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Title: The King Diamond Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200591h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2012 Most recent update: Jan 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and updated by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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IN the outer office of the Maggersfont Diamond Company the handful of clerks worked steadily on with that ease and smoothness that always characterises a perfectly organised and smoothly running business. They were lady typists, for the most part, under the able supervision of a forewoman, and because they both admired and respected their employer, Sir Samuel Oscar, there was very little slacking in Bishopsgate-street. Because Sir Samuel was not only a great man and a South African magnate of the first importance, but a most kindly and considerate employer besides. Though when he spoke or directed then everybody under him knew that he meant exactly what he said.
An inner room leading out of the clerks' apartment was devoted to the requirements of the great man's personal secretary, and her name—Miss Stella Ravenhill—appeared in black letters on the ground glass in the upper part of the door. Rather an unusual development, perhaps, in a city office, but then Stella Ravenhill stood, more or less, in a class of her own, and it was a peculiar psychological fact that, though she had been in the employ of her firm for less than three years, she had gone easily and smoothly over the heads of the other lady clerks, and, strangely enough, there was not one of them who resented her presence or was in the least disposed to question her authority.
Perhaps they liked her all the better because they recognised from the first that she was a lady. Not that the rest failed to claim an equal distinction, but then there was a difference, and they all had admitted it from the first moment when Stella Ravenhill came in all her calm beauty and serene assurance, to say nothing of her undoubted ability, and at once took her place which Nature had ordained for her from the moment of her birth.
And now she was Sir Samuel's confidential secretary. She took down his letters in shorthand and very frequently typed them herself. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from, though there were legends in the office as to her high birth and station, and as to what position in society she had occupied before the force of circumstances had compelled her to get her own living. She took no share in the simple pleasure and amusements of the rest, and yet she had always a word of sympathy for such of the girls who chose to confide their troubles to her, and very frequently her purse was at their disposal.
Of course it was not for the body of clerks to know that Stella had been what is familiarly known as born to the purple. There had been a time, and not so very long ago, when she had lived at home with her extravagant, easy-going father in the old place called Ravenswood, where the Ravenhills had lorded it for centuries. And then the last of the race had died, leaving his affairs in inexplicable confusion. When everything was settled and wound up there was practically nothing left for the only daughter of the house, so that she was forced to go out into the world and get her own living.
She might have become dependent upon the charity of her friends, she might even have made a brilliant marriage, for she had birth and beauty and brains besides. But that was not Stella Ravenhill's way. She was a woman, gentle and refined to her finger-tips, and, sooth to say, with most of the prejudices of her class. At the same time, there was a certain streak of modernity in her, and she much preferred to struggle for herself rather than throw herself upon the resources of her relatives. She would go out and earn her own living.
She learnt to type and write shorthand, she graduated amazingly soon in the London School of Economics, and then, when she was in the possession of a weapon with which to carve out her future, she had her first piece of good fortune. So far the grand old house in which she had been born and its surrounding acres had not been sold, so she had gone down there for the last time, previous to the auction, to gather together certain belongings of small value, but of sentimental interest, and there, in the great hall, she had come face to face with Sir Samuel Oscar. So they had fallen more or less naturally into conversation, and, almost before she was aware of the fact, Stella had told most of her simple, tragic story to the man who was destined to become her employer.
He was down there, as he told her, with a view to becoming the owner of the property.
Not only did that happen, but, all unknown to Stella, Sir Samuel had slightly increased his offer to the trustees so that she found herself unexpectedly in the possession of a few hundred pounds which she might find very useful in case of a rainy day. So, eventually, Sir Samuel became master of Ravenswood and all its ancient glories, and Stella took her position in Bishopsgate-street.
And never had Sir Samuel regretted that queer sort of partnership from the first moment that Stella came into his office. There is no sentiment in business and Sir Samuel offered none. He placed Stella, to begin with, exactly on a level with the rest, and she won her way into the confidence of the big man by sheer force of quality. He was an elderly man and a bachelor, with few relations in the world, so that he devoted himself almost entirely to business, though there were times when he look his ease and entertained lavishly at Ravenswood. It was not known in the office that on more than one occasion Stella had visited her old home as a guest under the hoary roof of Ravenswood, and this she never mentioned. On these occasions employer and employed were on terms of absolute equality, but once behind those mahogany doors in Bishopsgate-street the footings changed, though, even in the inner sanctum where Sir Samuel transacted his big business there were moments when the mask was dropped and the two were more like father and daughter.
There was an atmosphere something like this one fine morning when, in response to her employer's bell, Stella entered the inner office. There was a smile on her lips when she came in, but that quickly faded as she noted the grave, preoccupied look on Sir Samuel's rather stern features. He was one of those iron-grey men, big and lean and clean shaven, with a humorous droop in the corners of his clear-cut lips and a twinkle in an eye that belied its severity. But not this morning.
"Oh, here you are, Miss Ravenhill," he said. "Will you have the goodness to take a seat?"
Stella slipped into the chair by her employer's desk, fully conscious of the fact that here was something decidedly out of the common. She waited a moment for Oscar to speak.
"I wanted to talk to you on a little matter that has given me a great deal of anxiety the last month or so," he said. "Miss Ravenhill, I am going to trust you implicitly."
"I hope you have always done so, Sir Samuel."
"Oh, of course, of course," the great man said, almost abruptly. "A queer thing, but there is not a single man of my acquaintance, including my own partner and my fellow-directors, whom I trust as thoroughly as I do you. And yet there was a time when I always declared that no woman could keep a secret. I was wrong. And I cannot pay you any higher compliment."
"Shall we get on with the business, Sir Samuel?" Stella asked.
"Quite right, my dear, quite right. Well, it's like this. For some considerable time past there has been a serious leakage in stones from the Maggersfont mines. I have said nothing about this to the board, neither do I intend to, at least not for the present. But it has got to be stopped."
"You are quite sure of your facts, Sir Samuel?" Stella asked.
"Oh dear, yes. It is a mere question of averages. Nobody knows better than myself how regular and steady the output has been from Maggersfont. It has hardly varied a dozen carats for over two years. And now, for the last three months or more, we have been down to the extent of something like £5000 every four weeks. Of course, I am going on the returns from our manager out yonder. And this morning I had a confidential letter from him in which he seems to have come to some sort of conclusion. It is a most startling one and has disturbed me considerably. I will show you the letter presently. And that is not all the trouble. From what Washburn says, I gather that a stone of outstanding value has been smuggled out of the mine. Washburn has nothing definite to go on, except gossip amongst the native boys working in the blue dust, but it is common talk amongst them that a huge stone, which they call the King Diamond in their vernacular, was found by one of the Kafirs and smuggled out of the compound. Perhaps I had better tell you that this King Diamond is a sort of legend amongst the Kafirs, and they have been searching for it ever since diamonds were first discovered at Kimberley ages ago. A sort of myth, you understand. Of course, there may not be anything in it at all; on the other hand, it may be absolutely true. Anyhow, Washburn tells me that one of the Kafirs has been in a state of partial intoxication for days, and that he is known to have a big roll of Treasury notes in his possession. Evidently he has talked or boasted amongst his compatriots and the story has got back to Washburn's ears."
"I may say that he, Washburn, is absolutely convinced that we have been robbed of one of the biggest diamonds in the world."
"But I thought it was impossible," Stella said.
"So it would be in ordinary circumstances. No Kafir could have got away with a stone like that without being detected. He could not have left the compound with that diamond in his possession. I don't say that he didn't find it, neither do I say that it was impossible for him to hide it, whilst awaiting a chance to get clear away with his booty. Washburn is of opinion that the man had a confederate, and that his confederate took the stone away and got clear off with it."
"But that sounds equally impossible," Stella pointed out. "Any man who is on terms of that sort with Kafir workmen would never have been allowed in the compound at all."
"Not in ordinary circumstances," Sir Samuel admitted. "But let us suppose that the visitor was a man beyond suspicion. For instance, he might have been a statesman, or a great scientist, or something of that kind, and a man who had the run of the compounds as a matter of courtesy. Naturally enough, Washburn would never suspect an individual of that kind. I shouldn't myself. There are hundreds of men all over the world whom I would trust to visit the compound at any time."
At this point Sir Samuel paused as if almost afraid to continue. Stella waited for him to speak.
"And now we are coming to the point," he went on. "I know you have met a great many distinguished people in your time, Miss Ravenhill. Now, amongst them, did you ever come in contact with a famous ethnologist called Sir Hercules Slaney?"
"Why, of course," Stella cried. "The greatest living authority on matters concerning ethnology and ethnography living to-day. He has made the black belt in Africa his hunting ground for years. I don't suppose there is anybody living who knows as much about the dark races. And I have heard it said that he can speak no less than ninety different dialects."
"All of which is absolutely true," Oscar agreed. "But I asked you if you had ever met him."
"Oh, yes," Stella said. "He used to stay occasionally with some friends of his near Ravenswood before my father died. A strange sort of man. Very tall and very spare, but as hard as Iron and supple as whipcord. A man with a great, bald head and a long straggling beard. Very eccentric and undoubtedly mad on some points. But there can be no question as to his intellect. I suppose you know that he is in London?"
"The devil he is," Sir Samuel exclaimed. "Perhaps you will kindly inform me how you know that."
Stella changed colour slightly. The question was one that she found rather difficult to answer, because it involved certain private matters which she would have preferred not to discuss even with Sir Samuel himself. Still, there could be no holding back now, and she would have to speak freely.
"Well, I haven't seen him since he got back, if that is what you mean," Stella explained. "But, you see, I happen to know his right-hand man very well. He is the son of an old neighbour of ours whose history, in a way, is very like mine. He found himself, after the war, compelled to get his own living, and, as he had spent two or three years amongst the Congo natives, he was glad of an opportunity of joining Sir Hercules in his varied expeditions. You may have heard of Lionel Bly."
Sir Samuel nodded gravely. He had heard of Lionel Bly, whose family property, or late family property rather, marched with the ancestral acres at Ravenswood. And all he had heard of that young man was distinctly in his favour. He shot a quick glance at Stella and noticed her rising colour.
"Is that all you have got to tell me, young lady?" he asked.
"Oh well," Stella laughed, "you always take me into your confidence, so why shouldn't I take you into mine? I have known Lionel Bly ever since I can remember. He was my hero when I was a tomboy and he was at Eton. He is six or seven years older than I am, but I never saw anybody else that I wanted to marry."
"And you are of the same mind, now, eh?"
Stella nodded two or three times emphatically.
"Then he is a dashed lucky young fellow, that is all I have to say," Sir Samuel said, with a hearty smile.
"I think we are both lucky in that respect," Stella said. "But otherwise this little romance of ours is likely to last until we are both middle-aged. You see, I have no money, and he has none, and there—well, there we are, don't you know. But don't you think we are getting sentimental, Sir Samuel?"
"Oh, of course, of course," Oscar said with a mock severity. "Most reprehensible, especially in business hours. But it is rather a strange thing that this young man of yours—I beg your pardon, this Mr. Bly should be a sort of confidential assistant to the very man we suspect."
"Suspect?" Stella cried. "Do you mean to say that you suspect Sir Hercules Slaney?"
"That is what it comes to," Oscar said grimly. "Washburn goes even farther than that. He said he is perfectly certain that for some considerable time past Sir Hercules has been buying diamonds belonging to the Maggersfont Company through one of the Kafirs employed in the mines. Three or four months ago Sir Hercules came down from the Congo with your friend Mr. Bly and his baggage-bearers, and spent a lot of time at Maggersfont, ostensibly studying the natives. He used his great influence in his letters of introduction to impress Washburn and asked our manager for an opportunity to observe the Kafirs when they were actually at work. Even then Washburn hesitated. He cabled to me for instructions, and, after consulting one or two of Slaney's colleagues in London, I gave my consent without much hesitation. However, you had better read the letter for yourself."
Stella took up the sheets and read them carefully. They formed a long and anxious communication from the manager of the mines, in which, under the seal of secrecy, he laid all his suspicions and certain rather slender proofs before his chief. He had made exhaustive inquiries, he said. At first he had been loth to fasten suspicion upon so distinguished a scientist, whose name was a household word on both sides of the Atlantic. But the farther he had gone the more mistrusting he became of the great man. To begin with, he had elicited the fact that Sir Hercules Slaney was exceedingly short of ready money. His hotel bill in the house where he was staying near Maggersfont had not been paid for many weeks, and even his servants had been clamouring for their wages. And then, suddenly, the trouble had ceased, and Slaney appeared to be in ample funds again. Then there was the strange case of the particular native who had suddenly ceased work, and who was in a state of partial intoxication for days together. Moreover, this individual was proved to be swaggering about the various native quarters with a roll of Treasury notes on his person. He had changed one or two of these, and Washburn had traced them directly to Sir Hercules Slaney. It was clear to him that Slaney was acting as the agent for some daring firm of illicit diamond buyers, and that, in all probability, he was sharing the spoil with them. And then just as Washburn was proving his case, Sir Hercules had vanished, together with his private secretary, leaving no trace behind him. The most significant fact of all: this disappearance had taken place about the time when the native quarters were buzzing with rumours as to the finding of the traditional great King Diamond. Had Slaney got away with it in his possession? Had he returned to London, and how was he living? Did he appear to be in the possession of ample funds, or was he passing through a period of temporary impecuniosity.
"Well, now you know all about it," Oscar said when Stella had finished the letter. "What do you think?"
Stella appeared to be a little troubled.
"Such things have happened before now," she said. "It is not the first time that a great man has yielded to temptation. It was absolutely necessary that Sir Hercules should have the command of a lot of money because his expenses must have been enormous. You cannot travel all over the world as he did without a long purse, and I have heard it said more than once that his resources were exceedingly limited. At the same time I am afraid if Mr. Washburn's suspicions are correct that some of the suspicion must fall upon Lionel Bly. You see—oh, dear, I hardly know how to put it. What are you going to do, Sir Samuel?"
"Well, I haven't quite made up my mind," Oscar replied. "Of course, you can't sit down to a loss like this, and if there is any truth in the story of the King Diamond and Slaney has got away with it, then I shall have to consult someone else. We can't let the man off scot-free."
"Oh, of course you can't," Stella admitted. "Do you know, Sir Samuel, I almost wish you hadn't told me this. If I hadn't known—well if I hadn't loved Lionel Bly, or if I had not known him even, things would be very different. But he is in London now, and, naturally, he likes to see as much of me as he can.
"Mind you, he has never asked me to marry him. What you might call a word of love has never passed between us. Lionel is the last man in the world to tie a woman up to him unless he could see some prospect of giving her a home, and that is a very remote contingency at present. But we quite understand one another, and if at some future time—Oh dear, here I am, in business hours, talking sentiment again. I have done my best, but I don't see how I can keep away from it."
"Of course you can't," Sir Samuel agreed pleasantly. "My dear child, the British Empire was built up on sentiment. Now, don't you get worrying that pretty head of yours about that very nice young man. No suspicion attaches to him and probably none ever will. From what I can gather from inquiries I have made Sir Hercules Slaney is not the type of man who confides in anybody. Men who have a queer kink in their brain like he has always kept their own secrets. It is a case of great wits to madness nearly are akin. The village idiot is just the same. What I mean is that he likes to hoard things up. They always do. And I am quite sure that Sir Hercules is a man of the same type. Mind you, I quite appreciate your difficulty, and if you hadn't been so open and candid about that Admirable Crichton of yours, I should have known what to do. But as it is, I see that I shall have to move on another line. Of course, it is pretty hard upon you that you should have to be constantly meeting this young man and hearing him talk of Sir Hercules, whom he doubtless regards as a sort of hero, when all the time we know that he is little less than a cunning thief. It is going to be very difficult for you, my dear. I think the best thing I can do is to go round to Scotland Yard and consult the authorities there. Meanwhile, I want you to take that letter from Washburn and answer it in accordance with these notes I have made. Tell him that no sort of blame attaches as far as he is concerned, and that I am taking steps at this end to verify his suspicions. Type that letter out yourself in the private letter-book and post it personally. You can sign it if I am not back in time. And I think that is all for the present. Good morning."
Stella went back to her room with her mind in a whirl. An hour before she was just the mere business girl on terms of strict commercialism with her employer, and here she found herself suddenly plunged into a whirl of intrigue and romance, and that in Bishopsgate-street, of all places in the world. She was glad on the whole that her employer, at the last moment of their interview had assumed the strict manner of the employer towards the employed. In a way it made it easier for her.
She typed the letter presently, made a copy of it in the private letter-book and locked the volume away. Then she put on her hat and went out to her modest lunch, grateful for the opportunity of a quiet hour in which she could reduce her mind to its proper logical level. But it was not to be, because directly she stepped out in the sunshine on the pavement she found that Lionel Bly was there eagerly awaiting her.
FOR the moment, at any rate, the office in Bishopsgate- street with all its responsibilities was forgotten. There and then in the sunshine on the crowded pavement Stella could see nothing but the young man before her and a dim background of pleasant memories with which he was intimately connected. The fields and the woods and the light falling on old-world gardens and pleasant intimacies in the ancient rooms where the Ravenhills and the Blys had foregathered for centuries.
Quite a presentable young man, too. Just a typical Englishman to his finger-tips, with that clean and wholesome look that goes with the better brand of Briton the world over. Not dressed after the manner of Bond-street on a summer morning, but with a certain air of distinction that is at once so marked and yet so absolutely indescribable. Not handsome, either, but with the brand of sterling integrity and a pair of eyes that looked everybody smilingly and bravely in the face.
And what he saw was a young woman in the first flush of her beauty. Rather tall, not too fashionably slim, but eminently what she appeared to be. And in her eyes was a smile of welcome and on her cheek a flush that was not due to the perfection of health entirely. And that glorious smile of hers seemed to light up the whole dingy thoroughfare.
"Lionel," Stella cried. "This is quite unexpected. And yet none the less welcome. But what is the meaning of this? Have you taken a day off?"
"Well, not exactly that," Bly laughed. "As a matter of fact my old man is busy on some important experiment, so I am free for an hour or two. That is why I came round here this morning, knowing that you always had your lunch at 1 o'clock, in the hope that I might take you to lunch at the Ritz."
"Ah, that is quite impossible," Stella said. "I always go as far as Oxford-street and take my modest repast at Pagani's. You see, I am so important a person that my employer must know where to find me, even when I lunch. It isn't often he disturbs me, but that is our arrangement. I go by tube to Oxford Circus, because I feel that the little change does me good and the lunch-time music at Pagani's is excellent."
Bly responded eagerly to the effect that it was all the same to him so long as Stella and himself were alone together, and, a few moments later, they found themselves seated in the famous restaurant at a little table laid for two which an infatuated waiter usually retained for Stella. And there they sat for half an hour, listening to the music and discussing their modest lunch, so absorbed in themselves that they might have been absolutely alone so far as the rest of the company were concerned.
It was only when they were sipping their coffee and Stella was enjoying the one cigarette she allowed herself during the course of the day that it began to dawn upon her that Bly was unusually silent and preoccupied. So different to his usual flow of sparkling and enlivening conversation.
"There," Stella said. "That is the second time I have asked you a question you haven't answered. I hope you haven't got anything on your mind, Lionel."
"Well, I have and I haven't. All the same, I did want to consult you about something. To tell you the truth, I am rather worried about my old man."
Stella was all attention at once. She was faintly conscious of some vague trouble in the air, something connected with the story that Sir Samuel had told her that morning. And now, here was Lionel Bly, more or less leading up to the same subject.
"I don't quite understand you," she murmured.
"Well, perhaps I ought not to tell you," Bly went on. "But then, I always tell you everything. I suppose Sir Samuel does, for that matter? Being his confidential secretary, I dare say you learn many things that the public would be glad to know."
"I am absolutely in my employer's confidence and proud of the fact," Stella said. "Why, only this morning—"
She checked herself and broke off abruptly. But Bly was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice.
"It wouldn't matter," he said thoughtfully, "if it didn't affect my future to a great extent. And when I say my future, I mean ours. He is a wonderful man in many respects, is Sir Hercules, and in certain circles he carries tremendous weight. That is one of the reasons why I have stuck to him so long. He has always promised to do something big for me one of these days and I believed him. But now I am not so sure. The last few months I can't make him out at all. He dragged me down from the Congo Belt, where we were making the most important investigations, and insisted upon settling down close to those diamond mines at Maggersfont. By the way, isn't Sir Samuel Oscar one of the big noises in connection with that mine?"
Stella suppressed a start. Here was Bly, absolutely ignorant of the really startling story she had heard from her employer's lips that morning, actually leading up to another variant of the same amazing narrative. And yet he could not possibly know, even in a small degree, anything connected with the matter which had reached Bishopsgate-street from South Africa that morning. Neither could Stella give him a lead. She could trust him of course, and trust him implicitly, but then to do that would be to betray an almost sacred confidence. It was with a feeling of some uneasiness and discomfort that Stella sat there waiting to hear what her companion was going to say. And, whatever he told her, and whatever light his information would throw upon the mystery of the Maggersfont mine, her lips were sealed. She must listen to all he had to say without response. It seemed almost like treachery, but she had no alternative.
"Don't tell me if you don't want to," she said. "Perhaps you are unduly worrying yourself."
"I don't think so," Bly muttered. "You see, it is like this. I could not for the life of me understand why Sir Hercules suddenly turned his back on the Congo. He was getting on splendidly and his enthusiasm was like that of a schoolboy. He has got some queer ideas, amongst the rest being that he can turn a nigger into a white man in two generations. I mean that in the course of thirty or forty years the coloured races of the world will disappear—so far as their outward appearance is concerned. Of course, it might be all nonsense, but, on the other hand, I have seen with my own eyes three generations of pure black African rats turned into white ones. And not in the tropics, either, but here in London, within a mile of where we are seated. Perhaps I ought not to have told you that, and I shouldn't unless I felt sure that you will never breathe a word of this to a soul. You will see where it comes in presently."
Again that feeling of uneasiness swept over Stella. She might be wrong, of course, but it seemed to her that she ought not to listen to these confidences, without being able to return them and that she could not do so long as she was bound to respect the interests of her employer.
"Do you actually mean that?" she asked.
"Certainly I do," Bly replied. "Mind you, I am no scientist, and I have only obtained the information I am giving you by keeping my eyes open. I don't suppose Sir Hercules realises that I have taken so much interest in his scientific research. You see, my business is to look after the camps, and give orders to the bearers, and all that sort of thing. I know enough native dialect for that, and I picked up most of it during the three years I was serving with the S.A. Forces in the Great War. Otherwise, I should not be with Sir Hercules at all. I dare say you will think I am a long time getting to my point, but I am coming to it now. Just as everything was going splendidly in the Congo Sir Hercules suddenly made up his mind to chuck everything, and go down to Maggersfont. When I asked him why, he told me to mind my own business. And, of course, a hint like that was good enough for me. When we got to Maggersfont Sir Hercules spent most of his time there in pottering about the diamond mines. He got a permit giving him permission to watch the Kafirs at work in the compounds, and he was there almost day and night. And all that time he was in a state of extraordinary nervous irritability. It was all very difficult for me, because I was practically in command of the expedition, and when I discovered that there was absolutely no money in the exchequer I began to get really worried. You see, there were all sorts of people to pay, and there was our hotel bill running on until the landlord began to be quite nasty about it. I hardly knew what to do, because every time I mentioned it to Sir Hercules, he would fly off the handle, and behave in the most extraordinary way. And then, all at once, money began to flow in from some mysterious source. My dear girl, I was more worried than over. Where had that cash come from out of nowhere? I knew that Sir Hercules had precious little of his own, and that he had borrowed every cent he could from his scientific and other friends. So long as we were up in the Congo it didn't matter, but when we were in the limits of civilisation then it was another question altogether. And then I began to hear extraordinary rumours. Rumours of the mysterious disappearance of diamonds from the compounds. Rumours of Kafirs who were swaggering about with their pockets full of money. There was one great buck nigger called M'Papo—"
Bly looked up suddenly, as Stella uttered a little cry and then glanced down demurely at her feet. For the life of her she could not suppress the exclamation, because in the letter she had read that morning from Washburn he had mentioned the name M'Papo as being that of the man who was so shrewdly suspected of being in league with the diamond thieves.
"Oh, it's nothing," Stella said hurriedly. "Go on, Lionel, you have no idea how interested I am."
"Well, as a matter of fact, there is not much more to tell you," Bly concluded rather lamely. "But Sir Hercules has been a different man ever since. He was always inclined to be secretive and suspicious, but now his manner is almost unbearable."
"But you really don't suggest—" Stella hinted.
"Indeed I do. You see, I have all the accounts through my hands and most of the correspondence, and if that money had come through an ordinary channel, I must have known it. And, mind you, Sir Hercules is a man who brooks no opposition whatever. He allows nothing to stand in his path where research concerned and, honestly, I don't believe would stop at murder if he thought it necessary. My idea is that he took advantage of his high position and his great name to get inside the diamond compounds with the deliberate intention of corrupting the Kafirs. And don't forget that he knows their habits inside out, and can speak their language like a native. Moreover, he has a wonderful reputation as a medicine man. There are millions of natives in Africa who regard him as a great witch-doctor, I don't suppose you have ever heard of a native legend called the King Diamond—"
But Stella was prepared this time, and made no sign. Horribly guilty as she felt in listening to these confidences, she was powerless to speak. She would listen on to the end, even if some of these early days the one man in the world she really cared for accused her of something like black treachery.
"Go on," she murmured, looking down and not daring to meet his eyes. "It sounds like a page out of 'King Solomon's Mines.'"
"Yes, by Jove, it isn't far off it. I can't tell you the legend now, because it would take too long, but I heard just before we came home—which we did as abruptly as we had left the Congo—that this wonderful legendary diamond had been found and mysteriously smuggled out of the country by a native. If that is true, then I am sure that Sir Hercules is at the bottom of it. He is spending money right and left now. Why, his flat in Devonshire Mansions costs him over three hundred a year. And before we left England he was trying to sell the lease of it. And now he has ordered the most elaborate apparatus from all over Europe, stuff running into thousands of pounds, and, what is more paying cash for it. And for the first time since I have been with him he has locked up all his private papers, so that I can look at practically nothing. And then he goes off on mysterious errands for hours at a time, and comes back in the vilest of tempers. There is something very wrong, Stella, and I feel most uncomfortable about it. I don't want to get mixed up in any trouble, and that is why I am thinking of chucking my job."
"Oh, you mustn't do that," Stella cried. "At least, not just yet. I mean that it would be very foolish of you to do so unless you have something else in view. You see—"
She stopped suddenly as a messenger boy came drifting through the room shouting her name aloud.
"Miss Ravenhill," he cried. "Miss Ravenhill. Wanted at the telephone, if you please."
"That is my employer," Stella explained as she rose to her foot. "I won't keep you a moment now."
She hurried off into the sound-proof box at the end of a corridor, and took down the receiver.
"Stella Ravenhill speaking," she said. "Who is that?"
"Oh, that you, Miss Ravenhill," came the familiar voice. "No, I don't want to interrupt you, because there is no occasion for you to hurry back. As a matter of fact, I am going to Paris this afternoon to see the French Foreign Minister in connection with those Waterhouse Concessions. I am flying from Croydon Aerodrome at 4 o'clock, and I expect to get back on Friday night or early Saturday morning. I have notified the staff, and I leave you to carry on the private business in my absence. But what I really rang you up for is this. I want you to arrange for a house party at Ravenswood for this week-end. I have already notified Lady Margaret Severn, and she will go down to Ravenswood on Friday. Also, she will get the house party together."
Stella murmured something appropriate. There was no reason for her to inquire who Lady Margaret Severn was, because she had known that popular society lady for years. And she it was who had invariably acted as hostess for Sir Samuel whenever he had a social gathering in the house where Stella was born.
"So that's that," the voice went on at the other end of the wire. "And now I come to the most important part of what I have to say. I have managed to get in touch with Sir Hercules Slaney over the telephone and he has promised to come down for the weekend. A sort of lion, if you understand me. Of course, he could not very well refuse after everything I did for him in Maggersfont, and I need not tell you that I have my own reasons for asking him down. In fact, I arranged the party on purpose. And I want you to ask that young man of yours to come as well. I daresay you can easily get in contact with him."
"Quite," Stella said demurely. "In fact, I am lunching with him at the present moment."
"Oh, the deuce you are! Then I don't think there will be much difficulty in persuading that young man to become one of the gathering. What's that? Oh, yes, quite so. I think that is about all. Here, stop a moment. I was actually forgetting one of the most important points. I have just had a cable in code from Washburn to the effect, that M'Papo, that is the Kafir who is the rogue in the play, disappeared twelve or fourteen days ago, and is believed to be on his way to England in a Cape liner. Washburn has good reason to believe that he is working his passage in the stokehold. This bit of information may or may not have some significance, but I thought perhaps you would like to know it. And now you can go back to your lunch."
Stella returned to her seat in thoughtful mood. It was almost amazing how these incidents were piling up one on the top of the other, and how sensationally events had begun to develop out of nothing, just as a thunderstorm piles up in a summer sky.
She would have dearly liked to say something about all this to Lionel Bly, but then, in the circumstances, it was impossible. And in any case, if Sir Hercules Slaney was the scoundrel he appeared to be, then it would be nothing short of criminal if she dropped any hint which would give the eminent scientist a loophole by which he might escape the consequences of his criminality. No, she must be forced back upon a policy of silence, though, later on, that policy might, in a measure, recoil on her own head.
But there was nothing on her face to show these feelings as she went back to her seat again. Lionel was sitting moodily there, gazing into space.
"Nothing wrong, I hope?" he asked.
"Nothing whatever," Stella smiled. "In fact, I can give you a little longer time than usual. But I have an invitation for you. Sir Samuel thought it would please me if you were invited to be his guest for the week-end at Ravenswood."
"Ask me?" Bly cried. "My dearest girl, there is nothing I should like better in the world. It would be better than a fortnight at the seaside to see dear old Ravenswood again, to say nothing of the sight of the property that used to belong to my reprehensible ancestors. But I am afraid it is out of the question. Sir Hercules would never let me go."
"Well, as a matter of fact, Sir Hercules is going himself," Stella explained. "It appears that Sir Samuel got in contact with him over the telephone, and asked him down, and—well, he consented. And I suppose Sir Samuel thought it would please me if you had an invitation too. Sir Samuel is something more than an employer—he is my very dear friend. But he knows all about us and how well we understand one another. I thought it was exceedingly kind of him."
"So it was," Lionel agreed heartily, "and I am most grateful. A week-end under the same roof as you! It seems almost too good to be true. Only I hope there won't be a big mob down there. I would rather not run into the old set."
"Oh, there will be no mob there," Stella explained. "Not more than half a dozen altogether. And Lady Margaret Severn always acts the hostess, and you know how perfectly she fulfils that role. She is an absolute dear, and nothing would please me better than to see a match between those two."
"But Sir Samuel is an old man."
"Nothing of the kind, my dear boy. He is barely sixty, and as active as a boy. And Lady Margaret must be at least fifty herself. I think it would be most suitable."
THAT eminent man of science and savant with a reputation extending over the whole of the civilised world occupied, in the intervals between his expeditions, what ought to have been a luxurious flat in Devonshire Mansions. With a fine suite of rooms adapted eminently to social purposes, the place had been turned into something little better than a rabbit warren. There was a kitchen devoted to such casual cookery as was called for from time to time, and the smallest bedroom in the house where Sir Hercules slept on a straw mattress was practically the only living-room in the flat. The rest was given over entirely to collections of various kinds of curiosities from all over the world, whilst the drawing-room and dining-room were devoted to research work. Out of one of these led a small room which was lined throughout from floor to ceiling with cages filled with rats of various colours, ranging through the spectrum from white to jet black. These Sir Hercules looked after himself, and nobody was allowed to touch them; indeed, there was no one to touch them, because it was the great scientist's whim to live in his flat entirely by himself—even Bly had been obliged to obtain a temporary lodging somewhere near at hand.
It was here, then, that Sir Hercules worked when he was in London. What food he needed he obtained from a little restaurant hard by, and if he were engaged upon something more intriguing than usual he would cook something for himself over the gas stove in the kitchen and eat it standing. It was his regular habit to shut himself up in the flat after a frugal dinner and refuse to answer the door even to the most pressing of callers. Moreover, he would take the telephone receiver from its hook, so that he lived behind his stout outer oak in a state of total seclusion, much as if he had lived in the centre of a desert.
He was a tall, thin man, hard as iron and tough as whipcord, and capable of an endurance which would have shamed the average athlete who was a third of his age. He had a great bald head and a straggly beard, both of which were strangely at variance with an absolutely perfect set of teeth, which, somehow, seemed to detract from the coming burden of years. He possessed, too, certain attributes which are supposed to belong to the lower animal kingdom. For instance, he had an amazing sense of smell and a hearing so acute that, at times, it must have been absolutely painful. These were secrets that he had learnt from nature and a constant contact with almost aboriginal tribes with which it had been his custom to mingle all his life. On the whole, an extraordinary man, with a marvellous, almost uncanny intellect, so that most people were afraid of him. Not that Sir Hercules troubled in the least what anyone thought so far as he was concerned.
It was a little after 10 o'clock in the morning and Sir Hercules was just beginning his day's work. He was absolutely alone in the flat, for Bly had not yet arrived, nor was he expected for half an hour or more. Meanwhile, the scientist had disposed of his hasty breakfast, cooked over a gas stove, and was now in the room in which he kept his small army of rodents. The cages entirely covered the wall, small, brass cages, each containing so many of the rather repulsive little creatures, with, here and there, other cages where it was necessary that the sexes should be divided. Sir Hercules slouched into the room, his big head on one side and an almost fatherly smile on his otherwise heavy features. He looked rather like a parody of a fond parent who has just joined his children in the nursery. He made a peculiar clicking noise with his mouth, and, immediately, the rats set up a shrill screaming which might almost have been heard in the street outside. It was evident that every one there recognised and welcomed his or her master.
"Oho, my children," Sir Hercules chuckled. "Glad to see me this morning, eh? Had a good breakfast, all of you? Yes, I see you have, for most of the dishes are empty."
An ingenious arrangement of sliding doors and little traps enabled the occupants of every cage to draw their own food much as a grain hopper works in connection with the filling of a cargo. So that those tiny, intelligent creatures with strange acumen and cunning could draw their supplies as they needed them and even raise their own water by means of an automatic bucket from a miniature well. Then two or three of the cage doors were opened and, immediately, the rats scuttled all over the floor and swarmed up the legs and round the shoulders of the professor, uttering little cries of delight as he fondled them. There was something almost parental in all this and yet, at the same time, rather repulsive. But not to the Professor, who fondled the little creatures much as if he loved them, which, undoubtedly, he did.
"Ah, my pretties," he went on, in that harsh, husky voice of his that suggested chronic asthma. "Ah, my little ones. You go back again because father is going to be busy."
It was strange to see how the rats of all colours and sizes immediately ceased their cries and immediately returned to their cages again as if they understood exactly what was said to them. Then the doors were closed, and the man of science went back to what in different circumstances would have been the drawing-room, but which was now fitted as a laboratory.
The whole place was in a stale of dusty disorder. Only the tables in the centre of the room, on which stood retorts and other mysterious instruments, were reduced to something like tidiness. There were several tables, piled high with the various appliances, and in one corner of the room a smaller table on which were piled up numerous packs of cards. There were patience cards diminutive in size, and on the table itself was set out what appeared to be a patience problem. This was one of the professor's minor hobbies, and at such times as he came up against some abtruse problem he found change and relaxation in turning away to what seemed to be an innocent pastime. Even as he sat at work with knitted brow and concentrated frown he would turn every now and then to the card table, and mechanically move one or two of the pasteboards lying there.
Then, presently, he rose and stretched himself, and smiled with the air of a man who is not displeased with himself. It was in one of these moments of unbending that the door opened and Bly quietly entered the room.
"Ah, here you are," Sir Hercules said, in his husky whisper. "I wish you would look over those accounts for me. When you have checked them, I want you to go round into Regent-street and pay those people. They are always bothering me for money."
"Shall I draw a cheque, sir?" Bly asked.
"No, boy," Sir Hercules said shortly. "No more cheques for me. I am going to pay everything in cash for the future. What is the good of banks? They never help me. They cringe and fawn before me when I have a balance, but when I overdraw my account, to use their own jargon, they refuse to cash my cheques and thus cause me endless trouble. No, my boy, when you have checked those accounts I will give you the cash to pay them."
Bly rose to his feet presently, and, crossing the room, laid a sheet of paper covered with figures before his employer. Sir Hercules gave it a careless glance and handed it back again, as if he were no longer concerned in the matter.
"They are pretty heavy figures, sir," Bly pointed out. "They embrace all the new appliances which you ordered from Germany, Over £2000 altogether."
Sir Hercules shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Well, what of it?" he demanded. "What is money in comparison with my great work? And yet I must have money—everything would stand still without it. The State ought to see to those things. It ought to be their privilege to place ample funds at my disposal. Am I not doing a great work on behalf of humanity? Am I not on the verge of solving the American colour problem? I tell you the American problem is a standing menace to the peace and progress of the world. I can see the day coming when it will be a fight for life itself between black and white. And yet the solution lies in the hollow of my hand. I could go on—but why continue the subject?"
The speaker rose and opened a safe in the wall. From this he took a great handful of notes and tossed them over to his assistant as if they had been waste paper.
"Here you are," he said. "Help yourself."
Bly obeyed discreetly enough, but strange thoughts were flashing through his mind. He was anxious and uneasy and wondering vaguely where all this money came from. He could see that it was in crisp Bank of England notes in value to a far greater extent than the amount of the bills he had to pay, and he knew that only a few days before that Slaney had been absolutely at his wit's end to know how to pay his rent. Moreover, he had just discovered on his desk a letter from the agent who managed the flats enclosing a receipt for the overdue amount. The money appeared to have come out of nowhere. All Bly's dark doubts and suspicions were once more aflame. His mind went back to those days at Maggersfont and the strange things that had happened there.
And yet, he told himself, this was no business of his. All he had to do was to follow instructions, knowing full well that if he asked any indiscreet questions or ventured upon the least objection, he would speedily find himself without occupation. And that, just now, was the last thing in the world he wanted.
He took the notes that he required and replaced the balance in the safe. There was nothing more to be said or done, and already Sir Hercules was watching him frowningly.
"Do you want me to go round at once, sir," he asked.
"Yes, of course," Sir Hercules said curtly. "And I don't know that you need return, at least not to-day. I have reached the crisis of one of my experiments, I am on the verge of a stupendous discovery and I must not be disturbed. You quite understand that, Bly; I must not be disturbed on any account. It matters nothing who wants to see me. But stop just a moment. You might as well take the week-end off, because on Saturday I am going down to a place called Ravenswood, which is the country beat of Sir Samuel Oscar, the head of the Maggersfont Diamond Corporation. He has very kindly asked me to spend the Saturday and Sunday with him and I have consented. That sort of thing is quite out of my line, but I have reasons which I need not go into. Therefore, you need not return till Monday afternoon."
"That is rather a strange thing, sir," Bly said guardedly. "Because I have been asked to join the same party myself."
Sir Hercules darted a suspicious glance at his subordinate.
"Oh, indeed, and how did that come about? Does Sir Samuel happen to be a friend of yours?"
As lightly and casually as he could, Bly explained the circumstances. Nor did he fail to mention the fact that he knew Ravenswood in his boyhood, and that Sir Samuel's private secretary happened to be an old friend of his own. He saw the suspicion and the heavy cloud gradually disperse from the massive features of his employer, and those wonderful teeth of his expand in something that might have passed for a friendly grin.
"If that is all, sir," he suggested.
Sir Hercules waved him impatiently aside, and Lionel left the flat, carefully closing the heavy oak doors behind him. He heard the latch click as he walked down the stone staircase, his mind given over to the problem which had preoccupied him during the last quarter of an hour. And then, as he turned into the street, he found himself confronted with a strange apparition.
He saw before him an enormous buck nigger. It was impossible to judge exactly to what nationality the man belonged; probably there was all sorts of native blood in his veins. But his prominent features were strongly Central African, with a dash of the Kafir. Anyway, all native as Bly well knew from his long experience of the African tropical belt. This black and polished individual was clad in the height of fashion—glossy top hat, well-cut morning coat, and cashmere trousers with patent leather boots and white spats. He wore a big flower in his buttonhole and in his tie was a diamond pin which, to Bly's experienced eye, was worth a considerable sum. It was a gorgeous vision altogether, so that Bly smiled as he took it in. But he was considerably astonished when the man pulled up before him and addressed him in quite fair English with an easy familiarity that caused Lionel's fingers to itch and his right toe to shoot out menacingly.
"Morning to you, sah," the dusky man said. "You Mr. Lionel Bly, I think. But you not know me now."
