The ante-room had two windows, and the room beyond, which was a corner one, had three. All of them were locked, but a pane of glass seemed to me an absurdly fragile barrier against any one who really wished to enter.
"Aren't there some wooden shutters for these windows?" I asked.
"Yes, sir; they were taken down yesterday and put in the basement. Shall I get them?"
"I think you'd better," I said. "Will you need any help?"
"No, sir; they're not heavy. If you'll wait here, you can snap the bolts into place when I lift them up from the outside."
"Very well," I agreed, and Parks hurried away.
I entered the inner room and stopped before the Boule cabinet. There was a certain air of arrogance about it, as it stood there in that blaze of light, its inlay aglow with a thousand subtle reflections; a flaunting air, the air of a courtesan conscious of her beauty and pleased to attract attention—just the air with which Madame de Montespan must have sauntered down the mirror gallery at Versailles, ablaze with jewels, her skirts rustling, her figure swaying suggestively. Something threatening, too; something sinister and deadly—
There was a rattle at the window, and I saw Parks lifting one of the shutters into place. I threw up the sash, and pressed the heavy bolts carefully into their sockets, then closed the sash and locked it. The two other windows were secured in their turn, and with a last look about the room, I turned out the lights. The ante-room windows were soon shuttered in the same way, and with a sigh of relief I told myself that no entrance to the house could be had from that direction. With Parks outside the only door, the rooms ought to be safe from invasion.
Then, before extinguishing the lights, I approached that silent figure on the stretcher, lifted the sheet and looked for the last time upon the face of my dead friend. It was no longer staring and terrible, but calm and peaceful as in sleep—almost smiling. With wet eyes and contracted throat, I covered the face again, turned out the lights, and left the room. Parks met me in the hall, carrying a cot, which he placed close across the doorway.
"There," he said; "nobody will get into that room without my knowing it."
"No," I agreed; and then a sudden thought occurred to me. "Parks," I said, "is it true that there is a burglar-alarm on all the windows?"
"Yes, sir. It rings a bell in Mr. Vantine's bedroom, and another in mine, and sends in a call to the police."
"Is it working?"
"Yes, sir; Mr. Vantine himself tested it this evening just before dinner."
"Then why didn't it work when I opened those windows just now?" I demanded.
"Because I threw off the switch, sir," he explained, "when I came out to get the shutters. The switch is in a little iron box on the wall just back of the stairs, sir. It's one of my duties to turn it on every night before I go to bed."
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Is it on again, now?"
"It certainly is, sir. After what you told me, I'd not be likely to forget it."
"You'd better have a weapon handy, too," I suggested.
"I have a revolver, sir."
"That's good. And don't hesitate to use it. I'm going home—I'm dead tired."
"Shall I call a cab, sir?"
"No, the walk will do me good. I'll see you to-morrow."
Parks helped me into my coat and opened the door for me. Glancing back, after a moment, I saw that he was standing on the steps gazing after me. I could understand his reluctance to go back into that death-haunted house; and I found myself breathing deeply with the relief of getting out of it.
GUESSES AT THE RIDDLE
The walk uptown did me good. The rain had ceased, and the air felt clean and fresh as though it had been washed. I took deep breaths of it, and the feeling of fatigue and depression which had weighed upon me gradually vanished. I was in no hurry—went out of my way a little, indeed, to walk out into Madison Square and look back at the towering mass of the Flatiron building, creamy and delicate as carved ivory under the rays of the moon—and it was long past midnight when I finally turned in at the Marathon. Higgins, the janitor, was just closing the outer doors, and he joined me in the elevator a moment later.
"There's a gentleman waiting to see you, sir," he said, as the car started upward. "Mr. Godfrey, sir. He came in about ten minutes ago. He said you were expecting him, so I let him into your rooms."
"That was right," I said, and reflected again upon Godfrey's exhaustless energy.
I found him lolling in an easy chair, and he looked up with a smile at my entrance. "Higgins said you hadn't come in yet," he explained, "so I thought I'd wait a few minutes on the off chance that you mightn't be too tired to talk. If you are, say so, and I'll be moving along."
"I'm not too tired," I said, hanging up my coat. "I feel a good deal better than I did an hour ago."
"I saw that you were about all in."
"How do you keep it up, Godfrey?" I asked, sitting down opposite him. "You don't seem tired at all."
"I am tired, though," he said, "a little. But I've got a fool brain that won't let my body go to sleep so long as there is work to be done. Then, as soon as everything is finished, the brain lets go and the body sleeps like a log. Now I knew I couldn't go to sleep properly to-night until I had heard the very interesting theory you are going to confide to me. Besides, I have a thing or two to tell you."
"Go ahead," I said.
"We had a cable from our Paris office just before I left. It seems that M. Theophile d'Aurelle plays the fiddle in the orchestra of the Cafe de Paris. He played as usual to-night, so that it is manifestly impossible that he should also be lying in the New York morgue. Moreover, none of his friends, so far as he knows, is in America. No doubt he may be able to identify the photograph of the dead man, and we've already started one on the way, but we can't hear from it for six or eight days. But my guess was right—the fellow's name isn't d'Aurelle."
"You say you have a photograph?"
"Yes, I had some taken of the body this afternoon. Here's one of them. Keep it; you may have a use for it."
I took the card, and, as I gazed at the face depicted upon it, I realised that the distorted countenance I had seen in the afternoon had given me no idea of the man's appearance. Now the eyes were closed and the features composed and peaceful, but even death failed to give them any dignity. It was a weak and dissipated face, the face of a hanger-on of cafes, as Parks had said—of a loiterer along the boulevards, of a man without ambition, and capable of any depth of meanness and deceit. At least, that is how I read it.
"He's evidently low-class," said Godfrey, watching me. "One of those parasites, without work and without income, so common in Paris. Shop-girls and ladies' maids have a weakness for them."
"I think you are right," I agreed; "but, at the same time, if he was of that type, I don't see what business he could have had with Philip Vantine."
"Neither do I; but there are a lot of other things I don't see, either. We're all in the dark, Lester; have you thought of that? Absolutely in the dark."
"Yes, I have thought of it," I said, slowly.
"No doubt we can establish this fellow's identity in time—sooner than we think, perhaps, for most of the morning papers will run his picture, and if he is known here in New York at all, it will be recognised by some one. When we find out who he is, we can probably guess at the nature of his business with Vantine. We can find out who the woman was who called to see Vantine to-night—that is just a case of grilling Rogers; then we can run her down and get her secret out of her. We can find why Rogers is trying to shield her. All that is comparatively simple. But when we have done it all, when we have all these facts in hand, I am afraid we shall find that they are utterly unimportant."
"Unimportant?" I echoed. "But surely—"
"Unimportant because we don't want to know these things. What we want to know is how Philip Vantine and this unknown Frenchman were killed. And that is just the one thing which, I am convinced, neither the man nor the woman nor Rogers nor anybody else we have come across in this case can tell us. There's a personality behind all this that we haven't even suspected yet, and which, I am free to confess, I don't know how to get at. It puzzles me; it rather frightens me; it's like a threatening shadow which one can't get hold of."
There was a moment's silence; then, I decided, the time had come for me to speak.
"Godfrey," I said, "what I am about to tell you is told in confidence, and must be held in confidence until I give you permission to use it. Do you agree?"
"Go on," he said, his eyes on my face.
"Well, I believe I know how these two men were killed. Listen."
And I told him in detail the story of the Boule cabinet; I repeated Vantine's theory of its first ownership; I named the price which he was ready to pay for it; I described the difference between an original and a counterpart, and dwelt upon Vantine's assertion that this was an original of unique and unquestionable artistry. Long before I had finished, Godfrey was out of his chair and pacing up and down the room, his face flushed, his eyes glowing.
"Beautiful!" he murmured from time to time. "Immense! What a case it will make, Lester!" he cried, stopping before my chair and beaming down upon me, as I finished the story. "Unique, too; that's the beauty of it! As unique as this adorable Boule cabinet!"
"Then you see it, too?" I questioned, a little disappointed that my theory should seem so evident.
"See it?" and he dropped into his chair again. "A man would be blind not to see it. But all the same, Lester, I give you credit for putting the facts together. So many of us—Grady, for instance! —aren't able to do that, or to see which facts are essential and which are negligible. Now the fact that Vantine had accidentally come into possession of a Boule cabinet would probably seem negligible to Grady, whereas it is the one big essential fact in this whole case. And it was you who saw it."
"You saw it, too," I pointed out, "as soon as I mentioned it."
"Yes; but you mentioned it in a way which made its importance manifest. I couldn't help seeing it. And I believe that we have both arrived at practically the same conclusions. Here they are," and he checked them off on his fingers. "The cabinet contains a secret drawer. This is inevitable, if it really belonged to Madame de Montespan. Any cabinet made for her would be certain to have a secret drawer—she would require it, just as she would require lace on her underwear or jewelled buttons on her gloves. That drawer, since it was, perhaps, to contain such priceless documents as the love letters of a king—even more so, if the love letters were from another man! —must be adequately guarded, and therefore a mechanism was devised to stab the person attempting to open it and to inject into the wound a poison so powerful as to cause instant death. Am I right so far?"
