In the meantime, the minutes were creeping by: 3.15, 3.20, 3.25, 3.27. Supposing Julius did not get there in time. 3.29.... Doors were banging. Tommy felt cold waves of despair pass over him. Then a hand fell on his shoulder.
"Here I am, son. Your British traffic beats description! Put me wise to the crooks right away."
"That's Whittington—there, getting in now, that big dark man. The other is the foreign chap he's talking to."
"I'm on to them. Which of the two is my bird?"
Tommy had thought out this question.
"Got any money with you?"
Julius shook his head, and Tommy's face fell.
"I guess I haven't more than three or four hundred dollars with me at the moment," explained the American.
Tommy gave a faint whoop of relief.
"Oh, Lord, you millionaires! You don't talk the same language! Climb aboard the lugger. Here's your ticket. Whittington's your man."
"Me for Whittington!" said Julius darkly. The train was just starting as he swung himself aboard. "So long, Tommy." The train slid out of the station.
Tommy drew a deep breath. The man Boris was coming along the platform towards him. Tommy allowed him to pass and then took up the chase once more.
From Waterloo Boris took the tube as far as Piccadilly Circus. Then he walked up Shaftesbury Avenue, finally turning off into the maze of mean streets round Soho. Tommy followed him at a judicious distance.
They reached at length a small dilapidated square. The houses there had a sinister air in the midst of their dirt and decay. Boris looked round, and Tommy drew back into the shelter of a friendly porch. The place was almost deserted. It was a cul-de-sac, and consequently no traffic passed that way. The stealthy way the other had looked round stimulated Tommy's imagination. From the shelter of the doorway he watched him go up the steps of a particularly evil-looking house and rap sharply, with a peculiar rhythm, on the door. It was opened promptly, he said a word or two to the doorkeeper, then passed inside. The door was shut to again.
It was at this juncture that Tommy lost his head. What he ought to have done, what any sane man would have done, was to remain patiently where he was and wait for his man to come out again. What he did do was entirely foreign to the sober common sense which was, as a rule, his leading characteristic. Something, as he expressed it, seemed to snap in his brain. Without a moment's pause for reflection he, too, went up the steps, and reproduced as far as he was able the peculiar knock.
The door swung open with the same promptness as before. A villainous-faced man with close-cropped hair stood in the doorway.
"Well?" he grunted.
It was at that moment that the full realization of his folly began to come home to Tommy. But he dared not hesitate. He seized at the first words that came into his mind.
"Mr. Brown?" he said.
To his surprise the man stood aside.
"Upstairs," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "second door on your left."
CHAPTER VIII. THE ADVENTURES OF TOMMY
TAKEN aback though he was by the man's words, Tommy did not hesitate. If audacity had successfully carried him so far, it was to be hoped it would carry him yet farther. He quietly passed into the house and mounted the ramshackle staircase. Everything in the house was filthy beyond words. The grimy paper, of a pattern now indistinguishable, hung in loose festoons from the wall. In every angle was a grey mass of cobweb.
Tommy proceeded leisurely. By the time he reached the bend of the staircase, he had heard the man below disappear into a back room. Clearly no suspicion attached to him as yet. To come to the house and ask for "Mr. Brown" appeared indeed to be a reasonable and natural proceeding.
At the top of the stairs Tommy halted to consider his next move. In front of him ran a narrow passage, with doors opening on either side of it. From the one nearest him on the left came a low murmur of voices. It was this room which he had been directed to enter. But what held his glance fascinated was a small recess immediately on his right, half concealed by a torn velvet curtain. It was directly opposite the left-handed door and, owing to its angle, it also commanded a good view of the upper part of the staircase. As a hiding-place for one or, at a pinch, two men, it was ideal, being about two feet deep and three feet wide. It attracted Tommy mightily. He thought things over in his usual slow and steady way, deciding that the mention of "Mr. Brown" was not a request for an individual, but in all probability a password used by the gang. His lucky use of it had gained him admission. So far he had aroused no suspicion. But he must decide quickly on his next step.
Suppose he were boldly to enter the room on the left of the passage. Would the mere fact of his having been admitted to the house be sufficient? Perhaps a further password would be required, or, at any rate, some proof of identity. The doorkeeper clearly did not know all the members of the gang by sight, but it might be different upstairs. On the whole it seemed to him that luck had served him very well so far, but that there was such a thing as trusting it too far. To enter that room was a colossal risk. He could not hope to sustain his part indefinitely; sooner or later he was almost bound to betray himself, and then he would have thrown away a vital chance in mere foolhardiness.
A repetition of the signal knock sounded on the door below, and Tommy, his mind made up, slipped quickly into the recess, and cautiously drew the curtain farther across so that it shielded him completely from sight. There were several rents and slits in the ancient material which afforded him a good view. He would watch events, and any time he chose could, after all, join the assembly, modelling his behaviour on that of the new arrival.
The man who came up the staircase with a furtive, soft-footed tread was quite unknown to Tommy. He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.
The man passed the recess, breathing heavily as he went. He stopped at the door opposite, and gave a repetition of the signal knock. A voice inside called out something, and the man opened the door and passed in, affording Tommy a momentary glimpse of the room inside. He thought there must be about four or five people seated round a long table that took up most of the space, but his attention was caught and held by a tall man with close-cropped hair and a short, pointed, naval-looking beard, who sat at the head of the table with papers in front of him. As the new-comer entered he glanced up, and with a correct, but curiously precise enunciation, which attracted Tommy's notice, he asked:
"Your number, comrade?"
"Fourteen, gov'nor," replied the other hoarsely.
The door shut again.
"If that isn't a Hun, I'm a Dutchman!" said Tommy to himself. "And running the show darned systematically too—as they always do. Lucky I didn't roll in. I'd have given the wrong number, and there would have been the deuce to pay. No, this is the place for me. Hullo, here's another knock."
This visitor proved to be of an entirely different type to the last. Tommy recognized in him an Irish Sinn Feiner. Certainly Mr. Brown's organization was a far-reaching concern. The common criminal, the well-bred Irish gentleman, the pale Russian, and the efficient German master of the ceremonies! Truly a strange and sinister gathering! Who was this man who held in his finger these curiously variegated links of an unknown chain?
In this case, the procedure was exactly the same. The signal knock, the demand for a number, and the reply "Correct."
Two knocks followed in quick succession on the door below. The first man was quite unknown to Tommy, who put him down as a city clerk. A quiet, intelligent-looking man, rather shabbily dressed. The second was of the working classes, and his face was vaguely familiar to the young man.
Three minutes later came another, a man of commanding appearance, exquisitely dressed, and evidently well born. His face, again, was not unknown to the watcher, though he could not for the moment put a name to it.
After his arrival there was a long wait. In fact Tommy concluded that the gathering was now complete, and was just cautiously creeping out from his hiding-place, when another knock sent him scuttling back to cover.
This last-comer came up the stairs so quietly that he was almost abreast of Tommy before the young man had realized his presence.
He was a small man, very pale, with a gentle almost womanish air. The angle of the cheek-bones hinted at his Slavonic ancestry, otherwise there was nothing to indicate his nationality. As he passed the recess, he turned his head slowly. The strange light eyes seemed to burn through the curtain; Tommy could hardly believe that the man did not know he was there and in spite of himself he shivered. He was no more fanciful than the majority of young Englishmen, but he could not rid himself of the impression that some unusually potent force emanated from the man. The creature reminded him of a venomous snake.
A moment later his impression was proved correct. The new-comer knocked on the door as all had done, but his reception was very different. The bearded man rose to his feet, and all the others followed suit. The German came forward and shook hands. His heels clicked together.
"We are honoured," he said. "We are greatly honoured. I much feared that it would be impossible."
The other answered in a low voice that had a kind of hiss in it:
"There were difficulties. It will not be possible again, I fear. But one meeting is essential—to define my policy. I can do nothing without—Mr. Brown. He is here?"
The change in the German's voice was audible as he replied with slight hesitation:
"We have received a message. It is impossible for him to be present in person." He stopped, giving a curious impression of having left the sentence unfinished.
A very slow smile overspread the face of the other. He looked round at a circle of uneasy faces.
"Ah! I understand. I have read of his methods. He works in the dark and trusts no one. But, all the same, it is possible that he is among us now...." He looked round him again, and again that expression of fear swept over the group. Each man seemed eyeing his neighbour doubtfully.
The Russian tapped his cheek.
"So be it. Let us proceed."
The German seemed to pull himself together. He indicated the place he had been occupying at the head of the table. The Russian demurred, but the other insisted.
"It is the only possible place," he said, "for—Number One. Perhaps Number Fourteen will shut the door?"
In another moment Tommy was once more confronting bare wooden panels, and the voices within had sunk once more to a mere undistinguishable murmur. Tommy became restive. The conversation he had overheard had stimulated his curiosity. He felt that, by hook or by crook, he must hear more.
There was no sound from below, and it did not seem likely that the doorkeeper would come upstairs. After listening intently for a minute or two, he put his head round the curtain. The passage was deserted. Tommy bent down and removed his shoes, then, leaving them behind the curtain, he walked gingerly out on his stockinged feet, and kneeling down by the closed door he laid his ear cautiously to the crack. To his intense annoyance he could distinguish little more; just a chance word here and there if a voice was raised, which merely served to whet his curiosity still farther.
He eyed the handle of the door tentatively. Could he turn it by degrees so gently and imperceptibly that those in the room would notice nothing? He decided that with great care it could be done. Very slowly, a fraction of an inch at a time, he moved it round, holding his breath in his excessive care. A little more—a little more still—would it never be finished? Ah! at last it would turn no farther.
He stayed so for a minute or two, then drew a deep breath, and pressed it ever so slightly inward. The door did not budge. Tommy was annoyed. If he had to use too much force, it would almost certainly creak. He waited until the voices rose a little, then he tried again. Still nothing happened. He increased the pressure. Had the beastly thing stuck? Finally, in desperation, he pushed with all his might. But the door remained firm, and at last the truth dawned upon him. It was locked or bolted on the inside.
For a moment or two Tommy's indignation got the better of him.
"Well, I'm damned!" he said. "What a dirty trick!"
