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Title: The Bandbox
Author: Vance, Louis Joseph, 1879-1933
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Bandbox" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



  THE BANDBOX



  BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE

    The Bandbox
    Cynthia-of-the-Minute
    No Man's Land
    The Fortune Hunter
    The Pool of Flame
    The Bronze Bell
    The Black Bag
    The Brass Bowl
    The Private War
    Terence O'Rourke


[Illustration: "Now, sir!" she exclaimed, turning

                      FRONTISPIECE. _See Page 83_]



 The Bandbox

 BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE

 Author of "The Brass Bowl," "The Bronze Bell,"
 "Cynthia-of-the-Minute," etc.


 With Four Illustrations
 By ARTHUR I. KELLER


 A. L. BURT COMPANY
 Publishers      New York


 _Copyright, 1911, 1912,_
 By Louis Joseph Vance.

 _All rights reserved, including those of translation into foreign
 languages, including the Scandinavian_

 Published, April, 1912
 Reprinted, April, 1912 (three times)


 TO
 LEWIS BUDDY III



 CONTENTS


 CHAPTER                               PAGE

    I INTRODUCING MR. IFF                 1

   II THE BANDBOX                        14

  III TWINS                              26

   IV QUEENSTOWN                         43

    V ISMAY?                             65

   VI IFF?                               87

  VII STOLE AWAY!                       109

 VIII THE WRONG BOX                     128

   IX A LIKELY STORY                    158

    X DEAD O' NIGHT                     177

   XI THE COLD GREY DAWN                194

  XII WON'T YOU WALK INTO MY PARLOUR?   216

 XIII WRECK ISLAND                      233

  XIV THE STRONG-BOX                    254

   XV THE ENEMY'S HAND                  275

  XVI NINETY MINUTES                    295

 XVII HOLOCAUST                         312



THE BANDBOX

I

INTRODUCING MR. IFF


At half-past two of a sunny, sultry afternoon late in the month of
August, Mr. Benjamin Staff sat at table in the dining-room of the
Authors' Club, moodily munching a morsel of cheese and a segment of
cast-iron biscuit and wondering what he must do to be saved from the
death-in-life of sheer ennui.

A long, lank gentleman, surprisingly thin, of a slightly saturnine cast:
he was not only unhappy, he looked it. He was alone and he was lonely;
he was an American and a man of sentiment (though he didn't look _that_)
and he wanted to go home; to sum up, he found himself in love and in
London at one and the same time, and felt precisely as ill at ease in
the one as in the other of these, to him, exotic circumstances.

Inconceivable as it may seem that any rational man should yearn for New
York in August, that and nothing less was what Staff wanted with all his
heart. He wanted to go home and swelter and be swindled by taxicab
drivers and snubbed by imported head-waiters; he wanted to patronise the
subway at peril of asphyxiation and to walk down Fifth Avenue at that
witching hour when electric globes begin to dot the dusk of
evening--pale moons of a world of steel and stone; he wanted to ride in
elevators instead of lifts, in trolley-cars instead of trams; he wanted
to go to a ball-game at the Polo Grounds, to dine dressed as he pleased,
to insult his intelligence with a roof-garden show if he felt so
disposed, and to see for himself just how much of Town had been torn
down in the two months of his exile and what they were going to put up
in its place. He wanted, in short, his own people; more specifically he
wanted just one of them, meaning to marry her if she'd have him.

Now to be homesick and lovesick all at once is a tremendously disturbing
state of affairs. So influenced, the strongest men are prone to folly.
Staff, for instance, had excellent reason to doubt the advisability of
leaving London just then, with an unfinished play on his hands; but he
was really no more than a mere, normal human being, and he did want very
badly to go home. If it was a sharp struggle, it was a short one that
prefaced his decision.

Of a sudden he rose, called for his bill and paid it, called for his hat
and stick, got them, and resolutely--yet with a furtive air, as one who
would throw a dogging conscience off the scent--fled the premises of his
club, shaping a course through Whitehall and Charing Cross to Cockspur
Street, where, with the unerring instinct of a homing pigeon, he dodged
hastily into the booking-office of a steamship company.

Now Mystery is where one finds it, and Romantic Adventure is as a rule
to be come upon infesting the same identical premises. Mr. Staff was not
seeking mysteries and the last rôle in the world in which he could fancy
himself was that of Romantic Adventurer. But in retrospect he can see
quite clearly that it was there, in the humdrum and prosaic setting of a
steamship booking-office, that he first stumbled (all unwittingly) into
the toils of his Great Adventure.

When he entered, there was but one other person on the outer or public
side of the booking-counter; and he, sticking close in a far corner and
inaudibly conferring with a clerk, seemed so slight and unpretending a
body that Staff overlooked his existence altogether until circumstances
obliged him to recognise it.

The ignored person, on the other hand, showed an instant interest in the
appearance of Mr. Staff. You might have thought that he had been waiting
for the latter to come in--absurd as this might seem, in view of the
fact that Staff had made up his mind to book for home only within the
last quarter-hour. None the less, on sight of him this other patron of
the company, who had seemed till then to be of two minds as to what he
wanted, straightened up and bent a freshened interest on the cabin-plot
which the clerk had spread out upon the counter for his advisement. And
a moment after Staff had audibly stated his wishes, the other prodded a
certain spot of the chart with a thin and fragile forefinger.

"I'll take this one," he said quietly.

"Upper'r lower?" enquired his clerk.

"Lower."

"Then-Q," said the clerk....

Meanwhile Staff had caught the eye of an impregnable young Englishman
behind the counter; and, the latter coming forward, he opened
negotiations with a succinct statement:

"I want to book on the Autocratic, sailing tomorrow from Liverpool, if
I'm not mistaken."

"Quite so," said his clerk, not without condescension. "For yourself,
may I awsk?"

"For myself alone."

"Then-Q." The clerk fetched a cabin-plot.

"I'm afraid, sir," he said, removing a pencil from behind his ear the
better to make his meaning clear, "there's not much choice. It's quite
late to book, you know; and this is the rush season for westbound
traffic; everything's just about full up."

"I understand; but still you can make room for me somewhere, I hope."

"Oh, yes. Quite so, indeed. It's only a question of what you'd like. Now
we have a _cabine de luxe_--"

"Not for me," said Staff firmly.

"Then-Q.... The only other accommodation I can offer you is a two-berth
stateroom on the main-deck."

"An outside room?"

"Yes, sir. You can see for yourself. Here it is: berths 432 and 433.
You'll find it quite cosy, I'm sure."

Staff nodded, eyeing the cubicle indicated by the pencil-point.

"That'll do," said he. "I'll take it."

"Then-Q. Upper'r lower berth, sir?"

"Both," said Staff, trying not to look conscious--and succeeding.

"Both, sir?"--in tones of pained expostulation.

"Both!"--reiterated in a manner that challenged curiosity.

"Ah," said the clerk wearily, "but, you see, I thought I understood you
to say you were alone."

"I did; but I want privacy."

"I see. Then-Q."--as who should say: _Another mad Amayrican_.

With this the clerk took himself off to procure a blank ticket.

While he waited, Staff was entertained by snatches of a colloquy at the
far end of the counter, where the other patron was being catechised as
to his pedigree by the other booking-clerk. What he heard ran something
to the following effect:

"What did you say the name was, sir?"

"_The_ name?"

"If you please--"

"What name?"

"Your name, sir."

"I didn't say, did I?"

"No, sir."

"Ah! I thought not."

Pause; then the clerk, patiently: "Do you mind giving me your name, sir,
so that I may fill in your ticket?"

"I'd r'ally rather not; but seein' as it's you and you make a point of
it--Iff."

Pause.... "Beg pardon?"

"Iff."

"If what, sir?"

"I-double-F, Iff: a name, not a joke. I-F-F--William Howard Iff. W. H.
Iff, Whiff: joke."

"Ow-w?"

"But you needn't laugh."

With dignity: "I was not intending to laugh, sir."

Staff could hardly refrain from refreshing himself with a glance at the
individual so singularly labelled. Appraising him covertly, he saw a man
whose stature was quite as much shorter than the normal as his own was
longer, but hardly less thin. Indeed, Staff was in the habit of defining
his own style of architecture as Gothic, and with reasonable excuse; but
reviewing the physical geography of Mr. Iff, the word _emaciation_
bobbed to the surface of the literary mentality: Iff was really
astonishingly slight of build. Otherwise he was rather round-shouldered;
his head was small, bird-like, thinly thatched with hair of a faded tow
colour; his face was sensitively tinted with the faintest of flushes
beneath a skin of natural pallor, and wore an expression curiously naïve
and yet shrewd--an effect manufactured by setting the eyes of a child,
round and dimly blue, in a mask of weathered maturity.

Now while Staff was receiving this impression, Mr. Iff looked sharply
round; their glances crossed. Primarily embarrassed to be caught rudely
staring, Staff was next and thoroughly shocked to detect a distinct if
momentary eclipse of one of Mr. Iff's pale blue eyes. Bluntly, openly,
deliberately, Mr. Iff winked at Mr. Staff, and then, having accomplished
his amazement and discomfiture, returned promptly, twinkling, to the
baiting of his clerk.

"Your age, sir?"

Mr. Iff enquired in simple surprise: "Do you really care to know?"

"It's required, sir, by the--"

"Oh, well--if I must! But, mind you, strictly as man to man: you may
write me down a freeborn American citizen, entitled to vote and more 'n
half white."

"_Beg_ pardon?"

"I say, I am an adult--"

"Oh!" The clerk wrote; then, bored, resumed: "Married or single,
please?"

"I'm a spinster--"

"O-w?"

"Honestly--neither married nor unmarried."

"Then-Q"--resignedly. "Your business--?"

But here Staff's clerk touched the exasperated catechist on the shoulder
and said something inaudible. The response, while equally inaudible,
seemed to convey a sense of profound personal shock. Staff was conscious
that Mr. Iff's clerk glanced reproachfully in his direction, as if to
suggest that he wouldn't have believed it of him.

Divining that he and Mr. Iff were bargaining for the same
accommodations, Staff endeavoured to assume an attitude of distinguished
obliviousness to the entire proceeding; and would have succeeded but for
the immediate and impatient action of Mr. Iff.

That latter, seizing the situation, glanced askance at dignified Mr.
Staff, then smiled a whimsical smile, cocked his small head to one side
and approached him with an open and ingenuous air.

"If it's only a question of which berth," said he, "I'm quite willing to
forfeit my option on the lower, Mr. Staff."

That gentleman started and stared.

"Oh, lord, man!" said Iff tolerantly--"as if your portrait hadn't been
published more times than you can remember!--as if all the world were
unaware of Benjamin Staff, novelist!"

There was subtle flattery in this; and flattery (we are told) will warm
the most austere of authors--which Staff was not. He said "Oh!" and
smiled his slow, wry smile; and Mr. Iff, remarking these symptoms of a
thaw with interest and encouragement, pressed his point.

"I don't mind an upper, really--only chose the lower because the choice
was mine, at the moment. If you prefer it--"

"The trouble is," Staff interrupted, "I want the whole room."

"Oh!... Friend with you?"

"No; but I had some notion of doing a little work on the way over."

"Writing? I see. But if that's all--!" Mr. Iff routed a negligible
quibble with an airy flirt of his delicate hand. "Trust me; you'll
hardly ever be reminded of my existence--I'm _that_ quiet. And besides,
I spend most of my time in the smoking-room. And I don't snore, and I'm
never seasick.... By the way," he added anxiously, "do or are you?"

"Never--"

"Then we'll get along famously. I'll cheerfully take the upper, and even
should I tumble out on top of you, you'd never know it: my weight is
nothing--hardly that. Now what d' you say? Is it a go?"

"But--I don't know you--"

"Business of making a noise like an Englishman!" commented Mr. Iff with
bitter scorn.

"--well enough to accept such a favour from you. I'll take second choice
myself--the upper, I mean."

"You won't; but we'll settle that on shipboard," said Mr. Iff promptly.
"As for knowing me--business of introducing myself. Mr. Staff, I want
you to shake hands with my friend, Mr. Iff. W. H. Iff, Whiff: sometimes
so-called: merry wheeze based on my typographical make-up; once a joke,
now so grey with age I generally pull it myself, thus saving new
acquaintances the mental strain. Practical philanthropy--what? Whim of
mine."

"Indeed?"

"Believe _me_. You've no notion how folks suffer in the first throes of
that giddy pun. And then when it falls flat--naturally _I_ can't laugh
like a fool at it any longer--_blooie!_" said Mr. Iff with
expression--"like that--_blooie!_--they _do_ feel so cheap. Wherefore I
maintain I do humanity a service when I beat it to that moth-eaten joke.
You follow me?"

Staff laughed.

"Then it's all settled. Good! We shan't be in one another's way. You'll
see."

"Unless you talk in your sleep, too."

Mr. Iff looked unspeakable reproach. "You'll soon get accustomed to me,"
he said, brightening--"won't mind my merry prattle any more 'n the song
of a giddy humming-bird."

He turned and saw their booking-clerks in patient waiting behind the
counter. "Ah, there you are, eh? Well, it's all settled...."

Thus was the thing accomplished.

And shortly thereafter these two paused in parting at the door.

"Going my way?" enquired Mr. Iff.

Staff named whatever destination he had in mind.

"Sorry. I go t'other way. Take care of yourself. See you tomorrow."

"Good-bye," said Staff, and took himself briskly off.

But Mr. Iff did not at once go in the opposite direction. In fact, he
moved no more than a door or two away, and then stopped, apparently
fascinated by an especially stupid shop-window show.

He had very quick eyes, had Mr. Iff, so alert and observant that they
had made him alive to a circumstance which had altogether escaped
Staff's notice--a trifling incident that took place just as they were on
the point of parting.

While still they were standing in the doorway, a motor-cab, plunging
down Haymarket, had swooped in a wide curve as if meaning to pull in at
the curb in front of the steamship company's office. The cab carried a
solitary passenger--a remarkably pretty young woman--and on its roof a
remarkably large and ornate bandbox.

It was, in fact, the bandbox which had first fixed the interest of Mr.
Iff. Only an introspective vision, indeed, such as that of the
imaginative and thoughtful Mr. Staff, could have overlooked the approach
of a bandbox so big and upstanding, so profusely beflowered and so
prominently displayed.

Now before the cab could stop, its fare, who had been bending forward
and peering out of the window as if anxious to recognise her
destination, started still farther forward, seized the speaking-tube and
spoke into its mouthpiece in a manner of sharp urgency. And promptly the
driver swerved out from the curb and swung his car away down Pall Mall.

If it was mere inquisitiveness that held Mr. Iff rooted to the spot,
gaping at that uninteresting window show, it served to discover him in
the guise of an admirably patient person. Fully fifteen minutes elapsed
before the return of the motor-cab was signalled unmistakably by the
blatant bandbox bobbing back high above the press of traffic. And when
this happened, Mr. Iff found some further business with the steamship
company, and quietly and unobtrusively slipped back into the
booking-office.

As he did so the cab stopped at the curb and the pretty young woman
jumped out and followed Mr. Iff across the threshold--noticing him no
more than had Mr. Staff, to begin with.



II

THE BANDBOX


In the playhouses of France, a hammering on the stage alone heralds the
rising of the curtain to disclose illusory realms of romance. Precisely
so with Mr. Staff, upon the door of whose lodging, at nine o'clock the
next morning, a knocking announced the first overt move against his
peace of mind.

At that time, Staff, all unconscious of his honourable peril, was
standing in the middle of the floor of the inner room (his lodgings
comprised two) and likewise in the approximate geographical centre of a
chaotic assemblage of assorted wearing apparel and other personal
impedimenta.

He was wondering, confusedly, how in thunderation he was to manage to
cram all that confounded truck into the limited amount of trunk space at
his command. He was also wondering, resentfully in the names of a dozen
familiar spirits, where he had put his pipe: it's simply maddening, the
way a fellow's pipe will persist in getting lost at such critical times
as when he's packing up to catch a train with not a minute to spare....
In short, so preoccupied was Staff that the knocking had to be repeated
before he became objectively alive to it.

Then, confidentially, he said: "What the devil _now_?"

In louder tones calculated to convey an impression of intense
impatience, he cried: "Come _in_!"

He heard the outer door open, and immediately, upon an impulse esoteric
even in his own understanding, he chose to pretend to be extravagantly
busy--as busy as by rights he should have been. For a minute or longer
he acted most vividly the part of a man madly bent on catching his train
though he were to perish of the attempt. And this despite a suspicion
that he played to a limited audience of one, and that one unappreciative
of the finer phases of everyday histrionic impersonation: an audience
answering to the name of Milly, whose lowly station of life was that of
housemaid-in-lodgings and whose imagination was as ill-nourished and
sluggish as might be expected of one whose wages were two-and-six a
week.

Remembering this in time, the novelty of make-believe palled on Staff.
Not that alone, but he could hear Milly insisting in accents not in the
least apologetic: "Beg pardon, sir ..."

He paused in well-feigned surprise and looked enquiringly over his
shoulder, as though to verify a surmise that somebody had spoken. Such
proving to be the case, he turned round to confront Milly--Milly true to
type, wearing a grimy matutinal apron, an expression half sleepy, half
sullen, and a horrid soot smudge on her ripe, red, right cheek.

In this guise (so sedulously does life itself ape the conventions of its
literature and drama) Milly looked as lifelike as though viewed through
the illusion of footlights. Otherwise, as Staff never failed to be
gratified to observe, she differed radically from the stock article of
our stage. For one thing, she refrained from dropping her _aitches_ and
stumbling over them on her first entrance in order merely to win a laugh
and so lift her little rôle from the common rut of "lines" to the
dignity of "a bit." For another, she seldom if ever brandished that
age-honoured wand of her office, a bedraggled feather-duster. Nor was
she by any means in love with the tenant of the fust-floor-front.

But though Staff was grateful for Milly because of this strong and
unconventional individuality of hers, he wasn't at all pleased to be
interrupted, and he made nothing whatever of the ostensible excuse for
the interruption; the latter being a very large and brilliantly
illuminated bandbox, which Milly was offering him in pantomime.

"It have just come," said Milly calmly, in response to his enquiring
stare. "Where would you wish me to put it, sir?"

"Put what?"

Milly gesticulated eloquently with the bandbox.

"That thing?" said Staff with scorn.

"Yessir."

"I don't want you to put it anywhere. Take it away."

"But it's for you, sir."

"Impossible. Some mistake. Please don't bother--just take it away.
There's a good girl."

Milly's disdain of this blandishment was plainly visible in the added
elevation of her already sufficiently tucked-up nose.

"Beg pardon, sir," she persisted coldly, "but it's got your nime on it,
and the boy as left it just now asked if you lived here."

Staff's frown portrayed indignation, incredulity and impatience.

"Mistake, I tell you. I haven't been buying any millinery. Absurd!"

"Beg pardon, sir, but you can see as it's addressed to you."

It was: the box being held out for examination, Staff saw plainly that
it was tagged with a card inscribed in fashionably slapdash feminine
handwriting with what was unquestionably the name and local address of
Benjamin Staff, Esq.

Because of this, he felt called upon to subject the box to more minute
inspection.

It was nothing more nor less than the everyday milliners' hat-box of
commerce: a capacious edifice of stout pasteboard neatly plastered with
wall-paper in whose design narrow stripes of white alternated with
aggressive stripes of brown, the whole effectively setting off an
abundance of purple blossoms counterfeiting no flower known to
botanists. And one gibbous side was further decorated with bold black
script advertising the establishment of its origin.

"_Maison Lucille, New Bond Street, West_," Staff read aloud, completely
bewildered. "But I never heard of the d---- the place!"

Helplessly he sought Milly's eyes, and helpfully Milly rose to the
occasion.

"Nossir," said she; and that was all.

"I know nothing whatever about the thing," Staff declared severely.
"It's all a mistake. Take it away--it'll be sent for as soon as the
error's discovered."

A glimmer of intelligence shone luminous in Milly's eyes. "Mebbe," she
suggested under inspiration of curiosity--"Mebbe if you was to open it,
you'd find a note or--or something."

"Bright girl!" applauded Staff. "You open it. I'm too busy--packing
up--no time--"

And realising how swiftly the golden minutes were fleeting beyond
recall, he cast desperately about for his pipe.

By some miracle he chanced to find it, and so resumed packing.

Behind him, Milly made noises with tissue-paper.

Presently he heard a smothered "O sir!" and looked round to discover the
housemaid in an attitude of unmitigated adoration before what he could
not deny was a perfect dream of a hat--the sort of a hat that only a
woman or a society reporter could do justice to. In his vision it bore a
striking resemblance to a Gainsborough with all modern improvements--as
most big hats do to most men. Briefly, it was big and black and trimmed
with an atmosphere of costly simplicity, a monstrous white "willow"
plume and a huge buckle of brilliants. It impressed him, hazily, as just
the very hat to look ripping on an ash-blonde. Aside from this he was
aware of no sensation other than one of aggravated annoyance.

Milly, to the reverse extreme, was charmed to distraction, thrilled to
the core of her and breathless--though by no means dumb. Women are
never dumb with admiration.

"O sir!" she breathed in ecstasy--"it's a real creashun!"

"Daresay," Staff conceded sourly. "Did you find a note?"

"And the price-tag, sir--it says _twen_-ty five pounds!"

"I hope there's a receipted bill, then.... Do you see anything remotely
resembling a note--or something?"

With difficulty subduing her transports--"I'll see, sir," said Milly.

Grunting with exasperation, Staff bent over a trunk and stuffed things
into it until Milly committed herself to the definite announcement: "I
don't seem to find nothing, sir."

"Look again, please."

Again Milly pawed the tissue-paper.

"There ain't nothing at all, sir," she declared finally.

Staff stood up, thrust his hands into his pockets and champed the stem
of his pipe--scowling.

"It is a bit odd, sir, isn't it?--having this sent to you like this and
you knowing nothing at all about it!"

Staff said something indistinguishable because of the obstructing
pipe-stem.

"It's perfectly beautiful, sir--a won'erful hat, really."

"The devil fly away with it!"

"Beg pardon, sir?"

"I said, I'm simply crazy about it, myself."

"Oh, did you, sir?"

"Please put it back and tie it up."

"Yessir." Reluctantly Milly restored the creation to its tissue-paper
nest. "And what would you wish me to do with it now, sir?" she resumed
when at length the ravishing vision was hidden away.

"Do with it?" stormed the vexed gentleman. "I don't care what the
d--ickens you do with it. It isn't my hat. Take it away. Throw it into
the street. Send it back to the place it came from. Give it ... or,
wait!"

Pausing for breath and thought, he changed his mind. The hat was too
valuable to be treated with disrespect, no matter who was responsible
for the mistake. Staff felt morally obligated to secure its return to
the Maison Lucille.

"Look here, Milly ..."

"Yessir?"

"I'll just telephone ... No! Half a minute!"

He checked, on the verge of yielding to an insane impulse. Being a
native of New York, it had been his instinctive thought to call up the
hat-shop and demand the return of its delivery-boy. Fortunately the
instinct of a true dramatist moved him to sketch hastily the ground-plot
of the suggested tragedy.

In _Act I_ (_Time: the Present_) he saw himself bearding the telephone
in its lair--that is, in the darkest and least accessible recess of the
ground-floor hallway. In firm, manful accents, befitting an intrepid
soul, he details a number to the central operator--and meekly submits to
an acidulated correction of his Amurrikin accent.

_Act II_ (_fifteen minutes have elapsed_): He is clinging desperately to
the receiver, sustained by hope alone while he attends sympathetically
to the sufferings of an English lady trying to get in communication with
the Army and Navy Stores.

_Act III_ (_ten minutes later_): He has exhausted himself grinding away
at an obsolete rotary bell-call. Abruptly his ears are enchanted by a
far, thin, frigid moan. It says: "_Are_ you theah?" Responding savagely
"NO!" he dashes the receiver back into its hook and flings away to
discover that he has lost both train and steamer. Tag line: For this is
London in the Twentieth Century. _Curtain: End of the Play._...

Disenchanted by consideration of this tentative synopsis, the playwright
consulted his watch. Already the incident of the condemnable bandbox
had eaten up much invaluable time. He would see himself doomed to
unending perdition if he would submit to further hindrance on its
behalf.

"Milly," said he with decision, "take that ... thing down-stairs, and
tell Mrs. Gigg to telephone the hat-shop to call for it."

"Yessir."

"And after that, call me a taxi. Tell it to wait. I'll be ready by ten
or know--"

Promptly retiring, Milly took with her, in addition to the bandbox, a
confused impression of a room whose atmosphere was thick with flying
garments, in the wild swirl of which a lanky lunatic danced weirdly,
muttering uncouth incantations....

Forty minutes later (on the stroke of ten) Mr. Staff, beautifully
groomed after his habit, his manner (superbly nonchalant) denying that
he had ever known reason why he should take a single step in haste,
followed his trunks down to the sidewalk and, graciously bidding his
landlady adieu, presented Milly with a keepsake in the shape of a golden
coin of the realm.

A taxicab, heavy-laden with his things, fretted before the door. Staff
nodded to the driver.

"Euston," said he; "and a shilling extra if you drive like sin."

"Right you are, sir."

In the act of entering the cab, Staff started back with bitter
imprecations.

Mrs. Gigg, who had not quite closed the front door, opened it wide to
his remonstrant voice.

"I say, what's this bandbox doing in my cab? I thought I told Milly--"

"Sorry, sir; I forgot," Mrs. Gigg interposed--"bein' that flustered--"

"Well?"

"The woman what keeps the 'at-shop said as 'ow the 'at wasn't to come
back, sir. She said a young lidy bought it yestiddy ahfternoon and
awsked to 'ave it sent you this mornin' before nine o'clock."

"The deuce she did!" said Staff blankly.

"An' the young lidy said as 'ow she'd write you a note explynin'. So I
tells Milly not to bother you no more abaht it, but put the 'at-box in
the keb, sir--wishin' not to 'inder you."

"Thoughtful of you, I'm sure. But didn't the--ah--woman who keeps the
hat-shop mention the name of the--ah--person who purchased the hat?"

By the deepening of its corrugations, the forehead of Mrs. Gigg betrayed
the intensity of her mental strain. Her eyes wore a far-away look and
her lips moved, at first silently. Then--"I ain't sure, sir, as she did
nime the lidy, but _if_ she did, it was somethin' like Burnside, I
fancy--or else Postlethwayt."

"Nor Jones nor Brown? Perhaps Robinson? Think, Mrs. Gigg! Not Robinson?"

"I'm sure it may 'ave been eyether of them, sir, now you puts it to me
pl'in."

"That makes everything perfectly clear. Thank you so much."

With this, Staff turned hastily away, nodded to his driver to cut along,
and with groans and lamentations squeezed himself into what space the
bandbox did not demand of the interior of the vehicle.



III

TWINS


On the boat-train, en route for Liverpool, Mr. Staff found plenty of
time to consider the affair of the foundling bandbox in every aspect
with which a lively imagination could invest it; but to small profit. In
fact, he was able to think of little else, with the damned thing
smirking impishly at him from its perch on the opposite seat. He was
vexed to exasperation by the consciousness that he couldn't guess why or
by whom it had been so cavalierly thrust into his keeping. Consequently
he cudgelled his wits unmercifully in exhaustive and exhausting attempts
to clothe it with a plausible _raison d'être_.

He believed firmly that the Maison Lucille had acted in good faith; the
name of Staff was too distinctive to admit of much latitude for error.
Nor was it difficult to conceive that this or that young woman of his
acquaintance might have sent him the hat to take home for her--thus
ridding herself of a cumbersome package and neatly saddling him with all
the bother of getting the thing through the customs. But ...! Who was
there in London just then that knew him well enough so to presume upon
his good nature? None that he could call to mind. Besides, how in the
name of all things inexplicable had anybody found out his intention of
sailing on the Autocratic, that particular day?--something of which he
himself had yet to be twenty-four hours aware!

His conclusions may be summed up under two heads: (a) there wasn't any
answer; (b) it was all an unmitigated nuisance. And so thinking, divided
between despair and disgust, Mr. Staff gave the problem up against his
arrival on board the steamship. There remained to him a single gleam of
hope: a note of explanation had been promised; he thought it just
possible that it might have been sent to the steamship rather than to
his lodgings in London.

Therefore, the moment he set foot aboard the ship, he consigned his
hand-luggage to a steward, instructing the fellow where to take it, and
hurried off to the dining-saloon where, upon a table round which
passengers buzzed like flies round a sugar-lump, letters and telegrams
for the departing were displayed. But he could find nothing for Mr.
Benjamin Staff.

Disappointed and indignant to the point of suppressed profanity, he
elbowed out of the thronged saloon just in time to espy a steward (quite
another steward: not him with whom Staff had left his things)
struggling up the main companionway under the handicap of several
articles of luggage which Staff didn't recognise, and one which he
assured himself he did: a bandbox as like the cause of all his
perturbation as one piano-case resembles another.

Now if quite out of humour with the bandbox and all that appertained
thereunto, the temper of the young man was such that he was by no means
prepared to see it confiscated without his knowledge or consent. In two
long strides he overhauled the steward, plucked him back with a
peremptory hand, and abashed him with a stern demand:

"I say! where the devil do you think you're going, my man?"

His man showed a face of dashed amazement.

"Beg pardon, sir! Do you mean _me_?"

"Most certainly I mean you. That's my bandbox. What are you doing with
it?"

Looking guiltily from his face to the article in question, the steward
flushed and stammered--culpability incarnate, thought Staff.

"Your bandbox, sir?"

"Do you think I'd go charging all over this ship for a silly bandbox
that wasn't mine?"

"But, sir--"

"I tell you, it's mine. It's tagged with my name. Where's the steward I
left it with?"

"But, sir," pleaded the accused, "this belongs to this lidy 'ere. I'm
just tikin' it to 'er stiteroom, sir."

Staff's gaze followed the man's nod, and for the first time he became
aware that a young woman stood a step or two above them, half turned
round to attend to the passage, her air and expression seeming to
indicate a combination of amusement and impatience.

Precipitately the young man removed his hat. Through the confusion
clouding his thoughts, he both foreglimpsed humiliation and was dimly
aware of a personality of force and charm: of a well-poised figure
cloaked in a light pongee travelling-wrap; of a face that seemed to
consist chiefly in dark eyes glowing lambent in the shadow of a
wide-brimmed, flopsy hat. He was sensitive to a hint of breeding and
reserve in the woman's attitude; as though (he thought) the contretemps
diverted and engaged her more than he did who was responsible for it.

He addressed her in a diffident and uncertain voice: "I beg pardon...."

"The box is mine," she affirmed with a cool and even gravity. "The
steward is right."

He choked back a counterclaim, which would have been unmannerly, and in
his embarrassment did something that he instantly realised was even
worse, approaching downright insolence in that it demanded confirmation
of her word: he bent forward and glanced at the tag on the bandbox.

It was labelled quite legibly with the name of Miss Eleanor Searle.

He coloured, painfully contrite. "I'm sorry," he stammered.
"I--ah--happen to have with me the precise duplicate of this box. I
didn't at first realise that it might have a--ah--twin."

The young woman inclined her head distantly.

"I understand," she said, turning away. "Come, steward, if you please."

"I'm very sorry--very," Staff said hastily in intense mortification.

Miss Searle did not reply; she had already resumed her upward progress.
Her steward followed, openly grinning.

Since it is not considered good form to kick a steward for knowing an
ass when he meets one, Staff could no more than turn away, disguise the
unholy emotions that fermented in his heart, and seek his stateroom.

"It _had_ to be me!" he groaned.

Stateroom 432-433 proved to be very much occupied when he found
it--chiefly, to be sure, by the bandbox, which took up most of the floor
space. Round it were grouped in various attitudes of dejection sundry
other pieces of travelling-gear and Mr. Iff. The latter was sitting on
the edge of the lower berth, his hands in his pockets, his brow puckered
with perplexity, his gaze fixed in fascination to the bandbox. On
Staff's entrance he looked up.

"Hello!" he said crisply.

"Afternoon," returned Staff with all the morose dignity appropriate to
severely wounded self-esteem.

Iff indicated the bandbox with a delicate gesture.

"No wonder," he observed mildly, "you wanted the ship to yourself."

Staff grunted irritably and, picking his way through and over the mound
of luggage, deposited himself on the transom opposite the berths.

"A present for the missis, I take it?" pursued Iff.

"You might take it, and welcome, for all of me.... Only it isn't mine.
_And_ I am not married."

"Pardon!" murmured Mr. Iff. "But if it isn't yours," he suggested
logically, "what the deuce-and-all is it doing here?"

"I'm supposed to be taking it home for a friend."

"Ah! I see.... A very, _very_ dear friend, of course....?"

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Staff regarded the bandbox with open
malevolence. "If I had my way," he said vindictively, "I'd lift it a
kick over the side and be rid of it."

"How you do take on, to be sure," Iff commented placidly. "If I may be
permitted to voice my inmost thought: you seem uncommon' peeved."

"I am."

"Could I soothe your vexed soul in any way?"

"You might tell me how to get quit of the blasted thing."

"I'll try, if you'll tell me how you got hold of it."

"Look here!" Staff suddenly aroused to a perception of the fact that he
was by way of being artfully pumped. "Does this matter interest you very
much indeed?"

"No more, apparently, than it annoys you.... And it is quite possible
that, in the course of time, we _might_ like to shut the door.... But,
as far as that is, I don't mind admitting I'm a nosey little beast. If
you feel it your duty to snub me, my dear fellow, by all means go to it.
I don't mind--and I dessay I deserve it."

This proved irresistible; Staff's humour saved his temper. To the
twinkle in Iff's faded blue eyes he returned a reluctant smile that
ended in open laughter.

"It's just this way," he explained somewhat to his own surprise, under
the influence of an unforeseen gush of liking for this good-humoured
wisp of a man--"I feel I'm being shamelessly imposed upon. Just as I was
leaving my rooms this morning this hat-box was sent to me, anonymously.
I assume that some cheeky girl I know has sent it to me to tote home for
her. It's a certificated nuisance--but that isn't all. There happens to
be a young woman named Searle on board, who has an exact duplicate of
this infernal contraption. A few moments ago I saw it, assumed it must
be mine, quite naturally claimed it, and was properly called down in the
politest, most crushing way imaginable. Hence this headache."

"So!" said Mr. Iff. "So that is why he doesn't love his dear little
bandbox!... A Miss Earle, I think you said?"

"No--Searle. At least, that was the name on her luggage."

"Oh--Searle, eh?"

"You don't happen to know her, by any chance?" Staff demanded, not
without a trace of animation.

"Who? Me? Nothing like that," Iff disclaimed hastily.

"I just thought you might," said Staff, disappointed.

For some moments the conversation languished. Then Staff rose and
pressed the call-button.

"What's up?" asked Iff.

"Going to get rid of this," said Staff with an air of grim
determination.

"Just what I was going to suggest. But don't do anything hasty--anything
you'll be sorry for."

"Leave that to me, please."

From his tone the assumption was not unwarrantable that Staff had never
yet done anything that he had subsequently found cause to regret.
Pensively punishing an inoffensive wrist, Iff subsided.

A steward showed himself in the doorway.

"You rang, sir?"

"Are you our steward?" asked Staff.

"Yes, sir."

"Your name?"

"Orde, sir."

"Well, Orde, can you stow this thing some place out of our way?"

Orde eyed the bandbox doubtfully. "I dessay I can find a plice for it,"
he said at length.

"Do, please."

"Very good, sir. Then-Q." Possessing himself of the bandbox, Orde
retired.

"And now," suggested Iff with much vivacity, "s'pose we unpack and get
settled."

And they proceeded to distribute their belongings, sharing the meagre
conveniences of their quarters with the impartiality of courteous and
experienced travellers....

It was rather late in the afternoon before Staff found an opportunity to
get on deck for the first time. The hour was golden with the glory of a
westering sun. The air was bland, the sea quiet. The Autocratic had
settled into her stride, bearing swiftly down St. George's Channel for
Queenstown, where she was scheduled to touch at midnight. Her decks
presented scenes of animation familiar to the eyes of a weathered
voyager.

There was the customary confusion of petticoats and sporadic displays of
steamer-rugs along the ranks of deck-chairs. Deck-stewards darted hither
and yon, wearing the harassed expressions appropriate to persons of
their calling--doubtless to a man praying for that bright day when some
public benefactor should invent a steamship having at least two leeward
sides. A clatter of tongues assailed the ear, the high, sweet accents of
American women predominating. The masculine element of the
passenger-list with singular unanimity--like birds of prey wheeling in
ever diminishing circles above their quarry--drifted imperceptibly but
steadily aft, toward the smoking-room. The two indispensable adjuncts to
a successful voyage had already put in their appearance: _item_, the
Pest, an overdressed, overgrown, shrill-voiced female-child, blundering
into everybody's way and shrieking impertinences; _item_, a short,
stout, sedulously hilarious gentleman who oozed public-spirited
geniality at every pore and insisted on buttonholing inoffensive
strangers and demanding that they enter an embryonic deck-quoit
tournament--in short, discovering every known symptom of being the Life
and Soul of the Ship.

Staff dodged both by grace of discretion and good fortune, and having
found his deck-chair, dropped into it with a sigh of content, composing
himself for rest and thought. His world seemed very bright with promise,
just then; he felt that, if he had acted on impetuous impulse, he had
not acted unwisely: only a few more hours--then the pause at
Queenstown--then the brief, seven-day stretch across the Atlantic to
home and Alison Landis!

It seemed almost too good to be true. He all but purred with his content
in the prospect.

Of course, he had a little work to do, but he didn't mind that; it would
help immensely to beguile the tedium of the voyage; and all he required
in order to do it well was the moral courage to shut himself up for a
few hours each day and to avoid as far as possible social
entanglements....

At just about this stage in his meditations he was somewhat rudely
brought back to earth--or, more properly, to deck.

A voice shrieked excitedly: "_Why_, Mr. Staff!"

To be precise, it miscalled him "Stahf": a shrill, penetrating,
overcultivated, American voice making an attempt only semi-successful to
cope with the broad vowels of modern English enunciation.

Staff looked up, recognised its owner, and said beneath his breath: "O
Lord!"--his soul crawling with recognition. But nothing of this was
discernible in the alacrity with which he jumped up and bent over a bony
but bedizened hand.

"Mrs. Ilkington!" he said.

"R'ally," said the lady, "the world _is_ ve-ry small, isn't it?"

She was a lean, angular, inordinately vivacious body whose years, which
were many more than forty, were making a brave struggle to masquerade as
thirty. She was notorious for her execrable taste in gowns and jewelry,
but her social position was impregnable, and her avowed mission in life
was to bring together Society (meaning the caste of money) with the Arts
(meaning those humble souls content to sell their dreams for the
wherewithal to sustain life).

Her passion for bromidioms always stupefied Staff--left him dazed and
witless. In the present instance he could think of nothing by way of
response happier than that hoary banality: "This is indeed a surprise."

"Flatterer!" said Mrs. Ilkington archly. "_I'm_ not surprised," she
pursued. "I might have known _you'd_ be aboard this vessel."

"You must be a prophetess of sorts, then," he said, smiling. "I didn't
know I was going to sail, myself, till late yesterday afternoon."

"Deceiver," commented the lady calmly. "Why can't you men _ever_ be
candid?"

Surprise merged into some annoyance. "What do you mean?" he asked
bluntly.

"Oh, but two can play at that game," she assured him spiritedly. "If you
won't be open with me, why should I tell all I know?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you're driving at, Mrs. Ilkington."

"Would it improve your understanding"--she threatened him gaily with a
gem-encrusted forefinger--"if I were to tell you I met a certain person
in Paris last week, who talked to me about you?"

"It would not," said he stiffly. "Who--?"

"Oh, well, if you _won't_ be frank!" Mrs. Ilkington's manner implied
that he was a bold, bad butterfly, but that she had his entomological
number, none the less. "Tell me," she changed the subject abruptly, "how
goes the _great_ play?"

"Three acts are written," he said in weariness of spirit, "the fourth--"

"But I thought you weren't to return to America until it was _quite_
finished?"

"Who told you that, please?"

"Never mind, sir! How about the fourth act?"

