PETER RUFF AND THE DOUBLE FOUR
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
I INTRODUCING MR. PETER RUFF
II A NEW CAREER
III VINCENT CAWDOR, COMMISSION AGENT
IV THE INDISCRETION OF LETTY SHAW
V DELILAH FROM STREATHAM
VI THE LITTLE LADY FROM SERVIA
VII THE DEMAND OF THE DOUBLE-FOUR
VIII MRS. BOGNOR'S STAR BOARDER
IX THE PERFIDY OF MISS BROWN
X WONDERFUL JOHN DORY
I RECALLED BY THE DOUBLE-FOUR
II PRINCE ALBERT'S CARD DEBTS
III THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE
IV THE MAN FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT
V THE FIRST SHOT
VI THE SEVEN SUPPERS OF ANDREA KORUST
VII MAJOR KOSUTH'S MISSION
VIII THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
IX THE GHOSTS OF HAVANA HARBOR
X THE AFFAIR OF AN ALIEN SOCIETY
XI THE THIRTEENTH ENCOUNTER
CHAPTER I. INTRODUCING MR. PETER RUFF
There was nothing about the supper party on that particular Sunday evening in November at Daisy Villa, Green Street, Streatham, which seemed to indicate in any way that one of the most interesting careers connected with the world history of crime was to owe its very existence to the disaster which befell that little gathering. The villa was the residence and also—to his credit—the unmortgaged property of Mr. David Barnes, a struggling but fairly prosperous coal merchant of excellent character, some means, and Methodist proclivities. His habit of sitting without his coat when carving, although deprecated by his wife and daughter on account of the genteel aspirations of the latter, was a not unusual one in the neighbourhood; and coupled with the proximity of a cold joint of beef, his seat at the head of the table, and a carving knife and fork grasped in his hands, established clearly the fact of his position in the household, which a somewhat weak physiognomy might otherwise have led the casual observer to doubt. Opposite him, at the other end of the table, sat his wife, Mrs. Barnes, a somewhat voluminous lady with a high colour, a black satin frock, and many ornaments. On her left the son of the house, eighteen years old, of moderate stature, somewhat pimply, with the fashion of the moment reflected in his pink tie with white spots, drawn through a gold ring, and curving outwards to seek obscurity underneath a dazzling waistcoat. A white tube-rose in his buttonhole might have been intended as a sort of compliment to the occasion, or an indication of his intention to take a walk after supper in the fashionable purlieus of the neighbourhood. Facing him sat his sister—a fluffy-haired, blue-eyed young lady, pretty in her way, but chiefly noticeable for a peculiar sort of self-consciousness blended with self-satisfaction, and possessed only at a certain period in their lives by young ladies of her age. It was almost the air of the cat in whose interior reposes the missing canary, except that in this instance the canary obviously existed in the person of the young man who sat at her side, introduced formally to the household for the first time. That young man's name was—at the moment—Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald.
It seems idle to attempt any description of a person who, in the past, had secured a certain amount of fame under a varying personality; and who, in the future, was to become more than ever notorious under a far less aristocratic pseudonym than that by which he was at present known to the inhabitants of Daisy Villa. There are photographs of him in New York and Paris, St. Petersburg and Chicago, Vienna and Cape Town, but there are no two pictures which present to the casual observer the slightest likeness to one another. To allude to him by the name under which he had won some part, at least, of the affections of Miss Maud Barnes, Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, as he sat there, a suitor on probation for her hand, was a young man of modest and genteel appearance. He wore a blue serge suit—a little underdressed for the occasion, perhaps; but his tie and collar were neat; his gold-rimmed spectacles—if a little disapproved of by Maud on account of the air of steadiness which they imparted—suggested excellent son-in-lawlike qualities to Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. He had the promise of a fair moustache, but his complexion generally was colourless. His features, except for a certain regularity, were undistinguished. His speech was modest and correct. His manner varied with his company. To-night it had been pronounced, by excellent judges—genteel.
The conversation consisted—naturally enough, under the circumstances—of a course of subtle and judicious pumping, tactfully prompted, for the most part, by Mrs. Barnes. Such, for instance, as the following:
"Talking about Marie Corelli's new book reminds me, Mr. Fitzgerald—your occupation is connected with books, is it not?" his prospective mother-in-law enquired, artlessly.
Mr. Fitzgerald bowed assent.
"I am cashier at Howell & Wilson's in Cheapside," he said. "We sell a great many books there—as many, I should think, as any retail establishment in London."
"Indeed!" Mrs. Barnes purred. "Very interesting work, I am sure. So nice and intellectual, too; for, of course, you must be looking inside them sometimes."
"I know the place well," Mr. Adolphus Barnes, Junior, announced condescendingly,—"pass it every day on my way to lunch."
"So much nicer," Mrs. Barnes continued, "than any of the ordinary businesses—grocery or drapery, or anything of that sort."
Miss Maud elevated her eyebrows slightly. Was it likely that she would have looked with eyes of favour upon a young man engaged in any of these inferior occupations?
"There's money in books, too," Mr. Barnes declared with sudden inspiration. His prospective son-in-law turned towards him deferentially.
"You are right, sir," he admitted. "There is money in them. There's money for those who write, and there's money for those who sell. My occupation," he continued, with a modest little cough, "brings me often into touch with publishers, travellers and clerks, so I am, as it were, behind the scenes to some extent. I can assure you," he continued, looking from Mr. Barnes to his wife, and finally transfixing Mr. Adolphus—"I can assure you that the money paid by some firms of publishers to a few well-known authors—I will mention no names—as advances against royalties, is something stupendous!"
"Ah!" Mr. Barnes murmured, solemnly shaking his head.
"Marie Corelli, I expect, and that Hall Caine," remarked young Adolphus.
"Seems easy enough to write a book, too," Mrs. Barnes said. "Why, I declare that some of those we get from the library—we subscribe to a library, Mr. Fitzgerald—are just as simple and straightforward that a child might have written them. No plot whatsoever, no murders or mysteries or anything of that sort—just stories about people like ourselves. I don't see how they can pay people for writing stories about people just like those one meets every day!"
"I always say," Maud intervened, "that Spencer means to write a book some day. He has quite the literary air, hasn't he, mother?"
"Indeed he has!" Mrs. Barnes declared, with an appreciative glance at the gold-rimmed spectacles.
Mr. Fitzgerald modestly disclaimed any literary aspirations.
"The thing is a gift, after all," he declared, generously. "I can keep accounts, and earn a fair salary at it, but if I attempted fiction I should soon be up a tree."
Mr. Barnes nodded his approval of such sentiments.
"Every one to his trade, I say," he remarked. "What sort of salaries do they pay now in the book trade?" he asked guilelessly.
"Very fair," Mr. Fitzgerald admitted candidly,—"very fair indeed."
"When I was your age," Mr. Barnes said reflectively, "I was getting—let me see—forty-two shillings a week. Pretty good pay, too, for those days."
Mr. Fitzgerald admitted the fact.
"Of course," he said apologetically, "salaries are a little higher now all round. Mr. Howell has been very kind to me,—in fact I have had two raises this year. I am getting four pounds ten now."
"Four pounds ten per week?" Mrs. Barnes exclaimed, laying down her knife and fork.
"Certainly," Mr. Fitzgerald answered. "After Christmas, I have some reason to believe that it may be five pounds."
Mr. Barnes whistled softly, and looked at the young man with a new respect.
"I told you that—Mr.—that Spencer was doing pretty well, Mother," Maud simpered, looking down at her plate.
"Any one to support?" her father asked, transferring a pickle from the fork to his mouth.
"No one," Mr. Fitzgerald answered. "In fact, I may say that I have some small expectations. I haven't done badly, either, out of the few investments I have made from time to time."
"Saved a bit of money, eh?" Mr. Barnes enquired genially.
"I have a matter of four hundred pounds put by," Mr. Fitzgerald admitted modestly, "besides a few sticks of furniture. I never cared much about lodging-house things, so I furnished a couple of rooms myself some time ago."
Mrs. Barnes rose slowly to her feet.
"You are quite sure you won't have a small piece more of beef?" she enquired anxiously.
"Just a morsel?" Mr. Barnes asked, tapping the joint insinuatingly with his carving knife.
"No, I thank you!" Mr. Fitzgerald declared firmly. "I have done excellently."
"Then if you will put the joint on the sideboard, Adolphus," Mrs. Barnes directed, "Maud and I will change the plates. We always let the girl go out on Sundays, Mr. Fitzgerald," she explained, turning to their guest. "It's very awkward, of course, but they seem to expect it."
"Quite natural, I'm sure," Mr. Fitzgerald murmured, watching Maud's light movements with admiring eyes. "I like to see ladies interested in domestic work."
"There's one thing I will say for Maud," her proud mother declared, plumping down a dish of jelly upon the table, "she does know what's what in keeping house, and even if she hasn't to scrape and save as I did when David and I were first married, economy is a great thing when you're young. I have always said so, and I stick to it."
"Quite right, Mother," Mr. Barnes declared.
"If instead of sitting there," Mrs. Barnes continued in high good humour, "you were to get a bottle of that port wine out of the cellarette, we might drink Mr. Fitzgerald's health, being as it's his first visit."
Mr. Barnes rose to his feet with alacrity. "For a woman with sound ideas," he declared, "commend me to your mother!"
