"It's very good of you, Ralph,—" I began.
"It's nothing of the sort," he answered. "It's your rightful position. The Fakenham estates have been held by the heir apparent for generations. Tell me a little about this Miss Delora."
"I'll bring her to see you presently, Ralph," I answered.
"You are in earnest, then?" he remarked, with a smile.
"I believe so," I answered.
He looked at me once more, searchingly.
"There is something on your mind, Austen," he said,—"something bothering you. I believe it is about these Deloras, too. Is there something about them which you can't understand, eh?"
"There is, Ralph," I admitted. "You saw what Dicky said. They are people of consequence in their own country, at any rate, yet over here the man seems to behave like a hunted criminal."
"Dicky also said," Ralph remarked, "that the man was intrusted with some business over here for his government. Nasty underhand lot, those republics of the Southern Hemisphere. I dare say he is driven to be a bit mysterious to carry the thing through."
"I shall know more about it soon, I hope," I answered. "I'll go and ring Freddy up, if you don't mind, now."
"I'm off to my room, at any rate, old chap," he said. "Groves is going abroad for a month's holiday, and he has brought some papers for me to look through. See you some time to-morrow."
I made my way into the little sitting-room which belonged to the suite of rooms my brother had placed at my disposal. There I rang up Lord Frederic Maynard, my first cousin, and a junior member of the government. The butler told me that Lord Frederic was dining, but would doubtless speak to me for a moment. In a minute or two I heard his familiar voice.
"Freddy," I said, "I want to meet the Chinese ambassador."
"Eleven till one to-night here," he answered. "What the devil do you want with him?"
"Do you mean that he is coming to your house to-night?" I asked.
"Exactly," Freddy answered. "We've a political reception, semi-diplomatic. I saw our old friend only yesterday, and he reminded me that he was coming."
"You're a brick, Freddy!" I answered. "I'll be round."
"You have not answered my question," he reminded me.
"I'll tell you later," I answered, and rang off.
I was at Maynard House very soon after eleven, and, after chatting for a little while with my hostess, I hung around near the entrance, watching the arrivals. About midnight His Excellency the Chinese ambassador was announced, and I felt a little thrill of exultation. I was right! The tall, powerful-looking man whom I saw bowing over my cousin's hand was indeed the person whom I had seen with Delora a few hours ago. I ran Freddy to ground, and presently I found myself also bowing before His Excellency. He regarded me through his horn-rimmed spectacles with a benign and pleasant expression. I had been in the East, and I talked for a few moments upon the subjects which I thought would interest him.
"Your Excellency, I dare say, is well acquainted with London," I remarked, apropos of something he said.
"I know your great city only indifferently," he answered. "I am always anxious to take the opportunity of seeing more of it."
"Last evening, for instance," I remarked, "Your Excellency was, I think, exploring a very interesting neighborhood."
"Last evening," he repeated. "Let me think. No, not last evening, Captain Rotherby! I was giving a little dinner at my own house."
I looked at him for a moment in silence. There was nothing to be learned from his expression.
"I thought," I said, "that I saw your Excellency in a street near Shaftesbury Avenue, leaving a small foreign restaurant,—the Cafe Universel. Your Excellency was with a man named Delora."
Very slowly the ambassador shook his head.
"Not me!" he said. "Not me! I did dine with the younger members of the Legation in Langham Place. What name did you say?"
"A man named Delora," I repeated.
Once more the ambassador shook his head, slowly and thoughtfully.
"Delora!" he repeated. "The name is unknown to me. There are many others of my race in London now," he continued. "The costume, perhaps, makes one seem like another to those who look and pass by."
I bowed very low. It was the most magnificently told lie to which I had ever listened in my life! His Excellency smiled at me graciously as I made my adieux, and passed on. Despite my disappointment, I felt that I was now becoming profoundly interested in my quest. The evidence, too, was all in favor of Delora. It seemed, indeed, as though this undertaking in which he was involved might, after all, be connected with other things than crime!
It was past one o'clock in the morning when I returned to the hotel, yet the porter who admitted me pointed toward the figure of a man who stood waiting in the dimly lit hall.
"There is a person here who has been waiting to see you for some hours, sir," he said. "His name is Fritz."
"To see me?" I repeated.
The man came a step forward and saluted. I recognized him at once. It was the commissionnaire at the Cafe Universel.
"It is quite right," I told the porter. "You had better come up to my rooms," I added, turning to Fritz.
I led the way to the lift and on to my sitting-room. There I turned up the electric lights and threw myself into an easy-chair.
"Well, Fritz," said I, "I hope that you have brought me some news."
"I have lost my job, sir," the man answered, a little sullenly.
"How much was it worth to you?" I asked.
"It was worth nearly two pounds a week with tips," he declared, speaking with a strong foreign accent.
"Then I take you into my service at two pounds ten a week from to-night," I said. "The engagement will not be a long one, but you may find it lucrative."
The man fingered his hat and looked at me stolidly.
"I am not a valet, sir," he replied.
"If you were I should not employ you," I answered. "You can make yourself very useful to me in another direction, if you care to."
"I am very willing, sir," the man declared,—"very willing indeed. I have a wife and children, and I cannot afford to be out of employment."
"Come, then," I said. "The long and short of it is this. I want to discover the whereabouts of the man who was with the Chinaman at your restaurant last evening."
The man looked at me with something like surprise in his face.
"You do not know that?" he said.
"I do not," I admitted. "Your business will be to find out."
"And what do I get," the man asked, "if I do discover the staying place of that gentleman?"
"A ten-pound note," I answered, "down on the nail."
A slow smile suffused Fritz's face.
"I will tell you now," he said. "You have the ten pounds, so?"
"I have it ready," I answered, rising to my feet. "Come on, Fritz, you are a brave fellow, and I promise you it shall not end at ten pounds."
"You are serious?" Fritz persisted. "This is not a joke?"
"Not in the least," I assured him. "Why should you think so?"
The smile on the man's face broadened.
"Because," he said, "that gentleman—he is staying here, in this very hotel."
For a moment I was silent. The thing seemed impossible!
"How on earth do you know that, Fritz?" I asked.
"I will tell you," Fritz answered. "There was a night, not long ago, when he did come to the restaurant with the Chinese gentleman. They talked for a long time, and then I was sent for into the private room where they were taking dinner. The gentleman he wrote a note and he gave it to me. He said, 'You will take a hansom cab and you will drive to Claridge's Hotel. You will give this to the cashier, and he will hand you a small parcel which you will bring here.' I told him that I could not leave my post, but he had already seen the proprietor. So I came to this very hotel with that note, and I did take back to the restaurant a small parcel wrapped in brown paper."
"Fritz," I said, "sit down in that easy-chair and help yourself to whiskey and soda. I am sorry that I have not beer, but you must do the best you can with our own national drink. Take a cigar, too. Make yourself quite comfortable. I am going downstairs to the reception office. If I find that what you have told me is true, there will be two five-pound notes in my hand for you when I come back."
"So!" Fritz declared, accepting my hospitality with calm satisfaction.
I descended into the hall of the hotel and made my way to the reception office. The one clerk on duty was reading a novel, which he promptly laid aside at my approach. It occurred to me that my task, perhaps, might not prove so easy, as Delora would scarcely be staying here under his own name.
"I wanted to ask you," I said, "if you have a gentleman here named Delora."
The man shook his head.
"There is no one of that name in the hotel, sir," he answered.
"I scarcely expected that there would be," I remarked. "The fact is, the gentleman whom I want to find, and whom I know is or was staying here, is using another name which I have not heard. You know who I am?"
"Certainly, Captain Rotherby!" the man replied. "You are Lord Welmington's brother."
"You will understand, then," I said, "that if I ask questions which seem to you impertinent, I do so because the matter is important, and not from any idle curiosity."
"Quite so, sir," the man answered. "I shall be pleased to tell you anything I can."
"This gentleman of whom I am in search, then," I answered, "he would have arrived probably last Wednesday evening from the Continent. I do not know what name he would give, but it would probably not be the name of Delora. He is rather tall, pale, thin, and of distinctly foreign appearance. He has black eyes, black imperial, and looks like a South American, which, by the bye, I think he is. Does that description help you to recognize him?"
"I think so, sir," the man answered. "Do you happen to know whether, by any chance, he would be a friend of the Chinese ambassador?"
"I should think it very likely," I answered. "He is staying here, then?"
"He was staying here until a few hours ago, sir," the man answered. "He came in about ten o'clock and went at once to his rooms, sent for his bill, and left the hotel in a great hurry. I remember the circumstance particularly, because he had said nothing about his going, and from the manner of his return and his hasty departure it is quite clear that he had not expected to leave so soon himself."
I was a little staggered. It seemed hard luck to have so nearly succeeded in my search, only to have failed at the last moment. It was maddening, too, to think that for all these hours I had been in the same hotel as the man whom I so greatly desired to find!
"Tell me, did he leave any address?" I asked.
"None whatever, sir," the man answered. "Our junior clerk here asked him where he would wish letters to be forwarded, and he replied that there would not be any. I think he said that he was leaving for abroad almost at once, but would call before he sailed in case there were any letters or messages for him."
"Tell me under what name he stayed here?" I asked.
"Mr. Vanderpoel," the man told me.
"He was quite alone, I suppose?" I asked.
"Absolutely," the man answered. "He had a few callers at different times, but he spent most of his time in his rooms. If you are particularly anxious to discover his whereabouts," the clerk continued, "the night porter who would have started him off is still on duty."
"I should like very much to speak to him," I said.
The clerk touched a bell, and the porter came in from outside.
"You remember Mr. Vanderpoel leaving this evening?" the clerk asked.
"Certainly, sir," the man answered. "He went at about eleven o'clock."
"Did he go in a cab?" the clerk asked.
"In a four-wheeler, sir," the porter answered.
"Do you remember what address he gave?"
The porter looked dubious for a moment.
"I don't absolutely remember, sir," he said, "but I know that it was one of the big railway stations."
The clerk turned to me.
"Is there anything else you would like to ask?" he inquired.
I shook my head.
"No, thanks!" I answered. "I am afraid there is nothing more to be learned."
The porter went back to his duties, and I bade the clerk good night. Up in my room Fritz was waiting anxiously.
