"An engagement?" she repeated, her face falling.
Laverick loved the truth and he seldom hesitated to tell it.
"It is rather an odd thing," he declared. "You remember that woman at Luigi's last night—Mademoiselle Idiale?"
"She came to my office to-day and gave me six thousand pounds to invest for her. She made me take her out and show her where the murder was committed, and asked a great many questions about it. Then she insisted that I should go and hear her sing this evening, and I find that I was expected to take her on to supper afterwards. I excused myself for a little while, but I have promised to go to Luigi's, where she will be."
The girl was silent for a moment.
"Where are we going now, then?" she asked.
"Wherever you like. I can take you home first, or I can leave you anywhere."
She looked at him with a piteous little smile.
"The last two nights you have spoiled me," she said. "I have so many evil thoughts and I am afraid to go home."
"I am sorry. If I could think of anything or anywhere—"
"No, you must take me home, please," said she. "It was selfish of me. Only Mademoiselle Idiale is such a wonderful person. Do you think that she will want you every night?"
"Of course not," he laughed. "Come, I will make an engagement with you. We will have supper together to-morrow evening."
She brightened up at once.
"I wonder," she asked timidly, a few minutes afterwards, "have you heard anything from Arthur? He promised to send a telegram from Queenstown."
Laverick shook his head. He said nothing about the marconigram he had sent, or the answer which he had received informing him that there was no such person on board. It seemed scarcely worth while to worry her.
"I have heard nothing," he replied. "Of course, he must be half-way to America by now."
"There have been no more inquiries about him?" she asked.
"No more than the usual ones from his friends, and a few creditors. The latter I am paying as they come. But there is one thing you ought to do with me. I think we ought to go to his rooms and lock up his papers and letters. He never even went back, you know, after that night."
She nodded thoughtfully.
"When would you like to do this?"
"I am so busy just now that I am afraid I can spare no time until Monday afternoon. Would you go with me then?"
"Of course... My time is my own. We have no matinee, and I have nothing to do except in the evening."
They had reached her home. It looked very dark and very uninviting. She shivered as she took her latchkey from the bag which she was carrying.
"Come in with me, please, while I light the gas," she begged. "It looks so dreary, doesn't it?"
"You ought to have some one with you," he declared, "especially in a part like this."
"Oh, I am not really afraid," she answered. "I am only lonely."
He stood in the passage while she felt for a box of matches and lit the gas jet. In the parlor there was a bowl of milk standing waiting for her, and some bread.
"Thank you so much," she said. "Now I am going to make up the fire and read for a short time. I hope that you will enjoy your supper—well, moderately," she added, with a little laugh.
"I can promise you," he answered, "that I shall enjoy it no more than last night's or to-morrow night's."
"Poor little me!" she exclaimed. "It is not fair to have to compete with Mademoiselle Idiale. Good night!"
Something he saw in her eyes moved him strangely as he turned away.
"Would you like me," he asked hesitatingly, "supposing I get away early—would you like me to come in and say good night to you later on?"
Her face was suddenly flushed with joy.
"Oh, do!" she begged. "Do!"
He turned away with a smile.
"Very well," he said. "Don't shut up just yet and I will try."
"I shall stay here until three o'clock," she declared,—"until four, even. You must come. Remember, you must come. See."
She held out to him her key.
"I can knock at the door," he protested. "You would hear me."
"But I might fall asleep," she answered. "I am afraid. If you have the key, I am sure that you will come."
He put it in his waistcoat pocket with a laugh.
"Very well," he said, "if it is only for five minutes, I will come."
A SUPPER PARTY AT LUIGI'S
Laverick walked into Luigi's Restaurant at about a quarter to twelve, and found the place crowded with many little supper-parties on their way to a fancy dress ball. The demand for tables was far in excess of the supply, but he had scarcely shown himself before the head maitre d'hotel came hurrying up.
"Mademoiselle Idiale is waiting for you, sir," he announced at once. "Will you be so good as to come this way?"
Laverick followed him. She was sitting at the same table as last night, but she was alone, and it was laid, he noticed with surprise, only for two.
"You have treated me," she said, as she held out her fingers, "to a new sensation. I have waited for you alone here for a quarter of an hour—I! Such a thing has never happened to me before."
"You do me too much honor," Laverick declared, seating himself and taking up the carte.
"Then, too," she continued, "I sup alone with you. That is what I seldom do with any man. Not that I care for the appearance," she added, with a contemptuous wave of the hand. "Nothing troubles me less. It is simply that one man alone wearies me. Almost always he will make love, and that I do not like. You, Mr. Laverick, I am not afraid of. I do not think that you will make love to me."
"Any intentions I may have had," Laverick remarked, with a sigh, "I forthwith banish. You ask a hard task of your cavaliers, though, Mademoiselle."
She smiled and looked at him from under her eyelids.
"Not of you, I fancy, Mr. Laverick," she said. "I do not think that you are one of those who make love to every woman because she is good-looking or famous."
"To tell you the truth," Laverick admitted, "I find it hard to make love to any one. I often feel the most profound admiration for individual members of your sex, but to express one's self is difficult—sometimes it is even embarrassing. For supper?"
"It is ordered," she declared. "You are my guest."
"Impossible!" Laverick asserted firmly. "I have been your guest at the Opera. You at least owe me the honor of being mine for supper."
She frowned a little. She was obviously unused to being contradicted.
"I sup with you, then, another night," she insisted. "No," she continued, "If you are going to look like that, I take it back. I sup with you to-night. This is an ill omen for our future acquaintance. I have given in to you already—I, who give in to no man. Give me some champagne, please."
Laverick took the bottle from the ice-pail by his side, but the sommelier darted forward and served them.
"I drink to our better understanding of one another, Mr. Laverick," she said, raising her glass, "and, if you would like a double toast, I drink also to the early gratification of the curiosity which is consuming you."
"Yes! You are wondering all the time why it is that I chose last night to send and have you presented to me, why I came to your office in the city to-day with the excuse of investing money with you, why I invited you to the Opera to-night, why I commanded you to supper here and am supping with you alone. Now confess the truth; you are full of curiosity, is it not so?"
"Frankly, I am."
She smiled good-humoredly.
"I knew it quite well. You are not conceited. You do not believe, as so many men would, that I have fallen in love with you. You think that there must be some object, and you ask yourself all the time, 'What is it?' in your heart, Mr. Laverick, I wonder whether you have any idea."
Her voice had fallen almost to a whisper. She looked at him with a suggestion of stealthiness from under her eyelids, a look which only needed the slightest softening of her face to have made it something almost irresistible.
"I can assure you," Laverick said firmly, "that I have no idea."
"Do you remember almost my first question to you?" she asked.
"It was about the murder. You seemed interested in the fact that my office was within a few yards of the passage where it occurred."
"Quite right," she admitted. "I see that your memory is very good. There, then, Mr. Laverick, you have the secret of my desire to meet you."
Laverick drank his wine slowly. The woman knew! Impossible! Her eyes were watching his face, but he held himself bravely. What could she know? How could she guess?
"Frankly," he said, "I do not understand. Your interest in me arises from the fact that my offices are near the scene of that murder. Well, to begin with, what concern have you in that?"
"The murdered man," she declared thoughtfully, "was an acquaintance of mine."
"An acquaintance of yours!" Laverick exclaimed. "Why, he has not been identified. No one knows who he was."
She raised her eyebrows very slightly.
"Mr. Laverick," she murmured, "the newspapers do not tell you everything. I repeat that the murdered man was an acquaintance of mine. Only three days ago I traveled part of the way from Vienna with him."
Laverick was intensely interested.
"You could, perhaps, throw some light, then, upon his death?"
"Perhaps I could," she answered. "I can tell you one thing, at any rate, Mr. Laverick, if it is news to you. At the time when he was murdered, he was carrying a very large sum of money with him. This is a fact which has not been spoken of in the Press."
Once again Laverick was thankful for those nerves of his. He sat quite still. His face exhibited nothing more than the blank amazement which he certainly felt.
"This is marvelous," he said. "Have you told the police?"
"I have not," she answered. "I wish, if I can, to avoid telling the police."
"But the money? To whom did it belong?"
"Not to the murdered man."
"To any one whom you know of?" he inquired.
"I wonder," she said, after a moment of hesitation, "whether I am telling you too much."
"You are telling me a good deal," he admitted frankly.
"I wonder how far," she asked, "you will be inclined to reciprocate?"
"I reciprocate!" he exclaimed. "But what can I do? What do I know of these things?"
She stretched out her hand lazily, and drew towards her a wonderful gold purse set with emeralds. Carefully opening it, she drew from the interior a small flat pocketbook, also of gold, with a great uncut emerald set into its centre. This, too, she opened, and drew out several sheets of foreign note-paper pinned together at the top. These she glanced through until she came to the third or fourth. Then she bent it down and passed it across the table to Laverick.
