OKEWOOD OF THE SECRET SERVICE
(pseud. Douglas Valentine)
I. THE DEPUTY TURN II. CAPTAIN STRANGWISE ENTERTAINS A GUEST III. MR. MACKWAYTE MEETS AN OLD FRIEND IV. MAJOR OKEWOOD ENCOUNTERS A NEW TYPE V. THE MURDER AT SEVEN KINGS VI. "NAME O'BARNEY" VII. NUR-EL-DIN VIII. THE WHITE PAPER PACKAGE IX. METAMORPHOSIS X. D. O. R. A. IS BAFFLED XI. CREDENTIALS XII. AT THE MILL HOUSE XIII. WHAT SHAKESPEARE'S COMEDIES REVEALED XIV. BARBARA TAKES A HAND XV. MR. BELLWARD IS CALLED TO THE TELEPHONE XVI. THE STAR OF POLAND XVII. MR. BELLWARD ARRANGES A BRIDGE EVENING XVIII. THE GATHERING OF THE SPIES XIX. THE UNINVITED GUEST XX. THE ODD MAN XXI. THE BLACK VELVET TOQUE XXII. WHAT THE CELLAR REVEALED XXIII. MRS. MALPLAQUET GOES DOWN TO THE CELLAR XXIV. THE TWO DESERTERS XXV. TO MRS. MALPLAQUET'S XXVI. THE MAN IN THE SUMMER HOUSE XXVII. THE RED LACQUER ROOM XXVIII. AN OFFER FROM STRANGWISE XXIX. DOT AND DASH XXX. HOHENLINDEN TRENCH XXXI. THE 100,000 POUND KIT
CHAPTER I. THE DEPUTY TURN
Mr. Arthur Mackwayte slipped noiselessly into the dining-room and took his place at the table. He always moved quietly, a look of gentle deprecation on his face as much as to say: "Really, you know, I can't help being here: if you will just overlook me this time, by and by you won't notice I'm there at all!" That was how he went through life, a shy, retiring little man, quiet as a mouse, gentle as a dove, modesty personified.
That is, at least, how Mr. Arthur Mackwayte struck his friends in private life. Once a week, however, he fairly screamed at the public from the advertisement columns of "The Referee": "Mackwayte, in his Celebrated Kerbstone Sketches. Wit! Pathos! Tragedy!!! The Epitome of London Life. Universally Acclaimed as the Greatest Portrayer of London Characters since the late Chas. Dickens. In Tremendous Demand for Public Dinners. The Popular Favorite. A Few Dates still Vacant. 23, Laleham Villas, Seven Kings. 'Phone" and so on.
But only professionally did Mr. Mackwayte thus blow his own trumpet, and then in print alone. For the rest, he had nothing great about him but his heart. A long and bitter struggle for existence had left no hardness in his smooth-shaven flexible face, only wrinkles. His eyes were gray and keen and honest, his mouth as tender as a woman's.
His daughter, Barbara, was already at table pouring out the tea—high tea is still an institution in music-hall circles. Mr. Mackwayte always gazed on this tall, handsome daughter of his with amazement as the great miracle of his life. He looked at her now fondly and thought how.... how distinguished, yes, that was the word, she looked in the trim blue serge suit in which she went daily to her work at the War Office.
"Rations a bit slender to-night, daddy," she said, handing him his cup of tea, "only sardines and bread and butter and cheese. Our meatless day, eh?"
"It'll do very well for me, Barbara, my dear," he answered in his gentle voice, "there have been times when your old dad was glad enough to get a cup of tea and a bite of bread and butter for his supper. And there's many a one worse off than we are today!"
"Any luck at the agent's, daddy?"
Mr. Mackwayte shook his head.
"These revues are fair killing the trade, my dear, and that's a fact. They don't want art to-day, only rag-time and legs and all that. Our people are being cruelly hit by it and that's a fact. Why, who do you think I ran into at Harris' this morning? Why, Barney who used to work with the great Charles, you know, my dear. For years he drew his ten pound a week regular. Yet there he was, looking for a job the same as the rest of us. Poor fellow, he was down on his luck!"
Barbara looked up quickly.
"Daddy, you lent him money...."
Mr. Mackwayte looked extremely uncomfortable.
"Only a trifle, my dear, just a few shillings.... to take him over the week-end.... he's getting something.... he'll repay me, I feel sure...."
"It's too bad of you, daddy," his daughter said severely. "I gave you that ten shillings to buy yourself a bottle of whiskey. You know he won't pay you back. That Barney's a bad egg!"
"Things are going bad with the profession," replied Mr. Mackwayte. "They don't seem to want any of us old stagers today, Barbara!"
"Now, daddy, you know I don't allow you to talk like that. Why, you are only just finished working.... the Samuel Circuit, too!"
Barbara looked up at the old man quickly.
"Only, four weeks' trial, my dear.... they didn't want me, else they would have given me the full forty weeks. No, I expect I am getting past my work. But it's hard on you child...."
Barbara sprang up and placed her hand across her father's mouth.
"I won't have you talk like that, Mac"—that was her pet name for him—"you've worked hard all your life and now it's my turn. Men have had it all their own way before this war came along: now women are going to have a look in. Presently' when I get to be supervisor of my section and they raise my pay again, you will be able to refuse all offers of work. You can go down to Harris with a big cigar in your mouth and patronize him, daddy..."
The telephone standing on the desk in the corner of the cheap little room tingled out sharply. Barbara rose and went across to the desk. Mr. Mackwayte thought how singularly graceful she looked as she stood, very slim, looking at him whimsically across the dinner-table, the receiver in her hand.
Then a strange thing happened. Barbara quickly put the receiver down on the desk and clasped her hands together, her eyes opened wide in amazement.
"Daddy," she cried, "it's the Palaceum... the manager's office... they want you urgently! Oh, daddy, I believe it is an engagement!"
Mr. Mackwayte rose to his feet in agitation, a touch of color creeping into his gray cheeks.
"Nonsense, my dear!" he answered, "at this time of night! Why, it's past eight... their first house is just finishing... they don't go engaging people at this time of day... they've got other things to think of!"
He went over to the desk and picked up the receiver.
"Mackwayte speaking!" he said, with a touch of stage majesty in his voice.
Instantly a voice broke in on the other end of the wire, a perfect torrent of words.
"Mackwayte? Ah! I'm glad I caught you at home. Got your props there? Good. Hickie of Hickie and Flanagan broke his ankle during their turn at the first house just now, and I want you to take their place at the second house. Your turn's at 9.40: it's a quarter past eight now: I'll have a car for you at your place at ten to nine sharp. Bring your band parts and lighting directions with you... don't forget! You get twenty minutes, on! Right! Goodbye!"
"The Palaceum want me to deputize for Hickie and Flanagan, my dear," he said a little tremulously' "9.40... the second house... it's... it's very unexpected!"
Barbara ran up and throwing her arms about his neck, kissed him.
"How splendid!" she exclaimed, "the Palaceum, daddy! You've never had an engagement like this before... the biggest hall in London...!!
"Only for a night, my dear"' said Mr. Mackwayte modestly.
"But if they like you, daddy, if it goes down... what will you give them, daddy?"
Mr. Mackwayte scratched his chin.
"It's the biggest theatre in London"' he mused, "It'll have to be broad effects... and they'll want something slap up modern, my dear, I'm thinking..."
"No, no, daddy" his daughter broke in vehemently "they want the best. This is a London audience, remember, not a half-baked provincial house. This is London, Mac, not Wigan! And Londoners love their London! You'll give 'em the old London horse bus driver, the sporting cabby, and I believe you'll have time to squeeze in the hot potato man..."
"Well, like your poor dear mother, I expect you know what's the best I've got" replied Mr. Mackwayte, "but it'll be a bit awkward with a strange dresser... I can't get hold of Potter at this time, of night... and a stranger is sure to mix up my wigs and things..."
"Why, daddy, I'm going with you to put out your things..."
"But a lady clerk in the War Office, Barbara... a Government official, as you might say... go behind at a music-hall... it don't seem proper right, my dear!"
"Nonsense, Mac. Where Is your theatre? Come along. We'll have to try and get a taxi!"
"They're sending a car at ten to nine, my dear!"
"Good gracious! what swells we are! And it's half-past eight already! Who is on the bill with you?"
"My dear, I haven't an idea... I'm not very well up in the London programmes' I'm afraid... but it is sure to be a good programme. The Palaceum is the only house that's had the courage to break away from this rotten revue craze!"
Barbara was in the hall now, her arms plunged to the shoulder in a great basket trunk that smelt faintly of cocoa-butter. Right and left she flung coats and hats and trousers and band parts, selecting with a sure eye the properties which Mr. Mackwayte would require for the sketches he would play that evening. In the middle of it all the throbbing of a car echoed down the quiet road outside. Then there came a ring at the front door.
* * * * * *
At half-past nine that night, Barbara found herself standing beside her father in the wings of the vast Palaceum stage. Just at her back was the little screened-off recess where Mr. Mackwayte was to make the quick changes that came in the course of his turn. Here, since her arrival in the theatre, Barbara had been busy laying out coats and hats and rigs and grease-paints on the little table below the mirror with its two brilliant electric bulbs, whilst Mr. Mackwayte was in his dressing-room upstairs changing into his first costume.
Now, old Mackwayte stood at her elbow in his rig-out as an old London bus-driver in the identical, characteristic clothes which he had worn for this turn for the past 25 years. He was far too old a hand to show any nervousness he might feel at the ordeal before him. He was chatting in undertones in his gentle, confidential way to the stage manager.
All around them was that curious preoccupied stillness hush of the power-house which makes the false world of the stage so singularly unreal by contrast when watched from the back. The house was packed from floor to ceiling, for the Palaceum's policy of breaking away from revue and going back to Mr. Mackwayte called "straight vaudeville" was triumphantly justifying itself.
Standing in the wings, Barbara could almost feel the electric current running between the audience and the comedian who, with the quiet deliberation of the finished artist, was going through his business on the stage. As he made each of his carefully studied points, he paused, confident of the vast rustle of laughter swelling into a hurricane of applause which never failed to come from the towering tiers of humanity before him, stretching away into the roof where the limelights blazed and spluttered. Save for the low murmur of voices at her side, the silence behind the scenes was absolute. No one was idle. Everyone was at his post, his attention concentrated on that diminutive little figure in the ridiculous clothes which the spot-lights tracked about the stage.
It was the high-water mark of modern music-hall development. The perfect smoothness of the organization gave Barbara a great feeling of contentment for she knew how happy her father must be. Everyone had been so kind to him. "I shall feel a stranger amongst the top-liners of today, my dear," he had said to her in the car on their way to the hall. She had had no answer ready for she had feared he spoke the truth.