"You were right and wrong," I announced. "Mr. Delora has been staying here and left to-night."
"He has gone!" Fritz exclaimed.
"He left at eleven o'clock," I answered. "He saw me, and I suppose he knew that I was looking for him. Here's half your money, anyhow," I continued, giving him a five-pound note. "The next thing to do is to find out where he has gone to. I think you could help here, Fritz."
"What must I do?" the man asked.
"First of all," I said, "go to the big railway hotels and try and find out from one of the porters—you Germans all stick together—whether any one arrived in a four-wheel cab at between eleven and twelve this evening, whose description coincides with that of Mr. Delora. I reckon that will take you most of to-morrow. When you have finished come to me at the Milan Court, and let me know how you have got on."
"So!" the man remarked, rising from his seat. "To-morrow morning I will do that. They will tell me, these fellows. I know many of them."
"Good night, Fritz, then!" I said. "Good luck!"
Early on the following morning I moved back to my rooms in the Milan Court. Curiously enough I entered the building with a sense of depression for which I could not account. I went first to my own rooms and glanced at my letters. There was nothing there of importance. In other words, there was nothing from Felicia. I descended to the fifth floor and knocked at the door of her room. As I stood there waiting I was absolutely certain that somehow or other a change had occurred in the situation, that the freeness of my intercourse with Felicia was about to be interfered with. I was not in the least surprised when the door was at last cautiously opened, and a woman who was a perfect stranger to me stood on the threshold, with the handle of the door still in her hand.
"I should like to see Miss Delora," I said. "My name is Captain Rotherby."
The woman shook her head. She was apparently French, and of the middle-class. She was dressed in black, her eyes and eyebrows were black, she had even the shadow of a moustache upon her upper lip. To me her appearance was singularly forbidding.
"Miss Delora cannot see you," she answered, with a strong foreign accent.
"Will you be so good as to inquire if that is so?" I answered. "I have an appointment with Miss Delora for this morning, and a motor-car waiting to take her out."
"Miss Delora cannot receive you," answered the woman, almost as though she had not heard, and closed the door in my face.
There was nothing left for me but to go down and interview my friend the hall-porter. I commenced my inquiries with the usual question.
"Any news of Mr. Delora, Ashley?" I asked.
"None at all, sir," the man replied. "A companion has arrived for Miss Delora."
"So I have discovered for myself," I answered. "Do you know anything about her, Ashley?"
The man shook his head.
"She arrived here yesterday afternoon," he said, "with a trunk. She went straight up to Miss Delora's room, and I have not seen them apart since."
"Do they come down to the cafe?" I asked.
"So far, sir," the man answered, "they have had everything served in their sitting-room."
I went back to my room and rang up number 157. The voice which answered me was the voice of the woman who had denied me admission to the room.
"I wish to speak to Miss Delora," I said.
"Miss Delora is engaged," was the abrupt answer.
"Nonsense!" I answered. "I insist upon speaking to her. Tell her that it is Captain Rotherby, and she will come to the telephone."
There was a little whirr, but no answer. The person at the other end had rung off. By this time I was getting angry. In five minutes time I rang up again. The same voice answered me.
"Look here," I said, "if you do not let me speak to Miss Delora, I shall ring up every five minutes during the day!"
"Monsieur can do as he pleases," was the answer. "I shall lay the receiver upon the table. It will not be possible to get connected."
"Do, if you like," I answered, "but how about when Mr. Delora rings you up?"
The woman muttered something which I did not catch. A moment afterwards, however, her voice grew clear.
"That is not your business," she said sharply.
I tried to continue the conversation, but in vain. Nothing came from the other end but silence. I busied myself for a time glancing at a few unimportant letters, and afterwards descended to lunch in the cafe. I fancied, for a moment, that Louis' self-possession was less perfect than usual. He certainly showed some surprise when he saw me, and he came to my table with a little less alacrity.
"Louis," I said, "I shall order my lunch from some one else, not from you."
"Monsieur has lost confidence?" he asked.
"Not in your judgment, Louis," I answered.
Louis looked me straight in the eyes. It was not a practice which he often indulged in.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "you should be on our side. It would not be necessary then to interfere with any of your plans."
He looked at me meaningly, and I understood.
"It is you, Louis, I presume, whom I have to thank for the lady upstairs?" I remarked.
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Why do you seek the man Delora?" he asked. "What concern is it of yours? If you persist, the consequences are inevitable."
"If you will take the trouble to convince me, Louis,—" I said.
Louis interrupted me; it was unlike him. His little gesture showed that he was very nearly angry.
"Monsieur," he said, "sometimes you fail to realize that at a word from us the hand of the gendarme is upon your shoulder. We would make use of your aid gladly, but it must be on our terms—not yours."
"State them, Louis," I said.
"We will tell you the truth," Louis answered slowly. "You shall understand the whole business. You shall understand why Delora is forced to lie hidden here in London, what it is that he is aiming at. When you know everything, you can be an ally if you will. On the other hand, if you disapprove, you swear upon your honor as a gentleman—an English gentleman—that no word of the knowledge which you have gained shall pass your lips!"
"Louis," I said, "I will have my lunch and think about this."
Louis departed with his customary smile and bow. I ordered something cold from the sideboard within sight, and a bottle of wine which was opened before me. There scarcely remained any doubt in my mind now but that some part of Delora's business, at any rate, in this country, was criminal. Louis' manner, his emphatic stipulation, made it a matter of certainty. Again I found myself confronted by the torturing thought that if this were so Felicia could scarcely be altogether innocent. Once when Louis passed me I stopped him.
"Louis," I said, "let me ask you this. Presuming things remain as they are, and I act independently, do you intend to prevent my seeing Miss Delora?"
"It is nothing to do with me," Louis lied. "It is the wish of her uncle."
"Thank you!" I answered. "I wanted to know."
I finished my luncheon. Louis saw me preparing to depart and came up to me. My table was set in a somewhat obscure corner, and we were practically alone.
"I will ask you a question, Louis," I said. "There is no reason why you should not answer it. There are laws from a legal point of view, and laws from a moral point. From the former, I realize that I am, at this moment, a criminal—possibly, as you say, in your power. Let that pass. What I want you to tell me is this,—the undertaking in which Mr. Delora is now engaged, is it from a legal point of view a criminal one, or is it merely a matter needing secrecy from other reasons?"
Louis stood thoughtfully silent for some few moments.
"Monsieur," he said at last, "I will not hide the truth from you. According to the law in this country Mr. Delora is engaged in a conspiracy."
"Political?" I asked.
"No!" Louis answered. "A conspiracy which is to make him and all others who are concerned in it wealthy for life."
"But the Deloras are already rich," I remarked.
"Our friend," Louis said, "has speculated. He has lost large sums. Besides, he loves adventures. What shall you answer, Captain Rotherby?"
"It is war, Louis," I said. "You should know that. If I have to pay the penalty for taking the law into my hands over the man Tapilow, I am ready to answer at any time. As for you and Delora, and the others of you, whoever they may be, it will be war with you also, if you will. I intend, for the sake of the little girl upstairs, to solve all this mystery, to take her away from it if I can."
Louis' eyes had narrowed. The look in his face was almost enough to make one afraid.
"It is a pity," he said. "Even if you had chosen to remain neutral—"
"I should not do that unless I could see as much of Miss Delora as I chose," I interrupted.
"If that were arranged," Louis said slowly,—"mind, I make no promises,—but I say if that were arranged, would it be understood between us that you stopped your search for Mr. Delora, and abandoned all your inquiries?"
"No, Louis," I answered, "unless I were convinced that Miss Delora herself was implicated in these things. Then you could all go to the devil for anything I cared!"
"Your interest," Louis murmured, "is in the young lady, then?"
"Absolutely and entirely," I answered. "Notwithstanding what you have told me, and what I have surmised, the fact that you stood by me in Paris would be sufficient to make me shrug my shoulders and pass on. I am no policeman, and I would leave the work of exposing Delora to those whose business it is. But you see I have an idea of my own, Louis. I believe that Miss Delora is innocent of any knowledge of wrong-doing. That I remain here is for her sake. If I try to discover what is going on, it is also for her sake!"
"Monsieur has sentiment," Louis remarked, showing his teeth.
"Too much by far, Louis," I answered. "Never mind, we all have our weak spots. Some day or other somebody may even put their finger upon yours, Louis."
"Why not, monsieur?" he said.
In my rooms a surprise awaited me. Felicia was there, walking nervously up and down my little sitting-room She stopped short as I entered and came swiftly towards me. In the joy of seeing her so unexpectedly I would have taken her into my arms, but she shrank back.
"Felicia!" I exclaimed. "How did you come here?"
"Madame Muller went down for lunch," Felicia answered. "I said that I had a headache, and stole up here on the chance of seeing you."
"They are making a prisoner of you!" I exclaimed.
"It is your fault," she answered.
I looked at her in surprise. Her face was stained with tears. Her voice shook with nervousness.
"You have been making secret inquiries about my uncle," she said. "You have been seen talking to those who wish him ill."
"How do you know this, Felicia?" I asked calmly.
"Oh, I know!" she answered. "They have told me."
"Who?" I asked. "Who has told you?"
"Never mind," she answered, wringing her hands. "I know. It is enough. Capitaine Rotherby, I have come to ask you something."
"Please go on," I said.
"I want you to go away. I do not wish you to interest yourself any more in me or in any of us."
"Do you mean that, Felicia?" I asked.
"I mean it," she answered. "My uncle has a great mission to carry out here. You are making it more difficult for him."
"Felicia," I said, "I do not trust your uncle. I do not believe in his great mission. I think that you yourself are deceived."
She held her head up. Her eyes flashed angrily.
"As to that," she said, "I am the best judge. If my uncle is an adventurer, I am his niece. I am one with him. Please understand that. It seems to me that you are working against him, thinking that you are helping me. That is a mistake."
"Felicia," I said, "give me a little more of your confidence, and the rest will be easy."
"What is it that you wish to know?" she asked.
"For one thing," I answered, "tell me when your uncle left South America and when he arrived in Paris?"
"He had been in Paris ten days when you saw us first," she said, after a moment's hesitation.
