I know. But it is true, isn't it? And isn't this true also," the smile left the girl's face and she spoke slowly, "that all those beastly anonymous letters from 'A Candid Friend' are addressed to people who are known to Barbara May?"
Lady Widdicombe rose.
"Really, Diana, I never dreamt that you could be so uncharitable! They are our friends, too. I don't think you know what you are saying; you are suggesting that Barbara is not only a thief but a—"
"I know," Diana nodded sadly, "it is a rotten suggestion, but we are faced with the irresistible logic of facts."
Lady Widdicombe snorted.
"Facts! Preposterous!... blackening a girl's character... an innocent girl... now I know that you hate her!"
Diana shook her golden head, and again her eyes lit with amusement.
"Really, I don't; and really I'm not doing anything more hateful than exercising my latent qualities of detection."
She jumped up suddenly, put her arm about her cousin's waist and kissed her.
"Forgive me, Elsie," she wheedled, "I'm a pig and Barbara only bores me."
But Lady Widdicombe required a great deal of mollification.
For this was the sting in Diana's suspicions, that she herself had been struck by the same remarkable coincidence.
AUXILIARY Inspector Jack Danton turned into the office of the Second Commissioner perfectly certain in his own mind as to the reason his chief had re-called him urgently from Paris.
On the way up from Dover he had read all the newspaper accounts of the latest adventure of the mysterious jewel thief, with whose activities the local police were, apparently, quite unable to cope.
It was a job after Jack's own heart. He was one of the new police: the type that had found its way to Scotland Yard from the commissioned ranks of the Army, and although he had already to his credit a wholly meritorious capture of warehouse thieves, the real big case had not as yet come along. And here it was!
The story of the last jewel theft was an exact replica of all the earlier robberies. Mrs. Crewe-Sanders had a house-party. The jewel (a diamond plaque with a centre composed of three triangular emeralds) had been stolen on the night before the majority of the house party had dispersed.
That was the story he expected to hear repeated when he walked into his chief's office.
"Sit down, Danton," nodded the chief, "I want you rather badly."
"I think I know why, sir," he said. "That last theft seems to have been a particularly daring one."
He saw the chief frown, and wondered.
"What are you talking about?" asked the Commissioner, and it was Jack Danton's turn to be puzzled."
"I am referring to the Crewe-Sanders jewel robbery in Shropshire," he said.
"Oh, that!" The Commissioner shrugged his shoulders. "It is the 'Candid Friend' I am looking for rather than the burglar, and, anyway, the local police have not asked for our assistance."
"I am all at sea, sir; I don't even know who the Candid Friend is!"
The chief consulted some papers on the desk before him.
"The Candid Friend," he said slowly, "is an anonymous letter writer who has been directing his or her attention to some of the best people in society. The result of this scoundrel's activities has been disastrous. Whoever the writer is, he or she knows some of the grisly secrets which certain society people hide within their breasts, and which, I suppose, they firmly believed would never be dragged into the light of day. Honestly, I think the writer is a woman. The letters are in a woman's handwriting, disguised, but undoubtedly feminine. Here is one."
He passed a letter across the table, and Jack read it with a little grimace of disgust.
"That is rather poisonous," he said. "To whom was it addressed?"
"It was sent to the Earl of Widdicombe and it deals, as you see, with the Countess of Widdicombe and a supposed indiscretion. Happily, Lord Widdicombe is an intelligent, well-balanced man, with absolute faith in Lady Widdicombe, to whom the letter has been shown, and who has sent it to us. I want you to go down into Shropshire; you will have the entrée to the best houses—and probably you would have it without my assistance. You know the county?"
"Very well indeed, sir," said Jack with a half-smile. "As a matter of fact, the Widdicombes are old friends of mine, and I have already been asked down."
Now that the disappointment of what he had considered to be the more exciting task had passed away, Jack looked forward with considerable interest to a stay in his beloved Shropshire.
He took the available data into his office, and spent the morning comparing the various handwritings in the letters which the Commissioner had collected. Then he put them down and sat for some time thinking.
"Shropshire," he mused.
And Barbara May came from Shropshire. The thought of her made him glance at the clock and rise hurriedly. There was a chance—the dimmest chance—that she was riding in the Row that morning. That chance had taken him a dozen times to watch the riders, and eleven times he had been disappointed; he would probably be disappointed again, he thought, but nevertheless, he would take the chance.
A taxi dropped him at Hyde Park Corner, and he strolled along the crowded path, his eyes searching the equestrians. Suddenly his heart gave a little leap. Near the rail, and talking to a man whom he recognized as a Member of Parliament, was the girl he sought. She sat astride a big black horse, a beautiful, virile figure.
"Why, Mr. Danton," she said, bending down to give him her gloved hand; "I thought you were in Paris."
"I thought I was too, yesterday morning," he said good- humouredly, "but my—er—people wired me to come back."
He had had many talks with Barbara May; in fact they had first met at Lady Widdicombe's house in town, but not once had he confided to her the nature of his profession. She for her part, evinced very little curiosity.
He knew that she was the daughter of a Foreign Office official, and that she herself had worked within that stately mansion during the war. This, and the fact that she was very poor, and that Lady Widdicombe was looking for a desirable match, were the only facts that he knew about her, save this: that every time he met her he grew more and more impatient for their next meeting.
"You swore you would come riding with me," said Barbara May accusingly, "and now you have lost your opportunity, Mr. Danton; I am leaving town to-morrow."
She saw the look of dismay on his face and laughed.
"I am going down into Shropshire," she said; "the Widdicombes are having their 'week.' Are you coming?"
He heaved a deep sigh of relief. For once duty and pleasure went hand in hand.
"Yes, curiously enough I am leaving for the Widdicombe's place to-morrow evening—we shall have that ride yet!"
"Have you been in town all the time?"
For a second she hesitated.
"No. I have been staying at Morply Castle with Mrs. Crewe- Sanders."
He stared at her for a second.
"The lady who lost the jewellery?"
It seemed to him that a queer look came into the girl's eyes, and that her colour deepened.
"Yes," she said shortly; and then, with a curt nod, turned her horse's head and rode away, leaving him staring after her.
Had he said anything to annoy her? That was the last thing in the world he desired. He had never known her so touchy before. So she had been at Morply Castle when the plaque was stolen. It was a thousand pities, he thought regretfully, that he had not been put on that job; he would have been frantically interested in hearing the story of the crime from the girl.
Danton went back to Scotland Yard with an uncomfortable feeling, though he failed to analyse the cause of his discomfort. Usually any such vague irritation can be traced to a cause, but Jack was wholly incapable of finding a reason for his present perturbation.
He was in the midst of his work that afternoon when there came a diversion. The telephone rang and the Chief Commissioner's voice hailed him.
"Whilst you are at the Widdicombe's—keep an eye open for the Plaque Fiend. I have an idea he will pay you a visit."
He heard the Commissioner laugh as he hung up the receiver, and wondered why.
JACK went home to his flat that afternoon and arranged to leave the following morning for Shropshire. In the evening he dined alone, returning home by the longest route, for he needed the exercise before he went to bed. His way took him down Piccadilly, on the park side of that thoroughfare, and his mind was completely occupied with Barbara May. The girl exercised an influence upon him which at once annoyed and amused him. He was not a particularly susceptible character; he was puzzled to discover what quality there was in her which other girls did not possess, which had so completely centred all his interests to one woman.
Nearing Constitution Hill he passed a large limousine which was drawn up by the kerb. He merely glanced at it, but in that one glimpse he saw something that made him check in his walk. The light from the street standard threw a ray into the dark interior of the car, and by that light he recognized Barbara May. There was no mistaking her; he would have known her amongst a million.
She was talking to somebody, earnestly, seriously; and who that somebody was Jack could not see.
He continued his walk; apparently she had not noticed him. A queer little sense of restriction crept into his heart at the natural conclusion he drew. Barbara May had a love affair and liked somebody well enough to meet them in this clandestine fashion. And yet--Barbara May was poor--the car was a luxurious one.
He waited fifty yards farther along the road, standing in the shadow of the railings. It was hateful of him to spy on her, but he was very human and wished to know who was the man to whom Barbara granted such privileges.
Presently the door of the limousine opened and the man stepped out; he was middle-aged and stout. Moreover, he was respectful, and from that tone in his voice Jack gathered that his first conclusion had been unjust.
"Very good, miss," said the man, "I will let you know in the morning."
Almost immediately the car moved off, and the man, raising his hat, stood for a moment before he turned and walked briskly in the direction where Jack was standing. He turned down Constitution Hill, crossing the road so that he followed the line of the wall which surrounded Buckingham Palace.
Jack, without any particular idea as to what he was going to do, followed in his wake. He was wearing rubber-soled shoes which made little or no sound. Once the man glanced back uneasily as though he had some suspicion that he was being followed, but he held on his way. He was nearing the Victoria Memorial when the surprising thing happened. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief; but he pulled out something else, and Jack heard it fall with a clatter on the gravel walk. He stooped and picked it up as the man turned with an exclamation. It was a square leather jewel case, and, in falling, the snap had unfastened, and as Jack handled it the lid flew open.
Instantly the man turned.
"That's mine!" he said roughly, and he would have snatched it away, but Jack was gazing in dumbfounded horror upon a great diamond cluster in the centre of which were three large emeralds. It was Mrs. Crewe-Sanders's missing jewel.
He could not believe it possible, and yet--Barbara May was a thief and this man was the receiver!
"Come on, I want my property."
The stout man tried to snatch it from him but Jack was too quick for him.
"You'll have to explain where you got this, my friend," he said.
"I'll explain nothing," snapped the other. "If you don't hand it to me I shall call a policeman."
"Then call me," said Jack, and he saw the stout man start.
"I don't understand you."
"I'm Inspector Danton of Scotland Yard," said Jack, "and I think there are a few explanations due from you. Will you walk with me to the nearest police station?"
The fellow hesitated.
"Certainly," he said after a while, and they walked side by side in silence.
Jack's dilemma was a cruel one. The arrest of this man meant inevitably the exposure of the girl, and he only now realized how strong a hold she had upon his heart. But he had his duty to do; that came first and foremost in his mind. He set his teeth to the task; he must go through with it.
In the Westminster Police Station the prisoner described himself as John Smith, refused to give any explanation as to how the property came into his possession, and stood silently in the steel pen whilst Jack and the sergeant discussed the recovered property.
"There is no doubt about it at all, sir," said the sergeant, consulting a list. "This is the jewel the lady lost; you'll prefer a charge against him, I suppose?"
"Yes," said Jack.
He was sick at heart; he dare not even question his prisoner as to how the jewel came into his possession. He must have time to think 'matters out.
"I am going to the Chief Commissioner at his club," he said. "Detain him until I return, and keep that piece of jewellery locked up."
He walked to Pall Mall, and walked slowly. Some solution would come to him, perhaps--some way out for Barbara.
His brain was a confusion of thought, and he was slowly ascending the steps of the New Carlton Club before he could put two consecutive thoughts together.
To his surprise the Commissioner was waiting in the vestibule.
"Come into the smoking room, Danton," he said slowly, and Jack obeyed, wondering how his chief had come to know of the impending visit.
His first words explained.
"I have had a 'phoned message from the Westminster Police Station about the arrest of Smith," he said. "After you left a friend of the man's arrived and explained to my satisfaction that the jewellery found on the man is his legitimate property. He is a jeweller and had been to show the plaque to a friend."
Jack listened, incredulous, dumbfounded, but vastly relieved.
"But it answered the description--" he began.
The Police Commissioner interrupted him.
"I know--it was an exact copy of the plaque which Streetley sold to Mrs. Crewe-Sanders. In fact, the man you arrested was one of Streetley's managers."
Jack could say nothing.
He was too grateful to know that his suspicions of Barbara May were unfounded to care about his own faux pas.
"And by the way, Danton," the Chief Commissioner looked at his cigar thoughtfully, "that little joke of mine about keeping an eye open for the jewel thief at Lord Widdicombe's was--well, it was a joke. I've got the matter of the thief-in-the-night well in hand, and if you interfered you might spoil everything."
"I see, sir," said Jack, though in truth he saw nothing
"SOCIETY," said the Countess of Widdicombe in her severest manner, "will more readily forgive a theft than a slander."
"Which shows how thoroughly immoral society is," she said lightly.
She sat swaying her fan, her eyes fixed upon the floor of the ballroom below, crowded with dancing couples.
Lady Widdicombe's dances during the cricket week attracted the whole county, and outside in the drive the waiting motor-cars reached from the lodge gates to the hospitable doors of High Felsham.
"Mrs. Crewe-Sanders tells me," said Diana, still watching the glittering throng below, "that nobody except a person acquainted with the ins and outs of Morply Castle could have got in."
"She was the chief sufferer," said Lady Widdicombe, and Diana laughed—and when Diana laughed, her delicate face was singularly beautiful.
"The poor dear woman so plasters herself with diamonds that the wonderful thing to me is that she has missed any at all!" she said. "The curious thing is that though there were a lot of other guests, and diamonds in galore, the thief took nobody's property but hers."
"I could forgive that," said Lady Widdicombe reverting to her pet topic, "but the 'Candid Friend' business is unpardonable. Any kind of anonymous letter-writer is contemptible, but an anonymous letter-writer who works wholesale, and who takes a wicked and malicious delight in breaking hearts and ruining lives—there is no punishment too severe for her."
"Why her?" asked Diana curiously.
"Because a man wouldn't do such a thing," said Lady Widdicombe.
Diana's fan waved slowly.
"I've known some men who would do most things," she mused, and turned her head to answer the greeting of the girl who came swinging along the gallery to where they were sitting.
"Hello, Barbara May," she said lazily. "Aren't you dancing?"
In her evening gown Barbara was good to look upon, for she was in the first flush and beauty of womanhood. Her laughing eyes fell upon Lady Diana.
"Aren't you afraid to wear your diamonds, Diana," she said, nodding to the plaque that sparkled on Diana's white dress.
"No, I don't think our burglar will come here."
"Do you want me, dear?" asked Lady Widdicombe.
"I wanted to tell you that I'd changed my room."
"Oh, that's good of you," said Lady Widdicombe gratefully. "You are sure you don't mind?"
"Not a bit," laughed the girl.
"One of Widdicombe's innumerable cousins has been taken ill," explained Lady Widdicombe, "and Barbara most kindly offered to change rooms with her."
Her eyes followed the girl admiringly as she swept down the gallery.
"By the way," she said. "Barbara told me that the mysterious 'Candid Friend' had written a perfectly horrible note about her to one of her relations."
"She seems to bear up very well," said Diana smiling.
"I think it is abominable," said Lady Widdicombe angrily; "abominable! The person who writes those kind of letters should be tarred and feathered."
In the spacious library, which had been turned into a smoke- room for the night, the Morply burglary and the activities of the "Candid Friend" were the principal topics of conversation. Lord Widdicombe, a tall, thin, dyspeptic man with a sense of humour which so few dyspeptics possess, had already held forth on the iniquity of the anonymous letter-writer.
Whoever was this devilish mischief-maker, he or she had already worked havoc in three homes, and the poison was working in a fourth under their very eyes. It was on the subject of the burglary that Lord Widdicombe was most entertaining, for, as usual, he found something in these crimes to remind him of his Indian experiences, and the Earl of Widdicombe on India was worth going a long way to hear.
"Diamonds?" he said. "Well, I suppose he takes diamonds because they're most marketable. When I was Governor of Bombay there was staged one of the most sensational diamond robberies which, had it succeeded, would have landed the British Government in a devil of a mess. You've heard of the Kali Diamond? I bet you haven't, though," he chuckled. "Well, it's a very famous stone, of no great size, and worth one to a few hundred pounds intrinsically. As a matter of fact, a million wouldn't buy it, because on one of the facets is engraved by some extraordinary native mechanic a whole verse from one of the sacred books. The microscopic character of the writing and the difficulty of the engraving you may imagine, and it is not wonderful that the natives believe that this inscription is of divine origin.
"There had been one or two attempts to steal the stone and at last the British Government intervened, knowing that if this thing was missing there would be trouble in the Province. They took charge of the stone, which has to be shown on one of their holy days—I think it is next month some time—in fact, I am sure. Well, this infernal jewel was guarded with the greatest care. Nevertheless, a gang of native burglars broke into the vault where it was deposited and got away with it. It happened a week or two before the ceremony which is called 'The Showing of the Stone,' and everybody connected with the Government were in a cold sweat of fear. Happily, we managed to get in touch with the rascally robbers but it cost us the greater part of a hundred thousand pounds to restore it."
"I suppose you let it be pretty well known that the stone was missing?"
"Good Lord, no," said his lordship, aghast at the idea. "Let the people know that their sacred stone had gone? That would have been the most lunatic proceeding. No, we kept it as quiet as possible. We dare not breathe a. word about the loss, for rumour runs fast in the shiny East."
Barbara May had strayed into the smoke-room, and, going up behind a young man, touched him on the shoulder. He turned round with a start.
"I'm awfully sorry," he apologized. "I was listening to a most engrossing story."
He led her out into the ballroom, and a few seconds later they were two-stepping to the plebeian strains of "Whose Little Baby Are You?"
"DO you know, Mr. Danton, I've been thinking an awful lot about you," said Barbara May, as the band finished with a crash and they walked out on to the terrace.
"I'm sorry I've been responsible for so much mental activity," said Jack.
"I've been wondering what is your job. Everybody knows that you have some mysterious employment—and now I've got it."
"The dickens you have!" he said coolly, sitting down by her side. "And what am I?"
"You're a policeman."
His look of dismay made her gurgle with laughter.
"Do I really look like a policeman?" he said.
"Not like an ordinary policeman, but very much like one of those very smart ex-officers who are joining the special branch just now."
"If I really was a policeman," he bantered, "I should feel that I had made a very bad beginning."
"But you are, aren't you?" she insisted.
"If I wasn't a policeman I should be very annoyed; and I couldn't possibly be annoyed with you, Miss May."
"The question is," she said, knitting her brows, "are you after the 'Candid Friend' or a bad, bold burglar?"
"Would Scotland Yard move in the matter of the 'Candid Friend' unless complaints had been made?"
"That's true," she replied. "Then you are after the bad, bold burglar, Mopley Mike."
"Do they call him that?" he said in surprise.
"I call him that," she said solemnly. "I almost wished you were after the 'Candid Friend.' I wonder who she is?"
"You think it is a woman, then?"
"Well," said Barbara May, shrugging her shapely shoulders, "'Cat' is written in every line of them, and they are really horribly wicked. You know she has parted the Flatterleys, and that Tom Fowler is suing for a divorce, and that Mrs. Slee has gone abroad—it is killing her mother."
He nodded gravely.
"I think that sort of crime is abominable," he said, unconsciously echoing Lady Widdicombe's words; "I can respect a burglar, but a slanderer—a person who stabs in the back—must be an obnoxious beast."
As she was going up to her room that night Barbara May saw Jack talking earnestly to Lord Widdicombe and smiled within herself.
"What is amusing you, Barbara May?" drawled Diana who was coming up the stairs behind her.
"Thoughts," said Barbara May.
"You're lucky to be able to smile," said Diana. "At the end of one of these evenings I am bored cold—bored to weariness—bored wide awake, if you can understand."
Barbara May turned and faced the girl squarely.
"Why do you come?" she asked quietly.
Diana's shoulders rose.
"One must do something," she said.
"Why don't, you work?" was the brutal question, and Diana shrank delicately.
She was the heiress of one of the richest landowners in the kingdom, as Barbara well knew.
Had Lady Widdicombe seen the two girls at that moment, she would have realized that the antagonism between them was not one- sided.
"What do you call work?" drawled Diana. "To join a nursing institution, or become a Foreign Office clerk or something?"
"Both of which I have done, said Barbara May, "and both are excellent sedatives. My experience is that the useless day produces the sleepless night."
"Barbara May," said the other with a laugh, "aren't you just a little—er—priggishly capable?"
"Don't taunt me with my usefulness." smiled Barbara.
Even the astute Mr. Jack Danton, had he overheard this conversation, could not have guessed that that scene on the stairs had been as carefully rehearsed and forced upon Diana as though Barbara May had spent the morning in teaching her her lines. For Barbara May had gone up those stairs, just a little ahead of Diana, determined to annoy her, and as determined to apologize for her rudeness.
Diana was in the hands of her maid when there came a knock at the bedroom door and Barbara came in.
"Diana, I've come to say that I'm so sorry I was rude to you," she said.
"My dear," smiled Diana sweetly, "it was quite my fault; I think one gets just a little over-tired about this time in the morning."
"What a beautiful room you have, and what wonderful brushes!" Barbara May admired the set upon the dressing-table. "If I have any fault to find with this room, the ceiling is a little low," she rattled on.
"I sleep with my windows open," said Diana, amused at the other's interest in trifling affairs.
"In spite of the burglar?"
"There isn't much danger, is there?"
Barbara looked out of the window.
"A man could hardly walk along this parapet," she said. "Your room is a good thirty feet from the ground."
She said good night and was at the door when she turned.
"Would you like a cup of chocolate?" she asked.
Now, Diana's weakness was for chocolate, as Barbara May well knew, but she was amazed at the invitation. The girl laughed.
"I've just made some in my room," she said. "I have an electric kettle and I'm supposed to make chocolate rather well."
"I should love some. I'll send Amile for it."
"It will be ready in three minutes," said Barbara. "Are you sure you've forgiven me?"
"If I hadn't forgiven you before, I should fall on your neck now," said Diana with a laugh.
And it really was delicious chocolate. Diana sat up in bed, a dainty, beautiful picture, and sipped the hot and fragrant fluid, and felt as near friendly to Barbara May as it was possible for her to feel. She finished the cup and handed it to the maid.
"I will put the light out and lock the door, Amile," she said. "Good night. I think I shall sleep."
Barbara May thought Diana would sleep too. She replaced a tiny bottle half-full of colourless liquid, which she had taken from her dressing-case, and looked at her watch. Then she threw up the window. Her room was on the same floor as Diana's and between her and the girl was an empty suite. She pulled down the blinds and undressed. From her wardrobe she took a pair of riding breeches, put them on and pulled thick woollen stockings over the silken hose. She stuffed her arms into a jersey coat, put out the light and sat down to wait.
At two o'clock she let the blinds up noiselessly and climbed out of the window on to the parapet. It was no more than twelve inches wide, but this girl had nerves like steel, and she walked without faltering along the narrow ledge.
A slip, and nothing could have saved her from death, but she did not hesitate. She came abreast of Diana's window and without a pause crept in. Diana was sleeping heavily, and Barbara May stepped to the side of the bed and listened. Her breathing was regular, and she did not move when Barbara laid her hand gently on her shoulder. The drug she had put into the chocolate had done its work most effectively, and she could, without danger, have switched on the lights, save that it might attract attention from anybody passing along the corridor who would have seen the gleam of light in the room.
She took an electric torch from her pocket and a small bunch of keys. She had only come into the room to apologize to Diana to discover just where Diana put her jewel case. The lock of the steel-lined box yielded after the third attempt and Barbara May made her selection, which was the plaque which had sparkled on Diana's breast. She was not, however, satisfied with this inspection and pursued certain investigations. They were well rewarded. Her work finished, she hesitated. Very carefully she unlocked the door and peeped out. Only a dim light was burning in the corridor. Should she risk it? Lord Widdicombe employed a night-watchman, but Barbara heard his cough in the hall below.
She closed Diana's door behind her and walked swiftly up the corridor to her own room, and was at the door, her hand on the handle, when she heard the swish of feet on the carpeted stairs. She turned the handle and could have screamed in her vexation. She had locked the door before she went through the window. She remembered it now, and raged at her folly. There was just one chance. It was that the door of the empty suite was open, and she ran quickly, though it was toward the stairs. The door yielded to her touch—and only in time. From where she stood closing the door she could see the back of a man's head coming up to the last landing on the stairs. It was Jack Danton.
