IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.
“I beg your pardon.”
A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.
She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!
“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.
He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.
“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”
“A patriotic one?”
The girl flushed.
“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”
“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”
“Because of ‘women and children first.'” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have GOT to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”
The girl held out her hand.
“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”
The girl smiled.
“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”
“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”
“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.
Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.
The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.
CHAPTER I. THE YOUNG ADVENTURERS, LTD.
“TOMMY, old thing!”
“Tuppence, old bean!”
The two young people greeted each other affectionately, and momentarily blocked the Dover Street Tube exit in doing so. The adjective “old” was misleading. Their united ages would certainly not have totalled forty-five.
“Not seen you for simply centuries,” continued the young man. “Where are you off to? Come and chew a bun with me. We’re getting a bit unpopular here—blocking the gangway as it were. Let’s get out of it.”
The girl assenting, they started walking down Dover Street towards Piccadilly.
“Now then,” said Tommy, “where shall we go?”
The very faint anxiety which underlay his tone did not escape the astute ears of Miss Prudence Cowley, known to her intimate friends for some mysterious reason as “Tuppence.” She pounced at once.
“Tommy, you’re stony!”
“Not a bit of it,” declared Tommy unconvincingly. “Rolling in cash.”
“You always were a shocking liar,” said Tuppence severely, “though you did once persuade Sister Greenbank that the doctor had ordered you beer as a tonic, but forgotten to write it on the chart. Do you remember?”
“I should think I did! Wasn’t the old cat in a rage when she found out? Not that she was a bad sort really, old Mother Greenbank! Good old hospital—demobbed like everything else, I suppose?”
“Yes. You too?”
“Two months ago.”
“Gratuity?” hinted Tuppence.
“No, old thing, not in riotous dissipation. No such luck! The cost of living—ordinary plain, or garden living nowadays is, I assure you, if you do not know——”
“My dear child,” interrupted Tuppence, “there is nothing I do NOT know about the cost of living. Here we are at Lyons’, and we will each of us pay for our own. That’s it!” And Tuppence led the way upstairs.
The place was full, and they wandered about looking for a table, catching odds and ends of conversation as they did so.
“And—do you know, she sat down and CRIED when I told her she couldn’t have the flat after all.” “It was simply a BARGAIN, my dear! Just like the one Mabel Lewis brought from Paris——”
“Funny scraps one does overhear,” murmured Tommy. “I passed two Johnnies in the street to-day talking about some one called Jane Finn. Did you ever hear such a name?”
But at that moment two elderly ladies rose and collected parcels, and Tuppence deftly ensconced herself in one of the vacant seats.
Tommy ordered tea and buns. Tuppence ordered tea and buttered toast.
“And mind the tea comes in separate teapots,” she added severely.
Tommy sat down opposite her. His bared head revealed a shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair. His face was pleasantly ugly—nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman. His brown suit was well cut, but perilously near the end of its tether.
They were an essentially modern-looking couple as they sat there. Tuppence had no claim to beauty, but there was character and charm in the elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large, wide-apart grey eyes that looked mistily out from under straight, black brows. She wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair, and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair of uncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt at smartness.
The tea came at last, and Tuppence, rousing herself from a fit of meditation, poured it out.
“Now then,” said Tommy, taking a large bite of bun, “let’s get up-to-date. Remember, I haven’t seen you since that time in hospital in 1916.”
“Very well.” Tuppence helped herself liberally to buttered toast. “Abridged biography of Miss Prudence Cowley, fifth daughter of Archdeacon Cowley of Little Missendell, Suffolk. Miss Cowley left the delights (and drudgeries) of her home life early in the war and came up to London, where she entered an officers’ hospital. First month: Washed up six hundred and forty-eight plates every day. Second month: Promoted to drying aforesaid plates. Third month: Promoted to peeling potatoes. Fourth month: Promoted to cutting bread and butter. Fifth month: Promoted one floor up to duties of wardmaid with mop and pail. Sixth month: Promoted to waiting at table. Seventh month: Pleasing appearance and nice manners so striking that am promoted to waiting on the Sisters! Eighth month: Slight check in career. Sister Bond ate Sister Westhaven’s egg! Grand row! Wardmaid clearly to blame! Inattention in such important matters cannot be too highly censured. Mop and pail again! How are the mighty fallen! Ninth month: Promoted to sweeping out wards, where I found a friend of my childhood in Lieutenant Thomas Beresford (bow, Tommy!), whom I had not seen for five long years. The meeting was affecting! Tenth month: Reproved by matron for visiting the pictures in company with one of the patients, namely: the aforementioned Lieutenant Thomas Beresford. Eleventh and twelfth months: Parlourmaid duties resumed with entire success. At the end of the year left hospital in a blaze of glory. After that, the talented Miss Cowley drove successively a trade delivery van, a motor-lorry and a general! The last was the pleasantest. He was quite a young general!”
“What blighter was that?” inquired Tommy. “Perfectly sickening the way those brass hats drove from the War Office to the Savoy, and from the Savoy to the War Office!”
“I’ve forgotten his name now,” confessed Tuppence. “To resume, that was in a way the apex of my career. I next entered a Government office. We had several very enjoyable tea parties. I had intended to become a land girl, a postwoman, and a bus conductress by way of rounding off my career—but the Armistice intervened! I clung to the office with the true limpet touch for many long months, but, alas, I was combed out at last. Since then I’ve been looking for a job. Now then—your turn.”
“There’s not so much promotion in mine,” said Tommy regretfully, “and a great deal less variety. I went out to France again, as you know. Then they sent me to Mesopotamia, and I got wounded for the second time, and went into hospital out there. Then I got stuck in Egypt till the Armistice happened, kicked my heels there some time longer, and, as I told you, finally got demobbed. And, for ten long, weary months I’ve been job hunting! There aren’t any jobs! And, if there were, they wouldn’t give ’em to me. What good am I? What do I know about business? Nothing.”
Tuppence nodded gloomily.
“What about the colonies?” she suggested.
Tommy shook his head.
“I shouldn’t like the colonies—and I’m perfectly certain they wouldn’t like me!”
Again Tommy shook his head.
“Oh, Tommy, not even a great-aunt?”
“I’ve got an old uncle who’s more or less rolling, but he’s no good.”
“Wanted to adopt me once. I refused.”
“I think I remember hearing about it,” said Tuppence slowly. “You refused because of your mother——”
“Yes, it would have been a bit rough on the mater. As you know, I was all she had. Old boy hated her—wanted to get me away from her. Just a bit of spite.”
“Your mother’s dead, isn’t she?” said Tuppence gently.
Tuppence’s large grey eyes looked misty.
“You’re a good sort, Tommy. I always knew it.”
“Rot!” said Tommy hastily. “Well, that’s my position. I’m just about desperate.”
“So am I! I’ve hung out as long as I could. I’ve touted round. I’ve answered advertisements. I’ve tried every mortal blessed thing. I’ve screwed and saved and pinched! But it’s no good. I shall have to go home!”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Of course I don’t want to! What’s the good of being sentimental? Father’s a dear—I’m awfully fond of him—but you’ve no idea how I worry him! He has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral. You can imagine what a thorn in the flesh I am to him! He just heaved a sigh of relief when the war took me off. You see, there are seven of us at home. It’s awful! All housework and mothers’ meetings! I have always been the changeling. I don’t want to go back, but—oh, Tommy, what else is there to do?”
Tommy shook his head sadly. There was a silence, and then Tuppence burst out:
“Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is!”
“Same here,” agreed Tommy with feeling.
“I’ve thought over every imaginable way of getting it too,” continued Tuppence. “There are only three! To be left it, to marry it, or to make it. First is ruled out. I haven’t got any rich elderly relatives. Any relatives I have are in homes for decayed gentlewomen! I always help old ladies over crossings, and pick up parcels for old gentlemen, in case they should turn out to be eccentric millionaires. But not one of them has ever asked me my name—and quite a lot never said ‘Thank you.'”
There was a pause.
“Of course,” resumed Tuppence, “marriage is my best chance. I made up my mind to marry money when I was quite young. Any thinking girl would! I’m not sentimental, you know.” She paused. “Come now, you can’t say I’m sentimental,” she added sharply.
“Certainly not,” agreed Tommy hastily. “No one would ever think of sentiment in connection with you.”
“That’s not very polite,” replied Tuppence. “But I dare say you mean it all right. Well, there it is! I’m ready and willing—but I never meet any rich men! All the boys I know are about as hard up as I am.”
“What about the general?” inquired Tommy.
“I fancy he keeps a bicycle shop in time of peace,” explained Tuppence. “No, there it is! Now you could marry a rich girl.”
“I’m like you. I don’t know any.”
“That doesn’t matter. You can always get to know one. Now, if I see a man in a fur coat come out of the Ritz I can’t rush up to him and say: ‘Look here, you’re rich. I’d like to know you.'”
“Do you suggest that I should do that to a similarly garbed female?”
“Don’t be silly. You tread on her foot, or pick up her handkerchief, or something like that. If she thinks you want to know her she’s flattered, and will manage it for you somehow.”
“You overrate my manly charms,” murmured Tommy.
“On the other hand,” proceeded Tuppence, “my millionaire would probably run for his life! No—marriage is fraught with difficulties. Remains—to MAKE money!”
“We’ve tried that, and failed,” Tommy reminded her.
“We’ve tried all the orthodox ways, yes. But suppose we try the unorthodox. Tommy, let’s be adventurers!”
“Certainly,” replied Tommy cheerfully. “How do we begin?”
“That’s the difficulty. If we could make ourselves known, people might hire us to commit crimes for them.”
“Delightful,” commented Tommy. “Especially coming from a clergyman’s daughter!”
“The moral guilt,” Tuppence pointed out, “would be theirs—not mine. You must admit that there’s a difference between stealing a diamond necklace for yourself and being hired to steal it.”
“There wouldn’t be the least difference if you were caught!”
“Perhaps not. But I shouldn’t be caught. I’m so clever.”
“Modesty always was your besetting sin,” remarked Tommy.
“Don’t rag. Look here, Tommy, shall we really? Shall we form a business partnership?”
“Form a company for the stealing of diamond necklaces?”
“That was only an illustration. Let’s have a—what do you call it in book-keeping?”
“Don’t know. Never did any.”
“I have—but I always got mixed up, and used to put credit entries on the debit side, and vice versa—so they fired me out. Oh, I know—a joint venture! It struck me as such a romantic phrase to come across in the middle of musty old figures. It’s got an Elizabethan flavour about it—makes one think of galleons and doubloons. A joint venture!”
“Trading under the name of the Young Adventurers, Ltd.? Is that your idea, Tuppence?”
“It’s all very well to laugh, but I feel there might be something in it.”
“How do you propose to get in touch with your would-be employers?”
“Advertisement,” replied Tuppence promptly. “Have you got a bit of paper and a pencil? Men usually seem to have. Just like we have hairpins and powder-puffs.”
Tommy handed over a rather shabby green notebook, and Tuppence began writing busily.
“Shall we begin: ‘Young officer, twice wounded in the war—'”
“Oh, very well, my dear boy. But I can assure you that that sort of thing might touch the heart of an elderly spinster, and she might adopt you, and then there would be no need for you to be a young adventurer at all.”
“I don’t want to be adopted.”
“I forgot you had a prejudice against it. I was only ragging you! The papers are full up to the brim with that type of thing. Now listen—how’s this? ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good.’ (We might as well make that clear from the start.) Then we might add: ‘No reasonable offer refused’—like flats and furniture.”
“I should think any offer we get in answer to that would be a pretty UNreasonable one!”
“Tommy! You’re a genius! That’s ever so much more chic. ‘No unreasonable offer refused—if pay is good.’ How’s that?”
“I shouldn’t mention pay again. It looks rather eager.”
“It couldn’t look as eager as I feel! But perhaps you are right. Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”
“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”
“It’s not half so insane as a thing I read this morning beginning ‘Petunia’ and signed ‘Best Boy.'” She tore out the leaf and handed it to Tommy. “There you are. Times, I think. Reply to Box so-and-so. I expect it will be about five shillings. Here’s half a crown for my share.”
Tommy was holding the paper thoughtfully. His faced burned a deeper red.
“Shall we really try it?” he said at last. “Shall we, Tuppence? Just for the fun of the thing?”
“Tommy, you’re a sport! I knew you would be! Let’s drink to success.” She poured some cold dregs of tea into the two cups.
“Here’s to our joint venture, and may it prosper!”
“The Young Adventurers, Ltd.!” responded Tommy.
They put down the cups and laughed rather uncertainly. Tuppence rose.
“I must return to my palatial suite at the hostel.”
“Perhaps it is time I strolled round to the Ritz,” agreed Tommy with a grin. “Where shall we meet? And when?”
“Twelve o’clock to-morrow. Piccadilly Tube station. Will that suit you?”
“My time is my own,” replied Mr. Beresford magnificently.
“So long, then.”
“Good-bye, old thing.”
The two young people went off in opposite directions. Tuppence’s hostel was situated in what was charitably called Southern Belgravia. For reasons of economy she did not take a bus.
She was half-way across St. James’s Park, when a man’s voice behind her made her start.
“Excuse me,” it said. “But may I speak to you for a moment?”
CHAPTER II. MR. WHITTINGTON’S OFFER
TUPPENCE turned sharply, but the words hovering on the tip of her tongue remained unspoken, for the man’s appearance and manner did not bear out her first and most natural assumption. She hesitated. As if he read her thoughts, the man said quickly:
“I can assure you I mean no disrespect.”
Tuppence believed him. Although she disliked and distrusted him instinctively, she was inclined to acquit him of the particular motive which she had at first attributed to him. She looked him up and down. He was a big man, clean shaven, with a heavy jowl. His eyes were small and cunning, and shifted their glance under her direct gaze.
“Well, what is it?” she asked.
The man smiled.
“I happened to overhear part of your conversation with the young gentleman in Lyons’.”
“Well—what of it?”
“Nothing—except that I think I may be of some use to you.”
Another inference forced itself into Tuppence’s mind:
“You followed me here?”
“I took that liberty.”
“And in what way do you think you could be of use to me?”
The man took a card from his pocket and handed it to her with a bow.
Tuppence took it and scrutinized it carefully. It bore the inscription, “Mr. Edward Whittington.” Below the name were the words “Esthonia Glassware Co.,” and the address of a city office. Mr. Whittington spoke again:
“If you will call upon me to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock, I will lay the details of my proposition before you.”
“At eleven o’clock?” said Tuppence doubtfully.
“At eleven o’clock.”
Tuppence made up her mind.
“Very well. I’ll be there.”
“Thank you. Good evening.”
He raised his hat with a flourish, and walked away. Tuppence remained for some minutes gazing after him. Then she gave a curious movement of her shoulders, rather as a terrier shakes himself.
“The adventures have begun,” she murmured to herself. “What does he want me to do, I wonder? There’s something about you, Mr. Whittington, that I don’t like at all. But, on the other hand, I’m not the least bit afraid of you. And as I’ve said before, and shall doubtless say again, little Tuppence can look after herself, thank you!”
And with a short, sharp nod of her head she walked briskly onward. As a result of further meditations, however, she turned aside from the direct route and entered a post office. There she pondered for some moments, a telegraph form in her hand. The thought of a possible five shillings spent unnecessarily spurred her to action, and she decided to risk the waste of ninepence.
Disdaining the spiky pen and thick, black treacle which a beneficent Government had provided, Tuppence drew out Tommy’s pencil which she had retained and wrote rapidly: “Don’t put in advertisement. Will explain to-morrow.” She addressed it to Tommy at his club, from which in one short month he would have to resign, unless a kindly fortune permitted him to renew his subscription.
“It may catch him,” she murmured. “Anyway, it’s worth trying.”
After handing it over the counter she set out briskly for home, stopping at a baker’s to buy three penny-worth of new buns.
Later, in her tiny cubicle at the top of the house she munched buns and reflected on the future. What was the Esthonia Glassware Co., and what earthly need could it have for her services? A pleasurable thrill of excitement made Tuppence tingle. At any rate, the country vicarage had retreated into the background again. The morrow held possibilities.
It was a long time before Tuppence went to sleep that night, and, when at length she did, she dreamed that Mr. Whittington had set her to washing up a pile of Esthonia Glassware, which bore an unaccountable resemblance to hospital plates!
It wanted some five minutes to eleven when Tuppence reached the block of buildings in which the offices of the Esthonia Glassware Co. were situated. To arrive before the time would look over-eager. So Tuppence decided to walk to the end of the street and back again. She did so. On the stroke of eleven she plunged into the recesses of the building. The Esthonia Glassware Co. was on the top floor. There was a lift, but Tuppence chose to walk up.
Slightly out of breath, she came to a halt outside the ground glass door with the legend painted across it “Esthonia Glassware Co.”
Tuppence knocked. In response to a voice from within, she turned the handle and walked into a small rather dirty outer office.
A middle-aged clerk got down from a high stool at a desk near the window and came towards her inquiringly.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Whittington,” said Tuppence.
“Will you come this way, please.” He crossed to a partition door with “Private” on it, knocked, then opened the door and stood aside to let her pass in.
Mr. Whittington was seated behind a large desk covered with papers. Tuppence felt her previous judgment confirmed. There was something wrong about Mr. Whittington. The combination of his sleek prosperity and his shifty eye was not attractive.
He looked up and nodded.
“So you’ve turned up all right? That’s good. Sit down, will you?”
Tuppence sat down on the chair facing him. She looked particularly small and demure this morning. She sat there meekly with downcast eyes whilst Mr. Whittington sorted and rustled amongst his papers. Finally he pushed them away, and leaned over the desk.
“Now, my dear young lady, let us come to business.” His large face broadened into a smile. “You want work? Well, I have work to offer you. What should you say now to L100 down, and all expenses paid?” Mr. Whittington leaned back in his chair, and thrust his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat.
Tuppence eyed him warily.
“And the nature of the work?” she demanded.
“Nominal—purely nominal. A pleasant trip, that is all.”
Mr. Whittington smiled again.
“Oh!” said Tuppence thoughtfully. To herself she said: “Of course, if father heard that he would have a fit! But somehow I don’t see Mr. Whittington in the role of the gay deceiver.”
“Yes,” continued Whittington. “What could be more delightful? To put the clock back a few years—a very few, I am sure—and re-enter one of those charming pensionnats de jeunes filles with which Paris abounds——”
Tuppence interrupted him.
“Exactly. Madame Colombier’s in the Avenue de Neuilly.”
Tuppence knew the name well. Nothing could have been more select. She had had several American friends there. She was more than ever puzzled.
“You want me to go to Madame Colombier’s? For how long?”
“That depends. Possibly three months.”
“And that is all? There are no other conditions?”
“None whatever. You would, of course, go in the character of my ward, and you would hold no communication with your friends. I should have to request absolute secrecy for the time being. By the way, you are English, are you not?”
“Yet you speak with a slight American accent?”
“My great pal in hospital was a little American girl. I dare say I picked it up from her. I can soon get out of it again.”
“On the contrary, it might be simpler for you to pass as an American. Details about your past life in England might be more difficult to sustain. Yes, I think that would be decidedly better. Then——”
“One moment, Mr. Whittington! You seem to be taking my consent for granted.”
Whittington looked surprised.
“Surely you are not thinking of refusing? I can assure you that Madame Colombier’s is a most high-class and orthodox establishment. And the terms are most liberal.”
“Exactly,” said Tuppence. “That’s just it. The terms are almost too liberal, Mr. Whittington. I cannot see any way in which I can be worth that amount of money to you.”
“No?” said Whittington softly. “Well, I will tell you. I could doubtless obtain some one else for very much less. What I am willing to pay for is a young lady with sufficient intelligence and presence of mind to sustain her part well, and also one who will have sufficient discretion not to ask too many questions.”
Tuppence smiled a little. She felt that Whittington had scored.
“There’s another thing. So far there has been no mention of Mr. Beresford. Where does he come in?”
“My partner,” said Tuppence with dignity. “You saw us together yesterday.”
“Ah, yes. But I’m afraid we shan’t require his services.”
“Then it’s off!” Tuppence rose. “It’s both or neither. Sorry—but that’s how it is. Good morning, Mr. Whittington.”
“Wait a minute. Let us see if something can’t be managed. Sit down again, Miss——” He paused interrogatively.
Tuppence’s conscience gave her a passing twinge as she remembered the archdeacon. She seized hurriedly on the first name that came into her head.
“Jane Finn,” she said hastily; and then paused open-mouthed at the effect of those two simple words.
All the geniality had faded out of Whittington’s face. It was purple with rage, and the veins stood out on the forehead. And behind it all there lurked a sort of incredulous dismay. He leaned forward and hissed savagely:
“So that’s your little game, is it?”
Tuppence, though utterly taken aback, nevertheless kept her head. She had not the faintest comprehension of his meaning, but she was naturally quick-witted, and felt it imperative to “keep her end up” as she phrased it.
Whittington went on:
“Been playing with me, have you, all the time, like a cat and mouse? Knew all the time what I wanted you for, but kept up the comedy. Is that it, eh?” He was cooling down. The red colour was ebbing out of his face. He eyed her keenly. “Who’s been blabbing? Rita?”
Tuppence shook her head. She was doubtful as to how long she could sustain this illusion, but she realized the importance of not dragging an unknown Rita into it.
“No,” she replied with perfect truth. “Rita knows nothing about me.”
His eyes still bored into her like gimlets.
“How much do you know?” he shot out.
“Very little indeed,” answered Tuppence, and was pleased to note that Whittington’s uneasiness was augmented instead of allayed. To have boasted that she knew a lot might have raised doubts in his mind.
“Anyway,” snarled Whittington, “you knew enough to come in here and plump out that name.”
“It might be my own name,” Tuppence pointed out.
“It’s likely, isn’t it, then there would be two girls with a name like that?”
“Or I might just have hit upon it by chance,” continued Tuppence, intoxicated with the success of truthfulness.
Mr. Whittington brought his fist down upon the desk with a bang.
“Quit fooling! How much do you know? And how much do you want?”
The last five words took Tuppence’s fancy mightily, especially after a meagre breakfast and a supper of buns the night before. Her present part was of the adventuress rather than the adventurous order, but she did not deny its possibilities. She sat up and smiled with the air of one who has the situation thoroughly well in hand.
“My dear Mr. Whittington,” she said, “let us by all means lay our cards upon the table. And pray do not be so angry. You heard me say yesterday that I proposed to live by my wits. It seems to me that I have now proved I have some wits to live by! I admit I have knowledge of a certain name, but perhaps my knowledge ends there.”
