"I'm sure you mean what you say, Mr. Theydon," said Winter soothingly. "Well, I suppose we can do no more tonight. I have little else to tell you—"
"The skull— the ivory skull!" put in Furneaux.
For an instant an expression of annoyance flitted across the chief inspector's good-humored face. Theydon did not see it, because Furneaux's odd-sounding words caused him to look with astonishment at the man who uttered them.
"An ivory skull!" he cried. "What has an ivory skull to do with the murder of Mrs. Lester?"
"We cannot even begin to guess at its meaning yet," said Winter, who, after one fierce glance at his colleague, had recovered his poise. "That is why I did not mention it. I hate the introduction of bizarre features into an inquiry of this sort. But, now that the thing has been spoken of, I may as well state that when the medical examination was being made at the mortuary a tiny skull, not bigger than a pea, and made of ivory, was found inside Mrs. Lester's underbodice. The curious fact is that it was loose. Had it been attached to a cord, or secured in some way, one might regard it as a charm or amulet, because some women, even in the London of today, are not beyond the reach of superstition in such matters. But, as I say, it was not safeguarded at all, so we may reasonably assume that it was not carried habitually. Of course, Furneaux readily evolved a far-fetched theory that it is a sign, or symbol, and was thrust out of sight among the clothing on the dead woman's breast by the man who killed her. But that is idle guesswork. We of the Yard seldom pay heed to theatrical notions of that kind. Here is the article. I don't mind letting you see it, but kindly remember that its existence must not be made known. I must have your promise not to mention it to a living creature."
Furneaux chuckled derisively.
"That is precisely the sort of thing anybody would say who attached no importance to the exhibit," he piped.
Winter so nearly lost his temper that he repressed the retort on his lips. He contented himself, however, with producing a small white object from his waistcoat pocket, and handed it to Theydon. It was a bit of ivory, hollow, and very light, and fashioned as a skull.
Yet, it was by no means an ordinary creation. The artist who fashioned it had gratified a morbid taste by imparting to the eyeless sockets and close-set rows of teeth a malign and threatening grin. Wickedness, not death, was suggested, but the craftsmanship was faultless. A collector would have paid a large sum for it, while the average citizen would refuse to have it in his house.
"What an extraordinary thing," said Theydon, turning the curio round and round in his fingers.
"It's wonderfully well carved," agreed Winter.
"From that point of view it's a masterpiece, but what I meant was the astounding fact that it should have been discovered on the dead woman's body. Was it placed over her heart?"
"Why do you ask that?" came the sharp demand.
"Because— if it is a token of some vendetta— if the murderer wished to signify that he had glutted his vengeance—"
"O, you're as bad as Furneaux," cried Winter impatiently. "Give it to me. I must be off. The hour is long past midnight and I have a busy day before me tomorrow."
Back in the seclusion of his own rooms, Theydon debated the question whether or not he should endeavor to communicate with Forbes again that night. Somehow it seemed to him that Forbes would be most concerned at hearing of the gray car. And what of the ivory skull?
Suppose he knew of that! But a certain revulsion of feeling had come over Theydon since the sheer brutality of the murder had been revealed. He failed to see now why he should be so solicitous for Forbes's welfare. No matter what private purpose the man might serve by concealing his visit to Mrs. Lester, it ought to give way before the paramount importance of tracking a pitiless and callous criminal.
So Theydon hardened his heart and went to bed, and, being sound in mind and constitution, slept like a just man wearied. Nevertheless, the last thing he saw before the curtain fell on his tired brain was an ivory skull dancing in the darkness.
Greatly as the many problems attached to Mrs. Lester's death bewildered him, he would have been even more perplexed if he had overheard the conversation between Winter and Furneaux when they entered a taxi and gave Scotland Yard as their destination.
"Look here, Charles," began Winter firmly; but the other stayed him with a clutch of thin, nervous fingers on an arm strong enough to fell an ox.
"Listen first, James— lecture me afterward," pleaded Furneaux. "I can't help yielding to impulse. And why should I strive to help it, anyhow? How often has impulse led me to the goal when by every known rule of evidence I was completely beaten? That is my plea. That is why I brought that young fellow into No. 17, and watched the story of the tragedy reshaping itself in his imagination. That is why, too, I spoke of the ivory skull. Think what it means to one with the writer's temperament. The skull will never leave his mind's eye. It will focus and control his thoughts and actions. And I feel it in my bones that only by keeping in touch with Mr. Francis Theydon shall we solve the Innesmore Mansions mystery. I can't explain why I think this, no more than the receiver of a wireless message can account for the waves of energy it picks up from the void and transmutes into the ordered sequences of the Morse code. All I know is that when I am near him I am, as the children say, 'warm,' and when away from him, 'cold.' While he was examining the skull I was positively 'hot,' and was half inclined to treat him as a thought transference medium and order him sternly to speak.... No. Be calm! I even bid you be honest. When have you, ever before, admitted an outsider to your councils? And, if you make an exception of Theydon, why are you doing it?"
Winter bit the end off a cigar with a vicious jerk of his round head. He struck a match and created such a volume of smoke that Furneaux coughed affectedly.
"The real clew," he said at last, "rests with the gray car. What did you make of that?"
"That, my bulky friend, will figure in my memory as a reproach for many a year. When, if ever, I am tempted to preen myself on some peculiarly close piece of ratiocinative reasoning, I shall say: 'Little man, pigmy, remember the gray car.'"
"You think that some one had the impudence to follow us, watch us in Waterloo, and take up Theydon's trail when we had revealed it?"
"A-ha. It touched you, too, did it?"
"The some one in question wants to know that."
"You mean they are anxious to find out what we are doing?"
Winter laughed cheerfully.
"Before long I shall begin to enjoy this hunt, Charles. I like to find originality in a felon. It varies the routine. At any rate, it is something new that you and I should be shadowed by the very people we are in pursuit of— O, I was nearly forgetting. Anything fresh in that telephone talk?"
"It seemed all right."
"Well, it was too straightforward. Theydon puzzles me. I admit it frankly. He also worries me. But let me handle him in my own way. Have no fear that he will use our material for newspaper purposes. With regard to the Innesmore Mansions affair, Theydon will lie close as a fish. Why? No use asking you, of course. You despise intuition. When you die some one should begin your epitaph: 'From information received.' But I'll stick to Theydon. See if I don't, even if I have to go up with him in one of Forbes's airships."
A LEAP IN THE DARK
With the morning Theydon brought a mature and impartial judgment to bear on his perplexities. The average man, if asked to form an opinion on any difficult point, will probably arrive at a saner decision during the first pipe after breakfast than at any other given hour of the day. Excellent physiological reasons account for this truism. The sound mind in a sound body is then working under the most favorable conditions.
It is free from the strain of affairs. The cold, clear morning light divests problems of the undue importance, or, it may be, the glamour of novelty, which they possessed overnight. At any rate, Frank Theydon, clenching a pipe between his teeth, and gazing thoughtfully through an open window at the trees in Innesmore Gardens, reviewed yesterday's happenings calmly and critically, and arrived at the settled conviction that his proper course was to visit Scotland Yard and make known to the authorities the one vital fact he had withheld from their ken thus far.
It was not for him to assess the significance of Mr. Forbes's desire to remain in the background. If the millionaire's excuse, or explanation, of his failure to communicate at once with the Criminal Investigation Department was a sufficiently valid one, Scotland Yard would be satisfied and might agree to keep his name out of the inquiry.
On the other hand, he, Theydon, might be balking the course of justice by holding his tongue. There was yet a third possibility, one fraught with personal discredit. Mr. Forbes himself might realize that a policy of candor offered the only dignified course.
Suppose he was minded to tell the detectives that he was the man who visited Mrs. Lester shortly before midnight, what would Winter and Furneaux think of the young gentleman who had actually dined with Forbes before they took him into their confidence— who heard with such righteous indignation how Mrs. Lester met her death— yet brazenly concealed the fact that he had just left the house of one whom they were so anxious to meet and question?
Of course, the radiant vision of Evelyn Forbes intruded on this well-considered and unemotional analysis; but Theydon resolutely shook his head.
"No, by Jove!" he communed. "You mustn't make an ass of yourself, my boy, because a pretty girl was gracious for an hour or so. Be honest with yourself, old chap! If there were no Evelyn, or if Evelyn were harelipped and squinted, you wouldn't hesitate a second— now, would you?"
Yet he had given a promise. How reconcile an immediate call on Scotland Yard with the guarantee of secrecy demanded by Forbes? Well, he must put himself right with Forbes without delay— tell him straightforwardly that the bond could not hold. Theydon was no lawyer, but he was assured that an agreement founded on positive wrong was not tenable, legally or morally.
He would be adamant with Forbes, and decline to countenance any plea in support of continued silence. If Forbes's demand was reasonable, Scotland Yard would grant it. If justice compelled Forbes to come out into the open, no private citizen should attempt to defeat the ends of justice.
"So that settles it," announced Theydon rmly if not cheerfully. "I'll ring up Forbes, and get the thing over and done with. I'll never see his daughter again, I suppose, but that can't be helped. 'tis better to have seen and lost than never to have seen at all."
He turned from the window, walked to the fireplace, tapped his pipe firmly on the grate, and was about to go into the hall and call up the telephone exchange, when the door-bell rang. He was aware of a muffled conversation between Bates and a visitor. Then the valet appeared, obviously ill at ease.
"If you please, sir," he announced, "a lady, a Miss Beale, of Oxford, who says she is Mrs. Lester's aunt, wishes to see you."
Theydon was immensely surprised, as well he might be. But there was only one thing to be done.
"Show her in," he said.
Miss Beale entered. She was slight of figure, middle-aged and gray-haired. The wanness of her thin features was accentuated by an attire of deep mourning, but the pallor in her cheeks fled for an instant when she set eyes on Theydon.
"Pray forgive the intrusion," she faltered. "I— I expected to meet an older man."
It was a curious utterance, and Theydon tried to relieve her evident nervousness by being mildly humorous.
