MEN OF AFFAIRS
A. L. BURT COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY
ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.
PUBLISHED, MAY, 1922
First and Second Printings before publication
1. Dissolution 2. Eight Closed Doors 3. Which Develops an Idea 4. Sitting on the Floor 5. Experiences of a Vagrant 6. Concerning a Tie 7. The Night of the 27th 8. Introducing a Lady 9. An Invitation to Stay 10. Nerves 11. Outlining a Programme 12. Pineapple 13. Harrison Smith 14. "Off the Beaten Track" 15. Tea and Tears 16. A Hyphen 17. A Doubtful Ally 18. Holding Out 19. At the Chestnuts 20. A Little Housebreaking 21. The Cornish Riviera 22. Plain Sailing 23. An Encounter 24. Rival Factions 25. Mr. Bolt Drops In 26. Among Allies 27. A Knotted Kerchief 28. Sand 29. Individual Resource 30. The True Auriole 31. A Way Out 32. The Appointed Hour 33. A Smash Up 34. The Finishing Straight
At a pawnshop in the Gray's Inn Road, Richard Frencham Altar disposed of the last of his worldly goods. Four suits from a tailor in Saville Row, two pairs of shoes in brown and patent by a craftsman of Jermyn Street, some odds and ends of hosiery, a set of dressing table brushes with black monograms on ivory and the gold cigarette case Doreen had given him on the day of their engagement. In consideration for which he departed with a sum of twenty-seven pounds sixteen shillings in his trousers pockets. At his rooms in Golden Square he settled his account with the landlady, a luxury that reduced his wealth by a matter of nineteen pounds. Of the eight pounds sixteen shillings remaining, five guineas were placed on one side for the tobacconist who had supplied him with Gold Flake and the margin transferred to another pocket for the purpose of one final engagement with the habit of high living. After that—well time would show. It was futile to speculate upon the future. He had the clothes he stood up in, the brain and tissue heaven had provided him with and a spirit unawed by adversity. Many men have started life with less.
A neighbouring clock chimed the hour. Too early to dine—besides there were things to be done first. From a highly decorated vase that stood upon a particularly restless over-mantel, he drew a small packet of letters and untied the tape that circled them. They were written in a careless sprawling hand, with lots of ink and little thought. They were very full of 'darlings' and 'dearests' and 'how much do you love me's.' They were very, very rapturous—they were very, very silly. They had made him very happy when first he read them because silliness and sincerity are often partners, but now he knew better—now they made him laugh. Not a very cheerful laugh perhaps—a little cynical maybe but on the whole tolerant and forbearing.
He put a match to the first and lit the others in succession one by one until a charred chain of memories stretched across the tiling of the grate. The last 'Doreen' straggled scarlet across a black and twisting page, whitened, greyed and disappeared.
"And I'll grow a beard and forget all about you," said Richard. "And it oughtn't to be very difficult really."
He rose, crossed to the window and looked out.
"If ever I fall in love again—if ever I earn enough for the luxury of falling in love again, it won't be with——" but he changed his mind about finishing the sentence, for, after all, it is folly to speak hard words against pretty little things that make the world very jolly while they last.
Besides Doreen had her way to make like any other girl, and no one can deny the difference between the son of an exceptionally wealthy and indulgent parent and the same son after the parental wealth has exploded and the parental brain has been drilled with a .450 calibre bullet discharged at a range of two inches from the frontal bone and making a somewhat unsightly exit by way of the parietal.
James Frencham Altar, father of Richard, did not believe in failure or exposure or public obloquy. His lode-star was success and when the forward speed of success threw out its selectors and went suddenly into reverse the liquidation of his affairs was conducted by the firm of Colt and was covered in a single report. Thus ended an ambitious career.
Richard had suffered rather heavily under the generosity of his father whose cherished wish was that his son should be a gentleman and nothing more. Accordingly Richard had been sent to Eton, Oxford, and round the world three times. He had been given a racing stable, an enormous allowance and was instructed to spend as much as he could and enjoy himself all he knew how. Being a high spirited and obliging young fellow, Richard did all these things very engagingly, and somehow contrived not to spoil himself. He emerged from the war with a Military Cross, a row of service medals, a brace of foreign decorations and an ambition to do some work. His father appeared to applaud the ambition but actually discouraged it with specious argument and an introduction to Doreen—who did the rest.
Doreen, of course, was a perfect darling. She always bit her lower lip and she held her arms tight to her sides like a child who has been naughty. There was no possible excuse to refrain from hugging Doreen. One just had to and damn the consequences. Doreen would cry after being kissed and would continue crying until again kissed into an even frame of mind. Lots of people kissed Doreen because they could not help themselves and she forgave them all on that account. There never was such a darling. Richard Frencham Altar, fresh from the wars, simply wanted to eat her and, seeing that he was a handsome young fellow with a pleasant aura of gold about him, Doreen arrayed herself in her most eatable frocks and devourable smiles and just let him.
"Oh, Dicks," she cried, soon after their engagement—'Dicks' being the name she called him, for Doreens all the world over adore plurals and attaching 'S's' to names because it makes them so snakey—"Oh, Dicks, there's only one teeny-weeny thing I wish."
"What's that?" he said.
"I wish you were as poor as poor as poor so I could just love you for nothing but yourself."
It was very pleasant hearing, but when a year later he went to her and confided that he was as 'poor as poor as poor' it transpired she had only said it for something to say and infinitely preferred young men who were as rich as rich as rich.
Discoveries like that are a little apt to revolutionise a man's ideals even if they fail to destroy them altogether.
Richard kept his views to himself. He kissed the tearful Doreen for the last time and she waved a tiny georgette kerchief from the window as he passed down the street and out of her life. He had not a great deal of leisure to consider the extent of his loss. The proceedings of the coroner's court and the importunities of creditors occupied his days very fully. The chaos of his father's affairs and the winding up of his own provided ample entertainment. The net result was a settlement of something less than a farthing in the pound and the retirement into oblivion of one of the most able spendthrifts of the twentieth century. He had spent a couple of months looking for work, but the name Frencham Altar, coupled with his complete inability to point to a single marketable asset other than courage and a smiling disposition, conspired together to harden the hearts of employers. Old friends denied him interviews, business acquaintances turned him from their doors and the casual advertiser forbore replying to his enquiries. Of course, if he had been a little less honest he might very easily have cleaned up a quiet thousand or two from the wreckage of the estate. His solicitor had demonstrated the absurdity of Quixoticism in such affairs, but whatever other reproach might be laid to his account, Richard was no opportunist and lacked the parental liking for feathering his own nest at the expense of his fellows. Wherefore the whole of his worldly resources, if we except the courage and the smile, went into the whirlpool and were swallowed up.
Richard let the curtain fall across the window and crossed to the mantelpiece where he touched the bell. It occurred to him that there was a certain luxury in ringing bells—it was one of many comforts of civilisation that would pass out of his reach. No one answered the bell so he rang it again and was quite dispirited to hear footsteps ascending the stairs. If his connection with bells was to cease it would have been pleasant to have rung it a few more times. It is an awful thing to contemplate that you have rung a bell for the last time. One can get very sentimental over a thing like that. Dear jolly old bells, what an influence they have upon life. How bravely they whirr at the arrival of a dear expected—how madly they riot to the tune Wedding—how sadly they toll when the last of us is borne away.
Mrs. Walton, the landlady, came into the room and said "Yes."
"I am going now," said Richard.
"We shall be sorry to lose you."
"And I to go. Many thanks, Mrs. Walton."
"And what is your destination, sir?"
"I have my eye on a bench facing Green Park," he replied. "It is a favourite locality for the impecunious philosopher. In other words I don't know where I'm going but I have a pretty solid conviction that one of these days I shall get there. There are two empty trunks in my bedroom which I should be glad if you would accept."
Mrs. Walton shook her head.
"You could raise a bit of money on them," she suggested.
"Maybe," said Richard, "but I don't want to. There are only two kinds of money that are any use. Regular money or lots of money—a little money is no good to anyone and is better spent. By midnight tonight I hope to find myself with none at all."
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Mrs. Walton.
"That," replied Richard, "is precisely what I am relying upon. And I could not wish to start on my adventures under a happier ensign. Goodbye."
And to the amazement of the lady he hissed her very soundly and clattered down the stairs.
At the tobacconist he settled the last of his small accounts, purchased a hundred cigarettes and hailed a taxi.
"The Berkeley Grill Room," he said.
They were a little surprised at the informality of his attire, but there is something in the bearing of a restaurant habitue that would procure him the best the establishment can afford even though he appeared in a bathing suit.
"Stick me in a corner somewhere," he said, "I have no evening clothes."
"Monsieur has not had time to dress."
"I repeat I have no evening clothes, on the other hand I've a deuce of a good appetite. A brandy cocktail and the book of words, please."
They were supplied.
Richard ordered his dinner with a reckless disregard for expenditure and a nice choice of wine and dishes which earned the appreciation of those that waited upon him. He finished with a Villa Villa and a double Napoleon and sat back with folded arms, a pleasant smile and eyes that drowsed comfortably over the agreeable quiet of the cafe.
It caused him something of an effort to ask for his bill, dispose of it with the last of his notes, tip the waiter and rise to his feet. As he was approaching the swing doors that led to the little hexagonal foyer, a man at a table near by raised a pair of keen black eyes, glanced at him quickly, smiled and nodded. The man's face was unfamiliar but Richard returned the nod casually and passed out. The man half rose then changed his mind and sat down again. He was a tall man with black hair threaded with white. His face was large featured but clear cut, high cheekbones, a Roman nose, a straight, firm mouth and Wellingtonian side whiskers, his age forty or a little more. His companion at the table put a question but the man shook his head.
"I fancy I made a mistake," he said.
Richard tipped the porter with the last coins in his pocket, a shilling and five coppers, turned slowly down Berkeley Street and crossed Piccadilly. He passed the Ritz, of pleasant memory, and entered into the sleeping apartment of London's destitute—the single bench on the slope that faces Green Park, gratuitously provided by the generosity of the City of Westminster.
There was a constable by the cabman's shelter and him Richard addressed.
"A fine night, Bobbie," he said.
The constable agreed that this was so. He did not resent having been addressed as 'Bobbie.' There was no offence in it and Richard belonged to that class of individuals with whom familiarity is a cloak for courtesy.
