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Title: Leathermouth Author: Carlton Dawe * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1901061h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2019 Most recent update: October 2019 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter 1. - An Inconsiderate
Chapter 2. - A Visit To The City
Chapter 3. - Sir Julius's Daughter
Chapter 4. - Meet Mr. Wallington
Chapter 5. - Abu Benabbas
Chapter 6. - Down Shad Well Way
Chapter 7. - The End Of The Adventure
Chapter 8. - Edna
Chapter 9. - Cauliflower Ears
Chapter 10. - Mrs. Potiphar
Chapter 11. - The Croft
Chapter 12. - The Chauffeur
Chapter 13. - Benabbas Still The Enigma
Chapter 14. - Albert Gets A Bit Back
Chapter 15. - Benabbas Strikes
Chapter 16. - Sir Julius Ashlin
Chapter 17. - A Great Night
Chapter 18. - Nothing Like A Quiet Life
I HAPPENED to be dining in the club that night at peace with the world, or so I tried to think. That I was ever wholly at peace, or ever should be, I frequently doubted. Nature, having cast me in a temperamental mould, seemed to delight in experimenting with her creation. But all this was under the skin. I doubt if my nearest and dearest ever had more than a faint suspicion of the bunch of nerves I really was. This might have been owing to a natural repression of feeling, probably exaggerated in my case; on the other hand, it might have been the outcome of training or necessity. That there had been times when it had stood me in good stead could not be denied. There were others when it had been decidedly detrimental.
But to-night I felt sure that I had at last reaped wisdom through experience. The food was good, the wine more than excellent, and Wilson, the head waiter, who had been with me in France, was most attentive. A cheery chap was Wilson, who always unbent in the most friendly manner whenever I graced the dining-room with my presence. It was he who recommended the claret, and more than once I beamed its merits at him, and received a satisfactory acknowledgment. I think he had rather a weakness for me. I know I had for him. He was as good a head waiter as he had been a soldier, and that was high praise.
Undoubtedly I was content. Why shouldn't I be? After the storm and stress that followed 1914 I had anchored in smooth water, with the exception of an excursion now and again by way of relief from monotony. I was still in the early forties, and though a little grey was beginning to show near the ears, was sound in wind and limb. True, that one I got in the thigh just outside Gaza gave me a twinge now and again, but it might have been in the head. On the whole, there was little to complain of. Probably I should take unto myself a wife as soon as I could find a girl with courage enough to look at my ugly mug. It was about time I did if I hoped to perpetuate the race of Gantian. Not that it mattered much. There was a cousin or two in the offing ready to sail in when I foundered; good, sensible, level-headed fellows, who knew how to make the best of this world and possibly the next.
Besides, I felt convinced that I had earned a modicum of peace. We old fellows had done our bit, and it was up to the new generation to carry on. That they would I had never a doubt, and so that I was left comfortably to dawdle on to the end I cared little who took up the burden. Peace was the world's great need—and mine. To lie comfortably at night, to sleep dreamlessly, to have no dread of lurking shadows or high explosives, to feel pretty certain that when you went to bed you would wake up sound in wind and limb the next morning: there was so much to be said for all this that I had no hesitation in seizing it and hugging it to my breast.
Then I saw Wilson coming towards me, and noticed his square, soldier-like carriage.
"Excuse me, sir, but Mr. Mayford is in the club, and is asking for you."
"Thank you, Wilson; tell him to come along. How's the missis?"
"Keeping quite fit, sir, thank you."
"And the kiddies?" He had two boys.
Wilson beamed. "Coming along fine, sir."
"Going to make soldiers of them?"
He hesitated. "Well, sir, let us hope there will be no necessity."
A tactful fellow was Wilson.
"Let us hope so. Tell Mr. Mayford I'm only half through dinner."
I hadn't seen old George Mayford for quite a long time. He was rather a pot now in the political department of Scotland Yard, and always busy, while I was dangling at a loose end. But we had seen a bit together in our time, had not a few secrets in common, and were still close friends, though not quite so close as of old, owing chiefly to the fact that within the last three years he had taken to himself a wife. It makes a difference.
Presently I saw him in the entrance and waved to him. He came up and held out a big red fist. He was a red man, was old George, red of face, red of hair, and always saw red when angered. Immaculately dressed as usual, and looking as though he might prefer a good dinner to most things, one would never associate him with half the secrets, political and criminal, which troubled the British Constitution.
"The very man," he said, screwing up his eyes and looking at me from under his rather heavy ginger brows.
"Always, I hope. Have you dined?" He nodded.
"Then try this claret; it's really very good. Wilson recommended it."
I beckoned to Wilson and ordered another pint.
"You're looking very fit," I said, "in spite of—"
"Oh, I'm all right. What about you?"
"Never felt better, or more at peace with the world. It's a fine world, George."
"Is it?" he answered, not too convincingly.
"Wife all right?"
"Quite." But there was no enthusiasm in the assurance.
"Give her my love."
"Shut up!" he snapped.
Here Wilson created a mild diversion by appearing with the wine. George and I looked across our glasses at each other. Then he positively flung the good stuff down his throat. I looked at him reprovingly, though realising that he scarcely knew what he was doing. I continued to ply knife and fork assiduously.
"Rot they don't allow smoking in this room," he growled.
"This is a respectable club," I ventured.
"The stronghold of old fogydom."
"Why don't you write to the committee?"
"Lot of good that would do."
"Tradition, dear lad; must maintain tradition."
"Cobwebbed," he replied.
Evidently not in the best of humours. Something had gone wrong. I wondered if that "marvellous girl" of three years ago had developed the art of nagging, and congratulated myself on my escape from the snares of matrimony. Every moment his face seemed to grow redder. Anxiously I looked at him. He was positively glaring at me.
"How much longer are you going on with that stuffing?" he growled.
"Try another glass of wine, only give it a chance this time."
He ignored the irony. "I have come here to have a yap with you," he said.
"Fire away, my son."
"Among these babblers!" He jerked his head contemptuously, a scathing reference to the more or less discreet diners.
"What do you really think of that wine? Wilson recommended it most highly," I again assured him.
He consigned Wilson to the nether depths, and began to fidget with the set of his tie. I informed him that it was in perfect order.
"All very well for you," he growled. "You're on velvet. Nothing to do and plenty of money to do it with."
"Not plenty, George. In fact money is so tight that I'm thinking seriously of retrenchment."
"Then if I were you I'd begin by resigning from this pothouse. Of all the mouldy barns in London this is easily the first."
"Then lead on, Macduff. Show me the way."
"If I don't I shall speedily become as mildewed as the rest of you."
"Horribly; and anyone but an idiot like you could see it."
Again he glared at me from under pent brows. I almost thought his eyes were reflecting the tinge of his face. They were of a peculiar light blue shade, rather kind as a rule, but now exceedingly fierce and hard.
"Confide in me, my dear," I cooed.
He began to grin. "That's what I've come to do, you miserable tyke."
"So I imagined. Continuez, mon vieux; bore me to tears as usual."
He leant towards me, lowering his voice. "I'm in a quandary, Peter."
"Once more, as usual."
"No, it's not as usual; it's most unusual, and when you've finished gorging I'll tell you all about it."
"Am I to be spared no detail?"
"No," he snapped, "so hurry up with that fodder."
"It is finished."
"Then we'll take coffee and liqueurs in the smoking-room, if we can find a quiet corner; doubtful in a place like this with old birds snoring all over the shop."
Yet we managed to find a quiet corner undisturbed by the snoring of old birds. In the reading-room, now, which proclaimed "Silence" in capital letters over the mantelpiece, it might have been different. There the old birds, ensconced in the easiest chairs, made the welkin ring with their nasal exercises.
We ordered our liqueurs, George, I regret to say, a double in the shape of old brandy, which was not conducive to the paling of complexions, lit our cigars and sat back. Or rather I did. George fidgeted on the edge of his chair and twirled his corona corona impatiently while waiting for the liquid refreshment.
"Worst service in London," he fumed. Which was not strictly accurate. He appeared to forget that as a club we had both dignity and tradition to maintain.
But at last the waiter appeared. George gulped. It was a bad habit of his, and one to which I had frequently drawn his attention. I drew it again, and by way of thanks received a snort of contempt. He blew a vast cloud of smoke ceiling-wards, looked carefully round, and then said in a low voice, "Do you know Sir Julius Ashlin?"
"Then why ask me?"
And yet the name seemed familiar. I had certainly heard it somewhere, or seen it somewhere in print.
"Well, he's missing."
"I don't care."
What were all the Ashlins in the world to me? I had enjoyed a good dinner, and might have felt soothed and singularly at peace with all mankind had it not been for the incursion of this disturbing influence. And, anyway, who was Sir Julius Ashlin that I should care a brass tack whether he was missing or not? A plague on the house of Ashlin if it was going to interfere with my comfort.
"I tell you he's missing," George repeated.
"And I repeat, I don't care."
"He may be dead."
"A good job, too."
"But he's not."
"Then he ought to be. What do you think of that brandy?"
"That's the trouble," he continued, ignoring my question. "If we knew for certain that he was dead we should know where we are, more or less."
"It's usually less with you chaps when it comes to knowing anything."
"But we can't know for certain, though inclined to the belief that he is still alive, and will remain so—while there's money in him."
"I thought he sounded like money."
"He is money, big money; that's the trouble."
"It never troubled me."
"And don't be flippant. This is serious. While we could keep our eyes on him we were in touch with his activities, but his sudden disappearance leaves us hanging in the air. For certain reasons, which presently shall be made obvious even to you, we don't want this disappearance publicly to be known, and with that end in view have approached the Press to keep mum about it. If it were generally broadcast the Lord only knows what would happen."
"You said he was 'big money.' What is he, a bull or a bear?"
"Both. But there's something more than the Stock Exchange behind this." He lowered his voice and once more glared at me from under pent brows. "It's political!"
"You know I detest politics."
"It's a big, underground game, Peter, that may seriously involve the Government."
"Consequently they rely on your superlative wisdom? The matter couldn't be in more capable hands."
"Don't be a fool. You know Palestine?"
"I remember it." Incidentally I rubbed my thigh.
"You know what's going on there?"
I was beginning to see light. Palestine—Sir Julius Ashlin! Now I had it!
"Who is he, this important missing one?"
"Before the war he was Julius Vogelstein, originally from Hamburg, who for certain services rendered during a critical period of the nation's existence received a baronetcy."
I remembered him now, a man of the utmost financial importance. No wonder his disappearance was causing the authorities some little concern. An acknowledged leader of his race, his mysterious disappearance, being known, would naturally create a sensation. Though not sharing in George's alarm I began to understand it.
"It's that mischievous Balfour Declaration," he spluttered. "What else but trouble could come of it?"
"Don't speak disrespectfully of our Elder Statesmen, George, but, like me, assume that they are always actuated by the noblest motives."
"I judge by results, not motives. The whole thing is wrong, was wrong in its inception, and is doubly at fault in its handling of the situation. Why are we in Palestine?" He fairly flung the question at me.
"I thought even the political heads of your Department would know why."
"Mandate," he puffed. "Why should we take it on! Them and their mandates! America knew better. She wasn't going to waste good money and good blood on a people who would hate her for saving them."
"The glory, George, the honour, the prestige! Do these make no appeal to that sordid soul of yours? If England had always thought in terms of £ s. d. she wouldn't be what she is to-day."
"A person who allows every nondescript to dip his fingers in her pocket, and then jeer at the idea of repayment, doesn't cut much of a figure, anyway."
I suggested that the joy of giving was, like virtue, its own reward. But this did not appeal to him. He launched out into a vehement denunciation of the whole crass business. Matters vital to the welfare of the Empire were decided by what he called "administrative process," without the consent of Parliament, or people, exploiting the fads and fancies of certain doubtless well-intentioned though deplorably incompetent persons. Nor was he ready to swear by their disinterestedness. Man, being so very far removed from the angels, was always repeating the fall. There was a sinister meaning in this which suggested that he could, if he would, disclose a few facts which might shake, if not shatter, my faith in political human nature.
"We are in Palestine," I said, "because it's a job we've taken on and mean to see through. If we listened to the croakers and the faint-hearts like you, men who are always thinking of the trouble involved, not to mention the cost, we should never be anywhere or do anything. Pull yourself together, George, get out of the mud, and remember that we are a civilising Christian nation."
"I suppose that's why we worry about founding a national home for the Jews?" he sneered, which was not like old George, who, unless deeply moved, was a most amiable soul.
"Men and nations sometimes build better than they know," was my next sage remark.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"I was thinking of your disrespect of our Elder Statesmen, whose apparent dotage may have a method in it."
"I should like to know what it is. The imposition of a hated minority on a people who have owned the country for centuries can only mean one thing—disaster."
"The Jews have also certain rights in the land," I reminded him.
"Oh, I know all about the sentimental side of the question, but we are dealing with practical politics. If the Jews are anxious to migrate to Jerusalem and once more establish themselves as a nation in the city of David, by all means let them, only it should be of their own merit and initiative and not at our expense. How do you think the rightful owners of the land, the Arabs, regard it? How would you if a body from overseas were dumped down in England and given privileges in excess of those enjoyed by the natives? It didn't answer in Ireland, and it won't anywhere. It means bayonets to protect them in their privileges, and bayonets mean trouble,"
"They also subdue it."
"At a cost," he flung back.
"Are you suggesting that we allow the Jews and Arabs indiscriminately to slaughter each other?"
"You're quite idiot enough without pretending to be one." (Compliments usually flew fast and furious when he and I discussed grave political matters.) "You know as well as I do, apart from all financial considerations, that the attempt to bolster up one side at the expense of the other is bound to be a failure. What Jew of standing is likely to take up his residence in Jerusalem when he can live in London, and without men of standing how are you going to make a nation?"
"Give them time."
"I'd like to, the lot of them."
"That's more in your line than trying to understand alien race mentality. This Palestine business is really a much bigger thing than you seem to imagine. Are you utterly devoid of all patriotic sentiment? Doesn't it give you even the tiniest thrill to think of our guardianship of the Holy Places, of the land towards which every Christian looks with reverence? Why, even the toughest back-block soldier from Australia, riding into Bethlehem, knew that he was on Holy Ground, and felt that he had suddenly become not as other men."
"Perhaps! I'll bet he thought more of how and where he was going to get his next swig of beer."
"Try to realise what it means, this mandate, and what an enviable place it gives us in the estimation of the Christian world, apart from keeping intact a vital line of communication with our Empire in the East. It's a trust, George, a sacred one, and we should be a very small-souled people indeed if we betrayed that trust for the sake of a few miserable shekels. It won't do; you can't look at it like that. We have accepted a grave responsibility, and we must stick it. One of these days we'll make the desert bloom; we always do wherever we go. It's our way. I'm not going to say that we'll ever make the Jew and the Arab fall on each other's neck in an ecstasy of brotherly love, but we'll make them keep the peace, as we do the various races of India, and respect the rights of their neighbours. Moreover, if we walked out to-day some other Power would walk in to-morrow. There's more than one wouldn't mind taking on the job. But it's our job, old boy, and we're going to stick it. As to cost. . . . Well, don't forget the blood that has been spilt, cheap as it may seem. Our modern crusaders may not have the glamour of centuries behind them, but they, too, set out to free the land from the infidel, and, having freed it, they look to the new generation to maintain that freedom."
Then I stopped suddenly. I think I blushed a little. One would, seeing how George was staring. Evidently I had occasioned him considerable astonishment. But, whatever he thought, he said, "Of course there's a lot in what you say, but my business is with the practical side of life, not the romantic. At the Yard we leave romance to the writers of fiction."
"You couldn't do better, old man; they know their job. But this is not fiction. It's something more, something real and big. As governors of the country it is our duty to see that the country is governed. If we are incapable of governing we should pack our kit and clear out. But I maintain that we are capable, we always have been. The sense of justice is strong in us. The real danger is in the cranks and faddists at home, the 'man and brother business,' 'self-determination,' 'Dominion status,' and all the other shibboleths that are spluttered so wildly, chiefly by Britons of the smaller nations. Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' applies all round. Good intentions. Excellent, but not so efficacious as cannon. What one has won by the sword one must maintain by the sword, or vanish utterly. The best answer to discontent is a regiment of soldiers. Once it is known that we mean business a change will come over the face of the waters. Strong men mean what they say, and once this is fully realised by discontent there will be no more serious opposition."
"Had no idea you were so bloodthirsty," he grinned.
"As you know, I'm the most inoffensive soul on earth."
At this he gurgled audibly. "I know; always turn the other cheek to the smiter. Your reputation as a pacifist is thoroughly well-established. That's why I've looked you up to-night. I'm in search of a man who wouldn't say boo to a goose, whose natural timidity is an incalculable asset in this most provocative of worlds. Having just passed through the era of blood and iron we are now out to conquer with the soft answer."
"And begin by reducing the strength of our Army and Navy at the instigation of disinterested friends?"
"A noble gesture," said he. "Someone must show the way to the stars." Then came the significant addition, "That brandy wasn't half bad."
"If you could digest my argument as well as you do my brandy there might be hope for you."
"But I do," he said, ordering a second go. "You've got a really marvellous grip of the situation. That's why I've come to you for your advice and help. Apropos of the disappearance of Sir Julius—"
"I'm not interested in Sir Julius or his disappearance."
"But I am."
"Then why don't you get to work? You command the whole apparatus of authority."
"True. But this is where it doesn't function smoothly. You see, the law can't move openly without making a noise, and this happens to be a matter in which all noise must be avoided. As you know, this business in Palestine is most delicate. A spark carelessly dropped may set the whole country ablaze. Jew and Arab are living in a state of acutest tension, ready to fly at each other's throat, and may yet, if we don't put a charge of dynamite under the Wailing Wall and blow it to smithereens."
"There is no great danger while both sides are short of arms."
At this George looked serious. He took a swift glance round the room, and was sure that no one could hear him before he said, "That is the danger."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that arms are entering the country—and that the Arabs are getting them."
"That's what we want to find out."
If this were true, and he was not likely to make such an assertion without authority, he had good cause to regard the situation as menacing. That arms might be smuggled anywhere in spite of all barriers could scarcely be denied, but that they could be smuggled in sufficient quantities to precipitate a serious uprising was scarcely credible.
"But what has this to do with the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin?"
"Ah," he said, "you're beginning to get interested?"
"Not at all."
But I was, in a way, though I could not see how the disappearance of Sir Julius could be connected with the arming of the Arabs. That such a race of fighting men, who had been mighty conquerors in their day, would tamely submit to oppression was clearly unthinkable. The combative instinct must always remain in such a people. And when a man believes that death at the hands of an infidel is a sure and immediate admittance to the most joyous of paradises you are at once confronted by an exceedingly difficult problem.
George sipped his second go of brandy, looking at me quizzingly across the rim of his glass. It was rather odd that I should have noticed his restraint in drinking, because I was thinking of something quite different.
"I can enter you on our books," he said, "as a matter of form."
Again I had to ask him what he meant.
"It will give you an official standing," he answered with a smile.
"Rushing things a bit, aren't you? I've no wish to be a policeman."
"I think it would be better, for the time being."
"I don't like you, George."
"I positively detest you, and deeply regret having to rope you in."
"Then why do it, or rather, why attempt it?"
"Because I rather fancy you may be useful. How long do you think it is since Sir Julius disappeared?"
"I don't know, and I don't care."
"Nearly a month," he continued, ignoring my remark. "In fact, to be correct, three weeks and four days. For three weeks now we have set the machine in motion, but something appears to have gone wrong with the bearings. Anyway, it refuses to function properly, and our experts have failed to discover the cause."
Again he sat back and looked at me from under those pent brows, and I stared back at him with an assumption of ease I was far from feeling. The fellow was annoying me, and I believe he knew it. That he was also waiting for me to question him was obvious, but I was determined to see him hanged first. If he had anything to say why couldn't he say it outright and not beat about the bush in this tantalising fashion?
"So you see," he said, "in spite of my abhorrence of you, I had to come along, not out of respect or admiration for your intellectual attainments, but because you are one of those fellows who have an uncanny flair for blundering on to the right thing."
"Fools step in?"
"Exactly. The angels of the Yard, having wilted most infernally in this matter, have come to borrow a feather or two from your abundant plumage. What about it?"
"About what? If you are a specimen of the 'angels of the Yard' it seems to me that their wilting hasn't stopped at feathers."
"The question is," he answered stolidly, "will you do it?"
"In the name of heaven, do what?"
"Find Sir Julius for me, and, incidentally, the cause of his disappearance."
"Not on your life. Why should I? Hang Sir Julius and his disappearance. I don't care a rap if he's never seen again. Besides, how could I hope to succeed where the combined wisdom of all the talents has failed?"
"Because, as I have already remarked, you have a most enviable knack of correct blundering, and because you're frightfully keen on this matter of the Palestine Mandate. Personally, I feel sure that his disappearance is not unconnected with it."
"Then the solution ought to be comparatively easy."
"If we could be sure, but we can't with insufficient data. To supply the necessary facts will be your job, even if it means going to Palestine to do it."
"I'll see you—"
"Though this may not be necessary," he added as a sop.
"Thank you very much."
"In fact, the whole problem may possibly be solved in London. By the way, have you ever come across Abu Benabbas?"
"No, and don't want to."
"We are more than a little interested in him, and so are you going to be before the end of the journey. He is a cultured Arab, a native of Trans-Jordania, who has spent some time in the United States, and latterly in Russia. You realise that the Soviet does not love the British Empire? There may be a connection between Benabbas's visit to Moscow and the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin."
"What if there is?"
"Sir Julius, whatever his origin, is now a patriotic Briton, and one who enjoys the full confidence of the Government. Some say that a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer. . . . But that may be merely an unkind rumour to account for his title. His position as an eminent financier and a prominent Zionist entitles him to the respect and consideration of our Elder Statesmen. Benabbas also happens to be a patriotic Arab. Is the light beginning to dawn on your dim intelligence?"
"It would need a super-intelligence to follow your maze of meandering."
He smiled. "Though your beauty will never make of you a film star or a matinee idol, you have a way with you, Peter, when you choose, which I admit is not frequent. I also understand that you are not unknown to some decent people, who harbour the gross error that you have a reputation for courage and initiative, a certain important personage being among them. How you came by this reputation heaven, or perhaps a certain Intelligence Department, alone could tell. It was this important personage who admitted that you might be employed with advantage."
"Very kind of him, whoever he is."
"He's really quite a decent chap, or would be if science could discover some remedy for a swelled head. Possibly most of us who have the handling of things and men are similarly afflicted. But to return to our Sir Julius. Naturally many theories have been advanced to account for his disappearance, among them, loss of memory, kidnapping, and blackmail. There is also the possibility that he has purposely hidden himself for purely private reasons. This his friends are disinclined to credit. Therefore we have to fall back on one of the first three. As, up to the moment of his disappearance, he was in his usual normal health, loss of memory has been set aside as incredible. This leaves us with kidnapping and blackmail. Are you picking up the scent, old Leathermouth?"
"Not at all."
But I didn't in the least like being reminded of that nickname which I had acquired in the Near East. I swear I haven't a leather mouth, and will die rather than admit it. Leather cheeks, if you like, and two lines on either side of the mouth like cart ruts; but as to the mouth itself, I'll take my oath it's not at all bad as mouths go.
"I think you will be; in fact, I'm sure of it. You see, it's a patriotic duty." Cunning dog; but I wasn't to be trapped by that bait.
"Bunk! I've had enough of patriotic duties. Let the youngsters carry on."
"All in good time. And, as I said before, it might help you to have official standing of some sort. Though, in any case, you can have as many of my men as you want."
"I want neither you nor your men, so clear out."
"But I want you, old son, and you're going to stand by me. You see, I'm expected to make some sort of job of this, and if I fail I may have to bid a long farewell to promotion. You like the missis, don't you?"
"She hates me."
"And the kiddy?"
"The kiddy's all right. Lucky for him he doesn't take after you."
"So I think. Well?"
"Any more sob stuff?"
"No wonder they called you Leathermouth. Have no more sentiment in you than an old boot."
I ignored the reflection on my mouth, which, of all my unprepossessing features, was the one I had a particular weakness for. So I said, "Don't be an ass, darling. You know I'd risk life and limb to win a smile from your missis. But in what way can I help you or her? I'm on the shelf, George, preserved in spirits of wine, and not even a specimen of unusual interest. And on the shelf I intend to remain until such time as it pleases providence to break the bottle and disperse my elements to the four winds of heaven."
"I don't know about heaven," he growled.
"Neither do I. But let it go, and with it Zion and all its movements. I like this quiet life, this ambling about the streets trying to get run over. I like looking at the girls, and wish one of them would occasionally look at me. I like going to bed at ten o'clock, turning on my lamp and reading myself to sleep. I like to be in bed of a morning and listen to the rain on the windows, glad that I haven't to rise and trudge to work, while pitying the poor devils who have to. And, above all, I like to feel that there's no fear of a bullet through my brain or a knife at my gorge. And you would rob me of this peace, lead me into temptation, stir the blissful apathy of my blood till it urges me to irrevocable disaster, and you call yourself my friend."
He glanced at the clock over the mantelpiece and then sprang to his feet. "Lord, I shall catch it," he said.
"Tell her you were with me. It may mean another bouquet or two, but I'm accustomed to having it said with flowers."
"It's your bed time," he informed me. "Go home, turn on that lamp of yours, and think it over. Then in he morning ring me up and come along to the office for final instructions."
With that he went, grinning like a big red bear, and I rang for the smoking-room waiter. Stimulant, and still more stimulant, was necessary if I hoped to obliterate the memory of his hateful presence. Of course he knew I would think it over, the cunning old scoundrel. Probably he would return to Mrs. George and tell her that I had as good as joined the Force, and that if he hadn't already shoved me into the uniform my transformation was merely a question of time. We should see. I rather thought the end would find the laugh on the wrong side of George's mouth.
ALL the same, he had caused me no little annoyance. I couldn't get him and his Sir Julius out of my head. Sleep failed to bring oblivion. I dreamt incessantly of Arabs and Jews, and roundly cursed both. What did it matter to me if they tore each other to pieces? And as for Sir Julius Ashlin, he might have gone to Germany or Jericho for all I cared, but he had no sort of right to disturb my slumbers. I was not interested in the fluctuations of the stock market. It didn't worry me if the bank-rate was five or six per cent. As far as I was concerned the money page of the newspapers was void of all meaning, though "Hints to Investors," or "What to do with your money," always raised a smile. It must have seemed a crude jest to many. Personally, I found more interest in drapers' advertisements, and a certain satisfaction in realising that there was no wife to plague me for a fur coat.
Of course, for friendship's sake, I would have liked to do old George a good turn. But how could I help him? I knew nothing of Sir Julius Ashlin and his activities beyond what George had told me. Moreover, how was it possible for me to succeed where authority, with practically limitless resources behind it, had failed? That I had been successful on one or two occasions, more by good luck than any superior intelligence, did not mean that I was always going to be favoured by fortune. That was the worst of having done a thing or two. People always expected more, and it was the very deuce itself to live up to any sort of reputation.
From which it may be gathered that I did not utterly consign George Mayford to the limbo of forgetfulness, richly as he deserved it. In spite of myself, of a grim determination not to think, I found myself thinking incessantly, and was considerably annoyed in consequence. In succession I reviewed the various points of his argument. Smuggled arms, Arab unrest, the Wailing Wall, Sir Julius Ashlin, Abu Benabbas—and our precarious tenure of Palestine. This last most of all. Was the Government seriously thinking of abandoning the Mandate? Would a grave disturbance jeopardise our position? Was there a sinister movement afoot to get us out of the country so that some other interested Power might step in? The cry of millions sunk in a useless enterprise had already gone up barefaced to heaven, and doubtless had many adherents. Well-intentioned patriots had maintained with tongue and pen that our duty to the taxpayer was to relieve him of both Palestine and Iraq. Sentiment might attach itself to Jerusalem, and romance to Bagdad, but there was neither sentiment nor romance in forking out hard-earned money. Big ideas must go by the board. There was no room for them in a little world of £ s. d.
It was all extremely exasperating. For a long time now I had tried to ignore politics. I would do no more than glance at the Parliamentary debates. "The Prime Minister in the City" made me turn hurriedly to the next page. "What the Foreign Secretary Thinks" left me cold, colder than the thought of a journey to the North Pole. One thing was certain: until the next General Election came round he would have soft answers for the foreigner and hard facts for his compatriots.
Which all proves that George Mayford had caused me intense annoyance, which he probably knew would be the case when he let loose his absurd theories of this and that. A wily, red-faced dog, that's what he was, who traded on my congenital weakness for intrigue. Not if he knew it, was I to pass my nights in peaceful slumber and my days in cultivating my garden. All the same if I'd wanted to settle down and write poetry. That would have made him laugh; Leathermouth writing poetry. It almost made me.
I vowed to myself that I would not get up that morning until it was time for me to stroll down to the club for lunch; and yet, about half-past ten, there came a ring at my 'phone, and I guessed instinctively who was at the other end of the line. At first I wouldn't answer, in case it should really be my evil genius, but of course I did.
"That you, darling?" he asked. I heard the brute chuckle.
"Not dead yet?"
"Not quite, but nearly, and all through you. Haven't slept a wink all night."
"Dreaming of me, I suppose?"
"Pity you ever woke." Again he chuckled. Awful fellow!
"I suppose you're just on your way?" he purred.
"What do you mean, just on my way?"
"To the office."
"I'm not dressed yet, I'm not even shaved, and I have no intention of visiting you or your mouldy office."
"It doesn't really matter. I've already arranged the interview."
"Your interview with Sir Julius's secretary. Twelve sharp. Don't be late. Salisbury House, New Broad Street. First floor. Take the lift if you're tired."
"What on earth are you drivelling about?"
"All in order. One of our men. Investigating the mysterious disappearance of Sir Julius. Keep in touch with me. Best of luck."
"Just a moment, my lad."
"What's the matter now? Haven't I made myself clear?"
"Doesn't it strike you that you're taking a bit on yourself?"
"I usually do; it's part of my job. Don't worry. Everything's arranged. Just ask for Mr. Morris Goldberg. No, you idiot, Goldberg, not Goldbug. You'll find him an excellent fellow. So long."
With that he rang off, leaving me both perplexed and annoyed. Of all the cheek! And then I had to laugh. I was still laughing when Albert entered to ask if he should prepare my bath. I nodded. He turned to go but I called him back.
"Things have been mighty quiet for some time, Albert."
"Indeed, sir," he assented.
"Not to say stale?"
"We've known 'em livelier."
There was a twinkle in his eye as he said this, which set me thinking. I looked at his grim, thin face, his square shoulders, and let my mind travel back into the past. I saw him as I had first seen him in Egypt, when he came to me as my batman, a young fellow eager for the great adventure, with a careless philosophy of his own which made a singular appeal to me. I saw him when he picked me up that day before Gaza and bore me to safety behind a sandhill, which might have been anything but safe; for presently a couple of the enemy came creeping round, who doubtless would have written paid to our account but for Albert's presence of mind and his skill with my revolver. And I saw him that wonderful night in the Near East when the big Anatolian would have stuck a knife between my shoulders had not Albert socked him behind the ear. And . . . But no matter.
Yes, there was a good deal between us, much more than merely master and man. I think I might almost have made an intimate friend of him if he would have permitted it. But he never presumed, nor would he sanction presumption in me. I rather think he regarded me as altogether irresponsible, one who needed a mother to look after him. More than once he half-admitted that this was the reason why he never married. Who would look after me if he left? Upon occasion I had endeavoured to persuade him that he was doing some nice girl out of a good thing, but I might as well have appealed to a block of stone. Lots of his old pals, he said, had married and regretted it. The girl of to-day was never the same to-morrow. Not that he wished to say anything against them. We all had our faults. But there was wisdom in leaving well alone. Some horses ran all right in single harness; when an example was good a man couldn't do better than follow it. In this I perceived a subtle allusion to my own state of single-blessedness. How was he to know that I was only waiting for the first nice girl to look on me with favour?
To that remark of his that we had known " 'em livelier" I ventured to say that there was a prospect of certain liveliness in the near future. At this his eyes brightened.
"Where are we going this time, sir?" he asked.
"To the City." His face fell; quizzingly he looked at me. Then he smiled. He remembered that I often joked at serious things.
"And from the City, sir?"
"The Lord knows. Perhaps the East."
"I'll pack at once, sir."
"Easy on. At present we're not going farther than the City. In fact, we may not leave London at all."
"Lots of fun to be had in London, sir, on the quiet side."
"I anticipate extreme quiet."
"Otherwise I would never dream of touching it."
But I saw the ghost of a smile play round his mouth, and firmly believe, notwithstanding the hum-drum existence we lived in Cork Street, that he was of opinion that I was one of those absurd persons who delight in looking for trouble; whereas my one desire, as I always impressed on him, was to let the world do as it pleased with itself so long as it didn't disturb my slumbers. But then I don't believe he ever fully realised the blessing of sleep. In fact, I don't think he ever slept, but pretended to, like a dog blinking one eye.
He took a step towards the door, then paused.
"Is Mr. Wally going with us?" he asked.
"He's in America."
"So I understand, sir."
"Well, then, how could he go with us, even if we were going anywhere, which we're not?"
"It would be rather difficult," he admitted.
The "Mr. Wally" referred to was one John Christopher Wallington, a native of New York City, who had seen a little excitement with Albert and me in the Near East, the time I was interested in the intentions of the Turks towards their subject races. He was of the third generation of Wallingtons, the founder of the family and its fortunes, "Old Jawn," as he was called, having entered New York Harbour as a foremast hand, and, evidently liking the outlook, was "missing" when the ship turned her nose homeward. He hailed from Lancashire, and was apparently not devoid of a certain amount of native shrewdness. At all events, seeing certain possibilities in his new surroundings he seized on them with avidity, the result being that land he purchased for a song was now worth its weight in gold. "Jawn the Second," being also a shrewd man of business, had added considerably to the family fortunes, so that when "Jawn the Third" came to the throne there was nothing for him to do but burn dollars. It must be admitted he did this extremely well, or ill. It all depends on the point of view. London and Paris knew him almost as well as New York, and though it cannot be said that he purposely courted publicity, he found it in abundance, at times greatly to his annoyance. He owned a string of horses at Newmarket, a much paragraphed yacht, and was frequently associated with social eccentricities which the newspapers described as "freaks."
Our introduction was rather unconventional. It took place in Constantinople, at a cafe concert. John, having dined well, had set out to find a little excitement, and found it. Though he declares to this day that his admiration of the woman was most decorous, she happened to be in the company of a Turk, a ponderous bearded fellow, who resented it. John's sense of humour was tickled. I don't quite know what happened; but a small crowd collected, angry murmurs arose; there was a scuffle, and I heard a voice cry out in English, "Is there a good American here?"
Now I am a very prudent fellow, one who likes to glide quietly through life, but that appeal in my native tongue, rising above the alien din, sent a most reprehensible thrill through me. I immediately pushed forward to where he stood, his back to a pillar, his clenched fists raised at the scowling mob which confronted him. Fortunately I was just in time to lay out an ugly fellow who was in the act of using a heavy stick. The young man, flushed of face, flung a lightning glance at me and said under his breath, "Good for you, pard!" Then he, too, struck, swiftly and surely, and his victim, staggering back upon the crowd, suddenly collapsed with a bleeding nose.
What would have happened to us had not the police arrived it might be difficult to say. However, we were escorted under guard to my hotel, which also happened to be his, and on the morrow we received a visit from a stout official in a fez (Mustapha Kernel had not yet begun his Westernisation of Turkey), who rather truculently informed us that Constantinople would refrain from the shedding of tears if we were to decide on an immediate evacuation of the city, which we accordingly did. But that night a friendship was cemented between me and Wallington which had every appearance of becoming permanent. Later, a few other adventures shared together, made this a certainty.
I thought a good deal of him as I shaved and dressed. What a wonderful fellow he was in an emergency! What a careless, happy-go-lucky beggar! I believe that when his time comes for going West he will fling a taunt at old Death himself. And with it all he was as handsome as paint, and always had the girls looking after him wherever we went. No wonder I grew moody. They never looked at me; that is, the young ones didn't. Occasionally a dowager might honour me with a second glance, but as for the youngsters. . . .
Perhaps I frightened them. Wally used to say I'd make a first-class villain for a crook drama, and urged me to turn to the films or the stage. Hollywood would go down on its knees to welcome me; the Beery brothers pass away once my face was shown in a close-up.
I regretted he was not in England at the moment. He might be useful in the task I was about to undertake. But he had been in America for more than a year now, an interminable lawsuit demanding his presence in New York, and for all I knew he might be dead or in the Arctic Circle, for he was a most thrifty correspondent. But, wherever he was, he was bound to be doing something he ought not to do.
Albert, among whose many qualifications was that of being an expert chauffeur, wanted to know if he should bring round the car, and appeared to be rather distressed when I informed him that I intended to take a taxi. As a matter of fact, when there was anything unusual afoot he hated to have me out of his sight, and this notwithstanding his almost childish belief in my miraculous abilities. They say no man is a hero to his valet. It may have been that he, being something more than a valet, had more than a valet's imagination. He needed it in my case.
Punctually on the stroke of noon I found myself on the pavement before Salisbury House, New Broad Street, and not feeling tired, as George Mayford had suggested, disdained the lift to the first floor. Evidently I had been expected, and word to that effect sent forth; for no sooner had I announced to a young Jewish-looking woman in the outer office that I had an appointment with Mr. Goldberg than I was at once ushered into that gentleman's presence. He was a very sallow-complexioned gentleman with a thin, coal-black moustache and thin black hair smoothed over a curiously-shaped flat head. In fact, I don't think I ever saw a head so flat, or a forehead so wide. It looked as though a careless nurse had stood him on his head at the hour of his birth.