Yet everyone they had met had tried to show them that Arthur Mackwayte was not forgotten. The stage-door keeper had known him in the days of the old Aquarium and welcomed him by name. The comedian who preceded Mr. Mackwayte and who was on the stage at that moment had said, "Hullo, Mac! Come to give us young 'uns some tips?" And even now the stage manager was talking over old days with her father.
"You had a rough but good schooling, Mac," he was saying, "but, by Jove, it gave us finished artists. If you saw the penny reading line that comes trying to get a job here... and gets it, by Gad!... it'd make you sick. I tell you I have my work cut out staving them off! It's a pretty good show this week, though, and I've given you a good place, Mac... you're in front of Nur-el-Din!"
"Nur-el-Din?" repeated Mr. Mackwayte' "what is it, Fletcher? A conjurer?"
"Good Lord' man' where have you been living?" replied Fletcher. "Nur-el-Din is the greatest vaudeville proposition since Lottie Collins. Conjurer! That's what she is, too, by Jove! She's the newest thing in Oriental dancers... Spaniard or something... wonderful clothes, what there is of 'em... and jewelry... wait till you see her!"
"Dear me"' said Mr. Mackwayte' "I'm afraid I'm a bit behind the times. Has she been appearing here long?"
"First appearance in London, old man' and she's made good from the word 'Go!' She's been in Paris and all over the Continent, and America, too, I believe, but she had to come to me to soar to the top of the bill. I saw at once where she belonged! She's a real artiste, temperament, style and all that sort of thing and a damn good producer into the bargain! But the worst devil that ever escaped out of hell never had a wickeder temper! She and I fight all the time! Not a show, but she doesn't keep the stage waiting! But I won! I won't have her prima donna tricks in this theatre and so I've told her! Hullo, Georgie's he's finishing..."
The great curtain switched down suddenly, drowning a cascade of applause, and a bundle of old clothes, twitching nerves, liquid perspiration and grease paint hopped off the stage into the centre of the group. An electric bell trilled, the limelights shut off, with a jerk that made the eyes ache, a back-cloth soared aloft and another glided down into its place, the comedian took two, three, four calls, then vanished into a horde of dim figures scuttling about in the gloom.
An electric bell trilled again and deep silence fell once more, broken only by the hissing of the lights.
"You ought to stop behind after your turn and see her, Mac," the stage manager's voice went on evenly. "All right, Jackson! On you go, Mac!"
Barbara felt her heart jump. Now for it, daddy!
The great curtain mounted majestically and Arthur Mackwayte, deputy turn, stumped serenely on to the stage.
CHAPTER II. CAPTAIN STRANGWISE ENTERTAINS A GUEST
It was the slack hour at the Nineveh Hotel. The last groups about the tea-tables in the Palm Court had broken up, the Tzigane orchestra had stacked its instruments together on its little platform and gone home, and a gentle calm rested over the great hotel as the forerunner of the coming dinner storm.
The pre-dinner hour is the uncomfortable hour of the modern hotel de luxe. The rooms seem uncomfortably hot, the evening paper palls, it is too early to dress for dinner, so one sits yawning over the fire, longing for a fireside of one's own. At least that is how it strikes one from the bachelor standpoint, and that is how it appeared to affect a man who was sitting hunched up in a big arm-chair in the vestibule of the Nineveh Hotel on this winter afternoon.
His posture spoke of utter boredom. He sprawled full length in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his, eyes half-closed, various editions of evening papers strewn about the ground at his feet. He was a tall, well-groomed man, and his lithe, athletic figure looked very well in its neat uniform.
A pretty little woman who sat at one of the writing desks in the vestibule glanced at him more than once. He was the sort of man that women look at with interest. He had a long, shrewd, narrow head, the hair dark and close-cropped, a big, bold, aquiline nose, and a firm masterful chin, dominated by a determined line of mouth emphasised by a thin line of moustache. He would have been very handsome but for his eyes, which, the woman decided as she glanced at him, were set rather too close together. She thought she would prefer him as he was now, with his eyes glittering in the fire-light through their long lashes.
But what was most apparent was the magnificent physical fitness of the man. His was the frame of the pioneer, the man of the earth's open spaces and uncharted wilds. He looked as hard as nails, and the woman murmured to herself, as she went on with her note, "On leave from the front."
Presently, the man stirred, stretched himself and finally sat up. Then he started, sprang to his feet, and strode easily across the vestibule to the reception desk. An officer was standing there in a worn uniform, a very shabby kit-bag by his side, a dirty old Burberry over his arm.
"Okewood!" said the young man and touched the other on the shoulder, "isn't it Desmond Okewood? By Jove, I am glad to see you!"
The new-comer turned quickly.
"Why, hullo," he said, "if it isn't Maurice Strangwise! But, good heavens, man, surely I saw your name in the casualty list... missing, wasn't it?"
"Yep!" replied the other smiling, "that's so! It's a long story and it'll keep! But tell me about yourself... this," he kicked the kit-bag with the toe of his boot, "looks like a little leave! Just in from France?"
He smiled again, baring his firm, white teeth, and looking at him Desmond suddenly remembered, as one recalls a trifle, his trick of smiling. It was a frank enough smile but... well, some people smile too much.
"Got in just now by the leave train," answered Desmond.
"How much leave have you got?" asked Strangwise.
"Well," said the other, "it's a funny thing, but I don't know!"
"Say, are they giving unlimited leave over there now?"
"Hardly," he replied. "But the War Office just applied for me to come over and here I am! What they want me for, whether it's to advise the War Council or to act as Quartermaster to the Jewish Battalion I can't tell you! I shan't know until tomorrow morning! In the meantime I'm going to forget the war for this evening!"
"What are you going to do to-night?" asked Strangwise.
Desmond began to check off on his fingers.
"Firstly, I'm going to fill the biggest bath in this hotel with hot water, get the biggest piece of Pears' soap in London, and jump in: Then, if my tailor hasn't betrayed me, I'm going to put on dress clothes, and whilst I am dressing summon Julien (if he's maitre d'hotel here) to a conference, then I'm going to eat the best dinner that this pub can provide. Then..."
Strangwise interrupted him.
"The bath is on you, if you like," he said, "but the dinner's on me and a show afterwards. I'm at a loose end, old man, and so are you, so we'll hit up together! We'll dine in the restaurant here 7.30, and Julien shall come up to your room so that you can order the dinner. Is it a go?"
"Rather," laughed Desmond, "I'll eat your dinner, Maurice, and you shall tell me how you managed to break out of the casualty list into the Nineveh Hotel. But what do all these anxious-looking gentry want?"
The two officers turned to confront a group of four men who were surveying them closely. One of them, a fat, comfortable looking party with grizzled hair, on seeing Desmond, walked up to him.
"Hullo!" said Desmond, "it's Tommy Spencer! How are you, Spencer? What's the betting in Fleet Street on the war lasting another five years? Have you come to interview me?"
The tubby little man beamed and shook hands effusively.
"Glad to see you looking so well, Major," he said, "It's your friend we want..."
"What? Strangwise? Here, Maurice, come meet my friend Tommy Spencer of the "Daily Record," whom I haven't seen since we went on manoeuvres together down at Aldershot! Captain Strangwise, Tommy Spencer! Now, then, fire away; Spencer!"
Strangwise smiled and shook his head.
"I'm very pleased to know your friend, Desmond," he said, "but, you know, I can't talk! I had the strictest orders from the War Office... It's on account of the other fellows, you know..."
Desmond looked blankly at him. Then he—turned to Spencer.
"You must let me into this, Spencer," he said, "what's old Maurice been up to? Has he been cashiered for wearing shoes or what?"
Spencer's manner became a trifle formal.
"Captain Strangwise has escaped from a prisoners' of war camp in Germany, Major," he said, "we've been trying to get hold of him for days! He's the talk of London!"
Desmond turned like a shot.
"Maurice!" he cried, "'pon my soul, I'm going to have an interesting evening... why, of course, you are just the sort of fellow to do a thing like that. But, Spencer, you know, it won't do... fellows are never allowed to talk to the newspaper men about matters of this kind. And if you're a good fellow, Spencer, you won't even say that you have seen Strangwise here... you'll only get him into trouble!"
The little man looked rather rueful.
"Oh, of course, Major, if you put it that way," he said.
"... And you'll use your influence to make those other fellows with you drop it, will you, Spencer? And then come along to the bar and we'll have a drink for old times' sake!"
Spencer seemed doubtful about the success of his representations to his colleagues but he obediently trotted away. Apparently, he succeeded in his mission for presently he joined the two officers alone in the American Bar.
"I haven't seen Strangwise for six months, Spencer," said Desmond over his second cocktail. "Seeing him reminds me how astonishing it is the way fellows drop apart in war. Old Maurice was attached to the Brigade of which I am the Brigade Major as gunner officer, and we lived together for the best part of three months, wasn't it, Maurice? Then he goes back to his battery and the next thing I hear of him is that he is missing. And then I'm damned if he doesn't turn up here!"
Spencer cocked an eye at Strangwise over his Martini.
"I'd like to hear your story, despite the restrictions," he said.
Strangwise looked a trifle embarrassed.
"Maybe I'll tell you one day," he replied in his quiet way, "though, honestly, there's precious little to tell..."
Desmond marked his confusion and respected him for it. He rushed in to the rescue.
"Spencer," he said abruptly, "what's worth seeing in London? We are going to a show to-night. I want to be amused, mark you, not elevated!"
"Nur-el-Din at the Palaceum," replied the reporter.
"By Jove, we'll go there," said Desmond, turning to Maurice. "Have you ever seen her? I'm told she's perfectly marvelous..."
"It's an extraordinarily artistic turn," said Spencer, "and they're doing wonderful business at the Palaceum. You'd better go and see the show soon, though, for they tell me the lady is leaving the programme."
"No!" exclaimed Strangwise so suddenly that Desmond turned round and stared at him. "I thought she was there for months yet..."
"They don't want her to go," answered Spencer, "she's a perfect gold-mine to them but I gather the lady is difficult... in fact, to put it bluntly she's making such a damn nuisance of herself with her artistic temperament that they can't get on with her at all."
"Do you know this lady of the artistic temperament, Maurice?" asked Desmond.
Strangwise hesitated a moment.
"I met her in Canada a few years ago," he said slowly, "she was a very small star then. She's a very handsome and attractive girl, in spite of our friend's unfavorable verdict. There's something curiously real about her dancing, too, that you don't find in this sort of show as a rule!"
He stopped a moment, then added abruptly:
"We'll go along to the Palaceum to-night, if you like, Desmond," and Desmond joyfully acquiesced. To one who has been living for weeks in an ill-ventilated pill-box on the Passchendaele Ridge, the lights and music and color of a music-hall seem as a foretaste of Paradise.