Maud, having finished her duties, resumed her place by the side of the guest of the evening. Their hands met under the tablecloth for a moment. To the girl, the pleasure of such a proceeding was natural enough, but Fitzgerald asked himself for the fiftieth time why on earth he, who, notwithstanding his present modest exterior, was a young man of some experience, should from such primitive love-making derive a rapture which nothing else in life afforded him. He was, at that moment, content with his future,—a future which he had absolutely and finally decided upon. He was content with his father-in-law and his mother-in-law, with Daisy Villa, and the prospect of a Daisy Villa for himself,—content, even, with Adolphus! But for Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, these things were not to be! The awakening was even then at hand.
The dining room of Daisy Villa fronted the street, and was removed from it only a few feet. Consequently, the footsteps of passers-by upon the flagged pavement were clearly distinguishable. It was just at the moment when Mrs. Barnes was inserting a few fresh almonds into a somewhat precarious tipsy cake, and Mr. Barnes was engaged with the decanting of the port, that two pairs of footsteps, considerably heavier than those of the ordinary promenader, paused outside and finally stopped. The gate creaked. Mr. Barnes looked up.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "What's that? Visitors?"
They all listened. The front-door bell rang. Adolphus, in response to a gesture from his mother, rose sulkily to his feet.
"Job I hate!" he muttered as he left the room.
The rest of the family, full of the small curiosity of people of their class, were intent upon listening for voices outside. The demeanour of Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, therefore, escaped their notice. It is doubtful, in any case, whether their perceptions would have been sufficiently keen to have enabled them to trace the workings of emotion in the countenance of a person so magnificently endowed by Providence with the art of subterfuge. Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald seemed simply to have stiffened in acute and earnest attention. It was only for a moment that he hesitated. His unfailing inspiration told him the truth!
His course of action was simple,—he rose to his feet and strolled to the window.
"Some people who have lost their way in the fog, perhaps," he remarked. "What a night!"
He laid his hand upon the sash—simultaneously there was a rush of cold air into the room, a half-angry, half-frightened exclamation from Adolphus in the passage, a scream from Miss Maud—and no Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald! No one had time to be more than blankly astonished. The door was opened, and a police inspector, in very nice dark braided uniform and a peaked cap, stood in the doorway.
Mr. Barnes dropped the port, and Mrs. Barnes, emulating her daughter's example, screamed. The inspector, as though conscious of the draught, moved rapidly toward the window.
"You had a visitor here, Mr. Barnes," he said quickly—"a Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald. Where is he?"
There was no one who could answer! Mr. Barnes was speechless between the shock of the spilt port and the appearance of a couple of uniformed policemen in his dining room. John Dory, the detective, he knew well enough in his private capacity, but in his uniform, and attended by policemen, he presented a new and startling appearance! Mrs. Barnes was in hysterics, and Maud was gazing like a creature turned to stone at the open window, through which little puffs of fog were already drifting into the room. Adolphus, with an air of bewilderment, was standing with his mouth and eyes wider open than they had ever been in his life. And as for the honoured guest of these admirable inhabitants of Daisy Villa, there was not the slightest doubt but that Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald had disappeared through the window!
Fitzgerald's expedition was nearly at an end. Soon he paused, crossed the road to a block of flats, ascended to the eighth floor by an automatic lift, and rang the bell at a door which bore simply the number II. A trim parlourmaid opened it after a few minutes' delay.
"Is Miss Emerson at home?" he asked.
"Miss Emerson is in," the maid admitted, with some hesitation, "but I am not sure that she will see any one to-night."
"I have a message for her," Fitzgerald said.
"Will you give me your name, sir, please?" the maid asked.
An inner door was suddenly opened. A slim girl, looking taller than she really was by reason of the rug upon which she stood, looked out into the hall—a girl with masses of brown hair loosely coiled on her head, with pale face and strange eyes. She opened her lips as though to call to her visitor by name, and as suddenly closed them again. There was not much expression in her face, but there was enough to show that his visit was not unwelcome.
"You!" she exclaimed. "Come in! Please come in at once!"
Fitzgerald obeyed the invitation of the girl whom he had come to visit. She had retreated a little into the room, but the door was no sooner closed than she held out her hands.
"Peter!" she exclaimed. "Peter, you have come to me at last!"
Her lips were a little parted; her eyes were bright with pleasure; her whole expression was one of absolute delight. Fitzgerald frowned, as though he found her welcome a little too enthusiastic for his taste.
"Violet," he said, "please don't look at me as though I were a prodigal sheep. If you do, I shall be sorry that I came."
Her hands fell to her side, the pleasure died out of her face—only her eyes still questioned him. Fitzgerald carefully laid his hat on a vacant chair.
"Something has happened?" she said. "Tell me that all that madness is over—that you are yourself again!"
"So far as regards my engagement with Messrs. Howell & Wilson," he said, despondently, "you are right. As regards—Miss Barnes, there has been no direct misunderstanding between us, but I am afraid, for the present, that I must consider that—well, in abeyance."
"That is something!" she exclaimed, drawing a little breath of relief. "Sit down, Peter. Will you have something to eat? I finished dinner an hour ago, but—"
"Thank you," Fitzgerald interrupted, "I supped—extremely well in Streatham!"
"In Streatham!" she repeated. "Why, how did you get there? The fog is awful."
"Fogs do not trouble me," Fitzgerald answered. "I walked. I could have done it as well blindfold. I will take a whisky and soda, if I may."
She led him to an easy-chair.
"I will mix it myself," she said.
Without being remarkably good-looking, she was certainly a pleasant and attractive-looking young woman. Her cheeks were a little pale; her hair—perfectly natural—was a wonderful deep shade of soft brown. Her eyes were long and narrow—almost Oriental in shape—and they seemed in some queer way to match the room; he could have sworn that in the firelight they flashed green. Her body and limbs, notwithstanding her extreme slightness, were graceful, perhaps, but with the grace of the tigress. She wore a green silk dressing jacket, pulled together with a belt of lizard skin, and her neck was bare. Her skirt was of some thin black material. She was obviously in deshabille, and yet there was something neat and trim about the smaller details of her toilette.
"Go on, please, Peter," she begged. "You are keeping me in suspense."
"There isn't much to tell," he answered. "It's over—that's all."
She drew a sharp breath through her teeth.
"You are not going to marry that girl—that bourgeois doll in Streatham?"
Fitzgerald sat up in his chair.
"Look here," he said, seriously, "don't you call her names. If I'm not going to marry her, it isn't my fault. She is the only girl I have ever wanted, and probably—most probably—she will be the only one I ever shall want. That's honest, isn't it?"
The girl winced.
"Yes," she said, "it is honest!"
"I should have married her," the young man continued, "and I should have been happy. I had my eye on a villa—not too near her parents—and I saw my way to a little increase of salary. I should have taken to gardening, to walks in the Park, with an occasional theatre, and I should have thoroughly enjoyed a fortnight every summer at Skegness or Sutton-on-Sea. We should have saved a little money. I should have gone to church regularly, and if possible I should have filled some minor public offices. You may call this bourgeois—it was my idea of happiness."
"Was!" she murmured.
"Is still," he declared, sharply, "but I shall never attain to it. To-night I had to leave Maud—to leave the supper table of Daisy Villa—through the window!"
She looked at him in amazement.
"The police," he explained. "That brute Dory was at the bottom of it."
"But surely," she murmured, "you told me that you had a bona-fide situation—"
"So I had," he declared, "and I was a fool not to be content with it. It was my habit of taking long country walks, and their rotten auditing, which undid me! You understand that this was all before I met Maud? Since the day I spoke to her, I turned over a new leaf. I have left the night work alone, and I repaid every penny of the firm's money which they could ever have possibly found out about. There was only that one little affair of mine down at Sudbury."
"Tell me what you are going to do?" she whispered.
"I have no alternative," he answered. "The law has kicked me out from the respectable places. The law shall pay!"
She looked at him with glowing eyes.
"Have you any plans?" she asked, softly.
"I have," he answered. "I have considered the subject from a good many points of view, and I have decided to start in business for myself as a private detective."
She raised her eyebrows.
"My dear Peter!" she murmured. "Couldn't you be a little more original?"
"That is only what I am going to call myself," he answered. "I may tell you that I am going to strike out on somewhat new lines."
"Please explain," she begged.
He recrossed his knees and made himself a little more comfortable.
"The weak part of every great robbery, however successful," he began, "is the great wastage in value which invariably results. For jewels which cost—say five thousand pounds, and to procure which the artist has to risk his life as well as his liberty, he has to consider himself lucky if he clears eight hundred. For the Hermitage rubies, for instance, where I nearly had to shoot a man dead, I realized rather less than four hundred pounds. It doesn't pay."
"Go on," she begged.
"I am not clear," he continued, "how far this class of business will attract me at all, but I do not propose, in any case, to enter into any transactions on my own account. I shall work for other people, and for cash down. Your experience of life, Violet, has been fairly large. Have you not sometimes come into contact with people driven into a situation from which they would willingly commit any crime to escape if they dared? It is not with them a question of money at all—it is simply a matter of ignorance. They do not know how to commit a crime. They have had no experience, and if they attempt it, they know perfectly well that they are likely to blunder. A person thoroughly experienced in the ways of criminals—a person of genius like myself—would have, without a doubt, an immense clientele, if only he dared put up his signboard. Literally, I cannot do that. Actually, I mean to do so! I shall be willing to accept contracts either to help nervous people out of an undesirable crisis; or, on the other hand, to measure my wits against the wits of Scotland Yard, and to discover the criminals whom they have failed to secure. I shall make my own bargains, and I shall be paid in cash. I shall take on nothing that I am not certain about."
"But your clients?" she asked, curiously. "How will you come into contact with them?"
"I am not afraid of business being slack," he said. "The world is full of fools."
"You cannot live outside the law, Peter," she objected. "You are clever, I know, but they are not all fools at Scotland Yard."