"Colonel Gantian?" he said.
"At your service. Mr. Goldberg?"
"Yes, sir. Please be seated, Colonel."
He pointed to an easy chair upholstered in bright brown leather, seating himself on the other side of the table, a heavy, ornate piece of furniture covered with papers and heavy books. Books in glass cases and handsome bindings lined two sides of the room. Two windows looked out on the street, double windows, I noticed, which deadened all sound. On the wall, to the right of the windows, was spread a vividly-coloured map of Palestine, which at once made me feel at home. One's feet sank nicely into the large square of Turkey carpet that covered almost the whole of the floor.
Mr. Goldberg, looking at me through horn-rimmed spectacles, inquired if I smoked, and on my admitting as much instantly produced from one of the drawers of the table cigars and cigarettes. I chose the latter. He set a cigar going from a gold lighter.
He had a curious, long, thin nose with just the suggestion of a beak in-it, a nose that might have belonged to a man of any nationality. But for certain facts it might have been difficult to name the country of his origin, except that one instantly saw he was not of the Nordic race. His mouth was thin, his teeth rather large and uneven, his chin weak while suggesting obstinacy. Yet he had a most agreeable smile, and a cultured, mellifluous voice.
"No need of preliminaries, Mr. Goldberg?" I began.
"None, sir," he responded quickly. "I presume you are already acquainted with certain of the distressing details?"
"I know that Sir Julius has mysteriously disappeared, but beyond that I am entirely in the dark."
"Unfortunately we are all in the same predicament."
"When did you see him last?"
"On the Friday before his disappearance. He left here as usual about five o'clock. I saw him down to his car."
"And you have not seen him since?"
"How did he usually spend his week-ends?"
"It was not my business to inquire."
"Ordinarily, I take it?"
"I should imagine, quite. Sometimes at his town house in Belgrave Square, sometimes at his place in the country."
"Where is that?"
"Down in Hampshire, near the New Forest."
"Did he have any enemies?"
"What man in his position has not?"
"I mean personal enemies; that is, anyone likely to injure him for personal reasons?"
"Not that I know of. Of course—"
"Yes." I nodded amiably.
"You know he is deeply interested in the Zionist Movement?" Again I nodded. "And that much bitter feeling has been aroused?"
"You think that his political enemies—"
"Religious passions, as you know, Colonel Gantian, have been responsible for many fearful atrocities."
"You mean, you think that some fanatic, religious or political, has murdered Sir Julius?"
"Because he would be more valuable alive."
"To his enemies?"
Mr. Goldberg smiled. "Sir Julius is a very rich man, and riches may be employed in many ways."
"Quite so. Then you think, in consideration of those riches—"
"He will be spared—for a time."
"But the time may come "
"I take it that you would know of unusual disbursements?"
"I see. Do you think he is still in England?"
"I should imagine so. I can conceive no place so safe for the purpose."
"I assume blackmail."
"Nothing more dangerous."
"Not at present."
I dipped into the open box and started a fresh cigarette. Mr. Goldberg continued to smoke placidly, his eyes never wandering for a moment from my face. They were large, intelligent eyes, rather dark, their darkness probably accentuated by the heavy rims of his glasses. I noticed that his hands were large for a man of his build, and bony, with protuberant knuckles. I also noticed the perfect set of his tie, his spotless linen, and the neat platinum sleeve links. I can't say why I was so particular to observe these trivial matters, as they had no bearing on the business in hand. Probably it was merely characteristic of me instinctively to absorb detail.
"What about women, Mr. Goldberg?"
He smiled. "You may wipe out all that."
"They have been known to play an important part in the most delicate of negotiations."
"But never in the life of Sir Julius."
"To your knowledge?"
"Precisely. Sir Julius has but one interest in life; the foundation of this national home for our race in the land of our fathers."
"He is married?"
"He was. His wife died many years ago."
"A widowed daughter who keeps house for him."
"Do you know a man called Abu Benabbas?"
"Only as a violent Arab propagandist."
"Nothing else against him?"
"Naturally I think his methods unscrupulous. I believe him to be a man who would stop at little to gain his own ends."
"Short of kidnapping, or murder?"
"Many strange tales have been told of him. He appears to be one of those mystery men who suddenly descend from nowhere into our midst."
"But this time it is out of the desert dusts of Trans-Jordania?"
"Where he has been actively engaged in stirring up revolt. Sir Julius has always considered him an extremely dangerous man."
"Have you any information as to his present whereabouts?"
"None whatever. He is one of those men who delight in making a mystery of their movements. Information has been frequently laid against him and his activities, but, so far, authority has failed to move."
"In the matter of curtailing those activities?"
"You know every dog is allowed a first bite. Unfortunately, when dogs like Benabbas bite the consequences are likely to be serious."
"Tell me, Mr. Goldberg, do you suspect him of having a hand in Sir Julius's disappearance?"
"I have no proof, not the slightest. At the same time it is obvious that Sir Julius's removal would not be disagreeable to him."
"And from the time you said good-bye to Sir Julius on that Friday afternoon not the faintest trace of him has been discovered?"
"Not the faintest."
"What about his chauffeur?"
"Didn't you know that he, too, was missing?"
"It's the first I've heard of it."
"That's very strange. The police knew. Odd that you should not have been informed."
Questioningly he looked at me, but I thought it better not to volunteer any information. This was an omission on George's part, due probably to forgetfulness. Doubtless I should have learnt of this had I called at his office that morning. Another question tripped to my tongue, an inquiry as to what became of the car; but, having already blundered once, I refrained from blundering twice. I heard later that it had been found abandoned in one of the recesses of Epping Forest.
I could see that Mr. Goldberg was more than a little interested in me personally, and I feared that he might be in possession of certain facts not unconnected with my career. At first I rather blamed George Mayford for letting him know my military rank, which I never used, as it had only been temporary; but I suppose the dear old idiot thought it might make me appear more impressive in Mr. Goldberg's eyes. I don't know; probably it did. A plain-clothes man from the Yard might not have met with an equal courtesy. For Mr. Goldberg certainly was courteous in the extreme, and, without being voluble, responded to my questioning without a moment's hesitation. That he had little information to give was clearly not his fault, he being as much amazed at the happening as the meanest clerk in the office. But one thing he let me see, and see clearly: he undoubtedly associated Sir Julius's disappearance with the enemy over in Palestine. This he at last accentuated to some length, the gist of which being, as was plain even to me, that the cessation of the baronet's contribution to the cause must necessarily react in favour of the enemy.
I tried him again with Abu Benabbas, who lowered threateningly on the horizon; but he could no more than repeat the little he knew, embellished with a few unconfirmed rumours. Yet I could see that he clearly recognised Benabbas as the villain of the piece. He spoke of plots in which rumour said that worthy had been engaged. Even when the Turks were in possession of the Holy Land he was notorious as a stirrer-up of strife. It was said that the Germans who commanded the Turkish forces against us had offered a reward for his capture, he, it was believed, being at the head of a band of desert warriors who harassed the enemy's rearguard. That, at any rate, was something in his favour, according to my thinking. But now he was facing an enemy infinitely more potent than the Turk, an enemy with well-filled pockets, the very necessary sinews of warfare. Abu Benabbas would have found the Turkish rearguard easier than the vanguard of Jewish finance.
I left Mr. Goldberg feeling that he had unreservedly placed before me all the information in his possession, which when analysed did not amount to much. Indeed, with the exception of the missing chauffeur story, old George had put me quite as wise. There was only this difference: I knew now, or thought I did, that it was no private matter which had forced Sir Julius to hide from his kind. And, apparently, there was no question of a woman in the case. Sir Julius was both old and austere, his only interest in life being the ultimate triumph of his race. But could one be sure that there was no woman in the case? It would indeed be a strange case that excluded woman; a scarcely human case I was inclined to think, and this, in spite of my apparent ability to live without them. But could I, could any man? As well expect to come into the world without their aid.
ON returning to my rooms, void of all enthusiasm for the progress I had made, I rang up George Mayford, and about half an hour later he came clattering in looking redder than ever. I was sure, unless he went on a strict diet, that one of these days he would succumb to a stroke of apoplexy. That he was disappointed with the meagre result of my visit to the City was undeniable, but that he was greatly disappointed I beg leave to doubt. For had not he and all his satellites been upon the job for the last three weeks and come up against a dead end? All the same, I saw that he had expected more from me, though why he should heaven only knows—unless he hoped that I might once more blunder correctly. But flukes never answer the call. Like most other influences in this world they are a law unto themselves.
"What did you make out of Goldberg?" he asked.
"He seemed a very ordinary sort of person."
"What did you expect?"
"It looks to me as though your heart is not in the job."
"It's not. I don't think it was ever so little in any job."
"That sounds promising."
"I'm promising nothing. I'm not interested in the job; I wasn't from the first, and for nobody but you would I have made such a fool of myself. I'm through."
"Rubbish! You're only beginning. Anyway, you must have formed some opinion, come to some sort of conclusion?"
"None whatever. Your youngest messenger boy would have done as well. Better put him on the job. He would probably give complete satisfaction.
"You found Morris Goldberg so difficult?"
There was a certain intonation in this that I did not like. It slyly suggested many things; among others, that my brain had possibly not been at its brightest.
"What do you mean by that?"
"It didn't strike you that he might be holding back information?"
"He answered all my questions readily enough."
"But was not what one would call communicative?"
"I don't think he had anything really important to communicate."
"Not even about Benabbas?"
"Not more than we already knew."
"Of course he abused him?"
"In a most gentlemanly way."
"And that didn't strike you as being strange?"
"Evidently a magnanimous opponent?"
"Much more than you are."
"I don't pretend to be. Well," here he glanced at me from under his jutting brows. "What's the next move?"
"I shall run down into Sussex and have a look at the old place—and Edna. I've been neglecting her shamefully."
Edna was my young sister who came into this world of trouble some fifteen years after I had made the mistake of entering it, much to her father's joy and sorrow; for it meant my mother's death, a blow from which my father never really recovered. Accordingly I became father, mother, and everything else to her. There, on the windswept Downs, from which one could look across the ancient town of Lewes to the sea, she passed her life in apparent content with three ancient servants, for whose sake I believe she held on to the old home. At any rate I could never get her to leave it; and as to marrying, I often feared that she would die an old maid, which would have been a great pity. But she was as impervious to the young men about as to my chaffing, and always reminded me of the bad example I set her. Nor was it any use my protesting that there was a difference in our respective cases. A man, especially one who had no wish to propagate his ugly mug, could get along all right with his work, but a woman had to think of her future. And what was to become of Old Lizzie, and Charlotte, and Fred the gardener, she would ask. Besides, she was quite happy, or so she stoutly declared. She had her home, her car, tennis, golf, friends, and never knew what it was to feel lonely. All of which I begged to doubt. I wanted to see her settle down with her youngsters about her, and pointed out what an admirable uncle I would make, and how jolly fond the kiddies would be of me. But she said she would wait until she saw my youngsters, which I fancied would be a long waiting. Personally, I hate to see a pretty girl unmarried, or one who is not on the verge of matrimony, for I hold that beauty has no right to go barren to the grave. The world cannot afford to lose the higher species. The law should insist on this point. There were times when I grew righteously indignant over it.
Old George cocked up his ears and questioned me with a look. Did I mean what I said; had I no further intention of interesting myself in the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin?
"A good blow on the Downs mightn't do you any harm," he admitted, "and you could cultivate thought among the cabbages."
"Just what I intend to do."
"But you can't," he grinned.
"Because you're not that sort. I've handcuffed you, Peter my lad, and you can't break loose. I counted on this initial difficulty."
"Oh, did you? Very clever."
"If it had all been plain sailing. . . . Well, your interest might have waned, but as it is you're going through with it."
"I'm going down to see Edna, and I'm going to stay with her."
"Give her my love, and tell her Molly wants to know when she's coming up to town."
"Tell Molly, with my compliments. . . ."
"I will. She was asking after you, too. You've no idea how fond that girl is of you."
"No, I haven't."
"In fact, everybody's fond of you, Peter. You have a way with you, my son, that is simply irresistible to young and old. Just ring me up; or better, look me up when you think you've found anything worth communicating."
"I shall neither ring you up nor look you up."
"Then you don't think there's much in this affair?"
"The latest news from Palestine doesn't square with your view of the situation."
"You old devil!"
"It's a fact, Peter. The local government has sent through a rather alarming report of unrest among the tribes. There is even talk of an imminent open rebellion, and the name of Abu Benabbas is beginning to circulate rather too freely."
"Is he out there?"
"No one seems to know where he is at present."
"It ought to be easy enough to trace him."
"It ought to be, but it isn't. Meanwhile Palestine is in a ferment. As you know, some of our Continental friends view with not unconcerned amusement our endeavour to keep the peace out there. There are even one or two who might be prepared to take on the mandate if we relinquished it. For all we know Benabbas may be in league with an administration not too favourably impressed by the Zionist Movement."
"Then you really think he is the stormy petrel?"
"We are almost certain of it, but dare not lay hold of him without more proof."
"First catch your hare."
"We might be able to do that."
"I suppose he has been in this country?"
"Frequently. He may even be here now."
"Your system seems to be as near perfection as anything human can be."
"I want none of your cheap sneers," he growled.
"Yet an Arab ought to be easily distinguished among us."
"You don't suppose he goes about dressed in his national costume? Besides, from all accounts, he might easily pass for a Latin or a Greek, and he speaks French and Italian fluently as well as English."
"An Admirable Crichton of an Arab."
"Perhaps you are beginning to see the connection? The fellow is a plotter, but as far as we know a constitutional one. Awhile back, in the best social circles of America, he was quite a drawing-room success."
"Perhaps he is still in America?"
"No. He left there about six months ago and landed from the Berengaria at Cherbourg. We traced him to Paris and Genoa. Then he vanished."
"You think he would avoid this country?"
"There's no reason why he should. There's nothing against him that we could really act on."
"But you would know of his arrival?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Others have slipped in."
"And, of course, you can't be everywhere?"
"Are you never going to be serious?"
"But I am—most serious in my intention to run down and take a squint at Edna."
He looked as though about to consign Edna to eternal perdition, but thinking this might not meet with my approval slapped me on the shoulder, grinned in that most exasperating way of his, and said he'd let me know as soon as anything turned up.
"It seems to me," I ventured, "that Benabbas is almost as important as Sir Julius?"
"If not more so."
He marched off grinning complacently, much to my annoyance; for that grin said as plainly as a grin could, "I've got you, my boy. You may wriggle and twist and squirm, deny me as your namesake did One of old, but you're with me in this, and you know it." And I'm rather afraid he was right. In spite of myself I felt my interest grow in Abu Benabbas. There was something about that mysterious denizen of the desert which held a peculiar attraction. Perhaps it was on account of the grim potentiality in him, perhaps of his elusiveness. I found myself wondering where he was, and the exact nature of the game he thought he was playing.
Of undercurrents in Palestine there were many rumours, the truth of which could only be known to the men on the spot, who would probably be chary of forwarding them to headquarters, facts and not rumours being what was required. Moreover, the Home Authorities had a pernicious habit of ignoring the man on the spot, which was not always conducive to good service. Ministers never seemed to realise this till they were out of office. Then those who had supplanted them heard all about it.
Just how a man might be expected to deal with rumours I could not say, but it seemed to me that George's rumours and his fears merited a little attention. Accordingly I began seriously to grapple with them, though telling myself I was not particularly interested. In all this Abu Benabbas loomed large. True, he might be a stirrer-up of revolt in Trans-Jordania, but how could that connect him with the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin? George Mayford seemed to think there was a connection, though he could not satisfactorily explain it. On the face of it, was there likely to be? How could a wandering Arab, an enemy in religion and politics, affect the destiny of the great City magnate?
All the same, I feared that visit to Edna would not immediately materialise. But I would send her a present and tell her I was employed on a most important mission; which, of course, she would believe, being under the impression that I was most necessary to the welfare of the State. So, having cleared my mind on that point, I set a pipe going and tried to concentrate on the more important matter of what was taking place, and what might take place, in the mandated territory. I saw slipping through our hands the land that had cost our fellows so much to win; I saw our rivals waiting to pounce on that which we had abandoned; I saw the desert warriors sweeping like a cyclone over their enemy, laying the land in ruins; I saw Abu Benabbas large and terrible in his might, and Sir Julius Ashlin fleeing before him with white lips and frightened eyes. But I could not see the two connect, and in this I suffered much frustration of spirit.
Then Albert came into the room, an apology on his lips. Having reached a dead-end I was rather glad of the interruption.
"About your visit to Miss Edna, sir? I suppose we go by car?"
"We're not going, Albert."
"No, sir. Perhaps a little farther afield?" suggested the sly fellow.
"This time no farther than Belgrave Square. Find Sir Julius Ashlin's number." This he did. "Ever heard of Sir Julius Ashlin?"
"He's very rich."
"Anything else discreditable?"
"Very little, except that he was mixed up in the Sovonin Scandal."
"I've forgotten it."
"Inside information, sir; Government tip. They say he cleaned up a cool million."
"I remember now. Albert, you have a wonderful memory."
"For everything that don't do me no good, sir."
Of course he was mixed up in that Sovonin Scandal, and a few other distinguished persons with him. But the blame was not so much with him as with those who had supplied what Albert called "inside information"—and incidentally shared the plunder. No, I couldn't condemn Sir Julius on that account. Patriotism would need be very ardent to deny the call of the purse, and a clear million was not picked up every day even by eminent financiers.
"What else do you know about him?"
"Only what I've seen in the papers, sir. He seems to be one of the leaders of the Zionist Movement."
"Do you approve of it?"
"Well, sir, if it was for that, I don't think any of our chaps knew what they was fighting for. Might just as well have let the Turks carry on."
He stood watching me, knowing quite well that something unusual was stirring. Seeing my pipe had gone out he advanced with a light. I looked up at him and nodded my thanks. Then I told him that Sir Julius was missing, and that no one knew what had become of him. Readily he grasped the situation.
"I suppose we've got to find him, sir?"
"Something like that."
"When do we start?"
"I mean for abroad?"
"I don't know. Perhaps not at all. Mr. Mayford—"
"I guessed there was something in the wind."
"Henceforth there may be certain persons who will take an uncommon interest in us. You understand?"
"Perfectly, sir. Pity Mr. Wally isn't in England. He'd like to be in on it."
I agreed; but heaven only knows where he was at that moment. Perhaps shooting in the Rockies or fishing in Kentucky, or sailing that yacht of his in the South Seas. A born nomad, he was not likely to rest long in any place. But when given a job that interested him he clung to it with bull-dog tenacity. Moreover, he was worth his place in any show if it was only for his invariable cheeriness, and I believe that had he been born in the direst poverty he would have found much in his unhappy condition to tickle his sense of the ridiculous. If this business should eventually resolve itself into a journey abroad, I should regret still more having to undertake it without him. With him on one side of me and Albert on the other I would have faced confidently any adventure. Both were men of great courage and resource, as had been proved over and over again, and if the one had certain advantages not possessed by the other, our sense of comradeship made light of the distinction. He was as fond of Albert Floyd as I was, and had openly bribed him to enter his service. He used to say, "I'll steal that guy from you, Pete, as sure as my name's John C. Wallington." But Albert laughed and turned a deaf ear to the charmer, and Wally knew he would have to wait until I had gone West.
So I rang up Belgrave Square and asked for Lady Nathling, such being the name of Sir Julius's widowed daughter, and, after not a little questioning concerning my credentials, was informed by a shrill feminine voice that Lady Nathling was not at home. Explaining that I wished to see her on a very important matter, I suggested that the following message might be conveyed to her ladyship: namely, that unless I heard to the contrary I would call at eleven o'clock on the following morning.
As no message came through I duly presented myself at the door, and upon giving my name was shown into a room on the left of the hall. It was a large room, handsome and heavy, with a large window which looked out on to the Square. Here, a few moments later, I was joined by a middle-aged woman with a sharp bony nose and a keen pair of eyes, who looked at me through horn-rimmed pince-nez.
"Mr. Gantian?" she queried.
"No. I am Lady Nathling's secretary. Her ladyship will see you in a minute or two."
She continued to look at me without speaking. Then suddenly her lips moved, but no word came from them. Second thoughts evidently suggested discretion. Without further word she turned and left me.
Lady Nathling did not keep me waiting long. She was a tall, handsome woman with a splendid figure and a fine head well set on splendid shoulders. Her eyes were dark and languorous, her mouth rather fascinating, her complexion well preserved. But the nose was rather prominent. It labelled her beyond the shadow of a doubt. She was probably about my own age.
She came forward with a smile and held out her hand, a warm hand with a genuine pressure in it. Yet there was surprise on her face, too. I don't know what she expected, but whatever it was she evidently failed to find it. A delicious perfume emanated from her person.
"I'm glad you've come," she said, after indicating a chair. "This suspense is becoming unendurable. Have you any news of my father?"
"I regret to say none whatever."
"But isn't it terrible that such a thing should happen in a country like this?"
I admitted sadly that it was, and added a few words about the difficulty of making preparations to meet unforeseen contingencies. Then I asked her plainly if she thought Sir Julius might not have been a party to his own disappearance. This surprised her, as I thought it would. She stared at me incredulously. My fall in her estimation was great and immediate.
"I am at a loss to know what you mean," she said. But if I might judge from her cold manner of saying it she meant a good deal more than this. It was clearly evident to her that I sadly lacked both tact and imagination.
"Men have been known to disappear for various reasons."
"There was no reason why my father should do such a foolish thing."
"As far as you know," I suggested.
"Had there been I should have known it." The atmosphere grew suddenly tense and chill.
"Then that disposes of the theory of self-effacement."
"A man in his position would naturally have enemies?" I ventured.
"Why 'naturally'? He never harmed anyone in his life."
"He was very successful."
"Is that a crime?"
"In the eyes of many who are unsuccessful. You will pardon me, Lady Nathling, but as I am selected for the investigation of this case I must go into every detail that may have a possible bearing on it."
"I understand perfectly. Please put any questions you choose."
"Suppose, then, we put aside for the moment any financial or personal motive, what of politics? Sir Julius was known actively to support the Zionist Movement in Palestine. That would provoke opposition in a certain quarter, if not personal enmity. Sir Julius was a large contributor to the funds?"
"You are not questioning his right to do what he liked with his own?" she asked sharply, her manner stiffening once more.
"Decidedly not—in a way."
"In a way," she echoed contemptuously, her languorous eyes suddenly leaping to life. "I don't think I follow you, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Gantian," I informed her. "You see, Lady Nathling, money is not entirely without its obligations to the public peace. What if its exploitation were to cause unrest?"
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind trying to be a little more explicit."
"This trouble in Palestine . . ."
"Is due, you think, to my father's interest?"
"May it not be contributory; may it not even be the cause of personal enmity? Are you prepared to admit there may be personal enmity?"
She was now looking at me in a new way. The angry flame failed out of her eyes. She dropped her heavy lids over them. Her brows knitted in perplexity. For the first time she seemed uncertain of herself.
"Yes," she said in a low voice.
"To your knowledge, has he ever been threatened?"
"He has often been abused."
"But never personally threatened?"
"Not that I know of."
But it was a half-hearted denial. I saw indecision in her eyes, caught it in the tone of her voice.
"You quite realise that if I am to be of service I must know everything that is to be known. You are quite sure that you are withholding no information?" Again she hesitated. "Unless you are going to trust me entirely I'm afraid I can be of no further service to you."
"I never said I didn't trust you. I do. But—"
Again her brows came together; her lids lowered and she peered at me through her lashes. The mouth, too, was working a little tremulously. Then she said, "I'm afraid."
"Please wait a minute."
She rose suddenly and left the room and the sweet smell of scent behind her. I sat back wondering what this move meant. Clearly she had been hiding something from me after all. What it was I should probably know very soon. Meanwhile I must admit that interest was deepening. That indifference with which I had endeavoured to clothe myself was now an ill-fitting garment, and threadbare at that. The wind blew through it, the rain drenched it. Quite willingly I took it off and cast it from me.
She returned inside of five minutes. I noticed how carefully she closed the door. In her hand was a slip of paper. This she held out to me.
"Read it," she said.
It was a sheet of ordinary notepaper, but on it was typed the following words:
"Your father has gone on a journey, but you need have no fear for his personal safety. He is with friends who will take the greatest care of him—while you remain silent."
The last four words were heavily underlined. There was neither signature, initial, nor date.
Examining the missive closely I found nothing to occasion surprise. I held it up to the light, but the spaces between the lines were quite clear, and I didn't know enough about typewriters to guess what make of machine had been used. The only thing I noticed was that the a's and l's were slightly out of alignment, the former being below, the latter above the line.
Looking up at her I met an eager, anxious glance.
"What do you make of it?" she asked.
"Little, I'm afraid, but what it says. There may, however, be a possibility in it," I added by way of consolation. "When did you receive it?"
"The morning after my father disappeared. He did not come home on the Friday night, which worried me greatly. We had arranged to spend the week-end at our country place."
I saw she was holding another paper in her other hand.
"Is that the envelope it came in?"
The postmark showed that it had been posted in the S.W. district at 9.15 p.m. This would ensure the letter reaching its destination on the following morning, and not before.
"It enjoins silence," I said.
"What was I to do?" she asked despairingly. "You think I was wrong in going to the authorities?"
"In not going sooner."
"So Mr. Goldberg thought. He is my father's secretary," she explained. I nodded. "He said I ought to have communicated with the police at once, but I was afraid to speak."
"Do the authorities know of this letter?"
"No. No one knows of it but Mr. Goldberg."
"Did he offer any advice on it?"
"He thought it might be better to keep its existence secret."
"Then you, Mr. Goldberg and I, are the only persons who have seen it?"
"Where do your father's friends think he is?"
"Abroad. I thought it best to give that explanation." Then, doubtfully, "One may trust the police in these matters?"
"What do you make of it, Mr. Gantian? Do you think they have murdered my father?"
"No; rest assured of that."
"But if they should know I have ignored their warning of silence?"
"How should they? Who is to tell them?"
The situation, though heavily clouded, was not without a ray or two of light. Nor was that warning of silence utterly void of meaning. I was convinced that Sir Julius was still in the land of the living, and that he would remain alive—while he could be of service! There were great possibilities in a live millionaire, but none at all in a dead one. I rose to go.
"Thank you very much for your confidence, Lady Nathling."
"But what are you going to do, what do you think of it all? This suspense is becoming unbearable. Anxiety is driving me mad."
"I quite appreciate, but I think you need have no fear about your father's safety. His value as a hostage will protect him from any serious injury. This may be merely a question of money after all."
"Of a rich man being held to ransom."
"But he—we—will pay anything. Only find him for me, Mr. Gantian."
"Trust me to do my best."
"Thank you ever so much. When may I expect to hear from you?"
"As soon as I have anything important to communicate. In the meantime, I shouldn't ignore that warning if I were you. If anything comes along you will find my number in the directory. If I'm not in you may give my man the message. He is to be trusted."
I'm afraid I spoke here without thinking. I saw her eyes open at the mention of "my man." It probably struck her as odd that a detective should possess a "man." For of course I had hitherto been nothing but a detective to her. She smiled rather curiously, rather enigmatically, and probably came to the conclusion that we are all given to pretence at times—even a policeman.
BUT though, chiefly to allay Lady Nathling's fears, I might have appeared not unduly impressed by the situation, I did in fact regard it with the utmost seriousness. To me the whole matter resolved itself into one of money. Sir Julius, being an extremely rich man, was clearly held to ransom, but whether by political or social bandits one could do no more than conjecture. That he would be seriously injured while there was a chance of wringing big money out of him I did not for a moment believe. But what if he were a hard, obstinate old man to whom his money was as precious as his life? I had been hearing a little of him lately, and from what I had gathered he had not been over-scrupulous in amassing fortune. Not that he had outraged the law, or carried on business in any but the most legal and lawful manner; but there are ways of legally carrying on a business which do not appeal to the plain man, and this notwithstanding the approval of lawyers.
The more I thought of it the less I was able to connect the affair with politics. To me it looked more like the work of a gang of professional blackmailers. Sir Julius may have had some bitter enemies. It was doubtful if a man who had risen from being a poor immigrant from Germany to a title and millions could have a perfectly clean sheet. Many must have been sacrificed to this financial Moloch. There would be those who hated him as well as those who feared him.
On the other hand, it might have been a kidnapping scheme pure and simple, and when the old man was ready to pay up he would be returned safe and sound to the bosom of his family. It was all a question of his mood or temperament, or how dearly he clung to his shekels. Not knowing him or his personal idiosyncrasies I could merely conjecture as to his behaviour. That he would be furious might be taken for granted, but would he allow his fury to jeopardise his life?
I must confess that I was reluctant to abandon the political connection. It had promised an interest out of the common, something far removed from the sordid plotting of a flock of jailbirds. But it looked as though this might prove the true solution. In these days the criminal expert was abroad in the land, and Sir Julius offered a rich prize to the adventurous. Confirmation of this theory was impressed on me by that warning of silence. Naturally the perpetrators of the outrage would wish for silence, which, if they could command, would help to further their purpose. On the other hand, if this injunction were disobeyed it might not prove disastrous, except to their victim. And after all, if Sir Julius valued his life it might be no great sacrifice to pay for it.
But what had become of the chauffeur? I noticed that Lady Nathling had omitted all reference to him. Probably chauffeurs were no great shakes in the estimation of millionaires. All the same, his disappearance was the cause of much speculation. There might even be great possibilities in him. His antecedents, and especially the conditions under which he lived and worked, might prove exceedingly instructive.
I rang up George Mayford as soon as I returned to Cork Street and told him of my interview with Lady Nathling. But I said nothing about the typed warning she had received, being still in doubt as to whether there was anything to be gained in letting him know. He could add nothing of consequence to the information already in my possession, and he might have thought it his duty to mention the matter to his superiors, who quite possibly would have added complications to a very complicated issue.
"And the result of it all?" he asked.
"I doubt if there's anything political in it."
"Don't you?" This somewhat unpleasantly. I ignored the tone, knowing he had Jews and Arabs on the brain.
"It looks like a case of Sir Julius being merely held to ransom. When the old boy is ready to stump up he will be set free."
"You think so?" Again that nasty intonation.
"With Benabbas in London?"
"You are sure of this?"
"When did he arrive?"
"We don't know, but at the present moment he's staying at the Savoy."
"No, quite openly."
"You think he has been long in London?"
"Sure he hasn't been, but I don't know how long he has been in England. It would be funny, wouldn't it?" he added with an unpleasant chuckle.
"What, you nasty fellow?"
"You don't follow me? Well, think it over. The gentleman from Trans-Jordania is in London Town—may have been in England for some time—and a certain eminent person not unknown on both sides of the Jordan is missing. Fill your pipe with that, Leathermouth, and pull hard."
It would need a bit of pulling. Abu Benabbas in London! I suddenly experienced a strong desire to meet Mr. Benabbas. A man whose actions were closely observed by the Governments of two countries was a little out of the ruck, even though he might have had no hand in the mystery of the missing financier. Of course, I might call on him officially, or I might hang about the hotel in the hope of scraping up an acquaintance. But neither of these suggestions made a particular appeal. There were many obstacles to success in both, far too many. If he were what certain people believed him to be, one might as well attempt to extract its secret from the Sphinx.
The more pertinent business in hand, or so it seemed to me, was to discover the whereabouts of the missing one; and as there was not the shred of a clue to work on, and I saw no hope of discovering one, I was perfectly willing to admit failure and chuck up the whole business. After all, I was not in the least interested in Sir Julius Ashlin personally, and as the finding of him was a police job, why not let them get on with it? Much better if I had run down and had a squint at Edna. Confound George Mayford. Why couldn't he leave me alone?
Determined to wipe my mind clean of the whole business and let George and his myrmidons ferret it out as best they could, I dined at the club that night with three of my old cronies, Colonel Blake-Morrison, Sir Edward Gateside, and Tom Chancellor. Blake-Morrison was rather red and heavy; Gateside, a good sort, but thin and inclined to melancholy. Tom Chancellor, however, was an unholy joy, especially when he carried one over the eight. Nothing or nobody was sacred to him. He was a barrister by profession, and to hear him tell tales in the smoking-room one would never imagine what a rigid moralist he was in the Divorce Division. There he rose to supernal heights. Woe, unutterable woe, to the erring sister or brother who came under the lash of his righteousness. Especially the erring sister; he had a weakness for her. To hear him hold forth on the glory and dignity of womanhood was better than any sermon. The erring sister usually melted to tears, and took many sacred vows that never again . . . The public, especially the female part of it, sniffed in their handkerchiefs; his lordship, yellow and wrinkled and lean of jaw, sat immobile as a joss image; senior counsel admired, junior counsel sniggered inwardly. Tom on the warpath, scalping sinners, was terrible as a god in anger.
At table the talk turned on Palestine, the incident at the Wailing Wall still being a subject of eager discussion. Blake-Morrison was all for using the military with no discriminate hand; Gateside declared that the whole silly business was a wilful squandering of public money; while Chancellor, as became a lawyer, was emphatic that we ought to seize the malcontents on both sides, give them the semblance of a trial to placate the home sentimentalists, and hang them all out of hand. This sentiment met with Blake-Morrison's full approval; but Gateside, who was a corker for finding obstacles, said there were lions in the path. Tom sniffed contemptuously. Then he turned to me.
"You ought to know something about the country, Peter. You were there with Allenby."
"Very complicated," I ventured modestly.
"Not at all," he declared. "All we want is a strong man."
"Exactly, and where are you going to find him?" Blake-Morrison snapped. "What did we win the war for?" He positively hurled the question at the lugubrious Gateside. "Can any of you fellows tell me?" He glared from one to the other, and though he didn't actually say the country was going to the dogs he looked as though he would like to.
"To put Germany on her feet again," Gateside replied in a hollow tone. "I thought every infant in arms knew that."
"Looks very like it," Chancellor assented. "And now there's this trouble in Palestine, not to mention Egypt and India, and a few other oddments. I don't know what the Government's thinking about."
"Nobody does." Blake-Morrison cut in.
"Nothing," said Gateside laconically.
"Never do," sneered the exasperated warrior. Tom Chancellor blew out his cheeks. We watched him in fear and trembling. It was a habit of his preparatory to laying down the law.
"I was dining at the Savoy last night," he began, "and who do you think I saw there, large as life?"
"Charlie Chaplin," ventured Ned Gateside.
"Pola Negri," murmured Blake-Morrison. His fancy ran on flowers of passion.
"Abu Benabbas," said Tom. At this I cocked my ears.
"Who's he?" asked Ned, but without the faintest interest. The bubbles in the glass which he held up to the light were apparently of more importance.
"You'll know all about him one of these days unless I'm much mistaken. Why the authorities don't nab him quick I can't understand. That chap's here for no good purpose, take it from me."
"We impose a limit on our obligations," gurgled Blake-Morrison.
"Never heard of him," said Ned.
"But I have. Met a man the other day who's home on leave from Palestine. Told me all about him. That chap's a stirrer-up of trouble. He's a sheik, or an emir, or some damned thing or other. Sort of holy man among the tribes. One of Mahomet's numerous descendants. Ever heard of him, Peter?"
"Now you mention it I rather think I have. But if he's what you say you may be sure the authorities are keeping an eye on him."
"Never know what this Government's up to," he growled.
"It's a rotten Government," Blake-Morrison asserted. Gateside agreed. Chancellor, being in no mood to dispute the point, drank deep.
"What's he like, Tom?" I asked.
"Rather a good-looking blighter," he admitted grudgingly, "or I suppose women would think so."
"Never know what a woman'll think," growled Blake-Morrison. Ned Gateside once more agreed. Both had experienced the sting of disappointment.
"Very native-looking?" I asked, blandly gazing at the piece of chicken on the end of my fork.
"Not particularly. Might come anywhere from the South of Europe. Handsome woman with him, too. Blonde."
"Ought to be ashamed of herself," growled Blake-Morrison, who had spent some years in India, and who positively seethed with race prejudice. It was an unfortunate remark of Tom's, for it set him astride his hobby. While he whipped and spurred we ate solemnly. Gateside looked at me and winked, then dismally resigned himself to fate.
So Abu Benabbas was not hiding himself. But it was rather singular that he should suddenly appear in all his glory, having dropped, as it were, from the clouds. What did George Mayford and his satellites really think of it? It must have annoyed them intensely to know that Benabbas could come and go at leisure. To a man like Tom Chancellor it was naturally inexplicable that authority did not exercise a stricter surveillance on the actions of this stormy petrel. He was not to know that the apparent slumberer was blinking through one eye.
Once more my purpose wavered, and that visit to Edna was as far off as ever. Again Benabbas was filling the scene. Sheik or emir, and a descendant of the prophet Mahomet! It all promised to be extremely interesting. And his companion, the handsome blonde! I found myself wondering who she could be. A woman in the case always lent additional interest. I had found that woman complicates the simplest problem. There was a subtlety in her, a genius for twisting, which left a plain man gasping. And yet her presence almost invariably meant disaster to the very man she was out to shield. Many a rogue would have escaped detection but for knowledge of his female friend. Find one and the other was never far off.