She closed the door softly, and went to the window which, fortunately, was open. Her nerves were shaken, she discovered, when she again reached her perilous foothold, but she came to her own room without mishap.
From her trunk—the trunk which she had forbidden her maid to unlock—she took out a square black box of dull steel, and to this she added various articles which she laid on the table. From the steel box ran a long flex, to the end of which was attached a wooden plug, which she fitted into one of the electric light brackets. For two hours she worked, and as the light of dawn showed in the eastern sky she went out through the window, traversing the perilous parapet to Diana's room. She was back in five minutes and, putting away her apparatus, she carefully packed the diamond plaque in a small cardboard box and placed it under her pillow.
BARBARA was one of the first down next morning, a cool healthy figure in grey; and Jack who had just come in from his morning stroll seemed to be the only other guest about.
"Good-morning, Miss May, you're a very early riser," he greeted her.
"Aren't I," she said. "But there isn't much virtue in early rising, you know. The worm is an earlier riser, or the bird wouldn't have got him."
They strolled out again on to the drive and stood looking across the glorious landscape at the meadow-land that sloped down to the river and the forest of lordly oaks which crowned the ridge on the far side of the Stour.
"It's good to be alive," said Barbara May.
"I wish I had sufficient energy to walk to the post office."
"I'll encourage you," said Barbara May, "wait till I get my hat."
They swung down the drive together, past the lodge gates and through the quaint village street. Jack had a sealed packet to send.
"A report to his chief," thought Barbara.
They had left the shop when suddenly she stopped.
"I must get some stamps," she said and turned back. "No, don't come with me; I won't be a second."
She walked back into the shop and drew a packet from the pocket of her sports coat.
"This is to be expressed," she said, "it is stamped and weighed."
"Very good, miss," said the postmaster.
He examined the address and dropped the packet into a bag.
"I'm capricious and decided not to buy any stamps at all," she said as she rejoined Jack. "I feared to keep you waiting, as the masculine temper before breakfast is notoriously savage."
"When are you going to London?" he asked.
"This afternoon, I think," she replied.
"I would have gone this morning, but it would have looked so suspicious leaving the house, supposing a burglar had come—and one doesn't know whether there has been a burglar until all these lazy people wake up."
"I don't think there was a burglar last night," he said rashly.
They went into breakfast together and found Lord and Lady Widdicombe were down. Two or three other guests strolled in.
"Where's Diana?" asked Lord Widdicombe, attacking a kidney.
"Diana. doesn't wake till twelve," said Lady Widdicombe. "Surely you know that."
"I wish Diana would take a little more cheerful view of things," grumbled his lordship, with whom Diana was no great favourite, though she was ward and cousin.
Diana did not, in fact, wake until one o'clock, and she woke feeling exceptionally refreshed. She had slept the clock round and that was really an unusual experience for her.
"I must get Barbara to give me the recipe for that chocolate," she said as she sipped her morning tea, whilst her maid prepared her bath. "Are there any letters, Amile?"
A budget of letters was placed on the coverlet, and Diana glanced through them. Half-an-hour later she was dressed. She wore during the day a pearl necklace and her rings, and she unlocked her little strong-box to get these, and stared into the interior with a white face.
"Amile, quickly," she called. "Where is my plaque?"
"You put it into the box last night. I saw you."
"Are you sure?"
"Certain, madame," said the agitated maid.
Diana made a quick search. No other jewellery was missing, though there was an emerald ring in the box which was worth a fortune. Only the diamonds! She rang the bell and then, remembering she was dressed, she ran down the stairs and met Lord Widdicombe in the hall.
"Willie," she said rapidly, "somebody has taken my diamond plaque."
"Oh damn!" said Lord Widdicombe. He caught the eye of the young man talking to Barbara May, and Danton came across.
"Diana has been robbed of a diamond plaque," said Lord Widdicombe in a low voice. "I wish you'd see her and search the rooms."
His search produced no results. The plaque had gone, and Jack, greatly perturbed, joined his lordship in the library.
"I can't understand it," he said. "She tells me that she always locks her door at night and leaves the key on the inside. This morning the door was locked."
"Could it be unlocked by an instrument used outside?"
"I tried that," said Danton, "and I found it is impossible."
"Then how the devil could it have happened?" demanded the exasperated peer. "Didn't Diana hear any kind of noise?"
"None whatever," said Jack; "and it is obviously impossible to get into the house from the outside unless one of the guests occupying a room on the same floor walked along the parapet."
"That's unlikely. He would want the nerve of a steeplejack to do that."
"There's no doubt about the nerve of the gentleman who's stolen this plaque," said Jack grimly. "I can only suggest that you see the guests and put the matter before them, and say that it is possible that one of the servants may have taken the plaque and concealed it in his mistress's or master's room. Under those circumstances, they will not object to a search."
"That is a good idea," nodded his lordship, and proceeded to interview his guests, who readily acquiesced.
The search, conducted ostensibly by Lord Widdicombe, but in reality by Jack who had "volunteered to help," was thorough but fruitless.
Diana, revelling in an unaccustomed atmosphere of sympathy, treated the matter lightly. "I don't mind the loss of the plaque, because it is insured," she said. "It was a beautiful thing. I only bought it a month ago from Streetley's."
"That's queer," said Widdicombe with a frown.
His wife looked at him in surprise.
"What is that, Widdicombe?" she asked.
"Why, that Crewe-Sanders woman who lost her diamonds had only bought them a month or so before at Streetley's."
"Well, that is not remarkable," said a guest.
They were taking tea in the big drawing-room in the afternoon when the exchange of views occurred.
"Streetley's is the biggest of the fashionable jewellers, and I suppose half the stuff one sees women wearing came from that firm."
"What I worry about," said Diana, bringing attention back to her own misfortune, "is the knowledge that this wretched man was in my room whilst I was asleep."
"I wonder he had the heart to do it, Diana," said his lordship sarcastically, and then seriously: "I'm very annoyed it has happened. I thought we should get through our week without this kind of trouble."
"I wonder the thief had the heart to do it," said Diana sarcastically.
JACK made a very complete search of the grounds, particularly in the vicinity of the mansion. Beneath Diana's window he looked for the tell-tale marks of a ladder, but there were none to be found.
All the time he was searching he had the certainty in his mind that the crime had been committed from the inside of the house. Who was there to suspect? Strangely enough, he had already ruled out the possibility of a servant being responsible for the robbery. Most of the guests had brought their own maids; but they were housed in a part of the building which made it impossible that they could reach Diana's room in the middle of the night.
He came back in a troubled frame of mind to interview Lord Widdicombe. His lordship was pacing his library when the detective entered.
"Well, Danton," he said, "have you discovered anything?"
Jack shook his head.
"Nothing," he said.
Widdicombe resumed his pacing.
"I wish to heaven it hadn't happened," he said. "Diana can well afford the loss—she is very rich. It is the thought that it is somebody in this house, a guest possibly, who is the thief that bothers me. When are you going back to town?" he asked suddenly.
"To-day. I thought of going back by the same train as Miss May."
Lord Widdicombe frowned.
"Barbara May, eh?" he said, "a very nice girl, and a very unfortunate girl, too," he added significantly.
"What do you mean?" asked Jack, alert to defend where no defence was called for.
"Unfortunate, because she has been in every house where as burglary has been committed. In other words, Danton, whenever this mysterious visitor has come, Barbara May has been a guest. "Wait, wait," he said, holding up his hand, "I am not suggesting that Barbara knows anything about this wretched thief—that would be too preposterous a suggestion; but there is the fact. It has been rubbed into me by Diana, and you can't get away from 'it, Danton."
"For the matter of that, Miss Wold has been at most of the places where the burglaries have been committed."
"By jove! so she has," said Lord Widdicombe thoughtfully; "but, pshaw! I don't think we need consider either Diana or Barbara. Now, the point that strikes me—and I am not a detective—is: if the thief is a guest in this house the jewel must be in this house still. Unless—"
"Unless what?" asked Jack.
"Unless," said Lord Widdicombe slowly, "they have managed to get it away."
"That presupposes a confederate," said Jack Danton, "and I have an idea that the thief is playing a lone hand."
"Either a confederate, or else the plaque has been—well, posted."
"They must have got up very early," he said. "The only person who went to the post-office in the first part of the morning was myself." He stopped suddenly. Barbara also had been to the post- office, and—
"Nobody else?" asked Lord Widdicombe curiously.
"Nobody," said Jack.
He got away from his host as soon as he could. He must settle this torturous suspicion which was disturbing his mind. Barbara May! It was impossible.
As soon as he could get away, he went to the post-office and found the old post-master making up his books.
"Mr. Villers, as a servant of the Government, you will understand that what I tell you is very confidential."
He passed his card across the counter, and the old man, fixing his glasses, read, and uttered an exclamation of astonishment.
"I had no idea, sir, you were in the police," he said. "I've got a nephew—"
But Jack cut short the recital of his relative's qualities.
"Mr. Villers, can you tell me how many registered parcels have been despatched from the post-office to-day?"
"None, sir," said the old man promptly, "not a single one."
Jack heaved a sigh of relief.
"And the letters, of course, you could not keep track of?"
"No, sir; the only one I know anything about is an express letter which was handed in early this morning."
"By whom?" asked Jack quickly.
"By that young lady, Miss May, I think her name is."
The heart of Jack Danton sank.
"Are you sure?"
"Why, yes, sir; she came in with you early this morning, and then she came back and said she had forgotten she had the letter to send."
He remembered now that Barbara had said she was going back to buy some stamps.
"What sort of letter was it?" he asked, feeling a little sick at heart.
"Well, it was a pretty bulky letter, sir; it felt to me as though there was a cardboard box inside."
"To where was it addressed? I suppose you don't remember that?" asked Jack quickly.
"Yes, I do, sir; I took a note of it, because it was an unusual thing to send an express letter from here."
He turned up a book.
"It was sent to Mr. Singh, 903 Bird-in-Bush Road, Peckham. That's what made me notice the address particularly; I never knew there was such a road in London."
Jack jotted down the address mechanically.
Singh! An Indian name. He frowned, and tried to associate this circumstance with something he had heard only recently. He must know the truth, he felt, as he walked slowly back to the house, for her sake and for his. He realized now all that Barbara May meant to him, all the high hopes that had been planted in his heart, and whilst he could not bring himself to believe that the girl was a common thief, yet every new fact which was disclosed went to support that view. The meeting she had had with the mysterious Mr. Smith at Hyde Park Corner, the discovery that he had in his possession a diamond plaque similar to that which had been stolen—this was a damning confirmation of his worst fears.
Diana Wold treated the matter of her loss very lightly; she strolled into Barbara May's room and watched her packing.
"The world's sympathy is very precious to me," she said cheerfully, "it is almost worth the loss of my plaque."
"I don't believe that," smiled Barbara.
"What a tremendous lot of baggage you bring," said Diana interested. "That great box and two suit-cases; really, Barbara, you are equipped for a world tour."
"Aren't I," laughed the girl, and then Lady Diana smelt something. It was a fragrant and peculiar perfume. What was more, it was a perfume which was made especially for her.
"Excuse me if I sniff," she said. "What scent is that Barbara?"
"Scent," said Barbara in surprise, and then slowly, "I have noticed it before. I never use any other perfume than lavender water."
Diana changed the subject, and a few minutes after went back to her own room and rang for her maid.
"Amile, where is my perfume?"
"You put it in your jewel case, madame," said the girl.
Diana unlocked the little steel box and, putting in her hand, brought out a squat cut-glass bottle. She knew before she touched it that the stopper was out, and feeling gingerly on the bottom of the box she found it was damp.
"I remember now," she said slowly, "I put it away in a hurry, and I must have spilt a little. That will do, Amile."
She sat down on the bed to think.
So it was Barbara May whose hand had been inside that box: Barbara May who—suddenly Diana went white and, unlocking the little safe again, she took some papers out and examined them. They were all there. She sighed her relief. All there, but they reeked of her perfume. She carried the papers to the fireplace, put them in and set a match to them. As she watched the flames curl upwards there came to her the faint fragrance of the perfume with which they were saturated.
So Barbara May was the thief.
SHE said no more, and both Widdicombe and Jack Danton found her unusually quiet that afternoon.
After Barbara had gone up to her room to make her final preparations for her departure, Jack asked a question which had puzzled him. They were alone together in the big conservatory that looked out over the park.
"I can't understand, Miss Wold," he said, "how the thief could get into your room, unlock the door, and not disturb you. Are you a. heavy sleeper?"
She shook her head.
"As a matter of fact, I am a very light sleeper," she said, and added deliberately, "probably it was Barbara May's chocolate which proved such an excellent sedative."
"What do you mean?" asked Jack quickly.
"Barbara brought me in a cup of chocolate before I went to sleep," said Diana carelessly. "We had a little quarrel, and this was her love-gift to make up," she added with a grim smile.
"What happened after?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Diana. "I know I must have fallen asleep immediately, and I must have slept like a log. I did not wake until nearly lunch time, and I certainly heard nobody come into my room or leave it."
Jack Danton spoke very little on the way to town, and Barbara May, on the contrary, was unusually vivacious and gay.
He put her into a cab (the handsome car he had seen at Hyde Park Corner was evidently reserved for special occasions) and went to his diggings and changed. Half-an-hour later he was riding on top of a south-bound tram-car wondering what result his investigations would have. He made an inquiry of the conductor.
"Bird-in-Bush Road? Yes, sir; it is near the Canal Bridge in the Old Kent Road. I'll tell you when we get there."
The thoroughfare proved to be a long winding road of respectable middle-class houses. No. 903 was a corner house with a yellow stucco front, and plaster half columns, which gave it the appearance curiously reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb.
He did not go to the house, but strolled up and down on the opposite side of the road. The place itself showed no sign of life. The garden was neglected and weed-grown; its windows had not received attention for months.
It was getting dark when a cab came rattling along the road, stopping some distance from the house. A girl alighted, and Jack's heart leapt, for he recognized without difficulty the trim figure of the woman he loved. She dismissed the cab and came along without hesitation, turning into the front garden, and he saw her walk up the half-a-dozen steps which led to the front door. She had hardly knocked before the door was opened.
The unknown occupant had been watching for her, thought Jack. What was happening there? He walked down the side street parallel with the garden of No. 903, and here he could obtain a view of the back of the house. The view, however, offered him no satisfaction, and he resumed his vigil along the side-walk of Bird-in-Bush Road. Presently the door opened and the girl came out. Nobody accompanied her to the gate, and she turned and walked swiftly in the direction of the Old Kent Road. Should he follow her? He decided to wait a little while, and conduct a little private investigation. First, he must know who was the occupant of this house, and he waited until the girl was out of sight before he crossed and entered the unkempt garden.
His knock was not answered. He knocked again. Presently he heard soft footsteps in the passage, the rattling of chains, and the door opened a few inches to disclose a dark suspicious- looking face.
"Does Mr. Singh live here?"
"Yes, sir," answered the Indian in perfect English. "But he is engaged."
"I want to see him," said Jack impatiently.
"I will tell him, sir."
The man attempted to close the door, but Jack's foot formed a wedge which could not be overcome.
"You cannot come in," said the Indian agitatedly. "I will tell Mr. Singh you wish to see him, but you must wait outside."
"I'll wait inside," said Jack, and with a heave of his shoulders, pushed open the door.
So far he got when a door at the end of the passage opened and a man came out. He was not, as the detective had anticipated, an Indian, but a very matter of fact, commonplace European, respectably attired, and of excellent physique.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I want to see Mr. Singh."
"Well, you can't see him," said the other brusquely.
"I not only can, but will see him," said Jack savagely, and to his amazement the man laughed.
"I don't think I should try, Mr. Danton," he said, and Jack stared at him.
"You know me?"
"Oh, yes; you are Mr. Danton of Scotland Yard. I know you very well," said the other, evidently amused at the sensation he had created, "and I assure you that Mr. Singh is not able to see you because he is a very sick man. This English climate doesn't agree with him, and I have strict orders to see that he is not disturbed. And under any circumstances, Mr. Danton, you have no right to force your way into the house without a search warrant."
Which was so absolutely true that Jack felt extremely foolish.
"There is no question of a search Warrant," he said. "I merely want to ask a few questions."
"Those questions cannot be answered until—" the man hesitated, "until Mr. Singh is well enough to see you."
Thus the adventure ended—lop-sidedly, as he told himself, as he walked up the Street to catch a tram-car back to town.
He was turning the key to admit himself into his flat, when there flashed upon him the recollection of Lord Widdicombe's story. The Kali Diamond. That was why the Indian association had been familiar. But he had no sooner thought of this connection than he realized its absurdity. If the Kali Diamond were in England, he could understand Barbara May's activity and the reason why she was working hand-in-glove with the Indian Singh.
He tried all that night to find some logical and plausible explanation that would acquit Barbara May of any kind of complicity. And at the end he went to sleep with an aching head and a sense of despair.
"READ this," said the Commissioner next morning, when Jack reported himself to headquarters.
The Detective Inspector took the letter. It was written on a grey paper that was strangely familiar to him.
"DEAR Sir, (it ran)
"I think it is only right that you should know that Inspector John Danton is working hand-in-glove with a jewel thief, who recently stole Miss Diana Wold's diamond plaque. He is not only working with her, but he is in love with her. The girl's name is Barbara May, who was a guest of Lord Widdicombe's on the night that the plaque was stolen. If you take the trouble to inquire, you will discover that she was a guest in every house where the plaques have been stolen.
"A CANDID FRIEND."
"Posted in London," said the Commissioner. "What have you got to say to that, Danton?"
Jack's face turned red and white.
"It is monstrous," he gasped.
"It is certainly unkind," said the Commissioner drily. "Do you know Miss May?"
"Very well indeed," said Jack stoutly, "and this is a disgraceful charge."
"What is there disgraceful about it? What is the most annoying thing about it? The suggestion that you are in love with her?" asked the other with a twinkle in his eye.
"The whole thing is dastardly," said Jack hotly, and the Commissioner nodded.
"Exactly," he said. "Your job is to find the writer of those letters. Diana Wold, by the way, has been the recipient of a scandalous epistle—she got me on the telephone a little time ago—and told me about it."
Jack examined the letter. The writing was obviously disguised, but it was the letter of an educated person.
"You were with the Widdicombes when the plaque was stolen?" the Commissioner went on. "Did you get any kind of a clue?"
Jack shook his head.
"No, sir," Jack lied, and tried to keep his eyes steady.
"Humph!" said the Commissioner, "anyway, it isn't your job. And, by the way, no word of these robberies is to be made public. We must keep the matter secret for reasons of our own."
Though it was not Jack's job, and he well knew it, he had an interest in the stealer of stones which the Commissioner could not guess, unless he gave credence to the malicious charge which the "Candid Friend" had made.
His first call that morning, after leaving Scotland Yard, was on Streetley's, the jewellers, and he was taken into the office of the proprietor, an elderly, saturnine man, who gave him a cold welcome.
"You quite understand, Mr. Streetley, that I am not officially engaged in the case," explained Jack, "but I have a personal interest, inasmuch as Lord Widdicombe is a friend of mine and I know Miss Diana Wold, who was the last person to lose her jewellery. It is common gossip that the plaques that have been stolen have been purchased from your firm within the last six months."
Mr. Streetley nodded.
"That is true," he said. "We are the biggest firm in London who sell and purchase cut diamonds, and we certainly have the most valuable selection of stones in Europe."
"Can you account for the fact that these plaques have been stolen? There is nobody who has an especial grudge against your firm?"
Old Streetley smiled.
"I can't see that they would be revenged upon us by stealing property which we have sold," he said.
"Then you can offer no explanation?"
"None whatever," said Mr. Streetley, and was evidently relieved that the interview was finished.
As he went. out of the big shop, Jack looked round for some sign of the man Smith, who was described as Streetley's manager. If he was on the premises, he was not visible.
He was not satisfied. He remembered that a friend of his, a very wealthy stock-broker, had told him a month or two ago that he had bought his wife a plaque at Streetley's. Probably she would be the next recipient of the burglar's. attention.
He called him up on the 'phone to find that he was not at his office. A second call he put through was more successful. Mr. Bordle was at home at his Park Lane flat, and to there Jack repaired.
"Come in, Danton," said the other heartily, "my wife's out of town. I've a touch of the 'flu, and I'm bored to death."
"And I am going to bore you a little more," smiled Jack. "Do you remember some time ago, Bordle, you told me that you were buying your wife some jewellery at Streetley's."
The other nodded.
"That's perfectly true: I bought two plaques, one for my wife and one for my sister. I gave it to her as a wedding-present: she was getting married just about then. And the next time I get jewellery," he added with a little grimace, "I assure you it will not be at Streetley's!"
"Why?" asked Jack eagerly.
"Because they're fussy," said Bordle.
"We hadn't had the jewel a month before they sent a man to ask if we would return it because they had made some mistake about the setting and they wanted to put it right. As far as I could see, the setting was perfect, and my wife at first refused to send it back—so did my sister."
"They made the same request of her?" said Jack in surprise.
"That's so," said Bordle. "Anyway, we sent them back. They kept the darned things for nearly a month before they returned them, and so far as I could see, they had made no alteration whatever in the setting. They played the same trick with a fellow I know."
"Asked for the plaque back?" said Jack in surprise. "How many plaques do they sell in the course of a year?"
"Hundreds, I should think," said the other. "They're the best people in London for that kind of work; they're scrupulously honest, and they do not ask for a big profit, so they get a tremendous lot of custom. But why are you so interested?"
"If I tell you, you've to keep the facts as a secret," said Jack; "they have not yet been made public," and he explained the curious fate of all plaques which had been purchased at Streetley's.
"Well, they won't get mine," said Bordle with a laugh. "It is in the strong room at my bank. But I must warn my sister, Carrie."
THE Daily Telephone had an item of news the following morning which interested quite a number of people:
"It is an open secret that society has been greatly disturbed through the activities of an unknown letter-writer signing himself 'A Candid Friend.' The real secrets of society are well kept, and, until a few days ago, few people outside of an exclusive circle knew about this pestiferous correspondence, which has been going on now for nearly a year. Nobody has been spared the malignant attentions of this unknown scoundrel. In consequence, wives have been separated from husbands, whole families estranged, and there is at least one case of suicide traceable to the vicious writer of the letters. A painful feature is the apparent fact that the writer is himself a society man, and acquainted, and possibly on terms of friendship, with his victims. The police are sparing no effort to bring the miscreant to justice."
That afternoon, Mason, the star reporter of the Daily Telephone, walked into his chief's room, closing the door carefully behind him.
The editor looked up and nodded inquiringly.
"I've found a good story," said Mason, "and I got on to it quite by accident. Do you know that for some considerable time—for three months I believe—there have been a succession of jewel robberies, and that properties of the value of eighty thousand pounds have been stolen from various country houses?"
The editor frowned.
"I have never heard of it," he said, "there have been no police reports—"
"No, for some reason the robberies have been kept quiet. I rather fancy that the people who have been victimized suspect one of their own number."
"The police have circulated no description of the missing property?" asked the editor.
Mason shook his head.
"I got the story from a man who was making inquiries at Lord Widdicombe's place on quite another matter. One of the servants told him, and then begged him to say nothing because, apparently, they had all been sworn to secrecy."
"That's curious," said the editor, leaning back in his chair. "It sounds like a good story to me. Have you particulars of the other robberies?"
