an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Leathermouth’s Luck
Author: Carlton Dawe
eBook No.: 2300291h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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Chapter 1. - By Appointment
Chapter 2. - Royalty In Undress
Chapter 3. - The King Laughs
Chapter 4. - A Startling Incident
Chapter 5. - A Late Visitor
Chapter 6. - His Majesty Makes A Bank
Chapter 7. - A Fair Penitent
Chapter 8. - Her Majesty Desires
Chapter 9. - The Woman Of Many Sorrows
Chapter 10. - The King Sobs
Chapter 11. - Baron Von Lindner
Chapter 12. - The Coming Of The Queen
Chapter 13. - The King Grows Restless
Chapter 14. - The King Does Not Come Back
Chapter 15. - Spinning The Web
Chapter 16. - Taxi-Cab ZL9763
Chapter 17. - The King Is Crowned
Chapter 18. - After All . . .
Chapter 19. - King And Queen
Chapter 20. - Von Lindner Goes Out
Chapter 21. - The King Packs Up
BURR-BURR went the telephone just as I had sunk into an easy chair to enjoy my after breakfast pipe. Sometimes I think that ingenious machine takes a more than human delight in annoying us. I know it frequently irritated me with its shrill insistence, and set the mind wondering what impish trick it might be up to now, what tale it had to tell. Though I refused to answer, my man Albert Floyd was quickly in attendance.
“Yes,” I heard him say. “Very well, sir, thank you. Will you please hold the line a moment?” He turned to me with a smile. “Mr. Mayford would like to speak to you, sir.”
Mr. Mayford ringing up at such an early hour meant important business, hence Albert’s smile. To him Mr. Mayford and trouble of an interesting nature were synonymous terms. Throwing aside the morning paper, I dragged myself out of the chair.
“Well, nuisance?” I began. In this facetious manner we invariably greeted each other over the wire.
“Sorry to drag you out of bed, but when you’re shaved—have you ever realised what a terrible ruffian you look when you’re not?—just buzz round like a good lad.”
“Why should I?”
“And look your prettiest,” he chuckled. “You’d better get Albert to wield the razor.”
“When did you ever see me unshaven?”
“In my dreams,” he replied. “Horrible!”
As I began to expostulate, the machine clicked.
Assistant-Commissioner George Mayford received me in his office at the Yard with a broad grin and a cloud of noxious cigar smoke. I coughed and looked at the closed window. His grin broadened. He went through the customary formality of opening a drawer in his desk and producing the cigar-box, which he pushed towards me. I responded with a shuddering negative. George’s cigars! Poison! He was a large, red-faced man with heavy ginger eyebrows, which he had an unpleasant habit of projecting. He was projecting them now as he looked at me across the desk, though his eyes were twinkling.
“How would you like to look after a King?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I assured him.
“This one is by way of being interesting.”
“To the Government.”
“Who is he?”
“Paul of Istania.”
Paul of Istania! Who hadn’t heard of him and his many escapades, chiefly amorous? Europe had rung with them, and from what I could gather was likely to continue ringing for some time to come. It is true he was known to protest that he was a much maligned man, one of those unfortunate beings who are always grossly misrepresented and continually misunderstood. Unhappily no one believed him. Certain of his actions were apparently beyond excuse or contradiction. Everybody had grown tired of him, with the possible exception of his immediate entourage; in writing of him not a few papers temporarily forgot the deference due to his exalted rank. Rumours of imminent revolution were frequent in his kingdom, and of abdication almost as many. But Paul was not of the abdicating kind, especially while the army remained loyal, and of its loyalty there could be no question. He saw to that, filling all high offices in both army and government with his closest friends. The peasantry might grumble and threaten, but bayonets, armoured cars and machine guns are not lightly to be ignored. Sporadic uprisings were relentlessly crushed in the true Balkan manner.
Yet in spite of certain moral lapses the man was not without his points, or so it was said. He was not by disposition ill-natured or tyrannous, unless thwarted; in fact, quite a genial person in his way, careless, happy-go-lucky, impervious to censure, or professing to be. He knew the world thought little of him either as man or monarch, but probably slept none the less soundly on that account. Possibly there was some saving grace in him, which his friends found no difficulty in discovering.
“At present he’s staying incog. at Fallington’s,” George continued. The hotel of that name was much patronised by distinguished visitors.
“And wants someone to look after him?” I asked.
“It is suggested by the Foreign Office.”
“Then why not detail one of your smart young men?”
“Who so smart as you?” he gurgled. “But, seriously, this is not exactly a policeman’s job. Someone just a little different is required; someone with grace, charm, and infinite tact. That’s why the Chief suggested you.”
“Very kind of him.”
“I don’t mind telling you that we would rather our dear Paul had not honoured us with this visit, and should be infinitely relieved to hear of his departure, but he seems inclined to remain among us for some time to come.”
“What’s the objection?”
“The F.O. seems to think there’s one or two. Rumours of trouble in Istania are rife.”
“They have always been.”
“Exactly. On the possibility that there may be something in them we would rather not become embroiled. Our present policy is one of peace and goodwill to all mankind, with an especial tender solicitude for all those who hate us and spitefully ill-use us.”
“We are a Christian people,” I murmured.
“And strictly moral.”
“So that’s it?”
“In a way. When our illustrious visitor decided to visit our hospitable shores, he also insisted on bringing his friend Madame Karlin with him.” I nodded. “You don’t seem to regard that as a peculiarly heinous offence? I never expected you would. But there’s more to come; his wife is also here.”
“Called by some the ‘Woman of Many Sorrows.’ As you know, she’s related to… Needless to say, Paul is not favourably regarded in that quarter.”
“The Woman of Many Sorrows seems to be slightly indiscreet.”
“That’s nothing to do with us,” he said.
“But not too pleasant for her.”
“To you, I suppose, this affair is nothing but a common domestic estrangement between husband and wife?”
“What more can you make of it?”
“There are possible repercussions. Madame Karlin is known to have a husband who does not appreciate the honour conferred on him by his King.”
“Apparently. Anyway, he appears to be disaffected; chucked his commission in the army, and seems to have cultivated a taste for potent liquors and bad companions.”
“Bad according to St. Paul?”
“Which may explain the dread of those possible repercussions. We don’t want anything to happen here.”
“Not that I know of at present. But there are a few disaffected Istanians in London, political exiles to whom, as a free people, we are delighted to offer sanctuary.”
“And you think they are likely to abuse our hospitality?”
“We hope not; in fact, I don’t think they will. But there’s no forecasting the trend of political fanaticism. Paul is intensely hated by certain of his subjects, who would not hesitate to get rid of him if the chance came along. Our job is to see that it doesn’t if we can possibly help it. Anything else you’d like to know?”
“I’m not interested.”
“But you may be after you’ve seen him.”
“Then I am to see him?”
“Your appointment is for five sharp.”
“You know, George—”
“Yes, I know, so you can spare the bouquets. Whom else could I send? Didn’t I tell you this was no policeman’s job? What’s required here is tact, delicacy, discretion, and intelligence of a very high order.” He grinned offensively. “He has been duly informed of your many accomplishments and is exceedingly anxious to meet you. Indeed, seems already to have heard of you, or thought he had, but wasn’t quite sure. However, I have been careful to apprise him of your innumerable merits.”
“How long has he been here?”
“And only now”
“It was only this morning that I rang him up.”
“Then you haven’t seen him?”
“I have appointed you my deputy; that’s sufficient. Don’t forget; five sharp, and don’t keep royalty waiting. Now you can buzz off; I’ve got to work for my living.”
Nor could I get any further information from him. All I had to do was to buzz round to Fallington’s, present my card, and wait patiently on the doormat. Not that George put it like this. But it was thus I was inclined to imagine things, and already had a grievance against majesty.
Though I had for some time severed my official connection with George’s department, he frequently made use of my services, I not being averse to a little excitement now and again. One of these days I hoped to marry, settle down to a quiet country life at my old place in Sussex, and cultivate my garden in the approved manner. Unhappily that halcyon period still seemed a long way off.
I was not a little curious as to the particular duty, or duties, Paul would expect of me, but if merely acting as his shadow was to be one of them, we were not likely to come to a satisfactory arrangement. Of this George would be quite aware. Hence his insistence that this was not an ordinary policeman’s job.
In certain small East European states political differences were a constant source of apprehension to the Great Powers. At any moment a spark might kindle a flame which, roaring westward, would involve the world. And Istania was one of such states, chiefly by reason of Paul’s private excesses and the sweeping away of natural racial boundaries by the Versailles Treaty. In the hands of a steady ruler Istania might have prospered. But Paul was not a steady ruler; on the contrary, a most unsteady one. As a private person he doubtless would have been extremely popular, though as a monarch he left much to be desired. This Karlin affair had done him immeasurable harm. He flaunted his choice before the world with a contempt for public opinion which clearly suggested one of two things: either that he didn’t care for public opinion, or that he believed himself to be above it.
Then there was his wife, who had been called The Woman of Many Sorrows. As a rule the world is not interested in private or domestic sorrows, but Nardia’s had achieved as much publicity as the love affairs of a film star. She was supposed to have borne her lord’s transgressions with both dignity and restraint until he openly consorted with Madame Karlin. Then the queen remembered that she was also a woman and a wife.
Returning to my rooms in Cork Street, I was greeted by Albert Floyd with his customary questioning look. It was always thus with him on my return from a sudden call to Scotland Yard. In his opinion Assistant-Commissioner Mayford was a priceless trouble-finder, especially for us; such trouble, by the way, being for him an agreeable relaxation from dull domestic duties. Albert was one of those strange persons who have an insatiable zest for adventure, being in this respect the antithesis of me, who sighed for the unity of the world and the brotherhood of man, though having little faith in either.
“Know much about kings, Albert?” I flung at him casually.
“Not from personal contact, sir.”
“Ever heard of Paul of Istania?” was my next question.
“Yes, sir, often.”
“I suppose I needn’t ask what you’ve heard?”
“The papers keep us well-informed, sir.”
“There seems to be a possibility of trouble,” I continued with my usual assumption of indifference, which I knew did not deceive him.
“There always is when a woman comes in,” was his reply.
“You will admit that she adds zest and variety to the affair?”
“Plenty of it,” he answered grimly. “We can go bail for that.”
“Therefore two women ought to add a double zest?”
“One’s bad enough,” he admitted.
Though a brave man, his courage wilted in the presence of woman. He was in a certain sense a man’s man, in the sense that he knew how to deal with men; but an intriguing woman paralysed his energies, and I knew he would sooner face the most abandoned desperado of his own sex than pit his wits or his strength against feminine subtlety. The one he knew how to handle; the other left him guessing. Almost pathetically he looked at me.
“Well, sir, I had hoped for better things, but whatever it is I suppose we’ll have to get on with it.”
“As to that, I don’t know there’s anything to get on with, and sincerely hope not. However, I’ll let you know after I’ve seen the King.”
“Yes, sir.” But his eyes suddenly brightened, and the ghost of a smile fluttered round the corners of his grim mouth.
FALLINGTON’S has a European reputation, possibly a world-wide one. It is inconceivable to the Londoner that a knowledge of it should not be universal. Who has not heard of it is clearly beyond the pale of civilisation. Princes and millionaires are its particular patrons; even the servants live in its reflected glory.
Naturally I was impressed as I entered the sacred portals precisely on the stroke of five, foreseeing something in the nature of ceremonial delay. But oddly enough nothing of the sort happened. No sooner had I produced my card and mentioned my business, than I beheld a spruce foreign-looking young man hastening in my direction. To him my card was given, after glancing at which, he bowed and smiled.
“His Majesty is expecting you, Colonel Gantian. Will you please come this way.”
Now I don’t care who the man is, he appreciates courtesy, which when unexpected is doubly precious. The absence of ceremony, of what might have been a tedious waiting, inclined me to an excellent estimate of the King of Istania.
Together we mounted the stairs to the first floor, and after traversing the long corridor my guide opened a door and bowed for me to enter.
“If you will wait here a moment, Colonel Gantian, I will inform his Majesty of your arrival.”
A formal young man, exceedingly polite, whose English betrayed the slightest of accents. I bowed and entered; softly he closed the door after him. I took a chair, prepared to wait. Majesty could not possibly forgo all ceremony. Yet majesty was not of the ceremonious order, for I had only half-observed the contents of the room when the door opened again and my conductor appeared with a “Will you please come this way?”
Out along the corridor once more, and then a pause before a door on which the man knocked and opened.
“Your Majesty, this is Colonel Gantian.”
A tall figure came towards me, hand outstretched. I took it with a bow.
“Glad you were on time, Colonel,” he said.
“I always try to be, sir.”
“So I understand.” He smiled, and in friendly fashion laid a hand on my shoulder, our eyes meeting. His were full and of a doubtful blue; might have seemed hazel at a first glance. His hair was light brown and rather thin on top; his mouth full and obstinate, his chin weak, his moustache almost fair. His English, though rather guttural, was good. I understood he had been to school in this country.
“I suppose, being English, you like your cup of tea. Colonel?”
“Insular habits, sir, are hard to eradicate.”
As we turned to the tea-table, which was set out by the window at the end of the room, a woman rose from her seat and stood smiling a welcome, a handsome young woman with laughing red lips and dark wavy hair. Paul introduced her as Madame Karlin. I bowed low over the extended hand and carried it to my lips.
So this was the woman for whom he was endangering his throne, perhaps his life!
“I am very pleased to meet you, Colonel Gantian,” she said.
“Thank you, madame.”
“Well, that’s all right,” said Paul, in his cheery manner. “Now let us see what we can do with the tea. Will you, Elena?” He pointed to the tea-pot. Elena smiled and obeyed.
Though I wanted to take a good look at her, discretion cautioned restraint. The King’s unconventional manner was rather startling, and might mean much or little; it might mean, for example, that he wished to see how I reacted towards his familiarity and judge me accordingly. On the other hand, it might have been natural to him. If so it would account for his popularity among his friends. But what of that other side of him of which one had heard so much, that insolent flouting of conventions and ruthless suppression of political opponents? True, Istania was not of sufficient importance to the world for its internal squabbles to be minutely chronicled. So long as it did not violate the frontiers of neighbouring nations it was of no concern to those who held the peace of the world in their hands. Everyone knew of, and doubtless appreciated, the penchant for slitting each other’s throat much affected by the Balkan peoples, which may have been a mere expression of the pure joy of living. A wise government should never attempt to suppress a national pastime, and in this respect Istania was much to be commended.
I must confess to being agreeably surprised at my reception, and could only attribute it to Mayford’s exaggeration of my merits. Expecting at most a stiff official recognition, I was greeted with an amiability which did much to dissipate previous conceptions. Whatever Paul might have been in his own country, he certainly was not without that agreeable quality which is known as charm. Purposely, or so I thought, he stressed the lighter, or unconventional side of him. Having put off his royal trappings he seemed to forget them. Looking at him, and listening to him, it required an effort to remember who and what he was.
Though, as I have said, he spoke with a heavy, guttural accent, in himself he was not heavy. However scandal and an insecure tenure of his throne may have affected him, he betrayed no sign of an uneasy conscience or a fear of tragic possibilities. Listening to him, his flow of easy small-talk, it was inconceivable to think of him as other than a man who hadn’t a care in the world. He had a passion for the theatre and the racecourse, and seemed well acquainted with the names of our principal actresses and the performances of certain thoroughbreds. Indeed much more so than I was, though I was careful not to display an ignorance of such important matters.
Madame, naturally, possessed similar tastes, and a very charming accent. I think I was more interested in her than in him. What possibilities lay in this woman! A shrewd woman, I knew, conscious of her position and also of her power; curious, too, as to what one might be thinking, though in a sense indifferent. Frequently I caught her glance while the King rambled on. That she guessed quite clearly my thoughts I did not doubt. Nothing particularly subtle in this, for meeting her one could only think one way. Usually she smiled as our eyes met; though once, while the King was speaking, I flashed a glance at her and caught quite a different look in her eyes; a wondering and rather hard look which, however, vanished on the instant. Paul did not see that look, probably never had and never would, though of this it would be fruitless to prophesy. Yet seeing it one conceived more clearly how this situation had arisen and how it was maintained. Elena Karlin was a woman with a will of her own.
During the progress of tea-drinking nothing was said of my mission, which made me feel curiously like an intruder, despite the efforts of my host to put me at my ease. But no sooner were the cigarettes set going than madame rose and very prettily begged to be excused. Paul sprang to his feet, clicked his heels, bowed punctiliously and hurried to open the door for her. Though my heels refused to click I hoped my bow was not without a certain grave dignity. She smiled, waved her hand and disappeared. A few words in a low tone passed between them at the door, probably in Istanian.
Returning, he dropped into an easy chair and motioned me to another. A cigar-box stood on the table beside him. This he opened and presented.
“Now,” he said, “we can talk.”
I waited while he set the cigar going to his satisfaction. Then his eyes met mine. I noticed that they had suddenly grown harder, and that his obstinate mouth protruded rather unpleasantly. Affability was no longer assumed; the genial host became the man of affairs.
“How much do you know about me?” he asked abruptly.
“Very little, sir,” I assured him.
“They told me you were discreet,” he replied with a significant look.
“Within limits, I hope.”
“Well,” said he, “I don’t know that there’s any vital necessity for undue discretion as far as I’m concerned. The more we know of each other, Colonel, the better we shall understand each other. I hope it is possible for you to dissociate the king from the man, though in my case it may not be easy. Still, we must make the best of it. Do you know anything about Istanian politics?” He smiled as I shook my head. “I congratulate you,” he said. “May I assume that you have heard of my brother Michael?”
Who that read intelligently the newspapers had not? Prince Michael, so rumour averred, was beloved of the people of Istania, or by those who clamoured for the abdication of Paul.
“Michael,” he continued uncompromisingly, “is a nincompoop, a milksop, who is entirely dominated by his wife, a woman of strong passions and unbridled ambition. He never had an idea, and never will have one; but he is what they call a good fellow, easygoing and pleasant, careful of all observances and exemplary in public conduct.” There was a sneer here or I was much mistaken. “That wife of his wants to put him in my place, and upon my soul there are times when I feel like letting her do it. I suppose this king business is not without its glamour; but it’s a two-faced concern, and there are times when I grow thoroughly sick of it. You know what I mean by two-faced: one for public and one for private use. It’s hateful to have to grin like a cat when you’d rather scratch like one. Do you know why I’ve come here? I’ll tell you: to get away from it all and be my own man for a month or two.”
“I see no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy your stay.”
“But I see many; that’s why I’ve sent for you.”
“To be of any real service—” I began.
“You need my confidence? Well, why shouldn’t you have it? I am correct in assuming that you already know more than a little?”
“Not much, sir. My source of information is entirely confined to rumour.”
“It seems we both have reputations of a kind.”
“As your Majesty pleases.”
“My Majesty is in a damned quandary,” he said, “and it doesn’t mind telling you. Anyway, I’m glad you’ve come, Colonel Leathermouth, and I have the greatest pleasure in telling you so. By God, sir, if I had a man like you in Istania… .’’
The obstinate mouth quivered, the eyes flashed ominously. Plainly here was a man of two sides as well as two faces, and the side and the face he was now showing explained him and his position. But Colonel Leathermouth! Had Assistant-Commissioner Mayford been talking too freely? Did this account for Madame Karlin’s frequently strange way of looking at me? There would be a few more bouquets flung at George’s head when I saw him.
“Surely among millions—”
“Not one who wouldn’t turn to Michael if it suited him. Not that I apprehend danger from that quarter. I don’t believe he really hankers after my job; but there are other influences at work, sinister influences, do you understand?”
“I may, if your Majesty will be more explicit.”
He pulled at his lower lip and fixed me with a penetrating look. It was clear he wished to be communicative, yet wondered how far he might venture. Returning his look with one no less penetrating, I perceived an obvious hesitation. He was trying hard to make up his mind, and finding not a little difficulty in doing so. For all I knew to the contrary, he might already be regretting my presence and seriously considering my instant dismissal. Nor should I have been unduly affected by such action on his part, being doubtful of the service I might be able to render him. In any case I had already decided that ambiguity should have no clause in our contract.
Clearly that chin of his was the key to his character, explaining the many difficulties in which he had become involved. A man with such an indecisive feature would be subject to the fluctuations of temperament; in combination with such an obstinate mouth he would inevitably head for disaster. If his purpose ever became fixed it would be in a contrary spirit. Throughout the ages evil counsellors have brought such monarchs down with a crash. Ever confusing obstinacy with strength, they wreck themselves and those who cling to them. To such people compromise or concession is feared as weakness. Therefore the forehead of brass though the feet may be of clay.
Now his purpose seemed to waver; then recollecting himself he frowned. I knew he was in doubt as to the way he should go; that he was asking himself who I was that he should stretch a point in my favour. As a fact, I wanted neither favour nor a stretching of points, for I conceived the honour of serving him not of the greatest. Nor was imagination excessively impressed by thought of his rank. Stripped of his trappings he was just an ordinary man, and as such I decided to deal with him. He and his country were nothing to me; I was not out to seek favours from either. At the same time, he was a decidedly interesting proposition. Though many strange characters had crossed my path, none had been of his high state, and however democratic one’s tendencies may be, there is no denying the glamour of a crown.
It took him a long time to make up his mind, but when he did he opened it freely. It was then one got a glimpse of the real man beneath the impressive mantle of his office.
“I have decided,” he said suddenly, “to take you into my confidence. I think you’re the man I’ve been looking for, and I believe we may be of service to each other.”
I bowed and muttered something about duty. He smiled and continued:
“Rumour, as you know, travels far. Even in the Balkans your activities, if not openly chronicled, have not passed unobserved. When Scotland Yard suggested you I was eager to make your acquaintance. May I, without offence, say that we have not been disappointed?”
Was this the royal “we,” or did it include the lady who had just left us? Again I bowed and waited. He pulled at his cigar, ejected a huge cloud of smoke and leant towards me.
“Frankly, my dear Colonel, in thwarting my powerful neighbour you have been of indirect service to me. You are, I assume, more or less familiar with those sections of the Versailles Treaty which swept away certain frontiers. The neighbour mentioned has not forgotten that a portion of his territory has been incorporated into mine. But the result has not been all that the treaty-makers may have hoped, and the doubtful security of the position remains.”
“So I have understood.”
“As a consequence, discontent not only simmers but at times boils over. I think you know something of underground currents?”
“Possibly a little,” I admitted.
“Istania is safer than its ruler,” he said. “The country stands, but the man goes.”
“Revolution?” I suggested. He smiled disdainfully. “Many rumours have reached us,” I added.
“I know, propaganda spread by interested persons in the hope of personal profit. A dozen peasants set fire to a barn and arm themselves with pitchforks. ‘Trouble in Istania’ is flashed across the world. We are accustomed to these things.”
“Yet you suggest that there is trouble?”
“Of a secret nature,” he replied. “Peasants with pitchforks or townsmen with revolvers are not intimidating; my soldiers and police deal with them. But what they are unable to deal with is the secret plotter, the man who springs suddenly out of a dark corner and strikes. Against him both are innocuous. There are many who would welcome my removal,” he added gravely.
“Even so, the frontiers of Istania would still remain.”
“Possibly; but what if this matter were more personal than political; what if Istania’s king, not her frontiers loomed the larger in their eyes?”
“Your Majesty thinks the situation—”
“Thinks! I know it.”
“Personal?” I queried.
“You are persistent,” he observed.
“I have not asked for your confidence, sir,” I reminded him; “but if I am to enjoy it—”
“You are clearly not a man of half-measures.”
And still he hesitated. A curiously delicate situation not unappreciated by both. Probably he had never been in such a quandary. He would look at me, frown, pull at his lip, stiffen, seem about to make some vital pronouncement, and then as suddenly change his mind. But I was determined to have all or nothing from him, it being a matter of indifference to me whether I served him or not. Seen thus he was not an awe-inspiring personage; in fact, quite the contrary. As for the tales told of him, their truth or falsity was of no great concern, though what might come of them was not without promise.
“How much do you know?” he asked suddenly.
“Of what, sir?”
“Devil take it, man,” he spluttered, “you know what I’m driving at.”
“Your Majesty flatters.”
“Now look here,” he said, “don’t let us have any more of this evasion. If you knew that a certain man had sworn to get even with you, what would you do?”
“I might first ask myself if he could even up the injury I had done him.”
“And then?” He was frowning now.
“Do my best to thwart him.”
“I see you are an exacting father confessor,” he responded with the semblance of a sneer.
“I hate the part, sir, and have no wish to play it.”
Now surely, thought I, this means instant dismissal. Yet, oddly enough, after pulling at his lip in some perplexity, he smiled and then burst out laughing.
“You know,” he said, “you’re a damned impossible fellow.”
“On the contrary, sir, quite amenable to reason.”
“I’m beginning to believe in you, Colonel Leathermouth.”
“An unhappy name, your Majesty, which has caused me inconceivable distress.”
“And others,” he laughed. “My dear fellow, your modesty is on a par with your discretion, but at present I have no use for either.”
“In that case, sir, the part of father confessor may not be too difficult even for me.”
“I have sinned,” he mocked.
“Absolution is not unknown,” I answered gravely.
“To the impenitent? You realise that I am impenitent?”
“And therefore beyond absolution?”
“The eleventh hour grace still remains,” I reminded him.
He chuckled and said: “I believe we’re going to be great friends. Ever been to Istania?” I told him never. “Then you must come with me when I return. We are quite civilised, apart from a national weakness for slitting the throat of an enemy. It is an ancient custom much honoured by my people.”
“And when is your Majesty thinking of returning?”
“In one, possibly two months—if I ever return.”
“You think there is a doubt?”
“That’s why I sent for you.” He glanced towards the door through which Madame Karlin had disappeared. Lowering his voice he spoke swiftly. “Major Karlin was in my regiment of dragoons. He is the man who has sworn to get even with me. Possibly there are others, but he appears to be the immediate danger. Already two separate attempts have been made on my life. You appreciate the difficulty of the position?”
“But not your running away from it.”
Again he looked at the door through which madame had passed. I nodded apprehendingly. So she was afraid of the husband she had wronged, an incredible person who did not appreciate royal honours at their full value. What was one to do with such a singular creature? It was plain that, because of her, Paul had come to our law-abiding land, where it is not the custom to slit throats unless one wishes to depart this life dancing on air. Equally, Major Karlin and his friends would not be ignorant of this, or of certain obstacles that might act as a bar to progress. For such an adventure England was the one country of Europe which offered a maximum of insecurity to the enterprising foreigner.
Then suddenly the King cast aside all reserve and became the man, and a very human one; a man whose love for a woman had estranged his people and endangered not only his throne but his life.
“The only real happiness I have ever known,” he said, “has been inspired by her devotion. If it were possible I would marry her and place her where she ought to be. They talk of my indifference to public opinion, of my heartless treatment of the Queen. The truth is, Nardia and I are as ill-matched as any man and woman could be. We have not one sentiment, taste, or opinion in common. She comes of a German stock which is blown like a balloon with self-importance, and which even the degradation of Germany has not lessened. She believes her country will once more become the dictator of Europe, with an added power and glory, and sometimes I think her dream not impossible of realisation. In the midst of this wild sea of shoddy internationalism and pacifist good intentions, one nation stands like a rock for pure nationalism, and once a great people think in unison they are not lightly to be dismissed.
“But this is by the way. My marriage with Nardia was one purely of convenience. Possibly both hoped that love would come, and both were disappointed. The clash of temperaments continued. A cold woman, cold as her northern winter. She could give me neither love nor an heir. Tolerance turned to indifference, indifference to contempt. Our life became a public mockery and a scandal. She despised me and I detested her. Everybody knew it, everybody laughed and jeered. She was the martyr, of course; the woman always is. And, by God, didn’t she play the part to perfection! Gracious Queen, gentle soul who would have rendered infinite service to her people had she not been mated with one utterly unworthy. Let me tell you this: as a humbug woman is without a peer. The resigned air, the sigh, the martyrdom borne with a sad look. Is anything more provocative, more likely to madden a man?”
He frowned, pulling at his lip. It was an offensive trick; probably no one had ever told him how offensive. I had an inclination to undertake the immediate cure. Otherwise the man, if not the King, was interesting. One might have contrasted the cottager and the palace-dweller, and found them at bottom much the same. Indeed one might have indulged in a multiplicity of moral reflections, all to little purpose.
Then he smiled, and one forgave him much when he smiled. It brightened his face, radiated pleasure, invited confidence. Again one realised that he might be exceedingly popular with his friends. But a man with such a mouth was not to be relied on. He would veer like the wind, be charming one moment and obstinate as fate the next. And it might be doubted which was the more fatal: his smile or his frown.
Suddenly he blurted out: “Why the devil I’m telling you all this I don’t know. I suppose there’s something about you that invites confidence.”
“Others have noted that fact, sir.”
“No wonder they call you Leathermouth; you’re a grim-looking dog.”
“If your Majesty continues to flatter so unsparingly I shall end by thinking myself important.”
He chuckled. Possibly I was something in the nature of a revelation to him, and the unaccustomed was not without its attraction. The truth is, Paul of Istania, lounging in loose tweeds, did not unduly impress; in fact, a very ordinary man who had made a mistake and was not oblivious of certain unpleasant reactions.
“I expected to meet a police official,” he said. “Have I met a friend?”
Beware of the friendship of princes, I thought, and believe he read the thought. His smile deepened; in it there was a singular suggestion of prescience. Whatever else he might be, Paul was no fool.
“I shall be honoured,” I told him.
“Damn it all,” he said, “you can cut out that stuff. I’m more accustomed to honour than fealty. When are you coming to see me again?” But, without waiting for my answer, he continued, “Oh, by the way, I’m looking for a place where a man may rest quietly for a week or so; a place in the country, for choice, though the devil of it is I wish to remain incognito; not easy, you’ll agree. Know anything likely?”
“Perhaps, if your Majesty is not too exacting.”
“All I want is to get away from the noise and bustle of this. Where is it?”
“In Sussex; looks across the Downs to the sea. Lonely in one sense, invigorating in another.”
“Sounds promising. But what of the owner?”
“Perhaps your Majesty has already formed an opinion of him.”
“I! How should I? Do I know him?”
“You have been summing him up for the last half-hour.”
“You! The place is yours? My dear Colonel, you are full of surprises. How soon can we visit?”
“Whenever you desire, sir.”
“Then let it be to-morrow. I’ll order the car for eleven. Will that do?”
“Admirably. But there’s one further point. You are convinced that there is real danger from the discontented few?”
“Well, what if I admit it?”
“In that case, sir, perhaps I’d better call for you. My chauffeur is an excellent fellow who understands me and my ways. In fact, we agree in everything except his love of imbroglios, which is a constant source of worry to me. However, he is extraordinarily quick on the draw.”
Paul nodded understandingly. “And shoots straight?”
“I think your Istanians would find some difficulty in slitting his throat.”
“I seem to be in luck, Colonel,” he laughed.
Perhaps further proof of this was necessary.
EXPERIENCE impresses on one the necessity for quick observation. There may be a hole in the pavement, a sunken kerb, the sudden onrush of a motor-car—or a man worthy of a second glance. Such a man was duly observed as I left the hotel, a man who loitered on the other side of the street, but with a look in my direction. One may loiter, of course, having nothing else to do, but as a rule one does not loiter in certain streets to admire scenery. In this case, too, there was an added interest: the man was clearly a foreigner, which fact might explain or excuse him. But as another foreigner lodged in this street, and a distinguished one, an immediate association of ideas was formed.
Pausing to light a cigarette, and looking across the flame, I observed that the man on the other side had also suddenly decided to light one, a by no means remarkable occurrence in a London street. Crossing, I met him on the corner. A foreigner undoubtedly, with the heavy dark complexion of south-eastern Europe. A trim dark moustache decorated his upper lip. He glanced at me swiftly from under the brim of his hat. I thought we might know each other again.
His presence in the street might mean much or nothing; but I could not forget that I had just left a man who had impressed me with the sense of an uncertain future. Naturally my thoughts flew to Istania and its amiable inhabitants, who had a bias in the form of throat-slitting. Was Paul’s throat more sacred than that of any other dubious Istanian? Was the wronged husband delicately discriminating? Major Karlin might be one of those impossible, old-fashioned persons who still think a man’s honour of importance, and a woman’s more so. Paul apparently held some such estimate of him.
To my thinking it had been an amazing interview. Not being accustomed to personal contact with crowned heads, the incident had developed rather perplexingly. Secret emissaries of powerful states, and of one state in particular, had been encountered, I hope not unsuccessfully. But here was a difference, and I was not entirely satisfied with my conduct of the affair. It seemed to me that my late host could justly claim chief honours, if honours were to be claimed. Probably I had expected to meet a totally different person, which had not been without its effect on me, and might explain a certain unresponsiveness on my part. Possibly his reputation was not such as to inspire respect. Every newspaper gloatingly chronicled his misdeeds; he had been the scandal of Europe. No one would have regretted his abdication, or forcible removal. General sympathy was with the Queen, the indignities forced on her having enshrined her in a sort of glamorous martyrdom. As a wife she had been vilely treated.
So rumour; yet when the husband had spoken, the wife’s martyrdom seemed to lose much of its glory. Cold as one of her northern winters, he had called her, and he of the south, keen, fiery, quick of blood and temperament. The two coming in contact, one must suffer, melt, dissolve. Sun and snow, fire and frost.
Was he trying to make good his case; had public opinion at last prevailed? Or was he afraid of consequences? Jocularly he had spoken of that pleasant pastime of slitting throats; but such a jest loses its savour when one’s own throat comes under the knife —or that of the beloved! And I could vouch for the beauty of madame’s throat, which seemed made for anything but knives. Kisses, preferably, and adoration. Such a woman, given the opportunity and seizing it, was bound to cause dissension. In the creating of her there had been no hesitation as to sex; she radiated it. Her soft large eyes allured; her full ripe mouth was fascinating. Even her little ears were bewitchingly provocative. Paul’s taste was admirable; not a doubt of it.
But where was it likely to lead him? Whatever he may once have thought of the glory of his state, he no longer had any illusions as to the sanctity of his person. In these days a king could do many wrongs, and occasionally be called to account for them. That he was fully aware of this unpleasant fact was obvious. It ought to have been comparatively easy for such a man to win the admiration of his people. One must credit him with knowing this. Yet that perverse kink in his nature had deliberately set him against them, a course which his sullen, obstinate mouth suggested a persistence in. He would not be dictated to. Concession was weakness, or so his advisers assured him. Lawful right was his, even if the divine had ceased to function. And behind him was a loyal army with rifles, machine guns, and all the other appurtenances of authority. But behind that again a solitary slinking shadow with hatred and murder in his heart. Machine guns are of little avail in such circumstances.
Acting-Commissioner George Mayford greeted me with a grin as I entered his office. As usual he was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. I went through the customary formula of coughing and looking at the closed window. His grin broadened.
“Well,” he began, “what’s he like?”
“Madame is charming,” I answered.
“So you met her!”
“She has delightful hands and wrists, and pours out tea to perfection.”
“Anything else delightful about her?” he growled.
“She has a marvellous mouth, George, and the daintiest ears.”
“And, I suppose, a pair of heavenly eyes?”
“You’ve said it, bo.”
“H’m!” he grunted. “Well, get on with it.”
“Major Karlin is a most villainous man. Why are men so villainous, George; why do they delight in inflicting martyrdom on the pretty creatines? I suppose even you are not averse to torturing Molly— on occasion?” Molly was his wife, and according to him the most marvellous girl in the world, or was before he married her. Ignoring this pleasantry he returned to Paul, asking what sort of a chap he was.
“Oh, Paul; of course. A man of taste, George.”
“And Major Karlin is a villain?”
“And a nit-wit in the bargain who might have risen to incredible heights, yet who for the sake of an absurd scruple shuts himself away from the light and yelps at the injustice of providence. Can you conceive the mind of such a man?”
“All of which means—”
“That Paul is unable to comprehend such conduct.”
“How did you find him?”
“Seated at the tea-table with madame, and curiously unlike what I expected to find him. Though his clothes did not reflect much credit on the Istanian tailor, your selection of me has enhanced his high opinion of your intelligence, which I supplemented by adding that you were the real palladium of the British Empire, though others less worthy assume the credit.”
“And madame is charming, and her husband a villain of a man who hides from the light; and Paul is afraid that one day—”
“This nit-wit who scorns incredible heights will steal forth with a bomb in his pocket?”
“In Istania they prefer to slit throats.”
“And Paul has a natural wish to protect his?”
“Madame’s is lovelier, and not at all tough or gristly; in fact might be slit with comparative ease.”
“He told you all this?”
“And more. From what I could gather he considers himself a much misunderstood man. What is there about me, George, that invites confidence?”
“Your charm of manner,” he grinned; “that patient humility of disposition which endears you to the world. I suppose he really showed you the door?”
“He showed me to the door, which is quite a different thing, and informed Count Ferdinand—that’s his secretary—that in future I was to be conducted to the Presence without ceremony.”
“You appear to have clicked.”
“George, what about Queen Nardia?”
“Well, what about her?”
“A cold snow-woman which the southern sun failed to melt. Do you like snow-women, George? Paul doesn’t. He seems to prefer them alive, glowing, odorous. If it wasn’t for uncomplaisant husbands what a perfect world this would be.”
“Well, if your friend Paul is going to get his throat slit, I hope he’ll have the decency to get it done at home.”
“There are disaffected Istanians in London,” I reminded him.
“Is Major Karlin among them?”
“Paul would like to know for certain, and may presently discover in a manner not too pleasing. The charming national pastime does not appeal to him, and fractious husbands fail to meet with the royal approval.”
“What does he want us to do?”
“You, nothing. Albert and I are running him down to Wealdon to-morrow.” (Wealdon was the name of my place in Sussex.) “He sighs for the repose of our placid English streams before venturing the rapids and whirlpools of Istania.”
“You seem to have made progress.”
“As your representative I could not disgrace you by failure.”
“But look here,” he began.
“Exactly. Let some of your smart young men stick around where disaffected Istanians chiefly congregate. Though Paul’s throat does not appeal to me— his Adam’s apple is too obtrusive—I should hate to see it slit. Did you ever see a slit Adam’s apple?”
“Buzz off,” he scowled.
“Albert,” I announced on returning to my rooms, “we’re running down to Wealdon to-morrow.”
“Yes, sir,” said that imperturbable one. He would have been equally unimpressed and imperturbable had I announced Timbuctoo as our destination.
“In exalted company,” I continued.
“Yes, sir,” he said again.
“I’ve often noticed they travel with a lot of extras.”
“Looks promising, sir. I thought there might be something in it when Mr. Mayford rang up so early. When shall I have the car ready?”
“After lunch, unless his Majesty cancels the order.”
“Very good, sir.”
His Majesty did not cancel the order. In fact, via the amicable Count Ferdinand, he agreed to it. After lunch would suit him admirably.
At dinner in the club that night General Pennefeather and I shared the same table. As a rule the General was carefully avoided by the members, being a bore of Field-Marshal rank. But he had been military attache in one or two unimportant Continental capitals, and seemed to remember nothing else. If there was anyone in the club who would be better acquainted with the latest Istanian scandals, I did not know him. Old Pennefeather, as he was familiarly termed, delighted in reminiscence of the exalted. I don’t know that he always prefaced a remark with “By gad, sir,” but he looked it. He was a wrinkled and wizened little man with a shiny bald head which the flies seemed to delight in making a playground of. His white moustache bristled in what he doubtless believed to be true military fashion, and in one of his little sharp blue eyes he always wore a monocle. Some of the fellows swore he slept in it. His nose was absurdly long for such a small face.