This did not mean that I was placing Benabbas in the category of criminals. He was something very much beyond this. His crime, or projected crime (if it could be called such), was not against the individual, but a State! Even complicity in the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin did not warrant the assumption of criminal tendencies in him. There might be, probably was, a patriotic motive in it, which however culpable from one point of view was clearly praiseworthy from the other.
It will be seen from this that I was coming round to George Mayford's way of thinking, though I still obstinately endeavoured to pursue a different course. But Benabbas persisted in obtruding on my thoughts, he and his handsome blonde. I believe the woman interested me as much as the man. I caught myself weaving all sorts of fantasies about her. Who was she, where did she come from, and in what way was she connected with the Arab?
When I awoke next morning I was convinced of the necessity of cultivating Mr. Benabbas's acquaintance. How this was to be brought about I hadn't the faintest idea, but I thought if I made a habit of dining at the Savoy I might drop across some friend who could manage an introduction. Meanwhile the quest for Sir Julius needn't wait, though I must admit it seemed a pretty hopeless one.
Anyway, I would go for a walk and try to think out some plan. Accordingly, as it was a fine morning, I strolled along Piccadilly to the Park, entering which I walked along by the Serpentine to the magazine, crossed the bridge and re-entered the Park opposite Kensington Gardens. As there appeared to be a fair number of riders in the Row I gravitated towards them, and walked quietly along beside the rail, conscious only of the patter of passing hoofs. This continued for a hundred yards or more. Then suddenly someone called out, "Hi, you!" Not dreaming that I could be meant I plodded on. "I said, you!" came the voice again, now a little nearer. Pausing I looked round. There was a man on horseback grinning at me, and a young woman was by his side.
"Wally!" I cried. Our hands met over the rail. He was grinning for all he was worth, the handsome devil. "Boy, I thought you were in the U.S."
"So I was for a while."
"When did you come over?"
"A week ago."
"Why didn't you look me up?"
"I strolled round to the old diggings right away, but they told me you'd vamosed, pronto."
"My time was up. I'm in Cork Street now." Seeing my glance wander to the girl by his side he suddenly seemed to remember her existence.
"Pete," he said, "meet my sister Julia." And then turning to her, "Jule, this is the darnedest old dromedary that ever padded the sands of the desert."
She smiled at this unconventional introduction. I thought her very like him, in spite of the fact that he was dark and she was fair.
"I believe dromedaries are sometimes given a name," she said.
"This one happens to be called Peter Gantian." Her eyes widened. Evidently she had heard of me. I began to fear.
"Yes, sister, the real Simon Pure himself."
"My!" she said, looking at me with renewed interest. How indiscreet had Wally been?
"Has he given me a very bad character?"
"Awful," she said. "You must be a nice pair of boys."
"We are," her brother grinned.
"Of course you didn't believe—"
"Not a word he says. Will that do?"
"For the present."
Wally slipped off his horse and leant against the rail. Once more our hands met. His eyes were shining,
"This is great," he said. "Old Leathermouth."
Alarmed, I looked at Miss Wallington. She was smiling.
"I know all about it," she said.
"I'll punch his head for this."
"It would do him a world of good."
"And to think I should drop across you like this," he was saying. "I was just scared to death thinking you might have quitted for Timbuctoo or Tibet."
"Not on your life, Jawn," I drawled. "I guess it's me for the doldrums and a quiet life."
"Listen, sister. Couldn't you close your eyes and fancy that a good American was speaking?"
"Do you two always go on like this?" she asked.
"We go on," said her brother; "we just go on." Then he looked at his wrist watch. "Come along and have a bit of grub. We're stopping just across the way at that new shack on Grosvenor Street. Sister's staying with me," he grinned. "Thought she ought to come along and play the mother."
"About time somebody looked after him, Mr. Gantian. He certainly is not fit to be let out alone."
"I always thought he needed a chaperon."
"If there's any truth in rumour," she replied, "there doesn't seem much to choose between you."
"I guess she's right, Pete. If ever a baby wanted a nurse. . . . Sister, I've told you; this man is hopeless. Go where you will you'll never meet his equal. But let us get along."
He led his horse, he walking on one side of the rail, I on the other. Miss Wallington astride, walked her horse beside us. A little beyond the statue he beckoned to a man who came forward touching his cap. Miss Wallington dismounting, the horses were led away. She looked very fetching in her riding costume, and probably was conscious of it. Wally slipped his arm through mine.
"This is great," he said; "this is just great." And then in a lower voice. "Anything in the wind, pard?"
"Hear that, sister? This is the man for trouble. If it's anywhere about you can plank your last dollar on his finding it."
"My," she said, "I hope you're not going on any more wild-goose chases?"
"My wild-goose chases are over," I assured her. "All I want now is a quiet life and oblivion. John knows that."
"I sure do." he grinned.
They occupied a handsome suite on the third floor of that "new shack on Grosvenor Street." Wally lowered me into an easy chair, presented a cigar box, and said to his sister, "Shake us up something, Jule, there's a dear." Then he turned to me with a smile. "That girl is sure the slickest shaker of cocktails on Manhattan."
"Don't you believe a word of it, Mr. Gantian," she protested.
Yet I must confess that she shook up a most seductive concoction, which we sampled in record time, with no grievous results.
"Albert still with you?" he asked.
"I've given you fair warning, Peter; I'll have him yet. Sister, you must meet Albert. He's sure the goods."
"I'm most anxious to," she said. "His fame has been carried across the Atlantic, Mr. Gantian."
"Windbag," she laughed as she ran from the room.
"Julia's a sport," he said. "The only trouble with her is that she thinks I need a nurse."
"I agree with her."
"You would. Anyway, let me hear the news. What's doing?"
"Let's hear it."
I told him of the missing baronet, and of George Mayford's request that I should see what I could do about it, while assuring him that my interest in the affair was lukewarm. But before we could proceed further in the matter Miss Wallington re-appeared. She had changed her riding costume for feminine attire, and looked all the better for the change. Then we gravitated to the restaurant for lunch, and when I eventually left them it was with the promise that I would return for dinner, and afterwards accompany them to the theatre.
As I dressed I told Albert that Mr. Wallington had arrived in London. His face brightened. Mr. Wallington in London meant that things might happen.
"He made tender inquiries after you, Albert."
"Thank you, sir. Is he by any chance going abroad?"
Artful this, but I put a damper on it.
"I don't think so. He seems as eager for the quiet life as we are."
"Yes, sir. Nothing like a quiet life."
Miss Wallington looked very lovely that night. I won't pretend to describe her costume. It would need the pen of the fashion editor of a ladies' magazine to do that. I only know it was creamy and shimmering and suited her to perfection. I think Edna would have admired her. Poor little Edna down in her country house with old Lizzie, and Charlotte, and Fred the gardener! It was too bad. I would bring her up to town and give her a fortnight's whirl around.
After dinner we set out for the theatre. The entertainment chosen was one of those singing and dancing pieces of which the public never seem to tire.
We were rather late in arriving, the first act being about half-way through, not that it mattered much in the circumstances. There would be plenty of what we had missed coming along later. But when the curtain fell and the house lights went up something speedily happened which was to make that visit to the theatre memorable.
We occupied a stage box (Wally always would get near the girls), and were consequently most conspicuous, and presently I saw Miss Wallington smile and bow to someone in the stalls. Following the direction of her gaze I saw a handsome dark man return the bow and the smile.
"Look, John," she whispered, "there's Benabbas."
"So it is," he answered. Then he too bowed and smiled.
Benabbas! And they knew him! I frankly admit to a sudden thrill.
Watching Mr. Benabbas, I saw him say something to the woman at his side, a distinguished looking blonde, by the way. He rose and came towards our box. Miss Wallington held out her hand. He kissed it most gallantly before the whole house.
"This is a delightful surprise," he said. "I did not know you were in England." Though he spoke with little or no accent, there was at the same time a throaty intonation in his voice which was not quite English.
"Just come over," she said. "And you, have you been here long?"
"Not very long. Unfortunately my affairs are such that I never know where they are likely to lead me."
"Still propaganding?" John asked with a smile.
"One's patriotic duty, Mr. Wallington."
"Sure. Meet Colonel Gantian."
Benabbas acknowledged the introduction with a gracious inclination of the head, and with that his interest in me ceased. He apparently found Miss Wallington more attractive.
Now there had always been a sign between Wally and me, used as a warning, an intimation to be on the alert, proximity of danger, or danger itself. We called it the Sign of the Glove. Whenever either of us displayed a glove in doubtful company it had only one meaning, which might have been translated in the vernacular: Watch your step. As a consequence we always carried a pair with us in preparation for the unforeseen contingency. And now, while Benabbas continued to gaze soulfully into Miss Wallington's eyes, I extracted a pair from the tail of my coat, flicked my chin with the fingers, and gently nudged Wally. His eyes widened. An almost imperceptible glance in the direction of Benabbas was quite enough for him.
"I'm sure glad to have seen you again, Mr. Benabbas," he drawled. (When he thought it necessary he would assume the most pronounced American idiom and accent.) "And I guess little sister here is one with me. If you can spare the time we shall be sure glad to have you look us up."
"I shall be delighted," said Mr. Benabbas.
"Then that's O.K," said John. "How shall we find you?"
"Savoy Hotel," Benabbas informed him. Bowing graciously he returned to his seat. Leaning back in the box, Miss Wallington looked at her brother.
"What's the idea, John?"
"Guess we must show a little hospitality to the poor stranger."
"You're quite impossible."
"Past all hope," he said.
"But I don't want to entertain him." She was most decisive in this.
"No, sister, but I do. He was a big noise in New York."
"We're not in New York now."
Then, fortunately, the curtain went up. She sat very stiff and still, and was evidently not a little annoyed, which annoyance, curiously enough, I viewed with peculiar satisfaction. But, returning in the car, he slipped his arm through hers and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh and repeat once more that he was quite impossible.
"Peter's coming up for a night-cap," he informed her as we entered the lift.
"Not too many of them, John. You'll see to that, won't you, Colonel Gantian?"
"I'll be a mother to him, Miss Wallington."
"I think a keeper would be better."
In due course we found ourselves alone, Miss Wallington retiring to her room with the sisterly-motherly admonition that we were not to stay up too late. Then Wally turned to me with an eager, questioning look.
"The sign, Peter!"
"I'm interested in Mr. Benabbas."
"So I guessed."
"Boy, you were mighty quick on the uptake."
"I did right, then?"
"You're a genius."
Then I told him what I knew of Benabbas and his interests, and how he happened to be the one man I was just then most anxious to meet.
"As you guess, we met him over in New York," he explained. "Julia goes to all that sort of stuff. Women seem to like those interesting aliens, whether they fiddle, paint pictures, play the piano, or yap about the wrongs of their blighted country. Bunk, of course, but it goes down with lots of our people, especially when the attack is on England. But, thank God, all that morally matters in America is still done by the Anglo-Saxon, and I guess he means to keep a tight hold on his job."
We then went further into the matter of Benabbas and his activities in the social and political world, but as most of our information regarding him was, to say the least of it, extremely meagre, we fell back upon conjecture, of which there was a fair abundance. Wally was prepared to believe that most of that conjecture was true. Anyway, the situation was one which offered occasion for the sharpening of wits and the possibilities of adventure and intrigue. Of a sudden his interest in Palestine increased a thousand-fold. It might mean a journey as far as Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan.
"And to think I let slip the opportunity of cultivating him. Why, son, I might have given you first aid. I wonder if Julia knows anything? I guess not much, but I don't see why ..."
"No women in this, Wally; above all, not your sister. We'll see what we can make out of Mr. Benabbas on closer inspection."
Early the next morning he came round to my place in Cork Street, having let me know along the line of his intended visit. As Albert opened the door to him I heard his cheery greeting of that worthy.
"Say, Albert, it's real good to see you again. You're looking O.K."
"Thank you, sir, I'm doing very nicely," said Albert. "And you, sir?"
"Good for another trip through . ." Here his voice trailed away.
"Ah, sir," Albert replied, non-committal as ever. Then he appeared and announced, "Mr. Wallington."
"Like old times, isn't it," said Mr. Wallington; "the three of us together again. Are you still satisfied with the boss, Albert?"
"Quite, sir, thank you."
"Because if you're not you know where to find another?"
"Yes, sir, thank you."
"I don't think that 'thank you' of yours looks too good, Albert."
Wally laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. A slow smile spread over Albert's face. I saw his eyes light up with sudden pride. Wally had said "The three of us together again." It was worth as much to me as to Albert, and that's saying a good deal.
He was in the midst of telling me how he had brought his sister round to the idea of entertaining Benabbas when George Mayford rang up.
"Hullo, hullo!" he cried impatiently.
"That you, darling?"
"So you're awake?"
"Partly, but it won't take much of you to send me off again."
"Humph!" he grunted. "Well, why don't you come round?"
"Same thing. Dining with Benabbas."
"What!" he fairly screamed.
"My nerves, George."
"To-morrow night. He's a most charming fellow. Shall I pass on your compliments?"
"I say, old chap ..."
"Spare the bouquets. I've got a blamed Yank here with me. Like to say how de do?"
"Who is he?"
"John Christopher Wallington, of New York City, U.S.A."
"Good lord, that hobo turned up again!"
"And hopeless as ever. But be kind to him. He means well."
I handed Wally the receiver.
"That you, George?" he drawled. "No. . . Guess I just hopped across to have a look at Peter. Kinda keeper, George, that's what I am. The young man seems to be runnin' a bit loose. No, I guess not. There's not much doing with him when he shuts that mouth of his tight. Yes, that's so, but somehow he don't seem to like the name. You're right. He can be darned unpleasant. I wonder he's got a friend in the world. Say, my regards to the wife. Glad to hear that, George. You always were a lucky chap. And, before I forget it, I've brought that baby sister of mine over with me. That is, I mean she brought me over with her, and keeps me sealed in her pocket. I guess you're right, but I'm still hoping that the Almighty hasn't quite given me up for a bad job. See here, I want them to meet. Perhaps you'll both come along one night? That's good. Julia—that's the baby sister—knows all about you. Well, no, not all. I guess it don't do to put the women too wise. Then that's fixed. So long, old man. All of the best."
He hung up the receiver. "George as red as ever?" he grinned.
"I wonder how his missis likes it?"
"Women are most adaptable."
"What do you know about them?"
"Not much, in comparison with you. Blessing your sister has come across. I'm hopeful."
"Probably more than she is."
We then fell to discussing the possibilities that lay in Benabbas, and Wally once more expressed his regret at having failed to cultivate him when he had the chance. But he resented the marked attention Mr. Benabbas had shown his sister, and was hot on that kissing of her hand in public. He referred to the descendant of the Prophet as a "blamed dago," and expatiated with true American vigour on all gentlemen of colour. Julia, it seems, had needed some persuasion before she would consent to entertain Mr. Benabbas, but after her brother had convinced her that certain great events might hang on it she capitulated.
"I told her," he said, "that a certain movement was afoot that might have far-reaching consequences; that you were in on it, that I was in with you, and that I expected her to play her part in the little comedy. Well, she's a good girl, and she'd just hate to go against her little brother, though she's scared to death at the thought of our going abroad again. I convinced her that the play was being staged in London, and that seemed to satisfy her. I repeat 'seemed'. The worst of it is she's always doubting my good intentions, and always will till I settle down and take a wife. You can see me doing that, can't you?"
As a matter of fact I couldn't. Not that I believed he would fail to succumb if the right girl came along. The difficulty for him was to find the right girl. Those dollars of his would always come between her and his decision. Women had been too nice to him. He didn't blame them. A girl has her way to make in the world. The trouble was that he could never be sure that the dollar wasn't the attraction.
Probably his sister suffered a like fate. How such a handsome girl had evaded matrimony, even with her dollars, was something of an enigma. In this, he once explained, they were curiously alike. She just didn't worry about marriage. No doubt one day she'd fall for some guy, but so far he hadn't happened to come along. Meanwhile she had made up her mind that her present duty in life was to look after him. How she expected to succeed in such an adventure I couldn't even imagine.
The dinner to Mr. Benabbas was scarcely productive of the success anticipated. Julia was a charming hostess, Wally a most agreeable host. The food and wine were of the best. It had been decided that no reference should be made to my military experiences, so that to the man from beyond the Jordan I was merely a nondescript of no significance. Probably, if he thought of me at all, it was to class me as a very dull fellow. But as the meal progressed our distinguished guest began gradually to thaw. Whether this was due to Miss Wallington's bright eyes, or the quantity of wine absorbed (he ignored the injunction to abstain of his illustrious ancestor), I will not pretend to say. The fact is that little by little his oriental reserve melted, and when Wally artfully led the conversation to Palestine and its intricacies he awoke to sudden interest.
"I admit the problem is a difficult one," he said, "but it should not be entirely beyond solution. All we ask for is justice, which I am sure the English people would grant if they only understood our case."
"There's a lot of money behind the Jews," Wally ventured.
"And more false sentiment. The people here don't seem to understand that the country is ours, that we have held it for hundreds of years, and that it is most unfair that the majority should be governed by an insignificant minority." Then he turned to Julia with one of his most charming smiles. "A thousand apologies, Miss Wallington, for the introduction of such a topic."
"Not at all, Mr. Benabbas. I've read all about the trouble out there, and I'm really most interested. Indeed I have been ever since I heard you lecture in New York."
"They were very sympathetic," he said. "The sense of justice is most highly developed in the American people."
"Sure," said Wally, making a strange grimace.
"And I'm equally sure," continued his sister quickly, "that you'd find the English people respond just the same if you were to present your case direct to them."
"I am not without hope that things may yet right themselves, but you appreciate that I would do nothing to embarrass the Government?"
"Seems to me," said Wally, "that you and your people are up against a pretty stiff proposition when you're brought face to face with dollars."
"Shekels," I murmured. Benabbas flung me an appreciative smile.
"Exactly," he said; "but there may be a way of combating them."
"You mean fight?"
"Such things have happened."
"But that'll bring you up against the British."
"There are many British patriots who are anxious to renounce the mandate."
"To whom?" he was asked.
"Perhaps to the Jews, perhaps to the Arabs, or perhaps to some Power whose only wish is to hold a just balance between the two peoples." Then he looked at me. "You are not interested in this subject?"
"I suppose so, in a way, but I'm afraid I don't really know much about it. All the same, I think if it could be proved to our people that your people were being imposed upon, or oppressed, that there would be a bit of a stir in the country. You spoke just now of holding the balance, but isn't that what we're doing, or what we're there to do?"
"Ostensibly. But to us it seems that the balance is weighed in favour of the enemy, probably by the weight of those very shekels you mentioned."
"It's hard to make headway against big finance," Wally remarked.
"Yet there may be a way," Benabbas suggested. "Balfour declarations are merely scraps of paper, and we know the intrinsic value of such," he added with a smile.
"With certain backing they may prove extremely valuable," I said.
"You approve?" he asked blandly.
"Not in the least. I believe I have as little sympathy with this Zionist Movement as you have, but that doesn't mean that I'd let you fellows cut each other's throats. You see, we're there to keep order, and we've got to keep it. That's our job."
"An admirable English view. But I'm afraid we bore Miss Wallington."
"Not at all," she once more assured him, an assurance which signally failed in making him continue the subject. For the remainder of the meal he eschewed politics as he would the plague; and when, some half-hour latter he reluctantly tore himself away, pleading a pressing engagement, he left us with the feeling that the evening had been a dire failure. Though more than once Wally had casually mentioned several rich Jews prominent in the Movement, he failed entirely to draw him in the required direction. Nor did a direct reference to a certain name of eminence succeed any better. It was the general cause that seemed to obsess him and not the men prominently associated with it.
I must confess that I was more than a little disappointed, and rather inclined to think that George Mayford's estimation of him was grossly exaggerated. But for certain other knowledge, the truth of which I could not doubt, I might have believed Abu Benabbas to be an inoffensive gentleman if a devoted patriot. That he hated the Jews in the circumstances was only natural, but that he was a stormy petrel and a stirrer-up of strife seemed altogether incredible. Though his secret coming and going had yet to be explained, I did not think there was so very much in it. In spite of his apparent modesty he might have held an exceedingly high estimate of his own importance, which probably expressed itself in the creating of mystery. That nothing really serious had been proved against him was made evident by the tolerance of authority.
Though his general indifference to me might not have conduced to my vanity, I was none the less grateful for it. Had he known I had served in Palestine he might have been even more guarded, more circumspect, though that would have been difficult. But I was clearly a person of no importance, one of those self-contained Englishmen who have but a vague idea of the commitments of their country, and who do not deserve to be partakers of her glory. This, at any rate, was so much in my favour. I might, free of all constraint, cultivate the acquaintance of Mr. Benabbas should the opportunity occur.
About noon of the following day Lady Nathling rang me up saying she wished to see me at once. Had anything happened? She didn't know, or couldn't understand, but by the first post she had received another mysterious message. Therefore would I please come immediately.
Within a quarter of an hour I was admitted to her presence. Her greeting was cordial in the extreme, the pressure of her warm firm hand most friendly.
"So good of you to come," she said.
"I am always at your service, Lady Nathling." She smiled charmingly and looked charming. Probably she saw appreciation in my glance. Suddenly her heavy lids were lowered over her fine eyes.
"What do you make of this?" she asked, extracting a sheet of paper from an envelope and holding it out to me.
It was typed like the previous message, and read:
"Cherish no illusions with regard to Leathermouth."
I admit this was a bit of a shock, and, partly to regain my composure, I made a prolonged pretence of studying the message. As before, I saw that the l's and the a's were out of alignment. Evidently the same typewriter had been used. Then I looked at her and met an eager glance.
"What do you make of it?" she asked.
"It evidently comes from the same source."
"And was posted in the same district. It's getting on my nerves. What are we to do in the matter?"
"Do you understand this reference to 'Leathermouth'?"
"I haven't the least idea what it means."
"You don't know anyone of that name?"
"Have you ever heard it before?"
"Then how is it possible for you to cherish any illusions about him?"
"You think there is such a person?"
"The writer of this note is evidently of that opinion."
"But the name is so ridiculous."
But I was thinking all the time that Mr. Leathermouth was not quite so unimportant as he had imagined. Yet how had the writer of that missive come to know of him? In a certain part of the world that name might have been whispered among men, but how had it come to spread as far as London? True, whispers were carried far in the East; newspapers were not necessary to the propagation of rumour. From tongue to tongue it flew; the wind carried it over mountains and desert. The Bedouin whispered it to one another in the hidden oasis. Leathermouth had apparently left a trail behind him, sure if unseen, and certain persons interested in the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin had heard of it.
This was, to say the least of it, extremely annoying. I was known. But how had I come to be known, and by whom? How could I take it as other than a warning to me? For of course the person or persons who sent it would know that I should see it, my previous visit to Lady Nathling being known. Clearly this was something of a dilemma.
She was watching me intently, as though expecting me to produce an immediate explanation, and I could do no more than return her amazed look with one of equal bewilderment. For a moment I wondered if I might disclose the identity of Leathermouth. Was anything to be gained by such a disclosure? I doubted it. Moreover, and probably there was a touch of personal vanity in this, I was not proud of the ridiculous name. She would have looked at me and smiled, and I did not want her to smile at me or my mouth.
"Have you any explanation to offer?" she asked.
"I wonder if it would be possible to discover who this mysterious Leathermouth is?"
"But, you see, I'm supposed to know him already."
"And you don't?"
"Of course I don't."
"There may be nothing in it," I suggested. "The person who sent that former communication may merely wish to confuse you."
"Somehow I can't think like that. It's all rather terrible, isn't it?" And then suddenly, "I wonder if Mr. Goldberg would know?"
"You have already met him; my father's secretary."
"It's just possible that he may know something."
"He's on his way here now. I'm expecting him every moment."
"Then in that case . . ."
"No, please. I want you to meet him again. The two of you may be able to answer the riddle."
Though I was afraid that nothing of importance would come of Mr. Goldberg's visit, I could not very well refuse to meet him. This being decided on, Lady Nathling forgot the business side of our connection and showed me how charming she could be as hostess. Cocktails were brought in, cigarettes produced, and we were deep in a discussion on the new social outlook since the war, particularly as applied to the freedom of women, when a servant entered to announce the arrival of Mr. Goldberg. She looked at me and made a familiar face. Her lips clearly pouted "Bother!" She seemed to forget that only a few moments ago she appeared rather anxiously to await his coming.
Mr. Goldberg entered, the careful, suave gentleman of our former acquaintance. He bowed to Lady Nathling and then to me. She advanced and frankly extended her hand. Again he bowed over it. Then, through his horn-rimmed glasses, he looked at me and said how glad he was to see me again. He partook of the proffered aperitif, but refused a cigarette. Then the servant, who had evidently been awaiting his arrival, announced that luncheon was served.
Lady Nathling preceded us to the dining-room, where I noticed that the table was spread for three. She placed me on her right hand, Goldberg on her left. She was extremely gracious, quite the grande dame in fact, and seemed to be under the impression that it was necessary to put us both at ease.
Soon the conversation took a more intimate trend. Mr. Goldberg, being questioned, was forced to admit that so far he could throw no new light on the mystery of Sir Julius's disappearance, though he endeavoured to still her ladyship's apprehensions with much hope expressed in well-chosen terms. Then it was she put the question: Had he ever heard of anyone called Leathermouth? He repeated the word two or three times, then shook his head. No, he did not know the name. Then she told him of the message, which merely added to his confusion.
"No one seems to know of him, yet he is supposed to be a friend of mine. You are quite sure, Mr. Goldberg? May he not be in some way connected with the Palestine Movement? Perhaps my father . . .You never heard him speak of such a person?"
"Never to my knowledge."
"You have no idea, no theory?"
"It is quite beyond me. If Sir Julius had ever mentioned such a name in my presence I feel sure I should have remembered it. It is so uncommon—Leathermouth. Of course, it might be a nickname; probably is, but why associate it with us? What is your opinion, Colonel?"
Colonel! I saw her eyes widen.
"I can't make head or tail of it—unless it's a crude sort of joke to annoy Lady Nathling. I can hardly think it of any real value, as it can have little or no bearing on the matter at issue. I suppose nothing further has come your way, Mr. Goldberg?"
"Nothing, sir. You may depend on me to let you know immediately I have anything that may be of service to you."
When I eventually rose to take my departure Lady Nathling accompanied me into the hall. The pressure of her hand was most reassuring. "Then you don't think I need worry?"
"No; but that does not mean that you must not be careful. One never knows. Things happen. It's just as well to clip the enemy's opportunity."
"You inspire me with confidence," she said. "Please come again very soon, Colonel Gantian. I feel so safe with you."
But I was not sure that I felt safe with her. Those fine eyes of hers were heavy with speculation, her mouth singularly alluring. And her position, both socially and financially, being secure, there was no necessity for undue restraint. Indeed, I thought that she and restraint were but distant acquaintances. She had a swinging incisiveness of manner, apart from the business in hand, which proclaimed much freedom of thought and action. Also a charming deference upon occasion which was almost embarrassing, especially to one who was always more or less embarrassed in the presence of an attractive woman.
That I should inspire confidence in her was naturally most flattering to my self-esteem, but I regret to say I had not an equal confidence in myself. That Leathermouth and his activities were known to the enemy was little short of a catastrophe. Who was that enemy, and how had he come to know of me? It handicapped initiative and would probably frustrate endeavour. Moreover, and this I rather resented, Leathermouth appeared more as a subject for jest than fear. Had he been taken seriously the knowledge of him would not have been disclosed in this apparently reckless manner.
Wally looked rather grave as he listened to me. Undoubtedly it complicated the issue. At least two-thirds of our power was gone with my secret. It would be the easiest thing in the world for the enemy to watch our movements while his own identity remained obscure. Not a bright look-out, he admitted.
"But more interesting," he said. "The thing grows by looking at it. It's big. We're up against something out of the common, and what looked like a joy-ride may turn out a mighty serious adventure."
THE next day Wally, his sister and I dined with Mr. Benabbas at the Savoy. Greatly to my surprise, the invitation had been extended to me, for I was under the impression that the descendant of the Prophet had regarded me as one of those unimportant persons that one meets casually and as quickly forgets. Probably my friendship with the Wallingtons was responsible for my inclusion. I could think of no other explanation.
Miss Wallington, so her brother informed me, had been reluctant to accept, but he had prevailed upon her, for reasons which will be readily understood. In New York Abu Benabbas had been something of a curiosity, but in London he did not loom quite so large. Moreover, he had grown in assurance. As the pleading exile he had made an appeal which failed utterly in his new environment. The glamour of the desert no longer enveloped him. He was now, or so it seemed to her, assuming an ill-fitting cloak, trying, in fact, to be what he was not and never would be.
Yet there was no denying his elegance and charm. As a sheik he might still more have impressed the imagination had one visualised him in flowing burnous, armed to the teeth, and prancing on his Arab steed. Even as a gentleman of the twentieth century there was not much fault to be found with him, unless it was the excess of attention he paid to Miss Wallington, at which her brother frowned more than once. But whatever her inward thoughts her manner was most exemplary. Probably she was accustomed to compliment.
Once, with many apologies, Benabbas left us for a few moments, having observed some friends at another table. They were a man and a woman. The man's back was to us, but the woman was the handsome blonde who had been with him at the theatre. So, so! I began to wonder. Benabbas raised her hand to his lips. Most amiably she smiled at him. I watched intently, but even as I watched I heard Julia say to her brother, "How much longer is this going to last?"
He attempted to soothe her with, "You're doing fine." Again she muttered some protest under her breath. Purposely I paid no heed to them. Followed an ominous silence as Benabbas came our way.
"Some friends of mine," he explained as he seated himself. "With your permission, Miss Wallington, I should like to present them."
"By all means," she said.
Wally flashed a look at me, but, receiving no response, apparently took my immobility for approval, though I was far from approving, having already come to an unfavourable decision respecting the amiable blonde. Meanwhile Benabbas was explaining that Mr. Menilos and his wife, for such it seems was their relationship, had but lately arrived from Greece. It was their first visit to England. He was a merchant with wide interests in southern waters. Madame was a Swede. They were a very happy couple, the envied of all their friends. When two people loved each other . . . He flashed a look at Julia from his fine dark eyes.
With the coffee the Greek and his wife joined our table. He was not a prepossessing person. In fact, I thought him rather a nasty fellow. He had little piercing black eyes, a somewhat coarse weather-beaten face, and abnormally large hands. Those hands fascinated me. They indicated enormous strength. But his wife was decidedly handsome in a bold way. Both spoke English exceedingly well, she better than he, with just the faintest of accents. Wally, being susceptible to the sex, made no endeavour to hide his admiration, which she accepted as any handsome woman might, being accustomed to compliment. But if he hoped for a response to ardent glances he suffered acute disappointment. It was his sister who received all Madame's attention. She concentrated on Julia in a manner which might have aroused comment in the suspicious. More than once I thought Benabbas smiled approval. But then, having already heard of this lady, I was watching for signs and portents.
The conversation between us was general and quite unimportant. Politics were tacitly avoided. Probably Mr. Menilos was not interested. As a matter of fact he was so greatly impressed by the vastness of London that he could speak of nothing else. And to think he had never been here before! It was incredible!
Glancing at Miss Wallington I could see that Madame Menilos was boring her to tears, and when I suggested it was time we thought of moving she was not slow to respond. Goodbyes were said to Monsieur and Madame, the latter expressing the hope that we should all meet again soon. Wally, as he shook hands with her, said he hoped so; but his sister merely smiled and bowed. It seemed to me that she had neither hope nor intention, if she could avoid it, of ever meeting them again.
Benabbas rose with us, he and Miss Wallington leading the way out. As we passed through the lounge we encountered Mr. Goldberg, who honoured me with one of his most agreeable smiles. He looked very spick and span and quite pleased with himself.
On finally parting with Benabbas we one and all expressed our thanks for the entertainment, perhaps a little conventionally, but if so he appeared to notice nothing amiss. He was grateful for the honour conferred on him, and under his breath said something to Julia which I failed to catch. But as soon as we were whirling away in the car she unbottled her long pent-up annoyance and let her brother have it right and left. Such people! That dreadful Greek person, who looked like the skipper of a ferryboat. And that awful woman! Couldn't he see what she was? He said he thought she was darned pretty. She sniffed, and relapsed into a chilling silence.
A not altogether satisfactory evening. Whatever hopes had been entertained had faded out completely, and Julia was angry. On the whole I didn't blame her. Moreover, I thought she had summed up Madame Menilos with unerring accuracy. That lady had been almost too charming, while her husband . . . "who looked like the skipper of a ferry-boat." Woman's intuition. I would swear by it. That weather-beaten face, those big hands. Why hadn't the same thought occurred to me, which was now so obvious? Probably I had not been thinking of skippers or ferry-boats, there being no association of ideas with them and our host. Yet it was curious how that thought clung. I couldn't for the life of me explain why, but as one frequently repeats certain sentences in prose or verse, so I kept muttering to myself "skipper—ferry-boat," till the repetition annoyed me. I even went to sleep muttering the words, and dreamt that I saw Menilos, from the bows of a ship, directing its course among a cluster of islands.
In the morning the dream was still vivid in my memory, greatly to my annoyance, and by way of diversion I rang up Wally to inquire the latest information regarding him and his sister.
"O.K.," he replied. "But my, she was peeved something awful. Never again, not even for you or me, will she entertain, or be entertained by our friend from the Jordan. She don't like Ben. She don't think he's the goods. And as for that blonde from God knows where . . . Well, sir, you can bank on one woman guessing pretty right about another. But I squared it in the end, and now I want her to run away and play with some of her friends. But not on your life. She says she came over here to look after me, and being dead sure that she has a sacred duty to perform looks as though she meant to perform it. And all because I said the blamed woman was handsome, and wondered how she came to fall for that Greek guy. You should have seen sister look at me when I said that. All there is to know about women was in that look, and something about men. Yes, sir, I believe all women think we're nothing but fools or babies, when we're not vicious or criminal. I guess we're some trial to them, poor souls. All the same, I've sure gotta break bounds soon unless something happens. Say, Peter, couldn't we have some important business over in Paris or Vienna for a week or two? I'd sure like to run you round a bit."
"No, we couldn't, and I decidedly object to being run round by you."
"Then what about Newmarket? I've three or four nags there."
"Say, what do you want? What about the yacht? The blue waters of the Mediterranean, and all that sort of bunk. See here, pard, if I've gotta live, breathe, an' have my being under the watchful eye of sister ..."
"You'll be jolly lucky."
"I guess so, but a man don't always appreciate his luck. Why she don't fall for some guy and marry him ..."
"She's the best sister you ever had or ever will have."
"Don't I know it; but sometimes somebody else's sister . . ."
He chuckled. "Say, can you tell me what that guy Leathermouth is doing?"
"An' to think I once had great hopes of him. This is sure a most disappointin' world. S'long, friend. May the shadow of Allah and his Prophet rest upon you."
I was not as sure of the shadow of Allah or his Prophet as of the shadow of the Prophet's descendant. His shadow was certainly resting very heavily on me at that moment, and I saw no way of dispelling it. If Abu Benabbas was playing a game, apart from that of propagandist, the nature of it entirely eluded me. Nor could I possibly see how he could in any way be associated with the disappearance of Sir Julius Ashlin. But for that sneering allusion to Leathermouth, and the cherishing of certain illusions concerning him, that person might even then have retired and confessed himself beaten. But there was something here that spurred curiosity and made him determined to show that he was not so lightly to be dismissed. That he was known, and known by the enemy to be on the job, acted as an incentive. But how had he become known?
Just then the bell rang. George Mayford was at the other end of the line. After the usual upbraiding for not looking him up, I told him of the dinner at the Savoy and the nothing that had come of it, and expressed the belief that though Benabbas might be the first villain of the Yard's imagination, in my opinion he was rather an innocuous person.
"Probably you're right, Peter," he said in that beastly frank way of his which always suggested a reservation of a rather unpleasant nature. "Yet it's rather odd, don't you think, that his presence here should synchronise with an unusual activity in the purchase of arms?
"The purchase of arms?"
"Such is our information."
"With a view to . . ."
"What do you make of it?"
"What if it should be?"
"Not very easy from the Thames."
"It has been done. Besides, there are other ports in England."
"But to purchase arms in any quantity means the possession of considerable capital."
"There is still a little left in the country."
"What exactly do you mean?"
"Give your imagination a chance."
"I don't keep one."
"Then drop in and have a chat. Perhaps I can fix you up in that department."
"If you fellows are so all-fired wise why don't you . . ."
"Precisely. But I thought I had already told you why. Come along and I'll try to make it clear even to you."
As a result of that interview with George Mayford, Wally, Albert and I, dressed in caps, mufflers, and second-hand slops, haunted a considerable stretch of the river East of Tower Bridge, Dockland in particular being much in favour. Public-houses, especially those patronised by foreign sailors, were not overlooked, and their beer, being less deadly than many of the poisons dispensed, consumed in moderate quantities. We rubbed shoulders with black, brown, and yellow men. We rarely spoke to each other, and never if we three were in the same bar at the same time. Just a glance now and again, or a surreptitious lifting of the eyebrows, was all that passed between us. I had warned Wally that I wanted no repetition of that long-ago scene in Constantinople. Woman, however attractive, was to be stoically ignored, and I must admit that he behaved with the utmost circumspection. But, being by nature a sociable fellow, he would chum up with all sorts of nondescripts, and stand drinks with a generosity which might more than once have drawn suspicion on him were it not for his posing as a genial American sailor with dollars to burn. On such occasions his accent was so thick it might have bridged the Atlantic.