"You forget," he reminded her, "that there will be a perfectly legitimate side to my profession. The other sort of case I shall only accept if I can see my way clear to make a success of it. Needless to say, I shall have to refuse the majority that are offered to me."
She came a little nearer to him.
"In any case," she said, with a little sigh, "you have given up that foolish, bourgeois life of yours?"
He looked down into her face, and his eyes were cold.
"Violet," he said, "this is no time for misunderstandings. I should like you to know that apart from one young lady, who possesses my whole affection—"
"All of it?" she pleaded.
"All!" he declared emphatically. "She will doubtless be faithless to me—under the circumstances, I cannot blame her—but so far as I am concerned, I have no affection whatever for any one else."
She crept back to her place.
"I could be so useful to you," she murmured.
"You could and you shall, if you will be sensible," he answered.
"Tell me how?" she begged.
He was silent for a moment.
"Are you acting now?" he asked.
"I am understudying Molly," she answered, "and I have a very small part at the Globe."
"There is no reason to interfere with that," he said, "in fact, I wish you to continue your connection with the profession. It brings you into touch with the class of people among whom I am likely to find clients."
"Go on, please," she begged.
"On two conditions—or rather one," he said, "you can, if you like, become my secretary and partner—and find the money we shall require to make a start."
"Conditions?" she asked.
"You must understand, once and for all," he said, "that I will not be made love to, and that I can treat you only as a working; companion. My name will be Peter Ruff, and yours Miss Brown. You will have to dress like a secretary, and behave like one. Sometimes there will be plenty of work for you, and sometimes there will be none at all. Sometimes you will be bored to death, and sometimes there will be excitement. I do not wish to make you vain, but I may add, especially as you are aware of my personal feelings toward you, that you are the only person in the world to whom I would make this offer."
She sighed gently.
"Tell me, Peter," she asked, "when do you mean to start this new enterprise?"
"Not for six months—perhaps a year," he answered. "I must go to Paris—perhaps Vienna. I might even have to go to New York. There are certain associations with which I must come into touch—certain information I must become possessed of."
"Peter," she said, "I like your scheme, but there is just one thing. Such men as you should be the brains of great enterprises. Don't you understand what I mean? It shouldn't be you who does the actual thing which brings you within the power of the law. I am not over-scrupulous, you know. I hate wrongdoing, but I have never been able to treat as equal criminals the poor man who steals for a living, and the rich financier who robs right and left out of sheer greed. I agree with you that crime is not an absolute thing. The circumstances connected with every action in life determine its morality or immorality. But, Peter, it isn't worth while to go outside the law!"
"You are a sensible girl," he said, "I have always thought that. We'll talk over my cases together, if they seem to run a little too close to the line."
"Very well, Peter," she said, "I accept."
CHAPTER II. A NEW CAREER
About twelve months after the interrupted festivities at Daisy Villa, that particular neighbourhood was again the scene of some rejoicing. Standing before the residence of Mr. Barnes were three carriages, drawn in each case by a pair of grey horses. The coachmen and their steeds were similarly adorned with white rosettes. It would have been an insult to the intelligence of the most youthful of the loungers-by to have informed them that a wedding was projected.
At the neighbouring church all was ready. The clerk stood at the door, the red drugget was down, the usual little crowd were standing all agog upon the pavement. There was one unusual feature of the proceedings: Instead of a solitary policeman, there were at least a dozen who kept clear the entrance to the church. Their presence greatly puzzled a little old gentleman who had joined the throng of sightseers. He pushed himself to the front and touched one of them upon the shoulder.
"Mr. Policeman," he said, "will you tell me why there are so many of you to keep such a small crowd in order?"
"Bridegroom's a member of the force, sir, for one reason," the man answered good-humouredly.
"And the other?" the old gentleman persisted.
The policeman behaved as though he had not heard—a proceeding which his natural stolidity rendered easy. The little old gentleman, however, was not so easily put off. He tapped the man once more upon the shoulder.
"And the other reason, Mr. Policeman?" he asked insinuatingly.
"Not allowed to talk about that, sir," was the somewhat gruff reply.
The little old gentleman moved away, a trifle hurt. He was a very nicely dressed old gentleman indeed, and everything about him seemed to savour of prosperity. But he was certainly garrulous. An obviously invited guest was standing upon the edge of the pavement stroking a pair of lavender kid gloves. The little old gentleman sidled up to him.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, raising his hat. "I am just back from Australia—haven't seen a wedding in England for fifty years. Do you think that they would let me into the church?"
The invited guest looked down at his questioner and approved of him. Furthermore, he seemed exceedingly glad to be interrupted in his somewhat nervous task of waiting for the wedding party.
"Certainly, sir," he replied cheerfully. "Come along in with me, and I'll find you a seat."
Down the scarlet drugget they went—the big best man with the red hands and the lavender kid gloves and the opulent-looking old gentleman with the gold-rimmed spectacles and the handsome walking stick.
"Dear me, this is very interesting!" the latter remarked. "Is it the custom, sir, always, may I ask, in this country, to have so many policemen at a wedding?"
The big man looked downward and shook his head.
"Special reason," he said mysteriously. "Fact is, young lady was engaged once to a very bad character—a burglar whom the police have been wanting for years. He had to leave the country, but he has written her once or twice since in a mysterious sort of way—wanted her to be true to him, and all that sort of thing. Dory—that's the bridegroom—has got a sort of an idea that he may turn up to-day."
"This is very exciting—very!" the little old gentleman remarked. "Reminds me of our younger days out in Australia."
"You sit down here," the best man directed, ushering his companion into an empty pew. "I must get back again outside, or I shall have the bridegroom arriving."
"Good-day to you, sir, and many thanks!" the little old gentleman said politely.
Soon the bridegroom arrived—a smart young officer, well thought of at Scotland Yard, well set up, wearing a long tail coat a lilac and white tie, and shaking in every limb. He walked up the aisle accompanied by the best man, and the little old gentleman from Australia watched him genially from behind those gold-rimmed glasses. And, then, scarcely was he at the altar rails when through the open church door one heard the sounds of horses' feet, one heard a rustle, the murmur of voices, caught a glimpse of a waiting group arranging themselves finally in the porch of the church. Maud, on the arm of her father, came slowly up the aisle. The little old gentleman turned his head as though this was something upon which he feared to look. He saw nothing of Mr. Barnes, in a new coat, with tuberose and spray of maidenhair in his coat, and exceedingly tight patent leather boots on his feet; he saw nothing of Mrs. Barnes, clad in a gown of the lightest magenta, with a bonnet smothered with violets.
It was in the vestry that the only untoward incident of that highly successful wedding took place. The ceremony was over! Bride, bridegroom and parents trooped in. And when the register was opened, one witness had already signed! In the clear, precise writing his name stood out upon the virgin page—
The bridegroom swore, the bride nearly collapsed. The clerk pressed into the hands of the latter an envelope.
"From the little old gentleman," he announced, "who was fussing round the church this morning."
Mrs. Dory tore it open and gave a cry of delight. A diamond cross, worth all the rest of her presents put together, flashed soft lights from a background of dull velvet. Her husband had looked over her shoulder, and with a scowl seized the morocco case and threw it far from him.
It was the only disturbing incident of a highly successful function!
At precisely the same moment when the wedding guests were seated around the hospitable board of Daisy Villa, a celebration of a somewhat different nature was taking place in the more aristocratic neighbourhood of Curzon Street. Here, however, the little party was a much smaller one, and the innocent gaiety of the gathering at Daisy Villa was entirely lacking. The luncheon table around which the four men were seated presented all the unlovely signs of a meal where self-restraint had been abandoned—where conviviality has passed the bounds of licence. Edibles were represented only by a single dish of fruit; the tablecloth, stained with wine and cigar ash, seemed crowded with every sort of bottle and every sort of glass. A magnum of champagne, empty, another half full, stood in the middle of the table; whisky, brandy, liqueurs of various sorts were all represented; glasses—some full, some empty, some filled with cigar ash and cigarette stumps—an ugly sight!
The guest in chief arose. Short, thick-set, red-faced, with bulbous eyes, and veins about his temples which just now were unpleasantly prominent, he seemed, indeed, a very fitting person to have been the recipient of such hospitality. He stood clutching a little at the tablecloth and swaying upon his feet. He spoke as a drunken man, but such words as he pronounced clearly showed him to be possessed of a voice naturally thick and raspy. It was obvious that he was a person of entirely different class from his three companions.
"G—gentlemen," he said, "I must be off. I thank you very much for this—hospitality. Honoured, I'm sure, to have sat down in such—such company. Good afternoon, all!"
He lurched a little toward the door, but his neighbour at the table—who was also his host—caught hold of his coat tail and pulled him back into his chair.
"No hurry, Masters," he said. "One more liqueur, eh? It's a raw afternoon."
"N—not another drop, Sir Richard!" the man declared. "Not another drop to drink. I am very much obliged to you all, but I must be off. Must be off," he repeated, making another effort to rise.
His host held him by the arm. The man resented it—he showed signs of anger.
"D—n it all! I—I'm not a prisoner, am I?" he exclaimed angrily. "Tell you I've got—appointment—club. Can't you see it's past five o'clock?"
"That's all right, Masters," the man whom he had addressed as Sir Richard declared soothingly. "We want just a word with you on business first, before you go—Colonel Dickinson, Lord Merries and myself."
Masters shook his head.
"See you to-morrow," he declared. "No time to talk business now. Let me go!"
He made another attempt to rise, which his host also prevented.
"Masters, don't be a fool!" the latter said firmly. "You've got to hear what we want to say to you. Sit down and listen."