Apart from his military and diplomatic attainments, which probably were considerable, he particularly prided himself on an intimate knowledge of important people. It was jokingly said that he went to bed with the Almanach de Gotha on the one side of his pillow and the Peerage on the other. Be that as it may, I had but casually to mention Istania to set him babbling.
“Paul as a young man was not without promise,” he graciously admitted, “which I regret to say has not been fulfilled. Istania presented an opportunity given to few rulers. Woman,” he concluded abruptly, but significantly, though it would have been a long time since he had thought passionately of her.
“Then you consider the political situation still uncertain?”
“Seething, my boy, and ripe for revolution. Paul has fed up his people and everybody else. That latest flame of his has done the trick. No discretion, no tact; have to suffer for it, mark my words. I’m telling you, Gantian, and I know what I’m talking about.”
“They say the husband is not a very amenable person.”
“No tact, sir, not a grain. Resigned his commission. Think of that; there’s an ass for you. With Paul at the back of him… No tact, no finesse, no discretion. Hopeless! Paul would have shoved him to the top.” He glared at me across the table and stuffed his mouth with chicken.
“What’s become of him?” was my next question.
The General hesitated. It was clear that though he didn’t know he hated to admit it.
“What would become of any man who was fool enough to chuck away such a chance?” he countered.
“The incubus of a conscience, General.” He snorted disdainfully at the thought of such incredible folly. Then his eye twinkled through its glass shield.
“Damn it all, Gantian; damn it all, man!”
“Exactly,” I agreed.
“A luxury, my dear fellow, and frequently an expensive one.”
“A sort of two-edged sword that might cut both ways?” I suggested. At this he pricked up his ears.
“Heard anything?” he asked in a lowered voice. “You fellows getting busy? Anything serious stirring in Istania?”
“I suppose you know that Queen Nardia is in England?” As though he wouldn’t! Absurd question.
“There’s a woman for you! Comes from one of the most exalted houses in Germany.” In confirmation of this statement a twenty-nine syllabic German word, or combination of words, slid from his tongue with singular fluency. I accepted the fact with all the respect due to his fluency and knowledge. “I knew that marriage was a mistake; anyone would have known it,” he admitted generously. “Slav and Teuton—impossible combination. The Istanians are bandits, sir, nothing but a pack of bandits with a veneer of Western civilisation. Wouldn’t surprise me to hear that one of them had slit Paul’s throat.”
“Major Karlin for choice,” I ventured.
“I hate your tactless impossible fellow; no doing anything with him. An Istanian with scruples, moral, political or commercial; absurd! How can a man expect to get anywhere without a woman at his back? Ridiculous!” He twisted his moustache and once more vigorously attacked his fodder.
“Odd how antiquated prejudices linger in the undeveloped mind,” I murmured. He flung me a quick look.
“There’s something to be said for them, of course,” he admitted a little grudgingly; “but not in places like Istania. The error our well-meaning but obstinate statesmen make is in believing that the exalted principles of the West can be successfully grafted on the East, Near or Far. Hence difficulties innumerable for the diplomat. I’ve had some experience of this, and I know.”
Fearing he might tell me of other things he knew, which would mean no end to his loquacity, I ventured to ask if the good example of Queen Nardia had not influenced the national life.
“There,” said he, “was another unfulfilled hope. A good woman, Gantian, and I for one refuse to place the slightest credence in the scandal which associates her name with that of von Lindner.”
So, even the snow-woman had not escaped! Truly the Istanians were a hopeless people. But who was von Lindner? Though interested, I feared to display my ignorance by asking.
“Ah, von Lindner,” I murmured. The General was decisive in his next pronouncement.
“I refuse to believe that he has ever been more than a faithful servant. I often met the Baron when I was in Sofia. Believe me, a charming fellow—if a German can be charming,” he qualified. “As private secretary to the Queen he has been of incalculable service to her. Conceive the lonely state of any woman suddenly thrust among strangers, and the pleasure of meeting daily one of her own nation; someone who understood her, who could sympathise with her. Had she not been a woman in a million…”
Exactly. So Baron von Lindner was private secretary to her Majesty, and certain ill-natured people connected their names in a presumably unkind manner. No wonder General Pennefeather was moved to indignation.
It seemed to me that I was rapidly acquiring information which might eventually be of aid should there be a further call on my services. Much, of course, would depend on the projected trip to the country, and what came of it. Paul might not like my house, or madame either, in which case I should probably see no more of them, and an incident to which I had possibly attached undue importance would lamely peter out. If there were disaffected Istanians in London, and Major Karlin was among them, it seemed improbable that they should wilfully attract the attention of the police. Foreigners in a strange land are doubly handicapped in attempting to obtain security; a black man might as well try to hide amid a white population.
On the following afternoon Albert and I drove to Fallington’s. As I jumped out and entered the hotel, Ferdinand, the amiable secretary, advanced. Though he had evidently been kept waiting he was still amiable.
“I will inform his Majesty of your arrival,’’ he said. “Everything is ready. Will you please wait a moment?”
Within five minutes his Majesty and madame appeared. She bowed graciously; he shook hands.
“Fine day, Colonel.”
Madame looked charming in a light costume. Paul was in his loose tweeds and wore a green alpine hat with a purple feather stuck in the band. His pink-striped shirt was equally noisy. Though for certain reasons I would have preferred a seat beside Albert, his Majesty insisted that I should sit with them. But this did not preclude a glance up and down the street before entering the car. The foreign-looking person whom I had previously noted was watching us from the street corner. My eyes met his as we passed.
One of Albert’s many accomplishments was that of skilful driving, but he never took chances unless necessity compelled. There he sat like a graven image, eyes glued to the road, deftly manipulating the car through the traffic, keeping up a steady jog-trot until we had passed through Croydon. Then, and then only, he occasionally let her out.
Paul smoked and chatted interminably; madame appeared to be chiefly interested in the traffic and the people. Once she asked, “Does this London never end?” Occasionally she flashed a quick look at Paul and smiled. Gently he patted her hand. Undoubtedly he was very much in love. Queen Nardia had a dangerous rival.
It was the beginning of June and the weather was glorious. Though I did not know Istania I was convinced that the green countryside would be a revelation to any Istanian. Madame’s alluring eyes absorbed the summer glory. “How beautiful, how charming,” she would exclaim. Then she would say something in her own tongue, clutch his arm suddenly and smile, at which he would nod approval and once more administer a loving pat.
Over the telephone I had already informed my sister Edna of the proposed visit, and as soon as the car pulled up at the gate I saw her coming down the long garden walk to meet us, her fair hair shining in the sun, her young figure swift and supple. Though much younger than I, she kept the old place going with two or three old servants till such time as I should bring home a wife, which seemed to be in the remote future. And though I chaffed her rather inconsiderately, and wanted to know what the surrounding young men were thinking of, she always pouted and said she was waiting for me to show her the way.
Impervious to the dignity of our visitors she flung her arms round my neck, kissed me and whispered “darling” in my ear. Then she grew staid as any young Miss. Paul clicked his heels, bowed, and carried her hand to his lips; madame smiled prettily. Both women seemed singularly interested in each other.
The old place was looking its best and the visitors expressed entire satisfaction. Paul thought it was just what they required; madame agreed. I had already noticed that like a wise woman she was quick to agree. But the precise date of taking possession appeared to be uncertain, though both hoped it would be soon.
Tea was taken in the porch. From there the garden looked its best, and beyond it one caught an occasional flash of the sea. Madame lounged back among the cushions and let her eyes wander across the distance. I thought a dreamy longing now and again crept into them. Rumour had not spared her; scandal had made of her a scurrilous jest. A brazen, abandoned creature. Probably; and yet I could not think of her as such. In repose her face was curiously thoughtful; it was only when she shook herself together that one caught a glimpse of determination or defiance, I was never certain which. In Istania she might flaunt, knowing the hatred and jealousy that surrounded her; but alone there may have been another tale to tell.
Albert appeared at the bottom of the path, having just finished overhauling the car. Edna waved to him; he saluted and advanced.
“Looks like a soldier,” observed Paul.
“He is, sir,” said Edna; adding further, “He was with Peter in the War.”
“Peter?” echoed madame, and then looked at me. I bowed. “Peter and Paul,” she said, smiling at the King.
“An irresistible combination, Elena.”
“I think so.” And then, her eyes on the advancing Albert, “He is a fine chauffeur, that one.”
“He is a dear,” said Edna; “we love him.”
“My day nurse, madame,” I explained.
“So you need a day nurse, Colonel Peter? I should not have thought it.”
Albert drew near and stood at attention.
“Everything all right?” I asked.
I turned to Paul and asked him when he would like to return.
“Not yet,” said madame quickly; “it is so pleasant here. I think we are not in a hurry, hein?”
“No,” said Paul. I nodded to Albert, who saluted and disappeared.
“So he is a dear, that one,” madame remarked, smiling at Edna.
“I love him,” she said. “He saved Peter’s life in Palestine.”
“So he saved Colonel Peter’s life in Palestine? That is very interesting. No wonder you love him.”
“You see, madame, Peter’s all I’ve got.”
“Yes, I see.”
Paul rose and stretched himself, smiling at Edna.
“Mademoiselle, under your guidance shall we explore this very beautiful garden?”
“Your Majesty will not be bored?” she demurred.
“I can promise you that,” he said.
Madame watched them go, an odd smile playing round the corners of her mouth.
“The sunshine is in her hair,” she said. “You are proud of her, Colonel Peter? But I know you are; I can see it in your eyes. And there is no what you call ‘young man’?”
“She is waiting for me to bring home a wife.”
“And are you going to?”
“Perhaps, one day.”
“I think you are very selfish.”
She lay back among the cushions and looked at me through her long lashes, her lips breaking into the faintest of smiles.
“Perhaps diffident, madame.”
“Why? Or is it that you are already wedded to the life of adventure?”
“I hate it; but sometimes a thing holds us in spite of ourselves.”
“Yes, that is true; holds us very tight. Your little sister is very charming. Colonel Peter; like one of the flowers in her garden. And so very English. You would not have her different?”
“She could not be.”
“So.” That “so” of hers, to which she appeared singularly attached, had a world of meaning in it. Every time she uttered it one saw in her eyes a curious, thoughtful look, and occasionally a tightening of the lips. Madame was much given to introspection. Presently Edna’s laugh reached us, clear and fresh. Madame smiled. “The King can be very amusing,” she said. And doubtless many other things, I thought. She lit a fresh cigarette, looked at me through half-closed lids and smiled.
“You are different, Colonel Peter.”
“Just different. One day you will visit us in Istania, perhaps? Do you realise that his Majesty greatly approves?” I murmured appreciation. Her smile deepened. “You are not easily impressed? Is that not so? No, please do not deny it. But tell me, do you really think there is danger?” she nodded towards the garden. “Not that the King fears; it is I who am afraid.”
“They hate me; they think—oh, many things. But that does not matter much so that no harm comes to him. You will see to it. Colonel Peter; I can trust you to see to it?” she pleaded. “All I want for him is happiness.”
She stopped and held up her finger as if to command silence.
“But listen! The King laughs! It is long since I have heard him laugh like that.”
There seemed to be a curious tone of regret in this. When a King laughs all is apparently well. Had she lost the art of making him?
Presently they appeared from among the bushes and came up the walk together. The King was still laughing. Edna carried a bunch of blooms which she offered to madame, who smilingly accepted.
“A thousand thanks,” she said, “they are lovely,” and pressed them to her face. But over them I saw her glance at the girl, and then more swiftly at Paul. That slow, deep-meaning smile was in her eyes.
The King had laughed!
AS the King was in no hurry to set out on the return journey to London, we of necessity awaited his pleasure. He lit a fresh cigar, lounged back among the cushions, and relaxed graciously, especially towards Edna, who had clearly won his favour. Probably she was something new to him. Personally I am of opinion that she enjoyed the novelty of entertaining royalty, or of being entertained by it. Royalty, undoubtedly, appeared to enjoy the entertainment. Madame, watching closely, heard the King laugh many times, and may have wondered. Paul had the supreme gift of making one feel at ease, and he was now exerting himself with quite satisfactory results. Once Edna’s timidity of his greatness had worn off she chatted with an inconsequence which even I found charming. She had a sweet, soft voice and the friendliest of smiles. Paul watched her with open admiration, and whenever she left us for a moment he relapsed into silence till her return.
At parting he was doubly gracious. He took both her hands, held them overlong, and then pressed them to his lips. I saw her colour deepen and a fugitive, surprised look sweep into her eyes. A king may possibly be too gracious. Even madame may have thought so, for she watched the little comedy with a deep-meaning look. A man with Paul’s mouth and eyes would need skilful handling.
Though it was still daylight when we set out, with the promise of what ought to be a long twilight to follow, I could not help thinking that we had unnecessarily delayed our return. For there were signs of a change in the weather. What little wind there was had almost imperceptibly veered to the south. And there was another matter, perhaps not very important. More than once during the down journey I had caught glimpses of a grey car which I thought followed with some persistence for a great part of the journey. True, I lost it after we had turned off for Wealdon, though that did not banish a certain sense of apprehension. There might, of course, be nothing in it; a mere coincidence. Yet I would have felt more relieved if it had continued to follow us.
Reaching East Grinstead the King called a halt. Why should we not dine there? He was in no hurry to return to town; this was a day in the country. Why not make the most of it? Madame agreed. Though I could not voice my suspicion of a certain grey car, I pointed out that the weather was likely to change. He laughed and said let it; madame seemed amused. Nothing remained but obedience.
As they entered the hotel I managed to get a word with Albert.
“Mum as to their identity, and keep a sharp look out for a grey sports car. I think one followed us part of the way down. Got your gun with you?” He nodded. “May be nothing in it. I wanted to push on; but…”
“Yes, sir. Smells to me like thunder.” He looked up and sniffed the air like a dog.
It was thunder, and some very strenuous thunder too, which was accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning. Unperturbed we dined; indeed I thought the King and madame enjoyed the unusual accompaniment to the meal. He said it was infinitely more entertaining than a jazz orchestra. He was in a pleasant mood and showing the best side of him.
Madame was beaming. “None of that Majesty stuff,” he had whispered to me as we entered the dining-room. Istania and his greatness were a long way off, and he had no wish to be reminded of either.
Then the rain came down, and seemed likely to continue for some time, but he remained unaffected. My suggestion to return by train was met with a blank refusal. “Can’t last,” he declared; “be over in a few minutes. Cool the air nicely.” He looked at madame as if for confirmation of this statement. She agreed that the drive back would be delightful. I refrained from mentioning a certain grey car.
We lingered for more than an hour, the rain pelting down for a good half of the time. Then it ceased suddenly and the stars came out. But they were a long way off, and the night was dark in spite of them.
Albert was waiting with the car as we appeared. Paul smiled at him and asked if he had dined. He saluted and admitted that he had.
“Old campaigner, sir,” I explained.
“I must see more of him,” said the King. He was to.
But this time I sat with Albert, and majesty did not demur. Doubtless it was feeling in a tender mood.
“Seen anything?” I whispered.
The engine purred softly to the stars, and doubtless Paul purred softly to his beloved, or she to him. Or they may have sat silently holding hands like a couple of common people. The night was made for silence, the holding of hands, and other things. Then suddenly I saw the lights of an approaching car. As it drew near the driver switched on his headlights, enveloping us in a blinding glare. Albert ground out an oath and pulled aside to make way. I thought there would surely be a collision, or that we should be ditched, and rapped on the glass partition to warn the King. But as the car neared us it slowed up, and when abreast, the collision now apparently inevitable, several shots were suddenly fired into us. There was a splintering of glass, and I felt my hat knocked sideways. A quick glance at Albert showed him bending low over the wheel. The car sped by, a few more shots coming our way.
“All right?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. And you?”
But as he brought the car to an immediate standstill, and I jumped out, there was no need for a reply. Opening the door I saw the King and madame crouching on the floor.
“Are you hurt, sir?”
“I don’t think so”
“Elena?” he asked. She answered him in her own tongue and laughed excitedly. “Missed again, Colonel,” he said, scrambling out on the road. Madame regained her seat. Once more he spoke in their tongue, and was clearly relieved by her answer. But I saw that she was huddled in her corner, and that she was pressing a handkerchief to her mouth. The King lit a cigarette. By its flame I saw that his eyes had hardened and that his obstinate mouth was positively ferocious.
“Scum!” he said. “They seemed to have damaged your car.”
“Nothing like luck, sir.”
“Well, Colonel, it’s not the first time, and probably won’t be the last. Nothing like experience. When I saw the headlights, and heard that warning rap of yours, I pulled Elena down with me. Scum!” he said again. I looked in at her.
“You are quite sure, madame, that you were not hit?”
“Quite, thank you, Colonel Peter.”
“Then if you will get in, sir, we may as well push on.”
Pursuit, for two very good reasons, was not to be thought of: the would-be assassins would be far away by this, and I was responsible for the safety of my exalted passengers. Without demur the King did as he was told. Albert drove on.
The remainder of the journey was accomplished without mishap. Paul shook hands at parting. But he was not laughing; never had I seen a man who looked less like laughter.
“Come round and see me in the morning, Colonel. And, of course, nothing of this. Good night.”
“Good night, sir.”
And so ended the King’s day in the country; not such a pleasant day after all, though the ending might have been worse. No doubt now of the disgruntled Istanians.
It was not until Albert returned from the garage that I found he had been hit in the shoulder. At my look of alarm he grinned.
“Just a scratch, sir. Seem to be a pretty lively bunch. I thought something would happen soon as Mr. Mayford rang up.”
“Go and dress it,” I commanded. “We’ll talk later.”
Though the King had asked me to say nothing of this incident, I had to take it as meaning that no public prominence was to be given it, for it might cause certain political complications not welcome to authority. Indeed, it was conceivable that Paul might be politely told of the undesirability of a further stay among us. He, personally, was not in favour, nor was Istania of sufficient military importance to be treated with the most delicate consideration. On the other hand, it was my duty to report the occurrence to Mayford, and equally his duty to report to his superiors. If I could induce him to withhold such report, and anything serious happened, it would not help him in his career. Therefore, after debating the situation with myself, I decided not to precipitate matters. No harm could come of suspending the affair until I had seen the King.
A strange character. Apart from the indubitable danger to the King I was becoming curiously interested in the man. Not a doubt of his courage; I think, possibly with the exception of Albert, he was the coolest of our party during our late ordeal. One might almost imagine that being shot at was a matter of daily occurrence with him. Assumed coolness, probably, yet not without effect. I began to conceive him as being impressive upon occasion.
It was about ten o’clock on the following morning when my telephone began its burr-burr. Was George getting anxious? Naturally he would want to know all about the journey down to Wealdon, and as naturally he would have to be denied. But it turned out to be the amiable secretary, Count Ferdinand. Would it be convenient for me to lunch with his Majesty? I said it would.
On the way there I looked in on George, who glared at me across his desk.
“So you have come!” he growled.
“George,” I began, “his Majesty of Istania is rather a remarkable person.”
“H’m!” he grunted. “And madame?”
“Her ears fascinate me.”
“Does Paul know how dangerous you are?” he mocked.
“He may suspect, but he cannot possibly know. He approves of Wealdon.”
“And when does he move in?”
“Perhaps he will tell me at lunch.”
At this he began to grin. I reprimanded by telling him that he was frankly impossible.
“Well, get on with it,” he answered.
“And don’t irritate me. I have enough to bear without you.”
“F.O. been troublesome?”
“It’s this royal pal of yours,” he growled. “Seems they have heard rumours; want to know what’s happening.”
“Well, what is?”
“It’s not what is, but what may. Why did he want to bring that woman with him?”
“My dear George, if you were to see her you wouldn’t ask such a foolish question. Why does a man want all the good things in this life and in the next?”
“Her presence does not meet with the approval of—”
“Exactly. Queen Nardia is getting busy? Do you know, George, I rather think this is going to be an interesting case.” He glared at me. “I mean, psychologically. Pity you have never studied the science; it might have helped you in your job. What have you decided to do; deport her as an undesirable alien? Poor lady.”
“And she has such charming ears,” he mocked again.
“The daintiest you ever saw, shaded a most delicate pink. I wonder if the pearl studs she wears in them are real?”
“Why didn’t you ask her?”
“George, I’m going to win a title for you yet, if it’s only an Istanian one. As Prime Minister of that delectable country”
“Where they slit throats for pastime,” he gurgled. “Well, go and let them slit yours and rid me of you.”
“But my Adam’s apple is not so obtrusive as Paul’s.”
“Damn Paul and you with him. Get out!”
He projected a cloud of noxious smoke in my direction. I coughed obtrusively and wiped my eyes.
“Yes, sir. But I was thinking that if you would only send him a box of your cigars it would obviate the necessity of his loyal Istanians slitting his throat.”
“I’ll slit yours if you don’t clear out,” he growled. At half-past one precisely I entered Fallington’s and was received by the spruce Count Ferdinand, whose manner had increased in amiability. Where he had previously been correctly, if impersonally, amiable, he was now personally so, thereby producing a subtle impression which suggested that my stock was rising.
Paul received me heartily, and madame with a singularly winning smile. Again I warned myself to beware of princes and their favouritism, nor give myself over to the imagining of vain things. For just so long as I suited their purpose I would find them agreeable. That being understood there was no more to expect.
We lunched in his private dining-room, and as the meal progressed I was forced, perhaps a little reluctantly, to modify my suspicion of insincerity. Though not easily impressed by exterior circumstances, it was hard to deny Paul’s apparent good-will. More than once I found myself asking if the world had really misjudged him, and if there might not be some valid excuses for a man so situated. Curiously enough I thought more of the man than the king. Istania was a remote country, and what happened there of no great consequence. But for this man it would have reposed in peaceful obscurity, save for the occasional slitting of a throat. Looking at his, I wondered if that was to be the end of him.
We took coffee and smokes in the drawing-room, and then the incident of the previous night was broached for the first time. It was now, relieved of the presence of the servants, that he and madame grew serious, his amiability vanishing. Out came the thick lip and the eyes grew hard.
“I hate being thwarted, Colonel Gantian,” he pronounced, “and refuse to be intimidated by the threats of such scum. Do you think you can afford me adequate protection?”
“I can try, sir; but you realise that the shadow lurking in dark corners is always dangerous?”
“Yes, that’s clear; but I’m not going to be frightened by shadows. Have you ever been hunted?” he asked suddenly.
“And what did you do?”
He flashed a quick meaning look at madame. “Do you hear that, Elena? Turned hunter; turned on the dogs and scattered them.”
“But your Majesty may command many huntsmen,” I demurred.
“And not trust one. The incident of last night might have put my brother Michael in my place.”
“Instead of which it merely put a hole or two through my car.”
“I’m evidently a dangerous protege, Colonel.”
“Your Majesty promises interest,” I admitted.
“And you are prepared to interest yourself?”
“I detest intensely people who bore holes through my car.”
“Much better than through your head.”
“So I am beginning to think, though not yet certain which I prefer, a hole through the head or a slit in the throat.”
“My loyal Istanians are capable of either.” He smiled grimly.
“So I have always understood.”
“And what else have you understood?”
“That a king’s obligations are many, if I may be permitted to say so.”
“But only to his people, eh?”
“On the contrary; to himself.” A shadow crossed his face.
“You are very subtle, Colonel.”
“I shall need be, sir, if I am to serve you.”
“And you are willing?”
“Have I not told your Majesty that I detest people who bore holes through my car?”
Again he flashed a quick look at madame, a smile breaking over his face.
“And you advise?” she asked.
“Who ever heeded advice, madame, that ran counter to desire?”
“So. But, as his Majesty says, it would be a pity to let them intimidate us. You think so, yes?”
“An attack may be opened too soon, madame.”
“Certainly you are very subtle, Colonel Peter. But may it not also be begun too late?”
“The information so far supplied is not very definite,” I reminded her.
“You have the incident of last night,” she answered a little sharply.
“I know that a car opened fire as it passed us, but I don’t know who was in it. Do you?”
She flushed. “I! No, of course not. How should I?”
“Then how should I, who have never been in Istania?”
“We thought you knew everything,” she said.
Not nice, madame, and not to be lightly tolerated; indeed, somewhat suggesting insolence which called for a rebuke. We were measuring each other with a steady look when Paul intervened by asking if I had a suggestion to offer. Knowing what Mayford and the Foreign Office desired, but not knowing that the next bullet to come along might not strike lower than my hat, I bluntly asked him if he wouldn’t be safer in his own country. At this he fumed. Run away from them; acknowledge fear! He would see them damned first. He had come to England on holiday and he meant to stay. He pulled at his lip, glared defiance, and threatened. Something of the autocrat was showing here, of the man who had gone his way irrespective of consequences.
Madame, evidently a little upset by our brief passage of arms, excused herself and disappeared. Paul began to apologise for her. The incident had shaken her nerves; she was not herself. Women were always so impatient of delay; to satisfy them things had to be done in a hurry. To satisfy them! So even he was finding the difficulty of that.
“Of course you were blinded by the headlights?” he said.
“And saw nothing?”
“Beyond a shadowy figure or two.”
“Strange that they should have known of our visit to the country.” And then, suddenly, “You suspected? Was that why you did not approve the delay?”
“I might have thought it preferable to travel by daylight.”
“What are you hiding, Colonel?”
“One may loiter in a public street, with an eye on Fallington’s,” I answered.
“You have seen such a one?” he asked sharply. “What was he like?”
Briefly I described the man. Slowly he shook his head. “Might be one of thousands. He was there when you came in?”
“I do not think he will be seen there again.”
But I did think it was as well he had decided not to take immediate possession of Wealdon. Down there opportunity might present itself which would not be possible in London, and for the moment I believed him to be safe from further attack. The enemy having failed would not be eager to court a second repulse, which might end disastrously. He knew now that, suspicion being aroused, any action on his part would be doubly dangerous. In the meantime the frightened woman might prevail on him to change his plans. It was all very well to sneer at the enemy as scum, and to profess contempt of him, but it did not help greatly. Scum with a pistol or a bomb is not to be despised, and no one would know this better than King Paul of Istania, who would relieve authority of a decided embarrassment if he could only be induced to recross the Channel. That he had no present intention of doing anything of the sort was evident, though the future might force him to change his mind.
Meanwhile nothing happened. The enemy having retreated to his dugout, remained there in peaceful obscurity. But that he had abandoned all intention of a further attack was not to be thought of. He would come again when ready. The person or persons capable of one such desperate adventure were not to be deterred by failure. And the advantage of the initiative being in their hands they would naturally choose their own time, place, and method.
ON the evening of the fourth day after our return from the country I received a visitor. Nothing had happened during the interval. Paul had regained his usual composure, madame her equanimity of temper. This may have been due to advice proffered by him, or to her own sweet nature. Anyway, when next I met her she was charmingly affable, and without being apologetic for her sudden display of sharpness, was apparently intent on making me forget all about it.
Albert was out Istanian hunting, visiting various haunts in the West End where the alien chiefly congregated. He was something of an expert at this form of sport, and was able to penetrate places and fraternise with their habitues without arousing undue suspicion, not a little of his success being due to a prodigal generosity in the matter of standing drinks. Nothing establishes good-will so quickly as free liquor; native or alien was never known to deny the appeal. And men who drank talked.
But so far he had achieved no success. French, Germans, Italians, or even Russians were easily marked down; there was no mistaking them. But what sort of bird was an Istanian? How was one to know him? What kind of plumage did he sport, in what accent did he chirp? Istania being a small country stowed away somewhere in that part of the world vaguely described as the Balkans, how could one be expected to know anything about it? He had fought Germans, Austrians, Turks and Arabs, but who ever fought an Istanian, or even encountered one? Clearly his task was difficult. Yet he did not despair of it, nor I of him. It was the kind of difficulty he delighted in, and being a true optimist declared you never knew what was waiting round the corner. Personally I always regarded that thing round the corner with the utmost suspicion. But meanwhile my visitor is waiting on the doormat.
I had settled myself for a final pipe, book in hand, when suddenly my door bell rang. Mingled with its ringing the clock on the mantelpiece began to chime a quarter to twelve. Rather late for a visitor, I thought. Besides, I was in no mood to entertain. Therefore I hesitated until the bell rang a second time. No one was expected, though occasionally a friend finding the front door unlocked had been known to look in for a final spot. Could this be such a one?
Now I had entertained many strange visitors in my time, not a few of whom had proved dangerous. So rising and opening a drawer I slipped a gun in the pocket of my dressing-gown, switched on the light in the hall, and carefully opened the door. A man, who politely raised his hat and bowed, was standing well back from the door. A quick look showed me that his left hand was free of his pocket.
“Colonel Gantian?” he asked.
“May I have a word with you?”
“At this time of the night?”
“Unavoidable,” he replied, smiling and showing his white teeth.
He spoke excellent English with the slightest of foreign accents, which was neither French, German nor Italian. Istanian! The thought flashed through me.
“What do you want to see me about?” I asked.
“Something that may be of interest to you.”
An active, agile-looking man with a sharp dark face and clearly defined dark brows. A small carefully trimmed moustache adorned a thin and rather sinister mouth. Seeing my hesitation, he added quickly, “I am sure I can interest you, sir.”
Opening the door wide I led him into the sitting-room, where for a moment or so we stood staring at each other. Now, obtaining a better look at him, I saw that his face was very thin and that his eyes were black and piercing. He was neatly dressed. I motioned him to a chair and proffered the cigarette-box. He took one with a curious meaning smile. I relit my pipe. Again I asked him his business.
“You must pardon my calling at this hour,” he replied, “but I had to be sure of finding you alone.” His sharp eyes glanced at the pocket of my gown and a curious smile flickered over his lips. “I come as a friend, Colonel Gantian.”
“I think I know the name of most of my friends.”
“My name would not interest you, though my message may.”
“Istania,” he said.
“A much troubled country, sir.”
“Am I interested in its troubles?”
“Perhaps more in one who causes them.”
“You will be more explicit.”
“If you think it necessary.”
Strange penetrating eyes met mine, and again I saw the curiously enigmatic smile flitter over his lips. With relish he inhaled the cigarette, his cool self-assurance rather irritating.
“Russian,” he pronounced. I nodded. “Your association with that country—”
“Does that concern this visit?”
“Indirectly, perhaps. One knows of you through it. Rumour spreads swift and far, even in Istania.”
“You did not come to tell me this?”
“No, sir; merely to remind you that Istania can never be a danger to your country.”
“Do I need reminding?”
“But it may be to you.”
“In that case my visit will have served its purpose.”
“Odd as it may seem to you, I don’t like being threatened.”
“You mistake. I have not come to threaten but to warn—of the danger association with a certain exalted personage may bring.” A bitter sneer curled his lips as he used the words “exalted personage.”
“You mean your King?”
“Unhappily I cannot deny his present title.”
“Shall I say a brief present? What I should like you to realise is that this man Paul stands in the way of all that is necessary to the welfare of my country.”
“You will admit the difficulty of removing the obstacle?”
“Readily, but it is not insurmountable.”
“A dangerous admission.”
“Possibly, which I think you of all men will most appreciate. Tell me, Colonel Gantian, why should you risk your life to preserve that of one who is not worth preserving? Without this man my country may know peace; with him, never. To you he is probably no worse than others of his kind, a privileged reprobate provoking envy; to others he is something more, something sinister and hateful; at heart a tyrant, in thought a coward. Under his rule Istania has become a nest of bandits who plunder the people without restraint. Law has become a farce, justice a by-word. His creatures fill every office high and low. No man is safe—and no woman.”
“Now we seem to be getting near the trouble. Are you Major Karlin?”
“And if I were?” he said.
“Your attitude might more easily be understood.”
“Who I am is nothing; what I am, everything.”
“Yet you risk much by coming here to-night,” I reminded him.
“I think not, since I come as a friend.” He smiled. “Yes, I know; you have but to touch that telephone, but I do not think you will. And there is no necessity to keep your hand in your pocket.” This with a further deep-meaning smile. “We are here to talk sensibly, not to threaten. What I want you fully to realise is that in defending this man you court his danger. Now I repeat that he is not worth defending, that he is not worth a momentary inconvenience. He will use you as he uses everybody, and throw you aside when he has squeezed the last drop of usefulness out of you. And, anyway, he has to go, so you see all your care of him can come to nothing, and, I repeat, you personally run a grave risk.”
“Doesn’t it strike you that your own position is far from secure?”
“Forcibly,” he admitted.
“I think you are a blunderer, Major Karlin.”
“Major Karlin, if you insist,” he smiled; “it makes no difference.”
“And if I still insist on the blunderer?”
“I hope you will not. Frankly, Colonel, there is no quarrel with you.”
“Yet your friends shoot indiscriminately.”
“Like Paul with his machine guns,” he countered.
“That’s another grave admission, Major.”
“And includes the danger I spoke of,” he replied.
Unruffled, he helped himself to another cigarette. His hand was steady as he applied the light, his whole demeanour one of calm, cool self-possession. Watching him narrowly, I wondered who he really was. Though I had given him a name, I was by no means certain that I had struck the mark. According to rumour, Major Karlin had taken to potent liquor. Yet in this man there was no trace of such indulgence, nor any sign of furious indignation. The great wrong had apparently turned the seething blood to ice, assuming that he was the victim. But was he? Could a man who had been so shamed, and who by all accounts bitterly resented his degradation, behave in this manner?
“You embarrass me, Major,” I said, “and almost give the affair a personal interest. You see, I detest being shot at. Indiscriminate slaughter may be all very well in Istania, but we don’t approve of it here.”
“Perhaps it is your turn to be more explicit,” he replied.
“You think it necessary?”
“My concern is with the future, not the past.”
“But the past seems to order my future. Do you know, Major, I don’t think it’s possible to stand aside and give you and your friends a free hand. Paul may or may not be a welcome guest; that is for others to say. But while he remains our guest his safety becomes an exacting obligation.”
“Everything,” I said.
He rose, took up his hat and twisted it with nervous fingers, the first sign of nervousness he had shown.
“I regret your decision, Colonel, and beg that you will think of me only as a friend.”
“We seem to have different ideas of friendship.” Lightly, yet rather hopelessly, he shrugged his shoulders, implying by this action that whatever happened now he was not to blame. If his efforts to convince had failed, the responsibility clearly rested with others.
“A possibility much to be regretted,” he said. “You honour the Eastern custom of the salt?”
“Fully. But as you have been frank with me, Major, I will be equally frank with you. The King of Istania may be an utterly worthless person, but we hold life sacred in this country, and permit no one to deal with it outside the law. It may be crass prejudice on our part; probably is, but there’s no denying it. As you have been good enough to warn me, I should like to be equally generous with you: don’t let your friends do their killing in England. It’s a bad country to do that sort of thing in, too small, too narrow, too circumscribed; there isn’t a dog’s chance of getting away with it.”
“You still presume that killing is the object? My dear Colonel, why kill Paul to put Michael on the throne? That would mean merely a change of tyrants. I see you are not well-versed in the internal affairs of Istania. Michael, a weak creature, urged by various interests, might prove even worse than his brother. We seem to have misapprehended each other.”
“I accept your assurance.”
“But still doubt? One day I hope to convince you. I have your permission to go?”
“And I shall not be followed?”
“I still honour the custom of the salt.”
“A thousand apologies, Colonel.”
“Don’t mention it, Major.”
I rose, and for a moment we stood looking at each other. He hesitated as though having still more to say. Then suddenly, like a startled animal, he swung round, his hand going to his pocket as the front door was heard to shut.
“So you—” he began. But I had already caught his wrist and was holding it down.
“Easy, Major; it’s only my man.”
Albert must have heard this, for with a quick stride he was in the room, gun in hand.
“Put that up,” I said, “and please see this gentleman to the door. A thousand apologies, Major,” I added, releasing his wrist. “Your sudden doubt must be my excuse. The salt still retains its savour, but for how long will depend on you.”
He bowed low and without another word left the room. Over his shoulder Albert flung a quick look at me. I nodded. On his return I was refilling my pipe.
“Not a word, sir.”
“Ever seen him before?”
“I think so.”
“In a place off the Tottenham Court Road; foreign restaurant called the Luna. Sort of club held there too. Ever play faro, sir?”
“So they play faro there?”
“In the cellar. Snarling underdogs kept quiet by the game. Funny how a man seems to forget everything else while he’s gambling.”
“That man would have us forget a certain shooting on the London Road—and the King of Istania. He thinks the King is a dangerous friend to have. I thought it rather decent of him to warn me.”
“Quite, sir. Was that why he wanted to follow it up with a little more shooting?”
“Major Karlin is a gentleman and regrets the mistake. At least, I think he is Major Karlin.”
“Looks as though things were brightening, sir.”
I was not sure of the brightening, or that it would be desirable. Lightning is bright enough, but dangerous.
It was odd that this man should come to me in such a manner. He would know the risk he was running. Had he hoped to intimidate me? Scarcely, with any advantage to himself; for if I retired another would take my place. The work would go on; nothing could check the inevitability of it. He could not imagine that the discontent of certain Istanians would vitally affect me. If they had a grievance and were incapable of dealing with it, so much the worse for them. Paul might be a tyrant served by an army of sycophants and parasites, but there was nothing unusual in that. And in any case he did not strike me as being all that a tyrant ought to be. On the contrary, a very ordinary man with the not uncommon desire to do as he pleased. And whom is one to trust if not one’s friends—especially when rich rewards await fidelity of service?
Undoubtedly a daring move. How was the man to know I would honour sanctuary? Had he come to kill? I could not think so even when remembering the hidden gun. Why should he? What was to be gained in my killing? Not the lessening of danger; rather the increasing of it. I always gave the enemy credit for a perspicacity equal to my own. If I flattered him in this so much the better for me.
Was he Major Karlin? Though at first I thought I had made a shrewd guess, doubt now supervened. As a rule the information received in a certain quarter was fairly accurate. The men and women who forwarded reports to headquarters did not communicate on hearsay alone. They wouldn’t have kept their job long if they had. But if this was Major Karlin, then rumour had certainlv exaggerated his downfall. Whatever else he might be, my late visitor was no drunken sot. Possibly desperate and incredibly reckless, but clear of brain and fixed of purpose. In dealing with such a man one would not be able to relax for a moment.
Looking up at Albert, I asked, “About that faro club of yours. Is it difficult to gain admission?”
“Not with me, sir.”
“Think it might be worth a visit?”
“Now more than ever,” he said.
“You’re quite sure the man who has just left us is the man you saw there?”
“That’s the way it struck me; though mixing with a crowd you can’t photograph every face on the mind. I’ll make sure of him next time.”
“And he of you. I think we had better go together.”
THE more I thought of my late visitor the stronger grew doubt as to his identity. In the first place, there was no reason to believe that Major Karlin was in England; and in the second, report being more or less true, how was it possible to associate the intelligent person who had visited me with one who suffered a moral or physical degeneration? I was sure that drink or any other form of debauchery had no hold on him. Rabid ideas were plentiful, but that his mind was not working brightly and at full pressure was inconceivable. In the alienation of such subjects Paul of Istania had committed one of those blunders he would probably live to regret.
Going round to Fallington’s the next morning, I was ushered into the King’s presence with little delay. Ferdinand, though smiling and amiable, seemed a little more reserved than usual, almost as though amiability required a spur. Looking closer at him, I thought he was less effeminate than I had first imagined. The mouth grew firmer as one looked at it, the nose suggestively predatory. Curious that one should not have immediately noticed the curious bend at the tip of it, or the tightness of the skin at the corner of the eyes. In some far-off time Ferdinand’s ancestors, amid countless hordes, had descended on the West from the Caspian forests.