"I mean to write it _en voyage_," said he, perplexed. From whom could
this woman possibly have learned so much that was intimate to himself?

"You have it all mapped out, then?" she persisted.

"Oh, yes; it only needs to be put on paper."

"R'ally, then, it's true--isn't it--that the writing is the least part
of play construction?"

"Who told you that?" he asked again, this time amused.

"Oh, a _very_ prominent man," she declared; and named him.

Staff laughed. "A too implicit belief in that theory, Mrs. Ilkington,"
said he, "is responsible for the large number of perfectly good plays
that somehow never get written--to say nothing of the equally large
number of perfectly good playwrights who somehow never get anywhere."

"Clever!" screamed the lady. "But aren't you wasteful of your epigrams?"

He could cheerfully have slain her then and there; for which reason the
civil gravity he preserved was all the more commendable.

"And now," he persisted, "won't you tell me with whom you were
discussing me in Paris?"

She shook her head at him reprovingly. "You don't _know_?"

"No."

"You can't guess?"

"Not to save me."

"R'ally?"

"Honestly and truly," he swore, puzzled by the undertone of light malice
he thought to detect in her manner.

"Then," said she with decision, "_I'm_ not going to get myself into
trouble by babbling. But, if you promise to be _nice_ to me all the way
home--?" She paused.

"I promise," he said gravely.

"Then--if you happen to be at the head of the companion-ladder when the
tender comes off from Queenstown tonight--I promise you a _huge_
surprise."

"You won't say more than that?" he pleaded.

She appeared to debate. "Yes," she announced mischievously; "I'll give
you a leading hint. The person I mean is the purchaser of the Cadogan
collar."

His eyes were blank. "And what, please, is the Cadogan collar?"

"You don't mean to tell me you've never _heard_ of it?" She paused with
dramatic effect. "Incredible! Surely, everybody knows about the Cadogan
collar, the most magnificent necklace of pearls in the world!"

"Everybody, it seems, but myself, Mrs. Ilkington."

"R'ally!" she cried, and tapped his arm playfully. "You are as stupid as
most brilliant men!"

A bugle sang through the evening air. The lady started consciously.

"Heavens!" she cried. "Time to dress for dinner: I must _fly_!... Have
you made your table reservation yet?"

"Yes," he said hastily.

"Then _do_ see the second-steward at once and get transferred to our
table; we have just one vacant chair. Oh, but you _must_; you've
promised to be nice to me, you know. And I do so want you to meet one of
my protégées--such a _sweet_ girl--a Miss Searle. I'm sure you'll be
crazy about her--at least, you would be if there were no Alison Landis
in your cosmos. Now, do attend to that right away. Remember you've
promised."

Staff bowed as she fluttered away. In his heart he was thoroughly
convinced that this were a sorry scheme of things indeed did it not
include a special hell for Mrs. Ilkingtons.

What had she meant by her veiled references to this mysterious person in
Paris, who was to board the steamer at Queenstown? How had she come by
so much personal knowledge of himself and his work? And what did she
know about his love for Alison Landis?

He swore thoughtfully, and went below to dress, stopping on the way to
make arrangements with the second-steward to have his seat changed, in
accordance with his exacted promise.



IV

QUEENSTOWN


Immediately he had allowed himself to be persuaded, Staff felt sure he
should not have agreed to change his seat to the table occupied by Mrs.
Ilkington's party, especially if he meant sincerely to try to do any
real work aboard the Autocratic; and it wasn't long after he had taken
his place for the first dinner that he was convinced that he had
blundered beyond remedy or excuse.

The table was round and seated seven, though when the party had
assembled there remained two vacant places. Staff was assigned the chair
on Mrs. Ilkington's right and was sensitive to a not over subtle
implication that his was the seat of honour. He would cheerfully have
exchanged it for a place on the lady's left, which would have afforded a
chance to talk to Miss Searle, to whom he earnestly desired to make an
explanation and such amends as she would permit. But a male person named
Bangs, endowed with impressive self-assurance, altogether too much
good-looks (measured by the standards of the dermatological institute
advertisements) and no excess baggage in the way of intellect, sat on
Mrs. Ilkington's left, with Miss Searle beyond him. The latter had
suffered Staff to be presented to her with (he fancied) considerable
repressed amusement. Not that he blamed her, but ...

His position was rendered unhappy to the verge of being impossible,
however, by the lady on his own right, a Mrs. Thataker: darkly
temperamental and buxom, a divorcée and (she lost no time in telling
him) likewise a playwright. True, none of her plays had ever been
produced; but that was indisputably due to a managerial conspiracy; what
she really needed was a friend at court--some clever man having "the ear
of the manager." (Staff gathered that a truly clever man could warm up a
play and pour it into the ear of the managers like laudanum and
sweet-oil.) With such a man, he was given to understand, Mrs. Thataker
wouldn't mind collaborating; she had manuscripts in her steamer-trunk
which were calculated to prove a number of things ...

And while he was easing away and preparing to run before the wind to
escape any such hideous complication, he was abruptly brought up
all-standing by the information that the colour of the lady's soul was
pink. She knew this to be a fact beyond dispute, because she never
could do her best work save when garbed exclusively in pink. She
enumerated several articles of wearing apparel not customarily discussed
between comparative strangers but which--always provided they were
pink--she held indispensable to the task of dramatic composition.

In his great agony, happening to glance in Miss Searle's direction, he
saw her with head bent and eyelids lowered, lips compressed, colour a
trifle heightened, shoulders suspiciously a-quiver.

Incongruously, the impression obtruded that they were unusually handsome
shoulders.

For that matter, she was an unusually handsome young woman: tall, fair,
with a face featured with faint, exquisite irregularity, brown eyes and
brows in striking contrast to the rich golden colour of her hair;
well-poised and balanced--sure but not too conscious of herself ...

Staff heard himself saying "Beg pardon?" to a third repetition of one of
Mrs. Thataker's gratuitous revelations.

At this he took fright, drew back into his reserve for the remainder of
the meal, and as soon as he decently could, made his excuses and fled to
join Iff in the smoking-room....

He found the little man indulging his two passions; he was drinking
whiskey-and-sodas and playing bridge, both in the most masterly fashion.
Staff watched the game a while and then, the opportunity offering, cut
in. He played till ten o'clock, at which hour, wearied, he yielded his
seat to another, leaving Mr. Iff the victor of six rubbers and twelve
whiskey-and-sodas. As Staff went out on deck the little man cut for the
seventh and ordered the thirteenth. Neither indulgence seemed to have
had any perceptible effect upon him.

Staff strolled forward, drinking in air that seemed the sweeter by
contrast with the reeking room he had just quitted. The wind had
freshened since nightfall; it blew strong and cool, but not keen. And
there was more motion in the seas that sang overside, wrapped in
Cimmerian blackness. The sky had become overcast; there were no stars:
only the 'longshore lights of Ireland twinkled, small, bright,
incredibly distant over the waters. The decks were softly aglow with
electric lights, lending a deeper shade of velvety denseness to the
night beyond the rails.

He hadn't moved far forward when his quick sight picked out the shimmer
of a woman's hair, like spun gold, about amidships in the rank of
deck-chairs. He made sure it was Miss Searle; and it was. She sat alone,
with none near her, her head resting against the back of the chair, her
face turned a trifle forward; so that she was unaware of his approach
until he stopped before her.

"Miss Searle--" he began diffidently.

She looked up quickly and smiled in what he thought a friendly way.

"Good evening," said she; and moved her body slightly in the deck-chair,
turning a little to the left as if expecting him to take the vacant
chair on that hand.

He did so without further encouragement, and abruptly found himself
wholly lacking words wherewith to phrase what he had in mind to say. In
such emergency he resorted to an old, tried and true trick of his and
began to talk on the first subject, unrelated to his dilemma, that
popped into his head.

"Are you a good sailor?" he enquired gravely.

The girl nodded. "Very."

"Not afraid of seasickness?"

"No. Why?"

"Because," said Staff soberly, "I've been praying for a hurricane."

She nodded again without speaking, her eyes alone questioning.

"Mrs. Thataker," he pursued evenly, "confided to me at dinner that she
is a very poor sailor indeed."

Miss Searle laughed quietly. "You desire a punishment to fit the
crime."

"There are some crimes for which no adequate punishment has ever been
contrived," he returned, beginning to see his way, and at the same time
beginning to think himself uncommonly clever.

"Oh!" said Miss Searle with a little laugh. "Now if you're leading up to
a second apology about that question of the bandbox, you needn't,
because I've forgiven you already."

He glanced at her reproachfully. "You just naturally had to beat me to
that, didn't you?" he complained. "All the same, it _was_ inexcusable of
me."

"Oh, no; I quite understood."

"You see," he persisted obstinately, "I really did think it was my
bandbox. I actually have got one with me, precisely like yours."

"I quite believed you the first time."

Something in her tone moved him to question her face sharply; but he
found her shadowed eyes inscrutable.

"I half believe you know something," he ventured, perplexed.

"Perhaps," she nodded, with an enigmatic smile.

"What do you know?"

"Why," she said, "it was simple enough. I happened to be in Lucille's
yesterday afternoon when a hat was ordered delivered to you."

"You were! Then you know who sent it to me?"

"Of course." Her expression grew curious. "Don't you?"

"No," he said excitedly. "Tell me."

But she hesitated. "I'm not sure I ought ..."

"Why not?"

"It's none of my affair--"

"But surely you must see ... Listen: I'll tell you about it." He
narrated succinctly the intrusion of the mysterious bandbox into his
ken, that morning. "Now, a note was promised; it must have miscarried.
Surely, there can be no harm in your telling me. Besides, I've a right
to know."

"Possibly ... but I'm not sure I've a right to tell. Why should I be a
spoil-sport?"

"You mean," he said thoughtfully--"you think it's some sort of a
practical joke?"

"What do you think?"

"_Hmm-mm_," said Staff. And then, "I don't like to be made fun of," he
asserted, a trace sulkily.

"You are certainly a dangerously original man," said Miss
Searle--"almost abnormal."

"The most unkindest slam of all," he murmured.

He made himself look deeply hurt. The girl laughed softly. He thought it
rather remarkable that they should enjoy so sympathetic a sense of
humour on such short acquaintance....

"But you forgive me?"

"Oh, yes," he said generously; "only, of course, I couldn't help feeling
it a bit--coming from _you_."

"From me?" Miss Searle sat up in her deck-chair and turned to him. "Mr.
Staff! you're not flirting with me?"

"Heaven forfend!" he cried, so sincerely that both laughed.

"Because," said she, sinking back, "I must warn you that Mrs. Ilkington
has been talking ..."

"Oh," he groaned from his heart--"damn that woman!"

There was an instant of silence; then he stole a contrite look at her
immobile profile and started to get up.

"I--Miss Searle," he stammered--"I beg your pardon ..."

"Don't go," she said quietly; "that is, unless you want to. My silence
was simply sympathetic."

He sat back. "Thank you," he said with gratitude; and for some seconds
considered the case of Mrs. Ilkington, not charitably but with murder in
his bosom. "Do you mean," he resumed presently, "she has--ah--connected
my name with--"

"Yes," nodded the girl.

"'Something lingering in boiling oil,'" he mused aloud, presently....
"What staggers me is how she found out; I was under the impression that
only the persons most concerned knew about it."

"Then it's true? You are engaged to marry Miss Landis? Or is that an
impertinent question?" Without pause the girl answered herself: "Of
course it is; only I couldn't help asking. Please forget I spoke--"

"Oh, I don't mind," he said wearily; "now that Mrs. Ilkington has begun
to distribute handbills. Only ... I don't know that there's a regular,
hard-and-fast engagement: just an understanding."

"Thank you," said Miss Searle. "I promise not to speak of it again." She
hesitated an instant, then added: "To you or anybody else."

"You see," he went on after a little, "I've been working on a play for
Miss Landis, under agreement with Jules Max, her manager. They want to
use it to open Max's newest Broadway theatre late this autumn. That's
why I came across--to find a place in London to bury myself in and work
undisturbed. It means a good deal to me--to all of us--this play.... But
what I'm getting at is this: Alison--Miss Landis--didn't leave the
States this summer; Mrs. Ilkington (she told me at dinner) left New York
before I did. So how in Heaven's name--?"

"I had known nothing of Mrs. Ilkington at all," said Miss Searle
cautiously, "until we met in Paris last month."

He was conscious of the hint of uneasiness in her manner, but inclined
to assign it to the wrong cause.

"I trust I haven't bored you, Miss Searle--talking about myself."

"Oh, no; indeed no. You see--" she laughed--"I quite understand; I keep
a temperament of my own--if you should happen to wonder why Mrs.
Ilkington interests herself in me. I'm supposed to have a voice and to
be in training for grand opera."

"Not really?"

And again she laughed. "I'm afraid there isn't any cure for me at this
late date," she protested; "I've gone so far I must go farther. But I
know what you mean. People who sing _are_ difficult. However ..." She
stirred restlessly in her chair, then sat up.

"What is that light over there?" she asked. "Do you know?"

Staff's gaze sought the indicated direction. "Roches Point, I imagine;
we're about due at Queenstown ..."

"As late as that?" The girl moved as if to rise. Staff jumped up and
offered her a hand. In a moment she was standing beside him. "I must go
below," said she. "Good night."

"You won't tell me who it was in Lucille's, yesterday?" he harked back
pleadingly.

She shook her head gaily as she turned forward to the main companionway
entrance: "No; you must find out for yourself."

"But perhaps it isn't a practical joke?"

"Then--_perhaps_--I shall tell you all--sometime."

He paused by the raised door-sill as she stepped within the
superstructure. "Why not stop up and see the tender come off?" he
suggested. "It might be interesting."

She flashed him a look of gay malice. "If we're to believe Mrs.
Ilkington, you're apt to find it more interesting than I. Good night."

"Oh--good night!" he muttered, disturbed; and turned away to the rail.

His troubled vision ranged far to the slowly shifting shore lights. The
big steamship had come very close inshore--as witness the retarded speed
with which she crept toward her anchorage--but still the lights, for all
their singular brightness, seemed distant, incalculably far away; the
gulf of blackness that set them apart exaggerated all distances tenfold.
The cluster of sparks flanked by green and red that marked the hovering
tender appeared to float at an infinite remove, invisibly buoyed upon
the bosom of a fathomless void of night.

Out of this wind-swept waste of impenetrable darkness was to come the
answer to these many questions that perplexed him--perhaps. Something at
least would come to influence him; or else Mrs. Ilkington's promise had
been mere _blague_.... Then what?

Afterwards he assured himself that his stupidity had been unparalleled
inconceivable. And indeed there seems to be some colour of excuse for
this drastic stricture, self-inflicted though it were.

Below him, on the main deck, a squad of deckhands superintended by a
petty officer was rigging out the companion-ladder.

Very suddenly--it seemed, because of the immense quiet that for all its
teeming life enveloped the ship upon the cessation of the engine's
song--the vessel hesitated and then no longer moved. From forward came
the clank of chains as the anchor cables were paid out. Supple to wind
and tide, the Autocratic swung in a wide arc, until the lights of the
tender disappeared from Staff's field of vision.

Before long, however, they swam silently again into sight; then slowly,
cautiously, by almost imperceptible stages the gap closed up until the
tender ranged alongside and made fast to her gigantic sister.

Almost at once the incoming passengers began to mount the
companion-ladder.

Staff promptly abandoned his place at the rail and ran down to the
main-deck. As he approached the doorway opening adjacent to the
companion-ladder he heard a woman's laugh out on the deck: a laugh
which, once heard, was never to be forgotten: clear, sweet, strong,
musical as a peal of fairy bells.

He stopped short; and so did his breath for an instant; and so, he
fancied, did his heart. This, then, was what Mrs. Ilkington had hinted
at! But one woman in all the world could laugh like that ...

Almost at once she appeared, breaking through the cluster of passengers
on the deck and into the lighted interior with a swinging, vigorous
manner suggestive of intense vitality and strength. She paused, glancing
back over her shoulder, waiting for somebody: a magnificent creature,
splendidly handsome, wonderfully graceful, beautiful beyond compare.

"Alison!" Staff breathed hoarsely, dumfounded.

Though his exclamation could by no means have carried to her ears, she
seemed to be instantly sensitive to the vibrations of his emotion. She
swung round, raking her surroundings with a bright, curious glance, and
saw him. Her smile deepened adorably, her eyes brightened, she moved
impulsively toward him with outflung hands.

"Why," she cried--"Why, Staff! Such a surprise!"

Nothing could have been more natural, spontaneous and unaffected. In an
instant his every doubt and misgiving was erased--blotted out and as if
it had never been. He caught and held her hands, for the moment
speechless. But his eyes were all too eloquent: under their steadfast
sincerity her own gaze wavered, shifted and fell. She coloured
consummately, then with a gentle but determined manner disengaged her
hands.

"Don't," she said in the low, intimate voice she knew so well how and
when to employ--"don't! People are looking ..." And then with a
bewildering shift, resuming her former spirit: "Of all things wonderful,
Staff--to meet you here!"

She was acting--masking with her admirable art some emotion secret from
him. He knew this--felt it intuitively, though he did not understand;
and the knowledge affected him poignantly. What place had dissimulation
in their understanding? Why need she affect what she did not feel--with
him?

Distressed, bewildered, he met evasion with native straightforwardness.

"I'm stunned," he told her, holding her eyes with a grave, direct gaze;
"I'm afraid I don't understand.... How does this happen?"

"Why, of course," she said, maintaining her artificial elation--"I
infer--you've finished the play and are hurrying home. So--we meet, dear
boy. Isn't it delightful?"

"But you're here, on this side--?"

"Oh, just a flying trip. Max wanted me to see Bisson's new piece at the
Porte St. Martin. I decided to go at the last moment--caught the
Mauretania on eight hours' notice--stayed only three days in
Paris--booked back on this tub by telegraph--travelled all day to catch
it by this wretched, roundabout route. And--and there you are, my dear."

She concluded with a gesture charmingly ingenuous and disarming; but
Staff shook his head impatiently.

"You came over--you passed through London twice--you stayed three days
in Paris, Alison--and never let me know?"

"Obviously." She lifted her shoulders an inch, with a light laugh.
"Haven't I just said as much?... You see, I didn't want to disturb you:
it means so much to--you and me, Staff--the play."

Dissatisfied, knitting his brows faintly, he said: "I wonder ...!"

"My dear!" she protested gaily, "you positively must not scowl at me
like that! You frighten me; and besides I'm tired to death--this
wretched rush of travelling! Tomorrow we'll have a famous young pow-wow,
but tonight--! Do say good night to me, prettily, like a dear good boy,
and let me go.... It's sweet to see you again; I'm wild to hear about
the play.... Jane!" she called, looking round.

Her maid, a tight-mouthed, unlovely creature, moved sedately to her
side. "Yes, Miss Landis."

"Have my things come up yet?" The maid responded affirmatively. "Good!
I'm dead, almost...."

She turned back to Staff, offering him her hand and with it,
bewitchingly, her eyes: "Dear boy! Good night."

He bent low over the hand to hide his dissatisfaction: he felt a bit old
to be treated like a petulant, teasing child....

"Good night," he said stiffly.

"What a bear you are, Staff! Can't you wait till tomorrow? At all
events, you must...."

Laughing, she swept away, following her maid up the companion stairs.
Staff pursued her with eyes frowning and perplexed, and more leisurely
with his person.

As he turned aft on the upper deck, meaning to go to the smoking-room
for a good-night cigarette--absorbed in thought and paying no attention
to his surroundings--a voice saluted him with a languid, exasperating
drawl: "Ah, Staff! How-d'-ye-do?"

He looked up, recognising a distant acquaintance: a man of medium height
with a tendency toward stoutness and a taste for extremes in the matter
of clothes; with dark, keen eyes deep-set in a face somewhat too pale, a
close-clipped grey moustache and a high and narrow forehead too frankly
betrayed by the derby he wore well back on his head.

Staff nodded none too cordially. "Oh, good evening, Arkroyd. Just come
aboard?"

Arkroyd, on the point of entering his stateroom, paused long enough to
confirm this surmise. "Beastly trip--most tiresome," he added, frankly
yawning. "Don't know how I should have stood it if it hadn't been for
Miss Landis. You know her, I believe? Charming girl--charming."

"Oh, quite," agreed Staff. "Good night."

His tone arrested Arkroyd's attention; the man turned to watch his back
as Staff shouldered down the alleyway toward the smoking-room. "I say!"
commented Mr. Arkroyd, privately. "A bit hipped--what? No necessity for
being so bally short with a chap...."

The guess was only too well founded: Staff was distinctly disgruntled.
Within the past ten minutes his susceptibilities had been deeply
wounded. Why Alison should have chosen to slight him so cavalierly when
in transit through London passed his comprehension.... And the encounter
with Arkroyd comforted him to no degree whatever. He had never liked
Arkroyd, holding him, for all his wealth, little better than a
theatre-loafer of the Broadway type; and now he remembered hearing, once
or twice, that the man's attentions to Alison Landis had been rather
emphatic.

Swayed by whim, he chose to avoid the smoking-room, after all--having
little wish to be annoyed by the chatter of Mr. Iff--and swung out on
deck again for a half-hour of cigarettes and lonely brooding....

But his half-hour lengthened indefinitely while he sat, preoccupied, in
the deck-chair of some total stranger. By definite stages, to which he
was almost altogether oblivious, the Autocratic weighed anchor, shook
off her tender and swung away on the seven-day stretch. As definitely
her decks became bare of passengers. Presently Staff was quite a
solitary figure in the long array of chairs.

Two bells rang mellowly through the ship before he roused, lifted
himself to his feet and prepared to turn in, still distressed and
wondering--so much so that he was barely conscious of the fact that one
of the officers of the vessel was coming aft, and only noticed the man
when he paused and spoke.

"I say--this is Mr. Staff, isn't it?"

Staff turned quickly, searching his memory for the name and status of
the sturdy and good-looking young Englishman.

"Yes," he said slowly, "but--"

"I'm Mr. Manvers, the purser. If I'm not mistaken, you crossed with us
this spring?"

"Oh, yes; I did. How-d'-you-do?" Staff offered his hand.

"Sure I recognised you just now--saw you on the main-deck--talking to
Miss Landis, I believe."

"Yes ...?"

"Beg pardon; I don't wish to seem impertinent; but may I ask, do you
know the lady very well?"

Staff's eyes clouded. "Why ..."

"Knew you'd think me impertinent; but it is some of my business, really.
I can explain to your satisfaction. You see"--the purser stepped nearer
and lowered his voice guardedly--"I was wondering if you had much
personal influence with Miss Landis. I've just had a bit of a chat with
her, and she won't listen to reason, you know, about that collar."

"Collar?" Staff repeated stupidly.

"The Cadogan collar, you know--some silly pearl necklace worth a king's
ransom. She bought it in Paris--Miss Landis did; at least, so the report
runs; and she doesn't deny it, as a matter of fact. Naturally that
worries me; it's a rather tempting proposition to leave lying round a
stateroom; and I asked her just now to let me take care of it for
her--put it in my safe, you know. It'd be a devilish nasty thing for
the ship, to have it stolen." The purser paused for effect. "Would you
believe it? She wouldn't listen to me! Told me she was quite capable of
taking care of her own property! Now if you know her well enough to say
the right word ... it'd be a weight off my mind, I can tell you!"

"Yes, I can imagine so," said Staff thoughtfully. "But--what makes you
think there's any possibility--"

"Well, one never knows what sort of people the ship carries--as a rule,
that is. But in this instance I've got good reason to believe there's at
least one man aboard who wouldn't mind lifting that collar; and he's
keen enough to do it prettily, too, if what they tell of him is true."

"Now you're getting interesting. Who is this man?"

"Oh, quite the swell mobsman--Raffles and Arsène Lupin and all that sort
of thing rolled into one. His name's Ismay--Arbuthnot Ismay.
Clever--wonderful, they say; the police have never been able to fasten
anything on him, though he's been known to boast of his jobs in
advance."

"You told Miss Landis this?"

"Certainly--and she laughed."

This seemed quite credible of the lady. Staff considered the situation
seriously for a moment or two.

"I'll do what I can," he said at length; "though I'm not hopeful of
making her see it from your point of view. Still, I will speak to her."

"That's good of you, I'm sure. You couldn't do more."

"You're positive about this Ismay?" Staff pursued. "You couldn't be
mistaken?"

"Not I," asserted the purser confidently. "He crossed with us last
year--the time Mrs. Burden Hamman's jewels disappeared. Ismay, of
course, was suspected, but managed to prove every kind of an alibi."

"Queer you should let him book a second time," commented Staff.

"Rather; but he's changed his name, and I don't imagine the chaps in
Cockspur Street know him by sight."

"What name does he travel under now?"

The purser smiled softly to himself. "I fancy you won't be pleased to
learn it," said he. "He's down on the passenger-list as Iff--W. H.
Iff."



V

ISMAY?


When Staff went below a little later, he was somewhat surprised to find
his stateroom alight,--surprised, because he had rather expected that
Mr. Iff would elect to sleep off his potations in darkness.

To the contrary, the little man was very much awake, propped up in his
berth with a book for company, and showed no effects whatever of
overindulgence, unless that were betrayed by a slightly enhanced
brightness of the cool blue eyes which he brought to bear upon his
roommate.

"Good morning!" he piped cheerfully. "What on earth got you up so early?
The bar's been closed an hour and more."

"Is that why you came to bed?" enquired Staff.

"Sure," agreed Mr. Iff complacently.

Staff quietly began to shed his clothing and to insert his spare frame
into pajamas. Iff lay back and stared reflectively at the white-painted
overhead girders.

"Got to slip it to you," he observed presently, "for perfect mastery of
the dignified reserve thing. I never knew anybody who could better
control his tumultuous emotions."

"Thanks," said Staff drily as he wound up his watch.

"Anything 'special troubling you?"

"Why do you ask?"

"You talk so darn much."

"Sorry if I'm keeping you awake," said Staff politely.

"Oh, I don't mean to seem to beef about it, only ... I was wondering if
by any chance you'd heard the news?"

"What news?"

"About me."

"About you!" Staff paused with his fingers on the light-switch.

"About my cute little self. May I look now?" Iff poked his head over the
edge of the upper berth and beamed down upon Staff like a benevolent,
blond magpie. "Haven't you heard the rumour that I'm a desperate
character?"

"Just what do you mean?" demanded Staff, eyeing the other intently.

"Oh, simply that I overheard the purser discussing me with his
assistant. He claims to recognise in me a bold bad man named Ismay,
whose specialty is pulling off jobs that would make Sherlock Holmes ask
to be retired on a pension."

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Are you Ismay?"

A broad, mocking grin irradiated the little man's pinched features.
"Don't ask me," he begged: "I might tell you."

Staff frowned and waited a minute, then, receiving no further response
to his enquiry, grunted "Good night," turned off the light and got into
his berth.

A moment later the question came out of the darkness overhead: "I
say--what do _you_ think?"

"Are you Iff or Ismay--you mean?"

"Aye, lad, aye!"

"I don't know. It's for you to say."

"But if you thought I was Ismay you'd shift quarters, wouldn't you?"

"Why?"

"Because I might pinch something of yours."

"In the first place," said Staff, yawning, "I can't shift without going
into the second cabin--and you know it: the boat's full up. Secondly,
I've nothing you could steal save ideas, and you haven't got the right
sort of brains to turn them to any account."

"That ought to hold me for some time," Iff admitted fairly. "But I'm
concerned about your sensitive young reputation. Suppose I were to turn
a big trick this trip?"

"As for instance--?"

"Well, say I swipe the Cadogan collar."

"Then I'd stand just so much the better chance of catching you
red-handed."

"Swell notion you've got of the cunning of the Twentieth Century
criminal, I must say. D' you for an instant suppose my work's so coarse
that you could detect grits in it?"

"Then you _are_ Ismay?"

"My son," said the other solemnly, "your pertinacity shan't go
unrewarded: I will be frank with you. You shall know all. I am Iff--the
eternal question."

"Oh, go to thunder!" said Staff indignantly.

But as he slipped off to sleep he could hear the man overhead chuckling
quietly, beneath his breath....

The next few days would have provided him with ample opportunity in
which to ponder the question of his roommate's identity, had Staff
chosen so to occupy his time. As it happened, Heaven was kind to the
young man, and sent a gale of sorts, which, breaking upon the Autocratic
the following morning, buffeted her for three days and relegated to
their berths all the poor sailors aboard, including the lady with the
pink soul and underthings. Of Mrs. Thataker, indeed, Staff saw nothing
more until just before the vessel docked in New York. He wasn't
heartless by any manner of means; he was, as a matter of fact, frankly
sorry for the other poor passengers; but he couldn't help feeling there
was a lot of truth in the old saw about an ill wind....

Otherwise the bad weather proved annoying enough in several ways. To
begin with, Alison Landis herself was anything but a good sailor, and
even Miss Searle, though she missed no meals, didn't pretend to enjoy
the merciless hammering which the elements were administering to the
ship. Alison retired to her suite immediately after the first breakfast
and stuck religiously therein until the weather moderated, thus
affording Staff no chance to talk with her about the number of
immediately interesting things on his mind. While Miss Searle stayed
almost as steadily in her quarters, keeping out of harm's way and
reading, she told Staff when they met at meals. Mrs. Ilkington, of
course, disappeared as promptly as Mrs. Thataker. In consequence of all
of which, Staff found himself thrown back for companionship on Bangs,
who bored him to the point of extinction, Arkroyd, whom he didn't like,
and Iff, who kept rather out of the way, dividing his time between his
two passions and merely leering at the younger man, a leer of infinite
cunning and derision, when chance threw them together.

In despair of finding any good excuse for wasting his time, then, Mr.
Staff took unto himself pens, ink, paper and fortitude and--surprised
even himself by writing that fourth act and finishing his play.
Again--an ill wind!

And then, as if bent on proving its integral benevolence so far as
concerned Mr. Staff, the wind shifted and sighed and died--beginning the
operation toward sundown of the third day out from Queenstown. The
morning of the fourth day dawned clear and beautiful, with no wind worth
mentioning and only a moderate sea running--not enough to make much of
an impression on the Autocratic. So pretty nearly everybody made public
appearance at one time or another during the morning, and compared notes
about their historic sufferings, and quoted the stewardess who had been
heard to say that this was the worst westbound passage the boat had ever
made, and regained their complexions, and took notice of the incipient
flirtations and--well, settled down in the usual way to enjoy an ocean
voyage.

Staff, of course, was on deck betimes, with an eye eager for first sight
of Alison and another heedful of social entanglements which might
prevent him from being first and foremost to her side when she did
appear. But for all his watchfulness and care, Mrs. Ilkington
forestalled him and had Alison in convoy before Staff discovered her;
and then Arkroyd showed up and Mrs. Ilkington annexed him, and Bangs was
rounded up with one or two others and made to pay court to Mrs.
Ilkington's newly snared celebrity and ... Staff went away and sulked
like a spoiled child. Nor did his humour become more cheerful when at
lunch he discovered that Mrs. Ilkington had kept two seats at their
table reserved for Miss Landis and Arkroyd. It had been a prearranged
thing, of course; it had been Alison with whom Mrs. Ilkington had talked
about him in Paris; and evidently Alison had been esquired by Arkroyd
there. Staff didn't relish the flavour of that thought. What right had
Arkroyd to constitute himself Alison's cavalier on her travels? For
that matter, what right had Alison to accept him in such a capacity?...
Though, of course, Staff had to remind himself that Alison was in
reality not bound in any way....

But he had his reward and revenge after lunch. As the party left the
table Alison dropped behind to speak to him; and in interchange of
commonplaces they allowed the others to distance them beyond earshot.

"You're a dear," the young woman told him in a discreet tone as they
ascended the companionway.

"I'm bound to say," he told her with a faint, expiring flicker of
resentment, "that you hardly treat me like one."

Her eyes held his with their smiling challenge, half provocative, half
tender; and she pouted a little, prettily. In this mood she was always
quite irresistible to Staff. Almost against his will his dignity and his
pose of the injured person evaporated and became as if they had never
been.

"Just the same," she declared, laughing, "you are a dear--if you _don't_
deserve to be told so."

"What have I done?" he demanded guiltily--knowing very well on what
counts he was liable to indictment.

"Oh, nothing," said Alison--"nothing whatever. You've only been haughty
and aloof and icy and indifferent and everything else that men seem to
consider becoming to them when they think they're neglected."

"You certainly don't expect me to _like_ seeing Arkroyd at your side all
the time?"

"Oh!" she laughed contemptuously--"Arkroyd!" And she dismissed that
gentleman with a fine sweeping gesture. "Can I help it if he happens to
travel on the same ship?"

They halted at the top of the steps.

"Then it was accidental--?" he asked seriously.

"Staff!" The young woman made an impatient movement. "If I didn't like
you--_you_ know how much--upon my word I'd snub you for that. You are a
bear!"

"A moment ago I was a dear."

"Oh, well, I'm fond of all sorts of animals."

"Then I advise your future husband to keep you away from zoos."

"Oh, Staff! But wouldn't you want me to come to see you once in a
while?"

He jerked up one hand with the gesture of a man touched in a
fencing-bout. "You win," he laughed. "I should've known better...."

But she made her regard tender consolation for his discomfiture. "You
haven't told me about the play--our play--_my_ play?"

"It's finished."

"Not really, Staff?" She clasped her hands in a charmingly impulsive
way. He nodded, smiling. "Is it good?"

"You'll have to tell me that--you and Max."

"Oh--Max! He's got to like what I like. When will you read it to me?"

"Whenever you wish."

"This afternoon?"

"If you like."

"Oh, good! Now I'm off for my nap--only I know I shan't sleep, I'm so
excited. Bring the 'script to me at two--say, half-past. Come to my
sitting-room; we can be alone and quiet, and after you've finished we
can have tea together and talk and--talk our silly heads off. You
darling!"

She gave him a parting glance calculated to turn any man's head, and
swung off to her rooms, the very spirit of grace incarnate in her young
and vigorous body.

Staff watched her with a kindling eye, then shook his head as one who
doubts--as if doubting his own worthiness--and went off to his own
stateroom to run over the type-script of his fourth act: being
fortunate in having chosen a ship which carried a typist, together with
almost every other imaginable convenience and alleged luxury of life
ashore.

Punctual to the minute, manuscript under his arm, he knocked at the door
of the sitting-room of the _suite de luxe_ occupied by the actress. Her
maid admitted him and after a moment or two Alison herself came out of
her stateroom, in a wonderful Parisian tea-gown cunningly designed to
render her even more bewilderingly bewitching than ever. Staff thought
her so, beyond any question, and as unquestionably was his thought
mirrored in his eyes as he rose and stood waiting for her greeting--very
nearly a-tremble, if the truth's to be told.

Her colour deepened as she came toward him and then, pausing at arm's
length, before he could lift a hand, stretched forth both her own and
caught him by the shoulders. "My dear!" she said softly; and her eyes
were bright and melting. "My dear, dear boy! It's so sweet to see you."
She came a step nearer, stood upon her tiptoes and lightly touched his
cheek with her lips.

"Alison ...!" he cried in a broken voice.

But already she had released him and moved away, with a lithe and
gracious movement evading his arms. "No," she told him firmly, shaking
her head: "no more than that, Staff. You mustn't--I won't have
you--carry on as if we were children--_yet_."

"But Alison--"

"No." Again she shook her head. "If I want to kiss you, I've a perfect
right to; but that doesn't give you any licence to kiss me in return.
Besides, I'm not at all sure I'm really and truly in love with you. Now
do sit down."

He complied sulkily.

"Are you in the habit of kissing men you don't care for?"

"Yes, frequently," she told him, coolly taking the chair opposite; "I'm
an actress--if you've forgotten the fact."

He pondered this, frowning. "I don't like it," he announced with
conviction.

"Neither do I--always." She relished his exasperation for a moment
longer, then changed her tone. "Do be sensible, Staff. I'm crazy to hear
that play. How long do you mean to keep me waiting?"

He knew her well enough to understand that her moods and whims must be
humoured like a--well, like any other star's. She was pertinaciously
temperamental: that is to say, spoiled; beautiful women are so, for the
most part--invariably so, if on the stage. That kind of temperament is
part of an actress' equipment, an asset, as much an item of her stock in
trade as any trick of elocution or pantomime.

So, knowing what he knew, Staff took himself in hand and prepared to
make the best of the situation. With a philosophic shrug and the wry,
quaint smile so peculiarly his own, he stretched forth a hand to take up
his manuscript; but in the very act, remembering, withheld it.

"Oh, I'd forgotten ..."

"What, my dear?" asked Alison, smiling back to his unsmiling stare.

"What made you send me that bandbox?" he demanded without further
preliminary; for he suspected that by surprising the author of that
outrage, and by no other method, would he arrive at the truth.

But though he watched the woman intently, he was able to detect no
guilty start, no evidence of confusion. Her eyes were blank, and a
little pucker of wonder showed between her brows: that was all.

"Bandbox?" she repeated enquiringly. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," he pursued with a purposeful, omniscient air, "the thing you
bought at Lucille's, the day before we sailed, and had sent me without a
word of explanation. What did you do it for?"

Alison relaxed and sat back in her chair, laughing softly. "Dear boy,"
she said--"do you know?--you're quite mad--quite!"

"Do you mean to say you didn't--?"

"I can't even surmise what you're talking about."

"That's funny." He pondered this, staring. "I made sure it was you.
Weren't you in London last Friday?"

"I? Oh, no. Why, didn't I tell you I only left Paris Saturday morning?
That's why we had to travel all day to catch the boat at Queenstown, you
know."

He frowned. "That's true; you did say so.... But I wish I could imagine
what it all means."

"Tell me; I'm good at puzzles."

So he recounted the story of the bandbox incognito, Alison lending her
attention with evident interest, some animation and much quiet
amusement. But when he had finished, she shook her head.

"How very odd!" she said wonderingly. "And you have no idea--?"

"Not the least in the world, now that you've established an alibi. Miss
Searle knows, but--"

"What's that?" demanded Alison quickly.

"I say, Miss Searle knows, but she won't tell."

"The girl who sat next to Bangs at lunch?"

"Yes--"

"But how is that? I don't quite understand."

"Oh, she says she was in the place when the bandbox was purchased--saw
the whole transaction; but it's none of her affair, says she, so she
won't tell me anything."

"Conscientious young woman," said Alison approvingly. "But are you quite
sure you have exhausted every means of identifying the true culprit? Did
you examine the box yourself? I mean, did you leave it all to the
housemaid--what's her name--Milly?"

He nodded: "Yes."

"Then she may have overlooked something. Why take her word for it? There
may be a card or something there now."

Staff looked startled and chagrined. "That's so. It never occurred to
me. I am a bonehead, and no mistake. I'll just take a look, after we've
run through this play."

"Why wait? Send for it now. I'd like to see for myself, if there is
anything: you see, you've roused a woman's curiosity; I want to know.
Let me send Jane."

Without waiting for his consent, Alison summoned the maid. "Jane," said
she, "I want you to go to Mr. Staff's stateroom--"

"Excuse me," Staff interrupted. "Find the steward named Orde and ask
him for the bandbox I gave him to take care of. Then bring it here,
please."

"Yes, sir," said Jane; and forthwith departed.

"And now--while we're waiting," suggested Alison--"the play, if you
please."

"Not yet," said Staff. "I've something else to talk about that I'd
forgotten. Manvers, the purser--"

"Good Heavens!" Alison interrupted in exasperation. She rose, with a
general movement of extreme annoyance. "Am I never to hear the last of
that man? He's been after me every day, and sometimes twice a day....
He's a personified pest!"

"But he's right, you know," said Staff quietly.

"Right! Right about what?"

"In wanting you to let him take care of that necklace--the
what-you-may-call-it thing--the Cadogan collar."

"How do you know I have it?"

"You admitted as much to Manvers, and Mrs. Ilkington says you have it."

"But why need everybody know about it?"

"Enquire of Mrs. Ilkington. If you wanted the matter kept secret, why in
the sacred name of the great god Publicity did you confide in that queen
of press agents?"

"She had no right to say anything--"

"Granted. So you actually have got that collar with you?"