"Wonderfully right," I nodded. "I had not put it so clearly, even to myself. Go ahead."
"We come to the conclusion, then," continued Godfrey, "that the business of this unknown Frenchman with Vantine in some way concerned this cabinet."
"Vantine himself thought so," I broke in. "He told me afterwards that it was because he thought so he consented to see him."
"Good! That would seem to indicate that we are on the right track. The Frenchman's business, then, had something to do with this cabinet, and with this secret drawer. Left to himself, he discovered the cabinet in the room adjoining the ante-room, attempted to open the drawer, and was killed."
"Yes," I agreed; "and now how about Vantine?"
"Vantine's death isn't so simply explained. Presumably the unknown woman also called on business relating to the cabinet. She, also, wanted to open the secret drawer, in order to secure its contents —that seems fairly certain from her connection with the first caller."
"You still think it was her photograph he carried in his watch?"
"I am sure of it. But how did it happen that it was Vantine who was killed? Did the woman, warned by the fate of the man, deliberately set Vantine to open the drawer in order that she might run no risk? Or was she also ignorant of the mechanism? Above all, did she succeed in getting away with the contents of the drawer?"
"What was the contents of the drawer?" I demanded.
"Ah, if we only knew!"
"Perhaps the woman had nothing to do with it. Vantine himself told me that he was going to make a careful examination of the cabinet. No doubt that is exactly what he was doing when the woman's arrival interrupted him. He might have let her out of the house himself, and then, returning to the cabinet, stumbled upon the secret drawer after she had gone."
"Yes; that is quite possible, too. At any rate, you agree with me that both men were killed in some such way as I have described?"
"Absolutely. I think there can be no doubt of it."
"There are objections—and rather weighty ones. The theory explains the two deaths, it explains the similarity of the wounds, it explains how both should be on the right hand just above the knuckles, it explains why both bodies were found in the same place since both men started to summon help. But, in the first place, if the Frenchman got the drawer open, who closed it?"
"Perhaps it closed itself when he let go of it."
"And closed again after Vantine opened it?"
"It would take a very clever mechanism to do that."
"But at least it's possible."
"Oh, yes; it's possible. And we must remember that the poisoners of those days were very ingenious. That was the heydey of La Voisin and the Marquise de Brinvilliers, of Elixi, and heaven knows how many other experts who had followed Catherine de Medici to France. So that's all quite possible. But there is one thing that isn't possible, and that is that a poison which, if it is administered as we think it is, must be a liquid, could remain in that cabinet fresh and ready for use for more than three hundred years. It would have dried up centuries ago. Nor would the mechanism stay in order so long. It must be both complicated and delicate. Therefore it would have to be oiled and overhauled from time to time. If it is worked by a spring—and I don't see how else it can be worked—the spring would have to be renewed and wound up."
"Well?" I asked, as he paused.
"Well, it is evident that the drawer contains something more recent than the love letters of Louis Fourteenth. It must have been put in working order quite recently. But by whom and for what purpose? That is the mystery we have to solve—and it is a mighty pretty one. And here's another objection," he added. "That Frenchman knew about the secret drawer, because, according to our theory, he opened it and got killed. Why didn't he also know about the poison?"
That was an objection, truly, and the more I thought of it, the more serious it seemed.
"It may be," said Godfrey, at last, "that d'Aurelle was going it alone—that he had broken with the gang—"
"Of course there is a gang. This thing has taken careful planning and concerted effort. And the leader of the gang is a genius! I wonder if you understand how great a genius? Think: he knows the secret of the drawer of Madame de Montespan's cabinet; but above all he knows the secret of the poison—the poison of the Medici! Do you know what that means, Lester?"
"What does it mean?" I asked, for Godfrey was getting ahead of me.
"It means he is a great criminal—a really great criminal—one of the elect from whom crime has no secrets. Observe. He alone knows the secret of the poison; one of his men breaks away from him, and pays for his mutiny with his life. He is the brain; the others are merely the instruments!"
"Then you don't believe it was by accident that cabinet was sent to Vantine?"
"By accident? Not for an instant! It was part of a plot—and a splendid plot!"
"Can you explain that to me, too?" I queried, a little ironically, for I confess it seemed to me that Godfrey was permitting his imagination to run away with him.
He smiled good-naturedly at my tone.
"Of course, this is all mere romancing," he admitted. "I am the first to acknowledge that. I was merely following out our theory to what seemed its logical conclusion. But perhaps we are on the wrong track altogether. Perhaps d'Aurelle, or whatever his name is, just blundered in, like a moth into a candle-flame. As for the plot—well, I can only guess at it. But suppose you and I had pulled off some big robbery—"
He stopped suddenly, and his face went white and then red.
"What is it, Godfrey?" I cried, for his look frightened me.
He lay back in his chair, his hands pressed over his eyes. I could see how they were trembling—how his whole body was trembling.
"Wait!" he said, hoarsely. "Wait!" Then he sat upright, his face tense with anxiety. "Lester!" he cried, his voice shrill with fear. "The cabinet—it isn't guarded!"
"Yes, it is," I said. "At least I thought of that!"
And I told him of the precautions I had taken to keep it safe. He heard me out with a sigh of relief.
"That's better," he said. "Parks wouldn't stand much show, I'm afraid, if worst came to worst; but I think the cabinet is safe—for to-night. And before another night, Lester, we will have a look for ourselves."
"Yes; for the secret drawer!"
I stared at him fascinated, shrinking.
"And we shall find it!" he added.
"D'Aurelle and Vantine found it," I muttered thickly.
"And they're both dead!"
"It won't kill us. We will go about it armoured, Lester. That poisoned fang may strike—"
"Don't!" I cried, and cowered back into my chair. "I—I can't do it, Godfrey. God knows, I'm no coward—but not that!"
"You shall watch me do it!" he said.
"That would be even worse!"
"But I'll be ready, Lester. There will be no danger. Come, man! Why, it's the chance of a lifetime—to rifle the secret drawer of Madame de Montespan! Yes!" he added, his eyes glowing, "and to match ourselves against the greatest criminal of modern times!"
His shrill laugh told how excited he was.
"And do you know what we shall find in that drawer, Lester? But no —it is only a guess—the wildest sort of a guess—but if it is right—if it is right!"
He sprang from his chair, biting his lips, his whole frame quivering. But he was calmer in a moment.
"Anyway, you will help me, Lester? You will come?"
There was a wizardry in his manner not to be resisted. Besides—to rifle the secret drawer of Madame de Montespan! To match oneself against the greatest criminal of modern times! What an adventure!
"Yes," I answered, with a quick intaking of the breath; "I'll come!"
He clapped me on the shoulder, his face beaming.
"I knew you would! To-morrow night, then—I'll call for you here at seven o'clock. We'll have dinner together—and then, hey for the great secret! Agreed?"
"Agreed!" I said.
He caught up coat and hat and started for the door.
"There are things to do," he said; "that armour to prepare—the plan of campaign to consider, you know. Good-night, then, till—this evening!"
The door closed behind him, and his footsteps died away down the hall. I looked at my watch—it was nearly two o'clock.
Dizzily I went to bed. But my sleep was broken by a fearful dream—a dream of a serpent, with blazing eyes and dripping fangs, poised to strike!
My first thought, when I awoke next morning, was for Parks, for Godfrey's manner had impressed me with the feeling that Parks was in much more serious danger than either he or I suspected. It was with a lively sense of relief, therefore, that I heard Parks's voice answer my call on the 'phone.
"This is Mr. Lester," I said. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything serene, sir," he answered. "It would take a mighty smooth burglar to get in here now, sir."
"How is that?" I asked.
"Reporters are camped all around the house, sir. They seem to think somebody else will be killed here to-day."
He laughed as he spoke the words, but I was far from thinking the idea an amusing one.
"I hope not," I said, quickly. "And don't let any of the reporters in, nor talk to them. Tell them they must go to the police for their information. If they get too annoying, let me know, and I'll have an officer sent around."
"Very good, sir."
"Don't let anybody in the house—no matter what he wants—unless Mr. Grady or Mr. Simmonds or Mr. Goldberger accompanies him. Don't let anybody in you don't know. If there is any trouble, call me up. I want you to be careful about this."
"I understand, sir."
"How is Rogers?" I asked.
"Much better, sir. He wanted to get up, but I told him he might as well stay in bed, and I'd look after things. I thought that was the best place for him, sir."
"It is," I agreed. "Keep him there as long as you can. I'll come in during the day, if possible; in any event, Mr. Godfrey and I will be there this evening. Call me at the office, if you need me for anything."
