From Germany Count Bindo di Ferraris had sent me with the car right across Europe to Florence, where, at Nenci's, the builders of motor-bodies, I, in obedience to orders, had it repainted a bright yellow—almost the colour of mustard.
When, a fortnight later, it came out of the Nenci works, I hardly recognised it. At Bindo's orders I had had a second body built, one made of wicker, and lined inside with glazed white leather, which, when fixed upon the chassis, completely transformed it. This second body I sent by rail down to Leghorn, and then drove the car along the Arno valley, down to the sea-shore.
My orders were to go to the Palace Hotel at Leghorn, and there await my master. The hotel in question was, I found, one of the best in Italy, filled by the smartest crowd of men and women, mostly of the Italian aristocracy, who went there for the magnificent sea-bathing. It was a huge white building, with many balconies, and striped awnings, facing the blue Mediterranean.
Valentine had travelled with me as far as Milan, while Bindo had taken train, I believe, to Berlin. At Milan my pretty companion had wished me adieu, and a month later I had taken up my residence in Leghorn, and there led an idle life, wondering when I was to hear next from Bindo. Before we parted he gave me a fairly large sum of money, and told me to remain at Leghorn until he joined me.
Weeks passed. Leghorn in summer is the Brighton of Italy, and everything there was delightfully gay. In the garage of the hotel were many cars, but not one so good as our 40-h.p. "Napier." The Italians all admired it, and on several occasions I took motoring enthusiasts of both sexes out for short runs along the old Maremma sea-road.
The life I led was one of idleness, punctuated by little flirtations, for by Bindo's order I was staying at the Palace as owner of the car, and not as a mere chauffeur. The daughters of Italian countesses and marchionesses, though brought up so strictly, are always eager for flirtation, and therefore as I sat alone at my table in the big salle-a-manger I caught many a glance from black eyes that danced with merry mischievousness.
Valentine, when she left me in Milan, had said, laughingly—
"I may rejoin you again ere long, M'sieur Ewart, but not as your pretended wife, as at Brussels."
"I hope not, mademoiselle," I had answered quite frankly. "That game is a little too dangerous. I might really fall in love with you."
"With me?" she cried, holding up her small hands in a quick gesture. "What an idea! Oh! la la! Jamais."
I smiled. Mademoiselle was extremely beautiful. No woman I had ever met possessed such wonderful eyes as hers.
"Au revoir, mon cher," she said. "And a pleasant time to you till we meet again." Then as I mounted on the car and traversed the big Piazza del Duomo, before the Cathedral, she waved her hand to me in farewell.
It was, therefore, without surprise that, sitting in the hall of the hotel about five o'clock one afternoon, I watched her in an elegant white gown descending the stairs, followed by a neat French maid in black.
Quickly I sprang up, bowed, and greeted her in French before a dozen or so of the idling guests.
As we walked across to Pancaldi's baths she told her new maid to go on in front, and in a few quick words explained.
"I arrived direct from Paris this morning. Here, I am the Princess Helen of Dornbach-Laxenburg of the Ringstrasse, in Vienna, the Schloss Kirchbuechl, on the Drave, and Avenue des Champs Elysees, Paris, a Frenchwoman married to an Austrian. My husband, a man much older than myself, will arrive here in a few days."
"And the maid?"
"She knows nothing to the contrary. She has been with me only a fortnight. Now you must speak of me in the hotel. Say that you knew me well at Monte Carlo, Rome, Carlsbad, and Aix; that you have stayed at Kirchbuechl, and have dined at our house in Paris. Talk of our enormous wealth, and all that, and to-morrow invite me for a run on the car."
"Very well—Princess," I laughed. "But what's the new scheme—eh?"
"At present nothing has been definitely settled. I expect Bindo in a few days, but he will appear to us as a stranger—a complete stranger. At present all I wish to do is to create a sensation—you understand? A foreign princess is always popular at once, and I believe my arrival is already known all over the hotel. But it is you who will help me, M'sieur Ewart. You are the wealthy Englishman who is here with his motor-car, and who is one of my intimate friends—you understand?"
"Well," I said, with some hesitation. "Don't you think all this kind of thing very risky? Candidly, I expect before very long we shall all find ourselves under arrest."
She laughed heartily at my fears.
"But, in any case, you would not suffer. You are simply Ewart, the Count's chauffeur."
"I know. But at this moment I'm posing here as the owner of the car, and living upon part of the proceeds of that little transaction in the train between Brussels and the German frontier."
"Ah, mon cher! never recall the past. It is such a very bad habit. Live for the future, and let the past take care of itself. Just remain perfectly confident that you run no risk in this present affair."
"What's your maid's name?"
"And she knows nothing?"
I watched the neat-waisted figure in black walking a little distance ahead of us. She was typically Parisienne, with Louis XV. shoes, and a glimpse of smart lingerie as she lifted her skirt daintily. Rather good-looking she was, too, but with a face as bony as most of the women of Paris, and a complexion slightly sallow.
By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the baths, where, on the asphalte promenade, built out into the clear crystal Mediterranean, all smart Leghorn was sitting in chairs, and gossiping beneath the awnings, as Italians love to do.
Pancaldi's is essentially Italian. English, French, or German visitors are rarely if ever seen, therefore the advent of the Princess, news of whose arrival had spread from mouth to mouth but an hour ago, caused a perceptible flutter among the lounging idlers of both sexes.
My companion was, I saw, admired on every hand, while surprise was being expressed that I should turn out to be a friend of so very distinguished a person.
In the brilliant sundown, with just a refreshing breath of air coming across the glassy sea, we sat watching the antics of the swimmers and the general merriment in the water. I lit a cigarette and gossiped with her in French, ostentatiously emphasising the words "your Highness" when I addressed her, for the benefit of those passing and re-passing behind us.
For an hour she remained, and then returning to the hotel, dressed, and dined.
As she sat with me at table that night in the handsome restaurant, she looked superb, in pale turquoise chiffon, with a single row of diamonds around her throat. Paste they were, of course, but none of the women who sat with their eyes upon her even dreamed that they were anything but the family jewels of the princely house of Dornbach-Laxenburg. Her manner and bearing were distinctly that of a patrician, and I saw that all in the hotel were dying to know her.
Yes, Her Highness was already a great success.
About ten o'clock she put on a wrap, and, as is usual with the guests at the Palace, at Leghorn, we went for a brief stroll along the promenade.
As soon as we were entirely alone she said—
"To-morrow you will take me for a run on the car, and the next day you will introduce me to one or two of the best people. I will discover who are the proper persons for me to know. I shall say that you are George Ewart, eldest son of a Member of the English Parliament, and well known in London—eh?"
As we were walking in the shadow, through the small leafy public garden lying between the roadway and the sea, we suddenly encountered the figure of a young woman who, in passing, saluted my companion with deep respect. It was Rosalie.
"She's wandering here alone, and watching for me to re-enter the hotel," remarked Valentine. "But she need not follow me like this, I think."
"No," I said. "Somehow, I don't like that girl."
"Why not? She's all right. What more natural than that she should be on the spot to receive me when I come in?"
"But you don't want to be spied upon like this, surely!" I said resentfully. "Have you done anything to arouse her suspicions that you are not—well, not exactly what you pretend yourself to be?"
"Nothing whatever; I have been a model of discretion. She never went to the Avenue Kleber. I was staying for two nights at the Grand—under my present title—and after engaging her I told her that the house in the Avenue des Champs Elysees was in the hands of decorators."
"Well, I don't half like her following us. She may have overheard something of what we've just been saying—who knows?"
"Rubbish! Ah! mon cher ami, you are always scenting danger where there is none."
I merely shrugged my shoulders, but my opinion remained. There was something mysterious about Rosalie—what it was I could not make out.
At ten o'clock next morning Her Highness met me in the big marble hall of the hotel dressed in the smartest motor-clothes, with a silk dust-coat and the latest invention in veils—pale blue with long ends twisted several times around her throat. Even in that costume she looked dainty and extremely charming.
I, too, was altered in a manner that certainly disguised my true calling; and when I brought the car round to the front steps, quite a crowd of visitors gathered to see her climb to the seat beside me, wrap the rug around her skirts, and start away.
With a deep blast on the electric horn I swept out of the hotel grounds to the left, and a few moments later we were heading away along the broad sea-road through the pretty villages of Ardenza and Antignano, out into that wild open country that lies between Leghorn and the wide deadly marshes of the fever-stricken Maremma. The road we were travelling was the old road to Rome, for two hundred miles along it—a desolate, dreary, and uninhabited way—lay the Eternal City. Over that self-same road on the top of the brown rocks the conquering Roman legions marched to Gaul, and war-chariots once ran where now sped motor-cars. Out there in those great solitudes through which we were passing nothing has changed since the days of Nero and of the Caesars.