"You may read that," she said. "It is part of a report which I have had in my pos session since Wednesday morning."
Laverick drew the sheet towards him and read, in thin, angular characters, very distinct and plain:
Some ten minutes after the assault, a policeman passed down the street but did not glance toward the passage. The next person to appear was a gentleman who left some offices on the same side as the passage, and walked down evidently on his homeward way. He glanced up the passage and saw the body lying there. He disappeared for a moment and struck a match. A minute afterwards he emerged from the passage, looked up and down the street, and finding it empty returned to the office from which he had issued, let himself in with his latchkey, and closed the door behind him. He was there for about ten minutes. When he reappeared, he walked quickly down the street and for obvious reasons I was unable to follow him.
The address of the offices which he left and re-entered was Messrs. Laverick & Morrison, Stockbrokers.
"That interests you, Mr. Laverick?" she asked softly.
He handed it back to her.
"It interests me very much," he answered. "Who was this unseen person who wrote from the clouds?"
"I may not tell you all my secrets, Mr. Laverick," she declared. "What have you done with that twenty thousand pounds?"
Laverick helped himself to champagne. He listened for a moment to the music, and looked into the wonderful eyes which shone from that beautiful face a few feet away. Her lips were slightly parted, her forehead wrinkled. There was nothing of the accuser in her countenance; a gentle irony was its most poignant expression.
"Is this a fairy tale, Mademoiselle Idiale?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It might seem so," she answered. "Sometimes I think that all the time we live two lives,—the life of which the world sees the outside, and the life inside of which no one save ourselves knows anything at all. Look, for instance, at all these people—these chorus girls and young men about town—the older ones, too—all hungry for pleasure, all drinking at the cup of life as though they had indeed but to-day and to-morrow in which to live and enjoy. Have they no shadows, too, no secrets? They seem so harmless, yet if the great white truth shone down, might one not find a murderer there, a dying man who knew his terrible secret, yonder a Croesus on the verge of bankruptcy, a strong man playing with dishonor? But those are the things of the other world which we do not see. The men look at us to-night and they envy you because you are with me. The women envy me more because I have emeralds upon my neck and shoulders for which they would give their souls, and a fame throughout Europe which would turn their foolish heads in a very few minutes. But they do not know. There are the shadows across my path, and I think that there are the shadows across yours. What do you say, Mr. Laverick?"
He looked at her, curiously moved. Now at last he began to believe that it was true what they said of her, that she was indeed a marvelous woman. She had a fame which would have contented nine hundred and ninety-nine women out of a thousand. She had beauty, and, more wonderful still, the grace, the fascination which are irresistible. She had but to lift a finger and there were few who would not kneel to do her bidding. And yet, behind it all there were other things in her life. Had she sought them, or had they come to her?
"You are one of those wise people, Mr. Laverick," she said, "who realize the danger of words. You believe in silence. Well, silence is often good. You do not choose to admit anything."
"What is there for me to admit? Do you want to know whether I am the man who left those offices, who disappeared into the passage, who reappeared again—"
"With a pocket-book containing twenty thousand pounds," she murmured across the flowers.
"At least tell me this?" he demanded. "Was the money yours?"
"I am not like you," she replied. "I have talked a great deal and I have reached the limit of the things which I may tell you."
"But where are we?" he asked. "Are you seriously accusing me of having robbed this murdered man?"
"Be thankful," she declared, "that I am not accusing you of having murdered him."
"But seriously," he insisted, "am I on my defence have I to account for my movements that night as against the written word of your mysterious informant? Is it you who are charging me with being a thief? Is it to you I am to account for my actions, to defend myself or to plead guilty?"
She shook her head.
"No," she answered. "I have said almost my last word to you upon this subject. All that I have to ask of you is this. If that pocket-book is in your possession, empty it first of its contents, then go over it carefully with your fingers and see if there is not a secret pocket. If you discover that, I think that you will find in it a sealed document. If you find that document, you must bring it to me."
The lights went down. The voice of the waiter murmured something in his ears.
"It is after hours," Mademoiselle Idiale said, "but Luigi does not wish to disturb us. Still, perhaps we had better go."
They passed down the room. To Laverick it was all—like a dream—the laughing crowd, the flushed men and bright-eyed women, the lowered lights, the air of voluptuousness which somehow seemed to have enfolded the place. In the hall her maid came up. A small motor-brougham, with two servants on the box, was standing at the doorway. Mademoiselle turned suddenly and gave him her hand.
"Our supper-party, I think, Mr. Laverick," she said, "has been quite a success. We shall before long, I hope, meet again."
He handed her into the carriage. Her maid walked with them. The footman stood erect by his side. There were no further words to be spoken. A little crowd in the doorway envied him as he stood bareheaded upon the pavement.
JIM SHEPHERD'S SCARE
It was, in its way, a pathetic sight upon which Laverick gazed when he stole into that shabby little sitting-room. Zoe had fallen asleep in a small, uncomfortable easy-chair with its back to the window. Her supper of bread and milk was half finished, her hat lay upon the table. A book was upon her lap as though she had started to read only to find it slip through her fingers. He stood with his elbow upon the mantelpiece, looking down at her. Her eyelashes, long and silky, were more beautiful than ever now that her eyes were closed. Her complexion, pale though she was, seemed more the creamy pallor of some southern race than the whiteness of ill-health. The bodice of her dress was open a few inches at the neck, showing the faint white smoothness of her flawless skin. Not even her shabby shoes could conceal the perfect shape of her feet and ankles. Once more he remembered his first simile, his first thought of her. She seemed, indeed, like some dainty statuette, uncouthly clad, who had strayed from a world of her own upon rough days and found herself ill-equipped indeed for the struggle. His heart grew hot with anger against Morrison as he stood and watched her. Supposing she had been different! It would have been his fault, leaving her alone to battle her way through the most difficult of all lives. Brute!
He had muttered the word half aloud and she suddenly opened her eyes. At first she seemed bewildered. Then she smiled and sat up.
"I have been asleep!" she exclaimed.
"A most unnecessary statement," he answered, smiling. "I have been standing looking at you for five minutes at least."
"How fortunate that I gave you the key!" she declared. "I don't suppose I should ever have heard you. Now please stand there in the light and let me look at you."
"I want to look at a man who has had supper with Mademoiselle Idiale."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Am I supposed to be a wanderer out of Paradise, then?"
She looked at him doubtfully.
"They tell strange stories about her," she said; "but oh, she is so beautiful! If I were a man, I should fall in love with her if she even looked my way."
"Then I am glad," he answered, "that I am less impressionable."
"And you are not in love with her?" she asked eagerly.
"Why should I be?" he laughed. "She is like a wonderful picture, a marvelous statue, if you will. Everything about her is faultless. But one looks at these things calmly enough, you know. It is life which stirs life."
"Do you think that there is no life in her veins, then?" Zoe asked.
"If there is," he answered, "I do not think that I am the man to stir it."
She drew a little sigh of content.
"You see," she said, "you are my first admirer, and I haven't the least desire to let you go."
"Incredible!" he declared.
"But it is true," she answered earnestly. "You would not have me talk to these boys who come and hang on at the stage-door. The men to whom I have been introduced by the other girls have been very few, and they have not been very nice, and they have not cared for me and I have not cared for them. I think," she said, disconsolately, "I am too small. Every one to-day seems to like big women. Cora Sinclair, who is just behind me in the chorus, gets bouquets every night, and simply chooses with whom she should go out to supper."
Laverick looked grave.
"You are not envying her?" he asked.
"Not in the least, as long as I too am taken out sometimes."
Laverick smiled and sat on the arm of her chair.
"Miss Zoe," he said, "I have come because you told me to, just to prove, you see, that I am not in the toils of Mademoiselle Idiale. But do you know that it is half past one? I must not stay here any longer."
She sighed once more.
"You are right," she admitted, "but it is so lonely. I have never been here without May and her mother. I have never slept alone in the house before the other night. If I had known that they were going away, I should never have dared to come here."
"It is too bad," he declared. "Couldn't you get one of the other girls to stay with you?"
She shook her head.
"There are one or two whom I would like to have," she said, "but they are all living either at home or with relatives. The others I am afraid about. They seem to like to sit up so late and—"
"You are quite right," he interrupted hastily,—"quite right. You are better alone. But you ought to have a servant."
"On two pounds fifteen a week?" she asked. "You must remember that I could not even live here, only I have practically no rent to pay."
He fidgeted for a moment.
"Miss Zoe," he said, "I am perfectly serious when I tell you that I have money which should go to your brother. Why will you not let me alter your arrangements just a little? I cannot bear to think of you here all alone."
"It is very kind of you," she answered doubtfully; "but please, no. Somehow, I think that it would spoil everything if I accepted that sort of help from you. If you have any money of Arthur's, keep it for a time and I think when you write him—I do not want to seem grasping—but I think if he has any to spare you might suggest that he does give me just a little. I have never had anything from him at all. Perhaps he does not quite understand how hard it is for me.