As his indignation cooled, he prepared to face the situation. Clearly the first thing to be done was to restore the handle to its original position. If he let it go suddenly, the men inside would be almost certain to notice it, so, with the same infinite pains, he reversed his former tactics. All went well, and with a sigh of relief the young man rose to his feet. There was a certain bulldog tenacity about Tommy that made him slow to admit defeat. Checkmated for the moment, he was far from abandoning the conflict. He still intended to hear what was going on in the locked room. As one plan had failed, he must hunt about for another.
He looked round him. A little farther along the passage on the left was a second door. He slipped silently along to it. He listened for a moment or two, then tried the handle. It yielded, and he slipped inside.
The room, which was untenanted, was furnished as a bedroom. Like everything else in the house, the furniture was falling to pieces, and the dirt was, if anything, more abundant.
But what interested Tommy was the thing he had hoped to find, a communicating door between the two rooms, up on the left by the window. Carefully closing the door into the passage behind him, he stepped across to the other and examined it closely. The bolt was shot across it. It was very rusty, and had clearly not been used for some time. By gently wriggling it to and fro, Tommy managed to draw it back without making too much noise. Then he repeated his former manoeuvres with the handle—this time with complete success. The door swung open—a crack, a mere fraction, but enough for Tommy to hear what went on. There was a velvet portiere on the inside of this door which prevented him from seeing, but he was able to recognize the voices with a reasonable amount of accuracy.
The Sinn Feiner was speaking. His rich Irish voice was unmistakable:
"That's all very well. But more money is essential. No money—no results!"
Another voice which Tommy rather thought was that of Boris replied:
"Will you guarantee that there ARE results?"
"In a month from now—sooner or later as you wish—I will guarantee you such a reign of terror in Ireland as shall shake the British Empire to its foundations."
There was a pause, and then came the soft, sibilant accents of Number One:
"Good! You shall have the money. Boris, you will see to that."
Boris asked a question:
"Via the Irish Americans, and Mr. Potter as usual?"
"I guess that'll be all right!" said a new voice, with a transatlantic intonation, "though I'd like to point out, here and now, that things are getting a mite difficult. There's not the sympathy there was, and a growing disposition to let the Irish settle their own affairs without interference from America."
Tommy felt that Boris had shrugged his shoulders as he answered:
"Does that matter, since the money only nominally comes from the States?"
"The chief difficulty is the landing of the ammunition," said the Sinn Feiner. "The money is conveyed in easily enough—thanks to our colleague here."
Another voice, which Tommy fancied was that of the tall, commanding-looking man whose face had seemed familiar to him, said:
"Think of the feelings of Belfast if they could hear you!"
"That is settled, then," said the sibilant tones. "Now, in the matter of the loan to an English newspaper, you have arranged the details satisfactorily, Boris?"
"I think so."
"That is good. An official denial from Moscow will be forthcoming if necessary."
There was a pause, and then the clear voice of the German broke the silence:
"I am directed by—Mr. Brown, to place the summaries of the reports from the different unions before you. That of the miners is most satisfactory. We must hold back the railways. There may be trouble with the A.S.E."
For a long time there was a silence, broken only by the rustle of papers and an occasional word of explanation from the German. Then Tommy heard the light tap-tap of fingers, drumming on the table.
"And—the date, my friend?" said Number One.
The Russian seemed to consider:
"That is rather soon."
"I know. But it was settled by the principal Labour leaders, and we cannot seem to interfere too much. They must believe it to be entirely their own show."
The Russian laughed softly, as though amused.
"Yes, yes," he said. "That is true. They must have no inkling that we are using them for our own ends. They are honest men—and that is their value to us. It is curious—but you cannot make a revolution without honest men. The instinct of the populace is infallible." He paused, and then repeated, as though the phrase pleased him: "Every revolution has had its honest men. They are soon disposed of afterwards."
There was a sinister note in his voice.
The German resumed:
"Clymes must go. He is too far-seeing. Number Fourteen will see to that."
There was a hoarse murmur.
"That's all right, gov'nor." And then after a moment or two: "Suppose I'm nabbed."
"You will have the best legal talent to defend you," replied the German quietly. "But in any case you will wear gloves fitted with the finger-prints of a notorious housebreaker. You have little to fear."
"Oh, I ain't afraid, gov'nor. All for the good of the cause. The streets is going to run with blood, so they say." He spoke with a grim relish. "Dreams of it, sometimes, I does. And diamonds and pearls rolling about in the gutter for anyone to pick up!"
Tommy heard a chair shifted. Then Number One spoke:
"Then all is arranged. We are assured of success?"
"I—think so." But the German spoke with less than his usual confidence.
Number One's voice held suddenly a dangerous quality:
"What has gone wrong?"
"The Labour leaders. Without them, as you say, we can do nothing. If they do not declare a general strike on the 29th——"
"Why should they not?"
"As you've said, they're honest. And, in spite of everything we've done to discredit the Government in their eyes, I'm not sure that they haven't got a sneaking faith and belief in it."
"I know. They abuse it unceasingly. But, on the whole, public opinion swings to the side of the Government. They will not go against it."
Again the Russian's fingers drummed on the table.
"To the point, my friend. I was given to understand that there was a certain document in existence which assured success."
"That is so. If that document were placed before the leaders, the result would be immediate. They would publish it broadcast throughout England, and declare for the revolution without a moment's hesitation. The Government would be broken finally and completely."
"Then what more do you want?"
"The document itself," said the German bluntly.
"Ah! It is not in your possession? But you know where it is?"
"Does anyone know where it is?"
"One person—perhaps. And we are not sure of that even."
"Who is this person?"
Tommy held his breath.
"A girl?" The Russian's voice rose contemptuously. "And you have not made her speak? In Russia we have ways of making a girl talk."
"This case is different," said the German sullenly.
"How—different?" He paused a moment, then went on: "Where is the girl now?"
But Tommy heard no more. A crashing blow descended on his head, and all was darkness.
CHAPTER IX. TUPPENCE ENTERS DOMESTIC SERVICE
WHEN Tommy set forth on the trail of the two men, it took all Tuppence's self-command to refrain from accompanying him. However, she contained herself as best she might, consoled by the reflection that her reasoning had been justified by events. The two men had undoubtedly come from the second floor flat, and that one slender thread of the name "Rita" had set the Young Adventurers once more upon the track of the abductors of Jane Finn.
The question was what to do next? Tuppence hated letting the grass grow under her feet. Tommy was amply employed, and debarred from joining him in the chase, the girl felt at a loose end. She retraced her steps to the entrance hall of the mansions. It was now tenanted by a small lift-boy, who was polishing brass fittings, and whistling the latest air with a good deal of vigour and a reasonable amount of accuracy.
He glanced round at Tuppence's entry. There was a certain amount of the gamin element in the girl, at all events she invariably got on well with small boys. A sympathetic bond seemed instantly to be formed. She reflected that an ally in the enemy's camp, so to speak, was not to be despised.
"Well, William," she remarked cheerfully, in the best approved hospital-early-morning style, "getting a good shine up?"
The boy grinned responsively.
"Albert, miss," he corrected.
"Albert be it," said Tuppence. She glanced mysteriously round the hall. The effect was purposely a broad one in case Albert should miss it. She leaned towards the boy and dropped her voice: "I want a word with you, Albert."
Albert ceased operations on the fittings and opened his mouth slightly.
"Look! Do you know what this is?" With a dramatic gesture she flung back the left side of her coat and exposed a small enamelled badge. It was extremely unlikely that Albert would have any knowledge of it—indeed, it would have been fatal for Tuppence's plans, since the badge in question was the device of a local training corps originated by the archdeacon in the early days of the war. Its presence in Tuppence's coat was due to the fact that she had used it for pinning in some flowers a day or two before. But Tuppence had sharp eyes, and had noted the corner of a threepenny detective novel protruding from Albert's pocket, and the immediate enlargement of his eyes told her that her tactics were good, and that the fish would rise to the bait.
"American Detective Force!" she hissed.
Albert fell for it.
"Lord!" he murmured ecstatically.
Tuppence nodded at him with the air of one who has established a thorough understanding.
"Know who I'm after?" she inquired genially.
Albert, still round-eyed, demanded breathlessly:
"One of the flats?"
Tuppence nodded and jerked a thumb up the stairs.
"No. 20. Calls herself Vandemeyer. Vandemeyer! Ha! ha!"
Albert's hand stole to his pocket.
"A crook?" he queried eagerly.
"A crook? I should say so. Ready Rita they call her in the States."
"Ready Rita," repeated Albert deliriously. "Oh, ain't it just like the pictures!"
It was. Tuppence was a great frequenter of the kinema.
"Annie always said as how she was a bad lot," continued the boy.
"Who's Annie?" inquired Tuppence idly.
"'Ouse-parlourmaid. She's leaving to-day. Many's the time Annie's said to me: 'Mark my words, Albert, I wouldn't wonder if the police was to come after her one of these days.' Just like that. But she's a stunner to look at, ain't she?"
"She's some peach," allowed Tuppence carelessly. "Finds it useful in her lay-out, you bet. Has she been wearing any of the emeralds, by the way?"
"Emeralds? Them's the green stones, isn't they?"
"That's what we're after her for. You know old man Rysdale?"
Albert shook his head.
"Peter B. Rysdale, the oil king?"
"It seems sort of familiar to me."
"The sparklers belonged to him. Finest collection of emeralds in the world. Worth a million dollars!"
"Lumme!" came ecstatically from Albert. "It sounds more like the pictures every minute."
Tuppence smiled, gratified at the success of her efforts.
"We haven't exactly proved it yet. But we're after her. And"—she produced a long-drawn-out wink—"I guess she won't get away with the goods this time."
Albert uttered another ejaculation indicative of delight.
"Mind you, sonny, not a word of this," said Tuppence suddenly. "I guess I oughtn't to have put you wise, but in the States we know a real smart lad when we see one."
"I'll not breathe a word," protested Albert eagerly. "Ain't there anything I could do? A bit of shadowing, maybe, or such like?"
Tuppence affected to consider, then shook her head.
"Not at the moment, but I'll bear you in mind, son. What's this about the girl you say is leaving?"
"Annie? Regular turn up, they 'ad. As Annie said, servants is some one nowadays, and to be treated accordingly, and, what with her passing the word round, she won't find it so easy to get another."
"Won't she?" said Tuppence thoughtfully. "I wonder——"
An idea was dawning in her brain. She thought a minute or two, then tapped Albert on the shoulder.