"Three of them," nodded Mason. "I have two or three reporters out making inquiries in other places, and I think, if we can get it confirmed from elsewhere, this ought to be a very big story indeed."
He went back to his own room, and all that afternoon there came to him scraps of information that enabled him to piece together a story which promised to be sensational. In one respect he drew blank. Scotland Yard knew nothing of the robberies; or, if they knew, for their own purpose declined to make a statement. It was not remarkable, because Scotland Yard sometimes resents newspaper publicity about a crime which it is investigating. Publicity very often means the undoing of all the secret work, the cutting open of the net which is being drawn around the unsuspecting criminal. Mason did not expect much help from that grim stone building on the Thames Embankment. He relied more upon the searching inquiries which the reporters were making in half- a-dozen places.
By six o'clock that night he had the skeleton of a narrative sketched out, and reported to his chief.
"It is going to be a big story," he said.
"The very fact that people are being shielded, that Scotland Yard has issued no warning to jewellers, seems to prove that this is a bigger thing than I at first anticipated."
That night the editor, dining at his club, saw Jack Danton wandering disconsolately into the smoke-room, and button-holed him.
"You're the very man I want to see," he said.
"Oh, lord," said Jack dismally, "you're not going to ask me who the 'Candid Friend' is?"
"Something more important than that," said the editor. "We've got a big story in the office, and I want some sort of confirmation before I print it."
He was not speaking the exact truth. The story would be printed whether it was confirmed from headquarters or not. The character of the mystery which surrounded the robberies was sufficient justification.
"What about those jewel robberies?" he asked, eyeing the other keenly.
Jack presented a blank face. The word had gone out from the Commissioner's office that no word about the jewel robberies must be spoken.
"Jewel robberies?" he asked, with an heroic attempt to appear puzzled, "which particular robbery? Do you mean the smashing of Carter and Smith's shop in Regent Street?"
"You know jolly well I don't mean that," said the editor. "I am referring to the extraordinary burglaries that have been committed at various country houses. A number of diamond plaques have been stolen, presumably by somebody who is a guest in the house."
"I've never heard of them," said Jack, shaking his head. "What wonderful fellows you newspaper men are: you get stories of crimes which Scotland Yard has never heard about—upon my word, I believe you commit them yourselves to make news."
The editor was an old friend of his, and friendship has its privileges.
"I'd like to bet any amount of money that you're lying," he said. "Your air of innocence is one of the worst camouflages I have ever seen. I am going to print that story."
"Print it, my dear lad," said Jack wearily, "only don't expect me, to read it. I never read your beastly paper, anyway."
The editor chuckled, finished his coffee, and went quickly back to the office.
The pressure of a bell brought Mason.
"Have you any further facts about these diamond plaques?" he said.
"Sufficient to make a good story," replied the other with relish. "Mrs. Crewe-Sanders lost a plaque only a. week ago, and Miss Diana Wold, the society beauty, lost another in exactly similar circumstances. I'll go ahead."
He went ahead to the extent of two columns with glaring headlines.
SOCIETY'S MYSTERIOUS ROBBER.
The Criminal Who Only Steals Diamond Plaques.
WHO IS THE THIEF?
It was an excellent story, excellently done, and at eleven o'clock that night, when the pages had been "plated," and all was ready for printing, nothing seemed to prevent the Daily Telephone making a big scoop.
Before the plates were on the machine, however, there arrived at the Telephone office two important police officers, one of whom was the Commissioner. They were shown immediately to the editor's room.
"We hear you've got a big story to-night," said the Commissioner, "a pretty little fairy story about stolen jewellery."
"That's right," said the editor with a smile. "Have you come to give us a few more details?"
"Not on your life," said the Commissioner, as he sat himself on the other side of the editor's desk, "only—you will not print that story."
"Why not?" asked the astonished editor.
"There are many reasons, and one is the interest of justice. It is an old tag which I have trotted out before," said the Commissioner calmly, "but I am trotting it out with greater emphasis than heretofore."
"But why on earth not?" asked the editor.
The Commissioner took an envelope from his pocket, extracted a slip of paper, and pushed it towards the journalist.
"I hate to remind you that certain sections of the Defence of the Realm Act are still in force," he said apologetically, "but here is an order."
The editor read the slip with a frown.
"Damn!" he said.
The story of the jewel robbery did not appear.
That was not the only mystery circumstance attached to the theft. Diana had a woman friend in Cannes, and the day after the theft she despatched a long telegram describing the loss; two hours after she had sent the wire to the post-office it came back to her in an envelope, and written across the telegraph form in red ink were the words:
"This cannot be despatched."
She got on to the telephone and demanded furiously from an important official the meaning of this extraordinary happening.
"I am exceedingly sorry that you should have been inconvenienced, Miss Wold," said that gentleman suavely, "but, as a matter of fact, I stopped the message going myself."
"But why?" she demanded.
"The police requested us to allow no reference to the robberies to pass over the wire—you see, we are anxious to catch the thief," he went on soothingly, "and the greater secrecy there is, and the less that is said about this matter, the easier it will be for the police to make their capture."
She hung up the receiver, wondering what on earth it all meant.
JACK did not see Barbara May for three or four days, although he was in the Row every morning, cursing himself for his folly, but bitterly disappointed when she failed to appear. At last he could stand it no longer—he would see her; he would talk to her, and would not mince his words. At least he might dispel the cloud of suspicion which surrounded her, and if the worse came to the worst he might help her to evade the consequence of her mad acts. That she was a victim—the dupe of others—he was certain.
Barbara May had a little flat in Weatherhall Mansions, Victoria. He thought at first of ringing her up to tell her he was coming, but decided that on the whole there was a chance of her refusing to see him.
As he entered the vestibule of the residential Mansions the elevator was coming down, and he stepped aside as the door rattled back and two men stepped out. The first was the man he had seen at Bird-in-Bush Road; the second was he who had called himself Smith, and who had been described to him as the manager of Streetley's. They were talking together in a low voice as they walked out, and neither man appeared to notice him. What did it mean? He must have an end to this mystery; though he told himself, as the lift carried him up to the third floor, that he had no more right to inquire into Barbara May's private life than he had to take out of the hands of the police-officers who were engaged in unravelling the mysterious robberies a case in which he had no concern.
A trim maid admitted him, and showed him into a small and pretty drawing-room. A few minutes afterwards Barbara May came in.
"This is a great surprise, Mr. Danton," she said. "I am very glad to see you. Is it anything serious?" she asked quickly, noticing the look in his face.
"It is rather serious, Barbara," he said, and she flushed slightly. "I saw two men coming out of the elevator as I came in. Are they friends of yours?"
"I don't know which two men you refer to," drawled the girl. "I had two men to see me to-day on a matter of business."
"I refer to the man Smith—the manager of Streetley's—and the man who lives in Bird-in-Bush Road," he said bluntly, and he saw her colour change.
"You are being very mysterious, Mr. Danton," she said after awhile, and her voice was quiet and even. She met his gaze without flinching. "Won't you tell me just what you mean?"
"I mean this," said Jack quietly, "that wherever this strange thief in the night has stolen into people's bedrooms and taken their jewellery, you have been a guest in the same house. I mean, also, that you sent away by post from the Widdicombe's place a package containing a box which I had reason to believe held the diamond plaque of Diana Wold. That packet was addressed to a house in Bird-in-Bush Road, which is in the occupation of an Indian."
He paused but she was silent, and he went on:
"Barbara, won't you let me help you? I know you visited that house the day you came back from London, and I am worried to death about the whole business. I haven't come here because I am a police-officer, I have come here because I am—a—a—friend. I will help you, even though it means my eternal disgrace and my being thrown out of the police service."
He saw her face soften, and impulsively she laid her hand on his.
"Jack Danton, you are very good," she said gently, "but I think you are wasting your sympathy. Anyway," she went on after another interregnum of silence, "I could never accept such a sacrifice at your hands."
"But won't you tell me what it all means? Barbara, did you take Diana's plaque?"
She did not answer.
"Tell me. For God's sake, tell me. This thing is driving me mad."
Suddenly she rose, and she was a shade paler.
"I cannot explain anything, Jack," she said. "If you think I stole the jewellery, if you believe I am a thief, I must let you think so for a little while. You don't think I am the 'Candid Friend' also, do you?" she asked with a little smile.
"No, no; I'll swear you are not that. Barbara, are you in somebody's hands? Are you being—are they using you as a tool? Can't I help you?"
He grew almost incoherent in his anxiety.
She shook her head.
"You cannot help me at all, except—except—" her voice sank, and the words were almost whispered, "except by trusting me. And now," she said briskly, "I am going to ring for tea and you are not to ask me any more questions."
"Barbara," he interrupted slowly, "is this mystery connected with the Kali Diamond?"
She went white, and put out her hand to grip a table for support.
"What do you mean?" she breathed. "Kali Diamond? I—I don't understand, Jack," and then, turning suddenly, she walked swiftly from the room.
A few minutes later her maid carne in.
"Miss May has a very bad headache, and she asks you to excuse her. Can I get you some tea, sir?"
"No, thank you," said Jack rising unsteadily. His brain was in a, whirl; his thoughts so confused that he could not order them. He went out into the street like a man in a dream. Barbara May was a thief—a thief!
DIANA Wold was blessed with great possessions. She had a great house in Carlton House Terrace, an estate in Norfolk, a villa at Cannes, and a miniature palace on the shores of Lake Como. The loss of a couple of thousand pounds worth of jewellery did not worry her at all; it was, indeed, well worth the excitement the burglary had caused, and the interest which had come in consequence into her bored life.
Many men had wooed Diana and had found her as cold as stone and less responsive. Men had little or no attraction for her; her interests lay elsewhere.
Beautiful as she was indubitably, a consciousness of her charms awakened no desire to employ them until she came against the polished granite of Jack Danton's personality. He was the one good-looking man she had met who did not approach her with that possessive confidence which she had invariably found was the attribute of presentable men. He had neither courted nor flattered her, and when he had neglected her it had not been a studious, but a natural neglect.
She had known him when he was in the army, and before he had begun to serve the State in another capacity.
The war had matured him, made him something different to the rather gawky lad she had known when she was in short frocks; but even in those days he had never flattered her, never even asked her to dance with him, but his magnificent aloofness had not piqued her until now.
"Jack Danton treats me as though I were a very elegant piece of furniture," she had said to Widdicombe as they came up to town together.
"There are times when I like to be regarded as human."
"In other words, he doesn't make love to you," said Widdicombe bluntly. "Well, that must be a relief, Diana, and the poor fellow is saving himself a great many heartaches."
She laughed softly.
"I don't think Jack Danton's heart is of the aching kind," she said.
She expected him to call upon her when she was in town, and when he did not she wrote him a little note and asked him to come to tea.
He arrived to the second—his very punctuality annoyed her—he was so obviously paying a polite call that the girl was unexpectedly annoyed.
"Jack," she said at last—with touch of asperity in her tone—"one would imagine to hear you talk that you had been reading a manual on the art of polite and meaningless conversation."
"I'm sorry if I have been quiet," he said in surprise.
"I expected you to be interesting," she said almost tartly. "Can't you tell me about murders and criminals, and bank robberies, and things like that?"
He stared at her and she laughed.
"Really, Jack, you don't suppose that your occupation is a secret, do you? We all know you're a policeman: that is why it is so fascinating to know you."
He laughed awkwardly.
"I am sorry I can't tell you about the amazing mysteries I have unravelled," he said. "The fact is, I haven't unravelled them. Police work is a very mundane, humdrum sort of a business, and the purple spots occur at horribly long intervals."
"Why don't you marry?" she asked suddenly.
"Marry—me?" he said astonished. "My dear Miss Wold—"
"And please don't call me Miss Wold: you used to call me by my Christian name, and if you don't do that I shall feel uncomfortable when I call you Jack."
"Then I'll relieve you from that embarrassment, Diana," he smiled. "Why haven't I married? Heaven knows. In the first place, I am a poor man and couldn't support a wife; in the second place—"
"In the second place," she repeated when he paused.
"Well, there is nobody who wants me particularly."
"Is there nobody you want?"
"No," he answered shortly.
She was looking down at the handkerchief she held in her hand.
"I don't think that the question of money ought to come into marriage," she said. "Why don't you marry a rich girl? There are plenty of them about."
"But none that I'm particularly in love with," smiled Jack; "and anyway, Diana, I couldn't marry a woman who was immensely wealthy and live on her; it would be a hateful life."
"That is your conceit," she said, looking up. "If you were a rich man you would not think twice about asking a poor girl to marry you, and she wouldn't think twice of accepting. You could do that, because such a marriage would give you a lordly feeling of patronage."
Jack shook his head.
"I don't agree with you; and anyway, I should never give a woman an opportunity of being particularly lordly or patronising where I was concerned."
Diana Wold was annoyed: she had no desire to marry Jack or any other man, but she would dearly love to have added his proposal to a score of others that had come her way, and he was tantalizingly and maddeningly aloof. She almost hated him for that.
"Are you in love with Barbara?" she asked, and Jack started.
"That's exactly the question the 'Candid Friend' asked the Commissioner."
"Oh, do tell me about the 'Candid Friend,'" she broke in eagerly. "Is it a man or a woman, and did he really say you were in love with Barbara? How wonderful! How clever of him!"
"I don't think it is particularly clever, and one of these days I shall take the 'Candid Friend' by the arm and I shall lead her to the nearest police station, and she will cut an ignoble and ignominious figure in the bright steel pen," said Jack savagely.
So he was in love with Barbara May, she thought. Her quick woman intuition had divined his secret. And, as she thought, a wave of anger swept over her.
She did not like Barbara May, and knew that the dislike was mutual. And if all her suspicions had justification, what an ironical situation would be created! Jack Danton would be called upon to arrest the woman he loved! The very thought of this possibility brought a new interest into her jaded young life.
After Jack had gone she considered the situation in her beautiful little boudoir overlooking the Mall.
Barbara May's address she knew. She had got to obtain admission to those apartments, and have time to make her search, and she was certain that she could discover evidence which would leave no possible doubt of Barbara's guilt.
LATER in the evening, in answer to a telephone call, the chief of a private detective agency called upon her, and was shown into her study.
"I am going to be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Day," said Diana after the visitor was seated. "I have reason to suspect that a girl friend of mine is the 'Candid Friend' of whom you have heard."
"The anonymous letter-writer," said Day in surprise.
"I do not want the police to interfere, as I am most anxious that she should not be exposed publicly," said Diana sweetly.
"One hates the thought of a young girl facing the ordeal of police court proceedings, but at the same time I want to discover whether my suspicions are correct. In fact, Mr. Day, I want to search her flat whilst she and her maid are out."
The detective pulled a long face.
"That's rather a serious business, miss," he said; "and it is interfering with the work of the regular police, which I do not like to do. You see, I am an ex-sergeant of the police myself."
"I will compensate you for any risks you may run," said Diana steadily, "and, at any rate, there is no reason why you should not make the necessary inquiries, and—" she paused, "secure me a key which will open the flat door. I am not asking you to help me in the search."
"That's different," said the man, relieved; "and though, of course, I can't get you the key of the flat, I daresay I could call here one day and leave a key by accident, which you might find would fit the lock, and I could also help you by discovering when the lady and her servant are out."
"That is all I ask you to do," said Diana. She opened the little bureau and took out a bank note. "This is for a hundred pounds, and is only on account, Mr. Day," she said.
Mr. Day pocketed the note with every evidence of satisfaction.
On the Thursday, three days later, he called again, but made no reference to Barbara May or the Weatherhall Mansions flat. When he left she found a key on the table, and put it into her bag with a smile.
The next morning she was called by telephone.
"The person you are interested in has gone to Sunningdale to stay with Mrs. Merstham. She has taken her maid," said a voice.
"Thank you," said Diana.
She collected all the bureau keys she could find in the house; they might be useful, she thought, for if there was any evidence of her crime in the flat, Barbara May would certainly lock it up.
She walked into the vestibule of the Mansions, and, to her relief, the elevator had just gone up. She was able to walk up the stairs without the lift man seeing her. Yet it was with a beating heart that she opened the door of Barbara's flat, walked in, and closed the door softly behind her.
From room to room she went, opening drawers, peering into cupboards, but without making a discovery until she went into Barbara's bedroom. There were few articles of furniture in the room, which was a large and airy one, and the only locked drawer proved amenable to the attentions of one of the keys she had brought with her. But here she drew blank, to her disappointment, for the drawer contained nothing that was in any way helpful.
She was leaving the room disappointed, when it occurred to her to turn down the pillows of the bed. It looked as though she had failed again when, by accident, her hand touched the sheeted overlay and she felt something hard. To pull aside the sheet was the work of a second, and then she saw and gasped.
Neatly let into the mattress was a square space occupied by a cash box. She extracted this with shaking hands, and carried the box to a table near the window. It was locked, but the lock was of a flimsy character. The third of her keys fitted and the lid swung back. And as she took out the trays with which the box was fitted, she gasped, for each tray contained two diamond pendants!
Open-mouthed, Diana examined the jewels; each bore a neat little linen label on which the name of the owner was written. She saw her own plaque, it was the third she examined. What should she do? She was in some dilemma. She could not carry the box to the police and say that she had made a search. That would look bad. Society would not view her actions very kindly, however noble her intentions might have been.
And then she had an inspiration. She replaced the jewels carefully on their trays, closed the lid of the box and locked it, and placed it back in the square hole that was cut in the mattress, covering this with the sheet and placing the two pillows neatly where she had found them.
In a few minutes she was driving back to Carlton House Terrace. It would be a lovely revenge!
She got on to Scotland Yard by telephone, and, as luck would have it, Jack was in his office.
"Will you come to me at once?" she pleaded. "It is very important."
"I am awfully busy," he excused himself.
"But this is tremendously important. It affects Barbara May."
"I'll come," he said shortly.
She awaited his arrival, hugging herself with joy. There was in her composition a streak of malignity which Jack had yet to discover.
He found her sitting at a tea-table, and was a little brusque in his manner.
"I can't stay to tea, Diana," he began.
"You will stay to tea," she said sweetly, "I have a lot to tell you, and I must have the right atmosphere, and the atmosphere for scandal is the tea-table."
He seated himself reluctantly, waiting and wondering what her news would be.
"You are a police-officer, Jack?" she demanded, as she handed him his tea.
"I believe I am," he replied curtly.
"You have taken all sorts of oaths and things, haven't you? I understand that the police are bound, just as soldiers are bound, by promises to do their duty in any circumstances."
He put down the tea.
"What is the idea, Diana?" he asked quietly.
"I have found the jewel thief," she said.
His jaw dropped.
"I have found the jewel thief, and I can tell you where the jewels are," she said. "And I am reporting this to you officially," she added with emphasis. "The jewels are in Barbara May's flat. They are contained in a steel box beneath her pillow, and it is your duty to secure a search warrant and verify my statement."
He was stunned by the news.
"Where is Barbara?" he asked huskily.
"I really don't know where Barbara is. I am not concerned in that respect. I am telling you, Jack, that the jewels are in her flat. You must report this."
He rose unsteadily.
"l suppose I must," he said, and she knew that he would do his duty.
The Chief Commissioner listened to the story unmoved.
"How does Miss Wold know that the jewels are in Miss May's flat?"
"I don't know, sir," said Jack wearily. "I have reported the matter, and that is as far as my duty goes."
"Very good," said the Commissioner, pressing a bell; but since you have come into this case, you had better conduct a search yourself. I will get the necessary warrant for you, and I daresay you will be able to manage to get into the flat. Oh, by the way, as Miss Wold is interested in this matter, she had better be present when the search is made."
"Is that necessary?" asked Jack.
"Absolutely," said the Commissioner firmly. "This lady has brought an accusation against Miss May, and I must have the search made in her presence."
It was a savage Jack Danton whose voice Diana heard over the telephone:
"The Commissioner wants you to be present when the search is made," and she heard the tremble of fury in his voice and smiled.
"When will that be?" she asked sweetly.
"At once," was the reply, and she heard the click of the receiver being hung up, and laughed softly.
She was waiting in the vestibule at Weatherhall Mansions, when Jack, accompanied by two detectives, arrived, and though she greeted him, he did not reply.
"You're being very foolish," she murmured as they went up in the elevator together. "I am not to blame. Is it unnatural that I should want to recover my stolen property?"
He did not reply.
By some means the police had secured a master key of the flat, and the door was opened, and Diana led the way to the bedroom."
"First of all, Miss Wold," said Jack, planting himself squarely in the doorway of the bedroom, "how came you to know that the property was here?"
"I know 'from information received,'" she said maliciously, "that is the correct terminology, isn't it?"
"Then perhaps you will show us where it is."
"With pleasure," said Diana.
She turned back the pillows, and pulled down the sheet.
"There," she said triumphantly, and pointed to the black box.
Jack pulled it out with a groan, and placed it on the identical table where a few hours before she had rapturously examined its contents.
One of the detectives had a skeleton key, and the box was opened.
"There!" said Diana.
"Where?" asked Jack.
The first tray was empty!
HASTILY she pulled out the tray. The second also was empty, and the third contained nothing but a typewritten slip of paper, which Jack read and passed without a word to the girl. The inscription ran:
"Sorry to disappoint you"
and that was all.
The reaction after that tense hour of agony through which he had passed was such that Jack laughed.
"Well, Miss Wold," he demanded, "where is your plaque?"
"It was here an hour ago, I'l1 swear, she said furiously. "I saw it with my own eyes."
"Oh, you saw it? So I gather you secured an entrance to the flat and searched it?" said Jack.
"I did," she said. "It is no use glaring at me, Jack. I tell you the plaques were here a little more than an hour ago. I saw them with my own eyes, six of them."
"And now we are looking at them with our own eyes," said Jack sardonically, "and they are not there. I won't tell you, Miss Wold, what I think of you. You have tried to bring an innocent girl to ruin. You are despicable."
Without a word she turned and left the room: her rage made speech impossible.
"Well, that's that," said Jack after she had gone. "And now I have to explain to Miss May how I came to her flat armed with a search warrant. Phew!"
He wiped his streaming forehead. And yet he was puzzled. He knew that Diana would never have brought the charge unless she were certain that the jewellery was there. The discovery of the slip at the bottom of the box was proof positive that something had been concealed therein, and had been removed before the arrival of the search party.
But Barbara May was out of London. She was staying with people in the country, and it could not have been the girl who took away the jewels—if they were ever there.
When he heard that Barbara May had returned to town he made it his business to call, but before he could frame his apology she stopped him with a smile.
"I've heard all about it, Mr. Danton," she said, "and I know that you were not responsible. Really, you should take Diana into Scotland Yard; she seems a most admirable detective," she added drily.
"I don't want to put it on to Diana," protested Jack. "I was a fool ever to carry the story to the Commissioner."
"You had to do it," she said quietly. "It was your duty, Jack, and I should have blamed you if you hadn't."
She laughed quietly.
"Poor Diana, it must have been an awful blow to her when she found I was not the jewel thief. Thank heavens!" she added piously, "no jewellery was missing from Ascot!"
They laughed together.
"A surprising , thing has happened, though," he said more seriously. "Do you know that all the jewellery that was stolen during the past three months has been returned, even Diana's?"
"Is that so?" she raised her eyebrows. "Returned to their rightful owners?"
She expressed no curiosity, and went on to talk about other matters. He thought she was looking ill: there were tired lines about her eyes, and her manner was nervous. She reverted to the subject of Diana just before he left.
"In proof that I have forgiven Diana," she said, "I am going to her party to-night. Will you be there?"
He had received an invitation, which he had ignored. This was surprising news.
"Really, that is awfully sporting of you, Barbara," he said warmly, "and if you go, I'll go to."