"I will do that, of course," Laverick answered, "but I wish you would let me at least pay over a little of what I consider due to you. I will take the responsibility for it. It will come from him and not from me."
She remained unconvinced.
"I would rather wait," she said. "If you really want to give me something, I will let you—out of my brother's money, of course, I mean," she added. "I haven't anything saved at all, or I wouldn't have that. But one day you shall take me out and buy me a dress and hat. You can tell Arthur directly you write to him. I don't mind that, for sometimes I do feel ashamed—I did the other night to have you sit with me there, and to feel that I was dressed so very differently from all of them."
He laughed reassuringly.
"I don't think men notice those things. To me you seemed just as you should seem. I only know that I was glad enough to be there with you."
"Were you?"—rather wistfully.
"Of course I was. Now I am going, but before I go, don't forget Monday afternoon. We'll have lunch and then go to your brother's rooms."
She glanced at the clock.
"Is it really so late?" she asked.
"It is. Don't you notice how quiet it is outside?"
They stood hand in hand for a moment. A strange silence seemed to have fallen upon the streets. Laverick was suddenly conscious of something which he had never felt when Mademoiselle Idiale had smiled upon him—a quickening of the pulses, a sense of gathering excitement which almost took his breath away. His eyes were fixed upon hers, and he seemed to see the reflection of that same wave of feeling in her own expressive face. Her lips trembled, her eyes were deeper and softer than ever. They seemed to be asking him a question, asking and asking till every fibre of his body was concentrated in the desperate effort with, which he kept her at arm's length.
"Is it so very late?" she whispered, coming just a little closer, so that she was indeed almost within the shelter of his arms.
He clutched her hands almost roughly and raised them to his lips.
"Much too late for me to stay here, child," he said, and his voice even to himself sounded hard and unnatural.
"Run along to bed. To-morrow night—to-morrow night, then, I will fetch you. Good-bye!"
He let himself out. He did not even look behind to the spot where he had left her. He closed the front door and walked with swift, almost savage footsteps down the quiet Street, across the Square, and into New Oxford Street. Here he seemed to breathe more freely. He called a hansom and drove to his rooms.
The hall-porter had left his post in the front hall, and there was no one to inform Laverick that a visitor was awaiting him. When he entered his sitting-room, however, he gave a little start of surprise. Mr. James Shepherd was reclining in his easy-chair with his hands upon his knees—Mr. James Shepherd with his face more pasty even than usual, his eyes a trifle greener, his whole demeanor one of unconcealed and unaffected terror.
"Hullo!" Laverick exclaimed. "What the dickens—what do you want here, Shepherd?"
"Upon my word, sir, I'm not sure that I know," the man replied, "but I'm scared. I've brought you back the certificates of them shares. I want you to keep them for me. I'm terrified lest they come and search my room. I am, I tell you fair. I'm terrified to order a pint of beer for myself. They're watching me all the time."
"Who are?" Laverick demanded.
"Lord knows who;" Shepherd answered, "but there's two of them at it. I told you about them as asked questions, and I thought there we'd done and finished with it. Not a bit of it! There was another one there this afternoon, said he was a journalist, making sketches of the passage and asking me no end of questions. He wasn't no journalist, I'll swear to that. I asked him about his paper. 'Half-a-dozen,' he declared. 'They're all glad to have what I send them.' Journalist! Lord knows who the other chap was and what he was asking questions for, but this one was a 'tec, straight. Joe Forman, he was in to-day looking after my place, for I'd given a month's notice, and he says to me, 'You see that big chap?'—meaning him as had been asking me the questions—and I says 'Yes!' and he says, 'That's a 'tee. I've seed him in a police court, giving evidence.' I went all of a shiver so that you could have knocked me down."
"Come, come!" said Laverick. "There's no need for you to be feeling like this about it. All that you've done is not to have remembered those two customers who were in your restaurant late one night. There's nothing criminal in that."
"There's something criminal in having two hundred and fifty pounds' worth of shares in one's pocket—something suspicious, anyway," Shepherd declared, plumping them down on the table. "I ain't giving you these back, mind, but you must keep 'em for me. I wish I'd never given notice. I think I'll ask the boss to keep me on."
"Why do you suppose that this man is particularly interested in you?" Laverick inquired.
"Ain't I told you?" Shepherd exclaimed, sitting up. "Why, he's been to my place down in 'Ammersmith, asking questions about me. My landlady swears he didn't go into my room, but who can tell whether he did or not? Those sort of chaps can get in anywhere. Then I went out for a bit of an airing after the one o'clock rush was over to-day, and I'm danged if he wasn't at my 'eels. I seed him coming round by Liverpool Street just as I went in a bar to get a drop of something."
"If there is anything in this Story, Shepherd," he said, "if you are really being followed, what a thundering fool you were to come here! All the world knows that Arthur Morrison was my partner."
"I couldn't help it, sir," the man declared. "I couldn't, indeed. I was so scared, I felt I must speak about it to some one. And then there were these shares. There was nowhere I could keep 'em safe."
"Look here," Laverick went on, "you're alarming yourself about nothing. In any case, there is only one thing for you to do. Pull yourself together and put a bold face upon it. I'll keep these certificates for you, and when you want some money you can come to me for it. Go back to your place, and if your master is willing to keep you on perhaps it would be a good thing to stay there for another month or so. But don't let any one see that you're frightened. Remember, there's nothing that you can get into trouble for. No one's obliged to answer such questions as you've been asked, except in a court and under oath. Stick to your story, and if you take my advice," Laverick added, glancing at his visitor's shaking fingers, "you will keep away from the drink."
"It's little enough I've had, sir," Shepherd assured him. "A drop now and then just to keep up one's spirits—nothing that amounts to anything."
"Make it as little as possible," Laverick said. "Remember, I'm back of you, I'll see that you get into no trouble. And don't come here again. Come to my office, if you like—there's nothing in that—but don't come here, you understand?"
Shepherd took up his hat.
"I understand, sir. I'm sorry to have troubled you, but the sight of that man following me about fairly gave me the shivers."
"Come into the office as often as you like, in reason," Laverick said, showing him out, "but not here again. Keep your eyes open, and let me know if you think you've been followed here."
"There's no more news in the papers, sir? Nothing turned up?"
"Nothing," replied Laverick. "If the police have found out anything at all, they will keep it until after the inquest."
"And you've heard nothing, sir," Shepherd asked, speaking in a hoarse whisper, "of Mr. Morrison?"
"Nothing," Laverick answered. "Mr. Morrison is abroad."
The man wiped his forehead with his hand.
"Of course!" he muttered. "A good job, too, for him!"
THE DOCUMENT DISCOVERED
On the following morning, Laverick surprised his office cleaner and one errand-boy by appearing at about a quarter to nine. He found a woman busy brushing out his room and a man Cleaning the windows. They stared at him in amazement. His arrival at such an hour was absolutely unprecedented.
"You can leave the office just as it is, if you please," he told them. "I have a few things to attend to at once."
He was accordingly left alone. He had reckoned upon this as being the one period during the day when he could rely upon not being disturbed. Nevertheless, he locked the door so as to be secure against any possible intruder. Then he went to his safe, unlocked it, and drew from its secret drawer the worn brown-leather pocket-book.
First of all he took out the notes and laid them upon the table. Then he felt the pocket-book all over and his heart gave a little leap. It was true what Mademoiselle Idiale had told him. On one side there was distinctly a rustling as of paper. He opened the case quite flat and passed his fingers carefully over the lining. Very soon he found the opening—it was simply a matter of drawing down the stiff silk lining from underneath the overlapping edge. Thrusting in his fingers, he drew out a long foreign envelope, securely sealed. Scarcely stopping to glance at it, he rearranged the pocket-book, replaced the notes, and locked it up again. Then he unbolted his door and sat down at his desk, with the document which he had discovered, on the pad in front of him.