"See here, son, my brain's got busy. How would it be if you mentioned that you'd got a young cousin, or a friend of yours had, that might suit the place. You get me?"
"I'm there," said Albert instantly. "You leave it to me, miss, and I'll fix the whole thing up in two ticks."
"Some lad!" commented Tuppence, with a nod of approval. "You might say that the young woman could come in right away. You let me know, and if it's O.K. I'll be round to-morrow at eleven o'clock."
"Where am I to let you know to?"
"Ritz," replied Tuppence laconically. "Name of Cowley."
Albert eyed her enviously.
"It must be a good job, this tec business."
"It sure is," drawled Tuppence, "especially when old man Rysdale backs the bill. But don't fret, son. If this goes well, you shall come in on the ground floor."
With which promise she took leave of her new ally, and walked briskly away from South Audley Mansions, well pleased with her morning's work.
But there was no time to be lost. She went straight back to the Ritz and wrote a few brief words to Mr. Carter. Having dispatched this, and Tommy not having yet returned—which did not surprise her—she started off on a shopping expedition which, with an interval for tea and assorted creamy cakes, occupied her until well after six o'clock, and she returned to the hotel jaded, but satisfied with her purchases. Starting with a cheap clothing store, and passing through one or two second-hand establishments, she had finished the day at a well-known hairdresser's. Now, in the seclusion of her bedroom, she unwrapped that final purchase. Five minutes later she smiled contentedly at her reflection in the glass. With an actress's pencil she had slightly altered the line of her eyebrows, and that, taken in conjunction with the new luxuriant growth of fair hair above, so changed her appearance that she felt confident that even if she came face to face with Whittington he would not recognize her. She would wear elevators in her shoes, and the cap and apron would be an even more valuable disguise. From hospital experience she knew only too well that a nurse out of uniform is frequently unrecognized by her patients.
"Yes," said Tuppence aloud, nodding at the pert reflection in the glass, "you'll do." She then resumed her normal appearance.
Dinner was a solitary meal. Tuppence was rather surprised at Tommy's non-return. Julius, too, was absent—but that to the girl's mind was more easily explained. His "hustling" activities were not confined to London, and his abrupt appearances and disappearances were fully accepted by the Young Adventurers as part of the day's work. It was quite on the cards that Julius P. Hersheimmer had left for Constantinople at a moment's notice if he fancied that a clue to his cousin's disappearance was to be found there. The energetic young man had succeeded in making the lives of several Scotland Yard men unbearable to them, and the telephone girls at the Admiralty had learned to know and dread the familiar "Hullo!" He had spent three hours in Paris hustling the Prefecture, and had returned from there imbued with the idea, possibly inspired by a weary French official, that the true clue to the mystery was to be found in Ireland.
"I dare say he's dashed off there now," thought Tuppence. "All very well, but this is very dull for ME! Here I am bursting with news, and absolutely no one to tell it to! Tommy might have wired, or something. I wonder where he is. Anyway, he can't have 'lost the trail' as they say. That reminds me——" And Miss Cowley broke off in her meditations, and summoned a small boy.
Ten minutes later the lady was ensconced comfortably on her bed, smoking cigarettes and deep in the perusal of Garnaby Williams, the Boy Detective, which, with other threepenny works of lurid fiction, she had sent out to purchase. She felt, and rightly, that before the strain of attempting further intercourse with Albert, it would be as well to fortify herself with a good supply of local colour.
The morning brought a note from Mr. Carter:
"DEAR MISS TUPPENCE,
"You have made a splendid start, and I congratulate you. I feel, though, that I should like to point out to you once more the risks you are running, especially if you pursue the course you indicate. Those people are absolutely desperate and incapable of either mercy or pity. I feel that you probably underestimate the danger, and therefore warn you again that I can promise you no protection. You have given us valuable information, and if you choose to withdraw now no one could blame you. At any rate, think the matter over well before you decide.
"If, in spite of my warnings, you make up your mind to go through with it, you will find everything arranged. You have lived for two years with Miss Dufferin, The Parsonage, Llanelly, and Mrs. Vandemeyer can apply to her for a reference.
"May I be permitted a word or two of advice? Stick as near to the truth as possible—it minimizes the danger of 'slips.' I suggest that you should represent yourself to be what you are, a former V.A.D., who has chosen domestic service as a profession. There are many such at the present time. That explains away any incongruities of voice or manner which otherwise might awaken suspicion.
"Whichever way you decide, good luck to you.
"Your sincere friend,
Tuppence's spirits rose mercurially. Mr. Carter's warnings passed unheeded. The young lady had far too much confidence in herself to pay any heed to them.
With some reluctance she abandoned the interesting part she had sketched out for herself. Although she had no doubts of her own powers to sustain a role indefinitely, she had too much common sense not to recognize the force of Mr. Carter's arguments.
There was still no word or message from Tommy, but the morning post brought a somewhat dirty postcard with the words: "It's O.K." scrawled upon it.
At ten-thirty Tuppence surveyed with pride a slightly battered tin trunk containing her new possessions. It was artistically corded. It was with a slight blush that she rang the bell and ordered it to be placed in a taxi. She drove to Paddington, and left the box in the cloak room. She then repaired with a handbag to the fastnesses of the ladies' waiting-room. Ten minutes later a metamorphosed Tuppence walked demurely out of the station and entered a bus.
It was a few minutes past eleven when Tuppence again entered the hall of South Audley Mansions. Albert was on the look-out, attending to his duties in a somewhat desultory fashion. He did not immediately recognize Tuppence. When he did, his admiration was unbounded.
"Blest if I'd have known you! That rig-out's top-hole."
"Glad you like it, Albert," replied Tuppence modestly. "By the way, am I your cousin, or am I not?"
"Your voice too," cried the delighted boy. "It's as English as anything! No, I said as a friend of mine knew a young gal. Annie wasn't best pleased. She's stopped on till to-day—to oblige, SHE said, but really it's so as to put you against the place."
"Nice girl," said Tuppence.
Albert suspected no irony.
"She's style about her, and keeps her silver a treat—but, my word, ain't she got a temper. Are you going up now, miss? Step inside the lift. No. 20 did you say?" And he winked.
Tuppence quelled him with a stern glance, and stepped inside.
As she rang the bell of No. 20 she was conscious of Albert's eyes slowly descending beneath the level of the floor.
A smart young woman opened the door.
"I've come about the place," said Tuppence.
"It's a rotten place," said the young woman without hesitation. "Regular old cat—always interfering. Accused me of tampering with her letters. Me! The flap was half undone anyway. There's never anything in the waste-paper basket—she burns everything. She's a wrong 'un, that's what she is. Swell clothes, but no class. Cook knows something about her—but she won't tell—scared to death of her. And suspicious! She's on to you in a minute if you as much as speak to a fellow. I can tell you——"
But what more Annie could tell, Tuppence was never destined to learn, for at that moment a clear voice with a peculiarly steely ring to it called:
The smart young woman jumped as if she had been shot.
"Who are you talking to?"
"It's a young woman about the situation, ma'am."
"Show her in then. At once."
Tuppence was ushered into a room on the right of the long passage. A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.
For the first time Tuppence felt afraid. She had not feared Whittington, but this woman was different. As if fascinated, she watched the long cruel line of the red curving mouth, and again she felt that sensation of panic pass over her. Her usual self-confidence deserted her. Vaguely she felt that deceiving this woman would be very different to deceiving Whittington. Mr. Carter's warning recurred to her mind. Here, indeed, she might expect no mercy.
Fighting down that instinct of panic which urged her to turn tail and run without further delay, Tuppence returned the lady's gaze firmly and respectfully.
As though that first scrutiny had been satisfactory, Mrs. Vandemeyer motioned to a chair.
"You can sit down. How did you hear I wanted a house-parlourmaid?"
"Through a friend who knows the lift boy here. He thought the place might suit me."
Again that basilisk glance seemed to pierce her through.
"You speak like an educated girl?"
Glibly enough, Tuppence ran through her imaginary career on the lines suggested by Mr. Carter. It seemed to her, as she did so, that the tension of Mrs. Vandemeyer's attitude relaxed.
"I see," she remarked at length. "Is there anyone I can write to for a reference?"
"I lived last with a Miss Dufferin, The Parsonage, Llanelly. I was with her two years."
"And then you thought you would get more money by coming to London, I suppose? Well, it doesn't matter to me. I will give you L50—L60—whatever you want. You can come in at once?"
"Yes, ma'am. To-day, if you like. My box is at Paddington."
"Go and fetch it in a taxi, then. It's an easy place. I am out a good deal. By the way, what's your name?"
"Prudence Cooper, ma'am."
"Very well, Prudence. Go away and fetch your box. I shall be out to lunch. The cook will show you where everything is."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Tuppence withdrew. The smart Annie was not in evidence. In the hall below a magnificent hall porter had relegated Albert to the background. Tuppence did not even glance at him as she passed meekly out.
The adventure had begun, but she felt less elated than she had done earlier in the morning. It crossed her mind that if the unknown Jane Finn had fallen into the hands of Mrs. Vandemeyer, it was likely to have gone hard with her.
CHAPTER X. ENTER SIR JAMES PEEL EDGERTON
TUPPENCE betrayed no awkwardness in her new duties. The daughters of the archdeacon were well grounded in household tasks. They were also experts in training a "raw girl," the inevitable result being that the raw girl, once trained, departed elsewhere where her newly acquired knowledge commanded a more substantial remuneration than the archdeacon's meagre purse allowed.
Tuppence had therefore very little fear of proving inefficient. Mrs. Vandemeyer's cook puzzled her. She evidently went in deadly terror of her mistress. The girl thought it probable that the other woman had some hold over her. For the rest, she cooked like a chef, as Tuppence had an opportunity of judging that evening. Mrs. Vandemeyer was expecting a guest to dinner, and Tuppence accordingly laid the beautifully polished table for two. She was a little exercised in her own mind as to this visitor. It was highly possible that it might prove to be Whittington. Although she felt fairly confident that he would not recognize her, yet she would have been better pleased had the guest proved to be a total stranger. However, there was nothing for it but to hope for the best.
At a few minutes past eight the front door bell rang, and Tuppence went to answer it with some inward trepidation. She was relieved to see that the visitor was the second of the two men whom Tommy had taken upon himself to follow.