"Very good, sir," said Parks again, and I hung up.
I glanced through Godfrey's account of the affair while I ate my breakfast, and noted with amusement the sly digs taken at Commissioner Grady. Under the photograph of the unknown woman was the legend:
MR. VANTINE'S MYSTERIOUS CALLER
(Grady Please Notice)
And it was intimated that when Grady wanted any real information about an especially puzzling case, he had to go to the Record to get it.
This, however, was merely by the way, for the story of the double tragedy, fully illustrated, was flung across many columns, and was plainly considered the great news feature of the day.
I glanced at two or three other papers on my way down-town. All of them featured the tragedy with a riot of pictures—pictures of d'Aurelle and Vantine, of Grady (very large), of Simmonds, of Goldberger, of Freylinghuisen, of the Vantine house, diagrams of the ante-room showing the position in which the bodies were found, anatomical charts showing the exact nature of the wounds, pictures of the noted poisoners of history with a highly-coloured list of their achievements—but, when it came to the story of the tragedy itself, their accounts were far less detailed and intimate than that in the Record. They were, indeed, for the most part, mere farragos of theories, guesses, blood-curdling suggestions, and mysterious hints of important information confided to the reporters but withheld from the public until the criminal had been run to earth. That this would soon be accomplished not a single paper doubted, for had not Grady, the mighty Grady, taken personal charge of the case? (Here followed a glowing history of Grady's career.)
It was evident enough that all these reporters had been compelled to go to Grady for their information, and I could fancy them damning him between their teeth as they penned these panegyrics. I could also fancy their city editors damning as they compared these incoherent imaginings with the admirable and closely-written story in the Record, and I suspected that it was the realisation of the Record's triumph which had caused the descent of the phalanx of reporters upon the Vantine place.
I went over the whole affair with Mr. Royce, as soon as he reached the office, and spent the rest of the day arranging the papers relating to Vantine's affairs and getting them ready to probate. Parks called me up once or twice for instructions as to various details, and Vantine's nearest relative, a third or fourth cousin, wired from somewhere in the west that he was starting for New York at once. And then, toward the middle of the afternoon, came the cablegram from Paris which I had almost forgotten to expect:
"Royce & Lester, New York.
"Regret mistake in shipment exceedingly. Our representative will call to explain.
"Armand et Fils."
So there was an end of the romance Godfrey had woven, and which I had been almost ready to believe—the romance of design, of a carefully laid plot, and all that. It had been merely accident, after all. And I smiled a little sarcastically at myself for my credulity. No doubt my own romance of a secret drawer and a poisoned mechanism would prove equally fabulous. In my over-wrought state of the night before, it had seemed reasonable enough; but here, in the cold light of day, it seemed preposterous. How Grady and Goldberger would have laughed at it!
I put the whole thing impatiently away from me, and turned to other work; but I found I could not conquer a certain deep-seated nervousness; so at last I locked my desk, told the boy I would not be back, and took a cab for a long drive through the park. The fresh air, the smell of the trees, the sight of the children playing along the paths, did me good, and I was able to greet Godfrey with a smile when he called for me at seven o'clock.
"I've engaged a table at a little place around the corner," he said. "It is managed by a friend of mine, and I think you'll like it."
I did. Indeed, the dinner was so good that it demanded undivided attention, and not until the coffee was on the table and the cigars lighted did we speak of the business which had brought us together.
"Anything new?" I asked, as we pushed back our chairs.
"No, nothing of any importance. The man at the morgue has not been identified. In the first place, the Paris police have never taken his Bertillon measurements."
"Then he's not a criminal?"
"He has never been arrested," Godfrey qualified. "More peculiar is the fact that he hasn't been recognised here. Two million people, probably, saw his photograph in the papers this morning. Some of them thought they knew him and went around to the morgue to see his body, but nothing came of it. The police have no report of any such man missing."
"That is peculiar, isn't it!" I commented.
"It's very peculiar. It means one of two things—either the fellow's friends are keeping dark purposely, or he didn't have any friends, here in New York, at least. But even then, one would think that whoever rented him a room would wonder what had become of him, and would make some inquiries."
"Perhaps he hadn't rented a room," I suggested. "Perhaps he had just reached New York, and went direct to Vantine's."
Godfrey's face lighted up.
"From the steamer, of course! I ought to have guessed as much from the cut of his hair. He hasn't been out of France more than ten days or so. Excuse me a moment."
He hurried away, and five minutes passed before he came back.
"I 'phoned the office to send some men around to the boats which came in yesterday. If he was a passenger, some one of the stewards will recognise his photograph. There were three boats he might have come on—the Adriatic and Cecelie from Cherbourg, and La Touraine from Havre. There is nothing else that I know of," he added thoughtfully, "except that Freylinghuisen thinks he has discovered the nature of the poison. He says it is some very powerful variant of prussic acid."
"Yes," I said, "I heard him say something of the sort last night."
"I had a talk with him this afternoon about it, and he was quite learned," Godfrey went on. "This is a great chance for him to get before the public, and he's making the most of it. I gathered from what he said that ordinary prussic acid, which is deadly enough, heaven knows, contains only two per cent. of the poison; while the strongest solution yet obtained contains only four per cent. Freylinghuisen says that whoever concocted this particular poison has evidently discovered a new way of doing it—or rediscovered an old way—so that it is at least fifty per cent. effective. In other words, if you can get a fraction of a drop of it in a man's blood, you kill him by paralysis quicker than if you put a bullet through his heart."
"Nothing can save a man, then?" I questioned.
"Nothing on earth. Oh, I don't say that if somebody had an axe handy and chopped your arm off at the shoulder an instant after you were struck on the hand, you mightn't have a chance to live; but it would take mighty quick work, and even then, it would be nip and tuck. Freylinghuisen thinks it is a new discovery. I don't. I think some one has dug up one of the old Medici formulae. Maybe it was placed in the secret drawer, so that there would never be any lack of ammunition for the mechanism."
"Godfrey," I said, "are you still bent on fooling with that thing?"
"More than ever; I'm going to find that secret drawer. And if the fangs strike—well, I'm ready for them. See here what I had made today."
He drew from his pocket something that looked like a steel gauntlet, such as one sees on suits of old armour. He slipped it over his right hand.
"You see it covers the back of the hand completely," he said, "half way down the first joint of the fingers. It is made of the toughest steel and would turn a bullet. And do you see how it is depressed in the middle, Lester?"
"Yes," I said, "I was wondering why you had it made in that shape."
"I want to get a sample of that poison. My theory is that when the fangs strike the hand, the shock drives out a drop or two of the poison. I don't want those drops to get away; I want them to roll into this depression, and I shall very carefully bottle them. Think what they are, Lester—the poison of the Medici!"
I sat for a moment looking at him, half in amusement, half in sorrow. It seemed a pity that his theory must come tumbling down, it was so picturesque, and he was so interested and enthusiastic over it. And it would make such a good story! He caught my glance, and put the gauntlet back into his pocket.
"Well, what is it?" he asked quietly.
For answer, I got out the cablegram and passed it across to him. He read it with brows contracted.
"That seems to put a puncture in our little romance, doesn't it?" I asked, at last.
He nodded thoughtfully.
"Yes, it does," and he read the message again, word by word. "Armand's man hasn't called yet?"
"No, I didn't get the message till about three o'clock. I suppose he'll be around to-morrow."
"You will have to turn the cabinet over to him, of course?"
"Why, yes, it belongs to him. At least, it doesn't belong to Vantine."
He slipped the message into its envelope and handed it back to me. I could see that he was perplexed and upset.
"Well, in spite of this," he said finally, "I am still interested in that cabinet, Lester, and I wish you would keep possession of it as long as you can. At least, I wouldn't give it up until he delivered to you the other cabinet which Vantine really bought."
"Oh, I'll make him do that," I agreed quickly. "That will no doubt take a few days—longer than that if Vantine's cabinet is in Paris."
Godfrey raised a finger to the waiter, asked for the check, and paid it.
"And now let us go down and have a look at this one," he said, "as we intended doing. You will think me foolish, Lester, but even that cablegram hasn't shaken my belief in the existence of that secret drawer."
"And all the rest?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered slowly, "and all the rest." He said nothing more until we stopped before the Vantine house, but I could see, from his puckered brows, how desperately he was trying to untangle this quirk in the mystery.
"The siege seems to have been lifted," I remarked, as we alighted.
"Parks telephoned me that your esteemed contemporaries had the place surrounded. I told him to hold the fort!"
"Poor boys!" he commented, smiling. "To think that all they know is what Grady is able to tell them!" Then he stopped before the house and made a careful survey of it.
"Which room is the cabinet in?" he asked.
"The ante-room is there at the left where those two shuttered windows are. The cabinet is in the corner room—there is one window on this side and two on the other."
"Wait till I take a look at them," he said, and, vaulting the low railing, he walked quickly along the front of the house and around the corner. He was gone only a minute. "They're all right," he said, in a tone of relief.