There was not much to be made of it. There was no address, but the black seal at the end bore the impression of a foreign coat of arms, and a motto which to him was indecipherable. He held it up to the light, but the outside sheet had not been written on, and he gained no idea as to its contents. He leaned back in his chair for a moment, and looked at it. So this was the document which would probably reveal the secret of the murder in Crooked Friars' Alley! This was the document which Mademoiselle Idiale considered of so much more importance than the fortune represented by that packet of bank-notes! What did it all mean? Was this man, who had either expiated a crime or been the victim of a terrible vengeance,—was he a politician, a dealer in trade secrets, a member of a secret society, an informer? Or was he one of the underground criminals of the world, one of those who crawl beneath the surface of known things—a creature of the dark places? Perhaps during those few minutes, when his brain was cool and active, with the great city awakening all around him, Laverick realized more completely than ever before exactly how he stood. Without doubt he was walking on the brink of a precipice. Four days ago there had been nothing for him but ruin. The means of salvation had suddenly presented themselves in this startling and dramatic manner, and without hesitation he had embraced them. What did it all amount to? How far was he guilty, and of what? Was he a thief? The law would probably call him so. The law might have even more to say. It would say that by keeping his mouth closed as to his adventure on that night he had ranged himself on the side of the criminals,—he was guilty not only of technical theft, but of a criminal knowledge of this terrible crime. Events had followed upon one another so rapidly during these last few days that he had little enough time for reflection, little time to realize exactly how he stood. The long-expected boom in "Unions," the coming of Zoe, the strange advances made to him by Mademoiselle Idiale, her incomprehensible connection with this tragedy across which he had stumbled, and her apparent knowledge of his share in it,—these things were sufficient, indeed, to give him food for thought. Laverick was not by nature a pessimist. Other things being equal, he would have made, without doubt, a magnificent soldier, for he had courage of a rare and high order. It never occurred to him to sit and brood upon his own danger. He rather welcomed the opportunity of occupying his mind with other thoughts. Yet in those few minutes, while he waited for the business of the day to commence, he looked his exact position in the face and he realized more thoroughly how grave it really was. How was he to find a way out—to set himself right with the law? What could he do with those notes? They were there untouched. He had only made use of them in an indirect way. They were there intact, as he had picked them up upon that fateful night. Was there any possible chance by means of which he might discover the owner and restore them in such a way that his name might never be mentioned? His eyes repeatedly sought that envelope which lay before him. Inside it must lie the secret of the whole tragedy. Should he risk everything and break the seal, or should he risk perhaps as much and tell the whole truth to Mademoiselle Idiale? It was a strange dilemma for a man to find himself in.
Then, as he sat there, the business of the day commenced. A pile of letters was brought in, the telephones in the outer office began to ring. He thrust the sealed envelope into the breast-pocket of his coat and buttoned it up. There, for the present, it must remain. He owed it to himself to devote every energy he possessed to make the most of this great tide of business. With set face he closed the doors upon the unreal world, and took hold of the levers which were to guide his passage through the one in which he was an actual figure.
Her visit was not altogether unexpected, and yet, when they told him that Mademoiselle Idiale was outside, he hesitated.
"It is the lady who was here the other day," his head clerk reminded him. "We made a remarkably good choice of stocks for her. They must be showing nearly sixteen hundred pounds profit. Perhaps she wants to realize."
"In any case, you had better show her in," said Laverick.
She came, bringing with her, notwithstanding her black clothes and heavy veil, the atmosphere of a strange world into his somewhat severely furnished office. Her skirts swept his carpet with a musical swirl. She carried with her a faint, indefinable perfume of violets,—a perfume altogether peculiar, dedicated to her by a famous chemist in the Rue Royale, and supplied to no other person upon earth. Who else was there, indeed, who could have walked those few yards as she walked?
He rose to his feet and pointed to a chair.
"You have come to ask about your shares?" he asked politely. "So far, we have nothing but good news for you."
She recognized that he spoke to her in the presence of his clerk, and she waved her hand.
"Women who will come themselves to look after their poor investments are a nuisance, I suppose," she said. "But indeed I will not keep you long. A few minutes are all that I shall ask of you. I am beginning to find city affairs so interesting."
They were alone by now and Louise raised her veil, raised it so high that he could see her eyes. She leaned back in her chair, supporting her chin with the long, exquisite fingers of her right hand. She looked at him thoughtfully.
"You have examined the pocket-book?" she asked.
"And the document was there?"
"The document was there," he admitted. "Perhaps you can tell me how it would be addressed?"
Looking at her closely, it came to him that her indifference was assumed. She was shivering slightly, as though with cold.
"I imagine that there would be no address," she said.
"You are right. That document is in my pocket."
"What are you going to do with it?" she asked.
"What do you advise me to do with it?"
"Give it to me."
"Have you any claim?"
She leaned a little nearer to him.
"At least I have more claim to it," she whispered, "than you to that twenty thousand pounds."
"I do not claim them," he replied. "They are in my safe at this moment, untouched. They are there ready to be returned to their proper owner."
"Why do you not find him?"—with a note of incredulity in her tone.
"How am I to do that?" Laverick demanded.
"We waste words," she continued coldly. "I think that if I leave you with the contents of your safe, it will be wise for you to hand me that document."
"I am inclined to do so," Laverick admitted. "The very fact that you knew of its existence would seem to give you a sort of claim to it. But, Mademoiselle Idiale, will you answer me a few questions?"
"I think," she said, "that it would be better if you asked me none."
"But listen," he begged. "You are the only person with whom I have come into touch who seems to know anything about this affair. I should rather like to tell you exactly how I stumbled in upon it. Why can we not exchange confidence for confidence? I want neither the twenty thousand pounds nor the document. I want, to be frank with you, nothing but to escape from the position I am now in of being half a thief and half a criminal. Show me some claim to that document and you shall have it. Tell me to whom that money belongs, and it shall be restored."
"You are incomprehensible," she declared. "Are you, by any chance, playing a part with me? Do you think that it is worth while?"
"Mademoiselle Idiale," Laverick protested earnestly, "nothing in the world is further from my thoughts. There is very little of the conspirator about me. I am a plain man of business who stumbled in upon this affair at a critical moment and dared to make temporary use of his discovery. You can put it, if you like, that I am afraid. I want to get out. Nothing would give me greater pleasure, if such a thing were possible, than to send this pocket-book and its contents anonymously to Scotland Yard, and never hear about them again."
She listened to him with unchanged face. Yet for some moments after he had finished speaking she was thoughtful.
"You may be speaking the truth," she said. "If so, I have been deceived. You are not quite the sort of man I did believe you were. What you tell me is amazing, but it may be true."
"It is the truth," Laverick repeated calmly.
"Listen," she said, after a brief pause. "You were at school, were you not, with Mr. David Bellamy? You know well who he is?"
"Perfectly well," Laverick admitted.
"You would consider him a person to be trusted?"
"Very well, then," she declared. "You shall come to my fiat at five o'clock this afternoon and bring that document. If it is possible, David Bellamy shall be there himself. We will try then and prove to you that you do no harm in parting with that document to us."
"I will come," Laverick promised, "at five o'clock; but you must tell me where."
"You will put it down, please," she said. "There must not be any mistake. You must come, and you must come to-day. I am staying at number 15, Dover Street. I will leave orders that you are shown in at once."
She rose to her feet and he walked to the door with her. On the way she hesitated.
"Take care of yourself to-day, Mr. Laverick," she begged. "There are others beside myself who are interested in that packet you carry with you. You represent to them things beside which life and death are trivial happenings."
Laverick laughed shortly. He was a matter-of-fact man, and there seemed something a little absurd in such a warning.
"I do not think," he declared, "that you need have any fear. London is, as you doubtless find it, a dull old city, but it is a remarkably safe one to live in."
"Nevertheless, Mr. Laverick," she repeated earnestly, "be on your guard to-day, for all our sakes."
He bowed and changed the subject.
"Your investments," he remarked, "you will be content, perhaps, to leave as they are. It is, no doubt, of some interest to you to know that they are showing already a profit of considerably over a thousand pounds."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It was an excuse—that investment," she declared. "Yet money is always good. Keep it for me, Mr. Laverick, and do what you will. I will trust your judgment. Buy or sell as you please. You will let nothing prevent your coming this afternoon?"
"Nothing," he promised her.
From the window of her beautifully appointed little electric brougham she held out her hand in farewell.
"You think me foolish, I know, that I persist," she said, "but I do beg that you will remember what I say. Do not be alone to-day more than you can help. Suspect every one who comes near to you. There may be a trap before your feet at any moment. Be wary always and do not forget—at five o'clock I expect you."
Laverick smiled as he bowed his adieux.
"It is a promise, Mademoiselle," he assured her.
PENETRATING A MYSTERY
About an hour after Mademoiselle Idiale's departure a note marked "Urgent" was brought in and handed to Laverick. He tore it open. It was dated from the address of a firm of stockbrokers, with two of the partners of which he was on friendly terms. It ran thus:
MY DEAR LAVERICK,—I want a chat with you, if you can spare five minutes at lunch time. Come to Lyons' a little earlier than usual, if you don't mind,—say at a quarter to one.
Laverick read the typewritten note carelessly enough at first. He had even laid it down and glanced at the clock, with the intention of starting out, when a thought struck him. He took it up and read it though again. Then he turned to the telephone.
"Put me on to the office of Henshaw & Allen. I want to speak to Mr. Henshaw particularly."
Two minutes passed. Laverick, meanwhile, had been washing his hands ready to go out. Then the telephone bell rang. He took up the receiver.
"Hullo! Is that Henshaw?"
"I'm Henshaw," was the answer. "That's Laverick, isn't it? How are you, old fellow?"