He gave his name as Count Stepanov. Tuppence announced him, and Mrs. Vandemeyer rose from her seat on a low divan with a quick murmur of pleasure.
"It is delightful to see you, Boris Ivanovitch," she said.
"And you, madame!" He bowed low over her hand.
Tuppence returned to the kitchen.
"Count Stepanov, or some such," she remarked, and affecting a frank and unvarnished curiosity: "Who's he?"
"A Russian gentleman, I believe."
"Come here much?"
"Once in a while. What d'you want to know for?"
"Fancied he might be sweet on the missus, that's all," explained the girl, adding with an appearance of sulkiness: "How you do take one up!"
"I'm not quite easy in my mind about the souffle," explained the other.
"You know something," thought Tuppence to herself, but aloud she only said: "Going to dish up now? Right-o."
Whilst waiting at table, Tuppence listened closely to all that was said. She remembered that this was one of the men Tommy was shadowing when she had last seen him. Already, although she would hardly admit it, she was becoming uneasy about her partner. Where was he? Why had no word of any kind come from him? She had arranged before leaving the Ritz to have all letters or messages sent on at once by special messenger to a small stationer's shop near at hand where Albert was to call in frequently. True, it was only yesterday morning that she had parted from Tommy, and she told herself that any anxiety on his behalf would be absurd. Still, it was strange that he had sent no word of any kind.
But, listen as she might, the conversation presented no clue. Boris and Mrs. Vandemeyer talked on purely indifferent subjects: plays they had seen, new dances, and the latest society gossip. After dinner they repaired to the small boudoir where Mrs. Vandemeyer, stretched on the divan, looked more wickedly beautiful than ever. Tuppence brought in the coffee and liqueurs and unwillingly retired. As she did so, she heard Boris say:
"New, isn't she?"
"She came in to-day. The other was a fiend. This girl seems all right. She waits well."
Tuppence lingered a moment longer by the door which she had carefully neglected to close, and heard him say:
"Quite safe, I suppose?"
"Really, Boris, you are absurdly suspicious. I believe she's the cousin of the hall porter, or something of the kind. And nobody even dreams that I have any connection with our—mutual friend, Mr. Brown."
"For heaven's sake, be careful, Rita. That door isn't shut."
"Well, shut it then," laughed the woman.
Tuppence removed herself speedily.
She dared not absent herself longer from the back premises, but she cleared away and washed up with a breathless speed acquired in hospital. Then she slipped quietly back to the boudoir door. The cook, more leisurely, was still busy in the kitchen and, if she missed the other, would only suppose her to be turning down the beds.
Alas! The conversation inside was being carried on in too low a tone to permit of her hearing anything of it. She dared not reopen the door, however gently. Mrs. Vandemeyer was sitting almost facing it, and Tuppence respected her mistress's lynx-eyed powers of observation.
Nevertheless, she felt she would give a good deal to overhear what was going on. Possibly, if anything unforeseen had happened, she might get news of Tommy. For some moments she reflected desperately, then her face brightened. She went quickly along the passage to Mrs. Vandemeyer's bedroom, which had long French windows leading on to a balcony that ran the length of the flat. Slipping quickly through the window, Tuppence crept noiselessly along till she reached the boudoir window. As she had thought it stood a little ajar, and the voices within were plainly audible.
Tuppence listened attentively, but there was no mention of anything that could be twisted to apply to Tommy. Mrs. Vandemeyer and the Russian seemed to be at variance over some matter, and finally the latter exclaimed bitterly:
"With your persistent recklessness, you will end by ruining us!"
"Bah!" laughed the woman. "Notoriety of the right kind is the best way of disarming suspicion. You will realize that one of these days—perhaps sooner than you think!"
"In the meantime, you are going about everywhere with Peel Edgerton. Not only is he, perhaps, the most celebrated K.C. in England, but his special hobby is criminology! It is madness!"
"I know that his eloquence has saved untold men from the gallows," said Mrs. Vandemeyer calmly. "What of it? I may need his assistance in that line myself some day. If so, how fortunate to have such a friend at court—or perhaps it would be more to the point to say IN court."
Boris got up and began striding up and down. He was very excited.
"You are a clever woman, Rita; but you are also a fool! Be guided by me, and give up Peel Edgerton."
Mrs. Vandemeyer shook her head gently.
"I think not."
"You refuse?" There was an ugly ring in the Russian's voice.
"Then, by Heaven," snarled the Russian, "we will see——" But Mrs. Vandemeyer also rose to her feet, her eyes flashing.
"You forget, Boris," she said. "I am accountable to no one. I take my orders only from—Mr. Brown."
The other threw up his hands in despair.
"You are impossible," he muttered. "Impossible! Already it may be too late. They say Peel Edgerton can SMELL a criminal! How do we know what is at the bottom of his sudden interest in you? Perhaps even now his suspicions are aroused. He guesses——"
Mrs. Vandemeyer eyed him scornfully.
"Reassure yourself, my dear Boris. He suspects nothing. With less than your usual chivalry, you seem to forget that I am commonly accounted a beautiful woman. I assure you that is all that interests Peel Edgerton."
Boris shook his head doubtfully.
"He has studied crime as no other man in this kingdom has studied it. Do you fancy that you can deceive him?"
Mrs. Vandemeyer's eyes narrowed.
"If he is all that you say—it would amuse me to try!"
"Good heavens, Rita——"
"Besides," added Mrs. Vandemeyer, "he is extremely rich. I am not one who despises money. The 'sinews of war,' you know, Boris!"
"Money—money! That is always the danger with you, Rita. I believe you would sell your soul for money. I believe——" He paused, then in a low, sinister voice he said slowly: "Sometimes I believe that you would sell—us!"
Mrs. Vandemeyer smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
"The price, at any rate, would have to be enormous," she said lightly. "It would be beyond the power of anyone but a millionaire to pay."
"Ah!" snarled the Russian. "You see, I was right!"
"My dear Boris, can you not take a joke?"
"Was it a joke?"
"Then all I can say is that your ideas of humour are peculiar, my dear Rita."
Mrs. Vandemeyer smiled.
"Let us not quarrel, Boris. Touch the bell. We will have some drinks."
Tuppence beat a hasty retreat. She paused a moment to survey herself in Mrs. Vandemeyer's long glass, and be sure that nothing was amiss with her appearance. Then she answered the bell demurely.
The conversation that she had overheard, although interesting in that it proved beyond doubt the complicity of both Rita and Boris, threw very little light on the present preoccupations. The name of Jane Finn had not even been mentioned.
The following morning a few brief words with Albert informed her that nothing was waiting for her at the stationer's. It seemed incredible that Tommy, if all was well with him, should not send any word to her. A cold hand seemed to close round her heart.... Supposing... She choked her fears down bravely. It was no good worrying. But she leapt at a chance offered her by Mrs. Vandemeyer.
"What day do you usually go out, Prudence?"
"Friday's my usual day, ma'am."
Mrs. Vandemeyer lifted her eyebrows.
"And to-day is Friday! But I suppose you hardly wish to go out to-day, as you only came yesterday."
"I was thinking of asking you if I might, ma'am."
Mrs. Vandemeyer looked at her a minute longer, and then smiled.
"I wish Count Stepanov could hear you. He made a suggestion about you last night." Her smile broadened, catlike. "Your request is very—typical. I am satisfied. You do not understand all this—but you can go out to-day. It makes no difference to me, as I shall not be dining at home."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Tuppence felt a sensation of relief once she was out of the other's presence. Once again she admitted to herself that she was afraid, horribly afraid, of the beautiful woman with the cruel eyes.
In the midst of a final desultory polishing of her silver, Tuppence was disturbed by the ringing of the front door bell, and went to answer it. This time the visitor was neither Whittington nor Boris, but a man of striking appearance.
Just a shade over average height, he nevertheless conveyed the impression of a big man. His face, clean-shaven and exquisitely mobile, was stamped with an expression of power and force far beyond the ordinary. Magnetism seemed to radiate from him.
Tuppence was undecided for the moment whether to put him down as an actor or a lawyer, but her doubts were soon solved as he gave her his name: Sir James Peel Edgerton.
She looked at him with renewed interest. This, then, was the famous K.C. whose name was familiar all over England. She had heard it said that he might one day be Prime Minister. He was known to have refused office in the interests of his profession, preferring to remain a simple Member for a Scotch constituency.
Tuppence went back to her pantry thoughtfully. The great man had impressed her. She understood Boris's agitation. Peel Edgerton would not be an easy man to deceive.
In about a quarter of an hour the bell rang, and Tuppence repaired to the hall to show the visitor out. He had given her a piercing glance before. Now, as she handed him his hat and stick, she was conscious of his eyes raking her through. As she opened the door and stood aside to let him pass out, he stopped in the doorway.
"Not been doing this long, eh?"
Tuppence raised her eyes, astonished. She read in his glance kindliness, and something else more difficult to fathom.
He nodded as though she had answered.
"V.A.D. and hard up, I suppose?"
"Did Mrs. Vandemeyer tell you that?" asked Tuppence suspiciously.
"No, child. The look of you told me. Good place here?"
"Very good, thank you, sir."
"Ah, but there are plenty of good places nowadays. And a change does no harm sometimes."
"Do you mean——?" began Tuppence.
But Sir James was already on the topmost stair. He looked back with his kindly, shrewd glance.
"Just a hint," he said. "That's all."
Tuppence went back to the pantry more thoughtful than ever.
CHAPTER XI. JULIUS TELLS A STORY
DRESSED appropriately, Tuppence duly sallied forth for her "afternoon out." Albert was in temporary abeyance, but Tuppence went herself to the stationer's to make quite sure that nothing had come for her. Satisfied on this point, she made her way to the Ritz. On inquiry she learnt that Tommy had not yet returned. It was the answer she had expected, but it was another nail in the coffin of her hopes. She resolved to appeal to Mr. Carter, telling him when and where Tommy had started on his quest, and asking him to do something to trace him. The prospect of his aid revived her mercurial spirits, and she next inquired for Julius Hersheimmer. The reply she got was to the effect that he had returned about half an hour ago, but had gone out immediately.
Tuppence's spirits revived still more. It would be something to see Julius. Perhaps he could devise some plan for finding out what had become of Tommy. She wrote her note to Mr. Carter in Julius's sitting-room, and was just addressing the envelope when the door burst open.