"You see," she went on with a twinkle in her eye, "Diana has two diamond plaques and maybe there will be a chance of my getting the other. I've rather a passion for plaques, you know."
"Please don't talk about it," he said; "you make me feel very uncomfortable."
Diana's parties were invariably lavish entertainments. Jack expected the place to be crowded, but he had no idea of the exclusive nature of the invitation.
As he made his way up the broad staircase, at the head of which Diana, a radiant, beautiful figure in silver tissue, stood waiting to receive her guests, he rubbed elbows with Cabinet Ministers, great Ambassadors, eminent Peers, whose names figure prominently in the daily press....
"I am glad you came, Jack." Diana offered him her little hand.
"You have forgiven me?"
"There is nothing to forgive," he said, evading the question, for he had not forgiven her, nor would he.
"I see you haven't," she laughed lightly. "Now run along and find Barbara. She is looking beautiful to-night."
He found the girl in a corner of the crowded ballroom, and disengaging herself from her friends, she came towards him.
"I want to speak to you," she said in a low voice. "Come into Diana's drawing-room. There's nobody there, and she told me I might use it if I wanted."
Diana saw them disappear and a hard look came into her eyes. She saw them only as lovers anxious to find some secluded place where they might enjoy one another's association without interruption. She would have been a much-surprised woman if she had heard the first words which Barbara May addressed to the young man.
"Jack, I want you to do me a favour," she said as she closed the door behind her. Her voice was urgent and worried.
"Why, anything I can do for you Barbara—" he began.
"But this is an unusual thing," she said. "Jack, I want ten uninterrupted minutes in Diana's bedroom."
He could only gape at her.
"At twelve o'clock Diana allows all her servants to come down to the gallery overlooking the ballroom to see the dancing," she said rapidly. "That is an opportunity which I cannot afford to miss. I want you to stand at the foot of the stairs and keep watch. If anybody comes I want you to signal me."
"But—but—how—?" he stammered.
"There is an electric light switch on the second floor," she went on rapidly. "It turns on the light outside Diana's bedroom door. There is plenty of excuse for you being on the stairs. It is just outside the billiard-room, where nobody will be to-night. And you can always say that you were bored and wanted to knock the balls about."
"But, Barbara, what does it mean? I don't understand you. What do you want to do in Diana's bedroom?"
"Will you help me?" she almost pleaded, her hands clasped together and a look of earnest entreaty in her eyes. "Don't you realize that this is the 14th? No, no, I don't mean that," she said hurriedly. "You don't understand, but will you do it for me?"
He thought a moment.
"Yes," he said huskily. "I don't know what you're going to do, Barbara, but I trust you."
She gripped his two hands between hers, and there was something in her face that made him tremble; then suddenly she bent to him and he felt the flutter of her lips against his. Only for a fraction of a second—and then she was gone.
"HAVE you two people exchanged confidences?" laughed Diana, as they came back to the ballroom together. "I suppose you've been telling one another what a horrible pig I am."
"We never mentioned you once, dear," said Barbara, and Jack marvelled at her self-possession.
When he had followed her, and had overtaken her at the door of the billiard-room, all trace of her anxiety had passed. She was her old equable self. "Women are funny things," thought Jack, and waited uneasily for the midnight hour to approach.
He saw the servants come one by one into the little gallery—trim maids, staid footmen, a matronly housekeeper, and two stout cooks, and then he caught Barbara's eye and strolled out.
The ball-room of Diana's house was the ground floor. On the first was her drawing-room, her study, and the billiard-room. Above were the bedrooms.
He strolled carelessly up the stairs, relieved that nobody saw him. One light burnt in the billiard-room and he switched on the remainder, took out a cue and laid it on the table. Then he went back to the landing in time to meet Barbara May. She uttered no word, just a friendly nod, and in a second she was flying up the stairs, leaving him in an agony of apprehension. Five minutes passed, ten minutes, and then he saw a figure at the bottom of the stairs. It was Diana. He had time to turn on the switch when she saw him.
"Why, Jack, whatever are you doing?"
"I've come up to play a game of billiards, but I can't find a partner," he said.
He was in a panic. Barbara might come down at any moment.
"Billiards? You foolish man; why aren't you dancing? And where is Barbara?"
"I expect Barbara is less foolish than I am," said Jack. "I left her in the ball-room."
"Come along, I will play billiards with you," said Diana, and walked into the billiard-room.
He followed, closing the door behind him.
"Don't close the door, Jack," said Diana, "it is very hot in here."
He turned the handle and opened the door a few inches.
"Open it wide. Think of the proprieties," she mocked him.
He threw the door open reluctantly.
"And I don't really want to play billiards and neither do you," said Diana, throwing down the cue she had picked up. "It is a hateful game. Jack, what is the matter with you? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
He laughed nervously.
"I spend a whole lot of my time chasing ghosts," he said. "Come along, Diana, play me one game."
He wanted to manoeuvre her with her back to the open door. At some part of the game that must surely occur.
"No; I won't play billiards," she said. "I'm going up to my room to get an aspirin for poor Molly Banton. She has a splitting headache."
"But she can wait," he urged.
"So can you," she bantered him.
His heart stood still as he heard her going up the stairs, and he waited. Presently he heard a cry.
"What is it?" he asked hoarsely.
He dashed up the stairs into the beautiful bedroom. Diana was standing by her dressing-table.
"Look!" she gasped. "Somebody has opened this safe. I've lost my other plaque!"
His mouth was dry, his tongue refused to speak.
"Lost your plaque!" he stammered, and all the time he was wondering where Barbara was concealed. She must have been listening at the head of the stairs when Diana went into the billiard-room, and had seized the momentary closing of the door as an opportunity for slipping past. He was relieved, so relieved that he could conduct the search of the room.
"Have you seen anybody come upstairs?" asked Diana suddenly, with growing suspicion.
"Nobody," he said boldly.
"Jack, are you speaking the truth? Has Barbara been up here?"
Her eyes were fixed on his accusingly.
"No; I swear she hasn't."
"Why were you downstairs? You don't play billiards, Jack. Where is Barbara?"
"In the ball-room, I tell you."
"We'll see," said Diana determinedly.
They went downstairs together and her first question was addressed to the butler who was arranging a buffet in a little room off the ball-room.
"Miss May, madam? She's gone home I saw her go about four minutes ago. She had to come into the ladies' room opposite to get her cloak."
"I see," said Diana slowly, and turned to Jack.
"Will you please find Barbara May and save a scandal," she said; and Jack immensely relieved to get away, needed no further bidding.
A taxi took him to Barbara's flat, and the lift-man told him that she had been in a few minutes.
He knocked at the flat door and rang the bell, but there was no answer. He saw through the transom that a light was burning in the hall, and knocked again.
It was Barbara who opened the door, but she made no pretence of being glad to see him.
"I can't see you now, Jack," she said, "will you please go away?"
"But I want to ask you something, Barbara."
"Will you go?" she said in agony.
"I refuse to go," said Jack doggedly; "there is some mystery here which I must unravel."
"Please don't," she begged; but he pushed her aside and, striding down the passage, passed into her little sitting- room.
The sight that met his eyes struck him dumb. Sitting at a table were three men. One was the tall coloured man he had seen in Bird-in-Bush Road; the second was "Mr. Smith," the jeweller; the third was a wizened little Indian in a white turban. He held in his hand the missing plaque, and with deft fingers he was wrenching aside the settings of a stone, the great diamond in the centre.
"WHAT is the meaning of this?" demanded Jack hoarsely, and then the big man looked up and saw him.
"Don't move," he said. "Put up your hands."
A Browning pistol had appeared as if by magic in his hand, and Jack obeyed.
"Take him, Smith, and put him in the next room; and if you make trouble, Mr. Danton, there will be worse trouble for you—believe me. No; let him stay here," he said as an afterthought. "Put the bracelets on him, Jim."
Before Jack realized what had happened, his hands were scientifically manacled.
"Sit down and don't make trouble," said the big man, "and believe me, Mr. Danton, it hurts me more than it hurts you."
The girl had not appeared. Jack thought he heard her sobbing in the passage. Once he was disposed of the three men paid him no further attention.
"You're sure?" said Smith.
"I am sure," said the little Indian and held the stone in the palm of his hand.
The big man looked at his watch.
"One o'clock," he said. "Jim, you might get on the telephone to Croydon: tell them to have an aeroplane out and ready for half-past four, and warn Paris to have landing lights for us. There's no need to warn Milan. When shall we reach Baghdad?"
"Three days—two days with any luck," said the other.
Jack listened open-mouthed.
"It will be a close shave," said the big man thoughtfully. "We can only pray that we have no engine trouble. Now, Singh, you'd better fix this plaque and get that matter settled."
The man Smith took a long flat case from his pocket, and opened it, and Jack saw the glitter of many diamonds.
"Here's one, a little bigger than the other. Can you fix it?"
He handed it to the Indian who picked it up with a pair of tweezers and placed it in the cavity from whence he had taken the big diamond. They watched him in silence, and presently he handed the plaque to the big man who passed it back to Smith.
"Take that to Miss Diana Wold to-night. Tell her we've caught the thief," he added, and then, glancing at Jack, walked over to him. "I'm very sorry to treat you as I have done, Inspector," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "but it will be some satisfaction for you to know that I am a Commissioner of the Indian Police."
"The devil you are!" said Jack.
"The devil I am," said the other, "and I can assure you I have had a very unhappy time."
He stooped down, twisted a key into the handcuffs, and in a second Jack was free.
"I'm going along now, and I'll leave Miss May to explain just what has happened."
"Then Miss May was the jewel thief?" gasped Jack.
"She was indeed," said the other; "the cleverest thief you've had in London for years. And," he glanced at Jack slyly, "the prettiest."
"I DON'T know how to tell you the story, Jack—not coherently," said the girl. "But it is all about the Kali diamond."
"The Kali diamond?" repeated Jack in surprise. "Why, that was the stone that Lord Widdicombe was talking about," he said. "It was once stolen and they had great trouble to get it back."
She nodded gravely.
"It has been stolen since then," she said, "and we have had even greater trouble. The stone isn't a very valuable one, as you count diamonds; but on one of the facets there is a microscopic writing which is believed by the natives to be divinely inscribed. About six months ago an Indian jewel thief broke into the Sanctuary and stole this stone, and the theft was not discovered for some time, and then only by the High Priest of the Sect, who communicated with the police, knowing that there would be trouble if the stone was not exhibited and examined by the elders on the Day of Showing. The thief was traced; but unfortunately he had sold the stone and several others to a dealer who had sent them to Europe.
"The buyer was traced to London, and that is where I came in—for I have been in the Foreign Office Secret Service for three years." She smiled up at his astonished face.
"Secret Service? Then you are—"
"I'm a real detective," she said demurely, "but don't interrupt please. All the stones that the receiver brought to London were sold to one firm, the firm of Streetley. The buyer was discovered and he confessed. He had no idea that any of the diamonds were the famous Kali diamond. The Indian Commissioner who came to London brought with him Mr. Singh, who is not only a member of the Sect which owns the Kali diamond, but is a clever jeweller, who knows the diamond so well that he could recognize it immediately. The Kali stone is very much like every other stone, and it requires an expert eye to detect the difference."
"That was the man who lived in Bird-in-Bush Road," said Jack.
"He lived in a little quiet place in Peckham, and to him were brought all the stones that were stolen."
"But why steal them at all?" asked Jack.
"We didn't steal them all," said the girl with a smile. "Streetley's had used all the diamonds they bought in various plaques. They were large and beautiful and the very things to centre that kind of jewel. When they found that they had disposed of the stone, they sent to all the people to whom they sold jewellery, making some excuse for getting the jewels back. In many cases the plaques were returned; but in some cases the owners refused to part with the property they had bought, probably believing that Streetley's had unwittingly given them more value for their money than they were entitled to. There was only one way to get the plaques back from these obdurate people, and that was to steal them, and I was given that unpleasant task."
A light dawned on Jack.
"So really you were acting as an official of the government?"
"It was a very close call," she said gravely. "In ten days the stone has to be shown. They are taking it to India by aeroplane, as you probably guessed from what Mr. Smith—who, like yourself, is a Detective Inspector, by-the-way—had said. Every stone had to be examined carefully. It wasn't necessary to make so thorough an examination of Diana's second plaque, because that was the very last that Streetley's had sold, and which we had not seen."
"Then Diana's story was true? The jewels were in the box under your pillow?"
"Yes, but your Commissioner knew all about it, too," she said with twinkling eyes. "The moment he heard that Diana had made the discovery, he telephoned to Mr. Smith, who came to the flat, took away the jewels, and left an impertinent note behind."
The Commissioner knew it all the time. No wonder he had kept Jack from the jewel thieves!
"I am afraid I've hurt Diana's feelings," said Jack ruefully. "After all, she had some reason for her belief."
IT was on the following afternoon that Barbara May was announced and Diana rose to meet her.
"I have had my plaque back, Barbara," "said Diana. "I presume the police found it? Jack is an admirable detective, and he knew just where it was."
"And where was that?" asked Barbara.
"In your flat, my dear," said the girl sweetly. "And he is not going to hush it up this time. I think it is only fair to tell you that I have written to every one of our friends telling them the true circumstances of the case."
"In fact, that I'm a thief?" said Barbara quietly.
"That you're a thief. It is an ugly word, but it doesn't seem an exaggeration to describe you that way."
"That's mystery number one explained," said Barbara with a sigh. "I'm very glad it is all over, and that everybody knows. Mystery number two ends simultaneously."
"What is mystery number two?" asked Diana with a curl of her lips.
"The identity of the 'Candid Friend,'" said Barbara. "When I drugged you—yes, I did drug you—though it is one of the nicest drugs in the world for the purpose and has no bad after-effects—I found your plaque, Diana, but I found something else. A bundle of letters written ready for posting."
There was a deadly silence.
"Go on," said Diana at last.
"They were written to various people and they were all signed 'Candid Friend,' and they were full of scurrilous, slanderous, beastly accusations against people who think you are their dearest friend."
"That is a lie," said Diana, white to the lips.
"It is true."
"Prove it," said the girl harshly.
"When I went down to Widdicombe's place to stay," said Barbara—"you know I am a Foreign Office detective, I suppose?"
"A Foreign Office detective?" she said incredulously. "That isn't true."
"Can't you think of anything else to call me but a liar," said Barbara wearily. "It is perfectly true, as you will discover. I was looking for a diamond, a certain diamond which the government was most anxious to recover. That is why I stole your plaque, and stole the plaques of everybody else concerned. But I had a double object in going to Widdicombe. I was pretty certain that you were the 'Candid Friend,' and I thought that when I made my search for your plaque I would also look around for letters, and these I found with no difficulty and took away."
"That's a lie, said Diana. "Nothing was missing from my box but the jewel."
"I brought them back," said Barbara May cheerfully, "after I had photographed them. I took down a portable apparatus and spent the whole of that night taking blue prints of your letters, and if it is true, as you say, that you have written to everybody telling them that I am a thief, then it will be my painful duty to write to the same people enclosing copies of the 'Candid Friend' letters that you wrote."
Again a silence. "I haven't written yet," said Diana sulkily. "I intended writing."
"Then, if you haven't written," said Barbara May significantly, "don't."
She gathered up her cloak and walked to the door.
"You might find something better to do, Diana," she said. "Why don't you get married—I am speaking to you as an old married woman!"
"What?" said Diana in amazement.
"I married Jack at the Registrar's Office this morning," said Barbara May, "and I will dispense with your wedding present."
THIS story concerns four people: Larry Vanne, who understood men and lived on his knowledge; Eli Soburn, who both understood and liked diamonds, and never traveled without a hundred thousand pounds' worth in a little leather wallet attached to his undergarments; Mary Perella, who understood most of the things that a ladies' school could teach, and, in addition, had that working knowledge which comes to a girl who has been left penniless and must shift for herself; and fourthly, Jeremiah Fallowby, who had a knowledge of the world geographically, and who was suspicious of all women who might love him for his wealth alone.
Of these four, only one had a definite objective. Larry Vanne, pacing up and down his hired flat in Jermyn Street, a long cigar between his strong white teeth, his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waist coat, confided to his slightly bored wife that the North Atlantic trade had dwindled to vanishing-point.
"I don't know what's coming over New York, Lou," he said despairingly. "We hadn't been tied up ten minutes to the river end of Twenty-third Street when along came McCarthy with a couple of bulls, and it was 'The Captain wants to see you, Larry.'—"
"They had nothing on you," said Mrs. Vanne; "not if I'm to judge from the presents you brought home!"
"Sure they had nothing on me!" said Larry. "But it shows the tendency of the age, Lou. Suspicion, suspicion, suspicion! And I did no more than to sit in a game with that Boston crowd to trim a half-witted cinema boy—my share was less than a thousand dollars. I haven't worked the North Atlantic for years, and things have gone from bad to worse, Lou. There wasn't a dame on board that didn't park her jewelry in the purser's safe."
"Any man who works one-handed is asking for trouble," was her dictum. "That's where you're all wrong, Larry. Now suppose you and me—"
"You and I," said Larry gently. "Let's keep the conversation out of the steerage."
It was true that Larry had never worked the North Atlantic. He had confined himself mainly to the Pacific trade, and had made bigger pickings between Shanghai and Vancouver, B.C., than any man in his line. He had worked scientifically, allowing certain routes to lie fallow for years, had watched and noted changes in personnel, so that he could tell you off-hand who was the captain of the Trianic and just whereabouts in the world you might find that red-nosed purser who nearly gaoled him in '19.
He made no or few mistakes; his patience was remorseless. On one occasion he took two journeys to Australia and back, and caught his man for £8000 worth of real money when the ship was in sight of port.
"I'm trying a new trade, anyway, and this time you 11 work for your living," he said, but gave no further information.
It was his practice to be frank in general and reticent in particular, and he told his companion nothing of Mr. Soburn and his wallet of diamonds. He could have told quite a lot. He could have traced Mr. Soburn *s family history from the day he started peddling buttons in New York; of his legitimate deals in furs, of his questionable transactions in the world of low and high finance. He carried these wonderful cut diamonds of his for the same reason as a girl carries a doll or a boy a clockwork motorcar. They were his toys and his comforts, and he had frequent satisfaction in displaying these behind locked doors to his cronies with all the hushed pride that a Japanese virtuoso would display a carved jade box of the Ming period.
Larry knew his movements, past, present, and prospective; but, mostly, he knew Mr. Soburn's chiefest weakness, which was for a pretty face.
Larry's wife was beautiful enough in her hard-cut way, but it was not the kind of beauty that would appeal to Mr. Soburn.
"What I want," he told her frankly, "is something that hasn't lost the bloom; the sort of big-eyed girl who would faint at the sight of a sparkler."
Mrs. Larry nodded her head slowly.
"That sounds so much like me that you might be painting my portrait," she said; "but I gather you want a different type."
That day she sent in an advertisement to two newspapers. On the third day came Mary Perella. Mary walked from Bayswater because she had reached the stage where pennies counted. She had had three jobs in six months. Her three employers suffered from a common misfortune, which they confessed at an early stage of her engagement—they were unhappily married. Unhappily married employers who absent-mindedly paw their secretaries' hands are not so infrequent a phenomenon as many people would imagine. Mary descended the secretariat scale from rich city merchants to a musical composer who lived in a world of writs, and she had broken her last pound sterling and was owing one week's rent when she set forth to Jermyn Street, never dreaming that the lady who required a secretary-companion to travel abroad, at a wildly exorbitant salary, would be likely to choose her from the thousands of applicants.
"She's made for the part," said Larry, who, unobserved, had made a very complete scrutiny of the new secretary. * * Orphan and everything; no relations in London..." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Fix her tomorrow. Get her passage booked and our own at the same time.
"We'll travel on the Frimley passports."
He was very practical now.
"She '11 want some money for clothing—give her twenty- five on account. You told her that she was my secretary and not yours!"
Mrs. Larry nodded.
"She bore the blow very well," she said. "I suppose you 're sure that Soburn is traveling on that ship?"
"Sure I'm sure!" he said scornfully. "He's got the royal suite, two bathrooms—God knows why—and two of his best pals are traveling. Besides, the next packet is booked up. And, Lou, you can tell that kid to report on board. I don't want to see her till we get to Southampton. Somehow I don't make a good impression on girls."
Mary Perella came the next morning and nearly dropped when the gracious lady confirmed her in the engagement.
"I'm quite sure you will do, my dear," said Mrs. Larry Vanne sweetly, "and you will find my husband a very generous employer. He is writing a book on rare jewels, but nobody must know this, because..."
The excuse, flimsy as it was, convinced Mary.
"What about Dennis?" asked Mrs. Larry suddenly, when she saw her husband after the interview.
Though he was a man who did not usually display his emotion, Larry Vanne was surprised into a grimace. Detective-Inspector Dennis, of Scotland Yard, was an atom in the molecule of uneasiness which never quite ceased to perturb him. And Dennis had met him on his arrival in England, and in his suave, nice way had said "Don't," He hadn't been quite as terse as that, and had added a sermon, the text of which was "Watch out," that had left Mr. Vanne distinctly uncomfortable.
Detective-Inspector Dennis does not really come into the story at all, so it would be superfluous to describe that very wise man, who read the minds of jewel thieves and confidence-men with such devastating accuracy.
At ten o 'clock on the Thursday morning Mrs. Larry Vanne booked stateroom No. 15, the last available accommodation on the London Castle. A quarter of an hour later, Mr. Jeremiah Fallowby also rang up the Castle office, and was answered by a junior who was deputising for the booking-clerk, who had just gone out to lunch.
People often said that Jeremiah Fallowby was good-looking. They qualified the statement in various ways: some said that he would be really handsome if he had a little more expression; some thought that his features were irregular, but he had nice eyes; others were inclined to the belief that it was his mouth which spoiled him. On one point they were all agreed: he could be very dull. He seldom went anywhere—you never met him, for example, dining at the Ambassadors' on the night of the Grand Prix. He certainly went to Deauville—but ways in the off- season. The month he spent in Venice was the very month that the Lido was a wilderness. He was in town when everybody else was out of town, and Ascot usually coincided with the period that he chose for his stay at Aix.
At the height of the London season he was pretty sure to be somewhere in the country and when the north-bound trains were overloaded with guns bound for the moors, Jeremiah would be writing excuses from Madeira.
"Jerry, you're absolutely impossible!" rasped his aunt. "You never meet a gel worth knowing, and you'll end up by marrying a waitress in a tea-shop!"
"Which tea-shop?" asked Jerry^ momentarily interested.
"You're coming to us for Christmas," said his aunt. ^ ^ I am not going to allow you to wander alone. If you go away, I '11 come with you—I warn you."
"Thank you," said Jeremiah gratefully.
"You would like me to come!" asked the astonished lady.
"No," said Jeremiah truthfully. "I'm thanking you for the warning."
None of his many relatives were really very rude to his face, because he was worth a quarter of a million sterling. But the uncles and aunts and cousins who planned to marry him off, and who arranged the most cunningly devised house- parties, only to receive a letter which began:
"...most terribly sorry, but I shall be in Venice on the 10th..."
had no scruples in speaking of him in the plainest possible manner.
"It is his damned romanticism," fumed Uncle Brebbury, who had five eligible daughters. "He's got a fairy prince complex... thinks he'll find a (naughty word) Cinderella. Tea-shop gel! He 11 be bringing home a—a!"
"Bertie!" murmured his shocked wife. "Please... The gels!"
But "the gels" were in complete sympathy.
Jeremiah wrote a little, read much, thought even more. He was modest enough to believe that he was entirely without attraction, sophisticated to the extent of suspecting that most mothers were prepared to sacrifice their daughters on the altar of his fortune.