Twenty-five miles into the country we ran, and then pulled up to smoke and chat. She was fond of a cigarette, and joined me, laughing merrily at the manner in which we were so completely deceiving the gay world of Leghorn. The local papers that morning had announced that Her Highness the Princess Helen of Dornbach-Laxenburg, one of the most beautiful women in Europe, had "descended" at the Palace Hotel, and had been seen at Pancaldi's later in the afternoon.
"As soon as I came down this morning I was pounced upon for information," I explained. "A young Italian marquis, who has hitherto snubbed me, begged that I would tell him something concerning Her Highness. He is deeply smitten with your beauty, that's very evident," I laughed.
"My beauty! You are really incorrigible, M'sieur Ewart," she answered reprovingly, as she blew the tobacco-smoke from her lips. "And what, pray, is the name of this admirer?"
"The Marquis of Rapallo—the usual hard-up but well-dressed elegant, you know. He wears two fresh suits of white linen a day, with socks to match his ties. Last night he sat at the table next to us, and couldn't keep his eyes off you—a rather short fellow, with a little black moustache turned upwards."
"Ah yes, I recollect," she replied, and then I thought that her countenance changed. "And so he's been inquiring about me? Well, let's run back to dejeuner—or collazione, as they call it here in Italy, I believe."
An hour later we drew up again at the hotel, and Her Highness disappeared within. Then, after I had taken the car to the garage in the rear, and entered the hotel myself, I quickly became surrounded by people who wanted introductions to my charming acquaintance, and to whom I romanced about her wealth, her position, and her home surroundings.
On the following day, Valentine allowed me to introduce her to four persons—an Italian marchioness who moved in the most exclusive Roman set, the wife of a Sicilian duke, the wife of Jacobi, the wealthy Jew banker of Turin, and a Captain of Bersaglieri.
One night a lonely but well-dressed stranger entered the restaurant and seated himself in a corner almost unnoticed, save by Valentine and myself. The new-comer was the audacious Bindo, passing as Mr. Bellingham, an Englishman, but he gave us no sign of recognition. Indeed, the days went on, but he never approached either of us. He simply idled about the hotel, or across at Pancaldi's, having picked up one or two acquaintances, kindred spirits in the art of graceful idling. He never even wrote me a note.
Some deep game was in progress, but its nature I was entirely unable to gather.
Now, truth to tell, I experienced a growing uneasiness concerning Rosalie. To me she was always the modest maid devoted to Her Highness, and yet I thought I once detected a glance of mischief in her dark eyes. Determined to discover all I could, I at once commenced a violent flirtation with her, unknown, of course, to Valentine.
Mademoiselle seemed flattered by the attentions of one whom she believed to be an English gentleman. Therefore I met her out one evening and took her for a long walk, pretending to be deeply smitten by her charms. From the first moment I began to talk with her I saw that she was not the shallow giddy girl I had believed her to be. She, no doubt, appreciated my attentions, for I took her to a cafe on the opposite side of the town, where we should not be recognised, and there we sat a long time chatting. She seemed extremely curious to know who I really was, yet the queries she put to me were just a trifle blundering. They betrayed an earnest desire to know more than I intended that she should know.
"I wish Her Highness would go back to Aix-les-Bains, or to Vichy, or to Luchon. I'm tired of this wretched hole, where I know nobody," she complained presently. "I had quite sufficient of Italy when I was with the Duchess of Pandolfini. I did not know we were coming here, otherwise I should not have accepted the engagement, and yet—well, the Princess is very kind and considerate."
"She certainly is to her friends, and I hope the same to her servants," I said; and then we rose to walk back, for it was nearly eleven, and Her Highness, who had gone to the Opera with two of the ladies to whom I had introduced her, would soon be due back, and the dainty Rosalie must be there to receive her.
Upon our walk across the town I flattered her, pretending to be her devoted admirer, but when I left her I felt more convinced than ever upon three points—namely, that she was much older than twenty-two, as she had declared; that she was unduly inquisitive; and that she certainly was no fool.
That night I sent my master a note to his room warning him to be wary of her, and on the following morning I told Her Highness my suspicions.
From that moment I made it my object in life to keep a watchful eye upon the new French maid. Each evening, after her services were no longer required, she went forth alone and wandered idly up and down the esplanade. Sometimes she walked out to Ardenza, a village a mile and a half distant, halted always at the same stone seat in the little public garden, and then strolled back again, in blissful ignorance of being so closely watched.
If Rosalie had any suspicion that Valentine was not the Princess Helen, then there was, I foresaw, a grave and constant danger. And I, for one, did not intend to run any further risk.
Her Highness had been in Leghorn just over three weeks, and had become intensely popular everywhere, being invited to the houses of many of the principal residents, when one night an incident occurred which afforded me grave food for reflection.
Just after ten o'clock at night I had followed Rosalie along by the sea to Ardenza, where she was sitting alone upon her usual seat in a secluded spot, at the edge of the public garden, on a kind of small promontory that ran in a semicircle out to the sea. Behind her was a dark thicket of azaleas, and in front the calm moonlit Mediterranean.
I was standing back in the shadow at a spot where I had often stood before, when, after about five minutes, I saw the tall dark figure of a man in a grey deer-stalker hat join her, and sit down unceremoniously at her side.
As soon as they met she began to tell him some long story, to which the stranger listened without comment. Then he seemed to question her closely, and they remained together fully a quarter of an hour, until at last they rose and parted, she walking calmly back to the hotel.
Was it possible that the dainty Rosalie was a spy?
When I got half-way back to the Palace I regretted deeply that I had not followed the stranger and ascertained whom he might be. Next day I told Valentine, but she merely smiled, saying that Rosalie could know nothing, and the fellow was probably some secret lover. The next night, and the next, I watched, until, on the third evening, they met again at the same time and place, and on that occasion I followed the mysterious stranger. He was a thin, cadaverous-looking Frenchman, hollow-cheeked, rather shabbily dressed, and wore pince-nez. I watched him back into the town, and lingered near him in a cafe until nearly one o'clock, when he entered his quarters at an uninviting, unfashionable hotel, the "Falcon," in the Via Vittorio. From the manner he had treated her I judged him to be a relation, probably her uncle. Yet why she should meet him clandestinely was an utter mystery.
In order still to keep watch upon the maid I made a fervent protest of affection, and frequently met her between the dinner-hour and midnight. Through all this time, however, Bindo never gave a sign, even in secret, that he was acquainted with Valentine or myself, and this very fact in itself aroused my suspicions that he knew our movements were being closely watched.
Meanwhile, Princess Helen, who had become the most popular figure in Leghorn, and had given her patronage to several functions in the cause of charity, went out a great deal, and I accompanied her very frequently to the best houses.
"Poor Bindo is having a pretty quiet time, I fear," she laughed to me one day in her easy, irresponsible way. "He is lying low."
"Waiting for the coup—eh?"
She smiled, but would, even then, tell me nothing.
Among the most devoted of her admirers was the Jew banker of Turin, Jacobi, and his wife, a stout, vulgar, over-dressed person, who was constantly dancing attendance upon her "dear Princess," as she called her. Valentine rather liked her, or pretended to, for on several occasions she lent her Rosalie to dress her hair. Jacobi himself was, it seemed, on friendly terms with Bindo. Sometimes I saw the pair strolling together at Pancaldi's, and once the young Marquis of Rapallo was with them.
One hot, stifling night, a brilliant ball was held, arranged at the Princess's instigation, in the cause of charity. All the smart world attended, and dancing was almost at an end when Bindo met me alone out upon one of the balconies.
"Go, and change at once," he whispered. "Take the car out of the town beyond the railway station, a little way on the Pisa road. There wait, but attract no attention." And the next instant he had re-entered the ballroom and was making his most elegant bow over a lady's hand.
Wondering what was the nature of the coup, I presently slipped away to my room, but as I walked along the corridor I felt almost certain that I saw Rosalie's black skirts flouncing round the corner. It was as though I had discovered her on the wrong floor, and that she had tried to escape me. The movements of that girl were so constantly suspicious.
I threw off my evening clothes, and putting on a rough suit, an overcoat, and motor-cap, went down the back staircase and along to the garage, where, amid the coming and going of the cars of departing guests, I was able to run out without being noticed.