"I certainly have not the pleasure," Lionel said readily.
The nigger did not seem displeased. On the other hand, there was something in his manner that suggested a certain satisfaction in the knowledge. The stranger beamed down upon him and displayed his teeth in a flashing smile.
"No, you not know me," he said. "Nobody know me. I am an African gentleman who has made his own fortune. And I come to England to spend it. Loyal subject of the King and all that. As good as white man any day. Specially as I have money. But if you not know me, I know you and all about you, and I come this morning to pay my respects to Sir Hercules. You tell me where he lives, yes? And you go tell him that African gentleman wish see him. And you go now, yes?"
"Look here," Lionel said. "I suppose you mean well, but if you want to be kicked from here all round Regent Quadrant, you are making a successful effort to achieve that end. If you take my advice, you will reconsider your position. I don't suppose you know what that means, but you can guess."
The big man ceased to grin; indeed, he ceased to be a gentleman altogether. There was something subtly sinister and menacing in his attitude, so that the amiable atmosphere entirely vanished and the beginning of an electrical disturbance commenced to loom threateningly overhead.
"You insult me, sah," the native said. "You mean say that Sir Hercules he not see me?"
"Precisely," Bly said curtly. "I am quite certain he won't. He never sees anybody except by appointment, and even I dare not go near him when he tells me he wants to be alone. Still, if you are particularly anxious to be thrown down a flight of stone stairs, enter that door yonder and go up to the second floor. Right in front of you you will see a small brass plate with Sir Hercules' name upon it. Knock on that door two or three times, and I will wait down here to pick up the pieces. I am rather at a loose end this morning and a bit of excitement of that sort would not be unwelcome Sir Hercules is an elderly man, but I assure you not to be trifled with. Now, go on."
THERE was no atmosphere of suspicion or trouble in the calm serenity of Ravenswood. The great house seemed to sleep in the sunshine, the lawns and rose gardens and the great elms behind appeared to be just as they had been any time in the last five hundred years, and, inside that fine old Elizabethan mansion, it was as if nothing had been touched since the days of the Restoration. The same old pictures, the same old furniture, and the same suggestion of refinement and mellowness. For Sir Samuel had been wise enough to take over Ravenswood exactly as it stood, and touched nothing. It was to this small corner of an earthly paradise that he welcomed his guests on the following Saturday afternoon. It was quite a small party—Lady Margaret Severn and her daughter, two prominent city magnates who do not concern the story at all, together with Sir Hercules and his secretary, and last but not least, Stella Ravenhill.
It seemed strange to Stella to stand once more in the great hall with its lantern roof, and the walls adorned with portraits of her own ancestors, but that was not a feeling that she was disposed to encourage. It was emphatically no time for sentimental reminiscences, because she knew only too well that, in all probability, Ravenswood was about to see most of the most remarkable happenings that had ever taken place in its long and eventful history. It was the custom there, as it always had been, to take tea in the great hall during the warmer months, and there Stella was seated with Lady Margaret at the moment when Sir Hercules, accompanied by his secretary, arrived.
She had seen him more than once before, but she had never studied that great gaunt figure with the interest that lighted up her eyes as he came shambling into the hall, and, not ungraciously, paid his respects to his hostess.
"This is quite an honour, Sir Hercules," Lady Margaret said in her pleasant way. "I was always told that you never went anywhere. And yet you might not do better than spend a few days relaxing in such a glorious house as Ravenswood."
"Oh, yes," Sir Hercules agreed. "My friend Sir Samuel assured me that I should not be asked to play the sedulous ape in society surroundings. Not that I don't know a good deal about apes, because they are one of my special studies."
This was by way of humour, and Lady Margaret smiled accordingly. She indicated Stella, who sat by her side.
"I don't think you have met Miss Ravenhill," she said.
Sir Hercules regarded Stella as if she had been some specimen that had hitherto eluded his attention.
"Oh, that is the young woman who used to live here, is it?" he asked. "A friend of my secretary's, unless I am mistaken. How do you do? One of these modern young women, aren't you? Business and all that kind of thing. Queer tribe altogether. Doing a man's work and keeping him out of a job. When I have the time to spare I am going to study what those foolish papers call the sex-war problem. Stop the modern trend if I can, because woman was only made for one purpose."
"And what is that," Lady Margaret asked demurely.
"Look after the house and have children," came the unexpected reply. "Those ancestors of ours weren't such great fools as people take them for. I suppose that is what you would call a rude remark. You take my advice, young woman—throw over your ledgers and get married to some decent young fellow as soon as you can. And put some more clothes on."
With that he turned his back upon Stella and ignored her entirely until the light meal was finished. All the time Lionel had been standing fuming in the background waiting his chance to detach Stella from the rest and lure her into the grounds. He managed to achieve this elementary diplomacy after a time, and breathed more freely when he found himself in the garden with Stella smiling by his side.
"Well, what do you think of the old brute?" he asked. "Nice old gentleman, isn't he?"
"Yes, I suppose that is what you call the eccentricity of genius," Stella laughed. "But let us forget all about him. I don't suppose he will look at me again. I suppose he really is as clever as everybody says. But his manners are certainly not engaging. And yet he strikes me as being simple enough as far as worldliness is concerned. Not at all the type of man who would go out robbing hen roosts."
"I suppose that is a polite way of speaking of diamond mines," Bly suggested. "I see you are still thinking of what I told you when we were having luncheon a day or two ago."
"Of course I am," Stella said. "That is not the sort of thing one would forget especially as I am so interested through my employer. But perhaps you are wrong."
"I wasn't," Bly said. "I am more convinced than ever. Now, within the last eight-and-forty hours I have had more striking proof. I ought not to tell you, but I have said so much that I cannot very well draw back now. I told you that Sir Hercules had no money. I told you he had exhausted all his credit, and that of his friends. When I saw you last he had been threatened with a distraint for a year's rent. And now that rent is paid, not with a cheque, as is the custom, but in notes, which Sir Hercules sent himself to the landlord's agent. He doesn't know that I am aware of the fact because when the receipt came he threw the letter on one side, and I had to open it. There was a letter enclosed with the receipt duly acknowledging £300 in Bank of England notes. Of course, it probably never occurred to Sir Hercules that the fact that it had been paid in notes would be mentioned, or possibly he forgot the matter entirely. He is like that. Most clever and brilliant, but apt, as outstanding criminals often are, to be careless with regard to details. I am not suggesting that he is an outstanding criminal, but it struck me as rather strange that he should have paid his rent himself in that fashion instead of leaving it to me as usual. And that is not the only thing. The day before yesterday there were some heavy accounts to pay, and I was sent with the money to wipe out the debt. Again in notes—running into four figures. Sir Hercules took them out of a safe in his room and more or less chucked them at my head. I am quite sure that there was at least four times that amount under the elastic band. But it was not for me to say anything, so I handed them back without comment. I don't like it, Stella, I don't like it a bit. There is something very wrong going on here, and if I could get another job to-morrow I should jump at it. Then there is another thing. Why did Sir Samuel Oscar ask Slaney to come down here? I can understand him asking you, and, through you, me. But Sir Hercules is not exactly a social ornament and when he gets excited his conversation is apt to be slightly Rabelasian. I mean, he is not adapted for the drawing-room at all. Socially speaking, he is a Yahoo. Then why was he asked down here? Do you suppose that Sir Samuel smelt a rat? I mean, does he suspect something in connection with Slaney and the loss of those diamonds?"
It was a direct question and Stella was utterly at a loss to know how to answer it. Because she knew perfectly well what was in the back of her employer's mind when he extended his hospitality to the great scientist.
It was impossible that she should mention anything of this to Lionel, and, just for a moment or two, she was silent. Then she saw the way.
"I couldn't tell you," she said. "You must see that for yourself, Lionel. When I flatter myself that I am in Sir Samuel's confidence, I couldn't go so far as to say that he tells me everything. Nobody ever does tell other people everything. What a strange world it would be if husbands and wives told each other all their thoughts. It is just possible that Sir Samuel has something in his mind, just as you have something in yours. But even if he told me what it was, I couldn't pass it on to you."
"Oh, that is quite right old lady," Bly agreed cheerfully. "I am not trying to pump you, and even if I were, I am sure that you would not tell any tales out of school. What I want you to feel is that there is something wrong going on here and I am very uneasy about it. And I am quite sure that Sir Samuel has got his own ideas on the subject. However, we won't say anything more about it. Let's have a turn across the park for half an hour before I go back and attend to the old man's correspondence. He has an enormous post-bag, a great deal of it rubbish, but I have to go through it most evenings to see if there is anything in the bushel of chaff that calls for attention."
"I never saw anybody quite like him," Stella said. "At one moment he might be little more than a child, especially with those blue eyes and wonderful teeth of his. And then he changes. It is only a glance or an alteration of expression, but there is something about him that frightens me. I am quite sure he would stick at nothing to gain his own ends."
"You are right there," Bly agreed. "You see, he lives for one thing alone, and that is the regeneration of the dark races. He is quite convinced that, in the course of time, the whole world will be inhabited by whites—there will not be any Chinese or Japs even. A few months ago he began to speak as if he regarded himself as another Messiah, ordained to bring about that wonderful change. I am not quite sure that he doesn't think so still. And then, though he is mild enough when he is working out his problems, he has the most extraordinary outbursts of Berserk rage. Coming down in the train, for instance, he flew out at me like a madman because I had forgotten to bring his newspapers with me. I thought he was going to strike me when I told him I hadn't got the Times. And the first thing he did when he got to the house was to ask for it. Of course, by pure bad luck. Sir Samuel doesn't take the Times. It all meant nothing, but it was very uncomfortable for me, and all the more so because—oh well, never mind. Let us talk about something else. I must be back in the house in half an hour. Let us hope that there won't be any outbursts to-morrow, and then I shall be able to call the day my own."
For some little time the two were immersed in their own affairs, and then, very reluctantly, Bly dragged himself back to the house again. He went alone, because Stella wanted to ramble about the woods that surrounded the park, and renew her acquaintance with many romantic spots which were full of the happy memories of her childhood. It was getting towards 7 o'clock when, at length, she turned her face to the house, passing through a large spinney with a swing gate at either end, and a grass path running down the middle. It was here, as she very well remembered, that she had shot her first pheasant, and she lingered for an instant where the track bent sharply to the right under the very tree where she had stood when she brought her bird down.
And then she had something in the nature of a shock. Just ahead of her she could make out the long, thin figure of Sir Hercules Slaney. He was not alone either, for facing him was a big, black man, almost grotesquely attired in a full morning suit, including the conventional silk hat. It was not so much the dress of the man as its absurdity in those sylvan surroundings that so held Stella's attention. There was very little comedy here, as she was not long in discovering. The two men were quarrelling violently in a dialect that conveyed nothing to Stella, though their heated voices carried far. She saw the black man raise his fist in a threatening manner, and, almost instantly, Sir Hercules was upon him. It was strange to see the elderly scientist with his almost fragile figure handle the big native as if he had been little more than a child. Sir Hercules lifted him off his feet and swung him crashing into a heap of undergrowth, where he lay without attempting to move. After that, Slaney walked on, just as if he had merely removed some crawling reptile from his path, giving it no further thought. Not in the least wanting to be discovered, Stella turned in her tracks and made her way back to the house by another route.
The whole thing was so strange and unexpected that it seemed almost like the fragment of a dream. There was no opportunity to mention the matter to Bly till dinner was past and done with and a move from the table was made. Just at that moment the butler came into the dining-room and with every sign of agitation whispered something in his master's ear.
"Impossible, Jenkins," Sir Samuel said. "Who brought this extraordinary story? Where is he?"
"It's Rawson, the head keeper, sir," Jenkins went on. "He found the man in the Leg of Mutton spinney quite dead. What am I to do about it, sir?"
Sir Samuel ignored the speaker for a moment.
"Here's a pretty story," he said, turning round and addressing his guests in general. "Jenkins says that a nigger has been found dead in the Leg of Mutton spinney."
"Oh," Stella cried, carried away on the impulse of the moment. "Why, before dinner I saw—"
She checked herself and stopped. It would be just as well, it occurred to her, to say nothing for the moment. She was congratulating herself on the fact that nobody had heard her speak when she caught Sir Hercules' eye upon her. Just for a flash, the look on his face was positively murderous in its baffled rage. And then, as instantaneously as if it had been a flash of summer lightning, his whole aspect changed and the mild blue eye and the flashing white teeth might have belonged to an innocent boy.
It was Sir Hercules himself who broke the silence. He spoke smoothly and evenly and as if Sir Samuel had announced something of the most trivial importance.
"Is there anything so wonderful about that, Sir Samuel?" he asked blandly. "I mean, is there anything so wonderful in the fact that a coloured man should be in the neighbourhood?"
"Perhaps not," Oscar agreed. "But when it comes to a dead nigger lying in one of my plantations, then I think you must agree that the thing does assume a sensational aspect. All the more especially as you are my guest."
"Yes, I see what you mean," Slaney said with a smile that showed his flashing teeth. "All sorts of natives come and see me. Even when I am in London I am not free from them, and nearly always they have some sort of a grievance. As a matter of fact, I must have seen the man you are speaking of. I was wandering about the park after my secretary came in to look after the letters and, sure enough, I found myself being followed by one of those fellows. He must have actually tracked me down from London. And, of course, he had a grievance. When I told him to be gone, he became very insolent, and I had to punish him. I threw him into a bed of brushwood and left him there. I only hope I didn't seriously hurt him. Did he appear to be hurt?"
Sir Hercules turned swiftly to the butler as he put the question. All this time Stella was watching him closely. She knew in her heart of hearts that if she had not given Sir Hercules a certain lead when that cry broke from her lips he would never have volunteered that information he had given to his host.
"That is the strange part about it, sir," Jenkins responded. "Rawson says he does not appear to be hurt in the least. There are no marks of violence on the body and no signs of a blow. Just as if the man had lain down and died there."
"Well, I don't see why we should worry about it," Sir Hercules said coolly. "Here, Bly, perhaps you had better take this matter in hand. It is just possible that we might know where the man came from and who he is. See if there are any papers in his possession. I suppose that the keeper had sense enough to send for the nearest doctor."
"I did that, sir," Jenkins said. "I sent Rawson for the doctor at once. We brought the body in and it is now lying in a room over the garage. Dr. Masefield is there now."
Bly, who had not said a word during the strange conversation, rose to his feet and followed Jenkins out. In a sort of empty loft over the garage under the strong rays of the electric light he found the local general practitioner bending over the dead body which lay on a pile of sacking. Bly hailed the doctor cheerfully, for they were old friends, and, indeed, in the bygone days, had been at school together.
"I have just been hearing all about it, Masefield," Bly said. "What do you make of the business?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I can't make anything of it at all," Masefield replied. "Look here, do you know anything about this chap? You have been mixing with niggers during the last few years and that wonderful old chief of yours knows all the African races inside out. And this chap is African beyond the shadow of a doubt. Kafir, I should say, and probably he followed your learned boss down here."
"I should think there is not the slightest doubt about that," Bly agreed. "In fact, Sir Hercules as good as said so. The man accosted him only an hour or two ago and, according to Sir Hercules, was inclined to be insolent. So the old man tossed him aside as if he had been a baby, and thought no more about it. Oh, you can smile, my boy, but though Sir Hercules is quite sixty and looks like a lath, he has the physical strength of half a dozen men. What's that? No, I have never seen the man before, and Sir Hercules says the same thing."
As Bly spoke he bent down to examine the body. Then his whole aspect changed.
"By Jove, I am wrong," he said. "I have seen this chap before. A day or two ago I met him outside Devonshire Mansions, where he approached me. He wanted to see Sir Hercules, and I persuaded him not to. He went off, very dissatisfied, and I didn't give the matter another thought. But this is the fellow right enough. I recognise him by his clothes. Quite the Bond-street get-up. And yet there is something lacking. I suppose that is his topper over there. Yes, that's all right. Soames, of Bond-street—quite the best people. And the patent leathers are correct enough. But the coat is one of those ready-to-wear ones. Not at all bad style, but certainly never came from Savile Row. Here you are, look at the tab, Israels and Co., the Strand. That chap no doubt arrived in London a day or two ago, and lost no time in rigging himself out in all that splendour. Probably he was in a hurry. All this doesn't help us much, Masefield. The question is, what did the man die of?"
"Well, there you have me guessing," the doctor admitted. "There is no sign of violence anywhere. Just a few scratches here and there, but, beyond that no evidence of violence. And you will notice that the scratches though fairly deep on the back of the right hand, are bloodless. I mean that no blood has flowed at all. No bones are broken, there is nothing to suggest a blow, and I am sure there is nothing wrong internally. What beats me is the amazing rigidity of the body. According to the evidence of your chief that man must have been alive up to a couple of hours ago, which means that rigor mortis can have barely set in. And yet the corpse is as stiff as if it had just been taken out of a refrigerator. I never saw anything quite like it before. I may be altogether wrong, but it looks to me like a case of poisoning. I don't mean a poison that is known to the British Pharmacopoeia. There are many poisons of which we know nothing. Native drugs and all that sort of thing. But I can't say anything until I can get in touch with London. There will have to be an inquest following a post mortem, after which I propose to send certain portions of the body to Spilsbury or one of those swells. Altogether a most mysterious case. However, I will get in touch with the coroner and try and arrange for an inquest to take place here some time in the course of Monday."
"Then you think there has been foul play here?"
But Masefield would not commit himself so far.
"I don't say that," he replied. "But there are certain circumstances here that call for investigation."
"I shouldn't wonder if you are right," Bly said. "I have heard a good deal of those mysterious poisons from time to time, though I never saw an actual case. Still, I know that such things do exist, and perhaps when I come to talk the matter over with Sir Hercules he may be able to tell me more."
Bly was about to turn away when his attention was attracted to the fact that the dead man had his right hand tightly clasped, whilst the left was open. In view of the rigidity of the body, this struck him as strange, and he called Masefield's attention to it. The latter took the rigid digits in his own.
"Yes, it is rather strange." he said. "By Jove, I believe he has got something in the palm of his hand."
With that, he manipulated the stiff fingers until they yielded, and something that resembled a tiny pebble fell out on the floor. Masefield gave a grimace of disappointment.
But not so Bly. He pounced upon the stone and held it between thumb and forefinger to the light.
"This is a diamond," he said. "And quite a good one, too. Now, I wonder, Masefield, if you will do me a favour. I would not ask unless I had urgent reasons for doing so. Would you very much object if I asked you to keep this little discovery of mine a secret. You can tell the police if you like, but I think you will be interfering with the course of justice if you allow this find to come out at the inquest. What do you say?"
FOR once in a way the tragedy in the Leg of Mutton spinney attracted but little attention. There was local interest, of course, but nothing in the case calculated to appeal to the sensational Press, and certainly nothing out of which the artists on such periodicals could base an arresting story. It was merely that some wandering coloured man had been found dead in the plantation and that an inquest had been held upon him as a mere matter of form. The gamekeeper who found the body gave evidence, and so also did Sir Hercules Slaney. And the latter had very little to say. He was under the impression that the Kafir had followed him down to Ravenswood to lay some grievance before him. Considering the fact that he was so well known among the native races in Africa there was nothing strange in this. The man had been too excited to be coherent, and when he began to grow abusive the witness had merely thrown him into a pile of undergrowth and had gone his way, thinking no more about it.
All this sounded commonplace enough, as did the evidence of Masefield who followed. Masefield testified to the fact that he could find no signs of violence whatever, though he was rather puzzled to account for the cause of death, and therefore he must decline to give a certificate until he could have the opinion of pathologists in London. Therefore, as a mere matter of form, he would like to have the inquest adjourned, say, for a month. This course was promptly agreed to, and, so far as Ravenswood was concerned, there was an end to the matter. And nobody knew except the police about the diamond which had been discovered in the clenched hand of the dead man and nobody was likely to know unless sensational events followed. Even the police were unaware of the reason why Bly had more or less insisted on their keeping the story of the diamond so profound a secret.
It was late on Monday afternoon before Bly found himself back with his employer in the flat once more. Nor was he particularly annoyed when he was told almost as soon as they arrived at Devonshire Mansions that he would be required to travel as far as Berlin the following afternoon with a view to obtaining certain delicate apparatus from some learned professor there which was so fragile that Sir Hercules was not disposed to trust it through the post. On the whole, Bly was glad to be from under the keen eye of his employer for he had much to occupy his thoughts and he wanted to see his way before he took the next step.
One thing he noticed, and that was the eagerness with which Sir Hercules tumbled out of the train on its arrival at Victoria Station and hurried off to the bookstall, where he asked quite excitedly for a copy of that day's 'Times.' He folded this and thrust it into his overcoat pocket as if it had been something precious. It was the merest, most casual incident, but it was to come back to Bly with considerable force before long.
"Now, you can go off as soon as you like," Sir Hercules said in his most abrupt manner, once he found himself inside the flat again. "Oh, I suppose you want some money. Here is the key of the safe. You had better take thirty pounds, and you need not hurry back if Professor Koch is not quite ready for you. That is all. Never mind about the correspondence."
With that, Sir Hercules turned his back upon his assistant, and Bly went his way. He was at a loose end now for an hour or two, but he would go down to Harwich by a later train and take the night boat to the Hook of Holland. It was 8 o'clock as he stepped into his seat on board the train.
Shortly after 8 on the following morning the postman climbing the stairs at Devonshire Mansions paused in front of the stout oaken outer door of No. 16 and rang the bell. He rang again and again without reply, and then hammered on the door until the staircase rang with the noise of the attack. But there was no response from within, so that presently the postman, after delivering the rest of his letters, went down again into the vestibule and accosted the hall porter.
"Look here, Joe," he said. "I have got a registered letter for the old bloke in No. 16, and though I have pretty well hammered the place down, I can't get any response from the tenant. Do you know if he is away from home?"
"No, 'e ain't," the porter said. "He come in last night about 9, it would be, and spoke to me as 'e went up the steps. 'Adn't been out more than an hour, either, 'cos I see 'im go. A most unusual thing for Sir 'Ercules. Most regular man 'e is, specially at night's. 'E 'as 'is dinner sent in on a tray about 7 and 'e never goes out no more. But last night 'e did. But not for more than an hour, as I tell you. Then back 'e comes and up 'e goes and bangs 'is door, and 'e doesn't come down again. I knows that, because I was 'ere till after midnight and on duty this morning again before 7. 'E must be in."
"Well, all I got to say is as there's something wrong if 'e is," the postman responded. "You just come along o' me."
"I don't think," the porter said. "If this is a case o' trouble, I ain't goin' to shove my 'ead into it. Best thing to do is to call in the nearest policeman."
Five minutes later the postman and the porter, together with the policeman off the nearest point, were hammering on the door of the flat. Then the man in blue went down to the office and telephoned to an inspector, and, a little later on, the outer door of the flat was forced and an entry effected.
In the big room, in the midst of its confusion and dirt and dust and medley of strange appliances, Sir Hercules was discovered on the floor quite dead, his body was strangely twisted and contorted, eloquent testimony to the fact that he had died in intense pain. A few moments later a police surgeon was on the spot and making a comprehensive examination of the body.
"Poison," he said curtly. "The man has been poisoned. Whether by himself or by somebody else it is impossible to say. Speaking off hand, I should suggest a big dose of arsenic. The symptoms are all those of arsenical poisoning. But look here, inspector, from what I have heard of Sir Hercules, he would be the last man in the world to take his own life. I was only reading an appreciation of him the other day in a medical journal. He was on the verge of a stupendous discovery, which was going to revolutionise the coloured-race menace all over the universe. You don't suppose a man who believes he can do that is going to commit suicide? He has been poisoned."
"Do you mean deliberately?" the inspector asked.
"Most assuredly," the doctor said emphatically.
"Well, I am not going to say you are wrong at this stage of the proceedings," the inspector smiled. "But how do you account for the fact that this outer door was bolted and barred when we broke it open? It is impossible for anybody to have entered the flat except in the ordinary way, seeing that it is on the top floor and there is no fire escape. You are not going to suggest that somebody came in and poisoned him and went away again, are you? No, it's deeper than that."
With that the inspector turned sharply to the porter. But the latter's statement was not to be shaken. Sir Hercules had been out between 8 and 9 and the porter had seen him both going and coming. They had even exchanged a few words, so that there was no doubt on this point, and the janitor was equally positive that Sir Hercules had not gone out, and that nobody had paid him a visit between the hours of 9 and midnight. At that time he had gone off duty and his assistant had taken his place. Where was the assistant, the inspector would like to know? The latter was asleep in his bedroom in the basement, and, when aroused, was positive that nobody had gone upstairs in one of the upper flats between midnight and 7 in the morning when the relieving porter came on duty. And he was also prepared to swear positively that nobody had either entered or quitted the block of flats at any moment.
"Um, certainly very strange," the inspector murmured. "I suppose you could not tell us, doctor, exactly when Sir Hercules died. We have it on quite reliable evidence that he was alive at about 9 o'clock, and that nobody had disturbed him. About what hour do you think he passed away?"
"Well that is rather difficult to say," the doctor replied. "But somewhere between 9 and midnight. Rigor mortis must have set in some hours ago—say five. Beyond that I am not prepared to go, but I don't think I am far wrong."
"Then you think it is a case of suicide?"
"I am not going to say that," the doctor said cautiously. "Fact is, I don't see how it can possibly be."
The inspector was decidedly of the same opinion. He made a careful examination of the room and the apartments beyond without finding the slightest possibility whereby a second party could have made an entrance to the flat and got away without being seen, the more especially as when the front door was forced the key had been unmistakably turned in the lock and both bolts shot.
"It seems to me," the Inspector said thoughtfully, "that this is going to be a big affair. The mere fact that Sir Hercules had a world-wide reputation is bound to add to the public interest. The man himself was more or less of a mystery, I understand, living for one purpose alone, which purpose he had not as yet achieved. But as far as I know, he was on the verge of it. I don't take much interest in such matters, but there has been so much talk lately that even the man in the street has been discussing Sir Hercules' wonderful discovery. But surely Sir Hercules had friends or am I to understand that he lived here alone?"
"That he did, sir," the porter interrupted. "Never did he have a servant—not even a charwoman. 'E did for 'imself and cooked most of 'is own meals."
"But surely he had a secretary or something like that?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Mr. Lionel Bly. Very nice gentleman, too. Been in foreign parts a lot, I am told. You see, he travelled with Sir Hercules everywhere, and always went abroad with him. Only just come back. At least, only a few days."
"And you have seen no suspicious people hanging about?"
The porter shook his head vigorously.
"Not one, sir," he declared emphatically. "Sir 'Ercules 'e come back yesterday afternoon along o' Mr. Bly, and 'e goes straight up to 'is flat, and there 'e stays until 'e goes out at about 8 o'clock. And, as I told you before, 'e comes back about 9 o'clock full o' beans and walking like a young man, and then I 'ears 'im bang 'is door be'ind 'im."
"And what about this Mr. Bly?" the inspector asked.
"Oh, yes, sir. Mr. Bly was with Sir 'Ercules when they comes back yesterday afternoon, and I suppose 'e'd be in the flat about an hour. Then 'e comes down cheerful enough, and whistling and passes the time o' day with me. A rare pleasant gentleman 'e is, and always a good word for everybody."
"Did anything pass between you?"
"Well, yes, it did, now I comes to think of it," the porter went on. "'E says to me, 'e says, 'If you sees any suspicious people knocking about 'ere, keep an eye on 'em, especially coloured men or foreigners.' And, of course, I said I would. And 'e goes on to say 'e was on 'is way to Berling, and wouldn't be back for a day or two. That was why 'e wanted me to keep my eyes open and see that Sir 'Ercules was not disturbed."
With that the porter had no more to say. There was nothing more for it, therefore, than to lock up the flat and seal the outer door, pending an inquest, which the inspector said would in all probability take place the next day. Then he went away in a thoughtful mood and face to face with a problem which was as strange and intricate as anything he had come across in five and twenty years' experience. It was so big a thing and so important that he went off, at once, to Scotland Yard to lay all the information that he had obtained before his superiors.
And then, in that strange mysterious way in which the Press contrives to got hold of such sensational items, the mystery of Devonshire Mansions began to loom large in the earlier editions of the evening papers. They had naturally made the most of it, so that by afternoon the one topic of conversation, even in business circles, was the strange death of that mysterious scientist, Sir Hercules Slaney.
The information percolated into the offices of the Maggersfont Diamond Company about half-past 3. Outside the newsboys were heard shouting the headlines of the latest tragedy. Seated at his desk, Sir Samuel Oscar heard the name mentioned, and at once sent out a clerk for an evening paper. He read the column or so of sketchy details, and, once he had mastered these, he rang his bell and Stella immediately entered.
"Have you seen anything of this?" he asked.
Evidently Stella had heard nothing, so Sir Samuel threw the paper across the table to her and asked her to read. Once having done so, she waited for Sir Samuel to speak.
"A most remarkable affair, my dear," he said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, there is much more here than meets the eye. Here we have, first of all, the mysterious death of that nigger at Ravenswood, after he had been seen talking to Sir Hercules, and now within a few hours Sir Hercules shares the same fate. And the queer part is that both these people have died mysteriously, and in somewhat similar circumstances. You have not forgotten, of course, that Dr. Masefield refused to certify the cause of that negro's death. You remember that, don't you?"
"Why, of course," Stella said. "Dr. Masefield said the man had died of some mysterious poison which was not known to our toxicologists. I wonder if Sir Hercules met his death through the same mysterious drug?"
"That is the very question I am asking myself," Sir Samuel said. "The papers can say what they like, but that man never committed suicide. He is the very last man in the world to do so. Why should he, when he was on the verge of a stupendous discovery and just when he was about to crown the work of a lifetime? You may depend upon it, my dear child, that when proper investigations come to be made it will be proved that Sir Hercules and the nigger died from the same irritant. Of course, it is just possible that Sir Hercules was trying some dangerous experiment, but it is very doubtful. I feel quite convinced that this diamond smuggling is at the bottom of the whole thing. We have Sir Hercules' own testimony to the fact that this coloured man followed him down to Ravenswood and that they had words. But he never told us what those words were. Now, my dear child, can you throw any light on the matter?"
Stella hesitated just for a moment. Should she or should she not tell her employer all she knew? Would such a course be loyal to Lionel Bly? And then, all at once, the mist cleared away she saw the way plainly before her.
"Yes, I think I can," she said. "I am going to tell you everything. You know the relationship in which I stand to Lionel Bly. I don't want to do him any harm, but, at the same time I don't want to hold anything back. Now, Lionel told me certain things. Strangely enough, he had the same opinion about Sir Hercules as you have. He was quite sure that Sir Hercules made his way into the compound of the diamond fields with the intention of robbing the Corporation in any way that proved to be possible. You see Sir Hercules was exceedingly short of money, in fact, he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He owed some thousands of pounds, and when he got back to London he was expecting at any moment that his landlord would put an execution into the flat for a years rent. And then, suddenly, he became the possessor of thousands of pounds. There was a considerable sum of money locked up in his safe."
"Oh, indeed. Did Bly tell you that?"
"Certainly he did," Stella said candidly. "It was this fact that worried Lionel. He was quite convinced that Sir Hercules could never have obtained that money honestly. And Sir Hercules was not the man to stop at anything where his life's work was concerned. No doubt he was absolutely standing still for money when temptation came in his way. Lionel thinks that the temptation was offered to Sir Hercules by some brilliant international crook, who handled the stolen stones and passed his share over to Sir Hercules. That is, of course, after the stones had been disposed of. The idea would be for Sir Hercules to use his great influence to get into the compound, and there bribe certain of the Kafir workers, which would not be a difficult matter. And then Sir Hercules would walk out with the stones in his pocket and hand them over to his confederates, who, no doubt, knew exactly what to do with them. That is Lionel's idea."
"And, by Jove, Bly is not far wrong," Sir Samuel said. "There is no other way of explaining how Sir Hercules found himself in possession of all that money. Now, I wonder if that unfortunate black who died so suddenly at Ravenswood was one of the Kafirs in the Maggersfont Mine?"
"But that would hardly be possible," Stella pointed out. "The man M'Papo, who is probably in England by this time, would hardly be the class of native capable of arraying himself in Bond Street fashions such as the dead black did."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Sir Samuel smiled. "Some of those Kafirs are fairly well educated. I know that because I have been out in South Africa more than once. Lots of them speak quite good English, and many of them nowadays live in houses of their own. I know Kafirs who are well off, and they are passionately fond of fine clothes. There is nothing they love better than rigging themselves up like an Englishman. Of course, I don't know anything about this particular man M'Papo, but if he had been down to Capetown, or even to Kimberley, like a good many others of the clan, he might possibly have seen an official turned out in top hat and all the rest of it on a ceremonial occasion, and fallen in love with his kit. Do you know, Stella, I am beginning to have a very shrewd suspicion that the dead man at Ravenswood and M'Papo are one and the same."
"Oh, impossible," Stella cried.
"My dear young lady, why impossible? The more I think of it, the more probable it seems. And he had plenty of time to get here. Moreover, we know that he was in possession of ample funds. Washburn's letter confirms that. Now, for some reason or another, it was absolutely necessary for M'Papo to see Sir Hercules. How he traced him down to Ravenswood I don't know, but that would be comparatively easy. Anyway, he did trace Sir Hercules down there and they had a quarrel. And it wasn't a quarrel over a grievance, either, I am inclined to think that the quarrel related to the King Diamond."
"But no one has ever seen the King Diamond," Stella protested. "The whole thing is no more than a tradition."
"Perhaps so. But then, don't forget that rumours were running all round the compound to the effect that a huge stone which the natives called the King Diamond had been found. If so, what became of it? Where is it at the present moment? Just as a mere theory I suggest that M'Papo brought it to England with him, having smuggled it out of South Africa, and that he had got it on his person when he met Sir Hercules in the wood and they had their quarrel. It might have changed hands then."
"Perhaps I had better tell you everything," Stella said.
With that, she went on to describe the scene she had witnessed in the spinney on the edge of Ravenswood Park and exactly what had happened in the dining-room after dinner. She described in detail how she had betrayed herself and how quickly Sir Hercules had realised the fact that she had witnessed the quarrel.
"And that is about all," she concluded. "But it seems to bear out exactly what you think."
"I am quite in agreement with you," Sir Samuel said. "I am sure the whole business is connected with the King Diamond. A day or two ago, I was disposed to regard the story as a myth, but now I am not so sure. My idea is that the King Diamond is somewhere, but not in Sir Hercules' flat."
"But why shouldn't it be?" Stella asked.
"Because it has been stolen," Sir Samuel said crisply. "It was stolen by the man who murdered Sir Hercules. How that murder was done we shall probably never know, but in my considered opinion, the big thief behind the whole conspiracy managed in some way to get into the flat and did Sir Hercules to death."
"But why?" Stella asked.
"Because he knew that Sir Hercules had the King Diamond and because he wanted to gain possession of it and keep the whole proceeds to himself. That is why. The sort of man, evidently, who plays the game with his partner in crime up to a certain point and then, when the big temptation comes, puts him out of the way. What the police want to do is to look out for a man who has a big diamond to dispose of. Now, my dear child, you know an well as I do that great stones are not so easy to dispose of. A sale of a diamond of that description is bound to be talked about, and though the King Diamond couldn't be traced to the Maggersfont or any other mine, it certainly labels the man who possesses it. I think that I will put on my hat and go as far as Scotland Yard."
With which, Sir Samuel had a taxi called and drove off at once to the headquarters of the police.
IT was just on the hour of six on Wednesday evening that Stella, coming down into Bishopsgate-street, was surprised to see Bly on the pavement awaiting her.
"Lionel," she cried. "I thought you were away in Germany. How did you get back so quickly."
"Well, that wasn't very difficult," Bly said.
"You see, I read all about this dreadful business in one of the German papers when I was having my breakfast yesterday morning. The 'Tageblatt,' I believe it was. There was quite a lot about Sir Hercules, including an obituary. You see, he being a great scientist, the Germans would naturally be interested. Anyway, I packed up my bag and came back as quickly as possible. And I went to Berlin to get some appliances and some test tubes containing a certain bacteriological cult. But I forgot all about those, and—well—here I am. Let us go somewhere where we can talk."
So saying, Bly hailed a taxi and whirled Stella off in the direction of the West End, and there over an early dinner, they discussed the tragic events of the last few days.
"Do you know, Lionel, I am afraid I have acted rather treacherously towards you," Stella confessed. "When you told me how disturbed you were with regard to Sir Hercules and all that money I actually knew all about it. But I could not say anything at the time, because it would be betraying confidence."
"What exactly do you mean by that?" Bly asked.
"Well, because Sir Samuel had exactly the same ideas as you. He was quite convinced—indeed, he had practically proved—that Sir Hercules was abusing his hospitality over the diamond mines and actually corrupting the natives. We had that from our manager, and subsequent events have proved it. So when this dreadful affair happened, I felt it my positive duty to tell Sir Samuel the story that you confided in me. I hope you don't mind. And, anyway, it doesn't matter now that Sir Hercules is dead."
"Oh, that is right enough," Bly said moodily. "I dare say we shall be able to save the poor old man's memory. What strikes me as being so remarkable is the fact that the nigger and Sir Hercules should have died within a few hours of one another. It looks to me as if some evil power existed in the background of which nobody knows anything at present."
"That is exactly what Sir Samuel believes," Stella went on. "He is quite sure that some international scoundrel lured Sir Hercules on to commit himself for the sake of the money he needed to carry out his experiments, and that there is still a bigger prize in the way of an immense diamond which this shadowy thief has managed to get away with."
"You don't mean the King Diamond?" Bly smiled. "Of course I heard all about that legend yonder."
"Indeed I do," Stella said earnestly. "Sir Samuel is now convinced that it actually exists and that it was in Sir Hercules' possession at the time of his death. It was indirectly the cause of his death."
"You mean he was murdered on account of it?"
"That is Sir Samuel's impression. He may be wrong, of course, but the theory is at least ingenious. I told Sir Samuel all you told me, and he has been to Scotland Yard. What happened there I don't know. I dare say he will tell me in time, but so much he did say. He said that he thought you might be able to help. He would like to see you some time to-morrow. I think the best time would be just after lunch. Knowing all about Sir Hercules's affairs, as you did, and having been with him all the time that diamond thieving was going on, Sir Samuel is under the impression that you might be able to do a good deal. He wants to punish the murderer, and get that stone back again. He is quite sure the stone exists, and he has brought me round to the same opinion. It isn't that he is so anxious to get it back as to probe the mystery to the bottom, and prevent anything of the sort occurring again. What he said was this—if you can manage to solve the problem and recover the King Diamond, he is prepared to divide the proceeds with you. Oh, Lionel, if you could do anything like that what a wonderful thing it would be."
"It would indeed," Bly laughed bitterly. "But do you realise, my dearest kid, that you and I are further apart than ever?"
"What do you mean by that?" Stella faltered.
"Oh, I think you know," Bly went on. "Anyway, I am out of a job now, and it is going to take me all my time to find another one. It was a comfortable enough post, and fairly well paid, but not enough to keep a wife on. And now I have nothing. You wouldn't like me to live on your salary, I suppose?"
Stella laughed, but none too happily.
"It would be quite sufficient, with economy," she said demurely. "Now, don't look at me like that, Lionel, I was only joking. And I have seen too much of the world to build up any hopes on the strength of the King Diamond. It would be all very well in a romance, but then our little romance has been on rather the sordid side up to now. Still, such things do happen, even in this prosaic world, and you might have a stroke of luck."
"I might," Bly agreed. "But since your employer has consulted the police, and probably told them all about Sir Hercules's little peccadilloes, my chance of bringing off anything spectacular has become an exceedingly slender one. All the same, I will come round to-morrow afternoon and see Sir Samuel."
Accordingly, Bly presented himself to Bishopsgate-street the following afternoon, where he was received by Sir Samuel, who immediately led up to the matter in hand.
"Very glad you have come, Bly," he said. "I badly wanted to have a chat with you on this unfortunate matter. There is no occasion to waste time in preliminary talk, since Miss Ravenhill tells me that your suspicions and mine are in line. Now, do you think that you can help me?"
"In what particular way?" Bly asked.
"Well, in getting to the bottom of this extraordinary complication. I don't doubt for a moment that the nigger was murdered any more than I doubt that Sir Hercules was the victim of foul play. They were both got out of the way by a third person whose interest it was to steer them from his path. I am sure, if we could get any evidence of identity, that the dead man down at Ravenswood is none other than that scoundrel M'Papo. Did you ever happen to see him in Africa?"
"No, I am sorry to say I didn't," Bly explained. "One nigger in his native garb is very much like another, but the man lying at Ravenswood is the same native I encountered in London a few days ago. But I suppose Stella told you all about that."
"Oh, yes," Sir Samuel said. "Go on."