And that was what Desmond Okewood thought as a few hours later he found himself with Maurice Strangwise in the stalls of the vast Palaceum auditorium. In the unwonted luxury of evening clothes he felt clean and comfortable, and the cigar he way smoking was the climax of one of Julien's most esoteric efforts.
The cards on either side of the proscenium opening bore the words: "Deputy Turn." On the stage was a gnarled old man with ruddy cheeks and a muffler, a seedy top hat on his head, a coaching whip in his hand, the old horse bus-driver of London in his habit as he had lived. The old fellow stood there and just talked to the audience of a fine sporting class of men that petrol has driven from the streets, without exaggerated humor or pathos. Desmond, himself a born Cockney, at once fell under the actor's spell and found all memories of the front slipping away from him as the old London street characters succeeded one another on the stage. Then the orchestra blared out, the curtain descended, and the house broke into a great flutter of applause.
Desmond, luxuriating in his comfortable stall puffed at his cigar and fell into a pleasant reverie.
He was contrasting the ghastly nightmare of mud and horrors from which he had only just emerged with the scene of elegance, of civilization; around him.
Suddenly, his attention became riveted on the stage. The atmosphere of the theatre had changed. Always quick at picking up "influences," Desmond instantly sensed a new mood in the throngs around him. A presence was in the theatre, an instinct-awakening, a material influence. The great audience was strangely hushed. The air was heavy with the tent of incense. The stringed instruments and oboes in the orchestra were wandering into [Updater's note: a line appears to be missing from the source here] rhythmic dropped.
Maurice touched his elbow.
"There she is!" he said.
Desmond felt inclined to shake him off roughly. The interruption jarred on him. For he was looking at this strangely beautiful girl with her skin showing very brown beneath a wonderful silver tiara-like headdress, and in the broad interstices of a cloth-of-silver robe with short, stiffly wired-out skirt. She was seated, an idol, on a glittering black throne, at her feet with their tapering dyed nails a fantastically attired throng of worshipers.
The idol stirred into life, the music of the orchestra died away. Then a tom-tom began to beat its nervous pulse-stirring throb, the strident notes of a reed-pipe joined in and the dancer, raised on her toes on the dais, began to sway languorously to and fro. And so she swayed and swayed with sinuously curving limbs while the drums throbbed out faster with ever-shortening beats, with now and then a clash of brazen cymbals that was torture to overwrought nerves.
The dancer was the perfection of grace. Her figure was lithe and supple as a boy's. There was a suggestion of fire and strength and agility about her that made one think of a panther as she postured there against a background of barbaric color. The grace of her movements, the exquisite blending of the colors on the stage, the skillful grouping of the throng of worshipers, made up a picture which held the audience spellbound and in silence until the curtain dropped.
Desmond turned to find Strangwise standing up.
"I thought of just running round behind the scenes for a few minutes," he said carelessly.
"What, to see Nur-el-Din? By Jove, I'm coming, too!" promptly exclaimed Desmond.
Strangwise demurred. He didn't quite know if he could take him: there might be difficulties: another time... But Desmond got up resolutely.
"I'll be damned if you leave me behind, Maurice," he laughed, "of course I'm coming, too! She's the most delightful creature I've ever set eyes on!"
And so it ended by them going through the pass-door together.
CHAPTER III. MR. MACKWAYTE MEETS AN OLD FRIEND
That night Nur-el-Din kept the stage waiting for five minutes. It was a climax of a long series of similar unpardonable crimes in the music-hall code. The result was that Mr. Mackwayte, after taking four enthusiastic "curtains," stepped off the stage into a perfect pandemonium.
He found Fletcher, the stage manager, livid with rage, surrounded by the greater part of the large suite with which the dancer traveled. There was Madame's maid, a trim Frenchwoman, Madame's business manager, a fat, voluble Italian, Madame's secretary, an olive-skinned South American youth in an evening coat with velvet collar, and Madame's principal male dancer in a scanty Egyptian dress with grotesquely painted face. They were all talking at the same time, and at intervals Fletcher muttered hotly: "This time she leaves the bill or I walk out of the theatre!"
Then a clear voice cried:
"Me voila!" and a dainty apparition in an ermine wrap tripped into the centre of the group, tapped the manager lightly on the shoulder and said:
"Allons! I am ready!"
Mr. Mackwayte's face creased its mask of paint into a thousand wrinkles. For, on seeing him, the dancer's face lighted up, and, running to him with hands outstretched, she cried:
"Tiens! Monsieur Arthur!" while he ejaculated:
"Why, it's little Marcelle!"
But now the stage manager interposed. He whisked Madame's wrap off her with one hand and with the other, firmly propelled her on to the stage. She let him have his way with a merry smile, dark eyes and white teeth flashing, but as she went she said to Mr. Mackwayte:
"My friend, wait for me! Et puis nous causerons! We will 'ave a talk, nest-ce pas?"
"A very old friend of mine, my dear," Mr. Mackwayte said to Barbara when, dressed in his street clothes, he rejoined her in the wings where she stood watching Nur-el-Din dancing. "She was an acrobat in the Seven Duponts, a turn that earned big money in the old days. It must be... let's see... getting on for twenty years since I last set eyes on her. She was a pretty kid in those days! God bless my soul! Little Marcelle a big star! It's really most amazing!"
Directly she was off the stage, Nur-el-Din came straight to Mr. Mackwayte, pushing aside her maid who was waiting with her wrap.
"My friend," she cooed in her pretty broken English, "I am so glad, so glad to see you. And this is your girl... ah! she 'as your eyes, Monsieur Arthur, your nice English gray eyes! Such a big girl... ah! but she make me feel old!"
She laughed, a pretty gurgling laugh, throwing back her head so that the diamond collar she was wearing heaved and flashed.
"But you will come to my room, hein?" she went on. "Marie, my wrap!" and she led the way to the lift.
Nur-el-Din's spacious dressing-room seemed to be full of people and flowers. All her little court was assembled amid a perfect bower of hot-house blooms and plants. Head and shoulders above everybody else in the room towered the figure of an officer in uniform, with him another palpable Englishman in evening dress.
Desmond Okewood thought he had never seen anything in his life more charming than the picture the dancer made as she came into the room. Her wrap had fallen open and beneath the broad bars of her cloth-of-silver dress her bosom yet rose and fell after the exertions of her dance. A jet black curl had strayed out from beneath her lofty silver head-dress, and she thrust it back in its place with one little brown bejeweled hand whilst she extended the other to Strangwise.
"Tiens, mon capitaine!" she said. Desmond was watching her closely, fascinated by her beauty, but noticed an unwilling, almost a hostile tone, in her voice.
Strangwise was speaking in his deep voice.
"Marcelle," he said, "I've brought a friend who is anxious to meet you. Major Desmond Okewood! He and I soldiered together in France!" The dancer turned her big black eyes full on Desmond as she held out her hand to him.
"Old friends, new friends," she cried, clapping, her hands like a child, "I love friends. Captaine, here is a very old friend," she said to Strangwise as Mr. Mackwayte and Barbara came into the rooms, "Monsieur Arthur Mackwayte and 'is daughter. I 'ave know Monsieur Arthur almos' all my life. And, Mademoiselle, permit me? I introduce le Captaine Strangwise and 'is friend... what is the name? Ah, Major Okewood!"
Nur-el-Din sank into a bergere chair beside her great mirror.
"There are too many in this room," she cried, "there is no air! Lazarro, Ramiro, all of you, go outside, my friends!"
As Madame's entourage surged out, Strangwise said:
"I hear you are leaving the Palaceum, Marcelle!"
He spoke so low that Mr. Mackwayte and Barbara, who were talking to Desmond, did not hear. Marcelle, taking off her heavy head-dress, answered quickly:
"Who told you that?"
"Never mind," replied Strangwise. "But you never told me you were going. Why didn't you?"
His voice was stern and hard now, very different from his usual quiet and mellow tones. But he was smiling.
Marcelle cast a glance over her shoulder. Barbara was looking round the room and caught the reflection of the dancer's face in a mirror hanging on the wall. To her intense astonishment, she saw a look of despair, almost of terror, in Nur-el-Din's dark eyes. It was like the frightened stare of some hunted beast. Barbara was so much taken aback that she instinctively glanced over her shoulder at the door, thinking that the dancer had seen something there to frighten her. But the door was shut. When Barbara looked into the mirror again, she saw only the reflection of Nur-el-Din's pretty neck and shoulders. The dancer was talking again in low tones to Strangwise.
But Barbara swiftly forgot that glimpse of the dancer's face in the glass. For she was very happy. Happiness, like high spirits, is eminently contagious, and the two men at her side were supremely content.
Her father's eyes were shining with his little success of the evening: on the way upstairs Fletcher had held out hopes to him of a long engagement at the Palaceum while as for the other, he was radiant with the excitement of his first night in town after long months of campaigning.
He was thinking that his leave had started most propitiously. After a man has been isolated for months amongst muddy masculinity, the homeliest woman will find favor in his eyes. And to neither of these women, in whose presence he so unexpectedly found himself within a few hours of landing in England, could the epithet "homely" be applied. Each represented a distinct type of beauty in herself, and Desmond, as he chatted with Barbara, was mentally contrasting the two women. Barbara, tall and slim and very healthy, with her braided brown hair, creamy complexion and gray eyes, was essentially English. She was the typical woman of England, of England of the broad green valleys and rolling downs and snuggling hamlets, of England of the white cliffs gnawed by the restless ocean. The other was equally essentially a woman of the South. Her dark eyes, her upper lip just baring her firm white teeth, spoke of hot Latin or gypsy blood surging in her veins. Hers was the beauty of the East, sensuous, arresting, conjuring up pictures of warm, perfumed nights, the thrumming of guitars, a great yellow moon hanging low behind the palms.
"Barbara!" called Nur-el-Din from the dressing table. Mr. Mackwayte had joined her there and was chatting to Strangwise.
"You will stay and talk to me while I change n'est-ce pas? Your papa and these gentlemen are going to drink a whiskey-soda with that animal Fletcher... quel homme terrible... and you shall join them presently."
The men went out, leaving Barbara alone with the dancer. Barbara noticed how tired Nur-el-Din was looking. Heir pretty, childish ways seemed to have evaporated with her high spirits. Her face was heavy and listless. There were lines round heir eyes, and her mouth had a hard, drawn look.
"Child," she said, "give me, please, my peignoir... it is behind the door,... and, I will get this paint off my face!"
Barbara fetched the wrapper and sat down beside the dancer. But Nur-el-Din did not move. She seemed to be thinking. Barbara saw the hunted look she had already observed in her that evening creeping over her face again.
