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Title: The Viper Author: Hulbert Footner * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500371h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2015 Most recent update: Mar 2015 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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It was on the very morning of Mme Storey's sailing for Paris for her annual vacation that Mrs. Daniel Greenfield came to our office. When I heard the name she gave I looked at her with an extraordinary interest. One of our most famous philanthropists, her name is on everybody's lips, but as she has always refused to allow a photograph of herself to be published, scarcely anybody knows what she looks like.
Well, I beheld an exquisite little old lady who looked more like a French marquise than the wife of an American millionaire. Decidedly a personality. She was so fragile she was obliged to support herself with an ebony stick, nevertheless, not an old lady who was asking for the consideration due to age. She met you on your own ground. Her dark eyes were still full of spirit, yes, and of beauty too, though she must have been close upon seventy. Her lovely clothes drew a nice line between the dignity of an older fashion and the modishness of the new. All in black, of course, for her husband was lately dead, but she eschewed the ostentatious widow's veil. She was accompanied by a nurse, or companion, a pleasant-faced woman, who had nothing of the usual dehumanized look of those who wait upon the rich. She was unaffectedly devoted to her mistress, which is something money can't usually buy.
At the moment Mme Storey was as busy as a nailer, trying to clear her desk preparatory to taking a taxicab to the pier, but one doesn't send a Mrs. Daniel Greenfield away. I carried her name in, and my mistress came out to greet her. Apparently they had not met before.
"I read in my newspaper this morning that you were sailing on the Majestic at noon," little Mrs. Greenfield said, with a great lady's disarming air of apology, "and I yielded to a sudden impulse to come to see you. I know I have no business to be troubling you at such a moment. I can only throw myself on your mercy. I assure you it is a matter of the most urgent importance—at least to me. Can you give me a few minutes?"
Her wistfulness, the wistfulness of a child, or of the very old, melted Mme Storey entirely. "An hour if necessary," she said at once.
Mme Storey led the way into her own room, and I went along after them. Mrs. Greenfield's companion remained sitting in my room.
"I assume that you wish to consult me professionally," Mme Storey said. "If that is so, you will not object to my secretary Miss Brickley being present. She will make the necessary notes."
Mrs. Greenfield accepted me with a courteous bow. So different from many of the men who come to consult us! We seated ourselves, I with my notebook. The sight of the great room made my heart heavy, thinking of the empty days ahead. I do not enjoy vacations. All the room's beauties were packed away or shrouded in cottons. Giannino had gone to board at the veterinary's. I would even have been glad to hear Giannino's chatter, the provoking little ape!
When the beautiful old lady applied herself to the telling of her business, one perceived that she was greatly harassed and worn. Her charm of address upon entering had hidden that. One received the impression of a great trouble proudly kept to herself. I remembered having read that she had no children. Poor lonely soul, that was why she had tried to adopt all the unfortunates.
"I must school myself to be very direct and brief," she began. "They say it is hard for the old. It is in relation to the death of my husband that I came to see you. You may have read of it—eight months ago?"
Mme Storey inclined her head.
"He had an apoplectic seizure in his office. He died instantly." The delicate wrinkled hands were trembling, but the voice was steady. "It is only fair to tell you at the start that there were no suspicious circumstances. There was an—an—I must speak of these things—an autopsy. The cause of his death was certainly a cerebral hemorrhage. Moreover, his affairs, as you may know, were found to be in perfect order, yet—yet—ah! do not smile at me even in kindness! Do not in your own mind dismiss my story yet awhile! I am haunted by the conviction that he did not die a natural death!"
Mme Storey's beautiful face was soft and grave with sympathy. It expressed no surprise. As for me, I was one great Oh! inside. A mystery in the death of Daniel Greenfield! Here was a case indeed!
"I never make up my mind in advance about things," said Mme Storey quietly. "What reason have you—"
"Ah, that's the rub!" the old lady interrupted her despairingly. "I have no reason. I have only a feeling!"
"Well, I do not overrate reason," said my mistress. "I should not have used that word."
"I have no evidence," Mrs. Greenfield went on. "I have nothing but a dumb conviction in here"—she struck her breast—"that my husband was murdered—somehow. A conviction that will not be downed. Oh, I assure you I have struggled against it, argued with myself. It makes no difference. There it remains in my breast. I feel that he was murdered. I have spoken of my feelings to one or two men that I trusted—his best friend, a lawyer, a doctor—only to be listened to with a pitying smile. They tried to soothe me! What a humiliating experience! But men must have evidence!...Ah, don't you pretend to sympathize and send me away. Hear me out—question me. You are my last hope. I wish I had come to you before. This thing is killing me—no, that is nothing; what is life to me now?—Worse, it's driving me out of my senses. I cannot go mad. I must remain cool and sane. If he was murdered, it is for me to live to see that his murderess is brought to justice. Then I could go in peace!"
"I am not a man," said Mme Storey softly. "You will not find me deafening my ears to the inward voices."
"Ah, thank you for that!" cried the old lady in a tone of heartfelt relief. "It is the first crumb of comfort I have had!"
"You said murderess," said Mme Storey. "Your suspicions have, then, a definite object?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Greenfield. "His secretary. Her name is Margaret Gowan."
"Tell me all about her," said Mme Storey.
As my mistress applied her mind to the case, her eyes sought the cigarette box desirously, but she refrained from helping herself. But the sharp-eyed old lady marked her glance and its direction, and she said quickly:
"Pray smoke, Madame Storey. Your cigarettes are famous. I am not narrow-minded."
"A detestable habit," said Mme Storey apologetically. "I am thoroughly ashamed of it." Nevertheless, she took a cigarette and, lighting it, luxuriously inhaled.
"Miss Gowan worked for my husband for twelve years," said Mrs. Greenfield. "She was an admirable secretary in every respect. Daniel relied on her completely. He was never tired of singing her praises."
"But you did not like her?" suggested Mme Storey.
"Ah, don't say that!" cried Mrs. Greenfield with quick reproachfulness. "That shows you are thinking the same that those men thought when I spoke to them of her, that it was just another case of an old woman's jealousy of her husband's young secretary. I assure you, Madame Storey, it is nothing of that sort. You must believe me. She was not at all the kind of young woman to make a wife anxious: a quiet, capable, businesslike person, nothing of the 'charmer' about her. She lacked that—well, you know what I mean—that appeal." Old as she was, and broken with trouble, Mrs. Greenfield's fine eyes still flashed with remembered power. "No, indeed! My mind was never troubled on that score. But she was deep!—deep! Ah, much deeper than Daniel ever guessed! Sometimes that thought used to cross my mind uncomfortably, but I liked the girl. I was grateful to her for easing my husband's burden. It allowed him more time to spend with me. No shadow of a suspicion that anything was wrong ever crossed my mind until after his death."
"It was the day of the funeral," said Mrs. Greenfield, her eyes darkening at the recollection. "I did not go downstairs. Miss Gowan sent up word to ask if I cared to see her. My heart was full of kindness toward her, they told me she had acted so splendidly, and I said by all means. And she came up. When she entered my room—how can I describe it to you?—something seemed to enter with her. When she came near me a strange rage seized and shook me. I was taken by surprise. A dreadful unthinking feeling. I could have attacked her had I been stronger. I wept at my own powerlessness. Yet her attitude was admirable. Everybody spoke of it: so quiet and capable and self-effacing; so sympathetic, so helpful, so unaffectedly saddened by her own loss. That is what everybody said. Well, everybody does not see very far. I saw in her demure and downcast eyes that she had killed my husband and was glad of her work. And I wished to kill her!"
The old lady paused, breathless and exhausted with emotion. How strange it was to see so much raw emotion in one so old and so elegant. It upset one's sense of values.
"Describe her appearance to me," said Mme Storey.
"That is difficult," said Mrs. Greenfield with contemptuous lips. "Nothing much to describe. A little woman; light brown hair, watchful gray eyes, repressed mouth. Not pretty; not ill-favoured, either. She must be about thirty-two now, but she scarcely looks it. There is nothing in her face to betray the passage of time. Looking back, one feels that she willed herself to be neutral, inconspicuous. I apprehend an iron will in the insignificant little creature. In what she revealed she was nothing but a reflection of my husband's tastes and wishes and ideas.
"Sometimes I used to wonder what sort of a life she led apart from my husband. Not much, apparently. Anyway, not on the surface. When this happened I had her investigated without telling anybody. The result was negligible. Apparently she has led an exemplary life—taking care of an invalid mother for years. Since the death of her mother has lived in the same boarding house for seven years. Apparently satisfied with the casual contacts she obtained there. A quiet, studious little person; no expensive tastes; no love affairs. In short, a life as open as the day. If you are interested, I will send you a copy of the report I received upon her."
"Please do," said Mme Storey.
"Have I conveyed anything to you?" Mrs. Greenfield went on. "But wait! She had one characteristic she could not modify: a peculiar walk; stiff-kneed and rising on her toes. One might call it a strut. Like this." The brisk old lady arose from her chair, and, as far as the infirmities of age would permit, proceeded to illustrate.
"I suppose Miss Gowan was of great assistance in settling up your husband's affairs," suggested Mme Storey.
"Oh, invaluable!" said Mrs. Greenfield. "The lawyers and the accountants could not praise her enough. All the details of my husband's affairs were at her finger tips. My husband was a peculiar man in some respects. In business he had no close associates, no advisers, no confidants. He kept no regular books. It was a saying downtown that Daniel Greenfield carried all his business under his hat. Yet the girl guided the lawyers unerringly in their investigation. And everything was always found to be just as she said it would be. Nothing was obscure, nothing unaccounted for, they said...To me there was one suspicious circumstance, but I have not mentioned it to anybody. It is susceptible of many explanations, of course."
"Tell me," said Mme Storey.
The old lady lowered her head as if overcome by a painful recollection. "A few days before I lost my husband," she murmured, "he said one night, jestingly—he said that if he died that night he would cut up—such were his words, about ten million clear. Yet when everything was settled up there was only about nine million. It seems strange he should have made so great an error."
"I agree with you," said Mme Storey.
"Then you think—you really think my story is worth investigating?" Mrs. Greenfield asked with a rather piteous eagerness.
"I do," said Mme Storey simply.
The old lady partly broke down. She put a hand over her eyes. "Ah, it is sweet to find honest sympathy, understanding," she murmured. "Until now I often wondered if I was indeed mad."
"Tell me," said Mme Storey, "what did the lawyers have to start from in order to prove and trace and check up his property?"
"Nothing but a little red notebook," said Mrs. Greenfield. "What they call a loose-leaf notebook. It was kept in his own handwriting. It was a sort of statement of his assets on one side and his liabilities on the other. Whenever the statement got too much marked up to be legible, he would start fresh pages and destroy the old ones. Although he was so well off, he always owed a great deal of money here and there. Why, I never quite understood. Making other people's money work for him, he would say with his laugh."
"Was there any other writing in the little book?" asked Mme Storey.
"He used to make random notes in the back and destroy them when the occasion had passed."
"Where was the little red book found?"
"In the breast pocket of the coat he was wearing."
"Was it always kept there?"
"I think so. He would often pull it out and read to me what securities he had bought or sold. It pleased us both to talk over such matters, though I am afraid I had but a very imperfect understanding of the transactions."
"That little red book is still in existence?"
"Oh, yes. Furthermore, I insisted that all his business papers, the contents of his letter files, everything must be saved."
"Excellent!" said Mme Storey. "One obvious question. Was Miss Gowan remembered in your husband's will?"
"No. Several years ago he proposed to make her a legacy, but upon speaking of it to her she evinced such distress—even anger, he said—that he changed his mind. He was much pleased by the spirit in which she received the proposal. He raised her salary instead."
"Ah!" said Mme Storey drily. "Her unwillingness to receive a legacy might have had another motive."
"I understand you," said Mrs. Greenfield, very low. "Do you think for years past she had been plotting...?"
"Oh, I think nothing yet," said Mme Storey. "I am merely suggesting possibilities...You say you read that I was sailing to-day. What was there in that announcement to bring you to see me?"
All during the old lady's story my mind had been running ahead, speculating on what effect it would have on Mme Storey's plans. It seemed too much to hope that she would cancel her vacation. I listened now with avid ears.
"I have been hesitating for a long while about consulting you," said Mrs. Greenfield. "The reference to your vacation in Paris decided me in a hurry. There seemed to be something providential in it. Miss Gowan is in Paris. At least, that was her ostensible destination when she sailed away two months ago."
My hopes went down. Nothing in this for me.
"Ah, gone abroad," said Mme Storey.
"She took care that it had nothing of the look of a flight," said the old lady. "All during the months while the estate was being settled, she remained here in New York holding herself at the disposal of the lawyers and accountants...She came to bid me good-bye before she left." Mrs. Greenfield's lip curled in bitter scorn. "I managed to conceal my feelings. She said that she felt she owed it to herself to take a long vacation before she looked for another position. That made me very angry, but I said nothing. Because it was not my husband's fault that she had had no vacation. He was always urging her to take one, and she refused."
"She had never taken a vacation?" asked Mme Storey.
"Well, not in a good many years. But when we travelled she went with us; when we went to the country she accompanied us. And when my husband was away from his office she had almost nothing to do. Just looked after his mail."
"So she went to Paris?"
"Yes. She said she had ten thousand dollars that she had saved out of her salary, and she meant to live in Paris until it was spent."
"And you want me to...?"
"To find her," said Mrs. Greenfield beseechingly. "They say you can read souls. Open the book of her soul and tell me what is written there."
"I'm afraid I am scarcely the magician you credit me with being," said Mme Storey soberly. "But I will do what I can."
"Ah, thank you, my dear!" said the old lady with tears in her eyes.
Mme Storey glanced at her watch. "I wish I had another day," she said, "But I can't change my ship. It's simply impossible to get berths at this season. We'll contrive somehow. After I have gone, one of my assistants, Mr. Crider, will call upon you. You will please give him the notebook, also the report you received on Miss Gowan, and any other evidence he may call for from time to time. His job will be to make a further investigation of her antecedents; to discover if she is corresponding with her acquaintances in this country, and to obtain a photograph of her to send me."
"Please do not take it amiss if I speak of money," said Mrs. Greenfield diffidently. "I am sure you understand that it is nothing to me what this girl may have stolen. It is the other thing: to clear that up I will gladly spend every penny I have. As for yourself..."
"There will be no difficulty about that," said Mme Storey carelessly. "I have my living to make, and I shall send you a bill, of course. But I am taking this case on its merits. Make your mind easy. I promise you, before we are through, we will either lay your doubts or prove them."
"Ah, you have taken a load off me already!" said Mrs. Greenfield. "The loneliness of mind was the worst. If everyone believes you mad, you might as well be mad. I feel that I have found a friend. That is an event in one's life!"
After she had gone Mme Storey sat for a few moments in a deep study, stabbing her desk blotter with a pencil. Then she lighted a fresh cigarette and smiled at me in the way that invites comment. I felt obliged to speak up for prudence.
"Are you sure that this conviction of hers may not after all be the product of a mind disordered by grief?"
"I am sure of nothing, Bella," she said, smiling.
"According to her own story, everything is against it," I pointed out.
"That is just what appeals to me. It brings up the old and never-to-be-settled controversy between reason and intuition. You know what side I fight on, Bella. I'm for intuition."
"How are you going to find her?" I said. "Paris is a city of how many millions of souls?"
"But the American colony is like a gossipy village. If she's spending money I shall hear of her at once."
We both glanced involuntarily at our watches. It lacked just fifty minutes of sailing time.
"Bella," drawled Mme Storey in that tone she adopts when she wishes to plague me, "if I've got to work in Paris, you must come along with me."
My heart at the same time began to pound and flutter. My breath was taken away. I suppose I looked at my mistress like one moonstruck, for she laughed merrily.
"Why not? You're a free and unattached female like myself. Just telephone your landlady that you'll mail her a check in advance for your rent. We'll write out Crider's instructions on the ship and send it ashore by the pilot."
"But—but my things?" I stammered.
"You'll have to share mine. My maid will make the necessary alterations. In Paris we'll get you a new outfit. I've always wanted a chance to dress you, Bella."
"Every berth on the ship is sold."
"Yes, but I'm doing myself the luxury of a sitting room this trip. You shall bunk there. Fortunately, you have a passport. We'll have it visaed on the way to the pier. We can just make it. Leave everything as it stands."
I was silenced. I flew about locking things. I felt like a woman in a dream. Paris! Paris! Paris! was ringing in my ears like a chime. Sober, matter-of-fact me going to Paris! And with my beloved mistress! Well as I knew her, and many as had been our shared adventures, I guessed that there was a Rosika Storey in Paris that I did not know, and the most delightful of all, perhaps. I don't suppose I shall ever recapture the bliss of that moment. Oh, well, once was something!
The next six days passed in a dream of delight: the sunny sea, the spaces of the mighty liner, the amusing human show, the luxury that lapped us—Mme Storey and I actually had our own tiny private veranda on deck; one felt one's self translated to an urbaner sphere. Mme Storey condescended to fascinate the captain, and our voyage was made very pleasant. Nowadays one must go to sea for real undisturbed luxury; on shore life is full of discomforts even for the affluent.
And then Paris! Paris in June! Out-of-doors Paris! Paris under the night sky! Déjeuner at the Pavilion d'Armenonville in the Bois: dinner on Montmartre: ices, and such ices, any time of the day or night, at the Café de la Paix, the centre of the world! Paris, where you may ride in taxicabs as much as ever you want for the price of trolley rides at home! Oh, Paris was more than ever a heaven for Americans at this time, with francs at seventeen to the dollar! It was really a sin not to drink champagne with every meal. But I must not say anything more about its effect on me. I am telling another story now.
That story recommences on the seventh day, when I found myself lunching beside a window at Meurice's between Mme Storey and Mrs. Wynn Charlton: the latter a name to conjure with among Americans in Paris. I should say in the beginning that Mme Storey passed as a lady of leisure in Paris. Nothing was known of her professional activities. I was regarded as her friend. Mme Storey was at my right, Mrs. Charlton at my left, and I, facing the window, looked out on the Rue de Rivoli under the arcade, with the Jardins des Tuileries across the street. The world was full of sunshine, and I felt like pinching myself to see if this was really I. What is, I suppose, the best-dressed crowd in the world, streamed by under the arcade. Mostly Americans. The Rue de Rivoli in June is theirs. I couldn't tell you what we ate. It was brought, and it was taken away as in a dream.
This Mrs. Wynn Charlton was a remarkable woman. By sheer force of determination she got herself accepted as beautiful and clever. She had a lot of money, though, that helped. At the moment the most remarkable thing about her was her hat. A tall-crowned hat set at a rakish angle with three upright feathers in contrasting shades. Everybody turned around to look at that hat. A stroke of genius—but not Mrs. Charlton's genius. From under the brim of it her little eyes peered at you in a way that was intended to be languorous and alluring. The exotic was her note; but when she became excited she forgot and talked like a buzzing aëroplane. In a word, Paris engrafted upon Waterbury, Conn.
My dear mistress created a sensation of another sort. Whoso liked to be astonished stared at Mrs. Charlton's hat; whoso loved beauty offered the tribute of his glances to Mme Storey. I understood at once why she loved Paris so: it was her natural element; she seemed to expand and to glow in that air. With a sure instinct she dressed more plainly in Paris than in New York. We are all beauty lovers, but the French are less tender minded than we; less apt to accept the pretentious at its own valuation. Masters of dress, they see through it. Mme Storey, in her sand-coloured turban and straight brown dress, was beauty, and in Paris she received her due.
She had desired to hear the latest gossip of the American colony, and Mrs. Charlton was giving her an earful. It would require pages to set it all down, even if I could remember it all. I shall give you only that part which has to do with the story.
"There's a newcomer," said Mrs. Charlton, "a sensation, not only in our set, but tout Paris. A Mrs. J. Eben Smith of Ypsilanti, Mich. Mysterious. Entirely alone; antecedents unknown. But as far as that goes the antecedents of most everybody over here is—or should I say are? That's what makes Paris so fascinating. You never know. I suppose Smith must be her real name, because nobody would ever choose such an alias."
"A clever woman might," murmured Mme Storey, "just for that reason."
"Well, anyway, Gertie de Vimoutier wrote to the postmaster at Ypsilanti asking about her, and got an answer back saying he had never heard of such a person. Gertie is always doing things like that, and then telling about them. She has no sense of fitness. Anyway, Mrs. Smith should worry. Her money is real."
"Money?" said Mme Storey, cocking an eyebrow.
"Lashings, my dear. And no encumbrances, apparently. Some women have all the luck...A strange woman! None of us can make her out. She's something to talk about. Nobody can understand why such a woman was ever attracted to Paris."
"Why not her as well as another woman?" asked Mme Storey. With her chin on her palm my mistress mused smilingly, just dropping a question now and then to keep Mrs. Charlton keyed up.
"Well, my dear, sexless. Fancy that in this age of sex. A married woman (at least, she says she is) well over thirty years old, who still sports a virginal, remote air. Why, that sort of thing went out in the 'nineties. What does she want to come to Paris for? A Frenchman wouldn't know what to do with her. And our men are more French than the French, if you know what I mean."
"Well, she had to go somewhere," said Mme Storey, smiling.
"A strange woman, I tell you," insisted Mrs. Charlton; "she's not pretty, she has no allure, she's dumb as an oyster, yet in two months already she's a success."
"Two months?" said Mme Storey, glancing at me. Of course we couldn't know as yet that we were on the track of our quarry, but it was amusing to listen to Mrs. Charlton.
"...A success!" she rattled on. "She's in our set, and none of us can tell just how she got in. Sort of insinuated herself. Of course she has money. And there's nothing blatant about her. She can keep her mouth shut. The most significant set in Paris if I do say it. You know. The leading American women, and the ultra-ultra young French artists. Everything starts in our set. Why, my dear—"
"But about Mrs. Smith," prompted my mistress softly. "How do you account for her success?"
"Well, she's had the wit to put herself in the hands of the best men in Paris. Craqui raves over her type. I suppose it's really her absence of type that appeals to him. Being a nullity he can make whatever he likes of her. At any rate, Mrs. Smith is his pet this season; all his best designs are for her."
"No, indeed! I told you the woman was sexless. It is a purely artistic relation. They say that Craqui does her hair himself, and makes up her face in harmony with the costumes he designs for her. I assure you the ensembles are marvellous—marvellous! Egyptian, Chinese, or Central African effects. A lay figure on which Craqui spends all his art. Once it would have been thought outlandish, but nowadays you can't go too far. Everybody thought Craqui was spoiled by rich American tourists, but, after all, there is nobody like him. In Mrs. J. Eben Smith's gowns Craqui has come back. The woman creates a sensation wherever she appears, and that's all she does do, just appears."
"What's her colouring?" asked Mme Storey.
"Originally her hair was a lifeless light brown, I believe, but now, my dear! various new shades of red and gold woven together! It must be dyed strand by strand. The effect is astonishing. It never occurred to anybody before to dye their hair several shades at once. It's bound to become the rage...Her eyes are a cold gray; extraordinarily steady, cold, contemptuous eyes; basilisk eyes; gives you the shivers to look into them. Smudged in and elongated with make-up, the effect is snaky in the extreme. Somebody does wonderful things to her with make-up; curious shadows about the lips that give the effect of petulance; a dead pallor with just a tinge of bistre; one eyebrow a little higher than the other. Oh, chic! chic! my dear! The sort of thing you can't copy!"
By this time Mme Storey and I had a strong suspicion that we need seek no further.
"Is she a particular friend of yours?" Mme Storey asked carelessly.
"A particular friend of nobody's, my dear. Everybody knows her and nobody knows her. Men like to be seen with her, she looks so expensive, but her silences, her basilisk eyes, make them uneasy. She doesn't play up. It's just as well, perhaps, that she is silent. Rochechouart told me they were lunching at Laperouse's, and in the midst of one of her sphinxlike silences, when he was wondering whether she was dreaming about voodoo or the lovers she had thrown to the crocodiles of the Nile, she looked down in her plate and said: 'Say, Prince, these peas are so green!'...But you can't believe a word Hélie de Rochechouart says.
"I saw her first at the Jockey. That's a little place on the Boulevard Montparnasse where we go. New place since you were here, dear. It's Boué Say's hangout, and Exeideuil's and Dun le Roi's and Amasa Ounce's. The most advanced set in Paris. I don't know who brought her the first time. That night she was swathed in batik draperies representing tortoise shell with a necklace of enormous topazes and a peacock fan. Everybody in the room knew that Paris had a new celebrity when she entered with her stiff jerky little walk—a sort of a cross between the gait of an empress and incipient locomotor ataxia—but women don't have locomotor ataxia, do they? Anyhow, like everything else about her, it was effective."
Mme Storey and I exchanged another glance. We were sure now.
"I'd like to meet this remarkable woman," said my mistress.
"Nothing easier, my dear. You're dining with me to-morrow night. We'll go on to the Jockey after. General le Boutillier shall take us. She's sure to be there."
Mrs. Charlton chattered on about other matters.
Craqui, foremost among male dressmakers in Paris (or in the world), was an old acquaintance of Mme Storey's. His establishment is in the Rue de la Paix, naturally, and thither we had ourselves carried next morning. Ah! what a palace of tantalizing delights that was! A woman weeps at the difficulty of choosing. In the show window at the Place Vendôme corner there was but one amazing dress displayed; nothing more or less than a lopsided piece of goods in a queer chequered pattern of green and black on a white ground. Nobody but Craqui would have thought of using that material; and what art in its lopsidedness! Of the passers-by some laughed, a few admired, but none missed it.
Inside there was no hint of merchandising, of course. A series of elegant salons in the French style. A grand salon below for ordinary customers, and various delightful little chambers above for the more favoured sort. Into one of the most recherché of these we were shown, and a lady of the most exalted rank, one would say, came to inquire our pleasure. A greater honour was in store: M. Craqui himself came running to kiss Mme Storey's hand. A truly remarkable figure of a fat man in a sportive belted coat. He had a closely cropped brown beard—a sort of genteel bear of a man, and wore, of all things! a pair of dark smoked glasses. Whether this was to protect his eyes from the dazzling stuffs that were brought forth, or from the sight of too much female loveliness, I'm sure I can't say.
We sat in fauteuils, and a succession of young girls were admitted to the room one at a time, each one clad in a design of M. Craqui's more beautiful than the last. With what a clever effect they entered, moved about the little room, paused, turned, lifted their arms, went out. Each one had a highly impersonal air that our models do not seem to be able to attain to. The creator of it all leaned on the back of Mme Storey's chair and advised with her. They talked in French; talked so fast I missed some of the words, but I got the gist of it. At this time Craqui had just invented the famous "stove-pipe silhouette" which admirably became Mme Storey's tall slimness. She ordered it in a dozen different manifestations.
The mannequins were superb creatures. I had expected artificiality in the French, but I quickly learned they can appreciate nature. All the girls were very young, just arrived at the blush of womanhood, in fact, and, uncorseted and unhampered by much underclothing, their young bodies swayed with a barbaric and insolent grace. It struck me as rather strange that such fresh young things should be used to display clothes to the aging and exhausted rich women who must have constituted the majority of M. Craqui's patrons. One would think they might enrage the older women. But I suppose there is no woman so old she cannot picture herself as one of the mannequins. And then they do not often bring their husbands, of course.
M. Craqui was one blaze of excited gesticulation. In America we are given to smiling at men dressmakers—well, Craqui was absurd from our point of view, but he was also a great artist.
"Madame!" he said, striking an attitude, "I have a piece of crimson brocade. Ah-h! You must see it!"
"Monsieur! Remember I'm a poor woman. Positively, not another thing!"
"Madame! If you cannot pay for it, I will give it to you. This piece was woven for you. I could not bear to see another woman have it."
"Thérèse! Fetch me the piece of brocade from my private escritoire. Vite! Vite!"
In due course it was brought.
"Regardez, Madame, regardez. Is it not imperial?...Gabrielle! Gabrielle!! GABRIELLE!!!"
Gabrielle, a brunette like Mme Storey, was introduced to the room in camisole and bloomers. M. Craqui seized a pair of shears and with scarcely a glance cut recklessly into the priceless stuff. All the women exclaimed in dismay. In a jiffy two lengths of it were hanging from Gabrielle's lovely shoulders. M. Craqui like lightning snatched pins from the trembling hands of Thérèse and jabbed them cunningly here and there.
"Voilà! Voilà! Caught over the shoulders in two points and hanging perfectly straight but for a slight fullness under the breast and my three wrinkles across the abdomen. Behold, Madame!"
Indeed, in two minutes there hung the glorious evening gown complete. Absolutely simple, yet stamped with the genius of Craqui.
"With that you may wear your pearls," he said. "But nothing else. Nothing in your beautiful hair. Part your hair not quite in the middle, draw it back loosely and give it a careless twist at the back as you might before going to the bath. That is the mode for you, Madame: disdainful simplicity!"
"I have no pearls," she said drily.
"Then get some. Dusky pearls. Not a long string. If they hang below the décollettage the effect is ruined. Twenty-six inches; no more; no less!"
"Dear sir, how husbands must hate you!" murmured Mme Storey.
He held an expressive shrug.
I was not overlooked. I too, was endowed with a luscious evening gown in the "stove-pipe silhouette." M. Craqui insisted that it must be made up in magenta velvet. Fancy red-haired me in magenta! But he was right, as it proved. The only trouble with the gown when I got it was that it made me look too fine for my humble station. M. Craqui besought me to have my straight hair bobbed, and worn clinging to the skull in the manner of a lad of the Fifteenth Century. I declined, gasping. Bella Brickley of East Seventeenth Street, N.Y., was unable to project herself that far back!
Mme Storey wanted clothes, but she had, as well, another object in visiting Craqui's that morning. At a certain stage in the proceedings she said with an aggrieved air:
"These are all very pretty, but you show me nothing to compare with the stunning designs you have created for Madame Eben Smith."
M. Craqui made great play with uplifted palms and raised eyebrows. "But that would be a sacrilege, dear Madame!"
Mme Storey affected to misunderstand him. "Am I not, then, worthy of your best?"
I thought M. Craqui would have a fit in his efforts to explain. "Non! Non! Non! Non! In dressing you I am forced to humble myself, Madame. I cannot adorn you! In a jute slip you would outshine any woman who came near you!"
"Ah, Craqui is not Craqui for nothing!" murmured Mme Storey, smiling at me.
"Now this Mrs. Smit'," he went on, "her figure is well enough, and her face has no positive blemishes, but she is just woman. One can take her like clay and mould her to any design. I do not deny that in Mrs. Smit' I have found an opportunity. I have never had a customer so ductile, so complaisant. Most women have notions about dressing themselves. Or if not their range is very limited. But Mrs. Smit' is willing to be anything. I can create her afresh each day, according to my mood. Decidedly, an opportunity. Moreover, she carries my designs into places where my mannequins cannot go. Oh, an advertisement magnificent, Madame."
"They say she's a strange woman," remarked Mme Storey. "Inscrutable."
He shrugged. "That inscrutability may hide anything or nothing," he said. "She comes here; she says nothing at all. She has a mysterious air—very good; that is valuable to me; I exploit it. My little mannequins, of course, wear their little hearts outside like breast pins."
"What is her idea?"
"She aspires to become the most-talked-of woman in Paris."
"She is very rich I suppose?"
M. Craqui shrugged in a different manner. He had a whole repertoire of shrugs. "I do not know. She pays her bills."
"You must know something about her."
"Nothing whatever, dear Madame. She walked into my shop one day. The only thing remarkable about her was that she insisted on seeing me. There she sat. In the end I had to go to her in order to get rid of her. She says she is a widow. I should have called her a mature mademoiselle. Certainly she is the least married married woman I have observed. Possibly her husband was very old."
"Did you not ask for references?"
"Oh, her bankers. The Crédit Foncier. They reported merely that her account was satisfactory to them."
Mme Storey allowed the subject to drop, and the exhibition of dresses went on.
As we drove away from the shop I said: "I am prepared to believe now that there is something in Mrs. Greenfield's story. The ex-secretary could scarcely have obtained money enough to patronize Craqui except by criminal means."
But Mme Storey put her head on one side dubiously. "Not quite yet, Bella. We know she had ten thousand dollars. She may even have had more, honestly obtained. Ten thousand dollars will buy a lot of French francs at the present rate of exchange. She may be blowing in the whole in one magnificent gesture...Still, it is rather significant she should choose a French banker—an American woman, speaking no French."
I don't wonder that Americans love Paris; the wonder is they don't all fly there as soon as they have made their pile. The dinner party at Mrs. Charlton's passed off with éclat—something that we have not in America any more than we have a word for it. Not only was everything expensive, but there was a certain stimulus in the air. The diners were roused out of themselves. They talked.
The company dispersed shortly before eleven, leaving us three women to go on to the Jockey with General le Boutillier. He, I need only say, was an old gentleman with nothing whatever to him, but most distinguished to look at.
I was disappointed in my first glimpse of the Jockey, which Mrs. Charlton had assured us was the resort of resorts in Paris and very difficult to get into. Exactly like places of the sort in Greenwich Village. A dingy room with chairs and tables around the walls, and a square of linoleum in the centre to dance on. The drabness of the walls was relieved by a few startling post-cubist paintings. There was a subtle difference, though: the difference between an original and a copy. In Paris a Bohemian has a recognized place in the scheme of things and bears himself with a corresponding assurance. In New York the poor things have to fight against an inferiority complex.
There was one very palpable difference in the Jockey which made all the difference in the world: a flourishing bar in the corner served by American bartenders. How real they looked! In another corner there was a jazz band, and that was American, too.
The types were as those of the Village only more so. More complete and finished than we can produce. And yet I don't know. I was amused to discover that the most picturesque and Vie de Bohèmish of them invariably turned out to be Americans. For example, there was a glorious young fellow with a black slouch hat and a flaming red beard. (How we sensible souls do love a swaggering pose!) They told me he was the American Bolshevist. Splendid to look at. But when he removed the slouch hat I saw that his hair was growing thin on top, and I felt rather let down.
At eleven, when we arrived, the place was empty; at midnight every table save the one next to us was filled. I was dizzied by the number of celebrities that were pointed out to me; Lady Evelyn Estabrook, the English Sappho; Boué Say, the cubist photographer; Otile Exeideuil, the inventor of Ga-Ga, which is not baby talk but a serious movement in art, etc., etc. In addition to the habitués there was a sprinkling of rich American tourists. I observed that the attention of these was unobtrusively called to the pictures, and no doubt appointments were made to visit studios next day. Well, artists must live.
There was one feature of artist life that had not altered. The celebrated photographer Boué Say, who it appeared was late of Union Square, was talking to Mme Storey, and that brought next to me his charming little companion who had no other name but Toto. I was half scandalized, half thrilled. Really, quite a nice little thing. She had no English except a few naughty phrases that she got off with innocent gusto. But I made out to talk to her in my French. Toto, however, preferred to express herself in the universal language of making faces. Enough to make you die! Times have changed! Those great ladies Mme Storey and Mrs. Wynn Charlton talked to Toto as unaffectedly as they might to any pretty child, and Toto was not in the least abashed by them.
In an interval of the music we heard an uproar of talk and laughter on the pavement outside as a new crowd discharged themselves from taxis. It was like a fanfare off scene. The door was banged open and a half dozen men and women burst in. As soon as they were in they began to ask each other loudly: "Where's Mrs. Smith? Where's Mrs. Smith?" Whereupon they all turned around and looked through the door again. I never saw an entrance better stage-managed. She entered quietly, last and alone, her noisy companions falling back to give her passage.
Well, there she was! A little thing, smaller than me; not beautiful, not young, not even clever, they said, but the sensation of artistic Paris. To me she seemed the very incarnation of Paris, though I knew she had but lately stepped ashore from a transatlantic liner. She was all wrapped up in a cloak of rosy fur, flamingo colour. Who ever heard of rosy fur before? But why not? Above this pink cloud she seemed all eyes—-dark caverns in which gleamed a pair of cold and watchful serpents. Her strange parti-coloured hair was drawn across her forehead in a wide band. A curiously wrought ornament of pink jade stuck out from her head at an angle. Her face was all deathly pale; her mouth a cold red splotch. Clearly the aim of this make-up was not to copy nature, but to set up a new criterion.
She allowed the rosy wrap to fall into the arms of a cavalier, and a little sound of astonishment escaped the beholders. Mrs. Smith was wearing a high-waisted dress! The only high-waisted dress that had been put on in Paris that night I am sure. How original of Craqui! It covered her entire too, with sleeves to her wrists, and a yoke that rose almost to her neck. It was made of some sheer white material embroidered with big pale pink dots, and was tied behind with an exaggerated thin wide bow with uneven ends, a Craqui touch.
Of course! Daring effects not being capable of supplying any further thrills, Craqui with one step had gone back to the prim. It was a humorous rendering of the Kate Greenaway period. Highly sophisticated primness. Around her pretty neck Mrs. Smith was wearing a glorious circlet of diamonds: twenty great flashing stones in an invisible setting.
A hint of grimness appeared in Mme Storey's eyes as she marked the diamonds, and I read her thought. Had an old man been murdered for those bits of carbon?
Mrs. Smith and her companions made their way to the table next to ours. I took note of the famous walk. It did have the effect of lending the little woman a sort of majesty. While the others talked back and forth, she sat facing the dancing floor like a sphinx. Nothing more than her tinted eyelids moved. She was like an expensive mechanical doll in the window of a toy shop at Christmas. Quite inhuman. One felt sorry for her. That was supposed to be a scene of gaiety, and she was not gay. On the other hand, there was neither pain nor ennui in the cold gray eyes. There was no expression whatever. All a pose, no doubt, but what on earth was the good of a pose that laid such a painful stricture on the natural motions?
In my mind I tried to reconstruct the millionaire's secretary, and failed utterly. What was hidden behind that inexpressiveness? Had she robbed and murdered in order to achieve her soul's desire only to find it dust and ashes in her mouth? Or was she satisfied? One could have speculated endlessly on the secret of her mask. The mask was what constituted her power.
The three young men in the party all waited upon Mrs. Smith with their subservient glances, and the other two women, manifestly, were only supers. One of the young men was favoured above the other two; he had the place of honour at Mrs. Smith's right ear into which he whispered. She listened but gave no sign. It appeared that the young man was known to my ladies.
"Hélie," whispered Mme Storey to Mrs. Charlton with a humorous cock of her eyebrow.
So I knew him to be the Prince de Rochechouart of whom I had heard. "Roshaswarr" they called it. It is only just now that I have learned the spelling. A rosy and comely young prince.
The amount of masculine attention that Mrs. Smith received was displeasing to Mrs. Charlton, who said somewhat waspishly:
"Having rung all the possible changes on charm, the latest chic is to fall in love with a woman who has none."
"I should not say from the visible symptoms that Hélie was in love," remarked Mme Storey.
"Only technically speaking, of course," replied Mrs. Charlton. "I heard to-day that they were engaged."
"Ah!" breathed Mme Storey with a glance in my direction.
I was terribly excited. A princess next! How amazing! And yet, come to think of it, was it not in a logical sequence? I glanced at the so-called Mrs. Smith with an unwilling respect. She was certainly an out-and-outer.
Presently the Prince caught sight of Mme Storey and came hastening around the table to kiss her hand. Mine too; a new sensation for me, the lips of a prince. Many polite nothings were exchanged in indiscriminate French and English. Mme Storey asked him to lunch with us next day. As he turned to go she whispered, indicating Mrs. Smith:
"She is marvellous! Do introduce me when an opportunity offers."
It appeared that Mrs. Smith did not condescend to dance. When the music started Prince Rochechouart took advantage of the general movement to introduce the two ladies to each other. Less than two feet separated them. Mme Storey had only to turn around in her chair. She had arranged that beforehand. I sat on the other side of Mme Storey and could watch them both without moving. Mrs. Smith bowed and smiled without expressing a vestige of human feeling. The young man slipped away to seek a partner.
"You are a countrywoman of mine," said Mme Storey.
"Ah, you are American?" returned Mrs. Smith with a glance which suggested she didn't think any the better of her for it. "I should not have thought so."
Her voice was low and agreeable. She obtained an effect of foreignness by speaking slowly, and with a particular distinctness.
"Yes, from New York," said Mme Storey. "Of course you know New York."
"I have been there several times."
"Perhaps we know some of the same people."
"I know nobody in New York."
There the conversation hung fire for a moment. Mrs. Smith was never one to help a conversation out. I felt sorry for my mistress. Just like sitting down to talk to a china doll. What could one address to such a blank surface? However, I underrated Mme Storey's resourcefulness.
"I have been so anxious to meet you," she went on with an air of naïveté that would have caused anybody who knew her well to smile; "you are the most talked-about woman in Paris!"
The doll was galvanized into life. Her lips parted, and she turned a pair of unguarded and entirely human eyes on Mme Storey. A blaze of egotism was revealed in their depths. It broke the spell that enveloped her. She could be flattered. One no longer shivered in awe of her.
"Who told you that?" she demanded with a strange eagerness.
"I hear it everywhere," said Mme Storey innocently. "From Mrs. Charlton, from M. Craqui..." She named other names.
Mrs. Smith, conscious that she had stepped out of her self-created picture, made haste to get back again. She shrugged. Her lip curled ever so slightly: her eyes became fixed in their orbits.
"Why should I be?" she murmured.
"Well, the reason seems perfectly clear to me," said Mme Storey, giving her more of the same. "You are a very remarkable woman."
With this line of talk Mme Storey assumed a somewhat foolish expression. It made me uncomfortable. I did not know which way to look. But she had gauged her victim to a nicety. Mrs. Smith swallowed it avidly. It gave me a new reading of the woman. It suggested that her terrifying inscrutability was after all only the inscrutability of a child or a savage in strange company. If so, it was her very unsureness that had the ironic result of making her famous—that and the genius of M. Craqui.