"And are you sure that he came to you from South America?" I demanded.
"Certainly!" she answered.
"To me," I said slowly, "he seems to have the manners of a Parisian. Two months ago I lunched at Henry's with some old friends. Can you tell me, Felicia, that he was not in Paris then?"
"Of course not!" she answered, shivering a little.
"Then he has a wonderful double," I declared.
"What is this that is in your mind about him?" she asked.
"I believe," I answered, "that he is personating some one, or rather I have believed it. I believe that he is personating some one else, and is afraid of being recognized by those who know."
"Will it satisfy you," she said slowly, "if I tell you, upon my honor, Capitaine Rotherby, that he is indeed my uncle?"
"I should believe you, Felicia," I answered. "I should then feel disposed to give the whole affair up as insoluble."
"That is just what I want you to do," she said. "Now, listen. I tell you this upon my honor. He is my uncle, and his name is truly Delora!"
"Then why does he leave you here alone and skulk about from hiding-place to hiding-place like a criminal?" I asked.
"It is not your business to ask those questions," she answered. "I have told you the truth. Will you do as I ask or not?"
I hesitated for a moment. She was driving me back into a corner!
"Felicia," I said, "I must do as you ask me. If you tell me to go away, I will go away; but do you think it is quite kind to leave me so mystified? For instance," I added slowly, "on the night when that beast Louis planned to knock that young Brazilian on the head, and leave me to bear the brunt of it; he was up here talking to you, alone, as though you were equals."
"It is my uncle who makes use of Louis," she said.
"I'm hanged if I can see how he can make use of a fellow like that if his business is an honest one," I answered.
"It is not for you to understand," she answered. "You are not a policeman. You are not concerned in these things."
"I am concerned in you!" I answered passionately. "Felicia, you drive me almost wild when you talk like this. You know very well that it is not curiosity which has made me set my teeth, and swear that I will discover the truth of these things. It is because I see you implicated in them, because I believe in you, Felicia, because I love you!"
She was in my arms for one long, delicious moment. Then she tore herself away.
"You mean it, Austen?" she whispered.
"I mean it!" I answered solemnly. "Felicia, I think you know that I mean it!"
"Then you must be patient," she said, "for just a little time. You must wait until my uncle has finished his business. It will take a very short time now. Then you may come and call again, and remind us of your brother. You will understand everything then, and I believe that you will be still willing to ask us down to your country home."
"And if I am, Felicia?" I asked.
"We shall come," she murmured. "You know that. Good-bye, Austen! I must fly. If Madame Muller finds that I have left the room I shall be a prisoner for a week."
I opened the door. Even then I would have kept her, if only for a moment; but just as I bent down we heard the sound of footsteps outside, and she hurried away. I sat down and lit a cigarette. So it was over, then, my little attempt at espionage! My word was pledged. I could do no more.
I walked round to Claridge's later in the evening and saw my brother.
"Ralph," I said, "if your offer of the shooting is still good, I think I will take a few men down to Feltham."
"Do, Austen," he answered. "Old Heggs will be ever so pleased. It seems a shame not to have a gun upon the place. I shall come down myself later on. What about those people, the Deloras?"
"The uncle is away," I answered, "and the girl cannot very well come by herself. Perhaps we may see something of them later on."
Ralph looked at me a little curiously, but he made no remark.
"You won't be lonely up here alone?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"I have plenty to do," he answered. "I shall probably be down myself before the end of the month. Whom shall you ask?"
I made a list of a few of the men whom I knew, and who I believed were still in town, but when I sat down to write to them I felt curiously reluctant to commit myself to staying at Feltham. Even if I were not to interfere, even if I were to stand aside while the game was being played, I could not believe that the scheming of Louis and the acquiescence of Felicia went for the same thing, and I had an uncomfortable but a very persistent conviction to the effect that she was being deceived. Everything from her point of view seemed reasonable enough. What she had told me, even, seemed almost to preclude the fear of any wrong-doing. Yet I could not escape from the conviction of it. Some way or other there was trouble brewing, either between Delora and Louis, or Delora and the arbiters of right and wrong. In the end I wrote to no one. I determined to go down alone, to shoot zealously from early in the morning till late at night, but to have no house-party at Feltham,—to invite a few of the neighbors, and to be free myself to depart for London any time, at a moment's notice. It would come! somehow or other I felt sure of it. I should receive a summons from her, and I must be prepared at any moment to come to her aid.
I went into the club after I had left Claridge's, and stayed playing bridge till unusually late. It was early in the morning when I reached the Milan, and the hotel had that dimly lit, somewhat sepulchral appearance which seems to possess a large building at that hour in the morning. As I stood for a moment inside the main doors, four men stepped out of the lift on my right, carrying a long wooden chest. They slunk away into the shadows on tiptoe. I watched them curiously.
"What is that?" I asked the reception clerk who was on duty.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It was a man who died here the day before yesterday," he whispered in my ear.
"Died here?" I repeated. "Why are they taking his coffin down at such an hour?"
"It is always done," the man assured me. "In hotels such as this, where all is life and gayety, our clients do not care to be reminded of such an ugly thing as death. Half the people on that floor would have left if they had known that the dead body of a man has been lying there. We keep these things very secret. The coffin has been taken to the undertaker's. The funeral will be from there."
"Who is the man?" I asked. "Had he been ill long?"
The clerk shook his head.
"He was a Frenchman," he said; "Bartot was his name. He had an apoplectic stroke in the cafe one day last week, and since then complications set in."
I turned away with a little shiver. It was not pleasant to reflect upon—this man's death!
AN UNSATISFACTORY INTERVIEW
Before I was up the next morning I was informed that Fritz was waiting outside the door of my room. I had him shown in, and he stood respectfully by my bedside.
"Sir," he said, "I have once more discovered Mr. Delora."
"Fritz," I answered, "you are a genius! Tell me where he is?"
"He is at a small private hotel in Bloomsbury," Fritz declared. "It is really a boarding-house, frequented by Australians and Colonials. The number is 17, and the street is Montague Street."
I sat up in bed.
"This is very interesting," I said.
"I trusted that you would find it so, sir," he admitted.
I thought for several moments. Then I sprang out of bed.
"Fritz," I said, "our engagement comes to an end this morning. I am going to pay you for two months' service."
I went to my drawer and counted out some notes, which Fritz pocketed with a smile of contentment.
"I am obliged to give up my interest in this affair," I said, "so I cannot find any more work for you. But that money will enable you to take a little holiday, and I have no doubt that you will soon succeed in obtaining another situation."
Fritz made me a magnificent bow.
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir," he announced. "I shall take another situation at once. Holidays—they will come later in life. At my age, and with a family, one must work. But your generosity, sir," he wound up, with another bow, "I shall never forget."
I dressed, and walked to the address which Fritz had given me. As I stood on the doorstep, with the bell handle still in my hand, the door was suddenly opened. It was Delora himself who appeared! He shrank away from me as though I were something poisonous. I laid my hand on his shoulder, firmly determined that this time there should be no escape.
"Mr. Delora," I said, "I want a few words with you. Can I have them now?"
"I am busy!" he answered. "At any other time!"
"No other time will do," I answered. "It is only a few words I need say, but those few words must be spoken."
He led the way reluctantly into a sitting-room. There were red plush chairs set at regular intervals against the wall, and a table in the middle covered by papers—mostly out of date. Delora closed the door and turned toward me sternly.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "I am quite aware that there are certain people in London who are very much interested in me and my doings. Their interests and mine clash, and it is only natural that they should plot against me. But where the devil you come in I cannot tell! Tell me what you mean by playing the spy upon me? What business is it of yours?"
"You misunderstand the situation, sir," I answered. "More than ten days ago you left me in charge of your niece at Charing Cross, while you drove on, according to your own statement, to the Milan Hotel. You never went to that hotel. You never, apparently, meant to. You have never been near it since. You have left your niece in the centre of what seems to be a very nest of intrigue. I have the right to ask you for an explanation of these things. This morning I have a special right, because to-day I have promised to go away into the country, and to take no further interest in your doings."
"Let us suppose," Delora said dryly, "that it is already to-morrow morning."
"No!" I answered. "There is something which I mean to say to you. You need not be alarmed. The few words I have to say to you are not questions. I do not want to understand your secrets,—to penetrate the mystery which surrounds you and your doings. I will not ask you a single question. I will not even ask you why you left your niece in such a fit of terror, and have never yet dared to show your face at the Milan."
"A child would understand these things!" Delora exclaimed. "The Milan Hotel is one of the most public spots in London. It is open to any one who cares to cross the threshold. It is the last place in the world likely to be a suitable home for a man like myself, who is in touch with great affairs."
"Then why did you choose to go there?" I asked.
"It was not my choice at all," Delora answered. "Besides, it was not until I arrived in London that I understood exactly the nature of the intrigues against me."
"At least," I protested, "you should never have brought your niece with you. Frankly, your concerns don't interest me a snap of the fingers. It is of your niece only that I think. You have no right to leave her alone in such anxiety!"
"Nor can I see, sir," Delora answered, "that you have any better right to reproach me with it. Still, if it will shorten this discussion, I admit that if I had known how much trouble there was ahead of me I should not have brought her. I simply disliked having to disappoint her. It was a long-standing promise."
"Let that go," I answered. "I have told you that I have handed in my commission. I have nothing more to do with you or your schemes, whatever they may be. But I came here to find you and to tell you this one thing. Felicia says that you are her uncle, she scouts the idea of your being an impostor, she speaks of you as tenderly and affectionately as a girl well could. That is all very well. Yet, in the face of it, I am here to impress this upon you. I love your niece, Mr. Delora,—some day or other I mean to make her my wife,—and I will not have her dragged into anything which is either disreputable or against the law."
"Has my niece encouraged you?" Delora asked calmly.
"Not in the least," I answered. "She has been kind enough to give me to understand that she cares a little, and there the matter ends. Nothing more could be said between us in this state of uncertainty. But I came here for this one purpose. I came to tell you that if by any chance Felicia should be mistaken, if you play her false in any way, if you seek to embroil her in your schemes, or to do anything by means of which she could suffer, I shall first of all shake the life out of your body, and then I shall go to Scotland Yard and tell them how much I know."
