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´╗┐Title: Whoso Findeth a Wife
Author: Le Queux, William, 1864-1927
Language: English
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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 "Whoso Findeth a Wife" ***

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Whoso Findeth a Wife, by William Le Queux.

________________________________________________________________________



________________________________________________________________________
WHOSO FINDETH A WIFE, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.

CHAPTER ONE.

A STATE SECRET.

"_Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the
Lord_."--Proverbs xviii, 22.

"Have those urgent dispatches come in from Berlin, Deedes?"

"Captain Hammerton has not yet arrived," I answered.

"Eleven o'clock!  Tut, tut!  Every moment's delay means greater risk,"
and the Earl of Warnham, Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for
Foreign Affairs, strode up and down his private room, with his hat still
on, impatiently snapping his bony fingers in agitation quite unusual to
him.

"Hammerton wired from Berlin yesterday, when on the point of leaving," I
observed, taking a telegram from the table before me.

"In cipher?"

"Yes."

"No accident is reported in the papers, I suppose?"

"Nothing in the _Times_," I replied.

"Strange, very strange, that he should be so long overdue," the Earl
said, at last casting himself into his padded chair, and lounging back,
his hands thrust deep into his pockets as he stared thoughtfully into
space.

I resumed my writing, puzzled at the cause of the chief's excited
demeanour, but a few moments later sharp footsteps sounded outside in
the corridor, followed by a loud rapping, and there entered the
messenger, clad in his heavy fur-lined travelling coat, although a July
morning, and carrying a well-worn leather dispatch-box, which he placed
upon my table.

"Late, Hammerton.  Very late," snapped the Earl, glancing at his watch.

"There's a dense fog in the Channel, your Lordship, and we were
compelled to come across dead slow the whole distance.  I've driven
straight from the station," the Captain answered good-humouredly,
looking so spruce and well-groomed that few would credit he had been
travelling for nearly twenty-four hours.

"Go and rest.  You must return to-night," his Lordship said testily.

"At seven-thirty?"

"Yes, at my house in Berkeley Square."

Then, taking up the receipt I had signed for the dispatch-box, the
messenger, to whom a journey to Constantinople or St Petersburg was
about as fatiguing as a ride on the Underground Railway is to ordinary
persons, walked jauntily out, wishing us both good-day.

When the door had closed, Lord Warnham quickly opened the outer case
with his key, and drew forth a second box, covered with red morocco, and
securely sealed.  This he also opened, and, after rummaging for some
moments among a quantity of papers, exclaimed, in a tone of
satisfaction,--

"Ah!  Here it is.  Good!  Seals not tampered with."

Withdrawing from the box a large official envelope, doubly secured with
the seal of the British Embassy at Berlin, and endorsed by Sir Philip
Emden, our Ambassador, he walked hastily to one of the long windows
overlooking the paved courtyard of the Foreign Office, and for some
moments closely scrutinised both seals and signature.

"Did you fear that the papers might have been examined in transit?"  I
inquired of my grave-faced chief in surprise.

"No, Deedes, no.  Not at all," he answered, returning to his table,
cutting open the envelope, and giving a rapid glance at its contents to
assure himself that it was the same document he had sent to the German
capital a week before.  "Hammerton is trustworthy, and while dispatches
are in his care I have no fear.  The only apprehension I had was that an
attempt might possibly have been made to ascertain the nature of this
treaty," the great statesman added, indicating the document beneath his
hand.

"The result would be detrimental?"  I hazarded.

"Detrimental!" he cried.  "If the clauses of this secret defensive
alliance became known to our enemies war would be inevitable.  Russia
and France would combine, and the whole of the Powers would become
embroiled within a week.  Exposure of these secret negotiations would be
absolutely disastrous.  It would, I verily believe, mean irretrievable
ruin to England's prestige and perhaps to her power."

He uttered the ominous words slowly and distinctly, then carefully
refolding the precious document, with its string of sprawly signatures,
he placed it in another envelope, sealing it with his own private seal.

The great statesman, the greatest Foreign Minister of his time, upon
whose tact, judgment and forethought the peace and prosperity of England
mainly depended, was tall and thin, with scanty, white hair, a pale,
refined face, slightly wizened by age, deep-sunken, steely eyes, shaggy
brows, a sharp, straight nose, and a breadth of forehead indicating
indomitable perseverance and an iron will.  His reputation as brilliant
orator and shrewd and skilful diplomat was a household word throughout
the civilised world, whilst in our own land confidence always increased
when he was at the head of Foreign Affairs.  As his confidential private
secretary, I, Geoffrey Deedes, had daily opportunities of observing how
conscientiously he served his Sovereign and his country, and how amazing
was his capacity for work.  With him, duty was always of paramount
consideration; he worked night and day to sustain England's honour and
welfare, for times without number I had gone to his great gloomy house
in Berkeley Square in the middle of the night and roused him from his
bed to attend to urgent dispatches.

Although a perfect martinet towards many in the various departments of
the Foreign Office, he was to me always kind and generous.  My father,
Sir Reginald Deedes, had, as many will doubtless remember, represented
Her Majesty at the Netherlands Court for fifteen years until his death.
He was thus an old friend of the Earl, and it was this friendship that
caused him to appoint me five years ago his private secretary, and, much
to the chagrin of young Lord Gaysford, the Under Secretary, repose such
implicit confidence in me that very frequently he entrusted to my care
the keys of the ponderous safe wherein were deposited the State secrets
of the nation.

"You'd better register this, and we'll lock it away from prying eyes at
once," Lord Warnham said a few moments later, handing me the envelope
after he had sealed it.  Taking it, I went straight to my own room
across the corridor at the head of the fine central staircase.  It was
part of my duty to receive the more important dispatches, number those
which were sealed, and prior to depositing them in the safe, register
the number in my book, stating the source whence they came, the date
received, and the name of the messenger who brought them.

Alone in my room, I closed the door, took the register from my own small
safe, numbered the precious envelope with the designation "B27,893," and
carefully made an entry in the book.  Having finished, a clerk brought
me two letters from other Departments, both of which needed immediate
replies, therefore I sat down and scribbled them while he waited.  Then,
having been absent from the Chief's room nearly a quarter of an hour, I
went back with the dispatch in my hand.  In the room I found Lord
Gaysford, who, in reply to my question, stated that the Earl had been
compelled to leave in order to attend a meeting of the Cabinet, which he
believed would be a protracted one.

To me this was provoking, for the great statesman had taken with him the
key of the safe; thus was I left with this important document in my
possession.  But I said nothing of the matter to the Under Secretary,
and returning to my room placed the dispatch in my inner pocket for
greater security, determined to keep it there until his Lordship
returned.  I feared to lock it away in my own safe lest anyone else
might possess a key, and felt that in the circumstances my own pocket
was the safest place.

For nearly two hours I continued my work, it being Friday, an unusually
busy day, until, just as the clock at the Horse Guards chimed one
o'clock, a clerk entered with the card of Dudley Ogle, my college chum,
with whom I was now sharing, during the summer months, a cottage close
to the Thames at Shepperton.  On the card was the pencilled query, "Can
you come and lunch with me?"

For a few moments I hesitated.  I was busy, and I was compelled to
deliver the dispatch in my pocket to Lord Warnham before he left for
home.  I knew, however, that the meeting of the Cabinet must be a long
one, and recognising the fact that I must lunch somewhere, I gave the
clerk a message that I would join Mr Ogle in the waiting-room in a few
moments.  Then, locking my safe, I assured myself that the dispatch was
still in my pocket, brushed my hat, and joined my friend.

Dudley Ogle was the best of good fellows.  After a rather wild college
career, it had been his fancy to roam for about two years on the
Continent, and on his return, his father, with whom he was not on the
best of terms, conveniently died, leaving him possessor of about twenty
thousand pounds.  By this time he had, however, sown his wild oats, and
instead of spending his money as most young men of his age would have
done, he invested it, and now lived a careless, indolent existence,
travelling where he pleased, and getting as much enjoyment out of life
as was possible.  He was about my own age--twenty-eight, well set-up,
smart-looking, with rather aquiline features, dark hair, and a pair of
merry eyes that were an index to a contented mind.

"Didn't expect me, I suppose, old fellow?" he exclaimed breezily, when
we met.  "I found after you'd left this morning that I was compelled to
come up to town, and having nothing to do for an hour or so, it occurred
to me that we might lunch together."

"I thought you intended to pull up as far as `The Nook,'" I said,
laughing.

"So I did, but I received a wire calling me to town on some rather
urgent business.  Where shall we lunch?"

In descending the stairs and turning into Downing Street we discussed
the merits of various restaurants, and finally decided upon a small,
old-fashioned, unpretentious, but well-known place a few doors from
Charing Cross, in the direction of Whitehall, known as "The Ship."  Here
we ate our meal, spent an hour together, and then parted, he leaving to
return to Shepperton, I to finish my work and rejoin him later at our
riparian cottage.

On my return to the Foreign Office the Earl had, I found, just come in,
and I handed him the secret document which some day, sooner or later,
would control the destiny of an empire.

"This has, of course, not been out of your possession, Deedes?" inquired
his Lordship, looking keenly at me with his grey eyes, as he stood
before the open door of the great safe.

"Not for a single instant," I replied.

"Good.  I trust you," he said, carefully placing the sealed envelope in
a pigeon-hole to itself, and closing the door with a loud clang, locked
it.

"I think," he said, his ascetic features relaxing into a self-satisfied
smile, "I think we have once again checkmated our enemies, and swiftly
too.  The whole thing has been arranged and concluded within a week,
thanks to the clever diplomacy of Emden at Berlin."

"And to your own forethought," I added, laughing.

"No, no.  To Emden all credit is due, none to me, none," he answered
modestly; then, turning, he gave me some instructions, and a few minutes
later put on his hat and left for home.  At four o'clock I also left,
and driving to Waterloo, caught my train to Shepperton, where I found
Dudley Ogle awaiting me.  Ours was a pretty cottage.  Facing the river,
it was covered with creepers, sweet-smelling jasmine and roses, with a
rustic porch in front, and a large old-world garden around.  Life was
delightful there after the stuffiness of London chambers, and as we both
had with us our men, in addition to Mrs Franks, my trusty housekeeper,
we were prevented from being troubled by the minor worries of life.

"Hulloa, old chap!" cried Dudley, hastily rousing himself from a lazy
attitude on the couch in our sitting-room as I entered.  "Stifling hot,
isn't it?  There's a wire from the Laings.  They want us to dine with
them to-night.  Going?"

I hesitated, and my reluctance did not escape him.

"Isn't Ella's company sufficient inducement?" he asked chaffingly.

"Going?  Of course I am," I answered quickly, glancing at my watch.  "We
have a full hour before dressing.  Let's go for a row.  It'll improve
our appetites."

Within a few minutes I had exchanged the frock coat of officialdom for
flannels, and very soon we were pulling upstream towards a delightful
backwater that was our goal.  As we rowed, the silence being broken only
by the sound of the oars in the row-locks, I calmly reviewed the
situation.  Why the Laings invited me that night puzzled me.  Truth to
tell, I loved Ella Laing with all the strength of my being, and had
foolishly believed she reciprocated my affection until two nights ago,
when I had called at the house near Staines, where she lived with her
mother during the summer months.  I had discovered her in the garden
walking in lover-like attitude with Andrew Beck, a retired silk
manufacturer, who had lived in France so long that he had become
something of a cosmopolitan, and who had lately entered Parliament at a
bye-election as representative of West Rutlandshire.  I confess to
having conceived an instinctive dislike to this man from the very first
moment we had been introduced by a mutual friend in the Lobby of the
House of Commons, for he was a parvenu of the most pronounced type,
while his grey, beetling brows and flat, broad nose gave his face an
expression anything but pleasing.

Nevertheless he walked jauntily, spoke loudly in bluff good-natured
tones, gave excellent dinners, and, strangely enough, was voted a good
fellow wherever he went.  Yet there was an ostentatiousness about his
actions that was sickening; his arrogant, self-assertive manner was, to
me, extremely distasteful.  The discovery that he was endeavouring to
supplant me in Ella's affections filled my cup of indignation to the
full.

I had left the garden unobserved on that fateful night, returned at once
to our riverside cottage, and written her an angry letter, charging her
in plain terms with having played me false.  In reply, next morning she
sent by the gardener a long letter full of mild reproach, in which she
asserted that she had no thought of love for anyone beside myself, and
that I had entirely misconstrued her relations with Mr Beck.  "Strange,
indeed, it is that you, of all men, should declare that I love him," she
wrote.  "Love!  If you knew all, you would neither write nor utter that
sacred word to me; and even though you are the only man for whom I have
a thought, it may, after all, be best if we never again meet.  You say
you cannot trust me further.  Well, I can only reply that my future
happiness is in your hands.  I am yours."

Deeply had I pondered over this curious, half-hysterical,
half-reproachful letter, re-reading it many many times, and becoming
more and more puzzled over its vague, mysterious meaning.  On several
occasions I had been upon the point of calling and questioning her, but
had refrained.  Now, however, this formal invitation to dine had come no
doubt through Ella, and I saw in it her desire to personally explain
away my jealousy.  So I accepted.

CHAPTER TWO.

"THE NOOK."

When, a couple of hours later, we entered Mrs Laing's garden, the first
person we encountered was the man I hated, Andrew Beck, in his
ill-fitting dress clothes and broad, crumpled shirt-front, with its
great diamond solitaire, lounging in a wicker chair at the river's
brink, smoking, and in solitude enjoying the glorious sunset that,
reflecting upon the water, transformed it into a stream of rippling
gold.  "The Nook," as Mrs Laing's house was called, was a charming old
place facing the river at a little distance above Staines Bridge--long,
low, completely covered with ivy and surrounded by a wide sweep of lawn
that sloped down to the water's edge, and a belt of old elms beneath the
cool shade of which I had spent many delightfully lazy afternoons by the
side of my well-beloved.

"Ah!  Deedes," exclaimed Beck, gaily, rising as we approached, "I was
waiting for somebody to come.  The ladies haven't come down yet."

"Have you seen them?"  I asked.

"Not yet," he replied; then turning to my friend Dudley, he began
chaffing him about a young and wealthy widow he had rowed up to Windsor
in our boat a few days before.

"We saw you, my boy.  We saw you?" he laughed.  "You were talking so
confidentially as you passed, that Ella remarked that you were
contemplating stepping into the dead man's shoes."

"No, no," Dudley retorted good-humouredly.  "No widows for me.  She was
merely left under my care for an hour or so, and I had to do the
amicable.  It's really too bad of you all to jump to such rash
conclusions."

At that instant a soft, musical voice behind me uttered my name, and,
turning, I met Ella, with a light wrap thrown about her shoulders,
coming forward to me with outstretched hand.  "Ah!  Geoffrey, how are
you?" she cried gaily, with joy in her brilliant, sparkling eyes.  Then,
as our hands clasped, she added in an undertone, "I knew you would come;
I knew you would forgive."

"I have not forgiven," I answered, rather coldly, bending over her slim
white hand.

"But I have committed no fault," she said, pouting prettily.

"You have given me no satisfactory explanation."

"Wait until after dinner.  We will come out here together, where we can
talk without being overheard," she whispered hurriedly, then left me
abruptly to greet Dudley and Andrew Beck.  There was something
significant in the swift, inquisitive glance she exchanged with the
last-named man, and turning away I strode across the lawn annoyed.  A
moment later I met Mrs Laing herself.  She was elderly and effusive;
tall, and of stately bearing.  Her hair was perfectly white but by no
means scanty, her face was clever and refined without that grossness
that too often disfigures a well-preserved woman of fifty, and in her
dark eyes, undimmed by time, there was always an expression of calm
contentment.  Her husband had been a great traveller until his death ten
years ago, and she, accompanying him on his journeys in the East, had
become a clever linguist, an accomplishment which her only daughter,
Ella, shared.

As we stood together chatting, and watching the boats full of happy
youths and maidens gliding past in the brilliant afterglow, I thought
that never had I seen Ella looking so handsome, as, standing with
Dudley, she had taken up Beck's theme, and was congratulating him upon
his trip with the skittish widow.

Hers was an oval face, perfect in its symmetry, clear cut and refined, a
trifle pale perhaps, but from her eyes of that darkest blue that
sometimes sparkled into the brightness of a sapphire, sometimes deepened
into softest grey like the sky on a summer night, there shone an inner
beauty, indicative of a purity of soul.  The mouth was mobile, short and
full, with an exquisite finish about the curve of the lips, the nose
short and straight, and the hair of darkest gold--the gold that cannot
be produced artificially, but has a slight dash of red in it, just
sufficient to enrich the brown of the shadows and give a burnish to the
ripples in the high lights.  Her eyebrows were set rather high up from
the eye itself, and were slightly drooped at the corner nearest the ear,
imparting to her face a kind of plaintive, questioning look that was
exceedingly becoming to her.  Her gown was of soft clinging silk of
palest heliotrope, that bore the unmistakable stamp of Paris, while on
her slim wrist I noticed she wore the diamond bangle I had given her six
months before.  As she chatted with Dudley, she turned and laughed at me
gaily over her shoulder from time to time, and when we entered the house
a few minutes later, it was with satisfaction that I found myself placed
beside her at table.

Dinner was always a pleasant, if slightly stately, meal at Mrs Laing's.
She was a brilliant and accomplished hostess, whose entertainments at
her house in Pont Street were always popular, and who surrounded herself
with interesting and intellectual people.  Bohemia was generally well
represented at her receptions, for the lions of the season, whether
literary, artistic, or musical, were always to be met there--a fact
which induced many of the more exclusive set to honour the merry widow
by their presence.  Wearied, however, of the eternal small talk about
new books, new plays, new pictures, and the newest fads, I was glad
when, after smoking, we were free to rejoin the ladies in the quaint,
oak-panelled drawing-room.

The moon had risen, and ere long I strolled with Ella through the French
windows, and out upon the lawn, eager to talk alone with her.

"Well," she said at length, when we were seated in the shadow beneath
one of the high rustling elms, "so you want an explanation.  What can I
give?"

"Your letter conveys the suspicion that there exists some secret between
Beck and yourself," I said, as calmly as I could.

"My letter!" she exclaimed, in a voice that seemed a little harsh and
strained.  "What did I say?  I really forget."

"It's useless to prevaricate, Ella," I said, rather impatiently.  "You
say that if I knew all I would never utter words of love to you.  What
do you mean?"

"Exactly what I wrote," she answered huskily, in a low voice.

"You mean to imply that you are unworthy of the love of an honest man?"
I observed in astonishment.

"Yes," she gasped hoarsely.  "I do not--I--cannot deceive you, Geoffrey,
because I love you."  The last sentence she uttered passionately, with a
fierce fire burning in her eyes.  "You are jealous of Andrew Beck, a man
old enough to be my father.  Well, I confess I was foolish to allow him
to walk with me here with his arm around my waist; yet at that moment
the indiscretion did not occur to me."

"But he was speaking to you--whispering into your ready ears words of
love and tenderness.  He spoke in persuasive tones, as if begging you to
become his wife," I said angrily, the very thought of the scene I had
witnessed filling me with indignation and bitter hatred.

"No, you are entirely mistaken, Geoffrey.  No word of love passed
between us," she said quietly, looking into my eyes with unwavering
glance.

I smiled incredulously.

"You will perhaps deny that here, within six yards of this very spot,
you stopped and burst forth into tears?"  I exclaimed, with cold
cynicism.

"I admit that.  The words he uttered were of sufficient significance to
bring tears to my eyes," she replied vaguely.

"He must have spoken words of love to you," I argued.  "I watched you
both."

"I deny that he did, Geoffrey," she cried fiercely, starting up.  "To
satisfy you, I am even ready to take an oath before my Creator that the
subject of our conversation was not love."

"What was Beck persuading you to do?"  I demanded.

"No, no," she cried, as if the very thought was repulsive to her.  "No,
do not ask me.  I can never tell you, never!"

"Then there is a secret between you that you decline to reveal," I said
reproachfully.

She laughed a harsh metallic laugh, answering in a tone of feigned
flippancy,--

"Really, Geoffrey, you are absurdly and unreasonably suspicious.  I tell
you I love no other man but yourself, yet merely because it pleases you
to misconstrue what you have witnessed you brand me as base and
faithless.  It is unjust."

"But your letter!"  I cried.

"I had no intention of conveying the idea that any secret existed
between Mr Beck and myself.  He was, as you well know, an old friend of
my father's, and has known me since a child.  Towards me he is always
friendly and good-natured, but I swear he has never spoken to me of
love."

"But you cannot deny, Ella, that a secret--some fact that you are
determined to keep from me--exists, and that if not of love, it was of
that secret Beck spoke to you so earnestly in the garden here!"

Her dry lips moved, but no sound escaped them.  She shivered.  I saw my
question had entirely nonplussed her, and I felt instinctively that I
had uttered the truth.

At that instant, however, a servant crossed the lawn in the moonlight,
and approaching, handed me a telegram, stating that Juckes, my man, had
brought it over from Shepperton, fearing that it might be of importance.

Hastily I thrust it into my pocket unopened, and when the servant was
out of hearing I repeated the plain question I had put to my
well-beloved.

In the bright moonlight I watched how pale and agitated was her face,
while involuntarily she shuddered, as if the thought that I might
ascertain the truth terrified her.

"Geoffrey," she said at last, in a low, plaintive voice as, sitting
beside me, her slim fingers suddenly closed convulsively upon mine, "why
cannot you trust me, when you know I love you so dearly?"

"Why cannot you tell me the truth instead of evading it?  You say you
are unworthy of my love.  Why?"

"I--I cannot tell you," she cried wildly, breaking into hysterical sobs.
"Ah!  You do not know how I have suffered, Geoffrey, or you would not
speak thus to me.  If you can no longer trust me, then we must, alas!
part.  But if we do, I shall think ever of you as one who misjudged me
and cast me off, merely because of my inability to give you an
explanation of one simple incident."

"But I love you, Ella," I cried.  "Why should we part--why should--"

"Hulloa, Deedes!" interrupted Beck's high-pitched, genial voice.  "I've
been looking for you everywhere.  We're all going for a moonlight row.
Come along."

Further conversation was, I saw, out of the question, and a few minutes
later we had all embarked, with the exception of Mrs Laing, and were
gliding slowly down the stream, now glittering in the brilliant
moonbeams.  Dudley had brought Ella's mandoline from the house, and as
our prow cut the rippling waters he played a soft, charming gondolier's
song.  My love sat beside me in the stern, and her eyes mutely asked
forgiveness as ever and anon she turned to me.  I saw how beautiful she
was, how full of delicate grace, and how varying were her moods; yet she
seemed nervous, highly-strung, with a strange harshness in her voice
that I had never before noticed.  She spoke no word to Beck, and I
remarked within myself that she avoided him, while once, when he leant
over to grasp her hand, she shrank shudderingly from its contact.

An hour later, when, after rowing down to Laleham, we had returned to
the "Nook" and, at the instigation of the ladies, were enjoying cigars,
I accidentally placed my hand in the breast-pocket of my dress-coat and
there felt the telegram which I had until that moment entirely
forgotten.  Opening it, I was amazed to find it in cipher.  The cipher
signature was that of the Earl of Warnham, and I saw it had been
transmitted over the private wire from Warnham, his seat in Sussex.

Taking a pencil from my pocket I at once proceeded to transcribe the
mysterious array of letters, and when I at last discovered the purport
of the message, I sat back in my chair, breathless and rigid, while the
flimsy paper nearly fell from my nerveless fingers.

"Why, Geoffrey!" cried Ella, starting up in alarm and rushing towards
me, "what's the matter?  You are as pale as death.  Have you had bad
news?"

"Bad news!"  I answered, trying to laugh and slowly rousing myself.  "No
bad news at all, except that I must leave for town at once."

"Well, you certainly look as if you've been hard hit over a race," Beck
exclaimed, laughing.

"You can't possibly get a train now till 11:30.  It's hardly ten yet,"
said my well-beloved, exchanging a strange, mysterious glance with
Dudley.

"Then I must go by that," I answered, again re-reading the pink paper,
replacing it in my pocket, and endeavouring to preserve an outward calm.

Presently, when Ella was again alone with me, her first question was,--

"What bad news have you received, Geoffrey?"

"None," I answered, smiling.  "It is a private matter, of really no
importance at all."

"Oh, I thought it must have been something very, very serious, your hand
trembled so, and you turned so pale."

"Did I?"  I laughed cheerily.  "Well, it's nothing, dearest; nothing at
all."

Thus reassured, she continued to chat with that bright vivacity that was
one of her most engaging characteristics.  I have, however, no idea of
what she said; I only answered her mechanically, for I was too full of
gloomy apprehensions to heed her gossip, even though I loved her with
all my soul.

Half-an-hour later, Dudley, finding that I had to go to town, announced
his intention of walking back to Shepperton.

"The night is lovely, and the moon bright as day," he said, as we all
shook hands with him in the hall.  "I shall enjoy the walk."

"Beware of widows!" shouted Beck, standing at the top of the wide flight
of steps.

We all laughed heartily.

"None about to-night," my friend shouted back good-humouredly, and,
setting out briskly, disappeared a moment later down the long, winding
carriage drive.

"It's really too bad to tease Mr Ogle about widows," Ella protested when
we went in.

"He enjoys the joke hugely," I said.  "Dudley's an excellent fellow.
I've never in my life seen him out of temper."

"In that case he ought to make a good husband," she replied, laughing,
as together we all entered Mrs Laing's pretty drawing-room, with its
shaded lamps and cosy-corners, where we spent another three-quarters of
an hour chatting until, finding we had just time to catch our train,
Beck and I made our adieux.  When I shook hands with Ella she whispered
an earnest appeal for forgiveness, which, truth to tell, I feigned not
to hear.  Then we parted.

With Beck at my side, I walked sharply down the drive, rendered dark by
the thick canopy of trees overhead, and had almost gained the gate
leading to the high road when suddenly, catching my foot against some
unseen object in the pathway, I fell heavily forward upon the gravel,
just managing to save my face by putting out both hands.

"Hulloa!" cried Beck; "what's the matter?"

"The matter!"  I gasped, groping at the mysterious object quickly with
my hands.  "I believe I've fallen over somebody."

"Drunk, I suppose.  Come along, or we sha'n't catch our train."

But, still kneeling, I quickly took my vestas from my pocket and struck
one.  By its fitful light I distinguished the prostrate body of a man
lying face downwards, with arms outstretched beyond his head.  Turning
him over with difficulty, I lit another vesta and held it close down to
his face.

Next second I drew back with a loud cry of dismay and horror.  It was
Dudley Ogle.

His bloodless features were hideously distorted, his limbs rigid, his
wildly-staring eyes were already glazed, and his stiffened fingers icy
cold.

In an instant I knew the truth.  He was dead.

CHAPTER THREE.

A MYSTERY.

"Why!" gasped Beck, recognising the cold, drawn features by the light of
the match he struck.  "It's Dudley!  Run back to the house and get
assistance quickly.  I'll remain here.  Life may not be extinct after
all, poor fellow!"  At this suggestion I sprang up, and dashing away
along the drive, burst into the drawing-room from the lawn.

"Geoffrey!" cried Mrs Laing, starting up quickly from a cosy-corner
wherein she had settled to read.  "What has happened?  You look scared."

"A very painful thing has occurred," I gasped breathlessly, striving to
preserve a calm demeanour.  "We have found poor Dudley lying in the
drive yonder.  He's dead!"

"Dead!" she screamed hysterically.  "Dudley dead!"

"Yes, alas!"  I replied.  "Beck is with him, awaiting assistance."

"I can't believe it," she cried, clutching at a chair for support.  Her
face was ashen pale, and her bejewelled hands trembled violently.  "Poor
Dudley!  If he is dead, it is certain that he has been the victim of
foul play," she added mechanically, in a low tone.  Then suddenly
recovering herself, she inquired the circumstances in which we had found
him.

"I will explain later," I cried impatiently.  "May I ring for the
servants?"

"No," she cried, starting forward with a strange, wild look.  "Return to
him, and leave all to me.  For the present the truth must be kept from
Ella.  There are reasons why my daughter should not know of this tragic
affair until to-morrow.  As you are aware, she is weak and unstrung
to-night, and has already gone to her room.  I fear that any sudden
shock may prove extremely detrimental to her, and I therefore trust you
will respect my wishes."

"Certainly," I answered.  "But we are not yet convinced that life is
extinct, so while you arrange for his removal here, I'll go at once for
a doctor."

"Yes, do.  Dr Allenby is nearest.  The first house over the bridge," she
replied hastily, and as she rang the bell I sprang out again upon the
lawn and rushed away along the drive.

Beck was still kneeling beside the prostrate man, supporting his head
upon his knee, and approaching, I asked whether he had detected any
signs of respiration.

"None whatever," he answered.  "I'm afraid, poor fellow, he has gone."

Briefly I explained my errand and rushed off for medical assistance,
returning to "The Nook" with the grey-haired practitioner a quarter of
an hour later.  We found Dudley lying in the drawing-room on the large
couch of yellow silk, with Beck and Mrs Laing standing calmly on either
side.  In Mrs Laing's eyes were traces of tears.  The doctor, after a
brief examination, shook his head gravely, saying,--

"Life has, unfortunately, been extinct for fully an hour."

"What is the cause of death?" inquired Mrs Laing, eagerly.

"I have not yet examined the body, but there are no marks of violence
whatever, as far as I can observe.  At the _post-mortem_ we may be able
to discover something."

She drew a deep breath.  I chanced at that moment to glance at her, and
was surprised to observe an unmistakable look of terror flit for a brief
instant across her haggard countenance.  It seemed as though the
doctor's hope of determining the cause of death had aroused within her a
sudden apprehension.  Dr Allenby, however, suggested, in polite terms,
that she should leave the room, as he desired to examine the body, and
she reluctantly consented, exclaiming, as she moved slowly out,--

"I would have given worlds to have avoided all this.  One's name will be
bruited about in the papers; and there will be an inquest, I suppose,
and all that sort of thing.  And dear Ella--what a terrible blow it will
be to her!"  Then, when the door had closed, while I stood gazing upon
my intimate friend who, only an hour before, had been so full of life's
enjoyment, buoyant spirits and _bonhomie_, surprised at Mrs Laing's
extraordinary manner, and reflecting upon her sudden strange demeanour,
the doctor, assisted by Beck, began a minute and careful examination.
In a quarter of an hour, they satisfied themselves that no violence had
been used, and just as they concluded, the police, who had been sent
for, arrived.  The local sub-divisional inspector, tall, red-faced, and
inclined to obesity, a plain-clothes constable, and a sergeant in
uniform, who entered the drawing-room, were at once informed of the
mysterious circumstances in which the body had been discovered.  The
inspector scribbled some brief notes, took the names and addresses of
all of us, remarking with politeness that we should be compelled to
attend the inquest.

Afterwards, the body was removed to the billiard-room and the
plain-clothes constable left in charge of it, while, with Beck and Dr
Allenby, I entered the dining-room where Mrs Laing, pale, agitated and
nervous, was eagerly awaiting us.  The arrival of the police in her
house had apparently filled her with dread, for almost the first
question she asked me was,--

"Have they gone?  Have they gone?"

"They have left one officer on duty to prevent the body being touched,"
I answered.

"Then the police are absolutely in possession of my house!  Will they
search it?" she inquired hoarsely.

"Search it!  Certainly not," I answered.  "Of course, if foul play were
suspected, they might.  Otherwise they have no power without a
search-warrant properly signed by a magistrate."

"But no violence is suspected," she exclaimed in a half whisper,
glancing over to where the doctor and Beck were standing in earnest
conversation.  "I shall therefore be spared the indignity of having my
house searched, sha'n't I?"

"I trust so, Mrs Laing," I replied.  "But it is not such a dreadful
ordeal, after all, to have one's place rummaged."

"No, perhaps not," she answered thoughtfully; then, smiling, she added,
"Perhaps I am foolish to regret that this terrible affair has occurred
at my very door.  Poor Dudley has died suddenly, and it is only right
that I, his intimate friend, should do what I can to ensure the last
rite being carried out in decency.  But the very thought of the police
unnerves me! and I fear, too, on Ella's account.  Only yesterday Dr
Allenby told her that she must carefully avoid any shock."

"But she must know the truth to-morrow," I observed.

"Will you break the dreadful news to her?" she urged.  "As her
betrothed, you, perhaps, can tell her better than anyone else."

"Unfortunately I shall be unable," I said.  "This evening I received a
very urgent telegram which recalls me to town, and having now lost my
last train, I must go by the 6:30 in the morning.  I cannot get back
before late in the evening, or it may be next day.  But as soon as
possible I will return straight here, and render you whatever assistance
is in my power."

"Thanks.  But is your business so very urgent?" she asked.

"Of greatest importance.  Poor Dudley's tragic end has delayed me, and
even this brief delay may be of most serious consequence."

"Ah! you men in the Foreign Office are always full of deep schemes and
clever diplomacy," she smiled, toying with her mass of rings.

I laughed, but did not reply.

"Is it on Foreign Office business that you are compelled to leave us?"
she persisted, glancing at me keenly, I thought, as if intent upon
ascertaining the purport of the telegram I had received.

"Yes," I replied, in wonder that she should thus evince such a strong
desire to glean the nature of my business.  But next instant it occurred
to me that possibly she might suspect me of being implicated in some
mysterious manner with my friend's sudden end, and that, believing I
desired to escape, was determined at least to know where I was going,
and upon what errand.

At that moment Beck crossed to us, saying,--

"This affair is certainly most distressing, Mrs Laing.  Dudley was such
an excellent fellow that we must each one of us regret his loss very
deeply indeed.  I have just been discussing the matter with the doctor;
but, of course, he can at present form no conjecture as to the cause of
death."

"Natural causes, no doubt," chimed in the medical man, in a dry,
business-like tone.  "I think we may at once dismiss all idea that
violence was used."

"You think so?" inquired Mrs Laing, with eagerness.  "You don't believe,
then, he has been a victim of foul play?"

"Not at all.  Beyond the slight bruise on the forehead, evidently caused
by the fall upon the gravel, there is no mark whatever," the doctor
answered.  "Until I have made a thorough examination I cannot, of
course, determine the nature of the fatal cause.  By noon to-morrow we
shall, I hope, know the truth."

"He must have fallen and expired within ten minutes of leaving the
house," Beck exclaimed.  "Yet when he shook hands with us he was in the
highest possible spirits.  How terribly sudden his end was."

"Terrible!"  I exclaimed, myself dazed by the peculiarly tragic and
mysterious affair.  "When he wished us adieu he could not have dreamed
that his life had so nearly run its course."

"He complained of no pain during the evening, I suppose?" the doctor
inquired.

"Not to my knowledge," Beck answered, and this statement I was compelled
to endorse.

"He dined here?"  Dr Allenby exclaimed, turning to Mrs Laing.

"Yes."

"There are some remains of the food left, I presume?"

"No doubt," she answered quickly.  "But--but what do you suspect!  Are
the symptoms those of poisoning?" she gasped.

"I suspect nothing," replied the doctor, with hesitation.  "The fact
that the hands are tightly clenched suggests a final paroxysm of pain
which might possibly accrue from poison.  The remains of the dinner may
be required for analysis, therefore it would be advisable to keep them."

"Very well," she answered, a shadow of annoyance upon her face.  "I'll
give orders to that effect.  But surely, doctor, you do not think poor
Dudley can have been poisoned in my house.  If anything we had for
dinner had been deleterious, all of us must have suffered."

"No, pardon me for disagreeing," he answered politely.  "In many cases
known to toxicologists, families have eaten of the same meal, and one
person only has been seized with sudden illness that has proved fatal.
By analysis we may obtain some clue as to the cause of Mr Ogle's
unfortunate end."

Mrs Laing's thin lips moved, but no sound escaped them.  At last,
turning suddenly, she covered her face with her hands, as if to shut out
from her gaze the white, haggard countenance she had so recently looked
upon.

"Come," exclaimed the doctor, sympathetically, laying his hand upon her
arm.  "You are trembling.  This unfortunate occurrence has no doubt
upset you, but you must bear up.  Immediately I get home I shall send
you a draught that will brace up your nerves.  Take care how the sad
news is broken to Miss Ella.  The slightest undue excitement may affect
her very seriously."

"I have not forgotten your words yesterday, doctor," she replied.  "You
are very kind.  Good-night!"

They shook hands, and Dr Allenby, taking up his hat, left--an example
Beck and I soon afterwards followed, passing the night at the Angel
Hotel.

Throughout the dark, breathless hours sleep came not to my eyes, so full
was my mind of the tragic discovery.  As I lay awake, hour after hour,
listening to the chiming bells, and watching the dawn struggling in
between the curtains, I reflected deeply upon the strange events of that
evening, and the more I pondered, the more mysterious appeared the
circumstances.  Foremost in my mind was the strange, inviolable secret
that I felt convinced existed between Ella and Beck.  Although
strenuously denied by her, she had nevertheless admitted her
unworthiness of my love.  Yet I adored her.  No woman had ever stirred
my soul as she had; no woman had so completely held me under her spell.
I remembered how she had seemed a trifle wan and distressed; yet that
look enhanced rather than detracted from her refined beauty.  Her steady
refusal to enlighten me regarding the subject of her earnest
conversation with Beck when I had watched them in the garden, and the
significant glances she had exchanged with him across the dinner-table,
had aroused within me a suspicion that, notwithstanding her declaration,
she loved Beck.  Again, the tone of her letter was, I now saw
distinctly, such as a woman would write if she desired to break off her
engagement.  Yet had I not a right to demand full explanation of her
extraordinary statement? had I not a right to seek the truth of her
relations with this loud-spoken parvenu?  Nevertheless, as I pondered, I
felt half inclined to believe that my estimate of Beck was a distorted
one, for his regret at the death of Dudley, and his sympathy for Mrs
Laing were, I felt assured, deep, heartfelt and genuine.  When at last I
carefully analysed my feelings towards him, I was bound to admit within
myself that jealousy was now the only cause of my bitter antipathy.

Again, other incidents increased the mystery.  Mrs Laing's dread that
Ella should know of Dudley's death was very curious, and her
exclamations and inquiries of the doctor regarding his conjecture of
poison seemed to point to the fact that she entertained certain
suspicions, or was aware of certain facts.  But, after fully reviewing
the tragic affair in all its phases, I arrived at the conclusion that Dr
Allenby did not anticipate for one moment finding poison at the
_post-mortem_.  On the contrary, from the words he had let drop, he
undoubtedly believed death due to heart-disease.  I could not, however,
rid myself of a vague suspicion that Ella's mother feared analysis of
the remains of the dinner, and that the presence of the police unnerved
her, as it invariably does those who are guilty.

Until the sun shone out, casting a long bright beam across the dingy
carpet, I pondered over these curious facts in their sequence, unable to
elucidate the deep mystery underlying them.  After a dismal, sleepless
night, haunted by a nameless spectral fear, that ray of sunshine brought
back hope and banished despair I found myself at last reflecting that,
after all, Dudley had expired suddenly from a cause to which any of us
might be liable, and it was probable that I had been scenting mystery
and tragedy where there were none.

I rose, and actually smiled at the weird and horrible nature of the
thoughts that throughout the wearying night had held me spellbound in
indescribable dread and terror.

CHAPTER FOUR.

THE CLICK OF THE TELEGRAPH.

When at noon, in accordance with the urgent and strangely-worded
telegram I had received from the Earl of Warnham, I alighted at Horsham
Station, in Sussex, I found one of the carriages from the Hall awaiting
me.  As I entered it, I was followed by a man I knew slightly,
Superintendent Frayling, chief of the Criminal Investigation Department
at Scotland Yard, who had apparently travelled down by the same train
from Victoria.

Greeting me, he took the place beside me, and a moment later the footman
sprang upon the box and we sped away towards the open country.  To my
question as to his business with the Earl, he made an evasive reply,
merely stating that he had received a telegram requesting an immediate
interview.

"This summons is rather unusual," he added, smiling.  "Has anything
serious occurred, do you know?"

"Not that I'm aware of.  Perhaps there's been a burglary at the Hall?"
I suggested.

"Hardly that, I think," he replied, with a knowing look, stroking his
pointed brown beard.  "If burglars had visited the place, he would have
asked for a clever officer or two, not for a personal interview with
me."  With this view I was compelled to agree, then, lighting
cigarettes, we sat back calmly contemplating the beautiful, fertile
country through which we were driving.  The road, leaving the quaint old
town, descended sharply for a short distance, then wound uphill through
cornfields lined by high hedges of hawthorn and holly.  On, past a
quaint old water-mill we skirted Warnham Pond, whereon Shelley in his
youthful days sailed paper boats, then half-a-mile further entered the
handsome lodge-gates of Warnham Park.  Through a fine avenue, with a
broad sweep of park on either side well stocked with deer, emus and many
zoological specimens, we ascended, until at last, after negotiating the
long, winding drive in front of the Hall, the carriage pulled up with a
sudden jerk before its handsome portico.

As I alighted, old Stanford, the white-haired butler, came forward
hurriedly, saying,--

"His Lordship is in the library awaiting you, sir.  He told me to bring
you to him the moment you arrived."

"Very well," I said, and the aged retainer, leading the way along a
spacious but rather cheerless corridor, stopped before the door of the
great library, and throwing it suddenly open, announced me.

"At last, Deedes," I heard the Earl exclaim in a tone that showed him to
be in no amiable mood; and as I entered the long, handsome chamber,
lined from floor to ceiling with books, I did not at first notice him
until he rose slowly from a large writing-table, behind which he had
been hidden.  His face, usually wizened and pale, was absolutely
bloodless.  Its appearance startled me.

"I wired you last night, and expected you by the 9:18 this morning, Why
did you not come?" was his first question, uttered in a sharp tone of
annoyance.

"The sudden death of a friend caused me to lose the train I intended to
catch," I explained.

"Death!" he snapped, in the manner habitual to him when impatient.  "Is
the death of a friend any account when the interests of the country are
at stake?  On the night my wife was dying I was compelled to leave her
bedside to travel to Balmoral to have audience of Her Majesty regarding
a document I had sent for the Royal assent.  When I returned, Lady
Warnham had been dead fourteen hours.  In the successful diplomat there
must be no sentiment--none."

"The five minutes I lost when I discovered my friend dead caused me to
miss my train from Staines to London," I explained.

"But you received my telegram, and should have strictly regarded its
urgency," he answered, with an air of extreme dissatisfaction.  "The
fact of its being in cipher was sufficient to show its importance."

"I was out dining, and my man brought it along to me," I said.

"Why did he do so?" he inquired quickly.

"Because he thought it might be urgent."

"Did he open it?"

"No.  Even if he had it was in cipher."

"Is your man absolutely trustworthy?" he asked.

"He has been in the service of my family for fifteen years.  He was my
father's valet at the Hague."

"Is his name Juckes?" he inquired.

"Yes."

"Ah!  I know him.  He is absolutely trustworthy; a most excellent man."

The Earl's manner surprised me.  His face, usually calm, sphinx-like and
expressionless, betrayed the most intense anxiety and suspicion.  That
my delay had caused him great annoyance was apparent, but the anxious
expression upon his ashen, almost haggard face was such, that even in
moments of extreme perplexity, when dealing with one or other of the
many complex questions of foreign policy, it had never been so intense.

Standing with his back to one of the great bay windows that commanded
extensive views of the picturesque park, he was silent for a moment,
then turning his keen, grey eyes upon me, he suddenly exclaimed, in a
tone of extreme gravity,--

"Since yesterday, Deedes, a catastrophe has occurred."

"You briefly hinted at it in your telegram," I answered.  "What is its
nature?"

"The most serious that has happened during the whole of my
administration," he said in a voice that plainly betrayed his agitation.
"The clauses of the secret defensive alliance which Hammerton brought
from Berlin yesterday are known in St Petersburg."

"What!"  I cried in alarm, remembering the Earl's words, and his
elaborate precautions to preserve its secrecy.  "Surely they cannot be
already known?"

"We have been tricked by spies, Deedes," he answered sternly.  "Read
this," and he handed me a telegram in the private cipher known only to
the Minister himself.  Its transcript was written beneath, and at a
glance I saw it was from a Russian official in the Foreign Office at St
Petersburg, who acted as our secret agent there and received a large sum
yearly for his services.  The dispatch, which showed that it had been
handed in at Hamburg at six o'clock on the previous evening--all secret
messages being sent in the first instance to that city--and
re-transmitted--read as follows:--

"_Greatest excitement caused here by receipt by telegraph an hour ago of
verbatim copy of secret defensive alliance between England and Germany.
Have seen telegram, which was handed in at 369, Strand, London, at 3:30.
Just called at Embassy and informed Lord Strathavon.  Council of
Ministers has been summoned_."

"It is amazing," I gasped, when I had read the dispatch.  "How could our
enemies have learned the truth?"

Without replying he took from his writing-table another message, which
read:--

"_From Strathavon, St Petersburg.  To the Earl of Warnham, London.--
Defensive alliance known here.  Hostilities feared.  French ambassador
has had audience at Winter Palace, and telegraphed to Paris for
instruction.  Shall wire hourly_."

One by one he took up the telegraphic dispatches which, during the
night, had been re-transmitted from the Foreign Office over the private
wire to the instrument that stood upon a small table opposite us.  As I
read each of them eagerly, I saw plainly that Russia and France were in
complete accord, and that we were on the verge of a national disaster,
sudden and terrible.  With such secrecy and rapidity were negotiations
being carried on between Paris and St Petersburg, that in Berlin, a city
always well-informed in all matters of diplomacy, nothing unusual was
suspected.

A further telegram from our secret agent in the Russian Foreign Office,
received an hour before my arrival at Warnham, read:--

"_The secret is gradually leaking out.  The_ Novosti _has just issued a
special edition hinting at the possibility of war with England, and this
has caused the most intense excitement everywhere.  The journal,
evidently inspired, gives no authority for its statement, nor does it
give any reason for the startling rumour_."

I laid down the dispatch in silence, and as I raised my head the
Minister's keen, penetrating eyes met mine.

"Well," he exclaimed, in a dry, harsh tone.  "What is is your
explanation, sir?"

"My explanation?"  I cried, in amazement, noticing his determined
demeanour.  "I know nothing of the affair except the telegrams you have
shown me."

"Upon you alone the responsibility of this catastrophe rests," he said
angrily.  "It is useless to deny all knowledge of it and only aggravates
your offence.  Because you come of a diplomatic family I have trusted
you implicitly, but it is evident that my confidence has been utterly
misplaced."

"I deny that I have ever, for a single instant, betrayed the trust you
have placed in me," I replied hotly.  "I know nothing of the means by
which the Tzar's army of spies have obtained knowledge of our secret."

He snapped his bony fingers impatiently, saying,--

"It is not to be expected that you will acknowledge yourself a traitor
to your country, sir; therefore we must prove your guilt."

"You are at liberty, of course, to act in what manner you please," I
answered.  "I tell you frankly, however, that this terrible charge you
bring against me is as startling as the information I have just read.  I
can only say I am entirely innocent."

"Bah!" he cried, turning on his heel with a gesture of disgust.  Then,
facing me again, his eyes flashing with anger, he added, "If you are
innocent, tell me why you were so long absent yesterday when registering
the dispatch; tell me why, when such an important document was in your
possession, you did not remain in the office instead of being absent
over an hour?"

"I went out to lunch," I said.

"With the document in your pocket?"

"Yes.  But surely you do not suspect me of being a spy?"  I cried.

"I do not suspect you, sir.  I have positive proof of it."

"Proof!"  I gasped.  "Show it to me."

"It is here," he answered, his thin, nervous hands turning over the mass
of papers littering his writing-table, and taking from among them an
official envelope.  In an instant I recognised it as the one containing
the treaty.

"This remains exactly as I took it from the safe with my own hands and
cut it open."

With trembling fingers I drew the document from its envelope and opened
it.

The paper was blank!

I glanced at him in abject dismay, unable to utter a word.

"That is what you handed me on my return from the Cabinet Council," he
said, with knit brows.  "Now, what explanation have you to offer?"

"What can I offer?"  I cried.  "The envelope I gave you was the same
that you handed to me.  I could swear to it."

"No, it was not," he replied quickly.  "Glance at the seal."