"It is a hard life; this life of ours, a life of change, ma petite! A great artiste has no country, no home, no fireside! For the past five years I have been roaming about the world! Often I think I will settle down, but the life holds me!"
She took up from her dressing-table a little oblong plain silver box.
"I want to ask you a favor, ma petite Barbara!" she said. "This little box is a family possession of mine: I have had it for many years. The world is so disturbed to-day that life is not safe for anybody who travels as much as I do! You have a home, a safe home with your dear father! He was telling me about it! Will you take this little box and keep it safely for me until... until... the war is over... until I ask you for it?"
"Yes, of course," said Barbara, "if you wish it, though, what with these air raids, I don't know that London is particularly safe, either."
"Ah! that is good of you," cried Nur-el-Din, "anyhow, the little box is safer with you than with me. See, I will wrap it up and seal it, and then you will take it home with you, n'est-ce pas?"
She opened a drawer and swiftly hunting among its contents produced a sheet, of white paper, and some sealing-wax. She wrapped the box in the paper and sealed it up, stamping the seals with a camel signet ring she drew off her finger. Then she handed the package to Barbara.
There was a knock at the door. The maid, noiselessly arranging Madame's dresses in the corner opened it.
"You will take care of it well for me," the dancer said to Barbara, and her voice vibrated with a surprising eagerness, "you will guard it preciously until I come for it..." She laughed and added carelessly: "Because it is a family treasure, a life mascotte of mine, hein?"
Then they heard Strangwise's deep voice outside.
"Le Captaine is there, Madame," said the French maid, "'e say Monsieur Mackwayte ask for Mademoiselle!"
The dancer thrust a little hand from the folds of her silken kimono.
"Au revoir, ma petite," she said, "we shall meet again. You will come and see me, nest-ce pas? And say nothing to anybody about..." she pointed to Barbara's bag where the little package was reposing, "it shall be a secret between us, hein? Promise me this, mon enfant!"
"Of course, I promise, if you like!" said Barbara, wonderingly.
At half-past eight the next morning Desmond Okewood found himself in the ante-room of the Chief of the Secret Service in a cross and puzzled mood. The telephone at his bedside had roused him at 8 a.m. from the first sleep he had had in a real bed for two months. In a drowsy voice he had protested that he had an appointment at the War Office at 10 o'clock, but a curt voice had bidden him dress himself and come to the Chief forthwith. Here he was, accordingly, breakfastless, his chin smarting from a hasty shave. What the devil did the Chief want with him anyhow? He wasn't in the Secret Service, though his brother, Francis, was.
A voice broke in upon his angry musing.
"Come in, Okewood!" it said.
The Chief stood at the door of his room, a broad-shouldered figure in a plain jacket suit. Desmond had met him before. He knew him for a man of many questions but of few confidences, yet his recollection of him was of a suave, imperturbable personality. To-day, however, the Chief seemed strangely preoccupied. There was a deep line between his bushy eyebrows as he bent them at Desmond, motioning him to a chair. When he spoke, his manner was very curt.
"What time did you part from the Mackwaytes at the theatre last night?"
Desmond was dumbfounded. How on earth did the Chief know about his visit to the Palaceum? Still, he was used to the omniscience of the British Intelligence, so he answered promptly:
"It was latish, sir; about midnight, I think!"
"They went home to Seven Kings alone!"
"Yes, sir, in a taxi!" Desmond replied.
The Chief contemplated his blotting-pad gloomily. Desmond knew it for a trick of his when worried.
"Did you have a good night?" he said to Desmond, suddenly.
"Yes," he said, not in the least understanding the drift of the question. "... though I didn't mean to get up quite so early!"
The Chief ignored this sally.
"Nothing out of the ordinary happened during the night, I suppose?" he asked again.
Desmond shook his head.
"Nothing that I know of, sir," he said.
"Seen Strangwise this morning?"
Desmond gasped for breath. So the Chief knew about him meeting Strangwise, too!
A clerk put his head in at the door.
"Captain Strangwise will be along very shortly, sir," he said.
The Chief looked up quickly.
"Ah, he's all right then! Good."
"And, sir," Matthews added, "Scotland Yard telephoned to say that the doctor is with Miss Mackwayte now."
Desmond started up.
"Is Miss Mackwayte ill?" he exclaimed.
The Chief answered slowly, as Matthews withdrew: "Mr. Mackwayte was found murdered at his house early this morning!"
CHAPTER IV. MAJOR OKEWOOD ENCOUNTERS A NEW TYPE
There is a sinister ring about the word "murder," which reacts upon even the most hardened sensibility. Edgar Allan Poe, who was a master of the suggestive use of words, realized this when he called the greatest detective story ever written "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." From the very beginning of the war, Desmond had seen death in all its forms but that word "murdered," spoken with slow emphasis in the quiet room, gave him an ugly chill feeling round the heart that he had never experienced on the battlefield.
"Murdered!" Desmond repeated dully and sat down. He felt stunned. He was not thinking of the gentle old man cruelly done to death or of the pretty Barbara prostrate with grief. He was overawed by the curious fatality that had plucked him from the horrors of Flanders only to plunge him into a tragedy at home.
"Yes," said the Chief bluntly, "by a burglar apparently—the house was ransacked!"
"Chief," he broke out, "you must explain. I'm all at sea! Why did you send for me? What have you got to do with criminal cases, anyway? Surely, this is a Scotland Yard matter!"
The Chief shook his head.
"I sent for you in default of your brother, Okewood!" he said. "You once refused an offer of mine to take you into my service, but this time I had to have you, so I got the War Office to wire..."
"Then my appointment for ten o'clock to-day was with you?" Desmond exclaimed in astonishment.
The Chief nodded.
"It was," he said curtly.
"But," protested Desmond feebly, "did you know about this murder beforehand!"
The Chief threw back his head and laughed.
"My dear fellow," he said; "I'm not quite so deep as all that. I haven't second sight, you know!"
"You've got something devilish like it, sir!" said Desmond. "How on earth did you know that I was at the Palaceum last night?"
The Chief smiled grimly.
"Oh, that's very simple," he said. "Shall I tell you some more about yourself? You sat..." he glanced down at the desk in front of him,"... in Stall E 52 and, after Nur-el-Din's turn, Strangwise took you round and introduced you to the lady. In her dressing-room you met Mr. Mackwayte and his daughter. After that..."
"But," Desmond interrupted quickly, "I must have been followed by one of your men. Still, I can't see why my movements should interest the Secret Service, sir!"
The Chief remained silent for a moment. Then he said:
"Fate often unexpectedly takes a hand in this game of ours, Okewood. I sent for you to come back from France but old man Destiny wouldn't leave it at that. Almost as soon as you landed he switched you straight on to a trail that I have been patiently following up for months past. That trail is..."
The telephone on the desk rang sharply.
"Whose trail?" Desmond could not forbear to ask as the Chief took off the receiver.
"Just a minute," the Chief said. Then he spoke into the telephone:
"Marigold? Yes. Really? Very well, I'll come straight along now... I'll be with you in twenty minutes. Good-bye!"
He put down the receiver and rose to his feet.
"Okewood," he cried gaily, "what do you say to a little detective work? That was Marigold of the Criminal Investigation Department... he's down at Seven Kings handling this murder case. I asked him to let me know when it would be convenient for me to come along and have a look round, and he wants me to go now. Two heads are better than one. You'd better come along!"
He pressed a button on the desk.
The swift and silent Matthews appeared.
"Matthews," he said, "when Captain Strangwise comes, please tell him I've been called away and ask him to call back here at two o'clock to see me."
He paused and laid a lean finger reflectively along his nose.
"Are you lunching anywhere, Okewood?" he 'said. Desmond shook his head.
"Then you will lunch with me, eh? Right. Come along and we'll try to find the way to Seven Kings."
The two men threaded the busy corridors to the lift which deposited them at the main entrance. A few minutes later the Chief was dexterously guiding his Vauxhall car through the crowded traffic of the Strand, Desmond beside him on the front seat.
Desmond was completely fogged in his mind. He couldn't see light anywhere. He asked himself in vain what possible connection could exist between this murder in an obscure quarter of London and the man at his side who, he knew, held in his firm hands lines that stretched to the uttermost ends of the earth? What kind of an affair was this, seemingly so commonplace that could take the Chief's attention from the hundred urgent matters of national security that occupied him?
The Chief seemed absorbed in his driving and Desmond felt it would be useless to attempt to draw him out. They wended their way through the city and out into the squalid length of the Mile End Road. Then the Chief began to talk.
"I hate driving through the City," he exclaimed, "but I always think it's good for the nerves. Still, I have a feeling that I shall smash this old car up some day. That friend of yours, Strangwise, now he's a remarkable man! Do you know his story?"
"About his escape from Germany?" asked Desmond.
The Chief nodded.
"He told me something about it at dinner last night," said Desmond, "but he's such a modest chap he doesn't seem to like talking about it!"
"He must have a cool nerve," replied the Chief, "he doesn't know a word of German, except a few scraps he picked up in camp. Yet, after he got free, he made his way alone from somewhere in Hanover clear to the Dutch frontier. And I tell you he kept his eyes and ears open!"
"Was he able to tell you anything good" asked Desmond.
"The man's just full of information. He couldn't take a note of any kind, of course, but he seems to have a wonderful memory. He was able to give us the names of almost every unit of troops he came across."
He stopped to skirt a tram, then added suddenly:
"Do you know him well, Okewood?"
"Yes, I think I do," said Desmond. "I lived with him for about three months in France, and we got on top-hole together. He's a man absolutely without fear."
"Yes," agreed the Chief. "But what about his judgment? Would you call him a well-balanced fellow? Or is he one of these harum-scarum soldier of fortune sort of chaps?"
"I should say he was devilish shrewd," replied the other. "Strangwise is a very able fellow and a fine soldier. The Brigadier thought a lot of him. There's very little about artillery work that Strangwise doesn't know. Our Brigadier's a good judge, too... he was a gunner himself once, you know."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," answered the Chief, "because there are some things he has told us, about the movements of troops, particularly, that don't agree in the least with our own Intelligence reports. I am an old enough hand at my job to know that very often one man may be right where fifty independent witnesses are dead wrong. Yet our reports from Germany have been wonderfully accurate on the whole."
"Tell me," he asked suddenly, "is Strangwise a liar, do you think?"
Desmond laughed. The question was so very unexpected.
"Let me explain what I mean," said the Chief. "There is a type of man who is quite incapable of telling the plain, unvarnished truth. That type of fellow might have the most extraordinary adventure happen to him and yet be unable to let it stand on its merits. When he narrates it, he trims it up with all kinds of embroidery. Is Strangwise that type?"