"I hope to correct my juvenile appearance in course of time," he said, smiling. "Meanwhile, won't you be seated? You are not quite unknown to me, Miss Beale. That is— I heard of you last night from the Scotland Yard people."
She sat down at once, but seemed to be at a loss for words. Her lips trembled, and Theydon thought she was going to cry.
"Have you traveled from Oxford this morning?" he said, simulating a courteous nonchalance he was far from feeling. "If so, you must have started from home at an ungodly hour. Let me have some breakfast prepared for you."
"No— no," she stammered.
"Well, a cup of tea, then? Come, now, no woman ever refuses a cup of tea."
"You are very kind."
He rang the bell.
"I would not have ventured to call on you if I had not seen your name in the newspaper," she went on.
Miss Beale certainly had the knack of saying unexpected things. It was nothing new that Theydon should find his own name in print, but on this occasion he could not choose but associate the distinction with the cringe in No. 17; that he should be mentioned in connection with it was neither anticipated nor pleasing. At the same time he realized the astounding fact that he had not even glanced at a newspaper during twenty-four hours.
"What in the world have the newspapers to say about me?" he cried.
"It— it said— that Mr. Francis Berrold Theydon, the well-known author, lived in No. 18, the flat exactly opposite that which my unhappy niece occupied. I— I have read some of your books, Mr. Theydon, and I pictured you quite a serious-looking person of my own age."
He laughed. Bates entered, and was almost shocked at finding his master in such lively mood.
"Oh, this lady has traveled from Oxford this morning; a cup of tea and some nice toast, please, Bates," said Theydon. Then when the two were alone together again, he brushed aside the question of his age as irrelevant.
"I assure you that since this time yesterday I have lost some of the careless buoyancy of youth," he said. "I had not the honor of Mrs. Lester's acquaintance, but I knew her well by sight, and I received the shock of my life last evening when I heard of her terrible end. It is an extraordinary thing, seeing that we were such close neighbors, but I believe you got the news long before I did, because I left home early and heard nothing of what had happened till my man met me at Waterloo in the evening."
"You have seen the— the detectives in the meantime?"
"Then you will be able to tell me something definite. I have promised to call at Scotland Yard at eleven o'clock, and the only scraps of intelligence I have gathered are those in the papers. I would have come to London last night, but was afraid to travel, lest I should faint in the train. Moreover, some one in London promised to send a detective to see me. He came, but could give no information. Indeed, he wanted to learn certain things from me. So, after a weary night, I caught the first train, and it occurred to me, as you lived so near, that you might be kind enough to— to—"
The long speech was too much for her, and her lips quivered pitifully a second time.
"I fully understand," said Theydon sympathetically. "Now, I'm positive you have eaten hardly anything today. Won't you let me order an egg?"
"No, please. I'll be glad of the tea, but I cannot make a meal— yet. Is it true that my niece was absolutely alone in her flat on Monday night?"
Seeing that Miss Beale was consumed with anxiety to hear an intelligible version of the tragedy, Theydon at once recited all, or nearly all, that was known to him. The only points he suppressed were those with reference to the gray car and the ivory skull. The lady listened attentively and with more self-control than he gave her credit for.
Bates came in with a laden tray, on which a boiled egg appeared. Mrs. Bates had used her discretion, and decided that any one who had set out from Oxford so early in the day must be in need of more solid refreshment than tea and toast. Thus cozened, as it were, into eating, Miss Beale tackled the egg, and Theydon was glad to note that she made a fairly good meal, being probably unaware of her hunger until the means of sating it presented itself.
But she missed no word of his story, and when he made an end, put some shrewd questions.
"I take it," she said, "that the strange gentleman who visited my niece on Monday night posted the very letter which I received by the second delivery yesterday?"
"That is what the police believe," replied Theydon.
"Then it would seem that she resolved to come to me at Iffley as the result of something he told her?"
"Why do you think that?"
"Because I heard from her only last Saturday, and she not only said nothing about coming to Oxfordshire, but asked me to arrange to spend a fortnight in London before we both went to Cornwall for the Summer."
"Ah! That is rather important, I should imagine," said Theydon thoughtfully.
"It is odd, too, that you and the detectives should have noticed the smell of a joss stick in the flat," went on Miss Beale. "Edith— my niece, you know— could not bear the smell of joss sticks. They reminded her of Shanghai, where she lost her husband."
Theydon looked more startled than such a seemingly simple statement warranted. He had realized already that the ivory skull was the work of an Oriental artist, and the mention of Shanghai brought that sinister symbol very vividly to his mind's eye.
"Mrs. Lester had lived in China, then?" he said.
"Yes. She was out there nearly six years. Her husband died suddenly last October— he was poisoned, she firmly believed— and, of course, she came home at once."
"What was Mr. Lester's business, or profession?"
"He was a barrister. I do not mean that he practised in the Consular courts. He was making his way in England, but was offered some sort of appointment in Shanghai. The post was so lucrative that he relinquished a growing connection at the bar. I have never really understood what he did. I fancy he had to report on commercial matters to some firm of bankers in London, but he supplied very little positive information before Edith and he sailed. Indeed, I took it that his mission was highly confidential, and about that time there was a lot in the newspapers about rival negotiators for a big Chinese loan, so I formed the opinion that he was sent out in connection with something of the sort. Neither he nor Edith meant to remain long in the Far East. At first their letters always spoke of an early return. Then, when the years dragged on, and I asked for definite news of their homecoming, Edith said that Arthur could not get away until the country's political affairs were in a more settled state. Finally came a cablegram from Edith: 'Arthur dead; sailing immediately,' and my niece was with me within a few weeks. The supposed cause of her husband's death was some virulent type of fever, but, as I said, Edith was convinced that he had been poisoned."
"That I never understood. She never willingly talked about Shanghai, or her life there. Indeed, she was always most anxious that no one should know she had ever lived in China. Yet she had plenty of friends out there. I gathered that Arthur had left her well provided for financially, and they were a most devoted couple. Edith was the only relative I possessed. It is very dreadful, Mr. Theydon, that she should be taken from me in such a way."
Her hearer was almost thankful that she yielded to the inevitable rush of emotion. It gave him time to collect his wits, which had lost their poise when that wicked-looking little skull was, so to speak, thrust forcibly into his recollection.
"In a word," he said, at last, "you are Mrs. Lester's next-of-kin and probably her heiress?"
"Yes, I suppose so, though I was not thinking of that," came the tearful answer.
"Yet the relationship entails certain responsibilities," said Theydon firmly. "You should be legally represented at the inquest. Are your affairs in the hands of any firm of solicitors?"
"Yes— at Oxford. I contrived to call at their office yesterday and they recommended me to consult these people," and Miss Beale produced a card from a handbag. Theydon read the name and address of a well-known West End firm.
"Good," he said. "I recommend you to go there at once. By the way, was any one looking after Mrs. Lester's interests? Surely she had dealings with a bank or an agency?"
"Y— yes. I do happen to know the source from which her income came. She— made a secret of it— in a measure."
"Pray don't tell me anything of that sort. Your legal adviser might not approve."
"But what does it matter now? Poor Edith is dead. Her affairs cannot help being dragged into the light of day. She had some railway shares and bonds, some of which were left to her by her father, and others which came under a marriage settlement, but the greater part of her revenue was derived from a monthly payment made by the bank of which Mr. James Creighton Forbes is the head."
Miss Beale naturally misinterpreted the blank stare with which Theydon received this remarkable statement.
"I don't see why any one should wish to conceal a simple matter of business like that," she said nervously. "May I explain that I have an impression, not founded on anything quite tangible, that Mr. Forbes was largely interested in the syndicate which sent Arthur Lester to China, so it is very likely that the payment of an annuity, or pension, to Arthur's widow would be left in his care. I do not know. I am only guessing. But that matter, and others, can hardly fail to be cleared up by the police inquiry."
Theydon recovered his self-control as rapidly as he had lost it. He glanced at the clock— 10:15. Within half an hour, or less, Miss Beale would be on her way to Scotland Yard. He must act promptly and decisively, or he would find himself in a distinctly unfavorable position in his relations with the Criminal Investigation Department.
"I happen to be acquainted with Mr. Forbes," he said, striving desperately to appear cool and methodical when his brain was seething. "Would you mind if I just rang him up on the telephone? A few words now might enlighten us materially."
"O, you are most helpful," said the lady, blushing again with timid gratitude. "I am so glad I summoned up courage to call on you. I was terrified at the idea of going to the Police Headquarters, but I shall not mind it at all now."
Soon Theydon was asking for "00400, Bank." He had left the door of his sitting room open purposely. No matter what the outcome, he no longer dared keep the compact of silence into which he had entered with Forbes. But the millionaire was not at his office. In response to a very determined request for a word with some one in authority, "on a matter of real urgency," the clerk who had answered the call brought "Mr. Forbes's secretary," a Mr. Macdonald, to the telephone.
"It is important, vitally important, that I should speak with Mr. Forbes within the next few minutes," said Theydon, after giving his name and address. "Do you expect him to arrive soon? Or shall I try and reach him at Fortescue Square?"
"Mr. Forbes will not be here till midday," came a voice with a pronounced Scottish intonation. "I'm doubtful, too, if ye'll catch him at home. Can I give him a message?"
"Do you know where he is?"
"Well, I cannot say."
"But do you know?"
"I'll be glad to give him a message."
"It will be too late, then. Please understand, Mr. Macdonald, that I am making this call at Mr. Forbes's express wish. It is, as I have said, vitally important that I should get in touch with him without delay."
Scottish caution was not to be overcome by an appeal of that sort.
"I cannot go beyond what I have said," was the reply. "If you like to ask at his house—"
"O, ring off!" cried Theydon, who pictured the secretary as a lanky hollow-cheeked Scot, a model of discretion and trustworthiness, no doubt, but utterly unequal to a crisis demanding some measure of self-confident initiative. In reality, Mr. Macdonald was short and stout, and quite a jovial little man.