Taking it to the light I examined the seal carefully, but failed to
detect anything unusual.  It bore in black wax the Warnham coat of arms
impressed by the large, beautifully-cut amethyst which the Earl wore
attached to the piece of rusty silk ribbon that served him as watch
chain.

"I can see nothing wrong with this," I said, glancing up at him.

"I admit that the imitation is so carefully executed that it is
calculated to deceive any eye except my own."  Then, putting on his
_pince-nez_, he made an impression in wax with his own seal and pointed
out a slight flaw which, in the impression upon the envelope, did not
exist.

"And your endorsement.  Is it not in your own hand?" he inquired.

I turned over the envelope and looked.  It bore the designation
"B27,893," just as I had written it, and the writing was either my own
or such a marvellously accurate imitation that I was compelled to
confess my inability to point out any discrepancy.

"Then the writing is yours, eh?" the Earl asked abruptly.  "If it is,
you must be aware who forged the seal."

"The writing certainly contains all the characteristics of mine, but I
am not absolutely sure it is not a forgery.  In any case, I am confident
that the document you gave me I handed back to you."  Then I explained
carefully, and in detail, the events which occurred from the time he
gave the treaty into my possession, up to the moment I handed it back to
him.

"But how can you account for giving back to me a blank sheet of paper in
an envelope secured by a forged seal?" he asked, regarding me with
undisguised suspicion.  "You do not admit even taking it from your
pocket, neither have you any suspicion of the friend with whom you
lunched.  I should like to hear his independent version."

"That is impossible," I answered.

"Why?" he asked, pricking up his ears and scenting a mystery.

"Because he is dead."

At that moment our conversation was interrupted by the sharp ringing of
the bell of the telegraph instrument near us, and an instant later the
telegraphist in charge entered, and seated himself at the table.

Click, click, click--click--click began the needle, and next moment the
clerk, turning to the Earl, exclaimed,--

"An important message from St Petersburg, your Lordship."

"Read it as it comes through," the Earl replied breathlessly, walking
towards the instrument and bending eagerly over it.

Then, as the rapid metallic click again broke the silence, the clerk, in
monotonous tones, exclaimed,--

"_From Lobetski, St Petersburg, via Hamburg.  To Earl of Warnham.--A
proclamation signed by the Tzar declaring war against England has just
been received at the Foreign Office, but it is as yet kept secret.  It
will probably be posted in the streets this evening.  Greatest activity
prevails at the War Office and Admiralty.  Regiments in the military
districts of Charkoff, Odessa, Warsaw and Kieff have received orders to
complete their cadres of officers to war strength, recalling to the
colours all officers on the retired list and on leave.  This is a
preliminary step to the complete mobilisation of the Russian forces.
All cipher messages now refused_."

The Earl, with frantic effort, grasped at the edge of the table, then
staggered unevenly, and sank back into a chair, rigid and speechless.

CHAPTER FIVE.

LORD WARNHAM'S ADMISSION.

"Anything further?" inquired the great statesman in a low, mechanical
tone, his gaze fixed straight before him as he sat.

"Nothing further, your Lordship," answered the telegraphist.

The Earl of Warnham sighed deeply, his thin hands twitching with a
nervous excitement he strove in vain to suppress.

"Ask if Lord Maybury is in town," he said hoarsely, suddenly rousing
himself.

Again the instrument clicked, and a few moments later the telegraphist,
turning to the Foreign Minister, said,--

"The Premier is in town, your Lordship."

The Earl glanced at his watch a few seconds in silence, then
exclaimed,--

"Tell Gaysford to inform Lord Maybury at once of the contents of this
last dispatch from St Petersburg, and say that I will meet the Premier
at 5:30 at the Foreign Office."  The telegraphist touched the key, and
in a few moments the Minister's orders were obeyed.  Then, taking a
sheet of note-paper and a pencil, he wrote in a private cipher a
telegram, which he addressed to Her Majesty at Osborne.  This, too, the
clerk dispatched at once over the wire, followed by urgent messages to
members of the Cabinet Council and to Lord Kingsbury, Commander-in-Chief
of the British Army, asking them to meet informally at six o'clock that
evening at the Foreign Office.

When all these messages had been transmitted with a rapidity that was
astonishing, the telegraphist turned in his chair and asked,--

"Anything more, your lordship?"

"Nothing for the present," he answered.  "Leave us."  Then, when he had
gone, the Earl rose slowly, and with bent head, and hands clasped behind
his back, he strode up and down the library in silent contemplation.
Suddenly he halted before me where I stood, and abruptly asked,--

"What did you say was the name of that friend who lunched with you
yesterday?"

"Ogle," I answered.  "Dudley Ogle."

"And his profession?"

"He had none.  His father left him with enough to live upon
comfortably."

"Who was his father?" he inquired, with a sharp look of doubt.

"A landowner."

"Where?"

"I don't know."

The Earl slightly raised his shaggy grey brows, then continued,--

"How long have you known this friend?"

"Several years."

"You told me that he has died since yesterday," his lordship said.  "Is
not that a rather curious fact--if true?"

"True!"  I cried.  "You apparently doubt me.  A telegram to the police
at Staines will confirm my statement."

"Yes, I never disguise my doubts, Deedes," the Earl snapped, fixing his
grey eyes upon mine.  "I suspect very strongly that you have sold the
secret to our enemies; you have, to put it plainly, betrayed your
country."

"I deny it!"  I replied, with fierce anger.  "I care not for any of your
alleged proofs.  True, the man who was with me during the whole time I
was absent is dead.  Nevertheless I am prepared to meet and refute all
the accusations you may bring against me."

"Well, we shall see.  We shall see," he answered dryly, snapping his
fingers, and again commencing to pace the great library from end to end
with steps a trifle more hurried than before.  "We have--nay, I,
personally have been the victim of dastardly spies, but I will not rest
until I clear up the mystery and bring upon the guilty one the
punishment he deserves.  Think," he cried.  "Think what this means!
England's prestige is ruined, her power is challenged; and ere long the
great armies of Russia and France will be swarming upon our shores.  In
the fights at sea and the fights on land with modern armaments the
results must be too terrible to contemplate.  The disaster that we must
face will, I fear, be crushing and complete.  I am not, I have never
been, one of those over-confident idiots who believe our island
impregnable; but am old-fashioned enough to incline towards Napoleon's
opinion.  We are apt to rely upon our naval strength, a strength that
may, or may not, be up to the standard of power we believe.  If it is a
rotten reed, what remains?  England must be trodden beneath the iron
heel of the invader, and the Russian eagle will float beside the
tricolour in Whitehall."

"But can diplomacy do nothing to avert the catastrophe?"  I suggested.

"Not when it is defeated by the devilish machinations of spies," he
replied meaningly, flashing a glance at me, the fierceness of which I
did not fail to observe.

"But Russia dare not take the initiative," I blurted forth.

"Permit me, sir, to express my own opinion upon our relations with St
Petersburg," he roared.  "I tell you that for years Russia has held
herself in readiness to attack us at the moment when she received
sufficient provocation, and for that very object she contracted an
alliance with France.  The Tzar's recent visit to England was a mere
farce to disarm suspicion, a proceeding in which, thank Heaven!  I
refused to play any part whatever.  The blow that I have long
anticipated, and have sought to ward off all these long years of my
administration as Premier and as Foreign Secretary, has fallen.  To-day
is the most sorry day that England has ever known.  The death-knell of
her power is ringing," and he walked down the room towards me,
pale-faced and bent, his countenance wearing an expression of
unutterable gloominess.  He was, I knew, a patriot who would have
sacrificed his life for his country's honour, and every word he had
uttered came straight from his heart.

"How the secret agents of the Tzar obtained knowledge of the treaty
surpasses comprehension," I exclaimed.

"The catastrophe is due to you--to you alone!" he cried.  "You knew of
what vital importance to our honour it was that the contents of that
document should be kept absolutely secret.  I told you with my own lips.
You have no excuse whatever--none.  Your conduct is culpable in the
highest degree, and you deserve, sir, instant dismissal and the
publication in the _Gazette_ of a statement that you have been
discharged from Her Majesty's service because you were a thief and a
spy!"

"I am neither," I shouted in a frenzy of rage, interrupting him.  "If
you were a younger man, I'd--by Heaven!  I'd knock you down.  But I
respect your age, Lord Warnham, and I am not forgetful of the fact that
to you I owe more than I can ever repay.  My family have faithfully
served their country through generations, and I will never allow a false
accusation to be brought upon it, even though you, Her Majesty's Foreign
Secretary, may choose to make it."  He halted, glancing at me with an
expression of unfeigned surprise.

"You forget yourself, sir," he answered, with that calm, unruffled
dignity that he could assume at will.  "I repeat my accusation, and it
is for you to refute it."

"I can!  I will!"  I cried.

"Then explain the reason you handed me a sheet of blank paper in
exchange for the instrument."

"I cannot, I--"

He laughed a hard, cynical laugh, and, turning upon his heel, paced
towards the opposite window.

"All I know is that the envelope I gave you was the same that you handed
to me," I protested.

"It's a deliberate lie," he cried, as he turned in anger to face me
again.  "I opened the dispatch, read it through to ascertain there was
no mistake, and, after sealing it with my own hands, gave it to you.
Yet, in return, you hand me this!" and he took from the table the
ingeniously-forged duplicate envelope and held it up.

Then, casting it down again passionately, he added,--

"The document I handed to you was exchanged for that dummy, and an hour
later the whole thing was telegraphed _in extenso_ to Russia.  The
original was in your possession, and even if you are not actually in the
pay of our enemies, you were so negligent of your duty towards your
Queen and country that you are undeserving the name of Englishman."

"But does not London swarm with Russian agents?"  I said.  "Have we not
had ample evidence of that lately?"

"I admit it," he answered.  "But what proof is there to show that you
yourself did not hand the original document to one of these enterprising
gentlemen who take such a keen interest in our affairs?"

"There is no proof that I am a spy," I cried hotly.  "There never will
be; for I am entirely innocent of this disgraceful charge.  You overlook
the fact that after it had been deposited in the safe it may have been
tampered with."

"I have overlooked no detail," he answered, with calmness.  "Your
suggestion is an admirable form of excuse, but, unfortunately for you,
it will not hold water.  First, because, as you must be aware, there is
but one key to that safe, and that never leaves my person; secondly, no
one but you and I are possessed of the secret whereby the safe may be
opened or closed; thirdly, the packet you gave me did not remain in the
safe.  In order that you should believe that the document was deposited
there, I put it in in your presence, but when you left my room I took it
out again, and carried it home with me to Berkeley Square, intending to
show it to Lord Maybury.  The Premier did not call as he had promised,
but I kept the document in my pocket the whole time, and at six o'clock
returned to the Foreign Office and deposited it again in the safe.
Almost next moment--I had not left the room, remember--some thought
prompted me to reopen the envelope and reassure myself of the wording of
one of the clauses.  Walking to the safe, I took out the envelope and
cut it open, only to discover that I had been tricked.  The paper was
blank!"

"It might have been stolen while in your possession just as easily as
while in mine!"  I exclaimed, experiencing some satisfaction at being
thus able to turn his own arguments against himself.

"Knowing its vital importance, I took the most elaborate precautions
that such circumstances were rendered absolutely impossible."

"From your words, when Hammerton arrived from Berlin, it was plain that
you suspected treachery.  On what ground were your suspicions founded?"

Upon his sphinx-like face there rested a heavy frown of displeasure as
he replied,--

"I refuse to submit to any cross-examination, sir.  That I entertained
certain suspicions is enough."

"And you actually accuse me without the slightest foundation?"  I cried
with warmth.

"You are in error," he retorted very calmly, returning to his
writing-table and taking up some papers.  "I have here the original of
the telegram handed in at the branch post-office in the Strand yesterday
afternoon."

"Well?"

"It has been examined by the calligraphic expert employed by the police,
and declared to be in your handwriting."

"What?"  I gasped, almost snatching the yellow telegraph form from his
hand in my eagerness to examine the mysterious jumble of letters and
figures composing the cypher.  My heart sank within me when next instant
I recognised they were in a hand so nearly resembling my own that I
could scarcely detect any difference whatever.

As I stood gazing at this marvellous forgery, open-mouthed in abject
dismay, there broke upon my ear a short, harsh laugh--a laugh of
triumph.

Raising my head, the Earl's penetrating gaze met mine.  "Now," he
exclaimed, "come, acknowledge the truth.  It is useless to prevaricate."

"I have told the truth," I answered.  "I never wrote this."

For an instant his steely eyes flashed as his blanched face assumed an
expression of unutterable hatred and disgust.  Then he shouted,--

"You are a thief, a spy and a liar, sir!  Leave me instantly.  Even in
the face of such evidence as this you protest innocence with childish
simplicity.  You have betrayed your country into the hands of her
enemies, and are, even now, seeking to throw blame and suspicion upon
myself.  You--"

"I have not done so.  I merely suggested that the document might have
been exchanged while in your possession.  Surely--"

"And you actually come to me with a lame, absurd tale that the only man
who can clear you is dead!  The whole defence is too absurd," he
thundered.  "You have sold your country's honour and the lives of your
fellow-men for Russian roubles.  Go!  Never let me see you again, except
in a felon's dock."

"But surely I may be permitted to clear myself?"  I cried.

"Your masters in St Petersburg will no doubt arrange for your future.
In London we require your faithless services no longer," the Earl
answered, with intense bitterness.  "Go!"

CHAPTER SIX.

THE VEIL.

Leaving the Earl's presence, I refused old Stanford's invitation to take
some refreshment, and, walking along the corridor on my way out, came
face to face with Frayling, who was being conducted to the library.

"Going?" he inquired.

"Yes," I answered, and passing on, engrossed in bitter thoughts that
overwhelmed me, strode out into the park, wandering aimlessly across the
grass to where a well-kept footpath wound away among the trees.  Taking
it, heedless of my destination, I walked on mechanically, regardless of
the brilliant sunshine and the songs of the birds, thinking only of the
unjust accusation against me, and of my inability to clear myself.  I
saw that the stigma upon me meant ruin, both social and financial.
Branded as a spy, I should be spurned by Ella, sneered at by Mrs Laing,
and avoided by Beck.  Friends who had trusted me would no longer place
any confidence in a man who had, according to their belief, sold his
country into the hands of her enemies, while it was apparent from the
Earl's words that he had no further faith in my actions.

Yet the only man who could have cleared me, who could have corroborated
my statement as to how I spent my time during my absence at lunch, and
shown plainly that I had never entered the Strand nor visited the branch
post-office next to Exeter Hall, was dead.  His lips were for ever
sealed.

I went forward, plunged deeply in thought, until passing a small gate I
left the park, and found myself in Warnham Churchyard.  For a moment I
stood on the peaceful spot where I had often stood before, admiring the
quaint old church, with its square, squat, ivy-covered tower, its gilded
clock face, and its ancient doors that, standing open, admitted air and
sunshine.  Before me were the plain, white tombs of the departed earls,
the most recent being that in memory of the Countess, one of the leaders
of London society, who had died during her husband's absence on his
official duties; while across the well-kept lawn stood a quaint old
sun-dial that had in silence marked the time for a century or so.  From
within the church the organ sounded softly, and I could see the Vicar's
daughter, a pretty girl still in her teens, seated at the instrument
practising.

Warnham was a quiet Sussex village unknown to the world outside,
unspoiled by modern progress, untouched by the hand of the vandal.  As
presently I passed the lych-gate and entered its peaceful street, it
wore a distinctly old-world air.  At the end of the churchyard wall
stood the typical village blacksmith, brown-faced and brawny, swinging
his hammer with musical clang upon his anvil set beneath a great
chestnut tree in full bloom; further along stood the schools, from the
playground of which came the joyous sound of children's voices; and
across the road was the only inn--the Sussex Arms--where, on more than
one occasion, I had spent an hour in the bare and beery taproom,
chatting with the garrulous village gossips, the burly landlord and his
pleasant spouse.  The air was heavy with the scent of June roses and the
old-fashioned flowers growing in cottage gardens, whilst the lilacs sent
forth a perfume that in my perturbed state of mind brought me back to a
realisation of my bitterness.  Lilac was Ella's favourite scent, and it
stirred within me thoughts of her.  How, I wondered, had she borne the
news of Dudley's tragic and mysterious end?  How, I wondered, would she
greet me when next we met?

Yet somehow I distrusted her, and as I walked on through the village
towards the Ockley road, nodding mechanically to a man I knew, I was
seriously contemplating the advisability of never again seeing her.  But
I loved her, and though I strove to reason with myself that some secret
tie existed between her and Beck, I found myself unable to break off my
engagement, for I was held in her toils by the fascination of her eyes.

For fully an hour I walked on, ascending the hill swept by the fresh
breeze from the Channel, only turning back on finding myself at the
little hamlet at Kingsfold.  In that walk I tried to form resolutions--
to devise some means to regain the confidence of the Earl, and to
conjecture the cause of Dudley's death--but all to no purpose.  The
blows which had fallen in such swift succession had paralysed me.  I
could not think, neither could I act.

Re-passing the Sussex Arms, I turned in, dusty and thirsty.  In the bare
taproom, deserted at that hour, old Denman, a tall, tight-trousered,
splay-footed, grey-haired man, who drove the village fly, and acted as
ostler and handy man about the hostelry, was busy cleaning some pewters,
and as I entered, looked up and touched his hat.

"Well, Denman," I said, "you don't seem to grow very much older, eh?"

The man, whose hair and beard were closely-cropped, and whose furrowed
face had a habit of twitching when he spoke, grinned as he answered,--

"No, sir.  People tells me I bear my age wonderful well.  But won't you
come into the parlour, sir?"

Declining, I told him to get me something to drink, and when he brought
it questioned him as to the latest news in the village.  Denman was an
inveterate gossip, and in his constant drives in the rickety and
antiquated vehicle known as "the fly," to villages and towns in the
vicinity, had a knack of picking up all the news and scandal, which he
retailed at night for the delectation of customers at the Sussex Arms.

"I dunno as anything very startling has happened lately in Warnham.  The
jumble sale came off at the schools last Tuesday fortnight, and there's
a cricket match up at the Lodge next Saturday.  Some gentlemen are
coming down from London to play."

"Anything else?"

Denman removed his hat and scratched his head.

"Oh, yes," he said suddenly.  "You knows Mr Macandrew what's steward for
Mr Thornbury?  Well, last Monday week an old gentleman called at his
house up street and asked to see him.  His wife asked him into the
parlour, and Mr Macandrew went in.  `Are you Mr Macandrew?' says the old
gent.  `I am,' says Mr Macandrew.  `Well, I shouldn't 'ave known you,'
says the old man.  And it turned out afterwards that this old man was
actually Mr Macandrew's father, who's lived ever so many years in
America, and hasn't seen Mr Macandrew since he wor a boy.  I did laugh
when I heard it."

"Extraordinary.  Have you had any visitors down from London?"  I
inquired, for sometimes people took the houses of the better-class
villagers, furnished for the season.

"We had a lively young gent staying here in the inn for four days last
week.  He was a friend of somebody up at the Hall, I think, for he was
there a good deal.  He came from London.  I wonder whether you'd know
him."

"What was his name?"

"Funny name," Denman said, grinning.  "Ogle, Mr Ogle."

"Ogle!"  I gasped.  "What was his Christian name?"

"Dudley, I fancy it was."

"Dudley Ogle," I repeated, remembering that he had been absent from
Shepperton for four days, and had told me he had been in Ipswich
visiting some friends.  "And he has been here?"

"Yes, sir.  We made him as comfortable as we could, and I think he
enjoyed hisself."

"But what did he do--why was he down here?"  I inquired eagerly.

"Do you know him, sir?  Jolly gentleman, isn't he?  Up to all manners o'
tricks, and always chaffing the girls."

"Yes, I knew him, Denman," I answered gravely.  "Tell me, as far as you
know, his object in coming to Warnham.  I'm very interested in his
doings."

"As far as I know, sir, he came to see somebody up at the Hall.  I drove
him about a good deal, over to Ockley, to Cowfold, and out to Handcross;
and I took him into Horsham every day."

"Do you know who was his friend at the Hall?"

"No, I don't, sir.  He never spoke about it; but I did have my
suspicions," he answered, smiling.

"Oh! what were they?"  I asked.

"I fancy he came to see Lucy Bryden, the housekeeper's daughter.  She's
a good-looking girl, you know," and the old man winked knowingly.

"What made you think that, eh?"

"Well, from something I was told," he replied mysteriously.  "He was
seen walking with a young lady across the park one night, and I 'eard as
'ow it was Mrs Bryden's daughter.  But next day I 'ad a surprise.  A
young lady called here for him, and she was dressed exactly as the young
woman who had been in the park with him was.  But it wasn't Mrs Bryden's
daughter."

"Then who was it?"

"I heard him call her Ella.  She came from London."

"Ella?"  I gasped.  "What the deuce do you mean, Denman?  What sort of a
girl was she?  A lady?"

"Yes, sir, quite a lady.  She was dressed in brown, and one thing I
noticed was that she had on a splendid diamond bracelet.  It was a
beauty."

"A diamond bracelet!"  I echoed.  There was no doubt that Ella had
actually been to Warnham without my knowledge, for the bracelet that the
old ostler, in reply to my eager questions, described accurately, was
the one I had given her.

"What time in the day did she call?  Where did they go?"  I demanded, in
surprise.

"She came about mid-day, and they both went for a walk towards
Broadbridge Heath.  They were gone, I should reckon, about three hours,
and when they returned, it was evident from her eyes that she'd been
crying."

"Crying!  Had Ogle been talking to her angrily, do you think?"

"No.  I don't believe so.  They remained here and had some tea together
in the parlour, and then I drove 'em to Horsham, and they caught the
6:25 to London."

I was silent.  There was some remarkable, unfathomable mystery in this.

"Now, Denman," I said at last, "I know you've got a sharp pair of ears
when you're perched up on that box of yours.  Did you overhear their
conversation while driving them to Horsham?"

Again the old man removed his battered hat and calmly scratched his
head.

"Well, sir, to tell you the truth, I did 'ear a few words," he answered.
"I 'eard the young lady say as 'ow she wor powerless.  He seemed to be
a-begging of her to do something which horrified her.  I 'eard her ask
him in a whisper whether he thought they would be discovered, and he
laughed at her fear, and said, `If you don't do it, you know the
consequences will be fatal.'"

"Do you think they went up to the Hall when they went out walking?"

"I don't know, sir.  They could, of course, have got into the park that
way.  But you don't look very well, sir.  I hope what I've told you
isn't--isn't very unpleasant," the old ostler added, with a look of
apprehension.

"No.  Get me some brandy, Denman," I gasped.

While he was absent I rose and walked unsteadily to the window that
overlooked a comfortable-looking corner residence surrounded by a belt
of firs, a wide road, and a beautiful stretch of valley and blue downs
beyond.  The landscape was peaceful and picturesque, and I sought solace
in gazing upon it.  But this latest revelation had unnerved me.  Dudley
and Ella had met in that quiet, rural place for some purpose which I
could not conceive.  Their meeting had evidently been pre-arranged, and
their object, from the words the old man had overheard, was apparently
of a secret and sinister character.

The strange, inquiring look I had detected in Ella's face whenever she
had glanced surreptitiously at Dudley on the previous night was, I now
felt assured, an index of guilty conscience; and Mrs Laing's dread that
Ella should know the truth of my friend's tragic end appeared to prove,
in a certain degree, the existence of some secret knowledge held by all
three.

Yet I could not bring myself to believe that my well-beloved had
wilfully deceived me.  From what Denman had said, it appeared as if Ogle
had held her under some mysterious thrall, and was trying to compel her
to act against her better judgment.  Her pure, womanly conscience had,
perhaps, revolted against his suggestion, and she had shed the tears the
old ostler had noticed; yet he had persisted and held over her a threat
that had cowed her, and, perhaps, for aught I knew, compelled her to
submit.

My thought that the man who was my friend should have thus treated the
woman I adored filled me with fiercest anger and hatred.  With
bitterness I told myself that the man in whom I placed implicit
confidence, and with whom I had allowed Ella to spend many idle hours
punting or sculling while I was absent at my duties in London, was
actually my enemy.

With sudden resolve I determined to travel back to Staines and, by
possession of the knowledge of her mysterious visit to that village,
worm from her its object.  At that moment Denman entered, and I drank
the brandy at one gulp, afterwards ordering the fly and driving back to
Horsham station, whence I returned to London.

At my flat in Rossetti Mansions, Chelsea, I found a telegram from the
Staines police summoning me to the inquest to be held next morning at
eleven o'clock, and also one from Ella asking me to return.  The latter
I felt inclined to disregard; the former I could not.  Her words and
actions were, indeed, beyond comprehension, but in the light of this
knowledge I had by mere chance acquired, it seemed plain that her
declaration of her unworthiness of my love was something more than the
natural outcome of highly-strung nerves and a romantic disposition.
Women of certain temperaments are prone to self-accusation, and I had
brought myself to believe her words to be mere hysterical utterances;
but now, alas!  I saw there was some deep motive underlying them.  I had
been tricked.  I had, it seemed, been unduly jealous of Beck, and
unsuspecting of my real enemy, the man whose lips were closed in death.

I now regretted his end, not as a friend regrets, but merely because no
effort would be availing to compel his lying tongue to speak the truth.
Yet, if he were my rival for Ella's hand, might he not have lied when
questioned regarding the events of that fateful afternoon when the
secret defensive alliance had been so mysteriously exchanged for a
dummy?  Jealousy knows neither limit nor remorse.

Next morning, after spending the greater part of the night sitting alone
smoking and endeavouring to penetrate the ever-increasing veil of
mystery that had apparently enveloped her, I travelled down to Staines,
arriving there just in time to take a cab to the Town Hall, where the
inquest was to be held.  The town was agog, for a crowd of those unable
to enter because the room was already filled to overflowing, stood in
the open space outside, eagerly discussing the tragic affair in all its
various aspects, and hazarding the wildest and most impossible theories.
Entering the hall, I elbowed my way forward, and as I did so I heard my
name shouted loudly by a police constable.  I was required as a witness,
and succeeded in struggling through to the baize-covered table whereat
the grave-faced Coroner sat.

He stretched forth his hand to give me the copy of Holy Writ whereon to
take the oath, when suddenly my eyes fell upon a watch and a collection
of miscellaneous articles lying upon the table, the contents of the dead
man's pockets.

One small object alone riveted my attention.  Heedless of the Coroner's
words I snatched it up and examined it closely.

Next second I stood breathless and aghast, dumbfounded by an amazing
discovery that staggered belief.

CHAPTER SEVEN.

ELLA'S SUSPICIONS.

The formula of the oath fell upon my ears in a dull monotone, as
mechanically I raised the Bible to my lips, afterwards replying to the
Coroner's formal questions regarding my name, address and occupation.
The discovery I had made filled me with fierce, bitter hatred against my
dead companion, and, dazed by the startling suddenness of the
revelation, I stood like a man in a dream.

Dr Diplock, the Coroner, noticed it, and his sharp injunction to answer
his question brought me back to a knowledge of my surroundings.  I was
standing in full view of an assembly of some three hundred persons, so
filled by curiosity, and eager to hear my story, that the silence was
complete.

"I beg your pardon, but I did not hear the question," I said, bracing
myself with effort.

"The deceased was your friend, I believe?"

"Yes," I answered.  "He shared a furnished cottage with me at
Shepperton.  I have known him for some time."

"Were you with him at the day of his death?"

"I left him at Shepperton in the morning, when I went to town, and he
called upon me at the Foreign Office about one o'clock.  We lunched
together, and then, returning to Downing Street, parted.  We met again
at Shepperton later, and came here, to Staines, in response to an
invitation to dinner at `The Nook.'  I--"

A woman's low, despairing cry broke the silence, and as I turned to the
assembly I saw, straight before me, Ella, rigid, almost statuesque.  Her
terror-stricken gaze met mine; her eyes seemed riveted upon me.

"Kindly proceed with your evidence," exclaimed the Coroner, impatiently.

"We dined at `The Nook,'" I went on, turning again to face him.  "Then
we went for a row, and on our return Mr Ogle left us to walk back to
Shepperton."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

"Why did you not accompany him?"

"Because I had, during the evening, received a telegram summoning me
away."

"Who was the message from?"

"The Earl of Warnham," I replied.  Then obeying his request to continue,
I explained how, on leaving "The Nook" about an hour later to catch my
last train, I had stumbled upon the body of my friend.

Then, when I had concluded, the Coroner commenced his cross-examination.
Many of his questions were purely formal in character, but presently,
when he began to take me through the events which occurred at the
Foreign Office, I experienced a very uncomfortable feeling, fearing lest
I should divulge the suspicions that had during the last half-hour been
aroused within me.  It was, I recognised, absolutely necessary that I
should keep my discovery a strict secret, for upon my ability to do so
everything depended.

"Was there any reason why he should call for you at the Foreign Office
and ask you to lunch with him?  Was he in the habit of doing this?"
inquired the Coroner.

"No; there seemed no reason, beyond the fact that he was compelled to
come to town, and merely wanted to pass an idle hour away," I said.

"Why did he go to London?"

"I have no idea what business took him there."

"He never told you that he had any enemy, I suppose?" the official
asked, with an air of mystery.

"Never.  He was, on the contrary, most popular."

"And no incident other than what you have related occurred at the
Foreign Office?  You are quite certain of this?"

For a moment I hesitated, half inclined to relate the whole story of the
mysterious theft of the secret convention; but risking perjury rather
than an exposure of facts that I saw must remain hidden, I answered as
calmly as I could,--

"No other incident occurred."

"Have you any reason to suspect that he was a victim of foul play?" the
Coroner continued, looking at me rather suspiciously, I thought.

At that moment I glanced at Ella, and was astounded to see how intensely
excited she appeared, with her white face upturned, her mouth half open,
her eyes staring, eagerly drinking in every word that fell from my lips.
Her whole attitude was of one who dreaded that some terrible truth
might be brought to light.

"I have no reason to suspect he was murdered," I answered in a low tone,
and as I surreptitiously watched the face of the woman I loved I saw an
instant transformation.  Her breast heaved with a heavy sigh of relief
as across her countenance there passed a look of satisfaction she was
unable to disguise.  She was in deadly fear of something, the nature of
which I could not conjecture.

"You have no suspicion whatever that the deceased had an enemy?" asked
the foreman of the jury, who had the appearance of a local butcher.

"None whatever," I answered.

"I frequently saw Mr Ogle on the river of an afternoon with Miss Laing,"
the man observed.  "Was there, as far as you are aware, any affection
between them?"

Glancing at Ella, I saw she had turned even paler than before, and was
trembling.  The question nonplussed me.  In my heart I strongly
suspected that some attachment existed between them; but resenting this
impertinent question from a man who struck me as a local busybody, I
made a negative reply.

"Then jealousy, it would appear, was not the cause of the crime," the
foreman observed to his fellow-jurymen.

The Coroner, however, quickly corrected him, pointing out that they had
not yet ascertained whether death had, or had not, been due to natural
causes.

Turning to me, he said,--

"I believe I am right in assuming that you are engaged to be married to
Miss Laing, am I not?"

"I was engaged to her," I replied hoarsely.

"Then you are not engaged at the present moment?  Why was the match
broken off?"

I hesitated for several moments, trying to devise some means to avoid
answering this abrupt question.  The bitter thought of Ella's double
dealing occurred to me, and with foolish disregard for consequences I
resolved not to spare her.

"Because of a confession she made to me," I said.

"A confession!  What of?"

"Of unworthiness."

"She acknowledged herself unfaithful to you, I presume?" observed one of
the jurymen who had not before spoken; but to this I made no reply.

"Now, have you any suspicion that any secret affection existed between
her and the deceased?" the Coroner asked, in a dry, distinct voice, that
could be heard all over the room.

"I--I cannot say," I faltered.

The movement among the audience showed the sensation my reply had
caused, and it was increased by Ella suddenly rising from her place and
shrieking hysterically: "That answer is a lie--a foul lie!"

"Silence!" shouted the Coroner, who, above all things, detested a scene
in his Court.  "If that lady interrupts again, she must be requested to
leave."

"Have you any further question to ask Mr Deedes?" he inquired, turning
to the jury; but as no one replied, he intimated that the examination
was at an end, and I felt that I had, at last, successfully passed
through the ordeal I had dreaded.

Retiring to a seat, my place as a witness was at once taken by Beck; but
scarcely had I sunk into a chair near where Ella was sitting when I felt
within my hand the object I had taken from among the things found in the
dead man's possession.  It had not been missed, and I wondered whether
its loss would ever be detected.  To keep it was, I felt, extremely
dangerous; nevertheless I sat holding it in my palm, listening to the
evidence of the well-known member for West Rutlandshire.  His story,
related in that loud, bombastic tone that had at first so prejudiced me
against him, was much to the same effect as mine regarding the discovery
of the body, its removal into the house, and the subsequent examination
by the doctor, until there commenced the minute cross-examination.

"How long have you known the deceased?" the Coroner inquired, looking up
suddenly from his notes.

"A few months.  About six, I should think," he answered.

"Have you any suspicion that he had an enemy?"

"No.  He was about the last man in the world who would arouse the hatred
of anybody.  In fact, he was exceedingly popular."

"You say you have been a frequent visitor at Mrs Laing's.  Now, from
your own observations, have you seen anything that would lead you to the
belief that he loved Miss Laing?"

"Nothing whatever," he replied.  "Ella was engaged to Mr Deedes, and
although she was on the river a great deal with Ogle, I am confident she
never for a moment regarded him as her lover."

"Why are you so confident?"

"Because of certain facts she has confided in me."

"What are they?"

He was silent.  Evidently he had no intention of being led on in this
manner, but, even finding himself cornered, his imperturbable coolness
never deserted him, for he calmly replied, with a faint smile,--

"I refuse to answer."

"Kindly reply to my question, sir, and do not waste the time of the
Court," exclaimed the Coroner, with impatience.  "What were these
facts?"

Again he was silent, twisting his gloves around his fingers uneasily.

"Come, answer if you please."

"Well," he replied, after considerable hesitation, "briefly, she gave me
to understand that she loved Deedes, and had refused to listen to the
deceased's declaration of affection."

"How came she to confide this secret of hers to you?" the Coroner asked
eagerly.

Through my memory at that moment there flashed the scene I had witnessed
in secret in the garden on that memorable night when I had detected this
man with his arm around Ella's waist, and I looked on in triumph at his
embarrassment.

"I am a friend of the family," he answered, with a calm, irritating
smile a moment later.  "She has told me many of her secrets."

I knew from the expression upon his face that he lied.  Was it not far
more likely that on that night when I had discovered them he was
uttering words of affection to her, and she, in return, had confessed
that she loved me?

"Are you aware whether Mr Deedes had any knowledge that the deceased was
his rival for Miss Laing's hand?" inquired the Coroner, adding,
self-apologetically, "I much regret being compelled to ask these
questions, for I am aware how painful it must be to the family."

"I believe he was utterly ignorant of it," Beck replied.  "He regarded
Mr Ogle as his closest friend."

"A false one, to say the least," Dr Diplock observed in tones just
audible.  Beck shrugged his shoulders, but did not reply.

The inquisitive foreman of the jury then commenced a series of clumsy,
impertinent questions, many of which the witness cleverly evaded.  He
resented this man's cross-examination just as I had done, and during the
quarter of an hour's fencing with the tradesman no noteworthy fact was
elicited.  The Coroner, seeing this, suddenly put an end to the
foreman's pertinacious efforts to draw from the Member of Parliament
further facts regarding home life at "The Nook," and called Dr Allenby.

The doctor, who had apparently had long experience of inquests, took the
oath in a business-like manner, and related the facts within his
knowledge clearly and succinctly, describing how I had summoned him, his
visit to "The Nook," and the appearance of the dead man.

"Have you made a _post-mortem_?" the Coroner asked, without looking up
from the notes he was making.

"I made an examination yesterday, in conjunction with Dr Engall.  We
found no trace of disease, with the exception of a slight lung trouble
of recent date."

"Was it sufficient to cause death?"

"Certainly not; neither was the bruise upon the forehead, which had, no
doubt, been caused by the fall upon the gravel.  The heart was perfectly
normal, and we failed utterly to detect anything that would result
fatally.  The contents of the stomach have been analysed by Dr Adams, of
the Home Office, at the instigation of the police, I believe."

"Then, as far as you are concerned, you are unable to determine the
cause of death?"

"Quite.  It is a mystery."

The next witness was a thin, white-haired, dapper little man, who, in
reply to questions, explained that he was analyst to the Home Office,
and had, at the request of the police, submitted the contents of the
deceased's stomach to analysis, the position of the hands pointing to a
slight suspicion of poison.

"And what have you discovered?" inquired the Coroner, the Court being so
silent that the proverbial pin, if it had been dropped at that moment,
might have been heard.

"Nothing," he answered clearly.  "There was no sign of anything of a
deleterious nature whatsoever.  The deceased was certainly not
poisoned."

The assembly of excited townspeople again shifted uneasily, as it was
wont to do after every important reply which might elucidate the
mystery.  It seemed as though a rumour had been circulated that Dudley
had been poisoned, and this declaration of the renowned analyst set at
rest for ever that wild, unfounded report.  People turned to one
another, whispering excitedly, and a shadow of disappointment rested
upon their inquisitive countenances.  They had expected it to be
pronounced a case of murder, whereas it would now be proved that death
had occurred from some natural but sudden and unknown cause.

"Then you have no opinion to offer as to the cause of death!" the
Coroner exclaimed.

"None whatever," was the reply, and that concluded the analyst's
important testimony.

The foreman of the jury expressed a wish to put a question to Ella, and
a few moments later she stood where I had stood, and removing her glove,
took the oath with trembling voice.

"Have you any reason to suppose, Miss Laing, that Mr Ogle's declaration
of love to you had aroused the enmity of Mr Deedes?" asked the man,
seriously.

"No," she answered in a tone so low that I could scarcely distinguish
the word.

"Mr Deedes was your lover, wasn't he?"

"I am still engaged to him," she replied, tears welling in her eyes.
"He tells a falsehood when he says that our love is at an end."

"Then why did you not tell him of Mr Ogle's declaration?"

"Because they were friends, and I did not wish to arouse animosity
between them."

Slight applause followed this reply, but it was instantly suppressed.

The Coroner, to bring matters to a conclusion, asked, "Now, knowing Mr
Ogle as intimately as you did, do you suspect that he might have been
murdered?"

She gasped, swayed slowly forward and gripped the corner of the
baize-covered table to steady herself.

"Yes," she answered in a clear but tremulous voice.  "I--I believe he
was murdered."

A thrill of excitement and wonder ran through the onlookers.  Her
handsome face was ashen pale, and her breast, beneath her blouse of
cool-looking muslin, rose and fell quickly, showing how intense was her
agitation.

"And what causes you to believe this?" asked the Coroner, raising his
brows in interrogation.

"I have suspicions," she answered in a low voice, striving to remain
calm, and glancing quickly around the silent assembly.

"You suspect some person of having been guilty of murder?" he asked,
interested.

"Not exactly that," she said quickly.  "That Mr Ogle was murdered I feel
confident, but who committed the crime I am unaware.  It is a mystery.
Knowing Mr Ogle so well as I did, he entrusted to me knowledge of
certain facts that he strenuously kept secret from others.  Yet I cannot
conceive who would profit by his death."

At this point the inspector of police rose and expressed a desire to
know, through the Coroner, whether she had quarrelled with Mr Ogle.

"The day prior to his death we had a few words," she faltered.

"Upon what subject?" asked the Coroner.

She at first refused to reply, but after being pressed, said, "We
quarrelled about my engagement to Mr Deedes."

So she acknowledged with her own lips that the dead man had been my
bitter enemy, as I, too late, had discovered.

"He wished you to marry him?" suggested the Coroner.  She did not
answer, but burst into a fit of hysterical tears, and a few moments
later was led out of the Court.

"I think, gentlemen," the Coroner observed, turning to the jury, "no end
can be obtained in pursuing this very painful inquiry further.  You have
heard the evidence, and while on the one hand the exact cause of death
has not been established, on the other we have Miss Laing declaring that
the unfortunate gentleman was murdered.  The evidence certainly does not
point to such a conclusion, and there are two courses that may be
pursued; either to adjourn the inquiry, or to return an open verdict and
leave the elucidation of the mystery in the hands of the police."

The jury, after consulting among themselves, retired, but only for five
minutes, coming back into court and returning an open verdict of "Found
dead."

Then, as the Coroner thanked the twelve tradesmen for their attendance,
I rose and crossed to Beck, afterwards walking with him to "The Nook."

CHAPTER EIGHT.

"I DARE NOT!"

"What do you think of Ella's statement?"  Beck asked, as we were
crossing Staines Bridge on our way to Mrs Laing's.

"I can't understand it," I replied.

"Neither can I," he said.  "Girls of her excitable temperament are apt
to make statements of that character utterly without foundation.  No
doubt Dudley was her intimate friend, and finding him dead, her romantic
mind at once conjured up visions of murder."

"Yes.  There is a good deal in your argument," I admitted, with a touch
of sorrow at the remembrance that Ogle had aspired to her hand.

"I never spoke to you on the subject, for fear of making mischief, but I
have many times been amazed at your blindness when Dudley and Ella used
to flirt openly before your very eyes," he observed, glancing at me.

"Ah! you are right," I cried angrily.  "I foolishly trusted him,
believing implicitly in his honour and in Ella's purity."

"Of the latter you surely have no cause for suspicion," he exclaimed
quickly.

"I am not so certain," I replied with bitterness.  "The more deeply I
attempt to probe this mystery, the more sorrow I heap upon myself.  I
was happy in the belief that she loved no other man except me, yet
apparently she is as tactful as an adventuress, and delights in toying
with a man's affections."

"Every woman is fickle," my friend remarked sympathetically.  "If she is
thrown into the society of one man frequently, and passes idle hours
alone with him, she either ends in loving him or hating him.  There is
little purely platonic friendship between men and women nowadays."

"Yes, alas!"  I echoed, as we entered the carriage drive and passed the
well-remembered spot where I had discovered the body.  "There is very
little indeed."

A quarter of an hour later I stood alone before the window of the bright
morning-room which commanded a beautiful view of the brilliant, sunlit
Thames, and the row of tall, swaying poplars and drooping, wind-whitened
willows on the opposite shore.  I was awaiting Ella, who had, her maid
told me, gone to her room.

Presently, pale-faced and trembling, she entered, and, closing the door,
moved slowly towards me, stretching forth her hand in silence, her
tearful eyes downcast.  I grasped the slim, white fingers, and found
them cold as marble.

"Geoffrey," she exclaimed, low and huskily.  "Geoffrey, forgive me!"

"Forgive!  For what reason?"  I inquired sternly, looking at her in
admiration, yet determined to be firm.  This was, I resolved, to be our
last interview.

"Because I--I was foolish and weak, and--" She paused, sighing deeply.

"Well?"  I said cynically.  "What other excuse?"

"Yes, yes," she cried brokenly.  "I know they are mean, paltry excuses.
I know I am trying to make you believe it was not my own fault, yet--"
and pausing again, she raised her clear blue eyes to mine with
passionate glance, "and yet, Geoffrey, I love you in a manner I have
loved no other man before."

"You have a strange way of exhibiting this so-called affection," I
observed coldly.  "You actually encouraged the advances of the man in
whom I reposed foolish and ill-placed confidence."

"For a purpose.  I never loved him--never," she protested, trembling.

"You had a reason?  A strange one, I should think," I exclaimed angrily.
"Indeed, at this very moment you are mourning the loss of this man."

"Dudley Ogle was not your enemy, Geoffrey.  He was your friend," she
answered, with a tremor in her voice.  "Some day I will prove this to
you.  I cannot now.  It is impossible."

"Why?"

"I dare not!"

"Dare not!  What do you fear?"  I demanded in surprise, instantly
releasing her hand.

"The consequences would be fatal to our love," she gasped.  Then, after
a pause, she clutched my arm, and, burying her beautiful face upon my
shoulder, sobbed bitterly.

"Our love!"  I echoed contemptuously.  Notwithstanding the fierceness of
my anger, I smoothed her dark gold hair, and presently, when she grew a
trifle calmer, endeavoured to discover the meaning of her strange,
enigmatical words.

"You cannot know--you will never know--how dearly I have loved you,
Geoffrey," she cried, in answer to my eager questions.  "Neither will
you ever know how much I have suffered, how hard I have striven for your
sake."

"For my sake!  Yet you admit having allowed Dudley Ogle to utter words
that I alone had a right to utter!"

"Yes, I admit all," she said, with a tragic touch of sorrow in her
strained voice.  "I deny nothing."

"And you come to me asking forgiveness, believing that I can again trust
you without hearing any explanation of your recent strange conduct with
Beck, as well as with Dudley!  I think you must regard me, Ella, as a
weak, impressionable fool," I added, with bitter sarcasm.

"No, I do not," she cried quickly.  "I appeal to your generosity towards
a woman.  I have been compelled to act against my own inclinations,
compelled, in order to outwit my enemies, to act a part despicable and
revolting.  I can now only ask forgiveness," and, throwing herself
suddenly upon her knees before me, she cried, "See!  Geoffrey, I crave
one grain of pity from you, my old friend, the only man I have loved!"

"No, Ella," I answered, quickly withdrawing my hand that she was
pressing to her hot, fevered lips.  "I may pity you, but forgive you
never."

"Never!" she gasped, clasping her breast with her hands as if to stay
the wild beating of her heart, and struggling unevenly to her feet.
"Why never?"

"Because you have deceived me."

"Yes, yes!" she wailed.  "I admit it, I admit it all, but I swear my
actions were imperative.  Ah! alas that you cannot know everything, or
you would kiss me as fondly as you used to do.  You, Geoffrey, would
love me with a love even more tender and passionate than before, if only
you were aware of what I have suffered for your sake."

I turned from her in disgust.  Her tragic attitude filled me with
loathing and contempt, for I knew she was lying.

"Can you never again trust me?" she asked, in a low, hoarse voice.
"Will you never forgive?"

"I can have no further confidence in a woman who has practised such
artful deception as you have," I answered, turning again towards her,
and noticing the look of unutterable sadness in her tearful eyes.

"Deception!" she cried, starting.  "What do you mean?  What have I
done?"

"You acknowledge having deceived me wilfully with all the deep cunning
of an adventuress, yet you refuse me one word of explanation, either in
regard to Beck or Dudley?"

"There is nothing to explain, as far as Mr Beck is concerned," she
answered demurely.  "He is an old friend, and your suspicions that there
was any love between us are absolutely absurd."

"Why, then, did you confess in your letter that you were unworthy of my
love!"  I demanded with warmth, walking towards her.

She hung her head.  There was a deep silence, broken only by the low
ticking of the clock.  In a few moments her hand stole in search of
mine, and, engrossed in my own sad thoughts, I let it linger there.

"Geoffrey," she said at length, timidly.

I gazed out upon the sunlit river, watching a boatful of happy holiday
folk pass by, and remained stolidly unconscious.

"Geoffrey," she repeated, "I tried ever so long to refrain from that
confession, yet was unable.  But I did not allude to Mr Beck.  It was my
conduct with Dudley that caused me to become a conscience-stricken
wretch.  I feared from day to day that you might discover our many long
excursions and the idle afternoons we spent up the backwaters; he lazy
and indolent, I using all my woman's wiles to fascinate him and bring
him to my feet."

"And you succeeded," I interrupted huskily.

"Yes, I succeeded," she went on, speaking slowly, almost mechanically.
"I had set my mind upon victory, and I achieved it after weeks and weeks
of striving, dreading always that you might discover the truth, and
fearing lest my conduct should appear in your eyes too serious for
forgiveness.  The blow that I dreaded has now fallen," she cried, with a
choking sob.  "Dudley is dead, and I, compelled to speak the truth, have
publicly acknowledged myself unworthy of your love."

"Is it not best that I should know the truth?"  I asked seriously.  "You
render your behaviour the more unpardonable by the absurd falsehoods you
wish me to believe."

"I do not wish you to believe any falsehoods," she cried resentfully,
her bright eyes flashing as she glanced at me.  "What I have now told
you is the truth.  I swear it before Heaven!"

"You deliberately flirted with Dudley, with an object in view.  Oh, no!"
I laughed with contempt, "that is too lame a tale."