"One feels that you have had a wonderful, wonderful life!" said Mme Storey. "You are like a deep well into which life has flowed."
I don't know exactly what this meant, and I don't believe she did either, but it sounded impressive. Mrs. Smith kept the tinted eyelids down, because she could no longer look inscrutable, I suppose. One apprehended a flush rising under the make-up. No doubt many men had flattered her, but it was something new to get it from a woman, and a woman infinitely more desirable than herself. It affected her like a heady wine.
"You bring an exotic note into life," said Mme Storey. "One is grateful to you. Life is so ordinary."
Mrs. Smith laughed: a dry, nervous little cachinnation expressing the most intense gratification. Those left sitting at her table looked around in astonishment. I suppose Mrs. Smith had never been heard to laugh out loud before.
"You flatter me," she said.
"I don't feel that I could flatter you," said Mme Storey with a serious air.
"We must see more of each other," said Mrs. Smith. "Will you have déjeuner with me to-morrow?"
"Sorry, not to-morrow," said Mme Storey. "Any other day."
"The day after, then. At one-thirty. I live at the Ritz."
"I shall be charmed," said Mme Storey.
Next day we took Prince de Rochechouart to Voisin's, for lunch or, as the French call it, a fork breakfast. The first breakfast is a miserable apology for a meal: café au lait—ugh! I could never learn to like the nasty medicine. Voisin's is one of the dingy famous old Paris restaurants that the tourists do not often stumble on, a place where one obtains the ne plus ultra in eats.
The little Prince was an amusing study. Curious compound of boyishness and sophistication. Another notion about the French that I had to discard was that the men were all effete. Rochechouart was as fresh as a daisy, with cheeks like peonies and sparkling eyes, cornflower-blue. To be sure, he was half American, but there were many like him in Paris. It is later in life that they become hollow cheeked and blasé. To be a well-born, comely, and vigorous young man in Paris, what luck! But it needs a certain amount of imagination to appreciate it, and that he lacked.
I was determined to be democratic. He was no more than a scatter-brained lad, I told myself, like thousands at home; nevertheless, I confess I was impressed. That magic word "Prince" cast a sort of glory around him. Why, Mme Storey had told me his ancestors went on the crusades; and coming down to comparatively recent times, his three-times-great-grandfather had been guillotined during the Terror. The thought of that long, long family roll could not but be thrilling.
I was glad, though, that my ancestors were not in the crusades—as far as I know. Hélie still had the physique, but in the course of the centuries the moral virtues of the old stock had sadly fizzled out. To put it bluntly, he was as unprincipled a young scoundrel as you will see, but with delightful manners. His casual cynicism took my Anglo-Saxon breath away. He had only one virtue: he made no pretences. His candour, indeed, was disconcerting.
It was not difficult to make him talk. A few glasses of 1914 Bollinger and the cork was out of his bottle. Before we reached the entremets we were in possession of his life's whole history, the most of which I would blush to set down.
Mme Storey was looking superb, completely dressed in a certain shade of cold red that becomes her so well. Rochechouart made open love to her. It was nothing to him that he was engaged to marry another woman. My mistress listened with amused tolerance. Me he ignored, except when he remembered his manners with a start. I did not mind. I was well content to watch and listen to the comedy.
"I understand that you are to be congratulated," said Mme Storey.
"Well, I don't know," said the youthful cynic; "I'm going to marry Mrs. J. Eben Smith if that's what you mean. Were you surprised when you heard it?"
"Well, yes, rather."
"Ah, if you would only have me!" he said. "But, no! I don't want to marry you. You are too glorious. I would wish to stand in a dearer relation to you than that of husband!"
"Nobody attaches the slightest weight to what you say, Hélie," said Mme Storey teasingly.
"I know it!" he cried gaily. "So I can say whatever I like! How terrible to be held accountable!"
"What will your father say?" asked Mme Storey.
"Oh, he will make one noble gesture of indignation—and thankfully pocket the miserable sum he has been allowing me. What would you? I've got to marry. My father cannot support us both in the best society. He was disappointed in his marriage, as you may remember. My mother was an angel from heaven, but her dot was small. Just before her papa died he went bankrupt—expressly to embarrass us, I have no doubt. So it's up to me to look out for myself."
I forgot to mention that young Hélie talked good American, scarcely to be distinguished from that of Times Square.
"She's a good bit older than you," ventured Mme Storey.
"Oh, well, marriage is not the serious matter it used to be. This will do very well for a while."
"But how does she regard that?"
"She's a woman of the world. She has no illusions."
"Are there no younger heiresses to be had?"
"I don't want an heiress," he said drily, "but a possessor...If you mean a French girl," he went on, "mon dieu! dear lady, I couldn't marry a French bourgeoise. For why? Her vulgarities are my vulgarities. I should die of it! But an American girl, her vulgarity is the engaging naïveté of the savage. Quite a different thing, you perceive. Trés-chic...
"I have made my tour of America as you know. I looked them over, as they say over there. But nothing came of it. It appears that French titles do not command the best price in the American market because, forsooth, they are not recognized by the French state. I had a bad press. Indeed, such was my innocence, I failed to realize the importance of engaging an American press agent. Nevertheless, there were several sweet little things who intimated their willingness to become La Princesse de Rochechouart. But obstacles always arose. I myself became coy. Because it appeared that an American girl expects to possess her husband! Is that not an unnatural and a disconcerting thing? Then there was always the difficulty of the dot. You would not believe how difficult it is to persuade Americans to treat such matters seriously. Indeed, they affected to be horrified that one should wish to talk about settlements at all at such a time. A strange race! The papas of all these sweet young things were fabulously rich, but they baulked at handing any of it over with their daughters. In America, it appears, the young people are expected to exist on the charity of their elders until the elders die. That did not appeal to me. I will be old myself then, and have less use for money. So I returned as single as I went."
He drained his glass. When he set it down his blue eyes were swimming happily. "Ah, how beautiful you are!" he said to Mme Storey. "You carry about with you an aura of golden light!"
"That's the champagne you have drunk," said Mme Storey drily..."How does the situation of Mrs. Smith differ from these others?"
"Mrs. Smith has no papa," he said, laughing. "At least, I don't know whether she has or not. At any rate, he doesn't figure. She has the money."
"But you know nothing about her. None of us knows anything about her. She may be a—she may be anything at all!"
"What do I care, my dear lady? She has the money. Besides, she has, what do you say? made good in Paris. She is a success."
"In certain circles," Mme Storey put in.
"Ah, nowadays one circle's about as good as another," he said with a shrug. "The great thing is to get your head above the crowd; to become known. What does it matter how you accomplish it?...I'll introduce her to the Faubourg St. Germain if she's interested in that stupid lot. They don't count at all any more...Mrs. Smith is famous. She's more famous than I am. She will become more famous. I may be blamed for marrying her, but I will not be despised."
"Moreover, you are wrong," he went on. "I do know something about her. She has told me her story. It is not at all a grand story, and I see no reason to disbelieve it. Her name is not Mrs. Smith, and she has never been near that place with the droll name, what do you call it? Hipsolanti. She has not been married before, one might guess from her virginal air. Her real name is Margaret Gowan."
I do not often see my astute mistress astonished by a piece of information, but I knew by the quiver of her eyelids that she was astonished then. Needless to say, I shared it. What on earth could have induced the canny Mrs. Smith to tell her fiancé the truth about herself?
And this was not all. Rochechouart went on: "For seven long years she served one of your great money barons as, what is the word? private secretary. By the aid of confidential information supplied by her employer, what they call tips, she was able to speculate with her savings, and year by year to double, to quadruple, to multiply the amount, until, when he finally died last year, she found herself a rich woman in her own right."
"Hm," said Mme Storey ironically. "I should call that quite a grand story."
"You do not believe it," he said, undisturbed. "But she has her winnings to show for it."
"Eighteen millions of francs."
"About a million in our money. A tidy sum, eh, Bella? The goal that every money maker sets himself...Are you sure she has it?"
"Ah, be sure, dear lady, I have not neglected so important a matter," he said with a smile. "I have accompanied my fiancée to her bankers'—she employs no less than five; all French houses of the solidest, and I have seen her wealth in her own strong boxes and have handled it. American securities, all—what is it they say?—gilt-edged, as even I could see. Liberty bonds, railway bonds, and others. On the morning of our wedding day one third of it is to be placed in my hands."
"I do congratulate you," said Mme Storey.
Next morning, in our delicious little salon at the Crillon which looked out upon the glorious prospect of the Place de la Concorde, I was packing my bags preparatory to catching the boat train for Cherbourg. I was to board the Leviathan that night. My heart was rather heavy at the thought of leaving that intoxicating town—I had had but three dreamlike days of it—but Mme Storey had promised me that I should come back with her for a real vacation. Meanwhile, there was highly important work for me to do in America. We no longer had any doubt of Margaret Gowan's guilt; for, as Mme Storey said:
"One does not make a million by tips alone."
The next thing we had to do was to prove her guilt, and this promised to be no easy matter, for the trail was eight months' old now. We guessed, too, from her perfect composure, that it was cleverly hidden. All the evidence was in America; hence the overnight decision to send me home.
"This time we are opposed by a remarkable woman, my Bella," Mme Storey had said. "It is very stimulating. Conceive of the plain little stenographer who became the most-talked-about woman in Paris and set out to marry a prince!"
"Yes, and a precious pair they will make!" I said indignantly.
"Well, what can you do better with a pair like that than marry them off to each other?" said Mme Storey, smiling. "It will save some better man and woman from a ghastly fate, maybe. No, I do not feel that we are called upon to interfere to prevent that marriage."
"He might get away with his share of the loot," I suggested.
"I will guard against it," said Mme Storey. "How strange she should have told him so much of the truth about herself!"
"Why do you suppose she made her term of service with Mr. Greenfield seven years instead of twelve?" I asked.
"Oh, that's easy," said Mme Storey. "Have a heart, Bella. She's going to be married. Let her knock off a few years from her ostensible age. But why did she tell him at all? Since obviously it made no difference to him. That, I cannot explain to myself."
"Just a slip, perhaps," I suggested.
"Never," said Mme Storey. "She had a motive in it, as she has had a motive in everything she has done. It will appear before we are through with her."
"I will remain in Paris," Mme Storey had said, "and while I am amusing myself I will keep an eye on her. If she ever suspected our activities, she and her million would vanish into thin air. You go back to New York and work up the case against her. I will give you daily instructions by cable, and you will report to me daily. It will cost a bit of money in tolls, but I suppose the Greenfield estate can afford it. From Nederhal of the United States Trust I will obtain two copies of the private code they use in cabling between their New York and Paris offices. We'll base our messages on that. Let Esmé be the code word for the woman and Leo for Mr. Greenfield. Register our New York address at the cable office, so I can save that seventy-five cents of each message. Address yours to the Crillon.
"There is a lot of patient spade work to be undertaken, Bella. This was no hasty and ill-considered crime. My guess is that cold, patient, determined little creature has been years about it. And struck like a viper when the moment was ripe. We will have to go back to the beginning. Take Mrs. Greenfield fully into your confidence. She will be your principal source of information. If Crider has not already done so, get from her the little notebook in which her husband entered the list of his assets and liabilities. That notebook must serve as the cornerstone of our structure. You had better cable me a copy of the statement and follow it with a copy by mail. Also get Mrs. Greenfield to give you several authentic specimens of her husband's handwriting—say, one or more of his private letters to her. Take letters and notebook to Cardozo, the handwriting expert, and find out if the entries in the notebook, or any part of them, may be a forgery.
"Next, with the aid of the correspondence in the dead man's files, trace back as many of the transactions entered on his balance sheet as you are able. I mean find out when and under what circumstances Mr. Greenfield purchased the securities he set down on one side, and when and under what circumstances he acquired the debts that he put down on the other side. If you find copies of his letters that seem to lead to anything, you must if possible obtain the originals from the men they were addressed to. But I do not need to tell you to exercise the greatest prudence. This case when it breaks will cause an extraordinary sensation. The merest hint of such a case would be good for scareheads. Any premature disclosure would ruin our chances of success.
"Through Rochechouart I will get additional information as to the securities the woman holds. But if, as I suspect, she has been clever enough to put the whole million into non-registered bonds of enormous issues, such as Liberty bonds, it will be almost impossible to trace them.
"Send me a detailed report of all the circumstances surrounding Mr. Greenfield's death.
"The first thing you should do upon landing is to hasten Crider's report on the woman's antecedents. I cannot wait for it to come by mail. Cable it. That report will suggest our next moves.
"Really, the only wasted time will be your six days at sea. I can reach you by wireless if I think of anything additional. Once you are in New York we can communicate as freely as if we were next door to each other. Great is Science! I'll use all the influence I possess to see that our cables are dispatched and delivered promptly. Don't forget the difference in time. When you're going to bed I'll be almost ready to get up next morning.
"Time to start now. On your way to the Gare St. Lazare you can drop me at the Ritz. It is time for my appointment with Mrs. Smith."
"Horrible woman!" I exclaimed. "How can you bring yourself to sit down with her?"
"I'm afraid I'm an unmoral soul, my Bella," said Mme Storey, smiling. "I shall enjoy her. I do not know when I have had so fascinating a subject."
I append a selection from the cablegrams that Mme Storey and I exchanged. Those that did not lead anywhere I have omitted. What an interesting illustration these messages afford of the way in which her remarkable mind bridged a three-thousand-mile gap!
BRICKLEY, Leviathan (via wireless) June 17th.
Margaret was born in Weddinsboro, Ind. Let Crider follow that up as soon as he is able.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Crider reports Margaret lived for seven years in boarding house Mrs. Pettigrew, — West 57th Street. Crider took a room there. Landlady refers to Margaret friendly manner, but never seems to have become intimate with her. Margaret very highly spoken of by all. A guest, Miss Bowlby, middle-aged woman independent means, regards herself as Margaret's most intimate friend. Appears, though, Margaret never really took her into her confidence. Miss Bowlby says Margaret came there death of her mother heart disease. Margaret living time Mother's death flat — West 82nd Street. Before that had cheap flat corner 135th Street, Columbus Avenue. Mentioned to Miss Bowlby had a hard struggle upon first coming to New York. Never said where she came from.
Miss Bowlby hinted romance in Margaret's life, but upon pinning her down it seemed there was nothing more in it than a young man who called on her twice and then came no more. No other man in Margaret's life. Margaret rarely went out. She and Miss Bowlby played rummy evenings. Went to a play every Saturday night. Margaret a great reader. Got her books from main branch Public Library, 42nd Street. Margaret has not written Miss Bowlby since leaving New York. Crider has now gone to Weddinsboro.
BRICKLEY, New York
See if Margaret's card is on file at the library. If so, hold it for future instructions.
BRICKLEY, New York
Mr. Greenfield's statement received. Disregard assets. Concentrate on tracing notes of hand outstanding at time of death. Obtain assistance Ladbroke, United States Trust. I have numbered notes in order as listed. Refer to numbers in replying. Were these notes saved when paid by the estate?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Notes were destroyed when paid.
BRICKLEY, New York
By whose authority were notes destroyed?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
All persons concerned deny responsibility for destruction notes.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Mr. Greenfield occupied two offices Cosmopolitan Life Building for past twenty-five years. As his lease has not run out, the estate is trying to sublet with furniture remaining as it was. All records, papers, etc., removed to Continental Storage Warehouse. I am mailing plan of the two offices. In addition to Margaret, Mr. Greenfield employed Henry Besson as clerk for more than twenty years. Am in touch with Besson through Mrs. Greenfield. He looked after the details of Mr. Greenfield's real estate, personal and household expenses, check books, etc. Was not in Mr. Greenfield's confidence. Besson timid, conventional old man; afraid to commit himself to any positive statements. Speaks of Margaret in highest terms, but fancy there was friction there. Mr. Greenfield left Besson legacy with which he has purchased annuity. What questions shall I put to Besson? There was also a junior clerk, a lad, Frank Carter. Have not yet found him.
BRICKLEY, New York
Let me have Besson's account of Mr. Greenfield's death in his own words.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
"It was on a Tuesday that Mr. Greenfield died; Tuesday the twelfth of October last year. That day which ended so dreadful for all of us began like any one of a hundred days before. All I can remember about the beginning of it is that it was raining. I know that because Mr. Greenfield did not go out to his lunch. He came in about eleven, as was customary. I did not see him because he entered his private office direct from the corridor. Often a whole day might pass without my seeing him, because he always went in and out by his own door to avoid the chance of meeting beggars or cranks in the outer office. We were considerably troubled by such gentry. But of course I always knew when Mr. Greenfield was in. Not having seen him, I cannot tell you if he looked any different from ordinary that day.
"He would get in along about eleven, read the mail Miss Gowan had ready for him, and dictate his answers. Then he'd go out to lunch at the Bankers' Club where we could find him if need be. Along about three or a little after, he'd drop back to sign his letters and see if there was anything new. Then go on home. 'I earned the right to take my ease, Besson,' he'd say to me, and then add with a laugh, 'but I guess I'd take it anyhow.' And often he'd urge me to close up early and go home. But I didn't. Not that I had too much work to do, but I wouldn't have known what to do with myself if I'd 'a' gone home early.
"Latterly Mr. Greenfield did not see many people at the office. If anybody came with a proposition he'd say 'write it out first.' Only old friends, of course. It was raining on the day he died, and he had the boy telephone to the Exchange Café for two chicken sandwiches, white meat only, and a bottle of ginger ale. That was a regular custom in bad weather. A waiter brought it to our office, and the boy carried it in.
"It was some time after that; it was five minutes to two—Frank gave me the exact time next day—when Miss Gowan opened the door between the two offices, and her face was white as tissue paper, and she said stuttering-like, not loud at all: 'Oh, Mr. Besson, come quick, come quick!' Or something like that; I don't remember exactly. I ran in and saw Mr. Greenfield lying on the floor with his legs under his desk and his head under his chair. Miss Gowan said he had just groaned once and fallen back, then slipped down out of his chair to the floor, shoving the chair back a little. That was why we hadn't heard any fall outside. When I first looked at Mr. Greenfield his face was all blackish red, his teeth showing. But before the doctor came his colour was gone. We got a doctor in a few minutes. From the Cosmopolitan Life, because that was nearest. He was there in a minute or two. Cerebral hemorrhage he said, soon, as he looked. Dr. Strailock, Mr. Greenfield's own doctor got there in half an hour. He said the same. I knew that Mr. Greenfield had been warned about his blood pressure, but he was real careful. Dr. Strailock made all arrangements to take the body home. Mr. Greenfield's attorney, Mr. Conway, he came about the same time. Miss Gowan telephoned for them. I was too upset. Mr. Conway put seals on everything; Mr. Greenfield's desk, his private safe, and so on."
BRICKLEY, New York
When autopsy was performed, were contents of Mr. Greenfield's stomach analyzed?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
No analysis made since death was clearly due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
BRICKLEY, New York
Use every effort to find the boy Frank Carter. Ask Besson following questions: (a) Was the door between outer and inner offices locked? (b) How long a time elapsed between the delivery of lunch and Mr. Greenfield's death? (c) Was Miss Gowan with her employer the whole of that time? (d) How was Miss Gowan dressed that day? (e) Find out from Besson or another when, where, and by whom the notebook was found.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Besson's answers: (a) There was a spring lock on the door as a safeguard against the numerous cranks who tried to see Mr. Greenfield. In addition to the usual means of opening it on the inside, there was an electrical device on Mr. Greenfield's desk so that he could let anybody in without getting up. Furthermore, Miss Gowan had a key to the latch so she could let herself in any time, and there was a spare key in Besson's desk, but that was never used, (b) He could not remember exactly. About an hour, (c) Miss Gowan had been in and out of the private office ever since Mr. Greenfield came in. Besson had not noticed her for a long time before she appeared at the door to give the alarm, (d) Miss Gowan was wearing a dress of blue serge that Besson was very familiar with. A plain, straight dress all in one piece, with some red embroidery around the neck and a narrow belt of serge around the hips, (e) Mr. Conway searched the body in the presence of Dr. Strailock, Mr. Besson, and Miss Gowan. He found the notebook in the inner breast pocket of the dead man's coat, and kept it.
BRICKLEY, New York
Any pockets in Miss Gowan's dress?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
BRICKLEY, New York
I wish to establish whether Miss Gowan had any hiding places on her person. Question Besson particularly.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Besson says Miss Gowan had a little patent-leather handbag or pocketbook such as women carry about. It was a joke between him and Frank that she would not let it out of her sight. Even when she went back and forth between the outer and the inner offices, she carried it under her elbow.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Note No. 2, $50,000, was given by Mr. Greenfield to George Hutt August 17, 1923, in payment 2,000 shares common stock New Idea Trunk Co. Hutt was promoting the company. It is now in operation. The shares were found among Mr. Greenfield's assets, as you know. I have seen Hutt. He was well acquainted with Mr. Greenfield, who had assisted him on several previous occasions to start worthy enterprises.
BRICKLEY, New York
Nothing in number two for us. Proceed with others. Whenever you locate the person to whom Mr. Greenfield issued a note let your first question be: Did he ever meet Mr. Greenfield personally and talk to him? If so, drop that line and start another.
BRICKLEY, New York
Margaret and Hélie were married this morning. I was not invited.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Crider back. Weddinsboro a somewhat remote village in southern Indiana. The Gowans are remembered there. Joe Gowan did odd jobs of tinkering and work by the day. A drunkard and ne'er-do-well. Wife a confirmed invalid. Heart disease. They couldn't afford a doctor. Family lived in squalid surroundings. The girl was bright at school, but only half fed and clothed, and always sickly. A homely little thing. Neighbours pitied her but couldn't do anything, she was such a touchy and cross-grained little piece. Gave herself airs which hardly befitted persons in their situation. Had no friends among the young people of either sex. When she was old enough, girl went to New York and found work. Returned a year or so later and took her mother away with her. Father lived on in Weddinsboro, sinking lower and lower. Died three years ago County Almshouse. No word has ever been heard from the girl or her mother.
BRICKLEY, New York
Get Besson to give you further particulars of his employer's habits and characteristics. This is helpful.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Notes 7 and 8 were both given by Mr. Greenfield to men he knew, so I have eliminated them. Note No. 5, $75,000, was held by Hanover Trust Company at Mr. Greenfield's death. The original note came into possession of the bank six years ago and had been renewed from time to time. The original endorser was one Henry B. Blakeley, whom I have not been able to locate. Correspondence in files suggests Blakeley and Greenfield never met. The note was issued to Blakely in exchange for shares in the Simplex Taximeter Co.
BRICKLEY, New York
Find out if any official of Hanover Trust ever interviewed Mr. Greenfield in respect to renewing note.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
No. Seems it is customary in the case of known men for the bank to send a notice by mail of the approaching maturity of a note. A new note and check for the interest was always received from Mr. Greenfield in ample time, so no personal call was ever made on him.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Quote Besson: "Mr. Greenfield and me was just the same age. He always made a point of it. Made out in a joking way we was twins. But there wasn't much twins about it. He was tall and I am short; he was fat and I am skinny; he was a healthy man and I have my asthma; he had no children and I have five—not to speak of his being rich and me poor, which is the greatest difference of all.
"Mr. Greenfield was a rare easy-going man; that was his guiding rule in life; to take things easy. He wore his clothes real loose, and his collars with a wide opening at the front to give his neck plenty room. Everybody knows his picture, I guess, with the little sideburns white and glistening like spun glass and the pink skin showing through. A fleshy man he was, and real soft, but healthy. Never knew him to have a day's sickness. 'Look at me, Besson,' he would say; 'I am a living example of how not to live. I never did anything of the things I ought to do; never took a day's exercise; never denied myself anything; always did whatever I liked.'
"That was all very well to say, but he was an abstemious man; ate and drank very sparingly. He took his chief pleasure talking to his friends. He liked to talk to young men. Young men with ideas. Latterly almost the whole of his business consisted of his putting up capital to help young men float their ideas. When anybody praised him for it he'd turn it off by saying: 'Most profitable business in the world, my dear sir. Only make sure that they are ideas. Most men with money are more afraid of ideas than they are of spotted snakes; consequently ideas are to be had cheap.'
"He had his little peculiarities, as everybody knows. He was all for new ideas, but he hated to have new things around him. To the day of his death he and Mrs. Greenfield still took their airings behind a spanking team. He had to have a telephone in his business, but he wouldn't have it in his private office; no indeed, it was in the outside office, and nothing would ever induce him to talk over it."
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Blakeley died New Orleans, La., Sept. 19, 1921. That seems to close that line. Meanwhile, in respect to note No. 11 $125,000. I have located Webster J. F. Cook to whom it was given in 1919. Cook was then organizing the New Process Smelting Works at Arcana, Ill. Mr. Greenfield took 2,500 shares at 50 and wrote a letter of recommendation which Cook says was the turning point in the flotation of the stock. The concern is now very prosperous. The whole matter was arranged by correspondence. Cook never saw Mr. Greenfield, so this seems to be what you require. What additional questions shall I ask Cook?
BRICKLEY, New York
Cable me contents of Greenfield's letters to Cook regardless of expense. I don't want Cook's answers. If the originals of any of Mr. Greenfield's letters are still in Cook's possession, obtain them and carry them to Cardozo for examination of signatures. Establish from the transfer books of New Process Company when Mr. Greenfield sold his stock and to whom.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Webster Cook himself bought Mr. Greenfield's shares at par after the Company was on a dividend-paying basis. Mr. Greenfield wrote asking him if he wanted to buy. Cook says he thought Mr. Greenfield rather held him up in the transaction, but he couldn't say anything on account of the original benefit. Cook had to have shares, as his control was threatened. Cook put up the stock as collateral with his bank, the Sixth National Chicago. The cancelled certificates originally issued to Mr. Greenfield are still in the company's possession.
BRICKLEY, New York
Have Cardozo pass on Mr. Greenfield's endorsement of cancelled New Process certificates. Has Cook still got the cancelled check or checks that he gave Mr. Greenfield in payment for his stock?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Cook had cancelled check to Greenfield framed and hung over his desk. Was largest check he ever drew. Cook most obliging. Brought me cancelled check and certificates this morning, and I immediately carried them to Cardozo. Cardozo says signatures on Greenfield's letters to Cook, endorsements on stock certificates, and endorsement on check all written by the same hand. May be forgeries. Will give you a final opinion after he has made a further study of Mr. Greenfield's handwriting.
The check dated July 28th, a year ago. It was deposited in the Interstate National. Besson positively asserts Mr. Greenfield never had an account there, but bank officials state he kept a varying sum on deposit for nearly a year, and the account was closed only a short time before his death. President states he tried to establish personal relations with Mr. Greenfield, but though his letters were courteously answered, he never succeeded in seeing him. The account was opened by mail.
BRICKLEY, New York
Good work, Bella! See if you can trace through any stock exchange house the sale of a large amount of bonds to Mr. Greenfield in the days following July 28th a year ago. Don't go to the individual firms, but to the governors of the exchange, who have their own system of communicating with the members. Get the numbers of the bonds if possible.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Have found Frank Carter. Now working for Mackubin, Goodrich & Co. Intelligent and well-disposed lad of 19. Cable questions.
BRICKLEY, New York
From Carter I want full particulars of luncheon served Mr. Greenfield day of death.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Lunch consisted of two chicken sandwiches and bottle of ginger ale. Brought to the office at 1:15. Carter took tray from waiter and, carrying it into inner office, placed it on the table (D) just inside door. See plan I sent you by mail. Mr. Greenfield was then sitting at his desk by the window (A), with Miss Gowan at his right hand taking dictation. Mr. Greenfield turned as Frank entered saying: "Here it is! I'm thirsty." It was fifty minutes later when Miss Gowan raised the alarm of Mr. Greenfield's seizure. In the confusion that followed, the luncheon was forgotten until about 3:30, when the waiter came for the dishes. Mr. Greenfield's body had then been taken home. Frank gathered up the dishes and handed them to the waiter.
BRICKLEY, New York
More particulars. Vitally important. Have Frank enumerate every article upon tray and describe exact position and condition of every article when he gathered them up.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
It was a small, round silver-plated tray covered with a napkin. Upon it (a) a plate bearing two chicken sandwiches white bread, white meat only, divided in half by a diagonal cut. (b) A pair of glass pepper and salt shakers with silver-plated tops, (c) A pint bottle of ginger ale, C. & C. brand. This was lying on its side, (d) A bottle opener, (e) A thick, plain glass like restaurants use. (f) A folded napkin, (g) A napkin spread over the whole.
Carter showed some hesitancy in answering my questions about the lunch, but I finally elicited the fact that he had eaten and drunk what remained and was reluctant to confess it. When he went into the private office to get the things for the waiter, the tray was still on the table inside the door where he had set it down. The bottle had been opened, and cap and opener lay on the tray. The bottle stood there half empty. The glass was beside it quite empty. Frank smelled of the glass to see if Mr. Greenfield had had a highball but couldn't smell anything whatever. The plate with the sandwiches had been carried over to Mr. Greenfield's desk. Also folded napkin and pepper and salt shakers. Only a single bite had been taken from one of the sandwiches. The napkin, partly unfolded, lay underneath Mr. Greenfield's desk.
Here is a new fact I drew from Frank. About fifteen minutes after he had carried the lunch into the private office, Miss Gowan came out and went to her desk, where she sat down but didn't do anything. Carter noticed that she was just fooling with a pencil. This was not like her. He was going to chaff her about it, but checked himself. She was not one that you could fool with, he said. After two or three minutes she got up and went back into the private office, letting herself in with her key. I put this up to Besson, and he confirms it. He just forgot to mention it in his statement. After Miss Gowan had gone, the boy glanced at the paper lying on her desk. Among aimless marks she had written the telephone number Plaza 5771. This is Dr. Strailock's number.
BRICKLEY, New York
Fine! Is there a wash basin in Mr. Greenfield's private office?
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
No. Wash basin in outer office.
BRICKLEY, New York
Was there a water cooler? None marked on plan.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Yes. Cooler supplied by Red Deer Water Co. Removed by them when offices were vacated. Hence not on plan. It stood alongside table (D), on your left as you entered from outer office.
STOREY, Crillon, Paris
Hasbrouck, James & Co., members N. Y. Stock Exchange, report on August 7th last year they purchased on Mr. Greenfield's account U. S. Liberty 3 ½s reg.; D. & H. cvt. 5s; L. & N. rfg. 5s; Iron Mountain gold 5s, totalling $263,000. [The numbers of the bonds followed.] None of these securities appeared among Mr. Greenfield's assets.
This correspondence closed with a surprising piece of news from Mme Storey.
BRICKLEY, New York
Hélie and Margaret sailed S.S. Paris Le Havre to-day. Booked under their own name without the title. Suite 625. Will arrive New York 18th. Have them kept under surveillance. I sail Mauretania Saturday; arrive New York 19th. Am booked as Mrs. Davidge in case you have to wireless. Meet me at pier. Should Hélie call me up on arrival, tell him I got back on the Berengaria. I am supposed to have preceded them home. Warn Matilda at my apartment to tell the same story.
On the day named, with Crider and another operative duly armed with passes, I made my way to the pier of the French line. With the jabbering on every side it was like a bit of Paris transplanted, that Paris which I only knew for three days, but which I shall be homesick for as long as I live. All we could see of the great ship were squares of black hull and white upperworks through the openings in the pier shed. She brought a good crowd for the westward voyage at this season. The majority of the passengers were foreigners coming to America for their vacations.
We stationed ourselves where we could get a good view of the first-class gangway. My job was to point out Margaret to Crider and his partner, who were to keep her in view until Mme Storey's arrival on the following day. I had not much fear that she would recognize me in my workaday clothes. Moreover, I was in the crowd, whereas the passengers had to pass one by one in review before us, as they gingerly picked their steps down the plank.
Hundreds of passengers descended before them, and I was growing anxious. Finally I saw them on deck, standing back with aristocratic reserve until the press should be over. It was Hélie's red cheeks that I spotted. He was quite unchanged, but in America he looked very French. As for Margaret, had he not been with her, I should have had to look hard before recognizing her. For with M. Craqui's assistance she had changed her role again. Nothing of the bizarre or the sensational in her appearance now. She was the high-born Princess on her travels. Her hat, suit, summer furs expressed the very perfection of well-bred distinction. Her make-up was absent—or discreetly appeared to be absent, and it surprised me to discover how good-looking she was without it.
But she was not extraordinarily good-looking; she was something rarer. For a thousand good-looking women there is I suppose one who can look and bear herself like a princess, and Margaret was that one. When she came stepping daintily and stiffly down the gangplank you could see all the lookers-on glance at each other as much as to say: "Here comes somebody. Who is she?" I could only ask myself helplessly: Where did she get it? Where did she get it? this daughter of the odd-jobs-man of Weddinsboro, Ind.
She looked around her with an amused interest, as might a Frenchwoman first setting foot on these shores. Technically, of course, she was a Frenchwoman now, and undoubtedly travelling under a French passport. She kept herself very much to herself, and left Hélie to attend to the luggage, of which they had a vast pile. Each expensive piece was marked with an R under a coronet. All the good Americans on the dock stared awestruck at the coronet. Yet nothing is easier, surely, than to have a coronet painted on one's trunks. I wonder if the million in securities was in one of the trunks. Probably not.
Leaving them there under the eyes of Crider and his partner, I returned to the office.
Later Crider reported that they held passage tickets to Shanghai, and that the greater part of their baggage had been forwarded through to Vancouver in bond. This was somewhat disconcerting. However, taking a trunk apiece, they had had themselves driven to the Madagascar, where they had engaged a suite for three days. At the Madagascar they had registered as Prince and Princesse de Rochechouart, and the reporters had already got hold of Hélie.
The interview, when I read the report of it in the evening papers, was merely the perfunctory thing which gives nothing away. Margaret had kept out of sight, and the reporters had not elicited the fact that she was an American.
Next morning I made my way to a different pier with very different feelings. This time I had no need to hide. I planted myself as close to the foot of the gangplank as they would let me. When my dear mistress ran down she gave me a good squeeze. She was dressed with extreme plainness, and was partially disguised by a comical little veil to the tip of her pretty nose. It appeared that she had kept as close as possible to her stateroom on the way over, and had made no friends aboard. True, she was recognized by reporters on the pier, but she smilingly asked them not to announce her return "for reasons of policy." Mme Storey is a great favourite with newspaper men, because she deals with them with absolute frankness, and they promised to respect her request.
She had brought but one tiny trunk home with her. As soon as we were alone in the taxicab she said:
"Well, where are they?"
"At the Madagascar," I replied. "Ostensibly for two more days."
"Hm! That doesn't give us much time, does it? I suppose you're keen to know what happened in Paris after you left. Well, nothing happened except the grand fact of their marriage and the announcement of their voyage to America. That astonished me, I confess. My one tête-à-tête with canny Margaret convinced me that I would never get anything out of her by direct methods. At our first meeting at the Jockey I caught her off her guard with a strong dose of flattery, but she evidently thought it over, and at the Ritz she was armed for me. So I appeared to let her drop. She thought I had a tenderness for Hélie and was jealous of her, and I allowed her to think so. The woman is a fool, my Bella, that's the extraordinary thing about her. One of the toughest problems that has ever confronted me, and yet, in a sense, a fool!
"After that I only met her by accident. I had them both kept in sight, of course. You can get such good men in Paris for almost nothing. A week before they sailed it was reported to me that they had engaged passage for America. This was playing right into my hand, if they meant it, but I could not be sure they might not slip off to South America instead. To have come back on the same ship would certainly have aroused the lady's suspicions, so I engaged passage on the Berengaria and bade good-bye to all my friends, and left Paris. But I let the Berengaria go, of course, and spent a glorious week in Rouen doing the Norman churches: Chartres, Coutances, Mont St. Michel; I had an adventure—but I'll tell you that some other time. When my Frenchman reported that they had actually gone aboard the Paris and she had cast off, then I cabled you and ran up to Cherbourg to catch the Mauretania.
"Bella, I'll bet a dollar you cannot guess where they are going next!"
"Shanghai," I said.
"Eventually, yes. But before that."
I shook my head.
"To Weddinsboro, Indiana."
"That is why she was obliged to tell Hélie so large a part of the truth about herself. That is why she has brought him to America. Indeed, I believe that is the principal reason why she married him, as she does not seem to care for him particularly and sees through him perfectly. How stupid I was not to have foreseen it from the first. Crider's report from Weddinsboro throws a great white light upon her motives. The daughter of the village drunkard! An object of contemptuous pity to the village women. No young friends of either sex. One can imagine how that wound has been festering all these years. Now she is going back as La Princesse de Rochechouart to put it all over them.
"Can't you see her registering at the village hotel, if there is one; walking about the village streets for a day, clinging to the arm of her prince? She will donate ten thousand dollars for a war memorial, if they haven't got one already, or a village hall; then on to Shanghai, trailing clouds of glory! Can you imagine a more complete and artistic revenge? There are moments when I can scarcely bring myself to interfere with it!"
"Mme Storey!" I said indignantly.
"Moments, Bella, moments...Seriously, in all my experience I have never met with so cold-blooded and devilish a crime. For at least seven years she lived with the thought of it, wholly absorbed. The Greenfields indeed nourished a viper."
"She was bold to venture back to America," I said.
"Not particularly," said Mme Storey. "From her point of view the incident is closed. She showed her boldness, superhuman boldness, when she remained on the job week after week assisting the lawyers to delve into Mr. Greenfield's affairs. They gave her a clean bill of health, and she feels she has nothing more to fear from the law...You have been keeping in touch with Mrs. Greenfield?"
"Yes," I said, "but I didn't tell her in advance that Margaret was coming back. The old lady is so frail I feared the excitement—"
"Quite right," said Mme Storey. "Time enough to tell her when we've clinched the matter...What does Cardozo say?"
"He will make a final report to you this afternoon...Have you a case?" I added anxiously.
"For theft, yes, thanks to your work. For murder—"
She shook her head. "I know she did it. I even know how she did it, but I could not prove it to the satisfaction of a jury. We have a day of intensive work before us, my Bella. I must take action before they get out of New York."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because when Margaret gets to Weddinsboro, she is bound to hear at once that somebody has been there making inquiries respecting her past...No, within the next twenty-four hours we must forge the vital link in the chain."
"And if we cannot do so?"
"I'll make a bold play to break her nerve and force a confession."
"Break that woman's nerve!"
"That seems visionary to you?" Mme Storey said, smiling. "But, after all, she's only flesh and blood like ourselves, however she may pretend to be superior."
Within an hour of our arrival at the office Mme Storey had the voluminous exhibits of the case organized and the contents at her finger tips. Nelson, the man who had the Rochechouarts under surveillance, reported by 'phone that the couple were on a sightseeing and shopping tour. At noon Crider came in to report in person. Crider said:
"Three days ago I found the doctor who attended Mrs. Gowan. A number of names had been furnished me by the drug store in the flat-building on One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street where the Gowans first lived in New York. Name Michelson; West One Hundred and Thirty-sixth Street. His memory required considerable prodding before he recalled the people. They must have been cash patients, because their name did not appear on his books. It was the fact that Miss Gowan worked for Mr. Daniel Greenfield that brought it back. The millionaire's name had made an impression.
"On his first visit the Gowans had just moved in, Dr. Michelson said; their things were still strewn about. Mrs. Gowan was a heart patient; serious condition. He remembered seeing her several times in that flat: a chronic and progressive case; all he could do for her was to prescribe the usual stimulants and restoratives. He remembered calling on them once, perhaps oftener, in a more expensive flat at an address he had forgotten—that would be the Eighty-second Street place. The woman died there. He was called in after her death and issued the certificate."
"What could he tell you about his prescriptions?" asked Mme Storey.
"Nothing positive. He supposed that he had issued several, but he could not remember them after so many years. Doctors do not keep any record of their prescriptions. The first thing would naturally be a powerful heart stimulant, he said, and he wrote out for me what he would prescribe in such a case, without being able to state, of course, that it was exactly the same thing he ordered years ago."
Crider handed over a prescription.
"I then returned to the drug store which had given me his name," Crider went on, "but I was unable to find that such a prescription, or indeed that any prescription for Miss Gowan had ever been filled there. Yet people generally deal with the nearest drug store. Every one of the drug stores in the neighbourhood yielded the same result. That is what I have been doing the last three days."
Said Mme Storey: "You have not been able to find that such a prescription was filled, but can we be certain that it was not?"
"Yes, Madame," said Crider. "Prescriptions are never destroyed. The system of keeping them was the same in every place that I visited. They are pasted in a book as received, and given a serial number. A prescription always has the name of the patient written upon it and is signed by the doctor. As I knew the approximate date of issue, it was a simple matter to look them up."
Mme Storey puffed at a cigarette, and considered. "The Gowans were very poor at that time," she said, thinking aloud, "and had to count every penny. Margaret, knowing that she would be at a heavy expense for medicine, could hardly fail to think of the cut-price drug stores which were at that time just coming into prominence...There are two possibilities, the shopping centre on West One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street where she must have gone sometimes to do her marketing, and the down town places.
"Bella," she went on to me, "you take One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street this afternoon. You will find a big cut-price drug store near the elevated station. As for you, Crider, one of the oldest and best-known of such places, Cadnam's, is on Broadway almost opposite the building where Mr. Greenfield had his offices. You go there. Meanwhile I will go through the Greenfield correspondence."
In three hours we were both back in Mme Storey's office. I had had no luck, but Crider had found what he went after.
"Dr. Michelson's original prescription for a heart stimulant is on file at Cadnam's," he said. "They have a system there of endorsing the date on a prescription every time it is refilled. This prescription was renewed no less than seven times during a course of years. It was filled for the last time in March, 1915, which would be shortly before Mrs. Gowan died."
"But there was something else?" said Mme Storey, reading his face.
"Yes, Madame, another endorsement, reading: 'Copy given Oct. 2, 1922.' This was just ten days before Mr. Greenfield's death."