"Taking a stroll, sir?" he asked.
Richard produced his hundred Gold Flake and bade the officer fill his helmet.
"Better help me out with a few or I shall be smoking all night," he said.
"In trouble, sir?"
"Broke," said Richard, "and I want your advice. I've had the devil of a good dinner with the last of my fortune and I'm looking for words of wisdom. In the first place, how about that bench?"
"The Rowton is better."
"Won't run to it."
"Not to be recommended, p'raps, but it's free to all," said the constable, nodding at the green seat which was already filling up for the night, with bundles of rags, voluminous overcoats and thin, shiny blue serges buttoned at the neck.
"I don't want to steal a march on the regular custom," observed Richard.
"It's first come hereabouts, but you'd better not leave it too late. Anyway you'll get a shake-up when the four o'clock patrol comes on."
"Always give 'em a shake-up at four o'clock. Don't make many odds. You just get up and sit down again. Takes the cold out of your bones if it does nothing else."
"I suppose," said Richard, "I couldn't doss down on that board that's perched on the two iron standards up towards Hyde Park Comer. It has a single room touch that I rather fancy."
The constable shook his head.
"I couldn't let you," he said, "though there's no particular harm in it."
"Then what's it for anyway?"
"Don't rightly know. They do say it was for the garden carriers to rest their packs on when they was coming up to market from the outlying farms. And again I been told that they laid the corpses on it what was being carried to the plague pits when there was one of these 'ere epidemics in London. Long while back that 'ud be."
"Hm," said Richard, "cheery sort of memory. Well I'll take a chance with the rest. Good night. Oh, by the way, how's one manage about getting a wash in the mornings?"
"You goes without."
"Well, there's a damn thing," said Richard and departed with a nod.
There was an empty place on the bench but Richard hesitated long before occupying it. Although no more than a single step it seemed a tremendous distance from the pavement to the seat. A happy memory of a similar sensation helped him to take the plunge—it was the trembling nervousness he had felt on the first day of his commission when he stood in an agony of suspense outside the anteroom of the officers' mess and tried to summon up courage to enter. A dark shambling figure approaching the spot decided him, and having accomplished the feat it was only to find experience repeating itself. No one took any notice, not a sunken chin was raised. The sleepers to right and left edged away a trifle to give him room and continued with their breathy muttering sleep.
Richard Frencham Altar lit a cigarette and buried his hands in his pockets and with the whole future before him to contemplate and with every vital problem that a man may be called upon to face, he said to himself, "Now I wonder who that johnny was who nodded to me at the Berkeley."
He was still wondering, for want of something better to do, when an hour later his friend the constable passed slowly by and looked him over critically. An official report of his observation would have read as follows:—
Height, about five feet nine. Age, thirty odd. Hair, dark with a disposition to wave. Eyes, brown, merry and set wide apart. Well marked brows. Nose of medium length and slightly crooked to the left. Short upper lip. Firm mouth with an upward twist at the corners. A strong square chin. A habit of holding the head slightly at an angle. Quick way of speaking and walks with a springy step. Stands with one hand on his left hip.
"Doing all right?" asked the constable.
"Fine," said Richard.
EIGHT CLOSED DOORS.
As the taxi turned into the station yard from the Euston Road, Anthony Barraclough unobtrusively opened the offside door and dropped into the street. A pantechnicon concealed the manoeuvre from the traffic that followed. His taxi driver was blissfully unaware of his departure. It would seem a mean thing to have done but Barraclough had pinned a Bradbury to the vacated seat as a tacit apology.
On landing in the street he wasted no time and nipped very neatly into the open back of the pantechnicon. Here he concealed himself until a stream of a dozen taxis had passed by, and in the pleasant straw smelling shadows Anthony Barraclough grew a beard in precisely half a minute by the clock, and a moustache in even less time. It was a nice beard and a nice moustache, but even so it did not improve his appearance. He was much better looking without. If you doubt the statement here is an official report of his looks and bearing, by means of which you may judge for yourself.
Height, about five feet nine. Age, thirty-four. Hair, dark with a disposition to wave. Eyes, brown and set wide apart. Well marked brows. Nose of medium length and slightly crooked to the left Short upper lip. Firm mouth with an upward twist at the corners. A strong square chin. A habit of holding the head slightly at an angle. Quick way of speaking. Walks with a springy step. Stands with one hand on his left hip.
Compare this description with one printed in the foregoing chapter and a certain peculiar resemblance may suggest itself. The absence of the word 'merry' in the latter as applied to the eyes must not be mistaken for a careless omission, but rather as a piece of keen observation in physiognomy. These things are very important.
Having pressed his cheeks until the wax warmed and adhered, Anthony Barraclough threw a leg over the tailboard and alighted on the pavement. Scarcely a soul bothered to glance his way. At a smart walk he made for the tube station, bought a ticket at the twopenny machine and entered the lift. In the passages below he made a circular tour, entered an ascending lift and reappeared in the street. A 'bus was passing which he entered and travelled in for a few hundred yards. Then he got out and hailed a taxi and two minutes later was at the booking office of St. Pancras Station. As he was reaching for his note case a man in the queue behind him observed, vaguely, as though addressing the air:
"Pity to waste the money, Mr. Barraclough. Much better go home and be reasonable."
He returned the note case to his pocket and stepped out of the queue. A sudden inflammation of anger surged to his cheeks and his brows came down hard and straight.
The individual who had spoken was apparently absorbed in a copy of Answers.
"It is annoying, isn't it?" he remarked sweetly.
And then it was that Barraclough did a very stupid thing. He measured the distance speculatively between his own fist and the man's jaw and upper cut to the point as neatly as you could please. It happened so quickly that the onlookers thought the man had fallen from sickness. Barraclough was gone when they helped him to his feet. He was in a taxi speeding out of the yard.
"Drive north as fast you can go," he had shouted.
A loafer, standing by the station gates, who had witnessed his hurried entry into the cab, lounged in front as it was passing out. The driver swore and slammed on his brakes but the loafer took his own time and chances. The speed of the taxi fell almost to a walking pace. The loafer caught the nearside canopy stay with his right hand and slung his knee on to the projecting end of the rear wing. From there he mounted to the roof of the cab, keeping his legs clear of the side windows. It was quite a dexterous performance, and after all, what was against it? The fare for two is the same as for one and the poor must travel. So hugging his knees and smiling he sat on the battens of the luggage rack and congratulated himself, while within Anthony Barraclough was tapping with his foot and feeling very angry indeed.
And if you are interested to know why, here is the reason. The little affair that occurred at St. Pancras booking office was a repetition of seven similar incidents within the last twelve hours. By seven different routes he had endeavoured to get out of London and in every instance had been headed back. It had started with the affair on the Croydon train and the woman who fainted in his arms. Then there was the car on the Portsmouth road that had been crashed into by another at the top of Kingston Hill. Victoria, Charing Cross, Waterloo and Liverpool Street. It seemed to make no difference at all where he tried, the result was always the same. The little contretemps at Rotherhithe when he tried to board a tug was a sufficiently unpleasant experience for one day. A man gets out of the habit of being shot over after two years of peace and the memory of the little chips of flying woodwork flicked from the bows of the dingy as he had pulled out into the river was distinctly discouraging. Whoever fired the shots had a pretty knack with a rifle. It was the whirr of a bullet just over his head persuaded him to put back to port. After that the firing ceased. As he dragged the almost foundering dingy on to the mud a fast motor launch went scurrying down stream with a man on deck who shouted, "Go home."
But Anthony was not the type of man to turn back. Opposition sterned his resolve. Besides he had a pretty sure conviction that they did not mean to kill him. Very much the reverse. Were he to be dying of a sickness he felt certain they would dispatch to his bedside the finest physicians of the land. The problem was how to escape their unwelcome attentions and so far it had proved a problem without solution.
They were speeding along the Caledonian Road when the driver leaned out to ask where he should drive. The man on the top of the cab caught the answer "Hendon Aerodrome" and smiled because he admired a tryer.
"Better wait till we get to a quieter part," he reflected.
The taxi proceeded until at last the houses of Golders Green ran out into the fields near The Welsh Harp. Then very cautiously he spread out at full length and reached out his hand for the knee joint of the hood stay. The one on the right broke easily but the left was stiffer and bit his finger as the joint gave. He had already loosened the little clip hooks that secured the hood frame to the permanent structure. There was room for a knife blade where the frames united and they had slipped back easily. Holding the hood in position with his left hand the adventurous passenger produced a neat automatic with his right. Then he gave the hood a shove and presented the pistol at Barraclough's head. And since it is not in the realms of common occurrence for the tops to fly off cabs and reveal armed desperadoes no one will blame Barraclough for the views he expressed upon the subjects.
"Keep sweet," said the loafer in a very agreeable tone of voice when Barraclough had exhausted his first inspiration. "And if you'll keep your hands in your lap I'll come and sit beside you."
Never for an instant while this agile individual transferred himself from the roof of the cab to the interior did the caressing muzzle of the pistol waver from its mark.
"Sorry to be a nuisance," he observed as he settled himself beside Barraclough, "but I'm afraid you'll have to tell this joker to turn back. Golders Green Tube Station will do nicely."
And while Barraclough was leaning forward to comply with the instructions he very neatly removed a Harrington and Richardson from his unhappy victim's pocket.
"Just to be on the safe side," he remarked as he transferred it to his own. "You'll be getting a bit peevish maybe and might lose your sense of proportion after such a busy day."
"Tell me this," said Barraclough. "How many of you are there in this?"
"My dear chap, I don't know—hundreds I expect."
"Hm!" said Barraclough. "Well, I'm going home to bed."
"Sensible fellow and I'll see you get there safely."
They alighted at Golders Green Station where the driver was equally amazed by his open cab and the extra passenger.
"No, no, this is on me," said the loafer and handed out a couple of notes.
In the station he nodded to several men in a friendly fashion and repeated the performance to some others as they sat side by side in the tube carriage. He rather flattered himself on the inspiration that suggested this performance, for, as a fact, everyone of them was a stranger.
"Thought it safer to come home this way," he said to establish the point more firmly. "I felt a bit lonely with you in that cab."
They parted at the doors of Crest Chambers, W., where Barraclough had a flat.
"By the way, any message for Mr. Van Diest?"
"You can tell him to go to the devil," said Anthony Barraclough.