“Yes—and perhaps it doesn’t,” snarled Whittington.
“You insist on misjudging me,” said Tuppence, and sighed gently.
“As I said once before,” said Whittington angrily, “quit fooling, and come to the point. You can’t play the innocent with me. You know a great deal more than you’re willing to admit.”
Tuppence paused a moment to admire her own ingenuity, and then said softly:
“I shouldn’t like to contradict you, Mr. Whittington.”
“So we come to the usual question—how much?”
Tuppence was in a dilemma. So far she had fooled Whittington with complete success, but to mention a palpably impossible sum might awaken his suspicions. An idea flashed across her brain.
“Suppose we say a little something down, and a fuller discussion of the matter later?”
Whittington gave her an ugly glance.
Tuppence smiled sweetly.
“Oh no! Shall we say payment of services in advance?”
“You see,” explained Tuppence still sweetly, “I’m so very fond of money!”
“You’re about the limit, that’s what you are,” growled Whittington, with a sort of unwilling admiration. “You took me in all right. Thought you were quite a meek little kid with just enough brains for my purpose.”
“Life,” moralized Tuppence, “is full of surprises.”
“All the same,” continued Whittington, “some one’s been talking. You say it isn’t Rita. Was it——? Oh, come in.”
The clerk followed his discreet knock into the room, and laid a paper at his master’s elbow.
“Telephone message just come for you, sir.”
Whittington snatched it up and read it. A frown gathered on his brow.
“That’ll do, Brown. You can go.”
The clerk withdrew, closing the door behind him. Whittington turned to Tuppence.
“Come to-morrow at the same time. I’m busy now. Here’s fifty to go on with.”
He rapidly sorted out some notes, and pushed them across the table to Tuppence, then stood up, obviously impatient for her to go.
The girl counted the notes in a businesslike manner, secured them in her handbag, and rose.
“Good morning, Mr. Whittington,” she said politely. “At least, au revoir, I should say.”
“Exactly. Au revoir!” Whittington looked almost genial again, a reversion that aroused in Tuppence a faint misgiving. “Au revoir, my clever and charming young lady.”
Tuppence sped lightly down the stairs. A wild elation possessed her. A neighbouring clock showed the time to be five minutes to twelve.
“Let’s give Tommy a surprise!” murmured Tuppence, and hailed a taxi.
The cab drew up outside the tube station. Tommy was just within the entrance. His eyes opened to their fullest extent as he hurried forward to assist Tuppence to alight. She smiled at him affectionately, and remarked in a slightly affected voice:
“Pay the thing, will you, old bean? I’ve got nothing smaller than a five-pound note!”
CHAPTER III. A SET BACK
THE moment was not quite so triumphant as it ought to have been. To begin with, the resources of Tommy’s pockets were somewhat limited. In the end the fare was managed, the lady recollecting a plebeian twopence, and the driver, still holding the varied assortment of coins in his hand, was prevailed upon to move on, which he did after one last hoarse demand as to what the gentleman thought he was giving him?
“I think you’ve given him too much, Tommy,” said Tuppence innocently. “I fancy he wants to give some of it back.”
It was possibly this remark which induced the driver to move away.
“Well,” said Mr. Beresford, at length able to relieve his feelings, “what the—dickens, did you want to take a taxi for?”
“I was afraid I might be late and keep you waiting,” said Tuppence gently.
“Afraid—you—might—be—late! Oh, Lord, I give it up!” said Mr. Beresford.
“And really and truly,” continued Tuppence, opening her eyes very wide, “I haven’t got anything smaller than a five-pound note.”
“You did that part of it very well, old bean, but all the same the fellow wasn’t taken in—not for a moment!”
“No,” said Tuppence thoughtfully, “he didn’t believe it. That’s the curious part about speaking the truth. No one does believe it. I found that out this morning. Now let’s go to lunch. How about the Savoy?”
“How about the Ritz?”
“On second thoughts, I prefer the Piccadilly. It’s nearer. We shan’t have to take another taxi. Come along.”
“Is this a new brand of humour? Or is your brain really unhinged?” inquired Tommy.
“Your last supposition is the correct one. I have come into money, and the shock has been too much for me! For that particular form of mental trouble an eminent physician recommends unlimited Hors d’oeuvre, Lobster a l’americane, Chicken Newberg, and Peche Melba! Let’s go and get them!”
“Tuppence, old girl, what has really come over you?”
“Oh, unbelieving one!” Tuppence wrenched open her bag. “Look here, and here, and here!”
“Great Jehosaphat! My dear girl, don’t wave Fishers aloft like that!”
“They’re not Fishers. They’re five times better than Fishers, and this one’s ten times better!”
“I must have been drinking unawares! Am I dreaming, Tuppence, or do I really behold a large quantity of five-pound notes being waved about in a dangerous fashion?”
“Even so, O King! Now, will you come and have lunch?”
“I’ll come anywhere. But what have you been doing? Holding up a bank?”
“All in good time. What an awful place Piccadilly Circus is. There’s a huge bus bearing down on us. It would be too terrible if they killed the five-pound notes!”
“Grill room?” inquired Tommy, as they reached the opposite pavement in safety.
“The other’s more expensive,” demurred Tuppence.
“That’s mere wicked wanton extravagance. Come on below.”
“Are you sure I can get all the things I want there?”
“That extremely unwholesome menu you were outlining just now? Of course you can—or as much as is good for you, anyway.”
“And now tell me,” said Tommy, unable to restrain his pent-up curiosity any longer, as they sat in state surrounded by the many hors d’oeuvre of Tuppence’s dreams.
Miss Cowley told him.
“And the curious part of it is,” she ended, “that I really did invent the name of Jane Finn! I didn’t want to give my own because of poor father—in case I should get mixed up in anything shady.”
“Perhaps that’s so,” said Tommy slowly. “But you didn’t invent it.”
“No. I told it to you. Don’t you remember, I said yesterday I’d overheard two people talking about a female called Jane Finn? That’s what brought the name into your mind so pat.”
“So you did. I remember now. How extraordinary——” Tuppence tailed off into silence. Suddenly she aroused herself. “Tommy!”
“What were they like, the two men you passed?”
Tommy frowned in an effort at remembrance.
“One was a big fat sort of chap. Clean shaven, I think—and dark.”
“That’s him,” cried Tuppence, in an ungrammatical squeal. “That’s Whittington! What was the other man like?”
“I can’t remember. I didn’t notice him particularly. It was really the outlandish name that caught my attention.”
“And people say that coincidences don’t happen!” Tuppence tackled her Peche Melba happily.
But Tommy had become serious.
“Look here, Tuppence, old girl, what is this going to lead to?”
“More money,” replied his companion.
“I know that. You’ve only got one idea in your head. What I mean is, what about the next step? How are you going to keep the game up?”
“Oh!” Tuppence laid down her spoon. “You’re right, Tommy, it is a bit of a poser.”
“After all, you know, you can’t bluff him forever. You’re sure to slip up sooner or later. And, anyway, I’m not at all sure that it isn’t actionable—blackmail, you know.”
“Nonsense. Blackmail is saying you’ll tell unless you are given money. Now, there’s nothing I could tell, because I don’t really know anything.”
“Hm,” said Tommy doubtfully. “Well, anyway, what ARE we going to do? Whittington was in a hurry to get rid of you this morning, but next time he’ll want to know something more before he parts with his money. He’ll want to know how much YOU know, and where you got your information from, and a lot of other things that you can’t cope with. What are you going to do about it?”
Tuppence frowned severely.
“We must think. Order some Turkish coffee, Tommy. Stimulating to the brain. Oh, dear, what a lot I have eaten!”
“You have made rather a hog of yourself! So have I for that matter, but I flatter myself that my choice of dishes was more judicious than yours. Two coffees.” (This was to the waiter.) “One Turkish, one French.”
Tuppence sipped her coffee with a deeply reflective air, and snubbed Tommy when he spoke to her.
“Be quiet. I’m thinking.”
“Shades of Pelmanism!” said Tommy, and relapsed into silence.
“There!” said Tuppence at last. “I’ve got a plan. Obviously what we’ve got to do is to find out more about it all.”
“Don’t jeer. We can only find out through Whittington. We must discover where he lives, what he does—sleuth him, in fact! Now I can’t do it, because he knows me, but he only saw you for a minute or two in Lyons’. He’s not likely to recognize you. After all, one young man is much like another.”
“I repudiate that remark utterly. I’m sure my pleasing features and distinguished appearance would single me out from any crowd.”
“My plan is this,” Tuppence went on calmly, “I’ll go alone to-morrow. I’ll put him off again like I did to-day. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get any more money at once. Fifty pounds ought to last us a few days.”
“Or even longer!”
“You’ll hang about outside. When I come out I shan’t speak to you in case he’s watching. But I’ll take up my stand somewhere near, and when he comes out of the building I’ll drop a handkerchief or something, and off you go!”
“Off I go where?”
“Follow him, of course, silly! What do you think of the idea?”
“Sort of thing one reads about in books. I somehow feel that in real life one will feel a bit of an ass standing in the street for hours with nothing to do. People will wonder what I’m up to.”
“Not in the city. Every one’s in such a hurry. Probably no one will even notice you at all.”
“That’s the second time you’ve made that sort of remark. Never mind, I forgive you. Anyway, it will be rather a lark. What are you doing this afternoon?”
“Well,” said Tuppence meditatively. “I HAD thought of hats! Or perhaps silk stockings! Or perhaps——”
“Hold hard,” admonished Tommy. “There’s a limit to fifty pounds! But let’s do dinner and a show to-night at all events.”
The day passed pleasantly. The evening even more so. Two of the five-pound notes were now irretrievably dead.
They met by arrangement the following morning and proceeded citywards. Tommy remained on the opposite side of the road while Tuppence plunged into the building.
Tommy strolled slowly down to the end of the street, then back again. Just as he came abreast of the building, Tuppence darted across the road.
“Yes. What’s up?”
“The place is shut. I can’t make anyone hear.”
“Isn’t it? Come up with me, and let’s try again.”
Tommy followed her. As they passed the third floor landing a young clerk came out of an office. He hesitated a moment, then addressed himself to Tuppence.
“Were you wanting the Esthonia Glassware?”
“It’s closed down. Since yesterday afternoon. Company being wound up, they say. Not that I’ve ever heard of it myself. But anyway the office is to let.”
“Th—thank you,” faltered Tuppence. “I suppose you don’t know Mr. Whittington’s address?”
“Afraid I don’t. They left rather suddenly.”
“Thank you very much,” said Tommy. “Come on, Tuppence.”
They descended to the street again where they gazed at one another blankly.
“That’s torn it,” said Tommy at length.
“And I never suspected it,” wailed Tuppence.
“Cheer up, old thing, it can’t be helped.”
“Can’t it, though!” Tuppence’s little chin shot out defiantly. “Do you think this is the end? If so, you’re wrong. It’s just the beginning!”
“The beginning of what?”
“Of our adventure! Tommy, don’t you see, if they are scared enough to run away like this, it shows that there must be a lot in this Jane Finn business! Well, we’ll get to the bottom of it. We’ll run them down! We’ll be sleuths in earnest!”
“Yes, but there’s no one left to sleuth.”
“No, that’s why we’ll have to start all over again. Lend me that bit of pencil. Thanks. Wait a minute—don’t interrupt. There!” Tuppence handed back the pencil, and surveyed the piece of paper on which she had written with a satisfied eye:
“You’re not going to put that thing in after all?”
“No, it’s a different one.” She handed him the slip of paper.
Tommy read the words on it aloud:
“WANTED, any information respecting Jane Finn. Apply Y.A.”
CHAPTER IV. WHO IS JANE FINN?
THE next day passed slowly. It was necessary to curtail expenditure. Carefully husbanded, forty pounds will last a long time. Luckily the weather was fine, and “walking is cheap,” dictated Tuppence. An outlying picture house provided them with recreation for the evening.
The day of disillusionment had been a Wednesday. On Thursday the advertisement had duly appeared. On Friday letters might be expected to arrive at Tommy’s rooms.
He had been bound by an honourable promise not to open any such letters if they did arrive, but to repair to the National Gallery, where his colleague would meet him at ten o’clock.
Tuppence was first at the rendezvous. She ensconced herself on a red velvet seat, and gazed at the Turners with unseeing eyes until she saw the familiar figure enter the room.
“Well,” returned Mr. Beresford provokingly. “Which is your favourite picture?”
“Don’t be a wretch. Aren’t there ANY answers?”
Tommy shook his head with a deep and somewhat overacted melancholy.
“I didn’t want to disappoint you, old thing, by telling you right off. It’s too bad. Good money wasted.” He sighed. “Still, there it is. The advertisement has appeared, and—there are only two answers!”
“Tommy, you devil!” almost screamed Tuppence. “Give them to me. How could you be so mean!”
“Your language, Tuppence, your language! They’re very particular at the National Gallery. Government show, you know. And do remember, as I have pointed out to you before, that as a clergyman’s daughter——”
“I ought to be on the stage!” finished Tuppence with a snap.
“That is not what I intended to say. But if you are sure that you have enjoyed to the full the reaction of joy after despair with which I have kindly provided you free of charge, let us get down to our mail, as the saying goes.”
Tuppence snatched the two precious envelopes from him unceremoniously, and scrutinized them carefully.
“Thick paper, this one. It looks rich. We’ll keep it to the last and open the other first.”
“Right you are. One, two, three, go!”
Tuppence’s little thumb ripped open the envelope, and she extracted the contents.
“Referring to your advertisement in this morning’s paper, I may be able to be of some use to you. Perhaps you could call and see me at the above address at eleven o’clock to-morrow morning.
“27 Carshalton Gardens,” said Tuppence, referring to the address. “That’s Gloucester Road way. Plenty of time to get there if we tube.”
“The following,” said Tommy, “is the plan of campaign. It is my turn to assume the offensive. Ushered into the presence of Mr. Carter, he and I wish each other good morning as is customary. He then says: ‘Please take a seat, Mr.—er?’ To which I reply promptly and significantly: ‘Edward Whittington!’ whereupon Mr. Carter turns purple in the face and gasps out: ‘How much?’ Pocketing the usual fee of fifty pounds, I rejoin you in the road outside, and we proceed to the next address and repeat the performance.”
“Don’t be absurd, Tommy. Now for the other letter. Oh, this is from the Ritz!”
“A hundred pounds instead of fifty!”
“I’ll read it:
“Re your advertisement, I should be glad if you would call round somewhere about lunch-time.
“JULIUS P. HERSHEIMMER.”
“Ha!” said Tommy. “Do I smell a Boche? Or only an American millionaire of unfortunate ancestry? At all events we’ll call at lunch-time. It’s a good time—frequently leads to free food for two.”
Tuppence nodded assent.
“Now for Carter. We’ll have to hurry.”
Carshalton Terrace proved to be an unimpeachable row of what Tuppence called “ladylike looking houses.” They rang the bell at No. 27, and a neat maid answered the door. She looked so respectable that Tuppence’s heart sank. Upon Tommy’s request for Mr. Carter, she showed them into a small study on the ground floor where she left them. Hardly a minute elapsed, however, before the door opened, and a tall man with a lean hawklike face and a tired manner entered the room.
“Mr. Y. A.?” he said, and smiled. His smile was distinctly attractive. “Do sit down, both of you.”
They obeyed. He himself took a chair opposite to Tuppence and smiled at her encouragingly. There was something in the quality of his smile that made the girl’s usual readiness desert her.
As he did not seem inclined to open the conversation, Tuppence was forced to begin.
“We wanted to know—that is, would you be so kind as to tell us anything you know about Jane Finn?”
“Jane Finn? Ah!” Mr. Carter appeared to reflect. “Well, the question is, what do you know about her?”
Tuppence drew herself up.
“I don’t see that that’s got anything to do with it.”
“No? But it has, you know, really it has.” He smiled again in his tired way, and continued reflectively. “So that brings us down to it again. What do you know about Jane Finn?
“Come now,” he continued, as Tuppence remained silent. “You must know SOMETHING to have advertised as you did?” He leaned forward a little, his weary voice held a hint of persuasiveness. “Suppose you tell me…”
There was something very magnetic about Mr. Carter’s personality. Tuppence seemed to shake herself free of it with an effort, as she said:
“We couldn’t do that, could we, Tommy?”
But to her surprise, her companion did not back her up. His eyes were fixed on Mr. Carter, and his tone when he spoke held an unusual note of deference.
“I dare say the little we know won’t be any good to you, sir. But such as it is, you’re welcome to it.”
“Tommy!” cried out Tuppence in surprise.
Mr. Carter slewed round in his chair. His eyes asked a question.
“Yes, sir, I recognized you at once. Saw you in France when I was with the Intelligence. As soon as you came into the room, I knew——”
Mr. Carter held up his hand.
“No names, please. I’m known as Mr. Carter here. It’s my cousin’s house, by the way. She’s willing to lend it to me sometimes when it’s a case of working on strictly unofficial lines. Well, now”—he looked from one to the other—”who’s going to tell me the story?”
“Fire ahead, Tuppence,” directed Tommy. “It’s your yarn.”
“Yes, little lady, out with it.”
And obediently Tuppence did out with it, telling the whole story from the forming of the Young Adventurers, Ltd., downwards.
Mr. Carter listened in silence with a resumption of his tired manner. Now and then he passed his hand across his lips as though to hide a smile. When she had finished he nodded gravely.
“Not much. But suggestive. Quite suggestive. If you’ll excuse my saying so, you’re a curious young couple. I don’t know—you might succeed where others have failed… I believe in luck, you know—always have….”
He paused a moment, and then went on.
“Well, how about it? You’re out for adventure. How would you like to work for me? All quite unofficial, you know. Expenses paid, and a moderate screw?”
Tuppence gazed at him, her lips parted, her eyes growing wider and wider.
“What should we have to do?” she breathed.
Mr. Carter smiled.
“Just go on with what you’re doing now. FIND JANE FINN.”
“Yes, but—who IS Jane Finn?”
Mr. Carter nodded gravely.
“Yes, you’re entitled to know that, I think.”
He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, brought the tips of his fingers together, and began in a low monotone:
“Secret diplomacy (which, by the way, is nearly always bad policy!) does not concern you. It will be sufficient to say that in the early days of 1915 a certain document came into being. It was the draft of a secret agreement—treaty—call it what you like. It was drawn up ready for signature by the various representatives, and drawn up in America—at that time a neutral country. It was dispatched to England by a special messenger selected for that purpose, a young fellow called Danvers. It was hoped that the whole affair had been kept so secret that nothing would have leaked out. That kind of hope is usually disappointed. Somebody always talks!
“Danvers sailed for England on the Lusitania. He carried the precious papers in an oilskin packet which he wore next his skin. It was on that particular voyage that the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk. Danvers was among the list of those missing. Eventually his body was washed ashore, and identified beyond any possible doubt. But the oilskin packet was missing!
“The question was, had it been taken from him, or had he himself passed it on into another’s keeping? There were a few incidents that strengthened the possibility of the latter theory. After the torpedo struck the ship, in the few moments during the launching of the boats, Danvers was seen speaking to a young American girl. No one actually saw him pass anything to her, but he might have done so. It seems to me quite likely that he entrusted the papers to this girl, believing that she, as a woman, had a greater chance of bringing them safely to shore.
“But if so, where was the girl, and what had she done with the papers? By later advice from America it seemed likely that Danvers had been closely shadowed on the way over. Was this girl in league with his enemies? Or had she, in her turn, been shadowed and either tricked or forced into handing over the precious packet?
“We set to work to trace her out. It proved unexpectedly difficult. Her name was Jane Finn, and it duly appeared among the list of the survivors, but the girl herself seemed to have vanished completely. Inquiries into her antecedents did little to help us. She was an orphan, and had been what we should call over here a pupil teacher in a small school out West. Her passport had been made out for Paris, where she was going to join the staff of a hospital. She had offered her services voluntarily, and after some correspondence they had been accepted. Having seen her name in the list of the saved from the Lusitania, the staff of the hospital were naturally very surprised at her not arriving to take up her billet, and at not hearing from her in any way.
“Well, every effort was made to trace the young lady—but all in vain. We tracked her across Ireland, but nothing could be heard of her after she set foot in England. No use was made of the draft treaty—as might very easily have been done—and we therefore came to the conclusion that Danvers had, after all, destroyed it. The war entered on another phase, the diplomatic aspect changed accordingly, and the treaty was never redrafted. Rumours as to its existence were emphatically denied. The disappearance of Jane Finn was forgotten and the whole affair was lost in oblivion.”
Mr. Carter paused, and Tuppence broke in impatiently:
“But why has it all cropped up again? The war’s over.”
A hint of alertness came into Mr. Carter’s manner.
“Because it seems that the papers were not destroyed after all, and that they might be resurrected to-day with a new and deadly significance.”
Tuppence stared. Mr. Carter nodded.
“Yes, five years ago, that draft treaty was a weapon in our hands; to-day it is a weapon against us. It was a gigantic blunder. If its terms were made public, it would mean disaster…. It might possibly bring about another war—not with Germany this time! That is an extreme possibility, and I do not believe in its likelihood myself, but that document undoubtedly implicates a number of our statesmen whom we cannot afford to have discredited in any way at the present moment. As a party cry for Labour it would be irresistible, and a Labour Government at this juncture would, in my opinion, be a grave disability for British trade, but that is a mere nothing to the REAL danger.”
He paused, and then said quietly:
“You may perhaps have heard or read that there is Bolshevist influence at work behind the present Labour unrest?”
“That is the truth. Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution. And there is a certain man, a man whose real name is unknown to us, who is working in the dark for his own ends. The Bolshevists are behind the Labour unrest—but this man is BEHIND THE BOLSHEVISTS. Who is he? We do not know. He is always spoken of by the unassuming title of ‘Mr. Brown.’ But one thing is certain, he is the master criminal of this age. He controls a marvellous organization. Most of the Peace propaganda during the war was originated and financed by him. His spies are everywhere.”
“A naturalized German?” asked Tommy.
“On the contrary, I have every reason to believe he is an Englishman. He was pro-German, as he would have been pro-Boer. What he seeks to attain we do not know—probably supreme power for himself, of a kind unique in history. We have no clue as to his real personality. It is reported that even his own followers are ignorant of it. Where we have come across his tracks, he has always played a secondary part. Somebody else assumes the chief role. But afterwards we always find that there has been some nonentity, a servant or a clerk, who has remained in the background unnoticed, and that the elusive Mr. Brown has escaped us once more.”
“Oh!” Tuppence jumped. “I wonder——”
“I remember in Mr. Whittington’s office. The clerk—he called him Brown. You don’t think——”
Carter nodded thoughtfully.