"Go on," said Mme Storey.
"After a bit of a search the clerk was found who had made out the copy. The request for it had come by mail, he said. The address given was a post-office box in Newark, N. J. The letter was signed John Gowan. I should explain that, as customary, the prescription was merely headed 'Gowan' without any initial or prefix. The writer stated that he had had such a prescription made up at Cadnam's years ago, and being about to leave the country he wanted a copy of it in case he should ever require that medicine again. He had written to the doctor for it, he added, but had had no reply, so he supposed the doctor was dead or had moved away."
"A characteristic Margaret touch," murmured Mme Storey.
"The original package having been lost," Crider went on, "he was unable to give the number of the prescription, but he gave the date, the doctor's name, and the character of the medicine. And enclosed a dollar to reimburse them for their trouble."
"But the letter itself?" said Mme Storey eagerly.
"It was destroyed, Madame," said Crider. "In a big cash store there is no provision for filing letters."
An exclamation of chagrin escaped my mistress. She arose and paced the room. "Oh, the clever devil!" she murmured. "The clever, clever devil! How can I bring it home to her?"
Crider and I maintained a gloomy silence. We had nothing to offer.
Mme Storey returned to her desk and put a hand forth for the telephone. She called up the Madagascar and asked for Princesse de Rochechouart. Crider and I pricked up our ears. After running the usual gamut of operators and servants she got her, and this is what we heard:
"Ah, Princesse," in a bland voice, "I could not mistake your voice. This is Madame Storey, Rosika Storey—Paris, you remember; our déjeuner at the Ritz...Welcome to America, Princesse. I have just read the papers. I got in on the Berengaria a week ago. You are well, I hope?...And Prince de Rochechouart?...Splendid! I expect you are besieged with out-of-town invitations, but I hope I may have the pleasure...What! Going to leave us so soon! Oh, Princesse! Can't we persuade you to linger even a few days... Your reservations are made. I'm so sorry! But at least you'll give me the pleasure of having you to lunch to-morrow. You and Prince Rochechouart. At my apartment. It's a tiny place, but it will be more intimate than a restaurant. Just ourselves and Miss Brickley, whom you met in Paris. She returned with me. I positively will not take a refusal..."
There was a pause here. Mme Storey smiled wickedly at us. "She's asking Hélie," she remarked, holding her hand over the transmitter.
"Yes, Princesse?...That will be perfectly delightful! At one-thirty to-morrow. Have you a pencil?...My address is — East Sixty-third Street. Got that?...I shall be looking forward to it. Good-bye, and thank you."
My heart beat thickly thinking of the scene next day. Where would I be between those two terrible women? "How can I go through with it?" I murmured. "I am not made of steel, like you!"
"You have never failed me yet, Bella," said Mme Storey.
"Must I be there?" I pleaded.
"I have to have a witness," explained Mme Storey. "The husband could not be forced to testify."
Mme Storey shares a house on East Sixty-third Street with her friend the famous Mrs. Lysaght. Those two talented women put their heads together and produced a dwelling that in New York, at least, was unique. It was an old-fashioned house remodelled. Outside, the plain brownstone shell differed in no respect, except the basement entrance, from dozens of its neighbours; but inside it was so amusing and convenient and charming, one wondered how people could go on building in the old conventional way.
The kitchen was alongside the front entrance. When you rang the bell a wicket opened in the wall, and the smiling face of Grace or Matilda looked you over. If you were all right, she pressed a button in the manner of a Paris concierge and you walked in through an iron gate. Consider how admirable an arrangement in Manhattan, where the front doors are beset by beggars, canvassers, and nuisances of every sort.
You were not yet in the house, but in a passage paved with red tiles which led right through under a charming archway into a tiny formal garden at the rear. The front door proper was at your left hand where Grace (or Matilda) met you. Within, a tiny electric elevator carried you to the rooms above. Mme Storey's bedroom was in front, and the living room extended across the rear with a balcony overlooking the garden. The dining room was under the living room, with glass doors opening on a level with the garden. Mrs. Lysaght had the two floors above Mme Storey, and the servants of both households shared the top floor.
I was on hand at one o'clock next day, in accordance with my instructions. Mme Storey, armed with a letter of introduction to the postmaster, had made a dash over to Newark in a final effort to establish, if possible, who had hired a post-office box in which to receive the communication from Cadnam's. In case she were delayed, I was to receive the guests with suitable apologies. It was not a job I looked forward to. I spent a miserable half hour. I was all dressed up in one of my Paris dresses in order to look as much like a lady as possible.
I waited in the living room, which had been hastily divested of its summer covers and put in order for the occasion. I wish I could convey something of the especial character of that room. It had nothing of the stately splendour of Mme Storey's office. At home she left off splendour. It was above all inviting in the manner of the best English rooms—the rarest thing to find in the houses of rich Americans. Mme Storey, who could have had anything she wanted, had in her whimsical way chosen to suggest the period of 1850 in the decoration. But with a difference. Taste may make even 1850 beautiful. The carved walnut chairs and sofas were not covered with horsehair but with bits of mellow antique tapestries. There was a thick-piled "Turkey" rug on the floor, and the fireplace was surrounded by gleaming brass appurtenances. There was but the one door, so that you had the feeling you could not be taken by surprise. But as I write the features down the essence still escapes me. You will have to take my word for it that it was the most satisfying room I ever entered.
Immediately on the stroke of one thirty I heard the distant bell ring, and my heart went down. Mme Storey would not have rung, but knocked with her knuckles on the wicket in a particular way. In a moment or two Grace opened the door, and the little Princesse strutted in with her red-cheeked Hélie at her heels. To-day she was wearing a dress of rich leaf green, one of Craqui's artfully simple effects. I marked the famous three wrinkles across her tummy. On her head was a little hat of leaf-brown with a graceful hedge of aigrette all round, that wonderfully softened her rather hard little face. In step and glance she was still the Princesse. Hélie was his usual highly finished self. He made no secret of his curiosity to behold the place where the beautiful Mme Storey was at home.
I proceeded with my apologies. "Mme Storey regretted so much that she was called away. She hoped to be back before you came. But she asked me to say that she would not in any case be more than a few minutes late."
The Princesse merely said, "Oh!" and turned away rather rudely. She had already made up her mind I was a person she could afford to disregard. Not that I cared. Since Paris she had subtly changed in manner. Having achieved her prince I suppose she felt she could afford to give over the awful inscrutability which must have been a strain on her and let the natural woman show. It was not an agreeable disclosure. Poor Hélie! I thought.
He tried to fill up the hiatus. "We hope we have not discommoded her in coming to-day," he said.
Poor Hélie! It was only too clear that he was being put through a course of sprouts. His smile was strained, and the redness of his cheeks suggested an underneath haggardness.
"Not at all," said I. "Mme Storey expressed the greatest pleasure at the prospect."
"What a comfortable room!" said the Princesse with a half sneer. "So—so homelike! One would hardly have supposed after seeing Mme Storey in Paris..." She finished with a shrug.
"Oh, she was on parade then," I said.
The Princesse stared at me. I suddenly perceived that she was a stupid woman, just as Mme Storey had said. A clever stupid woman, if you get me; fiendishly clear in the pursuit of her own ends, and utterly obtuse in regard to everything else. Well, that is the sort that gets on, I suppose.
"Mme Storey is fortunate in being able to follow her impulses," said the Princesse. "Has she no husband?"
"She has no husband," said I.
"She is a widow, then?"
The cheek of the woman! the little no-account typist from Weddinsboro! I was boiling inside, but I managed to keep a smooth face, I hope. "I don't know," I said bluntly.
Again the stare.
"Perhaps Prince Rochechouart can tell us," I said wickedly. "He has known her longer than I have."
Hélie, thus appealed to, seemed to turn on the tap of his sprightliness. "Ah, Madame Storey is not the sort of person one asks questions of!" he cried. "So beautiful, so exquisite, so clever, one thankfully receives what she chooses to give! All Paris took her to its heart!"
His wife cast a thoughtful glance on him, which scarcely concealed the deepest malevolence. "We're in New York now," she said drily. "...She's an American, isn't she?" she went on. "Why does she call herself 'Madame' Storey?"
"You'll have to ask her," I said blandly.
"Whom does she know in New York?" was her next insolent question. Hélie bit his lip. After all, he was bred a gentleman.
"That depends," I said. "If you mean who are her acquaintances, well, everybody who is in the know. But her friends she picks rather carefully. They may be stenographers, charwomen, or the wives of millionaires."
"Really!" said the Princesse, staring. "There is a New York woman of whom I have heard, a Mrs. Dent Lysaght. Does Mme Storey know her?"
"Her most intimate friend," I said carelessly. "She lives upstairs."
"Really!" said the Princesse, looking around. "In a place like this?"
"Not so nice as this," I said.
I was so angry at the woman I no longer dreaded the scene that lay ahead. Indeed, at that moment I gloated over the prospect. "Aha, my lady, you're riding for a horrid fall!" I said to myself. I could not have kept up the pretence of politeness much longer. I was relieved to hear the elevator come up and the door into the front room close. Mme Storey had gone in to dress.
Mme Storey always dresses instinctively to suit the part she expects to play. She came in wearing a straight, clinging black dress without any touch of colour whatever. Her face was paler than its wont, and behind the conventional friendliness a relentlessness showed in her eyes. The whole effect of her was magnificent, and I saw a touch of awe appear in Hélie's regard. But the little Princesse was too besotted by her recent successes to be aware of anything ominous in the air.
Mme Storey repeated the apologies. "It was a professional matter that called me away," she said. "Something I could not ignore."
I was struck by her use of this word. Mme Storey does nothing carelessly. Evidently the dénouement was not long to be delayed. My heart began to beat. The Princesse marked that word too, and her eyes darted a little glance of inquiry, but she said nothing.
Hard on Mme Storey's heels came Grace to announce luncheon. In the general movement I had one second apart with my mistress and eagerly looked my question. She shook her head.
"Nothing," she murmured.
From that I knew that her design to make the Princesse convict herself held good. I shivered out of pure nervousness.
The Princesse walked with Mme Storey, and Hélie took me. We used the stairs, since all four of us could not crowd into the elevator at once without suffering a loss of dignity.
"I say, she's a crackerjack!" Hélie whispered to me in good American.
I heartily agreed. I had a sneaking regard for Hélie, scoundrel though he was. I found it in my heart to be sorry for what was saving for him.
The little dining room was perfect in its unostentatiousness: simple, straight mahogany, a bowl of roses on the table; sunlight streaming under the awnings; golden arbor vitas and oleanders outside. The little Princesse's lip curled in an envy that she tried to make appear disdainful; there was something about it all that was beyond her; that rendered her royal airs a little ridiculous.
When we seated ourselves at the little round table, Mme Storey had her back to the windows with the Princesse facing her; Hélie was at her right hand and I at her left. The service was under the direction of the invaluable Grace, who can do everything. She had been to Paris with us. I shall have more to say of her on another occasion. She is as pretty as she is accomplished. Assisting her was one of Mrs. Lysaght's maids, borrowed from upstairs. The food would not have suffered by comparison with Meurice's, and every bit of it had been prepared by Matilda in her tiny kitchen.
The word used by Mme Storey upstairs stuck in the Princesse's mind like a burr. After we had been seated for some moments, and the conversation had ranged all over, she said: "You said you had been called away by professional matters. Surely you do not mean your own matters. Is it possible that you...?"
"Yes, I'm a professional woman," said Mme Storey.
"How interesting!" said the Princesse with curling lip. "Hélie, why did you not tell me that Mme Storey..."
"I didn't know it," said Hélie.
"Is it something you are obliged to conceal, Mme Storey?" asked the Princesse with her little desiccated laugh.
"No," said Mme Storey. "In Paris I am what I appear to be, an extravagant idler. But in New York I have to work like the devil to collect the wherewithal."
"What is your profession, if one may ask?"
"I call myself practical psychologist—specializing in the feminine."
"Ah! I am afraid I do not quite understand. What do other people call you?"
"All sorts of names," said Mme Storey, laughing. "I have even been called detective, though I scarcely deserve that."
This word had the effect of the first big gun of an engagement. One might suppose that it would strike terror to the little woman's breast. I had scarcely the heart to look at her. But I need not have concerned myself. The spoon that was on its way to her mouth completed the journey without spilling a drop. She broke a piece of bread with steady fingers.
"Fancy!" she said with her insulting intonation.
Oh, a marvellous woman!
Hélie had opened his blue eyes to the widest possible. "A detectif!" he murmured. "It is impossible!"
"Oh, I lay no claim to that," said Mme Storey. "But psychological problems of all kinds interest me. It is a curious thing that you may have noticed: as the study of psychology is extended we seem to know less and less about each other. And a professor of psychology is the blindest of all. I suppose that is because his maxims are of no avail in particular instances. Intuition is everything, or nearly everything."
"Mon Dieu! I'm glad I didn't know it in Paris!" said Hélie. "The way I have chattered to you!"
"The people who talk the most are not necessarily the easiest to read," said Mme Storey, smiling.
"You console me," said Hélie. "Do you solve crimes?" he asked, slightly awestruck.
"Fancy!" said the Princesse, staring.
"But I think it is a fine thing!" said Hélie with spirit. "There's no such thing as infra dig any more. That's one encumbrance we got rid of in the war, thank God! One is lucky to have an exciting job these dull days. One doesn't need to apologize for it."
Mme Storey smiled broadly. She was not thinking of apologizing.
The Princesse was filled with a cold fury against Hélie. One was forced to the conclusion that she was not pretending; she was really not frightened at all. She had got so completely within the skin of her part that it did not occur to her a detective could threaten La Princesse de Rochechouart.
"Tell us about a crime," begged Hélie. "I adore crime!"
Mme Storey expressed a decent reluctance. "I don't want to monopolize the conversation."
"Please!" said Hélie. "We have no interesting conversation."
The Princesse looked down her nose.
"Well, I have a strange case on hand," said Mme Storey. "The strangest, in fact, that ever I had."
"Good!" cried Hélie.
"But it will take a long time to tell. If I bore you, you must interrupt me."
"But if you are a psychologist surely you will know without our speaking of it," said the Princesse with a polite and sleety smile.
"I specialize in feminine psychology," said Mme Storey, "because women are so much more interesting to study than men."
"Oh, I say!" objected Hélie. "I might say that."
"Not intrinsically more interesting," she explained, "but greater realists. Men are conventionalized; much more likely to act by the book. This case concerns a woman."
"Better and better!" cried Hélie.
"Instead of propounding the problem to you and then proceeding to solve it, I think it will be more dramatic if I relate the whole story from the beginning as I have pieced it together...But I am holding up everything! Let me finish my soup."
There was some general conversation while the plates were changed. I did not take part in it. I was wretchedly nervous. I do not enjoy suspense. "If they would only hurry and get over with it!" I thought.
When the next course was before us, Mme Storey resumed: "Let us call her Clara for purposes of identification. We find her first as a child in a country village, a backward sort of little place. Her parents lived in the most abject poverty; the father was a drunkard, the mother a hopeless invalid. Poverty, of course, is doubly hard to bear in a village where everybody knows you. The child was an object of pity to the crude, kindly village women, but they complained they could do nothing for her, she was so 'techy.' One can imagine the fierce pride that consumed the little breast. Remember that it is rather a great soul that I am describing to you, which received a fatal twist thus early. She was a sickly little thing and not well-favoured. She would have nothing to do with the other children nor they with her. She revenged herself on them by being easily first in school."
The Princesse must know now, I thought, and I stole a glance at her through my lashes. Her face showed no change; she was eating calmly. Just the same, she knew! Her indifference to the story was too perfect. She said in her clear, precise accents:
"May one ask the name of this delicious mixture we are eating?"
"Coquille St. Jacques," answered Mme Storey pleasantly. "I got the recipe from Marguéry. Matilda does it rather well, doesn't she? Though one misses the pink scallops' roe one finds in it in Paris. One must suppose that our scallops are celibate."
"She was easily first in school..." Hélie prompted impatiently.
"As soon as she was old enough," Mme Storey resumed, "Clara left home and came to New York to find work. How she ever got the money together to buy her ticket, not to speak of sufficient clothes, I cannot tell you. It is a character of invincible determination I am showing you. None of the smaller cities nearer home were good enough for her; it had to be New York. Nor can I tell you what experiences she had upon reaching there: difficult enough, no doubt. She next turns up as the personal stenographer to a very rich man. That would be the sort of thing she would set her heart on. As soon as she felt she had obtained a toehold in New York, she went back to her village to rescue her mother from that appalling poverty. So she was not all bad, you see."
"How about the father?" asked Hélie.
"Oh, I expect mother and daughter were both pretty well fed up with him," said Mme Storey drily.
Mme Storey did not appear to be watching the Princesse while she told her tale. As for me, I could not bear to watch her. I could only steal a glance now and then. She had drawn the mask of inscrutability over her face; the slight, insolent smile had become fixed there. Mme Storey's light words about her father caused her more nearly to betray herself than anything else. A flicker of emotion rippled the mask then.
"This is very interesting!" cried Hélie, with a school-boy eagerness. "Isn't it, Marguerite?"
"Fascinating!" she drawled.
"Life in a cheap flat taking care of an invalid on meagre wages could have been scarcely less cramped than the village," Mme Storey went on. "It must have been her dreams that kept her going. She had set her heart on becoming a queen of fashion."
"But you told us she was sickly, ill-favoured," objected Hélie.
"Quite so. That's what makes it so remarkable a case."
"In whom did she confide her dream?"
"Confide! The woman I am picturing never confided in any soul alive. She played a lone hand!"
"Then, pardon me, how do you know of what she was dreaming?"
"Well, for one thing I secured her library card, which gave me a list of the books she had read. Court memoirs; novels of the highest society. Her taste in reading was good. Henry James was her favourite novelist."
"Marvellous!" cried Hélie.
"No, obvious," said Mme Storey.
"But she did not realize her dream, of course."
"Ah, you are anticipating!"
"Forgive me. Please go on."
"Her first care was to make herself absolutely indispensable to her employer," said Mme Storey. "Just at what point she began to plot, I can't tell you. She showed a more than human patience. It must early have occurred to her that it was only through her employer she could hope to obtain the great sum of money she had set her heart on. No doubt she figured he was so rich he could spare what she needed without missing it. But seven years passed before she took the first steps. Within that time she had taught herself to imitate her employer's signature..."
"Oh, simple forgery," said Hélie, a little disappointed.
"Forgery, but not at all simple," said Mme Storey, smiling. "In the first place, the forgery was good enough to puzzle the greatest expert in the country. I doubt if we could convict her on the forged signatures alone. Fortunately, there is plenty of collateral evidence. Little by little she evolved the details of the most ingenious swindle I have ever come upon. Masterly in its completeness!"
"Do give us the details!" begged Hélie.
"All these years, remember, she was studying her employer. He was a man of rich personality; very downright in his likes and dislikes; full of quirks and oddities of character—all of which she traded upon. He was not a philanthropist in the ordinary sense: he left that to his wife; but he had a notion that he owed it to the community which had made him rich, to use his riches as far as he could in developing and marketing new ideas. To a new proposition he always lent a willing ear.
"He had to protect himself, of course. He could not see every Tom, Dick, and Harry who called upon him. He required that all propositions should be submitted by letter, and the preliminary investigations were always conducted by correspondence. Then, if he was sufficiently interested, he would see the promoter and let him talk. He was very shrewd. He was not often deceived. He made money out of most of his advances.
"Clara, in the course of time, came to have full charge of his correspondence. She opened his letters and brought to him such of them as she deemed worthy of his attention. Important letters she answered at his dictation, and unimportant letters she answered on her own account. She subsequently sent all his letters and copies of his answers to the office boy to be filed. Now do you begin to see her scheme?"
Hélie shook his head.
"From among the propositions that were made him by mail, Clara chose a few of the choicest and investigated them on her own account, always by mail, of course, and always in his name. All this correspondence was sent with the rest to be filed in his file."
"Why did she do that?" asked Hélie.
"You will see presently...The employer, whom we may call Mr. X, never kept any great sum in cash lying idle. When he was ready to invest in a new enterprise, it was his custom to give his note for the required amount in exchange for stock. When Clara was ready to invest she did the same—only it was a forged note that she issued for her stock. Mr. X's paper was good in any bank in the country, and it was always some known man, you see, who discounted these notes at his own bank. When the forged notes fell due, Clara simply renewed them with fresh forgeries. One of them ran for as long as five years.
"Such was her scheme. Every possible contingency had been provided for. It was practically watertight. I may say that it was only through an accident that suspicion was finally aroused.
"It was Mr. X's custom to hold the stocks purchased in this way until such time as the new concern was on a paying basis. Then he'd sell out in order to have funds for the next promising new thing. Clara did the same, of course, only when she sold out she'd salt down the proceeds. There was one transaction in which she invested $125,000 by means of a forged note, and in three years she sold out for $250,000 in hard cash. That was her largest single operation."
"But why didn't she pay the note then and pocket the profit?" asked Hélie.
"Ah, why didn't she?" said Mme Storey. "If she had, I wouldn't be telling you the story. That would have been too slow for her. Sometimes there were no profits. She was not as shrewd as Mr. X. No, she never had any notion of putting anything back. The goal of her hopes rested in Mr. X's death. Did I mention that he was old? Once he was dead there was no way in which his executors could tell the forged notes from his other liabilities. When they proceeded to trace them back, there would be the correspondence intact in the files. Now you see why it was there. Mr. X's bookkeeping was of the most casual sort. In fact, he kept no books further than a loose-leaf notebook in which was entered a general balance sheet of his affairs."
"Then how did they find out?" asked Hélie. "Among the mass of correspondence, how could you pick out the letters she wrote?"
"She could imitate her employer's signature to perfection," said Mme Storey, "but she could not imitate his racy epistolary style, for that was the natural expression of his temperament. Her letters are somewhat dry in tone. Such was her temperament. It was easy to pick them out once you possessed that key."
"You are wonderful," said Hélie. Apparently he thought the story was finished.
"Wait!" said Mme Storey. "This is only Part One...For years everything ran along smoothly according to Clara's plans, and at last she secured the sum she had set her heart upon. Then she began to get impatient. She had waited so many years. Youth was slipping away. An old woman could hardly hope to usurp the fashionable throne. To tell the truth, Mr. X was too slow in dying. True, his doctor had warned him his blood pressure was too high and that he must be careful. Unfortunately for Clara, he was careful; he avoided excesses and excitements of all kinds. There seemed to be no good reason why he should not live ten years longer. It was inevitable that Clara should begin to cast around in her mind—such a clever mind!—for the means to—"
"What, murder now?" cried Hélie, pleasantly aghast.
My eyes were dragged back to the Princesse. She, with unchanged mask, was delicately picking at riz de veau with her fork, and conveying morsels to her mouth with good appetite. She put down her fork, settled a bracelet on her left arm, and screwing up her eyes a little, looked out of the window. With something a little less than courtesy (for Mme Storey was still speaking), she said to me with her affected precision:
"How ugly the houses opposite! In America it's all front, isn't it?"
What sang-froid! What incredible effrontery! I could only stare, incapable of making any answer whatever. She didn't require any answer. She returned to the riz de veau, showing her excellent white teeth. Hélie never noticed because he was hanging on Mme Storey's words.
"That's what one comes to," said Mme Storey, going on with her tale. "She didn't have it in her mind when she started."
"How do you know?" asked Hélie.
"Because she took no steps in that direction until the time I speak of...I expect she didn't call it murder," she added very drily, "but only hastening nature a little."
"How did she do it?" asked Hélie.
"That baffled me for a while," said Mme Storey. "It was the invaluable library card that supplied a hint. Among the court memoirs and novels of high society, she had on one occasion drawn Henderson, On Arterio-Sclerosis, a standard medical work. The date, which was just after she had made her biggest haul that I told you of, was highly significant. I got a copy of it, and projecting myself into Clara's state of mind as I imagined it, I sat down to read it. I came to one sentence which must have been like a bell ringing in Clara's mind. The book said: 'Of course, to a person in this condition anything in the nature of a heart stimulant would be excessively dangerous.' 'A heart stimulant!' I could imagine Clara saying to herself; 'a powerful heart stimulant!' That was what I had to administer to my mother all those weary years! What meant life to that old body would be death to this one!'"
"What a fiend!" murmured Hélie.
"Hm!" said Mme Storey, keeping her eyes down. "...I needn't detail the ingenious method by which she obtained a copy of the old prescription. By a lucky chance I was able to secure the letter she wrote for it under an assumed name. She got it, of course, and had it made up. She carried the phial around in her handbag awaiting an opportunity to administer the contents.
"That came one rainy day when Mr. X, instead of going out to lunch, had his boy telephone to a restaurant for light refreshments to be sent in. A bottle of ginger ale and two chicken sandwiches, white meat only. Such was his modest order. The office boy carried it into his employer's private office and placed it on the table just within the door. I should explain to you that Mr. X had a latch on the door of his private office so that even his employees were obliged to knock before entering.
"As the boy left the room he heard Mr. X say: 'I'm thirsty.' Clara must have immediately risen to fetch him his refreshments. Mr. X was a man of sedentary habit, and they were all accustomed to wait on him hand and foot. Clara did not bring the tray to his desk as it stood, but opened the bottle and poured out a glass of the ginger ale. While she was doing this their backs were turned to each other. How simple it was to empty the contents of her phial into the glass! She carried him the glass and the plate of sandwiches. One wonders if her hand shook. He was evidently thirstier than he was hungry, for he did not begin to eat right away.
"About fifteen minutes later—Clara all that time sitting at the flap of his desk taking dictation so demurely!—he began to feel very ill, and put down the sandwich, out of which he had taken but a single bite. He sent Clara to telephone to his doctor. The telephone was in the outer office. She did not telephone, of course. She merely waited outside long enough to let him suppose that she had.
"Shortly after that the stroke fell. The kindly old man had cracked his last joke. He slid down out of his chair to the floor without making any sound that could be heard outside. His face became tormented and blackened. Clara, the little mouse who had served him so well for twelve years, she made no sound either. I cannot tell you what went through her strange mind during those moments, but I can tell you what she did. She took the notebook out of his breast pocket, removed the leaves that contained his balance sheet, and inserted fresh leaves that she had already prepared. Since Mr. X had warning of the stroke, it is probable that death was not instantaneous. Unable to stir hand or foot, perhaps he was watching her..."
"Mon Dieu! what a scene!" murmured Hélie, genuinely moved.
"At the water cooler she washed out the glass from which he had drunk," Mme Storey went on. "What other things she did I cannot tell you. But forty-five minutes elapsed after the time he drank the ginger ale before she raised the alarm. Perhaps she was just sitting around waiting for him to die..."
"What a monster!" breathed Hélie.
"Well—that is my case," said Mme Storey.
I do not know if she looked at the Princesse when she said it, because I could not bear to look at either of them. No sound came from the Princesse.
"You have her safe under lock and key?" said Hélie.
"Not yet," said Mme Storey softly.
"Why do you delay? You have proved your case!"
"It is only within the hour that I have completed it."
"When did the murder take place?"
"Eight months ago."
"Eight months ago? Mon Dieu! Can you find her now? Where has she been all this time?"
"She went to Paris," said Mme Storey. "That was her ambition: to become a queen of Paris. And she actually realized it; at least, she became the most talked-of woman in Paris for a brief period."
I doubt if Hélie heard any but the first words. "Paris!" he stammered. "...Paris!" He suddenly jumped up, knocking his chair over backward. He stared at his wife with his blue eyes protruding from his head. His lips moved, but no further sounds came out.
I turned away my head. After all, he was a mere boy. He was a scoundrel, but surely he did not deserve quite this. It was he who was being punished and not the real criminal.
"Sit down, Hélie," the Princesse drawled. "You're making an exhibition of yourself."
He found his voice. "Is it you? Is it you?" he demanded hoarsely. "Is that where the money came from?"
"Certainly it was I," she answered coolly. "Why else should Mme Storey stage this little comedy?"
We all stared at her in a stupefied fashion.
She turned the sapphire bracelet on her pretty forearm. "It was I," she repeated in the unconcerned voice. Merciful heaven! One fancied one heard a ring of pride in it. "I will add an item that seems to be omitted from Mme Storey's array of testimony. It was in Hafker's drug store, Newark, that I filled the prescription."
"Oh, you monster! You monster!" cried Hélie, waving his hands before his face. In my heart I echoed his cry.
"Monster, what is that?" she said with curling lip. For the moment she dropped the affected speech. "You are merely theatrical. In your heart for the first time you respect me—you all respect me," she added, glancing around the table. "Well—I'm satisfied."
The Princesse pushed away her plate and, drawing a silver box of cigarettes toward her, helped herself and lighted up. She resumed her precise drawl.
"Really, it was enormously kind of you to feed us so well first," she said, blowing a cloud of smoke. "Send for the police."
"They're already waiting," said Mme Storey.
After the arrest of the Princesse de Rochechouart, Mme Storey prepared to resume her interrupted vacation. She raised me to the seventh heaven of delight by suggesting that I accompany her back to Paris "as a reward for good work." I had had but a three days' tantalizing taste of that delicious city before I had been obliged to hasten back to America in connection with the Rochechouart case. At a week's notice we engaged accommodations on the Gigantic, the queen of all liners. The grand rush eastward across the Atlantic was now about over for the season, and we were able to obtain whatever we wanted. Two rooms en suite on D deck with a bathroom, at a price which took my prudent breath away. What a joy it was to study the plan of that amazing ship. I could almost say that I was familiar with every turn of her innumerable corridors before I ever went aboard.
I drove direct to the pier from my boarding house, and, as it happened, I arrived first. Once more I shared in the intoxicating confusion of sailing day. Before you mount the gangway a clerk looks at your ticket and checks you up on the passenger list. This person said to me:
"Miss Brickley? You are travelling with Madame Storey, are you not? Your rooms have been changed at the request of Captain Sir Angus McMaster. You have been assigned to C47, the Imperial suite."
The Imperial suite! I looked at him with my mouth hanging open. Why, the cost of this suite is $6,000. A mere thousand a day for the voyage! I was speechless—but no comment was required from me. At the magic words "Imperial suite" all the stewards standing about began to bow, and I was wafted on board before I well knew what was happening to me.
I knew the plan, but the ship itself was a revelation to me. It was not like a ship at all, but a palace with soaring pillars supporting the domed ceilings, and noble, sweeping stairways. As for our quarters; well, I could only look around me with a sigh of half-incredulous pleasure. To come from a boarding-house bedroom to this! It was like a fairy tale. One entered first a delicious sitting room, set about with easy chairs and sofas; this led through two pairs of French windows to what they called the veranda, an outdoors room with a whole row of big windows opening to the sea. The sun streamed in, gilding the quantities of flowers blooming in window boxes. The furniture here was of wicker; it was like a garden.
The bedrooms opened from the veranda, right and left—Mme Storey's and mine. Each of these had its row of big windows opening over the sea. They were just such luxurious nests as a woman might dream of, the walls cunningly inlaid with rare woods, and the ingenious and beautiful appointments a continual surprise. Back of the bedrooms were bathrooms, wardrobe rooms, maids' rooms galore.
In a few minutes my beautiful young mistress arrived attended by a retinue of stewards. When they had gone, she broke into a laugh at the sight of my awestruck face.
"We appear to be in luck, my Bella," she said.
"Do you know the captain?" I asked.
"I have crossed on his ship before," she said; "but captains are a race apart. I did not suppose he would remember me!"
"He evidently has," I remarked.
There was a tap at the door, and I admitted an imposing maître d'hôtel, who bowed low, and conveying the compliments of the Ritz-Carlton restaurant, begged that Mme Storey and Miss Brickley would consider themselves the guests of the management during the voyage. He was followed by a boy bearing an armful of Radiance roses with more compliments. It appeared that this marvellous ship even had hothouses somewhere up above. The third tap on our door (we were out in the stream by this time) was given by an immaculate apprentice, who said in his charming English voice:
"The commander's compliments, and would it be agreeable to Madame Storey to receive him before lunch?"
"It would be highly agreeable," said my mistress.
To me she murmured with a lift of her eyebrows: "Verily, the mountain is coming to Mahomet!"
Captain Sir Angus McMaster, R.N.R., C.V.O., and goodness knows what else besides. Ah! there was a man for you! Every inch the commander of men, and a gallant and simple-hearted gentleman to boot. There was that in his stern gray face with its rather melancholy eyes which induced instant and complete confidence; something, too, to make you shiver, if your conscience was bad. In his blue and gold, with a string of orders across his breast, he was magnificent without being in the least foppish or at all conscious of his grandeur. The simplicity of the man was his most conspicuous quality.
His eyes paid instant tribute to my mistress's beauty. "How glad I was to discover that you were making this voyage with me," he said.
"You remembered me among so many thousands of passengers!" said Mme Storey.
"That was not difficult," he said with a quiet smile.
"My secretary, Miss Brickley," said Mme Storey, bringing me forward.
The bow he gave to plain me was just the same as if I had been the grandest of ladies.
We all went out into that charming veranda with the sun on the flowers and the breeze from the sea and seated ourselves. Sir Angus accepted one of Mme Storey's cigarettes.
"I am not going to attempt to thank you for all this," said my mistress, waving her hand about. "You must know how we are enjoying it."
"It was all I could do," he said, "and little enough...It would ill become a sailor to beat around the bush," he went on. "I come to you for help, my dear lady. I am in a quandary, and, of course, being the commander, I dare not confess it to anybody on board. I don't suppose it has ever occurred to you, but a captain leads rather a solitary life. It is not often that I may relax like this."
"You interest me extraordinarily," said Mme Storey. "I should be so proud if I could help. Please go on."
"It's quite a long story," said Sir Angus, "but rather a curious one. I hope it will not bore you."
"I know it will not."
"It began early last season," he went on. "On a westward voyage. My attention was attracted by a certain good-looking young couple among the passengers—a Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Dartrey. I can't say what it was about them that aroused my suspicions, for their actions on board were irreproachable; I suppose I had what you Americans so expressively term a hunch. I was convinced from the first that there was something queer about them.
"As you no doubt know, we have detectives mixing with the passengers—unpleasant to think about, but unfortunately necessary on so large a ship—and I desired that these people report to me concerning the Dartreys. The reports were nil. The man did not gamble; the lady, while much sought after by other gentlemen, was entirely discreet in her behaviour. Mrs. Dartrey was not by any means the conventional 'charmer,' for I could see for myself that she was very popular among the women passengers. The two of them occupied an expensive room and had every appearance of being well-born people of ample means.
"Still I was not satisfied. That hunch continued to tease me. So I proceeded to make friends with them myself as the opportunities offered. The man I found to be merely a handsome, aristocratic nonentity; it was impossible to talk to him; he merely made well-bred noises. But the lady was both sprightly and amusing. One of those impulsive women who are apparently all on the surface, and yet—and yet... To tell you the truth, neither of them gave me the slightest cause for suspicion, yet my suspicions grew.
"I had them followed when they left the ship. It was reported to me, to my surprise, that they simply went down West Street and boarded the Allemania of the Brevard Line, which was sailing that day. We were a day late. This gave me food for thought. This was in April. Six weeks later they again turned up on my ship, bound for New York. I overheard Mrs. Dartrey make a laughing remark to the effect that she only really lived on board ship, and her husband was obliged to humour her often. Again they took the Allemania back to Southampton on the following day.
"My curiosity was now thoroughly aroused. As opportunity offered, I communicated with the other captains of our line by wireless at sea. Melksham of the Britannic and Coxter of the Oceanic; also with the captains of the Brevarders Baratoria and Ruritania; and I had no difficulty in establishing that the Dartreys had spent the entire season in flitting back and forth between New York and Southampton on the six big express ships of the two lines. Our schedules are so arranged that they were able practically to jump from one ship to another at each end. We leave New York on Wednesdays, you see, and land our passengers in Southampton on Tuesdays, or, at the latest, Wednesday morning. Whereas the Brevarders leave Southampton Wednesday at noon and arrive in New York on Tuesdays. In six weeks, having made the rounds of all six ships, they were back on mine again, you see.
"I reported all this to my head office, and thereafter the Dartreys were followed by expert detectives. But nothing came of it. About the first of August they gave up their ferrying of the Atlantic and retired to a charming little flat in Sloane Street, London, where they entertained some of the smartest people of the fashionable world and otherwise proceeded to enjoy themselves. Dartrey, it appeared, was the younger son of an impeccable British family; his wife an American. It was shown that they enjoyed a highly respectable banking connection; their income, which amounted to no less than £10,000 a year, came to them in the form of dividend checks from great American companies. It was all in the lady's name.
"As a result of this investigation, my company intimated to me that I had discovered a mare's nest, and indeed I began to think myself that I had. Eccentric people, no doubt, but there are plenty of those; nothing in the world to suggest that they were crooks. But early this season they turned up again on my ship—only travelling eastward this season, and presumably westward on the Brevard Line. I am convinced that they are swindlers of the most dangerous sort, and I feel that I owe it to my passengers to protect them from such. My company is not backing me in this; I am dependent on my own efforts. It seemed providential when I learned that you were making this voyage."
"The Dartreys are on board, then?" asked Mme Storey.
"They are," he said with a dry smile. "In the pink of condition."
Mme Storey looked at me with a somewhat rueful twinkle.
"Why do you smile?" asked Sir Angus.
"This is the second time this summer that I have started off for a vacation..."
"Ah, I should have thought of that."
"No, I meant it as a joke merely. I am not really worked to death, you know. And you are a person who does not often ask favours. One regards it as a privilege therefore..."
"You are too kind," he murmured.
"Besides, it appeals to me," said Mme Storey. "As a diversion on shipboard. A sort of deck game...But, I say, don't you think you have started off rather indiscreetly by displaying me so prominently in the Imperial suite?"
"Bless me! I never thought of that!" he said blankly.
She laughed at his simplicity. "Oh, well, I don't suppose it makes much difference. If these people are really experienced international crooks they probably know all about me, and I couldn't expect to accomplish much by direct methods. But there is Bella here. By a lucky chance we came on board separately; and none of the passengers can know as yet that she is my secretary...Bella, would it break your heart to divorce yourself from the Imperial suite?"
"Not if there was anything interesting going on," I said.
"Good. Then, Sir Angus, can you furnish her with another room and another name for the voyage? And supply me with a young woman to play her part?"
He rose. "I am sure that can be arranged. The purser will help us. I shall speak to him at once. And, my dear lady, I cannot sufficiently thank you. Of course, if my suspicions prove to be justified, the company will..."
"Ah, don't speak of that," said Mme Storey. "You are the commander of us all now, and I am proud to be able to help, if ever so little."
It turned out that there was a certain Miss Gaul down on the passenger list who had failed to come aboard; and I therefore took unto myself her name and her cabin. The latter was 63, a large and pleasant room up in the bow; with one window looking forward and another to starboard. Within an hour that marvellous man, the captain, had a telephone installed, so that I was able to communicate freely and secretly with Mme Storey.
Only a step from my door were the great public rooms of the vessel, which were all on B deck: lounge, grand entrance, palm court, etc. These noble apartments were really two stories high, with domed ceilings that made them look even higher. The designer had had the ingenious idea of dividing the great funnels of the vessel and running them down at the sides, so as not to obstruct the view. One could therefore look through the whole magnificent suite. Flooded with sunlight, it was an unforgettable picture. The most ordinary-looking men and women moved in this vista with the dignity of eminences.
Meanwhile the niece of one of the engineer officers who was travelling in the second cabin was brought forward to play my part. She was a pleasant girl who looked both intelligent and ladylike. I confess it caused me a good many twinges of jealousy to see her privileged to associate with Mme Storey at all hours, eating with her in the restaurant, and so on; but I consoled myself with the reflection that I had the responsible job.
Mme Storey had said: "I am convinced that the captain's suspicions of the Dartreys are well founded. An honest man's instinct is not to be despised. The fact that he has never been able to get anything on them suggests to me that they are only agents or steerers in the game. They operate only in the early part of the season, when rich Americans are flocking to Europe; consequently, the real trick, if I am right, must be turned in London or Paris. We are lucky to catch them on an eastward voyage."
Later she telephoned me that she had learned from the second steward that the Dartreys were to eat in the regular dining saloon instead of the Ritz-Carlton restaurant, and that they had been assigned to table number 120. I was to be allotted a seat at 123 not close enough to attract their attention, but sufficiently near to afford me ample opportunities for observation. I was not to pay any particular attention to them, and above all must not appear anxious to make friends. Let the first overtures come from them, if possible.
If they did make up to me, I was to represent myself as the daughter of a wealthy, undistinguished couple in some large western city, say Cleveland. Let my father be a manufacturer of oil stoves who had sold out to the Standard Oil. I had lately been released by death from a long, dull term of servitude to my aged parents, and I was now making my first timid essay in the direction of Europe and culture. Further details Mme Storey left to my imagination. I objected that I had no black clothes, but she said that made no difference; many people nowadays did not believe in wearing mourning.
Full of the liveliest curiosity, I went down in the lift to the grand saloon on F deck. I had picked out my table, on the plan. But when I took my place I saw that table 120 was as yet unoccupied, and for a few minutes I was able to apply myself to my luncheon undistracted. Comical it is, during the first meal aboard ship, to see everybody taking stock of everybody else.
While they were still fifty feet away from their table, I recognized my couple by intuition. Among that shipload of distinguished and expensive-looking people, nearly all heads turned to follow them as they passed through the saloon. What is the mysterious quality in people that causes all heads to turn? Personality, of course. Yet I have noticed that a determination not to be overlooked serves almost as well.
The lady walked first. My rapid first impressions ran: an ugly, attractive woman with a good-humoured smile; some years older than her husband, but sure of her power over him; frankly made up; hard to tell where nature ends and art begins; but made up with the view of accentuating her own personality; beautifully dressed in the extreme of the mode, but without overstepping the bounds of good taste. The sort of woman who has raised dress to the dignity of a fine art. In short, a highly interesting subject.