Ten minutes later I was outside the town, and drawing up in the dark lonely road that leads across the plain for fifteen miles to quaint old Pisa, I got down and examined my tyres, pretending I had a puncture should anyone become too inquisitive. Glancing at my watch, I found it was already twenty minutes to two. The moon was overcast, and the atmosphere stifling and oppressive, precursory of a thunderstorm.
Each minute seemed an hour. Indeed, I grew so nervous that I felt half inclined to escape upon the car. Yet if I left that spot I might leave my audacious friend in the lurch, and in peril of arrest most likely.
It was close upon half-past two, as nearly as I could judge, when I heard a quick footstep in the road. I took off one of the acetylene head-lamps of the car and turned it in that direction, in order to ascertain who was coming along.
A woman in a dark stuff dress, and wearing a veil, approached quickly. A moment later, to my mingled surprise and dismay, I saw it was none other than the dainty Rosalie herself, in a very admirable disguise, which gave her an appearance of being double her age.
"Ah! monsieur!" she gasped, quite out of breath from walking so rapidly. "Drive me at once to Pisa. Don't lose a single instant. The Paris express passes at four minutes past three, and I must catch it. The last train left here three hours ago."
"Yes. I go alone."
"But—well, let us speak quite frankly. Is no one else coming?" I inquired.
"Non, m'sieur. You will take me to Pisa at once, please," she said impatiently.
So perforce I had to mount into the car, and when she had settled herself beside me, I drew off upon the dark and execrable road to the city she had indicated, in order to catch the Rome-Paris express.
Was it all a trap? I wondered. What had occurred? I dared not ask her anything, while she, on her part, preserved an absolute silence. Her only fear seemed lest she lost her train. That something had occurred was very evident, but of its nature I still remained in entire ignorance, even when, a short distance from the great echoing station, I dropped the chic little maid with whom I had for the past three weeks pretended to be so violently in love.
On getting down she told me to await her. She would be only a few minutes. This surprised me, as I thought she was leaving for Paris.
She hurried away, and as I watched her going down the road towards the station I saw the dark figure of a man emerge from the shadow and join her. For a moment he became silhouetted against the station lights, and I recognised that it was her mysterious friend.
Five minutes later she rejoined me. Then, on turning back, I was forced to remain at the level crossing until the Paris express, with its long wagon-lit, had roared past, and afterwards I put on a move, and we were soon back in Leghorn. She did not return to the hotel with me, but at her request I dropped her just before we entered the town.
Morning revealed the startling truth. Three women, occupying adjacent rooms, had lost the greater part of their valuable jewels which they had had sent from home on purpose to wear at the ball. The police were ferreting about the hotel, questioning everybody. There was commotion everywhere, and loud among those expressing amazement at the audaciousness of the thief were both Bindo and Her Highness, the latter declaring herself lucky that no attempt had been made to secure any of her own valuable jewels.
At noon I took her for a run on the car, in order to have an opportunity to chat. When we were alone on the road she said—
"You entertained a foolish but quite reasonable suspicion of Rosalie. She and Kampf, the man you saw her with, always work together. They indeed suggested this present little affair, for they knew that Italian women bring lots of jewellery here, in order to show it off. Besides, hotels are their speciality. So there seemed to Bindo no reason why we should not have a little of the best of it. The diamond necklace of the Signora Jacobi is well known to be one of the finest in all Italy; therefore, on several occasions, I lent her Rosalie for hair-dressing, and she, clever girl, very soon discovered where all the best of the stuff was kept. Bindo, in the meantime, was keeping his keen eye open in other quarters. Last night, when the Jewess went up to her room, she found her own maid had gone to bed very unwell, and the faithful Rosalie had, at my orders, taken her place. 'How kind it was of the dear Princess!' she said. When Rosalie left the room she carried with her the necklace, together with several other trifles which she had pretended to lock in the jewel-case. Ten minutes later Bindo also slipped into her hands all that he had obtained in a swift raid in two other rooms during the dance, and she left the hotel carrying away gems worth roughly, we believe, about sixteen thousand pounds sterling. Kampf was awaiting her in Pisa, and by this time is already well on his way to the frontier at Modane, with the precious packet in his pocket."
"And there is really no suspicion of us?" I asked apprehensively.
"Certainly not. Not a soul knows that Rosalie left the hotel last night. She re-entered by a window Bindo left open."
"But the garage people know that I was out," I said.
"Well, and what of that? You have had no hand in it, have you, mon cher? No. We shall remain here another week. It is quite pleasant here—and quite safe. To leave might arouse suspicion."
"Have not the police questioned Rosalie?"
"Certainly. But they have no suspicion of the maid of Princess Helen of Dornbach-Laxenburg. How could they? Especially as the Prefect and his wife were my guests at dinner last night!"
"Well," I declared, "the way the whole affair has been managed is perfectly artistic."
"Of course," she said. "We do not blunder. Only poor people and fools do that."
THE SIX NEW NOVELS
The car had again undergone a transformation.
With a new racing-body, built in Northampton, and painted dead white picked out with gilt, no one would have recognised it as the car which had carried away the clever jewel-thief from Bond Street.
Since the adventure at Leghorn I had seen nothing of La Belle Valentine. With Bindo, however, I had driven the car across from Rome to Calais by way of Ventimiglia and Marseilles, and, after crossing the Channel, I had gone alone to Northampton, and there awaited the making of the smart new racing-body.
Count Bindo di Ferraris, who seemed ever on the move, with an eye open for "a good thing," wrote me from Ilfracombe, Southampton, Manchester, Perth, Aberdeen, and other places, remitting me the necessary money, and urging me to push on the work, as he wanted the car again immediately.
At last, when it was finished, I drove it to a garage I knew at the back of Regent Street, and that same evening met him at the Royal Automobile Club. At his request, I dressed smartly and gave no outward appearance of the chauffeur; therefore he invited me to dine, and afterwards, while we sat alone in a corner of the smoking-room, he began to unfold a series of plans for the future. They were, however, hazy, and only conveyed to me an idea that we were going on a long tour in England.
I ventured to remark that to be in England, after the little affair in Bond Street, might be somewhat dangerous. He replied, however, with his usual nonchalant air—
"My dear Ewart, there's not the slightest fear. Act as I bid, and trust in me. To-morrow, at eleven, we go North together—into Yorkshire. You will be my servant again after to-night. You understand—eh?"
"Perfectly. Shall we start from here?"
"Yes. But before we set out I can only warn you that you'll want all your wits about you this time. If we have luck, we shall bring off a big thing—a very big thing."
"And if we have no luck?"
"Well—well, we shan't bring it off—that's all," he laughed.
"Where are we going?"
"Yorkshire. To spend a week at the seaside. It will do us both good. I've decided that the Scarborough air will be extremely beneficial to us. One of our friends is already there—at the Grand."
"Exactly. He's very fond of Scarborough—likes the church parade on Sundays, the music on the Spa, and all that kind of thing. So we'll join him. I wonder if we shall get through in a day?"
"We ought to—with luck," was my response; and then, after urging me to leave everything in his hands, he told me that I'd better get early to bed, and thoroughly overhaul the car early next morning, before starting.
So next day at ten he took his seat by my side outside the Club in Piccadilly, and we drove away into the traffic towards Regent's Park, on our way to that much overrated highway, the Great North Road. The day was warm and dusty, and as it was a Saturday there were police-traps out everywhere. Therefore progress was slow, for I was forced at every few miles to slow down, to escape a ten-pound fine.
Leafy Hatfield, crooked Hitchin, quaint old Stamford, we passed, until we swung into the yard of "The Angel," that antique and comfortable hotel well known to all motorists at Grantham, where we had a hasty meal.
Then out again in the sunset, we headed through Doncaster to York, and in the darkness, with our big head-lamps shining, we tore through Malton, and slipped down the hill into Scarborough. The run had been a long and dusty one, the last fifty miles in darkness and at a high speed, therefore when we pulled up before the Grand I leaned heavily upon the steering-wheel, weary and fagged.
It was about eleven o'clock at night, and Sir Charles, who had evidently been expecting our arrival in the big hall of the hotel, rushed out and greeted Bindo effusively. Then, directed by a page-boy, who sat in the Count's seat, I took the car round to Hutton's garage, close by.
With Sir Charles I noticed another man, young, with very fair hair—a mere boy, he seemed—in evening clothes of the latest cut. When I returned to the hotel I saw them all seated in the big hall over whiskies and sodas, laughing merrily together. It was late, all the other guests having retired.
Next day Bindo took the young man, whose name I discovered to be Paul Clayton, for a run on the car to Bridlington. Bindo drove, and I sat upon the step. The racing-body gave the "forty" a rakish appearance, and each time we went up and down the Esplanade, or across the Valley Bridge, we created considerable interest. After lunch we went on to Hornsea, and returned to Scarborough at tea-time.
