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Title: The Mysterious Investment
Author: Ambrose Pratt
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Mysterious Investment
Author: Ambrose Pratt

*


THE MYSTERIOUS INVESTMENT.

A Tale of London & St. Petersburg

By

AMBROSE PRATT.

*

Author of "Three years with Thunderbolt" "The Remittance Man," "The
Outlaws of Wedden Range," etc. etc.

*

Published in The World's News (Sydney, N.S.W.) in serial form
commencing Saturday 25 July, 1914.

*


CHAPTER I.

THE event that was to alter the course of my life occurred at the town
house of Lady Adela Drummond, towards the close of the season. Lady
Adela was an indefatigable lion-hunter, and one could always depend
on meeting the latest celebrities at her parties, on which account
I usually declined her invitations. But I found it impossible to
escape the one in question, for the good reason that she trapped me
into naming a date when I should be free some weeks beforehand, and
afterwards she informed me that my assistance was needed to make her
party a success. It appeared that she had discovered an exceptional
lion--or perhaps I should say bear--in the person of a Russian
thought-reader. And since he could not roar intelligibly in the English
tongue, Lady Adela required me to act as his interpreter. I remember
cheerlessly anticipating that the whole business would prove a dreary
bore, and I'm afraid that I was not in the best of humors when, half
an hour before midnight, I entered the salon; for I did not fancy the
idea of making a quasi-public appearance as the partner and bear leader
of some half-governed Slav or Tartar charlatan. Conceive my surprise,
therefore, when Lady Adela led me to a couch upon which was seated a
little old man, with snow-white, close-cropped hair and Vandyck beard,
who rose as we approached, and bowed with all a seventeenth century
courtier's grace.

"Monsieur Rovenski--Sir Francis Coates," said Lady Adela. I don't know
how long she remained with us; for on the instant I was absorbedly
interested in the man. His face was the most remarkably beautiful I
had ever seen. His features were regular and quite perfect, judged
by western standards, with the sole exception of his eyes. They were
just a little bit too widely separated in his head. But that defect
was redeemed by their size and extraordinary expression. They were
ruddy-brown in color; not bright, not piercing in glance, but steady,
thoughtful eyes, that met all opposition with a full, receptive
stare. Nothing could have been less disconcerting than their gaze.
No eyes, could have less resembled my pre-conceived conception of a
mind-reader's eyes. Instead of exercising an aggressive and penetrating
influence, they appeared to be depreciatively expecting a gift of
information. In short, they were the eyes of a dignified, mild-mannered
beggar. Presently he smiled and said to me in Russian, "I was lonely
till you came, Sir Francis. I have been waiting here an hour, alone. I
am a paid showman, not a guest; you understand?"

I liked his candor and the mode of his confession. The little old man
was evidently not a boor.

"Let us sit down," I suggested. He complied, and we listened for a time
to a long-haired piano-thumper mangling Liszt. But my curiosity was all
the while awake, and soon I turned to my companion.

"You had better tell me just what I have to do!" I whispered. "There's
not much time for a rehearsal--but----"

He smiled. "If you would kindly tell me what they say, and tell them
what I say, it is enough!" he replied.

I shrugged. "Then you are truly a thought-reader, M. Rovenski?"

He gravely inclined his head. "Would you wish an instance?"

"Very much!" I answered eagerly.

"Then think your most private thought about another person, name me a
name, and look at me."

Half irritated, half amused by a request so singular, I was about to
refuse, but then I thought--"Why not? The thing is impossible. And
by accepting his challenge I can prove him to my own satisfaction a
charlatan--at once."

"Helen!" I whispered suddenly, and looked him straight in the face. His
curiously expectant and almost wistful regard held mine for about sixty
seconds. Then his eyes closed and he was silent, frowning, for another
minute. Involuntarily my lip curled, but an instant later he looked at
me again, "Pardon--you think in English, Sir Francis, I in Russian--I
translate but slowly," he explained.

"I understood that you are ignorant of English," I said contemptuously.

"I do not speak your tongue fluently, Sir Francis; but it and most
other languages are known to me."

"Well, have you translated yet?" By then I had lost the bulk of both
my patience and politeness. In fact I was almost discourteously
disdainful. M. Rovenski, however, resented nothing. Very quietly he
asked, "Shall I speak?"

"Of course," I sneered; adding, "unless you would prefer to change the
conversation, or listen to the music your compatriot is making yonder."

The little old man drew himself up with an air of wounded pride. "But
listen," he said coldly, "and give me your attention, for I wish to
render you your thought in such a way that you will recognise it."

"Proceed," said I.

M. Rovenski half closed his eyes, and he said in a dreamy voice, "What
right have I to think of her--with my pitiful three hundred pounds a
year!"

It is no exaggeration to declare that I was stunned. I had not been
conscious of thinking more of Helen than the fact that she existed
while I looked into the little old man's eyes; but when he spoke I knew
that I had. And I recognised the expression of my thought, just as a
once familiar face is recognised after a period of lapsed remembrance.
There followed a hiatus in my reckoning. I have no recollection of what
happened afterwards, until I discovered myself mechanically responding
to Lady Adela, who had come up to us again. I fear she found me very
stupid, for she gave me her instructions twice; and I obeyed them like
a man hypnotised, only half comprehending their import. It was M.
Rovenski who recovered me. He put his hand upon my arm and said with
an engaging smile, "Your secret is safe with me, Sir Francis." Absurd
as may appear, I felt distinctly grateful for his assurance, and I
brightened up.

We were standing near the piano, almost surrounded by a crescent-shaped
crowd, in whose midst Lady Adela was seated. She was talking to the
others volubly. "Oh! really, he is very clever," she was saying.
"Prince Pelevovski recommended him to me--but the prince could not
conduct the--er--seance, shall we call it; for M. Rovenski is under
some sort of ban--a political emigre--you understand--and the prince's
position had to be considered. But Sir Francis Coates, luckily, is half
a Russian, and he has kindly consented to be interpreter." Then she
turned to me, "Do let us begin, Frank. Find out what he wants, and let
us know."

I bowed to her. "M. Rovenski," said I in Russian, "they are ready. Will
you open the proceedings?"

The little old man heaved a sigh. "I am unusually nervous to-night," he
murmured. "I am stage-frightened, I suppose, although I should not be.
Will you please ask somebody to stand forward, Sir Francis?"

I glanced around the throng. It was about equally composed of men and
women. Miss Fortescue was there, and beside her--as usual--Horace
Massey. He regarded me with an insolent smile; the girl was, however,
looking at the Russian. I gazed at the opposite wall and recited in a
sing-song voice, "Hot beans, bread and butter, ladies and gentlemen
come to your supper. A-bra-ca-da-bra! Roll up, tumble up, shoal up,
rumble up! Whoever wants his or her--soul (not of the foot) examined
and interpreted, kindly step upon the platform, and embrace--not me
unless it's a lady--but the opportunity of a lifetime!" Then I did a
bit of thought-reading on my own account; for while the crowd laughed
and chaffed, Helen's eyes said to me, "How can you, Frank?" and Horace
Massey's, "You've missed your vocation, Coates. You were cut out for a
clown." But Lady Adela was indignant. "Don't be so silly, Frank," she
objected tartly. "You know quite well this is not a matter to laugh
at." Then she turned to that most ponderous and humorous of asses, Lord
Huxham, and commanded him to set me a serious example.

Huxham is the sort of animal who might permit himself to remark "Dear
me!" if a gun were unexpectedly exploded underneath his nose. His face
is so stiff and wooden that a smile would crack his cheeks. He has no
nerve at all.

"What am I to do, Coates?" he demanded, approaching us.

I asked the same question of the Russian. M. Rovenski studied Huxham
for a moment, then replied, "Request him to think of the last words he
exchanged with someone who is dead!"

Huxham raised his brows when I had translated this message, but after a
pause he solemnly announced, "Well, well."

"Let him look at me," said the Russian.

"You must gaze into M. Rovenski's eyes, Huxham!" I directed.

Huxham shrugged his shoulders and obeyed. Everyone was courteously
silent during the ordeal, and even afterwards, when the little old
man, with a gentle hand-wave, turned half aside, and closed his eyes.
I glanced at the crowd and saw that it was attentively regarding
the Russian; and no wonder, for he made a marvellously interesting
picture--standing there, with both hands clenched, his forehead tightly
puckered, and his whole attitude and aspect expressionful of mental
strain. Suddenly, however, M. Rovenski's fixity relaxed. His eyes
opened, and he said to me, "Be careful and translate me literally to
your friend, Sir Francis. The words, he used were these: 'I swear it.
I shall never let her want.' The person who is dead replied, 'I trust
you, Robert--trust you. You may leave me now--for I am sleepy.'"

Just as these words were uttered to me in Russian, I repeated them in
English to Lord Huxham.

I am sure that never before had anyone beheld the man one tithe so
shaken from his habitual marble-like stolidity. He stared at me for a
full minute, his face slowly reddening until it had become one dull
brick-colored mass of flesh--then he grated out between his teeth, in
a voice that hurled a defiance at the world, "No man knows at what a
cost I made the promise, but--by heavens--I kept it!" And with that,
like one beside himself, he swung on his heel, and strode through
the quickly parting throng, and from the room, speaking to none, and
looking neither to left nor right.

The profound silence that succeeded was broken by Lady Adela. She was a
woman who lived for social triumphs--nothing else on God's earth--and
the sensation of the season had just been achieved, at her house, under
her aegis. Her exultation was supreme; and no doubt her impulse was
well nigh ungovernable to cackle and to clap her hands, or to get up
and execute a pas seul. Noblesse oblige, however; therefore Lady
Adela, instead of behaving naturally, with a greatness of mind truly
admirable, affected to depreciate her victory.

"Lord Huxham is, I should say, a facile subject!" she remarked;
mendaciously, because she hadn't an idea upon the matter, although
perhaps, she had struck the truth--by accident. "What we need for a
test," she continued, "is a difficult person, a complex person, a
person whose mind it would be truly hard to read."

"A woman, in fact," I suggested.

Lady Adela scornfully ignored me. "A great financier like Mr.
Stelfox-Steel," she declared decidedly.

"Hurrah!" cried Reggie Horne. "Trot him out, Lady Adela, and make him
think of paying stocks; then we'll all have spent a profitable evening."

During the laughter that followed, M. Rovenski pressed my arm. "Will
you tell your hostess that at half-past twelve I must surely leave. It
only wants a quarter-hour!" he muttered in my ear.

Lady Adela, thus admonished, turned to the financier with her sweetest
smile. "You would confer an obligation on us all," she urged.

Stelfox-Steel grumblingly came forward. He was a big man, with an iron
jaw, eyes like those of an eagle, and a mouth like a guillotine. M.
Rovenski, whom I watched keenly, appeared to become uneasy under the
financier's piercing regard; but after a moment or two he bowed, and,
turning to me, said in a low, yet resolute voice, "This man is a liar,
Sir Francis, and he possesses great powers of self-command. He must
be outwitted, for he intends to discredit me. Ask him to look into my
eyes, then when, but not before, he follows your direction, say to him,
and quickly, 'Think of the action you are most ashamed of.'"

My interest and my sympathy being thoroughly aroused--for the financier
makes me feel creepy whenever he comes near me--I did as I was bidden,
exactly. And the curious, nay the extraordinary, result was this. The
little old man closed his eyes within a second of my speech, and,
stepping backward, leaned heavily upon the edge of the piano. Mr.
Stelfox-Steel shut his jaws with a snap, and swept first me and then
the gathering with a glance of fire. He seemed to be correcting us for
the impertinence of having countenanced the Russian's insolent demand.
A few seconds later, however, recovering his composure, he smiled quite
genially and muttered in a stage whisper, "But then everybody knows
that I'm a villain!" It was, really, very well done; and I yielded him
a meed of admiration, for his position had been embarrassing until he
spoke. I was just about to hazard a look at Miss Fortescue, when M.
Rovenski stood erect. His expression was sombre, even sad. "Tell, this
man," he said to me, "that I shall keep his secret if he wishes, or
inform him of it privately."

Mr. Stelfox-Steel, when this message was translated, played deftly to
the gallery. "I have no secrets that do not relate--to stocks!" he
said, and bowed to Reggie Horne. Everybody smiled; but when, a moment
later, I bade the old Russian unmask his battery he frowned and replied
in an undertone. "Whisper this question to him; whisper, so that none
can overhear, 'Where is your mother?'"

I did not like the task at all, but I was committed, having gone so
far, and so I accomplished it--after first apologising to the company
and Lady Adela. Mr. Stelfox-Steel did not turn a hair, but he looked me
in the eye and muttered, "I take you for a gentleman, Coates!"

Then he turned to Lady Adela and bowed low. "I have to admit myself a
believer in the esoteric powers of your marvel, Lady Adela," he said
gravely. "He has reminded me of a ceaselessly regretted incident of
my youth, wherein it was my misfortune to have caused the death of a
lad through an act of carelessness--while hunting. It--er--" He paused
dramatically, then went on, after a most artistic gulp, "It has rather
upset me--I confess--and I'm sure you'll excuse me if I now retire--Sir
Francis Coates, no doubt, will supply you with the details of the
story--if you wish to hear them."

"No--no--no!" cried everybody.

The financier bowed to the assembly--then once again to Lady Adela,
and, without deigning me a glance, was gone, it was a superlatively
fine bit of acting, and my admiration of the actor eclipsed my
resentment at the fashion in which he had tricked me into upholding
his brilliantly-concocted lie. There was nothing left for me to do but
nod mysteriously while the crowd assailed me with inquiring glances
and half-uttered questions. I was therefore greatly relieved when M.
Rovenski claimed my attention. "He has not given me the lie, then?" he
asked quietly.

"No," I replied. "On the contrary, he has given you the reputation of
a Mirlin." Then I explained the financier's astute avoidance of the
challenge. But M. Rovenski made no remark thereon, and presently, armed
with Lady Adela's gracious permission, I escorted the little old man
down the stairs.

I don't know why on earth I did it; but, as well as that, I helped him
on with his cloak--to the shuddering horror of two hulking footmen;
and then, to crown all, I was officious enough to assist him into his
cab. And the quaint thing was this, M. Rovenski accepted my attentions
without comment, as if they had been his right; and he rewarded me with
nothing but a kindly smile. He did not even say, "Good night!"

As I entered the house again, one of the footmen (still shuddering a
little) handed me a card that was inscribed on one surface with the
legend "Mr. J. Stelfox-Steel," on the other with these words, "Will Sir
F. C. favor me with a call at his earliest convenience?"

I winked at the footman and gave him half-a-crown. He did not return
the wink, but in consideration of the tip he condescended to stop
shuddering.

A second later a sweet voice said to me, in low, reproachful tones.
"You haven't been near me once to-night!" I looked down into the lovely
eyes of Helen Fortescue and thanked God for my stature.

Horace Massey has always to look up to her--in every way--I spiritually
alone. He stood about five feet away, holding her cloak and chewing
his moustache. Now, if he had been holding someone else's cloak, I
daresay I might have acted differently. As it was, I screwed up one
side of my face and depressed the other. "It has given me a pain here
to keep away," I groaned, and, putting my hands on my shirt front, I
bent double. Naturally, when I had recovered my perpendicular, she was
half-way down the steps. I had a yarn with the milkman that morning--we
reached the street door of my lodgings together. He was an awfully
decent fellow; he paid my cabby for me and gave me a glass of milk that
had real cream floating on the top. He took it from a special can.




CHAPTER II.

About midday a persistent rapping on the panels of my door aroused me.
My greatest treasures at that time were perfect health and a joyous
disposition. Naught I could do or leave undone seemed able to impair
the former, and I had already successfully defied two sorts of ruin
to rob me of the latter. I awoke, therefore, nothing to my surprise,
with a clear head and a gay heart. I thought the knocker, without, a
creditor, so I lay still for a great while, wagering right hand against
left in vast sums as to how long it would take to tire him. But it was
I that tired in the end; and, calling all bets off, I got up and donned
dressing-gown and slippers.

He was a messenger boy. "You young imp!" I remarked severely, "a nice
hour to call respectable citizens from their beds. What d'ye mean by
it?"

The youngster grinned. "Are you Sir Francis Coates, sir? If you are I
have a letter for you, sir. I am to wait and take back an answer, sir."

The letter ran as follows:--


"Dear Sir Francis Coates,--If you have ten minutes to spare this
afternoon between the hours of two and four, you might employ them to
your own advantage by spending them with me.

Yours faithfully,

J. Stelfox-Steel"


Having mastered the plain sense of this effusion, a whimsical impulse
induced me to reply to the great American financier, as follows:--


"Dear Mr. Stelfox-Steel,--It is so rarely an opportunity occurs for a
pauper to patronise a millionaire that, in common gratitude, I cannot
refrain from answering your letter.--I am, dear Sir,

Yours leisurely,

Francis Coates."


When the boy had gone, I bathed and dressed and examined my pass-book.
I was overdrawn, of course, but I doubt if that circumstance troubled
me as much as it did my banker, judging from a letter that the postman
brought a moment later; for I had all of ten sovereigns saved up
against a rainy day reposing snugly in my dressing-case. When the
milkman came I tossed him doubles or quits, and he won. Thus went the
first sovereign. The milkman, a true sport, offered to go on, but a
spasm of prudence saved me from the workhouse for the time; and four
o'clock found me in the Park, still, comparatively speaking, a rich man.

My star being in the ascendant, I was presently seated in Gloria
Hammond's victoria. She is about the only American woman English
married I know who hasn't a title; but to compensate, she owns a
hundred thousand pounds a year and the best chef in London. "I was just
dying to meet you, Frank," she announced.

"Everybody is talking about your clever old darling of a Russian and
the cute way you and he roped in everybody last night at Lady Adela's.
I could just lean back and pass away, I'm so angry I wasn't there. But
never mind, you shall tell me all about it and exactly how you worked
the oracle."

I found that I had been unconsciously anticipating this verdict of
society on my connection with M. Rovenski. Ever since I retired from
Eton for elevating baccarat to the dignity of an inexact science,
society had been laboriously picking my most innocent actions to pieces
and discovering in the process almost diabolically ingenious underlying
motives. It was one of the penalties I paid for having translated a
Russian novel into English in my teens. Society never completely trusts
a person, it suspects of brains.

"Look here, Gloria," I responded (calmly, because I had long ago
recognised the futility of resenting misconstruction--and it is my
habit to sit silent when accused of doing anything but good), "what
have you ever done for me that I should bare my soul to you?"

She pursed up her pretty lips and gave me a sidelong glance that would
have floored me five years earlier. "Oh!" she gasped. "The ungrateful
creatures that men are! Haven't I done my best to marry you a dozen
times to----"

"To other girls!" I interrupted gloomily. "D'ye expect me to be
grateful for that?"

She laughed, but her eyes brightened, and she gave a gushing bow to
Helen Fortescue, who cantered past us, attended by a groom.

"You're a base deceiver, Frank," she said. "But you're not going to put
me off with blarney. I insist that you shall tell me all about it."

"Well," said I, "if I must, I must. But first tell me what folks say.
I've only left my diggings half an hour ago, and have seen no one."

She bowed to a Cabinet Minister and his wife. "Oh," she answered
airily. "That you supplied the old sorcerer with the information
necessary. We are all wondering, though, how you obtained it. Lord
Huxham, for instance, is so notoriously close. Who was she--that
woman--Frank? My word, you are a deep one! They say Huxham has left
town and gone abroad. But really, Frank, I never dreamed that you could
be so terribly malicious. Poor Huxham wouldn't hurt a fly. Why ever do
you hate him, Frank?"

With something of an effort I refrained from fainting.

"My dear Gloria," said I, "I like the fellow--but I have my reputation
to consider. People have been quite neglecting me of late, and I had to
shake them up or go under. It was a mere fluke that Huxham was my first
victim. Almost anybody would have done."

Mrs. Hammond's look of startled wonderment faded into a loving smile as
she nodded to a female enemy. "What an atrocious hat," she muttered;
then aloud, and with a shocked expression, "but how did you know about
him and the woman?"

"Oh!" I answered glibly, "that's easy. I happened quite by chance to
be under the bed when Huxham's brother lay dying (Huxham never had a
brother) and--er--of course----"

But Gloria stopped the carriage instantly. "Thank you," she said
freezingly, "that's quite enough for one afternoon--Sir Francis.
Good-bye!"

"Good evenin', ma'am!" I replied. "Sorry I can't suit you to-day. Some
other day; good day!" And I hopped out upon the footpath, narrowly
escaping a collision with a cyclist as I did so. When I looked back
Gloria was abandonedly laughing, and the carriage hadn't moved. She
waved her hand and I went up to the wheel. Gloria is an insatiably
curious daughter of Eve, but she has the saving grace of humor.

"I've just thought of something," she announced. "Mr. Stelfox-Steel
dines with us to-night. Are you game to come?"

"Game? Have you just hired a new cook?"

"Brute!" she said, then added, "Till eight!" and drove away.

I lit a cigarette, for the suggestion of dinner had given me an
appetite, and sauntered on, chewing the cud of my reflections, that
is to say, puffing vigorously. A moment later I met Lady Harris,
Huxham's sister, and--she gave me the dead cut, in the most approved
and fashionable style, looking straight into my left eye. Then someone
coming up behind me linked his arm with mine. It was Reggie Horne.
"There's the deuce and all to pay over that business of last night,
Frank," he began at once. "You are the talk of London. Everyone swears
that the old Russian was your catspaw. I can tell you I am tired of
wagging my tongue in your defence."

"Everybody's awfully good to me," I hummed softly. "Don't bother to
defend me, Reggie. The thing will make my fortune if only people won't
forget it too quickly and stop vilifying me too soon. Bet you a cigar
there are at least a dozen interested invitations in my letter-box
already!"

But Reggie declined to be frivolous. "It's serious," he declared. "That
old owl of a Huxham is awfully popular, you know--and I saw his sister
cut you as I came along. Have you been to the club to-day?"

"Only in spirit, Reggie. Have they been sandbagging my reputation
there?"

"Not exactly; But Sampson said it was bad taste on your part to deliver
Rovenski's message to Huxham aloud, even if the mind-reading was a true
bill and no fake. And you know what influence he carries, Frank."

"So long as they don't ask me to resign," I answered cheerfully. "Isn't
it a glorious day, Reg? Mark the aureole about those poplar heads. I
feel----"

"Frank!" cried Reggie, with real indignation, "please stop being
frivolous for five minutes--I want----"

"Can't afford it just now," I interjected. "Here comes Helen Fortescue.
If I were serious for five seconds I'd stop her horse and propose to
her! By Jove, isn't she looking bonnie, Reg?"

Reggie said "Damn!" and Miss Fortescue pulled up beside us. "Mr.
Horne," said she, "I am, after all, not going to the Dacre's dance
to-night, so you may take some other girl to supper."

"How did you find out I wasn't going to the Dacre's?" I demanded
modestly. "I don't remember telling anyone."

"Oh!" flashed Helen. "Aren't you going? I did so hope to escape you for
one evening. Don't tell me I shall meet you at the Hammond's."

I slowly shook my head, and said sepulchrally, "I can see how it will
end. My name will be hopelessly compromised soon, and I shall have to
marry you. Such persecution. It's my fatal beauty, I suppose."

Helen Fortescue is always grandly armed against surprise and prepared
with a riposte, however smart the rally. That's why my dearest delight
has ever been a verbal fencing bout with her. She turned to Reggie. "If
he was worth powder and shot I'd ask you to remember his exact words,
Mr. Horne. They perilously resembled a proposal--don't you think?"

"He's just an idiot," growled Reggie. "He's always trying to be
funny--and never succeeds in being anything but rude. But look here,
Miss Fortescue, you'll have to pay me for that dance with two waltzes
at least at the Reid's. I know you're going, for your aunt told me."

Miss Fortescue considered. "I'm afraid I can't--I'm awfully sorry," she
said gently, and with real regret; "I thought, but I----"

"Oh, that's all right," I cut in. "I'm down for one--ain't I? Well, I
owe Reggie a fiver. You can give him the waltz and we'll call it square
all round."

"Done with you!" cried Reggie.

Helen smiled into my eyes. "So glad to have been of service!" she said
lightly, and, raising her whip, cantered on.

"Nasty one for you, my boy, and richly you deserved it!" commented
Reggie gratingly.

"Even the most unselfish disciplinarian," I observed, "is never thanked
by those he rods. That girl was getting dangerously conceited. She
absolutely needed the correction I gave her, and yet----"

"You infernal coxcomb!" Reggie cried. "Upon my soul, I feel inclined to
kick you!" and, swinging on his heel, he stamped off in high dudgeon.
I began to wonder if I had a single bachelor acquaintance left who
was not in love with Helen Fortescue. It was too absurd. And for the
life of me I couldn't understand why so many men were at her feet. She
was clever, certainly. But I knew a dozen women more beautiful. And
she hadn't a penny of her own. Her father was a pauper Irish baronet,
from whom she could only hope to inherit debts. Perhaps it was her
personality. That, I confess, possessed a charm peculiarly its own.
She had a captivating trick of fitting herself to the mood of each
person she companioned; and yet she never flattered. Then, too, she
impressed one with a conviction of sincerity; and her big, earnest grey
eyes seemed always asking pardon for somebody else's sins. I liked her
best because she kept her kindliest thoughts for the unfortunate, and
because no one had ever heard her say a word in condemnation of even
the worst specimens of our species.

These reflections brought me to Bruton Street and my rooms. As I had
expected, my letter-box was crammed with cards.




CHAPTER III.

I was placed between Gloria and Lady Letitia Drake at dinner, while
almost, but not quite, opposite (it was a round table) Miss Fortescue
enlivened the stolidity of Stelfox-Steel and the Under-Secretary for
Foreign Trade.

There were about a dozen others present, including a tame duke, two
half-broken-in foreign barons, and our host, the famous geologist and
explorer, Neil Hammond. Gloria let me rest until the entree was served,
when, however, she opened fire in her best American manner. "Did Lady
Harris really cut you this afternoon, Sir Francis?" she demanded. The
poor duke was so shocked that he spilled some salt upon the cloth,
which made him plainly miserable. "Better throw some over your left
shoulder," I advised, then turned to Gloria. "Lady Harris is much too
well bred a woman to cut anybody," I replied.

"But I had it from----"

"S'sh!" I interrupted. "I'm not impugning the veracity of your
informant, Mrs. Hammond. I'm not anybody--in particular--you see."

Gloria smiled maliciously. "You are becoming quite delightfully modest
in your old age," she observed.

"When you were a snub-nosed little girl, in short petticoats," I
replied severely, "and long before you began to reap the disadvantages
of foreign travel, I was already sufficiently a philosopher to know
that a man at thirty-five is still looking forward to his prime. Old
age indeed!"

"Did-ums, then," said Gloria; "and he's not even bald yet!"

I made her a present of my shoulder. "Lady Letitia," I murmured, "do
say something soothing. Mrs. Hammond has been pulling out my hair."

Lady Letitia--a rather pretty blonde, with the whitest neck in
London--sympathetically sighed. She was a soulful creature. "Gloria--is
so light-hearted, dear girl--and--er--transparent (she lowered her
voice at the word--she meant 'shallow'--the little cat) that I'm always
envying her. She, for instance, would, have nothing to fear--if M.
Rovenski read--her thoughts. Don't you agree with me, Sir Francis?"

From both sides. So there was no escape, it seemed. I nerved myself for
the fray, for a glance showed me that everyone who could hope to hear
was covertly listening.

"Well, I don't know," I drawled. "One never can tell. It's unsafe to
judge by appearances, they say. Mrs. Hammond has always seemed to me
a guileless creature (Gloria gasped with rage), but she may be really
wickeder than you or I!" (Gloria smiled again.)

Lady Letitia strove to show me by her expression that her life
contained a gloomy mystery. "Do you know--I dread that man," she said.
"I hope that I shall never be unfortunate enough to meet him. If I did,
I believe I should die!"

"Oh, they'd never hang you," I replied consolingly, "not if I were on
the Jury anyhow. But tell me how you did it; or was there more than
one? Did you use a pistol or a knife? I'm so interested."

A chorus of gentle gurgles told Lady Letitia that she was being laughed
at. Being a blonde, she lost her temper in everything except outward
seeming. "I'm afraid that you will not be able to make any capital for
M. Rovenski at my expense, Sir Francis," she said sweetly. Here was the
gauntlet with a vengeance; and I scarcely needed the sudden silence of
the table to inform me that I must be careful how I picked it up. I
pushed some pease upon my fork.

"Well, I do think," I said reproachfully, "that you might have helped
me to earn my salary, Lady Letitia." Then I ate the pease.

"Why," she gasped. "Do you mean--do you admit?" She had lost her head.

I smiled encouragingly. "It's no secret, Lady Letitia. I've been
chaffed about it all day."

"What! That--that----" She was a scarlet note of interrogation.

"I have entered the family skeleton trade. Everybody says so. So
it must be true. According to report, I'm paid a pound apiece for
questionable birth certificates, and even more handsomely for secret
murders! I only regret----" Then I stopped.

"What?" asked Mr. Stelfox-Steel from across the board. The word was
involuntarily uttered, I felt sure, for he looked as if he could have
kicked himself for saying it.

But I smiled into his face, and answered with a bow, "Why, sir; that
the duello has gone out of fashion. I have no character which I could
lose, thank God! without the certainty of finding soon a better one.
But I crave leave, with my superiors, to hate a slanderer!" And as I
spoke, I leaned proudly back, and swept the circle with my eyes. For
the moment my blood was on fire, and I knew that every note and cadence
of my voice had sounded and resounded challenge.

A strained silence succeeded; then the duke spluttered: "Bravo, Coates!
Well said! I quite agree with you!" And the incident was closed.

I turned at once to Gloria. "You have a card-party afterwards," I said,
"and I'm not invited."

"You are too poor, my boy," she answered kindly. "You'd be sure to win,
and that would make you more unsettled and volatile than ever. Why
won't you marry, Frank? I'm really awfully worried about your future.
There are a dozen girls----"

"I want to be my first wife's chief adorer," I interrupted. "It's a
fad, I know, but I can't get over it."

"How absurd you are!" she muttered. "But there's more--don't tell me!"

"Well, there is. I couldn't conscientiously accept the contract of
providing for a woman's happiness without I had a selfish interest in
maintaining it. I know myself, you see, Gloria."

"What nonsense! Hammond married me for my money, and I'm as happy as a
queen. And while you're not a cruel man, Frank, you are much cleverer
than he is--where women are concerned."

I shook with laughter. "Shall I tell you a story?" I asked.

"If it's a pleasant one."

"The other day I met a man at the club. He was reading, in an
out-of-the-way corner, a scientific journal upside down, and smoking
an unlighted cigar. Being a friend of his, I invited and received his
confidence. He confessed that he had absent-mindedly quitted home
without kissing his wife. I'd tell this to no one in the world but you,
Gloria."

Gloria bit her lip, then laughed and blurted out, "Yes, and I didn't
forgive him for a week, either."

"You are a whited sepulchre," I observed severely. "The man loves the
ground you walk on! As for you----"

"Go on!" said Gloria, with a look full of threats.

"Hammond almost deserves the priceless treasure you have given him," I
replied, skirting the issue skilfully.

"You are a dear boy, Frank," said Gloria. "And I'll never rest
satisfied until you are married to a nice, beautiful, rich woman like
me!"

"Amen!" I answered solemnly. "But you'll spend a lifetime vainly
seeking her."

When the women had gone, the duke, who had evidently been waiting for
the opportunity, warmly and loudly pressed me to spend the shooting at
his house. The blundering, honest, kindly, middle-aged fool wanted to
show the others that in his opinion I was undeserving of my reputation.
But he meant well, and I accepted. Then Stelfox-Steel came round the
table and dropped into a chair beside me heavily. "Waited in for you
till four-thirty," he remarked.

"You got my letter?" I inquired.

"Yes, but reckoned you'd think it over and come along."

"You are not the judge of character the half-penny press makes out."

"Don't pretend to be, Sir Francis. Try one of my cigars."

"No, thanks; Hammond's are good enough for me."

"Do you know, Coates, you are very uncivil? Got a reason?"

"And a good one!"

"What is it?"

"Straight from the shoulder?"

"You bet!"

"Well, it strikes me that you want me. If I'm right, there's money in
it. And if there's money in it, I must keep you at arm's length, or
I'll make a bad bargain!"