The man was more ordinary. He was of the type that used to be called the haw-haw Englishman. Very good-looking, to be sure, with curly dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a lazy, athletic frame. But rather sullen-looking. This I realized on closer examination was merely the result of stupidity. He was thick. But an uncommonly handsome animal. Some women ask no more of a man, of course. He was turned out in a masculine style as finished as his wife's in hers. The English have without doubt the best-dressed men in the world.
Their manners were better than those of most of the people in our vicinity. They looked at nobody but took their places without the least self-consciousness, and talked to each other in low tones with light smiles. You cannot be sure about married people on parade, of course; they might have been quarrelling fiercely. Still I gathered that the young man with his expression of haughty disdain (nothing in the world but stupidity) still looked on his wife as rather a wonderful person, and was like putty in her quick, pretty hands. And well he might; I thought her rather wonderful myself.
I was too far away to hear anything of their conversation; so my impressions were confined to the visual. I said she was an ugly woman; I mean her mouth was too wide and her nose too flat. I began to recognize her type, which is a rare one, and monstrously effective. She had the air of flaunting her ugliness; as much as to say: my ugliness is more charming than the insipid beauty of other women. Ah, how clever that is! Such a woman is like a breath of fresh air in a hothouse. Mere beauty is a bit overdone. Indeed, I was so strongly attracted by her, I was finally obliged to pull myself up roundly. Look here, I reminded myself, she's a crook, and this charm of hers is her stock in trade.
The only thing that might possibly have suggested that Mrs. Dartrey was otherwise than as she seemed, was her continual alertness. She was always on the qui vive. But then many perfectly respectable people are like that. In fact, never to be caught napping is the essence of a smart, worldly manner.
When I had learned all that my eyes would tell me, I finished my luncheon and made ready to leave the dining saloon. My way out lay behind Mrs. Dartrey's chair. In the instant of passing I caught these murmured words:
"...cut up rough at this late date..."
Which was piquant but not very informative.
I telephoned my impressions to Mme Storey when she returned to her cabin. "If you want to look her over you may know her by her costume," I added. "She is wearing a very smart sports dress of Paddy-green silk, with pleated bishop's sleeves caught tightly at the wrists, and a pleated skirt. A rakish little white hat with a tiny green feather stuck in the band."
"The deck steward has placed her chair next to yours on Deck B," said Mme Storey. "I shall have plenty of chances to size her up as I stroll by."
I sought my deck chair. Sure enough, the chair alongside was marked "Mrs. Dartrey" on its little ticket. I sat down prepared to await developments, with a book for camouflage.
But the passing throng was more interesting than the book. After the sultry pavements of the city, the sea air was delightfully invigorating; and it appeared as if nearly everybody on board had the impulse to promenade after lunch. What a throng! Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, rich man—and, no doubt, if the truth were known, poor man, beggarman, thief. Not to speak of their ladies. After all, the crowd on board the queen of liners was much the same as the crowd on any liner, only there were more of them. There is a tradition that really distinguished people must keep to the seclusion of their cabins. I suppose it helps keep up the fiction of their exclusiveness, but it must be very dull for them.
After a while I saw my lady coming, her billowing green dress visible from afar. But she had no intention of stopping at her chair. Although we had been but three hours at sea, she already had three admirers: an elegant youth, a very solid business man, and a rather distinguished-looking foreigner. She was walking so fast as to make them all appear slightly ridiculous in their efforts to keep pace with her, and avoid colliding with slower promenaders.
I noticed that she was a little too broad for the pure line of beauty; the pleated dress was subtly designed to minimize it. Not that she seemed to care. She hastened along regardless, her long eyes sparkling, and her carmined mouth at its widest as she flung back a vivacious word now to one, now another of her followers. Every time they passed, I caught a snatch; but this time I did not feel that I was missing much. This sort of rattle is always the same.
After about half a dozen tours of the promenade deck she stopped in front of me and in her downright way plumped into her chair. "Run along now," she said coolly to the men. "I'm going to invite my soul. And perhaps I shall take forty winks. You may wake me up at tea time."
It was odd to see how, the moment they left her, the three men flew apart from each other with indifferent looks.
Mrs. Dartrey instantly turned to me with her attractively and disarming grin. "I adore men," she said; "but suddenly you tire of them, don't you?"
The suddenness of her approach disconcerted me rather, but of course it was quite proper for me to betray a little diffidence. "Well, I don't know," I said.
"Don't you like men?" she asked.
Without waiting for me to finish she rattled on: "I'm so glad the deck-steward didn't put a man next to me, or I shouldn't have been able to escape the creature. Women are much more comfortable as a steady diet."
"Do you think so?"
"Yes. The reason men tire you is because you cannot be honest with them."
"I should have said from what I overheard that you—"
"Oh, I only make believe to be honest with them. They like that. It flatters them. But if you were really honest, heavens! they would fly in terror!"
We laughed together.
"But the dear things!" Mrs. Dartrey resumed. "They lend a spice to life, don't they?"
"I have known very few men," I said.
"Really!" she said. "I suppose you're a sensible woman."
"Ah, don't say that! No woman wants to be thought that."
"I wish I had more sense," she said with a sigh. "It's high time. There's nothing in this game, really. But somehow, without a lot of men running in and out, the world would seem very empty to me. Do you remember the old song:
"'Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking,
What a queer wurruld this would be,
If the men were all transported
Far beyond the Northern sea.'"
"I have heard it," I said.
"You're too young to remember when it was all the rage," said Mrs. Dartrey.
"Too young!" I exclaimed. "I am certainly as old as you."
"Ah, my dear lady, if you knew!" she cried. "But I shan't tell you...Not that I care much, either. For youth and beauty are not nearly so important as women suppose. I have neither, and I still attract men. I am much more popular than I was as a debutante...What is important is zest. To be in love with life, to be in love with love! That is the thing. Apparently, when a person is really crazy about living, he or she gives off certain rays—I am no metaphysician and I can't explain it, but apparently it's irresistible. So, although my hair is growing gray under the dye, and my hips are elephantine, I am not worrying, because I cannot feel the slightest falling off in my zest. When I become absolutely raddled with age I shall live in Paris, because Frenchmen do not mind how old a woman is if she still has verve...Do I shock you?"
"Ah, no! no!" I said quickly. "Please don't say that. One becomes so tired of small talk."
"Yes, and on shipboard it is particularly small," said Mrs. Dartrey. "Effect of the sea air, I suppose. I simply won't stand for it—except perhaps from a handsome man. They rarely have any sense. But not from women. I insist on saying whatever comes into my head, and if it's too strong for the dears, I move on."
"Well, please don't move on from me," I begged. Mindful of the character I was playing, I added: "I have had scarcely any experience of life, and such talk is like an invigorating breath from the great world."
"You have not the look of an inexperienced woman," she ventured.
"I've had a long struggle with myself," I said, "I suppose that makes me look like a veteran."
"Not a veteran, my dear, but a gallant young captain."
This provided me with opportunity to tell my simple tale. How I had been immured in a tiresome Middle West village for years and years, tending my father and mother and watching life slip by. How at length Death had released me, and I was venturing forth to seek experience, too late, I feared.
"Not too late if you have the wherewithal," she said, with rather a vulgar little gesture of counting money. She had many little vulgarities which, somehow, were not offensive in her.
"Oh, I have plenty of money," I said with a grand carelessness. "But I don't know how to—how to get on with people."
She did not rise to my little lure. If she had any scheme for helping me to get rid of my money, she kept it to herself. She merely made sympathetic sounds, and that kitten mind of hers darted off at a tangent.
"I can scarcely wait for evening! I have a duck of a frock to sport to-night. Picked it up yesterday in New York. Little shop on Forty-fifth Street. I prophesy that European women will soon be coming to New York to buy their clothes. It's wonderful. Oh, how I adore pretty clothes! Black net, my dear, over strange bright shades of green and blue. Under the net there is black malines cut in panels which separate when you walk showing the vivid colours," etc., etc.
When I could get a word in, I cast another fly. "Would you advise Paris or London for me?"
"Do you speak French?" she asked.
"Oh, a little book French."
"Then I'd say London. Book French will order you what you want, but you cannot make friends on it. Except, of course, with Americans in Paris. Somehow, I always detest my own countrymen abroad. They're neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring."
In turn she told me a good deal about herself, but nothing very confidential. Much of it I had already heard from Sir Angus. I noticed one discrepancy. Mrs. Dartrey said that she and her husband were obliged to make frequent trips to and fro across the Atlantic, because they lived in England and all her husband's money was invested in America. I knew from Sir Angus that the money was hers. This seemed like unusual delicacy on her part.
We had a long talk. I liked the woman amazingly.
Promptly at four o'clock two of her swains were to be seen approaching from opposite directions. Mrs. Dartrey's eyes sparkled afresh.
"Ah, the dears!" she cried. "Having put them out of my mind for an hour, I am prepared to adore them again...You and I have had a good time, too, haven't we? It is so stimulating to meet an intelligent woman. We shall see more of each other. Adieu, for the present."
She sprang out of the chair like a girl, and with a swing linked arms with the two men as they came up. They paused for a moment, discussing what they should do. Mrs. Dartrey turned up her ugly nose at the suggestion of tea. The third admirer being seen to approach at that moment, it was decided to go up to the smoking room for a man's drink and a couple of rubbers of bridge.
I gave them ten minutes and then proceeded to make a tour of A deck myself. Through the windows of the smoking room I perceived that they were indeed absorbed in their game. Dartrey was there too, in another game. I decided that they were good for at least an hour and that I might safely venture to visit Mme Storey, who had told me that she would be taking tea in her own suite.
I found her on the enchanting veranda of the Imperial suite, clad in a lovely négligé, and reclining in a chaise longue, looking over the sea. The pleasant-faced girl was reading to her from "Le Mort d'Arthur," but my mistress was almost asleep.
"Ah, Bella, what heavenly comfort!" she murmured. "The sense of the book is lost on me, but the music of the old English charms my soul!"
The girl vanished. Mme Storey raised herself and lighted a cigarette. "What luck?" she asked.
I reported my conversation with Mrs. Dartrey word for word, as nearly as I could remember it. Mme Storey, listening with a half smile, made no comment except to murmur occasionally:
"She is cleverer than I thought!"
When I had done she asked: "What do you think of her?"
"I like her," I said at once. "Who could help doing so? An impulsive, scatter-brained, fascinating woman, full of vim and go. Such a person is like a stove in a cold room. I think Sir Angus must be mistaken. To me she seems perfectly transparent. To imitate that sort of thing would require a cleverness too infernal."
"Nevertheless, I believe she is just as clever as that," said Mme Storey. "She doesn't exactly imitate that honest air. She plays up her own natural self to gain her ends. The honest dishonest people, my dear, are the most subtle deceivers of all. And she's really attractive, of course, or she wouldn't have a soft job on the Gigantic."
I felt a little abashed. "I cannot doubt your insight," I said.
"This is not insight but outsight, my Bella," she said, laughing. "You see I happen to know that lady."
I looked at her in astonishment.
"I passed her on deck," she went on, "and I discovered that I had seen her once before. It must be all of eight years ago, but one would not forget that vivacious countenance. It was in Rector's of giddy memory. Inspector Rumsey pointed her out to me. She was then the companion of the famous 'Smoke' Lassen, the most brilliant confidence man that America ever produced. He has disappeared; dead, perhaps; he was an old man even then. The girl's name was Beatrice Breese; better known as Trixy Breese; and still more widely known throughout the underworld as Breezy Tricks."
"What can her game be?" I exclaimed.
"We shall find out."
"I gave her every opportunity and she didn't—"
"She wouldn't, the first day out."
"It must have to do with men."
Mme Storey shook her head. "No, she uses men as a cover for her real operations. Every word of hers to you suggests that women are her mark. I fancy that the seat of operations must be in Paris, since she refused to name Paris to you too precipitately. Ah, Paris is the home of the most subtle swindles ever evolved by the wits of man—as well as everything else that is ingenious and amusing. It is fortunate for us if it is so, since we are bound to Paris."
"What part do you suppose her husband plays?" I asked.
"No part—except the part of her husband. He is essential to her. Under the ægis of his respectable name and family connections she feels perfectly safe. I've been observing him. He's an easily recognizable type: a young aristocrat vitiated by every expensive appetite, and thrown on the world without the means of satisfying them. She provides everything he wants, and he is content."
"But they seem to be genuinely attached to each other," I objected.
"Why shouldn't they be?" said Mme Storey, smiling. "Love is not necessarily respectable, my Bella."
After dinner the magnificent lounge of the Gigantic was cleared for dancing. I watched from the side lines. All dances are called "brilliant," but this one really had a sparkling appearance, the great hall was so beautiful and all the women so well dressed. No self-respecting woman would have allowed herself to walk out on that floor had she not full assurance of looking her best.
Mrs. Dartrey made a late and effective entrance in the "duck of a frock," which fully justified her encomiums. The three admirers were now increased to half a score. Funny, isn't it, how a man likes to make one of a crowd about a popular woman. If I was a man, I'd be hanged if I would. And from the woman's point of view I should think the crowd would cut her off from anything real. Other women didn't think of this, and you could see them watching Mrs. Dartrey with a sickly envy out of the corners of their eyes.
I observed that the handsome, sulky-looking young husband crossed the floor when she entered, and it was to him that she gave the first dance. He was crazy about her. She danced ecstatically; dance after dance. I remained watching until after midnight, and she was still keeping it up unflaggingly. What astonishing energy! I wondered if, when her cabin door closed behind her, a reaction set in.
Next morning, at the women's hour, I met her in the Pompeian swimming pool down on G deck, deep in the hold of the vast ship. She was swimming tirelessly back and forth as if she still had superfluous energy to get rid of, and the other women were standing about looking at her. She gave me a gay wave of the hand as she went to her dressing room.
I did not have a chance to speak to her during the morning, but I saw her often: playing tennis up on the sun deck; promenading briskly; talking animatedly to this person and that. Her method was the same with all; she would march up to anybody she fancied and plunge into the very middle of a conversation. Most people were charmed by it; and if they were not, the insouciant Trixy simply went on to somebody else. There was plenty of material on board to choose from. She and her husband did not come down to lunch, and later I saw them the centre of a gay party in the Ritz-Carlton restaurant on B deck. The champagne was flowing copiously.
Later, she flung herself into the chair alongside me on deck. "I'm drunk, my dear," she announced merrily. "I do wish people wouldn't give me champagne. I am rattling with it."
I laughed encouragingly.
"Ah, this is good!" she said, stretching herself. "The one quiet hour of the day. Let's talk about men."
"Don't you want to sleep?" I asked.
"No! I grudge the hours given to sleep. Life is too short. I've been looking forward to a rational conversation with you." She glanced down the deck. "If only my husband does not interrupt us. The poor fellow complains that I neglect him on shipboard."
"He seems very devoted," I remarked.
She favoured me with an indescribably wicked, merry smile. "Oh, my dear, if you only knew! You would never imagine, seeing him so perfectly dressed, so indifferent looking—it is really quite terrible!"
"What is?" I asked.
"His ardour," she said, with eyes momentarily downcast.
"Oh!" I said.
"He is really too sweet!" she rattled on. "And I adore him. But it's just a leetle wearying sometimes to inspire a greater devotion than you feel yourself...Funny, isn't it, and me years older than he."
"How do you manage it?" I asked.
"I wish you were married," she said. "Then we could talk about things."
"Why can't we anyway?" I asked. "I'm grown-up."
She shook her head. "If you were married you would understand things—without explanations. To explain would be—horrible, you know."
"How long have you been married?" I asked.
"Two years. He is my third husband. One died; one I was obliged to divorce. Divorce is wonderful, isn't it? The greatest aid to marriage that was ever invented!"
This was a novel idea to me, and I suppose I looked my astonishment.
"I mean," she went on, "with the possibility of a divorce always present, married people cannot afford to get careless with each other. They must play up or expect to get the razz."
"I wish I had your art," I said with a sigh.
"I have no art," she quickly returned. "I am just myself. Heavens, my dear, I'm the laziest-minded woman alive. If I had to think and contrive how to attract men, I should still be une vierge. No, men just seem to fall my way. I can't help it."
To-day, with Mme Storey's hints to guide me, I was able to perceive that my irrepressible friend was not so spontaneous as she had seemed at first. Behind the merry, careless glances, there was the hint of something watchful. I became aware, gradually, that I was being subjected to a sharp scrutiny. We went on to talk of my supposed situation, and I felt as if a delicate, searching probe was being used on me. I was put to it to maintain my assumed character.
Somewhere during the course of our talk, Mrs. Dartrey made up her mind about me, and her manner began to change. She did not become rude or indifferent, but only cooled off. I anxiously cast back in my mind to discover what I could have said to put her off, but could not think of anything. It was impossible, I thought, that she could suspect me. Mme Storey had said, with a woman as clever as that, it would be dangerous to make overtures of any kind and that I had better hold myself perfectly passive and let come what would come. This I had faithfully observed, yet it seemed as if the skittish lady had taken alarm, somehow. She finally fell asleep in the chair beside me—or made believe to do so.
On the following afternoon, when I came to my chair, I was greatly chagrined to discover that she had had the deck steward move her chair away.
I had been looking forward to dining tête-à-tête with Mme Storey in her suite that night, but now my pleasure was all spoiled. Having made sure that the Dartreys had descended to the dining saloon, I went to keep the appointment, heavy with a sense of failure.
The little table was set out on the veranda of the suite, close beside the ship's rail. There was no light except one tiny bulb on the table under a rosy shade. Sitting there, we could look over the rail at the moon shining on the heaving sea. The delicious food was served piping hot from Mme Storey's own pantry. It was all perfectly enchanting—or would have been had not my spirits been so low.
"What's the matter?" asked my kind mistress.
"I have failed," I said bitterly. "Mrs. Dartrey has become suspicious of me. She has shaken me."
"There is no reason for you to feel cast down," said Mme Storey. "This was inevitable. She has not become suspicious of you. She has simply made up her mind that you are not timber suitable for her cutting, and, being a busy woman, she does not intend to waste any more time on you."
"I cannot think what I could have done," I said.
"You didn't do anything. Remember, she is looking for a gull. You are obviously not a gull, nor could you create the effect of a gull. She's a psychologist, too."
I began to feel a little better. "Still, I have failed," I said. "As far as she's concerned, my work is ended."
"I should say it was just beginning," said Mme Storey. "Your job now is to find the gull and attach yourself to her."
Well, my appetite came back, and I suddenly found the moonlight on the sea glorious. My chief fear had been that Mme Storey would be disappointed in me.
"I should say take plenty of time to it," she went on. "You still have three days and a bit before Cherbourg. Under the circumstances it would be quite proper for you to sue for Mrs. Dartrey's favour a little. She will no doubt snub you, but you can be the least bit persistent, as if regretful at losing your vivacious friend. Find out if you can whom she has chosen for the slaughter, and approach them when they are together. If you can contrive to have Mrs. Dartrey introduce you to the other woman, the rest will follow quite naturally."
All of which was done as Mme Storey enjoined. I observed next morning that Mrs. Dartrey had had her chair carried around to the starboard side of B deck, where it was now placed beside that of a sallow, discontented-looking woman, very richly dressed. I wondered if this could be the prospective victim. On the other side of the woman sat a rather attractive man, her husband, apparently.
I let the whole day pass without making any move, closely observing Mrs. Dartrey whenever the opportunity offered. By this time she had a hundred intimate friends of both sexes. She was always in confidential chat with somebody, leaning over the ship's rail or perched on the edge of a chair, and it was not easy to decide which might be the chosen ones. She greeted me brightly but gave me no opportunity for conversation. However, when I saw her after tea in close confabulation with the sallow woman, I doubted no longer. Mrs. Dartrey's careless manner was exactly the same to this one as to any other, but her companion betrayed a secret, strained eagerness as she listened, which gave everything away. The husband's chair was empty.
I continued to promenade the deck until I happened by during a lull in their confidences. Whereupon I stopped in front of Mrs. Dartrey and said: "I miss you."
She looked up at me with a little start of recognition, subtly insulting. "Oh," she said, "I'm sorry I had to move my chair. But there isn't a breath of air around on the port side in the afternoons."
"That's so," I said, still hanging about.
"Why don't you move over here?" she asked with a glance down the line, knowing very well that the rank was filled.
"There isn't any room."
I purposely prolonged the awkward pause and glanced suggestively at the other woman. Mrs. Dartrey evidently thought, as I wished her to, that the easiest way out was to introduce us, and she said:
"Mrs. Ellis, Miss Gaul. Silly to introduce people, isn't it, when we all talk to each other anyway."
We laughed inanely. I was satisfied. I made some inconsequential remark and walked on. Nor did I make any further move that day to improve my acquaintance with Mrs. Ellis.
From the passenger list I learned that she was Mrs. John W. Ellis and that she and her husband occupied one of the best rooms on D deck, which suggested that they were people of wealth. The purser told me that they had booked from Minneapolis and that they were apparently inexperienced voyagers. I suppose he made further inquiries of the room steward or stewardess, for he later volunteered the information that the couple quarrelled a good deal in their cabin. I regarded the husband with interest. He seemed superior to his wife; a man of some distinction; but looked nervous and perhaps ill-tempered. They were going to Paris.
Next morning, when I started my promenade, I found Mrs. Ellis sitting between two empty chairs. So I dropped into one with an ingratiating smile at the sallow woman. She gave me a look none too friendly, but I made believe not to see it.
"Have you seen Mrs. Dartrey?" I asked.
"No," she said.
"Isn't she a wonderful woman?" I said. "So full of energy and spirits."
"Yes," said Mrs. Ellis in her graceless way.
She was clearly reluctant to talk about her friend, and it would have been highly foolish for me to pursue the subject. So I made up talk about anything and nothing. It was uphill work, for Mrs. Ellis was both suspicious and touchy. She hadn't anything against me personally; that was just her ordinary attitude. She was a woman of about forty, and would have been very good-looking, with her raven hair and good eyes, had it not been for her sallowness and her intensely disagreeable expression. I couldn't make up my mind whether biliousness had ruined her disposition or her bad disposition had soured her digestive juices. Either might have been true.
Finally I discovered that the key to unlock her nature was—flattery! I said: "I'm so glad Mrs. Dartrey introduced us. I should never have dared to speak to you without. One should on shipboard, I suppose, but I simply haven't the assurance. And I did so want to know you. You attracted me from the first."
A tinge of pink appeared in Mrs. Ellis's sallow skin, and her whole expression softened in fatuous gratification. I perceived that there was no danger of feeding it to her too strong. "What was it about me that attracted you?" she asked, keenly interested.
"These things are hard to explain," I said, "I suppose it was because you looked so superior to the other passengers."
"Oh, the others," she said with a sneering look down the line; "dreadful people, aren't they?"
"They look it," I said. "I haven't felt like talking to any of them."
"I never talk to people when travelling," said Mrs. Ellis. "One must maintain a certain reserve. One owes it to one's self."
"That was it," I said. "It was your air of reserve which attracted me."
I devoutly hoped that she wouldn't report my words to Mrs. Dartrey. The latter would have instantly comprehended that I was after something. However, there was little danger of such a thing happening: Mrs. Ellis was too much of a fool.
"I'm a queer sort of person," Mrs. Ellis went on, delighted with her subject. "Very few understand me. When I give my friendship, a warmer and more disinterested friend does not exist on earth. But I am slow to give it. I insist upon worth in the object. And I am implacable. I never forgive a wrong in friendship."
"You must have many devoted friends," I murmured.
"No," she said, "not many. My standards are too high. I scarcely know what women are coming to nowadays. Even the so-called best women I find to be unscrupulous liars and scandalmongers—if not worse. I will have nothing to do with such, whatever their position may be."
"It does you credit," I said.
"My husband is the most prominent attorney in Minneapolis," she went on: "counsel to the biggest corporations in the Northwest. As a leader, I am an especial object of calumny. It cannot touch me, of course, but as I will not compromise with such people the result is that I lead rather a lonely life."
"I suppose it is inevitable," I said sympathetically.
"You would not believe some of the stories I could tell you about the so-called best people of Minneapolis," she said viciously, and forthwith launched into an involved and excessively tiresome tale of country club machinations. I will not bore you with it. Suffice it to say that the teller appeared as the high-minded heroine, while all the other women were hussies. Another tale followed, and another. Mrs. Ellis looked upon herself as the most beautiful, the cleverest and the noblest of women, and was enraged because nobody else would accept her at her own valuation. Evidently in her home town, she was avoided like the plague.
She was particularly bitter on the subject of philandering. Evidently all the other women of her set were engaged in more or less innocent flirtations, whereas no man ever looked at Mrs. Ellis. Consequently, she had rationalized herself into a very snowdrop of purity and was scathing in her animadversions upon sex. But, ah, what a tormented envy spoke in her words!
So much for my success with Mrs. Ellis. She always welcomed me after that, though of course I was no more to the egotistical woman than a sort of mirror in which she saw herself reflected as she wished. She never cared to hear me talk about myself. In order that I might not appear to be cultivating her acquaintance secretly, I used to stop sometimes when she and Mrs. Dartrey were together. At such moments neither lady betrayed overmuch friendliness, but I persisted until I had established my point. I would then pass on as if a little saddened by their lack of cordiality.
I must emphasize the fact that there was never the slightest suggestion of secrecy in Mrs. Dartrey's communications to her friend. She did not whisper, nor cast meaning looks, etc., but was always her impetuous and rather noisy self; and as far as I could judge the style of her talk was exactly the same as she had used toward me in the beginning.
I discovered another significant fact about Mrs. Ellis. Later that same day, as I passed along the deck, her husband was in the next chair, and I judged from their expressions that they were quarrelling in bitter whispers. Mrs. Ellis did not see me at all; her face was yellow and hateful; there was something unspeakably piteous in it, too; and in a flash the domestic situation became clear to me. She was passionately in love with her husband, whereas he was tired of her and exasperated beyond endurance by her foolishness. I was sorry for them both.
I made my next reports to Mme Storey with more confidence, and she was good enough to commend me unreservedly. I went on to describe Mrs. Ellis's wonderful jewels, her rope of pearls, her emeralds, her beautiful diamond ornaments.
"Those, I suppose, constitute the stakes of the game," I said.
Mme Storey shook her head. "Indirectly, perhaps," she said. "But we have nothing so simple to deal with as straight robbery. They could never have got away with robbery for two seasons without having a hue and cry raised against them."
On the night before we were to disembark at Cherbourg, that immemorial function, the captain's dinner, was held in the grand saloon. This event was supposed to mark the culmination of the social activities aboard ship, and every woman saved her prettiest dress for it. All the dinners were so extraordinarily elaborate there was not much more that the steward could do; but what he could do he did; and upon glancing down the menu one realized that the four corners of the globe had been ransacked for delectable dainties. All the toys and favours were distributed that are considered to add to the gaiety of the feast.
Sir Angus, in dress uniform, was the most dignified figure present. One could worship such a man, with his urbanity, his sorrowful, stern face, and his cool habit of command. He very rarely appeared among the passengers. None but a fool would dare to approach so noble a figure with impertinent questions; but unfortunately the fools on shipboard seem to be even more in evidence than elsewhere. Sir Angus masked with polite smiles the tedium that the interminable dinner must have caused him.
There was a great treat saving for me afterward, because Sir Angus had asked Mme Storey and me to take coffee with him in his own quarters up on the bridge. What a delightful spot that cabin was, so cool and remote above the bustle of the ship. One could hear the steady rush of the wind outside, and the sighing voice of the sea. Here one was really aware of being at sea. The furnishings were unexpectedly simple, and Sir Angus's private knick-knacks, scattered about, gave it a homely aspect. The dear man's artistic taste was not very highly developed, but one could not think the less of a sailor for that.
My mistress looked positively regal in a plain evening gown of a cool red brocade that the famous Craqui had designed for her earlier in the season. Sir Angus's face became soft and beautiful with a chivalrous admiration as he looked at her. It was a very fine tribute.
But Mme Storey insisted on bringing me forward. She suggested that I tell Sir Angus the story of the drama which was developing on board. I did so.
"I knew I would not be appealing to you in vain!" he cried. "I am sure this ugly business will be cleared up now. How do you suppose it will work out?"
"Unless I am very much deceived," said Mme Storey, "Mrs. Dartrey will furnish Mrs. Ellis with an address in Paris. That will finish Mrs. Dartrey's work. She goes on to Southampton, and, as the rush of rich Americans is slackening now, she will no doubt be free until next season, to amuse herself with her fashionable English friends. As to what is to take place at that address in Paris I cannot, of course, tell you yet. But Bella and I will make it our business to find out."
"You are wonderful women!" said Sir Angus solemnly.
Fancy my pride at hearing myself coupled with Mme Storey like that.
Sir Angus presented me, as a souvenir, with an ink-well in the form of a model of the Gigantic's bridge, with all the telegraphs reproduced in silver gilt. I believe it was among his most cherished possessions, and certainly it has become one of mine.
Next morning we dropped anchor in the harbour of Cherbourg, and as the tender came alongside there was a great business of good-byes among the company of passengers which divided here. Mrs. Dartrey, who looked very piquant in a white sports costume with Chinese embroidery, was most affable to me.
"When you come to London, do drop in on me," said she.
But she did not intend it to be taken seriously. I thought: "If I do come perhaps it will be on an errand that will astonish you."
Out of the tail of my eye I observed her parting with Mrs. Ellis. She was too clever to give anything away; all gaiety and carelessness; but the other woman was visibly moved. She whispered something to Mrs. Dartrey that I could not catch, but I read its purport on her lips. It was a murmur of thanks for some benefit conferred.
Mme Storey and I were to travel separately to Paris, of course. I had purposely omitted reserving a seat on the train, as I wanted, if possible, to get into the same compartment with Mr. and Mrs. Ellis. I succeeded in doing so, but obtained little benefit from it, for Mrs. Ellis, ill at ease in the presence of her husband, scarcely opened her lips to me the whole way. Moreover, I do not think she ever looked out of the window, though this was her first visit to France. She sat staring straight ahead of her, her twitching hands and tapping foot betraying a curious inner excitement. Her husband studied a copy of the Paris edition of the New York Herald that he had purchased on the quai. One wondered why such a couple had come abroad.
In the bustle of collecting our belongings as we drew into the Gare St. Lazare I forced Mrs. Ellis to take some notice of me.
"There are never enough porters, of course," I said with a laugh. "They run alongside the train as it comes to a stop, and the way to make sure of one is to pass your bags out of the window."
Mr. Ellis thanked me for the tip.
"It has been so nice to know you," I said to his wife in a lower tone. "I hope I may see something of you in Paris."
"Surely," she said. She did not mean it either. It was clear that even my flattery had no weight against the secret new excitement that filled her.
"Where are you going to stop?" I asked.
"—Er—the Continental," she said, with an uneasy glance at her husband.
When I got myself and my bags into a taxi, I put the Ellises out of my mind. I thanked my stars that my own heart was unclouded and I might freely give myself up to the delight of sniffing that rare atmosphere and feasting my eyes on the blithesome spectacle of the boulevards. Why is it—why is it that the mere thought of Paris moves one's heart to a gaiety that is almost painful? I can't explain it. I only know that I would rather go to Paris when I die than to heaven.
Although I had only known Paris for three brief days before, I felt as if I were coming home. I murmured over the names of the streets, finding the syllables sweet in my ears: Rue du Havre; Rue Tronchet; around the frowning Madeleine, and down the sparkling Rue Royale to the glorous panorama of the river.
Mme Storey and I were joyfully reunited in the same charming salon at the Crillon that we had had before. Its windows, which looked out over the Place de la Concorde, commanded the finest view in Paris, with the Jardins des Tuileries on one side, the Champs-Elysées on the other, and the river in front. We did not stop to unpack, but rushed out into the streets again. Mme Storey, not telephoning to any of her friends, gave up the rest of that day to me. We dined at an enchanting out-of-doors restaurant up on Montmartre and went to see the Ballet Russe.
Next morning I had to get into harness again. About eleven I set off down the Rue de Rivoli to call on Mrs. Ellis at the Hôtel Continental. I had a disappointment. They were not there. They had reserved rooms, I was told, but had not come, nor had any word been received from them. I went to the New York Herald office, but they had not registered there, as all good Americans do; neither was there any information forthcoming at the American Express. I was forced to the conclusion that Mrs. Ellis had persuaded her husband to change hotels expressly to avoid me.
Mme Storey took it with a shrug. "It's not fatal," she said. "Such a green pair, and so rich, could not lose themselves in Paris. I know a woman who will find them for us within an hour or so."
She telephoned to a certain Mlle Monge, who, it appeared, had served her before.
In less than an hour word came over the wire that the Ellises were at the Majestic on the Avenue Kleber, near the Etoile. Mme Storey instructed Mlle Monge to await me there in the foyer. She would know me by my red hair and chapeau vert.
To me Mme Storey said: "Point out Mrs. Ellis to her, and let her follow the American about Paris. I shall have to leave this case pretty much to you two, as I am obliged to let my friends know I am here. In Paris I am not supposed to have any serious occupation."
In the magnificent Hôtel Majestic I was approached by a charming brown-eyed person very modishly dressed in black, who introduced herself as Mlle Monge. She was not at all one's idea of the typical Frenchwoman, she had such a modest and reticent manner; but I was beginning to learn that, as of other peoples, there are all kinds of French. Her English was as good as my own, and I felt from the first that we should be friends.
It was now the hour for déjeuner, and the restaurant was thronged. All I had to do was to point out the Ellises where they sat by a window and leave the rest to Mlle Monge. It was arranged that she should call me up at the Crillon at three, or as soon thereafter as possible. I was then free to kick up my heels on the Champs-Elysées.
In due course I got my call. The Ellises had left their hotel together, Mlle Monge reported, and had driven to the Galeries Lafayette, where Mrs. Ellis had gone in. But she had only waited inside the door long enough for her husband to drive away. She had then hailed another taxi and had herself driven to a house in the Rue des Tournelles in the Marais, a quarter of old Paris. She had remained in this house nearly an hour. Upon inquiring of the concierge, Mlle Monge learned that she had asked for a M. Guimet, who had the best apartment in the house. M. Guimet was a savant (scientist) and much respected in the neighbourhood, it appeared. Mrs. Ellis had then returned to the Majestic, where she now was. Mlle Monge was telephoning from there.
Mme Storey was not available at the moment. I felt that the first thing to do was to obtain further information about this M. Guimet. I so told Mlle Monge, and said I would immediately come to the Majestic to relieve her.
When I entered the Majestic for the second time, the first person I beheld was Mrs. Ellis, who was walking back and forth in the foyer in an uncertain way. She saw me at the same moment and came hastening toward me.
"What a surprise!" she cried. "How are you! It's so nice to see a friendly face!"
This was rather disconcerting. I was still more astonished by the change in her appearance. She was openly and feverishly excited now; a bright red spot burned in either of her sallow cheeks, and the pupils of her eyes were as much distended as if she had atropine in them. A dangerous excitement.
"Are you very busy?" she went on breathlessly. "I'm dying to go shopping and I don't know where to go or what to ask for."
I saw that I need have no anxiety about explaining my presence in the Majestic. "Just a minute until I make an inquiry at the bureau," I said. "Then I'll be happy to go with you."
In a shadowy corner of the foyer I saw Mlle Monge taking us in. It was not necessary for me to communicate with her then, as she had her instructions. I inquired for a mythical person at the bureau and then returned to Mrs. Ellis.
"My friend has not arrived," I said.
She was not in the least interested. As we stood on the sidewalk waiting for a taxi, her head kept turning from side to side.
"That man stared at me," she said with a simper. "I mean the young man in the shepherd's plaid suit who just went in. Oh, Paris! Paris! Paris!"
"You are happier than you were yesterday," I ventured.
With a lunatic change of mood she whispered dully: "Is it happiness?...I don't know...I'm terrified."
I wondered if she were a secret drinker. I had seen no signs of it on shipboard.
A taxi came up. I told the driver to take us to the Place de l'Opéra as a good point to radiate from. We hustled down the Champs-Élysées. Mrs. Ellis stared with an unwholesome eagerness into the faces of the people in the passing motors.
"It's more fun walking," she said. "More chance of an adventure. And yet, not an hour ago, when I was coming home in a taxi, a man in another cab raised his hat to me and smiled. Such a gentlemanly looking fellow with a gray Fedora and a monocle. I was quite flustered. And, my dear, he ordered his chauffeur to turn around and follow. But I lost him in the traffic...I must tell you, I had taken the taxi in order to escape a young fellow in the street who brushed against me and smiled...Isn't this a dreadful city? How it makes one's heart beat!...It will seem very dull in Minneapolis. Our men are such stick-in-the-muds. No verve, no romance, no abandon."
"What is it particularly that you want to buy?" I asked.
"An evening gown. Something I can wear at dinner to-night. I want to charm my husband. My dear, I've gradually allowed myself to dress in as dull a style as if I were over forty!"
Which of course she was!
It is not so easy to buy good ready-made dresses in Paris, but Mme Storey had told me of a little shop in the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré to which the great dressmakers sent their model dresses to be sold, and thither we had ourselves carried. I soon perceived that Mrs. Ellis had no intention of listening to any advice from me and ceased to offer it. She chose a snaky sheath gown covered with green sequins. It was a gorgeous affair, but most unsuitable for her; made her skin look as yellow as saffron.
Nevertheless, she stood clad in it before a long mirror, and raising her arms above her head, like a girl, murmured dreamily: "I am charming!"
She refused to leave the shop until she had seen the dress dispatched to the Hôtel Majestic by a midinette.
Out in the street again, she said with a sidelong look: "Let us go to a café. One of those places where we can sit out on the street and watch everybody. Which is the most famous rendezvous of them all?"
"The Café de la Paix, undoubtedly," I said. "They call it the centre of civilization. If you sit there long enough, everybody in the world will pass by, they say."
"In such a place we are sure to be spoken to," she said with a secret smile. "Would you be afraid?"
"Not at all," I said.
"What would you do?"
"Speak back again—if I liked the looks of the speaker."
"Oh, you're so matter-of-fact," she said impatiently. "That will never get you anywhere."
"Where do you want to get to?" I asked, smiling.
Her strained face showed no answering smile. "I want—I want—" she said incoherently—"I want everything life has to offer. After this I mean to take it as my right. I am no common woman. Colour! perfume! happiness! I will lavish my treasures!...Will you agree this afternoon to follow wherever adventure may lead us?" she demanded breathlessly.
"Yes," I said. I felt safe in promising.
"I am utterly reckless!" she cried. "The spirit of a bacchante has entered into me. I mean to drain the cup of life to the dregs!"
You would have had to see the aging, sallow woman to appreciate how tragi-comic this sounded.
It suddenly occurred to her that it was hardly in line with her moral protestations on shipboard. "I expect you disapprove," she said with another sidelong look. "But I can't help it. Something within me is released. I don't care what happens."
"I am no moralist," I said. "I would like to cut loose myself."
"Then stick to me," she said with an insane archness. "Wherever I go, things are bound to happen!"
In a few minutes we were seated at the famous corner where all the streams of Paris converge. It was crowded, as it always is, by night or day, and we had to hang about until one of the little tables in the front rank was vacated and we could pounce on it. The passing throng all but trod on our feet. I could have been perfectly happy just watching. I suggested coffee, tea, or an ice to Mrs. Ellis, but she would have none of it.
"What are those people drinking?" she asked, indicating a particularly rakish-looking couple at the next table.
"Fine à l'eau," I said. "That is Parisian for brandy and soda."
"I'll have one of those," she said.
I did not expect to obtain any information from her by direct questioning; still, I thought it was worth trying. "What have you been doing since we got here?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing in particular," she said inattentively. "Just looking around."
"What did you do this morning?"
The secret look on her face intensified. "My husband and I drove around town in a taxicab," she said with a calculated vagueness.
"What I would like to see is a bit of old Paris," I hazarded. "If I only had somebody to take me."
"I am not interested in anything old," she said. "...The Englishman with the blue collar is staring at me."
I saw that it was useless to pursue my questions.
The woman beside me was obsessed. Her head kept turning restlessly this way and that, her distended eyes searching in the faces of the men who sat near. Fattish, complacent creatures, most of them; settled in their chairs as if somebody had squashed them down on the seats rather hard. I got no suggestion of the rampant male that Mrs. Ellis affected to perceive everywhere. A good many of them were staring at her naturally, her actions were so peculiar; but it was not at all in the manner that she fondly supposed. It made me rather uncomfortable, but it was all in the way of my job. Of course, nobody spoke to us.
For more than an hour she kept up the pretence that she was the cynosure of every eye. "I hope you'll forgive me for making you so conspicuous," she said archly. "I suppose you are not accustomed to it."
I assured her that was all right.
She ordered cigarettes and attempted to smoke one with airy grace, but choked over it. One noticed, notwithstanding her confidence, that she was excessively bitter in her censures upon such women who passed as had annexed a man.
And then, suddenly, the game seemed to be up. She rose abruptly. She had had several ponies of cognac and was slightly affected by it.
"I congratulate you on your success as a chaperon," she said, crassly ill-natured. "I will have to give you a testimonial: Warranted to keep men at arm's length! I don't know why I came out with you, I'm sure. I wish Mrs. Dartrey was here."
I consoled myself for her rudeness by thinking: "If she were here, my lady, no man would look at you!"
I put her in a cab and sent her to the Majestic. I knew she was expecting to meet her husband there and would be safe with him during the evening. And that liberated me. I returned to the Crillon with a light heart.