"I'm all right," Laverick replied. "What is it that you want to see me about?"
"Nothing particular that I know of. Who told you that I wanted to?"
Laverick, who had been standing with the instrument in his hand, sat down in his chair.
"Look here," he said, "Didn't you send me a note a few minutes ago, asking me to come out to lunch at a quarter to one and meet you at Lyons'?"
Henshaw's laugh was sufficient response.
"Delighted to lunch with you there or anywhere, old chap,—you know that," was the answer, "but some one's been putting up a practical joke on you."
"You did not send me a note round this morning, then?" Laverick insisted.
"I'll swear I didn't," came the reply. "Do you seriously mean that you've had one purporting to come from me?"
Laverick pulled himself together.
"Well, the signature's such a scrawl," he said, "that no one could tell what the name really was. I guessed at you but I seem to have guessed wrong. Good-bye!"
He set down the receiver and rang off to escape further questioning. Now indeed the plot was commencing to thicken. This was a deliberate effort on the part of some one to secure his absence from his offices at a quarter to one.
With the document in his pocket and the safe securely locked, Laverick felt at ease as to the result of any attempted burglary of his premises. At the same time his curiosity was excited. Here, perhaps, was a chance of finding some clue to this impenetrable mystery.
There were thee clerks in the outer office. He put on his hat and despatched two of them on errands in different directions. The last he was obliged to take into his confidence.
"Halsey," he said, "I am going out to lunch. At least, I wish it to be thought that I am going out to lunch. As a matter of fact, I shall return in about ten minutes by the back way. I do not wish you, however, to know this. I want you to have it in your mind that I have gone to lunch and shall not be back until a quarter past two. If there are visitors for me—Inquirers of any sort—act exactly as you would have done if you really believed that I was not in the building."
Halsey appeared a good deal mystified. Laverick took him even further into his confidence.
"To tell you the truth, Halsey," he said, "I have just received a bogus letter from Mr. Henshaw, asking me to lunch with him. Some one was evidently anxious to get me out of my office for an hour or so. I want to find out for myself what this means, if possible. You understand?"
"I think so, sir," the man replied doubtfully. "I am not to be aware that you have returned, then?"
"Certainly not," Laverick answered. "Please be quite clear about that. If you hear any commotion in the office, you can come in, but do not send for the police unless I tell you to. I wish to look into this affair for myself."
Halsey, who had started life as a lawyer's clerk, and was distinctly formal in his ideas, was a little shocked.
"Would it not be better, sir," he suggested, "for me to communicate with the police in the first case? If this should really turn out to be an attempt at burglary, it would surely be best to leave the matter to them."
"For certain reasons, Halsey, which I do not think it necessary to tell you, I have a strong desire to investigate this matter personally. Please do exactly as I say."
He left the office and strolled up the street in the direction of the restaurant which he chiefly frequented. He reached it in a moment or two, but left it at once by another entrance. Within ten minutes he was back at his office.
"Has any one been, Halsey?"
"No one, sir," the clerk answered.
"You will be so good," Laverick continued, "as to forget that I have returned."
He passed on quickly into his own room and made his way into the small closet where he kept his coat and washed his hands. He had scarcely been there a minute when he heard voices in the outside hall. The door of his office was opened.
"Mr. Laverick said nothing about an appointment at this hour," he heard Halsey protest in a somewhat deprecating tone.
"He had, perhaps, forgotten," was the answer, in a totally unfamiliar voice. "At any rate, I am not in a great hurry. The matter is of some importance, however, and I will wait for Mr. Laverick."
The visitor was shown in. Laverick investigated his appearance through a crack in the door. He was a man of medium height, well-dressed, clean-shaven, and wore gold-rimmed spectacles. He made himself comfortable in Laverick's easy-chair, and accepted the paper which Halsey offered him.
"I shall be quite glad of a rest," he remarked genially. "I have been running about all the morning."
"Mr. Laverick is never very long out for lunch, sir," Halsey said. "I daresay he will not keep you more than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes."
The clerk withdrew and closed the door. The man in the chair waited for a moment. Then he laid down his newspaper and looked cautiously around the room. Satisfied apparently that he was alone, he rose to his feet and walked swiftly to Laverick's writing-table. With fingers which seemed gifted with a lightning-like capacity for movement, he swung open the drawers, one by one, and turned over the papers. His eyes were everywhere. Every document seemed to be scanned and as rapidly discarded. At last he found something which interested him. He held it up and paused in his search. Laverick heard a little breath come though his teeth, and with a thrill he recognized the paper as one which he had torn from a memorandum tablet and upon which he had written down the address which Mademoiselle Idiale had given him. The man with the gold-rimmed glasses replaced the paper where he had found it. Evidently he had done with the writing-table. He moved swiftly over to the safe and stood there listening for a few seconds. Then from his pocket he drew a bunch of keys. To Laverick's surprise, at the stranger's first effort the great door of the safe swung open. He saw the man lean forward, saw his hand reappear almost directly with the pocket-book clenched in his fingers. Then he stood once more quite still, listening. Satisfied that no one was disturbed, he closed the door of the safe softly and moved once more to the writing-table. With marvelous swiftness the notes were laid upon the table, the pocket-book was turned upside down, the secret place disclosed—the secret place which was empty. It seemed to Laverick that from his hiding-place he could hear the little oath of disappointment which broke from the thin red lips. The man replaced the notes and, with the pocket-book in his hand, hesitated. Laverick, who thought that things had gone far enough, stepped lightly out from his hiding-place and stood between his unbidden visitor and the door.
"You had better put down that pocket-book," he ordered quietly.
The man was upon him with a single spring, but Laverick, without the slightest hesitation, knocked him prone upon the floor, where he lay, for a moment, motionless. Then he slowly picked himself up. His spectacles were broken—he blinked as he stood there.
"Sorry to be so rough," Laverick said. "Perhaps if you will kindly realize that of the two I am much the stronger man, you will be so good as to sit in that chair and tell me the meaning of your intrusion."
The man obeyed. He covered his eyes with his hand, for a moment, as though in pain.
"I imagine," he said—and it seemed to Laverick that his voice had a slight foreign accent—"I imagine that the motive for my paying you this visit is fairly clear to you. People who have compromising possessions may always expect visits of this sort. You see, one runs so little risk."
"So little risk!" Laverick repeated.
"Exactly," the other answered. "Confess that you are not in the least inclined to ring your bell and send for a constable to give me in charge for being in possession of a pocket-book abstracted from your safe, containing twenty thousand pounds in Bank of England notes."
"It wouldn't do at all," Laverick admitted.
"You are a man of common sense," declared the other. "It would not do. Now comes the time when I have a question to ask you. There was a sealed document in this pocket-book. Where is it? What have you done with it?"
"Can you tell me," Laverick asked, "why I should answer questions from a person whom I discover apparently engaged in a nefarious attempt at burglary?"
The man's hand shot out from his trouser-pocket, and Laverick looked into the gleaming muzzle of a revolver.
"Because if you don't, you die," was the quick reply. "Whether you've read that document or not, I want it. If you've read it, you know the sort of men you've got to deal with. If you haven't, take my word for it that we waste no time. The document! Will you give it me?"
"Do I understand that you are threatening me?" Laverick asked, retreating a few steps.
"You may understand that this is a repeating revolver, and that I seldom miss a half-crown at twenty paces," his visitor answered. "If you put out your hand toward that bell, it will be the last movement you'll ever make on earth."
"London isn't really the place for this sort of thing," Laverick said. "If you discharge that revolver, you haven't a dog's chance of getting clear of the building. My clerks would rush out after you into the street. You'd find yourself surrounded by a crowd of business men. You couldn't make your way through anywhere. You'd be held up before you'd gone a dozen yards. Put down your revolver. We can perhaps settle this little matter without it."
"The document!" the man ordered. "You've got it! You must have it! You took that pocket-book from a dead man, and in that pocket-book was the document. We must have it. We intend to have it."
"And who, may I ask, are we?" Laverick inquired.
"If you do not know, what does it matter? Will you give it to me?"
Laverick shook his head.
"I have no document."
The man in the chair leaned forward. The muzzle of his revolver was very bright, and he held it in fingers which were firm as a rock.
"Give it to me!" he repeated. "You ought to know that you are not dealing with men who are unaccustomed to death. You have it about you. Produce it, and I've done with you. Deny me, and you have not time to say your prayers!"
Laverick was leaning against a small table which stood near the door. His fingers suddenly gripped the ledger which lay upon it. He held it in front of his face for a single moment, and then dashed it at his visitor. He followed behind with one desperate spring. Once, twice, the revolver barked out. Laverick felt the skin of his temple burn and a flick on the ear which reminded him of his school-days. Then his hand was upon the other man's throat and the revolver lay upon the carpet.
"We'll see about that. By the Lord, I've a good mind to wring the life out of you. That bullet of yours might have been in my temple."