The financier favored me with a lingering, narrow-lidded stare. "You
ought to be in business!" he declared at length. "If you'd care to try
it, I'll clear a desk for you."

"And get what you are wanting now for two pounds ten a week, or
thereabouts?"

"You're a shrewd man, Coates--far shrewder than I thought; but you
missed the nail that time and hit wood instead. By the way, you went
home with that Russian chap Rovenski--last night?"

The sudden sparkling of his eyes warned me of something inexplicit in
his accusation, so I answered coolly, "Did you follow me?"

"No," said he, "but I waited on your doorstep till past three. You must
have found a lot to talk about."

I was unaffectedly amazed. "On my doorstep--till past three," I
repeated. "Bruton Street?"

"Number thirteen! Two whole hours!"

I chuckled to reflect on the much pleasanter fashion in which I had
passed those hours. Then I yawned and stood up. Stelfox-Steel stood up,
too. "Is the want still wanting?" I inquired.

"To some extent."

"Better break your fast with me to-morrow, then. Noon sharp; you know
your way!"

The financier smiled grimly. "I'll be there," he said, and we all went
out into the drawing-room.

Miss Fortescue was turning over some pictures on a distant lounge,
Gloria was playing one of Chopin's nocturnes, and the other women were
gathered in a bunch talking scandal. I wandered over to Miss Fortescue
and took the book of etchings on my lap.

"I'll give you some of that fiver, when I get one, if you're good!" I
said.

She was silent.

"I know you need it," I went on. "Your shaft about my not being worth
powder and shot disclosed the state of your own exchequer."

Miss Fortescue murmured, "Sacrosanct! What a lovely face!" She was
studying a picture.

"And that hole in your riding-glove----" I continued.

"It's a story!" she flashed, then, meeting my eye, laughed in spite of
herself. "You are the meanest man----"

"No," I said, "just weak, that's all--weak as water. I can put off an
encounter days ahead, but when I saw you sitting here--do you think I
could stop myself walking over?"

"Give me patience!" she exclaimed, in a low, intense voice, her eyes
dilating strangely. "Is my presence poisonous?"

"Only to the lower animals--pariahs--and paupers--like me," I muttered,
sadly--though sadly much against my will. I tried to speak lightly, God
knows. I saw her nostrils quiver and her bosom heave, and I should have
gone if I had had the strength. But the sight intoxicated me. "You are
not a pariah, and you know it!" she whispered, staring at the picture.

"If I only had thousands instead of hundreds a year!" I answered
bitterly.

"If you were an Irishman I should call you a selfish coward," said
Miss Fortescue, in calm, well-regulated tones. I needed just such a
restorative, needed it badly. I felt truly grateful; for I had been
slipping towards the brink of sentiment, that abyss dangerous.

"And as I am not an Irishman?" I suggested politely, quite recovered.

"You head my list of 'poor things'," replied the girl, "creatures that
sigh eternally for something that they lack the courage and ability
to fight for and to win. If I were a man and I wanted wealth as you
pretend you want it, no one would hear me cry for it. I would get
it--I----"

"I know," I interrupted admiringly, "you'd rob a bank or loot the
Abbey. But if I did anything like that I'd be sure to give myself away.
The veriest infant can tell when I've been doing something wrong. One
side of my mouth always twitches."

She looked me over scornfully. "I find it difficult to realise that you
are the man who made my cheeks glow and my heart beat, a little while
ago, in the other room--when you answered that ridiculous attack upon
your honor."

"It wasn't a bad little bit of acting, now, was it?" I anxiously
inquired.

Miss Fortescue did not trouble to reply to me, and as Horace Massey
came up at that moment I yielded him my place with alacritous civility,
and went straight home to bed. It was the first time in many months
I had retired before midnight; but I very much desired to meet Mr.
Stelfox-Steel with an active and unclouded brain upon the morrow.




CHAPTER IV.

MR. STELFOX-STEEL eyed my modest breakfast table with a surprise he
took no trouble to conceal; then he glanced around the room and back
again.

"Humph!" he said, "you are quite a Spartan!"

"I thought of getting something extra for you," I remarked, "but
finally decided you required a lesson in simplicity of dieting. You
are--pardon me--unnecessarily corpulent--and last night I saw you
eating truffles?"

"Do you always breakfast so? Chocolate and toast?"

"Always--and I never take more than two meals a day--this and dinner.
That is how retain my condition despite the life I lead. Though you may
not guess it, I am physically one of the soundest and strongest men who
enjoy the honor of your acquaintance, Mr. Steel."

The financial magnate bit thoughtfully at a slice of toast. "You are a
queer bird--and that's a fact," he observed. "Where did you go after
you left the Hammonds'?"

"Into that room yonder. I had some arrears of slumber to make up. Did
you think I went to call on M. Rovenski?"

"I thought it possible."

"What is your business with me?"

Stelfox-Steel put down his toast and sat straight up in his chair,
gripping the table tightly with both hands as he did so. "Whatever
conclusion we arrive at, I expect you to respect my confidence, Sir
Francis."

"Parole d'honneur."

"Thank you--the business is rather intricate, so kindly give me your
absolute attention!"

I lighted a cigarette and crossed my knees. "Russian, of course?" I
suggested.

He nodded and frowned. "Unhappily it is, since because of it for many
reasons I am working at a disadvantage. But to begin:--Some nine months
ago I contracted with a Russian syndicate on behalf of a combination
of American firms to supply the former with a certain sum of money on
certain conditions. The contract was in terms or steel, but the private
understanding was that only gold should pass immediately. Do you grasp
me?"

"Perfectly."

"Well, the loan--for such it was in effect--was to be secured with
bonds carrying interest at ten per cent, and repayable at the
expiration of two years; and these bonds were to be signed by a very
high personage, a very high personage indeed."

"So!"

Stelfox-Steel's enormous jaws snapped shut. "I don't wish to mislead
you, Coates," he said through his shut teeth. "The transaction had
nothing to do with the Russian Government; it was a purely private one,
although the personage who was to sign the bonds occupied a position of
pre-eminence."

"Quite so!"

"To continue, then: the arrangement was that half the money should be
paid down upon the transfer of the bonds, and that the remainder should
be retained by us in pre-payment of steel orders."

"I see."

"This was done--the bonds for the full amount were handed to me; and I
paid over the sum agreed upon to the syndicate's representative--eight
months ago. Since then the steel orders have been executed, by
us--but----" he paused of a sudden, and eyed me very searchingly. I
returned him stare for stare. "I'm taking a big risk," he muttered.

"Not because you want to exactly, eh?" said I. His brow cleared a
little, but he thought it proper to treat me to a rather original sort
of threat. "Sooner or later you'd eat skilly if you played me false,"
he said softly. "I've never met the man yet I couldn't put in gaol by
trying hard enough!"

"It is my privilege to enlarge your experience," I retorted with a
laugh. "But do get on with your story, Mr. Steel--I'm booked for a game
of billiards at the club in an hour. You were saying that the steel
orders had been executed by you----"

"Humph!" he growled--"just so--but they have not been delivered." Then
he paused again.

"No? Something wrong?" I suggested after a moment. "A fly in the amber?"

"See here, Coates, I'm going to trust you fully!" he rejoined with
a scowl. "So kindly quit fooling if you can, and give me a serious
assurance."

I sat up at that and bowed to him. "My word is my bond, however lightly
passed," I answered gravely. "You have it already."

He nodded, and for the first time in the interview he smiled. But that
soon faded, and a look of real anxiety, was in his eyes as he said:
"It was more than a fly, my lad. In the meanwhile, God knows how, the
Russian syndicate broke up. I am only aware of the result. Two of the
members, one a prince, the other an admiral, were publicly discredited
and banished from the Court. Another went insolvent. A fourth was
degraded and appointed to some petty post in Vladivostock. A fifth
disappeared. The sixth and last came to London, and is here now."

"But the high personage?" I cried, now deeply interested.

"It became necessary for me to inform him we were ready to complete two
months ago," he answered gloomily. "His reply was an official and most
absolute repudiation of all knowledge of the syndicate and its affairs!"

"But the bonds--the bonds he had signed?"

"He has declared them to be forgeries."

I whistled my astonishment away. "Then how do you stand?" I demanded.

"In an ugly hole, Sir Francis, a very ugly hole indeed. My Government
declines to do anything in face of the official repudiation I informed
you of; and the firms for whom I acted not only insist that I shall
bear single-handed the entire loss of the money which I handed to the
syndicate, but that I shall, furthermore, pay them the price agreed
upon for the steel contracts."

"But can they force you to? You were only their agent, were you not?"

"Exactly, but I could not afford to resist them. Nor would I dream
of doing so. In fact, I am now negotiating to compromise with their
demands."

"Is a large amount involved?"

"A tidy sum. To be exact, two million five-hundred thousand pounds."

I distinctly felt the room rock. When I was able to speak I stammered
out, "And you could not afford to refuse to pay a sum like that?"

"Exactly!" said the magnate calmly. "For in that case there is not a
bit of paper I hold which those combined firms would not presently
contrive to render valueless. And I should have to reckon, too, with
the fact that I should lose their trade."

"But they would be rascals--wolves--to treat you so."

He smiled pityingly at me. "I wouldn't say that, Sir Francis. There is
no friendship in business."

"And no such thing as commercial morality?" I interjected hotly.

"Depends on how you define the expression. In business the weak go
always to the wall, and only fools squeal when they are pinched. I'm
not squealing, my lad. Far from it. It has been a nasty blow to me, I
admit, but I've got over it already, and my game now is to try and pull
something out of the fire. That is why I have eaten half a slice of
your toast this morning."

"I see. How can I help you?"

"Your mother was the Countess Irma Volodyovski?" he asked irrelevantly.

"Before my father married her."

"You were brought up in St. Petersburg, were you not?"

"Not altogether. I came to England soon after my twelfth birthday."

"You have estates in Russia, though?"

"They were confiscated--my mother was proscribed, you know."

"But you did not share in her proscription?"

"On the contrary. Indeed, I have twice since been a guest at the Czar's
Court; but I shall never get back my estates, I fear. They are in the
hands of the Church!"

The magnate nodded. "That's a pity. But never mind; if you pull off
this business for me you will not need them. How do you feel about a
trip to Russia, Sir Francis?"

"Well," said I, "I could do without one nicely. When would you want me
to start?"

"Within a week, perhaps."

"So many people would be disappointed!" I objected.

"----their disappointment," he retorted rudely. "Look here, my lad,"
and he leaned forward, lowering his voice. "I have got it into my head,
in spite of that official disclaimer and repudiation, that those bonds
were genuinely signed. Hey, what?"

"But--but--in that case--this high personage of yours--if you are
right--would be a liar and a thief!"

"Wrong, he need be nothing of the sort. He may be an innocent victim
like myself."

"Then this high personage of yours must be the Czar!" I said, looking
straight into his eye.

The magnate started back and flung a hasty glance around the room.
Then, reassured, he turned to me again. "You have guessed correctly,
Coates," he muttered.

"Then your idea is that one of his entourage or more than one,
interested in the swindle, have dared to answer your inquiries in their
master's name?"

He nodded, his eyes gleaming like stars. "It would be more than worth
their while," he whispered, "for, can't you see, as well as the money
they have got already, they will, when the bonds mature, pocket the
amount of the redemption."

"But what about the steel orders? How could the Czar fail to suspect
something wrong when they did not arrive?"

"I firmly believe that they have already arrived--on paper!" said the
magnate quietly. "The Czar is a mere cipher. His Ministers have all the
real power. Of all the things that happen or appear to happen in his
realm, he only knows that which they choose to tell him. Why, his very
private correspondence is overlooked and carefully examined before it
reaches him; and I dare say that of even that a proportion is either
censored or destroyed. You can see for yourself, Coates, that the thing
is feasible."

"But you must have some other ground for your suspicions, Mr. Steel. So
far, I tell you frankly, they appear to me chimerical."

The magnate pursed up his lips. "The bonds were in the first instance,
soon after they reached me, sent to America," he replied. "Well,
the messenger who accompanied them was assassinated in his cabin.
Fortunately, however, he had taken the precaution to deposit them with
the purser when he went aboard, and they reached their destination
safely. The murderer was an Italian, certainly; and the fact put me off
the scent at the time; but, after all, it proved nothing. To resume:
they were returned into my keeping six weeks since per medium of the
post. My partners thought them valueless, you see. Since then my office
has been twice burgled; and on the latter occasion, my strong-room
door was bored through in three places. These last facts are only,
naturally, known to the police. It would damage me to make them public.
But there they are. What do you make of them?"

"Curious coincidences."

"I shall give you another: every member of the now disbanded syndicate
(although most of them were in responsible positions at the moment of
the loan) was in reality, financially speaking, a man of straw; and,
mark me, Coates, as well as that, a Nihilist."

"Oh! Oh!" said I. "I begin to share your suspicions, Mr. Steel."

"One thing more," he muttered; "not one of those members of the defunct
syndicate, who occupied a responsible position at the moment of the
loan, had held his appointment for a longer period than three months
prior to the day on which I parted with the money."

I drew a deep breath. "Mr. Steel," said I, "you are the victim of
a base conspiracy, and I have little doubt that the Czar is your
companion in misfortune."

"Just so," he replied. "But the thing is to unmask it."

"Why not go yourself to Russia, and demand to see His Majesty?"

The magnate sardonically smiled. "It is scarcely a week since I
returned from St. Petersburg, Sir Francis. The Czar declined to receive
me, and my own ambassador as good as told me that I was qualifying
rapidly for a lunatic asylum, when I hinted at the reason why I wished
him to insist upon an audience."

"Did they offer you no redress at all?"

"Oh, yes, the Minister of the Interior expressed his pleasant
readiness to prosecute the syndicate; but he mentioned--casually, you
understand--that such a course would render my detention necessary in
the capital, as a witness, for many weeks, perhaps, even months."

"Ah," said I. "So you concluded not to press the matter."

"In that form, Sir Francis. Well, you know everything now, my lad. Will
you go to Russia?"

"But what to do?"

"To put a letter into the Czar's hands."

"You mean to attempt to do so. He is guarded carefully at all times,
and surely with a thousand-fold intenser caution now. My life upon
it--your enemies, the guilty bureaucrats--are anxiously expecting the
advent of just such an emissary as you propose to send. In fact, Mr.
Steel, if I undertake your mission I shall run a certain risk of ending
my existence in Siberia."

"William Penn founded Pennsylvania," said the magnate drily. "Any new
point in this affair that you can give me I shall pay you for at the
rate of a hundred pounds a word."

"You have considered the matter very thoroughly?"

"Swept it with a hand-broom and a dust-pan--on my knees."

"Then you doubtless know exactly what you can afford to offer for my
services. Name the limit at once, if you please; for I warn you that
all the money you possess would fail, once said, to change my 'no' into
a 'yes'."

"I am not a chafferer myself," he answered, with a scowl. "My terms,
take them or leave them, are a thousand pounds down for your expenses;
a thousand, win or lose, for your fee, to be paid on your return; and,
should your efforts be successful in recovering all or my portion of
the money, ten per cent. of the gross amount restored to me."

"Then," I said, as calmly as I could, for my heart was beating like a
trip-hammer, "it is on the cards that I may make £251,000 if I accept
the proposition."

"A little more if the Czar concludes to pay both principal and
interest. Well?"

"Yes," I answered.

Mr. Stelfox-Steel put out his hand. "It's a bargain. Shake!" he said.

A moment later we were both afoot. "When shall I start?" I asked.

"As soon as we have got the strength of the member of the syndicate who
is in London!"

"Do you believe he can be of use to us?"

"He may be. Nothing is impossible. My impression is that he is not
utterly dishonest--one of your well-meaning rogues."

"You have seen him, then?" I cried.

"I have; but for certain personal reasons, which I need not go into
with you, I do not intend to meet him again if I can help it."

"Then how----?" I began.

"You will deal with him in my place," replied the magnate. "And
I wish you to waste no time in opening up negotiations. See him
to-day if possible, and bring him to book as quickly as you can. The
method--terms, etc.,--I leave entirely to your judgment. No doubt he
will want a substantial bribe----"

"We could arrest and prosecute him!" I exclaimed.

"We can't; for the contract was made in Russia. You can play that card,
though, and threaten him if it seems worth while; but take my word for
it, your joker will be my purse. Don't deplete it any more than you can
help, however--I hate throwing good money after bad. Well--good-day,
Sir Francis. Drop in at my office when you have something to tell me.
Au revoir!"

He put on his hat, and I opened the door for him. "Au revoir," I
repeated--as he passed out; then I cried, in the same breath, "But,
stay--you've forgotten to tell me the man's name--and where he lives."

"I think you know where to find him," answered the magnate, with a
curious smile and backward glance. "His name is Paul Rovenski."




CHAPTER V.

I was taken so completely by surprise that I permitted Mr.
Stelfox-Steel to depart without another word. Yet that was not exactly
a misfortune in the circumstances, for had I detained him I should
probably have confessed to having consciously misled him into the idea
that I knew more of M. Rovenski than was the case. And the magnate's
opinion of my astuteness would have deteriorated--a thing I did not
desire at this juncture. As it was, I made my way within the hour to
Lady Adela Drummond's residence, and she not only gave me the old
Russian thought-reader's address, but a commission as well to arrange
another exhibition of his powers under her patronage. I was thus
furnished with an excellent excuse to visit him, and as soon as Lady
Adela dismissed me I took a cab to Maida Vale. The house to which I
had been directed was shop-fronted, and the windows were ornamented
with a golden legend: "M. Berustein. Hairdressing done here." The
proprietor proved to be a beringleted and oily-whiskered Polish Jew;
and he was shaving a man who realised my conception of a bomb-thrower
to the life. But he was wonderfully obsequious, and, leaving his
customer half-smothered in lather, immediately he heard my business,
he bowed himself out of the room. The bomb-thrower thereupon uttered
an impatient growl, and the reflections of our eyes met in the mirror
before him. "I regret extremely to have disturbed you, sir," I said
politely.

"Wow-wow!" he responded; and he gave me a scowl that justified my
diagnosis of his character.

"How is trade in your line just now--brisk?" I asked.

The unlathered part of him, much to my astonishment, went purple, and
his pig-like little eyes glittered evilly, but he made no answer, and
the conversation languished. I turned away and came face to face with
Mr. Berustein, who had soundlessly returned. "Pliz--you--come zis
way," he murmured, bowing low. "Monsieur Rovenski, mooch pliz--to see
you." There was something about Mr. Berustein's noiselessness that
gave me an unpleasant thrill, but I followed him, and I must admit
that I presently forgot him and his customer alike, for I was ushered
upstairs, and into an apartment so exquisitely appointed that I caught
my breath in wonderment. The walls were draped with the palest of pink
silk hangings, caught up here and there in artistic folds to show a
silver-sheeted mirror or a finely painted Ecce Homo. I counted five
Christs, and each one was a perfect little masterpiece. There was an
ebony-framed piano, and a wonderful old harp at one end of the room;
at the other an immense Chesterfield lounge. The floor was covered
with a heavy pile rug, and the chairs and other furniture, including a
magnificent old cabinet, were Louis Quinze.

"M. Rovenski cannot be poor, that is certain," I thought.

"Oh, yes, but I am," replied M. Rovenski himself, whom I had not till
then observed. He was standing in a draped doorway behind the piano,
the curtains falling on either side of him, and the reason I had, in
my first glance, passed him by was that his garb, like the curtains,
was of purple. He wore a long buttoned robe that perfectly resembled
a bishop's cassock; and he smiled most genially upon my startled
wonderment.

"You are--what?" I gasped, as he came towards me, both his hands
outstretched.

"Poor--poor as a crow," he answered. "Did I read your thought aright?"

He pressed my hands and led me, speechless, to a seat. "Upon my soul,"
I muttered, "You must be a wizard, monsieur."

He sank into a chair before me, and slowly shook his head. "If I were a
wizard I should be a rich man, Sir Francis, not a dependent upon Prince
Peletovski's bounty, for such I confess to you I am. These rooms--this
furniture--belong to him. And, poor and exiled as he is, it has been
my evil fortune to add to his cares. That is why I am glad to see you
to-day, Sir Francis."

"Because I have a commission for you?" I gasped.

"Ah! how happy you make me!" he cried. "I guessed that you had come for
that."

"You did not read my mind then--in this instance?"

"No, Sir Francis." He fixed his wonderful eyes on me, and after a
moment frowned.

"But you have not only come to tell me that?" he said.

I was by then in such a panic lest he should apprehend too soon the
real motive of my visit that in my desperation I lied. "Not quite,
monsieur," I said quickly. "To save you the trouble of reading my
thoughts I will tell you that I have been absorbing curiosity to learn
how you acquired your extraordinary--your apparently superhuman power?
Or were you born with it, monsieur? Forgive me if I seem impertinent."

To my relief, he believed me. He gave a little sigh and looked away.
"I possess no power that you or any other intelligent person may not
acquire by dint of sufficient patient effort," he said gravely. "Nor do
I aspire to make any mystery about it. If you wish to hear----"

"Wish!" I cried, now seriously interested. "My dear monsieur, if you
will tell me how I can become a thought-reader like you, I will be your
slave in gratitude while I draw breath!"

His beautiful, kind old smile enchanted me. "Then listen, my son, and I
shall tell you how it came to pass," he said. "You must know that I was
ordained when still a very young man--priest of God----"

"Ah!" I exclaimed, "a priest!"

"Does it surprise you?" he murmured. "Yes, I was a priest of the
orthodox Greek Church. Alas, now----" he spread out his hands and
sighed, but next moment he went gravely on. "Men and women came to me,
my son, poor wretched men and women with their sins and troubles thick
upon them, to be comforted and shrived. Such is the priest's duty. In
those days I fear I fulfilled my office badly. I was young, impatient,
and, though pitiful of heart, tyrannical by disposition, for my father
was a noble who had been proscribed--and not even bitter poverty
could cure my pride of birth. My parishioners, too, were ignorant and
stupid, and, like all downtrodden people the world over, hypocrites by
habit. Lying seemed no vice, to them, for often only by lying could
they contrive to live; the tax-gatherers ground them down so terribly,
so cruelly hard! And sometimes by a lie, persisted in, a little corn
could be saved, some small life be preserved from starvation, or a
grey existence cheered with a ray of futile drunken sunshine! I have
known--ah, but you too know Russia, my son--why should I harrow you?
Suffice it to say that the miserable peasants could not subdue their
dispositions even in the confessional. Centuries of dissimulation
towards those vested with authority above them had so warped their
naturally simple characters that they even wished and tried at last
to deceive God! And this at first made me very angry. But God gave
me patience in the end. And it was in seeking to save these wretched
beings, His children, against themselves, from the sin of sacrilege,
that I first discovered how to read men's minds."

"Indeed, monsieur," I muttered, as he paused.

Very gravely he inclined his head. "The process was a simple one," he
said. "And if you are by chance a materialist and a reasoner you will
smile at me when I tell you that for a great while I was foolish enough
not to realise its simplicity, but to believe myself preternaturally
endowed."

"No--no--father," I protested. "Have I not seen----"

He interrupted me with an uplifted hand. "Well, then, follow me, my
son, and soon you shall know all, for I shall tell you not of my folly,
but of my enlightenment. There was a man in our village, an officer
of the Government, to whom I had never spoken. But I had looked into
his eyes, and I knew on the instant that he hated me, and I knew also
that I did not like him. He tried afterwards to injure my repute
among the people; but he went from among us too soon to hurt me, yet
we did not meet; we never met. But he who had tried to injure me did
me an incalculable service. He made me think deeply and ask myself
this question: 'How may the heart be seen through a man's eyes?' And
ten years of service, given somewhat grudgingly perhaps, to my poor
parishioners, answered me my question in this fashion: 'Look, and be
willing to forgive and to receive, and all men's hearts shall be known
to you.' And that was a true answer, my son, as true as if Christ
Himself had spoken me those words. From the moment that I understood
this thing, I was a changed man. For to understand is to forgive.
Thenceforth my parishioners began to love me, for I put aside my pride
for ever and served them instead, through love and with love. Yet for
my sins I was transferred from among them to the city of Moscow, and
there my work was much increased. I was the confessor of the lowest
class, and my life was spent among them, criminals, rogues, vagabonds.
It was an evil period, yet I thank God for it, since it was then that
I made the great discovery. For, one evening, being much discouraged
by the death of a man, who had lied to God with his latest breath,
even while blessing me, I asked myself to what use was it to know a
man's heart if not his mind and the working of his mind, so I might
thereby overcome and discountenance the wicked shame in him and save
his soul from hell. And it seemed to me that if a man's heart can be
seen through his eyes, his mind, too, may similarly be surprised from
him. Then there came to me a woman whose beauty was so great that I
covered my eyes with my hand as she bowed in prayer before me. And
when she was at length silent I knew that she had kept of all her
sins her greatest from my knowledge; for I had seen into her heart.
And this I taxed her with, but she denied me. Whereupon, drawing back
from her, I prayed most fervently for guidance, until I was exhausted,
and, being but lately ill, and faint as well with hunger, I was like
to swoon. And in those seconds that, with empty mind, forgetting her
and all the world, I fought against my weakness--the knowledge came!
Sharply--overpoweringly--like a revelation, of the woman's sin. At that
time I thought an angel must have whispered me the news--but now I know
that in the blank silence of my struggle her mind had spoken straight
to mine, which was in a perfect condition to receive the message."

M. Rovenski was silent; he seemed to have fallen into a reverie.

"And the woman, father?" I whispered.

"She went from me a penitent, my son!" said the old man dreamily.

"And afterwards?"

He aroused himself with an apparent effort from his reverie.
"Afterwards," he said, "I had many failures--some few successes. I had
not nearly realised the truth, you see. I imagined it was necessary
to woo God--for the power whose edges I had touched--with prayer and
fasting--so I became a stern ascetic. Men called me saint--God forgive
them for their impious madness--and they brought me their sick to
cure with touch of hands and prayer. But the passionate desire of my
heart eluded and continued to elude me, and only at rare intervals,
in moments of sickness and semi-oblivion, was I able to achieve that
which I still believed to be a miracle--the reading of the mind. With
the passing of the years, however, I grew more wise, and I came at
length to perceive, though dimly, that the phenomenon might be due
rather to the state of my body than to the condition of my soul. I
analysed my successes and found that all had occurred in moments of
mental inactivity and blankness caused by physical exhaustion. This
led me to try and reproduce, by the exertion of my will, a condition
of mind similar to that which had been effected by bodily weakness. It
was a thing hard to do, and I frequently almost resigned the effort
in despair; but God made me persevere, and He gave me confidence and
patience to complete the task. It is now five and twenty years ago that
I was rewarded with my first small triumph. Since then, by the exercise
of unremitting effort, I have contrived to make my will the captain
of my mind, and I am now able to control my thoughts as surely as my
tongue!"

I drew a deep breath. "So," I said, "that is your secret,
father--silence!"

He looked at me and smiled. "Ay, my son. But such a silence as you
perhaps as yet may only be able to imagine. A silence fitted for
the transference of thought must be the silence of receptivity
itself, the silence of the soil which receives the confidence of
the seed, the silence of the vessel into which the bubbling wine is
poured, the silence of the outer ether through which rush the stars
and suns and rolling worlds. And the silence, too, must have this
attitude--expectancy!"

I nodded. "You smooth from all your mental processes the slightest
crease of thought, giving the mind at the same time a suggestion of
something about to happen. But what then?"

"Wait, my son--wait patiently!"

"And then?"

"The mind fills, as a cup is filled, with the thoughts of him whose
mind is to be read, by a power outside its own."

"But that power, father; who exercises it?"

"I know not; unless it be God, my son!"

"Does it never fail?"

"When the pre-requisite conditions are fulfilled it never fails, my
son."

"And how do you become aware of that power's exercise?"

"By the sudden arrival of a new and foreign consciousness, which I can
only liken to the sudden perception of a picture one has never seen
before. It informs the expectant mind of its arrival with a sense of
discovery and strangeness. There is no mistaking its significance."

"Nor its message, father?"

"Nor its message, my son."

"Your method is to look into the eyes of him whose mind you wish to
read?"

"Not necessarily. I look into a man's eyes from a prying habit to
seek to learn his disposition rather than to read his mind. To do the
latter, it is merely requisite that he should be closer to me than
others if others are present, and that I should fix my thoughts on him
before I cease to think at all. Yet it is easier if he is close enough
to touch my hand."

"Do you know, father," I said smilingly, "I suspect that the medium of
your mind-reading, that is to say, the power we spoke of just now, is
animal magnetism, pure and simple."

"Possibly, my son."

"And further, I suspect very strongly that your marvellous 'silence
of receptivity' is nothing else than a condition of trance, of
self-hypnotism."

The old priest smiled back at me. "My dear lad," he said, "you
remind me of a poor old moujik to whom I once tried to explain the
mysteries of the telephone. When I told him that by its agency a man
in Moscow could converse at his ease with a friend in Novgorod, he
told me bluntly that I lied. But when I informed him that the medium
of communication was a telegraph wire he revoked his uncharitable
conclusion at once. He had no more understanding of the telegraph
than of the telephone, but the former was a familiar word to him. A
telegraph post had stood for years before the door of his cot."

"I deserve the reproach," I answered humbly, "yet, I assure you, I
believe all you have been good enough to tell me of your wonderful
gift. Indeed, I would be an arrant fool not to. You have shown me such
extraordinary proofs of its power. And, besides, your explanation
appeals to me as both logical and natural."

"There is nothing to prevent you or any other man from acquiring it, my
son--in the same manner as I have done."

"In how many years, father?" I demanded with a shrug. "It cost you
twenty-five, and you had for long before then passionately desired to
possess it."

"But that may have been through a default in my temperament. Your
natural powers of concentration may be greater than mine, very probably
they are, for I was, when your age, a dreamer, a visionary. And you
appear to me to be a man of action."

"Too much so," I responded, "and I'm, moreover, too infernally
impatient to embark upon the still strange struggle of will that
has yielded you so wonderful a victory. Even if I knew that I would
ultimately win a fortune by it, I doubt if I could bring myself to the
experiment."

"And is that your great purpose in life, to win a fortune?"

"It is my present purpose at all events. Ah, if I possessed your
powers----"

M. Rovenski sighed. "You would be as poor as I, for your conscience
would permit you to make use of the knowledge which the exercise of
that power might place at your disposal for the benefit of others,
perhaps, but never for your own."

"You pay me too high a compliment," I returned with a smile. "I can't
be sure, but I shouldn't wonder, had I your power, that I should
presently become a broker on the Stock Exchange. Imagine the pull one
would have over the big operators, knowing exactly, by merely looking
at them, the secrets of their movements. Why, I'd be a millionaire in
no time."

The old man laughed heartily. "It was also Prince Peletovski's
idea," he said, still laughing. "Indeed he implored me to enter into
partnership with him. But the limit of my ambition is to make a living
until my friends at Court succeed in having me recalled from exile."

"From exile, M. Rovenski?" I exclaimed.

"Ah," said he, "of course, you do not know. But, yes--I was sent away
from Russia, my son--some three months since--now."

"Through no real fault, father, I would swear!" I cried.

He gave me a bow and a most charming smile. "Unless it be a fault to
love the poor, the helpless, and the downtrodden," he answered gravely,
"and to have wished and tried to help them. Nevertheless, I do not
despair. I have many devoted friends at Court, and His Majesty sooner
or later will be informed of the true reason of my going."

"Then it was not the Czar himself who banished you?"

The old priest shook his head. "No, my son. His Majesty loves me too
well for that. He knew nothing. And if my enemies can prevent it, he
never shall. I was arrested secretly, and secretly deported--forced
even to change my name----"

"What!" I cried. "Is not your name Rovenski, then?"

"No."

"Then why do you call yourself that--here?"

"Because I am a priest, and I would not have my priestly rank
discredited, nor any scandal caused that might diminish my sphere of
usefulness hereafter. Unhappily, my son, the name I bear is known
outside of Russia, and that is why I still submit to be called after
the poor criminal who died three months ago in my arms at Riga."

"Good heavens," I cried, "then the real Paul Rovenski is dead!"

"Peace be to his soul. He was stabbed in an affray with the police when
about to embark upon a ship for America."

"And you--you----" I gasped.