"It is the truth," she said, looking me straight in the face, her
nervous hands toying with her rings.  "Even though you may believe ill
of me, I have lost neither honour nor self-respect.  I acted under
compulsion, to achieve one object."

"And I hope you have gained the mysterious end you had in view," I said,
with bitter sarcasm.

"Yes, I have," she replied, with an intenseness in her voice that
surprised me.  "I have gained my object even at risk of being discarded
by you, Geoffrey, and being branded as a base adventuress."

"Even at the cost of the life of the man you deceived?"  I hazarded.

She started at my words.  Her pale lips trembled, and in her eyes was a
strange look, as if haunted by some spectral fear.  The effect of this
remark was extraordinary, and I at once added,--

"Remember, you suspect that Dudley's death was not due to natural
causes."

"Suspect?" she cried.  "I know he was foully murdered."

"By whom?"  I inquired, with breathless eagerness.

"I have yet to discover that," she answered, in a low voice.  "But I
will make the elucidation of the mystery the one object of my life.  It
is I alone who will avenge his murder."

"Your very words betray your love for him," I exclaimed, disgusted.

"I tell you it is not because I loved him," she protested, with
indignation.

"Then why do you seek revenge?"  I demanded ruthlessly.

"For reasons known to myself--reasons I refuse for the present to
disclose," she replied, regarding me with unwavering glance.

"And you expect me to again repose confidence in you, notwithstanding
your steady refusal to explain anything?"  I observed, with a laugh.

"All I have told you now, Geoffrey, is the truth," she replied, looking
earnestly into my eyes.  "Once I deceived you, but I will never do so in
future.  I promise some day before long to explain all the facts to you;
when I do so they will astound you.  For the success of my plans I am
compelled at present to preserve my secret, even from you."

"What are your plans?"

"Be patient, and you shall see."

"You intend to avenge Dudley's death?"

"I do; and something further," she said.  "Only by the most careful
investigation and the strictest secrecy can my plans be successfully
carried out.  Trust in me, Geoffrey.  Tell me that you will reconsider
your decision not to forgive me," she whispered, leaning upon my
shoulder with one arm entwined affectionately about my neck, as was her
habit.  "And I will yet prove to you that I am an honest woman who has
acted only in your interests."

"In my interests?  How?"  I asked, amazed.

"You shall know all later, when I have ascertained the truth."

"Tell me one thing, Ella," I exclaimed, after a pause.  "Have you any
idea whether Dudley had any occupation?"

"Occupation?  I always understood he had enough money to be
independent."

Then taking from my vest pocket the object I had picked up from among
the contents of the dead man's pockets displayed on the table in the
Coroners's Court, I held it up to her, saying seriously,--

"Now, tell me truthfully, Ella, have you ever seen this in Dudley's
possession?"

She glanced at it for an instant, holding her breath, as across her
blanched countenance there passed an expression of bewildered amazement.

The object I held beneath her gaze was insignificant in itself, merely a
small brass seal, but it bore the Warnham arms in exact imitation of the
cut amethyst worn by the Earl.  It was the seal which had been used to
manufacture the duplicate of the envelope containing England's secret
alliance with Germany.

The suddenness with which I had produced it startled and nonplussed her.
As I transfixed her blue eyes with my keen, suspicious gaze, her white
lips moved, but no sound fell from them.  Embarrassment held her dumb.

CHAPTER NINE.

THE BOND OF SECRECY.

I held the small brass stamp towards her, inviting her to examine it,
but she shrank back with an expression of terror and repulsion, refusing
to touch it.

"Have you ever seen Dudley with this in his hand?"  I asked, repeating
my question seriously, determined upon learning the truth.

"Where did you find it?" she inquired, a look of bewilderment upon her
haggard face.

"You have not answered my question, Ella," I said sternly.

"Your question?  Ah!" she cried, as if in sudden remembrance of my
words.  "I--I have never seen Dudley with it.  I--I swear I haven't."

"Is that the absolute truth?"  I asked in doubt.

"The truth!" she echoed.  "Did I not, a moment ago, promise you I would
never again deceive you by word or action?  Can you never have
confidence in me?" she asked, in a tone of mingled regret and reproach.

"But this was found in Dudley's possession," I said, holding it nearer
my gaze, and detecting in the bright sunlight streaming through the
window small portions of black wax still adhering to the cleverly-cut
coat of arms.  Black wax, I remembered, had been used to secure the
dummy envelope.

"And even if that were so, is it such a very remarkable fact that a man
should carry a seal?" she asked suddenly, raising her brows and assuming
a well-feigned air of surprise.  At that instant it occurred to me that
she was an adept in preserving a mystery; she could practice deception
with a verisimilitude little short of marvellous.

"But this," I observed, "is no ordinary seal."

"It looks ordinary enough," she answered, smiling.  "It's only brass."

"But its discovery forms a clue to a most serious and startling crime,"
I said.

"A crime!" she gasped.  "What do you mean?  Dudley's murder?"

I did not fail to notice that she used the word "murder" as if she had
absolute proof that death had not been due to natural causes.  Yet the
effect of my announcement had been to fill her with sudden apprehension.
She strove to appear amazed, but I thought I could detect in her
attitude and bearing a fear that I had knowledge of her secret.

"It is most probably connected with that tragic event," I answered
meaningly, looking her straight in the face.  "The police will no doubt
pursue their investigations and clear up the matter."

"The police!" she whispered hoarsely, just as Mrs Laing had done when
the officers had entered her house.  "Do you think they will discover
the cause of poor Dudley's death?"

"I cannot say," I answered calmly.  "They will, however, discover the
reason he had this seal in his possession."

"I tell you it was not his--I mean I never saw him with it," she
protested.

"But he may have had it in his pocket and not shown it to you.  Indeed,
there were reasons that he should not do so because it was used for a
nefarious purpose."

"For what?" she asked, suddenly evincing an interest in the stamp,
taking it from my hand and examining it closely.

It was on my tongue to relate to her the whole circumstances, but
suddenly remembering that for the present the secret of England's peril
must be preserved if the identity of the spy were to be discovered, I
refrained, and answered,--

"The man who used that seal committed one of the worst crimes of which a
man can be guilty."

"What was it; tell me?" she asked quickly.  "Surely Dudley never
committed any offence!"

"I am not certain," I answered gloomily.  "An enemy who would pose as a
friend, as he has done, might be capable of any deceit."

"Have I not already told you that he was not your enemy, Geoffrey?" she
observed calmly.

"Ah, Ella," I cried in disgust, "all these falsehoods only render your
conduct the more despicable.  You will deny next that you went down to
Warnham to meet him surreptitiously."

"To Warnham?" she cried, white to the lips.

"Yes.  Do you deny it?"

"No.  I--it is quite true that I met him there," she faltered.

"You spent the day with my rival, unknown to me," I went on bitterly.
"Yet you declare that you never loved him?"

Her breath came and went in short, quick gasps, her haggard eyes were
fixed; she stood silent, unable to make reply.

"It is useless to further prolong this painful interview," I exclaimed
at last, turning from her.

"I swear I never loved him," she cried suddenly.  "Some day, when you
know the truth, you will bitterly regret how you have misjudged me, how,
while striving to serve you, I have fallen under suspicion."

"But your visit to Warnham!"  I said.  "Is that an act such as can be
overlooked without explanation?"

"I only ask you to place trust in me, and I will prove ere long that I
acted under compulsion."

"You want me to believe that he held you irrevocably in his power, I
suppose?"  I said with biting sarcasm.

She nodded, and held her head in downcast, dejected attitude.

"It is easy enough to allege all this, now that he is dead," I observed
doubtingly.

"I have told you the truth.  I feared him, and was compelled to obey,"
she exclaimed hoarsely.

"What was the object of your visit?  Surely you can explain that?"

"No.  I cannot."

"You absolutely refuse?"

"Absolutely," she answered, in a low, strained voice, looking straight
at me with an expression of determination.

"Then we must part," I said, slowly but firmly disengaging myself from
her embrace.

"No, no," she wailed, sobbing bitterly and clinging more closely to me.
"Do not be so cruel, Geoffrey.  You would never utter these words could
you know all."

"But you will not tell me," I cried.

"At present I dare not.  Wait; be patient, and you shall know
everything."

"How long must I remain in doubt and ignorance?"  I asked.

"I know not.  To-morrow the bond of secrecy may be removed from my lips,
or it may be many months ere I can fearlessly speak and explain," she
answered in a strange voice, almost as if speaking to herself.

"From your words it would appear that some person still holds power over
you, even though Dudley is dead," I said, looking into her eyes
seriously.

She sighed deeply, and her hand, resting upon my shoulder, trembled
violently.  "Yes, you guess the truth," she answered.  "I would tell you
all--explain all these facts that no doubt puzzle you and cause me to
appear base, heartless and deceitful--yet I fear the consequences.  If I
did so we should be parted for ever."

"But if you told the truth and cleared your conduct, I should then have
confidence again, and love you.  How should we be parted?"

Pale and silent she stood, with her eyes resting upon the distant line
of drooping willows.  Not until I had repeated my question did she move
and answer in a voice almost inaudible, as she clung to me,--

"We should be parted by death," she whispered hoarsely.

"By death!"  I cried, dismayed.  "What do you mean, Ella?  Do you fear
that the same tragic fate that has overtaken Dudley will overtake you?"

She shuddered, and burying her white face upon my shoulder, again burst
into a torrent of tears.  Hers was indeed a woeful figure, bent,
dejected and grief-stricken.  Raising her head at last, she stifled her
sobs with an effort, and implored with earnestness,--

"Tell me, Geoffrey, that you will not prejudge me.  Tell me with your
own lips that you will be content to wait in patience until I can
present the facts to you in their true light.  I am not an adventuress,
as you think.  I have never, I swear before Heaven, looked upon any
other man with thought of affection.  I have told you of my inability to
speak; I can tell you no more."

I made a movement, steady, stern and deliberate, to put her from me;
but, with her arms around my neck, she cried in an agonised tone,--

"No, Geoffrey.  At least show me a single grain of pity.  Be patient.
If you desire it I will not come near you until I can reply to your
questions and clear my conduct of the stigma upon it; I will do anything
you ask so long as you give me time to pursue my investigations and free
myself from this terrible thraldom.  Say you will, and bring back peace
to my mind and happiness to my heart.  I love you, Geoffrey, I love
you!" and her hot, passionate lips met mine in a manner that showed
plainly her terrible agitation, and her fear lest I should cast her off.

Slowly, during those moments of painful silence that followed, my anger
and bitterness somewhat abated, and, even against my better judgment,
feelings of pity swayed my mind.  It seemed to me, as I reflected upon
the past, that Dudley Ogle had been unfortunate in his early
surroundings and education; his character had received a wrong bias from
the very beginning, and the possession of wealth had increased it.  And
yet, in spite of all that, there had been something pleasant and good in
him.  No man is altogether hideous when truly known, and I had not yet
accurately ascertained the character of his mysterious relations with my
well-beloved.  I had, during this interview, caught glimpses of the
real, true woman beneath the veil of falsehood and evasion of the truth;
I had seen a wistful look occasionally in Ella's eyes, as though she
were haunted constantly by some terrible dread.

Yea, I pitied her.  Perhaps, if I waited, the time would come when her
nature would recover from the blight that had fallen upon it; when the
alien element that had grafted itself upon her true life would be
expelled by those avenging powers that vex and plague the erring soul,
not in mockery, but to save it from the death that cannot die.

The strangeness of her manner, and the tragic apprehension of her words
would, I knew, never fade from my memory; yet half inclined to believe I
had misjudged her, I at length, although feeling that the world could
never again be quite the same for me, drew her slight form towards me,
and imprinting a long, passionate kiss upon her ready lips, said,--

"I will try and think of you as a woman who has been wronged, Ella.  I
will wait until you can explain, but remember that until you relate to
me truthfully the whole of the facts there can be no love between us."

"No love!" she wailed in a voice of poignant grief.  "Is your love for
me so utterly dead, then, that you should say this?"

"No," I answered, caressing her, stroking her wealth of gold-brown hair
fondly as of old.  "I love you still, Ella; yet, speaking candidly, I
cannot trust you further until you explain the truth."

"But you will be patient, will you not?" she urged.  "Remember that I
have before me a task so difficult that it may require all my woman's
tact and cunning to accomplish it.  But I will--I must succeed; failure
will mean that I lose you, my best beloved.  Therefore wait, and ere
long I will convince you that I have not lied."

"Yes, I will wait," I said, kissing her once again.  "Until you have
cleared yourself, however, remember that I cannot love you as I have
done."

"Very well," she answered, her tear-stained face brightening.  "If such
is your decision, I am content.  Before long I will explain all the
facts, and then, I feel confident, you, noblest and dearest, will love
me even better than before."

"I trust I shall," I answered with heartfelt earnestness, taking her
small hand and pressing it softly; "for I love you, Ella."

"I care for nothing else," she answered, raising her face to mine and
smiling through her tears.  "I am happy in the knowledge that you still
think of me.  You have enemies; yes, many.  But there was one that loved
you always--ay, and loves you now, and ever shall love you."

For a moment I gazed into the deep blue depths of her clear, trusting
eyes, still grasping her tiny hand in mine, but almost at that instant
the door opened and Mrs Laing, fussy, good-natured, and full of
sympathy, entered, and seating herself, commenced to chat about the
events of that memorable morning.

CHAPTER TEN.

ENGLAND'S PERIL.

By the discovery of the duplicate of Lord Warnham's private seal in the
possession of my dead companion, it became impressed upon my mind that
Dudley Ogle, the man in whom I had placed implicit trust, had not only
abused my confidence by making love to Ella, but was a spy in the
Russian secret service.  Try how I would I could see no extenuating
circumstances, and as next morning, when sitting alone in my London
flat, moody and disconsolate, I calmly reflected upon the startling
events of the past few days, I saw plainly, from Ella's attitude when I
had exhibited the brass stamp, that, notwithstanding her declaration to
the contrary, she had seen it before.

It seemed placed beyond all doubt that Dudley had acted in conjunction
with certain agents, who had by some means ascertained the very day and
hour that the secret convention would arrive from Berlin.  Then Dudley,
armed with the forged duplicate, called upon me, and while we were
together extracted the document from my pocket and substituted the
envelope.  Yet there was the registration mark upon it, so cleverly
imitated as to defy detection.  How that had been placed upon the dummy
puzzled me, for the designation I had written could not be known until
the envelope, with its precious contents, had been filched from my
pocket.

The reason of Dudley's visit to Warnham was now, to a certain extent,
explained.  More than probable it seemed that through bribery he had
obtained from one of the servants an impression in wax of the Earl's
private seal, and from it the brass stamp had been cut.  The theft of
the document had been accomplished with a neatness that seemed almost
miraculous; and if Dudley really had stolen it, he must have been a most
adroit pickpocket.  Nevertheless, even though his every action had now
corroborated up to the hilt the suspicion that he was a spy, I could
not, somehow, believe him capable of such crafty, nay devilish,
deception.  Friends that we were, I could have trusted him with any
secret, or with any of my possessions; but these revelations startled
and amazed me.

Still there was a more remarkable and puzzling phase of the mystery.  If
Ella's fears were well grounded, why had he been murdered, and by whom?

The mysterious secret possessed by the woman I adored, the woman who
held me under the spell of her marvellous beauty, was of a tragic and
terrible nature, I felt assured.  No doubt it had some connection with
Dudley's death, and that sinister circumstance, once elucidated, would,
I knew, furnish a very valuable clue to the identity of the spy, if
perchance the innocence of my companion should be established, as I
hoped it might be.

There was still one fact, too, that required explanation, one that
seemed to prove conclusively that Dudley was in the pay of our enemies.
I had found, on looking over his possessions in our cottage at
Shepperton, some pieces of crumpled foolscap.  He had evidently intended
to throw them away, but being unable to get rid of them at the moment,
had placed them in a drawer and locked them up.  On smoothing them out,
I found another piece of paper inside.  To my astonishment I saw it was
a letter written by me, while the pieces of foolscap accompanying it
were covered with words and sentences in ink and pencil, showing how
carefully he had studied and copied all the characteristics of my
handwriting.  These papers were, in themselves, sufficient evidence that
he had practised the forger's art.

I had, after leaving Staines, returned straight to Shepperton, and in
company with a detective carefully investigated all my friend's
belongings.  We spent the afternoon and evening in reading through heaps
of letters, but discovered nothing that would lead to any suspicion of
foul play.  The detective made notes of one or two of the addresses of
the writers, and took charge of several letters relating to money
matters.  When, however, we had removed all the correspondence from the
small wooden box in which it had been kept, the detective ascertained
that there was a false bottom, and unable to find out the secret whereby
it might be opened, we forced it with a chisel.

At first we were disappointed, only one insignificant-looking paper
being therein concealed, but when the officer eagerly opened it I at
once recognised its extreme importance, although I preserved silence.
The paper was nothing less than a Russian passport of a special
character signed by the Chief of Secret Police in St Petersburg, and
countersigned by the Minister of the Interior himself.  It was not a
formally printed document, but written in Russian upon official paper
stamped with the double-headed eagle.  It was made out in the name of
Dudley Ogle, and after explaining that he was an official engaged on
secret service, gave him complete immunity from arrest within the
Russian Empire.

"What's this, I wonder?" the detective said, puzzled by the unfamiliar
characters in the writing.

Taking it from him I glanced through it, and without betraying the
slightest surprise, answered, "Merely a passport for Russia."

"That doesn't lead us to anything," he replied, taking it from my form,
glancing at it again for an instant, and tossing it back carelessly into
the box.

But when he had completed his investigations, removed whatever letters
and papers he thought might be of use and departed, I secured the
passport and the crumpled foolscap, and giving Juckes orders to remove
my belongings back to London and give up possession of the cottage, I
returned to Rossetti Mansions.

With these undeniable evidences of Ogle's activity as a spy, I was
sitting alone next morning pondering over the best course to pursue, at
last resolving to go to the Foreign Office and boldly place the
startling facts before Lord Warnham.

About noon I knocked at the door of the Minister's private room, and
received, in his deep, hoarse voice, permission to enter.  He was alone,
seated at his big writing-table, engrossed in a long, closely-written
document he was studying.

"Well, sir," he exclaimed, with an expression of displeasure when he saw
me, "to what, pray, do I owe this intrusion?"

"I have come," I said, "to clear myself of the charge you have made
against me."

"To clear yourself!  Bah!" he cried in disgust, returning to his papers.
"My time is too valuable for further discussion," and he made a
movement to ring the bell for a messenger to conduct me out.

But I placed my hand upon his bony fingers firmly, and stayed it,
saying,--

"It is to your interest, Lord Warnham, as well as to my own, that you
should know the truth."

"A traitor who will sell his country's honour is capable of any
falsehood whereby to justify himself," he snapped savagely.

"I am no traitor," I protested in anger.

His thin, white face relaxed into a bitterly sarcastic smile, and his
lip curled in withering contempt.

"The efforts of ten years' delicate diplomacy with Berlin have been
rendered futile by your treachery or culpable negligence.  Now you come
to me with some lame, paltry tale or other, in an endeavour to convince
me that you are neither thief nor spy!  Each word of yours only
aggravates your offence.  I have dismissed you, and I tell you I decline
to reopen the question."

"But you have accused me of a crime, and I demand to be judged," I
cried.

"I have already judged you," he said, after a pause, laying down his pen
with a sudden calmness, and fixing his grey eyes keenly upon me.

"Yes, falsely."

"You have come to me to prove that I have misjudged you," he said at
last, leaning back in his chair.  "Very well.  Let me hear your story."

"I have no story further than what I have already told you," I answered.
"You have made a charge against me; I have come to you to refute it."

"By what means?"

"By documentary evidence."

"Documentary evidence!" he exclaimed.  "Of what kind?"

"You will remember that I told you of the death of the only man who
could speak regarding my absence from the office and my return."

"Yes.  He died mysteriously.  The inquest was held yesterday;" and,
taking up a letter from his table, the Earl added, "They report from
Scotland Yard that an open verdict was returned, although one witness, a
woman, alleged murder.  Well, what was the allegation?  Against
yourself?" he asked, raising his grey, shaggy brows.

"No," I said with emphasis.  "I am not a murderer."

"Then why did this woman--what's her name?--Ella Laing," he said,
referring to the letter, "why did she allege foul play?"

"I cannot tell; but all the facts I have ascertained point to the same
conclusion, although the medical evidence negatived any such
suggestion."

"Then what is your contention?"

"That the man who was my friend was a spy," I said.

"You would shift the responsibility upon one who, being dead, can tell
us nothing," he said in a tone of reproachful contempt.  "I suspected
this.  It was but what might have been expected."

"But I have evidence indisputable that he was a spy," I exclaimed
excitedly.  "Read this," and I handed to him Dudley's passport.

Spreading it out before him, he carefully adjusted his gold _pince-nez_,
and after a little difficulty translated it.  Then, without expressing
any surprise, he turned it over and held the paper to the light of the
window, examining the water-mark.

"Well," he exclaimed calmly at last, "what else?"

I placed before him the crumpled sheets of foolscap whereon attempts had
been made--and successfully too--to imitate my handwriting, explaining
where I had discovered them.  These he also examined very minutely,
giving vent to a low grunt, as was habitual to him when reassured.

"Anything more?" he asked impatiently.  "I can't waste time.  The
outlook is too serious."

"But you must--you shall spare time to fully investigate this mystery,"
I cried.  "You will remember that the dummy envelope you took from your
safe bore an imitation of your private seal?"

"Yes.  What of that?"

"Here is the seal with which that impression was made," I replied in
triumph, handing to him the little brass stamp.  "I have had the
portions of wax microscopically examined, and they are of the same wax
as was used to seal the dummy."

He took it between his thin fingers that now trembled with excitement.
The production of this object was, I saw, entirely unexpected.  Suddenly
rising from his chair he unlocked his great safe and took therefrom the
dummy envelope.  Then, returning to his table, he lit a taper and
carefully made an impression in wax of the seal I had given him,
afterwards taking it to the light, and by the aid of a large magnifying
glass compared it closely with the seal upon the dummy.

"And where did you find this seal?" he inquired, glancing across to me.

"Among the contents of the dead man's pockets," I answered.

"Impossible!" he retorted.  "The police have possession of everything
found on the man."

"Yes, they had, but this came into my possession yesterday at the
inquest."

"How?"

I hesitated, then, determined to conceal no fact from the great
statesman, I answered boldly,--

"I stole it from the table whereon it was displayed."

"Stole it!" he echoed.

Slowly he turned the brass stamp over in his hand as if deep in thought;
then, with brows knit in anger, he looked me straight in the face,
exclaiming bluntly,--

"Your story is an absolute tissue of lies from beginning to end."

His words staggered me.  I had expected him to be eager to further probe
the mystery, and try and elucidate the manner in which Dudley had
manufactured the dummy and exchanged it for the secret convention.
Instead of this he was distrustful and suspicious; indeed, he boldly
accused me of attempting to wilfully mislead him and conceal the truth.

"I have told you no lies.  Every word I have uttered is the truth," I
answered, with fierce indignation.

"You certainly never obtained possession of this seal in the manner in
which you would have me believe, for the detectives sent to Staines had
strict injunctions to search for any object that would lead them to
suppose the dead man was not what he represented himself to be, and I
made a special request that any seals discovered might be submitted to
me for examination.  If this had been in the dead man's pockets it would
have been brought to me."

"But I tell you it was among the articles found upon him.  I picked it
up from the Coroner's table, and finding it was not missed, brought it
to you, rather than inform the police of our suspicions, which I
understood you desired should, for the present, be kept secret."

"I do not believe you," he retorted angrily.

"Ask whoever searched the body, and they will no doubt remember finding
the seal," I answered.

"It is quite unnecessary," he exclaimed.

"Unnecessary?  Why?"

"Because I don't believe one word of this elegantly romantic story of
yours."

"But I have brought you evidence in black and white that Ogle was a
spy!"  I cried.

"Evidence of a sort," he answered carelessly, returning to his table and
sinking into his armchair.  "You have brought these things to me in
order to induce me to believe that they were in the dead man's
possession instead of where they really were--in your own."

"It is false," I protested, flushing at his base and dogged
insinuations.

"So is this elaborate so-called evidence you have brought me," he
answered.

"In what way?"  I demanded.

"You wish to know," he cried.  "Well, I will tell you.  First, the
passport is a forged one, and was never written in St Petersburg."

"Why?"  I cried in dismay.  "How can you tell?"

"Because its water-mark shows it to be English paper, whereas all
Russian official paper, as this is supposed to be, is manufactured by
Yaronovski, of Moscow, and bears his name."

This fact had never occurred to me, and taking up the paper I examined
the water-mark, finding, to my surprise, the name of a well-known
English mill.

"Then the attempts at imitating your handwriting are quite as
unsatisfactory," he went on.  "Indeed, I have no proof that all those
letters and words have not been made by yourself."

"They have not," I protested.  "You seem determined not to believe in my
innocence."

"And the seal," he continued, heedless of my interruption.  "You
expected that it would be regarded as irresistible proof.  Well, in the
first place I do not believe it was discovered on the body, as you
allege; and, secondly, even if it had been, it is no absolute proof that
the dead man was the culprit."

"Why?"  I inquired eagerly.

"Because it was not with that seal that the dummy envelope was secured,"
he answered slowly, at the same time handing me the two impressions, and
inviting me to compare them.

This I did with breathless eagerness, by the aid of the magnifying
glass, and in astonishment was compelled to admit that he spoke the
truth.  There were several discrepancies in the quarterings of the arms
that I had not before noticed, and I saw instantly that they did not
correspond with those impressed upon the envelope.  The amazing
worthlessness of my discoveries held me embarrassed, and I stood
helpless, and in silence, as the Minister hurled at me some bitter
invectives, declaring that I had come to him with an ingenious story,
and evidence that might have convinced a man less shrewd.

"Take your clumsily-forged documents and your attempt to reproduce my
seal, and leave me at once!" he cried, in a terrible ebullition of
wrath, gathering up the objects I had brought and tossing them back to
me.  "Your dastardly conduct is too despicable for words; but remember
that to you, and you alone, your country owes the overwhelming
catastrophe that must now inevitably fall upon it."

With these ominous words ringing in my ears I stumbled out, knowing not
whither I went, and scarcely responding to the greetings of the men I
knew, who regarded me in askance.  The great central staircase, up which
climbed the brilliantly-uniformed representatives of all civilised
countries on the face of the earth whenever the Minister held his
receptions, I descended with heavy heart, and crossing the grey, silent
courtyard, soon found myself amid the bustle of Parliament Street.

I saw with chagrin how utterly I had failed in my endeavour to elucidate
the mystery, for not only had I been unable to throw any further light
upon the theft of the treaty, or the tragic end of the man I suspected,
but I had actually heaped increased suspicion upon myself.  On
reflection, I found myself in accord with the Minister's declaration
that the passport was a forgery, and that the brass stamp was not the
seal used by the spy.  These facts were absolutely incontestable.  The
only thing remaining was the paper whereon attempts had been made to
imitate my writing.  I tried to explain this fact away, and clear the
memory of the dead man of all suspicion, but, alas! could not bring
myself to believe in his innocence.  There rankled in my breast the
bitter thought that he had uttered words of love to Ella, and had tried
to induce her to break off her engagement to me.  She herself had
acknowledged on oath before the Coroner that they had quarrelled because
she loved me.  No.  Although this passport was a clumsy imitation, and
the seal had been cut without due regard to the Warnham quarterings, the
plain, incontestable evidence of his forgery remained.

He was, after all, a cunning, despicable scoundrel, who had brought
dishonour upon my name and ruined me both socially and financially.  I
found myself smiling grimly at the thought of how quickly retribution
had fallen upon him.  If he had died from natural causes it was but a
judgment for his misdeeds; if struck down by an unknown hand it was but
vengeance for his treachery towards his Queen, his country, and his
bosom friend.

Heedless of where I went I walked on, called at my club, I remember, and
thrust my letters into my pocket unopened; then, pursuing my way,
arrived home late in the afternoon.  As I entered, Juckes handed me a
note from Ella, telling me that they had left Staines owing to the
tragic affair, and asking me to call that evening at Pont Street, adding
that she wished to see me upon a very important matter.  For a long time
I sat alone, smoking and thinking, trying to devise some means by which
I could bring the Earl to believe in my loyalty; but at last, in
desperation, I rose, dressed, and took a cab to Mrs Laing's.

The house was not large, but well ordered, exquisitely furnished, and
there was about everything an air of elegant refinement that betokened
wealth, taste and culture.  It was nearly seven when I arrived, and I
was gratified to learn that, with the exception of Beck, who came later,
I was the only guest.  Dinner was a much more stately meal at Pont
Street than it had been at Staines, where very often we sat down in
flannels, and I was not sorry when it was over, and I found myself free
to talk alone with Ella.  It was plain, from the dark rings about her
eyes, that she had passed a sleepless night, and that her terrible and
mysterious secret bore her down beneath its oppressive weight.  Yet she
had greeted me with the same joyous smile, the same hearty hand-shake as
of old, and I had, while sitting at dinner chatting with her, felt
myself wondering how I could ever have brought myself to utter such
bitter reproaches and recriminations as I had done on the previous day.
Her kiss, now that we were alone, thrilled me; her speech, soft and
musical, held me enraptured by its charm.

She told me, in answer to my questions, how she had fared after I left
"The Nook"; how dismal the place had appeared, and how many bitter
memories it would always possess for her.  Then, in response to her
suggestion, we walked out upon the balcony, where, under the striped
awning, a table and chairs were set.  Here, in the cool night air, the
quiet only broken by an occasional footfall or the tinkle of a passing
cab-bell, we sipped our coffee and gossiped on as lovers will.

Suddenly, while she was telling me of the plans her mother had prepared
for their sojourn for a couple of months at the seaside, the loud,
strident cry of a running newsman broke upon our ears.  At first, in the
distance, the voice did not attract our attention, but when it neared
us, the words, hoarse, yet indistinct, held me speechless.  I sat
stunned.

Ella herself sprang from her chair, and leaned over the balcony,
straining her ears to catch every sound of the rough, coarse voice.  The
man had paused for breath before the house, a bundle of papers across
his shoulder, and the ominous words he shouted were,--

"Extra spe-shall!  Probable war against England!  Spe-shall!  War
against England!  Startling statement!  Spe-shall!"

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

BECK'S PROPHECY.

"Hark!" gasped Ella, turning to me, pale in alarm.  "What is that man
crying?  Listen!"

Again the hoarse voice broke the silence, dear, distinct, ominous,--

"War against England!  Spe-shall!" his cry being followed by the sound
of hurrying feet as people rushed from their houses, purchased copies of
the paper at exorbitant prices, and eagerly devoured the amazing news.

"Surely it must be some absurd story that the papers have got hold of,"
Ella exclaimed a few moments later, when, after again watching the
excitement below, she returned and stood beside my chair.  "The idea of
war against us is absolutely absurd.  You Foreign Office people would
have known if such were actually the case.  Evening papers are so often
full of exaggerated reports, contradicted next morning, that one ceases
to believe in them."

"I have every reason, unfortunately, to believe in the truth of this
sudden probability of war," I answered gloomily, scarce knowing what I
said.

"You believe it's true!" she cried.  "How do you know?  Will Russia
actually dare to challenge us?"

"Yes," I replied.  "But how were you aware that Russia was our enemy?"

She started and held her breath.  Her attitude was that of one who had
unconsciously betrayed herself.

"I--I--merely guessed it," she answered lamely, with a forced smile a
moment later.  "I've been reading the papers lately."

"The papers have given no hint of any impending complication," I
answered abruptly, removing the cigarette from my lips and looking up at
her keenly.

"But I read something the other day which stated that Russia and France
had combined with the object of attacking England in the near future."

I did not answer.  I could only gaze at her, amazed at the calm,
circumstantial manner in which she lied.  That she had some knowledge of
the political situation--of what character or extent I knew not--was
certain, for other words she had let drop in unguarded moments had once
or twice aroused within me increasing suspicion.  When I reflected upon
her alarm on hearing the strident cry of the newsman, I was compelled to
admit that her fears were not genuine.  The questions she put to me
regarding the relative strengths of England and Russia, and the probable
course of events, were naive enough, but they were uttered, I knew, with
a view to disarm any suspicion I might entertain.

At last, wearied of her eternal masquerade, I roused myself, tossed away
my dead cigarette, and, declaring that in the circumstances my presence
at the Foreign Office was imperative, suddenly said,--

"You asked me to come here this evening because you had something
particular to say to me, Ella.  You have not yet referred to it."

"I wanted to ask you a question," she exclaimed in a low tone, slowly
moving towards me and bending until she placed her arm tenderly around
my neck.

"Well, what is it?"

For a moment she remained silent in hesitation, but at last spoke in
that harsh, strained voice that had so frequently puzzled me of late.

"I know you have investigated Dudley's belongings," she said.  "And I
wanted to know whether you discovered among them some scraps of paper
bearing imitations of your own handwriting."

I regarded her in surprise; her question amazed me.  In her eyes I
noticed a look of intense earnestness and appeal for sympathy.

"Well, what if I have?"  I inquired.

"If you have, they will, I know, be regarded by you as evidence that
Dudley was a forger."

"That is what I believe him to have been," I said with bitterness.

"You judge him wrongly," she replied quite calmly, her face nevertheless
as white as the simple-made dinner gown she wore.  "I have already seen
those papers, and know their authorship."

"Did not Dudley trace my writing?"

"He never did," she replied.  "As his death was encompassed by his
enemies, so is dishonour cast upon his memory."

"Then you allege that he was the victim of conspiracy!"  I exclaimed,
surprised.

"No doubt.  When I am at last free to speak I shall prove it, and by so
doing remove from myself the suspicion now resting upon me."  She spoke
earnestly, with an intense ring in her voice that told me she now
uttered the truth.

"For what reason was it desired to imitate my handwriting?"  I asked,
pressing her hand tenderly.  "Come, tell me, Ella."

"I really don't know," she replied.  "All I am aware is that your
writing was most carefully traced and imitated, and for that purpose two
of your letters to me were stolen."

"By whom?"

"I have never been able to discover."

At that moment our conversation was interrupted by a voice crying,
"Here, Deedes!  Have you seen this alarming news?" and turning I saw
Beck standing beside the tall, amber-shaded lamp in the drawing-room, a
pale pink news-sheet in his hand.  Rising quickly I re-entered the room,
and walking over to him, followed by Ella, took the newspaper, and
devoured the dozen lines of leaded type placed beneath the bold,
alarming head-lines.

My well-beloved was peering over my shoulder as, in breathless
eagerness, I read that, according to Reuter's correspondent at St
Petersburg, the _Novoe Vremya_ had that afternoon issued a special
edition containing the amazing statement that Russia would, in the
course of a few hours, formally declare war against England, and that
this fact was corroborated by the issue of telegraphic orders to the
commanders of military districts as a preliminary to a general
mobilisation of the forces.  This announcement was similar to that of
our secret agent in St Petersburg, with the additional facts that the
greatest activity had commenced in the War Office and Admiralty, and
that the Tzar had, in consequence, abandoned his visit to Odessa, which
he was about to undertake that day.

"The outlook is certainly most alarming," I observed, handing on the
paper to Ella.

"It's extraordinary!" cried Beck, intensely excited, as became a
patriotic legislator.  "We have not had the slightest inkling of any
diplomatic deadlock, or any disagreement with Russia.  The whole thing
is absolutely amazing."

"But what will happen?" asked Ella, eagerly, with white, scared face.
"Will England be invaded and battles fought here in the manner prophetic
writers have foretold?"

"I fear so," I said despondently.  "If war is really declared, a
conflict must very soon occur, and the struggle will then be long and
deadly."

"But surely the Government will not allow an enemy to land upon English
soil," she exclaimed, still holding the paper in her trembling hands.
"What are ambassadors for but to avert such catastrophes as this?"

"Ambassadors," exclaimed Beck, "appear to me to be useless pawns.
Surely our Embassy at St Petersburg must have been asleep not to have
given the Government warning of the plans of Russia long ago.
Preparations for war against a power like England are not made without
very careful deliberation."

"But can we be invaded?"  I queried.

"No doubt," Beck replied promptly.  "The opinions of our greatest
strategists are unanimous that, under certain conditions, France and
Russia combined could invade our island.  It is all very well for people
to talk about England's maritime power; but is it what we believe it to
be?  I think not."

Having made a deep study of this very question, I was, although a loyal
and patriotic Englishman, compelled to agree with him in a certain
measure.  Once, not so very long ago, it was generally believed, even by
our greatest military and naval experts, that should England become
engaged with a first-rate foreign Power, she could, single-handed, in a
week close every one of her enemy's ports and have a fleet ready to
reduce at its leisure everything he held beyond the seas.  Indeed, some
authorities went so far as to declare that with almost any two Powers
against her, she could do as much; and it was that recognition of this
power abroad that gave England, in spite of her military weakness, so
commanding a position in Europe.  But since the Franco-Russian Alliance
the increase in the fleets of the Powers had been so rapid that we had
utterly failed to keep pace with them.  We built huge, unwieldy
battleships, while our enemies constructed the fastest cruisers and
torpedo-boat destroyers afloat, thereby sweeping away our hitherto
undisputed mastery of the sea.

"The great danger that appears to me," Beck said presently, after we had
been discussing the serious outlook at considerable length, "is that we
may be blockaded by these two hostile powers, so as to reduce us near
starvation, and compel us to surrender."

"But not before we have engaged the enemy at sea and given them a taste
of the lion's paw," I observed.

"Of course.  First, we must expect a great naval battle or battles,
followed by a dash upon our territory and the landing of the hostile
armies.  If England received one serious reverse at sea, she could never
recover from it.  The loss of her maritime power would paralyse her."

"I know," I said.  "That argument is trite enough.  But I, nevertheless,
believe that England is still, and will be for many centuries to come,
Queen of the Sea."

"Oh! yes," he said, rather contemptuously.  "The cheap, clap-trap
patriotism of the pot-house and the music-hall is all very well, but we,
in the House of Commons, entertain a very different opinion.  The belief
in England's greatness held by the lower classes is admirable, and, of
course, ought to be carefully fostered, because it leads men to enlist
in the Services.  But you know, as well as I do, that in the Government
Departments our naval strength is regarded as over-estimated in
comparison with the power of some other European nations, and our
military strength utterly inadequate.  If it is really true that Russia
is about to declare war against us, I fear the awakening of those
confident of our insular security will be a terrible one."

"Terrible no doubt it will be, on account of the fearful loss of life
and property such a war must entail, but I anticipate that when the
struggle comes every Englishman will bear arms for the defence of his
home and loved ones, and that the foreign invader will meet with a
reception the warmth of which he never expected."

"Geoffrey is a patriot," exclaimed Ella, laughing.  "So am I.  I don't
believe Russia and France will ever dare to land soldiers on our
coasts."

"Well spoken," I exclaimed.  "I do not share the fears of these
so-called experts."

"I do," Beck went on excitedly.  "If hostilities occur our defences will
soon be found weak and utterly unreliable.  That's my opinion."

"Then you declare that England is great no longer," I observed, with a
smile.

"No, I don't go so far as that; but I contend, as I did in my speech in
the House a fortnight ago, that those charged with maintaining our
defences in a proper state of efficiency have for years been culpably
negligent.  The power of England to-day is still the same as it has
been--on paper.  But, in ascertaining it, we always close our eyes
wilfully to the true fact that other nations have awakened during the
past ten years, and have now actually overtaken us."

"I don't think that," I answered.  "Until our country is actually
invested I shall still believe in its strength."

But Beck, greatly to the amusement of Ella, was firm in his opinions,
and, when I argued with him, commenced to quote statistics with a
glibness which told how carefully he had studied the speech he recently
delivered before the House, a speech which, by the way, had been
dismissed in one line by all the newspapers.  Ella, standing beside me
in her pale cream dress, girdled narrow with a band of mauve silk,
looked charming, and supported me in all my views, exhibiting a
knowledge of politics and of the Continental outlook that I had not in
the least suspected.  Indeed, she now and then attacked the arguments of
the member for West Rutlandshire with a vehemence that surprised me, for
more than once she completely upset his declarations by citing some fact
he had overlooked.

Even while we discussed these things we knew how wildly-excited must be
the seething world of London.  The news, although, alas! not fresh to
me, had fallen that night upon the metropolis like a thunderbolt.  Mrs
Laing, who presently entered the room, was shown the paper by Ella, and
was utterly unnerved by the startling intelligence.  I had noticed that
she had never since been the same stately, composed woman as before the
discovery of Dudley.  The tragic affair at "The Nook" seemed to have
upset her, and in her face there were now traces of extreme nervousness
and excitability.

"Surely the paper has printed an unwarrantable untruth, Mr Beck," she
exclaimed, after reading the statement by the aid of her glasses.  "I
really can't believe it."

"I scarcely think we ought to credit it before we receive some
confirmation," the burly legislator replied.  "It may, of course, be a
mere idle rumour set afloat for Stock Exchange purposes."

At that moment they exchanged swift, mysterious glances that somehow
appeared to me significant, yet next instant I found myself convinced
that the unusual expression in their eyes had merely been due to a
chimera of my own imagination.  With a foolish disregard for
probability, I seemed somehow to scent mystery in everything, and it now
occurred to me that to successfully probe the truth of Ella's relations
with the two men, I must never allow myself to be misled by
misconstruing words or actions.  I felt almost confident that I had
noticed Beck and Mrs Laing exchange looks akin to approbation;
nevertheless, on reflection, I convinced myself that I had been quite
mistaken, and half an hour later laughed at my suspicions.

Presently Beck announced his intention of going down to the House to
ascertain the latest official news, and I, bidding Ella and her mother
farewell, accompanied him.  It was about eleven o'clock when we drove
up, but the cab could not get much further than Broad Sanctuary, so
dense was the crowd that had gathered at St Stephen's on the startling
news being spread.  From the high summit of Big Ben the electric light
was streaming westward, showing the excited thousands assembled there
that Parliament was already deliberating upon the best course to pursue
on the outbreak of hostilities, and as we elbowed our way through the
turbulent concourse war was on everyone's tongue.  Men and women of all
classes of society, wildly-excited, with pale, scared faces, discussed
the probable course of events; many sang patriotic songs, the choruses
of which were taken up and shouted lustily, while here and there, as we
proceeded, loud invectives against the Tzar and his French allies
greeted our ears.

At last we reached St Stephen's Hall, and, passing its zealously-guarded
portals, hurried forward to the Lobby.  Here the scene was of a most
exciting character.  Members were standing in small groups, eagerly
discussing the serious and unexpected turn affairs had taken, and, in
answer to our inquiries, we learnt that a quarter of an hour before an
official reply had been given in the House to a question addressed from
the Opposition benches, admitting that, according to the latest advices
from St Petersburg, there was, no doubt, foundation for the rumour
published by the _Novoe Vremya_, and that it was very probable that in
the course of an hour or two war would formally be declared.

A tiresome topic was being discussed in the House, but it was being
carried on without spirit or enthusiasm, all the members being on tiptoe
with expectation regarding the next telegram from the enemy's camp.  The
amazing intelligence that had spread like wildfire throughout the
metropolis had brought every member in town down to the House, until the
Lobby became so thronged that locomotion was difficult.  I chatted with
many legislators I knew, and found all held similar views--that an
attempted invasion of England had been planned by France and Russia.
The Cabinet had been hastily summoned, and was at that moment
deliberating with the Commander-in-Chief regarding the immediate steps
to be taken for the complete mobilisation of the forces.

One fact had impressed itself upon me as, accompanied by Beck, I had
struggled through the ever-increasing crowd outside, namely, the intense
patriotism of the Volunteers.  There were dozens who, on hearing the
news, had at once put on their uniforms in readiness to bear their part
in the defence of their homes, and everywhere as they swayed to and fro
in the crowd they were lustily cheered.  The sight of a uniform in those
wild moments was sufficient to send the multitude half mad with
enthusiasm, and in one or two instances volunteers had been raised
shoulder-high in order that all should unite in giving them ovations.

Within the sombre, smoke-blackened walls of Parliament it was a
breathless period of eager waiting.  There was no cheering, there was no
cheap patriotism, no outburst of enthusiasm.  Some of the little knots
of white-hatted politicians condemned the Government unmercifully for
failing to obtain news of a pending catastrophe which might have been
avoided by diplomacy, while others declared that the action of the
Opposition in the past was alone responsible for the present disaster.
Wherever I went I found an opinion, almost unanimous, that England could
not withstand the blow now threatened.  In that time of wild theories
and wilder apprehensions Beck's arguments and prophetic utterances were
listened to eagerly, until quite a crowd stood around him.  Of late he
had written one or two articles on the subject of England's
unpreparedness for war, notably one in the _Nineteenth Century_, which
had attracted considerable attention, and his opinions were now listened
to and afterwards discussed, even among men whose names were household
words.

As I stood watching and listening, I was compelled to admit that during
the short time my friend had been in Parliament he had certainly won
good opinions, and even among the most level-headed politicians his
views, notwithstanding his blustering manner, were regarded as worthy of
serious consideration.  I confess to having previously looked upon him
rather as a crank upon this subject, but I did so no longer, now that I
recognised what weight his arguments carried.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

AN IMPORTANT DISPATCH.

Half an hour later I stood at the door of the small post-office in the
Lobby, after discussing the situation with that most cheery and
courteous of officials, Mr Pike, the postmaster, who had left me for a
moment to give some instructions to his subordinates.  My mind was
filled by gloomy thoughts, as I reflected that all this national terror
and excitement had been produced by the dastardly and almost miraculous
ingenuity of some unknown person.

But was he unknown?  Was it not more than probable that the person to
whom all this was due was Dudley Ogle, the man who lay lifeless without
a single sorrowing friend to follow his body to the grave?  Sometimes I
felt entirely convinced of this: at others I doubted it.  If Ella spoke
the truth, as it now appeared, then it was plain that Dudley had been
the victim of a terribly cruel and crafty conspiracy that culminated in
his death.  Might not this be so, I argued within myself.  Yet the words
and actions of Ella were all so remarkable, so veiled by an impenetrable
mystery, that any endeavour to elucidate her reasons only puzzled me the
more, driving me almost to the verge of madness.

Truth to tell, I loved her with a fond, passionate love, and had, only
after months of trepidation and uncertainty, succeeded in obtaining her
declaration that she reciprocated my affection, and her promise to be my
wife.  Yet within a month of my new-born life in happiness supreme, all
these untoward events had, alas! occurred, stifling my joy, replacing
confidence by doubt, and driving me to despair.

While I stood there alone, Lord Warnham hastily approached the
post-office window with a telegram, and, seeing me, exclaimed,--

"Ah!  I want you, Deedes.  An hour ago I sent telegrams everywhere for
you.  Come with me to my room."

He handed in his telegram, and together we went along the corridors to
his own private room, where, in an armchair, with some papers in his
hand, sat the Marquis of Maybury, Prime Minister of England.  We had met
before many times when the burly, elderly peer had been a guest at
Warnham Hall, and on many occasions I had acted as his secretary when he
had been alone.

"Well, Deedes," he exclaimed gravely, looking up suddenly from the
papers, "Lord Warnham has explained to me the mysterious theft of the
secret convention, and I am anxious to see you regarding it."

The Foreign Minister seated himself at his table in silence, with folded
arms, as the world-renowned statesman proceeded to question me closely
regarding the events of that memorable day when the document had been so
ingeniously stolen.

"Have you not the slightest clue to the culprit, even now?"  Lord
Maybury asked at last, stroking his full grey beard.  "Remember that
England's honour and her future depends absolutely upon the issue of
this serious complication.  If you can furnish us with any information,
it is just possible that diplomacy may do something, even at the
eleventh hour.  You see we have lost the original of the convention, and
this, if produced in Petersburg, is sufficient evidence against us to
upset all our protestations."

"I have told Lord Warnham all I know," I answered calmly.  "To him I
have explained my suspicions."

"That this friend of yours called Ogle, who died mysteriously on that
very same day, was the actual spy," he observed.  "Some of the facts
certainly point to such a conclusion; but, now tell me, did Ogle enter
your room at the Foreign Office on that day?"

"Certainly not," I replied.  "No one is allowed in my room except the
clerks."