Desmond thought a moment.
"Your silence is very eloquent," said the Chief drily.
"It's not the silence of consent," he said, "but if you want me to be quite frank about Strangwise, Chief, I don't mind telling you I don't like him overmuch. We were very intimate in France. We were in some very tight corners together and he never let me down. He showed himself to be a very fine fellow, indeed. There are points about him I admire immensely. I love his fine physique, his manliness. I'm sure he's got great strength of character, too. It's because I admire all this about him that I think perhaps it's just jealousy on my part when I feel..."
"What?" said the Chief.
"Well," said Desmond slowly, "I feel myself trying to like something below the surface in the man. And then I am balked. There seems to be something abysmally deep behind the facade, if you know what I mean. If I think about it much, it seems to me that there is too much surface about Strangwise and not enough foundation! And he smiles... Well, rather often, doesn't he?"
"I know what you mean," said the Chief. "I always tell my young men to be wary when a man smiles too much. Smiles are sometimes camouflage, to cover up something that mustn't be seen underneath! Strangwise is a Canadian, isn't he?"
"I think so," answered Desmond, "anyhow, he has lived there. But he got his commission over here. He came over some time in 1915, I believe, and joined up."
"Ah, here we are!" cried the Chief, steering the car down a turning marked "Laleham Villas."
Laleham Villas proved to be an immensely long terrace of small two-story houses, each one exactly like the other, the only difference between them lying in the color of the front doors and the arrangement of the small strip of garden in front of each. The houses stretched away on either side in a vista of smoke-discolored yellow brick. The road was perfectly straight and, in the dull yellow atmosphere of the winter morning, unspeakably depressing.
The abode of small clerks and employees, Laleham Villas had rendered up, an hour before, its daily tribute of humanity to the City-bound trains of the Great Eastern Railway. The Mackwayte's house was plainly indicated, about 200 yards down on the right-hand side, by a knot of errand boys and bareheaded women grouped on the side-walk. A large, phlegmatic policeman stood at the gate.
"You'll like Marigold," said the Chief to Desmond as they got out of the car, "quite a remarkable man and very sound at his work!"
British officers don't number detective inspectors among their habitual acquaintances, and the man that came out of the house to meet them was actually the first detective that Desmond had ever met. Ever since the Chief had mentioned his name, Desmond had been wondering whether Mr. Marigold would be lean and pale and bewildering like Mr. Sherlock Holmes or breezy and wiry like the detectives in American crook plays.
The man before him did not bear the faintest resemblance to either type. He was a well-set up, broad-shouldered person of about forty-five, very carefully dressed in a blue serge suit and black overcoat, with a large, even-tempered countenance, which sloped into a high forehead. The neatly brushed but thinning locks carefully arranged across the top of the head testified to the fact that Mr. Marigold had sacrificed most of his hair to the vicissitudes of his profession. When it is added that the detective had a small, yellow moustache and a pleasant, cultivated voice, there remains nothing further to say about Mr. Marigold's external appearance. But there was something so patent about the man, his air of reserve, his careful courtesy, his shrewd eyes, that Desmond at once recognized him for a type, a cast from a certain specific mould. All services shape men to their own fashion. There is the type of Guardsman, the type of airman, the type of naval officer. And Desmond decided that Mr. Marigold must be the type of detective, though, as I have said, he was totally unacquainted with the genus.
"Major Okewood, Marigold," said the Chief, "a friend of mine!"
Mr. Marigold mustered Desmond in one swift, comprehensive look.
"I won't give you my hand, Major," the detective said, looking down at Desmond's proffered one, "for I'm in a filthy mess and no error. But won't you come in, sir?" he said to the Chief and led the way across the mosaic tile pathway to the front door which stood open.
"I don't think this is anything in your line, sir," said Mr. Marigold to the Chief as the three men entered the house, "it's nothing but just a common burglary. The old man evidently heard a noise and coming down, surprised the burglar who lost his head and killed him. The only novel thing about the whole case is that the old party was shot with a pistol and not bludgeoned, as is usually the case in affairs of this kind. And I shouldn't have thought that the man who did it was the sort that carries a gun..."
"Then you know who did it?" asked the Chief quietly.
"I think I can safely say I do, sir," said Mr. Marigold with the reluctant air of one who seldom admits anything to be a fact, "I think I can go as far as that! And we've got our man under lock and key!"
"That's a smart piece of work, Marigold," said the Chief.
"No, sir," replied the other, "you could hardly call it that. He just walked into the arms of a constable over there near Goodmayes Station with the swag on him. He's an old hand... we've known him for a receiver for years!
"Who is it?" asked the Chief, "not one of my little friends, I suppose, eh, Marigold!"
"Dear me, no, sir," answered Mr. Marigold, chuckling, "it's one of old Mackwayte's music-hall pals, name o' Barney!"
CHAPTER V. THE MURDER AT SEVEN KINGS
"This is Mrs. Chugg, sir," said Mr. Marigold, "the charwoman who found the body!"
The Chief and Desmond stood at the detective's side in the Mackwaytes' little dining-room. The room was in considerable disorder. There was a litter of paper, empty bottles, overturned cruets and other debris on the floor, evidence of the thoroughness with which the burglar had overhauled the cheap fumed oak sideboard which stood against the wall with doors and drawers open. In the corner, the little roll-top desk showed a great gash in the wood round the lock where it had been forced. The remains of a meal still stood on the table.
Mrs. Chugg, a diminutive, white-haired, bespectacled woman in a rusty black cape and skirt, was enthroned in the midst of this scene of desolation. She sat in an armchair by the fire, her hands in her lap, obviously supremely content with the position of importance she enjoyed. At the sound of Mr. Marigold's voice, she bobbed up and regarded the newcomers with the air of a tragedy queen.
"Yus mister," she said with the slow deliberation of one who thoroughly enjoys repeating an oft-told tale, "I found the pore man and a horrid turn it give me, too, I declare! I come in early this morning a-purpose to turn out these two rooms, the dining-room and the droring-room, same as I always do of a Saturday, along of the lidy's horders and wishes. I come in 'ere fust, to pull up the blinds and that, and d'reckly I switches on the light 'Burglars!' I sez to meself, 'Burglars! That's wot it is!' seeing the nasty mess the place was in. Up I nips to Miss Mackwayte's room on the first floor and in I bursts. 'Miss,' sez I, 'Miss, there's been burglars in the house!' and then I sees the pore lamb all tied up there on 'er blessed bed! Lor, mister, the turn it give me and I ain't telling you no lies! She was strapped up that tight with a towel crammed in 'er mouth she couldn't 'ardly dror 'er breath! I undid 'er pretty quick and the fust thing she sez w'en I gets the towl out of her mouth, the pore dear, is 'Mrs. Chugg,' she sez all of a tremble as you might say, 'Mrs. Chugg' sez she, 'my father! my father!' sez she. With that up she jumps but she 'adn't put foot to the floor w'en down she drops! It was along of 'er being tied up orl that time, dyer see, mister! I gets 'er back on the bed. 'You lie still, Miss,' says I, 'and I'll pop in and tell your pa to come in to you!' Well; I went to the old genelmun's room. Empty!"
Mrs. Chugg paused to give her narrative dramatic effect.
"And where did you find Mr. Mackwayte?" asked the Chief in such a placid voice that Mrs. Chugg cast an indignant glance at him.
"I was jes' going downstairs to see if 'e was in the kitching or out at the back," she continued, unheeding the interruption, "when there on the landing I sees a foot asticking out from under the curting. I pulls back the curting and oh, Lor! oh, dear, oh, dear, the pore genelmun, 'im as never did a bad turn to no one!"
"Come, come, Mrs. Chugg!" said the detective.
The charwoman wiped her eyes and resumed.
"'E was a-lying on his back in 'is dressing-gown, 'is face all burnt black, like, and a fair smother o' blood. Under 'is hed there was a pool o' blood, mister, yer may believe me or not..."
Mr. Marigold cut in decisively.
"Do you wish to see the body, sir?" the detective asked the Chief, "they're upstairs photographing it!"
The Chief nodded. He and Desmond followed the detective upstairs, whilst Mrs. Chugg resentfully resumed her seat by the fire. On her face was the look of one who has cast pearls before swine.
"Any finger-prints?" asked the Chief in the hall.
"Oh, no," he said, "Barney's far too old a hand for that sort o' thing!"
The landing proved to be a small space, covered with oilcloth and raised by a step from the bend made by the staircase leading to the first story. On the left-hand side was a window looking on a narrow passage separating the Mackwayte house from its neighbors and leading to the back-door. By the window stood a small wicker-work table with a plant on it. At the back of the landing was a partition, glazed half-way up and a door—obviously the bath-room.
The curtain had been looped right over its brass rod. The body lay on its back at the foot of the table, arms flung outward, one leg doubled up, the other with the foot just jutting out over the step leading down to the staircase. The head pointed towards the bath-room door. Over the right eye the skin of the face was blackened in a great patch and there was a large blue swelling, like a bruise, in the centre. There was a good deal of blood on the face which obscured the hole made by the entrance of the bullet. The eyes were half-closed. A big camera, pointed downwards, was mounted on a high double ladder straddling the body and was operated by a young man in a bowler hat who went on with his work without taking the slightest notice of the detective and his companions.
"Close range," murmured Desmond, after glancing at the dead man's face, "a large calibre automatic pistol, I should think!"
"Why do you think it was a large calibre pistol, Major?" asked Mr. Marigold attentively.
"I've seen plenty of men killed at close range by revolver and rifle bullets out at the front," replied Desmond, "but I never saw a man's face messed up like this. In a raid once I shot a German at point blank range with my revolver, the ordinary Army issue pattern, and I looked him over after. But it wasn't anything like this. The only thing I've seen approaching it was one of our sergeants who was killed out on patrol by a Hun officer who put his gun right in our man's face. That sergeant was pretty badly marked, but..."
He shook his head. Then he added, addressing the detective: "Let's see the gun! Have you got it?"
Mr. Marigold shook his head.
"He hadn't got it on him," he answered, "he swears he never had a gun. I expect he chucked it away somewhere. It'll be our business to find it for him!"
He smiled rather grimly, then added:
"Perhaps you'd care to have a look at Miss Mackwayte's room, sir!"
"Is Miss Mackwayte there" asked the Chief.
"I got her out of this quick," replied Mr. Marigold, "she's had a bad shock, poor girl, though she gave her evidence clearly enough for all that... as far as it goes and that's not much. Some friends near by have taken her in! The doctor has given her some bromide and says she's got to be kept quiet..."
"What's her story!" queried the Chief.