"About Mr. Tapilow, also?" Delora asked, with a sneer.
"Do you think I am afraid to take the punishment for my own follies?" I asked indignantly. "If I believed that, I would go and give myself up to-morrow. Louis can give me away if he will, or you. I don't care a snap of the fingers. But what I want you to understand is this. Felicia is, I presume, your niece. I should have been inclined to have doubted it, but I cannot disbelieve her own word. I think myself that it is brutal to have brought such a child here and to have left her alone—"
"She is not alone," Delora interrupted stiffly. "She has a companion."
"Who arrived yesterday," I continued. "She has spent some very bad days alone, I can promise you that."
"I have telephoned," Delora said, "twice a day—sometimes oftener."
I laughed ironically.
"For your own sake or hers, I wonder," I said. "Anyhow, we can leave that alone. What I want you to understand is this, that if there is indeed anything illegal or criminal in your secret doings over here, you must take care that Felicia is safely provided for if things should go against you. She is not to be left there to be the butt of a great criminal action. If I find that you or any of your friends are making use of her in any way whatever, I swear that you shall suffer for it!"
Delora smiled at me grimly. He seemed in his few dry words to have revealed something of his stronger and less nervous self.
"You terrify me!" he said. "Yet I think that we must go on pretty well as we are, even if my niece has been fortunate enough to enlist your sympathies on her behalf. Never mind who I am, or what my business is in this country, young man. It is not your affair. You should have enough to think about yourself in this country of easy extradition. My niece can look after herself. So can I. We do not need your aid, or welcome your interference."
"You insinuate," I declared indignantly, "that your niece is one of your helpers! I do not believe it!"
"Helpers in what?" he asked, with upraised eyebrows.
"God knows!" I exclaimed, a little impatiently. "What you do, or what you try to do, is not my business. Felicia is. That is why I have warned you."
"Am I to have the honor, then?" Delora asked, with a curl of his thin lips,—
"You are," I interrupted, "if you call it an honor, although to tell you frankly, as things are at present, I am not inclined to go about begging too many different people's permission. If it were not that my brother Dicky has just written over from Brazil to ask me to be civil to you and your niece, you wouldn't have left this place so easily."
"Your brother!" Delora said, looking at me uneasily. "Say that again."
"Certainly!" I answered. "My brother Dicky, who is now out in Brazil, and who has written to me about you. You met him there, of course?" I added. "He stayed with you at—let me see, what is the name of your place?" I asked suddenly.
"Menita," Delora answered, without hesitation. "Now you mention it, of course I remember him! If he has written you to be civil to us, you can do it best by minding your own business. In a fortnight's time I shall be free to entertain or to be entertained. At present I am on a secret mission, and I do not wish my work to be interfered with."
I moved toward the door.
"I have said all that I wish to say," I remarked. "If I hear nothing from you I shall come back to London in fourteen days."
"You will find me with my niece," Delora said, "and we shall be happy to see you."
I left him there, feeling somehow or other that I had not had the best of our interview. Yet my position from the first was hopeless. There was nothing for me to do but to keep my word to Felicia and let things drift.
I drove to the club on my way to the station, where I had arranged for my baggage to be sent. As I crossed Pall Mall I met Lamartine. He was standing on the pavement, on the point of entering a motor-car on which was piled some luggage.
"So you, too, are leaving London," I remarked, stopping for a moment.
He looked at me curiously.
"I am going to Paris," he said.
"A pleasure trip?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"Not entirely," he said. "Only this morning I made a somewhat surprising discovery."
"Concerning our friend?" I asked.
"Concerning our friend," Lamartine echoed.
He seemed dubious, for a moment, whether to take me into his confidence.
"You have not found Delora yet?" I asked.
"Not yet," he answered. "And you?"
"I have seen him," I admitted.
"Are you disposed to tell me where?" Lamartine asked softly.
I shook my head.
"I have finished with the affair," I told him. "I finish as I began,—absolutely bewildered! I know nothing and understand nothing. I am going down into the country to shoot pheasants."
"I," he remarked, entering the car, "am going after bigger game!"
TO NEWCASTLE BY ROAD
I found several of my brother's friends staying at Feltham, who were also well known to me, and my aunt, who was playing hostess, had several women staying with her. We spent the time very much after the fashion of an ordinary house-party during the first week of October. We shot until four o'clock, came home and played bridge until dinner-time, bridge or billiards after dinner, varied by a dance one night and some amateur theatricals. On the fifth day a singular thing happened to me.
The whole of the house-party were invited to shoot with my uncle, Lord Horington, who lived about forty miles from us. We left in two motor-cars soon after breakfast-time, and for the last few miles of the way we struck the great north road. It was just after we had entered it that we came upon a huge travelling car, covered with dust, and with portmanteaus strapped upon the roof, hung up by the side of the road. Our chauffeur slowed down to find out if we could be of any use, and as the reply was scarcely intelligible, we came to a full stop. He dismounted to speak to the other chauffeur, and I looked curiously at the two men who were leaning back in the luxurious seats inside the car. For a moment I could not believe my eyes! Then I opened the door of my own car and stepped quickly into the road. The two men who were sitting there, and by whom I was as yet unobserved, were Delora and the Chinese ambassador!
I walked at once up to the window of their car and knocked at it. Delora leaned forward and recognized me at once. His face, for a moment, seemed dark with anger. He let down the sash.
"What does this mean?" he asked. "Have you forgotten our bargain?"
I laughed a little shortly.
"My dear sir," I said, "it is not I who have come to see you, but you to see me. I am within a few miles of my own estate, on my way to shoot at a friend's."
He stared at me for a moment incredulously.
"Do you mean to tell me," he said, in a low tone, "that you have not followed us from London?"
"Why I have not been in London, or near it, for five days," I told him. "I slept last night within thirty miles from here, and, as I told you before, am on my way to shoot with my uncle at the present moment."
"I know nothing of the geography of your country," Delora said shortly. "What you say may be correct. His Excellency and I are having a few days' holiday."
"May I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at Feltham?" I inquired.
"I am afraid not," Delora answered. "If we had known that we should have been so near, we might have arranged to pay you a visit. As it is, we are in a hurry to get on."
"How far north did you think of going?" I asked.
"We have not decided," Delora answered. "Remember our bargain, and ask no questions."
"But this is a holiday trip," I reminded him. "Surely I may be permitted to advise you about the picturesque spots in my own country!"
"You can tell me, at any rate, what it is that has happened to our car," Delora answered. "Neither His Excellency nor I know anything about such matters."
I walked round and talked to the two chauffeurs. The accident, it seemed, was a trivial one, and with the help of a special spanner, with which we were supplied, was already rectified. I returned and explained matters to Delora.
"Have you come far this morning?" I asked.
"Not far," Delora answered. "We are taking it easy."
I looked at his tired face, at the car thick with dust, at the Chinese ambassador already nodding in his corner, and I smiled to myself. It was very certain to me that they had run from London without stopping, and I felt an intense curiosity as to their destination. However, I said no more to them. I made my adieux to Delora, and bowed profoundly to the Chinese ambassador, who opened his eyes in time solemnly to return my farewell. The chauffeur was already in his place, and I stopped to speak to him. I saw Delora spring forward and whistle down the speaking-tube, but my question was already asked.
"How far north are you going?" I asked.
"To Newcastle, sir," the man answered.
He turned then to answer the whistle, and I re-entered my own car. We started first, but they passed us in a few minutes travelling at a great rate, and with a cloud of dust behind them. Delora threw an evil glance at me from his place. For once I had stolen a march upon him. They had both been too ignorant of their route to keep their final destination concealed from the chauffeur, and they certainly had not expected to meet any one on the way with whom he would be likely to talk! But why to Newcastle? I asked myself that question so often during the morning that my shooting became purely a mechanical thing. Newcastle,—the Tyne, coals, and shipbuilding! I could think of nothing else in connection with the place.
Late that evening I sat with a whiskey and soda and final cigar in the smoking-room. The evening papers had just arrived, brought by motor-bicycle from Norwich. I found nothing to interest me in them, but, glancing down the columns, my attention was attracted by some mention of Brazil. I looked to see what the paragraph might be. It concerned some new battleships, and was headed,—
LARGEST BATTLESHIPS IN THE WORLD!
It is not generally known, that there will be launched from the works of Messrs. Halliday & Co. on the Tyne, within the next three or four weeks, two of the most powerful battleships of the "Dreadnought" type, which have yet been built.
There followed some specifications, in which I was not particularly interested, an account of their armament, and a final remark,—
One is tempted to ask how a country, in the financial position of Brazil, can possibly reconcile it with her ideas of national economy, to spend something like three millions in battleships, which there does not seem to be the slightest chance of her ever being called upon to use!
Somehow or other this paragraph fascinated me. I read it over and over again. I could see no connection between it and the visit of Delora to Newcastle, especially accompanied as he was by the Chinese ambassador. Yet the more I thought of it, the more I felt convinced that in some way the two were connected. I put down the paper at last, and called out of the room to a motoring friend.
"How far is it to Newcastle from here, Jacky?"
Jacky Dalton, a fair-haired young giant, one of the keenest sportsmen whom I had ever met, and whose mind and soul was now entirely dominated by the craze for motoring, told me with only a few moments' hesitation.
"Between two hundred and two hundred and twenty miles, Austen," he said, "and a magnificent road. With my new Napier, I reckon that I could get there in six hours, or less at night, with this moon."
I walked to the window. Across the park the outline of the trees and even the bracken stood out with extraordinary distinctness in the brilliant moonlight. There was not a breath of air, although every window in the house was open. We were having a few days of record heat.
"Jove, what a gorgeous run it would be to-night!" Dalton said, with a little sigh, looking out over my shoulder. "Empty roads, as light as day, and a breeze like midsummer! You don't want to go, do you, Austen?"
"Will you take me?" I asked.
"Like a shot!" he answered. "I only wish you were in earnest!"
"But I am," I declared. "If you don't mind missing the day's shooting to-morrow I'd love to run up there. It's impossible to sleep with this heat."
"It's a great idea," Dalton declared enthusiastically. "I'd love a day off from shooting."
I turned to a younger cousin of mine, who had just come in from the billiard-room.