"I," said the old man, with an air of almost regal pride, "am known in
the White Czar's kingdom as Father Constantine, my son."

I sprang to my feet with a cry of astonishment that was almost one of
consternation. For Father Constantine, the great and holy Constantine,
champion of democracy, and friend of the oppressed for more than a
quarter of a century, had been regarded in Russia as a saint on earth,
and was little short of worshipped as a god. And more than that,
this Father Constantine had been a friend of my dead parents; he had
baptised me when a child, and he was my godfather.

"Godfather," I cried; "it is impossible that you have forgotten my
mother, that you----"

But he smiled up into my troubled eyes. "My dear lad, I knew you from
the first," he said. "You are the living image of your father. Did you
think that I could give my confidence so easily to a stranger? But pray
sit down again, and tell me all your mind, for I know that you have not
come here, only to help me, but yourself too. Was Paul Rovenski known
to you? What did you want with him?"

Trembling with excitement, I resumed my chair. "You knew that, too!" I
gasped.

He closed his eyes, and for a moment an intense silence reigned; then
his eyes opened again; he looked at me and smiled. "Mr. Stelfox-Steel
sent you to me," he said.

In another moment, governed by an impulse impossible to resist, I
was blurting out to him all there was to tell; for something told
me he would help me if he could. He listened patiently, never once
interrupting; but when he knew all, he gravely and slowly shook his
head. "Your friend, the magnate, may be right," he murmured; "it is
possible, even probable, that he is; but, however, it may be, he has
set you a weighty task, my son. His Majesty is guarded by his Ministers
and their officers in such a fashion that it is well-nigh impossible
to approach him. And it is even more difficult to obtain the secret
delivery of a letter into his hands. Do I not know it from a long and
most bitter experience? The servants that surround him are spies of
the police--but not only they, his gentlemen, his officials, almost
every member of his Court, and his very family, the Grand Dukes and
Duchesses themselves, are not to be trusted. Never in the course of
history has there been woven round a human figure such a network of
intrigue, self-seeking, and conspiracy. The poor Czar, for all his
mighty power, is but a puppet king. And his personal fears enslave him.
He lives in an ecstasy of terror of assassination and of revolution,
and he confides only in those who are able to inspire him with a sense
of their strength to shelter him. Thus it is that this state of things
is rendered possible."

"You consider him a coward then, my father?"

"I consider him less a coward than a man of feeble mind, my son. He
is hopelessly committed to the influence of his mother, the Dowager
Empress, who rules him through his superstitions and his fears. She it
is who dictates the Czar's policy, and his Ministers are her allies, as
she in turn is the ally of the autocratic Holy Synod. To give you an
instance of the depth of His Majesty's subjection: he never presumes
to read his most private correspondence until it has first been opened
and perused by the Minister of the Palace. This doubtless lest his
mail-bag should contain an infernal machine, or his letters poison. A
small thing, perhaps. But a straw shows how the wind blows, and from
this straw you can understand how tremendous a power his disposition
places in the hands of those who govern him, and what a mountain must
be climbed to reach him."

"How can I do it?" I inquired dejectedly. "It seems that I have
contracted to accomplish an impossibility."

Father Constantine shrugged his shoulders. "Have you any plan?" he
asked.

"None," I replied, "except to rely upon His Majesty's kind remembrance
of me to grant me an audience."

"Ah," said the old priest. "And when do you set out for St. Petersburg?"

"To-morrow, now that I have seen you."

"The sooner the better, for I am spied upon even here. And if my
enemies learn that you have privately conversed with me, they will
suspect that you are my ambassador, and set themselves to foil you.
Your evil star, I fear, it was that led you to visit me, my son."

"Well," I said, "the mischief is done now, anyhow. I can only hope that
your fears are groundless. But in case they are not, and I am refused
an audience, what would you advise?"

Father Constantine did not reply immediately. He seemed to be musing.
At length, however, he drew a quaint old signet ring from his finger,
and held it out to me. "Take this, my son," he said in a low, earnest
voice, "and if it comes to pass that all your efforts to achieve your
end are thwarted, seek out Count Felix Surempkin, who is the private
secretary of the Grand Duke Pagis. Show him the ring, and explain to
him your mission. Thereupon, if he can, he will assist you. If he
fails, you will waste time staying longer in Russia. But remember, use
the ring only in your last extremity, for the authority of which it is
a symbol must be obeyed, and if its exercise is vain, a man I love will
in all human probability perish in Siberia."

Much moved, I poured out my gratitude to my kind, old benefactor; but
he cut short my protestations by half-humorously referring to his own
necessities. "Was it a pretence, this commission with which you came
to me, my son?" he demanded. "Truly, I trust not. I have so many calls
upon my purse."

"No, indeed," I cried. "Lady Adela Drummond wishes to employ your
wonderful gift again for the entertainment of her friends next Thursday
evening. But, alas! by then I shall be in Russia. What will you do for
an interpreter?"

"The Prince will have returned by then," said Father Constantine, "and
he will act for me. Make your mind easy, therefore, on that score.
Shall I write to Lady Adela, accepting, or will you see her?"

"I shall go to her at once," I replied, and I got to my feet as I spoke.

He arose, too, and put a hand upon my shoulder. "You are a kind-hearted
lad," he said with a smile. "Come and see me again when you return from
your travels. In the meantime, accept my blessing."

I sank on my knees before him, and he made the sign of the Cross above
my head. There was something so earnest and beautiful in the act, and
something, too, so inspirational of faith in his expression, that,
heretic as I was, I arose full of confidence and hope. "I feel that I
shall succeed," I cried. "And I shall owe it all to you."

He pressed my hands, and walked beside me to the door. "If you
succeed," he said gravely, "let the poor share in your good fortune.
Go, my son--and God be with you."

My last remembrance of him was his smile. Surely the kindest and the
loveliest smile that ever graced a human being's eyes and lips. Its
message was a veritable benediction.




CHAPTER VI.

IT was after six o'clock when I reached Lady Adela's, but she was
good enough to spare me a moment, and she was so pleased at my speedy
accomplishment of her commission that she pressed me to return to
dinner. But I had Stelfox-Steel to see, and immediately I had changed
at my lodgings I drove to his mansion in South Kensington. I found
him dining en famille, and, as I was hungry, a very little urging
induced me to join the party. It consisted of himself and his wife, a
tired-looking woman--who seldom ventured into society, and who never
spoke except in monosyllables, but whose jewels were the envy of
London. Then there were his two little apple-faced boys, lads of nine
and twelve; and their tutor, a slant-eyed, nasal-voiced parson. And
finally, his only daughter, a pert girl of seventeen, who promised to
be a beauty. The dinner was stodgy and badly cooked. The wines were all
iced, and the waiting was intolerable. Behind every chair a gorgeous
footman, who could not bear to see a glass that did not brim or a
plate that was not heaped with provender. I longed to brain the brute
who attended me, on an average of about every two minutes. As for the
table furniture, it was mostly of solid gold; and an epergne graced the
centre of the board that must have cost five hundred guineas. May the
Lord preserve me from such another meal! Stelfox-Steel and the parson
wrangled throughout on the comparative merits of the German and English
systems of secondary education.

The boy cherubs kept their mother on a constant qui vive to check
their impishly persistent attempts at conversation; and the young lady
was unamiably bent on convincing me that a certain hobbledehoy of
her acquaintance named Fred Hamer disagreed very properly with every
opinion she could trick me into expressing on any subject under heaven.
I was obliged, in sheer defence, at last to make love to her; but even
then I could see that she preferred a more robust style of wooing;
although, to do her justice, she ejaculated "Golly" when, under cover
of the tablecloth, I squeezed her hand.

"What is the matter, dear?" asked her mother.

"I got a twinge in my bad tooth!" she explained. Then she looked me in
the face, demanding admiration as plain as eye can speak. "Don't you do
that again!" she murmured.

Having accepted her invitation as soon as practicable, my fingers were
squeezed in return, and she volunteered to write to me. I gathered that
my replies might safely be directed to a neighboring post-office, and
that she liked original poetry, descriptive of herself. Fred Hamer, it
seemed, was most happily gifted in that direction, and would infallibly
one day be the laureate. I don't remember having ever offered up a more
fervent thanksgiving, than when it was my privilege to hold the door
open for Mrs. Steel, Miss Steel, the cherubs, and the parson to pass
through. Miss Steel departed saying: "Don't be too long over your wine,
paw!"

"Well, Coates--what d'ye think of my girl, eh?" asked the magnate as I
returned.

"Marvellously quick-witted," I answered truthfully, having the
hand-squeezing incident in mind.

"But her looks, man, her looks!"

"One of these days, sir, her beauty will outshine the jewels in the
coronet which she will deign to accept and wear."

Mr. Stelfox-Steel rubbed his hands and emitted something like a chuckle
of paternal pride. "He'll be a lucky fellow who gets her--commoner or
belted earl--and that's a fact," he declared. "For more reasons than
one. Have a cigar, Coates--no?--how you can smoke those futile little
abortions miscalled cigarettes gets over me. But there--have your own
way. Leave the room--you fellows. (This to some lurking footmen.) And
now for biz. You've seen Rovenski, I suppose?"

"The man who goes by that name, Mr. Steel--in strict confidence--is
Father Constantine, the famous Russian democratic priest! Paul Rovenski
died three months ago!"

"Good heavens! You don't say," cried the magnate; then, a second later:
"Shucks! The scamp has been pulling your leg!"

It took me twenty minutes to convince him; and when I had he became so
despondent that I feared he would abandon the whole enterprise. But
Father Constantine's ring and half a bottle of port put him finally
into a more sanguine humor, and he wound up by inviting me to his
study. There he put into my hands a packet of bonds--and a letter he
had written to the Czar; and he also gave me a cheque for £1000 for my
expenses. His remark thereon was characteristic: "You'll likely spend
the bulk of that in palm grease, Coates, and it goes against my grain
to use good money so. I'd almost sooner chuck it into the sea. But
there, do your best--and what you save you can keep! No meanness about
me! When I say I'll do a thing, I do it. My word is my bond!"

"You are a man of business!" I hazarded.

"Every time. Well, I suppose we'd better join the ladies, eh?"

"I'm afraid I must run away, sir--I have such a lot to do--leaving
to-morrow."

Mr. Steel in society resembled other men, but in his own house he was a
creature apart, sui generis in fact. His answer was to seize me by
the arm and drag me along to the drawing-room, protesting thusly--"What
nonsense, Coates! What can a single young fellow like you have to
do--except pack your bags--and that you can do ten minutes before
train time. Come along and hear my gal play--and enjoy yourself--in a
healthy, reasonable way. I know your game--clubs and cards. You'll have
to give that up sooner or later. It's bad biz--and better sooner than
later. One of these days you'll be getting married. But there, come
along!"

Willy-nilly I went, and Miss Steel played Liszt's "Twelfth Rhapsody" in
a fashion that did infinite credit to her music master. Afterwards she,
her father and mother, and I played poker (the parson was not present)
with shells for counters, which Mr. Steel sold to us for three pence a
dozen. During the game the young lady, with her father's approbation,
invited me to call her Lily; and she fleeced me to the tone of twelve
and sixpence in a manner that proved her a pastmistress in the art
of bluff. I had rather fancied myself as a poker player until that
night. But I ended by liking the girl; she was, for all her pertness,
so absolutely natural and unaffected, and she had a sense of humor,
too, that only needed refining to be converted into purest metal. Her
father was her constant adversary, and, quick-brained man of the world
as he was, he had no chance against her nimble wit in their encounters.
But his pride in her victories conquered all shame in his defeats; and
he was perpetually seeking my eye for sympathy in his delight at her
cleverness. On the whole, I was not as bored as I had expected to be,
and, when at last I was permitted to depart, I was honestly surprised
to find that eleven o'clock had come and passed. Miss Lily calmly
announced her intention to see me off the premises. And, since I had
already realised that she was the ruling spirit of the house, I was not
astonished that her parents raised no objection. Apparently this girl
of seventeen did as she pleased. She helped me on with my overcoat;
"shooed" three or four footmen from the door, and opened it for me
herself. Then she held out her hand and made me the following speech:
"You go right home, now, and straight to bed. It's quite too late. And
be sure, when you come back from Russia, to come and see us again. And
don't forget the pup you promised me. Oh, and----" (Here she lowered
her voice.) "--don't forget the poetry! Good-bye!--Frank."

"Good-bye, Lily!" I answered, smiling; and went down the steps.

It was very ridiculous, but that evening spent in a home circle,
curious home circle as it was, had made me horribly sentimental. The
banging of the door made me feel as lonely as an orphaned gutter-snipe.
Before I had covered a hundred yards I was counting the years since
I, too, had possessed a home--and then and there, all of a sudden, I
knew that a team of horses and a dozen iron cables would be hopelessly
inadequate restrictions to keep me from the side of Helen Fortescue.




CHAPTER VII.

I found her at the Branscombes. She was waltzing with Horace Massey.
She wore red roses in her hair, and Massey also had one in his
button-hole. Reggie Horne and Sir George Helmrick stood in a doorway,
watching her with looks of morbid resignation. I went up to them and
gently expostulated.

"My dear chaps," I murmured, "what's the use? You are both as poor as
crows, and she hasn't a stiver. Now--Massey----" and I shrugged my
shoulders.

"She's danced with him twice already," moaned Reggie.

"And I saw her give him the rose myself!" groaned Helmrick.

"He has twenty thousand pounds a year," said I.

Reggie scowled at me. "She's not a bit mercenary," he growled.

"The man hasn't a grandfather!" snapped Helmrick.

"Has the engagement been announced?" I asked.

"What!" cried both together, in tones of horror. "Is there----"

I slowly closed one eye. "Then he hasn't proposed yet; but I've an
idea he intends to this very night. See, they've stopped waltzing,
although the band is going strong yet. Ten to one he takes her to the
conservatory. If you boys are as game as you are gloomy you'll make the
party a square one!"

They exchanged glances, then rushed away without a word. I strolled
into the card-room. Miss Fortescue's aunt and chaperone, Lady Barrow,
was, as usual, playing whist, I dropped into a chair, and waited
patiently. I expected to have had to wait ten minutes, but within five
Miss Fortescue appeared on Horace Massey's arm. I gave her my chair,
and, stooping, muttered in her ear, "Spare me a waltz, acushla. I can
sell it, and will go you halves--honest injun!"

She offered me her programme; and, to my astonishment I saw my own name
scrawled against the next. My heart beat foolishly, for the writing was
hers.

"Is it Mr. Horne again?" she asked, and dismissed her late partner with
a smile.

"It's me this time," I replied. "I'll send you a cheque to-morrow.
Shall we sit it out?"

"As you please!" She stood up and took my arm. I led her through the
conservatory into a writing-room beyond, passing on the way Reggie and
Helmrick, who javelined me with their eyes. There were other couples
present, but the room was large.

"Upon my word, Sir Francis," she observed, as she sat down, "you are
growing positively reckless. Have you been gaming and winning?"

I pointed to her card. "And you?"

"Oh," she shrugged, "your name occurred to me. I always keep one or two
items free against emergencies. Really, I did not dream of seeing you
to-night."

I lighted a cigarette, and afterwards thoughtfully regarded the burning
match. "Will you extinguish this too?" I asked.

She blew it out with a careless laugh.

"Heartless girl," I sighted. "Are you going to Sandringham to-morrow
morning with the Hammonds?"

"Yes."

"And will you not return till Monday?"

"I believe not."

"In that case this must be our farewell interview!"

"For how long?"

"Till we meet again. Will you do me a favor?"

"If I can."

"Give my love to Gloria, and ask her to inform her chef that fate alone
prevents me from tasting of his cheer at Sandringham. Ah! There's a man
for you, Miss Fortescue. When he dies or goes abroad he will not be
forgotten easily."

"Which do you contemplate--death or travel?" she demanded.

"Both," I answered. "But cheer up! Don't let the distressful news
entirely overcast your sympathetic spirits."

Her lip curled. "You are going yachting with the Trevors, I suppose."

"Your supposition is as unsubstantial as a dream."

"You wish to provoke my curiosity."

"No; because I cannot satisfy it, and I wish to part friends."

She leaned back and attentively regarded me. "This is a new mood in
you," she observed after a moment. "I don't know whether I like it or
not. But you are serious?"

"Worse--Helen--far worse. I am dull!"

"You have no right to name me so!" she flashed.

I nodded. "And as well as that I have no right to acquire the right--if
such a thing were plausible."

Her lips parted, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes glittered. "Once for
all," she replied, in low, tense tones, "I want you to understand that
these innuendoes of yours offend me, Sir Francis Coates. They assume
the existence in me of an indelicate responsiveness to insincerity,
which you have so far lacked the manliness to give me an opportunity to
resent. While I am on the subject, permit me to inform you----"

"That you gave Massey a rose to-night?" I interrupted. "But I knew it
half an hour ago. By Jove, that's the good old 'Blue Danube' or I'm a
Dutchman. Listen!"

She sank back, glowing like one of her own roses; but her eyes no
longer menaced mine; and the music touched us with a breath of old
romance.

"I'm remembering the first time I ever saw you," I said presently in an
under-breath. "You were standing by old Barney Hagan's window lattice,
your arms upraised, your little white hands moving slowly through the
grape-like bunches of wisteria above your head. And each time you
caressed the blooms, however lovingly, a blossom fell, until at last
a lilac carpet spread about your feet, and all your hair was blue and
gold. Wisteria--you told me afterwards--is your favorite flower. I am
glad it was only a rose you parted with to-night--Miss Fortescue!"

She looked at me long and full, but the expression in her eyes was
perfectly illegible. "That was two years ago," she said at last, "and
in Antrim. We are in England now."

"Dear old Antrim!"

"What has made you so wonderfully sentimental?"

"Sorra wan o' me knows," I answered mockingly, "av--yoursilf doesn't,
mavourneen."

"Listen!" she muttered, sitting suddenly erect. "You are truly going
away, I think--do you know what I wish?"

"Yes, dear," I answered, plunging headlong into the fire, "you wish I'd
keep away until--after you are Mrs. Massey."

Her composure was admirable. She laughed lightly, and toyed with her
fan. Then she laughed again, and showed me a button on her glove
that was unfastened. "Do it up for me!" she said. I obeyed, not very
steadily; and she arose. But she did not go at once.

"He is very well-to-do," she said.

I nodded.

"But a man for all that," she went on. "As for you, Sir Francis, I'm
afraid your fate will be to fasten ladies' buttons all your life," and
she touched with her fan the glove that I had buttoned.

I shrugged my shoulders, and replied disdainfully, "You are no
astrologer, Miss Fortescue; that, as an occupation, I have put behind
me so late as yesterday, for ever."

"Wonders will never cease. Kindly take me to my aunt."

"Your next partner will find you easily enough--here."

"Perhaps!" she smiled. "Can it be that you are going into business, Sir
Francis?"

"Not exactly--that is to say, as yet. But I have ceased to be an idler;
and within a month or two I hope to have got together enough capital to
start a small tobacco shop somewhere about Piccadilly."

"You are laughing at me."

"I was never more in earnest in my life."

Miss Fortescue sat down again, and stared at me as if she found it hard
to believe her senses. "You would do that, really?" she gasped.

"Upon my honor--and well at it, too. All our set would buy their smokes
from me, and, if I could get a smart and pretty saleswoman to attract
new custom and keep the old together after the first big advertisement
I'd get by merely opening a shop had passed, why, I'd make a fortune in
time."

Miss Fortescue raised her eyebrows. "A society woman--too?" she asked.

"Well, I'm not exactly a woman," I objected. "But, yes--I thought of
asking a lady friend of mine to come in as a working partner and help
me run the business."

"How delightful! Do I know her?"

"Her name is Helen Fortescue."

"Sir Francis Coates!"

"Don't look at me like that, Miss Fortescue. I'm giving you the chance
of a lifetime, and not asking you to put up a penny of the capital,
either."

"But you know the thing is impossible. How could I--what would people
say--my father--he would disown me!"

"Bother people! The thing's honest! Let them say what they like. As for
your father--he made no objection last year when you wanted to become
a hospital nurse, and you'd not have been able to make a living out of
that for years."

"But, but----" she cried, in real excitement--and I had never seen her
look so beautiful--"he--he would insist upon--a chaperone!"

"Rubbish!" I retorted coolly. "He's eccentric, I know, but I'll bet you
a dozen pairs of gloves he's not the man to chaperone a husband from
his wife! Well, what do you say? Make haste, here comes Branscombe. Is
it a bargain?"

She looked me frankly in the eye. "Is it a proposal, this, Sir
Francis?" she demanded.

"It's two," I responded, ungrammatically, but sincerely.

"I shall answer both when you have commenced your business," she said;
then, rising once again, she put her hand in Branscombe's arm, and we
bowed to one another like people in a play.

Reggie Horne was waiting for me on the doorstep. "See here, Coates,"
he began pugnaciously, "you sold us a pup to-night, and I'm not going
to forget it, nor Helmrick either. You sent us into the conservatory
because----"

"Oh, spare me, Reggie," I implored. "I know the whole of my
delinquencies without the book."

"Then you admit that--that----"

"Anything you like, my son!"

"I believe--I believe you're in love with her yourself!" he growled,
and fixed me with a frowning grin that accused me of almost
unimaginable infamy.

"My dear Reggie," said I, "four learned senior counsel once tried
unsuccessfully for six long hours to extract the virgin secrets of this
sweet and innocent young breast. But your method of examination is so
compelling and original that, in spite of all my strength of will, now
powerfully exercised, I feel----"

But Reggie, with a snort, had gone--and I strolled home to Bruton
Street.




CHAPTER VIII.

At Warsaw, governed by motives of economy, I sent a telegram to my
cousin, Nicholas Batinoff, and his was the first familiar face I saw
when the train stopped after an uneventful journey (save for one
tedious breakdown) at St. Petersburg. Count Nicholas belonged to
the new and purposeful school of the Russian Aristocracy. Although
possessed since infancy of a considerable fortune, I doubt if he
had spent an idle day. His restless energy had made him, still
scarcely forty, one of the best-known and successful pleaders at the
Russian Bar. He had already filled some prominent minor offices in
the Government with distinction, and his radical leanings had alone
prevented him from rising much higher still, for his talent was widely
recognised. He stood over six feet in height, was broad-shouldered
and dowered with tremendous hands and feet. At Heidelberg, where we
had been chums, his nickname was the "Beetle Crusher," but no one
had ever dared name him to his face, for Nicholas was a fire-eater,
a first-rate pistol shot, and a swordsman with few equals. Most men
thought him ugly--but I was not among them; for his features, though
irregular, were full of character and aggressiveness and strength. He
ought to have been a soldier, but some kink of native kindness in his
disposition made him hate shedding the blood of any except his equals
in rank. He was a passionate believer in the duello--and be loathed
the very name of war. Yet this man of illogical contradictions was a
renowned lawyer and logician. He greeted me with his usual impetuous
breeziness, and almost before I knew it he had whirled me off the
station into his private brougham, which immediately drove off at
full speed. "And now, Frank, what brings you to St. Petersburg?" he
demanded, as he took his seat beside me. I answered briefly: "To see
the Czar, Nick."

"Ho!" said he, "you are still idiot enough to think you can get back
your estates?"

"That's what I'm going to tell the public, old chap. But it isn't so. I
got over that foolishness long ago."

"Then what do you want to see the Czar for?"

"It's a long story, Nick--when we get home."

"You needn't wait," he interrupted curtly. "We're not going straight
home--I instructed my man to drive for half an hour towards Seloe
first."

I sat up and stared at him. He returned my glance with interest.

"Are the bonds in your pocket?" he demanded.

"Good heavens!" I gasped.

He uttered a growl and shrugged his shoulders. "It's the Grand Duke
Pagis you are running your head against," he muttered. "And half the
Ministry is implicated."

"How did you know?"

"I'm your cousin, you fool, and just now lieutenant of the Political
Police. Whatever made you stick your nose into the business?"

"Do you mean to tell me!" I cried, "that you--Nick Batinoff, once the
soul of honor, are aiding and abetting those scoundrels----"

"Softly!" he commanded, with a simply awful frown, "you presume. Now
let me give you some advice. Remain here quietly for a day or two
then go back to London with your bonds. I'll see you are not deprived
of them if you agree. And wait patiently for six or seven months. At
the end of that time I shall be either in Siberia or Minister of the
Interior. In the latter case Stelfox-Steel shall have his money."

"I can't," I answered simply, "I'm pledged to a certain course. And win
or lose----"

"You'll lose."

"Even so."

"The bonds as well."

"I have only a few with me, thank God! Merely enough----"

"To prove your case--exactly. But to do so they must reach the Czar.
How do you propose to effect that?"

"You are in the enemy's camp, Nick!"

He shrugged his shoulders, then put one of his great hands on my knee.
"Can't you see, my lad, you are attempting the impossible. And if
you don't give over you'll perhaps interfere with the game that I am
playing--a much better and surer game than yours."

"Let me think," said I--and I leaned back among the cushions. Before
leaving London I had made up a package exactly resembling the package,
of bonds that Stelfox-Steel had given me. But I had covered it with
seals; whereas the genuine package had never a seal about it. My object
had been to provide for the safety of the bonds while travelling. For
I carried the sealed package in an inner pocket of my vest, while the
bonds were carelessly strapped within the rug that was attached to my
valise. However, these precautions had so far been worthless, for no
one had attempted to molest me in the train. I devoted some very hard
thinking to these packages for a few moments, then I looked round and
met my cousin's eyes.

"Does Pagis know that--I----?" I asked.

Nicholas nodded. "He knew before you left London."

"He must be well served."

"The greatest spy the world has ever seen, I verily believe, watches
his interests there."

"He must indeed be a great spy," I cried. "For, upon my soul, only two
other persons besides myself----"

"Tra-la-la!" interrupted Nicholas. "You see the result."

"What are your orders concerning me?" I asked.

"The bonds--or your immediate departure."

"Then if I give you the bonds--I shall be permitted to remain here?"

"As long as you please. But what good will that do?"

"I have a tongue, Nick."

"It you wag it, my boy, you'll be speedily silenced."

"We'll see what the Czar has to say about that."

Nicholas smiled. "Oh, you can talk to the Czar as much as you like."

"You think I wouldn't see him?"

"Tout vient a lui qui sait attendre. But you'll wait a long time,
Frank."

"I'm a patient man."

"As you like." He suddenly reached over and opened the front window.
"Home, driver!" he shouted.

"If you please," said I, "to the Hotel de l'Europe first. I'm not going
to trespass on your hospitality, Nick."

He nodded. "The Hotel de l'Europe, driver?" he called out, then shut
the window. "You needn't look so gloomy, Frank," he remarked presently.
"If my plans do not miscarry, your friend the American shall ultimately
be paid in full; I give you my word."

"The word of an intriguer," I retorted coolly; and added, with the
deliberate intention to insult, "of a self-confessed traitor to his
superiors! But there ought to be honor among thieves, Nicholas!"

He turned scarlet with rage and threateningly raised his hand. "How
dare you?" he snarled. But I held his blazing eyes with mine, and his
hand slowly fell. "You are a fool!" he muttered hoarsely, "and you
don't know what you say!"

"And you," I cried--hissing the words into his face--"are a dishonored
liar--a spy!"

My intention was achieved. He struck at me--blindly, but so strongly
that, although expecting it, I almost failed to ward the blow. Then,
as I had also expected, he fell back, purple with passion, shaking
like a leaf. But only for an instant. The next he seized the stop cord
and tugged it violently. The carriage drew up, and Nicholas threw open
the door. "Give me the bonds and go!" he gasped in a voice I hardly
recognised. "Go, before I kill you!"

I tore open my vest and extracted the sealed package. He snatched it
from me, and two seconds later I stood upon the road, valise in hand,
my cousin's brougham rapidly disappearing down the road in a flying
cloud of dust.

So far so good. By inflaming my cousin's anger I had got away
unsuspected with the bonds, and I thought it even possible--despite his
cautious, business-like habits--that in his rage he would not examine
the counterfeit package for some little time. But it behoved me to use
that time to my best advantage, for the trick could not fail to be
detected soon, and then all Russia would be down on me. I threw a hasty
glance around, and perceived that I stood near the northern most end
of the Nevski Prospect. Two droshkies were idling by the pavement some
sixty yards away. I hailed one, and looked at my watch. It was almost
noon. "To the English Embassy, and quickly!" I cried to the driver.
"Double fare if you get there under the quarter!"

He grinned, and, immediately I got in, lashed his horses to the gallop.
I occupied the drive by taking from my valise a piece of soap. This
I wrapped up in a handkerchief and enclosed in a large envelope,
the flap of which I sealed. Ten minutes later I was ushered into
the presence of the British Ambassador. We had met before, and he
received me very civilly. But I had no intention of gossiping, and I
plunged into business at once. "I have here," said I, showing him the
envelope containing the soap, "a package of bonds which belongs to Mr.
Stelfox-Steel, a gentleman with whom I believe you are acquainted. His
affairs have, in fact, brought me to St. Petersburg. But I need not go
into that. The fact is, the Russian police have already attempted to
relieve me of those bonds, and that I still possess them is by a piece
of good fortune I cannot hope will be repeated if they remain in my
keeping. I have, therefore, come here to ask you two favors--firstly,
to give the bonds a corner of your safe; secondly, your permission--if
you grant me the first--to make the fact known. For thus only shall I
be able to avoid the unpleasant attentions of the police."

His Excellency eyed me very gravely for a moment or two; then, with a
slight shrug, he said: "I should prefer you to take the bonds to the
American Embassy, Sir Francis."

"I am a British subject, your Excellency."

"Quite so; but you are apparently acting for an American citizen, and
it seems in a matter that has already caused some stir. Reasons of
State render it most undesirable, at the present juncture, that England
should in any wise interfere."

"Then am I to understand that you refuse?"

"Your second favor, Sir Francis. I shall be glad, however, to keep any
package for you--whose contents have no official significance."

"Ah!" said I, with a sigh of relief. "Then here is an envelope which
contains--a very excellent piece of soap, your Excellency. May I trust
that you will guard it for me for a little while. It is a soap or such
exquisite properties that I would not lose if for the world, and the
hotel servants would assuredly rob me of it."

His Excellency frowned, but he took the package, and a moment later
looked into my eyes. "You will be staying at the Hotel de l'Europe I
suppose."

"Yes."

"I shall send you, if you would care, a card for our forthcoming
reception ball."

"Thanks extremely! Is it likely that his Majesty will attend?"

"No!" he replied, "but he will be represented by the Grand Duke Pagis,"
and his smile became full of meaning as he named the Duke. But I seemed
not to notice.

"I should greatly esteem an opportunity to pay my respects to his
Majesty, your Excellency," I said suggestively.

"Unfortunately the Czar has decided to grant no private audiences to
foreigners this season, Sir Francis; the fact is, as perhaps you are
aware, the Dowager----"

"Just so--and with this Eastern war cloud in the air, too."

"I perceive that you are a philosopher, Sir Francis."

"Oh!" I answered with a shrug. "To be frank, I expected no help from
you, your Excellency."

"My position----" he began.

"Exactly," I interrupted, and stood up. "There is something, however,
that amazes me, and, at the risk of offending your Excellency, I must
remark upon it. America's supineness--England's complaisancy. Now,
if Venezuela had robbed Mr. Stelfox-Steel----. These two nations--so
friendly, so----"

"One second!" said his Excellency, and, rising, he approached me.
"There will be war, and soon," he half whispered. "England is Japan's
ally. America, too, sympathises with Japan, though unexpressedly.
Between ourselves, Sir Francis, the outlook is so threatening, and
further complications so eminently undesirable, that individual
interests must of necessity be postponed. Be assured, however, that
they will merely be postponed."

"The old story of the powder magazine and the spark," I sneered.

"No, Sir Francis, but of the shepherd boy who cried 'Wolf' for sport.
The wolf is now in the fold."

"You are really serious?"

"As serious as I can be. But look around you for a day or two and you
will also be convinced. The war party here is absolutely dominant,
and even if Japan backs down at the last moment it will only increase
Russia's prestige, and so make matters the worse for the world, for
England and America are both pledged to the open door--and the open
door is what Russia will not yield in any case without coercion."

"I begin to understand," I said reluctantly.

"That is well," shrugged his Excellency. "Au revoir, Sir Francis."