"Well, let us assume for a moment that it is M'Papo who is no more and that he followed Sir Hercules down to Ravenswood with the intention of having something out with him. Let us take that for granted, because everything points that way. And, before I go any further, let me tell you another thing which even Stella doesn't know, or Scotland Yard, either, for the matter of that. At least, I presume not. When Masefield was making an examination of the body I noticed that the right hand was closely clasped, whilst the left was open and rigid. I suggested to Masefield that there was something in the palm of the hand and he manage to coax the fingers apart. And, surely enough, there we found a diamond which must have been worth at least £100. The stone was handed over to the police with the suggestion that they should say nothing about it, and the fact was not mentioned at the inquest. But it struck me as a very significant discovery."
"By Jove, you are right there," Sir Samuel cried. "It seems to prove my contention up to the hilt. Now, look here, Bly, I am going to get to the bottom of this and I am not going to rest until I am assured that there is no truth in the story of the King Diamond or otherwise. And you are going to act as my agent in the matter. I will give you an entirely free hand, and if you think it is necessary for you to go out to South Africa and make investigations, then I shall be quite ready to foot the bill. But that is entirely for you to say. I will give you the same salary that you had with Sir Hercules, plus any out-of-pocket payments that you may have to make. And, more than that, if you recover the King Diamond, then we divide the proceeds between us. Now, what do you say to my offer?"
There was only one thing to be said and Bly promptly said it.
"No occasion to thank me," Sir Samuel interrupted with a characteristic wave of his hand. "It is a business transaction altogether. I needed a man for a certain purpose, and you happen to be just the individual I require to fill the vacancy."
"Very likely," Bly said. "But I don't think I should have been so lucky if it hadn't been for Stella."
"Well, perhaps not. You see, I have the highest regard for that young woman. She is as clever as she is beautiful and well-bred enough for both. Oh, you need not blush, my boy, I know all about it. And if I was twenty years younger I would see you hanged before I put this chance in your way. Now then! Get on with it and don't come near me again until you have something to report. When I say that, I mean I don't want to be interrupted with all sorts of trivial details."
Bly went away much easier in his mind. It was a big task that he had before him and probably an impossible one. But, at any rate, the immediate future was provided for and he was the last man in the world to meet trouble half-way. Still, he was looking for something which might not even exist and, in the end, failure might crown his efforts.
The first thing was to obtain admission to the flat in Devonshire Gardens, and for this purpose he would have to apply to the authorities at Scotland Yard. Still, in the circumstances, this part ought to prove fairly easy.
AS was only to be expected, the tragic death of Sir Hercules Slaney caused a tremendous sensation in certain circles. To the ordinary man in the street it read more as a case of suicide on the part of a distinguished and brilliant man of science. But there were others who held a contrary view. But as to that the general public would have to wait. There had been a more or less informal inquiry on the day following the discovery of Sir Hercules's body, but this had been adjourned sine die at the request of the police.
No evidence beyond the finding of the corpse and its identification had been tendered at the opening proceedings, so that when Bly came to scan the papers with a view to obtaining certain information, he gleaned little for his pains. He was rather surprised that the police had made no attempt to discover his whereabouts, seeing that he was the one man in the world who knew all about the inner life of the deceased, so next morning he went down to Scotland Yard, and, after handing in his card, asked to see the individual who had the case in hand. A few minutes later he found himself in a plainly furnished office, sitting with Inspector James Paradine and Chief Constable Edgar Morrit, who informed him that they had the case in hand.
"We are very pleased to see you, Mr. Bly," Paradine said. "Of course, we should have looked you up before this had we been less busy concerning certain details which have come to our knowledge. You were Sir Hercules's private secretary, were you not?"
Bly replied in the affirmative. He did not want to tell these men too much, and yet, at the same time, he had no desire to conceal material facts. In a certain sense these men were his opponents. If there was any truth in the story of the King Diamond, then they might have heard the legend, in which case they would be as keen on finding the great stone as he was himself. And if so, then his reward would vanish into thin air. It seemed to him that he would have to feel his way very carefully.
"I have been with Sir Hercules for some years now," he said. "Mind you, gentlemen, I am no scientist myself, so I can tell you very little about the great experiment Sir Hercules was working on at the time of his death."
"Oh, we know all about that," Morrit said. "Wasn't it some crazy idea of eliminating the coloured races by turning them into whites? At least, that is what we gather from a conversation we have had with some of the learned professors at London University. It might have been the dream of a madman, or it might have been practical politics. But, for the moment, we are not concerned with that. What we have to do is to find out the enemy who murdered Sir Hercules for some reason of his own. Sir Samuel Oscar, who has consulted us in another connection more or less embraced by the same case, has a theory that the murder was the result of a quarrel between Sir Hercules and some unknown person with regard to some diamonds which were stolen from the Maggersfont Diamond Corporation."
"Oh, Sir Samuel told you that, did he?" Bly asked. "Well, to be quite candid with you, that is my own opinion. Did Sir Samuel happen to mention some particular diamond?"
"No, he didn't," Paradine struck in. "He spoke generally to the effect that Sir Hercules had abused his confidence and had trafficked with the natives with a view to obtaining funds to carry on with his experiments. Now you would know, Mr. Bly. Was Sir Hercules really short of money?"
Bly breathed a little more easily. Up to a certain point, Sir Samuel had confided in the authorities, but so far he had made no mention of the King Diamond. And Bly saw no reason why they should be enlightened, at least, not at this stage of the proceedings. It might be necessary to do so in the interests of Justice later on, but, meanwhile, there was no reason whatever why that secret should not remain his own.
"Well, at the actual time of his death, Sir Hercules was in funds," he said, readily enough. "But for some time previous he hardly knew where to turn for money. This I know, because I was constantly with him, not only in South Africa, but when we were in London. Sir Hercules was being hard pressed by his creditors, especially during the last week or two, and then, all at once, he seemed to be in the possession of thousands."
"Where did they come from?" Morrit asked.
"Ah that I cannot tell you. You see, for all I handled Sir Hercules's correspondence, I was never at his flat early enough in the morning to open the first delivery of letters. I mean those that arrive at about 8 o'clock. My idea is that Sir Hercules received that money in notes a day or two before his death, and that they came by registered post. You can find out if the postman delivered that registered letter some time early last week better than I can."
"We have already done so," Paradine smiled. "Your supposition is quite correct. But, unfortunately, we have no idea whatever where the letter came from and what the postmark was. The postman says it was a bulky package in a large folio envelope."
"Yes, that is right," Bly said. "You may depend upon it the envelope in question contained a number of bank notes. You will find the rest of them in Sir Hercules's safe."
"We have already done so," Morrit said. "There must have been over £5000 in big notes. Now, Mr. Bly, where do you suppose those notes came from?"
"Of that I have not the slightest idea," Bly said. "But I would suggest that they were sent by the confederate who helped Sir Hercules to smuggle those diamonds out of the mine. It is a dreadful accusation to make against a dead man, but I should be deceiving you if I didn't speak my mind. Sir Hercules was a monomaniac on the subject of discovery. I don't believe he would have stopped at murder to obtain the necessary funds with which to complete his life's work. And now, gentlemen, I am here to help you as far as I can. I don't want you to tell me anything you are averse to discussing with me, but I should like to get to the bottom of this business, and possibly I may be able to help you. Have you any idea as to how Sir Hercules died? I mean, how did he come to meet with his death?"
The two detectives exchanged glances. Then Paradine nodded his head and Morrit took up the conversation.
"There is no reason why we should not tell you that much," he said. "It will come out at the inquest, I mean the adjourned inquest, and I think we can trust you, Mr. Bly. A post-mortem examination of the body disclosed the fact that Sir Hercules died of an overdose of arsenic. He had taken enough of that poison to kill a dozen men. At least, the police surgeon says so, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of his statement."
"Most remarkable," Bly exclaimed. "I suppose the theory is that Sir Hercules committed suicide?"
"Well, on the face of it," Paradine smiled, "we could come to no other conclusion. Here is a man found dead in his flat, the outer door, which appears to have been specially fitted—"
"It was," Bly interrupted. "Sorry."
"Yes, I quite understand," the detective went on. "He did not want to he interrupted. Well, that door was burst open. It was bolted, top and bottom, and the latch was down. Moreover, it was the only possible way in which anybody could get into the flat, otherwise than by the front door. The mystery is further complicated by the evidence of the hall porter and his assistant. The hall porter saw Sir Hercules go out at somewhere about eight o'clock, and come back somewhere round nine, apparently in the best of health and spirits. Both the porters are prepared to swear that Sir Hercules had no visitor between the time he got hack and the hour the body was discovered on the following morning. In the face of evidence like that, I don't see how a jury could bring in any verdict besides suicide."
"But you don't believe it was suicide," Bly said shrewdly.
"No, we don't," Morrit said. "Taking all the circumstances of the situation, we are of opinion that suicide is out of the question. A man who is about to startle the world with an epoch-making discovery would scarcely take his own life just as the very moment that he had achieved a triumph."
"Yes, and more than that," the other officer put in. "We have a piece of evidence that knocks the suicide theory endways. Here, I will show it to you."
With that, the speaker unlocked a desk and produced a sheet of paper which he passed over to Bly.
"I think you have seen that writing before," he said.
"Undoubtedly," Bly responded. "That is Sir Hercules's handwriting. It is on his own paper with the Devonshire Mansions heading. And from the date, appears to have been written on the very night that he died."
"Quite correct, Mr. Bly. Perhaps you will read the letter, and tell us what you think of it."
With almost breathless interest Bly read the score or more lines which made up the communication in question. It was addressed formally to the Editor of the 'Times,' and visioned a stupendous discovery, which was going to revolutionise the world. The writer spoke enthusiastically of his years of effort, and how, at length, he had solved the colour problem which in the course of time, threatened the peace of the whole world. At the bottom of the first sheet the letter ended abruptly, with the words "therefore, sir, I propose—" and after that no more.
"Well, what do you think of that?" Paradine asked when Bly had read the letter for the third time. "I ask you, does that look like a man who intended to commit suicide? It was evidently the beginning of what was intended to be a long letter for insertion in our premier journal. Sir Hercules had reached the point where the letter breaks off and then something happened, something unexpected and tragic that prevented the letter from ever being finished."
"But what did happen?" Bly asked.
"Ah, that we have to decide," Morrit said. "It is quite evident that Sir Hercules was sitting down writing the letter when the blow fell. And what sort of a blow it was we may never discover. One fantastic idea that occurs to me is that Sir Hercules was strangled or partially strangled by some one in the flat who was working with a pair of padded gloves. The sort of things that leave no mark. Then, when the victim was more or less unconscious, a capsule containing a fatal dose of arsenic was forced down his throat. Of course, the idea was to convey positive evidence of suicide."
"Yes, but—" Bly interrupted.
"Oh, I know what you are going to say. What about the bolted and barred door, and how did the man who had hidden himself in the flat succeed in getting away when the porter was downstairs? You see, he would have to get upstairs and down again. We have examined the porter and his assistant, and there is no shaking their evidence on that point. We both feel convinced that Sir Hercules was murdered, despite evidence to the contrary, and we base our supposition on that letter. Now, Mr. Bly, is there any way in which you can help us?"
"That," said Bly, "is what I am here to find out. I have to thank you for so candidly taking me into your confidence and I need hardly say that I will do everything in my power to assist you. In fact, I came here for that purpose. Perhaps if I could have a few hours by myself in the flat and the opportunity of thoroughly overhauling Sir Hercules's papers, I might hit upon something. Still, if you object to that—"
Once more the two detectives exchanged glances.
"I don't think so," Morrit said at length. "So far as I am concerned, you can have the key and the run of the flat for as long as you like. We have taken away all we want for the present, and we have had the front door of the flat properly repaired. You probably have a latchkey of your own."
"Certainly I have," Bly explained. "I was under the impression that you had sealed up the flat. But, seeing that you no longer have your seal on it, I think I will go and have a look round. I suppose I can go in and out as I like."
With this assurance, Bly went his way, and a little while later found himself within those dark and dingy rooms at the top of Devonshire Mansions. He proceeded to pull up the blinds and let in the sunshine so that he could see everything about him, and, at the same time, dissipate the sinister atmosphere that hung over the place like a cloud. And then there arose a hideous clamour that fairly startled him for a moment.
"By Jove, the rats!" he exclaimed. "I expect the poor brutes are starving."
He pushed his way into the small inner room and opened the window to let out the appalling smell that suffocated him like a gas attack. The sinister little creatures were climbing up and down the bars of their cages in a state of frantic hunger. It was some time before Bly could fill up the food troughs and the little water wells, after which the clamour subsided so that he could go back to the scene of the tragedy and begin his investigations. For a long time there was nothing to reward his intimate search. For the best part of three hours he pored over piles of correspondence and scores of letters, none of which threw the slightest light on the tragedy.
Here was everything, just as Sir Hercules had left it. His papers on the desk, a litter of apparatus all over the big table in the centre of the room, on the mantelshelf a pile of unopened packs of patience cards. On a little table between two windows more cards set out in the form of a problem. Bly noted vaguely that there was a complete pack of them, and that they were arrayed neatly in rows upon the table. There was nothing in this, because, as Bly very well knew, Sir Hercules had been in the habit of seeking relaxation in a game of patience whenever he found himself up against some knotty problem in his experiments. It was just a letting down of nervous tension, and Bly had seen his late employer sometimes for hours together playing with the diminutive cards as if his whole future depended upon it. Then suddenly he would cast them on one side and rush back to the big table again under stress of some sudden inspiration.
For some minutes Bly stood gazing moodily down upon the series of pictures that lay before him. Then, for the first time, he noticed something that he had never seen before.
All the cards were numbered!
In the corner of the whole fifty-two of them were the numerals from one to the full number and then again a printed letter in the left-hand top corner of each which letter had been placed just above the numbers. In other words, the whole alphabet twice over. There was nothing in this at the first sight to attract attention until Bly remembered that he had never seen such numbering and lettering on a patience problem before. It was just possible, he thought, that Sir Hercules had been spending his spare moments in inventing a new problem. And yet, on reflection, that scarcely seemed possible, as Sir Hercules had been in the habit of obtaining his problems from a sort of club, nor was he the kind of man who would waste his time inventing problems when he could buy as many as he liked for a few pence each. No, it was quite evident that those numbers and letters had some real significance.
Bly wandered across from the little table to the desk and there, for the first time, he noticed a copy of Monday's 'Times.' It was folded again and again as if to place in an overcoat pocket. Beyond doubt, it was the copy of the premier journal which Sir Hercules had bought with such frenzied eagerness at Victoria Station on the previous Monday afternoon when he and his secretary had got back to London following the inquiry into the death of the mysterious negro whose body had been found in the Leg of Mutton spinney at Ravenswood. And then, half unconsciously, it flashed across Bly's mind that this eagerly sought newspaper might conceal some clue to the mystery.
He switched on the lights overhead, and spread out the paper on one corner of the big table. There was nothing in the inner sheets, but the outer page was stained with some sort of acid. And just above this stain was an announcement in the Agony Column written entirely in cipher. Bly ran his eye down this in a vague, uncertain way, then pulled up with a start.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I wonder if this has got anything to do with it. The very day of the tragedy, too! I must go into this. But it isn't going to be easy."
The point that had attracted his attention lay in the fact that at the beginning of the cipher, which was entirely in figures, were the words 'White Rat,' and at the end of it another single word, 'Patience.' Just that, and nothing more.
It might be nothing and it probably was. Yet it seemed a strange thing that somebody under the pseudonym of 'White Rat' should be corresponding with another person using the appellation of 'Patience' through the Agony Column of 'The Times.' Because here in the flat itself was a patience problem numbered and lettered, and, under the same roof at least, half a dozen cases of white rats in various stages of adolescence. He might be wrong, Bly thought, but, at any rate, it seemed to him that here was a matter that was well worthy of investigation. Once more he went back to the small table, where the whole pack of cards was laid out, and then he noticed for the first time that they were lying there in suits, beginning from the top with clubs, ranging from ace to two and then just on in the same order with spades, followed by diamonds and hearts. No doubt, they had been placed in this order so that Sir Hercules could read 'The Times' cipher all the more easily, and Bly was confirmed in his opinion by the numbers on the cards and the corresponding letters of the alphabet over them.
No sooner had this dawned upon him than he had another idea. He searched about until he found a pile of four or five copies of 'The Times' in sequence neatly placed one upon the other on the floor. This bit of neatness on Sir Hercules' part was so unlike the distinguished scientist that it struck Bly as being little more than significant. He turned over the pile carefully until he came on a copy of the paper dated three or four days before in which he discovered another of the ciphers. And this was headed exactly as the later one save that the words at either end were transposed. That is to say, not 'White Rat' and 'Patience' this time, but 'Patience' and 'White Rat.' Moreover, the first cipher was much shorter than the other, and not half the length, and ended with a note of interrogation.
It needed no great intelligence to grasp the fact that cipher number one contained a query addressed to some unknown individual, and that cipher number two was an answer to that question. Then it seemed only logical to deduce that there was somebody asking a question or making an assignation, the reply to which appeared in Monday's issue of the journal. Moreover, Bly knew now that Sir Hercules had gone out on Monday night for an hour or so, which was entirely contrary to his usual custom; indeed, he had never known him to do such a thing before ever since they had been together in London.
So far, the matter was encouraging enough, but there was a long road to hoe before Bly could feel that he was on the track of something likely to be of the least importance.
And then he had another inspiration. There were twenty-six cards on the table which corresponded with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Evidently, then, each card represented a distinct letter. But then why were there fifty-two cards on the table? The solution when it flashed upon Bly's mind was so simple that he could have kicked himself.
Of course, half the the cards represented the capitals, and the other half the small letters. Once this was established, Bly began to see his way. By referring to the letters and numerals he could see that he was on the right path. Then he sat down to work out the puzzle in grim earnest.
BUT though Bly worked unceasingly until his head ached and his eyes began to grow tired, he could not get to the bottom of the cipher. He was puzzled again and again at different points, more especially when figures took the place of words like Ace and King, and then reverted again to numerals. Finally, he gave up the task, and contented himself with a little scheme of his own. He took a couple of packs of unopened patience cards from the pile on the mantelpiece, and put them in his pocket. Then, very carefully, on a sheet of notepaper, he made a list of the cards in exactly the same order as they lay on the table, with the numbers and letters in the corners. Here he had a facsimile of the patience problem for his own private delectation, so that he could go on with his investigations in the quietude of his rooms. He made a note of the date of the two copies of the 'Times' that contained the puzzling cipher with the intention of ordering duplicates from his newsagent.
At any rate, he would disturb absolutely nothing in the room, but it was long odds that the police would attach no significance to the cards on the little table, nor, in all probability, would they trouble to search the files of the 'Times.' It might be necessary later on in the interests of justice to tell the police what he had discovered, but, meanwhile, there was nothing to gain by conveying such scrappy information as he had gathered to the people at Scotland Yard. They might or might not lay their hands eventually upon the man who had murdered Sir Hercules, that is if he was murdered at all, but that would not aid in the finding of the King Diamond. And the discovery of that more or less mythical stone meant such a lot to Bly and the woman be loved. He would put the thing out of his mind till tomorrow. Nothing was to be gained by hurry, and now that he was no longer concerned with Sir Hercules's affairs he had all the time he needed before him. He replaced everything exactly as he had found it, and then, having succeeded in getting hold of Paradine on the flat telephone, and telling that individual that his labours had been in vain—which was no more than the truth—he closed the door of the flat, and went back to his lodgings.
It was just after lunch on the following day when he called at Bishopsgate-street and asked to see Sir Samuel in regard to some small matter connected with the case. Sir Samuel was in his private room, and would see him at once.
"Well, anything to report?" the latter asked.
"Nothing, so far," Bly replied. "But I don't mind telling you that I have got hold of a clue. It is a very slender one at present, and, if you don't mind, sir, I would rather not discuss it with you until I am more sure of my ground."
"Oh, quite right, quite right," Sir Samuel agreed. "All the same, I am glad you came round, because I have got a little thing here which I think may be of assistance to you. Very strange how the most trivial circumstances often turn out of the utmost importance. I was dining with some friends last night, and the mystery of Slaney's death cropped up. Very naturally in the circumstances; people are talking of little else. My hostess had never seen Slaney, and wanted to know all about him. I gave her the best description I could, and drew a picture of the man and his peculiar habits. Whilst we were talking, my hostess' daughter said that a few days ago she had seen a snapshot of the great man in the 'Daily Photo.' One word led to another, and the butler was asked if he thought it possible to obtain a copy of the issue containing that photograph. The man thought he could, because he knew that one of the housemaids took the paper in regularly for the sake of the serial story. Well, to cut it short, the paper was produced, and there, sure enough, was a life-like picture of Sir Hercules, just as he came out of the hall leading from his flat. Now, it occurred to me that other people must have seen that snapshot besides the woman I am speaking of."
"Millions, probably," Bly said casually.
"Yes, but that is not the point. Now, we know that your late employer left the flat on the night of his death, and was away for an hour or so. Where did he go and whom did he see in that time? Surely you must realise the importance of that question. If we could ascertain Sir Hercules's whereabouts for that precious hour, where he went, and whom he was with, we should be a long way on the road to the solution of the mystery. He went out for some particular purpose, and he must have seen somebody. I mean, he must have been in the company of some one. It might merely have been the man from whom he bought the arsenic. That is, of course, if he did purchase the stuff. But during the time between eight o'clock and nine on Monday night Sir Hercules must have had more than one companion. Isn't it a most significant thing that no one has come forward who is in a position to tell us in whose company Sir Hercules passed that hour. Here is a big sensation, that must have been read by everybody who is capable of reading a newspaper. And yet nobody comes forward. Why?"
"Yes, I quite see your point," Bly agreed. "I must have been very stupid not to have noticed it before. You mean that there is a person, or persons, here in London who could explain how that vital hour was spent."
"Of course I do. And it is absolutely certain that the person or persons are deliberately keeping in the background. The question is, how are we going to bring them into the open?"
Bly went away with this new weight on his mind. But he was back again shortly after five, with the intention of meeting Stella and taking her out to tea.
Once they were established in a cosy corner of the exclusive little shop in South Molton-street, he proceeded to tell her of the arrangement he had made with Sir Samuel. And if this great scheme came off, then there would be nothing to worry about so far as the future was concerned.
"I am afraid the end is a long way distant," Stella sighed gently. "To begin with, you are looking for a thing that may not even exist."
"I have thought of that," Bly said. "Still, I believe there is something in it after all. I believe that as firmly as I do that Sir Hercules was murdered. You may say that the circumstances surrounding the case make it impossible that Sir Hercules did not take his own life. The bolted door, the only entrance to the flat. The evidence of those two porters. The fact that Sir Hercules came back after 9 o'clock in the best of health and spirits. And the more important fact still that when he was stricken down, he was just writing a letter to the editor of the 'Times.' And men who are doing that sort of thing don't commit suicide. What's that? How did the murderer get into the flat? Well, of course, that is a terrible snag. But I am convinced that he did get in and out again. And I believe he was murdered by his confederate whom we will call X. Now, this X was the man who first conceived the idea of stealing diamonds from the Maggersfont Mine through Sir Hercules. He probably found out that the poor old chap was at his wits' ends for money and that he was prepared to do anything so long as he could lay his hands upon a substantial amount. Hence all that business with the natives in the mine and the subsequent following of Sir Hercules to London by M'Papo. Of course, M'Papo was a rascal who stole the stones and handed them over to Sir Hercules, knowing that he could smuggle them out of the mine without fear of detection. A very good scheme and one that seems to have been absolutely successful. You see, up to a point, this mysterious X played the game. It was he, of course, who disposed of the stones and handed Sir Hercules his share of the plunder."
"Yes, but why should he, so to speak, kill the goose that laid the golden eggs?" Stella asked shrewdly.
"That is exactly what I was coming to," Bly went on. "And that is where the King Diamond comes on the scene. M'Papo, or some other Kaffir in the mine, found that stone, hence all the talk about it just before we left South Africa. You remember I told you how the compound was fairly buzzing with the story. There is never smoke without fire, and I am firmly convinced that a really magnificent diamond was found at about that time. It was probably handed over by M'Papo to Sir Hercules, who, I should say, refused to part with it. You see, by that time he had got all the ready money he required and more than enough to last him for quite a long time. Also, to do him justice, he was no money grubber. Also, if he had enough for his immediate wants, he did not worry about to-morrow. But it is just possible that when the King Diamond found its way into his hands he had his own reasons for keeping it. But probably Mr. X discovered the whereabouts of the treasure and the prospect of a huge fortune was too much for him. So he made up his mind not only to get hold of the King Diamond, but to deprive his partner in crime of his share of the proceeds. Hence the tragedy."
"What an extraordinary idea," Stella exclaimed. "And yet more remarkable things have happened. But Sir Hercules and Mr. X were in constant communication, wouldn't it have been far easier for X to have stolen the stone and then declared that he knew nothing whatever about it. If he had done that, Sir Hercules would never have dared to make the matter public. You see what I mean, Lionel?"
"I see what you mean quite clearly," Bly replied. "But those two were not in constant communication. All their business was done through secret hiding-places, and in connection with ciphers, in the local South African papers. It would never have done for those two to have been seen together. My dear girl, you don't know the risks of I.D.B. in South Africa. Very few criminals indeed slip through the fingers of the Cape police. And if they do, they have extraordinary luck. No. Sir Hercules came back home with that stone in his possession, and knew it. Besides I have got hold of the cipher."
"You really mean that?" Stella cried.
"Well, I have got it by the tail, anyway. It may slip through my fingers in the end, but my grasp is fairly firm. I know that Sir Hercules was in communication with some confederate, through a code in 'The Times.' Even now, the man X is taking no chances. My idea is that on the night of his death Sir Hercules went out to meet him. Probably because they had come to terms, and very likely with a view to transferring the King Diamond to X for disposal. But all that is in the air as yet. At any rate I have the cipher in my pocket, and I am the only man who attaches any significance to it. As a matter of fact, just before I came here I called at Scotland Yard and saw one of their big men there who has the case in hand. I mean Inspector James Paradine. He can find nothing in the flat that gives him the slightest clue to the mystery. I took a certain risk when I mentioned patience cards but he only looked at me solemnly and asked me what I meant. As a matter of fact, I meant a great deal, but I could see that he only regarded my question as a trivial one and then began to talk about other things. But, all the same, behind a patience problem that lies on the poor old gentleman's table in his flat is the key of the puzzle."
"It all sounds very exciting," Stella said. "Won't you tell me what you have got at the back of your mind?"
Whereupon Bly proceeded to explain. It was rather a vague explanation and it left Stella more puzzled than she had been when Bly had finished his story.
"But I can't make head or tail of it, my dear boy," she said.
"Neither can I for the moment," Bly confessed. "But I shall before long. I am going to spend the whole evening working this matter out, and if I can't get to the bottom of it before to-morrow I shall go round to the British Museum and consult one of their experts there. There are people yonder who make a business of solving cryptograms and those sort of things, and I know that they are frequently consulted by the police. Perhaps when we meet here to-morrow evening I shall be able to tell you something really worth knowing. Meanwhile we must wait."
It was after dinner that evening that Bly sat himself down in real earnest to tackle the strange jumble of words and figures that made up the cipher. First of all, he took the copy of 'The Times' that held the smaller puzzle—the one ending with a note of interrogation. Here, in all probability, was the first part of the contract asking a question, and in the copy of 'The Times' for the following Monday the response was given at some length, more than double the length of the first message. And the first message ran something like this:—
PATIENCE. 5,7,10,10,10. Ace. ace, 10, 5,7,10, ace. WHITE RAT.
There the first cipher ended.
The second cipher was more complicated.
WHITE RAT. (C) 2,10,10,8. 2,10. 2. King, Ace, Jack, Ace, 3. 3,ace,9,10,10. 10,6,8,7,8. 7,King,8,10,3. 3,10,8,Ace,8,6. King,3. Jack. Ace,10,3,2,Ace,2,King. 10, Ace. PATIENCE.
Just that, and nothing more. Over these figures and words pored Bly until gradually he began to grasp certain outstanding facts. He had the patience cards on the table before him in the same order as those lying in the flat so that there could be no possible mistake and, after trying all sorts of combinations he established at length the fact that clubs and spades represented the capital letters and that diamonds and hearts, in exact rotation, the small or lower case letters. And then it dawned upon him that the numerals so frequently used in the ciphers represented not so much figures as letters, and that the spaces in the ciphers were merely breaks between certain words. The mere fact that there was no such thing as the figure one in either cipher helped him presently to arrive at certain logical conclusions. He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt now that the first cipher which began with the word 'Patience' and ended with 'White Rat' had been Sir Hercules calling and that the response, beginning with 'White Rat' and ending with 'Patience,' was the echo to the call. And, this being taken as a basis, facilitated further progress.
And now, with the information he had worked out, Bly began to piece the words together. It was a little past 12 o'clock when he wrote down the first cipher, translated into plain English. And this is what he saw before him:
PATIENCE. When and where? WHITE RAT.
A few minutes later and the cryptogram was plain for any man to see who was capable of reading at all.
WHITE RAT. Meet me Monday after eight Hotel Legation. Carl Zambra. PATIENCE.
Bly lit a cigarette and drew in a long whiff of smoke with a sigh of relief. He had something at last to go upon, something that he could follow up in the hope of something like a solution in the near future. Beyond the shadow of a doubt the first message had been inserted in 'The Times' by Sir Hercules, and the response in the next Monday's issue—that being the day of Sir Hercules death—the reply had come from the anonymous and mysterious Mr. X. who, apparently, was an individual whose real name was Carl Zambra. Though the name itself had been covered by the cipher, it had evidently been inserted so that the reader it was intended for, in other words, Sir Hercules, might not be led away on a false trail.
And other things began to grow clear besides. This mysterious X or Zambra, whoever he was, was the go-between whom Sir Hercules had employed when he wanted to get rid of the spoil which he had looted from the Maggersfont Mine. No doubt they had been using the same sort of cipher ever since the conspiracy was first hatched. There did not seem to be much doubt, either, that Carl Zambra was a real name. It conveyed nothing to Bly, but he was not worrying about that for the moment. He was too happy in the knowledge of his new born information to the effect that Sir Hercules had gone out on that fatal Monday night to keep an assignation with one Carl Zambra at the Hotel Legation. And that, no doubt, was where he had passed the hour between eight and nine, after which he had returned home in more than his usual health and spirits. No doubt, he had done a successful stroke of business regarding the King Diamond with this man Zambra, and had come back to his flat feeling assured that his money troubles were permanently at an end. It was more than possible that he had parted with the King Diamond during the short time he was at the Hotel Legation, and that the same stone reposed, at the present moment, in the possession of Carl Zambra.
And then in some amazing and inexplicable way had come the tragedy which had put an end to Sir Hercules' career. Bly did not doubt for a moment that Zambra had managed to murder his confederate and that, at the present moment, he was lying low somewhere in London, carrying a fortune about in his pocket until such time as he could dispose of it to the best advantage. Nor was it the kind of jewel that any man could sell in the open market without immediately attracting attention. In the end it would probably cross the water and be sold to some American multi-millionaire in circumstances that did not call for publicity. So there was the King Diamond somewhere in London, and likely to remain there perhaps for a month. So far, Bly had not been wasting his time, and he went to bed presently, happy in the knowledge that a potential fortune lay before him.
He was down early, and after breakfast strolled round to the Hotel Legation. It was not one of those mammoth establishments but a comparatively small building, with rather a select clientele and a big lounge on the ground floor. Here Bly sat for some time as if awaiting the coming of a friend. Presently he accosted one of the waiters and entered into conversation with him. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the man in question sported the Mons ribbon on his waistcoat, and this gave Bly an opening. It was early yet, and very few customers about, so that the waiter was not busy. Very gradually, with what was more or less a service talk, Bly led up to what was at the back of his mind.
"I am looking for a friend," he said. "I don't know whether he stays here or not, though I know he has been here more than once. Do you happen to know a Mr. Zambra?"
The waiter shook his head.
"No, sir, I don't," he said. "You see, so many business gentlemen make appointments in the lounge here that I don't remember half of them. What is your friend like, sir?"
"Oh I don't think that will help," Bly said hastily. "I know he was here on Monday night between 8 and 9. Did you happen to be on duty then?"
"No, sir, not exactly," the man responded "That is, it was my early night off, and, after changing downstairs, I left the hotel about ten minutes past 8."
"Were there many people in the lounge at the time?'
"No, not many, sir. You see, most of our people were dining and very few had finished."
"Then you didn't notice anybody coming in particularly."
"I can't say I did, sir. Oh, no I am wrong. There was one gentleman. Tall and very thin with a straggling beard and the most wonderful set of teeth I ever see in a man of his age. In a way he looked like a boy, and another minute like a very old gentleman. But carried himself like an athlete he did."
"Oh, indeed?" Bly said with assumed carelessness, though his breath came a little more quickly. "I suppose you didn't happen to know who the visitor was?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I did, sir. He was that poor gentleman who committed suicide, or who was murdered in the flat in Devonshire Mansions. Perhaps you knew him, sir?"
Bly was so taken aback that he could hardly reply for a moment.
"As a matter of fact, I did," he managed to say in a voice that he hoped did not betray his agitation. "You mean Sir Hercules Slaney. How did you come to know him?"
"'I didn't know him, sir," the waiter replied. "I recognised him in a photograph that appeared in the 'Daily Photo' not very long ago. You couldn't forget him once you had seen those peculiar features of his. He passed me as close as you are to me now sir, but I didn't see any more of him because, as I just told you, it was my night off and I was in a hurry to get away."
Evidently there was no more to be gleaned, at least not for the moment so that Bly strolled off casually presently and made his way as far as Bishopsgate-street. Sir Samuel was not particularly busy and was ready to see him at once.
"Well," the latter said. "Any news?"
"Oh, quite a lot," Bly smiled. "I don't propose to tell you everything I have discovered, Sir Samuel, but if Sir Hercules was murdered, I have learnt the name of the man who committed the crime. I think that is worth knowing."
"God bless my soul!" Sir Samuel cried. "Do you mean to say you have found that out already? Have you been near Scotland Yard, because it seems to me that they ought to know. However, that is your business. What is the fellow's name?"
At that moment a clerk came into the room with a visiting card in his hand. He held this towards his employer.
"Who is it, Watkins?" Sir Samuel asked.
"A gentleman to see you at once, sir," the clerk replied. "His name is Mr. Carl Zambra."
"NEVER heard of the man," Sir Samuel said curtly.
Bly stood there absolutely amazed. The startling coincidence between his recent discoveries and the sudden appearance of the man whom he wanted to see above all others had absolutely deprived him of the power of speech. It was time to act and act quickly. Behind the clerk's back, he made signs to Sir Samuel which the latter interpreted correctly.
"What's his business?" the big man went on. "Why does he come here like this without an appointment?"
"He's apologised for that, sir," the clerk said. "But he hopes you will see him for a few moments, as his business is vital. At least, that is what he told me."
"Very well," Sir Samuel replied. "Show him in here in just five minutes. That is all, Watkins."
The clerk vanished and Sir Samuel turned on Bly.
"Now then, young fellow," he said. "What's all this about? Why those pantomimic gestures? Do you know anything about this fellow? Don't you want me to see him?"
"More than I want anything at the present moment," Bly smiled. "I will explain in due course. What I want to do, if you will give me the opportunity is to hear what this man has to say without being seen by him. Is there anywhere where I can hide and listen and watch at the same time?"
"Well, there you are," Sir Samuel said, indicating a folding screen lying against a wall. "Just rig that up, I use it in the cold weather to keep the draught out. If you hide behind that you can both see and hear. But what manner of man is this that you are so interested in?"
"I don't know," Bly explained. "Because I have never seen him. But he is a scoundrel anyway."
It might have been as Bly said, but the man who presented himself presently certainly gave no outward indication of rascality. On the contrary he was a fair little man, with a hesitating manner and the faint suspicion of a lisp. His boyish features and the monocle in his right eye suggested the stage more than anything else, and Bly, regarding him through a crack in the screen, was frankly astonished.
"Well, what can I do for you, Mr. Zambra?" Sir Samuel opened the interview. "I am very busy this morning, and I shall be obliged if you will cut the conversation as short as possible."
"Oh, that's all right," Zambra said in his high pitched voice. "I won't detain you more than a minute. The fact is, I am just back from South Africa and only landed from the Union Castle liner Dover Castle last night. I have come to you without wasting any time. I wanted to speak to you in connection with the trouble you have had lately with your Maggersfont mine workers."
"Oh, indeed," Sir Samuel said guardedly. "And what do you know about that? Are you acquainted with Maggersfont?"
"I may say without boasting that I know the whole of South Africa like an open book," Zambra replied. "I have lived there for years, in fact, I was one of the English Secret Service representatives during the Great War and spent half my time with the British forces in German East Africa. The other half I was across the border with the enemy. But that was an exciting chapter of my life which I need not go into now. I am not at liberty to tell you where I derived my information from, but I know that you have been robbed for months past by a cunning native who calls himself M'Papo."
"But M'Papo is dead," Sir Samuel exclaimed.
"Yes, I know," Zambra said casually. "But he is not the only one. There are others."
Sir Samuel frowned thoughtfully. He was wondering what this man was after and how it was he had come to make such an extraordinary slip. For if he had only landed the night before from South Africa, how could he possibly have known of that queer tragedy in the Ravenswood copse which had taken place during the time time Zambra was on the high seas? Sir Samuel allowed this to pass and it was obvious to him that Zambra had not noticed how damaging a step he had taken.
"I suppose you know all about M'Papo," Sir Samuel suggested
"Oh, dear, yes. And his methods, too. He was not a badly educated man, and businesslike beyond most of his tribe. He must have been quite well off, which would be natural considering that he was robbing you in connection with a man you would never have suspected. But you will never guess who that is."
"Oh, I think so," Sir Samuel smiled. "You are talking about Sir Hercules Slaney. It is very good of you to come here and bring me all this information, but you have been anticipated."
Zambra looked disconcerted for a moment, then his natural buoyancy reasserted itself.
"Dear me, dear me," he said with a shake of his head. "You know, Sir Samuel, I hesitated a long time before I came here this morning. One doesn't make accusations against a man like Sir Hercules Slaney without very careful consideration. And you actually know all about it. That being so of course, I have no more to say and can only apologise for taking up your time."
"I suppose you know Sir Hercules is dead?" Oscar asked.
Zambra threw up his hands in amazement.
"You don't say?" he cried. "Dead? How is it I have never heard anything about this shocking event?"
"I don't see you could," Sir Samuel said drily. "Especially as you say you have only just landed on the Dover Castle."
"Ah, that would of course account for it," Zambra murmured. "Please tell me all about it—but no, I won't occupy your time. I can read it all for myself in the papers. It appears that mine has been a wasted errand, but I hope Sir Samuel, you will give me credit for the best intentions."
Whereupon, after the exchange of a few further compliments, Zambra vanished down the office stairs and Bly came out into the room from his place of concealment.
"Well, were you satisfied?" Sir Samuel asked.
"Not altogether," Bly admitted. "I am amazed at the audacity of that man daring to turn up and, so to speak, beard the lion in his den in such an insolent fashion. Oh, he looks mild and innocent enough, but that man must possess courage in the highest degree, and, if I am any judge of physique, there is plenty of virility under a soft exterior. And now I am going to astonish you, Sir Samuel. The meek and mild individual you have been talking to was the man who killed Sir Hercules Slaney."
Sir Samuel gazed in open-mouthed astonishment.
"You can absolutely prove that?" he gasped.
"No I can't," Bly confessed. "I have a long way to go and the police have a long way to go before we can fit the crime on that scoundrel, but, all the same, I am absolutely convinced that I have made no mistake. We have an exceedingly cunning and daring criminal to deal with, but even these are guilty of a little slip sometimes. Did you notice one he made just now?"
"Oh, yes," Sir Samuel smiled. "It ran off his tongue before he was aware of it, in fact. I don't think he was aware of it at all. And, of course, I did not remind him. He said he knew that M'Papo was dead, but if he was telling the truth about the Dover Castle I should like to know how he knew that."
"Precisely," Bly agreed. "I know for a fact that Zambra was in London the night that Sir Hercules died. I don't want to bother you with my proofs now, but they will be all ready when the time comes."
"Well, I think we had better nail that lie down to the counter at once," Sir Samuel said.
With that, he rang his bell, and the clerk appeared.
"I want you to go round as far as the offices of the Union Castle Company," Oscar said. "I think you will find that the Dover Castle was berthed yesterday. Ask the manager to give you a copy of the passengers—I mean their names. Tell him you come from me, and give him my compliments. No, we need not go as far as that. Ask to search the files, and see if you can find the name of Carl Zambra amongst them. Now, go at once, and be back as soon as possible."