"Could he have seen the envelope sticking out of your pocket?"

"No," I answered.  "I am confident he could not, because, on placing it
in my pocket, a deep one, I took precaution to notice whether it were
visible."

"Then, if such is the case, I maintain that Ogle could not possibly have
known what designation you had written upon the envelope," the Premier
observed; adding, "Did you meet anyone you knew during your walk to the
Ship, or while you were in Ogle's company?"

"No one whatever," I said.

"I know the Ship.  At which table did you sit?"

"At the first table on the left, in the inner room beyond the bar.  I
sat in the corner, with my back to a high partition.  Therefore, the
envelope could not possibly have been extracted from my pocket without
my knowledge."

"Then I should like to hear your theory of the affair," said the Prime
Minister, his dark, penetrating eyes fixed upon me.

"It is so remarkable," I answered, "that I am utterly unable to form any
idea how the theft was accomplished."

"You believe, however, that Ogle was a spy?"

"At present, yes," I said.  "And further, I have grave suspicions that
he was murdered."

"Ah, that was alleged at the inquest," his Lordship observed.  "At
present the police are sparing no effort to determine the cause of his
death, and to find out who manufactured the duplicate of Lord Warnham's
seal."

"The seal I picked up from among the contents of Ogle's pockets was not
the identical one used to secure the dummy envelope," I said quickly.

"I am fully aware of all the facts," he answered rather coldly.  "My
desire is to find out something fresh.  Even the police seem utterly
baffled.  Who is this young woman, Ella Laing, who at the inquest
alleged murder?"

"The daughter of Mrs Laing, of Pont Street."

"Do you know her intimately?"

"She is engaged to be married to me," I replied.

"It is apparent that she was very friendly with this Ogle.  Surely you
can induce her to tell you something about him."

"She knows but little more than what I already know.  He lived with me
at Shepperton, and had few secrets from me."

"Did you ever suspect him to be a spy?"

"Not for one moment.  He had plenty of money of his own, and was in no
sense an adventurer."

"Well," exclaimed the Premier, turning to his colleague at last.  "It is
extraordinary--most extraordinary."

Lord Warnham nodded acquiescence, and said, "Yes, there is a deep and
extraordinary mystery somewhere: a mystery we must, for the sake of our
own honour, penetrate and elucidate."

"I entirely agree," answered the other.  "We have been victimised by
clever spies."

"And all owing to Deedes's culpable negligence," added Lord Warnham,
testily, glancing at me.

"No, I am inclined to differ," exclaimed the Premier.  He had never
acted very generously towards me, and I was surprised that he should at
this moment take up the cudgels on my behalf.  "To me it appears, as far
as the facts go, that Deedes has been victimised in the same manner as
ourselves."

"But if he had exercised due caution this terrible catastrophe could
never have occurred," the Foreign Minister cried impatiently, tapping
the table with his pen in emphasis of his words.

"A little more than mere caution, or even shrewdness, is required to
defeat the efforts of the Tzar's spies," the Premier said quietly.  "In
my opinion, Deedes, although in a measure under suspicion, cannot be
actually condemned.  Remember, among Ogle's correspondence he discovered
evidence of an undoubted attempt to forge his handwriting."

"We have no corroboration that he really did find that actually among
the dead man's possessions," exclaimed Lord Warnham quickly.  "I have
myself seen the detective who accompanied him to Shepperton, and he
tells me that no sheets of paper of that character were discovered.
He--"

"I found them while he was engaged in an adjoining room," I interrupted.
"I did not mention it to him, preferring to bring the evidence straight
to you."

"It is just possible that Deedes's version is correct," observed the
Premier.  "Personally, I must say, Warnham, that I cannot see any ground
for the dismissal of a hitherto trustworthy servant of Her Majesty upon
this extraordinary evidence.  I have always found Deedes upright, loyal
and patriotic, and coming as he does of a well-known family of
diplomats, I really do not suspect him of having played his country
false."

"I am obliged for your Lordship's words," I exclaimed fervently.  "I
assure you that your merciful view is entirely correct.  I am innocent,
and at this moment am utterly at a loss to account for any of the
amazing events of the past few days."

Lord Warnham was silent in thought for a few moments, then, turning his
sphinx-like face to me, he said, in a tone rather more conciliatory than
before, "Very well.  As it is Lord Maybury's wish, I will reinstate you
in the Service; but remember, I have no confidence in you."

"Then you still suspect me of being a spy?"  I cried reproachfully.  "I
am to remain under suspicion!"

"Exactly," he answered dryly.  "Until the truth is ascertained I, at
least, shall believe you had something to do with the theft of that
secret convention.  Even the telegram sent from the Strand Post-Office
to St Petersburg is in your handwriting--"

"Forged!"  I interposed.  "Have you not already seen the careful
attempts made to copy the formation of my letters and figures?"

"The greatest calligraphic expert of the day has pronounced the telegram
to be undoubtedly in your own hand, while the counter-clerk who took in
the message and received payment for it, has seen you surreptitiously,
and recognised you by the shape of the silk hat you habitually wear."

Here was an astounding case of mistaken identity.  I had never entered
the post-office near Exeter Hall for six months at least.

"I should like to meet that clerk face to face," I burst forth.  "He
tells a distinct falsehood when he says he recognises me.  I did not go
into the Strand at all on that day."  Then a thought suddenly occurred
to me when I reflected upon the shape of my hat, and I added, "I admit
that my hat is of a rather unusual shape," taking it up and exhibiting
it to them.  "But when I bought this in Piccadilly two months ago Ogle
was with me, and he purchased one exactly similar."

"Again the evidence is against the dead man," the Premier said, turning
to Lord Warnham.  "Where is his hat?" he inquired of me sharply.

"At Shepperton.  I can produce it if required.  Its shape is exactly
like mine."

"You had better speak to Frayling upon that point," observed Lord
Warnham.  "It may prove important.  At any rate, Deedes, perhaps, after
all, I have been just a trifle unjust in condemning you, therefore
consider yourself reinstated in the same position as before, although I
must admit that my previous confidence in your integrity is, to say the
least, seriously--very seriously--impaired."

"I hope it will not remain so long," I said.  "If there is anything I
can do to restore your belief in my honesty, I will do it at whatever
cost."

"There is but one thing," he exclaimed.  "Discover the identity of the
spy."

"I will regard that the one endeavour of my life," I declared earnestly.
"If the mystery is to be fathomed I will accomplish it."

"While we've been talking," the Premier interposed, "a thought has
occurred to me, and for mentioning it I hope you, Deedes, will pardon
me.  It has struck me that if, as seems even more than likely, this man
Ogle was actually a spy who had carefully cultivated your acquaintance
with an ulterior motive, is it not within the range of possibility that
the lady, who was also your most intimate friend, as well as his, either
knew the true facts, or had a hand in the affair?"

"I can trust Ella," I said, glancing at him resentfully.  "She is no
spy."

The elderly statesman stroked his beard thoughtfully and smiled, saying,
"Ah, I expected as much.  I myself was young once.  When a man loves a
woman he is very loth to think her capable of deceit.  Yet in this
instance we must not overlook the fact that more than one female spy has
been brought under our notice."

"I am aware of that," I replied, angry that he should have made such a
suggestion against my well-beloved, yet remembering her strange
utterances when she heard the news of impending war shouted in the
street.  "But I have the most implicit faith in the woman who is to be
my wife."

"Has she explained, then, the character of the secret existing between
herself and Ogle?" asked Lord Warnham, raising his grey, shaggy brows.
"From the evidence at the inquest it was plain, you will remember, that
there was some mysterious understanding between them.  Has she given you
her reasons for declaring that Ogle has been murdered?"

For a moment I was silent; afterwards I was compelled to make a negative
reply.

"That doesn't appear like perfect confidence, does it?" the Foreign
Minister observed, with a short, hard laugh.  "Depend upon it, Deedes,
she fears to tell you the truth."

"No, she fears some other person," I admitted.  "Who it is I know not."

"Find out, and we shall then discover the spy," the Premier said,
adding, with a touch of sympathy, after a moment's pause, "Remember, I
allege nothing against you, Deedes.  Do your duty, and regardless of all
consequences discover the means by which we have been tricked.  Induce
the woman you love to speak; nay, if she loves you, force her to do so,
for a woman who truly loves a man will do anything to benefit him,
otherwise she is unworthy to become his wife.  Some day ere long you
yourself will become a diplomat, as other members of your family have
been.  Now is the time to practise tact, the first requisite of
successful diplomacy.  Be tactful, be resourceful, be cunning, and look
far into the future, and you will succeed both in clearing yourself and
in explaining this, the most remarkable mystery that has occurred during
the long years of my administration."

I thanked him briefly for his advice, declaring that it should be my
firm endeavour to follow it, and also thanked Lord Warnham for my
re-instatement, but my words were interrupted by a loud double knock at
the door, and in response to an injunction to enter, there appeared, hot
and breathless, Frank Lawley, one of the Foreign Office messengers.  He
wore, half-concealed by his overcoat, his small enamelled greyhound
suspended around his neck by a thin chain, his badge of office, and in
his hand carried one of the familiar travelling dispatch-boxes.

"Good evening, your Lordships," he exclaimed, greeting us.

"Where are you from, Lawley?" inquired Lord Warnham, eagerly.

"From Paris, your Lordship.  My dispatch, under flying seal, is, I
believe, most important.  The Marquis of Worthorpe feared to trust it on
the wire."

In an instant both Premier and Minister sprang to their feet.  While
Lord Maybury broke the seals Lord Warnham whipped out his keys, opened
the outer case, and then the inner red leather box, from which he drew
forth a single envelope.

This he tore open, and holding beneath the softly-shaded electric lamp
the sheet of note-paper that bore the heading of our Embassy in Paris,
both of Her Majesty's Ministers eagerly devoured its contents.

When they had done so they held their breath, raised their heads, and
without speaking, looked at each other in abject dismay.  The contents
of the dispatch held them spellbound.

The window of the room was open, and the dull, distant roaring of the
great, turbulent multitude broke upon our ears.  The excitement outside
had risen to fever heat.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

A STATEMENT TO THE PRESS.

"This is indeed extraordinary!" exclaimed Lord Maybury, the Premier, at
last.

"An amazing development--most amazing!" the Foreign Minister cried,
unusually excited.

"What is the best course?" asked the head of the Government.

"There is but one," his colleague answered.  "I shall wire to St
Petersburg at once and await confirmation."

"The situation is becoming absolutely bewildering," observed the
Premier.  "It may be best, I think, to convene another meeting of the
Cabinet."

Lord Warnham, with that involuntary caution that he had developed during
long years of office as Minister of Foreign Affairs, at once dismissed
Frank Lawley, but allowed me to remain.  As his confidential secretary I
had been present on many occasions when delicate matters of diplomacy
had been adjusted and plans arranged which, if divulged, would have
caused an upheaval throughout Europe.

"No, I don't think another Council is necessary, at least not to-night,"
answered Lord Warnham, when the cosmopolitan messenger had closed the
door behind him.

"But the whole thing is at present a mystery," said the Prime Minister,
standing astride with his broad back to the empty grate.

"Exactly.  We must have news from the Embassy in St Petersburg before
long.  Until then, I think we should be patient."

"But hark!" exclaimed the Premier, quite calmly, and as we all three
listened we could hear the dull roar of the crowd becoming louder.  The
popular excitement outside was intense, and the eager multitude
increased each moment.  "They are clamouring for news.  It is, I think,
time that another statement should be made in the House."

"As you wish," Lord Warnham answered, with ill grace.  It was part of
his creed to tell the public absolutely nothing.  The Premier was for
publicity--he for secrecy always.

"But whatever statement is made regarding the receipt of intelligence it
cannot compromise our position at St Petersburg," the Marquis argued.

"Very well.  Let the statement be made.  But, personally, I cannot see
what we can say at present."

"Say something.  It will reassure the public that we are endeavouring to
readjust diplomatic negotiations.  Already we are being hounded down on
all sides by wild-haired agitators as having been asleep.  Let us show
our opponents that we are now fully alive to England's peril."

"Ah, Maybury," laughed the Foreign Minister, "it is always my opinion
that the less the public know the easier it is for us to carry on the
business of the country.  The irresponsible journals are really the
cause of nine-tenths of our diplomatic ruptures."

"But the Press assist us in many ways, and if you are averse to a
statement in the House why not make one to _The Times_, or to a news
agency?  Perhaps the latter course would be best, for it will
re-establish public confidence."

"But that will not be official," Lord Warnham demurred.

"Nevertheless, we can make the official statement later, when we have
received confirmation of this extraordinary dispatch."

"Is the dispatch from Paris very remarkable?"  I asked, unable to any
longer bear their tantalising conversation, so anxious was I to
ascertain the latest development of this conspiracy against our country.

"Read it for yourself," Lord Warnham answered, glancing at the Premier
to ascertain whether this course received his approbation, and finding
that it did, he handed me the dispatch, which I found a moment later
read as follows:--

"_From Marquis of Worthorpe, Paris, to Earl of Warnham, Her Majesty's
Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.--My Lord,--In further
continuation of my dispatch of this morning, I have the honour to report
to your Lordship that the war preparations actively commenced here on
receipt of a telegram from St Petersburg (copy of which was enclosed in
my last dispatch) have, owing to a later telegram from Russia, been
entirely stopped.  The orders for mobilisation have everywhere been
countermanded.  According to a statement just made to me by our secret
agent in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Government have
to-day received word that the Tzar's declaration of war will not, for
some unexplained reason, be published.  I send this by special messenger
in the hope that it will reach your Lordship this evening_.--Worthorpe."

"This is remarkable!"  I cried.  "It appears as if Russia has already
repented."  But the Premier and his colleague, at that moment in
consultation regarding the steps to be taken should this astounding and
reassuring news prove correct, did not notice my remark.  Presently,
however, the Prime Minister, turning to me, asked,--

"Are any of the reporters your personal friends, Deedes?"

"Yes, I know several."

"To whom shall we make our statement?" he inquired.  "We want it spread
throughout the country."

"In that case I should suggest Mr Johns, of the agency that supplies the
club tapes and newspapers."

"Then send for him."

At once I went to the door and dispatched the messenger waiting outside
to find that well-known figure of the Reporters' Gallery, who makes it
his boast that for years without a break he had sat through every
sitting of the House of Commons, and whose friends have a legend that he
can enjoy a sleep in his "box" over the Speaker's chair and awake at the
very moment any question of public interest arises.  Ten minutes had
elapsed when the chosen representative of the Press entered, hot and
breathless, bowing to their Lordships.  He was spare, dark-haired, with
sharp, aquiline features, a breadth of forehead that denoted
considerable learning, a pointed, dark-brown beard, and a pair of sharp,
penetrating eyes.  He spoke with a broad Scotch accent, his sallow face
betraying signs of considerable excitement.

"I desire, Mr Johns, to make a statement to the Press, and have sent for
you with that object," exclaimed the Minister for Foreign Affairs,
glancing up at him.

"With pleasure, my Lord," exclaimed the reporter, taking from his pocket
a pencil and a few loose sheets of "copy paper."  "I'm quite ready."

Then, as Lord Warnham dictated his message to the public, the
representative of the news agency took it down in a series of rapid
hieroglyphics.  The words the Minister uttered were as follows:--

"In order to allay undue public alarm, I wish it to be known that,
according to advices I have received, the statement in the _Novoe
Vremya_ to-day, at first believed to be correct, is without foundation."

"Then war is not declared?" interrupted the reporter, excitedly.

"No.  The alarming report reproduced by the English Press from the St
Petersburg journal is apparently totally incorrect."

"And I presume I may say that there is no rupture of diplomatic
negotiations with St Petersburg?"

Lord Warnham, smiling that sphinx-like smile which might be construed
into anything the interlocutor chose, turned to the Prime Minister for
his opinion upon the point.

"Of course," exclaimed the Marquis.  "We have received no intimation of
any diplomatic difficulty.  Further, you may reassure the public that
the Government will do everything in its power to avert any catastrophe;
but as no catastrophe has occurred, all this excitement is quite
uncalled for."

"May I use your own words, your Lordship?" inquired the reporter,
quickly.  "I want to reproduce this in the form of an interview."

"You can act as you please about that," the Premier said, smiling as he
added, "I suppose we shall see it in every newspaper in England
to-morrow, headed, `The War Against England: Interview with the Prime
Minister'--eh?"

"Not to-morrow, your Lordship--to-night," laughed the reporter,
fidgeting in his eagerness to get away with the finest bit of "copy"
that ever his pencil wrote.

The Premier turned to speak with Lord Warnham, but my friend Johns was
not to be delayed, even by the discussion of the nation's peril.  If the
Archangel had suddenly appeared he would have calmly "taken a note" of
how such an occurrence affected the onlookers.

"Is there anything more I can say, your Lordship?" he asked, impatiently
interrupting their conversation.

"No, I think not at present," Lord Warnham answered.  "If you have any
further statement to make, I shall hold myself in readiness," he said,
the journalistic spirit of greed being aroused to have the whole of this
exclusive information to himself.

"We will send for you if we have anything further to communicate," Lord
Warnham answered, and wishing him good evening, intimated that at least
for the present the interview was at an end.

After he had left, it was desired, upon the suggestion of the Premier,
to slightly amend one of the sentences used by Lord Warnham, and with
that object I rushed after the excited interviewer.  After a little
search I found him in the small room behind the Press Gallery, dictating
in breathless haste to the clerk, who sat resting his head on one hand
while with the other he worked the telegraph-key.  As I approached, I
heard him exclaim in broad Scotch,--"Now, then, Ford, look sharp, my
lad, look sharp!  Send this along, `Our representative has just
interviewed the Marquis of Maybury and the Earl of Warnham on the
situation.  The exclusive information imparted is of the greatest
possible importance, as it shows'--"

Here I interrupted him, and having requested him to reconstruct the
sentence, as desired by Lord Warnham, left him, and returned to where
the two Ministers were still in earnest consultation.

Having busied myself with some correspondence lying upon the Foreign
Minister's table, while the pair discussed a critical point as to the
instructions to be sent to Lord Worthorpe in Paris, there presently came
another loud knock at the door.  One of the clerks, who had rushed over
from the Foreign Office, entered, bearing a telegraphic dispatch.

"Where from?" inquired Lord Warnham, noticing the paper in his hand as
he came in.

"From St Petersburg, your Lordship," he answered, handing him the
telegram.

The Premier and Foreign Secretary read it through together in silence,
expressions of satisfaction passing at once across both their
countenances.

"Then we need have no further apprehension," exclaimed the Premier at
last, looking up at his colleague.

"Apparently not," observed Lord Warnham.  "This is certainly sufficient
confirmation of Worthorpe's dispatch," and he tossed it across to the
table whereat I sat, at the same time dismissing the clerk who had
brought it.

Taking up the telegram, I saw at a glance it was from our secret agent
in the Russian Foreign Office, and that it had been re-transmitted from
Hamburg.  Although he had stated that all cipher messages were refused,
this was in our private code, and its transcription, written beneath,
was as follows:--

"_Remarkable development of situation has occurred.  Ministers held a
Council this afternoon, and after conferring with the Tzar, the latter
decided to withdraw his proclamation of war, which was to be issued
to-night.  The reason for this sudden decision to preserve peace is a
mystery, but the Tzar left half-an-hour ago on his journey south, two of
the Ministers have left for their country seats, and telegraphic orders
have been issued countermanding the military preparations, therefore it
is certain that all idea of war is entirely abandoned.  Immediately at
the conclusion of the Council, a telegram was sent to the Russian
Minister in Paris, informing him of the decision not to commence
hostilities against England.  The_ Novoe Vremya, _in order to allay
public feeling, is to be prosecuted for publishing false news_."

When I had read this astounding dispatch, congratulating myself that,
after all, our country need not fear a foreign foe, I sat listening to
the discussion between the two great statesmen.  The Premier advocated
an immediate statement in the House in order to reassure the public, but
Lord Warnham, with that love of secrecy apparent in all his actions,
personal or political, was strenuously opposed to such a course.

"Let us wait until to-morrow," he said.  "To-night the papers will
publish special editions containing the interview we have just given the
Press representative, and this certainly ought to calm the crowd
outside."  He spoke with a sneer of contempt of the multitude of excited
citizens in fear of their lives and property.

"But they are patriots, many of them, Warnham," the Premier protested.
"Who have placed us in power but that public?"

"Oh, of course," the other snapped impatiently.  "You go in for
popularity with the masses.  I don't.  I've never been popular, not even
in my own Department.  But I can't help it.  I do my duty, and perhaps
it is my very unpopularity that has secured me a reputation as head of
Foreign Affairs."

"It may be, Warnham.  It may be," said the Premier, slowly.  "But you
are more popular than you imagine."

"In the Press, yes.  These modern journals will lick the boots of
anybody in power.  It is not as it used to be in the old days, when you
and I received a sound rating nearly every morning in _The Times_."

"I do not allude to the Press, but contend that you are popular with the
public.  You would increase that popularity by allowing a statement to
be made to-night."

"Let them wait until the morning," he growled.  "I haven't the slightest
wish to be regarded as the people's saviour.  An immediate statement
will appear too much like a bid for cheap notoriety."

"Is it not your duty to the people to allay their apprehensions of a
coming war?"

"It is my duty to Her Majesty alone," he exclaimed, suddenly remembering
that he had forgotten to dispatch the reassuring news to Osborne, and
turning, he thereupon dictated to me a telegram, which I quickly reduced
to cipher.

"Then you decline to allow any explanation to be given?" said the
Premier, in a tone of reproach, stroking his full beard thoughtfully.
"You would go home comfortably to bed and allow these thousands of
half-scared citizens to remain in fear and doubt throughout the night."

"Why not?" he laughed.  "I tell you I am unpopular, therefore a little
secrecy more or less does not matter.  If a Foreign Minister allowed the
Press and public to know all his doings, how could diplomacy be
conducted?  The first element of success in dealing with foreign affairs
is to preserve silence, and not allow one's self to be drawn."

"But in this instance silence is quite unnecessary," exclaimed the Prime
Minister, growing impatient at the dogged persistence of his eccentric
colleague, whose delight was to be designated as harsh, unrelenting and
ascetic.  In private life Lord Warnham lived almost alone in his great,
gloomy mansion, scarcely seen by any other person save his valet, the
telegraph clerk and myself.  Some said that a strange romance in his
youth had soured him, causing him to become misanthropic and eccentric;
but it was always my opinion that the blow which fell upon him years
ago; the early death of his young and beautiful wife, whom he loved
intensely, was responsible for his slavish devotion to duty, his
eccentricity, and the cool cynicism with which he regarded everybody,
from his Sovereign to his secretary.  As a Foreign Minister, every
Government in Europe admired, yet feared him.  He was, without doubt,
the most shrewd and clever statesman the present century had known.

"I shall preserve silence until to-morrow," he said, decisively, at
last.

"If Her Majesty were consulted, she would, I feel sure, advocate an
immediate declaration of the exact position of affairs," Lord Maybury
said.  "She has the welfare of her people at heart.  Remember, both you
and I are her servants."

"Of course, of course," he said, commencing to pace the room slowly.
"Well," he added, after a pause, "suppose we made a statement in the
Commons to-night, and to-morrow we find the outlook still threatening
and gloomy--what then?"

"Listen!" cried the Prime Minister, at last losing patience, and
throwing open the window wide.  "Listen!  The people of London are
clamouring for news.  Give it to them, and let them depart."

"They'll be able to read it in the papers presently.  Let them pay their
pennies for it," he sneered.

"But that is not official," the Premier argued, and before his colleague
had time to reply, the messenger stationed outside the door entered,
bearing a telegram, which he took to Lord Warnham.

"The representative of Reuter's Agency has brought this telegram, just
received from St Petersburg, and desires to know whether you have any
confirmation of the abandonment of the proposed hostilities against us,"
the man said.

"Oh, tell him I have nothing to communicate," cried his Lordship,
hastily.  "And, look here, don't bother me again with any inquiries from
the Press."

"Very well, your Lordship," the messenger answered, and at once
withdrew.

"Why not make an official declaration?" the Marquis urged.  "It would
avoid a great deal of unnecessary worry and anxiety."

For a long time the Foreign Minister held out, until at length he became
convinced by Lord Maybury's forcible arguments in favour of publicity,
and gave his sanction to a statement being made in the House of Commons.
Presently we all three proceeded there, and at once the news spread
like wildfire, within Parliament and without, that the latest news from
St Petersburg was to be officially announced.  From the glass swing door
of the Press gallery I watched the House rapidly fill to overflowing,
even to its galleries, and when all had assembled the excitement for
about ten minutes was intense.  It was a memorable scene, more
impressive, perhaps, than any of the many that have taken place within
those sombre-panelled walls.

Presently, prefaced by the Speaker's loud "Order-r-r!  Order!" a slim,
grey-haired figure rose from the Government bench and explained that the
news contained in the _Novoe Vremya_ was entirely false, and assured the
House that war had not been, and would not be, declared against England.

The final sentences of this welcome announcement were lost in a terrific
outburst of applause.  So excited were some of the younger members that
they tossed their hats high in the air like schoolboys, and the
vociferous cheering of the Foreign Secretary was continued, loud and
long, notwithstanding the Speaker's dignified and formal efforts to
suppress it.  The scene was the most enthusiastic and stirring that I
had ever witnessed, but even this was eclipsed by the terrific
enthusiasm I found prevailing among the multitude when, a quarter of an
hour later, I fought my way though the throng to gaze outside.

The great concourse of citizens, wildly-excited, were almost mad with
delight.  Publicly, from the steps of St Stephen's Hall, the official
statement had been shouted, and the multitude sent up such an outburst
of applause that it echoed far and wide from the dark walls of
Parliament and Abbey, church and hospital.  The more enthusiastic ones
yelled themselves hoarse with joyful shouts, while others started to
sing "God save the Queen" until, taken up by all, the National Anthem
echoed through the streets again and again.  Then cheer upon cheer was
given for "Warnham" and for "Good old Maybury," the women joining in
honouring England's greatest statesman.  It was popularly believed that
by the efforts of these two men war had been averted, and it was not
therefore surprising when they both left together and entered a carriage
to drive to Downing Street, that the crowd unharnessed the horses, and
fifty stalwart patriots dragged the carriage in triumph to its
destination, while such an ovation was accorded them on every side, that
even the excitement of the declaration of the poll at their election was
paltry in comparison.

I sat with them on the carriage, and as we were dragged onward through
the dense, surging crowd, the Marquis turned to the Foreign Minister and
exclaimed, with a smile,--

"Surely you can never regard yourself as unpopular after this?"

"Ah!" exclaimed the other, sadly, with a heavy sigh.  "It is you they
are cheering, not myself.  The people call you `good old Maybury,' but
they have never called me `good old Warnham,' and will never do so.  I
am still unpopular, and shall be always."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

SONIA.

Notwithstanding official assurances that no alarm need be felt at the
political outlook, the popular excitement, fostered by a sensational
Press, abated but slowly.  On the morning following the memorable scene
in the House of Commons, a great panic occurred on the Stock Exchange,
and it was fully a week ere confidence was restored.  Meanwhile, at Lord
Warnham's dictation, I exchanged constant communications with our
ambassador in St Petersburg, and although every endeavour was used to
elucidate the mysterious reason why the Russian Government so suddenly
altered its tactics, it remained as inexplicable as the means whereby
they had obtained the original of our secret convention with Germany.

Both the London police and our secret agents in Russia abandoned none of
their activity, but all their efforts were to no purpose.  The incident
was a perfect enigma.

Thus a month went by.  Lord Warnham had slightly relaxed towards me as
if, after all, he believed that I had spoken the truth, although he
frequently, when vexed, would refer in uncomplimentary terms to what he
called my "carelessness that nearly cost England her honour."  Indeed,
although I had been reinstalled in the position of great trust I had
previously held, mine was no enviable lot.  The Foreign Minister was a
man of moods, strangely eccentric, sometimes preserving a rigid silence
for hours, and often working for long periods alone during the night,
attending to unimportant dispatches that might have been answered by a
lower-grade clerk.  But it was his object always to know the exact work
done in each department, and to be able to do it himself.  Thus he was
enabled to keep a more careful watch over everything that went on, and
was not, like the majority of Cabinet Ministers, a mere figure-head.
Times without number I have gone to Berkeley Square early in the morning
when some important matter of diplomacy has been in progress, and found
the grey, thin-faced peer still seated in his study, the blinds still
down, the electric light still on, showing how he had worked on
unconsciously throughout the whole night, and was quite unaware of dawn.
His servants had strict orders never to disturb him, even for meals,
hence, when he was busy, he frequently spent many hours in his chair,
regardless of day or night.

These periods of intense mental strain would, however, be followed by
exasperating irritability of such a character that I often feared to
utter a word lest he should break out into a fierce ebullition of anger.
At those times he would scatter broadcast the most severe censures on
all and sundry, sparing neither ambassador nor consul, so fierce was his
wrath.  Knowing this, I would sometimes, after writing an abusive
dispatch at his dictation, put it aside and, instead of forwarding it,
accidentally overlook it.  Then, next day, he would almost invariably
relent, and after deep thought, exclaim,--

"Read me the copy of that dispatch I sent yesterday to Vienna, Deedes."

"Oh," I would answer, as if suddenly recollecting, "I quite forgot to
forward it, we were so busy yesterday."

"Ah, too late now! too late!" he would grumble, feigning annoyance, yet
secretly pleased.  "Destroy it, Deedes; destroy it."

Afterwards he would dictate a more temperate and less offensive letter,
which the messenger leaving London that night would carry in his valise.

One morning, towards the end of July, I received a strangely-worded
letter, written in a foreign hand, asking me to call at an address in
Pembroke Road, Kensington, and signed "Sonia."  The missive, which had
been left at my flat by a commissionaire, stated that the matter upon
which the writer desired to see me was extremely urgent, and contained a
request that I would telegraph a reply.  This I did, accepting the
appointment, for, on reflection, I had a very dim recollection of
having, at some time or other, written officially to someone named
"Sonia," and the letter aroused curiosity within me.

That night, at the time she named, I found myself before a large,
substantial-looking detached house, situated in the quiet, rather
unfrequented thoroughfare off Earl's Court Road, a house which, to my
excited imagination, bore external evidence of mystery within.  Why such
thought should seize me I know not.  Perhaps it was because the writer
of the letter was unknown, and the object of my visit at present
unexplained; nevertheless I entered the small garden that divided the
house from the roadway, and, ascending the steps, rang the bell.  My
summons was immediately answered by a neat maid, to whom I gave my card,
and next moment I was ushered into a well-furnished drawing-room, dimly
lit by one tall, shaded lamp, the light of which was insufficient to
illuminate the whole room.

For a few moments I remained alone in wonder, when suddenly the door
opened, and there entered an extremely pretty girl, scarcely out of her
teens, dark-haired, with clear-cut features, bright eyes, and a
delicately-rounded chin.  It struck me, however, even before she spoke,
that in her face was a strange expression of unutterable sadness, a look
that told of long suffering and intense agony of mind.  Her mannerisms
were those of a foreigner, her _chic_ was that of the true Parisienne,
her dress of black silk crepon was plainly but well made, and the fact
that she spoke in broken French was, next second, conclusive.

"Ah!  You have come, m'sieur.  You are indeed very good," she exclaimed,
with a charming accent, her skirt rustling as she advanced to greet me.

"I am at your service, mademoiselle," I answered, bowing, at the same
time accepting the seat she offered.

"Well," she commenced, with a smile, slowly sinking into an armchair
near me, "when I wrote to you I feared you would not come.  You have
been so good to me already that I fear to ask any further favour."

"I must ask your pardon, mademoiselle," I said, "but I really am unaware
that I have ever rendered you any service."

"What, do you not remember?" she cried.  "You, who were so good to my
father and myself; you, to whom we both owed our lives."

"I certainly have some hazy recollection of your name," I answered,
puzzled, "but try how I will, I cannot recollect in what connection it
has come before me."

"Do you not remember the case of the refugee, Anton Korolenko, the man
who, after being hounded all over Europe, in Vienna, in Madrid, in
Paris, by the _agents provocateurs_ of the Secret Police, found an
asylum in London?" she inquired, surprised.  "They said we need not fear
the _Okhrannoe Otdelenie_ here, in your free England, but no sooner had
we arrived than, owing to the treachery of one of our brotherhood, a
warrant for our extradition was issued by General Sekerzhinski, chief of
the Department in St Petersburg.  News of this was telegraphed to us,
and I applied to your Minister for protection.  You yourself saw me and
gave me your promise of assistance, a promise which you kept; the
warrant was returned to Russia unexecuted, and you thus saved us from
the fate we dreaded."

"Ah, yes," I answered quickly.  "Of course, I remember now.  It is fully
two years ago; but you have so altered that I scarcely knew you."

"I was a girl then," she smiled.  "Now I feel quite a woman.  Since I
saw you last I have sustained a bereavement.  My poor father is, alas!
dead."

"Dead!"  I echoed sympathetically.

"Yes," she sighed, with bitterness.  "He died of a broken heart.  On the
day we escaped from St Petersburg, my mother, who was perfectly
innocent, had unfortunately fallen into the drag-net of the police.  She
was imprisoned for six months, then sent to Siberia, but died of cold
and fever on the road there.  Her tragic end proved such a terrible blow
to my father that, even here in safety, he grew morose, his health,
already broken by long years of imprisonment, failed, and six months ago
he died, and I was left alone."

"Your life is indeed a sad one, mademoiselle," I said, for I
well-remembered the touching story she related when, a mere girl,
pale-faced and agitated, she came to implore the protection of the
British Government on behalf of her aged father.  She had, with tears in
her dark, brilliant eyes, told me a narrative of systematic persecution
almost incredible; how her father, a wealthy merchant, having fallen
into disfavour with General Sekerzhinski, the chief of Secret Police in
St Petersburg, that official had formed a cunningly-devised plan to
entrap him into a political conspiracy.  She admitted that at one time,
during the Terror that culminated in the murder of Alexander II, her
father had participated in the revolutionary movement, and had spent
eight years of solitary confinement in the Peter-Paul Fortress.
Although he had long ago renounced all revolutionary ideas, it was, of
course, easy enough for an all-powerful official like Sekerzhinski to
discover evidence against him.  The _agents provocateurs_ were quickly
at work, with the result that orders were in a few days issued for the
arrest of Korolenko for the murder of a woman in a low quarter of the
city, and for the apprehension of his wife and their pretty daughter,
Sonia, as accomplices.  The reason of this allegation was plain.  If the
General had only alleged a political offence his victims could not be
extradited from a foreign country, while for an ordinary crime they
could.  Korolenko's wife was arrested while shopping in the Nevski
Prospekt, but Sonia and her father, fortunately, obtained word from a
friend of theirs in the secret service, and fled, succeeding in escaping
from St Petersburg into Finland, and after weeks of starvation and
terrible hardships found themselves in Stockholm, whence they went to
Hamburg.  Here they narrowly escaped arrest by the German police, but
succeeded in getting to Vienna, and thence to Venice, Marseilles,
Madrid, and afterwards to Paris, where they had heard a large colony of
Russian refugees resided.  After two days, however, owing to a fact they
ascertained, they fled to London.  Here they believed themselves safe
until one day they received another telegram from their friend in the
secret police, warning them that a request for their extradition was on
its way to London.  It was then, in desperation, that Sonia came to
crave an interview with Lord Warnham, and I had seen her on his behalf.

Her story of wrong, hatred, and heartless persecution I have only here
briefly outlined, but during the half-hour she had sat in the
waiting-room at the Foreign Office relating it to me in detail she spoke
with such earnestness that I was convinced of the truth, and resolved to
assist her.  Urging her to be assured that I would do all that lay in my
power, she had at last dried her tears, and grasping my hand as she went
out, had said,--

"I shall never forget your kindness to us, m'sieur.  We are alone,
friendless, forsaken, hounded down by a man who has sworn to ruin my
father and his family.  That you can protect us, I am confident.  You
can save us from the mines--nay, you can save our lives, if you will.  I
appeal to you, our only friend.  Assist us, and you will ever receive
the thanks from one who is to-day on the verge of despair and suicide."

I promised, and she went away hopeful and confident.  But to secure
their immunity from arrest was by no means an easy matter.  Fortunately,
however, I was on excellent terms with the Secretary of the Russian
Embassy, and having obtained the sanction of Lord Warnham, who was
always chivalrous wherever women were concerned, treating them with a
charming old-world courtesy, I set about attaining my object, securing
it at last, but being compelled in turn to promise my friend assistance
in an important matter of diplomacy.  The warrant was next day returned
to Russia unexecuted, and Sonia and her father were free.

From her I had received a brief note in response to my intimation of the
withdrawal of the warrant, apparently hastily written, but thanking me,
and declaring that they both owed their future happiness to my
exertions.  For a few days I reflected upon the strange drama of real
life that had been enacted, then the circumstances passed out of my
mind.

Now, as she sat before me, older and yet more beautiful, gazing into my
eyes with that intense, wistful look that had attracted me when first we
had met, all her tragic story came back to me vividly, and I was not
surprised at her deep sorrow at the loss of her father she had loved so
dearly.

"So you desire my assistance," I exclaimed presently, after she had been
explaining how lonely she was in exile from her friends.

"Yes," she said slowly, with emphasis.  "But first tell me one thing.
You are acquainted with a woman named Ella Laing.  Do you know her
past?"

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

BEYOND RECALL.

"Really your question is a curious one," I exclaimed, smiling, although
inwardly I resented her intrusion upon my affairs.

"Do not think I intended to be unduly inquisitive," my youthful hostess
said quickly, fidgeting with her golden bangle whereon a tiny bell
tinkled musically as she moved, and glancing up at me with her dark,
bright eyes.

"Ella's past can concern no one except herself," I observed, rather
puzzled.  There was a strange, half-suspicious expression in her face
that I had not at first noticed.

"If you intend to marry her it concerns you also, does it not?" she
asked, in a quiet, grave voice.

"Yes, of course," I answered.  "But how do you know I intend to marry
her?"

"I have heard so, and have seen you together," she answered, rather
evasively.

"Well, let us come to the point at once," I said, still smiling, and
feigning to be amused.  "Tell me what objection there is to her.  Why do
you inquire about her past?"

"Because it is a mystery," she replied, regarding me calmly, the strange
glint in her penetrating eyes increasing my mistrust.

"In what way?"  I inquired.  I had known Mrs Laing and Ella for over a
year, and certainly nothing I had learnt regarding their antecedents had
excited my suspicion.  The Yorkshire Laings are a county family, and
Edward Laing, Ella's father, had been the head of the great shipping
firm that has its headquarters in Hull, and is well-known in the North
Sea and Atlantic trades.  At his death the concern was turned into a
company, and Mrs Laing and her daughter had travelled for nearly three
years, returning to London shortly before I met them.  The statement
that Ella's past was mysterious was certainly puzzling, therefore I
added, "When you make an allegation, I really think it is only fair that
you should substantiate it."

She shrugged her shoulders with a foreign mannerism that was charming,
exclaiming in her broken English,--"Ah, you understand me not, m'sieur.
I speak not your language with politeness.  Well, it is, oh, so very
difficult?"

"Do you tell me that Ella Laing is not what she represents herself to
be?"  I inquired eagerly.

"Ah, no," she answered.  "I ask m'sieur if he knows of her past.
M'sieur was once good to me, very good.  I forget never those who to me
are generous."

"But your words contain a hidden meaning," I said, dropping into French,
hoping thereby to induce her to place my mind at rest.

"Yes, I am well aware of that," she answered, with volubility.  "You
love her; you have offered her marriage--the woman who is your most
bitter foe!"

"What do you mean?  That Ella is my enemy?"  I cried, dismayed.

Her full, red lips parted in a silvery peal of laughter, displaying an
even set of pearly teeth, as, throwing back her handsome head, she
exclaimed,--

"Ah!  I expected it would cause you pain to learn the truth.  Yet, after
all, is it not best to know now, instead of hereafter?"

"In what way is she my enemy?"  I asked, bending forward to her and
transfixing her with my eyes.

She remained silent, merely giving her shoulders a slight shrug, sighing
the while.

"A moment ago you told me that because I once performed you a service
you intended to render me one in return.  Come, tell me the truth," I
urged.

Again she sighed, but at last said, "The truth has already been forced
upon you, I should think."

"In what manner?"

"By the death of your friend, Dudley Ogle," she replied, in a half
whisper, the strange look of almost murderous hatred again showing in
her eyes.

"Well," I said, "I can see nothing in that tragic incident to lead me to
any conclusion that Ella is my enemy."

"Love is blind, of course," she answered, rather contemptuously.  "Your
blindness extends apparently even to the theft of the important dispatch
entrusted to your care."

Her words amazed me, for, with the exception of Lord Warnham, the
Marquis of Maybury, and Frayling at Scotland Yard, no living person knew
of the theft of the secret convention.

"How, pray, are you aware that any document has been stolen?"  I asked
quickly, my mind at once filled with suspicion.  The fact that this girl
was a Russian was in itself sufficient to place me at once upon my
guard.

"I have heard so," she answered, with a mysterious smile.

"Well, and what do you allege?"  I inquired, keeping my eyes fixed upon
her.

"Allege!" she cried.  "Why, nothing.  I have merely asked you a simple
question, whether you are aware of the past of Ella Laing, and you have
not answered.  You are silent."

"I know sufficient of her past to love her," I answered, determined that
the words of this strange-mannered girl should not arouse greater
suspicion than that which already dwelt in my mind.

"Love her!  Bah!  You will hate her when you learn the truth," she
cried, with a gesture of disgust.

"Then tell me," I cried impatiently.  "Why should I hate her?"

"No," she said slowly, shaking her head, and slightly raising her
shoulders.  "I make no reflections.  If you love her--well, I suppose
you desire that your fool's paradise should last as long as possible."

"My fool's paradise, as you term it, will, I trust, last always," I said
resentfully, for her manner had suddenly changed, and she treated me
reproachfully, with a familiarity that was as surprising as it was
annoying.

"Alas! not always, I fear," she smiled, as if pitying my simplicity.
"Your present paradise will soon be a veritable hell."

"You speak candidly, at least," I said, angered at her words.  "But I
did not call here to listen to libellous allegations of which there are
no proofs."

"No proofs?" she echoed.  "Ah, do not be so confident, m'sieur.  You
have no knowledge of the character of the woman you love, or you would
not say this.  I do not wish you to follow my advice; I do not urge you
to listen to my words.  I only warn you because you have been my best
friend," and she gazed straight into my eyes with an earnestness that
was intense.

"You warn me.  Of what?"

"Of Ella, the woman who has apparently fascinated you as she has done
others," and she sighed, as if memories were painful.

"A pretty woman may often unconsciously fascinate many men before
meeting the man she marries," I said, as calmly as I could.

"Unconsciously, yes," she answered.  "But there are some who use the
beauty that their Maker has bestowed upon them to allure their victims."

"You anticipate I am doomed, then?"  I laughed.

She regarded me gravely for an instant, then said, in a voice quiet and
low,--

"I do not think--I know.  The mysterious death that overtook your friend
Dudley Ogle should have overtaken you instead.  But for an amazing
coincidence, by which your life was saved and his taken, you would, ere
this, have been in your grave."

"And my assassin would have been the woman I love, I suppose, you are
going to tell me?"  I observed, amused at her melodramatic manner and
the absurdity of the idea.

"No, I leave you to discover the truth," she answered, arching her dark
brows, a shadow of annoyance crossing her refined features at that
moment.

"You are apparently well acquainted with Miss Laing," I said, after a
long pause.

"I know her," she admitted abruptly.

"Then, as I refuse to listen further to any charges against her of which
you can give me no corroboration, it may be best for me to bring her
here to hear your allegations, even at risk of creating a scene.  You
said you intended to render me a service, and by facing her you can."

"No, no," she cried, suddenly jumping from her chair and laying her hand
upon my arm in earnestness.  "She does not know I am in London; she must
never know, otherwise our plans will be spoilt.  Do not mention my name
to her; now promise me," she implored.  "Promise me, and I will render
you the assistance you will require ere long.  The secret knowledge I
possess enables me to give you warning.  Remember that what I have said
is between one friend and another."

Through my perturbed mind there surged vivid recollections of recent
events, of Ella's beauty, and of the inscrutable mystery surrounding
her.  It was amazing, to say the least, that this handsome girl, whose
life had been so romantic and full of tragedy, should thus make veiled
allegations and denounce as vile and worthless the woman I so deeply
loved.  That she had some ulterior motive was, of course, apparent, but
although I debated within myself its probable cause, I utterly failed to
arrive at any satisfactory conclusion.  One fact was, however, impressed
upon me during our subsequent conversation--namely, that Sonia was in
possession of the secret that Ella withheld from me.  That the pretty
Russian had known Mrs Laing and Ella intimately I could not doubt from
what she told me regarding them, yet I did not fail to detect in her
voice a harshness whenever she spoke of them, the more so when she
mentioned the name of my well-beloved.  Once, in trying to determine the
cause of this, I felt inclined to attribute it to jealousy, but when I
reflected that I had seen Sonia only once before, and that I knew
absolutely nothing of her except what she herself had told me, I scouted
the idea.

It was plain, too, that she had been intimately acquainted with Dudley,
for she spoke of him familiarly, smiled at his little eccentricities,
and expressed the most heartfelt regret at his mysterious and tragic
end.  Times without number, when she had sunk back into her chair, I
tried to induce her to impart to me something more regarding the woman I
loved, but she declined.  She warned me by constant utterances to be
circumspect, but regarding the past preserved a silence rigid and
severe.

Presently, as my eyes wandered around the well-furnished room, I
noticed, standing upon the piano, a photograph frame of oxydised silver
containing a portrait.  I looked at it astounded, for it was the
likeness of my dead friend.  She noticed my attention attracted by it,
and rising in silence, brought it across to me, and taking it from its
frame, said,--

"This, perhaps, will convince you that Mr Ogle was my friend."

I took the portrait from her hand, and read on the back in his
well-known handwriting the words,--"From Dudley to dearest Sonia."

No copy of this portrait had I before seen.  From the suit of light
tweed he wore I knew that he could not have been photographed longer
than a month prior to his death, and it seemed likely that he had had
this taken specially for her.  Although fond of telling me of his
flirtations, he had never spoken of his acquaintance with this pretty
refugee, yet from her remarks I knew that they had been friends for
several years.

Long and earnestly I looked at the picture, then handed it back to her
without comment.  Truth to tell, even this counterfeit presentment
filled me with a fierce hatred against him, for had not Lord Maybury
been absolutely correct in remarking that everything pointed to the
conclusion that he was a spy?  Indeed, his association with this pretty
Russian, who had perhaps fascinated him, was another fact which seemed
now to confirm my increasing suspicions.  It was a romantic story that
Sonia told me, but what evidence did I possess that she was actually a
political refugee?  The warrant issued from St Petersburg for the arrest
of her father and herself was for the murder of a foreign woman who,
according to the depositions that my friend at the Russian Embassy
showed me, had been enticed to a house in a low quarter of the city and
strangled with a silken cord.  No hint had been given that the pair
"wanted" were "apostles of dynamite," and I now remembered that when I
had suggested it to my friend he laughed, declaring that I was utterly
mistaken.  I recollected that the words he used were,--

"They are not revolutionists, but a precocious pair of criminals who,
from time to time, have made enormous coups.  No doubt the charming girl
has told you some ingenious fiction or other about her father's
patriotism, but I should advise you to take it all with the proverbial
grain of salt.  They are the only two of an utterly unscrupulous gang
now remaining at liberty, and if your Government will give them up, we
will rid society of them by burying them deep in one of our Siberian
mines.  But as you have come with this offer to readjust the little
diplomatic friction in return for their liberty, I will urge my chief to
accept it; nevertheless, do not forget that this action of yours will
set at liberty a pair of the most fearless and ingenious harpies in
Europe."

As I sat opposite her, watching her seductive smiles, these words
recurred to me, and I wondered whether the allegations of the Secretary
of the Embassy was true.  I recollected also, when, with tears in those
brilliant eyes, she had besought me to intercede on her father's behalf,
how she told me distinctly that Sekerzhinski, the Chief of Police, had
made charges against them cruel and false.  Certainly when she had come
to me humbly imploring the protection of the British Government against
the persecution of her accusers she had none of the swagger of the
adventuress.  Even now, dressed in plain mourning, with no jewellery
except the single golden bangle which I remembered she had worn when we
before met, I could not bring myself to think that she was actually the
desperate criminal that my friend Paul Verblioudovitch would have me
believe.