Masters relapsed sullenly into his chair. His little eyes seemed to creep closer to one another. So they wanted to talk business! Perhaps it was for that reason that they had bidden him sit at their table—had entertained him so well! The very thought cleared his brain.
"Go on," he said shortly.
Sir Richard lit a cigarette and leaned further back in his chair. He was a man apparently about fifty years of age—tall, well dressed, with good features, save for his mouth, which resembled more than anything a rat trap. He was perfectly bald, and he had the air of a man who was a careful liver. His eyes were bright, almost beadlike; his fingers long and a trifle over-manicured. One would have judged him to be what he was—a man of fashion and a patron of the turf.
"Masters," he said, "we are all old friends here. We want to speak to you plainly. We three have had a try, as you know—Merries, Dickinson and myself—to make the coup of our lives. We failed, and we're up against it hard."
"Very hard, indeed," Lord Merries murmured softly.
"Deuced hard!" Colonel Dickinson echoed.
Masters was sitting tight, breathing a little hard, looking fixedly at his host.
"Take my own case first," the latter continued. "I am Sir Richard Dyson, ninth baronet, with estates in Wiltshire and Scotland, and a town house in Cleveland Place. I belong to the proper clubs for a man in my position, and, somehow or other—we won't say how—I have managed to pay my way. There isn't an acre of my property that isn't mortgaged for more than its value. My town house—well, it doesn't belong to me at all! I have twenty-six thousand pounds to pay you on Monday. To save my life, I could not raise twenty-six thousand farthings! So much for me."
The man Masters ground his teeth.
"So much for you!" he muttered.
"Take the case next," Sir Richard continued, "of my friend Merries here. Merries is an Earl, it is true, but he never had a penny to bless himself with. He's tried acting, reporting, marrying—anything to make an honest living. So far, I am afraid we must consider Lord Merries as something of a failure, eh?"
"A rotten failure, I should say," that young nobleman declared gloomily.
"Lord Merries is, to put it briefly, financially unsound," Sir Richard declared.
"What is the amount of your debt to Mr. Masters, Jim?"
"Eleven thousand two hundred pounds," Lord Merries answered.
"And we may take it, I presume, for granted that you have not that sum, nor anything like it, at your disposal?" Sir Richard asked.
"Not a fiver!" Lord Merries declared with emphasis.
"We come now, Mr. Masters, to our friend Colonel Dickinson," Sir Richard continued. "Colonel Dickinson is, perhaps, in a more favourable situation than any of us. He has a small but regular income, and he has expectations which it is not possible to mortgage fully. At the same time, it will be many years before they can—er—fructify. He is, therefore, with us in this somewhat unpleasant predicament in which we find ourselves."
"Cut it short," Masters growled. "I'm sick of so much talk. What's it all mean?"
"It means simply this, Mr. Masters," Sir Richard said, "we want you to take six months' bills for our indebtedness to you."
Masters rose to his feet. His thick lips were drawn a little apart. He had the appearance of a savage and discontented animal.
"So that's why I've been asked here and fed up with wine and stuff, eh?" he exclaimed thickly. "Well, my answer to you is soon given. NO! I'll take bills from no man! My terms are cash on settling day—cash to pay or cash to receive. I'll have no other!"
Sir Richard rose also to his feet.
"Mr. Masters, I beg of you to be reasonable," he said. "You will do yourself no good by adopting this attitude. Facts are facts. We haven't got a thousand pounds between us."
"I've heard that sort of a tale before," Masters answered, with a sneer. "Job Masters is too old a bird to be caught by such chaff. I'll take my risks, gentlemen. I'll take my risks."
He moved toward the door. No one spoke a word. The silence as he crossed the room seemed a little ominous. He looked over his shoulder. They were all three standing in their places, looking at him. A vague sense of uneasiness disturbed his equanimity.
"No offence, gents," he said, "and good afternoon!"
Still no reply. He reached the door and turned the handle. The door was fast. He shook it—gently at first, and then violently. Suddenly he realized that it was locked. He turned sharply around.
"What game's this?" he exclaimed, fiercely. "Let me out!"
They stood in their places without movement. There was something a little ominous in their silence. Masters was fast becoming a sober man.
"Let me out of here," he exclaimed, "or I'll break the door down!"
Sir Richard Dyson came slowly towards him. There was something in his appearance which terrified Masters. He raised his fist to strike the door. He was a fighting man, but he felt a sudden sense of impotence.
"Mr. Masters," Sir Richard said suavely, "the truth is that we cannot afford to let you go—unless you agree to do what we have asked. You see we really have not the money or any way of raising it—and the inconvenience of being posted you have yourself very ably pointed out. Change your mind, Mr. Masters. Take those bills. We'll do our best to meet them."
"I'll do nothing of the sort," Masters answered, striking the door fiercely with his clenched fist. "I'll have cash—nothing but the cash!"
There was a dull, sickening thud, and the bookmaker went over like a shot rabbit. His legs twitched for a moment—a little moan that was scarcely audible broke from his lips. Then he lay quite still. Sir Richard bent over him with the life preserver still in his hand.
"I've done it!" he muttered, hoarsely. "One blow! Thank Heaven, he didn't want another! His skull was as soft as pudding! Ugh!"
He turned away. The man who lay stretched upon the floor was an ugly sight. His two companions, cowering over the table, were not much better. Dyson's trembling fingers went out for the brandy decanter. Half of what he poured out was spilled upon the tablecloth. The rest he drank from a tumbler, neat.
"It's nervous work, this, you fellows," he said, hoarsely.
"It's hellish!" Dickinson answered. "Let's have some air in the room. By God, it's close!"
He sank back into his chair, white to the lips. Dyson looked at him sharply.
"Look here," he exclaimed, "I hold you both to our bargain! I was to be the one he attacked and who struck the blow—in self-defence! Remember that—it was in self-defence! I've done it! I've done my share! I hope to God I'll forget it some day. Andrew, you know your task. Be a man, and get to work!"
Dickinson rose to his feet unsteadily. "Yes!" he said. "What was it? I have forgotten, for the moment, but I am ready."
"You must get his betting book from his pocket," Sir Richard directed. "Then you must help Merries downstairs with him, and into the car. Merries is—to get rid of him."
Merries shivered. His hand, too, went out for the brandy.
"To get rid of him," he muttered. "It sounds easy!"
"It is easy," Sir Richard declared. "You have only to keep your nerve, and the thing is done. No one will see him inside the car, in that motoring coat and glasses. You can drive somewhere out into the country and leave him."
"Leave him!" Merries repeated, trembling. "Leave him—yes!"
Neither of the two men moved.
"I must do more than my share, I suppose," Sir Richard declared contemptuously. "Come!"
They dragged the man's body on to a chair, wrapped a huge coat around him, tied a motoring cap under his chin, fixed goggles over his eyes. Sir Richard strolled into the hall and opened the front door. He stood there for a moment, looking up and down the street. When he gave the signal they dragged him out, supported between them, across the pavement, into the car. Ugh! His attitude was so natural as to be absolutely ghastly. Merries started the car and sprang into the driver's seat. There were people in the Square now, but the figure reclining in the dark, cushioned interior looked perfectly natural.
"So long, Jimmy," Sir Richard called out. "See you this evening."
"Right O!" Merries replied, with a brave effort.
Peter Ruff, summoned by telephone from his sitting room, slipped down the stairs like a cat—noiseless, swift. The voice which had summoned him had been the voice of his secretary—a voice almost unrecognisable—a voice shaken with fear. Fear? No, it had been terror!
On the landing below, exactly underneath the room from which he had descended, there was a door upon which his name was written upon a small brass plate—Mr. Peter Ruff. He opened and closed it behind him with a swift movement which he had practised in his idle moments. He found himself looking in upon a curious scene.
Miss Brown, with the radiance of her hair effectually concealed, in plain black skirt and simple blouse—the ideal secretary—had risen from the seat in front of her typewriter, and was standing facing the door through which he had entered, with a small revolver—which he had given her for a birthday present only the day before—clasped in her outstretched hand. The object of her solicitude was, it seemed to Peter Ruff, the most pitiful-looking object upon which he had ever looked. The hours had dwelt with Merries as the years with some people, and worse. He had lost his cap; his hair hung over his forehead in wild confusion; his eyes were red, bloodshot, and absolutely aflame with the terrors through which he had lived—underneath them the black marks might have been traced with a charcoal pencil. His cheeks were livid save for one burning spot. His clothes, too, were in disorder—the starch had gone from his collar, his tie hung loosely outside his waistcoat. He was cowering back against the wall. And between him and the girl, stretched upon the floor, was the body of a man in a huge motor coat, a limp, inert mass which neither moved nor seemed to have any sign of life. No wonder that Peter Ruff looked around his office, whose serenity had been so tragically disturbed, with an air of mild surprise.
"Dear me," he exclaimed, "something seems to have happened! My dear Violet, you can put that revolver away. I have secured the door."
Her hand fell to her side. She gave a little shiver of relief. Peter Ruff nodded.
"That is more comfortable," he declared. "Now, perhaps, you will explain—"
"That young man," she interrupted, "or lunatic—whatever he calls himself—burst in here a few minutes ago, dragging—that!" She pointed to the motionless figure upon the floor. "If I had not stopped him, he would have bolted off without a word of explanation."
Peter Ruff, with his back against the door, shook his head gravely.
"My dear Lord Merries," he said, "my office is not a mortuary."
"You know me, then?" he muttered, hoarsely.
"Of course," Ruff answered. "It is my profession to know everybody. Go and sit down upon that easy-chair, and drink the brandy and soda which Miss Brown is about to mix for you. That's right."