"Right, I will. I say, if you feel a bit neglected during the night don't worry, there are plenty of us knocking about in the street below and we shan't desert you."
Barraclough smiled grimly.
"You seem a genial sort of ass," he said. "Care for a drink?"
"No, thanks. I must toddle along and make my report." He hesitated. "But I would like to know what all this is about."
"So would a good many other people," said Barraclough and pressed the third floor button of the electric lift.
WHICH DEVELOPS AN IDEA.
The meeting of the directors had been arranged to take place at Lord Almont Frayne's house in Park Lane. Nugent Cassis was first to arrive. It was part of his scheme of life to be five minutes early for appointments. He nodded to the man-servant, crossed to the fire and rubbed his thin hands before it.
"I expect his lordship will be down directly," said the servant.
"Do you?" said Cassis and that was all.
A precise, erect, parchmentlike person was Nugent Cassis, entirely colourless in himself and his outlook. The emotions of life never for an instant affected him. He was apparently insensible to pain, passion, triumph and disaster. His brain worked at one unvarying speed with clocklike regularity. He was always efficient, he was never inspired. He believed in himself and his judgments and doubted everyone else and their judgments. He was a machine, self-contrived, for the purpose of making money, which he had no capacity for spending. He could carry in his head the entire overnight market quotations and invariably did so. He seldom made a mistake and never admitted the mistakes he made. His transactions were honest because his knowledge of the law was unrivalled and he knew to a hair how close to the wind a man might sail. As he never wasted a moment he occupied the time of waiting, in ringing up his broker and firing a barrage of instructions. This done he returned to the fireplace, consulted his own watch, corrected the mantelpiece clock which was a minute and a half slow, sniffed critically and proceeded to warm his hands again. There was nothing spontaneous in the action, warming his hands was as much a part of his daily programme as reading the Financial Times, the two minutes he spent lying flat on his back after lunch, or the single round of golf which he played every third Sunday throughout the year.
The clock was striking eleven when Mr. Hilbert Torrington, a bent, bald, clean shaven man of eighty years, entered on the arm of the servant. Mr. Torrington, his age claims the prefix, was a different type to Cassis. He possessed a pair of blue eyes that might have belonged to a child and the expression of his face, a face threaded with a thousand wrinkles, was sweet and calm. People who saw him but had no intimate knowledge of his powers, marvelled that this frail, kindly, stooping old man, with his look of innocence that was almost sublime, could in reality be a giant in the world of money. Such was the case. Mr. Hilbert Torrington had his fingers on the financial pulse of the world and at a pressure could accelerate or decelerate it, to suit his mood. Unlike Cassis, Mr. Torrington had time for everything. When he worked he worked instantaneously, achieving in an hour work that would have kept a less remarkable man busy for a month. After one of these flashes he would relapse into pleasant gardens where he grew roses, or pleasant galleries where he looked with eyes of understanding into the heart of pictures. Sometimes he amused himself by playing with urchins in St. James's Park and on one occasion had been seen to divest himself of his coat to supply the wickets for an informal cricket match. When asked why he bothered to take part in the rack and strain of high finance he gave the amiable reply:
"Because it's such fun."
The servant piloted him to a high elbow chair and helped him to be seated.
"Thank ye," said Mr. Torrington. "And if you'll put a side table alongside I'll try a new patience. No, don't bother to tell me your master won't be long, I know that bit by heart."
He unwound a silk comforter from his neck, hung it over the arm of the chair and produced from his pocket a small pack of cards.
"I was cold," replied Cassis exactly.
"Hm! Fine growing weather, this."
He began to lay out the cards in neat little packs.
"Bulbs are coming through nicely. I was hoping to spend a day or two in the garden but I'm afraid not—'fraid it won't be possible."
Cassis put his hands behind his back.
"This business," he said.
Lord Almont Frayne, a rather resplendant young man of thirty, came into the room with all the bounce of youth. His chin shone from a ten minutes' old shave, his hair clove to his head like fresh laid paint and the crease in his trousers was razor edged.
"Most awfully sorry, dear hearts," he exclaimed in clamourous apology. "Deuce of a late night at Thingumy's ball. Do excuse."
From which the reader may assume that his lordship was a bit of an ass—but no. Under the ecstatic exterior of twentieth century modern man-about-townism there existed in the composition of Lord Almont many of the shrewd qualities that had made his father one of the richest bankers in England. People in the know would assure you it was not only luck that had kept the parental millions secure and had even increased them after the old gentleman's decease. Lord Almont had a sense of the market and his intelligence was not entirely devoted to matters sartorial.
"Anybody have anything? No. Too early? Infernally hot in here. Mind if we have a window up?"
Cassis was only just in time to lodge an objection.
Lord Almont pointed to the street.
"Here comes old Cranbourne bobbing along. Shall we wait?"
Mr. Torrington continued playing his patience game until Cranbourne was announced. And if you are interested to know what manner of man Cranbourne might be then turn to the description of the diner at the table near the door in the Berkeley Cafe. As to his associations with these other gentlemen it remains only to be said that he was a supplier of ideas and occasionally of ideals.
"Anybody know anything?" said Lord Almont.
Cassis shrugged his shoulders negatively.
Mr. Torrington put down a card.
"Waste of time," he said. "Waste of time. Barraclough will never get out of London by ordinary ways. It was a useless attempt."
"Well, we don't know."
"He hadn't got through at ten thirty last night," said Cranbourne. "He was dining at the Berkeley Grill. 'Course he might have had a shot later."
"Did you speak to him?"
"No—just nodded. Billings tells me he was shot at when he tried to make the tug on the river."
"The boat was shot at, you mean," said Cassis.
"Anyone rung him up this morning?" asked Mr. Torrington.
"No, it was arranged we shouldn't."
"Then he's sure to be here soon."
The remark was prophetic for as the words were spoken Barraclough was announced.
"No good," he said.
"You look tired, Barraclough," observed Mr. Torrington, who thought about men as well as money.
"Am a bit."
"Did you try to make Hendon?"
"Did I try? Yes, I tried and travelled a Wild West shooting man on the lid of the cab who worked a hold up by The Welsh Harp. Far as I can see there must be hundreds out to prevent me." His mouth hardened. "But I'm going to do it. I mean to do it somehow."
Mr. Torrington smiled sweetly.
"Ardent young man," he said.
Cassis put his finger tips together and remarked:
"Recklessness is a luxury we can't afford."
"I'm prepared to take chances," said Barraclough.
Mr. Torrington quoted:
"'On the sand drift, on the veldt side, in the fern scrub we lay. That our song might follow after by the bones on the way.'"
"That's all very well," said Cassis sourly, "but our sons won't be able to follow after so long as Barraclough obstinately determines to keep the secret entirely to himself."
"Pooh! pooh! pooh!" said Mr. Torrington. "That was understood."
"It was," said Barraclough and swivelled round to face Cassis. "I've said frankly that until I get the concession no one but myself will be told the map reference. That's absolute."
"It was a pity you didn't get the concession when you made the discovery."
"You know quite well that I wasn't sure. A false move might have brought every prospector in the world to the place—would have done. Besides with all this post-war territorial shuffle it was pretty nearly impossible to say which government actually owned the land. Been jolly if we'd got a title too soon and from the wrong people."
"But the territorial point has been cleared up now, hasn't it?" Cassis put the question shrewdly.
Barraclough shut up like a clam and made no answer.
Lord Almont butted in.
"Still you're pretty confident of getting the concession if you manage to get clear."
"If I can slip through and they don't stop me I'll be back with the whole thing settled in three weeks from the hour of starting."
"And during those three weeks," said Cassis sourly, "Van Diest and his crowd will subject us to an intensive course of financial buffeting. As matter of fact he has begun already."
"Well, it was no fault of mine the other side knew anything about it," said Barraclough. "If your confidential secretary had kept his mouth shut——"
"There is no use in discussing that," said Cassis.
Mr. Torrington swept the cards into a heap and shuffled them to and fro like a cook making pastry.
"Getting very active is Van Diest," he remarked. "Not a good loser, poor fellow. Quite set his heart on getting into our little syndicate. Started unloading American Rails yesterday afternoon—broke the market badly. I had to reciprocate by selling Dutch Oils. Our losses on the day were about equal."
Lord Almont remarked that his broker had rang him up to tell him of a fuss. Had no idea Van Diest was at the back of it. Cost him about ten thousand but he held on.
"Quite so and it's all very well if we are going to get a return for our losses," said Cassis. "But so long as Barraclough is held by the heels we become a mere kicking post for the opposition. Not good enough."
"Any suggestions?" said Barraclough.
"Yes. I suggest under the seal of confidence you inform us of the exact location of this field and we dispatch a trustworthy servant to carry out the necessary negotiations."
Barraclough remained silent.
"If you refuse to adopt that view all I can see for it is either to drop the whole thing or to let Van Diest come in and split the profit."
For one instant the placid blue eyes of Mr. Torrington were lit with a shiny white fire.
"Van Diest will not be in this, Cassis," he said.
"But look here, dear old Mr. Torrington," Lord Almont exclaimed. "Surely you agree that Barra ought to give us his trust."
The old man smiled whimsically.
"Think so?" he said.
"I mean to say, we're not the kind of people to take advantage of a man."
"Nonsense! Of course we are," came the answer.
"That's honest," Barraclough laughed.
"Not at all, my dear boy, it's a confession of dishonour of which I am heartily ashamed."
Cassis could not leave the subject alone. Tenacity was one of his strong points.
"Suppose you were killed," he suggested. "The secret would be lost for all time. And where should we stand?"
"Several degrees better than myself," was the answer. "You'll come out with your lives."
"That's not the point. Our involvement is equivalent to yours. Your risk is physical, ours financial, and of the two, in my own opinion——"
"I know," Barraclough cut in. "Our views are opposed about that. I made the find and as soon as I have turned it into actual possession, you will have the chance to exploit it, but until——"
"Yes, but half a shake, old son," said Lord Almont. "How about the marvellous healing properties—all the jolly old hospitals we were going to endow. One doesn't want to be a dog in the manger."
Barraclough grinned. Whatever other qualities Nature had bestowed upon the ebullient peer philanthropy was not outstanding.
"I notice in this argument," he said, "money came over the horizon before the hospitals showed their smoke."
"Then deposit the map reference in a safe place so we can get hold of it if you break up."
"And where it will be at the mercy of the first man with a jimmy and a blow lamp. No, thanks."