"Dick," I said, "will you run things to-morrow if I go off motoring with Dalton?"
"Of course I will," he answered. "It's only home shooting, anyway. I'd rather like a day off because of the cricket match in the afternoon."
"Jacky, I'm your man!" I declared.
"We'll have Ferris in at once," he declared. "Bet you what you like he's ready to start in a quarter of an hour. I always have her kept ready tuned right up."
I rang the bell and sent for Jacky's chauffeur. He appeared after a few minutes' delay,—a short, hard-faced young man, who before Jacky had engaged him had driven a racing car.
"Ferris," his master said, "we want to start for Newcastle in half an hour."
"To-night, sir?" the man asked.
"Certainly," Dalton answered. "I shall drive some of the way myself. Everything is in order, I suppose?"
"Everything, sir," the man answered. "You can start in ten minutes if you wish."
"Any trouble about petrol?" I asked.
"We carry enough for the whole journey, sir," the man answered. "I'll have the car round at the front, sir, in a few minutes."
"Let's go up and change our clothes," Dalton said. "Remember we are going to travel, Austen, especially up the north road. You will want some thickish tweeds and an overcoat, although it seems so stifling here."
"Right, Jacky!" I answered. "I'll be down in a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes at the most."
In less than half an hour we were off. It was only when the great car swung from the avenue into the country lane that Jacky, who was driving, turned toward me.
"By the bye," he asked, "what the devil are we going to Newcastle for?"
"We are going to look at those new battleships, Jacky," I answered.
He stared at me.
"Are you in earnest?"
"Partly," I answered. "Let's say we are going for the ride. It's worth it."
Dalton drew a long breath. We were rushing now through the silent night, with a delicious wind, strong and cool, blowing in our faces.
"By Jove, it is!" he assented.
AN INTERESTING DAY
It was a little after seven o'clock the next morning when we turned into the courtyard of the County Hotel in Newcastle. Immediately in front of us was the car in which we had seen Delora on the previous afternoon. The chauffeur was at work upon it, and although he looked up at our entrance, he paid no particular attention to us.
I blew through the whistle to Ferris.
"Back out of the yard at once," I said, "and go to another hotel."
Dalton looked at me in surprise.
"Forgive my ordering your chauffeur about," I said, as we glided backwards into the street. "That's the car we've come up after, and I don't want the people who travelled in it to know that we are on their heels."
Dalton whistled softly.
"So we are on a chase, are we?" he asked. "You might tell me about it, Austen."
"I can't," I answered. "It's altogether too indefinite. I shouldn't tell you anything which would sound like common sense except this,—that I am exceedingly curious, for several reasons, to know what those two men who came up in that car have to do in Newcastle."
"Who are they?" Dalton asked.
"One is a rich Brazilian named Delora, and the other the Chinese ambassador," I answered.
The names seemed to convey nothing to my companion, who merely nodded. We had now arrived at the other hotel, and the prospects of breakfast were already claiming our attention. We sat down in the coffee-room and attacked our bacon and eggs and coffee with zest.
"How long do you want to stay here?" Dalton asked.
"I am not quite sure," I answered. "Look here, Jacky," I continued, "supposing I wanted to stay all day and to go back to-night, so that we got home to breakfast to-morrow morning, would that be too long for you?"
"That would do me splendidly," Dalton declared. "I have never been in this part of the world, and I should like to look round. We must be back for to-morrow morning, you know, because all those fellows are coming to shoot from Horington's."
"We will make that the latest," I said.
Jacky left me, a few minutes later, to visit the local garage. Without any clear idea as to what was best to be done, I still felt that I was justified in making a few inquiries as to the cause of Delora's presence in Newcastle with that particular companion. I went to the telephone, therefore, and rang up the County Hotel. I asked to speak to the manager, who came at once to the instrument.
"I understand," I said, "that the Chinese ambassador has just arrived at your hotel. Would you be so kind as to ask him whether he would consent to be interviewed as to the reasons of his visit?"
I waited several minutes for a reply. When it came it was at least emphatic. The visit of the ambassador, the manager told me, was entirely a private one. He was simply on a motor tour with a friend, and they had called at Newcastle as it was an interesting city which the ambassador had never seen. He declined most firmly to have anything to do with any interviewer.
The reply being exactly what I had expected, I was not in the least disappointed.
"Perhaps," I said to the manager, "you can tell me how long he is staying."
"I have no idea, sir," the manager answered. "They have just ordered a carriage to make a call in the town."
I thanked him, and left the hotel at once on foot. When I arrived near the County Hotel a four-wheel cab was drawn up at the entrance. From a safe distance I stood watching it, and in a few minutes I saw the ambassador and Delora come swiftly out of the hotel and step inside. I waited till they had driven off, and then crossed the road to where the hall-porter was still standing on the pavement. I put five shillings into his hand.
"I am a reporter," I said. "Can you tell me where the ambassador has gone to?"
He smiled, and touched his hat.
"They are going to the offices of Messrs. Halliday & Co., the great shipbuilders, in Corporation Street," he answered.
I thanked him, and walked slowly away. I found plenty of material for thought, but it seemed to me that there was nothing more which I could do. Nevertheless, I walked along towards the address which the porter had given me, and found, as I had expected, that the cab was standing empty outside. Opposite was a small public-house. I went in, ordered a whiskey and soda, and lit a cigarette. Then I sat down facing the window. Half an hour passed, and then an hour. It was one o'clock before the two men reappeared. They were accompanied by a third person, whom I judged to be a member of the firm, and who entered the cab with them. On the pavement they were accosted by a young man in spectacles, who look off his hat and said a few words to the ambassador. The latter, however, shaking his head, stepped into the cab. The young man pushed forward once more, but the cab drove off. As soon as it had turned the corner I hurried out and addressed him.
"His Excellency does not care to be spoken to," I remarked.
The reporter—his profession was quite obvious—shook his head.
"I only wanted a word or two," he said, "but he would not have anything to say to me."
"I wonder if he is going to look over any of the ships that are building," I remarked.
"There is nothing much in the yards," the young man said, "except the two Brazilian battleships. I don't think that Hallidays are allowed to show any one over them unless they have a special permit from the Brazilian Government."
"Fine ships, aren't they?" I asked.
"The finest that have ever left the Tyne," the young man answered enthusiastically. "What a little country like Brazil can possibly want with the most powerful warships in the world no one can guess. Are you on a London paper?" he asked me.
"I have followed them all the way down here," I said, "but they have not a word to say. By the bye," I added, "did you know that the gentleman with the Chinese ambassador was a very prominent Brazilian?"
The reporter whistled softly.
"I wonder what that means!" he said. "It sounds interesting, somehow."
"Come and have a drink," I said.
He accepted at once.
"What paper are you on?" he asked, as we crossed the street.
"To be honest with you," I replied, "I am not on a paper at all. I am not even a reporter. I am interested in the visit of these two men to Newcastle for more serious reasons."
The young man looked at me thoughtfully. He slipped his arm through mine as though he intended never to let me go. Evidently he scented a story.
"I suppose," he said, "you mean that you are a detective?"
"No!" I answered, "scarcely that. I can only tell you that it is my business to watch the movements of those two men."
I could see from his manner that he believed me to be a government spy, or something of the sort. We ordered our drinks and then turned, as though by common consent, once more to the window. A motor-car was drawn up in front of the place, and an elderly man was descending hurriedly.
"Hullo!" the reporter exclaimed. "That's Mr. Halliday, the head of the firm! They must have telephoned for him. He never comes down except on a Thursday. Let's watch and see what happens."
The shipbuilder entered his offices, and was gone for about a quarter of an hour. When he reappeared he was followed by two clerks, one of whom was carrying a great padlocked portfolio under each arm, and the other a huge roll of plans. They entered the motor-car and drove off.
"Come on," I said, finishing my drink hurriedly, "they are off to the County Hotel."
We took a hansom at the corner of the street, and, sure enough, when we arrived at the hotel Mr. Halliday's motor-car was waiting outside. We went at once into the office, where my companion was quite at home.
"Who's with the Chinaman?" he asked the manager, who greeted him cordially.
"A whole crowd," he answered. "First of all, Dickinson—Halliday's manager—came back with him, and the old man himself has just arrived with a couple of clerks."
"What's the game, do you suppose?" the reporter asked.
The hotel manager shrugged his shoulders.
"We're hoping it means orders," he said. "We can do with them. Hallidays could put on another twelve hundred men and not be crowded, and China's about the most likely customer they could get hold of just now."
"Which sitting-room are they in?" my friend asked.
"Number 12," the manager answered. "I can't do anything for you, though, Charlie," he added. "I'd do anything I could, but they have given special orders that no one is to interrupt them, and they decline to be interviewed by or communicate with any strangers."
"I shall see the thing out, nevertheless," my friend announced.
"And I," I answered. "Let's have lunch together. Is there a smart boy in the place who could let us know directly any one leaves the sitting-room?"
The manager smiled.
"Mr. Sinclair knows all about that, sir," he said, pointing to my friend. "I have nothing to say about it, of course."
Sinclair left the room for a minute or two. When he came back he nodded confidentially.
"I have a boy watching the door," he said. "The moment any one leaves we shall hear of it."
We went into the restaurant and ordered lunch. In about half an hour a small boy came hastily in and addressed Sinclair.
"They have ordered luncheon up in the sitting-room, sir," he said. "I thought I'd better let you know."
"For how many?" Sinclair asked quickly.
"For four, sir," he answered. "I fancy the two clerks are coming out. The door opened once, and they had their hats on."
"Run along," Sinclair said, "and let us know again directly anything happens."
The boy returned almost at once.
"The clerks have left," he said. "The other four are going to lunch together."
"Did the clerks take the plans with them?" I asked.
"Not all," the boy answered. "They left two portfolios behind."
We finished our luncheon and returned to the bar. It was more than two hours before anything else happened. Then the boy entered a little hurriedly.
"Mr. Halliday has telephoned for his car, and is just leaving, sir," he said. "The two gentlemen from London have just ordered theirs, and I believe it looks as though Mr. Dickinson were going with them. He has telephoned for a bag from his house."
I shook hands with my friend the reporter, and we parted company. I left the hotel quickly and returned to the King's Arms, where we were staying. I was lucky enough to find Jack just finishing lunch.