One gloomy morning Jeremiah, having sworn to be a member of Mrs. Leslie Fallowby's Christmas house-party, was contemplating the dismal prospect. The glory of autumn is at best the wan beauty of decay; and since healthy men do not love caducity in any expression, Jeremiah had met the early frosts and the mists which lie in the tawny hollows of Burnham Beeches with an uneasy yearning for the moorland when spring was coming in, with arum lilies growing on the seashore and gladiolas budding on verdant slopes. He would rise from his writing-table and pace restlessly the worn carpet of his study. And inevitably he would be drawn to the drawer where, with the supreme indifference which summer brought to him, he had thrown the early sailing lists.
For hours this morning he had sat turning them over. He could go to the east coast, stop off at Naples or Port Said... He could spend a week in Nairobi... he knew a man who was trying to grow cotton somewhere in Kenya—or was it tobacco?
It would be rather fun to end the sea journey at Beira—push off up country to Salisbury, and work down through Bulawayo and Kimberley to the Cape.
There was a delightful boarding-house at Rondebosch, kept by an ex-civil servant, with great hedges of blue plumbago. Behind, like the backcloth of a theatrical scene, the ranges of Constantia.
Jeremiah Fallowby made a little face and, walking to the casement window, stared out over the darkening lawn. Rain was falling steadily. Every tree dripped dismally. Near at hand was a bed of bedraggled chrysanthemums—white they had been, and their soiled petals littered the ground.
He looked at his watch mechanically. Really, he intended looking at the date block. One o'clock. 27th October... November in four days—fogs and drizzle and colds in the head.
He sat at his table again and reached for the telephone, gave a London number, and waited indecisively till the bell rang.
"Is that the Castle Line? Good... have you anything on the London Castle—deck cabin if possible?"
He waited, the receiver at his ear, his pen drawing uncouthly arabesques on his blotting-pad.
A voice at the other end of the wire awakened him to realities.
"Good... my name is Fallowby... yes, Jeremiah Fallowby. I'll arrange to collect the ticket right away."
He rang off, and immediately connected with a London agent in Threadneedle Street, and gave him instructions. The tickets arrived by the first post in the morning, and Jeremiah went joyously to the task of packing.
If he had only been content to stay at Burn-ham Beeches he might have been saved a great deal of inconvenience. Within two hours of the receipt of his letter he had left his house with instructions that neither letters nor telegrams should be sent on to him, and had deposited himself in his club in St. James's Street, so that he did not receive the frantic wire addressed to him by the Steamship Company, nor yet interview a penitent junior clerk who had booked a stateroom that was already engaged. In complete ignorance, he motored to Southampton, had a breakdown on the way, and arrived only just in time to hurl his baggage on board.
The cabin was a large-sized one. He was annoyed to discover that there were two beds, and directed the steward to remove one.
"Traveling alone, sir," said the steward phlegmatically. (Nothing surprises stewards.) And then, "There was some trouble about your ticket. Another gent was booked."
He glanced at the initials on the suitcase, took the counterfoil of the steamship ticket, made a few inquiries about Jeremiah's taste in the direction of early-morning coffee and baths, and vanished.
To the purser, as he handed in the counterfoil:
"Seventeen's aboard. The other fellow hasn't come."
"That's all right," said the assistant purser, and spiked the paper.
¦ The ship had cleared Southampton waters and was nosing its way to the Channel when Jerry, writing letters at the little desk in the cabin (the usual and untruthful excuses to Mrs. Leslie Fallowby), became aware that somebody was standing in the open doorway.
He looked up and saw a girl.
"Um... er... do you want anything!" he asked.
Mary Perella came into the stateroom a little boisterously. She had that excited pinkness which adventure gives to young skins—the day was unexpectedly mild; there was a blue, cloud-flecked sky above, and the white cloisters of the Needles on the port quarter.
Ahead a summery land, and the immense possibilities of new lands.
Jeremiah glared up at her from his writing-table.
He got to his feet slowly.
"Fallowby," he said, and she looked relieved.
"I've been worrying terribly about the name," she said. "You know when Mrs. Fallowby told me I didn't really catch it, but I hadn't the courage to ask."
Mrs. Fallowby? "Which of his innumerable aunts was this? Mrs. Hector Fallowby, or Mrs. Richard—or was it that terrible little Mrs. Merstham-Fallowby with the impossible daughters?... He uttered an exclamation, but swallowed its violent end.
"Not Mrs. Le—" he said.
Even in his agitation he thought she was extraordinarily pretty: she, at any rate, was no Fallowby. Gray eyes, rather big; there was the faintest film of powder on her face, but young girls did that sort of thing nowadays.
She nodded smilingly. He was, she thought, being a little facetious. Husbands and wives spoke about one another in such queer ways.
"It will be rather fun spending Christmas Day on board ship," she went on. "We are going to South Africa, aren't we?"
"Unless the captain changes his mind," said Jeremiah, and they both laughed.
Then he became conscious of his remissness.
"Won't you sit down?"
She sat on a sofa under the square window that looks on to the promenade deck.
"I suppose you have a letter from Mrs. Fallowby?"
It wasn't like any of the Fallowbys to give letters of introduction to pretty girl outsiders.
He saw a look of consternation come to the girl's eyes.
"Isn't she here!" she gasped.
Jeremiah blinked at her.
"Who—Mrs. Fallowby? I hope not!"
Mary Perella went pale.
"But... I suppose it is all right... but... she said she was coming."
Jeremiah frowned. If there was one experience in the world he didn't want, and which he intended to avoid, it was a tete-a-tete with a female Fallowby. Mrs. Leslie had evidently kept her promise.
"I suppose she's here, then," he said unhappily.
There was an awkward pause. Into Mary's mind crept a doubt.
"She engaged me as traveling secretary, and she said I was to see you as soon as I got on board. Fortunately, I remembered the number of your cabin."
He could think of no comment more illuminating.
"So you're going to South Africa? Do you know the country?"
She had never been abroad. Her father had served in Africa: he was so interested a listener that she found herself telling him about the tragedy of two years before.
"I stayed with an aunt for six months, but it was rather—well, impossible."
"I never knew an aunt that wasn't," he sympathized. "You seem to have had a pretty unhappy time, Miss Perella—that is an Italian name, isn't it?"
She thought it had been Maltese two hundred years before, and he seemed to remember a General Sir Gregory Perella who had done tremendous things in the Abyssinian War—or was it the Mutiny?
"What do you want me to do! I have a portable typewriter—"
"Nothing," he said hastily. "The best thing you can do is to go along and find Mrs. Fallowby—no, I don't think I should do that. If I remember rightly, she is a terribly bad sailor, and won't be on deck for a week. Just loaf around. If there is anything I can do for you, let me know... got a nice cabin! Fine! If you see Mrs. Fallowby, tell her I'm... er... awfully busy. In fact, I thought of writing—"
She nodded wisely.
"A book—I know."
She left him a little dazed.
He saw her that night at dinner, sitting at a little table by herself, and they exchanged smiles as he passed. There was no sign of Mrs. Leslie Fallowby, but the ship had a slight roll on, and that would explain her absence. After dinner he saw the girl leaning over the rail, and went up to her.
"I haven't seen your—" she began.
"You wouldn't," he interrupted her. "Poor dear, she thinks this is rough weather."
He commandeered a chair for her, and they sat down and talked till nearly ten o'clock.
"You're going to let me help you with your book!" she said, as they stood at the head of the companion-way before she went below for the night.
"My book?" He started guiltily. "Oh, of course! Did I say I was writing a book? Naturally, I will be happy for you to help me, but I haven't got very far."
He found himself awaiting her arrival on deck the next morning with some impatience. They were in the dreaded Bay, but the sea was as smooth as a pond, and, save for the chill in the air, the weather was delightful. Pacing round and round the deck, they discovered mutual interests—she also would one day write a book, which was to be a tremendous affair about life and people. He did not even smile. Jeremiah was rather diffident: possibly he credited her with as extensive an acquaintance with the subject as he himself possessed.
"I can't find Mrs. Fallowby's cabin anywhere," she said. "My conscience has been pricking me. Couldn't I do something for her?"
"She's quite all right," said Jeremiah hastily.
It was time enough to brace himself for an interview with Mrs. Fallowby when she made her appearance. The letter of excuse he had written was already torn up. How like that enterprising lady to discover that he was sailing!
And yet he was puzzled a little. Why should Mrs. Fallowby have taken this voyage without her unprepossessing daughters? He resolved at the earliest convenient moment to discover from Mary Perella a solution to this private mystery.
"We shall be in Funchal Harbor on Christmas Eve, by which time it ought to be fairly warm," he told her in the course of the afternoon walk. "It will be rather jolly doing one's Christmas shopping."
"Mrs. Fallowby will be well enough to come ashore by then?" she suggested.
Jeremiah prayed not, but refrained from giving expression to the hope.
The next night they leaned over the rail together and watched the faint star of light which stood for Cape Finisterre sink down behind the horizon; and he told her what a bore life was, and how he hated crowds and people who were terribly resolved to be gay to order. And she reviewed some of her landladies, and told him of a restaurant where one could get a wonderful lunch for 3d., or 6d.; and once he squeezed her arm to attract her attention to a passing sailing ship, its white sails looking ghostly in the faint light of the crescent moon, and she did not seem to resent that method. Yet, curiously enough, when he took her arm again to lead her to the companion-way, she very gently disengaged herself.
"I hope Mrs. Fallowby will be better in the morning," she said, "and I do hope you will do some work—I feel a great impostor: I haven't done a stroke since I've come on to this ship!"
He went to bed and dreamed of gray eyes and very soft arms that gave under his grip.
The night before the ship came into Funchal Bay, and whilst he was dressing for dinner, the purser came to see him, and the tone of that officer was rather short, and his manner strangely hostile.
"In what name did you book this cabin, Mr. Fallowby?"
"In my own name," said Jeremiah in surprise.
The purser looked at him with suspicion.
"The name I have on the list is Frimley—the same initials, J. F., 'John Frimley.' Are you sure that isn't the name in which the cabin is booked?"
"You've seen my ticket—and really, does it matter?" asked Jeremiah, a little impatiently.
"It does and it doesn't," said the purser. "Who is this young lady you're with, Mr. Fallowby?"
"I am with no young lady," said Jeremiah, with pardonable asperity. "If you mean Miss Perella, she is my aunt's secretary. Nobody knows better than you that my aunt is somewhere on this ship. I suggest that you should interview Mrs. Leslie Fallowby, who I have no doubt will give you the fullest information."
"There is no person named Mrs. Leslie Fallowby on the ship," said the purser, and Jeremiah stared at him. "The young lady," went on the officer, " states that she is your secretary, and that she is traveling in that capacity."
"My secretary!" said Jeremiah incredulously.
"She says she is your secretary, engaged by your wife."
Jeremiah sat down with a thump.
"Say that again," he said.
The obliging purser repeated his tremendous tidings.
"Now I don't want any trouble with you, Mr. Fallowby," he said, not unkindly, "or with your wife. I'm going to show you a copy of the wireless we have received from London, and you'll understand that the game is up."
"Which game?" asked Jeremiah faintly.
The purser took a sheet of paper from his pocket, evidently a typewritten copy of a radio that had been received that day. It ran:
"To Captain, London Castle. Believe passenger named John Frimley and his wife are traveling under assumed name on your ship. They booked Suite No. 17, but they may be traveling separately to avoid detection. Frimley escaped our officers sent to arrest him at Waterloo, and has not been traced. He is a tall, good-looking man, clean-shaven, may wear horn-rimmed spectacles—"
(At this point Jeremiah quickly removed the reading-glasses he had been wearing when the purser came into the stateroom.)
"His wife is pretty, looks younger than she is. If any persons answering this description or occupying Suite 17, hand them to Portuguese Police, Funchal, to await extradition."
Jeremiah read the document twice.
"Your wife is already under guard in her cabin," said the purser, "and there'll be a master-of-arms on duty outside your stateroom to see that you do not attempt to leave until the Portuguese authorities arrive."
Jeremiah gaped at him.
"My wife is what?"
The purser waved a majestic hand and left the cabin before Mr. Jeremiah Fallowby began the exercise of the colorful vocabulary which he had acquired in his travels.
It was in the bare and whitewashed office of a Portuguese police office that he saw again Miss Mary Perella. He expected her to be carried in, a pallid and wilting wreck, whose nights had been made sleepless by the thought of her tragic sorrow; but it was a very healthy and indignant girl who came across the uncovered floor towards him.
"What is the meaning of this, Mr. Frimley!" she asked. Reproach was rather in her eyes than in her voice. "It isn't true that you are a jewel thief?"
"My name is Fallowby," protested Jeremiah.
"You told me your wife was on board, and she isn't."
He guessed that this was his real offense.
"I never said my wife was anywhere," said Jeremiah loudly. "I was talking about my aunt, Mrs, Leslie Fallowby. You told me you were her secretary."
"I did nothing of the kind," she stormed. "I told you I was your secretary—that your wife had engaged me."
"But I've never had a wife!" he wailed.
"Attention!" The fat man behind the desk boomed the word. "I know English too well! Now you spik my questions when I ask them!"
"Fire ahead," said Jeremiah recklessly.
He slept that Christmas Eve in a stone cell which was very dark and very unpleasant in other respects. He had no acquaintance with the Portuguese language, but he spoke Spanish rather fluently, and he learned that the girl had been taken to a convent. The British Vice-Consul had been requisitioned, but that worthy was not in Funchal. So Jeremiah despatched long and vehement cables to London... and might have saved himself the trouble.
In the early hours of the morning came a wire to the Chief of Police, announcing the arrest of "Mr. and Mrs. Frimley," whose other name was Vanne, and an apologetic police dignitary of the first class came personally, and in uniform, to offer apologies.
It was from him that Jerry learned of Mr. Vanne's little plot (revealed to the London police by his wife); of the engagement of a secretary who was to charm from a susceptible millionaire a view of his diamonds and such information about their safeguarding as she could secure.
Apparently, Miss Mary Perella had been similarly informed: he met her half-way up the steep slope which led to the convent, and she came running down with her hands outstretched.
"Welcome, and a merry Christmas, fellow-convict!" she said, with a gaiety that was immensely infectious.
He took her arm as they walked down the cobbled hill lane together, and came to a bench that overlooked the bay.
She was beautifully sympathetic—apparently saw nothing in her own experience but a thrilling adventure.
"I knew, of course, that something must be wrong. I couldn't imagine you were a burglar, or whatever this Mr. Frimley was." She sighed. "I've lost a very good job," she said ruefully.
"Let me find you another," said Jeremiah eagerly. "I really am going to write a book—I have threatened to do it for years, and you can come along and correct my spelling."
She half shook her head. Yet apparently she accepted the position, for they went on to the Cape by the next mail steamer, and the English chaplain who had married them on the morning they sailed came down to see them off.
AT Carolina, in the Transvaal, was a store kept by a man named Lioski, who was a Polish Jew. There was an officers' clubhouse, the steward of which was a Greek sportsman named Poropulos, and this story is about these two men, and about an officer of Hampton's Scouts who took too much wine and saw a pair of boots.
I have an intense admiration for George Poropulos, and I revere his memory. I admire him for his nerve; though, for the matter of that, his nerve was no greater than mine.
Long before the war came, when the negotiations between Great Britain and the Transvaal Government were in the diplomatic stage, I drifted to Carolina from the Rand, leaving behind me in the golden city much of ambition, hope, and all the money I had brought with me from England. I came to South Africa with a young wife and £370—within a few shillings—because the doctors told me the only chance I had was in such a hot, dry climate as the highlands of Africa afforded. For my own part, there was a greater attraction in the possibility of turning those few hundreds of mine into thousands, for Johannesburg was in the delirium of a boom.
I left Johannesburg nearly penniless. I could not, at the moment, explain the reason of my failure, for the boom continued, and I had the advantage of the expert advice of Arthur Lioski, who was staying at the same boarding house as myself.
There were malicious people who warned me against Lioski. His own compatriots, sharp men of business, told me to 'ware Lioski, but I ignored the advice because I was very confident in my own judgment, and Lioski was a plausible, handsome man, a little flashy in appearance, but decidedly a beautiful animal.
He was in Johannesburg on a holiday, he said. He had stores in various parts of the country where he sold everything from broomsticks to farm wagons, and he bore the evidence of his prosperity.
He took us to the theater, or rather he took Lillian, for I was too seedy to go out much. I did not grudge Lillian the pleasure. Life was very dull for a young girl whose middle-aged husband had a spot on his lung, and Lioski was so kind and gentlemanly, so far as Lil was concerned, that the only feeling I had in the matter was one of gratitude.
He was tall and dark, broad-shouldered, with a set to his figure and a swing of carriage that excited my admiration. He was possessed of enormous physical strength, and I have seen him take two quarreling Kaffirs—men of no ordinary muscularity—and knock their heads together.
He had an easy, ready laugh, a fund of stories, some a little coarse, I thought, and a florid gallantry which must have been attractive to women. Lil always brightened up wonderfully after an evening with him.
His knowledge of mines and mining propositions was bewildering. I left all my investments in his hands, and it proves something of my trust in him, that when, day by day, he came to me for money, to "carry over" stock—whatever that means—I paid without hesitation. Not only did I lose every penny I possessed, but I found myself in debt to him to the extent of a hundred pounds.
Poor Lil! I broke the news to her of my ruin, and she took it badly; reproached, stormed, and wept in turn, but quieted down when I told her that in the kindness of his heart, Lioski had offered me a berth at his Carolina store. I was to get a £16 a month, half of which was to be paid in stores at wholesale prices and the other half in cash. I was to live rent free in a little house near the store. I was delighted with the offer. It was an immediate rise, though I foresaw that the conditions of life would be much harder than the life to which I had been accustomed in England. We traveled down the Delagoa line to Middleburg, and found a Cape cart waiting to carry us across the twenty miles of rolling veldt. The first six months in Carolina were the happiest I have ever spent. The work in the store was not particularly arduous. I found that it had the reputation of being one of the best-equipped stores in the Eastern Transvaal, and certainly we did a huge business for so small a place. It was not on the town we depended, but upon the surrounding country. Lioski did not come back with us, but after we had been installed for a week he came and took his residence in the store.
All went well for six months. He taught Lil to ride and drive, and every morning they went cantering over the veldt together. Me he treated more like a brother than an employee, and I found myself hotly resenting the uncharitable things that were said about him, for Carolina, like other small African towns, was a hotbed of gossip.
Lil was happy for that six months, and then I began to detect a change in her attitude toward me. She was snappy, easily offended, insisted upon having her own room—to which I agreed, for, although my chest was better, I still had an annoying cough at night which might have been a trial to anybody within hearing.
It was about this time that I met Poropulos. He came into the store on a hot day in January, a little man of forty-five or thereabouts. He was unusually pale, and had a straggling, weedy beard. His hair was long, his clothes were old and stained, and so much of his shirt as was revealed at his throat was sadly in need of laundering.
Yet he was cheerful and debonair—and singularly flippant. He stalked in the store, looked around critically, nodded to me, and smiled. Then he brought his sjambok down on the counter with a smack.
"Where's Shylock?" he asked easily.
I am afraid that I was irritated.
"Do you mean Mr. Lioski?"
"Shylock, I said," he repeated. "Shylockstein, the Lothario of Carolina." He smacked the counter again, still smiling.
I was saved the trouble of replying, for at that moment Lioski entered. He stopped dead and frowned when he saw the Greek.
"What do you want, you little beast," he asked harshly.
For answer, the man leaned up against the counter, ran his fingers through his straggling beard, and cocked his head.
"I want justice," he said unctuously—"the restoration of money stolen. I want to send a wreath to your funeral: I want to write your biography—?"
"Clear out," shouted Lioski. His face was purple with anger, and he brought his huge fist down upon the counter with a crash that shook the wooden building.
He might have been uttering the most pleasant of compliments, for all the notice the Greek took.
Crash! went Lioski's fist on the counter.
Smash! came Poropulos's sjambok, and there was something mocking and derisive in his action that made Lioski mad.
With one spring he was over the counter, a stride and he had his hand on the Greek's collar—and then he stepped back quickly with every drop of blood gone from his face, for the Greek's knife had flashed under his eyes. I thought Lioski was stabbed, but it was fear that made him white.
The Greek rested the point of the knife on the counter and twiddled it round absentmindedly, laying his palm on the hilt and spinning it with great rapidity.
"Nearly did it that time, my friend," he said, with a note of regret, "nearly did it that time—I shall be hanged for you yet."
Lioski was white and shaking.
"Come in here," he said in a low voice, and the little Greek followed him to the back parlor. They were together for about an hour; sometimes I could hear Mr. Lioski's voice raised angrily, sometimes Poropulos's little laugh. When they came out again the Greek was smiling still and smoking one of my employer's cigars.
"My last word to you," said Lioski huskily, "is this—keep your mouth closed and keep away from me."
"And my last word to you," said Poropulos, jauntily puffing at the cigar, "is this—turn honest, and enjoy a sensation."
He stepped forth from the store with the air of one who had gained a moral victory.
I never discovered what hold the Greek had over my master. I gatherered that at some time or another, Poropulos had lost money, and that he held Lioski responsible.
In some mysterious way Poropulos and I became friends. He was an adventurer of a type. He bought and sold indifferent mining propositions, took up contracts, and, I believe, was not above engaging in the Illicit Gold Buying business. His attitude to Lillian was one of complete adoration. When he was with her his eyes never left her face.
It was about this time that my great sorrow came to me. Lioski went away to Durban—to buy stock, he said—and a few days afterwards Lillian, who had become more and more exigent, demanded to be allowed to go to Cape Town for a change.
I shall remember that scene.
I was at breakfast in the store when she came in. She was white, I thought, but her pallor suited her, with her beautiful black hair and great dark eyes.
She came to the point without any preliminary. "I want to go away," she said.
I looked up in surprise.
"Go away, dear? Where?"
She was nervous. I could see that from the restless movement of her hands.
"I want to go to—to Cape Town—I know a girl there —I'm sick of this place—I hate it!"
She stamped her foot, and I thought that she was going to break into a fit of weeping. Her lips trembled, and for a time she could not control her voice.
"I am going to be ill if you don't let me go," she said at last. "I can feel—?"
"But the money, dear," I said, for it was distressing to me that I could not help her toward the holiday she wanted.
"I can find the money," she said, in an unsteady voice. "I have got a few pounds saved—the allowance you gave me for my clothes—I didn't spend it all—let me go, Charles—please, please!"
I drove her to the station, and took her ticket for Pretoria. I would have taken her to the capital, but I had the store to attend to.
"By the way, what will your address be?" I asked just as the train was moving off.
She was leaning over the gate of the car platform, looking at me strangely.
"I will wire it—I have it in my bag," she called out, and I watched the tail of the train round the curve, with an aching heart. There was something wrong; what it was I could not understand. Perhaps I was a fool. I think I was.
I think I have said that I had made friends with Poropulos. Perhaps it would be more truthful to say that he made friends with me, for he had to break down my feeling of distrust and disapproval. Then, again, I was not certain how Mr. Lioski would regard such a friendship, but, to my surprise, he took very little notice of it or, for the matter of that, of me.
Poropulos came into the store the night my wife left. Business was slack; there was war in the air, rumors of ultimatums had been persistent, and the Dutch farmers had avoided the store.
A week passed, and I began to worry, for I had not heard from Lil. I had had a letter from Lioski, telling me that in view of the unsettled condition of the country he was extending his stay in Durban for a fortnight. The letter gave me the fullest instructions as to what I was to do in case war broke out, but, unfortunately, I had no opportunity of putting them into practice.