"Of course they're all right. You didn't suppose—"
"If that cabinet contains what I thought it did, Lester—yes," he added, a little savagely, as he saw my look, "and what I still think it does—it wouldn't be safe in the strongest vault of the National City Bank," and he motioned for me to ring the bell.
I did so, in silence.
Parks answered it almost instantly, and I could tell from the way his face changed how glad he was to see me.
"Well, Parks," I said, as we stepped inside, "everything is all right, I hope?"
"Yes, sir," he answered. "But—but it gets on the nerves a little, sir."
I heard a movement behind me, as I gave Parks my coat, and turned to see Rogers sitting on the cot.
"Hello," I said, "so you're able to be up, are you?"
"Yes, sir," he answered, without looking at me. "I thought I'd come down and keep Parks company."
Parks smiled a little sheepishly.
"I asked him to, Mr. Lester," he said. "I got so lonesome and jumpy here by myself that I just had to have somebody to talk to. Especially, after the burglar-alarm rang."
"The burglar-alarm?" repeated Godfrey quickly. "What do you mean?"
"We've got a burglar-alarm on the windows, sir. It's usually turned off in the day-time, but I thought I'd better leave it on to-day, and it rang about the middle of the afternoon. I thought at first that one of the other servants had raised a window, but none of them had. Something went wrong with it, I guess."
"Did you take a look at the windows?" I asked.
"Yes, sir; a policeman came to see what was the matter and we went around and examined the windows, but they were all locked. It made me feel kind of scary for a while."
"Does the alarm work now?"
"No, sir; the policeman said there must be a short circuit somewhere, and that he'd notify the people who put it in; but nobody has come around yet to fix it."
"We'd better take a look at the windows, ourselves," said Godfrey. "You stay here, Parks. We can find them, all right; and I don't want you to leave that door unguarded for a single instant."
We went from window to window, and Godfrey examined each of them with a minuteness that astonished me, for I had no idea what he expected to find. But we completed the circuit of the ground floor without his apparently discovering anything out of the way.
"Let's take a look at the basement," he said, and led the way downstairs with a readiness which told me that he had been over the house before.
In the kitchen, we came upon the cook and housemaid sitting close together and talking in frightened whispers. They watched us apprehensively, and I stopped to reassure them, while Godfrey proceeded with his search. Then I heard him calling me.
I found him in a kind of lumber-room, standing before its single small window, his electric torch in his hand.
"Look there," he said, his voice quivering with excitement, and threw a circle of light on the jamb of the window at the spot where the upper and lower sashes met.
"What is it?" I asked, after a moment. "I don't see anything wrong."
"You don't? You don't see that this house was to be entered to-night? Then what does this mean?"
With his finger-nail, he turned up the end of a small insulated wire. And then I saw that the wire had been cut.
THE BURNING EYES
For an instant, I did not grasp the full significance of that severed wire. Then I understood.
"Yes," said Godfrey drily, "that romance of mine is looking up again. Somebody was preparing for a quiet invasion of the house to-night —somebody, of course, interested in that cabinet."
"He wasn't losing any time," I ventured.
"He knew he hadn't any to lose. When you put those wooden shutters up, you warned him that you suspected his game. He knew, if the alarm was on, it would ring when he cut the wire, but he also knew that the chances were a hundred to one against the cut being discovered, or the alarm put in working order, before to-morrow."
"Why can't we ambush him?" I suggested.
"We might try, but it will be a mighty risky undertaking, Lester."
"One risky undertaking is enough for to-night," I said, with a sigh, for my belief in the existence of the secret drawer and the poison and all the rest of it had come back with a rush. I felt almost apologetic toward Godfrey for ever doubting him. "We'd better wait and see if we survive the first one before we arrange for any more."
"All right," Godfrey laughed. "But I'll fix this break."
He got out his pen-knife, loosened two or three of the staples which held the wire in place, drew it out, scraped back the insulation, and twisted the ends tightly together.
"There," he added, "that's done. If the invader tampers with the window again, he will set off the alarm. But I don't believe he'll touch it. I fancy he already knows his little game is discovered."
"How would he know it?" I demanded, incredulously.
"If he is keeping an eye on this window, as he naturally would do, he has seen my light. Perhaps he is watching us now."
I glanced at the dark square of the window with a little shiver. This business was getting on my nerves again. But Godfrey turned away with a shrug of the shoulders.
"Now for the cabinet," he said, and led the way back upstairs.
Rogers was still sitting dejectedly on the cot, and, looking at him more closely, I could see that he was white and shaken. His trouble, whatever its nature, plainly lay heavy on his mind.
"Have you anything to tell us, this evening, Rogers?" I asked, kindly, but he only shook his head.
"I've told you everything I know, sir," he answered, in a low voice.
"I'm not going to worry you, Rogers," I went on, "but I want you to think it over. You can rely upon me to help you, if I can."
He looked up quickly, but caught himself, and turned his eyes away.
"Thank you, sir," was all he said.
"And now," I added, briskly, "I'll have to ask you to get up. Move the cot away from the door, Parks."
Parks obeyed me with astonished face.
"You're not going in there, sir!" he protested, as I turned the knob.
"Yes, we are," I said, and opened the door. "Is—is...."
"No, sir," broke in Parks, understanding. "The undertakers brought the coffin and put him in it and moved him over to the drawing-room this afternoon, sir."
"I'm glad of that. I want all the lights lit, Parks, just as they were last night."
Parks reached inside the door and switched on the electrics. Then he went away, came back in a moment with a taper, and proceeded to light the gas-lights. A moment later, the lights in the inner room were also blazing.
"There you are, sir," said Parks, and retreated to the door. "Will you need me?"
"Not now. But wait in the hall outside. We may need you." I had a notion to tell him to have an axe handy, but I saw Godfrey smiling.
"Very good, sir," said Parks, evidently relieved, and went out and closed the door.
I led the way into the inner room.
"Well, there it is," I said, and nodded toward the Boule cabinet, standing in the full glare of the light, every inlay and incrustation glittering like the eyes of a basilisk. "It isn't too late to give it up, Godfrey."
"Oh, yes, it is," he said, coolly, removing his coat "It was too late the moment you told me that story. Why, Lester, if I gave it up, I should never sleep again!"
"And if you don't, you may never wake again," I pointed out.
He laughed lightly.
"What a dismal prophet you are! Draw up a chair and watch me."
He pulled back his shirt-sleeves, and placed his electric torch on the floor beside the cabinet. Then he paused with folded arms to contemplate this masterpiece of M. Boule.
"It is a beauty," he said, at last, and then drew out the little drawers, one after another, looked them over, and placed them carefully on a chair. "Now," he added, "let us see if there is any space that isn't accounted for."
He took from his pocket a folding rule of ivory, opened it, and began a series of measurements so searching and intricate that half an hour passed without a word being spoken. Then he pulled up another chair, and sat down beside me.
"I seem to be pretty much up against it," he said, "no doubt just as the designer of the cabinet would wish me to be. The whole bottom of the desk is inclosed, and those three little drawers take up only a small part of the space. Then the back of the cabinet seems to be double—at least, there's a space of three inches I can't account for. So there's room for a dozen secret drawers, if the Montespan required so many. And now to find the combination."
He adjusted the steel gauntlet carefully to his right hand and sat down on the floor before the cabinet.
"I'll begin at the bottom," he said. "If there is any spot I miss, tell me of it."
He ran his fingers up and down the graceful legs, carefully feeling every inequality of the elaborate bronze ornamentation. Particularly did his fingers linger on every boss and point, striving to push it in or move it up or down; but they were all immovable. Then he examined the bottom of the table minutely, using his torch to illumine every crevice; but again without result.
Another half hour passed so, and when at last he came out from under the table, his face was dripping with sweat.
"It's trying work," he said, sitting down again and mopping his face. "But isn't it a beauty, Lester? The more I look at it, the more wonderful it seems."
"I told Philip Vantine I wasn't up to it, and I'm not," I said.
"Nor I, but I can appreciate it to the extent of my capacity. It's the Louis Fourteenth ideal of beauty—splendour carried to the nth degree. Look at the arabesques along the front—can you imagine anything more graceful? And the engraving—nothing cut-and-dried about that. It was done by a burin in the hands of a master—perhaps by Boule himself. I don't wonder Vantine was rather mad about it. But we haven't found that drawer yet," and he drew his chair close to the cabinet.
"I'd point out one thing to you, Godfrey," I said: "if you go on poking about with the fingers of both hands, as you've been doing, you are just as apt to get struck on the left hand as on the right."
"That's true," he agreed. "Stop me if I forget."