“Very likely. A curious point is that the name is usually mentioned. An idiosyncrasy of genius. Can you describe him at all?”
“I really didn’t notice. He was quite ordinary—just like anyone else.”
Mr. Carter sighed in his tired manner.
“That is the invariable description of Mr. Brown! Brought a telephone message to the man Whittington, did he? Notice a telephone in the outer office?”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“Exactly. That ‘message’ was Mr. Brown’s way of giving an order to his subordinate. He overheard the whole conversation of course. Was it after that that Whittington handed you over the money, and told you to come the following day?”
“Yes, undoubtedly the hand of Mr. Brown!” Mr. Carter paused. “Well, there it is, you see what you are pitting yourselves against? Possibly the finest criminal brain of the age. I don’t quite like it, you know. You’re such young things, both of you. I shouldn’t like anything to happen to you.”
“It won’t,” Tuppence assured him positively.
“I’ll look after her, sir,” said Tommy.
“And I’ll look after YOU,” retorted Tuppence, resenting the manly assertion.
“Well, then, look after each other,” said Mr. Carter, smiling. “Now let’s get back to business. There’s something mysterious about this draft treaty that we haven’t fathomed yet. We’ve been threatened with it—in plain and unmistakable terms. The Revolutionary element as good as declare that it’s in their hands, and that they intend to produce it at a given moment. On the other hand, they are clearly at fault about many of its provisions. The Government consider it as mere bluff on their part, and, rightly or wrongly, have stuck to the policy of absolute denial. I’m not so sure. There have been hints, indiscreet allusions, that seem to indicate that the menace is a real one. The position is much as though they had got hold of an incriminating document, but couldn’t read it because it was in cipher—but we know that the draft treaty wasn’t in cipher—couldn’t be in the nature of things—so that won’t wash. But there’s SOMETHING. Of course, Jane Finn may be dead for all we know—but I don’t think so. The curious thing is that THEY’RE TRYING TO GET INFORMATION ABOUT THE GIRL FROM US.”
“Yes. One or two little things have cropped up. And your story, little lady, confirms my idea. They know we’re looking for Jane Finn. Well, they’ll produce a Jane Finn of their own—say at a pensionnat in Paris.” Tuppence gasped, and Mr. Carter smiled. “No one knows in the least what she looks like, so that’s all right. She’s primed with a trumped-up tale, and her real business is to get as much information as possible out of us. See the idea?”
“Then you think”—Tuppence paused to grasp the supposition fully—”that it WAS as Jane Finn that they wanted me to go to Paris?”
Mr. Carter smiled more wearily than ever.
“I believe in coincidences, you know,” he said.
CHAPTER V. MR. JULIUS P. HERSHEIMMER
“WELL,” said Tuppence, recovering herself, “it really seems as though it were meant to be.”
“I know what you mean. I’m superstitious myself. Luck, and all that sort of thing. Fate seems to have chosen you out to be mixed up in this.”
Tommy indulged in a chuckle.
“My word! I don’t wonder Whittington got the wind up when Tuppence plumped out that name! I should have myself. But look here, sir, we’re taking up an awful lot of your time. Have you any tips to give us before we clear out?”
“I think not. My experts, working in stereotyped ways, have failed. You will bring imagination and an open mind to the task. Don’t be discouraged if that too does not succeed. For one thing there is a likelihood of the pace being forced.”
Tuppence frowned uncomprehendingly.
“When you had that interview with Whittington, they had time before them. I have information that the big coup was planned for early in the new year. But the Government is contemplating legislative action which will deal effectually with the strike menace. They’ll get wind of it soon, if they haven’t already, and it’s possible that that may bring things to a head. I hope it will myself. The less time they have to mature their plans the better. I’m just warning you that you haven’t much time before you, and that you needn’t be cast down if you fail. It’s not an easy proposition anyway. That’s all.”
“I think we ought to be businesslike. What exactly can we count upon you for, Mr. Carter?” Mr. Carter’s lips twitched slightly, but he replied succinctly: “Funds within reason, detailed information on any point, and NO OFFICIAL RECOGNITION. I mean that if you get yourselves into trouble with the police, I can’t officially help you out of it. You’re on your own.”
Tuppence nodded sagely.
“I quite understand that. I’ll write out a list of the things I want to know when I’ve had time to think. Now—about money——”
“Yes, Miss Tuppence. Do you want to say how much?”
“Not exactly. We’ve got plenty to go with for the present, but when we want more——”
“It will be waiting for you.”
“Yes, but—I’m sure I don’t want to be rude about the Government if you’ve got anything to do with it, but you know one really has the devil of a time getting anything out of it! And if we have to fill up a blue form and send it in, and then, after three months, they send us a green one, and so on—well, that won’t be much use, will it?”
Mr. Carter laughed outright.
“Don’t worry, Miss Tuppence. You will send a personal demand to me here, and the money, in notes, shall be sent by return of post. As to salary, shall we say at the rate of three hundred a year? And an equal sum for Mr. Beresford, of course.”
Tuppence beamed upon him.
“How lovely. You are kind. I do love money! I’ll keep beautiful accounts of our expenses all debit and credit, and the balance on the right side, and red line drawn sideways with the totals the same at the bottom. I really know how to do it when I think.”
“I’m sure you do. Well, good-bye, and good luck to you both.”
He shook hands with them, and in another minute they were descending the steps of 27 Carshalton Terrace with their heads in a whirl.
“Tommy! Tell me at once, who is ‘Mr. Carter’?”
Tommy murmured a name in her ear.
“Oh!” said Tuppence, impressed.
“And I can tell you, old bean, he’s IT!”
“Oh!” said Tuppence again. Then she added reflectively,
“I like him, don’t you? He looks so awfully tired and bored, and yet you feel that underneath he’s just like steel, all keen and flashing. Oh!” She gave a skip. “Pinch me, Tommy, do pinch me. I can’t believe it’s real!”
Mr. Beresford obliged.
“Ow! That’s enough! Yes, we’re not dreaming. We’ve got a job!”
“And what a job! The joint venture has really begun.”
“It’s more respectable than I thought it would be,” said Tuppence thoughtfully.
“Luckily I haven’t got your craving for crime! What time is it? Let’s have lunch—oh!”
The same thought sprang to the minds of each. Tommy voiced it first.
“Julius P. Hersheimmer!”
“We never told Mr. Carter about hearing from him.”
“Well, there wasn’t much to tell—not till we’ve seen him. Come on, we’d better take a taxi.”
“Now who’s being extravagant?”
“All expenses paid, remember. Hop in.”
“At any rate, we shall make a better effect arriving this way,” said Tuppence, leaning back luxuriously. “I’m sure blackmailers never arrive in buses!”
“We’ve ceased being blackmailers,” Tommy pointed out.
“I’m not sure I have,” said Tuppence darkly.
On inquiring for Mr. Hersheimmer, they were at once taken up to his suite. An impatient voice cried “Come in” in answer to the page-boy’s knock, and the lad stood aside to let them pass in.
Mr. Julius P. Hersheimmer was a great deal younger than either Tommy or Tuppence had pictured him. The girl put him down as thirty-five. He was of middle height, and squarely built to match his jaw. His face was pugnacious but pleasant. No one could have mistaken him for anything but an American, though he spoke with very little accent.
“Get my note? Sit down and tell me right away all you know about my cousin.”
“Sure thing. Jane Finn.”
“Is she your cousin?”
“My father and her mother were brother and sister,” explained Mr. Hersheimmer meticulously.
“Oh!” cried Tuppence. “Then you know where she is?”
“No!” Mr. Hersheimmer brought down his fist with a bang on the table. “I’m darned if I do! Don’t you?”
“We advertised to receive information, not to give it,” said Tuppence severely.
“I guess I know that. I can read. But I thought maybe it was her back history you were after, and that you’d know where she was now?”
“Well, we wouldn’t mind hearing her back history,” said Tuppence guardedly.
But Mr. Hersheimmer seemed to grow suddenly suspicious.
“See here,” he declared. “This isn’t Sicily! No demanding ransom or threatening to crop her ears if I refuse. These are the British Isles, so quit the funny business, or I’ll just sing out for that beautiful big British policeman I see out there in Piccadilly.”
Tommy hastened to explain.
“We haven’t kidnapped your cousin. On the contrary, we’re trying to find her. We’re employed to do so.”
Mr. Hersheimmer leant back in his chair.
“Put me wise,” he said succinctly.
Tommy fell in with this demand in so far as he gave him a guarded version of the disappearance of Jane Finn, and of the possibility of her having been mixed up unawares in “some political show.” He alluded to Tuppence and himself as “private inquiry agents” commissioned to find her, and added that they would therefore be glad of any details Mr. Hersheimmer could give them.
That gentleman nodded approval.
“I guess that’s all right. I was just a mite hasty. But London gets my goat! I only know little old New York. Just trot out your questions and I’ll answer.”
For the moment this paralysed the Young Adventurers, but Tuppence, recovering herself, plunged boldly into the breach with a reminiscence culled from detective fiction.
“When did you last see the dece—your cousin, I mean?”
“Never seen her,” responded Mr. Hersheimmer.
“What?” demanded Tommy, astonished.
Hersheimmer turned to him.
“No, sir. As I said before, my father and her mother were brother and sister, just as you might be”—Tommy did not correct this view of their relationship—”but they didn’t always get on together. And when my aunt made up her mind to marry Amos Finn, who was a poor school teacher out West, my father was just mad! Said if he made his pile, as he seemed in a fair way to do, she’d never see a cent of it. Well, the upshot was that Aunt Jane went out West and we never heard from her again.
“The old man DID pile it up. He went into oil, and he went into steel, and he played a bit with railroads, and I can tell you he made Wall Street sit up!” He paused. “Then he died—last fall—and I got the dollars. Well, would you believe it, my conscience got busy! Kept knocking me up and saying: What about your Aunt Jane, way out West? It worried me some. You see, I figured it out that Amos Finn would never make good. He wasn’t the sort. End of it was, I hired a man to hunt her down. Result, she was dead, and Amos Finn was dead, but they’d left a daughter—Jane—who’d been torpedoed in the Lusitania on her way to Paris. She was saved all right, but they didn’t seem able to hear of her over this side. I guessed they weren’t hustling any, so I thought I’d come along over, and speed things up. I phoned Scotland Yard and the Admiralty first thing. The Admiralty rather choked me off, but Scotland Yard were very civil—said they would make inquiries, even sent a man round this morning to get her photograph. I’m off to Paris to-morrow, just to see what the Prefecture is doing. I guess if I go to and fro hustling them, they ought to get busy!”
The energy of Mr. Hersheimmer was tremendous. They bowed before it.
“But say now,” he ended, “you’re not after her for anything? Contempt of court, or something British? A proud-spirited young American girl might find your rules and regulations in war time rather irksome, and get up against it. If that’s the case, and there’s such a thing as graft in this country, I’ll buy her off.”
Tuppence reassured him.
“That’s good. Then we can work together. What about some lunch? Shall we have it up here, or go down to the restaurant?”
Tuppence expressed a preference for the latter, and Julius bowed to her decision.
Oysters had just given place to Sole Colbert when a card was brought to Hersheimmer.
“Inspector Japp, C.I.D. Scotland Yard again. Another man this time. What does he expect I can tell him that I didn’t tell the first chap? I hope they haven’t lost that photograph. That Western photographer’s place was burned down and all his negatives destroyed—this is the only copy in existence. I got it from the principal of the college there.”
An unformulated dread swept over Tuppence.
“You—you don’t know the name of the man who came this morning?”
“Yes, I do. No, I don’t. Half a second. It was on his card. Oh, I know! Inspector Brown. Quiet, unassuming sort of chap.”
CHAPTER VI. A PLAN OF CAMPAIGN
A veil might with profit be drawn over the events of the next half-hour. Suffice it to say that no such person as “Inspector Brown” was known to Scotland Yard. The photograph of Jane Finn, which would have been of the utmost value to the police in tracing her, was lost beyond recovery. Once again “Mr. Brown” had triumphed.
The immediate result of this set back was to effect a rapprochement between Julius Hersheimmer and the Young Adventurers. All barriers went down with a crash, and Tommy and Tuppence felt they had known the young American all their lives. They abandoned the discreet reticence of “private inquiry agents,” and revealed to him the whole history of the joint venture, whereat the young man declared himself “tickled to death.”
He turned to Tuppence at the close of the narration.
“I’ve always had a kind of idea that English girls were just a mite moss-grown. Old-fashioned and sweet, you know, but scared to move round without a footman or a maiden aunt. I guess I’m a bit behind the times!”
The upshot of these confidential relations was that Tommy and Tuppence took up their abode forthwith at the Ritz, in order, as Tuppence put it, to keep in touch with Jane Finn’s only living relation. “And put like that,” she added confidentially to Tommy, “nobody could boggle at the expense!”
Nobody did, which was the great thing.
“And now,” said the young lady on the morning after their installation, “to work!”
Mr. Beresford put down the Daily Mail, which he was reading, and applauded with somewhat unnecessary vigour. He was politely requested by his colleague not to be an ass.
“Dash it all, Tommy, we’ve got to DO something for our money.”
“Yes, I fear even the dear old Government will not support us at the Ritz in idleness for ever.”
“Therefore, as I said before, we must DO something.”
“Well,” said Tommy, picking up the Daily Mail again, “DO it. I shan’t stop you.”
“You see,” continued Tuppence. “I’ve been thinking——”
She was interrupted by a fresh bout of applause.
“It’s all very well for you to sit there being funny, Tommy. It would do you no harm to do a little brain work too.”
“My union, Tuppence, my union! It does not permit me to work before 11 a.m.”
“Tommy, do you want something thrown at you? It is absolutely essential that we should without delay map out a plan of campaign.”
“Well, let’s do it.”
Tommy laid his paper finally aside. “There’s something of the simplicity of the truly great mind about you, Tuppence. Fire ahead. I’m listening.”
“To begin with,” said Tuppence, “what have we to go upon?”
“Absolutely nothing,” said Tommy cheerily.
“Wrong!” Tuppence wagged an energetic finger. “We have two distinct clues.”
“What are they?”
“First clue, we know one of the gang.”
“Yes. I’d recognize him anywhere.”
“Hum,” said Tommy doubtfully, “I don’t call that much of a clue. You don’t know where to look for him, and it’s about a thousand to one against your running against him by accident.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” replied Tuppence thoughtfully. “I’ve often noticed that once coincidences start happening they go on happening in the most extraordinary way. I dare say it’s some natural law that we haven’t found out. Still, as you say, we can’t rely on that. But there ARE places in London where simply every one is bound to turn up sooner or later. Piccadilly Circus, for instance. One of my ideas was to take up my stand there every day with a tray of flags.”
“What about meals?” inquired the practical Tommy.
“How like a man! What does mere food matter?”
“That’s all very well. You’ve just had a thundering good breakfast. No one’s got a better appetite than you have, Tuppence, and by tea-time you’d be eating the flags, pins and all. But, honestly, I don’t think much of the idea. Whittington mayn’t be in London at all.”
“That’s true. Anyway, I think clue No. 2 is more promising.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“It’s nothing much. Only a Christian name—Rita. Whittington mentioned it that day.”
“Are you proposing a third advertisement: Wanted, female crook, answering to the name of Rita?”
“I am not. I propose to reason in a logical manner. That man, Danvers, was shadowed on the way over, wasn’t he? And it’s more likely to have been a woman than a man——”
“I don’t see that at all.”
“I am absolutely certain that it would be a woman, and a good-looking one,” replied Tuppence calmly.
“On these technical points I bow to your decision,” murmured Mr. Beresford.
“Now, obviously this woman, whoever she was, was saved.”
“How do you make that out?”
“If she wasn’t, how would they have known Jane Finn had got the papers?”
“Correct. Proceed, O Sherlock!”
“Now there’s just a chance, I admit it’s only a chance, that this woman may have been ‘Rita.'”
“And if so?”
“If so, we’ve got to hunt through the survivors of the Lusitania till we find her.”
“Then the first thing is to get a list of the survivors.”
“I’ve got it. I wrote a long list of things I wanted to know, and sent it to Mr. Carter. I got his reply this morning, and among other things it encloses the official statement of those saved from the Lusitania. How’s that for clever little Tuppence?”
“Full marks for industry, zero for modesty. But the great point is, is there a ‘Rita’ on the list?”
“That’s just what I don’t know,” confessed Tuppence.
“Yes. Look here.” Together they bent over the list. “You see, very few Christian names are given. They’re nearly all Mrs. or Miss.”
“That complicates matters,” he murmured thoughtfully.
Tuppence gave her characteristic “terrier” shake.
“Well, we’ve just got to get down to it, that’s all. We’ll start with the London area. Just note down the addresses of any of the females who live in London or roundabout, while I put on my hat.”
Five minutes later the young couple emerged into Piccadilly, and a few seconds later a taxi was bearing them to The Laurels, Glendower Road, N.7, the residence of Mrs. Edgar Keith, whose name figured first in a list of seven reposing in Tommy’s pocket-book.
The Laurels was a dilapidated house, standing back from the road with a few grimy bushes to support the fiction of a front garden. Tommy paid off the taxi, and accompanied Tuppence to the front door bell. As she was about to ring it, he arrested her hand.
“What are you going to say?”
“What am I going to say? Why, I shall say—Oh dear, I don’t know. It’s very awkward.”
“I thought as much,” said Tommy with satisfaction. “How like a woman! No foresight! Now just stand aside, and see how easily the mere male deals with the situation.” He pressed the bell. Tuppence withdrew to a suitable spot.
A slatternly looking servant, with an extremely dirty face and a pair of eyes that did not match, answered the door.
Tommy had produced a notebook and pencil.
“Good morning,” he said briskly and cheerfully. “From the Hampstead Borough Council. The new Voting Register. Mrs. Edgar Keith lives here, does she not?”
“Yaas,” said the servant.
“Christian name?” asked Tommy, his pencil poised.
“Missus’s? Eleanor Jane.”
“Eleanor,” spelt Tommy. “Any sons or daughters over twenty-one?”
“Thank you.” Tommy closed the notebook with a brisk snap. “Good morning.”
The servant volunteered her first remark:
“I thought perhaps as you’d come about the gas,” she observed cryptically, and shut the door.
Tommy rejoined his accomplice.
“You see, Tuppence,” he observed. “Child’s play to the masculine mind.”
“I don’t mind admitting that for once you’ve scored handsomely. I should never have thought of that.”
“Good wheeze, wasn’t it? And we can repeat it ad lib.”
Lunch-time found the young couple attacking a steak and chips in an obscure hostelry with avidity. They had collected a Gladys Mary and a Marjorie, been baffled by one change of address, and had been forced to listen to a long lecture on universal suffrage from a vivacious American lady whose Christian name had proved to be Sadie.
“Ah!” said Tommy, imbibing a long draught of beer, “I feel better. Where’s the next draw?”
The notebook lay on the table between them. Tuppence picked it up.
“Mrs. Vandemeyer,” she read, “20 South Audley Mansions. Miss Wheeler, 43 Clapington Road, Battersea. She’s a lady’s maid, as far as I remember, so probably won’t be there, and, anyway, she’s not likely.”
“Then the Mayfair lady is clearly indicated as the first port of call.”
“Tommy, I’m getting discouraged.”
“Buck up, old bean. We always knew it was an outside chance. And, anyway, we’re only starting. If we draw a blank in London, there’s a fine tour of England, Ireland and Scotland before us.”
“True,” said Tuppence, her flagging spirits reviving. “And all expenses paid! But, oh, Tommy, I do like things to happen quickly. So far, adventure has succeeded adventure, but this morning has been dull as dull.”
“You must stifle this longing for vulgar sensation, Tuppence. Remember that if Mr. Brown is all he is reported to be, it’s a wonder that he has not ere now done us to death. That’s a good sentence, quite a literary flavour about it.”
“You’re really more conceited than I am—with less excuse! Ahem! But it certainly is queer that Mr. Brown has not yet wreaked vengeance upon us. (You see, I can do it too.) We pass on our way unscathed.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t think us worth bothering about,” suggested the young man simply.
Tuppence received the remark with great disfavour.
“How horrid you are, Tommy. Just as though we didn’t count.”
“Sorry, Tuppence. What I meant was that we work like moles in the dark, and that he has no suspicion of our nefarious schemes. Ha ha!”
“Ha ha!” echoed Tuppence approvingly, as she rose.
South Audley Mansions was an imposing-looking block of flats just off Park Lane. No. 20 was on the second floor.
Tommy had by this time the glibness born of practice. He rattled off the formula to the elderly woman, looking more like a housekeeper than a servant, who opened the door to him.
Tommy spelt it, but the other interrupted him.
“No, G U E.”
“Oh, Marguerite; French way, I see.” He paused, then plunged boldly. “We had her down as Rita Vandemeyer, but I suppose that’s incorrect?”
“She’s mostly called that, sir, but Marguerite’s her name.”
“Thank you. That’s all. Good morning.”
Hardly able to contain his excitement, Tommy hurried down the stairs. Tuppence was waiting at the angle of the turn.
“Yes. Oh, TOMMY!”
Tommy squeezed her arm sympathetically.
“I know, old thing. I feel the same.”
“It’s—it’s so lovely to think of things—and then for them really to happen!” cried Tuppence enthusiastically.
Her hand was still in Tommy’s. They had reached the entrance hall. There were footsteps on the stairs above them, and voices.
Suddenly, to Tommy’s complete surprise, Tuppence dragged him into the little space by the side of the lift where the shadow was deepest.
Two men came down the stairs and passed out through the entrance. Tuppence’s hand closed tighter on Tommy’s arm.
“Quick—follow them. I daren’t. He might recognize me. I don’t know who the other man is, but the bigger of the two was Whittington.”
CHAPTER VII. THE HOUSE IN SOHO
WHITTINGTON and his companion were walking at a good pace. Tommy started in pursuit at once, and was in time to see them turn the corner of the street. His vigorous strides soon enabled him to gain upon them, and by the time he, in his turn, reached the corner the distance between them was sensibly lessened. The small Mayfair streets were comparatively deserted, and he judged it wise to content himself with keeping them in sight.
The sport was a new one to him. Though familiar with the technicalities from a course of novel reading, he had never before attempted to “follow” anyone, and it appeared to him at once that, in actual practice, the proceeding was fraught with difficulties. Supposing, for instance, that they should suddenly hail a taxi? In books, you simply leapt into another, promised the driver a sovereign—or its modern equivalent—and there you were. In actual fact, Tommy foresaw that it was extremely likely there would be no second taxi. Therefore he would have to run. What happened in actual fact to a young man who ran incessantly and persistently through the London streets? In a main road he might hope to create the illusion that he was merely running for a bus. But in these obscure aristocratic byways he could not but feel that an officious policeman might stop him to explain matters.