"It was meant to be there," the man gasped. "Hand over the document, you pig-headed fool! It'll cost you your life—if not to-day, to-morrow."
"I'll be hanged if you get it, anyway!" Laverick answered fiercely. "You assassin! Scoundrel! To come here and make a cold-blooded effort at murder! You shall see what you think of the inside of an English prison."
The man laughed contemptuously.
"And what about the pocket-book?" he asked.
Laverick was silent. His assailant smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"Come," he said, "I have made my effort and failed. You have twenty thousand pounds. That's a fair price, but I'll add another twenty thousand for that document unopened."
"It is possible that we might deal," Laverick remarked, kicking the revolver a little further away. "Unfortunately, I am too much in the dark. Tell me the real position of the murdered man? Tell me why he was murdered? Tell me the contents of this document and why it was in his possession? Perhaps I may then be inclined to treat with you."
"You are either an astonishingly ingenuous person, Mr. Laverick," his visitor declared, "or you're too subtle for me. You do not expect me to believe that you are in this with your eyes blindfolded? You do not expect me to believe that you do not know what is in that sealed envelope? Bah! It is a child's game, that, and we play as men with men."
Laverick shook his head.
"Your offer," he asked, "what is it exactly?"
"Twenty thousand pounds," the man answered. "The document is worth no more than that to you. How you came into this thing is a mystery, but you are in and, what is more, you have possession. Twenty thousand pounds, Mr. Laverick. It is a large sum of money. You find it interesting?"
"I find it interesting," Laverick answered dryly, "but I am not a seller."
The intruder moved his hand away from his eyes. His expression was full of wonder.
"Consider for a moment," he said. "While that document remains in your possession, you walk the narrow way, your life hangs upon a thread. Better surrender it and attend to your stocks and shares. Heaven knows how you first came into our affairs, but the sooner you are out of them the better. What do you say now to my offer?"
"It is refused," Laverick declared. "I regret; to add," he continued, "that I have already spared you all the time I have at my disposal. Forgive me."
He pressed a button with his finger. His visitor rose up in anger.
"You are not such a fool!" he exclaimed. "You are not going to send me away without it? Why, I tell you that there won't be a safe corner in the World for you!"
Halsey opened the door. Laverick nodded toward his visitor.
"Show this gentleman out, Halsey," he ordered.
Halsey started. The noise of the revolver shot had evidently been muffled by the heavy connecting doors, but there was a smell of gunpowder in the room, and a little wreath of smoke. The man rose slowly to his feet, still blinking.
"It must be as you will, of course. I wonder if you would be so good as to let your clerk direct me to an oculist? I am, unfortunately, a helpless man in this condition."
"There is one a few yards off," Laverick answered. "Put on your hat, Halsey, and show this gentleman where he can get some glasses."
His visitor leaned towards Laverick.
"It is your life which is in question, not my eyesight," he muttered. "Do you accept my offer? Will you give me the document?"
"I do not and I will not," Laverick replied. "I shall not part with anything until I know more than I know at present."
The man stood motionless for a moment. His fingers seemed to be twitching. Laverick had a fancy that he was about to spring, but if ever he had had any thoughts of the kind, Halsey's reappearance checked them.
"I am much obliged to you, Mr. Laverick," he said quietly. "We shall, perhaps, resume this discussion at some future date."
With that he turned and followed Halsey out of the room. Laverick went to the window and threw it wide open. The smoke floated out, the smell of gunpowder was gradually dispersed. Then he walked back to his seat. Once more he locked up the notes. The document was safe in his pocket. There was a slight mark by the side of his temple, and his ear, he discovered, was bleeding. He rang the bell and Halsey entered.
"Has our friend gone, Halsey?"
"I left him in the optician's, sir," the clerk answered. "He was buying some spectacles."
Laverick glanced at the floor, where the remains of those gold-rimmed glasses were scattered.
"You had better send for a locksmith at once," he said. "The gentleman who has been here had a skeleton key to my safe. We'll have a combination put on."
"Very good, sir," Halsey answered.
"And, Halsey," his master continued, "be careful about one thing, for your own sake as well as mine. If that man presents himself again, don't let him come into my room unannounced. If you can help it, don't let him come in at all. I have an idea that he might be dangerous."
The clerk's face was a study.
"If he presents himself here, sir," he announced stiffly, "I shall take the liberty of sending for the police."
Laverick made no reply.
LAVERICK'S NARROW ESCAPE
At precisely a quarter past four, nothing having happened in the meantime but a steady rush of business, Laverick ordered a taxicab to be summoned. He then unlocked his safe, placed the pocket-book securely in his breast pocket, walked through the office, and directed the man to drive to Chancery Lane. Here at the headquarters of the Safe Deposit Company he engaged a compartment, and down in the strong-room locked up the pocket-book. There was only now the document left. Stepping once more into the street, he found that his taxicab had vanished. He looked up and down in vain. The man had not been paid and there seemed to be no reason for his departure. A policeman who was standing by touched his hat and addressed him.
"Were you looking for that taxi you stepped out of a few minutes ago, sir?" he asked.
"I was," Laverick answered. "I hadn't paid him and I told him to wait."
"I thought there was something queer about it," the policeman remarked. "Soon after you had gone inside, two gentlemen drove up in a hansom. They got out here and one of them spoke to your driver, who shook his head and pointed to his flag. The gent then said something else to him—can't say as I heard what it was, but it was probably offering him double fare. Anyway, they both got in and off went your taxi, sir."
"Thank you," Laverick said thoughtfully. "It sounds a little perplexing."
He hesitated for a moment.
"Constable," he continued, "I have just made a very valuable deposit in there, and I had an idea that I might be followed. I have still in my pocket a document of great importance. I have no doubt whatever but that the object of the men who have taken my taxicab is to leave me in the street here alone under circumstances which will render a quick attack upon me likely to be successful."
The policeman turned his head and looked at Laverick incredulously. He was more than half inclined to believe that this was a practical joke. Were they not standing on the pavement in Chancery Lane, and was not he an able-bodied policeman of great bulk and immense muscle! Yet his companion did not look by any means a man of the nervous order. Laverick was broad-shouldered, his skin was tanned a wholesome color, his bearing was the bearing of a man prepared to defend himself at any time. The constable smiled in a non-committal manner.
"If you'll excuse my saying so, sir," he remarked, "I don't think this is exactly the spot any one would choose for an assault."
"I agree with you," Laverick answered, "but, on the other hand, you must remember that these gentlemen have had no choice. I stepped from my office direct into the taxi, and I proposed to drive straight from here to the place where I shall probably leave the other document I am carrying with me. Why I have taken you into my confidence is to ask you this. Can you walk with me to the corner of the street, or until we meet a taxicab? it sounds cowardly, but, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid. I simply want to make sure of delivering this document to the person to whom it belongs."
The constable stood still, a little perplexed.
"My beat, sir," he said, "only goes about twenty-five yards further on. I will walk to the corner of Holborn with you, if you desire it. At the same time, I may say that I am breaking regulations. How do I know that it is not your scheme to get me away from this neighborhood for some purpose of your own?"
"You don't believe anything of the sort," Laverick declared, with a smile.
"I do not, sir," the policeman admitted. "Keep by my side, and I think that nothing will happen to you before we reach Holborn."
Laverick was a man of more than medium height, but by the side of the policeman he seemed short. Both scanned the faces of the passers-by closely—the police-man with mild interest, Laverick with almost feverish anxiety. It was a gray afternoon, pleasant but close. There seemed to be nothing whatever to account for the feeling of nervousness which had suddenly come over Laverick. He felt himself in danger—he had no idea how, or in what way—but the conviction was there. He took every step fully alert, absolutely on his guard.
They were almost within sight of Holborn when a cry from the bystanders caused them to look away into the middle of the road. Laverick only cast one glance there and abandoned every instinct of curiosity, thinking once more only of himself and his own position. With the constable, however, it was naturally different. He saw something which called at once for his intervention, and he immediately forgot the somewhat singular task upon which he was engaged. A man had fallen in the middle of the street, either knocked down by the shaft of a passing vehicle or in some sort of fit. There was a tangle of rearing horses, an omnibus was making desperate efforts to avoid the prostrate body. The constable sprang to the rescue. Laverick, instantly suspicious and realizing that there was no one in front of him, turned swiftly around. He was just in time to receive upon his left arm the blow which had been meant for the back of his head. He was confronted by a man dressed exactly as he himself was, in morning coat and silk hat, a man with long, lean face and legal appearance, such a person as would have passed anywhere without attracting a moment's suspicion. Yet, in the space of a few seconds he had whipped out from one pocket, with the skill almost of a juggler, a vicious-looking life-preserver, and from the other a pocket-handkerchief soaked with chloroform. Laverick, quick and resourceful, feeling his left arm sink helpless, struck at the man with his right and sent him staggering against the wall. The handkerchief, with its load of sickening odor, fell to the pavement. The man was obviously worsted. Laverick sprang at him. They were almost unobserved, for the crowd was all intent upon the accident in the roadway. With wonderful skill, his assailant eluded his attempt to close, and tore at his coat. Laverick struck at him again but met only the air. The man's fingers now were upon his pocket, but this time Laverick made no mistake. He struck downward so hard that with a fierce cry of pain the man relaxed his hold. Before he could recover, Laverick had struck him again. He reeled into the crowd that was fast gathering around them, attracted by what seemed to be a fight between two men of unexceptionable appearance. But there was to be no more fight. Through the people, swift-footed, cunning, resourceful, his assailant seemed to find some hidden way. Laverick glared fiercely around him, but the man had gone. His left hand crept to his chest. The victory was with him; the document was still there.