"I say, old man," I exclaimed, "I wish you'd start for home at once!"
"Right away!" he answered. "We'll ring for Ferris."
The chauffeur came in and received his orders. We got into our coats and walked out toward the front door. Suddenly I drew Jacky back and stood behind a pillar. A great touring car had turned the corner and was passing down the street. In it were three men,—the Chinese ambassador, Delora, and the man who had left the offices of Messrs. Halliday with them.
"Is that the road to London?" I asked the porter.
"It is the way into the main road, sir," he answered,—"two hundred and sixty-five miles."
They swung round the corner and disappeared. Our own car was just drawing up. I turned to Jacky.
"We'd better wait a few minutes," I said, "and tell your man not to overtake that car!"
Jacky looked at me in surprise. He was by no means a curious person, but he was obviously puzzled.
"What a mysterious person you have become, Austen!" he said. "What's it all about?"
"You will know some day," I answered, as we made ourselves comfortable,—"perhaps before many hours are past!"
We arrived at Feltham at a few minutes past ten o'clock, having seen nothing of the car which had left Newcastle a few minutes before ours. Several times we asked on the road and heard news of it, but we could find no sign of it having stopped even for a moment. Apparently it had been driven, without pause for rest or refreshment, at top speed, and we learned that two summonses would probably be issued against its owners. Jacky, who was delighted with the whole expedition, sat with his watch in his hands for the last few miles, and made elaborate calculations as to our average speed, the distance we had traversed, and other matters interesting to the owner of a powerful car.
We were greeted, when we arrived, with all sorts of inquiries as to our expedition, but we declined to say a word until we had dined. We had scarcely commenced our meal before the butler came hurrying in.
"His Lordship is ringing up from London, sir," he said. "He wishes to speak to you particularly. The telephone is through into the library."
I made my way there and took up the receiver without any special interest. Ralph was fidgety these days, and I had no doubt that he had something to say to me about the shooting. His first words, however, riveted my attention.
"Is that you, Austen?" he asked.
"I am here," I answered. "How are you, Ralph?"
"I am all right," he said. "Rather better than usual, in fact. Where on earth have you been to all day? I have rung up four times."
"I have been motoring with Jacky," I told him. "We have been for rather a long run. Have you been wanting me?"
"Yes!" he answered. "I have had a very curious cable from Dicky which I can't understand. I am sorry to bother you, but I think you had better come up to town by the first train in the morning. It's something to do with these Deloras."
"The devil it is!" I exclaimed. "I'll come, Ralph. I shall motor to Norwich, and catch the eight o'clock. Could you give me an idea of what it is?"
"I think I'd rather not over the telephone," Ralph declared, after a moment's hesitation.
"Don't be an idiot!" I answered. "I am really very much interested."
"It's a queer business," Ralph said, "but it will keep until to-morrow. I shall send the car for you to Liverpool Street, and you had better come straight to me."
"Dicky is all right, I hope?" I asked.
"Dicky's all right," Ralph answered. "What sort of sport are you having there?"
"Very fair," I answered. "Heggs sends you the figures every day, I suppose?"
"Yes!" Ralph answered. "You seem to have done very well at the birds. Till to-morrow, Austen!"
"Till to-morrow," I replied. "Good night, old chap!"
I put down the receiver and went back to my dinner more than ever puzzled. Ralph's summons, I felt, absolved me from any promise I might have made to Delora, and I was looking eagerly forward to the morrow, when I should be once more in London. What puzzled me, however, more even than Dicky's message, was the extreme interest Ralph's tone seemed to denote. His voice sounded quite like his old self.
"Jacky," I said, as we finished dinner, "will you lend me your car to take me into Norwich to-morrow? I have to catch the eight o'clock train to town."
"I'll lend it you with pleasure," Jacky said, looking at me in amazement, "but what on earth's up?"
"Nothing," I answered. "Simply Ralph wants to see me. He isn't particularly communicative himself, but he is very anxious that I should go to town to-morrow. Somehow or other I have more confidence in your Napier than in either of our cars when it comes to catching a train at that time in the morning."
"I'll run you up to town, if you like," Jacky declared, in a burst of good-nature.
"It isn't necessary," I answered. "I shall get up quicker by train, and Ralph's going to meet me at Liverpool Street. Thanks, all the same!"
Jacky lit a cigar.
"I'll go out and tell Ferris myself," he said.
Once more Jacky's car did not fail me. Punctually at a quarter to eight we drove into Norwich Station yard. I breakfasted on the train, and reached Liverpool Street a few minutes after eleven. I found Ralph's big Panhard there, but Ralph himself had not come.
"His Lordship is expecting you at the hotel, sir," the chauffeur told me. "He would have come down himself, but he was expecting a caller."
In less than half an hour I was in my brother's sitting-room. Ralph greeted me cordially.
"Austen," he said, "I am not at all sure that I have not brought you up on rather a fool's errand, but you seemed rather mystified yourself about these Deloras. Here's the cable from Dicky. What do you make of it? Must have cost him something, extravagant young beggar!"
He passed it across to me. I read it out aloud.
DELORA HERE PUZZLED NOT HEARING FROM BROTHER SHOULD BE IN LONDON IMPORTANT BUSINESS FEARS SOMETHING WRONG ALL CODED CABLES REMAIN UNANSWERED INQUIRE MILAN HOTEL IF POSSIBLE FIND DELORA BEG HIM CABLE AT ONCE IN CHALDEAN CODE.
I read the cable through three times.
"May I take this, Ralph?" I said. "I will go round to the Milan at once."
"Certainly," Ralph answered. "I will leave the matter entirely in your hands. It seems as though there were something queer about it."
"There is something queer going on, Ralph," I assured him. "I have found out as much as that myself. Exactly what it means I can't fathom. To tell you the truth, it has been taking a lot of my time lately, and I know very little more than when I started."
"It's the young lady, I suppose," Ralph remarked thoughtfully.
"I am not over keen about interfering in other people's concerns, Ralph," I said. "You know that. It's the girl, of course, and I am afraid, I am very much afraid, that there is something wrong."
"Anyhow," Ralph said, "it doesn't follow that the girl's in it."
"I am jolly certain she isn't!" I said. "What bothers me, of course, is that I hate to think of her being mixed up with anything shady. The Deloras may be great people in their own country, but I'll swear that our friend here is a wrong 'un."
"I suppose you are sure," Ralph said thoughtfully, "that he is Delora—that he is not an impostor, I mean?"
"I thought of that," I answered, "but you see there's the girl. She'd know her own uncle, wouldn't she? And she told me that she had seen him on and off for years. No, he is Delora right enough! One can't tell," I continued. "Perhaps the whole thing's crooked. Perhaps the Deloras who seem to Dicky such charming people in their own country are a different sort of people on this side. At any rate, I'm off, Ralph, with that cable. I'll look you up as soon as I have found out anything."
"I don't believe," he said, "you are sorry to have an excuse for having another turn at this affair."
"Perhaps not," I answered.
"Take the car," Ralph called out after me. "You may find it useful."
I drove first to the small hotel where I had last seen Delora. Here, however, I was confronted with a certain difficulty. The name of Delora was quite unknown to the people. I described him carefully, however, to the landlady, and she appeared to recognize him.
"The gentleman you mean was, I think, a Mr. Henriquois. He left us the day before yesterday."
"You know where he went to?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"He asked for a Continental time-table," she said, "but he gave no address, nor did he tell any one of his intentions. He was a gentleman that kept himself to himself," she remarked, looking at me a little curiously.
I thanked the woman and departed. Delora was scarcely likely to have left behind any reliable details of his intentions at such a place. I drove on to the Milan, and entered the Court with a curious little thrill of interest. The hall-porter welcomed me with a smile.
"Glad to see you back again, Captain Rotherby," he said. "Have you any luggage?"
"None," I answered. "I am not sure whether I shall be staying."
"This morning's letters are in your room, sir," he announced.
I nodded. I was not particularly interested in my letters! I drew Ashley a little on one side.
"Tell me," I said, "is Miss Delora still here?"
"She is still here, sir," Ashley announced.
"The companion also?" I asked.
"Yes, sir!" he answered. "I am not sure whether they are in, sir, but they are still staying here."
"And Mr. Delora?" I asked,—"has he ever turned up yet?"
"Not yet, sir. The young lady said that they were expecting him now every day."
"Telephone up and see if Miss Delora is in, Ashley," I asked.
He disappeared for a moment into his office.
"No answer, sir," he announced presently. "I believe that they are out."
Almost as he spoke I saw through the windows of the hair-dresser's shop a familiar figure entering the hotel. I left Ashley hurriedly, and in a moment I was face to face with Felicia. She gave a little cry when she saw me, and it was a joy to me to realize that it was a cry of pleasure.
"Capitaine Rotherby!" she exclaimed. "You!"
She gave me her hands with an impetuous little movement. I held them tightly in mine.
"I want to speak to you at once," I said. "Where can we go?"
"Madame is out for an hour," she said. "We could go in the little smoking-room. But have you forgotten your promise?"
"Never mind about that, Felicia," I whispered. "Something has happened. I went first to see your uncle, but I could not find him. I must talk with you. Come!"
We walked together across the hall, through the end of the cafe, down which she threw one long, anxious glance, and entered the little smoking-room. It was empty except for one man writing letters. I led the way into the most remote corner, and wheeled out an easy-chair.
"Felicia," I said, "if I can get a special license, will you marry me to-morrow?"
Felicia looked at me for a moment with wide-open eyes. Then a little stream of color rushed into her cheeks, her lips slowly parted, and she laughed, not altogether without embarrassment.
"Capitaine Rotherby," she said, "you must not say such things—so suddenly!"
"Last time we met," I reminded her, "you called me Austen."
"Austen, then, if I must," she said. "You know very well that you should not be here. You are breaking a promise. It is very, very nice to see you," she continued. "Indeed, I do feel that. But I am afraid!"
"I have sufficient reasons for breaking my promise, dear," I said, taking her hand in mine. "I will explain them to you by and by. In the meantime, please answer my question."
"You are serious, then?" she asked, looking at me with wide-open eyes, and lips which quivered a little—whether with laughter or emotion I could not tell.