He lingered by the door till somewhat summarily dismissed. Then the King turned to me and indicated a sofa by the window. He was in dressing-gown and slippers, a cigarette between his lips. On a small table stood a coffee-pot and two cups, one of which was still in use. After a somewhat perfunctory greeting he asked me if I would take coffee, and smiled oddly at my refusal.
Then he began to question. Had anything happened, anything of importance?
“But of course not, or you would have told me. The fools have betrayed themselves,” he continued, “and now think only of their own security. Realising that they are suspect, they will have no other wish than to hide themselves from your people. I think we may eliminate them, Colonel. That one blunder has rauined their chances.”
“Probably. But to whom were you referring, sir, when you said they would know they are suspect?”
“To that scum of the other night,” he frowned.
“So I imagined. But who are they?”
“Who should they be but—” he began hotly.
Then stopped and glared at me. I have said that he had large full sensual eyes; possibly commanding eyes if one were anxious to propitiate him. But I was not anxious and he knew it. “I see what you mean,” he added quickly. “Of course, who are they?”
“You realise the difficulty?”
“Of course, of course,” he said again. “But you people have a way of finding out things?”
“Our own way, sir; probably an antiquated one, but as a people we cling tenaciously to the worm-eaten idea that a man’s liberty is a sacred thing. If we were to arrest on suspicion every Istanian in London it might mean serious complications with your Majesty’s government.”
“Then the identity of these assassins is likely to remain a secret?”
“On the contrary, they are already beginning to disclose it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked sharply, frowning, his look puzzled.
“I’m afraid the answer to that question involves the personal note. May I utter it without offence?” He appeared to hesitate. “If your Majesty has not entire confidence in me, you must allow me to withdraw from this affair.”
“Of course I have confidence in you. Haven’t I proved it? What more do you want; and what do you mean by ‘personal note’?”
“I think Major Karlin is coming into the picture.”
“That—” Though a man may claim the right to abuse a husband after stealing his wife, it apparently struck Paul as a little incongruous. He stopped suddenly, pulling at his lip. “What makes you think so?” he asked.
“At midnight last night a man called on me. He was one of your Majesty’s disloyal subjects.”
“What did he want?”
“He came to warn me that you were a dangerous protégé.”
“And you didn’t arrest him!”
“No, I let him talk.”
“You puzzle me, Colonel.” Again he began to frown.
“One frequently learns much by listening.”
“And what did you learn?” he asked.
“Very little. He was a most discreet person.”
“And yet he ventured to come to you. Strange discretion.”
“He came as a friend.”
“Wanted to get you out of the way?”
Again he began to pull at his lip. One day I should have to speak of that pernicious habit.
“What was he like?” was the next question. After I had described him he shook his head. “That wasn’t Karlin. Besides, he’s not in England; I know he’s not. But who could your visitor have been?” He muttered several names to himself. And then suddenly asked, “Of course, you charged him with complicity in that attempt?”
“He failed to catch the drift of my meaning, though undoubtedly a man of clear intelligence.”
“That’s the devil of it,” he admitted; “these swine are intelligent. What happened to him?”
“Having partaken of my salt, he was free to go.”
“But you had him shadowed?”
“He appeared to think he might rely on my word.”
“And you might have netted the whole gang! By my soul, Colonel, your methods amaze me.” And angered him, too, I did not doubt. Then a new light sprang to his eyes. “It sounds like Milescu,” he said.
“Milescu,” I echoed.
“Andrev Milescu. Yet that can’t be,” he mused; “he was shot in Odessa.”
“Then that accounts for Andrev Milescu.”
“But does it? Was he shot? It seems to me, Colonel, that you have allowed a very dangerous character to slip through your fingers.”
There was a suggestion of reproof in this, not overwhelmingly effective. He began to pace up and down the room, muttering to himself. Andrev Milescu was clearly one of those perturbing persons who make even kings think. And he may not have been shot in Odessa, which apparently complicated matters. It looked to me that Paul’s stay in England might not be as free of care as he had fondly hoped. Suddenly he stopped and glared at me.
“I would give a lot to know who that man really was.”
“I called him Major Karlin.”
“Well?” he snapped.
“It seemed to amuse him.”
“It would. Did he deny it?”
“He neither denied nor confirmed, but seemed to be seriously alarmed as to my future. By the way, sir, have you ever played faro?”
“Faro,” he repeated, “faro?”
“Not the king of that name,” I explained, “but the game.”
“And may I ask what you’re driving at now?” Still that angry frown, annoyance palpably restrained.
“Our stupid, old-fashioned laws regard it as an illegal pastime, and consequently it is played in secret places such as cellars, back rooms and the like; anywhere, in fact, out of sight of the police. I believe the game is much appreciated by certain of our foreign population. What if my late visitor were a devotee?”
“Oh, oh!” said he as if with the dawning of intelligence.
The result of further talk forced him to a definite decision, a rather daring one as I pointed out. But he would not be denied. He had to know if the man who had visited me was Andrev Milescu, and he would know. I stressed the possible danger of his going with Albert and me, but he made light of it, and in making light of it flattered us. Moreover, he gave the impression that he welcomed the adventure, allowing me another glimpse of his varied character. Excitement was in his blood; he would take physical as well as moral risks. Probably a fearless man in his own fashion, or considering himself above those petty restrictions which clamp most of us to convention.
I demurred, not from any love of him, but from the fear of possible complications. If anything serious should happen! Doubtless such happening would be hailed by many of his subjects as a God-sent deliverance, though I had no wish to receive any of the credit for it. As I detailed certain possible dangers he laughed.
“Nonsense; I’ve often gone about Belcresta in disguise.” Belcresta was the name of his capital. “What Istanian would dream of looking for me in a beard and a workman’s blouse? My dear Gantian, I promise implicit obedience and a still tongue. Moreover, I must know if that man is Milescu; it is imperative that I should know, so please say no more, about it. When do we go—to-night?”
“I must consult Floyd.”
“You are sure of him?”
“As of myself.”
“I’m glad of that, because both Elena and I have rather taken to him. There’s a quiet sense of power about the fellow that appeals. Do you think he would come to Istania with me?”
“Candidly, I don’t, but your Majesty has permission to try.”
“You say that as though the result were certain,” he laughed.
“I think it is.”
“Damn it all, Gantian, how comes it that you can command this devotion while I — Well, let us hear what he has to say. I hope it’s to be to-night.”
It was; Albert thought about eleven o’clock. Personally he did not worry over possible complications; indeed, was inclined to welcome the royal recruit as lending a savour to the enterprise. After all, though divinity may have ceased to hedge a king, the glamour of the crown remains.
The amiable Ferdinand, otherwise Count Ferdinand Berrisco, replied to my call and immediately apprised his sovereign, who chuckled as he asked if Monsieur Floyd had granted permission.
“Readily,” I answered, “and has decided to call for you about half-past ten. I may inform you, sir, that he is a punctilious martinet.”
“Good,” he continued to chuckle. “Please convey my respects, and inform him that I will call at Cork Street instead, at half-past ten precisely.”
And at half-past ten to the minute my door bell rang. Albert, who had donned his chauffeur’s uniform for the occasion, answered it. I heard a muffled conversation, and almost immediately he entered the sitting-room preceded by a stout bearded person in spectacles. Had I not been expecting the King I should never have guessed his identity, for he produced the foreigner of the respectable lower orders to perfection. Laughing, he patted his protruding paunch.
“Not bad, is it?” he asked.
“Extremely realistic, sir.”
“Well, Monsieur Floyd,” said he, turning to Albert, “what is your opinion? Think it’ll do?”
Monsieur Floyd smiled and said he thought it would. I knew he was secretly revelling in the prospect of adventure. Anything for a change seemed to be his motto. In this I thought he had an affinity with the King, quickly sensed by both. In his exuberance Paul thumped him on the back and wanted to know when we were to be off. One might almost have fancied that he was glad to slip the chain for an hour or two.
We discharged our taxi at the junction of the Tottenham Court Road with Oxford Street, and sauntered casually along, Albert leading a few paces ahead. I wore a false moustache, and snapped my hat low over the brow. Probably this disguise would not have sufficed to deceive my late visitor should he be present, but I reckoned on seeing him first and decided not to come too clearly into his line of vision.
Presently Albert shot off to the left, we after him.
“Paul slipped his arm through mine and pressed it. He was enjoying himself immensely. I had to warn him again that we were strangers.
Entering the Luna restaurant we found the lights dimmed and the tables stripped of their cloths. A solitary waiter lounged on one of the plush-covered benches smoking a cigarette. Albert nodded to him and smiled. The man watched us pass without interest.
At the end of the shabby room there was a screen, and behind this we discovered a flight of stairs which apparently led to the kitchen. Albert descended, Paul followed, I bringing up the rear. But instead of exploring the kitchen we entered a narrow passage on our right, lit dimly by the light at the foot of the stairs. Here a door barred further progress, on which Albert knocked in a clearly arranged signal. A little slit was opened and a pair of dark eyes scrutinised us, or rather Albert, who had pushed himself forward blocking us out. A whispered word or two followed, the door was opened and we entered. Beyond this door was a second door, but nonchalantly pushing it open Monsieur Floyd swaggered through, we at his heels.
The room, or cellar, in which we now found ourselves was so thick with smoke as to be almost impenetrable. Which was probably as well, though I must admit that our arrival failed to cause a sensation, by reason, doubtless, of the game in progress. Round a table, over which an electric bulb was suspended, about a dozen men, and three or four women, were seated or standing. As we joined them no more than a casual glance was flung at us. When your gambler watches the turn of a card which means loss or gain to him he has eyes for little else. But soon I saw that they were not playing faro, as anticipated, but that form of baccarat known as chemin-de-fer, or “Chemie.” Silver and copper represented the stakes. And one hand had evidently “passed” many times, for before the person who was dealing, a downy-looking young fellow with a cigarette dangling from his lips, there was quite a small pile of coins. He looked round at those who were seated, and up at those who were standing, and mockingly told them to make their game. Albert, the reckless, flung half a crown on the table, but the others were apparently reluctant to bet against the luck of the run. Then Paul, who had moved to the other side of the table, suddenly cried out, “Banco!” The dealer looked at him and smiled.
“It’ll cost you twenty-seven-and-six,” he announced. Paul flung a couple of pounds on the table. Money talks.
By the laws of the game the dealer had either to accept the challenge or pass the cards to the person on his right. He appeared reluctant to take further risk, until someone derisively taunted with, “Funk it, Solty?” That decided him; he took the risk and won. Paul laughed.
“Sorry, guv’nor,” chuckled Mr. Solty as he handed up the change from the two pounds.
“That’s six wins,” said a woman who had pushed her way to Paul’s side. “Solty’s got the devil’s own luck.”
“Six,” said he, “that’s good, but seven’s better. Banco!”
Solty hesitated. To his little pile of coins was now added paper money. A turn of the card might mean the loss of it all. He looked up at the challenger, and then again at his money. Paul repeated the challenge, this time mockingly. It was accepted.
Slowly the man dealt the cards, two to each, his face very serious. Court cards and the ten have no value in this game, the number of pips counting nine, or nearest to it, winning. The man took a quick look at his cards and laid them face up on the table. He had drawn a five and a three making eight. Good enough, to be sure, but not so good as nine. Paul, laying his two cards on the table, showed the king of diamonds and the nine of hearts.
“Bad luck,” he said consolingly as he gathered up the stakes. The woman pressed closer to his side, smiling broadly. Solty rose scowling. Who was this fat stranger who seemed to be running over with money? Whispering began, sullen looks were flung at him, not unobserved, I guessed, though having little effect. Suddenly he took the vacant chair and spread out the money he had won. Then he looked round, beaming at the punters.
“All this in the bank,” he announced. “Come on gentlemen, make your game.”
He was in his element; the man was a born gambler. The tone of his voice as he challenged, his whole manner, proclaimed it. He took up the soiled cards and shuffled them with a dexterity that told its own tale. It also told something else: that his hands were white and perfectly manicured. True, there was no reason why a respectable tradesman shouldn’t have his hands manicured, but it was doubtful if he would have hands of such shape and texture.
As the players began to punt modestly Paul looked across the table at me and beamed through his glasses. But he did not appear to notice that I had raised my hand before my face and was working my fingers, or if he saw the action he failed to understand it. He was now absorbed in the game, and for the next twenty minutes or so appeared to think of nothing else. Losing or winning he continued to smile and smoke and joke. Occasionally he handed a coin to the woman who had tacked herself on to him. She was a thin faded creature, rather distressingly painted, but made a brave show in cheap finery. Once I saw him pat her hand. After that she leant affectionately on his shoulder. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see her arms go round his neck.
So far, apart from the play, nothing bearing on our visit had happened. Occasionally I questioned Albert with a look, to which he replied with an almost imperceptible shake of the head. Would Milescu come; or had he been and gone? Paul, apparently, had given up thinking of him, the game commanding all his attention. Doubtful points found him sharp as a needle. Not a few smart lads were playing, who doubtless had begun by thinking they had a mug to deal with, but he soon rid them of that delusion. And insensibly he seemed to assume an air of authority; might, in fact, have been addressing his council of ministers. I hoped this imperious manner would not ultimately lead to his undoing.
Solty the sullen, after watching the play for a time, had disappeared, doubtless to brood over his luck or curse himself for his rashness. But after a while he returned, and once more began to punt mildly. Now I had neither noticed him go nor return, which might have shown a certain remissness on my part. But the truth is, Paul’s absorption in the game, and the eagerness of the play, commanded most of my attention. I had already decided that Milescu (if such were the name of the visitor) was not coming that night, while the others, apart from the play, were of no particular interest. But when I saw Paul’s ancient adversary return, and noted how near he had drawn to the King, my interest in him increased. He began to fidget and throw fugitive glances round the room, more than one of which was returned. I caught Albert’s eye. He too had seen and moved beside the man. I looked round. There was still no sign of my late visitor.
Then in a flash it happened. Paul, who had been extraordinarily lucky, was in the act of stretching out his hand to gather in more shekels when Solty leant over him and grasped him by the wrist.
“Cheat!” he shouted, “swindler! You drew that nine from the bottom of the pack. I saw you.”
“You’re a liar,” said Paul, looking up at him through his glasses.
“Liar, am I!”
Solty’s fist went up, but before it could descend Albert struck. Solty sagged sideways to the floor. In an instant there was great confusion. Someone upset the table and with it the money, which clinked as it fell to the floor. This created a momentary diversion. Some of the men, and all of the women, immediately went down on their hands and knees, feverishly groping for the scattered coins. I slipped round to Paul’s side. He smiled at me. Devil take the fellow; didn’t he realise what this might lead to?
Meanwhile Solty, helped by his friends, was once more on his feet. His bruised mouth was already beginning to swell.
“He’s done us down,” he foamed. “I saw him do it. What about it, boys?”
The boys evidently thought a lot about it by the look of them.
“You’re a liar,” Paul repeated, but quite complacently, “and all these gentlemen know it.”
For a moment the gentlemen looked rather sheepish, but the accuser continued, loud and insistent.
“Then why are you wearing that false beard?” he demanded. “Boys, it’s a disguise. He’s a pleece nark, that’s what he is, an’ them two blokes are in with him.”
At this a wave of terror struck the assembly; even the money hunters, with the exception of the women, rose from the floor with scared faces. A few stole quietly towards the exit and silently vanished.
But a few brave or desperate spirits stiffened themselves for a rush, and I thought we were in for as pretty a rough-and-tumble as even Albert could desire, but which I particularly wished to avoid in view of the eminence of our protégé. He, however, did not seem at all averse to a scrap, squaring up in right royal fashion. Thus we stood awaiting the onslaught, I on one side of him, Albert on the other, when suddenly a mocking voice called out, “In congenial company, Paul Saranov?”
The King, flinging a quick glance in the direction of the voice, uttered the one word, “Milescu!”
“Always watching over you,” sneered the voice. “But it was rash of you to come here. Gentlemen, I know this fellow. He is a notorious thief and liar, and has robbed you as he robs everyone who is fool enough to trust him. Are you going to let him escape punishment? Tear off his false beard and ram it down his throat.”
But before they could move I called out authoritatively, “You’re all under arrest!”
Milescu laughed. “Bluff,” he mocked; “at them! Beat that fat pig till he squeals.”
“By God!” Paul began, but got no further, for a missile of some sort struck him full in the face, smashing his glasses. It was then Albert and I drew our guns.
“Hands up, all of you,” I cried, “and keep them up if you’re wise.”
Fear and hatred mingled in the looks that were flung at me. None the less the hands went up, if slowly, and at the same moment the light was suddenly switched off.
DARKNESS increased the confusion. There was a shuffling of feet, imprecations in many tongues, a clattering of chairs and a woman’s scream. Seizing the King by the arm I drew him back against the wall. More than one blundered into us, to be pushed violently away. Feet shuffled, towards the exit I did not doubt. Someone called out for the light, but apparently discretion prevailed. To make good their escape was all that mattered now, which I am glad to say they succeeded in doing. For presently, when the light was switched on by Albert, the only other person to be seen was the lady who had succumbed to Paul’s fascination, or his shekels. She was huddled up in a corner, hatless, holding a hand to her face, having evidently been subjected to some rough usage. Not a little bewildered, she gazed at him as he gallantly helped her to her feet.
“Are you hurt?” he asked solicitously.
“Only trampled to death,” she said, “damn and blast them!”
“So sorry,” he murmured.
“Oh, hell,” she said, “what’s it matter, anyway? Lucky to get out of a scrap like that alive. Where’s me hat? Blast ’em, they’ve spoilt me stockings, too!”
“Never mind, my dear,” said he, “get a new pair, and a hat as well.” He pushed some paper money into her hand.
“You’re not a bad sort,” she said.
“I wonder how many would agree with you?” he answered.
Very touching, of course, but we had to get out of this cellar. The woman would probably know of a secret exit if there was one. Questioned, she replied that there was only the one way out; Albert confirmed this by saying he knew of no other.
“Scared ’em to death,” she laughed. “Did y’ever see such a scamper of rats! Of course that police business was a stunt?”
“Don’t we look like police?” I asked.
“You don’t look like anything on Gawd’s earth,” she replied. Paul chuckled; I frowned.
Though doubting that Milescu or his assistant Solty would bar the way, precautions were not ignored. I led the procession back, gun in hand, Paul and the woman following, Albert bringing up the rear. Nothing happened. One light burned dimly in the restaurant. The solitary waiter we had seen on entering was seated in the same chair, with apparently the same cigarette between his lips. Seeing us, he rose slowly, shuffled to the door, unlocked it and let us out.
The girl drew Paul aside, whispering something in his ear. He laughed, shaking his head, and releasing his arm she told him to go to hell. He laughed again. I wondered what Madame Karlin would have thought, she who rarely heard the King laugh in these days.
“Thanks, my dear Gantian,” he said, slipping his arm through mine, “for a most enjoyable evening. If you and Monsieur Floyd know of such another cheerful resort you can take me there to-morrow night.”
Possibly there might have been a different ending, which I thought he failed to realise. A chance shot, a stab in the dark, and brother Michael on the throne, which might not be a misfortune for Istania. One thing was certain: in Paul his subjects had a man, irrational and inconsequent, who might be trusted to lead himself and his people into any imbroglio at any odd moment. In those few minutes of play, in that fetid atmosphere, surrounded by that riff-raff, he had given me a glimpse of his inner self which hitherto I had but dimly visualised. Forgetting his greatness, there was no longer degradation in the scene. He was as keen on easing that scum of its few odd shillings as though the money were of vital importance to him. Rigidly playing the game, he would tolerate no laxity on the part of the others; every attempt to swindle him, and there were not a few, was swiftly checked and sharply reproved. He probably would have continued playing till the early hours of the morning but for the accusation of the man Solty. It was clear that when the King of Istania sat down at a gaming table he was never eager to rise.
And yet there was no doubt of his personal courage. He must have realised that with Milescu’s presence anything might happen. Yet he betrayed no symptom of alarm; on the contrary, rose to the occasion in a manner wholly admirable. Preconceived notions of him were being rapidly shattered. Without the exercise of the greatest care one might presently begin to applaud.
Visiting Mayford on the following morning I found him in an irritable mood. And the cause? While Paul’s visit was tolerated, Madame Karlin’s was bitterly resented. It would appear that a certain exalted personage had suggested the possibility of curtailing it. Officialism was in a quandary. Paul, though unwelcome, had to be treated tactfully. And what had the private life of the King to do with a people who were not even his subjects? Queen Nardia’s attitude could be appreciated. It would be hateful to her, the thought of her husband and his mistress… George frowned, glared at me, and relit his cigar.
“Andrev Milescu is in London,” I said.
“Who the devil’s Andrev Milescu?” he asked.
“An Istanian much interested in his King.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” he growled.
“That Paul’s a gambler.”
“And what’s the other chap?”
“A friend of Major Karlin’s. He doesn’t like Paul, neither does Solty. Solty is also a gambler, but a bad loser. I don’t like the cut of his gib, George,” I announced solemnly; “we’re on the eve of great events. Paul wants Albert to go to Istania.”
“I wish you’d go with him,” he said.
“My future, like Paul’s, is in the hands of the two noble Istanians I have just mentioned. It may be a bomb, a pistol, or a slit Adam’s apple. George, do you know anything of Baron von Lindner?”
“Only that he’s Queen Nardia’s secretary.”
“What are you driving at?” he asked suspiciously.
“I have an infinite pity for women; how they survive the calamities of life is inconceivable to me. A brief gleam of sunshine; then disillusion, darkness, doubt, misery.”
“They can take care of themselves,” he said; “don’t you worry about them.”
“But I do, immoderately; I’m always worrying about them. Do you think Nardia would be a happy woman if Paul were the sort of donkey one could lead by the ears; or that Elena—”
“I’m beginning to see things, George, and wish you had a little of my vision; you might then be able to make clear a few moral mystifications. For example: can you explain the fascination of blackguardism, or why so many women prefer it to the most exemplary virtues? Why are Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard popular heroes, Nell Gwynn a national heroine? What is the allure of the crooked that blinds us to the excellence of the straight? Why is virtue so alarming and vice so congenial? Why an excuse for the sinner and a doubt for the saint? Take Elena, now.”
“Well, take her,” he growled. “I wish you or somebody else would.”
“And Nardia, cold as one of her northern winters. Elena is not cold; the sun is in her blood.”
“And her little ears are tinted a most delicate pink,” he sneered.
“I can conceive her vibrating with passion. Ever heard of a snow-capped volcano? But I see you have. Smouldering fires ready to burst into an all-devouring flame.”
“So that’s the way the cat’s jumping?” he said.
“I rather like to think of women as cats, soft silky creatures with incomprehensible green eyes. When you stroke them they purr divinely.”
“And when you don’t they scratch,” he growled. He was always growling like a big red bear. An excellent official, but utterly lacking in the finer shades of delicate perception.
“Tell me, George, do you think a northern woman is wholly impervious to the influence of the sun?”
“Out with it,” he replied in his blunt way. “What do you know?”
“Nothing; but I often wonder if the northern winter is a storehouse of energy which the summer loosens with devastating effect. Wrap that round your cigar and smoke it. I wonder when Paul will take possession of Wealdon?”
“If he ever does.”
“Exactly. Any news of Major Karlin?”
“No,” he snapped.
“I don’t quite understand the procedure, George.”
“Karlin’s, Milescu’s, possibly Solty’s. Nor do I like the way he smokes a cigarette.”
“Get out,” he said.
So there was a movement afoot to get Paul and madame across the Channel, not easy of accomplishment. Whatever might be thought of the man, the King was unassailable. And in any case this was a secret official matter which did not concern the public. Politics had nothing to do with it; no question of state was involved. Just a trilling domestic disagreement between a man and a woman who happened to be husband and wife. The novelty of the theme had been worn threadbare.
“There’s going to be difficulty in arranging that Channel crossing, George.”
“You think so?”
“So would you if you saw Paul’s mouth. By the way, you might let loose one or two of your bright young men on Milescu and Solty.”
“Any other orders?”
“Just give my love to Molly and the boy. He’s a fine lad, George.” The red face beamed. That small son was probably his one weakness. “And fortunately takes after his mother.” The red face frowned, but smiled immediately on my adding, “Godfather Gantian is sending him a nice little bicycle for his birthday.”
“That kid’s the most intelligent—”
“Yes, I know. S’long.”
I strolled round to Fallington’s. In my case ceremony was no longer to be observed in approaching the royal apartments. Paul had said in his genial way, “Come right up and don’t fool about waiting for Ferdinand,” which I acknowledged as an unusual compliment. If he wasn’t careful I should end by liking him.
No less a person than Ferdinand answered my knock. I thought he seemed a little surprised to see me, though his face soon wreathed itself in its accustomed amiability. Madame was over against the window hastily powdering her nose.
“Come in, Colonel Peter,” she called out. “I’m afraid his Majesty has not yet returned.” She held out a pretty hand which I saluted with becoming dignity. “But I know he will not be late. I understand you are lunching with us?”
“His Majesty was kind enough to ask me.”
She motioned me to a chair, seating herself full in the light. No need yet to seek the shadows. Ferdinand had silently vanished.
“Now,” she said, “tell me what really happened last night?”
“I think the King was amused.”
“I know he was. But where did you take him? What happened? He has a black eye this morning.”
“Not a bad one, I hope?” She smiled.
“Not really; but he admitted he might have had a bad head but for the timely interference of Monsieur Floyd. Colonel Peter, at times his Majesty is as reckless as a boy, and I am much distressed on his account. Was he in great danger last night? He says not, but then he makes light of everything. Even that affair on the London Road… she shuddered. “What does he say: a miss of an inch is as good as a miss of a yard. You do not think like that? You hate being fired at?”
“It is not the first time,” she said, her large eyes very solemn.
“So I understand.”
“He has many bitter enemies. Some hate him because he is a King, others because of me. Yet I would make any sacrifice to insure his happiness. Of course no one believes this, and I have no opportunity to prove my devotion. They tell many lies, Colonel Peter, which I am forced to endure in silence.”
And possibly many truths, I thought, continuing to listen with every appearance of sympathy. I suppose the need to confide comes to all of us at times. Personally I felt unfitted for the role of confessor to such a beautiful penitent, and hoped she would not lay too great a burden on the shoulders of my charity. For I was not wholly convinced of the sincerity of her penitence. As she spoke the idea grew that she was very subtly testing me. Her eyes, large, luminous and lovely, were regarding me in a manner that clearly suggested a reservation of thought. If she was not questioning herself of me, wondering how far she might go, then my reading of her was much at fault.
But she was definitely interesting, the situation was interesting, and out of it much might come. George Mayford always accused me of being unnecessarily delicate in my handling of women, and professed to believe that the only hope of curing my incredible sentimentalism lay in marriage. But then he was an official machine driven by the motor of duty. For him there was no golden mean in women; they were either good or bad, and as he dealt chiefly in the latter article his outlook was inevitably circumscribed.
And what of madame; how deep her subtlety, how true her sincerity? And in any case why should she apparently wish to propitiate me? My job was merely a police one, or had begun as such; how it was going to end was impossible to foresee. In the beginning it looked as though it might not last long. Paul’s reputation having preceded him did not prepossess one in his favour. From my earliest days I had always hated tyrants, curtailers of liberty, inflictors of torture, of which the Slav countries seemed to produce a surprising crop. One forgets one’s own misdeeds in contemplating those of others, and that legal torture still survives among us.
As she spoke of enduring in silence I could not help thinking that she bore few traces of the ordeal. What reply she expected me to make I did not know. Was she digging a hole for unwary feet? I nodded gravely, non-committal. When a woman takes you into her confidence she also unwittingly hoists the danger cone. And I was not entirely convinced of the penitence of this fair penitent.
Evidently she soon summed me up as an indifferent confessor. Possibly I was too obtuse for the job, too lacking in the finest sense of delicate perception. When a woman takes to confessing she expects to be treated with the nicest discrimination.
A curiously intimate smile fluttered over her lips and in her eyes.
“My dear Colonel Peter,” she said, “you have the makings of an excellent courtier.”
“Is it possible that I can be so misjudged?”
“We thought we were engaging a policeman, and receive the finished diplomat.”
“Just a policeman, madame, nothing more.”
“The King would not agree to that, nor I. If we did, how should we account for Colonel Leathermouth?”
She smiled, flinging a glance at the feature which had earned me that opprobrious name. Devil take the woman!
“Forget him,” I said.
“Some people would like to,” she laughed. “One day you will tell us all about him? The King is interested in him, and he in the King, yes?”
“Also in Andrev Milescu,” I said.
“Andrev Milescu!” She almost gasped the name. Sudden fear came to her eyes. “You know of him; you have seen him; he is here?” Quickly the questions were fired at me.
“And presumably also interested.”
“How do you know this?”
“He did me the honour to call at my rooms.”
“A dangerous, intriguing person, Colonel Peter.” And then, after a slight hesitation, “Well?”
“His protestations of friendship appeared to make him apprehensive.”
“Of what?” she asked sharply.
“His concern for my welfare added sincerity to his manner.”
“You realise that you can be a very provoking person? Are there not times when discretion may be carried a little too far?”
“I often wonder.”
She frowned, pressed her lips hard, and seemed on the point of erupting. Unlike Nardia, she did not belong to the glacial period; though volcanic she was not snow-capped. But a quick second thought brought an equally quick change. She flashed a disarming smile.
“No, I didn’t mean that. But we women are both impulsive and curious.”
“And I am still in your confidence, madame?”
“Always, and in the King’s too.”
“Then I do not know that Major Karlin is in England.”
“But Andrev Milescu visited you?”
“As one who is singularly interested in my welfare.”
“And you believed?”
“Not a word. It was inconceivable to me that a stranger should come all the way from Istania to express his regard for one of whom he had never heard.”
“Your modesty appears to equal your discretion. I hope neither may betray you.”
It was impossible not to notice how she harped on that word “discretion” as though it were of superlative importance. Probably intrigue had taught her the value of it, a value which she seemed to stress with almost unnecessary insistence. Apparently she was unconscious of ever having been indiscreet; or possibly discretion is a quality which rests in us alone.
She was a curiously interesting problem. Try as I would I could come to no definite decision regarding her. Though in rare flashes she showed much of what I believed to be her true self, there were moments of uncertainty which kept me guessing. Carrying off a situation with apparent boldness did not mean that she was unaffected by it. And she had shown sudden fear at the mention of Milescu’s name! Was it as a public malcontent that she feared him, or as a private enemy? How had his life been interwoven with hers? That she had reached her present perilous eminence without adventure was not to be thought of. Had Milescu been an aid to her ambition? Even this thought might have been worth further consideration had he not made it so clear that all his anger was against the King.
“Well,” she broke in, “what conclusion have you come to?”
“About what, madame?”
“You do not flatter my discretion.”
“Yet I have appointed you my lay confessor. Be merciful,” she pleaded mockingly. “And please don’t look so serious. Only the King matters.”
Possibly, but it seemed to me that she too was of some importance in this involved affair.
“As confessor, lay or clerical, I seem to be a wash-out.”
“Only as a beginner, Colonel Peter. Once confidence is established the penitent may proceed to embarrassing lengths.”
But I did not think she would, and might even have hinted a doubt had not the King at that moment burst into the room. He was frowning and his eyes were blazing. Count Ferdinand, who followed, flashed a quick, anxious look at Madame.
“That ass Ivanoff!” the King spluttered. Ivanoff was the Istanian Minister in London. “Was there ever such a fellow? Why did we appoint him, Elena?”
“He was your Majesty’s choice,” she said.
“I must have been drunk,” he admitted. Then, for a moment or two, he lapsed into his own language, cursing, I think. Further spluttering over, he turned to me and smiled. When he smiled one forgave him much. “Your pardon, Colonel; the fellow annoyed me. Suggests my clearing out, but I’ll see him damned first. Let us have lunch.”
So that ass Ivanoff had counselled a curtailment of the visit, and not too tactfully one might gather from the King’s manner. Madame should have given him a few lessons in discretion.
LEAVING Fallington’s I nodded to one of our men on the corner. He was a young fellow of promise named Gregory, who had already proved his value. A hundred yards or so farther on he overtook me. Aware of his presence I spoke without looking at him.
“Whom did you relieve?”
I walked on alone.
Lunch had not been an unequivocal success. Madame was studiously tactful, and at times amusing, but Paul was not in the most genial of moods. Minister Ivanoff had rubbed him the wrong way. Again and again he declared that he must have been very drunk to consent to the appointment of such an ass. No wonder Istania was indifferently regarded by the world when she was served so badly. What were these men appointed for if not to further her interests? He would look into things a bit more closely on his return; overhaul the whole damned service. Meanwhile he would clear out when it suited him. It was that woman, of course. “That woman” was his unrevered Queen. Madame lowered her lids over her plate, remaining sympathetically mute. Doubtless she was accustomed to these moods and knew that they would soon blow themselves out. The King drank greedily.
“Thank your stars, Gantian,” he said, “that you have no damned wife to plague you.”
“It is my one regret, sir.”
“Which enables you to escape a thousand,” he replied.
Rather delicate ground, I thought, flashing a look at madame, who appeared to be quite indifferent. Possibly it was his way of paying her a compliment. Kings have many privileges. But Paul was not all king, though apparently under the impression that as such he should be immune from petty human annoyances.
When I asked if he had given further consideration to the Wealdon proposition he, for the moment, forgot the iniquities of Minister Ivanoff. His manner changed; he immediately grew affable. He had been thinking a lot about it; was in fact looking forward to his stay there. A charming place. What a view, and what a garden! Would I please convey his felicitations to my charming sister? Like one of her own roses; so definitely English. What a riot she would create in Belcresta. “My dear fellow, you must bring her with you when you come.”
I thought not, nor did it need the odd twitching of madame’s lips to help the decision. Besides, I had no intention of visiting his capital. Here his Majesty did not unduly impress; there a different story might be unfolded.
Almost immediately after my return to Cork Street my telephone began to burr. As Floyd was not in I answered it.
“Yes, Colonel Gantian speaking. Who is it?”
“A friend,” said the voice.
“I have so many.”
“Leathermouth would—and not a few enemies.” Then I caught a familiar tone or two.
“Where are you speaking from, Milescu?”
“So,” he said; “but if you wish it.”
“I don’t know that I wish to have anything further to do with you.”
“But you’re going to—quite a lot—unless you tactfully retire.”
“I will give the matter my earnest consideration.”
“Remember,” he continued earnestly, “I speak as a friend. As a friend I first came to you, as a friend I wish to remain. The quarrel is not with you, Colonel. As a fact, you stir in me a singular sense of admiration, and regret for a waste of ability.”
“My dear Milescu, if you continue to fling bouquets like this I shall suffocate beneath them.”
“But should I fling other things, my dear Colonel?”
“The bouquets shall be used at your funeral.”
“I suppose the noble character of your employer induces this devotion?” he sneered. “Beware of the symptoms. Colonel; they presage disease of a most virulent nature.” Then, in a tone singularly provocative: “Your sister is a very charming young lady.”
I admit he touched me there. But how the devil did he come to know of her? The scheme was deeper than I thought, the net spread wider.
“You know, Milescu—”
“Quite a number of things, which, as your friend, I should like to tell you, though now I have only time for one. Paul Saranov spares neither friend nor foe. He can slay a man with a smile, a woman with a kiss. By the way, what do you think of Count Ferdinand?”
“A most amiable person,” I answered.
“Exceedingly. I wonder if his employer realises the extent of his amiability? Did you look at his eyes? But of course you did; a superfluous question. You would, being what you are. Tartar eyes, my dear Colonel; dangerous eyes. What a fool our conceit makes of us.” A low chuckle of satisfaction came along the line.
“I thought your friend Solty was of the same breed.”
“Truly nothing escapes you, or those who watch for you, follow casually and receive instructions on the way.” Again he chuckled.
“I appreciate your confidence.”
“If it convinces you of my friendship I shall be amply rewarded.”
“A peculiar friendship, Milescu.”
“Peculiar times, Colonel; peculiar methods. And you may call off your watchdogs, for your treasure is not really in danger—yet.”
“You appear to forget that incident on the London Road.”
“Nothing is forgotten, and only trifles forgiven.”
“I may not grant you sanctuary a second time.”
“I may not ask it. Just now you doubted when I said that your treasure was not really in danger, and as I shall probably be unable to convince you, I refrain from trying. But I want you to realise that you may become entangled in a web of complications from which it may not be easy to escape, and that…”
Here he was cut off a second time, and as he failed to produce the necessary pence that was the end of him. The young ladies who control the public call boxes are as inexorable as death. But he had given me enough seriously to think over. That he knew of the dogs that kept watch on Fallington’s was no great surprise; that he himself had followed Gregory and me at a discreet distance was not unlikely. It would account for the immediate ringing up. No time wasted with Milescu. But why should he take the pains to tell me that my “treasure” was not in imminent danger, or repeat his warning of my own? Flattering, no doubt, but not of the kind that conduces to vanity. And what did he mean by that not in danger—yet? Was it a simple ruse to ensure slackness on my part, or did he hope that I would carry the information to the King, and so contribute to his own undoing? There was a mocking insolence in the man’s methods which provoked many conflicting conjectures. On the face of it he was giving himself and his friends away in a manner that was little short of amazing. If his object were the assassination of the King, and this should happen, he could have no illusions on whom suspicion would fall, or of the difficulty of escape. That he was as ignorant as he professed of what had happened on the London Road was not to be considered. If the plot had succeeded the conspirators might easily have escaped detection. But, having failed, the case was different. A second attempt, successful or unsuccessful, would leave little hope of escape for him or his friends.
Probably I was more affected by his subtle reference to my young sister than any threat of my own danger. Though I knew it was merely an arrow shot in the dark, it was none the less annoying. Paul Saranov may have been a ruthless blackguard, but I thought his blackguardism would realise how far it could venture. If not it should be taught; was in fact being taught already, but apparently with indifferent success.
That evening at the club I was button-holed once more by General Pennefeather, who as usual was bristling with importance. It seems he had just been talking to Major von Lindner, who was dining with old Lord Marchington. Marchington, of course, was a colossal bore; everyone was according to the General. But there was no denying the fact that he was somebody. Funny, when you come to think of it, he smirked, how soon we had forgotten that the German was once a Hun, detestable and abhorred. Suppose it was just as well to let bygones be bygones. Never shake hands with one of them again; and as for crossing the sacred portals of the club—unthinkable. But Lindner wasn’t a bad sort; previously he had added “for a German.” Now he seemed to forget that addition. Remembered the old days in Berlin.
“You ought to meet him, Gantian; very interesting fella.”
I murmured, “Delighted.”
“Soon as they come down I’ll introduce you. Queen Nardia’s secretary, y’know. I wonder what’s happened to that blackguard Paul? Heard a rumour that he’s here incog. Impossible, of course, quite impossible; we wouldn’t have him. You fellas would get busy, eh?” He chuckled. “But excuse me a moment. There’s a man crossing the hall I want to see.”
I willingly excused him while pitying the quarry. So Major von Lindner was in the club dining with “old Marchington,” who was anything but old as age is regarded in these days. Pennefeather could have given him a good ten years. Having a profound belief in coincidence as bearing on destiny, I wondered if this was one of those mysterious moves of fate which play such an important part in our lives. I rather wished to meet this Major von Lindner, and hoped that Marchington and his guest would put in an appearance before Pennefeather’s return. I knew that Marchington detested the General and could scarcely be civil to him. Fortunately for Pennefeather, he could not conceive the possibility of his presence being unwelcome to anyone.
And it turned out as I had hoped. A minute or so after my entering the smoking-room, Marchington and his guest appeared and made for a seat not far from mine. Glancing round and seeing me I was invited with a gesture to join them. As I advanced I noticed Marchington bend towards his guest and say something.