Twenty minutes later the clerk returned with information to the effect that the ship's register contained no such name.
"All right, Watkins, you can go," Sir Samuel said, with a wave of his hand. Then he turned to Bly.
"Well, there you are," he went on. "I think that dates our friend Zambra. But, tell me, why are you so particularly interested in that elusive man's movements?"
"Well, because I am quite certain he killed my late employer and, also, I have a shrewd notion that the King Diamond is at present in his possession. That is only a theory, of course, but I shall be greatly mistaken if it does not turn out to be correct. I think that Sir Hercules had that stone in his possession on the Monday night when he left his flat. He went out at 8 o'clock to keep an appointment at the Hotel Legation and returned to Devonshire Mansions somewhere about 9. When he went out, he had the King Diamond in his possession and when he came back it had been transferred to the individual you were just talking to. I shouldn't wonder if he had it in his pocket all the time you were chatting together."
"But you can't prove this," Sir Samuel challenged.
"Not yet," Bly agreed. "But I hope to. I am saying nothing till I have got my facts in absolute array. Meanwhile, I am going to see a man who will tell me all about Zambra and his activities during the war."
"Do you really suppose he was there?" Sir Samuel asked. "Might not that statement have been mere camouflage?"
"I don't think so," Bly said thoughtfully. "But I shall know all about that before I sleep to-night."
HALF an hour later, Bly turned in to a general sports emporium in Windover-street. Over the door in neat letters was printed the name of one Martin Cotswold, and in the big cavernous shop that individual himself was attending to an aristocratic customer. For Cotswold was a mighty hunter himself and had killed big game all over the world, indeed, there was hardly a pastime in the realm of sport in which he did not shine as an expert.
He had started his business in Windover-street soon after the war and, with a reputation, like his, speedily built up a prosperous and wide-spreading business. He was a man not particularly conspicuous looking, spare and clean-shaven, and slightly grey about the temples. A man who would not be noticed in a crowd, which fact Cotswold had frequently discovered to be an asset, because, during the Great War, he had been engaged in the Intelligence Department of his Majesty's Forces operating against the enemy in German East Africa.
It was he who had discovered the mysterious source through which the German forces were drawing their supplies, particularly in the way of ammunition and mountain batteries. His record in the War Office stood high, though he was utterly unknown to the public and desired to remain so. Had he chosen to place his experiences on paper Cotswold could have written a book that was bound to cause widespread sensation.
But Martin Cotswold was not that sort of man. He was quite content, now that the war was over, to work for a modest competence and enjoy the confidence of his host of friends. He finished with his customer presently, and turned to Bly.
"Hello," he said. "Where have you been all this long time? I haven't seen you for a couple of years. Still at the old game, eh? Oh, I forgot, you were with that queer old bird Slaney, weren't you? Chap who committed suicide the other day."
"More or less correct," Bly smiled. "I was with Slaney and now I am generally at a loose end. Fact is, old chap, I have got a job as a private inquiry agent."
"Very appropriate," Cotswold smiled. "You always had a bent that way. Do you remember a certain occasion down yonder when we crossed the enemy's lines and—"
"Oh, never mind that for the present," Bly said a little impatiently. "I am going to tell you a big story later on, but that story isn't complete, and I don't think it ever will be until I enlist your aid. Fact is, I want to know if you can tell me anything of a man called Carl Zambra."
Cotswold sprang to almost rigid attention.
"Carl Zambra," he cried. "Lord bless the man, I should think I could. Come along into my office. Mr. Barton, will you attend to anybody who comes in and say I am busy for half an hour."
The military-looking assistant gave the desired assurance, and together the two friends entered the office. It was a spacious room in which Cotswold evidently passed a good deal of his time, for, in the jargon of the auctioneer, it was replete with every comfort. The door was closed, silver cigarette-box produced, together with a spirit stand and a syphon of soda.
"Now then, take a pew and help yourself," Cotswold directed. "Light up and tell me all about it."
As far as he could and without betraying confidence. Bly told his old friend all that he ought to know. He dwelt particularly upon the recent interview between Zambra and Sir Samuel and the little slips the former had made.
"Yes, yes," Cotswold said thoughtfully. "Those chaps often do give themselves away in little things. At any rate, it is quite clear from what you tell me that Zambra has been in England for some days. In that case, what had he to gain by lying to Sir Samuel? What's that? Yes, I'm sorry; you didn't come here to answer questions, but to ask them. You want to know what I have to say about Zambra and his past. Well, to begin with, he is a dead wrong 'un. As clever as a monkey and as relentless as a tiger. Any amount of real courage and audacity, and afraid of nothing that walks on two legs, or four for the matter of that. Been living on his wits all his life. I don't know what nationality he is, but he calls himself a Swede. I shouldn't wonder if that is true, probably the only true thing about him. But, undoubtedly, he belongs to a more than respectable family, and is extremely well educated. He speaks four or five languages fluently. The sort of chap who, if he had gone straight, might have attained almost any position. But then that type of man never does go straight, and always comes to grief in the end. You will have to be very careful. It you push him into a tight place he won't hesitate to murder you. And he will do it with a smile on his lips, and with no malice in his heart. You think he murdered Sir Hercules Slaney and I should think it is exceedingly likely that you are right. The question is, why?"
Bly knew why, but he refrained from saying. He had taken Cotswold into his confidence up to a certain point, but, so far, he had said nothing with regard to the King Diamond.
"There might have been a dozen reasons," he said cautiously. "I have already told you that those two were in partnership over the diamond robberies, and there might have been an extra valuable parcel of stones, quite big enough in value to induce Zambra to play false with his accomplice."
"Yes, I should think that is exceedingly probable," Cotswold agreed. "I should say you are right, Bly, that that parcel changed hands in the lounge of the Hotel Legation. But here am I, wandering from the point again. You came here to find out all I knew about Zambra. Well, he was a spy and I found out that he was what you might call a double spy. Professing to be a zealous friend of England's and telling the Germans the same thing as far as they were concerned. That chap was too cosmopolitan to care for either country. He was only intent upon feathering his own nest, which he must have done pretty effectually. Still he had his uses; there was no end to his audacious courage and he was a consummate actor to boot. He was on the stage for a good many years, where, I believe, he would have done well if he could only settle down to anything. Of course, after I found out what he was doing, I took precious good care that he learnt nothing authentic on our side, and, when he did cross no-man's land on his visit to the German lines, he was always carefully oiled up with a lot of stuff that was calculated to do the enemy more harm than good. And I must say he did bring us some fine information from time to time. All the same, we knew that he was utterly unreliable and we should probably have shot him in the end, only he vanished one fine day and never returned. Now you see he has bobbed up in connection with a mysterious crime."
"Most assuredly he has," Bly said.
"Yes, that is just what I should have expected of him. I can give you his history, chapter and verse, if you want it. But there is one thing you have to be careful about. If you want my assistance in this matter, you must keep me out of Zambra's way. If he sees us together he will be certain to smell a rat. Give me a day or two to jot a few notes down and I will show you the stuff that Carl Zambra is made of. And now, fill up your glass and let us talk about other things. How have you been getting on all this long time? Do you ever go near the old place? Do you ever see a certain young lady now?"
Bly laughed a little uncomfortably.
"Oh, I suppose you mean Stella Ravenhill," he said. "As a matter of fact, she is Sir Samuel Oscar's private secretary. Funny how all these things come together, isn't it? Who would have thought, ten years ago, when the three of us were at Ravenswood together, that we should come to meet like this."
"Ah, who indeed," Cotswold echoed. "I see the old attraction still remains. Anyway, I am glad to hear that my old friend Stella is doing quite well, in spite of the family misfortunes. I always knew there was the right stuff in that kid—I beg your pardon, old chap, but she was a kid in those days compared with us. I should like to see her again. She must have grown into a most beautiful and attractive woman."
"She has," Bly said a little curtly. "And I am quite sure she would be just as pleased to see you."
"Then we will meet," Cotswold declared emphatically. "Do you happen to be doing anything to-morrow night?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Bly admitted.
"Well, why not come and dine with me at a little place in Regent-street that I know of. We can get the best of everything there, and they always keep a snug little table for me in an alcove at the back of the restaurant. I shall be highly honoured if Miss Ravenhill would join us at eight o'clock. If you happen to see her in the meantime you might convey my humble compliments, and ask her to grace the board with her presence."
"I will," Bly said emphatically. "We generally go somewhere together for tea, and I will ask her this afternoon. It will be quite a nice little change for her."
As Bly anticipated, Stella was quite agreeable to fall in with the suggested arrangement. She had no other engagement; in fact, her evening engagements were few and far between.
"That is very kind of Martin," she said. "I suppose I can call him Martin, considering that I used to do so years ago. I shall be only too delighted."
"Good," Bly cried. "I will come and pick you up."
"You will do nothing of the sort," Stella laughed. "Your idea of picking me up is a taxi both ways, and there is no occasion whatever for it in this warm weather. Besides, I couldn't encourage you in such extravagance. I can find my way to Regent-street without a convoy. You seem to forget that I am a working girl, getting her own living."
"I wish I could," Bly sighed. "I wish I could take you out of it altogether. Perhaps I shall some of these days."
"Not through the medium of King Diamonds," Stella laughed. "Don't you begin counting on that. Remember your Dickens. Remember what happened to Dick Jarndyce."
It was just before 8 o'clock when Stella came into the restaurant and joined the two men, who were awaiting her in a secluded little alcove behind a big palm at the far end of the spacious rooms. It was more or less crowded with diners, for the place was becoming known to those learned in such matters, so that it was almost uncomfortably full. Stella moved up the gangway in that smooth, unconscious way of hers, quite oblivious of the sensation she was causing, and took her seat smilingly with her back to the room.
"Well here I am, Martin," she said. "And only too glad to meet you again. It is almost like old times—"
But Cotswold was paying no attention. He laid a hand on Bly's knee and indicated two people who were just coming in through the swinging doors. Noting the gesture, Stella half turned as Cotswold spoke once more.
"Look who it is," he whispered. "Carl Zambra."
"So that is Zambra," Stella said. "Who is she?"
"Don't you know her?" Cotswold asked. "That is the famous, or rather infamous, film star who calls herself Cleopatra. I doubt if she ever had another name, which is just as well."
FROM where she was seated, Stella could command a good view of the woman who bulked so largely in the columns of the popular Press, especially those portions devoted to the stage and the cinema. She saw a personage of remarkable charm and attraction, a small, perfectly formed blonde with the rare combination of fair hair and almost black eyes. Not too young, and yet giving the impression of being hardly in the full bloom of her exotic loveliness. The mouth was small, perhaps a little too small, and not in the least sensual. At the same time the corners of it were hard and resolute, and in the brown-black eyes a keenness that spoke of a worldly knowledge beyond the common. But a very beautiful woman and one who, when she smiled, caused the onlooker to lose his sense of proportion and forget any critical faculty that be might happen to possess.
"She is very lovely," Stella murmured.
"Oh, she is," Cotswold said. He had rapidly changed places with Bly so that he could be seated in such a position that his face was turned away from the new-comers. "It would never do for those two to see me sitting with you, Lionel."
"By Jove, I had almost forgotten that," Bly said. "I suppose we shall have to stay here now till they go."
"I am not worrying about that particularly," Cotswold replied. "They will clear out long before we have finished our dinner. You see, Cleopatra is one of the restless lot, and never stays anywhere very long. I suppose that is what you call temperament."
"It is a wonderful face," Stella murmured. "I don't wonder at the sensation she is creating. Do you happen to know who she is, Martin? Where does she come from?"
"Oh, I can tell you all about that," Cotswold volunteered. "I had it from Carlton, of the Frivolity Theatre. You wouldn't think, to look at her, that she came from the dregs of the population. And yet she did. Her father was a Spaniard, who dealt in the prosaic onion, and her mother was born in a circus. She lived in Pennyfields until she was twelve. Just a lovely flower on a refuse heap. A beautiful butterfly, bred of garbage and filth. Her earlier years are more or less wrapped in mystery, but when she was fifteen she managed to get in the chorus of a travelling theatrical company, after which she disappeared till three years ago, when she seems to have taken Hollywood by storm. If she hadn't quarrelled with all the managers there she would have made a fortune. Mind you, she is a woman who takes very good care of herself, very little of the night club and cocktail business for Cleopatra. They say she has no brains whatever, and I know from my own experience that she can't act for nuts. But that does not prevent her from getting engagements with big money. At the present moment she is rehearsing for a sketch at the Colidrome. You know the sort of thing. Written mainly to show off her charms and display of personal beauty, in addition to that, she is acting with a film company in a play which is a jumble of 'She' and 'King Solomon's Mines.' But a dangerous woman in spite of her brainlessness."
"I should like to know what she is doing with Zambra," Bly murmured. "I should have thought she would be playing for higher game than that. Certainly he has no money."
"No, I suppose not, from what you say," Cotswold smiled. "Still, he is a useful sort of chap."
Bly said nothing for the moment. In the back of his brain an idea had crept, one of those little flashes of inspiration that often lead to great results. From where he was seated, he had a perfect view of the newcomers, who had now taken their seats and were settling down to their meal. He could see that the woman was sublimely indifferent to the man and that he, on the other hand, was absolutely infatuated. The fact was plain for the whole room to see.
So Bly wondered. Here was a creature who lived for the moment and, moreover, lived entirely for herself and what the world in any shape or form could give her. She made no attempt to hide the patent truth that her dinner companion interested her not in the slightest degree. And yet, here she was with him when half the young men in London of birth and family would have given their heads to be seen in public entertaining so fascinating a personality as Cleopatra. Why then, was she wasting her time in this comparatively secluded little restaurant whilst she might have been queening it at the Ritz or Carlton?
Bly answered his own question almost before he had asked it. Cleopatra knew all about the King Diamond. Yes, that would account for her presence here to-night. At any rate, it was a theory worth following up, and it might, eventually, lead to great results. And if Cleopatra really was aware of the existence of the King Diamond and where it lay at the present moment, then she would never rest until she had it in her possession.
Bly sat there playing with his food abstractedly whilst Stella and Cotswold chatted gaily. Then there came another idea which he could discuss openly with Cotswold.
"Look here," he said "I have something in the way of a brain-wave. It only came to me just now as I was watching those two. You will remember my telling you about the waiter at the Hotel Legation and how he recognised my late employer from a photograph in the 'Daily Photo.'"
"I have not forgotten that," Cotswold said.
"Well that photograph was very useful. It established the fact that Sir Hercules was in the Hotel Legation lounge between eight and nine o'clock on the night of his death. But so far, I am quite at a loss to prove whom he went to see. Of course, I really do know, but I can't be definite enough, that is, definite enough for a court of justice."
"But you know that he went to see Zambra."
"Yes, of course I do. But that is not good enough for a Judge and jury. Not even if I produce my code when the time comes shall I be able to place my finger unerringly upon the right man."
"Oh, yes, I quite see that," Cotswold agreed. "Still, you have got an idea. What is it?"
"Well, a photograph of Zambra. My waiter man who told me all about Sir Hercules would not be in a position to identify Zambra, but, no doubt, the other waiters on duty would. Now, old chap, you might exercise an ingenious brain. How am I going to obtain the photograph that I so urgently require?"
"Easiest thing in the world," Cotswold said coolly. "Do you see that rather dandified-looking man over there with the long nose and the eyeglass? If you will step over to him and say that Martin Cotswold wants to speak to him he will come at once. And he is the man we want."
"Who is he?" Stella asked eagerly.
"Well, as a matter of fact, he is Jimmy Clissold, of the 'Daily Picture Maker.' A freelance journalist who is responsible for the personal column of that lively journal. The man who writes those little paragraphs beginning 'as I was lunching yesterday with the Duchess of Dulwich'—you know."
"Oh, yes," Stella gurgled. "And ends up by saying 'she was, of course, a Plantagenet.'"
"Quite right," Cotswold smiled. "And you must not forget the 'of course,' because it makes the paragraph so intimate. Well, Jimmy is the man for us. I bet you he is wondering now who it is that Cleopatra has got hold of."
Cotswold was unerringly correct in his forecast. For directly the beautifully turned out young man with the eyeglass presented himself at the table in the alcove and bowed profoundly over Stella's hand, he asked Cotswold at once who the fellow was who was dining with the famous Cleopatra.
"Ah, that is exactly why I sent for you," Cotswold explained. "I felt pretty sure you didn't know the man. And knowing your natural appetite for the personal, I thought I would do you a good turn by giving you the information."
"That is awfully good of you," Clissold drawled. "I am not generally at fault, but I can't place that chap anyhow. Fact is, I have never been here before, and I shouldn't be here now if I hadn't followed Cleopatra in. Seems a nice little place and perhaps worth writing up. However, for the moment I am not concerned with that. Who is the man with Cleopatra?"
"Fellow of the name of Zambra," Cotswold explained. "Carl Zambra—a famous traveller and explorer. Played rather an important part with the British forces in German East Africa during the war. Bit of a mystery man, too. Just the type to write an interesting paragraph about. They tell me that he and Cleopatra have a secret understanding."
Clissold fairly beamed through his eyeglass.
"Ah, another romance," he cried. "Stage romance. You know the hoary old headings we always put under photographs of celebrities who are about to commit matrimony."
"But you haven't got a photograph," Cotswold pointed out.
"Oh, that is an easy matter. I will make a note of it, and get one of our chaps to follow Zambra and take a snap of him. If he can get the two together, so much the better."
"Here, stop," Cotswold protested. "None of that, my boy. I don't want to get myself into trouble. I am only telling you what rumour says and I strongly object to having my name dragged into it. You be content, for the moment, at any rate, by getting the photograph of Zambra. You know how to work it better than I do. 'The latest picture of Carl Zambra, the famous explorer and scout, whose name rumour has connected with that of a famous film actress, whose pseudonym suggests the serpent of old Nile.' All that sort of thing. But you know more about it than I do."
Clissold strolled away a few minutes later with a murmured word or two of thanks for the information.
"Well, I think I put him all right," Cotswold smiled. "Our literary Autolycus will not let the grass grow under his feet. You will see a photograph of Zambra in his paper before the week is out. Then you can go to the Hotel Legation with it and get your waiter man to find out if his colleagues have ever seen the original before. And, unless you have very bad luck indeed, you ought to be able to establish the fact that Sir Hercules and Zambra met in the lounge of the hotel on the night of the former's death. And that ought to help you a whole lot."
"It might," Bly admitted to himself. "And yet, on the other hand, it might not."
It would certainly be of considerable importance to the police, but, just then, he was not particularly concerned with the authorities at Scotland Yard. Sooner or later, he would have to put his cards upon the table and, indeed, he had every intention of doing so, but not until he had exhausted all his efforts in connection with the discovery of the missing diamond. The very last thing he wanted was for the police to get hold of that stone and thus deprive him of the splendid reward which Sir Samuel Oscar had promised for its recovery.
"I am certainly very much obliged to you," Bly said. "And you are making my task a good deal easier. By Jove, you are right, Martin. Those people are moving."
As Bly spoke, Zambra and his companion rose and faded out of the restaurant. Cleopatra led the way, Zambra following her as if he had been no more than her little dog.
FOR the next week or two, Bly was destined to see the name of Cleopatra looming very largely in the popular Press. Her name was everywhere, she was seen here and there, always magnificently dressed and always in the forefront of the picture. She was going to appear at the Colidrome in a sketch specially written for her by a famous dramatist and supported by a company of actors and actresses who had been tempted to so far efface themselves by the big fee they were obtaining for appearing on the same stage with one who was at once the most beautiful woman and the worst actress in the world. She was going to make a tremendous sensation presently in a new British romantic film which was going to cost at the very least £100,000. Indeed, it seemed, for the moment, as if Cleopatra had eclipsed the rest of creation.
All of which Bly read with a quiet smile on his face. It had been a week or two before he had seen the picture he was waiting for in the popular pictorial which Clissold represented, but on the seventeenth day it appeared with an appropriate outline underneath, and, so far as Bly could judge, was an exceedingly fine likeness of that rascally adventurer.
Then, one evening a day or two later, he went as far us the Hotel Legation with the photograph in his pocket. In the lounge he was fortunate enough to find his particular waiter on duty. He seated himself and signalled the man to approach. He came up smiling and stood waiting for orders.
"Good evening, sir," he said. "Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can get, sir?"
"Oh, presently," Bly said. "Meanwhile, you can put this pound note in your pocket and keep your mouth shut. If you are discreet, there will be other Fishers to follow."
"Oh, thank you, sir, I am much obliged, sir," the waiter said gratefully. "I am sure anything in the world, sir—"
"Oh yes, of course," Bly interrupted impatiently. "Now, look at this. It is a photograph, as you see. Tell me, have you ever met the man whose features are delineated there?"
The waiter glanced long and earnestly at the cutting and then, with obvious regret, shook his head with the asseveration that he had never seen the gentleman before.
"Oh well, I was quite ready to hear you say that," Bly replied. "There are reasons why you shouldn't. But I do know that the man I am looking for, in other words, this man, was here one night nearly a month ago. In fact, the very night that you were off duty. I think Monday is your night off, isn't it?"
"That is right, sir," the waiter replied. "I am always away on Monday night at a few minutes past eight."
"And somebody else takes your place, of course. Now, where can I find the waiter who comes on duty here on Monday night, and looks after the lounge when you are relaxing?"
"You mean Walter, sir," the waiter suggested. "He is somewhere on the premises now. Would you like me to fetch him, sir? I think he is having his supper. You have just come at the right time, sir, because he will be going in about another quarter of an hour. I will fetch him now, sir."
"No, you need not do that. Tell him to wait outside for me. And inform him that there is a tip waiting for him whether he can help me or not."
A few minutes later and Bly and the man Walter were seated in a little house of call at the corner of the street. Bly lost no time in taking the photograph from his pocket and handing it to his companion, together with a couple of half-crowns.
"I want you to have a good look at that," he said. "And when you have done so, I shall be very much obliged if you can tell me whether you have ever seen the gentleman before. Take your time over it. If you are the good waiter I take you to be, you have a memory for faces. You may have seen that man only once, and, on the other hand, you may never have seen him at all. But I rather think you have."
Quite anxiously, with an outward air of carelessness, Bly watched the waiter's face. He saw the puzzled astonishment on it, and then, after a longish interval, the light of intelligence beginning to dawn in the man's eyes.
"Yes, I have seen him before," he said. "But I can't think where and when. You see, sir, we have so many men of that class coming in and out of the hotel, society people looking for friends and all that sort of thing. But, somehow or another, that face is mixed up in my mind with trouble. Some sort of bother. I shall remember presently.... Yes, I've got it. The night that our Italian cook went off the deep end, if you don't mind my using the word, sir, and tried to stab one of the waitresses. Been carrying on with him, she had. Matters of jealousy. I was down in the kitchen and saw it all. It was just before I came on duty. About eight o'clock it would be."
"Do you come on duty at eight o'clock every night?" Bly asked.
"No, sir, I don't," the latter responded. "It is only on Mondays that I take the other man's place in the lounge."
"Then it must have been a Monday night," Bly suggested.
"Of course it was, sir. Three weeks last Monday as ever was."
"You are absolutely sure of that?"
The waiter had no sort of doubt with regard to the date or the hour. It could easily be proved he said, because the cook had been before the magistrates and a reference to any file of newspapers would show the day on which he had stood in the dock and had been remanded for three weeks in custody.
"So far, so good," Bly smiled. "Then you are perfectly certain you saw the gentleman whose photograph you have in your hand in the lounge of the hotel between eight and nine o'clock on the evening of Monday three weeks."
"Not the slightest doubt about it, sir," the man said with confidence. "It was a very quiet night for us and I don't suppose I served more than half a dozen customers altogether. I know I am right about the gentleman, because of the way in which he played with his eyeglass and then again by his squeaky voice. Of course, I don't mean, sir, as there is any squeaky voice in the photograph, but it is those little things taken together that impress themselves on one's mind. And then when sometimes the police come asking questions it pays a waiter to have a good memory, if you take my meaning, sir."
"Oh, I quite understand," Bly smiled. "Now, do you happen to remember who the gentleman was with?"
"Only one other gentleman," the waiter said. "I have never seen him before or since. He was an old man with a straggly beard, and an enormous big, bald head. I noticed him because he had such clear blue eyes for an old gentleman, and a wonderful set of teeth that I could see wasn't false. I served them with a couple of whiskies-and-sodas each and then, about nine, the old gentleman went away and him with eyeglass stayed about another ten minutes, and then he goes too and I never set eyes on them from that day to this."
To all of which Bly listened with rapt attention. He had no further questions to ask, because he was already satisfied that there was nothing further to learn, so he drifted off presently more than satisfied with the interview.
He was not going to say anything of this to Sir Samuel Oscar for the present, but when he met Stella on the following evening for an early dinner in a little restaurant, he told her all that he had discovered, at the same time laying stress upon its grave importance. And Stella was not slow to see the risk he was taking in keeping this back from the police.
"Oh, I know that," Bly admitted. "But I don't want to do that till the very last moment. I have been most confoundedly lucky, so far, and I am inclined to back that luck. It may lead us right to the King Diamond. If it doesn't, then I must in common honesty consult the Yard."
"Well, perhaps you are right," Stella admitted. "We can do no more for the moment. And now do you remember what you promised me for this evening?"
"Of course, I do," Bly said promptly. "I promised to get tickets for the new performance at the Colidrome for this evening, and here they are in my pocket. All the same, I don't know why you particularly wanted to see Cleopatra showing the nobility and gentry of the British Isles how not to act. But so long as I am with you, my dear, I am happy anywhere."
With which sincere compliment, Bly paid his bill and the two left the restaurant on their way to the Colidrome. They were just a little late in taking their seats, by which time the great building was crammed to its utmost capacity.
"What an audience," Stella whispered. "I should think half the rank and fashion of London is here. And yet if it were anything worth seeing the stalls would be empty."
Before Bly could reply, there came a loud burst of applause as Cleopatra flashed on the stage in all her dazzling beauty. Stella gasped with amazement and admiration as she sat half dazzled by the costume that Cleopatra was wearing.
"Wonderful, wonderful," she murmured. "And those jewels. Did you ever see anything like them?"
"Paste," Bly said cynically "Paste."
"Nothing of the sort, my dear boy," Stella replied. "I have seen too many jewels in my time to be deceived. And just look at that single stone suspended round her neck on a platinum chain. Oh, it must be the finest in the world."
Bly half started from his seat and then dropped back again breathing heavily between tightly pressed lips. He had seen something that had escaped Stella's attention.
"Not the slightest doubt of it," he whispered. "My dear Stella, that stone is the King Diamond."
FROM a literary or artistic point of view, the entertainment provided for the patrons of the Colidrome was absolutely negligible. It was a poor story, without wit or point, and intended obviously merely to show off the amazing charms of the leading actress. With this the audience were fain to be content, and, indeed, they had come for no other purpose. They saw one of the most beautiful women in the world attired in various achievements of the modiste's art, more especially a daring creation in vivid red, which brought rounds of applause from the shallow-pated spectators.
It was shortly after ten o'clock when Cleopatra literally fought her way through a double row of open-mouthed admirers and climbed into a car, which was, in itself, an advertisement. The chauffeur wheeled round in front of the great building itself and there picked up Zambra, who was waiting patiently on the pavement for the heroine of the evening.
"Where away now?" he said, as he closed the door behind him. "Which particular restaurant is it to be?"
"None at all," Cleopatra responded. "I don't feel in the mood to-night. I am tired, and the last week has tried me to the limit. I am going home, my boy."
"But you promised," Zambra protested.
"My dear man, did you ever know me to keep a promise when I didn't want to? I must live up to my reputation. I am going home. And you can come with me if you like. Just a quiet little supper and then to bed, because I am dog tired. I have not been so tired since the old days when I was the drab and drudge in a travelling circus."
Zambra's solemn mood changed to one of frank and almost boyish delight. This woman could play upon his feelings as a maestro plays on a favourite instrument. It was her mood to tease and torment him and then chase away his dark moments as if he had been a child offered a piece of chocolate.
"Yes," she said. "You can come with me, because I have something to talk to you about. I will give you a much better supper than you could get in any restaurant and a bottle of champagne that came from Baron Steiner's own cellar. There! What do you think of that as a present for a good boy?"
The luxurious car stopped at length before a small house in Green-street, and in a room garishly ornate, despite the treasures it contained, Zambra sat down presently to a meal that left him in the best of spirits and good humour. It was only when he was sipping his coffee and smoking a cigarette that he began to lead up to what he had to say.
"Well, it was a great evening, wasn't it?" he began.
"Was it?" Cleopatra asked indifferently. "Oh, I don't know. It was a rotten show, any way, but I suppose it served its purpose. But go on. What is still troubling you?"
With a gesture Zambra indicated the great diamond that still blazed on Cleopatra's throat. The thin platinum chain was almost invisible in the shaded light, so that the gem might actually have grown on the soft velvety flesh.
"That is it," he said. "Now, look here. I was a great fool ever to tell you anything about that stone, and, whilst we are about it, you might just as well tell me how you came to know that I had anything of the kind."
"Ah, now you are asking questions," Cleopatra laughed. "My dear boy, I also have my secret service department, just the same as you had years ago in Africa. There is precious little goes on in the underworld to which you undoubtedly belong which I don't hear of sooner or later."
"Then you refuse to tell me?" Zambra asked.
"I refuse to tell you," Cleopatra echoed with one of her most dazzling smiles. "Why should I? Besides, in a sort of a way you told me yourself. For the best part of three months you have been hinting at a mysterious fortune which you more or less carried about in your pocket. You talked about King Solomon's Mines and the jewels of Asia and all sorts of sentimental nonsense. And then, though I have no doubt you have forgotten, you began to speak of a wonderful diamond—the King Diamond, in fact."
Zambra moved about uneasily in his chair.
"I will swear I never mentioned the word King Diamond," he said. "I remember telling you that I was interested in South African mines, but the big word was never even suggested. Who was it who told you that the King Diamond existed?"
But Cleopatra smilingly declined to say.
"Oh, what does it matter?" she asked. "I suppose you have forgotten that in my circus days I travelled all over the world. I suppose I was about 15 or 16 when we were in South Africa. And I heard all sorts of strange things there. And then, when you showed me that uncut stone a mouth or two ago I guessed what it was. And I persuaded you to have it cut. And you did. And then, I couldn't rest till I had worn it in public. And I never shall rest until it belongs to me."
Zambra smiled broadly at the ingenuous suggestion.
"Yes, I thought that was what you were driving at," he said. "I suppose you brought me round here to-night to try and induce me to part with a fortune like that. My dear child, be reasonable. I have been knocking about the world for the last fifteen years in a more or less unsuccessful attempt to obtain money and now, at last, I have that which represents a handsome fortune. I suppose that bit of flashing glass at your throat means in hard cash something like £200,000. Enough to make me a rich man for life. And you can share that money if you like. But not in England, my child, not in England. Somewhere abroad if you like, say South America. I am getting tired of knocking about the world, and with you at my side—"
It was Cleopatra's turn to smile.
"And give up the life I am leading," she cried. "Never! My dear boy, to me publicity is the very breath of life. I worship the glitter and the colour and the adulation more than I value my beauty itself. But I must have that stone. You will have to give it to me, Carl."
"And the conditions?"
"Oh, I know what you are driving at. You want me to marry you. And yet you don't even give me your confidence. You would never have produced the King Diamond or allowed me to wear it unless as a bribe to become your wife. I don't want to marry anybody. I am not that sort of woman."
"I am quite aware of it," Zambra said savagely. "You never had a particle of heart. You never cared for anybody but yourself, and you never will."
"That is perfectly true," Cleopatra said coolly. "But whose fault is that. I should like to know? Not your's or Tom's or Dick's or Harry's, but your sex as a whole. I never had a home or even a kind word until I was big enough to fight for my own hand, and contact with the world told me that there was only one thing worth fighting for. That is money. I want all I can get and I shall never have enough if I live to be a hundred."
"But you must marry sometime," Zambra urged.
"Yes, I suppose I shall. But I am in no hurry and I can pick and choose where I like. But don't let's quarrel, Carl. If you won't give me the diamond, at any rate you might let me have the use of it for a few weeks."
Even knowing the danger that he was deliberately playing for, Zambra hesitated. He had been almost criminally weak over the matter of the great stone and, indeed, as he sat there weighing up the chances, he was wondering why he had been mad enough to take Cleopatra more or less into his confidence. He did not even know the extent of his infatuation for her. The woman blinded and dazzled him, she could twist him round her little finger and make him forget everything in the world so long as they were together, and yet that cold, worldly eye of his was open widely enough to her hard and mercenary nature. It was one of those wild infatuations that have often proved destructive to much greater men that Zambra, as the history of nations proves.
He rose almost passionately to his feet. His entire expression had changed so that he was no longer a mild-looking cherub surveying a complacent world through his eyeglass, but a man whose face was deeply lined with wrinkles and in whose blazing eyes was an expression of mingled hatred and fear.
"Come, let us have no more nonsense," he said. "Give me that stone, I say. You have done mischief enough."
Cleopatra shook herself free from his grasp and dropped languidly into a chair. Whatever her faults might be, she did not lack the element of personal courage.
"We don't want any melodrama," she said lightly. "Still, if you will have it, let me ask you a question. How did you manage to put Sir Hercules Slaney out of the way?"
Zambra seemed to freeze where he stood. Just for an instant the colour faded from his face and on it instead was a ghastly shade of ashen grey. And even then he did not lose the self-possession that was his greatest asset.
"I don't quite follow you," he said.
"Oh, I think you do," Cleopatra said in a low voice. "I read all about it in the papers. It was wonderfully well done, and reflects the greatest credit on you. You have the police guessing and everybody wondering whether that queer old gentleman was murdered or committed suicide. Personally, I have my own opinion. I dare say you may ask what all this has to do with the question at issue, but you are not so blind as not to understand that I hold a card or two in the game."
"Card," Carl Zambra stammered. "What card?"
"Well, that is a figure of speech, isn't it? Now, look here, Carl, I am not going to marry you, and you are not going to take away that stone to-night as you anticipate. Oh, you need not be afraid I shall pawn it or give it away or anything of that sort, because I dote on jewellery, and, besides, I have all the money that I need for some time to come. But you are going to leave the King Diamond with me for the present at any rate."
It seemed for the moment as if Zambra would break out again, then his manner changed as swiftly back to the normal and he laughed as he helped himself to a fresh cigarette.
"Well, I suppose you must have your own way," he said. "But everybody is not as fortunately disposed as you are with regard to money. Personally, I am getting towards the end of my tether. I shall want a big sum before long and I was going to get it by the sale of that diamond in the States. You can have it for a week or two, but when I ask you again—"
He broke off and paused significantly. He did not look in the least like a man who was disturbed and shaken to the depths by the touch of melodrama which Cleopatra had added to the conversation. He would have done anything in reason to call this wonderful woman his own, and as she smiled up into his eyes he could feel all those mad emotions at work within him.
But he was not altogether devoid of prudence or caution. It would never do, he thought, to quarrel with Cleopatra at this juncture. Nor did he want to have any misunderstanding with her. That would be far too dangerous. In the back of his mind the savage was uppermost, and he would have given a great deal for the necessary primitiveness to take this woman by the throat and drag that blazing stone from the velvet of her skin. No, he must proceed in a much more diplomatic fashion than that.
"We won't dispute that," Cleopatra cried, triumphantly. "And now, my dear boy, you won't be very much annoyed if I ask you to go, will you? You can let yourself out—the servants must have gone to bed long ago."
Quite coolly, Zambia slipped into his overcoat and bent over the hand which Cleopatra held out to him. Then he slipped from the room and closed the door behind him.
He was in danger, a danger that he had brought upon himself by his madness and infatuation for a woman who would not have lifted the little finger to save him. And the danger was no less stark because he had brought it upon himself. Every time Cleopatra appeared in public with that blazing gem about her throat was a moment fraught with dire peril for the man who had deliberately placed this weapon in her hands. He must get that stone back by any means short of murder.
But how? And then he saw the way.
It was hanging on a nail right in front of him in the shape of a latchkey. Not one latchkey but three, which he knew gave entrance to the flat. He glanced cautiously over his shoulder and slipped one of those into his pocket, knowing that it would not be missed. Then he made his way into the street.
ZAMBRA made his way thoughtfully along the streets until he came, at length, to a small house in a thoroughfare that led out of Grosvenor Place. Here he rang the bell and presently a footman in a sombre livery opened the door and admitted him. He hung up his hat and coat in a tastefully furnished hall and then, with the air of a man who is thoroughly at home, walked up the broad, thickly carpeted stone stairs into a big room at the back where a score or two of men and women were seated at a number of bridge tables. They were well-known society people for the most part, some of whom were personally known to Zambra, so that his entrance excited no comment.
There was an air of quiet serenity and refinement about the whole room which would have struck a stranger as appropriate directly he entered. No suggestion whatever of a gambling-den, because it lacked all the appliances that usually go with that type of establishment. Nothing but seven or eight small, green-baize tables at which a number of society people were passing the evening over a quiet rubber of bridge. There was not even so much as a coin to be seen anywhere.
And yet those people were gambling and that in downright earnest. In other words, they were playing for five-pound points, which meant that the loss or winning of a rubber averaging three hundred points represented the gain, or otherwise, of something like £1500. In other words, it was a respectable bridge club, and, as such, outside the reach of the law. For bridge is essentially a game of skill and in case of a raid or other trouble of that kind, there was nothing outwardly to prove how heavy the gambling was. Nothing beyond the intense silence that prevailed and the pallor on the faces of the players.
Over this establishment there presided one Colonel Mint, late of his Majesty's Indian Army, an astute, hawk-like individual, who provided the necessary accommodation and appliances at the moderate charge of one percent, on the amount of business done during a sitting. A modest enough sum outwardly, but one that represented in the Colonel's case a steady income that ran into thousands a year. Moreover, the Colonel was a man well known and actually respected in social circles and was welcome everywhere. It was felt that in a fashion he was catering for a longfelt want. He was no player himself, being content to move softly from table to table, ministering to the needs of his friends and seeing that they were provided with necessary refreshment which was generously found by the management himself.
The Colonel, a dapper little man with a heavy cavalry moustache and a most pleasant and agreeable manner, moved across to Zambra directly the latter entered the room.
"Ah, here you are, Zambra," he said genially. "Just in time. Where have you been lately? If you will wait a minute or two you can cut in at the table at the corner. Sir John is going after this rubber and there is nobody to take his place. In the meantime, can I get you anything?"
"Not at present, thanks," Zambra said "I have turned up this evening to see if I can't get a bit of my own back."
With that, he moved across to a table in the far corner of the room from which a tall man with a strikingly handsome face had just risen more or less reluctantly.
"Well, I must be going," he said. "What do you want, Gregory? Seven-fifty, is it? And you, Lady Joan. Oh, the same, eh? I will just write out a cheque, then I must be going."
The speaker filled up two slips from his cheque book at a little writing-table, and, as he vanished from the room, Zambra slipped into his vacant place. He found himself cutting with a well-known man about town who was reputed to be the owner of immense wealth, and then they sat down to play in earnest.
But it was not what Zambra would have called his night out. From the very first the cards seemed to run against himself and his partner. Even when they held good hands that imp of the perverse that makes bridge so maddening and fascinating a game scorned to enjoy bringing about a series of complications that defeated calls most of which were more than promising.
The game went on for an hour or two with quick rubbers for the most part and a constant change of partners. But whoever Zambra cut with, the result was invariably the same. For a long time he played coolly and carefully enough, but as luck rolled up more and more swiftly against him, he grew a little wild, until a rash call of three no trumps which was doubled brought about a result of five hundred down, which, multiplied by five, meant that that one call alone had left him the poorer by £2500.
"Bad luck," murmured one of his opponents, a youth in the Guards who was enjoying the freedom that followed long minority, and was spending his money with a rashness that was causing his friends considerable anxiety. "Bad luck, old man. Now who would have expected that you would find the queen on your left hand? In ninety-nine times out of a hundred that finesse would have come off. If it had, you would have made your contract and two tricks over."
"All in the run of the game," Zambra said cavalierly. "Come on, let us have one more. Things can't be any worse than they are now. Give me a chance to get a bit of it back."
And this rubber was not so bad. But it did not bring Zambra the change he had hoped for, and at the end of the game, which was played in two hands, he looked up with a forced smile and proclaimed the fact that on the evening he was nearly five thousand pounds down. He took his cheque-book from his pocket and was about to rise when somebody who had just come into the room crossed over and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"That is not your game, Zambra," the stranger murmured. "Far better for you if you would stick to poker."
Zambra never moved, nor did his flesh quiver under the pressure of the stranger's hand on his shoulder.