Mlle Monge reported that she had made further inquiries in the Rue des Tournelles but with small results. It appeared that none of his neighbours had a speaking acquaintance with M. Guimet, who was described as a studious and absent-minded scientist. He had been living in his present quarters for two years. Nothing was known of his antecedents. An elderly femme de ménage cared for his wants. She was well liked by the tradespeople chiefly because she was a liberal spender. A certain éclat attached to M. Guimet's establishment because of the handsomely dressed ladies who occasionally called upon him. Mlle Monge had then inquired at the Institut de France, and of the other learned societies, but had been unable to learn anything whatever concerning a scientific man by the name of Aristide Guimet. He was not known to the police.
Late in the afternoon of the following day I ran into Mrs. Ellis by accident as I crossed the Place Vendôme. That dependable Mlle Monge had her under observation. Mrs. Ellis looked at me point-blank without a sign of recognition. In order to get her attention I had to run after her and take her arm. A further extraordinary change had taken place in the woman. She seemed to have broken up overnight. Her hair was untidy and her eyes had the dulled look of one suffering from shock; her colour was ghastly.
At first I made believe not to notice anything amiss. "Fancy!" I cried, "of all the millions in Paris, you and I to meet here!"
"Let me alone," she muttered thickly. "I don't want to talk to you."
"Shall we go to Rumpelmayer's to tea?" I said.
She attempted pettishly to free her arm, but I clung to it. "You are ill," I said. "Let me help you."
"I'm all right," she muttered. "Let me go."
She was hardly a sympathetic figure; nevertheless, I was strongly affected on her behalf. After all, she was my countrywoman, and I had reason to believe her the victim of some devilish plot. I summoned the first passing taxi and put her into it. She was too apathetic to resist me. I told the man to drive to the Crillon. Mrs. Ellis's witless aspect scared me. I began to feel that this case was getting beyond me, and I determined to send Mlle Monge after Mme Storey, who was having tea with friends at the Ritz. I saw the Frenchwoman discreetly following in another cab.
I seated Mrs. Ellis in the little salon of our suite while I talked to Mlle Monge out in the corridor. She said:
"Mrs. Ellis made a round of the fashionable jewellery shops on the Rue de la Paix this morning. It was so early the shops were empty, and I couldn't follow her in without attracting attention, so I cannot state what her errand was. As far as I could see from the street, whenever she stated her errand, she was taken into a private room.
"She had déjeuner alone at the Majestic. Immediately afterward she had herself driven to the Rue des Tournelles again. She remained in that house about the same length of time as before. Neither before nor after that visit could I see any change from her usual look. She was always a little wild. She returned to the Majestic and had herself carried up in the lift. In a few minutes her husband descended, his face distorted with anger. I assumed that they had quarrelled. He left the hotel. Mrs. Ellis came down, and she then looked as you see her now. She left the hotel like one walking in her sleep. She walked the entire distance to the spot where you met her, seeing nothing."
I told Mlle Monge to ask Mme Storey to come at once, if she could, and to proceed directly to her bedroom, where I could speak to her before Mrs. Ellis saw her. I then returned to Mrs. Ellis.
"I am your friend," I said frankly. "Can't you tell me what is the matter?"
She struggled for some semblance of self-control. She wished to deceive me. "It is nothing," she said. "I feel a little ill. I am subject to it. I will just rest a little and then go home."
I appeared to be satisfied. "Is there anything I can get you?" I asked.
"Smelling salts," she suggested.
I fetched her the bottle. She sniffed of it gratefully and made out that she felt better. She kept her lids lowered to hide the look of blank agony in her eyes. It was very affecting.
"Shall I have tea brought up here?" I asked.
A nauseated look crossed her face. "No, please," she murmured. "I could not eat. I will go now."
By one expedient and another, I detained her for five minutes. At the end of that time I heard the door of Mme Storey's room close. I went to her and swiftly explained the situation. She returned with me to the salon.
"This is Mme Storey, Mrs. Ellis," I said.
It was too much for the nerves of the shaken woman. She lost her grip again. "What does she want of me?" she said hysterically. "Why was I brought here, anyway? I wish to go!"
There was a comfortable, sunny-tempered quality in Mme Storey's smile. "Let me explain myself first," she said. In a difficult situation, she always deals frankly. She described the nature of her profession and told how, upon boarding the Gigantic, Captain Sir Angus McMaster had asked her to do a favour for him.
"He believed that Mr. and Mrs. Dartrey were dangerous swindlers," she said.
Mrs. Ellis's jaw dropped. "The Dartreys, swindlers!" she gasped. "That can't be!...At least they got nothing out of me!"
"Not directly," said Mme Storey. "But we believe they are working with somebody in Paris. Did they not send you to a man in Paris?"
The effect of this on Mrs. Ellis was startling. Her arms went up to her head in an utterly distracted gesture. "Oh, my God!...Oh, my God!" she stuttered. "A swindle! It can't be so!"
"Was it M. Aristide Guimet in the Rue des Tournelles?" asked Mme Storey softly.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" cried Mrs. Ellis. "I never heard of that name or of that street!"
"We had you followed," said Mme Storey deprecatingly. "You were there yesterday and again to-day."
Mrs. Ellis, wild with terror, endeavoured to save her face by flying into a passion. "You had me followed!" she cried. "As if I were a criminal! How dare you! How dare you! My husband shall know of this! Have I not the right to go where I please?"
"Oh, assuredly," said Mme Storey. "I only wished to save you, you see. If I have failed to do so, I blame myself very much. But I had no idea it would happen so quickly."
"I have not the least idea what you are talking about," said Mrs. Ellis. "It sounds to me as if you were out of your mind."
"Please, Mrs. Ellis," said Mme Storey, with her most winning manner. "Let us talk this over reasonably. Suppose you have been fooled: that is no disgrace. It happens to all of us. If you have lost your money, don't you want me to get it back for you?"
"I don't know you," cried Mrs. Ellis. "How am I to know but that you are a swindler?"
Mme Storey smiled. "I have not asked you for anything but a little information," she said. "You can easily satisfy yourself about me by cabling to anyone you may know in New York, or, better, by sending a wireless to Sir Angus."
Mrs. Ellis abandoned that line. "I have lost no money," she said. "Where would I get any money to lose? Our funds are all in my husband's hands."
"Where are your jewels, Mrs. Ellis?"
The woman caught her breath sharply. A moment passed before she could command herself sufficiently to speak. "In my jewel case," she said tremulously. "Where else should they be?"
"What were you doing in the Rue de la Paix this morning?"
"Buying some new ones," she said with a laugh that was meant to be careless and offhand but only had a lunatic sound.
Mme Storey approached from another angle. "Sir Angus and I believe that this game has been going on for two years," she said. "Within that time many American women must have been deceived and robbed. And it appears to be such a devilishly clever game there's no reason why it should not go on indefinitely unless we break it up. Won't you help me to do that, Mrs. Ellis, for the sake of saving other women?"
An unnatural calmness descended on Mrs. Ellis. Her eyes were perfectly daft, but her voice was under fair control. "I would be glad to help you if I knew what you were talking about," she said. "But it sounds like rank melodrama to me."
"Prove your good faith by telling us why you went to see M. Guimet," challenged Mme Storey.
Mrs. Ellis hesitated blankly—then, evidently, a word of mine recurred to her. "I merely wanted to see a bit of old Paris," she said.
"Who told you about M. Guimet?"
"Somebody in America—I scarcely remember who. I am not in the least interested in M. Guimet but only in his old house. And now I hope I may be permitted to go. Unless I am being detained here by force."
"The door is unlocked," said Mme Storey. "But let me make a last appeal. Here we are, three American women in a foreign city. Surely we ought to stand together. There is evidently a devilish trap set for our women in this city. Won't you help me to destroy it?"
"Really, my dear lady, you are too dramatic!" said Mrs. Ellis. "You ought to go on the stage."
And with an affected laugh she passed out of the room with that corpselike face, and those eyes mad with pain or terror—or both. It was too dreadful to see. But we had to let her go, of course.
When the door closed behind her, Mme Storey sighed. "God save us from fools!" she said.
I said: "The woman must be criminally involved in some way, to be in such terror of having the facts known."
Mme Storey shook her head. "Most likely it is only folly," she said. "A woman would far rather be shown up as a crook than a fool."
"There was a threat you might have used," I suggested.
"I know," said Mme Storey, "to tell her husband if she didn't come across. I thought of it. But I was afraid of driving her to some desperate act. She is completely unbalanced."
The faithful Mlle Monge followed Mrs. Ellis out of the Crillon, and later she reported that Mrs. Ellis had returned to the Majestic, where she had later dined with her husband in at least apparent amity. We were somewhat reassured in mind by this news.
But early next morning Mr. Ellis went to the Préfecture de Police to report that his wife was missing. We were immediately informed of it by Mlle Monge, who was on duty at the Majestic at an early hour. Mr. Ellis told the police he feared his wife might have taken her own life. She had threatened to do so the day before. A neurotic and highly emotional woman, she had frequently threatened to kill herself, and he had not supposed that she meant it. She had retired for the night apparently in a better frame of mind. But sometime during the night she had arisen while he slept, and had stolen from the room.
A watchman in the Majestic reported that a guest who answered to the description of Mrs. Ellis had come downstairs fully dressed just as day was breaking. Upon his asking her how he could serve her (he spoke English), she had said that she wanted to go to the Orleans station to meet a friend who was arriving by a night train, and would he get her a taxicab. She departed in it. The driver testified that he had indeed taken her to the Orleans station, which as everybody knows is on the quai. She was not seen after that.
A few hours later the unfortunate woman's body was recovered from the river at St. Cloud, having evidently drifted to that point from one of the city bridges.
Mme Storey, Mlle Monge, and I immediately went to the Préfecture to tell what we knew of the case. This building was on the Île de la Cité, opposite the huge Palais de Justice where I had once been to see the Sainte Chappelle and Marie Antoinette's cell. The Préfecture was not an ancient building, but, like all French public buildings, very imposing with its statuary, paintings, etc. How different from 300 Mulberry Street, New York!
The officers were admirably sensible and businesslike. You will find the high officers of the police everywhere much the same, only the French are more formal and polite than others. M. le Préfet himself, to whom we were finally shown, was a perfect little Chesterfield of deportment, but with a face as cool and keen as polished steel. It would have been infra dig. for such a personage to have betrayed any astonishment at Mme Storey's account, but he was astonished. One could feel it.
"Should you not have conferred with me before?" he asked reproachfully.
"I intended to do so as soon as I had any evidence," said Mme Storey. "So far it has been only guesswork."
M. le Préfet wished to give orders to have the man Guimet taken into custody at once. Mme Storey earnestly remonstrated with him.
"If you do so, I fear that he will escape us. We have no evidence against him. The woman is dead, and there can be no witness to the act of his receiving money from her. He is, or I miss my guess, one of the most plausible rascals in Christendom, and you will be forced to let him go. He will disappear for a while, only to resume his game later on, or another game just as devilish. I beg of you to allow me to pursue my investigation in secret—in coöperation with you, of course—until we have him. I ask you even to keep the fact of Mrs. Ellis's suicide out of the papers, that he may not take alarm."
Up to this time Mme Storey had not mentioned her name, and his next question was the natural one: "Who are you, Madame?"
"Rosika Storey," she said.
He knew. He leaped to his feet and made her a profound bow. Then he kissed her hand. Frenchmen can do that sort of thing without any sacrifice of dignity. Compliments flowed from him in a stream.
Mme Storey insisted on identifying herself by her passport. "We have never met," she said, "because it is my fancy to allow it to be supposed in Paris that I am merely a person of leisure. If you will be good enough to communicate with Captain Sir Angus McMaster of the Gigantic, he will confirm what I have told you about the events on shipboard."
M. le Préfet would not hear of such a thing, but I have no doubt he did communicate with Sir Angus.
The upshot was that he agreed to let Mme Storey proceed in her own way. He told us for our information that it had been established that Mrs. Ellis had disposed of the greater part of her jewels to various jewellers in the Rue de la Paix. The money she had received for them had disappeared, of course.
Mme Storey asked him to convey the substance of her communication to the bereaved husband in order to save her the painful task of telling Mr. Ellis herself. "He is sure to think I ought to have told him in the beginning," she said. "But I couldn't do that on a mere suspicion. It wouldn't have made any difference, anyway—except, perhaps, to hasten the poor woman's suicide by a day or two."
From that time forward we worked in close coöperation with the Paris police. They must have a tighter rein on the newspapers than we have; for no word of Mrs. Ellis's suicide appeared.
The three of us returned to the Crillon to confer. A certain jealousy developed between the excellent Mlle Monge and myself. Each of us was keen to obtain the assignment of calling upon M. Guimet.
"I know Paris and Paris ways," said Mlle Monge.
"But he looks for Americans," said I.
Mme Storey vetoed both suggestions. "Their whole business is conducted with absolute circumspection," she said. "They are not taking any chances. We may be certain that the Dartreys have some means of notifying M. Guimet whom to expect. The essence of a clever confidence game lies in that. An outsider would never gain admission to M. Guimet's apartment, and a false move on our part would ruin everything...Let me think a moment."
The result was that she announced I must go to London.
I set off that same evening via the night boat between Le Havre and Southampton, armed with letters to Scotland Yard both from Mme Storey and from M. le Préfet. The journey was a great pleasure to me, but I do not mean to hold up my tale while I relate my first impressions of misty London, which has a beauty of its own, oh, so different from Paris! London did not amaze me so much, but was perhaps dearer, more like home.
In the great red brick building on the Embankment I presented my letters and was very courteously received. Steps were instantly taken to have the Dartreys placed under surveillance. What we were after was to discover how they communicated with M. Guimet and to intercept any messages they might send him.
There was nothing I could do to help in this, and I spent the next two days in seeing London. I was in frequent communication with Mme Storey by telegraph, but I may say that nothing of importance happened in Paris while I was away. The police were keeping a quiet watch on M. Guimet to make sure that he did not slip through our fingers.
On the morning of the third day I was summoned back to the office of the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard. This was a burly sober Saxon, the exact antithesis of the dapper M. le Préfet, but in his own style no less keen. He said:
"I think I have what you want. As you may know, my men had instructions once before to watch Mr. and Mrs. Dartrey and were familiar with their habits. Now, as then, we found that everybody who visited them was above suspicion. Neither did it yield any results to listen in to their telephone conversations, or to examine the letters they received and sent. This time I put the cleverest female agent I have to watch Mrs. Dartrey, and she has laid bare the lady's simple and ingenious scheme for communicating with her principal in Paris.
"At nine o'clock last night Mrs. Dartrey (my agent close at her heels) dropped in at the Underground station at Sloane Square and used one of the public telephones there. My agent went into the adjoining booth to listen. But she had a difficult task to take down what she heard, for Mrs. Dartrey spoke a strange sort of gibberish unlike any known language. My agent was able to get it phonetically, chiefly because the person at the other end of Mrs. Dartrey's wire also had trouble, and Mrs. Dartrey was obliged to repeat a good deal.
"The number that Mrs. Dartrey called up proved to be a public house in the East End. A man was waiting there, evidently by prearrangement, to receive her call. He was not known in that public house. The name he gave was Thompson, but of course that signifies nothing. I will furnish you with a description of him. Long before we got there he had his message and was gone, of course; and the message is now undoubtedly on its way to Paris. I judge that he carried it himself, since these people have a wholesome distrust of the post office.
"Now for the message itself. When it was laid before me I judged that it was written in cryptogram, and I handed it over to an expert that we have in such matters. It gave him no great difficulty to decipher it. One of the simplest forms of a cryptogram, it was nevertheless very effective when spoken over the telephone, and none but a person of uncommonly acute hearing could have taken it down. I did not rouse you out of bed when we had succeeded in translating it, because, as you will see from the context, you have plenty of time in which to act.
"Here it is. Some of the words are missing, but the sense is clear. A very simple cryptogram, but there are several arbitrary rules to confuse you. Generally only the initial consonant is transposed, but, in long words, the consonant beginning the middle syllable will be changed also. The letter J is placed before all words beginning with a vowel. Th stands for Sh and vice-versa. Sometimes there are intentional mistakes in grammar. Sometimes, when the jargon was awkward, a word would be spoken straight. And so on.
"Just as a curiosity I will set down a few sentences of the original. When I spoke it over to myself I was astonished that anybody could have taken it down by ear.
CONVERSATION IN SLOANE SQUARE STATION, 9 P.M. AUGUST 11TH
(Taken down by No. 134)
"Jar voo share?...
"Han voo keer de glain?...
"Rake shis mown...
"Nis deery hopley jis humming ro garris dunmay lext feek. De hame jover fith ker jon pyganric bix feeks jaggo. Sin jin jingnand bince. Thee sit tight jaway sut rimid laycher pot hold weet nater. De det ker jon breet wour mays jago. Rooker (several words missing here) Kadker minner dy glace nast light. Pave jit rooker strong. Pot ker jail jecksited. Font wail jus low, etc., etc.
"The translation follows:
"Are you there?...
"Can you hear me plain?...
"Take this down...
"Miss Mary Copley is coming to Paris on Monday next week. We came over with her on Gigantic six weeks ago. Been in England since. She bit right away, but timid nature, got cold feet later." "I" (for the pronoun "I" Mrs. Dartrey always said "Be" meaning "Me," but I will not so write it every time) "met her on street four days ago. Took her (words missing here) Had her dinner my place last night. Gave it to her strong. Got her all excited. Won't fail us now.
"She is travelling with her parents. Has obtained from them permission to make five days' trip to Paris with supposed woman friend. So she comes alone. No difficulty with money question in this case. She is well off in her own right. Has cabled to her banker to sell certain securities and remit by cable. Carries with her about twenty-five hundred pounds Bank of England notes. We can get more later. Suggest you urge her to return. They are not sailing for America until October.
"This woman does not quite fill your specifications, since she comes of a long-established New England family and looks fairly intelligent. But I assure you she's another fool. I have got her going strong. She is ripe for your dope. Her father inherited money. He's a sort of dilettante scholar; they spend half of every year in Europe. He's a downy bird. Not the sort to make trouble if he got on to anything.
"The girl is thirty-three years old and has already lost whatever looks she may have had. She realizes that she's on the shelf and is desperate. I know her inside out, because I've had to listen to her confidence ad nauseam. She has led a society life and was fairly popular during her first season or two, but has seen younger girls supplant her. She's not of an especially amorous disposition, and you can't work that line. But she has a lust of power; it enrages her that her girlhood friends are all able to put it over her with their husbands, their houses, their children, while she is still 'a daughter at home.'
"She had her only serious love affair about five years ago. At that time she became engaged to a young engineer who was building a state road near her home at Pride's Crossing, Mass. But her dearest girl friend took him away from her and married him. This wound has been festering in Miss C's breast ever since. The two have been married long enough now to begin to tire of each other, and Miss C's secret dream is to bring the man to her feet and spurn him. She dreams of breaking up her friend's home and establishing a home of her own. There's your material for you.
"This is probably the last I'll send you this season. Can we meet in the fall? How did the Ellis woman pan out? On the last trip of the Gigantic Rosika Storey was aboard, but she never noticed me. The captain has it in for me, though. Next season I think I'd better give the Gigantic the go-by. How about the big ships of the French line and the Dutch line? We've never tried to work them. We've had a first-rate season. Can't you raise the ante a little? The expenses are terrific, and L. is restive. Another thousand or two would soothe him. Come across, like a good fellow.
"Miss Copley is booked by the Folkestone-Boulogue route, Monday morning. I have recommended her to the Hôtel Wagram, Paris. I don't doubt but you will see her within an hour of her arrival."
I pinned this precious document to my underclothing and contrived to catch the eleven o'clock express from Victoria via the fashionable Dover-Calais route. I reached Paris in time to have dinner with my dear mistress at Voisin's, a delightful old-fashioned restaurant that she affected.
Between courses she smoked and regarded the paper with a half-smile. "We did well to wait for this," she said. "They can hardly escape us now."
"How will you proceed?" I asked.
"Well, on Monday afternoon, with the assistance of M. le Préfet, we must kidnap this Miss Copley upon her arrival at the Hôtel Wagram and detain her long enough for you to go call on M. Guimet in her name."
This was the most important task I had ever been given, and my heart was proud.
"Our principal difficulty," she went on teasingly, "is that you have not lost your looks, my Bella."
"However, M. le Préfet must certainly have artists in make-up on his staff. It ought not to be hard to endow you with a bad complexion and a wig of lifeless hair. Your clothes I will see to myself. Fortunately Mrs. Dartrey does not describe her appearance, so we have a free hand...Mrs. Dartrey says she looks intelligent but is a fool. That's all right. Between now and Monday I must drill you in acting the fool. Which sort will you choose to be, a dumb fool or a talkative fool?"
"Oh, a dumb fool," I said. "I might run out of talk at the critical moment."
"Very good. A dumb fool very often has a suspicious and pathetic expression—like this."
She exaggerated, of course, and it set me off on a peal of laughter. But I was obliged to practise the look until she expressed herself as satisfied.
"The way to be sure of holding that all the time you are in his place," Mme Storey continued, "is for you to keep repeating to yourself: 'I am a fool; I am a fool; I am a poor dumb fool!'...Look around the restaurant and repeat that to yourself...Excellent!
"Let your body slump a little and practise shambling in your walk," she went on. "Infallible indications of a fool. And make out that you do not understand what he says to you. Frequently ask him with a dense look to repeat his words. All this will come to you naturally if you keep assuring yourself that you are a fool...Another thing that I've noticed about a fool is she nearly always has some senseless tags of speech that she works in and out of season. I used to know a girl who was perfectly unable to say plain yes or no. It was always, 'Yes, my soul,' and 'No, my father.'...This riz de veau béchamel is good, isn't it?"
"Yes, my soul," I murmured.
Mme Storey still insisted that this was my case, and I was assigned to go to the Wagram on Monday afternoon to apprehend Miss Copley. My mistress had become involved in a whirl of gaieties and had engagements at all hours, but she expected to be at the Préfecture later, to assist in questioning the woman. The boat train was due in Paris about four, and I was in the foyer of the hotel at that hour. The Wagram is one of the several elegant places on the Rue de Rivoli that cater almost exclusively to Americans. I identified myself to the management, so that I was allowed to stand by the desk of the bureau without question. I had the assistance of an agent de police in plain clothes, but I left him out on the pavement.
Several guests arrived at once from the Gare du Nord. I watched their hands as they wrote their names in the book. When I saw "Miss Mary Copley" in a cultivated hand, I looked eagerly in the face of the writer. She was the sort of person that one hesitates whether to call a girl or a woman. She no doubt thought of herself as a girl and dressed the part, but Time had already unkindly marked her face with lines and hollows. She was well enough dressed, but clothes couldn't do much for her, and evidently, in her respectable Boston set, make-up was still considered bad form. In all she was a most ordinary-looking person, dull-coloured and repressed. One would never have picked her out as a likely victim of an International swindle.
She was assigned to a room. As she proceeded toward the lift I intercepted her. "May I speak with you a moment?" I asked.
She looked at me in great astonishment; but there was nothing in my appearance to cause her any especial alarm. "Why—what is it?" she asked.
I drew her out of hearing of the boy who had her valise. "I have to ask you to come with me to the Préfecture de Police for a little while," I said.
Naturally the poor woman was shocked. "But what—but why—" she stammered. "What does this mean?"
"Do not distress yourself," I said soothingly. "You are not under arrest, of course. M. le Préfet wishes to ask you a few questions concerning the reason for your visit to Paris."
She had turned as white as paper and was shaking uncontrollably. Heaven knows I would have reassured her if I could. "I have no reason for coming," she said, "except to look about and—and make a few purchases."
"Then come and explain that to him," I said soothingly. I didn't want to become involved in an argument with her there in the foyer.
"I haven't a friend in Paris!" she murmured wildly. "What am I to do? What am I to do?"
"I am an American woman, like yourself," I said. "I will see that your interests are safeguarded. No one will harm you; we wish to save you from harm."
"I won't go with you," she said hysterically. "Although I am in a foreign city, I suppose I have some rights. I have done nothing. I will send to the American Embassy for help. My people are known there. I won't go."
"You wouldn't like your people to know why you came to Paris, would you?" I said at a venture.
It was cruel, I suppose. She looked at me white and horror-stricken. "I—I don't understand you," she faltered.
"Come," I said soothingly. "I have an agent of the police outside. Don't force me to call him in and make a scene here. Come quietly, and you'll be back here in an hour, and nobody the wiser."
"I don't know you," she said. "You may be—"
"Ask at the desk," I said.
She did so. By this time all the other arriving guests had gone to their rooms.
The manager said with apologetic shrugs and bows: "This lady bears a letter from M. le Préfet de Police. She has the power to exact what she wishes."
Miss Copley gave in. I made her put her money in the hotel safe. She followed me out on the sidewalk with hanging head. I hailed the first passing cab, and we got in. When the agent de police climbed after us, she shuddered.
We turned around in the street and, darting under the archway of the Louvre, whirled across the Place du Carrousel at the usual breakneck speed of Paris taxis.
"Can't you tell me what this means?" said Miss Copley.
"I have told you," I said.
"Do you know yourself what is behind it?"
"Yes," I said, "but I am not the person to question you."
"You must see how you are tormenting me."
"Well, I can tell you this," I said. "You appear to have fallen into the hands of dangerous sharpers. I refer to Mrs. Dartrey and the man Guimet you were on your way to see."
She looked at me in extreme horror. "Sharpers!" she gasped. "Oh!...Oh-h!" Then she quickly averted her face from me. Presently she said in a muffled voice: "There must be some mistake. I don't know any such people."
I let it go at that. "You ought to be thankful to us for saving you your money," I said. "Ten thousand dollars is a lot to lose."
She asked one more question as we crossed the bridge. "If you are an American, how do you come to be working for the Paris police?"
"I do not," I said. "My employer is Madame Rosika Storey of New York. Have you ever heard of her?"
She hesitated, and I saw that my mistress's name was familiar to her. "You will see her directly," I said. "She is working with M. le Préfet on this case."
Three minutes later we were in the office of M. le Préfet. Mme Storey was already there. Miss Copley was in a pitiable state of nerves; shaking incontrollably; biting her lips.
"Cheer up!" said Mme Storey kindly. "No danger threatens you now. You are in the hands of your friends." In order to give the girl time to collect herself, she related to M. le Préfet an amusing passage that she had had with a taxi driver on the way to his office.
Finally she said to me, "You have explained the situation to Miss Copley?"
"I don't understand what it is all about," cried Miss Copley. "I don't know what you want of me. There must be some mistake."
"We want you to help us bring these sharpers to book," said Mme Storey.
"I help you!" cried the girl hysterically. "I testify against them! It will all be in the newspapers. I should be disgraced. My parents—my parents—"
"Not at all," said Mme Storey. "I think I may promise you that you will be exhibited in an entirely favourable light. It will be shown that you acted as you did simply to save other women. Is it not so, M. le Préfet?"
But terror turned the girl absolutely stubborn. "I know nothing! I know nothing!" she repeated. "There is some mistake. You have got hold of the wrong person!"
"Listen," said Mme Storey. She began to read Mrs. Dartrey's communication to M. Guimet.
Midway, the girl stiffened out in her chair, her eyeballs rolled up, and she began to shriek in pure hysterics. One hardly looked for that in the New England type. But under that thin veneer she was no different from another foolish woman.
M. le Préfet shrugged expressively and pressed a button on his desk. He said something in French which one might translate as:
"Hysterics is a cornered woman's last resort."
What we would call a police matron entered the room. At a nod from M. le Préfet she took hold of Miss Copley's arm and led her away.
"We will proceed without her," said Mme Storey.
Half an hour later, in a sort of dressing room at the Préfecture, I surveyed myself in a long mirror with some astonishment. There was a retired actor attached to the police in the capacity of make-up man, a jolly old man, and he, in consultation with Mme Storey, had transformed me beyond recognition. I did not of course resemble Miss Copley, but I exactly reproduced her type. I was the slightly faded girl; the woman who was not quite a woman.
"Turn around and let me look at you," said Mme Storey.
I whispered to myself: I have been taught to carry myself with a certain assurance, but at heart I am a fool; a hysterical fool. I turned around.
"Admirable!" said Mme Storey with a smile. "Hold that look!"
We proceeded down to the entrance together, and she whispered my final instructions to me.
"You have ten thousand dollars in marked bills. Your grand object is to get Guimet to take it from you. You will find an agent de police in the dress of a street idler loafing at the entrance to the courtyard of the house. There are other agents in the neighbourhood. Once Guimet has taken the money, you may come out and order his arrest. Should any accident happen, should you be in any sort of danger, you may summon the police by blowing upon the whistle which has been furnished you."
"My greatest difficulty will be to open the conversation with Guimet," I said. "I shall have to find out exactly what Miss Copley was to come to him for."
"Well—let us say that Monsieur possesses the secret of the charm of women," said Mme Storey with a subtle smile. "That is what you are willing to pay ten thousand dollars for."
"So that's it!" I said.
"How could it be anything else?" said Mme Storey. "Consider the style of the talk of the decoy—that is to say Mrs. Dartrey. Consider the actions of Mrs. Ellis, who thought, poor soul, that she had purchased the secret, until her husband turned from her in disgust. Consider what Mrs. Dartrey said to Guimet concerning this last victim."
We had arrived at the door.
"Au revoir, and good luck!" said Mme Storey.
My route lay eastward along the unfashionable part of the Rue de Rivoli and its continuation, the Rue St. Antoine, which is like Fourteenth Street, New York. The Rue des Tournelles was the last turning to the left before you reached the Place de la Bastille. Here you plunged at once into the Seventeenth Century. It was the fashionable quarter in those days; now it is somewhat miscellaneous. The houses were so plain and well built they scarcely looked ancient, but only solid and deadly respectable. Each one of the old mansions was entered through an archway leading to a courtyard, in which you caught glimpses of beautiful fountains. My destination, number —, seemed to be one of the finest houses in the street. The courtyard was still paved with the original cobblestones in which the iron-shod wheels of the old coaches had left deep ruts. I saw my supposed idler lounging outside the archway.
As in all Paris houses, you rang a bell, and the concierge poked her head out of the window in the entry and inquired your business. "Monsieur Guimet," said I. "Premier étage," said she, with an inquisitive and comprehensive survey of my person, and pulled a wire which was connected with the latch of the door.
I mounted the noble old stairway with a fast-beating heart. There were several doors opening on the first landing, and I knocked on one at random. It was the wrong one; another door was opened by a very neat old woman who looked like a peasant. She looked me over in no friendly fashion and asked me curtly what I wanted.
"Monsieur Guimet," I said. I could not conceal my breathlessness, but that, of course, was quite in character.
"You can't see him," she said bluntly. "He's busy."
"Can't I wait?" I asked.
"That won't do you any good. He is always busy."
I was dismayed. Could there have been any slip-up in our plans? I wondered. Had he been warned against me? "But—but—" I faltered—"I have come such a long way to see Monsieur. All the way from England."
"He didn't ask you to come, did he?" she said rudely.
It occurred to me that the best way to find out if they suspected me would be to make believe to be discouraged, so I half turned from the door with a crushed air.
The woman immediately said: "Well, I'll take your name to him, but he never sees ladies when he's busy."
I gave her my supposed name, and she left me standing out on the landing. My heart was light again, for I was sure that this blunt reception was merely part of a clever bluff.
The old woman presently returned with a slightly less forbidding expression. "Monsieur says he will see you since you have come so far," she said.
I stepped into a beautiful octagonal foyer panelled with velvety walnut which had never been desecrated by varnish. The little room was quite bare. Crossing it, we entered a noble salon which occupied the whole of that side of the building and looked down into the courtyard. This room had been designed for splendid entertainments, but was now filled from end to end with scientific instruments and chemical apparatus, all very bare and workmanlike. Three or four linen-coated students bent over the tables in deep concentration or manipulated the instruments. The lovely old painted ceiling of Venuses and cupids looked down very strangely on this scene.
My guide, turning to the right, led me through half this room, then, with another turn to the right, through a small library, or a storehouse of scientific books. Finally, with still another half turn, she opened a door and allowed me to pass her into another beautiful little panelled room. Now, my sense of direction is excellent, and I immediately realized that this little room had its own door on the foyer, and I had been led all the way around merely for the purpose of impressing me.
This was the cabinet of the master. My first impression was of a withered little man in a black skullcap. He was seated at a table with a pair of calipers in his hand, tracing a mysterious design on a large sheet of Whatman paper. He did not look up at my entrance, and I had ample opportunity to look about me. The single window in the room looked toward a narrower courtyard in the rear. This room, too, was filled with scientific apparatus whose uses I could only guess at; mere stage settings, I judged, since he already had a fully equipped laboratory outside.
He raised his head, and I saw a handsome, hawklike old face with a pair of dark, still youthful eyes. He burst out at me surprisingly in French; very good French too; good enough to have deceived my ears.
"Madame, I am a serious man, a scientist! I am engaged in deep researches for the good of humanity. Must my work be interrupted by the knocking of light-minded women at my door?"
Behind the assumed anger there was the hint of a twinkle in his eyes, which suggested that he appreciated the joke of the situation. Evidently this man was a rogue out of the sheer love of roguery. It rendered him insidiously attractive. But of course I had to suppress the answering grin that pulled at my lips. A foolish woman like Miss Copley would have been terrified by his outburst. I tried to make myself look senseless with terror.
"I didn't know," I stammered. "Excuse me—I was led to suppose—I thought—"
"Speak English," he said. "I understand it."
The instant he said it, I knew he was my own countryman. There was an overtone that suggested the streets of New York; the merest hint of what used to be called a Bowery accent but is now universal from Coney Island to Clason's Point.
"I am very sorry to have disturbed you," I said, "but—"
"What do you want of me?" he demanded.
I supposed that Miss Copley and the others would have been a good deal confused here. "I understand," I stammered, "that is I have been told by a lady—that you have something—a secret—"
"Please speak out, Madame. My time is valuable."
"The charm of women," I mumbled.
He shrugged magnificently; hands, arms, shoulders, head, eyebrows, all had a part in it. "What folly! There is no panacea for that!" He made believe to return to his work.
I suspected that a stupid woman such as I was portraying would be dogged enough in the pursuit of her own ends, so I sat tight.
"Well, why don't you go?" he said, looking up.
"I am sure there is no mistake," I said. "Mrs. Dartrey told me—"
"I know no such person."
"Oh, I suppose you have forgotten her. But she has been to you. You gave her something—"
"My dear Madame," he said impatiently, "this is unworthy of the attention of a scientific man. What is this charm of women that you set such a store by? Merely a disturbing element in life. It distracts men from their serious work and sets them flying at each other's throats. It is responsible for all the follies and crimes and misfortunes of humanity! Why should I spread that which had much better be wiped out and destroyed?"
Ah, the clever rascal! While he was apparently disparaging what I wanted, he was really rendering it twice as desirable.
I sat on in dumb obstinacy.
"It is useless for you to remain," he said, fussing among the objects on his desk.
"I am prepared to pay well for it," I murmured.
"What, Madame!" he cried, furiously indignant "Do you take me for a marketman? Or a peddler of love philtres? Please leave me!"
Somewhere about this point Miss Copley, I fancied, would have begun to cry. I couldn't actually make the tears come, but I wrinkled up my face as if they were near.
M. Guimet jumped up with a distracted gesture. I saw that he was a short man who had been powerful in youth. "Ah, mon Dieu!" he cried. "Am I to be treated to a display of emotion now? You have destroyed my whole day for me! I wish to Heaven there were no such thing as the charm of women!"
This was a subtle admission, you see. I pressed my handkerchief to my eyes and made my shoulders shake. "I wanted it so badly!" I murmured with a piteous catch in my breath. "I have come so far—"
M. Guimet walked to and fro, snorting.
Finally he came to a stand. "Well, since you have ruined my day anyhow, I may as well tell you," he said. "I do possess such a secret, but I am obliged to deny it like an infection of leprosy or I should be swamped, swamped by your scatter-brained sex."
I let the sun break through my grief. "And you will give it to me!" I said, clasping my hands.
"Wait a minute!" he said, holding up his hand. "I should have destroyed the recipe long ago and forgotten it were it not that my serious experiments are so frightfully expensive. Of course, I enjoy grants from the government, but it is not enough. And once or twice in the past I have sold my secret to a rich woman in order to enable me to carry on my great work for La France!"
I wish you could have seen the noble attitude he struck for La France—this denizen of the Tenderloin district, or I missed my guess.
"Is the hint sufficient for you, Madame? If you are not a rich woman, go away, for the love of God, and leave me to my work."
"I'm not exactly rich," I said, "but I can pay well. How much will it be?"
He waved his hands violently. "Don't talk to me of money!" he cried with tears in his voice. "I am no chafferer, I am a scientist. If you are rich, give largely to my work. I assure you I won't count it."
This was magnificent but vague. "I have the money with me," I said, raising my handbag.
"I won't take it! I won't take it!" he said. "I am an honest man. I insist that you sample my recipe first. The effect, I may say, is instantaneous. If you are satisfied, you may come back to-morrow for a supply."
He opened a wall cupboard, and I beheld rows of bottles containing diverse coloured liquors and powders with Latin labels. I have no Latin, but if I had, I doubt if I could have made much of those labels. He impressively set out a number of these bottles on his desk and brought a graduated glass and a chemist's scales contained in a glass case, that not even a grain of dust might disturb its delicate balance. Then he sat down and proceeded to measure and weigh with the nicest care; holding up the graduated glass to the light, and squinting at it exactly as you see in the pictures of the old alchemists.
An ounce of this liquid; a few drops of that; a gramme of an odd-coloured red powder. As the various bottles were uncorked, different pungent and delicious perfumes filled the room. Mme Storey, with her marvellous sense of smell, would probably have recognized them all; but I only got a generally alcoholic effect and one particular perfume that I guessed to be nothing but sirop de grenadine. All this he put in a curious antique bottle, holding something less than a pint.
While he mixed, he conversed with the greatest affability. His bearlike reception of me in the beginning had evidently been designed only to show up his present charming manners by force of contrast. It is an old trick. In this he overreached himself a little; for there was more than a trace of oiliness in him now that betrayed the sharper. But, of course, since he designed to deal with fools only, he felt that he did not have to be too particular.
"Do you know whose house this was?" he asked me. "It is quite famous."
"No," said I.
"The marvellous Ninon de l'Enclos lived here during the late Seventeenth Century. These very rooms, in fact, were hers."
"I've heard of her," said I.
"Who has not heard of her? She was not, perhaps, a paragon of virtue" (an expressive shrug here), "but we must not be censorious. A matchless woman! At ninety years old men fell at her feet. In the history of the world there was never another like her. What is still more remarkable, they say she was not beautiful. She had wit; she had learning; above all, she had charm. Think of a woman who had for lovers in succession such men as de Coligny, D'Estrées, La Rochefoucauld, Condé, St. Evremond. They speak of Voltaire too, though he was but a lad when she was old. Anne of Austria, the great queen herself, was no match for Ninon de l'Enclos, and strove to combat her influence in vain. They say that this little room was her own private cabinet. If you close your eyes perhaps you can feel that exquisite presence here still.
"Of course, I did not engage these rooms for that reason, but because the salon outside, with its good light, made such an admirable laboratory, and this little room a quiet study for myself. When I came here, the panelling of this room was somewhat in disrepair, and in examining it with a view to its restoration I discovered a little iron box hidden in the wall. I forced its lock myself, and inside I found a single scrap of parchment, upon which was engrossed in a crabbed Seventeenth Century hand a formula. With my knowledge of chemistry I instantly recognized the purport of this formula. It was thus, Madame, that I stumbled on the secret of the great Ninon de l'Enclos's imperishable charm!"
I gazed at the man in sheer admiration of his cleverness. It was no wonder that poor silly women fell into his toils. The contest was too unequal.
"Not altogether a secret," he went on. "Certain elements of the preparation are known to all Frenchwomen, and that is why they are more charming than the women of other races. They are not more beautiful, as you can see for yourself. The women of your glorious young country far surpass them in looks. But they have charm.
"And they know but one element, perhaps; two at the most. The great Ninon combined them all. Where she got her knowledge from I cannot tell you. She was a learned woman for that day, but I think it more likely that some unknown chemist who loved her devoted his whole life to the search. What a gift that was to lay at the feet of one's beloved!
"In the Seventeenth Century the science of chemistry was in its infancy. When I read the recipe with my knowledge of the great discoveries that have been made since, I instantly saw how it might be made a hundred times more potent. We have marvellous essences at our command that they never dreamed of. This tincture, for instance..."
He held up a bottle containing a fluid of a strange bright orange colour.
"This bottle contains the wherewithal to drive all Paris mad. But the single drop that, as you may have observed, I allowed to fall into the mixture is sufficient to change the colour of your whole existence, Madame. I confess I was startled by the results of my experiments. To be in the possession of so dangerous a power may well frighten an honest man and render him humble. I have kept it a secret so far as I have been able, and when I die it will die with me."
He played his part to perfection. A little too perfectly, if anything. A sincere man would not have been so obviously pleased with himself.
"Charm is really no more than health," he went on. "By that I mean perfect health. There is not one person in ten thousand who knows the feeling of perfect health: the ability to realize and enjoy one's faculties to the full! Ah! the unreasoning joy of the light heart; the sparkling eye, the springing step; the power to command all hearts!"
By this time the elixir was ready. He filled a tiny liqueur glass with the dark liquid and signified that I was to drink it. I hesitated for the fraction of a second; the ugly little thought like a snake darted through my mind: Suppose this gentleman adds murder to his other accomplishments? Observing my hesitation, he picked up the glass and tossed off the contents.
"I like the taste," he said, "but it has no effect on me. It acts only on the more delicate feminine organization...It is just as well," he added with a roguish smile; "I could not afford to be charming. I am too busy."
He filled another tiny glass, and I drank it...It was pleasant, and one's gullet tingled as it went down. I was reminded of drinking fine à l'eau with poor Mrs. Ellis a few days before. In short, the elixir was nothing more nor less than fine brandy with various flavouring extracts added. A lovely glow spread through my veins. I could very easily imagine that I was becoming charming.