That same evening, after dinner, I saw Bindo's new friend walking on the Esplanade with a fair-haired, well-dressed young girl. They were deep in conversation, and it struck me that she was warning him regarding something.
Days passed—warm, idle August days. Scarborough was full of visitors. The Grand was overrun by a smartly dressed crowd, and the Spa was a picturesque sight during the morning promenade. The beautiful "Belvedere" grounds were a blaze of roses, and, being private property, were regarded with envy by thousands who trod the asphalte of the Esplanade. Almost daily Bindo took Paul for a run on the car. To York, to Castle Howard, to Driffield, and to Whitby we went—the road to the last-named place, by the way, being execrable. Evidently Bindo's present object was to ingratiate himself with young Clayton, but with what ulterior motive I could not conceive.
Sir Charles remained constantly in the background. Well dressed and highly respectable, he presented a rather superior air, and walked on the Spa at certain hours, establishing a kind of custom from which he did not depart. He had now changed his name to Sinclair, while Bindo di Ferraris went under the less foreign cognomen of Albert Cornforth. I alone kept my own name, George Ewart.
As day succeeded day, I kept wondering what was really in the wind. Why were they so friendly with Paul Clayton? Of one fact I felt assured, and it was that jewels were not the object of the manoeuvre on this occasion. That Bindo and his friends had laid some deep plot was, of course, quite certain, but the Count never took me into his confidence until the last moment, when the coup was made. Therefore, try how I would, I could not discover the intentions of the gang.
From Leghorn to Scarborough is a far cry. At least we were safe from detection from all our little business affairs, save that of the Bond Street jewellers. Continually I reflected that our description had been circulated by the police, and that some enterprising constable or detective might pick upon us on the off-chance of being correct.
Count Bindo—or Albert Cornforth, as he now chose to be known—was having a most excellent time. He soon grew to know many people in the hotel, and being so essentially a ladies' man was greatly in request at the dances. Continually he apologised to the ladies for being unable to take them motoring, but, as he explained, the space on a racing-car is limited.
Thus a fortnight passed. Round at the garage were a number of cars from London, Manchester, and elsewhere, and I soon grew friendly with several expert chauffeurs, two of whom were old friends.
One day Bindo and I had been to Harrogate, dined at the Majestic, and returned. After taking the car to the garage, I went out for a turn along the Esplanade, in order to stretch my legs. It was midnight, brightly starlit, and silent save for the low soughing of the waves upon the shore. I had lit my pipe and walked nearly to the Holbeck Gardens, at the extreme end of the South Cliff, when, in the darkness, I discerned two figures sitting upon a seat in the shadow. One was a man, and the other a woman in a light evening dress, with a wrap thrown over her head and shoulders. As I passed I managed to get a glimpse of their faces. One was Paul Clayton, and the other the pretty, fair-haired young woman I had seen him with before. They were sitting in the attitude of lovers. He held her hand and, I believe, had just raised it to his lips.
I hurried on, annoyed with myself for being so inquisitive. But the beautiful face of the girl became impressed upon my memory.
Count Bindo, the nonchalant, audacious cosmopolitan, who spent money so freely, was a veritable marvel of cleverness and cunning in all matters of chicanery and fraud. He was evidently a man who, though still young, had a pretty dark record. But what it really was he carefully concealed from me. I can only admit that I had now become an adventurer like the others, for in each case I had received a certain portion of the profits of the coups which we had assisted each other in effecting. True, we lived a life full of excitement and change, but it was a life I liked, for at heart I was nothing if not a wanderer and adventurer. I liked adventure for adventure's sake, and cared nothing for the constant peril of detection. Strange how easily one can be enticed from a life of honesty into one of fraud, especially if the inducements held out are an adequate recompense for any qualm of conscience.
The actions of our friend, Sir Charles Blythe, were also rather puzzling. He seemed to be taking no part in whatever scheme was in progress. If I met him in public on the Esplanade, or elsewhere, I saluted him as a chauffeur should, but when we met unobserved I was his equal, and on several occasions I made inquiries which he refused to satisfy.
We had been nearly three weeks in Scarborough when, after dinner one evening in the big hall of the hotel I saw the audacious Bindo seated drinking coffee with a little, queer, wizen-faced, but rather over-dressed old lady, towards whom he seemed to be particularly polite. She was evidently one of those wrinkled, yellow-toothed old tabbies who still believe themselves to be attractive, for, as I watched covertly, I saw how she assumed various poses for the benefit of those seated in her vicinity. Though so strikingly dressed, in a gown trimmed with beautiful old lace, she wore no jewellery, save her wedding ring. Her airs and mannerisms were, however, amusing, and quickly made it apparent that she moved in a good set.
From the hall-porter I presently learned that she was a Mrs. Clayton, of St. Mellions Hall, near Peterborough, the widow of a wealthy Oldham cotton-spinner, who generally spent a month at that hotel each year.
"She's a quaint old girl," he informed me in confidence. "Thinks no end of herself, and always trying to hang on to some woman with a title, even if she's only a baronet's wife. Some ill-natured woman has nicknamed her the Chameleon—because she changes her dresses so often and is so fond of bright colours. But she's a good old sort," he added. "Always pretty free with her tips. Her son is here too."
Whoever or whatever she was, it was evident that Bindo was busily engaged ingratiating himself with her, having previously established a firm friendship with her son, who, by the way, had left Scarborough on the previous day.
I happened to have a friend who was chauffeur to a doctor in Peterborough, therefore I wrote to him that evening, making inquiries regarding St. Mellions and its owner. Three days later a reply came to the effect that the Hall was about ten miles from Peterborough, and one of the finest country seats in Northamptonshire. It had been the property of a well-known earl, who, having become impoverished by gambling, had sold it, together with the great estate, to old Joshua Clayton, the Lancashire millionaire. "She keeps a couple of cars," my friend concluded. "One is a Humber voiturette, and the other a twenty-four Mercedes. You know her chauffeur—Saunders—from the Napier works."
Of course I knew Saunders. He was once a very intimate friend of mine, but for the past couple of years I had lost sight of him.
Why, I wondered, was Bindo so intensely interested in the over-dressed old crone? He walked with her constantly on the Spa, or along the Esplanade; he lounged at her side when she sat to watch the parading summer girls and their flirtations, and he idled at coffee with her every evening. After a few days Sir Charles Blythe, alias Sinclair, was introduced. By prearrangement the bogus baronet chanced to be standing by the railings looking over the Spa grounds one morning when Bindo and his companion strolled by. The men saluted each other, and Bindo asked Mrs. Clayton's leave to introduce his friend. The instant the magic title was spoken the old lady became full of smiles and graces, and the trio walking together passed along in the direction of Holbeck.
Two days later Henderson appeared on the scene quite suddenly. I was walking along Westborough late one evening when somebody accosted me, and, turning, I found it was our friend—whom I believed to be still on the Continent. He was dressed as foppishly as usual, and certainly betrayed no evidence that he was a "crook."
"Well, Ewart?" he asked. "And how goes things? Who's this old crone we've got in tow? A soft thing, Bindo says."
I told him all I knew concerning her, and he appeared to be reassured. He had taken a room at the Grand, he told me, and I afterwards found that on the following morning Bindo pretended to discover him at the hotel, and introduced him to the unsuspecting old lady as young Lord Kelham. Mrs. Clayton was delighted at thus extending her acquaintanceship with England's bluest blood.
That same afternoon the old lady, who seemed to be of a rather sporting turn of mind, expressed a desire to ride upon a racing-car; therefore I brought round the "forty," and Bindo drove her over to Malton, where we had tea, and a quick run back in the evening. There are no police-traps on the road between Scarborough and York, therefore we were able to put on a move, and the old lady expressed the keenest delight at going so fast. As I sat upon the step at her feet, she seemed constantly alarmed lest I should fall off.
"My own cars never go so quickly," she declared. "My man drives at snail's pace."
"Probably because you have traps in Northamptonshire," Bindo replied. "There are always lurking constables along the Great North Road and the highways leading into it. But you must let me come and take your driver's place for a little while. If the cars are worth anything at all, I'll get the last mile out of them."
"I only wish you would come and pay me a visit, Mr. Cornforth. I should be so very delighted. Do you shoot?"
"A little," Bindo answered. "My friend, Sir Charles Sinclair, is said to be one of the best shots in England. But I'm not much of a shot myself."
"Then can't you persuade him to come with you?"
"Well, I'll ask him," my employer replied. "He has very many engagements, however. He's so well known—you see."