I bowed and retired, feeling more dejected than at any time since
I had left England, for I could see plainly at length the enormous
strength of the position occupied by Stelfox-Steel's adversaries. And
I saw, moreover, that unless I could contrive to outwit them, the
magnate could only hope to recover his money by diplomatic means, in
the unlikely event of the Japs severely beating the Russians in the
near future, and thus putting Russia at the financial, and therefore
diplomatic, mercy of the world.

A droshky took me to the hotel, where I hired a comfortable room, and
at once proceeded to dispose of the bonds. A careful examination of
the apartment having revealed no hiding place that a skilful spy would
not have speedily detected, I removed my boots and stuffed the package
into one of them. Then I threw myself upon the bed to wait. In about
half an hour a tap sounded on my door. I got up at once, seized my
boots and opened the door. "Kindly have these polished immediately!" I
said. Then, with a dramatic start, I dropped the boots and fell back,
for my cousin Nicholas Batinoff and two well-dressed men--undoubtedly
police--were standing in the doorway.

"What, Nicholas!" I cried; then I laughed, for his face was as black as
a thundercloud. "You've discovered the pretty little trick I played on
you, I suppose, eh, my dear coz?"

The three men advanced into the room, and the count, the last to enter,
shut the door.

"You won't have another chance," he said grimly.

"My dear chap, I don't want one. You can lock the door if you like,
but the horse is already stolen! I've just returned from the British
Embassy."

"We'll see about that!" said Nicholas. "I must take the liberty of
searching you, Sir Francis. You had better submit."

"With all the pleasure in life."

"Officers, do your duty," said the count.

They were experts, beyond question. They searched my person and every
inch of the room; my valise and overcoat and rug, the bed, the ticking,
the very joints of the furniture. But they never thought of examining
the boots which I had wished to have polished; therefore, needless to
remark, they did not find the bonds. When they showed signs of tiring
I jeered them into fresh activity. "You haven't looked outside the
window; it has a ledge," I cried. Thither they rushed, only to be
disappointed. "The coal scuttle may have a false bottom," was my next
suggestion; then I besought them to explore the chimney, and finally
the ceiling. They were ready to murder me before the end came, and
Nicholas handled the revolver they had taken from my pocket with a
finger that itched more and more to pull the trigger. But at last they
were satisfied, and the ordeal was over.

Nicholas threw the revolver and my money upon the disordered bed, and,
without a word, good, bad or indifferent, departed with his spies. I
sent a gay laugh ringing after them, locked the door, and took the
bonds out of my boot. But it had been a bad half-hour, and whether from
weariness or excitement, my hands were shaking. I therefore resolved
upon an immediate rest, and before many minutes had passed I was
sleeping like the dead.




CHAPTER IX.

FOR the next few days I dwelt in some little fear of arrest,
imprisonment, deportation, even Siberia. But I need not have disturbed
myself. Stelfox's-Steel's robbers belonged to the ruling class, which
interposed like a mighty wall between the Czar and the nation; and
they could well afford to forgive me for one little triumph over them.
After all, what use were the bonds to me if I could not reach the Czar?
That was the point. I set about resolving it by calling upon Prince
Goboliepoff, whose life I had had the good fortune to save by pulling
him out of a swollen stream in Southern Russia, eight years before.
One of the few remaining enormously rich members of the old noblesse
and a regular attendant at Court functions, I hoped much from his help
if he would give it to me. But I had still a great deal to learn. I
found the prince nursing an attack of rheumatism. He had aged much, and
his sickness had made him querulous, but he received me very kindly,
and offered me the usual civilities. When, however, having seized
a favorable moment, I frankly asked him to present me to the Czar,
he shook his head. "The Ministers and Grand Dukes alone possess the
privilege of presentation," he answered gravely. "We nobles have been
deprived of all our ancient rights, mon ami. We are no better off
than the serfs now--those, at least, of us who are not rich. But do you
particularly wish an audience?"

"I do, prince, most particularly."

"Then your best plan will be to approach the Grand Duke Sergei. He is,
fortunately, attached to me, and will perhaps oblige you. I shall give
you a note to him."

I cordially thanked the old gentleman, and later took the letter he
gave me to the Grand Duke, whom I had met before. But Sergei blandly
excused himself, wrapping his refusal in mysterious allusions to the
war cloud gathering in the East. It was the same everywhere.

I visited all my connections and acquaintances, and was variously
introduced by them to other Grand Dukes, with a like result. Then
I set quietly to work to unravel the political situation, and soon
stood abashed at my previous folly. I discovered that what Prince
Goboliepoff had told me about the position of the aristocrats was sober
truth. The nobles had lost all their ancient influence and were mere
ordinary subjects. All the power in the land was concentrated in the
hands of an immense bureaucratic oligarchy, composed of the heads of
the army and navy, the police, the Ministers of State, and a huge host
of subservient Government officials. There was scarcely an aristocrat
among them. The Ministers were all men of low birth, who had risen from
the ranks and who--beggars on horseback that they were--found their
keenest pleasure in oppressing the people from whom they had sprung,
and in revenging themselves at every opportunity upon the nobles, who
despised them for their origin, and whom in turn they hated bitterly.

The most extraordinary feature, however, about the whole organisation
was the fact that the Grand Dukes were the backbone of the Government.
Their part of the great game was to stand about the Czar and prevent
him from obtaining information of actual events, and from putting into
effect measures that might prove prejudicial to the power and selfish
interests of the oligarchy. They supervised and censored his papers,
books, and correspondence, the very novels they permitted him to read.
And the reward of their energy and diligence was the delegated exercise
of his authority, which in turn they disposed of and distributed among
the Ministers. The state of Russia, therefore, resembled nothing so
much as the condition of France under Louis XIV., the only difference
being that, whereas Richelieu was Louis' single tyrant, the head of the
Romanoffs was governed by a compact body of relatives and officials;
and whereas the sole motive of Richelieu's tyranny had been the
national aggrandisement of France, the bond which bound the oligarchy
together was the corrupt and selfish object of enriching itself at the
expense of the Russian nation.

As was but natural, the people murmured and writhed under a rule that
impoverished and ground them into the earth. Nor were the nobles, rich
and poor alike, complacent spectators of the actions of those who had
usurped their places and robbed them of the ancient privileges of their
birthright. An assiduous week spent in careful observation and research
convinced me that the country was on the eve of revolution; and that
practically the whole of the nobility were prepared to join in the
movement heart and soul. Many of the latter, however, more far-sighted
than their fellows, believed the bureaucracy to be thoroughly prepared
for the event, and that the Government was bent upon forcing Russia
into war with Japan at any hazard, as a means to divert and dissipate
the smouldering energies and passions of the seething masses of
the population. I believe that they were right. At any rate war
preparations were being hurried on with feverish speed, and, as the
days passed, war became increasingly the topic of conversation in
St. Petersburg. I grew sick of the very name of it. In the streets
and public places, in cafe, club, and drawing-room alike, it was
inescapable. And it had this curious effect, for the nonce people and
nobles alike forgot their grievances against the Government. The savage
in them was aroused by all this talk of war. But the savage in man is
a purblind and unreasoning spirit. All it wishes to do is to slay, to
bathe its hands in blood. And if it cannot easily reach the object of
its hatred, an astute suggestion will turn the channel of its rage
afield.

So it came about that I watched mobs of gentle, dull-faced workmen
wildly cheering departing regiments of Cossacks--those very Cossacks
who for years had been the instruments of their oppression. It was
because they envied the opportunity they thought the Cossacks would
find and take to fall upon their fellow beings, ay, and butcher them.
But enough of moralising!

In three weeks I stood face to face with the convictions that I had
come to St. Petersburg upon a wild goose chase; that it would be
easier for me to reach the moon than the practically imprisoned Czar
of all the Russias; and that the time had come for me to take Father
Constantine's ring to Count Felix Surempkin, the secretary of the
Grand Duke Pagis. If he failed me, the sooner I returned to London
the better for my pocket, for I had already futilely distributed in
bribes no less a sum than four hundred pounds. It was a bitter pill
to swallow--acknowledgment of defeat and impotence. But I had the
consolation of knowing I had done my best, and I went to the Pagis
Palace in a mood of philosophic resignation, at an hour when I felt
sure that no Grand Duke would be out of bed--nearly nine o'clock in the
morning.

Count Surempkin was just sitting down to breakfast in his own
apartments at the moment I arrived, but he courteously refused to keep
me waiting, and to please him I consented to toy with a piece of toast.
While the servant was in the room we discussed the war, but immediately
the man went I took the ring from my pocket and handed it to the count.

"Father Constantine entrusted me with this to give to you," I announced.

The effect upon him was instantaneous and extraordinary. He was a short
and thick-set man, with a rather bloated, full-blooded face. He turned
pale as death, sprang to his feet, and hurled himself with incredible
speed across the room to the door, which he tore open. A glance
without, however, served in some way to reassure him. He closed the
door and returned, trembling like a leaf to his chair. "Every servant
in the palace is a police spy," he muttered in a hoarse whisper, "and
the name you used is dangerous. Let us talk in English and speak of
Monsieur Duplessis."

"By all means," I assented readily, for the excess of his terror had
shocked me. He gulped down a cup of coffee, spilling half the contents
on the table in his agitation, then, somewhat recovered, he looked up
at me. "You have a message, monsieur."

"Yes, count."

"How is--Fath--Monsieur Duplessis?"

"He was in excellent health when I left him."

"Ah, the poor man. And his message?"

"He desires--if such a thing be possible--that you procure me an
audience with the Czar."

"Possible," he gasped, "Possible, monsieur, you dream. And above all
people in the world--the agent of the American, Stelfox-Steel."

"You know that," I exclaimed.

"Who does not?"

"Then the thing is hopeless?"

The count gazed at me, and, to my amazement, his eyes filled with
tears. "Monsieur," he whispered brokenly. "I would lay down my life to
save him from his fate--but the sacrifice would be useless. It breaks
my heart to say it, but I am absolutely powerless--and, through my
pleadings, I have already brought myself into suspicion."

"I don't quite understand, count," I rejoined. "The service I
require--has nothing to do with--Fath--with Monsieur Duplessis. What
fate threatens him?"

"What, monsieur? What is this you say to me?"

"Did you not hear me, count?"

His eyes seemed about to start out of their sockets. "Fool that I am,"
he muttered. "How could he know?"

"Know what, count?"

"You have not seen--him--recently, monsieur?"

"Not since I left England, three weeks ago--of course, count."

He spread out his palms and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Alas!
Alas!" he groaned. "Since then the worst of fates has overtaken him.
Prepare to be shocked, monsieur."

"Count!"

"Ten days ago--he was basely enticed back to St. Petersburg, arrested,
and sent like a common felon to Saghalien in chains. He is on his way
there now."

"Good heavens!" I cried. "But how could this be possible--I heard
nothing of his trial."

"His trial!" echoed the count. "Bah, monsieur--for twenty years past
there have been no trials for crimes of opinion in Holy Russia.
Administrative orders take their place."

"Count, you jest with me!"

"Jest! I! Is it likely? Why, monsieur, thousands of our best citizens
have been exiled on the mere denunciation of discontented doorkeepers."

"Doorkeepers, count!"

"Police spies, I should say; for the police appoint all doorkeepers in
Russia."

"But this is horrible!"

The count held up one hand and appeared to listen intently.

"My dear monsieur," he said suddenly in French, and in ordinary
conversational tones, "it is quite impossible for me to help you in
this matter. I should be delighted if I could, to oblige my good
friend, Prince Goboliepoff, but his Majesty can only with difficulty be
persuaded to receive the foreign ambassadors during the present crisis,
and I am sure the Grand Duke will tell you the same thing."

Warned by his imploring eyes, I followed his cue. "But, count," I
urged, "my business is of great importance, and really all that I ask
is that my name should be mentioned to his Majesty. I feel sure that he
will remember it and grant me a moment of his precious time."

"I shall represent what you have said to his Royal Highness, the Grand
Duke Pagis, monsieur. More, however, I cannot promise you."

"May I beg that you will recommend the Grand Duke to grant my suit?"

"I shall do all I can to oblige you, monsieur! Go now," he whispered.

I stood up. "Then I shall always consider myself most deeply your
debtor, count. I have the honor to wish you good morning."

The count rang the bell, and said, "Good morning, monsieur."

Almost immediately the door opened, and the sleek-faced servant
entered. "Show monsieur out!" said the count.

We thereupon bowed to each other, and I withdrew. It was over. My
forlorn hope had failed, and there was nothing left for me to do but
get out of Russia. I dejectedly followed the servant to the porch of
the palace, slipped a bill into the fellow's greedy palm, and descended
the steps. Some minutes later, while strolling back to the hotel, a
splendidly appointed brougham passed me, and, as it swept by, a man's
face looked out. It was the face of my cousin, Nicholas Batinoff.
"Confound him!" I growled.

But of a sudden the carriage stopped. The door opened, and a man sprang
on to the road.




CHAPTER X.

I had not seen Nicholas since he had paid his official visit to my
room at the hotel, but I was not much surprised to find that he had
forgiven me for tricking him. He greeted me with outstretched hands and
a beaming smile.

"My dear Frank, well met," he cried. "I intended to look you up to-day.
It is an age since last I saw you."

"Three weeks, Nick."

"Been enjoying yourself, I hope."

"Instructing myself, Nick. My education is now complete, therefore I
leave St. Petersburg to-night."

"Then you have succeeded in your quest. My congratulations, old boy."

"The sarcasm becomes you!" I retorted.

"Better than my advice?"

"Oh, say 'I told you so' at once!"

"Don't be pettish, Frank. You attempted the impossible. A wizard in
your place could hardly have won through. Besides, let me tell you a
secret: The Czar would not have helped you had you seen him."

"That is why the whole Government conspired to prevent me seeing him, I
suppose."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Listen," he said. "A little while ago
he offered Puziarlarski the Directorship of the Imperial Bank.
Puziarlarski, however, objected that if he accepted the post his
present income would be curtailed unless he followed the questionable
practices of previous dictators. What do you think his Majesty replied?"

"Well?"

"'And don't you wish to do as everybody does? Then, stupid, go away!'"

"A vile slander, Nicholas. I'll not believe it of the Czar. He may be a
weak man, but I'll stake my life he is an honest one."

Nicholas pursed up his lips. "Perhaps you are right, but Puziarlarski
tells the yarn himself. However, n'importe. I merely tried to
console you."

"Ah, Nick, if you would help me instead. Even now, at the eleventh
hour?"

"This business seems to mean a lot to you. More than money?"

"There is a girl, Nick."

He put his big hand almost affectionately on my arm. "You love her, eh,
Frank?"

I nodded, looking into his eyes.

"And just now you can't afford, eh?"

"That is it."

"Well--I shall help you, but not in the way you want. Go back to London
and wait patiently for a few months."

"When I leave St. Petersburg, Nick, the matter leaves my hands."

"When the time comes, Frank, no matter in whose hands the matter
rests--through you only shall be paid the money. You have my word of
honor. Now be satisfied."

"Ah," I muttered, "if I could only see the Czar."

He gave a whimsical smile, and just at that moment a droshky dashed
past in which was seated a pale, long-haired youth, dressed to the eyes
in furs.

"Did you see that man?" asked Nicholas, most irrelevantly it seemed to
me.

"Yes."

"Do you know him?"

"No."

"His name is Rivelik. He is a German Pole, and one of the greatest
violinists in the world."

"Indeed."

"Pity you are not as great a violinist, Frank. I know you use the bow
pretty well--but----"

"What on earth are you driving at?" I demanded.

Nicholas laughed outright. "Rivelik plays before the Czar to-night," he
said. "Unlike you, he is an absolute stranger in Russia, and he only
arrived last night. Nevertheless, when he wished to see the Czar he did
not have to beg an audience."

"Don't kick a man when he is down, Nick," I replied, disgustedly. "It's
unsportsmanlike."

He held out his hand. "Well, I must be going, Frank. Good-bye to you!"

I watched him get into his brougham, and then resumed my stroll. My
thoughts ran chiefly on the evil fate of Father Constantine. And so
gloomy did they make me that, when I reached the hotel, I went straight
to my room and packed up my belongings. The mental picture of that
splendid, high-souled, old man, plodding drearily across the steppes,
ironed to some wretched criminal, to end his journey and his days alike
in ice-bound Saghalien, was one I could hardly support. It inspired
me with anxiety to depart from a land where such monstrous injustices
were possible, and I vowed that once across the frontier I should never
return to Russia. Having strapped up my valise, I was just about to
ring for a waiter to send it to the train, when I heard the sound of
footsteps in the corridor. Thinking a servant must be passing, I opened
my door to call him, and came face to face with the violinist who had
driven past in his droshky when I had been chatting with my cousin.

I recognised him instantly, but, in the same glance, I perceived
that something was wrong with the man. His hands were gropingly
outstretched, his face was chalk-white, and his eyes were fixedly
upturned.

"Herr Rivelik," I cried, and, darting forward, caught him by the arm.

"I am ill--help me--to--my room--eighteen!" he muttered chokingly.

It was the room next to my own. He collapsed, however, into a dead
faint before we reached it, and I was forced to half drag, half carry
him within. With some trouble I lifted him upon his couch, and then
hurried to the bell. But I did not press the button. A wild, an almost
desperately fantastic notion occurred to me, as I extended my hand to
ring. For a moment I stood staring at the wall, then I turned, and,
tip-toeing back to the bed, I earnestly regarded the unconscious man.
He seemed to be about five and thirty years of age. His features were
clear cut and shapely, but they were not particularly strongly marked,
and his most distinctive characteristics were his long hair and a
wonderful pallor of complexion. "With a wig and a little paint--I
could do it," I muttered--"do it easily. But where shall I get such
a wig as this?" Abstractedly I put out my hand and lifted a lock
of the violinist's long hair. Next second, with a cry of absolute
astonishment, I was bending over the man, peering into his scalp. When
a moment later I stood up, I was conscious of an unpleasant, almost
stupefying chill. Herr Rivelik's long hair was false, a wig in fact.
Why? Why? Why?

I turned and swept the room with a glance. Upon the dressing table was
a small medicine chest, lying open, and a violin case, closed. Against
the wall, near the wash-stand, stood an iron-bound Saratoga trunk;
it was padlocked. I dragged my eyes from the trunk, and, seizing the
violinist's shoulders, roughly shook him. He did not even groan. Within
two minutes I had relieved him of a bunch of keys, and had the trunk
open. Another two, and the floor was heaped with clothes and music
scores. The trunk apparently contained nothing else. But my thoughts
were busily engaged with every tale of villainy that I had ever read
or listened to, and they prompted me to plumb the depth of the trunk
inside and out. The measurements, scarcely to my surprise, failed to
correspond. Trembling with excitement, I ran my hands all over the
interior surface, searching for a spring, but what I found at last was
a moveable peg, and I had barely extracted it when I was violently
overset and hurled backwards to the floor. Happily I fell upon the
violinist's clothes, else perhaps I had been stunned. But the situation
was desperate enough, for the man threw himself upon me instantly, a
naked dagger in his hand. Never have I been nearer death. Before I
could grasp his wrist the blade fell, grazing my neck as it passed to
bury its point an inch deep in the floor.

Only a desperate wriggle saved my life. But that was the end, for, all
his strength expended in the one effort, the wretched man fell prone
and lifeless in my arms, and a slight exertion enabled me to free
myself and rise. Scarcely heeding him, I returned straightway to the
trunk, and very soon the false bottom yielded to my treatment, exposing
a packed mass of cotton wool. Sifting this with extreme caution, I
came presently upon a small globular object, about the size of a large
plum. Then another, a third, and a fourth. Bombs enough, in fact, to
annihilate a hundred men. Satisfied, I carefully restored the wool,
and replaced the trunk's false bottom. Then I leisurely replaced the
would-be regicide's clothes, leaving out his music, however, and I
carried the man himself back to his bed.

My next care was the medicine chest. It was evidently the original
property of a physician, for it contained at least a hundred well
assorted drugs, a set of needles, and a hypodermic syringe. The latter
I elected to use, and, without more ado, I injected a full grain of
sulphate of morphine into the unconscious nihilist's arm. For greater
precaution still, I then bound him hand and foot with strips torn from
one of the sheets of his bed. Then I left him, taking care to lock his
door and remove the key, and I returned to my own room.

Seizing my hat, I hurried from the hotel to the nearest drug store,
and presently returned laden with a parcel of cosmetics. With these
I entered the assassin's room, and immediately prepared to dress.
Herr Rivelik's clothes, however, were too small, and I was obliged,
therefore, to repair once more to my own room and don my evening
clothes. So accoutred, I returned, and wrapped the anarchist's fur
coat about me. It was a splendid coat, a real sealskin, worth at least
a hundred pounds. Next I sacrificed my moustache and shaved clean. In
half an hour, when the paint had dried, my mirror showed me a face as
pallid as that of a corpse. I thereupon stained my brown eyebrows to
the deepest black, and quietly removed from the now heavily sleeping
violinist his long-haired wig. His real hair beneath was mouse colored.
The wig fitted me most perfectly, and, to be candid, it made me look
so passable that I began to envy heartily the musician's avocation.
It is all very well to condemn the long-haired man as an effeminate
and degenerate; long hair is deucedly becoming, and pronouncedly
artistic. And it is my sincere conviction that men were never intended
by nature to make crop-heads of themselves. Just before one o'clock I
gently removed the anarchist from his bed and rolled him underneath
it, pulling down the coverlid to hide him, and covering the couch as
well, with coats and rugs. Then I unlocked the door, rang the bell, and
seated myself at the table with a pile of music. Presently a waiter
knocked. "Come in." It was a porter named Jacques, a Frenchman.

"Monsieur rang?" he asked, with an ill-natured glance. He perceived,
of course, that I was a German, and his French soul was obliged to
disapprove of me.

"A roast chicken--and a small bottle of Burgundy."

He bowed and departed. When he returned I affected to be immersed in
a score of Joachim, but, when he put down the tray and was about to
leave, I looked up.

"Let me not be disturbed this evening, garcon," I commanded. "I wish
to sleep, and I shall not want dinner. Call me, however, should any
messenger come from his Majesty the Czar."

"Tout a l'heure, monsieur."

"You may go!"

He departed, and soon afterwards I locked the door. Then I threw myself
upon the bed and for several hours gave myself up to day-dreams. When
the light began to fail, however, I arose, and, sitting down at the
table I made a hearty meal of the roast chicken, which, though quite
cold, was still savory, and I drained the bottle of Burgundy to the
dregs. Afterwards I felt fit for any fate. And when, some two hours
later, Jacques appeared, to announce the arrival of Herr Grobemoff,
who insisted upon seeing me, although not a messenger from the Czar, I
merely shrugged my shoulders and answered "Very well."

The "Herr" proved to be a German pianist, and the Court, it appeared,
had selected him to be my accompanist. He embraced me cordially,
kissing first my hand in token, he explained, of his acknowledgment
of the supereminence of my genius, and then my cheeks, as a mark of
his flowing affection for a brother artist and his desire to welcome a
great master to Russia, his adopted home. He had called twice during
the afternoon, it seemed, with a bevy of other artists, all eager to
render me their homage. But he had respected my desire to sleep. He was
a frightfully voluble old fellow, and I thought we would never get down
to business. But it came at last. He wished to know what I intended
to play, and to compare his scores with mine. I had already selected
half a dozen of the nihilist's most simple pieces--which I knew, in
fact, by heart--and these I showed him. The old flatterer immediately
overwhelmed me with compliments. "Ah," he cried, "'Tis exactly what
I predicted of you--my dear young friend. Herr Bohrismann will tell
you the same thing to-night--this very day I said to him:--'Mark my
words--Wilhelm, Herr Rivelik will rather seek to charm their Majesties
with the genius of simplicity than dazzle them with coups d'etat of
style.' And, behold, what I have said comes true."

"My dear Herr Grobemoff," I answered, with a low bow, "the soul of one
true artist always understands the soul of another!"

It was a mistake to have turned his weapons against himself, for the
old beggar insisted upon embracing me again. But, in the nick of
time, a rap sounded on the door, and it opened to admit M. Butineff,
an equerry and chamberlain of the Court, with whom--in propria
persona--I was well acquainted. Evidently, as Herr Rivelik, I
had seen him earlier in the day, for he declared how glad he was to
perceive that I had recovered from my indisposition.

But their Majesties awaited us, it seemed, and it was needful to set
out immediately. I, therefore, took up my violin case and my scores,
and we trooped down the stairs. Before the hotel there awaited us a
magnificent State coach, and a large crowd of people thronged the
pavement, many of whom were long-haired artists like myself. These, as
soon as I appeared, rushed at me, howling and cheering like a pack of
wolves. It was a veritable triumph to my reputation. Herr Grobemoff
almost burst with pride, and I confess I went up several degrees in my
own esteem. M. Butineff, however, pushed a way through the press, and
hurried us into the carriage, which immediately drove off. A little
later, while the clocks were striking the quarter after nine, we
stopped before the stuccoed front of the Summer Palace, and, with as
much ceremony as though I had been an emperor, I was ushered through
rows of soldiers and glittering flunkeys into the Czar's abode.

First of all we were taken to a gorgeous dressing-room, where
we removed our coats, and where "merely as a matter of form," a
quiet-looking gentleman ran his fingers lightly over our pockets,
and squintingly examined the interior of the nihilist's violin. "A
Guarnerius, monsieur?" he asked, as though to excuse his final action.
"No," said I, "an uninscribed Stradivarius." I had previously tried
Herr Rivelik's violin, and, to be frank, it was a very ordinary
instrument, with a somewhat over-vibrant tone. But that mattered not a
rap. I was Herr Rivelik. Therefore, a twelve-and-sixpenny machine-made
fiddle in my possession must infallibly be an old master. It's
nine-tenths of any battle to have a reputation.

A moment later, M. Butineff touched my arm. "Are you ready, monsieur?"
he asked.

"I am very nervous," I replied. "But I am ready."

He bowed me to the door, and thence led me, Herr Grobemoff following at
heel, through a maze of rooms and corridors to the presence chamber.




CHAPTER XI.

I entered, my head bowed modestly upon my breast. Genius, particularly
musical genius, is ever humble. I heard a woman's whisper. "Regardez!"
and then someone took my hand. He said "Welcome," and murmured
something that rather puzzled me about his Majesty's appreciation of my
courage and a sick bed. It was the Grand Duke Alexei. Next moment Herr
Grobemoff and I exchanged glances, standing beside the piano stool.
The old pianist looked prodigiously important, and was plainly in his
element. He sat down and struck a note. I handed him my bow and began
to twang the violin, seizing the opportunity to look about me.

The piano was placed upon a low platform, before which was arranged in
a semi-circle a double row of nearly two score people, some seated and
some standing about the figure of the Czar, who occupied a comfortable
arm-chair in the centre. On his right hand sat the Grand Duchess Xenia,
and on his left the Grand Duchess Alexandrina. The Czarina was not to
be seen; but the absence was partially atoned for by the presence of
almost the whole Royal Family. I recognised the Grand Dukes Sergei,
Boris, Cyril, Alexei, Alexander, and Mikhailovich, also two Ministers,
three admirals, and many other official notables, including General
Poghdavowski, the Minister of Police. "Well," thought I, restraining
with some difficulty a wild desire to laugh, "I may disappoint some of
you people, but it will go hard with me if I fail to astonish you."

A moment later I took my bow from Herr Grobemoff and struck an
attitude. Instantly a hush fell over the gathering, and all eyes stared
at me. My mind was curiously divided. Common-sense strongly admonished
me to hand Stelfox-Steel's letter forthwith to the Czar, warning me of
a hundred possible and impossible consequences of the least delay in
grasping by the throat my opportunity. But the little imp of mischief
that is always sitting on my shoulder declared that I should all my
life regret a neglected chance to delight and dazzle such an audience,
and, believing him, I hesitated! A crash of chords, and I was lost. I
raised the violin to my chin and drew my bow across the strings.

Blessings on that hour! I shall never be able to think of it without
a chuckle and a thrill. Although I have my own opinion of myself
as a violinist, honesty constrains me to confess that I am not
generally considered a virtuoso. An Islington audience (it was a
charity concert, too) was once misguided enough to boo my rendering of
Gounod's "Ave Maria." True it is that Reggie Horne started the booing,
but it is also true that the response to his signal was universal,
spontaneous, and sincere. It was reserved for me, however, to have
my true worth--despised by Islington--rapturously recognised by the
Russian Court. Braga's "Serenata" was my first effort. Before it was
half over, the Grand Duchess Xenia was in tears, and the whole Court
looked intensely miserable. The last note was succeeded by a period of
profound stillness, then a sorrow-chastened storm of plaudits. Herr
Grobemoff arose and kissed my hand, whereupon the applause broke out
afresh. But I waved him back to his seat with a magnificent flourish,
and plunged into Mascagni's "Intermezzo." Conceiving that some show
of feeling on the part of the artist would help matters along, I
indulged in a number or physical and facial contortions expressive
of the emotions which the music excited in my frenzied soul. The
effect was superb. The Czar clapped his hands, the ladies pelted me
with flowers, and the rest of the audience deliriously applauded me.
As for Herr Grobemoff, he cried out that Joachim lived again, and,
despite all I could do, he pressed me to his fat heart and beslobbered
me with kisses. When order was restored, the Czar, in a tone which
acknowledged that my sovereignty was infinitely superior to his own,
humbly begged me to favor him with one of my own compositions. Frankly
the request was a facer; and for a few seconds I went cold. For this
was my difficulty. I had always been modestly content to interpret the
works of other great musicians, and I doubted if I knew a single piece
which would not be familiar, to Grobemoff, at all events. However, I
needs must make the experiment. It was impossible to refuse the Czar. I
therefore bowed to the floor, and to gain time began to tune my violin
again, thinking wildly the while. Suddenly the riddle was resolved. In
a beautiful, mind-illuminating flash it was borne to me that an Irish
jig ought just about to fill the bill. Grobemoff informed me in a
whisper that he knew by heart all my compositions, and implored me to
decide upon a certain scherzo which was a great favorite in Russia. But
I shook my head and said aloud: "No, my dear Herr Grobemoff. In only
one way can I repay his gracious Majesty for the great compliment which
he has paid me. And that is by improvising here and now a symphony
addressed to him."

Grobemoff threw up his hands and eyes to heaven, ravished with
admiration. The Czar cried "Bravo!" and the Court clapped hands. Once
more I bowed deeply before the Czar, then, preparing for a supreme
effort, I raised the violin, and, screwing up my face and eyes, I began
to pace the little stage like a caged lion. Twice I scraped up and down
the gamut, slowly, and with prodigious effort, lingering wearily on
each wailing note. Then all of a sudden I stopped dead, and, throwing
back my head, stared fixedly at the ceiling, my bow and violin ready,
but rigid. It was the pose of a great master, lost in an ecstasy of
inspiration, listening raptly to the music of the spheres.

The hush was memorable. The falling of a pin would have sounded like
a cracker. I enjoyed it thrillingly, from scalp to sole. But, alas!
everything perishes, even pure bliss such as that. I could have
lingered thus for ever, but, constrained by common-sense, at length I
sighed. The other forty people present sighed too--like furnaces. In
the midst of their sighing I made the violin shriek, and in another
second I was playing "Drops of Brandy" as if for dear life. From that
I wandered into "Tim Finnegan's Wake" with variations, and I concluded
with five strenuous discords that were nothing less than master strokes
of virtuosity.

It would be quite useless to attempt to describe the enthusiasm that
ensued when finally, panting and apparently exhausted, I gave over. The
tumult deafened and half-dazed me. Half a dozen Grand Dukes pressed my
hands and led me to the Czar. One Grand Duchess--but there!

Suffice it to say that I was induced to kneel before his Majesty, who
invested me forthwith with the order of St. John, and pinned with his
own hands a diamond cross, the insignia thereof, upon my breast. In
that pregnant and triumphant moment I am proud to say that I remembered
my mission. Even as I arose from my knees I extracted Stelfox-Steel's
letter from my vest, and offered it with a sweet smile to the Czar.
"Your Majesty," I said softly, "deign to accept this little symphony,
which has been composed entirely in your honor, and which I have dared
to dedicate to you."

The Czar accepted the missive and was, I think, about to tear open the
cover when a cruel and jealous fate with savage unexpectedness overtook
me. There was a sudden outcry near the door through which I had entered
the presence chamber, then the rasping crash of a falling chair, and a
loud voice shouted: "Treason, treason! Look to the Czar. The musician
is an impostor and a nihilist! Sacre! He has given his Majesty a
bomb!"