But one night in the Sheet Anchor, down Shadwell way, a resort much frequented by sailormen of various hues, he and I were seated on opposite sides of a small table discussing our beer, when in walked a big negro with a flaunting, cheaply-dressed white woman. It was about the only time Albert had not accompanied us, he having received a sudden call to visit a sick mother at Sevenoaks.
I saw Wally glance at the woman and her companion. From his eyes flashed a look of disgust. Even such a woman, in his opinion, degraded herself by association with a man of colour. It was the old inborn American prejudice against the race.
The black, glancing round and seeing two unoccupied chairs at our table, motioned for his companion to take one of them, appropriating the other for his own use. I moved up nearer Wally so that the lady might sit close to her escort. She gave me an impudent smile and somewhat defiantly seated herself. Stealing a look at Wally I saw his mouth tighten. I grew fearful. I knew how he hated the negro and all his ways. More than once he had held forth on the subject. Black made him see red, and I knew he was seeing red at the moment. I signalled for him to retire, but if he saw the signal he pretended not to. Retire before a nigger! Not on your life. Then the potman and chucker-out, who looked like a battered bruiser down on his luck, his cauliflower ears sticking out a mile, came for the orders. The negro asked for a pint of beer; the lady preferred a large glass of port.
"What about you two guys?" grinned the black, opening wide his cavernous mouth and showing two rows of large teeth, sadly irregular. "I guess I should be mighty pleased to buy you some booze. Looks as though you wanted it bad. C'mon, the drinks is on me."
I smiled and shook my head, but Wally stuck his jaw out aggressively and leaned across the table.
"I guess I can buy all the booze I want," he said.
"American!" exclaimed the negro. "Good for you. Put it there."
He held out a great black hand, which Wally stared at without attempting to take. Then in his slow and most contemptuous drawl he said, "I guess I don't shake hands with no nigger." The black glared. His huge hand closed into a gigantic fist. He surveyed it admiringly. Then he grinned offensively.
"Say, feller, you ain't lookin' for no trouble, are you, 'cos there's heaps of it hangin' round here ready an' waitin'."
"I guess there is," Wally replied, "an' it looks as though it might be comin' along mighty quick."
At that moment the potman arrived with the drinks. A lull followed, an ominous lull, I thought, while the negro fumbled for his money. I gave Wally a warning kick under the table to which he paid no heed. The black, having discharged his reckoning, laid both his great fists on the table.
"See them?" he asked admiringly. "Wal, when they hit they hit mighty hard. Get me?"
"Sure," said Wally in that nonchalant way of his.
"Then get this as well, you low down skulkin' bit o' white dirt."
With that he seized his pint pot and flung its contents at Wally's face. Only the face wasn't there to receive it. Almost before I knew what was happening Wally's fist shot out. The grin faded from the black face. There was a gasp, the splintering of a chair, and Darkest Africa sprawling supine.
In a moment pandemonium broke loose. The lady screamed and dropped her glass of port, the chucker-out, looking extremely pugnacious, pushed his ugly jaw forward, shouts were raised, the other drinkers drew near to watch the fun. Two or three rushed to the still recumbent negro and slowly helped him to his feet. I flung a glance of protest at Wally and met a provoking smile. The woman let loose a torrent of hysterical abuse, showering it on the company and the world at large. The chucker-out laid a heavy hand on me and swung me round. Quick as thought I slipped some money into his free hand, whispering that the nigger began it. His hard face softened. He turned to the black who was now squaring up to renew the contest. Blood dripped from his ugly mouth.
"'Ere, you git out o' this. This is a respectable 'ouse. We don't want no pleece round 'ere?"
Nor would he listen to indignant protest, but pushed both the black and his lady friend towards the door. I turned to Wally, meaning to warn him that it was time for us to get a move on, but his back was to me and he was gazing intently in the direction of the bar, apparently quite oblivious of the tumult he had created. I noticed that one hand was plunged deep in the pocket of his reefer jacket and that the other was doubled up on the table. An almost imperceptible movement of this hand caused me to look at it. The fingers instantly relaxed, and the hand itself was opened disclosing a small piece of paper. The next moment it closed on it again.
Though I did not actually see the design on the paper I knew what it was and what it meant. It was our warning, our danger signal. On that piece of paper was impressed the Sign of the Glove. We always carried such slips with us when occasion might have marked the use of gloves as conspicuous. They were adhesive slips, and had been found useful more than once.
But what did it mean now? Where was the danger? From what quarter was I to expect it?
He was still looking in the direction of the bar, and I, following his gaze, saw that the glass door at the back of the bar was open, and that two men, who had evidently emerged from the inner sanctum to see what the row was about, were blocking the entrance. I looked again, then closer. There was no doubt of it. One of the men, a sailor cap on the back of his head, was our Greek friend Menilos!
I whispered his name, and though Wally did not look at me I knew he understood. Again I whispered, "Wait here; watch. I'll be outside." He nodded, and without more ado I nonchalantly made my way towards the door and so out into the street. Immediately crossing the road I took my stand in the deepest shadow I could find. It was a narrow street, the entrance to the public-house well in view, and I knew it would be impossible for Menilos to leave without my seeing him. It was a question of how long he would be before he came. There was just a possibility that he might not come at all, that he might be lodging there. In that case Wally and I would have to wait until the last reveller left the premises.
But fortune and Menilos were kind. I could not have been waiting for more than five minutes when the door opened and out he came. For a few seconds he stood on the pavement in apparent indecision. Then he turned to the right and walked slowly in the direction of the river. I kept one eye on him and another on the door of the Sheet Anchor, hoping to see Wally emerge. But as he did not come, and as Menilos's figure was fast receding in the distance, I dared no longer wait for fear of losing him altogether.
Taking advantage of any shadow that might afford cover I followed. He seemed, in no hurry. Once he even paused for a moment to light a match. I backed into shadow and stood there watching. But he apparently harboured no suspicion. I was sure he did not even turn round. Why should he? He could not have recognised either of us, and naturally would not dream of expecting to find us in such a place.
As his direction was towards the river I fully expected him to make for some dock gate or other, and was consequently not without the hope that I might be able to provide George Mayford with a little useful information as to that surreptitious dealing in arms. It was now evident that Miss Wallington's intuition had been quite correct, or at anyrate correct enough to enable one indubitably to put Menilos in his proper place. If not the "skipper of a ferry-boat" he was assuredly a sea-faring man, and probably his tramp steamer was lying somewhere close at hand. By means of it, and a bit of luck, those arms which were causing George Mayford's department so much anxiety might safely be discharged in some quiet spot on the Syrian coast.
It was rather daring on the part of Benabbas openly to consort with the fellow and his wife, if she were his wife? If not, Wally was not likely to forget the insult to his sister, and I also might have a pertinent question or two to ask when next I met the suave descendant of the Prophet.
Meanwhile, what had become of Wally? More than once I flung a swift glance over my shoulder, but never caught sight or sign of him. Had he experienced difficulty in leaving the Sheet Anchor, or had he turned to the left instead of the right? It seemed now that I had acted hastily in going without him, but at the moment I thought it the better plan, believing that with the appearance of Menilos I should see Wally close on his heels.
So, making use of all available cover, I stole quietly after my man. There was a lamp at the crossing ahead, and by its light I distinctly saw him turn to the left. Carefully approaching the corner, for there was no cover here, I peeped round. He was crossing the road some fifty paces farther on. Then he paused before a dark door, and, straining both eyes and ears, I thought I heard the soft clicking of a lock. I could swear no signal had been given, so he must have let himself in with a key.
Queer place, this, for the friend of Benabbas to pull up at. It was a narrow, poverty-looking street, with a few cheap shops which were all closed. Probably poor families dwelt here, huddled in an excess of misery. It was quite a short street, ending in what looked to me like a blank wall. Not a soul was about, not even a prowling cat. The residents were evidently most respectable. But later, as I groped my way along, I discovered that the shops were only on the corner, the other buildings looking to me in the darkness like makeshift warehouses.
I stood by the corner hoping that Wally might appear. Two men passed on the other side of the road, but there was never a sign of him. Once a woman came up out of the dead end of the wall, her skirts fluttering in the wind. She hurried on, head down, and passed without seeing me. Then I crossed to the other side of the street, first affixing one of my signs to the lamp-post, and stealthily made my way to the spot where I had seen Menilos vanish. I had marked the house. Even in that row of gloomy houses it had appeared gloomier than its neighbours, and this I discovered was owing to its being set some two or three feet back from the line.
As I stood in the shadow of the doorway, listening intently, it now became a question of the best course I ought to take. Should I keep watch till the first policeman appeared (one might appear at any moment), put him on guard, and ring up the nearest police station? But who was I to issue orders to the police? It was more than likely that if one came along he might arrest me for loitering with attempt to commit a felony. I had no credentials, nothing to prove my identity, or connection in any way with a certain important personage at Scotland Yard. Moreover, this might be a most respectable street devoted to honest trade, and my presence in it not a little suspicious. Again, Menilos might reappear at any moment, though this I did not think likely. He either had lodgings on the premises and had gone to bed, or there was work going on behind that closed door which would keep him busy for a long time.
The door! Some interesting work might be going on behind it; on the other hand, nothing at all. But I did know that Menilos was there, and that was not a little to go on with. Perhaps one might even find the handsome Swede, his wife, in residence. I think I was prepared for anything now. Had Benabbas himself stepped forth it would not have surprised me. Was he not one who came and went at leisure, a person of many disguises, a Proteus of a man? Mystery was thick about me.
My fingers wandered over the door till I came to the lock, which I was examining with the slightest of pressure, when the door itself seemed to give a little. Believing that this could not be (for had I not heard the click of the lock after Menilos had disappeared?) I exerted a little more pressure. The door opened softly an inch or two! I drew back expecting it to be drawn open and my presence discovered. But nothing happened. I pressed forward and put my ear to the opening. Not a sound of step or voice reached me.
What was the meaning of it? What could it mean but that Menilos had carelessly shut the door behind him? But that click? I could have sworn that I heard it. Yet had I; could I be certain? There was distance, and the night, and my strange quest. These might have helped fancy, strung rather taut. Should I take advantage of this piece of unexpected, good-fortune? But was it good-fortune? What of a trap? Yet how could that be? Menilos had not recognised me in the Sheet Anchor, even if he had seen me, which was doubtful. He could not have known that I was shadowing him. It was not possible, whichever way I turned it about, and I did some quick turning just then. And there was something going on behind that door, the nature of which I was most eager to discover.
My mind was made up; I would take a chance. I stuck one of our signs on the jamb of the door. Probably it would be of no use; but if Wally should come along he would know how to act. Anyway, I meant to see the adventure through now whatever came of it.
Slowly and noiselessly the door yielded to my pressure. I listened intently, but could catch no sound. Next I pushed my head and shoulders through, then my whole body. I was inside, in a darkness that one could almost feel. Slowly and softly I put the door to.
I waited, bracing myself against any sudden attack. Out of that intense gloom anything might come. I fully expected to be rushed. But nothing happened; not even a mouse seemed to be stirring. It was a most solemn and uncanny stillness. I almost heard the night breathe.
Then I flashed my pocket-lamp. On my left was a passage, on my right a narrow staircase. If I intended further to investigate one of these ways would have to be explored. Which should it be? Standing there in the dark I indulged in some quick but rather confused thinking. What was at the head of those stairs; what at the end of the passage? Was my presence known? Frankly, I was suspicious of that unlocked door. Such carelessness could only be accounted for by the supposition that the Greek had absorbed too much liquor. Still, I was in for it now, and having advanced so far had no intention of retreating. And, after all, my presence might not be suspected. Why should it be?
The stairs suggested the more dangerous enterprise. For one thing, they might be found to creak horribly if one ventured on them; for another, an attack from above would give the assailant a great advantage. Therefore I chose the passage. It was level, and so more or less equalised matters.
Carefully I advanced, but not on the side of the staircase. If there were any danger I thought it might come from there. Beneath those stairs there might be doors opening into a deeper darkness, whereas the partition on my left felt comparatively solid.
Flashing my torch I saw what looked like a door at the end of the passage, and towards this I crept carefully testing the boards beneath my feet before venturing my full weight on them. Then of a sudden I paused, thinking I had heard a movement behind me. I pressed closer in against the wall, listening, but not daring to flash the torch. I had an eerie feeling that someone was there by the door, that eyes were watching through the gloom, that on the first intimation of my whereabouts there would be a rush or a blow, perhaps a shot. Therefore I pressed still closer in against the wall, and as I did so I felt it suddenly give. The next moment I was hurtling through into darkness. The torch fell from my grasp; I was seized and pulled forward. Lunging out, my fist crashed into a man's face. But other hands, many of them, were upon me, one strong pair in particular seizing me by the throat. I struggled to tear them away, but those other hands bore me down. I fell heavily, bringing my assailants with me. Then someone kicked me on the side of the head.
I HAVE not the remotest idea how long I remained unconscious, but when I came to I felt very sick and sore. My head was buzzing painfully, while my limbs felt as though they had lost all power of motion. No great wonder, as I soon realised that I was bound hand and foot. There was also a knot about my throat which made it extremely difficult for me to breathe.
Little by little I was enabled to take in my surroundings. There was a lamp burning on a table at the far end of the room which threw the most grotesque shadows towards the ceiling. It was rather a large room, one corner of which seemed to be stacked with long packing-cases. I could distinguish no furniture but that of the aforesaid table and a chair. There was no carpet of any sort on the floor, and I soon realised that I was sitting on the bare boards, fast bound to an upright beam.
How long I had been in this position I did not know, nor was I particularly anxious to know. It didn't seem to matter much. I had other things to think of, the chief of which was the blundering folly which had landed me in such a mess. But where were my captors? How they must be laughing, Menilos above all! He could not have hoped for such an easy victory. Furiously angry, I ground my teeth with vexation, to find that my jaw was horribly sore. With the rest of me it had experienced a severe buffeting. But why didn't somebody come? Almost anything would have been preferable to this uncertainty.
I gazed at the lamp, the long coffin-like cases, at the grim shadows which filled the corners of the room. I strained at my lashings and only hurt myself the more in straining. Whoever had trussed me up had done the job thoroughly. Sailors, probably. Menilos was a sailor. "Skipper of a ferry-boat." What a fool I had been!
Then, from somewhere behind me, a door opened and a man tramped across the floor to the lamp and turned it up. I saw at once that it was my friend the Greek. He lit a cigarette at the funnel, then turned towards me. His mouth looked red and swollen. Perhaps this partly accounted for the soreness of the knuckles of my right hand.
"Feeling better, Mr. Gantian," he sneered, "or do you prefer your military title?"
"Either will do," I said.
"Neither can make much difference now, and both prove you to be a pretty considerable fool."
"That's plain," I admitted, "or I shouldn't have walked into your booby trap. Where's Benabbas?"
"Perhaps he's here."
"It wouldn't surprise me."
"Yet you are so easily surprised. You disappoint me, Mr. Gantian. I was led to believe that you were rather a dangerous person."
"You see how one's reputation is apt to belie one. That applies all round."
"But yours is the only one that concerns me at present."
"Don't forget Benabbas."
"You are interested in him?"
"You'll be flattered to hear that he was also a little interested in you."
"After to-night you will be of no further interest to anyone."
This was suggestively unpleasant, but I wasn't going to let him see that I thought so.
"Don't you believe it, Menilos. By the way, I suppose that is your name?"
"For the time being."
"I thought as much."
"Odd that such a very clever person should find himself in this most undignified and awkward position. Of course I may be wrong," he added pleasantly, "but so it seems to me."
"I've been in worse."
"Not much. One can go no farther than the end of the rope."
"I shouldn't talk about that sort of thing if I were you. There might be something prophetic in it."
"Yet it is my wish to talk about many things with you."
"Fire away. But remember, I've got a tongue."
"For the time being, so make the best use of it while you have the chance. To begin with, would you mind telling me what brought you to the Sheet Anchor to-night?"
"It must be gratifying to know that you have found me?"
"And in finding me what else did you hope to find?"
"But why didn't you come earlier; why leave a matter of such importance to the last moment?" He chuckled as he pointed to the stack of empty cases. "A few hours ago they were full of good rifles. Now Scotland Yard wouldn't find so much as a breech-lock."
"They'll find more than that."
"They'll be lucky if they find even an empty case."
"So you think you're getting away with it like that? Well, Menilos, it's your funeral."
"No," he said, "not mine, Mr. Gantian, but yours."
"You speak foolishly. Do you suppose certain important people do not know where I am, and why I came? Menilos, you ought to have stuck to barge-steering and left gunrunning to men of intelligence."
He came across to me, stood over me, then stooped down and struck me violently across the lips.
"How did you like that—Leathermouth?" he jeered. So he knew!
"You're a hero, Menilos."
"And that, and that!" Twice again he struck me, laughing as he struck. Then he wound up by kicking me in the side. I thought a couple of my ribs had gone. He must have seen the sudden look of pain that filled my eyes, for he laughed aloud and caught me another buffet on the jaw.
"Leathermouth," he jeered. "I'll soon find out the sort of leather it's made of. Spy on me, would you; do the dirty work of the police? Well, your spying days are over, Mr. Leathermouth. The luck is against you. Your bluff is called, as that American fool-friend of yours would say. By the way, I suppose you have not been slow to notice that his sister is charming, or forgotten the dollars behind her? A dream, Leathermouth, going the way of all dreams. But the dollars may yet be made good use of in a nobler cause."
"By Abu Benabbas?"
"He is a very subtle one, that Benabbas. Perhaps you realise now the folly of trying to thwart him? The world will presently hear much of him, behold his name blazing across the sky of Palestine like a comet. A pity you will not be able to see it."
He smiled. His swollen mouth looked very ugly when he smiled. My one wish was to make it look still uglier, but knowing that to be impossible I merely shook my head in dissent. The more he talked the better it might be for me. I knew that Wally, if free, would be racing up and down the streets for a glimpse of the sign. He might even now be within hailing distance. Every minute was precious.
"A boast, Menilos," I said. "Neither you nor Benabbas should forget what you are up against. Do you suppose that either of you has a dog's chance? You think him subtle, and he may be in making use of cat's-paws; but have you fully realised the subtlety of those who are after him, or the wide range of their power? Take my word for it, this trying to outwit the British Government is a fool's game. Their hand is everywhere, Menilos, a heavy hand, and when it falls it crushes utterly. Much safer to be with them than against them. Do you suppose that your true name is not known, or your business? Why, man, the moment you leave this building that heavy hand will be waiting for you. Can't you feel it already on your shoulder?"
He actually did fling a quick glance into the shadows. Then he laughed, but that laugh was more like a snarl.
"Though they may find me," he said, "they will be very clever if they find you."
I did not like this incessant harping on my future. There was a deadly suggestion in it that awoke considerable apprehension. Did the scoundrel mean to murder me? I must confess it looked uncommonly like it. Unless I misread the signs, he had come to a decision which was decidedly not in my favour.
"There are thousands to take the place of one who falls. The work goes round and round in a circle. There is no end to it."
"And some men go straight on—and never return."
He was at it again. But I would not pretend to understand him.
"What does that matter? The end is reached just the same. You can't defeat the big battalions, Menilos."
"But sometimes we harass the straggling rearguard, or cut off the too venturesome vanguard." He drew a watch from his pocket, looked at it for a moment or so, and then muttered something under his breath.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"Time is of no further interest to you," he snapped.
But it was of most profound interest. I liked neither his tone nor his manner. Yet it seemed to me that he was a little indecisive, and that he had some difficulty in bringing resolution to the sticking-point. Was there hope in this? I feared but little. Even a coward in command of the situation might venture far. And that glance at his watch awoke a most unpleasant train of thought. Something was undoubtedly timed to happen. If he meant to finish me off, which I no longer doubted, what was he waiting for? Why was it I had seen neither sight nor sound of those who had helped to drag me down? What had become of them? Were they still in some other part of the building, or had they made off and left Menilos to complete the work? I should not have been greatly surprised to see Benabbas himself appear.
Then suddenly the fellow began to drag those empty cases into the middle of the room. He placed them one on top of the other till they made quite a large pile, and for the first time I became really conscious of the smell of oil.
I think I had been sub-consciously aware of it from the first.
Having completed this part of his task he disappeared behind the pile of cases presently to emerge with a large can in his hand. Without speaking he poured some of its contents over the pile and the floor. Then he turned to me. I knew well enough what was coming, and the horror of that knowledge caused me to shrink at his approach. Seeing this he smiled, and poured the remaining contents of the can over me.
"You understand, Leathermouth?"
I stared at him without answering. Of all the horrors conceived by me this had never entered my mind. Even now I could scarcely credit the devilish intention.
"You understand?" he said again. "But I see you do. Presently there will be a fire, the origin of which will never be fully explained. These things happen. People are so careless. No inquiry, no awkward questions to answer to the insurance people. Nothing left but charred timber—and other things difficult to identify."
"Do you work for Benabbas?" I asked, though why I should heaven only knows; for whatever answer he might give would be of no use to me now. This he knew as well as I.
"How can that affect you—now?"
"It might be some satisfaction to know that even you are not as bad as you seem."
"You are in the way," he said. "You know, or suspect, too much. You might interfere with the working of the machine. There may be those who think it will work more smoothly without you."
"And for them you put your neck in the noose? Is this wise?"
"The wisdom will be in getting rid of you. Leathermouth at large might be a stumbling-block, but Leathermouth gone up in flames will cease to annoy."
"How did you know that name?" I asked, not that I expected a gleam of hope from his reply, but anything to gain time, to keep him talking. It was my only hope of salvation.
"What can it matter to you now? Nothing will matter to you any more. This is where you finish with all the interests of this world."
"But I want to think it over in the next."
"You will have plenty of time." He laughed in a way that would have made my flesh creep if it had not already passed beyond the creeping stage.
"Still, a little to go on with."
He looked hard at me for a few moments before replying. "They did not over-estimate the danger."
"Who didn't?" I asked quickly.
"Yes, Leathermouth," he said, "you'll be much safer out of the way." He seemed to delight in a repetition of the name, as though by the use of it he was strengthening his purpose and annoying me.
Returning to the table he lit a fresh cigarette over the lamp, glanced again at his watch, seized some newspapers that were lying on the table, crumpled them into a loose bundle and laid them beside the saturated cases. Then, returning once more to the table, he took up the lamp. His purpose was as clear as my own fate.
"After all," he said mockingly, "a day or a year is of no great account, and it's something to go out in an uncommon way. It may possibly excite even you to watch the flame advance. Don't faint, or you may lose a great thrill. As one who has always found life interesting you will find it so to the very end."
With that he set fire to the paper and dropped the lamp upon the blaze. The flames shot up with a rush. I looked for him but he was gone.
I think I was more stunned than fearful. I watched the flames creep in among the cases, which caught fire and burnt like matchwood. Soon, too, the floor was alight. Thick, pungent smoke filled the room. It entered my lungs; it almost blinded me. Madly I struggled to free myself, but soon realising the futility of all effort I relapsed into a state of utter exhaustion and watched the flames spread slowly across the floor towards me. How long would it take before . . .
The heat grew fiercer, the smoke thicker. I gasped for breath. I screamed. I did not know what I screamed; I only knew that I was screaming. To die like this! And then one last effort to breathe . . . and darkness.
Wally, sitting beside my bed in Cork Street, told me all about it.
"As soon as I saw Menilos quit I rose to follow, but the landlord, backed by that bruiser-potman of his with the cauliflower ears, came up and asked what I meant by creating a disturbance in his house. Not looking for any further trouble I told him I was very sorry, but as he didn't think the apology sufficient, and stuck himself in my way, I drove a quick left into his obtrusive stomach, which didn't do him any real good. Leastways he crumpled up like a fat worm that's been prodded in the middle. Then the bruiser guy squared up, his cauliflower ears sticking out like windmills. As you know, he was a nasty piece of work. It looked to me as though he didn't mean to hand out any soft stuff. Besides, there were one or two others at the back of him who looked as though they'd murder their own mother for a drink.
"Now I guessed the game was to stop me getting away. I could see it as plain as though Menilos had shouted out instructions before quitting, and I had a feeling that we had been recognised by him. If that were the case it didn't look too good for you, boy. I guess I thought mighty quick just then. So I put the table between me and Cauliflower Ears and tried a bit of argument. But I guess he had as much brains as a boiled clam, and by the way he smiled I could see that he had sure come to the conclusion that I was just quaking with fear. And I don't know that he was far out in his reckoning. I felt real bad, son, for I had a feeling in my bones that there was something unpleasant behind all this business, that Menilos knew what he was doing when he went out alone, and that the landlord and Cauliflower Ears were in with him. Why, even that nigger business might have been a frame-up, and I fell for it dead easy. Julia was sure right when she said I wanted a nurse.
"Then the landlord, having got enough of his wind back to curse, called me some of the prettiest names I've ever heard in my life. Cauliflower Ears joins in, and between them it was a wonder they didn't bring the roof down. It shocked me, boy, to hear such language, and so to put an end to it I picked up the table and flung it at them, which created a momentary diversion in my favour. But they were between me and the door, which you'll admit was awkward. Luckily Cauliflower Ears was more or less out of action, a corner of the table having caught him somewhere on the head. No, no great damage, though it didn't do him much good for the time being. So I rushed through, and ... I can't say how the thing went, but I was real glad to find myself out in the street. For very obvious reasons they didn't follow.
"I looked round, but couldn't see sight or sign of you. Which way had you gone, to the right or left? Again I did some quick thinking, and this time I thought wrong. And do you know, Peter, I had a feeling all the time that I was doing wrong, and yet I was so obstinate that I went on. The Lord only knows how many twists and turns I took before I realised that I had lost myself. Then I knew for certain that you must have turned to the right, because, though I examined many lamp-posts, I failed to find the Sign. So my job was to get back to the Sheet Anchor again and strike a fresh trail. But I was very sick, pardner; I guess I was one of the sickest men in London at that moment.
"It took me a long time to find that pub. It sure is a maze of streets down there, and I had travelled a considerable distance. But at last I struck it. I couldn't move quick even then, because I was still looking for the Sign. But I guessed that when you quitted you would have crossed the road to wait for Menilos, and I did the same. I examined every lamp-post on the way, crossing and re-crossing the street, till I found what I was looking for. There it was, plain as life, and I knew by its position that you had turned to the left, otherwise it would have been plumb facing me. And as I stood there I saw the windows light up on the other side, and by the time I reached the house the flames burst through. And there was the Sign on the jamb of the door!
"Well, I just flung myself against that door for all I was worth. It sure was a mighty tough proposition, and didn't seem to like me a bit. Then a window went up somewhere and a voice shouted 'Fire!' And I guess that's the end of the story."
I laid my hand on his and pressed it. His fingers closed on mine.
"You're sure some pardner, Wally."
"To tell you the truth, old-timer, I was just scared to death." Then he turned to Albert, who was standing at the foot of the bed, and smiled. "We missed you some," he said. "I guess we should never go out without a caretaker."
"Yes, sir," said Albert; "but you mustn't do it again."
"Not on your life, boy."
"Supposing something had happened?"
"It would have been sure awkward without you."
"So I've been telling the Colonel, sir. When you get among a rough lot like that you can't be too careful." He turned to me. "A little more beef tea, sir?"
"No, thank you, Albert. I think a bottle of beer would meet the case."
"He's sure some peach," said Wally as soon as Albert had left the room.
"He sure is. Hand me that mirror and let me have a squint at my ugly mug."
It was never a beautiful mug, and by reason of the treatment it had received at the hands of Menilos its beauty was not enhanced. My mouth was swollen beyond all recognition. I had never seen such an awful thing. It was grotesque to the verge of laughter. But luckily I was otherwise sound. True, my side ached rather painfully where Menilos had kicked me, but no ribs were broken, and the fire had not touched me.
"You're sure ready for the beauty chorus," grinned Wally.
"Front row. Did you ever see anything like it?"
"How long is it going to last?"
"I guess we'll soon put it right between us. Meanwhile I think you'd better not let the women or children see you. We don't want any fits or convulsions hanging round."
"All I want is a quiet life."
"And I guess you're going to get it for the next few days."
"For ever, I hope."
"There's a thing or two that must be done first. Then maybe we'll have a talk about it." He was looking hard at me now, but no longer with laughter on his lips. "And that skunk beat you like that when you were bound up?"
"It might have been worse."
"Sure. But I hope the good Lord will let me live long enough to lay my hands on him."
"That's my job, Wally. I'll look after that end of the business."
"Between the two of us, with Albert making an interested third, he ought to be in for a real good time."
But first it would be necessary to find him, and I thought that would be no easy task. He might, of course, believe that I had been effectually silenced; but against this there would be always the uncertainty. True, from what I afterwards learned, the place had quickly gone up in flames, the firemen being just able to prevent the fire spreading to the adjoining buildings. Wally, it seems, after freeing me, had found the exit by the front door cut off, and was lucky enough to discover the door by which Menilos had escaped, which led into a yard and so into another street at the back. Here merely a few people had so far collected, and after a little while I was able to stand and mingle with the crowd, who were much too busy watching the progress of the fire and the arrival of the brigade to pay any attention to me. So that Menilos, especially as no suspicious remains were discovered, would naturally believe that he had made an end of me. And I was more than content that he should think so until chance brought us together again.
George Mayford, coming along, we three discussed the matter fully. Then he laid down the law in his best official manner, looking at me from time to time and grinning most absurdly. But knowing that I must have presented a pathetically comic appearance I also tried to smile, which neither added to my beauty nor allayed certain fierce twinges which shot through my damaged lips.
He was quite sure that Abu Benabbas was the instigator of the plot, especially as he had suddenly disappeared from the Savoy without leaving an address. Menilos, of course, was his tool, and Madame Menilos, that handsome blonde from Sweden, or heaven only knows where, nothing more than a decoy. She was still in residence on the banks of the Thames, and authority had come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to disturb her. As for her alleged husband, George did not believe he had quitted the country. It might be comparatively easy to collect arms, but it would be most difficult to get away with them. Every boat leaving the river was watched. It was true that arms might be secreted somewhere on the coast, and carried out to a vessel beyond the three mile limit. But this would also be dangerous as well as laborious. The idea did not appeal to him.
The sudden disappearance of Benabbas, coinciding as it did with a fire down Shadwell way, added greatly to his discomfiture. In it he seemed to see more than he cared to express in plain words even to us. His heavy brows knotted ominously. I had a shrewd suspicion that he not only feared ultimate failure, but that he was in doubt as to the wisdom of his choice of instruments. Naturally he had said nothing of this, and even if he had it would not have changed my purpose, which was now intensely personal. I had a bit to get back, and meant to get it if I could. There was now much more in this business than the finding of Sir Julius Ashlin. As regards the fire, that, he assured us, was a comparatively unimportant incident now that I was well out of it. He would silence all inquiries that might arise concerning it. The chief thing, or so it seemed to him, was to keep secret the fact that I had escaped. There might be hope in this. Meanwhile, what of Sir Julius? If he were in the hands of the same gang, which we no longer doubted, that benefactor of his race might almost be considered in extremis. The men who had not hesitated at burning a man alive might naturally be expected to proceed to any lengths, especially with one who had a large banking account.
"And you also look where you're going, Wallington," he warned. "They know you're in this, they know that you're good enough for a fiver or two, and they're clearly out for money. One by one is their game, or so it seems to me. But dear old Peter had to go first to clear the way. We can take it they're no longer ignorant of his reputation. Evidently they were more than a little afraid of it. But now that he's presumedly gone West . . . Get me?"
"Sure," said Wally. "But see here, George, if they're so all-fired clever as you seem to think, I guess they won't be long before they find out he's alive and kicking.'
George looked at me and laughed. "Lucky thing you've got that pretty mouth, Peter. It will enable you to lie low for a few days. Floyd can answer any inquiries that may be made. You're not at home, and he doesn't know when you'll return. Perhaps a quiet time in the country until your beauty is once more ready to face the camera. Get me, darling?"
"A brilliant idea, George, coming from you."
"Then see you profit by it."
"You know George improves on acquaintance," Wally said when we were once more alone. "He don't look over intelligent behind that round of beef, but I guess that he's O.K. above the ears. It seems to me as if there's some sound horse sense in what he said, and I guess ..."
Here he broke off suddenly, for the telephone bell began to tinkle. I looked at him and he looked at me. Then Albert came in.
"Shall I answer it, sir?"
"Do. But one moment. No matter who it is I am not at home. I went out yesterday and have not yet returned. You don't know when I'll be back."
"Very good, sir." He took up the receiver. We listened, both, I think, rather intently. Albert was speaking. "Who did you say. Oh, yes. No, I regret to say Colonel Gantian is not at home. No, I cannot say when he will return." (Albert, like so many others, was just a little precise and affected when he got on the wire.) "He went out on business yesterday and has not returned. Certainly. He shall have your message without fail as soon as he returns. Thank you."
"Who was it?" I asked as soon as he had replaced the receiver.
"Lady Nathling, sir. Her ladyship is most anxious to see you."
"She didn't say, sir."
"You realise now, Albert, that I am not on view?"
"And when you go out you might hint to the porter that I failed to come home last night. You understand?"
Wally accompanied him to the door, and I heard him whisper to Albert that he was to buy himself a bouquet, and doubtless presented him with the means of purchasing it.
The next morning I received a brief note from Lady Nathling, who began by hoping I had returned, and that I would ring her up on receipt of her message. She was still in the depths of despair about her dear father. Mr. Goldberg was also distraught. It was he who, happening to be at her place, had implored her to ring me up. Like herself, he had the most implicit confidence in me.
Which was all very flattering, but I was afraid I could not accede to her request, and as to showing myself, self-respect forbade the thought of it.
I regret to say it took several days to reduce my swollen mouth to anything like respectable proportions, and it was while I rested in retirement that I wrote to Edna and told her that she might expect to see me any old day. I got a letter from her by return, in which she said she was going to kill the fatted calf, call out the town band, spread the red carpet, and generally set the countryside ablaze.
I showed it to Wally when he came in. He chuckled amazingly as he read it.
"Some girl," he said.
"Appears to be mighty fond of you."
"Well, what about it?"
"I guess we'll go at once."
"I can't let you go alone, and Julia can't let me, and Albert can't let any of us. By the way, that girl's been worrying me to death about you. Wants to know why you never come near now. I told her that you were absorbed in business, but I hoped to bring you along soon. This is the opportunity. We'll make up a little party, descend on the sheepfold, and have a look at your pet lamb. Julia's just dying to meet her."
And so, two mornings later, we set out in Wally's Rolls-Royce, I seizing the opportunity to make my escape as soon as Albert declared the coast clear. He and I rushed round to Grosvenor Street in a taxi, and I was at once conducted to the Wallington suite. Miss Julia received me, perhaps a little formally, but she soon came round. Though Wally had sworn he had not told her a word about the late adventure, I thought she looked at me rather quizzingly, which made me feel that I had not fully recovered my pristine beauty. Wally grinned and slyly nodded a surreptitious O.K. I believe the beggar was secretly enjoying my embarrassment.
However, we were soon under way and speeding through the suburbs to the open country. Albert sat next to the chauffeur, and probably subjected his driving to some expert criticism; for, as I think I have said before, among my henchman's many attributes that of steering a car over all sorts of roads, and under all sorts of conditions, was one of which I was justly proud.
Mile after mile was reeled off to the accompaniment of much pleasant chatter, Miss Wallington being particularly animated, while her brother played the part of chorus most effectively. I think the both of them were more than a little interested at the thought of meeting Edna, and I sincerely hoped that they would take to each other. I knew Wally was safe enough when set opposite a pretty face, but his sister . . .! Women are occasionally very difficult.
And then we pulled up before the old place, and Edna, accompanied by her Airedale, Jupe (short for Jupiter), came rushing down to the gate and flung her arms round my neck, and didn't seem to notice anything wrong with my mouth. Probably she was accustomed to it.
"Darling," she whispered in my ear. Looking over her shoulder I saw Wally grin.
"Edna, dear, this is Mr. and Miss Wallington."
"We just had to come, Miss Gantian," Julia said.
"It was very sweet of you. Peter has told me all about you."
"All?" grinned Wally.
"Some story," he said.
Then, seeing Albert standing stiffly at attention, although his grim lips were twitching pleasantly and his eyes shining, she went up to him and held out her hand.
"I'm so pleased to see you, Albert. Are you quite well?"
"Yes, Miss, thank you. And you?"
"Oh, I'm always well," she laughed.
And she looked it. Her hair gleamed almost golden in the light, her grey eyes were beaming, and excitement had brought the most delicious colour to her cheeks. Thank heaven her mouth bore no resemblance to mine.
The house, a red-brick one of the Georgian period, lay some fifty yards back from the road through one of the prettiest old world gardens imaginable, which was now looking at its best. The wistaria over the porch was in gorgeous bloom, and as we approached I saw old Lizzie waiting at the open door to receive me, her honest wrinkled face wreathed with smiles. I kissed her on the cheek as I always did, coming and going, and told her how glad I was to see her looking so well.
"Thank you, Master Peter," she said, "I am quite well, thank you."
I was always Master Peter to her, and would be if she lived long enough to see me grey-haired and infirm. She informed me that lunch was ready as soon as we required it, that Charlotte, who acted as cook and housemaid, was quite well, and that though Fred had been troubled a bit with lumbago he was now on the way to recovery.
I led Wally into the drawing-room, which was on the right of the hall, the dining-room being entered by the door opposite, and found that Edna had laid out refreshments for our welcome. She and Julia had disappeared upstairs. Wally and I pledged each other over a gin and Italian.
"And this is where you were born, Peter?"
"Yes, and my father before me."