After an exasperating delay, he got into communication with the Forbes mansion in Fortescue Square.
"I'm Mr. Frank Theydon," he said, striving to speak unconcernedly. "Is Mr. Forbes in?"
"Is that you, Tomlinson?"
"Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Forbes at once?"
"Isn't he at his office, sir?"
"No. He will not be there till 12 o'clock."
A pause of indecision on Tomlinson's part. Then, a possible solution of the difficulty.
"Would you care to have a word with Miss Evelyn, sir?"
"O, yes, yes."
Theydon blurted out this emphatic acceptance of the butler's suggestion without a thought as to its possible consequences. He was racking his brain in a frenzy of uncertainty as to how he should frame his words when he heard quite clearly a woman's footsteps on the parquet flooring, and caught Evelyn Forbes's voice saying to Tomlinson: "How fortunate! Mr. Theydon is the very person I wished to speak to, but I simply dared not ring him up."
The slight incident only provided Theydon with a new source of wonderment. Why should Evelyn Forbes want speech with him at that early hour? Perhaps she would explain. He could only hope so, and trust to luck in the choice of his own phrases.
"That you, Mr. Theydon?" came the girl's voice, sweet in its cadence yet ominously eager. "How nice of you to anticipate my unspoken thought! I have been horribly anxious ever since I read of that awful affair at Innesmore Mansions. That poor lady's flat is next door to yours, is it not?"
"O, you cannot choke off a woman's curiosity quite so easily. You see, I happen to know that Mrs. Lester's sad death affects my father in some way, and I realize now that you two were just on pins and needles to get rid of me last night so that you might talk freely."
"Miss Forbes, I assure you—"
"Wait till I've finished, and you will not be under the necessity of telling me any polite fibs. You men are all alike. You think the giddy feminine brain is not fitted to cope with mysteries, and that is where you are utterly mistaken. A woman's intuition often peers deeper than a man's logic. I—"
"Do forgive me," broke in Theydon despairingly, "but I am really most anxious to know how and where I can get a word with your father. I would not be so rude as to interrupt you if I hadn't the best of excuses. Tell me where to find him now, and I promise to give you a call immediately afterward."
"He's at the Home Office."
"At the Home Office!"
Some hint of utter bewilderment in Theydon's tone must have reached the girl's alert ear.
"Ah! Touch!" she cried. "Now will you be good and tell me why Dad should receive a little ivory skull by this morning's post?"
Theydon knew that he paled. His very scalp tingled with an apprehension of some shadowy yet none the less affrighting evil. But he schooled himself to say, with a semblance of calm interest:
"What exactly do you mean, Miss Forbes?"
She laughed lightly. Theydon was so flurried that he did not realize the possibility of Evelyn Forbes being as quick to mask her real feelings as he himself was.
"Dad and I make a point of breakfasting together at nine o'clock every morning," she said. "We were talking about you, and he told me of the dreadful thing that happened to Mrs. Lester. I was reading the account of the tragedy in a newspaper, when I happened to glance at him. He was going through his letters, and I was just a trifle curious to know what was in a flat box which came by registered post. He opened it carelessly and something fell out and rolled across the table. I picked it up and saw that it was a small piece of ivory, carved with extraordinary skill to represent a skull. Indeed, it was so clever as to be decidedly repulsive. I was going to say something when I saw that the letter which was in the same box had alarmed him so greatly that, for a second or two, I thought he would faint. But he can be very strong and stern at times, and he recovered himself instantly, was quite vexed with me because I had examined the ivory skull, and forbade my going out until he had returned from the Home Office. Tomlinson and the other men have orders not to admit any one to the house, no matter on what pretext, and I'm sure the letter and its nasty little token are bound up in some way with Mrs. Lester's death. Won't you let me into the secret? I shan't scream or do anything foolish, but I do think I am entitled to know what you know if it affects my father."
A sudden change in the girl's voice warned Theydon of a restraint of which he had been unconscious hitherto. He tried to temporize, to whittle away her fears. That was a duty he owed to Forbes, who was clearly resolved not to take his daughter into his confidence— for the present, at any rate.
"I really fail to see why you should assume some connection between the crime which was committed here on Monday night and the arrival of a somewhat singular package at your house this morning," he said reassuringly.
"Like every other woman, I jump at conclusions," she answered. "Why should this crime, in particular, have worried my father? Unfortunately, the newspapers are full of such horrid things, yet he hardly ever pays them any attention. No, Mr. Theydon, I am not mistaken. He either knew Mrs. Lester, and was shocked at her death, or saw in it some personal menace. Then comes the letter, with its obvious threat, and I am ordered to remain at home, under a strong guard, while he hurries off to Whitehall. You have met my father, Mr. Theydon. Do you regard him as the sort of man who would rush off in a panic to consult the Home Secretary without very grave and weighty reasons?"
"But you can hardly be certain that a wretched crime in this comparatively insignificant quarter of London supplies the actual motive of Mr. Forbes's action," urged Theydon.
The girl stamped an impatient foot. He heard it distinctly.
"Of course I am certain," she cried. "Why won't you be candid? You know I am right— I can tell it from your voice, and your guarded way of talking—"
An inspiration came to Theydon's relief in that instant.
"Pardon the interruption," he said, "but I must point out that both of us are acting unwisely in discussing such matters over the telephone. Really, neither must say another word, except this— when I have found your father I'll ask his permission to come and see you. Perhaps we three can arrange to meet somewhere for luncheon. That is absolutely the farthest limit to which I dare go at this moment."
"O, very well!"
The receiver was hung up in a temper, and the prompt ring-off jarred disagreeably in Theydon's ear. If he was puzzled before, he was thoroughly at sea now. But he took a bold course, and cared not a jot whether or not it was a prudent one.
The mere sound of Evelyn Forbes's voice had steeled his heart and conscience against the dictates of common sense. Let the detectives think what they might, the girl's father must be allowed to carry through his plans without let or hindrance.
"Miss Beale," said Theydon, gazing fixedly into the sorrow-laden eyes of the quiet little lady whom he found seated where he had left her, "I'm going to tell you something very important, very serious, something so far-reaching and momentous that neither you nor I can measure its effect. You heard the conversation on the telephone?"
"I heard what you were saying, but could not understand much of it," said his visitor in a scared way.
"I have been trying to communicate with Mr. Forbes, but his daughter tells me that the murder of your niece seems to have affected him in a manner which is incomprehensible to her, and even more so to me, though I am acquainted with facts which her father and I have purposely kept from her knowledge. Mr. Forbes has gone hurriedly to the Home Office. I suppose you know what that means? He is about to give the Home Secretary certain information, and it is not for you or me to interfere with his discretion. Now, if you tell the Scotland Yard people what you have told me, namely, that Mr. Forbes was the intermediary through whom Mrs. Lester received the greater part of her income, he will be brought prominently into the inquiry. You see that, don't you?"
"Yes. I suppose that something of the sort must happen."
"Well, I want you to suppress that vital fact until we know more about this affair. It will not be for long. Each of us must tell our story without reservation at some future date— whether this afternoon, or tomorrow, or a week hence, I cannot say now. But I do ask you to keep your knowledge to yourself until I have had an opportunity of consulting Mr. Forbes. I undertake to tell you the exact position of matters without delay, and I accept all responsibility for my present advice."
"I know little of the world, Mr. Theydon," said Miss Beale, rising, and beginning to draw on her gloves, "but I shall be very greatly surprised if you are advising me to act otherwise than honorably. I shall certainly not utter a word about Mr. Forbes at Scotland Yard. When all is said and done, my statement to you was largely guesswork. You must remember that I have never seen Mr. Forbes, nor hardly ever heard his name except in connection with public matters in the Press. O, yes. I make that promise readily. I trust you implicitly!"
Theydon escorted Miss Beale downstairs. As they passed the closed door of No. 17, the lady shivered.
"To think that within the next few days I would have been staying there with Edith, and planning evenings at the theater before going to Newquay!" she murmured; there was a pitiful catch in her voice that told better than words how the remainder of her existence would be darkened by the tragedy.
At best she was a shrinking, timid little woman, for whom life probably held but narrow interests. Such as they were, their placid content was forever shattered. The death of her niece had closed the one chief avenue leading to the outer world. She would retire to the quiet back-water of Iffley, to become more faded, more insignificant, more lonely each year.
Theydon commiserated with her deeply and did not hesitate to utter his thoughts while putting her into a cab.
"Have you no friends in London?" he inquired. "I don't like the notion of sending you off alone into this wilderness. London is the worst place in the world for any one in distress. The heedless multitude seems to be callous and unsympathetic. It isn't, in reality. It simply doesn't know, and doesn't bother."
"I used to claim some acquaintances here, but I have lost track of them for years," she said. "In any event, I shall have more than enough to occupy my mind today. The inquest opens at three o'clock, and I must face the ordeal of identifying Edith's body. The detective told me that this should be done by a relation, while the only other person who could act— Ann Rogers— has been nearly out of her mind since yesterday morning."
"Where are you staying?"
She mentioned a small hotel in the West End.
"I used to go there with my people when I was a girl," she added, sadly.
"Then I'll get my sister to call. You'll like her. She's a jolly good sort, and a chat with another woman will be far more beneficial than the society of detectives and lawyers and such-like strange fowl. Keep your spirits up, Miss Beale. Nothing that you can say or do now will restore the life so cruelly taken, but you and I, each in our own way, can strive to bring the murderer to justice. I am convinced that a distinct step in that direction will be taken this very day. You can count on seeing or hearing from me as soon as possible after I have discussed matters with Mr. Forbes. Meanwhile, don't forget to have a lawyer representing you at the inquest."
They parted as though they were friends of long standing. Theydon was genuinely sorry for this gray-haired woman's plight, and she evidently regarded him as a kind-hearted and eminently trustworthy young man. He stood and watched the cab as it bore her off swiftly into the maelstrom of London. He could not help thinking that seldom had he met one less fitted for the notoriety thrust upon all connected with a much-talked-of crime.