Merries staggered across the room and half fell into an easy-chair. He leaned over the side with his face buried in his hands, unable still to face the horror which lay upon the floor. A few seconds later, the tumbler of brandy and soda was in his hands. He drank it like a man who drains fresh life into his veins.
"Perhaps now," Peter Ruff suggested, pointing to the motionless figure, "you can give me some explanation as to this!"
Merries looked away from him all the time he was speaking. His voice was thick and nervous.
"There were three of us lunching together," he began—"four in all. There was a dispute, and this man threatened us. Afterwards there was a fight. It fell to my lot to take him away, and I can't get rid of him! I can't get rid of him!" he repeated, with something that sounded like a sob.
"I still do not see," Peter Ruff argued, "why you should have brought him here and deposited him upon my perfectly new carpet."
"You are Peter Ruff," Merries declared. "'Crime Investigator and Private Detective,' you call yourself. You are used to this sort of thing. You will know what to do with it. It is part of your business."
"I can assure you," Peter Ruff answered, "that you are under a delusion as to the details of my profession. I am Peter Ruff," he admitted, "and I call myself a crime investigator—in fact, I am the only one worth speaking of in the world. But I certainly deny that I am used to having dead bodies deposited upon my carpet, and that I make a habit of disposing of them—especially gratis."
Merries tore open his coat.
"Listen," he said, his voice shaking hysterically, "I must get rid of it or go mad. For two hours I have been driving about in a motor car with—it for a passenger. I drove to a quiet spot and I tried to lift it out—a policeman rode up! I tried again, a man rushed by on a motor cycle, and turned to look at me! I tried a few minutes later—the policeman came back! It was always the same. The night seemed to have eyes. I was watched everywhere. The—the face began to mock me. I'll swear that I heard it chuckle once!"
Peter Ruff moved a little further away.
"I don't think I'll have anything to do with it," he declared. "I don't like your description at all."
"It'll be all right with you," Merries declared eagerly. "It's my nerves, that's all. You see, I was there—when the accident happened. See here," he added, tearing a pocketbook from his coat, "I have three hundred and seventy pounds saved up in case I had to bolt. I'll keep seventy—three hundred for you—to dispose of it!"
Ruff leaned over the motionless body, looked into its face, and nodded.
"Masters, the bookmaker," he remarked. "H'm! I did hear that he had a lot of money coming to him over the Cambridgeshire."
"May I go?" he pleaded. "There's the three hundred on the table. For God's sake, let me go!"
Peter Ruff nodded.
"I wish you'd saved a little more," he said. "However—"
He turned the lock and Merries rushed out of the room. Ruff looked across the room towards his secretary.
"Ring up 1535 Central," he ordered, sharply.
Peter Ruff had descended from his apartments on the top floor of the building, in a new brown suit with which he was violently displeased, to meet a caller.
"I am sorry to intrude—Mr. Ruff, I believe it is?" Sir Richard Dyson said, a little irritably—"but I have not a great deal of time to spare—"
"Most natural!" Peter Ruff declared. "Pray take a chair, Sir Richard. You want to know, of course, about Lord Merries and poor Masters."
Sir Richard stared at his questioner, for a moment, without speech. Once more the fear which he had succeeded in banishing for a while, shone in his eyes—revealed itself in his white face.
"Try the easy-chair, Sir Richard," Ruff continued, pleasantly. "Leave your hat and cane on the table there, and make yourself comfortable. I should like to understand exactly what you have come to me for."
Sir Richard moved his head toward Miss Brown.
"My business with you," he said, "is more than ordinarily private. I have the honour of knowing Miss—"
"Miss Brown," Peter interrupted quickly. "In these offices, this young lady's name is Miss Violet Brown."
Sir Richard shrugged his shoulders.
"It is of no importance," he said, "only, as you may understand, my business with you scarcely requires the presence of a third party, even one with the discretion which I am sure Miss—Brown possesses."
"In these matters," Ruff answered, "my secretary does not exist apart from myself. Her presence is necessary. She takes down in shorthand notes of our conversation. I have a shocking memory, and there are always points which I forget. At the conclusion of our business, whatever it may be, these notes are destroyed. I could not work without them, however."
Sir Richard glanced a little doubtfully at the long, slim back of the girl who sat with her face turned away from him. "Of course," he began, "if you make yourself personally responsible for her discretion—"
"I am willing to do so," Ruff interrupted, brusquely. "I guarantee it. Go on, please."
"I do not know, of course, where you got your information from," Sir Richard began, "but it is perfectly true that I have come here to consult you upon a matter in which the two people whose names you have mentioned are concerned. The disappearance of Job Masters is, of course, common talk; but I cannot tell what has led you to associate with it the temporary absence of Lord Merries from this country."
"Let me ask you this question," Ruff said. "How are you affected by the disappearance of Masters?"
"Indirectly, it has caused me a great deal of inconvenience," Sir Richard declared.
"Facts, please," murmured Peter.
"It has been rumoured," Sir Richard admitted, "that I owed Masters a large sum of money which I could not pay."
"It has also been rumoured," Sir Richard continued, "that he was seen to enter my house that day, and that he remained there until late in the afternoon."
"Did he?" asked Ruff.
"Certainly not," Sir Richard answered.
Peter Ruff yawned for a moment, but covered the indiscretion with his hand.
"Respecting this inconvenience," he said, "which you admit that the disappearance of Job Masters has caused you, what is its tangible side?"
Sir Richard drew his chair a little nearer to the table where Ruff was sitting. His voice dropped almost to a whisper.
"It seems absurd," he said, "and yet, what I tell you is the truth. I have been followed about—shadowed, in fact—for several days. Men, even in my own social circle, seem to hold aloof from me. It is as though," he continued slowly, "people were beginning to suspect me of being connected in some way with the man's disappearance."
Ruff, who had been making figures with a pencil on the edge of his blotting paper, suddenly turned round. His eyes flashed with a new light as they became fixed upon his companion's.
"And are you not?" he asked, calmly. Sir Richard bore himself well. For a moment he had shrunk back. Then he half rose to his feet.
"Mr. Ruff!" he said. "I must protest—"
Peter Ruff used no violent gesture. Only his forefinger tapped the desk in front of him. His voice was as smooth as velvet.
"Tell me as much or as little as you please, Sir Richard," he said, "but let that little or that much be the truth! On those terms only I may be able to help you. You do not go to your physician and expect him to prescribe to you while you conceal your symptoms, or to your lawyer for advice and tell him half the truth. I am not asking for your confidence. I simply tell you that you are wasting your time and mine if you choose to withhold it."
Sir Richard was silent. He recognized a new quality in the man—but the truth was an awful thing to tell! He considered—then told.
Ruff briskly asked two questions. "In alluding to your heavy settlement with Masters, you said just now that you could not have paid him—then."
"Quite so," Sir Richard admitted. "That is the rotten part of the whole affair. Four days later a wonderful double came off—one in which we were all interested, and one which not one of us expected. We've drawn a considerable amount already from one or two bookies, and I believe even Masters owes us a bit now."
"Thank you," Ruff said. "I think that I know everything now. My fee is five hundred guineas."
Sir Richard looked at him.
"What?" he exclaimed.
"Five hundred guineas," Ruff repeated.
"For a consultation?" Sir Richard asked.
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"More than that," he said. "You are a brave man in your way, Sir Richard Dyson, but you are going about now shivering under a load of fear. It sits like a devil incarnate upon your shoulders. It poisons the air wherever you go. Write your cheque, Sir Richard, and you can leave that little black devil in my wastebasket. You are under my protection. Nothing will happen to you."
Sir Richard sat like a man mesmerised. The little man with the amiable expression and the badly fitting suit was leaning back in his chair, his finger tips pressed together, waiting.
"Nothing will happen!" Sir Richard repeated, incredulously.
"Certainly not. I guarantee you against any inconvenience which might arise to you from this recent unfortunate affair. Isn't that all you want?"
"It's all I want, certainly," Sir Richard declared, "but I must understand a little how you propose to secure my immunity."
Ruff shook his head.
"I have my own methods," he said. "I can help only those who trust me."
Sir Richard drew a cheque book from his pocket. "I don't know why I should believe in you," he said, as he wrote the cheque.
"But you do," Peter Ruff said, smiling. "Fortunately for you, you do!"
It was not so easy to impart a similar confidence into the breast of Colonel Dickinson, with whom Sir Richard dined that night tete-a-tete. Dickinson was inclined to think that Sir Richard ad been "had."
"You've paid a ridiculous fee," he argued, "and all that you have in return is the fellow's promise to see you through. It isn't like you to part with money so easily, Richard. Did he hypnotise you?"
"I don't think so," Sir Richard answered. "I wasn't conscious of it."
"What sort of a fellow is he?" Dickinson asked.
Sir Richard looked reflectively into his glass.
"He's a vulgar sort of little Johnny," he said. "Looks as though he were always dressed in new clothes and couldn't get used to them."
Three men entered the room. Two remained in the background. John Dory came forward towards the table.
"Sir Richard Dyson," he said, gravely, "I have come upon an unpleasant errand."
"Go on," Sir Richard said, fingering something hard inside pocket of his coat.
"I have a warrant for your arrest," Dory continued, "in connection with the disappearance of Job Masters on Saturday, the 10th of November last. I will read the terms of the warrant, if you choose. It is my duty to warn you that anything you may now say can be used in evidence against you. This gentleman, I believe, is Colonel Dickinson?"
"That is my name, sir," Dickinson answered, with unexpected fortitude.
"I regret to say," the detective continued, "that I have also a warrant for your arrest in connection with the same matter."