Knowing, as I did, how the Tzar's emissaries followed and captured by
all manner of subtle devices those suspected of revolutionary
conspiracy, I was again convinced, as I had been two years ago, that
Sonia was a conspirator against the life of his Majesty.  She certainly
was not a common criminal.  As she chatted to me, young, refined,
sad-eyed, there were in her face unmistakable traces of anxiety and
suffering.  Finding that she absolutely refused to say anything further
regarding the woman I adored, I began to question her as to her own
happiness and future.

"Ah," she sighed, "I am lonely, dull, and unhappy now that my father is
no longer alive.  Together we shared months of terrible hardship, of
semi-starvation, hiding in the frozen wilds of the North, and ever
pushing forward through that great lonely land towards our goal of
freedom.  Often and often we were compelled to exist on roots and
leaves, and more than once we were compelled to face death," and she
shuddered.  "The recollection of that terrible journey is to me like
some hideous nightmare, for to escape detection we often travelled by
night, in terror of the wolves, and guided only by the brilliant stars
high in the bright, frosty sky.  The knowledge of our fate if caught--
the mines in far Siberia--held us in dread and hastened our footsteps.
Thus, clad only in tattered rags, we went forward shivering, knowing
that to halt meant certain death.  Not until after three long months of
suffering did we reach Stockholm, where we once more awakened to the
joys of life, but then, alas! they had in them the dregs of bitterness.
Two days after regaining our liberty, the news reached us that my poor
mother had died at the roadside while chained to a gang of desperate
convicts on their long and weary journey to Lake Baikal, the most
dreaded district in all Asiatic Russia.  The Almighty spared her the
horrors of the fever-infected _etapes_ and the gloom and torture of the
mines, but from that moment my poor father, heart-broken, grew careless
of the future, and it was only for my sake that he endeavoured to elude
the bloodhounds of the Tzar."

"Do you live here, in this house, alone?"  I asked.

"No," she replied.  "I have Petrouchka and his wife Akoulina, who were
our servants in St Petersburg for many years, in addition to the English
maid who admitted you."

"Then you are not quite alone," I said.  "Besides, you ought not to be
unhappy, for you have enough money to live comfortably, and you should
try and forget your sad bereavement."

"Alas!  I cannot forget," she said, still speaking in French.  "It is
impossible.  I am exiled here in your country, while all my relatives
and friends are so far away.  I cannot go into your society, for I have
no chaperon; besides, English puzzles me so.  I shall never learn it,
never.  Oh, it is so difficult."

"Yes," I admitted, laughing.  "But not so puzzling as your own Russian,
with all its bewildering letters."

She smiled, but there was a touch of wistful sadness in her handsome
face when, after a slight pause, she looked at me earnestly, saying,--

"It was because I am so lonely and unhappy that I asked you to come here
to-night."

"To be your companion--eh?"  I observed, laughing.  "Well, what you have
told me regarding Ella Laing is scarcely calculated to set a man's mind
at rest."

"Ah, no.  I have only told you in order that you should be forewarned.
Let that pass; yet remember the words I have uttered, proof of which you
shall have some day.  The fact is, I want you to do me a favour.  I am
tired of this exile from my friends; I have no one as companion except
old Akoulina, and I want to return to Russia for a month or so to visit
my relatives, and to transact some legal business connected with my poor
father's estate."

"But is it safe for you to return?"  I hazarded.

"Not unless you will procure me a passport.  This you can do if you
will," she answered earnestly.

"You would be arrested on the frontier," I said.  "Is it wise to run
such risk?"

"Of course the passport must not be in my own name," she went on.  "You
alone can obtain one from your friend at the Embassy."

I shook my head dubiously, feeling assured that I could never induce
Verblioudovitch to issue a false passport to a woman he had denounced as
a dangerous criminal.

"Ah, you will try, will you not?" she implored, rising and gripping my
arm.  "It is necessary that I should be in St Petersburg within fourteen
days from now, in order to give instructions regarding my late father's
property.  His brother, my uncle, is endeavouring to cheat me of it, and
I must return, or I shall lose everything.  I shall be ruined utterly."

She spoke so rapidly, and upon her pale face was a look so wistful, that
I felt assured she was in earnest.  Hers was not the face of a
malefactor, but rather that of a modest girl whose spirit had been
broken by her bereavement.

"I obtained your immunity from arrest here in England, it is true," I
said.  "But I fear that in my efforts to obtain for you a false passport
I shall fail.  If the police discover you within Russian territory, then
nothing can save you from Siberia."

"But they will not find me," she cried hastily.  "Obtain for me a
passport that will carry me across the frontier, and within an hour I
shall be as dead to the police as the stones in the wall."

This expression she had involuntarily let drop struck me as distinctly
curious.  It certainly was not such a phrase as would be used by any but
a constant fugitive from justice.  Indeed, it was really the parlance of
the habitual criminal.  Again I remained silent in doubt.

"Will you try?" she asked, intensely in earnest.

"If it is your wish I will try," I answered.  "But only in return for
one service."

"Well?" she inquired sharply.

"That when I bring you the passport you will tell me truthfully and
honestly the grounds whereon you allege that Ella Laing is my enemy."

She knit her brows for a few brief seconds, as if the possibility of my
demand had never occurred to her.  Then, suddenly smiling, she answered,
extending her hand,--

"It's a bargain.  But, remember, I must be in St Petersburg within
fourteen days."

"I shall not forget," I answered, with a sudden resolve to do my utmost
to obtain the permit allowing this strange but handsome girl to re-enter
her native land, and thus learn the truth regarding my well-beloved.  "I
shall call on Verblioudovitch to-morrow."

"You are good to me, m'sieur, very good," she cried, joyfully.  "In
return, I will tell you one thing, even now.  If you doubt what I say
regarding the woman you love, look calmly into her face, pressing her
hand affectionately the while, and ask her if she knows anyone with
diamond eyes."

"Is Diamond Eyes a pet name?"  I inquired.  I was puzzled, for I had a
faint consciousness of having heard that designation before, but to whom
applied I know not.

"Discover for yourself," she answered, smiling.  "I have given you the
clue.  Follow it, and seek the truth."

Many times during our subsequent conversation I besought her to tell me
something further, but she would not, and at last, after remaining with
her over an hour, I left, promising I would at once set about obtaining
the passport she desired.  Hers was a strange personality, yet I, by
some vague intuition, felt myself on the verge of a discovery.  I was
convinced that she knew of the theft of the secret convention, and
could, if she wished, impart to me some startling truth.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

ADVICE GRATIS.

Soon after noon next day I called at the Russian Embassy at Chesham
House, and was ushered into the private room of my friend, Paul
Verblioudovitch, the secretary to the urbane old gentleman who acted as
the Tzar's representative at the Court of St James.  It was a large but
rather gloomy room, well stocked with books, containing a writing-table
and several easy-chairs, into one of which I sank after the hall-porter,
a gigantic, liveried Russian, had conducted me thither, and announced
the immediate arrival of my official friend.

While waiting, I reflected that my errand was scarcely one that would
commend itself to the favour of Lord Warnham.  Official relations
between the Russian Embassy and the British Foreign Office, never very
cordial, were, owing to our knowledge of the suppressed declaration of
war, now seriously strained.  Nevertheless, Paul and I were very
intimate friends.  I had first met him in St Petersburg, where for six
months I had occupied an unimportant post in the British Embassy.  Being
compelled to pay frequent visits to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I
was always seen by Verblioudovitch, an official who spoke excellent
English.  Then I left and returned to London under Lord Warnham, and for
nearly two years entirely lost sight of him, until I was one day
delighted to find he had been promoted as Secretary of Embassy in
London.  Since that time our friendship had been renewed, and we had
spent many a pleasant evening together.

"Ah, my dear fellow!" he cried, almost without any trace of accent, as
he suddenly opened the door and interrupted my reflections.  "You're an
early visitor," he laughed, shaking hands cordially.  "Well, what is it?
A message from your indefatigable chief?"

"No, not exactly," I smiled, sinking again into my comfortable chair as
he walked to the opposite side of his writing-table, afterwards seating
himself at it.  He was a well-preserved man of about forty-five, tall,
erect, of military bearing, with closely-cropped, dark hair, a
well-trimmed moustache, and a face that was an index to his happy,
contented disposition.  The Tzar's officials are supposed to be a set of
the most stern, hard-hearted ruffians on earth, but there was certainly
nothing of the heartless persecutor about him.  Indeed, he was quite the
reverse--a devil-may-care, easy-going fellow, who enjoyed a joke hugely,
and when outside the sombre walls of the Embassy was full of genuine
good humour and buoyant spirits.  He may have been able to disguise his
careless demeanour beneath the stern, strictly business-like manner of
officialdom, but I, for one, had never seen him assume the loftiness of
his position as secretary of the chief among the Embassies in London.

"Our people at home have recently been playing an amusing little game at
your expense, haven't they?" he laughed, passing over to me his silver
cigarette case and selecting one himself when I gave it back to him.

"I believe they have," I answered.

"I would have given anything to have seen the look on your old chief's
face when first he heard that we were going to declare war," he laughed.
"How did he take it?  You had a rough half-hour, I expect."

"Of course," I smiled.  "Things looked so serious."

"Yes, so they did," he admitted, his face growing grave.  "I quite
expected that we should have to pack up our baggage and go back to St
Petersburg.  The fact is it's a puzzle to us why the Imperial
declaration wasn't actually published.  A hitch somewhere, I suppose."

"Fortunately for us--eh?"  I observed, lighting up calmly.  He imported
his own cigarettes, and they were always excellent.

"Yes," he answered, adding after a moment's reflection, "but why have
you come to me now that we are officially at daggers drawn?"

"Only officially are we bad friends," I said.  "Personally we shall be
on good terms always, I hope, Paul.  It was because I know I can count
upon your assistance that I've come to ask you a favour."

"Ask away, old chap," he said, deftly twisting his cigarette in his
fingers, afterwards placing it between his lips.

"I have a friend who wants to go to Russia, and desires a passport."

"Well, he can get one at the Consul-General's office," my friend
answered, without removing his cigarette.  "I'll give you a note, if you
like."

"No," I said.  "First, it is not a man who is going, but a woman; and,
secondly, I want a passport vised by the Embassy in a name other than
the real name of its bearer."

"Oh," he exclaimed suspiciously, glancing straight at me.  "Something
shady, oh?  Who's the woman?"

"Well, she's hardly a woman yet," I answered.  "A pretty girl who has
lost her father and desires to return to her friends in St Petersburg."

"What's her name?"

"You know her," I said slowly.  "I came to you on her behalf some time
ago when a warrant was out for the arrest of her and her father.  I--"

"Of course, I quite remember," he answered quickly, interrupting me.
"Anton Korolenko escaped with his daughter, that ingenious little nymph,
Sonia, who came and pitched you a long, almost idyllic yarn, and you
came here to intercede.  I did as you requested and secured their
freedom by endorsing the report of the agent of police told off to watch
them by a statement that both father and daughter were dead.  I then
kept my promise by returning the warrant, but I tell you I narrowly
escaped getting into a devil of a scrape about it."

"But you can manage to give me a false passport for her, can't you?"  I
urged.

"Where's her father?  If he goes back their whole game will be given
away."

"Her father is dead," I answered.

"Dead!  Well, the grave is, I think, about the best place for such an
enterprising old scoundrel, and as for his daughter, hang it, old chap,
ten years in Nerchinsk wouldn't hurt her.  What story has she been
telling you this time, eh?" he asked.

"She is lonely without her father, and in order to secure her property,
which is about to be seized by her uncle, she is bound to be in St
Petersburg within fourteen days."

"Fourteen days," repeated my friend, reflectively.  "Let's see, to-day's
the twelfth," and he made some rapid calculations upon his blotting-pad.
"Well, what else?" he inquired, looking up at me keenly.

"Nothing, except that she dare not return under her own name."

"I should scarcely think she'd better," he laughed, "unless she wants to
spend the remainder of her days in that rather uncomfortable hotel
called Schlusselburg, where the beds are not aired, and there are no
toilet-glasses.  But, tell me," he added gravely, a moment later, "why
do you interest yourself in her welfare?  She's entertaining and rather
pretty, I've been told, but surely you, who are engaged to that charming
girl to whom you introduced me at the Gaiety one evening a few weeks
ago, really ought not to associate yourself with Anton Korolenko's
daughter?  She's a criminal."

"I have an object," I said briefly.

"Every man says that when a girl has taken his fancy.  I know the world,
old fellow."

"But it so happens that I've not been captivated by her charms," I
retorted.

"Well, my dear Geoffrey," he said, in a tone of unusual gravity, "take
my advice and keep away from her.  Ever since you induced me to secure
her her liberty, I have honestly regretted it, knowing as I do the
terrible crimes alleged against the gang of which she and her villainous
old father were prominent members."

"What kind of crimes were they?"

"Everything, from picking pockets to murder," he answered.  "They stuck
at nothing, so long as they secured the huge stakes for which they
played.  Has she been again weaving for your benefit any more of her
tragic romances?  She'd make a fortune as a novelist."

I paused in deep thought.

"Truth to tell," I said at last, "she has made an allegation against the
woman I love."

"Against Ella Laing?" he exclaimed, a faint shadow of anger crossing his
brow.  "What has she said?  Tell me; perhaps I can suggest a way of
dealing with her," he added quickly.  "She's most unscrupulous; her
tongue is tipped with venom."

"She has given me to understand that Ella is an adventuress, and my most
bitter enemy," I blurted out suddenly.

He flung down his pen in anger, a fierce imprecation in Russian upon his
lips.  The reason of his sudden annoyance was a mystery, but his quick
eyes noticed my amazement, and in on instant he assumed a calm
demeanour, saying, in a voice of reproach,--

"So this woman, who has libelled Ella, you are striving to assist, eh?
Well, what ground has she for her allegation?"

"She will tell me only on one condition."

"And what is that?"

"If I induce you to give her a false passport, and promise not to inform
the frontier police of her intended departure, she will relate to me the
truth," I said.

"And are you actually prepared to accept as truth the allegations which
this woman uses as a lever to compel you to exercise your good offices
on her behalf?" he observed, in a tone of reproach.

I was silent, for I now recognised for the first time the strength of
his argument.

"You see her position is this," he continued.  "She has nothing to lose
and everything to gain.  You get her the permit she desires; and she, in
return, will tell you some absurd romance or other, concocted, perhaps,
because she has taken a fancy to you and is jealous of Ella.  We are
friends, Deedes, or I should not speak so plainly.  But I tell you that
if I were in your place I would refuse to hear any lies from this
pretty, soft-spoken criminal."

"I quite appreciate your argument," I answered, reflectively, "and I
thank you for your good advice."  Were the words she had uttered lies, I
wondered?  Assuredly, her allegation that Ella was my enemy was a foul
falsehood; nevertheless that she was well aware of the tragic end of
Dudley Ogle I could not doubt, and her assertion that it had been
intended that I should be the victim had startled me and aroused my
curiosity.  I was determined, at all hazards, to ascertain the truth.

"Do not be entrapped by a pretty face or a fine pair of eyes, that's my
advice," my companion said, slowly striking a match.

"I can assure you, old fellow, I shall not be misled by any pretty face,
even if it has diamond eyes," I said, quite unthinkingly, Sonia's
strange words recurring to me at that moment.

"Diamond eyes!" gasped Paul Verblioudovitch, starting visibly and
holding the burning match still between his fingers without lighting his
cigarette.  He had in that instant grown paler, and I thought I detected
that his hand trembled, almost imperceptibly be it said.  "What do you
mean?" he demanded, with a strange fierceness in his gaze.  "What do you
know of Diamond Eyes?"

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

A SPY'S STORY.

"I know nothing of diamond eyes," I replied, surprised at Paul's excited
inquiry.  Instead of showing a good-natured friendliness towards me as
usual, he had suddenly become agitated and suspicious.  He glanced at me
in doubt, saying,--

"Sonia has been revealing something.  It is useless now to try and
disguise the fact."

"No," I replied quickly.  "She has not explained anything.  What do you
expect her to reveal?"

"Oh, nothing, my dear fellow, nothing," he answered, smiling, with that
indifference cultivated by the diplomat.  "The expression you used was
as original as it was unusual, that's all."

"I don't claim originality for it," I laughed.  "To Sonia is the credit
due."

"To Sonia?" he exclaimed uneasily, glancing sharply at me.  "Then it is
true, as I suspected, that she has been telling you some of her
ingenious falsehoods."

"Scarcely that," I replied, thrusting my hands deeply into my pockets.
"She has merely urged me to go to Ella and ask her whether she is
acquainted with anyone with diamond eyes."

"As I thought," he cried, rising and pacing the room furiously.  "It is
exactly as I expected.  She is trying to entrap you as she has the
others, and has embarked upon the first step by speaking thus of Ella,
and sowing seeds of suspicion in your mind.  This is the character of
the woman you seek to help, and you invoke my assistance in your
efforts!  No, Geoffrey," he said, halting suddenly, and looking me
straight in the face, "I shall not stir on her behalf."

"But remember, that in return for the passport, she has promised to tell
me all regarding Ella," I cried anxiously.

"All?" he echoed, in surprise.  "Is she such a mysterious person, then?
Surely you have confidence in her, or you would not have asked her to be
your wife?"

"There is a mystery connected with her," I said quietly.  "A mystery,
deep and inscrutable, that perplexes me to the point of distraction."

"Tell me about it," Verblioudovitch said, interested.

It was upon my tongue to relate to him the whole of the facts _sub
silentio_, but a thought at that instant occurred to me that such a
course would be unjust to Ella, therefore I evaded his invitation to
make him my confidant.  Returning quickly to the object for which I had
sought him, I persuaded him to assist me by giving me a passport for
Sonia.

"What will she do in return?" he again inquired, raising his eyebrows
and shrugging his shoulders in a manner habitual to him when unduly
excited.  "She will concoct some idiotic, romantic story, in order that
the woman you love shall suffer.  I really cannot see, Geoffrey, what
end can be attained in assisting a criminal to re-enter the country from
which she is a fugitive.  You don't know the real character of this
apparently ingenuous girl, or I feel certain you would never ask me to
imperil my reputation by rendering her assistance.  If I had done my
duty long ago, I should have allowed the extradition proceedings to go
on.  I'm sorry now I didn't, for if I had you would have been saved a
world of worry, and we should have been rid of the pair for ever."

"You seem actuated by some spirit of animosity against her," I blurted
forth.

"Not at all.  I've never seen her in my life," he protested.  "You
apparently want confirmation of my words.  Well, you shall have it at
once," and he touched an electric button.

The summons was instantly obeyed by a messenger in uniform, and to this
man Paul spoke some words.  A few minutes later a short, middle-aged
Russian entered.

His hair was grey, his clean-shaven face was rather red and slightly
pimply, his small, jet black eyes were set too closely together, and his
low brows met above his nose.  Fashionably attired in frock coat of
light grey, with a pink carnation in the lapel, he looked so spick and
span that I regarded him with genuine surprise, when my friend,
introducing us, said,--

"This, Geoffrey, is Ivan Renouf; I daresay you have heard of him.  He is
now chief of the section of Secret Police attached to our Embassies of
London and Paris."

I nodded in acknowledgment of the bow of this expert detective who, at
the time I had lived in St Petersburg, had been the terror of all
criminals.  The stories told of his amazing ingenuity in detecting crime
were legion, though many of them were perhaps fabulous; yet there was no
doubt that he was one of the most experienced police officers in Europe.

"Renouf," my friend exclaimed, "I want to ask you a question.  What
character does Sonia Korolenko bear?"

"Sonia?" answered the great detective, reflectively, in fairly good
English.  "Ah! you mean the daughter of Anton Korolenko who escaped from
St Petersburg?--eh?"

"Yes.  Tell my friend, Deedes," Paul said, with a slow gesture
indicating me.

"Well," he answered, glancing quickly at me with his searching eyes,
"for the past nine months we have kept her under strict surveillance,
expecting that she intended to re-commence operations in London.
Indeed, I have here in my pocket the report for the last forty-eight
hours," and he took from his breast-pocket a long folded paper.  "It
shows among other things that she has had several visitors at her house
in Kensington, one of whom was a gentleman who, according to the
description, must have borne a strong resemblance to m'sieur.  Two hours
before this man had called a lady visited her, and remained with her
about an hour."  Then, reading from the report, he continued, "the
description says, tall, good-looking, blue eyes, reddish-brown hair,
straw hat trimmed with pale-blue, brown shoes, light blouse, black
cycling skirt."

"By Heaven!"  I cried excitedly, "that's Ella!  Every word of that
description tallies, even to the dress, boots and hat!"

"She is a frequent visitor," the detective observed.  "She calls on her
bicycle every day."

"Every day!"  I echoed in astonishment.  "I did not know they were
friends."

"Did I not tell you that she was concealing the truth?"  Paul observed,
smiling at my dismay.  "Tell m'sieur of the past, Ivan."

"Ah! her record is a very black one--very black," the officer of police
answered gravely, again fixing his small dark eyes upon me.  "Her
swindling transactions extend over several years, and she has no doubt
acquired quite a fortune, while at least one of her victims has lost his
life.  By one coup she accomplished in Moscow, with the aid of that
soft-spoken old scoundrel, her father, they pocketed nearly one hundred
thousand roubles between them."

"I really can't believe it," I exclaimed, dumbfounded.

"There is no doubt whatever about it," Renouf answered.  "It was all in
the papers at the time and made quite a stir throughout Europe.  The
story is a rather tragic one; sufficient to show what kind of woman she
is.  About three years ago she went with her father from St Petersburg
to Moscow, where they took a handsome house, furnished it luxuriously,
and gave a number of brilliant entertainments.  At one of these the
pretty Sonia, whose jewels were the admiration of half the city, met the
young Prince Alexis Gazarin, a mere youth of twenty-two, who had only a
few months before inherited a huge fortune from his father, the
well-known promoter of the oil industry at Baku.  Alexis fell violently
in love with her, made her many costly presents, proposed marriage and
was accepted, the parental consent being extracted only when he had
deposited in the bank in Sonia's name one hundred thousand roubles as
settlement upon her.  A week before the marriage, the body of Alexis was
discovered floating in the yellow Volga near Kostroma, but whether his
death was due to accident, suicide or foul play has never been
ascertained.  The fact, however, remains that Anton Korolenko and his
pretty daughter left Moscow a week later, carrying with them one hundred
thousand roubles of the dead man's money."

"Do you allege that the pair actually murdered him?"  I inquired,
astounded at this story.

The detective smiled mysteriously, gave his shoulders a significant
shrug, but did not reply.

"This," exclaimed Paul, "is the sort of woman you are trying to
befriend!  No doubt she has told you a most touching story of
persecution, and all that; but can anyone be surprised if our police
endeavour to arrest her?  I tell you plainly she's a mere adventuress,
with a plausible story ever upon her tongue."

"Do you refuse to do what I ask?"  I inquired at last, when Renouf,
pleading an appointment, had bowed and departed.

"I can really see no satisfactory reason why I should," he answered,
standing in the centre of the Persian rug spread before the fireplace.

"You are my friend, Paul," I urged.  "At all times I am, as you are
aware, ready to perform you any personal service."

"It is not rendering you a personal service if, by giving the passport,
I induce her to tell you a tissue of untruths."

"But it is evident, even from Renouf's report, that Ella visits her.  It
is to obtain an elucidation of a secret that I am striving, for I am
convinced Sonia knows the truth."

"If she does, then you may rely upon it she will not tell it to you, but
substitute some romantic fiction or other," he laughed.  "It is really
astounding to find you so confident in her honesty."

Paul Verblioudovitch's attack of ill-temper vanished as he threw himself
back in his chair and showed all his white teeth in a hearty guffaw.

"I am not confident," I declared.  "I have assisted the girl to obtain
her freedom, therefore I cannot see that she can have any object in
wilfully deceiving me.  Her promise to reveal the truth regarding Ella
in exchange for the passport is but a mere business arrangement."

"You apparently suspect the woman you love of some terrible crime or
other," Paul said, after a pause.  "I can't understand you, Geoffrey, I
must confess."

"If you were in my place, fondly loving a woman who was enveloped in
bewildering mystery, you would, I have no doubt, act quite as strangely
as myself," I exclaimed, smiling grimly.  "I only want to discover light
in this chaos of perplexity; then only shall I be content."

"But if circumstances have so conspired to produce a problem, why not
remain patient until its natural elucidation is effected?  The police,
when baffled, frequently adopt that course, and often very effectually,
too."

"Truth to tell, old fellow," I said confidentially, "I am anxious to
marry Ella, but cannot until I have ascertained some substantial truth."

"Of what do you suspect her--of a crime?" he inquired, smiling.

I paused.

"Yes," I answered gravely, "of a crime."

I fancied he started as I spoke, almost imperceptibly, perhaps, yet I
could have sworn that my words produced within him some nervous
apprehension.

"A crime!" he echoed.  "Surely she cannot be guilty of anything more
serious than some little indiscretion."

"It is more than mere indiscretion that I suspect," I said, in a low
tone.

"Well," he observed mechanically, as, after a pause, he stood at the
window, gazing fixedly into the street, "I certainly would never accept
as truth anything whatever told me by Sonia Korolenko."

I was, however, inexorable in my demand, more than ever determined to
hear Sonia's story.  The strange, hesitating manner in which my friend
had endeavoured to avoid complying with my request had aroused suspicion
within me; of what, I could not tell.  It struck me as curious that he
should thus defend Ella so strenuously, although he knew her but
slightly.  He was, perhaps, acting in my interests as his friend, but if
so, his intense hatred of Sonia was more than the mere official
denunciation of an evil-doer.  I did not believe his declaration that he
had never met Sonia, but it seemed rather as if he had cause to well
remember his meeting with her, and that its recollection still rankled
bitterly within him.

The admission by Renouf was a little disconcerting.  Sonia certainly did
not dream that the Tzar's spies were even now watching her every action
and carefully scrutinising each person who called at Pembroke Road.  I
saw that this knowledge I had acquired might prove extremely useful to
her, for it was plain that even if she obtained the passport she would
have to leave England secretly to avoid the vigilance of the secret
agents of the Embassy.  Again, why did Ella visit her?  Instead of
cycling in the Park she went to Pembroke Road, according to the report
furnished to Renouf, nearly every day.  For what purpose, I wondered.
The more I reflected, the more deeply it became rooted within me that
through Sonia I might ascertain the truth I sought.

Therefore I abandoned none of my efforts to persuade my friend to issue
the document that would pass the sad-eyed girl across the frontier into
the land she loved.  For fully half-an-hour we discussed the situation,
but he would not consent.  She was an adventuress and a criminal, he
said, and he was not prepared to risk the consequences if she were
arrested in Russia with a false special permit issued by him.

"Besides," he added, "you have heard from Renouf how she is constantly
kept under observation."

"But you could arrange that with him if you liked.  A word from you and
the vigilance of the police would be relaxed for an hour or two while
she escaped," I observed.

"Ah, no," Verblioudovitch answered, "we have nothing whatever to do with
Renouf and his subordinates, who are under the direct control of
Sekerzhinski, the chief of the department in St Petersburg.  They take
no instructions from us."

"Renouf would, however, do you a personal favour," I hazarded.

"I fear not," was the reply.  "We are not the best of friends.  That is
the reason I hesitate to issue a document that might implicate me.  If
he discovered the truth, my prospects in the diplomatic service might be
ruined."

With all Paul's gay spirits and careless manner he possessed an eager
enthusiasm, and an insatiable curiosity concerning humanity at large.

"But there is yet another way," I said.

"How?"

"Obtain the signature of His Excellency, the Ambassador.  You can make
an excuse that the permit is for a friend."

Paul remained silent, pacing the room with stolid face and automatic
movement.  At last he turned to me, saying,--

"I see, Deedes, it's quite useless to argue longer.  I admit that I am
exceedingly anxious to render you this service, but knowing as I do that
the consequences must be disastrous either to you, or to the woman
Korolenko, I have hesitated.  Yet if you are determined to assist her I
suppose I must obtain for you the necessary paper."

"Thanks, old fellow, thanks!  I knew you would help me," I exclaimed
enthusiastically.

"I cannot let you have it before this evening.  If you will send Juckes
round at seven you shall have it with the vise and everything complete."

"What a good fellow you are!"  I cried joyfully, rising and shaking his
hand.  "Some day I hope to be able to perform a service for you."

"Let's hope so, old chap," he answered cheerily, but next second his
face assumed a grave expression, as he added, "Take my advice now, and
do not let any of Sonia's wild allegations disturb you.  She certainly
is too expert an adventuress to tell you anything to your own advantage,
although whatever she does reveal will be to the detriment of the woman
you love."

"Why are you so certain of this?"  I inquired quickly, in genuine
surprise.

"I have strong reasons for anticipating the course she will adopt," he
answered ambiguously.  "I therefore give you warning."

"It seems that she is acquainted with Ella," I observed.

"Yes, from Renouf's report.  But remember my words, and don't be led
away by any of her false statements.  Do not forget that there is a very
strong motive why she should denounce Miss Laing--a motive you will
perhaps discover ere long," and he smiled mysteriously.

"Very well," I exclaimed, after a brief pause.  Then again shaking his
hand, I left, after expressing thanks and promising to send Juckes to
the Embassy that evening.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

SOME SURPRISES.

Several weeks passed uneventfully.  In fulfilment of my promise to Sonia
I had obtained the required permit and taken it personally to Pembroke
Road on the same evening, but on arrival there discovered that the
pretty Russian had been unexpectedly summoned to the bedside of a sick
friend.  She had, however, left a note with the English maid asking me
to enclose the document in an envelope and leave it.

"I regret it is impossible for me to be at home to receive you," she
wrote in French, "but I have every confidence that you will secure me
what I require.  If you leave it for me I will, in return, write down
and send you the facts I promised to reveal.  Time presses, therefore
kindly excuse my haste.  I shall always remember your kindness and be
ready to render you any service in return."

This was disappointing.  I had hoped to hear from her own lips her
promised revelations, but this being impossible, I enclosed the special
permit in an envelope, sealed it and left it, together with a brief note
warning her that she was being carefully watched by police agents, and
promising to call next day and bid her farewell.

When on the following morning I presented myself at her house, I was
informed by the maid that mademoiselle had left early to visit her sick
friend, and that she would not return till evening.  Inquiry showed that
she had received my letter, and when at eight o'clock that night I again
called in the expectation of obtaining the fulfilment of her promise to
tell me of Ella, I found her still absent, and gathered from the servant
that she had taken a travelling-trunk with her.  I concluded that she
had left secretly for Russia.

From day to day I waited in the expectation of a letter from her, but
although I remained in anxiety and doubt for more than a month, none
came, and I was at last compelled to admit that I had actually been
tricked, as Paul had predicted.  He was right after all.  Sonia, the
innocent-looking girl with the sad, dark eyes and dimpled chin, was a
woman internationally notorious, who, soft-voiced, had posed as my
friend in order to attain her own ends, and had then departed without
carrying out her part of the compact.  As the weeks passed I gradually
began to realise the force of Paul Verblioudovitch's words when he had
tried to impress upon me the necessity of accepting her statements with
caution.  Without doubt she was a heartless adventuress, therefore I
bitterly reproached myself for having allowed her libellous allegations
against Ella to arouse suspicion within me, and at length determined
upon regarding all her words as false, uttered merely for the purpose of
enlisting my assistance to procure here re-entry into her own country.
My anger that I should have allowed myself to fall into such a trap, and
make such a demand upon a friend's goodwill, knew no bounds.  I went to
the Embassy, and to Paul admitted that my hopes had not been realised.
In reply, he laughed heartily, saying,--

"I warned you, my dear fellow, of the kind of woman with whom you were
dealing.  Thank your stars that she has discarded you so easily, and be
careful of pretty refugees in future.  No harm has apparently been done,
for inquiries I've made showed that she crossed the frontier at
Verjbolovo without detection."

"I must confess I doubted the truth of your words before you issued the
permit, but of course it is all plain now," I said.

"You don't believe her lies about Miss Laing, eh?" he inquired bluntly,
but a trifle earnestly, I thought.

"No, I don't," I smiled; and then our conversation had drifted into a
different channel.  It was clear enough now, patent to everybody, that
the girl I had fancied so pure, so unworldly--the goddess that sat in
the clouds regarding all earth with clear, immaculate eyes--was simply
an adventuress, a wretched creature, on the lookout for victims.

The popular excitement consequent from the belief that war was to be
declared had died down, although in the Foreign Office the reason of the
sudden abandonment of Russia's intentions remained an inscrutable
mystery, while the panic on the Stock Exchange had enriched a few and
ruined many.  Parliament had risen for the recess, and Beck had taken a
party in his yacht to the Norwegian fiords, Ella and Mrs Laing declining
his invitation to join them.  This course had been adopted at my
suggestion.  When Ella had spoken to me of their proposed cruise, I at
once demurred, for although I had also been asked, I found absence from
the Foreign Office impossible, owing to several delicate negotiations at
that moment proceeding, and therefore urged her to remain in London.
This she did at once, declining the invitation on behalf of both herself
and her mother.  The latter, who was not a good sailor, secretly thanked
me for rescuing her from what she termed "three weeks of misery," and,
truth to tell, although no longer jealous of Beck's attention to Ella, I
was glad to have her remain in town.

Through the hot, stifling August days, when London was what is termed
"empty," Mrs Laing and her daughter still lived in Pont Street.  During
the first three weeks following my visit to Sonia I called only twice,
but meantime Ella was, I know, suffering tortures of doubt and anxiety.
She had been trained in a school of self-repression, and it now stood
her in good stead.  She could not, however, prevent her cheeks being
pale, neither could she help her eyes looking dilated and odd.  Speech
was difficult and smiles impossible; otherwise she held her own, and
only I felt the difference, and knew that there lay a deep gulf of
suspicion between us.

On the two occasions on which I had called we had no confidential chat,
and the formal hours went by almost in silence.  I had received positive
proof from Renouf that she had been a constant visitor to Sonia, and it
was impossible to talk with frivolity in that oppressive atmosphere of
doubt.  Mrs Laing, I noticed, hung her gold _pince-nez_ high upon her
nose in wonder.  Ella was thus consuming herself with anxiety, while I,
struggling along from day to day, saw my last hope growing thinner and
yet more shadowy, and looming through it--despair.

Then at last, five weeks after Sonia's flight, I called at Pont Street
and demanded of Ella the reason she had visited the house in Pembroke
Road.  Her reply was quite unexpected.  She told me quite calmly that
they had been schoolfellows at Neuilly, and that, finding Sonia had lost
both her parents, she went to Pembroke Road each day to bear the
bereaved girl company.  She was in ignorance regarding Sonia's life
since she had left the French school, and expressed surprise that she
should have departed suddenly without telling her of her destination.
Her replies to my inquiries set my mind at rest upon several points.  It
appeared quite plain that Ella herself had told Sonia of her engagement
to me and had described the tragic incident at Staines, therefore the
pretty refugee had been enabled to drop those ingenious hints at mystery
that had so sorely puzzled me, and had cleverly secured my interests on
her behalf.

When I realised how artfully I had been tricked, I ground my teeth, and
Ella, standing statuesque on the opposite side of the drawing-room in
strong relief against a background of dark, glossy palms and
broad-leaved tropical plants, noticed my anger.  The light fell upon her
red-brown hair and upon her slightly upturned face, showing its delicate
modelling in its almost childish roundness.  Her profile was quite as
charming as her full face, perhaps more so, as it had the advantage of
the curl and sweep of the eyelashes and of the fine line of the upper
lip.

She eyed me gravely, but spoke no word.

Yet in that instant I knew I had misjudged her, that through those long,
anxious weeks while I had entertained dark suspicions she had
nevertheless still loved me honestly and truly.  I know not what words I
uttered, but a few moments later I found her sobbing in my fond embrace.
Her tears were tears of joy.

The silence was long.  We had so much to think about that we forgot to
speak, but presently, when she dried her blue eyes with her flimsy lace
handkerchief and seated herself, I took the tiny hand lying idly in her
lap and laid my cheek down on the tender, rosy palm.

"How I wish that this night could last for ever," I said, with a sigh of
supreme contentment.  "In my memory it will live always."

"Always?" she echoed, looking tenderly into my face; then for the first
time she put her arms around me and held me tightly pressed against her
heart.

"Yes, always," I said.  "Until I die."

"Ah!  Don't speak of death," she whispered.  "If you died, I--I should
die also, Geoffrey.  I could not live without you.  How I have endured
these dark, weary weeks I scarcely know."

Together we remained a long time, while I reproached myself for
entertaining suspicion that her friendliness with Dudley or with Beck
was anything but platonic, declaring that my love had ever been
unwavering, that my recent actions had been due to a mad and unjust
jealousy for which I craved her forgiveness.

With her eyes still wet she told me how fondly she had always loved me,
and urged me to think no more of the strange events that had led to
Dudley's tragic end.

"It is my duty to ascertain the truth and clear up the mystery," she
said.  "I have promised you a solution of the enigma, and you shall have
it some day."

"For the present, dearest, I am content to wait," I answered, and in the
same breath repeated the question I had asked her months ago--whether
she would be my wife.

"Alas!  I fear you do not trust me sufficiently, Geoffrey," she answered
in a low, intense tone, tears still welling in her blue eyes.

"I do," I cried.  "I know that all the time I have been a jealously
brutal fool you have loved me as truly as ever."

"I told you long ago that I loved you," she answered earnestly.

"Yes, I believe it now, darling," I said.  "That is why I ask you to
become my wife.  Tell me once more that you will."  In a whisper, as her
handsome head pillowed itself upon, my arm, she repeated her promise,
then burst into a torrent of tears, while I, in joyful ecstasy, still
held her in my arms.

It was an idyllic evening, this first one of love and trust; a brief
dream such as one has in the moment before waking.  Bowing before my
idol, I had humbly acknowledged myself wrong, and my well-beloved had
frankly forgiven and forgotten.  There was a long silence, deep and
impressive, broken only by the confused sound from the street that came
in through the open window.  Then, when she stirred again and raised her
head, I told her of my position at the Foreign Office, and the
probability of my appointment to a diplomatic post abroad.

She listened, her clear, trusting eyes fixed upon me.  She, too, was
ambitious.

"It's a great responsibility for any woman," she said at last, "to think
she is to be part of a career.  I will help you, my darling," then she
buried her face again in my coat-collar, protesting fervently, "I will
never, never allow myself to hinder you; but will do my utmost to help
you to success, only you must have patience with me."  Suddenly she
raised her head again, continuing, "I know there is one strange episode
in my past that is a mystery to you, nay, to all.  My misfortune is that
I am unable yet to reveal the truth, because I fear the consequences of
such disclosure.  Some day you shall know everything, but until then
think only of me as the woman who loves you with all her soul."

She spoke with a terrible earnestness, her slim fingers clutching my arm
convulsively, and as I gave my promise to regard her always as a pure
and upright woman, and forget the mystery surrounding her, I sealed our
compact with a long, passionate kiss.

Mrs Laing, stiff and stately in black satin, entered the room a few
moments later, and Ella, having whispered and obtained my consent,
forthwith made a full and complete statement to her mother of the
position of affairs.  The old lady listened attentively in silence,
inclining her head now and then with a gesture indicative of
approbation, but when her daughter had concluded her face brightened.

"I am indeed glad to think that dear Ella is to marry you after all,
Geoffrey," she said.  "Once, not so very long ago, I feared that you two
would never again be reconciled, for Ella moped day after day, crying,
and quite spoiling her complexion.  But the old saying about the course
of true love contains much truth, and now that your little differences
are readjusted, there can be no cause for any further regret.  That Ella
loves you dearly, I, as her mother, have had better opportunity for
knowing than anyone else and were it not for the fact that I am
convinced you both will be happy, I should never give my consent to your
marriage.  But I am absolutely sure that this marriage is one that
Ella's father would have approved, therefore you have my entire consent
and heartiest congratulations."

"Thank you, Mrs Laing," I answered.  "I, too, am convinced that we love
each other sufficiently well, and I can only promise to be a sympathetic
and devoted husband."

Ella, who, standing beside her mother's chair, had entwined her arms
affectionately around her neck, slowly released her, and walked across
the room to turn the lamp higher.  Then, deeming it but just that they
both should know the reason of my recent coolness and suspicion, I told
them in confidence of the mysterious theft of the secret convention, the
strange and tragic events that followed, the discovery of the seal on
the body of Dudley Ogle, and my absurd belief that Ella had, in some
way, been implicated in the ingenious efforts of the spy.

"Do you actually suspect poor Dudley of having been in the pay of the
Russian Government?"  Mrs Laing asked, open-mouthed, in dismay.

"I do," I was constrained to reply.  "There is no shadow of doubt that
he was a spy.  He tricked you as he did myself.  I was his best friend,
yet he nearly ruined all my prospects in the Service."

While we had been speaking the door had opened, and as I glanced from
Ella across to Mrs Laing, I saw a grey-haired man-servant in the act of
handing her a letter.

As he turned from her to leave he glanced at me suddenly.  Our eyes met
in mutual recognition, and I think I must have started perceptibly, for
his brows suddenly contracted as if commanding me to silence; then he
made his exit, closing the door noiselessly behind him.

"You haven't seen my new man Helmholtz before, Geoffrey," Mrs Laing
exclaimed when he had gone.  "He seems a perfect treasure, although he
is a German.  But, after all, German servants are more useful, and quite
as trustworthy as English.  I should certainly advise Ella to have one."

"Yes," I answered mechanically.

The man was none other than Ivan Renouf, the great Russian detective.

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

A BLADE OF GRASS.

Nearly three months had slipped away.  It was mid-November.  The cloud
that had darkened my days had lifted, the sun shone out, and life and
hope sprang up and ran riot in my heart.  The long, anxious weeks were
over, for Ella was now my wife, and our lives were full of joy and love.
With utter contempt for the warning words of the ingenuous Russian who
left so mysteriously without fulfilling her promise, I had taken the
dearest other half of my soul, happy in the knowledge that I would be a
solitary wretch no more.

After a quiet wedding at St Peter's, Eaton Square, at which, however, a
large number of our friends were present, including Paul
Verblioudovitch, the reception had been held at Pont Street, and we left
to spend our honeymoon on the Continent while our house in Phillimore
Gardens, Kensington, was being prepared.  I loved my wife with the whole
strength of my being.  Her beauty was incomparable, her grace charming,
and I could not doubt that she loved me with her whole soul, and that
her vows came direct from her heart.

The reason of Renouf's presence in Mrs Laing's household was an enigma.
Since the night when I had first seen him there I had visited Pont
Street each day, and on several occasions had managed to speak with him
alone.  To all my inquiries, however, he remained dumb.

One night, when I had called and found Ella and her mother had gone to
the theatre, I closed the door of the room into which I had been
ushered, and asked him point-blank whether his presence there was not
calculated to arouse suspicions in my mind.  With an imperturbable smile
he replied,--

"There is no allegation whatever against mother or daughter, therefore
set your mind entirely at rest.  We desire to ascertain something.  That
is all."

His manner angered me.

"If I were to denounce you as a spy you would be thrown out of this
house very quickly," I said, indignant that this ill-featured man
should, for some mysterious reason, watch every action of my
well-beloved.

He glanced at me with an amused expression, as he answered in a half
whisper,--

"By betraying me, m'sieur would betray one of his closest friends."

"Oh!  How's that?"

"A word from you to either of these women," he exclaimed, with brows
slightly knit, "and the department in St Petersburg will know the reason
that Sonia Korolenko was enabled to pass the frontier at Verjbolovo;
they will know that Paul Verblioudovitch, the Secretary of Embassy, has
assisted a criminal to escape."

"You scoundrel!"  I cried, facing him fiercely.  "You listened to our
conversation!"

He shrugged his shoulders, and with the same grim smile, answered,--

"My ears are trained, m'sieur.  It is part of my profession."

"But why do you remain here, in a peaceable household?"  I demanded.
"Surely neither Mrs Laing nor Ella have incurred the Tzar's displeasure
or the hatred of those in authority!  They know nothing of Russia; they
have never set foot in the country."

The man's features relaxed, and turning from me, he busied himself among
some bottles on the sideboard.

"I desire an answer," I continued.

"I have my instructions," he replied, without looking towards me.

"From whom?"

"From headquarters."

"Well," I exclaimed.  "We are not in Russia, therefore, when the ladies
return, I shall explain who and what you are."

"You dare not," he said, regarding me suddenly with dark, penetrating
gaze.

"Miss Ella will soon be my wife, and I will not allow her actions to be
noted upon one of those formidable forms of yours that are too often the
death-warrants of your victims."

"These ladies are not my victims, as you are pleased to term them," he
protested, laughing at my anger.

"Victims or friends, they shall no longer remain under your accursed
surveillance," I cried hotly.  "You may practice your espionage upon
your suspected compatriots; but I will never allow you to keep
observation upon my friends here in England."

"Very well," he said, quite calmly, with that cynical expression that
was so tantalising.  "Act as you think fit.  We, of the secret service,
take no step before due consideration of its consequences, a policy it
would be wise for you also to adopt."  Then, with a show of mock
politeness, he opened the door of the dining-room, and, bowing,
exclaimed, "Madame is out, will m'sieur remain, or call again?"

Our eyes met, and I saw in his a look of triumph.

"I'll call again," I replied, and walked out into the hall, gaining the
street a moment later.

The first passing hansom I hailed, and drove at once to Chesham House,
where I was fortunate to find Paul.  When we were closeted together, I
told him of the police officer's threat, and my announcement caused him
considerable astonishment.

"Curious," he repeated, as if to himself.  "Very curious that Renouf
should be installed in that family, above all others."

"Above all others," I echoed.  "Why?"

"I--I mean that Mrs Laing could not possibly have done anything to
offend our Government," he said, quickly correcting himself.  "It is
certainly very strange.  Renouf is not a man to be trifled with," he
added quickly.  "There must be some very strong reason, known only to
himself, that has induced him to act in this manner.  If the motive were
not a strong one, he would delegate the menial position he has had to
assume to one of his subordinates.  I know he has his hands full of
important inquiries just now, and it therefore surprises me that he is
calmly reposing as butler in Mrs Laing's service."

"But knowing him to be a spy, I cannot allow him to remain longer in
daily contact with those two defenceless women," I exclaimed.

"Have they ever been in Russia?"

"Never!"  I replied.  "Only the other evening they were asking me about
St Petersburg, and both expressed a wish to visit your country."

Paul, with his hands behind his back, and head bent in thought, paused
for a moment, and then said,--

"From what I know of Ivan Renouf, I believe that were you to do him an
evil turn, and obtain his dismissal from Pont Street, he would at once
expose to the Ministry of the Interior how Sonia Korolenko obtained her
passport.  If he did so, the result would be disastrous to me,
especially just at a time when our frontier regulations are extremely
rigid."

"What, then, is the best course to pursue?"  I asked.

He was silent, looking moodily into the fire.  Then turning with a
sudden movement, he said, with emphasis,--"You are my friend, Geoffrey.
My future is in your hands."

"Which means that my silence is imperative," I observed reflectively.

Paul Verblioudovitch nodded, but uttered no word.  If I denounced Renouf
it was plain that my friend who had seriously imperilled his position at
my urgent request, must undoubtedly suffer.  In order to shield him I
must therefore remain silent.  With intense chagrin I saw myself
ingeniously checkmated.

I dared not allow one single syllable of suspicion regarding the German
servant, who was, according to Mrs Laing, "a treasure," to escape my
lips, and thus, as the weeks passed preceding my marriage, I was
compelled to watch and wait without any outward sign.

The reason of his vigilance was an inscrutable mystery.  With Ella as my
wife I had passed six blissful weeks, visiting many of the quaint,
old-world towns in Central France.  It had been Ella's fancy to do this.
She hated the glare and glitter of Paris, and would only remain there
the night on our outward and homeward journeys; indeed, cities had no
charm for her, she preferred the lethargic provincial towns, from which
we could make excursions into the country and spend the bright autumn
days at old-fashioned inns.  Fearing that she was becoming bored, I
endeavoured to induce her to go to Biarritz or Pau, but to no avail.
The crowded _table-d'hote_, of the popular resort possessed no
attraction, and I rejoiced in secret, for we spent a far happier time
wandering through the country than if installed in some garish hotel in
the neighbourhood of a casino.