"Ah, that you Hawker?" he asked. "I don't even want to turn and look at you. I should know that voice anywhere. Where have you been all this long time? If you will wait a minute or two while I discharge by liabilities to these amiable robbers we will have a chat over old times."
With that, Zambra sauntered across to the writing-table, and with an indifferent countenance and his heart aflame with rage and malice and something approaching murder, filled up the cheques in a neat, firm handwriting, and handed them over to the fortunate winners. After that he left the room with the man he called Hawker sauntering casually behind. Once they were out in the street, Zambra's manner underwent a change.
"Now then, what is it?" he asked. "I don't know how you managed to get into the house just now, but you always had the cheek of the devil, and I suppose that pulled you through. How did you know I was there, and what do you want?"
"Does it matter?" the man called Hawker asked, his rather saturnine features twisted in an ugly smile. "I have been looking for you for some time, and I only got on your trail by accident. Hit you pretty hard to-night, didn't they?"
"You may say that," Zambra snarled. "When those cheques are met I shan't have a fiver in the bank. And, what is more, I don't know where to turn for the next. I suppose you couldn't, eh? You know what I mean."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I could," Hawker said suavely. "But at a price, my boy, at a price. I have had quite a good time out yonder, and I don't think I should have come back from Capetown quite so hurriedly if I hadn't anticipated trouble with those C.I.D. people out there. Of course, they have been after me for years, but they haven't got Jim Hawker yet. I shan't go out again until the trouble has blown over, and in the meantime I have not done too badly. Question is, how much do you want? Five thousand do? Yes, you can have that, but on terms. And I ain't going to trust you a yard further than you would trust me. Come, is it a deal?"
"On what sort of security?" Zambra asked.
"Well, you have only got one, as far as I know," Hawker smiled in his sinister way. "And if I had had the luck I expected the senility would have been mine and not yours."
"What do you mean?" Zambra burst out.
"What do I mean? The King Diamond, of course."
THOUGH Bly had no reason to be disappointed with his rate of progress with regard to the search for the King Diamond there were one or two points that troubled him sorely. He had located the Great Stone or thought he had, and his knowledge of human nature told him that it would be a long time before Cleopatra consented to part with the treasure, the value of which she no doubt appreciated to the last farthing. It was good at any rate to know where the King Diamond was to be found, but to obtain possession of it without exposure or scandal was going to prove something in the way of a problem.
For this was no melodramatic business, no dark affair of the cloak and dagger or the more modern application of the tenets of the sensational school of fiction, but one unquestionably calling for finesse and diplomacy in the highest degree. And yet at the same time it was just possible that the big stone that Cleopatra had been wearing on the night of her first appearance at the Colidrome was not the King Diamond at all. But so far Bly failed to see that it could be anything else. Surely there was not a brilliant like that outside a State museum or the Crown jewels of some reigning monarch. And, strange to say, the class of journal that chronicled Cleopatra's movements so carefully had made no mention of the great diamond she was wearing on the first night of her appearance at the Colidrome. So far, that was all to the good. As long as that particular gem was not discussed Bly was not disposed to worry.
Still there was the matter of Scotland Yard. It was all very well for him to go to work with the prospect of an immense reward in front of him, to devote himself to the recovery of the King Diamond to the exclusion of everything else, but, on the other hand, he was keeping back certain material facts from the authorities and holding them up in their search for the man responsible for Sir Hercules Slaney's death. After thinking the matter over for a day or two he resolved to take Sir Samuel Oscar into his confidence and invite his advice. So he called upon the big man and told him everything.
"What do you think I had better do, Sir?" he asked.
"Well, upon my word, I hardly know what to say," Sir Samuel replied, "It is a remarkable story you have told me, and I am inclined to think that you are right in your supposition that this woman Cleopatra is at present in possession of the King Diamond. But how are you going to prove it?"
"Ah, there, for the moment, I am utterly at sea," Bly said. "But I think you will agree with me that Cleopatra got that stone from Carl Zambra. I cannot see how else it would come into her possession. And yet you would hardly believe that a clever man could be such an utter fool."
"Oh, I don't know," Sir Samuel smiled. "There is no knowing what a man will do when he becomes completely infatuated with a beautiful woman. Look at Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, for instance. Mixed up with another Cleopatra, by the way. And then there was Ninon de L'Enclos and Madame Pompadour, both of whom could do anything they pleased with the cleverest men in France. I don't suppose that Zambra is any wiser than some of these historic characters. I think you will find, later on, that Cleopatra wormed the story out of Zambra and that she persuaded him to have the stone cut, and borrowed it for that State occasion at the Colidrome. I don't suppose for a moment that Zambra gave it to her, but if I know anything of that class of woman, it will be a long time before he gets it back."
"Yes, I quite appreciate that, sir," Bly said. "But the point is, shall I go to Scotland Yard and tell them all I know, or shall I go on for the present as I am doing?"
"Well, I think, on the whole, I should wait a day or two," Sir Samuel advised. "If there is any trouble, you can tell the Scotland Yard people that you have confided in me, and that ought to help you. You don't want it to appear that you are deliberately holding back information."
With which Bly went away a little easier in his mind. But he did not fail to tell Stella all that he had found out a day or two later when they met as usual in the evening with a view to one of those intimate little dinners of theirs.
"Where are we going to-night?" Stella asked.
"Well, I thought of going as far as the Hotel Legation," Bly said. "It is a quiet place, and we can talk freely there. Besides, I want to have a word or two with that waiter friend of mine. You know the man I mean, the man to whom I gave that picture of Zambra taken from one of the illustrated papers. It is just possible that the man who takes the waiter's place on the Monday night might have seen Zambra again and found out some more about him. At any rate, we must not leave any stone unturned."
"But you don't suppose that Zambra would be so foolish as to go to the Legation again, do you?" Stella asked. "I should think that that would be the last thing in the world he would do."
"So should I," Bly said. "But then you can never tell. There might be some urgent reason for his doing so. Or, on the other hand, he may be so absolutely sure of his ground that he can afford to take all sorts of risks. You see, he had probably made that assignation on the fatal Monday night, using the Hotel Legation for the first time in his life. Naturally, he would not be known there, and he was only on the premises about an hour altogether. After the interview was over, Sir Hercules went away and died. The odds are a million to one against anyone knowing anything about that meeting."
"Perhaps you are right," Stella said thoughtfully. "Do you think that Zambra knew that Sir Hercules was going to die that night? Do you think it is possible—"
"Oh, I don't know what to think," Bly said a little petulantly. "All I know, and that is merely conjecture, is that Sir Hercules was lured into the Hotel Legation for some definite purpose. And a very sinister purpose at that."
"But the two men parted," Stella pointed out. "And Sir Hercules walked home. He was all right when he entered his flat, because we have the evidence of the hall porter to that effect. I was wondering if Zambra had managed to administer some sort of subtle poison to Sir Hercules."
"Yes, I know what is in your mind," Bly said. "You are thinking of what happened to M'Papo at Ravenswood. There is little doubt how that unfortunate native came by his end, and also little doubt in my mind that Sir Hercules deliberately got M'Papo out of the way. The man in all probability was threatening him and demanding money under the menace of exposing the whole disgraceful story of the Maggersfont Diamond robberies. But then, you see, we happen to know that Sir Hercules died from an overdose of arsenic. I don't quite see how you are going to connect Zambra with that significant fact."
Stella abandoned her line of argument.
"It is all extraordinarily mysterious," she said. "And I am beginning to believe that nobody will ever know the exact circumstances in which Sir Hercules died. Hadn't we better leave all that to the police and concentrate our energies on getting the diamond back? I shouldn't mind stealing it. I mean, it doesn't belong to Zambra and still less to that dreadful Cleopatra woman, so that I should have no scruple."
Stella spoke excitedly and her eyes sparkled as she thought of the possibilities that lay before her and the man who was walking by her side. She was still thinking of this when they turned into the hotel and took their seats in the restaurant, which was fairly well filled when they got there. Stella sat down with the same thoughtful frown on her forehead and the same grim determination in the lines of her mouth.
"Still harping on the same subject," Bly asked with a smile.
"Well, yes, I am. I think it is a great shame that those two awful creatures should get away with the King Diamond. And they will get away with it if you don't do something before long."
"But what can we do?" Bly asked.
Stella shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know," she said. "Something desperate, I suppose. Now, I have been discussing this matter with Sir Samuel and he doesn't mind what I do. He has even offered to give me all the time off that I require. I was just wondering if I could not manage to meet this woman Cleopatra and gain her confidence. That sort of people are always changing their servants and if she happened to want a maid—"
"Melodrama," Bly interrupted. "Sheer melodrama, my dear,"
"Oh, nonsense. There is nothing melodramatic about it. The same scheme has been adopted over and over again by the police. How often do they contrive to get one of their lady detectives into a suspect house? Of course, I am only throwing this out as a tentative suggestion."
Though Bly smiled at Stella's notion, he was not altogether disposed to brush it lightly aside. He knew perfectly well that anything in the way of violence was out of the question, and that if the King Diamond was to be recovered it must he achieved through some clever ruse on his part and not by anything in the nature of sheer brutal force. Nor would he have had the slightest hesitation in taking advantage of any accident or stroke of luck that brought the King Diamond within his reach. There was no shadow of doubt, of course, that the stone had come from the Maggersfont Mine, and that it was in very truth the property of Sir Samuel Oscar. At least, it was the property of the Maggersfont Diamond Corporation, in which Sir Samuel held the bulk of the shares.
He was turning the problem over more or less incoherently in his mind when his thoughts were switched into a different direction altogether by the sight of two men, who, at that moment, came side by side past the table where he was sitting and made their way up to the top of the room, where they took their places in a window a little apart from the rest of the diners. Stella did not fail to see that Bly was a little moved.
"What has happened?" she whispered.
"Oh, nothing," Bly said. "Except that that man who has just come in is Carl Zambra."
"Why, so it is," Stella cried. "Do you happen to know who the other man is? Evidently a foreigner by the look of him, and certainly of Jewish extraction."
"No, I never saw him before," Bly said. "But that is Zambra all right. I wonder What he is doing here?"
"Sheer audacity," Stella suggested. "He must feel very sure of his ground, to come here like this. He evidently has not the lightest idea that he has been recognised as the man who was with Sir Hercules on the night of his death. I would give a great deal to know what those two are doing here."
"Well, don't watch them quite so intently," Bly suggested. "I suppose you don't realise how you are staring at them."
Stella averted her eyes immediately.
"I am very sorry," she said. "It is very stupid of me. But isn't it a most extraordinary thing that they should come here when there are fifty other places they could go to? Won't it be as well if you follow them presently. Oh, Lionel, I would give half I possess to hear what they are talking about."
THE two men at the top of the room had their heads close together and appeared to be deeply engrossed in some absorbing topic that rendered them oblivious to what was going on around. Then the man with the sinister smile and the slightly hooked, Semitic nose, turned to Zambra with a smile on his face.
"Now," he said. "Tell me all about it. We could not go into the matter the other night when I followed you into that swell gambling-joint of yours. And anyhow, I have been too busy since to follow up the business of the King Diamond. Now, where is that little bit of glass at the present moment?"
"Oh, we will come to that presently," Zambra said evasively. "The point is, are you prepared to find that money?"
"What money?" the man called Hawker asked.
"Just as if you don't know. They cleared me out the other night and I hardly know where to turn for a sovereign. I have had the most frightful run of luck the last week or two and there is big money waiting for me over in the States if I can only put my hand on the necessary expenses. I must have at least five thousand of the best, and you are the man to find it."
"Oh, am I indeed?" Hawker sneered. "You talk as if five thousand were so many pence. I am always ready to join in a flutter if the game is worth the candle, and if you can justify what you are asking for, why the cash is here right now. But where do I come in, dear boy, where do I come in?"
"Oh, I will give you your share," Zambra muttered.
"Yes, but what share? You and I have been in some big things together and we have run some big risks. But that don't mean that we go about with our arms round one another's necks like two brothers who have been nicely brought up and who know nothing of the wickedness of the cruel world. We just trust one another as far as we are obliged to and no further."
"Oh, well, if you put it like that—"
"My soul of honour, there is no other way of putting it," Hawker said cynically. "You have had the good luck over that diamond and I have had the bad. Don't you forget that I was up to my neck in that I.D.B. business before you ever thought of it. And I was working certain natives on the outskirts of the Maggersfont Mine long before you and Slaney got hold of that unfortunate man M'Papo and robbed Sir Samuel Oscar of thousands. I know that the King Diamond was found over a year ago. I know how and where M'Papo put his hand on it and how it was hidden in the mine all those months before it was considered safe to smuggle it out of the compound. And, eventually, it was smuggled out, but it didn't fall into Sir Hercules's hand, because it was you who met M'Papo outside the compound and paid him a hundred and fifty pounds in Treasury notes as a first instalment of his share."
Zambra looked just a little white and uneasy.
"A wonderful chap, ain't you?" he scoffed.
"Not half so wonderful as you think yourself," the other retorted. "My boy, you are a bit too clever and always were. It doesn't pay to be over clever, as you will find out one of these days. Anyway, you got off with the big stone and you came to England some months ago with it in your possession. And you never carried out your contract with M'Papo and left him in the lurch, thinking that he was just a poor nigger that you need not trouble any more about. And that is just where you made a mistake, my boy. Our friend M'Papo had a great deal more brain than you gave him credit for. He followed Sir Hercules to England and he died mysteriously. I read all about that in the papers, and that is what put me on the scent, because I don't mind admitting that I had lost sight of you altogether. But for that business at Ravenswood, I should probably never have found you again. But I did find you, and now that Sir Hercules is dead, I propose to divide the proceeds of that King Diamond with you on the terms of fifty fifty."
"Oh, do you?" Zambra asked. "I like your nerve."
"Well, so do I," Hawker showed his teeth in an ugly smile. "I don't know how you managed it and I don't care, but I do know this. I do know that you managed in some infernally clever way to get rid of Sir Hercules so that you could keep the proceeds of the King Diamond for yourself and retire to some foreign part, where you could set up as a big swell on the proceeds. Not that I care twopence what happened to Sir Hercules, but I do care what happens to the King Diamond, because we are partners in this business. Now, look here. You want a considerable sum of money pretty badly, and I am in a position to find it. You can't get the cash from anybody else, and you can't afford to wait. What are you going to do with that champion sparkler?"
"I suppose that is my business," Zambra snapped.
"Well, to a certain extent, yes, but it is also my business, as you will find to your cost if you play any tricks with me. My dear chap, I have got you in the hollow of my hand, and the sooner you acknowledge the fact and come to terms the better it will be for all parties concerned. After all, you wouldn't have had more than half the proceeds of the stone if Sir Hercules had not been—beg your pardon—had not died."
"What do you mean by that?" Zambra demanded..
"Oh, what is the use of carrying on in this way?" Hawker asked. "You won't gain anything by it. And what on earth possessed you to give, or lend, the King Diamond to Cleopatra? I don't suppose I should ever have known where it really was if I had not seen her wearing it the other night at the Colidrome."
Zambra flushed a deep, sullen red.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "Why does a man do those idiotic things where a woman is concerned?"
"Oh, ask me an easy one. You have been hanging about Cleopatra now for the last four years. You are absolutely mad about her, and she doesn't care a scrap for you and never will. She is one of those beautiful creatures without a particle of heart or feeling, born to batten upon men who walk into her net blindly, knowing that she will suck them dry without the least remorse. The sort of woman who ought to have been strangled at her birth."
"I know all about that," Zambra confessed moodily. "But it has always been the same ever since I saw her three years ago at Capetown, riding round a circus ring on a piebald horse. I made that woman, Hawker, I rescued her from captivity. I introduced her to the film people in America and she has never looked back since. I am not myself when I am in her presence. She can twist me round her little finger as if I were made of wax. Dash it, I had that stone cut on purpose to oblige her, though I wanted to take it to the States because I know a multimillionaire over there who would have bought it without asking a single question. And then she wheedled it out of me a month ago to wear on the night of her first appearance at the Colidrome, and I let her have it like the weak fool I was, knowing the risk I was running."
"And now she refuses to part with it," Hawker sneered.
"Of course she does. I am to have it back next week or next year, or some time like that. And I haven't strength of mind enough to tear it from her neck and tell her to go to where she rightly belongs."
"Yes, but there are other ways," Hawker pointed out.
A queer smile crossed Zambra's face. He winked as he significantly tapped the breast pocket of his dinner jacket.
"Yes, I know that," he said. "Cleopatra is banking on the fact that I dare not make any fuss, and if I tried violence she would have called in the police and accused me of stealing my own property. You don't know the limits of that woman's audacity. At any rate, that is what she would have done, and she would have bluffed it through, too. So I just walked out of the flat and left her in possession of the stone. But not for long, my boy, not for long. There is another way."
"Oho," Hawker laughed. "Then you have got it back? It is in your pocket at the present moment."
Zambra winked once more broadly.
"That is about the size of it, my dear boy," he said. "As I was leaving the flat, I noticed two or three latch keys hanging on the hook behind the front door, and I borrowed one. I knew it would never be missed. You know it is the custom to have two or three latchkeys to a flat, so I thought I might just as well have one, and I put it in my pocket. Then I waited my opportunity until late last night, when both Cleopatra and her maid were out, I made bold to enter the flat in search of the diamond."
"And you found it? Then I suppose you were lucky enough to discover the key of that beautiful bloodsucker's safe?"
"Safe," Zambra said contemptuously. "Do you suppose that sort of woman ever worries about safes? The diamond was lying open on her dressing table. She hadn't troubled to even put it in its case, to say nothing of her drawer. So I picked it up and put it in my pocket, and here it is now."
"Yes, that certainly was a bit of all right," Hawker grinned. "Now we shan't be long. You hand that over to me and I will give you a cheque for what you want at once."
"Oh, no, you don't," Zambra said cunningly. "That diamond is going to be deposited in a bank, some branch of a foreign bank, in our joint names. You can look at the stone if you like."
With that, he slid the little morocco case across the table, and Hawker furtively examined it by the aid of one of the shaded lamps on the table. Then the expression on his face changed entirely as he pitched the case back again.
"What do you think you are playing at?" he demanded. "Playing on the finest judge of a diamond in London. Put that rubbish back in your pocket and be hanged to you."
"Rubbish," Zambia echoed. "Rubbish!"
"Certainly. Paste, and none too good at that."
"PASTE!" Zambra stammered. "Paste."
Hawker smiled in a pitying sort of way that Zambra found infinitely more galling than any outburst of anger or contempt would have done. It was as if some mere boy had been trying to get the better of a man of the world.
"I said it," Hawker went on. "What do you think you are playing at? Fancy trying to work such a dodge on an old hand like me. Here, take the thing away."
"But it must be all right," Zambra breathed heavily.
"All right; all right! The thing is Parisian paste. I will bet you a thousand pounds to a threepenny bit, which is pretty fair odds, that I am right. And you needn't take my word for it, either. Show that rotten sham to any diamond merchant in Hatton Garden and he will laugh at you."
Zambra sat there absolutely incapable of collecting his thoughts. It was impossible to disbelieve what Hawker was saying, especially as the latter knew a diamond as well as he knew his own hand. And yet here, to all appearances, was the very gem he handed over to Cleopatra for her delectation and delight. It must have been about a month, he thought, since Cleopatra had finally wheedled the King Diamond out of his possession with a half promise that she would not display it in public. And, indeed, she had kept her word up to the night of her first appearance at the Colidrome. She ought, really, to have refrained from gratifying her lust for adulation and acclaim on that occasion, and no one was more perturbed than Zambra when, from his seat in the stalls, he had seen the great jewel flashing in the centre of that milk-white throat. He realised the danger of a proceeding like that, and he would have given a great deal to have recalled the folly and insane infatuation which had led up to a peril so deadly. Still, the mischief had been done, and Zambra had seen to it that it should not occur again. There was no great harm, so long as Cleopatra had the brilliant gem to play with and admire in the solitude of her dressing-room, but when she came to blazon it in public, that was a different matter altogether. She could have it to toy with and, as a matter of fact, she had had it to toy with for two or three weeks, though Zambra was in a cold sweat whenever he thought about it. In his cooler moments, he was almost amazed at his own stupendous folly in ever mentioning the King Diamond to Cleopatra, or, at any rate, in letting her know that the great stone had come into his possession. And when finally he had laid his hands on it again in the surreptitious manner which he had described to Hawker he was perfectly certain in his own mind that Cleopatra would never see it again. All this troubled him as he sat there, gazing open mouthed at Hawker, not knowing what to do next.
"Well?" the famous diamond thief said presently. "Well? What are you going to do about it?"
"What can I do about it?" Zambra asked miserably. "Somebody has played an infernally clever trick upon me, and I am not going to rest till I get to the bottom of it. I can only tell you this. The King Diamond was in my possession up to about a month ago. I brought it away from South Africa with me after it had been handed over by—well, you know who by, and subsequently I took it to Amsterdam and had it cut. After that, the stone was set in platinum and made in the form of a necklet with a thin chain. That was my folly, and I did it to please Cleopatra. Mind you, Sir Hercules knew all about it."
"What, knew that you were going to lend it to Cleopatra? That be hanged for a tale. Who are you getting it?"
"No, I don't mean quite that," Zambra explained. "I am so absolutely knocked out for the time that I hardly know what I am talking about. I mean that Sir Hercules knew I had the stone. He gave it me himself."
"Yes, but that won't do," Hawker said, with a sinister smile. "You told me that M'Papo handed it over to you."
"When?" Zambra asked. "Oh yes, I believe I did say something of the sort, but at that moment I was not prepared to trust you all that way, and—and there were other reasons."
"Connected with Sir Hercules' death, I suppose," Hawker suggested meaningly. "Is that what you mean?"
Zambra changed colour and just for an instant showed signs of confusion and distress.
"You can please yourself as far as that goes," he said, a little defiantly. "But the honest truth is that Sir Hercules handed that stone over to me in Maggersfont because he knew that I could smuggle it into this country a great deal better than he could. And so I did. I showed it to him—"
"On the night of his death, what?"
"Oh, never mind when," Zambra said, wriggling about uneasily. "I showed it to him not long before he died, if you want to know."
"How long before he died?" Hawker demanded.
"Well, say a month," Zambra lied fluently. "But what has all this got to do with it? The stone was trusted to me to treat as I chose. I was to have it cut instead of selling it in the rough, because we wanted to know its exact value. But all this is so much beating in the air. We had better meet again in a day or two and, meanwhile, I will try and find out how it is that I have been crossed in this way. And I suppose I must wait till then for my money."
"You can gamble on that," Hawker said curtly.
They parted a few minutes later, and Zambra went back thoughtfully to the obscure little hotel in the neighbourhood of the Strand where, for the moment, he had his pied-a-terre. And there he sat down to think matters over.
With a cigarette between his lips he retraced the events of the past day or two. He saw himself once more with the latchkey of Cleopatra's flat in his pocket making his way through the quiet streets very late at night in the direction of the huge block of buildings where Cleopatra had established herself. For a woman of her position in the film and theatrical world it was not what might be called an ultra-fashionable neighbourhood, and the flat was by no means a large one. There were about a score of these altogether, and they were given over, for the most part, to people connected with the stage. This was rather a fortunate circumstance so far as Zambra's projected adventure was concerned, because it meant that people were going up and down the stairs half the night and, therefore, it was not likely that he would be noticed as he approached the door of the film star's flat.
It was well after one in the morning when he swaggered into the hall with his hat on one side and his expanse of white shirt front prominently displayed, so that he made a passingly good figure of the man about town who was about to call upon some actress or actor at so late an hour—at least, it would have been a late hour in any other social circle—and Zambra was pleased that the hall porter didn't even favour him with a glance. He did not take the lift, but sauntered up the stone stairs until he came to the door of the flat. He had every reason to believe that neither Cleopatra nor her maid was at home, though that would have made little difference either way. In the presence of a noisy little group on the landing he coolly took the latchkey from his pocket and opened the front door, which he proceeded to close behind him very quietly, and then, taking a small torch from his pocket, he flashed a beam of light round the hallway.
So far, so good. There was not a sound in the flat, and no sign of a light anywhere. Beyond doubt, Cleopatra had not yet returned. And if he were correct in this supposition, then it would be some time before she came back. No doubt she was supping with somebody or dancing at one of the numerous night clubs which she affected, from which she would probably emerge some time before daylight. And, knowing something of the domestic habits of the flat, the intruder felt assured that Cleopatra's maid would not be back much before her mistress.
This meant, of course, that he had the flat to himself. And unless Cleopatra was wearing the King Diamond, which was exceedingly improbable, then it would be in his possession before many minutes had elapsed. Neither did he expect that he would be compelled to resort to the finer arts of burglary. So far as he knew, Cleopatra had no safe, and he had seen for himself how careless she was where her jewellery was concerned. He would probably find the object of his search either lying on the dressing-table or carelessly thrust into a drawer.
Half an hour or more and the peril which he had deliberately hung round his neck would be finally lifted. And he would take precious good care that he never ran the same risk again. Cleopatra could do and say what she liked, but she had worn the King Diamond for the very last time.
Zambra chuckled as he thought of it. He thought of his expedition to Amsterdam and that secret interview in a little back shop with a queer old Fagin-like gentleman, who had been growing rich for years past, cutting stones that had been brought to him under cover of the darkness from all parts of the world by all kinds and conditions of shady individuals. And he could see how the little man's eyes gleamed and sparkled when they first lighted on the King Diamond. But old Aaron van Light was wise in his day and generation and said nothing. It was not for him to ask questions or raise any sort of trouble which might bring him into dispute with his patrons, and thus interfere with the flow of his remunerative occupation. He had cut the stone in the course and handed it back to Zambra, with the comment that it was a wonderfully good stone, and that he should think that it was exceedingly valuable. And, after that, in the full flush of his infatuation, Zambra had spent quite a lot of money in having the diamond set according to Cleopatra's instructions.
He put all that, however, out of his mind as he crept noiselessly into the woman's bedroom. All was dark there, though the blinds were not drawn, so that Zambra had to be exceedingly careful with his torch in case any flash of light should show in the streets outside. He could dimly make out the shade of the luxurious bed with its half-drawn silken curtains as he felt his way across to the dressing table, and allowed just one faint gleam to shine on its glittering contents.
Ah, here it was, the very thing. Lying right in the middle of the table, just as if it had been no more than a glass bead belonging to some little factory girl. With a quicker beating of his heart, Zambra retraced his footsteps and emerged on to the empty landing. With characteristic cunning he placed the latchkey in the door and left it there, so as to convey the impression that someone with a duplicate key had entered from the outside. Then he vanished into the street.
Almost immediately the bedroom was flooded with light, and Cleopatra stood in the centre of the room, clad in yellow satin pyjamas, and a smile on her face.
"A wonderful man," she said to herself. "So very clever and yet so very simple. But then, they are all alike when they are in love. And I am very much afraid that Carl's passion for me has seriously affected his brilliant intellect."
AS a matter of hard, prosaic fact, the woman known as Cleopatra was not so inordinately rich as the popular journals would have their readers believe. It was true that she made an almost princely income, but, on the other hand, she was more than recklessly extravagant, and, like most of her class, exceedingly generous and open-handed. With her it was emphatically a case of easy come, easy go, so that there were times when she was more or less short of ready money.
It might be urged that she was obtaining ready money every week-end; this, indeed, was true. But then Cleopatra was as ambitious as she was unscrupulous, and looked forward to the time when she would have a fine place of her own in the country, where she could entertain her friends with that lavish display and splendour which were in accord with the best traditions of Hollywood. She wanted a mansion, some fine old castellated place, with a long history behind it, plus a yacht and a villa on the Riviera, to say nothing of a grouse moor in Scotland. And all this she might have attained but for the really criminal way in which she threw her money about.
Still, there was another way of achieving the desired end. There always is another way where women of Cleopatra's temperament are concerned, always some Golconda in sight for those who have the courage and the necessary brains to enter it. And, in Cleopatra's case this mine of Ophir was the Stock Exchange.
It was only natural that a woman in her position should have the privilege of knowing a great many members of that famous money mart. There was one stockbroker in particular in whose hands Cleopatra had been for a long time. And, according to his sanguine estimate, there were huge sums of money to be picked up before long in the city by those who had the courage to buy and hold certain depreciated shares which the man had specified and in which Cleopatra had invested many thousands of pounds. Within three months, unless the bold young stockbroker was altogether wrong, the golden sheaves were coming back a thousandfold. It was only a question of time.
It was a letter to this effect that Cleopatra was reading in her own little sanctum three or four days later when she was interrupted by her maid.
"Mr. Zambra would like to see you, miss," she said.
Cleopatra looked up from her letter impatiently.
"What, at this time of the morning?" she asked. "I have hardly finished my breakfast and, really, I am not fit to be seen. Tell him to come again at tea time."
But Zambra was not to be put off. He must see Cleopatra at once on the most important business. The spoilt beauty shrugged her shoulders and gave the necessary order. A minute later Zambra entered the room with his usual expression of admiration on his face. Cleopatra had been using a mere figure of speech when she said she was not fit to be seen. She was clad in some sort of kimono affair opened at the throat and showing a thin filmy foam of lace and silk beneath that that was only a shade whiter than her exquisitely fair skin. That wonderful amber hair of hers was plaited in a thick, shining rope and hung negligently over her shoulder to the waist.
"Well, my dear boy," she smiled. "And what extraordinary catastrophe has brought you here at this early hour of the day? At first I declined to see you. No man, even a woman's husband, has any right to intrude upon her at 11 o'clock in the morning. You must think me a perfect fright."
"Ah, you will never be that," Zambra said gallantly.
There was no trace of agitation or anger about him. He had come there schooled for that almost vital interview, and he was not going to show his hand until circumstances compelled him.
"Very nice of you," Cleopatra murmured. "But, my dear boy, what are you doing here at this time of the morning?"
"I don't wonder at your being astonished," Zambra said half apologetically. "But the fact of the matter is I want that diamond. I must have it."
"But what on earth for?" Cleopatra asked innocently. "I hope you don't think that it isn't safe in my hands."
"Well, is it?" Zambra retorted smilingly. "Do you ever lock it up? But of course you don't. You keep it lying about on your dressing-table ready for any thief who comes along."
"I am afraid that, is true," Cleopatra, sighed dolefully.
"Well, I want it," Zambra said with just a shade of impatience in his tone. "You shall have it back later on, but for the moment I am bound to raise money. The fact of the matter is that when I left here the other night, I went on old Mint's and I had the most infernal luck with the cards. They fairly skinned me out. For the time being I am broke to the world. Honestly, Cleopatra, I don't know where to put my hand on a five-pound note. There is more coming from America, but that will not be much this side of Christmas. I hate to borrow from women, but unless you can find me five thousand pounds spot cash—"
Zambra paused significantly, knowing perfectly well that Cleopatra could do nothing of the kind. He was quite well aware of her financial position, and, indeed, on the whole, he would have been intensely disappointed if the woman seated opposite to him had answered him in the affirmative.
"I am most dreadfully sorry, Carl," Cleopatra said. "But I am up the financial pole myself. I have had some pretty heavy deals on the Stock Exchange lately, and all my spare cash is locked up. Otherwise I should have been delighted."
"Oh, that's all right," Zambra said cheerfully. "I will take the will for the deed, and, in any case, I could not borrow money from you. That sort of thing is not done."
"Not in circles where the code is so honourable as it is amongst us," Cleopatra smiled maliciously. "Still, you do want money. How are you going to get it?"
"I thought I had already told you," Zambra went on. "I am going to pawn that diamond. I know where I can place it safely without any awkward questions being asked and, anyway, it will only be for a month or two. Would you mind fetching it?"
Cleopatra looked up lazily from her chair. There was not the slightest sign of uneasiness or agitation about her.
"Very sorry, old chap," she said coolly. "But I can't give it to you. I know it will come as a great shock, but that diamond is no longer in my possession. Stolen, my boy stolen."
"What," Zambra cried with a fine show of indignation. "Stolen! You sit quietly there and tell me one of the finest diamonds in the world has been stolen with less feeling than you would display if some loafer had walked off with your little dog. But what do you mean by stolen? Explain."
"I knew it would be a bit of a nasty jar for you," Cleopatra said. "But the stone was stolen two or three nights ago. And I am afraid I am not quite blameless. It is like this. You know how careless I am over little things and how I lose them out of my bag and all that. Well, last Tuesday night I happened to notice that one of my latchkeys was missing. Of course, I thought I had taken it out with me and dropped it in the street or something equally silly. Anyway, it was gone, and I didn't give it another thought. Then on Wednesday I came back from the Colidrome after having a mouthful of supper at the Ritz, and I went to bed not long after twelve."
"You went to bed as early as that?" Zambra cried. "Then you must have been in bed when—I mean that was most extraordinarily early for you, wasn't it? Anything the matter?"
"No, nothing except that I was feeling very tired and bored with the world in general. So I came home as I have said and went straight to bed. I slept well, and in the morning my maid came to me and said that I must have forgotten my key the night before because she found it outside the door, left in the lock."
"And did you leave it there," Zambra asked, knowing perfectly well that Cleopatra had done nothing of the kind.
"Of course I didn't, my dear boy. It was lying on my dressing-table when I got up. And the third key was on the hook, and is there still. When the girl told me that, I knew that somebody had picked up that key and used it to get into the flat in the dead of the night. So I had a good look round."
Zambra stood there cursing his over-cleverness under his breath. He saw quite clearly now that it would have been far wiser to have taken the key away with him and thrown it into some place where it would never be seen again.
"Well," he demanded impatiently. "And what was missing."
"Only one thing," Cleopatra sighed. "And that was the diamond necklet. I didn't wear it to the Colidrome, but left it on the dressing-table instead. I saw it when I got into bed, but when I got up in the morning it was missing."
For, some time no sound came from Zambra. He hardly knew what to say or do. He did not know whether this woman was bluffing or not. He must have time to reconsider his position and decide upon some course of action. Rarely, if ever, in the course of his long and successful criminal career had he been faced with such a terrible impasse as this.
"And you did nothing," he cried. "You didn't even let me know. I should like to know why."
"Oh, didn't I?" Cleopatra flared up. "I rang up Scotland Yard and told them all about it and they are making inquiries. Meanwhile, they advised me to say nothing, and above all things, to avoid what they call publicity."
Zambra stood almost frozen in his tracks, for the very last thing in the world he wanted had happened.
IN all the course of his tortuous, twisted life, Zambra had never been more bewildered and puzzled than he was at that moment. He knew, of course, that fate had played some amazing trick upon him, but how far the smiling beauty opposite him was responsible for this last misfortune it was impossible for him to say with any degree of certainty.
And now Cleopatra had done the last thing in the world that he wanted. Knowing full well where the missing diamond came from, and being alive to all the circumstances that surrounded that magnificent stone, she had actually had the audacity to place that matter in the hands of the police and that without consulting the party most deeply concerned in the business.
He was shaking with inward rage. He would like to have grasped Cleopatra by the throat and choked the teeth out of her. But he could not do that, he would have to play a different game altogether. Moreover, she was not in the least afraid of him. She sat there in all her exotic and glowing beauty smiling into his face as if the tragedy was no more than the loss of some silver trifle from her dressing table. And the more she smiled through those wonderful eyes of hers, and the cooler she became, so did Zambra rage and boil proportionately.
"What fiendish trick have you played upon me," he demanded furiously. "You have robbed me."
"My dear Carl," Cleopatra said meaningly. "Pray be reasonable. Of course, you cannot expect me to be as upset over this business as you are, because I have lost practically nothing. At the same time, I am very sorry and I very much regret now that I didn't send the diamond to the bank."
But there was no particular regret in Cleopatra's voice. On the contrary, there was a subtle smile on her face and a sort of veiled defiance in her eyes that puzzled Zambra and, at the same time, filled him with vague alarm. It was not for him to know that Cleopatra was aware of the fact that it was he himself who had spirited away the King Diamond. Nor was it for him to guess that Cleopatra was enjoying this bit of quasi-comedy immensely.
"Yes, that is all very well," he said. "But that does not give me back my lost property. You actually mean to tell me that somebody came into your room and took the diamond off the dressing-table when you were in bed?"
"Who said anything about bed?" Cleopatra asked. "I didn't. I said that the burglar managed to get hold of the latchkey I lost or mislaid and stole the diamond. Where on earth did you get the idea about my being in bed at the time?"
The woman was mocking him and Zambra knew it. And yet it was impossible for him to know why. He turned the conversation into another channel.
"Never mind about that for the moment," he said. "What I want to know is why you were mad enough to call in the police. It would have been best a thousand times to have lost the stone and said nothing about it. Don't you see that inquiries will be made and that I shall be dragged into it. Do you suppose that Sir Samuel Oscar doesn't know that he has been robbed of thousands of pounds worth of stones? And don't you suppose he is aware of the fact that Sir Hercules was at the bottom of it. Now they will be after me asking questions. Upon my word, Cleopatra, you have brought a fine hornet's nest about my head. And here am I with this trouble hanging over me and not a five-pound note to call my own. You will have to help. You will have to let me have a thousand or two in the next few hours."
"But I can't do it," Cleopatra smiled. "I have got to find a whole lot of money before many hours are over or forfeit all my investments. I am very sorry, Carl, but I don't see what I can do to help you. If you can wait a week or two, I dare say I could manage to scrape—"
"Oh, shut up," Zambra snarled. "There are half a dozen men in London you could go to now and get as much as you like. Those swell hangers-on of yours, gilded youths who would give half they possess to be seen dining alone with you in some swagger restaurant. You have only to hoist the distress signal and they will be after you like wasps round a honey-pot, with their cheque-books burning holes in their pockets."
"Oh, I dare say," Cleopatra said coolly. "But I have never played that game and I am not going to begin now. I am no better than I ought to be, and I don't profess to live up to any high moral standard, but when I do borrow money, it will be from my own husband and nobody else. So you will have to do the best you can, my boy. And don't you show any of that ugly temper to me, because, if you do—"
For Zambra had risen to his feet menacingly, and had made a step in Cleopatra's direction. Apparently he thought better of it and strode furiously from the room, banging the door behind him as he went. He wanted to be alone to think, to puzzle out the extraordinary complication in this business and get at the bottom of the scheme by which Cleopatra had deprived him of the plunder to obtain which he had taken such terrible risks.
Cleopatra lay back in her chair and laughed gently to herself. She was still turning the matter over in her mind when her maid came in with an announcement to the effect that Inspector James Paradine of Scotland Yard wanted to see her.
"Ask him to come in," Cleopatra said calmly.
Paradine entered more or less apologetically. He would not trouble Cleopatra long, but there were a few questions that he would like to ask her. He was smooth and respectful in his manner and never betrayed for a moment that he had taken over this case because it had come casually to his notice at the Yard, and it had struck him that here might be some development of the mystery which Sir Samuel Oscar had outlined when he had consulted the authorities with regard to all the trouble out there at the Maggersfont Mine. It was just possible, therefore, that the bother in South Africa was in some way mixed up with Cleopatra and her missing gem, so that Paradine was only too pleased to find the case left in his hands.
"Anything you like to ask, Inspector," Cleopatra said sweetly. "Of course, I am terribly distressed over my loss."
Paradine took leave to himself to doubt it. No woman who had lost so valuable a gem would possibly have taken the matter so calmly. He knew precisely the type of character she was, and, moreover, he was well aware that the adventuress clan did not forfeit a treasure like that without some outward and visible sign of anger or disappointment. Bitter rage or floods of tears he had expected, but not a calm philosophy like this.
"Oh, of course," he said. "Naturally. Do I understand that you actually saw the burglar?"
"Certainly," Cleopatra replied. "He came into my room as I lay in bed. He had a flashlight torch in his hand and I could see every movement perfectly."
"You cried out, of course," Paradine murmured.
"Well, no, I did nothing of the sort," Cleopatra said. "You see, I was petrified with terror. And I suppose after the man had gone away I fainted. And there I lay till morning absolutely afraid to move. Of course I ought to have rung you up on the telephone at once, but it is so easy to be wise afterwards."
To all of which Paradine listened with some doubt. He did not see a woman with Cleopatra's perfect nerve and poise lying paralysed with fear whilst she was being bereft of something in the nature of a king's ransom.
"I was mortally afraid," Cleopatra went on. "You see, he might have murdered me."
"Yes, he might," Paradine agreed. "Are there any suspicious circumstances. Your maid, for instance—"
"My maid is beyond reproach," Cleopatra replied. "She has been my friend and companion for years. She would do anything for me. I think you can rule her out."
"Then about this latchkey. I understand that the burglar actually left it in the door after he had been in the flat."
"That is perfectly correct, Inspector."
"Have you any idea how he got hold of it?"