There were three little drawers in the front of the table, and these Godfrey had removed. He inserted his hand into the space from which he had taken them, and examined it carefully. Then, inch by inch, he ran his fingers over the bosses and arabesques with which the sides and top of the table were incrusted. It seemed to me that, if the secret drawer were anywhere, it must be somewhere in this part of the cabinet, and I watched him with breathless interest. Once I thought he had found the drawer, for a piece of inlay at the side of the table seemed to give a little under the pressure of his fingers; but no hidden spring was touched; no drawer sprang open; no poisoned fangs descended.
"Well," said Godfrey, sitting back in his chair at last, and wiping his face again, "there's so much done. If there is any secret drawer in the lower part of the cabinet, it is mighty cleverly concealed. Now we'll try the upper part."
The upper part of the cabinet consisted of a series of drawers, rising one above the other, and terminated by a triangular pediment, its tympanum ornamented with some beautiful little bronzes. The drawers themselves were concealed by two doors, opening in the centre, and covered with a most intricate design of arabesqued incrustations.
"If there is a secret drawer here," said Godfrey, "it is somewhere in the back, where there seems to be a hollow space. But to discover the combination...."
He ran his fingers over the inlay, and then, struck by a sudden thought, tested each of the little figures along the tympanum, but they were all set solidly in place.
"There's one thing sure," he said, "the combination, whatever it is, is of such a nature that it could not be discovered accidentally—by a person leaning on the cabinet, for instance. It isn't a question of merely touching a spring; it is probably a question of releasing a series of levers, which must be worked in a certain order, or the drawer won't open. I'm afraid we are up against it."
"I can't pretend I'm sorry," I said, with a sigh of relief. "As far as I am concerned, I'm perfectly willing that the drawer should go undiscovered."
"Well, I am not!" retorted Godfrey, curtly, and he sat regarding the cabinet with puckered brows. Then he rose and began tapping at the back.
I don't know what it was—for I was conscious of no noise—but some mysterious attraction drew my eyes to the window at the farther side of the room. Near the top of the wooden shutter, which Parks and I had put in place, was a small semi-circular opening, to allow the passage of a little light, perhaps, and peering through this opening were two eyes—two burning eyes....
They were fixed upon Godfrey with such feverish intentness that they did not see my glance, and I lowered my head instantly.
"Godfrey," I said, in a shaking voice, "don't look up; don't move your head; but there is some one peering through the hole in the shutter opposite us."
Godfrey did not answer for quite a minute, but kept calmly on with his examination of the cabinet.
"Did he see you look at him?" he asked, at last.
"No, he was looking at you, with his eyes almost starting out of his head. I never saw such eyes!"
"Did you see anything of his face?"
"No, the hole is too small. I fancy I saw the fingers of one hand, which he had thrust through to steady himself."
"How high is the hole?"
"Near the top of the window."
Godfrey came back to his chair a moment later, sat down in it, and passed his handkerchief slowly over his face. Then he leaned forward, apparently to examine the legs of the cabinet.
"I saw him," he said. "Or, rather, I saw his eyes. Rather fierce, aren't they?"
"They're a tiger's eyes," I said, with conviction.
"Well, there is no use going ahead with this while he is out there. Even if we found the drawer, we'd both be dead an instant later."
"You mean he'd kill us?"
"He would shoot us instantly. Imagine what a sensation that would make, Lester. Parks hears two pistol shots, rushes in and finds us lying here dead. Grady would have a convulsion—and we should both be famous for a few days."
"I'll seek fame in some other way," I said drily. "What are you going to do about it?"
"We've got to try to capture him; and if we do—well, we shall have the fame all right! But it's a good deal like trying to pick up a scorpion—we're pretty sure to get hurt. If that fellow out there is who I think he is, he's about the most dangerous man on earth."
He went on tapping the surface of the cabinet. As for me, I would have given anything for another look at those gleaming eyes. They seemed to be burning into me; hot flashes were shooting up and down my back.
"Why can't I go out as though I were going after something," I suggested. "Then Parks and I could charge around the corner and get him."
"You wouldn't get him, he'd get you. You wouldn't have a chance on earth. If there is a window upstairs over that one, you might drop something out on him, or borrow Parks's pistol and shoot him—"
"That would be pretty cowardly, wouldn't it?" I suggested, mildly.
"My dear Lester," Godfrey protested, "when you attack a poisonous snake, you don't do it with bare hands, do you?"
I couldn't help it—I glanced again at the window....
"He's gone!" I cried.
Godfrey was at the window in two steps.
"Look at that!" he said, "and then tell me he isn't a genius!"
I followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw that, just opposite the opening in the shutter, a little hole had been cut in the window-pane.
"That fellow foresees everything," said Godfrey, with enthusiasm. "He probably cut that hole as soon as it was dark. He must have guessed we were going to examine the cabinet to-night—and he wanted not only to see, but to hear. He heard everything we said, Lester!"
"Let's go after him!" I cried, and, without waiting for an answer, I sprang across the ante-room and snatched open the door which led into the hall.
Parks and Rogers were sitting on the couch just outside and I never saw two men more thoroughly frightened.
"For God's sake, Mr. Lester!" gasped Rogers, and stopped, his hand at his throat.
"Is it Mr. Godfrey?" cried Parks.
"There's a man outside. Got your pistol, Parks?"
"Yes, sir," and he took it from his pocket.
I snatched it from him, opened the front door, leaped the railing, and stole along the house to the corner.
Then, taking my courage in both hands, I charged around it.
There was no one in sight; but from somewhere near at hand came a burst of mocking laughter.
GODFREY IS FRIGHTENED
I was still staring about me, that mocking laughter in my ears, when Godfrey joined me.
"He got away, of course," he said coolly.
"Yes, and I heard him laugh!" I cried.
Godfrey looked at me quickly.
"Come, Lester," he said, soothingly, "don't let your nerves run away with you."
"It wasn't my nerves," I protested, a little hotly. "I heard it quite plainly. He can't be far away."
"Too far for us to catch him," Godfrey retorted, and, torch in hand, proceeded to examine the window-sill and the ground beneath it. "There is where he stood," he added, and the marks on the sill were evident enough. "Of course he had his line of retreat blocked out," and he flashed his torch back and forth across the grass, but the turf was so close that no trace of footsteps was visible.
We went slowly back to the house, and Godfrey sat down again to a contemplation of the cabinet.
"It's too much for me," he said, at last. "The only way I can find that drawer, I'm afraid, is with an axe. But I don't want to smash the thing to pieces—"
"I should say not! It would be like smashing the Venus de Milo."
"Hardly so bad as that. But we won't smash it yet awhile. I'm going to look up the subject of secret drawers—perhaps I'll stumble upon something that will help me."
"And then, of course," I said, disconsolately, "it is quite possible that there isn't any such drawer at all."
But Godfrey shook his head decidedly.
"I don't agree with you there, Lester. I'll wager that fellow who was looking in at us could find it in a minute."
"He seemed mighty frightened lest you should."
"He had reason to be," Godfrey rejoined grimly. "I'll have another try at it to-morrow. One thing we've got to take care of, and that is that our friend of the burning eyes doesn't get a chance at it first."
"Those shutters are pretty strong," I pointed out. "And Parks is no fool."
"Yes," agreed Godfrey, "the shutters are pretty strong—they might keep him out for ten minutes—scarcely longer than that. As for Parks, he wouldn't last ten seconds. You don't seem to understand the extraordinary character of this fellow."
"During your period of exaltation last night," I reminded him, "you referred to him as the greatest criminal of modern times."
"Well," smiled Godfrey, "perhaps that was a little exaggerated. Suppose we say one of the greatest—great enough, surely, to walk all around us, if we aren't on guard. I think I would better drop a word to Simmonds and get him to send down a couple of men to watch the house. With them outside, and Parks on the inside, it ought to be fairly safe."
"I should think so!" I said. "One would imagine you were getting ready to repel an army. Who is this fellow, anyway, Godfrey? You seem to be half afraid of him!"
"I'm wholly afraid of him, if he's who I think he is—but it's a mere guess as yet, Lester. Wait a day or two. I'll call up Simmonds."
He went to the 'phone, while I sat down again and looked at the cabinet in a kind of stupefaction. What was the intrigue, of which it seemed to be the centre? Who was this man, that Godfrey should consider him so formidable? Why should he have chosen Philip Vantine for a victim?
Godfrey came back while I was still groping blindly amid this maze of mystery.
"It's all right," he said. "Simmonds is sending two of his best men to watch the house." He stood for a moment gazing down at the cabinet. "I'm coming back to-morrow to have another try at it," he added. "I have left the gauntlet there on the chair, so if you feel like having a try yourself, Lester...."
"Heaven forbid!" I protested. "But perhaps I would better tell Parks to let you in. I hope I won't find you a corpse here, Godfrey!"
"So do I! But I don't believe you will. Yes, tell Parks to let me in whenever I come around. And now about Rogers."
"What about him?"
"I rather thought I might want to grill him to-night. But perhaps I would better wait till I get a little more to go on." He paused for a moment's thought. "Yes; I'll wait," he said, finally. "I don't want to run any risk of failing."