The Czar dropped the letter and fell back, ashen white, on the
instant. He was immediately surrounded by the Grand Dukes, who hurried
him from the room by one door, while the remainder of my--a moment
earlier rapturous--audience departed in a wild scramble, shrieking
and shouting like maniacs, by the other. One would have been almost
justified in supposing that they were afraid of me, the dear people, so
unceremonious was the order of their going. But they did not forget to
slam and lock the doors behind them, and before I had half recovered
my wits I was a prisoner at large in the presence chamber, alone with
Stelfox-Steel's letter and his bonds. Presently I picked up the package
and sat down upon a chair to-think. The position was desperate, of
course, but it was so confoundedly absurd as well that, in spite of
all I could do, in two minutes I was laughing consumedly. When the
paroxysm of mirth had passed I dried my eyes and looked about me. The
window immediately attracted my attention. I approached it and peered
out. It overlooked a courtyard, filled with soldiers, who hailed my
appearance with loud cries. Wishing to speak to them, I raised my arm
to unlock the clasp, but that was enough. Fancying I intended to hurl a
bomb at them, they precipitately fled. Once more an unrestrainable gust
of laughter shook me. And well it did so, for a bobbing head probably
saved my life. I heard a loud report, and a bullet, whizzing past my
occiput, crashed through the pane. Swinging on my heel, I was just in
time to see a door swing to, and a little cloud of smoke before it
evidenced sufficiently the fact that one of his Majesty's guards had
taken a pot shot at me with his revolver. But this was beyond a joke!
Having no mind to fill the role of snipe I hurried to the door and
rapped upon the panel. "Outside there!" I shouted. There was an instant
scurrying of feet, but no response in words. The other door slightly
opened, however, and the barrel of a rifle was pushed sideways into the
room. Next instant a foot appeared--then a pair of lurid eyes, and the
muzzle swung round towards me. In desperation I raised Stelfox-Steel's
letter. There was a flash, a deafening report, a cloud of smoke, and
the door banged again. A second later I heard my cousin's voice,
sternly commanding his men to enter and take me prisoner.

"Thank God!" I gasped--and shouted wildly: "Nick Batinoff, Nick--it's
I, Frank Coates! I'm no nihilist, confound you all! Call off your dogs,
you beetle-crusher!"

There was a period of heavy silence, then of a sudden the nearest door
opened wide, and on the threshold stood Nicholas Batinoff, revolver in
hand. We looked into each other's eyes for full thirty seconds, his
regard becoming slowly a recognising stare. "You are disguised!" he
said at last--his tones hoarse and stiff.

I tore off my wig. "Of course!"

"Explain!" he commanded.

But I no longer feared sudden death, and the exquisite absurdity of the
situation immediately recurred to me.

"I just had to see the Czar," I replied with a grin. "But he wouldn't
take the bonds, Nick, he dropped them like a hot potato."

"Where is your accomplice?" he demanded harshly, "the man you are
impersonating."

"You'll find him tied up like a trussed chooky, under his bed in his
room at the hotel."

"Good heavens!" said Nicholas.

"And his box has a false bottom filled with bombs, real bombs! But for
me, Nick, the Czar would be a dead man now, dead as Caesar!"

My cousin turned absolutely livid. "Wait here!" he gasped, and,
swinging on his heel, he simply hurled himself out of the room. Five
minutes had hardly elapsed, however, before he returned, accompanied
by the Grand Duke Pagis and General Poghdavowski, the Minister of
Police. As a preliminary, Nick and the Minister searched me carefully,
and relieved me of the bonds, which they gave to Pagis. Thereupon an
inquisition started, which ended in the two policemen departing to
visit my hotel, while the Grand Duke and I repaired to his private
apartments to crack a bottle of wine. Thereabouts he allayed my
curiosity by explaining the latest plot on the Czar's life. It seemed
that the Terrorists had somehow learned that the true Rivelik, who
had just got up from a sick-bed at Cracow, had been invited to play
before his Majesty. By a clever trick they had decoyed him into their
power, and sent one of the most desperate of their agents, a young
medical student named Leon Brabozotoi, to St. Petersburg to impersonate
Rivelik and assassinate the Czar. And with such extraordinary address
had they developed their plans that, except for my intervention, the
Russian police must have been too late to save his Majesty, since
Rivelik's escape from the Terrorists was even at that moment scarcely
an hour old. Such in short was the Grand Duke's story, and it was all
he knew then himself. But it was also all I learned, and probably shall
ever learn. For after a delightful hour with Pagis, who proved a boon
companion, and who laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks at the
account I gave him of my concert, I was escorted by two officers to
the headquarters of police. There I remained in solitary confinement
for a period of twenty-eight days, gradually accustoming myself to the
notion of Siberia. But Providence had another destiny in store for me,
and one evening, after giving M. Poghdavowski my word of honor never to
return to Russia, I was conveyed from my cell to the railway station,
and given there in charge of a person who had orders to see me over the
border. I was a failure, of course, an arrant failure. Nevertheless, I
had the satisfaction of being permitted to depart with all the honors
of war. And when two days later I arrived in Paris I still possessed
my Cross of St. John, some £500, and a stock of mirth-provoking
recollections which I valued even more than the money.




CHAPTER XII.

I discovered at Paris that the official account of the Imperial
incident in which I had played so motley a part was brilliantly untrue.
But while it astonished me to learn that a certain daring nihilist
named Leon Brabozotoi had been shot down while attempting to stab
the Czar under cover of presenting his Majesty with a petition in
the Summer Palace, it was a relief to find that my name had not been
breathed in connection with the affair. Feeling somewhat poorly--the
result of my imprisonment, no doubt--I decided to remain in Paris for
a week in order to recruit before undergoing the ordeal of facing
Stelfox-Steel. I mailed him, however, a bald confession of failure,
and two days later received the following reply: "Dear Sir,--Enclosed
please find my cheque for £1000, as agreed. Yours truly.--J.
Stelfox-Steel."

A cold man of business, the magnate. But I resolved to see him all the
same, and early in the afternoon of the day after the Japanese opened
the war by making their famous dash into the harbor of Port Arthur I
was shown into his private sanctum.

He nodded to me across a great heap of correspondence. "Ah! Good-day,
Coates! Back, I see!"

"Yes, sir, and I called at once, guessing you'd be anxious to hear
about my doings."

"Then you've miscalculated," he retorted briskly. "I have no time to
listen to fool stories of failures. This war has got me down and is
worrying me like a dog with a rat. My cheque reached you?"

"Yes, thanks."

"Well, that closed our biz., I fancy, eh? Good-day to you."

I left, feeling seriously moved to write a book on the manner of
millionaires. But I explored Piccadilly instead, and thence rambled
through the neighborhood, searching for a miniature tobacco store.
I found what I was looking for at last in the neighborhood of
Bond-street, almost next door to a celebrated jeweller's establishment.
It was nearly Lilliputian enough to be an ideal home for a fair-sized
doll. A grizzled little clerk served me with a sixpenny cigar, which I
lighted leisurely, and then sat down.

"You the proprietor?" I asked. There was no other person in the shop.
The clerk pointed to a name on the window. "Jacob Aronsen, at your
service, sir," he said.

"How do you find trade, Mr. Aronsen, these times?" I inquired.

"Bad, sir, very bad. So many of the gentry purchase wholesale nowadays
for cheapness sake, sir, and it's only high-class custom one gets in
Bond Street, sir."

"Ah, is that so? But I suppose you make a living?"

"That's about all I do, sir. What with rates and taxes and the rent."

"Rent high?"

"Twelve pounds a week, sir."

"What, for this little shop?"

"There's another room behind, sir."

"It's preposterous!"

"It is indeed, sir," heartily agreed the little clerk, adding, in
lachrymose tones, "and I was fool enough to take a seven years' lease,
too. But that was three years ago, and business was brisker then."

"Pray forgive me if I seem impertinent, Mr. Aronsen--but I should much
like to know what net profit you can make per week, handicapped with
such a rent."

"Sometimes not more than two or three pounds, sir."

"But your average?"

"About six pounds, sir, I should say."

"You ought to sell out," I suggested.

Mr. Aronsen eyed me suspiciously, and forthwith dropped his respectful
'sir.' "Are you an agent, mister?" he demanded.

"No," I answered, smiling, "only a baronet," and I handed him my card.

He begged my pardon profusely--for what offence I have no idea, but I
magnanimously forgave him, and then asked what sum he would take for a
straight-out sale of his business and stock.

"Two thousand!" he replied. "To you, Sir Francis."

I laughed and took my leave. An hour later I returned. "I'll give you
five hundred," I said. "If you decline it, I'll take the empty shop
across the way and oppose you."

He told me to go, but next morning he was more civil, and he spoke of
£1750.

On the following day it was £1650. Meanwhile I rusticated in my
lodgings.

On the fifth morning I rented the vacant shop opposite Mr. Aronsen's
for a month at a cost of £50. I took the receipt straight to the little
clerk. "Look what you have forced me to do," I said gravely. "I have no
intention of opening a business yonder, of course. But neither have I
any mind to let you fleece me, merely because I want to buy you out and
you know it."

Naturally Mr. Aronsen did not believe me, and he almost wept with rage;
but he declared he would not take a penny less than £1500, and I was
forced to employ a signwriter to paint "Coates, Tobacconist," in big
letters on the window of the vacant shop. This brought the game to an
end, for on returning from a stroll that night I found my rival waiting
patiently on my doorstop. "Give me £1250 and let me go," he wailed. But
it was a thousand pounds I finally agreed to part with, and only then
upon the condition precedent that he should remain in my employ for a
month, during which time he should put me through my facings and teach
me the tricks of the trade.

Early on the following Monday morning I bought an apron and went to
work.

Mr. Aronsen, beaming all over, led me behind the counter and into a
rather prettily furnished little office, which was also a sort of
warehouse, being piled on three sides, from floor to ceiling, with
boxes of tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes. Wishing to master first the
secrets of buying rather than the selling, I remained in that little
room for six days, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing hosts
and multitudes of figures, from breakfast time till almost midnight. On
the Saturday evening Mr. Aronsen regretfully handed me £22, the takings
of the week; and he assured me in the act that I was the luckiest
person of his acquaintance to have acquired, and himself the greatest
fool to have parted with, so excellent a business for such a beggarly
trifle as a thousand pounds.

Ten days later I despatched an autograph circular to all the daily
papers, and next morning took my stand behind the counter. As I had
expected, my first customer was Reggie Horne. He stood outside the shop
for a moment or two staring at my name on the window, an open copy of
the "Chronicle" in his hand. "It's a hoax, of course!" he growled. I
heard him quite distinctly. Then he entered, caught my eye, and stood
petrified.

"Morning, sir," I said pleasantly. "What can I do for you this morning?
We have some excellent Cabanas just in, imported, I may say, especially
for you, Mr. Horne. It's our principle to study the individual tastes
of our customers!"

Reggie's mouth opened wide. I opened a box of cigars. "Favor me by
trying one," I suggested.

"Look here, Frank!" gasped Reggie. "Have you gone mad, or what?"

"I've turned sensible, Reggie. I'm going to make a living or die
trying. But would you prefer a Laranago?"

He had no time to reply before Sir George Trevellian, John Exton, and
Lord Forth, commonly known as "Old Forty," burst into the shop.

"Well, I'm----!" was the general exclamation.

"You won't find a better assorted collection of smokes in Christendom,
gentlemen," I gravely assured them. "Sir George, I have your favorite
brand of Regalias here--shall I book your order for five hundred or a
thousand?"

"Eh--eh?" gasped Trevellian.

"Thanks, Sir George," I cried and turned to the clerk. "Mr. Aronsen,
kindly see that a thousand Regalias are sent to Sir George Trevellian's
house at once."

"Coates!" cried Exton.

"Cigarettes for you Exton," I responded. "By gad, gentlemen, you have
cause to thank your stars that you know a place at last where you'll
have your nicotinal wants sympathetically and responsibly administered.
Now, Exton--try one of these Murattis. There's size for you--there's
flavor--Mr. Aronsen, a light for Mr. Exton."

Trevellian, Exton, and Reggie Horne, all three looking utterly
confounded, sat down and began to puff, staring at me as if at a new
sort of wild animal. Lord Forth, however, seized my hand and warmly
congratulated me. "By heavens, Coates!" he cried, "you put us all to
shame, and I for one heartily approve your conduct. It's magnificent.
It's what we all ought to do--work--work, there's nothing so ennobling.
Humph--let me see--yes, I will--by Jove! Coates, you can send me five
thousand heavy-weight Manillas, Claros."

"Money down, Forty," I responded with a wink. The others roared with
laughter, for Lord Forth notoriously never paid his debts. But the old
fellow was not in the least put out. "Word of honor--I'll send you a
cheque," he cried, and I believed him.

"Now Reggie, it's up to you," I said.

Reggie tossed a shilling on the counter. "Two Cabanas," he said curtly.

I handed him the box.

"Exton!"

"Oh, I'm fixed--but there, we must give you a start, I suppose. A box
of Murattis, please."

"I'll send them to your rooms."

I had hardly spoken when Tressady, Lord Ingle, and Burton Falmouth
entered. When they had finished damning their souls I booked a
substantial order from each, and then all went away except Reggie.

"You'll be the talk of London, Coates," he said with a scowl.

"Good for trade, Reggie."

"But what's your game, man? Come, out with it! You can't pull wool over
my eyes. Is it a big wager you're trying to win?"

"The biggest possible, my son. In confidence, I'm going to marry a wife
and to try to keep her."

"You! Marry! You!" Reggie stood up, and his voice, mounting in swift
crescendo, ended in a regular report.

"Why not?" I replied, and I served a chance customer with an ounce of
Dublin mixture.

"Who is the wretched creature?" demanded Reggie when the man went.

"Well, I have lots to pick from. Over a hundred sweet young things
answered the advertisement."

"You advertised for a wife!" he shrieked.

"I suppose I had a right to," I retorted. "See here, Horne, you've only
spent a shilling in my shop as yet, and you had good value for your
money. You didn't buy the right to manage my domestic concerns along
with your Cabanas."

Poor Reggie was dumbfounded. "I apologise, of course," he muttered.
"But you are mad, Coates, mad as a hatter."

"To think of matrimony?" I asked sweetly.

"Well--er--not exactly that--but to advertise--and
er--trade--it's--awful; it's er--damne--Frank! its the worst thing
you've done yet. You'll be ostracised!"

"Not if you support me, Reg," I chuckled.

"Frank!" cried a woman's voice, and Gloria Hammond, running from the
door to the counter, gave me both her hands.

"Gloria!" I cried, entranced, "your arrival is timed perfectly. Reggie
has just declared that all London will cut me for trying to make an
honest living."

"Pooh!" she exclaimed. "Who cares for Reggie. But, Frank, how mean you
are! You came back ages ago, and have never been to see me."

"I haven't been anywhere, Gloria. For I determined on my return to give
everyone, without exception, an equal chance to do what Reggie has
predicted they will do."

"Frank!" she said, reproachfully, "you dared to think that I----"

"My dear girl," I interrupted--"I've been impatiently awaiting your
arrival ever since I took down the shutters. How is Hammond?"

"Very well. He will be along to see you later. What a nice little shop
it is, Frank. Hammond intends to give you simply a tremendous order.
When he saw your announcement in The Times he was awfully excited.
He vowed he had always known you would do something splendid in the
end."

"You call this splendid, Mrs. Hammond," sighed Reggie. "Splendid!"

She turned upon him with flashing eyes. "That and nothing else, Reggie
Horne!" she cried. "It's independent, and it's manly--why, it's almost
noble. It's a gauntlet thrown in the teeth of silly social prejudice,
and stupid pride, and foppish idleness, and pocket-empty priggishness,
and a hundred other mean and little points of view. And let me finally
tell you this--I've always liked Frank Coates--but to-day for the first
time I respect him! There, now!"

"Well, I'm blest!" groaned Reggie. "Say, Frank, you'd better send me a
box of those Cabanas. I'm converted."

"And you must dine with us to-night. I'll take no refusal," said Gloria.

"Sir Francis Coates! How dare you without telling me beforehand!" cried
a shrill voice, and Lady Adela Drummond swished into the shop, followed
by two musicians, a painter, and a pug--a pug dog of course.

"I thought you might have forbidden me," I murmured, as we shook hands.
"I really did."

She raised her lorgnette and examined the shop. "You must take down
those flaring cardboard advertisements, and put up a few decent
pictures, landscapes, and several mirrors," she began in didactic
staccato tones. "Also you must get a Chesterfield and three or four
saddle bags. There's not much room, unfortunately, but we must do what
we can, I have been planning it all out as I came along."

"Planning----" I suggested.

"I said planning, Coates." She tapped me smartly on the shoulder with
her fan. "Since you have taken the plunge, your friends can do no less
than help you to success. For my part I shall find this place extremely
useful. Ask Signor Casati to have a cigar, Coates; Nerli never smokes.
Being so near Bond-street, it will serve me for a rendezvous. How
nice it smells. I adore tobacco. Where on earth has Fanfarini gone?
Ah, there he is--he is so shy, the dear man. How do--Mrs. Hammond?
Frightful crush at Huxton's last night, wasn't it? A wretched Guardsman
tore two flounces almost off my skirt. A pot plant would improve
that counter, Coates. Mr. Horne, kindly stop teasing Fifi. Keep next
Thursday evening, Frank; you are to take in Princess Pavrolski; she
hardly knows a word of English, poor soul!--you'll be a godsend to her.
Mrs. Hammond, do look at those people--quite a crowd, I do declare.
Well, by-bye, Coates; don't forget the saddle-bags."

Gloria heaved a prodigious sigh. "I feel as though I had just left a
bargain counter," she declared. "Frank, I'll never forgive you if you
let that woman off under a fifty-pound order. Make her pay for the
saddle-bags. Well, until--to-night."

"To-night," I echoed, and a minute later the shop was filled to
suffocation, with a crowd of club mates and acquaintances. They came
to chaff and satisfy their curiosity, of course, but for each Roland I
received I returned an Oliver, and I let not a man escape in exactly
the same financial condition in which he had invaded the premises. When
they had gone, Reggie Horne, who still lingered, straddled a chair and
tilted back his hat.

"Want a partner?" he demanded.

"You?"

"I'm game."

"No, thank you, sonny. I'd lose a friend, and a first-rate customer as
well. But I'm willing to pay you a commission on orders. Twenty per
cent if you like."

"Honest injun, Frank?"

I put a finger in my mouth and held it up. "Wet--dry!"

Reggie rolled up his eyes. "Right oh; I'll roll 'em in. Say, Frank----"

"Well."

"Sevenhills has cut us all out with Miss Fortescue."

"What, the duke?"

"There isn't another Sevenhills I know of," he responded irritably.
"----him!"

"You still----?" I inquired.

"Worse than ever," he groaned. "I've been wanting to break his neck for
weeks past."

"You can revenge yourself in a better way than that, my boy. Book him
for a big cigar order."

"The beast is serious," said Reggie dolefully.

"And the beauty?"

"She's nibbling the bait," sighed Reggie, too miserable to consider his
metaphors.

"Why don't you declare yourself?"

"Tressady did, and she wouldn't even be his sister."

"Strikes me you are afraid of her, Reggie."

"Like the very deuce."

A fresh batch of customers called me away just then, and when I was
again free Reggie had gone. But I had very little time in which to
think of his luckless love affair that afternoon, for not until one
o'clock had struck did the tide of my customers cease to flow. By then
I had booked orders for more than two hundred pounds, and the till
contained twenty seven pounds in gold and silver. Mr. Aronsen, with
tears in his eyes, warned me that I should have to replenish my stock,
and he implored me to let him buy back the business for two thousand
pounds, and employ me as his salesman at a yearly salary of a thousand.
Naturally I declined, but after a little haggling I engaged him as my
bookkeeper and assistant for twelve months at six pounds a week, and
ten per cent of the profits, for it was already manifest that I should
not be able to cope with all the work for long alone.

In the afternoon business was not quite so brisk, yet I was quite
fagged out when at six o'clock, we closed the premises. But I don't
remember ever having been so happy in the whole course of my previous
butterfly existence.




CHAPTER XIII.

IT would have been unreasonable to have expected universal approbation
of my new departure, or indeed anything resembling it, except remotely.
And, truth to tell, I found it speedily advisable, having become a
tradesman, to resign from a certain club. But I shall not name that
club, for the very good reason that the house committee was generous
enough, after I had shown so proper an appreciation of my position,
to give me an almost princely order for cigars. I benefited also in
a financial sense from the outspoken disgust of the large section
of society who considered that I had sacrificed my caste, for their
hostility provoked the chivalry of my friends to undertake a vigorous
defence of me, and discussion is the mainspring of advertisement.

Within a week my shop became the best patronised in the neighborhood.
Hundreds of people of all sorts and classes poured in all day long from
all parts of London to buy a smoke from a real live baronet, and at the
end of a fortnight my counter trade had so enormously increased that I
was obliged to purchase a cash register and employ another clerk. By
that time, too, my shop had developed, during the fashionable hours
at least, into a sort of idlers' rendezvous. A number of young men of
the smart set instituted the custom of dropping in for an hour or two
every afternoon to smoke cigarettes and toss about the ball of gossip;
and I, by virtue of my entrenched position behind the counter, was, by
tacit consent, the president of these little gatherings. Nor was the
fair sex excluded. Taking Lady Adela's hint, I bought a big mirror,
and some comfortable chairs, and she rewarded me by frequently putting
in an appearance, and sometimes she brought a younger woman with her.
On the whole, therefore, I passed my time very pleasantly indeed, and
so profitably, that I decided at last to abandon my poverty-stricken
rooms in Burton Street and furnish a house in St. John's Wood. Helen
Fortescue left London to pay a visit to her father in Ireland the day
I moved--so Reggie Horne told me. And a week later he followed her
with the Duke of Sevenhills across the channel. So far, I had not seen
Miss Fortescue, except at a distance in crowded assembly rooms, since
my return from Russia. But, whenever I could manage it, I did not
think of her, and I spent the off season devising advertising schemes
and canvassing for orders. The result was that before Parliament met
again, I had a bank balance of four hundred pounds over and above my
liabilities, and I possessed as prettily-furnished a little house, as
was to be found in all the northern suburbs.

It was Reggie Horne who gave me the news. He burst into my shop one
morning too agitated to perceive my outstretched hand.

"It's all up with me, Frank," he groaned. "They're to be married in
three months."

"Sevenhills and Miss Fortescue?"

"It's his money," said Reggie fiercely. "We men are all alike. He has
forty thousand a year."

"Are you sure the strawberry leaves haven't something to do with it?" I
asked.

"Rats! Isn't he old and ain't I young? And ain't I heir to an earldom?
A poor one, though!"

"Well, buck up, Reggie, my son. There are as good fish in the sea, et
cetera."

"You callous brute! I'm madly in love with her, I tell you! If you knew
what that meant----"

"I don't want to, Reggie--judging from your expression, it hurts."

"Hurts!" sighed Reggie. "She told me herself," he added, with, a groan.

"Then you plucked up courage to propose to her, at last?"

"Yes. I wish to heaven I hadn't now. I went clean off my head; I--I----"

"What did you do, Reggie?"

"I told Sevenhills exactly what I thought of him, the old dotard."

"And he----"

"He patted me on the back, and said he hoped the disappointment would
make a man of me. You can't insult Sevenhills, Frank. The hoary
Dionysius permits nothing to disturb him except his appetites. Thank
God he is down with an attack of gout, though, now. If it would only go
to his brain----"

"Reggie!" I said reprovingly. "And he is your grand-uncle, too!"

"They should have drowned him when he was a pup. You know as well as I
do, Frank, that he is a disgrace to his class. A libertine--a----"

"Reggie, Reggie, respect the feelings of a tradesman. It tortures
my middle-class soul to hear a duke reviled. Miss Fortescue is
inconsolable at his illness, I suppose?"

"She has gone to stay at Cowes with her aunt!"

I served five or six customers, a small rush having set in at that
moment, and then returned to Reggie. He was leaning back in his chair,
staring moodily at the ceiling, and his cigar had gone out. I watched
him for five minutes, served some more customers, and at length tapped
him on the shoulder.

"Pull yourself together, laddie," I said softly.

"I believe I'll go out to Australia," he replied. "I'm sick to death of
this--sort of--life. Life! Save the mark! I must do something, Frank."

"You need to make an interest for yourself. Work! It's the panacea, par
excellence. Travel only gives one larger opportunities to think."

"What can I do? I'm such a fool!"

"I need a holiday. Take charge of the counter while I am away, and if
you like the work and care to put up some capital we'll sign a deed of
partnership on my return."

"Do you really mean it, Frank?"

"Do you accept?"

"Gladly!"

"Then come behind at once, and fag up the price list."

Reggie sprang afoot, his eyes glistening, his countenance transfigured,
and with one bound he leaped the counter. "There will be an epidemic of
jaundice among the boys," he panted.

"My only fear is that there will be an epidemic of tobacco shops in our
vicinity," I remarked. "But we'll have to risk that. Fortunately for
us, the smart set has been bred up to idleness."

Two days later, perfectly satisfied that Reggie was on the highway to
recovery, and incidentally to becoming a really first-rate salesman,
I left him in charge of the shop and Mr. Aronsen, and ran across to
Calais. Thence I journeyed on foot, for the sake of the exercise, to
Cypres, where I hired a fishing smack to carry me to Cowes.




CHAPTER XIV.

A bandaged arm, neatly fastened in a black silk sling, is about as
excellent an excuse as may be invented for loitering in romantic
solitudes and gazing dreamily across the sea from the brows of cliffs
or sheltered nooks in shingly beaches. The house was on a steep hill
near the town; it possessed a wilderness of a garden and a high
fence, and one of its occupants was ill. The brown-eyed girl in pink
saw my glances wander thitherwards, and volunteered the latter piece
of information. The servant in the boarding-house had told her. She
thought I was an invalided Russian officer, and although all her
sympathy was long ago bespoken for the Japs, she spared me some measure
of her pity. She was a nice little girl, and as pretty as a Greuze, and
her name was Rose; but her devotion to pink blouses was rather a trial
to me at times. Pink is such a conspicuous color, and it was almost
impossible to avoid her without losing touch altogether with the house
or being downright rude. But the machinery of fate required her. And I
recognised her usefulness at last. Though she was not a cog; a flask of
oil, perhaps. I wonder where she is now. She had just finished telling
me all about the boy who wanted her to wait until the firm should raise
his wages to five-and-thirty shillings; and the man with three pounds a
week who wished to marry her at once; and I was mentally congratulating
the moonlight upon having achieved a veritable scenic triumph in its
mellowing effect on the landscape before us, when Miss Fortescue
appeared, leaning upon an old man's arm. It was not Sevenhills. The
path passed within a yard or two of our bench, and Miss Fortescue
uttered a low cry when still some distance off. But I did not hear her,
nor did I see her, I was so interested in the girl in the pink blouse.
"My dear Rose," I said aloud; then in an undertone I gave her good
advice. And soon we went back to the boarding-house.

Next morning she returned to the London shop where she was employed as
a fitter, and I strolled out upon the beach, with a pipe, a book, and a
camp stool. Miss Fortescue did not leave the house, I think. But I felt
her eyes on me the whole day long, and could not read a line. After
dinner I made my way to the bench, and she was already there. "Miss
Fortescue!" I cried.

"What fools men are to prate about the pleasures of anticipation!" I
muttered, thrilling from head to heel.

"You have broken your arm," she said, and her lovely voice, for some
esoteric reason, sounded harsh and strange.

"Well," said I, "if you came to Cowes in search of a job, I'm afraid
I'll have to disappoint you. Can't afford a nurse just now, Miss
Fortescue."

It even jarred on me, but she shivered perceptibly. "Sit down," I
suggested.

She complied and I placed my bandaged member between us. It seemed
advisable. "Thought you'd have been in Paris." I remarked.

"Why?" she whispered.

"Well, most of the ladies I knew before I became a tertium quid,
otherwise a tobacconist, seemed to think it was the proper thing to
procure their trousseaux in the gay city."

"You have heard?"

"Didn't Sevenhills tell you? I wired my congratulations a week ago."

"No, he did not tell me!"

"If you invite me to the wedding I'll give you the loveliest cigarette
holder, Miss Fortescue."

"Will you?" She clasped her hands upon her lap and stared at the sea.

"Excuse me for seeming to push myself," I continued, "but the fact is,
business is business, and one never gets what one doesn't ask for in
this world. If you haven't promised your patronage elsewhere, I'd take
it as a great favor if you'd be obliging enough to buy your tobacco
from me when you are her Grace of Sevenhills. I stock only the best
brands, and would guarantee to give you every satisfaction."

She made no reply. I waited for some minutes, then said lightly: "The
business habit grows on one so--me, at all events. Sometimes I believe
I was born to be a bagman. I'm simply dying to get back to the shop,
but this wretched arm of mine----"

"They tell me that you are doing wonderfully well, making quite a
fortune," she murmured.

"Oh, I can't grumble. Business is fair to middling, even in the off
season."

"I passed your place--one afternoon. It was crowded."

"You should have come in. Lady Adela Drummond often does; I have a
gas-ring and a teapot in my office."

"Do you do all the work yourself?"

"Most of it. I'm looking for a saleswoman, though now. Men like being
served by a pretty face."

"What a sweet name Rose is!"

I managed an affected start. "That's an irrelevant remark. Miss
Fortescue!"

"I passed you last night, Sir Francis. You were sitting here--and I
heard you name your companion."

"Oh! The pink blouse! She'd never do. I'd be sure to fall in love with
her; she is so infernally feminine. Fortunately she left this morning.
Met her at the boarding-house."

"You are staying at a boarding-house?"

"Eighteen shillings a week and all found."

"Ah!" she sighed, "how happy you must be!"

"Happy isn't the word, Miss Fortescue, except at meal times. But
I dodge some, and thus preserve the perfect bliss inviolate of my
condition. With whom are you staying?"

"My aunt. That is her house yonder on the hill. She is not very well
just now, though. I am nursing her."

"I'd call if it wasn't for my arm and the natural timidity of
tobacconists. But I fancy she won't mind. Your father well?"

"Yes, thank you. Mr. Haldom, his ward, comes of age next month."

"Young Bertie Haldom. Good heavens! Last time I saw him he was in
knickerbockers, and it seems only yesterday. Comes in for a tidy sum,
doesn't he?"

"Twenty thousand pounds. What would you do if you possessed it, Sir
Francis?"

"I'd go into Parliament, I believe. What would you?"

"I should give it to my father, and----" she hesitated.

"Ah!" I said, looking at her keenly, "you would give it to your
father--and--and then?"

She did not meet my eyes, but I noticed that her face was pale and
that her lip was trembling. "I think I should go--upon the stage," she
answered. A moment later she stood up and walked slowly from me down
the path, for perhaps twenty yards. Then she stopped and laughed. Her
laughter was as musical as a chime of silver bells, and it harmonised
most exquisitely with the moonlight. "Good-night, Sir Francis, or,
rather, good-bye," she said, and the path folded her in shadows. To
break one's arm it is only necessary to grasp the second rung of the
back of a wooden bench, and press against the first. But only a fool
would do such a thing. The doctor charged me seven guineas, and ten and
sixpence for the plaster of paris; but he was a fool, too, for in spite
of his assurance and his opiate I did not sleep that night.




CHAPTER XV.

The Jews shrugged their shoulders and politely sneered at my security;
Mr. Stelfox-Steel "regretted--but----" and Mr. Hammond, my last hope,
frankly declared that he could not afford to lend so large a sum as
twenty thousand pounds. I might have succeeded in forging somebody's
name, only unhappily it was my right arm that I had been idiot enough
to break; and for the same reason I gave up the idea of trying to
burgle Stelfox-Steel's strong-room. It was wonderful how instantly and
perfectly she understood. She was waiting for me, seated on the bench
just as I had seen her in my dreams, and she greeted me with the same
questioning, insistent look. "You have failed!" she said.