"What the hell——" began Julius, but checked himself abruptly. "I beg your pardon, Miss Tuppence. Those fools down at the office would have it that Beresford wasn't here any longer—hadn't been here since Wednesday. Is that so?"
"You don't know where he is?" she asked faintly.
"I? How should I know? I haven't had one darned word from him, though I wired him yesterday morning."
"I expect your wire's at the office unopened."
"But where is he?"
"I don't know. I hoped you might."
"I tell you I haven't had one darned word from him since we parted at the depot on Wednesday."
"Waterloo. Your London and South Western road."
"Waterloo?" frowned Tuppence.
"Why, yes. Didn't he tell you?"
"I haven't seen him either," replied Tuppence impatiently. "Go on about Waterloo. What were you doing there?"
"He gave me a call. Over the phone. Told me to get a move on, and hustle. Said he was trailing two crooks."
"Oh!" said Tuppence, her eyes opening. "I see. Go on."
"I hurried along right away. Beresford was there. He pointed out the crooks. The big one was mine, the guy you bluffed. Tommy shoved a ticket into my hand and told me to get aboard the cars. He was going to sleuth the other crook." Julius paused. "I thought for sure you'd know all this."
"Julius," said Tuppence firmly, "stop walking up and down. It makes me giddy. Sit down in that armchair, and tell me the whole story with as few fancy turns of speech as possible."
Mr. Hersheimmer obeyed.
"Sure," he said. "Where shall I begin?"
"Where you left off. At Waterloo."
"Well," began Julius, "I got into one of your dear old-fashioned first-class British compartments. The train was just off. First thing I knew a guard came along and informed me mighty politely that I wasn't in a smoking-carriage. I handed him out half a dollar, and that settled that. I did a bit of prospecting along the corridor to the next coach. Whittington was there right enough. When I saw the skunk, with his big sleek fat face, and thought of poor little Jane in his clutches, I felt real mad that I hadn't got a gun with me. I'd have tickled him up some.
"We got to Bournemouth all right. Whittington took a cab and gave the name of an hotel. I did likewise, and we drove up within three minutes of each other. He hired a room, and I hired one too. So far it was all plain sailing. He hadn't the remotest notion that anyone was on to him. Well, he just sat around in the hotel lounge, reading the papers and so on, till it was time for dinner. He didn't hurry any over that either.
"I began to think that there was nothing doing, that he'd just come on the trip for his health, but I remembered that he hadn't changed for dinner, though it was by way of being a slap-up hotel, so it seemed likely enough that he'd be going out on his real business afterwards.
"Sure enough, about nine o'clock, so he did. Took a car across the town—mighty pretty place by the way, I guess I'll take Jane there for a spell when I find her—and then paid it off and struck out along those pine-woods on the top of the cliff. I was there too, you understand. We walked, maybe, for half an hour. There's a lot of villas all the way along, but by degrees they seemed to get more and more thinned out, and in the end we got to one that seemed the last of the bunch. Big house it was, with a lot of piny grounds around it.
"It was a pretty black night, and the carriage drive up to the house was dark as pitch. I could hear him ahead, though I couldn't see him. I had to walk carefully in case he might get on to it that he was being followed. I turned a curve and I was just in time to see him ring the bell and get admitted to the house. I just stopped where I was. It was beginning to rain, and I was soon pretty near soaked through. Also, it was almighty cold.
"Whittington didn't come out again, and by and by I got kind of restive, and began to mouch around. All the ground floor windows were shuttered tight, but upstairs, on the first floor (it was a two-storied house) I noticed a window with a light burning and the curtains not drawn.
"Now, just opposite to that window, there was a tree growing. It was about thirty foot away from the house, maybe, and I sort of got it into my head that, if I climbed up that tree, I'd very likely be able to see into that room. Of course, I knew there was no reason why Whittington should be in that room rather than in any other—less reason, in fact, for the betting would be on his being in one of the reception-rooms downstairs. But I guess I'd got the hump from standing so long in the rain, and anything seemed better than going on doing nothing. So I started up.
"It wasn't so easy, by a long chalk! The rain had made the boughs mighty slippery, and it was all I could do to keep a foothold, but bit by bit I managed it, until at last there I was level with the window.
"But then I was disappointed. I was too far to the left. I could only see sideways into the room. A bit of curtain, and a yard of wallpaper was all I could command. Well, that wasn't any manner of good to me, but just as I was going to give it up, and climb down ignominiously, some one inside moved and threw his shadow on my little bit of wall—and, by gum, it was Whittington!
"After that, my blood was up. I'd just got to get a look into that room. It was up to me to figure out how. I noticed that there was a long branch running out from the tree in the right direction. If I could only swarm about half-way along it, the proposition would be solved. But it was mighty uncertain whether it would bear my weight. I decided I'd just got to risk that, and I started. Very cautiously, inch by inch, I crawled along. The bough creaked and swayed in a nasty fashion, and it didn't do to think of the drop below, but at last I got safely to where I wanted to be.
"The room was medium-sized, furnished in a kind of bare hygienic way. There was a table with a lamp on it in the middle of the room, and sitting at that table, facing towards me, was Whittington right enough. He was talking to a woman dressed as a hospital nurse. She was sitting with her back to me, so I couldn't see her face. Although the blinds were up, the window itself was shut, so I couldn't catch a word of what they said. Whittington seemed to be doing all the talking, and the nurse just listened. Now and then she nodded, and sometimes she'd shake her head, as though she were answering questions. He seemed very emphatic—once or twice he beat with his fist on the table. The rain had stopped now, and the sky was clearing in that sudden way it does.
"Presently, he seemed to get to the end of what he was saying. He got up, and so did she. He looked towards the window and asked something—I guess it was whether it was raining. Anyway, she came right across and looked out. Just then the moon came out from behind the clouds. I was scared the woman would catch sight of me, for I was full in the moonlight. I tried to move back a bit. The jerk I gave was too much for that rotten old branch. With an almighty crash, down it came, and Julius P. Hersheimmer with it!"
"Oh, Julius," breathed Tuppence, "how exciting! Go on."
"Well, luckily for me, I pitched down into a good soft bed of earth—but it put me out of action for the time, sure enough. The next thing I knew, I was lying in bed with a hospital nurse (not Whittington's one) on one side of me, and a little black-bearded man with gold glasses, and medical man written all over him, on the other. He rubbed his hands together, and raised his eyebrows as I stared at him. 'Ah!' he said. 'So our young friend is coming round again. Capital. Capital.'
"I did the usual stunt. Said: 'What's happened?' And 'Where am I?' But I knew the answer to the last well enough. There's no moss growing on my brain. 'I think that'll do for the present, sister,' said the little man, and the nurse left the room in a sort of brisk well-trained way. But I caught her handing me out a look of deep curiosity as she passed through the door.
"That look of hers gave me an idea. 'Now then, doc,' I said, and tried to sit up in bed, but my right foot gave me a nasty twinge as I did so. 'A slight sprain,' explained the doctor. 'Nothing serious. You'll be about again in a couple of days.'"
"I noticed you walked lame," interpolated Tuppence.
Julius nodded, and continued:
"'How did it happen?' I asked again. He replied dryly. 'You fell, with a considerable portion of one of my trees, into one of my newly planted flower-beds.'
"I liked the man. He seemed to have a sense of humour. I felt sure that he, at least, was plumb straight. 'Sure, doc,' I said, 'I'm sorry about the tree, and I guess the new bulbs will be on me. But perhaps you'd like to know what I was doing in your garden?' 'I think the facts do call for an explanation,' he replied. 'Well, to begin with, I wasn't after the spoons.'
"He smiled. 'My first theory. But I soon altered my mind. By the way, you are an American, are you not?' I told him my name. 'And you?' 'I am Dr. Hall, and this, as you doubtless know, is my private nursing home.'
"I didn't know, but I wasn't going to put him wise. I was just thankful for the information. I liked the man, and I felt he was straight, but I wasn't going to give him the whole story. For one thing he probably wouldn't have believed it.
"I made up my mind in a flash. 'Why, doctor,' I said, 'I guess I feel an almighty fool, but I owe it to you to let you know that it wasn't the Bill Sikes business I was up to.' Then I went on and mumbled out something about a girl. I trotted out the stern guardian business, and a nervous breakdown, and finally explained that I had fancied I recognized her among the patients at the home, hence my nocturnal adventures. I guess it was just the kind of story he was expecting. 'Quite a romance,' he said genially, when I'd finished. 'Now, doc,' I went on, 'will you be frank with me? Have you here now, or have you had here at any time, a young girl called Jane Finn?' He repeated the name thoughtfully. 'Jane Finn?' he said. 'No.'
"I was chagrined, and I guess I showed it. 'You are sure?' 'Quite sure, Mr. Hersheimmer. It is an uncommon name, and I should not have been likely to forget it.'
"Well, that was flat. It laid me out for a space. I'd kind of hoped my search was at an end. 'That's that,' I said at last. 'Now, there's another matter. When I was hugging that darned branch I thought I recognized an old friend of mine talking to one of your nurses.' I purposely didn't mention any name because, of course, Whittington might be calling himself something quite different down here, but the doctor answered at once. 'Mr. Whittington, perhaps?' 'That's the fellow,' I replied. 'What's he doing down here? Don't tell me HIS nerves are out of order?'
"Dr. Hall laughed. 'No. He came down to see one of my nurses, Nurse Edith, who is a niece of his.' 'Why, fancy that!' I exclaimed. 'Is he still here?' 'No, he went back to town almost immediately.' 'What a pity!' I ejaculated. 'But perhaps I could speak to his niece—Nurse Edith, did you say her name was?'
"But the doctor shook his head. 'I'm afraid that, too, is impossible. Nurse Edith left with a patient to-night also.' 'I seem to be real unlucky,' I remarked. 'Have you Mr. Whittington's address in town? I guess I'd like to look him up when I get back.' 'I don't know his address. I can write to Nurse Edith for it if you like.' I thanked him. 'Don't say who it is wants it. I'd like to give him a little surprise.'