When the press interviewers, the photographers, the hundred and one officials with whom she must be brought in contact, were done with her, poor Miss Beale would retire to her Oxfordshire nook in a state of mental bewilderment that would baffle description. In one of his books Theydon had endeavored to depict just such a middle-aged spinster confronted with a situation not wholly unlike that which now faced Miss Beale.
He smiled grimly when he realized how far fiction had wandered from fact. The woman of his imagination had acted with a strength of character, a decisiveness, that outwitted and confounded certain scheming personages in the story. How different was the reality! Miss Beale, rushing across London in a taxi, reminded him of nothing more masterful than a cage-bird turned loose in a tempest.
He was about to reenter the mansions, meaning to telephone to both the Fortescue Square house and the Old Broad Street offices, and ask for instant news of Mr. Forbes in either locality. He was so preoccupied that he failed to notice an approaching taxicab, though the driver was signaling, and even tooted a motor horn loudly in the endeavor to attract his attention.
He did, however, catch his own name, and halted.
"Beg pardon, sir, but you are Mr. Theydon, aren't you?" said the man.
Then Theydon recognized Evans, the taxidriver, who had brought him from Fortescue Square.
"Hullo!" he cried. "Any news of the gray car?"
"Yes, sir, I think so," was the somewhat surprising answer. "When I dropped you last night I got a fare to Euston. Then I took a gentleman to the Langham, an', as I felt like a snack, I pulled into the nearest cab rank. I was having some corfee an' a sandwich when I 'appened to speak about the gray car to one of ahr chaps. 'That's odd,' he said. 'Quarter of an hour ago I had a theater job to Langham Plice, an' a gray landaulette stopped in front of the Chinese Embassy. It kem along from the east side, too.' He didn't notice the number, sir, so there may be nothink in it, after all, but I thought you might like to hear wot my pal said."
"Was the car empty? Did it call for some one at the Embassy?"
"That's the queer part of it, sir. I axed pertic'ler. This gray car brought a gentleman, a small, youngish man, 'oo skipped up the Embassy steps like a lamplighter, and went in afore you could s'y 'knife.' Somebody might ha' bin watchin' for him through the keyhole, the door was opened that quick. Then the car went off. My friend wouldn't ha' given a second thought to it if the gentleman hadn't vanished like a jack-in-the-box. That's w'y he remembered the color of the car."
Theydon tried to look as though Evans's statement merely puzzled him, whereas his mind was already busy with the extraordinary coincidences which the haphazard events of a few hours had produced. Was the Far East bound up in some mysterious way with Mrs. Lester's death? Did the crime possess a political significance? If so, an explanation by Forbes was more than ever demanded.
"Your informant was not mistaken about the Chinese Embassy, I suppose?" he said.
"No, sir. He's always in that district. His garage is at the back of Great Portland Street. He knows most of them there Chinks by sight."
"Then that gray car can hardly have been our gray car," commented Theydon, deeming it wise to prevent the sharp-witted taxi-driver from jumping at conclusions.
"I'm afraid not, sir. Still, I just took the liberty—"
"I'm very much obliged to you, of course. I said half-a-crown, didn't I? Here you are. Keep an eye open for XY 1314 and let me know if you hear or see anything of it."
"Thank you, sir." Then Evans lifted his eyes to the block of buildings. "A nasty business this murder which was done 'ere the other night, sir," he went on. "One 'ud hardly b'lieve it possible for such things to tike plice in London nowadays."
Much as he was disinclined for gossip of the sort at the moment, Theydon saw that he must endeavor to dissociate the gray car and the crime from their dangerous juxtaposition in the man's mind, so he spoke about Mrs. Lester's attractive appearance, harped on the apparent aimlessness of the deed, hinted darkly at clews in the possession of the police, and finally got rid of the well-meaning chauffeur. Back he went to his telephone, and having ascertained that Mr. Forbes was fully expected to put in an appearance at the city office before noon, settled down to read the newspapers.
They contained sensational but fairly accurate accounts of the tragedy. One enterprising journal had published an interview with Bates, whom the reporter described as "a typical British man-servant," which was amusing, since Bates had "retired noncommissioned officer" written all over his square frame and soldierly features.
The same journalist spoke of Theydon himself, and had even ferreted out the fact that Mrs. Lester was the widow of an English barrister who had died at Shanghai. On reaction, Theydon saw that there was nothing unusual in this statement. The connection between the metropolitan press and the bar is old and intimate, and scores of junior barristers must remember Arthur Lester's beginnings.
Resolved to possess his soul in patience till twelve o'clock, the hour being yet barely 11:30 a. m., Theydon tackled a page of reviews, since there is always consolation for a writer in learning at second hand what sheer drivel others can produce.
He was growling at the discovery that some hapless essayist had appropriated a title which he himself had marked down for his next book, when the door-bell rang. He did not give much heed, because so many tradesmen called during the course of each morning, so he was surprised and startled when Bates announced:
"Mr. Forbes to see you, sir."
Had a powerful spring concealed in the seat of his chair been released suddenly, Theydon could not have bounced to his feet with greater speed. Forbes came in. He was pale, but self-contained and clear-eyed.
"Forgive an unceremonious visit," he said. "I'm glad to find you at home. I meant to arrive here sooner, but I was detained on business of some importance."
By this time Bates had closed the door; Theydon explained his presence in the flat by saying that within a few minutes he would have been telephoning again to Old Broad Street.
"Ah! Did you speak to Macdonald?" said Forbes, dropping into a chair with a curious lassitude of manner which did not escape Theydon.
"Yes. I have been most anxious to have a word with you—"
Forbes broke in with a short laugh.
"You would get nothing out of Macdonald," he said. "He knows that my visits to the Chinese Embassy are few and far between and generally have to do with— but what is it now? Why should you be so perturbed when I mention the Chinese Embassy?"
Theydon was literally astounded, and did not strive to hide his agitation. But he was by no means tongue-tied. Now, most emphatically, was he determined to have done with pretense. Whether by accident or design, Forbes had placed himself with his back to the window.
The younger man deliberately crossed the room, pulled up the blind, thus admitting the flood of light which comes only from the upper third of a window, and sat down in such a position that Forbes was compelled to turn in order to face him.
"Before you utter another word, Mr. Forbes," he said gravely, "let me tell you that in my efforts to trace your whereabouts I also called up Fortescue Square. Miss Forbes came to the telephone. She said you had gone to the Home Office. By some feminine necromancy, too, she divined the link which binds you with the death of Mrs. Lester. She was distressed on your account, and I was hard put to it to extricate myself from the risk of saying something which I might regret. I—"
"What do you imply by that remark?" interrupted Forbes, piercing the other with a look that was strangely reminiscent of his daughter's candid scrutiny.
"I imply the serious fact that I know who visited Mrs. Lester before she met her death. I not only heard her visitor's arrival and departure, but saw him at the corner of these mansions while on my way home from Daly's Theater, and again when he posted a letter in the pillar box on the same corner. If such unwonted interest on my part in the movements of one who was then a complete stranger surprises you, let me remind you that only a few minutes earlier I had stood by his side at the door of the theater and heard him telling his daughter that he intended to walk to the Constitutional Club."
Forbes smiled, but uttered no word. His expression was inscrutable. His pallor reminded Theydon of the tint of ivory, of that waxen-white Dutch grisaille beloved of fifteenth century illuminators of manuscripts. His silence was disturbing, almost irritating, his manner singularly calm.
These negative indications conveyed absolutely nothing to Theydon, who for the second time in their brief acquaintance found himself in the ridiculous position of one explaining a fault rather than, as he imagined, arraigning a man under suspicion.
"So we had better dispense with ambiguities, Mr. Forbes," he went on, speaking with a precision that sounded oddly in his own ears. "It was you who called on Mrs. Lester on Monday night, you who posted the letter she wrote to Miss Beale at Iffley, Oxfordshire, you for whom the police are now searching. I have contrived thus far to keep your secret, but the situation is passing out of my control. I would help you if I could—"
The monosyllable, sharp and insistent, was disconcerting as the unexpected crack of a whip, but Theydon answered valiantly:
"Because of the monstrous absurdities with which Fate has plagued me during the past two days, I appeal now for outspokenness, so I set an example. Had it not been for your daughter's remarkably attractive appearance I should not, in all likelihood, have given a second glance at my neighbors on the steps of the theater. But I cannot forget that I did see both her and you— indeed, Miss Forbes herself recalled the incident— and the close questioning of the Scotland Yard men who were here last night showed me the folly of imagining that I could deny all knowledge of you. I recognize now that some impish contriving of circumstances forced this knowledge upon me. The sudden downpour of rain, and the fact that I was delayed by a slight accident to my cab, conspired with the apparently simple chance which led me to overhear the conversation between Miss Forbes and yourself. I tried hard to baffle the detectives—"
"Again I ask 'Why?'"
Theydon was rapidly being wound up to a pitch of excited resentment.
"Why?" he cried. "Was I not your guest? How could I come from a house where I had been admitted to a delightful intimacy and tell the representatives of the law that my host was the man they were looking for?"
During some seconds Forbes bent his eyes on the floor, seemingly in deep thought.
"Theydon," he said at last, looking up in his direct way, "I am your senior by a good many years— am old enough, as the saying goes, to be your father. I may venture, therefore, to give you a piece of sound advice. Pack a kit-bag, catch the afternoon boat train for Boulogne, and go for a walking tour in Normandy and Brittany. When I was your age and a junior in a bank I had to take my holidays in May; each year I tramped that corner of France. I recommend it as a playground. It will appeal to your literary instincts, and it has the immeasurable advantage just now of being practically as remote from London as the Sahara."
It must not be forgotten that Theydon was a romancer, an idealist. The "lounge suit" of the modern tailor hampers the play of such qualities no more than the beaten armor of the age of chivalry.
"If my departure for France will relieve Miss Forbes of anxiety on your behalf, I'll go," he vowed.