The very day I received the letter, a Boer commando rode into Carolina, and at the head of it rode the Landrost Peter du Huis, a pleasant man, whom I knew slightly. He came straight to the store, dismounted, and entered.
"Good morning, Mr. Gray," he said. "I fear that I come on unpleasant business."
"What is that?" I asked.
"I have come to commandeer your stock in the name of the Republic," he said, "and to give you the tip to clear out."
It does not sound possible, but it is nevertheless a fact that in two hours I had left Carolina, leaving Lioski's store in the hands of the Boers, and bringing with me receipts signed by the Landrost for the goods he had commandeered. In four hours I was in a cattle truck with a dozen other refugees on my way to Pretoria—for I had elected to go to Durban to inform Lioski at first hand of what had happened.
Of the journey down to the coast it is not necessary to speak. We were sixty hours en route; we were without food, and had little to drink. At Ladysmith I managed to get a loaf of bread and some milk; at Maritzburg I got my first decent meal. But I arrived in Durban, tired, dispirited, and hungry. Lioski was staying at the Royal, and as soon as I got to the station I hailed a ricksha to take me there.
There had been no chance of telegraphing. The wires were blocked with government messages. We had passed laden troop trains moving up to the frontier, and had cheered the quiet men in khaki who were going, all of them, to years of hardship and privation, many of them to death.
The vestibule of the Royal was crowded, but I made my way to the office.
"Lioski?" said the clerk. "Mr. and Mrs. Lioski, No. 84—you'll find your way to their sitting room."
I went slowly up the stairs, realizing in a flash the calamity.
I did not blame Lil; it was a hard life I had brought her to. I had been selfish, as sick men are selfish, inconsiderate.
They stood speechless, as I opened the door and entered. I closed the door behind me. Still they stood, Lil as pale as death, with terror and shame in her eyes, Lioski in a black rage.
"Well?" It was he who broke the silence.
He was defiant, shameless, and as I went on to talk about what had happened at the store, making no reference to what I had seen, his lips curled contemptuously.
But Lil, womanlike, rushed in with explanations. She had meant to go to Cape Town—the train service had been bad—she had decided to go to Durban—Mr. Lioski had been kind enough to book her a room——
I let her go on. When she had finished I handed my receipts to Lioski.
"That ends our acquaintance, I think."
"As you like," he replied with a shrug.
I turned to Lillian.
"Come, my dear," I said, but she made no move, and I saw Lioski smile again.
I lost all control over myself and leaped at him, but his big fist caught me before I could reach him, and I went down, half stunned. I was no match for him. I knew that, and if the blow did nothing else, it sobered me. I picked myself up. I was sick with misery and hate.
"Come, Lil," I said again.
She was looking at me, and I thought I saw a look of disgust in her face. I did not realize that I was bleeding, and that I must have been a most unpleasant figure. I only knew that she loathed me at that moment, and I turned on my heel and left them, my own wife and the big man who had broken me.
One forgets things in war time. I joined the Imperial Light Horse and went to the front. The doctor passed me as sound, so I suppose that all that is claimed for the climate of Africa is true.
We went into Ladysmith, and I survived the siege. I was promoted for bringing an officer out of action under fire. I earned a reputation for daring, which I did not deserve, because always I was courting swift death, and taking risks to that end.
Before Buller's force had pushed a way through the stubborn lines to our relief, I had received my commission. More wonderful to me, I found myself a perfectly healthy man, as hard as nails, as callous as the most- experienced soldier. Only, somewhere down in my heart, a little worm gnawed all the time; sleeping or waking, fighting or resting, I thought of Lillian, and wondered, wondered, wondered.
Ladysmith was relieved. We marched on toward Pretoria. I was transferred to Hampton's Horse with the rank of major, and for eighteen months I moved up and down the Eastern Transvaal chasing a will-othe-wisp of a commandant, who was embarrassing the blockhouse lines.
Then one day I came upon Poropulos.
We were encamped outside Standerton when he rode in on a sorry- looking Burnto pony. He had been in the country during the war, he said, buying and selling horses. He did not mention Lioski's name to me, and so studiously did he avoid referring to the man, that I saw at once that he knew.
It was brought home to me by his manner that he had a liking for me that I had never guessed. In what way I had earned his regard I cannot say, but it was evident he entertained a real affection for me.
We parted after an hour's chat—he was going back to Carolina. He had a scheme for opening an officers' club in that town, where there was always a large garrison, and to which the wandering columns came from time to time to be re-equipped.
As for me, I continued the weary chase of the flying commando. Trek, trek, trek, in fierce heat, in torrential downpour, over smooth veldt and broken hills, skirmishing, sniping, and now and then a sharp engagement, with a dozen casualties on either side.
Four months passed, and the column was ordered into Carolina for a refit. I went without qualms, though I knew she was there, and Lioski was there.
We got into Carolina in a thunderstorm, and the men were glad to reach a place that bore some semblance of civilization. My brother officers, after our long and profitless trek, were overjoyed at the prospect of a decent dinner—for Poropulos's club was already famous among the columns.
My horse picked up a stone and went dead lame, so I stayed behind to doctor him, and rode to Carolina two hours after the rest of the column had arrived.
It was raining heavily as I came over a fold of the hill that showed the straggling township. There was no human being in sight save a woman who stood by the roadside, waiting, and I knew instinctively, long before I reached her, that it was Lillian. I cantered toward her. Her face was turned in my direction, and she stood motionless as I drew rein and swung myself to the ground.
She was changed, not as I expected, for sorrow and suffering had etherealized her. Her big eyes burned in a face that was paler than ever, her lips, once so red and full, were almost white.
"I have been waiting for you," she said.
"Have you, dear? You are wet."
She shook her head impatiently. I slipped off my mackintosh and put it about her.
"He has turned me out," she said.
She did not cry. I think she had not recovered from the shock. Something stirred from the thin cloak she was wearing; a feeble cry was muffled by the wrapping.
"I have got a little girl," she said, "but she is dying." She began to cry silently, the tears running down her wet face in streams.
I took her into Carolina, and found a Dutchwoman who put her and the baby to bed, and gave her some coffee.
I went up to the officers' club just after sunset and met Poropulos coming down.
He was in a terrible rage, and was muttering to himself in some tongue I could not understand.
"Oh, here you are!"—he almost spat the words in his anger —"that dog Lioski—?"
He was about to say something, but checked himself. I think it was about Lillian that he intended to speak at first, but he changed the subject to another grievance. "I was brought before the magistrate and fined £100 for selling field-force tobacco. My club will be ruined —Lioski informed the police—by—?"
He was incoherent in his passion. I gather that he had been engaged in some shady business, and that Lioski had detected him. He almost danced before me in the rain.
"Shylock dies tonight," he said, and waved his enemy out of the world with one sweep of his hand. "He dies tonight—I am weary of him—for eighteen—nineteen years I have known him, and he's dirt right through—?"
He went out without another word. I stood on the slope of the hill watching him.
I dined at the club, and went straight back to the house where I had left my wife. She was sleeping—but the baby was dead. Poor little mortal! I owed it no grudge, but I was glad when they told me.
All the next day I sat by her bed listening to Lillian's mutterings, for she was very ill. I suffered all the tortures of a damned soul sitting there, for she spoke of Lioski—"Arthur" she called him—prayed to him for mercy—told him she loved him—
I was late for dinner at the club. There was a noisy crowd there. Young Harvey of my own regiment had had too much to drink, and I avoided his table.
My hand shook as I poured out a glass of wine, and somebody remarked on it.
I did not see Poropulos until the dinner was halfway through. Curiously enough, I looked at the clock as he came in, and the hands pointed to half past eight.
The Greek was steward of the club, and was serving the wine. He was calm, impassive, remarkably serene, I thought. He exchanged jokes with the officers who were grumbling that they had had to wait for the fulfillment of their orders.
"It was ten to eight when I ordered this," grumbled one man.
Then, suddenly, Harvey, who had been regarding Poropulos with drunken gravity, pointed downward.
"He's changed his boots," he said, and chuckled. Poropulos smiled amiably and went on serving. "He's changed his boots!" repeated Harvey, concentrating his mind upon trivialities as only a drunken man can. The men laughed. "Oh, dry up, Harvey!" said somebody.
He got no further. Through the door came a military policeman, splashed from head to foot with mud.
"District Commandant here, sir?" he demanded. "There's been a man murdered."
"Soldier?" asked a dozen voices.
"No, sir—storekeeper, name of Lioski—shot dead half an hour ago."
I do not propose to tell in detail all that happened following that. Two smart C.I.D. men came down from Johannesburg, made a few inquiries, and arrested Poropulos. He was expecting the arrest, and half an hour before the officers came he asked me to go to him.
I spent a quarter of an hour with him, and what we said is no man's business but ours. He told me something that startled me—he loved Lillian, too. I had never guessed it, but I did not doubt him. But it was finally for Lillian's sake that he made me swear an oath so dreadful that I cannot bring myself to write it down—an oath so unwholesome, and so against the grain of a man, that life after it could only be a matter of sickness and shame.
Then the police came and took him away.
Lioski had been shot dead in the store by some person who had walked in when the store was empty, at a time when there was nobody in the street. This person had shot the Jew dead and walked out again. The police theory was that Poropulos had gone straight from the club, in the very middle of dinner, had committed the murder, and returned to continue his serving, and the crowning evidence was the discovery that he had changed his boots between 7.30 and 8.30. The mud-stained boots were found in a cellar, and the chain of evidence was completed by the statement of a trooper who had seen the Greek walking from the direction of the store, at 8.10, with a revolver in his hand.
Poropulos was cheerful to the last—cheerful through the trial, through the days of waiting in the fort at Johannesburg.
"I confess nothing," he said to the Greek priest. "I hated Lioski, and I am glad that he is dead, that is all. It is true that I went down to kill him, but it was too late."
When they pinioned him he turned to me.
"I have left my money to you," he said. "There is about four thousand pounds. You will look after her."
"That is the only reason I am alive."
"Did you murder Arthur Lioski?" said the priest again.
"No," said Poropulos, and smiled as he went to his death. And what he said was true, as I know. I shot Lioski.
FINDINGS are keepings. That was a favorite saying of Laurie Whittaker—a slogan of Stinie Whittaker (who had other names), her father.
Laurie and a youthful messenger of the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived simultaneously on the doorstep of 704 Coram Street, Bloomsbury, and their arrival was coincident with the absence, in the little courtyard at the back of the house, of the one domestic servant on duty in that boarding-house. So that, while the electric bell tinkled in the kitchen, the overworked domestic was hanging up dishcloths in the backyard.
"I'm afraid there's nobody in," said Laurie, flashing a bright smile at the youth, and then saw the cablegram in his hand. "It's for Captain John Harrowby, isn't it?" she asked. "I'll give it to him."
And the boy, who was new to his job, delivered the envelope and accepted her signature in his book, without a very close regard to the regulations of the Cable Company.
Laurie slipped the envelope in her bag and pressed the bell again. This time the servant heard the signal and came, wiping her hands on her apron, to open the door.
"No, miss, Captain Harrowby's out," she said, recognizing the visitor, and giving her the deference and respect which were due to one who lived in the grandest house in Bedford Square. "He's gone up to the city. Will you step in and wait, miss?"
If Laurie felt annoyed, she did not advertise the fact. She gave her sweetest smile to the servant, nodded pleasantly to the pretty girl who came up the steps as she went down, and, re- entering her limousine, was driven away.
"Who is the lady, Matilda?" asked the newcomer.
"Her?" said the girl-of-all-work. "That's Miss Whittaker—a friend of Mr. Harrowby's. Surely he's told you about her, Miss Bancroft?"
Elsie Bancroft laughed.
"Mr. Harrowby and I are not on such terms that he discusses his friends with me, Matilda," she said, and mounted to her tiny room on the top floor, to turn over again more vital and pressing problems than Captain Harrowby's friendship.
She was a stenographer in a lawyer's office, and if her stipend was not generous it was fair, and might have been sufficient if she were not the mother of a family—in a figurative sense. There was a small brother at school in Broadstairs, and a smaller sister at a preparatory school at Ramsgate, and the money which had been left by their father barely covered the fees of one.
Two letters were propped on her mantelpiece, and she recognized their character with a quaking heart. She stood for a long time surveying them with big, grave eyes before, with a sigh, she took them down and listlessly tore them open. She skimmed the contents with a little grimace, and, lifting her typewriter from the floor, put it on to the table, unlocked a drawer, and, taking out a wad of paper written in a crabbed handwriting, began to type. She had got away from the office early to finish the spare-time work which often helped to pay the rent.
She had been typing a quarter of an hour when there was a gentle tap at the door, and, in answer to her invitation, a man came a few inches into the room—a slim, brown-faced man of thirty, good-looking, with that far-away expression in his eyes which comes to men who have passed their lives in wide spaces.
"How are you getting on?" he asked, almost apologetically.
"I've done about ten pages since last night," she said. "I'm rather slow, but—" She made a little grimace.
"My handwriting is dreadful, isn't it?" he said, almost humbly.
"It is rather," she answered, and they both laughed. "I wish I could do it faster," she said. "It is as interesting as a novel."
He scratched his chin.
"I suppose it is, in a way," he said cautiously, and then, with sudden embarrassment, "But it's perfectly true."
"Of course it's true," she scoffed. "Nobody could read this report and think it wasn't true! What are you going to do with the manuscript when you have finished it?"
He looked round the room aimlessly, before his eyes returned to the pretty face that showed above the machine.
"I don't know," he said vaguely. "It might go into a magazine. I've written it out for my own satisfaction, and because it makes what seems a stupid folly look intelligent and excusable. Besides which, I am hoping to sell the property, and this account may induce some foolish person to buy a parcel of swamp and jungle—though I'd feel as though I were swindling a buyer!"
She had pushed the typewritten sheets towards him, and he picked up the first and read:
"A Report on the Alluvial Goldfields of Quimbo,"
and, reading it, he sighed.
"Yes, the gold is there all right," he said mournfully, "though I've never been able to find it. I've got a concession of a hundred square miles—it's worth less than a hundred shillings. There isn't a railway within five hundred miles; the roads are impossible; and even if there was gold there, I don't know that I should be able to get it away. Anyway, no gold has been found. I have a partner still pottering away out there: I shall probably have his death on my conscience sooner or later."
"Are you going back to Africa?" she asked curiously.
He shook his head.
"I don't think so." He hesitated. "My—my friends think I should settle down in England. I've made a little money by trading. Possibly I'll buy a farm and raise ducks."
She laughed softly.
"You won't be able to write a story about that," she said, and then, remembering, "Did the maid tell you that Miss Whittaker had called?"
She saw his start, and the color deepen in the tanned face.
"Oh, did she?" he asked awkwardly. "Really? No, the girl told me nothing." And in another minute he was running down the stairs. She did not know whether to be angry or amused at this sudden termination of their talk.
Captain Harrowby had been an inmate of the boarding-house for three weeks, and she had gladly accepted the offer, that came through her landlady, to type what she thought was the story he had written. The "story" proved to be no more, at first glance, than a prosaic report upon an African property of his, which, he told her, he was trying to sell.
Who was Miss Whittaker? She frowned as she asked herself the question, though she had no reason for personal interest in the smiling girl she had met at the door. She decided that she did not like this smart young lady, with her shingled hair and her ready smile. She knew that Captain Harrowby spent a great deal of his time at the Whittakers' house, but she had no idea that there was anything remarkable in that, until the next day, when she was taking her lunch at the office, she asked old Kilby, who knew the secret history of London better than most process- servers.
"Whittaker?" the old man chuckled. "Oh, I know Stinie Whittaker all right! He runs a gambling hell in Bloomsbury somewhere. He was convicted about ten years ago for the same offense. I served a couple of writs on him years and years ago. He's more prosperous now."
"But surely Miss Whittaker doesn't know?" said the shocked girl. "She's—she's the friend of a—a friend of mine."
Old Kilby laughed uproariously.
"Laurie? Why, Laurie's brought more men to the old man's table than anybody else! Know? Sure she does! Why, she spends all summer going voyages in order to pick up likely birds for Stinie to kill!"
The news filled the girl with uneasiness, though she found it difficult to explain her interest in the lonely man who occupied the room beneath her. Should she warn him? At the mere suggestion she was in a panic. She had quite enough trouble of her own, she told herself (and here she spoke only the truth). And was it likely that a man of his experience would be caught by card- sharps? For six days she turned the matter over in her mind and came to a decision.
On the evening she reached this, John Harrowby dressed himself with great care, took a roll of notes from his locked cash-box, and, after contemplating them thoughtfully, thrust them into his pocket. His situation was a serious one; more serious than he would admit to himself. Laurie had cautioned him against playing for high stakes, but she had not cautioned him against Bobby Salter, the well-dressed young man-about-town, whom he had met first in the Bedford Square drawing-room. Bobby had told him stories of fortunes made and lost at cards, and even initiated him into a "system" which he himself had tested, and had been at his elbow whenever he sat at the table, to urge him to a course of play which had invariably proved disastrous.
John Harrowby was without guile. He no more thought of suspecting the immaculate Bobby than he thought of suspecting Laurie herself. But tonight he would play without the assistance of his mentor, he thought, and drew a deep breath as he patted his pocket and felt the bulge of the notes.
He threw a light coat over his arm, and, turning off the light, stepped out on to the landing, to stare in amazement at a girl who was waiting patiently, her back to the banisters, as she had been waiting for ten minutes.
"I wanted to see you before you went, Captain Harrowby," said Elsie, with a quickly beating heart.
"Anything wrong with the manuscript?" he asked in surprise.
She shook her head.
"No, it isn't that, only—only I'm wondering whether—"
Words failed her for a second.
He was palpably amazed at her agitation, and could find no reason for it.
"Oh, Lord," he said, remembering suddenly. "I haven't paid you!"
"No, no, no, it isn't that." She pushed his hand from his pocket. "Of course it isn't that, Captain Harrowby! It's something—well... I know you'll think I'm horribly impertinent, but do you think you ought to play cards for money?" she asked breathlessly.
He stared at her open-mouthed.
"I don't quite know what you mean," he said slowly.
"Haven't you lost... a lot of money at Mr. Whittaker's house?" She had to force the words out.
The look in his face changed. From amazement, she saw his eyes narrow, and then, to her unspeakable relief, he smiled.
"I have lost quite a sum," he said gently. "But I don't think you—"
"You don't think that's any business of mine? And neither is it," she said, speaking rapidly. "But I wanted to tell you that Mr. Whittaker ... is a well-known—"
Here she had to stop. She could not say the man was a cheat or a thief; she knew no more than old Kilby had hinted.
"I mean, he has always had... play at his house," she faltered. "And you're new to this country, and you don't know people as—as we know them."
This time he laughed.
"You're talking as though you were in the detective service, Miss Bancroft," he said, and then suddenly laid his hand on her shoulder. "I quite understand that you are trying to do me a good turn. In my heart of hearts I believe you're right. But, unfortunately, I have lost too much to stop now—how you knew that I'd lost anything, I can't guess."
She nodded, and, without another word, turned abruptly away and ran up the stairs to her own room, angry with herself, angry with him, but, more than anything else, astounded at her own action.
No less puzzled and troubled was John Harrowby as he walked into Bedford Square.
Elsie had some work to do; but somehow she could not keep her mind fixed upon her task, and, after spoiling three sheets of paper, gave up the attempt and, sitting back in her chair, let her mind rove at will.
At half-past nine the maid brought her up a cup of tea.
"That Miss Whittaker's just gone, miss," she announced.
"Miss Whittaker? Has she been here?"
"Yes, miss; she come about a quarter of an hour ago and went up to Captain Harrowby's room. That's what puzzles me."
Elsie stared at her, open-mouthed.
"Why on earth did she go there?" she demanded.
Matilda shook her head.
"Blest if I can tell, miss. She didn't know that I was watching her—she sent me down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for her, which was only a dodge of hers, and if I hadn't come back to ask her whether she took sugar, I wouldn't 'a' known she'd been out of the droring- room. I see her coming out of Captain Harrowby's room as I was standing in the hall. You can just see the door through the banisters."
Elsie rose, and went downstairs. Harrowby's door was ajar. She switched on the light. What she expected to find, she did not know. There was no sign of disorder. Possibly, she thought, and she found herself sneering, it was a visit of devotion by a love- stricken lady; but there was a cupboard door ajar, and half in and half out the cupboard, a japanned box that was open. She took up the box. It was empty. She put the box back in the cupboard and went thoughtfully out on to the landing.
"I think I'll go and see Captain Harrowby," she said, obeying a sudden impulse, and, a few minutes later, she was walking through the rain to Bedford Square.
She was within a dozen paces of the door of Mr. Whittaker's house when a cab drew up, and she saw Laurie Whittaker alight, pay the cabman and, running up the step, open the door of the house. Where had she been in the meantime? wondered Elsie. But there was no mystery here. It had begun to rain heavily as Laurie left the house in Coram Street, and she had sheltered in a doorway until a providential taxi came along.
Possibly it was the rain that damped the enthusiasm of the amateur detective; for now, with the Whittaker house only a few paces away, she hesitated. And the longer she waited, the wetter she became. The taxi-man who had brought Laurie lingered hopefully.
"Taxi, miss?" he asked, and Elsie, feeling a fool, nodded and climbed into the cab, glad to escape for a second from the downpour, and hating herself for her extravagance.
The cab had turned when her hand touched something on the seat. A woman's vanity-bag—
"Findings are keepings," according to the proverb, though there is an offense in law which is known as "stealing by finding."
Elsie Bancroft knew little of criminal law, but she was possessed of an inelastic conscience, so that when her hand touched the bag in the darkness, her first impulse was to tap at the window of the taxi-cab and draw the attention of the driver to her find. And then, for some reason, she checked the impulse. It was a fat bag, and the flap was open. Her ungloved fingers stole absently into its interior, and she knew that she was touching real money in large quantities.
During the war she had worked in a bank, and the feel of banknotes was familiar. Mechanically, she slipped their edge between her nimble fingers. One... two... three... she went on, until....
They might be five-pound notes—four hundred and twenty pounds. She felt momentarily giddy. Four hundred and twenty pounds! Sufficient to pay the children's school fees—she had had an urgent, if dignified, request from the principal of Tom's boarding-school and a no less pointed hint from Joan's—sufficient to settle the problem of the holidays; but—
She heaved a deep sigh and looked through the rain-blurred windows. She was painfully near to her destination, and she had to make her decision. It came as a shock to her that any decision had to be made; her course of duty was plain. It was to take the number of the cab, hand the bag to the driver, and report her discovery to the nearest police station.
There was nothing else to be done, no alternative line of action for an honest citizen....
The cab stopped with a jerk and, twisting himself in his seat, the driver yanked open the door.
* * * * *
Harrowby blinked twice at the retiring rake. A mahogany rake with a well-worn handle, and with an underlip of brass so truly set that even the flimsiest of banknotes could hardly escape its fine bevel. And there were banknotes aplenty on the croupier's side of that rake. They showed ends and corners and ordered edges, notes clean and unclean, but all having a certain interest to Harrowby, because, ten minutes, or maybe ten seconds before, they had been his, and were now the property of the man who wore his evening suit so awkwardly and sucked at a dead cigar.
John Harrowby put his hand in his pocket; as an action it was sheerly mechanical. His pocket, he knew, was a rifled treasury, but he felt he must make sure.
Then came Salter, plump, philosophical, and sympathetic. Salter could afford both his sympathy and philosophy; the house gave him a ten per cent commission on all the easy money he touted, so that even his plumpness was well inside his means.
"Well, how did you do?"
Harrowby's smile was of the slow dawning kind, starting at the corner of his eyes and ending with the expanse of a line of white teeth.
Salter made a noise, indicative of his annoyance.