"Oh, yes," Alison admitted indifferently, "I have it."

"In this room?"

"Of course."

"Then be advised and take no chances."

Alison had been pacing to and fro, impatiently. Now she stopped, looking
down at him without any abatement of her show of temper.

"You're as bad as all the rest," she complained. "I'm a woman grown, in
full possession of my faculties. The collar is perfectly safe in my
care. It's here, in this room, securely locked up."

"But someone might break in while you're out--"

"Either Jane is here all the time, or I am. It's never left to itself a
single instant. It's perfectly ridiculous to suppose we're going to let
anybody rob us of it. Besides, where would a thief go with it, if he did
succeed in stealing it--overboard?"

"I'm willing to risk a small bet he'd manage to hide it so that it would
take the whole ship's company, and a heap of good luck into the bargain,
to find it."

"Well," said the woman defiantly, "I'm not afraid, and I'm not going to
be browbeaten by any scare-cat purser into behaving like a kiddie afraid
of the dark. I'm quite competent to look after my own property, and I
purpose doing so without anybody's supervision. Now let's have that
understood, Staff; and don't you bother me any more about this matter."

"Thanks," said Staff drily; "I fancy you can count on me to know when
I'm asked to mind my own business."

"Oh, I didn't mean that--not that way, dear boy--but--"

At this juncture the maid entered with the bandbox, and Alison broke off
with an exclamation of diverted interest.

"There! Let's say no more about this tiresome jewel business. I'm sure
this is going to prove ever so much more amusing. Open it, Jane,
please."

In another moment the hat was in her hands and both she and Jane were
giving passably good imitations--modified by their respective
personalities--of Milly's awe-smitten admiration of the thing.

Staff was conscious of a sensation of fatigue. Bending over, he drew the
bandbox to him and began to examine the wrappings and wads of
tissue-paper which it still contained.

"It's a perfect dear!" said Miss Landis in accents of the utmost
sincerity.

"Indeed, mum," chimed Jane, antiphonal.

"Whoever your anonymous friend may be, she has exquisite taste."

"Indeed, mum," chanted the chorus.

"May I try it on, Staff?"

"What?" said the young man absently, absorbed in his search. "Oh, yes;
certainly. Help yourself."

Alison moved across to the long mirror set in the door communicating
with her bedroom. Here she paused, carefully adjusting the hat to her
shapely head.

"Now, sir!" she exclaimed, turning.

Staff sat back in his chair and looked his fill of admiration. The hat
might have been designed expressly for no other purpose than to set off
this woman's imperious loveliness: such was the thought eloquent in his
expression.

Satisfied with his dumb tribute, Alison lifted off the hat and deposited
it upon a table.

"Find anything?" she asked lightly.

"Not a word," said he--"not a sign of a clue."

"What a disappointment!" she sighed. "I'm wild to know.... Suppose,"
said she, posing herself before him,--"suppose the owner never did turn
up after all?"

"_Hum_," said Staff, perturbed by such a prospect.

"What would you do with it?"

"_Hum_," said he a second time, non-committal.

"You couldn't wear it yourself; it's hardly an ornament for a bachelor's
study. What _would_ you do with it?"

"I think," said Staff, "I hear my cue to say: I'd give it to the most
beautiful woman alive, of course."

"Thank you, dear," returned Alison serenely. "Don't forget."

She moved back to her chair, humming a little tune almost inaudibly; and
in passing lightly brushed his forehead with her hand--the ghost of a
caress.

"You may go, Jane," said she, sitting down to face her lover; and when
the maid had shut herself out of the room: "Now, dear, read me our
play," said Alison, composing herself to attention.

Staff took up his manuscript and began to read aloud....

Three hours elapsed before he put aside the fourth act and turned
expectantly to Alison.

Elbow on knee and chin in hand, eyes fixed upon his face, she sat as one
entranced, unable still to shake off the spell of his invention: more
lovely, he thought, in this mood of thoughtfulness even than in her
brightest animation.... Then with a little sigh she roused, relaxed her
pose, and sat back, faintly smiling.

"Well?" he asked diffidently. "What do you think?"

"It's splendid," she said with a soft, warm glow of enthusiasm--"simply
splendid. It's coherent, it hangs together from start to finish; you've
got little to learn about construction, my dear. And my part is
magnificent: never have I had such a chance to show what I can do with
comedy. I'm delighted beyond words. But ..." She sighed again, distrait.

"But--?" he repeated anxiously.

"There are one or two minor things," she said with shadowy regret, "that
you will want to change, I think: nothing worth mentioning, nothing
important enough to mar the wonderful cleverness of it all."

"But tell me--?"

"Oh, it's hardly worth talking about, dear boy. Only--there's the
ingenue rôle; you've given her too much to do; she's on the stage in all
of my biggest scenes, and has business enough in them to spoil my best
effects. Of course, that can be arranged. And then the leading man's
part--I don't want to seem hypercritical, but he's altogether too
clever; you mustn't let him overshadow the heroine the way he does; some
of his business is plainly hers--I can see myself doing it infinitely
better than any leading man we could afford to engage. And those witty
lines you've put into his mouth--I _must_ have them; you won't find it
hard, I'm sure, to twist the lines a bit, so that they come from the
heroine rather than the hero...."

Staff held up a warning hand, and laughed.

"Just a minute, Alison," said he. "Remember this is a play, not a
background for you. And with a play it's much as with matrimony: if
either turns out to be a monologue it's bound to be a failure."

Alison frowned slightly, then forced a laugh, and rose. "You authors are
all alike," she complained, pouting; "I mean, as authors. But I'm not
going to have any trouble with you, dear boy. We'll agree on everything;
I'm going to be reasonable and you've _got_ to be. Besides, we've heaps
of time to talk it over. Now I'm going to change and get up on deck.
Will you wait for me in the saloon, outside? I shan't be ten minutes."

"Will I?" he laughed. "Your only trouble will be to keep me away from
your door, this trip." He gathered up his manuscript and steamer-cap,
then with his hand on the door-knob paused. "Oh, I forgot that blessed
bandbox!"

"Never mind that now," said Alison. "I'll have Jane repack it and take
it back to your steward. Besides, I'm in a hurry, stifling for fresh
air. Just give me twenty minutes...."

She offered him a hand, and he bowed his lips to it; then quietly let
himself out into the alleyway.



VI

IFF?


Late that night, Staff drifted into the smoking-room, which he found
rather sparsely patronised. This fact surprised him no less than its
explanation: it was after eleven o'clock. He had hardly realised the
flight of time, so absorbed had he been all evening in argument with
Alison Landis.

There remained in the smoking-room, at this late hour, but half a dozen
detached men, smoking and talking over their nightcaps, and one table of
bridge players--in whose number, of course, there was Mr. Iff.

Nodding abstractedly to the little man, Staff found a quiet corner and
sat him down with a sigh and a shake of his head that illustrated
vividly his frame of mind. He was a little blue and more than a little
distressed. And this was nothing but natural, since he was still in the
throes of the discovery that one man can hardly with success play the
dual rôle of playwright and sweetheart to a successful actress.

Alison was charming, he told himself, a woman incomparable, tenderly
sweet and desirable; and he loved her beyond expression. But ... his
play was also more than a slight thing in his life. It meant a good deal
to him; he had worked hard and put the best that was in him into its
making; and hard as the work had been, it had been a labour of love. He
wasn't a man to overestimate his ability; he possessed a singularly sane
and clear appreciation of the true value of his work, harbouring no
illusions as to his real status either as dramatist or novelist. But at
the same time, he knew when he had done good work. And _A Single Woman_
promised to be a good play, measured by modern standards: not great, but
sound and clear and strong. The plot was of sufficient originality to
command attention; the construction was clear, sane, inevitable; he had
mixed the elements of comedy and drama with the deftness of a sure hand;
and he had carefully built up the characters in true proportion to one
another and to their respective significance in the action.

Should all this then, be garbled and distorted to satisfy a woman's
passion for the centre of the stage? Must he be untrue to the
fundamentals of dramaturgic art in order to earn her tolerance? Could
he gain his own consent to present to the public as work representative
of his fancy the misshapen monstrosity which would inevitably result of
yielding to Alison's insistence?

Small wonder that he sighed and wagged a doleful head!

Now while all this was passing through a mind wrapped in gloomy and
profound abstraction, Iff's voice disturbed him.

"Pity the poor playwright!" it said in accents of amusement.

Looking up, Staff discovered that the little man stood before him, a
furtive twinkle in his pale blue eyes. The bridge game had broken up,
and they two were now alone in the smoking-room--saving the presence of
a steward yawning sleepily and wishing to 'Eaven they'd turn in and give
'im a charnce to snatch a wink o' sleep.

"Hello," said Staff, none too cordially. "What d' you mean by that?"

"Hello," responded Iff, dropping upon the cushioned seat beside him. He
snapped his fingers at the steward. "Give it a name," said he.

Staff gave it a name. "You don't answer me," he persisted. "Why pity the
poor playwright?"

"He has his troubles," quoth Mr. Iff cheerfully, if vaguely. "Need I
enumerate them, to you? Anyway, if the poor playwright isn't to be
pitied, what right 've you got to stick round here looking like that?"

"Oh!" Staff laughed uneasily. "I was thinking...."

"I flattered you to the extent of surmising as much." Iff elevated one
of the glasses which had just been put before them. "Chin-chin," said
he--"that is, if you've no particular objection to chin-chinning with a
putative criminal of the d'p'st dye?"

"None whatever," returned Staff, lifting his own glass--"at least, not
so long as it affords me continued opportunity to watch him cooking up
his cunning little crimes."

"Ah!" cried Iff with enthusiasm--"there spoke the true spirit of
Sociological Research. Long may you rave!"

He set down an empty glass.

Staff laughed, sufficiently diverted to forget his troubles for the time
being.

"I wish I could make you out," he said slowly, eyeing the older man.

"You mean you hope I'm not going to take you in."

"Either way--or both: please yourself."

"Ah!" said the little man appreciatively--"I am a deep one, ain't I?"

He laid a finger alongside his nose and looked unutterably enigmatic.

At this point they were interrupted: a man burst into the smoking-room
from the deck and pulled up breathing heavily, as if he had been
running, while he raked the room with quick, enquiring glances. Staff
recognised Mr. Manvers, the purser, betraying every evidence of a
disturbed mind. At the same moment, Manvers caught sight of the pair in
the corner and made for them.

"Mr. Ismay--" he began, halting before their table and glaring gloomily
at Staff's companion.

"I beg your pardon," said the person addressed, icily; "my name is Iff."

Manvers made an impatient movement with one hand. "Iff or Ismay--it's
all one to me--to you too, I fancy--"

"One moment!" snapped Iff, rising. "If you were an older man," he said
stiffly, "and a smaller, I'd pull your impertinent nose, sir! As things
stand, I'd probably get my head punched if I did."

"That's sound logic," returned Manvers with a sneer.

"Well, then, sir? What do you want with me?"

Manvers changed his attitude to one of sardonic civility. "The captain
sent me to ask you if you would be kind enough to step up to his cabin,"
he said stiltedly. "May I hope you will be good enough to humour him?"

"Most assuredly," Iff picked up his steamer-cap and set it jauntily upon
his head. "Might one enquire the cause of all this-here fluster?"

"I daresay the captain--"

"Oh, very well. If you won't talk, my dear purser, I'll hazard a shrewd
guess--by your leave."

The purser stared. "What's that?"

"I was about to say," pursued Iff serenely, "that I'll lay two to one
that the Cadogan collar has disappeared."

Manvers continued to stare, his eyes blank with amazement. "You've got
your nerve with you, I must say," he growled.

"Or guilty knowledge? Which, Mr. Manvers?"

A reply seemed to tremble on Manvers' lips, but to be withheld at
discretion. "I'm not the captain," he said after a slight pause; "go and
cheek him as far as you like. And we're keeping him waiting, if I may be
permitted to mention it."

Iff turned to Staff, with an engaging smile. "Rejecting the guilty
knowledge hypothesis, for the sake of the argument," said he: "you'll
admit I'm the only suspicious personage known to be aboard; so it's not
such a wild guess--that the collar has vanished--when I'm sent for by
the captain at this unearthly hour.... Lead on, Mr. Manvers," he wound
up with a dramatic gesture.

The purser nodded and turned toward the door. Staff jumped up and
followed the pair.

"You don't mind my coming?" he asked.

"No--wish you would; you can bear witness to the captain that I did
everything in my power to make Miss Landis appreciate the danger--"

"Then," Iff interrupted suavely, "the collar has disappeared--we're to
understand?"

"Yes," the purser assented shortly.

They scurried forward and mounted the ladder to the boat-deck, where the
captain's quarters were situated in the deckhouse immediately abaft the
bridge. From an open door--for the night was as warm as it was dark--a
wide stream of light fell athwart the deck, like gold upon black velvet.

Pausing _en silhouette_ against the glow, the purser knocked discreetly.
Iff ranged up beside him, dwarfed by comparison. Staff held back at a
little distance.

A voice from within barked: "Oh, come in!" Iff and Manvers obeyed. Staff
paused on the threshold, bending his head to escape the lintel.

Standing thus, he appreciated the tableau: the neat, tidy little
room--commodious for a steamship--glistening with white-enamelled
woodwork in the radiance of half a dozen electric bulbs; Alison in a
steamer-coat seated on the far side of a chart-table, her colouring
unusually pallid, her brows knitted and eyes anxious; the maid, Jane,
standing respectfully behind her mistress; Manvers to one side and out
of the way, but plainly eager and distraught; Iff in the centre of the
stage, his slight, round-shouldered figure lending him a deceptive
effect of embarrassment which was only enhanced by his semi-placating,
semi-wistful smile and his small, blinking eyes; the captain looming
over him, authority and menace incarnate in his heavy, square-set,
sturdy body and heavy-browed, square-jawed, beardless and weathered
face....

Manvers said: "This is Mr. Iff, Captain Cobb."

The captain nodded brusquely. His hands were in his coat-pockets; he
didn't offer to remove them. Iff blinked up at him and cocked his small
head critically to one side, persistently smiling.

"I've heard so much of you, sir," he said in a husky, weary voice, very
subdued. "It's a real pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Captain Cobb noticed this bit of effrontery by nothing more than a growl
deep in this throat. His eyes travelled on, above Iff's head, and Staff
was conscious of their penetrating and unfriendly question. He bowed
uncertainly.

"Oh--and Mr. Staff," said Manvers hastily.

"Well?" said the captain without moving.

"A friend of Miss Landis and also--curiously--in the same room with Mr.
Iff."

"Ah," remarked the captain. "How-d'-you-do?" He removed his right hand
from its pocket and held it out with the air of a man who wishes it
understood that by such action he commits himself to nothing.

Before Staff could grasp it, Iff shook it heartily. "Ah," he said
blandly, "h' are ye?" Then he dropped the hand, thereby preventing the
captain from wrenching it away, and averted his eyes modestly, thereby
escaping the captain's outraged glare.

Staff managed to overcome an impulse to laugh idiotically, and gravely
shook hands with the captain. He had already exchanged a glance with the
lady of his heart's desire.

An insanely awkward pause marked Iff's exhibition of matchless
impudence. Each hesitated to speak while the captain was occupied with a
vain attempt to make Iff realise his position by scowling at him out of
a blood-congested countenance. But of this, Iff appeared to be wholly
unconscious. When the situation seemed all but unendurable for another
second (Staff for one was haunted by the fear that he would throw back
his head and bray like a mule) Manvers took it upon himself to ease the
tension, hardily earning the undying gratitude of all the gathering.

"I asked Mr. Staff to come and tell you, sir," he said haltingly, "that
I spoke to him about this matter the very night we left
Queenstown--asked him to do what he could to make Miss Landis
appreciate--"

"I see," the captain cut him short.

"That is so," Staff affirmed. "Unfortunately I had no opportunity until
this afternoon--"

Alison interposed quietly: "I am quite ready to exonerate Mr. Manvers
from all blame. In fact, he has really annoyed me with his efforts to
induce me to turn the collar over to his care."

"Thank you," said Manvers bowing.

There was the faintest tinge of sarcasm in the acknowledgment. Staff
could see that Alison felt and resented it; and the thought popped into
his mind, and immediately out again, that she was scarcely proving
herself generous.

"It's a very serious matter," announced the captain heavily--"serious
for the service: for the officers, for the good name of the ship, for
the reputation of the company. This is the second time a crime of this
nature had been committed aboard the Autocratic within a period of
eighteen months--less than that, in fact. It was June, a year ago, that
Mrs. Burden Hamman's jewels were stolen--on the eastbound passage, I
believe."

"We sailed from New York, June 22," affirmed the purser.

"I want, therefore," continued the captain, "to ask you all to preserve
silence about this affair until it has been thoroughly sifted. I believe
the knowledge of the theft is confined to those present."

"Quite so, sir," agreed the purser.

"May I ask how it happened?" Staff put in.

The captain swung on his heel and bowed to Alison. She bent forward,
telling her story with brevity and animation.

"You remember"--she looked at Staff--"when we met in the saloon, about
half-past five, and went on deck?... Well, right after that, Jane left
my rooms to return the hat you had been showing me to your steward. She
was gone not over five minutes, and she swears the door was locked all
the time; she remembers locking it when she went out and unlocking it
when she returned. There was no indication that anybody had been in the
rooms, except one that we didn't discover until I started to go to bed,
a little while ago. Then I thought of my jewels. They were all kept in
this handbag"--she dropped a hand upon a rather small Lawrence bag of
tan leather on the table before her--"under my bed, behind the steamer
trunk. I told Jane to see if it was all right. She got it out, and then
we discovered that this had happened to it."

She turned the bag so that the other side was presented for inspection,
disclosing the fact that some sharp instrument had been used to cut a
great flap out of the leather, running in a rough semicircle from clasp
to clasp of the frame.

"It wasn't altogether empty," she declared with a trace of wonder in her
voice; "but that only makes it all the more mysterious. All my ordinary
jewels were untouched; nothing had been taken except the case that held
the Cadogan collar."

"And the collar itself, I hope?" Iff put in quietly.

The actress turned upon him with rising colour.

"You hope--!" she exclaimed.

The little man made a deprecatory gesture. "Why, yes," he said. "It
would seem a pity that a crook cute enough to turn a trick as neat as
that should have got nothing for his pains but a velvet-lined leather
case, worth perhaps a dollar and a half--or say two dollars at the
outside, if you make a point of _that_."

"How do you happen to know it was a velvet-lined leather case?" Alison
flashed.

Iff laughed quietly. "My dear lady," he said, "I priced the necklace at
Cottier's in Paris the day before you purchased it. Unfortunately it was
beyond my means."

"A bit thick," commented the purser in an acid voice.

"Now, listen"--Iff turned to face him with a flush of choler--"you keep
on that way and I'll land on you if it's the last act of my gay young
life. You hear me?"

"That will do, sir!" barked the captain.

"I trust so, sincerely," replied Iff.

"Be silent!" The captain's voice ascended a full octave.

"Oh, very well, very well. I hear you--perfectly." With this the little
man subsided, smiling feebly at vacancy.

Staff interposed hastily, in the interests of peace: "The supposition
is, then, that the thief got in during those five minutes that Jane was
away from the room?"

"It couldn't have happened at any other time, of course," said Alison.

"And, equally of course, it couldn't have happened then," said Iff.

"Why not?" the woman demanded.

"The girl was gone only five minutes. That's right, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," said Jane.

"And the door was locked--you're positive about that?"

"Quite, sir."

"Then will anyone explain how any thief could effect an entrance, pull a
heavy steamer trunk out from under a bed, get at the bag, cut a slit in
its side, extract the leather case--_and_ the collar, to be
sure--replace the bag, replace the trunk, leave the stateroom and lock
the door, all in five short minutes--and without any key?" Iff wound up
triumphantly: "I tell you, it couldn't be done; it ain't human."

"But a skeleton-key--" Manvers began.

"O you!" said Iff with a withering glance. "The door to Miss Landis'
suite opens directly opposite the head of the main companionway, which
is in constant use--people going up and down all the time. Can you see
anybody, however expert, picking a lock with a bunch of skeleton-keys in
that exposed position without being caught red-handed? Not on your vivid
imagination, young man."

"There may, however, be duplicate keys to the staterooms," Alison
countered.

"My dear lady," said Iff, humbly, "there are; and unless this ship
differs radically from others, those duplicate keys are all in the
purser's care. Am I right, Mr. Manvers?"

"Yes," said Manvers sullenly.

"And here's another point," resumed Iff. "May I ask you a question or
two, Miss Landis?" Alison nodded curtly. "You kept the handbag locked, I
presume?"

"Certainly."

"And when you found it had been tampered with, did you unlock it?"

"There wasn't any need," said Alison. "You can see for yourself the
opening in the side is so large--"

"Then you didn't unlock it?"

"No."

"That only makes it the more mysterious. Because, you see, it's unlocked
now."

There was a concerted movement of astonishment.

"How do you make that out, sir?" demanded the captain.

"You can see for yourself (to borrow Miss Landis' phrase) if you'll only
use your eyes, as I have. The side clasps are in place, all right, but
the slide on the lock itself is pushed a trifle to the left; which it
couldn't be if the bag were locked."

There was a hint of derision in the little man's voice; and his
sarcastic smile was flickering round his thin lips as he put out one
hand, drew the bag to him, lifted the clasps, and pushing back the
lock-slide, opened it wide.

"The thot plickens," he observed gravely. "For my part I am unable to
imagine any bold and enterprising crook taking the trouble to cut open
this bag when the most casual examination would have shown him that it
wasn't locked."

"He might 've done it as a blind...." Manvers suggested.

"Officer!" piped Iff in a plaintive voice--"he's in again."

The purser, colouring to the temples, took a step toward the little man,
his hands twitching, but at a gesture from the captain paused,
controlled himself and fell back.

For a few moments there was quiet in the cabin, while those present
digested Iff's conclusions and acknowledged their logic irrefragable.
Staff caught Alison staring at the man as if fascinated, with a curious,
intense look in her eyes the significance of which he could not fathom.

Then the pause was brought to an end by the captain. He shifted his
position abruptly, so that he towered over Iff, scowling down upon him.

"That will do," he said ominously. "I'm tired of this; say what you
will, you haven't hoodwinked me, and you shan't."

"My dear sir!" protested Iff in amazement. "Hoodwink _you_? Why, I'm
merely trying to make you see--"

"You've succeeded in making me see one thing clearly: that you know more
about this robbery than you've any right to know."

"Oh, you-all make me tired," complained Iff. "Now you have just heard
Miss Landis declare that this collar of pearls vanished between, say,
five-thirty and five-forty-five. Well, I can prove by the testimony of
three other passengers, and I don't know how many more, to say nothing
of your smoke-room stewards, that I was playing bridge from four until
after six."

"Ah, yes," put in the purser sweetly, "but you yourself have just
demonstrated conclusively that the robbery couldn't have taken place at
the hour mentioned."

Iff grinned appreciatively. "You're improving," he said. "I guess that
doesn't get you even with me for the rest of your life--what?"

"Moreover," Manvers went on doggedly, "Ismay always could prove a
copper-riveted alibi."

"That's one of the best little things he does," admitted Iff cheerfully.

"You don't deny you're Ismay?" This from the captain, aggressive and
domineering.

"I don't have to, dear sir; I just ain't--that's the answer."

"You've been recognised," insisted the captain. "You were on this ship
the time of the Burden Hamman robbery. Mr. Manvers knows you by sight;
I, too, recognise you."

"Sorry," murmured Iff--"_so_ sorry, but you're wrong. Case of mistaken
identity, I give you my word."

"Your word!" snapped the captain contemptuously.

"My word," retorted Iff in a crisp voice; "and more than that, I don't
ask you to take it. I've proofs of my identity which I think will
satisfy even you."

"Produce them."

"In my own good time." Iff put his back against the wall and lounged
negligently, surveying the circle of unfriendly faces with his odd,
supercilious eyes, half veiled by their hairless lids. "Since you've
done me the honour to impute to me guilty knowledge of this--ah--crime,
I don't mind admitting that I was a passenger on the Autocratic when
Mrs. Burden Hamman lost her jewels; and it wasn't a coincidence, either.
I was with you for a purpose--to look out for those jewels. I shared a
room with Ismay, and when, after the robbery, you mistook me for him, he
naturally didn't object, and I didn't because it left me all the freer
to prosecute my investigation. In fact, it was due to my efforts that
Ismay found things getting too hot for him over in London and arranged
to return the jewelry to Mrs. Hamman for an insignificant ransom--not a
tithe of their value. But he was hard pressed; if he'd delayed another
day, I'd 've had him with the goods on.... That," said Iff pensively,
"was when I was in the Pinkerton service."

"Ah, it was?" said the captain with much irony. "And what, pray, do you
claim to be now?"

"Just a plain, ordinary, everyday sleuth in the employ of the United
States Secret Service, detailed to work with the Customs Office to
prevent smuggling--the smuggling of such articles as, say, the Cadogan
collar."

In the silence that followed this astounding declaration, the little man
hunched up his shoulders until they seemed more round than ever, and
again subjected the faces of those surrounding him to the stare of his
impertinent, pale eyes. Staff, more detached in attitude than any of the
others present, for his own amusement followed the range of Iff's gaze.

Captain Cobb was scowling thoughtfully. Manvers wore a look of deepest
chagrin. Jane's jaw had fallen and her eyes seemed perilously
protrudant. Alison was leaning gracefully back in her chair--her pose
studied but charmingly effective--while she favoured Iff with a scrutiny
openly incredulous and disdainful.

"You say you have proofs of this--ah--assertion of yours?" demanded the
captain at length.

"Oh, yes--surely yes." Iff's tone was almost apologetic. He thrust a
hand between his shirt and waistcoat, fumbled a moment as if unbuttoning
a pocket, and brought forth a worn leather wallet from which, with great
and exasperating deliberation, he produced a folded paper. This he
handed the captain--his manner, if possible, more than ever
self-effacing and meek.

The paper (it was parchment) crackled crisply in the captain's fingers.
He spread it out and held it to the light in such a position that Staff
could see it over his shoulder. He was unable to read its many closely
inscribed lines, but the heading "Treasury Department, Washington, D. C."
was boldly conspicuous, as well as an imposing official seal and the
heavily scrawled signature of the Secretary of the Treasury.

Beneath the blue cloth, the captain's shoulders moved impatiently. Staff
heard him say something indistinguishable, but of an intonation
calculated to express his emotion.

Iff giggled nervously: "Oh, captain! the ladies--"

Holding himself very stiff and erect, Captain Cobb refolded the document
and ceremoniously handed it back to the little man.

"I beg your pardon," he said in a low voice.

"Don't mention it," begged Iff. He replaced the paper in his wallet, the
wallet in his pocket. "I'm sure it's quite an excusable mistake on your
part, captain dear.... As for you, Mr. Manvers, you needn't apologise to
me," he added maliciously: "just make your apologies to Captain Cobb."



VII

STOLE AWAY!


And then (it seemed most astonishing!) nothing happened. The net outcome
of all this fuss and fluster was precisely _nil_. With the collapse of
the flimsy structure of prejudice and suspicion in which Manvers had
sought to trap Iff, the interest of all concerned seemed to simmer off
into apathy. Nobody did anything helpful, offered any useful suggestion
or brought to light anything illuminating. Staff couldn't understand it,
for the life of him....

There was, to be sure, a deal more talk in the captain's cabin--talk in
which the purser took little or no part. As a matter of fact, Manvers
kept far in the background and betrayed every indication of a desire to
crawl under the table and be a good dog. The captain had his say,
however, and in the end (since he was rather emphatic about it) his way.

He earnestly desired that the matter should be kept quiet; it would do
no good, he argued, to noise it about amongst the passengers; the news
would only excite them and possibly (in some obscure and undesignated
fashion) impede official investigation. He would, of course, spare no
pains to fathom the mystery; drastic measures would be taken to secure
the detection of the culprit and the restitution of the necklace to its
rightful owner. The ship would be minutely, if quietly, searched; not a
member of the crew, from captain to stoker, would be spared, nor any
passenger against whom there might develop the least cause for
suspicion. Detectives would meet the ship at New York and co-operate
with the customs officials in a most minute investigation of the
passengers' effects. Everything possible would be done--trust the
captain! In the meantime, he requested all present to regard the case as
confidential.

Iff concurred, somewhat gravely, somewhat diffidently. He was disposed
to make no secret of the fact that his presence on board was directly
due to the missing necklace. He had been set to watch Miss Landis, to
see that she didn't smuggle the thing into the United States. He hoped
she wouldn't take offense of this: such was his business; he had
received his orders and had no choice but to obey them. (And, so far as
was discernible, Miss Landis did not resent his espionage; but she
seemed interested and, Staff fancied, considerably diverted.) Mr. Iff
could promise Miss Landis that he would leave no stone unturned in his
private inquiry; and his work, likewise, would be considerably
facilitated if the affair were kept quiet. He ventured to second the
captain's motion.

Miss Landis offered no objection; Staff and Manvers volunteered to
maintain discretion, Jane was sworn to it. Motion seconded and carried:
the meeting adjourned _sine die_; the several parties thereto separated
and went to their respective quarters.

Staff accompanied Alison as far as her stateroom, but didn't tarry long
over his second good-nights. The young woman seemed excusably tired and
nervous and anxious to be alone--in no mood to discuss this overwhelming
event. So Staff spared her.

In his own stateroom he found Mr. Iff half-undressed, sitting on the
transom and chuckling noiselessly, apparently in such a transport of
amusement that he didn't care whether he ever got to bed or not. Upon
the entrance of his roommate, however, he dried his eyes and made an
effort to contain himself.

"You seem to think this business funny," suggested Staff, not at all
approvingly.

"I do," laughed the little man--"I do, indeed. It's a grand young
joke--clutch it from me, my friend."

"In what respect, particularly, do you find it so vastly entertaining?"

"Oh ... isn't that ass Manvers enough?"

Further than this, Mr. Iff declined to be interviewed. He clambered
briskly into his berth and chuckled himself to sleep. Staff considered
his behaviour highly annoying.

But it was on the following day--the last of the voyage--that he found
reason to consider the affair astonishing because of the lack of
interest displayed by those personally involved. He made no doubt but
that the captain was keeping his word to the extent of conducting a
secret investigation, though no signs of any such proceeding appeared on
the surface of the ship's life. But Alison he could not understand; she
seemed to have cast care to the winds. She appeared at breakfast in the
gayest of spirits, spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon on
deck, the centre of an animated group shepherded by the indefatigable
Mrs. Ilkington, dressed herself radiantly for the grand final dinner,
flirted with the assiduously attentive Arkroyd until she had reduced
Staff to the last stages of corroded jealousy, and in general (as Staff
found a chance to tell her) seemed to be having the time of her life.

"And why not?" she countered. "Spilt milk!"

"Judged by your conduct," observed Staff, "one would be justified in
thinking the Cadogan collar an _article de Paris_."

"One might think any number of foolish things, dear boy. If the collar's
gone, it's gone, and not all the moping and glooming imaginable will
bring it back to me. If I do get it back--why, that'll be simply good
luck; and I've never found it profitable yet to court Fortune with a
doleful mouth."

"You certainly practise your theory," he said. "I swear I believe I'm
more concerned about your loss than you are."

"Certainly you are, you silly boy. For my part, I feel quite confident
the necklace will be returned."

He stared. "Why?"

She opened her hands expressively. "I've always been lucky.... Besides,
if I never see it again, it'll come back to me this way or that--in
advertising, for one."

"Isn't that dodge pretty well worked out with the newspapers? It seems
to me that it has come to that, of late; or else the prime donne have
taken to guarding their valuables with greater care."

"Oh, that makes no difference. With another woman it might, but I"--she
shrugged--"I'm Alison Landis, if you please. The papers won't neglect
_me_. Besides, Max can do much as he likes with them."

"Have you--?"

"Of course--by wireless, first thing this morning."

"But you promised--"

"Don't be tiresome, Staff. I bought this necklace on Max's suggestion,
as an advertisement--I meant to wear it in _A Single Woman_; that alone
would help make our play a go. Since I can't get my advertising and have
my necklace, too, why, in goodness' name, mayn't I get what I can out of
it?"

"Oh, well ..."

Staff abandoned argument and resting his forearms on the rail, stared
sombrely out over the darkling waters for a moment or two.

This was at night, during an intermission in a dance on deck which had
been arranged by special permission of the weather--the latter holding
very calm and warm. Between halves Staff had succeeded in disentangling
Alison from a circle of admirers and had marched her up to the
boat-deck, where there was less light--aside from that furnished by an
obliging moon--and more solitude.

Under any other circumstances Staff would have been enchanted with the
situation. They were quite alone, if not unobserved; and there was magic
in the night, mystery and romance in the moonlight, the inky shadows,
the sense of swift movement through space illimitable. Alison stood
with back to the rail so near him that his elbow almost touched the
artificial orchid that adorned her corsage. He was acutely sensitive of
her presence, of the faint persistent odour of her individual perfume,
of the beauty and grace of her strong, free-limbed body in its
impeccable Paquin gown, of the sheen of her immaculate arms and
shoulders and the rich warmth of her face with its alluring, shadowed
eyes that seemed to mock him with light, fascinating malice, of the
magnetism of her intense, ineluctable vitality diffused as naturally as
sunlight. But--the thought rankled--Arkroyd had won three dances to his
two; and through all that day Alison had seemed determined to avoid him,
to keep herself surrounded by an obsequious crowd, impenetrable to her
lover....

On the deck below the band began to play again: signalling the end of
the intermission. Alison hummed lightly a bit of the melody, her silken
slipper tapping the deck.

"Do I get another dance?" he asked suddenly.

She broke off her humming. "So sorry," she said; "my card is quite full
and running over."

"May I see it?" She surrendered it without hesitation. He frowned,
endeavouring to decipher the scrawl by the inadequate moonlight.

"You wanted to know--?" she enquired, with a laugh back of her tone.

"How many has Arkroyd, this half?" he demanded bluntly.

"Two, I think," she answered coolly. "Why?"

He stared gravely into her shadowed face. "Is that good advertising,
too," he asked quietly--"to show marked preference to a man of Arkroyd's
calibre and reputation?"

Alison laughed. "You're delicious when you're jealous, Staff," said she.
"No; it isn't advertising--it's discipline."

"Discipline?"

"Just that. I'm punishing you for your obstinacy about the play. You'll
see, my dear," she taunted him: "I'm going to have my own way or make
your life perfectly miserable."

Before he could invent an adequate retort, the beautiful Mr. Bangs came
tripping across the deck, elation in his manner.

"Ah, there you are, Miss Landis! My dance, you know. Been looking
everywhere for you."

"So sorry: I was just coming down."

Alison caught up the demi-train of her gown, but paused an instant
longer, staring Staff full in the face, her air taunting and
provocative.

"Think it over, Staff," she advised in a cool, metallic voice; and
dropping her hand on Bangs' arm, moved languidly away.

Staff did think it over, if with surprisingly little satisfaction to
himself. It wasn't possible to ignore the patent fact that Alison had
determined to make him come to heel. That apparently was the only
attitude possible for one who aspired to the post of first
playwright-in-waiting and husband-in-ordinary to the first actress in
the land. He doubted his ability to supple his back to the requisite
degree. Even for the woman he loved.... Or did he?... Through the
wraith-like mists of fading illusions he caught disturbing
glimpses--dark shapes of lurking doubts.

Disquieted, he found distasteful the thought of returning to the lower
deck, and so strolled idly aft with a half-formed notion of looking up
Iff.

From a deck-chair a woman's voice hailed him: "Oh, Mr. Staff...."

"Miss Searle?" He turned in to her side, experiencing an odd sensation
of pleasure in the encounter; which, wisely or not, he didn't attempt to
analyse--at least further than the thought that he had seen little of
the young woman during the last two days and that she was rather
likeable.

"You're not dancing?" he asked in surprise; for she, too, had dressed
for this celebration of the last night of the voyage.

Smiling, she shook her head slightly. "Neither are you, apparently.
Won't you sit down?"

He wasn't at all reluctant to take the chair by her side. "Why not?" he
asked.

"Oh, I did dance once or twice and then I began to feel a bit tired and
bored and stole away to think."

"Long, long thoughts?" he asked lightly.

"Rather," said she with becoming gravity. "You see, it seems pretty
serious to one, this coming home to face new and unknown conditions
after three years' absence.... And then, after six days at sea, out of
touch with the world, practically, there's always the feeling of
suspense about what will happen when you get solid earth under your
feet. You know what I mean."

"I do. You live in New York?"

"I mean to try to," she said quietly. "I haven't any home, really--no
parents and only distant family connections. In fact, all I do possess
is a little income and an immense desire to work."

"You're meaning to look for an engagement, then?"

"I must."

"Perhaps," he said thoughtfully, "I might help you a bit; I know some
of the managers pretty well ..."

"Thank you. I meant to ask you, but hoped you'd offer." She laughed a
trifle shyly. "I presume that's a bold, forward confession to make, but
I've been so long abroad I don't know my way round at home, anymore."

"That's all right," said Staff, liking her candour. "Where shall you be?
Where can I find you?"

"I hardly know--for a day or two at some hotel, and as soon as possible
in a small studio, if I can find one to sublet."

"Tell you what you do," he suggested: "drop me a line at the Players,
letting me know when and where you settle."

"Thank you," she said, "I shall."

He was silent for a little, musing, his gaze wandering far over the
placid reaches of the night-wrapped ocean. "Funny little world, this,"
he said, rousing: "I mean, the ship. Here we are today, some several
hundreds of us, all knit together by an intricate network of interests,
aims, ambitions and affections that seem as strong and inescapable as
the warp and woof of Life itself; and yet tomorrow--we land, we separate
on our various ways, and the network vanishes like a dew-gemmed spider's
web before the sun."

"Only the dew vanishes," she reminded him; "the web remains, if almost
invisible.... Still, I know what you mean.... Wasn't that Miss Landis
you were with, just now?"

"Yes."

"Tell me"--she stirred, half turning to him--"has anything new
transpired--about the collar?"

"You know about that!" he exclaimed in surprise.

"Of course; the ship has been humming with it ever since dinner."

"But how--?"

"Mrs. Ilkington told me, of course. I presume Miss Landis told her."

"Doubtless," he agreed reluctantly, little relishing the thought. Still,
it seemed quite plausible, Alison's views on advertising values
considered. "No," he added presently; "I've heard nothing new."

"Then the Secret Service man hasn't accomplished anything?"

"So you know about him, too?... Can't say--haven't seen him since
morning. Presumably he's somewhere about, sniffing for clues."

"Miss Landis," said the girl in a hesitant manner--"doesn't seem to
worry very much ...?"

"No," admitted Staff.

"Either that, or she's as wonderful an actress off the boards as on."

"They mostly are," Staff observed. He was hardly ready to criticise his
beloved to a comparative stranger. The subject languished and died of
inanition.

"By the way--did you ever solve the mystery of your bandbox?"

Staff started. "What made you think of that?"

"Oh--I don't know."

"No--haven't had any chance. I rather expect to find out something by
the time I get home, though. It isn't likely that so beautiful a hat
will be permitted to blush unseen." His interest quickened. "Won't you
tell me, please?" he begged, bending forward.

But the girl laughed softly and shook her head.

"Please!"

"Oh, I couldn't. I've no right to spoil a good joke."

"Then you think it's a joke?" he enquired gloomily.

"What else could it be?"

"I only wish I knew!"

The exclamation was so fervent that Miss Searle laughed again.

Six bells sounded in the pause that followed and the girl sat up
suddenly with a little cry of mock dismay.

"Eleven o'clock! Good Heavens, I mustn't loaf another minute! I've all
my packing to do."

She was up and standing before Staff could offer to assist her. But she
paused long enough to slip a hand into his.

"Good night, Mr. Staff; and thank you for volunteering to help me."

"I shan't forget," he promised. "Good night."

He remained momentarily where she left him, following with his gaze her
tall and slender yet well-proportioned figure as it moved along the
moonlit deck, swaying gracefully to the long, smooth, almost
imperceptible motion of the ship.