Once, and only once since our marriage, had I made any mention of the
death of Dudley Ogle.  We were driving into the ancient town of
Chateauroux, in the Indre, on the lumbering, dusty, old diligence that
has performed the same daily journey for perhaps a century, when I
chanced to incidentally utter his name, and express wonder when the
mystery would be solved.

We were speaking in English, not a word of which could be understood by
our driver, but instantly she turned to me with a look of reproach, and,
placing her little gloved hand on my mouth in haste, exclaimed,--

"No, Geoffrey.  Do not recall that terrible tragedy.  Promise never
again to mention his name; it only brings sadness to both of us, while
the mystery surrounding the crime is irritating and puzzling.  You have
already told me that he was not your friend, although he posed as such,
therefore forget him.  I have not forgotten; nor shall I ever cease to
think and to strive towards the solution of the problem."

"But cannot I help you to search and investigate?"  I suggested.  "Why
should you strive to elucidate this mystery alone, now that you are my
wife?"

"Because it is my ambition," she answered, regarding me earnestly with
clear, trusting eyes.  "You will, I know, allow me to retain one object
in life apart from you."

"Certainly," I answered, surreptitiously pressing her hand, although
puzzled at her strange words.  In the few weeks we had been together I
had discovered that she was a woman of moods and curious fancies.  Once
or twice she had exhibited a strong desire to walk alone at night when
the moon shone, and because I objected she had pouted prettily, scorning
the idea that she was not able to take care of herself.  Except when in
this mood she was always eager to fulfil my every wish, and I had
quickly arrived at the conclusion that her strange desires were but
natural to one of a slightly hysterical temperament, and therefore
troubled myself but little about them.

Thus after an enjoyable trip through one of the most beautiful districts
of France, unknown to the average Briton, we returned and settled
comfortably at our new home in Kensington.  My duties at the Foreign
Office took me away the greater part of the day, but Ella was not
lonely, for she drove out frequently with her mother, who visited her
almost daily.  Of interference or maternal influence I had nothing
whatever to complain, yet Ella's desire to wander about alone, aimless
and absorbed, soon again seized her.  We had been settled about a month
when I made this discovery from the servants, who, on my arrival home
earlier than usual on several occasions, told me, in answer to
questions, that their mistress had gone out by herself.  But on her
return she betrayed no surprise, mentioning quite incidentally that she
had been shopping in High Street, or that she had been to her milliner's
in Bond Street, or elsewhere.

So frequently did this occur that at last I became puzzled, and on
making further inquiries found that on many occasions she had been
absent the whole day, returning only just in time to change her dress
and receive me with that bright, winning smile that always held me
entranced.

One bright December afternoon I returned at three o'clock, and found she
had been absent since eleven that morning.  I took a cab to Pont Street,
but ascertaining she had not been there, returned home, and impatiently
awaited her until nearly six.  As soon as I heard her light footstep I
seized a book that lay nearest and pretended to read.  She burst in like
a ray of sunshine, her face aglow with laughter, and in her hand an
immense bunch of sweet-smelling violets.

The book chanced to be a Koran in Arabic.  She came across to kiss me,
but I waved her off with dignity, and went on translating the Word of
the Prophet.

Ella stood back indignant, and with her flowers in front of her waited
at the other side of the table.

After a pause I commenced, "You went out this morning ten minutes after
I had gone; it is now six o'clock.  You have been absent seven hours."

Ella nodded.

"And how have you employed your time?"  I asked.  "Have you been
shopping, as usual?"

Ella again nodded.

"Seven hours is a long time.  Where did you get those flowers?"  I
asked, sniffing contemptuously at the huge bunch of sweet-smelling
blossoms she had let fall before me.

"I bought them at Scott's."

"That is a bunch specially made up for presentation," I said.  "Someone
gave them to you."

"Yes, the shopman," she laughed.  "I gave him two shillings for them."
Then she took off her hat and, impaling it with a long pin, cast it
heedlessly upon the table.

"It has not occupied seven hours to buy a bunch of violets," I said
ruthlessly.  "Where have you been?"

Ella looked round laughing, and said in a quiet voice, "I have been to
see a friend."

"Another aunt--eh?"  I asked, suspiciously.

She took a chair and sat down opposite; then, with her head leaning upon
her hands, she said demurely, "Yes, it was an aunt."

There was silence.  Ella had picked up her bunch of violets, and every
time I looked up she was watching me over them.

"Well," I exclaimed at last, "where does this aunt live--at Highgate?"

"No, not that one.  She is poor.  She lives in Camberwell."

"I don't believe it," I said, standing up suddenly.

Ella raised her eyebrows in interrogation.  There was an ominous look in
her blue eyes, and I put forth my hand to snatch the flowers and cast
them into the fire.  Instead, I sat down again and turned over another
hundred pages of my Koran.

"Geoffrey," she said at length in a low, timid voice I perused my book
with stolid indifference.

"Geoffrey," she repeated, "why are you angry with me without cause?"

Raising my head, I saw that her fine eyes were dimmed by tears, and
almost unconsciously I reached, took her hand, and pressed it.  Then
Ella, rising slowly, came round and sat upon my knee.

"You see," she whispered, with her arms around my neck, "this is how it
was.  Last night I said to myself,--

"This poor, dear Geoffrey--he is so busy with his country's affairs, and
works so hard--he will be away all day; therefore I will go over to call
upon my aunt in Camberwell and take her a bottle of wine and some tea,
for she is a great invalid and in poverty.  Since my marriage I haven't
seen her, and as she is in great straits I know dear Geoffrey will not
object."

Here Ella stopped to nestle closer to me, and went on,--

"And to-day I took a cab down to Camberwell, to a dreary row of drab,
mournful-looking houses, and all day long I have sat by her bedside
trying to cheer her.  Ah! she is so ill, and so sad.  Then on my return
I called at Scott's and bought these flowers for my darling, serious old
boy who has been working all day in his dreary office with its window
overlooking the dismal grey quadrangle.  And I am so tired, and it was
not at all amusing for me without him."

The flowers smelt so sweet in front of me; and Ella was so sweet,
childlike and full of happiness, that I took her soft face between my
hands, as was my habit, and kissed her.

But later that evening, on going to her room alone to fetch something
for her, I noticed that her high-heeled French boots, thrown aside, as
she had cast them off, were unusually muddy, although, strangely enough,
it had been a dry day.  I took them up, and upon examining the soles
found them caked with damp clay in which were embedded some blades of
grass.

I slowly descended the stairs engrossed by my own thoughts.  Grass does
not grow in the streets of Camberwell.

CHAPTER TWENTY.

UNDERCURRENTS OF DIPLOMACY.

A few nights later we went together to a ball at the Russian Embassy.
Perhaps of all the functions in London a ball at Chesham House is one of
the most brilliant and imposing, for it is always on a scale in keeping
with the dignity of the representative of the Tzar.

The spacious state rooms with their great crystal chandeliers and heavy
gilding, were filled to overflowing with pretty women and men in uniform
of hues as varied as those of the ladies' dresses, from the black coat
of the United States Minister to the bright yellow jacket of the Emperor
of China's representative.  All the diplomatic body were present, as
well as many personages well-known in English society.  At the head of
the grand staircase Monsieur Grodekoff, the Russian Ambassador, a
striking figure in his spotless white uniform, his breast glittering
with orders set in brilliants, including the much-coveted ribbon of St
Andrew, stood with his daughter receiving their guests, and as we
advanced the courtly, white-haired old gentleman, whom I had met on many
occasions in my official capacity, shook me heartily by the hand and
congratulated us upon our marriage.

"I heard, Deedes, of your good fortune," he said, after greeting Ella.
"I trust that you and your wife will have long life and every
happiness."

"Thanks, your Excellency," I answered, smiling contentedly.  "There is
no doubt, I think, concerning our happiness."

"You should take madame to St Petersburg," the aged diplomatist laughed.
"She would enjoy it, especially with you, who know our country."

"I hope to go very soon," Ella said.  "I have heard so much about it,
and am longing to see it."

"Go now," he urged.  "This is just the season; plenty of snow, and
skating and sledging and suchlike sports that delight us in the North."

We both laughed in chorus, while the representative of the White Tzar,
dismissing us into the ballroom with a low bow, turned to greet the
tall, full-bearded representative of his Imperial master's ally, the
French Republic.  In the corridor there was bustle everywhere.
Gaily-uniformed servants hurried here and there, young attaches, their
breasts decorated with crosses and ribbons of every combination of
colour, lounged along with pretty women on their arms, while older
diplomats of every shade of complexion from white to black, exchanged
greetings as they met.

From the gay cosmopolitan throng in the ballroom rose the mingled odour
of a thousand perfumes with the chatter of laughing women, and ere we
had entered, Paul Verblioudovitch, erect, spruce and smart in his
pale-blue uniform, and wearing many decorations, elbowed his way through
the crush towards us.

We had not met since the wedding reception at Pont Street, and as we
strolled through the brightly-lit _salons_, Ella, radiant and
enthusiastic, began telling him of our idle days and explorations in the
old-world French towns.

"Permit me, madame, to congratulate you," he exclaimed presently.

"Upon what?" asked Ella, in surprise.

"Upon being the prettiest woman it has ever been our honour to entertain
here upon this small square of territory belonging to our Imperial
Master," he said, bowing and smiling with that inborn _finesse_ which
was one of his chief characteristics.

"Ah, you diplomatists always flatter," she laughed lightly behind her
fan.  "Is it really wise of you to make a woman vain?" she asked,
inclining her head slightly.

I felt compelled to admit that Paul had spoken the truth, for as we
passed along I had not failed to notice that Ella's beauty was
everywhere remarked.  Her gown of cream satin, a trifle _decollete_,
with the corsage thickly embroidered with pearls and edged with flowers,
suited her admirably, and the instant consciousness of success in that
brilliant circle of society unfamiliar to her heightened the colour of
her cheeks and added lustre to her eyes.

"The majority of the women who honour us with their presence on these
occasions are vain enough," my friend admitted, adding in a low voice,
"even though some of them are absolute hags."

"Mr Verblioudovitch is, I believe, past-master of the art of flattery,"
Ella observed, laughing, turning towards me.  "He could make a
dowager-duchess believe herself as youthful and attractive as a girl of
eighteen."

"It is necessary sometimes, madame," he answered, amused.  "Quite
necessary, I assure you."

At that moment a quietly-dressed elderly lady of pronounced Teutonic
type and matronly proportions was struggling to pass us, but, recognised
by Paul, was introduced to Ella.  It was a woman with whom I was well
acquainted, the Countess Landsfeldt, wife of the German Ambassador.  She
at once joined our little group, and commenced to chat with a strong
accent.

"We have not met, madame, for quite an age--three months, is it?"  Paul
exclaimed presently.  "You have been away, I believe."

"Ah! yes.  For a month I was in Berlin, and afterwards, just as I was
returning to London, my youngest daughter fell ill, and I was compelled
to spend two months with her in Ehrenburg, our schloss on the Mosel."

"The Ehrenburg!" exclaimed Ella, enthusiastically.  "I know it quite
well.  How romantic and charming it looks perched high up upon its
solitary rock.  My mother and I drove from Brodenbach along the valley
to see it last year."

"Ah, you did not enter?"

"No," my wife answered, smiling.  "I had not then the honour of madame's
acquaintance."

"Inside, we are back in mediaeval days, with dungeons, torture-chambers,
and all sorts of relics of barbarism; while the legends connected with
the place are legion.  Some day, if you are interested in ancient
castles, you and your husband must visit me in Germany."

"It is the most carefully preserved stronghold of the middle ages
extant," Paul observed.

"Ah, yes," replied the Countess, "but it is gloomy and dull--ugh!" and,
shrugging her shoulders, she pulled a little grimace.  "I prefer
Berlin--or even London."

"You say even London, Countess," exclaimed Paul.  "I quite agree.
London is _triste_ after Vienna or St Petersburg.  Is his Excellency
with you this evening?"

"No.  My husband is--oh, so busy.  We only returned from Lord Maybury's
this morning, and dispatches accumulate so fast in his absence."

"He has received another decoration from the Emperor, I hear,"
Verblioudovitch observed.

"Yes, the Iron Cross," replied the Countess, looking at him sharply.
Then she added quickly,--

"But who told you?  He only received His Majesty's intimation three days
ago, and I thought for the present it was a profound secret."

Upon Paul's face there spread that imperturbable smile that he could
assume at will, as he answered,--

"It is the object of a diplomatist to ascertain the nature of all
secrets."

The Countess gave vent to a forced laugh as she exclaimed, "My husband,
I think, fully deserved the honour."

"Certainly, madame," replied the Tzar's official, courteously, his hands
clasped behind his back.  "The completion of the secret convention with
England was, I admit, a master-stroke, and even though directed against
us, the rapidity and cleverness with which it was effected were worthy
of reward."  And he smiled at her mysteriously.

"Ah," she exclaimed, fanning herself slowly with a sudden hauteur; "no
secret seems safe from you, m'sieur.  Nothing escapes the Embassy of
Russia."  And bowing slightly, her stiff silks swept past us, and a
moment later she became lost in the chattering, well-dressed crowd.

"You see, my dear Geoffrey," laughed Paul, when the Countess was out of
hearing, "we are accredited with the omnipotence of the Evil One himself
quite unduly.  I particularly desired to learn whether her husband had
been decorated by his Emperor for that convention which nearly cost
Europe a war; therefore I hazarded a single remark.  Whereupon she at
once told me all about it, and having done so, in her next breath
denounced us and all our works.  But, there," and he gave his shoulders
a shrug, "women are such strange creatures."

"How cleverly you managed to ascertain what you desired," observed Ella.

But the fine Viennese orchestra had struck up, and my wife, being
engaged to him for a dance then commencing, he led her off, and I failed
to overhear his reply.

For the next hour I did not dance, but wandering about the rooms I
exchanged greetings and chatted with those I knew, until at length I
came across Lady Farringford, the wife of Sir Henry Farringford, our
Minister in Washington, sitting with her daughter Mabel.  We were old
friends, and Mabel quickly responded to my invitation to waltz.  She was
a smart girl, and rumour said that she had become engaged to a wealthy
American, a statement which, in reply to my inquiry, she frankly
confirmed.  As we waltzed and lounged together I noticed Ella dancing
first with Paul, and afterwards with several young attaches of my
acquaintance.  Once or twice we exchanged smiles, and I knew by the
expression on her face how thoroughly she was enjoying her first night
in the diplomatic circle.  The scene was brilliant and full of colour,
the music excellent, and the scent of exotics almost overpowering.
Everyone seemed intoxicated with gaiety.  In that cosmopolitan crowd
hearts were lighter and talk more free than in the ordinary London
ballroom, although experienced ones knew that here, amid this brilliant
assembly, there were many strange undercurrents affecting the prestige
of monarchs and the welfare of nations.

"So, you are to marry, Mabel," I observed when, after waltzing, I led
her into an ante-room, and she sat down to eat an ice.

"Yes, at last," she sighed, looking up at me with a pair of mischievous
dark eyes.  She was about twenty-two, and rather pretty.  "I'm to be
married in June, and we are coming to Europe for a twelve months' tour.
You are married already.  I'd so much like to meet your wife.  Since
I've been here this evening I've heard nothing but admiration of her.
You're the envy of all your male friends, Geoffrey."

I laughed.  I confess that by the sensation Ella had caused I felt
flattered.

"I'll introduce you when I have a chance," I said.  "Our congratulations
are mutual.  You are to have a husband; I have already a wife."

"I hope you'll find the Biblical quotation correct," she laughed,
peering at me over her gauzy fan.  "Do you know the words?"

"No," I replied, "I'm not good at remembering quotations."

"Well, the Bible says, `Whoso findeth a wife, findeth a good thing.'  I
hope you'll be no exception to that rule."

"Thanks," I replied.  "I don't know what it says about husbands, but,
however it may be worded, you have my heartiest wishes for long life and
good luck."

At that instant Ella, on the arm of a young Italian marquis, possessed
of a longer title than his rent-roll, entered.  I sprang up at once and
introduced her, and soon we all four were chatting merrily.  When, a
quarter of an hour later, we rose to return to the ballroom, Ella,
radiant and happy, walked beside me.  In reply to my question, she
declared that she was enjoying herself immensely, but as we were
re-entering the _salon_ she clutched my arm, and in a half-frightened
whisper exclaimed,--

"Look!  Geoffrey.  Look at that servant in uniform over there.  Why,
it's our man, Helmholtz!"

I glanced in the direction she had indicated, and sure enough there was
the detective Renouf, who, in the Laing household, posed as Carl
Helmholtz, in the handsome blue-and-gold livery of the Embassy, handing
an ice to a lady.  Instantly I grasped the situation.

"It is a striking resemblance, dearest," I said; "nothing more."

"But I'm certain it's Helmholtz," she declared excitedly.  "Take me
closer to him."

"When we were at Pont Street this afternoon, Helmholtz was there, wasn't
he?"

"Yes.  He brought tea into the drawing-room."

"Well, no doubt he is at home now.  This fellow may be his brother, or
something."

For a moment we stood watching, and saw him make a servile bow.
Fortunately he turned his back upon us, hastening to execute some
command, otherwise he must have come towards us and met us face to face.

"I'm certain it is Helmholtz," Ella exclaimed, in a tone of conviction.

"Without doubt it is a very striking resemblance," I admitted.  "But the
servants of an Embassy are not recruited from the nearest registry
office.  Besides, they would never employ a German here."

At that moment Paul approached and claimed her for the next dance, while
I wandered on alone amid the crowd, my mind full of strange thoughts.

Presently, while watching the dancers, I chanced to glance aside and
recognised a sparse, well-known figure approaching.  It was the Earl of
Warnham.  Attired in plain evening dress of a rather antiquated cut, he
wore no decorations, save the broad blue ribbon across his narrow strip
of shirt-front, the highest honour his Sovereign had bestowed upon him.
I was surprised to find him there, for I had believed him to be at
Osborne in attendance on Her Majesty.

"Ah, Deedes," he exclaimed in a low voice, with a slight smile upon his
colourless, wizened face.  "In the enemy's camp--eh?"

"Yes, my wife wished to come," I explained.

"Of course.  Women like this sort of thing.  I have never met her.  You
must introduce her presently."

"She will esteem it an honour," I said, adding, "She is over there in a
cream dress, dancing with Verblioudovitch."

He glanced in their direction, and started perceptibly.  For some
moments his keen eyes followed her.  Then I noticed that his grey brows
contracted, and his usually expressionless face wore a strange, ominous
look such as I had never before detected upon it.

"Is that your wife?" he asked huskily, turning and eyeing me curiously.

"Yes."

"Was it she who alleged that your friend Ogle was the victim of foul
play?" he inquired with emphasis, in a voice that betrayed dismay.

"It was," I replied.

The Foreign Minister sighed.  As he again turned his eyes upon the pair
at that moment gliding down the room to the strains of the latest
fashionable refrain his brow darkened, and his teeth were firmly set.  A
silence fell between us.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

IN KENSINGTON GARDENS.

On our return home in the early hours, Ella sat before the fire in her
cosy boudoir, her opera-cape still about her shoulders, resting her
tired head upon a cushion, and staring thoughtfully into the dying
embers, while I lounged near, smoking a final cigarette.  Times out of
number I tried to account for the Earl's agitation when he had
encountered her.  It was evident they were not strangers, although when
I had introduced them he treated her with studied courtesy.  There were,
I remembered, many suspicious incidents connected with her as yet
unexplained, nevertheless, from that memorable evening when Dudley and I
had dined at "The Nook" and we had become reconciled, I had never
doubted that she loved me.  Perhaps I had been foolish, I told myself.
I ought to have obtained full explanation of the several circumstances
that had caused me such uneasiness before marriage, yet I had abandoned
all active effort to ascertain the truth, because of the intensity of my
passion.  Her beauty had captivated me; her voice held me spellbound,
and because I loved her I could not bring myself to suspect her.  For a
long time she sat, reflecting gravely upon the events of the evening;
then, shivering slightly, rose and went to her room, leaving me alone to
ponder over her sudden seriousness.

Sometimes a slight shadow of suspicion would flit across my mind, as it
often had on finding her absent, yet when she spoke caressingly to me I
at once found myself laughing at the foolishness of my thoughts, basking
in the sun of her brilliant beauty, heedless and content.  Prior to our
marriage, I had been madly jealous of every slight attention paid to her
by one of my own sex, of whatever age, but now, recognising how
marvellously fair she was, and that wherever she went she became the
centre of attraction, I was no longer angry with any of our guests who
paid court to her.  Beck dined with us frequently, always gay and
amusing, while once or twice Verblioudovitch had also accepted our
invitation, and treated Ella with the courtliness of the polished
diplomatist.  I did not invite the latter often, because of her
antipathy towards him.  When, after his first visit, I had asked her
what she thought of him, she had replied,--

"There is something about him I don't like, dearest.  I cannot explain
what it is.  Perhaps it is his excessive politeness; or it may be his
profuse flattery that bores me; nevertheless, I seem to have a feeling
that I ought to avoid him."

"He's one of the best of fellows, darling," I said, laughing at her
misgivings.  "In my bachelor days we were very close friends."

"I don't like him," she answered frankly.  "I hate all Russians."

"I thought you said once you would like to go to Russia?"

"Yes, I am anxious to see the country, but the Russians I have met I
have always detested," she said, adding, with seriousness, "Now that I
am your wife I may speak plainly, may I not?"

"Of course, darling."

"Then, in your own interests, promise me to avoid Paul Verblioudovitch
as much as possible."

"Why?"  I asked, surprised.

"Because--well," she answered in hesitation; "because I have some
curious, inexplicable feeling that he is not your friend."

Then it occurred to me that they had been sitting together that evening
in a cosy-corner in the drawing-room, deep in conversation, and it might
be that Paul had uttered some compliments meant to be polite, but which
she had misconstrued into flirtation.  In that case, it was only natural
that, loving me so deeply as she did, she should warn me that Paul was
not my friend.

"In what way do you suspect him of being my enemy?"  I inquired.

"He is untrustworthy," she replied, an answer that tended to confirm my
supposition.  On several other occasions I laughed at her fears, but she
always made the same reply, that she believed he was not
straightforward, and even went so far as to ask me not to invite him to
our house in future.  This caused me some little annoyance, for of all
men Paul Verblioudovitch was one of my most valued friends; and,
further, while she had conceived a violent dislike towards him, she
nevertheless allowed herself to be flattered by the man of whom I had
once been madly jealous--Andrew Beck.

Thus the early days of our married life proceeded, blissful and full of
love, but with one tiny cloud of mystery that, although growing no
larger, still cast its ominous shadow ever between us.  Sometimes when
alone I pondered deeply, wondering whether my confidence had after all
been ill-placed, puzzled over one or two incidents such as I have
already described.  Trifling as they were in themselves, they
nevertheless caused me much uneasiness, yet when Ella entered, bright
and radiant, greeting me with an affectionate caress, I could not doubt
her.  I knew that, however suspicious her actions might appear in my
eyes, she loved me honestly, with a passion as fierce and uncontrollable
as my own.

Meanwhile Renouf, who explained his absence on the night of the Embassy
ball to Ella's complete satisfaction, still continued to remain in
service at Pont Street, and each time we dined there he hovered about us
noiselessly and ever watchful, like a spirit of evil.  When our eyes
met, I saw in his a cold glance of contemptuous triumph, for he had
already seen that I feared to denounce him for Paul's sake, and he was
pursuing his mysterious investigations, whatever they were, without let
or hindrance.  Mrs Laing, sighing as stout ladies will, was always loud
in his praise, declaring him to be the most steady and attentive servant
that had ever been in her service, while Ella expressed a wish that we
could meet with a man possessed of similar virtues.  A dozen times I
longed to take my wife and her mother into my confidence, but dared not,
for the silence imposed upon me was absolutely imperative.

One day, early in January, I had received a message from Lord Warnham to
call at his house in Berkeley Square, but when I arrived found a note
stating that he had been compelled unexpectedly to go down to Lord
Maybury's seat in Hertfordshire to consult him.  Therefore I left, and
it being a cold but invigorating afternoon I resolved to walk home.
Proceeding along Piccadilly and Knightsbridge, I skirted the Park, and
entering Kensington Gardens by the Alexandra Gate, strolled towards
Kensington in the full enjoyment of a cigar.  Ella had, I knew, gone to
Pont Street, her mother being rather unwell, therefore I walked
leisurely beneath the leafless, smoke-blackened trees.  The short,
gloomy day was now fast drawing to a close, and, with the falling gloom,
a chill wind had sprung up, whistling mournfully through the bare
branches, causing me to turn up my coat-collar and draw on my gloves.  I
fancied myself alone, for at four o'clock in winter the place is dismal
and deserted.  Having passed Queen's Gate, I was approaching the Broad
Walk, when I was attracted by two figures strolling slowly together in
front of me, a man and a woman.  At first I took no heed, and would in a
few moments have overtaken them, when it occurred to me that the
silhouette of the woman was familiar even in the dusk.  Again I looked,
and noticed that she was fashionably dressed in a dark-brown tailor-made
gown, a sealskin cape and close-fitting hat.  Next second I realised the
amazing truth.

The woman walking before me was Ella.

Her companion, a tall, broad-shouldered young man, wore a long drab
overcoat of distinctly "horsey" cut, a silk hat of the latest shape, and
displayed a good deal of shirt cuff.  He was evidently a fop, and his
whole exterior, from his varnished boots to the velvet cuffs of his
overcoat, pronounced him to be a cad.  Leisurely he strode by her side,
smoking a cigarette, and earnest in conversation, now and then
emphasising his words by striking the palm of one gloved hand with his
fist.

Once, as I dogged their footsteps, my teeth clenched in fierce anger, I
heard her give vent to a rippling peal of laughter that echoed among the
black, gaunt tree trunks.  I knew by that laugh she was tantalising him.
My first impulse was to rush up to them and demand an explanation, but
my second thought had been to hold my anger in control, and ascertain
the true extent of her perfidy.  Was not this the second time I had
detected Ella walking alone with a man in lover-like attitude?

I loved her with all my heart, and had believed implicitly that she
reciprocated my affection, yet here, in this single moment, the cup of
happiness was dashed from my lips.  I knew I had been the victim of base
deception.  While I, fool that I had been, had fondly imagined that she
loved me; she had abandoned all self-respect and allowed herself to walk
in a public garden with a chance-met acquaintance.  Sonia's ominous
words recurred to me, and I saw how I had been tricked and betrayed.
The pretty refugee was right, notwithstanding the denunciations of the
diplomatist and the spy, both of whom had some motive in discrediting
her statements.

With eager eyes and heavy heart I followed the pair cautiously, fearing
each moment lest either should turn and detect my presence.  Apparently
they were too deeply engrossed in each other's talk, which, although
carried on in a tone so low that I could catch no single word, seemed
scarcely of an amatory nature, judging from the man's gestures.  To me
it appeared rather as if he were urging her to do something from which
she shrank.  Once, while he spoke, she stopped short and stretched out
both hands towards him in an attitude of supplication.  But he did not
heed her, for, giving vent to a low laugh, he continued, emphasising his
words as before.  Then, clenching her hands, she stamped her foot in
anger, and tossing her head in contempt, walked forward again, heedless
of her companion's threatening attitude.

From that moment both grew calmer, for the man, uttering words of
forgiveness, snatched up her hand and imprinted a kiss upon it.  For a
brief second she allowed her hand to linger in his grasp, then withdrew
it gently, but firmly, regarding him with earnestness the while.  This
action aroused my anger to a fierce, murderous hatred.  With difficulty
I managed to preserve an outward calm, because, in my state of mind, I
felt compelled to watch and wait.  Yet, if I had had a weapon ready to
my hand at that moment, I verily believe that I must have thrown myself
upon this arrogant cad, and mercilessly killed him.

The manner in which his hat was set upon his head, slightly askew, in
the manner of the London "'Arry," and his over-burdening mannerism, were
in themselves sufficient to show the type of lover my wife cultivated.
As I stepped softly behind them in the gloom, I told myself that she
must leave my house that night, or I should.  I felt in my throat a
choking sensation, for I had loved her so fervently that this discovery
of her falseness had utterly unnerved me, and even in those moments of
fierce anger and hatred I confess that tears welled in my eyes.  Ella
was the only woman I had ever loved, yet she who had taken her marriage
vows only a few short months before had already discarded me for this
overdressed idiot, who would be termed in vulgar parlance a "bounder."

Perhaps he did not know her to be married.  This thought took possession
of me.  When their quarrel ended it became manifest that Ella herself
was endeavouring to fascinate and hold him, just as she had charmed me,
by the softness of her speech, her exquisite grace, and her wonderful
beauty.  She spoke quietly, with her dainty finger-tips laid lightly
upon his arm, while he listened, gazing earnestly into her face,
enchanted.

To-night, I told myself, the bonds uniting me to Ella should be for ever
severed.  I remembered the many occasions when she had been absent,
visiting imaginary friends; I recollected the evening she brought home
the violets and preserved them carefully in water until they smelt so
faint that she was compelled to throw them away; I had not forgotten the
fact that blades of grass did not grow in the squalid, overcrowded
streets of modern Camberwell.  I glanced around at the grass on every
side.  Perhaps she frequented that place, and took clandestine walks
daily with her lover beneath those leafless trees.  The thought provoked
my bitter hatred, and I know not how I refrained from facing the pair.
I managed, however, to hold myself back, watching them exchange a tender
farewell at the gate that led into Kensington High Street, next the
Palace Hotel, and while the man raised his hat politely and, turning,
walked away in the direction of Knightsbridge, Ella, her face radiant
and happy, bowed and set out homeward in the opposite direction.

Beneath the lamp in the gateway I had, in those brief seconds, obtained
a glimpse of his face.  It was that of a young man of about
two-and-twenty, with strongly marked features, fair-haired, and of quite
a different type than I had conjectured.  The features were rather
refined, by no means those of a cad, but rather those of a well-bred
young idler, who affected the dress and manners of that class of youths
who frequent the Cafe Monico on Sunday evenings, the slaves of the
counter.

Once he glanced back to Ella, but she did not turn; then he went on and
was lost in the darkness, while I followed my wife's neat figure through
the bustling throng of foot-passengers.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

TO ERR IS HUMAN.

Instead of keeping behind her straight home, I turned from the main
road, and with my mind full of gloomy thoughts, wandered about the dark,
quiet thoroughfares in the neighbourhood of Campden Hill until, having
walked for over an hour undecided how to act, I awoke to a consciousness
that I was before my own house.

When I entered I opened a telegram lying on the hall table, and found it
was from Lord Warnham, stating that he was leaving the Premier's
suddenly, and asking me to call at Berkeley Square at six.  It was then
a quarter to six, and I saw that even by cab I must be ten minutes late
for the appointment.

"Has my wife returned, Juckes?"  I asked my faithful man, who stood
ready to relieve me of hat and coat.

"Yes, sir.  She returned an hour ago, and is now in the drawing-room."

My first impulse was to return to Berkeley Square without seeing her,
but unable longer to bear the suspense, I allowed Juckes to take my
things, and entered the room, where she awaited me.

"Ah!  Geoffrey!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet with an expression
of joy, and coming forward to meet me.  "I expected you home long ago,
dearest."  And she raised her face for the habitual kiss.

"Oh," I said coldly, placing her away from me without caressing her.
"Have you been home long?"

"A long, long time," she answered, regarding my coldness with unfeigned
surprise.

"Where have you been to-day?"  I inquired, rather sharply, taking up a
position on the hearthrug, with my back to the bright wood fire.

"This morning I went to Mr Praga's studio in Hornton Street, and gave
him a sitting.  He is painting my portrait for the Academy, you know."

"Yes," I answered.  "He told me so at the club the other day.  Where
else have you been?"

"Why are you so anxious to have a complete record of my doings?" she
asked, pouting.  "You seem absurdly suspicious."

I smiled bitterly.  Since her return she had exchanged her tailor-made
gown for a handsome dinner-dress, and wore as her only ornament a string
of pearls, my wedding gift.  She stood gazing at me with her dark blue
eyes wide-open, and brows arched in well-feigned reproach.

"You did not return to lunch," I said quietly.

"No, I went to Pont Street," she answered.  "Mother was so fearfully
upset."

"Why?"

"Last night she detected Helmholtz in the act of opening a letter he had
taken from the postman.  It contained a cheque, and she was compelled to
discharge him at a moment's notice."

"I understood he was quite a model servant," I said, in genuine surprise
at this latest development.  To me it was astounding that a shrewd
officer like Renouf should have thus allowed himself to be caught
napping.

"Mother thought most highly of him," she went on.  "But it now appears
that for the past few weeks she has had suspicions that her letters were
being tampered with, for two cheques sent by tenants for rent have been
stolen."

"I never thought very much of him," I said.

"Neither did I," she declared.  "He had such a silent, cunning way, and
moved so softly, that dozens of times when I have turned suddenly I have
been quite startled to find him standing close to me.  I'm glad mother
has got rid of him.  She packed him off bag and baggage."

"Did he protest his innocence?"

"No.  He treated her with cool indifference, placed his things in his
portmanteau leisurely, hailed a cab, and went off without asking for his
wages."

I was silent.  The reason Renouf should descend to steal cheques was
inexplicable.  One thing, however, appeared clear, namely, that he had
taken an unusual interest in the nature of Mrs Laing's correspondence.
To me it was a matter for congratulation that as he had been detected by
his mistress and discharged, he could not cast upon me the blame for his
betrayal.

"What did you do after lunch?"  I at last inquired, returning to my
charge.

"I went shopping," she replied, smiling.

"With whom?"

"Alone."

"Were you alone the whole time?"  I inquired, regarding her intently.

Her lips quivered slightly and her glance wavered.  "Yes," she answered,
"I did not meet anyone I knew."

"That is a lie, Ella!"  I cried.

"It is not," she stammered, pale and agitated.  "I have told you the
truth."

"To prevaricate is utterly useless," I said angrily.  "I followed you
through Kensington Gardens, where you were walking with your lover.
I--"

"My lover?" she cried hoarsely, in dismay.  "He--he is not my lover.  I
had never seen him before!"

"Then by your own admission you have abandoned all respect for me and
yourself.  You are addicted to strolling alone with any idiot who
flatters you."

"I swear I do not," she retorted.  "You misjudge me entirely."  And she
placed her trembling hand upon my arm.

But I shook it off wrathfully, saying, "I have discovered the truth,
alas! too late.  While making pretence to love me you prefer the society
of other men.  I was a blind fool, or I should have discovered the fact,
plain to everybody else, that Ogle was your lover, and that you mourned
for him when he met the fate he so justly deserved."

"He never uttered one word of love to me, Geoffrey," she protested.
"How can you make such horrible charges against me when I love you so
dearly," she cried, bursting into a torrent of tears.

"Because!"  I said, with emphasis, "because I have myself followed you
this evening.  Surely Kensington Gardens is not the spot where a wife
should take recreation, unless clandestinely, as you have done!  No,
this is not the first occasion you have lied to me, Ella; but it shall
be the last."

"The last!" she gasped, glancing up at me.  "What do you mean?"

"I mean that I can have no further confidence in you, and that we are
better apart."

"You don't intend to leave me.  Surely you would never be so cruel,
Geoffrey.  It would kill me."

"I have loved you, Ella," I said hoarsely, after a pause, brief and full
of suspense.  "No man could have loved a woman with a passion more
tender than I have done, but now that I have discovered how basely I
have been deceived, my affection has turned to hatred."

"You hate me!" she wailed.  "Ah, no, you cannot--you shall not," she
cried, as, rushing towards me, she threw both arms around my neck, and,
notwithstanding my efforts to avert her, pressed her tear-stained face
to mine.

Roughly I unclasped her arms and cast her from me, saying,--

"I have resolved.  Nothing will cause me to reconsider my decision.  We
must part."

"It is not like you, Geoffrey, to be cruel to a woman," she said
reproachfully, standing before me.  "I admit I have acted foolishly, but
that man you saw was not my lover.  I care for no one except your own
dear self."

"Terms of endearment are unnecessary," I answered impatiently, turning
from her.  "Such expressions from one who has so grossly deceived me are
absolutely nauseating.  I have striven for your social advancement and
have loved you dearly, but from this moment you are my wife only in
name."

She buried her face in her hands and was seized by a fit of hysterical
sobbing.  All her self-control had vanished at the instant she realised
that I know the truth, and she now stood before me bent and penitent.

"Forgive me," she whispered earnestly.  "Forgive me, Geoffrey."

"No," I answered, with firmness.  "I cannot trust you."

"Overlook this incident, and I will never again give you cause for
jealousy," she exclaimed.  "I will do anything you ask, only have
patience with me."

"I have already had patience," I answered.  "Yet, deceived as I am
daily, we can live together no longer."

"But I love you," she declared, with fierce earnestness, fixing her
fathomless eyes upon me.  "If I lose you I shall kill myself."

"It is your own fault entirely," I said.  "You have chosen to act in
this manner, and whatever are the consequences they are of your own
seeking.  I suppose you will tell me next that this man who was with you
compelled you to meet him."

"That is the absolute truth," she faltered.

"Ah, always the same lame tale," I observed in disgust.  "I have not
forgotten that night at `The Nook' when I watched you walking with Beck.
No, Ella.  There is some strange mystery about it all that I don't
like.  You pretend to love me; but you have some ulterior motive."

"There is a mystery, it is true," she admitted, her eyes dimmed with
tears.  "A mystery so strange and startling that when you know the truth
you will stand aghast and dumbfounded.  But with its elucidation you
will have knowledge of how I have suffered and striven for your sake;
therefore I can only pray that the revelations that must accrue may be
hastened, for, although to-day you regard me as base and deceitful, you
will then learn how much one woman has endured and sacrificed because
she loved you."

"Then we must part until this mystery is cleared up," I said calmly, my
heart full of grief.  "You refuse to take me, your husband, into your
confidence, therefore I can place no further reliance in your word."

"Think," she cried, clutching my arms convulsively.  "Why should the
happiness of both of us be wrecked by a mere misunderstanding?"

"A misunderstanding!"  I echoed.  "It is assuredly more than that."

"No," she answered, endeavouring to stifle her sobs.  "You misunderstand
me, believing me false to you, whereas I am acting solely in our mutual
interests."

"To walk alone with a stranger is surely not acting in your husband's
interests," I observed bitterly.

"Ah, you are mistaken," she said quickly.  "When all is explained you
will regret the cruel words you have uttered this evening."

"Have I, then, no cause to object to your acquaintance with this man?"
I inquired, looking sharply at her.

"None whatever.  He is neither my lover nor my friend."

"What is his name?"

"I do not know.  He did not tell me," she replied.

"Was this the only occasion you had met?"

"It was."

"He spoke to you casually in the street, I suppose?"

"No, we met by appointment at Victoria Station," she answered quite
frankly.

"By appointment!  Then you knew him!"

"No, our meeting was arranged by a third person.  It was by no means of
an amatory character, I assure you."

"What was its object?"  I asked.

Slowly she shook her head.  "I cannot tell you without relating to you
facts which I dare not yet divulge."

"Ah! as I thought," I cried in anger.  "You refuse always to explain.
As each week passes the mystery surrounding you increases."

"Unfortunately I cannot prevent it," she answered in a low, earnest
tone.  "Before we married I told you plainly that I intended to seek the
truth of the conspiracy against Dudley's life, and you did not object."

"Why not leave that wretched affair to the police and secure our own
happiness?"  I urged.

"Because the police are powerless.  They can have no clue."

"Is it then absolutely necessary that you should attain this end?"  I
inquired dubiously.  "Are you ready to sacrifice your own home and
husband in order to ascertain the truth regarding a crime?"

"Yes, it is absolutely imperative," she replied emphatically.  "Before
perfect happiness can be ours we must both be aware of the causes which
led to Dudley's sudden death.  Towards that end I am striving, and
knowing what I do, I am regardless of your suspicions and your cruel
words.  If we part--well, it will be you who one day will be filled with
bitter regret; and as for me, I shall not pause in my merciless quest."

Often she had told me that to ascertain the true cause of Dudley's death
was, next to her duty as my wife, her main object in life, and these
words, uttered with an earnestness that was genuine, bore out her most
frequent declarations.  Glancing at the facts as a whole, it was not
surprising that I should have suspected Dudley of having been her lover,
whose death she intended to avenge.

In silence and hesitation I paced the room that she had furnished with
such exquisite taste.  A dozen times she asked forgiveness, but no word
passed my lips.  She stood motionless, her head bent in submission, her
hands clasped before her, awaiting my decision.

Her pale, tear-stained face betrayed signs of a terrible, breathless
suspense, she fearing that I intended to cast her off, while I could not
bring myself to any firm belief that her declarations of affection were
genuine.  Between us there yawned a gulf of darkness and mystery which
hourly grew wider and more impassable.

"Tell me that you'll still be patient and wait," she implored at last.
"Surely you can see how intensely I love you and how utterly aimless
will be my life if we part."

"This mystery is, I confess, Ella, driving me to distraction," I said,
halting at last before her.  "Cannot you confide in me?  I will preserve
silence, I promise."

"No, no," she gasped in fear.  "I dare not."

Her attitude was one of deep dejection, yet I could not fail to notice,
even at this moment of her abject despair, how beautiful she was.  But a
look of unutterable terror was in her deep blue eyes, and upon her
handsome features was an expression as though, dreading exposure, she
were haunted by some terrible ghost of the past.

"You told me this once before," I said gravely, "and I trusted you.
To-day I have discovered my confidence ill-placed."

"Trust me once again," she cried hoarsely.  "Only once, and I will show
you ere long that your suspicions are utterly without foundation."

I took another turn up and down the drawing-room, my hands clasped
behind my back, my gaze fixed upon the carpet.  I was still undecided.

With a sudden impulse she rushed forward, and flinging her warm arms
about my neck, kissed me, next second bursting into tears and burying
her face upon my shoulder.  My hand unconsciously stroked her hair, and,
bending, I pressed my lips upon her soft cheek.

Then she knew that I had forgiven, and holding back her sobs with
difficulty, raised her face, and kissing me passionately, thanked me in
a low, broken voice, assuring me that I should never regret the step I
had taken.

During half-an-hour we remained together, she full of love and
confidence, I admiring and hopeful.  I was glad I had not acted rashly,
nor left her as I had intended, and as we went in to dinner arm in arm,
we laughed together, joyous in each other's love.

After we had eaten, I smoked a cigarette and lingered as long as
possible, happy with my well-beloved; then kissing her fondly, I was
compelled to take a hansom to Berkeley Square, promising her to return
at the earliest possible moment, and expressing confidence that our love
would last always.

The Earl, grumbling at my tardy arrival, was busy in his library with a
number of important dispatches relating to our affairs in the East.
When he had expressed displeasure that I had not been waiting to receive
him, he added,--

"But there, I suppose now you are married, Deedes, your wife is
exacting; they always are.  She likes you to dine with her, eh?"

"Yes," I admitted, smiling.  "I did dine at home."

"Ah, I thought so," snapped the shrewd old Minister.  "A good dinner and
your wife's smiles were of more consequence to you than England's
prestige with the Sultan,--oh?"

I made no answer to this sarcasm, but began busying myself with the
correspondence, packing it away in the dispatch-bag and sealing it for
delivery to Hammerton, the messenger, who was waiting in an adjoining
room ready to take it to Constantinople.

Not until eleven o'clock was I able to get away from Berkeley Square,
and leaving the aged statesman alone, deeply immersed in the puzzling
applications for advice of all sorts from Her Majesty's representatives
at the various Courts of Europe, I drove back to Phillimore Gardens.

On arrival home my first question of Juckes was whether Ella was in the
drawing-room.

"No, sir.  Madame is out, sir."

"Out!  When did she go out?"

"About an hour after you had left, sir," replied the man.  "She has gone
into the country, I believe."

"Into the country?  What makes you think so?"

"Because she put on her travelling dress, and took two trunks with her,"
he answered.  "Roberts, her maid, says she packed the boxes herself
three days ago."

"Did she say where she was going?"  I inquired breathlessly.

"No, sir.  She left no message with anyone."

Entering the drawing-room with my overcoat still on, I noticed, lying
upon her little rosewood escritoire, a note addressed to me.

Eagerly I took it up, tore it open, and read its contents.  There were
only a few hurriedly-scrawled words--a brief and formal farewell.

"You cannot trust me," she wrote, "therefore we are best apart.  Do not
attempt to follow me, for you cannot find me.  Do not think ill of me,
for even if I have wronged and deceived you, I have, nevertheless, been
your friend."  It commenced formally, without any endearing term, and
concluded abruptly with the two words, "Your Wife."

For a few moments I stood with it in my hand, staring at it in blank
amazement.  Then it occurred to me that in that very escritoire she kept
all her correspondence, and it was more than probable that I might learn
the truth from some of the letters therein contained.

I endeavoured to open it, but it was, as usual, locked.  She had taken
the key.  In my sudden excitement I called to Juckes to bring a hammer,
and with a few sharp blows broke open the sloping, leather-covered top,
finding a number of letters addressed in unfamiliar handwriting.

One, larger than the rest, crumpled, dirty and worn, as if it had
reposed in someone's pocket for a long period, I took out, and eagerly
opened beneath the soft-shaded lamp.

"My God!"  I cried aloud, scarcely able to believe my own eyes, when
next instant I realised the terrible truth.  "My God!  I had never
suspected this!"

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

A TERRIBLE TRUTH.

Ella's cold, formal adieu stunned me.  I stood open-mouthed, petrified.
We had parted on the best of terms, she kissing me affectionately, and
with wifely solicitude bidding me hasten back; yet in my absence she had
departed, evidently carrying out some pre-arranged plan.  Her maid,
Roberts, had noticed her packing her trunks three days before, therefore
it was certain that she meant to desert me as soon as opportunity
offered.

Unaccountable and astounding as was her sudden flight, the discovery I
had made among the papers in her escritoire was even more amazing.  It
held me stupefied and aghast.

The paper I held in my hand was the original of the secret convention
between England and Germany; the document which had been stolen from me,
transmitted by telegraph to the Russian Foreign Office, and had nearly
caused a terrible and disastrous European war.

When I took it from among the letters and saw its neat, formal writing
and sprawly signatures, I gazed upon it in blank amazement, unable at
first to realise the startling truth.  There was, however, no room for
doubt.  It was the actual document which had been so ingeniously
purloined, for it reposed in the escritoire still in its official
envelope.  The great black seal affixed by the Earl of Warnham had been
broken, and both envelope and document had the appearance of having at
some time or other been folded small, besides being sadly crumpled.

Beneath the shaded light I examined the envelope carefully, and detected
a faint carmine streak upon it; then, placing it to my nostrils, found
that it exuded a stale odour of sampaguita.  In an instant the truth was
plain.  The pink discolouration had been caused by rouge; the scent was
Ella's favourite perfume, which she always procured from Paris.  No
doubt the document had been carried for a considerable period in her
pocket for safety, and become crumpled, as papers will if carried in a
woman's dress.  While the envelope might easily have absorbed the odour
of that unmistakable perfume from her handkerchief, the streak of rouge
puzzled me, for I had never suspected her of an artificial complexion,
nor had I ever seen the hare's foot and carmine among her toilet
articles.

"Tell Roberts I wish to speak to her," I said, turning to Juckes, who
had stood by in silence, puzzled at my strange action of breaking the
top of the escritoire.

He obeyed, and in a few moments the neat, dark-eyed maid entered.

"Roberts," I exclaimed, "I want you to tell me something.  Does my wife
use any carmine to give artificial colour to her cheeks?"

"Oh, no, sir," the girl assured me.  "Madame is very averse to the use
of such things.  Once or twice, when she has been going out at night,
and looked unusually pale, I have suggested a little additional colour,
but she has always refused."

"Did she have any rouge or anything of that sort in her possession?"  I
inquired.

"No, sir, I am quite certain she hadn't."

"Why are you so confident?"