At this juncture in his thoughts a taxi with flag erect turned the corner of the street ahead. Tommy held his breath. Would they hail it?
He drew a sigh of relief as they allowed it to pass unchallenged. Their course was a zigzag one designed to bring them as quickly as possible to Oxford Street. When at length they turned into it, proceeding in an easterly direction, Tommy slightly increased his pace. Little by little he gained upon them. On the crowded pavement there was little chance of his attracting their notice, and he was anxious if possible to catch a word or two of their conversation. In this he was completely foiled; they spoke low and the din of the traffic drowned their voices effectually.
Just before the Bond Street Tube station they crossed the road, Tommy, unperceived, faithfully at their heels, and entered the big Lyons’. There they went up to the first floor, and sat at a small table in the window. It was late, and the place was thinning out. Tommy took a seat at the table next to them, sitting directly behind Whittington in case of recognition. On the other hand, he had a full view of the second man and studied him attentively. He was fair, with a weak, unpleasant face, and Tommy put him down as being either a Russian or a Pole. He was probably about fifty years of age, his shoulders cringed a little as he talked, and his eyes, small and crafty, shifted unceasingly.
Having already lunched heartily, Tommy contented himself with ordering a Welsh rarebit and a cup of coffee. Whittington ordered a substantial lunch for himself and his companion; then, as the waitress withdrew, he moved his chair a little closer to the table and began to talk earnestly in a low voice. The other man joined in. Listen as he would, Tommy could only catch a word here and there; but the gist of it seemed to be some directions or orders which the big man was impressing on his companion, and with which the latter seemed from time to time to disagree. Whittington addressed the other as Boris.
Tommy caught the word “Ireland” several times, also “propaganda,” but of Jane Finn there was no mention. Suddenly, in a lull in the clatter of the room, he got one phrase entire. Whittington was speaking. “Ah, but you don’t know Flossie. She’s a marvel. An archbishop would swear she was his own mother. She gets the voice right every time, and that’s really the principal thing.”
Tommy did not hear Boris’s reply, but in response to it Whittington said something that sounded like: “Of course—only in an emergency….”
Then he lost the thread again. But presently the phrases became distinct again whether because the other two had insensibly raised their voices, or because Tommy’s ears were getting more attuned, he could not tell. But two words certainly had a most stimulating effect upon the listener. They were uttered by Boris and they were: “Mr. Brown.”
Whittington seemed to remonstrate with him, but he merely laughed.
“Why not, my friend? It is a name most respectable—most common. Did he not choose it for that reason? Ah, I should like to meet him—Mr. Brown.”
There was a steely ring in Whittington’s voice as he replied:
“Who knows? You may have met him already.”
“Bah!” retorted the other. “That is children’s talk—a fable for the police. Do you know what I say to myself sometimes? That he is a fable invented by the Inner Ring, a bogy to frighten us with. It might be so.”
“And it might not.”
“I wonder… or is it indeed true that he is with us and amongst us, unknown to all but a chosen few? If so, he keeps his secret well. And the idea is a good one, yes. We never know. We look at each other—ONE OF US IS MR. BROWN—which? He commands—but also he serves. Among us—in the midst of us. And no one knows which he is….”
With an effort the Russian shook off the vagary of his fancy. He looked at his watch.
“Yes,” said Whittington. “We might as well go.”
He called the waitress and asked for his bill. Tommy did likewise, and a few moments later was following the two men down the stairs.
Outside, Whittington hailed a taxi, and directed the driver to go to Waterloo.
Taxis were plentiful here, and before Whittington’s had driven off another was drawing up to the curb in obedience to Tommy’s peremptory hand.
“Follow that other taxi,” directed the young man. “Don’t lose it.”
The elderly chauffeur showed no interest. He merely grunted and jerked down his flag. The drive was uneventful. Tommy’s taxi came to rest at the departure platform just after Whittington’s. Tommy was behind him at the booking-office. He took a first-class single ticket to Bournemouth, Tommy did the same. As he emerged, Boris remarked, glancing up at the clock: “You are early. You have nearly half an hour.”
Boris’s words had aroused a new train of thought in Tommy’s mind. Clearly Whittington was making the journey alone, while the other remained in London. Therefore he was left with a choice as to which he would follow. Obviously, he could not follow both of them unless——Like Boris, he glanced up at the clock, and then to the announcement board of the trains. The Bournemouth train left at 3.30. It was now ten past. Whittington and Boris were walking up and down by the bookstall. He gave one doubtful look at them, then hurried into an adjacent telephone box. He dared not waste time in trying to get hold of Tuppence. In all probability she was still in the neighbourhood of South Audley Mansions. But there remained another ally. He rang up the Ritz and asked for Julius Hersheimmer. There was a click and a buzz. Oh, if only the young American was in his room! There was another click, and then “Hello” in unmistakable accents came over the wire.
“That you, Hersheimmer? Beresford speaking. I’m at Waterloo. I’ve followed Whittington and another man here. No time to explain. Whittington’s off to Bournemouth by the 3.30. Can you get there by then?”
The reply was reassuring.
“Sure. I’ll hustle.”
The telephone rang off. Tommy put back the receiver with a sigh of relief. His opinion of Julius’s power of hustling was high. He felt instinctively that the American would arrive in time.
Whittington and Boris were still where he had left them. If Boris remained to see his friend off, all was well. Then Tommy fingered his pocket thoughtfully. In spite of the carte blanche assured to him, he had not yet acquired the habit of going about with any considerable sum of money on him. The taking of the first-class ticket to Bournemouth had left him with only a few shillings in his pocket. It was to be hoped that Julius would arrive better provided.
In the meantime, the minutes were creeping by: 3.15, 3.20, 3.25, 3.27. Supposing Julius did not get there in time. 3.29…. Doors were banging. Tommy felt cold waves of despair pass over him. Then a hand fell on his shoulder.
“Here I am, son. Your British traffic beats description! Put me wise to the crooks right away.”
“That’s Whittington—there, getting in now, that big dark man. The other is the foreign chap he’s talking to.”
“I’m on to them. Which of the two is my bird?”
Tommy had thought out this question.
“Got any money with you?”
Julius shook his head, and Tommy’s face fell.
“I guess I haven’t more than three or four hundred dollars with me at the moment,” explained the American.
Tommy gave a faint whoop of relief.
“Oh, Lord, you millionaires! You don’t talk the same language! Climb aboard the lugger. Here’s your ticket. Whittington’s your man.”
“Me for Whittington!” said Julius darkly. The train was just starting as he swung himself aboard. “So long, Tommy.” The train slid out of the station.
Tommy drew a deep breath. The man Boris was coming along the platform towards him. Tommy allowed him to pass and then took up the chase once more.
From Waterloo Boris took the tube as far as Piccadilly Circus. Then he walked up Shaftesbury Avenue, finally turning off into the maze of mean streets round Soho. Tommy followed him at a judicious distance.
They reached at length a small dilapidated square. The houses there had a sinister air in the midst of their dirt and decay. Boris looked round, and Tommy drew back into the shelter of a friendly porch. The place was almost deserted. It was a cul-de-sac, and consequently no traffic passed that way. The stealthy way the other had looked round stimulated Tommy’s imagination. From the shelter of the doorway he watched him go up the steps of a particularly evil-looking house and rap sharply, with a peculiar rhythm, on the door. It was opened promptly, he said a word or two to the doorkeeper, then passed inside. The door was shut to again.
It was at this juncture that Tommy lost his head. What he ought to have done, what any sane man would have done, was to remain patiently where he was and wait for his man to come out again. What he did do was entirely foreign to the sober common sense which was, as a rule, his leading characteristic. Something, as he expressed it, seemed to snap in his brain. Without a moment’s pause for reflection he, too, went up the steps, and reproduced as far as he was able the peculiar knock.
The door swung open with the same promptness as before. A villainous-faced man with close-cropped hair stood in the doorway.
“Well?” he grunted.
It was at that moment that the full realization of his folly began to come home to Tommy. But he dared not hesitate. He seized at the first words that came into his mind.
“Mr. Brown?” he said.
To his surprise the man stood aside.
“Upstairs,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “second door on your left.”
CHAPTER VIII. THE ADVENTURES OF TOMMY
TAKEN aback though he was by the man’s words, Tommy did not hesitate. If audacity had successfully carried him so far, it was to be hoped it would carry him yet farther. He quietly passed into the house and mounted the ramshackle staircase. Everything in the house was filthy beyond words. The grimy paper, of a pattern now indistinguishable, hung in loose festoons from the wall. In every angle was a grey mass of cobweb.
Tommy proceeded leisurely. By the time he reached the bend of the staircase, he had heard the man below disappear into a back room. Clearly no suspicion attached to him as yet. To come to the house and ask for “Mr. Brown” appeared indeed to be a reasonable and natural proceeding.
At the top of the stairs Tommy halted to consider his next move. In front of him ran a narrow passage, with doors opening on either side of it. From the one nearest him on the left came a low murmur of voices. It was this room which he had been directed to enter. But what held his glance fascinated was a small recess immediately on his right, half concealed by a torn velvet curtain. It was directly opposite the left-handed door and, owing to its angle, it also commanded a good view of the upper part of the staircase. As a hiding-place for one or, at a pinch, two men, it was ideal, being about two feet deep and three feet wide. It attracted Tommy mightily. He thought things over in his usual slow and steady way, deciding that the mention of “Mr. Brown” was not a request for an individual, but in all probability a password used by the gang. His lucky use of it had gained him admission. So far he had aroused no suspicion. But he must decide quickly on his next step.
Suppose he were boldly to enter the room on the left of the passage. Would the mere fact of his having been admitted to the house be sufficient? Perhaps a further password would be required, or, at any rate, some proof of identity. The doorkeeper clearly did not know all the members of the gang by sight, but it might be different upstairs. On the whole it seemed to him that luck had served him very well so far, but that there was such a thing as trusting it too far. To enter that room was a colossal risk. He could not hope to sustain his part indefinitely; sooner or later he was almost bound to betray himself, and then he would have thrown away a vital chance in mere foolhardiness.
A repetition of the signal knock sounded on the door below, and Tommy, his mind made up, slipped quickly into the recess, and cautiously drew the curtain farther across so that it shielded him completely from sight. There were several rents and slits in the ancient material which afforded him a good view. He would watch events, and any time he chose could, after all, join the assembly, modelling his behaviour on that of the new arrival.
The man who came up the staircase with a furtive, soft-footed tread was quite unknown to Tommy. He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.
The man passed the recess, breathing heavily as he went. He stopped at the door opposite, and gave a repetition of the signal knock. A voice inside called out something, and the man opened the door and passed in, affording Tommy a momentary glimpse of the room inside. He thought there must be about four or five people seated round a long table that took up most of the space, but his attention was caught and held by a tall man with close-cropped hair and a short, pointed, naval-looking beard, who sat at the head of the table with papers in front of him. As the new-comer entered he glanced up, and with a correct, but curiously precise enunciation, which attracted Tommy’s notice, he asked:
“Your number, comrade?”
“Fourteen, gov’nor,” replied the other hoarsely.
The door shut again.
“If that isn’t a Hun, I’m a Dutchman!” said Tommy to himself. “And running the show darned systematically too—as they always do. Lucky I didn’t roll in. I’d have given the wrong number, and there would have been the deuce to pay. No, this is the place for me. Hullo, here’s another knock.”
This visitor proved to be of an entirely different type to the last. Tommy recognized in him an Irish Sinn Feiner. Certainly Mr. Brown’s organization was a far-reaching concern. The common criminal, the well-bred Irish gentleman, the pale Russian, and the efficient German master of the ceremonies! Truly a strange and sinister gathering! Who was this man who held in his finger these curiously variegated links of an unknown chain?
In this case, the procedure was exactly the same. The signal knock, the demand for a number, and the reply “Correct.”
Two knocks followed in quick succession on the door below. The first man was quite unknown to Tommy, who put him down as a city clerk. A quiet, intelligent-looking man, rather shabbily dressed. The second was of the working classes, and his face was vaguely familiar to the young man.
Three minutes later came another, a man of commanding appearance, exquisitely dressed, and evidently well born. His face, again, was not unknown to the watcher, though he could not for the moment put a name to it.
After his arrival there was a long wait. In fact Tommy concluded that the gathering was now complete, and was just cautiously creeping out from his hiding-place, when another knock sent him scuttling back to cover.
This last-comer came up the stairs so quietly that he was almost abreast of Tommy before the young man had realized his presence.
He was a small man, very pale, with a gentle almost womanish air. The angle of the cheek-bones hinted at his Slavonic ancestry, otherwise there was nothing to indicate his nationality. As he passed the recess, he turned his head slowly. The strange light eyes seemed to burn through the curtain; Tommy could hardly believe that the man did not know he was there and in spite of himself he shivered. He was no more fanciful than the majority of young Englishmen, but he could not rid himself of the impression that some unusually potent force emanated from the man. The creature reminded him of a venomous snake.
A moment later his impression was proved correct. The new-comer knocked on the door as all had done, but his reception was very different. The bearded man rose to his feet, and all the others followed suit. The German came forward and shook hands. His heels clicked together.
“We are honoured,” he said. “We are greatly honoured. I much feared that it would be impossible.”
The other answered in a low voice that had a kind of hiss in it:
“There were difficulties. It will not be possible again, I fear. But one meeting is essential—to define my policy. I can do nothing without—Mr. Brown. He is here?”
The change in the German’s voice was audible as he replied with slight hesitation:
“We have received a message. It is impossible for him to be present in person.” He stopped, giving a curious impression of having left the sentence unfinished.
A very slow smile overspread the face of the other. He looked round at a circle of uneasy faces.
“Ah! I understand. I have read of his methods. He works in the dark and trusts no one. But, all the same, it is possible that he is among us now….” He looked round him again, and again that expression of fear swept over the group. Each man seemed eyeing his neighbour doubtfully.
The Russian tapped his cheek.
“So be it. Let us proceed.”
The German seemed to pull himself together. He indicated the place he had been occupying at the head of the table. The Russian demurred, but the other insisted.
“It is the only possible place,” he said, “for—Number One. Perhaps Number Fourteen will shut the door?”
In another moment Tommy was once more confronting bare wooden panels, and the voices within had sunk once more to a mere undistinguishable murmur. Tommy became restive. The conversation he had overheard had stimulated his curiosity. He felt that, by hook or by crook, he must hear more.
There was no sound from below, and it did not seem likely that the doorkeeper would come upstairs. After listening intently for a minute or two, he put his head round the curtain. The passage was deserted. Tommy bent down and removed his shoes, then, leaving them behind the curtain, he walked gingerly out on his stockinged feet, and kneeling down by the closed door he laid his ear cautiously to the crack. To his intense annoyance he could distinguish little more; just a chance word here and there if a voice was raised, which merely served to whet his curiosity still farther.
He eyed the handle of the door tentatively. Could he turn it by degrees so gently and imperceptibly that those in the room would notice nothing? He decided that with great care it could be done. Very slowly, a fraction of an inch at a time, he moved it round, holding his breath in his excessive care. A little more—a little more still—would it never be finished? Ah! at last it would turn no farther.
He stayed so for a minute or two, then drew a deep breath, and pressed it ever so slightly inward. The door did not budge. Tommy was annoyed. If he had to use too much force, it would almost certainly creak. He waited until the voices rose a little, then he tried again. Still nothing happened. He increased the pressure. Had the beastly thing stuck? Finally, in desperation, he pushed with all his might. But the door remained firm, and at last the truth dawned upon him. It was locked or bolted on the inside.
For a moment or two Tommy’s indignation got the better of him.
“Well, I’m damned!” he said. “What a dirty trick!”
As his indignation cooled, he prepared to face the situation. Clearly the first thing to be done was to restore the handle to its original position. If he let it go suddenly, the men inside would be almost certain to notice it, so, with the same infinite pains, he reversed his former tactics. All went well, and with a sigh of relief the young man rose to his feet. There was a certain bulldog tenacity about Tommy that made him slow to admit defeat. Checkmated for the moment, he was far from abandoning the conflict. He still intended to hear what was going on in the locked room. As one plan had failed, he must hunt about for another.
He looked round him. A little farther along the passage on the left was a second door. He slipped silently along to it. He listened for a moment or two, then tried the handle. It yielded, and he slipped inside.
The room, which was untenanted, was furnished as a bedroom. Like everything else in the house, the furniture was falling to pieces, and the dirt was, if anything, more abundant.
But what interested Tommy was the thing he had hoped to find, a communicating door between the two rooms, up on the left by the window. Carefully closing the door into the passage behind him, he stepped across to the other and examined it closely. The bolt was shot across it. It was very rusty, and had clearly not been used for some time. By gently wriggling it to and fro, Tommy managed to draw it back without making too much noise. Then he repeated his former manoeuvres with the handle—this time with complete success. The door swung open—a crack, a mere fraction, but enough for Tommy to hear what went on. There was a velvet portiere on the inside of this door which prevented him from seeing, but he was able to recognize the voices with a reasonable amount of accuracy.
The Sinn Feiner was speaking. His rich Irish voice was unmistakable:
“That’s all very well. But more money is essential. No money—no results!”
Another voice which Tommy rather thought was that of Boris replied:
“Will you guarantee that there ARE results?”
“In a month from now—sooner or later as you wish—I will guarantee you such a reign of terror in Ireland as shall shake the British Empire to its foundations.”
There was a pause, and then came the soft, sibilant accents of Number One:
“Good! You shall have the money. Boris, you will see to that.”
Boris asked a question:
“Via the Irish Americans, and Mr. Potter as usual?”
“I guess that’ll be all right!” said a new voice, with a transatlantic intonation, “though I’d like to point out, here and now, that things are getting a mite difficult. There’s not the sympathy there was, and a growing disposition to let the Irish settle their own affairs without interference from America.”
Tommy felt that Boris had shrugged his shoulders as he answered:
“Does that matter, since the money only nominally comes from the States?”
“The chief difficulty is the landing of the ammunition,” said the Sinn Feiner. “The money is conveyed in easily enough—thanks to our colleague here.”
Another voice, which Tommy fancied was that of the tall, commanding-looking man whose face had seemed familiar to him, said:
“Think of the feelings of Belfast if they could hear you!”
“That is settled, then,” said the sibilant tones. “Now, in the matter of the loan to an English newspaper, you have arranged the details satisfactorily, Boris?”
“I think so.”
“That is good. An official denial from Moscow will be forthcoming if necessary.”
There was a pause, and then the clear voice of the German broke the silence:
“I am directed by—Mr. Brown, to place the summaries of the reports from the different unions before you. That of the miners is most satisfactory. We must hold back the railways. There may be trouble with the A.S.E.”
For a long time there was a silence, broken only by the rustle of papers and an occasional word of explanation from the German. Then Tommy heard the light tap-tap of fingers, drumming on the table.
“And—the date, my friend?” said Number One.
The Russian seemed to consider:
“That is rather soon.”
“I know. But it was settled by the principal Labour leaders, and we cannot seem to interfere too much. They must believe it to be entirely their own show.”
The Russian laughed softly, as though amused.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “That is true. They must have no inkling that we are using them for our own ends. They are honest men—and that is their value to us. It is curious—but you cannot make a revolution without honest men. The instinct of the populace is infallible.” He paused, and then repeated, as though the phrase pleased him: “Every revolution has had its honest men. They are soon disposed of afterwards.”
There was a sinister note in his voice.
The German resumed:
“Clymes must go. He is too far-seeing. Number Fourteen will see to that.”
There was a hoarse murmur.
“That’s all right, gov’nor.” And then after a moment or two: “Suppose I’m nabbed.”
“You will have the best legal talent to defend you,” replied the German quietly. “But in any case you will wear gloves fitted with the finger-prints of a notorious housebreaker. You have little to fear.”
“Oh, I ain’t afraid, gov’nor. All for the good of the cause. The streets is going to run with blood, so they say.” He spoke with a grim relish. “Dreams of it, sometimes, I does. And diamonds and pearls rolling about in the gutter for anyone to pick up!”
Tommy heard a chair shifted. Then Number One spoke:
“Then all is arranged. We are assured of success?”
“I—think so.” But the German spoke with less than his usual confidence.
Number One’s voice held suddenly a dangerous quality:
“What has gone wrong?”
“The Labour leaders. Without them, as you say, we can do nothing. If they do not declare a general strike on the 29th——”
“Why should they not?”
“As you’ve said, they’re honest. And, in spite of everything we’ve done to discredit the Government in their eyes, I’m not sure that they haven’t got a sneaking faith and belief in it.”
“I know. They abuse it unceasingly. But, on the whole, public opinion swings to the side of the Government. They will not go against it.”
Again the Russian’s fingers drummed on the table.
“To the point, my friend. I was given to understand that there was a certain document in existence which assured success.”
“That is so. If that document were placed before the leaders, the result would be immediate. They would publish it broadcast throughout England, and declare for the revolution without a moment’s hesitation. The Government would be broken finally and completely.”
“Then what more do you want?”
“The document itself,” said the German bluntly.
“Ah! It is not in your possession? But you know where it is?”
“Does anyone know where it is?”
“One person—perhaps. And we are not sure of that even.”
“Who is this person?”
Tommy held his breath.
“A girl?” The Russian’s voice rose contemptuously. “And you have not made her speak? In Russia we have ways of making a girl talk.”
“This case is different,” said the German sullenly.
“How—different?” He paused a moment, then went on: “Where is the girl now?”
But Tommy heard no more. A crashing blow descended on his head, and all was darkness.
CHAPTER IX. TUPPENCE ENTERS DOMESTIC SERVICE
WHEN Tommy set forth on the trail of the two men, it took all Tuppence’s self-command to refrain from accompanying him. However, she contained herself as best she might, consoled by the reflection that her reasoning had been justified by events. The two men had undoubtedly come from the second floor flat, and that one slender thread of the name “Rita” had set the Young Adventurers once more upon the track of the abductors of Jane Finn.
The question was what to do next? Tuppence hated letting the grass grow under her feet. Tommy was amply employed, and debarred from joining him in the chase, the girl felt at a loose end. She retraced her steps to the entrance hall of the mansions. It was now tenanted by a small lift-boy, who was polishing brass fittings, and whistling the latest air with a good deal of vigour and a reasonable amount of accuracy.