There are certain types of stubbornness that increase in direct ratio to the pressure applied. To this type Barraclough belonged. He had yet to find the man who could induce him to talk against his will. Woman? Ah, that's a different matter. The argument took an angry turn.
"It occurs to me," said Mr. Torrington sweetly, "it was a pity I deserted my greenhouses this morning. We remain in statu quo ante."
A reproach from Mr. Torrington seldom failed to reach its mark.
"I'm sorry," Barraclough apologised, "but I give you my solemn word that somehow I'll win you the purse."
"The purse," Mr. Torrington smiled. "One almost forgets the purse in a case like this. It is eclipsed by the will to succeed. Adventure! The one thing of which old people never tire."
And then it was that Cranbourne who, curled up in the window seat with his chin resting on his knees, had taken no part in the debate, made his first observation.
"If Barraclough is to succeed it will have to be in the next three days. At midnight on the 27th he is going to be kidnapped."
All eyes turned upon Cranbourne as he made this announcement.
"How the devil do you know that?" exclaimed Barraclough.
Nugent Cassis answered the question.
"We have our private information bureau in the opposite camp."
"Ah! Anyone I know?"
"I think I deserve your confidence."
"Have you given us yours?"
Barraclough lit a cigarette.
"Oh, very well," he said. "So I'm to be kidnapped."
"At twelve precisely," Cranbourne nodded. "In the course of the next three days Van Diest will try the persuasion of bribes and failing success you disappear, my friend, for a short inquisition."
Barraclough shut his fists tight.
"By God," he said. "So that's the way of it. Three days, what! I'll break through that damned ring if it kills me."
"I wonder," murmured Mr. Torrington. "Quite a lot I wonder. Still it's great fun. Don't do anything in a hurry. Three days is a life time. Take my advice, go and sit with your girl and calm down."
"Good idea, I will. We shall meet again?"
"Au revoir then."
As Barraclough moved toward the door Cranbourne spoke.
"Why did you pass me by at the Berkeley last night?"
Barraclough wrinkled his forehead perplexedly.
"Yes, about ten thirty."
"At ten thirty I was plugging a man in the jaw at St. Pancras Station."
Cranbourne sprang to his feet.
"Honest?" he cried.
"And you never went to the Berkeley?"
"Nowhere near it."
A light of wild enthusiasm leapt into Cranbourne's eyes and he brought his hands together with a loud report.
"Got it," he cried. "Got it! Oh, what an idea!"
"What's up with you?"
The enthusiasm came under control but his voice still trembled.
"It's all right, gentlemen, I can see a way. With any luck we'll succeed. Don't do anything until eleven o'clock on the night of the 27th. I'm going to try and find someone." And he made for the door.
"But hang it all," Lord Almont shouted, "be a bit more explicit."
"Have you missed it," he said. "Then here's something to think about. Suppose Van Diest kidnaps the wrong man." The door slammed behind him.
Mr. Torrington laid a card on the table with careful deliberation. He was smiling.
"Great fun," he murmured to himself.
SITTING ON THE FLOOR.
When Anthony Barraclough left the Mansions he walked up Park Lane and turned into Green Street. Before a house with a white front door he stopped and attacked the knocker. He was admitted by a parlourmaid and informed that Miss Irish was in the boudoir. This was good news because it meant sitting on the floor and lovers all the world over are at their happiest when they sit on the floor. There is something soothing and familiar about it. A man loves to sprawl and a woman is always at her best curled up among cushions. It is impossible to be disagreeable when you are sitting on the floor. You couldn't conceivably have a row in that position. Perhaps a little sulking might be done but very little and only of the kind that provokes pleasant makings-up. Altogether it is a jolly fine institution and the world would be a better place if there was more of it.
In the opinion of Anthony Barraclough no one sat on the floor so divinely as Isabel, and to tell the truth he rather fancied himself as her floor partner.
"Don't you bother," he said to the maid. "I'll make my own way up."
He handed over his hat and stick and mounted the stairs and knocked at a door on the second floor.
"May I come in?" he asked and did not wait for the reply.
Isabel was built in among a nest of squabs and cushions that circled the tiny grate.
"Nice!" she said with a grin. "I was beginning to think you were deserting me. Rang up three times yesterday I did."
"Awful busy I was," he returned and disposed himself luxuriously beside her. Then he said 'Please' and had every reason to say 'Thank you' only he preferred to express it otherwise.
"What you been doing?"
"Trous-sewing," she answered nodding at a small basket decorated with silk fruit and overflowing with pieces of flimsy needlework. "But I've been dull. Where were you yesterday?"
"All over the place. North, south, east and west and the nor'-nor's and the sou'-sou's into the bargain. It was a hectic day."
Something in the forced gaiety of his voice made her look at him critically.
"Anything wrong?" he asked. "I know I'm not handsome but——"
"I don't know yet," she continued looking, "but you've a kind of flat look at the corners of your eyes where the fun ought to be."
"Now what on earth do you mean by that?"
"A lot. Tony! Almost you've got the——"
"The money face."
"Um! You mustn't laugh, it's a dreadful face. Daddy had it. He caught it during the rubber boom and it never went away. Are you still doing things with that beastly syndicate, Tony?"
"Here, chuck it," he implored humorously. "We're sitting on the floor, you know. 'Tisn't fair."
But her expression remained very grave.
"I sometimes believe," she said, "you think that's all I'm good for. You don't talk to me as I want you to talk. I'm not always sitting on the floor, Tony. It's lovely at times, but other times I'm different. I'm—oh, I'm a bit of a surprise really."
"What is it you want to know?"
"I want to be told what you're doing 'cos I've a funny feeling it isn't—oh! I don't know."
"You extraordinary child. It's perfectly all right. Rather important, that's all. There's nothing for you to bother about. I was going to tell you because I shall have to be away for three weeks and I thought——"
"Three weeks? But we were going to be married on——"
"Yes, that's rotten part. Still the invitations haven't gone out—and if we were to put it off ten days to be on the safe side——"
"Our wedding!" she said.
"I wouldn't have had it happen for the world. It's frightful bad luck but——"
Isabel drew up her knees. Very little and lovely she looked. Her big brown eyes were open wide and her lower lip was drawn in. A shock of chestnut hair framed the sweet oval of her face. Tony had said she was like a serious angel and he was right.
She nodded twice.
"It must be very important," she said, "if we have to postpone our wedding. I see."
"You don't see," he said edging closer to her. "You can't because I haven't wanted to worry you with details, but it is important—enormously important."
"More important than I am?"
"Yet it takes you away from me."
"Only for a little while—and look, dear, I don't want you to tell anyone I'm going."
"Because—well, it mustn't be known."
"Tony, is—is what you have to do dangerous?"
He answered evasively.
"What I have to do—no."
"Then let me come too. We could be married first. I don't want a fashionable wedding. Let's do that."
"Couldn't be done, dear. It wouldn't be——"
"You don't trust me."
"Of course I trust you," he said putting his arms round her. "I've trusted you from the moment we first met and I'm going on trusting you all the rest of my life. Isn't that good enough?"
"Not nearly," she answered and rose to her feet.
"Isabel," he said very seriously. "When I tell you that there are huge interests at stake—that all this is for something that—that defeats imagination, surely you will take my word."
She pressed a finger to her chin.
"Huge interests means money."
"It does," he replied, "but money on a colossal scale—illimitable. Doesn't that appeal to you?"
"No," she said. "I've all I want and you're well enough off. What's the good of more?"
"Just listen," he said. "If I bring off this deal there is no wish in the world one couldn't gratify, and bring it off I shall."
He started to pace up and down the narrow floor space of the tiny room, his hands opening and shutting and a light of enthusiasm dancing in his eyes. It was not the money face he wore as he spoke but the expression of the man of deeds, the man who joyed in accomplishment, in vanquishing difficulty, in facing long odds, buoyed up and carried along by the will to win.
"You can't understand, my dear, all this means to me and will mean to you. I haven't even imagined it myself. Think! We could buy islands, build hospitals, govern nations if the mood prompted us. And all for three weeks' work. Lord, it's—Oh! if I could make you see how big it is—how magnificent."
And womanlike she responded,
"I want you, Tony, the rest only frightens me."
"Forget the money," he said, "and bear this in mind. If I succeed the world will be richer by a tremendous healing force."
"Call it a medicine. It's lying out in the open within a little march of the common ways of men and women. I tumbled on the find by a stroke of luck and a little knowledge and a word inside me that whispered, 'Look, go and look.' You've read Kipling's 'Explorer'—I read it you. 'Something lost behind the ranges—something hidden, go you there.' It was like that with me—a pringly feeling—a kind of second sense—expectancy—belief—certainty. Nature has a trick of showing the combination of her treasure safe to one man before the rest—and I was the man."
The little chestnut head shook helplessly from side to side.
"What is it you've found?" said Isabel.
He looked at her searchingly and hesitated.
"If I tell you you'll keep it secret?"
He dropped his voice.
"It's radium," he said.
She repeated the word dully.
"Radium as it never had been found before. A—whew! an inexhaustible supply. Look—look here!"
He drew from his pocket a small black cylinder with a glass peephole at the top, protected by a circular cap of a dark substance.
"It's the finest piece of radium ever found," he said, "and where I got it, at a single dip of the shovel—but never mind that. See, protect it with your hand so, and look through that eyehole."
At the bottom of the cylinder was a luminous speck like a fire seen from a long way off. Waves and jags of angry light burst from it ceaselessly, this way and that. The restless mass was alive, active, burning. Infinitesimal though its dimensions were it gave a sense of illimitable force and power, a prodigious energy.
Isabel returned the cylinder with a nervous shudder.
"I don't like it," she said. "It—it's horrid somehow—wicked looking." She shot a quick glance at him. "You say this is going to be of value to the world!"
"Then why are you in danger? Why aren't you protected as someone who— Why are you in danger?"
He didn't answer at once and again she repeated the question.
"It's this way, dear," he said. "When anything great enough is discovered there is bound to be competition. I found the stuff but I haven't the capital to exploit it. I took my samples to a ring of financiers who are backing me."
"Mr. Torrington? Mr. Cassis?"
"Cranbourne—Frayne—that crowd. By sheer bad luck another ring got news of what was going on and are moving heaven and earth to get a share in the plunder."
"So it's plunder now," she said.
"From their point of view."