"Because only the other day, when I was ill with a sick headache, madame
urged me to use some colour, as my face was so pale.  Visitors were
coming, she said, and she didn't want me to look like a ghost.  I told
her that I had no carmine, and she remarked that she had none, therefore
nothing could be done."

"When did my wife pack those two trunks she took with her this evening?"

"Last Monday, sir," the girl answered, slowly twisting her befrilled
apron in her hands.  "She received a note by boy-messenger, and
immediately set about packing the boxes."

"Did she tell you anything?"  I asked, adding confidentially, "I have
reason to believe that my wife has left us, therefore anything you tell
me may assist me in tracing her."

The girl glanced at me in genuine surprise.

"Do you mean, sir, that madame has--has run away?" she gasped.

"No--well, not exactly," I stammered.  "But did she tell you anything?"

With eyes downcast the girl paused in hesitation, answering at last,
"She didn't actually tell me anything."

"But what do you know about her intentions?"

"Nothing," she answered.  Then, after a pause, she added, "Well, to tell
you the truth, sir, I had suspicions."

"Of what?  Do not fear to speak because I am her husband," I said
reassuringly.  "I may as well know the worst at once."

"She used frequently to receive notes from a gentleman.  They were
brought by a commissionaire or by a man-servant, who waited for the
answer.  When they came I always knew that on the following day she
would be absent many hours."

"You believe that she met this mysterious individual--eh?"  I asked
huskily.

"Yes, for she always told me never to admit to you that she had been
long absent.  Therefore I had suspicion that she met somebody
clandestinely."

"What was his name?"

"I have never been able to ascertain.  Once I glanced at a note lying on
madame's dressing-table.  It merely announced the writer's intention to
attend Lady Pearson's `at home,' and was signed `X.'"

"Well," I said hoarsely, after a long silence.  "What else?"

"Nothing," she replied.  "That is all I know, sir."

"Has my wife taken her jewels?"  I inquired.

"No.  She has left her jewel-case unlocked, but everything is there.
She has even left behind her wedding-ring."

"Her wedding-ring!"  I echoed, astounded and dismayed.  "Then she has
discarded me completely."

"Unfortunately it appears so, sir," the girl observed gravely.

"Very well, Roberts," I said in a broken voice.  "Thank you.  You may
go."

The girl glanced at me for an instant, with a sad, pitying look, then
turned and left, closing the door noiselessly behind her.

Alone, I sank into the chair utterly broken down, still holding in my
nervous, trembling fingers the secret document that secured the peace
and welfare of the two most powerful nations on earth.  I had at last
discovered the hideous truth.  Ella, the woman whose grace and beauty
had held me enmeshed, and whom I had loved with an intensity of passion
that was all-consuming, was, after all, base and worthless.  Although
making a hollow pretence to love me, she had cast me aside for this
mysterious man who signed himself with an initial, and who met her
secretly almost daily.  I had been a blind, devoted idiot, I knew, but
until I had watched her in Kensington Gardens I had never suspected her
of infamy.  It seemed, however, that she had no sense of shame, and
cared nought for my dishonour or despair.  Her perfidy was now revealed
in all its painful reality.  Ella, whom I had always regarded as pure,
honest and trusting, was a woman of tarnished repute.  The fact that she
had the secret convention in her possession was, in itself, sufficient
evidence that the mystery surrounding her was deep, and of no ordinary
character.  Sonia had warned me that she was my enemy, and this fact was
now indeed vividly apparent.

How she had become possessed of the stolen treaty was inexplicable.
Full well she knew all the terrible anxiety its loss had caused me, and
the sensation that its revelation had created throughout Europe.  Times
without number I had mentioned to her how anxious my chief was to
recover the original, so that our enterprising friends in St Petersburg
could have no tangible proof that it had actually existed, yet she had
given no sign that she knew anything of it, much less that it actually
reposed in my own drawing-room.  I did not fail, in those moments of my
despair, to recollect that she had been on the most intimate terms with
Dudley Ogle, the man suspected to have been in the service of the Tzar's
Government, and as I sat in wonderment it became gradually impressed
upon me that through those many months I had been basely tricked, and
that Ella herself, charming and ingenuous as she seemed, was actually a
secret agent of the enemies of England.

Several facts that I recollected combined to produce this startling
belief.  Because of my confidential position as secretary to the Earl of
Warnham, it was apparent that Ella, with the assistance of my whilom
friend Dudley and the encouragement of her mother, had conspired to hold
me beneath her spell.  She had become my wife, not because she had ever
loved me, but because she could feign affection or hatred with equal
impunity, and had some ulterior motive in obtaining my confidence.  Her
firm resolve to ascertain the true facts regarding Dudley's mysterious
end showed plainly that if they were not lovers they had acted in
complete accord, and what was more likely than that he, having stolen
the secret convention, had on that memorable night at "The Nook" handed
it to her, the instigator of the ingenious theft.  Yet an hour or so
later he died from some cause that neither doctors nor police had been
able to determine.

To her, the tragic occurrence was a mystery, as to all, and her refusal
to render me any explanation of her suspicious actions was, I now saw,
quite natural.  Held beneath the iron thraldom of her masters in St
Petersburg, she dared not utter one word; hence I had remained in the
outer darkness of doubt and ignorance.

However it might be, one thing was certain.  She had been unexpectedly
parted from me, either by choice or compulsion.  Perhaps it was that to
pose as my wife was no longer necessary; yet if she were actually a spy,
was it not curious that in departing she should overlook this document,
of which the Ministry at St Petersburg were so anxious to possess
themselves.

Again, as I sat alone before the cheerless grate, I reflected that if
she were in the pay of Russia, surely Monsieur Grodekoff, the
Ambassador, would have been acquainted with her.  Besides, what reason
could Renouf have had in making such careful inquiries, or why did Paul
Verblioudovitch discredit the truths uttered by Sonia and urge me to
marry the woman I loved?  Nevertheless if, as I supposed, my position in
the Foreign Office had caused me to be the victim of a clever and
deeply-conceived conspiracy, it was scarcely surprising that the Tzar's
representative should disclaim all knowledge of the sweet-faced agent,
or that Paul had praised her and cast obloquy upon Sonia in order that
their plans, whatever they were, should be achieved.  Of the actions of
Renouf, and his strange disregard for detection, I could form no
satisfactory conclusion.  All I knew was that Ella's career had been an
unscrupulous and inglorious one, and that she had cast me aside as soon
as her infamous ends had been attained.

The only person who could elucidate the mystery was Sonia, the pretty
girl who had been denounced by Renouf as a murderess, and who was now in
hiding in far-off Russia, in some out-of-the-world place where I could
never hope to find her.  If she were clever enough to elude the combined
vigilance of the detective force of Europe, as undoubtedly she had done,
there was but little hope that I could ever run her to earth.

The mystery had, by Ella's flight, been increased rather than explained,
for the more I pondered the more deeply-rooted became the conviction
that she had decamped because she had cause to fear some strange
development that would lead to her exposure and shame.

After a time I roused myself, and taking from the broken escritoire the
other letters it contained, five in number, examined them eagerly
beneath the light.

All were in the same hand, a heavy masculine one, written evidently with
a quill.  One by one I read them, finding that they contained
appointments, which fully bore out her maid's suspicions.

"_My dear Ella_," one ran, "_to-morrow I shall be on the departure
platform at King's Cross Station at 11:30.  I have good news for you.
Come.--X_."

Another regretted the writer's inability to keep an appointment, as he
had been called unexpectedly to Paris, and was compelled to leave by the
night mail from Charing Cross.  He, however, promised to return in three
days, and gave her the Grand Hotel as his address if she found it
necessary to telegraph.

Strangely enough, the letters contained no endearing terms either at
their commencement or conclusion.  Formal and brief, they all related to
appointments at various places in London where two persons might meet
unnoticed by the crowd, and all were signed by the single mysterious
initial.  I stood with them in my hand for a long time, puzzled and
hesitating, then placing them carefully in my pocket, together with the
secret document I had so unexpectedly unearthed, I crammed on my hat and
hastily drove to Pont Street.

The house was in darkness, save for a light in the basement, and in
answer to my summons, after a lapse of some minutes a tall, gaunt, woman
in rusty black appeared in the area below.

I was surprised at being thus met by a stranger, but inquired for Mrs
Laing.

"Mrs Laing ain't at 'ome, sir," answered the woman, looking up and
speaking with a strong Cockney twang.

"Not at home?"  I exclaimed, surprised.  "Where is she?"

"She's gone abroad somewheres, but I don't know where," the woman
answered.  "She's sold all her valuables, discharged the servants, and
left me 'ere as 'ouse-keeper."

"When did she go?"  I asked.

"This morning.  I answered an advertisement in the _Chronicle_
yesterday, and entered on my duties 'ere to-day.  Quick, ain't it?"

The rapidity of her engagement I was compelled to admit, but proceeded
to make further inquiry whether Mrs Laing's daughter had been there.

"No, sir.  No one's been 'ere to-day, except a foreign-looking gentleman
who asked if madame had left, and when I said that she had, he went away
quite satisfied."

"What kind of man was he?"

"Tall and thin, with a longish dark beard."

The description did not correspond with anyone of my acquaintance;
therefore, after some further questions regarding Mrs Laing's mysterious
departure, I was compelled to wish the worthy woman good evening.  She
knew nothing of Mrs Laing's movements, not even the name of the terminus
to which she had driven, such pains had Ella's mother taken to conceal
the direction in which she intended to travel.

Some secret undoubtedly existed between mother and daughter; its nature
held me perplexed and bewildered.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.

The early morning was dry, frosty, but starless.  The clock of that
fashionable temple of Hymen, St George's, Hanover Square, was slowly
chiming three as I alighted from a cab at the corner of Mount Street,
and walking along Berkeley Square, ascended the steps of the Earl of
Warnham's great mansion, and rang its ponderous bell.  The place was
severe and gloomy enough by day, but in the silence and darkness of the
night its exterior presented a forbidding, almost ghostly appearance.
It was an unusual hour for a call, but, knowing that a porter was on
duty always, and that dispatches frequently arrived during the night, I
had no hesitation in seeking an interview.

In a few moments there was a grating sound of bolts drawn back, a
clanking of chains, and the heavy door was slowly opened by the sleepy
man, who, with a word of recognition, at once admitted me.  Walking
across the great square hall; warmed by a huge, roaring fire, I passed
down the passage to the Earl's study and rapped at the door, receiving
an impatient permission to enter.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs was sitting at his table where I had
left him, with an empty tea-cup at his side, resting his pale, weary
brow upon his hand and writing dispatches rapidly with his scratchy
quill.  His fire was nearly out, the pair of candles, in their heavy,
old-fashioned silver candlesticks that stood upon his writing-table, had
burned down almost to their sockets, and the strong smell of burnt paper
that pervaded the book-lined den, showed that, with his innate
cautiousness, he had destroyed documents that he did not desire should
be seen by other eyes.

The world-renowned statesman raised his head as I entered, gave vent to
a low grunt of dissatisfaction, and continued writing at topmost speed.
I saw I was unwelcome, but, well acquainted with his mannerisms and
eccentricities, walked to the fire, added more fuel, and waited in
patience until he had finished.

"Well," he snarled, casting down his pen impatiently, and turning upon
me at last.  "I thought you, of all men, were aware that I do not desire
interruption when at work."

"I should not have ventured to come at this hour," I said, "were it not
that the news I bring is of extreme importance."

He sighed, as was his habit when expecting further complications.

"What is its nature?" he asked coldly, leaning back in his chair.
"Abandon preliminaries, please, and come to the point.  What is it?"

"I have recovered the original of our secret convention with Germany," I
answered in as quiet a tone as I could assume.

"You have!" he cried excitedly, starting up.  "You are quite right to
seek me at once--quite right.  Where did you obtain it?" he inquired.

Slowly I drew forth the precious document from my pocket, and handed it
to him, still in the envelope that bore my own mark, with the remains of
his broken seal.  He took it eagerly and bent to the candles to examine
it more closely.  A few seconds sufficed to reassure him that the
document was the genuine one.

"It is fortunate that this has returned into our possession," he
observed, his thin blue lips quivering slightly.  "I feared that it had
already passed beyond our reach, and that one day or other in the near
future our policy must be narrowed by the knowledge that it was
preserved in the archives of the Foreign Office at St Petersburg, and
could be used as a pretence for a declaration of war by Russia and
France.  Now, however, that the original is again in our possession we
can disclaim all copies, and give assurances that no secret
understanding exists between us and Berlin.  The only fact that at
present lends colour to the assertion of the boulevard journals is the
ill-timed bestowal of the Iron Cross upon Count Landsfeldt.  Such an
action was characteristic of their impetuous Emperor."  Then, after a
second's reflection, he added, "Just sit down, Deedes, and write to Sir
Philip Emden at Berlin, asking him to obtain audience immediately of the
Kaiser, point out the harmful impression this decoration has occasioned,
and get His Majesty to exhibit his marked displeasure towards Landsfeldt
in some form or other.  That will remove any suspicion that the
convention is actually an accomplished fact.  Besides, you may hint also
that it may be well for the relations between the Kaiser and Sir Philip
to appear slightly strained, and that this fact should be communicated
indirectly to the Press.  Sit down and write at once: it must be sent
under flying seal."

I obeyed, and commenced writing a formal dispatch while, in answer to
the electric bell rung by his Lordship, the sleepy night-porter
appeared.

"Calvert," exclaimed the Minister, "telephone to the Foreign Office and
say that I want a messenger to call here and proceed to Berlin by the
morning mail."

"Yes, m'lord," answered the man, bowing and closing the door.

While I wrote, the Earl perused the document, the loss of which had
caused the Cabinets of Europe so much apprehension, and taking his
magnifying glass he examined the portions of the seal still remaining.
Then carefully unlocking one of the small private drawers in the top of
the great writing-table, he took therefrom some object, and gazed upon
it long and earnestly.  With a heavy sigh he again replaced it, and
slowly locked the drawer.  When I had finished and placed the
instructions to Sir.  Philip Emden before him, he took up his quill,
corrected my letter, here and there adding an emphatic word or two, and
then appended his signature.  Obtaining one of the bags used for the
transmission of single dispatches, I deposited it therein, sealed it,
and placed upon it one of those labels with a cross drawn upon its face,
the signification of that mark being that it is never to be lost sight
of by the messenger.  There are two kinds of bags sent out and received
by the Foreign Office, one with this cross-marked label, and the other
without it.  The latter are generally larger and less important, and may
be placed with the messenger's luggage.  It is no pleasant life our
messengers lead, liable as they are to be summoned at an hour's notice
to "proceed at once" to anywhere, from Brussels to Teheran.  Armed with
a _laissez-passer_, they are constantly hurrying over the face of Europe
as fast as the fastest expresses can carry them, passing through the
frontier stations freed from the troublesome concomitant of ordinary
travelling--the examination of luggage--known on all the great trunk
lines from Paris to Constantinople and from Rome to St Petersburg,
sometimes bearing epoch-making documents, sometimes a lady's hat of
latest mode, or a parcel of foreign delicacies, but always on the alert,
and generally sleeping on a layer of stiff dispatches and bulky "notes."

At last, having made up the bag, I rose slowly and faced my chief.

"Well," he exclaimed, raising his keen eyes from the document I had
brought him and regarding me with that stony, sphinx-like expression he
assumed when resolved upon cross-questioning, "how did you obtain
possession of this?"

"I found it," I answered.

"Found it?" he growled, with a cynical curl of the lip.  "I suppose you
have some lame story that you picked it up in the street, or something--
eh!" he exclaimed testily.

"No," I replied hoarsely.  "Mine is no lame story, although a wretched
one.  The discovery has unnerved and bewildered me; it--"

"I have no desire to know how its discovery affected you mentally," he
interrupted, with impatient sarcasm.  "I asked where you found it," he
observed coldly.

"I found it in my own house," I answered.

"Then you mean to tell me that it has been in your possession the whole
time.  The thing's impossible," he cried angrily.  "Remember the dummy
palmed off upon me, and the fact that an exact copy was transmitted to
St Petersburg."

"No.  It has not been in my possession," I answered, leaning against my
writing-chair for support.  "I found it among my wife's letters."

"Your wife!" he gasped, agitated.  He had turned ghastly pale at mention
of her name, and, trembling with agitation, swayed forward.

A moment later, however, he recovered his self-possession, clutched at
the corner of his table, and regarding me sharply, asked, "What do you
suspect?"

"I scarce know what to suspect," I answered gravely, striving to remain
calm, but remembering at that instant the curious effect produced upon
the Foreign Minister when he had first seen Ella dancing at the Embassy
ball.  My declaration that I had found this official bond of nations in
her possession had produced a similar disquieting result which puzzled
me.

"But surely she can have had no hand in the affair," he cried.  "She
certainly did not strike me as an adventuress, or an agent of the Tzar's
secret service."

"It is a problem that I cannot solve," I exclaimed slowly, watching the
strange, haggard look upon his usually imperturbable features.  "After
leaving you this evening I went home only to find a letter of farewell
from her, and--"

"She has fled, then!" he exclaimed, with quick suspicion.

"Yes.  Her flight was evidently pre-arranged, and curiously enough her
mother, who lives in Pont Street, has discharged her servants, disposed
of a good deal of her property, and also departed."

"Gone together, no doubt," the Earl observed, frowning reflectively.

"But is it not very strange that she should have left the stolen
convention behind?  Surely if my wife were actually a Russian agent she
would never have been guilty of such indiscretion," I said.

"The mystery is inexplicable, Deedes," he declared, with a heavy look,
half of pain, half of bewilderment.  "Absolutely inexplicable."

This aged man, to whose firmness, clever statesmanship, and calm
foresight England owed her place as foremost among the Powers, was
trembling with an excitement he strove in vain to suppress.  In manner
that surprised me, his cold, cynical face relaxed, and placing his thin,
bony hand upon my shoulder with fatherly tenderness, Her Majesty's most
trusted Minister urged me to confide in him all my suspicions and my
fears.

"You have, I believe, after all, been cruelly wronged, Deedes," he added
in a low, harsh tone.  "I sympathise with you because I myself once felt
the loss of a wife deeply, and I know what feelings must be yours now
that you suspect the woman you have trusted and loved to have been
guilty of base treachery and espionage.  She, or someone in association
with her, has besmirched England's honour, and brought us to the very
verge of a terrible national disaster.  Providentially, this was
averted; by what means we have not yet ascertained, although our
diplomatic agents at the Court of the Tzar are striving day and night to
ascertain; yet the fact remains that we were victimised by some daring
secret agent who sacrificed everything in order to accomplish the
master-stroke of espionage.  I can but re-echo the thanks to Heaven
uttered by my gracious Sovereign when she received the news that war had
been averted; nevertheless it is my duty--nay, it is yours, Deedes, to
strive on without resting, in order that this mystery may be
satisfactorily unravelled."

For a moment we were silent.  Then in a voice that I felt painfully
conscious was broken by grief and emotion, I related to him the whole of
the wretched story of my marriage, my suspicions, the discovery of Ella
in Kensington Gardens, how I had taxed her with flirtation and
frivolity, our peace-making, and her sudden and unexpected flight.

He heard me through to the end with bent head, sighing now and then
sympathetically.  Then he slowly asked,--"Did you ever refer to those
earlier incidents, such as the death of that young man Ogle?  Remember,
whatever you tell me I shall regard as strictly confidential."

"I seldom mentioned it, as she desired me not to do so."

"When you referred to it, what was her attitude?" he inquired, in a
pained tone, the furrows on his high white brow deep and clearly
defined.

"She declared always that he had been murdered, and vowed to detect the
author of the crime."

"Are you, in your own mind, convinced that there was anything really
mysterious regarding her actions; or were they only everyday facts
distorted by jealousy?" he asked gravely.

"There is, I believe, some deep mystery regarding her past," I answered.

He knit his grey, shaggy brows, and started perceptibly.

"Her past!" he echoed.  "Were you aware of any--er--unpleasant fact
prior to marriage?" he inquired quickly.

"Yes.  She promised to explain everything ere long; therefore, loving
her devotedly as I did, I resolved to make her my wife and await in
patience her explanation."

"Love!" he cried cynically.  "She did not love you.  She only married
you, it seems, to accomplish her own base and mysterious designs."
Then, pacing the room from end to end, he added, "The more I reflect,
the more apparent does it become that Ella Laing meant, by becoming your
wife, to accomplish some great coup, but, prevented by some unforeseen
circumstance, she has been compelled to fly, and in her haste overlooked
this incriminating paper."

This, too, was my own opinion, and taking from my pocket the whole of
the letters that were in the escritoire, I placed them before him.

"They are from your wife's mysterious lover," he observed, when a few
moments later he had digested them.  "Who he is there is no evidence to
show.  You suspect him, of course, to be the man she met in Kensington
Gardens?"

I nodded.  A sigh escaped me.

"Well," he went on.  "Leave them with me.  A calligraphic expert may
possibly find some clue to the identity of their writer."

Afterwards, he took up the broken envelope that had contained the
treaty, carefully re-examining its edges by the aid of his large
magnifying glass.

"There is another curious fact that we must not overlook," he observed
slowly.  "While the seal has been broken this envelope has also passed
through a `cabinet noir.'  See, this edge bears unmistakable traces
after wear in the pocket," and he handed it to me, together with his
glass.

The suggestion was startling, and one that I had entirely overlooked.
The "cabinet noir" is a term well understood in diplomacy, but
unfamiliar perhaps to the general public.  Official documents of no
great importance are often sent by post, and in most European countries
this has led to the establishment of a "cabinet noir," in which the
envelope is opened and its contents examined.  The mode of procedure is
interesting.  The letter to be opened is first shaken well in such a way
that the enclosure falls to one side of the envelope, leaving a space of
about a quarter of an inch between it and the outer edge.  This edge is
then placed under an extremely sharp knife worked like a guillotine,
care being taken to put it carefully at right angles to the knife, which
is then brought down and cuts off a slip about one hundredth part of an
inch wide.  The envelope is now open, and the enclosure is extracted by
a pair of pincers made for the purpose.  After examination it is
replaced, and the ticklish job of removing all trace of the opening has
to be done.  This is very ingenious.  There are different pots of paper
pulp mixed with a little gum, and each tinted a different colour to suit
the various shades of paper that are operated upon.  A very fine
camel-hair brush is dipped into the pot containing the proper tint, and
is then run carefully along the edges which have been cut open.  They
are then closed and left under a press for an hour or so, and after
being smoothed with a flat steel instrument, it would take a very clever
expert to notice that the envelope has passed through the "cabinet
noir."

I saw, however, in this worn envelope the two edges were coming apart,
and at once admitted the truth of the Earl's assertions.  He was
intensely shrewd; scarcely any minute detail escaped him.

"Well," he said reflectively, at last, "there is but one person from
whom we may ascertain the truth."

"Who?"

"Your wife."

"But she has disappeared."

"We must trace her.  She must not escape us," he cried fiercely, with
set teeth.  "She has wronged you and acted in collusion with a man who
has betrayed his country and met with a tragic end, even if she herself
did not actually sell the copy of the secret convention to our enemies--
which appears to me more than likely."

"What causes you to believe this?"  I inquired, surprised at his sudden
assertion.

"I have a reason," he answered quickly, with an air of mystery.  The
cold manner of the expert diplomatist had again settled upon him.  "If
it is as I expect, I will show her no mercy, for it is upon me, as
Foreign Minister of Her Majesty, that opprobrium has fallen."

"But she is still my wife," I observed, for even at that moment, when I
had discovered her false and base, I had not ceased to regard her with a
passionate affection.

"Wife!" he snarled angrily.  "You would have been a thousand times
better dead than married to such as she."  Then he added, "Remain here.
I am going to the telephone to apprise Scotland Yard of her flight.  She
only left to-night after the mails were gone, therefore if we have the
ports watched we may yet find her."

And he left me, his quick footsteps echoing down the long corridor.

The moment he had gone I went to his table.  Some sudden curiosity
prompted me to endeavour to ascertain what he had been gazing upon so
intently while my back had been turned in penning the instructions to
Sir Philip Emden.

Quickly I took his keys, and, unlocking the tiny drawer, opened it.

Inside there reposed a highly-finished cabinet portrait of my wife.

Amazed to find this picture in the possession of my chief, I took it in
my hands and stood agape.  Its pose was unfamiliar, but the reason I had
never before seen a copy of it was instantly made plain.  It bore the
name of a well-known St Petersburg photographer.

Ella had lied to me when she had denied ever having been in Russia.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

THE MAN OF THE HOUR.

Months of anxiety went wearily by, but no tidings of Ella could I glean.
Time could never efface the bitter memories of the past.  The police
had, at Lord Warnham's instigation, exerted every effort to trace her,
but without avail.  She had disappeared with a rapidity that was
astounding, for, apparently expecting that some attempt might be made to
follow her, she had ingeniously taken every precaution to baffle her
pursuers in the same manner as her mother had done.  The cause of her
sudden flight was an enigma only equalled by my discovery of her
portrait in the Earl's possession.  Although I had several times in
conversation led up to the subject of photographs, and shown him Ella's
picture, that had been taken by a firm in Regent Street, the astute old
statesman made no sign that he already had her counterfeit presentment
hidden among his most treasured possessions.  When I recollected, as I
often did, how on gazing upon it, while believing me engrossed in the
writing of a dispatch, the sight of it had affected him, the new phase
of the mystery perplexed me sorely.  That they had been previously
acquainted seemed more than probable, and his Lordship's earnest desire
to secure knowledge of her whereabouts lent additional colour to this
opinion.

Daily the aged statesman grew more gloomy and misanthropic.  He lived
alone, in an atmosphere of severe officialdom.  His only recreation was
a formal visit on rare occasions to a reception at one or other of the
principal Embassies, or attendance on Her Majesty at Osborne or
Balmoral; his brief, far-seeing suggestions at the Cabinet Council were
always adopted unanimously, and his peremptory "notes" to the Powers
incontrovertible marvels of diplomacy.  He hated society, and never went
anywhere without some strong motive by which he could further his
country's interests.  His eccentricities were proverbial, his caustic
observations on men and things the delight of leader-writers on
Government journals; and as director of England's foreign policy he was
feared, yet admired, in every capital in Europe.  He, however, cared not
a jot for notoriety, but with an utter disregard for all else, served
his country with a slavish devotion, that even the most scathing
Opposition gutter-journal could not fail to recognise.

It was common talk that some strange, romantic incident had overshadowed
his life, but with that innate secrecy that was part of his creed he
never confided in anybody.  Notwithstanding his frigid cynicism,
however, he was nevertheless sympathetic, and at any mention of Ella's
name he would rivet his searching eyes upon me, while across the white
brow, furrowed by the heavy responsibilities of State through so many
years, would spread an expression of regret, anxiety or pain.  But he
spoke seldom upon that subject.  That he regarded my marriage as a
deplorable fiasco I was well aware, but felt that in his cold heart,
hardened as it was by the artful subterfuges of successful diplomacy,
there yet remained a spark of pity, for he still regarded me as his
_protege_.

On the day after Ella had fled I called at Andrew Beck's office at
Winchester House, Old Broad Street, but found he had sailed a few days
before by the Union Liner _Scot_ for Cape Town.  Of late he had become
connected with several South African gold ventures of enormous extent,
and in the interests of some of the companies most prominently before
the public, had undertaken the journey.  His great wealth, in
combination with that of his associates, had inspired public confidence,
and there had commenced that feverish tendency in the city that quickly
developed, and was later known as the "gold boom."  The movements of the
popular member for West Rutlandshire were cabled and chronicled in the
newspapers as diligently as if he were a prince of a reigning house, and
it was with extreme satisfaction that one morning in June I saw it
announced that the mail had arrived at Southampton from the Cape bearing
him on board, the same paper printing an account of an interview
regarding gold prospects in South Africa which he had given its
representative before he left the steamer.  I was down at Warnham at the
time, but three days later returned to London, and that same night
sought Beck at the House of Commons.

I found him in the Members' Lobby, bustling about in his ill-fitting
evening clothes and crumpled shirt-front, looking sun-tanned and well; a
trifle more arrogant, perhaps, but nevertheless easy-going and
good-natured as usual.  He greeted me heartily, and the night being warm
we lit cigars and walked out upon the Terrace beside the Thames.  Big
Ben was chiming the midnight hour.  It was bright and star-lit above,
but before us the river ran darkly beneath the arches of Westminster
Bridge, its ripples glistening under the gas lamps.  Across on the
opposite bank, in the row of buildings comprising St Thomas's Hospital,
lights glimmered faintly in the windows of the wards, while here and
there on the face of the black, silent highway, lights, white, red and
green, shone out in silent warning.

As we set foot upon the long, deserted Terrace, strolling slowly forward
in the balmy, refreshing night air, my thoughts wandered back to the
last occasion when we had spent an evening together beside the Thames,
that memorable night at "The Nook," when we had afterwards discovered
Dudley Ogle lying dead.

During the first half-hour we discussed the progress of several
questions of foreign policy which had been pursued during his absence,
and he, an enthusiast in politics, confided in me his intention to head
a select circle of his party to demand a commission of inquiry into the
working of our mobilisation scheme for home defence.

"One would think that you desired to obtain further notoriety," I
laughed.  "Surely you are popular enough; you are now the man of the
hour."

"Well, I suppose I am," he answered, a trifle proudly, halting suddenly,
leaning with his back to the stone parapet and puffing vigorously at his
cigar.  "But it isn't for the sake of notoriety that I'm pressing
forward this inquiry.  It is for the benefit of the country generally.
The scheme for the mobilisation of our forces in case of invasion is
utterly rotten, and had we been compelled to fight a little time ago,
when France and Russia were upon the point of declaring war, we should
have been in a wretched plight.  The scheme is all very well on paper,
but I and my friends are determined to ascertain whether it will act.
It has never been tested, and no doubt it is utterly unworkable.  What,
indeed, can be said of a scheme which decrees that in case of an enemy
landing on our shores a regiment of cavalry, now in London, must draw
its horses from Dublin!  Why, the thing's absurd.  We don't mean to rest
until the whole matter is thoroughly threshed out."

"You intend to worry up the War Office a little," I observed, smiling.

"Yes," he answered, ostentatiously.  "We intend to bring public opinion
to bear so heavily upon them that they will be absolutely bound to
submit to the inquiry.  This is, however, a secret for the present.  It
is best that the newspapers should not get hold of it yet.  You
understand?"

"Of course," I said.

We stood watching the dark, swirling waters and enjoying the cool night
breeze that swept along the river, causing the lamps to flicker, when he
suddenly asked,--"How is Ella?  I quite forgot to ask after your wife."

"I don't know," I replied, after a brief pause.

"Don't know?" he echoed, looking at me, puzzled.  "Why, what's the
matter?"

"She has left me," I answered gravely.

"Left you!" he cried, removing his cigar and staring at me.  "Have you
quarrelled?"

"No.  On my return home one night in January I found a note of farewell
from her.  I have heard nothing of her since.  Mrs Laing disappeared on
the same day."

"Disappeared!" he gasped.  My announcement had caused him the greatest
consternation, for he stood agape.  "Have you no idea of the reason?"

"None whatever," I replied.  Then confidentially I told him of Ella's
mysterious absences, her walk in Kensington Gardens, and her letters
from the unknown individual who had met her so frequently, omitting,
however, all mention either of the theft or recovery of the secret
convention, for it was Lord Warnham's wish that I should keep the
existence of that instrument a profound secret.

"Have you no idea who this strange fellow is?" he inquired,
sympathetically.

"Not the slightest," I said.

"Ella was not addicted to flirtation," he observed reflectively, a few
moments later.  "As you are aware, I have been acquainted with the
family for some years, and have known your wife ever since she could
toddle."

"Tell me of them," I urged impatiently.  "I know scarcely anything
beyond what Ella and her mother have told me.  What do you know of
Ella's past?"

"You speak as if you suspected her to be an adventuress," he said, and
as the lamplight fell upon his face I saw that his lips relaxed into a
good-humoured smile.  "As far as I'm aware there is no incident of her
life prior to marriage that will not bear the fullest investigation; and
as for her mother, no more straightforward nor upright woman ever lived.
Before poor Robert Laing died I was a frequent visitor at their country
house, so I had ample opportunity of noticing what an affectionate
family they were; and after his death it was I who succeeded in turning
his great business into a limited liability concern."

To outsiders Beck was a swaggering parvenu, who delighted in exhibiting
his wealth to others by giving expensive dinners and indulging in
extravagances of speech and beverage; but towards me he had always been
honestly outspoken and unassuming--in fact, a typical successful
business man, with whose unruffled good humour I had, even when madly
jealous of his attentions to Ella, found it impossible to quarrel.  I
had long ago grown to ridicule the suggestion that any secret had
existed between them, and now felt instinctively that he was my friend.

"Do you think--" I asked him, after a long pause.  "Candidly speaking,
have you any suspicion that Dudley Ogle was her lover?"

He knit his brows.  For an instant a hard expression played about his
mouth, and he drew a long breath.

"I didn't, of course, know so much of Dudley as you did," he answered,
slowly contemplating the end of his cigar.  "But to tell you the honest
truth, I always suspected that he loved her.  In fact her own evidence
at the inquest was sufficient proof of that."

"His death was an enigma," I observed.

"Entirely so," he acquiesced, sighing.

"She alleged that he had been murdered, and there is no room for doubt
that she entertained certain very grave suspicions."

"Of what?"

"Of the identity of the murderer," I said.  "She declared to me, times
without number, that she would never rest until she had unravelled the
mystery."

"Her theory was a very wild one," he laughed.  "Personally, I do not
entertain it for one moment.  The medical opinion that he died from a
sudden but natural cause is undoubtedly correct," he said, replacing his
dead cigar between his lips, as, slowly striking a vesta, he re-lit it.
Then he added, "Her anxiety to avenge Dudley's death certainly seems to
bear out your suspicion that they were lovers."

"Then you entirely agree with me?"  I cried.

"In a measure only," he answered, his voice suddenly harsh and cold.  "I
have no suspicion that she ever reciprocated his affection, although in
seeking to learn the truth of your friend's tragic end she must have had
some very strong motive."

"Another fact I also discovered was a trifle curious," I observed, after
we had strolled along the deserted Terrace from end to end, discussing
the details of Dudley's death, and the manner in which it had affected
her.

"What was it?" he inquired, glancing towards me.

"I found that she was in the habit of visiting every day a pretty
Russian girl with whom I was acquainted."

"Before marriage?" he asked, raising his eyebrows meaningly.

"Yes," I answered.  "She was a refugee, and I had been enabled to render
her father a service some time before; therefore we had become friends.
I had lost sight of her for a long time, and when I again met her I
discovered that she had not only been an intimate friend of poor Dudley,
but that Ella visited her frequently on her bicycle when she was
supposed by her mother to be riding in the Park."

"Was there anything remarkable in that fact?" he inquired, with a
half-amused air, nevertheless regarding me with undue keenness, I
thought.

"Nothing, except that the little Russian, who, having lost her father,
was living a lonely life in a rather large house in Kensington, warned
me against Ella, telling me she was my enemy.  She, however, left
without fulfilling her promise to reveal the details."

"Your enemy!" he cried, laughing jocosely.  "She was evidently jealous
of your attentions to her, my boy.  A Russian, too!  She was a Nihilist,
I suppose, or some interestingly romantic person of that sort, eh?
Surely you didn't heed what she said, did you?"

"Of course not," I replied, with a forced laugh.  "I loved Ella too
well; so I married her."

"And you now regret it," he added abruptly.

Without replying I walked on by his side, smoking furiously.  My object
in seeking him had been to learn what I could of Ella's past, but no
mysterious incident had, to his knowledge, occurred.  Her family were
well-known in Yorkshire, respected throughout the county, and no breath
of scandal had ever besmirched the fair fame of either Robert Laing's
widow or his daughter.  Beck, their intimate friend, concealed nothing
from me, but frankly discussed my hopes and fears, expressing his
heartfelt sympathy that I should have thus mysteriously lost my
well-beloved, and offering me all the assistance that lay in his power.

"It certainly is extremely curious that Mrs Laing should have left Pont
Street without sending me a letter to the club, giving me her new
address," he said calmly, after reflection.

"You have not, then, heard from her?"

"No, I have had no letter.  A week before I left for South Africa I
dined there, and she then told me that she intended to remain in England
throughout the year.  She expressed the greatest gratification that Ella
had married so happily, and seemed in the best of spirits.  Yet a few
days later, it appears, she fled as secretly as if she had been a
criminal.  It is really very extraordinary; I can't account for it in
the least."

"All effort to trace Ella has failed," I observed gloomily, after a
moment's reflection.

"Whose aid have you sought?  A private inquiry agent?"

"No.  The police," I answered.

"Police!" he exclaimed, surprised.  "They have committed no crime,
surely.  I--I mean that the police do not trace missing friends."

"They will carry out the orders of any Government Department," I
answered.  "The request came from my chief."

"From Lord Warnham!  Then you have told him!"

"Of course," I responded.

In contemplative silence he slowly blew a great cloud of smoke from his
lips.  Then he said, "There is one thing you haven't told me, Geoffrey.
What was the name of this pretty Russian who made these mysterious
allegations against Ella?"

"Her name was Sonia Korolenko."

"Sonia Korolenko!" he cried in a voice strangely hoarse, halting and
glaring at me with wide-open, staring eyes.  "Sonia!  And she has gone,
you say?"

"Yes.  She has returned to Russia, I believe.  But what do you know of
her?"  I quickly inquired.

"Nothing.  I merely know her by repute as a notorious woman, that's
all," he answered.  "You were certainly wise to discard her
allegations."

"Is she such a well-known person?"  I asked.

"I should rather think so," he answered, elevating his eyebrows.  "Her
fame has spread all over the Continent.  She was leader of a certain
circle of questionable society in Vienna a year ago, and narrowly
escaped falling into the hands of the police."

"But what can have induced Ella to associate with her?"  I exclaimed in
wonderment.

"Ah!  That is more than we can tell," he answered, in a tone of sincere
regret.  "The ways of women of her type are ofttimes utterly
incomprehensible."

"Were you aware that Ella was acquainted with her?"  I inquired
earnestly.

At that moment, however, the electric gongs along the Terrace commenced
ringing sharply, announcing that the House was about to divide.  The
division was upon an important amendment, and had been expected at any
moment since the dinner-hour.  Turning back quickly he hurried through
the tea-room along the corridor, and shaking hands with me in haste,
promising to resume our conversation on another occasion, disappeared to
record his vote.

For a single instant I stood alone in the Lobby, watching the receding
figure of the portly man of the hour, and pondering deeply.  Then, full
of gloomy recollections of the past, I turned on my heel and went out
through the long, echoing hall.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

A MISSION AND ITS SEQUEL.

"You fully understand the position, Deedes?"

"Absolutely," I replied.

"Well, this is your first mission abroad--a secret one and most
important--so do your best, and let me see how you shape towards being a
diplomatist.  Remember you have one main object to bear in mind, as I
have already told you; and further, that the strictest secrecy is
absolutely necessary."

It was the Earl of Warnham who thus spoke gravely as we stood opposite
one another in the private room of the Minister in attendance at
Osborne.  Between us was a large table littered with state documents,
each of which Her Majesty had carefully investigated before appending
her firm, well-written signature.  Late on the previous night I had
travelled to the Isle of Wight in response to a telegram summoning me
and my chief, who, after three rather protracted audiences of Her
Majesty during the morning, had instructed me to proceed at once to
Paris, entrusting me with a secret mission.  Lord Gaysford, the Under
Secretary, would undoubtedly have gone, but as he was away in Scotland
attending some election meetings, and as time was pressing, I had, much
to my gratification, been chosen.  My mission was a rather curious one,
not unconnected with Her Majesty's personal affairs, and the
instructions I had to deliver to the Marquis of Worthorpe, our
Ambassador to the French Republic, were of such a delicate nature that
if written in a formal dispatch would, the Earl feared, cause that
skilled and highly-valued diplomatist to send in his resignation.

I had therefore been chosen to put a suggestion politely to his
Excellency, and at the same time deliver the Earl's instructions with
deference, yet so firmly that they could not be disregarded.  Mine was
certainly a difficult task, nevertheless in my enthusiasm at being
chosen to execute this secret mission abroad I was prepared to attempt
anything, from the settlement of the Egyptian Question to the formation
of a Quadruple Alliance.

"I shall carry out your instructions to the best of my ability," I
assured him, after he had given me various valuable hints how to act.

"Yes," the aged Minister said, slowly gathering the tails of his black
broadcloth frock coat over his arms and thrusting his hands into his
pockets, "cross from Newhaven to-night, and you can see Worthorpe at
noon to-morrow.  Tell him to give you an interview alone; then explain
what I have told you.  He must obtain an audience of the President some
time to-morrow."

"I shall act as discreetly as possible," I declared.

"I feel sure you will, Deedes," he exclaimed, with a look more kindly
than usual.  "This mission will, I hope, lead to others, further afield,
perhaps.  But remember that you were once victimised by a spy; therefore
exercise the greatest care and caution in this and all matters."

"I certainly shall," I answered, smiling; then, after the further
discussion of a point upon which I was not perfectly clear, I wished my
chief adieu.

As I passed out of the room he said,--

"Put up at the Continental.  If I have any further instructions, I'll
wire in cypher."

"Very well," I replied, and as I went forth I met on the threshold a
servant in the royal livery who had come to summon the trusted Minister
to another audience with his Sovereign.

Eager to fulfil my mission to the satisfaction of the eccentric old
statesman, who, if to others was a martinet, was to me a firm and
sympathetic friend, I at once set out, crossed to Dieppe that night, and
duly arrived in Paris next day.  Shortly before noon I presented myself
at the handsome official residence of the British Ambassador, and was
quickly ushered into his presence.  We were not strangers, having met on
several occasions when he visited London and called to consult the
chief; therefore he welcomed me cordially when I entered his private
room.  The Marquis was a tall, brown-bearded, pleasant-faced man, who
had graduated in the Constantinople and Vienna schools of diplomacy
before being appointed Ambassador in Paris, and who had achieved
considerable reputation as a skilled negotiator of the most delicate
points.

Seated opposite one another in softly-padded armchairs, we chatted
affably for perhaps a quarter of an hour.  First, he inquired after our
chief's health, and then endeavoured to ascertain from me the policy
about to be pursued towards Russia in view of our recent strained
relations, but I strenuously avoided answering any of his
artfully-concealed questions.  A dozen times, with that consummate tact
acquired by a lifetime of diplomacy, he endeavoured to get me to hazard
an opinion or express a doubt, but I always refused.  Lord Warnham's
instructions were that I should say nothing of those affairs of State
which, in my capacity of private secretary, were well-known to me, hence
my determination to maintain silence.

Presently the Marquis smilingly exclaimed, "Lord Warnham has evidently
taught you the first requisite of the successful diplomatist--namely,
secrecy.  You've borne well the test I have applied, Deedes.  By the
same questions I have just put to you I could have learnt just what I
wanted from half the diplomatic circle here in Paris, yet you have
fenced with me admirably.  I shall not omit to mention the fact to Lord
Warnham when next I call at the Foreign Office."

I thanked his Excellency, adding, with a smile, "One learns the value of
silence with our chief."

"Yes," he answered, slowly tapping his table with a quill.  "He's a
curious man, extremely curious.  His very eccentricity causes him to be
feared by every Cabinet in Europe.  Is he really as impetuous and
strange in private life as he is in public?"

I paused, looking fixedly into my companions dark eyes.

"The object of my visit, your Excellency, is not to discuss the merits
of my chief or the policy of the Home Government, but to make a
suggestion which he has desired me to place before you with all
deference to your wide experience as Ambassador, and your unequalled
knowledge of the French people," I said gravely, and then, clearly and
succinctly, I placed before him the Earl's ideas, together with the
instructions he had entrusted me to deliver.

At first the Ambassador, resenting my interference with his actions,
seemed disinclined to entertain the suggestions; but using the arguments
my chief had advanced, I at length induced him to view the matter from
the same standpoint.  I even obtained from him what was practically an
admission that the policy he had pursued in the past regarding the
question under discussion was not altogether sound, and once having
obtained that, I felt confident of gaining my point without any
unpleasant incident.  From that moment, indeed, he recognised that I
bore a message from the chief, therefore he treated me pleasantly, and
announced his intention of seeking an audience with the President of the
Republic at the Elysee at four o'clock, to enter upon negotiations which
Her Majesty earnestly desired should be carried forward without delay.

Although the Marquis treated me with calm, unruffled dignity, as
befitted the Ambassador of the greatest nation on earth, I nevertheless
congratulated myself that my efforts had been eminently successful.
Aided by the promptings of the shrewd old Earl, I had, I flattered
myself, exercised a careful and even delicate tact in dealing with this
leader among diplomatists, and, as may be imagined, the knowledge that
my mission was successful caused me the utmost satisfaction.

When I had first approached the subject he had been inclined to
disregard my words, and grew so angry that I feared lest he might tender
his resignation, as the Earl had apprehended.  But the Minister's clever
arguments, rather than my own tact, convinced him, for he saw that to
act at once was imperative; hence the success of my first secret
mission.

We sat together for nearly an hour calmly discussing the matter from
various standpoints, and when we rose his Excellency again congratulated
me upon the soundness of my views, laughingly declaring that, instead of
penning the Earl's impatient and irritating dispatches, he ought to
appoint me to a post abroad.

Full of elation, I descended the broad stairs, so thickly carpeted that
my feet fell noiselessly, and met unexpectedly, a few moments later, my
friend Captain Cargill, of the 2nd Life Guards, the junior Military
Attache, who greeted me with a hearty British hand-grip.

"Didn't expect to meet you here, old chap," he cried.  "I thought you
were tied up in the chief's private room always, and never allowed out
of England."

"This is the first time I've been here officially," I replied, laughing.

"What's the trouble?  Anything startling?" he inquired.

"No, nothing very extraordinary," I remarked, carelessly.  "I've seen
the Marquis, and concluded my mission."

Continuing, I extracted from him a promise to dine with me at the
Continental that evening, as I intended to leave next day, and after a
brief conversation we parted.  Along the shady side of the Rue du
Faubourg St Honore I strolled leisurely, turning into the Rue Royale,
passing the gloomy facade of the Madeleine, and continuing along the
boulevard to the Grand Cafe.  Paris possessed but little attraction for
me in my gloomy frame of mind.  Five years of my youth had been spent
there, and I knew the city in every mood, but to-day, plunged as I was
in a debauch of melancholy, its gay aspect under the warm sunshine
jarred upon me.

On leaving the Embassy it had occurred to me to call upon an old friend,
who, in my student days, had shared rooms with me, but who had been
returned as Deputy at the last election, and now lived in the Rue des
Petits-Champs.  With that object I had walked along mechanically, and
instead of turning down the Rue des Capucines, as I should have done, I
had found myself in the Place de l'Opera.  Then, seating myself at one
of the tables in front of the Grand Cafe, I ordered a "bock," and
contemplatively watched the crowd of passers-by.

When last I had sat at that spot it was with Ella, on the night before
we had returned to London from our honeymoon.  Well I remembered how
happy and content she had then been; how she had enjoyed the light,
cosmopolitan chatter about her, and how fondly we had loved each other.
In those days she had mingled tender words with her kisses, which seemed
to bear my soul away.  Yet how weary and full of terrible anxiety had
been the nine months that had elapsed since that delightful autumn
night, the last of our lazy tour through rural France.  When I reflected
upon all the remarkable occurrences, they seemed like some hideous
nightmare, while she herself appeared striking, yet mysterious, as the
fair vision in some half-remembered dream.

Thus was I sitting alone at the little marble-topped table, gazing into
space, wondering, as I did daily, how my lost wife fared, and whether
she ever gave a single passing thought to the man who, notwithstanding
all her faults and follies, loved her better than his life, when before
my eyes there arose for a second a face that in an instant was familiar.

A man, short of stature and well-dressed, had lounged leisurely by with
a cigarette, but scarcely had he walked a dozen yards beyond the cafe
when I jumped up, and rushing along, accosted him.

It was Ivan Renouf.

He turned sharply at mention of his name, regarding me with an inquiring
glance, but next second expressed pleasure at our meeting.  Together we
returned to the cafe, and chatted amicably over a mazagran.  Presently,
after we had been speaking of our last interview at Mrs Laing's, I asked
him the truth about his sudden dismissal from her service.