"That old nurse of yours is a gem. I'd like to pack her in cotton-wool and carry her across the water. And so she helped to bring you into the world?"
"And thinks I'm still the youngster who's always getting into trouble."
"I guess she's right there. But what on earth does little sister and the rest of them think you're doing with yourself when you're away from home?"
"I've been away so much that they've got used to it. First, there was the war, which accounts for a bit, and since then, as you know, there have been certain doings. Edna labours under the pretty delusion that the Government mightn't be able to get on without me. How's the mouth looking?"
"She didn't seem to mind."
"I heard her call you 'darling'."
"The only woman who ever does."
"I guess a sister's a good thing to have after all."
Then the girls came in, and I was delighted to see that their arms were round each other. Odd how quickly women approve of one another, or disapprove.
"This is a perfectly delightful old place," Julia said, smiling at me. "I wonder you have the heart to leave it ever."
"It is a wrench," I admitted.
"Why, if I had a place like this, London, Paris, and New York might shout till they were hoarse."
"You see," said Edna, "Peter's work is in London."
"Of course," said Julia. I caught the ghost of a smile round Wally's lips.
"But he runs down whenever he can, don't you, darling?"
"My," said Julia, "this is just too sweet for anything."
And then we went into a lunch of cutlets and green peas, and a fruit salad over which we poured jugs of rich cream. I think old Charlotte fried cutlets better than any cook on earth; and as Miss Wallington declared the fruit salad was a dream you may gather that everything was what Wally would call O.K. Indeed, I never saw him in a happier mood. He talked so much that his sister once mildly hinted that other people sometimes liked to hear themselves speak. But, unabashed, he continued, and as he found that his quaint Americanisms caused Edna infinite amusement, he produced them by the bushel and laid on the accent with a trowel. I knew he was out to amuse the "kid."
Then, of course, after lunch the garden had to be explored, and the little party separated, and I did my best not to bore Julia, though I never was much of a hand as a squire of dames. But she was determined to be pleased with everything, and I fondly hoped that I shared in the general approval. Of course old Fred was encountered among his fruit trees, and duly presented. He was a fine old chap, brown and wrinkled as the trunk of an elm tree, and apparently just as tough. The garden was his life and his delight. It was his garden, don't forget, and he was as proud of it as though it were a one pet child. He reckoned that things were going along pretty smooth. There'd be a fine crop o' wall fruit if they frosts didn't come along. He lived in a perpetual dread of them. The slugs had to be watched, careful-like, an' there was a green fly that was making itself a nuisance; but on the whole things might have been worse. With much more in a Sussex burr, not half of which, I feel sure, Miss Wallington understood. But she was charming, standing there listening and smiling, and more than once I saw Fred's blue eyes twinkling at her from under their innumerable ridges of wrinkles.
We returned to the front of the house to find Edna and Wally still somewhere down in the garden, and as there were two cushioned cane arm-chairs in the porch, which looked particularly inviting on a sunny day, and the sun was shining brilliantly at the time, we sank into them as by mutual accord. I set a pipe going, but she refused a cigarette. She leaned back against the crimson cushions and looked straight at me with fine, clear eyes that were almost embarrassing in their frankness. Anyway, I was glad of that pipe, which enabled me to hold it with my hand, thereby hiding much of my mouth, which I knew had not reached its old perfection of ugliness. Such is the vanity of man. The probabilities are that she had a recollection of a mouth much uglier than it really was.
Artfully she tried to get me to talk of the war and other things, particularly of that jaunt with her brother in Asia Minor. But I made light of it, though I could not help wondering if he had blabbed the secret of my nickname. Somehow I didn't want this girl to know anything about that. More vanity, I suppose.
Then Edna and Wally appeared. That he was still amusing the "kid," I could see, for now and again she would turn away from him and shake with laughter. He had a gorgeous red rose in his buttonhole, and when he came up displayed it almost obtrusively.
"Been pelted with bouquets, John?" asked his sister, whose sense of humour was no less keen than his own.
"Sure," he answered, turning to Edna, whose colour heightened ever so little.
"You're in luck, boy."
"Guess I am."
Tea arrived in due course. Charlotte had put her best foot forward and produced some rare examples of the confectioner's art. It was all very pleasant and home-like, and I felt an inward glow of satisfaction as I looked from happy face to happy face. Then, after tea, we went out into the porch again and smoked and talked until it was time for our friends to think of returning to town. Both were reluctant to go, but Julia Wallington had to get back fairly early as she was booked for some social function that night. But she asked if she might come again soon, a request which you may be sure was readily granted. Wally, dispensing with all ceremony, invited himself down for the week-end. He protested that the air of the Downs was the best tonic in the world, and he was feeling a bit off colour, etc. Which caused his sister quietly to smile.
Edna and I went down to the gate and saw them off. The two girls kissed affectionately at parting, which I think the two brothers were particularly glad to see. As Wally gripped my hand he said, "Saturday, in time for cutlets and green peas, and don't you forget it."
We watched them out of sight, then walked back to the house, arms round each other. "Well," I said to her, "what about it?"
"I think Miss Wallington is charming."
"And her brother?"
"He is funny. I haven't laughed so much for ages. Does he really own half New York?"
"Perhaps not quite half. Say a block or two."
"If it wasn't for that car ..."
"That's Wally all over."
"I don't wonder you're such friends."
"My dear, I could trust him with my most precious possession."
I gave her shoulder an extra squeeze. Probably she understood. But she only said, "It's rather wonderful."
Then she told me that Julia had invited her to stay with them in London, the invitation being an open one. She had just to say when she would come. But of course there was the house, and the servants, and . . . All of which I quickly cut short. The change would do her no end of good, and Miss Wallington would give her the time of her life so there was nothing more to be said about it.
"Anyway," she said, "I can't think any more about it while you're here. You're going to stay a long time, aren't you?"
"I hope so, but, of course, one never knows."
It was no use telling her that I would soon have to be away again. And Wally was coming down for the week-end, which promised a certain liveliness. Besides, sufficient for the day. But at the same time I felt rather a ruffian. In spite of her friends, and her golf, and her car, her tea fights and her dinner parties, she must have felt dreadfully lonely at times. As a balm to conscience I vowed it should not be long before she accepted Julia Wallington's invitation.
All the next morning I pottered about the house and the garden, Edna by my side. Sometimes we held hands, sometimes she slipped her arm through mine and looked up at me with shining eyes. I felt an awful brute, though, thank heaven, she never regarded me as such. I was home once again, and that was all she seemed to want.
After lunch she took me for a run in her two-seater, going as far as Uckfield and coming round by Hailsham. We pulled up at Lewes, where she did a little shopping, and it was while she was making some of her purchases that, happening to glance across the road, I saw a man looking my way, looking rather intently I thought. It may have been fancy on my part, but it seemed to me that he turned and shuffled off rather hurriedly as soon as he saw that he was observed. He was a thin, oldish man with a bent figure and a beard, and he walked like one with flat feet.
I puzzled my brain endeavouring to discover if I knew anyone answering this description, but if I did I could not fix him. Probably he was some old resident who knew me well by sight. However, Edna appearing at that moment laden with parcels made me forget all about him. Though I could not help throwing a glance round as we shot off.
But as we approached home once more, were, indeed, only three miles distant, we passed the house known as The Croft, and I asked her casually if a tenant had yet been found for it. She said she believed so, as more than once she had observed smoke issuing from one of the chimneys. But of the residents she had seen no sign, with the exception of an old man with a beard, and of him she had only caught a glimpse as he was passing through the gate.
An old man with a beard! Perhaps it wasn't so very strange that my thoughts should have jumped back to that shuffling figure in Lewes. Was he by any chance the new tenant? Ridiculous, of course. But my mind had been trained to search for much that was real in the apparently ridiculous. Stranger things had happened. And though his identity might in no way concern me, it struck me as being something in the nature of a coincidence.
The Croft was one of those unfortunate properties which, with or without reason, acquire a bad name. Originally belonging to a family called Winterfield, it had for many years fallen into disuse, and so into disrepute. It stood back from the road quite a considerable distance, and in the summer was almost hidden by trees. Round it was a crumbling brick wall. The main entrance was by a heavy iron gate, but as this was boarded over it shut out entirely all view of the interior. As the house was situated on a byroad, few but the local inhabitants ever found it. For whispers of ghosts had got abroad, and more than one honest fellow, reeling home beneath a load of spirits, had not unnaturally seen strange sights and heard strange sounds.
Yet I must admit that the news of the old man with the beard kept me wondering if there was any connection between him and the shuffling figure that had eyed me so keenly in Lewes. What the connection, if any, was of course the conundrum. Many old men wore beards, but all did not look at me intently, or shuffle off on being observed.
I would have liked to question her further, but was afraid she might grow suspicious, if not wholly fearful, and I had no wish that she should receive even the remotest inkling of possible danger. None the less, I could not dismiss The Croft and its new tenant from my mind, and after breakfast on the following morning I sent Albert secretly on a tour of investigation, knowing that none better could be entrusted with the job. In any other part of the country I would have undertaken the task myself, but as I happened to be rather well-known in the neighbourhood it would not have done for me to be seen spying about my neighbour's premises.
Shortly after his departure the postman, on his bicycle, brought me a letter from George Mayford. He began by commending me for taking his advice. (He had a weakness for believing that his advice was always of the best, and that those who omitted to follow it lived to regret the omission.) He sent his love to the "little sister," and tried to be funny at my expense in his heavy, red-faced way. Then he went on to inform me that sundry of his young men, at different times, had paid a visit to the Sheet Anchor, but without discovering a trace of the chucker-out with the cauliflower ears. So it was to be presumed that he had got the wind up. But such beauty could not remain hidden for long. As to the one who played, with fire, he had also disappeared, but was not forgotten.
Edna came and sat beside me as I was fingering the letter. Though she did not question me outright there was inquiry in her eyes.
"It's from George Mayford," I explained. "He sends his love. Old George never forgets to send his love." She smiled and turned aside, I thought a little disappointed.
As Albert did not put in an appearance before lunch, Edna and I went and called on some friends of ours on the other side of the hill. I raised an objection, wishing to keep as close to the house as possible, but she over-ruled me. The Sandworths would be awfully offended, especially as she had told them that I was coming down. So we set off across the hill, Jupe frisking on ahead. The Sandworth girls, Jean and Polly, seeing us in the distance, came up the road to meet us. They were both good-looking girls, Jean, the elder, being exceedingly handsome. Indeed, in other days, I had had something more than a weakness in that direction, but like all my other dreams it had petered out miserably. With so many fine looking fellows about how could a girl like Jean Sandworth look at a chap like me? The only wonder was that she hadn't been snapped up long ago. It is rather singular, when you come to think of it, how so many nice girls hang fire.
"Dad'll be frightfully glad to see you," Jean said as she shook hands, a bonnie grip from a cool firm hand.
"Who else could there be?" she laughed.
"I'm glad to see you," said Polly, "and so is Jean, really."
"Then of course we're all glad," said Jean, "so that's that."
She slipped her arm through Edna's and led the way back, Polly and I bringing up the rear. They were good friends, these three girls, and helped to lighten my burden of neglect.
Old Sandworth, pipe in mouth, was pottering about his garden as we came through the gate. He smoked the most awful tobacco in the blackest of black pipes. You could smell him and his poison a mile off. I smelt him now and wondered how the flowers survived the ordeal. In his young days he had been in the Navy, but now looked more like a retired corn-factor than a sailor. His grip was as hearty as his voice, but he was a consummate bore over his garden, and he at once began to bore me consummately. What did I think of this, and what did I think of that, and wasn't this a perfect specimen, and wasn't that, and so forth and so on interminably. And then he suddenly blurted out that he supposed I wasn't married yet, a supposition which I being unable to deny produced an ominous head-shaking. Evidently I was past hope. To change the subject I mentioned that The Croft seemed to have found a tenant at last.
"So I understand," he said, "but I have seen nothing of 'em. Place must be in a pretty rotten state after being shut up for three years."
"As long as that, is it?"
"Pretty well. Come and have a spot."
"I'm on the water-wagon, admiral." I always called him admiral, though I knew he had retired with no higher rank than that of commander.
"Rubbish!" he snorted. But nothing would induce me to fill my pipe from his jar. He laughed. "Man's tobacco," he said.
"Seaman's" I corrected.
"And you're only a soldier?"
"Not even that."
"Boy," he said, "I wonder what the country's coming to?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
"Neither does anybody. What with—"
But luckily at that moment the girls appeared.
"Jean and Polly are going to walk back with us," Edna said. I looked at Jean and smiled. She raised her fine, supercilious brows.
"We're in luck, Colonel Gantian," she remarked.
"Then that's that." But I'm sure she failed to appreciate my reproduction of her words and tone. The admiral came down to the gate exhaling his poison fumes.
"How long is it going to be this time?" he asked, blowing an obnoxious cloud into my face.
"If I survive—" I whispered, using my handkerchief. The girls smiled. They knew what I meant, though he was perfectly oblivious.
"Well, look in again before you go. I want to know what they think in London about this Palestine business."
"They never do. I don't know how we manage to get along."
"Pretty state of things," he snorted. "Time we smoked out all those alien financiers who are playing ducks and drakes with the country."
At this there was a sudden giggling of girls, in the midst of which we sheered off, the old man waving a genial good-bye.
As before Jean and Edna led the way, nor did the former once look round. For some reason which I failed to penetrate I knew I was in her bad books, and even when we said good-bye at our own gate she still maintained her air of lofty distance.
"What's the matter with Jean?" I asked, as Edna and I, arm in arm, walked up to the house.
"Did you notice?"
"She's a dear, Peter."
"I know she is."
"But she doesn't know that you know."
"Would that put her in a better humour?"
"Oh, you men," she said, "you're too absurd."
Albert was waiting for me with his report. It would seem that no sort of success had attended his scouting for quite a considerable time. He had investigated The Croft from every angle, but had caught neither sight nor sign of a living soul. More than once he had mounted the wall and peered over, but for all he saw the house might have been uninhabited. And yet, he declared, he had a rum sort of feeling that he was being watched. He couldn't account for it, there being nothing human in sight. Yet it was like doing sentry go in the dark, knowing that the enemy was just over there waiting an opportunity to spring a surprise.
Then he decided on a closer investigation. There was, it seems, a tree which grew beside the wall, the branches of which made fine cover for one who wished to see without being seen. Sitting astride the wall screened by the leaves, he waited and watched patiently for some time, and was about to drop over when a heavy stone crashed in among the branches missing his head by a hair's-breadth. Doubtless this raised the fighting instinct in him, he being one who always returned blow for blow with interest when possible. So he parted the branches to have a view of his assailant and saw a thick-set, broken-nosed fellow, a most unpleasant looking bloke, he assured me, standing a few yards back looking up at him.
"'What are you doin' up there?; he yelled at me.
"'Lookin' for the Sleeping Beauty!' I said, 'and I seem to have found him.'
'"I'll make a sleepin' beauty of you if you don't get off that wall, an' quick.'"
He shook a heavy chunk of wood at me, and seemed about to let fly, but as he didn't I thought a soft word might meet the case.
"'You're a nice one,' I said, 'flinging rocks at a pal. What do you think you're doing?'
"'You sheer off,' he said, 'an' don't let me see you sneakin' round 'ere again or I'll make mincemeat of you, see?'
"'Oh, well, if you're going to take it like that.'
"'An' I ain't taking no lip from you,' says he. 'If I once get my 'ands on you I'll tear your blinkin' face in two.'
"And he looked the sort of bloke that would do it, sir, if he got a chance, so I thought it better to retire according to plan."
Though Albert told his story in his usual matter-of-fact way there was a question in his eyes. I nodded appreciatively.
"Did you by any chance notice the man's ears?"
"Now you come to mention it, sir, I did."
"What were they like?"
"A pair of flappers."
"We may have something to say to him before we've finished."
"You'll let me say it, sir? I owe him one for that chunk of rock."
"All in good time, Albert."
"Thank you, sir."
Could it be Wally's Cauliflower Ears? George Mayford said he had disappeared from the Sheet Anchor. There was a possibility that he might be taking the country air for a change. At any rate, it made the bearded tenant of The Croft loom a trifle portentously, and was a link between him and that incident in Lewes. Imagination immediately began to play the queerest of queer tricks with me. One little forgotten plot of earth suddenly teemed with potentialities.
That night I was more careful than usual in my inspection of the window catches and the door bolts, and dropped a hint to Albert that there might be trouble in the offing, which was quite enough to put that old soldier on his guard. But the night passed without any unusual occurrence, though once I thought I heard Jupiter growl. I sat up, listening intently; then I crossed to the door and gently opened it. But the growl, if growl it were, was not repeated, and I felt sure that I had been mistaken. Jupiter always slept on a couple of blankets in the hall, and nothing unusual would have escaped his notice. Moreover, there was Albert, who had ears as sharp as any dog, and who slept as lightly. When he brought my shaving water he had nothing to report.
In the morning I took a promiscuous stroll in the vicinity of The Croft, but saw nothing of the new tenant, or his henchman Cauliflower Ears. Smoke rose from one of the chimneys, and I caught a glimpse of an open window at the back of the house, but otherwise nothing suggestive or important came to view. The newcomers were evidently most circumspect. Yet the fact remained that the description of the new tenant bore some resemblance to the shuffling figure I had seen in Lewes, while Albert's truculent friend of the wall reasonably suggested the chucker-out of the Sheet Anchor. Enough here to go on with, and to make one wonder what was happening in that mysterious house.
And that night Jupiter not only growled but barked vociferously. I was out on the landing in a moment, listening. The dog's bark subsided to a snap, as though he were not certain. Edna, who slept on the other side of the landing, opened her door and called out, "Peter!"
"It's all right, dear," I said consolingly. "Jupe must have been dreaming."
She came to me and laid a trembling hand on my arm.
"I'm sure he must have heard something. Peter, I'm frightened. He never barks for nothing. Look!" she whispered, drawing in against me. A light was appearing in the hall. But it was only Albert, candle in hand.
"Woke you up too, did he?" I asked, descending the stairs to him.
"What's the matter, old man?" I asked, patting the dog's head. He looked up at me and gave a low whine.
"Shall I take a look round?" Albert asked.
"I don't think so. The dog probably thought he heard something. It's nothing, dear," I called out to Edna. "Go back to bed. You'll catch cold if you stand there."
Albert sidled closer to me and whispered. "He did hear something." I flashed him a warning glance.
"But, Peter," she called out, "I tell you he must have heard something."
"Then just to assure you Albert and I will have a look round."
"You won't go outside?" she implored.
"No necessity, my dear."
We entered the dining-room. Albert answering my look of interrogation with a nod. "I heard it too."
"I woke up thinking someone was testing my window, but as it didn't come again I felt sure that I had been mistaken. Then, when the dog began to bark—"
"Let's have a look," I said. But an investigation showed no sign of an attempt at forcible entry. Everywhere the shutters were secure. Jupiter followed us, sniffing; occasionally he gave a low whine as if wishing to tell us something.
"He heard something all right, sir." I nodded, agreeing. Edna met us on the landing. "I thought I told you to go to bed."
"Sure it's nothing?"
"Thank God you're here, Peter."
"Of course I'm here. Now get off with you, and if that infernal dog wakes me again I'll shoot him on sight."
"He must have thought ..."
"A dog's thoughts!"
"But I tell you he never barks for nothing."
"He did this time, anyway."
So the people over at The Croft were getting a trifle curious. Of course it might have been some gentleman of the night seeking adventure, though this I did not really believe. More was evidently known of me than I appreciated. Was it possible that Abu Benabbas and his friends knew of my escape from the fire? For a long time I lay awake staring up at the ceiling, thinking hard. If extremest caution had never been necessary before it was now.
When Albert appeared in the morning he informed me that someone had been tampering with his window.
"Sure?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. Only wish he'd got in," he grinned. "The servants said anything?"
"No, sir. They want a bomb under the bed to wake them up. Think it's anything to do with the gang we're after?"
"It may be. I'd like to know a little more about your friend over at The Croft."
"I'll look him up, sir. I'd like to have a further word or two with him."
"All in good time." Questioningly he still looked at me. "It's just possible," I said, "that they know I'm here."
"In that case—"
"I couldn't have gone up in that fire down at Shadwell."
"They evidently mean business?"
"Looks like it."
"In that case—" he said again.
"Anyway, sir, we know where we are."
I nodded. But did we? It seemed to me that we were very much in the clouds. Fortunately Edna suspected nothing serious. With the coming of day all her terrors seemed to vanish. She was still positively certain that Jupe had heard something, but inclined to think little of it now that she had daylight and me. Had she dreamt of the shadow that was hanging over us heaven only knows what would have become of her peace of mind.
JUST before lunch on Saturday morning Wally arrived, and downright glad I was to see his cheery face. He was a dispeller of gloom, a dispenser of light in dark places. Edna welcomed him cordially, if a little shyly. Of course we had talked a good deal about him and his sister, and I think she was not a little impressed by the thought of his wealth, and of his freakish activities in the social world, garbled accounts of which she had seen in the newspapers. Once she went so far as to ask me if he was really fast, upon which I delivered a homily of the numerous pitfalls which beset the path of rich young men. They were not to be dumped in the category of ordinary mortals. For the rich the world was one vast allurement, and saints were scarce. It might be wicked to revel in luxury while so many starved, but on the whole the world rather envied such wickedness. And Wally wasn't wicked, but just careless. Show him the way to do a good deed and he never hesitated to do it. It was just his luck that put him on top. But for it he might have been laying bricks at so much a week.
But I thought her manner with him was just a little more reserved, though it was doubtful if he noticed it, there being no reason why he should. He could not know that she had been asking questions about him. If he had known I am sure much of his geniality would have fled. He might even have lessened his attempts to make her laugh.
He was much interested in my account of Albert's adventure with the man at The Croft, having no doubt whatever, from my description, that it was his old friend Cauliflower Ears. When I further related the incident of Jupiter's barking, and of the tampering with Albert's window, he looked serious.
"Gee," he said, "they're on the war-path. And that guy over in Lewes. You think he recognised you?" I nodded. "Any idea who he was?"
"But he knew who you were?"
"What do you think?"
"It looks mighty like it. Anyway, I guess it's the end of your shamming dead. Boy, we've sure gotta sleep with one eye open." Then he began to smile. "I've got some news for you, too."
"Olga Menilos. But easy; here comes Edna." It was not till she had gone to bed that night, and he and I sat smoking, a whisky and soda beside us, that he launched out. It seems that on his return to Town with his sister, after his visit to us, he found a letter awaiting him in his apartment. This he took from his pocket and handed it to me. It was addressed from the Savoy Hotel, and read as follows:
"DEAR MR. WALLINGTON,—Could you make it convenient to call on me at the earliest possible moment? I have something very important to say to you, and am much distressed. I assure you the matter is most urgent. When you receive this will you kindly ring me up.
"Intriguing," I suggested as I handed it back to him.
"Very. Fortunately Julia wasn't present at the reading, and you can guess I didn't take her into my confidence. She don't as a rule speak disparagingly of anyone, but for that Swedish blonde she has no sort of use. Julia is the kind of girl who likes or dislikes, and when she dislikes she just forgets.
"Well, boy, I thought a good deal about that letter; took, in fact, the whole night to think about it, and in the morning made up my mind to see what lay behind it. It was just possible she might be able to hand out some news that might help. You never know what bee will sting a woman, or in what direction she's going to jump. If she happened to jump my way, well, so much the better.
"So about ten o'clock I rang her up, told her I had just returned from the country and got her letter, and that I could manage to come along any time in the afternoon most convenient to her. She suggested between half-past four and five in time for tea. I told her that would suit me O.K.
"Naturally I thought that we should take tea somewhere in public, but when I asked for her I was shown up to her apartment on the third or fourth floor, I forget which.
"She greeted me as though I had been a long lost friend, said it was most awfully sweet of me to come, and looked at me with those blue eyes of hers that set me wondering what lay behind them. As you know, son, they're some eyes, and she knows how to use them with effect. But, as you also know, a woman's eyes, as eyes, never made an appeal to me. There's nothing in 'em, boy, unless they're the eyes of the woman you respect."
"Of course." But I did not even smile.
"And she looked mighty attractive in a flimsy dressing-gown, or negligee, or whatever they call the darned thing, and I sure began to wonder how such a fine woman could have taken on that bit of rotten junk she calls her husband.
"Well, sir, we sparred a bit until the tea was brought in, and I must admit that she showed considerable science in spite of her nervousness. There was a catch in her voice, a quick movement of the eyes and hands, that couldn't very well be missed, though I did my best to make her think I was missing all the time. But she was sure mighty interesting to watch, and what she might have to say was likely to prove still more interesting. I naturally thought it would be of her husband, or Benabbas, but it was nothing of the sort. No, sir, it was money."
"Money?" I thought I was beginning to see light ahead.
"Her board bill. Would you believe it, son, that skunk from Greece, or where in hell it is he comes from, had beat it and left her stranded, and she was in deadly terror of being arrested as a swindler. Think of that now; a poor foreign lady left all alone in a great cruel city like London. My heart just went out to her.
"'Let me get this clear,' I said. 'Are you trying to tell me that your husband has deserted you?'
"'What else can it mean? Where is he; why have I not heard from him?'
"'Why should he do a mean thing like that?'
"'Why do some men treat women cruelly?'
"'That's what I never could understand.'
"'You wouldn't?' she said. I thought it better to let this slip by without comment.
"'And where do you think he's gone?'
"If she only knew. Then she began to talk about herself. She was only a girl of seventeen when she first met him in Stockholm, not old enough to know her own mind. It seemed incredible now, but at the time he made an irresistible appeal to her. She had always been fond of the sea, and of sailors, and the thought of seeing the world with him proved mighty attractive. But her married life had been far from happy. Like most men he was selfish to the core. Now she was alone in that great hotel without a friend in the world. She tried hard to keep back the tears, but it was no good. She just couldn't control her emotions.
"I mentioned Benabbas, and that set her going. She blazed out at him, called him the evil genius of her husband, who was really a weak man easily led astray. Benabbas, with his fanciful schemes of wealth and greatness, had bewitched them both for a time. What those schemes were she didn't know, but he was always bragging of what he was, and what he was going to be; that the British Government was afraid of him, and that he held the fate of Palestine in the palm of his hand. But she was tired of him and his intrigues, and had now only one wish in life: to get back to her native land and try to forget the unhappy past.
"I admitted that this seemed to me the wisest thing to do, and gave her some sound advice in my best Americanese. You know how I can lay on the accent and the idiom when the spirit moves? She listened like a girl at Sunday School, and seemed to think I was the most sympathetic guy that ever walked the earth. She caught my hand and began kissing it. I thought it was time seriously to take stock. But she didn't give me half a chance to think. She poured out a torrent of flattery that might have swept me off my feet had I been susceptible to women. But as you know I'm not built that way. If I had been there would have been an end to me.
"Boy, it was sure awkward. When a woman says nice things to you, and lets you see quite plainly that you're the beginning and the end of life for her, you're up against a tough proposition. I don't mind telling you that I was just scared to death, and began wondering how I was going to get out of it, and wishing that Julia was nearby. I couldn't be downright rude, and anyhow, I had a feeling that she wasn't going to provide an easy get-away. That sort don't. So I thought it might be wise to try a little temporising. It might give me a clue to how things stood. She smiled. Olga smiling was sure the cutest thing I ever saw in smiles. If that woman was not the devil's own sister then I disbelieve in the existence of the family."
'"I don't see,' she said, and her smile was just too lovely for words as she said it, 'how I can possibly manage with less than ten thousand pounds.'
"'Why,' I said, 'ten thousand pounds is fifty thousand dollars. A nice tidy little sum.'
'"Nothing to you,' she snapped. Her lovely pathetic eyes had now turned dark and threatening.
"'Say, Olga, who put you on this pretty game —that wicked husband of yours, or that dago descendant of the Prophet?'
"'You'll pay,' she said, 'or be sorry for it.'
"'I guess I shall be sorry for it either way, but that don't mean that you're going to get away with it so dead easy.'
"'Perhaps you prefer a scandal?'
'"Not your first, Olga?'
'"What do you mean by that?'
"'See here, girl, I know a bit about you and your friends, and if you were ever willing to be guided by reason you'll take it by the hand right away. There's some things that don't let the light of day shine on them. They don't like it, and this sure seems to me to be one of them.'
'"And there are some things millionaires don't like,' she sneered.
'"Blackmail being one of them. It's sure a most dangerous article to handle, even with experience at the back of it.'
"'But you'll admit that the experience may be useful? '
'"Upon occasion, but you should always choose the occasion with a little discrimination.'
"'I have. Well, Mr. Wallington, what's it to be: a few of your dirty dollars—or my calling for help? Make up your mind. I'm tired of you.'
"'And I'm just beginning to find you interesting. But say, isn't Mrs. Potiphar about played out? Can't you strike something more original?'
'"You'll find it answer.'
'"But I was thinking of you, Olga. I should just hate to see you in the hands of the police.'
"But I wasn't feeling quite as easy as I tried to make out, and I blamed myself for letting that girl get the pull on me. Naturally I couldn't know how far she would go, but I had an idea she wasn't out to stop at little things. If it hadn't been for the thought of George Mayford I should probably have been scared to death. George Mayford! Why, I'd done the very thing he'd warned me against. Was there ever such a fool in the world! Then there was Julie, over here to look after me! And Edna! What sort of a skunk would she think me? Of course the man is always to blame in things of this sort, and the mob hates a guy with dollars. It don't seem to matter how often a chap is accused, the woman nearly always gets away with it. If she don't always succeed she gets near enough to do a bit of mud-splashing.
"She must have guessed more than a little of what was running through my mind, and it seemed to do her quite a lot of good, for she was smiling in a way that failed entirely to meet with my approval. But that didn't seem to worry her any. No, sir, if ever a girl was sure of her man that blonde was sure of me.
"'See here,' I said, 'assuming that I am prepared to meet your unjust demands, you don't suppose I carry so much money about with me?'
"'You have a cheque-book.'
'"Not on me.'
"'A note to your banker would do as well.'
"'I might stop it.'
"'But you won't.'
"'Because there will be a second note explaining the reason of such generous compensation.'
"'Compensation, eh? That sounds pretty good, Olga. I guess you're too slick for me.'
"'You and your clever friend, Colonel Gantian.'
"'Some people have found him so.'
"'Leathermouth,'" she sneered.
"So she knew that, too! Well, considering her associates, this was more disturbing than surprising. I saw at once that the machine was not running quite as smoothly as we hoped, but after that business down in the East End was prepared for almost anything. The thing was how to get away from her without making a scene, though for the life of me I couldn't see how it was to be done.
"Taking in the room and its furniture, not forgetting the windows and the doors, I noticed a telephone on a cabinet, and this gave me the idea. I could scarcely hope for any real benefit, but it seemed to me worth trying. I took out my cigarette case, offered her one, which she refused, but asked her permission to smoke. Impatiently she assented. After lighting the cigarette I crossed to the fire-place and threw the match in the grate. This brought me close to the telephone. I picked it up.
"'What are you doing with that?' she snapped.
"'A cheque for ten thousand will want a little explaining. Give me Victoria 9972. My banker. He might ask questions. Even I don't chuck money about as though it was so much dirt, and when it comes to an order written on unofficial paper . .'
'"Put that down.' she cried.
"'My dear lady, don't you understand that even business must be conducted on rational lines?'
"'Put that down.' she said again, this time more determinedly. Then came the 'Hullo!'
'"Put me through to Mr. Mayford.'
'"Are you going to do as I tell you?' she asked.
"I suppose you want the money, don't you? If you won't allow me to fix it up how are you going to get it?'
'"I want you to put that receiver back at once. If you don't I'll shoot you!'
"Now, without appearing to look, I had been watching her out of the corner of my eye, and I sensed that she was covering me. Again I did some mighty quick thinking. Was she desperate enough to fire? Anyway, I had to take a chance. She might miss, especially as the gun wasn't in the small of my back. Boy, those few moments were like so many years. I knew she was creeping closer. If she came close enough I might swing round on her. Then George's voice came. 'Wally speaking.' I replied. 'Come at once. Savoy Hotel!' Turning quickly I caught her by the wrist. Sure enough there was a gun in her hand. As I twisted her wrist it dropped. She made a grab for it, but I kicked it to the other end of the room.
'"Why, girl,' I said, 'what on earth are you doing with a thing like that? It might have gone off and hit you!'
'"Get out of this.' she hissed, her face dead white with anger, 'get out, you dog—you dog!' She barked as though she had suddenly gone mad.
"'I guess you'll have to put up with me for just a little while longer. You heard me make an appointment with my banker? He's coming right along, and he'll sure be mighty pleased to meet you.'
'"Are you going?' she asked again.
"'I guess not.'
"'Then stay and face the music.'
"With that she ruffled her hair, flung off her negligee, and pulled her dressing-gown down over her shoulders. Then she looked at me and laughed. I guess that laugh didn't sound good.
"'I'm going to ring that bell, Mr. Dirty Dollar, and leave you to explain.'
"But before she could reach it I called a halt, having thought just as quick as I ever did in my life.
"'You win, Olga,' I admitted sadly.
'"I always do. Now get out of this.'
"'If I can help you in any way . . .'
"'You will help me in many ways before I've finished with you. Now get out.'
"Well, Peter, I wasn't real sorry to go. She had sensed the situation perfectly, and knew I was no more anxious for a scandal than she was to interview my 'banker.' Probably she was wise as to his identity. But my, she's a rattlesnake on two legs, and means to bite, and bite hard. I never did like women butting in on a man's business, and I sure like it less than ever now.
"Down in the entrance I met George. He was mighty keen to hear what Olga had to say, but I persuaded him to let it go by. Of course he came the wiseman business, and sure let me see he thought I was the biggest fool on earth, and I guess I didn't contradict him. But see here, we're fair up against it now. They know who we are and what we're after, and they're out to put something in between that's not going to do us any real good."
There was never a doubt of this in my mind; there hadn't been for a long time. Benabbas might have been as pure a patriot as ever flaunted his country's woes before a callous world, but he and his friends were clearly out for money. And Sir Julius Ashlin had money, plenty of it. And Abu Benabbas had disappeared, and my friend Menilos was somewhere lurking in the shadows, and Olga's scheme had failed. A second time they might be more successful.
Wally and I, having finished our glasses and knocked the ashes from our pipes, rose to turn in, when of a sudden a shot rang out. There was a shivering of glass, a bullet pinged past my head and buried itself in the wall opposite. It had come through a small window on our right which had only been curtained. Instinctively we both took cover. Then Jupiter began to bark furiously.
Fortunately the door was not in line with the window. As we entered the hall the dog stopped his barking and came cowering to me. I soothed him with a pat and a few words. Next Albert appeared, a candle in one hand, a revolver in the other.
"All right, sir?"
Just then Edna's door opened suddenly and she screamed out, "Peter!"
In a flash Wally was up the stairs. Knowing she was in safe hands I unbolted the door. The dog rushed out, Albert and I following. But nothing came of our search; even Jupe failed to pick up the scent.
"That's the second time," said Albert, "but the third time's always lucky."
Though I knew what he meant I could not help wondering on which side the luck would be.
FORTUNATELY it was the barking of the dog and not the shot that had awakened Edna. True she thought she heard a shot; but both Wally and I convinced her that she must have been dreaming. Had there been one shouldn't we, who were just on the point of going to bed, have heard it? This sounded feasible enough. But she wanted to know why had Jupiter barked again? Surely he must have heard something?
"Or thought he did," Wally suggested. "As a matter of fact I believe he's been nervous all day. Dogs get like that sometimes, and are liable to attacks of nerves just like human beings. Anyway don't you worry. I guess Peter and I'll take a hold of this proposition."
Looking at him she smiled bravely. "I'm not afraid with Peter, and you, here."
"Good girl. Now just tuck in and go to sleep."
"But Jupiter would not have barked for nothing. He never does."
"Dogs also dream," he said, "just like the rest of us."
Apparently satisfied with this assurance, if not wholly convinced, she eventually retired to her room and locked the door. Then Wally and I descended to the hall and called Albert into the room with us. A hasty examination showed the hole in the glass. Later the bullet was extracted from the wall and the damage to the paper and plaster made good. Wally looked at Albert and smiled.
"Things are beginning to hum, pardner," he said.
"Was it the shot or the barking that woke you up?" I asked.
"The shot, sir."
"What do you make of it?"
"I should like to have a chat with my friend over at The Croft," was his reply.
"Yes, sir. To-morrow being Sunday, and quiet-like, I was thinking that if I called about tea time we might have a heart to heart talk. We can't allow him to disturb Miss Edna like this."
"Sure," said Wally with almost undue emphasis.
"Then you think that he—"
"Well, sir, it wouldn't surprise me much. Besides, I don't like all the shooting to come from the other fellow. You never know. Accidents happen."
"They sure do," said Wally, "and we want them to happen to the other fellow."
Albert smiled in his grim way. "That's my idea, sir, and consequently a little activity on our part—"
"It's sure coming, boy. We can't wait for the grass to grow any greener."
"No, sir, I don't think we can. Meanwhile, sir," turning to me, "I think I'd better do a bit of tidying up in the morning, nice an' early. A little more attention to that spot may be advisable. I'll be careful, of course, when cleaning the window, but it don't matter how careful you are with windows you sometimes break a pane." I nodded. "You won't let Miss Edna sack me?"
"If she does—" Wally began.
"In that case, sir, I'll say good night."
"You don't think there'll be any further disturbance?"