"And from yours?"
"That you're willing to risk your life for."
"One doesn't think of that," he answered.
"I do," she said.
"Wish I could give you some of my enthusiasm. What is it old Kipling says again:
'The game is more than the Player of the Game 'And the ship is more than the crew.'"
"Old Kipling, as you call him, wrote for men. What did he know about me?"
"Enough to guess you wouldn't have much use for us if we shirked standing our chances."
"The chances being?"
"The assault or favour of the other side."
"Favour?" she repeated.
Barraclough nodded and took from his pocket a folded sheet of notepaper.
"Listen to this," he said and read: "'Dear Mr. Barraclough, if you would grant me ten minutes private conversation, at your own convenience, I should be pleased to reward the courtesy with a sum of twenty-five thousand pounds. Faithfully yours, Hugo Van Diest.' And that's only ground bait."
"Did you meet him?"
Isabel rubbed her forehead perplexedly.
"Oh, I don't know," she said, "I don't understand. But if this radium belongs to your side already——"
"That's just it," he explained. "I haven't got the concession yet. They know that—it's what makes 'em so devilish active. You'll understand they'll do their best to prevent me getting to the place."
Her eyes opened very wide.
"Their best? D'you mean they'd——"
"Lord, no. There'd be no point in that unless they had the map reference first."
"You'll be gone three weeks?"
"They'll follow you?"
"You bet they'll try."
"Suppose they got you! Tony! Tony, they might try and make you speak."
He did his best to calm her but she went on furiously.
"It's true. Men are brutes—vile beasts—where money is concerned. Oh, I hate this—hate every bit of it. Power—healing—it's only another name for the money grab—the horrible cutthroat money grab. Tony, you shan't go—I won't let you go—I'll prevent you by every means——"
"Now, my dear," he begged, putting his arms about her, "be a good sensible little girl—be a baby for three weeks. You've all your trousseau to get—heaps of people to see. Why not run over to Paris for a week? Then there's my mother in Devon. She'd be tremendously bucked if——"
"Is this place abroad?" said Isabel.
"I can't tell that even to you."
"When are you starting?"
"Probably in three days' time—latish."
"You're determined to go?"
"Nothing I can say will prevent you?"
"I'm sorry, dear."
"Hm!" said Isabel. "Then I suppose we'd better make the most of the time that's left."
And very slowly she subsided on the Cushion pile in the corner, her chin resting on his shoulder and her left hand playing idly with a long gold tassel.
"Oh, you angel," he exclaimed, "I knew you wouldn't really make any difficulties. And there's no need to be frightened because they're fixing me up the easiest get-away in the world."
"I haven't promised anything," she answered noncommittally. Her eyes flashed up to his and in them shone the sweetest light imaginable. "But just for now I'm sitting on the floor again."
They forgot all about lunch.
EXPERIENCES OF A VAGRANT.
Richard Frencham Altar awoke betimes—as a fact he had been disturbed when the four o'clock patrol came round but subsequently slept for another spell. In the shuffle up he had changed the order of his companions and as he opened his eyes for the second time he found himself beside an old lady, generously skirted and shawled, who wore a hat from which the bare quills of several ostrich feathers pointed this way and that in raffish confusion. In her lap was a sack containing her various possessions. Richard watched dreamily as she emptied its contents upon the pavement and sorted them out in some kind of order. The proceeding was vaguely reminiscent of a barrack room kit inspection. So far as he could judge she was separating wardrobe from larder, the two having become painfully confused during the preceding day's march. To one inexpert in such matters it would have been hard to decide which was eatable and which wearable, and Richard observed the operation with a mixture of amusement and disgust. Having discovered her breakfast and selected a piece of rag to act as napkin, tablecloth, and subsequently a face towel, the old lady restored the remainder of her effects to the 'valise' and fell to. Noticing Richard was awake she addressed him in a singularly soprano voice.
"I'm up a bit early today," she remarked and added "Lovely air, isn't it?"
The unexpected aestheticism of the remark robbed him of speech. Ho had looked for mutterings or execrations but instead here was amiability and appreciation overriding adversity. A powerful desire possessed him to shake hands with his new acquaintance, but he did not risk it, being unacquainted with the proper etiquette of the benches. Recovering his composure he agreed about the pleasant quality of the air and threw in a word of praise for the sparrows.
"Dear little things," said the old lady over the grey crust to which she was applying a single tooth. Having gnawed off a corner she threw a glance at him. "Just come down?" she questioned.
"My first night," he said, "and I've rarely spent a better, though I confess I should enjoy a shave and a wash."
"There's a bit of mirror in the tobacconist," she nodded over her shoulder. "I often freshen up in front of it when the mood takes me. Many's the hat I've changed before that glass. But then I don't bother much these days." Once again her critical glance came in his direction. "After a time one loses interest, y'know."
The sentiment struck Richard chillily.
"And yet," he said, "you appear to have kept in touch with cheerfulness."
"Ah, but I'm old," she answered, "and to old people one thing's as good as another. But if I was you I wouldn't be content."
"I've no intention of being content," he said. "I just happen to have hit the rocks but I'll get sailing again one of these days."
"Well I'm glad to hear you say so, and now I must toddle along."
He asked what employment could engage her at so early an hour.
"I'm going to pick over the dustbins in Bond Street," she returned, and added "You never know what you'll find. Only you must be early. Goo' morning." And with a sunny smile the disreputable old thing shuffled away warbling a snatch of song as she went.
"By Jove," said Richard, "I suppose that's about what I'm doing—picking over dustbins and wondering what I shall find."
He looked across the park to where the golden orb of the sun was rising over the tree tops and lifted his hat in salutation.
"Good morning, day," he said. "Your servant to command. Gad! but I could do with some breakfast."
He rose and walked briskly toward Knightsbridge. The coffee stall by Hyde Park Corner attracted his attention. A few early carters and an occasional loafer were gathered about it and the smell of victuals was tempting. Richard noticed the driver of a large dray was leaning against the railings pouring tea into the saucer of his cup. He was a big man and his apparel was conspicuous by the fact that he wore a collar but no tie. The omission suggested an idea.
"Do you want a tie by any chance?" Richard asked and listened to a highly decorated ambition to know what he was talking about.
"Only this," he answered. "I've a notion I could do with some breakfast and it occurred to me as you might like to buy me one in exchange for a perfectly good Etonian tie."
For a space the driver examined Richard's necktie in thoughtful silence and his expression softened.
"I reckon that 'ud suit me," he observed judicially.
"It would," said Richard, "and a hard boiled egg would suit me with a cup of coffee to moisten it."
Somehow the absence of a tie seemed to ease the passage of the simple fare down his gullet and Richard felt twice his own man as he turned jubilantly into the park and swung along the lower walk. The breakfast had heartened him and he was ready to face the future with a bold front.
"I'll take a bit of a constitutional," he said, "and later on roll round to a labour bureau and see what's doing."
He paused for a moment by the rails of Rotten Row and watched some early horsemen canter by. In one of them he recognised an old acquaintance and instinctively covered the lower half of his face with his hand. His chin felt prickly to the touch for his beard had grown rapidly during the night. As a scrupulous twice-a-day shaver his senses rebelled at the notion of weed upon his face. However, it was useless to lament over trifles like that.
"I know," he said to himself. "A dip in the Serpentine."
A quarter of an hour later he was cutting through the water with long powerful strokes. On returning to the shore he had the good fortune to borrow a cake of soap from another bather who appeared, from the modesty of his folded garments, to be in equally hazardous financial circumstances.
"To tell the honest truth," his new acquaintance confided, "I bagged that bit of soap from a Great Eastern Railway carriage. Managed to nip in and collar it when no one was looking. Suppose I'm a thief of sorts but a man loses self respect if he doesn't wash."
They sat side by side until the pale sunlight had partially dried them.
"You broke?" Richard queried.
The man shook his head seriously.
"No, I'm a millionaire," he replied, "only I haven't any money—not a bean. Spent it all making myself rich. Look at this."
He untied a string that circled his neck. (Richard had noticed the string and a small linen bag it supported.) He opened the bag and produced a piece of yellow metal about the size of a lump of sugar.
"It's gold," he said.
Richard agreed that it looked like gold and asked where he found it.
"I made it," came the astonishing reply. "You needn't worry, it is gold all right. Bear any test." He restored it to the bag. "Seems stupid," he went on, "that here am I, with the knowledge to command millions, and I haven't a sou in my pocket. Cheap process, too, once you've got the plant. Dirt cheap. 'Course it's getting the plant's the trouble. No one'll believe me. Disheartening. Took that sample to the Bank of England—they asked me where I bought it—bought it! Lord! Oh well—one of these days, I suppose. Meet again perhaps. G'bye."
And with a cheery wave of the hand he vaulted the railings and ran lightly across the grass.
"I'm damned," said Richard. "If a fellow like that can make gold it follows to reason I ought to be able to make good."
It was after nine o'clock when Richard turned down the Earl's Court Road. He stopped before a small sweet stuff shop, attracted by a card in the window which read, "Letters may be addressed here, 1d."
"I suppose a man, even in my circumstances, ought to have a town address," he argued. "After all, one never knows."
Accordingly he entered and registered under the modest name of John Tidd. To the little old lady who wrote it down in a small laundry book devoted to the purpose, he said he was probably going abroad and later might send a request to forward correspondence. It was a dignified and pleasant transaction although he was conscious of a feeling that he would have created a more agreeable impression had he retained his necktie.
Coming out of the shop he fell into line with the tide of city workers moving southward to the underground station. These were the nobility of commerce who picked up the reins of office at nine forty-five—persons of substance in no way to be confused with the eight-thirty worker. It was an honourable association to walk down the Earl's Court Road in such company. Richard swung along at an even gait with an important looking individual in a hard felt hat to the right of him and a stout gentleman with a King Edward beard to the left. The three entered Earl's Court Station abreast and approached the barrier, where Richard stepped aside and let them pass through. Leaning against the grill gates was a man reading a folded copy of the Daily Sketch. He looked at Richard for an instant, then looked again searchingly. The repeated action attracted Richard's notice and their eyes met.
"Hardly worth while, is it?" said the man.
"I beg your pardon," Richard returned.
"Oh, that's quite all right—but I really wouldn't bother with it." He pointed at the opening of Richard's waistcoat and smiled. "That's rather a sound notion—no tie—distracts the eye from looking too keenly at the face. You nearly passed me."