"He'll come if you persuade him, I'm sure," the old lady said, with what she believed to be a winning smile. "You can drive my Mercedes, and he can shoot. I always have a house-party through September, so you both must join it. I'll make you as comfortable as I can in my humble house. Paul will be at home."
"Humble, Mrs. Clayton? Why, I have, years ago, heard St. Mellions spoken of as one of the show-houses of the Midlands."
"Then you've heard an exaggeration, my dear Mr. Cornforth," was her response, as she laughed lightly. "Remember, I shall expect you, and you can bring your own car if you like. Our roads are fairly good, you'll find."
Bindo accepted with profuse thanks, and shot me a glance by which I knew that he had advanced one step further towards the consummation of his secret intentions—whatever they were. Sir Charles would, no doubt, go with us. What, I wondered, was intended?
Three weeks later we arrived one evening at St. Mellions, and found it a magnificent old Tudor mansion, in the centre of a lordly domain, and approached from the high road by a great beech avenue nearly a mile in length. The older wing of the house—part of an ancient Gothic abbey—was ivy-covered, while in front of the place was a great lake, originally the fish-pond of the Carmelite monks.
It wanted an hour before dinner when we arrived, and at sound of our horn nearly a dozen merry men and women of the house-party came forth to greet us.
"They seem a pretty smart crowd," remarked Bindo under his breath to Sir Charles, seated beside him.
"Yes, but we'll want all our wits about us," replied the other. "I hear that the wife of Gilling, the jeweller in Bond Street, is here with her daughter. Suppose her husband takes it into his head to run down here for the week-end—eh?"
"We won't suppose anything of the sort, my dear fellow. I always hate supposing. It's a bad habit when you've got your living to earn, as we have."
And with those words he ran along to the main entrance, and pulled up sharply, being greeted by our hostess herself, who, in a cream serge dress, stood upon the steps and shouted us a warm welcome.
My two friends were quickly introduced by Paul to the assembled party, while several of the men came around the car to admire it, one of them questioning me as to its horse-power, its make, and other details, inquiries which showed his ignorance. Round in the garage I found my friend Saunders, and later on he took me over the splendid old place, filled as it was with the relics of the noble but now decadent English family.
My eyes and ears were open everywhere. The house-party, numbering eighteen, consisted mostly of the parvenu set, people who having made money by trade were now attempting to pass as county families. The men possessed for the most part the air of "the City," and the womenkind were painfully "smart" without the good breeding necessary to carry it off.
After dinner, under the guidance of Saunders, I managed to get a glimpse of the great hall, where the party had assembled for coffee. It was a fine, lofty, oak-panelled old place, once the refectory of the monks, with great Gothic windows of stained glass, antique cabinets, and stands of armour. Against the dark oak, from floor to ceiling, the dresses of the women showed well, and, amid the laughter and chatter, I saw the gay, careless Bindo—a well-set-up, manly figure in his evening clothes—standing beside his hostess, chatting and laughing with her, while Sir Charles was bending over the chair of a pretty, fair-haired girl in turquoise, whom I recognised as the same girl I had seen with Paul at Scarborough. Her name was Ethel Gilling, Saunders said, and told me that young Clayton was, in secret, deeply in love with her. Would her father arrive and put a premature end to our conspiracy? I feared that he might.
Saunders asked me a good deal about my berth and position, and I fancy he envied me. He did not know that I had become a "crook" like my master, but believed me to be a mere chauffeur whose duties took him hither and thither across Europe. No chauffeur can bear private service with a cheap car in a circumscribed area. Every man who drives a motor-car—whether master or servant—longs for wide touring and a high-power car.
Contrary to Bindo's declaration, he proved to be a very good shot, while Sir Charles provoked the admiration of all the men when, next morning, they went forth in search of birds. That same afternoon Bindo drove the Mercedes containing Mrs. Clayton and three ladies of the party, while I drove one of the men—a Captain Halliday—in our own car, and we all went over to the ruins of Crowland Abbey. Saunders had told me that he had never driven the Mercedes to her full power, as his mistress was so nervous. But, with Bindo driving, the old lady now seemed to want to go faster and faster. Our car was, of course, the more powerful, and ere we had gone ten miles I put on a move, and passed my master with ease, arriving at Crowland fully twenty minutes before him.
It was, however, very apparent that Bindo, the good-looking adventurer, had wormed himself entirely into the Chameleon's good graces. Both he and Halliday escorted the ladies over the ruins, and after tea at the old-fashioned "George," we made a quick and enjoyable run home in the sunset by way of Eye, Peterborough, Castor, and Wansford.
The autumn days went by, and, amid such pleasant surroundings, our visit was proving a most merry one. Yet, try how I would, I could not see what Bindo and his friend intended.
The girl in turquoise who flirted so outrageously with young Clayton was, I discovered, also very friendly with Sir Charles. Then I saw that his partiality towards her was with a distinct object—namely, in order to be aware of her father's movements.
Truly, Bindo and Blythe were past-masters in the art of genteel scoundrelism. Adventurers of the very first water, they seldom, if ever, let me into their secrets until their plans were actually matured. Their reason for this reticence was that they believed I might show the white feather. They could not yet rely upon my audacity or courage.
Within a week Bindo was the most popular man in the house-party, the humorist of the dinner-table, and an expert in practical jokes, of which many were being played, one half the party being pitted against the other half, as is so often the case.
In the servants' hall we were also having a pretty merry time. Medhurst, the maid of Mrs. Clayton, was a particularly prepossessing young woman, and I had many chats and a few walks with her. From her, at Bindo's instigation, I learned a good deal regarding her mistress's habits and tastes, all of which I, in due course, reported to my master. A shrewd girl was Medhurst, however, and I was compelled to exercise a good deal of judicious tact in putting my questions to her.
One evening, however, while sitting alone in the park smoking, just before going to bed, I saw Bindo himself strolling at her side. She was speaking softly, but what about I could not make out. They were in a part of the park into which the guests never went, and it seemed as though she had kept a secret tryst. Not wishing to disturb them, I slipped away unobserved.
Next morning Paul Clayton went up to London in order to see his mother's solicitors, and that same afternoon, about four o'clock, Mrs. Clayton received a very urgent telegram to come at once, as her lawyers desired some instructions immediately. The message she received evidently caused her very great anxiety, for she took Medhurst, and drove in the Mercedes to Peterborough Station, where she caught the up-express at seven o'clock.
She had apologised to her house-party for her absence, explained the urgency of her presence in London, and promised to be back in time for dinner on the morrow.
She left the Hall at half-past six. At seven Bindo called me out of the servants' hall and whispered—
"Hold yourself in readiness. Go to my room at nine punctually, and you'll find on the table half a dozen novels done up in a strap. Just take them carefully, put them in the car, and then get away, first to Northampton to change the body of the car, and then to Parkeston Quay. Wait for me there at the Great Eastern Hotel, in the name of Parker. Take great care of the books. I shall give you other instructions before people presently, but take no notice of them. I'll join you as soon as it's safe."
And with that, he turned upon his heel and left me.
The dressing-gong was just sounding as I walked across to the garage, in order to look through the car and charge the lamps, prior to my night journey. I was wondering what was about to happen. That some coup was to be made that night was very evident. I spent half an hour on the car, and had all in order, when a servant came to say that my master wanted me.
I found Bindo in the hall, laughing gaily with some ladies, prior to going in to dinner.
"Oh, Ewart," he said, when I entered, cap in hand, "I want you to run the car over to Birmingham to-night, and bring Colonel Fielding here to-morrow. You know where he lives—at Welford Park. He's expecting you. The roads are all right, so you'll make good time. You'd better get a couple of outer covers, too, when you're there. You'll bring the Colonel back in time for dinner to-morrow—you understand?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, and, bowing, went out, while with the ladies he turned in the direction of the dining-room.
I idled about until the stable clock was just on the point of striking nine, when I made my way by the servants' staircase to my master's room. The corridor was in semi-darkness. I rapped, but there being no one there, I entered, switched on the light, and there upon the table found the small pile of new, cloth-bound six-shilling novels, held together with a strap of webbing, such as lawyers use to tie up their papers.
I took them up, switched off the light, and carried them downstairs to the car, which I had previously brought out into the stable-yard. My lamps were already lit, and I was in the act of putting on my frieze coat when Saunders, driving the Mercedes, passed me, going towards the main entrance of the Hall. He had a passenger—a guest from the station, judging from his dress.
As the stranger descended from the car the light over the steps revealed his face. I started. It was the jeweller I had spoken to in Bond Street—the man I had taken for the manager, but who was none other than Mr. Gilling himself!