He wore just then a curious expression: his eyes wondering, his brows
puckered, his thin lips shaping into their queer, twisted smile....
Funny (he found it) that a fellow could feel so comfortable and content
in the company of a woman he didn't care a rap about, so ill at ease and
out of sorts when with the mistress of his dreams! It didn't, somehow,
seem just right....

With a dubious grimace, he went aft. Iff, however, wasn't in the
smoking-room. Neither was he anywhere else that Staff could discover in
his somewhat aimless wanderings. And he found his stateroom unoccupied
when at length he decided to turn in.

"Sleuthing," was the word with which he accounted for the little man's
invisibility, as he dropped off to sleep.

If he were right, Iff was early on the job. When the bath-steward's
knock brought Staff out of his berth the next morning, his companion of
the voyage was already up and about; his empty berth showed that it had
been slept in, but its occupant had disappeared with his clothing; and
even his luggage (he travelled light, with a kit-bag and a suit-case for
all impedimenta) had been packed and strapped, ready to go ashore.

"Conscientious," commented the playwright privately. "Wonder if he's
really on the track of anything?"

Idle speculation, however, was suddenly drowned in delight when, his
sleep-numb faculties clearing, he realised that the Autocratic was
resting without way, and a glance out of the stateroom port showed him
the steep green slopes of Fort Tompkins glistening in new sunlight.

Home! He choked back a yell of joy, and raced to his bath. Within twenty
minutes, bathed, clothed and sane, he was on deck.

By now, having taken on the health officers, the great vessel was in
motion again, standing majestically up through the Narrows. To
starboard, Bay Ridge basked in golden light. Forward, over the starboard
bow, beyond leagues of stained water quick with the life of two-score
types of harbour and seagoing craft, New York reared its ragged
battlements against a sky whose blue had been faded pale by summer heat.
Soft airs and warm breathed down the Bay, bearing to his nostrils that
well-kenned, unforgettable odour, like none other on earth, of the
sun-scorched city.

Staff filled his lungs and was glad. It is good to be an American able
to go roaming for to admire and for to see; but it is best of all to be
an American coming home.

Joy in his heart, Staff dodged below, made his customs declaration,
bolted his breakfast (with the greater expedition since he had for
company only Mrs. Thataker, a plump, pale envelope for a soul of pink
pining for sympathy) and hurried back to the deck.

Governor's Island lay abeam. Beyond it the East River was opening
up--spanned by its gossamer webs of steel. Ahead, and near at hand, New
York bulked magnificently, purple canyons yawning between its
pastel-tinted cliffs of steel and glass and stone: the heat haze,
dimming all, lent soft enchantment....

Ranks of staring passengers hid the rail, each a bundle of unsuspected
hopes and fears, longings and apprehensions, keen for the hour of
landing that would bring confirmation, denial, disappointment,
fulfillment.

Amidships Staff descried Mrs. Ilkington's head and shoulders next to
Miss Searle's profile. Arkroyd was with them and Bangs. Alison he did
not see, nor Iff. As he hesitated whether or not to approach them, a
steward touched his arm apologetically.

"Beg pardon--Mr. Staff?"

"Yes ...?"

"Mr. Manvers--the purser, sir--awsked me to request you to be so kind as
to step down to Miss Landis' stiteroom."

"Certainly."

The door to Alison's sitting-room was ajar. He knocked and heard her
voice bid him enter. As he complied it was the purser who shut the door
tight behind him.

He found himself in the presence of Alison, Jane, Manvers and three men
whom he did not know. Alison alone was seated, leaning back in an
armchair, her expression of bored annoyance illustrated by the quick,
steady tapping of the toe of her polished boot. She met his questioning
look with a ready if artificial and meaningless smile.

"Oh, you weren't far away, were you, Staff?" she said lightly. "These
gentlemen want to ask you some questions about that wretched necklace. I
wish to goodness I'd never bought the thing!"

Her expression had changed to petulance. Ceasing to speak, she resumed
the nervous drumming of her foot upon the carpet.

Manvers took the initiative: "Mr. Staff, this is Mr. Siddons of the
customs service; this is Mr. Arnold of the United States Secret Service;
and this, Mr. Cramp of Pinkerton's. They came aboard at Quarantine."

Staff nodded to each man in turn, and reviewed their faces, finding them
one and all more or less commonplace and uninteresting.

"How-d'-you-do?" he said civilly; and to Manvers: "Well ...?"

"We were wondering if you'd seen anything of Mr. Iff this morning?"

"No--nothing. He came to bed after I'd gone to sleep last night, and was
up and out before I woke. Why?"

"He--" the purser began; but the man he had called Mr. Arnold
interrupted.

"He claimed to be a Secret Service man, didn't he?"

"He did," returned Staff. "Captain Cobb saw his credentials, I believe."

"But that didn't satisfy him," Manvers put in eagerly. "I managed to
make him understand that credentials could be forged, so he wirelessed
for information. And," the purser added triumphantly after a distinct
dramatic pause, "he got it."

"You mean Iff isn't what he claimed--?" exclaimed Staff.

Arnold nodded brusquely. "There's no such person in the service," he
affirmed.

"Then he _is_ Ismay!"

The Pinkerton man answered him: "If he is and I lay eyes on him, I can
tell in two shakes."

"By George!" cried Staff in admiration--"the clever little scamp!"

"You may well say so," said Manvers bitterly. "If you'd listened to
me--if the captain had--this wouldn't have happened."

"What--the theft?"

"Yes, that primarily; but now, you know--because he was given so much
rope--he's vanished."

"What!"

"Vanished--disappeared--gone!" said the purser, waving his hands
graphically.

"But he can't have left the ship!"

"Doesn't seem so, does it?" said the Pinkerton man morosely. "All the
same, we've made a pretty thorough search, and he can't be found."

"You see," resumed Manvers, "when the captain got word yesterday
afternoon that Iff or Ismay wasn't what he pretended to be, he simply
wirelessed back for a detective, and didn't arrest Iff, because--he
said--he couldn't get away. I told him he was wrong--and he was!"



VIII

THE WRONG BOX


When the janitor and the taxicab operator between them had worried all
his luggage upstairs, Staff paid and tipped them and thankfully saw the
hall-door close on their backs. He was tired, over-heated and glad to be
alone.

Shaking off his coat, he made a round of his rooms, opening windows.
Those in the front of the apartment looked out from the second-story
elevation upon East Thirtieth Street, between Fourth and Lexington
Avenues. Those in the rear (he discovered to his consummate disgust)
commanded an excellent view of a very deep hole in the ground swarming
with Italian labourers and dotted with steam drills, mounds of broken
rock and carters with their teams; also a section of East Twenty-ninth
Street was visible through the space that had been occupied no longer
ago than last spring by a dignified row of brownstone houses with
well-tended backyards.

Staff cursed soulfully the noise and dirt caused by the work of
excavation, shut the back windows to keep out the dust and returned to
the front room--his study, library and reception-room in one. With the
addition of the bath off the bedroom in the rear, and a large
hall-closet opening from the study, these two rooms comprised his home.
The hall was public, giving access to two upper floors which, like that
beneath him, were given up to bachelor apartments. The house was in
reality an old-fashioned residence, remodelled and let out by the floor
to young men mainly of Staff's ilk: there was an artist on the upper
story, a writer of ephemeral fiction on the third, an architect on the
first. The janitor infested the basement, chiefly when bored by the
monotony of holding up an imitation mahogany bar over on Third Avenue.
His wife cooked abominably and served the results under the name of
breakfast to the tenants, who foraged where they would for their other
meals. Otherwise she was chiefly distinguished by a mad, exasperating
passion for keeping the rooms immaculately clean and in order. Staff
noted approvingly that, although Mrs. Shultz had not been warned of his
return, there was no trace of dust in the rooms, not a single stick of
furniture nor a book out of place.

There wasn't really any reason why he should stick in such un-modern and
inconveniently situated lodgings--that is, aside from his ingrained
inclination to make as little trouble for himself as possible. To hunt
a new place to live would be quite as much of a nuisance as to move to
it, when found. And he was comfortable enough where he was. He had taken
the place some eight years previously, at a time when it was rather
beyond his means; today when he could well afford to live where he would
in New York, he found that his rooms had become a habit with him. He had
no intention whatever of leaving them until the house should be
dismantled to make way for some more modern structure--like that going
up in the rear--or until he married.

He poked round, renewing acquaintance with old, familiar things,
unearthed an ancient pipe which had lain in one of his desk-drawers like
a buried bone, fondled it lovingly, filled and lighted it, and felt all
the time more and more content and at ease.

Then Shultz knocked at the door and delivered to him a bundle of
afternoon papers for which he had filed a requisition immediately on his
arrival.

He sat down, enjoying his pipe to the utmost and wondering how under the
sun he had managed to worry along without it all the time he had been
away, and began to read what the reporters had to say about the arrival
of the Autocratic and the case of the Cadogan collar.

In the main they afforded him little but amusement; the stories were
mostly a hash of misinformation strongly flavoured with haphazard
guesswork. The salient facts of the almost simultaneous disappearance of
the necklace and Mr. Iff stood up out of the welter of surmise like
mountain peaks above cloud-rack. There were no other facts. And both
these remained inexplicable. No trace had been found of Mr. Iff; his
luggage remained upon the pier, unclaimed. With him the Cadogan collar
had apparently vanished as mysteriously: thus the consensus. The
representative of the Secret Service bent on exposing an impostor, the
Pinkerton men employed by the steamship company, and a gratuitous corps
of city detectives were verbally depicted as so many determined
bloodhounds nosing as many different scents--otherwise known as clues.

Jules Max, moreover, after a conference with his star, had published an
offer of a reward of $10,000 for the return of the necklace or for
information leading to its recovery whether or not involving the
apprehension of the thief.

Several of the papers "ran" unusually long stories descriptive of the
scenes on the pier. Staff chuckled over them. The necklace had, in fact,
made no end of trouble for several hundred putatively innocent and
guileless passengers. The customs examination had been thorough beyond
parallel. Not even the steerage and second-cabin passengers had escaped;
everybody's belongings had been combed fine by a corps of inspectors
whose dutiful curiosity had been abnormally stimulated by the prospect
of a ten-thousand-dollar reward. Not a few passengers had been obliged
to submit to the indignity of personal search--Staff and Alison in their
number; the latter for no reason that Staff could imagine; the former
presumably because he had roomed with the elusive Mr. Iff on the way
over. He had also been mulcted a neat little sum as duty on that
miserable hat, which he had been obliged to declare as a present for a
friend.

In memory of this he now rose, marched over to the bandbox, innocently
reposing in the middle of the floor, and dispassionately lifted it the
kick he had been promising it ever since the first day of their
acquaintance.

It sailed up prettily, banged the wall with a hollow noise and dropped
to the floor with a grievous dent in one side.

There--out of his way--Staff left it. Immeasurably mollified, he
proceeded to unpack and put his house in order. By the time this was
done to his satisfaction and Shultz had dragged the empty trunks into
the hall, to be carried down-stairs and stored in the cellar, it was
evening and time to dress. So Staff made himself clean with much water
and beautiful with cold steel and resplendent with evening clothes, and
tucked the manuscript of _A Single Woman_ into the pocket of a light
topcoat and sallied forth to dine with Jules Max and Alison Landis.

It was late, something after midnight, when he returned, driving up to
his house in a taxicab and a decidedly disgruntled frame of mind. Alison
had been especially trying with regard to the play; and Max, while
privately letting the author see that he thought him in the right in
refusing to make changes until rehearsals had demonstrated their
advisability, and in spite of his voluble appreciation of the play's
merits, had given Alison the support she demanded. The inference was
plain: the star was to be humoured even at the cost of a crippled play.
Between love for the woman and respect for his work, desire to please
her and determination not to misrepresent himself to the public, Staff,
torn this way and that, felt that he had at length learned the true
meaning of "the horns of dilemma." But this reflection availed nothing
to soothe his temper.

When he got out of the cab a short but sharp argument ensued with the
operator; it seemed that "the clock" was out of order and not
registering--had struck in conformance to the time-honoured custom of
the midnight taximeter union. But the driver's habitual demand for two
and one-half times the proper fare by distance proved in this instance
quite fruitless. Staff calmly counted out the right amount, put it in
the man's hand, listened with critical appreciation to the resultant
flow of profanity until it verged upon personality, then deliberately
dragged the man by the scruff of his neck, choking and cursing, from his
seat to the sidewalk.

"Now, listen," said he in a level tone: "you've got either to put up or
shut up. I've been sort of aching to beat the tar out of one of you
highwaymen for some time, and I feel just ripe for it tonight. You
either put up your fists or crawl--another yap out of you and I won't
wait for you to do either."

The man bristled and then, analysing the gleam in Staff's eyes, crawled:
that is to say, he climbed back into his seat and swung the machine to
the far side of the street before again resorting to vituperation.

To this Staff paid no more attention. He was opening the front door. The
passage had comforted him considerably, but he was presently to regret
it. But for that delay he might have been spared a deal of trouble.

As he let himself into the house, a man in evening dress came running
down the stairs, brushed past rudely and without apology, and slammed
the door behind him. Staff wondered and frowned slightly. Presumably the
fellow had been calling on one of the tenants of the upper floors. There
had been something familiar in his manner--something reminiscent, but
too indefinite for recognition. And certainly he'd been in the devil of
a hurry!

In the meantime he had mounted the first flight of stairs and turned
through the hall to his study door. To his surprise it wasn't locked. He
seemed distinctly to remember locking it when he had left for dinner.
Still, memory does play us odd tricks.

He pushed the door open and entered the room. At the same moment he
heard the trilling of the telephone bell. The instrument stood upon his
desk between the two front windows. Without pausing to switch on one of
the lights in the combination gas- and electrolier in the centre of the
room, he groped his way through blinding darkness to the desk and,
finding the telephone instrument with the certainty of old acquaintance,
lifted the receiver to his ear.

"Hello?" he called.

A thin and business-like voice detailed his number.

"Yes," he said. "What is it?"

"Just a moment," came out of the night. "Hold the wire."

There was a pause in which it occurred to him that a little light would
be a grateful thing. He groped for his desk-lamp, found it and scorched
his fingers slightly on its metal reflector. He had switched on the
light and said "Damn!" mechanically before he reflected that the said
metal reflector had no right to be hot unless the light had been burning
very recently.

As this thought penetrated his consciousness, the telephone waxed
eloquent.

"Hello!" called a voice. "Is that you, Staff?"

"Why!" he exclaimed in surprise--"yes, Alison!"

"Are you alone?"

"Yes," he said. "What is it?"

"I just wanted to know," returned the girl at the other end of the wire.
"I'm coming to see you."

"What--now?"

"Of course, silly."

"But why--this time of night--it doesn't seem--"

"Oh, I've got something most important to say to you--very important
indeed. It won't keep. I'll be there in five minutes. Listen for the
taxi--will you, like a dear boy?--and come down and open the door for
me. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," he returned automatically, and hung up the receiver.

What on earth could _she_ be wanting, that could have turned up so
unexpectedly in the half-hour since he had left her and that wouldn't
keep till morning?

Abruptly he became aware that the air in the room was stiflingly close.
And he had left the windows open when he went out; he knew that he
wasn't mistaken about that; and now they were closed, the shades drawn
tight!

This considered in connection with the open door that had been locked,
and the heated desk-lamp that should have been cold, he couldn't avoid
the conclusion that somebody had been in his rooms, an unlawful
trespasser, just a few minutes before he came in--possibly the very man
who had rushed past him in such violent haste at the front door.

He jumped up and turned on all the lights in the room. A first, hasty
glance about showed him nothing as it had not been when he had left six
hours or so ago--aside from the front windows, of course. Mechanically,
thinking hard and fast, he went to these latter and opened them wide.

The possibility that the intruder might still be in the rooms--in his
bedroom, for instance--popped into his head, and he went hurriedly to
investigate. But there wasn't anybody in the back-room or the
bath-room.

Perplexed, he examined the rear windows. They were closed and locked, as
when he had left. Opening them, he peered out and down the fire-escape;
he had always had a notion that anybody foolish enough to want to burgle
his rooms would find it easy to effect an entrance via the fire-escape,
whose bottom rung was only eight feet or so above the level of the
backyard. And now, since the Twenty-ninth Street houses had been torn
down, lending access easy via the excavation, such an attempt would be
doubly easy.

But he had every evidence that his rooms hadn't been broken into by any
such route; although--of course!--an astute burglar might have thought
to cover up his tracks by relocking the windows after he had entered. On
the other hand, the really wise marauder would have almost certainly
left them open to provide a way of escape in emergency.

Baffled and wondering, Staff returned to his study. An examination of
the hall-closet yielded nothing illuminating. Everything was
undisturbed, and there wasn't room enough therein for anybody to hide.

He shut the closet door and reviewed the study more carefully. Not a
thing out of place; even that wretched bandbox lay where he had kicked
it, with a helpless, abused look, the dented side turned pitifully to
the light--much like a street beggar exposing a maimed limb to excite
public sympathy.

He struggled to think: what did he possess worth stealing? Nothing of
any great value: a modest collection of masculine jewelry--stick-pins
and the like; a quantity of clothing; a few fairly good pictures; a few
rare books. But the merest cursory examination showed that these were
intact, one and all. What cash he had was all upon his person. His desk,
where the lamp had been lighted, held nothing valuable to anybody other
than himself: manuscripts, account books, some personal papers strictly
non-negotiable. And these too proved undisturbed.

Swinging round from the desk, he rested his elbows on his knees, clasped
his hands, and lapsed into the most profound of meditations; through
which he arrived at the most amazing discovery of all.

Very gradually his eyes, at first seeing not what they saw, focussed
upon an object on the floor. Quite excusably he was reluctant to believe
their evidence. Eventually, however, he bent forward and picked up the
thing.

It lay in his hand, eloquently absurd--in his study!--a bow of
violet-coloured velvet ribbon, cunningly knotted, complete in itself.
From its reverse, a few broken threads of silk hung, suggesting that it
had been originally sewn upon a gown, or some other article of dress,
from which it had been violently torn away.

The thing was so impossible--preposterous!--that he sat as if stunned,
eyes a-stare, jaw dropping, wits bemused; until abruptly roused by the
sharp barking of a taxicab horn as it swung round the corner of Fourth
Avenue and the subsequent grumble of its motor in the street below.

Thrusting the velvet knot into his pocket he ran down and opened the
front door just as Alison gained the top of the brownstone steps.

He noticed that her taxicab was waiting.

Still in her shimmering, silken, summery dinner-gown of the earlier
evening, a light chiffon wrap draped round her shoulders, she entered
the vestibule, paused and stood smiling mischievously into his grave,
enquiring eyes.

"Surprised you--eh, Staff?" she laughed.

"Rather," said he, bending over her hand and wondering at her high
spirit of gaiety so sharply in contrast with her determined and
domineering humour of a few hours since. "Why?" he asked, shutting the
outside door.

"Just wanted to see you alone for a few moments; I've something to say
to you--something very important and surprising.... But not down here."

"I beg your pardon," he said contritely. He motioned toward the stairs:
"There's no elevator, but it's only one flight up ..."

"No elevator! Heavens!" she cried in mock horror. "And this is how the
other half lives!"

She caught up her skirts and ran up the stairs with footsteps so light
that he could hear nothing but the soft, continuous murmuring of her
silken gown.

"Genius," he said, ironic, as he followed her--"Genius frequently needs
a lift but is more often to be found in an apartment without one. Permit
me"--he flung wide the door to his study--"to introduce you to the
garret."

"So this is where you starve and write!"

Alison paused near the centre of the room, shrugging her wrap from her
shoulders and dropping it carelessly on the table. He saw her shoot
swift glances round her with bright, prying eyes.

"I'm afraid I'm not enough of a genius to starve," he said; "but anyway,
here's where I write."

"How interesting!" she drawled in a tone that conveyed to him the
impression she found it anything but that. And then, a trace sharply:
"Please shut the door."

He lifted his brows in surprise, said "Oh?" and turning back did as
bid. At the same time Alison disposed herself negligently in a capacious
wing-chair.

"Yes," she took up his monosyllable; "it's quite as important as all
that. I don't wish to be overheard. Besides," she added with nonchalant
irrelevance, "I do want a cigarette."

Silently Staff found his metal cigarette-safe and offered it, put a
match to the paper roll held so daintily between his lady's lips, and
then helped himself.

Through a thin veil of smoke she looked up into his serious face and
smiled bewitchingly.

"Are you thrilled, my dear?" she asked lightly.

"Thrilled?" he questioned. "How?"

She lifted her white, gleaming shoulders with an air of half-tolerant
impatience. "To have a beautiful woman alone with you in your rooms, at
this hour o' night ... Don't you find it romantic, dear boy? Or aren't
you in a romantic mood tonight? Or perhaps I'm not sufficiently
beautiful ...?" She ended with a charming little petulant moue.

"You know perfectly well you're one of the most beautiful women in the
world," he began gravely; but she caught him up.

"One of--?"

"To me, of course--you know the rest: the usual thing," he said. "But
you didn't come here to discuss your charms--now did you?"

She shook her head slightly, smiling with light-hearted malice. "By no
means. But, at the same time, if I've a whim to be complimented, I do
think you might be gallant enough to humour me."

But he was in anything but a gallant temper. Mystery hedged his thoughts
about and possessed them; he couldn't rid his imagination of the
inexplicable circumstances of the man who had broken into his rooms to
steal nothing, and the knot of velvet ribbon that had dropped from
nowhere to his study floor. And when he forced his thoughts back to
Alison, it was only to feel again the smart of some of the stinging
things she had chosen to say to him that night during their discussion
of his play, and to be conscious of a certain amount of irritation
because of the effrontery of her present pose, assuming as it did that
he would eventually bend to her will, endure all manner of insolence and
indignity, because he hoped she would marry him.

Something of what was passing through his mind as he stood mute before
her, she read in his look--or intuitively divined.

"Heavens!" she cried, "you're as temperamental as a leading-man. Can't
you accept a word or two of criticism of your precious play without
sulking like--like Max does when I make up my mind to take a week's
rest in the middle of the season?"

"Criticise as much as you like," he said; "and I'll listen and take it
to heart. But I don't mind telling you I'm not going to twist this play
out of all dramatic semblance at your dictation--or Max's either."

For a moment their glances crossed like swords; he was conscious from
the flicker in her eyes that her temper was straining at the leash; and
his jaw assumed a certain look of grim solidity. But the outbreak he
expected did not come; Alison was an artiste too consummate not to be
able to control and mask her emotions--even as she did now with a quick
curtaining of her eyes behind long lashes.

"Don't let's talk about that now," she said in a soft, placating voice.
"That's a matter for hours of business. We're getting farther and
farther away from my errand."

"By all means," he returned pleasantly, "let us go to that at once."

"You can't guess?" She unmasked again the battery of her laughing eyes.
He shook his head. "I'll give you three guesses."

He found the courage to say: "You didn't come to confess that I'm in the
right about the play?"

She pouted prettily. "Can't you let that be? No, of course not."

"Nor to bicker about it?"

She laughed a denial.

"Nor yet to conduct a guessing contest?"

"No."

"Then I've exhausted my allowance.... Well?"

"I came," she drawled, "for my hat."

"Your hat?" His eyes opened wide.

She nodded. "My pretty hat. You remember you promised to give it to me
if nobody else claimed it."

"Yes, but ..."

"And nobody has claimed it?"

"No, but ..."

"Then I want my hat."

"But--hold on--give somebody a chance--"

"Stupid?" she laughed. "Isn't it enough that I claim it? Am I nobody?"

"Wait half a minute. You've got me going." He paused, frowning
thoughtfully, recollecting his wits; then by degrees the light began to
dawn upon him. "Do you mean you really did send me that confounded
bandbox?"

Coolly she inclined her head: "I did just that, my dear."

"But when I asked you the same question on the Autocratic--"

"Quite so: I denied it."

"And you were in London that Friday, after all?"

"I was. Had to be, hadn't I, in order to buy the hat and have it sent
you?"

"But--how did you know I was sailing Saturday?"

"I happened to go to the steamship office just after you had booked--saw
a clerk adding your name to the passenger-list on the bulletin-board.
That gave me the inspiration. I had already bought the hat, but I drove
back to the shop and instructed them to send it to you."

"But, Alison! to what end?"

"Well," she said languidly, smiling with amusement at his bewilderment,
"I thought it might be fun to hoodwink you."

"But--I fail to see the joke."

"And will, until I tell you All."

Her tone supplied the capital letter.

He shrugged helplessly. "Proceed ..."

"Well," she began with sublime insouciance, "you see, I'd been figuring
all the while on getting the necklace home duty-free. And I finally hit
upon what seemed a rather neat little plot. The hat was part of it; I
bought it for the express purpose of smuggling the necklace in,
concealed in its lining. Up to that point you weren't involved. Then by
happy accident I saw your name on the list. Instantly it flashed upon
me, how I could make you useful. It was just possible, you see, that
those hateful customs men might be shrewd enough to search the hat, too.
How much better, then, to make you bring in the hat, all unsuspecting!
They'd never think of searching it in your hands! You see?"

His face had been hardening during this amazing speech. When she stopped
he shot in a crisp question:

"The necklace wasn't in the hat when delivered to me? You didn't trust
it to the shop people over night?"

"Of course not. I merely sent you the hat; then--as I knew you
would--you mentioned it to me aboard ship. I got you to bring it to my
room, and then sent you out--you remember? While you waited I sewed the
necklace in the lining; it took only an instant. Then Jane carried the
hat back to your steward."

"So," he commented stupidly, "it wasn't stolen!"

"Naturally not."

"But you threw suspicion on Iff--"

"I daresay he was guilty enough in intent, if not in deed. There's not
the slightest doubt in my mind that he's that man Ismay, really, and
that he shipped with us for the especial purpose of stealing the
necklace if he got half a chance."

"You may be right; I don't know--and neither do you. But do you realise
that you came near causing an innocent man to be jailed for the theft?"

"But I didn't. He got away."

"But not Iff alone--there's myself. Have you paused to consider what
would have happened to me if the inspector had happened to find that
necklace in the hat? Heavens knows how he missed it! He was persistent
enough!... But if he had found it, I'd have been jailed for theft."

"Oh, no," she said sweetly; "I'd never have let it go that far."

"Not even if to confess would mean that you'd be sent to jail for
smuggling?"

"They'd never do that to a woman...."

But her eyes shifted from his uneasily, and he saw her colour change a
trifle.

"You know better than that. You read the papers--keep informed. You know
what happened to the last woman who tried to smuggle. I forgot how long
they sent her up for--five months, or something like that."

She was silent, her gaze evasive.

"You remember that, don't you?"

"Perhaps I do," she admitted unwillingly.

"And you don't pretend you'd 've faced such a prospect in order to
clear me?"

Again she had no answer for him. He turned up the room to the windows
and back again.

"I didn't think," he said slowly, stopping before her--"I couldn't have
thought you could be so heartless, so self-centred ...!"

She rose suddenly and put a pleading hand upon his arm, standing very
near him in all her loveliness.

"Say thoughtless, Staff," she said quietly; "I didn't mean it."

"That's hard to credit," he replied steadily, "when I'm haunted by the
memory of the lies you told me--to save yourself a few dollars honestly
due the country that has made you a rich woman--to gain for yourself a
few paltry columns of cheap, sensational newspaper advertising. For that
you lied to me and put me in jeopardy of Sing-Sing ... me, the man you
pretend to care for--"

"Hold on, Staff!" the woman interrupted harshly.

He moved away. Her arm dropped back to her side. She eyed him a moment
with eyes hard and unfriendly.

"You've said about enough," she continued.

"You're not prepared to deny that you had these possibilities in mind
when you lied to me and made me your dupe and cat's-paw?"

"I'm not prepared to argue the matter with you," she flung back at him,
"nor to hold myself answerable to you for any thing I may choose to say
or do."

He bowed ceremoniously.

"I think that's all," he said pleasantly.

"It is," she agreed curtly; then in a lighter tone she added: "There
remains for me only to take my blue dishes and go home."

As she spoke she moved over to the corner where the bandbox lay
ingloriously on its undamaged side. As she bent over it, Staff
abstractedly took and lighted another cigarette.

"What made you undo it?" he heard the woman ask.

He swung round in surprise. "I? I haven't touched the thing since it was
brought in--beyond kicking it out of the way."

"The string's off--it's been opened!" Alison's voice was trembling with
excitement. She straightened up, holding the box in both hands, and came
hastily over to the table beside which he was standing. "You see?" she
said breathlessly, putting it down.

"The string was on it when I saw it last," he told her blankly....

Then the memory recurred of the man who had passed him at the door--the
man who, he suspected, had forced an entrance to his rooms....

Alison was plucking nervously at the cover without lifting it.

"Why don't you look?" he demanded, irritated.

"I--I'm afraid," she said in a broken voice.

Nevertheless, she removed the cover.

For a solid, silent minute both stared, stupefied. The hat they knew so
well--the big black hat with its willow plume and buckle of
brilliants--had vanished. In its place they saw the tumbled wreckage of
what had once been another hat distinctly: wisps of straw dyed purple,
fragments of feathers, bits of violet-coloured ribbon and silk which,
mixed with wads and shreds of white tissue-paper, filled the box to
brimming.

Staff thrust a hand in his pocket and produced the knot of violet
ribbon. It matched exactly the torn ribbon in the box.

"So that," he murmured--"that's where this came from!"

Alison paid no attention. Of a sudden she began digging furiously in the
débris in the box, throwing out its contents by handfuls until she had
uncovered the bottom without finding any sign of what she had thought to
find. Then she paused, meeting his gaze with one half-wrathful,
half-hysterical.

"What does this mean?" she demanded, as if ready to hold him to account.

"I think," he said slowly--"I'm strongly inclined to believe it means
that you're an uncommonly lucky woman."

"How do you make that out?" she demanded in a breath.

"I'll tell you," he said, formulating his theory as he spoke: "When I
came home tonight, a man passed me at the door, fairly running out--I
fancy, to escape recognition; there was something about him that seemed
familiar. Then I came up here, found my door ajar, when I distinctly
remembered locking it, found my windows shut and the shades drawn, when
I distinctly remembered leaving them up, and finally found this knot of
ribbon on the floor. I was trying to account for it when you drove up.
Now it seems plain enough that this fellow knew or suspected you of
hiding the necklace in the hat, knew that I had it, and came here in my
absence to steal it. He found instead this hat, and knowing no better
tore it to pieces trying to find what he was after."

"But where--where's _my_ hat?"

"I'll tell you." Staff crossed the room and picked up the string and
label which had been on the box. Returning, he examined the tag and
read aloud: "Miss Eleanor Searle." He handed the tag to Alison. "Find
Miss Searle and you'll find your hat. It happens that she had a bandbox
the exact duplicate of yours. I remember telling you about it, on the
steamer. As a matter of fact, she was in the shop the afternoon you
ordered your hat sent to me, though she steadily refused to tell me who
was responsible for that imposition. Now, on the pier today, our luggage
was placed side by side, hers with mine--both in the S section, you
understand. My examination was finished first and I was taken back to my
stateroom to be searched, as you know. While I was gone, her examination
was evidently finished, for when I came back she had left the pier with
all her things. Quite plainly she must have taken your box by mistake
for her own; this, of course, is her hat. As I said at first, find Miss
Searle and you'll find your hat and necklace. Also, find the person to
whom you confided this gay young swindling scheme of yours, and you'll
find the man who was intimate enough with the affair to come to my rooms
in my absence and go direct to the bandbox for the necklace."

"I--but I told nobody," she stammered.

By the look in her eyes he disbelieved her.

"Not even Max, this morning, before he offered that reward?" he asked
shrewdly.

"Well--yes; I told him."

"Max may have confided it to somebody else: these things spread. Or
possibly Jane may have blabbed."

"Oh, no," she protested, but without conviction in her accents; "neither
of them would be so foolish...."

"I'd find out, if I were you."

"I shall. Meanwhile--this Miss Searle--where's she stopping?"

"I can't tell you--some hotel. It'll be easy enough to find her in the
morning."

"Will you try?"

"Assuredly--the first thing."

"Then--there appears to be nothing else to do but go home," said the
woman in a curiously subdued manner.

Without replying verbally, Staff took up her chiffon wrap and draped it
over her shoulders.

"Thank you," said she, moving toward the door. "Good night."

"Oh," he protested politely, "I must see you out."

"It's not necessary--I can find my way."

"But only I know how to fix the front door."

At the foot of the stairs, while he fumbled with the latch, doubting
him, she spoke with some little hesitation.

"I presume," she said stiffly--"I presume that this--ah--ends it."

Staff opened the door an inch and held it so. "If by 'it,'" he replied,
"we mean the same thing--"

"We do."

"It does," he asseverated with his twisted smile.

She delayed an instant longer. "But all the same," she said hastily, at
length, "I want that play."

"_My_ play?" he enquired with significant emphasis.

"Yes, of course," she said sharply.

"Well, since I'm under contract with Max, I don't well see how I can
take it away from you. And besides, you're the only woman living who can
play it properly."

"So good of you." Her hand lay slim and cool in his for the fraction of
an instant. "Good night," she iterated, withdrawing it.

"Good night."

As he let her out, Staff, glancing down at the waiting taxicab, was
faintly surprised by the discovery that she had not come alone. A man
stood in waiting by the door--a man in evening clothes: not Max but a
taller man, more slender, with a better carriage. Turning to help Alison
into the cab, the street lights threw his face in sharp relief against
the blackness of the window; and Staff knew him.

"Arkroyd!" he said beneath his breath.

He closed the door and set the latch, suffering from a species of mild
astonishment. His psychological processes seemed to him rather unique;
he felt that he was hardly playing the game according to Hoyle. A man
who has just broken with the woman with whom he has believed himself
desperately in love naturally counts on feeling a bit down in the mouth.
And seeing her drive off with one whom he has every right to consider in
the light of a hated rival, he ought in common decency to suffer
poignant pangs of jealousy. But Staff didn't; he couldn't honestly make
himself believe that he was suffering in any way whatever. Indeed, the
most violent emotion to which he was sensible was one of chagrin over
his own infatuate myopia.

"Ass!" he called himself, slowly reascending the stairs. "You might 've
seen this coming long ago, if you hadn't wilfully chosen to be blind as
a bat!"

Re-entering his study, he pulled up with a start and a cry of sincere
amazement.

"Well, I'll be damned!"

"Then why not lead a better life?" enquired Mr. Iff.

He was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, looking much like an
exceptionally cruel caricature of himself. As he spoke, he slouched
wearily over to the wing-chair Alison had recently occupied, and dropped
into it like a dead weight.

He wore no hat. His clothing was in a shocking condition, damp,
shapeless and shrunken to such an extent as to disclose exhibits of bony
wrists and ankles almost immodestly generous. On his bird-like cranium
the pale, smooth scalp shone pink through scanty, matted, damp blond
locks. His face was drawn, pinched and pale. As if new to the light his
baby-blue eyes blinked furiously. Round his thin lips hovered his
habitual smile, semi-sardonic, semi-sheepish.

"Do you mind telling me how in thunder you got in here?" asked Staff
courteously.

Iff waved a hand toward the bedroom.

"Fire-escape," he admitted wearily. "Happened to see your light and
thought I'd call. Hope I don't intrude.... Got anything to drink? I'm
about all in."



IX

A LIKELY STORY


"If I'm any judge, _that's_ no exaggeration." Thus Mr. Staff after a
moment's pause which he utilised to look Mr. Iff over with a critical
eye.

Mr. Iff wagged his head. "Believe _me_," said he simply.

Staff fetched a decanter of Scotch and a glass, placing them on the
table by Iff's elbow, then turned away to get a siphon of charged water
from the icebox. But by the time he was back a staggering amount of
whiskey had disappeared from the decanter, a moist but empty glass stood
beside it, and Mr. Iff was stroking smiling lips with his delicate,
claw-like fingers. He discontinued this occupation long enough to wave
the siphon away.

"Not for me," he said tersely. "I've swallowed enough water this night
to last me for the rest of my life--half of the North River, more or
less; rather more, if you ask me."

"What were you doing in the North River?"

"Swimming."

This answer was evidently so adequate in Mr. Iff's understanding that he
made no effort to elaborate upon it; so that presently, growing
impatient, Staff felt called upon to ask:

"Well? What were you swimming for?"

"Dear life," said Iff--"life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: the
incontestable birthright of every freeborn American citizen--if you must
know."

He relapsed into a reverie which seemed hugely diverting from the
reminiscent twinkle in the little man's eyes. From this he emerged long
enough to remark: "That's prime whiskey, you know.... Thanks very much,
I will." And again fell silent, stroking his lips.

"I don't want to seem to pry," said Staff at length, with elaborate
irony; "but in view of the fact that you've felt warranted in calling on
me via the fire-escape at one A.M., it doesn't seem unreasonable of me
to expect some sort of an explanation."

"Oh, very well," returned Iff, with resignation. "What would you like to
know?"

"Why did you disappear this morning--?"

"Yesterday morning," Iff corrected dispassionately.

"--yesterday morning, and how?"

"Because the time seemed ripe for me to do my marvellous vanishing
stunt. You see, I had a hunch that the dear captain would turn things
over in his mind and finally determine not to accept my credentials at
their face value. So I kind of stuck round the wireless room with my
ears intelligently pricked forward. Sure enough, presently I heard the
message go out, asking what about me and how so."

"You mean you read the operator's sending by ear?"

"Sure; I've got a telegrapher's ear as long as a mule's.... Whereupon,
knowing just about what sort of an answer 'd come through, I made up my
mind to duck. And did."

"But how--?"

"That'd be telling, and telling would get somebody aboard the
Autocratic into terrible bad trouble if it ever leaked out. I crawled in
out of the weather--let it go at that. I wish," said Mr. Iff soulfully,
"those damn' Pinkerton men had let it go at that. Once or twice I really
thought they had me, or would have me the next minute. And they wouldn't
give up. That's why I had to take to the water, after dark. My friend,
who shall be nameless, lent me the loan of a rope and I shinned down
and had a nice little swim before I found a place to crawl ashore. I
assure you that the North River tastes like hell.... O thank you; don't
mind if I do."

"Then," said Staff, watching the little man help himself on his own
invitation--"Then you are Ismay!"

"Wrong again," said Iff drearily. "Honest, it's a real shame, the way
you can't seem to win any bets at all."

"If you're not Ismay, what made you hide?"

"Ah!" cried Iff admiringly--"shrewd and pertinent question! Now I'll
tell you, and you won't believe me. Because--now pay strict
attention--because we're near-twins."

"Who are twins?" demanded Staff staring.

"Him and me--Ismay and I-double-F. First cousins we are: his mother was
my aunt. Worse and more of it: our fathers were brothers. They married
the same day; Ismay and I were born in the same month. We look just
enough alike to be mistaken for one another when we're not together.
That's been a great help to him; he's made me more trouble than I've
time to tell you. The last time, I was pinched in his place and escaped
a penitentiary sentence by the narrowest kind of a shave. That got my
mad up, and I served notice on him to quit his foolishness or I'd get
after him. He replied by cooking up a fine little scheme that almost
laid me by the heels again. So I declared war and 've been camping on
his trail ever since."

He paused and twiddled his thumbs, staring reflectively at the ceiling.
"I'm sure I don't know why I bore myself telling you all this. What's
the use?"

"Never mind," said Staff in an encouraging manner; he was genuinely
diverted. "At worst it's a worthy and uplifting--ah--fiction. Go on....
Then you're not a Secret Service man after all?"

"Nothing like that; I'm doing this thing on my own."

"How about that forged paper you showed the captain?"

"Wasn't forged--genuine."

"Chapter Two," observed Staff, leaning back. "It is a dark and stormy
night; we are all seated about the camp-fire. The captain says:
'Antonio, go to it.'"

"You are certainly one swell, appreciative audience," commented Iff
morosely. "Let's see if I can't get a laugh with this one: One of the
best little things my dear little cousin does being to pass himself off
as me, he got himself hired by the Treasury Department some years ago
under the name of William Howard Iff. That helped him a lot in his
particular line of business. But after a while he felt that it cramped
his style, so he just faded noiselessly away--retaining his credentials.
Then--while I was in Paris last week--he thought it would be a grand
joke to send me that document with his compliments and the suggestion
that it might be some help to me in my campaign for his scalp. That's
how I happened to have it."