Forbes regarded him with a new interest.
"I believe you mean that," he said.
"But I cannot send you out of the country on a false pretense. It was your safety and well-being, not my daughter's, that I was thinking of."
"What have I to fear?"
"I do not know. I am like a man wandering by night in a jungle alive with fearsome beasts and reptiles."
"Yet you had some reason for suggesting my prompt departure."
"Yes. It is an absurd thing to say, but I believe I am putting you in danger of your life by coming here this morning."
"Can't you speak plainly, Mr. Forbes? What good purpose do you serve by holding forth these vague terrors? If, as Miss Forbes told me, you have visited the Home Office, I take it you made yourself clear to the authorities— assuming, that is, you went there in connection with the amazing conditions which seem to be bound up with this crime."
"There is a certain class of knowledge which is in itself dangerous to those who possess it, no matter whether or not it affects them in any particular. I recommend you, in good faith, to leave London today."
"If my own safety is the only consideration I refuse as readily as I agreed before."
Theydon's tone grew somewhat impatient. He really fancied that Forbes was trifling with him. Indeed, a queer doubt of the man's complete sanity now peeped up in him. Forbes was regarded as a crank by a large section of the public on account of his peace propaganda; if that opinion were justified why should he not be eccentric in other respects?
It was fantastic, almost stupid, to look upon him as responsible for Mrs. Lester's murder, but there was always a possibility that he might be utilizing the chance which led him to her apartments shortly before the crime was committed to cover himself and his movements with a veil of spurious mystery. In a word, though Theydon had likened his visitor's face to a mask of ivory he had momentarily forgotten the ominous token found on Mrs. Lester's body and duplicated in Forbes's own house by the morning's post.
Forbes spread wide his hands with the air of one who heard, but was allowing his thoughts to wander. When next he spoke it was only to increase the crazy inconsequence of their talk.
"Later— perhaps today— perhaps it may never be necessary— I may explain myself to your heart's content," he said slowly. "At present I am here to ask a favor. In the first place, is Mrs. Lester's flat in charge of the police?"
"I suppose so," said Theydon.
"Is there a detective or constable on duty there now?"
"I am not sure. I imagine there is not. When the Scotland Yard men and I came out after midnight they locked the door and took away the key. The— er— body is at the mortuary, awaiting the opening of the inquest at three o'clock."
"Ah! I hoped that would be so. Can you ascertain for certain?"
"Because I wish to go in there. And that brings me to the favor I seek. The secretary of these flats, even the hall porter, should have a master key. Borrow it on some pretext. They will give it to you."
"Really, Mr. Forbes—" gasped Theydon, voicing his surprise as a preliminary to a decided refusal. He was interrupted by the insistent clang of the telephone— that curt herald which brooks no delay in answering its demand for an audience.
"Pardon me one moment," be said. "I'll just see who that is."
The inquirer was Evelyn Forbes.
"I've waited patiently—" she began, but he stopped her instantly by saying that her father was with him.
"Please ask him to come to the phone," she said.
Forbes rose at once. He merely assured the girl that he was engaged in important business and would be home soon after the luncheon hour. Meanwhile, she was not to go out, and his orders must be obeyed to the letter.
"Now, Theydon," he said, coming back to the sitting room, "what about that key?"
The most extraordinary feature of an extraordinary case was the way in which the mere sound of Evelyn Forbes's voice stilled any qualms of conscience in Theydon's breast. He knew he was acting foolishly in conducting a blind inquiry on his own account, an inquiry which might well arouse the anger and active resentment of the police, but he offered a sop to his better judgment by consulting Bates.
Then came a veritable surprise.
"The fact is, sir," admitted Bates nervously, "we have Ann Rogers's key in the kitchen. When she went away on Monday she left it here, bein' afraid of losin' it. Of course, she took it on Tuesday mornin', and after goin' from one fit of hysterics into another she gev it to us again."
Theydon's face was eloquent of the serious view of this avowal.
"Did you tell the police?" he said.
"No, sir. My missus an' me clean forgot all about it."
"So, while Mrs. Lester was being killed, the key of her flat was actually in your possession?"
"I suppose it might be put that way, sir."
By this time Theydon was becoming exasperated at the veritable conspiracy which fate had engineered for the express purpose, apparently, of entangling him in an abominable crime.
"Why on earth didn't you mention such an important fact to the detectives?" he almost shouted, "Don't you see they are bound to think—"
"O, a plague on the detectives and on what they think!" broke in Forbes imperiously. "It doesn't matter a straw what they think, and very little what they do. This affair goes a long way beyond the four-mile radius, Theydon. The vital point is that your man has the key. Where is it? Let us go in there at once!"
"You offered me some advice, Mr. Forbes," said Theydon firmly. "Let me now return it in kind. If you wish to examine Mrs. Lester's flat why not seek the permission of Scotland Yard?"
"My good fellow, I have spent a valuable hour this morning in persuading the Home Secretary that the less Scotland Yard interferes in my behalf the more effectually shall I be protected. I don't want any detective within a mile of my house or office. But, as I have told you already, explanations must wait— You, Bates, look a man who can hold his tongue. Do so, and with Mr. Theydon's permission I'll make it worth your while when this storm has blown over— Now, give me that key."
Theydon was silenced, if not convinced. He realized, of course, that he must make a full confession to the Criminal Investigation Department before the sun went down, but argued that he might as well see the present adventure through.
Soon he and Forbes were standing at the door of No. 17. Forbes curbed his impatience sufficiently to permit of any one who happened to be in the interior answering the summons of the electric bell. Of course, no one came. The police had no reason to remain in charge of the place, and Ann Rogers would have become a raving lunatic if left alone there for one half-hour.
The aromatic odor of the burnt joss stick still clung to the suite of apartments, and Forbes noticed it at once.
"Where was the body found?" he asked.
Theydon led the way to the bedroom. He related Winter's theory of the crime, and pointed out its seeming aimlessness. So far as the police could ascertain from the half-crazy servant, none of Mrs. Lester's jewels was missing. Even her gold purse, containing a fair sum of money, was found on the dressing-table.
He did not know that the detectives had taken away a few scraps of torn paper thrown carelessly into the grate and had carefully gathered up a tiny snake-like curl of white ash from the tiled hearth, which, on analysis, would probably prove to be the remains of the joss stick.
Forbes gazed at the impression on the side of the bed as though the body of the woman whom he had last seen in full possession of her grace and beauty were still lying there. The vision seemed to affect him profoundly. He did not speak for fully a minute, and, when speech came, his voice was low and strained.
"Tell me everything you know," he said. "The Scotland Yard men took an unusual step in admitting you to their conclave. They must have had some motive. Tell me what they said, their very words, if you can recall them."
Theydon was uncomfortably aware of a strange compulsion to obey. His commonplace, everyday senses cried out in revolt, and warned him that he was tampering dangerously with matters which should be left to the cold scrutiny of the law, but some subconscious instinct overpowered these prudent monitors, and he gave an almost exact account of his talk with Winter and Furneaux.
Then followed questions, eager, searching, almost uncanny in their prescience.
"The little one— who strikes me as having more brains than I credit the ordinary London policeman with— spoke of the evil deities of China. How did such an extraordinary topic crop up?"
"In connection with the joss stick."
"Yes, yes. But I don't see the inference."
"Mr. Winter alluded to the habit some ladies have of burning such incense in their houses, whereupon Furneaux remarked that the Chinese use them to propitiate harmful spirits."
"Was that all?"
Theydon felt insensibly that his companion was hinting at something more definite, but he was bound in honor to respect the confidence reposed in him.
"I don't quite understand," he temporized.
"Was nothing said as to the finding of some object, such as a small article obviously Chinese in origin, which might turn an inquirer's thought into that channel?"
"The conversation I am relating took place the moment after we had entered the flat. We were standing in the hall. It was wholly the outcome of the strange smell which was immediately perceptible."
Forbes passed a hand over his eyes.
"I wonder," he breathed.
Then, turning quickly on Theydon, he repeats the question.
"Are you quite sure they did not mention the discovery in this room of any object which could be regarded, even remotely, as a sign or symbol left by the murderer to show that his crime was an act of vengeance, or retaliation?"
Theydon hesitated. Unquestionably he was in a position of no ordinary difficulty. But his doubts were solved by an interruption that brought his heart into his mouth, because a thin, high-pitched voice came through the half-open door:
"Are you thinking of a small ivory skull, Mr. Forbes?"
WHEREIN MR. FORBES EXPLAINS HIMSELF
Even the boldest may flinch when confronted with that which is apparently a manifestation of the supernatural. Theydon and Forbes were standing in a chamber of death. To the best of their belief they were alone in an otherwise empty flat, and those ominous words coming from some one unknown and unseen blanched their faces with terror.
But Theydon was a healthy and athletic young Englishman, and Forbes was of the rare order which combines a frame of exceptional physique with a mind accustomed to think imperially; two such men might be trusted to display real grit if surrounded by a horde of veritable spooks.
The door was thrown wide as they turned at the sound of the words, and Theydon recognized in a strange little figure— wearing a blue serge suit, a straw hat and brown boots— Furneaux, the man whom he had looked on as somewhat of a crank and visionary during their talk of the previous night.
"You?" he gasped, and the note of recognition was sharpened by a sudden sense of dismay, almost of alarm, because of the overwhelming knowledge that now all his scheming had collapsed, while the representatives of Scotland Yard would regard him as nothing more than a poor sort of trickster.
But Forbes was not in the habit of yielding to any man, no matter what his status, or howsoever awe-inspiring might be the department of state which he represented.
"Who the devil are you, at any rate?" he cried angrily. "And what right have you to spy on gentlemen in this manner, listening to their conversation, and breaking in with a cheap stage effect obviously intended to startle?"
Furneaux remained motionless, his feet set well apart and his hands thrust into his trousers pockets. The trim, natty figure, the spruce and Summer-like attire, the small, wizened face with its cynically humorous and wide-awake aspect— above all, a certain jauntiness of air and cocksure expression— certainly did not suggest a comedian fresh from the boards.