"To be perfectly frank," Richard answered, "I shouldn't have bought crepe if I had."
The man laughed.
"Getting pretty sick of it, aren't you?" he queried.
A sure conviction possessed Richard that he was in the presence of a lunatic.
"On the contrary," he replied, "I'm just beginning to enjoy myself."
"Well, well, there's no accounting for tastes. But I should have thought you'd have had enough of railway stations. Better go home and stay there."
Richard shook his head sympathetically.
"Try taking a little more soda in it," he suggested. "You'd be a different man inside a week. So long."
The watcher by the gate was smiling pleasantly to himself as Richard turned away.
It was nearly one o'clock when his wanderings brought him back to the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. He had spent the intervening hours, with little enough success, at the labour bureau in Westminster. From there he had walked across the Mall and found an empty bench under the trees in Green Park looking up Park Lane. He had hardly seated himself when he saw a man come out of a big doorway opposite and hurry eastward in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. Even at the distance Richard had no difficulty in recognising the diner who overnight had nodded to him at the Berkeley.
"Half a mind to give him a shout," he thought, but on reflection "I don't know though, he seems in the deuce of a hurry and I can't imagine he's any work to give away."
It would have saved Cranbourne a lot of trouble if he had followed his first inclination.
CONCERNING A TIE.
Not a word had been received from Cranbourne. From the moment he left Lord Almont's flat he disappeared completely. That was Cranbourne's way, for once an idea started in his brain he rested not until it has been realised or disproved. He had given himself three days to find a human duplicate of Barraclough and among a population of seven millions the task was no easy one. His quarry had dined at the Berkeley on the twenty-fourth instant but beyond that point information languished. The redoubtable Brown, prince of head waiters, who knew the affairs of most of his customers as intimately as his own, was able to offer little or no assistance. He remembered the gentleman who had dined alone in a tweed suit and had said something about having no dress clothes. He believed he had seen him in uniform during the earlier parts of the war but couldn't recall the regiment. Had an impression he paid for his dinner with the last of the notes in his pocket but that might mean nothing. "A pleasant gentleman, spoke crisply and had a smile." John, of the cloakroom, recalled a half crown thrown on his little counter in return for a soft hat—"Wait a bit, sir, by a Manchester hatter I believe," and a rainproof coat "rather thinnish and brown."
The Manchester hat stuck in Cranbourne's throat a trifle since it widened the circle of enquiry.
The porter at the revolving door believed the gentleman had gone toward Piccadilly—walking. Yes, he was sure he hadn't taken a cab. Gave him a shilling and five coppers.
Cranbourne thanked them and spent the rest of the day passing in and out of every well known grill room in London. It was sound enough reasoning but it brought no results. At twelve o'clock the same night he paid a flying visit to all the dancing rooms—Murray's, Giro's, Rector's, The Embassy, Savoy and half a dozen others. At three o'clock he rang up Daimler's, hired a car and drove to Brighton because many men come up from Brighton by day and bring no evening clothes. Besides the time of his departure from the Berkeley plus a walk to Victoria Station more or less synchronised with the down train to Brighton. He spent the best part of the following day racing through hotel lists and looking up visitors at Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings and Folkestone. He was back in Town again by 7.30, at the Theatre Library, where he bought a single ticket for twelve musical plays and revues selecting them from the class of entertainment Barraclough himself would have been likely to attend. It was a restless evening, dashing from one place to another and sorting over the audiences in the narrow margin of time allowed by intervals. Afterwards he spent an hour by the fountain in Piccadilly Circus keenly examining the thousands of passers-by.
It was very late indeed when he struck one hand against the other and cried out,
"Oh, my Lord, what a fool I am."
A new significance had suddenly suggested itself as a result of Brown's repetition of the mysterious diner's remark, "I repeat I have no evening clothes." Cranbourne had taken it to imply that there had been no time to dress but why not accept it literally.
Two whole days wasted looking at men in white shirt fronts and black coats!
"Lord, what an idiot I am. Alter your line of thought and alter it quick."
He began to walk briskly, muttering to himself as he strode along.
"No dress clothes—deuce of an appetite. Chap who had scraped up a few guineas perhaps to do himself well—on the bust. No, that won't do. Ordered his dinner too well for that. Had the air of a man accustomed to the best places. Brown said so. A shilling and five coppers to the porter. Queer kind of tip! What in blazes was the fellow doing? What sort of company does he keep?"
Cranbourne jumped into a taxi and returned to the Berkeley. It was closed but a night porter admitted him.
"Look here, I want to get hold of Brown," he said.
"You're in luck, sir," the man returned. "One of our visitors 'as been giving a supper and Mr. Brown was in charge. If 'e 'asn't gone I'll try and get him for you."
He returned a moment later with Brown following.
"Tremendously sorry," said Cranbourne, "but I want to ask you a few more questions about that fellow I spoke of."
"I've been thinking about him myself, sir, and one or two things have come to mind. Remembered his tie for instance."
"Old Etonian colours," said Brown.
Cranbourne nodded enthusiastically.
"I was looking over his bill this afternoon and it seems to me he did himself too well to be natural. Rare for a man by himself to order a long dinner like that. Then again he looked at the prices on the menu just as if he meant to spend up to a certain amount. Something odd in that—unusual. But I'm pretty sure it was in his mind, sir."
"And you believe he spent the last of his notes."
"Certain of it."
"What's your idea?"
"He was very hungry—eat everything put before him. I should say—'course it's only a guess——"
"He'd gone a bit short and was wanting that meal."
"Did he seem depressed?"
"Not a bit. Rather amused. But it struck me when he got up he looked like a man saying goodbye to his mother."
"How old should you think?"
"Thirty-two or three."
"Old Etonian tie?"
"You're a man of experience, Brown," said Cranbourne. "Ever known a case of a chap who's on the point of going under, blueing the last of his cash on one big dinner?"
"I should just think so. There's a type does that sort of thing."
"Or one very like it."
"Many thanks. You've helped me no end. Now I'll get a taxi and drive to Windsor. Goodnight."
Just beyond the Ritz he found a taxi willing to undertake the journey. It was a pity he found it so easily for a hundred yards further down the slope the man he sought was sleeping fitfully on a bench facing Green Park.
It was not a lucky drive since it included three punctures and some engine trouble. They came into Windsor about 7.30 in the morning. Cranbourne made a hurried breakfast and set out to interview the photographers of the town. The particular one he sought did not arrive until nearly nine but on being questioned proved himself amiable and anxious to help. He produced Eton school groups of fifteen years antiquity and Cranbourne spent an hour anxiously scanning the faces of the boys in the hope of tracing a likeness to Barraclough. But boys are very much alike and very dissimilar from the men they grow into and though there were several dozen who might well have passed for Barraclough in infancy no particular one could have been selected with positive assurance. Cranbourne made a list of twenty names and Frencham Altar's was not among them.
Rather despondent he said goodbye to the photographer and entered the taxi.
"Think I'll go back by the Bath Road," said the driver, "it's a better surface."
"Please yourself," said Cranbourne and settled himself within.
He was beginning to feel a trifle done. His eyes had the sense of having been sand papered and his lips were dry and parched from want of rest. He glanced at his watch and shook his head.
"Only thirteen hours left," he said and closed his eyes.
Sleep comes very suddenly to the weary—like a pistol shot out of the dark. Cranbourne's head pitched forward against his chest and his hands slithered inertly from his knees.
He awoke with a start to the sound of smashing glass, a sharp rattle of imprecations and a sense of being turned upside down. The front nearside wheel of the taxi was in a ditch, the wind screen broken and a large dray horse was trying to put its fore hoof through the buckled bonnet. The taxi driver had fallen out and lay cursing gently on the grass slope to the left, one of his legs was up to the knee in water. Through the offside window Cranbourne caught a glimpse of the man in charge of the dray horses—a powerful person, high perched, his weight thrown bask against the tightened reins—his face purple with effort. From his mouth came an admirable flow of oaths, choicely adjusted to suit the occasion. Then Cranbourne saw something else. Beneath the man's vibrating jaw showed the pleasant colours of an Old Etonian tie. There could be no mistaking it—neither could there be any reason why the driver of a Covent Garden dray should exhibit such an ensign.
Cranbourne let the window down with a bang, stuck out his head and shouted,
"Where the devil did you get that tie?"
It is not hard to believe that this remark, apparently so irrelevant, did little to calm an already excited situation. The driver loosed his hold upon the reins, seized his whip and slashed it at Cranbourne's head. Cranbourne caught the whistling thong and tugged hard, with the result that the driver, who held on to the butt, lost his balance, pitched forward on to the flank of the nearside dray horse and rolled harmlessly on to the road. Cranbourne embraced the opportunity to get out, seized the bit rings of both horses and backed them away from the debris of the taxi.
Meanwhile the driver picked himself up and removed his coat as a proper preliminary to engagement.
"Put 'em up," he invited Cranbourne. "Put 'um up, you——" but the descriptive titles he employed do not affect the narrative.
Cranbourne shook his head and tugged a note case from his pocket.
"Five pounds," he said, "if you answer my question. Where did you get it?"
The driver exhibited some sample upper cuts and left hooks and beseeched Cranbourne to guard himself. But Cranbourne detached a fiver from its fellows and extended it temptingly.
"Don't you see I'm in earnest, man?"
The tone of his voice had a sobering effect and the amateur pugilist ceased manoeuvring.
"Why do you want to know?" he demanded.
"Never mind that—take the money and tell me."
"I got it," said the driver, "from a blame fool at the coffee stall by Hyde Park Corner. Bought 'im a doorstep and a ball of chalk b'way of return."
"When was this?"
"Day before yesterday—six o'clock in the morning."
"And what was he like?"
The answer clinched it.
"Was he shaved?"
"I reckon. Been sleepin' out by the looks of 'im."
"Seen him since?"
"Couldn't be sure. Maybe it was 'im I saw sleepin' on the bench by the Shelter 'Ouse in Piccadilly 'bout four this morning. There was a bloke there with a soft 'at and a brown coat."
Cranbourne produced another fiver and pushed it into the man's hand.
"You're the best fellow I've met in years," he said. Then turning to the taxi driver, "Get home as best you can. I'm going to look for a lift. Here's my card. I'll stand your losses on this."