“Meet Major von Lindner, Gantian. Major, Colonel Gantian.”
The major rose, clicked his heels, and jerked a bow at me. He was a man of medium size, who would probably grow heavy with the years. Not by any means the typical Teuton; indeed, might have been a citizen of any country in Europe until he spoke. Then one had no doubt of his origin. His hair was dark brown, neatly parted in the centre and carefully brushed on either side. His moustache was sprucely trimmed.
Marchington was a comfortable body with a florid face. His pale blue eyes had an odd habit of jerking forward as though straining at their muscles. In his young days he had been something of an athlete, and was particularly good over the hurdles. Beyond that I am not aware that he had ever achieved distinction, though it was said he had missed his place in the Cambridge boat through an attack of influenza.
Of course he facetiously touched on certain of my activities, possibly to impress the major, who, however, apparently found nothing humorous in the recital. A stolid, contemplative sort of person not easily impressed, so I imagined. He had dark-brown eyes, curiously round, which may have been exceedingly observant, or indifferent; it was difficult to determine. His English, though not good, was sufficient. He said “mit” and “vith” and “vas,” and occasionally twisted himself in a German idiom; but on the whole his command of our tongue was excellent, and I regretted that I was not equally fluent in his.
We drank our liqueurs, smoked our cigars, and chatted of nothing in particular. Or rather Marchington did most of the chatting, his guest being a good listener. But I thought the attention bestowed on his host was not equal to that with which he regarded me. His round brown eyes were provocatively inquiring; even when he trifled with his moustache he was looking at me across his fingers. The impression I received of him was heavy rather than subtle, though this I was not prepared to accept as final, having learned from experience to think cautiously. Certainly he was most guarded in his talk. Whatever he may have thought of my activities he was more than circumspect in his references to them.
Not so Marchington, whose face was beaming with good cheer, and whose tongue began to wag freely, especially after he had gulped his second glass of old brandy. Then he wanted to know when I was going to write my reminiscences. Everybody wrote memoirs, or reminiscences, in these days, particularly if they had nothing to write about. “But you, Gantian,” he continued, “you ought to make us sit up, though I don’t suppose you ever will. Close as an oyster, Major; but one of these days I’ll get him talking if I have to make him drunk to do it.”
The major smiled in his heavy way. “Difficult, perhaps,” he suggested.
“He carries his liquor well,” conceded Marchington, “I will say that for him.” Again the major smiled. Perhaps not so heavy after all, or that smile misled me.
When I rose the major also rose smartly, clicked his heels, bowed, and held out his hand. It was soft, the pressure feeble. I let it go quickly.
“Delighted to meet you, Colonel. Perhaps we shall be seeing each other again. It will be a pleasure.”
“Of course you’ll be seeing each other again,” Marchington cut in; “the only wonder is that you haven’t met before. Well, so-long, Gantian; and, by the way, if you see that ass Pennefeather tell him I’m dead and buried.”
Mercifully I did not encounter the General. Having found a listener he was not likely to let him go. But I thought a good deal of Major von Lindner as I strolled slowly back to my rooms. His curious round eyes seemed to follow me. I felt as though I wanted to look into them by daylight; that only with daylight as a help could I plumb their depths. A stolid man admirably self-possessed. But dull? I was inclined to doubt. Naturally Paul’s name was not mentioned, though thought of him would have been behind all we said, especially if Lindner knew of my connection with the King. He might not, of course, though I did not think it likely. If for a moment I had doubted, his looks would have betrayed him. When he said that we should probably be seeing each other again, I knew that the meeting would not be long delayed.
The next morning I looked up Mayford as usual, and then strolled on to Fallington’s—to meet madame and Ferdinand going out. She, perfect as ever in manner, greeted me with a flattering smile; he seemed a trifle constrained. The King was not in; had, in fact, ordered the car about an hour ago and disappeared, promising to return for dinner. If I could make it convenient, and so forth. Most polite, but not impressive; white teeth too much in evidence when she smiled. As she passed on she left a delicious perfume in her wake. Ferdinand made no attempt to delay the departure.
Returning to the club, where I had arranged to lunch with Mayford, we had just disposed of our aperitif when a waiter approached to say I was wanted on the ’phone. Answering the call, a heavy guttural voice pronounced my name. It was Lindner. He had rung up my private address and been informed by my man that I was lunching at the club. With many apologies for any inconvenience he might be causing me, he wished to know if I could call on him at the Melchester about five o’clock. If not, would I be good enough to make an appointment. I replied that I thought I could manage five o’clock very nicely.
George looked at me in his quizzing way on my return.
“That was Major von Lindner,” I told him. “Wants me to look him up at the Melchester about five.”
“Melchester! That’s where Queen Nardia’s staying. Seem to be moving in exalted circles,” he grinned.
“I hate your icicle of a woman, George.”
“Yes, I know; volcanoes are more in your line. Perhaps she’s only snow-capped. Well, I’m starving.”
“You always are.”
“This is curry day,” he said. I groaned. He always came on curry days, and always left super-charged. He had an appetite like a wolf and a digestion that could assimilate lumps of concrete. One day he would meet with a mishap, and so I warned him. He laughed and ordered another sherry. He always had two before attacking the savoury mess.
At five precisely I arrived to keep my appointment. The Major, who was waiting for me in the lounge, advanced, clicked his heels and bowed. It was good of me to come; he hoped I had not been inconvenienced. I assured him not at all.
“You take tea, of course?”
“Let us go upstairs. Too many eyes and ears in this place.”
We took the lift to the second floor and entered a room half-way along the corridor. Tea was ordered; a cigarette offered.
“Russian,” he said, with a peculiar intimate smile. Could he possibly know of my interest in certain people who hailed from that pariah of the nations? Paul had said rumour flies far, even as far as the Balkans. I was beginning to feel interested.
The room, pleasantly situated, looked across the Park. We took tea in one of its two windows. Or to be exact, I took tea, the major merely sipping. He seemed to prefer his cigar. After some desultory talk he said he would be quite frank with me. When a man began in this way I always suspected him, or was prepared for anything but undiluted frankness. Between gentlemen, you know. Many an honest fellow has been let down by this preliminary.
“A very delicate situation,” he said. I munched my buttered toast and waited. “Your reputation is not unknown to us, Colonel.” That “us” sounded important, but I knew what he meant. “We think his Majesty is lucky in obtaining your service.”
Ignoring the rather invidious compliment, I said, “You mean his Majesty of Istania? Just a police job, Major. And as for service, it seems to me that the King commands it fairly well.”
“Much better than he deserves,” he said.
“As a loyal subject—”
“Need we contest that point? I lay my cards on the table, Colonel, face upwards.”
“And what am I expected to see?”
“That for once in a way the queen may be a better card than the king.”
“Only when she belongs to the trump suit.”
“Exactly,” he said, “the trump suit.”
“My dear Major, your subtlety bewilders me.”
“I should not have thought that Colonel Leathermouth was so easily bewildered.”
So here was another who knew the name! Paul, Milescu, and now this man. A smile fluttered about his lips; the round eyes, of a dark sherry colour, seemed to reflect the smile.
“Yet, odd as it may seem, he still desires enlightenment.”
“Extremely discreet,” he said, “but need we stress it?”
“I am waiting for the frankness, Major, a clearance of the mist in which we seem to be groping. You had a reason for asking me here?”
“Her Majesty is interested,” he replied.
“But more in those I serve?”
“Those?” he frowned.
“Are there not two of them?”
Again he frowned. “The woman is nothing.”
“Then she can be of no further interest. But Paul still wears the crown of Istania,” I reminded him.
“Not for much longer. He is hated and despised by every decent soul in the country. You serve a bad master, Colonel Gantian; one who will betray you as he betrays all who trust him.”
“And his brother Michael is waiting to shoulder the cares of office. Will widowhood help Queen Nardia?”
“Paul’s deposition does not necessarily mean widowhood.”
“You forget, Major, that I do not serve your King but my Government.”
“Who does not view his stay among you with indifference.”
“That is a matter which does not concern me.”
“On the contrary, your assurance of protection has affected his decision to remain.”
“You flatter, Major; I am merely one of many.”
“Possibly, but you happen to be the one he prefers. Her Majesty does not agree with your modest estimate of yourself. Do you realise that she too is in danger?”
“I had not.”
“And seeks protection.”
“You do not know the Istanians.”
“But am beginning to. I hear they have a decided predilection for the slitting of throats.”
“From which even ours may not be immune.”
“I should hate to have mine tampered with.”
“No laughing matter, Colonel.” His round eyes were serious now, his brows frowning.
“Indeed, no. In plain words, those who serve risk falling with those they serve? One understands that, Major—yet continues to carry on from a sense of duty.”
“I merely offer an explanation of the situation,” he said.
I did not volunteer the information that Milescu had been equally interested in my personal welfare. But it was rather odd when one thought of it. Why should these strangers evince so great a concern for me? Lindner’s cards may have been exposed face upwards on the table, but I was unable accurately to count the pips.
“Which still seems a little involved,” I commented.
“Not, I think, to you,” he smiled. “Her Majesty desires to meet you, Colonel.” I bowed. “Will you excuse me just one moment.”
With his departure I rose and walked over to the window. Along Park Lane a constant stream of buses, cars and cabs rumbled. Beyond the railings people were seated beneath the trees, apparently unconcerned with their own fate or that of Istania. Probably they cast longing eyes on the big caravanserai opposite and envied those who dwelt there; possibly their hearts revolted at the inequalities of fortune.
“Her Majesty desires…”
MAJOR VON LINDNER’S one moment ran into several minutes. Her Majesty might be desirous, but she was clearly in no hurry. Cold as one of her northern winters. How Paul had sneered the words. Not alone was I convinced that he hated her, but that he also despised her. Even his assurance that she was a “good woman” had something of contempt in it. If all they said of him was true he would not have much use for good women; little, in fact, for anything that was good in a strictly moral sense. “One who will betray you as he betrays all who trust him.” The warning left me cold. I was not afraid of his betrayal, being determined that he should never get the opportunity. At the same time I was not taking for granted everything his enemies said. He may have been a rank bad lot, but that he was worse than those who abused him I had yet to learn.
Some such thoughts crossed and re-crossed my mind as I stood staring through the window. Nardia the Snow Queen, and Paul all bubbling, boiling lava! He was bound to eat her up, or she to freeze him. The odds were on the lava.
Hearing the door open suddenly, I swung round.
“Your Majesty, allow me to present Colonel Gantian.”
I bowed low. Majesty, after regarding me critically for a moment or so, advanced, smiling faintly. She was a woman of medium height with a dullish fair complexion and hair so light that it looked like tow.
“Her mouth was heavy and vividly reddened; her figure inclined to fullness. She was about thirty years of age. Her eyebrows, plucked to a faint streak, were darkened; her hands and wrists were shapely. Round her throat was a string of pearls; this, with her wedding-ring, was her only jewellery.
Such was my first impression of Nardia, the wife of Paul, the woman whose ill-treatment had made her a sort of martyr in the eyes of the world. To me she certainly bore no trace of the ordeal to which it was rumoured she had been subjected. Indeed, I thought that mouth would not tamely submit to imposition of any kind. Paul should have studied it closely before marriage, and wisely refrained. Fortunately there were no children. The reproduction of two such mouths as hers and his would have been the ruin of them.
The Woman of Many Sorrows, she had been called, but I must confess that they appeared to sit lightly on her. She certainly was not fading from grief. Women with mouths like hers, or with such intense blue eyes, did not do that sort of thing. When wronged they struck back, and did it with precision.
After that swift critical survey I was graciously motioned to a chair, which was so situated that the light fell full on me. Her demeanour was lofty and detached. Yet I thought little escaped those strange blue eyes. Von Lindner stood respectfully near the window, watching but mute.
“You realise, Colonel, that this interview is not quite in order?” she began.
“And that I should not like any knowledge of it to leak out? Had I not known I could rely on your discretion I should not have sent for you.”
I bowed in recognition of the compliment. Better let her do the talking. Being a woman she would not hesitate unduly. And yet, curiously enough, she seemed restrained. Once or twice her lips moved though no sound came from them. Then the handkerchief she was crumbling between her fingers was suddenly shaken out and pressed to the tip of her nose. It was delicately perfumed.
“You are not unknown to us,” she said. Again I bowed. Her lips pouted, her brows suggested a frown. “Well, why don’t you say something?” she demanded with a suspicion of irritability.
“Your Majesty has not yet said why I have been honoured with this interview.”
“Didn’t the Baron tell you?” She flung a quick glance at von Lindner.
“I thought your Majesty might desire to explain,” he apologised.
“Ach!” snapped majesty in its best guttural. The baron bowed at the reproof. “I want to know, Colonel Gantian, what your Government is going to do in this matter.”
“Which matter, madam?”
“This matter of the King, my husband.”
“I regret to say I am not in the confidence of the Government.”
“Ach!” she said again. “You know what I mean. If not in the confidence of your Government, you are in that of the King.”
“I can scarcely hope for so great an honour.” Slowly she smiled, pressing her teeth into her lower lip. The smile flashed to her eyes; she nodded comprehendingly.
“I think there is no need for us to thrust and parry?”
“Your Majesty honours me.”
“The honour of majesty is sometimes a heavy burden,” she replied.
“So I have always understood.”
“I said there was no need for us to thrust and parry,” she repeated, frowning again.
“I willingly grant your Majesty the victory.”
“But there is no victory,” she replied hotly; “on the contrary, nothing but shame and degradation. Will you help me, Colonel Gantian?”
“In every way possible,” I assured her. Her acceptance of this assurance was not received with enthusiasm.
“You realise that I have many enemies?” she continued after a brief pause.
“I did not, and hope you may be mistaken.”
“But I have, bitter enemies,” she hurried on; “people who would not hesitate at—Colonel Gantian, I have asked for protection; I go in fear of my life.”
“And the protection you have asked for has been refused?”
“The protection I would like, that I desire above all things, has been rendered impossible.” I questioned with a look. “It has been given to the King,” she said in a low voice, the meaning of which was abundantly clear.
“Your Majesty is sure that you do not exaggerate the personal danger?”
Her look was insistent, penetrating, almost eager. In personal danger! Possibly, but I was inclined to doubt. What danger could she be in, she for whom all sympathy was reserved in this matrimonial tangle which had become almost an international affair? Enemies there may have been within the King’s entourage, but outside of it she could have nothing but friends. Was she suggesting that there were those who to gain her husband’s favour would not hesitate to murder; that he, abandoned though he might be, would countenance the mere thought of such a crime? If so, I had completely misjudged him. Though he made no bones of his lack of marital affection, I was sure he regarded her as nothing more than an infernal nuisance he would like to get rid of, and might yet, but not by way of killing.
The Woman of Many Sorrows in imminent danger! I thought not. If there were danger it would not be of assassination. Humiliation perhaps, a blow to pride, the thousand and one petty annoyances which all suffer, but, beyond this, imagination refused to soar.
“Am I to understand that your Majesty complains of inadequate protection?”
“Of the protection I desire,” she answered.
“Surely not an insuperable difficulty?”
“That depends on you, Colonel Gantian.”
“Me, madam! I merely obey orders.”
She smiled. “Your modesty is almost embarrassing.”
Here Baron von Lindner came to the rescue. “Her majesty is of opinion that she would feel more secure under your protection, Colonel.”
“Exactly, Otto,” said her Majesty. “Do you think it possible that you could be transferred?”
“I obey orders, madam,” I said again.
She smiled, and that smile somewhat modified my opinion of her. She may have been an icicle of a woman, and cold as one of her northern winters, but icicles have been known to melt, and northern winters give way to summer suns.
What was wrong with this woman; why had she become so bitterly estranged from the King? He, sunk in feminine allure, could not have resisted that smile and its abundant promise. Had he been incapable of drawing it from her? Had he even tried, or had he failed to see it? Or had he found women so easy that he had never exerted himself to conquer?
Now George Mayford had always mocked me of my charity to women, and though such mockery had failed to cure the complaint it was not wholly ineffective. Yet even he might have wavered if he could have seen Nardia for a moment as I saw her then. It was as though the chill clouds of the north had suddenly parted to let through the sun.
“We know all the circumstances,” she replied; “how and why you serve, and not a little of your previous work. That may account for my eagerness to engage your services. Candidly, Colonel, the feeling of insecurity is making me perfectly wretched. And there is really no necessity to reiterate that you merely obey orders.” She flashed another alluring smile. “We understand, and hope that you will give the matter your favourable consideration.”
With that she rose and gave me her hand. Bowing low over it, I flashed a look up at her and met a curious, enigmatic glance from blue eyes; perhaps mocking, certainly provocative, and not at all chilling. True woman without a doubt, whatever her husband might say to the contrary. At the door she paused for a moment to say that she hoped I would come again soon, with the best of news. Her meaning was not difficult to grasp.
Though I had often chipped George of his lack of psychological insight, especially with regard to woman, I was at the moment not feeling too secure myself. Possibly his wholesale doubt of the sex was wiser than my retail dealing. A philosophy of no belief left small margin for error, whereas a half-belief might open the way to the grossest superstition. Of course, her flattery did not prevail. Yet why the use of it? That she was in the slightest personal danger was not to be thought of. I had really no more faith in her fears than I had in her. What then had induced her to approach me?
In the lounge I rang up George. If he had nothing better to do, would he drop in at Cork Street on his way home. I thought a bottle of sherry might be found. “You know, George, that old stuff my father laid down. Poison to me, but much admired by connoisseurs.” He replied genially that he would come if it was only for the sake of the wine.
Albert was waiting, expectant, his not-too-cheerful countenance proclaiming another fruitless excursion. But it brightened considerably when I told him Mr. Mayford was looking in on his way home. Mr. Mayford looking in or ringing up presaged trouble and inspired hope. The connection with King Paul had promised much, but so far had produced little, and he seemed horribly afraid that the whole affair would peter out. Those fellows having failed so lamentably at their first attempt were not likely to move again. He was sure the Istanians were a miserable weak-kneed race. Give him the rough stuff down Stepney way for choice. I told him the Istanians were renowned throat-slitters. He was not impressed.
George, arriving, sampled the wine and approved; the second glass tasted better than the first. Over the third he grew lyrical. Then he lit one of his vile cigars. I frowned at the sacrilege.
“You wouldn’t have done that in front of the old man,” I protested.
“The old man is dead,” he gurgled, “but his wine still lives. Besides, he knew what was good for a man.” Delicately he fondled the bottle and smiled. “Well, what’s doing?”
“She’s not an icicle, George.”
“In fact, I should call her a woman of abundant promise, and I want to know why you have treated her so abominably. Her nerves are all on edge.”
“Go on,” he gurgled. “I can tolerate you to the last drop, but not a moment longer.”
“Fear follows her like her shadow, and all because you refuse to grant her adequate protection. No wonder they call her The Woman of Many Sorrows.”
“Oh,” he muttered. “More exalted society?”
“She’s a very charming woman, George.”
“They all are, according to you. How did it happen?”
“Through your obvious neglect of duty. Nice scandal if some fanatical Istanian should slit her beautiful white throat. I have set my heart on making Molly ‘my lady,’ and you do everything possible to thwart me.”
“I never knew this wine was so good,” he said, smacking his lips in an orgy of vulgar enjoyment. “Your old man was certainly no chump.”
“The difficulty is that Paul has a prior claim. Besides, I really believe that she exaggerates her danger.’’
“When did this happen?”
“At the Melchester, this afternoon. Otto agrees with her.”
“Baron von Lindner. Tell me, George, can a man serve two masters when one is a mistress?”
“And please leave a drop in the bottom for Albert. He approves a good vintage. She has many bitter enemies.”
“Madame Karlin among them?”
“She appeared oblivious of that lady’s existence, which I thought was very charming of her.”
“From which I gather that the word ‘deportation’ was not mentioned?”
“I never knew anyone so intuitively alert.” Temporarily abandoning the bottle, which he did not place beyond his reach, he also laid down his glass, relit his cigar and stared at me.
“What do you make of it?” he asked.
“That she is obviously a very ill-used woman, and feels her position acutely.”
“You should endeavour to spare her further anxiety.”
“She appears to consider you her only hope, though I warn you that it will be difficult to serve two masters, especially when one is a mistress.”
“Yet I may offer a modicum of consolation.”
“You may go to the devil so long as you don’t take the remainder of this wine with you. How many bottles are left?” I remonstrated; he grinned. “These women,” he growled, “they’re all alike, and think there’s no one else on earth. But why should she send for you? What’s the game?”
“I repeat, Queen Nardia is a very charming woman, and I am in doubt as to the influence of the northern winter on her blood. She has a provocative mouth.”
“Seems to me,” said he, “that between these women—”
“The hope of Molly’s ‘ladyship’ may grow faint. We must see that it doesn’t. Odd when you come to think of it; three women, George.”
“One’s enough for any man,” he grunted. “I’d like to know what’s behind it all.”
“By that you suggest that her Majesty has some ulterior motive?”
“Did a woman ever do anything without one?”
“Looks like high intrigue, George?”
“Not a drop left,” said he, holding up the bottle. “My apologies to Albert. What does he think of it all?”
“Your visit has revived hope. He thinks that Mayford and trouble are synonymous terms. Would you like the bottle as well?”
“No, thanks; I’ve got the contents.” Affectionately he pressed his waistcoat.
Beaming a sherry benevolence, he waved his hand and disappeared. A joke or two with Albert in the hall, and then a loud adios to me. For some reason or other he liked saying adios. I really believe he got it from the pictures, though he used to brag about a long-ago journey to Spain.
The speed with which my presentation to Queen Nardia followed the meeting with Baron von Lindner was not without significance. Clearly her Majesty was in a hurry, and Majesty in a hurry is known to get things done quickly. Only in this instance it was not at home. What might have been comparatively easy in Belcresta was rather more difficult in London. The lack of appreciation for the foreigner is a distinct home product. Stupid narrow-minded prejudice, of course, but as it stands one must make the best of it. Nardia would have powerful friends, friends whose wish was law, who, if it were possible to help her, would not hesitate to do so. Then why should she send for me in this secret manner? Flattery did not impress; she would no more condescend to flatter me than any other man in the street—unless she thought I could serve her purpose. Royalty, like providence, occasionally employs strange instruments to effect its purpose.
Having another engagement that night I did not report at Fallington’s. If Paul wished to go exploring without informing me of his intention, I failed to find perturbation in the thought. But not for long; no longer, in fact, than the following morning, which brought me a letter from Edna.
“Darling,” it began, “what do you think? King Paul has been here! He looked in on his way from Brighton. He was with a man whom he introduced as his Minister in London. I didn’t quite catch the name, but I suppose you know it. They took tea with me. I was terribly flustered, of course, but I don’t think I disgraced you; at least I hope not. I think he is charming (I mean the King, not his Minister) and not a bit stiff-necked. He thinks an awful lot of you, darling, and told me that he has invited you to visit him in Istania, and hopes you will bring me with you. Now do be a darling and take me when you go. I should just love it!”
There was much more, details voluminous, not necessary to be repeated here. Paul’s geniality had clearly impressed. Not a bit stiff-necked; on the contrary, very loose about the neck, and other things. It was devilish friendly of him to break the journey from Brighton for the express purpose of taking tea with a country girl. I appreciated the honour. So, I thought, would madame of the enigmatic smile.
Not in the best of moods, I strolled round to Fallington’s. This sort of thing wouldn’t do, Paul, it definitely wouldn’t do. In Istania, now, if you like; but not in a particular part of England, and so I was prepared to inform him in unambiguous terms. Lindner had said of him that he spared neither friend nor foe, but then the baron was in the enemy camp where admiration would naturally be restricted.
Possibly the stiff neck was carried by me as I entered the royal presence, which did not conform to the popular conception of what a royal presence should be. His Majesty was still in pyjamas and dressing-gown, bare feet thrust into leather slippers, hair roughly brushed. Liqueur glasses, coffee cups and cigarette-ends littered the table beside him; newspaper sheets were scattered on the floor, flung down after he had glanced at them. I thought the room would have benefited by an open window.
“Ah, Gantian,” he hailed with his customary geniality, “come in. What’s it to be—coffee? This brandy’s not bad; brought it over with me. No! But why so unresponsive? Anything happened?”
“I called yesterday morning, sir.”
“I know, but the truth is I had to take a day off. Don’t know what it is to want a day off, do you? May you never. Even Ivanoff was a change, and he’s a sad enough dog. Ran me along the south coast. We pulled up at your place on our way back, and were fortunate in finding Miss Gantian at home. She gave us the most delicious tea I’ve ever tasted. I’ve decided to take possession within the next ten days, if convenient to you and Miss Gantian. You must bring her along when you and Monsieur Floyd pay me that visit. She seems to think we’re chiefly bandits and barbarians.” He laughed heartily. “It shall be our privilege to undeceive her.”
This reception rather undermined my doubts. I found myself wondering how much of this man I could regard as genuine. Was he the unmitigated ne’er-do-well so many asserted, or merely a careless happy-go-lucky fellow who, accustomed to the best, took all good things in his stride, never doubting his prescriptive right to them? Possibly a very selfish person, yet not without charm. It was difficult to decide, so complex was his character. Sometimes I even thought he was a little pathetic. In slippers and dressing-gown, hair untidy, manner uncertain, he conveyed the impression of one who might suddenly develop an attack of nerves.
“Heard anything?” he asked suddenly. “Are they moving?”
“Not that I know of, sir.”
“I don’t understand it, Gantian. One does not connect inactivity with Scotland Yard. Yet nothing comes to light. Does it not seem strange to you? We know these people are about, we know they must be hiding somewhere, yet no trace of them can be found.”
“There is, of course, the possibility that, having once failed, they may be afraid to move a second time.”
“I’ve chewed on that but I can’t digest it. The lack of movement worries me. What the devil does it mean?”
“Would you be safer in Istania?” I asked.
“I’ll see them damned first,” he spluttered. And then, suspiciously, “Are you too turning against me? You seemed constrained when you came in. Was it fancy on my part, or were you? Look here, Gantian, I like you, though I don’t know why the devil I should. Perhaps it’s because I believe in you. I think there is no man I would sooner trust, and thank God you’re not an Istanian. You don’t want anything from me— about the only person I ever met who didn’t—and you don’t give a damn whether you offend or please. Do you realise that for years you’re the only man who’s stood up to me, and I’ve always wanted such a man by my side?”
“You would hate me, sir, in a month.”
“You think I am so capricious; you have heard all sorts of tales? Possibly, but when a man is surrounded by a lot of—”
He sprang up muttering furiously and began slopping up and down the room in his loose slippers, pyjamas crinkling over them, eyes flashing, lower lip protruding. Sometimes he would pause at the window and stare out into the street, then fling a look at me as though he had suddenly determined to say something and as suddenly decided to change his mind. Once he paused to help himself to a fresh glass of brandy, but by his manner of gulping it I knew he could not possibly appreciate its rare excellence. In fact, he reminded me of George wasting a good thing. Occasionally he flung a quick apprehensive look at the door through which I had first seen madame disappear. Then he would frown and pull at his lip.
“That damned woman,” he said suddenly, “insists on making herself a nuisance,” and looked at me as though expecting an answer.
“There are so many of them,” I ventured.
“You know which I mean. Crosses me at every turn; has ever since that swine Lindner came. German, you know,” he sneered; “talks of home to her, and God knows what else. Think I could get her to dismiss him? Might as well hammer at the Matterhorn.”
“Good women are sometimes unreasonably hard,” was my second feeble venture.
“What do you mean by that?” he snapped. “What in your judgment constitutes a good woman? Someone who sticks her nose in the air and draws her skirts tight?”
“A significant gesture,” I murmured.
“Self-righteousness rampant,” he sneered. “Like all Englishmen, I believe you’re half Puritan.”
“Even the basest of us; it’s our national saving grace.”
He shook his head and laughed. “I wonder what would have happened to Istania if Cromwell had conquered it and planted his Ironsides in our midst?”
“You would now be the Emperor Paul, sir.”
“Should I be the happier?”
“That would depend on you.”
“Depend on me,” he retorted hotly; “everything depends on me and I can depend on nobody.”
“That is one of the disadvantages of being able to buy service.”
“Disadvantages?” he repeated.
“Has it never struck you in that light?”
“But it’s striking me now—right between the eyes.”
THE intimacy which was growing between us might have developed rapidly but for the sudden appearance of Madame Karlin. Paul, I thought, flung a none too kindly look at her, which was tactfully ignored. Though apologies for the intrusion were uttered in her own tongue, it was not difficult to understand them; looks and gestures translated freely. Smiling, she withdrew as she had come. He followed, asking me to remain.
The last few minutes with him had brought us strangely near each other. His complex character had a fascination both curious and interesting. While prepared to admit that his rank may have added a certain adventitious glamour, there was much more than this about him, something that was very human. That protest of his, “I can depend on nobody,” had awakened a quick, strange thought. It was as though he had openly accused me and I had wilted under the accusation. For was I not receiving his confidence while withholding my own? But what could I do? It was not possible to betray the Queen without dishonouring myself. Yet in honouring her confidence I was betraying the King’s.
Might it not be possible after all to serve two masters?
When he returned it was with an amused, intimate smile.
“Sorry, Gantian, but even your Emperor Paul might occasionally find himself not his own master. Look in again soon. You may even convert me to Puritanism.”
A triumph, I admit, but one of which I did not think myself capable. His conversion would need a greater incentive than any I was likely to provide.
But now, as I walked away, I was glad that I had not spoken. Events had a way of shaping themselves independently of one’s actions, and so that one did not ignore ordinary precautions, any real danger might be met and successfully overcome. Like the King, I was not a little surprised that Milescu and his friends had so successfully eluded observation. The unearthing of these foreigners ought not to have been an insuperable task, and with their deportation immediate danger would automatically lapse. What happened later could be no concern of ours.
Many startling conjectures and involved speculations had followed Queen Nardia’s entry on the scene. That she truly believed her person to be in imminent danger I could not credit. There was no one who could or would strike at her; there was no reason why she should be struck at. Such sympathy as the world could spare from its own interests was given her. She was an unhappy woman who had been treated atrociously. This she must know, none better. Then why this apprehension; what did it mean? I would not think that she was desperately plotting against her husband, bad as he was. Even if the worst happened to him what gain would it be to her? Though she had good reason to feel both jealous and hurt, what excuse could palliate murder? The thought was absurd. Yet she had sent for me and begged a transference of my allegiance. What was one to make of it?
At the entrance to my rooms I encountered a stoutish, middle-aged gentleman who favoured me with a quick keen look, one almost of recognition. But I did not recognise him, though I saw that he was undoubtedly a foreigner. His moustache was greying, and he wore an eyeglass as though accustomed to it. Though he passed swiftly he stopped as swiftly. Hearing this, I swung round. Politely he raised his hat. “Colonel Gantian?” he asked.
“So I imagined. I am Count Ivanoff.”
I bowed. So this was the minister dubbed “that ass Ivanoff” by the King. Whatever asinine qualities he may have possessed were not obtrusive. On the contrary, he looked extremely alert and intelligent.
“I called in the hope of seeing you,” he continued. “Fortunate to meet like this. In another moment we should have missed each other.”
“If I can be of service, Count.”
“I think you may be, Colonel.”
Together we mounted the stairs to my rooms, which were on the first floor. There I offered refreshment, which he graciously declined, but accepted a cigarette. After a few puffs he looked at me and smiled.
“This is strictly confidential, Colonel.”
“You have realised that his Majesty may at times prove rather difficult?” I nodded in agreement. “He has spoken much of you,” he continued, “and from what I have been able to gather you have succeeded in winning his esteem, no little triumph, let me assure you.”
“Yet it was not to tell me this that your Excellency has honoured me?”
He smiled. “Merely as a preliminary. You gather that I am much concerned on his Majesty’s account?”
“You have reason to believe that he is in imminent danger?”
“I have reason to believe that complications are not impossible,” he answered diplomatically.
“By reason of Madame Karlin’s presence?”
“A forbidden subject,” he said in a low voice, flinging an apprehensive glance round the room.
“There are no listeners,” I assured him.
“His Majesty may be cajoled, led even, but never driven.”
“Except by a beautiful woman?”
“She is very beautiful, and can be very gracious, but whether she knows it or not she is ruining him.”
“The difficulty is to convince him of this?”
“He is a true Saranov, Colonel.”
“And has the Saranov mouth?”
“Ah, you have observed! Strong in friendship, in love, or in enmity. Hated by some, adored by others, potentially to be worshipped by all. A glorious day that for the ancient House of Saranov.”
“Why should its dawn be delayed?”
“Because of the Saranov mouth,” he said.
“And other incidentals. Your Excellency, the King is not difficult to read.”
“But extremely difficult to handle.”
“Apart from madame?”
“If she could only be persuaded that it would be to his advantage to curtail their visit.”
“Exactly; but by whom?”
“One who has no fear of her displeasure,” he insinuated.
“You know such a person?”
“I know of one who is indifferent to the favours of the great,” he said, leaving no doubt as to whom he meant.
“He is to be envied, sir.”
“He would be a benefactor to my King and country. Quite frankly, Colonel, the presence of a certain person among us is not approved of in high quarters. There are influences at work, powerful influences.”
“Apart from Queen Nardia’s?”
“What do you know of that?” he asked sharply.
“Perhaps a little.”
“Then perhaps you also know that the King himself is in personal danger?”
“From certain none-too-loyal Istanians, of whom Andrev Milescu is one.”
His eyes suddenly widened, releasing the eyeglass, which rattled on the buttons of his waistcoat.
“You know of him?”
“Did you know that he is the cousin of madame’s husband?”
“Who is without enough intelligence to appreciate a certain royal honour?”
“These things are not within our province,” he rebuked mildly.
“But account for much. I think the King has decided to stay, though probably your Excellency may be able to convince him of his lack of vision.”
“Convince a Saranov against his will?” he protested. “Or a woman. Your Excellency appreciates the difficulty?”
“Yet something must be done,” he continued further to protest. “If anything serious should happen, as it might with Milescu still at large, complications of the gravest nature may follow.”
“Milescu! Beyond being the cousin of madame’s husband your Excellency has not volunteered much valuable information concerning him.”
“That too is a matter not within our province,” he replied; from which I gathered that the domestic entanglements of the House of Saranov were curiously involved with the political.
“This taking over your place in Sussex,” he said suddenly; “has his Majesty definitely decided?”
“Like myself, his Majesty is partial to the quiet life.”
A smile broke over his face. Some personal remark seemed to flutter on his lips, but was instantly checked. Instead, he rose slowly.
“Then I am to assume that this mission of mine has not succeeded?” he asked.
“Your Excellency may assume the nicest discretion on my part, and the fulfilment of duty.”
He thanked me and withdrew, not too well pleased with me or the result of this interview. Yet he left me in an atmosphere of increased doubt and perplexity, not, I will admit, altogether uncongenial. He, as well as I, clearly believed that the element of danger was increasingly threatening, but he flattered in vain when he thought me capable of bearding the woman triumphant.
The King, meanwhile, had definitely decided in favour of the country, for when I saw him on the following day he immediately informed me of his intention. Thursday was the day chosen. It being then Tuesday, he thought two days would give them ample time to prepare. Could I have Wealdon ready by then? I assured him that there would be no difficulty. They were to live quite simply, madame’s maid, his valet, and Ferdinand would accompany them. These with our old servants would comprise the staff. He spoke of my sister, very charmingly of her, and seemed a little disappointed when informed that she had arranged to stay with friends.
“But you must bring her with you to Belcresta,” he said. “Remember I have been prodigal of my promises.”
I had no doubt, nor of the fact that she was unlikely to visit Belcresta with me or anyone else. Returning to my rooms, I got through to her on the long distance and informed her of the King’s sudden decision to take possession on Thursday. She was to let her friends at Petworth know of this, and be prepared to join them on that day. As a sop I promised to drive her over shortly after my arrival. She said I was a “darling,” and sent her love and a kiss along the wire. No one else called me darling, and meant it. I often wondered if any other woman would.
Precisely at noon, Albert drove me round to Fallington’s. I slipped out and went up to the royal apartments, to find the King but no madame. His explanation was that she had gone shopping, but would follow us with her maid and Ferdinand. He made the usual joke about shops, women, and their unreadiness, and after I had sampled his famous old brandy we descended to the street. He greeted Albert affably with a “Bon jour, Monsieur Floyd,” to which that grim one responded with a stiff military salute. Paul slipped into the car, I after him; his valet mounted beside Albert and away we went.
The journey down was smooth and uneventful. Edna was waiting for us, and as usual flung her arms round me. The King looked on smiling.
“Mademoiselle,” he said as he gallantly kissed her hand, “a thousand apologies for driving you from your beautiful home, but I hope to atone for it when you come to Belcresta.”
“Your Majesty is very kind,” she answered. He smiled in a manner which suggested that he might be even kinder should occasion arise. The Saranov mouth could be singularly pleasing in certain moods. I thought it better the occasion should not be given the opportunity.
“Are you quite ready?” I asked her.
“Quite,” she said.
“But,” protested Paul, “you do not leave us so soon?”
“According to schedule, sir,” I answered.
“This big brother of yours is a perfect martinet,” he laughed.
“He’s a darling,” she said, and hugged my arm. Paul seemed greatly amused.
“I have a sister,” he said, “but she does not call me ‘darling.’”
“An English word, sir,” I suggested.
“Probably that’s the reason,” he replied.
They walked up the path together while I gave a few instructions to Albert, and when I rejoined them they were standing in the porch looking out across the Downs. Or rather she was; he was looking at her. Her eyes were sparkling and a delicious colour was in her cheeks. I was not sure that I liked this representative of the Saranov family just then. Consequently, I did not strain politeness. Seeing her suitcase lying in a chair I took it up. A momentary frown crossed Paul’s face, swiftly to be chased away by an engaging smile.
“This place you visit,” he asked, “it is far off?”
“Oh, no,” she answered.
“Then we are neighbours?”
“And neighbours visit,” he said, “when they are friends. Please don’t forget.”
Again he went through the ceremonious kissing of her hand, and again the colour flushed her cheeks. It seemed to me that she was a little bewildered.
She was very quiet as we drove along, and I, guessing her thoughts, declined to disturb them. Being a woman, and bubbling with curiosity, she would speak presently. When she did it was to ask why the lady hadn’t come with us. I explained; shopping, coming later. Then she asked how long I thought the King would stay.
“Perhaps his month out, perhaps not. One never knows what maggot will stir the royal brain.”
“I didn’t know kings were like that,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Depositing her safely with her friends I drove back to Wealdon, arriving about five o’clock, and as I approached the house I saw Paul sitting in an easy chair in the porch, smoking a cigar. He greeted me with a wave of the hand.
“Everything quite comfortable, sir?”
“Everything, thank you. I’m going to enjoy this rest, Gantian.”
“I hope so, sir.”
“I know it; I feel it already. You have seen to the necessary—precautions?”
“Yes, sir. I do not think your occupation will be disturbed. Has madame arrived?”
“Not yet. You know what women are once they get among the shops.”
A little, I thought, and also that she should have arrived before this. He, however, seemed to accept the delay as of no importance, and returned to the precautions I had taken for his safety. But I was not inclined to accept the delay with his apparent complacency, though not protesting the possibility of mishap. He either did not or would not view the matter with alarm, and I had no wish to cause unnecessary uneasiness. Yet my question must have set him thinking, for within the next half hour he displayed many symptoms of anxiety. He should have insisted on her coming with us; why hadn’t he, with much more of the same sort of thing. Then he was sure something had happened, and when I suggested getting through to Falhngton’s and finding out when she had left he at once begged me to do so. By this time he was convinced that all was not well.