He glanced round at Tuppence’s entry. There was a certain amount of the gamin element in the girl, at all events she invariably got on well with small boys. A sympathetic bond seemed instantly to be formed. She reflected that an ally in the enemy’s camp, so to speak, was not to be despised.
“Well, William,” she remarked cheerfully, in the best approved hospital-early-morning style, “getting a good shine up?”
The boy grinned responsively.
“Albert, miss,” he corrected.
“Albert be it,” said Tuppence. She glanced mysteriously round the hall. The effect was purposely a broad one in case Albert should miss it. She leaned towards the boy and dropped her voice: “I want a word with you, Albert.”
Albert ceased operations on the fittings and opened his mouth slightly.
“Look! Do you know what this is?” With a dramatic gesture she flung back the left side of her coat and exposed a small enamelled badge. It was extremely unlikely that Albert would have any knowledge of it—indeed, it would have been fatal for Tuppence’s plans, since the badge in question was the device of a local training corps originated by the archdeacon in the early days of the war. Its presence in Tuppence’s coat was due to the fact that she had used it for pinning in some flowers a day or two before. But Tuppence had sharp eyes, and had noted the corner of a threepenny detective novel protruding from Albert’s pocket, and the immediate enlargement of his eyes told her that her tactics were good, and that the fish would rise to the bait.
“American Detective Force!” she hissed.
Albert fell for it.
“Lord!” he murmured ecstatically.
Tuppence nodded at him with the air of one who has established a thorough understanding.
“Know who I’m after?” she inquired genially.
Albert, still round-eyed, demanded breathlessly:
“One of the flats?”
Tuppence nodded and jerked a thumb up the stairs.
“No. 20. Calls herself Vandemeyer. Vandemeyer! Ha! ha!”
Albert’s hand stole to his pocket.
“A crook?” he queried eagerly.
“A crook? I should say so. Ready Rita they call her in the States.”
“Ready Rita,” repeated Albert deliriously. “Oh, ain’t it just like the pictures!”
It was. Tuppence was a great frequenter of the cinema.
“Annie always said as how she was a bad lot,” continued the boy.
“Who’s Annie?” inquired Tuppence idly.
“‘Ouse-parlourmaid. She’s leaving to-day. Many’s the time Annie’s said to me: ‘Mark my words, Albert, I wouldn’t wonder if the police was to come after her one of these days.’ Just like that. But she’s a stunner to look at, ain’t she?”
“She’s some peach,” allowed Tuppence carelessly. “Finds it useful in her lay-out, you bet. Has she been wearing any of the emeralds, by the way?”
“Emeralds? Them’s the green stones, isn’t they?”
“That’s what we’re after her for. You know old man Rysdale?”
Albert shook his head.
“Peter B. Rysdale, the oil king?”
“It seems sort of familiar to me.”
“The sparklers belonged to him. Finest collection of emeralds in the world. Worth a million dollars!”
“Lumme!” came ecstatically from Albert. “It sounds more like the pictures every minute.”
Tuppence smiled, gratified at the success of her efforts.
“We haven’t exactly proved it yet. But we’re after her. And”—she produced a long-drawn-out wink—”I guess she won’t get away with the goods this time.”
Albert uttered another ejaculation indicative of delight.
“Mind you, sonny, not a word of this,” said Tuppence suddenly. “I guess I oughtn’t to have put you wise, but in the States we know a real smart lad when we see one.”
“I’ll not breathe a word,” protested Albert eagerly. “Ain’t there anything I could do? A bit of shadowing, maybe, or such like?”
Tuppence affected to consider, then shook her head.
“Not at the moment, but I’ll bear you in mind, son. What’s this about the girl you say is leaving?”
“Annie? Regular turn up, they ‘ad. As Annie said, servants is some one nowadays, and to be treated accordingly, and, what with her passing the word round, she won’t find it so easy to get another.”
“Won’t she?” said Tuppence thoughtfully. “I wonder——”
An idea was dawning in her brain. She thought a minute or two, then tapped Albert on the shoulder.
“See here, son, my brain’s got busy. How would it be if you mentioned that you’d got a young cousin, or a friend of yours had, that might suit the place. You get me?”
“I’m there,” said Albert instantly. “You leave it to me, miss, and I’ll fix the whole thing up in two ticks.”
“Some lad!” commented Tuppence, with a nod of approval. “You might say that the young woman could come in right away. You let me know, and if it’s O.K. I’ll be round to-morrow at eleven o’clock.”
“Where am I to let you know to?”
“Ritz,” replied Tuppence laconically. “Name of Cowley.”
Albert eyed her enviously.
“It must be a good job, this tec business.”
“It sure is,” drawled Tuppence, “especially when old man Rysdale backs the bill. But don’t fret, son. If this goes well, you shall come in on the ground floor.”
With which promise she took leave of her new ally, and walked briskly away from South Audley Mansions, well pleased with her morning’s work.
But there was no time to be lost. She went straight back to the Ritz and wrote a few brief words to Mr. Carter. Having dispatched this, and Tommy not having yet returned—which did not surprise her—she started off on a shopping expedition which, with an interval for tea and assorted creamy cakes, occupied her until well after six o’clock, and she returned to the hotel jaded, but satisfied with her purchases. Starting with a cheap clothing store, and passing through one or two second-hand establishments, she had finished the day at a well-known hairdresser’s. Now, in the seclusion of her bedroom, she unwrapped that final purchase. Five minutes later she smiled contentedly at her reflection in the glass. With an actress’s pencil she had slightly altered the line of her eyebrows, and that, taken in conjunction with the new luxuriant growth of fair hair above, so changed her appearance that she felt confident that even if she came face to face with Whittington he would not recognize her. She would wear elevators in her shoes, and the cap and apron would be an even more valuable disguise. From hospital experience she knew only too well that a nurse out of uniform is frequently unrecognized by her patients.
“Yes,” said Tuppence aloud, nodding at the pert reflection in the glass, “you’ll do.” She then resumed her normal appearance.
Dinner was a solitary meal. Tuppence was rather surprised at Tommy’s non-return. Julius, too, was absent—but that to the girl’s mind was more easily explained. His “hustling” activities were not confined to London, and his abrupt appearances and disappearances were fully accepted by the Young Adventurers as part of the day’s work. It was quite on the cards that Julius P. Hersheimmer had left for Constantinople at a moment’s notice if he fancied that a clue to his cousin’s disappearance was to be found there. The energetic young man had succeeded in making the lives of several Scotland Yard men unbearable to them, and the telephone girls at the Admiralty had learned to know and dread the familiar “Hullo!” He had spent three hours in Paris hustling the Prefecture, and had returned from there imbued with the idea, possibly inspired by a weary French official, that the true clue to the mystery was to be found in Ireland.
“I dare say he’s dashed off there now,” thought Tuppence. “All very well, but this is very dull for ME! Here I am bursting with news, and absolutely no one to tell it to! Tommy might have wired, or something. I wonder where he is. Anyway, he can’t have ‘lost the trail’ as they say. That reminds me——” And Miss Cowley broke off in her meditations, and summoned a small boy.
Ten minutes later the lady was ensconced comfortably on her bed, smoking cigarettes and deep in the perusal of Garnaby Williams, the Boy Detective, which, with other threepenny works of lurid fiction, she had sent out to purchase. She felt, and rightly, that before the strain of attempting further intercourse with Albert, it would be as well to fortify herself with a good supply of local colour.
The morning brought a note from Mr. Carter:
“DEAR MISS TUPPENCE,
“You have made a splendid start, and I congratulate you. I feel, though, that I should like to point out to you once more the risks you are running, especially if you pursue the course you indicate. Those people are absolutely desperate and incapable of either mercy or pity. I feel that you probably underestimate the danger, and therefore warn you again that I can promise you no protection. You have given us valuable information, and if you choose to withdraw now no one could blame you. At any rate, think the matter over well before you decide.
“If, in spite of my warnings, you make up your mind to go through with it, you will find everything arranged. You have lived for two years with Miss Dufferin, The Parsonage, Llanelly, and Mrs. Vandemeyer can apply to her for a reference.
“May I be permitted a word or two of advice? Stick as near to the truth as possible—it minimizes the danger of ‘slips.’ I suggest that you should represent yourself to be what you are, a former V.A.D., who has chosen domestic service as a profession. There are many such at the present time. That explains away any incongruities of voice or manner which otherwise might awaken suspicion.
“Whichever way you decide, good luck to you.
“Your sincere friend,
Tuppence’s spirits rose mercurially. Mr. Carter’s warnings passed unheeded. The young lady had far too much confidence in herself to pay any heed to them.
With some reluctance she abandoned the interesting part she had sketched out for herself. Although she had no doubts of her own powers to sustain a role indefinitely, she had too much common sense not to recognize the force of Mr. Carter’s arguments.
There was still no word or message from Tommy, but the morning post brought a somewhat dirty postcard with the words: “It’s O.K.” scrawled upon it.
At ten-thirty Tuppence surveyed with pride a slightly battered tin trunk containing her new possessions. It was artistically corded. It was with a slight blush that she rang the bell and ordered it to be placed in a taxi. She drove to Paddington, and left the box in the cloak room. She then repaired with a handbag to the fastnesses of the ladies’ waiting-room. Ten minutes later a metamorphosed Tuppence walked demurely out of the station and entered a bus.
It was a few minutes past eleven when Tuppence again entered the hall of South Audley Mansions. Albert was on the look-out, attending to his duties in a somewhat desultory fashion. He did not immediately recognize Tuppence. When he did, his admiration was unbounded.
“Blest if I’d have known you! That rig-out’s top-hole.”
“Glad you like it, Albert,” replied Tuppence modestly. “By the way, am I your cousin, or am I not?”
“Your voice too,” cried the delighted boy. “It’s as English as anything! No, I said as a friend of mine knew a young gal. Annie wasn’t best pleased. She’s stopped on till to-day—to oblige, SHE said, but really it’s so as to put you against the place.”
“Nice girl,” said Tuppence.
Albert suspected no irony.
“She’s style about her, and keeps her silver a treat—but, my word, ain’t she got a temper. Are you going up now, miss? Step inside the lift. No. 20 did you say?” And he winked.
Tuppence quelled him with a stern glance, and stepped inside.
As she rang the bell of No. 20 she was conscious of Albert’s eyes slowly descending beneath the level of the floor.
A smart young woman opened the door.
“I’ve come about the place,” said Tuppence.
“It’s a rotten place,” said the young woman without hesitation. “Regular old cat—always interfering. Accused me of tampering with her letters. Me! The flap was half undone anyway. There’s never anything in the waste-paper basket—she burns everything. She’s a wrong ‘un, that’s what she is. Swell clothes, but no class. Cook knows something about her—but she won’t tell—scared to death of her. And suspicious! She’s on to you in a minute if you as much as speak to a fellow. I can tell you——”
But what more Annie could tell, Tuppence was never destined to learn, for at that moment a clear voice with a peculiarly steely ring to it called:
The smart young woman jumped as if she had been shot.
“Who are you talking to?”
“It’s a young woman about the situation, ma’am.”
“Show her in then. At once.”
Tuppence was ushered into a room on the right of the long passage. A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.
For the first time Tuppence felt afraid. She had not feared Whittington, but this woman was different. As if fascinated, she watched the long cruel line of the red curving mouth, and again she felt that sensation of panic pass over her. Her usual self-confidence deserted her. Vaguely she felt that deceiving this woman would be very different to deceiving Whittington. Mr. Carter’s warning recurred to her mind. Here, indeed, she might expect no mercy.
Fighting down that instinct of panic which urged her to turn tail and run without further delay, Tuppence returned the lady’s gaze firmly and respectfully.
As though that first scrutiny had been satisfactory, Mrs. Vandemeyer motioned to a chair.
“You can sit down. How did you hear I wanted a house-parlourmaid?”
“Through a friend who knows the lift boy here. He thought the place might suit me.”
Again that basilisk glance seemed to pierce her through.
“You speak like an educated girl?”
Glibly enough, Tuppence ran through her imaginary career on the lines suggested by Mr. Carter. It seemed to her, as she did so, that the tension of Mrs. Vandemeyer’s attitude relaxed.
“I see,” she remarked at length. “Is there anyone I can write to for a reference?”
“I lived last with a Miss Dufferin, The Parsonage, Llanelly. I was with her two years.”
“And then you thought you would get more money by coming to London, I suppose? Well, it doesn’t matter to me. I will give you L50—L60—whatever you want. You can come in at once?”
“Yes, ma’am. To-day, if you like. My box is at Paddington.”
“Go and fetch it in a taxi, then. It’s an easy place. I am out a good deal. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Prudence Cooper, ma’am.”
“Very well, Prudence. Go away and fetch your box. I shall be out to lunch. The cook will show you where everything is.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Tuppence withdrew. The smart Annie was not in evidence. In the hall below a magnificent hall porter had relegated Albert to the background. Tuppence did not even glance at him as she passed meekly out.
The adventure had begun, but she felt less elated than she had done earlier in the morning. It crossed her mind that if the unknown Jane Finn had fallen into the hands of Mrs. Vandemeyer, it was likely to have gone hard with her.
CHAPTER X. ENTER SIR JAMES PEEL EDGERTON
TUPPENCE betrayed no awkwardness in her new duties. The daughters of the archdeacon were well grounded in household tasks. They were also experts in training a “raw girl,” the inevitable result being that the raw girl, once trained, departed elsewhere where her newly acquired knowledge commanded a more substantial remuneration than the archdeacon’s meagre purse allowed.
Tuppence had therefore very little fear of proving inefficient. Mrs. Vandemeyer’s cook puzzled her. She evidently went in deadly terror of her mistress. The girl thought it probable that the other woman had some hold over her. For the rest, she cooked like a chef, as Tuppence had an opportunity of judging that evening. Mrs. Vandemeyer was expecting a guest to dinner, and Tuppence accordingly laid the beautifully polished table for two. She was a little exercised in her own mind as to this visitor. It was highly possible that it might prove to be Whittington. Although she felt fairly confident that he would not recognize her, yet she would have been better pleased had the guest proved to be a total stranger. However, there was nothing for it but to hope for the best.
At a few minutes past eight the front door bell rang, and Tuppence went to answer it with some inward trepidation. She was relieved to see that the visitor was the second of the two men whom Tommy had taken upon himself to follow.
He gave his name as Count Stepanov. Tuppence announced him, and Mrs. Vandemeyer rose from her seat on a low divan with a quick murmur of pleasure.
“It is delightful to see you, Boris Ivanovitch,” she said.
“And you, madame!” He bowed low over her hand.
Tuppence returned to the kitchen.
“Count Stepanov, or some such,” she remarked, and affecting a frank and unvarnished curiosity: “Who’s he?”
“A Russian gentleman, I believe.”
“Come here much?”
“Once in a while. What d’you want to know for?”
“Fancied he might be sweet on the missus, that’s all,” explained the girl, adding with an appearance of sulkiness: “How you do take one up!”
“I’m not quite easy in my mind about the souffle,” explained the other.
“You know something,” thought Tuppence to herself, but aloud she only said: “Going to dish up now? Right-o.”
Whilst waiting at table, Tuppence listened closely to all that was said. She remembered that this was one of the men Tommy was shadowing when she had last seen him. Already, although she would hardly admit it, she was becoming uneasy about her partner. Where was he? Why had no word of any kind come from him? She had arranged before leaving the Ritz to have all letters or messages sent on at once by special messenger to a small stationer’s shop near at hand where Albert was to call in frequently. True, it was only yesterday morning that she had parted from Tommy, and she told herself that any anxiety on his behalf would be absurd. Still, it was strange that he had sent no word of any kind.
But, listen as she might, the conversation presented no clue. Boris and Mrs. Vandemeyer talked on purely indifferent subjects: plays they had seen, new dances, and the latest society gossip. After dinner they repaired to the small boudoir where Mrs. Vandemeyer, stretched on the divan, looked more wickedly beautiful than ever. Tuppence brought in the coffee and liqueurs and unwillingly retired. As she did so, she heard Boris say:
“New, isn’t she?”
“She came in to-day. The other was a fiend. This girl seems all right. She waits well.”
Tuppence lingered a moment longer by the door which she had carefully neglected to close, and heard him say:
“Quite safe, I suppose?”
“Really, Boris, you are absurdly suspicious. I believe she’s the cousin of the hall porter, or something of the kind. And nobody even dreams that I have any connection with our—mutual friend, Mr. Brown.”
“For heaven’s sake, be careful, Rita. That door isn’t shut.”
“Well, shut it then,” laughed the woman.
Tuppence removed herself speedily.
She dared not absent herself longer from the back premises, but she cleared away and washed up with a breathless speed acquired in hospital. Then she slipped quietly back to the boudoir door. The cook, more leisurely, was still busy in the kitchen and, if she missed the other, would only suppose her to be turning down the beds.
Alas! The conversation inside was being carried on in too low a tone to permit of her hearing anything of it. She dared not reopen the door, however gently. Mrs. Vandemeyer was sitting almost facing it, and Tuppence respected her mistress’s lynx-eyed powers of observation.
Nevertheless, she felt she would give a good deal to overhear what was going on. Possibly, if anything unforeseen had happened, she might get news of Tommy. For some moments she reflected desperately, then her face brightened. She went quickly along the passage to Mrs. Vandemeyer’s bedroom, which had long French windows leading on to a balcony that ran the length of the flat. Slipping quickly through the window, Tuppence crept noiselessly along till she reached the boudoir window. As she had thought it stood a little ajar, and the voices within were plainly audible.
Tuppence listened attentively, but there was no mention of anything that could be twisted to apply to Tommy. Mrs. Vandemeyer and the Russian seemed to be at variance over some matter, and finally the latter exclaimed bitterly:
“With your persistent recklessness, you will end by ruining us!”
“Bah!” laughed the woman. “Notoriety of the right kind is the best way of disarming suspicion. You will realize that one of these days—perhaps sooner than you think!”
“In the meantime, you are going about everywhere with Peel Edgerton. Not only is he, perhaps, the most celebrated K.C. in England, but his special hobby is criminology! It is madness!”
“I know that his eloquence has saved untold men from the gallows,” said Mrs. Vandemeyer calmly. “What of it? I may need his assistance in that line myself some day. If so, how fortunate to have such a friend at court—or perhaps it would be more to the point to say IN court.”
Boris got up and began striding up and down. He was very excited.
“You are a clever woman, Rita; but you are also a fool! Be guided by me, and give up Peel Edgerton.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer shook her head gently.
“I think not.”
“You refuse?” There was an ugly ring in the Russian’s voice.
“Then, by Heaven,” snarled the Russian, “we will see——” But Mrs. Vandemeyer also rose to her feet, her eyes flashing.
“You forget, Boris,” she said. “I am accountable to no one. I take my orders only from—Mr. Brown.”
The other threw up his hands in despair.
“You are impossible,” he muttered. “Impossible! Already it may be too late. They say Peel Edgerton can SMELL a criminal! How do we know what is at the bottom of his sudden interest in you? Perhaps even now his suspicions are aroused. He guesses——”
Mrs. Vandemeyer eyed him scornfully.
“Reassure yourself, my dear Boris. He suspects nothing. With less than your usual chivalry, you seem to forget that I am commonly accounted a beautiful woman. I assure you that is all that interests Peel Edgerton.”
Boris shook his head doubtfully.
“He has studied crime as no other man in this kingdom has studied it. Do you fancy that you can deceive him?”
Mrs. Vandemeyer’s eyes narrowed.
“If he is all that you say—it would amuse me to try!”
“Good heavens, Rita——”
“Besides,” added Mrs. Vandemeyer, “he is extremely rich. I am not one who despises money. The ‘sinews of war,’ you know, Boris!”
“Money—money! That is always the danger with you, Rita. I believe you would sell your soul for money. I believe——” He paused, then in a low, sinister voice he said slowly: “Sometimes I believe that you would sell—us!”
Mrs. Vandemeyer smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“The price, at any rate, would have to be enormous,” she said lightly. “It would be beyond the power of anyone but a millionaire to pay.”
“Ah!” snarled the Russian. “You see, I was right!”
“My dear Boris, can you not take a joke?”
“Was it a joke?”
“Then all I can say is that your ideas of humour are peculiar, my dear Rita.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer smiled.
“Let us not quarrel, Boris. Touch the bell. We will have some drinks.”
Tuppence beat a hasty retreat. She paused a moment to survey herself in Mrs. Vandemeyer’s long glass, and be sure that nothing was amiss with her appearance. Then she answered the bell demurely.
The conversation that she had overheard, although interesting in that it proved beyond doubt the complicity of both Rita and Boris, threw very little light on the present preoccupations. The name of Jane Finn had not even been mentioned.
The following morning a few brief words with Albert informed her that nothing was waiting for her at the stationer’s. It seemed incredible that Tommy, if all was well with him, should not send any word to her. A cold hand seemed to close round her heart…. Supposing… She choked her fears down bravely. It was no good worrying. But she leapt at a chance offered her by Mrs. Vandemeyer.
“What day do you usually go out, Prudence?”
“Friday’s my usual day, ma’am.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer lifted her eyebrows.
“And to-day is Friday! But I suppose you hardly wish to go out to-day, as you only came yesterday.”
“I was thinking of asking you if I might, ma’am.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer looked at her a minute longer, and then smiled.
“I wish Count Stepanov could hear you. He made a suggestion about you last night.” Her smile broadened, catlike. “Your request is very—typical. I am satisfied. You do not understand all this—but you can go out to-day. It makes no difference to me, as I shall not be dining at home.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Tuppence felt a sensation of relief once she was out of the other’s presence. Once again she admitted to herself that she was afraid, horribly afraid, of the beautiful woman with the cruel eyes.
In the midst of a final desultory polishing of her silver, Tuppence was disturbed by the ringing of the front door bell, and went to answer it. This time the visitor was neither Whittington nor Boris, but a man of striking appearance.
Just a shade over average height, he nevertheless conveyed the impression of a big man. His face, clean-shaven and exquisitely mobile, was stamped with an expression of power and force far beyond the ordinary. Magnetism seemed to radiate from him.
Tuppence was undecided for the moment whether to put him down as an actor or a lawyer, but her doubts were soon solved as he gave her his name: Sir James Peel Edgerton.
She looked at him with renewed interest. This, then, was the famous K.C. whose name was familiar all over England. She had heard it said that he might one day be Prime Minister. He was known to have refused office in the interests of his profession, preferring to remain a simple Member for a Scotch constituency.
Tuppence went back to her pantry thoughtfully. The great man had impressed her. She understood Boris’s agitation. Peel Edgerton would not be an easy man to deceive.