"I am serious," I answered. "You want taking care of, Felicia, and I am quite sure that I should be the best person in the world to do it."
Her eyes fell before mine. She seemed to be studying the point of her long patent shoe. As usual she was dressed delightfully, in a light fawn-colored tailor-made gown and a large black hat. Nevertheless she seemed to me to be thinner and frailer than when I had first seen her—too girlish, almost, for her fashionable clothes.
"Do you think that you would take care of me?" she said softly. "I am afraid I am a very ignorant little person. I do not know much about England or English ways, and every one says that things are so different here."
"There is one thing," I declared, "which is the same all the world over, and that is that when two people care for one another, the world becomes not such a very difficult place to live in, Felicia. I wonder if you could not try and care a little for me?"
"I do," she murmured, without looking up.
"Enough?" I asked.
She sighed. Suddenly she raised her eyes, and I saw things there which amazed me. They were no longer the eyes of a frightened child. I was thrilled with the passion which seemed somehow or other to have been born in their deep blue depths.
"Dear Austen," she said, "I think that I care quite enough. But listen. How can I say, 'Yes,' to you? Always my uncle has been kind, in his way. I know now that he is worried, harassed to death, afraid, even, of what may happen hour by hour. I could not leave him. He would think that I had lost faith, that I had gone over to his enemies."
"Felicia dear," I said, "I do not wish to be the enemy of any one who is your friend. Indeed, your uncle and his doings mean so little to me. If they are honest, I might be able to help him. If he is engaged in transactions of which he is ashamed, then it is time that you were taken away."
"I will never believe that," she declared.
"Felicia," I said, "I will tell you why I have broken my promise and come to London. I believe I told you that I had a brother out in Brazil?"
"Yes!" she answered,—"Dicky, you called him."
"He wrote, you know, and said that he had been staying with the Deloras on their estate, and he begged that I should call upon your uncle here. Now I have had a cable from him. Felicia, there is something wrong. You shall read the cable for yourself."
I gave it to her. She read it word by word. Then she read it again, aloud, very softly to herself, and finally gave it back to me.
"I do not understand," she whispered. "I do not know why my uncle has not communicated with his brother."
"I am beginning to believe, Felicia," I said, "that I know more than you. I tell you frankly I believe that your uncle has kept silence because he is not honestly carrying out the business on which he was sent to England. Tell me exactly, will you? When did he arrive from America?"
She shook her head.
"Austen," she said, "you know there were some things which I promised to keep silent about, and this is one."
"At any rate," I said, half to myself, "he could not have been in Paris more than three weeks. I do not understand how in that three weeks he could have obtained such a hold upon you that you should come here and do his bidding blindly, although you must know that some of the things he does are extraordinary and mysterious."
She was obviously distressed.
"There is something," she said, "of course, which I am not telling you,—something which I promised to keep secret. But, Austen," she went on, laying her fingers upon my coat sleeve, "let me tell you this. I am getting more and more worried every day. I understand nothing. The explanations which I have had from my uncle grow more and more extraordinary. Why we are here, why he is still in hiding, why he lives in the shadow of such fear day by day, I cannot imagine. I am beginning to lose heart. Through the telephone last night I told him that I must see him. He has half promised that I shall, to-day or to-morrow. I shall tell him, Austen, that I must know more about the reasons for all this mystery, or I will go back to Madame Quintaine's. I wrote to her soon after I came here, when I was frightened, and she told me that she would gladly have me back. My uncles have always paid her a good deal of money," she went on, "for taking care of me."
I drew a long breath of relief.
"Felicia," I said, "you are talking like a dear, sensible little woman. But," I added, "you have not answered my question!"
She looked away, laughing.
"Of course you are not in earnest!" she exclaimed.
"Of course I am!" I persisted.
"You must know," she said softly, "that I could not do a thing like that. My uncle has always been so kind to me—"
"But you have only seen him three weeks," I interrupted. "Before that he was in Brazil!"
She was silent for several moments.
"Well," she said, "even if it were so, he could be very kind to me, couldn't he, even if he was in Brazil and I was in Paris? You see, my father was the poor one of the family, who died without any money at all, yet I have always had everything in the world I want, and when I come of age they are going to give me a great sum of money. It is not that I think about," she went on, "but they write to me always, and they treat me as though I were their own daughter. Often they have said how they would love to have had me out in Brazil. I think that it is really their own kindness that they let me stay in Paris."
"Felicia," I said, "tell me really how much you do know of your uncle—the one who is with you now?"
She shook her head.
"No!" she said. "I cannot do that. I made a promise and I must keep it. But I will promise you this, if you like. If I find that it is not the truth which I have been told I will come to you if you want me."
I held her hands tightly in mine.
"You are beginning to have doubts, are you not?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know!" she answered. "I don't know! There are times when I am frightened. Austen, I must go now."
I looked at the clock. It was almost two o'clock.
"We couldn't have lunch together, I suppose?" I asked.
She shook her head, laughing.
"I had lunch more than an hour ago," she said, "and I have to meet madame at a dress-maker's. I must go, really, Austen."
"Can't I see you again, dear?"
"I will come into this room, if I can, about five," she said. "Don't come out with me now. It is the luncheon time in the cafe, and I am afraid of Louis."
She flitted away, leaving behind a faint odor of violets shaken from the skirts she had lifted so daintily as she had hurried down the few steps. I watched her out of sight. Then I opened the door myself and passed out into the cafe....
Louis, for the first few minutes, was not visible, but one of the other maitres d'hotel procured for me a table in a somewhat retired corner of the room. My luncheon was already served before Louis appeared before me. For the second time his impassive countenance seemed to be disturbed.
"Back in London, Captain Rotherby," he remarked, with the ghost of his usual welcoming smile.
"Back again, Louis," I answered cheerfully.
Louis bent over my table.
"I thought," he said, "that an English gentleman never broke his promise!"
"Nor does he, Louis," I answered, "unless the circumstances under which it was given themselves change. I came up from the country this morning."
"Upon private business?" Louis asked.
"No!" I answered. "Upon the business in which you and Mr. Delora are both interested. Did you know, Louis, that I had a brother in Brazil?"
"What of it, monsieur?" Louis asked sharply.
For once I had the best of matters. Louis was evidently in a highly nervous state, from which I imagined that things connected with their undertaking, whatever it might be, had reached a critical stage. There were lines underneath his eyes, and he looked about him every now and then nervously.
"My brother," I remarked, "first wrote to me to be sure and look up Mr. Delora, and to be civil to him. I have done this to the best of my ability!"
"Go on," he said.
"Last night," I continued, speaking very deliberately, "my brother who is in London rang me up in Norfolk. He told me that he had just received a cable from Dicky concerning Mr. Delora. It was at his earnest request that I came to London this morning. By the bye, Louis," I added, "I think that I should like some Riz Diane."
Louis looked for a moment as though he were about to consign my innocent desire for Riz Diane to the bottommost depths. The effort with which he recovered himself was really magnificent. He drew a long breath, and bowed his acquiescence.
"By all means, monsieur!"
He called to a waiter, and was particular in his instructions as to my order. Then he turned back to me.
"Monsieur," he said, "you will tell me what was in that cable?"
"I think not, Louis," I answered. "You see I really cannot recognize you in this matter at all. I must find Mr. Delora at once. It is important."
"But if he cannot be found?" Louis asked quickly.
"Then I think that the best thing I can do," I continued, after a moment's pause, "is to call at the Brazilian embassy."
I had a feeling, the feeling for a moment that, notwithstanding the crowded room and Louis' attitude of polite attention, my life was in danger. There flashed something in his eyes indescribably venomous. I seemed to see there his intense and passionate desire to sweep me from the face of the earth.
"Of course," I continued, "if I can find Mr. Delora, that is what I would really prefer. There is a certain matter upon which I must have an explanation from him."
"Monsieur will not have finished his luncheon for twenty minutes or so," Louis said calmly. "At the end of that time I will return."
"Always glad to have a chat with you, Louis," I declared.
"You will not leave," he asked, "before I come back?"
"Not if you return in a reasonable time," I answered.
Louis bowed and hurried off. I saw him disappear for a moment into the service room. When he came out into the restaurant he was once more discharging his duties, moving about amongst his clients, supervising, suggesting, bidding farewell to departing guests, and welcoming new arrivals. A very busy man, Louis, for the cafe was crowded that day. I wondered, as I saw him pass backwards and forwards, with that eternal and yet not displeasing smile upon his lips, what lay at the back of his head concerning me!
AN APPOINTMENT WITH DELORA
My Riz Diane duly arrived, but was served, I noticed, by a different waiter. It looked very tempting, and it was indeed a dish of which I was particularly fond, but I realized that it had been specially ordered by Louis, and with a sigh I pushed it on one side. I finished my luncheon with rolls and butter, and took care to procure my coffee before Louis returned.
"Well," I asked, as he stopped once more before me, "what is it to be? Are you going to give me Delora's address?"
"That is not the trouble, monsieur," Louis declared. "Mr. Delora is away from London."
"I think you will find that he is back again, Louis," I answered. "It was a very interesting trip to Newcastle, but it was soon over. He arrived in London with his illustrious companion last night."
This time I had really astonished Louis! He looked at me with a genuine expression of profound surprise.
"You are under the impression," he said slowly, "that Mr. Delora has been to Newcastle!"
"That is scarcely the way I look at it, Louis," I answered. "You see I was in Newcastle myself and saw him."
I fancy that Louis' manner toward me, from this time onward, acquired a new respect, but I recognized the fact that there was danger greater than ever before under his increasing suaveness.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "you were not meant to be an idle man. You have gifts of which you should make use!"
"In the meantime," I said, "when can I see Mr. Delora?"
"This afternoon, if you like," Louis answered. "Here is his address."
He scribbled a few words down on a piece of paper and passed it to me. When I had received it I did not like it. It was an out-of-the-way street in Bermondsey, in a quarter of which I was absolutely ignorant except by repute.
"Couldn't we arrange, don't you think, Louis," I asked, "to have Mr. Delora come up here?"
"You could send down a note and ask him," Louis answered. "He is staying at that address under the name of Hoffmeyer."
"I will write him a letter," I decided, signing my bill.