"You tell," he said, nodding to Theydon.
"This is Mr. Furneaux of Scotland Yard," said the latter nervously. He imagined he could detect in Furneaux's glance a mixture of amusement and contempt, amusement at the notion that any amateur should harbor the belief that the two best men in the "Yard" could be egregiously hoodwinked, and contempt of one who so far forgot himself as even to dare attempt such a thing in relation to a police inquiry into a murder.
"I don't know, and care less, who Mr. Furneaux of Scotland Yard may be," went on Forbes hotly. "I resent his intrusion, and wish to be relieved of his presence."
"Why?" said Furneaux.
"I have given my reasons to the Home Secretary. That mere statement must suffice for you."
"Really, I must ask you to be more explicit."
"I visited the Home Office this morning, and placed such evidence in the hands of the Home Secretary that Scotland Yard will be requested to suspend all further investigation into the death of Mrs. Lester."
"Do you mean that the Home Secretary has sanctioned the breaking off of this inquiry."
"In the conditions—"
"Because, if that is what your words imply, Mr. Forbes, I may tell you at once that I don't believe you. It is more than any Home Secretary dare do, and if you harbor any lingering doubts on the point, go to Mr. Theydon's telephone, ring up the Home Office, and tell the gentleman at the other end of the wire exactly what I have said. Of course you really don't mean anything of the sort. By virtue of some special and inside knowledge of certain facts communicated to the Home Secretary, you may have persuaded him to promise that, provided the ends of justice are not defeated thereby, every precaution will be taken to keep the main lines of the inquiry secret until the whole position can be laid before the law officers of the Crown. The Home Secretary may have gone that far, Mr. Forbes, but not one inch farther, and you know it."
The two antagonists, so singularly disproportionate in size, were yet so perfectly matched in the vastly more important qualities of brain and nerve that the contest lost all sense of inequality. Theydon felt himself of no account in this duel. He was like an urchin watching open-mouthed a combat of gladiators.
Forbes, not without a perceptible effort, choked down his wrath and recovered his poise.
"You have gaged the state of affairs accurately enough," he said, speaking more calmly. "May I, then, recommend you to consult your direct superiors before carrying your investigations any furthur, Mr.—"
"Furneaux— Charles Francois Furneaux."
"Just so, Mr. Charles Francois Furneaux."
"I give you my full name, because one of the peculiar features of this case is the inability of some persons mixed up in it to recall names, or even the mere salient facts," and the detective's glance dwelt for an instant on Theydon, who, again, in his own estimation, shrank into the boots of a fourth-form boy detected by a master in an overt breach of college rules.
But the little man was speaking impressively, and, Theydon compelled his wandering wits to pay attention.
"It will clear the air, perhaps," went on Furneaux, "if I point out that if any one here is playing the spy— carrying on some underhanded game, that is— it is not I. These apartments are in charge of the police. The manager of the whole block of flats and the porter of this particular section have been warned that no one can be allowed to enter No. 17, on any pretext, until our inquiry is closed. Now, Mr. Forbes, kindly explain how you contrived to get possession of a key."
An experienced man of the world like Forbes could hardly fail to see that he was in a false position, and that any persistent attempt to browbeat the detective would not only meet with utter failure but might possibly compromise him gravely.
"That was a simple matter," he said. "Mrs. Lester's servant left her key in Mr. Theydon's establishment. Bates surprised both his master and me by producing it when I expressed a wish to examine the place."
"But why adopt such a clandestine method?"
Forbes's face, usually so classic in outline, assumed a certain rigidity, and his firm chin grew markedly aggressive.
"I don't answer questions put in that way," he said.
Furneaux laughed sardonically.
"You meet with greater respect in Capel Court, I have no doubt," he snapped. "There you stand on a pedestal, with one hand flourishing a check-book and the other resting gracefully on the neck of a golden calf. Here, you are simply an ordinary citizen behaving in a suspicious manner. If the uniformed policeman on the neighboring beat knew what I know of your recent movements he would arrest you without ceremony, and charge you with being concerned in the murder of Mrs. Lester. Between you and Mr. Theydon, the work of my department has been hindered and burked most scandalously. Don't glare at me like that! I don't care tuppence for your millions and your social position. What I do care about is the horrible risk you and each member of your family are incurring. You know why, and while you are still alive I mean to force you to speak. Tell me now why Mrs. Lester was killed. Tell me, too, why the same hand which thrust a little ivory skull into the dead woman's underbodice caused a similar token to be delivered to you by this morning's post. Ah, that touches you, does it? Now, my worthy financier and philanthropist, step down from your pedestal and behave like a being of flesh and blood!"
Forbes positively wilted under that extraordinary attack. His white face grew wan, and his eyes dilated with surprise and terror. The detective's words seemed to have the effect of a paralytic shock. Thenceforth he was under dog in the fight.
"How do you know," he gasped, "that I received an ivory skull this morning? Have you been to my house? Did my daughter tell you?"
"You're ready to listen, eh? Well, I don't mind telling you that I have not stirred out of this flat since seven o'clock this morning, and I question if your letters were delivered in Fortescue Square at that hour."
"I give in," said Forbes curtly. "Need we remain here? The smell of that cursed joss stick oppresses me."
Then Theydon found his tongue.
"If Mr. Furneaux cares to abandon his vigil, my flat is entirely at your disposal," he said.
"My vigil, as you accurately describe it, has ended for the time being," said Furneaux, apparently mollified by the millionaire's surrender. "I was sure that if I remained here long enough I would clear away some of the fog attached to a case which promises to be one of the most remarkable I have ever investigated. Come, gentlemen, let us be amiable to one another. I'm sorry if I lost my temper just now, but I regard myself as being the only detective in existence who uses other sections of his brain than those governed by statutes made and provided, and it riles me when men of superior intelligence like yourselves treat me as though my mission in life was to direct the traffic and keep a sharp eye on mischievous juveniles.... Mr. Theydon, can that soldier-servant of yours make coffee?"
"His wife can," said Theydon.
"Will you be good enough, then, to set her to work? Thus far, since the sun rose, I have stayed the pangs of hunger with an apple and a glass of water."
By this time, Theydon had thoroughly revised his first estimate of the diminutive detective. Indeed, he was beginning to look on him as a quite noteworthy person, a man whose mental equipment it was most unwise to assess at any lower valuation than the somewhat exalted one which Furneaux himself had set forth with such refreshing candor.
As for Forbes, the millionaire seemed to have sunk into a species of stupor since Furneaux spoke of the ivory skull. He uttered no word until the three were seated in Theydon's room, and his expression was so woebegone that it stirred even the mercurial Jerseyite to pity.
"I imagine that a cup of coffee will do you also a world of good," he said. Then, whirling round on Theydon, he stuck a question into him as if each word was a stiletto.
"Where do you get your coffee?"
"At the grocer's," was the surprised answer.
"Is that all you know about it?"
"Singular thing, isn't it?" mused the detective aloud, "how idiotic men and women can be in their attitude to the supreme things of life. What is of greater importance than the food we eat and the liquors we drink? Through them the body reconstitutes itself hourly and daily. Providence gives us a perfect engine, yet we clog and choke its shafts and cylinders by supplying it haphazard with any sort of fuel and lubricant, no matter how unsuited either may be to its purpose. Take coffee, for instance. The physiological action of coffee depends on the presence of the alkaloid caffeine, which varies from 0.6 percent in the Arabian berry to 2 percent in that of Sierra Leone. Again, the aromatic oil, caffeine, which is developed by roasting, increases in quantity the longer the seeds are kept. Unfortunately, coffee beans lose weight during storage, so you have a clear commercial reason why grocers should not sell the best coffee, unless under compulsion of an enlightened public opinion. Now you, Mr. Forbes, would never dream of putting your money into a investment without full and careful inquiry into the history and scope of the proposed undertaking, while our young friend here would snort furiously at a split infinitive or a false rhyme, yet, when I submit the vital problem of the sort of coffee you imbibe— the very essence and nutriment of your brains and bodies— you hear the kind of answer I receive."
All this, of course, was excellent fooling, intended to dispel the brooding horror which had suddenly descended upon Forbes since it was borne in on him that the demoniac wrath wreaked on Mrs. Lester was now directed with equal ferocity against his family and himself.
To an extent, Furneaux's scheme succeeded. A gleam of interest shot from the millionaire's eyes. They lost their introspective look. He even smiled wistfully.
"You are a man after my own heart, Mr. Furneaux," he said. "I had no idea that the Criminal Investigation Department employed philosophers of your caliber. I suppose that you and I are about to swallow coffee containing indeterminate percentages of the chief constituents you named."
"One does not look at gift coffee in the cup," grinned the little man, obviously well pleased with himself. "But, if ever you two gentlemen favor my obscure dwelling with a visit, and partake of a meal, you will have a strict analysis with every bite and sup. There is a grocer in Battersea who used to tremble at sight of me. Now he has learned wisdom, and has quadrupled his trade by publishing learned disquisitions on the nature and quality of each principal article he sells. You ought to read his treatise on butter. He is an authority on the dietetic value of jam. The nutritive properties of his cheese are ruining the local butchers."
Furneaux's efforts were rewarded when the really excellent beverage provided by Mrs. Rates was disposed of. Forbes seemingly atoned for his earlier secretiveness by placing every fact in his possession fully and fairly before his auditors.