"Our luck's a bit out at present, sir, but it's coming back with a rush."
"We've pulled out of worse ruts," Wally remarked with a grin.
"Yes, sir, an' levelled 'em up after us."
It was now obvious that something had to be done about the people over at The Croft. No longer were midnight visits and surreptitious shots to be tolerated. As Albert had said, accidents happen, and we didn't want them to happen to any of our party. But whatever we decided to do would have to be done before our return to town, which was scheduled for Monday. Besides, there was Edna. She could not be left in doubt or insecurity. Wally, however, soon cleared the way there. We would take her back with us, and she should stay with Julia till matters had once more assumed the normal. Julia, it seems, was mighty keen on having her, and the two girls could just fool about London to their heart's content. This would provide them occupation enough to leave us in peace. Already I had thought of taking her with me to Cork Street, but Wally's appeared to be decidedly the better plan. Under my roof she would be continually on the watch and wait for me, and there might be times when such sisterly devotion would prove singularly embarrassing.
One thing was certain: we should have to do a little amateur burglaring on our own account if we were to gain any real knowledge of what was going on at The Croft. Of the connection between Cauliflower Ears and Menilos, not to mention others strictly under suspicion, we had now no real doubt. Not alone was there that business at the Sheet Anchor, which grew more obvious the more one thought of it; but the sudden disappearance of the bruiser, and his reappearance in our neighbourhood (for that he was one with the man who had threatened Albert I firmly believed), absolutely linked up the connection. Anyway, even the faintest shadow of doubt must be dispelled, and in dispelling it I had a feeling that sundry matters might come to light greatly to our advantage.
Edna, Wally and I attended the morning service, but Albert had slipped off to do a little scouting. He nursed a most unchristian-like grudge against that rough fellow over at The Croft, which even the Sabbath calm failed to disperse. We also hoped that our going would be observed by the enemy. It might afford him a certain amount of security which would be helpful to the manoeuvring Albert. Edna, her fears being entirely allayed, looked very sweet and fresh, and I knew that Wally was admiring her tremendously. I might have been non-existent for all the notice he took of me. Apparently he was laying himself out to banish any fear that might still be smouldering, but, knowing him, I realised that this was not his only motive. Once he had said to me, "A guy like me has gotta bit up against him in the estimation of a good girl. She's frightened because she don't understand. She thinks he's all fool or blackguard, and don't realise that he might be only waiting his chances to take the straight an' narrow. I know, son, because I've seen it in Julia. She's had droves of guys buzzing round, solid an' light, but she wants something she can respect, an' she don't seem able to find it. When a girl develops that respect-complex she's mighty hard to please." Which might have had a meaning behind it other than the words implied.
We met the Admiral and his daughters at the church gate. Jean Sandworth looked very handsome. As she shook hands with me she raised her fine brows ever so slightly, and the shadow of a smile played round her lips. Quite plainly that look and smile said, "You here! I hope the roof won't fall in." I sincerely hoped not, or if it did I hoped it would not fall on her. But, as usual, the Admiral monopolised the conversation, and continued to do so to the very door of the church.
Albert did not return in time for lunch. Indeed he did not put in an appearance until after tea. Wally and Edna were somewhere down in the garden, and I was trying hard to convince myself that nothing could possibly have happened to our worthy scout when into the drawing-room he came, deferential and imperturbable as ever. In a few words he told me his story. He had seen little; a distant figure at a window, smoke coming from a chimney. Not much after hours of watching, he admitted. But he had discovered a spot where the wall could be easily scaled. In fact he had scaled it, and, aided by shrubberies and trees, had even approached the house and tried a door at the back. He had come to the conclusion that an entrance might be effected through this door. Perhaps not much to go on, but much had not been expected.
Fortunately there was no moon that night; even the stars were obscured by scurrying clouds. A good night for the enterprise if ever there was one. Carefully we walked along the road, eyes and ears alert, ready to take cover at the first suspicious sight or sound. But as I have already said it was a by-road with not the best of local reputations. Yet we had not crossed more than half the distance when the headlights of a car appeared ahead, and coming so quickly, too, that we had just time to take cover behind the hedge as it dashed by.
"That guy's asking for trouble," Wally remarked. Albert uttered a sniff of contempt. I knew how he despised all reckless road idiots. But though I said nothing I was rather startled by the incident. Why should that car rush so furiously through the night when disaster might await it at every bend? What was the necessity? And it was coming from the direction of The Croft and making for the London Road!
However, I kept my thoughts to myself. No use worrying the others with what might after all be nothing but idle speculation. Yet I could not help wondering if a certain speculation had not also flashed through their minds, and that they were holding their peace for a reason similar to mine. Long association had taught us to think and act in unison. In extremity we had often thought as one. At times I was almost inclined to believe that we could read each other's mind.
But without speaking we marched on until Albert broke through a hole in the hedge. Without comment we followed. Though it was very dark he never paused for a moment. He was like a dog that had picked up a scent and unwaveringly followed it. Close behind him I came, Wally bringing up the rear. Not a word was spoken. As we entered a clump of trees he paused for a moment and pointed beyond. I saw by the dark outline that the wall was straight above us. We paused beneath it, listening. Not a sound reached us but the brushing of leaves one against the other.
"Would you mind giving me a hand, sir?" Albert asked.
I made a loop of my hands, he put his foot in it, and I lifted him up. This enabled him to reach the top and peer over. "All clear," he whispered as he drew himself up. Wally followed. Between them they pulled me up. Albert slipped down on the other side, and in a moment we were standing with him.
Slowly we wound our way through the shrubberies till we saw the darker mass of the building looming before us.
"This is the back of the house," Albert whispered.
"You have a plan?" I asked.
"For your approval, sir. Mr. Wally can wait till we try our luck with the door, which is straight in front of us. If we get in, then he can creep round to the front entrance."
"But why not the three of us go in together?" Wally whispered.
"Well, sir, you never know. Accidents happen. ''
"I see," said Wally, grasping Albert's meaning.
"Yes, sir. But be sure you keep well in shadow."
Noiselessly we crossed the short space which separated us from the house and pulled up against the door, in the shadow of which we stood listening. Then Albert, extracting a jemmy from his pocket, set to work.
When nature cast him in an honest mould she spoilt the makings of a first-class cracksman. So silently he worked that one might almost have thought it was a mouse gnawing the woodwork. If he had only a lock to negotiate I had no apprehension as to the result.
But what if the door was heavily bolted? The odds were on the bolts. Such a door, in such a position, was sure to be secured with something more than a lock. In that case we should have to find some other way of entering, a contingency not pleasant to contemplate. On the other hand, there was the possibility that the inmates, believing in their security, had neglected certain precautions. Even the most careful were known to grow careless at times, and the wiliest of criminals were frequently trapped by overlooking some apparent trifle.
Meanwhile Albert, with the skill of a consummate burglar, plied his task, and presently he looked up. Catching a gleam of his white teeth I knew he was grinning in his quiet way. I also saw the door slowly open; then it was gently closed again.
"I'll just have a look round, sir," he whispered, and before I could expostulate he was in. I followed, and Wally was about to follow me; but I pushed him back, thereby silently reminding him of the part he had been allotted. I knew he would hate it. If there was anything doing he always wanted to be in the midst of it; but he was a good soldier, and however much he might dislike his job I knew he would stick it.
Albert and I stood in the darkness listening. We dared not move for fear of encountering some obstacle. So presently I flashed my torch, and from what I could make out we were in a sort of narrow stone-flagged hall or passage, at the further end of which was a flight of stone stairs. Towards this I moved, Albert close at my heels. Flashing the lamp I saw that the stairs took a sudden turn to the right. I counted twelve of them. A good place for one waiting in ambush. But there could be no hesitation now. Albert whispered, "careful, sir," as I began to mount. Though I tried to throw my flash round the corner I found it impossible to do so, the stairway shooting off at a right angle. Carefully I counted the stairs as I mounted, and was just raising my foot to the eleventh, and was about to switch on my flash, when there was a sudden movement overhead. This was followed by a resounding thud on the wall beside my head and a snarl as from a wild dog. The next moment I was grappling with a heavy body, and together we rolled down the stairs bringing Albert with us. The man, for man it was, was making a vicious attempt to tear at my throat, but I jabbed him violently on the jaw, which brought another ugly snarl from him. Then a light was suddenly flashed on us, and by it Albert was able to take a hand, which he did to some purpose.
"Gee," came Wally's voice, "just as well I waited to see that everything was O.K."
Our concentrated light showed our late assailant lying face downward on the floor with Albert astride the small of his back.
"Let's have a look at him, Albert."
Though it was not possible to put a ring through his snout, Albert did the next best thing. Taking a fine but strong piece of cord from his pocket he swiftly made a noose and slipped it over the fellow's ankle.
By this time Cauliflower Ears, for it was he, was opening his eyes. He blinked at the light that played on him, then rubbed away a little trickle of blood from the side of his head.
"Get up!" I said.
He made a sudden bound, snarling furiously; but Albert gave the line a jerk, which instantly brought him on his back.
"Easy, son," said Wally; "you're sure in a pleasant fix."
"Who are you?" growled the fellow.
"Just friends who are anxious about your health."
"Best look after your own."
"Sure. We always do."
"Now get up," I said.
"And no tricks," Albert added, "unless you want to go down again." He jerked the line as a gentle reminder.
Slowly the man got to his feet, our lights playing on him. I can conceive his confused, and probably eerie, imaginings. He was seen without being able to see. Yet, unless I was mistaken, he had no doubt of our identity. He might even have known that we were breaking in and set his trap for us, which had gone off and caught him in its teeth.
"Anyone upstairs?" I asked.
"Find out," he growled.
"We intend to. You heard, no tricks."
"You'll soon know, if you try any."
I went on ahead, Cauliflower Ears following, Albert in close attendance. Passing the turning safely my flash showed a similar number of steps above. At the top of these was an open door. I paused for a moment or two. Our prisoner chuckled, then swore. Albert had pushed something, and not too gently, into the small of his back. I went on.
Here we encountered another passage which led into the hall. From a door on my right a light was streaming. Entering this door we found ourselves in a large room, evidently a reception or drawing-room. A light, suspended from the ceiling, lit the place fairly well. On a table was a glass and a bottle of whisky. I looked at our prisoner and met a sullen vicious smile. Wally took up the bottle and smelt it. Then he smiled. There could be no doubt of it. Cauliflower Ears had been imbibing too freely. I knew this by the smell of him long before I had seen the bottle.
Deftly Wally went over his person, extracting nothing more formidable than a bunch of keys. The fellow scowled and clenched his fists. Albert gave the cord a jerk which quickly brought him to his senses.
"O.K," Wally grinned. "Say, son, you remember me?"
"No!" He stood defiantly, scowling, his little eyes glancing maliciously from one to the other.
"Well, well, perhaps you will before we've finished with you."
"Who are you, anyway? Whatya mean breakin' in like this?"
"We've come to call on your friends," I said. "Where are they?"
"Wot friends? I ain't got none."
"Menilos, among others."
"Never 'eard of 'im."
"Where are they?" I repeated. Albert emphasised my question by giving the line a jerk.
"Answer when a gentleman speaks to you," he said.
"Gome," grinned the man. "Clever, ain't ya, yus."
"How did they go?" But I was afraid I knew.
"By airyplane," he jeered.
"Then there is no one here?"
"What's your name?"
"You heard the gentleman," said Albert. "Don't forget I owe you one for that chunk of rock."
"So that's who you are! Wish it had knocked your brains out."
"Well, it didn't, see? Now answer."
"Benson," said the fellow.
"Perhaps?" queeried Albert.
"Who is your employer?" I asked, though I knew it would be hopeless to expect anything satisfactory in the way of an answer. The man was as crudely cunning as he was brutal. Nothing but the thumbscrew or the rack would have been of any use here.
"What's your job here?"
"Mindin' my own business."
"Best be civil," Albert warned.
"Why did you try to shoot me the other night?"
"Shoot ya! What you givin' me?"
"Who put you up to it?"
"I dunno whatya mean. Try and talk a little sense. An' get outa this quick or you'll be sorry for it. Breakin' in! Crooks, that's wot you are, thieves an' burglars. I knew wot you was up to, an' I warned the pleece. They'll be here any minute."
"They are here," I said. He jerked his head round to the door as if expecting to see it open. "We are the police. We got your message and we've come to see what it's all about. But I warn you that anything you say may be used as evidence against you."
This must have sounded familiar and unpleasant. Doubt now crept into his glance; irresolution mingled with defiance. Behind that low retreating forehead of his what little brain he had was working swiftly if confusedly. We might belong to the police. He knew enough of the force and its ways to dread its wide and secret movements. On the other hand, I might be bluffing.
"I ain't done nothin'," he said.
"Enough, I think, for penal servitude."
"Do ya? You've gotta prove it."
"But it might help you a bit if you begin by telling us who your employer is."
"It might, if I knew."
"And what you know about Nicolas Menilos and Abu Benabbas."
"I dunno what you're talkin' about."
"Wait a minute, Cauliflower Ears," said Mr. Wallington. "That you're a pretty considerable liar is a dead sure thing, but if you think you're getting away with it so easy you're making the mistake of your sweet young life."
"And who are you?" asked the fellow.
"I'm the guy you tried to stop following Menilos that night down at the Sheet Anchor, only a table came between us."
The man scowled. "I owe you one for that."
"Sure, and I guess you've tried your darnedest to pay. But, boy, you don't know who you're up against."
"Don't I!" He flung a quick vicious glance at me.
"In that case you're a bigger fool than I thought."
But I had had enough of this. I nodded to Albert, who unceremoniously pushed his prisoner into an arm-chair. Though he struggled, a rap on the head from the jemmy soon brought him to reason. Then he was bound securely. He blasphemed horribly, but another blow from the same instrument quieted him.
During this time no suspicious sounds had reached us. If there were other people in the house they were lying very still. But in my heart I did not believe there was anyone else, for I was thinking of the car that had passed us on the road. However, we would see. But it was a large house and we were a small party, and the darkness everywhere was against us.
Now I argued that if Sir Julius Ashlin was here, being a person of the utmost importance, he would be treated with a certain degree of consideration while he might still be useful. He was by all accounts an old man and unaccustomed to rough usage. Much rough usage might be administered later, especially if he should prove refractory, but until then the probability was that they would not deal too harshly with him. If they were after money, and it was not easy to see what other object there could be, it was not likely they would cut off the fount of supply.
Examining the lashings of Cauliflower Ears, and finding them excellent in every way, I motioned for the others to follow me into the hall, and there in a hurried whisper made known my plan. Then, leaving Albert on guard in the hall, with instructions to fire his automatic if anything suspicious happened, Wally and I mounted the stairs to the first landing. Three doors faced us, one in front and one on each side. All these were shut; but pausing before the one in front I called out, "Anyone there?" Receiving no answer I opened the door and flashed my light from corner to corner. Then I entered, Wally watching from the doorway. From what I could make out it appeared to be a sitting-room and looked out on the back garden. But there was no sign of anyone, or of anything suspicious.
Then we entered the room on the right. This had evidently been used as a bedroom, and was in some disorder. But again we drew blank. The room on the left was next entered, with a like result. As the house had but two floors there remained only the basement for us to investigate. I shook my head as I rejoined Albert, and nodded towards his prisoner. He smiled.
The door at the top of the stairs by which we had first entered, and where Cauliflower Ears had failed to ambush us, was still open, but to the right of it was another door, and this I presumed led down to the kitchen and cellars. Signing to Albert to join us, there being no further necessity to guard the prisoner, we descended the stairs and entered the kitchen, a long, low, room in a bad state of neglect. But in the midst of our investigation, Albert, who happened to be near me, touched me lightly on the arm and stood stiffly at attention, listening. I too listened, but heard nothing.
"What was it?" I whispered.
"I thought I heard something upstairs. Sorry sir, must have been mistaken."
"Did you hear anything, Wally?"
"Not a sound."
But we had scarcely started once more before we really did hear something, the whole three of us, and it sounded like a low moan. Flashing my light in the direction of the sound it disclosed a door let into the wall. Further investigation showed that the door was heavily padlocked.
I beat on it calling out, "Who's there, who's there?" Again came the moan. "Sir Julius," I shouted, "Sir Julius! Quick, Albert, the jemmy!"
"What about these?" said Wally, rattling the keys he had taken from Cauliflower's pocket.
He soon fitted one into the lock and flung back the bolt. Our three torches lit up the cellar, which by the look of it had been used for the storage of wood and coal, and showed a man lying on a heap of sacking in the far corner.
BUT it was not Sir Julius, or he had grown marvellously young since the day of his disappearance. My flash showed a man somewhere in the early thirties, with a black stubbly beard of several weeks' growth. His face was sunken, dirty and pallid; his eyes blinked painfully in the glare of the light. Indeed, with a feeble hand he tried to shut it out, moaning pitifully. But if for a moment I had wondered who he might be, the cut of his coat would have told me.
"Sir Julius's chauffeur," I said.
"Guess you're right, Peter. But where's the old man?"
"Gone. He was in that room upstairs, and in the car that passed us on the road."
"Slick work," he admitted. "Pity. Guess we'd better get this guy upstairs."
He caught him under the arms, Albert by the legs, I showing the way. In this manner we reached the hall and entered the sitting-room— to find that Cauliflower Ears was no longer there! He was gone, clean gone, and left nothing but his lashings to show that he had ever been. Albert and Wally, so great was their surprise, almost dropped the man they were carrying. Anyway, in rather unceremonious fashion they placed him in the chair lately occupied by the bruiser. Not a word was spoken, but I saw anger and incredulity pass over Albert's face. Then he stooped down and picked up the loose ends of the cord, and after examining them for a moment held them out to me.
"Look, sir, cut!" I nodded. There could be no doubt of it. But I also looked a question which he rightly interpreted. "There must have been someone else in the house. That noise I thought I heard when we were downstairs. It must have happened then. He never could have got out of it on his own."
Wally laid a kindly hand on his shoulder. "I guess not, pardner. This was done with a knife, and I'll stake my last dollar he had nothing on him like a knife when I went through him."
Meanwhile the man in the chair began his moaning afresh, but after I had administered a little of the whisky which Cauliflower Ears had left intact on the table, he opened his eyes and blinked at us in the most confused fashion. Then he cowered and began to tremble violently.
"It's all right," I assured him, taking his hand and patting it. "We're friends."
Whether he fully comprehended or not I can't say, but suddenly the tears began to stream down his face. The trembling increased. "Seems to be pretty bad, Peter."
I nodded. Much too bad, I knew, to be of any help to us just then. Starvation was clearly written on his emaciated face. I dreaded to think what he might look like under his clothes. Clearly something had to be done if we wished to save him, and done quickly. I turned to Albert. "You must go back and bring the car."
There was no need to tell him to make haste, or to go about his work quietly in case of disturbing Miss Edna. Wally handed him the bunch of keys. One might open the front gate. Albert took it and disappeared.
We stood or sat watching the man, hoping he might recover sufficiently to supply a little necessary information, but he did nothing but moan and roll his eyes in terror. Obviously he did not know where he was or what had happened to him, or if we were friends or enemies. He seemed possessed of an uncontrollable fear that warped all reason. From time to time I moistened his pallid lips with whisky, but whenever I touched him he shrank as though trying to avoid me, moaning "Don't, don't!" Then Wally would look at me and nod. There could be no doubt of the treatment to which he had been subjected.
Though Albert seemed to be gone a long time I knew he would not be wasting a moment. True, he might have encountered an obstacle or two on the way, but that he would fail to overcome them I never for a moment believed. Probably the eerie surroundings, coupled with certain late incidents, added to my impatience, Wally appeared placid enough as he smoked his cigarettes, but I knew of what he was thinking, and presently he ventured the remark that he hoped Edna wouldn't wake up and get frightened. It was sure mighty rough on a girl to have a brother like me, and he was real sorry for her. From which I probably drew my own conclusions.
But Albert came at last, and between us we carried the man down to the car, Wally asking on the way if Miss Edna had been disturbed. Albert did not think so, at least she gave no sign. Even Jupiter had remained quiet, which proved our envoy to be expert indeed in the manipulating of cars.
The journey back was void of incident, though the house was not entered without a certain commotion. Edna appeared at the head of the stairs and looked down at us with eyes wide with alarm, but Wally was quickly by her side, and I heard him reassuring her as Albert and I carried the man into the drawing-room and laid him on the sofa. Naturally she had to come down, and her astonishment at seeing us all dressed, and the stranger lying there, was intense. But I don't think she was ever really surprised at anything I did or might do, and my murmuring of the word "duty," which was accompanied by a nod towards the man, had the effect of silencing all further inquiry.
In the morning, thanks to our ministrations and some sleep, the man was much better, and was able to give us a more or less satisfactory account of what had happened. His name, it seems, was Jacobs—Joseph Jacobs—and he had been chauffeur to Sir Julius for the last three years and a half. Then he rambled on, telling us by fits and starts how, after he had left Salisbury House on that particular Friday afternoon, he was for a few moments held up by the traffic. Next moment he realised that someone had jumped up beside him; the muzzle of a gun was pushed into his ribs and he was told to drive to Barnet. He was also warned that if he hesitated on the way, or made a sign, he would be shot. He knew that someone had also entered the body of the car at the same time, for he heard excited voices within.
Beyond Barnet he was ordered to leave the main road for one that branched to the right, and after covering three or four miles of this he suddenly saw a stationary car ahead of him. It was drawn up by the roadside. A man stepped out from it and began to wave his arms. He was ordered to stop. Then he and Sir Julius, who was gagged, were transferred to the other car. The blinds were drawn and they drove off. He did not know which direction they took. Once only did they stop. Then Sir Julius was removed. He knew this, though he could not see, for he had been blindfolded. Then the car went on again, for hours it seemed to him. When at last it stopped he was thrust into the coal cellar where we found him. A hideous, cruel man was his jailer, who kicked and flogged him unmercifully. His body bore eloquent witness to the truth of this.
I asked him if this jailer was the only person he had seen during his captivity. No, he said. Sometimes a boy brought his food, or flung it at him. I looked at Wally. Was it this same boy who had set Cauliflower free? He nodded. Was there no one else, I continued, no man who spoke with a foreign accent? No; but once a man stood in the doorway looking at him while his jailer entered the cellar. But he did not speak. What was he like? He could not say. Was he bearded? He hesitated, thinking. Yes, he was sure that the man was bearded, but he was equally sure that he did not speak. He just stood there peering in, a slight, oldish man with a bent figure.
I put a trunk call through to George Mayford, and about an hour later an ambulance came for the man and took him away to Lewes. But before he went I told him that I was going to London almost immediately, and that as soon as I could I would communicate with Lady Nathling and let her know that he was safe.
Shortly after this we got a call from Julia. She was delighted at the thought of receiving Edna. The car had already left. Probably a few other things she said to her brother, intimacies they must have been, for I saw him turn red to the ears, and in the most intimate and brotherly of voices he told her to "Shut up!"
We were just finishing lunch when the car arrived. Then followed a good deal of bustle and excitement. Edna scribbled a good-bye note to the Sandworth girls, in which she explained that I was bundling her off in my usual hurricane fashion, not even giving her time to take a final look round. The leaving of the servants caused her much concern. Would they be safe, would the house be safe . . . after what had happened over at The Croft? Perfectly, I assured her. George Mayford had promised to communicate with the local police. The place would be patrolled as it had never been before. Besides, there was nothing more to fear from the late tenants of The Croft. They would give it the widest of wide berths, or I was very much mistaken.
Upon our arrival at what Wally called "the new shack in Grosvenor Street," we were received by Julia with open arms; metaphorically, as applied to me, much to my regret! But it gladdened my heart to see the way the two girls embraced and kissed. Mind you, I always think kisses between women a waste of good material, especially when there are men about; but those two dear creatures actually seemed oblivious of our presence, even of our existence. Edna was flushed and excited, and Julia's fine eyes were shining, and they shone brightly into mine as she gave me her hand.
"I'm so glad she was able to come. We're going to have a real good time, aren't we, Edna? And these boys can go about their nasty old business as soon as they like."
"But you girls are our business," Wally protested. "What do you think we've brought you to London for? To run wild? No, sir. I guess it's here you want most looking after."
"When we want it we'll let you know. And as for being looked after, John—well, the less you say about that the better."
"Maybe," he agreed.
"And I say maybe too."
They went out laughing, Edna to be shown her room. It was delightful to hear them laugh. Girls' laughter! It always made me feel happy; and yet, if the truth must be confessed, happy in a rather miserable way.
"They're a great pair," Wally was saying. "Julia's real good, but would be a mighty sight better if she had a little more respect for the head of the family; looked up to him more, same as Edna does to you. I believe that kid thinks you're the finest guy on earth."
"She knows I am."
"Well, I'm not saying that she's far wrong, but why don't Jule think the same of me?"
"How do you know she doesn't?"
"No, sir, she don't think like that at all, because I've never given her cause to."
"Then let her ask me."
"Good Lord, Peter, what a time it takes a man to find himself!"
"If it takes a man long to find himself, how long is it going to take another man to find him?"
"I'm not worrying much about men," he said.
With the reappearance of the girls came tea, and a merry tea it was; might have been even merrier had I not from time to time caught Julia Wallington stealing surreptitious glances at my mouth. I wondered if she found it very leathery?
I left them promising to return to dinner. Some sort of show was to follow. Edna came with me to the door.
"You will be careful, Peter?"
"Don't worry about me."
"But I do."
"Then you mustn't. Just enjoy yourself."
"I think Julia is sweet, don't you?"
She seemed disappointed; but let it go at that.
Albert met me in Cork Street with a disgusted shake of his head. I knew that shake of old. There was annoyance in it, and a contempt of himself.
"We appear to have had visitors during our absence."
True enough, and they had made an exhaustive search of the apartment. But fortunately I had prepared for this possible contingency. What papers of importance I had were safe in the bank. Drawers were ransacked, trunks forced, but nothing of value taken, probably because there was nothing of any real value to take. But the intent was rather disconcerting.
"Did the porter say anything about it?"
"Not a word, sir."
"Then he needn't know. No fuss, Albert."
"Get through to Lady Nathling."
Her ladyship was soon on the line. Dear Colonel Gantian, I've been most frightfully worried. Where have you been? Why haven't you rung me up? I've tried several times to get through, but no one ever answered. Please come along. I'm most anxious. No, nothing had really happened. That was the trouble. Doubt was driving her mad.
And yet, despite her anxiety, and that doubt which was driving her mad, she kept me waiting a full ten minutes after my arrival at her house, ten minutes most usefully employed by the look of her. But a charming woman can always command pardon even without apologies.
She was more than disappointed when informed that the whereabouts of her father was still a mystery to me, but brightened considerably when I told her that I had found Joseph Jacobs. She clasped my hands excitedly; her glowing eyes were difficult to meet with equanimity. I thought in her excitement she was going to fling her arms round my neck, but fortunately I was spared this embarrassment.
"I always knew you would succeed," she cried; "I was sure of it from the first moment I saw you." I reminded her that I had by no means succeeded. "You will," she continued emphatically, "I know you will. Men like you always do."
I assured her that there was still a good deal to be done. She merely smiled. Evidently my modesty was not accepted at its true value. I protested, and was still protesting, when Mr. Morris Goldberg was announced. I saw her frown, but when her father's secretary entered, or rather slid into the room, she greeted him affably, and at once told him the news. He expressed himself as being extremely delighted, and hoped it was but the precursor of still better news. Sir Julius was being missed in the City. Questions were asked which required all his ingenuity to sidetrack. He doubted if he would much longer be able to keep the secret. Didn't her ladyship think that assistance should be given to Colonel Gantian in this most difficult task? No, emphatically her ladyship did not think so. She had the most profound belief in Colonel Gantian. She would never dream of questioning his abilities. The secretary bowed. He, too, had the most profound belief in Colonel Gantian. Probably he was unduly anxious. No doubt all would end well. The finding of Jacobs, upon which he warmly complimented me, would be but the prelude to that still greater discovery.
All the same, I had a feeling that his belief in me was not of the profoundest, and that while his lips were saying one thing his mind was thinking another. He might also have been just a little envious of Lady Nathling's uncompromising championship. This, combined with the average layman's contempt for police methods, might account somewhat for his sceptical attitude.
Though his opinion of me was not such as to cause a very deep concern, I think I behaved with the utmost circumspection. I even expressed approval of his suggestion. Two minds were better than one.
"Ordinary minds," she interposed. I bowed with such grace as I could command. Then I asked him casually if he had any further news to impart concerning Abu Benabbas. Not an atom. All he knew about the man he had already told me. But was there something behind the question? Did I think . . . ? I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. One thought all sorts of things. Undoubtedly there was a connection between the Arabs and the Zionist Movement.
"Who is Abu Benabbas?" Lady Nathling asked.
"Mr. Goldberg can tell you better than I."
"Who is he, Morris?"
"As far as I can make out, an influential Arab Sheik, or something of that sort, who busies himself with desert revolutions. Sir Julius thought little of his activities."
"But a rather mysterious person, Lady Nathling, who suddenly descends out of the clouds and as suddenly vanishes into air. Isn't that so, Mr. Goldberg?"
He laughed. "So rumour would have us believe."
"But what has that got to do with us, Morris?"
"Nothing that I can see. But perhaps Colonel Gantian is better informed?"
"Not much. I thought him quite a decent fellow."
"Then you have met him?" she asked.
"Once or twice, through some American friends of mine. He was over in New York lecturing on the injustice of the Balfour Note."
"Rubbish!" she said.
"So I think."
And that was apparently the end of her interest in Abu Benabbas. I did not pursue the subject, and shortly after took my leave of both, promising infinite fidelity in my search for her father. Mr. Goldberg shook hands gravely and wished me luck, peering at me through his large hom-rimmed spectacles. Her ladyship hoped that I would come again soon, very soon. I promised. Any man would promise anything to such alluring eyes. She came very close. Myrrh and frankincense—or was it Coty?
Back again in Cork Street, no further advanced than when I set out. George Mayford looked in while I was dressing and wanted to drag me out to dine with him. Of course I had to repeat once more the tale of our doings down in Sussex. He professed to be hugely delighted, which was more than I was. It seemed to me that I was as far off as ever in the attainment of my hopes. But he would listen to nothing of the kind. Things were going along swimmingly. The first round was ours. The knockout was merely a matter of time.
"With Sir Julius still in the clouds, and Benabbas with him for all I know."
"But Benabbas is not in the clouds; he's in London."
"Hiding, no; as large as life. To-night he's lecturing on Palestine at the Association Club. That's why I wanted you to dine with me. We could go on after."
"What time does the lecture start?"
"I'm afraid I can't go with you, George, but I shall probably be there. How does one get in?"
He produced two cards of invitation.
"These will do the trick."
Wally greeted me on my arrival in Grosvenor Street, and while we were sipping a cocktail, which Julia had very thoughtfully prepared, I told him the news about Benabbas and his projected lecture.
"We shall catch it in the neck," he said. "Julia's booked a box for the Palace."
"Of course we needn't attend the lecture," I ventured.
"That's so, but I guess we'd better."
"One of us might slip away."
"One might, but which one?"
"I can plead a sudden call to duty."
"Women don't care a brass tack for duty when it comes between them and their pleasure. We must think it out. But go easy. Here they are. I guess we'll find a way."
Both girls were animated and charming. Edna's eyes were sparkling. She came straight across the room and kissed me. Julia looked on, smiling. What a handsome girl she was! Why wasn't she also a sister, or something nearer? Wally, after chaffingly complimenting them on their punctuality, slid out of the room, to return a minute later. I caught his eye and the signal in it.
Half-way through dinner I was informed that I was wanted on the 'phone. With many excuses I went to answer the call. It was Albert speaking.
"Mr. Wally said I was to ring up, sir, and say your presence was immediately required."
"Very good. Thank you."
"Thank you, sir."
As I approached the table I was frowning ominously. Though no one asked a question they were all looking at me.
"Awful nuisance," I said.
"What was it, dear?" Edna asked.
"Headquarters," I answered mysteriously.
"How horrid of them!"
"Perfectly. But we have plenty of time to finish our dinner. Let us forget it."
THE Association Club was one of those political institutions which are supposed to be run on strictly party lines, and numbered some thousands of members. From its platform party leaders frequently aired their views, and with great frequency when a general election was foreshadowed. Then many grave men got together to propound nostrums for the salvation of the country. As the opposition always thought the country was in the greatest danger, for very obvious reasons, their nostrums were many and curious. Reverend signiors with bald heads and prominent paunches thundered platitudes against the many iniquities of the Government; young men with wild eyes and wilder visions vapoured wild nothings. But in reality the majority were solid fellows who had long since abandoned dreams, and who listened unmoved to the raving of dark prophets. They knew there was no hope for the country, no matter which party was in power, so why worry?
Benabbas was speaking when Wally and I entered the great room. A fine figure of a man he looked in his well-cut evening clothes. His eloquence, moderated by sincerity, proved most effective. Clearly he laid the case of his compatriots before his listeners; murmurs of approval punctuated his remarks. All that he asked, and this he asked in justice to his people, was a reconsideration of the Palestine Mandate, which, he declared, being wrong in its inception, could bring nothing but disaster to the land it was meant to save. Of course he credited the Government with the very best intentions. He was also loath to believe in the rumours of Jewish financial influence; but the fact remained that a great injustice had been committed, and he knew that once the English people grasped this significant truth they would insist on righting a most grievous wrong. Just who those English people were who would perform this miracle he did not say, but artfully contrived to imply that his listeners were the real power behind the Government. Anyway, some of them tried to look mighty important and to expand their chests an inch or two. But the real trouble was that all parties were equally involved in this lamentable fiasco. However, a Royal Commission was sitting which would see justice done though the heavens fell. A useful thing a Royal Commission, especially to embarrassed politicians.
Later, when Benabbas saw Wally and me, he greeted us in the most cordial manner. We might have been dear friends whom he had not seen for an age. Where had we been hiding ourselves? And how was Miss Wallington? He must do himself the honour of calling presently. In fact, he would have called before had he not been out of town. But perhaps we would honour him. No, he had left the Savoy. A friend of his had placed a little house at his disposal for the short time he was remaining in England. Perhaps we would come along and have a cup of coffee. He really was delighted to see us and longing for a quiet chat. But would we excuse him for a moment while he bade good-bye to his hosts.
"Gosh," said Wally, "what a bluffer!"
"But we mustn't let him think so."
"I guess not."
"And we may as well sample his coffee."
After bidding a gracious adieu to his hosts Benabbas came towards us, his handsome face radiating the most friendly smiles.
"Now I am at your service, gentlemen," he said; "let us get along."
In his car, a luxurious car, by the way, he told us that it had been a trying evening. They were very good people, those members of the Association Club, and doubtless most honest, but they did not fully comprehend the niceties of the problem. It was characteristic of the English to have faith in their Governments, and he applauded their loyalty, but extreme loyalty had its inconveniences as well as extreme scepticism. We both murmured approval of this profound remark. But as to the English people having supreme faith in their Governments . . . The statement seemed hardly worth contradicting.
Though apparently interested in what he was saying, I noticed that the car turned off Piccadilly into Clarges Street, and swung round to the left. A little later we came to a standstill in what appeared to be a dead-end. Here we alighted. Benabbas, preceding us up the steps of the house before which we stopped (I counted those steps as was my habit. There were three), pressed the bell and we were admitted by a bearded attendant in a flowing eastern robe. All in keeping, I thought, even to the Moorish lamp in the hall, which emitted but a feeble light through its stained glass.
Mounting the wide, thickly, carpeted stairs to the first floor, we were ushered into a room of eastern appearance which was dimly lighted by two coloured lamps set far apart. The hangings, however, were of eastern design, and many comfortable cushions were spread about the place. Inlaid eastern tables were also much in evidence. A smell of incense immediately greeted the nostrils.
Our host bade us be seated, and then begged that we would excuse him for a moment. With his disappearance behind the door-curtains I looked at Wally and he looked at me, a sly look if ever there was one. But we made no remark that could in any way be deemed suspicious, for if walls have ears why not curtains?
When Benabbas returned, smiling and showing his white teeth, we saw that he had discarded his dress coat for a silk embroidered robe that seemed more appropriate to a descendant of the Prophet than the prosaic tails of the West. From an embossed antique-looking box he offered cigarettes, expressing once more the pleasure derived from being able to welcome us in his own house. Then the bearded attendant, who had donned white gloves, brought in coffee, which he carefully deposited on one of the inlaid Oriental tables. His master nodded to him and he disappeared.
Without a doubt the coffee was most excellent. Benabbas beamed at our approval while informing us that it had been sent to him from Arabia and was made in the Arabian fashion.
"And you are going back again soon?" I asked.
"Very soon. My mission here is practically accomplished."
"I hope it has been successful?"
"Only moderately so," he admitted. "It is difficult to interest people in a matter which is of no vital importance to them."
"Sure," said Wally.
"Still, I must not reckon myself a failure. Many influential persons, who before meeting me had but the vaguest idea of the true state of affairs, are now actively on my side. At the same time I realise that strong opposition is to be expected from the rich Jews."
"Like Sir Julius Ashlin?" I ventured.
"I do not blame Sir Julius. It is to his credit that he should stand with his people. From what I have heard of him he appears to be a very sincere man."
"You two ought to get together. You'd probably arrive at some arrangement that would be equally beneficial to both sides."