"That's going some," Staff admitted admiringly. "Tell me another one.
_If_ you're Iff and not Ismay, what brought you over on the Autocratic?"

"Business of keeping an eye on my dearly beloved cousin," said Iff
promptly.

"You mean Ismay was on board, too?"

"'Member that undergrown waster with the red-and-grey Vandyke and the
horn-rimmed _pince nez_, who was always mooning round with a book under
his arm?"

"Yes...."

"That was Cousin Arbuthnot disguised in his own hair."

"If that was so, why didn't you denounce him when you were accused of
stealing the Cadogan collar?"

"Because I knew he hadn't got away with it."

"How did you know?"

"At least I was pretty positive about it. You'll have to be patient--and
intelligent--if you want to understand and follow me back to Paris. The
three of us were there: Ismay, Miss Landis, myself. Miss Landis was
dickering with Cottier's for the necklace, Ismay sticking round and not
losing sight of her much of the time, I was looking after Ismay. Miss
Landis buys the collar and a ticket for London; Ismay buys a ticket for
London; I trail. Then Miss Landis makes another purchase--a razor, in a
shop near the hotel where I happen to be loafing."

"A razor!"

"That's the way it struck me, too.... Scene Two: Cockspur Street,
London. I'm not sure what boat Miss Landis means to take; I've got a
notion it's the Autocratic, but I'm stalling till I know. You drift into
the office, I recognise you and recall that you're pretty thick with
Miss Landis. Nothing more natural than that you and she should go home
by the same steamer. Similarly--Ismay.... Oh, yes, I understand it was
pure coincidence; but I took a chance and filled my hand. After we'd
booked and you'd strutted off, I lingered long enough to see Miss Landis
drive up in a taxi with a whaling big bandbox on top of the cab. She
booked right under my nose; I made a note of the bandbox....

"Then you came aboard with the identical bandbox and your funny story
about how you happened to have it. I smelt a rat: Miss Landis hadn't
sent you that bandbox anonymously for no purpose. Then one
afternoon--long toward six o'clock--I see Miss Landis's maid come out on
deck and jerk a little package overboard--package just about big enough
to hold a razor. That night I'm dragged up on the carpet before the
captain; I hear a pretty fairy tale about the collar disappearing while
Jane was taking the bandbox back to your steward. The handbag is on the
table, in plain sight; it isn't locked--a blind man can see that; and
the slit in its side has been made by a razor. I add up the bandbox and
the razor and multiply the sum by the fact that the average woman will
smuggle as quick as the average man will take a drink; and I'm Jeremiah
Wise, Esquire."

"That's the best yet," Staff applauded. "But--see here--why didn't you
tell what you knew, if you knew so much, when you were accused?"

Iff grimaced sourly. "Get ready to laugh. This is one you won't fall
for--not in a thousand years."

"Shoot," said Staff.

"I like you," said Iff simply. "You're foolish in the head sometimes,
but in the main you mean well."

"That's nice of you--but what has it to do with my question?"

"Everything. You're sweet on the girl, and I don't wish to put a crimp
in your young romance by showing her up in her true colours.
Furthermore, you may be hep to her little scheme; I don't believe it,
but I know that, if you are, you won't let me suffer for it. And
finally, in the senility of my dotage I conned myself into believing I
could bluff it out; at the worst, I could prove my innocence easily
enough. But what I didn't take into consideration was that I was laying
myself open to arrest for impersonating an agent of the Government. When
I woke up to that fact, the only thing I could see to do was to duck in
out of the blizzard."

Staff said sententiously: "_Hmmm._..."

"Pretty thin--what?"

"In spots," Staff agreed. "Still, I've got to admit you've managed to
cover the canvas, even if your supply of paint was a bit stingy. One
thing still bothers me: how did you find out I knew about the smuggling
game?"

Iff nodded toward the bedroom. "I happened in--casually, as the saying
runs--just as Miss Landis was telling on herself."

Staff frowned.

"How," he pursued presently, "can I feel sure you're not Ismay, and,
having guessed as accurately as you did, that you didn't get at that
bandbox aboard the ship and take the necklace?"

"If I were, and had, would I be here?"

"But I can't understand why you are here!"

"It's simple enough; I've any number of reasons for inviting myself to
be your guest. For one, I'm wet and cold and look like a drowned rat; I
can't offer myself to a hotel looking like this--can I? Then I knew your
address--you'll remember telling me; and there's an adage that runs 'Any
port in a storm.' You're going to be good enough to get my money
changed--I've nothing but English paper--and buy me a ready-made outfit
in the morning. Moreover, I'm after Ismay, and Ismay's after the
necklace; wherever it is, he will be, soon or late. Naturally I presumed
you still had it--and so did he until within the hour."

"You mean you think it was Ismay who broke into these rooms tonight?"

"You saw him, didn't you? Man about my size, wasn't he? Evening clothes?
That's his regulation uniform after dark. Beard and glasses--what?"

"I believe you're right!" Staff rose excitedly. "I didn't notice the
glasses, but otherwise you've described him!"

"What did I tell you?" Iff helped himself to a cigarette. "By now the
dirty dog's probably raising heaven and hell to find out where Miss
Searle has hidden herself."

Staff began to pace nervously to and fro. "I wish," he cried, "I knew
where to find her!"

"Please," Iff begged earnestly, "don't let your sense of the obligations
of a host interfere with your amusements; but if you'll stop that
Marathon long enough to find me a blanket, I'll shed these rags and, by
your good leave, curl up cunningly on yon divan."

Staff paused, stared at the little man's bland and guileless face, and
shook his head helplessly, laughing.

"There's no resisting your colossal gall," he said, passing into the
adjoining room to get bed-clothing for his guest.

"I admit it," said Iff placidly.

As Staff returned, the telephone bell rang. In his surprise he paused
with his arms full of sheets, blankets and pillows, and stared
incredulously at his desk.

"What the deuce now?" he murmured.

"The quickest way to an answer to that," suggested Iff blandly, "is
there." He indicated the telephone with an ample gesture. "Help
yourself."

Dropping his burden on the divan, Staff seated himself at the desk and
took up the receiver.

"Hello?"

He started violently, recognising the voice that answered: "Mr. Staff?"

"Yes--"

"This is Miss Searle."

"I know," he stammered; "I--I knew your voice."

"Really?" The query was perfunctory. "Mr. Staff--I couldn't wait to tell
you--I've just got in from a theatre and supper party with some
friends."

"Yes," he said. "Where are you?"

Disregarding his question, the girl's voice continued quickly: "I wanted
to see my hat and opened the bandbox. It wasn't my hat--it's the one
you described--the one that--"

"I know," he interrupted; "I know all about that now."

"Yes," she went on hurriedly, unheeding his words. "I admired and
examined it. It--there's something else."

"I know," he said again; "the Cadogan collar."

"Oh!" There was an accent of surprise in her voice. "Well, I've ordered
a taxi, and I'm going to bring it to you right away. The thing's too
valuable--"

"Miss Searle--"

"I'm afraid to keep it here. I wanted to find out if you were up--that's
why I called."

"But, Miss Searle--"

"The taxi's waiting now. I'll be at your door in fifteen minutes."

"But--"

"Good-bye."

He heard the click as she hung up the receiver; and nothing more. With
an exclamation of annoyance he swung round from the desk.

"Somebody coming?" enquired Iff brightly.

Staff eyed him with overt distrust. "Yes," he said reluctantly.

"Miss Searle bringing the evanescent collar, eh?"

Staff nodded curtly.

"Plagued nuisance," commented Iff. "And me wanting to go to sleep the
worst I ever did."

"Don't let this keep you up," said Staff.

"But," Iff remonstrated, "you can't receive a lady in here with me
asleep on your divan."

"I don't intend to," Staff told him bluntly. "I'm going to meet the taxi
at the door, get into it with her, and take that infernal necklace
directly to Miss Landis, at her hotel."

"The more I see of you," said Mr. Iff, removing his coat, "the more
qualities I discover in you to excite my admiration and liking. As in
this instance when with thoughtfulness for my comfort"--he tore from his
neck the water-soaked rag that had been his collar--"you combine a
prudent, not to say sagacious foresight, whereby you plan to place the
Cadogan collar far beyond my reach in event I should turn out to be a
gay deceiver."

By way of response, Staff found his hat and placed it handily on the
table, went to his desk and took from one of its drawers a small
revolver of efficient aspect, unloaded and reloaded it to satisfy
himself it was in good working order--and of a sudden looked round
suspiciously at Mr. Iff.

The latter, divested of his clothing and swathed in a dressing-gown
several sizes too large for him, fulfilled his host's expectations by
laughing openly at these warlike preparations.

"I infer," he said, "that you wouldn't be surprised to meet up with
Cousin Arbuthnot before sunrise."

"I'm taking no chances," Staff announced with dignity.

"Well, if you should meet him, and if you mean what you act like, _and_
if that gun's any good, _and_ if you know how to use it," yawned Mr.
Iff, "you'll do me a favour and save me a heap of trouble into the
bargain. _Good_ night."

He yawned again in a most business-like way, lay down, pulled a blanket
up round his ears, turned his back to the light and was presently
breathing with the sweet and steady regularity of a perfectly sound and
sincere sleeper.

To make his rest the more comfortable, Staff turned off all the lights
save that on his desk. Then he filled a pipe and sat down to envy the
little man. The very name of sleep was music in his hearing, just then.

The minutes lagged on leaden wings. There was a great hush in the old
house, and the street itself was quiet. Once or twice Staff caught
himself nodding; then he would straighten up, steel his will and spur
his senses to attention, waiting, listening, straining to catch the
sound of an approaching taxi. He seemed to hear every imaginable night
noise but that: the crash and whine of trolleys, the footsteps of a
scattered handful of belated pedestrians, the infrequent windy roar of
trains on the Third Avenue L, empty clapping of horses' hoofs on the
asphalt ... the yowl of a sentimental tomcat ... a dull and distant
grumble, vague, formless, like a long, unending roll of thunder down the
horizon ... the swish and sough of waters breaking away from the flanks
of the Autocratic ... and then, finally, like a tocsin, the sonorous,
musical chiming of the grandfather's clock in the corner.

He found himself on his feet, rubbing his eyes, with a mouth dry as
paper, a thumping heart, and a vague sense of emptiness in his middle.

Had he napped--slept? How long?... He stared, bewildered, groping
blindly after his wandering wits....

The windows, that had been black oblongs in the illuminated walls, were
filled with a cool and shapeless tone of grey. He reeled (rather than
walked) to one of them and looked out.

The street below was vacant, desolate and uncannily silent, showing a
harsh, unlovely countenance like the jaded mask of some sodden reveller,
with bleary street-lamps for eyes--all mean and garish in the chilly
dusk that foreruns dawn.

Hastily Staff consulted his watch.

Four o'clock!

It occurred to him that the watch needed winding, and he stood for
several seconds twisting the stem-crown between thumb and forefinger
while stupidly comprehending the fact that he must have been asleep
between two and three hours.

Abruptly, in a fit of witless agitation, he crossed to the divan, caught
the sleeper by the shoulder and shook him till he wakened--till he
rolled over on his back, grunted and opened one eye.

"Look here!" said Staff in a quaver--"I've been asleep!"

"You've got nothing on me, then," retorted Iff with pardonable asperity.
"All the same--congratulations. Good _night_."

He attempted to turn over again, but was restrained by Staff's
imperative hand.

"It's four o'clock, and after!"

"I admit it. You might be good enough to leave a call for me for
eleven."

"But--damn it, man!--that cab hasn't come--"

"I can't help that, can I?"

"I'm afraid something has happened to that girl."

"Well, it's too late to prevent it now--if so."

"Good God! Have you no heart, man?" Staff began to stride distractedly
up and down the room. "What am I to do?" he groaned aloud.

"Take unkie's advice and go bye-bye," suggested Iff. "Otherwise I'd be
obliged if you'd rehearse that turn in the other room. I'm going to
sleep if I have to brain you to get quiet."

Staff stopped as if somebody had slapped him: the telephone bell was
ringing again.

He flung himself across the room, dropped heavily into the chair and
snatched up the receiver.

A man's voice stammered drowsily his number.

"Yes," he almost shouted. "Yes--Mr. Staff at the 'phone. Who wants me?"

"Hold the wire."

He heard a buzzing, a click; then silence; a prolonged _brrrrp_ and
another click.

"Hello?" he called. "Hello?"

His heart jumped: the voice was Miss Searle's.

"Mr. Staff?"

It seemed to him that he could detect a tremor in her accents, as if she
were both weary and frightened.

"Yes, Miss Searle. What is it?"

"I wanted to reassure you--I've had a terrible experience, but I'm all
right now--safe. I started--"

Her voice ceased to vibrate over the wires as suddenly as if those same
wires had been cut.

"Yes?" he cried after an instant. "Yes, Miss Searle? Hello, hello!"

There was no answer. Listening with every faculty at high tension, he
fancied that he detected a faint, abrupt sound, like a muffled sob. On
the heels of it came a click and the connection was broken.

In his anxiety and consternation he swore violently.

"Well, what's the trouble?"

Iff stood at his side, now wide-awake and quick with interest. Hastily
Staff explained what had happened.

"Yes," nodded the little man. "Yes, that'd be the way of it. She had
trouble, but managed to get to the telephone; then somebody grabbed
her--"

"Somebody! Who?" Staff demanded unreasonably.

"I don't really know--honest Injun! But there's a smell of garlic about
it, just the same."

"Smell of garlic! Are you mad?"

"Tush!" said Mr. Iff contemptuously. "I referred poetically to the fine
Italian hand of Cousin Arbuthnot Ismay. Now if I were you, I'd agitate
that hook until Central answers, and then ask for the manager and see if
he can trace that call back to its source. It oughtn't to be difficult
at this hour, when the telephone service is at its slackest."

[Illustration: He fancied that he detected a faint, abrupt sound, like a
muffled sob

       _Page 176_]



X

DEAD O' NIGHT


Beneath a nature so superficially shallow that it shone only with the
reflected lustre of the more brilliant personalities to which it was
attracted, Mrs. Ilkington had a heart--sentiment and a capacity for
sympathetic affection. She had met Eleanor Searle in Paris, and knew a
little more than something of the struggle the girl had been making to
prepare herself for the operatic stage. She managed to discover that she
had no close friends in New York, and shrewdly surmised that she wasn't
any too well provided with munitions of war--in the shape of money--for
her contemplated campaign against the army of professional people,
marshalled by indifferent-minded managers, which stood between her and
the place she coveted.

Considering all this, Mrs. Ilkington had suggested, with an accent of
insistence, that Eleanor should go to the hotel which she intended to
patronise--wording her suggestion so cunningly that it would be an easy
matter for her, when the time came, to demonstrate that she had invited
the girl to be her guest. And with this she was thoughtful enough to
select an unpretentious if thoroughly well-managed house on the West
Side, in the late Seventies, in order that Eleanor might feel at ease
and not worry about the size of the bill which she wasn't to be
permitted to pay.

Accordingly the two ladies (with Mr. Bangs tagging) went from the pier
directly to the St. Simon, the elder woman to stay until her town-house
could be opened and put in order, the girl while she looked round for a
spinster's studio or a small apartment within her limited means.

Promptly on their arrival at the hotel, Mrs. Ilkington began to run up a
telephone bill, notifying friends of her whereabouts; with the result
(typical of the New York idea) that within an hour she had engaged
herself for a dinner with theatre and supper to follow--and, of course,
had managed to have Eleanor included in the invitation. She was one of
those women who live on their nerves and apparently thrive on
excitement, ignorant of the meaning of rest save in association with
those rest-cure sanatoriums to which they repair for a fortnight
semi-annually--or oftener.

Against her protests, then, Eleanor was dragged out in full dress when
what she really wanted to do was to eat a light and simple meal and go
early to bed. In not unnatural consequence she found herself, when they
got home after one in the morning, in a state of nervous disquiet caused
by the strain of keeping herself keyed up to the pitch of an animated
party.

Insomnia stared her in the face with its blind, blank eyes. In the
privacy of her own room, she expressed a free opinion of her countrymen,
conceiving them all in the guise of fevered, unquiet souls cast in the
mould of Mrs. Ilkington.

Divesting herself of her dinner-gown, she slipped into a négligée and
looked round for a book, meaning to read herself sleepy. In the course
of her search she happened to recognise her bandbox and conceive a
desire to reassure herself as to the becomingness of its contents.

The hat she found therein was becoming enough, even if it wasn't hers.
The mistake was easily apparent and excusable, considering the confusion
that had obtained on the pier at the time of their departure.

She wondered when Staff would learn the secret of his besetting mystery,
and wondered too why Alison had wished to make a mystery of it. The joke
was hardly apparent--though one's sense of American humour might well
have become dulled in several years of residence abroad.

Meanwhile, instinctively, Eleanor was trying on the hat before the long
mirror set in the door of the closet. She admitted to herself that she
looked astonishingly well in it. She was a sane and sensible young
woman, who knew that she was exceedingly good looking and was glad of it
in the same wholesome way that she was glad she had a good singing
voice. Very probably the hat was more of a piece with the somewhat
flamboyant if unimpeachable loveliness of Alison Landis; but it would
seem hard to find a hat better suited to set off the handsome, tall and
slightly pale girl that confronted Eleanor in the mirror.

It seemed surprisingly heavy, even for a hat of its tremendous size. She
was of the opinion that it would make her head ache to wear it for many
hours at a time. She was puzzled by its weight and speculated vaguely
about it until, lifting it carefully off, her fingers encountered
something hard, heavy and unyielding between the lining and the crown.
After that it didn't take her long to discover that the lining had been
ripped open and resewn with every indication of careless haste. Human
curiosity did the rest. Within a very few minutes the Cadogan collar lay
in her hands and she was marvelling over it--and hazily surmising the
truth: Staff had been used as a blind agent to get the pearls into the
country duty-free.

Quick thoughts ran riot in Eleanor's mind. Alison Landis would
certainly not delay longer than a few hours before demanding her hat of
Mr. Staff. The substitution would then be discovered and she, Eleanor
Searle, would fall under suspicion--at least, unless she took immediate
steps to restore the jewels.

She acted hastily, on impulse. One minute she was at the telephone,
ordering a taxicab, the next she was hurriedly dressing herself in a
tailor-made suit. The hour was late, but not too late--although (this
gave her pause) it might be too late before she could reach Staff's
rooms. She had much better telephone him she was coming. Of course he
would have a telephone--everybody has, in New York.

Consultation of the directory confirmed this assumption, giving her both
his address and his telephone number. But before she could call up, her
cab was announced. Nevertheless she delayed long enough to warn him
hastily of her coming. Then she snatched up the necklace, dropped it
into her handbag, replaced the hat in its bandbox and ran for the
elevator.

It was almost half-past one by the clock behind the desk, when she
passed through the office. She had really not thought it so late. She
was conscious of the surprised looks of the clerks and pages. The porter
at the door, too, had a stare for her so long and frank as to approach
impertinence. None the less he was quick enough to take her bandbox
from the bellboy who carried it and place it in the waiting taxi, and
handed her in after it with civil care. Having repeated to the operator
the address she gave him, the porter shut the door and went back to his
post as the vehicle darted out from the curb.

Eleanor knew little of New York geography. Her previous visits to the
city had been very few and of short duration. With the shopping district
she was tolerably familiar, and she knew something of the district
roundabout the old Fifth Avenue Hotel and the vanished Everett House.
But with these exceptions she was entirely ignorant of the lay of the
land: just as she was too inexperienced to realise that it isn't
considered wholly well-advised for a young woman alone to take, in the
middle of the night, a taxicab whose chauffeur carries a companion on
the front seat. If she had stopped to consider this circumstance at all,
she would have felt comforted by the presence of the superfluous man, on
the general principle that two protectors are better then one: but the
plain truth is that she didn't stop to consider it, her thoughts being
fully engaged with what seemed more important matters.

The cab bounced across Amsterdam Avenue, slid smoothly over to Columbus,
ran for a block or so beneath the elevated structure and swung into
Seventy-seventh Street, through which it pelted eastward and into
Central Park. Then for some moments it turned and twisted through the
devious driveways, in a fashion so erratic that the passenger lost all
grasp of her whereabouts, retaining no more than a confused impression
of serpentine, tree-lined ways, chequered with lamplight and the soft,
dense shadows of foliage, and regularly spaced with staring electric
arcs.

The night had fallen black beneath an overcast sky; the air that fanned
her face was warm and heavy with humidity; what little breeze there was,
aside from that created by the motion of the cab, bore on its leaden
wings the scent of rain.

A vague uneasiness began to colour the girl's consciousness. She grew
increasingly sensitive to the ominous quiet of the hour and place: the
stark, dark stillness of the shrouded coppices and thickets, the
emptiness of the paths. Once only she caught sight of a civilian,
strolling in his shirt-sleeves, coat over his arm, hat in hand; and once
only she detected, at a distance, the grey of a policeman's tunic, half
blotted out by the shadow in which its wearer lounged at ease.

And that was far behind when, abruptly, with a grinding crash of brakes,
the cab came from full headlong tilt to a dead halt within twice its
length. She pitched forward from the seat with a cry of alarm, only
saving herself a serious bruising through the instinct that led her to
thrust out her hands and catch the frame of the forward windows.

Before she could recover, the chauffeur's companion had jumped out and
run ahead, pausing in front of the hood to stoop and stare. In another
moment he was back with a report couched in a technical jargon
unintelligible to her understanding. She caught the words "stripped the
gears" and from them inferred the irremediable.

"What is the matter?" she asked anxiously, bending forward.

The chauffeur turned his head and replied in a surly tone: "We've broken
down, ma'm. You can't go no farther in this cab. I'll have to get
another to tow us back to the garage."

"Oh," she cried in dismay, "how unfortunate! What am I to do?"

"Guess you'll have to get out 'n' walk back to Central Park West," was
the answer. "You c'n get a car there to C'lumbus Circle. You'll find
a-plenty taxis down there."

"You're quite sure--" she began to protest.

"Ah, they ain't no chanst of this car going another foot under its own
power--not until it's been a week 'r two in hospital. The only thing
for you to do 's to hoof it, like I said."

"That's dead right," averred the other man. He was standing beside the
body of the cab and now unlatched the door and held it open for her.
"You might as well get down, if you're in any great hurry, ma'm."

Eleanor rose, eyeing the man distrustfully. His accent wasn't that of
the kind of man who is accustomed to saying "ma'm." His back was toward
the nearest lamp post, his face in shadow. She gained no more than a dim
impression of a short, slender figure masked in a grey duster buttoned
to the throat, and, above it, a face rendered indefinite by a short,
pointed beard and a grey motor-cap pulled well down over the eyes....

But there was nothing to do but accept the situation. An accident was an
accident--unpleasant but irreparable. There was no alternative; she
could do nothing but adopt the chauffeur's suggestion. She stepped out,
turning back to get her bandbox.

"Beg pardon, ma'm. I'll get that for you."

The man by the door interposed an arm between Eleanor and the bandbox.

She said, "Oh no!" and attempted to push past his arm.

Immediately he caught her by the shoulder and thrust her away with
staggering violence. She reeled back half a dozen feet. Simultaneously
she heard the fellow say, sharply: "All right--go ahead!" and saw him
jump upon the step. On the instant, the cab shot away through the
shadows, the door swinging wide while Eleanor's assailant scrambled into
the body.

Before she could collect herself the car had disappeared round a curve
in the roadway.

Her natural impulse was to scream, to start a hue-and-cry: "Stop thief!"
But the strong element of common-sense in her make-up counselled her to
hold her tongue. In a trice she comprehended precisely the meaning of
the passage. Somebody else--somebody aside from herself, Staff and
Alison Landis--knew the secret of the bandbox and the smuggled necklace,
and with astonishing intuition had planned this trap to gain possession
of it. She was amazed to contemplate the penetrating powers of inference
and deduction, the cunning and resource which had not only in so short a
time fathomed the mystery of the vanished necklace, but had discovered
the exchange of bandboxes, had traced the right one to her hotel and
possession, had divined and taken advantage of her impulse to return the
property to its rightful owner without an instant's loss of time. And
with this thought came another, more alarming: in a brace of minutes
the thieves would discover that the necklace had been abstracted from
the hat and--men of such boldness wouldn't hesitate about turning back
to run her down and take their booty by force.

It was this consideration that bade her refrain from crying out.
Conceivably, if she did raise an alarm, help might be longer in coming
than the taxicab in returning. They had the hat and bandbox, and were
welcome to them, for all of her, as long as she retained the real
valuables. Her only chance lay in instant and secret flight, in hiding
herself away in the gloomy fastnesses of these unknown pleasure-grounds,
so securely that they might not find her.

She stood alone in the middle of a broad road. There was nobody in
sight, whichever way she looked. On one hand a wide asphalt path ran
parallel with the drive; on the other lay a darksome hedge of trees and
shrubbery. She hesitated not two seconds over her choice, and in a third
was struggling and forcing a way through the undergrowth and beneath the
low and spreading branches whose shadows cloaked her with a friendly
curtain of blackness.

Beyond--she was not long in winning through--lay a broad meadow,
glimmering faintly in the glow of light reflected from the bosoms of
low, slow-moving clouds. A line of trees bordered it at a considerable
distance; beneath them were visible patches of asphalt walk, shining
coldly under electric arcs.

Having absolutely no notion whatever of where she was in the Park, after
some little hesitation she decided against attempting to cross the lawn
and turned instead, at random, to her right, stumbling away in the
kindly penumbra of trees.

She thanked her stars that she had chosen to wear this dark,
short-skirted suit that gave her so much freedom of action and at the
same time blended so well with the shadows wherein she must skulk....

Before many minutes she received confirmation of her fears in the drone
of a distant motor humming in the stillness and gaining volume with
every beat of her heart. Presently it was strident and near at hand; and
then, standing like a frozen thing, not daring to stir (indeed, half
petrified with fear) she saw the marauding taxicab wheel slowly past,
the chauffeur scrutinising one side of the way, the man in the grey
duster standing up in the body and holding the door half open, while he
raked with sweeping glances the coppice wherein she stood hiding.

But it did not stop. Incredible though it seemed, she was not detected.
Obviously the men were at a loss, unable to surmise which one she had
chosen of a dozen ways of escape. The taxicab drilled on at a snail's
pace for some distance up the drive, then swung round and came back at a
good speed. As it passed her for the second time she could hear one of
its crew swearing angrily.

Again the song of the motor died in the distance, and again she found
courage to move. But which way? How soonest to win out of this strange,
bewildering maze of drives and paths, crossing and recrossing, melting
together and diverging without apparent motive or design?

She advanced to the edge of the drive, paused, listening with every
faculty alert. There was no sound but the muted soughing of the night
wind in the trees--not a footfall, not the clap of a hoof or the echo of
a motor's whine. She moved on a yard or two, and found herself suddenly
in the harsh glare of an arc-lamp. This decided her; she might as well
go forward as retreat, now that she had shown herself. She darted at a
run across the road and gained the paved path, paused an instant, heard
nothing, and ran on until forced to stop for breath.

And still no sign of pursuit! She began to feel a little reassured, and
after a brief rest went on aimlessly, with the single intention of
sticking to one walk as far as it might lead her, in the hope that it
might lead her to the outskirts of the Park.

Vain hope! Within a short time she found herself scrambling over bare
rocks, with shrubbery on either hand and a looming mass of masonry
stencilled against the sky ahead. This surely could not be the way. She
turned back, lost herself, half stumbled and half fell down a sharp
slope, plodded across another lawn and found another path, which led her
northwards (though she had no means of knowing this). In time it crossed
one of the main drives, then recrossed. She followed it with patient
persistence, hoping, but desperately weary.

Now and again she passed benches upon which men sprawled in crude,
uneasy attitudes, as a rule snoring noisily. She dared not ask her way
of these. Once one roused to the sharp tapping of her heels, stared
insolently and, as she passed, spoke to her in a thick, rough voice. She
did not understand what he said, but quickened her pace and held on
bravely, with her head high and her heart in her mouth. Mercifully, she
was not followed.

Again--and not once but a number of times--the sound of a motor drove
her from the path to the safe obscurity of the trees and undergrowth.
But in every such instance her apprehensions were without foundation;
the machines were mostly touring-cars or limousines beating homeward
from some late festivity.

And twice she thought to descry at a distance the grey-coated figure of
a policeman; but each time, when she had gained the spot, the man had
vanished--or else some phenomenon of light and shadow had misled her.

Minutes, in themselves seemingly endless, ran into hours while she
wandered (so heavy with fatigue that she found herself wondering how it
was that she didn't collapse from sheer exhaustion on any one of the
interminable array of benches that she passed) dragging her leaden feet
and aching limbs and struggling to hold up her hot and throbbing head.

It was long after three when finally she emerged at
One-hundred-and-tenth Street and Lenox Avenue. And here fortune proved
more kind: she blundered blindly almost into the arms of a policeman,
stumbled through her brief story and dragged wearily on his arm over to
Central Park West. Here he put her aboard a southbound Eighth Avenue
surface-car, instructing the conductor where she was to get off and then
presumably used the telephone on his beat to such effect that she was
met on alighting by another man in uniform who escorted her to the St.
Simon. She was too tired, too thoroughly worn out, to ask him how it
happened that he was waiting for her, or even to do more than give him a
bare word of thanks. As for complaining of her adventure to the
night-clerk (who stared as she passed through to the elevator) no
imaginable consideration could have induced her to stop for any such
purpose.

But one thing was clear to her intelligence, to be attended to before
she toppled over on her bed: Staff must be warned by telephone of the
attempt to steal the necklace and the reason why she had not been able
to reach his residence. And if this were to be accomplished, she must do
it before she dared sit down.

In conformance with this fixed idea, she turned directly to the
telephone after closing the door of her room--pausing neither to strip
off her gloves and remove her hat nor even to relieve her aching wrist
of the handbag which, with its precious contents, dangled on its silken
thong.

She had to refresh her memory with a consultation of the directory
before she could ask for Staff's number.

The switchboard operator was slow to answer; and when he did, there
followed one of those exasperating delays, apparently so inexcusable....

She experienced a sensation of faintness and dizziness; her limbs were
trembling; she felt as though sleep were overcoming her as she stood;
but a little more and she had strained endurance to the
breaking-point....

[Illustration: Fascinated, dumb with terror, she watched

                                                    _Page 193_]

At length the connection was made. Staff's agitated voice seemed drawn
thin by an immense distance. By a supreme effort she managed to spur her
flagging faculties and began to falter her incredible story, but had
barely swung into the second sentence when her voice died in her throat
and her tongue clave to the roof of her mouth.

The telephone instrument was fixed to the wall near the clothes-closet,
the door of which framed a long mirror. This door, standing slightly
ajar, reflected to her vision the hall door.

She had detected a movement in the mirror. The hall door was
opening--slowly, gently, noiselessly, inch by inch. Fascinated, dumb
with terror, she watched. She saw the hand that held the knob--a small
hand, thin and fragile; then the wrist, then part of the arm.... A head
appeared in the opening, curiously suggesting the head of a bird, thinly
thatched with hair of a faded yellow; out of its face, small eyes
watched her, steadfastly inquisitive.

Almost mechanically she replaced the receiver on the hook and turned
away from the wall, stretching forth her hands in a gesture of pitiful
supplication....



XI

THE COLD GREY DAWN


"Well?" snapped Iff irritably. "What're you staring at?"

"You," Staff replied calmly. "I was thinking--"

"About me? What?"

"Merely that you are apparently as much cut up as if the necklace were
yours--as if you were in danger of being robbed, instead of Miss
Landis--by way of Miss Searle."

"And I am!" asserted Iff vigorously. "I am, damn it! I'm in no danger of
losing any necklace; but if he gets away with the goods, that infernal
scoundrel will manage some way to implicate me and rob me of my good
name and my liberty as well. Hell!" he exploded--"seems to me I'm
entitled to be excited!"

Staff's unspoken comment was that this explanation of the little man's
agitation was something strained and inconclusive: unsatisfactory at
best. It was not apparent how (even assuming the historical Mr. Ismay to
be at that moment stealing the Cadogan collar from Miss Searle) the
crime could be fastened on Mr. Iff, in the face of the positive alibi
Staff could furnish him. On the other hand, it was indubitable that Iff
believed himself endangered in some mysterious way, or had some other
and still more secret cause for disquiet. For his uneasiness was so
manifest, in such sharp contrast with his habitual, semi-cynical repose,
that even he hadn't attempted to deny it.

With a shrug Staff turned back to the telephone and asked for the
manager of the exchange, explained his predicament and was promised
that, if the call could be traced back to the original station, he
should have the number. He was, however, counselled to be patient. Such
a search would take time, quite possibly and very probably.

He explained this to Iff, whose disgust was ill-disguised.

"And meanwhile," he expostulated, "we're sitting here with our hands in
our laps--useless--and Ismay, as like 's not, is--" He broke into
profanity, trotting up and down and twisting his small hands together.

"I wish," said Staff, "I knew what makes you act this way. Ismay can't
saddle you with a crime committed by him when you're in my company--"

"You don't know him," interpolated Iff.

"And you surely can't be stirred so deeply by simple solicitude for Miss
Searle."

"Oh, can't I? And how do you know I can't?" barked the little man.
"Gwan--leave me alone! I want to think."

"Best wishes," Staff told him pleasantly. "I'm going to change my
clothes."

"Symptoms of intelligence," grunted Iff. "I was wondering when you'd
wake up to the incongruity of knight-erranting it after damsels in
distress in an open-faced get-up like that."

"It's done, however," argued Staff good-humouredly. "It's class, if the
illustrators are to be believed. Don't you ever read modern fiction? In
emergencies like these the hero always takes a cold bath and changes his
clothes before sallying forth to put a crimp in the villain's plans.
Just the same as me. Only I'm going to shed evening dress instead of--"

"Good heavens, man!" snorted Iff. "Are you in training for a
monologist's job? If so--if not--anyway--can it! Can the extemporaneous
stuff!"

The telephone bell silenced whatever retort Staff may have contemplated.
Both men jumped for the desk, but Staff got there first.

"Hello?" he cried, receiver at ear. "Yes? Hello?"

But instead of the masculine accents of the exchange-manager he heard,
for the third time that night, the voice of Miss Searle.

"Yes," he replied almost breathlessly--"it is I, Miss Searle. Thank
Heaven you called up! I've been worrying silly--"

"We were cut off," the girl's voice responded. He noted, subconsciously,
that she was speaking slowly and carefully, as if with effort.... "Cut
off," she repeated as by rote, "and I had trouble getting you again."

"Then you're--you're all right?"

"Quite, thank you. I had an unpleasant experience trying to get to you
by taxicab. The motor broke down coming through Central Park, and I had
to walk home and lost my way. But I am all right now--just tired out."

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "It's too bad; I was quite ready to call
for the--you understand--and save you the trouble of the trip down here.
But I'm glad you've had no more unpleasant adventure."

"The necklace is safe," the girl's voice told him with the same deadly
precision of utterance.

"Oh, yes; I assumed that. And I may call for it?"

"If you please--today at noon. I am so tired I am afraid I shan't get up
before noon."

"That'll be quite convenient to me, thank you," he assured her. "But
where are you stopping?"

There fell a brief pause. Then she said something indistinguishable.

"Yes?" he said. "Beg pardon--I didn't get that. A little louder please,
Miss Searle."

"The St. Regis."

"Where?" he repeated in surprise.

"The St. Regis. I am here with Mrs. Ilkington--her guest. Good night,
Mr. Staff."

"Good morning," he laughed; and at once the connection was severed.

"And that's all right!" he announced cheerfully, swinging round to face
Iff. "She was in a taxicab accident and got lost in Central Park--just
got home, I infer. The necklace is safe and I'm to call and get it at
twelve o'clock."

"Where's she stopping?" demanded Iff, shaking his little head as though
impatient. Staff named the hotel, and Iff fairly jumped. "Why that's
impossible!" he cried. "She can't afford it."

"How do you happen to know she can't?" enquired Staff, perplexed.

Momentarily Iff showed a face of confusion. "I know a lot of things," he
grumbled, evasively.

Staff waited a moment, then finding that the little man didn't purpose
making any more adequate or satisfactory explanation, observed: "It
happens that she's Mrs. Ilkington's guest, and I fancy Mrs. Ilkington
can afford it--unless you know more about her, too, than I do."

Iff shook his head, dissatisfied. "All right," he said wearily. "Now
what're you going to do?"

"I'm going to try to snatch a few hours' sleep. There's no reason why I
shouldn't, now, with nothing to do before noon."

"Pleasant dreams," said Iff sourly, as Staff marched off to his bedroom.

Then he sat down on the edge of the divan, hugging the dressing-gown
round him, scowled vindictively at nothing and began thoughtfully to
gnaw a bony knuckle.

In the other room, his host was undressing with surprising speed. In
spite of his nap, he was still tremendously tired; perhaps the reaction
caused by Eleanor's reassurance capping the climax of his excitement had
something to do with the sense of complete mental and physical fatigue
that swept over him the instant his back rested upon the bed. Within
two minutes he was fast asleep.

But in the study Mr. Iff kept vigil, biting his knuckles what time he
was not depleting his host's stock of cigarettes.

Daylight broadened over the city. The sun rose. Not to be outdone, so
did Mr. Iff--moving quietly round the room, swearing beneath his breath
as his conscience dictated, gradually accumulating more and more of the
articles of clothing which he had so disdainfully discarded some hours
earlier.

The telephone interrupted him somewhat after six o'clock. He answered
it, assuming Staff's identity for the moment. When the conversation had
closed, he sat in reverie for some minutes, then consulted the telephone
book and called two numbers in quick succession. Immediately thereafter
he tiptoed into the bedroom, assured himself that Staff was fast asleep
and proceeded calmly to rifle that gentleman's pockets, carefully
placing what he found in an orderly array upon the bureau. In the end,
bringing to light a plump bill-fold, he concluded his investigations.

The pigskin envelope contained a little less than four-hundred dollars,
mostly in gold Treasury certificates. Mr. Iff helped himself generously
and replaced the bill-fold. Then he returned to the study, found paper
and pens and wrote Staff a little note, which he propped against the
mirror on the bedroom dresser. Finally, filling one of his pockets with
cigarettes, he smiled blandly and let himself out of the apartment and,
subsequently, of the house.

Staff slept on, sublimely unconscious, until the sun, slipping round to
the south, splashed his face with moulten gold: when he woke, fretful
and sweatful. He glanced at his watch and got up promptly: the hour
approached eleven. Diving into a bathrobe, he turned the water on for
his bath, trotted to the front room and discovered the evasion of Mr.
Iff. This, however, failed to surprise him. Iff was, after all, not
bound to sit tight until Staff gave him leave to stir.

He rang for Mrs. Shultz and ordered breakfast. Then he bathed and began
to dress. It was during this latter ceremony that he found his pockets
turned inside out and their contents displayed upon his bureau.

This was a shock, especially when he failed to find his bill-fold at the
first sweep. The bottom dropped out of the market for confidence in the
integrity of Mr. Iff and conceit in the perspicacity of Mr. Staff. He
saw instantly how flimsy had been the tissue of falsehood wherewith the
_soi-disant_ Mr. Iff had sought to cloak his duplicity, how egregiously
stupid had been his readiness to swallow that extraordinary yarn. The
more he considered, the more he marvelled. It surpassed belief--his
asininity did; at least _he_ wouldn't have believed he could be so
easily fooled. He felt like kicking himself--and longed unutterably for
a chance to kick his erstwhile guest.

In the midst of this transport he found himself staring incredulously at
the envelope on the dresser. He snatched it up, tore it open and removed
three pieces of white paper. Two of them were crisp and tough and
engraved on one side with jet-black ink. The third bore this
communication:

     "MY DEAR MR. STAFF:--Your bill-fold's in your waistcoat
     pocket, where you left it last night. It contained $385 when I
     found it. It now contains $200. I leave you by way of security
     Bank of England notes to the extent of £40. There'll be a bit
     of change, one way or the other--I'm too hurried to calculate
     which.