"You will let me know the result?" Louis asked, looking at me anxiously.
"Certainly," I answered.
I rose to my feet, but Louis did not immediately stand aside.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "there is one thing I should like to ask you. How did you know of Mr. Delora's projected visit to Newcastle?"
"Why should I give away my methods, Louis?" I said. "You know very well that the movements of Mr. Delora have become very interesting to me. You and I are on opposite sides. I certainly do not feel called upon to disclose my sources of information."
I passed out of the restaurant, and ascended to my own room. There I drew a sheet of paper toward me and wrote.
I trust you will recognize the fact that although I am writing to you from London, and from the Milan Hotel, I have not intentionally broken the compact I made with you. The fact is, a somewhat singular thing has occurred. My brother—Mr. Richard Rotherby—whom you will doubtless remember, and who speaks most gratefully of your hospitality in Brazil, has sent me a cable on behalf of your brother—Mr. Nicholas Delora. It seems that you have not kept him acquainted with your doings here, and that you have failed to make use of a certain cipher that was agreed upon. He is, therefore, exceedingly anxious to know of your doings, and has begged me to see you at once and report. Will you, for that purpose, be good enough to grant me a five minutes' interview?
I sealed this letter, and addressed it to the very obscure street in Bermondsey which Louis had designated. Then I procured a messenger boy and sent it off, with instructions that the bearer must wait for an answer. Afterwards there was little for me to do but wait. I tried to see Felicia, but I only succeeded in having the door of her rooms practically slammed in my face by Madame Muller. I was too anxious for a reply to my letter to go round to the club, so I simply hung about the place, smoking and waiting. When at last the messenger boy came back, however, it was only to report a certain amount of failure. He had found the right address and delivered the note, but the gentleman was out, and not expected in till the evening. After this, I went round to my club, leaving an order that any note or message was to be sent after me. I cut into a rubber of bridge, but I had scarcely finished my second game before a telegram was brought in for me, sent on from the Milan. I tore it open. It was from Delora.
Have received your note. Will see you at this address ten o'clock this evening.
I thrust the telegram into my waistcoat pocket and finished the rubber. Soon afterwards I cut out and took a hansom round to Claridge's Hotel. I found my brother in and expecting to hear from me.
"Ralph," I said, "I can't bring you any news just now. If you must cable Dicky, you had better just cable that we are making inquiries. I have an appointment to see Delora at ten o'clock to-night."
"Where is he?" Ralph asked, with interest.
"The address he has sent me is some low street in Bermondsey," I answered. "It is absolutely impossible that he should have chosen such a place to stop in except as a hiding-place. I don't like the look of it, Ralph."
"Then don't go," Ralph said quickly. "There is no need for you to run into danger for nothing at all."
"I am not afraid of that," I answered. "What really bothers me is that I am up against a problem which seems insoluble. Frankly, I don't believe a snap of the fingers in Delora. No man, however secret or important his business might be, would descend to such subterfuges. The only point in his favor is that this dodging about may be all due to political reasons. I cannot understand his friendship with the Chinese ambassador."
"Can't you?" Ralph answered. "I have been thinking over what you told me, Austen, and I fancy, perhaps, I can give you a hint. Do you know that at the present moment the two most powerful battleships in the world are being built on the Tyne for Brazil?"
"I know that," I admitted. "Go on."
"What does Brazil want with battleships of that class?" my brother continued. "Obviously they would be useless to her. She could not man them. It would be a severe strain to her finances even to put them into commission. I am of opinion that the order to build them was given as a speculation by a few shrewd men in the Brazilian Government who foresaw unsettled times ahead, and they are there to be disposed of to the highest European or Asiatic bidder!"
I saw Ralph's point at once.
"By Jove!" I exclaimed. "You think, then, that Delora is over here to arrange for the sale of them to some other Government—presumably to China?"
"Why not?" Ralph asked. "It is feasible, and to some extent it explains a good deal of what has seemed to you so mysterious. There could be no more possible purchaser of the battleships than China, except, perhaps, Russia, and transactions of that sort are always attended with a large amount of secrecy."
"Of course, if you are on the right track," I admitted, "everything is explained, and Delora is justified. There is just one thing which I do not understand, and that is why he should have associated with such a pack of thieves as the people at the Cafe des Deux Epingles, and why he should be forced to make an ally—I had almost said accomplice—of Louis."
"Well, you can't understand everything all at once," Ralph answered. "At the same time, if I were you, I would try and see if the hint I have given you fits in with the rest of the puzzle."
"I'll get the truth out of Delora to-night!" I declared. "And, Ralph!"
"Well?" he asked.
"I have asked Felicia Delora to marry me," I continued.
Ralph looked at me for a moment, doubtfully.
"Wouldn't it have been better to have had this matter cleared up first?" he asked.
"I couldn't help it," I answered. "The child is all alone, and it makes my heart ache to think what a poor little pawn she is in the game these men are playing. I'd like to take her right away from it, Ralph, but she is staunch. She fancies that she is indebted to her uncle, and she will obey his orders."
"You can't think any the worse of her for that," Ralph remarked.
"I don't," I answered, sighing, "but it makes the position a little difficult."
"Come and see me to-morrow morning," Ralph said, "and tell me exactly what passes between you and Delora. We must cable Dicky some time soon."
"I will," I promised, taking up my hat. "Good-day, Ralph!"
A NARROW ESCAPE
I felt that night an unusual desire to take all possible precautions before leaving the Milan for Bermondsey. I wrote a letter explaining my visit and my suspicions, and placed it in Ashley's hands.
"Look here, Ashley," I said, "I am going off on an errand which I don't feel quite comfortable about. Between you and me, it is connected with the disappearance of Miss Delora's uncle. I feel that it is likely, even probable, that I shall get into trouble, and I want you to promise me this. If I am not back here by half-past eleven, I want you to take this letter, which contains a full statement of everything, to Scotland Yard. Either take it yourself," I continued, "or send some one absolutely trustworthy with it."
The man looked a little serious.
"Very good, sir," he said. "I'll attend to it. At the same time, if I might make the suggestion, I should take a couple of plain-clothes policemen with me. It's a pretty low part where you are going, and one hears of queer doings, nowadays."
"I am bound to go, Ashley," I answered, "but I am not likely to come to much grief. I have a revolver in my pocket, and I have not studied boxing with Baxter for nothing. I don't fancy there's anything in Bermondsey going to hurt me."
"I hope not, sir," Ashley answered civilly. "At half-past eleven, if I do not hear from you, I shall go myself to Scotland Yard."
"And in the meantime," I said, "a taxicab, if you please."
I drove to the address given me on the paper. It was an odd, half-forgotten street, terminating in a cul-de-sac, and not far from the river. The few houses it contained were larger than the majority of those in the neighborhood, but were in a shocking state of repair. The one at which I eventually stopped had a timber yard adjoining, or rather attached to it. I left the taxicab outside, and made my somewhat uncertain way up to the front door. Only a few yards from me a great black dog was straining at his collar and barking furiously. I was somewhat relieved when the door was opened immediately at my knock.
"Is Mr. Hoffmeyer staying here?" I asked.
A little old man carrying a tallow candle stuck into a cheap candlestick nodded assent, and closed the door after me. I noticed, without any particular pleasure, that he also drew the bolts.
"What do you do that for?" I asked sharply. "I shall only be here a few minutes. It is not worth while locking up."
The man looked at me but said nothing. He seemed to show neither any desire nor any ability for speech. Only as I repeated my question he nodded slowly as one who barely understands.
"Mr. Hoffmeyer is in his room," he said. "He will be glad to see you."
I followed him along as miserable a passage as ever I saw in my life. The walls were damp, and the paper hung down here and there in long, untidy patches. The ceiling was barely whitewashed; the stairs by which we passed were uncarpeted. The whole place had a most dejected and weary appearance. Then he showed me into a small sitting-room, in which one man sat writing at a table. He looked up as I entered. It was Delora.
"Well," he said, "so this is how you keep your promise!"
"Something has happened since then," I answered. "I have received a cable from my brother which we do not understand."
"A cable from your brother in Brazil?" he asked slowly.
"Yes!" I answered.
Delora turned slowly in his chair and rose to his feet. He was tall and gaunt. His face was lined. He had somehow or other the appearance of a man who is driven to bay. Yet there was something splendid about the way he nerved himself to listen to me with indifference.
"What does he say—your brother?"
"The cable is inspired by Nicholas Delora," I answered. "Listen, and I will read it to you."
I read it to him word by word. When I had finished he simply nodded.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"That is all," I answered. "You will see that what makes your brother anxious is that not only have you failed to keep your word so far as regards communicating with him, but you have not made use of a certain private code arranged between you."
"The business upon which I am engaged," Delora said calmly, "is of great importance, but I do not care to be rushing all the time to the telegraph office. Nicholas is a nervous person. In a case like this he should be content to wait. However, since he has sought the interference of outsiders, I will cable him to-morrow morning."
"Very well," I answered. "I can ask no more than that. I shall go myself to the cable office and send my brother a message."
"What shall you tell him?" Delora asked.
"I shall tell him that I have seen you," I answered, "that you are well, and that he will hear from you to-morrow morning."
"Why cable at all?" Delora asked. "Surely to-morrow morning will be soon enough?"
"From your point of view, yes!" I said. "But there is one other thing which I am going to do. I am going to say in my cable, that if the news he receives from you to-morrow morning is not satisfactory, I shall lay the matter before the Brazilian legation here, and I shall explain why!"
Delora's eyes were like points of fire. Nevertheless, his self-restraint was admirable. He contented himself, indeed, with a low bow.
"You will tell our friends there," he said slowly, "that you have seen me? That I am—you see I admit that—living practically in hiding, apart from my niece? You will also, perhaps, inform them of various other little episodes with which, owing to your unfortunate habit of looking into other people's business, you have become acquainted?"
"Naturally," I answered.
"I think not!" Delora said.
There was an instant's silence. I looked at Delora and wondered what he meant. He looked at me as a man looks at his enemy.
"May I ask how you intend to prevent me?" I inquired.
"Easily!" he answered, with a slight sneer. "There are four men in this house who will obey my bidding. There are also five modes of exit, two of which lead into the river."