I saw that all was lost. In a few moments he would come face to face with Bindo!
In an instant, however, I had made up my mind, and, re-entering the house, I made my way quickly through into the large hall. But Gilling was already there, kissing his wife and daughter. I glanced round, but was reassured to see both Bindo and Sir Charles were absentees. Did they know of Gilling's impending arrival?
I ran up to the rooms of both my friends, but could not find them. In Bindo's room a dress-coat had been thrown upon the bed. He had changed since I had been up there for the books. Alarmed by the news of the jeweller's arrival, they had, in all probability, changed hurriedly and slipped away. Therefore I ran down to the car, and, telling Saunders that I was off to Birmingham and should return on the morrow, I ran quietly down the long, dark avenue.
From St. Mellions to Harwich, as the crow flies, is about one hundred and thirty miles. First, however, I went to Northampton, and put the previous body on the car. Then the road I took was by Huntingdon, Cambridge, Halstead, and Colchester—in all, about one hundred and seventy miles. The night was dark, but the roads were in fairly good condition, therefore I went at as high a speed as I dared, full of wonder as to what had really happened.
Bindo's dress-coat on the bed showed that he had left, therefore I had every hope that he had not been recognised by the jeweller. After I had changed the body at the coachbuilder's at Northampton, the run to the Essex coast proved an exciting one, for I had one narrow escape at a level crossing. But to give details of the journey would serve no purpose. Suffice it to say that I duly arrived at the Great Eastern Hotel at Parkeston next morning, and registered there in the name of Parker.
Then I waited in patience until, two days later, I received a note from Bindo, and met him at some distance from the hotel. His personal appearance was greatly altered, and he was shabbily dressed as a chauffeur.
"By Jove!" he said, when we were alone, "we've had a narrow squeak. We had no idea when Henderson sent that telegram from London calling the old crone up to town that Gilling had been invited. We only heard of his impending arrival at the very moment we were bringing off the coup. Then, instead of remaining there, becoming indignant, and assisting the police, we were compelled to fly, thus giving the whole game away. If we had stayed, Gilling would have recognised us. By Jove! I never had such a tough quarter of an hour in all my life. Blythe has gone up to Scotland, and we shall ship the car across to Hamburg by to-night's boat from Parkeston. You've got those books all right? Don't lose them."
"I've left them in the car," I replied.
"Left them in the car!" he cried, glaring at me. "Are you mad?"
"Go and get them at once and lock them up in your bag. I'll show you something when we get an opportunity."
The opportunity came three days later, when we were alone together in a room in Hoefer's Hotel, in the Bahnhofs-Platz, in Hamburg. He took the books from me, undid the buckle, and, to my surprise, showed me that the centres of the popular books had been cleverly cut out, so that they were literally boxes formed by the paper leaves. And each book was filled with splendid jewels!
The haul was a huge one, for several of the diamond ornaments which had been taken from the Chameleon's safe were of great value. The old lady was passionately fond of jewellery, and spent huge sums with Mr. Gilling. We afterwards discovered that several of the finest pieces we had taken had actually been sent to her on approval by Gilling, so, curiously enough, we had touched his property on a second occasion.
"It was a difficult affair," Bindo declared. "I had to pretend to make love to Medhurst, or I should never have been able to get a cast of the safe-key. However, we've been able to take the best of the old lady's collection, and they'll fetch a good price in Amsterdam, or I'm a Dutchman myself. Of course, there's a big hue-and-cry after us, so we must lie very low over here for a bit. Fancy your leaving those novels kicking about in the car! Somebody might have wanted to read them!"
THE GENTLEMAN FROM LONDON
Months had passed since the affair of the six new novels.
In Hamburg Bindo had left me and gone to see the old Jew in Amsterdam, while I had driven the "forty" south through Lueneburg, Brunswick, and Nordhausen to Erfurt, where, passing as an English gentleman of means, I remained for three weeks at a very comfortable hotel, afterwards moving on to Dresden.
At regular intervals the Count sent me money, but he was, as usual, travelling constantly. I wrote to him to a newspaper-shop in the Tottenham Court Road, reporting my movements and my whereabouts; therefore I knew not from one day to another when I should receive sudden orders to rejoin him.
The London papers had been full of the affair of the six novels, for it was now well known that the person who had abstracted the jewels was the same who had executed such a neat manoeuvre at Gilling's. One or two of the papers actually published leaderettes upon the subject, severely criticising the incompetency of the police in such matters. I have since heard, however, that at Scotland Yard there is a proverb that the wealthier the thief the less chance of his being caught. Bindo and his friends certainly did not lack funds. The various hauls they had made, even since my association with them, must have put many thousands into their pockets.
They were a clever and daring trio. They never met unless absolutely necessary in order to arrange some ingenious piece of trickery, and they could all live weeks at the same hotel without either, by word or sign, betraying previous knowledge of each other. Indeed, Count Bindo di Ferraris was the very acme of well-dressed, well-groomed scoundrelism.
Under the name of Ernest Crawford I was idling away some pleasant weeks at the Europaeischer Hof, in the Alstadt, in Dresden, where I had made the acquaintance of a fair-haired Englishman named Upton, and his wife, a fluffy little woman some five years his junior. They had arrived at the hotel about a week after I had taken up my quarters, and as they became friendly I often took them for runs. Upton was the son of a rich Lancashire cotton-spinner, and was, I believe, on his honeymoon. Together we saw the sights of Dresden, the Royal Palace, the Green Vault, the museums and galleries, and had soon grown tired of them all. Therefore, almost daily we went for runs along the Elbe valley, delightful at that season of the vintage.
One evening, while we were sitting at coffee in the lounge and I was chatting with Mrs. Upton, her husband was joined by a friend from London, a tall, rather loud-spoken, broad-shouldered man, with a pair of merry, twinkling eyes and a reddish moustache. He was a motor-expert, I soon discovered, for on the afternoon following his arrival, when I brought the car round to the hotel, he began to examine it critically.
I had invited him to go with us to the Golden Hoehe, about six miles distant, and take tea at the restaurant, and he sat at my side as I drove. While passing through the little village of Raechnitz, Mr. Gibbs—for that was his name—suddenly asked—
"What make of car is yours?"
No wonder he asked, for so constantly had its identity been disguised that it nowadays bore about as much resemblance to a Napier as it did to a Panhard. I had always before me the fact that the police were on the look-out for a forty "Napier"; therefore I had managed to disguise it outwardly, although a glance within the "bonnet" would, of course, reveal the truth.
"Oh," I replied lightly, "it's quite an unknown make—Bellini, of Turin. I've come to the conclusion that small makers can turn out just as good a car as, and perhaps even better than, the larger firms—providing you pay a fair price."
"I suppose so," he said rather thoughtfully. "From her general build I took her to be an English Napier."
"She has the Napier cut," I remarked. "I think Bellini imitates the English style."
It was fortunate, I thought, that the "bonnet" was strapped down and locked, for the engines were stamped with their maker's name.
"You travel about a lot on her, I suppose," he went on. "It's a fine car, certainly. Did you come across the Continent?"
"Yes. I've been about Europe a good deal," I answered. "Saves railway fares, you know." And I laughed.
We were travelling quickly, and, the dust being troublesome, we pulled up, and then, after all four of us goggling, went forward again.
After tea at the Golden Hoehe Mr. Gibbs again evinced a keen interest in the car, examining it carefully, and declaring it to be a most excellent one. Then, on the run back, he again turned the conversation to motoring topics, with a strenuous desire, it seemed, to know my most recent movements.
A couple of days passed, and I found Upton's friend a most congenial companion. Each afternoon we all went out for a run, and each evening, after dining, we went to the theatre.
On the fourth day after Mr. Gibbs's arrival a messenger brought me a note which, to my surprise, I found to be from Blythe, who directed me to meet him in secret in a certain cafe in the Grosse Garten at eleven o'clock that night.
Then I knew that something further had been planned.
In accordance with the request, I went to the cafe at the hour appointed. It was crowded, but I soon discovered him, smartly dressed, and seated at a table in the corner. After we had finished our beer I followed him out into the park, where, halting suddenly, he said—
"Ewart, you've placed yourself in a pretty fine predicament!"
"What do you mean?" I asked in surprise.
"Well, I saw you yesterday afternoon driving down the Prager-strasse with the very gentleman to whom you ought to give the widest berth."
"You mean Gibbs?"
"I mean that cunning old fox, Inspector Dyer, of Scotland Yard."
"What!" I gasped. "Dyer—is that the famous Dyer?"
"He is. I once, to my cost, had occasion to meet him, and it's hardly likely that I'd forget his face. I saw you coming along with him, and you could have knocked me down with a feather."