Benabbas smiled. "I should like it very much; but would he? Our political and religious ideals are as wide apart as the poles. Men have always warred over questions of faith, and probably will to the end of time. It is a great pity, but these are matters over which we have no control. Yet faith was created for the good of man, and there is but one merciful God above all. Though we seek him through Moses, or Christ, or Mahomet, what should it matter so that we seek him? And even though we choose to seek him by the light of our different revelations, why should that embitter us to the point of hatred and death? That man is God's man who can see good in all."
"I guess you're right there," said Mr. Wallington.
"The trouble," continued Benabbas gravely, "is not with God but with man, man who was always a rebel against the will of God. The worship of false idols is born in him; he is forever setting up an altar to the most abominable. How then can we hope to influence one who sets the Highest at defiance?"
"A pretty tough proposition," Mr. Wallington admitted.
"With the religious sense dead, which means the abrogation of right-seeing, how can one hope for political wisdom, or for that reason which should unite East and West in one great loving brotherhood?"
I confess this was a new phase of our host, and one I little expected to encounter. Presently he might be trying to convert us to the faith of his great ancestor. So I changed the subject, if not with tact, with a casualness I was far from feeling, and asked him if he had seen anything of his friend Menilos lately. Whatever I might have expected from this question I did not get. He merely shook his head. No, not since that night at the Savoy. He thought he had gone back to Greece with Madame. A charming woman, Madame. Menilos was indeed a lucky fellow. As to his being a friend; just a mere acquaintance made on board ship during a voyage from Smyrna to Athens. A most remarkable coincidence that they should have met at the Savoy that night. I thought so too.
Some excellent brandy was forthcoming to help us on our way. He begged that we would not forget him; that any time we might be near we would do him the honour of calling. His stay in London could not be indefinitely prolonged. Therefore he was anxious to neglect no opportunity of cultivating our friendship. Would Mr. Wallington convey his compliments to the charming Miss Wallington? He would always carry with him the remembrance of her charming sympathy. He made much use of the word "charming."
"Well, can you beat it?" asked Wally as soon as we found ourselves outside.
"Not by much," I frankly admitted. But I thought that if Abu Benabbas was worth cultivating before he was doubly worth cultivating now.
"Better walk over with me and see if the girls are still up."
By the light of an adjacent lamp I glanced at my watch. It was nearly a quarter to one. They would probably have gone to bed thoroughly disgusted with us for having spoilt their evening, if we had spoilt it. While I doubted I rather hoped this might be so. One might have drawn some satisfaction from the thought of anger, but none at all from the knowledge of indifference.
That Benabbas might soon be leaving England was something of a shock. It did not fit into my scheme of things. With him out of touch the chances of retrieving Sir Julius would be farther off than ever. I must confess that many doubts crossed my mind. While quite convinced that our friend from Trans-Jordania was mixed up with the disappearance of the financier, I could not discover the essential link of connection, though having no doubt that Palestine had forged it. What, after all, if he should be innocent? Was not my case chiefly founded on supposition? I had no proof that he had ever been near The Croft. I could not identify him with the mysterious bearded man of Lewes. True, Menilos had suggested intimacy, and though I believed that Benabbas lied in disclaiming friendship with the fellow, I could not prove it. Coincidences did occur. Men who travelled a great deal were constantly running up against promiscuous acquaintances. That Menilos was engaged in the exportation of contraband arms was no proof that the Arab was an accessory.
Though I tried to look at the matter in this light I knew all the time I was fighting against conviction. While admitting much disappointment over the futility of the late visit, I was not without hope that something might come of it. The cordiality of his greeting, and his reiterated invitation to call on him, might be accepted for what they were worth. Far wiser to think of him as a subtle tactician. There was less danger in it.
The next morning I called on George Mayford and gave him a detailed account of what had happened. Unlike me, he thought that matters were progressing satisfactorily, and suggested that I might do worse than cultivate Mr. Benabbas. As he had graciously thrown open his door to me I should seize any and every opportunity to enter it. Of course the invitation was a bluff, but there were undeniable possibilities. Having not a little knowledge of men who dealt in devious ways he was always waiting for the slip. It was as certain as the coming of day and night. One had only to be on the watch, and ready to seize it when it showed itself. Meanwhile he would keep an eye on the movements of that illustrious sheik.
But would this be as easy as he seemed to imagine? If Benabbas were master of as many disguises as rumour would have us believe, even George's sharp-eyed myrmidons might find some difficulty in piercing them. A man who had defied observation in the past might reasonably be expected to do so in the future. At any rate, that was the way I looked at it. Meanwhile there was this to be said as regards the case of Sir Julius: he was a hostage practically immune from serious injury while money was to be wrung from him. Dead he would be absolutely worthless. Therefore there was little doubt that he must be alive. Rumour spoke of him as a close-fisted old fellow accustomed to the driving of hard bargains. But how long would he be able to withstand the importunities of the enemy, and what form might not those importunities take? The men who had been desperate enough to seize him in such a daring manner could not be expected to hesitate at the last extremity.
And time, of such importance, was flying. Nothing was known of Cauliflower Ears. Though George's men had thoroughly combed his old haunts they had failed to discover any trace of him. The landlord of the Sheet Anchor knew nothing. As a matter of fact he was glad to get rid of him, a noisy, quarrelsome fellow, likely to bring discredit to any respectable house. As to Captain Menilos, he was known merely as a sea-faring man who traded the Near Eastern ports. He understood that he had sailed for the Sea of Marmora, wherever that might be. Of course, the man was lying, but that did not alter the fact that those two worthy fellows had disappeared as completely as though the earth, or the Sea of Marmora, had swallowed them. Nor was there much satisfaction in George's assurance that he would get them. The vital point was, how soon?
Therefore I thought it incumbent on me to cultivate Mr. Benabbas. It was a hateful thought, for I thoroughly detested the man. I knew he was mocking even when he appeared cordial and sincere. I hadn't the slightest doubt that he knew more of me than I appreciated.
Frequently I felt like laying violent hands on him. It would have given me great pleasure to make that handsome mouth of his more like my own. But what could one do with such a fellow? To denounce him would have been childish in the extreme. What was there to denounce? I could see his amused smile, his look of mild surprise. No, that was not the way. The game, whatever it was, had to be played in kid gloves.
Moreover, I was anxious to know a little more of that house of his. Shaded lights, bearded attendants in white gloves, incense and arabesques were all very well in their way, but they did not unduly impress. To me it was so much camouflage of the Wardour Street variety. Other more interesting objects might be stowed away in those upper rooms. Even Sir Julius himself. . . . Why not? The neighbourhood was most select. One would not associate villainy with such highly respectable houses or their highly respectable tenants. Other sorts of villainy, perhaps, which did not come under the cognisance of the law; but vulgar villainy, never.
I rather regretted now that I had brought Edna to London. Her affection would make her too solicitous on my behalf. She would expect to keep in touch with me, and unless I assumed an attitude of flinty-hearted indifference I failed to see how I was going to carry on successfully. Then Julia Wallington had also to be considered, courtesy shown to her graciousness, if nothing more. And deep in my heart I knew there was something more, though I tried to convince myself that I was imagining a vain thing. In any case, it was foolish of me to let my thoughts wander afield, so I rode them on the curb for all I was worth.
After my interview with George Mayford I lunched at the club and endured the brilliance of Tom Chancellor and the ponderosities of Blake-Morrison. Ted Gateside, thank heaven, I was spared. Tom, as usual, was forensically inept. He knew how England ought to be governed, and who should govern her. Blake-Morrison was violently pessimistic. Neither had the slightest doubt that we were on the verge of an unparalleled collapse. Look at India, look at Egypt, look at Palestine; in fact, wherever one looked disaster lowered like a thundercloud on the political horizon. And only Tom Chancellor or Colonel Blake-Morrison could save us!
When I returned to Cork Street I learned from Albert that Miss Edna had rung up, and that I was expected to tea at Grosvenor Street. As I had already told him of my visit to Benabbas, I described the situation of the house and sent him out to do a little quiet reconnoitring. There were mews close by which had been transformed into garages. As one who was looking for a place to garage a car it would be possible to strike up an acquaintance with a brother chauffeur, who might supply a little useful information. Naturally he would keep his eyes open as well as his ears. People might come and go, and among them certain persons in whom we were highly interested.
But if I anticipated a cool reception on my arrival at the Wallington's flat I was pleasantly disappointed. All apologies were waved aside as of no consequence. Julia asserted that duty must be performed though the heavens fell. All the same, there was a suggestion of dry humour in the assertion that left me wondering what she really thought. She was a deep and mystifying sort of girl, with a shrewd sense not easy to impose upon, and gave me the impression that she always meant a good deal more than she said. A woman of the world, if ever there was one; one who looked on life and found it not altogether what it pretended to be. Probably she extracted much entertainment from its pretences, being able to smile from a secure height. When she turned to me with that quizzing, slyly-humorous look of hers I always felt the question: How much of you is real and how much humbug? If she had asked right out I might have told her, simply because I shouldn't have been able to help myself. One would have to speak the truth with those clear eyes looking through one. They always made me nervous and conscious of my sins. Not, I suppose, that my sins were blacker than those of most men, but they never shone whiter under her glance. I don't think I ever felt so strangely unlike myself as when I was with her. She would keep looking at me, asking me questions, appealing for my opinion on the most diverse of subjects. One day I would ask Wally how far he had gone in his brotherly confidences.
Half-way through tea something more than a mild diversion was caused by the arrival of Benabbas. He was among us before there was time to comment, almost before there was time for surprise. Bringing his heels sharply together with a military click he bowed a salutation to us all. Then, smiling, he approached Miss Wallington and kissed her hand. She presented Edna.
"This is a pleasure, Miss Gantian. Your brother and I are old friends."
His eyes sought hers, bold dark eyes. She bowed and smiled very prettily, but seemed more than a little constrained. The faintest suspicion of a colour swept into her face. She must have seemed exquisitely fair to that swarthy son of the sands. Wally was frowning ominously. From my own feelings I knew what his must be.
Yes, Mr. Benabbas would like tea. He loved that English custom. He was sure that the spread of English civilisation owed much to the tea-table. When he returned to his own country, which would be shortly now, he would try to introduce the habit among his people. Many other habits and customs of the West he would also endeavour to introduce. If the East was going to keep its place in the sun it would have to follow the ways of the West. Look at Japan; look what Mustapha Kemal was doing for Turkey! Such a man might even restore its ancient glory to Arabia. Here was a chance for a leader of men. Though he did not actually say that the man was before us he allowed us to draw our own conclusions.
His vivacity banished the momentary restraint which his entrance had created. Julia seemed to forget that she had ever hated him; Edna watched him curiously and followed his prattle with singular fascination. I knew what she was thinking. This was a sheik, a real sheik; not the spurious film breed, but a true son of the desert. And he didn't look in the least like Valentino. Behind him she visualised burning sands and flashing blades and fiery steeds. She had seen it all so often on the screen, and each time loved it more. If the shadow of a man could produce a thrill in the female breast what might not the man himself do?
He rolled his fine eyes and showed his white teeth as he talked and laughed. And he was undoubtedly trying to impress her, strutting in all his best feathers, a proud bird. He never pretended to see Mr. Wallington's frowning features; he never pretended to see anything that wasn't agreeable. Just a nice, easy, comfortable, much-at-home man who was pleased to be with us, and who naturally took it for granted that his presence was welcome. And I must admit, with the probable exception of Wally, who was not quite himself, that not much fault was to be found with the playing of our parts.
But when, after many apologies for having to run away, he left us, the storm broke, greatly to the confusion of Edna, she being ignorant of our secret. Mr. Wallington asked, "Can you beat it?" His sister answered, "I guess not," and laughed. Edna, even more bewildered, inquired, "Beat what?" Wally roared.
"That sheik," he said.
"What's the matter with him?"
"I guess he's just a sheik, and all sheiks ought to be buried deep in their own sandhills."
Remembering Valentino, she did not agree, and proved it by saying she thought him "most interesting."
"I guess he's all that," Wally admitted drily, "but I don't like the breed."
"I'm sorry. It never struck me that you—"
"Why should it?"
"I don't know, Mr. Wallington."
Julia tactfully came to the rescue. "Don't take any notice of him, dear. He's always got some bee buzzing round his ears."
"And sheiks are one of them," he said.
Julia came with me into the hall, leaving the door open. Wally's deep voice reached us.
"And see here, Edna, why not drop the 'Mr. Wallington '? I know you call me Wally behind my back."
"Who told you?"
"That's a secret. You'd never guess it in a thousand years."
Then they both laughed in a low, intimate manner. Julia looked at me and smiled.
"And what do you call me behind my back?" I ventured.
"Peter," she said.
"When it's not—Leathermouth."
"That's really most unkind."
"But I rather like it."
LADY NATHLING was becoming a little importunate. It seemed to me that whenever she had nothing else to do she rang up my number. Though I assured her again and again that never for a moment was I relaxing my efforts on her behalf, she pleaded anxiety so pathetically that I may have committed myself to more than one consolatory indiscretion. No, she had heard nothing fresh, nor had she received any further sneers at the futile Leathermouth. But who was he, this Leathermouth? What a singular name to give a man, and how wonderfully intriguing! She was becoming curiously interested in him. Was there really such a person, and if so had I any inkling of his identity? She would so like to talk it over with me— when Morris Goldberg was not there. Morris was a good fellow, and devoted to her family, but cold, restrained, and utterly without sentiment. Personally she thought this restraint was a bit overdone among the better classes. She much preferred people of feeling and emotion, men with plenty of red blood in them—"if you know what I mean?"
All of which was doubtless most interesting but unusual for telephonic confidences. Fortunately Albert spared me much. To hear him express regret at my absence was a lesson in polite lying. Though her ladyship might be disappointed she was given no excuse for anger. No one could be angry with him when he was on his best behaviour. He might even have lulled Cauliflower Ears into a sense of false security. Certainly he would have lulled him to quiescence one way or another had the opportunity come along. He had a grudge against that disreputable chucker-out, an old debt to pay. Not alone did he consider him accessory to that business down in Shadwell, but there was the chunk of rock to be accounted for, not forgetting certain disparaging remarks. And on the top of all was that escape from the lashings which Albert had prided himself on. True, there was some satisfaction in knowing that he must have had help, but this, instead of allaying anger, merely roused it to fury. Albert felt that someone had got the better of him, and being an honest man there was nothing he liked better than paying his debts.
Meanwhile, remembering Benabbas's open invitation, I called on him the day after his visit to Grosvenor Street, apprising Albert of my intention. He understood. The native of the flowing robe, a green and yellow cloth wound round his head, received me and conducted me to a room at the back of the house. The dim light I had remembered still burned in the hall, and though I tried to get a look at the man it was difficult to see much but a bearded face as his head was bowed in respectful obeisance. He left me muttering something which I accepted as meaning he would inform his master of my presence.
It was a fairly large room, heavily furnished in the manner of the West. The light came dimly through a curtained window. I could distinguish the high wall of another house some thirty or forty feet away. By what I could make out I appeared to be in a library or work-room. Shelves crammed with books lined two of the walls. There was a table over near the window with more books and papers spread on it, and in the far corner, on a small table, a typewriter.
For a time I sat very still, but as Benabbas did not appear I crossed over to the book-shelves and examined their contents, or rather, made a pretence of doing so. In reality I was fingering the edges of the shelves, testing here, pressing there. But nothing came of the investigation. Then I returned to the table, and lifting a heavy volume laid bare some typewritten sheets, perhaps a score. Taking up one, the word "Palestine" caught my eye, and something more, something much more. The a's and the I's were out of alignment, the former being below, the latter above, the line!
So eagerly was I perusing the leaflet that I did not hear Benabbas enter.
"So sorry to keep you waiting," he said.
In spite of myself I must have started, probably embarrassed by a guilty conscience.
"Not at all," I assured him. "It was inconsiderate of me to drop in like this."
"On the contrary, it suggests an act of friendliness much appreciated. I see you are reading my leaflet." I leant over to replace it. "No, please put it in your pocket. It is a few points in our favour that I have drawn up for the benefit of my friends. I shall feel flattered if you will read it when you can spare the time."
"I'll read it with the greatest of interest," I assured him.
"I hope so. Our case has not been too well put before the English people. We have many enemies, many powerful interests to combat. Mind you, I do not blame the Jews. They have faith and tradition behind them, and a great ideal before them. But the land is not theirs; it is ours by right of conquest and long possession. All we ask is that the governing power should deal fairly by us, our one desire being to live at peace with our neighbours."
"There should be no difficulty in that."
"No; but we are a poor people and the enemy is rich. There is a way of dispossessing people of their land other than by the sword, and the Jew is taking full advantage of it. However, we must hope for the best. Please come upstairs. I have ordered coffee."
He held the door for me to pass through, and as I stepped into the hall I caught a glimpse of a figure disappearing through the front door. The door itself was slammed rather hastily.
Though I had no overwhelming desire to drink coffee, I had every desire to cultivate this man of many phases. If he was what I believed him to be, I should need something more than wit to unmask him, something with an element of luck in it. As yet that luck had not come my way. George Mayford joked about my blundering successfully, but I was dubious of a blundering that would help me in this instance. The man seemed impregnable. Naturally one had to be careful with a person who easily parried every thrust. I never for a moment doubted that he knew what I was after, or that he was secretly enjoying the sport. Or when I say I never doubted, I had to school myself to this belief. Better to over-rate than underrate, though this, too, might be a fault.
The next quarter of an hour was spent drinking his excellent coffee, smoking his admirable cigarettes, and discussing matters of no particular importance. With what I believed to be no little skill I occasionally placed an obstacle in his path, which he avoided with amazing dexterity; without, indeed, seeming to be aware of its presence.
When I rose to go he begged me to call again soon. He would not have many more opportunities of enjoying my society. But perhaps I would be visiting Palestine in the near future. If so, I must look him up. There, in his own land, surrounded by his own people, he would be able to show me what Arab hospitality was really like, I didn't doubt him.
Outside on the landing, I flung a glance at the upper regions. If I could only explore them! What surprises might not be awaiting me there? Seeing the look he remarked quite casually, "These houses are so large that one would need a family to fill them." I wondered what his family was like.
He saw me to the front door, shook hands most cordially, and reiterated the hope that I would call again soon. I assured him that it would give me the greatest pleasure. He smiled showing his white teeth, but I thought the action was more a curling of the lips than of smiling.
Melton Place ended in a sort of cul-de-sac, but to the left of it steps had been cut for pedestrians. These steps led down into a mews, where I hoped to find Albert. But though I looked up and down I could see no sign of him. However, about half-way along, I observed a group of persons congregated before a garage. They were chauffeurs, some of them in their shirt-sleeves, and they seemed to be exceedingly interested in something that was taking place inside the building. Curiosity led me to the spot. Some of the men looked at me, grinned, and made way. And this is what I saw. Cauliflower Ears triced up to the side of a wall, his hands high above his head, and Albert playing on him with a hose. The bruiser was shrieking the most horrible imprecations. Heaven only knows what he was going to do to his enemy, the twisting of necks, the smashing of faces, and the tearing out of hearts being but mere trifles by the way. And there stood implacable fate, in the person of Albert Floyd, jeering at him, and directing the stream of water into the ugly mouth every time it opened too wide.
"Chuck lumps of muck at me, will you? Come sneaking round and shooting through our windows, will you? I'll wash your ears for you, you dirty dog, and your neck, too."
Cauliflower was drenched to the skin. His wet clothes were sticking to him. The water poured down his neck and came out in little rivulets at the bottom of his trousers. As he danced in fury his shoes squelched water. He flung his weight on the cord that held his arms, apparently oblivious of the fact that with every movement he was cutting deeper into his flesh. But it was all without avail.
Albert jeered. "No one to cut you loose this time, you dirty tyke. I'll teach you to behave decently to gentlemen in the future."
"Wait till I get my 'ands on you," bubbled Cauliflower, his mouth half-full of water.
"Your hands'll be stiff and cold after this. Pneumonia, that's what you're in for, you gutter rat, an' a hole in a sewer." A torrent of blasphemy mingled with a torrent of water. "Open that dirty mouth a bit wider an' I'll wash it out." Bang went the flood into Cauliflower's face.
"You wait," he spluttered. "I'll tear you in bits for this."
"How long has this been going on?" I asked the young fellow next to me, whose face was one broad grin of delight.
"About ten minutes."
"What does it mean?"
"I dunno. Seems to be a bit of a grudge somewhere. That bloke with the hose hopped out from behind the door as the other bloke comes along, unsuspecting-like, socks him one on the jaw, then hops on his back, an' before you could say knife whips a bit of cord out of his pocket an' fastens the other bloke's arms. Then he drags him inside, slings him up, an' turns the blinkin' hose on 'im."
"He doesn't seem to like it."
I pushed my way to the front, and out of the tail of his eye Albert saw me. His lean leathery face expanded in a grin. He turned off the hose and addressed his victim.
"That's all for the present, Cauliflower, an' I hope you're washed clean, but if you're not I'll try a little hot water next time." Then he advanced upon his audience, who made way for him with the utmost respect. "Cut him down, boys, when he gets a bit dry, an' be careful he don't bite."
He joined me at the top of the mews, a sly grin was wrinkling his leathery features.
"I owed him one, sir."
"You were very merciful, Albert."
"When you're dealing with his sort you've got to make the best of what comes along."
I agreed. But it was rather interesting that Cauliflower and Benabbas should be in such close proximity. Perhaps Menilos was not far off. Which of them was it who had banged the door when I entered the hall with Benabbas?
We found Wally waiting for us in Cork Street. He had a key of my flat and came and went at leisure. When I told him of the scene in the garage he fairly rocked with laughter, and would make Albert repeat the story in his own dry way.
"Say, boy," he said, "I'd have paid a fat roll to see that show. You're sure it, Albert. I'm your friend for life."
"Well, sir, what could I do? I had to get a bit back."
Even Wally had no reply to this. He just looked at the stolid, unemotional one, and bubbled with merriment.
I told him of my visit to Benabbas. He sobered up at once. That guy beat him. Frankly he confessed that he didn't know what to think. Were we never to get any proof that the Arab was directly concerned with the disappearance of Sir Julius? Then, suddenly remembering the Palestine leaflet, I took it from my pocket and gave it to him, explaining how I had come by it.
"Read it carefully," I said. While he was doing this I slowly filled a pipe watching him intently.
"Seems to me he's made out a pretty good case in a few words."
"See nothing else?"
"No. Looks to me quite clear."
"A good machine, Wally?"
"I guess so; not that I know much about typewriters."
"But some of the letters are out of alignment particularly the a's and I's."
Again he looked at the leaflet. "So I see, but ..."
"It may be merely a coincidence, but the same letters were out of alignment in the warnings Lady Nathling got about Leathermouth. What if they were typed on the same machine?"
"Gosh!" he said.
"Precisely. But there are points about it."
"Sure. Then Benabbas sent those warnings?"
"Or someone who uses his machine."
He gave a long low whistle. "You're right, Peter; you've been right all along. That darned Arab is at the bottom of the whole business."
"There is just the possibility that some other machine may have the letters out of alignment."
"But you don't think so?"
"Then Benabbas is our man?"
"Looks like it."
IT was one thing to feel certain of Benabbas, but quite another to fix the proof of guilt on him. Yet this proof had to be fixed without much further delay. Once he had left the country, and if one were to credit rumour that would be no impossible feat with or without permission of authority, all hope of checking him would vanish. Therefore he must not be permitted to go. George Mayford assured me that I need have no fear; his lynx-eyed young men had received full instructions, and would know how to act. I thought George unduly optimistic. His young men were human, like other young men, whereas I was inclined to regard Benabbas as something out of the ordinary; a person with a cool, calculating brain and iron nerves. The man was a born schemer, an implacable enemy. In his Moslem heart he probably hated Jew and Christian with equal intensity, and lived only for revenge upon both. But for Islam this was not the day of the sword. Time had swept aside the triumphs and the glories of his people, had covered them deep with the sands of the desert.
But how was one to get at the man, how break through that superb assurance which guarded him like a ring of bayonets? Always sure of himself, he seemed to rise to every occasion, and always he made one feel contemptible, inept. One could not take him by the throat, and any other method was likely to prove singularly futile. And, of course, he knew my game far better than I knew his. He had known from the start that I was he whom certain people in the East had nicknamed Leathermouth. But how had he known? Had there been a leakage somewhere? I had always thought, with the exception of a few people, that that business was a buried secret. The impudence of the fellow! I swear my mouth is not leathery; I'll swear it to my dying day. Edna, I'm sure, never thought it so. Wally, I admit, was non-committal, but smilingly noncommittal. Odd that I should be thinking so much lately about a mere trifle. I must be getting vain in my old age. Lucky there was no woman to worry about.
Benabbas, that house of his, and those unexplored upper regions, were the greater worry. Particularly the upper regions. I had a feeling that much might be discovered there; that they might even lodge the sacred person of a millionaire. But then I had thought the same of The Croft, and was not yet convinced that I had been in error. George Mayford scratched his chin as he listened. There might be something in what I proposed, but even the police had to move warily. Yes, it might be easy enough to force an entrance; but suppose he drew blank? Success only would justify such an outrage on private property. He dared not take the risk. It might mean the ruin of him. But he artfully conceded that there were unofficial ways of entering a house, of which I and my friends were not totally ignorant. Meanwhile his young men were watching, and Cauliflower Ears had once more been seen in the vicinity of the Sheet Anchor. I was getting sick to death of those wonderful young men who seemed to do nothing but watch.
Meanwhile I could cultivate Benabbas. While I feared there was little hope of deceiving him, there was always the chance that he might in some way commit himself. And I had no cause to believe that luck had entirely deserted me. How could I, considering so much of it had come my way? It would, of course, be a battle of wits between us, but if he could play the game so could I. In any case, his anxiety would be the greater, his stake the larger. Knowing he was suspect, that at any moment he might become entangled in a net which surely, if slowly, was being drawn tighter round him, he would have to act, and act quickly, if he hoped to escape the meshes. Crediting him with wit of the sharpest, he would know that he was being watched. Therefore he was not likely to act imprudently; and while there was always the chance that in visiting him I was running a certain risk, I could not hesitate to take it. Unless I misjudged him, he would assume that behind me were certain forces with which it would be dangerous to trifle. If his business was what I had every reason for believing it to be, he would wish to see it through with as little fuss as possible.
So, towards the close of the following day, when I reckoned he would be dressing for dinner, I knocked at his door and was admitted by the bearded Arab attendant. Again I tried to get a look at the man's face, but the light was dim in the hall, and the fellow bowed so low that I got little more than a glimpse of his dark beard. Without speaking he led the way to the library, and bowing ceremoniously left me. A little too much bowing, perhaps, even for an Eastern servant. However, I was not kept waiting more than a minute or so. In came Benabbas, smiling, cordial. His handclasp was unusually warm.
"Delighted to see you," he said. "It is very kind of you to think of me."
"Not at all. Being close at hand, I thought if you were not otherwise engaged you might dine with me."
"That would be a great pleasure, but unfortunately I have a previous engagement."
"Perhaps some other time?"
"Unhappily time is short, and I have so much to do before I go away."
"Are you leaving soon?"
"Almost immediately. And as, unfortunately, my friend who owns this house is remaining abroad for possibly a year longer, I shall have to shut it up unless I can find a tenant. You don't happen to know of anyone who requires a desirable residence?"
Here was another surprising move. Frankly, I was more than a little taken aback, but luckily my embarrassment was only momentary.
"Now you mention it, I believe the Wallingtons are on the lookout for something of the sort. I understand Miss Wallington wishes to entertain a little before the season ends."
"A charming lady. Please convey my compliments; also to your charming sister." I bowed. "It grieves me much that I may not see her again before I go. Meanwhile you might mention this house to Miss Wallington and her most excellent brother."
"I will, of course. When could they come and look over it?"
"Tell them to ring me up any time tomorrow morning. If I am not here I will arrange with Kemal."
So that was his name. "Your servant?"
"He speaks English?"
"No, But I will arrange. Perhaps, if you can spare the time, you might like to look over the place? It will enable you to tell them exactly what it is like."
"You're sure it wouldn't inconvenience you?"
"I shall be delighted."
Would I like to look over the place! Hadn't I been eagerness itself to look over it? But not in this way, and certainly not with him. The invitation was something in the nature of a shock. Had I been building on air again?
He was most affable; he spared no pains. He even insisted on showing me the servants' quarters at the top of the house. Though my annoyance was extreme I did my best to conceal it under a pretended interest. Whatever his thoughts he preserved an impeccable Oriental calm. It was a matter of business, he was trying to do his friend a good turn. It was a pity that such a desirable residence should remain unoccupied. I agreed with him.
And I had been anxious to inspect these regions, and here they were freely laid open to my inspection! I told him I thought the accommodation was excellent and ought to suit the Wallingtons. Probably Miss Wallington would be able to call sometime to-morrow. I would ring her up as soon as I got home and acquaint her with the desirability of the residence.
As we descended the stairs we chatted of the house and its advantages, and again I assured him that I thought it would suit my friends admirably. On the first landing we paused for a moment. Then he suggested a little refreshment before we parted. Though I needed no refreshment, and was beginning to entertain suspicions of such, I thought it wiser to acquiesce, possibly for the last time. He drew aside the curtains that hung across the door and bowed me in. But no sooner had I entered than I received a blow on the head. My knees gave under me. . . . I sank to the floor. . . .
By slow degrees my senses returned. The past struggled back; the visit with Benabbas to the upper floor; the blow; the fall. But where was I? The darkness was impenetrable. I tried to move but could not. I was bound. Benabbas had been one too many for me. And I had no one but myself to blame; my own foolhardiness. How long had I been here? My back ached. I felt something wet on my cheek, and guessed what it was. Again I struggled to free myself, but I might as well have reserved my strength. They had done their job thoroughly.
For a long, long time I sat there staring anxiously into the darkness, listening for the sound of step or voice, upbraiding myself in no measured terms for my unspeakable folly. And yet, even now, it was possible to find excuses.
I could not let Benabbas see that I suspected him, and I always went armed. To be afraid of him never entered my head. It would have been more than gratifying had he shown fight. I had often wished he would. While I knew that he was playing with me I did not fear his play. Was I not also playing with him? Well, the round was his, but the knockout had yet to come.
Yet I frankly admit it was far from pleasant sitting there staring into the gloom, all my senses throbbing apprehensively. Why didn't they come; why was I given such opportunities for thought? I wanted to see them, to hear them, to know their intentions. Not that their coming was likely to improve my chances, but almost anything was preferable to this excruciating uncertainty. Where was Wally, Albert? Were George Mayford's young men still watching, or would this be the one occasion when they had slackened off? Possibly. In that case . . . But I refused to take that view of the situation. My non-return would set Wally and Albert moving, would set George moving as he had possibly never moved before.
Of a sudden the light was switched on. For a moment it almost blinded me. Then I saw the Arab attendant, and behind him the grotesque features of Cauliflower Ears. There was an ugly grin on his battered face.
"My turn," he said.
"No, yours is coming."
"Oh, is it? Only wish that other swine was with you."
"The man who washed you down in the garage? I hope you haven't caught cold?"
"No, I 'aven't," he snarled; "but 'e's going to ketch somethink when I get my 'ands on 'im."
"Don't worry; you'll soon have the opportunity. He's still after you, and when he gets you he'll do something more than wash your ears."
"I'll tear 'im inside out. An' as for you—"
But what was in store for me, doubtless something extremely pleasant, he had no time to explain, for at that moment Benabbas himself entered the room. There was no sign of triumph on his face. Indeed, I thought he regarded me with a look more of sorrow than of anger.
"It grieves me exceedingly to find you so unhappily situated," he began in his soft, purring tone, "and nothing but the sternest necessity would have induced me to act so harshly against one of my dearest friends. I'm sure you appreciate, and pardon?"
"A dangerous game, Benabbas."
"I think we are both accustomed to the playing of dangerous games. They have their moments of interest. This is one of them. I regret that you should be the victim, but your insistence on cultivating my friendship left me only one of two alternatives. No further explanation is necessary to a man of your intelligence."
"Don't forget that you are suspect; that my visits to you are known; that even now—"
"Precisely. We both appear to realise and appreciate the situation. This is well; it saves so much by way of tiresome explanation. After much reflection I ultimately decided that with you no longer an obstacle there would be little to fear from Mr. George Mayford, doubtless an admirable official, but an official." He shrugged his shoulders rather contemptuously. "Though it may flatter your self-esteem, I frankly admit that you are my real danger, Colonel Gantian, and have been from the first. Though I should not call you an intellectual giant (your present position would disprove the assertion even should I advance it), you have other qualities which render you singularly objectionable. However, I think all difficulties have now been overcome."
"And I think you know they have not; that, on the contrary, they are really only beginning." He smiled, showing those perfect white teeth. "I mean, as far as you are concerned. From to-night, my dear Colonel, your interest in me and my affairs will cease. A pity you ever undertook the task of investigation; I fear it needed certain qualities which you do not possess. Unfortunately, Leathermouth has a passion for intrigue; a dangerous passion as he must now perceive. It is much to be regretted that success does not always follow strenuous endeavour. Yet, for any satisfaction it may give you, I readily admit that more than once you have been very near succeeding."
"What have you done with Sir Julius Ashlin?"
"Ah, a very worthy gentleman, in spite of his hatred of my people. However, it is more than probable that such a good man is anxious to make amends for past delinquencies. He shall be given every opportunity. And as for you, I can unhesitatingly promise a surprise. I think it would be a great pity if one so interested in the story should not learn its end."
With that he turned and beckoned to Cauliflower, who advanced upon me with a monstrous grin and unceremoniously stuffed a gag in my mouth. Next I was blindfolded, and eager hands went over me loosening the bands that bound me to the chair. Then one man caught me round the chest, another by the feet, and in this manner they carried me away, down some steps, and bundled me into a motor car. I knew this, for I heard the engine running. In a moment we were off.
I lay in the bottom of the car with heavy feet upon me. Sometimes they were pressed viciously into my sides, occasionally they were dragged roughly across my face. Whenever I wriggled to avoid them the attack was renewed.
Someone had a most unpleasant sense of humour.
Though I tried to figure out the meaning of this move, it was no easy job to keep my senses clear, situated as I was, with those heavy boots pressed into my face. What did Benabbas mean by promising a surprise, and what greater surprise could he have in store for me than that which he had already provided?
The engine purred on. I knew that the car was going at no great speed. It would not do to risk an accident. Occasionally, for a moment or two, it stopped altogether. Doubtless a block in the traffic. Then it would go on again with the same easy purr.
Where were they taking me? I had visions of The Croft. It would be like Benabbas, symptomatic of his peculiar sense of humour, to play the last act on a stage which had been so nearly fatal to him. I tried to distinguish the traffic, but could make out nothing above the noise of our car.
At last we stopped. Though the journey had seemed interminable I knew we could not have reached The Croft. We had not been long enough on the way. Were we in London or the suburbs? I listened, hoping for some word that might give me a clue. But nothing was said. I was caught up as before and carried into a house, then up some stairs and flung heavily into a chair. My head was aching horribly, my throat was parched; I seemed to breathe with the utmost difficulty. Though I could not see, I knew that other persons were in the room. Then someone came close to me, and I smelt a sweet, strong perfume. I could almost have sworn that I heard the rustle of a woman's dress.
A shuffling of feet followed, which gradually died away. A door was shut. I waited, wondering. Then the bandage was suddenly torn from my eyes, the gag from my mouth. A bearded face was thrust close to mine; two wicked black eyes were looking at me. A voice that once before had mocked me was mocking again.
"Well, Leathermouth," it was saying, "what do you think of this?"
"Kemal for the time being," he corrected. "Where were your eyes, Leathermouth? You would scarcely credit it, but we were fools enough to think you clever."
"Both sides seem to have been labouring under a misapprehension. All the same, I've been wanting to meet you again."
"You seem to have got what you want."
"I always do."
"But this time you're going to get something that you don't want."
"You promised before but failed to keep your word. I can't trust you, Menilos."
"You may this time."
"Anyway, I'm glad you're not in Greece. It will save my friends a lot of trouble. You're a blunderer, Menilos. You ought to have got out of the business long ago."
"I shall not blunder a second time—Leathermouth."
"You seem to like the name?"
"It amuses me!"
"And are not afraid of it?"
He smiled evilly as he struck me violently across the mouth. He might have struck again and again, he was in such a fury, had not Benabbas entered with a woman. It was Olga Menilos, evidently reconciled to her husband. She looked at me and bowed ironically.
"I think you two have met before," said Benabbas. She came close, so close that I smelt again the strong perfume. Her eyes were cold and penetrating. There was a mocking smile of triumph in them that, enemy as she was, I would rather not have seen.
"Pleased to meet you again, Colonel Gantian."
"Thank you. I seem to be meeting quite a lot of old friends."
"Ye-es. Doubtless you are enjoying the reunion."
Looking up at her I smiled. "How could I fail?"
She laughed, flicking her heavily perfumed handkerchief in my face. It almost choked me.
"Leathermouth," she mocked.
"You see, they wrong me."
"You're an ugly devil."
"Your husband has just been trying to improve my beauty."
"He is always attentive."
"When he has nothing to fear."
"I am his assistant—Leathermouth."
"You seem as fond of the name as he is."
"And of the man."
She brought me a ringing smack on the face. I smiled my thanks. "I wish it was that American swine," she said.
"He is coming." I saw them look from one to the other. "He always comes. It's a way of his."
"I hope he won't be too late."
"He is never too late; madame. He always arrives on schedule."
"That will be nice for you."
"For all of us."
"But you realise the difficulties?"
"He likes them."
She smiled. "You also, I should imagine?"