We had been watching the approach to the house for signs of the car, and as I turned with the intention of telephoning he suddenly called out, “There they are!”
The car, seen for a moment on the brow of the hill, passed swiftly over it and disappeared down the dip which led up on our side to the house. We went down to the gate, I much relieved, he facetiously commenting on woman and her ways, of which he had probably had an extensive experience.
As the car pulled up I went to the door and opened it, and out reeled Ferdinand, ghastly of face, eyes staring wildly, his tongue gasping, “Madame, madame! Quick!” like one distraught. Swinging him aside I looked into the car. In one corner was madame moaning, her face buried in a cloth of some sort; on the floor was her maid huddled up, her face in her hands.
“What is this?” I heard Paul demand, to which the secretary seemed to shriek an answer in his own tongue. But I had already entered the car and taken madame in my arms, and as I did so the cloth fell away from her face… Her right cheek was red and swollen, and looked as though it had been seared with a hot iron.
Replacing the cloth, which in reality was a light travelling cloak, I carried her up to the house and laid her on the drawing-room sofa, Paul following and demanding to know what it all meant. But ignoring him I told Albert to ring up Dr. Micklesham, our nearest local practitioner of repute, and ask him to come over at once. The case was most urgent. Madame continued to moan.
“What is it?” Paul whispered, his face white, his lips trembling. “She’s not dying?”
“No.” Though probably she would have preferred death.
The doctor, who fortunately was at home when the call came through, rushed over in his car. The horrible disfigurement, as I feared, had been caused by vitriol, and the acid had been given time to burn its way into the flesh. She might lose the sight of her right eye, he said, unless she could at once receive special attention.
My friend Roper-Lees of Harley Street was the man, but he was in London, and he might not be at home. However, I told Albert to call him up, and though he got through quickly the short delay seemed interminable. Briefly I explained the case. Yes, he would come at once; but would his “at once” be too late? I took the doctor aside, but without telling him who his patient was, cautioned the utmost secrecy. This might turn out to be a state affair. It was sufficient warning. I knew I could rely on him.
The wait for Roper-Lees was intolerable. Paul was like a madman; madame continued to moan. Ferdinand was prostrate, incoherent, and would have shot himself had I not prevented it. I was in the midst of trying to elicit information when suddenly he took a pistol from his pocket and with a cry of despair put it to his head. Pitifully he expostulated at my interference. He wanted to die, he ought to die; there was nothing to live for now.
Then Roper-Lees arrived, having made the journey in something under two hours. Learning from Micklesham what he had done he nodded approvingly, and was at once led in to the patient, who still reclined on the sofa, pitiful to behold. He said never a word as he set to work, but I quickly saw that he was concentrating on the eye. The face itself was apparently beyond hope. When he had finished bandaging her she was carried upstairs to my mother’s room and put to bed.
“That is all I can do for the present,” he said, turning to Paul, who stood helplessly looking on, pulling at his lip.
“Thank you, Doctor. You don’t think she will die?”
“No, no; not the slightest danger. Make your mind easy on that. I will come again to-morrow morning.”
“The eye, Doctor, the eye?” groaned the King.
“I think it is not vitally affected.”
“Thank God!” he sobbed, the tears streaming down his face.
I saw Roper-Lees to his car.
“It was good of you to come like this.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“No, I knew you would if you got the message.”
“Anywhere at any time for you, Peter. Who’s the man?”
“The King of Istania.”
“Then she is—”
“Good God, what a tragedy!”
“You don’t think she’ll die, Jack?”
“No; but she’ll probably wish she had. How did it happen?”
“I don’t quite know yet. The King’s secretary, who was with her, mutters incoherently of ‘masked men.’ Probably I shall get it all out of him in the morning.”
Returning, I softly entered the room. The King was sitting beside the bed holding her hand, his body shaking with sobs.
IN the morning Count Ferdinand, now recovered, though still greatly distressed, gave us his version of the story. It would seem that they were late in setting out from London, due in all probability to the fascination exercised by the shops on madame. All went well until they took the cross-road beyond Uckfield which led to Wealdon. Then suddenly he saw a car pulled up ahead of them. A man was leaning over the bonnet. Thinking it was no more than a mishap, and as the stationary car blocked the road, his chauffeur came to a standstill. Immediately the door on either side of the car opened and two masked men sprang out. Both carried revolvers, and in Istanian called out to the chauffeur to put up his hands, and keep them up.
“Almost before I fully realised what had happened,” he continued, “I was threatened on either side by these men, and ordered to step out onto the road while the third man searched me. Unhappily my revolver was in my suitcase. I was threatened with instant death if I moved. Then one of them roughly dragged madame from the car, she screaming and protesting, and between them they carried her away out of sight. Her cries had ceased, but suddenly they came again, or rather one cry—dreadful!
“Several minutes passed. Then the men reappeared entered their car and drove away. Going in search of madame I found her unconscious beside a clump of shrubbery. Carrying her to the car I ordered the chauffeur to drive here with all speed.” He stopped, then turned pitifully to the King. “Your Majesty, I would have died if my death could have served.”
There was no doubt of his pitiful plight. The King listened like one bemused, nodding his head and muttering in his own tongue.
“The men spoke Istanian?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied the secretary.
“Without any trace of a foreign accent?”
“Not the slightest.”
“You have no suspicion as to their identity?”
“Madame did not speak?”
“She did nothing but moan.”
He fell on his knees before Paul, seized his hand and wept over it. I left him making a sobbing appeal, or explanation, in his own language.
I will admit that I had not thought the blow would fall like this. While fully expecting a more or less serious happening, I had believed Paul would be the victim. That madame should be hated was perhaps natural enough, but once robbed of her protector she would sink to immediate insignificance, a fate that had befallen so many of her kind. In the spoiling of a rival’s beauty was a revenge that seemed to me peculiarly feminine. No more conquests, no more fear of that fatal gift; men would now turn from her in horror. In destroying her beauty they were destroying her body and soul.
The only satisfaction derived from Roper-Lees’ second visit was his assurance that her life was not in danger, and a great hope that her eye would be saved. But to me he confessed as I walked with him to his car that it had been a near thing. As to the face, that would of course heal in time, but the disfigurement would be appalling. The acid had been allowed to burn in. She had probably been held down while it had taken effect.
I did not see the King again for several hours, he remaining up in the room with her. Doctor Micklesham promised to run over again in the afternoon. He agreed with the specialist’s treatment, so he generously informed me, and would carefully carry out instructions. He was quite sure they would make a good job of it between them.
I was sitting in the porch smoking my after-tea pipe when Paul appeared. He was pale, his mouth was twitching, his brows were contracted, and there was a ferocity in his eyes that I had never seen before. This gave me a glimpse of that other side of him, that side which had multiplied his enemies. Nothing of the easy-going, pleasure-loving ne’er-do-well about him now. The Saranov mouth looked its ugliest. I asked him if madame had spoken.
“One word,” he said; “Boris.”
“Nothing of Milescu?”
“No. This is the revenge, Gantian, that they have been saving up. But I’ll get even with them. The poor girl; you think she will be horribly scarred?”
“We must hope for the best, sir; and you may rest assured that all that can possibly be done for her is being done. Roper-Lees is a very able man.”
“An old friend of yours?” he asked, but I thought without interest.
“Since our Cambridge days.”
“Vitriol,” he muttered. “By God, I’ll burn their eyes out!”
I thought there might be other and better work for him, though knowing it would be useless to argue anything but reprisals in his present mood. And he took many bitter oaths that they should be exemplary. All the fierce blood of his barbaric ancestors was astir; there was a black hatred in his looks that made him almost repellent. He seemed racked with rage, remorse, and his utter helplessness. Perhaps this helplessness, affected him to an almost ungovernable extent.
“If this had only happened in Istania,” he said, “I would have shaken the country. But here, what can I do? I hide, she hides; even this dreadful thing: must be hidden. I—yes, against me all they could do but I did not think they would treat a woman like this. You thought her beautiful, Gantian?” he asked pathetically.
“And because of her beauty they have done this to her.” Again he broke out in incoherent mutterings. And then, “What are we to do?”
To me it seemed that the best thing to do was to wait until madame was well enough to make the journey back to Istania, though this I could not tell him. Here was no ordinary case in which one’s own law could step in and punish. The strictest secrecy had to be maintained; it would never do for the public to get the faintest hint of the affair.
I admitted that the problem was a difficult one, but stressed the point that madame’s recovery was our first and chief interest. For the time being we must concentrate on that. Events would shape themselves; they always did. Not much consolation in this, I’m afraid. But how was one to help in such a hopeless situation? Paul’s visions of revenge might materialise in the country where he was king, but with us they would be dangerous to all concerned.
It would be idle to pretend that thoughts of Queen Nardia did not obtrude. When I said the outrage struck me as being peculiarly feminine it was of her I was thinking. Though a queen she was still a woman, and that beauty which had robbed her of a husband would have been hateful to her. Though she might not weep to hear of the misfortune of her rival, it did not follow that she was privy to the outrage. A jealous woman of the lower orders, yes; but there were surely a few things women of her station did not do. The times of the Borgias had passed.
Between his cursings and his ravings of revenge he was denouncing himself for not insisting on her accompanying us. But here I think he was not greatly to blame. Believing that the danger was directed against himself personally, he had been lulled into a sense of false security concerning her. And in this I tried to reassure him, but with little success. He seethed against himself, his enemies real and imaginary; against the world. In short, while sympathising with him, I was forced to the conclusion that there was a touch of megalomania in his make-up which might account for many of the disasters which had compromised his throne.
Suddenly glaring at me he said: “You must find Karlin.”
“And then?” I asked.
“Leave him to me.”
“Your Majesty fails to realise that if Major Karlin is found he must be charged according to our law in the ordinary way.”
“No, my dear Gantian, in quite an extraordinary way,” he muttered.
“Do you think that would be wise, sir?”
“In Istania,” he scoffed, “we know nothing of your mealy-mouthed Puritanism.”
“Are you sure Istania is the better for that?” I asked.
“We get on very well without it.”
“By slitting each other’s throats?”
“An efficacious remedy, my dear Colonel. As you say, dead men tell no tales.”
“A fallacy, sir; they frequently provide the most convincing evidence.”
“Against kings?” he asked.
He had me there, and knew it. Once, in most perilous times, England had been stirred by the brave slogan of “Hang the Kaiser!” which whimpered away pitifully in a feeble apology for the incredible thought.
“A silent, grim proceeding,” he continued, “in which no word was spoken. Naturally Elena’s mind is confused—the marvel is that she did not go mad— yet she asserts that neither of her captors spoke.”
“Yet she recognised her husband, though he was heavily masked?”
“The little finger of his left hand is crooked. Remember that—the little finger of his left hand. Gantian, I want Boris Karlin and his unknown accomplice, and you must get them for me.”
“And then?” I asked once more.
“Leave them to me,” he said.
In his present mood it would be useless to speak further of our judicial methods of procedure. Mentally he was back in Istania, absolute in authority, the arbiter of life and death. But physically he was a long way from Istania, with a very limited authority, and we had a way of our own in dealing with such matters.
Meanwhile, madame’s condition seemed to me of chief importance. It was clear that she could not be moved for some time to come, and Wealdon presented unique opportunities for repose and secrecy. Even Paul saw this and unconditionally agreed that the doctor’s orders should be strictly observed. But I knew that he was merely biding his time, storing up a system of revenge which, when loosened, would not err on the side of leniency.
The next day I returned to town, leaving Albert in charge. Though I did not expect an immediate attack on the King, believing that his enemies would once more vanish into obscurity and bide their time, I was conscious of its possibility. Milescu had made his hatred of Paul so clear that until he was satisfactorily accounted for there could be no margin of safety. The peculiarly horrible nature of the revenge taken on the woman awoke painful conjecture as to what might befall her lover. Von Lindner had hinted of a feud between Milescu and the King which was something more than political. What could it be; in what way, and to what extent, had Paul personally offended him? That he was being called to account for his sins offered no grounds for moral complaint, but that he should involve others in mutilation and death gave the situation an entirely different aspect. Had he taken warning by madame’s fate, and at once decided to retreat to the fastnesses of his own country, such decision would have been warmly welcomed. But instead of intimidating him, the outrage had strengthened his determination to fight. That obstinate mouth of his developed a harder look of obstinacy; the easy-going disposition vanished. He became a man with a purpose, grim, terrible.
I looked in on Mayford on my way to Cork Street. No longer was it possible to withhold the truth from him; the situation demanded instant attention if inter-state complications were to be avoided.
He listened to me through his usual smoke-screen, but before I had finished he had laid aside his cigar and seemed to forget it. He scowled and growled and spluttered certain things of King Paul, far from complimentary, and not a few of madame, harsh unpleasant things void of chivalry. Why couldn’t these people stay at home? No one wanted them, and they knew it; yet they came. Officialism was disagreeably stirred, not to say annoyed; which annoyance was not entirely due to the presence of Paul and his mistress. The fact that authority had been unable to trace either Milescu or Karlin rankled deeply. What at the outset had seemed easy of accomplishment had proved incredibly difficult. A couple of aliens—Istanians, too!—to defy what was probably the best equipped organisation in the world. He would have believed it impossible. Alone they could not be clever enough to elude him and his men. Some powerful agency was behind them. In no other way was it possible to explain their immunity from discovery.
I must admit that some such thought had more than once crossed my own mind, though I would not let it rest there. Who could be shielding them; who would take the risk? But of what was in my mind I said nothing to him. It was decided that both Karlin and Milescu must be found, and when found, secretly deported. At all costs a public scandal was to be averted. Officialism, having suffered some hard knocks lately, had grown irascible under criticism.
Leaving George I hailed a taxi and drove to my rooms, and immediately rang up Baron von Lindner; or, rather, tried to, experiencing a little difficulty. First my name could not be got correctly. Then inquiries began, and I was ultimately informed that the baron was out. Were they sure of this, I asked. A momentary hesitation followed. “Tell him,” I said sharply, “that the matter is urgent. He will know what that means.” After a brief interval the baron himself answered apologetically. A mistake had been made; he deeply regretted. Could he be of service?
I answered, possibly; in any case I should like to see him. Would it be convenient for me to call? He wasn’t sure. One moment, please, while he referred to his book of engagements. I had a suspicion that this book was of the living variety, and of the gender feminine; a book with a cold handsome cover which possibly belied its contents. Presently he spoke again. Where was I speaking from? I told him. “Excellent,” he said. “In half-an-hour I shall be in Bond Street, and will do myself the honour of calling on you.” I thanked him.
Not more than twenty minutes of that half-hour had lapsed when he arrived. He clicked his heels, bowed and apologised for being so early; hoped he had not inconvenienced me in any way. He declined liquid refreshment, but accepted a cigarette.
“Her Majesty is well?” I asked.
“I am glad to say her health is excellent.”
“I need scarcely inquire after yours, Baron.”
“Happily I have no reason to complain,” he replied.
“You are among the fortunate,” I congratulated.
“Well,” he laughed, “you do not appear to need commiseration.”
“What I need, Baron, is a little information.”
“Why not ask the King?” he smirked.
“I prefer to ask you. You hinted of a cause for Milescu’s hatred of the King, a cause more personal than political.”
“It might help to know what it is,” I insisted.
“His Majesty might not wish to have it known.” Again that smirk most odious.
“Is that why you suggested I should ask him?”
He frowned slightly, then smiled. “The Saranovs have always been a law unto themselves,” he said, “and Paul is no exception. The Slav still retains the characteristics of his oriental ancestors—especially in regard to women,” he added significantly.
“And in this matter of Milescu a woman is the cause?”
“Merely a sister,” he said lightly. “Milescu challenged the seducer to a duel; an incredible outrage on the dignity of Majesty,” he sneered. “Naturally, the presumption was resented. What’s a girl more or less in a crowded market? Perhaps it was a trifle unfortunate that this brother should love his sister, and that he was insensible to the bestowed honour. There, my dear sir, you have the required information. Does it help you to a better understanding of the man you have elected to serve?”
He smiled with a self-complacence which was distinctly annoying, a consciousness of having achieved a personal triumph. Probably he had, but over one whom I had no doubt he feared as well as hated.
“Where it fails, my dear Baron, is in giving me a better understanding of those who are so near the King and who take a singularly curious interest in his welfare.”
“I do not follow; the fault of my English, no doubt.”
“Your English is excellent, sir; I offer congratulation.” Doubtfully he looked at me. “And possibly even a higher appreciation,” I added, “if you were to volunteer a few more intimate details.”
“I am still at a loss to comprehend,” he murmured.
“You realise that the arrest of Milescu and Major Karlin may lead to serious complications?”
“And in what way would that affect me?” he asked.
“Such complications might be better avoided.”
“He smiled. “You really are amazingly mysterious, Colonel. No doubt there is a meaning in your words?”
“Which should be sufficiently clear to a man of your perception.”
“Doubtless mine is much at fault,” he answered.
“Then you know nothing of the crime that has been committed?”
“Crime!” he echoed. “Is the King dead? You are not trying to tell me that they have murdered him?”
“One of his many enemies,” he answered quickly.
“You relieve me of a great anxiety,” he sighed, but with a faint tinge of mockery. “But may I ask what crime you are referring to? You arouse greatly my interest and curiosity. Does it concern the King?”
“And you, and me, and Andrev Milescu—Andrev perhaps above all.”
“And still I grope,” he said.
“Continue, my dear Baron, until you find the light —or the deeper darkness.”
“Excellent,” he laughed; “I thrill. And yet— again I must blame my ignorance of your language— I seem unable to follow your thoughts. I regret, with a thousand apologies.”
“Fewer apologies and more information would be preferable, Baron.”
“Information?” he repeated.
“As to the whereabouts of Milescu.”
“Surely that presents little difficulty to Scotland Yard?” was the retort.
“Will not, Baron. But we would act before he has time to speak. You see, he may inadvertently involve others who are highly placed.”
“Which would be regrettable,” he admitted urbanely. “But what has led you to suppose that I may be able to supply the information you are so anxious to acquire?”
“Merely that you are one with him in detestation of the King.”
“I think you presume,” he answered stiffly.
“Many things; this case offers a variety of them.”
“Had I known that you intended to insult me—”
“I still think you would have come. However, if this visit has caused you inconvenience, please accept my apologies.”
He was now standing stiffly, regarding me with a none too friendly look. An explosion from him would not have caused surprise. It was quite clear that I had rubbed him the wrong way, and that it required an effort to hold himself in check. That he succeeded did not augur too well for my hopes. It would need a cunningly baited trap to catch him.
“I regret,” he said pompously, “that we should seem fated to misapprehend each other. It is by no wish of mine, believe me. The position, you will admit, is a difficult one, rendered not less difficult by your loyalty and devotion. At the same time, you used a certain word just now that intrigues and alarms. I refer to your reference to a crime. What crime may I ask has been committed, and in what manner does it affect the present delicate situation?”
“That remains to be seen. However, I thank you for coming, and again apologise for any inconvenience you may have been put to. I had hoped, and this I admit quite frankly, that your intimacy with the Istanian court might have helped us, but as this is turning out to be a mere police job after all, we shall probably be able to handle it more or less satisfactorily.”
“And doubtless with your customary discretion?”
“Doubtless, my dear Baron.”
A flush suffused his face and glinted ominously in his eyes. A further retort trembled on his lips, but did not pass them. Sharply he clicked his heels and bowed; but there was no extended hand, which omission did not occasion regret.
THE baron’s frankness had not been particularly impressive. There was a smug reservation in his manner which suggested a knowledge he had no wish to impart. Plainly he was saying: I could tell ever so much more, something that might interest you, my friend, but doubt if it would be wise. Find out for yourself, if you can. The problem may tax your ingenuity.
But though the interview had been far from successful it was not necessarily regretted. While the information gleaned of Milescu had been little, that of the baron was considerable. I saw a man who prided himself on his skill as a tactician, but who was a little inclined to overdo the part, and who might seriously involve himself if he were not careful. There was about him an air of self-complacence, a knowledge of his own cleverness, which I had noticed in others, and which, though it might temporarily succeed, never carried them very far. Even the dullest of us have moments of perception fatal to vanity.
The visit also made clearer Paul’s contempt for him. Assuming that the King’s faults were manifold, there was a redeeming grace in their frankness which was not without its charm. His sins were open to the day; if he did not exactly delight in flaunting them he apparently regarded them as venial. He may have been a voluptuary, and he may have acted as a tyrant in the preservation of self, but I could not conceive him needlessly inflicting pain. He simply would not have thought it worth while. That there was a very human side to him his grief over the tragic happening to madame attested. How deep it went I naturally could not fathom, but of its genuineness I had no doubt. Moreover, the thought of his own greatness was not an ineradicable obsession. I believe that what success I had with him was entirely due to my attitude of non-servility. While accepting public homage as part of the business of kingship he indulged no illusions respecting it. He knew that kings came and went like other men, and that the only divinity of his office was in its temporal power. And yet he seemed to me a man singularly devoid of friendship as we ordinary folk understand it. Once in a burst of confidence he told me there was no man near enough to him to call him Paul. And he drew a parallel between his position after he had ascended the throne and that of a man who lends a friend money. Coldness creeps in, the rift widens, the end comes. But I wondered whose fault it was that no man was near enough to call him by his Christian name.
From all of which it will be gathered that I was not averse to condoning his lapses, which feeling grew stronger after my interview with Lindner. The baron had not impressed, and in consequence of him Queen Nardia herself suffered. How he had gained an ascendancy over her seemed capable of only one interpretation, and General Pennefeather, that irrepressible gossip, smirking odiously, had provided it. Possible; but how much deeper had she become involved with him? While conceding that she would be a poor creature tamely to submit to a public degradation, how far was she likely to let the spirit of revenge run? That she should shed tears over the maltreatment of a rival was not to be expected; that she should be party to such an outrage was difficult to imagine. The Balkans had not nurtured her, neither had they been her playground. Her sense of duty to herself may have suffered a relapse without destroying a detestation of physical torture.
Probably not more than an hour after Lindner had left, my telephone rang. Floyd not being present I answered it myself. A woman was at the other end of the line. She asked:
“Is that Colonel Gantian?”
“Speaking,” I answered.
“Tell me, do you recognise my voice?”
“The distance between Cork Street and the Melchester”
“Exactly,” she answered quickly. “I wish to see you, Colonel Gantian.”
“I am at your service, madam.”
“I will come round at any time that is convenient.”
“No, no, please don’t come here; I would rather you didn’t. I wish to see you privately; it would not do for you to come here. What can you suggest?”
“If you have sufficient confidence in me”
“Then to-night; perhaps about eleven o’clock. I cannot come before. Thank you; about eleven o’clock.”
Here was a sudden and unexpected development. What had urged Queen Nardia to suggest this unconventional visit? I must admit to a confliction of thought. The snow-woman seeking a secret interview; cold as one of her northern winters. That similitude of Paul’s, how it stuck and how absurd it seemed.
I had agreed to dine that night with George Mayford and his wife at their house in Regent’s Park, and the wait for the coming of the Queen could not have been more agreeably filled. Molly Mayford was a cheery little woman who took neither life nor her big husband too seriously. Down in his office at the Yard he was a powerful and mysterious deity, one at whose thunderings the evil-doer trembled, whose hand stretched over London like a gigantic net; but here in Regent’s Park he was just “George” and nothing more. And the fellow seemed to like it, gurgled with delight at her airs of authority and generally purred at her like a big red kitten. In his courting days he used to brag of her as being the “most marvellous girl in the world,” and when in due time she presented him with a son you would have thought she was the only woman who had ever borne a man-child. I must admit to a feeling of envy when I saw him with that youngster, and more than regretful that I hadn’t one of my own. So I became godfather and Uncle Peter, and all those other adjuncts to a happiness which fall to a proxy’s share.
Though I assumed that my distinguished visitor would not arrive on time, there was just the possibility that she might disappoint me. About eleven, she had said, which might mean any time. Yet the clock on my mantelpiece showed no more than ten minutes past the hour when there came a ring at my bell. Smiling rather nervously as I opened the door, she made a swift and surreptitious sort of entry, for all the world like a woman secretly meeting her lover.
Showing her into the sitting-room, which though devoid of elegance was not uncomfortable, I asked her to be seated. She thanked me but declined; she could stay only a few moments. Yet a few of those moments she expended surveying the room and me, possibly to the detriment of both. She was in full evening dress, and wore a gorgeous shimmering gold cloak with a huge fur collar. Pearls were round her neck and in her ears, and one valuable sapphire ring flashed on her right hand. Evidently she had just come from some social event of importance.
“Why are you my enemy, Colonel Gantian?” she asked suddenly.
“But, madam!” I protested.
“I know you are; everybody is. You think like the others that it’s all my fault; or like them do you follow the sun?”
“You speak in parables, madam.”
“But not beyond the scope of your intelligence, I think?”
“Now you flatter.”
She bit her lip and knitted her brows; her blue eyes flashed darkly. The light shining on her hair set it aglow; the pearls seemed to accentuate the whiteness of her throat. Yes, a fine, distinguished-looking woman; not voluptuously alluring like Elena Karlin, yet with an air of grace and elegance which asserted itself in a very provoking manner.
“You are surprised?” she said.
“I am honoured, madam.”
“No one must know of this visit, Colonel.”
“No one shall, madam.”
“But I had to come; I had to know. You had a visit from Baron von Lindner this afternoon?”
“Well, you guess the reason of my coming?”
“I might if your Majesty were more explicit.”
“You are an exasperating person,” she said. “I don’t think I ever met a man who annoyed me so intensely.”
“Will your Majesty allow me to congratulate you on your good fortune?”
“A presumption, Colonel Gantian.”
Suddenly the face grew hard, and again the blue eyes flashed darkly. Was this the cold northern winter attitude that Paul had found intolerable? Something more than mere coldness in it, I thought; a sort of peevish, complaining attitude not beloved of man and much less husbands.
“Your Majesty misapprehends. The honour of this visit would preclude all thought of presumption.”
“Yet if it were not so much to honour as to satisfy a curiosity?”
“Though human, the honour would still remain.”
She smiled, and that smile transformed her face. The woman asserted herself in it; was exceedingly formidable.
“In a battle of words,” she said, “you are an engaging adversary, but rather fearsome. I surrender unconditionally.” Again that smile wreathed her lips, banishing all suggestion of a sullen mouth. “Now tell me what has happened to the King; what you meant when you spoke of a ‘crime’ to Baron von Lindner. I know his Majesty has many enemies, and that he reckons me among them, but I wish him no personal harm.”
“When I last saw him he was, physically, in perfect condition, though mentally not quite so well.”
“But this crime?” she insisted.
“They struck at Madame Karlin.”
A dark flush passed over her pale face; perhaps a momentary triumph flashed in her eyes. The first I did not doubt was caused by my reference to the forbidden subject; the second to the knowledge that her rival had received a just punishment.
“Struck at her?” she repeated. “She is—dead?” The word trembled on her lips.
“Worse, madam; they have destroyed her beauty.”
“How—destroyed? What do you mean?”
I told her, not particular to choose my words, watching closely for the effect of them. And I must confess that her reception of the story caused a wavering of some preconceived conclusions. If she were not genuinely affected then her artistry in the simulation of distress was superb. Indeed, she tottered and leant against the sofa for support; then sank incontinently into it. I offered her a glass of wine, which she accepted with a wan but grateful acknowledgment.
“But this is too horrible,” she whispered. “You are sure? Who would have done this dreadful thing? Destroyed, you said?”
“Burnt up, disfigured for life,” I replied uncompromisingly.
“She will die?”
“Not unless she takes her own life.”
“She was very beautiful,” she said.
Her pale face was mask-like, baffling; yet one might guess something of her thoughts by the strange light in her eyes. Was it all horror in them; was there nothing of triumph?
Meeting my gaze, she said, “I did not want this, Colonel Gantian.”
No, of course not. But what had she wanted? The suppression of a rival? Natural enough, but not by unnatural means. Jealousy, hatred, contempt, revenge; but not such a revenge.
“The King?” she asked nervously.
“His Majesty has been greatly shocked.”
“He is still at your house in the country?” was her next question. So she knew this too! Probably there was little connected with him that she did not know.
“For a little while longer,” I admitted.
“It is known who committed this outrage?” was the next question, put a little uneasily.
“It is suspected, and will soon be known.”
“And then?” There was a personal note in this which suggested alarm.
“That is for those in authority to decide.”
“It’s dreadful,” she said again.
“I thought it a peculiarly feminine form of revenge,” was my venture.
“Feminine!” she echoed sharply. “What do you mean by that? Why feminine? Are we more brutal than men?”
“One is so apt to misjudge,” I answered lamely.
“But you do not, Colonel Leathermouth.”
“Perhaps more than most, madam.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, her eyes on mine. “That is why I wished you to serve me.”
“But I am supposed to be of service only to those who need it, though it would seem I am no longer to be trusted.”
“You serve the King,” she said.
“Badly, I fear.”
“I wish I were served as badly.”
“I am sure your Majesty has a devoted servant in Baron von Lindner.”
It was another venture. She pricked up her ears. “You do not like the Baron?” she queried, looking at me through half-closed lids.
“Is that a matter for joy or sorrow? His eyes are very round.”
A smile played about her own. “And you do not like round eyes? Is that because they are so different from your own? Is this more peculiar feminism? Well, sir, why don’t you answer, argue with me, overwhelm me with your stern masculinism? I am accustomed to rough usage. But for heaven’s sake don’t frown at me as though I were the greatest culprit on earth.”
She threw the cloak from her shoulders and stretched her white arms along the back of the sofa, a gesture fraught with danger to one who might forget her state. I wondered if Paul had ever seen her thus, Paul, whose submission to feminine allure was notorious.
Nothing of the snow-woman here except in the whiteness of her skin. Surely of all the strange people who had sat in that same corner of the sofa this was the strangest. Some of them were dead, many still languished in prison, others were fighting the world in their own desperate way. Yet the only real analogy between her and them was that she too was apparently fighting a losing battle.
“Your Majesty misapprehends the nature of my frown.”
“I wonder? May I smoke?”
As I held the light our eyes met, but I could make nothing of the look in hers. Then she once more leant back and stretched out her arms, nonchalantly, indifferently, almost insolently, a mocking curl on her lip. Very much at home was Her Majesty of Istania at that moment, and apparently aware of it. Like all women, not averse to secret adventure and glorying in the power of sex.
“Now tell me,” she said, “why you dislike the Baron. Is it really because of his eyes?”
“Your Majesty is unmerciful.”
“Sometimes I think you mean to mock me by a repetition of that word ‘majesty,’ having seen the glory of mine and realising its value. But you have not answered my question, and I am not accustomed to ask a second time.”
“I think the Baron is a most devoted servant.”
“Ach, man, you know that’s not what I mean. Are you so diffident with the King? What thoughts are rioting behind your own eyes, Colonel Leathermouth?”
Again that name! Why would she insist on using it?
“Doubtful if they would interest your Majesty.”
“Let my Majesty judge.”
The truth is I was wondering what more than curiosity had caused her to pay this visit, and having learned all she would care to know, why she unnecessarily prolonged it. The clock on my mantelpiece chimed the quarter, the half, the three-quarters. Yet she showed no inclination to stir. Leaning back, daintily fingering her cigarette, or as daintily drawing at it, she continued to gaze at me in a manner that might have embarrassed one of a greater sensibility. Though her attitude was one of calm, cool detachment, there was something more than a suggestion in it of the wish and the will to penetrate the very modest defence behind which I had entrenched myself. Nor, though she had assumed this familiar easy attitude, did she for a moment forget who she was. I had an uneasy feeling that she was waiting for me to make some fatal slip. What else could have brought her here at this time of the night; what else was keeping her? If she had not already heard of the outrage on Madame Karlin the knowledge could not be long delayed. There would be whisperings, refutations, and ultimate confirmation; the story would run round her circle of acquaintances as in a whispering gallery.
“Even at the risk of proving a bore?” I asked.
“I accept the risk,” she said. “You are thinking it strange that I should come here? No, please, there is no necessity again to stress the honour; I would prefer something more substantial. You, I thought, would appreciate the circumstances, or such was the impression you gave me. Without your help it is difficult for me to explain; but I want you to forget the Queen in the woman. And why you in particular? Exactly; why you? Even I find myself asking that, and don’t know; then seem to know. You have a dear friend?”
“Two,” I answered, thinking of Albert and my American friend Wallington.
“Two!” she mocked.
“Men, madam,” I corrected.
“And how many do you think I have?”
“Who pity me. Have you ever been pitied, Colonel Peter?”
Colonel Peter! Odd that she should also use that intimate form of address.
“Perhaps more often hated. You see, my job as a policeman—”
“Your job as a policeman,” she laughed. “Yes, yes, you are a policeman, of course; if you had not been I should not have ventured here. But one is so safe with the police. Yet even so there are those in Istania who might curl a lip. You see, Colonel Peter, you have the power to compromise me. What would the King say if he knew?”
A new line! Was it dangerous or merely provocative? George Mayford would have glowered and snorted, “Woman—h’m!” Albert Floyd would have signalled danger, unimpressed by rank. Get beneath the thick or thin veneer and there was little to choose. “His Majesty is very broadminded,” I answered.
“And knows his Leathermouth.”
“The name seems to amuse your Majesty.”
“Interests, rather. How did you come by it?”
“Perhaps when I go to Istania, and you graciously grant permission, I may explain.”
“So, you are going to Istania?”
“His Majesty has been good enough to invite me.”
“Ah,” she said, “his Majesty is very kind.” And then, “Does your sister accompany you?”
There was a true touch of feminine slyness in this which I thought best to ignore. But how had she come to know of my sister? Her secret sources of information were clearly not inactive.
“His Majesty considerately left the invitation open.”
“I understand, and approve your discretion.” Sweetly she said this as only a woman can when she wishes to sting.
“I am honoured in the approval of your Majesty.” She rose laughing and held out her arms for her cloak, into which I helped her.
“Are you never ruffled?” she asked.
“Not by my friends.”
“And you count me among them?”
“And poor Otto Lindner with his round eyes?” she laughed.
“Who is more than rich in your Majesty’s approval.”
“You are a strange man. Colonel Gantian,” she said, looking hard at me.
“And a bad courtier?”
“I did not say so.”
“Your Majesty is gracious.”
“Enough of my majesty; I weary of it. May I have another cigarette?”
She dipped her fingers into the open box and took one. Again I presented the light, and again her eyes met mine across the flame, a challenging look which left me guessing.
“I came here to-night to test you,” she suddenly admitted.
“I tremble for the verdict.”
Her lips pouted. “You should take me seriously, Colonel, and remember that I am not without friends, friends who may be of great service to you.”
“I hope I shall always welcome a friend.”
“Or a foe?”
“I prefer to run from him.”
She smiled and shook her head. “And you are not anxious to hear the verdict? Are you never anxious, never ill at ease—never fearful of what may happen?”
“I live in constant dread.”
“Oh, you are quite impossible!”
She sat on an arm of the sofa, looked up at me and nonchalantly pulled at her cigarette. The cloak, slipping from her shoulders, its fur collar nestled round her waist. I waited, wondering what was to be the next move. The astonishment of her coming had long since vanished in the amazement of her presence. One by one my preconceived notions of her faded. Time and again the thought of Paul, and what he had said of her, flashed through my mind. Was I seeing the real woman or merely another side of her? This the Woman of Many Sorrows, this daring, challenging, provocative, alluring creature! What did it mean? Had the cold blood suddenly turned warm, the icy temperature thawed? Had she, like many other women, suddenly realised that she was missing something of life? Was it this that kindled the strange light in her eyes? Unless I sadly misread that light, it was plainly saying, “Think of me as a woman first.”
Then the clock chiming another quarter broke the tension. She flung a glance at it, rose and drew her cloak round her shoulders.
“I must go,” she said, stabbing the cigarette in the ash-tray. Escorting her to the street I was surprised to see no waiting car. “I came by taxi,” she explained, and as at that moment one turned into the street she said, “This will do.”
“The Melchester?” I asked.
“If you please, Colonel Peter.”
A white hand was extended over the lowered window. I kissed it.
ALBERT FLOYD reported that the King was getting restless. Madame, as far as he could ascertain, was progressing as well as could be expected. All the doctor would say was that he had now no real fear of serious complications, which was presumed to mean that she would not lose the sight of her eye. Being something of a fatalist, Albert appeared philosophically to accept the inevitable, no difficult task when it does not personally affect us. Madame had been out of luck, and anyone might strike a bad patch. These things just happen.
So Paul was restless, but what form did his restlessness take? Oh, wandering about the house and the garden, he said (we were speaking on the long distance), smoking no end of cigars and talking to himself. Not a bit friendly; seemed worried and rather irritable. Otherwise things were going on all right. Nobody suspicious seen around. When did I think of returning? I told him during the week-end.
But on the following day he reported that the King’s restlessness had taken the form of going for a run in the car—by himself.
“Wouldn’t let me go with him, though I offered to. Reckless, I call it, but what are you to do with a king? Sooner you come down the better, sir. Seems to me that he’s getting a bit out of hand. Though I must say that he was more like himself when he got back about an hour ago. I told him you would be running down for the week-end, and he said you needn’t hurry. If he wasn’t a king I should call him a funny bloke.”
He was that all right, and over-rash. More than ever should I be glad to hear of madame’s convalescence and his intention of taking her away. The sooner they returned to Istania the better for all concerned. I saw little credit and much confusion in a further association. Up to a certain point much might be hidden from the public, but presently rumour would circulate with little regard to truth, and difficulties increase. This was no tracking down of an ordinary criminal. Everyone had to move warily, secretly; even punishment would be abrogated in the interests of international relations. But for the personal element that had now entered into this affair I should have experienced no regret in abandoning it; for it seemed to me that whatever course it took there could be but one end, and that an unpleasant one.
Nor had Queen Nardia’s visit eased the situation. What was the real meaning of it; what was there behind it? Had she heard of the attack on Madame Karlin before coming to me, and if so, how? Was she herself taking an active part in the conspiracy? Though suspicious I could not entirely credit this. While not regretting the misfortune to an enemy, one might shy at helping it along. That she should weep in sackcloth and ashes was not to be expected. Elena Karlin’s beauty had wrought so much havoc in her life that she could not, without some suggestion of hypocrisy, appear to be unduly moved. And though she might be many things she was no hypocrite. She would have known no reason why she should be. And being, as I conceived, very human in spite of her airs of cold detachment, and what Paul called her pose of martyr, she would probably find consolation in the thought that heaven had come to her aid. It was one of those occasions when we approve of providence and its ways.
But what caused more confusion of thought and endless conjecture was her attitude towards me. Why had she been so amazingly gracious, so unexpectedly intimate? The woman she had shown had shattered all conceptions of the aloof and frigid Queen. The northern winter may have been in her blood, the formal training of a petty German court her ideal of lofty conduct, but the human side of her was far from submerged. She seemed to me like one who, having grown weary of the cage, was eager to test her wings. But why had she chosen to express her emancipation through me? Why to me should she raise the veil which had shrouded her in sympathetic mystery? What was the meaning of this astounding confidence?
However, thinking that first visit would be her last, and that now the veil would be dropped never to be lifted again, my hope was that I should soon be through with the whole entanglement. Paul might still vow vengeance in his best tyrant vein; but was he the one to dwell in sorrow, to rail eternally at the inevitable? Elena Karlin, her face swathed in bandages, with only one eye showing, would not be the Elena Karlin of yesterday; never again the Elena Karlin he had known and loved. Once more the fatal gift had brought misery to its possessor. He would wonder what raw hideousness lay beneath those wrappings, and with that one sad beautiful eye of hers she would see his face and read her doom, and wish that she were dead.