We parted in the greatest friendliness.
"Until to-morrow," said M. Guimet.
"I shall be here early," I warned him.
"It is all one to me," he said with a shrug. "I am at work early and late."
"And the money?" I said. I felt sure Miss Copley would have said something about it.
"Oh, bring all you have," he said with a superb carelessness.
On my way out of the building the disguised police agent was still lounging in the archway. As I passed him without making any sign, he understood there was nothing doing that day. I did not see what became of him. There were no cabs in that quiet street, and I made my way toward the Rue St. Antoine.
I had not gone far when I met a good-looking young Frenchman with an adventurous eye—rather a flash type. He smiled at me in a certain way; half insinuating, half insolent, and raised his hat. Now this sort of thing never happens to me, and I got a great start. The wild thought came to me that perhaps there was something in the elixir; maybe I was turning into a charmer!
But sober sense instantly corrected it. That was what that poor foolish Mrs. Ellis had thought, of course. It explained her half-insane actions during the afternoon we had spent together. The flash young man was only a plant—the cleverest bit of business of all in this elaborate tragi-comedy. I hurried on, looking scared and pleased, as I fancied Miss Copley might have looked.
At the corner I had to wait for a moment. He came up close and whispered some inanity in my ear: "Don't be in such a hurry."
I stared straight ahead. It was fearfully exciting and not exactly unpleasant. I still had a merry jingle in my veins from the brandy.
"May I come with you?" he asked. "You are so nice."
A taxi drew up at the curb and I sprang in, pulling the door after me without letting it out of my hand. "Drive on," I said breathlessly to the driver. "Anywhere."
And this was not all. I had not driven but a block or two when I saw a man in a cab going the other way making signals to me. This was quite a distinguished-looking person with a flower in his buttonhole. He leaned out of his cab smiling and bowing repeatedly. I looked at him stonily. Glancing back, I saw that he had ordered his driver to turn around. My chauffeur saw it too, and asked me with a grin if he should stop.
"Certainly not!" I said. "Drive me to the Hôtel Wagram."
This coincided with an incident that Mrs. Ellis had told me of.
From the hotel I telephoned a brief account of what had occurred to M. le Préfet, also to Mme Storey, who had told me that I would find her at the house of a certain friend at that hour.
The necessary delay in arresting M. Guimet put M. le Préfet in somewhat of a quandary concerning Miss Copley. He had no legal right to lock her up overnight, and he had every official person's dread of international complications. On the other hand, if he let her go, such was her terror of any exposure, he was sure she would attempt to put the man on his guard.
M. le Préfet solved the problem by having Miss Copley put on the boat train for England. Even so, she might telegraph to M. Guimet, but it was easy for the police to intercept telegrams. As a matter of fact, she did telegraph. She must also have telegraphed to Mrs. Dartrey, for later in the night a wire was intercepted from England in their peculiar code, which we had no difficulty in translating as:
"Beat it quick."
All this made us anxious. I returned to M. Guimet's at nine-thirty next morning, which was as early as I dared risk it. To have called earlier would, in itself, have made that canny gentleman suspicious, I feared. I had my police whistle; and I was now furnished in addition with an automatic pistol in case of an emergency. I devoutly prayed that I might not have to use it.
This morning I was shown into M. Guimet's cabinet without any parley. The white-coated students were already at work in the big laboratory. What pains they all took to give verisimilitude to their game. In a way of speaking, it deserved to succeed.
M. Guimet appeared to rouse himself from his computations with difficulty. This bit of comedy reassured me. Evidently he had not as yet taken any alarm. Our interview was brief, for all he wanted now was the money, and all I wanted was for him to take it.
I handed over the fat packet of crisp white English notes. Notwithstanding his pretended indifference to money, he counted it with care.
"This will not carry my work very far," he said with a disappointed air.
For an instant I was genuinely terrified lest he might be going to hand it back. "It is all I have," I faltered.
"Oh, well," he said with a shrug; and I breathed more freely.
He threw back a panel in the wall revealing a little safe behind it. While he manipulated the combination he said:
"This is where I found the formula. I had the modern safe put in."
He stood in front of the safe while it was open, and I could not see what the contents might be. He put in the money I had given him, closed the door, and twirled the combination. Meanwhile, I took possession of the bottle.
This concluded our business, but such was my gentleman's love of histrionics that he threw in a little extra for good measure. Do you get the picture? The old man, but still handsome and dangerous-looking—except for his snuffy clothes, he did not at all resemble the scientist he was supposed to be—standing on the other side of his table, declaiming with graceful gestures.
"I need not ask you if you are satisfied with my cordial, since you are here. Never exceed the dose that I gave you yesterday, and do not take it more than once a day. I feel a change in you this morning, but that is not for me to say. I would rather have others tell you. I hope that I may be the means of bringing a great happiness into your life. One can see that you have found life disappointing hitherto—owing to the meanness and falsity of others. Well, hereafter you will not be dependent on others. You will be the sun from which they receive their rays.
"Ah, my dear Madame! the possession of such a secret entails a heavy responsibility upon me. I would like to publish it broadcast for the benefit of womankind. But it does not seem fair to do so unless I could at the same time furnish a corresponding stimulus to men. I am a man. I cannot betray my own sex. Our ascendency is already seriously threatened. Where would men be if I put such a weapon into the hands of women?"
It was deliciously comic. I stored up every word, with a view to recounting it to my mistress later. I wondered what this man's life history must have been. A magnificent physical specimen in his youth, women must have been mad about him. Even in his old age he enjoyed life and was still not unattractive. What cleverness and humour! It was rather sad to see it devoted to crooked ends.
He was interrupted by the sound of voices somewhere near. Suddenly a door which had not been opened before banged in and a woman entered. It was the door I had marked which opened direct on the foyer. The woman was a middle-aged bourgeoise of whom one sees millions in Paris, making their thrifty purchases in the small shops. She wore a preposterous hat, a black "fringe," and a sober black dress over an old-fashioned corset which featured the bust. For the moment M. Guimet was as much astonished by her entrance as I was; but when she spoke we both recognized her.
"That woman is a bull!" she said, not loud, in English.
It was Mrs. Dartrey, marvellously disguised.
Things happened very swiftly after that. I whipped out my whistle and put it to my lips, but the two of them leaped on me, and I never got a sound out. The sturdy old servant, too, was there to help them. I was no match against the three of them. In not very many seconds my wrists and ankles were immovably bound with thongs of rag and my mouth gagged. One of the women must have torn off part of her clothing to furnish my bonds. They were very quiet about it. Evidently the students in the front room were not to be alarmed.
They flung me into a chair. The tears of bitter mortification sprang to my eyes, seeing all my work about to go for nothing. The biggest job I had ever undertaken. But how did they expect to get out of the house, I wondered. I was not entirely without hope.
How cool and swift they were in all their movements! Not much time wasted in recriminations. Guimet flung open the door of the wall cupboard as if to make a clean sweep of its contents.
"Let be," said Mrs. Dartrey. "The courtyard is full of police. If this woman does not come out directly, they'll come after her. How could you be so careless?"
"I had no reason to suspect danger," said Gilbert. "Who gave you the tip?"
"The real Miss Copley. The police sent her back to England last evening. She telegraphed me from Pontoise. I wired you."
"I didn't get it."
"Of course you didn't...Be quick."
"I will only wait for the money. We must have that."
"Be careful of the money she gave you. It is certainly marked."
"It would be still more incriminating to leave it behind, then. We'll throw it down a sewer."
"Is the way out clear?"
"You may be damn sure it's clear, my dear. There are not six men in Paris know of that passage, and they are archaeologists!"
My heart went down.
While they threw their swift sentences back and forth, the man was busy fetching a valise and opening the safe. The woman stood beside him while he worked at it. Apparently they forgot that I could hear—or else they didn't care.
"I went right out to Croydon to the aviation field," said Mrs. Dartrey. "But of course I couldn't persuade anybody to take the air until daybreak. Cost me two hundred pounds. I was in Paris by seven o'clock, but when I got here I found the police watching. I had to go away again and get this disguise."
"You are as wonderful as ever, my dear...Do you know this woman?"
"Hell, yes! She crossed on the Gigantic."
"Why didn't you tip me off?"
"I didn't know she was after us...But at least I could see she wasn't a prospect, if you couldn't. She got nothing out of me."
"Don't rub it in, my angel...Who is she working for?"
"I don't know. The captain, maybe. I told you he had it in for me."
There was heard a loud, official knock-knock-knock on the entrance door.
"Come on!" said Mrs. Dartrey.
Guimet flung the safe door shut, and shot the panel across. To the old servant he said:
"Marthe, you remain. You know nothing. You are safe."
She nodded stolidly.
There was a third door in the little room. Guimet ran to it and flung it open. I had a glimpse of a plainly furnished bedroom on the other side. Mrs. Dartrey passed through the door first. Guimet lingered long enough to say to me with a devil-may-care grin:
"Au revoir, Red-hair! At any rate, there's one good jag in that bottle!"
They disappeared. I could not see what became of them in the little bedroom. My heart was full of a bitter, bitter chagrin thus to see him get away with a jest on his lips.
But presently the two of them came tumbling back across the bedroom, and into the room where I was. Gone was her cool, assured air, and the grin wiped off his lips. They were no more then than any two white-faced, hunted creatures. At the same moment we heard the entrance door smash in, and they hung in the middle of the room, their eyes darting wildly this way and that, like those of trapped animals. There were the sounds of many people in the foyer, and they ran out in the other direction through the book room. The old servant continued to stand stolidly by the window.
Then, sauntering through the bedroom with her most elegant air and into the cabinet came Mme Storey; smiling and beautifully dressed; taking everything in with her amused eyes. A gendarme followed at her heels. She seemed like a beautiful apparition to me. I simply could not believe my eyes. It was the greatest surprise she has ever given me; and she has given me many.
At the sight of my plight, her face filled with concern. "Ah, my poor Bella!" she murmured, and motioned quickly to the gendarme.
He made haste to cut me free.
It seemed by this time as if the house was filled with police. They came in by every door. Guimet and Mrs. Dartrey were thrust back into the room from the book room.
"Ah!" cried Mme Storey gaily: "Mr. Smoke Lassen, after all these years! What an unexpected pleasure!...And Miss Breese, I believe. We have never met, but I have often heard of you. I hardly expected to have the luck of finding you in Paris!"
The man looked at Mme Storey with a face of unspeakable disgust. "Damn it all!" he cried fervently. "Is there no place on earth where I can escape the woman!"
Mrs. Dartrey said never a word.
They were led away by the police, and that about finishes my story.
I was keen to hear the explanation of Mme Storey's magical appearance on the scene.
"No magic in it, my Bella," said she. "I dined last night with some French friends. Among the guests was a famous archaeologist, whose hobby is old Paris. I asked him about Mademoiselle Ninon de l'Enclos, and I immediately got what we would call at home an earful. In France the memory of the fair, frail Ninon is still cherished by every homme d'esprit. It appeared that among the treasures of my friend's collection were the memoirs in manuscript of a certain gallant of that day, who signed himself merely: Le Chevalier Sansregret. There's a pseudonym for you!
"My friend insisted, seeing how interested I was, upon driving around by his rooms on my way home. There he got the precious manuscript, which has never been published, and gave it to me to read. I read it in bed this morning while I was having coffee. A highly diverting tale. It appeared that Monsieur Sansregret was a very dear friend of Mademoiselle Ninon's, but for some reason or another he could not be acknowledged by her. Perhaps he was poor but charming. So he visited her by means of a secret passage which opened on a tiny street behind her house, called the Rue de Beausire. It is still there, and it is still called the street of the Fine Gentleman, though it is only a few hundred feet long.
"It instantly occurred to me that the passage might be there too, and that indeed it might have had something to do with the so-called M. Guimet's taking this house. It was then just about the time that you were due to arrive here. So I jumped out of bed, flung on a few clothes, telephoned to M. le Préfet for a gendarme, and hustled across Paris in a taxi.
"The passage had been particularly described in the manuscript, and after a bit of a search we found it. And indeed we met Smoke Lassen and Breezy Tricks coming out of it. So there you are."
The man and the woman were subsequently tried and convicted under the French laws and sentenced to prison for long terms. I understand that in France there is less chance than with us of their being released before the expiration of their sentences. Well, I was genuinely sorry to see them go. They were a clever and amusing pair, and those qualities are not so abundant in a dull world that we can afford to lock them up. But as Mme Storey said, what is one to do when we have such a plenitude of fools?
Lionel Dartrey was arrested in England; but nothing could be proved against him. However, he was punished too, even more severely perhaps than the others, for he was immediately cast out of the fashionable world which was everything to him.
The source of the Dartreys' munificent income was revealed. Lassen purchased the American securities in Mrs. Dartrey's name and forced her to endorse the certificates in blank. As long as she played the game he allowed the dividends to be paid to her, but he held the endorsed certificate, and if she had ever kicked over the traces, all he had to do was to have the stock transferred.
In the fall Mme Storey and I returned to America on the Gigantic, and I may say the ship was ours!
My older readers will remember the great sensation that was caused some twenty-odd years ago by the marriage of Van Sicklen Harker to Cornelia Mittlinger, thus uniting two of the greatest fortunes in the country. In due course this couple had a daughter, who was also christened Cornelia. The newspapers dubbed her the billion dollar baby. Throughout her childhood items about her feeding bottles, her lace caps and the diamond buckles on her little slippers continually found their way into the press. If ever a child was reared upon publicity this was it. When she was about ten years old her parents were divorced; and each subsequently re-married; but Van Harker's second wife and Mrs. Harker's second husband have nothing to do with this story. Throughout her childhood, little Cornelia lived in her own great house surrounded by her own servants; and was visited in turn by her father and mother.
I suppose the old-timers were astonished when they read in the papers of little Cornelia's own love affair. That is the way with children; they will grow up. It may be objected here, that quite enough about Cornelia Harker's affairs has already been printed. Upon the death of her father recently, the whole thing was rehashed in the press. But that is the very reason I have made up my mind to write it. The exact truth never has been told; and during the few years that have elapsed since these things happened, so many fables have become attached to the story, that it is almost unrecognisable. It is an amazing story, worth telling for its own sake, quite apart from the prominence of the people concerned in it.
It broke with dramatic suddenness in the account of how Van Sicklen Harker, one of the best-known men about town, attempted to thrash a youth named Arpad Rody in the crowded lobby of the great Hotel Palazzo. They were separated by friends. Rody was described as a handsome young Hungarian, who had been engaged by the hotel as a sort of semi-professional dancer in the tea-room. The cause of the quarrel was kept out of the papers for the moment; but of course it was freely whispered about that Cornelia had become infatuated with her handsome partner in the tango.
A few days later all reason for secrecy vanished, when Cornelia, then eighteen years old, sent for the reporters to her house, and bluntly informed them that she was in love with Arpad Rody, and he with her; and that they intended to get married in spite of all the fathers in Christendom. What a sensation this interview caused! Every phase of the affair was conducted in a blaze of publicity.
Her father countered by summoning the reporters to his house in turn, and informing them that his daughter was under age; that she possessed no means in her own right; and that if she persisted in marrying Rody, whom he termed an unprincipled adventurer, it was his intention to cut her off without a cent. Upon this I believe Rody sued Harker for libel; but this side issue was soon lost sight of in the events which followed.
Cornelia's answer to her father's pronunciamento was to march out of the great house with which he provided her, carrying only a satchel containing her dressing-case and night clothes. She engaged a room in a cheap boarding-house, and hired herself out as a cashier in a down-town restaurant. The proprietor of the restaurant had to call on the police for help in handling the crowds that besieged his place.
After a day or two Harker succeeded in rescuing his daughter out of the restaurant; and a truce was patched up. Each announced to the press that a reconciliation had been effected. They appeared in public together. Young Arpad Rody was not in evidence. Finally father and daughter departed for a visit to the Grande Canyon in Harker's private car.
In three days Cornelia was back. She announced that her father was too dictatorial for her taste, and she was not surprised that her mother had found it impossible to live with him. She established herself in her big house again, where Arpad Rody was a frequent visitor. The young couple were photographed together twenty times a day. They ostentatiously visited Tiffany's to buy a ring.
From his house Mr. Harker announced that he and his daughter were sailing on the Baratoria in a week's time for a world tour.
From her house Cornelia announced that she had no intention of leaving New York.
Harker repeated his statement that they were going away.
Cornelia repeated hers that they were not.
The Baratoria was to sail on a Wednesday. On the Monday a fresh sensation was created by the disappearance of Cornelia Harker. She had walked out of her house on Sunday afternoon; and had failed to return. Neither was Arpad Rody to be found. The father was in a state of distraction.
On Tuesday the young pair turned up smiling. They announced that they had been married in Wilmington. They did not return to Cornelia's house, but engaged a suite at the Hotel Palazzo. And everybody supposed that the play had ended—ended as plays ought to be with the discomfiture of the stern father.
Up to this moment it had been pure comedy. It was looked on as a sort of burlesque upon the evil of having too much money. In view of the girl's ridiculous bringing up, it was held that Harker had received no worse than he might have expected. Popular opinion was bound to be on the side of the handsome young lovers, who made a bluff of daring poverty for the sake of love. There was nothing for the father to do but to back down as gracefully as he could. Good comedy; everybody was laughing at it.
The Tuesday evening papers carried a brief story of the marriage; and the Wednesday morning papers amplified it. At noon on Wednesday I was startled by hearing the boys cry an extra in our street. Their voices suggested that something was really the matter, so I hastened down to the door and bought a paper. What I read in it turned me a little sick with horror. An hour before, Arpad Rody had been found shot dead in the suite at the Palazzo, with his bride lying in a faint near by.
I carried the newspaper to Mme. Storey in her private office. This was the long room that I have so often described, furnished with priceless Italian antiques, and lighted by a row of casements at one end looking out on Gramercy Park. Here at a wide black oaken table with her back to the windows, works my beautiful mistress like a chemist in his laboratory, analysing souls. Like everybody else she had been interested and amused in following the Harker affair from day to day. When I showed her the brief, bald announcement, she did not, like others, waste her breath in protestations of horror. Her face turned grave. She said:
"Bella, we will be called on to act in this matter. Send a boy to obtain a room plan of the Palazzo, showing the suite occupied by the young couple. Make a file of the newspaper reports of the case. Get in touch with Inspector Rumsey at Headquarters; and tell him that I would be obliged if he will furnish me with the latest information. Order Crider and Stephens to report at the office."
I was back in my own room attending to these instructions, when the outer door banged open, and four men came tumbling in. They were well-dressed men; they looked like persons to whom consideration was due; but at the moment all four had a frantic air. I had never seen any of them before. They all cried in a breath:
"Madame Storey...where is she?"
"Who are you, please? And what do you want of her?" I asked in astonishment.
"I am Van Sicklen Harker," said one.
"He is Mr. Van Sicklen Harker," echoed the other three.
"Please be seated," said I, making for the door of Mine. Storey's room.
I doubt if they heard me. They all seemed half beside themselves. When I opened the door they pushed in with me. What could one do?
As it turned out, Mme. Storey was acquainted with Mr. Harker, and she took in the situation at a glance. All four men began talking to her at once. I picked out such phrases as: "Rody has been shot!...Cornelia taken to Headquarters!...We fear she may be arrested!...No weapon has been found!..."
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" protested Mme. Storey, waving her hands in front of her. "One at a time!...Who are these gentlemen, Mr. Harker?"
"My friends..." he said helplessly.
He was truly a pitiable object. A man accustomed to show a good front to the world, his path had always been smoothed for him, and now he suddenly found the ground cut away. At the touch of tragedy his weakness was revealed. His hands shook; his eyes rolled; his tongue stuttered. He looked very young to be the father of a married daughter; not above forty. The other three were merely his toadies; his hangers-on. Harker was the type of millionaire who always carries them around with him. There was nothing genuine in their distress. They were secretly pleased at being concerned in such an important affair. They lent a comic touch to the grim situation.
"What is it you want of me?" asked Mme. Storey.
"Help me...help me!" said Harker imploringly.
He seemed to be unable to get any further; and one of his friends stepped forward. He was the most intelligent-looking of the three; a clean-shaven man of indeterminate age with a wary blue eye. He was elegantly dressed and there was a subtle assurance in his manner; Fifth Avenue, Newport, Lenox, was stamped on him, like labels on a piece of luggage. A comely man, but a little too soft and smooth.
"Poor Harker is overwhelmed," he said solicitously. He had the flat, reedy voice of his type. "I am Algernon Bleecker. I have had the pleasure of being presented to you; but perhaps you have forgotten me."
"I remember you very well," said Mme. Storey with a polite and inscrutable smile.
"How nice of you," purred Mr. Bleecker. "Let me explain this matter to you."
"I am sorry," interrupted Mme. Storey, "but I must deal with the principal. If you gentlemen will be good enough to wait in the outer room..."
All three gentlemen were indignant; but they dared not show it openly in the light of my mistress's cool and level glance. With angry glances among themselves, they retired into my office. I have no doubt Mme. Storey was well abused in there.
"Sit down," said Mme. Storey more kindly to Harker. He dropped into a chair. She pushed the cigarette box towards him. "Perhaps a few puffs will steady you." He mechanically helped himself to a cigarette, but forgot to light it.
"Pull yourself together!" said Mme. Storey in her blunt and cheery fashion. "This is a bad matter; but it might have been worse. It might have been your daughter who was shot."
"They have taken her...to Police headquarters," he stammered like a man distraught.
"I understand no weapon was found," said Mme. Storey. "And if she did shoot him, she probably had good cause."
"She couldn't have done it!" said poor Harker. "She was infatuated with him, God help her. He had laid a spell on her with his confounded Continental manners; kissing her hand, and so on. After that our honest, rough and ready American boys had no attraction."
"Well then, let us find who did do it."
"But if they let her go, they will fasten it on me!" cried Harker, all but wringing his hands. "For I was the last one to see them together."
"Did you shoot him?" asked Mme. Storey quite calmly.
"No! No! No!" he cried. "I swear it!"
"Tell me the whole story," said my mistress. "Begin at the point where you first learned that your daughter was married to Rody."
He made a visible effort to calm himself. "That was yesterday afternoon," he said. "Cornelia called me up."
"What did she say?"
"Very little. Just a bare announcement. Asked me to come to see them at the Palazzo at ten to-day."
"But was it not her place to come to see you?"
He shrugged helplessly.
"That is Cornelia's way. I can't do anything with her...Besides, she and my wife do not get along together."
"Did she say what she wanted to see you about?"
"No. But of course I knew. It was to discuss a settlement."
"But you had said you would do nothing for them."
He spread out his hands helplessly.
"I couldn't let my girl starve."
"Did you hear from them again before this morning?"
He shook his head.
"You went there at ten?"
"Please tell me exactly what happened."
He jumped up agitatedly.
"I can't remember everything," he cried. "It was too painful...too painful! A long wrangle!...I expected Rody to stand out for all he could get. That didn't trouble me. I thought perhaps it might bring her to her senses to see him revealed in his true colours. But no! She supported him throughout. She was worse than he! Oh, to see my own child taking sides against me with that young blackguard...it was more than I could bear!...I can't remember everything that was said. It went on for an hour..."
"Well, I won't press you now," said Mme. Storey. "But if I am to help you, I shall have to question you again. What was the upshot? Did you agree to a settlement?"
"Yes. I agreed to give them five hundred thousand down and to allow them ten thousand dollars a month hereafter."
"Hm!" said Mme. Storey.
"I wrote a letter to that effect, and signed it," Harker added. "It was found by the police."
"Why was it necessary to write a letter?" asked Mme. Storey.
"Rody exacted it."
"Supported by your daughter?"
"She wasn't in the room at that moment. She had become faint. She was under the care of her maid."
"How many rooms had they?"
"I can't tell you. Three I think; and two bathrooms. It was a corner suite looking out on Fifty-seventh Street. You entered it through a private foyer which had six sides, and a door in each side. The corner room was the sitting-room. My daughter's maid occupied a room to the left of the sitting-room, and my daughter's room was on the right. At Rody's suggestion, we went into that room to talk so that the maid could not overhear."
"And it was in that room that the body was found?"
"So I suppose. I do not know for certain."
"What happened when your daughter felt ill?"
"She went back into the sitting-room."
"How long were you alone with Rody?"
"I don't know. Five minutes; ten minutes."
"After you had written the letter did you see your daughter again?"
"No. What was the use? She was on his side. I was too sore and bitter. I got out as quick as I could."
"Through the sitting-room?"
"No. There was a door from the bedroom into the foyer. I went that way."
"Are you able to fix the time when you left?"
"Yes. When I got down into the street I noticed that it was five minutes to eleven."
Mme. Storey glanced at the newspaper.
"The body was found at ten minutes past."
"So they say."
"Mr. Harker, do you own a revolver?" she asked bluntly.
His eyes rolled wildly. "I...I suppose so," he stammered. "In fact I think I have several. But it is many years since I have had any occasion to handle...to look at them..."
"But somehow, one does not forget one's guns," said Mme. Storey mildly. "You must realise how important to you this question is. Can't you give me a more explicit answer?"
"I...I should have to think it over..." he said nervously.
Mme. Storey appeared to let the matter go.
"One last question," she said. "What did your daughter say upon regaining consciousness?"
"I have not seen her," said Harker. "I am told that she has refused to make any statement whatsoever."
Mr. Harker wanted to carry Mme. Storey down to Police Headquarters that she might interview Cornelia. "No use my trying to talk to her," he said bitterly.
"Very well," said Mme. Storey, "I'll go. We are rather a large party. Is it necessary for the gentlemen outside to accompany us?"
"They are good friends of mine," said Harker.
"I don't doubt it," said Mme. Storey dryly. "Still..."
"I'll send them away," said Harker.
"Let Mr. Bleecker come with us," suggested my mistress. "I'd like to talk to him."
As we were leaving the office we met our operative, Stephens, coming in in response to my summons. Mme. Storey, dropping back, instructed him to get hold of Mr. Harker's valet if he was able, and bring him down to Headquarters. They were to wait outside in a car.
The four of us set off down town in the Harker limousine. Mme. Storey sat on the back seat between Mr. Harker and Mr. Bleecker; while I was on one of the extra seats in front of them. I do not believe that Harker opened his mouth the whole way. Mme. Storey and Mr. Bleecker talked. She was affable and friendly as if she had repented of snubbing him; but I, who know her methods so well, could see that she was sounding him out. He answered like a man without a care on his mind. He had a boyish, impulsive manner, which may have been a pose, but was not unattractive.
From his talk I learned (a) that his family was one of the best in New York; and that he was related to all the other Knickerbockers: (b) That he pursued no regular occupation, but lived the life of a gentleman of leisure: (c) That "Society" was the be-all and end-all of his existence: (d) That for many years he had acted as a sort of superior social secretary to the billionaire Harkers; that is to say, he had supervised all their entertainments, and had advised them whom to cultivate, and whom to drop. It was clear that Harker leaned on him to an absurd degree. During the drive no reference was made to the immediate tragedy.
We must have been expected at Police Headquarters, for we found a whole brigade of press photographers lined up on the sidewalk. Mme. Storey's appearance in the case created an additional sensation. Inside, the whole building was pervaded by an air of excitement; and I may say it takes something out of the common to get them going at 300 Mulberry Street. The hardest-boiled door-keeper amongst them was affected by it. Even the high officials, who are in general no respecters of persons, were impressed by the magic name of Harker. Clearly they did not know exactly what to do with so grand a young lady as Cornelia. They had tried to get information out of her, but had not liked to push her too hard.
We were taken up to a big room on the second floor where a sort of informal investigation was in progress. Everybody connected with the case was coming and going. We found that the police end was in charge of our friend Inspector Rumsey. There was also a representative of the district attorney's office present; a man called Harden, whom we were to know only too well in another case. A well-known criminal lawyer named John Jerrold was representing Cornelia. With Jerrold was his clerk, a dark, Spanish lad as handsome as Antinous. I did not learn his name until later. It was Pedro d'Escobar.
I wondered about this Jerrold. He was quite well-known; but why had they not engaged one of the best in town, I asked myself. A curious thing was, that, though he was working in Cornelia's interest, he received Mme. Storey with scarcely veiled antagonism. Inspector Rumsey was perfectly willing to allow my mistress to question the girl in the presence of the police, but Jerrold said no.
"I must stand upon the rights of my client," he said stiffly. "A charge may be laid later." So saying, he went off to consult with Cornelia.
Mme. Storey made no comment; but Harker looked at Bleecker in surprise.
"What's the matter with him?" he asked.
Bleecker shrugged. "Jealous," he said. "He is afraid that Madame Storey will steal the limelight. These court-room stars are as temperamental as opera singers. I'll speak to him."
A succession of prospective witnesses was examined while I was in the room; Cornelia's maid; guests who had occupied nearby rooms; various employees of the hotel. None of these people were able to say they had heard the sound of a shot.
I listened to the maid's story with keen interest. At ten o'clock that morning she had admitted Mr. Van Sicklen Harker to the suite, and had ushered him into the sitting-room. She had then returned to her own room. At first she could hear nothing. When the gentlemen began to quarrel she could hear the angry voices, but could not distinguish anything that was said.
She had no suspicion of any serious trouble until, a good while after, her mistress called her into the sitting-room. She found Cornelia in a hysterical and half-fainting condition. While in the sitting-room, she could hear the angry voices of the men in the bedroom; but she had been too much concerned about her mistress's condition to take note of anything they said. She half led, half carried her mistress into the further bedroom; that is to say the maid's own room, where Cornelia fainted on the bed. Some time passed before she succeeded in bringing her to; she was unable to say just how long. When she came to her senses, though she was still weak and shaken, she insisted on returning to the men. She ordered the maid to remain in her own room. During all this time she had said nothing that gave the maid any clue as to what the men were quarrelling about.
The maid had remained in her own room for awhile. She could hear nothing. She became very anxious. She finally ventured out into the foyer. Still she could hear nothing from the bedroom opposite. She listened at the door of that room and no sound came to her. At last she knocked. There was no answer. She tried the door. It was not locked, yet it resisted her at the bottom. She thought somebody was holding it. There was no sound from inside. Screaming with terror, the maid ran out into the main corridor of the hotel. A number of the guests ran out of their rooms; and various employees were attracted to the scene. The maid refused to return to the suite; and it was a hall-porter who actually discovered the tragedy.
This man stated that he had not attempted to enter the bedroom from the foyer; but had gone through the bathroom which lay between bedroom and sitting-room. None of the doors were locked. He beheld Arpad Rody lying on his back on the bed with a gaping wound in his temple. Mrs. Rody was crumpled up in a heap against the door into the foyer. That was why the maid had been unable to open it. There was a smell of gunpowder in the room. There was no gun visible anywhere. The wound had bled some on the bed, but not so much as you might expect. Rody's clothing was not disarranged in any way; nor did the room show any indications that a struggle had taken place. The body was still warm, of course; but as far as the porter could tell, the man was already dead. The next persons to enter the room were the hotel physician, and one of the managers. The porter had then been stationed at the door to keep everybody else out.
The physician deposed that the man was dead when he first looked at him. Death must have been instantaneous. He had been shot with a bullet from a gun of .32 calibre. The gun must have been pressed close to his head. The bullet had passed through his brain and was lodged against the skull on the other side. The physician had also discovered a swelling on top of the man's head, which suggested that he had been struck by some instrument; probably a blunt instrument; but he could not say positively. There was no abrasion. The lady was only in a swoon. She was carried into another room and brought to her senses. The doctor described, meanwhile, the vain hunt for a weapon. When the lady recovered, she had broken away from those who were attending her, and had rushed back to her husband's body, where she gave vent to extravagant protestations of affection. Nothing that she said suggested that she had any knowledge of who had shot him. She was incapable at that moment of answering any questions intelligibly.
Mme. Storey asked permission of Inspector Rumsey to put a few questions: This was readily accorded her.
"Doctor," she said, "please tell us more particularly the position in which you found the body."
He said: "There were two beds in the room, Madame, which were shoved together. The body was lying across both of them, the head pointing towards the windows."
"Were the legs touching the floor?"
"No, Madame, the body was lying completely across the beds."
"Had the room been made up for the day?"
"No, Madame, the bed-clothing was tumbled."
"The door into the foyer, I take it, was opposite to the windows?"
"Not exactly, Madame. The foyer being an irregularly shaped room, the door was cut across one corner of the bedroom."
"I see. And where was the door into the bathroom?"
"Facing the foot of the beds, Madame."
"These were the only doors in the room?"
"No, Madame. There was a door near the head of the beds, on the side above the windows. This led into a clothes closet. We looked in there for the gun."
"I get it. We can check this up later on the plan. Now please tell us what sort of a man, physically, the victim was in life."
"A very well-made young man, Madame; tall and muscular."
"A difficult customer to handle, eh?"
"So I should say, Madame."
"About what weight?"
"A hundred and seventy pounds."
"Thank you. Now please describe the effect when a man is shot through the brain."
"Why, Madame, he drops like a felled ox."
"There is no movement afterwards?"
"No, Madame—That is, if he was in motion when he was shot, he might stagger forward a step, or spin around. But if he was standing, he would drop all of a piece."
"Was there blood anywhere in the room except where it had run down on the bed?"
"Thank you very much. That is all."
John Jerrold returned to the room, and announced to Inspector Rumsey that his client was now ready to make a full statement to the police. This made all the members of our party uneasy. We didn't know what was coming. It would have been far better for the girl, we thought, if Mme. Storey had been permitted to talk to her first. But Jerrold was evidently determined to keep his client out of my mistress's hands. Mme. Storey could not seek to interfere between Cornelia and her counsel. She merely shrugged.
Inspector Rumsey ordered the girl to be brought in.
The big room was full of people. I did not know who they all were, nor what their business might be with the case. Inspector Rumsey sat at a desk with his back to the windows; the assistant-District-Attorney was on one side of him, my mistress on the other. I sat close to her with my pencil and book in case she wished to dictate any memoranda. There was also a police stenographer present. Lined up behind us was a whole crowd of police; some in uniform, some in plain clothes. The rest of the persons connected with the case formed a group at the other side of the room. No representatives of the press were admitted at this juncture.
A curious thing was, that in all that crowd there was not one to claim kinship or friendship with the slain man. Nor did any ever appear during the progress of the case. This young fellow who was described as being so good-looking in life, seemed to have appeared out of a void, just as he had now disappeared into another. There was no way of telling if he was as bad as the Harkers made out, because he had no one to speak in his defence.
While we waited for the girl, John Jerrold paced back and forth with an important manner. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a cold grey eye, and a bristly, clipped moustache. He had once been connected with the District-Attorney's office; and he had the look of the overbearing prosecutor of fiction. Perhaps that was the reason he had been dropped.
Finally an inner door was opened; a policeman stepped in followed by the slight figure of Cornelia Rody; and another officer who closed the door behind him. You could hear everybody in the room take a breath at the sight of this little girl; this heiress to untold millions; this bride of a day, who had perhaps seen her handsome young husband shot down by—well, of course the sane thought was in everybody's mind.
She scarcely looked her eighteen years; it was piteous to think of her as one of the principals in a tragedy. She was very pretty too, with fine blue eyes and a mass of short, curly, bright brown hair. She was, it goes without saying, most expensively and beautifully dressed. But it was rather shocking to see how perfectly self-assured she was under those circumstances. That was the rich man's child brought up with a crowd of servants to wait upon her. She was very pale it is true, but she looked around at the crowd with the greatest coolness, and made a signal of reassurance to her father. She then seated herself in the chair which the young Spaniard, Jerrold's clerk, pushed forward for her; crossed her pretty feet, and folded her hands in her lap.
Her father looked to be at the point of collapse. I did not at first grasp the significance of the signal that Cornelia made him, but I saw my mistress's face become grave.
"You wish to make a statement," said Inspector Rumsey to Cornelia.
"Yes," she said composedly. "It was I who shot Arpad Rody."
Everybody in the room gasped. This was not what we expected to hear. Harker leaped to his feet; and his chair fell over backwards. He flung a hand across his eyes. "No! No! No!" he cried. "It cannot be!"
A policeman pressed him back into his chair. He covered his face.
"Stop!" cried Rumsey sharply to the girl. "Do you realise what you are saying? Are you speaking by advice of counsel?"
"Yes," she said calmly.
"Why did you not warn us of this?" asked Rumsey of Jerrold.
"I thought it best to let her speak for herself," answered Jerrold with a defiant stare.
"You might at least have given her friends some inkling."
Jerrold merely shrugged.
Cornelia, having been duly warned, continued her statement; and it was taken down. She spoke in a low, clear voice; her expression never varied. She related the terrible story without a falter. "Immediately after the ceremony," she said, "my husband revealed his true nature. It was a relief to be himself, he told me with a sneer. He was coarse and brutal and selfish. His one aim was to get as much money as possible out of my father, when my father came to us this morning, I was so ashamed I could scarcely face him. But I had married this man in the face of his opposition, and I felt that it was up to me to stick it out. So I made believe to side with my husband against my father; though it hurt me very much. They quarrelled violently, and it got to be more than I could bear. That is how I came to faint."
Cornelia then described how, upon feeling ill, she had gone into the sitting-room and had called her maid. The maid had carried her to a bed in the further room, where she lost consciousness for a space.
Continuing, Cornelia said: "When I came to myself, I went back to the room where I had left the men. I found that my father had gone. Arpad was lying on his back across the beds feeling very pleased with himself, because he had got the better of my father. He had forced my father to sign an agreement to pay us a large sum. I didn't mind that; but when he went on to abuse my father, to call him dreadful names—after he had been so generous to us—I felt as if I could stand no more. In fact I didn't know what I was doing. The pistol was lying there on the bureau. I just picked it up and shot him. He never moved after."
"But the doctor has stated that the pistol must have been held directly against the man's temple," said Rumsey.
"Yes," said Cornelia. "Arpad couldn't see what I was doing because of the footboard of the bed. I picked up the pistol from the bureau, and walked to the bed, holding it down low. I reached over the footboard, and put it to his head and fired...He never moved after."
I think everybody in the room shuddered at the repetition of that dreadful little phrase.
"Are you accustomed to handling pistols?" Rumsey asked her in rather a shaky voice.
"No. I just pulled the trigger and it went off."
The good inspector was deeply moved; he had a daughter of Cornelia's age. "This story cannot be true!" he said loudly, and looked truculently around, as if defying any of his men to say that he was not acting the part of a good policeman. "If you shot the man as you say, the gun must have been found afterwards...What became of the gun?"
"I do not know," said Cornelia in the same composed voice. "In fact I cannot remember anything else. It all went black before me."
"The gun was not found!" cried the Inspector, striking his desk.
"I do not know about that," said Cornelia, with a sort of quiet obstinacy. "I have told you what happened."
"Whose gun was it?" asked the Inspector.
"I don't know. I supposed it was Arpad's."
"Had it been lying on the bureau when you were in the room before?"
"I am not sure. I don't think it could have been. It occurred to me that Arpad might have used it to intimidate my father."
"Did you know that your husband possessed such a gun?"
"He had spoken of owning a gun, but I do not know what kind it was. He had never shown it to me."
"You say you fainted immediately upon the firing of the shot?" asked the Inspector.
"Then how do you know that your husband never moved?"
"Well, I looked at him first. I didn't faint until it came over me that he was dead."
"You can remember nothing else?"
"Nothing at all."
"But you were found leaning against the door to the foyer. How did you get there?"
"I supposed I must have staggered there. It wouldn't be but half a dozen steps from the bed."
Inspector Rumsey flung himself back in his chair nonplussed. He didn't want to believe the girl's story, but as a witness against herself she was too much for him. He looked at my mistress. When she was present he always leaned heavily on her. What do you think of this? his eyes asked. Mme. Storey shrugged non-committally.
"Do you want to ask her any questions?" asked Rumsey.
"Not at present," said Mme. Storey.
While Cornelia was signing the statement which had been prepared for her, another plain clothes man entered the room by the outside door, and going directly to Inspector Rumsey, whispered something in his ear. Rumsey started violently, and said: "Where is it?"
By way of answer, the man took an automatic pistol from his pocket and laid it on Rumsey's desk. Again one could feel the thrill of excitement go through the whole company there.
"Where did you find it?" asked Rumsey.
"On the roof of the dwelling-house which adjoins the Hôtel Palazzo on the Fifty-Seventh street side."
"That would be under the windows of the room where the man was shot?"
Cornelia spoke up quickly: "Oh, it just comes back to me now. In my excitement I threw the gun out of the window. You had better add that to my statement."
"Mr. Jerrold," cried the exasperated Inspector, "will you please warn your client, for her own sake, to confine herself to answering my questions!"
Jerrold retorted sharply, and some confusion resulted. Under cover of it, Mme. Storey leaned towards me, and whispered: "Go down to the door. If Stephens is there with the man I sent him for, bring the man up here."
I found Stephens and another man waiting in a car below. The man's name was Clemmons. He was a tall, weedy-looking youth dressed in a style of cheap elegance; in fact a typical valet. He was sweating with nervousness at the prospect of having to face the police.
When I re-entered the room with Clemmons, Mr. Harker looked at him in mute horror, while his bosom friend, Bleecker, flushed red with anger.
"Who are you?" asked the Inspector.
"I am Mr. Clemmons," said the youth with a nervous simper. "I work for Mr. Harker."
Mme. Storey whispered to the Inspector.
"Have you ever seen this gun before?" asked the Inspector.
Clemmons turned the gun over in his hands, and then laid it down on the desk. He glanced wildly around as if seeking a way of escape.
"Well, sir?" said the Inspector sharply.
"Do I—do I have to answer?" stammered Clemmons,
Algernon Bleecker jumped up. "I protest!" he cried. "This man is entitled to the advice of counsel."