He looked over his shoulder at the sound of a persistent croaking. A long grey Vauxhall car with a special body was coming down the road at speed. Cranbourne ran forward in its track, waving his arms. The man at the wheel looked over and braked. The big car did a double two way skid, tore serpentine ruts on the metalled road surface and stopped.
"Trying to get killed?" asked its owner sweetly. "'Cos you seem to have got the right idea of doing it."
"I want to get to Town and get there quick," said Cranbourne.
"So do I," said the man at the wheel, grinning amiably, "but it's a daily habit of mine. In you get!"
"By gad," said Cranbourne, leaping in as the car began to move, "I believe you come straight from heaven."
"I come from the Slough Trading Company as a matter of fact," said the young man, running through his gears from first to top like a pianist playing a scale. "Hope you don't mind a bit of noise. She talks some when she's moving."
He trod hard on the accelerator and somewhere behind a machine gun opened fire, at first articulately and then, as the pace increased, becoming an inarticulate solid roar. The beat of the engine, the sense of speed and the rush of the wind past his ears infected Cranbourne with a fierce exhilaration.
"Bless your heart," he shouted, "keep her at it."
"You bet," came the response.
"Gad, she can move. You must have pretty urgent business to push her along like this."
"Want to buy some collars as a matter of fact," said the young man. "No point wasting time on a job of that kind."
THE NIGHT OF THE 27TH.
At the flat in Albemarle Street Anthony Barraclough sat alone devouring a grilled steak. He was reticent of speech and every now and then he shot a glance at the clock. In the golden shadows beyond the rays of the table lamp, Doran, his servant, stood in silent attention to his master's wants.
Doran was a person of understanding and one of the few people in the world who shared a measure of Barraclough's confidence. A late corporal of the Black Watch, he had reverted to act as Barraclough's batman throughout the major portion of the war. Rather a curious mixture was Doran. He had a light hand for an omelette and a heavy fist in a mix up, a sense of humour in adversity and a seriousness in ordinary affairs of daily life, a shrewd observer, a flawless servant and a staunch ally. Very little got past Frederic Doran.
Barraclough shook his head at a bundle of cheese straws and lit a cigarette.
"Get those things for me?" he asked.
"They're in the dressing room, sir."
"Let's have a look."
Doran retired and returned almost immediately with a complete fireman's outfit. Barraclough tried on the helmet and nodded approvingly.
"Good enough. Stick 'em somewhere out of sight." And while Doran obeyed he added, "Damn silly idea, isn't it?"
"I haven't heard it, sir."
"Oh, it has its points, I suppose. See, I've got to get clear of here tonight and if—well—another scheme fails—I'm going to have a shot at it this way. At eleven forty-five you'll go out and ring up some fire engines."
"Just so, sir."
"I shall burn brown paper in that grate with the register closed. Windows open at the bottom—plenty of smoke—effect of flames produced by switching off and on the electric light. It ought to be good for a crowd of about ten thousand. Soon as the engines roll up I go out dressed as a fireman. Car at the top of St. James's Street. Coal train in a siding at Addison Road which pulls out at twelve five. Me under a tarpaulin somewhere. Whoosh! Gone!"
"And after that, sir?"
"Ah!" said Barraclough, "that's another story."
"Do you fancy it much yourself, sir?"
"Lord knows! The crowd ought to help. Reduces the odds in my favour a bit."
"At quarter to twelve, sir?"
"Um. That'll be after the gentlemen have gone. Clear away this stuff and put out some drinks. They'll be here at ten thirty. I'm going to change into something thinner, that won't brush up under that fireman gear. Got those notes?"
Doran produced a bulky package of bank notes.
He nodded and entered the bedroom to which there was a door below the fireplace.
A little later the bell rang imperatively, followed by a tattoo on the knocker.
"Who's that?" came from Barraclough's voice behind the closed door.
"Don't know, sir."
"They can't have arrived yet. Say I'm out."
Doran withdrew and returned almost immediately.
Barraclough threw open the door and came into the room. He was in trousers and a shirt and was fastening a tie.
"It's Miss Irish, sir. I said you were out but she didn't believe me. Insisted on coming in."
"Lord, that's awkward. Where did you leave her?"
"The smoking room."
"Say what she wanted?"
"To see you, sir—very imperative."
Barraclough bit his moustache and glanced at the clock.
"Hm! I've ten minutes. Yes, all right. If the gentlemen arrive meanwhile put 'em in the smoking room. Get a coat. Shan't be a second."
He disappeared into the bedroom and Doran went out to fetch Isabel.
"If you'll take a chair, miss, he won't keep you a moment. The evening paper?"
"No," she said, "no."
It was a very different Isabel from the curled up little person who sat on the cushions. Her face was white and tense—her mouth drawn in a line of determination. She shook her head at the offer of a chair and waved Doran to go away.
"Tony," she called as soon as the door had closed. "Tony."
He came into the room buttoning his coat.
"I say, my dear, you shouldn't have come here—really—really you shouldn't," he said.
"I had to—had to," she repeated.
"You mustn't stay—these people'll be here directly."
"Horrible money people," she returned, "and you'd send me away for them."
"I told you——" he began.
"You told me they'd found an easy way for you to get out—a safe way. It isn't true."
"How do you know?" was startled from him.
"I found out tonight from Lord Almont. Danced with him—made a fool of him—pretended I knew all about it—pretended I was sorry there was not going to be any excitement in the thing. Said I really only cared for men who tackled danger. Looked at him as though I thought he was wonderful."
"I'll smash that fellow's head," said Barraclough grimly.
"You needn't—he's loyal enough. Thought he was doing you a good turn—both of us a good turn. Said it wasn't going to be quite so easy as you'd expected. So now I know you see—know it's going to be horridly, hideously dangerous."
"Oh, my dear," he said, "why didn't you leave it alone?"
"I'm not the sort," she answered. "Where I love, Tony, I—I protect."
"You've a life time ahead to protect me in," he said.
"I'm going to do it now," said she. "You're not going, Tony."
"Listen," said Barraclough very earnestly, "there can't be any interference in this. A false move now might ruin everything. If they knew I was making a dash tonight——"
"They will know."
"I shall tell them."
He shook his head. "Hardly, my dear. Besides I don't think you know who to tell."
"You forget the letter you showed me. Mr. Van Diest might be interested."
"I showed you that letter in confidence. You wouldn't betray——"
"Oh, wouldn't I? I'd betray any confidence that would keep you safe."
"It's lovely of you," he began.
"And I shall do it too," she cut in.
"Oh, very well," said Barraclough coldly.
Her arms went round his neck and drew his cheek to hers.
"Would you stop loving me if I did?"
"I couldn't stop loving you whatever happened."
"Oh, Tony, take me with you. I wouldn't mind then. I've promised to share my life with you—aren't I good to share a single danger?"
"Much too good."
She released her hold and stood away.
"So it's as grave as all that," said she. "Very well, if you refuse I shan't marry you."
"You don't mean that?"
"Give me a bible—I'll swear it."
"You have two alternatives. Take me with you or tell me where this place is."
"What use would the knowledge be to you?"
"All the use. If they got you I know very well they'd never make you speak. You—you wouldn't."
He nodded gravely at that.
"But I should. It 'ud give me the power to bail you out. Do you understand now?"
"I understand I should be every sort of a coward if I told you on those terms."
"Oh, you man—you man," she cried. "Well, you've the choice."
"To tell or lose you?"
In the silence that followed an electric bell rang sharply.
"There they are," he exclaimed.
"Be quick, I'm waiting," she said.
"Can't you accept my word that it's better you shouldn't know?"
"You've the choice," she repeated.
Anthony Barraclough looked round him desperately, then he spoke very fast.
"If I tell you you'll do nothing—say nothing till eleven o'clock this day three weeks?"
The words that followed rattled out like a hail of shrapnel.
"Brewster's Series nineteen. Map twenty-four. Square F. North twenty-seven. West thirty-three."
"I'll write it down."
"No, no, you won't," he cried. "I've fulfilled my part of the bargain and you've forgotten it already."
She fixed him with her clear blue eyes, square lidded and earnest.
"Brewster's Series nineteen. Map twenty-four. Square F. North twenty-seven. West thirty-three," she said.
He looked at her in sheer amazement.
"You wonder! You absolute wonder!" he gasped.
"If I were dead I should remember that," she said. "It's stuck for good." She touched her forehead, then quite suddenly her body went limp and tilted against him. "Oh, but if only it were over," she whispered huskily. "If only it were all—all over. Kiss me, please."
"Never fear," he said, his arms tightening round her. "Never fear. I couldn't fail with you waiting for me."
He kissed her again and again.
"Dear blessed beautiful little love of mine! Look, I'll take one of your flowers as a mascot."
"Hedge rose," she said and started. "It means hope, Tony."
"Hope it is, my dear. God bless you."
They stood apart as the door opened and Doran came in to announce the arrival of the gentlemen.
"All right. Attend to the front door. Miss Irish is going."
Doran went out and Barraclough turned to Isabel.
"Will you grin for me just once?" he begged.
The small face went pluckily into lines of humour.
"Not a very nice grin, Tony."
"The best in the world," said he and hugged her close.
They passed out of the room together.
When Barraclough returned Mr. Torrington was leaning on his arm. Nugent Cassis and Lord Almont Frayne followed in the rear.
"I was sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Torrington," he apologised.
"Waiting? No, no. We were early. My train arrived at Waterloo this morning one minute ahead of time. It has put me out all day." The old gentleman lowered himself by sections into an elbow chair. "Heard from Cranbourne?"
Barraclough shook his head.
"Never expected you would," said Cassis shortly. "The whole scheme was waste of time. We don't live in Ruritania where doubles walk about arm in arm. Cranbourne has a bee in his bonnet."
"A whole hive," Lord Almont interjected.
"Perhaps," Mr. Torrington smiled, "but let us at least do him the justice to admit that they buzz very merrily."
Cassis shrugged his shoulders.
"Buzzing is of no value in the present circumstances."
Mr. Torrington continued to smile.
"Except so far as it helps our young friend here to buzz off," he said.
The modern slang on the lips of the octogenarian made Barraclough laugh. But the nerves of Nugent Cassis were frayed and laughter was an irritant.
"Let us keep to the point," he insisted. "Did you follow out those instructions I suggested?"
Barraclough nodded. The idea of the false fire came from Cassis and, like most of his schemes, suffered from complexity of detail. He began enumerating the points to be sure that all was in order.