"But I—well, I really can't believe that he's a detective," I declared, utterly incredulous.
"Believe it, or disbelieve it—it's a fact, I tell you. You've been given away somehow, and Dyer has now just got you in his palm."
Briefly I explained how I had met Upton, and how Mr. Gibbs had been introduced.
"Upton may not be what he pretends, you know," Blythe replied. "They want us very badly at Scotland Yard, and that's why the affair has been given over to Dyer. He's the man who generally does the travelling on the Continent. But you know him well enough by reputation, of course. Everyone does."
Mr. Gibbs's intense interest in the car and its maker was thus accounted for. I saw how completely I had been taken in, and how entirely I was now in the renowned detective's hands. He might already have been round to the garage, unlocked the "bonnet" with a false key, and seen the name "Napier" stamped upon the engine.
How, I wondered, had he been able to trace me? No doubt the fact that we had shipped the car across from Parkeston to Hamburg was well known to Scotland Yard, yet since that night it had undergone two or three transformations which had entirely disguised it. I was rapidly growing a moustache, too, and had otherwise altered my personal appearance since I posed as Bindo's chauffeur in Scarborough.
"The Count, who is lying low in a small hotel in Duesseldorf, wants you to meet him with the car in Turin in a fortnight's time—at the Hotel Europe. A Russian princess is staying there—and we have a plan. But it seems very probable that you'll be waiting extradition to Bow Street if you don't make a bold move, and slip out of Dyer's hands."
"Yes," I said thoughtfully. "If Gibbs is really Dyer himself, then, I fear, that although I've been discreet—for I make a point of never telling my business to strangers—yet he has more than a suspicion that the car is the same as the one I drove daily on the Esplanade at Scarborough."
"And if he has a suspicion he has probably wired to England for one of the witnesses to come out and identify you—Gilling himself, most probably."
"Then we're in a most complete hole!" I declared, drawing a long face.
"Absolutely. What are you going to do?"
"What can I do?"
"Get out of it—and at once," replied Blythe coolly. "If Dyer discovers and tries to prevent your escape, make a bold fight for it," and from his hip-pocket he drew a serviceable-looking plated revolver, and handed it to me with the remark that it was fully loaded.
I saw that my position was one of peril. Even now, Dyer might have watched me keeping this appointment with Blythe.
"I shall leave for Leipzig in an hour," my friend said. "You'd better return to the hotel, get the car, and make a dash for it."
"Why should I get the car?" I queried "Why not slip away at once?"
"If you tried to you'd probably be 'pinched' at the station. Dyer is an artful bird, you know. Once up with you, he isn't likely to lose sight of you for very long."
As he was speaking I recognised, seated at a table before the cafe some distance away, my friend Upton, idly smoking a cigar, and apparently unconscious of my proximity.
"That's all right," declared Blythe, when I had pointed him out. "It proves two things—first, that this Mr. Upton is really one of the younger men from the Yard, and, secondly, that Dyer has sent him after you to watch where you went to-night. That's fortunate, for if Dyer himself had come it's certain he would have recognised me. I gave him a rather nasty jag when he arrested me four years ago, so it isn't very likely he forgets. And now let's part. At all hazards, get away from Dresden. But go back to the hotel first, so as to disarm suspicion. When you are safe, wire to the address in the Tottenham Court Road. So long."
And without another word the well-dressed jewel-thief turned on his heels, and disappeared in the darkness of the leafy avenue.
My feelings were the reverse of happy as I made my way back to the Europaeischer Hof. To obtain the car that night would be to arouse suspicion that I had discovered Mr. Gibbs's identity. My safety lay in getting away quietly and without any apparent haste. Indeed, when I gained my room and calmly thought it all over, I saw that it would be policy to wait until next day, when I could obtain the car from the garage as usual, and slip away before the crafty pair were aware of my absence.
The reason they had not applied to the German police to arrest me could be but one. They had sent to London for someone to come and identify me. This person might arrive at any moment. Dyer had been in Dresden already four days; therefore, every minute's delay was dangerous.
After long and careful consideration, I resolved to wait until the morrow. No sleep, however, came to my eyes that night, as you may well imagine. All the scandal of arrest, trial, and imprisonment rose before me as the long night hours dragged on. I lit the stove in my room, and carefully destroyed everything that might give a possible clue to my identity, and then sat at the window, watching for day to break.
Surely Dyer and Upton had achieved a very clever piece of detective work to discover me as they had. I had done my utmost, as I thought, to efface my identity and to give the car an entirely different appearance from that which it had presented at Scarborough. The only manner in which I had been "given away" was, I believed, by means of some English five-pound notes which Bindo had sent me from Stettin, and which I had cashed in Dresden. If these had been stolen—as most probably they had been—then it would well account for the sudden appearance of Mr. Upton and his very charming wife, who had come holiday-making to Germany. Upton had, in his turn, sent information to his superior officer, Inspector Dyer, who had come out to see for himself.
What an awful fool I had been! How completely I had fallen into the cunningly baited trap!
At last the grey dawn came, spreading to a bright autumn morning. The roads outside were dry and dusty. I meant, in a few hours, to make a breakneck dash out of Dresden, and to hide somewhere in the country. To attempt to escape by rail would be folly. But if either man was on the watch and invited himself to go for a run with me? What then?
I grasped the weapon in my pocket and set my teeth hard, recollecting Blythe's words.
At eight I ordered my coffee, and, drinking it in feverish haste, went down to the rear of the hotel where the garage was situated. While crossing the courtyard, however, I met Upton, who had a habit of early rising, and was apparently idling about. I purposely did not wear my motor-cap, but my pockets were stuffed with all my belongings that were portable.
"Hulloa!" he cried cheerily. "What are you doing to-day—eh?"
"Well," I said, with apparent indifference, "I'm just going to look round the car before breakfast. Perhaps I'll go for a run later on. The roads are still in perfect condition."
"Then I'll go with you," was his prompt reply. "My wife has a bad headache, and won't go out to-day. Gibbs, too, is full of business in the town. So let's go together."
Instantly I saw the ruse. He had been awaiting me, and did not mean that I should go for a run unaccompanied.
"Certainly," I replied promptly. "Shall you be ready in half an hour?"
"I'm ready now. I've had my coffee." His response was, to say the least, disconcerting. How was I to get rid of him? My only chance lay in remaining perfectly calm and indifferent. A witness to testify to my identity was, no doubt, on his way out from England, and the two detectives were holding me up until his arrival.
Together we walked to the car, and for nearly half an hour I was occupied in filling the petrol-tank and putting everything in order for a long and hard journey. A breakdown would probably mean my arrest and deportation to Bow Street. My only safety lay in flight. During the night I had studied the road-book with infinite care, and decided to make a dash out of Dresden along the Elbe bank as far as Meissen, and thence by Altenburg across to Erfurt. Upton's self-invitation to go with me had, however, entirely upset my plans.
At last I returned to my room, obtained my motor-cap, coat, and goggles, and, having started the engine, got up at the wheel. My unwelcome friend swung himself up beside me, and we glided out into the Prager-strasse and through the fine capital of Saxony.
My friend, in his smart motor coat and cap, certainly gave no outward sign of his real profession. Surely no one would have taken him to be an emissary of the Metropolitan Police. As he sat beside me he chatted merrily, for he possessed a keen sense of humour, and it must have struck him that the present position was really amusing—from his point of view.
In half an hour we were out upon a fine level road running on the left bank of the Elbe. It was a bright sunny autumn morning, and, travelling swiftly as we were, it was delightfully exhilarating. Passing through old-world Meissen, with its picturesque gabled houses, we continued on another fifteen miles to a small place called Riesa, and when about three miles farther on I summoned courage to carry out a scheme over which, during the run, I had been deeply pondering.
We were in a lonely part of the road, hidden by the long row of poplars lining the broad winding river. On the one side were the trees, and on the other high sloping vine-lands. The road curved both before and behind us, therefore we were well concealed.
Pulling up suddenly, I said—
"There's something wrong. One cylinder is not working—sparking-plug broken, I suppose."
To allow me to descend he got down. Then having unlocked the "bonnet" and pretended to fiddle with the plug, I again relocked it. Afterwards I felt the axles all round, saw to the tyres, and, having watched my opportunity, while he was at that moment standing with his back to me, his face turned towards the river, I suddenly sprang into the wheel and drew off.
In an instant, with a loud shout, "No, you don't!" he sprang forward upon the step and raised himself into the seat he had occupied. Quick as thought, I whipped my revolver out with my left hand, and, guiding the car with my right, cried—
"I know you, Mr. Upton. Get down, or I'll shoot you!"