"She can't throw much light on the business. She and her father reached home from the theatre about a quarter past twelve, had a bit of supper in the dining-room and went up to bed before one o'clock. Miss Mackwayte saw her father go into his room, which is next to hers, and shut the door. The next thing she knows is that she woke up suddenly with some kind of a loud noise in her ears... that was the report of the pistol, I've no doubt... she thought for a minute it was an air raid. Then suddenly a hand was pressed over her mouth, something was crammed into her mouth and she was firmly strapped down to the bed."
"Did she see the man?" asked Desmond.
"She didn't see anything from first to last," answered the detective, "as far as she is concerned it might have been a woman or a black man who trussed her up. It was quite dark in her bedroom and this burglar fellow, after binding and gagging her, fastened a bandage across her eyes into the bargain. She says she heard him moving about her room and then creep out very softly. The next thing she knew was Mrs. Chugg arriving at her bedside this morning."
"What time did this attack take place?" asked the Chief.
"She has no idea," answered the detective. "She couldn't see her watch and they haven't got a striking clock in the house."
"But can she make no guess!"
"Well, she says she thinks it was several hours before Mrs. Chugg arrived in the morning... as much as three hours, she thinks!"
"And what time did Mrs. Chugg arrive!"
"At half-past six!"
"About Mackwayte... how long was he dead when they found him? What does the doctor say?"
"About three hours approximately, but you know, they can't always tell to an hour or so!"
"Well," said the Chief slowly, "it looks as if one might figure the murder as having been committed some time between 3 and 3.30 a.m."
"My idea exactly," said Mr. Marigold. "Shall we go upstairs?"
He conducted the Chief and Desmond up the short flight of stairs to the first story. He pushed open the first door he came to.
"Mackwayte's room, on the back," he said, "bed slept in, as you see, old gentleman's clothes on a chair—obviously he was disturbed by some noise made by the burglar and came out to see what was doing! And here," he indicated a door adjoining, "is Miss Mackwayte's room, on the front; as you observe. They don't use the two rooms on the second floor, except for box-rooms... one's full of old Mackwayte's theatre trunks and stuff. They keep no servant; Mrs. Chugg comes in each morning and stays all day. She goes away after supper every evening."
Desmond found himself looking into a plainly furnished but dainty bedroom with white furniture and a good deal of chintz about. There were some photographs and pictures hanging on the walls. The room was spotlessly clean and very tidy.
Desmond remarked on this, asking if the police had put the room straight.
Mr. Marigold looked quite shocked.
"Oh, no, everything is just as it was when Mrs. Chugg found Miss Mackwayte this morning. There's Miss Mackwayte's gloves and handbag on the toilet-table just as she left 'em last night. I wouldn't let her touch her clothes even. She went over to Mrs. Appleby's in her dressing-gown, in a taxi."
"Then Master Burglar didn't burgle this room?" asked the Chief.
"Nothing touched, not even the girl's money," replied Marigold.
"Then why did he come up here at all?" asked Desmond.
"Obviously, the old gentleman disturbed him," was the detective's reply. "Barney got scared and shot the old gentleman, then came up here to make sure that the daughter would not give him away before he could make his escape. He must have known the report of the gun would wake her up."
"But are there no clues or finger-prints or anything of that kind here, Marigold?" asked the Chief.
"Not a finger-print anywhere," responded the other, "men like Barney are born wise to the fingerprint business, sir."
He dipped a finger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket.
"Clues? Well, I've got one little souvenir here which I daresay a writer of detective stories would make a good bit of."
He held in his hand a piece of paper folded flat. He unfolded it and disclosed a loop of dark hair.
"There!" he said mockingly, straightening out the hair and holding it up in the light. "That's calculated to set one's thoughts running all over the place, isn't it? That piece of hair was caught in the buckle of one of the straps with which Miss Mackwayte was bound to the bed. Miss Mackwayte, I would point out, has brown hair. Whose hair do you think that is?"
Desmond looked closely at the strand of hair in the detective's fingers. It was long and fine and glossy and jetblack.
The Chief laughed and shook his head.
"Haven't an idea, Marigold," he answered, "Barney's, I should imagine, that is, if he goes about with black ringlets falling round his shoulders."
"Barney?" echoed the detective. "Barney's as bald as I am. Besides, if you saw his sheet, you'd realize that he has got into the habit of wearing his hair short!"
He carefully rolled the strand of hair up, replaced it in its paper and stowed it in his waistcoat pocket.
"It just shows how easily one is misled in a matter of this kind," he went on. "Supposing Barney hadn't got himself nabbed, supposing I hadn't been able to find out from Miss Mackwayte her movements on the night previous to the murder, that strand of hair might have led me on a fine wild goose chase!"
"But, damn it, Marigold," exclaimed the Chief, laughing, "you haven't told us whose hair it is?"
"Why, Nur-el-Din's, of course!"
The smile froze on the Chief's lips, the laughter died out of his eyes. Desmond was amazed at the change in the man. The languid interest he had taken in the different details of the crime vanished. Something seemed to tighten up suddenly in his face and manner.
"Why Nur-el-Din?" he asked curtly.
Mr. Marigold glanced quickly at him. Desmond remarked that the detective was sensible of the change too.
"Simply because Miss Mackwayte spent some time in the dancer's dressing-room last night, sir," he replied quietly, "she probably sat at her dressing-table and picked up this hair in hers or in her veil or something and it dropped on the bed where one of Master Barney's buckles caught it up."
He spoke carelessly but Desmond noticed that he kept a watchful eye on the other.
The Chief did not answer. He seemed to have relapsed into the preoccupied mood in which Desmond had found him that morning.
"I was going to suggest, sir," said Mr. Marigold diffidently, "if you had the time, you might care to look in at the Yard, and see the prisoner. I don't mind telling you that he is swearing by all the tribes of Judah that he's innocent of the murder of old Mackwayte. He's got an amazing yarn... perhaps you'd like to hear it!"
Mr. Marigold suddenly began to interest Desmond. His proposal was put forward so modestly that one would have thought the last thing he believed possible was that the Chief should acquiesce in his suggestion. Yet Desmond had the feeling that the detective was far from being so disinterested as he wished to seem. It struck Desmond that the case was more complicated than Mr. Marigold admitted and that the detective knew it. Had Mr. Marigold discovered that the Chief knew a great deal more about this mysterious affair than the detective knew himself? And was not his attitude of having already solved the problem of the murder, his treatment of the Chief as a dilettante criminologist simply an elaborate pose, to extract from the Chief information which had not been proffered?
The Chief glanced at his watch.
"Right," he said, "I think I'd like to go along."
"I have a good deal to do here still," observed Mr. Marigold, "so, if you don't mind, I won't accompany you. But perhaps, sir, you would like to see me this afternoon?"
The Chief swung round on his heel and fairly searched Mr. Marigold with a glance from beneath his bushy eyebrows. The detective returned his gaze with an expression of supreme innocence.
"Why, Marigold," answered the Chief, "I believe I should. Six o'clock suit you?"
"Certainly, sir," said Mr. Marigold.
Desmond stood by the door, vastly amused by this duel of wits. The Chief and Mr. Marigold made a move towards the door, Desmond turned to open it and came face to face with a large framed photograph of the Chief hanging on the wall of Miss Mackwayte's bedroom.
"Why, Chief," he cried, "you never told me you knew Miss Mackwayte!"
The Chief professed to be very taken aback by this question. "Dear me, didn't I, Okewood?" he answered with eyes laughing, "she's my secretary!"
CHAPTER VI. "NAME O'BARNEY"
"Miss Mackwayte telephoned to ask if I could go and see, her," said the Chief to Desmond as they motored back to White hall, "Marigold gave me the message just as we were coming out. She asked if I could come this afternoon. I'm going to send you in my place, Okewood. I've got a conference with the head of the French Intelligence at three, and the Lord knows when I shall get away. I've a notion that you and Miss Mackwayte will work very well together."
"Certainly," said Desmond, "she struck me as being a very charming and clever girl. Now I know the source of your information about my movements last night!"
"That you certainly don't!" answered the Chief promptly, "if I thought you did Duff and No.39 should be sacked on the spot!"
"Then it wasn't Miss Mackwayte who told you?"
"I haven't seen or heard from Miss Mackwayte since she left my office yesterday evening. You were followed!"
"I'll tell you all about it at, lunch!"
Bated once more, Desmond retired into his shell. By this he was convinced of the utter impossibility of making the Chief vouchsafe any information except voluntarily.
Mr. Marigold had evidently announced their coming to Scotland Yard, for a very urbane and delightful official met them at the entrance and conducted them to a room where the prisoner was already awaiting them in charge of a plain clothes man. There the official excused himself and retired, leaving them alone with the prisoner and his escort.
Barney proved to be a squat, podgy, middle-aged Jew of the familiar East End Polish or Russian type. He had little black beady eyes, a round fat white face, and a broad squabby Mongol nose. His clothes were exceedingly seedy, and the police had confiscated his collar and tie. This absence of neckwear, coupled with the fact that the lower part of his face was sprouting with a heavy growth of beard, gave him a peculiarly villainous appearance:
He was seated on a chair, his head sunk on his breast. His eyes were hollow, and his face overspread with a horrible sickly greenish pallor, the hue of the last stage of fear. His hands, resting on his knees, twisted and fiddled continually. Every now and then convulsive shudders shook him. The man was quite obviously on the verge of a collapse.
As the Chief and Desmond advanced into the room, the Jew looked up in panic. Then he sprang to his feet with a scream and flung himself on his knees, crying:
"Ah, no! Don't take me away! I ain't done no 'arm, gentlemen! S'welp me, gentlemen, I ain't a murderer! I swear..."
"Get him up!" said the Chief in disgust, "and, look here, can't you give him a drink? I want to speak to him. He's not fit to talk rationally in this state!"
The detective pushed a bell in the wall, a policeman answered it, and presently the prisoner was handed a stiff glass of whiskey and water.
After Barney had swallowed it, the Chief said:
"Now, look here, my man, I want you to tell me exactly what happened last night. No fairy tales, remember! I know what you told the police, and if I catch you spinning me any yarns on to it, well, it'll only be the worse for you. I don't mind telling you, you're in a pretty bad mess!"
The prisoner put down the glass wearily and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Though the room was bitterly cold, the perspiration stood out in beads on his brow.
"I have told the trewth, sir," he said hoarsely, "and it goes against me, don't it? Hafen't I not gif myself op to the policeman? Couldn't I not haf drop the svag and ron away? For sure! And vy didn't I not do it? For vy, because of vot I seen in that house. I've 'ad my bit of trobble mit the police and vy should I tell them how I vos op to a game last night if I vas not a-telling the trewth, eh! I've been on the crook, gentlemen, I say it, ja, but I ain't no murderer, God choke me I ain't!