"Be silent, sir!" cried Inspector Rumsey. "Nobody suspects this man of having committed the crime!" He looked at Clemmons. "Answer my question!"
"It is Mr. Harker's gun," murmured the valet. Everybody in the room strained forward to hear. The silence was breathless.
"Are you sure of that?" demanded the Inspector.
Clemmons nodded. "I cleaned it only last week," he murmured. "I saw Mr. Harker take it out of the drawer this morning before he went out. He did not know that I saw him take it."
You could hear a long breath escape from the strained listeners.
Inspector Rumsey involuntarily looked over at Cornelia. It was then that the girl betrayed her only symptoms of cracking under the strain.
"What of it?" she cried hysterically. "I told you the truth! Arpad was alive after my father had left the hotel! I swear it!"
I heard a slight sound on the other side of me. Then Mr. Bleecker cried excitedly:
"Mr. Harker has fainted! A glass of water, please!"
The faithful toady conveyed by his horrified tones that the Heavens had fallen, and all business must stop. But I am afraid nobody else in the room was much impressed by the multi-millionaire's greatness at that moment.
Cornelia's confession stood up in spite of the valet's disclosure. No person of discernment who heard the girl make that confession believed a word of it-but there it was! She stuck to it through thick and thin; and even added convincing little details from time to time.
Harker was obliged to change his story. Who could tell whether his second version was any nearer the truth than the first? He said:
"It is true that I took my pistol with me when I went to see Rody. I was beside myself with rage and grief, and it seemed to me when the truth came out that nobody would blame me for shooting that blackguard. In the ugly scene that followed after I got to the hotel, he revealed his nature to be even more brutal and coarse than I had expected. The thought that my little girl was committed to the keeping of such a scoundrel drove me mad! It seemed providential to me when Cornelia left us together; and I pulled out my gun. If the intention of shooting him is a crime, I am ready to take my punishment. But I did not shoot him. He jumped on me and disarmed me. He was stronger than I. He then pointed the gun at my head, and made me write the agreement that I left behind me. As I ran out of the room I heard him fling the gun on the bureau. This is the truth! But Cornelia could not have shot him either. Whatever she may say now, she was completely infatuated with the man!"
A curious situation resulted. Whenever Harker was permitted to see his daughter, he begged and implored her to take back her confession, but she stood firm. Throughout the whole affair she displayed much more strength of character than her father. If she had weakened, Harker would have been promptly arrested, but as long as her confession stood, the police could not touch him.
Everybody believed that Harker had shot Rody, and nobody was inclined to blame him for it. It was supposed that Cornelia knew her father had done it, even if she had not actually seen him fire the shot, and that she was lying to save him. And Harker, people thought, was withholding his confession, because he considered that Cornelia's youth and innocence would stand a better chance with a jury. If this was the true explanation of the situation, it certainly showed up poor Harker in a contemptible light; and in my heart I never believed it. Harker was a weak man, and somewhat spoiled by too much wealth, but there was something manly and likeable in him underneath. And certainly the poor fellow was suffering the torments of the damned.
No other explanation was forthcoming. If neither one of the Harkers had shot Arpad Rody we were up against a blank wall. The whole action was narrowed down to fifteen or twenty minutes. No other person had been seen to enter or leave the hotel suite. In a hotel like the Palazzo, they have watchers and servants in every corridor. Cornelia's maid had never left the suite, and the outer door had been locked throughout. One of the lost baffling features of the case was that nobody had heard the shot.
What my mistress thought about the case at this stage, I do not know. She went about her investigation with an inscrutable smile. I ought to mention that immediately after the inquiry in Inspector Rumsey's office which I have described, she proceeded to the Palazzo Hôtel where she made a patient survey of the scene of the crime.
If it was a fact that the Harkers and their advisers had agreed amongst themselves on the course of action they were following, it certainly proved to be a politic one. For Cornelia became the heroine of the day. It was true she had to be confined in the city prison, but if one could believe all one heard, she was treated there like a royal guest of the state. She received enough flowers and candy, it was said, to furnish an entire hospital. Two secretaries were required to attend to her mail. Everybody knew that her trial would be a mere form; no jury on earth would have convicted her.
Cornelia was naturally a sweet little thing, and the course she was taking, mistaken though it might be, proved the goodness of her heart. But long before this happened she had been spoiled by her bad upbringing; and the adulation she received in prison completed the turning of her pretty head. She became as puffed up with vanity as a little pigeon. It was very difficult to deal with her. As a matter of fact somebody had prejudiced her against Mme. Storey in the beginning. After one or two attempts to create a better understanding, Mme. Storey was obliged to disregard her in the unravelling of the case.
I might say, that saving Mme. Storey and Inspector Rumsey, everybody connected with this case seemed to become intoxicated with the attendant publicity. That is not to be surprised at, perhaps, when you consider that it was the most sensational case that had ever come before the public up to that time. The newspapers seemed to give up everything else during those few days. The reporters and photographers dogged our footsteps. Good Heavens! you had the feeling of being spied upon even in your bed. The publicity attached to our cases always angers me. Maybe if I were the beautiful young heiress to millions I should feel differently.
Too much publicity has a curious effect on people. Algernon Bleecker, I thought, made a perfect ass of himself, the way he thrust himself forward as Van Sicklen Harker's most intimate friend, and undertook to speak for Harker in everything. The others were almost as bad. Even the valet Clemmons went about town attended by a whole train of sycophants hanging upon his slightest word. As for Cornelia, she issued interviews from her cell on every conceivable subject, whether she knew anything about it or not.
Cornelia was thrown entirely into the hands of John Jerrold. I considered this very unfortunate. I did not believe that Jerrold was actuated merely by childish jealousy in his antagonism to my mistress. I suspected a more sinister motive. When I suggested this to my mistress she merely smiled. I hate the whole multimillionaire atmosphere anyway. There is more wire-pulling, underhand dealing and general crookedness amongst their hangers-on than in ward politics.
When Jerrold did not go himself to visit Cornelia in the prison, he employed the handsome Spanish lad, Pedro d'Escobar, as his messenger.
One day when Mme. Storey and I went to the prison to talk to Cornelia (and this, by the way, was the last occasion on which my mistress made any attempt to see the girl she was trying to save) we were told at the gate that Miss Harker (Cornelia had resumed her maiden name for its effect on the public) was already in the visitors' room engaged with her counsel. We had to wait in the rotunda at some little distance from the door, but in full view of it. It was fairly dark where we were.
While we sat there, the door in to the visitors' room was opened, and for an instant we saw two figures framed in the doorway, sharply silhouetted against the strong light within. It was Cornelia and—not the gross form of Jerrold—but the slender one of young d'Escobar. A very pretty pose; the graceful girl offering her hand to the youth, who took it in his own, and gazed at her, as we could see even at that distance, with an expression of adoration. He then bent his body with infinite grace, and kissed her hand.
This troubled me greatly, but I could not instantly piece together the reasons for it. Then a light broke on me. I glanced at my mistress. She was surveying the scene with a peculiar smile.
"Shall we go in?" I said.
She slowly shook her head. "No need now," she said enigmatically. "This has revealed more than I would ever get out of the girl."
She drew me over to the other side of the rotunda where d'Escobar would not pass us on the way out. I watched him with the keenest interest. He was almost the perfect Latin type of male beauty, with large, full dark eyes, features of a charming regularity, and an air of suppressed passion. He was not very big, but well-knit and vigorous. He ought to have been acting in the pictures. He was too good-looking for one to be able to judge anything about his character. He might have been either rogue or saint.
After he had left, Mme. Storey and I made our way out of the building.
On the following day we ran into young d'Escobar at the Harker house where he had been sent on some errand by Cornelia. A sidelong look from my mistress; an alluring smile was sufficient; the youth succumbed forthwith. He was apt in gallantry; in fact that was all there was to him; he had more gallantry than good sense. It must be remembered though, that my mistress was an extremely beautiful woman. Beside her, little Cornelia was as a candle to a star. A moment later they were whispering and smiling apart, and I was not surprised therefore when the young Spaniard turned up at our office that afternoon.
He was most beautifully turned out, and his big black eyes were shining. His manners even towards me, were charming. I had it in mind though, that a charming young man can be a bad egg, too. It was about four-thirty, and tea had been had in for him. My mistress had put on one of her beautiful Fortuny gowns for his benefit. When I ushered him into the big room, she looked at me in a certain way, and reached under her desk. This was to signify that I was not expected to remain in the room, but was to listen to all that took place. She had turned on the dictaphone.
Back in my own room, I locked the outer door to forestall possible interruptions, and clapped the headpiece over my ears. The young man talked an attractive jargon of American slang with a strong Spanish accent. I shall not attempt to reproduce the accent. He said:
"I would catch the devil from my boss if he knew I was here!"
"Why?" asked Mme. Storey lazily.
"He doesn't like you...very bad taste, I say."
"Why?" she asked again.
"I don't know. He thinks you're trying to—what do you say? gum his game somehow."
"I don't know what his game is," said Mme. Storey laughing.
"To the Dickens with him!" said the young man. "I shan't tell him where I've been...Dios! how beautiful you are when you show your white teeth!"
"Like the wolf in Red Riding Hood," said Mme. Storey airily.
"Voolf? What is that?" he asked in a surprised voice.
"Oh, never mind."
"They tell me you are the cleverest woman in New York," he went on; "and for myself I can see you are the most beautiful! How good of you to let me come here!"
"You're a fast worker, aren't you?" she said. "Here's your tea."
"A fast worker?" he said inquiringly. "Oh, I get you! That's a good one. I must remember that."
"How about little Harker?" suggested Mme. Storey.
"Oh, Mees 'Arker," he said carelessly "I have to make love to her in the way of duty, but my heart is not in it. But with you..."
Mme. Storey interrupted him.
"What do you mean, duty?"
"A widow," he said, "and so rich! One owes it to oneself."
"I suppose so," said Mme. Storey dryly. "Unfortunately in this country a man is expected to be faithful even to a rich wife."
"How tiresome!" said d'Escobar. "We manage better on the Continent."
Their conversation (which I took down at the time) was too long to reproduce in its entirety. Suffice it to say that this young sprig was like wax in the clever hands of my mistress. Without committing herself to anything, she allowed him to suppose that his big black eyes had found a joint in her armour, and he became a little drunk with gratified vanity. She led him into making many admissions about himself. He knew how dangerous his situation was, for he was continually pulling himself up on the verge of some important disclosure. If he had had good sense he would never have come near our shop; it was about as safe tor him as a lion's den; but my mistress's beauty and allure had been too strong for him. I could see (or hear, rather), that he thought he was being very prudent, he had no idea how much he was giving away.
He said he had been in America for a year. He claimed to be descended from old Spanish grandee stock, but that was palpably a fiction. Under the veneer of elegance he revealed a sharp and common nature. I suspect that he had assumed the aristocratic name of d'Escobar for American use. We gathered that in Madrid he had really been of that flash type of sporting character which is common to great cities all over the world, a hanger-on of the bull-ring, and an associate of the most disreputable persons. He had been put to all sorts of shifts to make a living, and had unquestionably known what it was to go hungry. Among other expedients he had occasionally acted as a guide to tourists in Madrid, and in this way he had become acquainted with an American, who had offered to bring him to America anu put him in the way of winning a rich wife.
This interesting fact slipped out inadvertently; d'Escobar, laughing instantly sought to turn it into a joke. Mme. Storey accepted it as a joke, and allowed him to change the subject. By the most circuitous course she gradually led him back to the fact of his American benefactor, and d'Escobar never realised whither he was being steered. He was very leery of giving any information in this direction. He could not be got to say anything definite about the man. He repeated that he had been given the money for his passage to America, but claimed that he had never seen the man after. Mme. Storey could not question d'Escobar directly, of course.
"What a funny man!" she said carelessly.
"Oh, he had so much money he didn't know what to do with it," said d'Escobar.
"Then I hope he staked you well."
"Gave you money, I mean, to get a start with."
"No. Only for my passage."
"What! Didn't he put you in the way of getting a job? Didn't he even give you letters to his acquaintances in America?"
"What a heartless way to act!"
"Oh, he was a rich and impulsive Señor. Five minutes after he had given me the money he had forgotten me."
"Well, I must say you showed pluck in venturing across the world to an unknown country where you couldn't even speak the language."
"What would you?" said d'Escobar; and I could imagine the careless shrug that accompanied the words. "My position in Madrid was hopeless. What is a gentleman to do without money? I am the last of my family. I had no influential relatives. In Spain a d'Escobar could not soil his hands with common labour; but in America it makes no difference.
"That's a fine spirit," said Mme. Storey flatteringly.
"Oh, don't let's talk about me," he said. "Let me go on telling you how beautiful you are! I could never tire of that!"
I could imagine my mistress's slightly bored smile. But she gave him his head, and he rhapsodised to his heart's content. She encouraged him with sly flattery. After a while she said:
"You poor boy! Do you know I am haunted by the thought of you landing in America friendless and without a cent!"
At this moment he was slightly giddy with gratified vanity, and he answered thoughtlessly: "Oh, I was well taken care of!"
To cover his slip—for she did not want him to break down, Mme. Storey said quickly: "By your fellow-Spaniards, I suppose."
"Yes," he said; "Spaniards. They got me jobs of one kind and another. As soon as I learned English I was all right."
"You speak it awfully well."
"Well, it was a question of life or death," he said with a laugh.
"Did you have to live in one of those awful immigrant boarding-houses down near the Battery?" asked my mistress solicitously.
"No; but it wasn't much better. It was a tall house overhanging a cliff with rocks at the bottom, and the river. You could toss things out of our windows right in the water."
"Oh, somewhere out of town," said Mme. Storey.
"No. It is right in New York. The Sound steamers go by."
"I never heard of any cliffs in New York," said Mine. Storey, to lead him on.
"It was a polyglot house," he said. "There were six of us; a Frenchman, a Belgian, two Italians, a Rumanian and me."
"All young fellows?" asked Mme. Storey idly. "All young."
"Only six of you in that big house? That doesn't sound poverty-stricken."
"Oh, we only had a flat on the ground floor. It was a fifteen family house."
"Well, with six young fellows together, I expect you had a lively time."
"No. They kept us too strict. The Countess was an old devil!"
"Oh, just a name we had for the French housekeeper. I was thankful when I graduated. All day long they kept us at our lessons like schoolboys; English and deportment."
Mme. Storey took pains not to notice this slip, but he immediately became conscious of it. "Of course I didn't have to have any lessons in deportment," he hastily added laughing. "But the other fellows were ignorant peasants. They had to be taught how to behave before they could expect to get jobs in America."
"Oh, of course," said Mme. Storey.
For awhile he was uneasy, evidently fearing that he had given too much away. But my mistress's bland and careless manner gradually restored his confidence. She applied judicious flattery again, and made no further attempt to get anything out of him.
When he left, he put his heels together, and bowing low from the waist, kissed her hand in the best Continental manner. It was charming Mme. Storey invited him to come to her house on the following night. There is nothing like striking while the iron is hot.
He did not come to Mme. Storey's house. In fact we never saw him again. That handsome and too-talkative young man simply vanished.
On the following day another man replaced him in the rôle of John Jerrold's clerk. This one was obviously no more or less than a lawyer's clerk; a dull, plodding fellow, with no pretensions to gallantry. He does not figure in the story in any way.
We had already set on foot cautious inquiries among Jerrold's employees, and we learned that d'Escobar had simply not turned up for business the day before, and that nobody in the office knew where he was. Jerrold had given it out that he knew nothing about the young man's movements outside office hours, and was not sufficiently interested to inquire. From the same source we obtained d'Escobar's last address.
In company with Inspector Rumsey and myself, Mme. Storey immediately proceeded there. It was an old-fashioned walk-up apartment house on 104th street, which had been sub-divided into small suites, which were let furnished by the week. A thoroughly respectable house with no pretences to style. In such a house the tenants come and go with great frequency; d'Escobar had not been established there more than a fortnight, but his uncommon good looks had fixed him in the minds of the employees. They called him "the handsome Dago."
From the negro telephone boy we got a fairly straight story. This was a Friday. On Wednesday evening, the boy said, that would be the evening of the day on which d'Escobar had tea at our office, the young Spaniard was called down to the telephone about eight o'clock. There were no extension 'phones in the building. The negro was standing beside him while he talked over the 'phone. It was very brief. Somebody must have told him he was wanted somewhere, for d'Escobar had said: "Is anything the matter?" He had apparently received a reassuring answer. He had then said: "All right, I'll come right away." The other person then said something, to which d'Escobar replied: "Very well, I'll be careful." He then hung up.
He asked the telephone boy to get him a taxi, and went up to his flat for his hat and coat. His flat was the second floor front, West. A taxi had been procured from a garage in 107th street. It would be easy to find the man who drove it. D'Escobar had never returned. They knew that because the maid had reported his bed had not been slept in. He had carried no bag, nor anything at all in his hand when he went.
While Inspector Rumsey went to look up the chauffeur Mme. Storey and I were let into the flat. It was the usual thing, parlour, bedroom and bath, furnished in a cheap style, but comfortable enough. The most curious thing about it was, that the youth who lived there apparently had no personal belongings, no photographs, no knick-knacks, nothing but some packets of cigarettes and a couple of dog-eared paper-covered novels in Spanish, with lurid pictures on the covers. And his clothes, of course; he had plenty of those; and fine ones, too; all neatly put away en hangers it the wardrobe.
The place was in apple-pie order, but Mme. Storey's sharp eyes presently discovered evidence that it had been ransacked since the owner left. The lock of d'Escobar's trunk had recently been forced; the marks of the break were fresh. The contents of the bureau drawers were tumbled in a way that was incompatible with the orderliness of everything else. Of the coats hanging in the wardrobe, some of the fronts had been carelessly turned back, as by somebody hastily feeling for the breast-pockets. There was a little desk by the front windows, and a clean sweep had been made of that. Even the desk blotter had been carried away, as if in fear that it might reveal some tell-tale line of writing in a mirror. The negro boy, who had frequently been in the room, insisted that there had been a blotter on the desk two days before.
"Has any person visited these rooms to-day or yesterday?" Mme. Storey asked him.
"Not that I know of, Madam."
"But you would know if anybody had been here?"
"All kinds of strangers come in and out the house, Madam. I don't question them if they seem to know where they're going."
"Has any other boy been on duty in the hall?"
"Yes 'm, I got a relief."
"This room is right over where you sit. If anybody had entered these rooms while you were on duty, you must have heard them."
"Yes 'm. I reckon so."
"Have you seen a good-looking young foreign man passing in or out of the house to-day or yesterday?"
"You would have taken note of such a one as that?"
"Yes 'm. I sure would."
The other boy having been sent for, he returned the same answers.
Finally Mme. Storey asked: "What time is the house closed?"
"Eleven o'clock, Madam. The switchboard is closed, and the outer door locked."
"Every tenant has a key to the outer door, of course?"
"Yes 'm. Every tenant gets two sets of keys when he moves in."
Mme. Storey pointed to three keys on a string, which were hanging inside the entrance door to the flat. "There is one set," she said. "Therefore, the person who ransacked this flat must have had d'Escobar's keys." She turned away to the window.
"What do you think of it?" I asked anxiously.
"I think," she answered in a grave, low tone, "that our young friend has paid for his indiscretions to me, with his life."
I turned a little sick with horror. Another murder! "Oh!" I breathed. At that moment I could think only of the young man's beauty.
She looked at me queerly. "I can't feel very sorry for him, Bella," she said quite coolly. "This is a case of my country first. I don't care how many of these scoundrelly young foreigners bite the dust if I am enabled to break up the traffic!"
I stared at her in amazement. At the moment I was not yet able to grasp the thing in its entirety.
Inspector Rumsey came in. He had got hold of the taxi-cab driver, who had told him that d'Escobar had ordered him to drive to the Metropolitan Building at Madison Avenue. The driver was interested in his fare because, he said, the handsome young foreigner reminded him of ——(He named a famous Motion Picture star). And that seemed a funny address to give after business hours. So after he had set d'Escobar down, he drove on a little way, and stopped to watch him. It appeared that d'Escobar was only waiting for another taxi. He hailed the first one that came along, and was driven past the waiting car without noticing it. The chauffeur's curiosity was now highly excited, and he went to the trouble of taking down the number of the second taxi. He had furnished it to Inspector Rumsey.
There was nothing further to be learned at the Hundred-and-Fourth street house, and we separated in our several directions for dinner. At eight o'clock we came together again at Mme. Storey's house. Inspector Rumsey had brought along the second taxi-driver, and his car was at the door. This man had a clear recollection of his foreign-looking fare of two nights before. He had driven d'Escobar to the corner of Pleasant Avenue and a street in the Seventies. Pleasant Avenue is on the far East side. It corresponds to Avenue D farther down town.
Mme. Storey suggested that we follow forthwith. She dressed herself in an inconspicuous coat and hat, and we set forth in the taxi. We found that Pleasant Avenue had been named without any regard to the fitness of things. It was a wide, raw, miscellaneous kind of thoroughfare on the edge of the Island. It was paved with granite blocks. At the point where we got out of the taxi, the roadway was torn up for repair, and farther progress was blocked by a barrier. This driver's curiosity had not been excited by his fare, and he could give us no information as to what had become of him when he stepped out of the cab.
Telling the man to wait, we walked on up the street at a venture. This out-of-the-way avenue was well lighted, but was sparsely frequented after nightfall. A little way along we came to a great pile of granite blocks alongside the sidewalk. On the walk an old man was seated in a kitchen chair tipped back against the stones. His feet were cocked up on a rung of the chair, his derby was pulled over his eyes, and he was smoking a disreputable cutty pipe with evident enjoyment. Beside him on the pavement stood a watchman's lantern.
"He was probably sitting there two nights ago," murmured Mme. Storey. "Let us ask him."
The old man betrayed no sign of being aware of our approach, but as soon as he was spoken to, we realised that he had been watching us.
"Good-evening," said Mme. Storey.
"'Even', mum." He looked up at her sharply, but did not otherwise move. He was too old to be polite.
"Is it your job to watch these stones all night?" she asked.
"So it would seem, mum."
"But I shouldn't think anybody would steal paving stones!"
This evidently touched a sore point.
"They'd steal anythin', mum," he said indignantly. "It ain't but two nights ago since two of these very blocks was pinched. They was missed in the morning because the pile was piled regular. I caught hell for it."
Now all three of us were thinking about two nights ago, and this simple fact seemed therefore as if it might have some significance for us.
"What on earth would the thief want of them!" said Mme. Storey.
"You kin search me, mum. No good purpose, I'll be bound."
"No good purpose," she agreed thoughtfully.
"You see that taxi-cab standing there?" asked Mme. Storey.
"Well, I still got my eyesight, mum."
"Did you see a taxi-cab stop in the same spot two nights ago, just at this time or a few minutes later?"
"Meanin' no disrespec', but what is that to you, mum?"
Turning back his coat, Inspector Rumsey exhibited the police badge. The old man's chair came to the pavement with a thump. He stood up, and pulled off the battered derby. "Excuse me, Captain. And you, mum. But how was I to know?...Yes, I see'd a taxi stop there two nights ago this time. They ain't common in these parts."
"Did you see a man get out?"
"What sort of man?"
"Handsome young foreign gent. Dressed real elegant."
"That is the man. Did you see where he went?"
"Sure, mum. I ain't got much to occupy myself. I watches every little thing. This young foreign gent. came right up here, and walked on up the avenue to the corner of Seventy-__ street. Then he turned down towards the river."
"Did you see him come back?"
"No 'm. He never come this way again."
Mme. Storey gave him a tip, and we left him bowing and tipping the ridiculous derby.
We turned down the street the watchman had indicated. It was no more than a half block to the river. The end of the street was closed by a low stone parapet, topped by an iron railing. Looking through the bars, you beheld the East River was some forty or fifty feet below you, heaving silently and restlessly, showing a furtive gleam under the night sky. On the other side lay Blackwell's Island with its forbidding institutional buildings, already darkened for the night. Beyond that again, the other channel of the river, and the sparkling lights of the Long Island shore.
When my mistress and I looked at the last house on the South side of the street, I think we both knew what to expect. It was a five-storey, double fiat-house of the style that was erected in such numbers twenty-five years ago and more; a fifteen family house; every New Yorker knows them. It is the type which intervenes between the villainous old "dumb-bell" tenement, and the "new-law" house. On the river side it fairly overhung the cliff, being supported on a tall retaining wall with buttresses. Looking down we could see the rocks at the foot of the cliff. These would be partly covered when the tide rose.
Mme. Storey and I exchanged a look. By what a strange chain of circumstances we had been led to the very house we wished to find!
Seeing us look at each other, Inspector Rumsey asked if we knew the house.
"It is the house which has been described to us as containing the headquarters of the gang," said Mme. Storey. "The ground floor flat on the river side."
The front windows of that flat were dark. We could not see, of course, if there was any light in the rear. We knew the plan of that flat just as well as if we had been in it. On the ground floor the usual "private hall" of each flat is cut off by the entrance hall, and the rooms open out of each other in a string, sitting-room, one or two narrow bedrooms, dining-room and kitchen On the other side of the entrance, there would be an exactly similar flat, and in the rear of the building a four or five room flat arranged in the form of a square.
My mistress was peering around. By this time I was able to follow her thought.
"However could they get down to the rocks?" I asked.
"What would they want to get down there for?" asked Rumsey innocently.
Mme. Storey pointed to a narrow opening at the end of the parapet, across the road from the flat-house. Here we found a rough, wooden stairway leading down to a ramshackle structure near the water's edge. There was a little makeshift landing there, it was evidently a sort of bathing establishment for the neighbourhood. We saw that from the foot of the steps one could easily make one's way back over the rocks to a point under the windows of the flat-house.
Mme. Storey said to Inspector Rumsey: "I suggest that the police come up the river in a launch to-night and grapple for a body off those rocks. Let them show no lights, and work with the greatest care in order to avoid attracting the attention of anybody in the flat. If a body should be found, let the fact be concealed until we can consult together."
"But a strong tide runs up and down here," objected the Inspector. "A body thrown in here might be found miles away."
"Not if it was weighted down with two granite blocks," said Mme. Storey gravely.
That night the body of Pedro d'Escobar was fished up from the bottom of the East River. It was found tied to a heavy canvas bag which contained the two paving stones. He had been garrotted. The body was carried to a private undertaking establishment, and for the time being no word of the gruesome find was allowed to reach the press. Inspector Rumsey wanted to raid the flat where the murder had certainly been committed, but Mme. Storey shook her head.
"You would not find the principal there," she said, "and he's the only one who matters. If either of us makes the slightest false move he will escape us."
"Well, I'll see that the occupants are kept under surveillance," said Rumsey.
Mme. Storey still objected. "If any strange man were to appear in that quiet street, no matter if he were the cleverest sleuth on your staff, they would be sure to take alarm. Leave them to me. I will watch them myself."
Rumsey has unbounded confidence in my mistress—he has good reason for it; but he looked at her dubiously. "How could you...in such a neighbourhood," he began.
"You'll see," she said, smiling. "I'll keep in touch with you."
From that point on, Mme. Storey gave no direct attention to the murder of Arpad Rody. We would gradually approach that, she said, by way of the killing of the other handsome young foreigner. I could perceive the general outline of her theory, but I was still in a fog as to the actual connection between the two crimes.
We left the Harker case to be threshed out in the newspapers; and day by day they continued to make the most of it. To be sure, after the sensational disclosures of the first day, the result of their labours was mostly chaff; but it seemed to make little difference to the public; they subscribed for it just as eagerly. Two great parties were formed amongst the public; those who thought Van Sicklen Harker had fired the fatal shot; and those who ascribed it to Cornelia. Feeling ran high, and the newspapers were bombarded with letters. Both parties, however, were able to unite in idolising little Cornelia.
The "news" consisted almost exclusively of the successive efforts of the various persons connected with the case to break into the headlines. I remember that Algernon Bleecker succeeded in holding the centre of the stage for an entire day by getting himself ejected from the District-Attorney's office. I suppose he had made an intolerable nuisance of himself there, by reason of his self-imposed activities on behalf of the Harkers. The unfortunate District-Attorney had a hard row to hoe anyhow. He was the villain of the piece. He had to prosecute the public idol.
In the absence of any real news, the daily interview with Cornelia was the leading feature. Once a day in the prison, Cornelia held a levee for the gentlemen and ladies of the press. It was really rather scandalous; but the tide of popular interest in the case was simply not to be resisted. Every day, for my sins, I had to wade through many columns of the nonsense thus produced, in order to make sure that nothing of significance escaped Mme. Storey's attention.
The only time I was ever rewarded for my patience was upon stumbling on this paragraph in one of the more intelligent papers:
"The interview (with Cornelia) is limited to one hour. Every day between fifty and sixty newspaper men and women attend. In addition to the local press, every leading newspaper in the country has assigned a special writer to the case. As it would be impossible within this brief period of time for so many people to question Miss Harker, it became necessary for them to elect one of their number to talk to her. Miss Harker herself was invited to nominate the interlocutor, and her choice fell upon Mr. Albert Fleury of the New York Universe. Mr. Fleury is probably the youngest reporter on the case, and certainly the newest recruit to newspaperdom. His article yesterday on 'The Ideals of Cornelia Harker' was especially pleasing to that young lady. She held a clipping of it in her hand during the interview to-day. Mr. Fleury is a Belgian. He is an exceedingly personable young man; and his elegant manners are the despair of the graduates of Park Row."
When I showed this to Mme. Storey she said: "What, another!...Have you seen his articles?"
"Yes," said I. "They attracted my attention because they were even more fulsome than the general run."
"Hm!" she said; and reached for the telephone, to call up Morrow, managing editor of the Universe, who was an acquaintance of hers.
Morrow said the young man had been recommended to him by Sterner, a vice-president of the Corlears Trust; the banker said he had brought a letter of introduction from the president of the Union Leather Company, one of their largest customers; the leather manufacturer said he had him from John Jerrold the well-known lawyer.
"Hm!" said Mme. Storey again.
She did not call up John Jerrold.
"Bella," she said, "I will write a meaningless letter to Cornelia, which will nevertheless sound important. You carry it down to her, taking care to deliver it while the reception to the press is going on. Then you can have a look at this young man."
This is the report that I brought back to my mistress:
"Albert Fleury is several years older than d'Escobar, and, I should say a much warier and more astute young man. I think he must have lived in America for a longer space of time, because he is thoroughly on to our ways, and can speak English with scarcely a trace of accent. But when he spoke to Cornelia I noticed that he stuck on the French accent. Like d'Escobar, he is extremely good-looking, but in an entirely different style, being tall, blonde, with strongly chiselled aquiline features that give him a bold look. When he speaks to Cornelia he allows a rapt look to come into his eyes; and a hushed tone into his voice. She is fascinated. The other reporters hate him; but he has firmly entrenched himself in her favour, and he doesn't care. His eyes are false and shallow; but she can't see that.
"During the few minutes that I was in the room, Fleury never appeared to look at me. He was too indifferent. It suggested to me that he was highly conscious of my presence; and on fire to learn what had brought me. He has undoubtedly been warned against us."
"Well, naturally," said Mme. Storey. "After what has happened."
During the early part of my association with Mme. Storey, I was solely the secretary and office-manager; there was never any question of my doing work in the field. Then in the Melanie Soupert affair, circumstances forced me to play the part of Canada Annie, and it was considered that I acquitted myself quite well. Since then I have been compelled to adopt a disguise on several occasions. Women operatives of the exact type that we require are very hard to find. And I have the sort of ordinary face that does not unduly impress itself on the memory. To be sure I have red hair, but that may be dyed black, or covered with a wig.
A few hours after Inspector Rumsey brought us the news of the recovery of d'Escobar's body, Mme. Storey and I might have been seen drifting up the sidewalk of Pleasant Avenue; but our closest acquaintances would never have recognised us. Mme. Storey was wearing a sandy wig, upon which was perched an old little black bonnet; and her lovely complexion was made up to look coarsened and spoiled. Her figure was stuffed out under a cotton dress, and an old-fashioned, shabby black mantle. She was the good-natured New York cleaning-woman to the life—of Irish extraction. It was a treat to see how well she did the walk of a stout, middle-aged woman, still vigorous; coming down on the flat of her foot with every step.
I was a thinner, paler, younger edition of the same; not so good-humoured. My hair had been rendered drab and lifeless with water colour; and was screwed into a hard knot. I was wearing a bedraggled lace hat, and a ridiculous fawn-coloured jacket which was inches too big in the bust, and cocked up like a sparrow's tail behind. My skirt hung down behind in that dejected manner which is peculiar to scrub-women. All these were genuine old clothes; we made sure they were properly fumigated.
We walked a foot or two apart, talking so that anybody might hear. Mme. Storey did most of the talking; she has the East Side jargon down pat, whereas I have to think what I am saying. She is richly humorous at such moments. It is her custom when we make these excursions into the lower world, to introduce me as a superior person, "who reads books." Her theory is, the more fantastic the part, the easier it is to get away with it. You can get away with anything, she says, so long as you can contrive not to look self-conscious.
Mme. Storey also possesses to a high degree the faculty of being able to enter into conversation with strangers. She paused to talk to a woman, loitering on one of the stoops. We were in search of a couple of nice cheap rooms, she announced. The woman hunted up the janitor, who showed us a hole into which the light of day scarce penetrated. Mme. Storey rejected it as being too dear.
"Aah! you won't find nottin' cheaper on t' Avenoo," the man said disgustedly. "You bett'r try t' side streets."
We turned into Seventy-__ Street. As I have said before, there was only about a hundred yards of it between Pleasant Avenue and the edge of the cliff. On the south side the flat-house at the corner ran back for a hundred feet; then there was another flat; then several nondescript wooden shanties; and finally the house overhanging the cliff. On the other side of the way, most of the space was taken up by a yard for the storage of wagons at night. On this side overlooking the river was a picturesque, old-fashioned wooden dwelling which was still fairly well kept up.
We went boldly into the house that we were interested in, to ask for rooms. It appeared that there were no vacancies. I looked with a little inward shiver at the partition which cut off the murder flat, wondering what was going on within at that moment. This flat had two doors opening on the long entrance hall of the house; one just inside the front door, which would lead into their parlour; the other farther back, which would be their usual entrance, and would admit you to their dining-room.
On the other side of the road, adjoining the entrance to the wagon yard, there was a little building which had once been a store, but now housed one of the quaint little manufactories, which are to be found everywhere in New York. Horse medicines were put up here. There were two windows over the store, which attracted Mme. Storey's notice. With a jerk of the head to me, she headed across. Through the open door of the store came a strong smell of condition powders. A boy was engaged in breaking eggs into a small vat. His expression suggested that the eggs were not very fresh. He was the sole employee.
Mme. Storey beckoned the proprietor to the door. He was a tall, lanky horse-doctor; a genuine American type, such as is rare in New York. He looked like an original New Yorker, embittered by finding himself in a city of foreigners.
"What's upstairs, Mister?" asked Mme. Storey genially.
"What's that to you?" he answered sourly.
"Well, bein' as t' windas was so dusty, like, I t'ought maybe t' rooms was vacant and..."
"They are vacant," he said. "I give up tryin' to rent 'em, because decent folk won't live in such a place, and I don't want no riff-raff."
"Riff-raff!" cried Mme. Storey, planting her arms akimbo. "Riff-raff! I'd have you to know, Mister, that me and my sister here don't answer to no such description. Poor we may be but..."
"Aah, keep yer hair on," he said disgustedly. "I wasn't gettin' at you...There's no conveniences. You'd have to come down to the yard for water."
"Well, I could stand that if it was cheap enough," said Mme. Storey. "Me an me sister, we ain't got no man to provide for us..."
"Any children?" he asked suspiciously.
"Divil a chick!" she said, beaming.
He finally condescended to show us the rooms; and after a spinted bargaining, an agreement was struck at $3.15 per week. The first week's rent was paid over on the spot. The landlord's parting shot as he went out of the door was:
"Mind you, if you've got a passel of brats waitin' round the corner, out you'll go next week! I know you Irish!"
Mme. Storey and I rocked in silent laughter.
To reach our new quarters, you mounted an outside stairway from the wagon yard. It was not a very inviting place; it had been given up to the dust ad the rats for many a month, years maybe; and it was pervaded by a strong smell of horse liniment. But that didn't matter so much since we had no intention either of eating or sleeping there. We congratulated ourselves on obtaining so good a point of vantage. We were not immediately opposite the house overhanging the cliff; but everybody who entered or left it, passed our windows.
From a second-hand store in Pleasant Avenue we purchased for camouflage, cots, chairs, a table, some pots and pans and a cook stove.
There was a teamster's family living in a shanty at the back of the wagon yard, and the wife, who could see nothing from her own windows, seemed to spend the time standing at the gate yard. Within an hour, Mme. Storey had struck up a great friendship with her. She proved an invaluable source of information. She missed nothing that passed in our street; moreover, she was the intimate friend of the wife of the janitor across the way.
The particular flat which we were watching, had aroused considerable interest in the street, owing to the invariable comeliness of the young men who lodged there. "They may be Wops or Huns or Dagoes or whatnot, mum, but they're always pretty fellows," said our informant. "It seems funny." The house keeper was known as the French Madam. Before the afternoon was out, the teamster's wife was able to point her out to us, returning with her purchases from the store. We saw an enormous shapeless figure swathed in black, moving slowly along under the burden of her fat, looking from side to side with sullen pained eyes. Her face showed the remnants of a rather remarkable beauty, ruined by fat and evil living. It was a tragic and a sinister figure.
Thereafter, during the hours of daylight, one or another of us was always on duty in the rooms over the horse medicine shop. We cemented our friendship with the wife of the teamster. That honest woman brewed her own beer in the shack at the back of the wagon yard. It was a vile decoction; but it was the occasion of friendly little gatherings every morning, which enabled us to meet Mrs. Regan, the wife of the janitor across the street.
Mrs. Regan didn't like the French Madam. "Aah! the big fat slob!" she said, blowing the froth off her beer. "I'd like to paste her one!"
"What for?" asked Mme. Storey.
"Aah, she ain't just human, like. Not like you and me. Looks at you like you was dirt!"
It reassured us to learn that the French Madam had just paid a month's rent in advance. Evidently they had no intention at the moment of giving us the slip. At this time she had only two lodgers, whom Mrs. Regan described to us as a dago and a little Frenchy. The dago was a bad egg, she said; once he had kicked her cat clear of the sidewalk just for getting in his way. But Frenchy was a nice little feller. He looked real sorrowful at being in such company. She could even supply their names. According to her the dago was called Hot-Willy Oh-come-all-ye; and Frenchy Denny the Cash-boy.
When we were alone I asked Mme. Storey what she could make of these extraordinary appellations.
She answered without hesitation: "Attilio Camagli and Denis de Cachebois."
We had no difficulty in identifying our men. They were sent out every afternoon for an aimless walk. These were the neophytes; they were still shabbily dressed. Apparently there was no love lost between them, for they always separated on the doorstep. The French boy would turn aside and remain staring at the river through the bars of the railing until the Italian had walked off out of sight. This French lad was as pretty as a girl. He was evidently of the Northern provinces, with tight blonde curls all over his head, and big blue eyes which were at once saddened, and secretly terrified. What had those eyes beheld, I wondered. As soon as she saw him, Mme. Storey said:
"They slipped up when they picked him. He's already cracking under the strain."
The Italian on the other hand was a big, stalwart fellow, black as the Knave of Spades. He was undeniably good-looking; but with the good looks of a brigand. His full, red lips were curved in a perpetual sneer; He looked at women through his lowered sooty eyelashes with an expression of insolent triumph.
"Good Heavens!" said I, "surely no gently brought-up girl would ever fall for him!"
"On the contrary," said Mme. Storey, "if they can give him a slight veneer of good manners, that sort of man is irresistible to inexperienced girls."
On the second day after we had installed ourselves in our rooms, we arranged it so that we ran into the French boy in Pleasant Avenue, as he was listlessly drifting home. Mme. Storey addressed him in French. The effect was electrical; he stopped short, his cheeks coloured up, his eyes glistened. He answered her in a perfect torrent of his own tongue.
I do not know the language myself, but Mme. Storey speaks it like a native; and I am continually listening to her. She was not speaking good French now, but a sort of jargon, However, he understood it well enough. It was pathetic to see how the boy's whole nature went out to her. They talked a little while then suddenly he choked up, and the blue eyes filled. He put his head down, and fairly ran away.
"That kid is worth saving," murmured my mistress. "How on earth did you account to him for your ability to speak French?" I asked.
"Oh, I told him I was a hospital cook in France during the war," she said shrugging.
"What made him cry?"
"I spoke to him of his own country."
On a subsequent afternoon when I went to the rooms on Seventy-__ Street to relieve Mme. Storey, I found little Denis there. I could hear his eager, rapid voice as I went up the outside stair. It still held a suggestion of the reedy tones of boyhood. He stopped abruptly when I went in. Evidently, from his face, the tears had been falling again. My presence embarrassed him very much, and he soon left. When the door closed behind him, I looked at my mistress inquiringly.
"Oh, he was very discreet," she said, reaching for a cigarette. When we were alone in the flat, the contrast between Mme. Storey's absurd make-up and the natural elegance of all her movements, created a very strange effect indeed. She was like some delightful, incredible figure out of a dream. "The fate of d'Escobar is still fresh in his mind," she went on. "He confined himself to talking about La Belle France."
On the following afternoon I ran into Denis loitering unhappily along the pavement of Pleasant Avenue. He gave me a piteous look, and glanced in terror over his shoulder. Clearly he wished to speak to me, and was afraid to do so. Close beside me there was a fruit and vegetable display on the sidewalk, and in order to give him a chance, I paused, and affected to look over it.
He drifted up to my side, and likewise scanned the vegetables in the manner of an intending purchaser.