     "The exchange manager has just called up. The interrupted call
     has been traced back to the Hotel St. Simon in 79th Street, W.
     I have called the St. Regis; neither Miss Searle nor Mrs.
     Ilkington has registered there. I have also called the St.
     Simon; both ladies are there. Your hearing must be
     defective--or else Miss S. didn't know where she was at.

     "I'm off to line my inwards with food and decorate my outwards
     with purple and fine underlinen. After which I purpose minding
     my own business for a few hours or days, as the circumstances
     may demand. But do not grieve--I shall return eftsoons or
     thereabouts.

     "Yours in the interests of pure crime--

                                       "WHIFF.

     "P. S.--And of course neither of us had the sense to ask: If
     Miss S. was bound here from the St. Regis, how did her taxi
     manage to break down in Central Park?"

Prompt investigation revealed the truth of Mr. Iff's assertion: the
bill-fold with its remaining two-hundred dollars was safely tucked away
in the waistcoat pocket. Furthermore, the two twenty-pound notes were
unquestionably genuine. The tide of Staff's faith in human nature began
again to flood; the flower of his self-conceit flourished amazingly. He
surmised that he wasn't such a bad little judge of mankind, after all.

He breakfasted with a famous appetite, untroubled by Iff's aspersion on
his sense of hearing, which was excellent; and he had certainly heard
Miss Searle aright: she had named the St. Regis not once, but twice, and
each time with the clearest enunciation. He could only attribute the
mistake to her excitement and fatigue; people frequently make such
mistakes under unusual conditions; if Miss Searle had wished to deceive
him as to her whereabouts, she needed only to refrain from communicating
with him at all. And anyway, he knew now where to find her and within
the hour would have found her; and then everything would be cleared up.

He was mildly surprised at the sense of pleasant satisfaction with which
he looked forward to meeting the girl again. He reminded himself not to
forget to interview a manager or two in her interests.

Just to make assurance doubly sure, he telephoned the St. Simon while
waiting for Shultz to fetch a taxicab. The switchboard operator at that
establishment replied in the affirmative to his enquiry as to whether or
not Mrs. Ilkington and Miss Searle were registered there.

On the top of this he was called up by Alison.

"I'm just starting out--cab waiting," he told her at once--"to go to
Miss Searle and get your--property."

"Oh, you are?" she returned in what he thought a singular tone.

"Yes; she called me up last night--said she'd discovered the mistake and
the--ah--property--asked me to call today at noon."

There was no necessity that he could see of detailing the whole long
story over a telephone wire.

"Well," said Alison after a little pause, "I don't want to interfere
with your amusements, but ... I've something very particular to say to
you. I wish you'd stop here on your way uptown."

"Why, certainly," he agreed without hesitation or apprehension.

The actress had put up, in accordance with her custom, at a handsome,
expensive and world-famous hotel in the immediate neighbourhood of
Staff's rooms. Consequently he found himself in her presence within
fifteen minutes from the end of their talk by telephone.

Dressed for the street and looking uncommonly handsome, she was waiting
for him in the sitting-room of her suite. As he entered, she came
forward and gave him a cool little hand and a greeting as cool. He
received both with an imperturbability founded (he discovered to his
great surprise) on solid indifference. It was hard to realise that he no
longer cared for her, or whether she were pleased or displeased with
him. But he didn't. He concluded, not without profound amazement, that
his passion for her which had burned so long and brightly had been no
more than sentimental incandescence. And he began to think himself a
very devil of a fellow, who could toy with the love of women with such
complete insouciance, who could off with the old love before he had
found a new and care not a rap!...

Throughout this self-analysis he was mouthing commonplaces--assuring her
that the day was fine, that he had never felt better, that she was
looking her charming best. Of a sudden his vision comprehended an
article which adorned the centre-table; and words forsook him and his
jaw dropped.

It was _the_ bandbox: not that which he had left, with its cargo of
trash, in his rooms.

Alison followed his glance, elevated her brows, and indicated the box
with a wave of her arm.

"And what d' you know about that?" she enquired bluntly.

"Where did it come from?" he counter-questioned, all agape.

"I'm asking you."

"But--I know nothing about it. Did Miss Searle send it--?"

"I can't say," replied the actress drily. "Your name on the tag has been
scratched out and mine, with this address, written above it."

Staff moved over to the table and while he was intently scrutinising the
tag, Alison continued:

"It came by messenger about eight this morning; Jane brought it to me
when I got up a little while ago."

"The hat was in it?" he asked.

She nodded impatiently: "Oh, of course--with the lining half ripped out
and the necklace missing."

"Curious!" he murmured.

"Rather," she agreed. "What do you make of it?"

"This address isn't her writing," he said, deep in thought.

"Oh, so you're familiar with the lady's hand?" There was an accent in
Alison's voice that told him, before he looked, that her lip was curling
and her eyes were hard.

"This is a man's writing," he said quietly, wondering if it could be
possible that Alison was jealous.

"Well?" she demanded. "What of it?"

"I don't know. Miss Searle got me on the telephone a little after one
last night; she said she'd found the necklace in the hat and was
bringing it to me."

"How did she know it was mine?"

"Heard you order it sent to me, in London. You'll remember my telling
you she knew."

"Oh, yes. Go on."

"She didn't show up, but telephoned again some time round four o'clock
explaining that she had been in a taxicab accident in the Park and lost
her way but finally got home--that is, to her hotel, the St. Simon. She
said the necklace was safe--didn't mention the hat--and asked me to call
for it at noon today. I said I would, and I'm by way of being late now.
Doubtless she can explain how the hat came to you this way."

"I'll be interested to hear," said Alison, "and to know that the
necklace is really safe. On the face of it--as it stands--there's
something queer--wrong.... What are you going to do?"

Staff had moved toward the telephone. He paused, explaining that he was
about to call up Miss Searle for reassurance. Alison negatived this
instantly.

"Why waste time? If she has the thing, the quickest way to get it is to
go to her now--at once. If she hasn't, the quickest way to get after it
is via the same route. I'm all ready and if you are we'll go
immediately."

Staff bowed, displeased with her manner to the point of silence. He had
no objection to her being as temperamental as she pleased, but he
objected strongly to having it implied by everything except spoken words
that he was in some way responsible for the necklace and that Eleanor
Searle was quite capable of conspiring to steal it.

As for Alison, her humour was dangerously impregnated with the
consciousness that she had played the fool to such an extent that she
stood in a fair way to lose her necklace. Inasmuch as she knew this to
be altogether her fault, whatever the outcome, she was in a mood to
quarrel with the whole wide world; and she schooled herself to treat
with Staff on terms of toleration only by exercise of considerable
self-command and because she was exacting a service of him.

So their ride uptown was marked by its atmosphere of distant and
dispassionate civility. They spoke infrequently, and then on indifferent
topics soon suffered to languish. In due course, however, Staff mastered
his resentment and--as evidenced by his wry, secret smile--began to take
a philosophic view of the situation, to extract some slight amusement
from his insight into Alison's mental processes. Intuitively sensing
this, she grew even more exasperated with him--as well as with everybody
aside from her own impeccable self.

At the St. Simon, Staff soberly escorted the woman to the lounge,
meaning to leave her there while he enquired for Eleanor at the office;
but they had barely set foot in the apartment when their names were
shrieked at them in an excitable, shrill, feminine voice, and Mrs.
Ilkington bore down upon them in full regalia of sensation.

"My dears!" she cried, regarding them affectionately--"such a surprise!
Such a delightful surprise! And so good of you to come to see me so
soon! And opportune--I'm dying, positively expiring, for somebody to
gossip with. Such a singular thing has happened--"

Alison interrupted bluntly: "Where's Miss Searle? Mr. Staff is anxious
to see her."

"That's just it--_just_ what I want to talk about. You'd never guess
what that girl has done--and after all the trouble and thought I've
taken in her behalf, too! I'm disgusted, positively and finally
disgusted; never again will I interest myself in such people. I--"

"But where is Miss Searle?" demanded Alison, with a significant look to
Staff.

"Gone!" announced Mrs. Ilkington impressively.

"Gone?" echoed Staff.

Mrs. Ilkington nodded vigorously, compressing her lips to a thin line of
disapproval. "I'm positively at my wits' end to account for her."

"I fancy there's an explanation, however," Alison put in.

"I wish you'd tell me, then.... You see, we dined out, went to the
theatre and supper together, last night. The Struyvers asked me, and I
made them include her, of course. We got back about one. Of course, my
dears, I was fearfully tired and didn't get up till half an hour ago.
Imagine my sensation when I enquired for Miss Searle and was informed
that she paid her bill and left at five o'clock this _morning_, and with
_a strange man!_"

"She left you a note, of course?" Staff suggested.

"Not a line--nothing! I might be the dirt beneath her feet, the way
she's treated me. I'm thoroughly disillusioned--disgusted!"

"Pardon me," said Staff; "I'll have a word with the office."

He hurried away, leaving Mrs. Ilkington still volubly dilating on that
indignity that had been put upon her: Alison listening with an air of
infinite detachment.

His enquiry was fruitless enough. The day-clerk, he was informed by that
personage, had not come on duty until eight o'clock; he knew nothing of
the affair beyond what he had been told by the night-clerk--that Miss
Searle had called for her bill and paid it at five o'clock; had given
instructions to have her luggage removed from her room and delivered on
presentation of her written order; and had then left the hotel in
company with a gentleman who registered as "I. Arbuthnot" at one o'clock
in the morning, paying for his room in advance.

Staff, consumed with curiosity about this gentleman, was so persistent
in his enquiry that he finally unearthed the bellboy who had shown that
guest to his room and who furnished what seemed to be a tolerably
accurate sketch of him.

The man described was--Iff.

Discouraged and apprehensive, Staff returned to the lounge and made his
report--one received by Alison with frigid disapproval, by Mrs.
Ilkington with every symptom of cordial animation; from which it became
immediately apparent that Alison had told the elder woman everything she
should not have told her.

"'I. Arbuthnot,'" Alison translated: "Arbuthnot Ismay."

"Gracious!" Mrs. Ilkington squealed. "Isn't that the real name of that
odd creature who called himself Iff and pretended to be a Secret Service
man?"

Staff nodded a glum assent.

"It's plain enough," Alison went on; "this Searle woman was in league
with him--"

"I disagree with you," said Staff.

"On what grounds?"

"I don't believe that Miss Searle--"

"On what grounds?"

He shrugged, acknowledging his inability to explain.

"And what will you do?" interrupted Mrs. Ilkington.

"I shall inform the police, of course," said Alison; "and the sooner the
better."

"If I may venture so far," Staff said stiffly, "I advise you to do
nothing of the sort."

"And why not, if you please?"

"It's rather a delicate case," he said--"if you'll pause to consider it.
You must not forget that you yourself broke the law when you contrived
to smuggle the necklace into this country. The minute you make this
matter public, you lay yourself open to arrest and prosecution for
swindling the Government."

"Swindling!" Alison repeated with a flaming face.

Staff bowed, confirming the word. "It is a very serious charge these
days," he said soberly. "I'd advise you to think twice before you make
any overt move."

"But if I deny attempting to smuggle the necklace? If I insist that it
was stolen from me aboard the Autocratic--stolen by this Mr. Ismay and
this Searle woman--?"

"Miss Searle did not steal your necklace. If she had intended anything
of the sort, she wouldn't have telephoned me about it last night."

"Nevertheless, she has gone away with it, arm-in-arm with a notorious
thief, hasn't she?"

"We're not yet positive what she has done. For my part, I am confident
she will communicate with us and return the necklace with the least
possible delay."

"Nevertheless, I shall set the police after her!" Alison insisted
obstinately.

"Again I advise you--"

"But I shall deny the smuggling, base my charge on--"

"One moment," Staff interposed firmly. "You forget me. I'm afraid I can
adduce considerable evidence to prove that you not only attempted to
smuggle, but as a matter of fact did."

"And you would do that--to me?" snapped the actress.

"I mean that Miss Searle shall have every chance to prove her
innocence," he returned in an even and unyielding voice.

"Why? What's your interest in her?"

"Simple justice," he said--and knew his answer to be evasive and
unconvincing.

"As a matter of fact," said Alison, rising in her anger, "you've fallen
in love with the girl!"

Staff held her gaze in silence.

"You're in love with her," insisted the actress--"in love with this
common thief and confidence-woman!"

Staff nodded gently. "Perhaps," said he, "you're right. I hadn't thought
of it that way before.... But, if you doubt my motive in advising you to
go slow, consult somebody else--somebody you feel you can trust: Max,
for instance, or your attorney. Meanwhile, I'd ask Mrs. Ilkington to be
discreet, if I were you."

Saluting them ceremoniously, he turned and left the hotel, deeply
dejected, profoundly bewildered and ... wondering whether or not Alison
in her rage had uncovered a secret unsuspected even by himself, to whom
it should have been most intimate.



XII

WON'T YOU WALK INTO MY PARLOUR?


Slipping quickly into the room through an opening hardly wide enough to
admit his spare, small body, the man as quickly shut and locked the door
and pocketed the key. This much accomplished, he swung on his heel and,
without further movement, fastened his attention anew upon the girl.

Standing so--hands clasped loosely before him, his head thrust forward a
trifle above his rounded shoulders, pale eyes peering from their network
of wrinkles with a semi-humourous suggestion, thin lips curved in an
apologetic grin: his likeness to the Mr. Iff known to Staff was
something more than striking. One needed to be intimately and recently
acquainted with Iff's appearance to be able to detect the almost
imperceptible points of difference between the two. Had Staff been there
he might have questioned the colour of this man's eyes, which showed a
lighter tint than Iff's, and their expression--here vigilant and
predatory in contrast with Iff's languid, half-derisive look. The line
of the cheek from nose to mouth, too, was deeper and more hard than
with Iff; and there was a hint of elevation in the nostrils that lent
the face a guise of malice and evil--like the shadow of an impersonal
sneer.

The look he bent upon Eleanor was almost a sneer: a smile in part
contemptuous, in part studious; as though he pondered a problem in human
chemistry from the view-point of a seasoned and experienced scientist.
He cocked his head a bit to one side and stared insolently beneath
half-lowered lids, now and again nodding ever so slightly as if in
confirmation of some unspoken conclusion.

Against the cold, inflexible purpose in his manner, the pitiful prayer
expressed in the girl's attitude spent itself without effect. Her hands
dropped to her sides; her head drooped wearily, hopelessly; her pose
personified despondency profound and irremediable.

When he had timed his silence cunningly, to ensure the most impressive
effect, the man moved, shifting from one foot to the other, and spoke.

"Well, Nelly ...?"

His voice, modulated to an amused drawl, was much like Iff's.

The girl's lips moved noiselessly for an instant before she managed to
articulate.

"So," she said in a quiet tone of horror--"So it was you all the time!"

"What was me?" enquired the man inelegantly if with spirit.

"I mean," she said, "you _were_ after the necklace, after all."

"To be sure," he said pertly. "What did you think?"

"I hoped it wasn't so," she said brokenly. "When you escaped yesterday
morning, and when tonight I found the necklace--I was so glad!"

"Then you did find it?" he demanded promptly.

She gave him a look of contempt. "You know it!"

"My dear child," he expostulated insincerely, "what makes you say that?"

"You don't mean to pretend you didn't steal the bandbox from me, just
now, in that taxicab, trying to get the necklace?" she demanded.

He waited an instant, then shrugged. "I presume denial would be
useless."

"Quite."

"All right then: I won't deny anything."

She moved away from the telephone to a chair wherein she dropped as if
exhausted, hands knitted together in her lap, her chin resting on her
chest.

"You see," said the man, "I wanted to spare you the knowledge that you
were being held up by your fond parent."

"I should have known you," she said, "but for that disguise--the beard
and motor-coat."

"That just goes to show that filial affection will out," commented the
man. "You haven't seen me for seven years--"

"Except on the steamer," she corrected.

"True, but there I kept considerately out of your way."

"Considerately!" she echoed in a bitter tone.

"Can you question it?" he asked, lightly ironic, moving noiselessly to
and fro while appraising the contents of the room with swift, searching
glances.

"As, for instance, your actions tonight...."

"They simply prove my contention, dear child." He paused, gazing down at
her with a quizzical leer. "My very presence here affirms my entire
devotion to your welfare."

She looked up, dumfounded by his effrontery. "Is it worth while to waste
your time so?" she enquired. "You failed the first time tonight, but you
can't fail now; I'm alone, I can't oppose you, and you know I won't
raise an alarm. Why not stop talking, take what you want and go? And
leave me to be accused of theft unless I choose to tell the world--what
it wouldn't believe--that my own father stole the necklace from me!"

"Ah, but how unjust you are!" exclaimed the man. "How little you know
me, how little you appreciate a father's affection!"

"And you tried to rob me not two hours ago!"

"Yes," he said cheerfully: "I admit it. If I had got away with it
then--well and good. You need never have known who it was. Unhappily for
both of us, you fooled me."

"For both of us?" she repeated blankly.

"Precisely. It puts you in a most serious position. That's why I'm
here--to save you."

In spite of her fatigue, the girl rose to face him. "What do you mean?"

"Simply that between us we've gummed this business up neatly--hard and
fast. You see--I hadn't any use for that hat; I stopped in at an
all-night telegraph station and left it to be delivered to Miss Landis,
never dreaming what the consequences would be. Immediately thereafter,
but too late, I learned--I've a way of finding out what's going on, you
know--that Miss Landis had already put the case in the hands of the
police. It makes it very serious for you--the bandbox returned, the
necklace still in your possession, your wild, incredible yarn about
meaning to restore it ..."

In her overwrought and harassed condition, the sophistry illuded her;
she was sensible only of the menace his words distilled. She saw herself
tricked and trapped, meshed in a web of damning circumstance; everything
was against her--appearances, the hands of all men, the cruel accident
that had placed the necklace in her keeping, even her parentage. For she
was the daughter of a notorious thief, a man whose name was an
international byword. Who would believe her protestations of
innocence--presuming that the police should find her before she could
reach either Staff or Miss Landis?

"But," she faltered, white to her lips, "I can take it to her
now--instantly--"

Instinctively she clutched her handbag. The man's eyes appreciated the
movement. His face was shadowed for a thought by the flying cloud of a
sardonic smile. And the girl saw and read that smile.

"Unless," she stammered, retreating from him a pace or two--"unless
you--"

He silenced her with a reassuring gesture.

"You do misjudge me!" he said in a voice that fairly wept.

Hope flamed in her eyes. "You mean--you can't mean--"

Again he lifted his hand. "I mean that you misconstrue my motive. Far be
it from me to deny that I am--what I am. We have ever been plain-spoken
with one another. You told me what I was seven years ago, when you left
me, took another name, disowned me and ..." His voice broke affectingly
for an instant. "No matter," he resumed, with an obvious effort. "The
past is past, and I am punished for all that I have ever done or ever
may do, by the loss of my daughter's confidence and affection. It is my
fault; I have no right to complain. But now ... Yes, I admit I tried to
steal the necklace in the Park tonight. But I failed, and failing I did
that which got you into trouble. Now I'm here to help you extricate
yourself. Don't worry about the necklace--keep it, hide it where you
will. I don't want and shan't touch, it on any conditions."

"You mean I'm free to return it to Miss Landis?" she gasped,
incredulous.

"Just that."

"Then--where can I find her?"

He shrugged. "There's the rub. She's left town."

She steadied herself with a hand on the table. "Still I can follow
her...."

"Yes--and must. That's what I've come to tell you and to help you do."

"Where has she gone?"

"To her country place in Connecticut, on the Sound shore."

"How can I get there? By railroad?" Eleanor started toward the
telephone.

"Hold on!" he said sharply. "What are you going to do?"

"Order a time-table--"

"Useless," he commented curtly. "Every terminal in the city is already
watched by detectives. They'd spot you in a twinkling. Your only
salvation is to get to Miss Landis before they catch you."

In her excitement and confusion she could only stand and stare. A
solitary thought dominated her consciousness, dwarfing and distorting
all others: she was in danger of arrest, imprisonment, the shame and
ignominy of public prosecution. Even though she were to be cleared of
the charge, the stain of it would cling to her, an ineradicable blot.

And every avenue of escape was closed to her! Her lips trembled and her
eyes brimmed, glistening. Despair lay cold in her heart.

She was so weary and distraught with the strain of nerves taut and
vibrant with emotion, that she was by no means herself. She had no time
for either thought or calm consideration; and even with plenty of time,
she would have found herself unable to think clearly and calmly.

"What am I to do, then?" she whispered.

"Trust me," the man replied quietly. "There's just one way to reach this
woman without risk of detection--and that's good only if we act _now_.
Get your things together; pay your bill; leave word to deliver your
trunks to your order; and come with me. I have a motor-car waiting round
the corner. In an hour we can be out of the city. By noon I can have you
at Miss Landis' home."

"Yes," she cried, almost hysterical--"yes, that's the way!"

"Then do what packing you must. Here, I'll lend a hand."

Fortunately, Eleanor had merely opened her trunks and bags, removing
only such garments and toilet accessories as she had required for dinner
and the theatre. These lay scattered about the room, easily to be
gathered up and stuffed with careless haste into her trunks. In ten
minutes the man was turning the keys in their various locks, while she
stood waiting with a small handbag containing a few necessaries, a
motor-coat over her arm, a thick veil draped from her hat.

"One minute," the man said, straightening up from the last piece of
luggage. "You were telephoning when I came in?"

"Yes--to Mr. Staff, to explain why I failed to bring him the bandbox."

"_Hmmm._" He pondered this, chin in hand. "He'll be fretting. Does he
know where you are?"

"No--I forgot to tell him."

"That's good. Still, you'd better call him up again and put his mind at
rest. It may gain us a few hours."

"What am I to say?"

She lifted her hand to the receiver.

"Tell him you were cut off and had trouble getting his number again. Say
your motor broke down in Central Park and you lost your way trying to
walk home. Say you're tired and don't want to be disturbed till noon;
that you have the necklace safe and will give it to him if he will call
tomorrow."

Eleanor took a deep breath, gave the number to the switchboard operator
and before she had time to give another instant's consideration to what
she was doing, found herself in conversation with Staff, reciting the
communication outlined by her evil genius in response to his eager
questioning.

The man was at her elbow all the while she talked--so close that he
could easily overhear the other end of the dialogue. This was with a
purpose made manifest when Staff asked Eleanor where she was stopping,
when instantly the little man clapped his palm over the transmitter.

"Tell him the St. Regis," he said in a sharp whisper.

Her eyes demanded the reason why.

"Don't stop to argue--do as I say: it'll give us more time. The St.
Regis!"

He removed his hand. Blindly she obeyed, reiterating the name to Staff
and presently saying good-bye.

"And now--not a second to spare--hurry!"

In the hallway, while they waited for the elevator, he had further
instructions for her.

"Go to the desk and ask for your bill," he said, handing her the key to
her room. "You've money, of course?... Say that you're called
unexpectedly away and will send a written order for your trunks early in
the morning. If the clerk wants an address, tell him the Auditorium,
Chicago. Now ..."

They stepped from the dimly lighted hall into the brilliant cage of the
elevator. It dropped, silently, swiftly, to the ground floor, somehow
suggesting to the girl the workings of her implacable, irresistible
destiny. So precisely, she felt, she was being whirled on to her fate,
like a dry leaf in a gale, with no more volition, as impotent to direct
her course....

Still under the obsession of this idea, she went to the desk, paid her
bill and said what she had been told to say about her trunks. Beyond
that point she did not go, chiefly because she had forgotten and was too
numb with fatigue to care. The clerk's question as to her address failed
to reach her understanding; she turned away without responding and went
to join at the door the man who seemed able to sway her to his whim.

She found herself walking in the dusky streets, struggling to keep up
with the rapid pace set by the man at her side.

After some time they paused before a building in a side street. By its
low façade and huge sliding doors she dimly perceived it to be a private
garage. In response to a signal of peculiar rhythm knuckled upon the
wood by her companion, the doors rolled back. A heavy-eyed mechanic
saluted them drowsily. On the edge of the threshold a high-powered car
with a close-coupled body stood ready.

With the docility of that complete indifference which is bred of
deadening weariness, she submitted to being helped to her seat, arranged
her veil to protect her face and sat back with folded hands, submissive
to endure whatsoever chance or mischance there might be in store for
her.

The small man took the seat by her side; the mechanic cranked and jumped
to his place. The motor snorted, trembling like a thoroughbred about to
run a race, then subsiding with a sonorous purr swept sedately out into
the deserted street, swung round a corner into Broadway, settled its
tires into the grooves of the car-tracks and leaped northwards like an
arrow.

The thoroughfare was all but bare of traffic. Now and again they had to
swing away from the car-tracks to pass a surface-car; infrequently they
passed early milk wagons, crawling reluctantly over their routes.
Pedestrians were few and far between, and only once, when they dipped
into the hollow at Manhattan Street, was it necessary to reduce speed in
deference to the law as bodied forth in a balefully glaring, solitary
policeman.

The silken song of six cylinders working in absolute harmony was as
soothing as a lullaby, the sweep of the soft, fresh morning air past
one's cheeks as soft and quieting as a mother's caress. Eleanor yielded
to their influence as naturally as a tired child. Her eyes closed; she
breathed regularly, barely conscious of the sensation of resistless
flight.

Hot and level, the rays of the rising sun smote her face and roused her
as the car crossed McComb's Dam Bridge; and for a little time
thereafter she was drowsily sentient--aware of wheeling streets and
endless, marching ranks of houses. Then again she dozed, recovering her
senses only when, after a lapse of perhaps half an hour, the noise of
the motor ceased and the big machine slowed down smoothly to a dead
halt.

She opened her eyes, comprehending dully a complete change in the aspect
of the land. They had stopped on the right of the road, in front of a
low-roofed wooden building whose signboard creaking overhead in the
breeze named the place an inn. To the left lay a stretch of woodland;
and there were trees, too, behind the inn, but in less thick array, so
that it was possible to catch through their trunks and foliage glimpses
of blue water splashed with golden sunlight. A soft air fanned in off
the water, sweet and clean. The sky was high and profoundly blue,
unflecked by cloud.

With a feeling of gratitude, she struggled to recollect her wits and
realise her position; but still her weariness was heavy upon her. The
man she called her father was coming down the path from the inn doorway.
He carried a tumbler brimming with a pale amber liquid. Walking round to
her side of the car he offered it.

"Drink this," she heard him say in a pleasant voice; "it'll help you
brace up."

Obediently she accepted the glass and drank. The soul of the stuff broke
out in delicate, aromatic bubbles beneath her nostrils. There was a
stinging but refreshing feeling in her mouth and throat. She said
"champagne" sleepily to herself, and with a word of thanks returned an
empty glass.

She heard the man laugh, and in confusion wondered why. If anything, she
felt more sleepy than before.

He climbed back into his seat. A question crawled in her brain,
tormenting. Finally she managed to enunciate a part of it:

"How much longer ...?"

"Oh, not a great ways now."

The response seemed to come from a far distance. She felt the car moving
beneath her and ... no more. Sleep possessed her utterly, heavy and
dreamless....

There followed several phases of semi-consciousness wherein she moved by
instinct alone, seeing men as trees walking, the world as through a
mist.

In one, she was being helped out of the motor-car. Then somebody was
holding her arm and guiding her along a path of some sort. Planks rang
hollowly beneath her feet, and the hand on her arm detained her. A
voice said: "This way--just step right out; you're perfectly safe."
Mechanically she obeyed. She felt herself lurch as if to fall, and then
hands caught and supported her as she stood on something that swayed.
The voice that had before spoken was advising her to sit down and take
it easy. Accordingly, she sat down. Her seat was rocking like a swing,
and she heard dimly the splash of waters; these merged unaccountably
again into the purring of a motor....

And then somebody had an arm round her waist and she was walking,
bearing heavily upon that support, partly because she sorely needed it
but the more readily because she knew somehow--intuitively--that the arm
was a woman's. A voice assured her from time to time: "Not much
farther ..." And she was sure it was a woman's voice.... Then she was
being helped to ascend a steep, long staircase....

She came to herself for a moment, probably not long after climbing the
stairs. She was sitting on the edge of a bed in a small, low-ceiled
room, cheaply and meagrely furnished. Staring wildly about her, she
tried to realise these surroundings. There were two windows, both open,
admitting floods of sea air and sunlight; beyond them she saw green
boughs swaying slowly, and through the boughs patches of water, blue and
gold. There was a door opposite the bed; it stood open, revealing a
vista of long, bare hallway, regularly punctuated by doors.

The drumming in her temples pained and bewildered her. Her head felt
dense and heavy. She tried to think and failed. But the knowledge
persisted that something was very wrong with her world--something that
might be remedied, set right, if only she could muster up strength to
move and ... think.

Abruptly the doorway was filled by the figure of a woman, a strapping,
brawny creature with the arms and shoulders of a man and a great,
coarse, good-natured face. She came directly to the bed, sat down beside
the girl, passed an arm behind her shoulders and offered her a glass.

"You've just woke up, ain't you?" she said soothingly. "Drink this and
lay down and you'll feel better before long. You have had a turn, and no
mistake; but you'll be all right now, never fear. Come now, drink it,
and I'll help you loose your clothes a bit, so 's you can be
comfortable...."

Somehow her tone inspired Eleanor with confidence. She drank, submitted
to being partially undressed, and lay down. Sleep overcame her
immediately: she suffered a sensation of dropping plummet-wise into a
great pit of oblivion....



XIII

WRECK ISLAND


Suddenly, with a smothered cry of surprise, Eleanor sat up. She seemed
to have recovered full consciousness and sensibility with an
instantaneous effect comparable only to that of electric light abruptly
flooding a room at night. A moment ago she had been an insentient atom
sunk deep in impenetrable night; now she was herself--and it was broad
daylight.

With an abrupt, automatic movement, she left the bed and stood up,
staring incredulously at the substance of what still wore in her memory
the guise of a dream.

But it had been no dream, after all. She was actually in the small room
with the low ceiling and the door (now shut) and the windows that
revealed the green of leaves and the blue and gold of a sun-spangled
sea. And her coat and hat and veil had been removed and were hanging
from nails in the wall behind the door, and her clothing had been
unfastened--precisely as she dimly remembered everything that had
happened with relation to the strange woman.

She wore a little wrist-watch. It told her that the hour was after four
in the afternoon.

She began hurriedly to dress, or rather to repair the disorder of her
garments, all the while struggling between surprise that she felt rested
and well and strong, and a haunting suspicion that she had been tricked.

Of the truth of this suspicion, confirmatory evidence presently
overwhelmed her.

Since that draught of champagne before the roadside inn shortly after
sunrise, she had known nothing clearly. It was impossible that she could
without knowing it have accomplished her purpose with relation to Alison
Landis and the Cadogan collar. She saw now, she knew now beyond dispute,
that she had been drugged--not necessarily heavily; a simple dose of
harmless bromides would have served the purpose in her overtaxed
condition--and brought to this place in a semi-stupor, neither knowing
whither she went nor able to object had she known.

The discovery of her handbag was all that was required to transmute
fears and doubts into irrefragable knowledge.

No longer fastened to her wrist by the loop of its silken thong, she
found the bag in plain sight on the top of a cheap pine bureau. With
feverish haste she examined it. The necklace was gone.

Dropping the bag, she stared bitterly at her distorted reflection in a
cracked and discoloured mirror.

What a fool, to trust the man! In the clear illumination of unclouded
reason which she was now able to bring to bear upon the episode, she saw
with painful distinctness how readily she had lent herself to be the
dupe and tool of the man she called her father. Nothing that he had
urged upon her at the St. Simon had now the least weight in her
understanding; all his argument was now seen to be but the sheerest
sophistry, every statement he had made and every promise fairly riddled
with treachery; hardly a phrase he had uttered would have gained an
instant's credence under the analysis of a normal intelligence. He could
have accomplished nothing had she not been without sleep for nearly
twenty-four hours, with every nerve and fibre and faculty aching for
rest. But, so aided--with what heartless ease had he beguiled and
overreached her!

Tears, hot and stinging, smarted in her eyes while she fumbled with the
fastenings of her attire--tears of chagrin and bitter resentment.

As soon as she was ready and composed, she opened the door very gently
and stepped out into the hall.

It was a short hall, set like the top bar of a T-square at the end of a
long, door-lined corridor. The walls were of white, plain plaster,
innocent of paper and in some places darkly blotched with damp and
mildew. The floor, though solid, was uncarpeted. Near at hand a flight
of steps ran down to the lower floor.

After a moment of hesitation she chose to explore the long corridor
rather than to descend at once by the nearer stairway; and gathering her
skirts about her ankles (an instinctive precaution against making a
noise engendered by the atmosphere of the place rather than the result
of coherent thought) she stole quietly along between its narrow walls.

Although some few were closed, the majority of the doors she passed
stood open; and these all revealed small, stuffy cubicles with grimy,
unpainted floors, grimy plaster walls and ceilings and grimy windows
whose panes were framed in cobwebs and crusted so thick with the
accumulated dust and damp of years that they lacked little of complete
opacity. No room contained any furnishing of any sort.

The farther she moved from her bedroom, the more close and stale and
sluggish seemed the air, the more oppressive the quiet of this strange
tenement. The sound of her footfalls, light and stealthy though they
were, sounded to her ears weirdly magnified in volume; and the thought
came to her that if she were indeed trespassing upon forbidden quarters
of the mean and dismal stronghold of some modern Bluebeard, the noise
she was making would quickly enough bring the warders down upon her. And
yet it must have been that her imagination exaggerated the slight sounds
that attended her cautious advance; for presently she had proof enough
that they could have been audible to none but herself.

Half-way down the corridor she came unexpectedly to a second staircase;
double the width of the other, it ran down to a broad landing and then
in two short flights to the ground floor of the building. The well of
this stairway disclosed a hall rather large and well-finished, if bare.
Directly in front of the landing, where the short flights branched at
right angles to the main, was a large double door, one side of which
stood slightly ajar. Putting this and that together, Eleanor satisfied
herself that she overlooked the entrance-hall and office of an
out-of-the-way summer hotel, neither large nor in any way pretentious
even in its palmiest days, and now abandoned--or, at best, consecrated
to the uses of caretakers and whoever else might happen to inhabit the
wing whence she had wandered.

Now as she paused for an instant, looking down while turning this
thought over in her mind and considering the effect upon herself and
fortunes of indefinite sequestration in such a spot, she was startled by
a cough from some point invisible to her in the hall below. On the heels
of this, she heard something even more inexplicable: the dull and hollow
clang of a heavy metal door. Footsteps were audible immediately: the
quick, nervous footfalls of somebody coming to the front of the house
from a point behind the staircase.

Startled and curious, the girl drew back a careful step or two until
sheltered by the corridor wall at its junction with the balustrade. Here
she might lurk and peer, see but not be seen, save through unhappy
mischance.

The man came promptly into view. She had foretold his identity, had
known it would be ... he whom she must call father.

He moved briskly to the open door, paused and stood looking out for an
instant, then with his air of furtive alertness, yet apparently sure
that he was unobserved and wholly unsuspicious of the presence of the
girl above him, swung back toward the staircase. For an instant,
terrified by the fear that he meant to ascend, she stood poised on the
verge of flight; but that he had another intention at once became
apparent. Stopping at the foot of the left-hand flight of steps, he laid
hold of the turned knob on top of the outer newel-post and lifted it
from its socket. Then he took something from his coat pocket, dropped it
into the hollow of the newel, replaced the knob and turned and marched
smartly out of the house, shutting the door behind him.

Eleanor noticed that he didn't lock it.

At the same time three separate considerations moved her to fly back to
her room. She had seen something not intended for her sight; the
knowledge might somehow prove valuable to her; and if she were
discovered in the corridor, the man might reasonably accuse her of
spying. Incontinently she picked up her skirts and ran.

The distance wasn't as great as she had thought; in a brief moment she
was standing before the door of the bedroom as though she had just come
out--her gaze directed expectantly toward the small staircase.

If she had anticipated a visit from her kidnapper, however, she was
pleasantly disappointed. Not a sound came from below, aside from a dull
and distant thump and thud which went on steadily, if in syncopated
measure, and the source of which perplexed her.

At length she pulled herself together and warily descended the
staircase. It ended in what was largely a counterpart of the hall above:
as on the upper floor broken by the mouth of a long corridor, but with a
door at its rear in place of the window upstairs. From beyond the door
came the thumping, thudding sound that had puzzled Eleanor; but now she
could distinguish something more: a woman's voice crooning an age-old
melody. Then the pounding ceased, shuffling footsteps were audible, and
a soft clash of metal upon metal: shuffle again, and again the
intermittent, deadened pounding.

Suddenly she understood, and understanding almost smiled, in spite of
her gnawing anxiety, to think that she had been mystified so long by a
noise of such humble origin: merely that of a woman comfortably engaged
in the household task of ironing. It was simple enough, once one thought
of it; yet ridiculously incongruous when injected into the cognisance of
a girl whose brain was buzzing with the incredible romance of her
position....

Without further ceremony she thrust open the door at the end of the
hallway.

There was disclosed a room of good size, evidently at one time a
living-room, now converted to the combined offices of kitchen and
dining-room. A large deal table in the middle of the floor was covered
with a turkey-red cloth, with places set for four. On a small range in
the recess of what had once been an open fireplace, sad-irons were
heating side by side with simmering pots and a steaming tea-kettle.
There was a rich aroma of cooking in the air, somewhat tinctured by the
smell of melting wax, but in spite of that madly appetising to the
nostrils of a young woman made suddenly aware that she had not eaten for
some sixteen hours. The furnishings of the room were simple and
characteristic of country kitchens--including even the figure of the
sturdy woman placidly ironing white things on a board near the open
door.

She looked up quickly as Eleanor entered, stopped her humming, smote the
board vigorously with the iron and set the latter on a metal rest.

"Evening," she said pleasantly, resting her hands on her hips.

Eleanor stared dumbly, remembering that this was the woman who had
helped her to bed and had administered what had presumably been a second
sleeping draught.

"Thought I heard you moving around upstairs. How be you? Hungry? I've
got a bite ready."

"I'd like a drink of water, please," said Eleanor--"plain water," she
added with a significance that could not have been overlooked by a
guilty conscience.

But the woman seemed to sense no ulterior meaning. "I'll fetch it," she
said in a good-humoured voice, going to the sink.

While she was manipulating the pump, the girl moved nearer, frankly
taking stock of her. The dim impression retained from their meeting in
the early morning was merely emphasised by this second inspection; the
woman was built on generous lines--big-boned, heavy and apparently
immensely strong. A contented and easy-going humour shone from her
broad, coarsely featured countenance, oddly contending with a suggestion
of implacable obstinacy and tenacious purpose.

"Here you are," she said presently, extending a glass filmed with the
breath of the ice-cold liquid it contained.

"Thank you," said Eleanor; and drank thirstily. "Who are you?" she
demanded point blank, returning the glass.

"Mrs. Clover," said the woman as bluntly, if with a smiling mouth.

"Where am I?"

"Well"--the woman turned to the stove and busied herself with coffee-pot
and frying-pan while she talked--"this _was_ the Wreck Island House
oncet upon a time. I calculate it's that now, only it ain't run as a
hotel any more. It's been years since there was any summer folks come
here--place didn't pay, they said; guess that's why they shet it up and
how your pa come to buy it for a song."

"Where is the Wreck Island House, then?" Eleanor put in.

"_On_ Wreck Island, of course."

"And where is that?"

"In Long Island Sound, about a mile off 'n the Connecticut shore.
Pennymint Centre's the nearest village."

"That means nothing to me," said the girl. "How far are we from New
York?"

"I couldn't rightly say--ain't never been there. But your pa says--I
heard him tell Eph once--he can make the run in his autymobile in an
hour and a half. That's from Pennymint Centre, of course."

Eleanor pressed her hands to her temples, temporarily dazed by the
information. "Island," she repeated--"a mile from shore--New York an
hour and a half away ...!"

"Good, comfortable, tight little island," resumed Mrs. Clover, pleased,
it seemed, with the sound of her own voice; "you'll like it when you
come to get acquainted. Just the very place for a girl with your
trouble."

"My trouble? What do you know about that?"