At the outside of the double crowd he perceived a taxi. Ignoring the storm of questions with which he was assailed, and the advancing helmet of his friend the policeman at the back of the crowd, Laverick hailed it and stepped quickly inside.
"Back out of this and drive to Dover Street," he directed. The man obeyed him. People raced to look through the window at him. The other commotion had died away,—the man in the road had got up and walked off. A policeman came hurrying along but he was just too late. Very soon they were on their way down Holborn. Once more Laverick had escaped.
A French man-servant, with the sad face and immaculate dress of a High-Church cleric, took possession of him as soon as he had asked for Mademoiselle Idiale. He was shown into one of the most delightful little rooms he had ever even dreamed of. The walls were hung with that peculiar shade of blue satin which Mademoiselle so often affected in her clothes. Laverick, who was something of a connoisseur, saw nowhere any object which was not, of its sort, priceless,—French furniture of the best and choicest period, a statuette which made him, for a moment, almost forget the scene from which he had just arrived. The air in the room seemed as though it had passed through a grove of lemon trees,—it was fresh and sweet yet curiously fragrant. Laverick sank down into one of the luxurious blue-brocaded chairs, conscious for the first time that he was out of breath. Then the door opened silently and there entered not the woman whom he had been expecting, but Mr. Lassen. Laverick rose to his feet half doubtfully. Lassen's small, queerly-shaped face seemed to have become one huge ingratiating smile.
"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Laverick," he said,—"very glad indeed."
"I have come to call upon Mademoiselle Idiale," Laverick answered, somewhat curtly. He had disliked this man from the first moment he had seen him, and he saw no particular reason why he should conceal his feelings.
"I am here to explain," Mr. Lassen continued, seating himself opposite to Laverick. "Mademoiselle Idiale is unfortunately prevented from seeing you. She has a severe nervous headache, and her only chance of appearing tonight is to remain perfectly undisturbed. Women of her position, as you may understand, have to be exceptionally careful. It would be a very serious matter indeed if she were unable to sing to-night."
"I am exceedingly sorry to hear it," Laverick answered. "In that case, I will call again when Mademoiselle Idiale has recovered."
"By all means, my dear sir!" Mr. Lassen exclaimed. "Many times, let us hope. But in the meantime, there is a little affair of a document which you were going to deliver to Mademoiselle. She is most anxious that you should hand it to me—most anxious. She will tender you her thanks personally, tomorrow or the next day, if she is well enough to receive."
Laverick shook his head firmly.
"Under no circumstances," he declared, "should I think of delivering the document into any other hands save those of Mademoiselle Idiale. To tell you the truth, I had not fully decided whether to part with it even to her. I was simply prepared to hear what she had to say. But it may save time if I assure you, Mr. Lassen, that nothing would induce me to part with it to any one else."
There was no trace left of that ingratiating smile upon Mr. Lassen's face. He had the appearance now of an ugly animal about to show its teeth. Laverick was suddenly on his guard. More adventures, he thought, casting a somewhat contemptuous glance at the physique of the other man. He laid his fingers as though carelessly upon a small bronze ornament which reposed amongst others on a table by his side. If Mr. Lassen's fat and ugly hand should steal toward his pocket, Laverick was prepared to hurl the ornament at his head.
"I am very sorry to hear you say that, Mr. Laverick," Lassen said slowly. "I hope very much that you will see your way clear to change your mind. I can assure you that I have as much right to the document as Mademoiselle Idiale, and that it is her earnest wish that you should hand it over to me. Further, I may inform you that the document itself is a most incriminating one. Its possession upon your person, or upon the person of any one who was not upon his guard, might be a very serious matter indeed."
Laverick shrugged his shoulders.
"As a matter of fact," he declared, "I certainly have no idea of carrying it about with me. On the other hand, I shall part with it to no one. I might discuss the matter with Mademoiselle Idiale as soon as she is recovered. I am not disposed—I mean no offence, sir—but I may say frankly that I am not disposed even to do as much with you."
Laverick rose to his feet with the obvious intention of leaving. Lassen followed his example and confronted him.
"Mr. Laverick," he said, "in your own interests you must not talk like that,—in your own interests, I say."
"At any rate," Laverick remarked, "my interests are better looked after by myself than by strangers. You must forgive my adding, Mr. Lassen, that you are a stranger to me."
"No more so than Mademoiselle Idiale!" the little man exclaimed.
"Mademoiselle Idiale has given me certain proof that she knew at least of the existence of this document," Laverick answered. "She has established, therefore, a certain claim to my consideration. You announce yourself as Mademoiselle Idiale's deputy, but you bring me no proof of the fact, nor, in any case, am I disposed to treat with you. You must allow me to wish you good afternoon."
Lassen shook his head.
"Mr. Laverick," he declared, "you are too impetuous. You force me to remind you that your own position as holder of that document is not a very secure one. All the police in this capital are searching to-day for the man who killed that unfortunate creature who was found murdered in Crooked Friars' Alley. If they could find the man who was in possession of his pocket-book, who was in possession of twenty thousand pounds taken from the dead man's body and with it had saved his business and his credit, how then, do you think? I say nothing of the document."
Laverick was silent for a moment. He realized, however, that to make terms with this man was impossible. Besides, he did not trust him. He did not even trust him so far as to believe him the accredited envoy of Mademoiselle.
"My unfortunate position," Laverick said, "has nothing whatever to do with the matter. Where you got your information from I cannot say. I neither accept nor deny it. But I can assure you that I am not to be intimidated. This document will remain in my possession until some one can show me a very good reason for parting with it."
Lassen beat the back of the chair against which he was standing with his clenched fist.
"A reason why you should part with it!" he exclaimed fiercely. "Man, it stares you there in the face! If you do not part with it, you will be arrested within twenty-four hours for the murder or complicity in the murder of Rudolph Von Behrling! That I swear! That I shall see to myself!"
"In which case," Laverick remarked, "the document will fall into the hands of the English police."
The shot told. Laverick could have laughed as he watched its effect upon his listener. Mr. Lassen's face was black with unuttered curses. He looked as though he would have fallen upon Laverick bodily.
"What do you know about its contents?" he hissed. "Why do you suppose it would not suit my purpose to have it fall into the hands of the English police?"
"I can see no reason whatever," Laverick answered, "why I should take you into my confidence as to how much I know and how much I do not know. I wish you good afternoon, Mr. Lassen! I shall be ready to wait upon Mademoiselle Idiale at any time she sends for me. But in case it should interest you to be made aware of the fact," he added, with a little bow, "I am not going round with this terrible document in my possession."
He moved to the door. Already his hand was upon the knob when he saw the movement for which he had watched. Laverick, with a single bound, was upon his would-be assailant. The hand which had already closed upon the butt of the small revolver was gripped as though in a vice. With a scream of pain Lassen dropped the weapon upon the floor. Laverick picked it up, thrust it into his coat pocket and, taking the man's collar with both hands, he shook him till the eyes seemed starting from his head and his shrieks of fear were changed into moans. Then he flung him into a corner of the room.
"You cowardly brute!" he exclaimed. "You come of the breed of men who shoot from behind. If ever I lay my hands upon you again, you'll be lucky if you live to whimper about it."
He left the room and rang for the lift. He saw no trace of any servants in the hall, nor heard any sound of any one moving. From Dover Street he drove straight to Zoe's house. Keeping the cab waiting, he knocked at the door. She opened it herself at once, and her eyes glowed with pleasure.
"How delightful!" she cried. "Please come in. Have you come to take me to the theatre?"
He followed her into the parlor and closed the door behind them.
"Zoe," he said, "I am going to ask you a favor."
"Me a favor?" she repeated. "I think you know how happy it will make me if there is anything—anything at all in the world that I could do."
"A week ago," Laverick continued, "I was an honest but not very successful stockbroker, with a natural longing for adventures which never came my way. Since then things have altered. I have stumbled in upon the most curious little chain of happenings which ever became entwined with the life of a commonplace being like myself. The net result, for the moment, is this. Every one is trying to steal from me a certain document which I have in my pocket. I want to hide it for the night. I cannot go to the police, it is too late to go back to Chancery Lane, and I have an instinctive feeling that my flat is absolutely at the mercy of my enemies. May I hide my document in your room? I do not believe for a moment that any one would think of searching here."