In about a quarter of an hour the bell rang, and Tuppence repaired to the hall to show the visitor out. He had given her a piercing glance before. Now, as she handed him his hat and stick, she was conscious of his eyes raking her through. As she opened the door and stood aside to let him pass out, he stopped in the doorway.
“Not been doing this long, eh?”
Tuppence raised her eyes, astonished. She read in his glance kindliness, and something else more difficult to fathom.
He nodded as though she had answered.
“V.A.D. and hard up, I suppose?”
“Did Mrs. Vandemeyer tell you that?” asked Tuppence suspiciously.
“No, child. The look of you told me. Good place here?”
“Very good, thank you, sir.”
“Ah, but there are plenty of good places nowadays. And a change does no harm sometimes.”
“Do you mean——?” began Tuppence.
But Sir James was already on the topmost stair. He looked back with his kindly, shrewd glance.
“Just a hint,” he said. “That’s all.”
Tuppence went back to the pantry more thoughtful than ever.
CHAPTER XI. JULIUS TELLS A STORY
DRESSED appropriately, Tuppence duly sallied forth for her “afternoon out.” Albert was in temporary abeyance, but Tuppence went herself to the stationer’s to make quite sure that nothing had come for her. Satisfied on this point, she made her way to the Ritz. On inquiry she learnt that Tommy had not yet returned. It was the answer she had expected, but it was another nail in the coffin of her hopes. She resolved to appeal to Mr. Carter, telling him when and where Tommy had started on his quest, and asking him to do something to trace him. The prospect of his aid revived her mercurial spirits, and she next inquired for Julius Hersheimmer. The reply she got was to the effect that he had returned about half an hour ago, but had gone out immediately.
Tuppence’s spirits revived still more. It would be something to see Julius. Perhaps he could devise some plan for finding out what had become of Tommy. She wrote her note to Mr. Carter in Julius’s sitting-room, and was just addressing the envelope when the door burst open.
“What the hell——” began Julius, but checked himself abruptly. “I beg your pardon, Miss Tuppence. Those fools down at the office would have it that Beresford wasn’t here any longer—hadn’t been here since Wednesday. Is that so?”
“You don’t know where he is?” she asked faintly.
“I? How should I know? I haven’t had one darned word from him, though I wired him yesterday morning.”
“I expect your wire’s at the office unopened.”
“But where is he?”
“I don’t know. I hoped you might.”
“I tell you I haven’t had one darned word from him since we parted at the depot on Wednesday.”
“Waterloo. Your London and South Western road.”
“Waterloo?” frowned Tuppence.
“Why, yes. Didn’t he tell you?”
“I haven’t seen him either,” replied Tuppence impatiently. “Go on about Waterloo. What were you doing there?”
“He gave me a call. Over the phone. Told me to get a move on, and hustle. Said he was trailing two crooks.”
“Oh!” said Tuppence, her eyes opening. “I see. Go on.”
“I hurried along right away. Beresford was there. He pointed out the crooks. The big one was mine, the guy you bluffed. Tommy shoved a ticket into my hand and told me to get aboard the cars. He was going to sleuth the other crook.” Julius paused. “I thought for sure you’d know all this.”
“Julius,” said Tuppence firmly, “stop walking up and down. It makes me giddy. Sit down in that armchair, and tell me the whole story with as few fancy turns of speech as possible.”
Mr. Hersheimmer obeyed.
“Sure,” he said. “Where shall I begin?”
“Where you left off. At Waterloo.”
“Well,” began Julius, “I got into one of your dear old-fashioned first-class British compartments. The train was just off. First thing I knew a guard came along and informed me mighty politely that I wasn’t in a smoking-carriage. I handed him out half a dollar, and that settled that. I did a bit of prospecting along the corridor to the next coach. Whittington was there right enough. When I saw the skunk, with his big sleek fat face, and thought of poor little Jane in his clutches, I felt real mad that I hadn’t got a gun with me. I’d have tickled him up some.
“We got to Bournemouth all right. Whittington took a cab and gave the name of an hotel. I did likewise, and we drove up within three minutes of each other. He hired a room, and I hired one too. So far it was all plain sailing. He hadn’t the remotest notion that anyone was on to him. Well, he just sat around in the hotel lounge, reading the papers and so on, till it was time for dinner. He didn’t hurry any over that either.
“I began to think that there was nothing doing, that he’d just come on the trip for his health, but I remembered that he hadn’t changed for dinner, though it was by way of being a slap-up hotel, so it seemed likely enough that he’d be going out on his real business afterwards.
“Sure enough, about nine o’clock, so he did. Took a car across the town—mighty pretty place by the way, I guess I’ll take Jane there for a spell when I find her—and then paid it off and struck out along those pine-woods on the top of the cliff. I was there too, you understand. We walked, maybe, for half an hour. There’s a lot of villas all the way along, but by degrees they seemed to get more and more thinned out, and in the end we got to one that seemed the last of the bunch. Big house it was, with a lot of piny grounds around it.
“It was a pretty black night, and the carriage drive up to the house was dark as pitch. I could hear him ahead, though I couldn’t see him. I had to walk carefully in case he might get on to it that he was being followed. I turned a curve and I was just in time to see him ring the bell and get admitted to the house. I just stopped where I was. It was beginning to rain, and I was soon pretty near soaked through. Also, it was almighty cold.
“Whittington didn’t come out again, and by and by I got kind of restive, and began to mouch around. All the ground floor windows were shuttered tight, but upstairs, on the first floor (it was a two-storied house) I noticed a window with a light burning and the curtains not drawn.
“Now, just opposite to that window, there was a tree growing. It was about thirty foot away from the house, maybe, and I sort of got it into my head that, if I climbed up that tree, I’d very likely be able to see into that room. Of course, I knew there was no reason why Whittington should be in that room rather than in any other—less reason, in fact, for the betting would be on his being in one of the reception-rooms downstairs. But I guess I’d got the hump from standing so long in the rain, and anything seemed better than going on doing nothing. So I started up.
“It wasn’t so easy, by a long chalk! The rain had made the boughs mighty slippery, and it was all I could do to keep a foothold, but bit by bit I managed it, until at last there I was level with the window.
“But then I was disappointed. I was too far to the left. I could only see sideways into the room. A bit of curtain, and a yard of wallpaper was all I could command. Well, that wasn’t any manner of good to me, but just as I was going to give it up, and climb down ignominiously, some one inside moved and threw his shadow on my little bit of wall—and, by gum, it was Whittington!
“After that, my blood was up. I’d just got to get a look into that room. It was up to me to figure out how. I noticed that there was a long branch running out from the tree in the right direction. If I could only swarm about half-way along it, the proposition would be solved. But it was mighty uncertain whether it would bear my weight. I decided I’d just got to risk that, and I started. Very cautiously, inch by inch, I crawled along. The bough creaked and swayed in a nasty fashion, and it didn’t do to think of the drop below, but at last I got safely to where I wanted to be.
“The room was medium-sized, furnished in a kind of bare hygienic way. There was a table with a lamp on it in the middle of the room, and sitting at that table, facing towards me, was Whittington right enough. He was talking to a woman dressed as a hospital nurse. She was sitting with her back to me, so I couldn’t see her face. Although the blinds were up, the window itself was shut, so I couldn’t catch a word of what they said. Whittington seemed to be doing all the talking, and the nurse just listened. Now and then she nodded, and sometimes she’d shake her head, as though she were answering questions. He seemed very emphatic—once or twice he beat with his fist on the table. The rain had stopped now, and the sky was clearing in that sudden way it does.
“Presently, he seemed to get to the end of what he was saying. He got up, and so did she. He looked towards the window and asked something—I guess it was whether it was raining. Anyway, she came right across and looked out. Just then the moon came out from behind the clouds. I was scared the woman would catch sight of me, for I was full in the moonlight. I tried to move back a bit. The jerk I gave was too much for that rotten old branch. With an almighty crash, down it came, and Julius P. Hersheimmer with it!”
“Oh, Julius,” breathed Tuppence, “how exciting! Go on.”
“Well, luckily for me, I pitched down into a good soft bed of earth—but it put me out of action for the time, sure enough. The next thing I knew, I was lying in bed with a hospital nurse (not Whittington’s one) on one side of me, and a little black-bearded man with gold glasses, and medical man written all over him, on the other. He rubbed his hands together, and raised his eyebrows as I stared at him. ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘So our young friend is coming round again. Capital. Capital.’
“I did the usual stunt. Said: ‘What’s happened?’ And ‘Where am I?’ But I knew the answer to the last well enough. There’s no moss growing on my brain. ‘I think that’ll do for the present, sister,’ said the little man, and the nurse left the room in a sort of brisk well-trained way. But I caught her handing me out a look of deep curiosity as she passed through the door.
“That look of hers gave me an idea. ‘Now then, doc,’ I said, and tried to sit up in bed, but my right foot gave me a nasty twinge as I did so. ‘A slight sprain,’ explained the doctor. ‘Nothing serious. You’ll be about again in a couple of days.'”
“I noticed you walked lame,” interpolated Tuppence.
Julius nodded, and continued:
“‘How did it happen?’ I asked again. He replied dryly. ‘You fell, with a considerable portion of one of my trees, into one of my newly planted flower-beds.’
“I liked the man. He seemed to have a sense of humour. I felt sure that he, at least, was plumb straight. ‘Sure, doc,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry about the tree, and I guess the new bulbs will be on me. But perhaps you’d like to know what I was doing in your garden?’ ‘I think the facts do call for an explanation,’ he replied. ‘Well, to begin with, I wasn’t after the spoons.’
“He smiled. ‘My first theory. But I soon altered my mind. By the way, you are an American, are you not?’ I told him my name. ‘And you?’ ‘I am Dr. Hall, and this, as you doubtless know, is my private nursing home.’
“I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to put him wise. I was just thankful for the information. I liked the man, and I felt he was straight, but I wasn’t going to give him the whole story. For one thing he probably wouldn’t have believed it.
“I made up my mind in a flash. ‘Why, doctor,’ I said, ‘I guess I feel an almighty fool, but I owe it to you to let you know that it wasn’t the Bill Sikes business I was up to.’ Then I went on and mumbled out something about a girl. I trotted out the stern guardian business, and a nervous breakdown, and finally explained that I had fancied I recognized her among the patients at the home, hence my nocturnal adventures. I guess it was just the kind of story he was expecting. ‘Quite a romance,’ he said genially, when I’d finished. ‘Now, doc,’ I went on, ‘will you be frank with me? Have you here now, or have you had here at any time, a young girl called Jane Finn?’ He repeated the name thoughtfully. ‘Jane Finn?’ he said. ‘No.’
“I was chagrined, and I guess I showed it. ‘You are sure?’ ‘Quite sure, Mr. Hersheimmer. It is an uncommon name, and I should not have been likely to forget it.’
“Well, that was flat. It laid me out for a space. I’d kind of hoped my search was at an end. ‘That’s that,’ I said at last. ‘Now, there’s another matter. When I was hugging that darned branch I thought I recognized an old friend of mine talking to one of your nurses.’ I purposely didn’t mention any name because, of course, Whittington might be calling himself something quite different down here, but the doctor answered at once. ‘Mr. Whittington, perhaps?’ ‘That’s the fellow,’ I replied. ‘What’s he doing down here? Don’t tell me HIS nerves are out of order?’
“Dr. Hall laughed. ‘No. He came down to see one of my nurses, Nurse Edith, who is a niece of his.’ ‘Why, fancy that!’ I exclaimed. ‘Is he still here?’ ‘No, he went back to town almost immediately.’ ‘What a pity!’ I ejaculated. ‘But perhaps I could speak to his niece—Nurse Edith, did you say her name was?’
“But the doctor shook his head. ‘I’m afraid that, too, is impossible. Nurse Edith left with a patient to-night also.’ ‘I seem to be real unlucky,’ I remarked. ‘Have you Mr. Whittington’s address in town? I guess I’d like to look him up when I get back.’ ‘I don’t know his address. I can write to Nurse Edith for it if you like.’ I thanked him. ‘Don’t say who it is wants it. I’d like to give him a little surprise.’
“That was about all I could do for the moment. Of course, if the girl was really Whittington’s niece, she might be too cute to fall into the trap, but it was worth trying. Next thing I did was to write out a wire to Beresford saying where I was, and that I was laid up with a sprained foot, and telling him to come down if he wasn’t busy. I had to be guarded in what I said. However, I didn’t hear from him, and my foot soon got all right. It was only ricked, not really sprained, so to-day I said good-bye to the little doctor chap, asked him to send me word if he heard from Nurse Edith, and came right away back to town. Say, Miss Tuppence, you’re looking mighty pale!”
“It’s Tommy,” said Tuppence. “What can have happened to him?”
“Buck up, I guess he’s all right really. Why shouldn’t he be? See here, it was a foreign-looking guy he went off after. Maybe they’ve gone abroad—to Poland, or something like that?”
Tuppence shook her head.
“He couldn’t without passports and things. Besides I’ve seen that man, Boris Something, since. He dined with Mrs. Vandemeyer last night.”
“I forgot. Of course you don’t know all that.”
“I’m listening,” said Julius, and gave vent to his favourite expression. “Put me wise.”
Tuppence thereupon related the events of the last two days. Julius’s astonishment and admiration were unbounded.
“Bully for you! Fancy you a menial. It just tickles me to death!” Then he added seriously: “But say now, I don’t like it, Miss Tuppence, I sure don’t. You’re just as plucky as they make ’em, but I wish you’d keep right out of this. These crooks we’re up against would as soon croak a girl as a man any day.”
“Do you think I’m afraid?” said Tuppence indignantly, valiantly repressing memories of the steely glitter in Mrs. Vandemeyer’s eyes.
“I said before you were darned plucky. But that doesn’t alter facts.”
“Oh, bother ME!” said Tuppence impatiently. “Let’s think about what can have happened to Tommy. I’ve written to Mr. Carter about it,” she added, and told him the gist of her letter.
Julius nodded gravely.
“I guess that’s good as far as it goes. But it’s for us to get busy and do something.”
“What can we do?” asked Tuppence, her spirits rising.
“I guess we’d better get on the track of Boris. You say he’s been to your place. Is he likely to come again?”
“He might. I really don’t know.”
“I see. Well, I guess I’d better buy a car, a slap-up one, dress as a chauffeur and hang about outside. Then if Boris comes, you could make some kind of signal, and I’d trail him. How’s that?”
“Splendid, but he mightn’t come for weeks.”
“We’ll have to chance that. I’m glad you like the plan.” He rose.
“Where are you going?”
“To buy the car, of course,” replied Julius, surprised. “What make do you like? I guess you’ll do some riding in it before we’ve finished.”
“Oh,” said Tuppence faintly, “I LIKE Rolls-Royces, but——”
“Sure,” agreed Julius. “What you say goes. I’ll get one.”
“But you can’t at once,” cried Tuppence. “People wait ages sometimes.”
“Little Julius doesn’t,” affirmed Mr. Hersheimmer. “Don’t you worry any. I’ll be round in the car in half an hour.”
Tuppence got up.
“You’re awfully good, Julius. But I can’t help feeling that it’s rather a forlorn hope. I’m really pinning my faith to Mr. Carter.”
“Then I shouldn’t.”
“Just an idea of mine.”
“Oh; but he must do something. There’s no one else. By the way, I forgot to tell you of a queer thing that happened this morning.”
And she narrated her encounter with Sir James Peel Edgerton. Julius was interested.
“What did the guy mean, do you think?” he asked.
“I don’t quite know,” said Tuppence meditatively. “But I think that, in an ambiguous, legal, without prejudishish lawyer’s way, he was trying to warn me.”
“Why should he?”
“I don’t know,” confessed Tuppence. “But he looked kind, and simply awfully clever. I wouldn’t mind going to him and telling him everything.”
Somewhat to her surprise, Julius negatived the idea sharply.
“See here,” he said, “we don’t want any lawyers mixed up in this. That guy couldn’t help us any.”
“Well, I believe he could,” reiterated Tuppence obstinately.
“Don’t you think it. So long. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Thirty-five minutes had elapsed when Julius returned. He took Tuppence by the arm, and walked her to the window.
“There she is.”
“Oh!” said Tuppence with a note of reverence in her voice, as she gazed down at the enormous car.
“She’s some pace-maker, I can tell you,” said Julius complacently.
“How did you get it?” gasped Tuppence.
“She was just being sent home to some bigwig.”
“I went round to his house,” said Julius. “I said that I reckoned a car like that was worth every penny of twenty thousand dollars. Then I told him that it was worth just about fifty thousand dollars to me if he’d get out.”
“Well?” said Tuppence, intoxicated.
“Well,” returned Julius, “he got out, that’s all.”
CHAPTER XII. A FRIEND IN NEED
FRIDAY and Saturday passed uneventfully. Tuppence had received a brief answer to her appeal from Mr. Carter. In it he pointed out that the Young Adventurers had undertaken the work at their own risk, and had been fully warned of the dangers. If anything had happened to Tommy he regretted it deeply, but he could do nothing.
This was cold comfort. Somehow, without Tommy, all the savour went out of the adventure, and, for the first time, Tuppence felt doubtful of success. While they had been together she had never questioned it for a minute. Although she was accustomed to take the lead, and to pride herself on her quick-wittedness, in reality she had relied upon Tommy more than she realized at the time. There was something so eminently sober and clear-headed about him, his common sense and soundness of vision were so unvarying, that without him Tuppence felt much like a rudderless ship. It was curious that Julius, who was undoubtedly much cleverer than Tommy, did not give her the same feeling of support. She had accused Tommy of being a pessimist, and it is certain that he always saw the disadvantages and difficulties which she herself was optimistically given to overlooking, but nevertheless she had really relied a good deal on his judgment. He might be slow, but he was very sure.
It seemed to the girl that, for the first time, she realized the sinister character of the mission they had undertaken so lightheartedly. It had begun like a page of romance. Now, shorn of its glamour, it seemed to be turning to grim reality. Tommy—that was all that mattered. Many times in the day Tuppence blinked the tears out of her eyes resolutely. “Little fool,” she would apostrophize herself, “don’t snivel. Of course you’re fond of him. You’ve known him all your life. But there’s no need to be sentimental about it.”
In the meantime, nothing more was seen of Boris. He did not come to the flat, and Julius and the car waited in vain. Tuppence gave herself over to new meditations. Whilst admitting the truth of Julius’s objections, she had nevertheless not entirely relinquished the idea of appealing to Sir James Peel Edgerton. Indeed, she had gone so far as to look up his address in the Red Book. Had he meant to warn her that day? If so, why? Surely she was at least entitled to demand an explanation. He had looked at her so kindly. Perhaps he might tell them something concerning Mrs. Vandemeyer which might lead to a clue to Tommy’s whereabouts.
Anyway, Tuppence decided, with her usual shake of the shoulders, it was worth trying, and try it she would. Sunday was her afternoon out. She would meet Julius, persuade him to her point of view, and they would beard the lion in his den.
When the day arrived Julius needed a considerable amount of persuading, but Tuppence held firm. “It can do no harm,” was what she always came back to. In the end Julius gave in, and they proceeded in the car to Carlton House Terrace.
The door was opened by an irreproachable butler. Tuppence felt a little nervous. After all, perhaps it WAS colossal cheek on her part. She had decided not to ask if Sir James was “at home,” but to adopt a more personal attitude.
“Will you ask Sir James if I can see him for a few minutes? I have an important message for him.”
The butler retired, returning a moment or two later.
“Sir James will see you. Will you step this way?”
He ushered them into a room at the back of the house, furnished as a library. The collection of books was a magnificent one, and Tuppence noticed that all one wall was devoted to works on crime and criminology. There were several deep-padded leather arm-chairs, and an old-fashioned open hearth. In the window was a big roll-top desk strewn with papers at which the master of the house was sitting.
He rose as they entered.
“You have a message for me? Ah”—he recognized Tuppence with a smile—”it’s you, is it? Brought a message from Mrs. Vandemeyer, I suppose?”
“Not exactly,” said Tuppence. “In fact, I’m afraid I only said that to be quite sure of getting in. Oh, by the way, this is Mr. Hersheimmer, Sir James Peel Edgerton.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the American, shooting out a hand.
“Won’t you both sit down?” asked Sir James. He drew forward two chairs.
“Sir James,” said Tuppence, plunging boldly, “I dare say you will think it is most awful cheek of me coming here like this. Because, of course, it’s nothing whatever to do with you, and then you’re a very important person, and of course Tommy and I are very unimportant.” She paused for breath.
“Tommy?” queried Sir James, looking across at the American.
“No, that’s Julius,” explained Tuppence. “I’m rather nervous, and that makes me tell it badly. What I really want to know is what you meant by what you said to me the other day? Did you mean to warn me against Mrs. Vandemeyer? You did, didn’t you?”
“My dear young lady, as far as I recollect I only mentioned that there were equally good situations to be obtained elsewhere.”
“Yes, I know. But it was a hint, wasn’t it?”
“Well, perhaps it was,” admitted Sir James gravely.
“Well, I want to know more. I want to know just WHY you gave me a hint.”
Sir James smiled at her earnestness.
“Suppose the lady brings a libel action against me for defamation of character?”
“Of course,” said Tuppence. “I know lawyers are always dreadfully careful. But can’t we say ‘without prejudice’ first, and then say just what we want to.”
“Well,” said Sir James, still smiling, “without prejudice, then, if I had a young sister forced to earn her living, I should not like to see her in Mrs. Vandemeyer’s service. I felt it incumbent on me just to give you a hint. It is no place for a young and inexperienced girl. That is all I can tell you.”
“I see,” said Tuppence thoughtfully. “Thank you very much. But I’m not REALLY inexperienced, you know. I knew perfectly that she was a bad lot when I went there—as a matter of fact that’s WHY I went——” She broke off, seeing some bewilderment on the lawyer’s face, and went on: “I think perhaps I’d better tell you the whole story, Sir James. I’ve a sort of feeling that you’d know in a minute if I didn’t tell the truth, and so you might as well know all about it from the beginning. What do you think, Julius?”
“As you’re bent on it, I’d go right ahead with the facts,” replied the American, who had so far sat in silence.
“Yes, tell me all about it,” said Sir James. “I want to know who Tommy is.”
Thus encouraged Tuppence plunged into her tale, and the lawyer listened with close attention.
“Very interesting,” he said, when she finished. “A great deal of what you tell me, child, is already known to me. I’ve had certain theories of my own about this Jane Finn. You’ve done extraordinarily well so far, but it’s rather too bad of—what do you know him as?—Mr. Carter to pitchfork you two young things into an affair of this kind. By the way, where did Mr. Hersheimmer come in originally? You didn’t make that clear?”