Sir Richard had hold of the butt end of his revolver then. Like grisly phantoms, the thoughts chased one another through his brain. Should he shoot and end it—pass into black nothingness—escape disgrace, but die like a rat in a corner? His finger was upon the trigger. Then suddenly his heart gave a great leap. He raised his head as though listening. Something flashed in his eyes—something that was almost like hope. There was no mistaking that voice which he had heard in the hall! He made a great rally.
"I can only conclude," he said, turning to the detective, "that you have made some absurd blunder. If you really possess the warrants you speak of, however, Colonel Dickinson and I will accompany you wherever you choose."
Then the door opened and Peter Ruff walked in, followed by Job Masters, whose head was still bandaged, and who seemed to have lost a little flesh and a lot of colour. Peter Ruff looked round apologetically. He seemed surprised not to find Sir Richard Dyson and Colonel Dickinson alone. He seemed more than ever surprised to recognize Dory.
"I trust," he said smoothly, "that our visit is not inopportune. Sir Richard Dyson, I believe?" he continued, bowing—"my friend, Mr. Masters here, has consulted me as to the loss of a betting book, and we ventured to call to ask you, sir, if by any chance on his recent visit to your house—"
"God in Heaven, it's Masters!" Dyson exclaimed. "It's Job Masters!"
"That's me, sir," Masters admitted. "Mr. Ruff thought you might be able to help me find that book."
Sir Richard swayed upon his feet. Then the blood rushed once more through his veins.
"Your book's here in my cabinet, safe enough," he said. "You left it here after our luncheon that day. Where on earth have you been to, man?" he continued. "We want some money from you over Myopia."
"I'll pay all right, sir," Masters answered. "Fact is, after our luncheon party I'm afraid I got a bit fuddled. I don't seem to remember much."
He sat down a little heavily. Peter Ruff hastened to the table and took up a glass.
"You will excuse me if I give him a little brandy, won't you, sir?" he said. "He's really not quite fit for getting about yet, but he was worrying about his book."
"Give him all the brandy he can drink," Sir Richard answered.
The detective's face had been a study. He knew Masters well enough by sight—there was no doubt about his identity! His teeth came together with an angry little click. He had made a mistake! It was a thing which would be remembered against him forever! It was as bad as his failure to arrest that young man at Daisy Villa.
"Your visit, Masters," Sir Richard said, with a curious smile at the corners of his lips, "is, in some respects, a little opportune. About that little matter we were speaking of," he continued, turning towards the detective.
"We have only to offer you our apologies, Sir Richard," Dory answered.
Then he crossed the room and confronted Peter Ruff.
"Do I understand, sir, that your name is Ruff—Peter Ruff?" he asked.
"That is my name, sir," Peter Ruff admitted, pleasantly "Yours I believe, is Dory. We are likely to come across one another now and then, I suppose. Glad to know you."
The detective stood quite still, and there was no geniality in his face.
"I wonder—have we ever met before?" he asked, without removing his eyes from the other's face. Peter Ruff smiled.
"Not professionally, at any rate," he answered. "I know that Scotland Yard you don't think much of us small fry, but we find out things sometimes!"
"Why didn't you contradict all those rumours as to his disappearance?" the detective asked, pointing to where Job Masters was contentedly sipping his brandy and water.
"I was acting for my client, and in my own interests," replied Peter. "It was surely no part of my duty to save you gentlemen at Scotland Yard from hunting up mare's nests!"
John Dory went out, followed by his men. Sir Richard took Peter Ruff by the arm, and, leading him to the sideboard, mixed him a drink.
"Peter Ruff," he said, "you're a clever scoundrel, but you've earned your five hundred guineas. Hang it, you're welcome to them! Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Peter Ruff raised his glass and set it down again. Once more he eyed with admiration his client's well-turned out figure.
"You might give me a letter to your tailors, Sir Richard," he begged.
Sir Richard laughed outright—it was some time since he had laughed!
"You shall have it, Peter Ruff," he declared, raising his glass—"and here's to you!"
CHAPTER III. VINCENT CAWDOR, COMMISSION AGENT
For the second time since their new association, Peter Ruff had surprised that look upon his secretary's face. This time he wheeled around in his chair and addressed her.
"My dear Violet," he said, "be frank with me. What is wrong?"
Miss Brown turned to face her employer. Save for a greater demureness of expression and the extreme simplicity of her attire, she had changed very little since she had given up her life of comparative luxury to become Peter Ruff's secretary. There was a sort of personal elegance which clung to her, notwithstanding her strenuous attempts to dress for her part, except for which she looked precisely as a private secretary and typist should look. She even wore a black bow at the back of her hair.
"I have not complained, have I?" she asked.
"Do not waste time," Peter Ruff said, coldly. "Proceed."
"I have not enough to do," she said. "I do not understand why you refuse so many cases."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"I did not bring my talents into this business," he said, "to watch flirting wives, to ascertain the haunts of gay husbands, or to detect the pilferings of servants."
"Anything is better than sitting still," she protested.
"I do not agree with you," Peter Ruff said. "I like sitting still very much indeed—one has time to think. Is there anything else?"
"Shall I really go on?" she asked.
"By all means," he answered.
"I have idea," she continued, "that you are subordinating your general interests to your secret enmity—to one man. You are waiting until you can find another case in which you are pitted against him."
"Sometimes," Peter Ruff said, "your intelligence surprises me!"
"I came to you," she continued, looking at him earnestly, "for two reasons. The personal one I will not touch upon. The other was my love of excitement. I have tried many things in life, as you know, Peter, but I have seemed to carry always with me the heritage of weariness. I thought that my position here would help me to fight against it."
"You have seen me bring a corpse to life," Peter Ruff reminded her, a little aggrieved.
"It was a month ago," she reminded him.
"I can't do that sort of thing every day," he declared.
"Naturally," she answered; "but you have refused four cases within the last five days."
Peter Ruff whistled softly to himself for several moments.
"Seen anything of our new neighbour in the flat above?" he asked, with apparent irrelevance.
Miss Brown looked across at him with upraised eyebrows.
"I have been in the lift with him twice," she answered.
"Fancy his appearance?" Ruff asked, casually.
"Not in the least!" Violet answered. "I thought him a vulgar, offensive person!"
Peter Ruff chuckled. He seemed immensely delighted.
"Mr. Vincent Cawdor he calls himself, I believe," he remarked.
"I have no idea," Miss Brown declared. The subject did not appeal to her.
"His name is on a small copper plate just over the letter-box," Ruff said. "Rather neat idea, by the bye. He calls himself a commission agent, I believe."
Violet was suddenly interested. She realized, after all, that Mr. Vincent Cawdor might be a person of some importance.
"What is a commission agent?" she asked.
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"It might mean anything," he declared. "Never trust any one who is not a little more explicit as to his profession. I am afraid that this Mr. Vincent Cawdor, for instance, is a bad lot."
"I am sure he is," Miss Brown declared.
"Looks after a pretty girl, coughs in the lift—all that sort of thing, eh?" Peter Ruff asked.
"Disgusting!" she exclaimed, with emphasis.
Peter Ruff sighed, and glanced at the clock. The existence of Mr. Vincent Cawdor seemed to pass out of his mind.
"It is nearly one o'clock," he said. "Where do you usually lunch, Violet?"
"It depends upon my appetite," she answered, carelessly. "Most often at an A B C."
"To-day," Peter Ruff said, "you will be extravagant—at my expense."
"I had a poor breakfast," Miss Brown remarked, complacently.
"You will leave at once," Peter Ruff said, "and you will go to the French Cafe at the Milan. Get a table facing the courtyard, and towards the hotel side of the room. Keep your eyes open and tell me exactly what you see."
She looked at him with parted lips. Her eyes were full of eager questioning.
"Mere skirmishing," Peter Ruff continued, "but I think—yes, I think that it may lead to something."
"Whom am I to watch?" she asked.
"Any one who looks interesting," Peter Ruff answered. "For instance, if this person Vincent Cawdor should be about."
"He would recognize me!" she declared.
Peter Ruff shrugged his shoulders.
"One must hold the candle," he remarked.
"I decline to flirt with him," she declared. "Nothing would induce me to be pleasant to such an odious creature."
"He will be too busy to attempt anything of the sort. Of course he may not be there. It may be the merest fancy on my part. At any rate, you may rely upon it that he will not make any overtures in a public place like the Milan. Mr. Vincent Cawdor may be a curious sort of person, but I do not fancy that he is a fool!"
"Very well," Miss Brown said, "I will go."
"Be back soon after three," Peter Ruff said. "I am going up to my room to do my exercises."
"And afterwards?" she asked.
"I shall have my lunch sent in," he answered. "Don't hurry back, though. I shall not expect you till a quarter past three."
It was a few minutes past that time when Miss Brown returned. Peter Ruff was sitting at his desk, looking as though he had never moved. He was absorbed by a book of patterns sent in by his new tailor, and he only glanced up when she entered the room.
"Violet," he said, earnestly, "come in and sit down. I want to consult you. There is a new material here—a sort of mouse-coloured cheviot. I wonder whether it would suit me?"
Violet was looking very handsome and a little flushed. She raised her veil and came over to his side.
"Put that stupid book away, Peter," she said. "I want to tell you about the Milan."
He leaned back in his chair.
"Ah!" he said. "I had forgotten! Was Mr. Vincent Cawdor there?"
"Yes!" she answered, still a little breathless. "There was some one else there, too, in whom you are still more interested."
"Go on," he said.
"Mr. Vincent Cawdor," she continued, "came in alone. He looked just as objectionable as ever, and he stared at me till I nearly threw my wine glass at him."
"He did not speak to you?" Peter Ruff asked.