"How much?" he asked anxiously.
He gave the impression that if the loss could be replaced from his pocket, it would be a loss no longer. And Stinie, he of the awkwardly worn dinner-jacket, sometimes minimized a client's losses and based his commission note on his pessimistic estimate.
"About two thousand pounds," said Harrowby.
"Two thousand pounds," said Salter thoughtfully.
He would be able to buy the car that he had refused in the afternoon. He felt pleased.
"Tough luck, old man—try another day."
Harrowby looked across to the table. The bank was still winning. Somebody said "Banco!" in a sharp, strained voice. There was a pause, a low consultation between the croupier and the banker, and a voice, so expressionless and unemotional that Harrowby knew it was the croupier's, said "I give."
And the bank won again.
Harrowby snuffled as though he found a difficulty in breathing.
He walked slowly down the stairs and paused for a second outside the white-and-gold door of the drawing-room, where he knew Laurie would be sitting. A moment's hesitation, then he turned the handle and went in. She was cuddled up in the corner of a big settee, a cigarette between her red lips, a book on her lap. She looked round, and for a second searched his face with her hard, appraising eyes. She was a year or two older than he ... he had thought her divine when he came back from Central Africa, where he had spent five bitter years, a trader's half- breed wife and an occasional missionary woman, shrivelled and yellow with heat and fever, the only glimpses he had of womankind.
But now he saw her without the rosy spectacles which he had worn.
"Have you been playing?" she asked coolly.
He nodded again.
"Really, father is too bad," she drawled. "I wish he wouldn't allow this high play in the house. I hope you're not badly hurt?"
"I've lost everything," he said.
For a second her eyebrows lifted.
"Really?" It was a polite, impersonal interest she showed, no more. "That's too bad."
She swung her feet to the floor, straightened her dress, and threw away her cigarette.
"Then we shall not be seeing a great deal of you in the future, Captain Meredith?"
"I'm afraid not," he said steadily.
Was this the girl he had known, who had come aboard at Madeira, who had made the five days' voyage from Funchal to Southampton pass in a flash? And now he must go back to scrape the earth, to trek into the impenetrable jungle, seeking the competence which he had thought was his.
"I think you are damnable!" he said.
For a second her brows met, then she laughed.
"My dear man, you're a fool," she said calmly. "I certainly invited you to come to the house, but I never asked you to gamble. And really, John, I thought you would take your medicine like a little gentleman."
His heart was thumping painfully. Between the chagrined man whose vanity has been hurt, and the clean anger of one who all his life had detested meanness and trickery, he was in a fair way to making a fool of himself.
"I'm sorry," he said in a low voice, and was walking out of the room when she called him by name.
"I hate to part like this." Her voice was soft, had the old cooing caress in it. "You'll think I'm horrid, John, but really I did my best to persuade you not to play."
He licked his dry lips and said nothing.
"Don't let us part bad friends." She held out her hand, and he took it automatically. "I thought we were going to have such a happy time together," she went on, her pathetic eyes on his. "Can't I lend you some money?"
He shook his head.
"I'm sure the luck would turn if you gave it a chance. Couldn't you sell something?"
The cool audacity of the suggestion took his breath away.
"Sell? What have I to sell?" he demanded harshly. "Souls and bodies are no longer negotiable, even if there was a twentieth- century Mephistopheles waiting round the corner to negotiate the deal!"
She toyed with the fringe of a cushion.
"You could sell your mine," she said, and his laugh sounded loud and discordant in the quietness of that daintily furnished room.
"That's worth twopence-ha'penny! It is a cemetery—a cemetery of hope and labor. It is the real white man's grave, and I am the white man."
She brought her eyes back to his.
"As you won't borrow money from me, I'll buy it for a thousand pounds."
Again he shook his head.
"No, I'm afraid there's nothing to be done," he said, "except to wish you good-night."
As he turned, she slipped between him and the door.
"I won't let you go like that, John," she said. "Won't you forgive me?"
"I've already forgiven you, if there's anything to forgive," he said.
"Sit down and write me a letter saying you forgive me. I want to have that tangible proof," she pleaded.
He was impatient to be gone, and the foolery of the suggestion grated on him.
"Then I'll write it," she said, sat down at the little escritoire and scribbled a dozen words. "Now sign that."
He would have gone, but she clutched him by the sleeve.
He took the pen and scrawled his name, without reading the note, which was half concealed by her hand. Looking through her open fingers, he saw the words "Quimbo Concession."
"What's that?" he said sharply, but she snatched the letter away.
"Give me that paper!" he demanded sternly, reaching out for it, but in another second an automatic pistol had appeared in her hand.
"Go whilst the going's good, Harrowby," she said steadily.
But she had not reckoned on this particular type of man. Suddenly his hand shot out and gripped her wrist, pinning it to the table. In another second he had snatched the letter and flung it into the little fire that blazed on the hearth. He held her at bay till the last scrap of blue paper had turned to black ashes, and then, with a little smile and a nod, he went out of the room into the street and the pelting rain.
He was wet through as he opened the door of No. 704 Coram Street. Matilda, half-way up the stairs, turned with her startling news. He listened and frowned.
"Miss Whittaker been here?" he said incredulously.
"Yes, sir... and Miss Bancroft went to tell you all about it. Didn't you see her?"
He shook his head.
What had Laurie Whittaker wanted? he asked himself, as he went up the stairs to his room. The girl must have been mistaken.
He took one glance at the open cupboard, and then the truth leapt at him, and, snatching at the box, he put it on the table and threw open the lid. There had been a square sheet of parchment in a broad envelope, and on that parchment was inscribed his title to the Quimbo Concession. It was gone.
He turned with an oath. A girl was standing watching him with grave eyes.
"Is this what you're looking for?" she asked.
Her face was very pale. She held out the envelope, and he took it from her hand.
"Where did this come from?" he said, in amazement.
"I stole it," she answered simply; "and I think this is yours."
He took the envelope from her hand with a frown, extracted a cable form and read. It was from his partner.
"Gold found in large quantities near Crocodile Creek. Congratulations."
"How did you get this?" he gasped.
She held out a little French vanity-bag, and he recognized it instantly.
"I found it in a cab; Miss Whittaker left it there," she said. "There is also four hundred and twenty pounds which belongs to her."
"Which belong to us," said John Harrowby firmly. "Findings are keepings in this case, my child. She found me and kept most of my money—I've got fifty pounds left at the bank—and I think we're entitled to this little salvage from the wreck."
And then he kissed her, and it seemed such a natural thing to do, that she offered no protest.
MR. Felix O'Hara Golbeater knew something of criminal investigation, for he had been a solicitor for eighteen years and had been engaged in work which brought him into touch with the criminal classes, and his ingenuity and shrewd powers of observation had often enabled him to succeed in securing a conviction where ordinary police methods had failed.
A spare man, on the right side of forty, he was distinguished by a closely cropped beard and shaggy eyebrows, and in the cultivation of these he had displayed extraordinary care and patience.
It is not customary, even in legal circles, where so many curious practices obtain, to bother overmuch with one's eyebrows, but O'Hara Golbeater was a far-seeing man, and he anticipated a day when interested people would be looking for those eyebrows of his, when their portraiture would occupy space on the notice boards of police stations—for Mr. Felix O'Hara Golbeater had no illusions and was well aware of a most vital fact, which was that you cannot fool all men all the time. Therefore he was eternally on the qui vive for that mysterious man who would certainly appear on the scene some day and who would see through Golbeater the lawyer, Golbeater the trustee, Golbeater the patron of field sports, and last and greatest of distinctions, Golbeater the intrepid aviator, whose flights had caused something of a sensation in the little Buckingham village where he had his "country seat." And he had no desire to be "seen through."
He was sitting in his office one night in April. His clerks had long since gone home, and the caretaker, whose duty it was to clean up, had also left.
It was not Felix O'Hara Golbeater's practice to remain at the office until 11 p. m., but the circumstances were exceptional and justified the unusual course.
Behind him were a number of japanned steel boxes. They were arranged on shelves and occupied one half of the wall space from floor to ceiling. On each box was painted in neat white figures the name of the man, woman, or corporation for whose documents the receptacle was reserved. There was the "Anglo-Chinese Pottery Syndicate" (in liquidation), "The Erly Estate," "The Late Sir George Gallinger," to name only a few.
Golbeater was mainly interested in the box inscribed "Estate of the Late Louisa Harringay," and this stood wide open on his polished desk, its contents sorted into orderly heaps.
From time to time he made notes in a small but stout book by his side, notes for his confidential guidance apparently, for the book possessed a hinged lock.
In the midst of his inspection there came a sharp knock at the door of his sanctum.
He looked up, listening, his cigar stiffly held between his even white teeth.
The knock came again, and he rose, crossed the carpeted floor softly, and bent his head, as though by this process he could intensify his auricular powers.
Again the visitor rapped on the panels of the door, this time impatiently. He followed up his summons by trying the door.
"Who's there?" asked Golbeater softly.
"Fearn," came the reply.
"Just one moment."
Golbeater stepped back to the desk swiftly and bundled all the documents into the open box. This he replaced in the rack, then returning to the door, he unlocked it.
A young man stood in the doorway. His long Raglan was splashed with rain. In his plain, kindly face embarrassment as at an unpleasant mission struggled for mastery with the expression of annoyance peculiar to the Englishman kept waiting on the door- mat.
"Come in," said Golbeater, and opened the door wide.
The young man stepped into the room and slipped off his coat.
"Rather wet," he apologized gruffly.
The other nodded.
He closed the door carefully and locked it.
"Sit down," he said, and dragged forward a chair. His steady black eyes did not leave the other's face. He was all alert and tense, obeying the atavistic instinct of defense. The very angle of his cigar spoke caution and defiance.
Frank Fearn seated himself.
"I saw your light—I thought I'd drop in," he said awkwardly.
There was a pause.
"Been aeroplaning lately?"
Golbeater removed his Havana and examined it attentively.
"Yes," he said, and spoke confidentially to the cigar.
"Queer that a fellow like you should take it up," said the other, with a glint of reluctant admiration in his eyes. "I suppose studying criminals and being in touch with them... helps your nerves... and things."
Fearn was marking time. You could almost hear the tramp of his intellectual boots.
He began again.
"Do you really believe, Golbeater, that a chap could—could escape from justice if he really tried?"
A wild thought which was half a hope flashed through the lawyer's mind. Had this young fool been adventuring outside the law? Had he overstepped the mark too? Young men do mad things.
And if he had, that would be salvation for Felix 0'Hara Golbeater, for Fearn was engaged to the young heiress who had inherited Miss Harringay's fortune—and Fearn was the man of all men that the solicitor feared. He feared him because he was a fool, a stubborn fool, and an inquisitive fool.
"I really believe that," he answered; "my contention, based on experience, is that in a certain type of crime the offender need never be detected, and in other varieties, even though he, is detected, he can, given a day's start, avoid arrest."
He settled down in his chair to pursue hts favorite theory—one which had been the subject of discussion the last time he and Fearn had met at the club.
"Take myself for instance," he said. "Suppose I were a criminal —one of the swell mob—what could be easier than for me to mount my machine, sail gaily away to France, descending where I knew fresh supplies awaited me, and continuing my journey to some unlikely spot. I know of a dozen places in Spain where the aeroplane could be hidden."
The young man was eyeing him with a glum and dubious expression.
"I admit," Golbeater went on, with an easy wave of his cigared hand, "that I am exceptionally placed; but really in any case it would only have been a matter of prearrangement: elaborate and painstaking preparation which any criminal could take. It is open to him to follow the same course. But what do we find? A man systematically robs his employer, and all the time he is deluding himself with the belief that a miracle will happen, which will allow him to make good his defalcations. Instead of recognizing the inevitable, he dreams of luck; instead of methodically planning his departure, he employs all his organizing power in hiding today the offense of yesterday."
He waited for the confession he had encouraged. He was aware that Fearn dabbled on the Stock Exchange; that he was in the habit of frequenting racecourses.
"H'm," said Fearn. His lean brown face twisted into a momentary grimace.
"It's a pretty good thing," he said, "that you aren't on the lawless side, isn't it? I suppose you aren't?"
Now Felix O'Hara Golbeater was a man very shrewd in the subtleties of human nature and very wise in the reading of portents. He knew the truth which is spoken with a smile, and may be taken either as an exhibition of humor or a deadly accusation, and in the question put to him with quizzical good humor he recognized his finish.
The young man was watching him eagerly, his mind filled with vague apprehensions, so vague and so indefinite that he had spent four hours walking up and down the street in which Golbeater's offices were before he had screwed himself up to the interview.
The lawyer laughed. "It would be rather awkward for you if I were," he said, "since I have at this moment some sixty thousand pounds of your fiancée's money in my possession."
"I thought it was at the bank," said the other quickly. The other shrugged his shoulders. "So it is," he said, "but none the less it is in my possession. The magic words, 'Felix O'Hara Golbeater,' inscribed in the south-east corner of a check would place the money in my hands."
"Oh!" said Fearn.
He made no attempt to disguise his relief.
He got up from his chair, a somewhat gauche young man, as all transparently honest young men are, and spoke the thought which was uppermost in his mind. "I don't care two cents about Hilda's money," he said abruptly. "I've enough to live on, but—for her sake, of course—one has to be careful."
"Oh, you're being careful all right," said Golbeater, the corners of his mouth twitching, though the beard hid the fact from his visitor; "you had better put a detective on the bank to see that I don't draw the money and bolt."
"I have," blurted the young man in some confusion; "at least—well, people say things, d'ye know—there was a lot of talk about that Meredith legacy case—really, Golbeater, you didn't come well out of that."
"I paid the money," said Golbeater cheerfully, "if that's what you mean."
He walked to the door and opened it. "I hope you wont get wet," he said politely.
Fearn could only mutter an incoherent commonplace and go stumbling and groping down the dark stairs into the street. Golbeater stepped into an adjoining room, closing the door behind him. There was no light here, and from the window he could observe the other's movements. He half expected Fearn to be joined by a companion, but the hesitation he showed when he reached the street indicated that he had no engagement and expected to meet nobody.
Golbeater returned to the inner office. He wasted no time in speculation. He knew that the game was up. From an inner drawer in his safe he took a memorandum, and glanced down it.
Twelve months before, an eccentric Frenchman, who had occupied a little country house in Wiltshire, had died, and the property had come into the market; not, curiously enough, into the English market, because its late owner had been the last of a line of French exiles who had made their home in England since the days of the Revolution. The heirs, having no desire to continue residence in a land which had no associations for them, had placed the sale of the property in the hands of a firm of French notaries.
Golbeater, a perfect French scholar and an earnest student of the Parisian papers, came to know of the impending sale. He had purchased it through a succession of agents. It had been refurnished from Paris. The two servants who controlled the tiny ménage had been hired and were paid from Paris, and neither of these staid servitors, who received remittances and letters bearing the Parisian postmark, associated M. Alphonse Didet, the employer they had never seen, with the London solicitor.
Nor did the good people of Letherhampton, the village adjoining the property, trouble their heads overmuch about the change of proprietorship. One "Frenchie" was very much like another; they had grown up accustomed to the eccentricities of the) exiled aristocrats, and regarded them with the same indifference which they applied to the other objects of the landscape, and with that contempt which the bucolic mind reserves for the ignorant fellows who do not speak its language.
Also there was in the neighborhood of Whitstable a little bungalow, simply furnished, whither Golbeater was in the habit of making week-end excursions. Most important and most valuable of its contents was a motor cycle; and in the cloakroom of a London terminus were two trunks, old and battered, covered with the labels of foreign places and the picturesque advertisements of foreign hotels. Felix O'Hara Golbeater was very thorough in his methods. But then he had the advantage of others' experiences; he had seen the haphazard criminal, and had profited by the lesson to be found in the untimely end which rewards carelessness in flight.
He walked to the fireplace, struck a match, and burnt the memorandum to ashes. There was nothing else to burn, for his was the practice of clearing up as he went along. From the safe he took a thick package, opened it, and revealed a tightly compressed wad of banknotes, English and French. They represented the greater part of sixty thousand pounds, which, if every man and woman had their own, should have been at the bankers of Miss Hilda Harringay.
The whole of the sixty thousand was not there, because there were other deficiencies which had claimed more urgent and pressing settlement.
He pulled on a raincoat swiftly, put out the light, artistically left a half-finished letter in the open drawer of his desk, and went out. The advantage of being a bachelor occurred to him as the theatre train pulled out of Charing Cross Station. He had nothing to trouble his conscience: he was the ideal defaulter.
From Sevenoaks Station he made his way on foot along the two- mile road which led to the hangar. He spent the night in the shed reading by the light of a portable electric light. Long before dawn he had changed into his mechanic's kit, leaving his everyday working clothes neatly folded in a locker.
It was a perfect day for a flight, and at five in the morning, with the assistance of two laborers on their way to work, he started the aeroplane and rose easily over the sleeping town. It was his good fortune that there was no wind, more fortunate still that there was a mist on the sea. He had headed for Whitstable, and when he heard the waters washing beneath him in the darkness, he came down and found the shore; he recognized a coast-guard station and went on for a mile, keeping touch with the beach.
* * * * *
The newspapers which published an account of the aeroplane tragedy described how the machine was found floating upside down two miles from shore: they described the search by coastguards and police for the body of the unfortunate Felix O'Hara Golbeater, who in an endeavor to reach his bungalow had evidently got lost in the mist and was drowned. They observed in guarded language that he was making for the French coast and with good reason.
But none of them described how Felix O'Hara Golbeater had set his planes at a sky-climbing angle when only a few feet from the water—and from the water's edge by the same token and had dropped into the sea with close on sixty thousand pounds in the waterproof pocket of his overalls.
Nor how, with surprising swiftness, he had reached the isolated little bungalow on the shore, had stripped his wet things on the verandah, had entered, changed, and reappeared to make his sodden mechanic's kit into a portable bundle: nor how he had placed this in a specially weighted bag and dropped it down a well at the back of the house. Nor how, with incredible rapidity, he had removed his beard and his eyebrows with such tidiness of operation that not so much as a single hair was ever found by the police.
None of these things were described, for the simple reason that they were not known, and there was no reporter sufficiently imaginative to picture them. In the early hours of the morning, a clean-shaven, young- looking motor cyclist, goggled and clad in a shapeless mackintosh kit, went spinning back to London, stopping only in such towns and at such hostelries as motor cyclists most frequent. He reached London after nightfall. His motor cycle he left at a garage, together with his wet waterproofs. He had considered a more elaborate scheme for disposing of them, but he did not regard it as necessary, nor was it.
Felix O'Hara Golbeater had ceased to be: he was as dead as though indeed he lay swaying to and fro on the floor of the ocean.
M. Alphonse Didet, from the porter of the Baggage Department, demanded in French good, and in broken English not quite so good, the restoration of his two trunks.
As for Letherhampton, the expected Frenchman had arrived or returned (they were rather vague as to whether or not he had already stayed at the château), and it served as a "fill" to conversations, heavily charged with agricultural problems and the iniquities of Welsh statesmanship.
In the meantime, London, with breathless interest, discussed the story of Felix O'Hara. Scotland Yard conducted a swift examination of Mr. Golbeater's Bloomsbury offices, and of Mr. Golbeater's Kensington flat, and of Mr. Golbeater's banking account, but though they found many things which interested them they did not discover any money.
A white-faced girl, accompanied by a lean and homely young man, interviewed the detective in charge of the case.
"Our theory," said the policeman impressively, "is that in endeavoring to effect an escape to the French coast he met with a fatal accident. I think he is dead."
"I don't," said the young man.
The detective thought he was a fool, but considered it inexpedient to say so.
"I'm sure he's alive," said Fearn vigorously. "I tell you he's too diabolically clever. If he wanted to leave England, why should he not have gone by last night's mail-boat There was nothing to prevent him."
"I thought you employed private detectives to watch the boats?"
The young man blushed
"Yes," he confessed; "I had forgotten that."
"We'll circularize all the stations," the detective went on, "but I must confess that I do not expect to find him."
To the credit of the police it must be said that they went to work in no half-hearted fashion. The bungalow at Whitstable was searched from end to end without result; there was no trace of him; even the mirror at which Golbeater had shaved was thick with dust; this had been one of the first articles of furniture the detective had examined.
The ground about had been searched as systematically, but it had been a wet day when the fugitive had departed, and moreover he had carried his motor cycle at some discomfort to himself until he had reached the road.
His flat gave no indication of his whereabouts. The half- finished letter rather supported the theory which the police had formed that he had had no intention of making his hurried exit.
Fortunately the case was sufficiently interesting to the French journals to enable Felix O'Hara Golbeater to acquire a working knowledge of what was going on. Punctually every morning there arrived at his château Le Petit Parisien and Le Matin. He did not patronize English papers: he was much too clever for that. In the enterprising columns of the Matin he discovered something about himself: all that he wanted to know, and that all, most satisfactory.
He settled down to the comfortable life of his country house. He had planned the future with an eye to detail. He gave himself six months in this beautiful little prison of his; at the end of that time, he would, by an assiduous correspondence tactfully and scientifically directed, establish his identity as M. Alphonse Didet beyond any fear of identification. At the end of six months he would go away, to France perhaps, by excursion, or more elaborately, by sailing yacht.
For the moment he gave himself over to the cultivation of his roses, to the study of astronomy, to which the late owner's tiny observatory invited him, to the indictment of a voluminous correspondence with several learned societies situated in France.
Now there was at Letherhampton in those days a police superintendent who was something of a student; there were unkindly people who expressed the opinion that his studies did not embrace one necessary to him in his profession—the study of criminology.
Superintendent Grayson was a self-made man and a self-educated man. He was the sort of individual who patronizes Home Correspondence Schools, and, by a modest outlay and an enormous capacity for absorbing in a parrot- like fashion certain facts obscure to the average individual, he had become in turn an advertising expert, a civil engineer of passable merit, a journalist, and a French and Spanish scholar. His French was of the variety which is best understood in England, preferably by the professors of the Home Correspondence Schools, but of this fact the superintendent lived in blissful ignorance, and he yearned for an opportunity of experimenting upon a real Frenchman.
Before the arrival of M. Alphonse Didet he had called many times at the château and had spoken in their native language with the two servants who were established there. Being poor ignorant menials, they did not, of course, understand the classic language he spoke, and he dismissed his uncomprehending victims as being provincial, though as a matter of fact they were Parisian born and bred.
With M. Alphonse on the scene, Superintendent Grayson searched round for an excuse to call, in the same helpless fashion that the amateur picture-hanger looks round for the hammer at the critical moment. The ordinary sources of inspiration were absent. M. Didet, being a French subject could not be summoned to a jury, he paid his rates duly, he had never run any person down in his motor car, and, indeed, did not possess one.
The inspector was in despair of ever finding an opportunity when an unfortunate member of the constabulary was badly injured in the execution of his duty, and the county started a subscription for the man, with the permission of the Chief Constable. Inspector Grayson was entrusted with the collection of local offerings.
Thus it was he came to the Château Blanche.
M. Alphonse Didet watched the burly figure arriving, booted and spurred, frogged across the chest, and beribboned, as a superintendent with some army experience should be, and tapped his teeth with his pen speculatively. He opened a drawer of his desk and took out his revolver. It was loaded. He threw open the chamber and extracted the cartridges, throwing them, an untidy handful, into the wastepaper basket. Because if this meant arrest, he was not quite sure what he would do, but he was absolutely certain that he would not be hanged.
Paul, the elderly butler, announced the visitor. "Let him come in," said M. Alphonse, and posed easily in the big arm-chair, a scientific work on his knee, his big spectacles perched artistically askew on his nose. He looked up under raised eyebrows as the officer entered, rose, and with true French courtesy offered him a seat.