"I've earned gut monney in my time on the 'alls but life is very 'ardt, and I've been alvays hongry these days. Yesterday I meet old Mac wot I used to meet about the 'alls I vos workin' along o' my boss... at the agent's it vos were I vos lookin' for a shop! The perfesh always makes a splash about its salaries, gentlemen, and Mac 'e vos telling me vot a lot o' monney he make on the Samuel Circuit and 'ow 'e 'ad it at home all ready to put into var savings certif'kits. I never done a job like this von before, gentlemen, but I vos hardt pushed for money, s'welp me I vos!
"I left it till late last night because of these air raids... I vanted to be sure that ole Mac and 'is daughter should be asleep. I god in from the back of the louse, oi, oi, bot it vos dead easy! through the scollery vindow. I cleared op a bagful of stuff in the dining-room... there vosn't, anything vorth snatching outer the parlor... and sixty-five quid out of an old cigar-box in the desk. The police 'as got it... I give it all back! I say I haf stolen, but murder? No!" He paused.
"Go on," said the Chief.
The prisoner looked about him in a frightened way.
"I vos jus' thinking I had better be getting avay, he continued in his hoarse, gutteral voice, 'ven snick.!... I hears a key in the front door. I vos, standing by the staircase... I had no time to get out by the vay I had kom so I vent opstairs to the landing vere there vos a curtain. I shlip behind the curtain and vait! I dare not look out but I listen, I listen.. I hear some one go into the dining-room and move about. I open the curtain a little way... so!... because I think I vill shlip downstairs vile the other party is in the dining-room... and there I sees ole Mac in his dressing-gown just coming down from the first floor. The same moment I hear a step in the front hall.
"I see ole Mac start but he does not stop. He kom right downstairs, and I step back behind the curtain ontil I find a door vich I push. I dare not svitch on my light but presently I feel the cold edge of a bath with my hands. I stay there and vait. Oi, oi, oi, how shall you belief vot I tell?"
He broke off trembling.
"Go on, Barney," said the detective, "can't you see the gentlemen are waiting?"
The Jew resumed, his voice sinking almost to a whisper.
"It vos quite dark behind the curtain but from the bathroom, through the open door, I could just see ole Mac standing with his back to me, a-holding the curtain. He must haf shlip in there to watch the other who vos komming opstairs. Then... then... I hear a step on the stair... a little, soft step... then ole Mac he open the curtain and cry 'Who are you?' Bang! the... the... other on the stairs he fire a shot. I see the red flash and I smell the... the powder not? The other, he does not vait... he just go on opstairs and ole Mac is lying there on his back with the blood a-trickling out on the oil-cloth. And I, vith my bag on my back, I creep downstair and out by the back again, and I ron and ron and then I valks. Gott! how I haf walked! I vos so frightened! And then, at last, I go to a policeman and gif 'myself op!"
Barney stopped. The tears burst from his eyes and laying his grimy face on his arm, he sobbed.
The detective patted him on the back.
"Pull yourself together, man!" he said encouragingly.
"This man on the stairs," queried the Chief, "did you see him?"
"Ach was!" replied the prisoner, turning a tearstained face towards him, "I haf seen nothing, except old Mac's back vich vos right in vront of me, it vos so dark!"
"But couldn't you see the other person at all, not even the outline" persisted the Chief.
The prisoner made a gesture of despair.
"It vos so dark, I say! Nothing haf I seen! I haf heard only his step!"
"What sort of step? Was it heavy or light or what? Did this person seem in a hurry?"
"A little light tread... so! won, two! won, two!, and qvick like 'e think 'e sneak opstairs vithout nobody seeing!"
"Did he make much noise"
"Ach was! hardly at all... the tread, 'e vos so light like a woman's..."
"Like a woman's, eh!", repeated the Chief, as if talking to himself, "Why do you think that?"
"Because for vy it vos so gentle! The' staircase, she haf not sqveak as she haf sqveak when I haf creep away!"
The Chief turned to the plain clothes man.
"You can take him away now, officer," he said.
Barney sprang up trembling.
"Not back to the cell," he cried imploringly, "I cannot be alone. Oh, gentlemen, you vill speak for me! I haf not had trobble vith the police this long time! My vife's cousin, he is an elder of the Shool he vill tell you 'ow poor ve haf been..."
But the Chief crossed the room to the door and the detective hustled the prisoner away.
Then the official whom they had seen before came in.
"Glad I caught you," he said. "I thought you would care to see the post mortem report. The doctor has just handed it in."
The chief waved him off.
"I don't think there's any doubt about the cause of death," he replied, "we saw the body ourselves..."
"Quite so," replied the other, "but there is something interesting about this report all the same. They were able to extract the bullet!"
"Oh," said the Chief, "that ought to tell us something!"
"It does," answered the official. "We've submitted it to our small arms expert, and he pronounces it to be a bullet fired by an automatic pistol of unusually large calibre."
The Chief looked at Desmond.
"You were right there," he said.
"And," the official went on, "our man says, further, that, as far as he knows, there is only one type of automatic pistol that fires a bullet as big as this one!"
"And that is?" asked the Chief.
"An improved pattern of the German Mauser pistol," was the other's startling reply.
The Chief tapped a cigarette meditatively on the back of his hand.
"Okewood," he said, "you are the very model of discretion. I have put your reticence to a pretty severe test this morning, and you have stood it very well. But I can see that you are bristling with questions like a porcupine with quills. Zero hour has arrived. You may fire away!"
They were sitting in the smoking-room of the United Service Club. "The Senior," as men call it, is the very parliament of Britain's professional navy and army. Even in these days when war has flung wide the portals of the two services to all-comers, it retains a touch of rigidity. Famous generals and admirals look down from the lofty walls in silent testimony of wars that have been. Of the war that is, you will hear in every cluster of men round the little tables. Every day in the hour after luncheon battles are fought over again, personalities criticized, and decisions weighed with all the vigorous freedom of ward-room or the mess ante-room.
And so to-day, as he sat in his padded leather chair, surveying the Chief's quizzing face across the little table where their coffee was steaming, Desmond felt the oddness of the contrast between the direct, matter-of-fact personalities all around them, and the extraordinary web of intrigue which seemed to have spun itself round the little house at Seven Kings.
Before he answered the Chief's question, he studied him for a moment under cover of lighting a cigarette. How very little, to be sure, escaped that swift and silent mind! At luncheon the Chief had scrupulously avoided making, the slightest allusion to the thoughts with which Desmond's mind was seething. Instead he had told, with the gusto of the born raconteur, a string of extremely droll yarns about "double crosses," that is, obliging gentlemen who will spy for both sides simultaneously, he had come into contact with during his long and varied career. Desmond had played up to him and repressed the questions which kept rising to his lips. Hence the Chief's unexpected tribute to him in the smoking room.
"Well," said Desmond slowly, "there are one or two things I should like to know. What am I here for? Why did you have me followed last night? How did you know, before we ever went to Seven Kings, that Barney did not murder old Mackwayte? And lastly..."
He paused, fearing to be rash; then he risked it:
"And lastly, Nur-el-Din?"
The Chief leant back in his chair and laughed.
"I'm sure you feel much better now," he said. Then his face grew grave and he added:
"Your last question answers all the others!"
"Meaning Nur-el-Din?" asked Desmond.
The Chief nodded.
"Nur-el-Din," he repeated. "That's why you're here, that's why I had you followed last night, that's why I..." he hesitated for the word, "let's say, presumed (one knows for certain so little in our work) that our friend Barney had nothing to do with the violent death of poor old Mackwayte. Nur-el-Din in the center, the kernel, the hub of everything!"
The Chief leant across the table and Desmond pulled his chair closer.
"There's only one other man in the world can handle this job, except you," he began, "and that's your brother Francis. Do you know where he is, Okewood?"
"He wrote to me last from Athens," answered Desmond, "but that must be nearly two months ago."
The Chief laughed.
"His present address is not Athens," he said, "if you want to know, he's serving on a German Staff somewhere at the back of Jerusalem the Golden. Frankly, I know you don't care about our work, and I did my best to get your brother. He has had his instructions and as soon as he can get away he will. That was not soon enough for me. It had to be him or you. So I sent for you."
He stopped and cleared his throat. Desmond stared at him. He could hardly believe his eyes. This quiet, deliberate man was actually embarrassed.
"Okewood," the Chief went on, "you know I like plain speaking, and therefore you won't make the mistake of thinking I'm trying to flatter you."
Desmond made a gesture.
"Wait a moment and hear me out," the Chief went on. "What is required for this job is a man of great courage and steady nerve. Yes, we have plenty of fellows like that. But the man I am looking for must, in addition to possessing those qualities, know German and the Germans thoroughly, and when I say thoroughly I mean to the very core so that, if needs be, he may be a German, think German, act German. I have men in my service who know German perfectly and can get themselves up to look the part to the life. But they have never been put to the real, the searching test. Not one of them has done what you and your brother successfully accomplished. The first time I came across you, you had just come out of Germany after fetching your brother away. To have lived for weeks in Germany in wartime and to have got clear away is a feat which shows that both you and he can be trusted to make a success of one of the most difficult and critical missions I have ever had to propose. Francis is not here. That's why I want you."
The Chief paused as if weighing something in his mind.
"It's not the custom of either service, Okewood," he said, "to send a man to certain death. You're not in this creepy, crawly business of ours. You're a pukka soldier and keen on your job. So I want you to know that you are free to turn down this offer of mine here and now, and go back to France without my thinking a bit the worse of you."
"Would you tell me something about it?" asked Desmond.
"I'm sorry I can't," replied the other. "There must be only two men in this secret, myself and the fellow who undertakes the mission. Of course, it's not certain death. If you take this thing on, you'll have a sporting chance for your life, but that's all. It's going to be a desperate game played against a desperate opponent. Now do you understand why I didn't want you to think I was flattering you? You've got your head screwed on right, I know, but I should hate to feel afterwards, if anything went wrong, that you thought I had buttered you up in order to entice you into taking the job on!"
Desmond took two or three deep puffs of his cigarette and dropped it into the ash-tray.
"I'll see you!" he said.
The Chief grinned with delight.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I knew you were my man!"
CHAPTER VII. NUR-EL-DIN
The love of romance is merely the nobler form of curiosity. And there was something in Desmond Okewood's Anglo-Irish parentage that made him fiercely inquisitive after adventure. In him two men were constantly warring, the Irishman, eager for romance yet too indolent to go out in search of it, and the Englishman, cautious yet intensely vital withal, courting danger for danger's sake.