"After the three most wretched days of my existence," I replied, and
sank down wearily upon the seat beside her. The moon had just risen,
and it was almost at the full. Her beauty was unearthly. A poet once
spoke to me about the soul of a lily, and I mocked him. But he was
not the fool. And she still retained her grand, cold, preternatural
reserve. She even smiled. She is the only woman in the world who could
in such a case. But I had overtaxed my strength, and, after all, I am
constructed out of ordinary clay.

"Once upon a time there was a girl," I said, "to win whom a man was
willing to sacrifice part of his great fortune. The money was needed to
save her family from disgrace. But the girl cared for another man, who
was poor--and love made her forget her pride so far as to tell the rich
man everything."

Helen smiled again, and murmured softly, "Surely not love. Sir Francis,
but honor impelled her to confess."

"And would not honor let her hope that he might set her free?"

"Had she no pride?"

"Ah, you remember the story better than I. Tears have passed since it
was told to me. What did the rich man say?"

She pressed her hand tightly to her side. "If it is the same story, Sir
Francis."

"Never mind, it is a pretty tale, and will serve to pass the time away."

"My memory as well as yours, is vague--but I think--he told her--that
he--he reverenced her--for her--her honesty."

"He did not set her free?"

"She did not ask it."

"But----"

"It was a sad story, Sir Francis."

The taste of blood was in my mouth. I had bitten my lip almost through.
"It ended sadly, you mean?" I muttered, my voice as hoarse as the
croaking of a raven.

"How else could it end?"

"Splendidly!" I cried, shaken by a sudden storm of passion. "Grandly,
tragically! The lovers died together the night before the rich man's
bridal day."

But Helen turned and looked into my eyes. "And was the girl a cheat?"
she asked. "Ah, but I do not like your story, Sir Francis. Mine is
sadder, but it is nobler, too, I think."

"She married him, and lived miserably ever afterwards?"

"Not always miserably. She was able to do some good in the world--for
she was rich."

"Marriage made her rich."

"You should not sneer at her for that. Had she been able she would
gladly--ah, you smile--gone to the wash tub--for the man she loved.
In my story it is written--that she almost told her lover so one
day--before the great blow fell. He was absent from her at that
time--when the blow fell, I mean--in Russia."

"God help him!" I groaned. "Was it written what became of him?"

"Yes."

"Tell me."

"He remained her friend; and so great was his strength, so magnanimous
his nature, that whenever she was weak he helped her through the evil
hour, helped her to do her duty."

"She needed help--ah! Helen! you malign her. He, he alone, was weak!"

"There you mistake, mistake. One night, before the rich man married
her, they met, and she----"

"She?"

"She was so weak, so much a woman, that oh, can't you guess, my friend?"

"She would have--gone to him--in spite of all. Helen! Helen!"

"No! No! No!"

"She would!"

She stood up, trembling like a leaf, her face whiter than the
moonlight, her great eyes shining like twin stars. "She trusted him!"
she cried. "Frank, Frank, she trusted him!"

I stood up, too, and put my left hand on her waist. We were so close
together that our breaths commingled, and her bosom, as it rose and
fell, pressed softly on my injured arm.

"The world is wide," I said, and watched her eyes dilate. "And when two
people love thoroughly it is otherwise untenanted."

"Frank, she trusted him!" she wailed.

"Helen," said I. "In the left pocket of my coat you'll find a cigarette
case. Get it out for me, will you?"

She obeyed.

I gave her a match. "Light it!" She put the cigarette to her lips, but
it fell to the ground, and she was obliged to extract another from
the case. She took three puffs, I think, then gave it to me. "It has
touched your lips," I said, and sat down on the bench again. She went
down the path quite out of sight, but in ten minutes she came back.
"You must go away," she said. She had been crying, and her cheeks still
glistened.

"No," said I, "you are quite safe. When you touched my broken arm just
now it hurt."

"Is that true, Frank?"

"No, dear, I'd endure death by the rack to possess you for an hour. But
I want you to like me all your life."

"And yet all these years you have pretended not to care!"

"And am I not rewarded, dear? And have you no share in the glory that
is ours to-night? We think we suffer, you and I; but as God sees
us, Helen, this hour of agony is worth a million years of humdrum
happiness. Why, our souls are looking at each other, and seeing each
other plainly, too, right through the flesh. And each is a little ugly,
dear. But even that can't stop them loving and knowing they are mates.
Why----"

"Frank, hush! You frighten me!"

"Is it not true?"

"True! Too cruelly true!"

"Mine is a shrunk, misshapen thing, I know it inch by inch; yet it has
some merit, for it loves--and yours----"

She caught her breath. "Frank--Frank have mercy!" she entreated.

"It is lovely, Helen, but there is a red stain on its breast--I know
why, and so well--don't you? The poor wan thing is aching to be kissed."

"Oh, my God!" she wailed; and I thought that she might swoon. But Helen
has a will superior to her sex's weaknesses, and when I dared to look
at her again I found her quite composed.

"You must never think meanly of me," she said in her soft, slow way,
"not even about to-night; for I am a free agent yet."

"You need not have explained."

"Need I not? But I wish to. He has really been very generous. My father
insisted upon announcing our engagement immediately--he----"

"I know."

"Yes, but afterwards HE--he set me free of it, privately, you
understand--and if before three months--I----"

"Helen, you torture me. The devil does not buy souls nowadays. He has
no need to. What else have I to sell?"

"I shall write to him to-morrow," she whispered.

"No, to-night!" I cried. "To-night! To-night! To-morrow I shall be a
scoundrel. I can feel it in my bones."

"Very well, and you shall post the letter for me if you will?"

"God bless you, dear. At once!"

"Wait, then!"

I waited forty thousand years; then an old woman with a young face came
up the path and put a letter in my hands. "I have a fancy," she said,
"I should wish you to see me in my winding sheet. Have you the courage,
Frank?"

"Yes, and you shall have the cigarette holder that I promised you. But
write me the invitation to your wedding--not a card. Three lines will
do."

"Why write?"

"You will think of me and hate your fate the more."

She nodded. "You had better marry, Frank; that would hurt me, too."

"It is all we have to live for--Helen, now, the happiness of hurting
one another. Yes, I shall be sure to marry, soon! I have a dear little
house ready for her in St. John's wood. The living room has your
favorite color scheme, the furniture and walls are white, the frieze
and drapes and carpet, all--vivid scarlet."

She swayed backwards and forwards, her lips parted, her eyes aflame;
her face, in contrast to her eyes, supremely pale, "Be--happy----" she
gasped, "I--oh--how--cruel--you are!"

"The brute in me is uppermost. Let's say Good-bye!"

"Don't--take her--there! Oh! Frank----" She cried, "I could not bear
it!" But then, with startling suddenness, she smiled and said: "I jest,
of course. I'm sure you never thought of a fish slice, Frank. That
shall be my wedding gift to her and you."

"A thousand thanks. Good-bye!"

She held out both her hands, then drew them back again. "Good-bye!" she
said, and laughed.

But I could not laugh, even when I dropped her letter in the post-box.
Somehow my sense of humor seemed to have deserted me.




CHAPTER XVI.

TWO days after I got back to town it was announced in all the papers
that a marriage had been arranged between Helen, only daughter of
Lord Innismay, and his Grace the Duke of Sevenhills. Reggie Horne was
fearfully down in the mouth that morning, but business was so brisk
that he hadn't time to give way to his despair, and I filled every
interval with chaff. Reggie promised to make a first-rate salesman.
His whole soul was in the work, and he found something fresh to say
to every customer. Nevertheless, he spent that night in Vine Street
and he turned up on the following day with a wild story, and a raging
headache, just before noon. He was so manifestly ashamed of himself,
however, and so humbly apologetic, that I hadn't the heart to be very
angry, and after some parley permitted him to resume his place behind
the counter. In the afternoon, in response to an urgent note, I went
to call on Mrs. Hammond. She was entertaining a bishop at the moment I
arrived, but she soon got rid of the good man, and I heard her whisper
to the footman that she had gone out. "Hullo!" I ruminated, "I am in
for a wigging on some account!"

My suspicions were immediately strengthened by her insisting upon
making me comfortable with cushions on a lounge, and pitying my poor
arm so profusely that in very sympathy it began to hurt. They became
certainties when she lighted and gave me one of my own cigarettes. So I
nerved myself for the encounter.

"Hammond has gone to Northampton for the day," she began. "He has been
designing an explorer's boot."

"You felt lonely, I suppose, for want of somebody to quarrel with, and
sent for me?"

"Not exactly. But I have a crow to pick with you all the same. What did
you want that twenty thousand pounds for, Frank?"

"My dear Gloria!"

"It's not a bit of use your attempting to deny it. Hammond----"

"Hammond is a faithless busybody. I spoke to him in confidence," I
interrupted.

"No man should keep any confidence from his wife."

"That your idea of matrimonial ethics? Hammond----"

"Was quite right to tell me. I'd have hated him if he hadn't. There,
now!"

"That settles it. Hammond is a white-robed angel."

"Don't you dare sneer at him!"

"Male, of course; I'm no believer in your sexless angel. But I'd like a
chance to break the beggar's saintly neck."

"I cannot see why you should be so sore at my knowing. I've been a real
mother to you for an age."

"The great disparity in our years----"

"How dare you! I was only two and thirty last April."

"So old as that, Gloria? I was about to say that I have so far
cherished for you the feelings of a father. And I had been hoping that
you regarded me with a proper daughterly respect."

"You smooth-faced flatterer."

"Another illusion destroyed. I don't believe you've ever forgiven me
for not proposing to you that time you and Hammond quarrelled before
you married him."

"I believe I should have accepted you," she answered with a smile. "I
was awfully fond of you--always."

"Not you, Gloria. You'd have promised to be a sister to me."

"Why didn't you give me the chance--really, truly?"

"Well, Hammond and I were pals."

"You liked him?"

"Yes."

"And you loved----"

"Gloria!"

"No, not Gloria, you hypocrite, but--Helen Fortescue."

I felt myself turn cold, and not all the strength I owned could keep
my hand from shaking as I put it to my mouth. And then the cigarette
needs must fall. Gloria picked it up and gave it back to me. "You poor,
dear boy," she whispered, her eyes abrim with tears. "I've known it all
along."

"Ah!" I said. "Ah!" and "Ah!"

"I loathe her!" said Gloria, with savage energy. "She is a beast!--a
beast! She deserves--Ah! if I had her here."

"You don't know what you say," I groaned. "To sell herself for rank
and money! Loving you all the time! I know that, too. Bah! The
contemptible--mean----"

"Gloria, I forbid you!"

"And you working for her--sinking your pride; going into
business--getting a little home for----"

"Gloria--as God hears me--she is blameless."

"Blameless! Frank, is it possible you can defend her? Are you fool
enough to care still?"

"She is the whitest, purest, noblest soul that breathes. It is my
highest pride and privilege to worship her!"

"Ah!" sighed Gloria, with a complete and sudden change of look and
tone. "I suspected before--now everything is plain to me."

"What is plain to you?"

"The mystery of a girl I always thought the real thing seeming to be a
snake. And you wanting twenty thousand pounds."

I got afoot, simply terrified, and stumbled, towards the door; but
Mrs. Hammond was the quicker. "Why didn't you come to me?" she cried,
setting her back against the lock and facing me, her cheeks aflame.
"Oh, I'll never forgive Hammond for this. It was wrong of him--cruel.
And he knows how I care for you both--of course, though," she added
quickly, remembering her loyalty, "he did not dream of you wanting it
for her! It was really your fault, Frank."

"You are mad, Gloria!" I muttered, "quite, quite mad! You have let your
fancy carry you to the moon."

"It is her father," she replied, unheeding me. "Everyone knows that
young Haldom is attaining his majority immediately. And everyone knows
what a reckless gambler Innismay has always been."

"Gloria, Helen Fortescue was once your friend!"

"We haven't quarrelled, Frank. Oh, you pair of fools--for there are two
of you! Have I a name for meanness? And my income is more than double
forty thousand pounds a year."

"I must really get back to work," I answered coldly. "Kindly let me
pass, Mrs. Hammond!"

"And just because I am a woman. But you wait, my lad. I'm not done with
either of you yet. She shall never marry Sevenhills."

"I have the honor to wish you good afternoon."

"An English, a thoroughly and aristocratically English, condemnation of
American indelicacy. But my troubles! Americans have hearts of flesh
and blood, thank God! Well go! One day you'll be sorry, though, for
treating me like this, Sir Francis Coates."

I bowed and left her--being too angry to trust myself to speak again.
But when a fortnight later she entered my shop one afternoon my heart
went out to welcome her. "You run away, Reggie Horne," she commanded,
"I want to talk to your boss."

"My senior partner, madam," objected Reggie, "not in any sense my boss."

"Eclipse yourself, anyhow!" she answered, through her nose. Gloria can
be hatefully rude and slangy when she chooses. Reggie having retired,
she sat upon the edge of a chair, put her elbows on the counter,
and stared at me, chin in hand. "She's worse than you," she said
lugubriously. "She's called me a busybody, and declared that a million
couldn't make her break her word."

"What did you expect?" I asked. "I wanted her to give him back his
money and claim her freedom."

"She would rather die."

"She was positively insulting."

"You must make allowances."

"I'm liking her all I can manage. She's one in a world."

"And you are another, Gloria," I muttered, huskily to be honest. "But
put it out of your thoughts, dear. I have. The thing is impossible.
Kismet!"

"Oh! Why didn't you come to me? Your wicked, wicked pride! I haven't
spoken to Hammond for fifteen days. I'll have to soon or he'll starve
to death. He eats nothing."

"How silly of you, Gloria. It wasn't Hammond's fault."

"If he had told me at once----"

"It would have altered nothing. I could not have used your money."

"You'd have thought it was Hammond's."

"Do you see this cigarette?" I asked. "You make me feel as small, even
smaller. Let us forget!"

"Can you--her?"

"I intend with all my strength to try."

"She is frightfully thin--and that pale! Oh, Frank, it's horrible,
horrible. It's the dark ages. I can't, I can't let it be. There must be
some way out."

"There is none. By the way, I went to Haldom's majority dinner last
night. That young man needs advice. He is Hammond's second cousin or
something, isn't he? You ought to take him in hand."

"Extravagant?"

"A born gambler. He won a big pot last night. Better if he had lost.
The Churlingham set have him in their clutches, too."

"I'll see about it. He is a real nice boy."

"Yes, he is worth saving, I think, or I shouldn't have bothered to tell
you."

She arose, and gave me her glove to button. "Business brisk?"

"Excellent, thanks."

"Shall I see you at the Tapperell's to-night?"

"I'm not going out where women are at all just now."

"How do you spend your evenings, then?"

"I walk. Shopmen need a lot of exercise, you know."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

She sighed and smiled in one. "Ah!" she muttered. "If it wasn't for
Hammond I would try to comfort you myself."

"If it wasn't for Hammond," I answered laughing, "I would have no
occasion to be comforted."

"You were--just a wee little bittie--fond of me once--weren't you,
Frank?"

"Ah, if you knew how much!"

"And you still think me nice--and--and--pretty?"

"Lovely, Gloria. Truly."

"I feel better now. It is terrible to be a failure, Frank. You really
owed me something, for it was mostly for your sake."

"Don't misuse Hammond any further, Gloria. Make it up with him!"

"Oh! How stupid of you! You have broken it, and it was such a nice
pretending, too. You might have been jealous of him, just for once!"'

"Can't you see that's my way of pretending not to be. It's
you who are stupid. What do you think I care for him--the
hateful--successful--happy horror!"

"Ah! That's fine. I'm almost reconciled. You don't want to elope with
me, perhaps?"

"This very minute!"

"Maybe--now I won't cry myself to sleep to-night."

"Gloria!" I cried.

"If I was allowed to choose a brother, it would be you," she answered
softly. "And though I'm dry-eyed now, I'm crying under my skin. I'd
rather have lost half my fortune, Frank."

Reggie vigorously assured me a minute or two later that I was a clumsy,
absent-minded bear. For I dropped a box of cigars on his toes, and I
could not force myself to talk to him.




CHAPTER XVII.

The fates reserved the last and most ironical trick they had resolved
to play upon me until it wanted only a fortnight to Helen Fortescue's
wedding. Then, behold entering my shop one morning, arm in arm, my
cousin Nicholas Batinoff and the American magnate Stelfox-Steel. They
wished to see me privately, it seemed, so I ushered them into my little
office, winked at Reggie Horne, and closed the door. My cousin was in a
radiant good humor, but the magnate looked rather glum.

"According to promise, Frank," said Nicholas. "You have guessed, of
course, that I am here in order to redeem the bonds----"

"And," broke in the magnate, "I am sure that Sir Francis Coates will
tell you, as I already have done, that he has ceased to retain the
slightest interest in that business."

"That is so," I responded curtly.

"But," said Nicholas, "were it not for Frank Coates I should long ago
have let the matter drop. And you, in that case, might have whistled
for your money, maybe for years to come, my dear Mr. Steel."

"And maybe I shall yet. You forget that your proposal is to redeem my
bonds with other bonds."

"And for your trash to give you gilt-edged securities."

"Russia's latest reverse----"

"Will be her last, please God, monsieur. But if not, and if twenty even
greater disasters still await her, what then? Russia will be Russia
still, and the most puissant Power on earth?"

"If she made peace immediately."

"Russia will not rest, monsieur, until she has fulfilled her mission,
which is to uphold the cause of the white races and Christianity at
whatever cost."

Mr. Stelfox-Steel shrugged his shoulders. "Her internal troubles,"
he began, but Nicholas sharply interrupted him. "The war has already
blessed us in this: It has held up to Russia's face a faithfully
reflecting and uncompromising mirror. She has seen her plague spots,
and knows at last the cause of such eruptions. She has already begun
to apply a drastic remedy. Pardon me if I appear didactic, Mr. Steel,
but you judge my country from what you have read in garbled newspaper
reports."

"Do you deny that Russia is on the eve of a revolution?"

"No. There may be spasmodic outbreaks here and there; murders and
assassinations almost numberless, perhaps--but reform will come from
the head, not from the feet. It is ordained."

Again Stelfox-Steel shrugged his shoulders, but, with an effort at
politeness, he commented curtly, "Well--I wish you luck!"

"And now," said Nicholas, "to business."

"Am I to understand that you decline to settle with me still, then, in
spite of Sir Francis Coates's assurance, except in his presence?"

"Mon cher monsieur, you owe to Sir Francis Coates the fact that you are
offered a settlement, at all. I have an absolute discretion to treat
with Chile, direct myself, and there are those who will not thank me
for making your private misfortune an affair concerning Russia's honor;
those, in fact, who will say that Russia's need of ships is not so
great as to warrant paying for three cruisers the price of five."

The magnate frowned and bit his lip. "It seems that I am at your mercy,
then, Sir Francis," he muttered, giving, me a positively evil look. "I
can only hope that you will not prove too rapacious."

Up till that moment I had not intended to take the least advantage
of the man's dilemma, but his manifest malignity provoked me past
endurance, and I resolved on the instant to make him pay dearly for the
insult.

"Since, after all, it is owing to me that you are now put in a position
to recover your money," I answered coldly, "I consider it my due to
demand that the original terms of our agreement should be revived."

To my surprise the magnate looked intensely relieved. "Well, well," he
said quickly, "I don't grumble--at that. Ten per cent. It was a fair
thing. In bonds, of course."

"No, sir, in cash."

He raised his eyebrows. "Impossible. M. Batinoff requires me to wait
three years for my money."

"With interest at 4½ per cent. guaranteed in the meanwhile," cut in
Nicholas, "secured by bonds which have a certain market value."

"But which will cost me probably five or six per cent, to convert, even
at the end of the term," snapped the millionaire. "No, no, you must be
reasonable, Sir Francis. I may seem fair game to you, and it's not to
be denied you have me on the hip. But I don't propose to fling good
money after bad in that wholesale fashion."

Nicholas gave me a curious glance, and then took out his watch. "My
train to Paris starts at twelve-fifteen," he observed; "It is now five
minutes to eleven, and if you come to terms we must visit the Legation
in the meanwhile, monsieur."

Stelfox-Steel mopped his forehead with a huge silk handkerchief. He
looked uncomfortable and hot and harassed. "What about a compromise?"
he asked through his teeth. "I'm willing to give you a hundred thousand
cash down!"

"And where do I come in?" cried Nicholas, with a gay laugh. "Mon cher
monsieur, you allow Sir Francis no scope to display his gratitude to
me."

"I thought so," growled the magnate. "I thought so." And he turned on
me like a wounded tiger. "How much?" he snarled.

"Exactly what I am entitled to, Mr. Steel, on a discount basis at
current rates of exchange, less ten per-cent, which I am prepared to
concede you as an insurance fee to cover fluctuations."

"Which means in round numbers one hundred and seventy-five thousand
pounds."

"And you'll make at least that sum in cash on the battleships, or I am
vastly mistaken," commented Nicholas. "Upon my soul, monsieur, you have
cause to congratulate yourself upon this young man's moderation!"

The magnate got afoot, and for the first time during the interview he
permitted a smile to cross his rugged face. "Very well. You'll have a
cheque this afternoon, Sir Francis!" he said graciously. "And now, M.
Batinoff, I am at your service."

Nicholas nodded and rose. "Can you trust him, Frank?" he asked rapidly
in Russian.

"I think so," I replied. "He boasts that his word is his bond."

"Well, even if he breaks it, we have the means to make him keep it
finally."

"Shall I not see you again, Nick?"

"No, lad."

"Then where shall I send you your share, and what share shall I send
you?"

"Peste! Frank, you insult me."

"But you said just now----"

"I was fighting a business man with his own weapons for your sake."

"Nick--Nick--how can I ever repay you?"

He wrung my hand. "By marrying the girl you told me about in St.
Petersburg, my boy. And, yes--by defending your mother's country
against evil report when opportunity occurs. We are not all rascals in
Russia, Frank. Well, good-bye, dear lad, and God bless you!"

Ten minutes later Reggie Horne came into the room and shook me roughly
by the shoulder. "What ails you, Frank?" he cried. "You look like
death--are you ill?"

"Not ill, Reg," I answered hoarsely. "But rich--too late," and I broke
away from him and hurried from the shop. A letter was awaiting me on
my return, from Stelfox-Steel--and he had honorably kept his pledge.
I handed the cheque to Reggie and asked him to bank it for me; then I
made him a present of the shop and walked out to St. John's Wood.




CHAPTER XVIII.

It rained heavily, and I was drenched long before I reached the little
house I called my home. But I doubt if I would have bothered to
change my clothes had it not been for my old Hindoo factotum, whose
officiousness saved me probably from a sharp attack of rheumatism. And
he forced me, too, to eat a wonderful curry and to drink a hot spiced
mess of wine and spirit, inimitably mixed. Afterwards I wandered like
a ghost from room to room and sank at last into an arm-chair before
the latest of her portraits in my study. She was pictured standing in
a Doric portal, smiling out into the sunlight. And my greatest sorrow
was that I had never even kissed her hands. She declares that I was
sleeping when she came, but that could not have been, for I remember
quite distinctly that I heard the street door open and voices in the
hall. Only I was too listless to care, too steeped in melancholy to
remember that at least one other creature lived as miserable as myself.
Her cold hand on my brow recalled me to that knowledge. She had been to
a ball, and was robed from head to foot in shimmering white satin. I
glanced up at the clock upon the mantel, and saw that it was long past
midnight. She let her cloak fall, and the lamplight glittered on her
marble shoulders. Taukis Singh's round black eyes stared in wonder at
her, but at a sign from me he vanished, and slowly I arose.

"It is good to see your arm is well again," she said.

I pointed to the chair, and stooped to heap coals on the almost dying
fire.

"Everything you do is right, dear," I muttered, as I faced her
presently. "But was this altogether wise?"

She crouched on her knees before the grate and spread out her hands
to the flames. The lamplight turned her hair to living gold, but her
cheeks were scarlet of their own volition.

"What has a woman to do with wisdom?" she asked softly. "Besides, my
whole being is in revolt. He kissed me to-night, and shame has made me
shameless. Do you think the sea is big enough to wash me white again.
His kiss has branded me."

"Helen," I said unsteadily, "I am only a man, remember, and a rich one
now."

"I heard," she answered, "Reggie told me. I wished to scream and had to
smile. Is not God unkind?"

"I don't know, dear."

"Well, bitterly satirical?"

"Or minded to try us thoroughly."

"Frank, I shudder when he touches me. I never dreamed it would be half
so hard."

"The world is wide, Helen."

"He has kissed me."

"You are morbid, dear."

"You would take me then--soiled, and a cheat--a swindler?"

"Yes."

She stood up. "Frank, how white you are!" she cried. "Are you cold? You
are shivering!"

"No."

"Which do you want most, the woman or the ideal?"

"You!"

"Which? Answer me!"

"The woman!" I groaned. "Have mercy on me, Helen!"

Her smile was terrible. "My soul is outside waiting for me in the cab,"
she said, in a hoarse, half-strangled whisper--"and yours has gone
to keep it company. Do you realise just what this room contains, my
friend?"

"Two fatuous unfortunates."

"That or--but, oh, I must not, shall not, say it! Frank Coates, you
must leave London."

"Very well."

"How irritating your complaisance is and your composure! Why don't you
refuse? Argue? Protest? When will you go?"

"To-morrow!"

"If you do, I shall not be responsible for--oh, Frank, am I mad or
what?"

She gazed at me unseeingly, and I read a horror in her eyes, a fear
and horror of herself. I turned and kicked the coals and laughed. I
heard the frou-frou of her skirts as she paced the room, a passionate,
pulsating thing--fighting her own battle--the battle which I longed to
see her lose and hoped to see her win.

"Why don't you help me?" she wailed at last.

I shook my head. "No one can help you, Helen, least of all I."

"Look at me!"

I stared into the fire, my back to her, and laughed again.

"You love!" she cried. "You are a stick--a stone!"

Heavens, how I laughed. And at length Helen laughed, too. Then we
looked at one another and grew very still.

"This must be the last, the very last time," she whispered.

"Yes," said I. "For years."

"For ever!"

Her lips quivered pitifully. "I was wrong to come, but you will
forgive."

"The moment that I can."

"Till after death, then."

"Till after death," I repeated drearily, and watched her go. Some
minutes later I became conscious of Taukis standing in the doorway
watching me.

"What is it, Taukis?" I asked quietly.

"Father of the poor, while you spoke with the mem sahib your servant
looked out upon the street and saw a sahib speaking to the driver of
the mem sahib's carriage."

"Well?"

"Then the sahib came and knocked softly on the door, which your servant
opened."

"Well?"

Taukis crossed the room and placed a sovereign, with a gesture almost
princely, on the mantelpiece. "Father of the Poor, the sahib gave your
servant that."

"Not for nothing, Taukis."

"Father of the Poor, the sahib spoke your name and smiled at me, and
then I closed the door upon his face."

"Had he black eyes, Taukis, and a grey moustache?"

Taukis salaamed profoundly. "All things are known to the Father of the
Poor," he said.

Three minutes later I had started on my bicycle, and was racing at
breakneck speed towards the town house of his Grace the Duke of
Sevenhills.




CHAPTER XIX.

I HAD been sitting on his doorstep just long enough to become
refreshed, when he arrived. He was tall and slim, and fifty-five, with
the mildest of black eyes and the courtliest manner in the world. And
he possessed, as well, a nose and mouth of such ascetic severity that
already two generations of perspicacious British matrons had declined
to believe him a cold-blooded libertine and otherwise unfit to be
trusted unchaperoned in the dovecotes of their darling daughters.

"What! Coates," he exclaimed, "an unexpected pleasure this; but all the
more delightful, I assure you, because unlooked for. You will come in,
of course. Nay, I'll take no refusal. Permit me! Ah, the wrong key; one
moment."

The door opened to disclose a softly-lighted hall, and the scowling
face of a stuffed tiger, crouched to spring. The duke rang a bell, and,
almost on the instant, a smart young footman appeared, to whom he gave
a whispered order. Then he turned to me. "Pray give me, my dear Coates,
your opinion of that tiger," he suggested blandly. "It has just come
home from the the taxidermist's. I shot the brute last year in the
Punjaub. Is there too much color in the mouth, think you?"

I heard the ripple of a woman's laugh, and understood.

"Wonderfully natural," I replied. "I like it."

He took my arm, and pointed to a picture.

"A new Watteau. I picked it up--where would you guess--in Monte Carlo."

I heard a sudden swish of silken skirts, and said, "A Reubens, is it
not?"

He tapped his forehead, smiling strangely. "Upon my soul, a Reubens; my
memory for names--but there--it's over late for cant of art, to-night.
Let us try the fire and see if Lubeck has got anything for us to eat."

He pushed me almost caressingly into a cosy little library, where we
found an exquisitely set out supper laid for two. "Sit down, my dear
Coates. And let us eat, drink, and be merry. Who knows! To-morrow we
may die."

"Many thanks, but I must beg you to excuse me, duke."

"You have a liver, perhaps? Confoundedly unpleasant companions, livers.
But you'll join me in a glass of wine--or would you prefer whisky?"

"Neither, thanks."

"A cigar then."

"I'll smoke a cigarette if I may. Don't bother, duke, I have my own
case here."

"And better cigarettes than mine, doubtless--which reminds me that I
have been intending for quite a while past to ask you to supply my
needs in that direction."

"Very good of you, duke. I have gone out of business myself; but your
kinsman, young Reginald Horne, has taken over my establishment, and I
am sure he will be delighted to obtain your custom."

"Then he shall have it. Bright boy, Reginald. Always has a cheerful
quip ready, and a smile. Remove those covers, Lubeck. I shall ring when
I require you."

The footman departed, and the duke seated himself before the board.

"You won't mind my feeding; hungry as a hunter," he murmured, taking up
his spoon.

"I'm afraid I have disturbed you, duke; but I shall make amends by not
detaining you one----"

"Detaining me!" he interrupted. "Time was made for cooks and men of
business my dear Coates; and you have just informed me that your days
of trade are dead and done with," whereupon with an affectation of
critical appreciation, he first tasted, and then swallowed a mouthful
of turtle soup. "Of a consistency quite admirable," he murmured, half
under his breath.

"I called," I began, "to return you a sovereign which your generosity
misled you into giving my valet. I've made it a rule never to allow my
servants to accept tips."

"Such a trifle," protested his grace, with imperturbable sang froid.
"Really, Coates, you carry your prejudices to extremes. Not that I have
any cause to grumble, though, since your over-fineness has in this
instance given me the unexpected pleasure of your company."

Then we bowed to one another, and his grace ate another mouthful of
soup.

"I was more than sorry not to have seen you when you called. My stupid
man seems to have denied you admittance," I observed suggestively.

His mild eyes smiled at me across his uplifted spoon. "Pray don't
mention it. The hour was unconscionable, simply unconscionable, for the
suburbs." His voice was like the prolonged cooing of a dove.

"I have been wondering how you discovered my diggings," I proceeded
steadily.

He drew his serviette across his mouth, and pushed aside his soup
plate. "Simplest thing in the world," he replied, and began to help
himself to the breast of a woodcock. "Happened to be passing, heard a
voice asking if Sir Francis Coates was in. Suddenly reflected that I
hadn't seen you for an age, stopped, returned, and rang the bell. Voila
tout."

"And what conclusion did you arrive at, duke?"

"To go home!"

"Nothing else?"

He raised his eyebrows. "My dear boy, you disappoint me," he said
reproachfully. "Are you incapable of taking a hint? My maxim in life,
the one at least to which I am most faithful in observance, is no post
mortems. Let the dead past bury its dead. Oblige me and be sociable.
This woodcock is excellent; done to a turn. That brandy is 1815. Pray
sit down and join me."

"I demand your conclusions," I replied between my teeth; for by that
time I was in a white, silent heat of fury.

The duke shrugged his shoulders and took a sip at his champagne. "Well,
if you must, you must," he compassionately observed. "All the same,
better not. Be advised! pray be advised."

"No."

"This woodcock----"

"----your woodcock!"

"Ah! but you have no appetite, that is evident!"

"Duke, this is your house!"

"My dear Coates!" he cried in apparent deep concern, and immediately
arose to his feet. "I beg ten thousand pardons! I quite forgot that you
are still, comparatively speaking, a young man." Then the wonderful old
scamp threw a look of affected anguish at the table. "Such a woodcock;
sacrilege!" he muttered; and turned his back upon it. "And now," said
he, "let us sit down at all events. No--well, then, stand!"

"Your conclusions, duke?"