Cleopatra shook her head. She had probably taken the key herself from the hook in the hall and lost it. But, on the other hand, some thief might possibly have extracted it from her bag. She was in the habit of leaving her bag lying about in the theatre dressing-room, and, more than once, she had left it in the ladies' cloak-room of some hotel. Some daring thief with the idea of robbing her in his mind might have been dogging her for weeks, with the intention of getting hold of the latchkey. She could think of no other way. The Inspector knew that that sort of thing often happened, to which Paradine inclined his head.
"More than likely," he said. "I should think on the whole you are right. And now a little bit further, madam. How long had that necklace been in your possession?"
As Paradine spoke, he looked straight into the eyes of his companion. It was only for an instant that she showed signs of hesitation, but they were not lost on Paradine.
"Oh, some considerable time," she said.
"And you bought it in London?"
"N-no," Cleopatra stammered. "I didn't buy it at all. It was a present to me from a very dear friend who is now dead. I cannot tell you any more, Inspector, because it would be violating confidence and perhaps lead to something like a family scandal. You see, a great name is involved."
"Oh, quite so, quite so," Paradine agreed. "In any case, it is not a matter of vital importance."
He saw the look of relief that crept into Cleopatra's eyes and made a mental note of it accordingly. The woman was lying to him and he knew that as well as if she had gone down on her knees and made a full confession. And he knew, too, that, for the moment, at any rate, he was not likely to get any more information from Cleopatra as to the original owner of the stone. That it had been handed to her in a moment of weakness by some well known public character he did not credit. But, naturally, he was not going to tell Cleopatra anything of his thoughts. He asked a few questions and then went his way not altogether dissatisfied with the interview.
When she was alone again Cleopatra breathed a little more easily. She was playing a magnificent game of bluff, though possibly she was overdoing her part. It would have been just as well, perhaps, if she had waited a little longer. But then she had been so anxious to score off Zambra and get away with the stone with which she had never intended to part that she had not altogether weighed up the consequences. Still, she was under the impression that she had thrown sufficient dust in Paradine's eyes to blind the trail and, meanwhile, there were other and more pressing things to occupy her attention.
She put the matter out of her mind for the moment and turned to her correspondence. The usual letters from her admirers she tore open and flung contemptuously into the fireplace. There were others of trivial import, and then one that caused her to knit her brows in a frown and pace about the room in none too amiable frame of mind. It was a letter directly to her by her stockbroker from his office in Bishopsgate-street and asking her to call upon him without delay as he had something of great importance to say to her. The letter was not typed, but had been written privately by the writer himself and was plainly intended for Cleopatra's eye alone.
The contents were entirely disturbing. There had been something like a slump in the city and the Stock Exchange hardly knew whether it stood on its head or on its heels. Shares were falling in all directions and the particular group in which all Cleopatra's hopes were centred were suffering on the whole rather worse than the rest. Would Cleopatra come down at once and make arrangements to find another few thousand pounds or, on the other hand, would she telephone him and give him instructions to cut the loss and get out at once.
The light of battle flared in Cleopatra's eyes as she read this missive. Like all adventuresses, she was a born gambler with no lack of courage, and if the situation was to be saved then she was prepared to meet it as far as possible. She noted that the letter conveyed the impression that the slump was only temporary, and that if Cleopatra could only carry over that two or three weeks would see the ship not only in fair water again, but in sight of the promised land.
A few moments' thought and Cleopatra had made up her mind. From the back of her wardrobe behind a secret panel she took a small packet which she placed carefully in her bag and then drove a few minutes later into Bishopsgate-street. A beautifully-turned-out young man with a keen black eye and a rather predatory nose, who rose to meet her, was the junior partner in the firm, by name, Mark Bliss. To all practical purposes he was alone in the business, for his chief had been for the best part of a year in the south of France recovering from a nervous breakdown, so that Mark Bliss practically was the business.
"I am very glad to see you," he said. "Now, look here, Madame Cleopatra, My letter explained itself. What are you going to do? I am not blaming myself for getting you into this mess, because nobody could have foreseen what was happening. The greatest financier in the city would say the same thing. It is for you to decide. Shall I sell out for you for what the stuff will fetch or are you prepared to carry on. For myself, if I had the ready money, I should buy and buy and buy. Also, I should be prepared to pay the calls on these shares of yours which are sure to be made in a day or two. But I am not going to advise you. Perhaps, you had better go to your bankers and ask their opinion. I am accepting no responsibility, merely telling you what I should do in the same circumstances."
"Oh, that is all right, Mr. Bliss," Cleopatra said with one of her most dazzling smiles. "I am not going to squeal, as they say in America, and I am certainly not going to cut my loss. How much have I got to find?"
"That is the spirit," Bliss applauded. "I wish all my clients were as cool and collected as you are. I should think, on the whole, that ten thousand would do."
Bliss spoke of ten thousand as if it had been a handful of marbles. At the same time he glanced keenly at Cleopatra, and saw that she had not flinched.
"Oh, very well," she said. "I can't give it to you in money, because I never seem to have any ready cash. I have no doubt I could raise a whole lot on my contracts, but that means keeping me short of my daily needs, and I don't want to do that. But I have got something here which represents the same thing. What do you say to a piece of jewellery?"
"Oh, well," Bliss smiled. "If the jewellery is worth the money I can do the rest easily enough. It would not be the first time I have acted for a client who wanted to raise a loan on what Mr. Wemmick called portable property. I am a bit of a connoisseur of that sort of thing myself. If you will send the stuff round to me I will see to it."
"There is no occasion to do that," Cleopatra said, "I have got it here in my bag."
With that she unfolded a tiny case and took from it a blazing gem that made Bliss fairly gasp. Hard man of the world as he was, his eyes blinked in its liquid fire.
"My word, some stone," he exclaimed. "Yes, I suppose that is the diamond you were wearing on the night when you opened your show at the Colidrome. You want me to dispose of it?"
"Oh no, I don't," Cleopatra laughed. "I want you to raise ten thousand pounds on it. I suppose you can do that without publicity or any questions being asked by some pawnbroker."
"Oh, that will be all right," Bliss assured her. "I have got a man round the corner, so to speak, who is good for any amount. They do all kinds of business, but they call themselves general merchants. Now, if you will just sit down and give me an authority to deal with this property, I will proceed at once to raise the necessary funds."
Whereupon, Bliss scribbled a few lines on a sheet of the office notepaper and Cleopatra appended her scrawl of a signature. Five minutes later, Bliss bowed her out of his office with many compliments and then returned coolly enough to his desk, though he was shaking from head to foot so that he consumed three matches in an attempt to light a cigarette. But once this was finished he put on his hat and walked along Bishopsgate-street until he came to a little alleyway about half-way down, into which he plunged and finally disappeared into a gloomy building which bore a brass plate to the effect that here were the offices of Messrs. Eli Putress and Son, general merchants.
In the clerk's office Bliss asked for Mr. Mark Putress and a moment later was seated in that individual's dark and none-too-savoury den. The little man with the beady eyes and close curly hair and decidedly Semitic case of countenance proffered his cigar box and asked Bliss his business. The latter, without the slightest hesitation, produced the diamond from his pocket.
"What do you think of that, Mark?" he asked.
The eyes of Mr. Mark Putress shone almost as brightly as the stone itself.
"Ach, what a beauty," he said. "The finest stone I have ever seen. I don't want to ask no awkward questions, Mr. Bliss, but I think I have seen that diamond before."
"Oh, I have no doubt you have," Bliss said hastily, but none too pleased to hear what the little Jew had to say. "But never mind about that. What I want to know is what you are prepared to advance upon it."
"Well, that depends," the other said cautiously. "Have you got any authority to deal with it?"
Bliss thrust his authority across the table.
"Oh, there you are if you must know," he said. "But I think you might have trusted me."
"I trust nobody," the Jew said. "And when it comes to dealing with a stone like that I have to be cautious. And there won't be any talk, either. Why, we've got half the jewels of the aristocracy in our bank. So there is no cause to make a fuss about the pretty actress. What do you want?"
"Oh, not a lot," Bliss said. "Ten thousand pounds."
"Oh, well, you can have that," the other remarked. "You can have that or five times the amount. Still, naturally, we don't want to advance more than people ask for. Will you take a cheque or would you prefer notes?"
"Notes," Bliss said curtly, and the other smiled. "Just as well not to have too much on record."
Putress summoned a clerk, who came back presently with a cheque-book and at the end of a further ten minutes the notes appeared, and Bliss placed them carefully in his pocketbook. He took a sort of formal receipt for the diamond, and, after a few moments, left the office on his way back to his own. On the whole he had done a splendid morning's work and he was more than satisfied with it. But the tense look was still upon his face and his hands were still trembling as he sat down a little later on before his desk and began to write slowly. It was a long letter which he proceeded to make up into a sort of parcel when the door of his office opened and a clerk came in.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," he said.
The clerk laid a card on the table, and stood waiting for instructions. Bliss glanced at the name, Chief Constable Edger Morrit, Scotland Yard, and gasped as he read. His voice was steady enough, however, as he told the clerk to invite the gentleman to come upstairs. Still, his face was deadly white, and he wiped a bead of perspiration from his forehead as Morrit came into the room.
"And what do you want with me?"
"I have a warrant for your apprehension, sir," Morrit said. "Forgery and fraud. I will read it over to you if you like, and I give you the usual warning. Will you come quietly, or would you prefer to call a taxi? One of my men is waiting downstairs, and I will hand you over to him."
"Very well," Bliss said quietly. "I have nothing to say. Oh, yes, I am ready to go now."
In the street, a plain-clothes policeman and a taxi were waiting. Morrit gave Bliss into the charge of this stolid-looking officer, with the necessary instructions. Then he turned away himself, racing westwards, and, a second later, found himself face to face with Sir Samuel Oscar.
"Just the man I wanted to see," the latter said. "Oh yes, I saw that business, and I am not a bit surprised."
MORRIT preserved an aspect of wooden immobility.
"I don't quite follow, Sir Samuel," he said.
"Oh, all right," Sir Samuel laughed. "Your attitude is quite correct, but you must not imagine that we in the city go about with our eyes shut. As a matter of fact, that young man Mark Bliss was at one time more or less a protege of mine, and if he had listened to reason—however, he would go off on his own account, and there was an end of him as far as I was concerned. Brilliantly clever, but just a little bit too anxious to get rich quick. I have been expecting something of that sort for some little time. If you have five minutes to spare, I wish you would look in at my office. I mean now."
"Half a minute, Sir Samuel," Morrit said. "As you have seen so much, I don't mind admitting to you that I have just arrested Bliss on a charge of fraud and forgery. It looks like being a sensational case, but I need not go into that. I must just run back upstairs and put my seals on the outer door of the man's private office, and then I will be with you."
Five minutes later, Morrit was seated in a chair in Sir Samuel's private office with a choice cigar.
"Now, sir," he said. "I can give you just about a quarter of an hour and then I must be off back to the Yard."
"That will be quite sufficient," Sir Samuel said. "Now, touching that matter of Sir Hercules Slaney and the little story I told Paradine and yourself. Have you got any further?"
"Well, no, we haven't," Morrit returned. "As a matter of fact, it is more Paradine's case than mine. To tell the truth, we are absolutely fogged. We don't even know how Sir Hercules met with his death, and as to that diamond smuggling you are so interested in, it still has us guessing. As I came into your office, I was wondering if you could give us a pointer or two."
"Well, I can't," Sir Samuel confessed. "But I rather think that one of my bright young men can. I have been talking it over with him and he was coming to see you in a day or two. He will not be back in London before Friday, and when he returns I will ask him to run round as far as the Yard."
"And who might he be?" Morrit asked.
"Mr. Lionel Bly. Lately Sir Hercules's private secretary, and now in my employ. I should have thought that you would have taken him into your confidence before."
"But what could he have told us? I understand from the few words we did have with him that he was not a scientist, and that he was not deeply in Sir Hercules's confidence."
"I believe that to be correct," Sir Samuel agreed. "Slaney was a queer, secretive creature, and I am firmly under the impression that he was quite mad towards the last. But, all the same, I think you will find that Mr. Bly has something interesting to talk about. I persuaded him to come and see you, only there was a little matter of business to clear up first, and when he comes back he shall certainly call upon you."
Having gone so far, Sir Samuel was not inclined to further confide in Morrit. It was not for the latter to know anything about the King Diamond, at least, not at present. Nor that Sir Samuel had given Bly his emphatic opinion to the effect that in keeping certain information to himself he ran the risk of finding a good deal of trouble later on. This, however, Sir Samuel did not mention, neither was he going to.
It was three days later when Bly found himself in Scotland Yard. He first saw Morrit, who passed him on to Paradine, and left the latter with a free hand.
"Now, Mr. Bly," Paradine said. "I understand that you have certain information. At the same time, if you know anything you ought to have come to us before."
"I dare say I ought," Bly said coolly. "But there were reasons why I didn't. To begin with I must tell you that I was not in Sir Hercules's confidence. I was a secretary and go-between in his dealings with the natives, because, you see, I know a lot about that type of humanity and I can speak several dialects. My business was to take care of Sir Hercules's correspondence and write his letters. Beyond that, I knew little or nothing of his inner life. So you see that, whatever I have discovered has been through my own efforts. Still, I can do nothing practical so long as we are here. If you have the time to spare I should like you to run round as far as Devonshire Mansions with me and then I can show you something interesting."
Paradine was nothing loth. They went off at once and came at length to the late Sir Hercules's flat. There had been no attempt to reduce things to order, no effort to remove the dust and dirt though the big room certainly showed signs of human occupation within a short time.
"Who has been here?" Paradine asked suspiciously.
"Nobody but myself, I can assure you," Bly said. "And only that with your permission. In my spare time, I have been arranging my late employer's papers because my idea is to hand them on to some prominent man of science who will see whether Sir Hercules's extraordinary claims have any basis in fact. Personally I believe such to be the case, but that is only my idea."
Paradine suddenly pricked up his ears.
"What is that extraordinary whining noise," he asked.
"Oh, those are the rats," Bly explained.
"Oh yes, of course," Paradine said. "Sir Hercules's faculty of coloured rats. I remember seeing them the first day we were here. What on earth are they for?"
"Oh, scientific investigations, inoculation, and all that sort of thing. Vivisection, all the peculiar mysteries that men of science indulge in. There are rats of all kinds and colours here, and it is through cross-breeding them that Sir Hercules hoped to obtain his serum for changing the coloured races into white. There was one family of black rats that he treasured more than he did his own life, so I have made it my business to look after them and see that they are properly fed so that Sir Hercules' successor may be able to carry on exactly where my late employer left off. But never mind that, inspector. What you want to know is how Mr Hercules met with his death."
"Well, I have some curiosity that way," Paradine said dryly.
"I am going to tell," Bly said. "Because I am perfectly convinced that the poor old gentleman was murdered."
"Very Possibly," Paradine admitted guardedly. "But there is absolutely nothing to point to that conclusion. If we could discover where Sir Hercules spent the hour between eight and nine on that fatal Monday night, we might get a little bit further, but all the best brains in the Yard have failed to throw any light on the mystery behind those vital sixty minutes. And that is not all. We have it on sound and honest evidence that the poor old gentleman came back at nine o'clock in unusually good spirits. He went up to his flat and barred himself in, and when the postman called in the morning the flat was in the nature of a fortress. Moreover, nobody had been up the stairs after nine o'clock except people that the porter knew, and nobody could have been concealed in the flat and got away when the front door was forced. And I will tell you something more. It has been established by medical evidence that Sir Hercules died of an overdose of arsenic. Certain newspapers are blaming us for doing nothing, and in one of those sheets I read an ingenious theory to the effect that the murderer was concealed in the flat, and that after half suffocating the victim by choking him with a hand in a soft glove, contrived to pour that arsenic down his throat, and thus convey an impression of suicide. You are not going to suggest, Mr. Bly, that there could be anything in a theory like this?"
"Certainly not," Bly agreed. "And, moreover, I am absolutely convinced of the fact that there was nobody in this flat either before or after the crime. But Slaney was murdered all the same. Now I have been making inquiries among scientists, and I have made certain discoveries. The amazing thing to me is that your experts have not hit upon the idea before."
"Well, what is it, Mr. Bly?"
"Ah, that, for the moment, I am not going to tell you. But I don't mind giving you the name of the murderer and telling you where it was that Sir Hercules spent that fatal hour."
"You actually know that." Paradine exclaimed.
"Most assuredly I do. Sir Hercules went out to keep an appointment that precise Monday night at 8 o'clock in the lounge of the Hotel Legation, and the man he arranged to meet is called Carl Zambra. And that I can prove by credible witnesses and a photograph of the man himself taken for one of the picture papers. In fact, a friend of mine engineered that photograph. And, if that is not sufficient, then I can produce the waiter who was on duty in the lounge of the Hotel Legation on the night of the murder. More than that, I can tell you all about this Zambra. I have never met him myself, but I am familiar with his sinister history, and a friend of mine can tell you even more than I. He is here in London at the present moment, and his address can be ascertained easily."
"But how on earth did you got hold of all this?" Paradine asked. "And why haven't you come to us before?"
"Well, perhaps I ought to have done so," Bly admitted. "I intended to, sooner or later, and nothing has been lost by the delay. You know all about the leakage of stones from the Maggersfont Diamond Mine because Sir Samuel Oscar consulted you in this direction. But I don't suppose he told you about one particular stone of stupendous value which was smuggled out of the mine. You see, I happen to be interested in that, I have more than a shrewd idea where that diamond is and it is practically the object of my life to get it back again. If I do, then my reward will be a fortune in itself, but if it comes back to its proper owners through the police, then I get nothing. That is why I have kept my own counsel until the present moment, when I realise that it is my duty to tell you all I know. But we will leave the diamond business out of it if you don't mind, because that is a separate issue, and, for the moment, we will concentrate on the crime connected with Sir Hercules's death. Now, inspector, how many letters are there in the alphabet?"
"Pulling my leg?" Paradine asked curtly.
"Nothing of the sort," Bly smiled. "If you will answer my question, I am going to show you something."
"Well, there are twenty-six," Paradine murmured.
"Precisely, twenty-six capitals and twenty six small letters. Now, how many cards are there in a pack?"
"Oh, fifty-two, of course. What the deuce—"
"Oh, please don't interrupt. Well, here we are. Having admitted that the alphabet consists of fifty-two letters, counting large and small, and that there are the same number of cards in a pack, let me tell you that my late employer was exceedingly fond of a game of patience. He found it a wonderful relaxation when his brain was overtaxed. On the little table yonder you will see a problem laid out—"
"Oh, I noticed that before," Paradine said impatiently.
"So I expected," Bly went on. "And yet it conveyed nothing to you. You didn't see any significance in those fifty-two cards laid out in their numerical order or in the numbers in the corner of each? No, I can see you didn't. And yet the answer to the riddle is there. Mind you, I should never have found it out myself had it not been for a childish outburst on the part of Sir Hercules during the Saturday before his death when we were down at Ravenswood staying with Sir Samuel Oscar. As a matter of fact, I had quite forgotten to take a copy of Saturday's 'Times' with me, and Sir Hercules was dreadfully upset about it. When we reached Victoria on the Monday afternoon he fairly raced to the bookstall for that day's issue of the paper in question. I didn't notice it at the time, but when you gave me the run of the flat, it all came back to my mind. Now, here are the two copies of the 'Times' we want. And here are the ciphers in the agony column, the key to which lies in those patience cards. But perhaps I had better explain."
With the two copies of the 'Times' before him placed by the little table where the patience cards lay, Bly proceeded to dilate at length upon his discovery. Then, when he had convinced Paradine that he had made a discovery of tremendous importance the latter jumped to his feet and walked excitedly about the room.
"Upon my word, I must congratulate you," he said. "This is really something to go on at last. We know now exactly what Sir Hercules was doing on that Monday night between eight and nine. He was, of course, at the Hotel Legation, meeting this man Zambra. But why all this secrecy?"
"Ah, if you knew as much about I.D.B. as I do you would not be surprised at that," Bly smiled. "You will find when you come to go thoroughly into this matter that Carl Zambra is the man who acted as the go-between in connection with the diamonds which Sir Hercules personally smuggled out of the Maggersfont Mine. You see, the poor old gentleman was bound to have an accomplice. He knew nothing whatever about business, and if he had got away himself with a handful of stones he would not have had the remotest idea of how to got rid of them. And that is where Zambra came in. I believe Zambra suggested the whole business. He managed to scrape acquaintance with Sir Hercules, and it didn't take him very long to discover that the latter was desperately short of money. He was bound to have money for his expensive experiments, because they called for all sorts of delicate instruments. When we came back to England, I don't think that Sir Hercules had five pounds in the world. And yet, within a day or two, he had notes in his safe worth thousands. I am perfectly certain that he got them from Zambra, and that they represented the last raid on the Maggersfont Mine. It was a very cunning idea of Zambra's to more or less pave the way for Sir Hercules to obtain the entree to the mines with the excuse that he wanted to study the natives there, whilst, all the while he was within the compound where a Kafir called M'Papo was busily employed in hiding such stones as had been selected for the purpose, so that a man of Sir Hercules's high reputation could convey them outside without anybody having the slightest suspicion of his integrity. And now I will tell you something else, Inspector. Did you happen to read anything in the local Press about the mysterious death of a Kafir in the neighbourhood of Ravenswood at the time we were staying there? To dot the 'i's' and cross the 't's,' the thing happened on the very evening we reached Ravenswood. The nigger accosted Sir Hercules and they had words. After that the man was found dead, and in the palm of his hand Dr. Masefield and myself found quite a valuable diamond. That fact the police have not as yet mentioned, at least, not in public, because we particularly requested them not to do so. But, at any rate, they will confirm my story. And that native was M'Papo."
"Well, I'm dashed!" Paradine exclaimed. "Do you think that this fellow followed Sir Hercules to England?"
"I am absolutely certain of it," Bly said. "I spoke to him in the street and warned him not to go near Sir Hercules, whose address he asked me to give him. And I suppose he took my advice, because he sheered off. But I presume he didn't go very far, probably he was hanging about the neighbourhood and followed Sir Hercules and myself to Victoria station. I didn't realise it was M'Papo at the time and I couldn't actually prove it now, but there is very little doubt in my mind that I am right."
"I am quite sure you are," Paradine said emphatically. "Now, Mr. Bly, why did those two men meet at the Hotel Legation and what was the necessity for the cipher? They could have communicated by telephone and the mere fact of them being seen together in London would have had no particular significance."
"You never can tell," Bly said. "Of one thing I can assure you. It would never have done for those two men to have met in South Africa anywhere. Zambra was known to the police as a cunning trafficker in illicit stones, though they never could lay him by the heels, and if Sir Hercules had been seen with him only once, then the little game of the Maggersfont Mine would have been burked. Of course the police knew that there was a leakage of stones there and I expect they kept a pretty close eye on Zambra. That is why the cipher was invented. I have been into Fleet-street to the offices of one or two South African dailies and searched their files. In one of them—the 'Kimberley Morning Post'—I actually found a pair of those messages and translated them. One was from Sir Hercules and the other a reply from Zambra. They were to much the same effect as those ciphers in the 'Times.' And now I think you know pretty well all about it."
"Well, I am infinitely obliged to you," Paradine said. "And I must compliment you on some exceedingly good work. But, at the same time, I still think you are keeping something back, something in connection with that diamond. Now, we have nothing whatever to do with that and I will not get in your way if I can possibly help it. Have you any sort of idea where that wonderful stone is concealed at the present moment?"
Before Bly could reply, Morrit came into the room.
"Oh, I am sorry to interrupt you," he said. "But I must have a word or two with you, Paradine, with regard to that Bliss case. If Mr. Bly will kindly excuse us—"
"Oh, please don't get up, Mr. Bly," Paradine said. "Go on, Morrit. Mr. Bly is more or less one of us and I don't suppose he will say anything of what he hears."
"Well, in any case, it is mere routine," Morrit said. "You know, of course, that when Bliss was searched at the police station, ten thousand pounds in notes were found in his possession. When I came to search the office, I found a lot of evidence, pointing to an early departure on the prisoner's part. I have had no chance to search his papers or his desk until this morning, but when I did I lighted on this."
With that, Morrit handed a sheet of note-paper across the table to his colleague, who read it with a slow smile dawning on his face as he did so.
"Now this is a most extraordinary coincidence," he said. "But then, we police live on coincidences. I rather think this will interest you, Mr. Bly. It is a receipt for a magnificent diamond pledged by Bliss on the very morning of his arrest with the firm of Eli Putress and Co. for ten thousand pounds. Here is a rough description of the stone and its weight. I should not in the least wonder if this were not your diamond."
"But who is Bliss?" Bly asked. "And who are Putress and Co., and what have they to do with it?"
"Perhaps I can explain that," Morrit struck in. "You see, I had been watching Mark Bliss for several days. I knew that he was up to his neck in difficulties, and before the warrant was issued I had instructions to keep my eye on that gentleman. So practically everybody who called upon him was known to me. Amongst his callers and within an hour of his arrest was that beautiful and famous actress Madame Cleopatra."
"What!" Bly shouted. "What!" Then he turned suddenly to Paradine. "That woman was in possession of the diamond I am seeking. It seems pretty plain to me that, for some reason or another, she handed the stone over to Bliss."
"To pawn," Morrit said significantly. "Stock Exchange speculations and all that sort of game. Just the sort of thing a woman of that type would do. No doubt she handed over that diamond to Bliss shortly before I arrested him, for he took it straight round to Putress with the object of raising money. He did raise the money, and we found it in his pocket. An hour or two more and he would have been on his way to the Continent. However, I will soon settle that matter. I will run down to the office of Putress and Co., and see Mr. Ben, who signed this receipt."
"Would you mind if I came along?" Bly asked.
Paradine raised no objection. This strange affair was growing more and more complete. There jumped to his mind the recollection that Cleopatra had consulted him when the diamond was missing, and now here she was apparently conniving at the pawning of the very jewel which she alleged had been stolen. But for the moment Paradine did not allude to that.
Mr. Ben Putress was quite ready to receive his visitors, but his gay and easy manner changed as Morrit disclosed his business and requested that the pawned diamond should be handed over to the police as it was required for their investigations. He rubbed his moist palms nervously together and wiped a pale and clammy face with a hand that was none too steady.
"I—I am awfully sorry," he stammered. "Most unfortunate. But you see I have unfortunately lost it."
"LOST it!" Morrit echoed. "Do you mean stolen, sir?"
The little man wriggled about uneasily. He was cutting a rather sorry figure and he painfully realised it.
"Not exactly," he stammered, "not exactly." He seemed to be swallowing something hard. "But perhaps I had better explain. The stone you are alluding to came into my—or rather I should say the firm's possession—in unfortunate circumstances. I mean it was deposited with us by—by—"
"No occasion to hesitate, sir," Morrit said. "It was pledged for £10,000 by one Mark Bliss who at the present moment is in custody on a charge of fraud and forgery. In fact, I arrested him myself, and when I did so the money I speak of was actually found in his possession. It was in notes and those notes came from your bank. Is not that so?"
"Oh, I am not denying it," Putress said. "It is no uncommon thing for us to advance large sums on personal security if we know anything about the people we are dealing with. I need hardly say that I never suspected Mr. Bliss—"
Morrit swept the suggestion on one side.
"Ah, of course, of course," he said. "But that is not the point, Mr. Putress. We have every reason to believe that Bliss raised that large sum of money on a security that did not belong to him. I don't think you are prepared to deny that the stone in question was worth very much more than the amount that you loaned on it—in fact it was a diamond almost unique outside recognised historic stones."
"Yes, that is right enough," Putress sighed. "Of course, if there is anything wrong we shall have to make it good. It the owner will come forward and give us some idea of its full value we can talk matters over. And I need not tell you that we are good for any amount. If the stone was worth half a million we should be able to. And that without unduly crippling the resources of the establishment. I am not boasting."
Morrit knew that perfectly well. He knew that Putress and Co. were a firm with branches all over the world and that very few big international financial transactions took place without their having a hand in it.
"Oh, I quite admit that, Mr. Putress," he said. "The people who really own the diamond know perfectly well that they are going to suffer no loss. But, as I pointed out to you before, that is not the real issue. It is the stone itself that we want to recover and we are looking to you to help us. What do you mean by saying you have lost it?"
"Well, it was like this," the little man went on. "It was a beautiful stone, the finest I have ever seen. I should not like to say what it is worth, but in America it might fetch anything up to a quarter of a million or more. It was mounted as a necklet on a thin platinum chain. Really a lovely piece of work and I admired it immensely. I ought to have deposited it straight in the bank, but I wanted to show it to a friend of mine, so I put it in my pocket and I suppose I must have lost it on the way home. Anyway, it has gone and I am quite prepared to face the consequences."
The little man looked defiantly at Morrit as he finished. And Morrit knew that the speaker was lying. Why he should lie in the circumstances was a mystery, but the detective was absolutely sure that Putress was not telling the truth.
"Oh, very well," he said, "I don't think I need waste your time any longer. You admit having had the diamond, which means that you admit liability."
Putress was almost abject in his eager desire to meet Morrit's wishes. He was ready to do anything, he said, especially if there was to be no publicity. He was at the disposal of Scotland Yard whenever they liked to see him, and he apologised over and over again until Morrit and Bly vanished.
"Well, what do you think of it?" Bly asked.
"I don't believe a word he was saying," Morrit smiled. "Still, he admits his liability, and that is something to the good. It looks to me, Mr. Bly, as it you would never see your diamond again."
Bly shook his head sadly. All this had been a bitter blow to him, the more so as half an hour back he seemed to have that precious possession practically in his grasp.
"I can't make it out at all," he said. "Why should a man in Putress' position behave like that? And why should he say be had lost the stone when, obviously he had done nothing of the sort? Can you make anything of it?"
Morrit shook his head, and together, in silence, the two made their way back to Scotland Yard, and there reported their want of success to Paradine. It was clear that the big man was just as puzzled as his subordinate had been.
"I can't make head or tall of it," he admitted. "There is no question whatever that Bliss got hold of what Mr. Bly here calls the King Diamond in some sort of mysterious manner and pawned it for a large sum of money. He wanted that money to clear out of the country with and he would have done so if Morrit had not been too quick for him. When Madame Cleopatra came to me and told me that she had been robbed—"
"What!" Bly cried, "Cleopatra came to you and actually told you that she had lost a most valuable diamond?"
"Certainly she did. She told me a story that bore the stamp of truth. Some burglar managed to get hold of one of the latchkeys to her flat and actually took away the diamond in its platinum setting as she lay in bed."
"And she never cried out," Bly said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, that is not the Cleopatra I have heard so much about. The woman has any amount of pluck and courage and she certainly would not have been robbed without a protest."
"Well, that is the story she told me, anyway," Paradine took up the tale. "It was rather a convincing narrative, and I am not sure that it wasn't strictly true."
"Well, I'm not," Morrit said curtly. "I believe that Madame Cleopatra humbugged you, just as Putress was trying to humbug me little time ago. I have been making inquiries the last day or two, and my man who was doing the shadowing business tells me that Madame Cleopatra was in Bliss's office less than an hour before he was arrested. She was smiling when she went into the office and she looked just as pleased with herself when she came out. At least, so the man tells me."
"I suppose you made no mistake in identity?" Bly suggested.
"Oh, no. We don't make mistakes, especially when public characters are concerned. Practically the whole of London knows Cleopatra by sight. She walked all along Cheapside with my man close behind her."
"Oh, did she!" Bly cried. "That isn't much like Cleopatra. She never walks a yard if she can help it. It is evident that she didn't want to be recognised. Now, I wonder if you will laugh if I suggest that she visited Bliss on purpose to give him the stone and that he pledged it with her full consent."
"Now, I should think that is more than likely," Morrit said. "Some Stock Exchange speculation, probably. No doubt the woman was short of ready money, as most of her class always are, and presumably Bliss was putting her on to some wonderfully good thing, or said he was, though all the time he meant to use those notes for his own purpose. See what I mean?"
"Certainly I do," Paradine agreed. "But fancy the amazing cheek of that woman in actually coming to Scotland Yard and telling me that she had been robbed of a valuable diamond when it was in her possession all the time. Why!"
"Ah, that we have to find out," Morrit said. "And probably we shall do so when we have laid that man Zambra by the heels. The whole thing is mixed up together. I think I will run round as far as Cleopatra's flat and have a few words with her."
"Not just yet if I were you," the more cautious Paradine suggested. "And don't forget that that part of the case is in my hands, not yours. Cleopatra will keep."
Meanwhile, utterly unconscious of the trouble that was brewing for her, Cleopatra had worries enough of her own. To begin with, there was the arrest of Bliss and the end of all her dreams so far as those famous speculations were concerned, it needed no financial genius to tell her that she had lost all her money, and that even her depreciated securities had been disposed of by Bliss before his intended flight. In her usual careless way she had left them all in the hands of the defaulter, and she had paid the penalty of her carelessness. Everything had gone. Including the money raised on the King Diamond, and all that she had poured so lavishly into Bliss's lap had disappeared. Nor could she say anything. In the face of what she had told Paradine it would be almost a farce to go to him and tell him that Bliss had got away with her most precious possession when she had already assured Paradine that it was no longer in her keeping. She had managed to bluff Zambra for the time being, but she could not see herself getting away with it in the same fashion with the detective.
For once in her life she had over-reached herself. It was no use to grieve or worry or work herself up into one of those tremendous passions of hers because all that would be futile. She had lost practically all she possessed, beyond her magnificent salary, and the great dream of a big country house and herself playing the gracious hostess to society would have to be delegated to the Greek Kalends at least for some years to come. And it was characteristic of the woman that, after her first outburst, she settled down to the normal again. Still, she decided to give Zambra as wide a berth as possible until she could think out some plausible story that might or might not satisfy that very suspicious individual. Meanwhile she would not allow this trouble to interfere with her normal butterfly life.
CLEOPATRA left the Colidrome a night or two later more or less at a loose end. For once in a way she had no one to take her out to supper, and she was in no mood just then to go back to the flat at a time of night when London, as she understood it, was just beginning to enjoy itself. She stepped into her luxurious car, and hesitated just a moment when the chauffeur asked for his orders. Then she made up her mind.
She would go as far as the Babylon Club. She would get all the excitement she required there, to say nothing of a mixed and somewhat sinister company, for the Babylon was not exactly noted for its exclusiveness so much as its cosmopolitan membership. There were those who said that two-thirds of the international scoundrels of the world belonged to the institution, and this was no great exaggeration. Still, certain members of society ventured there at their own risk, and the fact that they were rubbing shoulders with the underworld merely added a spice of excitement to the dubious pleasures of the evening.
Into the almost garishly decorated supper room Cleopatra made her way. She swept her fine eyes round, and was more glad than she cared to admit when she had assured herself that Zambra did not figure in the well dressed crowd. All sorts and positions in life, from the pretty shop girl seeing life under the wing at the man about town to a flamboyant princess with an unsavoury European reputation. It was all very flashy and meretricious, with, that forced air of gaiety and hectic excitement which is the mark of the beast where most night clubs are concerned, though Cleopatra was not much intrigued by that. There were scores of people there that she knew, and who would gladly have welcomed the chance of a seat at her table or a dance later on. But for the moment, at any rate, Cleopatra gave no sign as she sat over her supper in an atmosphere of cold haughtiness, that kept everybody at a respectful distance.
Then, when she had reached her liqueur and cigarette her quick eye caught sight of something that brought the blood to her face and a quicker beat to her heart. Outwardly, there was nothing in the couple dancing just in front of her to cause this feeling—merely an exceedingly pretty girl in the first flush of her beauty and evidently enjoying herself to the full. She was one of those small, fragile-looking blondes with the face of a Madonna and a pair of appealing eyes that looked out under a broad, low forehead that was crowned with a mass of fair hair parted more or less severely in the middle. Her partner was a young man about town whom Cleopatra knew by name, merely one of those harmless well-bred young fellows who have more money to spend than is good for them and who waste much time in a suffocating atmosphere of dance halls, when by nature and inclination they are intended for out-door lives.
Moreover, Cleopatra knew the little Madonna with the dove-like eyes and sweet pleading expression. That is to say, she knew her by sight and name, because she happened to be a very junior member of the chorus in the Colidrome revue where Cleopatra herself queened it as the star. And Cleopatra, with her worldly and intimate knowledge of her own sex, was perfectly well aware that Cora Lee, as she called herself, was by no means so sweetly innocent as she professed to be, and that her saintly expression was one of the girl's chief assets.
Cleopatra sat there for some time breathing heavily and waiting for her opportunity. She had herself well in hand now, and the smile on her face indicated one who is at peace with all the world and satisfied with life as she finds it. But, all the same, her eyes never left the thin platinum chain around the young girl's neck and the King Diamond that blazed in the centre of it. She had not the slightest doubt it was the King Diamond, but how it came there, and how Cora Lee had obtained possession of it was a mystery she was determined to solve before she slept. Not that she was going to spoil the scheme that was forming in her mind by any foolish haste.
The chance came presently, when the dancing couple parted and the fair-haired child passed directly in front of Cleopatra.
"Cora," the film star cooed gently. "It is Cora, isn't it? Yes, of course. What are you doing here?"
The girl flushed and smiled, flattered by the attention she had never hoped to gain from so great a personage as the leading lady in the Colidrome revue. Some day she was going to be a Cleopatra herself, but that was a long way off, and, meanwhile, she was no more than an extremely pretty little girl in the back row of the chorus. She had never spoken to Cleopatra before, nor had she hoped for such an honour. But here it was now, and she was going to make the best of it. There were other members of the company on the dancing floor who would notice and envy Cora her little moment of triumph.
"Yes, Madame Cleopatra," she said meekly. "You see, I had a ticket given me. I have never been here before and I could not afford to come on my own, anyway."
"What a shame," Cleopatra smiled. "My dear child, come and sit down by me. I am not in a dancing mood to-night, and I can't be bothered with people. That is why I am sitting here all alone when I ought to be comfortably in bed."
This was Cleopatra in her most gracious and kindly mood, and the little chorus girl appreciated it accordingly. She slipped timidly into her seat and waited.
"Take a cigarette," Cleopatra said in her kindliest manner. "I am not going to offer you anything to drink, because I don't believe in young girls doing that sort of thing. I have many failings, my dear, but one of them is not drinking between meals. If you take my advice, you will never give way to that sort of thing. You are a very beautiful child, but your beauty is rather of a frail nature so that you will have to be exceedingly careful if you don't want to lose it. Let me tell you that beauty is the finest asset a woman can possess. Never mind about brains, my dear, they don't count on the variety stage, and they count still less on the screen. And that is where your future lies, unless I am greatly mistaken. Yours is a perfect screen face. You ought to be earning at least a hundred pounds a week."
"Oh, how kind of you," the girl said, flushing rosy red under this stream of compliments. "But no one seems to trouble anything about me, and I can't push myself."
"No, yours is not the type that does. You want some one like myself to take a motherly interest in you. You must come round and have tea with me say to-morrow afternoon at 4 o'clock. I will get a man to meet you who will put you in the right way. If he is attracted, then he will see that you have all you require and—but perhaps I am putting foolish ideas into your head. Anyway, don't fail to come round to-morrow afternoon."
Cora murmured her thanks as best she could. Already she was beginning to see visions of future glory.
"Oh, you need not thank me," Cleopatra said. "It is a pleasure. And now I am going to say something serious to you. Don't you think you are rather foolish to let men give you jewellery?"
"I don't quite understand," the girl stammered.
"Oh, yes, I think you do. Now, though you may not think it, it is quite plain to me that you made your own frock. It is a very pretty frock, and reflects great credit on you, but any woman in my position would recognise it for home-made at once. And your stockings are not real silk, neither did you buy your shoes in Bond-street. And yet you are wearing a diamond which is obviously of very considerable value."
"But indeed it isn't mine," the girl protested. "I know it is a great stone because the man who lent it me told me so. And I believe there is a private detective in the room at the present moment seeing that I come to no harm. Just for once in my life I wanted to—to—well cut a dash. I wanted to impress all the other girls when I came down to the theatre to-night. But at the last moment I hadn't the courage to wear it, and I only slipped it on when I got here. Isn't is lovely?"
"It is indeed," Cleopatra agreed. "Won't you take me into your confidence, and tell me where you got it from?"
The younger woman fell into the trap.
"You swear you won't tell anyone?" Cora said in her absolutely childish way. "There is a gentleman who is very fond of me."
"And you are fond of him, eh?"
"Well, no," Cora said with round eyes. "I don't think I am. He is not a Christian to begin with. And he is small and thin, and has a horrible hooked nose. He is dreadfully rich. Now, what would you do, Madame Cleopatra, if you were me? I am all alone in the world, with nothing to live on except the few shillings a week I get in the chorus. Sometimes when I have clothes to buy I hardly have enough to eat. It is all very well for you to talk about what might happen in the future," the girl went on with a touch of worldly shrewdness, "but then, you never know. It might be years before I earn the salary you were talking about just now. And I am not quite sure that the man does actually want to marry me. Still, he is infatuated, if you know what I mean, and ready to do anything for me."