Julius answered for himself.
“I’m Jane’s first cousin,” he explained, returning the lawyer’s keen gaze.
“Oh, Sir James,” broke out Tuppence, “what do you think has become of Tommy?”
“H’m.” The lawyer rose, and paced slowly up and down. “When you arrived, young lady, I was just packing up my traps. Going to Scotland by the night train for a few days’ fishing. But there are different kinds of fishing. I’ve a good mind to stay, and see if we can’t get on the track of that young chap.”
“Oh!” Tuppence clasped her hands ecstatically.
“All the same, as I said before, it’s too bad of—of Carter to set you two babies on a job like this. Now, don’t get offended, Miss—er——”
“Cowley. Prudence Cowley. But my friends call me Tuppence.”
“Well, Miss Tuppence, then, as I’m certainly going to be a friend. Don’t be offended because I think you’re young. Youth is a failing only too easily outgrown. Now, about this young Tommy of yours——”
“Yes.” Tuppence clasped her hands.
“Frankly, things look bad for him. He’s been butting in somewhere where he wasn’t wanted. Not a doubt of it. But don’t give up hope.”
“And you really will help us? There, Julius! He didn’t want me to come,” she added by way of explanation.
“H’m,” said the lawyer, favouring Julius with another keen glance. “And why was that?”
“I reckoned it would be no good worrying you with a petty little business like this.”
“I see.” He paused a moment. “This petty little business, as you call it, bears directly on a very big business, bigger perhaps than either you or Miss Tuppence know. If this boy is alive, he may have very valuable information to give us. Therefore, we must find him.”
“Yes, but how?” cried Tuppence. “I’ve tried to think of everything.”
Sir James smiled.
“And yet there’s one person quite near at hand who in all probability knows where he is, or at all events where he is likely to be.”
“Who is that?” asked Tuppence, puzzled.
“Yes, but she’d never tell us.”
“Ah, that is where I come in. I think it quite likely that I shall be able to make Mrs. Vandemeyer tell me what I want to know.”
“How?” demanded Tuppence, opening her eyes very wide.
“Oh, just by asking her questions,” replied Sir James easily. “That’s the way we do it, you know.”
He tapped with his finger on the table, and Tuppence felt again the intense power that radiated from the man.
“And if she won’t tell?” asked Julius suddenly.
“I think she will. I have one or two powerful levers. Still, in that unlikely event, there is always the possibility of bribery.”
“Sure. And that’s where I come in!” cried Julius, bringing his fist down on the table with a bang. “You can count on me, if necessary, for one million dollars. Yes, sir, one million dollars!”
Sir James sat down and subjected Julius to a long scrutiny.
“Mr. Hersheimmer,” he said at last, “that is a very large sum.”
“I guess it’ll have to be. These aren’t the kind of folk to offer sixpence to.”
“At the present rate of exchange it amounts to considerably over two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”
“That’s so. Maybe you think I’m talking through my hat, but I can deliver the goods all right, with enough over to spare for your fee.”
Sir James flushed slightly.
“There is no question of a fee, Mr. Hersheimmer. I am not a private detective.”
“Sorry. I guess I was just a mite hasty, but I’ve been feeling bad about this money question. I wanted to offer a big reward for news of Jane some days ago, but your crusted institution of Scotland Yard advised me against it. Said it was undesirable.”
“They were probably right,” said Sir James dryly.
“But it’s all O.K. about Julius,” put in Tuppence. “He’s not pulling your leg. He’s got simply pots of money.”
“The old man piled it up in style,” explained Julius. “Now, let’s get down to it. What’s your idea?”
Sir James considered for a moment or two.
“There is no time to be lost. The sooner we strike the better.” He turned to Tuppence. “Is Mrs. Vandemeyer dining out to-night, do you know?”
“Yes, I think so, but she will not be out late. Otherwise, she would have taken the latchkey.”
“Good. I will call upon her about ten o’clock. What time are you supposed to return?”
“About nine-thirty or ten, but I could go back earlier.”
“You must not do that on any account. It might arouse suspicion if you did not stay out till the usual time. Be back by nine-thirty. I will arrive at ten. Mr. Hersheimmer will wait below in a taxi perhaps.”
“He’s got a new Rolls-Royce car,” said Tuppence with vicarious pride.
“Even better. If I succeed in obtaining the address from her, we can go there at once, taking Mrs. Vandemeyer with us if necessary. You understand?”
“Yes.” Tuppence rose to her feet with a skip of delight. “Oh, I feel so much better!”
“Don’t build on it too much, Miss Tuppence. Go easy.”
Julius turned to the lawyer.
“Say, then. I’ll call for you in the car round about nine-thirty. Is that right?”
“Perhaps that will be the best plan. It would be unnecessary to have two cars waiting about. Now, Miss Tuppence, my advice to you is to go and have a good dinner, a REALLY good one, mind. And don’t think ahead more than you can help.”
He shook hands with them both, and a moment later they were outside.
“Isn’t he a duck?” inquired Tuppence ecstatically, as she skipped down the steps. “Oh, Julius, isn’t he just a duck?”
“Well, I allow he seems to be the goods all right. And I was wrong about its being useless to go to him. Say, shall we go right away back to the Ritz?”
“I must walk a bit, I think. I feel so excited. Drop me in the park, will you? Unless you’d like to come too?”
“I want to get some petrol,” he explained. “And send off a cable or two.”
“All right. I’ll meet you at the Ritz at seven. We’ll have to dine upstairs. I can’t show myself in these glad rags.”
“Sure. I’ll get Felix help me choose the menu. He’s some head waiter, that. So long.”
Tuppence walked briskly along towards the Serpentine, first glancing at her watch. It was nearly six o’clock. She remembered that she had had no tea, but felt too excited to be conscious of hunger. She walked as far as Kensington Gardens and then slowly retraced her steps, feeling infinitely better for the fresh air and exercise. It was not so easy to follow Sir James’s advice, and put the possible events of the evening out of her head. As she drew nearer and nearer to Hyde Park corner, the temptation to return to South Audley Mansions was almost irresistible.
At any rate, she decided, it would do no harm just to go and LOOK at the building. Perhaps, then, she could resign herself to waiting patiently for ten o’clock.
South Audley Mansions looked exactly the same as usual. What Tuppence had expected she hardly knew, but the sight of its red brick stolidity slightly assuaged the growing and entirely unreasonable uneasiness that possessed her. She was just turning away when she heard a piercing whistle, and the faithful Albert came running from the building to join her.
Tuppence frowned. It was no part of the programme to have attention called to her presence in the neighbourhood, but Albert was purple with suppressed excitement.
“I say, miss, she’s a-going!”
“Who’s going?” demanded Tuppence sharply.
“The crook. Ready Rita. Mrs. Vandemeyer. She’s a-packing up, and she’s just sent down word for me to get her a taxi.”
“What?” Tuppence clutched his arm.
“It’s the truth, miss. I thought maybe as you didn’t know about it.”
“Albert,” cried Tuppence, “you’re a brick. If it hadn’t been for you we’d have lost her.”
Albert flushed with pleasure at this tribute.
“There’s no time to lose,” said Tuppence, crossing the road. “I’ve got to stop her. At all costs I must keep her here until——” She broke off. “Albert, there’s a telephone here, isn’t there?”
The boy shook his head.
“The flats mostly have their own, miss. But there’s a box just round the corner.”
“Go to it then, at once, and ring up the Ritz Hotel. Ask for Mr. Hersheimmer, and when you get him tell him to get Sir James and come on at once, as Mrs. Vandemeyer is trying to hook it. If you can’t get him, ring up Sir James Peel Edgerton, you’ll find his number in the book, and tell him what’s happening. You won’t forget the names, will you?”
Albert repeated them glibly. “You trust to me, miss, it’ll be all right. But what about you? Aren’t you afraid to trust yourself with her?”
“No, no, that’s all right. BUT GO AND TELEPHONE. Be quick.”
Drawing a long breath, Tuppence entered the Mansions and ran up to the door of No. 20. How she was to detain Mrs. Vandemeyer until the two men arrived, she did not know, but somehow or other it had to be done, and she must accomplish the task single-handed. What had occasioned this precipitate departure? Did Mrs. Vandemeyer suspect her?
Speculations were idle. Tuppence pressed the bell firmly. She might learn something from the cook.
Nothing happened and, after waiting some minutes, Tuppence pressed the bell again, keeping her finger on the button for some little while. At last she heard footsteps inside, and a moment later Mrs. Vandemeyer herself opened the door. She lifted her eyebrows at the sight of the girl.
“I had a touch of toothache, ma’am,” said Tuppence glibly. “So thought it better to come home and have a quiet evening.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer said nothing, but she drew back and let Tuppence pass into the hall.
“How unfortunate for you,” she said coldly. “You had better go to bed.”
“Oh, I shall be all right in the kitchen, ma’am. Cook will——”
“Cook is out,” said Mrs. Vandemeyer, in a rather disagreeable tone. “I sent her out. So you see you had better go to bed.”
Suddenly Tuppence felt afraid. There was a ring in Mrs. Vandemeyer’s voice that she did not like at all. Also, the other woman was slowly edging her up the passage. Tuppence turned at bay.
“I don’t want——”
Then, in a flash, a rim of cold steel touched her temple, and Mrs. Vandemeyer’s voice rose cold and menacing:
“You damned little fool! Do you think I don’t know? No, don’t answer. If you struggle or cry out, I’ll shoot you like a dog.”
The rim of steel pressed a little harder against the girl’s temple.
“Now then, march,” went on Mrs. Vandemeyer. “This way—into my room. In a minute, when I’ve done with you, you’ll go to bed as I told you to. And you’ll sleep—oh yes, my little spy, you’ll sleep all right!”
There was a sort of hideous geniality in the last words which Tuppence did not at all like. For the moment there was nothing to be done, and she walked obediently into Mrs. Vandemeyer’s bedroom. The pistol never left her forehead. The room was in a state of wild disorder, clothes were flung about right and left, a suit-case and a hat box, half-packed, stood in the middle of the floor.
Tuppence pulled herself together with an effort. Her voice shook a little, but she spoke out bravely.
“Come now,” she said. “This is nonsense. You can’t shoot me. Why, every one in the building would hear the report.”
“I’d risk that,” said Mrs. Vandemeyer cheerfully. “But, as long as you don’t sing out for help, you’re all right—and I don’t think you will. You’re a clever girl. You deceived ME all right. I hadn’t a suspicion of you! So I’ve no doubt that you understand perfectly well that this is where I’m on top and you’re underneath. Now then—sit on the bed. Put your hands above your head, and if you value your life don’t move them.”
Tuppence obeyed passively. Her good sense told her that there was nothing else to do but accept the situation. If she shrieked for help there was very little chance of anyone hearing her, whereas there was probably quite a good chance of Mrs. Vandemeyer’s shooting her. In the meantime, every minute of delay gained was valuable.
Mrs. Vandemeyer laid down the revolver on the edge of the washstand within reach of her hand, and, still eyeing Tuppence like a lynx in case the girl should attempt to move, she took a little stoppered bottle from its place on the marble and poured some of its contents into a glass which she filled up with water.
“What’s that?” asked Tuppence sharply.
“Something to make you sleep soundly.”
Tuppence paled a little.
“Are you going to poison me?” she asked in a whisper.
“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Vandemeyer, smiling agreeably.
“Then I shan’t drink it,” said Tuppence firmly. “I’d much rather be shot. At any rate that would make a row, and some one might hear it. But I won’t be killed off quietly like a lamb.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer stamped her foot.
“Don’t be a little fool! Do you really think I want a hue and cry for murder out after me? If you’ve any sense at all, you’ll realize that poisoning you wouldn’t suit my book at all. It’s a sleeping draught, that’s all. You’ll wake up to-morrow morning none the worse. I simply don’t want the bother of tying you up and gagging you. That’s the alternative—and you won’t like it, I can tell you! I can be very rough if I choose. So drink this down like a good girl, and you’ll be none the worse for it.”
In her heart of hearts Tuppence believed her. The arguments she had adduced rang true. It was a simple and effective method of getting her out of the way for the time being. Nevertheless, the girl did not take kindly to the idea of being tamely put to sleep without as much as one bid for freedom. She felt that once Mrs. Vandemeyer gave them the slip, the last hope of finding Tommy would be gone.
Tuppence was quick in her mental processes. All these reflections passed through her mind in a flash, and she saw where a chance, a very problematical chance, lay, and she determined to risk all in one supreme effort.
Accordingly, she lurched suddenly off the bed and fell on her knees before Mrs. Vandemeyer, clutching her skirts frantically.
“I don’t believe it,” she moaned. “It’s poison—I know it’s poison. Oh, don’t make me drink it”—her voice rose to a shriek—”don’t make me drink it!”
Mrs. Vandemeyer, glass in hand, looked down with a curling lip at this sudden collapse.
“Get up, you little idiot! Don’t go on drivelling there. How you ever had the nerve to play your part as you did I can’t think.” She stamped her foot. “Get up, I say.”
But Tuppence continued to cling and sob, interjecting her sobs with incoherent appeals for mercy. Every minute gained was to the good. Moreover, as she grovelled, she moved imperceptibly nearer to her objective.
Mrs. Vandemeyer gave a sharp impatient exclamation, and jerked the girl to her knees.
“Drink it at once!” Imperiously she pressed the glass to the girl’s lips.
Tuppence gave one last despairing moan.
“You swear it won’t hurt me?” she temporized.
“Of course it won’t hurt you. Don’t be a fool.”
“Will you swear it?”
“Yes, yes,” said the other impatiently. “I swear it.”
Tuppence raised a trembling left hand to the glass.
“Very well.” Her mouth opened meekly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer gave a sigh of relief, off her guard for the moment. Then, quick as a flash, Tuppence jerked the glass upward as hard as she could. The fluid in it splashed into Mrs. Vandemeyer’s face, and during her momentary gasp, Tuppence’s right hand shot out and grasped the revolver where it lay on the edge of the washstand. The next moment she had sprung back a pace, and the revolver pointed straight at Mrs. Vandemeyer’s heart, with no unsteadiness in the hand that held it.
In the moment of victory, Tuppence betrayed a somewhat unsportsmanlike triumph.
“Now who’s on top and who’s underneath?” she crowed.
The other’s face was convulsed with rage. For a minute Tuppence thought she was going to spring upon her, which would have placed the girl in an unpleasant dilemma, since she meant to draw the line at actually letting off the revolver. However, with an effort Mrs. Vandemeyer controlled herself, and at last a slow evil smile crept over her face.
“Not a fool, then, after all! You did that well, girl. But you shall pay for it—oh, yes, you shall pay for it! I have a long memory!”
“I’m surprised you should have been gulled so easily,” said Tuppence scornfully. “Did you really think I was the kind of girl to roll about on the floor and whine for mercy?”
“You may do—some day!” said the other significantly.
The cold malignity of her manner sent an unpleasant chill down Tuppence’s spine, but she was not going to give in to it.
“Supposing we sit down,” she said pleasantly. “Our present attitude is a little melodramatic. No—not on the bed. Draw a chair up to the table, that’s right. Now I’ll sit opposite you with the revolver in front of me—just in case of accidents. Splendid. Now, let’s talk.”
“What about?” said Mrs. Vandemeyer sullenly.
Tuppence eyed her thoughtfully for a minute. She was remembering several things. Boris’s words, “I believe you would sell—us!” and her answer, “The price would have to be enormous,” given lightly, it was true, yet might not there be a substratum of truth in it? Long ago, had not Whittington asked: “Who’s been blabbing? Rita?” Would Rita Vandemeyer prove to be the weak spot in the armour of Mr. Brown?
Keeping her eyes fixed steadily on the other’s face, Tuppence replied quietly:
Mrs. Vandemeyer started. Clearly, the reply was unexpected.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you. You said just now that you had a long memory. A long memory isn’t half as useful as a long purse! I dare say it relieves your feelings a good deal to plan out all sorts of dreadful things to do to me, but is that PRACTICAL? Revenge is very unsatisfactory. Every one always says so. But money”—Tuppence warmed to her pet creed—”well, there’s nothing unsatisfactory about money, is there?”
“Do you think,” said Mrs. Vandemeyer scornfully, “that I am the kind of woman to sell my friends?”
“Yes,” said Tuppence promptly. “If the price was big enough.”
“A paltry hundred pounds or so!”
“No,” said Tuppence. “I should suggest—a hundred thousand!”
Her economical spirit did not permit her to mention the whole million dollars suggested by Julius.
A flush crept over Mrs. Vandemeyer’s face.
“What did you say?” she asked, her fingers playing nervously with a brooch on her breast. In that moment Tuppence knew that the fish was hooked, and for the first time she felt a horror of her own money-loving spirit. It gave her a dreadful sense of kinship to the woman fronting her.
“A hundred thousand pounds,” repeated Tuppence.
The light died out of Mrs. Vandemeyer’s eyes. She leaned back in her chair.
“Bah!” she said. “You haven’t got it.”
“No,” admitted Tuppence, “I haven’t—but I know some one who has.”
“A friend of mine.”
“Must be a millionaire,” remarked Mrs. Vandemeyer unbelievingly.
“As a matter of fact he is. He’s an American. He’ll pay you that without a murmur. You can take it from me that it’s a perfectly genuine proposition.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer sat up again.
“I’m inclined to believe you,” she said slowly.
There was silence between them for some time, then Mrs. Vandemeyer looked up.
“What does he want to know, this friend of yours?”
Tuppence went through a momentary struggle, but it was Julius’s money, and his interests must come first.
“He wants to know where Jane Finn is,” she said boldly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer showed no surprise.
“I’m not sure where she is at the present moment,” she replied.
“But you could find out?”
“Oh, yes,” returned Mrs. Vandemeyer carelessly. “There would be no difficulty about that.”
“Then”—Tuppence’s voice shook a little—”there’s a boy, a friend of mine. I’m afraid something’s happened to him, through your pal Boris.”
“What’s his name?”
“Never heard of him. But I’ll ask Boris. He’ll tell me anything he knows.”
“Thank you.” Tuppence felt a terrific rise in her spirits. It impelled her to more audacious efforts. “There’s one thing more.”
Tuppence leaned forward and lowered her voice.
“WHO IS MR. BROWN?”
Her quick eyes saw the sudden paling of the beautiful face. With an effort Mrs. Vandemeyer pulled herself together and tried to resume her former manner. But the attempt was a mere parody.
She shrugged her shoulders.
“You can’t have learnt much about us if you don’t know that NOBODY KNOWS WHO MR. BROWN IS….”
“You do,” said Tuppence quietly.
Again the colour deserted the other’s face.
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl truthfully. “But I’m sure.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer stared in front of her for a long time.
“Yes,” she said hoarsely, at last, “I know. I was beautiful, you see—very beautiful—”
“You are still,” said Tuppence with admiration.
Mrs. Vandemeyer shook her head. There was a strange gleam in her electric-blue eyes.
“Not beautiful enough,” she said in a soft dangerous voice. “Not—beautiful—enough! And sometimes, lately, I’ve been afraid…. It’s dangerous to know too much!” She leaned forward across the table. “Swear that my name shan’t be brought into it—that no one shall ever know.”
“I swear it. And, once’s he caught, you’ll be out of danger.”
A terrified look swept across Mrs. Vandemeyer’s face.
“Shall I? Shall I ever be?” She clutched Tuppence’s arm. “You’re sure about the money?”
“When shall I have it? There must be no delay.”
“This friend of mine will be here presently. He may have to send cables, or something like that. But there won’t be any delay—he’s a terrific hustler.”
A resolute look settled on Mrs. Vandemeyer’s face.
“I’ll do it. It’s a great sum of money, and besides”—she gave a curious smile—”it is not—wise to throw over a woman like me!”
For a moment or two, she remained smiling, and lightly tapping her fingers on the table. Suddenly she started, and her face blanched.
“What was that?”
“I heard nothing.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer gazed round her fearfully.
“If there should be some one listening——”
“Nonsense. Who could there be?”
“Even the walls might have ears,” whispered the other. “I tell you I’m frightened. You don’t know him!”
“Think of the hundred thousand pounds,” said Tuppence soothingly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer passed her tongue over her dried lips.
“You don’t know him,” she reiterated hoarsely. “He’s—ah!”
With a shriek of terror she sprang to her feet. Her outstretched hand pointed over Tuppence’s head. Then she swayed to the ground in a dead faint.
Tuppence looked round to see what had startled her.
In the doorway were Sir James Peel Edgerton and Julius Hersheimmer.
CHAPTER XIII. THE VIGIL
SIR James brushed past Julius and hurriedly bent over the fallen woman.
“Heart,” he said sharply. “Seeing us so suddenly must have given her a shock. Brandy—and quickly, or she’ll slip through our fingers.”
Julius hurried to the washstand.
“Not there,” said Tuppence over her shoulder. “In the tantalus in the dining-room. Second door down the passage.”
Between them Sir James and Tuppence lifted Mrs. Vandemeyer and carried her to the bed. There they dashed water on her face, but with no result. The lawyer fingered her pulse.
“Touch and go,” he muttered. “I wish that young fellow would hurry up with the brandy.”
At that moment Julius re-entered the room, carrying a glass half full of the spirit which he handed to Sir James. While Tuppence lifted her head the lawyer tried to force a little of the spirit between her closed lips. Finally the woman opened her eyes feebly. Tuppence held the glass to her lips.
Mrs. Vandemeyer complied. The brandy brought the colour back to her white cheeks, and revived her in a marvellous fashion. She tried to sit up—then fell back with a groan, her hand to her side.
“It’s my heart,” she whispered. “I mustn’t talk.”
She lay back with closed eyes.
Sir James kept his finger on her wrist a minute longer, then withdrew it with a nod.
“She’ll do now.”
All three moved away, and stood together talking in low voices. One and all were conscious of a certain feeling of anticlimax. Clearly any scheme for cross-questioning the lady was out of the question for the moment. For the time being they were baffled, and could do nothing.
Tuppence related how Mrs. Vandemeyer had declared herself willing to disclose the identity of Mr. Brown, and how she had consented to discover and reveal to them the whereabouts of Jane Finn. Julius was congratulatory.
“That’s all right, Miss Tuppence. Splendid! I guess that hundred thousand pounds will look just as good in the morning to the lady as it did over night. There’s nothing to worry over. She won’t speak without the cash anyway, you bet!”
There was certainly a good deal of common sense in this, and Tuppence felt a little comforted.
“What you say is true,” said Sir James meditatively. “I must confess, however, that I cannot help wishing we had not interrupted at the minute we did. Still, it cannot be helped, it is only a matter of waiting until the morning.”