On the following morning, which was Friday, I received a note from Edna. After saying she was quite happy with her friends, and hoped to see me soon, she wrote: “Now for the surprise! The King motored over from Wealdon this afternoon and had tea with us. Imagine our astonishment and flurry! The Merediths (the people with whom she was staying) thought him charming, but to me he seemed depressed, almost sad, and totally different from the first time he came down with you. I felt quite sorry for him, though I suppose it’s a piece of cheek on my part to feel sorry for a King. Still, I am. He promised to run over again soon. Isn’t it nice of him? I suppose it’s because he’s so fond of you.”
Probably; but I at once decided not to delay my departure, and to pass through Petworth on my way down. Paul’s restlessness might affect others as well as himself.
But fate, or Queen Nardia, decided otherwise. Baron von Lindner was on the ’phone in his most agreeable manner. Her Majesty graciously invited me to lunch on Saturday afternoon. He hoped it would be possible for me to accept, which was charming of him. Such an invitation being in the nature of a command, there was no alternative to obedience. Naturally I was flattered. But what could she want me for? After our late heart-to-heart talk there could be little left to say. Moreover, I was anxious to get away. Paul’s “restlessness” had affected me more than I would care to admit.
However, at half-past one on the following afternoon I presented myself at the Melchester and was met in the lounge by von Lindner, who greeted me with an affability I had not associated with him. Leading the way to a quiet corner of the lounge, which also commanded a view of the main entrance, he ordered cocktails and offered cigarettes, explaining that though her Majesty was out he expected her return every moment. Meanwhile the drink was refreshing and my host not inattentive. On the contrary, he seemed almost too solicitous to please. As I looked into his round eyes I wondered if the Queen had repeated my remark, though if this were so it clearly occasioned no ill feeling on his part.
But the time passed and her Majesty did not appear, which seemed a little to flutter his equanimity. He could not understand the delay, the Queen being most punctilious in all social observances. I wondered. We had a second round of drinks and smoked more cigarettes, and still she did not come. Feeling piqued, I glanced at my watch. Seeing this, he began to apologise in a slightly humorous manner. Women were all alike in the matter of being unpunctual, and apparently queens were no exception. Presently she would enter like a whirlwind. I could not imagine her a whirlwind; in fact, anything but a whirlwind, at least in public. More like a chilly current of air, I thought.
Three-quarters of an hour is long enough to wait for any woman. Even love might grow cold during such a period, or burst into an irritating flame. But whereas love quickly pardons, indifference continues to seethe. I rose. Evidently this was one of those occasions when her Majesty was not the soul of punctiliousness. Lindner recommenced apologising, and then suddenly remembered her Majesty’s instructions. We were not to wait unduly; through some inadvertence she might be late. Should we go into lunch?
I excused myself, begging him to express a thousand regrets to her Majesty. He did not seem greatly affected by my decision not to remain; he did not even say her Majesty would be disappointed, for which I was grateful. In fact, the incident seemed to amuse rather than annoy him. There was a curl round his mouth that in other circumstances I might have altered.
Suspicion stirred much curious thought. The belief grew on me that I had been fooled. Was this a sample of her Majesty’s singular sense of humour, or had she deliberately intended to slight me? Rather petty, though, and scarcely to be credited. Yet how explain the snub? And here the round-eyed baron obtruded with his little tricks of speech, his sudden start in answer to a question, his moments of obvious uneasiness. It seemed to me that he and I would need to be better acquainted, and that Queen Nardia herself might be requested to explain.
Leaving the hotel I jumped into a taxi, drove to the club and had a hurried lunch. Probably for the first time in my life I regretted not encountering that renowned gossip General Pennefeather (Lindner still being in my thoughts), but he was not on view. Neither did George Mayford put in an appearance, which I did not regret. He would have begun his questioning, and I felt there was a little more to be done before I could present a satisfactory report.
My intention was to pass through Petworth on my way down and have a look at Edna who, if she were communicative, might have some news of the King. Naturally they would all be flattered and excited over the royal visit, which from my point of view was more exciting than flattering. For though I knew Paul could be exceedingly charming, and might unduly stir vanity, I was not convinced of his integrity with women. What had been said of him: that he would betray friend or foe alike. At that moment the indictment had not been unduly impressive, but I was remembering it now.
When I arrived at the Merediths’ place, which stood about a mile beyond the town, I learned that the King had already been and departed. No, he did not stop for tea. A sort of informal call; he said he was just passing through. Mrs. Meredith, I could see, was intensely flattered. What a charming man he was. Her daughter Dorothy smiled in the superior manner of the modern young woman. Edna was strangely mute and more than usually thoughtful.
“Was the King alone?” I asked.
“He always comes alone,” said Dorothy Meredith.
“Well, it’s a nice little run round here.”
“Very,” she answered drily. “Surprising that you should never have discovered it before.”
“Peter’s so busy,” said Edna, flushing a little as she said it.
“Too busy to stay for tea?” asked Dorothy with that quizzing, provocative smile of hers.
“Afraid so, my dear; merely a pleasure deferred.” She pulled a face at me.
Arms round each other Edna and I walked down to the car.
“How long is it since the King left?” I asked her.
“A little more than an hour ago. Is anything the matter, Peter?”
“Matter! With whom?”
“I mean the King. He seemed worried.”
“My dear,” I answered in my best sententious, big-brotherly manner, “kings have their worries like other people.”
“Somehow I can’t think of him as a king,” she confided.
“You miss the jewelled crown and the robes of state?”
“Perhaps; but he seems so unaffected, so real.”
“Did you expect him to come out of a cloud in a golden chariot?” Must laugh her out of this mood at any cost.
“You think I’m silly?”
“I think you’re a darling.” With a big squeeze.
“But I’m sure he’s miserable,” she insisted.
“Then if he is you may depend it’s his own fault, and that he hasn’t known how to make the best of his luck.”
“Will he be staying much longer at Wealdon?”
“No. In fact I should think he will begin packing up at once. Istania is a restless country, and the King’s presence is badly needed. There are certain of his subjects who do not approve of his Majesty, and might suddenly decide to put someone else in his place. You know what these foreigners are; never know how to take them. A rum lot who cry ‘Long live’ to-day, and ‘Down with’ to-morrow. Thank your stars you’re English, my dear.”
“Is it because he is in such danger in his own country that he wants you to go back with him?”
“And go down with him if anything happens. How would you like that?”
“It’s horrible,” she said. And then, with apparent inconsequence, “He’s very fond of Albert too.”
“Monsieur Floyd,” I laughed.
“He always calls him that.”
“And I’m not sure that Albert’s Englishism approves the foreign title. Well, good-bye, my dear, and take care of yourself. I shall be running over again soon.” She held up her face. “Do you realise how very dear you are to me?”
“It makes me happy, darling.”
Feeling did not run strongly in favour of Paul as I drove away. It looked as though there would have to be some pretty plain talk between us. That the glamour of him had not been without effect on her was almost painfully obvious. But I thought after I had spoken these visits would cease.
Arriving home I was met by Albert, who informed me that the King had not yet returned. But as another hour passed and there was still no sign of him I began wondering what had caused the delay, and tried to think that as the day was fine he was making the most of it by speeding through the country or along the coast. Then Ferdinand came out to me in the porch where I was smoking a pipe and said madame was asking for his Majesty. Poor Ferdinand had been a dejected creature since that tragedy on the way down. I understood from Albert that he spent long hours in the garden and in his room, and that a coolness had arisen between him and the King. Paul had never hesitated to show disapproval of his conduct on that memorable occasion. What he had expected the poor beggar to do in the circumstances I couldn’t imagine. When one looks into the muzzle of a pistol not more than a yard away, and notes the encircling finger on the trigger, there’s not much to be done but submit or die. Perhaps Paul thought he should have died heroically; perhaps Ferdinand often wished he had.
After a while he came to me again. Madame’s anxiety and restlessness had increased, and she was now asking for me. So I went up at once to her room, and knocking gently on the door, was admitted by the maid who, after letting me pass through, went out herself, sorrowful of eye and pale of face.
Elena Karlin was lying on the bed, her head swathed in bandages, her mouth and one eye being all that was to be seen of her face. Intent and pitiful was the stare of that eye. A corner of the mouth was inflamed and swollen. I had seen a good deal of suffering in my time, young men stretched out staring up at the sky with sightless eyes, the flush of youth still on their faces, but it had never seemed so pathetic as this. In war a man takes his chance and hopes for a bit of luck. But this was war of a peculiarly horrid and devastating character, and the victim was a woman.
“The King?” she whispered.
“I am expecting him every moment.”
“What is keeping him?”
“Please don’t worry about that. He will be here presently. Are you feeling better?”
“I shall never be better,” she said. And then: “Is the King growing weary?”
“His Majesty has only one thought; your speedy recovery.”
“Why did you not let me die?” she moaned. “I know what has happened. I shall be hideous; he will shudder to look at me. Shall I be hideous, Colonel; shall I, shall I?” she pleaded.
“Why of course not; you mustn’t think of such a thing. You are coming along splendidly; and the doctors say—”
“It is kind of them, but I know; I know I shall be horrible. My face is burnt away. I shall be loathsome, loathsome!” she wailed piteously.
“Many such cases have been treated most successfully,” I assured her, “and in my friend Roper-Lees you have one of the ablest men in England.”
“And what does he say? Shall I lose my eye? My mouth, will it be twisted? God, why didn’t they kill me! You know who did this?”
“You think your husband?”
“Think! I know. This is his revenge, what he promised me. What a triumph for them all, and especially for her.”
“The Queen. But he did not love her, he loved me, and now he will hate me.” A convulsive shudder swept over her.
“You wrong him; he is not like that.”
“He is like all other men. I am already dead to him; I am dead to everything and everybody but myself. He thought me beautiful; a thousand times he has told me so. And now… Everything sacrificed for me. And he wearies; I know he wearies. I am not only a sick woman, Colonel Gantian; I have become a hideous one. How the women of Istania will sneer, those women who envied me. Do you think they know yet?”
“Of course not, and I see no reason why they ever should.”
“But don’t you understand? I shall be too hideous to be seen. Could you remove these bandages and let me see myself for a moment, just for a moment, please? If you only knew what it means lying here thinking, thinking, eternally thinking. Why does one not go mad; why does one live like this?”
Having expected this phase I tried my best to counter it. Knowing that the one desire would be to see herself I feared that she might succumb to a wild moment of rashness.
“Your ultimate recovery,” I warned her, “will depend entirely on yourself, your patience, your courage. But you must do nothing rash. If you were to remove those bandages for a moment the consequences would be fatal. Promise me that you will be patient.”
“I’ll try,” she whispered, “I’ll try. But the horror of it!”
Then she called on God to help her, as we all do in our hour of trial, and then on the King. Where was he; why didn’t he come to her? It was cruel of him to leave her like this. What had he decided to do; how long would it be before she was well enough to travel? Were they going back to Istania; was I coming with them? The questions came hurriedly, inconsequently; at times it was difficult to follow her. She stared at me with her one effective eye and twisted her swollen mouth. Sometimes I thought she was almost delirious, and didn’t wonder at it. The beautiful Elena Karlin come to this!
But the one thought was ever uppermost: the loss of her beauty. She would be hideous, loathsome, the two words ever on her lips. And when not these, the name of the King. Where was he; why didn’t he come to her? Was I sure nothing had happened to him? There were those who hated him and would do him harm; perhaps burn out his eyes! That’s what they would do, burn out his eyes, and all because of her… because of her.
WHY didn’t the King come? she had asked, and I too was repeating the question as I descended the stairs. In the hall Count Ferdinand met me with a white face, a mute inquiring look.
“As well as can be expected,” I told him. “Better go up and sit with her till the King’s return.”
“She will not see me; she hates me and has forbidden me to enter the room.”
Protesting volubly, but feebly, he followed me out to the porch. Night was coming on; behind the distant Downs the sun had already sunk. Clouds were rolling up from the south-west. The atmosphere grew heavy, thunder-laden.
“Tell me,” I asked, “is the King usually as late as this?”
“No, I have never known him so late.”
“Has he never asked you to go with him?”
“Never; it seemed as though he wished to be alone. Besides—”
“His Majesty has changed towards me.”
“You mean since the—accident?”
“That has not improved our relations.”
“Your distress has probably made you fanciful,” I suggested.
“Probably,” he answered, but doubtfully.
“We are going through a very trying period, Count, and one that will require all our patience if we are to see it through successfully.”
Here Albert was seen coming up the garden path and I walked down to him. He looked at me and shook his head.
“Later than usual?” I ventured.
“Very much; an’ there’s a storm coming up.”
“Did you warn him?”
“In your own words, sir.”
“I didn’t like the way he laughed. Sort of laugh a man gives you when he’s got something up his sleeve. If he’s not back soon that storm’ll catch him, an’ in the dark anything might happen. If I only knew which way he was coming I might get out the car and look for him.”
“Take the road to Petworth, but don’t go into the town.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And don’t forget your gun.”
Significantly he touched his hip pocket.
The storm came all right, but not the King. Thunder, lightning, hail, a tearing wind; but not the King. I should probably have been more anxious but for certain information gleaned at the Merediths, which tempered anxiety with annoyance. What sort of a man could he be? Was he utterly without scruple? Had his enemies the true vision of him? That unhappy woman upstairs, lying in mental and physical agony, and he… Perhaps it was as well we did not meet then.
An hour later Albert returned having discovered no trace of the missing one. His face looked grave.
“Think they’ve got him, sir?”
“Perhaps he’s had a breakdown.”
“I was afraid he would.”
So was I as soon as I heard of his insistence on going alone. But this was the kind of breakdown that meant more than mere engine trouble. I got in touch with the surrounding constabulary, who were unable to supply information. Patrols would of course be sent out; information would be flashed to me at once. I had a feeling that the necessary information would not be forthcoming.
Every few minutes either Ferdinand or madame’s maid came for news. Madame, who was distraught, kept calling for the King. Would I go to her? She was in a fever; what was to be done? I went up and consoled her as best I could. Probably his Majesty was waiting in safety for the storm to blow over. Presently he would come. I took the hot hand and stroked it. The pathos of that one poor eye was intolerable.
“You say that, but you know he will not come. They have seized him, carried him away, murdered him! Why were you not with him? He trusted you; you promised him protection.”
And ever so much more of the same thing, poured out in an incoherent stream. Then she took to moaning and murmuring in her own language, her poor mouth cruelly twisted, that one sad eye never leaving my face. Words seemed futile, attempted consolation a mockery. I would rather have faced almost any other situation.
I must have sat for an hour by her side, her fingers locked in mine. If I made the slightest attempt to stir her grip tightened. Sometimes, the heavy lid drooping over the solitary eye, and hoping that she had fallen asleep, I would make an almost imperceptible movement to test the truth of this. The lid would immediately flutter, the pressure on my fingers increase. Once I asked her if she would like to see Ferdinand, but she shook her head violently and shuddered. Poor Ferdinand had indeed fallen from grace.
More than once she whispered, “Listen! That is his step; he is coming! He has not forgotten me because I am sick and hideous. I knew he would come back to me.” She knew he would come back to her! And already he was looking into other eyes. An overwhelming disgust of him swept through me. I felt he deserved any fate that might happen to him. What sort of stuff was this man made of? Did he think that the ordinary rules of decency were inapplicable to him? If so, it would seem that he might be taught a bitter lesson.
The morning brought no relaxation of the tension. The police had failed to discover any trace of him; there was not even the report of a derelict car being found. King Paul of Istania had disappeared, and though I knew not where I guessed with whom. The enemy’s intelligence department had clearly not been idle. The King’s visits to Petworth had supplied the opportunity which had been swiftly seized upon. Paul was in the hands of those who would deal with him in no spirit of loyal submission.
And through all my thoughts one other thought fluttered with sinister insistence. Had I paid my intended visit on the Friday this would not have happened. Visions of von Lindner and a deferred lunch loomed large. The punctilious Queen Nardia had for once forgotten her rigid code of conduct, with disastrous effect. Could Lindner’s affability and her lack of manners be explained in the light of this happening?
Having decided on an immediate return to London I told Albert to bring the car round after breakfast. Then once more I ventured to approach the sick room, though I would almost as soon have faced a firing party. How I got through the ordeal I don’t know. She was in a pitiable state of terror and collapse, and but for my reiterated promise that I would find the King and bring him to her I doubt if I should ever have been able to get away. Fortunately the doctor arrived during this distressing scene, and in his capable hands I left her. But I shall never forget the blinding tears in that one sad eye, or the pitiful twistings of that swollen and distorted mouth.
Arriving in town I drove at once to see Mayford, sending Albert on to Cork Street with the baggage. The big red god, as I often called him in mockery, listened and glowered and fumed. Here was a pretty mess; what the devil were we to do now! Of course the affair would leak out; the newspapers would get hold of a garbled version of it, the telegraph wires would hum and radio broadcast to the world. Couldn’t I see the headlines: “Mysterious Disappearance of the King of Istania! Here Incognito with Madame Karlin! Supposed to be Kidnapped by Revolutionaries!” Yes, I could see it all plain enough, but hoped that others would not.
“In forty-eight hours,” he said, “or less, it will be flashed all over the world. Damn the fellow! What did he mean by motoring round the country on his own? Didn’t you warn him of the danger?”
“Why weren’t you with him?”
“By reason of obeying a royal command to lunch.” Interrogatively he frowned. “Queen Nardia invited me to the Melchester on Saturday afternoon. The invitation came through her secretary, Baron Otto von Lindner. He has round eyes, George.”
“Damn his eyes,” he spluttered. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“That if I had not gone to the Melchester I should have lunched at Wealdon. As it was I lunched at the club. Sounds as though I were accustomed to lunching twice, like you. As a matter of fact, the one at the Melchester did not materialise. Her Majesty didn’t turn up, much to the confusion and regret of Otto. Pronounce judgment, O Solomon.”
“You’re not suggesting that she—”
“Otto has the most singular round eyes you ever saw, and he is most devoted to her Majesty’s interests.”
“I say, Peter—” he began anxiously.
“But it’s impossible,” he pronounced. “You don’t seriously think that she—”
“Probably another of my mare’s-nests; you know I’m always finding them.”
He relit his cigar, sat back in his chair and frowned. I believe your connoisseur disdains the relit cigar, but George was not finicky over trifles. I rather fancy he enjoyed the added strength and pungency of the half-burnt tobacco.
“But don’t you see,” said Solomon, doubtless stimulated to incredible intellectual effort by the rank weed, “if there’s anything in what you suggest this is going to be the scandal of the century.”
“Turning the ghosts of the Borgias sick with envy. In fact I’ve often wondered why we haven’t long since shattered the Borgia legend. Compared with some historical characters we could name, they were infantile dabblers in crime.”
“Damn the Borgias!” he snapped. “We’ve got something else to think of now.”
“And Karlin and Milescu are still at large,” I added reprovingly.
“Can’t understand it,” he muttered. “We’ve searched everywhere, and questioned everyone likely to know anything.”
“But the right person.”
“What d’you mean by that?” he was scowling formidably now, and turning redder in the face if such were possible.
“Isn’t it obvious that there must be a right person?”
“You mean that someone is behind them—someone of importance?”
“My dear George, if you were to look into Otto von Lindner’s round eyes you would begin to see visions as queer as the eggs in a mare’s-nest.”
“Like Karlin and Milescu?”
“Among others. Their number and variety are almost incredible.”
“Do you count Queen Nardia among them?” he asked, apparently not so certain now that the mare’s-nest was a subject fit only for contemptuous dismissal.
“Her Majesty is a very charming woman, George, and you must discredit all rumours as to the iciness of her blood. Never, I think, was a woman more maligned, and I regret that such a false impression of her should have obtained credence. If Otto hadn’t such round, elusive eyes”
“Damn Otto and his eyes!” he snapped again. “If Milescu and Karlin have got hold of the King—”
“He won’t need to return to Istania to get his throat slit.”
“I don’t care what they do to him there so long as nothing happens here. Ought I to send for this chap Lindner, or call on him?”
“I would rather you called on Milescu and Karlin.”
“When the King’s disappearance is known—”
“Whitehall will be shaken to its foundations. That would be a national calamity, and I hate national calamities as much as you.”
“There may be another possible explanation,” he said. “The King may not have been kidnapped at all.” I admitted I had never thought of that. “Knowing him and his reputation, many women would feel honoured.”
“I think you’ll find there is no woman in this.” But his chance shaft had struck nearer the mark than he imagined.
“It would be a bit cold-blooded,” he admitted, “but not incredible, considering the man’s record. However, we’ll eliminate that for the present and concentrate on the kidnapping, though I’m still inclined to the opinion—”
I left him still inclined to it, whatever it was, and returned to my rooms. His chief dread, it was clear, was that the affair might get in the papers. What happened to Paul was apparently of secondary importance. Officialism, entrenched behind its screen of secrecy, revolted at the thought of having its privacy invaded by prying eyes. A royal visitor, even if undesirable to authority, is still sacrosant, and there would be a pretty hullabaloo if the incident leaked out. The question therefore was how long could the secret be kept.
Now it had not seemed possible to me that our two interesting Istanians, Karlin and Milescu, could have remained hidden without help. As George had said, his men had combed every likely haunt and submitted every likely person to a close interrogation. I felt certain that within the system, duty had been creditably performed. But what of those to whom the police systems did not apply, those exalted individuals who dwelt beyond the danger zone?
Albert and I were seriously discussing this problem when my bell rang. Though he may not have possessed the highest order of intellect, he had an instinctive shrewdness which swept aside all subtleties and came at once to the point. From him involved speculation received scant consideration; his logic was of the clean-cut order based on observation and a knowledge of human nature. Consequently he was a man of few illusions. Doubtless there were plenty of decent people knocking about, so he said, but when anyone had an axe to grind he was not usually beyond stealing a stone to grind it on. He thought that if a man kept his eyes open, his pocket buttoned and his fist ready, he wouldn’t come to much harm.
Meanwhile he was approaching the door to answer the ring, approaching cautiously as ever, for more than one awkward customer had been known to pay me a visit. But this happened to be one of the occasions when caution might have been dispensed with. I heard a hearty voice greeting him with: “Albert, I’m sure glad to see you. How goes it, old-timer?”
“Very well, sir, thank you. And you?”
“Guess I still keep my chin above water. Boss in?”
“Good! Let me have a look at him.”
“Mr. Wally, sir,” Albert announced, grinning broadly.
Mr. Wally, or Mr. John Christopher Wallington of New York City, U.S.A., burst in like a breath of fresh air. Those who have already met him will need no introduction; those who have not may like to know a little. Briefly: he was young, rich, handsome, unspoiled, and one of the best fellows that ever lived. A chance acquaintance struck up in a café chantant in Constantinople had solidified into a firm friendship between Albert, him, and me. Together we three had seen some queer sights and done some queer things, which have been mainly recorded elsewhere. Albert he always pronounced “the greatest guy ever,” and meant it. Once in Anatolia, a blow from Monsieur Floyd’s big fist had come between him and a knife in the back. Some greedy relatives over in America would have deeply regretted that blow had they known of it; but to John Christopher Wallington it meant life and an abundant gratitude.
Hearing his voice, and recognising it, I turned to greet him.
“Guess it’s me all right. Gee, old-timer, but it’s good to see you again.” I thought he would never let go my hands.
“And where have you dropped from this time,” I asked; “the Mountains of the Moon?”
He always dropped in on me like this. “Kinda like to take you by surprise,” he used to say.
“No, I guess not,” he answered; “just hopped over from Paris by plane. Gotta go home like a bad boy. Family jarring again, the darned lawyers squabbling, and Julia breaking her heart over me.” Julia was his sister who thought he was going to perdition before his time.
“Going over in the yacht?” I asked. He had a beautiful yacht of a thousand tons, once his pride, but now a toy that had ceased to amuse.
“No; she’s more trouble than she’s worth. If you know anyone who’d care to do a deal— But say, I can put her in commission right away if you and Albert’ll come with me. What about it, boy? You’ve never been to America; here’s your chance. She’s down in Southampton Water eating her head off.”
“Sorry, old-timer, but I just can’t fix it at present.” Here Albert entered with the whisky and soda.
“Why not?” he asked. “Getting busy again? Say, Albert, what’s in the wind?”
“There are possibilities, sir,” said Mr. Floyd.
“Then I guess I’m here just on time.”
“What about those darned lawyers?” I asked.
“Dam everybody when old Leathermouth gets busy. What is it, pard? But whatever it is reckon me in on it. Shoot! I’m just dying for a flare-up. Haven’t had a decent set-to since that Hungarian Circus.”
“I’m in a quandary, Wally.”
“That sounds good to me.” He grinned across the top of his tumbler. “Shoot!” he said again. “Guess you like quandaries as much as I do. Anyway Albert does, don’t you, boy?”
“The Colonel has taught me to hate ’em, sir.”
“Oh, yeah! Well, let’s get on with it. I’m as anxious to learn as a young woman in the dark.”
“Tell me, Wally, did you ever meet the King of Istania?”
“Sure; last winter at Cannes. Not a bad guy for a dago. Had that Karlin woman with him. He sure knows how to pick ’em.”
“From which I gather that she met with your approval?”
“She sure did.”
“And he didn’t seem a bad sort of guy for a dago?” I continued.
“What’s itching?” he asked.
“Ever met Otto von Lindner?”
“No; who’s he?”
“Queen Nardia’s secretary. He doesn’t love the King, and he has the most elusive round eyes you ever saw.”
He beamed. “This is beginning to sound good to me. What’s the rest of it?”
In as few words as possible I told him the story. Though he did not appear to be deeply concerned over Paul’s fate, that of madame filled him with horror.
“Gosh,” he said, “she was one of the loveliest women I ever saw. And they’ve burnt her up! Can you beat that?”
“Not by much,” I admitted.
“Burnt up,” he repeated; “that beautiful face. Seems to me like one of those things you can’t get hold of, that don’t even seem natural or real. Say, what are you going to do about it?” he asked suddenly.
“We can do nothing for her. My one hope now is to find the King.”
“And the gang of toughs that did this to her?”
“Naturally. But you realise the difficulty? This is a royal entanglement and has to be unravelled secretly.”
“A Balkan royalty!” There was something suggestive of contempt in this.
“But still a royalty. By the way, where are you staying?”
“At the old dump, the Melchester. Arrived at Croydon about an hour ago, dropped my things at the hotel and hurried round to you.”
“Baron von Lindner and the Queen of Istania are also staying there.”
“Is that so? Well, what sort of guy is this Baron von Lindner?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. When did you say you were sailing for New York?”
“I thought of Wednesday, but I guess that boat’s going to leave without me.”
“What about the squabbling lawyers?”
“They’ll squabble anyway.”
“And sister Julia?”
“Let’s hope she’ll continue to pray for my soul.” He smiled at Albert, who all this time had stood respectfully at attention. “Like old times, pard, isn’t it? I’m sure glad I looked in.” Albert admitted that there appeared to be some prospect of interest ahead. “Some,” echoed Mr. Wallington. “Looks to me like good and plenty.”
THOUGH Wallington had neither the dove’s harmlessness nor the serpent’s wisdom, there was no doubt of his courage, or of his rashness. In his own language, “That German guy,” meaning von Lindner, “ought to be hog-tied” at once. Impatient of delay, he suggested an immediate visit to the round-eyed secretary. No use fooling about with such people; take them by the throat and shake something out of them.
So he advised, but I demurred, believing that bluster would fail to intimidate the baron. For there was no accusation we could launch at him with any hope of success; nothing in fact but suspicion of the vaguest, which only the Queen could verify, and she might not be amenable to suggestion. Neither was an easy subject to tackle, dignity on the one hand, subtlety on the other. But precious time was flying. “I think I’ll dine at your pub to-night, Wally.”
“Sure. Shall we ask George? How’s the old blighter? Red as ever?”
“Redder. But I think we’ll let him go home to Molly. And if, by the way, you should chance to meet the Queen of Istania, hold her till I come.”
“Want a date with that dame, do you?” he grinned. “What’s she like?”
“Her husband thought her rather cold.”
“I like ’em cold; they thaw good. Does the baron agree with the husband?”
“The baron is the soul of discretion.”
“Well, slip into your rags and come along. Looks to me as if this guy Paul of Istania was in a pretty tight jam.”
Though Wally could idle with the best of us, he could also move rapidly when in the mood. The love of adventure was in his blood, and he professed to find in association with me a much needed stimulus to the weariness of life. Having nothing to do but spend money, which he did prodigally, if not always judiciously, he welcomed with enthusiasm the various thrills which I, from time to time, had flung in his way. And above all things he loved a scrap; the greater the danger the greater the enjoyment. Being a man of peace I naturally did my best to check this reprehensible propensity; but he had a willing accomplice in Albert Floyd, and between them I had my work cut out to keep some semblance of order.
I found him waiting impatiently in the hotel lounge.
“Been dolling up some,” he said; “think you were going courting? But say, do you usually keep a dame waiting when you’ve got a date with her, and such a dame? Boy, she’s on pins and needles.”
“What are you dithering about?”
“Sure I’m dithering, and so is she. I guess you have a way of making ’em. It’s that handsome mug of yours. She calls you Colonel Leathermouth,” he grinned, “and calls it very sweet. Nordic, sure, but nothing doing with Greenland’s Icy Mountains.”
“Of course I shall sock you.”
“Get going, pard. But what could I do but pay my respects? Being an American democrat I have a natural weakness for royalty, especially on the female side. How was I to know her husband wasn’t with her?”
“Bearded the lioness?”
“Arranged it all, son. She’s waiting for you, kicking the cushions all over the place in her excitement. You sure do paralyse ’em.”
“Was the baron present?”
“No. Now run right up, kiss the royal hand, and be merciful.”
Though I saw no sign of kicked cushions strewn over the floor, there was no doubt of the Queen’s eager look as she came towards me.
“You have news, Colonel? Tell me, what is it; what has happened?”
“I am much obliged to your Majesty for granting this interview.”
“Your American friend, Mr. Wallington, saw to that.” A smile of amusement flickered over her face as if at some quaint recollection.
“I was anxious to apologise, madam.”
“Apologise! For what?”
“My inability, through stress of business, to remain last Saturday, especially after your gracious invitation.”
“Invitation?” she echoed, wrinkling her brows.
“Conveyed through Baron von Lindner.”
The wrinkle deepened to a look of perplexity, but was quickly followed by a disarming smile.
“It seems to me,” she said, “that I am the one who should apologise, though ignorant of the offence.” I explained. “Yes, yes, I remember now,” she continued quickly. “It was unpardonable of me, Colonel, but I was unavoidably detained. Can you forgive me?”
“Perhaps your Majesty may remember what it was you wished to see me about?”
“Possibly my eagerness for news, and possibly because Colonel Leathermouth is usually interesting.” A smile intimate and gracious accompanied this admission. “Have I offended again?” she asked contritely.
“In what way?” I asked.
“Mr. Wallington warned me against using the name. He said it ‘got your goat.’ ” She laughed lightly. “I remember so well that quaint phrase. But what has a goat to do with it?”
“Perhaps he was thinking tragically.”
“It struck me as being comic.”
“Tragic-comic, madam, like so many other things.” Again that knitting of the brows in an effort to unravel my meaning. But instead of questioning further, which would have betrayed ignorance, or so she seemed to imagine, she smiled and said: “A misnomer, Colonel; flatteringly unflattering. But you have news of the King?”
“I have every reason to believe his Majesty enjoys the best health.”
“He has decided to stay much longer in England?” she asked, a marked eagerness in her tone.
“Possibly that will depend on circumstance.”
“I understand. Thank you so much for coming, Colonel. You realise my anxiety?”
“Perfectly, madam, and hope it will not be unduly prolonged.”
“You anticipate more trouble?” Eagerness now in both look and tone.
“On the contrary, I am supremely optimistic.”
“Leathermouth always wins,” she said, “or so Mr. Wallington declares. A quaint person. He would have amused the King.” Graciously she held out her hand. “Remember, I am always anxious, and dislike being neglected.”
I kissed the hand, thanked her and withdrew. Wally was impatiently waiting for me in his apartment, which was on the floor above.
“Thought you’d taken her out to dinner,” he began. “She’s a very charming woman, Wally.”
“You’ve said it.”
“And dresses with taste.”
“So I observed. Now what about some grub? I’m starving.”
“The mention of grub reminds me that her Majesty entirely forgot the invitation to lunch last Saturday. She was most contrite.”
“Which suggests that it was a brain-wave on the baron’s part.”
“Gave him away, did she?”
“No; herself, but with discretion. A woman should always be discreet, Wally.”
“Sure. Think the baron’s afflicted with the same complaint?”
“But not to the same extent.”
“Then I guess we’d better have him up here right away, and sound him before her Majesty puts him wise.”
“I am not quite sure of her Majesty.”
“Yet she was shielding him?” he insisted.
“She suggested uncertainty.”
“A woman can suggest all sorts of things when it suits her.”
“Well, what about that grub?”
We descended the stairs still talking, and were fortunate enough to meet the baron coming up. He bowed stiffly and would have passed, but I refused to let such an opportunity slip.
“I’m in luck, Baron; you’re the very man I wished to see.”
“Indeed,” he answered stiffly, flinging a quick look from me to Wallington, who was eyeing him with the keenest of interest.
“Allow me to present my friend, Mr. Wallington.”
The baron bowed stiffly, answering as stiffly, “A pleasure.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Wallington, in his best trans-lantic drawl. “And I’m mighty glad to meet you, Baron.” When he thought the occasion required it that drawl became as thick as a fog on the Great Banks.
Von Lindner did not betray an equal enthusiasm; indeed, he seemed a little constrained, possibly due to Wally’s cheery smile and exuberant manner. Had he known Mr. Wallington a little more intimately he might have mistrusted both.
“What about you two coming up to my camp and talking it over?” was Wally’s quick suggestion.
“If the Baron is agreeable.”
But the Baron did not seem agreeable; in fact, he seemed anything but agreeable; testy, rather.
“I regret, but I’m afraid I do not understand.”
“I guess you’ll understand sure when we start in on you.”
“But, pardon; that strange idiom; it is a little bewildering.”
“Best American, Baron, that gets there every time. See here, son,” he continued, slipping his arm through that of the baron and leading him up the stairs, “my old pard there aims at making an explanation, and he don’t think the public stairway of this speakeasy is the proper place to make it on. Savvy?”
“Explanation?” echoed Lindner, apparently still bewildered.
“Why lunch should go cold in a hot room or icebergs freeze in hell. And talking about icebergs, Baron, did you ever hear of one that didn’t like melting when it got the chance? No, sir, icebergs are like women, beautiful but dangerous; how dangerous you never know till you bump into one. Well, here we are, folks,” as we stopped before his door; “walk right in.”
The baron, who at first seemed amazed, now appeared to be slightly amused, though it was clear that he had failed to understand half of Wallington’s banter. He now turned to me as if for an explanation.
I opened fire with: “My dear Baron, you must pardon the exuberance of my friend Wallington, but being a good American democrat he fears I have inadvertently neglected to observe that courtesy which is due to royalty, and is anxious to know if her Majesty has pardoned me.”
“You sure put it nicely, pard,” observed the good democrat.
“But I still fear—” the German began.
“The reference is to my hurried departure last Saturday. Did you explain fully to the Queen?”
“But, yes, indeed. Her Majesty quite understood and blamed herself. She arrived shortly after you had gone, and was desolated to have missed you.”
“That sounds O.K. to me,” remarked Mr. Wallington, who was no more insensible to the mockery in the baron’s tone than I. “What’s your poison, sir? “ holding up a glass as he spoke.
The baron looked “you,” but declined the invitation. Then he grew voluble in thick gutturals. I was to think no more of the occurrence. Her Majesty, realising that she was to blame, begged him to assure me of her remorse. He would convey my respectful salutations. Stiffly he departed.
“Can you beat it?” commented Mr. Wallington. “There’ll be some trouble in the old home to-night. I’d sure like to be looking on when he learns we’ve beat him to it.”
But I was still in doubt as to the Queen’s complicity.
Resentment might have flared at the King’s ill-treatment, and punishment of a kind have seemed his due, but she could not have entirely abandoned all hope of reconciliation. Pride had suffered, dignity had been grossly outraged. The woman in her would have cried “Never, never!” but the Queen would remember her lost glory and hope to regain it. Here was she, an exile wandering from place to place, pitied by those who would have fawned on her but for ugly circumstance. It seemed incredible that she should not hope. In Paul lay all her dreams of future distinction; through him only could they be realised.
But of Lindner there was now no doubt; his strategy had worked out according to plan. That invitation had clearly been a blind, or clearly enough to confirm suspicion. With me out of the way the scheme had succeeded, assuming always that he was partially or wholly responsible for it, of which I could have no positive proof. What would now happen between him and the Queen gave rise to some conjecture. Much, of course, would depend on the intimacy of their association. Personally I was more in doubt of myself and the method employed. Would it put him on his guard, open his mind to suspicion? Yet in what way could he possibly be involved, or so he might ask himself. Even if her Majesty questioned his discretion in using her name, it would be easy for him to provide a dozen explanations, all of which hinged on the sincerity of his devotion. But if the truth must be told, I did not think her Majesty would consider the matter of undue importance. Again, much would depend on the nature of their association, and her ignorance of what had happened to the King.
Of Lindner’s participation in the plot Wally had no doubt, and urged in his impulsive way the immediate calling-in of George and a submitting of the baron to a close interrogation. His impatience failed to recognise the delicacy of the situation, or the necessity for a careful handling of it. To him international complications made no undue appeal; big men handled them in a big way, firmly and generally with success. A crook was a crook whether he wrote dispatches or any other name than his own on a cheque.
Now, assuming that Lindner were involved in this affair, hasty action might precipitate the very catastrophe it was desired to avoid. What was his intention; what game was he playing? That he would have the King murdered I could not believe. If for no other reason it would be running too great a risk. To keep secret such a crime would be impossible; the truth would too surely be known. Moreover, was it in any way likely to help him to the favour of the Queen? With the King gone her last chance of rehabiliation would vanish, and with it whatever hopes he might secretly entertain. And he would also realise the need of extra care on his own behalf; that he would be spied on, shadowed, and that any slip of his might prove fatal.
By the first post on the following morning I received a note from the Istanian Minister, Count Ivanoff. Would I do him the honour to call at the embassy, and would ten o’clock be convenient? The matter was urgent. Guessing its urgency I was there on time. He was a voluble little man, and agitation added to instead of impeding his volubility.
“The King!” he gasped, as soon as he saw me, springing to his feet and shaking hands perfunctorily. “Where is his Majesty; what has happened?” But not waiting for a reply, continued: “Last night, on receiving important information from Istania, I telephoned to the country, to your house. They said his Majesty was not there; that he had disappeared. Disappeared, do you understand me; disappeared! Where? What does it mean? And Istania on the verge of revolt. At any moment… It is terrible! His Majesty must return at once; it is necessary that he should return at once.”
“And perhaps still more necessary that the good citizens of Istania should not know that he cannot.”
“Cannot! Dieu! Do you mean that he is— dead?” He caught me by the arm and unceremoniously jerked me towards him. His eyes were starting and his lips trembling; his face had turned ashen.
“I hope not, Excellency.”
“Hope not! What do you mean by hope not?” He almost screamed the words at me.
“Exactly what I say; there is no reason to believe that his Majesty is not alive.”
“Yet he disappears; does not return. Why? Where were you?” Something of an accusation in this.
“Your Excellency is not aware of the misfortune that has befallen Madame Karlin?”