"Of course you may," she answered. "But listen. Can you see out into the street without moving very much?"
He turned his head. He had been standing with his back to the window, and Zoe had been facing it.
"Yes, I can see into the street," he assented.
"Tell me—you see that taxi on the other side of the way?" she asked.
"It wasn't there when I drove up," he remarked.
"I was at the window, looking out, when you came," she said. "It followed you out from the Square into this street. Directly you stopped, I saw the man put on the brake and pull up his cab. It seemed to me so strange, just as though some one were watching you all the time."
Laverick stood still, looking out of the window.
"Who lives in the house opposite?" he asked.
"I am afraid," she answered, "that there are no very nice people who live round here. The people whom I see coming in and out of that house are not nice people at all."
"I understand," he said. "Thank you, Zoe. You are right. Whatever I do with my precious document, I will not leave it here. To tell you the truth, I thought, for certain reasons, that after I had paid my last call this afternoon I should not be followed any more. Come back with me and I will give you some dinner before you go to the theatre."
She clapped her hands.
"I shall love it," she declared. "But what shall you do with the document?"
"I shall take a room at the Milan Hotel," he said, "and give it to the cashier. They have a wonderful safe there. It is the best thing I can think of. Can you suggest anything?"
She considered for a moment.
"Do you know what is inside?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"I have no idea. It is the most mysterious document in the world, so far as I am concerned."
"Why not open it and read it?" she suggested; "then you will know exactly what it is all about. You can learn it by heart and tear it up."
"I must think that over," he said. "One second before we go out."
He took from his pocket the revolver which Lassen had dropped. It was a perfect little weapon, and fully charged. He replaced it in his pocket, keeping his finger upon the trigger.
"Now, Zoe, if you are ready," he said, "come along."
They stepped out and entered the taxi, unmolested, and Laverick ordered:
"To the Milan Hotel."
LASSEN'S TREACHERY DISCOVERED
About twenty minutes past six on the same evening, Bellamy, his clothes thick with dust, his face dark with anger, jumped lightly from a sixty horse-power car and rang the bell of the lift at number 15, Dover Street. Arrived on the first floor, he was confronted almost immediately by the sad-faced man-servant of Mademoiselle Idiale.
"Mademoiselle is in?" Bellamy asked quickly.
The man's expression was one of sombre regret.
"Mademoiselle is spending the day in the country, sir. Bellamy took him by the shoulders and flung him against the wall.
"Thank you," he said, "I've heard that before."
He walked down the passage and knocked softly at the door of Louise's sleeping apartment. There was no answer. He knocked again and listened at the key-hole. There was some movement inside but no one spoke.
"Louise," he cried softly, "let me in. It is I—David."
Again the only reply was the strangest of sounds. Almost it seemed as though a woman were trying to speak with a hand over her mouth. Then Bellamy suddenly stiffened into rigid attention. There were voices in the small reception room,—the voice of Henri, the butler, and another. Reluctantly he turned away from the closed door and walked swiftly down the passage. He entered the reception room and looked around him in amazement. It was still in disorder. Lassen sat in an easy-chair with a tumbler of brandy by his side. Henri was tying a bandage around his head, his collar was torn, there were marks of blood about his shirt. Bellamy's eyes sparkled. He closed the door behind him.
"Come," he exclaimed, "after all, I fancy that my arrival is somewhat opportune!"
Henri turned towards him with a reproachful gesture.
"Monsieur Lassen has been unwell, Monsieur," he said. "He has had a fit and fallen down."
Bellamy laughed contemptuously.
"I think I can reconstruct the scene a little better than that," he declared. "What do you say, Mr. Lassen?"
The man glared at him viciously.
"I do not know what you are talking about," he said. "I do not wish to speak to you. I am ill. You had better go and persuade Mademoiselle to return. She is at Dover, waiting."
"You are a liar!" Bellamy answered. "She is in her room now, locked up—guarded, perhaps, by one of your creatures. I have been half-way to Dover, but I tumbled to your scheme in time, Mr. Lassen. You found our friend Laverick a trifle awkward, I fancy."
Lassen swore through his teeth but said nothing.
"From your somewhat dishevelled appearance," Bellamy continued, "I think I may conclude that you were not able to come to any amicable arrangement with Mademoiselle's visitor. He declined to accept you as her proxy, I imagine. Still, one must make sure."
He advanced quickly. Lassen shrank back in his chair.
"What do you mean?" he asked gruffly. "Keep him away from me, Henri. Ring the bell for your other man. This fellow will do me a mischief."
"Not I," Bellamy answered scornfully. "Stay where you are, Henri. To your other accomplishments I have no doubt you include that of valeting. Take off his coat."
"But, Monsieur!" Henri protested.
"I'm d—d if he shall!" the man in the chair snarled.
Bellamy turned to the door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket.
"Look here," he said, "I do not for one moment believe that Laverick handed over to you the document you were so anxious to obtain. On the other hand, I imagine that your somewhat battered appearance is the result of fruitless argument on your part with a view to inducing him to do so. Nevertheless, I can afford to run no risks. The coat first, please, Henri. It is necessary that I search it thoroughly."
There was a brief hesitation. Bellamy's hand went reluctantly into his pocket.
"I hate to seem melodramatic," he declared, "and I never carry firearms, but I have a little life-preserver here which I have learned how to use pretty effectively. Come, you know, it isn't a fair fight. You've had all you want, Lassen, and Henri there hasn't the muscle of a chicken."
Lassen rose, groaning, to his feet and allowed his coat to be removed. Bellamy glanced through the pockets, holding one letter for a moment in his hands as he glanced at the address.
"The writing of our friend Streuss," he remarked, with a smile. "No, you need not fear, Lassen! I am not going to read it. There is plenty of proof of your treachery without this."
Lassen's face was livid and his eyes seemed like beads. Bellamy handed back the coat.
"That's all right," he said. "Nothing there, I am glad to see—or in the waistcoat," he added, passing his hands over it. "I'll trouble you to stand up for a moment, Mr. Lassen."
The man did as he was bid and Bellamy felt him all over. When he had finished, he held in his hand a key.
"The key of Mademoiselle's chamber, I have no doubt," he announced, "I will leave you, then, while I see what deviltry you have been up to."
He walked calmly to the table which stood by the window and deliberately cut the telephone wire. With the instrument under his arm, he left the room. Lassen blundered to his feet as though to intercept him, but Bellamy's eyes suddenly flashed red fury, and the life-preserver of which he had spoken glittered above his head. Lassen staggered away.
"I'm a long-suffering man," Bellamy said, "and if you don't remember now that you're the beaten dog, I may lose my temper."
He locked them in, walked down the passage and opened the door of Louise's bedchamber with fingers that trembled a little. With a smothered oath he cut the cord from the arms of the maid and the gag from her mouth. Louise, clad in a loose afternoon gown, was lying upon the bed, as though asleep. Bellamy saw with an impulse of relief that she was breathing regularly.
"This is Lassen's work, of course!" he exclaimed. "What have they done to her?"
The maid spoke thickly. She was very pale, and unsteady upon her feet.
"It was something they put in her wine," she faltered. "I heard Mr. Lassen say that it would keep her quiet for three or four hours. I think—I think that she is waking now."
Louise opened her eyes and looked at them with amazement. Bellamy sat by the side of the bed and supported her with his arm.
"It is only a skirmish, dear," he whispered, "and it is a drawn battle, although you got the worst of it."
She put her hand to her head, struggling to remember.
"Mr. Laverick has been here?" she asked.
"He has. Your friend Lassen has been taking a hand in the game. I came here to find you like this and Annette tied up. Henri is in with him. What has become of your other servants I don't know."
"Henri asked for a holiday for them," she said, the color slowly returning to her cheeks. "I begin to understand. But tell me, what happened when Mr. Laverick came?"
"I can only guess," Bellamy answered, "but it seems that Lassen must have received him as though with your authority."
"And what then?" she asked quickly.
"I am almost certain," Bellamy declared, "that Laverick refused to have anything to do with him. I received a wire from Dover to say that you were on your way home, and asking me to meet you at the Lord Warden Hotel. I borrowed Montresor's racing-car, but I sent telegrams, and I was pretty soon on my way back. When I arrived here, I found Lassen in your little room with a broken head. Evidently Laverick and he had a scrimmage and he got the worst of it. I have searched him to his bones and he has no paper. Laverick brought it here, without a doubt, and has taken it away again."
She rose to her feet.
"Go and let Lassen out," she said. "Tell him he must never come here again. I will see him at the Opera House to-night or to-morrow night—that is, if I can get there. I do not know whether I shall feel fit to sing."