"What a lawyer the Bar has lost in you! Such concentration! Well,
my dear Coates, since we are in my house I am constrained to inform
you that my conviction is you are a very lucky fellow; as altogether
fortunate, in fact, as the lady is altogether charming."

"You are speaking of the woman who is to be your wife," I cried,
absolutely horrified at his frightful nonchalance.

"Pardon me," he rejoined, "of the lady who was to have been my wife."

"Then you mean----"

"First thing to-morrow morning. May I express, for her sake, the hope
that she will soon find a better husband. I suppose I need hardly
assure you that so far as I am concerned no breath of scandal shall
ever tarnish her good name."

I had only to be silent, bow, and go and win my happiness. And the
temptation was rendered all the keener by the fact that in any question
of respect, the duke's opinion weighed with me not half the value of
a rush; and I would as lief have had him consider the woman I loved a
vestal virgin as a courtesan. But I have always been a coward of my
conscience.

"You are making a regrettable mistake, duke," I said coldly; bitterly
even, for I hated him for his cynical readiness to make it. "I know
that you are aware of the attachment which exists between Miss
Fortescue and myself; but you are a poor judge of character, for all
your experience of women, if you doubt her purity. She called at my
house to-night to bid me an eternal farewell."

"Indeed! Women are so impulsive, Coates."

"Fate, you see, played us a fantastic trick to-day, and when she heard
of it, she forgot her prudence in despair--but never for a single
second, duke, her honor pledged to you."

The duke eyed me with an expression of polite interrogation.

"This trick?" he asked, and lighted a cigarette.

"A month ago her father needed twenty thousand pounds. I hadn't two.
To-day I paid into my bank a draft for a hundred and seventy-five
thousand."

"I observed just now that you are a very lucky young man."

"You doubt me?"

"On the contrary, I believe every syllable you have uttered, and am
immeasurably obliged to you."

"If you persist in terminating your engagement with Miss Fortescue
after what has passed between us, I shall hope that you will accept
a cheque from me for the full amount that you have expended on her
account."

"I have no longer any intention of terminating our engagement. Miss
Fortescue is the woman I have been looking for these five and twenty
years."

"Ah!"

"Yes," he cooed reflectively, "a quarter-century ago I resolved never
to marry until I could find a woman incapable under any circumstances
of--er--I need not be more explicit, I think. And I am still a
bachelor. But I shall be a Benedict ere long, and I owe in a large
measure my good fortune to your candor. If ever I can be of service to
you, Coates, in any way, command me!"

"Thank you," I responded freezingly. "I think I need not detain you any
longer, duke; good night."

"One moment, unless you are in a hurry. The subject fascinates me, and
your conversation."

"I must beg you to excuse me."

He strode over to the door and grasped the handle. "Oh, certainly, but
if you will, I can tell you something I dare swear now you have no idea
of."

"I have no wish to hear it. Permit me to go."

"It concerns her--and you."

"Please, duke."

"Of course, if you prefer or fear----"

"Speak then,--you!" I cried in a sudden burst; and immediately
apologised.

But the duke blandly deprecated the least necessity for healing words.
"Passion is the privilege of youth," he said suavely, "and provocation
of old age; not that I am too old to dandle a grandson on my knee
before I go. But I recognise your point of view, and reverently defer
to it, for my blood is of a patient thickness now, and----"

"You desired to tell me----" I interrupted hoarsely.

"That Miss Fortescue, proud as she is, has twice implored me to set her
free."

"And you refused?"

"Out of an unselfish regard for the future of my race. Torres--my
present heir-at-law--is an unmitigated blackguard, and I may tell you
in confidence that I more than suspect him of having twice tried to
poison me."

"Would that he had succeeded!" I grated out.

The duke nodded. "I quite appreciate your point of view. That is why I
am anxious for you to consider mine, because--well--frankly, Coates,
slender as our acquaintance is, I respect you."

"I cannot return the compliment."

"Nor can you ruffle my patience," he retorted smiling. "But you can
greatly please me, on the other hand, if you will consent for one
moment to put yourself mentally in my place."

"Well."

"Here am I, at five and fifty, a lonely bachelor----"

"Lonely!" I sneered, and pointed to the table.

He shrugged his shoulders. "The word has a pathetic sound," he
admitted. "I retract it. A bachelor then, whose strongest passion is an
iron-bound ambition to secure an honorable succession for his house. I
am the last Sevenhills of the direct line, and my first ducal ancestor
fought at Poietiers. I want a son to succeed me. But I would rather
hand the title and my fortune over to Dick Torres, scapegrace that he
is, than give my son a mother he could ever be in any wise ashamed of.
We get our best and our worst parts from our mothers, Coates. Mine
consigned me to the mercy of her dearest friend, a noble countess, and,
par parenthese, a courtesan, when I was scarcely eighteen, in order to
prevent my marriage with the daughter of a country dean. I have much
to thank her for, but I do not want the mother of my son to have such
broad ideas. Now, Miss Fortescue has a narrow-minded veneration of
respectability that borders close on bigotry. It is said of me that
I am a cynic and a libertine; and perhaps I am. But there is no one
like your rakehell can more thoroughly appreciate what the world calls
virtue, once discovered. In that respect, the lady I have named is a
woman in a million. That is all I have to say."

We looked each other in the eyes for a steady thirty seconds, then on a
common impulse bowed.

"I should like to hear your opinion," he remarked.

"You will marry, within a fortnight, the woman I love, and who loves
me," I replied, "but as truly as I live now, on that day and hereafter
I would rather be Frank Coates than his grace the Duke of Sevenhills."

"Your mother must have been a wonderfully good woman, Coates," he
sighed.

"Even your approval cannot soil her memory."

He gave me a whimsical smile and held out his hand. "It is the last
satisfaction I can give you, the opportunity to refuse my hand."

I bit my lip, then laughed, and took the proffered member.

"Your keen sense of the comic," he said gravely, "is the thing in you
that I have always most admired. The world's a stage; Coates, and the
players----"

"Are mostly platitudinists," I interrupted gaily. "Good-bye, duke."

And the way he winced convinced me that my random shaft had penetrated
the one weak spot in his grace's armor--his intellectual vanity.

And he suffered me to pass without another word.




CHAPTER XX.

I awoke some time before noon next day, to find Reggie Horne seated in
my best arm-chair, regarding me through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

"How you sleep!" he gloomily observed,

"Not a care in the world!"

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"Biz! I can't stand the shop without you, Frank. Aronsen wants to buy
it. He offers two thousand."

"Sell it then. It's your affair, not mine."

"Will that price suit you?"

"If it suits you. I think you are a young ass, though, Reggie."

"I am," he groaned. "But I can't help it. I saw her last night. I'm
going to clear out."

"Oh, and where will you go?"

"India I think, Thibet, or somewhere, anywhere for a bit of excitement.
I've more than half a mind to try Manchuria and have a look at the war."

"Wait till after the wedding. I have promised to attend the wedding,
and I shall go with you."

"Straight wire, Frank? You're not pulling my leg?"

"No, you young vulgarian, I am not pulling your leg."

"It's a question, then, of killing time in the meanwhile. Luckily, it's
only a fortnight. Think I'll run across to Monte Carlo."

"You will come back penniless, and the trip will have to be
indefinitely postponed."

"For cold-blooded common-sense, give me you. Heard about Dick Torres?"

"No."

"He filed yesterday. The post obiters, ever since the duke's marriage
was announced, have been dogging him like a pack of bloodhounds."

"Poor devil."

"Sevenhills refused to part a cent, he says. He was at the Junior
Cosmopolitan, last night, vowing vengeance; frightfully squiffy. He
came with that ass, young Haldom, and there was rather a scene. The
committee are tearing their hair. Haldom will surely get his walking
ticket."

"How you gather news, Reggie! You should have been a journalist. What
became of Torres?"

"I got him away at last, and he's at my diggings now, sleeping it off."

"A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind. Eh, Reggie?"

"Laugh away. I pity the beggar; can't help it. He has been the heir so
long; and no one dreamed Sevenhills would ever marry. Torres says the
duke's doing it to spite him, and I shouldn't be surprised. The old
beast is capable of any meanness."

"The lady is not altogether unattractive," I objected mildly, "and
Sevenhills is only fifty-five, and not exactly decrepit yet!"

"Ah! You'd excuse a 'Jack the Ripper.'"

"Put yourself in the duke's place, my son, and consider how you would
act, having fallen in love with a beautiful young woman; being at the
same time desirous of settling down, turning respectable, and providing
for the succession. The family feeling is a strong one, Reggie; and no
one can deny that Sevenhills with all his failings cuts a much more
dignified figure as a duke, than could under any circumstances that
young scatterbrain, your friend Torres. Then why not, too, the present
duke's prospective offspring?"

"I'd rather have Dick Torres's little finger than the duke's whole
carcase," responded Reggie dourly. "Dick may be a wild chap and a bit
of a bad hat, but he has a heart. As for Sevenhills--Pheugh!"

"How does he manage without one? Physiologists say----"

"Rats! Do you know what he did once--at Searle's place in Essex?"

"No."

"He was riding one of Tommy Bray's mounts, and the horse baulked at a
wall while he was piloting a girl. She laughed. He bowed to her, turned
round and rode home; next day, after he'd had time to cool, mind you,
he bought the horse and shot him on the spot; as beautiful a creature
as ever breathed, too."

"Well, well----"

"But that isn't all. The girl who laughed at him was the daughter of
a gentleman farmer, one of Searle's tenants, and pretty as a picture.
Three months later she disappeared--and you can believe me or not as
you like, Frank, but I saw her one night--or her ghost--with Sevenhills
at a music-hall in Paris. Anyhow she died there, and her brother is
bringing up the child. It killed her father."

"That is a very ugly story, Reggie, and if you take my advice you'll
forget it. But I am going to get up now, so run away, like a good boy,
will you."

"Where are you dining to-night? Mrs. Hammond asked me to take you round
there afterwards. They, and a new American, a Miss Somers, and I are
going to the Garrick, and Hammond is dying to cry off, he has found a
flaw in his patent boot."

"I'll meet them at the theatre."

"Well, so long."

Gloria received me with a smile, and pointed to a chair between her own
and that occupied by one of the daintiest and prettiest little women it
has ever been my fortune to meet. I was late, and the play had already
commenced, but Miss Somers's attention did not appear to be engrossed
in it. She raised a pair of innocent blue eyes to mine and whispered:
"Sir Francis Coates, are you not?"

I bowed. "And you are Miss Somers?"

"You can talk to me if you like," she murmured, leaning back. "I have
seen this piece twice already in New York."

I softly rearranged my position in the shadows of the box, and, in the
act, encountered Reggie's glance fixed upon me with a hostile scowl.
That young man apparently considers that he has a right to monopolise
female loveliness wherever found. And he should have been thinking of
another woman, too, if only for the sake of constancy.

"My first visit to London," communicated Miss Somers under her breath.
"Mrs. Hammond is my aunt. She cabled my popper to let me come. I don't
know whatever for, do you? She won't say, but it was awfully jolly of
her. She's told me a lot about you, Sir Francis."

"How old are you?" I demanded, thinking very evilly of Gloria.

"Nineteen! But my! you are rude, aren't you, to ask a lady's age?"

"It is allowable when the lady is under thirty. You look much older."

"That's real nice of you. I've only had my hair up three months. Don't
you love dancing? Aunt is going to give me a ball, and invite all the
swells she knows. You'll come, of course. She thinks no end of you,
though she says you are a bit of a devil. You don't look it, though.
Shall I keep you a waltz?"

"Doris, dear," muttered Gloria, whose sense of hearing is acute. "Sir
Francis may wish to see the play."

"That means I am making myself conspicuous," explained Miss Somers.
"The lecture she has given me already on that subject! But it's no use.
I always do exactly what I want, except when I forget. Have you got a
motor car?"

"No."

"What a pity! I did so want to go for a blow to-morrow morning, and
auntie has only horses. You couldn't hire one, could you?"

"What time will you be ready?"

"Nine-thirty. You're a real dear. Let me drive it, won't you?"

"Oh! Certainly."

"Do you believe in love at first sight?"

"Sometimes!"

"There's a boy in the box opposite who has never taken his eyes off me.
I'm mad to meet him. Do look and see if you know him."

I glanced across the stage, and bowed to Helen Fortescue. The Duke of
Sevenhills sat beside her aunt, and Miss Somers's staring 'boy' was
Bertie Haldom.

"His name is Haldom," I whispered. "But don't encourage him, unless
you happen to be a millionaire, for he hasn't much money, and he is
fascinatingly extravagant."

"Is he a lord?"

"No."

"That settles it, then. He's a real rude boy, don't you think?"

"He is only twenty-one."

"Who is the beautiful girl you bowed to?"

"Miss Fortescue; the Duke of Sevenhills, to whom she is shortly to be
married, is the other man in the box."

"He looks like a duke, too. What a noble face! My land, she's lucky, if
you like."

"You are ambitious, I perceive."

"I'm able to be. They call my popper the railway king. But Lord knows
what will become of me, I'm always falling in love. There was the
sweetest man, an officer on the boat coming over. But those horrid ship
rules! We nearly passed away. He daren't speak to me, you see. You'll
think I'm one of those awful American girls, Sir Francis?"

"Aren't you just a little hard on your countrywomen, Miss Somers," I
asked quietly, looking into her eyes as I spoke.

She went scarlet, then lily white, and, turning away, she stared for
several minutes dumbly at the stage. I felt sorry for her, it is true,
nevertheless she needed such a lesson thoroughly.

As soon as the curtain fell I pleaded some excuse and left the theatre,
followed by a mock furious glance from Gloria. Promptly at the
appointed hour next morn, however, I called for Miss Somers in a motor
car in order to keep my promise, and as well to give her her revenge.
The latter took the form of a curt intimation that she was not at
home. Poor little girl! Fate had made use of her to put me in a motor
car, and her reward had been a snubbing. Yet if it had possessed her
with a grain of self restraint, she can scarcely be said to have been
disadvantaged. Very probably she watched me drive off from her window,
and salved her wounded vanity with the picture of my disappointment.
The fancy crossed my mind, and I did my best to look disconsolate.




CHAPTER XXI.

Motor cars are wonderful inventions. A more or less fantastic desire
to pay a surreptitious visit to the magnificent country seat of his
grace the Duke of Sevenhills possessed me, and, although it is situated
nearly 40 miles from London, I lunched at the picturesque little
village of Tafton, and before two o'clock I entered the castle grounds.
Ten minutes later I left my car in the midst of a clump of trees some
little distance from the road, at the foot of a thickly-timbered
eminence. This I climbed, and, as I expected, gained from the summit a
fine view of the grand Elizabethan pile which has been for centuries
the home of the House of Sevenhills.

"There her life will be spent!" I muttered as I gazed upon it, and,
casting myself down upon the roots of a gaunt and gnarled old oak, I
gave myself up a voluntary prey to all the most morbid and mordant
passions of the soul. I shall never hate or judge a murderer again.
Face to face with despair, for hours, long hours, I was a naked
savage, and knew the lust for blood. If Sevenhills had come upon me
there--thank God be did not!

The fires burned out at last, leaving me the wreck and cinders of a
man. And so great was my weakness that I could not spur my will to
rise, and so enthralling was the lassitude that settled on my mind
and limbs that I sank quite consciously at length into the sweet
insensibility of sleep.

"A hundred pounds down, cash on the spot, and a
thousand--afterwards----"

I rubbed my eyes, but the darkness would not lift. Then I saw the sky
of stars, and understood that it was night.

The voice again: "A thousand a year, for your whole life, man. Think of
it!"

"Yaas, boss," replied another voice, "but I might not live to enjoy it
over long."

"Nonsense!" said the first, his tones low, but full of urgency. "You
won't run a ha'porth of risk, not a ha'porth. The stuff absolutely
defies detection by analysis. You read that book."

"Yaas, but----"

"But what?"

"Well, bluntly, I'm not likin' the job. The man's treated me well
enough. And risk or no risk, I don't like it. Besides--how do I know
you wouldn't play me up, tell me to go to the devil and shake myself,
afterwards?"

"How could I, you holding my bond for the payment; don't be a fool,
Jim. As for your squeamishness at this late hour, it's too sickening
for anything. What does he pay you? A couple of pounds a week. Much
cause you have to be grateful. Why weren't you grateful last time?"

"There's another thing, I don't like handling the pesky stuff. How am I
to know it's what you say? All you're interested in is putting him to
bye-bye! It may be arsenic for all I know. Then where would I be?"

I rose softly on my elbow, my heart beating painfully the while, and
peering round the trunk of the oak, I made out the dim figures of two
men standing within six feet of where I lay. Their faces, however, were
quite indistinguishable, and so dark was the night that I could not
even tell if they were short or tall.

"What rubbish you talk!" retorted the first speaker angrily. "If you
were discovered, would you not denounce me? I'd rather cut my throat
and be done with it than run that risk. But if you have a doubt, the
least doubt, try some of the stuff upon a dog or a cat first, then
watch results, and if the symptoms don't tally with what the book says,
you can throw the lot into the fire, and cry the deal off, and I won't
reproach you. I can't say fairer than that, can I?"

"Sounds reasonable! But--er--touchin' the hundred--cash. Got it handy?"

"Here."

"Pass it over, then."

There was a momentary silence, then the first speaker, in tones of
suppressed elation, said: "And here is the ourali; be careful with it,
Jim. I had the devil's own job to procure it."

"Queer name it has, and that's a fact. Waal, boss, don't know we can
do any more good loafin' round here. You've got to get back to London,
and I've a thing or two to see to afore I turn in. If the stuff answers
its helm all right you won't have to wait long afore you hear about it.
He'll be comin' down to-morrow evenin' likely."

"Then I can depend upon you, Jim?"

"I guess you'll have to, boss. What else? Waal, s'long."

"Good night, Jim, and may good luck attend you! It will, I'm sure it
will!"

With that they parted, and set off in opposite directions down the
hill. I waited, listening breathlessly, until many minutes after their
footsteps had died away into the distance, thinking, thinking. Then at
last I got to my feet; but ere I had moved fifty yards from the oak
tree, I stopped short, arrested by the far-heard puffing of a motor
car. Struck by a thought I descended the slope as fast as I could run,
and made for the little clump of trees where I had left my own machine.
Within a trifling period I reached the lodge gates. They stood wide
open, just as when I had entered the park, but not a glimmer of light
showed in the lodge. Marvelling, I halted, struck a match, and lighted
the car lamps. Then I glanced at my watch, and was astounded to find
that it wanted less than five minutes to midnight. A moment later I was
speeding towards London at the rate of twenty miles an hour. From the
crest of the first rise I topped, I saw the light of another car some
two or three miles ahead of me, that swept with a spirit-like swiftness
in the direction I pursued. "That car," I muttered, "contains, I
honestly believe, a man whose face it is imperative that I should see."

Which said, I put the machine at full speed, and soon the wind began
to shrill past me with the fury of a hurricane. My star, however, was
not in the ascendant. For perhaps a quarter of an hour, a speed was
maintained that matched the fierce impatience of my mood. But then,
without warning, the violence of the gale diminished; it blew but a
capful of wind. Seconds later a stiff breeze, then, alas, a zephyr.
With a gasp of rage I stooped to see what ailed the machinery, and then
came the end. I must have interfered unwittingly with the steering
gear, for, almost on the same instant, the car swung round and collided
with a lamp-post in a village street. I have a vivid recollection of
sailing like a bird through space in the manner of a tumbler pigeon,
for some little way, then of falling with a stunning shock to earth.
Unhappily, I was no Antaeus, and where I fell I lay, until I was found
and picked up by a good Samaritan.




CHAPTER XXII.

I OPENED my eyes, gasped, and sat up. "Phew! Nitrate of Amyl!" I
panted. "Take the internal stuff away! Where am I?"

A bright-looking young man, with a kindly face and very bald head,
answered the question. "You are in my house. I am Dr. Marsh, of
Stayneton. I found you lying on the road not far from here, when
returning from a sick call early this morning. You have had a nasty
fall, and it was difficult to bring you to your senses. You had better
lie down again. But first drink this."

I drained the glass he offered me, then followed his advice. The
room was evidently a dispensary, being fitted up with phial-covered
shelves. The furniture, however, was cheap and shoddy. The doctor was
plainly not a rich man. I glanced dazedly about me, then blinked at the
sunlight streaming through an open window.

"Your car has been badly damaged, I'm afraid," said the doctor. "Do you
recollect how the accident occurred?"

"I remember that I ran into a lamp-post, but how I did it I do not
know. What time is it, doctor?"

"Almost noon. Sir Francis."

"You know me?" I demanded in astonishment.

"I took the liberty of examining your pockets in order to try and
discover your identity, for I began to think that you had sustained
a severe concussion, in which case it might have been necessary to
communicate with your friends."

"Quite right, doctor. But I'm not badly hurt, am I? I feel rather weak,
of course, but----"

"No bones are broken, Sir Francis. You have a nasty little scalp
wound, though, and you are a good deal shaken and bruised. If you
will be advised by me, you will lie up for a few days. I could easily
accommodate you, if----"

"Thanks awfully," I interrupted. "But such a thing is quite out of the
question. I have some important business to attend to, almost at once.
Can you tell me how far Tafton Castle is from here?"

"About eleven miles."

"Humph! I must get there somehow, by this evening. Are there
conveyances for hire in Stayneton?"

"I much fear there are not. Nor do I use a trap myself. I ride upon my
rounds. Stayneton is such a very small place, you know."

"Could I hire a horse, then, do you think?"

"I doubt if you would be strong enough to ride so far, even if you
could."

"I must, I tell you, and you must help me. One reason of my weakness is
that I have fasted for more than four and twenty hours."

"Good heavens!" cried the doctor. "No wonder you are weak. I'll see to
this at once, if you will excuse me," and he left the room.

Half an hour later I discussed a bowl of beef tea, and it was wonderful
how much stronger the vile stuff made me feel. The doctor, however,
insisted upon my lying down again afterwards, and he promised, if I
would rest for an hour or two, to himself see about procuring me a
horse.

Strange to say, I almost immediately fell asleep, and when I again
awoke, I found beside the sofa a small table set with a comfortable
meal of roast fowl and a bottle of claret.

"I hated to arouse you," said the doctor, "but since your business is
urgent and Tafton Castle is so far away----"

"You are an angel," I cried delightedly. "And I must be better, for I
am as hungry as a hunter. Have I slept long?"

"It is just four o'clock."

I sat up and at once attacked the fowl. The doctor opened the wine and
filled two glasses.

"I have obtained a good, quiet cob for you," he observed. "It will be
here in a few minutes. Your good health, Sir. Francis."

"To you!" I replied--"and a thousand thanks."

"Will you be returning this way?"

"Probably not, doctor."

"What about your motor car, then? It is in my back yard."

"If you can give it room until I send for it I shall be tremendously
obliged."

"Certainly--but pray excuse me for a moment; I hear the bell."

As soon as he had gone, I took out my pocket book and extracted
therefrom two ten pound notes. These I slipped into an envelope which I
found on the doctor's desk, and returned somewhat unsteadily, truth to
tell, to the sofa.

Presently my kind host reappeared.

"A sick call?" I asked.

"No," he answered, with a rather wintry smile, "only the postman with a
bill. Stayneton is a very healthy place, Sir Francis. Quite too healthy
for two of the sawbone persuasion to make a living in, I fear."

"Have you been here long?"

"Six months."

"Funds running low?" He colored to the neck.

"My dear Sir Francis!"

"Forgive me," I interrupted quietly. "I am surprised at my own
impertinence. May I beg of you to do me a trifling favor?"

"With pleasure."

"Then go out and see carefully to my horse's girths. I do not wish to
risk a second accident."

He bowed and departed. A few seconds later I was seated at his desk
writing out a cheque for a hundred pounds. It was the first real
pleasure I had yet tasted in being rich; and I enjoyed the experience
so much that I felt ready to repeat it on the smallest provocation.

"I think I can promise you that your saddle will not slip," said the
doctor, re-entering the room.

I nodded, and poured out the last of the wine into my glass. Then I
drank it off and stood up. "How much do I owe you, doctor?" I demanded.

"One guinea," he answered promptly, "but as I am responsible for the
hire of your horse perhaps you had better pay me that amount as well.
It will be a pound."

"That makes two pounds one shilling. Well, I am prepared to pay you a
further ninety-seven pounds nineteen shillings, if you will allow me to
pick the pockets of a portion of your medical experience."

"I scarcely understand you," he said, looking rather startled.

"I am in desperate need of information as to the action and effects of
a certain drug."

"Ah!"

"Its name is ourali."

Dr. Marsh shook his head. "It is by no mean woorali, otherwise curari,"
he exclaimed.

"Very probably. What is it?"

"It is a resinous extract which the South American Indians prepare from
the bark of certain trees of the genus strychnos."

"Strychnos--that sounds like strychnine. Is this woorali a poison,
then?"

"It depends upon how it is administered. It is more or less innocuous
if swallowed, but if introduced directly into the blood it proves
quickly fatal, causing a paralysis analogous to the effect produced by
the bite of certain snakes. The Indians use it to poison their arrow
heads."

"Most interesting," I commented, "And, now, one last question, doctor.
Supposing that a man were scratched by a needle so poisoned----"

"He would die," he interrupted.

"Quite so--but I take it that a post mortem examination would reveal
the cause of death."

Dr. Marsh shook his head. "It is by no means certain, Sir Francis.
I have personally never encountered a case of woorali poisoning,
therefore cannot speak with authority; but the drug is practically
unknown in England, except in name, and, moreover, the text-books state
that the symptoms are indistinguishable from other forms of acute
paralysis."

"Thank you, doctor. That is all I wished to know, and I am immensely
obliged to you for your opinion. Here is my cheque."

He took the paper and stared at it blankly for a moment; then looked up
at me. "I cannot accept this, you know, Sir Francis," he said quietly.
"I fancied you were jesting. The amount is preposterous. I have done
nothing to earn a twentieth part of such a sum."

"Pardon me," I rejoined with a smile, "you have probably helped to save
a fellow-creature's life."

"You could have obtained the information I gave you from any medical
dictionary."

"And while searching for the dictionary--but there--I have no right to
be more explicit. Nevertheless, you can rest satisfied, doctor, that
from my point of view I am still deeply in your debt. And I assure
you that I shall be much hurt if you persist in refusing to accept a
fee--the amount of which you will remember was stipulated before I
consulted you."

"How--how can I?" he stammered, blushing like a school girl.

"Easily," I laughed. "Put it in your pocket and help me to my horse!"

"I feel----"

"I know how you feel, very well," I interjected. "I was a fool myself
once. But I always did penance for my folly afterwards, and so will
you--if you elect to offend a man who wishes you well. Kindly give me
your arm!"

The poor young fellow meekly obeyed, but he looked entirely miserable,
and when I mounted the stout old cob he had provided, I saw that the
cheque was still in his hand, and that he still doubted what to do with
it. "Enough of that nonsense," I observed severely. "Comfort yourself
this evening with the reflection that I did not make it two hundred,
for in a day or two that circumstance will constitute your chief
regret!"

Our eyes met, and in spite of himself he smiled. "I entertained an
angel unawares," he muttered. "I shall never forget your generosity,
Sir Francis, never."

"Oh, rats!" I retorted rudely, and forthwith rode away.




CHAPTER XXIII.

At the instance of a raging headache, which every jar and jog most
painfully affected. I was obliged to proceed so slowly that it was
half-past seven o'clock when I reached the castle. Fortunately I found
a groom on the terrace, who helped me to alight and subsequently led
away my horse. The footman, who opened to my ring, informed me that
the duke had just arrived from London, and that he was at that moment
dressing for dinner. I slipped a sovereign into the fellow's palm
with my card, and he ushered me, all cringing obsequiousness, into an
exquisitely appointed little smoking room. "I must see his grace at
once," I muttered. "A matter of life and death. Here, my man," and I
gave him another sovereign. Then I poured myself out a stiff nip of
whisky and soda, and sank down with a sigh of intense relief into a
luxurious arm-chair. Five minutes later the curtains defending the
doorway parted, and Sevenhills entered the room.

"My dear Sir Francis," he exclaimed, then, remarking my pale face and
bandaged skull. "What? An accident! I beg of you not to rise," and,
coming quickly forward, he pressed me gently back into my chair. There
is this much to be said for the duke, I have always found him the very
soul of courtesy.

"I was pitched out of a motor car some hours ago," I explained, "and,
to be candid, I am not feeling extra fit. I wonder might I trespass on
you for a bed to-night."

"Trespass! My dear Sir Francis, I feel vastly honored at the
opportunity to entertain you. One moment----" and he moved towards the
bell.

But I raised my hand. "Wait!" I cried. "Business first, if you please,
duke."

"Business!" He raised his eyebrows.

"I know you hate the word, or affect to hate it," I retorted
truculently. "Nevertheless, conventional hypocrisy apart, you surely
cannot imagine that my call has any social significance."

"Your accident--your necessity?"

"Rubbish! Had I no quid pro quo to offer you I would father nurse my
bruises on the road. Moreover, Tafton has an inn."

"It pleases you to dislike me."

"You flatter yourself, meglomaniac that you are; I detect and despise
you."

His eyes glinted for a second, but his composure remained undisturbed,
and his voice was positively deprecating as he replied: "I am more
unfortunate than I had supposed."

"You compel me to admire you--in one respect at least," I unwillingly
admitted. "Your self-control is wonderful. Have you a revolver?"

He started slightly, and looked me straight in the eye. "A peculiar
question," he observed.

"Circumstances justify me in propounding it. May I request you to close
that door?"

He complied.

"And those circumstances?" he asked, returning.

"I have reason to believe that there is a plot afoot to murder you, and
immediately!"

"Ah!"

"Well, duke?"

"I have a revolver, Sir Francis!"

"Get it, then."

He crossed the room and unlocked the drawer of a cabinet. When he
turned he held a small Smith and Wesson in his hand.

"Loaded?" I inquired.

"In every chamber."

"Give it to me!"

He unhesitatingly obeyed, and once more I was obliged to admire the
man. His hand was as steady as a rock, and on his face was an amused
smile. Yet I knew that he believed me thoroughly, for his eyes were
alert and serious. I put the pistol in my pocket, and sipped at my
whisky and soda.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"You must let me manage this affair in my own way. I hold all the
cards," I observed, putting down the glass.

"I am sure that you will execute your self-appointed task efficiently,"
he replied politely. "But you can understand that I am curious."

"That is only natural. For my part, however, I should be so honestly
rejoiced to see you dead that my sympathies are on the side of your
would-be executioners. You must wait. Meanwhile----"

"Meanwhile, Sir Francis, had you not better examine your conscience?
Are you not overtaxing your strength in--er--thus----?"

"Perhaps," I interrupted. "God knows. It is a risk you will have to
run, however, for my mind is utterly resolved."

He bowed ironically. "Well?"

"I have some questions yet to ask."

"Ask them."

"Have you a servant who speaks with a strong American accent and clips
his final g's?"

"Yes, my butler, Evans."

"Ah! And how long has he been in your service?"

"About two years."

"Do you know anything about him?"

"Very little. I picked him up at 'Frisco while on a yachting trip. My
head steward died on the voyage out, and had to be replaced. Evans was
recommended to me by a club acquaintance. I found him a thoroughly
capable man, and when I finally gave up my yacht, some twelve months
ago, I offered him a berth here, which he accepted. Is he in the plot?"

"I am not sure."

A knock at that moment sounded on the door, which opened, and a voice
announced: "Dinner is served, your grace!"

"You will join me?" suggested the duke.

I nodded and arose. "Will Evans wait?" I asked in an underbreath.

"Yes."

"It is barely possible that there has been a death at the castle since
yesterday--of a dog, or some other animal," I whispered. "Question
Evans about the health of your pets, will you?"

The duke took my arm and led me with the utmost solicitude from the
library into the dining room. I felt so tottery that I was almost
grateful for the service.

The table was laid for two. I glanced questioningly at my host. He
smiled. "I took it for granted that you would honor, me--so far," he
said.

I bowed, and sat down. A deft hand shot out from behind my chair
and abstracted the sliver cover from a plate before me. The latter
contained a steaming mushroom on a square of toast. Looking up I saw
a young-old man glide around the table and perform a similar office
for the duke. His hair was grey, but his face was not disfigured with
a single wrinkle. It was otherwise disfigured, however, for the scar
of what might have been a sword cut ran across one cheek from chin to
temple. His eyes were small, and black, and glittering; his eyebrows
met above them in a thick line of hair; his lips were thin; his jaw was
broad and brutal.