Mr. Torrington shook his head and interrupted.
"A silly idea," he said, "clever but silly."
"If you have a better——"
Mr. Torrington put his fingers together and continued slowly.
"My method would be to go out through the main entrance wearing no hat and carrying a few letters for the post. There might be a cab waiting at the pillar box—to be exact there is, I ordered one."
"That's the idea," cried Almont. "Sweet and simple."
"That cab would dodge about the streets a while and eventually make its way to Wimbledon. At Wimbledon it would deposit Barraclough at Number 14a, Medina Road. He would enter the house and change into running shorts and a vest having appointed himself underneath with rather a large pneumatic stomach. Also he would wear a beard and a perfectly bald head. This done he would emerge from the house and start running in the middle of the road in whatever direction he likes with a man on a push bicycle pedalling behind him.
"But I can't see——" Cassis began.
"Precisely," said Mr. Torrington, "and nor could anyone else. Nobody sees the extraordinary individuals who run at night, they only laugh at them."
"If you ask me," said Cassis, drumming his fingers on the mantelpiece, "I am of opinion that we are merely losing time with all this talk and the sooner we get Barraclough away the better."
Mr. Torrington's eyes looked him coldly up and down.
"You should know me well enough, Cassis, to realise that when I lose time I lose it purposely. I am waiting for Cranbourne."
"Cranbourne's ideas are altogether too fantastic."
"We agreed to do nothing until eleven o'clock and it wants ten minutes to the hour."
"Not a very substantial margin to find Barraclough's double."
"It is as easy to find a man in ten minutes as in ten years—a mere matter of chance. For my own part I always favoured indifferent odds."
"By Jove, sir," exclaimed Barraclough, "you're my man. Damn the opposition. Damn the odds. We'll do it, what."
A measure of his enthusiasm infected the old man.
"We'll have a damn good try anyway."
"And if it comes to a rough and tumble——"
"Hit first and hit hardest."
An electric bell swizzed.
"Failed," grunted Cassis.
But Mr. Torrington's eyes were on the clock.
"Since he is five minutes ahead of time I imagine he has succeeded."
Doran came in.
"Mr. Cranbourne, sir."
"Alone?" Cassis rapped out the question like a pistol shot, but before there was time to answer Cranbourne burst into the room, his face aglow with excitement.
"I've done it," he said. "It's all right—terrific."
Lord Almont sprang to his feet.
"You don't mean?"
"Yes, I do."
"The real Mackay?"
"Alike as two postage stamps."
"Where've you got him?"
"Here, in your bathroom—changing."
"Of course. Couldn't bring him as he was. They'd have spotted him for certain. So I draped him in a nurse's cloak and cap over his ordinary gear. Looked fine under a veil with his face painted pretty and pink. He's washing it off now."
"Is he like me?" said Barraclough.
"How's he talk?"
"As you do. I'd have been here earlier only he was hungry—devilish hungry. He'd not eaten for best part of three days."
"But you saw him at the Berkeley."
"I know, that made it a bit difficult."
"Come on," said Barraclough, "let's hear all about it."
"Take too long. Had almost given up hope this morning, then I had a stroke of luck—hit a red hot trail—spent the day chasing through the West End staring at every man I saw. Got a glimpse of him at last in Clarges Street 'bout nine o'clock. Taxi with a heap of luggage drove up to a house and this chap came racing after it."
Cassis threw up his hands.
"Good heavens," he exclaimed, "a cab runner."
"Not he—down and out, that's all. I might easily have missed him for he'd grown a bit of a scrub on his chin during the last few days but when I saw the way he had of standing and that same trick of the head you've got I was sure enough. He's a sportsman, that chap, for he was wanting food and yet some decent restraint stopped him coming forward to help with the boxes. He'd meant to but at the last moment he shirked it. I could see him wrestling with himself—a step forward, then hesitating. At last the driver asked him to lend a hand with the biggest trunk and he shouldered it and carried it into the house. When he came out the fare was fumbling in his pocket for six-pences. It must have been the sight of this cut into his pride. He hadn't a cent of his own but something inside him rebelled. 'No, I'll be damned if I can,' he said and made off down the street. I picked him up on the bench by the cabbies' shelter ten minutes later. Made myself affable and asked if he'd care to turn an honest fifty. In fact I gave fifty as a bona fide. Told him to get himself shaved and roll round to Clarkson's to be fixed up in the nurse's gear—and get some food too."
"That was risky," remarked Lord Almont, "you might never have seen the jolly old bird again."
"I told you he was a gentleman, didn't I?"
Mr. Torrington leaned forward.
"Does he know what we want of him?"
"Roughly. I said it was to occupy a flat for three weeks."
"Ah! Barraclough, I am disposed to think you would do wisely to retire into the next room while we interview this young gentleman. The less he knows the better."
"There isn't a cupboard, I suppose, where you could fix yourself up with an easy chair until—well until the kidnapping is over."
"There's a wine cupboard."
"Excellent. We'll have a word together before you go."
There was a knock and Doran came in and addressed Cranbourne.
"The gentleman wishes to have a word with you, sir."
"Half a second," said Barraclough. "I'll slip out through the bedroom. There's a second door into the hall. Righto, Doran."
He disappeared, closing the door after him.
"The gentleman, sir," Doran announced.
Richard Frencham Altar came into the room. The privations of the preceding three days had paled him a trifle. His eyes glittered brightly and there was a hint of nervousness in the tenseness of his lower lip.
Doran went out. Richard closed the door and turned to face the company. Mr. Torrington leaned forward and as though by accident twitched down the table lamp shade that the light might be thrown on the newcomer's face. Lord Almont gasped and even Cassis was startled by the phenomenal likeness. Mr. Torrington nodded approval.
Richard's eyes went quickly from one to another. Then his hand moved to his throat and covered the empty space where his tie should have been. No one spoke and under the battery of glances his muscles tightened resentfully and his head jerked slightly to one side.
"Anything so very peculiar about my appearance?" he demanded.
Mr. Torrington was first to recover his composure and he rose with difficulty.
"You justly reproach our manners, Mr.—er——"
"Anything you like," said Richard, then with a flash of memory, "Oh, my name is Tidd—John Tidd."
"By gad, it's amazing," gasped Lord Almont.
Mr. Torrington waved his hand toward a chair but Richard shook his head.
"No, thanks—won't sit down. I came because I promised this gentleman to do so—but——"
"I find it a little trying to stand," said Mr. Torrington.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. For a minute then."
With an air of unwillingness he occupied a chair.
"A little whiskey and soda?" Lord Almont suggested.
"Not for me."
"Ah! I'm a pernicious smoker." He lighted a cigarette, turned to Mr. Torrington and nodded over his shoulder in the direction of Cranbourne. "I'm afraid, sir, this gentleman took me at a disadvantage. To be frank, I was hungry."
Mr. Torrington shook his head despondently.
"As the senior member of a firm of dyspeptics, established for over fifty years, I envy you."
"You needn't, sir,—it was pretty crucial. He offered me fifty quid to occupy this flat for twenty-one days and to say 'no' to any question that might be asked. I wasn't myself at the time—I accepted. Since then I've had a good meal and that alters things. I hope, gentleman, I shall cause you no inconvenience if I recall my promise." No one replied and he went on. "My grub cost three and a bender and I spent a bob in cigarettes." He fished some notes and silver from his pocket and planked them on the table. "That's your change, gentlemen, if someone would be good enough to count it over. You don't mind, I hope, if I return the margin when I'm in a better position to do so. Goodnight, gentlemen." He rose, nodded to the company and walked to the door.
Mr. Torrington did not look in his direction. He spoke gently as though addressing an electric fitting on the wall facing him.
"I am sorry, Mr. Tidd, you are indisposed to remain. My friend had no thought of offending when he offered the temporary accommodation you have just returned. It was our intention to reward the services of whoever assisted us in this matter with a sum that a gentleman might have no embarrassment in accepting. We should have been pleased to place five thousand pounds to your account."
Richard span round sharply.
"Five thousand—for being a caretaker—you—you're joking—rather unkindly."
"On the contrary I am speaking very earnestly indeed." The tone of voice was sincere.
Again Richard looked from one to another.
"You're a funny crowd," he laughed. "Ha! damn funny. S'pose you're getting some sort of satisfaction out of it, but a man with a hole in the sole of his boot doesn't much fancy having his leg pulled. Goodnight."
But Nugent Cassis intervened between Richard and the door.
"We give you our word, Mr. Tidd, the sum mentioned will be at your disposal tomorrow three weeks if you agree to remain."
"Your words," said Richard with a touch of irony. "I suppose you wouldn't care to give me your names as a guarantee?"
"Assuredly," Mr. Torrington replied. "It was a mere oversight that we have hitherto neglected to do so." And in the courtliest manner he introduced the company by name.
"The devil," said Richard, "I knew who you were all right, but I didn't imagine you'd tell me. That—that makes a difference." He hesitated, then sat down abruptly. "Well, come along, gentlemen, what is it you want me to do?"
Nugent Cassis, as the specialist of detail, briefly outlined their requirements. He spoke coldly and without emphasis. The programme was simple. Mr. Tidd would assume the name of Barraclough, he would occupy these chambers, or wherever else circumstance might happen to take him, for a period of three weeks. At the end of that time he might reveal his identity or not as he pleased. It was understood, was it not, that he would refuse to answer any questions that might be put to him. This was a point of considerable importance since there was a likelihood that pressure might be employed to induce him to speak.
"I'm pretty close when I mean to be," said Richard. "But what is the answer?"
"As to that," Cassis replied, "I must ask you to contain your curiosity."
"Well, it shouldn't be hard to say I don't know."
Cassis hoped so devoutly.
"To tell the truth," said Mr. Torrington very sweetly, "we don't know the answer ourselves."
Richard shot a doubtful glance at him, but the seamed old face betrayed nothing of the purpose it concealed.
"It's all very mysterious," said Richard, "and I'm not sure I like the look of it."
"If you are nervous——" began Cassis icily.
"Nervous be damned," he retorted. "I'm not easily scared, but I'd like you to know this. I may have slipped down the ladder a bit, gentlemen, but I'm not altogether an outsider."
Lord Almont and Mr. Torrington made a duet with "My dear fellar!" and "We have already realised that, Mr. Tidd."