“Misfortune?” he echoed, looking exceedingly bewildered.
“On the way down from London an accident happened. Madame will never be beautiful again. Even her enemies may pity her now.”
He listened, absorbed in the story, over which I did not linger. Watching him, I doubted if his stereotyped expression of regret was entirely genuine.
“But this is too terrible,” he said. “And the King?”
“His Majesty grew restless under the strain, and for relief took to motoring round the country. The last time he failed to return.”
“He was alone?”
“He insisted on going alone.”
“Madame will not die?” This was uttered in a manner open to two constructions.
“No,” I assured him, positively.
“But remain—hideous?” He breathed the word as if in fear.
“I should hate to think so, Excellency.”
“Indeed, indeed yes; it is too terrible. Poor madame! One sympathises.”
“Greatly,” I said.
“The King’s cup is indeed full,” he continued. “Trouble always, ever; and now this news from Istania. Anything may happen within the next forty-eight hours. Without the King we are all lost. He must be found; it is imperative that he should be found. I tell you the disaffected are reported to be arming; already there have been fires in the provinces.”
“With a loyal army in the field there should be no immediate danger.”
“True; but who is loyal in these days, who serves for the honour of serving? And Karlin had many friends.” As he said this he lowered his voice and flung a glance towards the door. “Every adventurer hopes to turn the occasion to personal profit; every demagogue dreams of power. Istania staggers like a drunken man. There is no hope for her without the King; less hope if this calamity were known. There would be more fires in the provinces, all over the country; but fires of joy this time—bonfires.”
“And the usual riot of acclamation for him who succeeds.”
“Is it not always so? Yet there must be no thought of succession, no hint of it; and above all no whisper of this happening. It would flash through Istania like a streak of lightning and set the country in a blaze. You think it is Karlin, Milescu?”
“Neither has cause to love the King.”
“Possibly; but this does not concern us now. Our duty is to guard the secret of this disappearance; on no account must the faintest whisper of it be heard. Istania would irrupt like a volcano.”
And men who have beautiful wives and sisters would feel more secure. Nor was I thrilled by the excesses of his Excellency, who was doubtless quite content with his present job, as would be many others over there in the Balkans. And they would be flung out neck and crop, and new favourites installed in their stead, who in turn would be envied and hated, and who, in time, would come to envy and to hate.
“Your Excellency appears to take it for granted that the King has been seized by his enemies?”
“What other explanation can there be?” But he looked at me with a new and sudden interest which plainly pointed the way his thoughts were leaping.
“The shattered nerves of his Majesty might require a temporary respite from anxiety. I understand he has always been partial to solitude?”
Doubt flashed in his glance at this. His Majesty’s love of solitude was apparently something new to him. Possibly he could have told me much of it; probably he was also amazed at my ignorance.
“There are moments,” he said, his tongue in his cheek, “when affairs of state weigh heavily, and relaxation becomes an imperative duty. His Majesty has always favoured surprise; it is characteristic of the family. But, alas, there is no respite from care for one in his position.”
Deeper into that cheek went the tongue; curious, provocative lights flashed in his eyes. “That ass Ivanoff,” Paul had called him. Balaam had thought the same of his ass.
I admitted the occasional severity of circumstance; he deplored it. Between us we agreed that the mob was sadly lacking in gratitude and veneration.
“I shall never know a moment’s peace,” he said, “till I am assured of his Majesty’s safety.”
“Meanwhile, in case the revolt spreads dangerously, your Excellency, as the King’s representative, is keeping in touch with Istania?”
“Such I conceive to be my duty. But where is he,” he asked desperately; “what has happened? Sir, I know of your service to the King, of his appreciation, of his uncommon interest in you. What now, between ourselves? Do you think he may be seeking relaxation, and that I distress myself unnecessarily?”
“Could your Excellency be more explicit.”
He smiled. “I think we understand each other.”
“Or are beginning to, Excellency.”
“With no doubt of the ending.”
“Which may depend on Baron von Lindner,” I suggested, and saw instantly that I had touched a sore spot. His mouth stiffened, his eyes hardened; but momentarily. He was smiling when he asked, “And how do you think he may affect the issue?”
“Instinct suggests that there are possibilities in him,” said I, giving him a lead.
Before answering, his sharp, dark eyes fixed themselves in mine.
“Grave possibilities,” he said. And then, “His Majesty has spoken?”
“There are times when his Majesty does not mince his words.”
He clasped his hands as if in despair, walked across to the window and looked out. Returning, he faced me with a look of sudden determination.
“How much do you know, Colonel Gantian?”
“That in a certain Balkan country the people have a penchant for slitting throats.”
“And preserving reputations,” he added; “a process not unknown in other countries.”
“Your Excellency has been reliably informed.”
“You have met the baron?” he asked, with other meaning in the question.
“Whose eyes are strangely round.”
“Yes,” he said, “I think we understand each other.”
And that was the end of the diplomatic encounter. Ivanoff may have been an ass, but if his ears were long they were extremely sensitive to sound, little of importance escaping them. And again, like the biblical ass, he was discreet to the point of wisdom. Much he might have told me of Lindner, and much it was obvious he was willing to tell, but our lack of intimacy restricted confidence. As it was, he probably credited me with a greater knowledge than I possessed, which is not always without advantage.
ARRIVING home I was met by Albert, who reported that he had seen Solty again. This person, it may be remembered, was the one who started the row that night Paul made a bank at chemin de fer. So far, like Milescu and others, he had proved singularly elusive. But Monsieur Floyd was a beggar at pegging away, and having an extensive knowledge of the habits of a certain class, and of their especial partiality for the revisiting of old haunts, he had never despaired of ultimate success. Even the criminal fleeing from the rope, and knowing that the step he contemplates may place his neck in extreme jeopardy, he still takes it. Every rabbit to his burrow and every dog to his kennel. Loneliness will as surely urge a man to destruction as love or hate. The police may know him, he may have been in their hands more than once, yet he slinks through the shadows to sympathy, companionship, and fate.
But the man Solty had not the same incentive to secrecy, being unknown to the police. The description given of him would have suited countless others. No one could have identified him but Albert or me. Possibly Paul, though doubtful; Milescu would have made him forget everyone else. Yet Solty had been extremely careful.
“Guessed he would turn up sooner or later, sir,” Albert explained; “they all do. If it isn’t a girl it’s money, old friends, shelter for the night. But most of them get to hate themselves like poison. Even in quod they have a sort of companionship.”
I waited. He continued: “You see, sir, I’d always hung about after dark, as being the most likely time. But as you said when you went out this morning that you would lunch at the club, I thought I might as well slip out and have a look round. There he was coming out of the Luna Café with a parcel under his arm.”
“Sure of your man?” But I knew of his uncanny gift for remembering faces, especially those his fist had come in contact with, and friend Solty would have remembered that fist if nothing else.
“I think so, sir.” This in him would equal the positive assertion of another man.
“Did he recognise you?”
“No; or at least he didn’t seem to. There happened to be a taxi drawn up in front of the café. Friend Solty slipped into it and drove off.”
“There wasn’t a chance; but I got the number.”
“What direction did he take?”
“Towards Oxford Street.”
“Try and get Mr. Mayford.”
I heard him explaining. “It’s Colonel Gantian, sir. Thank you very much.” Then he handed the receiver to me. A gruff “hullo” came through.
“That you, George?”
“What do you want now?”
“The name and address of the driver of taxi-cab ZL 9763. I can give you five minutes.”
“I don’t know. Hurry up, darling.”
“Another mare’s-nest?” he mocked.
“May be a wasp’s.”
Within the stipulated time the bell rang with the necessary information. As I was thanking him a key turned in the lock of my outer door and Wally entered. He always carried a key of the flat.
“Hold on a minute; Wally’s just blown in and would like to greet you. It’s George,” I said, handing over the receiver.
“Sure,” said Mr. Wallington. “It’s as good as a tonic to hear that beloved voice again. Sure. Just looked in on Peter on my way home. Was going Wednesday, but the boy seems mighty lonesome without me. Give my love to Molly and the kid. You’re right, George; he sure is the smartest baby going, and you must be mighty proud of him. I turn green with envy every time I think of your luck. And so does Peter. Sure. Oh, well, one of these days we intend to have a shot for it. Yes, the same old dump. You must look me up the first night you’re free, and bring Molly with you. Sure; she haunts me. If I’d only met her first… George, I hope I’ll never go there; they don’t keep iced water on tap. Adios, old-timer.” He smiled as he hung up the receiver. “George still smoke those bad cigars?” he asked. I nodded. “Thought I smelt ’em,” he grinned. “Well, what’s doing?”
“Mr. Alfred Edkins lives at 117, Steadman Street, Paddington, and drives a taxi-cab registered ZL 9763.”
“Is that so?”
“Like to call on him?”
“I’m with you.”
“No; just strolled round.”
A taxi soon carried the three of us to Steadman Street, which proved to be a long and rather uninteresting thoroughfare. Dismissing our cab at the corner of the street we walked along until we came to No. 117, which turned out to be a small garage. There was a taxi standing at the entrance. For once luck was in. The plate bore the initials and number we were looking for.
A greasy mechanic, his fair hair standing up like a brush and artificially waved in the approved manner of his kind, ceased work with his spanner and stared rather sullenly as we appeared in the entrance.
“Good-day,” I began pleasantly. “Is Mr. Edkins about?”
“Up in his room,” replied the young fellow, jerking a black thumb towards the ceiling. “That’s his cab out there. Want to see him bad?”
“Not too bad.”
“Pleece?” he queried.
“Why should you imagine such a thing?”
“Oh, I dunno,” he answered grinning slyly. And then, as a body shuffled towards us from the dim recesses of the garage, “Gents to see you, Alf.”
Alf was a man of middle age, sloppily dressed and round of shoulder. Evidently he had just dispatched a hasty meal, for sundry oddments of it still clung to his large drooping moustache. He seemed to possess most of those amiable qualities for which the taxi-driver is renowned. I could see him frightening old ladies who tendered his legal fare.
“Mr. Edkins?” I asked.
“That’s me,” he answered, at once on the defensive. “Wot about it?”
“Not much; just a question or two.”
“Who are you?”
“Crikey,” said the mechanic.
“Step this way, Mr. Edkins,” I said, leading the way to the entrance and showing him my warrant.
“Wot you want?” he asked sullenly.
“Just a little information. About noon to-day you drove a man from the Café Luna in Bell Street, Tottenham Court Road.”
“P’raps I did.”
“Well, now you mention it. Wot about it?” he asked again.
“I want to know where you drove him.”
“Lemme see,” he mused, wiping a fugitive crumb from his moustache. “Where did I drive ’im? Oh, yus, I got it; Great Central.”
“Wot for?” he asked suspiciously.
“If you want ’em.”
“Which he didn’t.”
“Cough it up,” said Monsieur Floyd. The man flung an evil glance at him, but not liking his look refrained from provocative back-chat.
“S’elp me Gawd—” Mr. Edkins began.
“Exactly. And from the Great Central where did you drive him?”
“First of all he says ‘Great Central’ as he ’ops into the cab, an’ when we got there he said he meant Paddin’ton.”
“Sure it wasn’t Euston or King’s Cross?”
“Like as not you know more’n me.”
“Like as not I know you’re lying, Mr. Edkins.” Albert again suggested that he had better “cough it up.” He scowled at the suggestion and called on heaven to bear witness to his honesty.
“And that’s all you know about the fare you picked up in Bell Street?”
“Strewth!” he said.
“You’re under arrest, Edkins,” I snapped.
“Wot for?” he snarled.
“You’ll learn presently. Take him away.”
Albert touched him on the arm. Resenting the familiarity, he swung savagely aside. Albert’s big hand shot out and gripped him by the coat collar. A wriggle, and then a realisation of the inevitable.
“You’ll smart for this,” he threatened, eyeing me evilly.
“Lucky your cab’s waiting. You will drive this officer to Scotland Yard, and there’s no need to go by way of Paddington Station to get there.”
At this the evil sullenness of his look increased. He had an ugly lower lip, not unlike Paul’s, but his chin was firmer. In a younger man it might have meant trouble. This lip trembled, a questioning look came into his eyes, and for a moment I thought he was about to speak. Then suddenly the mouth hardened and spread across his face in a stiff line.
As they drove away I turned to the young mechanic who, spanner still in hand, had been an interested spectator of the proceedings.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Ted Stephenson,” he replied promptly. And then with a nervous grin, “Want me too?”
“Not yet, Ted; just a little information about Alf.”
“Wot’s he been up to?”
“Doesn’t seem to know his way about London; unpardonable in a taxi-driver.”
“Is that all?” He appeared to be disappointed.
“How long has he been using your garage?”
“About two months, on an’ off.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Seems to garage in two places at once,” he volunteered.
“Where’s the other?”
“South side of the river, Bermondsey way.”
“Ever had any visitors?”
“Now you mention it, a foreign bloke has come for him more’n once.”
“I don’t think he’ll come again, Ted.”
We left him interested but puzzled. As we walked along I asked Wally if he had noticed anything significant in or about Alf Edkins’s cab. He admitted that he hadn’t, beyond the number plate.
“There was a can by the driver’s seat. It bore the label of the Istanian Oil Company. May as well run down Bermondsey way and have a look-see.”
“Gee,” he muttered; “looks as though things might be opening up.”
Slipping into the first telephone box I soon found the company’s address in the directory. It was situated in a rather famous street beside the river.
We took a taxi as far as the Tower, and from there crossed the bridge on foot. I had hoped that the Istanian Oil Company might have a wharf of its own, and that the name would be staring at us from the river bank. But this was not so; though at a wharf some distance down I saw a barge laden with barrels, the contents of which might be oil, though there was always the possibility of beer. However, any doubt that might have been entertained was soon dispelled by the discovery of the company’s premises. There was the name, among others, on one of the gate posts. Evidently the wharf was used for the reception and discharge of various kinds of merchandise. Against the door of a little hutch beside the gateway a man was lounging. Approaching him and naming our business, he at once directed us towards the oil company’s office, with the further information that it was on the first floor. Thanking him, we passed on.
Though I had no intention of interviewing the secretary, or any subsidiary official, I was prepared to ask for quotations if the necessity arose. The warehouse itself, a large gloomy building of dirty brick, had a cave-like entrance in its centre for the accommodation of loading or unloading vans. In it some men were piling cases on a lorry, and behind it the cavern stretched dark and mysterious. This I would have liked to penetrate; but in such places every stranger is regarded with suspicion, and care was essential. Besides, it would have been an admission of stupidity to ask the way when the door bearing the company’s name was plainly discernible on our right. Above it was the legend “No Smoking.”
Entering this door, a narrow stone staircase confronted us, which we did not mount, for to the left of it there was a dark passage leading to the interior of the building, and this seemed more worthy of attention. It was long and narrow, and was dimly lit at its farther end by a dirty window which probably overlooked the river. Here another set of stairs led to the vaults or cellars.
As it was scarcely the place for strangers to be found in, we hastily retreated, and reaching the first flight of stairs once more began to mount them. Half-way up we encountered a young fellow hurriedly descending. He was hatless, and behind his ear was stuck a pencil. Staring at us, he paused.
“The Istanian Oil Company?” I asked.
“First floor,” he answered; “but Mr. Masrik is out, and won’t be back again to-day. Can I help you?”
“Thanks, but we particularly wished to see Mr. Masrik. However, it doesn’t matter much; we can call again to-morrow.”
The young fellow did not express regret at Mr. Masrik’s absence; indeed, he made no remark as he descended the stairs with us, but instead of going out into the yard he slipped round the corner and disappeared along the dark passage which we had already explored.
The gatekeeper eyed us with the customary suspicion of gatekeepers as we passed. He was still lounging in the doorway of his hutch.
Probably not much satisfaction in all this. But was it mere coincidence that Alfred Edkins, taxi-driver, should garage in two places at once (rather a feat); that he should be in possession of one of the Istanian Oil Company’s cans, and that he should have driven my old friend Solty to the Great Central by way of Oxford Street? The oil can in itself was nothing (many in the neighbourhood may have used the company’s product) but in conjunction with other matters not entirely insignificant.
“Well?” queried my companion as we began the ascent to the bridge.
“What did you think of the young man we met on the stairs?”
“Looked to me like a dago.”
“He spoke without an accent.”
“English born,” said he.
“I suppose, to your thinking, Mr. Masrik is also of the same breed?”
“The name’s enough for me.”
“I wonder if he knows Baron von Lindner? Wally, I should like to have a peep at the cellars of that warehouse.”
“Think you might find something there besides oil?” he asked. “Why not get George to order a raid?”
“That might come to nothing. You can see him?”
“No, I can’t. He’s crusted with precedent and tradition like the rest of you.”
“Irritating but safe; think it out.”
Returning to Cork Street, we found Monsieur Floyd grimly despondent. Pressed to know the cause, he related a sad tale. It would seem that he had not succeeded in handing over Mr. Alfred Edkins to the lawfully constituted authorities, for the very good reason that there was no Mr. Edkins to hand over.
There had been a collision between the taxi and a railway van, and the taxi had been crumpled up. Much confusion naturally followed, out of which Mr. Edkins issued with success. Anyway, as he was neither killed nor found, it was presumed that he had emerged uninjured from the accident. That he deserved to be killed was true, as his driving had been extremely reckless; but the luck happened to be with him, much to the regret of Monsieur Floyd, who had apparently found much difficulty in extricating himself from the wreckage.
“More than once I warned him of the way he was taking corners and cutting-in,” Albert further explained, “but he took no notice. Then of a sudden out pops the van an’ it was all over. Sorry, sir.”
“That’s all right,” I consoled; “we’ll soon pick him up again.”
But I was far from believing that it was all right, and so I knew was he. Alfred Edkins had now a fair start, and I was inclined to think that he would make the most of it. Yet the reward he had received for past services must have been considerable, and the promise of more exceedingly bright, or he would never have taken the risk of that collision. Now there could be no further secrecy; the enemy, realising his danger, would strike. The hope of a quick arrest of the man Solty had vanished, and the information that might have been wrung from the taxi-driver became a matter of guesswork.
As George had to know of the incident I immediately reported by ’phone. He mumbled and grumbled, and did not forget to let me know his opinion of the blunder. Incidentally he also damned Paul Saranov and everyone connected with him. I visualised him at his desk, very red and fuming, and was rather glad I was at a distance. However, he promised to send his men after Mr. Edkins, which was all I required of him at the moment. For reasons of my own I did not mention the Istanian Oil Company. He probably would have insisted on an official visit to the premises, which was the last thing I desired.
Did those premises hold a secret, and had a casual glance at an oil-can provided the clue? Yet things equally as strange, if not stranger, had happened. That the taxi-driver had purposely collided with the railway van was obvious, and from this point speculation progressed rapidly if not always clearly. Was that wharf the hiding-place of Milescu and his friends, and did it explain their immunity from arrest? And who and what was Mr. Masrik beyond being the secretary of the company? Evidently an Istanian by his name. Had he too suffered at Paul’s hands; had he also a sister? Was Paul himself stowed away among the oil barrels in the cellars of that gloomy warehouse?
A police raid would soon have settled this matter, but it might not settle it in the desired way. Nothing must come out, nothing be made public. This was favourably handicapping the enemy, which he would realise and make the most of. Moreover, there was always the possibility of failure, which would reflect little credit on authority and might lead to undesirable complications. George, I felt sure, would never consent to it unless pretty certain of success. The probability was that Edkins would soon be arrested, but there was a considerable doubt when one thought of Milescu and Karlin. Meanwhile time was precious. Of course, Paul might no longer be alive; if they had definitely decided to kill him, the odds were all against his being alive. Having got him, why should they keep him? Such a prisoner would be dangerous; the sooner they were rid of all trace of him the greater would be their hope of security. But would they kill him, or only frighten and torture; render him hideous as they had rendered his lover? Poor Elena Karlin’s bandaged head rose before me, and that sad solitary eye. “He will come back to me; he is coming; I hear his step.” Pitiful.
Albert listened intently while Wally and I discussed the problem, interjecting a pertinent remark here and there. Though more the man of action than the skilled strategist, more given to doing than to saying, he suddenly voiced a thought that was running in my own mind, and it was this: Couldn’t we get at that German baron in some way? He had told a lie about the Queen’s invitation to lunch, a lie that had made the kidnapping of the King easy. Didn’t I think—
“I did; but how to get at him? Wally was for bold measures. He was sure to be at the hotel; why shouldn’t we go round and have it out with him? Stick him in a corner and hammer him till he confessed. Excellent; but suppose he failed to confess, or had nothing to confess? Not likely, it was agreed; but I did not think the manner suggested would provide the necessary solution. If the baron was half the schemer I took him for, the means suggested would not help us much.
“But that’s no reason why I shouldn’t dine with you,” I said. He nodded apprehendingly.
“Never know what’s waiting round the corner, sir,” Albert remarked.
Exactly. That was the trouble.
ON entering the hotel lounge I beheld Wally in the act of saying good-bye to two men, one of whom was the baron. The other was a stranger to me, a thin, natty-looking little man with a trim dark moustache, and obviously a foreigner. If Lindner saw me as he crossed the floor, it must have been out of the corner of his eye. He walked with his stiff military tread, head up, shoulders squared, and never really looked in my direction. But glancing round as I approached Wally, I saw that they had paused near the entrance to the lift, and that the baron’s companion was now looking my way.
“Wish you’d dropped in earlier,” Wally began as soon as we were seated at the table.
“Wanted to meet Mr. Masrik, didn’t you?”
“So that’s who it was?”
“Funny,” said he.
“Oil is booming, pard.”
“How did you bring it off?” I asked.
“Seeing that the baron doesn’t like me? Well, it wasn’t easy, but as soon as I saw that dago guy I started in on the thinks. Boy, from the way I greeted the baron you would have thought I was his long lost bosom friend. Kinda took him on the hop, but didn’t shake him worth a cent.”
“A regular tough guy,” I commented.
“Tough as leather,” he said, smiling in the direction of my mouth. I ignored the implication.
“Get on with it.”
“Sure, but there’s mighty little to get on with. Just a curt introduction and the mumbling of ‘Masrik’ deep down in a German throat; you know, spit and gutturals. But I wasn’t taking a chance, and had him repeat the name. Mr. Masrik smiled at me and I at him, but I was no more in love with his eyes than you are with the baron’s. Tried to hold them both till you came along, but Lindner seemed as though he had an important date booked and was anxious to keep it.”
“So have we.”
“Good! Likely to be any gun-work?”
“What should I do without you, pard?”
“Go back to your family and be a good boy.”
“But haven’t I told you that if it wasn’t for sister Julia… Say, she’s threatening to come over and look after me; thinks her poor little brother may fall into the hands of some blonde-haired vamp and be skinned alive. Seems I’m mostly on the front page over home, and little sister don’t like it. She’s sure mighty fond of me, and got a touch of religion about her that seems to have passed me by. She’ll talk ‘eternity’ with you all night if you give her half a chance.”
“I’d like to.”
“Well, eternity’s a mighty big place, and anything might happen there.”
“Or here—even in Bermondsey.”
“When do we start?”
“Better come round about eleven.”
“I’m mighty anxious to see the inside of that warehouse,” he said.
So was I. And yet in spite of the fact that Baron von Lindner and Mr. Masrik were friends, I was fearful of drawing a blank. George’s old taunt of the mare’s-nest made me anxious. I simply couldn’t afford to find one.
The night being fine, and still young for the purpose I had in mind, I walked on, trying to formulate a plan. Dismissing all thought of George’s consent to a raid, and knowing that he could not afford to fail in such a venture, it was obvious that we should have to force an entrance to the wharf. Equally obvious was the fact that it would not be easy. The gate, as I had observed, was both high and massive, and of course the night-watchman would be on duty. Possibly an entrance might have been effected from the river front, but that would mean using a boat or launch, neither of which was likely to be procurable in a hurry. Besides, there was the matter of the tide, which I reckoned would be running out strongly shortly after midnight.
Fortunately I had in Albert Floyd an expert picker of locks and opener of windows. Before joining up he had been in the locksmith’s trade, and more than once I had found his skill of great advantage. With a piece of stout wire and a jemmy I would back him to open any door or window that was not bolted or barred. The gate leading to the wharf would doubtless be barred, but like most big gates, there was a wicket let into it, and it was on this my hopes centred.
“Got a light, guv’nor?”
The request came with startling suddenness. Absorbed in the plan that was taking shape in my mind, I had paid little heed to my surroundings. At that time of the night the streets between Park Lane and Bond Street are almost deserted. A cab may rattle past, a solitary private car purr its way along, a pedestrian hurry by; but until the theatres begin to empty there is not much life abroad.
Of course, I had a light, and as I turned mechanically to comply with the request, one hand deep in the pocket of my coat, I received a crashing jolt on the jaw delivered by one who knew how to hit. And a shattering, paralysing jolt it was. Suddenly my knees seemed to sag under me and I staggered backwards, once more to make contact with that fist, but this time in the pit of the stomach. A moment of intense agony followed; the lamp across the road flashed as though it were a myriad of lamps, and then died out.
* * * * *
Consciousness slowly returning, I stared up into the darkness. My jaw was throbbing painfully and I felt deadly sick in the stomach. There was a queer taste in my mouth, and in my nostrils an offensive, chemical smell. But I was wide awake and in a full realisation of what had happened, and gained little consolation from the knowing.
But where was I, and how long was it since I had reeled beneath that blow to the jaw? Quick work though it might be, I ought not to have been taken by surprise. Trying to raise my hand to my throbbing jaw, I found it impossible to use my arms, and for the best of all reasons: I was securely bound hand and foot.
Time passed, slowly, painfully. Then I heard steps, men talking, and suddenly the light from a torch was flashed in my face, almost blinding me. A mocking voice was saying, “Sorry to inconvenience you, my dear Colonel, but if you will insist on making yourself a nuisance you must accept the consequences.”
“That you, Milescu?” I asked, steadying my voice to its accustomed tone.
“At your service, Colonel.”
“Karlin with you?” I asked.
Avoiding a direct reply he said, “I think you have not met the major?”
“I have not had that pleasure.”
“Well, well, most pleasures come in time.”
“And go,” he said.
“Lindner?” I questioned.
“Ah, you have always been interested in the baron?”
“But I don’t like his eyes, Milescu.”
“You’ll like them less presently.”
“Possibly. But where am I?”
“I see no reason why you shouldn’t know. These are the premises of the Istanian Oil Company.”
“Quick work, Milescu.”
“And the King?”
“Do you mean that swine Saranov?”
“I said the King, Milescu.”
“Ah, well, call him what you like; he’s still the same.”
“Does Karlin speak English?” was my next question.
“But indifferently,” he answered.
“A pity I can’t speak Istanian,” I said.
“Quite immaterial, my dear Colonel; you won’t need it.”
“One never knows.”
“A few things only, but sufficient for the purpose.”
“Purpose? I wish you’d flash your torch on Karlin’s face. I’d like to have a look at him.”
“Presently your wish shall be gratified,” he answered.
“That was a vile thing to do; I thought better of you.”
“What was?” he asked.
“A woman, Milescu; think of it, a woman. Why didn’t you burn her eyes out while you were at it; it would have been merciful.”
“As merciful as that—” He hurled some most opprobious epithets at his King.
“I know your story, Milescu.”
“Then do you wonder?”
“I too have a sister.”
“And he has condescended to smile on her?” he asked mockingly.
“Him if you like; but a woman! I don’t think I would care to live with the memory of that.”
“You are much concerned for the woman,” he sneered.
“Still, a woman; think.”
“Fortunately I happen to have a convenient memory.”
“You will wish it were more convenient before it’s finished with you.”
“Possibly; but there are other matters which should concern you more.”
Here his companions muttered irritably in their native tongue. Milescu answered as irritably, and for several moments they snapped at each other. Then Milescu said, “He wants to know what you’re saying.”
“Tell him his wife will live.”
“His wife?” he again evaded. “She was meant to.”
“It would have been kinder to observe the old Istanian custom of throat-slitting.”
He laughed. “I suppose you have learnt many Istanian customs from Saranov? Did he tell you of one that is still honoured among us: the protection of our women?”
“I suppose you are one of those persons who always blame the man, except when personally guilty?”
“The father of his people,” he mocked.
“But you never credited that fiction? Come, the women of these days have the right to self-destruction if they wish it.”
“You have told your sister this?”
“She is a child,” I answered, though not without a sense of confusion.
“So was mine, sweet and pure as a wildflower. Yet that was not all; presently you shall hear much more.”
“In any case, I should like to remind you that there is no sentiment in English law?”
“Quite unnecessary, my dear Colonel. Its brutality to the poor and its fawning on the rich are proverbial.”
“Yet you brave it?”
“Ah,” he said, “sometimes you make me doubt your shrewdness, since I refuse to believe in you as a hypocrite.”
“Why should I not be one? Hypocrisy has its uses.”
“Possibly; but as it’s not likely to be of any use to you there is no need for you to defend it.”
“I should like to argue that point, Milescu. But there was an implication in that last remark of yours that set me thinking. Do I misapprehend it?”
“Probably not. You see, I credit you with the average intelligence.”
“Yet I am here. What is your average intelligence, and how can it apply to me?”
“I withdraw the compliment,” he mocked. “You are in reality a very dull fellow.”
“So I’ve always feared. But that man of yours hit like a professional. You are not telling me that he is an Istanian?”
“At present I am telling you no more, my dear Colonel, but promise that curiosity shall be satisfied before you are very much older. Now, do you think you can stand with our aid?”
“With or without it, Milescu.”
With that he said something to his companion in their own tongue and flashed the torch on my feet. The man stooped down and cut the cords that bound them. I tried hard to get a glimpse of him, but the light was so directed that I saw nothing but a pair of white hands and the gleaming blade of a knife. But the little finger of the left hand was crooked.
Between them they jerked me rather unceremoniously to my feet.
“The major is very skilful with the knife?” I remarked.
“Very,” said Milescu, “so don’t forget.”
“An old Istanian custom,” I commented. But he did not answer, which I regretted, having a sort of vague hope that time would be to my advantage.
Evidently I had been lodged in a small room, for we had to pass through the door sideways. The blood beginning once more to circulate through my feet caused them to sting painfully, and I was conscious of shuffling along in a rather contemptible manner. Fortunately the distance we had to travel was not great; a door was pushed open and we entered a room which was clearly an office. An electric bulb flooded the place with light, and the first person I saw was my old friend Solty. He was seated in the swing chair by the desk, his hat was on, and he was smoking a cigarette. As our eyes met he scowled.
“Good evening,” I said; “like old times. Got the cards?” He answered with a deeper scowl.
“A chair for Colonel Leathermouth,” mocked Milescu. Solty rose still scowling, and I was dumped into his seat.
It was then I got my first look at Karlin. He was a man a little above the medium height with a pale cadaverous face, thin-lipped and hook-nosed. His eyes were black and bright and fierce with something of the cruelty of the vulture in them. Indeed, as I looked at him I thought instinctively of that bird of prey, and understood a certain happening. His glance meeting mine, the thin lips twitched and tightened into a rigid line across his face; the thin nostrils of that beak-like nose fluttered and then drew together, tightening the skin across the bridge. If Paul had been wise he would not have crossed such a man.
Paul! My glance wandering from Karlin fell on a huddled heap in the far corner of the room, which I instantly saw was a man. He was dirty, dishevelled, unshaven; his hair was hanging low over his brow giving him a sloppy, repellent appearance. He was glaring at me with his large eyes, and his lower lip was protruding unpleasantly. Yet by that lip I knew him.
“Your Majesty!” I said.
At this there was a general laugh, and Milescu mocked, “Majesty! Yes, that’s Saranov; doesn’t he look like a king? Sit the dog up so that we may get a better view of his Majesty.”
Karlin dragged Paul out of his corner, Solty wheeled a barrel into position, and between them they lifted, or rather jerked, him on to it. His hands and feet were bound. As his head drooped Karlin caught him a stinging smack on the jaw and snarled something in that language I did not understand, though it was easy enough to guess its purport.
“Behold,” mocked Milescu, “his Majesty has once more ascended the throne. Bow low, you dogs!”
They made an exaggerated mock obeisance. Paul’s eyes gleamed and his lower lip trembled, but he said never a word. Once those eyes met mine, and there was wonder in them, but he remained mute, staring.
“Leathermouth has come to visit you, Saranov. Was it not kind of him?” And still Paul did not answer. “What, no tongue, you swine; no commands to issue? Once on a time you had a tongue; what has happened to it?”
He muttered something to Karlin, who picked up a can from the floor. It bore the Istanian Company’s label. Milescu, seizing the King by the hair, forced back his head while Karlin held the can to his lips. The oil trickled down his chin and along his breast. Karlin, his fierce face not an inch from Paul’s, hissed something under his breath and clapped the can on the King’s head. They laughed as the oil trickled over him. Milescu turned to me.
“Crowned,” he said, “as he ought to be.”
“Come, come,” I protested, “this is no man’s work, Milescu.”
“As all dogs should be treated,” was his reply. “Take a good look at him. This was a King who might have made all honour and respect him even if they could not love him; in his hands was the power for good and he used it for nothing but evil. A swine swilling from the trough of pleasure; a tyrant who lived on the flattery of the creatures who surrounded him. If there had been one good act in his life, one thought that was not for himself and his bullies, it should speak for him now. But there is none, not one. I told you, Paul Saranov, that you would have to reckon with me, and you laughed, thinking that your bayonets and your police could save you. Well, where are they now; why don’t you call on them?” And still the King stared gloomily from beneath his tin-pot crown. His lank hair dripped with oil, his nose, his ears. Occasionally he shook it from his eyes and spat it from his lips, and every time he did so there was a laugh from his tormentors. Again I protested.
“Silence, you fool,” said Milescu turning sharply on me, “and reserve what pity you have for yourself, because you’ll need it. Remember your own sister and what would have happened to her but for me, and be grateful. This creature, secure as he thought himself behind a ring of bayonets, fed by the flattery of sycophants, thought he could laugh at God and man. My sister died through him; driven to despair she took her own life. But it was he who killed her, destroyed her body and soul. And you think any punishment too severe for him—and would still think so if your own sister had been his victim? Remember, I have spared her that. Think, in Istania they will wave flags and shout for joy when they know he is gone, never to return. Do you think tyranny should not be taught its lesson, or would you crawl to it like so many others and place its foot on your neck? It may be that lesson has to be taught in blood, that there is no other way of teaching it. And yet at times blood washes clean. Tell me, are you still inclined to mercy?”
I looked at Paul, who met me with his wide staring eyes; but he did not speak, or attempt by sign to deny the charge. Had he passed beyond denial? Had the humiliation to which he was subjected utterly crushed him, or was it contempt that held him tongue-tied? The oil trickled down his unshaven face.
“Yet surely not a brave thing, Milescu, to taunt a defenceless man.”
“You fool,” he snapped, “why this concern for him? Think of yourself, of those visits he paid to a certain house near Petworth.” He laughed, but far from pleasantly. “It made our task easy.”
“Doubtless you are rather clever, Milescu?”
“Not at all,” he answered. “There is no easier problem to tackle than a fool who thinks himself a wise man.”
“And you believe yourself to be wise, and yet you do this foolish thing knowing there can be no escape for you.”
“Even if that were true it should still be done.”
“But there is none; you have hopelessly entangled yourself in a net of your own weaving. True, you may slit the King’s throat in the best Istanian manner, and then operate on mine; there’s nothing to stop you. But it’s not going to save you, or you, Karlin; or you, the catspaw,” I said, looking at the man known as Solty, who did not seem to appreciate this direct address. Indeed, between the pulling at his cigarette he kept beating a nervous tattoo on the point of his weak chin, and throwing anxious glances at the door as though in expectation of something happening. More than once I had seen him prick up his ears and listen intently, to be followed by a frown suggestive of disappointment.
Who was expected; was it for his arrival they waited? Did this explain the long delay? Though my tongue formed the question I would not ask it. Perhaps he, whoever he was, wouldn’t come at all; perhaps he couldn’t.
“Pity you didn’t bring the cards, Solty; you might have passed the time more profitably. His Majesty would doubtless have made another bank.”
He scowled, but did not answer.
Karlin, too, was betraying an anxiety that bordered on irritation. Though he strove to maintain an interest in the give-and-take that passed between me and Milescu, I knew it was with an effort. True, he probably didn’t understand half that was said, but I did not think this wholly explained his attitude. When his fierce eyes were not fixed on the King they wandered from Milescu to me, and from me to the door. Occasionally he would utter an impatient exclamation in his own tongue, but beyond this he remained as mute as the man Solty. He did not even address the King, probably having had his say long since. Now he would roll a cigarette in his claw-like fingers, draw furiously at it for a time, then fling it on the floor, stamp on it viciously, and immediately start rolling another.
Milescu alone was cool and self-possessed. A rather remarkable person, this Milescu; one who interested me immensely apart from my personal fate. If we had met under other conditions I might have liked the man. Of his courage there could be no doubt, and if what he said was true Paul had done him a great wrong, greater even than that inflicted on Karlin. In his place, what would I have done to the seducer? Would his rank have over-awed me? I thought not. While not given to throat-slitting in the brave Istanian way there would be other means. I looked at Paul, the ridiculous can on his head, the oil still oozing slowly from its inverted rim, the haggard, unshaven face, the wild eyes; collarless, shirt torn open showing his bare chest. What a crowning, what a mockery of majesty! This contemptible thing; the divinity before whom all had bowed; this the great lover! But Paul, with his scowling eyes and protruding lip, was not thinking of love just then; far from it. The Saranov mouth, they had called it, a mouth with incalculable potentialities.
Here the door opened suddenly and a man entered.
THERE was no mistaking him; it was von Lindner. So this accounted for the delay, this explained Solty’s anxious glances at the door and Karlin’s growing irritation. They had been waiting for him. He was in full evening dress and looked exceedingly spruce. There was a shuffling of feet as he entered and a general standing to “attention.” No one uttered a word of greeting, nor did he speak. Me he ignored, his look concentrating on Paul. A contemptuous smile curled his mouth. Slowly he pulled off his white gloves, slowly he folded them and shoved them in the pocket of his overcoat. The others watched him eagerly, Paul scowlingly. At last he spoke.
“What is this thing?” he said.
“His Majesty of Istania,” Milescu mocked.
“Dog!” said Paul, speaking for the first time.
“I like your crown, Saranov; it suits you. How the animal glares,” he continued. “Is it secure?”
“Perfectly,” Milescu answered.
“Excellent. But it looks incredibly grotesque. So, there’s nothing left but a bark, Saranov, and majesty crowns itself with an oil-can.”
“Swine!” Paul flung at him.
“So the dog still barks; but presently we shall adjust the muzzle, and that will be the end of his barking.” Then he affected to notice me for the first time. “And this—our friend the police spy. You choose strange companions, Milescu. So, my friend, you walked into the trap like any other booby. I hope you appreciate?”
“I always appreciated you, Lindner.”
“So I imagined; that’s why I find you here. Your choice of a protector was not a very wise one, Saranov; you should have remained at home behind your bayonets.”
“You dog,” said Paul, “if I had had my way—”
“But you hadn’t, which was unfortunate for you. You thought the dog cringed in fear, that he cowered in abject humility before your mightiness. You were always a fool, Saranov, but never so much a fool as when you thought that. You, you half-bred Tartar, to pit yourself against me. Didn’t you know how such a battle would end; that there could only be one end to it? Nardia was wiser and more appreciative of merit.”