"Your pa told me, of course. Nervous prostration's what he called
it--says as you need a rest with quiet and nothing to disturb
you--plenty of good food and sea air--"

"Oh stop!" Eleanor begged frantically.

"Land!" said the woman in a kindly tone--"I might 've known I'd get on
your poor nerves, talking all the time. But I can't seem to help it,
living here all alone like I do with nobody but Eph most of the time....
There!" she added with satisfaction, spearing the last rasher of bacon
from the frying-pan and dropping it on a plate--"now your breakfast's
ready. Draw up a chair and eat hearty."

She put the plate on the red table-cloth, flanked it with dishes
containing soft-boiled eggs, bread and butter and a pot of coffee of
delicious savour, and waved one muscular arm over it all with the
gesture of a benevolent sorceress. "Set to while it's hot, my dear, and
don't you be afraid; good food never hurt nobody."

Momentarily, Eleanor entertained the thought of mutinous refusal to eat,
by way of lending emphasis to her indignation; but hunger overcame the
attractions of this dubious expedient; and besides, if she were to
accomplish anything toward regaining her freedom, if it were no more
than to register a violent protest, she would need strength; and already
she was weak for want of food.

So she took her place and ate--ate ravenously, enjoying every
mouthful--even though her mind was obsessed with doubts and fears and
burning anger.

"You are the caretaker here?" she asked as soon as her hunger was a
little satisfied.

"Reckon you might call us that, me and Eph; we've lived here for five
years now, taking care of the island--ever since your pa bought it."

"Eph is your husband?"

"That's him--Ephraim Clover."

"And--doesn't he do anything else but--caretake?"

"Lord bless you, he don't even do that; I'm the caretaker_ess_. Eph
don't do nothing but potter round with the motor-boat and go to town for
supplies and fish a little and 'tend to the garden and do the chores
and--"

"I should think he must keep pretty busy."

"Busy? Him? Eph? Lord! he's the busiest thing you ever laid your eyes
on--poking round doing nothing at all."

"And does nobody ever come here ...?"

"Nobody but the boss."

"Does he often--?"

"That's as may be and the fit's on him. He comes and goes, just as he
feels like. Sometimes he's on and off the island half a dozen times a
week, and again we don't hear nothing of him for months; sometimes he
just stops here for days and mebbe weeks, and again he's here one minute
and gone the next. Jumps round like a flea on a griddle, _I_ say; you
can't never tell nothing about what he's going to do or where he'll be
next.... My land o' mercy, Mr. Searle! What a start you did give me!"

The man had succeeded in startling both women, as a matter of fact.
Eleanor, looking suddenly up from her plate on hearing Mrs. Clover's cry
of surprise, saw him lounging carelessly in the hall doorway, where he
had appeared as noiselessly as a shadow. His sly, satiric smile was
twisting his thin lips, and a sardonic humour glittered in the pale eyes
that shifted from Eleanor's face to Mrs. Clover's, and back again.

"I wish," he said, nodding to the caretaker, "you'd slip down to the
dock and tell Eph to have the boat ready by seven o'clock."

"Yes, sir," assented Mrs. Clover hastily. She crossed at once toward the
outer door. From her tone and the alacrity with which she moved to do
his bidding, no less than from the half-cringing look with which she met
his regard, Eleanor had no difficulty in divining her abject fear of
this man whom she could, apparently, have taken in her big hands and
broken in two without being annoyed by his struggles.

"And, here!" he called after her--"supper ready?"

"Yes, sir--quite."

"Very well; I'll have mine. Eph can come up as soon as he's finished
overhauling the motor. Wait a minute; tell him to be sure to bring the
oars up with him."

"Yes, sir, I will, sir."

Mrs. Clover dodged through the door and, running down the pair of steps
from the kitchen stoop to the ground, vanished behind the house.

"Enjoying your breakfast, I trust?"

Eleanor pushed back her chair and rose. She feared him, feared him as
she might have feared any loathly, venomous thing; but she was not in
the least spiritually afraid of him. Contempt and disgust only
emphasised the quality of her courage. She confronted him without a
tremor.

"Will you take me with you when you leave this island tonight?" she
demanded.

He shook his head with his derisive smile. She had discounted that
answer.

"How long do you mean to keep me here?"

"That depends on how agreeable you make yourself," he said obscurely.

"What do you mean?"

"Merely that ... well, it's a pleasant, salubrious spot, Wreck Island.
You'll find it uncommonly healthful and enjoyable, too, as soon as you
get over the loneliness. Not that you'll be so terribly lonely; I shall
be here more or less, off and on, much of the time for the next few
weeks. I don't mind telling you, in strict confidence, as between father
and child, that I'm planning to pull off something pretty big before
long; of course it will need a bit of arranging in advance to make
everything run smoothly, and this is ideal for a man of my retiring
disposition, not overfond of the espionage of his fellow-men. So, if
you're docile and affectionate, we may see a great deal of one another
for some weeks--as I said."

"And if not--?"

"Well"--he waved his hands expressively--"of course, if you incline to
be forward and disobedient, then I shall be obliged to deny you the
light of my countenance, by way of punishment."

She shook her head impatiently. "I want to know when you will let me
go," she insisted, struggling against the oppression of her sense of
helplessness.

"I really can't say." He pretended politely to suppress a yawn,
indicating that the subject bored him inordinately. "If I could trust
you--"

"Can you expect that, after the way you treated me last night--this
morning?"

"Ah, well!" he said, claw-like fingers stroking his lips to conceal his
smile of mockery.

"You lied to me, drugged me, robbed me of the necklace, brought me
here...."

"Guilty," he said, yawning openly.

"Why? You could have taken the necklace from me at the hotel. Why must
you bring me here and keep me prisoner?"

"The pleasure of my only daughter's society...."

"Oh, you're despicable!" she cried, furious.

He nodded thoughtfully, fumbling with his lips.

"Won't you tell me why?" she pleaded.

He shook his head. "You wouldn't understand," he added in a tone of
maddening commiseration.

"I shan't stay!" she declared angrily.

"Oh, I think you will," he replied gently.

"I'll get away and inform on you if I have to swim."

"It's a long, wet swim," he mused aloud--"over a mile, I should say.
Have you ever swum over a hundred yards in your life?"

She was silent, choking with rage.

"And furthermore," he went on, "there are the Clovers. Excellent people,
excellent--for my purposes. I have found them quite invaluable--asking
no questions, minding their own business, keen to obey my instructions
to the letter. I have already instructed them about you, my child. I
trust you will be careful not to provoke them; it'd be a pity ... you're
rather good-looking, you know ..."

"What do you mean by that?" she stammered, a little frightened by the
secret menace in his tone. "What have my looks to do with ...?"

"Everything," he said softly--"everything. Not so far as Ephraim is
concerned; I'll be frank with you--you needn't fear Ephraim's hurting
you, much, should you attempt to escape. He will simply restrain you,
using force only if necessary. But Mrs. Clover ... she's different. You
mustn't let her deceive you; she seems kindly disposed enough; she's
pleasant spoken but ... well, she's not fond of pretty women. It's an
obsession of hers that prettiness and badness go together. And Ephraim
_is_ fond of pretty women--very. You see?"

"Well?"

"Well, that's why I have these people in so strong a hold. You see,
Ephraim got himself into trouble trying to pull off one of those
bungling, amateurish burglaries that his kind go in for so extensively;
he wanted the money to buy things for a pretty woman. And he was already
a married man. You can see how Mrs. Clover felt about it. She--ah--cut
up rather nasty. When she got through with the other woman, no one would
have called her pretty any longer. Vitriol's a dreadful thing...."

He paused an instant, seeming to review the case sombrely. "I managed to
get them both off, scot free; and that makes them loyal. But it would go
hard with anyone who tried to escape to the mainland and tell on
them--to say nothing of me.... Mrs. Clover has ever since been quite
convinced of the virtue of vitriol. She keeps a supply handy most of the
time, in case of emergencies. And she sleeps lightly; don't forget that.
I hate to think of what she might do if she thought you meant to run
away and tell tales."

Slowly, step by step, guessing the way to the outer door, the girl
backed away from him, her face colourless with horror. Very probably he
was lying to frighten her; very possibly (she feared desperately) he was
not. What she knew of him was hardly reassuring; the innate, callous
depravity that had poisoned this man beyond cure might well have caused
the death-in-life of other souls. What he was capable of, others might
be; and what she knew him to be capable of, she hardly liked to dwell
upon. Excusably she conceived her position more than desperate; and now
her sole instinct was to get away from him, if only for a little time,
out of the foetid atmosphere of his presence, away from the envenomed
irony of his voice--away and alone, where she could recollect her
faculties and again realise her ego, that inner self that she had tried
so hard to keep stainless, unspoiled and unafraid.

He watched her as she crept inch by inch toward the door, his nervous
fingers busy about his mouth as if trying to erase that dangerous, evil
smile.

"Before you go," he said suddenly, "I should tell you that you will be
alone with Mrs. Clover tonight. I'm going to town, and Ephraim's to wait
with the boat at Pennymint Point, because I mean to return before
morning. But you needn't wait up for me; Mrs. Clover will do that."

Eleanor made no reply. While he was speaking she had gained the door. As
she stepped out, Mrs. Clover reappeared, making vigorously round the
corner of the house.

Passing Eleanor on the stoop, she gave her a busy, friendly nod, and
hurried in.

"Eph'll be up in half an hour," she heard her say. "Shall I serve your
supper now?"

"Please," he said quietly.

The girl stumbled down the steps and blindly fled the sound of his
voice.



XIV

THE STRONG-BOX


Her initial rush carried Eleanor well round the front of the building.
Then, as suddenly as she had started off, she stopped, common-sense
reasserting itself to assure her that there was nothing to be gained by
running until exhausted; her enemy was not pursuing her. It was evident
that she was to be left to her own devices as long as they did not impel
her to attempt an escape--as long as she made herself supple to his
will.

She stood for a long minute, very erect, head up and shoulders back,
eyes closed and lips taut, her hands close-clenched at her sides. Then
drawing a long breath, she relaxed and, with a quiet composure admirably
self-enforced, moved on, setting herself to explore and consider her
surroundings.

The abandoned hotel faced the south, overlooking the greater breadth of
Long Island Sound. In its era of prosperity, the land in front of it to
the water's edge, and indeed for a considerable space on all sides had
been clear--laid out, no doubt, in grassy lawns, croquet grounds and
tennis courts; but in the long years of its desuetude these had reverted
to the primitive character of the main portion of the island, to a
tangle of undergrowth and shrubbery sprinkled with scrub-oak and stunted
pines. In one spot only, a meagre kitchen-garden was under cultivation.

Southward, at the shore, a row of weather-beaten and ramshackle
bath-houses stood beside the rotting remnants of a long dock whose
piles, bereft of their platform of planks, ran out into the water in a
dreary double rank.

Westward, a patch of woodland--progenitor by every characteristic of the
tangle in the one-time clearing--shut off that extremity of the island
where it ran out into a sandy point. Eastward lay an extensive acreage
of low, rounded sand dunes, held together by rank beach-grass and
bordered by a broad, slowly shelving beach of sand and pebbles. To the
north, at the back of the hotel, stretched a waste of low ground finally
merging into a small salt-marsh. Across this wandered a thin plank walk
on stilts which, over the clear water beyond the marsh, became a rickety
landing-stage. At some distance out from the latter a long, slender,
slate-coloured motor-boat rode at its moorings, a rowboat swinging from
its stern. In the larger craft Eleanor could see the head and shoulders
of a man bending over the engine--undoubtedly Mr. Ephraim Clover. While
she watched him, he straightened up and, going to the stern of the
motor-boat, began to pull the dory in by its painter. Having brought it
alongside, he transshipped himself awkwardly, then began to drive the
dory in to the dock. Eleanor remarked the fact that he stood up to the
task, propelling the boat by means of a single oar, thrusting it into
the water until it struck bottom and then putting his weight upon it.
The water was evidently quite shallow; even where the motor-boat lay
moored, the oar disappeared no more than half its length.

Presently, having gained the landing-stage, the man clambered upon it,
threw a couple of half-hitches in the painter round one of the stakes,
shouldered the oars and began to shamble toward the hotel: a tall,
ungainly figure blackly silhouetted against the steel-blue sky of
evening.

Eleanor waited where she was, near the beginning of the plank walk, to
get a better look at him. In time he passed her, with a shy nod and
sidelong glance. He seemed to be well past middle-age, of no pretensions
whatever to physical loveliness and (she would have said) incurably lazy
and stupid: his face dull and heavy, his whole carriage eloquent of a
nature of sluggish shiftlessness.

He disappeared round the house, and a moment later she heard Mrs. Clover
haranguing him in a shrill voice of impatience little resembling the
tone she had employed with the girl.

For an instant Eleanor dreamed wildly of running down to the dock,
throwing herself into the rowboat and casting it off to drift whither it
would. But the folly of this was too readily apparent; even if she might
be sure that the tide would carry her away from the island, the water
was so shallow that a man could wade out to the motor-boat, climb into
it and run her down with discouraging ease. As for the motor-boat--she
hadn't the least idea of the art of running a motor; and besides, she
would be overhauled before she could get to it; for she made no doubt
whatever that she was being very closely watched, and would be until the
men had left the island. After that ... a vista of days of grinding
loneliness and hopeless despair opened out before her disheartened
mental vision.

She resumed her aimless tour of inspection, little caring whither she
wandered so long as it was far from the house, as far as possible
from ... _him_.

Sensibly the desolate spirit of the spot saturated her mood. No case
that she had ever heard of seemed to her so desperate as that of the
lonely, helpless girl marooned upon this wave-bound patch of earth and
sand, cut off from all means of communication with her kind, her destiny
at the disposal of the maleficent wretch who called himself her father,
her sole companions two alleged criminals whose depravity, if what she
had heard were true, was subordinate only to his.

She could have wept, but wouldn't; the emotion that oppressed her was
not one that tears would soothe, her plight not one that tears could
mend.

Her sole comfort resided in the fact that she was apparently to be let
alone, free to wander at will within the boundaries of the island.

Sunset found her on a little sandy hillock at the western end of Wreck
Island--sitting with her chin in her hands, and gazing seawards with
eyes in which rebellion smouldered. She would not give in, would not
abandon hope and accept the situation at its face value, as
irremediable. Upon this was she firmly determined: the night was not to
pass unmarked by some manner of attempt to escape or summon aid. She
even found herself willing to consider arson as a last resort: the hotel
afire would make a famous torch to bring assistance from the mainland.
Only ... she shrank from the attempt, her soul curdling with the
sinister menace of vitriol.

The day was dying in soft airs that swept the face of the waters with a
touch so light as to be barely perceptible. With sundown fell stark
calm; the Sound became a perfect mirror for the sombre conflagration in
the west. The slightest sounds reverberated afar through the still,
moveless void. She could hear Mrs. Clover stridently counselling her
Ephraim at the house, the quarter of a mile away. Later, she heard the
hollow tramp of two pair of feet, one heavy and one light, on the
plank-walk; the creak of rowlocks with the dip and splash of oars; and,
after a little pause, the sudden, sharp, explosive rattle of a motor
exhaust, as rapid, loud and staccato as the barking of a Gatling, yet
quickly hushed----almost as soon as it shattered the silences, muffled
to a thick and steady drumming.

Eleanor rose and turned to look northward. The wood-lot hid from her
sight both dock and mooring--and all but the gables of the hotel, as
well--but she soon espied the motor-boat standing away on a straight
course for the mainland: driven at a speed that seemed to her nearly
incredible, a smother of foam at its stern, long purple ripples widening
away from the jet of white water at the stem, a smooth, high swell of
dark water pursuing as if it meant to catch up and overwhelm the boat
and its occupants. These latter occupied the extremes of the little
vessel: Ephraim astern, beside the motor; the slighter figure at the
wheel in the bows.

Slowly the girl took her path back to the hotel, watching the boat draw
away, straight and swift of flight as an arrow, momentarily dwindling
and losing definite form against the deepening blue-black surface of the
Sound....

Weary and despondent, she ascended the pair of steps to the kitchen
porch. Mrs. Clover was busy within, washing the supper dishes. She
called out a cheery greeting, to which Eleanor responded briefly but
with as pleasant a tone as she could muster. She could not but distrust
her companion and gaoler, could not but fear that something vile and
terrible lurked beneath that good-natured semblance: else why need the
woman have become _his_ creature?

"You ain't hungry again?"

"No," said Eleanor, lingering on the porch, reluctant to enter.

"Lonely?"

"No...."

"You needn't be; your pa'll be home by three o'clock, he says."

Eleanor said nothing. Abruptly a thought had entered her mind, bringing
hope; something she had almost forgotten had recurred with tremendous
significance.

"Tired? I'll go fix up your room soon 's I'm done here, if you want to
lay down again."

"No; I'm in no hurry. I--I think I'll go for another little walk round
the island."

"Help yourself," the woman called after her heartily; "I'll be busy for
about half an hour, and then we can take our chairs out on the porch and
watch the moon come up and have a real good, old-fashioned gossip...."

Eleanor lost the sound of her voice as she turned swiftly back round the
house. Then she stopped, catching her breath with delight. It was
true--splendidly true! The rowboat had been left behind.

It rode about twenty yards out from the end of the dock, made fast to
the motor-boat mooring. The oars were in it; Ephraim had left them
carelessly disposed, their blades projecting a little beyond the stern.
And the water was so shallow at the mooring that the man had been able
to pole in with a single oar, immersing it but half its length! An oar,
she surmised, was six feet long; that argued an extreme depth of water
of three feet--say at the worst three and a half. Surely she might dare
to wade out, unmoor the boat and climb in--if but opportunity were
granted her!

But her heart sank as she considered the odds against any such attempt.
If only the night were to be dark; if only Mrs. Clover were not to wait
up for her husband and her employer; if only the woman were not her
superior physically, so strong that Eleanor would be like a child in her
hands; if only there were not that awful threat of vitriol ...!

Nevertheless, in the face of these frightful deterrents, she steeled her
resolution. Whatever the consequences, she owed it to herself to be
vigilant for her chance. She promised herself to be wakeful and
watchful: possibly Mrs. Clover might nap while sitting up; and the girl
had two avenues by which to leave the house: either through the kitchen,
or by the front door to the disused portion of the hotel. She need only
steal noiselessly along the corridor from her bedroom door and down the
broad main staircase and--the front door was not even locked. She
remembered distinctly that _he_ had simply pulled it to. Still, it would
be well to make certain he had not gone back later to lock it.

Strolling idly, with a casual air of utter ennui--assumed for the
benefit of her gaoler in event she should become inquisitive--Eleanor
went round the eastern end of the building to the front. Here a broad
veranda ran from wing to wing; its rotting weather-eaten floor fenced in
by a dilapidated railing save where steps led up to the front door; its
roof caved in at one spot, wearing a sorry look of baldness in others
where whole tiers of shingles had fallen away.

Cautiously Eleanor mounted the rickety steps and crossed to the doors.
To her delight, they opened readily to a turn of the knob. She stood for
a trifle, hesitant, peering into the hallway now dark with evening
shadow; then curiosity overbore her reluctance. There was nothing to
fear; the voice of Mrs. Clover singing over her dishpan in the kitchen
came clearly through the ground-floor corridor, advertising plainly her
preoccupation. And Eleanor wanted desperately to know what it was that
the man had hidden in the socket of the newel-post.

Shutting the door she felt her way step by step to the foot of the
staircase. Happily the floor was sound: no creaking betrayed her
progress--there would be none when in the dead of night she would break
for freedom.

Mrs. Clover continued to sing contentedly.

Eleanor removed the knob of the post and looked down into the socket. It
was dark in there; she could see nothing; so she inserted her hand and
groped until her fingers closed upon a thick rough bar of metal.
Removing this, she found she held a cumbersome old-fashioned iron key of
curious design.

It puzzled her a little until she recalled the clang of metal that had
prefaced the man's appearance in the hall that afternoon. This then, she
inferred, would be the key to his private cache--the secret spot where
he hid his loot between forays.

Mrs. Clover stopped singing suddenly, and the girl in panic returned the
key to its hiding place, the knob to its socket.

But it had been a false alarm. In another moment the woman's voice was
again upraised.

Eleanor considered, staring about her. He had come into sight from
beneath the staircase. She reconnoitred stealthily in that direction,
and discovered a portion of the hall fenced off by a railing and
counter: evidently the erstwhile hotel office. A door stood open behind
the counter. With some slight qualms she passed into the enclosure and
then through the door.

She found herself in a small, stuffy, dark room. Its single window,
looking northwards, was closely shuttered on the outside; only a feeble
twilight filtered through the slanted slats. But there was light enough
for Eleanor to recognise the contours and masses of a flat-topped desk
with two pedestals of drawers, a revolving chair with cane seat and
back, a brown paper-pulp cuspidor of generous proportions and--a huge,
solid, antiquated iron safe: a "strong-box" of the last century's middle
decades, substantial as a rock, tremendously heavy, contemptuously
innocent of any such innovations as combination-dials, time-locks and
the like. A single keyhole, almost large enough to admit a child's hand,
and certainly calculated to admit the key in the newel-post,
demonstrated that this safe depended for the security of its contents
upon nothing more than its massive construction and unwieldy lock. It
demonstrated something more: that its owner based his confidence upon
its isolation and the loyalty of his employees, or else had satisfied
himself through practical experiment that one safe was as good as
another, ancient or modern, when subjected to the test of modern methods
of burglary.

And (Eleanor was sure) the Cadogan collar was there; unless, of course,
the man had taken it away with him; which didn't seem likely, all things
considered. A great part of the immense value of the necklace resided in
its perfection, in its integrity; as a whole it would be an exceedingly
difficult thing to dispose of until long after the furore aroused by its
disappearance had died down; broken up, its marvellously matched pearls
separated and sold one by one, it would not realise a third of its
worth.

And the girl would have known the truth in five minutes more (she was,
in fact, already moving back toward the newel-post) had not Mrs. Clover
chosen that moment to leave the kitchen and tramp noisily down the
corridor.

What her business might be in that part of the house Eleanor could not
imagine--unless it were connected with herself, unless she had heard
some sound and was coming to investigate.

In panic terror, Eleanor turned back into the little room and crouched
down behind the safe, making herself as small as possible, actually
holding her breath for fear it would betray her.

Nearer came that steady, unhurried tread, and nearer. The girl thought
her heart would burst with its burden of suspense. She was obliged to
gasp for breath, and the noise of it rang as loudly and hoarsely in her
hearing as the exhaust of a steam-engine. She pressed a handkerchief
against her trembling lips.

Directly to the counter came the footsteps, and paused. There was the
thump of something being placed upon the shelf. Then deliberately the
woman turned and marched back to her quarters.

In time the girl managed to regain enough control of her nerves to
enable her to rise and creep out through the office enclosure to the
hall. Mrs. Clover had resumed her chanting in the kitchen; but Eleanor
was in no mood to run further chances just then. She needed to get away,
to find time to compose herself thoroughly. Pausing only long enough to
see for herself what the woman had deposited on the counter (it was a
common oil lamp, newly filled and trimmed, with a box of matches beside
it: preparations, presumably, against the home-coming of the master with
a fresh consignment of booty) she flitted swiftly to and through the
door, closed it and ran down the steps to the honest, kindly earth.

Here she was safe. None suspected her adventure or her discovery. She
quieted from her excitement, and for a long time paced slowly to and
fro, pondering ways and means.

The fire ebbed from the heart of the western sky; twilight merged
imperceptibly into a night extraordinarily clear and luminous with the
gentle radiance of a wonderful pageant of stars. The calm held unbroken.
The barking of a dog on the mainland carried, thin but sharp, across the
waters. On the Sound, lights moved sedately east and west: red lights
and green and white lancing the waters with long quivering blades. At
times the girl heard voices of men talking at a great distance. Once a
passenger steamer crept out of the west, seeming to quicken its pace as
it drew abreast the island, then swept on and away like a floating
palace of fairy lamps. As it passed, the strains of its string orchestra
sounded softly clear through the night. Other steamers followed--half a
dozen in a widely spaced procession. But no boat came near Wreck Island.
If one had, Eleanor could almost have found courage to call for help....

In due time Mrs. Clover hunted her up, bringing a lantern to guide her
heavy footsteps.

"Lands sakes!" she cried, catching sight of the girl. "Wherever have you
been all this time?"

"Just walking up and down," said Eleanor quietly.

"Thank goodness I found you," the woman panted. "Give me quite a turn,
you did. _I_ didn't know but what you might be trying some foolish idea
about leaving us, like your pa said you might. One never knows when to
trust you nervous prostrationists, or what you'll be up to next."

Eleanor glanced at her sharply, wondering if by any chance the woman's
mind could be as guileless as her words or the bland and childish
simplicity of her eyes in the lantern-light.

"Wish you'd come up on the stoop and keep me company," continued Mrs.
Clover; "I'm plumb tired of sitting round all alone. Moon'll be up
before long; it's a purty sight, shining on the water."

"Thank you," said Eleanor; "I'm afraid I'm too tired. It must be later
than I thought. If you don't mind I'll go to my room."

"Oh, please yourself," said the woman, disappointment lending her tone
an unpleasant edge. "You'll find it hot and stuffy up there, though. If
you can't get comfortable, come down-stairs; I'll be up till the boss
gets home."

"Very well," said Eleanor.

She said good night to Mrs. Clover on the kitchen porch and going to her
room, threw herself upon the bed, dressed as she was.

For some time the woman down-stairs rocked slowly on the porch, humming
sonorously. The sound was infinitely soothing. Eleanor had some
difficulty in keeping awake, and only managed to do so by dint of
continually exciting her imagination with thoughts of the Cadogan collar
in the safe, the key in the newel-post, the dory swinging at its
moorings in water little more than waist deep....

In spite of all this, she did as the slow hours lagged drift into a
half-waking nap. How long it lasted she couldn't guess when she wakened;
but it had not been too long; a glance at the dial of her wrist-watch
in a slant of moonlight through the window reassured her as to the
flight of time. It was nearly midnight; she had three hours left, three
hours leeway before the return of her persecutor.

She lay without moving, listening attentively. The house was anything
but still; ghosts of forgotten footsteps haunted all its stairs and
corridors; but the girl could hear no sound ascribable to human agency.
Mrs. Clover no longer sang, her rocking-chair no longer creaked.

With infinite precautions she got up and slipped out of the room. Once
in the hallway she did hear a noise of which she easily guessed the
source; and the choiring of angels could have been no more sweet in her
hearing: Mrs. Clover was snoring.

Kneeling at the head of the staircase and bending over, with an arm
round the banister for support, she could see a portion of the kitchen.
And what she saw only confirmed the testimony of the snores. The woman
had moved indoors to read; an oil lamp stood by her shoulder, on the
table; her chair was well tilted, her head resting against its back; an
old magazine lay open on her lap; her chin had fallen; from her mouth
issued dissonant chords of contentment.

Eleanor drew back, rose and felt her way to the long corridor. Down this
she stole as silently as any ghost, wholly indifferent to the eerie
influences of the desolate place, spectrally illuminated as it was with
faded chequers of moonlight falling through dingy windows, alive as it
was with the groans and complaints of uneasy planks and timbers and the
_frou-frou_, like that of silken skirts, of rats and mice scuttling
between its flimsy walls. These counted for nothing to her; but all her
soul hung on the continuance of that noise of snoring in the kitchen;
and time and again she paused and listened, breathless, until sure it
was holding on without interruption.

Gaining at length the head of the stairs, she picked her way down very
gently, her heart thumping madly as the burden of her weight wrung from
each individual step its personal protest, loud enough (she felt) to
wake the dead in their graves; but not loud enough, it seemed, to
disturb the slumbers of the excellent, if untrustworthy, Mrs. Clover.

At length she had gained the newel-post and abstracted the key. The
foretaste of success was sweet. Pausing only long enough to unlatch the
front door, for escape in emergency, she darted through the hall, behind
the counter, into the little room.

And still Mrs. Clover slept aloud.

Kneeling, Eleanor fitted the key to the lock. Happily, it was well oiled
and in excellent working order. The tumblers gave to the insistence of
the wards with the softest of dull clicks. She grasped the handle, and
the heavy door swung wide without a murmur.

And then she paused, at a loss. It was densely dark in the little room,
and she required to be able to see what she was about, if she were to
pick out the Cadogan collar.

It was risky, a hazardous chance, but she determined to run it. The lamp
that Mrs. Clover had left for her employer was too convenient to be
rejected. Eleanor brought it into the room, carefully shut the door to
prevent the light being visible from the hall, should Mrs. Clover wake
and miss her, placed the lamp on the floor before the safe and lighted
it.

As its soft illumination disclosed the interior of the antiquated
strong-box, the girl uttered a low cry of dismay. To pick out what she
sought from that accumulation (even if it were really there) would be
the work of hours--barring a most happy and unlikely stroke of fortune.

The interior of the safe was divided into some twelve pigeon-holes, all
closely packed with parcels of various sizes--brown-paper parcels,
neatly wrapped and tied with cord, each as neatly labelled in ink with
an indecipherable hieroglyphic: presumably a means of identification to
one intimate with the code.

[Illustration: She turned in time to see the door open and the face and
figure of her father

                _Page 274_]

But Eleanor possessed no means of telling one package from another; they
were all so similar to one another in everything save size, in which
they differed only slightly, hardly materially.

None the less, having dared so much, she wasn't of the stuff to give up
the attempt without at least a little effort to find what she sought.
And impulsively she selected the first package that fell under her hand,
with nervous fingers unwrapped it and--found herself admiring an
extremely handsome diamond brooch.

As if it had been a handful of pebbles, she cast it from her to blaze
despised upon the mean plank flooring, and selected another package.

It contained rings--three gold rings set with solitaire diamonds. They
shared the fate of the brooch.

The next packet held a watch. This, too, she dropped contemptuously,
hurrying on.

She had no method, other than to take the uppermost packets from each
pigeonhole, on the theory that the necklace had been one of the last
articles entrusted to the safe. And that there was some sense in this
method was demonstrated when she opened the ninth package--or possibly
the twelfth: she was too busy and excited to keep any sort of count.

This last packet, however, revealed the Cadogan collar.

With a little, thankful sigh the girl secreted the thing in the bosom of
her dress and prepared to rise.

Behind her a board creaked and the doorlatch clicked. Still
sitting--heart in her mouth, breath at a standstill, blood chilling with
fright--she turned in time to see the door open and the face and figure
of her father as he stood looking down at her, his eyes blinking in the
glare of light that painted a gleam along the polished barrel of the
weapon in his hand.



XV

THE ENEMY'S HAND


In spite of the somewhat abrupt and cavalier fashion in which Staff had
parted from Alison at the St. Simon, he was obliged to meet her again
that afternoon at the offices of Jules Max, to discuss and select the
cast for _A Single Woman_. The memory which each retained of their
earlier meeting naturally rankled, and the amenities suffered
proportionately. In justice to Staff it must be set down that he wasn't
the aggressor; his contract with Max stipulated that he should have the
deciding word in the selection of the cast--aside from the leading rôle,
of course--and when Alison chose, as she invariably did, to try to usurp
that function, the author merely stood calmly and with imperturbable
courtesy upon his rights. In consequence, it was Alison who made the
conference so stormy a one that Max more than once threatened to tear
his hair, and as a matter of fact did make futile grabs at the meagre
fringe surrounding his bald spot. So the meeting inevitably ended in an
armed truce, with no business accomplished: Staff offering to release
Max from his contract to produce, the manager frantically begging him to
do nothing of the sort, and Alison making vague but disquieting remarks
about her inclination to "rest." ...

Staff dined alone, with disgust of his trade for a sauce to his food.
And, being a man--which is as much as to say, a creature without much
real understanding of his own private emotional existence--he wagged his
head in solemn amazement because he had once thought he could love a
woman like that.

Now Eleanor Searle was a different sort of a girl altogether....

Not that he had any right to think of her in that light; only, Alison
had chosen to seem jealous of the girl. Heaven alone (he called it
honestly to witness) knew why....

Not that _he_ cared whether Alison were jealous or not....

But he was surprised at his solicitude for Miss Searle--now that Alison
had made him think of her. He was really more anxious about her than he
had suspected. She had seemed to like him, the few times they'd met; and
he had liked her very well indeed; it's refreshing to meet a woman in
whom beauty and sensibility are combined; the combination's piquant,
when you come to consider how uncommon it is....

He didn't believe for an instant that she had meant to run away with the
Cadogan collar; and he hoped fervently that she hadn't been involved in
any serious trouble by the qualified thing. Furthermore, he candidly
wished he might be permitted to help extricate her, if she were really
tangled up in any unpleasantness.

Such, at all events, was the general tone of his meditations throughout
dinner and his homeward stroll down Fifth Avenue from Forty-fourth
Street, a stroll in which he cast himself for the part of the misprized
hero; and made himself look it to the life by sticking his hands in his
pockets, carrying his cane at a despondent angle beneath one arm,
resting his chin on his chest--or as nearly there as was practicable, if
he cared to escape being strangled by his collar--and permitting a
cigarette to dangle dejectedly from his lips....

He arrived in front of his lodgings at nine o'clock or something later.
And as he started up the brownstone stoop he became aware of a
disconsolate little figure hunched up on the topmost step; which was Mr.
Iff.

The little man had his chin in his hands and his hat pulled down over
his eyes. He rose as Staff came up the steps and gave him good evening
in a spiritless tone which he promptly remedied by the acid
observation:

"It's a pity you wouldn't try to be home when I call. Here you've kept
me waiting the best part of an hour."

"Sorry," said Staff gravely; "but why stand on ceremony at this late
day? My bedroom windows are still open; I left 'em so, fancying you
might prefer to come in that way."

"It's a pity," commented Iff, following him upstairs, "you can't do
something for that oratorical weakness of yours. Ever try choking it
down? Or would that make you ill?"

With which he seemed content to abandon persiflage, satisfied that his
average for acerbity was still high. "Besides," he said peaceably, "I'm
all dressed up pretty now, and it doesn't look right for a respectable
member of society to be pulling off second-story man stunts."

Staff led him into the study, turned on the lights, then looked his
guest over.

So far as his person was involved, it was evident that Iff had employed
Staff's American money to advantage. He wore, with the look of one fresh
from thorough grooming at a Turkish bath, a new suit of dark clothes.
But when he had thrown aside his soft felt hat, his face showed drawn,
pinched and haggard, the face of a man whose sufferings are of the
spirit rather than of the body. Loss of sleep might have accounted in
part for that expression, but not for all of it.

"What's the matter?" demanded Staff, deeply concerned.

"You ask me that!" said Iff impatiently. He threw himself at length upon
the divan. "Haven't you been to the St. Simon? Don't you _know_ what has
happened? Well, so have I, and so do I."

"Well ...?"

Iff raised himself on his elbow to stare at Staff as if questioning his
sanity.

"You know she's gone--that she's in _his_ hands--and you have the face
to stand there and say '_Wel-l_?' to me!" he snapped.

"But--good Lord, man!--what is Miss Searle to you that you should get so
excited about her disappearance, even assuming what we're not sure
of--that she decamped with Ismay?"

"She's only everything to me," said Iff quietly: "she's my daughter."

Staff slumped suddenly into a chair.

"You're serious about that?" he gasped.

"It's not a matter I care to joke about," said the little man gloomily.

"But why didn't you tell a fellow ...!"

"Why should I--until now? You mustn't forget that you sat in this room
not twenty-four hours ago and listened to me retail what I admit sounded
like the damnedest farrago of lies that was ever invented since the
world began; and because you were a good fellow and a gentleman, you
stood for it--gave me the benefit of the doubt. And at that I hadn't
told you half. Why? Why, because I felt I had put sufficient strain upon
your credulity for one session at least."

"Yes--I know," Staff agreed, bewildered; "but--but Miss Searle--your
daughter--!"

"That's a hard one for you to swallow----what? I don't blame you. But
it's true. And that's why I'm all worked up--half crazed by my knowledge
that that infamous blackguard has managed to deceive her and make her
believe he is me--myself--her father."

"But what makes you think that?"

"Oh, I've his word for it. Read!"

Iff whipped an envelope from his pocket and flipped it over to Staff.
"He knew, of course, where I get my letters when in town, and took a
chance of that catching me there and poisoning the sunlight for me."

Staff turned the envelope over in his hands, remarking the name,
address, postmark and special delivery stamp. "Mailed at Hartford,
Connecticut, at nine this morning," he commented.

"Read it," insisted Iff irritably.

Staff withdrew the enclosure: a single sheet of note-paper with a few
words scrawled on one side.

"'I've got her,'" he read aloud. "'She thinks I'm you. Is this
sufficient warning to you to keep out of this game? If not--you know
what to expect.'"

He looked from the note back to Iff. "What does he mean by that?"

"How can I tell? It's a threat, and that's enough for me; he's capable
of anything fiendish enough to amuse him." He shook his clenched fists
impotently above his head. "Oh, if ever again I get within arm's length
of the hound ...!"

"Look here," said Staff; "I'm a good deal in the dark about this
business. You've got to calm yourself and help me out. Now you say Miss
Searle's your daughter; yet you were on the ship together and didn't
recognise one another--at least, so far as I could see."

"You don't see everything," said Iff; "but at that, you're right--she
didn't recognise me. She hasn't for years--seven years, to be exact. It
was seven years ago that she ran away from me and changed her name. And
it was all _his_ doing! I've told you that Ismay has, in his jocular
way, made a practice of casting suspicion on me. Well, the thing got so
bad that he made her believe I was the criminal in the family. So, being
the right sort of a girl, she couldn't live with me any longer and she
just naturally shook me--went to Paris to study singing and fit herself
to earn a living. I followed her, pleaded with her, but she couldn't be
made to understand; so I had to give it up. And that was when I
registered my oath to follow this cur to the four corners of the earth,
if need be, and wait my chance to trip him up, expose him and clear
myself. And now he's finding the going a bit rough, thanks to my
public-spirited endeavours, and he takes this means of tying my hands!"

"I should think," said Staff, "you'd have shot him long before this."

"Precisely," agreed Iff mockingly. "That's just where the
bone-headedness comes in that so endears you to your friends. If I
killed him, where would be my chance to prove I hadn't been guilty of
the crimes he's laid at my door? He's realised that, all along.... I
passed him on deck one night, coming over; it was midnight and we were
alone; the temptation to lay hands on him and drop him overboard was
almost irresistible--and he knew it and laughed in my face!... And
that's the true reason why I didn't accuse him when I was charged with
the theft of the necklace--because I couldn't prove anything and a
trumped-up accusation that fell through would only make my case the
worse in Nelly's sight.... But I'll get him yet!"

"Have you thought of going to Hartford?"

"I'm no such fool. If that letter was posted in Hartford this morning,
it means that Ismay's in Philadelphia."

"But isn't he wise enough to know you'd think just that?"

Iff sat up with a flush of excitement. "By George!" he cried--"there's
something in that!"

"It's a chance," said Staff thoughtfully.

The little man jumped up and began to pace the floor. To and fro, from
the hall-door to the windows, he strode. At perhaps the seventh turn at
the windows he paused, looking out, then moved quickly back to Staff's
side.

"Taxicab stopping outside," he said in a low voice: "woman getting
out--Miss Landis, I think. If you don't mind, I'll dodge into your
bedroom."

"By all means," assented his host, rising.

Iff swung out of sight into the back room as Staff went to and opened
the hall-door.

Alison had just gained the head of the stairs. She came to the study
door, moving with her indolent grace, acknowledging his greeting with an
insolent, cool nod.

"Not too late, I trust?" she said enigmatically.

"For what?" asked Staff, puzzled.

"For this appointment," she said, extending a folded bit of paper.

"Appointment?" he repeated with the rising inflection, taking the paper.

"It was delivered at my hotel half an hour ago," she told him. "I
presumed you ..."

"No," said Staff. "Half a minute...."

He shut the door and unfolded the note. The paper and the chirography,
he noticed, were identical with those of the note received by Iff from
Hartford. With this settled to his satisfaction, he read the contents
aloud, raising his voice a trifle for the benefit of the listener in the
back room.