His face blanched, for he had no idea I was armed.
"Get down—quick!" I ordered. "I shan't ask you again."
The car was gathering speed, and I saw that if he attempted to drop off he would probably be hurt. He glanced at the road and then at me.
"You won't escape so easily as this, Mr. Ewart!" he cried. "We want you for several jewel robberies, you know. Don't you think you'd better go quietly? If you shoot me you'll only hang for it. Now do you think that's really worth while? Is such a game worth the candle?"
Without replying, I slowed down again.
"I tell you to get off this car—otherwise you must take the consequences," was my cool response. Those were terribly exciting moments, and how I remained so calm I cannot tell. My whole future depended upon my extrication from that impasse. Perhaps that is why my wits had, in that moment, become so sharpened.
"I shall stay with you," was the police-officer's defiant reply, as, with a sudden movement, he grabbed my left wrist in an endeavour to wrest the weapon from my grasp. Next second I had stopped the car, pressed down the brake, and thus had both my hands free.
In a moment the struggle became desperate. He fought for his life, for he saw that, now he had defied me, I meant what I threatened. No doubt he was physically stronger than myself, and at first he had the advantage; but not for long, because, resorting to a ruse taught me long ago by a man who was a professional wrestler at the music-halls, I succeeded in turning the muzzle of the weapon into his face.
If I had liked, I could have pulled the trigger and blown half his head away. Yet, although I had become the accomplice of a daring gang of jewel-thieves, and though one of them had given me the weapon to use in case of need, I had neither desire nor intention of becoming a murderer.
For fully six or seven minutes we were locked in deadly embrace. Upton, time after time, tried to turn the weapon upon me, and so compel me to give it up under threats of death. In this, however, he was unsuccessful, though more than once he showered at me fierce imprecations.
He had his thin, sinewy hands in my collar, and was pressing his bony knuckles into my throat, until I was half throttled, when, of a sudden, by dint of an effort of which I had never believed myself capable, I gave his arm a twist which nearly dislocated his shoulder and forced him to release his hold. I still had the revolver tightly clenched in my right hand, for I had now succeeded in changing it from my left, and at last slipped it back into my hip-pocket, leaving both hands free. Then, in our desperate struggle, he tried to force me backwards over the steering-wheel, and would have done so had I not been able to trip him unexpectedly. In a second I had flung my whole weight upon him and sent him clutching at the air over the splashboard, and so across the "bonnet" to the ground.
In a moment I restarted the car, but not before he had risen and remounted upon the step.
"You shan't get away!" he cried. "Even if you leave me here you'll be arrested by the German police before night. They already have your description."
"Enough!" I cried savagely, again whipping out my weapon. "Get down—or I'll shoot!"
"Shoot, then!" he shouted defiantly.
"Take that instead!" I replied, and, with the butt-end of the weapon, I struck him full between the eyes, causing him to fall back into the road, where he lay like a log.
Without a second glance at him, I allowed the car to gather speed, and in a few moments was running across a flat, level plain at quite fifty miles an hour. Upton lay insensible, and the longer he remained so the farther afield I should be able to get without information being sent before me.
Mine was now a dash for liberty. Having gone twenty miles, I pulled up, and, unfastening one of the lockers within the car, I drew out the complete disguise which Bindo always kept there for emergencies. I had purposely halted in a side road, which apparently only led to some fields, and, having successfully transformed myself into a grey-bearded man of about fifty-five, I drew out a large tin of dark-red enamel and a brush, and in a quarter of an hour had transformed the pale-blue body into a dark-red one. So, within half an hour, both myself and the car were utterly disguised, even to the identification-plates, both back and front. The police would be on the look-out for a pale-blue car, driven by a moustached young man in a leather-peaked motor-cap, while they would only see passing a dark-red car driven by its owner, a respectable-looking middle-aged man in a cloth golf-cap, gloves, and goggles.
I looked at myself in satisfaction by aid of the little mirror, and then I regarded the hastily-daubed car. Very soon the dust would cling to the enamel, and thus effectually disguise the hurriedness of my handiwork. There was, of course, no doubt that Upton and Dyer would move heaven and earth to rediscover me, therefore in my journey forward I was compelled to exercise all caution.
On consulting my road-book I found that the spot where I had pulled up was about three miles from Wurzen, on the main Leipzig road, therefore I decided to give the latter city a wide berth, and took a number of intricate by-roads towards Magdeburg, hoping to be able to put the car in safe keeping somewhere, and get thence by rail across to Cologne and Rotterdam, in which city I might find a safe asylum.
Any attempt to reach Turin was now impossible, and when late that night I entered the little town of Dessau I sent a carefully worded telegram to Bindo at the little newspaper-shop in the Tottenham Court Road, explaining that, though free, I was still in peril of arrest.
Shortly after midnight, while passing through a little town called Zerbst, half-way between Dessau and Magdeburg, I heard a loud shouting behind me, and, turning, saw a policeman approaching hurriedly.
"Where are you from?" he inquired breathlessly.
"From Berlin," was my prompt answer. "I left there at six o'clock this evening." I know a little German, and made the best use I could of it.
By the light of his lantern he examined my identification-plates, and noted the colour of the car.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir, but I must ask you to come with me to the police-office."
"Why?" I inquired, with well-assumed indignation. "My lamps are all alight, and I have contravened no law, surely!"
"You are an Englishman. I hear that from your speech."
"That is so. My name is Hartley—William Hartley, and I live in Liverpool."
"We shall not detain you long," was his reply. "I am only carrying out an order we have received."
"An order—what order?"
"To arrest an Englishman who is escaping on a motor-car."
"And am I the Englishman, pray?" I asked sarcastically. "Come, this is really too huge a joke! Haven't you got the gentleman's personal description? What has he done that you should be in search of him?"
"I don't know. The chief has all particulars. Let us go together."
"Oh, very well," I laughed reluctantly. "Just get up here, and I'll drive you to the office. Which way is it?"
"Straight along," he said, climbing clumsily into the seat beside me. "Straight along almost to the end of the town, and then sharp to the left. I will show you."
As soon as he had settled himself I put such a move on the car that his breath was almost taken away. Should I take him out into the darkness beyond the town and there drop him? If I did so, I should surely be arrested, sooner or later. No. The car was disguised by its dark-red enamel, and though I had no intention of going into a brilliantly-lighted office, I felt certain that, if I kept cool, I could allay the suspicion of the police-official on night-duty.
Ten minutes later I pulled up before the police-office and got down. In order not to enter into the light, I made an excuse that my engine was not running properly, unlocked the "bonnet" and tinkered with it until the official came out to inspect me.
He was a burly, fair-bearded man, with a harsh, gruff voice.
In his hand he carried a slip of paper, which he consulted by the light of my glaring head-lamps. I saw that it was a copy of a telegram he had received giving my description, for the previous identification-number of the car was written there.
For a few moments he stood in silence with the man who had arrested my progress, then, seeing from his face that he found both myself and the car the exact opposite of what was reported, I said, in an irritated tone of indignation—
"I must really object to being thus brought here against my will. As a foreigner, I cannot entertain a very high estimate of the intelligence of the police of Zerbst."
"I trust you will pardon us," was the gruff man's reply, bowing. "It was the very fact that you were an Englishman that caused suspicion to rest upon you. It is an Englishman who is wanted for extensive jewel robberies. His name is Ewart."
"A very common name in England," was my reply. "But will it not appear a little too high-handed if you arrest every Englishman who rides in a motor-car in any part of Germany on suspicion that he is this thief Ewart? How do they describe the car?"
"Pale-blue," he admitted.
"Well, mine is scarcely that—is it?" I asked, as he stood beside me.
The "bonnet" was open, and by the light of the policeman's lantern he was admiring the six bright cylinders.
"No," he responded. Even now, however, the bearded fellow seemed only half convinced. But German officials are a particularly hide-bound genus of mankind.
He saw, however, that I had now grown exasperated, and presently, after putting a few further questions to me, he expressed his regret that I should have suffered any delay or inconvenience, and politely wished me a pleasant journey to my destination.
A lucky escape, I thought, when once again I was out on the broad high road to Magdeburg, my head-lamps showing a stream of white light far along the dusty way.
Instead of getting into Magdeburg, as I believed, I found myself, an hour later, in a dark, ill-lit town upon a broad river, and discovered that I was in Schoenebeck, on the main road to Hanover. The distance to the latter city was one hundred miles, and, as I could get away from there by half a dozen lines of railway, I decided to push forward, even though for the past eighteen hours I had only had a piece of bread and a mug of beer at Dessau.