"That's the man," I said in my thoughts, and I began to eat.

"All well in the Castle, Evans?" asked the duke.

"Yaas, your grace."

It was one of the voices I had heard planning the duke's or somebody's
extinction, and instinctively my right hand sought the revolver in
my pocket; next second, however, I smiled at the impulse and went on
eating.

"Bosco and Bonanza did not meet me as usual," said the duke.

"I hed to have them hounds chained while the workmen wuz here, grace,"
explained Evans. "They tried to eat up one uv the upholsterers. Hope I
wuz right to chain 'em, grace."

"Quite right, Evans. And how are the dachshund puppies getting on?"

"First rate, grace, barrin Sambo, he's bin a bit sick fer a day or two."

"And the St. Bernards?"

"All well, grace."

"The pointers."

"Waal, grace, the master did tell me that old Coonamble got sorter
paralysed this mornin'. An' I haven't heard since how he's got on. He's
very old."

"Find out for me, Evans, at once, will you? I'd hate to lose that dog,
I've had him ten years."

"Sartin, grace."

Evans left the room, and the duke turned to me. "Well, Sir Francis?"

"Excellently well, duke! Did you observe how the information had to be
dragged from the fellow. And what stress he laid on the pointer's age?"

"Coonamble is a very old dog, Coates."

"Was, duke, he is dead now."

"You are strangely confident. What hangs on that point?"

"Wait!"

The duke raised his glass: "Your health, Coates!"

I nodded and drained my own.

"You might return the compliment," suggested my host, refilling my
glass as he spoke.

"Your life," I replied, and drank to the toast.

The duke went just a shade paler than was his wont. A second afterwards
he bit his lips and muttered earnestly: "If I appear impatient, or
ungrateful for the interest you take in me, pray acquit me of the least
intention to be disagreeable. You must be aware, Coates, that your
attitude would try the temper of a saint."

"Understand, once for all," I replied, "that I am not ill pleased by
your impatience. As for your gratitude, pouf! But here is Evans!"

The man's eyes were glittering like beads of jet. "Sorry, grace, he's
dead," he announced. "It was a fit, the master says. They sent for the
vet., but it was all over in half an hour!"

At the fellow spoke, he fingered, perhaps unconsciously, the lapel of
his coat. Something black and beady, like his eyes, flashed beneath his
thumb.

"The head of a hatpin," I guessed, and suddenly inspired, I cried
aloud: "The pin, Evans! The very pin that killed Coonamble," and I
pointed at his hand.

He betrayed himself by a change of color, and an irrepressible
ejaculation of surprise, but before he could move a muscle I had him
covered with the duke's revolver.

"Duke," said I, "kindly close the door. Evans, if you wink an eyelid,
you are a corpse."

The duke, pale, but admirably calm, arose from his seat and did my
bidding. "Now stand beside the bell; keep your finger on the button!" I
commanded.

The duke obeyed.

I watched Evans narrowly. His face had become blotched; there were
patches of red and white and purple over it, and he was beginning to
shake.

"That pin, Evans!" I said quietly.

"See--he-he-here--mister----" he began, quavering and stammering as if
he had an ague.

"Silence! That pin," I repeated. "Hurry!"

He drew the pin front his coat. It was about four inches long.

"Point downwards in the table, Evans. Slowly does it--no tricks if you
want to live. I'm a dead shot, man!"

He came forward step by step, eyeing me like a charmed bird, until only
the table separated us. Then he stuck the pin perpendicularly into the
board, through the damask cover.

"Got any more pins?" I asked.

"N-no!"

"Well, out with the woorali, then."

He went absolutely livid, and for a second I thought he would risk a
bullet. But the hollow muzzle, scarce four feet from his heart, froze
his courage. "I d-d-on't know what you mean," he whined.

"I'll count four, and then shoot you like a dog--unless----" I replied,
and I began to count: "One--two--th----"

But Evans, chalk-white, threw up the sponge before I could articulate
the 'three.' "I pass!" he gasped. "Don't shoot! Here it is!" and he
thrust his hand into his breast pocket.

"Beside the pin, Evans!"

It was a small bottle half-filled with a dark colored sticky fluid like
tar. Evans forthwith began to bluster. "And what if it is poison! You
can't prove nothin' against me for all your bloomin' cleverness. Guess
there's no law against a man carryin'----"

"Silence, you scoundrel!" I cried angrily. "You are speaking to a man
who overheard every word that passed between you and your brother
dastard last night, by the oak tree on the hill yonder!"

He gasped.

"Yes, I heard you agree to murder your master for a consideration of
a thousand a year. And that reminds me--the bond! Produce the bond,
Evans!"

But Evans, trembling like an aspen leaf, fell on his knees. "I'll--I'll
turn King's evidence," he stuttered. "It wasn't me--so help me God--it
wasn't. I never intended to--Mr. Torres wanted me to--but I never
would. I never had it in my mind. The duke's bin too kind a master for
me to ever think of such a thing. I'm tellin' yer the truth--God's own
truth. See here, mister--if you don't believe me----"

"The bond!" I interrupted sharply. "The bond!"

He tore a paper from his pocket and offered it to me. I bent forward
to receive it, and he sprang at my throat, but I had been expecting
an attack, and with all my force I thrust the pistol in his face.
Next instant he sprawled, an inert mass, across my knees and rolled
thence, senseless and bathed in blood; with a low thud to the floor.
I unsteadily arose and unfolded the paper he had given me. It was
ornamented with two seals; also a signature.

"Richard Torres," said the duke's voice from behind my shoulder. I
permitted him to take the paper from my hands, and thankfully resumed
my chair. I was much shaken by the scuffle, short as it had been, and I
felt as weak as a child.

It took two glasses of champagne even partially to tranquilise my
jangling nerves, and I was pouring out a third when the duke's hand
fell upon my wrist.

"Softly, lad," he murmured. "There is much to be done yet."

"The rest is for you," I snapped, and shook off his grasp.

"Will you not help me?"

"Only with advice."

"I shall be very thankful for that."

"Ring for a cat, then, and test that pin."

"Is it necessary?"

"For our peace of mind."

The duke bowed and left the room. Ten minutes later he returned,
carrying a basket. At my request he locked the door behind him. "A
rabbit," he said quietly. "I am fond of cats."

Evans uttered, a low groan and sat up. I pointed with the pistol to
a chair. There was no need of words; Evans understood at once, and
obeyed. The duke presently put down the basket and returned to the
table. "Let me help you to some soup," he said. "It is cold, I am
afraid."

I nodded and began to eat. It was rather amusing being waited upon by
a duke. Next he divided a partridge, at the waggon, and brought me the
choicest part.

"You have lost your appetite?" I asked.

"The son of my sister is a murderer," he muttered.

I had not suspected him of such susceptibility, but it only made me
hate him more.

"You'll presently be able to add a gibbet to your quarterings," I
scorned.

He started back as though I had struck him, then, to my amazement, he
thrust a clenched fist in my face.

"Take care!" he grated through his teeth.

"Another jibe like that, and I'll not be answerable for the
consequences. Insult me as much as you please, but let my tree alone!"

"So that touched you!" I cried, and fell back in my chair, convulsed
with laughter. A devil looked at me through the duke's eyes, but
recklessly I mocked him. "Your tree!" I jeered. "Its every limb is hung
with parasites, and the parent trunk is like that octopus Australian
growth the native fig, which fastens in the seedling stage on nobler
trees--around whose stem and limbs it wraps its tentacles, sucking out
the sap until the victim's very life is strangled at its fount. Your
tree----"

"Coates," cried the duke in a tone of agony, "you are my guest!"

I shrugged my shoulders. "A threat and then a whine! Well, have your
way. Pax for the present."

I returned to the partridge, and watched Evans while I ate. The man
looked sick and horrible. His nose was broken, I fancy, and he vainly
tried to staunch the flow of blood. He was talking to himself all the
while in underbreath, protesting the purity of his intentions, and
abhorring the dreadful wickedness of Mr. Torres. Never lived a more
uninteresting scoundrel. The duke paced the floor, his hands tightly
clasped beneath his coat tails; his chin sunk upon his chest.

I put down my knife and fork at last, and lighted a cigarette, but
it would not draw. The air seemed charged with some baleful sort of
electricity, and my head ached for relief from pain like the devil for
a cup of water.

I tried to read the duke's thoughts, but failed. His lips were
twitching, and his whole face worked. There passed a mauvais quatre
d'heure, and then the duke halted before the chair upon which rested
the basket.

He opened the lid, and took out the rabbit. It was dead.

"Poor bunny!" I observed.

The duke stood marble still for the space of half a minute, staring
dumbly at his butler. Then, quite suddenly, he exploded. What thought
had acted as a spark to fire that ice-bound magazine? His eyes blazed,
his face went purple with passion. "You hound!" he cried; and hurled
the dead rabbit at the head of Evans. Evans ducked, the rabbit struck
the back of his chair, then slithered limply down the woodwork until
it rested upon the ruffian's neck. I fell back, shaking and almost
helpless with laughter. Evans writhed away from the rabbit, and stood
up--showing all his teeth in a snarling grin; desperate as a cornered
rat. The duke crossed the room in three strides, unlocked and tore open
the door.

"Go!" he muttered horsely. "Go!"

Evans, dizzy with surprise no doubt, tottered forward for a step or
two, then, with a loud gasp, getting back his breath and strength, he
fled.

The door banged, and the duke, pallid, but once more composed, came
forward to confront me.




CHAPTER XXIV.

"YOU ARE astonished, Coates, to learn the sort of fool I am," he said.

I shook my head. "No--only to hear you admit it."

He winced, then forced a smile. "You have compounded a felony," I
observed.

"Have I? What does it matter. Noblesse oblige. I can neither
prosecute my sister's son nor his confederate."

"But you should not do things by halves, duke. Take my advice and pay
your blackguardly young nephew's debts."

"I shall."

"And make him an allowance."

"Quite so; of course, conditional on his leaving England. I shall write
to him to-morrow."

"Bis dat qui cito dat. It is to be hoped that he will appreciate his
Christian uncle's magnanimity."

"My motives are purely selfish."

"What utter nonsense! You are quite a good sort of chap at bed-rock,
duke. Diffidence alone prevents you from telling me outright that you
intend to break off your marriage with Miss Fortescue."

"You are mistaken," he retorted stiffly. "Such an idea has never
entered my mind."

"Oh, no, I am not. I am laughing at you, mentally."

"You are a bitter young brute, Coates. I scarcely know how to regard
you."

"My opinion of your grace is formed, but it is quite unfit for
publication."

He bit his lips. "Why did you save my life?" he asked between his teeth.

"It was not because I like you."

"Why then?"

"You must solve the riddle for yourself."

"I am grateful," he declared. "Whatever your reason, I am grateful."

"Oh! How much?"

"Five and twenty thousand pounds."

"Give it to the poor."

"You have made my life a hell!" he cried. "You have robbed me of my
self-respect."

"Its last dishevelled shred, you mean. But why not try a new brand?
There are plenty of women in the world."

"There is only one--and you know it."

"Upon my soul, duke, if I did not thoroughly believe you to be
incapable of a single selfless sentiment I should suspect you
of--caring for--Miss Fortescue."

He threw back his head and looked me in the eyes. "Your judgment is not
always quite infallible!" he sneered.

"God in heaven!" I cried. "You--"

"I love her," he answered simply. "She is the only woman I have ever
loved."

"And yet--the other night--I found you----"

"Coates, I give you my word of honor as a man that no other woman's
lips have touched mine since I became affianced to Miss Fortescue.
I have my code. It may not be as definite as yours, but it is clean
within its limits."

"What follows?"

"I shall marry her."

"She loves me."

"I know it."

"A little while ago you kissed her. She felt stained."

"I shall marry her," he repeated, smiling like a mandarin.

"You poor man," I murmured pityingly; "of the three of us you will
perhaps be the happiest. But that is not saying much. Show me to my
room, will you, and send for a doctor. I am going to be ill, very ill,
I am afraid."

And I was right. Within the hour I lay helpless in the grip of
meningitis, deliriously babbling all my secrets to the bed-post.

I remember one dream very perfectly. I stood beside another sick-bed
in the large single room of a small log cabin. A log and peat fire
was blazing in the big, open fireplace, but down the chimney ever and
anon, fell sodden, soot-stained streams of sleet, and snow, whereon the
flames hissed and spluttered, and sometimes almost were extinguished.
Strange fern patterns wrought in ice were frosted on the mica window
panes, making an effective curtain from the dark without; and despite
the fire the beaten earthen floor was cold; cold as charity. The
very marrow in my bones ached with the cold; and the sick man lying
on the bed shivered in spasms, shaking the furs that covered him. He
seemed to be a Russian, and a gentleman. He clutched to his breast a
large bronze crucifix, and his eyes--wild and blood-shot eyes they
were--rolled ceaselessly as he muttered through his beard into the ear
of a dark-clad, cassocked figure what must have been the history of
his failures and his sins. His brow was broad and noble, and his nose
was straight and strong. I felt that he was suffering, and I pitied
him; dying, and I envied him. And then I heard him say, in Russ, these
words:--

"And all has been useless, father, all in vain; the pain, the
sacrifice, the long, long years of strife and agony, of hope and fear,
of doubt and of despair. I am dying in Saghalien, unremembered and
forsaken, my work frustrated utterly, my mission unachieved."

"As I, too, shall one day die, my son," replied the deep musical and
well remembered tones of Father Constantine. "But be of good cheer,
prince, you have carried out the task allotted you to the limit of your
strength. God sees, and will requite your sufferings."

"Dust and ashes are my dreams, father. I have asked myself of late if
God's justice may not also be a dream."

"Blaspheme not, my son, nor seek to reckon with the Infinite. Who knows
but that which we consider failure is success? The end is not revealed
to us."

"Alas, father, and so little even of the means. But do not think that
I repine or lack in faith. My only fear in death is this--that what I
did, I did inevitably. Why, then, should I be applauded or rewarded? I
but followed my bent, and am no more responsible because it led me into
paths approved by conscience than any criminal might be whose savage
impulses impelled him into deeds of inhumanity and violence!"

Father Constantine uttered a deep sigh and rose up from his knees.
He turned his sad and beautiful old face to the fire-light, and I
marvelled to see how thin and pale it had become.

"These are God's deepest mysteries," he said at length, "the passions
which he implants in the hearts of men. In some the desire of the
divine, in others self-worship and the hatred of other things more
beautiful. We see and wonder, those of us who love virtue, and we learn
thereby to forgive our fellows--but none of us can understand. It must
be that we are not meant to understand."

"But you believe, my father?--what is it that you believe?"

"I believe, my son, that God loves equally the best and worst of us;
and, although it is not in the Holy Church's teaching, I believe that
those whom we consider evil men will ultimately be induced--perhaps
in other lives--to work out their redemption through God's love, made
manifest in man's affection."

"A blessed creed," sighed the sick man, "a creed that has no room for
hell and soul damnation."

"Ah!" said the priest, "if I had ever believed otherwise, I should have
ruled my life so differently, for I should have subordinated everything
to the winning of my heart's desire."

The sick man uttered a groan. "She died when I was young," he said.

"She died when I was young," echoed the priest; and his face went grey.
"She died to me," he added in an underbreath.

Then Father Constantine looked up and gazed into my eyes, and all my
dream was thrilled with the conviction that he saw me, knew that I was
there. "But there are better things in this world and the hereafter
than gaining the heart's desire," he said in low, deep, solemn tones.

And I awoke.

I was lying in my bed-room, in my own little house at St. John's
Wood. Gloria Hammond, looking, ah! so sad and pale, was seated in an
arm-chair by a table, close at hand, gazing into the glowing heart of
a banked-up fire. She wore a costume something like the costume of a
nurse, and, with a queer little pang of pride and, pain, it was borne
to me that she had been, perhaps for many days, my nurse.

"Dear, dear Gloria," I thought, and I tried to speak my thought aloud;
to tell her how I gloried in her splendid proof of friendship. But I
could not. Nor could I persuade a single muscle of my body to obey my
will. An enthralling and most deadly lassitude constrained my limbs,
and pressed its paralysing fingers on my every fibre. Soon, too, I felt
a heavy weight upon my eyelids, and a force I could not combat pressed
them slowly and inexorably shut. Then came a coldness, an icy, numbing
chill more intense and piercing than the cold I had experienced in my
dream, and I was helpless to withstand it, to do aught but suffer and
succumb to it, and drowse and die.

Years afterwards I heard hushed voices speaking overhead. The fancy
took me that I rested in my coffin underground, and that the voices
reached me through the crumbling sod. But the cold had gone, and a
delicious, comfortable warmth encompassed me, and soon I saw light
through my heavy lids. Evidently I was still alive and unburied. I
felt quietly glad to be alive and unburied. I wondered how long I
might remain like that, and if my strength would ever return to me;
and if I might recover, or must I go. And I wondered above all at my
own indifference to anything but the fact that I was still alive and
unburied. And then, quite suddenly, I paid attention to the voices.
There were three Gloria's and two men's.

"It will be about six o'clock," said one of the latter. "I think he
will be conscious just before the end!"

"Oh, doctor, doctor," sighed the voice of Gloria; "is there ho hope, no
shadow of hope?"

There was a little silence, then the third voice, a deep-toned,
consoling sort of voice, replied: "While there is life there is always
hope, my dear Mrs. Hammond. But, unhappily, in this case--at least, he
has done with pain; the paralysis is almost absolute."

"I shall come again--at six," said the first voice.

There followed the soft tramp of departing footfalls, and a moment
later the silken crash of a despondent skirted figure sinking wearily
into a chair. Then a long silence, saddened yet scarcely broken with
the sound of sighs and long-drawn sobs. So I had to die, it seemed.
I felt most awfully sorry for myself. All manner of stock phrases
occurred to me; "Cut off in the flower of his youth." "One shall be
taken and the other shall be left." "In the prime of life." "At the
summons of the dark angel." "Requiescat in pace." "Of your charity
pray," etc. "We know not the day nor the hour." "De mortuis nil nisi
bonum." These and a hundred other such buzzed through my mind, keeping
time to the tune of Gloria's muffled exclamations of regret. At first
I was tremendously touched by her sorrow, but I gradually got sick of
it, and I wanted to know why the deuce she should lament. It was my
funeral, not hers. And I confounded her most ungratefully at least a
dozen times. But at last I either lost consciousness or fell asleep,
and when I awoke again someone was putting something in my mouth. I
swallowed it involuntarily, and without any trouble opened my eyes. Sir
James Gresham, the celebrated Court physician, was bending over me, a
spoon in one hand, a basin in the other. He drew back immediately and
beckoned quaintly with the spoon. Then he disappeared, and I looked
into the eyes of Helen Fortescue.

"Frank!" she whispered. "Ah, Frank!"

Her cheeks were whiter than my coverlet, but purple rings subscribed
her eyes. She took one of my hands and pressed it to her lips. I
saw, but did not feel her kiss. My limbs seemed dead already. Beyond
her stood the Duke of Sevenhills, and at the foot or the bed Gloria
Hammond. I looked from one to another, marvelling at the tragic
kindness of their glances. Even the duke appeared prepared to weep, and
he clutched with one thin, nervous hand at his neckband, just as though
it choked him. Last of all I looked at Helen, and while I looked I knew
that I could speak.

"I am dying--am I not?" I asked.

"Oh, Frank!" she wailed.

"Better--no--best----" I whispered. Then all the beastly selfishness of
my nature rose up to the surface--and I looked beyond her at the duke.
"But don't marry him--at once," I said. "He must wait--at least, till I
am cold."

The duke turned red and ashen grey, and I was glad. It was good to have
even that small measure of revenge--to make him wait. "Promise me," I
said.

"I promise," answered Helen, shuddering, and I saw that she was staring
at the duke.

But my strength was going, and my eyes were half involuntarily closing.
I made one great effort. I wanted to die dramatically. "Kiss me," I
muttered.

It was the first and last time her lips touched mine. I was not so weak
as I had thought, but I resolved not to open my eyes again. That seemed
the proper moment to fare forth. I lay very, very still. Helen uttered
one shrill cry, that shrilled through every fibre of my being; and she,
too, was still. I counted ten seconds. One, two, three, to sixty; then
the duke's voice, strained and husky, broke the silence.

"Helen, it is over, let us go!"

"My dear duchess," said Sir James Gresham's voice, "this is
foolish--permit me----"

"Silence!" hissed Helen. "He may hear. I promised him----"

"He is dead."

"Oh, my God!" she wailed. "My God! My God! And I kissed him good-bye
with a lie upon my lips!"

"Better so, dearest," sobbed Gloria. "He died happy--because of it."

And I thought to myself: "If she knew that I heard and understood, she
would be ashamed, for she is Sevenhills's wife, and that must be just
about as much as she can bear. But, oh, she might have waited!"

So I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be dead, and a moment later
the sobbing died away into the distance, and I heard the sound of a
door softly closed upon the mourners. Strange, not one of them had
offered me the services of priest or parson. "Now!" thought I, "I
suppose it's time to die." And I tried to pray. But just then someone
put the cold surface of a stethoscope upon my side, and candor obliges
me to confess that I exclaimed "Damn!" aloud.

"It is positively a miracle. A miracle and nothing less!" gasped Sir
James Gresham. "I have met with nothing remotely like this in the whole
course of my experience."

"It bears out my theory, Sir James, that the paralysis was produced by
blood poisoning."

"Quite so, quite so." The great physician's voice was distinctly
ill-humored. "Kindly take his temperature, will you!"

The other thrust a thermometer underneath my arm, while Sir James
Gresham bared an ugly-looking silver needle. Raising the bed clothes
from my feet, he jabbed the needle into my left calf.

"Feel anything?" he demanded, gazing curiously at me.

"I'll break your neck, you ugly brute, when I get better," I protested,
in weak but wrathful spasms. Then I fainted.




CHAPTER XXV.

WHEN I was strong enough to receive him, Hammond came to see me, laden
with flowers. He shamefacedly explained Gloria's defection.

"She was quite worn out, and as soon as we were assured that the crisis
had passed, I put my foot down, and made her come away," he said. I
had been wondering; but I had acquired in the long waking hours of
convalescence a brand new species of philosophy--not to ask questions.

It is certainly better to be sure than to be sorry, but, on the other
hand, it has mostly been my experience to be sorriest when certain. The
fact is, the older philosophy of the proverb is based upon an impudent
assumption; for who will deny that doubt, of whatever nature, is
preferable to distasteful certainty. Hammond wrung my hand at parting
and muttered, with moist eyes, "I wish to heaven I had let you have
that money, Coates."

"So do I," I answered, and he left me looking so miserable that I felt
I should have either lied or kept silent.

Reggie Horne was the next; as sleek and breezy a Reggie as I remember.

"What ho! she bumps!" he genially remarked. "Frank, you are as thin
as a lath and as grey as a badger. You must buck up! I've called
almost every day, but they'd never let me over the door-mat till now.
Trevellian is married to the Broomfield girl. Searle has been 'broke'
from the Seventh. Dick Torres has gone to Australia. Jack Haynes is
engaged to a chorus girl. Huxham has been appointed to the Cabinet, and
my old uncle has had the decency to double my allowance. That's all the
news, I fancy. How are you?"

"First rate. And getting stronger every second," I responded, lazily.
"Ring for drinks and sit down."

But Reggie was already half through a tour of the walls. "Hullo!" he
presently exclaimed, and stopped stock still before the portrait of a
lady.

"Never saw that one before," he grumbled. "Flatters her. Why d'ye keep
it, Frank? Have burned all mine."

"Just so--but you were in love with her, my son."

"Ancient history," he retorted, with a careless hand wave, still,
however, staring at the portrait. "Lord, what eyes she has. You should
have been at her wedding, Frank."

"Should I?"

"Oh, I forgot--you were ill; just taken bad, weren't you? It's so long
ago. Three months! A regular lifetime. We all thought she would faint,
and she was rouged--thick, there now!"

"Shocking!"

"Disenchanted me, anyhow. Hate a girl who paints her face. The duke has
sold his old town house, and they have rented a mansion in the Lane.
All London goes. I was there last night."

"Your sweet nature, Reggie, needs no advertisement. I felt that you
would visit them."

"Oh!" he said with an airy shoulder shrug. "Helen and I are friends.
Can't stand the duke, though. Never could and never shall be able to.
His patronising ways are simply insufferable."

"I have always considered his manner most old-worldly and
distinguished."

"Bores me. Bores his wife, too, if I am any judge. Anyway, she is gay
as gay."

"Spare me your scandal, my son."

"Have none to spare you in this instance. She is one of your
marble-hearted, statue sort of women."

He left the portrait, rang the bell, then sat astride a chair before me.

"Am going to marry," he announced.

"Good man!"

"Do you remember the pretty little American girl we met in Mrs.
Hammond's box at the Gaiety Theatre last time I saw you?"

"Perfectly. Miss Somers."

"It's her."

"I congratulate you heartily, my son."

"She's a darling, and she has fifteen thousand pounds a year!"

"Amen."

"That's how my old uncle came to increase my screw."

"May his shadow never grow less."

"Hold on! My fiancée is aching to be a countess."

"May the next frost despatch him then," I answered agreeably, and with
a wink and a nod, Reggie poured himself out a three finger nip, under
Taukis' stern and condemnatory regard. Taukis was a devout Mohammedan.

"To her beaux yeux," said Reggie, holding up his glass.

"To your joint and several happiness," I responded.

Reggie drank and rose. "Frank," said he, "it is my duty to inform you
that you are wasting, have wasted, the best years of your life. Selfish
and callous old bachelor that you are fast becoming, you don't guess
what you miss. But take my word for it, misogynists are madmen. One
only begins to live when one loves. Follow my example. Fall in love,
marry, and settle down!"

"And then?"

"There's no then. That's all."

"But apres?"

"After what?"

"The settling down of your prescription. Men are not machines!"

"Oh--ah--enter Parliament, I suppose--and look after posterity, and all
that sort of thing." He positively blushed.

"And die at last in the odors of scantity?"

"Well, why not?" said Reggie, stoutly.

"And go to heaven?"

"You bet," he glanced at me and shivered, "Some day or other," he
muttered.

"What a beautifully simple plan," I commented gently. "I wish I could
adopt it, Reggie."

"Why can't you?"

"To me life appears too mysterious and complicated an affair to be
unravelled by a rule, or by a dozen rules."

"Depends on the liver," Reggie observed profoundly. "Mine must be a
beauty. It has never troubled me. You'll be my best man, of course?"

"I shall be delighted!"

"Thanks. Well, I guess I'll be going. I promised to take her out
motoring to-day. See you soon again."

Then came Gloria; exquisitely dressed, she floated to my couch on
rustling silken billows, her whole face beaming, both her hands
outstretched.

"Oh! Frank, the fright you gave us all!" she cried, an honest quiver in
her voice. "You bad man--you had every right to die. What did you mean
by it? How dared you?"

'"Don't reproach me, Gloria," I protested. "The consciousness that I
have transgressed all the canons of art by my recovery is sufficiently
oppressive. Moreover, your nursing must, to a great extent, have been
responsible."

"How manly and magnificent of you to blame me. You ought to be ashamed!"

"How I must have disappointed you!"

"Well--truly--I was shocked."

"Do you think I ought to suicide?"

She sat down and appeared to give the matter careful thought. "You will
have to do something," she replied at last, "you look too terribly
interesting with your young-old face and snow-white hair. Sir James
said it was the blood-poisoning did that, but who could blame her for
refusing to believe it."

"Her--whom?"

"There are only two women in the universe. Frank, dear--she and I, and
I said 'her!'"

"Should we discuss her, Gloria?"

"Should we ignore her? She is. And you are."

"Yes, but she belongs. And Sevenhills is, as you phrase it, too."

"As a man of the world, I ask you, Frank, to put it to yourself----"

"Are you her ambassadress?" I Interrupted.

"Don't be foolish, dear."

"Well, tell me what you think."

"You should either make up your mind to take a wife, or leave England
at once, without seeing her."

"You have a good reason?"

"And I shall tell it to you without the least reserve, Frank, for you
are one of my beliefs. She is miserable and she cannot cry."

"She always despised tears."

"Well, Frank?"

"You under-rate her strength of will, and mine too, Gloria. Besides, we
need not meet. I am thinking, too, of Parliament."

Gloria pursed her lips.

"Love is the only guarantee of any woman's fidelity," she muttered.
"Don't remark that the man may be relied upon, or I shall hate you for
a conceited prig!"

"I shall only venture to remind you that the fight was fought and won
long years since."

"Marry, then, at least!" she pleaded.

"And lose the only other one--my friend?"

She heaved a sigh. "You compel me to trust you, Frank, but listen--if
ever you disappoint me----"

"Well!"

"You will add this sin to your full score--you will be a thief of
faith. I could not forgive you ever, here or afterwards."

"Agreed; but trust her too, Gloria; she is more worthy it, a thousand
times, than I."

And Gloria bent over me with a look such as I remember to have once
seen upon my long dead mother's face, and she kissed me gently on the
brow.




CHAPTER XXVI.

We met in a crush at the Barcombe's place in Kensington. If I had
known, perhaps--but there, in some things we are all fatalists. She
was dressed in ivory satin with red roses in her hair. She held a
flimsy little ivory fan in her right hand, and I watched it bend,
then splinter, half concealed beneath her cloak, as an unpremeditated
movement of the crowd brought us inevitably together in the hall before
the stairs.

"What a crush!" was my brilliant method of informing her that we were
not alone.

She looked at me through half-closed lids, and truly enough her cheeks
were rouged. Her eyes smiled, mocking at all things in heaven and
earth, above all at herself; her lips were humorously curved, and her
tout-ensemble of expression hauntingly expressed the marriage of the
mask of comedy with melancholia.

"This is only one of the side-stations on a very long railway line,"
she murmured. "But, for just an instant, I thought it was a terminus."

"Travellers get lost who make mistakes like that," I said.

"Sometimes," she agreed, and smiled again.

Then the crowd thinned, and we bowed to one another. She went upstairs,
and I--I breakfasted next day in Paris.

Seventeen months later, a marked copy of "The Times," that had followed
me round half the world, performed the feat of overtaking me at Buenos
Ayres. It contained an account of the sudden death from heart failure
of Howard Leslie, thirteenth Duke of Sevenhills, while making a speech
in the House of Lords.

I resolved to return to England by slow stages, and by a round-about
route; thus it came to pass that the last act in Helen Fortescue's life
drama was revealed to me while waiting for a chop to grill a restaurant
at New Orleans. The garcon brought me, at request, a batch of London
journals. They were three weeks old, and I rated the fellow for the
un-American and easy-going methods of his establishment.

"There are the very latest we have," protested the waiter.

"Your manager is behind the times; he deserves to be dismissed!" I
declared. "Three weeks old! It is ridiculous! Why----" But at that
instant I caught sight of one name twice mentioned in the hatch, match,
and despatch column of one of the belated "Morning Posts," and said no
more.

This is what I read:--


BIRTHS.

SEVENHILLS.--May 12, at Tafton Castle, Surrey, to Helen, Duchess of
Sevenhills, a daughter--posthumous.

DEATHS.

SEVENHILLS.--May 21, at Tafton Castle, Surrey, Helen, Duchess of
Sevenhills, relict of the late Howard Leslie, thirteenth Duke of
Sevenhills.


She had appointed me, by will, the sole guardian of her babe, and
Gloria said that she died with my name upon her lips.

I have committed this history to the care of ink and paper, in the hope
of discovering, because or in the act of its relation, the moral which
I am honestly convinced is concealed about it somewhere. That I have
absolutely failed to do so is a lamentable fact; but someone else may
succeed. Gloria Hammond declares that the lesson is, "When you love,
marry straight off, however poor you are." But she is wrong without a
doubt. For graceless Dick Torres is now the Duke of Sevenhills, and
when I want to laugh I have only to think of him and remember how hard
three stupid people struggled to oust him from the succession. And when
I wish to be serious, I need only to look at my reflection in a mirror.
And when I feel lonely, there is the nursery, and little "Nell" always
ready for a romp.

The fact is, I am one of the happiest men in England.


THE END.


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