"I was afraid that he was going to," Miss Brown said, "but fortunately he met a friend who came to his table and lunched with him."
"A friend," Ruff remarked. "Good! What was he like?"
"Fair, slight, Teutonic," Miss Brown answered. "He wore thick spectacles, and his moustache was positively yellow."
"Go on," he said.
"Towards the end of luncheon," she continued, "an American came up to them."
"An American?" Peter Ruff interrupted. "How do you know that?"
Miss Brown smiled.
"He was clean-shaven and he wore neat clothes," she said. "He talked with an accent you could have cut with a knife and he had a Baedeker sticking out of his pocket. After luncheon, they all three went away to the smoking room."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"Anything else?" he asked.
The girl smiled triumphantly.
"Yes!" she declared. "There was something else—something which I think you will find interesting. At the next table to me there was a man—alone. Can you guess who he was?"
"John Dory," Ruff said, calmly.
The girl was disappointed.
"You knew!" she exclaimed.
"My dear Violet," he said, "I did not send you there on a fool's errand."
"There is something doing, then?" she exclaimed.
"There is likely," he answered, grimly, "to be a great deal doing!"
The two men who stood upon the hill, and Peter Ruff, who lay upon his stomach behind a huge boulder, looked upon a new thing.
Far down in the valley from out of a black shed—the only sign of man's handiwork for many miles—it came—something grey at first, moving slowly as though being pushed down a slight incline, then afloat in the air, gathering speed—something between a torpedo with wings and a great prehistoric insect. Now and then it described strange circles, but mostly it came towards them as swift and as true as an arrow shot from a bow. The two men looked at one another—the shorter, to whose cheeks the Cumberland winds had brought no trace of colour, gave vent to a hoarse exclamation.
"He's done it!" he growled.
"Wait!" the other answered.
Over their heads the thing wheeled, and seemed to stand still in the air. The beating of the engine was so faint that Peter Ruff from behind the boulder, could hear all that was said. A man leaned out from his seat—a man with wan cheeks but blazing eyes.
"Listen," he said. "Take your glasses. There—due north—can you see a steeple?"
The men turned their field glasses in the direction toward which the other pointed. "Yes!" they answered. "It is sixteen miles, as the crow flies, to Barnham Church—thirty-two miles there and back. Wait!"
He swung round, dived till he seemed about to touch the hillside, then soared upwards and straight away. Peter Ruff took out his watch. The other two men gazed with fascinated eyes after the disappearing speck.
"If he does it—" the shorter one muttered.
"He will do it!" the other answered.
He was back again before their eyes were weary of watching. Peter Ruff, from behind the boulder, closed his watch. Thirty-two miles in less than half an hour! The youth leaned from his seat.
"Is it enough?" he asked, hoarsely.
"It is enough!" the two men answered together. "We will come down."
The youth touched a lever and the machine glided down towards the valley, falling all the while with the effortless grace a parachute. The shed from which his machine had issued was midway down a slope, with a short length of rails which ran, apparently, through it. The machine seemed to hover for several moments above the building, then descended slowly on to the rails and disappeared in the shed. The two men were already half-way down the hill. Peter Ruff rose from behind the boulder, stretched himself with a sense of immense relief, and lit a pipe. As yet he dared not descend. He simply changed his hiding place for a spot which enabled him to command a view of the handful of cottages at the back of the hill. He had plenty to think about. It was a wonderful thing—this—which he had seen!
The youth, meanwhile, was drinking deep of the poisonous cup. He walked between the two men—his cheeks were flushed, his eyes on fire.
"If all the world to-day had seen what we have seen," the older man was saying, "there would be no more talk of Wilbur Wrights or Farmans. Those men are babies, playing with their toys."
"Mine is the ideal principle," the youth declared. "No one else has thought of it, no one else has made use of it. Yet all the time I am afraid—it is so simple."
"Sell quick, then," the fair-headed man advised. "By to-morrow night I can promise you fifty thousand pounds."
The youth stopped. He drew a deep breath.
"I shall sell," he declared. "I need money. I want to live. Fifty thousand pounds is enough. Eleven weary months I have slept and toiled there in the shed."
"It is finished," the older man declared. "To-night you shall come with us to London. To-morrow night your pockets shall be full of gold. It will be a change for you."
The youth sobbed.
"God knows it will," he muttered. "I haven't two shillings in the world, and I owe for my last petrol."
The two men laughed heartily. The elder took a little bundle of notes from his pocket and handed them to the boy.
"Come," he said, "not for another moment shall you feel as poor as that. Money will have no value for you in the future. The fifty thousand pounds will only be a start. After that, you will get royalties. If I had it, I would give you a quarter of a million now for your plans; I know that I can get you more."
The youth laughed hysterically. They entered the tiny inn and drank home-made wine—the best they could get. Then a great car drew up outside, and the older—the clean-shaven man, who looked like an American—hurried out, and dragging a hamper from beneath the seat returned with a gold-foiled bottle in his hand.
"Come," he said, "a toast! We have one bottle left—one bottle of the best!"
"Champagne!" the youth cried eagerly, holding out his hand.
"The only wine for the conquerors," the other declared, pouring it out into the thick tumblers. "Drink, all of you, to the Franklin Flying Machine, to the millions she will earn—to to-morrow night!"
The youth drained his glass, watched it replenished, and drained it again. Then they went out to the car.
"There is one thing yet to be done," he said. "Wait here for me."
They waited whilst he climbed up toward the shed. The two men watched him. A little group of rustics stood open-mouthed around the great car. Then there was a little shout. From above their heads came the sound of a great explosion—red flames were leaping up from that black barn to the sky. The two men looked at one another. They rushed to the hill and met the youth descending.
He stopped them.
"I dared not leave it here," he explained. "It would have been madness. I am perfectly certain that I have been watched during the last few days. I can build another in a week. I have the plans in my pocket for every part."
The older man wiped the perspiration from his forehead.
"You are sure—that you have the plans?" he asked.
The youth struck himself on the chest.
"They are here," he answered, "every one of them!"
"Perhaps you are right, then," the other man answered. "It gave me a turn, though. You are sure that you can make it again in the time you say?"
"Of course!" the youth answered, impatiently. "Besides, the thing is so simple. It speaks for itself."
They climbed into the car, and in a few minutes were rushing away southwards.
"To-morrow night—to-morrow night it all begins!" the youth continued. "I must start with ready-made clothes. I'll get the best I can, eat the best I can, drink wine, go to the music halls. To-morrow night."
His speech ended in a wail—a strange, half-stifled cry which rang out with a chill, ghostly sound upon the black silence. His face was covered with a wet towel, a ghastly odor was in his nostrils, his lips refused to utter any further sound. He lay back among the cushions, senseless. The car slowed down.
"Get the papers, quick!" the elder man muttered, opening the youth's coat. "Here they are! Catch hold, Dick! My God! What's that?"
He shook from head to foot. The little fair man looked at him with contempt.
"A sheep bell on the moor," he said. "Are you sure you have everything?"
"Yes!" the other muttered.
They both stood up and raised the prostrate form between them. Below them were the black waters of the lake.
"Over with him!" the younger said. "Quick!"
Once more his companion shrank away.
"Listen!" he muttered, hoarsely.
They both held their breaths. From somewhere along the road behind came a faint sound like the beating of an engine.
"It's a car!" the elder man exclaimed. "Quick! Over with him!"
They lifted the body of the boy, whose lips were white and speechless now, and threw him into the water. With a great splash he disappeared. They watched for a moment. Only the ripples flowed away from the place where he had sunk. They jumped back to their seats.
"There's something close behind," the older man muttered. "Get on! Fast! Fast!"
The younger man hesitated.
"Perhaps," he said slowly, "it would be better to wait and see who it is coming up behind. Our young friend there is safe. The current has him, and the tarn is bottomless."
There was a moment's indecision—a moment which was to count for much in the lives of three men. Then the elder one's counsels prevailed. They crept away down the hill, smoothly and noiselessly. Behind them, the faint throbbing grew less and less distinct. Soon they heard it no more. They drove into the dawn and through the long day.
Side by side on one of the big leather couches in the small smoking room of the Milan Hotel, Mr. James P. Rounceby and his friend Mr. Richard Marnstam sat whispering together. It was nearly two o clock, and they were alone in the room. Some of the lights had been turned out. The roar of life in the streets without had ceased. It was an uneasy hour for those whose consciences were not wholly at rest!
The two men were in evening dress—Rounceby in dinner coat and black tie, as befitted his role of travelling American. The glasses in front of them were only half-filled, and had remained so for the last hour. Their conversation had been nervous and spasmodic. It was obvious that they were waiting for some one.
Three o'clock struck by the little timepiece on the mantel shelf. A little exclamation of a profane nature broke from Rounceby's lips. He leaned toward his companion.
"Say," he muttered, in a rather thick undertone, "how about this fellow Vincent Cawdor? You haven't any doubts about him, I suppose? He's on the square, all right, eh?"
Marnstam wet his lips nervously.
"Cawdor's all right," he said. "I had it direct from headquarters at Paris. What are you uneasy about, eh?"
Rounceby pointed towards the clock.
"Do you see the time?" he asked.
"He said he'd be late," Marnstam answered.
Rounceby put his hand to his forehead and found it moist.
"It's been a silly game, all along," he muttered. "We'd better have brought the young ass up here and jostled him!"
"Not so easy," Marnstam answered. "These young fools have a way of turning obstinate. He'd have chucked us, sure. Anyhow, he's safer where he is."
They relapsed once more into silence. A storm of rain beat upon the window. Rounceby glanced up. It was as black out there as were the waters of that silent tarn! The man shivered as the thought struck him. Marnstam, who had no nerves, twirled his moustache and watched his companion with wonder.