All his ill-humor of the morning at being snatched away from his work in France had evaporated. In the Chief he now saw only the magician who was about to unlock to him the realms of Adventure. Desmond's eyes shone with excitement as the other, obviously simmering with satisfaction, lit another cigarette and began to speak.
"The British public, Okewood," he said, hitching his chair closer, "would like to see espionage in this country rendered impossible. Such an ideal state of things is, unfortunately out of the question. Quite on the contrary, this country of ours is honeycombed with spies. So it will ever be, as long as we have to work with natural means: at present we have no caps of invisibility or magician's carpets available.
"As we cannot hope to kill the danger, we do our best to scotch it. Personally, my modest ambition is to make espionage as difficult as possible for the enemy by knowing as many as possible of his agents and their channels of communication, and by keeping him happy with small results, to prevent him from finding out the really important things, the disclosure of which would inevitably compromise our national safety."
He paused and Desmond nodded.
"The extent of our business," the Chief resumed, "is so large, the issues at stake so vital, that we at the top have to ignore the non-essentials and stick to the essentials. By the nonessentials I mean the little potty spies, actuated by sheer hunger or mere officiousness, the neutral busybody who makes a tip-and-run dash into England, the starving waiter, miserably underpaid by some thieving rogue in a neutral country—or the frank swindler who sends back to the Fatherland and is duly paid for long reports about British naval movements which he has concocted without setting foot outside his Bloomsbury lodgings.
"These folk are dealt with somehow and every now and then one of 'em gets shot, just to show that we aren't asleep, don't you know? But spasmodic reports we can afford to ignore. What we are death on is anything like a regular news service from this country to Germany; and to keep up this steady flow of reliable information is the perpetual striving of the men who run the German Secret Service.
"These fellows, my dear Okewood, move in darkness. Very often we have to grope after 'em in darkness, too. They don't get shot, or hardly ever; they are far too clever for that. Between us and them it is a never-ending series of move and countermove, check and counter-check. Very often we only know of their activities by enemy action based on their reports. Then there is another leak to be caulked, another rat-hole to be nailed up, and so the game goes on. Hitherto I think I may say we have managed to hold our own!"
The Chief stopped to light another cigarette. Then he resumed but in a lower voice.
"During the past month, Okewood," he said, "a new organization has cropped up. The objective of every spy operating in this country is, as you may have surmised, naval matters, the movements of the Fleet, the military transports, and the food convoys. This new organization has proved itself more efficient than any of its predecessors. It specializes in the movement of troops to France, and in the journeys of the hospital ships across the Channel. Its information is very prompt and extremely accurate, as we know too well. There have been some very disquieting incidents in which, for once in a way, luck has been on our side, but as long as this gang can work in the dark there is the danger of a grave catastrophe. With its thousands of miles of sea to patrol, the Navy has to take a chance sometimes, you know! Well, on two occasions lately, when chances were taken, the Hun knew we were taking a chance, and what is more, when and where we were taking it!"
The Chief broke off, then looking Desmond squarely in the eyes, said:
"This is the organization that you're going to beak up!"
Desmond raised his eyebrows.
"Who is at the head of it?" he asked quietly.
The Chief, smiled a little bitterly.
"By George!" he cried, slapping his thigh, "you've rung the bell in one. Okewood, I'm not a rich man, but I would gladly give a year's pay to be able to answer that question. To be perfectly frank with you, I don't know who is at the back of this crowd, but..." his mouth set in a grim line, "I'm going to know!"
He added whimsically:
"What's more, you're going to find out for me!"
Desmond smiled at the note of assurance in his voice.
"I suppose you've got something to go on?" he asked. "There's Nur-el-Din, for instance. What about her?"
"That young person," replied the Chief, "is to be your particular study. If she is not the center of the whole conspiracy, she is, at any rate, in the thick of it. It will be part of your job to ascertain the exact role she is playing."
"But what is there against her?" queried Desmond.
"What is there against her? The bad company she keeps is against her. 'Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are' is a maxim that we have to go on in our profession, Okewood. You have met the lady. Did you see any of her entourage? Her business manager, a fat Italian who calls himself Lazarro, did you notice him? Would you be surprised to hear that Lazarro alias Sacchetti alias Le Tardenois is a very notorious international spy who after working in the Italian Secret Service in the pay of the Germans was unmasked and kicked out of Italy... that was before the war? This pleasant gentleman subsequently did five years in the French penal settlements in New Caledonia for robbery with violence at Aix-les-Bains... oh, we know a whole lot about him! And this woman's other friends! Do you know, for instance, where she often spends the week-end? At the country-place of one Bryan Mowbury, whose name used to be Bernhard Marburg, a very old hand indeed in the German Secret Service. She has identified herself right and left with the German espionage service in this country. One day she lunches with a woman spy, whose lover was caught and shot by the French. Then she goes out motoring with..."
"But why in Heaven's name are all these people allowed to run loose?" broke in Desmond. "Do you mean to say you can't arrest them?"
"Arrest 'em? Arrest 'em? Of course, we can arrest 'em. But what's the use? They're all small fry, and we have to keep out a few lines baited with minnows to catch the Tritons. None of 'em can do any harm: we watch 'em much too closely for that. Once you've located your spy, the battle's won. It's when he—or it may be a she—is running loose, that I get peeved!"
The Chief sprang impatiently to his feet and strode across the smoking-room, which was all but empty by this time, to get a match from a table. He resumed his seat with a grunt of exasperation.
"I can't see light, Okewood!" he sighed, shaking his head.
"But is this all you've got against Nur-el-Din?" asked Desmond.
"No," answered the other slowly, "it isn't. If it were, I need not have called you in. We would have interned or deported her. No, we've traced back to her a line leading straight from the only member of the new organization we have been able to lay by the heels."
"Then you've made an arrest?"
The Chief nodded.
"A fortnight ago... a respectable, retired English business man, by name of Basil Bellward... taken with the goods on him, as the saying is..."
"An Englishman, by Jove!"
"It's hardly correct to call him an Englishman, though he's posed as an English business man for so long that one is almost justified in doing so. As a matter of fact, the fellow is a German named Wolfgang Bruhl and it is my belief that he was planted in this country at least a dozen years ago solely for the purpose of furnishing him with good, respectable credentials for an emergency like this."
"But surely if you found evidence of his connection with this gang of spies, it should be easy to get a clue to the rest of the crowd?"
"Not so easy as you think," the Chief replied. "The man who organized this system of espionage is a master at his craft. He has been careful to seal both ends of every connection, that is to say, though we found evidence of Master Bellward-Bruhl being in possession of highly confidential information relating to the movements of troops, we discovered nothing to show whence he received it or how or where he was going to forward it. But we did find a direct thread leading straight back to Nur-el-Din."
"Really," said Desmond, "that rather complicates things for her, doesn't it?"
"It was in the shape of a letter of introduction, in French, without date or address, warmly recommending the dancer to our friend, Bellward."
"Who is this letter from?"
"It is simply signed 'P.', but you shall see it for yourself when you get the other documents in the case."
"But surely, sir, such a letter might be presented in perfectly good faith..."
"It might, but not this one. This letter, as an expert has ascertained beyond all doubt, is written on German manufactured note-paper of a very superior quality;, the writing is stiff and angular and not French: and lastly, the French in which it is phrased, while correct, is unusually pompous and elaborate."
"The letter was, in all probability, written by a German!"
There was a moment's silence. Desmond was thinking despairingly of the seeming hopelessness of untangling this intricate webwork of tangled threads.
"And this murder, sir," he began.
The Chief shrugged his shoulders.
"The motive, Okewood, I am searching for the motive. I can see none except the highly improbable one of Miss Mackwayte being my confidential secretary. In that case why murder the father, a harmless old man who didn't even know that his daughter is in my service, why kill him, I ask you, and spare the girl? On the other hand, I believe the man Barney's story, and can see that Marigold does, too. When I first heard the news of the murder over the telephone this morning, I had a kind of intuition that we should discover in it a thread leading back to this mesh of espionage. Is it merely a coincidence that a hair, resembling Nur-el-Din's, is found adhering to the straps with which Barbara Mackwayte was bound? I can't think so... and yet..."
"But do you believe then, that Nur-el-Din murdered-old Mackwayte? My dear Chief, the idea is preposterous..."
The Chief rose from his chair with a sigh.
"Nothing is preposterous in our work, Okewood," he replied. "But it's 3.25, and my French colleague hates to be kept waiting."
"I thought you were seeing Strangwise, at two?" asked Desmond.
"I put him off until six o'clock," replied the Chief, "he knows Nur-el-Din, and he may be able to give Marigold some pointers about this affair. You're off to see Miss Mackwayte now, I suppose. You know where she's staying? Good. Well, I'll say good-bye, Okewood. I shan't see you again..."
"You won't see me again? How do you mean, sir?"
"Because you're going back to France!"
"Going back to France? When?"
"By the leave-boat to-night!"
Desmond smiled resignedly.
"My dear Chief," he said, "you must be more explicit. What am I going back to France for?"
"Why, now I come to think of it," replied the Chief, "I never told you. You're going back to France to be killed, of course!"
"To be killed!"
Desmond looked blankly at the other's blandly smiling face.
"Two or three days from now," said the Chief, "you will be killed in action in France. I thought of making it a shell. But we'll have it a machine gun bullet if you like. Whichever you prefer; it's all the same to me!"
He laughed at the dawn of enlightenment in Desmond's eyes.
"I see," said Desmond.
"I hope you don't mind," the Chief went on more seriously, "but I know you have no people to consider except your brother and his wife. She's in America, and Francis can't possibly hear about it. So you needn't worry on that score. Or do you?"
"No-o-o!" he said slowly, "but I'm rather young to die. Is it absolutely necessary for me to disappear?"
"Absolutely!" responded the Chief firmly.
"But how will we manage it?" asked Desmond.
"Catch the leave-boat to-night and don't worry. You will receive your instructions in due course."
"But when shall I see you again?"
The Chief chuckled.
"Depends entirely on yourself, Okewood," he retorted. "When you're through with your job, I expect. In the meantime, Miss Mackwayte will act between us. On that point also you will be fully instructed. And now I must fly!"
"But I say, sir," Desmond interposed hastily. "You haven't told me what I am to do. What part am I to play in this business anyway?"
"To-morrow," said the Chief, buttoning up his coat, "you become Mr. Basil Bellward!"
CHAPTER VIII. THE WHITE PAPER PACKAGE
A taxi was waiting in Pall Mall outside the club and Desmond hailed it, though secretly wondering what the driver would think of taking him out to Seven Kings. Rather to his surprise, the man was quite affable, took the address of the house where Barbara was staying with her friends and bade Desmond "hop in." Presently, for the second time that day, he was heading for the Mile End Road.