We went out into the hall together, and I told Parks to admit Godfrey, whenever he wished to enter. Rogers was still sitting on the cot, looking so crushed and sorrowful that I could not help pitying him. I began to think that, if he were left to himself a day or two longer, he would tell all we wished to know without any grilling.
I confided this idea to Godfrey as we went down the front steps.
"Perhaps you're right," he agreed. "I don't believe the fellow is really crooked. Something has happened to him—something in connection with that woman—and he has never got over it. Well, we shall have to find out what it was. Hello, here are Simmonds's men," he added, as two policemen stopped before the house.
"Is this Mr. Godfrey?" one of them asked.
"Yes," said Godfrey.
"Mr. Simmonds told us to report to you, sir, if you were here."
"What we want you to do," said Godfrey, "is to watch the house—watch it from all sides—patrol clear around it, and see that no one approaches it."
"Very well, sir," and the men touched their helmets, and one of them went around to the back of the house, while the other remained in front.
"Perhaps if they concealed themselves," I suggested, "the fellow might venture back and be nabbed."
But Godfrey shook his head.
"I don't want him to venture back," he said. "I want to scare him off. I want him to see we're thoroughly on guard." He hailed a passing cab, and paused with one foot on the step. "I've already told you, Lester," he added, over his shoulder, "that I'm afraid of him. Perhaps you thought I was joking, but I wasn't. I was never more serious in my life. The Record office," he added to the cabby, and jingled away, leaving me staring after him.
As I turned homeward, I could not but ponder over this remarkable and mysterious being with whom Godfrey was so impressed. Never before had I known him to hesitate to match himself with any adversary; but now, it seemed to me, he shunned the contest, or at least feared it —feared that he might be outwitted and outplayed! How great a compliment that was to the mysterious unknown only I could guess!
And then I shivered a little as I recalled that mocking and ironic laughter. And I quickened my step, with a glance over my shoulder; for if Godfrey was afraid, how much more reason had I to be! It was with a sense of relief, of which I was a little ashamed, that I reached my apartment at the Marathon and locked the door.
Just before I turned in for the night, I heard from Godfrey again, for my telephone rang, and it was his voice that answered.
"I just wanted to tell you, Lester," he said, "that your guess was right. The mysterious Frenchman came over on La Touraine, landing at noon yesterday. He came in the steerage, and the stewards know nothing about him. What time was it he got to Vantine's?"
"About two, I should say."
"So he probably went directly there from the boat, as you thought. That accounts for nobody knowing him. The steamship company is holding a bag belonging to him. I'll get them to open it to-morrow, and perhaps we shall find out who he was."
"But, Godfrey," I broke in, "how about this other fellow—the man with the burning eyes? He's getting on my nerves!"
"Don't let him do that, Lester!" he laughed. "We're in no danger so long as we are not around that cabinet! That's the storm centre! I can't tell you more than that. Good-night!" and he hung up without waiting for me to answer.
A DISTINGUISHED CALLER
It was shortly after I reached the office, next morning, that the office-boy came in and handed me a card with an awed and reverent air so at variance with his usual demeanour that I glanced at the square of pasteboard in some astonishment. Then, I confess, an awed and reverent feeling crept over me, also, for the card bore the name of Sereno Hornblower.
That name is quite unknown outside the legal profession of the three great cities of the east, New York, Boston and Philadelphia; for Sereno Hornblower has never held a public office, has never made a public speech, has never responded to a toast, has never served on a public committee, has never, so far as I know, conducted a case in court or addressed a jury—has never, in a word, figured in the newspapers in any way; and yet his income would make that of any other lawyer in the country look like thirty cents.
For Sereno Hornblower is the confidential attorney of most of our "best families." He has held that position for years, and it is said that no case placed unreservedly in his hands ever resulted in a public scandal. He accepts clients with great care; he has steadfastly refused the business of Pittsburgh millionaires, remunerative as it was certain to be; but he seems to take a sort of personal pride in keeping intact the reputations of the old families, even when their scions embark in the most outrageous escapades. If you are descended from the Pilgrims or the Patroons, Mr. Hornblower will ask no further recommendation.
His reputation for tact and delicacy is tremendous; and yet those who have found themselves opposed to him have never been long in realising that there was a most redoubtable mailed fist under the velvet glove. Altogether a remarkable man, whose memoirs would make absorbing reading, could he be persuaded to write them—which is quite beyond the bounds of possibility. I had never met him either professionally or personally, and it was with some eagerness that I told the office-boy to show him in at once.
Sereno Hornblower did not look the part. His reputation led one to expect a sort of cross between Uriah Heep and Sherlock Holmes, but there was nothing secretive or insinuating about his appearance. He was a bluff and hearty man of middle age, rather heavy-set, fresh-faced and clean-shaven, and with very bright blue eyes—evidently a man with a good digestion and a comfortable conscience. Had I met him on Broadway, I should have taken him for a ripe and finished comedian. There was about him an air which somehow reminded me of Joseph Jefferson—perhaps it was his bright blue eyes. It may have been this very appearance of bluff sincerity and honest downrightness which accounted for his success.
We shook hands, and he sat down and plunged at once, without an instant's hesitation, into the business which had brought him. Looking back at it, understanding as I do now the delicate nature of that business, I admire more and more that bluff readiness; though the more I think of it, the more I am convinced that he had thought out definitely beforehand precisely what he was going to say. The man who can carry through a carefully premeditated scene with an air of complete unpremeditation has an immense advantage.
"Mr. Lester," he began, "I understand that you are the administrator of the estate of the late Philip Vantine?"
"Our firm is," I corrected.
"But you, personally, have been attending to his business?"
"He was a collector of old furniture, I believe?"
"And on his last trip to Europe, from which he returned only a few days ago, he purchased of Armand & Son, of Paris, a Boule cabinet?"
I could not repress a start of astonishment.
"Are you acting for Armand & Son?" I queried.
"Not at all. I am acting for a lady whom, for the present, we will call Madame X."
The thought flashed through my mind that Madame X. and the mysterious Frenchwoman might be one and the same person. Then I put aside the idea as absurd. Sereno Hornblower would never accept such a client.
"Mr. Vantine did buy such a cabinet," I said.
"And it is in your possession?"
"There is at his residence a Boule cabinet which was shipped him from Paris, but, only a few hours before his death, Mr. Vantine assured me that it was not the one he had purchased."
"You mean that a mistake had been made in the shipment?"
"That is what we supposed, and a cablegram from Armand & Son has since confirmed it."
Mr. Hornblower pondered this for a moment.
"Where is the cabinet which Mr. Vantine did buy?" he asked at last.
"I have no idea. Perhaps it is still in Paris. But I am expecting a representative of the Armands to call very soon to straighten things out."
Again my companion fell silent, and sat rubbing his chin absently.
"It is very strange," he said, finally. "If the cabinet was still at Paris, one would think it would have been discovered before my client made inquiry about it."
"There are a good many things which are strange about this whole matter," I supplemented.
"Would you have any objection to my client seeing this cabinet, Mr. Lester?"
It was my turn to hesitate.
"Mr. Hornblower," I said, finally, "I will be frank with you. There is a certain mystery surrounding this cabinet which we have not been able to solve. I suppose you have read of the mysterious deaths of Mr. Vantine and of an unknown Frenchman, both in the same room at the Vantine house, and both apparently from the same cause?"
"Do you mean that this cabinet is connected with them in any way?" he asked quickly.
"We believe so; though as yet we have been able to prove absolutely nothing. But we are guarding the cabinet very closely. I should not object to your client seeing it, but I could not permit her to touch it—not, at least, without knowing why she wished to do so. You will remember that you have told me nothing of why she is interested in it."
"I am quite ready to tell you the story, Mr. Lester," he said. "It is only fair that I should do so. After you have heard it, if you agree, we will take Madame X. to see the cabinet."
"Very well," I assented.
He settled back in his chair, and his face became more grave.
"My client," he began, "is a member of a prominent American family—a most prominent family. Three years ago, she married a French nobleman. You can, perhaps, guess her name, but I should prefer that neither of us utter it."
I nodded my agreement.
"This nobleman has been both prodigal and unfaithful. He has scattered my client's fortune with both hands. He has flaunted his mistresses in her face. He has even tried to compel her to receive one of them. I am free to confess that I consider her a fool not to have left him long ago. At last her trustees interfered, for her father had been wise enough to place a portion of her fortune in trust. They paid her husband's debts, placed him on an allowance, and notified his creditors that his debts would not be paid again."
I had by this time, of course, guessed the name of his client, since these details had long been a matter of public notoriety, and, I need hardly say, listened to the story with a heightened interest.