He looked across at the inert figure on the bed. Mrs. Vandemeyer lay perfectly passive with closed eyes. He shook his head.
“Well,” said Tuppence, with an attempt at cheerfulness, “we must wait until the morning, that’s all. But I don’t think we ought to leave the flat.”
“What about leaving that bright boy of yours on guard?”
“Albert? And suppose she came round again and hooked it. Albert couldn’t stop her.”
“I guess she won’t want to make tracks away from the dollars.”
“She might. She seemed very frightened of ‘Mr. Brown.'”
“What? Real plumb scared of him?”
“Yes. She looked round and said even walls had ears.”
“Maybe she meant a dictaphone,” said Julius with interest.
“Miss Tuppence is right,” said Sir James quietly. “We must not leave the flat—if only for Mrs. Vandemeyer’s sake.”
Julius stared at him.
“You think he’d get after her? Between now and to-morrow morning. How could he know, even?”
“You forget your own suggestion of a dictaphone,” said Sir James dryly. “We have a very formidable adversary. I believe, if we exercise all due care, that there is a very good chance of his being delivered into our hands. But we must neglect no precaution. We have an important witness, but she must be safeguarded. I would suggest that Miss Tuppence should go to bed, and that you and I, Mr. Hersheimmer, should share the vigil.”
Tuppence was about to protest, but happening to glance at the bed she saw Mrs. Vandemeyer, her eyes half-open, with such an expression of mingled fear and malevolence on her face that it quite froze the words on her lips.
For a moment she wondered whether the faint and the heart attack had been a gigantic sham, but remembering the deadly pallor she could hardly credit the supposition. As she looked the expression disappeared as by magic, and Mrs. Vandemeyer lay inert and motionless as before. For a moment the girl fancied she must have dreamt it. But she determined nevertheless to be on the alert.
“Well,” said Julius, “I guess we’d better make a move out of here any way.”
The others fell in with his suggestion. Sir James again felt Mrs. Vandemeyer’s pulse.
“Perfectly satisfactory,” he said in a low voice to Tuppence. “She’ll be absolutely all right after a night’s rest.”
The girl hesitated a moment by the bed. The intensity of the expression she had surprised had impressed her powerfully. Mrs. Vandemeyer lifted her lids. She seemed to be struggling to speak. Tuppence bent over her.
“Don’t—leave——” she seemed unable to proceed, murmuring something that sounded like “sleepy.” Then she tried again.
Tuppence bent lower still. It was only a breath.
“Mr.—Brown——” The voice stopped.
But the half-closed eyes seemed still to send an agonized message.
Moved by a sudden impulse, the girl said quickly:
“I shan’t leave the flat. I shall sit up all night.”
A flash of relief showed before the lids descended once more. Apparently Mrs. Vandemeyer slept. But her words had awakened a new uneasiness in Tuppence. What had she meant by that low murmur: “Mr. Brown?” Tuppence caught herself nervously looking over her shoulder. The big wardrobe loomed up in a sinister fashion before her eyes. Plenty of room for a man to hide in that…. Half-ashamed of herself, Tuppence pulled it open and looked inside. No one—of course! She stooped down and looked under the bed. There was no other possible hiding-place.
Tuppence gave her familiar shake of the shoulders. It was absurd, this giving way to nerves! Slowly she went out of the room. Julius and Sir James were talking in a low voice. Sir James turned to her.
“Lock the door on the outside, please, Miss Tuppence, and take out the key. There must be no chance of anyone entering that room.”
The gravity of his manner impressed them, and Tuppence felt less ashamed of her attack of “nerves.”
“Say,” remarked Julius suddenly, “there’s Tuppence’s bright boy. I guess I’d better go down and ease his young mind. That’s some lad, Tuppence.”
“How did you get in, by the way?” asked Tuppence suddenly. “I forgot to ask.”
“Well, Albert got me on the phone all right. I ran round for Sir James here, and we came right on. The boy was on the look out for us, and was just a mite worried about what might have happened to you. He’d been listening outside the door of the flat, but couldn’t hear anything. Anyhow he suggested sending us up in the coal lift instead of ringing the bell. And sure enough we landed in the scullery and came right along to find you. Albert’s still below, and must be just hopping mad by this time.” With which Julius departed abruptly.
“Now then, Miss Tuppence,” said Sir James, “you know this place better than I do. Where do you suggest we should take up our quarters?”
Tuppence considered for a moment or two.
“I think Mrs. Vandemeyer’s boudoir would be the most comfortable,” she said at last, and led the way there.
Sir James looked round approvingly.
“This will do very well, and now, my dear young lady, do go to bed and get some sleep.”
Tuppence shook her head resolutely.
“I couldn’t, thank you, Sir James. I should dream of Mr. Brown all night!”
“But you’ll be so tired, child.”
“No, I shan’t. I’d rather stay up—really.”
The lawyer gave in.
Julius reappeared some minutes later, having reassured Albert and rewarded him lavishly for his services. Having in his turn failed to persuade Tuppence to go to bed, he said decisively:
“At any rate, you’ve got to have something to eat right away. Where’s the larder?”
Tuppence directed him, and he returned in a few minutes with a cold pie and three plates.
After a hearty meal, the girl felt inclined to pooh-pooh her fancies of half an hour before. The power of the money bribe could not fail.
“And now, Miss Tuppence,” said Sir James, “we want to hear your adventures.”
“That’s so,” agreed Julius.
Tuppence narrated her adventures with some complacence. Julius occasionally interjected an admiring “Bully.” Sir James said nothing until she had finished, when his quiet “well done, Miss Tuppence,” made her flush with pleasure.
“There’s one thing I don’t get clearly,” said Julius. “What put her up to clearing out?”
“I don’t know,” confessed Tuppence.
Sir James stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“The room was in great disorder. That looks as though her flight was unpremeditated. Almost as though she got a sudden warning to go from some one.”
“Mr. Brown, I suppose,” said Julius scoffingly.
The lawyer looked at him deliberately for a minute or two.
“Why not?” he said. “Remember, you yourself have once been worsted by him.”
Julius flushed with vexation.
“I feel just mad when I think of how I handed out Jane’s photograph to him like a lamb. Gee, if I ever lay hands on it again, I’ll freeze on to it like—like hell!”
“That contingency is likely to be a remote one,” said the other dryly.
“I guess you’re right,” said Julius frankly. “And, in any case, it’s the original I’m out after. Where do you think she can be, Sir James?”
The lawyer shook his head.
“Impossible to say. But I’ve a very good idea where she has been.”
“You have? Where?”
Sir James smiled.
“At the scene of your nocturnal adventures, the Bournemouth nursing home.”
“There? Impossible. I asked.”
“No, my dear sir, you asked if anyone of the name of Jane Finn had been there. Now, if the girl had been placed there it would almost certainly be under an assumed name.”
“Bully for you,” cried Julius. “I never thought of that!”
“It was fairly obvious,” said the other.
“Perhaps the doctor’s in it too,” suggested Tuppence.
Julius shook his head.
“I don’t think so. I took to him at once. No, I’m pretty sure Dr. Hall’s all right.”
“Hall, did you say?” asked Sir James. “That is curious—really very curious.”
“Why?” demanded Tuppence.
“Because I happened to meet him this morning. I’ve known him slightly on and off for some years, and this morning I ran across him in the street. Staying at the Metropole, he told me.” He turned to Julius. “Didn’t he tell you he was coming up to town?”
Julius shook his head.
“Curious,” mused Sir James. “You did not mention his name this afternoon, or I would have suggested your going to him for further information with my card as introduction.”
“I guess I’m a mutt,” said Julius with unusual humility. “I ought to have thought of the false name stunt.”
“How could you think of anything after falling out of that tree?” cried Tuppence. “I’m sure anyone else would have been killed right off.”
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyway,” said Julius. “We’ve got Mrs. Vandemeyer on a string, and that’s all we need.”
“Yes,” said Tuppence, but there was a lack of assurance in her voice.
A silence settled down over the party. Little by little the magic of the night began to gain a hold on them. There were sudden creaks of the furniture, imperceptible rustlings in the curtains. Suddenly Tuppence sprang up with a cry.
“I can’t help it. I know Mr. Brown’s somewhere in the flat! I can FEEL him.”
“Sure, Tuppence, how could he be? This door’s open into the hall. No one could have come in by the front door without our seeing and hearing him.”
“I can’t help it. I FEEL he’s here!”
She looked appealingly at Sir James, who replied gravely:
“With due deference to your feelings, Miss Tuppence (and mine as well for that matter), I do not see how it is humanly possible for anyone to be in the flat without our knowledge.”
The girl was a little comforted by his words.
“Sitting up at night is always rather jumpy,” she confessed.
“Yes,” said Sir James. “We are in the condition of people holding a seance. Perhaps if a medium were present we might get some marvellous results.”
“Do you believe in spiritualism?” asked Tuppence, opening her eyes wide.
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders.
“There is some truth in it, without a doubt. But most of the testimony would not pass muster in the witness-box.”
The hours drew on. With the first faint glimmerings of dawn, Sir James drew aside the curtains. They beheld, what few Londoners see, the slow rising of the sun over the sleeping city. Somehow, with the coming of the light, the dreads and fancies of the past night seemed absurd. Tuppence’s spirits revived to the normal.
“Hooray!” she said. “It’s going to be a gorgeous day. And we shall find Tommy. And Jane Finn. And everything will be lovely. I shall ask Mr. Carter if I can’t be made a Dame!”
At seven o’clock Tuppence volunteered to go and make some tea. She returned with a tray, containing the teapot and four cups.
“Who’s the other cup for?” inquired Julius.
“The prisoner, of course. I suppose we might call her that?”
“Taking her tea seems a kind of anticlimax to last night,” said Julius thoughtfully.
“Yes, it does,” admitted Tuppence. “But, anyway, here goes. Perhaps you’d both come, too, in case she springs on me, or anything. You see, we don’t know what mood she’ll wake up in.”
Sir James and Julius accompanied her to the door.
“Where’s the key? Oh, of course, I’ve got it myself.”
She put it in the lock, and turned it, then paused.
“Supposing, after all, she’s escaped?” she murmured in a whisper.
“Plumb impossible,” replied Julius reassuringly.
But Sir James said nothing.
Tuppence drew a long breath and entered. She heaved a sigh of relief as she saw that Mrs. Vandemeyer was lying on the bed.
“Good morning,” she remarked cheerfully. “I’ve brought you some tea.”
Mrs. Vandemeyer did not reply. Tuppence put down the cup on the table by the bed and went across to draw up the blinds. When she turned, Mrs. Vandemeyer still lay without a movement. With a sudden fear clutching at her heart, Tuppence ran to the bed. The hand she lifted was cold as ice…. Mrs. Vandemeyer would never speak now….
Her cry brought the others. A very few minutes sufficed. Mrs. Vandemeyer was dead—must have been dead some hours. She had evidently died in her sleep.
“If that isn’t the cruellest luck,” cried Julius in despair.
The lawyer was calmer, but there was a curious gleam in his eyes.
“If it is luck,” he replied.
“You don’t think—but, say, that’s plumb impossible—no one could have got in.”
“No,” admitted the lawyer. “I don’t see how they could. And yet—she is on the point of betraying Mr. Brown, and—she dies. Is it only chance?”
“Yes, HOW! That is what we must find out.” He stood there silently, gently stroking his chin. “We must find out,” he said quietly, and Tuppence felt that if she was Mr. Brown she would not like the tone of those simple words.
Julius’s glance went to the window.
“The window’s open,” he remarked. “Do you think——”
Tuppence shook her head.
“The balcony only goes along as far as the boudoir. We were there.”
“He might have slipped out——” suggested Julius.
But Sir James interrupted him.
“Mr. Brown’s methods are not so crude. In the meantime we must send for a doctor, but before we do so, is there anything in this room that might be of value to us?”
Hastily, the three searched. A charred mass in the grate indicated that Mrs. Vandemeyer had been burning papers on the eve of her flight. Nothing of importance remained, though they searched the other rooms as well.
“There’s that,” said Tuppence suddenly, pointing to a small, old-fashioned safe let into the wall. “It’s for jewellery, I believe, but there might be something else in it.”
The key was in the lock, and Julius swung open the door, and searched inside. He was some time over the task.
“Well,” said Tuppence impatiently.
There was a pause before Julius answered, then he withdrew his head and shut to the door.
“Nothing,” he said.
In five minutes a brisk young doctor arrived, hastily summoned. He was deferential to Sir James, whom he recognized.
“Heart failure, or possibly an overdose of some sleeping-draught.” He sniffed. “Rather an odour of chloral in the air.”
Tuppence remembered the glass she had upset. A new thought drove her to the washstand. She found the little bottle from which Mrs. Vandemeyer had poured a few drops.
It had been three parts full. Now—IT WAS EMPTY.
CHAPTER XIV. A CONSULTATION
NOTHING was more surprising and bewildering to Tuppence than the ease and simplicity with which everything was arranged, owing to Sir James’s skilful handling. The doctor accepted quite readily the theory that Mrs. Vandemeyer had accidentally taken an overdose of chloral. He doubted whether an inquest would be necessary. If so, he would let Sir James know. He understood that Mrs. Vandemeyer was on the eve of departure for abroad, and that the servants had already left? Sir James and his young friends had been paying a call upon her, when she was suddenly stricken down and they had spent the night in the flat, not liking to leave her alone. Did they know of any relatives? They did not, but Sir James referred him to Mrs. Vandemeyer’s solicitor.
Shortly afterwards a nurse arrived to take charge, and the other left the ill-omened building.
“And what now?” asked Julius, with a gesture of despair. “I guess we’re down and out for good.”
Sir James stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“No,” he said quietly. “There is still the chance that Dr. Hall may be able to tell us something.”
“Gee! I’d forgotten him.”
“The chance is slight, but it must not be neglected. I think I told you that he is staying at the Metropole. I should suggest that we call upon him there as soon as possible. Shall we say after a bath and breakfast?”
It was arranged that Tuppence and Julius should return to the Ritz, and call for Sir James in the car. This programme was faithfully carried out, and a little after eleven they drew up before the Metropole. They asked for Dr. Hall, and a page-boy went in search of him. In a few minutes the little doctor came hurrying towards them.
“Can you spare us a few minutes, Dr. Hall?” said Sir James pleasantly. “Let me introduce you to Miss Cowley. Mr. Hersheimmer, I think, you already know.”
A quizzical gleam came into the doctor’s eye as he shook hands with Julius.
“Ah, yes, my young friend of the tree episode! Ankle all right, eh?”
“I guess it’s cured owing to your skilful treatment, doc.”
“And the heart trouble? Ha ha!”
“Still searching,” said Julius briefly.
“To come to the point, can we have a word with you in private?” asked Sir James.
“Certainly. I think there is a room here where we shall be quite undisturbed.”
He led the way, and the others followed him. They sat down, and the doctor looked inquiringly at Sir James.
“Dr. Hall, I am very anxious to find a certain young lady for the purpose of obtaining a statement from her. I have reason to believe that she has been at one time or another in your establishment at Bournemouth. I hope I am transgressing no professional etiquette in questioning you on the subject?”
“I suppose it is a matter of testimony?”
Sir James hesitated a moment, then he replied:
“I shall be pleased to give you any information in my power. What is the young lady’s name? Mr. Hersheimmer asked me, I remember——” He half turned to Julius.
“The name,” said Sir James bluntly, “is really immaterial. She would be almost certainly sent to you under an assumed one. But I should like to know if you are acquainted with a Mrs. Vandemeyer?”
“Mrs. Vandemeyer, of 20 South Audley Mansions? I know her slightly.”
“You are not aware of what has happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“You do not know that Mrs. Vandemeyer is dead?”
“Dear, dear, I had no idea of it! When did it happen?”
“She took an overdose of chloral last night.”
“Accidentally, it is believed. I should not like to say myself. Anyway, she was found dead this morning.”
“Very sad. A singularly handsome woman. I presume she was a friend of yours, since you are acquainted with all these details.”
“I am acquainted with the details because—well, it was I who found her dead.”
“Indeed,” said the doctor, starting.
“Yes,” said Sir James, and stroked his chin reflectively.
“This is very sad news, but you will excuse me if I say that I do not see how it bears on the subject of your inquiry?”
“It bears on it in this way, is it not a fact that Mrs. Vandemeyer committed a young relative of hers to your charge?”
Julius leaned forward eagerly.
“That is the case,” said the doctor quietly.
“Under the name of——?”
“Janet Vandemeyer. I understood her to be a niece of Mrs. Vandemeyer’s.”
“And she came to you?”
“As far as I can remember in June or July of 1915.”
“Was she a mental case?”
“She is perfectly sane, if that is what you mean. I understood from Mrs. Vandemeyer that the girl had been with her on the Lusitania when that ill-fated ship was sunk, and had suffered a severe shock in consequence.”
“We’re on the right track, I think?” Sir James looked round.
“As I said before, I’m a mutt!” returned Julius.
The doctor looked at them all curiously.
“You spoke of wanting a statement from her,” he said. “Supposing she is not able to give one?”
“What? You have just said that she is perfectly sane.”
“So she is. Nevertheless, if you want a statement from her concerning any events prior to May 7, 1915, she will not be able to give it to you.”
They looked at the little man, stupefied. He nodded cheerfully.
“It’s a pity,” he said. “A great pity, especially as I gather, Sir James, that the matter is important. But there it is, she can tell you nothing.”
“But why, man? Darn it all, why?”
The little man shifted his benevolent glance to the excited young American.
“Because Janet Vandemeyer is suffering from a complete loss of memory.”
“Quite so. An interesting case, a very interesting case. Not so uncommon, really, as you would think. There are several very well known parallels. It’s the first case of the kind that I’ve had under my own personal observation, and I must admit that I’ve found it of absorbing interest.” There was something rather ghoulish in the little man’s satisfaction.
“And she remembers nothing,” said Sir James slowly.
“Nothing prior to May 7, 1915. After that date her memory is as good as yours or mine.”
“Then the first thing she remembers?”
“Is landing with the survivors. Everything before that is a blank. She did not know her own name, or where she had come from, or where she was. She couldn’t even speak her own tongue.”
“But surely all this is most unusual?” put in Julius.
“No, my dear sir. Quite normal under the circumstances. Severe shock to the nervous system. Loss of memory proceeds nearly always on the same lines. I suggested a specialist, of course. There’s a very good man in Paris—makes a study of these cases—but Mrs. Vandemeyer opposed the idea of publicity that might result from such a course.”
“I can imagine she would,” said Sir James grimly.
“I fell in with her views. There is a certain notoriety given to these cases. And the girl was very young—nineteen, I believe. It seemed a pity that her infirmity should be talked about—might damage her prospects. Besides, there is no special treatment to pursue in such cases. It is really a matter of waiting.”
“Yes, sooner or later, the memory will return—as suddenly as it went. But in all probability the girl will have entirely forgotten the intervening period, and will take up life where she left off—at the sinking of the Lusitania.”
“And when do you expect this to happen?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
“Ah, that I cannot say. Sometimes it is a matter of months, sometimes it has been known to be as long as twenty years! Sometimes another shock does the trick. One restores what the other took away.”
“Another shock, eh?” said Julius thoughtfully.
“Exactly. There was a case in Colorado——” The little man’s voice trailed on, voluble, mildly enthusiastic.
Julius did not seem to be listening. He had relapsed into his own thoughts and was frowning. Suddenly he came out of his brown study, and hit the table such a resounding bang with his fist that every one jumped, the doctor most of all.
“I’ve got it! I guess, doc, I’d like your medical opinion on the plan I’m about to outline. Say Jane was to cross the herring pond again, and the same thing was to happen. The submarine, the sinking ship, every one to take to the boats—and so on. Wouldn’t that do the trick? Wouldn’t it give a mighty big bump to her subconscious self, or whatever the jargon is, and start it functioning again right away?”
“A very interesting speculation, Mr. Hersheimmer. In my own opinion, it would be successful. It is unfortunate that there is no chance of the conditions repeating themselves as you suggest.”
“Not by nature, perhaps, doc. But I’m talking about art.”
“Why, yes. What’s the difficulty? Hire a liner——”
“A liner!” murmured Dr. Hall faintly.
“Hire some passengers, hire a submarine—that’s the only difficulty, I guess. Governments are apt to be a bit hidebound over their engines of war. They won’t sell to the firstcomer. Still, I guess that can be got over. Ever heard of the word ‘graft,’ sir? Well, graft gets there every time! I reckon that we shan’t really need to fire a torpedo. If every one hustles round and screams loud enough that the ship is sinking, it ought to be enough for an innocent young girl like Jane. By the time she’s got a life-belt on her, and is being hustled into a boat, with a well-drilled lot of artistes doing the hysterical stunt on deck, why—she ought to be right back where she was in May, 1915. How’s that for the bare outline?”
Dr. Hall looked at Julius. Everything that he was for the moment incapable of saying was eloquent in that look.
“No,” said Julius, in answer to it, “I’m not crazy. The thing’s perfectly possible. It’s done every day in the States for the movies. Haven’t you seen trains in collision on the screen? What’s the difference between buying up a train and buying up a liner? Get the properties and you can go right ahead!”
Dr. Hall found his voice.
“But the expense, my dear sir.” His voice rose. “The expense! It will be COLOSSAL!”
“Money doesn’t worry me any,” explained Julius simply.
Dr. Hall turned an appealing face to Sir James, who smiled slightly.
“Mr. Hersheimmer is very well off—very well off indeed.”
The doctor’s glance came back to Julius with a new and subtle quality in it. This was no longer an eccentric young fellow with a habit of falling off trees. The doctor’s eyes held the deference accorded to a really rich man.
“Very remarkable plan. Very remarkable,” he murmured. “The movies—of course! Your American word for the kinema. Very interesting. I fear we are perhaps a little behind the times over here in our methods. And you really mean to carry out this remarkable plan of yours.”
“You bet your bottom dollar I do.”
The doctor believed him—which was a tribute to his nationality. If an Englishman had suggested such a thing, he would have had grave doubts as to his sanity.
“I cannot guarantee a cure,” he pointed out. “Perhaps I ought to make that quite clear.”
“Sure, that’s all right,” said Julius. “You just trot out Jane, and leave the rest to me.”
“Miss Janet Vandemeyer, then. Can we get on the long distance to your place right away, and ask them to send her up; or shall I run down and fetch her in my car?”
The doctor stared.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Hersheimmer. I thought you understood.”
“That Miss Vandemeyer is no longer under my care.”
The second half of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary will appear tomorrow in DM du Jour.