"I am not surprised," Cleopatra smiled. "But what has all this got to do with that big diamond?"
"Oh, I am coming to that. He was telling me all about a wonderful stone that had come into his hands in the course of business. He told me that the night of the day when he got the stone, in fact, he showed it to me when we were having tea together. And he asked me if I would like to have it. Of course, I said yes. And then something put it in my mind to try and see if he was really in earnest. I said if he really cared for me he would not mind lending me the diamond to wear for just one night. Also, I told him if he didn't I would never speak to him again. And then I realised my power over him. It's a lovely thing when a girl finds that she can do anything with a man, isn't it?"
"So I realised years ago," Cleopatra said archly. "But, go on, my dear. I am most interested."
"Well, then, Mr. Putress—did I say his name was Ben Putress?—said I could have the stone for this evening, if I didn't mind one of his men following me about. And that is all."
Cleopatra listened smilingly as if she were faintly interested. She knew the name of Putress well enough as that pleasure-loving young man who some day would be the head of one of the greatest financial firms in the world. But she did not say so. She merely held out her hand and asked to see the diamond. When she had it in her grasp, she dropped it coolly into her bag.
"I will take care of this," she said. "Now, don't make a fuss. If you attempt to create a scene I shall tell everybody the story you have just told me. You may not believe it, but that big diamond is mine and I have no intention of parting with it. Now, what are you going to do—call the management and start a flaming scandal or take it quietly? Because, if you don't, you will regret it till the last hour of your life."
HAD Cleopatra only realised the damning evidence that Bliss had left in his desk for Morrit to find in the shape of the receipt for the pledging of the King Diamond and how that same sheet of paper was destined to be used within a space that might be measured by hours, she would have hesitated before she adopted those tactics with the little chorus girl. She would have waited for a less hazardous opportunity. As it was, she glanced at Cora to see if she would put up anything in the nature of a fight.
But there was no spirit of combat in Cora for the moment. She was borne down by sheer weight of metal.
"This is dreadful," she murmured with gathering tears. "I don't know what to do. I don't even know whether to believe you or not. I shall go to gaol."
"You will do nothing of the kind, you silly child," Cleopatra smiled. "Tell that little Jew boy exactly what has happened and he will take it lying down. At least he will not blame you—much. If he turns nasty, send him to me. He has got to see me in any case, and the sooner the better."
Cora abandoned the hopeless encounter. Cleopatra seemed to be such a towering force with that majestic beauty of hers and the calm assumption of one who regards mere man as an instrument of her sovereign will. The thought of creating a scene there was one that Cora's timid soul shrank from. She was not without native shrewdness and audacity, but she had not yet reached the time when she could rely upon her personal fascination to help her out in moments of spectacular trouble.
"I think you are very unkind," she whimpered. "And suppose you are telling me lies?"
"Oh, I am telling you no lies," Cleopatra said with some toleration. "Why should I? If this were a case of sheer robbery you would only have to call up that detective man and give me in custody. Then I should spend a very unpleasant night in the police cell and probably end up by getting six months for an impudent attempt at robbery. As a matter of fact, this stone really belongs to me, and Mr. Putress will probably admit it. He won't resign himself to the loss uncomplainingly, but I think you can leave me to deal with him. Are you going to stay here or would you like to come with me as far as my flat?"
"Oh, I couldn't," Cora bleated. "I am so dreadfully distressed, I don't know what to do or think."
Cleopatra rose leisurely to her feet.
"Very well, then," she said. "And mind, I meant every word I said just now as to your future. On the whole, perhaps you had better not come round to-morrow afternoon. Let us say next Monday, when I may have some good news for you."
With that, Cleopatra moved off, leaving the little chorus girl in an agitated state of mind. She did not know what to do or what to think, and above all things she shrank from creating a scene in a place where she had never been before. She would go straight away to her own humble quarters, and there think out what was to be done for the best. As she passed out of the dancing room into a hall a heavily-built man in an ill-fitting suit of evening clothes accosted her.
"Beg pardon, miss," he said. "But I suppose you know that the necklace is no longer in its place."
"Oh, I know that," Cora contrived to say more or less coherently. "You see, I—I took it off and put it in my bag for safety. I thought possibly I might be robbed of it as I was walking borne. It is a fine night—"
"It is, miss," the detective agreed. "And perhaps you are right to put that gem in your bag as you are walking, but I had particular instructions not to lose sight of you until you were back home, so you won't mind if I follow at a respectful distance. You see, it's the gentleman's orders."
Cora raised no objection, indeed, she was only too pleased to get off so cheaply. She turned presently into the solitary room which she rented in a sort of hostel, and there sat down to think over the events of the evening. It was not yet late so far as the London social world was concerned, so that she made up her mind in a few moments to get Ben Putress on the telephone, and inform him what had happened. She knew where he was, she knew he was to be found in a big house in the West End where he was attending an evening party, so she went down into the hall of the hostel, and, after a great deal of trouble, managed to secure Putress's attendance at the other end of the wire. She had not given her name, and she could judge by the tone of the other's voice that he was not too pleased at this interruption.
"Well," he said. "Who are you and what do you want? And why didn't you give your name to the footman?"
"It's me, Ben," Cora said in a small voice. "A most dreadful thing has happened. I can't tell you what it is now, but I must see you to-morrow. Can't we meet somewhere for lunch?"
Apparently Putress had not grasped the extent of the catastrophe, for the suggestion seemed to please him.
"Oh, very well," he said. "I will be at Mariani's at one o'clock sharp. I daresay we shall be able to settle that little bother of yours. Good-night, my dear."
Mariani's was a little place off Regent-street, where the two occasionally met, and where they could have a little alcove to lunch all to themselves. It was just on the stroke of one when Putress, smart and immaculate as usual, swaggered into the place and greeted Cora with an insolent smile.
"Well, here we are," he said, cheerfully "I 'phoned Mariani this morning to give us something special in the way of lunch in the little alcove which, no doubt, is awaiting us."
He led the way to a secluded corner, and presently dismissed the waiter. Then he turned almost paternally to Cora.
"Now then," he said. "What is the trouble? Money, of course. Or have you managed to get the sack?"
"Neither," Cora said. "And if it were money I should not come to you like this. I know you would give it to me if I asked, but I shall never do that, as you know quite well. It is much worse than that. Far worse."
Putress changed colour. A dreadful doubt was dawning in his mind, and there crept into his eyes a sudden spark of anger that Cora did not fail to note.
"Go on," he said harshly. "Let's have the worst. Tell me that you have lost that diamond."
"That is exactly what I have done," Cora said, with a sudden spurt of bravery. "At least, it was stolen from me. But perhaps I had better tell you all about it."
"It would be just as well," Putress said grimly.
Thus dubiously encouraged. Cora told her story without omitting a single detail. She was surprised and rather pleased to see that Putress was taking it so well.
"And you actually mean to tell me that that woman had the audacity to loot the necklace and walk off with it as if it had been a mere bit of glass?" he asked. "And what was the man I sent to watch you doing all the time? But, of course, you managed to throw dust in his eyes. So Cleopatra says that stone belongs to her, does she? She may be telling the truth to a certain extent, but the diamond belongs to me. It came into my hands in the ordinary way of business, and I was an absolute fool ever to part with it. But then men will do these foolish things where women are concerned. Still, we need not go into that. I shall come into this business later, but there is something I want you to do first. You must go round and see this woman. Go and tell her that I bought that diamond, or, at any rate, I advanced money on it, and remind her that if I like I can have her arrested at any moment. Tell her she must get the stone at once, or I will not answer for the consequences. Then meet me here at 5 o'clock for tea, and, if you can't manage to make that woman see common sense, then I will tackle her myself."
Cora was fortunate in finding Cleopatra at home, and, without waste of time, told her exactly what had happened in the morning, ending up with a request for the stone.
"My poor dear child," Cleopatra said coolly, "do you suppose that I am quite as simple as all that? You go back to young Benjamin and tell him I refuse to do anything of the kind. Remind him that if he hadn't been a fool this would never have happened. Not that he is as abject an idiot as he appears. I suppose you are under the impression that he lent you that diamond out of sheer kindness of heart, or because he was so infatuated he could refuse you nothing. Nothing of the sort. I know why he lent it to you and I shall tell him presently. Go back to him as I suggest and tell him that I shall be here till seven o'clock if he wants to see me."
There was nothing for it but for Cora to retire gracefully and spend a miserable afternoon waiting for the moment to arrive when she could see Putress again. It was a relief to her that he took her information so calmly. He had not the slightest doubt, in his own mind, that once he came face to face with Cleopatra the trouble would be settled in a few moments. No woman had ever got the best of him yet, and none was likely to, or at least, so, in his conceit, he imagined. For Ben Putress was a bit of a lady killer in his way and a little apt to forget that the length of his purse and his reputation for wealth were powerful factors where the smiles of the fair sex were concerned. Not that he underrated that advantage, still they were not everything and, hitherto, he had had no cause to change his opinion as regarded his own personal charm.
"You are not very angry with me?" Cora pleaded.
"Well, I suppose I am not," he admitted. "You are such a dear, sweet, fascinating little thing that no man could possibly be angry with you for long. You know that there is nothing in the world I would not do for you and, after all, that business last night was sheer highway robbery."
"Will it be a very serious loss to you?" Cora asked.
"It is not going to be any loss to me at all," Putress boasted. "Of course, you realise that I don't want anything in the way of publicity. No scandal or talk or anything that is likely to get into the papers. And, above all, no police proceedings. Cleopatra bluffed you out of that necklet and I am going to bluff her. After all, I don't mind admitting that I am the party who is most to blame, because I ought never to have listened to what you had to say. I only brought that necklet to show you, because you are so fond of pretty trifles, but when you pleaded so nicely and you were so sweet to me, I hadn't the heart to refuse you. And that is how the whole trouble came about. But I can assure you, my dear, that Cleopatra is going to find me quite a different proposition. Now, wipe your eyes and come along and have your tea and try and forget all about it."
Cora was only too pleased to let it go at that. She had expected a different reception altogether, but now the thing had been taken out of her own hands and concerned her no longer.
"You are awfully good, Ben," she said gratefully. "And I shan't forget it. China tea for you, isn't it?"
MEANWHILE, Cleopatra was awaiting Putress's call. She had no doubt whatever that he would come round and see her and she would be ready for him when the fateful moment arrived. All the same, she wanted an hour or two to herself to settle her plan of campaign. She knew the type of man she had to deal with, she knew his tenacious nature and what a fight he would put up for the recovery of the King Diamond. But she had not the least intention of parting with it, knowing full well that Putress valued his newly acquired social status too highly to take any steps that were likely to lead to publicity.
And there was another thing—by her own cleverness she had overreached herself. She had told Paradine only half the truth when she said that the King Diamond had been stolen from her flat by some unknown burglar whose operations she had actually watched whilst, all the time, she had the stone in her possession. She had taken it in a light-hearted spirit of adventure to Bliss, who had raised the necessary funds upon it with which to carry the flag flying in her campaign of speculation. She had never guessed for a moment that she had placed herself and her financial affairs in the hands of a scoundrel who was up to his neck in crime and duplicity and one who, moreover, was actually on the verge of flight. It angered Cleopatra almost to madness to think that, with all her cleverness and cunning, she had been an innocent tool in this man's hands, and had actually provided him with the means of getting out of the country. She almost wished now that he had got out of the country, beyond the reach of the police, because in that case a great many awkward questions looming ominously on the horizon would not have required an answer. So far as she knew Paradine had guessed nothing of actual events and so long as the missing diamond could not be traced to Bliss by the police then she was comparatively safe.
She did not anticipate for a moment that Putress would consult Scotland Yard even if she managed to call his bluff in connection with the ravished stone. On the whole, therefore, it seemed as if the matter would be entirely between Putress and herself.
She smiled as the maid announced Mr. Benjamin Putress.
"Ask him in," she said.
"Ah, Mr. Putress, we have never had the pleasure of meeting before, but I know a great deal about you. A patron of the theatre, I think. Am I wrong in supposing that you are behind the new show at the Jollity?"
Putress bowed in his very best fashion.
"Don't you think that sort of talk is a little beside the mark?" he asked. "And may I remind you this is no ordinary afternoon call? All that society chatter is very well in its way, but I am not, for the moment at any rate, a young man about town, who has dropped in to discuss Shakespeare and the musical glasses with that famous film star, Madame Cleopatra."
"Oh, just as you like," Cleopatra smiled sweetly. "If you prefer bludgeons, I am quite agreeable. Personally, I have a weakness for the fencing-foils myself. More in the spirit of comedy, don't you think? But be as candid as you please, I am quite used to it. I wasn't always in my present position."
"So I understand," Putress said with a sneer.
"No," Cleopatra went on, quite unperturbed. "I was once a bare-footed child, hardly knowing where to turn for a meal. But it was good training. It taught me what the world was worth, and how to estimate miserable little rats like yourself at their proper value. Now, go on, the next blow is yours. Hit as hard as you like, I shan't mind."
"So be it," Putress grinned. "Now, would you be good enough to return to me the diamond that you stole last night?"
"Well," Cleopatra smiled. "I suppose it was a theft in a way. But the stone doesn't belong to you."
"The law would take a different view."
"Would it? I am not worrying about what the law thinks. The stone is mine. I gave it to Mr. Bliss because he told me that if I didn't find ten thousand pounds at once I should lose every penny I had invested in the city. Of course, I didn't know at the time that he was simply robbing me and using my jewel to raise funds for fleeing the country. He came to you, knowing that it was the most likely quarter in which he could obtain what he needed. But he didn't sell you the stone."
"That is true enough," Putress was fain to admit. "He pledged it for the amount in question."
"Yes, which is about a fiftieth of its value. I suppose if I said nothing and Bliss had said nothing when he came for trial you would have observed absolute silence, and congratulated yourself upon doing a very fine deal."
This arrow was so near the mark that Putress could only accept it in silence. Such a thought had occurred to him, but he had not expected that Cleopatra would see it so shrewdly.
"You admit that," the woman went on. "I suppose some evidence exists somewhere to show the contract. But we need not worry about that for the moment. You were so pleased with your bargain and so much in love with that stone that you felt bound to show it to Cora Lee. Why did you show it to her?"
"Oh, well, I thought it would please the child. Like all the rest of your sex, she adores jewellery."
"Nothing of the kind," Cleopatra flared up. "You wanted to dazzle that poor little soul. You dangled it before her eyes as evidence of what you could give her if she only said the word. And that simple child actually thinks you want to marry her."
"Perhaps she is right," Putress retorted.
"And perhaps she is wrong—in fact, I am sure she is. You are nothing but a miserable philanderer, a Jew Faust playing up to your own Mepbistopheles. Oh, I know you and all your tribe. I have not lived all these years in a hard, struggling world for nothing. She is a dear child, and she will go a long way if she gets in the proper hands. And some day, probably she will make a brilliant marriage. But, never as Mrs. Benjamin Putress. I dare say she thinks I treated her very badly last night, and so I did. But there is something about her that appeals to me, and I am going to see that she has her fair chance. I dare say you are very fond of her, I dare say you even think you are in love with her. But not in a way any decent girl has a right to expect. You made an utter fool of yourself when you lent her that diamond, and now you are going to pay for your folly."
"You mean you refuse to give it up," Putress demanded.
"Decidedly so. You are wasting your time."
"No, I am not," Putress snarled. "I can have you arrested. I can go to the authorities straight from here and lay information against you. You shall know what it is to spend at least one night in gaol. Come, hand it over."
Cleopatra lay back in her chair and laughed.
"My dear fool," she said. "Do you think you are going to bluff me like that? You dare not take proceedings. You dare not let the world know that the great firm of Putress and Co. are not above acting as pawnbrokers. And you dare not let the world know that you have been insane enough to trust one of the most valuable gems in the world in the custody of a little chorus girl so that she could wear it at a night club. No, because that would mean a lovely scandal for the cheap Press. And what would Lady Edna Wickenstead say when it came to her ears."
"What has she to do with it?" Putress stammered.
"Well, aren't you going to marry her? Yes, I know it is a secret up to now, but one of the little birds who carry such things whispered it in my ear. You are going to found a family, you are going to regild the ancient coronet of the Marquess of Stainforth. And in a generation or so people will forget that the man who calls himself Ben Putress to-day is the same Angus Montagu who married into that distinguished family. Alas, for the hopes of poor little Cora Lee."
"And that is your last word?" Putress said.
"Absolutely. And another thing. You won't lose much by keeping your mouth shut. Which is best, to have a blazing scandal or lose ten thousand pounds? Oh, come, my dear little man, I don't think you are going to hesitate."
Apparently Putress was not, for he left the flat a few minutes later, absolutely downcast and crestfallen and consumed by an impotent rage that almost choked him. Cleopatra had beaten him all along the line and it positively hurt him to acknowledge the fact. From one of the windows of her sitting-room, Cleopatra watched him dejectedly walking down the street, then she threw herself into her chair and lighted a cigarette.
So that was that, she told herself. She had emerged triumphantly from a very tight corner, she had recovered her precious diamond, and, best of all, no awkward questions were likely to be asked. She had utterly fooled Carl Zambra and now found herself in the possession of a gem which was, in itself, worth a fortune. The great mansion was not very far off.
She was still contemplating this rosy picture when there came another interruption in the shape of Inspector Paradine. He would only detain Cleopatra for a minute or two if she would be good enough to see him.
"Ask him to come up at once," she said.
Paradine came and, without delay, came to the point.
"I want you to explain one little matter," he said. "You will remember telling me all about the robbery here not so very long ago. I mean the loss of a valuable diamond. Now, Madame Cleopatra, if you were correct, how do you account for the fact that the same stone was subsequently handed over by you to Mr. Mark Bliss with the object of raising a large sum of money? As a matter of fact, that stone was pledged with Putress and Co., and the receipt was found in Mr. Bliss's desk."
CLEOPATRA flared out into a tornado of passion. That wild, ungoverned temperament of hers had got the better of her for the moment, and she was hardly aware of the fact that she was no longer alone in the room.
"That cursed Zambra," she hissed.
Then she stopped suddenly. In a flash, she had herself in hand again and was smiling into Paradine's face. He never moved so much as a muscle, and outwardly, at any rate, he conveyed the impression that the name of Zambra meant nothing to him. But he had not failed to draw his own conclusions.
"Hadn't you better sit down," Cleopatra said in her sweetest manner. "It is very good of you to take all this trouble over that wretched affair of mine, but I dare say I have only myself to blame. If I were you I should think no more about it. Let the diamond go—I don't want it."
"That is rather strange," Paradine said. "Great theatrical stars have lost jewels before now and occasionally recovered them, but I never knew one who let the opportunity pass for obtaining something in the way of an advertisement. And besides, madam, you have not answered my question."
"Really, I don't know what you are talking about," Cleopatra replied. "You are not suggesting that I am keeping anything back from you? Why should I?"
"Ah, that is just what I have to find out," Paradine said.
"But I don't understand," Cleopatra murmured. "Mr. Bliss? Oh yes, my stockbroker. Are you suggesting that I gave him a diamond a few days ago and—"
"A diamond in a platinum setting, with a thin chain. In fact, just the same sort of diamond that was stolen from this flat not so very long ago. You gave the gem to Mr. Bliss with a view to raising money on it. I mean that you were deeply engaged in Stock Exchange speculations and needed a large sum of money, or otherwise you would have been faced with a serious loss. Not to make a long story of it, the receipt for the diamond was found in Bliss's desk, and it is in my possession."
Cleopatra lay back in her chair, outwardly calm and smiling in the face of her tormentor. She wanted to impress him with the fact that she was not in the least disturbed and that she was looking upon this more in the light of a pleasant experience than anything else. But all the time her mind was working with lightning rapidity. How much did this man know? So far, he was on the right track, but whether or not he had found the authority that Cleopatra had given Bliss to part with the stone was something that she had yet to discover. There was only one way for it, and that to bluff. And if Paradine finally cornered her, then she would admit that she had been merely amusing herself at his expense.
"I suppose you know your own business," she said. "But don't you think you are adopting a strange method in dealing with one who is practically your client. You actually believe that I gave Mr. Bliss a diamond to pawn?"
"I came here with that impression," Paradine said guardedly.
"Then, my dear good Inspector, you are absolutely wrong," Cleopatra lied boldly. "I did nothing of the kind. If I had done so, why should I make a mystery of it? Oh, I see what is passing through your mind. You have discovered the fact that I have had considerable dealings on the Stock Exchange, and that Mr. Bliss was my broker. I have never made a secret of the fact. And I dare say that, on going through that unfortunate individual's papers, you have come across a record of my transactions. But let me ask you one very pertinent question. Now, if I had done as you say and the diamond had been pawned, no doubt you know where it was pledged. In other words, Inspector Paradine, where is the diamond ornament you speak about?"
For a moment Paradine was utterly at a loss for a reply. It was all very well to say that it had been traced to Mark Putress, but then that individual was emphatic in his declaration that the diamond had been lost, and Paradine saw no reason to doubt the truth of that statement. The firm of Putress and Co. was of too high a repute to be suspected of anything in the way of pure business chicanery. It appeared to be perfectly true that Putress had dropped the stone out of his pocket, or it had been extracted by some clever thief, and Paradine had accepted the statement without the slightest hesitation. There was nothing for it, therefore but to prevaricate for the moment.
"Ah, that is a comparatively important point," he said. "I don't know where the diamond is, but I shall know before very long."
"And suppose I deny that it is mine?"
Paradine felt himself lifted on surer ground now. Without knowing exactly what she was doing, Cleopatra had opened another line of argument altogether.
"Then I suppose I should have to believe you," Paradine smiled. "But then you see, madam, it is our business not to believe any statement unless we have absolute proof of it. Now, let me tell you a little story, or shall we say a little parable. There was once an exceedingly clever woman who obtained a valuable piece of jewellery by illicit means. I don't suppose you have ever read a story by a writer called Edgar Allen Poe, which story was called 'The Purloined Letter.'"
"Oh, yes, I have," Cleopatra smiled. "I am passionately fond of sensational fiction, and there are few writers of that class whose works are not familiar to me. But go on."
"Well, this woman was a famous actress in her way. She managed to get hold of that piece of jewellery, knowing full well that she would have to return it sooner or later, which was the very last thing in the world she wanted to do. So she adopted a very pretty little scheme. She hadn't much time to do it in, but just sufficient if she did not waste her opportunities. So she went over to Paris with that gem in her possession and had it faithfully copied in paste by a famous firm. I know all this because I had the case in hand myself. When she came back she had two gems in similar settings, one genuine and the other false. When the time came, she handed over the false to its owner and kept the original. And you may believe me or not, but it was not until the owner had actually died and the necklet went to a famous firm of auctioneers that the fraud was discovered. I am not suggesting anything, but there is the story."
Cleopatra was smiling no longer. She was beginning to see now what a force she was up against.
"Very interesting," she said carelessly. "But I don't quite see how it applies to the present case."
"Well, it does, in a way," Paradine smiled. "I am supposing that was what happened in the present instance. And, mind you, to-day it is much easier to get to Paris and back than it was when my story took place. For instance, either of us could fly to Paris and back in the course of a day and no one even know we had left the country if we took the proper precautions."
"A lovely city, I am told," Cleopatra murmured. "I hope to spend a holiday there some of these days."
"By which I infer you have never been to Paris," Paradine said. "In which case, you have never heard of an eminent firm of jewellers called Manquet et Cie, who have an establishment in the Rue de Calais. They are well-known people."
Paradine had shaken Cleopatra now, though she affected the same easy smile and air of bewilderment.
"So you see how easy it is," Paradine went on casually. "Just to run down to Croydon aerodrome one morning, thence across to Paris, and, after a couple of hours there, back in London in time for tea. I don't mind telling you that on three occasions within the last five or six weeks a certain film star was not at Walton-on-Thames, in the studio of the Umpire United Film Company, when she was supposed to be there. Also, it is not difficult to obtain information with regard to passengers from Croydon to Paris. We have an understanding with the authorities there, because we recognised from the first how this aviation business would play into the hands of certain clever criminals. Now my suggestion is that the trick I told you about had been played in the case of the missing diamond."
"What," Cleopatra cried. "You dare to insinuate that I made a fugitive visit to Paris, and called on the firm you mention with the intention of getting a copy of the necklace made!"
"I have not said so," Paradine remarked coolly. "I wonder if you have heard of a great French aristocrat called the Marquise de Cavaliera? She is a very great lady, and she lives on her own estates somewhere in Brittany."
"Oh, indeed," Cleopatra murmured.
"Yes. And she is supposed to have called on Marquet et Cie to have certain stones copied. At least, that is my information. But when the Paris police came to inquire a couple of days ago at my request, they discovered that the Marquise has been at her villa in Algiers for the last six months. She certainly called upon the firm of jewellers, or, at least, somebody more or less disguised as her did. Unfortunately for the masquerader, she was wearing a peculiar ring in the form of an emerald snake by which we hope to identify her. Just such a ring madam, as you are wearing at the present moment."
Paradine said no more. Indeed, there was no occasion for him to speak, for Cleopatra's face and the way in which she tried to hide her left hand was eloquent testimony enough to the fact that Paradine's words had shaken her to her soul.
She looked up suddenly with a smile.
"Ah, you are too clever for me altogether," she said. "Perhaps I had better tell you the truth. I got that stone from a friend of mine some weeks back—"
"Shall we call him Zambra?" Paradine suggested.
"You really are a wonderful man," Cleopatra said admiringly. "I suppose you know all about Zambra?"
"Well, practically. That is, if anybody does know all about an international criminal of that type. As a matter of fact, the South African police are after him at the present moment. But I beg your pardon, I am interrupting you."
"Well, Zambra gave me the diamond," Cleopatra went on. "At least, I wheedled it out of him. If you want to know where he obtained it, I will tell you. It was stolen from the Maggersfont mine by a native named M'Papo—the man who mysteriously died at a place called Ravenswood not so very long ago. But I dare say you know all about that."
Paradine nodded curtly and Cleopatra resumed.
"Well, I won't waste your time. You see, Zambra is infatuated with me, and I can twist him round my little finger. He told me all about that stone which was going to make our fortunes and I got him to have it cut in Amsterdam."
"I can guess where," Paradine remarked.
"Well, the stone was cut and handed over to my care. It was only lent, mind you. I wanted to wear it in the first night of my show at the Colidrome, and I did. And then the thought came to me that I might keep it altogether if I wanted to, because I don't mind telling you that I hadn't the faintest intention of marrying Zambra. Moreover, I told you a lie just now when said I had never been in Paris. I know the city intimately. And that is why I went there by aeroplane, taking the necklet with me and had a copy made. I did pose as the Marquise, because I was not taking any risks and if I hadn't been fool enough to wear this emerald ring, I should have got away with it. However, I was a fool, and I am going to pay for my folly. A week or so later I crossed to Paris again in the same way and came back with the real necklet and the imitation in my possession. I did that to deceive Zambra. And it did deceive him, too. At the present moment, he doesn't know what to think, and I don't mind telling you that when he burgled my flat that night and got away with the sham stone I recognised him though I told you before that I didn't. And that is the truth, Inspector."
"I am quite sure of it," Paradine said with an air of conviction. "If you had told me that before it would have saved me a great deal of trouble, and saved you probably from an unpleasant exposure. You see now you will have to tell the story in an open court, which you will find most trying."
"Oh, I don't think, I shall," Cleopatra said flippantly. "It will make a topping advertisement and mean that I shall be able to demand my own figure when I go over to Hollywood. They are not so particular there as they are in London."
Paradine went his way presently, on the whole not disappointed with the result of his visit. He was on the track of the truth now, though he was bound to confess that he was just as far off the recovery of the King Diamond as ever. Not that he was worrying much about that, because it was more Bly's business than his own. But he had established a strong connecting link between the great stone and the man Carl Zambra. Here was, at any rate, the shadow of motive for the murder of Sir Hercules Slaney. No doubt that crime had been the direct result of a desire on Zambra's part to keep the proceeds of the diamond to himself. Meanwhile, he would keep a close eye upon that cunning criminal.
Still, Paradine was ignorant of one outstanding fact, and that was that the diamond, the genuine diamond, was actually still in Cleopatra's possession. And Cleopatra, at that moment, was chuckling to herself and happy in the knowledge that at last she had successfully hidden the treasure.
In ignorance of this, Paradine went his way, though he was certain enough of the fact that the real diamond had been pledged with Putress and Co. It was not humanly possible that Ben Putress with his intimate knowledge of precious stones could be deceived by a counterfeit, though where the stone was at the present moment was a mystery with which Paradine was not particularly concerned. His chief object in life just now was to lay Zambra by the heels.
STILL, from a strictly legal point of view, that was more easily said than done. He might arrest Zambra on a charge of burglary at Cleopatra's flat, but there were many and obvious reasons why he should not adopt such a course at the present moment. He felt in the back of his mind that Zambra was responsible for the death of Sir Hercules Slaney, but in the face of the evidence of the two porters in Devonshire Mansions such a line of action might defeat its own ends. He knew all about the ciphers in the agony column of 'The Times,' and that Zambra and Sir Hercules had met in the lounge of the Hotel Legation on that fatal Monday night. But this was not sufficient.
The two men had parted at the end of an hour, apparently on terms of friendship, and Sir Hercules had walked home to his flat in the best of health and spirits, after which he had closed and secured the outer door behind him. There was no getting away from the evidence of the two porters that nobody had been near Sir Hercules after 9 o'clock on the Monday night, and that there was no one in the flat when the door was forced on the following morning. Moreover, the lock and bolts were intact. In the face of evidence like this it was hard to know what to do for the best. And yet Paradine did not doubt that there had been foul play of some kind. It was the most baffling and mysterious case that he had come across in the course of his career.
There was only one thing to do now, and that was to see Ben Putress again. Possibly he might have something to say that would shed a light on the missing diamond. Perhaps he was telling only half the truth, in which case a little judicious bullying might lead to a definite result.
"Now, Mr. Putress," Paradine said when he had cornered the latter in his office, "I want to speak to you very seriously indeed. Without betraying official secrets, I may tell you that that diamond which has been the cause of so much unpleasantness is closely bound up with the death of Sir Hercules Slaney. Yes, I know he was supposed to have committed suicide by poisoning himself with arsenic, but we have reasons to believe otherwise. And if the truth ever comes out, which it probably will, then the story of that diamond and the part it played in the murder will have to be told. This will mean, of course, that you will be dragged into it. I need not remind you how unpleasant it will be for you. Your name will be in all the papers—"
"No, but it must not be," Putress cried in panic. "That must never be. There are reasons."
"Yes, so I anticipated," Paradine said dryly. "And I suppose a certain noble lady is one of them. Now, if you will genuinely help me to trace the lost diamond, then I will promise you that your name shall not appear."
Whereupon Putress made a clean breast of it. He told Paradine how he had taken the stone with the intention of dazzling the little chorus girl and how he had allowed himself to be persuaded to lend it to her for one evening. Then he went on to describe the pitiful story that Cora Lee had poured into his ear after that night at the Babylon Club.
"Ah, now we shan't be very long," Paradine said. "It is a great pity you didn't tell me this before, because it would have saved a good deal of unnecessary trouble. If you will give me the address of your little actress friend, I will go round to her and hear her side of the business. But one thing I must impress upon you, Mr. Putress. Not a word of this must pass your lips. I will impress the same thing upon Miss Lee. I want you both to behave as if nothing had happened, and let Cleopatra imagine that she has got away with the plunder and I will see that she hands it over to the proper quarter when the time comes."
Paradine went away, leaving Putress looking very small and foolish but, at the same time, considerably easier in his mind. If the worst came to the worst, the firm would have to pay, but the firm could stand that and anything was better than a public scandal for an ambitious young man who was just beginning to climb his way into really exalted society.
It was quite an easy job that Paradine had with Cora Lee. He had only to proclaim his name and business to have her sobbing bitterly as she told all that happened on that dramatic evening in the Babylon Club. Her tale was so straightforward and convincing that Paradine believed every word of it.
"I hope this will be a lesson to you," he said in conclusion. "Now, there is one thing you must do, or rather, one thing you must not do. You must not say a word of this to anybody. Go on as if nothing had happened and if you meet Cleopatra, behave to her just as usual. That is all."
It was an hour or two later that Lionel Bly walked into Paradine's office at Scotland Yard.
"Well, is there any further news," he asked.
"Oh, quite a lot," Paradine said. "Not that I am much further with regard to the Slaney business, but I do know where the missing diamond is, and all the mysterious adventures that stone has had during the last few weeks."
"The deuce you do," Bly said. "Have you got it?"
"No, I haven't," Paradine said. "But Cleopatra has."
"What, again?" Bly exclaimed. "That is a most amazing woman. Tell me all about it."
Paradine related the story of the last few days, to which Bly listened with close attention. At any rate, they knew where the stone was now and where to put their hands upon it when the psychological moment arrived.
"I think we can leave it where it is," Bly said. "Now, what about the Slaney side of the business? Have I convinced you at last that the poor old man was murdered?"
"I am coming round to that view," Paradine confessed. "So much so that I am seriously contemplating taking out a warrant for Zambra's arrest on the off-chance of forcing a confession out of him. There is plenty of evidence to justify me in so doing. But where is the proof and how was it done?"
"I don't know, but I almost think I can tell you," Bly said. "I have been talking the matter over with a medical friend of mine and he has given me some startling information. And yet quite a simple solution of the problem. I suppose there is no chance of us being overheard here."
Paradine gave the desired assurance and Bly spoke earnestly for a few crisp moments. Then Paradine jumped to his feet and smote his flat vigorously on the table.
"The very thing," he cried. "You've got it! There is only one link and we ought to be able to supply that. I will take out a warrant for Zambra's arrest this very afternoon."
But though Paradine duly carried out his decision and obtained his warrant in the course of an hour or so, seek high, seek low, Zambra was nowhere to be found.
THERE was no question that Zambra had vanished in a neat and artistic manner which left Paradine fairly guessing. Probably the man had slipped out of the country by some obscure route. Jersey for example; at any rate he was nowhere to be found, and the authorities were left to make the best of the problem. So far as Paradine could see, there was no reason whatever why Zambra should disappear just at that particular moment. Indeed, on the contrary, he had every inducement to remain in England, because Paradine could not see a criminal of Zambra's type quietly allowing the King Diamond to remain in Cleopatra's possession. There was no process out against him either, and it was impossible that Zambra could have had even the smallest inkling of the net which the police were busily engaged in weaving around him.
Possibly if Paradine had gone to Cleopatra, she might have told him something useful. On the other hand, again, she might not. Paradine was shrewd enough to see that it was greatly to Cleopatra's interest to have Zambra out of the way. She had got the King Diamond back with every intention of keeping it. And so long as Zambra was hanging about, there was always a chance of her failing to retain her hold on the treasure. But if she could once drive Zambra out of the country and make it too hot to hold him, then she could snap her fingers at the master criminal so long as she remained in England. It was just likely, with her intimate knowledge, that she had dropped a hint to somebody of whom Zambra stood in mortal dread and thus force him to seek shelter and safety a long way off.
And in this Paradine was not far wrong. Cleopatra, happy in the knowledge that she had regained possession of the great stone, and feeling that nobody would ever learn how she had achieved the desired end, had not failed to realise the peril in which she stood so long as Zambra remained in London. With her intimate knowledge of his past, it was not difficult for her to drop a hint in a certain quarter which she proceeded to do by means of an anonymous letter. She knew that within an hour or two the information would be conveyed to certain people in London who were in touch with the South African police, and, once this was done, she felt easier in her mind.
She had little or no ready money and her salary was already more or less mortgaged. But on the other hand, she had the King Diamond, so that the loss of all the cash invested in city speculations was a matter of no great moment. She had rid herself of the peril that hung over her, so she put Zambra out of her mind with an easy conscience. She had done with him for ever and hoped that she might never hear of him again.
Meanwhile Zambra had had a warning from another and altogether unexpected quarter. It so happened that about the time that Cleopatra had posted her anonymous letter, Zambra was partaking of a modest meal in an obscure restaurant, which fitted in with his present limited resource's. He had nearly finished when a shabby-looking individual slid furtively into the place, and came up to the table where the adventurer was seated. Zambra looked up with a scowl of anger on his face.
"Well," he said, "what do you want? Clear out of this at once. I cannot afford to be seen even here with a scarecrow like you. And if you want money, Lurcher, you can't have it. You ought to know that you wouldn't find me in a place like this if I had as much an a five-pound note in my pocket."
"Oh, all right," the man addressed as Lurcher said sullenly. "I wouldn't have taken the trouble to run you down here if I had not wanted to do you a good turn. Now, look here, Zambra, if I give you a piece of valuable information, are you prepared to pay for it? If you say you are short of money I am sure you are, but you can't be as hard driven as I am. I haven't a bean on me or the prospect of a bed to-night. Give me something to eat and a sovereign, and I will tell you something you will be glad to know. Leastwise, you may not be glad, but—"
"Oh, sit down," Zambra growled. "Order what you like. And if you have something really good to tell me, then the quid is yours. Now then, get it off your chest."
"Well, it's like this," Lurcher said. "Somebody has given you away. It is over that Kimberley business three years ago. The South African police are in touch with their agents in London, and within a few hours a warrant will be out for your arrest. I only found it out quite by accident, but you can take it from me that it is gospel. Now, is that worth a quid?"
A quarter of an hour later Zambra was on his way to the little hotel where he was staying. He paid his bill and had his modest belongings hoisted on to a taxi and drove as far as King's Cross Station. There he deposited everything but his suitcase in the luggage office, and then, carrying the suitcase in his hand, slid modestly out of the station into Grey's Inn Road, where he managed to secure a bed and sitting-room. Once having done this, he sat down to think things over.
He had only a few shillings left now, so that the prospect of getting out of the country was reduced to vanishing point. He must get money in some way or another, and that before many hours had passed over his head. There was a certain mysterious individual living at Hampstead who might be good for a hundred or so, but the interview with the apparently respectable receiver of stolen goods would take time, and time just then was exceedingly precious. He could only think of one way out, and that was to seek an interview with Cleopatra.
The more he thought over her, the more deep and bitter did his anger become. It seemed to him that he owed most of his misfortunes to his connection with the beautiful adventuress, for otherwise he would have been out of the country with the King Diamond long ago. He ground his teeth as he thought how Cleopatra had fooled him in connection with that valuable gem, which he felt sure was still in her possession. True, she had defied him over it, but in his hour of desperate need he would not have been particularly nice as to how it came back into his custody once more. If he could only get Cleopatra quietly by herself, then something might be done.
The more he brooded over this, the more desperate he grew. In a hastily assumed disguise, he spent most of the next day in hanging about the neighbourhood of Cleopatra's flat, and asking questions of various people as to her movements. Then it seemed as if luck was playing into his hands. It was late in the evening when Cleopatra's maid went out, obviously bound for some dance, and, therefore, it was not likely that she would return to the flat before the small hours of the morning.
After that began the game of patience. It was just past one o'clock in the morning when Cleopatra drove up to the entrance to the flats and ran lightly up the stairs. Almost like a shadow Zambra followed her. She was hardly inside the door before Zambra had his hand at her throat, and a whisper in her ear that if she tried to cry out he would murder her. But Cleopatra was not afraid. She managed to switch on the light in the hall and lead the way into the sitting-room. There she turned and confronted Zambra, and, for the first time in her life, a thrill of genuine alarm shook her from head to foot.
For here was a Zambra she had never seen before. She knew his moods, she knew that he would stick at nothing so far as his desires were concerned, and she knew, too, that he was as was in her hands. But not the Zambra who was looking at her with a glow akin to madness in those dark, sinister eyes of his.
He crossed the room, turned the key in the lock, and dropped it in his pocket. Then he proceeded to cut the wires of the telephone before he turned and spoke.
"So I have you to thank for this, you Jezebel," he said in a voice hoarse with passion. "Oh, you needn't smile, you know what I mean. There is only one person in the world who could have put the police on me over that Kimberley affair. I learnt about it last night quite by accident. Now, look here, I have no money, a warrant is out for my arrest, I have to get out of the country without delay. What are you going to do about it?"
"You think it is my fault?" Cleopatra asked.
"I am absolutely sure of it," Zambra said. "And that is why I have been dogging your footsteps and watching you for the last twenty-four hours. And now I have you to myself, you cold-blooded devil. Where is the diamond you robbed me of? Oh, I know you thought you had fooled me with that infernal substitute you had made somewhere or another. But I lay low, waiting my time. And now that time has come. You have got to give me the diamond and all the money you have in the flat as well. Also, a few of your own jewels."