"Nearly seven years ago," he said, "I made a very large sum of money by amalgamating certain shipping interests at a favorable moment. Thus, as it happened, I had at command practically unlimited resources when I was asked to finance the cause of reform in China. The wretched lot of the Chinese Nation had always appealed to my sympathies. Some hundreds of millions of the most industrious and peace-loving people in the world have been exploited for centuries by a predatory caste. Given a chance to expand, freed from the shackles of the Manchus, the Chinese, in my opinion, contain the elements which go to form a great race. But the Manchus held them in bondage, body and soul, and, so powerful is self-interest, there has never been an Emperor or statesman who strove to elevate the masses who was not mercilessly assassinated as soon as he allowed his intent to become known. The only path to freedom lay through revolution, and I had reason to believe that the ruling faction could be overthrown by a well-organized and properly financed movement without the appalling bloodshed which often accompanies such dynastic changes. At any rate, I entered the conspiracy, heart and soul. But I met with two difficulties at the outset. I could not exercise efficient financial control in London, and I could neither go and live in the Far East nor transact my business through ordinary banking channels. So I had to find a substitute, and my choice fell on a rising young barrister named Arthur Lester, whom I had known since he was a boy who had married the daughter of an old friend. He had a taste for adventure, and was alive to the magnificent career which lay before one who helped materially in the rebirth of China. In a word, he went to Shanghai as my agent, and the outcome of his work there is the present Chinese constitution. Of course, as holds good in all human affairs, events did not follow the precise track mapped out for them. But, on the whole, he and I were satisfied. China is awake at last. The giant has stirred, and, if his first uncertain steps have deviated from the open road of reform, he will never again sink into the torpor of the past centuries. Manchu arrogance and domination, at any rate, are shadows of the past, but unhappily, the conquerors who have been so effectually thrust aside have now embarked on a secret campaign of vengeance and reaction. A society which calls itself the 'Young Manchus' is inspired by one principle, and one only, and that is 'death to the reformers.' I don't suppose you gentlemen follow closely the trend of affairs in China, but you must have read of the assassinations of prominent men reported occasionally in the newspapers."
Furneaux clicked his tongue so loudly that Forbes stopped speaking and looked at him, thinking, apparently, that the little detective meant to say something. He did, but it was Theydon whom he addressed.
"I'd give a week's pay if Winter was here now, and I could see those big eyes of his bulging out of his head," he cackled.
Theydon nodded. He understood perfectly. Then he caught Forbes's inquiring glance, and explained matters.
"Mr. Furneaux hinted last night at some such development as that which your present statement conveys, and his colleague, Mr. Winter, pretended to scout it," he said.
"Pretended!" shrieked Furneaux, instantly in a rage.
"That was how it struck me," said Theydon coolly.
"Didn't I drag the Chinese aspect of the crime out of him with pincers?" came the indignant demand.
"Unquestionably. I only remark that your large-sized friend had it tucked away all the time at the back of his head."
Furneaux pounded the table so viciously that the cups rattled.
"Of course, he has a nose to smell joss sticks, and eyes to see an ivory skull, but didn't he say I was talking nonsense when I spoke about Shang Ti scowling from a porcelain vase?" he shrilled.
"Yes. For all that, I don't think he missed the least hint of your meaning."
Furneaux gazed at Theydon fixedly.
"Sorry," he said, with an acid tone that was almost malicious. "I imagined you were so busy throwing dust in our eyes that you wouldn't have noticed such fine shades of perception on Winter's part."
But Theydon was now able to measure this strange little man with some degree of accuracy; he only smiled.
"As a thrower of dust I was a most abject failure," he said.
Furneaux smiled and turned to the millionaire.
"Pardon the interruption," he said. "Like every artist, I am pained when my best efforts are scoffed at by heedless mediocrity. You, at least, will understand what a big thing it was to deduce even the vaguest outline of the truth from the facts at my command."
"I certainly do," agreed Forbes. "Until this morning I was convinced that Mrs. Lester's death removed the one person in England who knew of my connection with the revolution in China. To revert to the Young Manchus— they have secured far more victims than the world at large is aware of. I am sure that they poisoned Arthur Lester, and his wife held the same view. They aim at nothing less than the extinction of the democratic cause by the murder of every prominent man connected with it. But they never yet have been able to obtain a full and authentic list of the reform leaders. They suspected poor Lester of complicity in the movement, and killed him. It was through Mrs. Lester that I first became aware of their existence as an active organization, and I hoped that when she had returned to England, and was living quietly in London, she would be lost sight of— ignored, in fact. Nevertheless, both she and I thought it prudent that our acquaintance should cease until the turmoil in China had subsided. For that reason I never visited her, nor did I permit the growth of friendship between her and my wife and daughter— a friendship which, in happier conditions, would have been natural and inevitable. But we were woefully mistaken. An Oriental vendetta neither slackens nor dies. By some means wholly unknown to me, the Young Manchus must have discovered, or guessed, that in leaving Lester's widow out of their reckoning they had lost a promising clew. Be that as it may, they followed her to London, and, by a singular fatality, I was the first to know of it. Last Monday, while driving home from the city, my car was held up in Piccadilly for a few seconds. Looking idly out at the passing crowd, I saw a Chinaman in European clothes. He was waiting to cross the road, so I was able to scrutinize him carefully, and, owing to a scar on the left side of his face, recognized him. His name is Wong Li Fu, a Manchu of the Manchus, a mandarin of almost imperial lineage. Some years ago he was a young attach at the Chinese Embassy here. Suddenly, while on the way to my house, I recollected that certain members of the Revolutionary Committee had spoken of this very man as being one of the ablest and most unscrupulous adherents of the Manchu faction in Pekin. Somehow, his presence in London was disconcerting and menacing. Who more likely than he, I argued, to be a leading spirit among the Young Manchus? In any event, London was not big enough to hold both Mrs. Lester and him, and I decided to visit her that very night, tell her I had seen Wong Li Fu, and advise her to go away into the country, leaving no record of her whereabouts. I happened to be taking my daughter to Daly's Theater, and contrived to slip away on some pretext after the performance. I found Mrs. Lester alone in her flat, and she fell in with my views at once, because she, too, had heard of this very man, and the mere sound of his name terrified her. I was half inclined to urge that she should go to an hotel for the night, but the lateness of the hour and the seeming fact that if danger threatened she was safe at least till the morrow, prevented me."
Furneaux, sitting on the edge of a chair, his head bent forward, his piercing black eyes intent as those of a hawk, a hand resting on each knee, his attitude curiously suggestive of a readiness to spring forward at any instant, now leaned over and tapped the millionaire decisively on the shoulder.
"You couldn't have saved her, Mr. Forbes," he said gravely. "She was marked down as the first warning. Didn't the letter you received this morning tell you something of the sort?"
Agitation gave place to utter astonishment in Forbes's face.
"In Heaven's name, how do you know anything of any letter?" he cried.
"I will tell you later. But am I not right?"
"Yes, you are."
"Where is it? May I see it?"
Forbes took a creased and soiled document from a small, flat cardboard box which he carried in the breast pocket of his coat. But first he withdrew from the box a little object, and placed it on the table. It was an ivory skull, and the very presence of such a sinister token brought some hint of the charnel-house into the cozy and sunlit room.
Furneaux, a creature oddly constituted either of all nerves or of no nerves, disregarded the skull. He had eyes only for the few words typed on a single sheet of note-paper. They ran:
"James Creighton Forbes: If you are willing to come to terms, announce the fact by advertisement in Thursday's Times. Address your reply to Y. M., and sign it 'J. C. F.' Yield, and you will hear further. Refuse, and no other warning will be given."
THE FIRST COUNTER-STROKE
Furneaux apparently made up his mind with reference to the contents of a somewhat enigmatic message after one quick, unerring perusal.
"The man who wrote that took a great many things for granted," he said. "He assumed, firstly, that you knew of Mrs. Lester's death and understood its significance; secondly, that you are aware of the nature of the 'terms' he will offer; thirdly, that you may hesitate between compliance and threatened death. 'Y. M.,' of course, can be read as 'Young Manchus.' Even there, the writer exhibits artistic reticence.... Frankly, Mr. Forbes, I wish you had come straight to Scotland Yard on Monday evening instead of wasting those precious hours at Daly's Theater."
Forbes was moved to energetic protest.
"How was I to deduce the true nature of these hell hounds' mission from a casual glance vouchsafed of one who may or may not be their leader?" he cried.
"Yet you treated your discovery as serious enough to warrant a prompt visit to the woman with whom association was dangerous?"
"Yes; I wanted to act secretly."
"Just so. You were afraid the police would bungle the job. Between you and Mr. Theydon, you have exhibited remarkable skill in heading us off the scent. Fortunately, we were able to dispense with your assistance, having other matters to occupy our brains. You two were ripe nuts waiting to be cracked and have the contents extracted at leisure. There were a few freshly broken shells lying about which invited immediate attention. For instance, some four months ago, a well-known and reputable firm of private inquiry agents was instructed from Canton to secure all possible information about Mrs. Lester and you— yes, you, Mr. Forbes— your household, friends, methods of living, servants, tradesmen,— every sort of fact, indeed, which might be useful to a thoroughgoing and well-organized society of cutthroats like the Young Manchus. The inquiry agents did their work well, and were handsomely paid for it. I haven't the least doubt that Wong Li Fu knows what brand of cigars you favor, and what you eat for breakfast. His informants sent us a copy of their notes an hour after the murder was announced in the newspapers. Mr. Lester is 'removed' in Shanghai. His widow comes home. The inquiry agents receive instructions. They forward their report to Canton, and Wong Li Fu turns up in London. The program is a tribute to the excellence and regularity of the mail service between England and the Far East."
While the detective was speaking, Forbes's face, already haggard, had grown desperate.
"I care little for my own life," he said, "but I shall stop short of no measures to protect my wife and daughter."
"I certainly recommend that an armed guard should be on duty day and night in any house where you may happen to be living at the moment," replied Furneaux airily. "I really think that if your safety alone were at stake I would do you a good turn by arresting you on suspicion."
"On suspicion of what crime?"
"Of killing Mrs. Lester, to be sure."
"I regard you as a clever man, Mr. Furneaux, so may I remind you that this is neither the time nor the place for a display of gross humor?"
Theydon expected that Furneaux would flare into anger at this well-deserved rebuke; but, much to his surprise, the detective treated the matter argumentatively.