"You look as though you saw a ghost," he remarked.
"Perhaps I do!" Rounceby growled.
"You had better finish your drink, my dear fellow," Marnstam advised. "Afterwards—"
Suddenly he stiffened into attention. He laid his hand upon his companion's knee.
"Listen!" he said. "There is some one coming."
They leaned a little forward. The swing doors were opened. A girl's musical laugh rang out from the corridor. Tall and elegant, with her black lace skirt trailing upon the floor, her left hand resting upon the shoulder of the man into whose ear she was whispering, and whom she led straight to one of the writing tables, Miss Violet Brown swept into the room. On her right, and nearest to the two men, was Mr. Vincent Cawdor.
"Now you can go and talk to your friends!" she exclaimed, lightly. "I am going to make Victor listen to me."
Cawdor left his two companions and sank on to the couch by Rounceby's side. The young man, with his opera hat still on his head, and the light overcoat which he had been carrying on the floor by his side, was seated before the writing table with his back to them. Miss Brown was leaning over him, with her hand upon the back of his chair. They were out of hearing of the other three men.
"Well, Rounceby, my friend," Mr. Vincent Cawdor remarked, cheerfully, "you're having a late sitting, eh?"
"We've been waiting for you, you fool!" Rounceby answered. "What on earth are you thinking about, bringing a crowd like this about with you, eh?"
Cawdor smiled, reassuringly.
"Don't you worry," he said, in a lower tone. "I know my way in and out of the ropes here better than you can teach me. A big hotel like this is the safest and the most dangerous place in the world—just how you choose to make it. You've got to bluff 'em all the time. That's why I brought the young lady—particular friend of mine—real nice girl, too!"
"And the young man?" Rounceby asked, suspiciously.
Cawdor grew more serious.
"That's Captain Lowther," he said softly—"private secretary to Colonel Dean, who's the chief of the aeronaut department at Aldershot. He has a draft in his pocket for twenty thousand pounds. It is yours if he is satisfied with the plans."
"Twenty thousand pounds!" Marnstam said, thoughtfully. "It is very little—very little indeed for the risks which we have run!"
Cawdor moved his place and sat between the men. He laid a hand upon Marnstam's shoulder—another on Rounceby's knee.
"My dear friends," he said, impressively, "if you could have built a model, or conducted these negotiations in the usual way, you might have asked a million. As it is, I think I am the only man in England who could have dealt with this matter—so satisfactorily."
Rounceby glanced suspiciously at the young man to whom Miss Brown was still devoting the whole of her attention.
"Why don't he come out and talk like a man?" he asked. "What's the idea of his sitting over there with his back to us?"
"I want him never to see your faces—to deal only with me," Cawdor explained. "Remember that he is in an official position. The money he is going to part with is secret service money."
The two men were beginning to be more reassured. Rounceby slowly produced a roll of oilskin from his pocket.
"He'll look at them as he sits there," he insisted. "There must be no copying or making notes, mind."
Cawdor smiled in a superior fashion.
"My dear fellow," he said, "you are dealing with the emissary of a government—not one of your own sort."
Rounceby glanced at his companion, who nodded. Then he handed over the plans.
"Tell him to look sharp," he said. "It's not so late but that there may be people in here yet."
Cawdor crossed the room with the plans, and laid them down before the writing table. Rounceby rose to his feet and lit a cigar. Marnstam walked to the further window and back again. They stood side by side. Rounceby's whole frame seemed to have stiffened with some new emotion.
"There's something wrong, Jim," Marnstam whispered softly in his ear. "You've got the old lady in your pocket?"
"Yes!" Rounceby answered thickly, "and, by Heavens, I'm going to use it!"
"Don't shoot unless it's the worst," Marnstam counselled. "I shall go out of that window, into the tree, and run for the river. But bluff first, Jim—bluff for your life!"
There were swinging doors leading into the room from the hotel side, and a small door exactly opposite which led to the residential part of the place. Both of these doors were opened at precisely the same moment. Through the former stepped two strong looking men in long overcoats, and with the unmistakable appearance of policemen in plain clothes. Through the latter came John Dory! He walked straight up to the two men. It spoke volumes for his courage that, knowing their characters and believing them to be in desperate straits, he came unarmed.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I hold warrants for your arrest. I will not trouble you with your aliases. You are known to-day, I believe, as James Rounceby and Richard Marnstam. Will you come quietly?"
Marnstam's expression was one of bland and beautiful surprise.
"My dear sir," he said, edging, however, a little toward the window—"you must be joking! What is the charge?"
"You are charged with the wilful murder of a young man named Victor Franklin," answered Dory. "His body was recovered from Longthorp Tarn this afternoon. You had better say nothing. Also with the theft of certain papers known to have been in his possession."
Now it is possible that at this precise moment Marnstam would have made his spring for the window and Rounceby his running fight for liberty. The hands of both men were upon their revolvers, and John Dory's life was a thing of no account. But at this juncture a thing happened. There were in the room the two policemen guarding the swing doors, and behind them the pale faces of a couple of night porters looking anxiously in. Vincent Cawdor and Miss Brown were standing side by side, a little in the background, and the young man who had been their companion had risen also to his feet. As though with some intention of intervening, he moved a step forward, almost in line with Dory. Rounceby saw him, and a new fear gripped him by the heart. He shrank back, his fingers relaxed their hold of his weapon, the sweat was hot upon his forehead. Marnstam, though he seemed for a moment stupefied, realised the miracle which had happened and struck boldly for his own.
"If this is a joke," he said, "it strikes me as being a particularly bad one. I should like to know, sir, how you dare to come into this room and charge me and my friend—Mr. Rounceby—with being concerned in the murder of a young man who is even now actually standing by your side."
John Dory started back. He looked with something like apprehension at the youth to whom Marnstam pointed.
"My name is Victor Franklin," that young man declared. "What's all this about?"
Dory felt the ground give beneath his feet. Nevertheless, he set his teeth and fought for his hand.
"You say that your name is Victor Franklin?" he asked.
"You are the inventor of a flying machine?"
"You were in Westmoreland with these two men a few days go?"
"I was," the young man admitted.
"You left the village of Scawton in a motor car with them?"
"Yes! We quarrelled on the way, and parted."
"You were robbed of nothing?"
Victor Franklin smiled.
"Certainly not," he answered. "I had nothing worth stealing except my plans, and they are in my pocket now."
There was a few moments' intense silence. Dory wheeled suddenly round, and looked to where Mr. Vincent Cawdor had been standing.
"Where is Mr. Cawdor?" he asked, sharply.
"The gentleman with the grey moustache left a few seconds ago," one of the men at the door said. Dory was very pale.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I have to offer you my apologies. I have apparently been deceived by some false information. The charge is withdrawn."
He turned on his heel and left the room. The two policemen followed him.
"Keep them under observation," Dory ordered shortly, "but I am afraid this fellow Cawdor has sold me."
He found a hansom outside, and sprang into it.
"Number 27, Southampton Row," he ordered.
Rounceby and his partner were alone in the little smoking room. The former was almost inarticulate. The night porter brought them brandy, and both men drank.
"We've got to get to the bottom of this, Marnstam," Mr. Rounceby muttered.
Mr. Marnstam was thinking.
"Do you remember that sound through the darkness," he said—"the beating of an engine way back on the road?"
"What of it?" Rounceby demanded.
"It was a motor bicycle," Marnstam said quietly. "I thought so at the time."
"Supposing some one followed us and pulled him out," Rounceby said, hoarsely, "why are we treated like this? I tell you we've been made fools of! We've been treated like children—not even to be punished! We'll have the truth somehow out of that devil Cawdor! Come!"
They made their way to the courtyard and found a cab.
"Number 27, Southampton Row!" they ordered.
They reached their destination some time before Dory, whose horse fell down in the Strand, and who had to walk. They ascended to the fourth floor of the building and rang the bell of Vincent Cawdor's room—no answer. They plied the knocker—no result. Rounceby peered through the keyhole.
"He hasn't come home yet," he remarked. "There is no light anywhere in the place."
The door of a flat across the passage was quietly opened. Mr. Peter Ruff, in a neat black smoking suit and slippers, and holding a pipe in his hand, looked out.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said, "but I do not think that Mr. Cawdor is in. He went out early this evening, and I have not heard him return."
The two men turned away.
"We are much obliged to you, sir," Mr. Marnstam said.
"Can I give him any message?" Peter Ruff asked, politely. "We generally see something of one another in the morning."
"You can tell him—" Rounceby began.
"No message, thanks!" Marnstam interrupted. "We shall probably run across him ourselves to-morrow."
John Dory was nearly a quarter of an hour late. After his third useless summons, Mr. Peter Ruff presented himself again.
"I am afraid," he said, "you will not find my neighbour at home. There have been several people enquiring for him to-night, without any result."
John Dory came slowly across the landing.
"Good evening, Mr. Ruff!" he said.
"Why, it's Mr. Dory!" Peter Ruff declared. "Come in, do, and have a drink."
John Dory accepted the invitation, and his eyes were busy in that little sitting room during the few minutes which it took his host to mix that whisky and soda.
"Nothing wrong with our friend opposite, I hope?" Peter Ruff asked, jerking his head across the landing.
"I hope not, Mr. Ruff," John Dory said. "No doubt in the morning he will be able to explain everything. I must say that I should like to see him to-night, though."
"He may turn up yet," Peter Ruff remarked, cheerfully. "He's like myself—a late bird."
"I fear not," Dory answered, drily. "Nice rooms you have here, sir. Just a sitting room and bedroom, eh?"