"Not at all. To tell you the truth, madame, I hate them as I do the devil and all his disciples. Give me a quiet life every time."
"You don't bluff badly," she said.
"I wish I could think so."
"You are modest."
"Is modesty a virtue—in this environment?"
"You admit it is against you?"
"I don't see how I can deny it. But there are always compensations."
"Rather difficult to find—in the circumstances?"
"I count that circumstance excellent which affords me the pleasure of meeting you again." She frowned; her mouth hardened. I prepared myself for another blow. But she hesitated even in the act of striking. An odd smile loosened her lips. Her glance was more curious than angry. She seemed as though she were trying to read me, as though in me she found something of an enigma.
"You're an ugly devil," she said again, but with less vehemence.
"Unhappily women have always agreed on that point."
"You are the first who has ever told me so."
"Leathermouth," she laughed. There was something more than laughter in her look and tone. It may have been fancy, but I thought much of the hardness had vanished from her eyes.
"Madame, you are unkind."
"Your name intrigues me."
"Only the name?"
"What else could?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid."
She shot at me a strange glance; leant over me and looked into my eyes. I thought her lips moved, but no sound escaped them. The sweet strong perfume filled my nostrils. Then of a sudden she flung her head back and laughed again. An indecisive laugh, I thought.
"Have you finished, Olga?" Benabbas asked.
She turned aside with a shrug of her shoulders, opened her vanity bag and drew forth a mirror and a lipstick. In the careful application of the latter I was apparently forgotten. Benabbas came closer.
"No doubt you've been wondering, Colonel Gantian," he commenced suavely, "why we have been so considerate with you?"
"You have already told me, and I am as anxious as you to know the end of the story."
"I can promise you that, and I think you will find it rather curious."
"Most probably, if these gentry have anything to do with it."
"At the same time, the end may not be such as you desire. However, that is incidental to the occasion. I feel convinced that you, of all men, will appreciate that necessity is occasionally a hard taskmaster." I nodded. "I thought you would; in fact, I was certain of it. It has been a great pleasure to meet you, colonel As you are probably aware, I had heard of you. How? Does it matter greatly? With us in the desert rumour travels far and fast. Sometimes it grows into a legend, and, as you know, legends have a singular way of their own of becoming almost supernatural. As a consequence, you may now begin to realise that I was more or less prepared for you? A man who has become almost legendary in the East cannot expect to rest in obscurity."
"You flatter me."
"I wish you had given me greater cause. If I hate to prick a bubble, imagine what grief it causes me to dissipate a legend. But while I cannot frankly admit that you are a positive danger, you possess certain negative qualities which may prove dangerous if ignored. Probably you are now beginning to get an inkling of my motive in bringing you here?"
I shook my head. "Whatever it is, Benabbas, you will probably regret it."
He smiled. "I told you what it was: to learn the end of the story. But you may not have the pleasure of seeing my regret."
"Then how shall I learn the end?"
"Is there ever really an end to anything? Our business, however, is with the present, not the future. That, assuredly, will be able to take care of itself. I will assume that it does not greatly interest you, and proceed to what we know. You have been insistently curious as to the fate of that worthy gentleman, Sir Julius Ashlin. Now it would be a thousand pities if you should leave us without that curiosity being satisfied. Consequently, anticipating your wishes, I have endeavoured to gratify them. I think you will find the denouement rather stranger than you imagined. Yet it seems to me only right that you, who have been so keen in the chase, should be allowed to participate in the death."
He smiled agreeably, white teeth too much in evidence. But I did not like the way he said that last word. There was a decidedly menacing tone in his voice, a sinister gleam in his eye as he said it. Hitherto that voice had moved on a calm and perfectly modulated level. He might have been addressing a chunk of wood or stone. I should have preferred my chances had he betrayed a little more human passion.
"Well," I said, "you're a long time taking up the curtain."
"You will be more interested in its going down."
Menilos chuckled. I flung a glance at him. A nasty fellow if ever there was one.
"Then don't let that blunderer have anything to do with it, and keep him away from the oil cans or he may burn his own fingers."
Menilos started forward angrily, but Benabbas checked him with a wave of his hand. Madame, having at last completed her toilet, snapped her bag and looked round inquiringly.
"One learns by experience, colonel," Benabbas continued in that smooth easy way of his. "Still, this impatience is not like you. Unless Leathermouth's reputation belies him, he is the one man who knows how to wait. I regret that he has waited so long. Yet the end, for him at least, is very near. But for us there is to be a continuation. Perhaps he would like to gain an inkling of it? It may be something to ponder on his journey."
"I have every faith in your ingenuity, Benabbas."
"It is pleasant to hear that from you. I will remember it with gratitude when we are speeding down to the coast to join the ship commanded by my good friend Captain Menilos."
I thought something of the sort might happen. Yet how could he get away with Mayford's men on the lookout? I permitted myself a supercilious smile.
"I had hoped for something better from you, Benabbas. You disappoint me, as Captain Menilos will disappoint you if you put your trust in him."
Come what might of it I had to have a dig at Menilos. The fellow annoyed me. I had to lash him if it was only with my tongue.
"I promise you shall not be disappointed. Probably—I haven't yet decided—I may show you how the thing is to be done; also how Captain Menilos has purchased a ship and filled it with a valuable cargo—at the expense of the enemy. It was for that reason I brought you here. I would not have one detail of the story escape your observation."
With that he swung round in that swift way of his and abruptly left the room. I flung a look at Menilos and met a vicious grin. His huge fingers were trifling with the point of his beard.
"No second time, Leathermouth." he jeered.
"We don't let a dog bite us twice. This is the end of you—after you've seen the fun. You heard Benabbas refer to a valuable cargo? You can guess what it is?"
"And you think you're getting away with it? I have wronged you, Menilos. I apologise."
He laughed and turned to the door through which Benabbas had passed. There he stood looking up and listening. I glanced at madame. She was watching me with strange intentness. Again I thought she was going to speak. Mutely I questioned her. But at that moment the Arab reappeared followed by Cauliflower Ears and a huge negro, who dragged between them a decrepit old man, whom they dropped somewhat roughly on a chair by the table. Benabbas turned to me with a smile.
"Allow me to introduce Sir Julius Ashlin."
SIR JULIUS ASHLIN! I could scarcely credit my hearing. This emaciated, feeble old man with a stubbly white beard of several weeks' growth, the great financier! Benabbas's voice droned softly as he turned to me with a smile.
"You have long wished to see him, Colonel Gantian. At last your wish is gratified."
"Is this true?"
"Perfectly. I am afraid Sir Julius is not in the best of health. Yet, considering all things, his condition might be much worse."
I looked at the old man who was sprawling across the table. He was feebly moaning a protest. His pallid face was dirty; his red-rimmed eyes were staring vacantly at nothing in particular. It was clear that he was not in his proper senses. I looked the question at Benabbas. He shook his head.
"You are quite wrong, colonel. He knows well enough, but occasionally assumes these moods to annoy us. I'm afraid a very obstinate old man who never moves without persuasion."
"Let us call it that. Sir Julius, let me present a gentleman who has been very anxious to meet you. Colonel Gantian."
Slowly the doddering head came my way, the vacant eyes looked vacantly into mine. He seemed trying to collect his senses. He pulled at his nether lip with thin dirty fingers. It was painful the way he looked at me. One pale hand was beating an aimless tattoo on the table. Then he mumbled something in his throat which sounded like, "I don't know you."
"No, Sir Julius," said Benabbas, "but he has long wanted to know you, and he comes from your daughter, Lady Nathling."
At this the dull eyes brightened; something like intelligence returned to them. New life seemed to animate his feeble frame.
"You come from Rachel?" he quavered excitedly.
"She thinks I'm dead?"
"She knows you are alive."
"Then why doesn't she send for the police to arrest these scoundrels?"
"She has sent for them."
"Where are they?"
"On the way now."
The others laughed. Hearing that laugh he sighed despondently. His head sagged forward.
It was evident he had lost all hope of rescue.
"Cheer up. Sir Julius," I said, "your troubles are nearly over. At any moment now our good friends here may be under lock and key."
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Can't you see, Sir Julius," mocked Benabbas; "one who has come to help you. This is Colonel Gantian, the renowned Colonel Gantian by some called Leathermouth. A most remarkable person."
The old eyes narrowed as they looked at me. I thought he was too dazed to grasp my own predicament. I am not sure he even guessed that my own case was worse than his.
"I don't understand," he moaned.
"But you will," Benabbas assured him. "And now, Sir Julius, that you seem to realise the situation, I think it is time we completed our business."
"Not another penny," he screamed. "Villains, torturers, murderers! Have you not robbed me of enough? Do you want to take all, all?"
"Perhaps you would prefer a little more persuasion?" purred Benabbas. "Very good. We live but to oblige our friends."
"No, no!" he wailed. "I'm an old man; I'm very ill; I cannot bear it. For God's sake have mercy!"
He seemed to shrink to nothing as he collapsed across the table and buried his face in his hands. In regarding him I almost forgot my own peril. That horrible word persuasion throbbed through my brain. What had they done to him?
"Is your money of more value to you than your life? One or the other, Sir Julius. The time has come for you to decide."
"Am I to be left with nothing, not even a penny for my old age? That villain, he wants to see me in the gutter he came from. But I'll have the law of him; he shall pay for this. I tell you I will not be robbed in this way."
"As you have robbed others, without pity and without remorse? Yet a fair exchange, Sir Julius. You, of all men, should appreciate the fluctuations of the money market."
Here the door slowly opened and a man entered, a lithe slim man with hunched shoulders. He wore a dark beard, and looked over Sir Julius straight at me. For a moment I was puzzled. Then I knew. It was the man I had seen in the street at Lewes! He smiled.
"I see you have a good memory for faces, Colonel Gantian."
"Are you there, you villain!" screamed Sir Julius.
"Hush, you fool. I will attend to you presently."
The voice sounded familiar. Where had I heard it, when? He knew I was puzzled and his smile deepened.
"I saw you in Lewes," I said.
"I thought so, but was not sure. However, I concluded that it was better not to give you time to investigate."
"It was you who took The Croft?"
"And you who caused me to retreat rather hurriedly. I have not yet forgiven you for that. But we are going to cry quits to-night."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Who is he!" cried Sir Julius. "The most ungrateful villain that ever walked this earth."
"You hear. Do you want to know more?"
"That will do to go on with."
"But I will have the law of you yet, Morris Goldberg. You shall suffer even as you have made me suffer."
Morris Goldberg! He saw the amazement in my glance, and with a chuckle which he meant to be contemptuous, but which in reality was not without a trace of nervousness, he discarded his false beard.
"You recognise me now?" he asked.
"Even without your spectacles."
"And are surprised?"
But I was. All along I had believed the bearded man of Lewes to be Benabbas. Though I had never taken to Morris Goldberg, I had not connected him with this plot. He had seemed a cold, unsympathetic sort of fellow, one of those flabby, fishy men who give you a limp hand and never look you in the eyes. One meets many such, and, being in no way interested in them, pass on and forget their existence. Even now I could not wholly blame myself for my shortsightedness. Why should I associate the fellow with the plot against his employer? What grounds had I for suspicion? He had always been most circumspect. I guessed, of course, that he made no great headway with Lady Nathling, but that was no proof that he was not in the full confidence of her father. Indeed, rather the contrary, considering the post he occupied. George Mayford had asked if I thought Goldberg had been holding back anything, but that was the sort of question he would ask. He credited everybody with concealment of one kind or another. Even now, as I recognised in him the open enemy, I was wondering how such a state of things had come about. I was not left long to wonder.
Morris Goldberg calmly sat himself at the table opposite Sir Julius, and without appearing to notice him took a long envelope from his pocket, carefully opened it, and withdrew a paper. This he held out before his late employer.
"You see this, Julius Vogelstein?"
The old man drew himself up with a weak attempt at dignity.
"How dare you, Morris Goldberg!"
"Julius Vogelstein," sneered the other. "Doesn't sound quite so English as Ashlin, does it? But you were born Vogelstein, your blood is Vogelstein, you are and always will be Vogelstein. The English may allow you to change your name, and give you a title for value received, but they cannot change your nature, or make you other than a disgrace to your people."
"You dog, you viper! Was it for this I found you hungry and gave you bread?"
"And how have you made me feel the obligation, Julius Vogelstein? I have been a dog at your beck and call, and you have lashed me as though I were a dog, and made me eat dirt at your bidding; you who never knew the meaning of the word mercy, but used all men and women for your own aggrandisement. When my mother lay dying and I begged—how I begged for assistance to alleviate her end!—you told me that the old must die, that I must do the best I could on my scanty wages, and mocked my tears. That was long ago, so long ago that you have probably forgotten it, as you have that our race has a long memory. But you see I have not forgotten, Julius Vogelstein. I bent my back. Our race knows how to bend its back—and wait. You never dreamt that the slave was waiting his chance. You saw the bent shoulders, heard the applauding voice, and strode on, a little Solomon in all your glory. Riches came. How did they come? Ask your powerful friends from whom you purchased immunity, otherwise you would now be rotting in prison, Julius Vogelstein, the scorn of all clean- thinking men. And this is the end. Don't forget—the old must die! As you have abandoned the God of our fathers so has he abandoned you. There is no hope for him who bows down to other Gods."
He paused. His eyes were flaming now. Two bright spots showed on his pallid cheeks. His mouth twisted grotesquely; his long nose twitched, seemed to curve downward to his mouth. For the moment I am sure he had forgotten our presence. He was alone with his enemy, alone with his hate.
"A lie!" screamed the other. "You make excuses for your villainy; all false, all lies! You want my money, you want my money!" His anger trailed away to a pitiful whimper.
"Something more precious than your lifeblood, Julius Vogelstein. Yes, I want your money, more and more of it, so that I may live in luxury while you are rotting in the gutter. The day I have waited for has come, Julius Vogelstein, the day of the whipped dog."
Again he held out the paper. "You know what this is?"
"I will not sign, I refuse to sign. How dare you! My bonds! A hundred thousand pounds! Oh, you murderer, you vile thief!"
"A hundred thousand pounds, Julius Vogelstein," that cold implacable voice continued; "a hundred thousand times more than your wretched life is worth. Here is the pen. Sign; or would you like to feel again . . ."
He nodded to the negro, who produced from his pocket what looked to me like a pair of pincers. This fellow, coming close to Sir Julius, with rough hands tore open his shirt, laying bare the skeleton ribs.
"Not that! Mercy!" he screamed. "For the love of God not that!"
"Which God—Jehovah or Baal?"
"Pity me, Morris. I am a sick old man. If I was harsh I regret. I did not know. I will atone. Forgive me. I will make you rich, and I will forget—all this."
Hard and cold and bitter as death was Goldberg's smile. He nodded to the negro, who with one hand forced Sir Julius back upon the table, and with the other pressed the instrument against his flesh. A fearful scream of terror followed. I saw the whites of the negro's eyes as he rolled them towards Goldberg. But the order did not come, for Sir Julius cried out in terror, "I will sign, Morris. Only spare me. I am an old man; I am ill, very ill. What: does it matter? Already you have taken much. Take all, only let me go in peace."
"Had you only been reasonable you would have gone in peace long ago, Julius Vogelstein."
He spread the paper on the table and held out the pen. Sir Julius took it in a trembling hand. For a moment they looked at each other. I could not see Goldberg's eyes, but those of his victim had the most pitiful look of terror in them that I had ever imagined.
"Where shall I sign, Morris?" he asked in a whimpering voice.
"Here, here!" answered the other quickly, excitedly. A look was flashed between him and Benabbas, a look of triumph.
"Don't sign, Sir Julius," I called out.
I knew it was a foolish cry as soon as I had uttered it, but for a moment I forgot myself in the agony of that tortured old man. Probably the thought flashed through my mind that I might create a diversion, delay the inevitable. I certainly did create a diversion. Goldberg swung round and venomously glared at me. I was conscious that all eyes were now concentrated on me with singular fury. Sir Julius dropped the pen with a sudden clatter and rocked his head in his hands. Then with a low moan he collapsed utterly, and would have fallen to the floor had not Benabbas held him up.
Goldberg rose and came towards me, his hands clenched. I prepared myself for a severe drubbing, but instead of striking me he lent over and spat in my face.
"That is all you are worth, you dog!" he snarled.
"Kill him!" cried Menilos, clenching his great fists.
"Better than that," said Goldberg, "something much better than that."
"But Sir Julius has not signed," I mocked. "He will, and you shall see it, and something more."
"We are getting a little tired of you and your interruptions," purred Benabbas. "You make a bad audience, colonel!"
"Fool!" cried the woman suddenly, almost desperately.
"I agree, madame. Yet when I look at your friends I cannot accuse you of an excess of wisdom."
"They are of my choosing."
"I doubt it. They were not your choice but your necessity."
"Well, what of that?" she asked with an assumption of indifference.
"Only this: they are dangerous friends for anyone, but most of all for a woman like you."
"God, man," she cried with a sudden gust of passion, "do you realise your own necessity?"
"What they are going to do to you?"
"I think so, but hate to see a woman mixed up in a thing like this."
She came close to me, so close that once more the sweet heavy perfume filled my nostrils. It was odd that at such a moment I should think she had put too much red on her lips.
"Are you a hypocrite or a madman?" she asked.
"Perhaps a little of both."
But here Menilos caught her by the shoulder and swung her roughly round.
"Keep your hands off me, you swine!" she screamed at him. He raised his fist as though to strike her. She made a grab at her bag which was lying on the table, but Benabbas was too quick for her.
"Enough of this," he said sternly. "We must not quarrel among ourselves. We have other work to do." He looked first at Sir Julius and then at me. Goldberg smiled as his eyes met mine.
"We will attend to you presently, Colonel Gantian," he said, "when we have restored this old fool to reason. Take him to his room." Cauliflower and the black approached the half-conscious Sir Julius. "Not you, Silas," he continued, addressing the negro. "I want you to remain with this prisoner—and administer a little persuasion. You understand?"
Silas grinned. He seemed to understand perfectly what was required of him.
Without further parley Cauliflower and Menilos bore Sir Julius away. Benabbas and Goldberg were about to follow when they suddenly stopped and looked at the woman, who stood with her head thrown back defiantly. Benabbas smiled.
"We are waiting for you, Olga," he said. "We shall leave your friend in good company."
"I am tired, Benabbas." But she gave him a look that meant something more than being merely tired.
"So are we all, my dear Olga, but the ordeal is nearly over, and your reward is at hand."
"What are you going to do with him?"
"Don't let that distress you, my dear Olga," he almost cooed. "It was necessary for our safety that he should be under close surveillance."
"Our good Morris says many things in anger that in his calmer moments he always regrets. Moreover, my dear Olga, please do not forget that I am in command here, and I promise you that all shall be well."
Reluctantly, or so it seemed to me, she permitted him to lead her from the room. Perhaps she realised the futility of protest. I tried to catch her eye as she went out, but she never turned round. I wondered if that was the last I should ever see of her.
Goldberg, however, paused at the door for a moment. I think he hated me just then more than anything in the world.
"What message shall I give to Rachel Nathling?" he asked with a sneer.
"Tell her I shall do myself the honour of calling on her to-morrow."
"No; in Belgrave Square."
Furiously he slammed the door behind him.
LEFT alone with the big negro my last hope seemed gone. For a moment or so I had almost believed there were possibilities in Olga Menilos. But even if she had the will to help me, what could she do in the circumstances? There were those about her who would see that she succumbed to no temporary weakness. So it was good-bye to Olga Menilos. Already she must have set them thinking. I did not believe they would let her see me again.
Meanwhile I concentrated on the big black, who was sitting on the edge of the table, a cigarette between his protruding lips. He looked at me and those lips parted in a grin which showed his strong, uneven teeth and his cavern of a mouth. It was horrible to see the way the cigarette dangled from his nether lip. Quite ostentatiously he took the pincers from his pocket and held them up for me to get a good view. Then he lazily lifted himself from the table and came towards me. And now, for the first time, I was sure of him.
"How much do they pay you for this?" I asked.
"Good money, sure," he grinned.
"I can pay you better."
"I don't think I've ketched a sight of your money."
"But you shall, I promise you shall."
"Say, you ain't squirmin' at being nipped? Folks gets to like it after a time."
"But I'm not one of them. Don't you recognise me, Silas?"
"How did you know my name was Silas?" He scratched his woolly head as he put the question.
"I didn't know till a moment ago. Don't you remember the guy who had a row with you in the Sheet Anchor some time back?"
"Are you the guy that socked me unawares? Sure, I'm more'n glad to see you again." The instrument of torture seemed nearer then than it had ever been.
"No," I answered hastily, "but I was with him."
"He was an American sailor who was too all-fired proud to drink with a nigger? I've wanted to meet that guy bad."
"Then you're likely to, for he'll be along presently."
"Can't you get him to hurry up?"
"He's always hurrying up; he's hurrying here now. It's a way of his. Tell me, what part of America do you come from?"
"I guess Noo York is good enough for me."
"Then you have heard of the Wallington family?"
"I guess every soul in America has heard of the Wallin'tons."
"Then you know John C.?"
"Are you askin' me? What young Jawn C.? I guess there ain't another boy in the States like him for bumin' dollars. See here, I could tell you some tales about that guy."
"He was the American sailor who socked you that night in the Sheet Anchor."
"Are you tellin' me that that was Jawn C. Wallin'ton?"
"Yes. He's a friend of mine. I'm a police officer. We were after this bunch of crooks. Listen! Get me out of this before they return and I promise you shall go back to New York with more dollars in your pocket than you ever dreamt of."
"Say, you must think me dead easy. An' I don't believe that was Jawn C. Wallin'ton. What would a swell guy like him be doin' in an East End pub? Why, that feller runs a palace of a yacht all to himself."
"I know, but I'm telling you the truth. That was John C. Wallington. He's an old friend of mine."
"I guess Jawn C. don't need to go among cops for his friends. Give us somethin' else."
The fellow seemed hopeless, and every moment was vital. If I failed here I was done indeed. I tried another tack.
"Do you know that that old man they've just taken away is a millionaire, a millionaire in sterling, not dollars? He'll pay you anything to get him out of this. Don't you see what it means to you? Money and a free pardon. But if either of us dies you swing. And there's no getting away, Silas. Sure as you're born, if anything happens you're a dead man. It's the gallows or a long stretch of penal servitude whichever way you look at it. You know that the English law strikes swift and sure. Make up your mind. There's no time to lose. They may come back at any moment."
I think I was never so excited in my life as I was during the next few moments. Could, would the reality of my appeal penetrate that thick skull? Would he realise how he stood with the law? Would the thought of a pocketful of dollars do the trick?
"This is level?" he said at last.
"And you think Jawn C. . . . ?"
"I know he will pay anything I ask."
"It's a cinch. Whatya want me to do?"
"First of all unfasten these ropes."
"But that won't get you away. Every door is watched."
"At any rate, I shall be able to put up a fight. Quick!"
"It's a square deal?" he said again.
"On my honour. Every word I've told you is the truth, and I'll see you through."
I don't know that he was greatly impressed by the oath, or that he reckoned my honour the best of securities, but it was all I had to offer. He stared at me with his big round eyes and then began to examine the ropes.
"They've sure hawg-tied you pretty good," he remarked.
He took a knife from his pocket. Then paused. "Say, if I cut they'll sure see soon as they come in."
"Cut the knots at the back. Have you a gun?"
"No, I never carry no gun."
"Never mind. Get on with it."
In a moment he had accomplished the first part of his task. I could move both arms and legs. The blood began to circulate like fire through my veins. He looked at me as though asking what next. I told him so to arrange the lashings that to anyone entering it would appear I was still bound. Not suspecting a ruse, I had to take the chance of their not looking for one.
"Say," he whispered in my ear, "ain't it about time you done the stuck-hawg act? They'll sure think I ain't payin' you none too much attention." I gave a shriek. He grinned. "Another—louder." I screamed for all the world like a weak man under torture. "A bully one," he said. "I guess they heard that sure. But I'd best make it look all plumb an' proper." He undid my collar and laid bare my chest. "Feelin' good, boss?"
"An' you ain't double-crossing me? It's a square deal?"
"A square deal."
"Then I guess I'm in on it up to the neck."
"Listen! They're coming. Lean over me. Look as though you're at work."
The door was opened and Goldberg appeared. He was followed by Benabbas. After him came Cauliflower and Menilos. What had they done with Sir Julius and the woman? Goldberg advanced, smiling.
"We thought we heard a cry, Silas. I hope you have not been too severe?"
The black, still partly sheltering me, turned round and grinned.
"He sure don't take his medicine none too good. Some folks is like that. They allus cry out before they're hurt."
"Sorry to inconvenience you, colonel," said Mr. Goldberg, "but you, as a soldier, will appreciate the fortune of war. You will be glad to learn that Julius Vogelstein has been brought to a reasonable frame of mind. I will convey your compliments to Rachel Nathling. I know she will eagerly anticipate your coming." But, mocking as he was, he could not wholly hide the personal note of antagonism. I wondered if his hopes had been shattered in that quarter.
Benabbas took up the tale in his soft purring tones. "I promised you should learn the end of the story, Colonel Gantian, and I always endeavour to keep my word. Sir Julius has been reasonable; everybody has been reasonable but you. However, we will let bygones be bygones. I regret, but the time has come for us to say good-bye, and bon voyage. But before you go it might interest you to know what port you're sailing from. This is that most respectable of taverns known as the Sheet Anchor."
Here Menilos thrust himself forward. "Enough of this talk! We've got to settle accounts with this swine."
He came towards me and with a rough hand swung the black aside. But, furious as he was, his glance must have seen something suspicious, for he hesitated, looked at me, then at my lashings. He drew back and pointed at them.
"Look, look! Don't you see—"
But at that moment the door was flung open and an excited voice cried out, "Police! We're surrounded!" It was the landlord himself who had burst in with the appalling news.
Dumbfounded, the confederates gazed at each other. Indecision seized everyone but Menilos. As he turned to me I rose to meet him. There was a flash and a report, but I closed with him, not knowing I was hit. Together we swayed across the room, sending chairs and table flying. I knew he was trying to bring the muzzle of the revolver against my body, but I had him by the wrist, and gradually twisted his arm round to his own back. Then we both stumbled and fell, and as we went down the gun exploded. His hand grew limp. Though I still held on to him I was feeling a bit sick and dizzy. Then a well-known voice cried out, "Good for you, pard!" and Wally was helping me to my feet, with Albert standing by. The room was filled with strange men, George Mayford among them. And there was Benabbas, and Goldberg, and Cauliflower, and there was no more pride in any of them.
I looked at Wally, and he, seeing my bare chest, put his hand inside my shirt. It was covered with blood when he withdrew it.
"God," he gasped, "they've got you!"
"It's nothing, old man."
Albert had my coat oft in a twinkling, Wally ripped wide my shirt. Between them they staunched the bleeding with their handkerchiefs. George bent over me, a look of intense anxiety in his dear old face.
"Glad to see you, George."
"Sure it's all right, Peter?"
He gave me a nip of something strong from his flask. Then he stooped down and turned Menilos over. I looked the question. He nodded. Menilos was gone.
Benabbas, Goldberg and Cauliflower were guarded by George's young men. "Take them away," he said.
"Just a moment. Where is Sir Julius?" I asked, addressing Benabbas.
"You will find him upstairs."
"She also is upstairs, and probably much concerned over your fate. I regret, Colonel Gantian, that you will not be able to learn the end of the story after all."
"I think I can guess it."
He nodded. "Allah be with you," he said.
"And with you. We shall both need him."
Even as he was led away he smiled. I believe he would smile facing a firing party.
"What about this nigger?" said George.
"I'll explain him later. First get Sir Julius."
"You heard, upstairs. Madame Menilos is also there."
At this Wally betrayed a new interest. "What, that—" he began. But I checked him.
"Wait a minute, son. This has been a great night."
"Sure," he said.
As George and Albert left the room I called to the black, who had been standing demurely in the background.
"Come here, Silas. This is Mr. Wallington. I told you he was coming, that he always comes."
"You sure did, colonel." But he was looking at Wally as though he could scarcely credit the great truth.
"What's the idea, Peter?"
Swiftly and briefly I told him. He came close to the black and looked at him for a moment or so without speaking. His look was uncompromising, his mouth hard. Silas must have experienced a bad spasm or two.
"You're sure some pretty blackguard," he said, "and but for that promise . . . But every word of what this gentleman said goes. Get me?"
"And you can think yourself darned lucky."
"I sure can, sah, an' no mistake. An' youse the real Jawn C.?"
"That goes too."
The door now opened and Olga was ushered in by George and Albert. Though her face was pale, her fine eyes wide and startled, she still carried her head defiantly. There was no squeal in her even though she knew the game was up. Yet when her glance fell on the body of Menilos she gave one involuntary gasp. Then she looked at me. I nodded.
"I was afraid," she said.
"It doesn't matter. What are you going to do with me?"
"You'll find out in good time," said George Mayford stiffly. "I've been most anxious to meet you, Madame Menilos."
"How charming of you," she replied. Then she smiled at Wally. "Ah, Mr. Wallington, this is an unexpected pleasure."
Mayford tapped her on the shoulder. Her body stiffened. Up went her head again.
"Just a minute, George," I said. "Madame Menilos is most anxious to return to her native land."
"Doubtless," he smiled.
"And I want you to help her."
"I promise," he said grimly.
"Yes, but not that way. This has nothing to do with the police, madame," I assured her. "I am not wrong in assuming that you are anxious to return to your own country?"
"Well?" There was still a ring of defiance in her tone.
"In that case Mr. Mayford will help you all he can, as you would have helped me. Am I wrong?"
"No, you're not!" she burst out. "I'm sorry for what I said and did. I saw at last that you were a man, the only real man I've ever met in my life, and I would have helped you if I could."
"So it seemed to me. Now don't worry any more. If you will call on Mr. Mayford at his office to-morrow morning—"
"Unhappily the neighbourhood is rather notorious, but that needn't alarm you."
"Ten o'clock," said George, rather brusquely.
"And I am free to go—now?"
I turned to George.
"Perfectly," he said.
She looked amazed. Plainly the reaction was almost more than she could bear. Several times I thought she was going to speak. Then suddenly she buried her face in her hands and groped her way through the open door.
"Well," said George, "you seem to have arranged that business very nicely. Now what about this fellow?" pointing to the black.
"Wally and I have promised to look after him."
"You sure have, sah," said Silas, "an' Mr. Jawn C. says that it goes, an' no Wallin'ton ever said a thing goes if it don't."
"And what about yourself?" George turned to me.
"Oh, I'm all right."
BUT everybody would insist on making an invalid of me, though Menilos's bullet had merely torn away an insignificant ligament or two. Back in Cork Street, swathed in a surgical bandage, propped up by cushions, waited on by two of the dearest women in the world, I had the time of my life. Lady Nathling was constantly on the 'phone. Her father was slowly recovering from the shock to his system. How could she ever repay me for all that I had done for them both? When could she call? Meanwhile, would I accept a slight gift of fruit and flowers as an inadequate expression of her unbounded gratitude? Julia sniffed. As though she and Edna couldn't provide me with all the fruit and flowers I required? Perhaps Lady Nathling would be sending wine next, and calves-foot jelly. Ridiculous! I smiled as I visualised her buying up Covent Garden and all the calves-foot jelly in London. But I adored that sniff.
Albert was unceremoniously relegated to the background, but, realising who had superseded him for the time being he wasn't in the least offended. He moved about, soft of foot, with a perpetual smile on his grim mouth. He admitted that women were rum creatures, but very nice when they liked. That was the worst of him; he always qualified his remarks, especially about women. I think they were the only thing on earth that really scared him.
When George came he provided certain details which accounted for his opportune arrival at the Sheet Anchor. It would seem that he had kept that tavern under close surveillance. Cauliflower had been seen in the vicinity, from which fact certain deductions had been drawn. The first intimation that things were awry came when I failed to return from my visit to Benabbas. A party, which included Wally and Albert, proceeded to visit the house in Melton Place, with what result may be imagined. Almost at the same time a message came through from Shadwell saying that a motor car had been seen at the back entrance of the Sheet Anchor.
"Naturally we came," said George in that easy way of his. "I always knew you would blunder on the right thing. Beats me how you do it. Of all the—"
"Quite so. And Madame Menilos?"
"She turned up all right, and proved most reasonable. One of my young men is escorting her to Hull. Her ship sails for Sweden at midnight."
"I'm glad you let her go."
"A grave dereliction of duty, let me tell you. That woman is one of the—"
"Results of our wretched civilisation."
"What really happened between you?" he asked confidentially. "She seems to think you're a sort of—" he hesitated and smiled— "good young man."
"She is a woman of much discernment."
"I believe you. I suppose it's a true bill about the nigger?"
"Perfectly. But for him Menilos would probably have finished me off. And that row at the Sheet Anchor wasn't a frame-up; you can take my word for it. Afterwards, they promised him satisfaction for the blow and the insult, and backed it up with hard cash. I believe that's the true story."
"Which doesn't account for his becoming torturer-in-chief."
"Money is hard to resist."
"If you go on like this you'll end by reforming all the criminals in London, and I shall lose my job." He looked round the room, at the fruit, the flowers, the general tidiness. "You seem pretty comfortable here," he remarked dryly.
"Nothing like a quiet life, George."
"Combined with tender nursing."
"Edna's a wonder."
"Ye-es," he said. "You're a lucky beggar."
"Do you know, George, I'm beginning to believe I am."
Wally and Edna appeared shortly after his departure. They had been out to lunch together, and as she came towards me her eyes were shining. Was I sure I was quite well? No pain? She eased the cushions and pressed her cheek against mine. It was positively flaming. It flamed still more when I looked into her eyes. Then she said she must hurry back to Julia. At the door Wally called out that he would be back in a minute.
It must have been the longest minute on record, and so I told him on his return. He came across smiling and caught my hand.
"I guess I've done it, boy."
"Asked Edna to marry me."
"So. And what did she say?"
"A dutiful child," I remarked.
"See here, it was some job. I just beat round the bush like a scared bird." (I could see him playing the part of a scared bird!) "At first I thought she might have heard things about me, but if she had she never let on. Ever since that day . . . down in your garden. . . . But I'm sure she was scared of my reputation . . . looked as if she was wondering what she had heard, or seen in the silly papers, was true. Peter, I never knew till then what a blamed fool I'd been. A man sure lays up a lot of trouble for himself."
"Well, get on with it."
"Can't you see I'm trying to, you darned idiot? Sometimes I thought . . . She had a way of looking at me that made me feel mighty mean. But, as you know, I'm a persevering sort of cuss." I nodded encouragingly, secretly simmering with laughter. "And once I ventured to touch on this marriage business, and what do you think she said?"
"How should I know?"
"She guessed she would never marry till she found a man like you. I told her that if she waited for that she'd die an old maid."
"It just amounts to this. What does the big brother say?"
"Does it matter what he says?"
"Not on your life. I guess she's going to be Mrs. John C. Wallington in spite of all the big brothers in the world."
I caught his hand and pressed it. "I'm glad, old man."
"So am I."
But he seemed restless, as though he were in a hurry to get away, and presently he said, "Now, having got that off my chest, I guess I'll vamose. I sort of promised Edna I'd run her down into Sussex. She's mighty anxious about the old folk."
"That's right, leave me all alone. You don't care what becomes of the poor wounded soldier."
"Not a cent. But since you are so all-fired lonely I'll see if I can't persuade Julia to drop in to tea."
"She won't come."
"She might, if I insist. She's a Christian woman, and charitable."
He went out grinning. Little Edna! It was too wonderful.
I tried dozing and reading, and talking to Albert, but with little success. My mind was on the clock. I watched the leaden minutes creep on. Never in my life had I so yearned for the tea hour to strike. Then a ring at the bell, and in she came, fragrant as the gorgeous bouquet she carried.
"This is good of you."
"John insisted. He said you were lonely."
"So it was because John insisted? Very thoughtful of him. What lovely flowers."
"They are rather sweet."
I almost blurted out that there was something infinitely sweeter in the room; but said, "You've heard about him and Edna?"
"I've seen it coming for days. He's just crazy about her."
"Why, yes. She's just the sweetest thing on earth."
"Let me say one of the sweetest."
I tried to catch her eye, but she turned away. Then who should come butting in but Albert with the tea. I inwardly cursed, being conscious of a sudden accession of boldness.
After tea we were quietly smoking a cigarette and trying to behave like two staid old fogies, when he interrupted once again. This time he was carrying a box in his hands.
"Flowers, sir," he announced, "with Lady Nathling's compliments."
Julia stiffened; her head went up. I motioned for Albert to take them away. He departed, a sly smile playing round the corners of his mouth.
"Aren't you going to look at them?" she asked.
"But she won't know."
"Do you think I am?"
"John doesn't," she answered evasively.
"I'm more interested in what John's sister thinks."
"Really!" She moved as if to rise.
"Don't go, Julia."
Suddenly she looked at me. There was laughter, and something more wonderful in her eyes. And for the life of me I don't know how it happened, but there she was in my arms, and I was kissing her in a perfect whirl of excitement.
"Leathermouth," she cooed, her lips close to my ear.
"Don't, darling, for heaven's sake! If you only knew what misery that name has caused me since I met you."
"But I just love it," she said.
"Which, the name or the . . . ?"
"And I wouldn't change one of its grim lines for all the beautiful mouths in the world."
"Then you admit it's not beautiful? I knew you thought like that."
"It's so beautifully ugly, darling, that I just adore it."
What reply, save one, could any man make to a speech like that?
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