Out of the corner of his mouth he murmured in his charming broken English: "Please...not to look at me Miss. Please...to tell your sister I can't come no more. Please...I thank her from my heart for the kindness to a French boy. Please...if we meet on the street do not notice me at all. It is very dangerous."
With that he was gone.
Mme. Storey had seen the janitor's wife enter the wagon-yard below, and before knocking off for the day, my mistress went to pay a call at the teamster's shanty to see if anything new was to be picked up. Meanwhile I sat down to my vigil at the window. We had taken care not to wash the windows, and the accumulated grime offered a very good screen for any one watching from within.
I saw Dennis return home from his empty wanderings about the streets. He was followed shortly afterwards by Camagli, the Italian lad, whose cruel, complacent, half-sleepy expression suggested a gorged cat-animal. He had been up to some mischief I could have sworn. This would be about half-past three.
Half an hour later I saw coming at a smart pace from the direction of Pleasant Avenue, a man I had never seen before, but I instantly guessed that he was connected with our case. Like all the others, he too, was a pretty fellow, but a few years older than those we had been dealing with, and completely Americanised. He was foreign born, but his foreign expression was gone. Hat, coat, boots, gloves all suggested Madison Avenue. He was just such a figure as you may pick out between Forty-Second and Forty-Seventh any day in the year. He had a grace of feature and of figure that filled me with helpless anger, because you could see with half an eye that he was perfectly worthless. Physical beauty has us all at such a disadvantage! He had a look of arrogant authority, a trick that is very easily learned—especially if your pockets are well-lined. Young as he was, his face was beginning to be marked by dissipation. One of his eyebrows was cocked a little higher than the other, which made him look as attractive as the devil, and bad clear through.
He disappeared within the flat house across the way. I was filled with excitement. Would this be the leader, the directing spirit, the master mind, that Mme. Storey was so keen about laying her hands on? Somehow I doubted that; there was no power in that handsome face. More likely a successful graduate of the academy. I was in a horrid state of indecision whether to stay at the window or go warn my mistress.
I remained where I was; and it was well that I did so; for almost immediately all three young men issued out of the house together. He with the lifted eye-brow walked in the middle with Denis and Attilio on either hand. The neophytes were regarding the finished product with respect, not to say awe. The three of them set off briskly for Pleasant Avenue.
It was of the highest importance to find out where they were going if I could. Snatching up my things, I slipped down the stairway, and out through the gate of the wagon-yard. There was no time to warn Mme. Storey then. I was close behind my three men, but on the other side of the street. I could not cross over, of course, nor appear to be hurrying unduly. From where I was I brought to bear on them whatever powers of observation my mistress has succeeded in fostering in me.
The man with the lifted eye-brow was talking animatedly to the two youngsters, but in low tones, for they held their heads close to hear. Since they were of different races, I judged he would be speaking in English; but alas! there was no chance of my overhearing a word! He was evidently instructing them; they listened like children. Fortunately for me, he had retained something of the foreign habit of gesticulation.
Pausing for a moment, he leaned over and drew the back of his hand down the seam of his trouser leg, the other two following him with eager attention. Next he threw back the lapels of his coat, and pointed to his waist line. Pausing again, he made Attilio stand back a step, and gazing at him through half-closed eyes, drew his spread hand down through the air, like a painter visualising picture. Little Denis he dismissed with a curt gesture.
At the corner they turned down town. I was now half a block behind them, and the people in front of the shops obstructed my view. To my great disappointment I saw that there was a taxi-cab waiting below the barrier where the street improvements began. They got into it, and were driven away. There was no other taxi to be had in that part of town. I had to let them go.
When I returned to our rooms I found Mme. Storey there, somewhat surprised at my absence. I described to her exactly what I had seen. She smiled to herself. She waved aside my regrets at having been prevented from following the young men farther.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "It is obvious where they have gone."
"Where?" I asked like a child.
"He is taking them to the tailors' to be measured for their new clothes."
"Why of course!"
"Say half an hour to go," she said computing to herself; "an hour to be measured; another half an hour to return. Now if Madame la Countesse will only go out as usual at this hour to do her shopping..."
"There she is," I said, pointing to where the woman was at that moment turning sideways, to lower her huge bulk carefully down the steps of the flathouse. "But why?"
"I am going over to have a look at that flat," she said.
My heart sunk like a stone.
"Oh-h!" I groaned. "Think of the danger!"
She shrugged. "The principal danger is that they take alarm too soon," she said. "I must chance that. As for myself, well, I have this."
From the battered little bag that she carried as part of her present make-up, she took an automatic pistol, and slipped it inside the stuffed out bodice of her dress. The sight of the ugly, black weapon made me feel a little sick.
"How will you get in?" I cried. "Have you got a key?"
She shook her head. "When we were in the hall of that house I took note of the lock on the door. Old-fashioned spring lock. Child's play to open, as many a sneak-thief in New York has discovered to his profit. This is the tool he uses. I've been keeping it in readiness."
From the bag again, she produced a small rectangular piece of steel so thin and lissom that it could be bent over until the ends touched.
Now I am no heroine, as those of you have read these stories must know by this time. Whenever a situation like this arises, my heart simply turns to water, and I would give a million dollars to be safe out of it. At the same time there are certain things that, afraid or not, one is forced to do.
"Well, if you're going, I'm going too," I said in a very disagreeable voice.
Mme. Storey laughed, and gave me an affectionate glance. "There is no need of it, my Bella, really."
"You will have to examine into everything," I said. "You need me to stand watch in case they return."
"I can trust my ears for that," she said. "There are two entrances to the flat."
"I don't care what you say," I said. "I'm coming."
"Very well," she said coolly. "Come ahead."
We stood at the gate of the wagon-yard until Madame in her snail-like progress had turned the corner of Pleasant Avenue. Then across the street, and into the flat house. The entrance door was never locked during the day. My poor heart was beating like a trip-hammer. Some day I shall have heart failure at such a moment, and disgrace myself eternally. Proceeding down the narrow hall, Mme. Storey rapped on the door which led into the dining-room of the flat we meant to enter.
"This is the proper procedure," she whispered to me, grinning. "A sneak-thief always knocks first."
I was in no condition to answer her grin. I stood between her and the entrance door in case anybody should enter or leave. I was straining my ears for sounds from the flat opposite. One of our greatest dangers was that the door immediately behind us might be opened at that moment.
The doors of these cheaply-built houses are always ill-fitting. That's what the sneak-thief counts on. While I made a shield for her with my body, Mme. Storey inserted her wafer of steel opposite the keyhole of the spring lock, and worked it in, pressing the lock back. In a few seconds we were inside. She softly closed the door.
Shaking like a person in an ague, at first I could see nothing.
"Take heart, Bella," she said cheerfully. "Remember, we have only to run out into the street to be safe."
The extremity of my fear passed, and I looked around me with a growing curiosity. I was astonished, I remember, to find the place so orderly. One thinks of abandoned criminals as living in filth and squalor; but this flat, while it contained nothing but the barest necessities, was a model of neatness and cleanliness.
"That's the French of it," remarked Mme. Storey.
There was a table covered with a red and white checked cloth, and half a dozen cheap wooden chairs standing about. Another plain deal table served them for a sideboard. A sewing machine under one of the two windows gave the room a homely touch. There was also a much worn arm-chair standing with its back towards the entrance to the bedroom. No pictures; no touches of ornament of any sort, it was like the eating-room in a humble estaminet.
We looked into the kitchen at the rear. The same rigorous neatness prevailed there. Nothing of interest to us in that room. On the other side of the dining-room you entered the first bedroom through an archway hung with a pair of shabby chenille portieres. This was Madame's room. To obtain a little privacy, she had hung cotton curtains around her bed in the French manner. We found nothing in that room. Next came a short hallway connecting the two bedrooms of the flat. The bathroom opened from it. Nothing for us there.
The second bedroom was evidently shared by Denis and Attilio. It had two cots. The moment we entered this room Mme Storey pointed to a great hook which had been screwed into the top of the window frame outside the sash. No comment was necessary. On the floor of the wardrobe we found lying a coil of new rope, and a pulley. Above the rope, amongst other clothes, hung the elegant grey suit that d'Escobar had worn when he came to tea with Mme. Storey. His hat was there also, and his shoes. In one of the pockets of the coat within a twist of paper, we found the ring with a turquoise scarab that I had seen upon his finger; also his gold pencil and his tortoise-shell cigarette case of the latest design.
"How methodical!" said Mme. Storey grimly.
From a drawer in the bottom of the wardrobe she presently took a sinister little object. It was a circle of steel not much thicker than a heavy wire. The ends were pulled together by a long screw which turned with a handle.
"What is that?" I gasped, though in my heart I knew already.
"One form of a garrotte," said Mme. Storey.
Before my mind's eye I could see the devilish instrument slowing drawing around the comely throat of that poor, foolish d'Escobar who had talked too much. I covered my face with my hands; but that didn't shut out the sight. Mme. Storey put the thing back.
In front of this bedroom was still another room, which would ordinarily serve as the parlour of the flat. But these people had used it as an extra bedroom. It had a window looking on the street. There were three cots placed about the walls; all neatly covered with spreads, but having no bedding beneath. Obviously this room was not being used at the present time. As I have mentioned before, it had a door leading into the public hall of the house. This door had a spring lock like the other one, also the common lock that is in every door. The key was in this lock, and it was turned. This fact afforded me no little comfort, as showing that the occupants could not come in that way, and catch us between two fires.
When Mme. Storey beheld the turned key she smiled to herself. I did not then realise what was passing through her mind.
Our tour of the flat had consumed a good bit of time, and I was getting horribly anxious about the possible return of the occupants. My mistress, absorbed in her patient investigation, was absolutely oblivious to the danger. I suggested that I had better take up my stand behind the lace curtains at the front windows; and she agreed. She went back into the rear of the flat; and for another space of time I neither saw nor heard anything of her. Finally I could bear it no longer. I softly called her back.
"Our two hours is about up," I said. "We must go!"
She said: "I'm not going, Bella." She pointed to the turned key. "I have a perfect line of retreat. The opportunity is too good to be missed. I desire to overhear their talk."
A sort of despair seized me. It was useless to attempt to argue with her. "Well, if you must, you must," I said. "I'll have to stay too."
"There's no need of that," she said. "Why, you're terrified at the mere idea."
"I know I am," I said crossly. "But if I had to sit there across the road watching for you to come out that would be worse. I couldn't stand that."
Mme. Storey being entirely unacquainted with fear, never realises what I suffer at such moments.
"Oh, all right," she said cheerfully. "Two watchers are better than one."
In due course I saw the three young men approaching on the sidewalk. As I could only see a few yards along the street, without exposing myself, they were almost at the steps.
"Here they come!" I gasped.
Mme. Storey looked over my shoulder. "The third man is Raymo Borghini," she said coolly. "One meets him everywhere. He married Mildred Winterson, daughter of the basket-machine millionaire."
We remained in the front room, taking care to unlock the door into the hall, and to catch back the spring lock, in case we had to make a quick getaway. The three young men were taking no pains to be quiet, and we could follow all their movements. They came into the bedroom to hang up their hats and coats. Ah! how my heart beat when one of them came to the very door behind which I stood! They were talking in English. Clothes was still the subject. I did not hear the voice of little Denis.
They then returned to the dining-room. Mme. Storey stole through the first bedroom, and the little hall into the second bedroom, and I followed perforce. It was their habit to leave all the doors open except the door into the front room; and this saved us a lot of trouble. We were now separated from them only by the portieres hanging in the archway. Thank God! in the actual moment of danger there is something that comes to your support. I was still afraid; but T had command of my faculties now.
It was growing dark out-of-doors, and they switched on the light in the dining-room. We could hear every word they said; and we could even catch glimpses of them as they moved back and forth in front of the narrow interstice between the portieres. There was a pause while matches were struck, and they drew deep at cigarettes. Presently the aroma came wafting through the portieres, and I heard a little sigh of desire escape my mistress. For more than two hours she had been deprived of her usual stimulus.
We had no difficulty in distinguishing between the various voices. Camagli's was a rumbling bass; Borghini's, the Americanised one, a smooth baritone with a sneer. We already knew the sound of Denis's voice; but he rarely spoke. Camagli said something in Italian, and Borghini quickly caught him up.
"Speak English! You've got to learn to think in English."
"One suit!" grumbled Camagli. "What good one suit!"
"I was only obeying instructions," said Borghini. "The Maestro wants to see how you look in it, before he put any more money into you. You're dumb, Attilio! My God! with your looks and figure you ought to rise high. You've got everything—except the trifling matter of brains."
"You order t'ree suit for Denis."
"Denis can wear clothes. It comes natural to him."
"Yah! Denis, he scare' of a shadow. He trembla if you frown."
"Well, that's up to the Maestro. What I'm trying to do is to lick you into shape...Walk across the room and back."
Camagli obeyed, presumably.
"Elbows in; chest out; head up," commanded Borghini. "Rise on the ball of your foot."
"I am doing so," growled Camagli angrily.
"Sure, you are," said Borghini sarcastically, "just as if you were pulled by strings! You've got to keep on doing it, too, until you look as if you were born to it...Denis, show the mutt how a European gentleman walks into the room."
"Show me, you," growled Camagli.
"Oh, I'm an American now," laughed Borghini. "I can do as I damn please. I've landed my fish!"
The crack of light that came between the portieres showed me the look of set, cold anger on my mistress's face.
Denis illustrated as he was bid. At that moment Camagli was standing close to the portieres with his back to us, and we heard him mutter:
"By God! I'll kill the little—!" The epithet was in Italian.
"That won't improve your style any," sneered Borghini.
Down the public hall outside, we heard approaching an unmistakable, slow pad, pad, pad. Mme. Storey and I softly retreated into the front room, closing the last door after us. We heard the old "Countess" enter the dining-room, and address the young men complainingly.
Her voice was as hoarse as a man's. She then entered her own room. After a while we heard her go back and join in the conversation. We waited a moment or two, then stole back to our former post of observation.
She had seated herself in the shabby arm-chair, which, as I have said, was a little to one side, and immediately in front of the curtained archway. By peeping sideways through the crack between the portieres I could just see the coil of greasy hair on top of her head which was still as black as a raven's wing; also one shapeless forearm, and puffy hand. She was busy with something that I could not quite follow. I heard a click as of an opening box; the hand appeared outstretched with a flicking movement; then she sniffed loudly, and the box snapped shut. I did not get it until in dumb-play, Mme. Storey illustrated to me the act of taking snuff.
The old woman was sitting there, grumbling away in French. The young men paid no attention to her. The lesson was still going on. Borghini was making Camagli take a cigarette and go through the motions of lighting it over and over. Borghini said:
"As soon as you do it right you can have the Spaniard's tortoiseshell case for your own."
As he said that it happened that Denis was just in line with my vision through the crack, and I saw an involuntary spasm of horror pass over the white face. I shivered too.
The old woman, angered at being ignored, raised her voice, and Borghini barked at her over his shoulder:
"Aah! you know that Attilio and I can't speak your lingo. If you want to be answered, speak English!"
She did not, however, repeat what she had been saying. She took snuff again.
"Now come on," said Borghini, in the voice of a snappy college coach; "make out that the Countess is a rich American dame who has asked you to dinner. Come in from the kitchen, and pay your respects."
Camagli proceeded to obey. As he crossed the dining-room Borghini warned him:
"Mind! No matter how many people there are in the room, you must keep your eyes on her!"
I could only see the end of this performance; that is, where he bent from the waist to kiss the bloated hand that was extended from the easy chair. I was astonished to see how well he did it. He was probably only of peasant stock. He was no more than four feet from me, and for the first time I realised how good looking he was in his swarthy, insolent fashion. From a purely animal standpoint, he was the handsomest of them all. I was appalled to think of the harm he might work.
Borghini was not satisfied. "Denis, show him how," he said.
If I thought Camagli did it well, when Denis did it I saw the real thing. He kissed that unpleasant-looking paw with a reverential air that was irresistible. He must have had good blood. Certainly his father and his grandfather had been doing that before him.
"You'll never be able to do it like that," said Borghini to Camagli, "but you can keep on trying."
"Ah well, Denis, he is Franche," rumbled the old woman. "Dere ees no lovairs anywhere lak de Franchmens."
Borghini made a coarse rejoinder that I need not repeat. "Denis has style," he added, "but he's got no more spirit than a louse."
"Ah, well," said the Countess, taking snuff, "dere ees all kin' reech girls, too. When le Maestro fin' nice, sof' gentle lil girl, it will be Denis's turn."
Camagli was obliged to repeat the hand-kissing performance. Borghini planted himself astride a chair with his arms resting on the back, and exhorted them from the heights of his superior experience.
"You fellows ought to be damned glad to work like hell for a few months. It means a palace on Easy Street for the rest of your lives. After you catch your bird you don't have to keep up this foolishness. You can let yourself go. Never forget how lucky you are that the Maestro's eye fell on you. He does all the real brain work. Nothing is required from you but a little high-class comedy. You can depend on the Maestro. He's no piker. Nothing less than eight figures attracts him. Eight figures; do you get it? And dollars at that. I couldn't do the sum in lire or francs. Look at Albert Fleury. He's the lucky dog. Booked for Rody's widow. But there are plenty of others.
"These girls get the bit between their teeth early. They've already got the old man well broke before we come along. So everything is right for us. They get the mon' out of the old man, and we get it out of them, see? I can give you plenty of points how to make your wife fork out. They take this hand kissing business seriously; they think we're going to keep it up. Oh Gee! it makes me laugh to think of the surprise that is waiting for them. They don't understand us Europeans; they think we're soft-headed, and easy led by the nose like their own men. Whenever you get sick of kissing their hands, remember, your time is coming. Some of them have got spirit, of course. They'll kick you out. But that's all right. You can make it cost them a hell of a good price to get rid of you; and if there's been no public scandal, the Maestro will put you on to something new.
"All you fellows have got to do is to stick to the Maestro. He's a great man. Lie back on him; he'll run your show for you. Could you ask more? But never, never allow yourselves to think that you can get along without him. His arm can reach right around the world. You saw what he did to d'Escobar last week. And you know what happened to Arpad Rody a few days before that. Rody, the poor fool, was so swollen up with having married the Harker billions that he dared to hold out on the man who had gotten it all for him. Well, pow! Rody got a bullet through the brain, and that was the end of him...!"
I glanced at my mistress marvelling for the hundredth time at the unerring intuition which guides her. Leaving police, public and press to mill around in a futile circle unable to decide whether Van Sicklen Harker or Cornelia had shot Arpad Rody, she had struck off alone on the true course.
Borghini continued in the same vein, but furnished us with no further information of first-rate importance. While he talked, and Mme. Storey watched him with a stern set face, I saw her unconsciously fingering the place in her bodice under which the pistol lay. Involuntarily the thought had come into her mind that was in my own: What a deed of righteousness it would be to shoot down this conscienceless young scoundrel.
Finally Borghini resumed the lesson. He said to Camagli: "Make out that Denis is the girl you have been told to take down to dinner. Bring her to the table...Don't poke your elbow at her like a gowk. Just have your arm ready in case she wants to take it...Beside your plate you'll find four or five knives and as many forks according to the number of courses that are to be served. Leave them lay; that's all you got to do. They're fixed especially for boobs like you. You can't go wrong if you take the outside one each time. The littlest knife is the butter spreader..."
At intervals throughout this scene, the old woman in front of us had been taking snuff. Each time she helped herself to a pinch, she flicked the surplus powder off her thumb nail on the air. I was so absorbed in the scene, that the possible effect on myself never occurred to me until I felt the sneeze coming between my eyes.
Oh, Heaven! A sneeze is supposed to be a comic performance; but I assure you that was the most dreadful moment in my whole life! That sneeze came upon me as relentless as doom!
I turned and fled from the portieres. Mme. Storey must have thought I was crazy. I got across the first room, and through the little hall. In the second bedroom, as I reached for the handle of the door into the parlour, it overtook me. I buried my face in my arm, but the sneeze broke through with a roar. I have never sneezed like that before or since.
In an instant Mme. Storey was at my side. We heard a chair overturn in the dining-room, and the sound of running feet. We got into the parlour. The door into the public hall was unlocked; but it had not been opened for some time; and it stuck. Oh, the agony of that moment! By the time we got it open, Camagli had run through the public hall, and we found him facing us. He charged blindly through the door, forcing us both back, and kicked the door shut behind him. At the same moment I was struck over the head from behind.
All the strength ran out of my limbs like water; and I sank to the ground. I was not completely unconscious; for I was aware that somebody had turned on the light. And I could still hear the sounds of the struggle; but no cries, only a strident, furious whispering. I heard one man gasp out: "Madame Storey!" I, myself, was desperately striving to cry out, but I had no power over my tongue. That nightmare horror of being unable to make a sound is the last thing I remember. Everything turned black.
I came drifting back to consciousness in the same manner that I had drifted away. First I was merely aware of being; then I heard a droning sound that resolved itself into a murmur of voices; then I opened my eyes and beheld the light. I found myself sitting in a chair. The first object that resolved itself out of the general haze was the figure of Mme. Storey seated in another chair beside me. Her eyes were fixed upon me, big with concern. When they met my eyes they smiled wonderfully; but she had a handkerchief over her mouth. For a moment my poor, confused wits puzzled over that, then full consciousness returned with a jerk.
It was an awakening to despair; for I perceived that my mistress was tied to the back and to the legs of the chair in which she sat; and the handkerchief was a gag. She had lost the sandy wig and the little black bonnet, and her own shining dark hair had shaken down about her head. Mme. Storey bound and helpless! My world was in ruins. To be sure, I was in the same condition; but that seemed to be a matter of small moment. That one so glorious as she should be at the mercy of this scum of humanity, was to me an outrage too great to be borne. Yet her eyes were calm and clear; there was even a hint of amusement in them.
I had the dreadful feeling that I was responsible for her plight. Had she been alone, she could no doubt have escaped; but she could not leave me behind. Somewhere in that populous house I heard a door slam. How sharp the pain of the realisation that the ordinary life of New York was going on all about us, while we lay there helpless. In my agony of mind I groaned under the gag, and strained at the ropes that bound me. Borghini cursed me under his breath. I cared nothing for that; but Mme. Storey warned me with her eyes to be silent; and I obeyed her.
The four members of the gang were sitting around one side of the table, all facing us at a distance of ten or twelve feet. The obese Frenchwoman was planted in her chair like a shapeless sack of flesh. A bottle of cognac, and Mme. Storey's pistol lay on the table before her. The three young men leaned across with their heads close, whispering together, and darting furtive looks of terror at Mme. Storey's proud head. However little Denis may have been disposed towards us and towards them in the beginning, terror had driven him back into their arms. He was one with them now.
It was no satisfaction to me to see that they were terrified of my mistress even bound as she was. They had caught more than they bargained for; they were paralysed by the magnitude of the situation; they did not know what to do. But I knew only too well, that a frightened man is more dangerous than an angry one. There lay the loaded pistol on the table; and how easy to solve an impossible situation with a bullet! At any moment I expected to see one of the men snatch it up. I gave up hope.
How terrible it was to see them discussing our fate, and not to be able to follow the discussion. I knew they must be talking English, for it was the only language common to the four of them. At first all that was plain was that they could not agree. Borghini argued in vain. He had lost his ascendancy over Camagli. That man's furious brutality now showed forth without disguise. And Denis in the extremity of his terror seemed to side with him. The woman said little. She was the least afraid of the quartette. She had more than one pull at the bottle, and her drunken eyes fixed themselves on Mme. Storey, stupid with hate.
Finally they began to quarrel, and their voices rose. "La garrotte!" said the old woman in her hoarse, guttural voice.
"Denis, bring me la garrotte! It ees the only way!"
Denis, however, made no move.
"No, by God!" said Borghini, banging the table. (He evidently wished us to hear this.) "I've kept clear of murder up to now, and I've no desire to feel an electrode on the back of my neck!"
"Yah!" snarled Camagli, threatening him with his fist. "I'll kill you too! You t'ink you get out of it, eh? You t'ink you leave us to pay!"
Borghini sprang up and away from the man. He was yellow with fright.
"You fool!" he snarled, "if we get to fighting amongst ourselves, she'll escape!"
"La garrotte!" repeated the old woman stupidly.
"Oh, for God's sake!" cried Borghini. "She wouldn't have ventured in without support. She may have twenty men concealed in the street."
The woman shrugged ponderously.
"Then we hang any'ow," she said. "I keel her first."
"This is not a question for any of us to decide!" cried Borghini. Bethinking himself of prudence, he went around the table, and whispered in the old woman's ear. This time I was able to read his lips. He said: "The Maestro must know."
"Who's to tell him?" she asked.
"I will. I'll telephone."
Like a cat, Camagli sprang between Borghini and the door. "Non! Non! Non!" he said, showing his teeth like an animal; and wagging his uplifted palm back and forth. "If de police is dere, he bring him in to save his own skin! I will go. I am true!"
Borghini affected to shrug. He scribbled what I suppose was a telephone number on a scrap of paper; and handed it over to Camagli. Glancing at his wrist watch, Borghini addressed Camagli in Italian; but the old woman pounded the bottle and commanded him to speak English.
"He'll be at home," said Borghini. "At this hour he is dressing for dinner. You had better hang about our steps for a bit, to see if you are watched. Walk up and down the street. Stand in front of our window, and make out you're giving a signal to somebody inside. Then if you're not interfered with you may know there's nobody on watch. Telephone from the booth in the drug-store. Don't give anything away over the telephone. Just tell him we've got the Bird of Paradise and her partner caged here; and what's to be done with them."
"When you come back," put in the old woman with a truly hideous smile. "Buy a basket, wid a covaire and steal two paving-stones. We will need dem tonight."
Camagli fetched his hat and coat and went out. Borghini, biting his fingers in suspense, brushed past me, and went on through to the front of the flat. I supposed that he had gone to watch what became of the other. He remained away. That left the Frenchwoman and Denis facing us. The woman took a pull at the bottle, and undertook to feed her hatred by taunting my mistress. She spoke in English. I shall not repeat her foul and stupid words. Mme. Storey was oblivious to them.
Failing to obtain any satisfaction, the old woman fell silent, and thenceforward devoted herself to the bottle. We were all silent; and in that silence a strange little drama acted itself out. The woman was too drunk by now to perceive what was going on under her nose. I, of course, was always watching my mistress. Being alongside of her I could not see directly into her face, but I could see that her gaze was fixed unwaveringly on Denis. In Denis's eyes I read her purpose by reflection.
The boy sat in a huddle at the table on the old woman's right, looking even younger than he was; looking like a child sunk in misery. The extremity of terror that he had been through had left him mute and apathetic. For a time he refused to meet Mme. Storey's gaze, though the very turn of his averted head betrayed that he was electrically conscious of it. But at last by a power stronger than his own will, his miserable, lustreless, child's eyes were dragged around to hers. In his shame he made them look stupid and hard. He quickly lowered them.
But they came back to her, they had to come back, and the expression subtly changed. Fear sprang up in them; a wild, panic terror. He looked away quickly, his face worked, he even made as if to get up and leave the room, but dropped back in his chair as if he had been pulled down. He looked at her again, terrified imploring, helpless. He seemed half out of his wits. Perfect silence in the room, and those eyes crying out: I cannot do it! Don't ask it of me! I cannot! I cannot! I cannot! One held one's breath in the presence of that struggle going on in the boy's soul. Not a muscle of Mme. Storey's face changed. I could just see the side of her full, bright eye, fixed so gravely on the boy.
Another change took place in his eyes. The panic died away. A self-forgetful look appeared there that made his eyes beautiful; a look of rapt devotion. The struggle was over. They lifted and clung to my mistress's eyes like a dog's. And as they clung there, the final change appeared. One saw resolution grow in their depths like the starting of a fire. The whole pale face hardened and became manly. All this happened in a minute or two, of course. Denis jumped up all of a piece and snatched up the gun from in front of the old woman.
Suddenly made aware of her helplessness, a look of drunken terror appeared in the Frenchwoman's slack face. She struggled to her feet, but had not the strength to leave the support of her chair. "Raymo! Raymo!" she cried hoarsely and breathlessly.
Having got the gun in his hands, Denis for a moment appeared to be at a loss what to do with it. But in the same instant Mme. Storey's hands appeared as if by magic from behind her. While sitting there before their very eyes she had succeeded in freeing the upper part of her body.
"Give me the gun," she said crisply to Denis in French. "Quick! fetch a knife to cut my legs free."
She stood up. Thus when Borghini came tumbling through the portieres it was to find the blunt barrel of the automatic almost sticking in his face. He caught his breath in a loud sob, and went staggering back against the door into the hall. His eyes were crazed.
"Stand where you are!" said Mme. Storey. And to the woman: "Sit down! If either of you move without permission I will shoot. After what I have heard here I would be glad of the excuse to shoot."
Denis meanwhile had brought a wicked-looking bread knife, with which he proceeded to cut the ropes that bound her legs. Both Borghini and the old woman glared at the lad with inhuman venomous hatred. My mistress stepped clear of the chair, stamping her feet to restore the circulation. Mme. Storey was herself again. Her eyes were as bright as stars. As always at moments of deadly tension, a little smile played about her lips. Denis transferred his attentions to me.
"Cut the rope as little as possible," said Mme. Storey. "I have further need of it."
When Denis was done, Mme. Storey possessed herself of the knife. The old woman began to vituperate the lad in her slow and heavy fashion. I could not understand a word of it, but it was clear her wicked tongue was distilling poison. Denis flinched from it. Mme. Storey, glancing sideways at him, made up her mind. When I stood free she said to Borghini:
"Hold your hands above your head."
To me, she added: "Feel of his pockets to see if he has a weapon."
It was an ordeal for me to have to put my hands on him. I kept my face averted. I could feel hatred coming out of him as in waves. But he dared not move. He was not armed.
"Now, Bella," said Mme. Storey, "go to the top drawer of the woman's bureau, and arm yourself with her gun. It is the only one in the house."
I obeyed. The gun was about as much use to me as to a young child; but they did not know that.
Borghini was forced to sit in a chair, where I bound him fast to the back and to the legs, making very sure there could be no slip. While I was so engaged, he whined to Mme. Storey for mercy.
"I was on your side from the start. I leave it to your friend here if I wasn't trying to save you. If it hadn't been for me you'd be dead by now."
Mme. Storey smiled at him in a steely fashion. She helped herself to a cigarette from the mantelpiece, and blew a cloud of smoke with manifest enjoyment.
I gagged the man also; and then by Mme. Storey's orders, Denis and I dragged him chair and all into the kitchen out of sight. We likewise tied the old woman to her chair, but the ropes were hidden under the table. Denis's eyes were continually on the door into the hall, full of dread at the imminent return of Camagli. The poor kid was shaking. Mme. Storey flung an arm around his shoulders.
"Courage, mon brave!" said she. "You are my man now. It is impossible that you should fail me!"
The boy lifted his eyes to her with a rapt look, and snatching up her hand pressed it to his lips. There was no art in that gesture.
As for me, strange to say, I was not frightened at that moment. I did not feel anything in particular. I was like an automatic woman moving this way and that under the direction of my mistress's glance.
She bade me sit down exactly as I had been sitting in the first place, with my hands behind me as if they were tied to the back of the chair, and my legs pressed close to the rounds. She said "He will not notice in the first instant that the ropes are gone."
She tied a handkerchief loosely over my mouth, and, gagging herself in the same manner, sat down beside me as at first. She, however, kept her right hand out to cover the woman with the gun. She said to the woman:
"If you attempt to warn him I will shoot."
Finally we heard Camagli's firm tread coming along the hall. Mme. Storey whispered encouragement to Denis in French. At the same time she raised the gun and sighted along the barrel. The Frenchwoman closed her eyes as if in sudden faintness. It appeared that that great jellyfish knew the meaning of fear, too. Camagli tapped on the door in a particular way, and softly spoke his name.
Denis opened the door and Camagli stepped in. At first glance, of course, except for the absence of Borghini, the room appeared exactly as he had left it. He spoke out without hesitation:
"He come right away. Ten minute. He say put a white cloth on the front window-sill if all is safe for him to come in."
Mme. Storey stood up.
"Thanks," she drawled. "That was what I wanted."
Camagli spun around on his heel. In him Mme. Storey had very different material from Borghini to deal with and she knew it. He was as lightning-quick as a wild animal. He sprang at her regardless of the gun. Giving ground a little she dropped the gun, and whipping out the bread-knife, caught him full on the point. The knife drove clear through his body, entering in the fleshy hollow between shoulder and breast.
He whirled around like a tee-totum, his face convulsed in a horrible expression of shock, while he dragged at the handle of the knife. He got it out and flung it crimson and dripping across the room. Then he toppled over sideways with a crash. A long-drawn groan escaped him. I handed the gun back to my mistress.
She stood looking down at him coldly. She said:
"I could not take the risk of rousing the neighbourhood with a shot. He is nothing. It is he who is coming that I want...Help me to take him into the kitchen, Bella."
Denis was sent into the front room to display a white cloth on the window-sill. In the kitchen Mme. Storey deftly cut away the wounded man's clothing and improvised a bandage out of a clean towel, which we scorched on top of the stove in the approved manner.
He was bleeding profusely, but it was not a dangerous wound. Throughout the operation he glared at us with his soulless, animal eyes, without making a sound. Close beside us in the narrow room sat Borghini, bound and gagged, and in a state of collapse through sheer funk. We had to work swiftly. It was necessary as a matter of precaution to bind Camagli's uninjured arm behind his back, to tie his ankles together, and to gag him.
When we got back to the dining-room, Denis was in a pitiable state.
"I cannot face him!" he gasped out. "Not him!"
Mme. Storey gripped his shoulder.
"Denis," she said, "I must have you to open the door for him. The instant the door is opened you may slip out, and go telephone the police." She wrote down Inspector Rumsey's telephone number. "And, Denis," she added kindly, "do not come back here; I don't want to have to hand you over. Go to my office and wait for me."
"But you? But you?" stammered the boy.
"Oh, we shall be all right," she answered, smiling broadly. "I have taken his measure."
Turning his back on us, Denis leaned his arms against the wall and buried his face in them, struggling to get a grip on himself.
Then we had nothing to do but wait. Ah! that is shattering to the stoutest nerves. I began to tremble all over. When I thought of the crimes of this man we were waiting for, he swelled up in my imagination like a nightmare creature. Hysteria gripped my throat. I dug my nails into my palms. Mme. Storey lit another cigarette, humming a little tune.
We heard a soft, heavy tread come down the hall, and little Denis tamed a ghastly face.
He tapped on the door in the same manner that Camagli had tapped, but did not speak. Denis opened the door and he stepped in. Denis disappeared without my seeing him go. Mme. Storey and I had drawn back against the portieres that the man might not see us too soon. Thus he presented his back to us. A dignified figure and elegantly dressed. There was something familiar about that back. Still, I did not recognise him immediately. Mme. Storey did.
"Good-evening, Mr. Bleecker," she said musically. "What a charming surprise to find you here!"
He turned around.
An hour later, Mme. Storey and I were sitting in Inspector Rumsey's office at Police Headquarters, our four prisoners safely disposed in cells. Ah! how good it was to find oneself in that ugly, garishly-lighted room, surrounded by muscular blue-coats. Safe! Safe! Safe! I could not get over it. My mistress in a scarlet evening dress with a sable wrap about her shoulders was recklessly smoking one cigarette after another. What a contrast between that picture and the one she had made an hour before in the sordid flat on East Seventy-__ street!
"Well, what are the main lines of your case?" asked the Inspector, rubbing his hands together in high satisfaction.
"You have already guessed a good part of it," said Mme. Storey. "Here was Algernon Bleecker, an impoverished man with the most expensive and luxurious tastes, and no moral sense whatever. His one asset consisted in his social connections which were of the very highest sort. He has acted for years as a sort of steerer in society for the fabulously rich, but that didn't provide scope enough for his talents. He found his opportunity in the general laxity amongst the rich since the war. Why, nowadays, our rich youngsters get married as carelessly as they go to dinner!
"Bleecker, with characteristic acuteness, perceived that the foreign nobleman had had his day. The comic strips have made him ridiculous. So he conceived the new idea of importing handsome foreign youngsters. He was perfectly indifferent to their social status so long as they were good-looking. But they had to be poor and obscure, so that he might obtain a complete ascendency over them. He frequented the worst quarters of European cities, looking for suitable subjects. When he got them here he had them put through a course of training according to their needs.
"I don't know how long he's been at it. It would be better not to inquire. It worked like a charm. Apparently he has met with no check whatever until the past week or two. The extreme good-looks of the young men, their foreignness, their beautiful manners, rendered them highly romantic figures in the eyes of our hothouse girls. If the full truth of Bleecker's operations became known it might bring about a social cataclysm. We must suppress it so far as we are able.
"I charge Bleecker with the murder of Pedro d'Escobar. His motive was the anger or fear induced by learning that d'Escobar had talked imprudently to me. All the evidence is in your hands. Moreover, Denis de Cachebois, who witnessed the murder, will take the stand for the State. It was a remark that I overheard Borghini make to-night that informed me Bleecker had himself killed d'Escobar. I was not surprised, because the first time Bleecker approached me I apprehended that there existed under that smooth, effeminate, luxurious exterior, an insane streak of cruelty. Bleecker enjoyed committing those two murders. And how many others I don't know..."
">Two murders?" interrupted the Inspector.
"Yes. I also charge him with the murder of Arpad Rody."
"What!" cried Inspector Rumsey.
"Ah," said Madame Storey smiling, "you gentlemen of the force have not displayed your usual perspicacity in respect to that case. It was evident to me from the beginning that neither Van Sicklen Harker nor his daughter could have fired the shot that killed Rody. Otherwise the maid must have heard it, not to speak of others in the hotel. It struck me as strange, too, that they all went into the bedroom of the suite for their conference about the money settlement. The reason given was that the maid might not overhear; but if you will examine the plan of the suite you will see that there were the same number of doors between sitting-room and bedroom as there was between bedroom and bedroom: i.e. two. If they didn't want the maid to overhear, why didn't they send her out of the suite altogether? Arpad Rody had some other reason for leading them into the bedroom.
"What reason could he have had? A friend concealed in the bedroom perhaps to overhear all that passed? Where could such a man have been concealed? In the clothes-closet near the head of the bed. As soon as I examined the bedroom I discovered why no shot had been heard. Rody had first been rendered unconscious by a blow on the head, his body then laid on the bed and the gun pressed to his temple, covered by a pillow. How did I discover this? The pillow had been tossed back to its usual place at the head of the bed. Them were no burns upon the pillow-case. The murderer had provided against this by placing something—let us say his handkerchief, between. But several hours after the murder one of the pillows in the room, and only one, was still strongly impregnated with the odour of gunpowder.
"You, and everybody else engaged on the case, believed that Van Sicklen Harker was lying when he gave his second version of what had happened; but from this point I preferred to go upon the assumption that he had told the simple truth. What then had happened after Harker had rushed from the suite in a distracted state, after signing the settlement? Rody's friend or partner had stepped out of his hiding-place, they had quarrelled over the division of the spoils, whereupon the unknown man had snatched up Harker's gun, struck Rody over the head with it, and afterwards shot him in the manner I have described. He tossed the pistol out of the window and made his escape. The certain finding of the pistol gave him no concern since he knew it was Harker's.
"That was as far as I got then. The murderer was unknown to me. But in d'Escobar's unwitting disclosures about the American who picked up likely lads in Europe and brought them over here to get them rich American wives, I got my clue. When d'Escobar was murdered next day I knew that in his murderer I would lay my hands on the murderer of Arpad Rody. And so it happened. From Borghini's lips to-night as we were hidden we heard the proof of it. Bleecker was concealed in that room in order to advise Rody how to proceed in his negotiations with Harker. Perhaps they had arranged a code of signals. We will find, I believe, that Bleecker had engaged a room on the same corridor, to be used while Bleecker was in the clothes closet. At any rate, after he had got the best of Harker, Rody, flushed with triumph, thought he could get the best of his master, too. He undertook to turn Bleecker down and Bleecker killed him."
The Inspector shot forth his hand.
"Magnificent!" he cried. "You have never done a finer piece of work!"
"Nonsense!" cried Mme. Storey, rising. "I'm glad we got him though! You should have seen his face when he turned round and saw us! That was worth a year's income!...And now Bella and I must get our dinners! See you to-morrow!"
As we drove up-town I said: "You knew it was Bleecker before he came through the door?"
She admitted it.
"How did you know?" I asked.
"Oh, by a dozen indications, trifling in themselves to take into court. The murder was written in his eyes. I knew, and he knew that I knew, but he didn't think I could bring it home to him."
Everybody knows the result. Since Denis was ready to testify for the prosecution, Bleecker was tried first for the murder of d'Escobar. If he had by any fluke escaped, the State was ready to proceed with the other case. But he was convicted, and in due course executed. The Countess (who by the way was a genuine Countess, a de Courcy), and Attilio Camagli set up the defence that they had acted under duress, and they got off with verdicts of manslaughter. They are serving long terms. According to Denis's story on the stand, he had no hand in the actual murder. Whether this was true or not I can't say. At any rate the State was satisfied with having him deported to France. I for one was glad of it.
Raymo Borghini was never tried at all. He was not present at the murder, and it was thought better not to bring any charge of conspiracy against him. Shortly afterwards his rich wife obtained a French divorce, and he disappeared from the American scene, as did likewise the handsome Albert Fleury, late of the New York Universe. No actual connection was proved to exist between Bleecker and John Jerrold, but the disclosures at the trial ruined Jerrold just the same. He, too, left our shores. People speak of meeting him wandering about Paris a miserable creature.
A complete reconciliation took place between Van Sicklen Harker and Cornelia, and they sailed away together for their delayed tour of the world. I have never seen little Cornelia since; but I do hope that this experience knocked some sense into her pretty head. She has since, as all the world knows, married an upstanding young Anglo-Saxon, and they appear to be happy.
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