"That was about all I could do for the moment. Of course, if the girl was really Whittington's niece, she might be too cute to fall into the trap, but it was worth trying. Next thing I did was to write out a wire to Beresford saying where I was, and that I was laid up with a sprained foot, and telling him to come down if he wasn't busy. I had to be guarded in what I said. However, I didn't hear from him, and my foot soon got all right. It was only ricked, not really sprained, so to-day I said good-bye to the little doctor chap, asked him to send me word if he heard from Nurse Edith, and came right away back to town. Say, Miss Tuppence, you're looking mighty pale!"
"It's Tommy," said Tuppence. "What can have happened to him?"
"Buck up, I guess he's all right really. Why shouldn't he be? See here, it was a foreign-looking guy he went off after. Maybe they've gone abroad—to Poland, or something like that?"
Tuppence shook her head.
"He couldn't without passports and things. Besides I've seen that man, Boris Something, since. He dined with Mrs. Vandemeyer last night."
"I forgot. Of course you don't know all that."
"I'm listening," said Julius, and gave vent to his favourite expression. "Put me wise."
Tuppence thereupon related the events of the last two days. Julius's astonishment and admiration were unbounded.
"Bully for you! Fancy you a menial. It just tickles me to death!" Then he added seriously: "But say now, I don't like it, Miss Tuppence, I sure don't. You're just as plucky as they make 'em, but I wish you'd keep right out of this. These crooks we're up against would as soon croak a girl as a man any day."
"Do you think I'm afraid?" said Tuppence indignantly, valiantly repressing memories of the steely glitter in Mrs. Vandemeyer's eyes.
"I said before you were darned plucky. But that doesn't alter facts."
"Oh, bother ME!" said Tuppence impatiently. "Let's think about what can have happened to Tommy. I've written to Mr. Carter about it," she added, and told him the gist of her letter.
Julius nodded gravely.
"I guess that's good as far as it goes. But it's for us to get busy and do something."
"What can we do?" asked Tuppence, her spirits rising.
"I guess we'd better get on the track of Boris. You say he's been to your place. Is he likely to come again?"
"He might. I really don't know."
"I see. Well, I guess I'd better buy a car, a slap-up one, dress as a chauffeur and hang about outside. Then if Boris comes, you could make some kind of signal, and I'd trail him. How's that?"
"Splendid, but he mightn't come for weeks."
"We'll have to chance that. I'm glad you like the plan." He rose.
"Where are you going?"
"To buy the car, of course," replied Julius, surprised. "What make do you like? I guess you'll do some riding in it before we've finished."
"Oh," said Tuppence faintly, "I LIKE Rolls-Royces, but——"
"Sure," agreed Julius. "What you say goes. I'll get one."
"But you can't at once," cried Tuppence. "People wait ages sometimes."
"Little Julius doesn't," affirmed Mr. Hersheimmer. "Don't you worry any. I'll be round in the car in half an hour."
Tuppence got up.
"You're awfully good, Julius. But I can't help feeling that it's rather a forlorn hope. I'm really pinning my faith to Mr. Carter."
"Then I shouldn't."
"Just an idea of mine."
"Oh; but he must do something. There's no one else. By the way, I forgot to tell you of a queer thing that happened this morning."
And she narrated her encounter with Sir James Peel Edgerton. Julius was interested.
"What did the guy mean, do you think?" he asked.
"I don't quite know," said Tuppence meditatively. "But I think that, in an ambiguous, legal, without prejudishish lawyer's way, he was trying to warn me."
"Why should he?"
"I don't know," confessed Tuppence. "But he looked kind, and simply awfully clever. I wouldn't mind going to him and telling him everything."
Somewhat to her surprise, Julius negatived the idea sharply.
"See here," he said, "we don't want any lawyers mixed up in this. That guy couldn't help us any."
"Well, I believe he could," reiterated Tuppence obstinately.
"Don't you think it. So long. I'll be back in half an hour."
Thirty-five minutes had elapsed when Julius returned. He took Tuppence by the arm, and walked her to the window.
"There she is."
"Oh!" said Tuppence with a note of reverence in her voice, as she gazed down at the enormous car.
"She's some pace-maker, I can tell you," said Julius complacently.
"How did you get it?" gasped Tuppence.
"She was just being sent home to some bigwig."
"I went round to his house," said Julius. "I said that I reckoned a car like that was worth every penny of twenty thousand dollars. Then I told him that it was worth just about fifty thousand dollars to me if he'd get out."
"Well?" said Tuppence, intoxicated.
"Well," returned Julius, "he got out, that's all."
CHAPTER XII. A FRIEND IN NEED
FRIDAY and Saturday passed uneventfully. Tuppence had received a brief answer to her appeal from Mr. Carter. In it he pointed out that the Young Adventurers had undertaken the work at their own risk, and had been fully warned of the dangers. If anything had happened to Tommy he regretted it deeply, but he could do nothing.
This was cold comfort. Somehow, without Tommy, all the savour went out of the adventure, and, for the first time, Tuppence felt doubtful of success. While they had been together she had never questioned it for a minute. Although she was accustomed to take the lead, and to pride herself on her quick-wittedness, in reality she had relied upon Tommy more than she realized at the time. There was something so eminently sober and clear-headed about him, his common sense and soundness of vision were so unvarying, that without him Tuppence felt much like a rudderless ship. It was curious that Julius, who was undoubtedly much cleverer than Tommy, did not give her the same feeling of support. She had accused Tommy of being a pessimist, and it is certain that he always saw the disadvantages and difficulties which she herself was optimistically given to overlooking, but nevertheless she had really relied a good deal on his judgment. He might be slow, but he was very sure.
It seemed to the girl that, for the first time, she realized the sinister character of the mission they had undertaken so lightheartedly. It had begun like a page of romance. Now, shorn of its glamour, it seemed to be turning to grim reality. Tommy—that was all that mattered. Many times in the day Tuppence blinked the tears out of her eyes resolutely. "Little fool," she would apostrophize herself, "don't snivel. Of course you're fond of him. You've known him all your life. But there's no need to be sentimental about it."
In the meantime, nothing more was seen of Boris. He did not come to the flat, and Julius and the car waited in vain. Tuppence gave herself over to new meditations. Whilst admitting the truth of Julius's objections, she had nevertheless not entirely relinquished the idea of appealing to Sir James Peel Edgerton. Indeed, she had gone so far as to look up his address in the Red Book. Had he meant to warn her that day? If so, why? Surely she was at least entitled to demand an explanation. He had looked at her so kindly. Perhaps he might tell them something concerning Mrs. Vandemeyer which might lead to a clue to Tommy's whereabouts.
Anyway, Tuppence decided, with her usual shake of the shoulders, it was worth trying, and try it she would. Sunday was her afternoon out. She would meet Julius, persuade him to her point of view, and they would beard the lion in his den.
When the day arrived Julius needed a considerable amount of persuading, but Tuppence held firm. "It can do no harm," was what she always came back to. In the end Julius gave in, and they proceeded in the car to Carlton House Terrace.
The door was opened by an irreproachable butler. Tuppence felt a little nervous. After all, perhaps it WAS colossal cheek on her part. She had decided not to ask if Sir James was "at home," but to adopt a more personal attitude.
"Will you ask Sir James if I can see him for a few minutes? I have an important message for him."
The butler retired, returning a moment or two later.
"Sir James will see you. Will you step this way?"
He ushered them into a room at the back of the house, furnished as a library. The collection of books was a magnificent one, and Tuppence noticed that all one wall was devoted to works on crime and criminology. There were several deep-padded leather arm-chairs, and an old-fashioned open hearth. In the window was a big roll-top desk strewn with papers at which the master of the house was sitting.
He rose as they entered.
"You have a message for me? Ah"—he recognized Tuppence with a smile—"it's you, is it? Brought a message from Mrs. Vandemeyer, I suppose?"
"Not exactly," said Tuppence. "In fact, I'm afraid I only said that to be quite sure of getting in. Oh, by the way, this is Mr. Hersheimmer, Sir James Peel Edgerton."
"Pleased to meet you," said the American, shooting out a hand.
"Won't you both sit down?" asked Sir James. He drew forward two chairs.
"Sir James," said Tuppence, plunging boldly, "I dare say you will think it is most awful cheek of me coming here like this. Because, of course, it's nothing whatever to do with you, and then you're a very important person, and of course Tommy and I are very unimportant." She paused for breath.
"Tommy?" queried Sir James, looking across at the American.
"No, that's Julius," explained Tuppence. "I'm rather nervous, and that makes me tell it badly. What I really want to know is what you meant by what you said to me the other day? Did you mean to warn me against Mrs. Vandemeyer? You did, didn't you?"
"My dear young lady, as far as I recollect I only mentioned that there were equally good situations to be obtained elsewhere."
"Yes, I know. But it was a hint, wasn't it?"
"Well, perhaps it was," admitted Sir James gravely.
"Well, I want to know more. I want to know just WHY you gave me a hint."
Sir James smiled at her earnestness.
"Suppose the lady brings a libel action against me for defamation of character?"
"Of course," said Tuppence. "I know lawyers are always dreadfully careful. But can't we say 'without prejudice' first, and then say just what we want to."
"Well," said Sir James, still smiling, "without prejudice, then, if I had a young sister forced to earn her living, I should not like to see her in Mrs. Vandemeyer's service. I felt it incumbent on me just to give you a hint. It is no place for a young and inexperienced girl. That is all I can tell you."
"I see," said Tuppence thoughtfully. "Thank you very much. But I'm not REALLY inexperienced, you know. I knew perfectly that she was a bad lot when I went there—as a matter of fact that's WHY I went——" She broke off, seeing some bewilderment on the lawyer's face, and went on: "I think perhaps I'd better tell you the whole story, Sir James. I've a sort of feeling that you'd know in a minute if I didn't tell the truth, and so you might as well know all about it from the beginning. What do you think, Julius?"
"As you're bent on it, I'd go right ahead with the facts," replied the American, who had so far sat in silence.
"Yes, tell me all about it," said Sir James. "I want to know who Tommy is."
Thus encouraged Tuppence plunged into her tale, and the lawyer listened with close attention.
"Very interesting," he said, when she finished. "A great deal of what you tell me, child, is already known to me. I've had certain theories of my own about this Jane Finn. You've done extraordinarily well so far, but it's rather too bad of—what do you know him as?—Mr. Carter to pitchfork you two young things into an affair of this kind. By the way, where did Mr. Hersheimmer come in originally? You didn't make that clear?"
Julius answered for himself.