"Personally, I have looked on you from the outset as an innocent man," he said placidly. "But, just to show how circumstantial evidence may be twisted into plausible error, let me point out that nearly all the known facts conspire against you. Have you considered how dexterously a prosecuting counsel would treat your admission that Mrs. Lester was the one person in England who knew of your connection with the revolutionary party in China? And how would you set about convincing a stolid British jury that you were acting in the interests of law and order in concealing your visit to No. 17 on the night of the murder? These fine-drawn speculations, however, are a sheer waste of breath. Suppose we concoct an advertisement for the Times?"
"Do you mean that I am to parley with these ruffians?"
"Of course you are."
"But the Home Secretary agreed with me that no action should be taken until the Chinese Legation had considered the matter."
"And, pray, what can the Legation do?"
"They have their own sources of information. When all is said and done, Orientals are best fitted to deal with Orientals."
Furneaux laughed sarcastically.
"If I remember rightly, the way in which the Chinese Embassy dealt with one of your pet reformers some years ago did not win general approval. No, Mr. Forbes, we must try and circumvent the wily Chinese by other methods than torture and imprisonment. Of what avail will it be if this fellow, Wong Li Fu, is laid by the heels? Isn't it more than certain that he has plenty of determined helpers? Do you imagine that he killed Mrs. Lester? Not a bit of it. He will be able to produce the clearest proof that he was miles away from Innesmore Mansions on Monday night. Now, let's see how we can get him to show his hand a little more openly. How would this be? 'Y. M.— Terms can be arranged. J. C. F.' The terms are, of course, that the whole gang be hanged or sent to penal servitude and deported."
"One moment," struck in Theydon. "I have something to say before you decide on any definite action. I need hardly inflict on you, Mr. Furneaux, an explanation of my silence hitherto. I don't even apologize for it. Faced by a similar dilemma tomorrow I should probably take the same line. But, to adopt your own simile, now that Mr. Forbes has come out of his shell, and admits his presence here on Monday night, my self-imposed restrictions cease. In the first place, then, Miss Beale came here this morning—"
"Excellent! I wondered who the lady was," put in Furneaux.
"And, secondly, the gray car which pursued me on Monday seems to have been partly identified later. A car resembling it in every detail deposited some one at the Chinese Legation in Portland Place, at an hour which corresponds closely with its presence here."
"Ah, that is important! I like that! I wasn't far wrong when I sensed you as an absolute carrier of clew-germs in this affair," cried Furneaux.
"The Chinese Embassy!" gasped Forbes. "What car? And why should any car pursue you? Do you mean that you were followed on leaving my house?"
It was lamentable to watch the inroad which each successive shock was making on Forbes's physical resources, but Theydon affected to ignore the new fright in his eyes, and told him what had happened. Although he could see that Furneaux was in a fever of impatience to learn the later news, he thought that Forbes should know the facts in view of the remarkable statement that he had visited the Chinese Embassy that morning.
In one respect, the recital was a test of the millionaire's professed readiness to deal candidly with the police. Theydon was half inclined to believe that the other was still wishful to conceal that part of the day's doings. But he was mistaken. When he had finished his own story, and given the taxi-man's version of the gray car's appearance in Portland Place, Forbes threw out his hands in a gesture of despair.
"If the Embassy people are playing me false I do not know whom to trust," he said brokenly; "I have just come from there, and they assure me that if Wong Li Fu and his gang are in London they are absolutely ignorant of the fact."
"Pooh!" cried Furneaux, snapping a thumb and forefinger. "Don't worry about that! Put yourself in the position of the Chinese Ambassador. He can't even guess who may be the ruler of China from one day to another. Yesterday it was an old woman, today a dictator, tomorrow the mob; who can foretell what shape the lava erupted from a volcano will take? Bet you a new hat, Mr. Forbes, that the minute the embassy heard of Mrs. Lester's murder they put two and two together and kept a sharp eye on these mansions and on your house. That gray car is nothing more nor less than a red herring accidentally drawn across the trail. Some cute Chinaman said 'Hallo! that murdered woman is the wife of Forbes's agent in Shanghai. Now, let's see what Forbes is doing, and who visits him, and perhaps we'll learn something.' Want a bet?"
Forbes could not help but recover some of his shattered nerve in view of the detective's airy optimism. Still, he was shaken and dubious.
"Don't forget that the Chinese Ambassador has no knowledge whatsoever of my share in the revolution," he said.
"And don't forget that for ways which are dark and tricks which are vain the heathen Chinee is peculiar," retorted Furneaux. "How can you be sure that there is not in the Embassy at this moment a full statement of your payments into the reformers' funds, as well as the list of conspirators which our friend Wong Li Fu is in search of?"
"I think that such a thing is almost impossible."
"Is there anything really impossible? We used to believe that once a man was dead he could not be brought to life again. A Frenchman has just demonstrated that by a judicious application of galvanism to the heart and salt water to the veins any average corpse can be revived."
Evidently Furneaux was enjoying himself. He sat there, absorbing new impressions and irradiating scraps of irrelevant knowledge in a way that would have been full of significance to Winter had he been present. Furneaux was never so mercurial, never so ready to jump from one subject to another, as when his subtle brain was working at high pressure.
He actually reveled in a crime which lay on the borderland of the exotic and the grotesque. Like the French philosopher in Poe's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination," the savant who read his newspaper in a dingy Paris room, and solved by sheer force of intellect extraordinary criminal problems which baffled the shrewdest official minds, he felt in relation to this particular tragedy that he required only to be brought in touch with certain contingent forces bound up with it— Forbes, for instance, and, in a minor degree, Theydon— and in due course he would be able to go forth and find the master wrongdoer.
Suddenly the millionaire seemed to cast off the cloak of despair which clogged his energies and impaired his brilliant intellect. He rose to his feet and involuntarily squared his shoulders.
"Surely we are wasting valuable hours which should be given to action," he cried. "I am going to the city and shall arrange for a prolonged absence from my office. Then I'll hurry home, perfect my defenses, and defy these murderous curs. My wife must come to London. In a crisis like this I must have my loved ones under my own personal supervision. I can still shoot straight and quick, and woe betide any man, white or yellow, who enters my house unbidden. As for this infernal symbol— !"
He raised a clenched fist, and would have pounded into fragments the thin fabric of the ivory skull still lying where he had placed it on the table had not Furneaux snatched it into safety.
"No, no!" protested the detective. "I want that for purposes of comparison. Kindly give me that typed note, too, Mr. Forbes. It may bear finger-marks. You never can tell. The cardboard box in which it was posted also. Thank you. Now, a few more questions before you go. How much money did you provide for the revolutionaries?"
"Two millions sterling."
"As a gift or a loan?"
"If they failed, I lost every farthing, of course. If they succeeded, I was to recoup myself by financing the new government."
"But I gather that they have neither failed nor succeeded. China has a constitution, but the Presidential election was conducted on lines suspiciously akin to those recently adopted in Mexico."
"Nevertheless negotiations are now on foot for a big loan."
"If you died, what would become of the two millions?"
"They would be lost irretrievably."
Furneaux sat back in his chair.
"That gives one furiously to think," he said. "The gray car comes back into the picture."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. But I'll tell you what— the man who first spoke of a Chinese puzzle as a metaphor for something downright bewildering knew what he was talking about."
Forbes put a hand to his forehead in an unconscious gesture of hopelessness.
"My brain is reeling," he muttered. "To think that in the London of today we should live in abject terror of a band of Mongolian ruffians! Why do you remain here, man? You vaunt the prowess of your department— why are you not scouring every haunt of Chinamen in the East End? Spread your net widely enough, and you will surely get hold of some minor scoundrel who will talk for fear or money. Bribe him to the point where he cannot refuse to speak. Wong Li Fu is the only man I fear. Put him where he can accomplish no mischief, and the rest of his crew will be powerless!"
"When you come to count up the achievements of my friend Winter and myself— in the face of stupid but none the less disheartening obstacles— we have not done so badly in two days," said Furneaux complacently.
"Can I drive you anywhere? My car is waiting."
"No, thanks. The truth is, Mr. Forbes, I look on you as a disturbing influence. A man who can talk as calmly as you about dropping two millions on a crazy project to introduce Western methods into China is not fitted for the phlegmatic and judicial atmosphere of Scotland Yard. If I want any money I'll come to you. If not, and all goes well at No. 11 Fortescue Square, the next time I'll trouble you will be when you are asked to identify Wong Li Fu, dead or alive."
Forbes seemed hardly to be aware of Furneaux's words. He went out. Theydon accompanied him, and, as they descended the stairs together, the older man said brokenly:
"It is my wife and daughter for whom I fear. I can hardly control my senses when I think of these yellow fiends contemplating vengeance on me through them. Theydon— do you believe in that detective? He is either a vain fool or a genius. By the way, I forgot to ask him how he found out that I had received the warning delivered by this morning's post."
"I'll try and worm an explanation out of him. If he tells me I'll telephone you later. He is an extraordinary creature, but abnormally clever at his work, I am sure. For my own part, I feel disposed to trust him implicitly. I wish you had met his colleague, Chief Inspector Winter. He is the sort of man whose mere presence inspires confidence."
Forbes halted on the step of the automobile and glanced at his watch.
"I shall be home in an hour," he said. "After that I shall not stir out all day. Telephone me if you have any news. Why not dine with us tonight?"
Theydon's eyes sparkled. He was longing to meet Evelyn Forbes once more, but a wretched doubt diminished the glow of gratification which the prospect brought. Should he, or should he not, tell the girl's father of the rather indiscreet admissions she had made during their brief talk that morning?
That minor worry, however, was banished suddenly and forever. Furneaux, taking the three steps which led from entrance hall to pavement with a flying leap, cannoned right into Forbes, whom he grasped with both hands, quite as much by way of emphasis as to check the impetus of his diminutive body.
"In with you!" he piped. "Tell your chauffeur to obey my orders, no matter what they are!"
Action, determination, were as the breath of the millionaire's nostrils. He aroused himself instantly.