Clearing his throat, the superintendent began in French. He wished Monsieur good-morning; he was desolated to disturb the professor learned at his studies, but hélas! an accident terrible had befallen a gend'arme brave of the force municipal. (It was the nearest the good man could get to county constabulary, and it served.)
The other listened and understood, breathing steadily through his nose, long, long sighs of relief, and feeling an extraordinary shakiness of knee, a sensation he had never thought to experience.
He too was desolated. What could he do?
The superintendent took from his pocket a folded sheet of manuscript. He explained in his French the purport of the appeal which headed it, giving the ancestry and the social position of the great names which offered their patronage. Huge sprawling names they were, monstrously indistinct save in the money column where prudence and self-preservation had advised that the figures of the donations should be unmistakable.
What a relief! Alphonse Didet squared his shoulders and filled his lungs with the air of freedom and respectability.
Very gaily within, though outwardly sedate and still the French professor with spectacles askew, he stepped to his desk. What should he give? "How much are a hundred francs?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Four pounds," said the inspector proudly.
So M. Alphonse Didet signed his name, put four pounds carefully in the column allotted for the purpose, took a hundred franc note from his drawer, and handed it with the subscription list to the inspector.
There was some polite bowing and complimentary sentiments murmured on both sides; the superintendent took his departure, and M. Alphonse Didet watched him down the path with every sense of satisfaction and pleasure.
That night when he was sleeping the sleep of the just, two men from Scotland Yard entered his room and arrested him in bed. Yes, they arrested this most clever of criminals because on the subscription list he had signed "Felix O'Hara Golbeater" in a hand which was bold and exuberant
FOLEY, the smoke-room oracle, has so often bored not only the members of the club, but a much wider circle of victims, by his views on heredity and the functions of the hormones—for he has a fluent pen and an entree to the columns of a certain newspaper that shall be—nameless—that one is averse to recalling his frayed theories.
He is the type of scientist who takes a correspondence course in such things as mnemonics, motor engineering, criminology, wireless telegraphy, and character-building. He paid nothing for the hormones, having found them in an English newspaper report of Professor Parrott's (is it the name?) lecture. Hormones are the little X's in your circulatory system which inflict upon an unsuspecting and innocent baby such calamities as his uncle's nose, his father's temper, and Cousin Minnie's unwholesome craving for Chopin and bobbed hair. The big fellows in the medical world hesitate to assign the exact function of the hormones or even to admit their existence.
Foley, on the contrary, is prepared to supply thumb-nail sketches and specifications. When you go to the writing-table in the "Silence" room, and find it littered with expensive stationery, more or less covered with scrawly-wags, it is safe betting that Foley has been introducing his new friend to some wretched member whom he has inveigled into an indiscreet interest.
But Hormones apart, there is one theory of evolution to which Foley has clung most tenaciously. And it is that the ultra- clever father has a fool for a son.
Whether it works the other way round he does not say. I should think not, for Foley senior is in his eightieth year, believes in spiritualism, and speculates on margins.
Foley advanced his theory in relation to Dick Magnus.
John Seymour Magnus, his father, is popularly supposed to be in heaven, because of the many good qualities and characteristics recorded on the memorial tablet in St. Mary's Church. Thus: He was a Good Father, a Loving Husband and a Faithful Friend, and performed Many Charitable Deeds in This City.
There is nothing on the memorial tablet about his Successful Promotions or Real Estate Acquisitions. He was bracketed first as the keenest business man of his day. A shrewd, cunning general of commerce, who worked out his plans to the minutest detail, he ran his schemes to a time-table and was seldom late. All other men (except one) would comprehend the beginning and fruition of their schemes within the space of months. John Seymour Magnus saw the culmination of his secret politics three years ahead.
There was one other, a rival, who had the same crafty qualities. Carl Martingale was his contemporary, and it is an important circumstance that he supplied, in his son, a complete refutation of all Foley's theories. Carl and John died within twelve days of one another, and both their great businesses went to only sons.
Dick took over the old man's chair, and was so oppressed by his uncongenial surroundings that he sold it for a ridiculous figure to Steven Martingale. The two were friends, so the sale was effected over a luncheon for which Dick paid.
Steven had arranged the lunch weeks ahead, had decided upon the course of conversation which would lead up to the question of sale, and had prepared his reply when Dick was manceuvered into offering the property. For Steven was his parent, and worse. Old Carl was a selfmade boor, with no refined qualities. Steven had the appearance and speech of a gentleman and shared certain views on life with the anthropoid ape.
Ugly stories floated around, and once old Jennifer came into the club in a condition bordering on hysteria and drank himself maudlin. He had hoped to bag Steven for the family, and had allowed his pretty daughter Fay a very free hand.
Too free, it seems. Nothing happened which in any way discommoded Steven. The old fellow owed him an immense amount of money, and Steven knew to a penny the exact strength of these financial legirons.
He was a strikingly handsome fellow, the type the shop-girls rave about—dark, tall, broad of shoulder and lean of flank, an athlete and something of a wit. A greater contrast to Dick could not be imagined, for Dick was thinnish and small, fair haired, rather short-sighted (Steven's flashing eye and long lashes were features that fascinated) and languid.
But he did not develop his left-handedness until after he was married.
Both Dick and Steven courted Thelma Corbett, and never a day passed but that their cars were parked in the vicinity of the Corbett ménage. Corbett being on the danger-zone of bankruptcy was indifferent as to which of the two men succeeded in their quest, and Thelma was in a like case.
She was one of those pretty slender creatures whom. meeting, leave you with a vague unrest of mind. Where had you met her before? Then you realized (as I realized) that she was the ideal toward which all the line artists who ever drew pretty women were everlastingly striving. She was cold and sweet, independent and helpless, clever and vapid; you were never quite certain which was the real girl and which was the varnish and the finishing- school.
To everybody's surprise, she married Dick. Steven had willed it, of course. He half admitted as much one night between acts when we were smoking in the lobby of the Auditorium. Dick had at that time been married for the best part of a year and was childishly happy.
"I can't understand how Dick came to cut you out, Steven," I said. He was feeling pretty good toward me just about then, for I had pulled him through a sharp attack of grippe.
He laughed, that teasing little laugh of his.
"I thought it best," he said, a statement which could be taken two ways. That he was not exposing his modesty or displaying the least unselfishness, ho went on to explain:
"She was too young, too placid. Some women are like that. The men who marry them never wake them up. Some go through life with their hearts asleep and die in the belief that they have been happy. They have lived without 'struggle,' and only 'struggle' can light the fire which produces the perfect woman. I figured it that way."
I was silent.
"I figured it that way"—a favorite expression of his—explained in a phrase the inexplicable.
"That is why you find the most unlikely women running away with the most impossible men," he went on; "the heavens are filled with the woes of perfect husbands and the courts shudder with their lamentations. They are bewildered, stunned, outraged. They have showered their wealth and affection upon a delicate lady, and in return she has fled with a snubnosed chauffeur whose vocabulary is limited to twelve hundred words and whose worldly possessions are nil."
I said nothing, and soon after the bell rang and we went back to our seats. He drove me home that night and came up to my den for a drink, and I reopened the subject of Dick and his wife.
"Dick is one of Nature's waste products," he said. "He has neither initiative nor objective in life. How could old Magnus breed such a son? He was the cleverest, shrewdest, old devil in the City. Dick is just pap and putty—a good fellow and a useful fellow for holding my lady's wool or carrying my lady's Chow, but—"
He shook his head. "No 'struggle' there, Steve?" I asked. "Foley's theory works out in this case."
"Foley is a fool," smiled Steven. "What about me? Aren't I my father's son?"
I admitted that.
"No, Dick lives from breakfast to supper, and could no more work out a scheme as his father did than I could knit a necktie."
"And there is no 'struggle' in the establishment?" I repeated, and he nodded gravely. "There is no 'struggle,'" he said, and although he never said the words I felt him saying "as yet."
Steven became a frequent visitor at the Magnus' house—Dick told me this himself. "He's an amusing person," he said—I met him in the Park, and he stopped his car to talk"—and I can't help feeling that life is a little dull for Thelma."
It was much duller for people who were brought much into contact with Thelma, but I did not say so. She was the kind of hostess who wanted entertaining.
Everybody loved Dick in those days, and he was welcomed wherever he went. Later, when he passed through that remarkably awkward stage, a stage which we usually associate with extreme adolescence, he was not so popular, and I was a little bit worried about him. It grieved me to see a man with all the money in the world making a playtime of life, because people who live for play can find their only recreation in work, and he never expressed the slightest desire to engage himself in the pursuit which had built up his father's colossal fortune. He rode well, he shot well, he played a good game of golf, and it was a case of "Let's get Dick" for a fourth at bridge.
"The fact is," said Dick, when I tackled him one day, "heavy thinking bores me. Maybe if I had to, I would. Sometimes I feel that I have a flash of my father's genius, but I usually work out that moment of inspiration in a game of solitaire.
"One afternoon he took me home to tea, arriving a little earlier than usual. He was evidently surprised to find Steve's car drawn up near the house. He should have been more surprised when he walked through the French windows opening from the lawn to the drawing-room, and found Steve and Thelma side by side on a settee examining Medici prints. It may have been necessary for the proper study of Art that Steve's hand should be upon the girl's shoulder. Evidently she did not think so, for she tried to disengage herself, but Steve, much more experienced in the ways of the world, kept his hand in position and looked up with a smile. As for me, I felt de trop.
"Hello, people!" said Dick, glaring benignly into the flushed face of the girl, "do my eyes behold a scandal in process of evolution? Or have I interrupted an exposition on the art of Michael Angelo?"
Steve rose with a laugh.
"I brought Thelma some pictures," he said, "they're a new lot just published; they are rather fine, don't you think?"
Dick looked at the pictures and, having no artistic soul, said that they struck him as a little old-fashioned, and I saw the girl's lips curl in disdain of her husband, and felt a trifle sad.
Another time (I have learnt since) Dick found them lunching together at Madarino's, a curious circumstance in view of the fact that she had said she was going to spend the day with her mother.
Then one afternoon Dick went home and sounded his motor-horn loudly as he swept up the drive, and discovered his wife at one end of the drawing-room and Steve at the other, and they were discussing Theosophy loudly.
After tea Dick linked his arm in Steve's and took him into the grounds.
"Steve, old boy," he said affectionately, "I don't think I should come and see Thelma unless somebody else is here, old man."
"Why in Heaven's name shouldn't I?" asked Steve. "What rubbish you talk, Dick! Why, I've known Thelma as long as I've known you."
Dick scratched his chin.
"Yes, that seems a sound kind of argument," he said. "Still, I wouldn't if I were you. You know, servants and people of that kind talk."
But Steve smacked him on the back and told him not to be a goomp, and Thelma was so nice that evening that, when during a week-end Dick surprised his wife and Steve one morning walking with linked hands along an unfrequented path through the woods, he did no more than give them a cheery greeting, and passed on with a grin.
It was about this time that Dick started on his maladroit career. He became careless in his dress, could not move without knocking things over, went altogether wrong in his bridge, so that you could always tell which was Dick's score by a glance at the block. There was usually a monument of hundreds, two hundreds, and five hundreds erected above the line on the debit side, and when men cut him as a partner they groaned openly and frankly.
Harry Wallstein, who is a lunatic collector, gave him a rare Ming vase to examine, and Dick dropped it, smashing the delicate china into a hundred pieces. Of course he insisted upon paying the loss, but he could not soothe Harry's anguished soul. He had a trick too, when he was taking tea with some of his women friends, of turning quickly in a drawing-room and sweeping all the cups on to the floor. In the street he escaped death by miracles. Once he stood in the center of a crowded thoroughfare at the rush hour to admire the amethystine skies. A motor lorry and two taxicabs piled themselves up on the sidewalk in consequence, for it had been raining and the roads were slippery.
Dick footed the bill for the damage and went on his awkward way. It is extraordinary how quickly a man acquires a reputation for eccentricity. People forgot the unoffending Dick that used to be, and knew only the dangerous fool who was. When he called on Mrs. Tolmarsh, whose collection of Venetian glass has no equal in the country, the butler was instructed never to leave his side, to guide him in and out of the drawing-room, and under no circumstances to allow him to handle the specimens which Mrs. Tolmarsh invariably handed round for the admiration of her guests. Nevertheless he managed to crash a sixteenth-century vase and a decanter which had been made specially for Fillipo, Tyrant of Milan, and was adorned with his viperish crest.
And in the meantime Steven gave up his practice of calling three times a week on Mrs. Magnus and called every day.
Dick did not seem to mind, although he took to returning home earlier than had been his practice. I might have warned Dick. I preferred, however, to say a few words to Steven, and I got him alone in a corner of the library and I did not mince my words.
"I shall not moralize, Steven," I said, "for that is not my way. You have your own code and your own peculiar ideas concerning women, and so far you've got away with it. I do not doubt that you will get away with this matter because Dick seems to be drifting down the stream towards imbecility—but there are, thank Heaven, a few decent people in this town, and if you betray Dick you are going to have a pretty thin time. I won't commit the banality of asking you to look before you leap, because I know you're a pretty good looker!"
"Leaper!" he corrected. "No person who looks very carefully leaps at all. The world is divided into those two classes—lookers and leapers. Anyway, I am not very greatly concerned by what people think of me. If I were, I should have entered a monastery a long time ago. You've been straight with me, Doctor, and I'm going to be straight with you. My affairs are my affairs and concern nobody else. I shall do just as I think, and take a line which brings me the greatest satisfaction."
"Whosoever is hurt?" I asked.
"Whosoever is hurt," he said, and meant it. "I know just what is coming to me. I have figured it out."
There was no more to be said. To approach Dick was a much more delicate matter, for he was impervious to hints.
A week after I had talked to Steven I met Hariboy, who is a banker of standing and the president of my golf club. I met him professionally, for I had been called into his house to perform a minor operation on one of his children, and I was cleaning up in his dressing-room when he strolled in, and after some talk about the child he said:
"Steven Martingale is going away."
"Going away?" I repeated. "How do you know?"
"I know he has taken steamship accommodations for Bermuda. My secretary and his secretary are apparently friends, and she told my girl that Steven is doing a lot of rush work, and that he is leaving for a long holiday on the 18th."
"Do you know by what line?" I asked, and he told me.
Luckily the manager of the shipping office was a patient of mine, and I made it my business to call on him that afternoon.
"Yes, the ship leaves on the 18th," he said, "but I haven't Mr. Martingale on my passenger list."
We went through it together, and I traced my finger down the cabin numbers and their occupants.
"Who is this in No. 7 suite?" I asked. He put on his glasses and looked.
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I don't know who they are. It's not an uncommon name," he added humorously.
So that was that!
I do not think I should have moved any further in the matter if I had had the slightest degree of faith in Steven's honesty. But Steven was not a marrying man. He had once told me that under no circumstances would he think of binding his life with that of any woman, and had expounded his philosophy with that cold- blooded logic of his, which left me in no doubt at all that whatever fine promises he might make to Thelma Magnus, only one end of that advenlure was inevitable.
I sought Dick all over the town, and ran him to earth in the first place I should have looked—the card-room of Proctor's Club. I entered the room in time to hear the peroration of a violent address on idiocy delivered by Dick's late partner. His opponents were too busy adding up the score to take any interest in the proceeding.
Dick sat back in his chair, his hands in his pockets, a little smile on his thin face.
"Fortunes of war, old top," he murmured from time to time.
"Fortunes of war be—" roared Staine; who was his victim. "You go four spades on the queen, knave to five, and not another trick in your hand...!"
"Fortunes of war, old top," said Dick again, paid his opponents and rose, upsetting the table and scattering the cards in all directions.
"Awfully sorry," he murmured; "really awfully sorry!"
That "awfully sorry" of his came mechanically now.
"Now, Dick," said I, when I'd got him into my car, "you're coming straight home with me, and I'm going to talk to you like an uncle."
"Oh, Lord!" he groaned. "Not about Thelma?" I was astounded, and I suppose looked my astonishment. "Everybody talks to me about Thelma," said Dick calmly. "She's a dear, good girl, and as honest as they make 'em. I'm not a very amusing chap, you know, Doctor," he said mournfully, "and Steven is the kind of fellow who can keep a room in roars of laughter."
"But, my dear, good man," I said impatiently, "don't you realize that a man of Steven's character does not call daily on your wife to tell her funny stories?"
"I don't know," said Dick vaguely. "Thelma seems to like him, and I've really no grudge against old Steve. He's a leaper too," he said, with a quick, sidelong glance at me, "and that makes him ever so much more interesting to the women." lie chuckled at my astonishment. "He was telling us the other night about that amusing conversation he had with you."
"He did not tell you the whole of the conversation, I'll swear," said I dryly, but Dick showed no curiosity.
"Old Steven is a good fellow," he repeated. "I like him, and I tell everybody who comes to me with stories about him and Thelma that he is my very best friend."
I groaned in the spirit.
"Then," said I in despair, "it is useless telling you that Steven has booked two berths by the steamer which leaves on the 18th for Bermuda."
He nodded. "I know; he is taking his aunt," he said. "I got the same yarn from Chalmers, and I asked Steven, and he told me, yes, he was going away—"
"In the name of Smith?" I asked pointedly.
"In the name of Smith," repeated Dick gravely. "After all, he's a big power in the financial'world, Doctor, and it is not good business for him to advertise his comings and goings."
After that there was no more to be said.
"We're having a little party on the 17th at the house. I wish you would come along," said Dick before I left him. "I've particularly asked Steve to come. It will be a send-off for him, though of course nobody must know that he is going abroad."
The dear, simple fool said this so solemnly that I could have kicked him. What could I do? I had a talk with Chalmers, who is as fond of Dick as I am, and he could offer no advice.
"It's hopeless," he said, "and the queer thing is that Dick has arranged to go out of town on the night of the 17th. So we can't even drag him to the ship to confront this swine!"
"Do you think he'll marry her?" I asked after a long pause in the conversation.
"Marry her!" scoffed Chalmers. "Did he marry Fay Jennifer? Did he marry that unhappy girl Steele? Marry her!"
It was a big party which Dick gave. His house lay about twenty miles out of town and is situated in the most gorgeous country. It was a hot autumn day, with a cloudless sky and a warm gentle breeze, the kind of day that tempts even the most confirmed of city birds into the open country.
I do not think it was wholly the salubrious weather that was responsible for the big attendance. Half the people, and all the women who were present, knew that on the following day Steven Martingale was leaving for Bermuda, and that Thelma would accompany him.
I saw the girl as soon as I arrived, and noted the bright eyes, the flushed cheek, and the atmosphere of hectic excitement in which she moved. She was a little tremulous, somewhat incoherent, just a thought shrill.
All Dick's parties were amusing and just a little unconventional. For example, in addition to the band and the troupe of al fresco performers and Grecian dancers, he usually had some sort of competition for handsome prizes, and the young people, particularly, looked forward to these functions with the greatest enjoyment. On this occasion there was a revolver-shooting competition for ladies and gentlemen, the prize for the women being a diamond bangle, and for the men a gold cigarette case.
Most men imagine themselves to be proficient in the arts which they do not practice, and nine out of ten who have never handled a gun boast of their marksmanship.
Dick sought me out and took me into the house and upstairs to his own snuggery.
"Doctor," said he, as he dropped into an easychair and reached for his cigarettes, "spare a minute to enlighten me. What was the Crauford smash? I only heard a hint of it last night, and I'm told that dad was positively wonderful."
It was queer he had never heard of Ralph Crauford and his fall. Old Man Magnus and he were bitter enemies, and whereas Crauford must nag and splutter from day to day, Magnus was prepared to wait. As usual he laid his plans ahead, and one morning failed to turn up at his office. The rumor spread that he was ill, and there was suport for the story, because you could never pass his house without seeing a doctor's waiting car. It was a puzzling case, and I myself was fooled. So was every specialist we brought in. For weeks at a time Magnus would be well, and then he would have a collapse and be absent from his office for days.
And all the time the Crauford crowd were waiting to jump in and smash two of the stocks he carried. We had advised a trip abroad, but it was not till the end of a year of these relapses and recoveries that he consented. He went to Palermo in Sicily, and after a month it was announced that he had died. Then the fun started. Crauford jumped into the market with a hammer in each hand, figuratively speaking. Tyne River Silver fell from 72 to 31, and all the time the executors of the estate were chasing one another to discover their authority to act. This went on for three days and then the blow fell. Old Man Magnus appeared on 'Change, looking a trifle stouter, a little browner, and infinitely cheerful.
Crauford had "sold over." It cost him his bank balance, his town house, and his country estate plus his wife's jewelry to get square with Magnus.
Dick listened to the story, his eyes beaming, interrupting me now and again with a chuckle of sheer joy.
"Wonderful old dad!" he said at the end; "wonderful old boy! And he was foxing all the time. Kidding 'em along! The art of it, the consummate art of it! Specialists and sea voyages and bulletins every hour!"
He stood up abruptly and threw away his cigarette.
"Let's go and see the women shoot," he said.
There was the usual fooling amongst the girls when their end of the competition started. In spite of their "Which-end-shall-I- hold-it?" and their mock terror, they shot remarkably well.
I had caught a glimpse of Steven, a silent, watchful, slightly amused man, who most conspicuously avoided Thelma, but came down to the booth and stood behind ier when she fired her six shots for the prize. Incidentally not one bullet touched the target, and the wobbling of her pistol was pitiful.
Steven's shooting was beautiful to watch. Every bullet went home in the center of the target and the prize was assuredly his.
"Now watch me, Steve," said Dick, and at the sight of Dick with a gun in his hand even his best friends drew back.
He fired one shot, a bull's-eye, the second shot was a little bit to the left, but nevertheless a bull's-eye, the third shot passed through the hole which the first had made, the fourth and fifth were on the rim of the black center—and then he turned with a smile to Steven.
"My old pistol is much better than the best of the new ones," he said.
He had refused to shoot with the weapons provided, and had brought a long ungainly thing of ancient make; but as he was not a competitor in the strict sense of the word, there had been no protest.
The sixth shot went through the bull and there was a general clapping.
"How's that?" said Dick, twiddling his revolver.
"Fine," said Steven. "The Looker shoots almost as well as the Leaper," laughed Dick, and pressed the trigger carelessly. There was a shot and a scream. Steve balanced himself for a moment, looking at Dick in a kind of awed amazement, and then crumpled up and fell.
As for Dick he stood, the smoking revolver still in his hand, frowning down at the prostrate figure.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, but Steven Martingale had passed beyond the consideration of apologies. He was dead before I could reach him.
* * * * *
That old-fashioned revolver of Dick's had seven chambers, and people agreed both before and after the inquest that it was the kind of fool thing that Dick would have.
"He ought to have seen there were seven shots when he loaded the infernal weapon," said Chalmers. "Of course, if it was anybody but Dick I should have thought that the whole thing was manoeuvred, and that all this awkwardness of his had been carefully acted for twelve months in order to supply an excuse at the inquest and get the 'Accidental Death' verdict. It is the sort of thing that his father would have done. A keen, far-seeing old devil was John Magnus."
I said nothing, for I had seen the look in Dick's eyes when he said "leaper."
At any rate, the shock wakened Dick, for his awkwardness fell away from him like an old cloak, and Thelma Magnus must have found some qualities in him which she had not suspected, for she struck me as a tolerably happy woman when I met her the other day. But I shall not readily forget that hard glint in Dick's eyes when he spoke the last words which Steven Martingale was destined to hear. I had seen it once before in the eyes of John Seymour Magnus the day he smashed Crauford.
Maybe some of the old man's hormones were working. I should like to ask Foley about it.
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