     "'If Miss Landis wishes to arrange for the return of the
     Cadogan collar, will she be kind enough to call at Mr. Staff's
     rooms in Thirtieth Street at a quarter to ten tonight.

     "'N. B.--Any attempt to bring the police or private detectives
     or other outsiders into the negotiations will be instantly
     known to the writer and--there won't be any party.'"

"Unsigned," said Staff reflectively.

"Well?" demanded Alison, seating herself.

"Curious," remarked Staff, still thinking.

"Well?" she iterated less patiently. "Is it a practical joke?"

"No," he said, smiling; "to me it looks like business."

"You mean that the thief intends to come here--to bargain with me?"

"I should fancy so, from what he says.... And," Staff added, crossing to
his desk, "forewarned is forearmed."

He bent over and pulled out the drawer containing his revolver. At the
same moment he heard Alison catch her breath sharply, and a man's voice
replied to his platitude.

"Not always," it said crisply. "Be good enough to leave that gun
lay--just hold up your hands, where I can see them, and come away from
that desk."

Staff laughed shortly and swung smartly round, exposing empty hands. In
the brief instant in which his back had been turned a man had let
himself into the study from the hall. He stood now with his back to the
door, covering Staff with an automatic pistol.

"Come away," he said in a peremptory tone, emphasising his meaning with
a flourish of the weapon. "Over here--by Miss Landis, if you please."

Quietly Staff obeyed. He had knocked about the world long enough to
recognise the tone of a man talking business with a gun. He placed
himself beside Alison's chair and waited, wondering.

Indeed, he was very much perplexed and disturbed. For the first time
since Iff had won his confidence against his better judgment, his faith
in the little man was being shaken. This high-handed intruder was so
close a counterpart of Mr. Iff that one had to look twice to distinguish
the difference, and then found the points of variance negligible--so
much so that the fellow might well be Iff in different clothing and
another manner. And Iff could easily have slipped out of the bedroom by
_its_ hall door. Only, to shift his clothes so quickly he would have to
be a lightning-change artist of exceptional ability.

On the whole, Staff decided, this couldn't be Iff. And yet ... and
yet ...

"You may put up that pistol," he said coolly. "I'm not going to jump
you, so it's unnecessary. Besides, it's bad form with a lady present.
And finally, if you should happen to let it off the racket would bring
the police down on you more quickly than you'd like, I fancy."

The man grinned and shoved the weapon into a pocket from which its grip
projected handily.

"Something in what you say," he assented. "Besides, I'm quick,
surprisingly quick with my hands."

"Part of your professional equipment, no doubt," commented Staff
indifferently.

"Admit it," said the other easily. He turned his attention to Alison.
"Well, Miss Landis ...?"

"Well, Mr. Iff?" she returned in the same tone.

"No," he corrected; "not Iff--Ismay."

"So you've changed identities again!"

"Surely you don't mind?" he said, grinning over the evasion.

"But you denied being Ismay aboard the Autocratic."

"My dear lady, you couldn't reasonably expect me to plead guilty to a
crime which I had not yet committed."

"Oh, get down to business!" Staff interrupted impatiently. "You're
wasting time--yours as well as ours."

"Peevish person, your young friend," Ismay commented confidentially to
Alison. "Still, there's something in what he says. Shall we--ah--begin
to negotiate?"

"I think you may as well," she agreed coldly.

"Very well, then. The case is simple enough. I'm here to offer to
secure the return of the Cadogan collar for an appropriate reward."

"Ten thousand dollars has been offered," she began.

"Not half enough, my dear lady," he interposed. "You insult the necklace
by naming such a meagre sum--to say nothing of undervaluing _my_
intelligence."

"So that's it!" she said reflectively.

"That is it, precisely. I am in communication with the person who stole
your necklace; she's willing to return it for a reward of reasonable
size."

"She? You mean Miss Searle?"

The man made a deprecating gesture. "Please don't ask me to name the
lady...."

"I knew it!" Alison cried triumphantly.

"You puppy!" Staff exclaimed. "Haven't you the common manhood to
shoulder the responsibility for your crimes yourself?"

"Tush," said the man gently--"tush! Not a pretty way to talk at
all--calling names! I'm surprised. Besides, I ought to know better than
you, acting as I do as agent for the lady in question."

"That's a flat lie," said Staff. "If you repeat it--I warn you--I'll
jump you as sure 's my name's Staff, pistol or no pistol!"

"Aren't you rather excited in your defence of this woman?" Alison turned
on him with a curling lip.

"I've a right to my emotions," he retorted--"to betray them as I see
fit."

"And I," Ismay put it, "to my freedom of speech--"

"Not in my rooms," Staff interrupted hotly. "I've warned you. Drop this
nonsense about Miss Searle if you want to stop here another minute
without a fight. Drop it! Say what you want to say to Miss Landis----and
get out!"

He was thoroughly enraged, and his manner of expressing himself seemed
to convince the thief. With a slight shrug of his shoulders he again
addressed himself directly to Alison.

"In the matter of the reward," he said, "we're of the opinion that
you've offered too little by half. Twenty thousand at the least--"

"You forget I have the duty to pay."

"My dear lady, if you had not been anxious to evade payment of the duty
you would be enjoying the ownership of your necklace today."

As he spoke the telephone-bell rang. Staff turned away to his desk,
Ismay's voice pursuing him with the caution.

"Don't forget about that open drawer--keep your hands away from it."

"Oh, be quiet," returned Staff contemptuously. Standing with his back
to them, he took up the instrument and lifted off the receiver.

"Hello?" he said irritably.

He was glad that his face was not visible to his guests; he could
restrain a start of surprise, but was afraid his expression would have
betrayed him when he recognised the voice at the other end of the line
as Iff's.

"Don't repeat my name," it said quickly in a tone low but clear. "That
is Iff. Ismay still there?"

"Yes," said Staff instantly: "it's I, Harry. How are you?"

"Get rid of him as quick 's you can," Iff continued, "and join me here at
the Park Avenue. I dodged down the fire-escape and caught his motor-car;
his chauffeur thinks I'm him. I'll wait in the street--Thirty-third
Street side, with the car. Now talk."

"All right," said Staff heartily; "glad to. I'll be there."

"Chauffeur knows where Nelly is, I think; but he's too big for me to
handle alone, in case my foot slips and he gets suspicious. That's why I
need you. Bring your gun."

"Right," Staff agreed promptly. "The club in half an hour. Yes, I'll
come. Good-bye."

He turned back toward Ismay and Alison, his doubts resolved, all his
vague misgivings as to this case of double identity settled finally and
forever.

"Alison," he said, breaking in roughly upon something Ismay was saying
to the girl, "you've a cab waiting outside, haven't you?"

Alison stared in surprise. "Yes," she said in a tone of wonder.

Staff paused beside the divan, one hand resting upon the topmost of a
little heap of silken cushions. "Mind if I borrow it?" he asked,
ignoring the man.

"No, but--"

"It's business--important," said Staff. "I'll have to leave you here at
once. Only"--he watched Ismay closely out of the corners of his
eyes--"if I were you I wouldn't waste any more time on this fellow. He's
bluffing--can't carry out anything he promises."

Ismay turned toward him, expostulant.

"What d' you mean by that?" he demanded.

"Miss Searle has escaped," said Staff deliberately.

"No!" cried Ismay, startled and thrown off his guard by the fear it
might be so. "Impossible!"

"Think so?" As he spoke Staff dextrously snatched up the uppermost
pillow and with a twist of his hand sent it whirling into the thief's
face.

It took him utterly unawares. His arms flew up too late to ward it off,
and he staggered back a pace.

"Lots of impossible things keep happening all the time," chuckled Staff
as he closed in.

There was hardly a struggle. Staff's left arm clipped the man about the
waist at the same time that his right hand deftly abstracted the pistol
from its convenient pocket. Then, dropping the weapon into his own
pocket, he transferred his hold to Ismay's collar and spun him round
with a snap that fairly jarred his teeth.

"There, confound you!" he said, exploring his pockets for other lethal
weapons and finding nothing but three loaded clips ready to be inserted
in the hollow butt of the pistol already confiscated. "Now what 'm I
going to do with you, you blame' little pest?"

The question was more to himself than to Ismay, but the latter,
recovering with astonishing quickness, answered Staff by suddenly
squirming out of his coat and leaving it in his assailant's hands as he
ducked to the door and flung himself out.

Staff broke into a laugh as the patter of the little man's feet was
heard on the stairs.

"Resourceful beggar," he commented, going to the window and rolling up
the coat as he went. He reached it just in time to see the thief dodge
out.

The coat, opening as it descended, fell like a blanket round Ismay's
head. He stumbled, tripped and fell headlong down the steps, sprawling
and cursing.

"Thought you might need it," Staff apologised as the man picked himself
up and darted away.

He turned to confront an infuriated edition of Alison.

"Why did you do that?" she demanded with a stamp of her foot. "What
right had you to interfere? I was beating him down; in another minute
we'd have come to terms--"

"Oh, don't be silly, my dear," said Staff, taking his revolver from the
desk-drawer and placing it in the hip-pocket of tradition. "To begin
with, I don't mind telling you I don't give much of a whoop whether you
ever get that necklace back or not." He grabbed his hat and started for
the door. "What I'm interested in is the rescue of Miss Searle, if you
must know; and that's going to happen before long, or I miss my guess."
He paused at the open door. "If we get her, we get the necklace, of
course--and the Lord knows you'll be welcome to that. Would you mind
turning out the lights before you go?"

"Staff!"

Her tone was so peremptory that he hesitated an unwelcome moment
longer.

"Well?" he asked civilly, wondering what on earth she had found to fly
into such a beastly rage about.

"You know what this means?"

"You tell me," he smiled.

"It means the break; I won't play _A Single Woman_!" she snapped.

"That's the best guess you've made yet," he laughed. "You win. Good
night and--good-bye."



XVI

NINETY MINUTES


Commandeering Alison's taxicab with the promise of an extra tip, Staff
jumped in and shut the door. As they swung into Fourth Avenue, he caught
a glimpse of Ismay's slight figure standing on the corner, his pose
expressive of indecision and uncertainty; and Staff smiled to himself,
surmising that it was there that the thief had left his motor-car to be
confiscated by Iff.

Three blocks north on Fourth Avenue, and they swung west into
Thirty-third Street: a short course quickly covered, but yet not swiftly
enough to outpace Staff's impatience. He had the door open, his foot on
the step, before the taxicab had begun to slow down preparatory to
stopping beside the car waiting in the shadow of the big hotel.

Iff was in the tonneau, gesticulating impatiently; the chauffeur had
already cranked up and was sliding into his seat. As the taxicab rolled
alongside, Staff jumped, thrust double the amount registered by the
meter into the driver's hand, and sprang into the body of Ismay's car.
Iff snapped the door shut; as though set in motion by that sharp sound,
the machine began to move smoothly and smartly, gathering momentum with
every revolution of its wheels. They were crossing Madison almost before
Staff had settled into his seat. A moment later they were snoring up
Fifth Avenue.

Staff looked at his watch. "Ten," he told Iff.

"We'll make time once we get clear of this island," said the little man
anxiously; "we've got to."

"Why?"

"To beat Ismay--"

Staff checked him with a hand on his arm and a warning glance at the
back of the chauffeur's head.

"Oh, that's all right _now_," Iff told him placidly. "I thought we
might 's well understand one another first as last; so, while we were
waiting for you, I slipped him fifty, gave him to understand that my
affectionate cousin had about come to the end of his rope and--won his
heart and confidence. It's a way I have with people; they do seem to
fall for me," he asserted with insufferable self-complacence.

He continued to impart his purchased information to Staff by snatches
all the way from Thirty-fourth Street to the Harlem River.

"He's a decent sort," he said, indicating the operator with a nod;
"apparently, that is; name, Spelvin. Employed by a garage upon the West
Side, in the Seventies. Says Ismay rang 'em up about half-past two last
night, chartered this car and driver, to be kept waiting for him
whenever he called for it.... Coarse work that, for Cousin
Arbuthnot--very, very crude....

"Still, he'd just got home and hadn't had time to make very polished
arrangements.... Seems he told this chap he was to see nothing but the
road, hear nothing but the motor, say nothing whatever to nobody. Gave
him a fifty, too. That habit seems to run in the family....

"He called for the car around five o'clock, with Nelly. Spelvin says she
seemed worn out, hardly conscious of what was going on. They lit out
for--where we're bound: place on the Connecticut shore called Pennymint
Point. On the way Ismay told him to stop at a roadhouse, got out and
brought Nelly a drink. Spelvin says he wouldn't be surprised if it was
doped; she slept all the rest of the way and hardly woke up even when
they helped her aboard the boat."

"Boat!"

"Motor-boat. I infer that Cousin Arbuthnot has established headquarters
on a little two-by-four island in the Sound--Wreck Island. Used to be
run as a one-horse summer resort--hotel and all that. Went under several
years ago, if mem'ry serveth me aright. Anyhow, they loaded Nelly aboard
this motor-boat and took her across....

"Spelvin was told to wait. He did. In about an hour--boat back; native
running it hands Spelvin a note, tells him to run up to Hartford and
post it and be back at seven P.M. Spelvin back at seven; Ismay comes
across by boat, is driven to town....

"That's all, to date. Spelvin had begun to suspect there was something
crooked going on, which made him easy meat for my insidious advances.
Says he was wondering if he hadn't better tell his troubles to a cop.
All of which goes to show that Cousin Artie's fast going to seed. Very
crude operating--man of his reputation, too. Makes me almost ashamed of
the relationship."

"How are we going to get to Wreck Island from Pennymint Point?"

"Same boat," said Iff confidently. "Spelvin heard Ismay tell his
engineer to wait for him--would be back between midnight and three."

"He can't beat us there, can he, by any chance?"

"He can if he humps himself. This is a pretty good car, and Spelvin says
there isn't going to be any car on the road tonight that'll pass us;
but I can't forget that dear old New York, New Haven & Hartford. They
run some fast trains by night, and while of course none of them stops at
Pennymint Centre--station for the Point--still, a man with plenty of
money to fling around can get a whole lot of courtesy out of a
railroad."

"Then the question is: can he catch a train which passes through
Pennymint Centre before we can reasonably expect to get there?"

"That's the intelligent query. I don't know. Do you?"

"No--"

"Spelvin doesn't, and we haven't got any time to waste trying to find
out. Probabilities are, there is. The only thing to do is to run for it
and trust to luck. Spelvin says it took him an hour and thirty-five
minutes to run in, this evening; and he's going to better that if
nothing happens. Did you remember to bring a gun?"

"Two." Staff produced the pistol he had taken from Ismay, with the extra
clips, and gave them to the little man with an account of how he had
become possessed of them--a narrative which Iff seemed to enjoy
immensely.

"Oh, we can't lose," he chuckled; "not when Cousin Artie plays his hand
as poorly as he has this deal. I've got a perfectly sound hunch that
we'll win."

Staff hardly shared his confidence; still, as far as he could judge, the
odds were even. Ismay might beat them to Pennymint Centre by train, and
might not. If he did, however, it could not be by more than a slight
margin; to balance which fact, Staff had to remind himself that two
minutes' margin was all that would be required to get the boat away from
land, beyond their reach.

"Look here," he put it to Iff: "suppose he does beat us to that boat?"

"Then we'll have to find another."

"There'll be another handy, all ready for us, I presume?"

"Spare me your sarcasm," pleaded Iff; "it is, if you don't mind my
mentioning the fact, not your forte. Silence, on the other hand, suits
your style cunningly. So shut up and lemme think."

He relapsed into profound meditations, while the car hummed onwards
through the moon-drenched spaces of the night.

Presently he roused and, without warning, clambered over the back of the
seat into the place beside the chauffeur. For a time the two conferred,
heads together, their words indistinguishable in the sweep of air.
Then, in the same spry fashion, the little man returned.

"Spelvin's a treasure," he announced, settling into his place.

"Why?"

"Knows the country--knows a man in Barmouth who runs a shipyard, owns
and hires out motorboats, and all that sort of thing."

"Where's Barmouth?"

"Four miles this side of Pennymint Point. Now we've got to decide
whether to hold on and run our chances of picking up Ismay's boat, or
turn off to Barmouth and run our chances of finding chauffeur's friend
with boat disengaged. What do you think?"

"Barmouth," Staff decided after some deliberation but not without
misgivings.

"That's what I told Spelvin," observed Iff. "It's a gamble either way."

The city was now well behind them, the car pounding steadily on through
Westchester. For a long time neither spoke. The time for talk, indeed,
was past--and in the future; for the present they must tune themselves
up to action--such action as the furious onrush of the powerful car in
some measure typified, easing the impatience in their hearts.

For a time the road held them near railroad tracks. A train hurtled
past them, running eastwards: a roaring streak of orange light crashing
through the world of cool night blues and purple-blacks.

The chauffeur swore audibly and let out another notch of speed.

Staff sat spellbound by the amazing romance of it all.... A bare eight
days since that afternoon when a whim, born of a love now lifeless, had
stirred him out of his solitary, work-a-day life in London, had lifted
him out of the ordered security of the centre of the world's
civilisation and sent him whirling dizzily across three thousand miles
and more to become a partner in this wild, weird ride to the rescue of a
damsel in distress and durance vile! Incredible!...

Eight days: and the sun of Alison, that once he had thought to be the
light of all the world, had set; while in the evening sky the star of
Eleanor was rising and blazing ever more brightly....

Now when a man begins to think about himself and his heart in such
poetic imagery, the need for human intercourse grows imperative on his
understanding; he must talk or--suffer severely.

Staff turned upon his defenseless companion.

"Iff," said he, "when a man's the sort of a man who can fall out of love
and in again--with another woman, of course--inside a week--what do you
call him?"

"Human," announced Iff after mature consideration of the problem.

This was unsatisfactory; Staff yearned to be called fickle.

"Human? How's that?" he insisted.

"I mean that the human man hasn't got much to say about falling in or
out of love. The women take care of all that for him. Look at your Miss
Landis--yours as was.... You don't mind my buttin' in?"

"Go on," said Staff grimly.

"Anybody with half an eye, always excepting you, could see she'd made up
her mind to hook that Arkroyd pinhead on account of his money. She was
just waiting for a fair chance to give you the office--preferably, of
course, after she'd nailed that play of yours."

"Well," said Staff, "she's lost that, too."

"Serves you both right."

There was a pause wherein Staff sought to fathom the meaning of this
last utterance of Mr. Iff's.

"I take it," resumed the latter with a sidelong look--"pardon a father's
feelings of delicacy--I take it, you're meaning Nelly?"

"How did you guess that?" demanded Staff, startled.

"Right, eh?"

"Yes--no--I don't know--"

"Well, if you don't know the answer any better 'n that, take a word of
advice from an old bird: you get her to tell you. She's known it ever
since she laid eyes on you."

"You mean she--I--" Staff stammered eagerly.

"I mean nobody knows anything about a woman's heart but herself; but she
knows it backwards and all the time."

"Then you don't think I've got any show?"

"Oh, Lord!" complained Iff. "Honest, you gimme a pain. Go on and do your
own thinking."

Staff subsided, imagining a vain thing: that the mantle of dignity in
which he wrapped himself successfully cloaked his sense of injury. Iff
smiled a meaningless smile up at the inscrutable skies. And the moonlit
miles slipped beneath the wheels like a torrent of moulten silver.

At length--it seemed as if many hours must have swung crashing into
eternity since they had left New York--Staff was conscious of a
perceptible diminution of speed; he was able to get his breath with less
effort, had no longer to snatch it by main strength from the greedy
clutches of the whirlwind. The reeling chiaroscuro of the countryside
seemed suddenly to become calm, settling into an intelligible, more or
less orderly arrangement of shining hills and shadowed hollows,
spreading pastures and sombre woodlands. The chauffeur flung a few
inarticulate words over his shoulder--readily interpreted as announcing
the nearness of their destination; and of a sudden the car swung from
the main highway into a narrow by-road that ran off to the right. A
little later they darted through a cut beneath railroad tracks, and a
village sprang out of the night and rattled past them, serenely
slumbrous. From this centre a thin trickle of dwellings straggled along
their way. Across fields to the left, Staff caught glimpses of a
spreading sheet of water, still and silvery-grey....

On a long slant, the road drew nearer and more near to the shores of
this arm of the Sound. Presently a group of small buildings near the
head of a long landing-stage swam into view. Before them the car drew up
with a sigh. The chauffeur jumped down and ran across the road to a
house in whose lower story a lighted window was visible. While he
hammered at the door, Staff and Iff alighted. A man in his shirt-sleeves
came to the door of the cottage and stood there, pipe in mouth, hands in
pockets, languidly interjecting dispassionate responses into the
chauffeur's animated exposition of their case. As Staff and Iff came up,
Spelvin turned to them, excitedly waving his gauntlets.

"He's got a boat, all right, and a good one he says, but he won't move a
foot for less 'n twenty dollars."

"Give you twenty-five if you get away from the dock within five
minutes," Iff told the boatbuilder directly.

The man started as if stung. "Jemima!" he breathed, incredulous. Then
caution prompted him to extend a calloused and work-warped hand. "Cross
my palm," he said.

"You give it to him, Staff," said Iff magnificently. "I'm short of
cash."

Obediently, Staff disbursed the required sum. The native thumbed it,
pocketed it, lifted his coat from a nail behind the door and started
across the road in a single movement.

"You come 'long, Spelvin," he said in passing, "'nd help with the boat.
If you gents'll get out on the dock I'll have her alongside in three
minutes, 'r my name ain't Bascom."

Pursued by the chauffeur, he disappeared into the huddle of boat-houses
and beached and careened boats. A moment later, Iff and Staff, picking
their way through the tangle, heard the scrape of a flat-bottomed boat
on the beach and, subsequently, splashing oars.

By the time they had reached the end of the dock, the boatbuilder and
his companion were scrambling aboard a twenty-five-foot boat at anchor
in the midst of a small fleet of sail and gasoline craft. The rumble of
a motor followed almost instantly, was silenced momentarily while the
skiff was being made fast to the mooring, broke out again as the larger
boat selected a serpentine path through the circumjacent vessels and
slipped up to the dock.

Before it had lost way, Iff and Staff were aboard. Instantly, Bascom
snapped the switch shut and the motor started again on the spark.

"Straight out," he instructed Spelvin at the wheel, "till you round that
white moorin'-dolphin. Then I'll take her." ...

Not long afterward he gave up pottering round the engine and went
forward, relieving Spelvin. "You go back and keep your eye on that
engyne," he ordered; "she's workin' like a sewin'-machine, but she wants
watchin'. I'll tell you when to give her the spark. Meanwhile you
might 's well dig them lights out of the port locker and set 'em out."

"No," Iff put in. "We want no lights."

"Gov'mint regulations," said Bascom stubbornly. "Must carry lights."

"Five dollars?" Iff argued persuasively.

"Agin the law," growled Bascom. "But--I dunno--they ain't anybody likely
to be out this time o' night. Cross my palm."

And Staff again disbursed.

The white mooring-buoy swam past and the little vessel heeled as Bascom
swung her sharply to the southwards.

"Now," he told Spelvin, "advance that spark all you've a mind to."

There was a click from the engine-pit and the steady rumble of the
exhaust ran suddenly into a prolonged whining drone. The boat jumped as
if jerked forward by some gigantic, invisible hand. Beneath the bows the
water parted with a crisp sound like tearing paper. Long ripples widened
away from the sides, like ribs of a huge fan. A glassy hillock of water
sprang up mysteriously astern, pursuing them like an avenging Nemesis,
yet never quite catching up.

The sense of irresistible speed was tremendous, as stimulating as
electricity; this in spite of the fact that the boat was at best making
about half the speed at which the motor-car had plunged along the
country roads: an effect in part due to the spacious illusion of moonlit
distances upon the water.

Staff held his cap with one hand, drinking in the keen salt air with a
feeling of strange exultation. Iff crept forward and tarried for a time
talking to the boatbuilder.

The boat shaved a nun-buoy outside Barmouth Point so closely that Staff
could almost have touched it by stretching out his arm. Then she
straightened out like a greyhound on a long course across the placid
silver reaches to a goal as yet invisible.

Iff returned to the younger man's side.

"Twenty miles an hour, Bascom claims," he shouted. "At that rate we
ought to be there in about fifteen minutes now."

Staff nodded, wondering what they would find on Wreck Island, bitterly
repenting the oversight which had resulted in Ismay's escape from his
grasp. If only he had not been so sure of his conquest of the little
criminal ...! Now his mind crawled with apprehensions bred of his
knowledge of the man's amazing fund of resource. He who outwitted Ismay
would have earned the right to plume himself upon his cunning....

When he looked up from his abstraction, the loom of the mainland was
seemingly very distant. The motor-boat was nearing the centre of a deep
indentation in the littoral. And suddenly it was as though they did not
move at all, as if all this noise and labour went for nothing, as if the
boat were chained to the centre of a spreading disk of silver,
world-wide, illimitable, and made no progress for all its thrashing and
its fury.

Only the unending sweep of wind across his face denied that effect....

Iff touched his arm.

"There...." he said, pointing.

Over the bows a dark mass seemed to have separated itself from the
shadowed mainland, with which it had till then been merged. A strip of
silver lay between the two, and while they watched it widened, swiftly
winning breadth and bulk as the motor-boat swung to the north of the
long, sandy spit at the western end of Wreck Island.

"See anything of another boat?" Iff asked. "You look--your eyes are
younger than mine."

Staff stood up, steadying himself with feet wide apart, and stared
beneath his hand.

"No," he said; "I see no boat."

"We've beaten him, then!" Iff declared joyfully.

But they hadn't, nor were they long in finding it out. For presently the
little island lay black, a ragged shadow against the blue-grey sky, upon
the starboard beam; and Bascom passed the word aft to shut off the
motor. As its voice ceased, the boat shot in toward the land, and the
long thin moonlit line of the landing-stage detached itself from the
general obscurity and ran out to meet them. And so closely had Bascom
calculated that the "shoot" of the boat brought them to a standstill at
the end of the structure without a jar. Bascom jumped out with the
headwarp, Staff and Iff at his heels.

From the other side of the dock a shadow uplifted itself, swiftly and
silently as a wraith, and stood swaying as it saluted them with profound
courtesy.

"Gennelmen," it said thickly, "I bidsh you welcome t' Wrecksh Island."

With this it slumped incontinently back into a motor-boat which lay
moored in the shadow of the dock; and a wild, ecstatic snore rang out
upon the calm night air.

"Thet's Eph Clover," said Bascom; "him 'nd his wife's caretakers here.
He's drunker 'n a b'iled owl," added the boatbuilder lest they
misconstrue.

"Cousin Artie seems unfortunate in his choice of minions, what?"
commented Iff. "Come along, Staff.... Take care of that souse, will you,
Spelvin? See that he doesn't try to mix in."

They began to run along the narrow, yielding and swaying bridge of
planks.

"He hasn't beaten us out yet," Iff threw over his shoulder. "You keep
back now--like a good child--please. I've got a hunch this is my hour."

The hotel loomed before them, gables grey with moonshine, its long walls
dark save where, toward the middle of the main structure, chinks of
light filtered through a shuttered window, and where at one end an open
door let out a shaft of lamplight upon the shadows....



XVII

HOLOCAUST


For a period of perhaps twenty seconds the man and the girl remained
moveless, eyeing one another; she on the floor, pale, stunned and
pitiful, for the instant bereft of every sense save that of terror; he
in the doorway, alert, fully the master of his concentrated faculties,
swayed by two emotions only--a malignant temper bred of the night's
succession of reverses capped by the drunkenness of his caretaker, and
an equally malignant sense of triumph that he had returned in time to
crush the girl's attempt to escape.

He threw the door wide open and took a step into the room, putting away
his pistol.

"So--" he began in a cutting voice.

But his movement had acted as the shock needed to rouse the girl out of
her stupor of despair. With a cry she gathered herself together and
jumped to her feet. He put forth a hand as if to catch her, and she
leaped back. Her skirts swept the lamp on the floor and overturned it
with a splintering crash. Instinctively she sprang away--in the nick of
time.

She caught a look of surprise and fright in the eyes of the man as they
glared past her in the ghastly glow of the flickering wick, and took
advantage of this momentary distraction to leap past him. As she did so
there was a slight explosion. A sheet of flaming kerosene spread over
the floor and licked the chairboarding.

Ismay jumped back, mouthing curses; the girl had already slipped out of
the room. Turning, he saw her flying through the hall toward the main
door. In a fit of futile, childish spite, unreasonable and unreasoning,
he whipped out his pistol and sent a bullet after her.

She heard it whine near her head and crash through the glass panes of
the door. And she heard herself cry out in a strange voice. The next
instant she had flung open the door and thrown herself out, across the
veranda and down the steps. Then turning blindly to the left, instinct
guiding her to seek temporary safety by hiding in the wilderness of the
dunes, she blundered into somebody's arms.

She was caught and held fast despite her struggles to free herself: to
which, believing herself to be in the hands of Mrs. Clover or her
husband, she gave all her strength.

At the same time the first-floor windows of the hotel were illumined by
an infernal glare. All round her there was lurid light, setting
everything in sharp relief. The face of the man who held her was
suddenly revealed; and it was her father's.... She had left him inside
the building and now ... She was assailed with a terrifying fear that
she had gone mad. In a frenzy she wrenched herself free; but only to be
caught in other arms.

A voice she knew said soothingly: "There, Miss Searle--you're all right
now...."

Staff's voice and, when she twisted to look, Staff's face, friendly and
reassuring!

"Don't be afraid," he was saying; "we'll take care of you now--your
father and I."

"My father!" she gasped. "My father is in there!"

"No," said Iff at her side. "Believe me, he isn't. That, dear, is your
fondly affectionate Uncle Arbuthnot--and between the several of us I
don't mind telling you that he's stood in my shoes for the last time."

"But I don't," she stammered--"I don't understand--"

"You will in a minute," Staff told her gently. At the same time he
lifted his voice. "Look out, Iff--look out!"

He strove to put himself between the girl and danger, making a shield of
his body. But with a supple movement she eluded him.

She saw in the doorway of the burning house the man she had thought to
be her father. The other man, he whose daughter she really was, had
started to run toward the veranda steps. The man in the doorway flung up
his hand and, clear and vicious above the crackling of the flames, she
heard the short song of a Colt automatic--six shots, so close upon one
another that they were as one prolonged.

There was a spatter of bullets in the sandy ground about them; and then,
with scarcely an appreciable interval, a second flutter of an automatic.
This time the reports came from the pistol in Iff's hand. He was
standing in full glare at the bottom of the veranda steps, aiming with
great composure and precision.

The figure in the doorway reeled as if struck by an axe, swung half-way
round and tottered back into the house. The little man below the veranda
steps delayed only long enough to pluck out the empty clip from the butt
of his pistol and slip another, loaded, into its place. Then with
cat-like agility he sprang up the steps and dived into the furnace-like
interior of the hotel. A third stuttering series of reports saluted
this action, and then there was a short pause ended by a single shot.

"Come," said Staff. He took her arm gently. "Come away...."

Shuddering, she suffered him to lead her a little distance into the
dunes. Here he released her.

"If you won't mind being left alone a few minutes," he said, "I'll go
back and see what's happened. You'll be perfectly safe here, I fancy."

"Please," she said breathlessly--"do go. Yes, please."

She urged him with frantic gestures....

He hurried back to the front of the hotel. By now it was burning like a
bonfire; already, short as had been the time since the overturning of
the lamp, the entire ground floor with the exception of one wing was a
roaring welter of flames, while the fire had leaped up the main
staircase and set its signals in the windows of the upper story.

Iff was standing at some distance from the main entrance, having pushed
his way through the tangle of undergrowth to escape the scorching heat
that emanated from the building. He caught sight of Staff approaching
and waved a hand to him.

"Greetings!" he cried cheerfully, raising his voice to make it heard
above the voice of the conflagration.

"Where's Nelly?"

Staff explained. "But what about Ismay?" he demanded.

Iff grinned and hung his head as if embarrassed, rubbing a handkerchief
over the smoke-stained fingers of his right hand.

"I got him," he said simply.

"You left him in there?"

The little man nodded without reply and turned alertly to engage Mrs.
Clover, who was bearing down upon them in the first stages of hysterics.
But at sight of Iff she pulled up and calmed herself a trifle.

"Oh, sir," she cried, "I'm so glad you're safe, sir! I was asleep in the
kitchen when the fire broke out--and then I thought I heard pistol
shots--and I didn't know but somethin' had happened to you--"

"No," said Iff coolly; "you can see I'm all right."

"And Eph, sir? Where's my husband?" she shrieked.

"Oh," said Iff, at length identifying the woman. "You'll find him down
at the dock--dead drunk in the motor-boat," he told her. "If I were you
I'd go to him right away."

"But whatever will we do for a place to sleep tonight?"

"Help yourself," Iff replied with a generous wave of his hand "You've
all Pennymint to ask shelter of, if you can manage to make your husband
run the boat across."

"But you--what'll you do?"

"I've another boat handy," Iff explained. "We'll go in that."

"And will you rebuild, sir?"

"No," he said gravely, "I don't think so. I fancy this is the last time
I'll ever set foot on Wreck Island. Now clear out," he added with a
sharp change of manner, "and see if you can't sober that drunken fool
up."

Abashed, the woman cringed and turned away. Presently she broke into a
clumsy run and vanished in the direction of the landing-stage.

"You've accepted the identity of Ismay," commented Staff disapprovingly,
as they moved off together to rejoin Eleanor.

"For the last time," said the little man. "Until I get aboard Bascom's
boat again, only. It's the easiest way."

"How do you mean?"

Iff nodded at the blazing building. "That wipes out all scores," he
replied. "What they find of Cousin Artie when that cools off won't be
enough to hold an inquest over; he will be simply thought to have
disappeared, since I won't return to this place. And that's the
easiest way: we don't got any use for inquests at the wind-up of this
giddy dime-novel!"

[Illustration: The light of the great fire illumined not only all the
island, but the waters for miles around

                                   _Page 319_]

       *       *       *       *       *

The light of the great fire illumined not only all the island but the
waters for miles around. As Bascom's boat drew away, its owner called
Staff's attention to a covey of sails, glowing pink against the dark
background of the mainland as they stood across the arm of the Sound for
the island.

"Neighbours," said Mr. Bascom; "comin' for to see if they can lend a
hand or snatch a souvenir or so, mebbe."

Staff nodded, with little interest. Out of the corners of his eyes he
could see Iff and his daughter, on the opposite side of the boat. Iff
was talking to her in a gentle, subdued voice strangely unlike his
customary acrid method of expression. He had an arm round his daughter's
shoulders; her head rested on his....

Staff looked away, back at the shining island. He could not grudge the
little man his hour. His own would come, in time....

                         THE END



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  =Four Million, The.= By O. Henry.
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  =Ganton & Co.= By Arthur J. Eddy.
  =Gentleman of France, A.= By Stanley Weyman.
  =Gentleman, The.= By Alfred Ollivant.
  =Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.= By George Randolph Chester.
  =Gilbert Neal.= By Will N. Harben.
  =Girl and the Bill, The.= By Bannister Merwin.
  =Girl from His Town, The.= By Marie Van Vorst.
  =Girl Who Won, The.= By Beth Ellis.
  =Glory of Clementina, The.= By William J. Locke.
  =Glory of the Conquered, The.= By Susan Glaspell.
  =God's Good Man.= By Marie Corelli.
  =Going Some.= By Rex Beach.
  =Golden Web, The.= By Anthony Partridge.
  =Green Patch, The.= By Bettina von Hutten.
  =Happy Island= (sequel to "Uncle William"). By Jennette Lee.
  =Hearts and the Highway.= By Cyrus Townsend Brady.
  =Held for Orders.= By Frank H. Spearman.
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  =How Leslie Loved.= By Anne Warner.
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  =Sir Nigel.= By A. Conan Doyle.
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  =Skyman, The.= By Henry Ketchell Webster.
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  =Spirit Trail, The.= By Kate and Virgil D. Boyles.
  =Spoilers, The.= By Rex Beach.
  =Stanton Wins.= By Eleanor M. Ingram.
  =St. Elmo.= (Illustrated Edition.) By Augusta J. Evans.
  =Stolen Singer, The.= By Martha Bellinger.
  =Stooping Lady, The.= By Maurice Hewlett.
  =Story of the Outlaw, The.= By Emerson Hough.
  =Strawberry Acres.= By Grace S. Richmond.
  =Strawberry Handkerchief, The.= By Amelia E. Barr.
  =Sunnyside of the Hill, The.= By Rosa N. Carey.
  =Sunset Trail, The.= By Alfred Henry Lewis.
  =Susan Clegg and Her Friend Mrs. Lathrop.= By Anne Warner.
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  =Tales of Sherlock Holmes.= By A. Conan Doyle.
  =Tennessee Shad, The.= By Owen Johnson.
  =Tess of the D'Urbervilles.= By Thomas Hardy.
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  =That Printer of Udell's.= By Harold Bell Wright.
  =Three Brothers, The.= By Eden Phillpotts.
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  =Thurston of Orchard Valley.= By Harold Bindloss.
  =Title Market, The.= By Emily Post.
  =Torn Sails. A Tale of a Welsh Village.= By Allen Raine.
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  =Treasure of Heaven, The.= By Marie Corelli.
  =Two-Gun Man, The.= By Charles Alden Seltzer.
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  =Uncle William.= By Jennette Lee.
  =Up from Slavery.= By Booker T. Washington.
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  =Voice of the People, The.= By Ellen Glasgow.
  =Wanted--A Chaperon.= By Paul Leicester Ford.
  =Wanted: A Matchmaker.= By Paul Leicester Ford.
  =Watchers of the Plains, The.= Ridgwell Cullum.
  =Wayfarers, The.= By Mary Stewart Cutting.
  =Way of a Man, The.= By Emerson Hough.
  =Weavers, The.= By Gilbert Parker.
  =When Wilderness Was King.= By Randall Parrish.
  =Where the Trail Divides.= By Will Lillibridge.
  =White Sister, The.= By Marion Crawford.
  =Window at the White Cat, The.= By Mary Roberts Rhinehart.
  =Winning of Barbara Worth, The.= By Harold Bell Wright.
  =With Juliet in England.= By Grace S. Richmond.
  =Woman Haters, The.= By Joseph C. Lincoln.
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  =Woman in the Alcove, The.= By Anna Katharine Green.
  =Yellow Circle, The.= By Charles E. Walk.
  =Yellow Letter, The.= By William Johnston.
  =Younger Set, The.= By Robert W. Chambers.



       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

 Spaced contractions in the original publication have been joined
 except where they would probably have been pronounced as two words.

 The following changes have been made for consistency:
   page 132, "downstairs" changed to "down-stairs"
   page 136, "desklamp" changed to "desk-lamp"
   page 151, "stupified" changed to "stupefied"
   page 205, "up-town" changed to "uptown"
   page 212, "bell-boy" changed to "bellboy"
   page 239, "newel post" changed to "newel-post"
   page 269, "kitchen-porch" changed to "kitchen porch"
   page 272, "strongbox" changed to "strong-box"
   page 298, "P. M." changed to "P.M."

 page 92, "Manver's lips" changed to "Manvers' lips".

 page 126, "How-d-'you-do" changed to "How-d'-you-do".

 page 127, closing single quote changed to double quote: "But he can't
   have left the ship!"

 page 150, period added at end of sentence, "and came hastily
   over to the table beside which he was standing."

 page 206, ";" added in "this morning; Jane".

 page 284, missing " added at end of note.

 Book list at end: Apparent typesetting errors noticed by the
   transcriber were fixed as follows:
     "Bar 20" changed to "Bar-20"
     "Mulfird" changed to "Mulford" (for Bar-20 Days)
     closing quote added to "Uncle William" (for Happy Island)
     "Ellery H. Clarke" changed to "Ellery H. Clark" (for
       Loaded Dice)
     "Get-Rick-Quick-Wallingford" changed to "Get-Rich-Quick
       Wallingford"
     'author of the "Broad Higway"' changed to '"author of
       "The Broad Highway"' (for My Lady Caprice)
     "Louis Joseh Vance" changed to "Louis Joseph Vance"
       (for Pool of Flame)

 End of Transcriber's Notes





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