"The allowance is a princely one," Mr. Hornblower continued, "but it does not suffice Monsieur X. No allowance would suffice him—the more money he had, the more ways he would find of spending it. So he has become a thief. He has taken to selling the objects of art with which his residences are filled, and which are really the property of my client, since they were purchased with her money. About two weeks ago, my client returned to Paris from a stay at her chateau in Normandy to find that he had almost denuded the town house. Tapestries, pictures, sculptures—everything had been sold. Among other things which he had taken was a Boule cabinet, which had been used by my client as her private writing-desk. The cabinet was a most valuable one; but it is not its monetary value which makes my client so anxious to recover it."
He paused an instant and cleared his throat, and I realised that he was coming to the really delicate part of the story.
"Monsieur X. had had the decency," he went on, more slowly, "to, as he thought, retain his wife's private papers. He had caused the contents of the various drawers to be dumped out upon a chair. But there was one drawer of which he knew nothing—a secret drawer, known only to my client. That drawer contained a packet of letters which my client is most anxious to regain. Of their nature, I will say nothing—indeed, I know very little about them, for, after all, that is none of my business. But she has given me to understand that their recovery is essential to her peace of mind."
I nodded again; there was really no need that he should say more. Only, I reflected, a faithless husband has no reason to complain if his wife repays him in the same coin!
"My client went to work at once to regain the cabinet," continued Mr. Hornblower, plainly relieved that the thinnest ice had been crossed. "She found that it had been sold to Armand & Son. Hastening to their offices, she learned that it had been resold by them to Mr. Vantine and sent forward to him here. So she came over on the first boat, ostensibly to visit her family, but really to ask Mr. Vantine's permission to open the drawer and take out the letters. His death interfered with this, and, in despair, she came to me. I need hardly add, that no member of her family knows anything about this matter, and it is especially important that her husband should never even suspect it. On her behalf, I apply to you, as Mr. Vantine's executor, to restore these letters to their owner."
I sat for a moment turning this extraordinary story over in my mind, and trying to make it fit in with the occurrences of the past two days. But it would not fit—at least, it would not fit with my theory as to the cause of those occurrences. For, surely, Madame X. would scarcely guard the secret of that drawer with poison!
"Does any one besides your client know of the existence of these letters?" I asked, at last.
"I think not," answered Mr. Hornblower, smiling drily. "They are not of a nature which my client would care to communicate to any one. In fact, Mr. Lester, as you have doubtless suspected, they are compromising letters. We must get them back at any cost."
"As a matter of fact," I pointed out, "there are always at least two people who know of the existence of every letter—the person who writes it and the person who receives it."
"I had thought of that, but the person who wrote these letters is dead."
"Dead?" I repeated.
"He was killed in a duel some months ago," explained Mr. Hornblower, gravely.
"By Monsieur X.?" I asked quickly.
"By Monsieur X.," said Mr. Hornblower, and sat regarding me, his lips pursed, as an indication, perhaps, that he would say no more.
But there was no necessity that he should. I knew enough of French law and of French habits of thought to realise that if those letters ever came into possession of Monsieur X., the game would be entirely in his hands. His wife would be absolutely at his mercy. And the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps in some way he had learned of the existence of the letters, and was trying desperately to get them. That thought was enough to swing the balance in his wife's favour.
"I am sure," I said, "that Mr. Vantine would instantly have consented to your client opening the drawer and taking out the letters. And, as his executor, I also consent, for, whoever may own the cabinet, the letters are the property of Madame X. All this providing, of course, that this should prove to be the right cabinet. But I must warn you, Mr. Hornblower, that I believe two men have already been killed trying to open that drawer," and I told him, while he sat there staring in profound amazement, of my theory in regard to the death of Philip Vantine and of the unknown Frenchman. "I am inclined to think," I concluded, "that Vantine blundered upon the drawer while examining the cabinet; but there is no doubt that the other man knew of the drawer, and also, presumably, of its contents."
"Well!" exclaimed my companion. "I have listened to many astonishing stories in my life, but never one to equal this. And you know nothing of this Frenchman?"
"Nothing except that he came from Havre on La Touraine last Thursday, and drove from the dock direct to Vantine's house."
"My client also came on La Touraine—but that, no doubt, was a mere coincidence."
"That may be," I agreed, "but it is scarcely a coincidence that both he and your client were after the contents of that drawer."
"I mean that the mysterious Frenchman may very possibly have been an emissary of Monsieur X. Madame may have betrayed the secret to him in an unguarded moment."
Mr. Hornblower rose abruptly. He was evidently much disturbed.
"You may be right," he agreed. "I will communicate with my client at once. I take it that she has your permission to see the cabinet; and, if it proves to be the right one, that she may open the drawer and remove the letters."
"If she cares to take the risk," I assented.
"Very well; I will call you as soon as I have seen her," he said. "In any event, I thank you for your courtesy," and he left the office.
He must have driven straight to her family residence on the Avenue; or perhaps she was awaiting him at his office; at any rate, he called me up inside the half hour.
"My client would like to see the cabinet at once," he said. "She is in a very nervous condition; especially since she learned that some one else has tried to open the drawer. When will it be convenient for you to go with us?"
"I can go at once," I said.
"Then we will drive around for you. We should be there in fifteen or twenty minutes."
"Very well," I said, "I'll be ready. I shall, of course, want to take a witness with me."
"That is quite proper," assented Mr. Hornblower. "We can have no objection to that. In twenty minutes, then."
I got the Record office as soon as I could, but Godfrey was not there. He did not come on usually, some one said, until the middle of the afternoon. I rang his rooms, but there was no reply. Finally I called up the Vantine house.
"Parks," I said, "I am bringing up some people to look at that cabinet. It might be just as well to get that cot out of the way and have all the lights going?"
"The lights are already going, sir," he said.
"Already going? What do you mean?"
"Mr. Godfrey has been here for quite a while, sir, fooling with that cabinet thing."
"He has!" and then I reflected that I ought to have guessed his whereabouts. "Tell him, Parks, that I am bringing some people up to see the cabinet, and that I should like him to stay there and be a witness of the proceedings."
"Very well, sir," assented Parks.
"Oh, yes, sir; there was two policemen outside all night, and Rogers and me inside."
"Mr. Hornblower's carriage is below, sir," announced the office-boy, opening the door.
"All right," I said. "We are coming right up, Parks. Good-bye," and I hung up and slipped into my coat.
Then, as I took down my hat, a sudden thought struck me.
If the unknown Frenchman was indeed an emissary of Monsieur X., Madame might be acquainted with him. It was a long shot, but worth trying! I stepped to my desk, took out the photograph which Godfrey had given me, and slipped it into my pocket. Then I hurried out to the elevator.
THE VEILED LADY
There were three persons in the carriage. Mr. Hornblower sat with his back to the horses, and two women were on the opposite seat. Both were dressed in black and heavily veiled, but there was about them the indefinable distinction of mistress and maid. It would be difficult to tell precisely in what the distinction consisted, but it was there. Mr. Hornblower glanced behind me as I entered.
"You spoke of a witness," he said.
"He is at the Vantine house," I explained, and sat down beside him.
"This is Mr. Lester," he said, and the veiled lady opposite him, whom I had known at once to be the mistress, inclined her head a little.
Those were the only words spoken. The carriage rolled out to Broadway and then turned northward, making such progress as was possible along that crowded thoroughfare. I glanced from time to time at the women opposite, and was struck by the contrast in their behaviour. One sat quite still, her hands in her lap, her head bent, admirably self-contained; the other was restless and uneasy, unable to control a nervous twitching of the fingers. I wondered why the maid should seem more upset than her mistress, and decided finally that her uneasiness was merely lack of breeding. But the contrast interested me.
At Tenth Street, the carriage turned westward again, skirted Washington Square, turned into the Avenue, and stopped before the Vantine house. Mr. Hornblower assisted the women to alight, and I led the way up the steps. But as we reached the top and came upon the funeral wreath on the door, the veiled lady stopped with a little exclamation.
"I did not know," she said, quickly. "Perhaps, after all, we would better wait. I did not realise...."
"There are no relatives to be hurt, madame," I interrupted. "As for the dead man, what can it matter to him?" and I rang the bell.
Parks opened the door, and, nodding to him, I led the way along the hall and into the ante-room. Godfrey was awaiting us there, and I saw the flame of interest which leaped into his eyes, as Mr. Hornblower and the two veiled women entered.
"This is my witness," I said to the former. "Mr. Godfrey—Mr. Hornblower."
Godfrey bowed, and Hornblower regarded him with a good-humoured smile.
"If I were not sure of Mr. Godfrey's discretion," he said, "I should object. But I have tested it before this, and know that it can be relied upon."
"There is only one person to whom I yield precedence in the matter of discretion," rejoined Godfrey, smiling back at him, "and that is Mr. Hornblower. He is in a class quite by himself."
"Thank you," said the lawyer, and bowed gravely.
During this interchange of compliments, the woman I had decided was the maid had sat down, as though her legs were unable to sustain her, and was nervously clasping and unclasping her hands; even her mistress showed signs of impatience.