"I'm Jane's first cousin," he explained, returning the lawyer's keen gaze.
"Oh, Sir James," broke out Tuppence, "what do you think has become of Tommy?"
"H'm." The lawyer rose, and paced slowly up and down. "When you arrived, young lady, I was just packing up my traps. Going to Scotland by the night train for a few days' fishing. But there are different kinds of fishing. I've a good mind to stay, and see if we can't get on the track of that young chap."
"Oh!" Tuppence clasped her hands ecstatically.
"All the same, as I said before, it's too bad of—of Carter to set you two babies on a job like this. Now, don't get offended, Miss—er——"
"Cowley. Prudence Cowley. But my friends call me Tuppence."
"Well, Miss Tuppence, then, as I'm certainly going to be a friend. Don't be offended because I think you're young. Youth is a failing only too easily outgrown. Now, about this young Tommy of yours——"
"Yes." Tuppence clasped her hands.
"Frankly, things look bad for him. He's been butting in somewhere where he wasn't wanted. Not a doubt of it. But don't give up hope."
"And you really will help us? There, Julius! He didn't want me to come," she added by way of explanation.
"H'm," said the lawyer, favouring Julius with another keen glance. "And why was that?"
"I reckoned it would be no good worrying you with a petty little business like this."
"I see." He paused a moment. "This petty little business, as you call it, bears directly on a very big business, bigger perhaps than either you or Miss Tuppence know. If this boy is alive, he may have very valuable information to give us. Therefore, we must find him."
"Yes, but how?" cried Tuppence. "I've tried to think of everything."
Sir James smiled.
"And yet there's one person quite near at hand who in all probability knows where he is, or at all events where he is likely to be."
"Who is that?" asked Tuppence, puzzled.
"Yes, but she'd never tell us."
"Ah, that is where I come in. I think it quite likely that I shall be able to make Mrs. Vandemeyer tell me what I want to know."
"How?" demanded Tuppence, opening her eyes very wide.
"Oh, just by asking her questions," replied Sir James easily. "That's the way we do it, you know."
He tapped with his finger on the table, and Tuppence felt again the intense power that radiated from the man.
"And if she won't tell?" asked Julius suddenly.
"I think she will. I have one or two powerful levers. Still, in that unlikely event, there is always the possibility of bribery."
"Sure. And that's where I come in!" cried Julius, bringing his fist down on the table with a bang. "You can count on me, if necessary, for one million dollars. Yes, sir, one million dollars!"
Sir James sat down and subjected Julius to a long scrutiny.
"Mr. Hersheimmer," he said at last, "that is a very large sum."
"I guess it'll have to be. These aren't the kind of folk to offer sixpence to."
"At the present rate of exchange it amounts to considerably over two hundred and fifty thousand pounds."
"That's so. Maybe you think I'm talking through my hat, but I can deliver the goods all right, with enough over to spare for your fee."
Sir James flushed slightly.
"There is no question of a fee, Mr. Hersheimmer. I am not a private detective."
"Sorry. I guess I was just a mite hasty, but I've been feeling bad about this money question. I wanted to offer a big reward for news of Jane some days ago, but your crusted institution of Scotland Yard advised me against it. Said it was undesirable."
"They were probably right," said Sir James dryly.
"But it's all O.K. about Julius," put in Tuppence. "He's not pulling your leg. He's got simply pots of money."
"The old man piled it up in style," explained Julius. "Now, let's get down to it. What's your idea?"
Sir James considered for a moment or two.
"There is no time to be lost. The sooner we strike the better." He turned to Tuppence. "Is Mrs. Vandemeyer dining out to-night, do you know?"
"Yes, I think so, but she will not be out late. Otherwise, she would have taken the latchkey."
"Good. I will call upon her about ten o'clock. What time are you supposed to return?"
"About nine-thirty or ten, but I could go back earlier."
"You must not do that on any account. It might arouse suspicion if you did not stay out till the usual time. Be back by nine-thirty. I will arrive at ten. Mr. Hersheimmer will wait below in a taxi perhaps."
"He's got a new Rolls-Royce car," said Tuppence with vicarious pride.
"Even better. If I succeed in obtaining the address from her, we can go there at once, taking Mrs. Vandemeyer with us if necessary. You understand?"
"Yes." Tuppence rose to her feet with a skip of delight. "Oh, I feel so much better!"
"Don't build on it too much, Miss Tuppence. Go easy."
Julius turned to the lawyer.
"Say, then. I'll call for you in the car round about nine-thirty. Is that right?"
"Perhaps that will be the best plan. It would be unnecessary to have two cars waiting about. Now, Miss Tuppence, my advice to you is to go and have a good dinner, a REALLY good one, mind. And don't think ahead more than you can help."
He shook hands with them both, and a moment later they were outside.
"Isn't he a duck?" inquired Tuppence ecstatically, as she skipped down the steps. "Oh, Julius, isn't he just a duck?"
"Well, I allow he seems to be the goods all right. And I was wrong about its being useless to go to him. Say, shall we go right away back to the Ritz?"
"I must walk a bit, I think. I feel so excited. Drop me in the park, will you? Unless you'd like to come too?"
"I want to get some petrol," he explained. "And send off a cable or two."
"All right. I'll meet you at the Ritz at seven. We'll have to dine upstairs. I can't show myself in these glad rags."
"Sure. I'll get Felix help me choose the menu. He's some head waiter, that. So long."
Tuppence walked briskly along towards the Serpentine, first glancing at her watch. It was nearly six o'clock. She remembered that she had had no tea, but felt too excited to be conscious of hunger. She walked as far as Kensington Gardens and then slowly retraced her steps, feeling infinitely better for the fresh air and exercise. It was not so easy to follow Sir James's advice, and put the possible events of the evening out of her head. As she drew nearer and nearer to Hyde Park corner, the temptation to return to South Audley Mansions was almost irresistible.
At any rate, she decided, it would do no harm just to go and LOOK at the building. Perhaps, then, she could resign herself to waiting patiently for ten o'clock.
South Audley Mansions looked exactly the same as usual. What Tuppence had expected she hardly knew, but the sight of its red brick stolidity slightly assuaged the growing and entirely unreasonable uneasiness that possessed her. She was just turning away when she heard a piercing whistle, and the faithful Albert came running from the building to join her.
Tuppence frowned. It was no part of the programme to have attention called to her presence in the neighbourhood, but Albert was purple with suppressed excitement.
"I say, miss, she's a-going!"
"Who's going?" demanded Tuppence sharply.
"The crook. Ready Rita. Mrs. Vandemeyer. She's a-packing up, and she's just sent down word for me to get her a taxi."
"What?" Tuppence clutched his arm.
"It's the truth, miss. I thought maybe as you didn't know about it."
"Albert," cried Tuppence, "you're a brick. If it hadn't been for you we'd have lost her."
Albert flushed with pleasure at this tribute.
"There's no time to lose," said Tuppence, crossing the road. "I've got to stop her. At all costs I must keep her here until——" She broke off. "Albert, there's a telephone here, isn't there?"
The boy shook his head.
"The flats mostly have their own, miss. But there's a box just round the corner."
"Go to it then, at once, and ring up the Ritz Hotel. Ask for Mr. Hersheimmer, and when you get him tell him to get Sir James and come on at once, as Mrs. Vandemeyer is trying to hook it. If you can't get him, ring up Sir James Peel Edgerton, you'll find his number in the book, and tell him what's happening. You won't forget the names, will you?"
Albert repeated them glibly. "You trust to me, miss, it'll be all right. But what about you? Aren't you afraid to trust yourself with her?"
"No, no, that's all right. BUT GO AND TELEPHONE. Be quick."
Drawing a long breath, Tuppence entered the Mansions and ran up to the door of No. 20. How she was to detain Mrs. Vandemeyer until the two men arrived, she did not know, but somehow or other it had to be done, and she must accomplish the task single-handed. What had occasioned this precipitate departure? Did Mrs. Vandemeyer suspect her?
Speculations were idle. Tuppence pressed the bell firmly. She might learn something from the cook.
Nothing happened and, after waiting some minutes, Tuppence pressed the bell again, keeping her finger on the button for some little while. At last she heard footsteps inside, and a moment later Mrs. Vandemeyer herself opened the door. She lifted her eyebrows at the sight of the girl.
"I had a touch of toothache, ma'am," said Tuppence glibly. "So thought it better to come home and have a quiet evening."
Mrs. Vandemeyer said nothing, but she drew back and let Tuppence pass into the hall.
"How unfortunate for you," she said coldly. "You had better go to bed."
"Oh, I shall be all right in the kitchen, ma'am. Cook will——"
"Cook is out," said Mrs. Vandemeyer, in a rather disagreeable tone. "I sent her out. So you see you had better go to bed."
Suddenly Tuppence felt afraid. There was a ring in Mrs. Vandemeyer's voice that she did not like at all. Also, the other woman was slowly edging her up the passage. Tuppence turned at bay.
"I don't want——"
Then, in a flash, a rim of cold steel touched her temple, and Mrs. Vandemeyer's voice rose cold and menacing:
"You damned little fool! Do you think I don't know? No, don't answer. If you struggle or cry out, I'll shoot you like a dog."
The rim of steel pressed a little harder against the girl's temple.
"Now then, march," went on Mrs. Vandemeyer. "This way—into my room. In a minute, when I've done with you, you'll go to bed as I told you to. And you'll sleep—oh yes, my little spy, you'll sleep all right!"
There was a sort of hideous geniality in the last words which Tuppence did not at all like. For the moment there was nothing to be done, and she walked obediently into Mrs. Vandemeyer's bedroom. The pistol never left her forehead. The room was in a state of wild disorder, clothes were flung about right and left, a suit-case and a hat box, half-packed, stood in the middle of the floor.
Tuppence pulled herself together with an effort. Her voice shook a little, but she spoke out bravely.
"Come now," she said. "This is nonsense. You can't shoot me. Why, every one in the building would hear the report."
"I'd risk that," said Mrs. Vandemeyer cheerfully. "But, as long as you don't sing out for help, you're all right—and I don't think you will. You're a clever girl. You deceived ME all right. I hadn't a suspicion of you! So I've no doubt that you understand perfectly well that this is where I'm on top and you're underneath. Now then—sit on the bed. Put your hands above your head, and if you value your life don't move them."