At this sneering familiarity so deep a hatred burned in the King’s eyes that anyone less cold-blooded than Lindner would have been overwhelmed by it. Never had I seen a look so fierce, so savage. That lower lip of his came out as though it would strike. He wriggled so furiously that he would have fallen from his barrel had Karlin not held him up. As it was the oil-can fell from his head and rattled to the floor. The oil, or what had remained of it in the can, streamed down his face almost blinding him. Never was there a more grotesquely pitiful sight.
Lindner, who was in the act of lighting a cigarette, stopped and laughed.
“His Majesty has lost his crown,” he said; “restore it.”
Solty picked up the can which had rolled to the end of the room and replaced it on the King’s head.
“Restored dignity,” mocked the baron; “you are yourself again, my dear Paul. Let me offer felicitations.”
Lashed to fury, dishonoured majesty forgot its dignity. What was said I do not know, because the King spoke in his native tongue, but its meaning was clear enough. The words seethed and hissed from his lips. Man in the raw, primitive man gone mad. His eyes flashed the deadliest hatred; he spat venom at his tormentor. And it was all so tragically ridiculous coming from that mean figure. Never had any man looked so grotesquely, so pitifully absurd.
The baron listened with a supercilious smile. Lighting his cigarette, he smoked nonchalantly while the torrent of abuse flowed over him. And when at last the King, gasping, exhausted, stopped suddenly, Lindner coolly blew the ash from his cigarette and smiled still more superciliously.
“Bravo,” he cried, languidly clapping his hands; “an excellent effort, but wasted on our good friend Leathermouth. For his benefit please continue in English. I know you speak it vilely, and like the peasant you are, but he will probably understand and be amused.” Then he turned to me, his round eyes beaming. “Saranov comes from a race of swineherds and still smells horribly of the sties.”
The man was frankly a revelation. Though from the first I had suspected him of being a cunning intriguer, I had not credited him with so great a daring. His hatred of the King was positively revolting. Whatever slights or insults he had received at Paul’s hands, and they must have been many, he was now paying back with interest. The question, therefore, was: how far was he prepared to go? After this there could be no hope for him with the King alive; it would need two separate worlds to hold them. Of this he could have no manner of doubt. His command of the situation presaged inevitable catastrophe. He knew what he had to do and meant to do it. In him I perceived no suggestion of faltering; his trifling was more deadly than another man’s rage.
He now turned his attention to me, and apparently noticing for the first time that my legs were free, uttered a sharp command in Istanian. His associates looked from one to the other and then round the room, but not finding what they sought the man Solty undid a broad belt from his waist and stepped towards me. It would have been hopeless to struggle even if I had not seen the automatic in Karlin’s hand. Solty performed his office with dispatch. Lindner smiled.
“You approve?” he asked.
“Nothing like making sure?” I answered.
“You should have remembered that,” he replied.
“You did not expect me to forget?”
“I think I expected a little more from you than I have received. You disappoint me. Saranov should have chosen a wiser protector.”
“I promise that your disappointment shall not be unduly prolonged.”
“Ah,” he said, “that is consoling.” Then, leaning over me, his round eyes suddenly starting with anger, he laid a hand on my shoulder and jerked me viciously from the chair. Helplessly I clattered to the floor.
“That’s the place for dogs like you,” he snarled, “at my feet,” and sat himself in the chair. “Set him up that I may look at him; set him at the foot of the throne,” he mocked. Between them they righted me beside the King. I looked up at the baron and smiled.
“I don’t like your eyes, Lindner.”
“You see in them that which makes you afraid?”
“Awakening intelligence,” he sneered; “pity it has come so late.”
“A vain hope, my dear Baron; don’t expect too much from it. I should hate to increase your disappointment.”
“You are a fool,” said he, “a blundering incompetent, and I hate fools.”
“That seems surprising.”
“You think so?”
“Can you doubt, realising as you must the awful mess you’re in? Even you must know that you can’t get away with a thing like this.”
“The prophet does not always live to see the fulfilment of his prophecy,” he sneered, “or his hopes.”
“But others do; and there are always others. You can’t get rid of them.”
He shrugged his shoulders and looked at the King. “What says his Majesty of the Oil-Can? Upon my soul, Saranov, you’re a sad looking dog.”
“Majesty to you, swine,” said the King.
“How the creature’s mind runs on swine; doubtless the curse of heredity. But we will let that go; even Nardia has tried to forget that he is not a gentleman.” Again that familiar use of the Queen’s name set Paul scowling. His heavy lip trembled, but with an effort he held himself in check.
“What have you to say in your defence, Saranov?” he asked suddenly, his manner undergoing a swift and unpleasant change.
“To you, dog?”
“To me, the dog’s master. Your day is over, Saranov, your race is run; you have been weighed and found wanting. Your people have grown weary of you, the world has grown weary of you, and it’s time you left it. I, in conjunction with these noble Istanians, have come to the conclusion that the end of you has become a patriotic duty. But you shall go up gloriously as befits your exalted state. Nardia may shed a tear or two—you are not ignorant of woman’s sympathy—but I promise my utmost consolation, of which she has already had ample proof.”
For a moment or so he paused, watching his victim with a curious twisted look to note the effect of this last taunt. That it stung was indubitable; but Paul would let no word of protest pass his lips. If not a gentleman he was very near one.
Lindner continued in a cold, impersonal tone like a judge pronouncing sentence: “I think you show wisdom in remaining silent. There can be no defence for such as you. You have been an oppressor and a tyrant, a false friend and a false lover. All who put their trust in you have lived to regret it. You thought you were above the law, and you have been brought down; your people have long cried to Justice and she answers them at last. You will go out amid the waving of banners and the shoutings of a people, Paul Saranov, but they will not be in your honour.
“As for you,” here he turned sharply on me, “one cannot waste pity on fools. But unfortunately for you, you know a little too much; it would not be safe to spare you. You had your chance and failed to seize it, your warning and ignored it. The cards never forgive. Leathermouth and the King of Istania will pass out together. Bon voyage, mes amis.”
With that he nodded to the others, barked a sharp word of command, bowed mockingly to the King, swung round on his heels and left us.
Paul was jerked unceremoniously from his “throne”; his tin “crown” rolled rattling along the floor. Milescu seized him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him from the room; Karlin and Solty performed a like office on me.
I was dragged along a passage and bundled down a flight of stone steps. Fortunately there were not many of them, or unfortunately I was inclined to think a little later. The place reeked of oil. By the dim light of a lantern I saw barrels of it stacked on every hand. But I could not see Paul, though I guessed he was lying somewhere on the floor, and hoped that he had been rendered unconscious. Milescu propped me up against one of the barrels.
“Where’s the King?” I asked.
“Safe, rest assured. But why this concern for him?”
“Perhaps I was thinking chiefly of myself. Where’s Lindner?”
“Gone to prepare our escape.”
“You mean to make good his own. Do you suppose he is giving you a second thought? You must be mad to trust a man like that. I tell you, Milescu, you are mad, hopelessly mad.”
“But the Istanian Oil Company’s premises ablaze will make a glorious conflagration. What a sight for those who watch it from the bridges. And when at last it burns out, or is put out, nothing will be found but ashes. As for you, my friend, you pay the penalty of association.”
“I gave you sanctuary once,” I reminded him.
“But you have not eaten of my salt,” he replied.
“This is a dreadful thing, Milescu. Don’t you see that Lindner is merely using you for his own purpose?”
“You mean he goes to the Queen; that he is her lover?”
“How can I say, but I know he goes to the Queen. Think, man, what you risk for such a traitor. And there is no escape for you or the fools with you. The plot is known, everything is known, and already the police are coming.”
“They have been a long time,” he sneered.
“But they will come; they always do. Think, Milescu, this on the top of the mutilation of Elena Karlin. People will shudder at your name.”
“At least I shall be remembered,” he said; “and that man must die.”
“Would your sister wish it? If she loved him she will hate you, even in death.”
Much other argument I used, not with the hope of making him change his mind, but in the belief that time would be to my advantage. Wally would have come to Cork Street not later than eleven; of this I felt sure. Albert would be waiting. My non-arrival would be construed in one way only; they could not doubt what had happened. Would they wait, hoping every minute would bring me; or had they already set out for the wharf, the thought of which I did not doubt would spring first to their minds. Even then they might not be able to effect an entrance. Or they might come too late.
“He killed her,” said Milescu.
“And you have done worse than kill Elena Karlin.” At the second mention of his wife’s name Karlin came forward and thrust his hawk-like face into mine. He struggled with a sentence of broken English and then began to scream at me in his own tongue. His eyes were blazing; he gesticulated like a madman. I caught the gleam of a pistol barrel and thought he was going to shoot me.
“Tell him I would like to speak to him.”
“Useless,” muttered Milescu; “he would not understand. Besides, reason is no longer his. She has destroyed him, body and mind. Presently, I think, his work finished, he will destroy himself. Your police will never take him.”
“And you?” I asked.
“They have not taken me yet.”
“But Lindner will no longer be able to protect you.”
“Ah, so you knew!” he asked sharply.
“So! Well, it does not matter now. You realise that much may be done when one has distinguished patronage?”
“The Queen?” I suggested.
“As you know, women can hate as well as love.”
“He lied to you, Milescu.”
“Possibly; but it is of no importance.”
There was silence for a moment or so which I hoped was due to a wavering uncertainty in him, and in which I wondered how I could prolong the debate. Then Paul’s voice reached me.
“Are you still there, Gantian?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, by the grace of our friend Andrev.”
“I regret,” he said, “and ask your pardon.”
“Your Majesty has honoured me with your friendship; that is enough.”
Now it was not nearly enough, nor was I overwhelmed by the honour; but a sudden sense of perversity urged the courtesy. It would probably be the last I should ever pay him, or he receive.
“It seems that we’re about to make the journey together,” he said.
“Looks like it, sir. I can count on brave companionship.”
“And I,” he answered.
Milescu laughed. “Once more, Paul Saranov, you destroy those who trust you.”
“Finish, you dog,” was the reply.
“You shall be obeyed for the last time, and may you burn in hell as you are about to burn here.”
With that he turned and spoke sharply to Karlin, who all this time had been muttering impatiently.
Followed an immediate crash as a barrel was overturned. The significance of this was obvious.
“Milescu!” I called to him. “What time is it?”
“How can time interest you now?” he asked.
“Why shouldn’t it, since I have so little of it left?”
“Well, then,” he answered shortly, “perhaps two o’clock. Does that satisfy you?”
Two o’clock! If Wally had come at eleven sharp that would be three hours ago. Three hours! I knew both he and Albert were swift in action; but had they rightly conceived the situation?
“And,” said he, “we have waited long enough.”
“Too long,” I cried, for at that moment I distinctly heard the clattering of feet above. The three men stood listening, Karlin having ceased staving in the barrel. The steps were now heard distinctly; there was not a doubt of it.
“Wally!” I shouted, “Wally!”
“Coming, pard!” And then a quick “Damn you, put ’em up!”
I saw a pistol gleam in Karlin’s hand as he turned to where Paul was lying, but before he could shoot a shot rang out; the pistol clattered to the floor, and he himself fell back across the barrel he had been trying to open.
Other shots followed; the cellar reverberated with the sound, and then suddenly ceased. Wally was bending over me.
“O.K.,” I answered.
* * * * *
Karlin was already dead and Milescu dying. As I propped him up and flashed the light on his face I saw the end was very near for him.
“Badly hit, Milescu?”
“Yes,” he whispered hoarsely.
Paul was standing by, staring moodily down at him and pulling at his nether lip. The man Solty crouched on the floor, Albert watching him, revolver in hand. But though uninjured, through having wisely taken cover when the shooting began, there was no fight in him.
“We must get you out of this, Milescu. Are you strong enough to be moved?”
“Only strong enough to die,” he answered in the same hoarse whisper. “There will be no fire for the people to watch from the bridges, after all.” And then he repeated in a lower, stranger tone, which sounded like the echo of a regret. “After all … after all…”
THE man Solty (Ivan Soltikin was his correct name), being the only one of the three conspirators left alive, was handed over to the care of Detective Gregory, who had made one of the rescue party, and whom I now saw for the first time standing at the foot of the stairs. He was an able and intelligent young fellow, a personal friend of Albert’s, and much in favour with George Mayford, who kept a fatherly eye on him. More than once he had rendered me valuable service, and as he happened to be as discreet as he was brave, Albert had been wise in bringing him along.
That drive back in a taxi to my rooms was a curiously silent one. Even the loquacious Wally did little but provide us with cigarettes, of which I was glad, for both the King and I reeked offensively of oil. He sat back in his corner of the cab smoking silently. After shaking hands with Wally and Albert, and thanking them for what they had done, he remained strangely mute, and we respected the mood. If ever a man had occasion to think seriously of his sins, and of the strange dispensations of providence, I did not doubt he was thinking of them then.
Now that life had been given him afresh I wondered what he would do with it. Would he live for revenge, or would he take to heart the lesson he had been taught? If ever a King had heard a few unvarnished truths it was Paul Saranov; if ever a King had realised the mutability of life it would be this descendant of the nomadic swineherd. Was he man enough to profit by it? How had the glories of his office appeared to him when he sat huddled on that barrel crowned with an oil-can? Bayonets must have seemed a long way off just then, and the power of the law a mockery. Though I might guess at the nature of his thoughts I could not know how deep they went; but if what those implacable judges had said of him were true much trouble was in store for Istania.
And yet on our arrival the better side of him immediately asserted itself. That unhappy woman, who was lying disfigured at Wealdon, was his first thought. Could I get through on the telephone? He was anxious to know her condition, to assure her that he was well, and that he would soon be returning. This done, and the report received being as good as one might expect, he regained much of his lost composure and even joked at the lamentable figure he cut.
“I am revolting, my dear Gantian,” he said, “and you are not much better. This oil stinks damnably; I think I have swallowed gallons of it, and require a bath inside as well as out. What do you say, Monsieur Floyd?”
“I don’t think a bath would come amiss, sir,” Monsieur Floyd answered.
“I agree with you; in fact I’m sure it wouldn’t. And then a shave. Shall we have our shave first?”
“Well, sir, if you ask me”
“Again I agree; bath first, or I shall vomit at the smell of myself.”
While he was splashing in the hot water, Wally and I sat smoking and talking in subdued tones.
“Say, Peter, what do you think of him?” he asked suddenly.
“I don’t know.”
“Seems a pretty heartless sort of cuss,” he commented. “After niggers it’s dagoes with me, and after dagoes hell.”
“He’s had a shock, Wally.”
“Sure; and given ’em. Seems to think most of his smell.”
“That uncompromising Anglo-Saxon mentality of yours fails to appreciate—”
“Sure,” he cut me short.
“Anyway, you were on time, and that’s all that matters. How did you manage it?”
“I came along to schedule as promised, and didn’t feel any too good in finding Albert alone. We talked a bit, and waited; talked some more and waited some more, and then thought it was time to start moving. Where we should move to, unless it was the wharf, I didn’t know, and Albert was just as bat-blind. Down in the street we met Detective Gregory and roped him in. Kinda looking after the premises, he said.
“Well, sir, we had a little difficulty with the gatekeeper, who seemed to think somebody was tampering with his lock. That guy Albert is sure the finest amateur burglar that ever twisted a skeleton key. But he don’t like being interrupted in his work, which I’m ready to argue is natural. The gatekeeper pushed his face too far forward—and came up against Albert’s fist. Boy, it was a peach; Dempsey would have been proud of it. If I’d only caught him young I’d have made him a world-beater.
“Well, I guess there isn’t much to tell. That visit of ours to the wharf turned out to be useful. But for remembering the corridor we might have gone upstairs instead of down. As it was, I sent Gregory up and took Albert along with me. I’d sure face hell with that guy.”
“Who fired that first shot?”
“Maybe it was Albert, and maybe it wasn’t,” he smiled. “He’s mighty quick on the draw and may have beat me to it. Can’t say. George likely to hold an inquest?”
“I think not. It would be the last thing George or his superiors would think of doing. It might involve personages of much importance.”
Paul entered from his bath in my pyjamas and dressing-gown. He was smoking a cigarette and appeared almost cheerful. But the untidy growth of beard was still unpleasantly obtrusive, and this he expressed the wish to get rid of as soon as possible. Albert wielded the razor with effect.
“Monsieur Floyd,” said he, “is there anything you can’t do?”
“No, sir,” answered Wally for him. “He’s just the greatest guy ever, as handy with a razor as he is with his fist—or a gun.”
“A gun?” echoed the King, looking from Albert to him.
“Yes, sir. And can’t he just fry eggs and bacon!”
“I eat them.”
“I should like to join you,” laughed Paul. “And so it seems we are old friends, Mr. Wallington. I remember perfectly that incident at Cannes. You eased me of fifty thousand francs by a pip.”
“It was sure mighty generous of you to deal me a nine after you had drawn eight,” grinned Wally. “But you’re some twenty-five thousand out.”
“On the credit or the debit side?”
“I guess you can debit it.”
“Yes,” he said, “I have a staggering column on that side of the ledger.”
I left them talking while I went to bathe, and on my reappearance we sat down to breakfast. Paul ate as though he were starving, and drank greedily of the coffee.
“Monsieur Floyd,” he said, “this is the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted. Please receive my congratulations.’ ‘
It was now about six o’clock and the new day was already stirring. Paul was rigged out in one of my suits, which fitted him very well barring a little tightness across the chest and shoulders. He inquired the name of my tailor and thought he would patronise him. After smoking a cigarette with us Wally went off to his hotel. On learning the name of it Paul expressed the hope that he should presently meet him there.
“Strange,” said he, after Wally had gone, “that he and I should meet again in this manner. We had a great battle that night in the Casino at Cannes. Elena was with me.”
“So he said.”
“You are great friends?”
“And Monsieur Floyd?”
“He also shares our friendship.”
“Two friends, Gantian; you’re lucky. I haven’t one.”
I wondered whose fault it was.
“How shall I express my gratitude to our Monsieur Floyd?” he asked.
“By no further reference to it, sir.”
“But I must do something,” he protested. “To him I owe my life. In another moment Karlin would have got me. I saw him take aim.”
“Most people are just a moment too late in dealing with Monsieur Floyd,” I remarked.
He smiled and shook his head. “I give you up,” he pronounced definitively.
Together we drove round to the Melchester, and the first thing Paul asked for was the number of Baron von Lindner’s room. At this request the man behind the desk questioned with an interrogative look, but on my using the word “official” immediately gave the necessary information. But the baron was not to be found, and a quick examination of his room showed that he had not used it that night.
Paul pulled at his lower lip and scowled; then suggested that I should lead him to the Queen’s apartments. He himself knocked on the door, knocked rather peremptorily too, and when it was eventually opened by the maid, I saw her start with terror. Unceremoniously he brushed her aside and entered.
“Tell your mistress the King wishes to see her,” he said. She curtsied, trembling, and hurried away. He looked at me and nodded. “Come in, Gantian.”
“But—” I began.
“None of that,” he said.
In a few moments the maid returned. She was still trembling.
“Her Majesty begs to be excused,” she stammered, “and suggests that your Majesty intrudes.”
“Tell her Majesty,” said he, “that if she doesn’t come to me immediately I’ll come to her.”
He joined me by the recess near the window. It was here I had taken tea with the Queen, and was in doubt as to what manner of woman she was. Paul was scowling and growling deep down in his throat. He lit a cigarette, and then offered me his case. I declined the offer.
Nardia kept us waiting, which I was prepared to admit was a woman’s privilege. But he was in no mood to admit anything. I thought he would carry out his threat and invade her privacy. He stamped about the room, pulled at his lip, and glared out at the greenery of the Park with unseeing eyes. Majesty annoyed is probably always unpleasant, but majesty as it then appeared provoked extreme conjecture.
As the door of the inner apartment opened and she appeared he swung round on his heels and bowed stiffly. She acknowledged the salutation with exceeding hauteur. She wore a pale blue dressing-gown trimmed with a soft white fur, and over this was a cream negligee which suited her admirably.
“I am greatly honoured,” she said.
The cold of the northern winter was in her tone, the ice of the north in her look. Plainly the clash of two strong natures, which instantly revealed the cause of their unhappiness.
“You mistake,” he answered roughly; “I have not come to honour you.”
“I seem to recollect it was not your custom,” she retorted.
“I want to know what’s become of that swine Lindner,” he demanded.
“Swine!” she echoed, elevating her brows. “You choose your words unhappily.”
The taunt stung. He scowled, glaring at her with angry eyes.
“I have given up choosing my words. Where is he?”
“Did you expect to find him here?”
“Yes,” he snapped.
Her face paled and her manner grew stiffer, colder. Then she glanced at me, shrugged her shoulders and curled her lip.
“Perhaps you realise now, Colonel Gantian?”
“Colonel Gantian is my friend,” said he.
“I congratulate you. And you, Colonel, are doubtless edified? His Majesty invariably employs strange methods in asserting the royal prerogative.”
“Enough of this,” he snapped, “and listen. Your lover has betrayed you, as anyone but a fool might have known he would. But I’ll get him and, by God, when I do we’ll square accounts.’’
“So you have provided me with a lover,” she sneered. “You grow generous.”
“Who brags of his conquest. The role of martyr is played out, and the Woman of Many Sorrows becomes a scurrilous jest.”
“Possibly, if her husband has anything to do with it.”
“This plot shall be known to the world,” he declared.
“Plot?” she echoed interrogatively.
“Murderess!” he hurled at her, now beside himself with fury.
She looked from him to me and asked, “Is he quite mad?”
“Confess,” he thundered, whipped to a still greater fury by her manner. “Denial is not going to help you; nothing can help you. In association with that scum… But, you see, I am still alive, thanks to my friend here. I was going up in a blaze, a glorious blaze, and you as a pathetic widow would have had that supreme sorrow to add to the others. You are disappointed?”
“I am amazed.” Blankly she looked at me. “Perhaps you, Colonel Peter, can explain?”
I had barely time to raise my finger to my lips and withdraw it before the King swung round. Nardia saw that she had made a slip.
“Colonel Peter,” he repeated suspiciously. “How does this come about?” Had not that other also called me “Colonel Peter”?
“Quite naturally, sir. In the course of duty I was authorised to interview her Majesty.”
“It was thought that her Majesty might be able to supply information which would be valuable in affording you protection.”
“You came to the right quarter,” he sneered, “though I think you would have had a better chance of success with Lindner.”
“Your Majesty’s sudden enthusiasm for motoring nullified my hopes and gave the baron his opportunity.”
His reply to this was a frown. The Queen glanced at me as if for enlightenment, but I managed to flash her a quick intimate look which precluded further inquiry. She stifled an incipient yawn with the tips of her fingers. Seeing this, I thought the storm would burst again, but with commendable restraint he held himself in check.
“Then you know nothing of this plot?” he asked.
“Would denial satisfy you?” she answered coldly.
“No, madam, it would not.” This was received with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders. “You still persist in a denial?” he continued.
“Really,” she said, “I am totally ignorant of your meaning, but if I remember rightly you were always a little involved in your statements. Perhaps Colonel Peter will explain?”
“Colonel Peter,” he said again, flinging a suspicious look at me.
“Your Majesty must understand,” I said, “that an attempt has been made on the King’s life.”
“And yours too,” he added.
“And that Baron von Lindner, in conjunction with Andrev Milescu and Major Karlin—”
“Who are both dead, madam,” he announced grimly.
“It perhaps explains what his Majesty meant by ‘going up in a glorious blaze.’”
“But I am bewildered,” she gasped.
“And well you may be,” he said. “But I intend to get to the bottom of it, never fear.”
“And you think that I—” She paused, staring at him in horror. “This is why you call me ‘murderess’? Surely there is no lower depth for you or me? Now will you please go. This apartment is mine, and you intrude.”
Though the Saranov mouth was rather repellent just then the fierce eyes wavered; uncertainty marked his manner. Clearly he was not a little nonplussed. From irritation caused by her attitude he had begun to doubt. Here the ordinary man might have thought of blaming himself, but he was not an ordinary man. Long years of undisputed authority had not conduced to humility; his kingship, if not without its cares, had also known its glories. And, the cellars of the Istanian Oil Company being now a thing of the past, he was once more a King. At his command the bayonets would flash, the machine guns rattle, the parasite crawl, the sycophant flatter. Though there might be little dignity in the recollection of a certain oil-can, the knowledge of his new freedom would lessen the effect of it.
I had hoped that his late experience would have taught him an unforgettable lesson. Lawful authority without the power to enforce it was a faint shadow. No man could have known this better than he. In the early days of our association he had spoken freely of the solitary assassin who lurks in dark places with pistol or bomb, and against whom bayonets and police are impotent. Yet in his wildest flights of imagination he could not have visualised the degradation to which he had been forced to submit.
How was it going to affect him in the long run? Present symptoms were not favourable. Outraged dignity fumed; reprisals were the order of the day. The enemy had not spared, so why should he? And to cap all was this question of honour, which at first glance might appear grotesque in him. Had this woman let him down? The thought stung curiously; was a greater crime against him, a greater act of treason, than that of the would-be assassin. Through it he suffered a loss which stripped him to the bone. Paul Saranov jealous of his honour! Here was a thought to evoke loud laughter, or secret titterings.
Clearly he was nonplussed. The confession he had expected to wring from her was not forthcoming. And now she was ordering him from her presence. This was the crowning discomfiture; his impulsiveness had received a disastrous check. Here was another not overawed by his Majesty. Indeed Majesty was looking like a thing of no account, and had been looking so for some time.
Clicking his heels he bowed stiffly. “As you wish, madam, I go, and hope for your sake I may not have to return. Come, Gantian.”
With that he swung round and marched to the door, through which he passed without once looking back. As I bowed to her our eyes met.
“You serve a worthy master, Colonel Peter,” she said.
“Your Majesty is severe.”
“No, no; just a woman distraught.”
“Perhaps one day you will permit me to explain myself—and him.”
“Come quickly,” she whispered.
PAUL was waiting for me by the lift. Though he glared a question he did not put it in words, thereby obviating the necessity of answering. Seeing I was not inclined to be communicative on a certain point he tactfully switched on to another.
“Our next procedure, Gantian?”
“We may learn something from our old friend Solty at Scotland Yard. I understand you have not met Assistant-Commissioner Mayford?”
“No,” he said.
“Then I’ll call him up when we get downstairs.” This I did. We then took a taxi to the Yard, his Majesty being extremely reticent on the way.
The usual cloud of noxious incense greeted us as we entered George’s office. Apparently the thought of receiving Majesty did not overawe him. As a matter of fact I knew he regarded Paul as an infernal nuisance. Still, he rose to the occasion, bowed with unaccustomed dignity, and offered Majesty a cigar, which unsuspecting Majesty accepted. I waved a smiling refusal.
“Your Majesty,” George began as soon as Paul was seated, “this man Soltikin is extremely provocative.”
“Doubtless,” said his Majesty.
“Would you like to see him, sir?”
“If you will be so kind.”
He touched a button and his secretary appeared. “Ready now,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” answered the man and vanished.
A few moments later Solty entered in charge of Detective Gregory, whom I greeted with a friendly nod. Solty himself was looking extremely crestfallen, and scarcely raised his eyes as he entered the room; but when he did and saw the King he faltered and turned a shade paler.
“Would your Majesty like to question him?” George asked.
“With your permission, Mr. Mayford.” George nodded for him to proceed. The King glared at the trembling Solty, who despite his abject fear still showed a sullen look of defiance.
“Where shall we find Lindner?” he was asked. Sullenly he stared at the King.
“Answer,” snapped George.
“I don’t know.”
“Of course that’s a lie?”
“No, sir, it’s the truth; I don’t know where he is. But—”
“But what?” interrupted the King.
“I understood he lived with the Queen.”
Paul’s lower lip came out; George closely examined his cigar, twisting it between a finger and a thumb.
I contemplated space.
“Who told you that?” he was next asked.
“Milescu cannot be questioned, for the best of all reasons,” said George.
“So I understand, sir.”
“And do you also understand the very serious nature of your position?”
The sullen eyes smouldered. The lower part of the face, though weak, was obstinate, and obstinacy now cast a decidedly unpleasant shadow over it. But as no answer was returned to this question George snapped at him again.
“I understand, sir,” he mumbled, “that I have been misled.”
“Well, get this, too; your only chance is to be perfectly frank. Now, out with it.”
It was odd how the man’s courage seemed to revive, as though he had suddenly become aware of his importance. Apparently no mere catspaw after all, but rather a sly rogue.
“I should like to be dealt with by you, sir,” he said, looking at George.
“I’ll deal with you all right.”
He flung a quick glance at Paul. “I do not wish to be sent back to Istania.”
“I suppose not; but we are not here to consider your wishes.”
“No, sir.” The sullen look deepened.
“At the same time, any help you may give us will probably be to your advantage.”
“Thank you, sir; that’s all I wanted to know. The word of an English gentleman—”
“Cut that out,” was snapped at him, “and realise that the game is up. Where have you fellows been hiding?” A slow smile broke over the man’s face. George scowled. “I have warned you,” he muttered. “Shall I bring in the taxi-driver Edkins?”
The flicker of an eyelid and the faintest shadow of a smile informed me that the man knew perfectly well the impossibility of producing Mr. Edkins.
Still, it was not a bad shot on George’s part, though he appeared to be ignorant of the fact that he had shot in vain. Solty, however, most tactfully ignored his triumph. By degrees his sullenness vanished; he grew humble, almost contrite, and eventually mentioned the name of a street near Paddington Station, and the number of a certain house. It happened to be a very respectable street inhabited by a good class of tenant, which doubtless accounted for the immunity from arrest.
“And Baron von Lindner visited you there?”
“From time to time. They told me the house belonged to him.”
“You think he may be there now?”
“Where else could he go?”
Exactly. I caught George’s eye, and he nodded to Detective Gregory who, tapping his prisoner on the shoulder, led him away.
“Let us go at once,” said Paul, whose Saranov mouth had tightened unpleasantly, “or he may elude us.”
“If your Majesty will permit me to suggest—”
George was beginning. But his Majesty did not permit. He knew what was coming and was in no mood to listen.
“That there may be danger? Possibly. But I think that Gantian and I, not forgetting Monsieur Floyd, may be able to carry through the negotiation. There is also our American friend Wallington, who seems to delight in adventure.”
“Still, I would have your Majesty understand that there may be danger.”
“I do, fully, and thank you. But this has become a personal matter between me and the Baron von Lindner.”
Under ordinary conditions officialism would have continued to demur; but these were not ordinary conditions, nor was the man who spoke an ordinary man. Officialism is occasionally susceptible to conviction.
Paul led the way down the stairs at a breakneck pace, and hailing the first taxi jumped into it.
“You think we shall find him there, Gantian; you think we shall find him there?” He repeated the question many times as we buzzed along.
I thought it more than possible, it being his only shelter, and as he would now realise, not even that for long. After leaving the oil company’s premises he would have waited for the blaze, the first sign of which would have shown the successful result of his scheming. That he ever had the slightest intention of helping the escape of his confederates I could not believe. Having done his work for him they might perish for all he cared. But looking in vain for that blaze he would have realised that the plot had failed. What to do then must have seemed a difficult problem. Had he been desperately brave he might have returned and personally investigated the cause of failure, but evidently he was afraid to take the risk. The fact that he had not returned to the hotel was further proof of his alarm. Certain it was that the King and I could not have gone up in a blaze which had not materialised. Doubt would assail him; in every shadow would lurk an enemy. How would he meet the situation?
Arriving at my rooms we found Wally waiting, and after a few hurried preparations set out once more. Paul sat very still, pulling at his lip; even the cigarette offered him was refused. Wally’s chatter ceased; Albert, grim as ever, stared stolidly through the window. Occasionally Paul looked at him and smiled. Monsieur Floyd was still the enigma to him as he had been to many others.
Reaching our destination the cab was discharged at the top of the street. Albert and I went first, Paul and Wally following at a discreet distance. It was a quiet thoroughfare composed entirely of private residences, and I saw at once how the confederates had successfully eluded arrest. No one would have dreamt of questioning the honesty of those houses, or of its inhabitants. One did not look for malefactors in such a neighbourhood.
The street could not have been more than a hundred yards long, the houses stretching from end to end without a break. If any of the neighbours opposite had been looking through their windows they would have seen me lead the way up the steps and Albert follow, which might or might not have aroused curiosity, but which in any case was a matter of indifference. Paul and Wally joined us as I rang the bell, which not being answered I nodded to my worthy henchman, who produced from his pocket a small bunch of curiously-shaped keys. As I have already said, Monsieur Floyd was an expert at picking locks, and this one presented no difficulties to him. In fact, it was forced almost before I realised it, but the ever-cautious one waited a moment or two, ears alert, before opening the door. As we slipped in, a voice reached us from the head of the stairs: “Better stay where you are,” it threatened.
There was no mistaking that voice with its deep German gutturals.
“No use resisting, Lindner,” I called out.
“You, is it!”
“Your bonfire exploded like a damp squib.”
“Is that swine Saranov with you?” he asked.
“Yes, you dog,” Paul hurled up at him.
“Then come up and fight it out like a man; I promise you safe conduct. Whoever wins takes her.”
Paul would have accepted the challenge had I not caught him by the arm and held him back.
“It won’t do, Lindner; there’s not half a chance for you.”
“Who asks for half a chance! Damn you all!”
With that he opened fire, his fire being returned with interest. We paused for a moment, peering up through the smoke, and presently saw a figure pull itself erect by the banister. It stood at the head of the stairs clear for all to see, still supporting itself with one hand on the banister. The other was pointing down at us, but there was nothing in it. Then it suddenly fell to his side, his legs seemed to double beneath him, and he came clattering down the stairs.
Von Lindner had gone out.
QUEEN NARDIA, sitting by that window which overlooked the Park, questioned me closely. Wally had driven away with Paul to Wealdon, and Monsieur Floyd, unemotional as ever, had returned to Cork Street. With him it was just another job done. Picking locks or shooting quick and straight was all one to him. The usual respite would probably follow. Presently we might be expected to go to the country, where we could help Edna to cultivate her flowers, or old Fred Stone the gardener to destroy his enemy the slug. Then one day Mr. Mayford would get in touch with us again, and life would present another period of interest.
Briefly as possible I dwelt on the scene at the wharf, and on the incidents which led up to it, particularly that of the bogus invitation to lunch; for I was still of opinion that her explanation had been anything but frank. The question was, how deeply was she involved? But she was now looking at me with clear eyes, and there was conviction in her tone when she spoke.
“You do not believe that I knew of that invitation?”
“If your Majesty will pardon my frankness.”
“I approve it, Colonel Peter.”
“Your manner left me in doubt.”
“But that would mean that I was plotting against the King, against his life. And he believes it, and that the baron was my lover? Does he still believe it?”
“Your Majesty, the King has endured much in the way of humiliation, degradation and inconceivable mockery, and death has been so close that it almost breathed on him!”
“And then, was he a coward?”
“Far from it.”
“Yet he has been a coward to me.”
“If you had seen all you would understand.”
“This, perhaps; but for what happened previously there can be no excuse. You heard him; you saw his unreasonable anger. Others have also suffered degradation, bitter humiliation. Is it all to pass as nothing and only the King to be pitied? I will not even attempt to deny that Baron von Lindner hated him, but what could he hope from his death?”
“Devotion may take many forms,” I ventured. “In setting you free he may have dreamt of making you happy. He died bravely, madam.”
“I am glad of that,” she said. “And where is the King now?”
“He and my friend Wallington have gone into the country.”
“I understand. Do you believe me when I say that I am sorry for her?”
“Your Majesty honours me by the question.”
“And you mock me, having seen how greatly my majesty can be honoured.”
“I hoped your Majesty had conceived a different opinion of me.”
“Perhaps I have; I know I have. This acquaintanceship of ours has been rather remarkable, Colonel Peter, and might have been so very different?”
“If I had served you instead of the King?”
“So, you are still in doubt as to the meaning of our first interview? Does the King know of it? Ah, pardon me; I should not have asked that question. But would it seem very strange to you that I, being a woman, should hate the woman who had destroyed my happiness?”
“You have no cause to hate her now.”
“Yet he has gone to her.”
“A man is like that, occasionally given to strange qualms of conscience.”
“You are very loyal,” she said.
“Just a policeman, madam, who does his job and then forgets all about it.”
“And you will forget this one—with the others?”
“Perhaps not quite so easily.”
“And the King is returning to Istania?” was her next question.
“Most likely without loss of time.”
“And she goes with him?”
“He has not said.”
She gave me her hand, a cool hand with long slim fingers. As my lips touched it I thought there was an answering pressure.
“I suppose authority will see that there is no public scandal?”
“Authority does not like public scandals,” I assured her.
“You mean in England? Happy country.”
So much for Nardia the Istanian Queen, who left me still wondering. That she should hate Elena Karlin was natural enough—what woman wouldn’t in the circumstances?—but that she had plotted the death of her husband I could no longer countenance.
Towards evening Wally returned. He had not seen Madame Karlin, but the local doctor had reported satisfactory progress. As to what manner of man Paul might really be he seemed in some doubt. That he was a “queer guy” was indubitable, and just how queer he could not decide.
“Like the rest of us,” he said, “I guess there’s good and bad in him, and I kinda think he’s a piece of work that’s been spoiled in the making. What he wants is a friend, someone he can lean on and listen to, someone who doesn’t want to make capital out of him and gives him a square deal. Leastways, that’s the impression he gave me as we talked going down. I guess he’s sorer than he’s ever been in his life. That guy Lindner stung him a lot. Odd how we think of our women when it comes to things like that, we who don’t trouble about other folk’s women. And, by the way, he’d like to see you before he goes.”
“Then he has decided?”
“Means to pack up at once. Wants to know if you’ll run down in the morning and bring Monsieur Floyd with you. He’s sure taken a strange fancy to you guys.”
“No, old-timer; I guess he couldn’t help himself.”
* * * * *
Paul and I sat in the porch and talked. Of many things we talked, of politics, of love, and of a certain moment when death was very near to us. And I thought I saw a new Paul Saranov, one who had learnt a lesson that would not easily be forgotten. The eyes were clearer, the mouth less obstinate, and I noticed that he had ceased to pull at his lip. At times his frankness was almost embarrassing, and without asking for sympathy he commanded it. The King of Istania was a very lonely man.
He was going back, he said, to face a situation by no means easy, but hoped to see it through. Of course there would be trouble; he had many enemies. If the story of the Lindner conspiracy should leak out it might even endanger his throne. And there was still Elena; poor Elena! Poor Elena indeed, her more beautiful face now hideously scarred, what was to become of her? How was that story to be kept a secret? Probably it was already being whispered over there in the Balkans. These things could not be hidden; no laws could stop the circulation of a rumour. Did I think there was no hope for her; what had my doctor friend really said? Elena disfigured for life, and because of him! And he could not take her back with him to Istania. How could he? Moreover, she would not go; all she desired now was to be hidden away. Elena’s triumphs were over; her day was done.
And then once more he pressed his invitation for me to visit him, which invitation included Monsieur Floyd, who had made a strange appeal to him. He could promise us a good time. Istania was in many ways an interesting country, and his people were not always slitting each other’s throats. Doubtless there were still a few who would like to slit his, but he hoped to keep it intact, at any rate until Monsieur Floyd and I arrived. And would I accept these sleeve-links, and give him this cigarette-case. Both articles were of gold engraved with the initial “P” surmounted by a crown.
Though he passed lightly over the subject of revolution I knew he feared it. Intrigue was rife in the capital, discontent smouldering in the provinces. Life would not be easy for him, or for those who opposed him, he added grimly. And yet, in spite of all, I thought I saw the dawning of a better day in him. He had been shocked into a consciousness of duty and a realisation of true values.
A common oil-can had irrevocably dimmed the radiance of the purple.
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