"The cabinet is in here," I said, and led the way into the inner room, the two men and the veiled lady at my heels.
It stood in the middle of the floor, just as it had stood since the night of the tragedy, and all the lights were going. As I entered, I noticed Godfrey's gauntlet lying on a chair.
"Is it the right one, madame?" I asked.
She gazed at it a moment, her hands pressed against her breast.
"Yes!" she answered, with a gasp that was almost a sob.
I confess I was astonished. I had never thought it could be the right one; even now I did not see how it could possibly be the right one.
"You are sure?" I queried incredulously.
"Do you think I could be mistaken in such a matter, sir? I assure you that this cabinet at one time belonged to me. You permit me?" she added, and took a step toward it.
"One moment, madame," I interposed. "I must warn you that in touching that cabinet you are running a great risk."
"A great risk?" she echoed, looking at me.
"A very great risk, as I have pointed out to Mr. Hornblower. I have reason to believe that two men met death while trying to open that secret drawer."
"I believe Mr. Hornblower did tell me something of the sort," she murmured; "but of course that is all a mistake."
"Then the drawer is not guarded by poison?" I questioned.
"By poison?" she repeated blankly, and carried her handkerchief to her lips. "I do not understand."
I knew that my theory was collapsing, utterly, hopelessly. I dared not look at Godfrey.
"Is there not, connected with the drawer," I asked, "a mechanism which, as the drawer is opened, plunges two poisoned fangs into the hand which opens it?"
"No, Mr. Lester," she answered, astonishment in her voice, "I assure you there is no such mechanism."
I clutched at a last straw, and a sorry one it was!
"The mechanism may have been placed there since the cabinet passed from your possession," I suggested.
"That is, perhaps, possible," she agreed, though I saw that she was unconvinced.
"At any rate, madame," I said, "I would ask that, in opening the drawer, you wear this gauntlet," and I picked up Godfrey's gauntlet from the chair on which it lay. "It is needless that you should take any risk, however slight. Permit me," and I slipped the gauntlet over her right hand.
As I did so, I glanced at Godfrey. He was staring at the veiled lady with such a look of stupefaction that I nearly choked with delight. It had not often been my luck to see Jim Godfrey mystified, but he was certainly mystified now!
The veiled lady regarded the steel glove with a little laugh.
"I am now free to open the drawer?" she asked.
She moved toward the cabinet, Godfrey and I close behind her. At last the secret which had defied us was to be revealed. And with its revelation would come the end of the picturesque and romantic theory we had been building up so laboriously.
Instinctively, I glanced toward the shuttered window, but the semi-circle of light was unobscured.
The veiled lady bent above the table and disposed the fingers of her right hand to fit the metal inlay midway of the left side.
"It is a little awkward," she said. "I have always been accustomed to using the left hand. You will notice that I am pressing on three points; but to open the drawer, one must press these points in a certain order—- first this one, then this one, and then this one."
There was a sharp click, and, at the side of the table, a piece of the metal inlay fell forward.
"That is the handle," said the veiled lady, and, without an instant's hesitation, while my heart stood still, she grasped it and drew out a shallow drawer. "Ah!" and, casting aside the ridiculous gauntlet, she caught up the packet of papers which lay within. Then, with an effort, she controlled herself, slipped off the ribbon which held the packet together, and spread out before my eyes ten or twelve envelopes. "You will see that they are only letters, Mr. Lester," she said in a low voice, "and I assure you that they belong to me."
"I believe you, madame," I said, and with a sigh of relief that was almost a sob, she rebound the packet and slipped it into the bosom of her gown. "There is one thing," I added, "which madame can, perhaps, do for me."
"I shall be most happy!" she breathed.
"As I have told Mr. Hornblower," I continued, "two men died in this room the day before yesterday. Or, rather, it was in the room beyond that they died; but we believed it was here they received the wounds which caused death. It seems that we were wrong in this."
"Undoubtedly," she agreed. "There has never been any such weird mechanism as you described connected with that drawer, Mr. Lester. At least, not since I have had it. There is a legend, you know, that the cabinet was made for Madame de Montespan."
She was talking more freely now; evidently a great load had been lifted from her—perhaps I did not guess how great!
"Mr. Vantine suspected as much," I said. "He was a connoisseur of furniture, and there was something about this cabinet which told him it had belonged to the Montespan. He was examining it at the time he died. What the other man was doing, we do not know, but if we could identify him, it might help us."
"You have not identified him?"
"We know nothing whatever about him, except that he was presumably a Frenchman, and that he arrived on La Touraine, two days ago."
"That is the boat upon which I came over."
"It has occurred to me, madame, that you may have seen him—that he may even be known to you."
"What was his name?"
"The card he sent in to Mr. Vantine bore the name of Theophile d'Aurelle."
She shook her head.
"I have never before heard that name, Mr. Lester."
"We believe it to have been an assumed name," I said; "but perhaps you will recognise this photograph," and I drew it from my pocket and handed it to her.
She took it, looked at it, and again shook her head. Then she looked at it again, turning aside and raising her veil in order to see it better.
"There seems to be something familiar about the face," she said, at last, "as though I might have seen the man somewhere."
"On the boat, perhaps," I suggested, but I knew very well it was not on the boat, since the man had crossed in the steerage.
"No; it was not on the boat. I did not leave my stateroom on the boat. But I am quite sure that I have seen him—and yet I can't say where."
"Perhaps," I said, in a low voice, "he may have been one of the friends of your husband."
I saw her hand tremble under the blow, but it had to be struck. And she was brave.
"The same thought occurred to me, Mr. Lester," she answered; "but I know very few of my husband's friends; certainly not this one. And yet.... Perhaps my maid can help us."
Photograph in hand, she stepped through the doorway into the outer room. The maid was sitting on the chair where we had left her; her hands clenched tightly together in her lap, as though it was only by some violent effort she could maintain her self-control.
"Julie," said the veiled lady, in rapid French, "I have here the photograph of a man who was killed in this room most mysteriously a few days ago. These gentlemen wish to identify him. The face seems to me somehow familiar, but I cannot place it. Look at it."
Julie put forth a shaking hand, took the photograph, and glanced at it; then, with a long sigh, slid limply to the floor, before either Godfrey or I could catch her.
As she fell, her veil, catching on the chair-back, was torn away; and, looking down at her, a great emotion burst within me, for I recognised the mysterious woman whose photograph d'Aurelle had carried in his watch-case.
THE SECRET OF THE UNKNOWN FRENCHMAN
For a moment, I stood spell-bound, staring down at that jaded and passion-stained countenance; then Godfrey sprang forward and lifted the unconscious woman to the couch.
"Bring some water," he said, and as he turned and looked at me, I saw that his face was glowing with excitement.
I rushed to the door and snatched it open. Rogers was standing in the hall outside, and I sent him hurrying for the water, and turned back into the room.
Godfrey was chafing the girl's hands, and the veiled lady was bending over her, fumbling at the hooks of her bodice. Evidently she could not see them, for, with a sudden movement, she put back her veil. My heart warmed to her at that act of sacrifice; and after a single glance at her, I turned away my eyes.
I saw Godfrey's start of recognition as he looked down at her; then he, too, looked aside.
"Here's the water, sir," said Rogers, and handed me glass and pitcher.
The next instant, his eyes fell upon the woman on the couch. He stood staring, his face turning slowly purple; then, clutching at his throat, he half-turned and fell, just as I had seen him do once before.
Hornblower, who was staring at the unconscious woman and mopping his face feverishly, spun around at the crash.
"Well, I'll be damned!" he said, in a hoarse voice, as he saw Rogers extended on the floor at his feet. "What's the matter with this house, anyway?"
So great was the tension on my nerves that I could scarcely restrain a shout of laughter. I turned it into a shout for Parks; but his face, when he appeared on the threshold, was too much for me, and I sank into a chair, laughing hysterically.
"For God's sake!" Parks began....
"It's all right," Godfrey broke in, sharply, "Rogers has had another fit. Get the ammonia!"
Parks staggered away, and Mr. Hornblower sat down weakly.
"I don't see the joke!" he growled, glaring at me, his face crimson.
"Get a grip of yourself, Lester," said Godfrey, savagely, seized the pitcher from my hand, and hurried with it to madame.
I did get a grip of myself, and when Parks came back a moment later with the ammonia, was able to hold up Rogers's head, while Parks applied the phial to his nostrils.
"Give me a whiff of it, too, Parks," I said, unsteadily, and in an instant my eyes were streaming; but I had escaped hysteria. "Straighten Rogers out and let him lie there," I gasped, and sat dizzily down upon the floor. But I dared not look at Hornblower. I felt that another glance at his dazed countenance would send me off again.
Madame, meanwhile, had dashed some water into the face of the unconscious Julie—much to the detriment of her complexion!—watched her a moment, then stood erect and lowered her veil.