Tuppence obeyed passively. Her good sense told her that there was nothing else to do but accept the situation. If she shrieked for help there was very little chance of anyone hearing her, whereas there was probably quite a good chance of Mrs. Vandemeyer's shooting her. In the meantime, every minute of delay gained was valuable.
Mrs. Vandemeyer laid down the revolver on the edge of the washstand within reach of her hand, and, still eyeing Tuppence like a lynx in case the girl should attempt to move, she took a little stoppered bottle from its place on the marble and poured some of its contents into a glass which she filled up with water.
"What's that?" asked Tuppence sharply.
"Something to make you sleep soundly."
Tuppence paled a little.
"Are you going to poison me?" she asked in a whisper.
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Vandemeyer, smiling agreeably.
"Then I shan't drink it," said Tuppence firmly. "I'd much rather be shot. At any rate that would make a row, and some one might hear it. But I won't be killed off quietly like a lamb."
Mrs. Vandemeyer stamped her foot.
"Don't be a little fool! Do you really think I want a hue and cry for murder out after me? If you've any sense at all, you'll realize that poisoning you wouldn't suit my book at all. It's a sleeping draught, that's all. You'll wake up to-morrow morning none the worse. I simply don't want the bother of tying you up and gagging you. That's the alternative—and you won't like it, I can tell you! I can be very rough if I choose. So drink this down like a good girl, and you'll be none the worse for it."
In her heart of hearts Tuppence believed her. The arguments she had adduced rang true. It was a simple and effective method of getting her out of the way for the time being. Nevertheless, the girl did not take kindly to the idea of being tamely put to sleep without as much as one bid for freedom. She felt that once Mrs. Vandemeyer gave them the slip, the last hope of finding Tommy would be gone.
Tuppence was quick in her mental processes. All these reflections passed through her mind in a flash, and she saw where a chance, a very problematical chance, lay, and she determined to risk all in one supreme effort.
Accordingly, she lurched suddenly off the bed and fell on her knees before Mrs. Vandemeyer, clutching her skirts frantically.
"I don't believe it," she moaned. "It's poison—I know it's poison. Oh, don't make me drink it"—her voice rose to a shriek—"don't make me drink it!"
Mrs. Vandemeyer, glass in hand, looked down with a curling lip at this sudden collapse.
"Get up, you little idiot! Don't go on drivelling there. How you ever had the nerve to play your part as you did I can't think." She stamped her foot. "Get up, I say."
But Tuppence continued to cling and sob, interjecting her sobs with incoherent appeals for mercy. Every minute gained was to the good. Moreover, as she grovelled, she moved imperceptibly nearer to her objective.
Mrs. Vandemeyer gave a sharp impatient exclamation, and jerked the girl to her knees.
"Drink it at once!" Imperiously she pressed the glass to the girl's lips.
Tuppence gave one last despairing moan.
"You swear it won't hurt me?" she temporized.
"Of course it won't hurt you. Don't be a fool."
"Will you swear it?"
"Yes, yes," said the other impatiently. "I swear it."
Tuppence raised a trembling left hand to the glass.
"Very well." Her mouth opened meekly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer gave a sigh of relief, off her guard for the moment. Then, quick as a flash, Tuppence jerked the glass upward as hard as she could. The fluid in it splashed into Mrs. Vandemeyer's face, and during her momentary gasp, Tuppence's right hand shot out and grasped the revolver where it lay on the edge of the washstand. The next moment she had sprung back a pace, and the revolver pointed straight at Mrs. Vandemeyer's heart, with no unsteadiness in the hand that held it.
In the moment of victory, Tuppence betrayed a somewhat unsportsmanlike triumph.
"Now who's on top and who's underneath?" she crowed.
The other's face was convulsed with rage. For a minute Tuppence thought she was going to spring upon her, which would have placed the girl in an unpleasant dilemma, since she meant to draw the line at actually letting off the revolver. However, with an effort Mrs. Vandemeyer controlled herself, and at last a slow evil smile crept over her face.
"Not a fool, then, after all! You did that well, girl. But you shall pay for it—oh, yes, you shall pay for it! I have a long memory!"
"I'm surprised you should have been gulfed so easily," said Tuppence scornfully. "Did you really think I was the kind of girl to roll about on the floor and whine for mercy?"
"You may do—some day!" said the other significantly.
The cold malignity of her manner sent an unpleasant chill down Tuppence's spine, but she was not going to give in to it.
"Supposing we sit down," she said pleasantly. "Our present attitude is a little melodramatic. No—not on the bed. Draw a chair up to the table, that's right. Now I'll sit opposite you with the revolver in front of me—just in case of accidents. Splendid. Now, let's talk."
"What about?" said Mrs. Vandemeyer sullenly.
Tuppence eyed her thoughtfully for a minute. She was remembering several things. Boris's words, "I believe you would sell—us!" and her answer, "The price would have to be enormous," given lightly, it was true, yet might not there be a substratum of truth in it? Long ago, had not Whittington asked: "Who's been blabbing? Rita?" Would Rita Vandemeyer prove to be the weak spot in the armour of Mr. Brown?
Keeping her eyes fixed steadily on the other's face, Tuppence replied quietly:
Mrs. Vandemeyer started. Clearly, the reply was unexpected.
"What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you. You said just now that you had a long memory. A long memory isn't half as useful as a long purse! I dare say it relieves your feelings a good deal to plan out all sorts of dreadful things to do to me, but is that PRACTICAL? Revenge is very unsatisfactory. Every one always says so. But money"—Tuppence warmed to her pet creed—"well, there's nothing unsatisfactory about money, is there?"
"Do you think," said Mrs. Vandemeyer scornfully, "that I am the kind of woman to sell my friends?"
"Yes," said Tuppence promptly. "If the price was big enough."
"A paltry hundred pounds or so!"
"No," said Tuppence. "I should suggest—a hundred thousand!"
Her economical spirit did not permit her to mention the whole million dollars suggested by Julius.
A flush crept over Mrs. Vandemeyer's face.
"What did you say?" she asked, her fingers playing nervously with a brooch on her breast. In that moment Tuppence knew that the fish was hooked, and for the first time she felt a horror of her own money-loving spirit. It gave her a dreadful sense of kinship to the woman fronting her.
"A hundred thousand pounds," repeated Tuppence.
The light died out of Mrs. Vandemeyer's eyes. She leaned back in her chair.
"Bah!" she said. "You haven't got it."
"No," admitted Tuppence, "I haven't—but I know some one who has."
"A friend of mine."
"Must be a millionaire," remarked Mrs. Vandemeyer unbelievingly.
"As a matter of fact he is. He's an American. He'll pay you that without a murmur. You can take it from me that it's a perfectly genuine proposition."
Mrs. Vandemeyer sat up again.
"I'm inclined to believe you," she said slowly.
There was silence between them for some time, then Mrs. Vandemeyer looked up.
"What does he want to know, this friend of yours?"
Tuppence went through a momentary struggle, but it was Julius's money, and his interests must come first.
"He wants to know where Jane Finn is," she said boldly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer showed no surprise.
"I'm not sure where she is at the present moment," she replied.
"But you could find out?"
"Oh, yes," returned Mrs. Vandemeyer carelessly. "There would be no difficulty about that."
"Then"—Tuppence's voice shook a little—"there's a boy, a friend of mine. I'm afraid something's happened to him, through your pal Boris."
"What's his name?"
"Never heard of him. But I'll ask Boris. He'll tell me anything he knows."
"Thank you." Tuppence felt a terrific rise in her spirits. It impelled her to more audacious efforts. "There's one thing more."
Tuppence leaned forward and lowered her voice.
"WHO IS MR. BROWN?"
Her quick eyes saw the sudden paling of the beautiful face. With an effort Mrs. Vandemeyer pulled herself together and tried to resume her former manner. But the attempt was a mere parody.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You can't have learnt much about us if you don't know that NOBODY KNOWS WHO MR. BROWN IS...."
"You do," said Tuppence quietly.
Again the colour deserted the other's face.
"What makes you think that?"
"I don't know," said the girl truthfully. "But I'm sure."
Mrs. Vandemeyer stared in front of her for a long time.
"Yes," she said hoarsely, at last, "I know. I was beautiful, you see—very beautiful—"
"You are still," said Tuppence with admiration.
Mrs. Vandemeyer shook her head. There was a strange gleam in her electric-blue eyes.
"Not beautiful enough," she said in a soft dangerous voice. "Not—beautiful—enough! And sometimes, lately, I've been afraid.... It's dangerous to know too much!" She leaned forward across the table. "Swear that my name shan't be brought into it—that no one shall ever know."
"I swear it. And, once's he caught, you'll be out of danger."
A terrified look swept across Mrs. Vandemeyer's face.
"Shall I? Shall I ever be?" She clutched Tuppence's arm. "You're sure about the money?"
"When shall I have it? There must be no delay."
"This friend of mine will be here presently. He may have to send cables, or something like that. But there won't be any delay—he's a terrific hustler."
A resolute look settled on Mrs. Vandemeyer's face.
"I'll do it. It's a great sum of money, and besides"—she gave a curious smile—"it is not—wise to throw over a woman like me!"
For a moment or two, she remained smiling, and lightly tapping her fingers on the table. Suddenly she started, and her face blanched.
"What was that?"
"I heard nothing."
Mrs. Vandemeyer gazed round her fearfully.
"If there should be some one listening——"
"Nonsense. Who could there be?"
"Even the walls might have ears," whispered the other. "I tell you I'm frightened. You don't know him!"
"Think of the hundred thousand pounds," said Tuppence soothingly.
Mrs. Vandemeyer passed her tongue over her dried lips.
"You don't know him," she reiterated hoarsely. "He's—ah!"
With a shriek of terror she sprang to her feet. Her outstretched hand pointed over Tuppence's head. Then she swayed to the ground in a dead faint.
Tuppence looked round to see what had startled her.
In the doorway were Sir James Peel Edgerton and Julius Hersheimmer.
CHAPTER XIII. THE VIGIL
SIR James brushed past Julius and hurriedly bent over the fallen woman.
"Heart," he said sharply. "Seeing us so suddenly must have given her a shock. Brandy—and quickly, or she'll slip through our fingers."
Julius hurried to the washstand.
"Not there," said Tuppence over her shoulder. "In the tantalus in the dining-room. Second door down the passage."