"And a very nice proposition," Cleopatra laughed. "You have got the diamond yourself. You robbed me of it here in the flat. Oh, I recognised you. I lay in my bed and laughed when I saw you take that sham from my dressing table. And I was so sure of my ground that I put the matter in the hands of the police. Do you think I am afraid of you, Carl Zambra?"
They were brave words, superbly carried through, but for once in her life Cleopatra was genuinely alarmed. It was going to take all her charm and all her beauty and all her wiles to bring this man grovelling at her feet again.
"It matters very little if you are afraid or not," Zambra said. "I am going to have that diamond. And because I can't handle it here in London, you are going to give me all the money you have and something I can safely pawn into the bargain. Now then, come along. This is business. So far as love-making is concerned, you and I have finished."
"But I have no money to give you," Cleopatra protested. "Honestly, I have not five pounds in the world at the present moment. I have spent a whole month's salary in advance, and I can't get any more. That is why I went round to Attenborough's this afternoon and raised a loan on everything I had. And I had to pay all that away at once. If you will wait a week or two I dare say I can manage—"
Zambra burst out in a hoarse laugh.
"A week or two," he cried. "What is the woman thinking about? Very well, give me the diamond."
"But I haven't got it," Cleopatra protested.
Zambra strode across the room and took the speaker by the throat. He held her until she grew faint and limp and black in the face. Then he flung her on one side and stood over her with clenched fists and murder in his eyes.
"Give it me," he panted. "Give it me, or I will kill you and find it for myself. I tell you I am desperate."
Cleopatra tottered to her feet, beaten at last. From behind a Venetian frame over the mantelpiece she took a small morocco case and handed it over to Zambra.
"There, you devil!" she gasped. "Take it."
Zambra almost tremblingly opened the case and glanced eagerly inside. There in its setting lay the King Diamond in all its flashing beauty, once more his very own.
IT was in the daily Press two days later that Bly read all about the mysterious outrage in Cleopatra's flat. The cheaper journals were full of it. The famous film star and actress had been followed home by some dangerous miscreant, who had forced himself into her presence in the temporary absence of her maid, and had compelled her with brutal violence to hand over to him certain valuables, including a diamond which the unfortunate woman had greatly valued. But, strangely enough, Cleopatra had been unable to give any account of her assailant. She had been found lying practically senseless within a few moments of the criminal's escape by her maid, who had immediately called in the police. And to the authorities Cleopatra had told a story of a masked man who was quite a stranger to her.
All of which Bly read with the greatest interest. He could give a pretty shrewd guess as to what had happened, and was sure in his own mind that the thief was not masked and that, for some reason best known to herself, Cleopatra was desperately anxious that the police should not know who it was who had got away with her favourite stone. He did not doubt for a moment that it was Zambra himself who had carried out the robbery.
It was all very disheartening and disappointing and none the less because he had regarded the King Diamond as being as good as in his possession. His idea had been that when the proper moment came he and Paradine should call upon Cleopatra and demand the great stone at her hands. And now it had vanished again and might be seen no more. Still, it was plain enough now that Zambra was still hiding in London, nor would it be possible for him to raise any considerable amount of cash on the elusive gem, because, doubtless, by this time, a description of it had been supplied through the 'Police Gazette' to every pawnbroker in the metropolis. There was nothing for it, then, but to wait in patience until the police could lay their hands upon Zambra, who would probably be found with the King Diamond in his possession.
And, meanwhile, there were other things to do. To begin with, the time had come when all the late Sir Hercules's papers and the records of his discoveries must be handed over to the learned professor who had undertaken to carry on the great work. He was anxiously waiting to take possession of the various documents, and Bly had promised to hand them over in the course of the next few days. Also, the professor was taking over the flat for the time being so that he could carry on his experiments with the rats that Slaney had valued so highly.
It was within an hour or two of reading the sensational story in the daily Press that Bly made his way to Devonshire Mansions for a final look round. The next morning the learned professor would be in attendance and Bly would feel that his side of the task was completed. He let himself into the flat with his latchkey and began to look about him. Here were all the papers and documents neatly piled with the index on the top of them, here were all the costly scientific apparatuses cleaned and polished and ready for immediate use. It was only necessary to feed the rather repulsive little rodents and then for Bly to turn his back on the flat for the very last time.
And then, suddenly, he noticed something. The pack of patience cards laid out on the little table had vanished. So also had the copies of the 'Times' through which he had arrived at the solution of the mysterious ciphers. Strange indeed that these had disappeared. It was, of course, just possible that Paradine had taken all these proofs away with him, but Bly could not see any logical reason for such an act. And if Paradine had not done so, then some third person had found his way into the flat and carried the cards and papers away.
But why? Why should any outsider adopt a course like that? Was it possible that here was the sinister hand of Zambra once more? Because beyond Paradine and Bly himself nobody but Zambra was in the secret of those ciphers. It was all very puzzling, but Bly put it out of his mind until he had an opportunity of discussing the matter with Paradine himself.
At the same time this discovery led Bly's thoughts into another channel. He was mentally going back over past events, back to that eventful Saturday at Ravenswood, when the body of M'Papo had been found in the coppice. In the light of recent events it began to be clear that M'Papo had not died by accident, indeed, the evidence of the doctor proved that. The man had succumbed to a subtle poison, which had been administered to him through some mysterious source, but what that source was Bly hesitated to decide. Sir Hercules himself, perhaps. No doubt M'Papo had followed Sir Hercules down to Ravenswood with the idea of extracting money from him, having come to the end of his financial resources. A personal struggle had followed, in which the Kafir had suffered severely. But then his injuries had not been sufficient to account for his death. Possibly the poison had been administered as M'Papo had lain there half stunned in the undergrowth. It was a far-fetched theory, but by no means outside the bounds of possibility.
"I wonder," Bly murmured. "I wonder."
He turned into the late owner's bedroom and threw the contents of the wardrobe on the floor. Here was the shabby blue serge suit that Sir Hercules had been wearing on the occasion of his visit to Ravenswood. And here in an upper waistcoat pocket was a tiny steel tube with a screw top. As Bly very carefully twisted the screw apart from the case, he saw that a needle was attached to it, a needle not unlike the type used in hypodermic syringes. But whether it was hollow or not Bly could not quite make out. The top half of the needle was bright as silver, but towards the point it was stained and dull, as if a coat of something like varnish had been applied to it. Holding this very carefully in his hand, Bly made his way to the little room where the rats were running about their cages. One of the tiny creatures whined and came scratching at the bars. With the point of the needle Bly pricked the rodent lightly on the nose.
The effect was instantaneous. The rat raced once round the cage, then lay down on its side and died. It stiffened perceptibly before Bly's astonished eyes. Then as carefully he screwed the cap on the needle again and, leaving the flat, made his way without delay in the direction of Scotland Yard.
He was fortunate enough to find Paradine in. In a few words he told the latter exactly what had happened and, at the same time, handed the steel case over to him.
"You had better be careful with that," he suggested. "The point of the needle is undoubtedly poisoned, and a sharp prick with it would mean death to any man. It ought to be handed over to your scientific investigators."
"Yes, I will see to that," Paradine murmured. "I am rather glad because it all helps to clear up the mystery surrounding the King Diamond. And, in any case, we know now how M'Papo came by his death. I think your theory is quite correct. That man was pestering Sir Hercules for money, and the professor coolly got him out of the way through that mysterious poison."
"No doubt about that," Bly said. "But you won't mind my saying that I am not particularly intrigued over my discovery. What I want to do is to find that King Diamond."
"Well, that ought not to be difficult," Paradine said. "We know now where the King Diamond is."
"Oh, you think as I do, then," Bly asked.
"Well, if you are of the opinion that Cleopatra's murderous assailant was Zambra, we are in accord," Paradine replied. "I never doubted it for a moment, and that statement about the man being masked was all rubbish. Cleopatra knows perfectly well who robbed her, but since she has been robbed and she has no chance whatever of getting the King Diamond back again, she is not going to make any more trouble for herself by recognising the man who assaulted her. She doesn't want to spend days in the police court, and I don't blame her. Of course, it is very disappointing to you, because we could easily have got the diamond out of Cleopatra when the time came, but we know who has it now and it won't be long before we lay him by the heels. One of my men thought he had him yesterday in a small lodging-house off the Grey's Inn-road. But something alarmed the bird, and he had flown. Still, it is only a question of time. We shall have him yet."
"Ah, that reminds me of something," Bly said.
Whereupon, he proceeded to tell Paradine the story of the cards and the missing copies of 'The Times' newspapers. The inspector listened with a blank expression on his face.
"I know nothing whatever about it," he said. "But it certainly seems as if the hand of Zambra is in this. Still, it seems rather impossible that be could have got into the flat."
"It seems hardly possible that he could have murdered Sir Hercules, but he did," Bly retorted. "But perhaps you would like to come round to Devonshire Mansions and go over the place so as to verify what I say."
To this suggestion Paradine agreed, though it would be quite late in the evening before he was free to get as far as the flat. It was therefore well after eleven when he met Bly in the street and the two of them proceeded up the stairs and stood outside the front door whilst Bly took out his key.
Then he stopped suddenly. He laid his hand on Paradine's arm and drew him to the top of the stairs again.
"Do you notice anything?" he whispered. "There is a light in the flat. Somebody is inside. Zambra!"
"ZAMBRA!" Paradine exclaimed. "The deuce—"
Bly drew the speaker a few paces backwards, and pointed to the bottom of the doorway. And there, surely enough, was a thin pencil of light showing that there was some sort of illumination inside the late professor's flat.
"Yes, I see what you mean." Paradine whispered. "Somebody's there at any rate. But what makes you think it is Zambra?"
"Oh, merely because I know something of the man. It is just the sort of brilliant inspiration he would have. And where would he be safer? No doubt he spotted that he was being shadowed and came here as soon as the coast was clear. He could remain hidden in the flat for a day or two and nobody any the wiser. Even if either of us had occasion to visit the place, he could bolt upstairs into the cistern room and hide there till we had gone. Oh, he is on the other side of that door all right, and he will remain until he can obtain the necessary money to clear out of the country. And there is another thing, Inspector. Zambra has got hold of the King Diamond."
"We can't prove that, mind you," Paradine said.
"No, but it is a very fair inference. The man in the mask was Zambra all right. Cleopatra knows it. She may think it wise to keep her mouth shut, but Zambra managed to get away with the treasure he was seeking, and unless I am greatly mistaken, it is in his possession at the present moment."
"I shouldn't wonder," Paradine agreed. "Yes, it is not so difficult, now I come to think of it. Besides, that is a very simple lock on the door, and an expert like Zambra could pick it in a few minutes. Come on; let's tackle him."
They advanced to the door of the flat and rang the bell loudly. No response came, and suddenly the rim of light under the door vanished, Paradine switched back the flap of the letter-box. He stooped with his mouth to the opening.
"No good, my friend," he called. "We know you are there. You might just as well open the door and save us the trouble of forcing it. Now, then, hurry up."
In response the hall was flooded with light and the bolts inside the door were slowly drawn. Then in the doorway Zambra stood, pale, but showing not the least sign of fear.
"Well," he said coolly. "Well, what do you want?"
Paradine, followed by Bly, pushed his way inside and closed the door behind him.
"I want you," he said. "In fact, I have a warrant for your arrest in connection with the death of Sir Hercules Slaney. At the same time, it is my duty—"
"You can cut all that out," Zambra said. "I know exactly what you mean. Everything I say will be used in evidence against me, and all that. Very well. And what next?"
Paradine shepherded his prisoner into the sitting-room, where, apparently, the man had been cooking himself a meal. There was a small gas stove in the corner of the room, and on this was a frying-pan with a piece of steak sizzling in it. One corner of the table had been cleared to make room for a plate and a loaf of bread, flanked by a bottle of whisky. From the small inner room, where the rat cages were, came a series of shrill little shrieks as if the repulsive rodents were fighting amongst themselves. But in the excitement of the moment Bly hardly noticed those signs of conflict, because his mind was entirely fixed upon the problem of the recovery of the King Diamond.
"Now, what's all this about?" Zambra demanded. "What connection can there be between the death of Sir Hercules and myself? I am not going to deny that I knew the old gentleman quite well in South Africa and that we did a certain amount of business together. But for the last three months, at any rate, I never set eyes upon Sir Hercules and I defy you to prove it."
"Quite naturally," Paradine said. "But you see, that is where we join issue. I suppose you won't deny how strange it is that you should be hiding in the old gentleman's flat."
"That," Zambra said, "is neither here nor there. I shall be able to tell a logical story when the time comes."
"Oh, I dare say," Paradine said a bit impatiently. "But I am not here to bandy words with you. You are my prisoner and I am going to see you into safe custody."
"Very well," Zambra said composedly. "Give me two or three minutes in the bedroom so that I can—"
"Not a second out of my sight!" Paradine said sternly. "Now, come along and don't waste any more time."
Zambra shrugged his shoulders resignedly, and preceded Paradine down the stairs. There Paradine hailed a taxi and the three of them drove off in the direction of Bow-street Police Station. Once arrived, Paradine gave Bly a sign to wait and disappeared down a long corridor with his prisoner. He came back a little later on and shook his head doubtfully.
"Oh, I know the question you are going to ask me," he said to Bly. "You want to know if we found any trace of the King Diamond. No, I am sorry to say we didn't. Zambra was thoroughly searched by our experts, but all in vain."
There being nothing further to detain Bly for the moment, he went off rather crestfallen in the direction of his rooms. It was a sorry story that he had to tell Stella when they met as usual at tea time the following afternoon.
"But I feel quite sure you are right," the girl said. "And I feel equally sure that when Zambra left Cleopatra's flat after that brutal assault he had the King Diamond in his possession. Now, what do you suppose he managed to do with it?"
"Ah, that I can't say," Bly said sorrowfully.
"We took him quite by surprise and, but for an accident, he might have got away altogether. But though he was so thoroughly searched nothing was found on him. You see, it is just possible that he might has deposited the diamond in safe custody or passed it on to one of those receivers of stolen goods who traffic in such things. He had plenty of time to do that."
"Yes, I suppose he had," Stella agreed. "Oh, my dear boy, what a complicated business it all is. Two or three times you have had a fortune in your grasp and yet, on every occasion, it has eluded you. I almost wish we had never heard of it. But it is all my fault."
"Oh, you mustn't talk like that," Bly said. "Your fault indeed. Why, my dearest girl, you gave me the opportunity of becoming a rich man and living happily ever afterwards quite in the approved story book style with the girl of my choice. I am not going to give up yet. We shall find it when we least expect to. So don't be too despondent."
Stella forced a smile to her lips.
"I only hope you are right," she sighed.
IT was only natural that the arrest of Carl Zambra on a charge of murdering Sir Hercules Slaney should cause a widespread sensation, especially in the cheap Press. The police had been worried and badgered by the whole tribe of sensational journalists for their want of acumen with regard to the case, and when it became known that Zambra was to appear before the magistrate at Bow Street there was a rush on behalf of the brethren of the notebook to the scene of the forthcoming drama.
Zambra stood in the dock, pale, but defiant and with an easy manner. To judge from his outward appearance, he had little to fear at the hands of his enemies the police. He merely asked if he might have a seat in the dock and this was granted in view of the fact that the hearing was likely to be a protracted one. The first witness to step forward was Lionel Bly.
He began by testifying to the fact that he had acted for some considerable time as private secretary to the late Sir Hercules Slaney and had spent two or three years with the professor in various parts of South Africa.
"You are not a scientist, I understand, Mr. Bly," the K.C. who appeared for the prosecution asked.
"No, I am not, Sir Charles," Bly answered. "I know a great deal about the natives and their ways and I can speak several dialects, which is the reason why I was selected by Sir Hercules to act in the capacity of private secretary. But I knew nothing of his experiments and the wonderful results that he expected to obtain when he had finished his labours."
"And you returned from South Africa with him?"'
"Yes, we came back together and settled down, as is usual when we are in England, in Devonshire Mansions."
"Does that mean that you lived on the premises?"
"No, it doesn't," Bly replied. "I had lodgings outside and it was my duty to call round every morning to see to the correspondence and deal with all the letters. Also I had to pay the bills and order certain apparatus. At the time of Sir Hercules's death I was in Berlin obtaining appliances for my employer, and I only learnt what had happened through a Berlin daily newspaper. Then I came home at once."
"Quite so. Did you form any opinion as to the cause of death? I mean, did you think Sir Hercules committed suicide!"
"I was absolutely certain from the very first that he didn't," Bly said emphatically. "He was the last man in the world to do anything of the sort. Besides, he was on the verge of what he believed to be a startling discovery. It was nothing less than a serum or injection or something of that kind by which, in the course of a generation, he could turn black men into white. It is not for me to say whether it was the dream of a madman or a practical proposition, but Sir Hercules firmly believed that he could do so. And that is why I felt sure that my employer had met with foul play."
"You had the run of the flat, or course?"
"Well, I had my own latchkey, and, after the murder, the authorities allowed me to make such search in the flat as suggested itself. I had an entirely free hand."
"And that search? Was it successful?"
"To a great extent," Bly explained. "I discovered that my late employer had been in close contact with the prisoner through the medium of a cipher. That cipher appeared at intervals in the agony column of 'The Times.'"
"We are to understand that you solved it?"
"I did," Bly said. "And with the permission of the Court, I am going to show you how."
For the first time, the prisoner in the dock showed signs of interest in the proceedings. He leant eagerly forward as Bly proceeded to take a pack of patience cards from his pocket and lay them out on a large sheet of cardboard which he had procured for the purpose. After the cards had been spread out, the sheet was handed up to the magistrate on the bench. From another pocket Bly produced the front page of 'The Times' for the Saturday on which he had gone down to Ravenswood, together with a similar page from the Monday's issue of the leading Journal.
"Perhaps I had better explain, your Worship," he went on. "If I might be allowed to come and stand beside you on the Bench and point out exactly how I arrived at my conclusions."
Amidst a breathless silence, Bly availed himself of the invitation to come up to the table. And there as he explained bit by bit and almost word by word how he had solved the cipher, there was something like a sensation in the crowded court. As he finished at length and went back to his place, the magistrate read the translation of the two ciphers aloud. Down below, in the well of the court, the sensation deepened and the reporters in front of the solicitors' table scribbled away furiously, for here was one of the most dramatic scenes that had ever happened in a court of justice.
There were only a few more questions and then Bly stepped out of the witness-box, satisfied that he had left little unsaid. He gave one glance at Zambra, who had slipped back into his indifferent attitude again, though Bly could judge from the way in which the prisoner had locked his hands together that he was badly shaken. Then another witness stepped forward. It was the waiter whom Bly had first encountered when he was making his inquiries in the lounge of the Hotel Legation.
"You are a waiter at a certain hotel, I understand," counsel asked. "Is not that so?"
"Yes, sir," the witness said. "I am at the Hotel Legation and it is part of my duty to wait on customers in the lounge. That is in the evenings, sir."
"Then you know most of those customers by sight."
"The regular ones, sir. Of course, we have strangers from time to time, and I generally notice them, because, you see, it sometimes pays a waiter to remember faces."
"Quite so," counsel smiled. "Now I want you to cast your memory back to the night some weeks ago, a Monday night—in fact, the night that Sir Hercules Slaney died. Is that date particularly fixed upon your memory?"
"It is, sir," the waiter said confidently.
"Did you see Sir Hercules on that night?"
"I did, sir. He came into the lounge at about 8 o'clock. Just about the time I was going off duty. It was my night out, sir. But I stayed long enough to see the gentleman come in."
"But why did you particularly notice him?"
"Well, sir, I was very much struck by the gentleman's appearance. He was so tall and thin. He had such an enormous head, and, although he seemed old, I was impressed by his wonderfully clear blue eyes and teeth. Beautiful teeth they were, and anybody could see that they were real."
"Any further confirmation of identity?"
"Yes, sir, a photograph I saw after in one of the papers. Sir Hercules sat down as if waiting for somebody, and that was the last I saw of him. I couldn't tell you any more, sir."
With that the witness was allowed to depart. His place was immediately taken by the second waiter from the Hotel Legation.
"Now, listen to me," counsel said. "As the prisoner is not legally represented, I want to be as fair to him as I can. I understand, witness, that, after your colleague left the lounge, you took up his duties instead. You did? Very good. Did you notice Sir Hercules Slaney?"
"Not to know him by name, sir," the witness replied. "At least, not just then. I saw him sit down and wait, and then a few minutes later another gentleman came in and they sat in a corner by themselves talking very earnestly."
"Did you supply them with anything to drink?"
"I did, sir. They had two whiskies-and-sodas each, and about 9 o'clock the gentleman that my colleague recognised as Sir Hercules Slaney got up and left the hotel."
"I suppose you overheard nothing of their conversation?"
"Not to understand it, sir, because they were speaking in a foreign language. It wasn't one of the ordinary European languages or I should have recognised it. It sounded to me more like some sort of a dialect."
"I don't think we need go into that," counsel said. "Did you recognise Sir Hercules's companion?"
"I did, sir," the witness said promptly. "It was the man standing there in the dock."
Followed another sensation and a shout from those assembled in court that might have been heard outside. When silence had been restored counsel resumed his examination.
"You have no doubt whatever about that?" he asked.
"Not the slightest, sir," the witness went on emphatically. "I had never seen him before and only once since, and that was one night when he was dining in the grill room with a friend, whom I think he addressed as Hawker, but I won't be quite certain about that, because Mr. Hawker was a stranger to me, and, so far as I know, he has not been in our place since. But I am positive as to the identity of the prisoner."
With which the witness stood down amidst a hum of excitement from the deeply interested listeners.
"I should like to ask a question," Zambra said from the dock. "I am not represented by counsel as yet, and I hope that the learned magistrate will give me every latitude."
"Certainly," the magistrate said. "Go on."
"Well, what I was going to ask is how all this tends to prove my guilt? I am not prepared to deny that I was the man who invented those ciphers and that Sir Hercules and myself were in the habit of using them frequently. There were reasons which have nothing to do with the case why it was just as well that Sir Hercules and myself should not be seen together. The same remark applies to the time when they were both in South Africa. Mr. Bly has told you in evidence how he had searched the files of certain South African journals and discovered similar ciphers in their columns. I make the Court a present of this statement. But it does not in the least connect me with the mystery of Sir Hercules's death. Two witnesses have just told you that they saw Sir Hercules and myself meet and part again within an hour. Subsequently Sir Hercules was found dead behind bolted and barred doors, and, if I have time, I will bring witnesses to prove that I could not possibly have seen my old friend again between the time that he left me in the lounge of the Hotel Legation and, the time when he was found dead in his flat."
"All this, or course," the magistrate said, "we can go into later on. As far as I can judge, the hearing will have to be adjourned, and, in the meantime, I hope the prisoner will take steps to be properly represented at the next hearing. Now, Inspector Paradine, will you kindly proceed."
"Very good, your Worship," Paradine said. "Call the next witness. Call Dr. Israel Forbes."
A thin, scholarly-looking man, with pale features and eyes hidden behind tinted glasses, emerged timidly from the throng and stepped as if unwillingly into the box.
"Dr. Forbes, I believe," counsel said suavely. "Now, Doctor, will you kindly tell us something that is likely to throw a light on this remarkable case."
"I will do my best, sir," the little man said. "I really have nothing to do with the case, and I never spoke to Sir Hercules Slaney in my life. Neither have I seen the prisoner in the dock until the last few moments. My friend Mr. Bly, one of the previous witnesses, introduced me to Inspector Paradine with a view to expounding a theory which seems to have been entirely overlooked. In fact, my evidence is entirely theory."
'"Then you can't tell us anything?" counsel asked.
"Oh, yes, I think I can, Sir Charles. I was very interested in the case. I read all about it in the papers, especially with regard to the fact that Sir Hercules was found dead behind locked doors. I came to the conclusion that he was the last man in the world to commit suicide and I am still of the same opinion."
"Then how did he die?" counsel asked.
"Ah, that I cannot definitely tell you. We know that he came to his end by arsenical poisoning. And the inference is that that poison was self-inflicted. To all outward appearance, such was the case when we realise that nobody was in the professor's flat after he had locked the door on that eventful Monday night. The thing looks an absolutely baffling mystery. But let us suppose for a moment that the poison was administered to Sir Hercules between the hours of 8 and 9 on that Monday night, the hour that he was actually in the Hotel Legation."
"But do you mean that he was poisoned there?" counsel cried.
"Well, at any rate, it is a plausible theory," witness smiled. "It has been proved that the professor had two whiskies-and-sodas and each of those might have been strongly impregnated with arsenic. You might suggest that he would have noticed the taste, but then he was an absent-minded old gentleman and talking excitedly at the time. If I am correct, then it would have been quite possible for the professor to have walked home from the Hotel Legation to his flat before the poison began to take effect. Any toxicologist will bear me out in what I say."
Once again the court swayed with excitement at this amazing and unexpected evidence. Paradine, standing by Bly's side, and himself absolutely unmoved, indicated the man who was standing a few yards behind him.
"See that fellow?" he said. "I mean the man in the brown overcoat. The man with the grey moustache."
"Oh, yes," Bly said. "What has he to do with it?"
"Only this," Paradine said with a grim smile. "He is the chemist who sold the arsenic to Zambra."
"WHEN did you find that out?" Bly asked.
"Oh, only an hour or two ago," Paradine explained. "Ever since you made that suggestion to me, which your doctor friend has confirmed, our men have been hunting high and low for anyone from whom Zambra was likely to have bought the stuff. Well, they found one at last in a back street behind Charing Cross-road. Of course, we had that photograph of Zambra and Cleopatra to help us, and the chemist was quite sure he recognised the man in it. When he came into court just now he was certain. Just a minute—he is going to give his evidence."
The chemist stepped into the box and was immediately asked a pointed question by the prosecution.
"You are here at the instigation of the police," counsel suggested. "You are a chemist, I believe."
"That is right, sir," the man in the box said.
"And you sell all sorts of drugs. Poisons of various sorts, and so forth, I presume."
"In the course of business, quite so, sir."
"Now, will you look at the prisoner in the dock," counsel went on. "Have you ever seen him before?"
"Yes, sir," the witness replied with great promptitude.
"Very good. In that case will you be good enough to tell the Court when you saw the prisoner and how."
"Well, he came into my shop, sir. It would be some weeks ago, but I have the date with me and will produce it. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon when the prisoner came into my shop and asked for an ounce of arsenic. It was supplied to him, and I entered the transaction in my poison book. And that is about all I can tell you, sir."
"You've no doubt as to the prisoner's identity?"
"Not in the least, sir. I could have picked him out anywhere from the photograph the detectives showed me. In fact, I saw the photograph myself because it happened to be in my favourite picture paper. The prisoner was taken by a Press photographer, together with the famous actress, Madame Cleopatra."
A few words more, and the witness was allowed to depart. It was not so much what the chemist said as the gist of his evidence, which left little doubt in the minds of the spectators that the police had established an almost perfect case. As the witness stepped from the box, Bly whispered a few quick, excited words into the ears of his companion, Paradine.
"That is a bit of an inspiration, Mr. Bly," the latter said. "I will see to the matter at once."
With that, Paradine made his way as far as the solicitor's table and spoke hurriedly to the distinguished barrister who was appearing on behalf of the Crown.
"That is practically my case, your worship," counsel said. "But before I address the Court, I should like to have the second waiter from the Hotel Legation recalled for a moment. I wish to ask him a few further questions."
The waiter who had attended to the wants of Zambra and Slaney on the night of the latter's death came forward.
"I will not keep you more than a minute or two," counsel said. "On that particular Monday night, you waited upon the prisoner and Sir Hercules. According to your statement, you took them a whisky-and-soda each on two occasions. Did you, at the same time, supply them with anything else?"
"No, sir," the witness said. "Oh, yes, I did. I had quite forgotten. The prisoner asked for a small plate of ham sandwiches. At least, he didn't ask for himself, because it was Sir Hercules who suggested it. I was to get about three or four sandwiches which were to be well seasoned."
"That will do, I think," counsel said.
The witness sat down, to the obvious disappointment of the listeners, who had evidently expected something dramatic in connection with the prosecution. Then the eminent barrister went on to address the Bench.
"That is my case, your Worship," he said. "I may say that when I came into court this morning I did not expect to be able to produce the chemist who sold arsenic to the prisoner and positively identified him. Not only that, but from his book he verified the date of the sale. It was a suggestion from an individual in court who knows a good deal about Sir Hercules' habits who wished the waiter to be recalled because the gentleman I am speaking about knew that Sir Hercules was never in the habit of partaking of spirituous liquor between meals unless he had at least a biscuit with it. There are many scientific men who advocate this course, and perhaps it is a sound one. At any rate, that was what happened on the night of the death of Sir Hercules Slaney. Now, it is my contention that the prisoner, knowing Sir Hercules as intimately as he did, was perfectly aware of this habit. In fact, he looked for it as a matter of course. He knew when he ordered the whisky-and-soda that Sir Hercules would ask for something, however slight, in the way of food. And he knew, moreover, that the highly seasoned ham sandwich which, I take it, implies a good deal of mustard would have been more than sufficient to hide the acrid taste of the arsenic. I suggest that when those two men were talking earnestly together one or more of the sandwiches were surreptitiously removed from the plate and, under cover of the table, the arsenic was dusted on the ham and the upper slice of bread and butter replaced. Such a piece of dexterous juggling would be quite easy to so bold and clever a man as the prisoner. And that is as far as I am prepared to go this morning."
The magistrate on the bench looked over his spectacles.
"It seems to me," he said judicially, "that something like a prima facie case has been made out. I don't know whether the prisoner will like a remand, or whether he would prefer to reserve his defence and be properly represented later on at the Central Criminal Court."
The magistrate glanced to the dock as he spoke. Zambra shrugged his shoulders with perfect indifference.
"Just as your Worship pleases," he said. "I am not guilty of this charge and if you like to commit me for trial I have no objection. Later on I will instruct counsel."
"Very well," the magistrate said briefly. "You are committed for trial at the next sessions."
It was all over and the great majority of the spectators left the court. Paradine detained Bly as the latter was making his way out into Tavistock-street.
"I think that will be about the end of Carl Zambra," he said. "That was a very happy suggestion of yours with regard to those sandwiches. It has got us out of rather a tight place. If you had not thought of such a thing, I could see a clever barrister making fine play with our contention that Sir Hercules was poisoned by arsenic in the lounge of the hotel. You see, we should have had to have pinned ourselves to the insinuation that the powder was introduced into the whisky-and-soda, which would be anything but easy to do. I suppose that Sir Hercules always did eat something when he drank spirits?"
"Invariably," Bly said. "As a matter of fact, the old gentleman was rather partial to a drop of fine old Scotch. He had a wonderful constitution and could drink anything at any time and any amount of it. But he always attributed his immunity from harm to the habit of eating even a small biscuit with every drink he partook of. I never knew him to forget it."
"Well, from our point of view, it was an excellent habit. Now if you will walk with me as far as the Yard—"
"Can't be done," Bly said briefly. "I am late for an important appointment as it is. I must get back to Devonshire Mansions as quickly as possible to meet Professor John Everdine there. I have put him off twice. You see he is the great scientific authority who has undertaken to carry on the work that poor old Sir Hercules had in hand. And indeed he has made arrangements to retain the flat so that he can work there without having all the bother of moving everything. I have to meet him this morning and hand over everything. But I can call in at any time after three o'clock."
Bly hurried off to Devonshire Mansions, where he found the learned professor impatiently awaiting him on the doorstep. Then followed an hour or two during which Bly laid all the papers and documents before Dr. Everdine, who went through them with meticulous care to the very finish.
"I think that is all, Mr. Bly," he said. "You may not be a scientist, but you certainly have a fine mathematical mind. I only wish I could find somebody to keep my papers in the same perfect order. I can see my late friend's scheme with absolute clearness now. Um—yes," he mumbled to himself. "Most fascinating. Probably nothing in it when you come to practical results, but then, where scientists are concerned you never can quite tell. Now, as to the lease of the flat."
"I don't think you need worry about that, doctor," Bly said. "The lease has some two years to run yet. I have seen the landlord's agent, and told him what you propose to do, and he has no objection to accepting you as the tenant. If it will save you trouble I will have all the necessary documents prepared, after which you will sign the transfer and the flat will be as much yours as it was Sir Hercules'."
"Now, that is very good of you, young man,"' Everdine said, "I hate all that sort of thing, because it always bothers me and in business matters I am no more than a child. There is only one more little thing."
"And what is that?" Bly asked smilingly.
"Well, the matter of those rats. Of course, I am quite accustomed to experimenting on animals in a perfectly humane way, but it so happens that I have a particular aversion to rats. I don't understand the creatures. How do you feed them and what do they eat? If you will give me some details in that respect I dare say I can get my chauffeur to see to the rest. You might jot the details down on paper. Then I will come back here in half an hour and relieve you of further responsibility."
"I will do that with pleasure," Bly said. "It is a very simple matter, after all."
Dr. Everdine ambled off in his absent-minded way, leaving Bly in possession of the flat. Everything was now in order and there was nothing to be done except make a kind of schedule with regard to the rats' feeding on the typewriter. Once this was done, Bly went into the inner room, where the rodents were disporting themselves in their cages. At the sight of him a score or so of the little creatures rushed to the bars and began to clamour in their insatiable way for food. Like their cousins, the guinea pigs, they never seemed to have enough to eat, and Bly smiled as he recognised the inevitable symptoms.
He filled up the ingenious automatic arrangements by which, at intervals, the rodents received a regular supply of grain, and saw that the water tanks in each case were replenished. There were rats of all kinds and colours, from pure white to raven black. It was these ebony-coloured creatures that always engaged Sir Hercules' closest attention. They were in a cage by themselves apart from the rest, and for the last time Bly cast an eye over them. It was in so doing that he noticed something that immediately claimed his earnest attention.
On the floor of one compartment of the cage which had been barred from the rest three dead rats lay. They were so small that their eyes were not yet open, and they were absolutely devoid of hair. It seemed as if they had fallen out of the nest, which was under the roof of the cage and approached by a sort of sliding platform. How they got there it was impossible for Bly to say. Then he recollected that clamour made by the repulsive little creatures on the night when Zambra had been discovered in the flat, and a sudden thought flashed like lightning through his mind.
With a trembling hand he pulled back the top of the cage and looked down into the nest from which the baby rats had fallen. The nest was empty, but something closely coiled up lay inside it—something that gleamed and glittered.
Bly lifted the object from its bed of down, and stood there half dazed with the King Diamond in his hand!
IT was a week later and a small party had gathered at Ravenswood. It consisted of Sir Samuel Oscar, together with Stella and Bly. There were no other guests invited for the week-end and Sir Samuel had had his own ends in view when he had arranged this meeting under the roof where Stella had been born. He was in one of his best and kindliest moods and happy in the knowledge that a problem which had been sorely troubling him for a long time had now been practically solved.
He sat at the luncheon table, fairly exuding geniality and good nature. He beamed on his two guests in his best fatherly fashion, and, indeed, it was hard to believe that this was the great man who held so firm a sway in Bishopsgate-street.
"Well, here we are," he said. "With all our troubles and worries behind us for the next eight-and-forty hours at least. Now, I dare say you young people want to know why I have asked you down here. Perhaps Bly can guess."
"I dare say I can, sir," Bly replied. "You want to hear the full story of the King Diamond."
"Well, amongst other things," Sir Samuel admitted. "You see, I know practically nothing. I promised you that you should receive half the value of that stone if you got it back, and I am not going to break my word. To tell you the honest truth, I never believed that there really was a King Diamond. I am not the sort of man who has made a large fortune chasing rainbows, and I am too old to begin now. I didn't go further than to believe that there might have been some basis of truth in that legend, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see on my office table the wonderful stone that my young friend Bly produced for my inspection the day before yesterday. And he wouldn't tell me where he got it from or how he found it. Now what do you think of that for a servant, my dear?"
"Oh, Lionel was always very headstrong," Stella laughed. "He wouldn't tell me till I actually dragged it out of him."
"Just listen to her," Bly said. "Can you imagine Stella badgering anybody out of anything? She just smiled sweetly with a look of resignation in those lovely eyes of hers and said with a gentle sigh that she supposed she must wait."
"And then you told her all about it," Sir Samuel interrupted.
"Of course I did. Anybody would," Bly responded.
"Very well," Sir Samuel said. "Now tell me."
"Really, there is very little to tell," Bly said. "Of course, I knew that the King Diamond existed, though I was not absolutely certain till I saw it blazing on the neck of Cleopatra the first night she appeared at the Colidrome. Stella was with me, and she will tell you what a sensation that lovely woman created. But we were not so much interested in her as in the diamond at her throat. And it didn't take us long to guess, either, that she was wearing the fabulous King Diamond. Of course, she got it from Zambra. Sir Hercules had smuggled it out of the Maggersfont mine, after it had been handed over to him by M'Papo. Then there is no doubt that Sir Hercules met Zambra somewhere and transferred the stone to him The meeting was arranged through one of those ciphers in a Kimberley paper. In fact, I have seen the files of the newspaper in question and actually traced the cipher making the appointment. That was after I was lucky enough to get hold of the clue to the messages in 'The Times.' But I have told you all about that, Sir Samuel."
"Oh, yes," Sir Samuel said eagerly. "You kept me posted up to a certain point, and it is only quite lately that you have been so mysterious. But, go on, my boy."
"You see, I had to be very careful," Bly said. "I was so dreadfully afraid that the police would find that diamond, and if they had then I should have had all my trouble for my pains."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," Sir Samuel chuckled.
"Well, at any rate, I should have had no claim to a reward. When Zambra was arrested the other night in Devonshire Mansions I made sure that the diamond would be found in his possession. I was positive that he was the alleged burglar who had robbed Cleopatra, and I felt as sure as fate that when he came to be searched the big stone would be found on him. And I don't know whether I was disappointed or relieved to find that it wasn't."
"You are making rather a long story of it, aren't you," Sir Samuel asked impatiently. "As a matter of fact, I have been following this business a great deal more carefully than you are aware of. I knew, for instance, that the police were after Zambra. Paradine kept me posted, as naturally he would, seeing that I consulted him in the matter. And of course I read all about that burglary of Cleopatra's flat in the papers. Like you, I came to the conclusion that Zambra was the man. But what I want to know is how you found the diamond, and where."
"I found it in Sir Hercules's flat."
"In Sir Hercules's flat? Oh, I begin to see. You mean to say that when Zambra realised that his audacious hiding-place was discovered, he hid the diamond in the flat."
"That is precisely what I do mean," Bly smiled. "I knew he must have it on him and that he was merely waiting for some confederate to find him the necessary money to get out of the country, after which he would have had no difficulty in disposing of the gem to some American or Argentine millionaire. But I had not the slightest idea where to look for the missing diamond."
"Um, fairly sound," Sir Samuel muttered. "But if Zambra had left the diamond in the flat, how do you think he expected to get it back again? To begin with, he was in the hands of the police."
"Granted, sir. But the police had a long row to hoe before they could convict him. And there was always the chance of his getting off. If he had succeeded in so doing, he would have found some excuse for calling on Dr. Everdine and recovering the stone. A man so diabolically clever would certainly have found a way to recover what he regarded as lost property."
"But where was the diamond hidden?" Sir Samuel demanded.
"You will never guess," Bly laughed. "He put it in a rat's nest in one of the cages. If it hadn't been for a providential idea that filtered into my mind I should never have found it. But listen and I will tell you just how it happened."
With that, Bly told the rest of the story, to which Sir Samuel listened with marked approval on his jovial face.
"Well, I congratulate you," he said. "It was a fine piece of work all round, and you are entitled to all I promised. When that diamond comes to be sold half the proceeds belong to you. You will be a comparatively rich man, free to settle down in the country as an independent gentleman."
"I have already selected my house," Bly said.
Sir Samuel lay back in his chair and laughed heartily.
"Oh, evidently one of those 'do it now' young men," he chuckled. "But I don't see you settling down to a country life. Why not put a large share of that money into my business? It will bring you in four or five times as much, and one of these days you will be virtually the Maggersfont Diamond Corporation. And one of these days the dear child who is sitting by your side will be mistress of her old home once more. I have very few relations and most of them have more than they want already. We will talk this over next week if you like."
Bly began to stammer his thanks, but Sir Samuel cut him short.
"Oh, never mind about that," he said. "And never mind about me, either, for the moment. Take Stella out and show her the roses and the hay and the lambs playing in the field, and all that sort of thing. Make her happy and you will make me happy, for she is a real good girl and I don't want to lose sight of her if I can help it. Directly I get a secretary who is worth her salt some young fool must come along and marry her. Now, be off before I get really angry."
"Now, isn't he a darling?" Stella said once they were out in the open. "Isn't he wonderful?"
"'I know a nicerer,'" Bly quoted gaily. "It's all right Stella darling, now, isn't it?"
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