"What your wife told you was quite correct," he answered, with a
mysterious smile; "I was detected."

"You are generally too wary to be caught by those upon whom you are
keeping observation," I remarked.

Slowly he selected a fresh cigarette, and laughing carelessly,
answered,--

"It was not by accident but by design that I was caught.  My object was
already attained, and I desired to be discharged at once from madame's
service."

"She left London almost immediately," I said.

"Yes, I am quite aware of that.  It was best for her," he observed,
rather abruptly.

"My wife also fled on the same day," I exclaimed slowly.  "I haven't
seen her since."

At this announcement he betrayed no surprise, but merely remarked, "So I
have heard."

"Tell me," I urged earnestly, "do you know anything of her movements?  I
am endeavouring to find her, and am in utter despair."

With a sharp glance at me, the great detective stirred his long glass,
raised it to his lips, and took a deep draught.  Then, slowly replacing
it upon the table, he coldly answered,--

"I know nothing of your wife's whereabouts, m'sieur."

"Am I to understand that you refuse to tell me anything?"  I asked,
annoyed.

He shrugged his shoulders, but answered no word.  I detested him
instinctively.

"Is it not strange that they should both have fled in this extraordinary
manner?"  I suggested.  "Can you assign any motive whatever for their
flight?"

"I am really not good at conundrums," he replied indifferently.  "But if
you took my advice, m'sieur, you would abandon all thought of her, for
at least one fact was quite plain, namely, that mademoiselle never loved
you."

"How do you know that?"  I cried, with sinking heart, as the ghastly
truth was forced upon me for the thousandth time.

"From my own observations," he answered, looking straight at me across
the table.  "Your marriage was, I am fully aware, an unhappy one;
therefore you should regard it entirely as of the past.  She will never
trouble you again, I can assure you."

"Why?"  I demanded.  "Your words indicate that you are fully aware of
the true facts.  Tell me all, Renouf, and set my mind at rest."

"I have told you all, m'sieur," he said, suddenly tossing his cigarette
away, glancing at his watch and rising.  "That is, I have told you all
that I may.  But I have an appointment," he added abruptly.  "Adieu."

And before I could prevent him he had raised his hat with a show of
politeness, and walked hurriedly off across the broad Place in the
direction of the Boulevard des Italiens.

In chagrin I bit my lip, for instead of giving me any clue to the
hiding-place of my errant wife, his words only tended to increase my
mistrust and despair.  Was not, however, his refusal only what I might
have expected?  I rose and slowly walked away down the Rue Auber, deeply
reflecting upon his denunciation of Ella's faithlessness.  What motive
could he have, I wondered, in thus declaring that she had never loved
me?

That night Cargill dined with me, and after taking our coffee and
liqueurs in the courtyard of the Continental, watching the well-dressed
crowd of idlers who assemble there nightly after dinner, we strolled out
along the brightly-lit streets, where all Paris was enjoying the cool,
star-lit evening after the heat and burden of the day.

Our footsteps led us unconsciously to that Mecca of the Briton or
American resident in Paris, the Hotel Chatham, and entering the American
bar we found assembled there a number of mutual acquaintances.  At one
of the small wooden tables sat my old and valued friend, Henry Allender,
counsel to the United States Embassy in Paris, a man universally liked
in both British and American colonies of the French capital, and
opposite him a short, stout, round-faced Frenchman, attired in grey, and
wearing the Legion of Honour in his lapel--Monsieur Goron, the
well-known Chief of Police.  From both I received a cordial welcome, and
as we sat down to chat over cocktails carefully mixed by the deft,
loquacious bar-tender, Tommy, I took up _Le Monde Illustre_, lying upon
the table, and opened it carelessly.

Several pages I had turned over, when suddenly my eyes fell upon a
full-page illustration of a beautiful woman in evening dress, with a
fine diamond tiara upon her head.  The features were unmistakable.  With
an involuntary cry that startled my companions, I sat rigid and
motionless, glaring at it in abject dismay.

The portrait itself did not surprise me so much as the amazing words
printed beneath.  The latter held me spellbound.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

COSMOPOLITANS.

"Why, what's the matter, old chap?" inquired Cargill, bending forward
quickly to glance at the journal.  "You look as if you've got an acute
attack of the jim-jams."

"See!"  I gasped hoarsely, pointing to the printed page upon which my
strained eyes had riveted themselves.

"Deucedly pretty woman," declared the attache, who was nothing if not a
ladies' man.  Few men were better known in Paris than Hugh Cargill.

"Yes, yes, I know," I exclaimed impatiently.  I was sitting dumbfounded,
the words beneath the picture dancing before my vision in letters of
fire.

The portrait that seemed to smile mockingly at me was a reproduction of
a photograph of Ella.  The handsome, regular features were unmistakable.
With the exception of the magnificent tiara, the ornaments she wore I
recognised as belonging to her.  All were now in my possession, alas!
for on leaving me she had discarded them, and with ineffable sadness I
had locked them away in a small cabinet.  The jewel-case containing her
wedding-ring was a veritable skeleton in my cupboard that I dare not
gaze upon.

The picture was undoubtedly that of my lost wife, yet beneath was
printed in French the words,--

"Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Nicolayevna of
Russia."

"Look!"  I cried, my eye still upon the page.  "Surely there's some
mistake!  That can't be the Grand Duchess!"

Allender and Cargill bent simultaneously over the little table, and both
declared that there was no mistake.

"She's very well-known here," exclaimed the attache.  "I've seen her
driving her Orloff ponies in the Bois dozens of times.  Besides, one
never forgets such a face as hers."

"Does she live here?"  I inquired breathlessly.

"Sometimes," he answered; and smiling behind the veil of tobacco smoke,
he added, "She's been away a long time now.  I suppose you want an
introduction to her--eh?  Well, I don't expect you'll be successful, as
her circle is the most select in Paris.  She never invites any of the
`corps diplomatique.'"

"No," I answered huskily, "I desire no introduction."  A sudden
giddiness had seized me.  The jingle of glasses, the incessant chatter,
the loud laughter, and the heavy smoke of cigars had combined with this
sudden and bewildering discovery to produce a slight faintness.  I took
up a glass of ice-water at my elbow and gulped it down.

"Do you know her?" inquired Allender, with a pronounced American accent,
at the same time regarding me curiously.

"Yes," I answered, not without hesitation.  "She is--I mean we have
already met."

"Well, you're to be congratulated," he answered, smiling.  "I reckon
she's the finest looking woman in Paris, and that's a solid fact."

Without replying I slowly turned over the page, and there saw a brief
article with the same heading as the legend beneath the portrait.
Cargill and Allender were attracted at that moment by the entry of one
of their friends, a wealthy young man who, with his wife, had forsaken
Ohio for residence in the French capital, and while they chatted I
eagerly scanned the article, which ran as follows,--

"Paris will welcome the return of Her Imperial Highness the Grand
Duchess Elizaveta Nicolayevna of Russia, whose portrait we give on
another page.  For nearly nine months her great house in the Avenue des
Champs Elysees, the scene of so many brilliant _fetes_ during her last
residence there, has been closed, but she arrived in Paris about ten
days ago, and has announced her intention of remaining among us until
the end of the year.  As our readers are no doubt aware, Her Imperial
Highness, niece of the late Tzar Alexander, and cousin of the present
Czar, is an excellent linguist, speaking English and French perfectly,
in addition to her native Russian.  She was born at Tzarskoie-Selo, but
her early days were spent in England.  She, however, prefers Paris to
either London or St Petersburg, although in the latter city her
entertainments at the mansion on the English Quay are on a scale almost
as brilliant as those at the Winter Palace itself.  Her beauty is
incomparable, and her diamonds among the finest in Europe.  Her
munificence to the poor of Paris is well-known.  Although moving in the
highest circle, she does not fear to go herself into the very vilest
slums, accompanied by her trusty Muscovite man-servant, and there
distribute relief to the deserving from her own purse.  Both the needy
and the wealthy therefore welcome her on her return."

I re-read the article.  Then I sat with the paper before me, staring at
it in blank bewilderment.  The surprising discovery held me petrified.
This beautiful woman, who had masqueraded as Ella Laing, and had become
my wife by law, was actually the daughter of a reigning house, the
cousin of an Emperor.

The astounding truth seemed incredible.

"Well," asked Cargill, turning to me with a smile a moment later, "have
you been reading all about her?"

"Yes," I answered, drawing a long breath.

"Come, don't sigh like that, old fellow," he cried, and glancing across
to the bar, shouted, "Mix another dry Martini, Tommy, for my friend."

To affect indifference I strove vainly.  Nevertheless, I listened with
eager ears as my three companions commenced discussing the merits of the
high-born woman who was my wife.  To me she was no longer Ella.  Her
personality, so vivid and distinct, seemed in those moments of
perplexity to fade like the memory of some half-remembered dream.

"Her beauty is simply marvellous," Allender acknowledged, smoking on in
his dry, matter-of-fact way.  He was not more than thirty-eight, but by
sheer merit as a sound lawyer and a thorough good fellow, he had risen
to the lucrative post he held, and had, in the course of five years,
formed a large and valuable practice and a wide circle of friends among
the English-speaking colonies in the French capital.

"I entirely agree with m'sieur," observed Monsieur Goron, in his broken
English.  "Her Highness is very beautiful, but, ah--cold as an icicle."

"Is there no scandal regarding her?"  I inquired eagerly, well knowing
that in Paris no woman is considered really _chic_ without some story
being whispered about her.

"None," replied the renowned investigator of Anarchist conspiracies.  "I
have the pleasure of knowing Her Highness, and I have always found her a
most estimable young lady.  There is, however," he added, "some curious
romance, I believe, connected with her earlier life."

"A romance?" cried Cargill.  "Do tell us all about it."

"Ah, unfortunately I do not know the details," answered the old
Frenchman, suddenly exhibiting his palms.  "It was alleged once by
somebody I met officially--who it was, I really forget.  She lived for
years in England, and is a cosmopolitan thoroughly, besides being one of
the richest women in Paris."

"Is it true that she sometimes goes into the low quarters of the city
and gives money to the poor?"  I asked him, for this love of midnight
adventure accounted for Ella's strange penchant for rambling alone at
night that had once caused me so much perturbation.

"Certainly.  With her, philanthropy is a fad.  I accompanied her on
several occasions last year," he replied.  "She attired herself in an
old, worn-out dress of one of her maids, and disguised herself most
effectually.  On each night she distributed about five thousand francs
with her own hands.  Indeed, so well-known is she in certain quarters
that I believe she might go there alone with perfect safety.  However,
when she is going we always know at the Prefecture, and take
precautions.  It would not do for us to allow anything to happen to an
Imperial Highness," he added.

"Of course not," observed Cargill, adding with the diplomatic instinct,
"Of course.  Not in view of the Franco-Russian Alliance," an observation
at which we all three laughed merrily.

"Has she a lover?" inquired Allender, turning to Monsieur Goron.

"I think not," the other replied.  "I never heard of one.  Indeed, I
have never heard her accused of flirtation with anybody."

"Tell me, m'sieur," I asked, "are you acquainted with a Russian named
Ivan Renouf, who is, I believe, in the secret service."

"Renouf!" he repeated, glancing quickly at me with his steel-blue eyes.
"Yes, I have met him.  He is in Paris at the present moment.  Whether he
is in the actual service of the Tzar's Government I don't know, but one
thing is certain, namely, that he is a blackmailer and a scoundrel," he
added frankly.

"What offence has he committed?"  I asked, eager to learn some fact to
his detriment.

"He keeps well within the bounds of the law," my companion answered.
"Nevertheless he is utterly unscrupulous and most ingenious in his
methods.  He is reported to be chief of the section of Secret Police
attached to the Russian Embassy, but they are a mysterious lot of spies,
always coming and going.  Sent here from St Petersburg, they remain a
few months, watching the revolutionary refugees, and then go back, their
places being taken by a fresh batch."

"Why is Renouf in Paris?  Have you any idea?"

"None, m'sieur," Monsieur Goron answered.  "He has been absent fully six
months, and only last night I met him coming out of La Scala."

"Did you speak?"

"Yes.  He did not, however, recognise me," smiled the Chief of Police.
"I did not expect he would, as I chanced to be acting as a cabman, and
was sitting upon my box outside the theatre.  He hailed me, but I
refused to drive him.  I was waiting for a fare who was enjoying himself
inside, and who, on coming out, I had the pleasure of driving straight
to the Prefecture," added the man of a thousand disguises with a
chuckle, swallowing his cocktail in one gulp.

"Where does the Grand Duchess live?"  I inquired, after a slight pause.

"Deedes is simply gone on her," cried Cargill, with good-humoured
banter.  "He evidently wants to take her out to dinner."

"No," I protested, smiling grimly.  "Nothing of the kind.  I only want
to know whereabouts in the Avenue des Champs Elysees she lives."

"It is a large white house, with green jalousies, on the left-hand side,
just beyond the Avenue de l'Alma," explained the Chief of Police,
laughing at Cargill's suggestion.

"But how did you become acquainted with her?" inquired the attache,
presently, after my companions had been praising her face and extolling
her virtues.

"We met in London," I answered vaguely, for I was in no confidential
mood.

"And she captivated you, eh?" my friend exclaimed.  "Well, I'm not
surprised.  Half Paris goes mad over her beauty whenever she's here."

"It is said, and I believe there's a good deal of truth in it,"
exclaimed Goron, confidentially, "that young Max Duchanel, the
well-known writer on the _Figaro_, committed suicide last year by
shooting himself over at Le Pre St Gervais because she disregarded his
attentions.  At any rate an extravagant letter of reproach and farewell
was discovered in his pocket.  We hushed up the matter because of the
position of the personage therein mentioned."

At least one man had paid with his life the penalty of his devotion to
her.  Did not this fact force home once again the truth of Sonia's
disregarded denunciation that Ella was not my friend?  It was now plain
how neatly I had been tricked; and with what artful ingenuity she had
masqueraded as my wife.  Monsieur Grodekoff, the Russian Ambassador,
Paul Verblioudovitch, and Ivan Renouf all knew her true position, yet
feared to tell me.  Indeed, my friend Paul had urged me to marry and
forgot the past, and his Excellency had actually congratulated us both
with outstretched hand.  Because she was so well-known in Paris she had,
while on our honeymoon, only remained in the capital the night, and had
refused to go shopping or show herself unnecessarily.  She had preferred
a quiet, unfashionable hotel in a by-street to any of those well-known;
and I now remembered how, even then, she had remained in her room,
pleading fatigue and headache.  From our first meeting to the moment of
her flight her attitude had been that of a consummate actress.

"Did Her Highness pass under another name in London?"  Goron asked me
presently, appearing much interested.

"Yes," I replied.

"Ah!" he ejaculated.  "She is perfectly charming, and so fond of
concealing her real position beneath the most ordinary patronymic.  To
me, she is always so affable and so nice."

"Goron is sweet on her also, I believe," observed Allender, whereat we
all laughed in chorus.

I struggled to preserve an outward show of indifference, but every word
these men uttered stabbed my heart deeply.  When I had ascertained the
whereabouts of her house, my first impulse had been to rush out, drive
there, and meet her face to face, but my nerves were, I knew, upset and
unsteady, so I remained sitting with my light-hearted companions,
endeavouring amid that jingle, popping of corks, and chatter of London,
New York and Paris, to think deeply and decide upon the best course to
pursue.

"Our chief sent her invitations to the Embassy balls on several
occasions a year ago, but she declined each," I heard the attache
saying.  "She's a royalty, so I suppose she thinks herself just a cut
above us.  But, after all, I don't blame her," he added, reflectively.
"Diplomacy is but the art of lying artistically.  She has no need to
struggle for a foothold in society."

"Correct," observed Allender.  "The women who flutter around at our
Embassy are the gayest crowd I've ever struck.  I reckon they're not of
her set.  But she's a very fine woman, even though she may be a
Highness.  She's simply beautiful.  I've seen some fine women in my day,
but for thrilling a man's soul and driving him to distraction, I never
saw anyone to compare with her."

"That's so," Cargill acquiesced.  "Yet her refusal to come to us has
often been remarked by our chief, especially as we've entertained a
crowd of other princesses and high nobilities at one time or another."

"She has a reason, I suppose," observed Goron, slowly twisting his
eternal caporal.

"Goron appears to know all her secrets," said Cargill, winking at me
knowingly.  "He trots her about Paris at night, and she confides in him
all her little anxieties and fears.  A most charming arrangement."

The astute officer, who, by his energetic action, had succeeded in
effectually stamping out the Anarchist activity, smiled and raised both
his hands in protest, crying,--

"No, no, messieurs!  It is in you younger men that the pretty women
confide.  As for me, I am old, fat and ugly."

"But you act as the protector of the philanthropic Elizaveta
Nicolayevna," observed Cargill, "therefore, when you next see her, tell
her how her portrait in _Le Monde_ has been admired by an impressionable
young Englishman, named Deedes, and present to her the compliments and
profound admiration of all three of us."

"Don't do anything of the kind, Goron," I cried, rather angrily.
"Remember I know the lady, and such words would be an insult."

"Very well, if you're really going to call on her, you might convey our
message," exclaimed the attache, nonchalantly.  "You're not jealous, are
you?"

"I don't think there's any need for jealousy," I responded.

Goron laughed heartily at this retort.  He was more shrewd than the
others, and I instinctively felt that he had guessed that Her Highness
and myself were a little more than chance-met acquaintances.  But the
others continued their fooling, happy, careless, bubbling over with
buoyant spirits.  Many good fellows frequent the bar of the Chatham, one
of the most cosmopolitan resorts in Europe.  Many adventurers and "dead
beats" make it their headquarters, but of all that merry, easy-going
crowd of men with money, and those in want of it, to find two men more
popular and more generous than Hugh Cargill and Henry Allender would
have been difficult.

As we still sat together smoking and drinking, the pair directed their
chaff continually in my direction.  Evidently believing that the
incomparable beauty of Her Highness had fascinated me, they urged me to
go to her and suggest a drive in the Bois, a quiet little dinner
somewhere, or a box at the opera.  Little did they dream how every
jesting word they uttered pained me, how each laugh at my expense caused
me excruciating anguish, or how any detrimental allegation, spoken
unthinkingly, sank deeply into my mind.  But I had never worn my heart
on my sleeve, therefore I treated their banter with good humour,
determined that, at least for the present, they should remain in
ignorance of the fact that I was the husband of the woman whose adorable
face and charming manner had excited universal admiration in the gayest
capital of the world.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.

HER IMPERIAL HIGHNESS.

Until we rose and separated I succeeded in hiding my sorrow beneath a
smile, but when at length I had shaken hands with my companions at the
corner of the Rue de la Paix, and to my relief found myself once more
alone walking across the Place Vendome, with the black column standing
out before me in the bright moonlight, my outburst of grief became
uncontrollable.  My heart, lancinated by the careless words of my
companions, had been burdened by a bitterness rendered the more poignant
because I had been compelled to laugh with them.  Now that I had proof
that Ella was not what she had represented herself to be--an
affectionate, unassuming woman of my own station--I felt crushed,
bewildered and disconsolate, for with the knowledge of our difference of
birth the iron had entered my soul.

The manner in which she had posed as daughter of the pleasant-faced
widow of Robert Laing, and her calm, dignified bearing as my wife, had
been a most perfect piece of acting.  Never for one moment had I
suspected her to be anything else than what she represented herself to
be--plain Ella Laing, the only daughter of the deceased shipowner; yet
she was actually a daughter of the Romanoffs, the most powerful and
wealthy house in Europe.  As I strolled slowly along the Rue Castiglione
towards the hotel, I asked myself whether she had ever really loved me.
At first I doubted her, because of the difference of our stations.
Presently, however, when I recollected the perfect bliss of our
honeymoon, when I remembered how childishly happy we had been together
through those brief autumn days, in the sleepy old towns and villages of
the Indre, content in each other's joys, I could not longer declare
within myself that hers had been mere theatrical emotion.  Yes, she had
loved me then, this high-born woman, over whose beauty half Paris raved,
and I, in my ignorance, had fondly imagined our love would last always.
The experiment of the masquerade had amused her at first, perhaps, but
soon, alas! she had grown tired of life in a ten-roomed house in a quiet
road in Kensington, and with a brief, cruel farewell had returned to her
jewel-case the ring I had placed upon her slim finger, and left me with
ruthless disregard for all the love I had bestowed upon her.  Yet after
all, was it really surprising that she, the daughter of an Imperial
House, should become weary of the humdrum life she had been compelled to
lead with one whose private income, outside his salary, was a paltry
nine hundred a year?

While we lived together, she had apparently exercised the greatest
caution not to show herself possessed of money, for she always did her
shopping in Kensington High Street, with due regard to economy, as
became the wife of a man of limited means.  Never once had she grumbled
or sighed because she could not purchase higher-priced hats or dresses,
but, always content, she had, I remembered, been proud to exhibit to me
those odds-and-ends picked up in drapers' shops, so dear to the feminine
heart, and known as bargains.  When I had regretted my small income, as
I had done more than once, she had fondly kissed me, declaring herself
perfectly willing to wait until I had obtained a diplomatic and more
lucrative appointment.  "You have an excellent friend in the Earl," she
would say, smiling sweetly.  "He is certain to give you a post before
long.  Be patient."

I had been patient, and had lost her.

Plunged in deep despair, I turned into the courtyard of the hotel, and
sat down to think.  As I did so a servant handed me a telegram.  It was
from Lord Warnham at Osborne, requesting my return on the morrow.

The one thought that possessed me was that Ella--or the woman I had
known and adored under that name--was in Paris.  Could I leave without
seeing her?  She had deserted me, it was true, yet my passion was at
that moment as intense even as it had been in those calm autumn days
when we had wandered together along the peaceful lanes around old-world
Chateauroux, hand-in-hand, in sweet contentment.  In those
never-to-be-forgotten hours we both possessed the delights of love and
fever of happiness.  To us everything was passion, ecstasy and delirium.
We both felt as if we were living in a rose-coloured atmosphere; the
heights of sentimentality glistened in our imaginations, and common
everyday existence appeared to us to be far down below in the distance--
in the shade between the gaps in these heights.  I still felt the
softness of that tiny hand I had so often pressed to my lips; I still
felt the clasp of her arms about my neck; I still saw her deep blue eyes
gazing into mine as we interchanged vows of eternal fidelity.

The cry of a man selling the _Soir_ aroused me.  I rose suddenly.  Yes,
I must see her again.  I must see her, if for the last time.

Stepping into a cab, I directed the man to drive to her house, then,
seating myself, glanced at my watch.  It was already near midnight.

Soon, with the clip-clap of the horse's hoofs sounding upon the
asphalte, we were crossing the Place de la Concorde, rendered bright by
its myriad lights, then entering the broad avenue we passed the lines of
illuminated cafes half-hidden by the trees surrounding them, and,
driving on for some ten minutes, at last pulled up among a number of
private carriages that were setting down guests before a great mansion,
where I alighted.

One of those brilliant _fetes_ that were the talk of Paris was
apparently about to commence, for many notabilities were arriving, and
as I went forward to the spacious portico I was preceded by two pretty
laughing girls attended by a tall and distinguished-looking man of
military appearance.  I drew back while they entered the great,
brilliantly-lit hall with its fine marble staircase and profusion of
exotics; then, when they had passed on, I inquired in French of the
gigantic Russian concierge whether Her Highness was at home.

"Yes, m'sieur," answered the man, gruffly, scanning me closely, noticing
that I was attired in a suit of dark tweed, for so suddenly had I left
England that I had had no time to take with me a claw-hammer coat.  "Her
Highness is at home, m'sieur, but she is engaged," he said, when he had
thoroughly inspected me.

I half drew my card-case from my pocket, but fearing lest she might not
see me if she knew my name, I said,--

"Go to her, and say that a friend craves one moment of her time upon an
important matter."

"M'sieur gives no card?" he inquired, with a quick, interrogative look
of suspicion.

"No," I answered.

He led me across the hall wherein hung an elaborate Russian ikon, down
one long well-carpeted corridor and then along another, at last ushering
me into a great apartment resplendent with mirrors, statuary and gilt
furniture, the latter bearing embroidered upon the crimson backs of the
chairs her monogram, "E.N," surmounted by a Russian coronet.  In the
costly inlaid cabinets were arranged many pieces of priceless china, the
carpet was of rich turquoise blue, the tables of ebony were inlaid with
silver, and over all electric lamps, dotted here and there, shaded by
coral silk, shed a warm, subdued light.  Near the four long windows that
occupied one end of the great room was a grand piano, upon which two
photographs in ormolu frames stood conspicuously.  I crossed to look at
them and discovered that one was my own, that she had evidently taken
with her when she had so suddenly left my house, and the other a
portrait of the man who had betrayed me--Dudley Ogle.

Slowly my eyes wandered around the elegant apartment, unable to realise
that this handsome, luxurious abode could actually be my wife's home.
How mean and paltry indeed must our small drawing-room in Phillimore
Gardens have appeared to her after all this stately magnificence and
rigid etiquette.  As I passed through the great mansion, one of the
largest private residences in Paris, my nostrils had been greeted by the
subtle odours of exotics, and upon my ears there had fallen the strains
of an orchestra somewhere in the opposite wing of the building.  Guests
were evidently not shown to the side of the house where I had been
conducted, for not a sound penetrated there.  All was quiet, peaceful
and stately.

Suddenly, just as I bent to more closely examine Dudley's portrait, and
had distinguished that it was a copy similar to the one I had seen in
Sonia's possession, the door was thrown wide-open by a tall, liveried
servant, who entered, and, bowing low, announced in stentorian
tones,--"Her Imperial Highness Elizaveta Nicolayevna."

The rapid frou-frou of silk sounded outside, and next second my wife and
I stood face to face.

In an instant the colour left her cheeks.  She staggered as if she had
been dealt a blow, but managing to regain her self-possession, she
turned quickly to the servant, and in a frigid tone said,--

"Go, Anton.  And see that I am not disturbed."

The man, glancing at me for a moment in unfeigned surprise, bowed, and
withdrew in silence.

I stood motionless, gazing upon her, noting the beauty of her costume,
the brilliance of her diamonds, and the deathly pallor of her adorable
face.

"Geoffrey!" she gasped at last.  In a half-fearful whisper she repeated
my name, adding, "So you have found me!"

With a quick, impetuous movement she walked unevenly towards me, with
rustling skirts and outstretched hands.  It seemed to me, as I looked at
her, as if my soul flew towards her, spreading at first like a wave
around the outline of her head, and then, attracted by the whiteness of
her breast, descended into her.

"Yes," I said, slowly and gravely.  "I have found you, Ella."

"Ah, no!" she cried, advancing so close to me that the well-remembered
odour of sampaguita intoxicated me.  I felt her warm, passionate breath
upon my cheek.  "Do not call me longer by that false name.  Forget it--
forget it all, and call me by my right name--Elizaveta."

"It is impossible," I answered.

"No, do not say that," she cried hoarsely.  "I--I know I have deceived
you, Geoffrey.  I lied to you.  But forgive me.  Tell me that you will
some day forget."

"Think," I said, in a low, reproachful tone, my heart filled with grief
to overflowing--"think how you have wrecked my life," I urged.  "You
masqueraded before me as a plain English girl; you married me and
allowed me to adore you--ah! better than all the world besides--until
you grew tired and left our poor, matter-of-fact home to reassume your
true station--that of a Grand Duchess.  You never loved me; but it
amused you, I suppose, to become the wife of a man who was compelled to
earn his livelihood.  The economy you practised while with me was a new
sensation to you, and your--"

"Stop!" she cried vehemently, putting up her tiny hand to my mouth, as
had been her habit long ago when she wished to arrest the flow of my
words.  "Stop!  I cannot bear it!  I tell you I did love you, Geoffrey.
I love you now, dearer than life."

"Then why did you practise such base deception?"  I demanded.  "Why did
you leave me and cast aside my wedding-ring?"

"I--I was compelled," she faltered.

"Compelled!"  I echoed, in a voice full of bitter sarcasm.  "I do not--
indeed I cannot blame you for regretting the false step you took when
you consented to become my wife, yet why you should have done this is to
me utterly incomprehensible."

"It will all be plain ere long," she assured me, in a low, intense
voice.  "If I had not loved you, I should never have become your wife."

"But you were cruel to deceive me thus," I retorted.

"It is my misfortune, Geoffrey, that I was born a Grand Duchess," she
answered, looking straight at me with her deep blue eyes full of intense
anxiety and sorrow.  "It is not my fault.  I swear I still love you with
a love as honest and pure as ever a woman entertained towards a man."

"But after deceiving me in every particular regarding both the past and
the present, you thought fit to leave me," I went on ruthlessly.

"Ah!" she exclaimed, as if reflecting, "I admit that I wronged you
cruelly; yes, I admit it all, everything.  Nevertheless, since we have
parted, Geoffrey, I have recollected daily, with a thousand heartfelt
regrets, the supreme joy of our married life.  Ah! it was happiness,
indeed, with you, the man I so dearly loved.  But now," and she shrugged
her shoulders, half-hidden in their pale blue chiffon, the movement
causing her diamonds to gleam with fiery iridescence.  "Now, without
your love, I have happiness no longer.  All is despair."

"I have not forgotten.  Every detail of our brief, joyous life together
is still fresh in my memory," I declared sorrowfully.

"Forgotten!  How can either of us forget?" she cried impetuously,
pushing back from her white brow her gold-brown hair, with its
scintillating star.  "Only in those few months spent by your side,
Geoffrey, have I known what it is to really live and to love.  Although
I have been absent from you I have, nevertheless, known from time to
time how you have fared, yet I dared not give you any sign as to my
whereabouts, fearing that you would brand me as base and heartless.  To
you I must appear so, I know; yet, although we are separated, I am still
your wife and you my husband.  I still love you.  Forgive me."

And she stood before me with bent head in penitent attitude, her slight
frame shaken by tremulous emotion.

A lump rose in my throat.  I felt choked by the intoxication of her
love, for I idolised her.  Yet I knew that, although my wife, she could
never be the same to me as in those blissful days in Kensington before
the shadow of suspicion fell between us.

"You are silent, Geoffrey," she whispered hoarsely at last, starting at
the sound of her own voice.  Then, throwing her soft arms about my neck,
she clung to me passionately, as she was wont to do in those bygone days
of happiness, saying, "You cannot deny that you still care for me--that
I am yours.  Yet you are thinking of the past; of what you regard as my
base faithlessness!  My actions were, I admit, full of apparent
ingratitude.  Yes, I cast your great love beneath my feet and trampled
it in the mire, not because I am what I am, I swear, but because such
action was imperative--because I was striving for my emancipation."

"Your emancipation?"  I exclaimed, with a touch of anger.  "From your
marriage vows, it seems."

"Ah, no!" cried the Grand Duchess, throwing back her white neck, which
rose with her hot, panting breath.  "No, no, not that!  I struggled to
free myself from a tie so hateful that I believe I should have killed
myself were it not that I loved you so fondly, and hoped that some day
happiness would again be ours.  But, alas!  I strove in vain; for, when
within an ace of success, you became filled with suspicion and accused
me of unfaithfulness, while it became imperative, almost at the same
moment, that I should return to the position I had sought to relinquish.
Since I fled from you I have lived on from day to day full of bitter
regrets and in constant fear lest you should discover that I was not
what I represented myself to be, and come here to demand an explanation.
Well, at last you have come, and--and all I can now do is to assure you
that I acted in our mutual interests, and to implore your forgiveness."

I still gazed at her without replying.

"Forgive me, Geoffrey," she repeated.  "One cannot get accustomed to the
loss of happiness, and I cannot live without you; indeed, I cannot.  Say
that we may begin again, that, even though we must for the present be
parted, we may still love and live for each other.  See!  I am laughing
and am happy," she cried hysterically.  "Speak!  Do speak to me?"

Tears were trembling in her deep, wonderful eyes like dewdrops in the
calix of a blue flower, and without knowing what I did, I stroked her
silky hair.  Slowly she bent her head, and at last I softly kissed her
eyelids.

"Yes," I said huskily, "I love you, Ella--for I can call you by no other
name, and cannot think of you other than as the woman I believed you to
be.  I can see that although we are man and wife in the eyes of the law,
that you were right to end the folly, even though you were unable to do
it without some pangs of conscience.  You are my wife, it is true, but
our lives lie apart, for your position precludes you from acknowledging
me to the world as your husband.  You--"

"Yes, I will.  I will, Geoffrey!  Soon I shall be freed from this
terrible yoke that crushes me beneath its burden," she exclaimed
eagerly.  "Be patient, and ere long we may again live together and enjoy
our happiness to the full.  You still doubt that I really love you.  You
believe that my marriage was a mere freak, of which I afterwards
repented, and then strove to hide my identity.  What can I do?" she
cried, dismayed.  "What can I do to give you proof that I love no other
man?"

"One very small action," I answered gravely, still holding her slight,
trembling form in my arms.

"What is it?" she inquired quickly, glancing up into my face.  "I am
ready to do it, whatever it is."

For a moment I paused in hesitation.

"Answer me a single question, Ella," I said.  "Remember you are my wife,
and should have no secrets from me.  Tell me, truthfully and honestly,
how there came into your possession the secret document that was stolen
from me on the day of Dudley's death."

The colour left her face, her lips moved, and a slight shiver ran over
her shoulders as she gazed at me.  Never before had her eyes seemed so
large, nor had there been such depths in them.  Some subtle influence
seemed in an instant to have transfigured her whole being.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.

THE SEAL OF SILENCE.

"No, you must not ask me, for I cannot tell you," she faltered, after I
had gravely repeated my earnest inquiry.  She shrank from my embrace,
and as she stood before me, her handsome head was bent in an attitude of
utter dejection.

"Ah, the same lame story?"  I cried impatiently.  "You refuse."

She raised her sad eyes.  I saw in their clear depths a yearning for
pity.

"I dare not tell you yet, Geoffrey," she whispered, in a strained,
terrified voice.

"You know well how much keen anxiety the loss of that document caused
me," I said.  "Why did you not tell me that it was in your keeping?"

"It was not in my keeping," she protested.  "I recovered it only a few
days before we parted."

"But you knew something of its whereabouts?"  I argued.

"I was not certain," she vaguely replied, her slim fingers picking at
the bands of pearl passementerie across the flimsy chiffon of her
bodice.

With an expression of disbelief I turned from her.

"Ah, Geoffrey," she cried wildly, "I am fully conscious of what your
thoughts must be.  Now that you have discovered my true position, that I
am a Russian, you believe I had a hand in the theft of the Anglo-German
Convention; that by my machinations its text was transmitted to St
Petersburg--eh?"

No answer passed my lips, but I think I bowed my head in confirmation of
her fevered words.

"Well, it is untrue, as you will learn some day.  It is untrue, I
swear," she exclaimed with terrible earnestness.  "Instead of
endeavouring to bring suspicion and opprobrium upon you, and disaster
upon the nations of Europe, I have striven both night and day to clear
away the ill effect produced by the dastard revelations made to our
Ministry in St Petersburg.  Remember that the single spark required to
fire the mine and convulse the world from Calais to Pekin was not
applied; the Tzar refrained from declaring war.  Some day you, and
through you, the British Government, will know the reason a recourse to
arms was averted.  When you are made aware of the truth, then no longer
will you misjudge me."

She spoke with a fervency that was entirely unfeigned; her bright eyes
met mine with unwavering glance, and with a quick movement she had
placed one hand upon her breast as if to allay the palpitation there.
Her heart was full; upon her fair face was an expression of mingled
anxiety and dread, and her bejewelled hands trembled.

"I am your husband," I said calmly.  "If I promise you not to divulge--
surely I may know your secret whatever it may be."

"No," she answered, speaking almost mechanically, "I dare not tell you
anything at present.  It would be fatal to all my plans--fatal to me,
and to you."

"You speak so strangely," I observed, with some warmth.  "Mystery seems
one of your idiosyncrasies."

"Ah," she sighed, advancing a step towards me, her head sunk upon her
breast, "it is imperative.  You cannot know how I have suffered,
Geoffrey, ever since we met.  Long ago at `The Nook,' fearing that I
should bring you unhappiness, I strove to tear myself from you and
return here to this life, but was unable.  I loved you, and hated all
the strict etiquette and theatrical display with which I am bound to
surround myself, merely because I chance to be born of an Imperial
family.  I married you, and, content in the knowledge that you loved me
devotedly, I was prepared to renounce my name and live quietly with you
always.  But, alas! we of the Romanoffs are ruled by the head of our
House, and our actions are ofttimes in obedience to the will of the
Emperor.  I was compelled to depart without revealing to you the secret
of my birth."

"But why did you masquerade in that manner?"  I inquired.

"At first I did so in order to avoid all the trammels of Court life in
St Petersburg, the eternal gaiety of la Ville Lumiere, and to be free to
do what I liked and go where I chose," she answered.  "Soon, however, my
life as Ella Laing became a stern reality, for I met and loved you."

"Then you regretted?"

"I regretted only because I feared that I cared for you too much--that
one day we should be compelled to part."

"You knew that it was impossible for you to renounce both title and
position," I hazarded, looking at her gravely.

"I feared that my family would not allow me to do so," she answered
frankly.  "Yet you proposed marriage; we became man and wife, and the
first weeks of our new life were full of joy and happiness.  Soon,
however, the Nemesis that I dreaded fell upon me, crushing all desire
for life from my heart.  I was compelled to fly and leave you in
ignorance."

"And you forgot that in your escritoire there remained the stolen
agreement?"  I said slowly, looking straight into her pale face.

"Yes, I admit it," she replied, in a voice almost inaudible, her dry
lips moving convulsively.  "So full was my mind of thoughts of you that
I did not remember it until too late to return and secure it."

"The woman who passed as Mrs Laing was not, of course, your mother?"

"She was no relation whatever.  I paid her to pose as my maternal
relative and keep house for me."

"Where is she now?"

"I have no idea," my wife answered.  "She was a curious woman, and,
strangely enough, she left London suddenly, on the very morning of the
day of my departure."

"And what of Beck?"  I asked.  "Did he know who you really were?"

"Scarcely," she exclaimed.  "Do you think he could have kept to himself
the knowledge that I was a relative of the Tzar.  Why, such a man would
have related the fact that he knew me, and dined at our house, to every
member of his club within twenty-four hours.  You know, as well as I do,
how he simply adores anybody with a title.  It is the same with all the
newly-wealthy crowd who are struggling to get into society."

It was upon my tongue to explain to her the truth regarding the
man-servant who passed as Helmholtz; nevertheless, I hesitated to do so
at present because of my promise to Paul Verblioudovitch.  The silence
between us was protracted.  She had covered her tear-stained face with
her hands, and was sobbing.

Nevertheless, I was not moved with pity.  Her determination to preserve
her secret filled me with annoyance.  I had expected her to make
confession, but I plainly saw she had no intention of revealing the
truth.

"Why did you associate with a woman of such doubtful reputation as Sonia
Korolenko?"  I asked abruptly at last.

"Because I wished to ascertain something," she replied, in a harsh
voice.

"She is scarcely your friend," I observed.

"She is," she declared.  "I have known her for several years."

"And you were actually aware of her true character while associating
with her!"  I exclaimed, rather surprised.

"Of course," she sighed.  "She is an adventuress, I know; nevertheless,
she has proved my friend on many occasions."

"That's curious," I remarked.

"Why?"

"Because she made certain allegations against you," I answered.

"Yes," she said, without betraying either anger or surprise.  "I am
fully aware of that.  Strange though it may appear, her statements were
made with a definite object."

"Why did she utter such unfounded calumnies?"

"Because I wished to see whether you really loved me," she answered,
drawing herself up and regarding me with sudden calmness.  At that
moment she assumed the air of the Grand Duchess.

"I did love you," I declared, "and I took no heed of her assertions.  I
notice, however," I added, turning and pointing towards the piano, "I
notice that you have placed in a position of conspicuousness the
portrait of the man she declared was your lover.  Side by side you have
placed the pictures of betrayer and betrayed."

She held her breath, gazing across to the spot I had indicated.  Then,
in a voice full of emotion, she said,--

"You were foully betrayed, Geoffrey, it is true, but the evil that was
done has now been eradicated."

"In other words, Ogle has paid the death penalty, eh?"  I observed, with
a grim expression of satisfaction.

"No, no, not that," she protested seriously.  "I mean that the strained
relations between your country and mine have now been readjusted, and
that a feeling more amicable than before prevails.  Even the Earl of
Warnham must admit the plain truth that no Power joins another in war
unless it sees its own interest in so doing.  Russia now, as before the
effusion of hearts here in Paris, will attend to her own business, and
will not send her Black Sea and Baltic Fleets flying out unless her
interests bring her into collision with your British Government--and
then it may happen it will not be the interest of France to fight.  In
the latter days of Louis Philippe there was talk of a Franco-Russian
alliance, and there were people who knew--they did not think they knew
on the best authority--that the two would be one next spring.  Yet Louis
Philippe went over to your England an exile by the useful name of Smith,
and before long France and England were allied in war against my
country.  No, good counsel has prevailed, and by the very revelation of
the secret alliance contracted between England and Germany, European
peace has been secured."

"You talk like a diplomatist," I observed reflectively.

She shrugged her shoulders, and with a forced laugh said,--

"It is but natural that I should take an interest in the affairs of
nations, I suppose."

"Let us put them aside," I said.  "We are not rival diplomatists, but
husband and wife; we--"

"Yes, yes," she cried, interrupting.  "I am happy because you are here
with me; you, whose presence I have been fearing for so long.  See!  I
smile and am happy;" and she gave vent to a hollow, discordant laugh.

"Happy because you have so successfully mystified me," I sighed.

"No.  Happy because I love you, Geoffrey," she exclaimed, again throwing
her arms affectionately about my neck, and raising her full red lips to
mine.  "Forgive me; do say you will forgive me," she implored.

"How can I ever forget the ingenuity and deep cunning with which you
deceived me," I said.  "I cannot but recollect how, on that night at
Chesham House, Grodekoff congratulated you upon your marriage, yet how
careful he was not to disclose to me your identity.  Again, even my
friend Verblioudovitch must have known who you really were.  Why did he
not tell me?"

"Because the staff of the Embassy had already received strict orders
from St Petersburg not to acknowledge me," she exclaimed, with a smile.
"Lord Warnham fancied he recognised me, and spoke to the Ambassador; but
the latter succeeded in assuring him that before marriage I was Ella
Laing, and that the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Nicolayevna was at that
moment with the Tzarina at Tzarskoie-Selo.  He believed it, and
afterwards M'sieur Grodekoff assured me that was the first occasion he
had been enabled to successfully deceive your lynx-eyed Foreign
Minister."

"You feared that the Earl might recognise you," I exclaimed, surprised,
for I now remembered the effect produced on my chief when his eyes had
first fallen upon my wife.  "You knew him, then?"

"Ah, no," she faltered; "well, we were not exactly acquainted," and she
appeared rather confused, I thought, for her cheeks were suffused by the
faintest suspicion of a blush.

"Did you expect he would be there?"

"No; you told me distinctly that he was not going, otherwise I should
never have accompanied you," she said frankly.

"Why?"

"Because I did not desire to meet him," she replied, adding, with a
laugh, "As it was, however, he was satisfied, and went away marvelling,
no doubt, at the striking resemblance."

"Yet you told me nothing," I observed reproachfully.

"No; I was afraid," she replied, in a serious voice.  "With you I lived
on from day to day, fearing detection, dreading lest you should discover
some facts regarding my past, and by their light believe me to be an
adventuress.  Yet, at the same time, I worked on to achieve my freedom
from a yoke which had become so galling that, now I loved you, I could
endure it no longer."

"And did you not succeed in breaking asunder this mysterious bond?"  I
inquired, half doubtfully.

"No," she answered, shaking her head sorrowfully.  "By an untoward
circumstance, against which I had not provided, I was prevented, and
compelled to flee."

"If you will divulge absolutely nothing regarding the manner in which
you became possessed of the stolen convention, or the reason you have
masqueraded as my wife, you can at least tell me why you received so
many communications regarding clandestine meetings, and explain who was
your mysterious correspondent who signed himself `X.'"

Her heart beat quickly; she sighed, and lowered her gaze.  She strove to
preserve a demeanour of calm hauteur as befitted her station, but in
vain.

"You have also found those letters," she remarked, her voice trembling.

"Yes.  Tell me the truth and put my mind at ease."

"I can put your mind entirely at ease by assuring you, as I did after
you detected me walking in Kensington Gardens, that I have had no lover
besides yourself, Geoffrey," she cried vehemently.  "I have told you
already that I worked to secure freedom of action in the future.  Those
letters were from one who rendered me considerable assistance."

"What was his name?"  I demanded quickly.

"I may not tell you that," was her answer, uttered in a quiet, firm
tone.

"Then, speaking plainly, you refuse, even now, to give me any
elucidation whatever of this irritating mystery, or to allow me to
obtain any corroboration of your remarkable story," I said, with a
sudden coldness.

She noticed my change of manner, and clung to me with uplifted face,
pale and agitated.  Her attempt to treat me as other than her husband
had utterly failed.

"Ah! do not speak so cruelly," she exclaimed, panting.  "I--I really
cannot bear it, Geoffrey--indeed I can't.  You must have seen that I
loved you.  I was, when I married, prepared to sacrifice all for your
sake; nay, I did sacrifice everything until--until I was forced from
you, and thrust back here to this place, that to me is little else than
a gilded prison.  Ah?" she cried, sobbing bitterly, and gazing around
her in despair, "you cannot know how deeply I have sorrowed, how
poignant has been the grief in the secret and inmost recesses of my
heart; or how, through these months, while I have been travelling, I
have longed to see you once again, and hear your voice telling me of
your love.  But, alas! without knowledge of the strange secret that
seals my lips, you can know nothing--nothing!"

"I only know that I still adore you," I said, with heartfelt fervency.

"Ah!  I knew you did," she exclaimed, raising her eager lips to mine in
ecstasy.  "I knew you would pity me when you came, yet I feared--I
feared because I had lied to you, and deceived you so completely."  Then
she kissed my lips, but I did not return her hot, passionate caress,
although I confess it made my head reel.

"You have not forgiven," she exclaimed, in a voice quivering with
emotion, as she drew back.  "You have not yet promised that you will
still regard me as your wife."

I hesitated.  The startling fact of her true station, and the revelation
of how ingeniously I had been tricked, caused me a slight revulsion of
feeling.  Somehow, as Grand Duchess she seemed an entirely different
being to the plain, unassuming woman I had known as Ella.  From the
crown of her well-dressed hair to the point of her tiny, white kid shoe
with its pearl embroidery, she was a patrician; the magnificence of her
dress and jewels dazzled me, yet in her declarations of devotion her
voice seemed to be marred by some indefinable but spurious ring.

Even now she was deceiving me.  She would allow no word of her
mysterious secret to pass her lips.  It had always been the same.  She
would tell me absolutely nothing, vaguely asserting that to utter the
truth would be to invoke an avenging power that she dreaded.  I
remembered how she had seemed terrorised on more than one occasion when
I had demanded the truth, yet what I had learned that night increased my
suspicions.

"If I forgive and seek no explanation of the past," I said at last, "we
must, I suppose, remain parted."

"Ah, yes!" she gasped.  "But only for a few short weeks.  Then we will
come together again never to part--never."

"I can forgive on one condition only," I said--"that you tell me the
truth regarding the dastardly theft from me on the day of Dudley's
death."

For an instant she was silent.  Then, burying her face on my shoulder,
sobbing, she answered in a tone so low as to be almost inaudible,--

"I cannot!"

Gently but firmly I put her from me, although she clung about my neck,
urging me to pity her.

"I cannot pity you if you refuse to repose confidence in me," I
answered.

"I do not refuse," she cried.  "It is because my secret is of such a
nature that, if divulged, it would wreck both your own happiness and
mine."

"Then to argue further is absolutely useless," I answered coldly.  "We
must part."

"You intend to leave me without forgiveness," she wailed.  "Ah, you will
not be so cruel, Geoffrey.  Surely you can see how passionately I love
you."

"You do not, however, love me sufficiently well to risk all consequences
of divulging your mysterious secret," I retorted, with almost brutal
indifference, turning slowly from her.

"Then kiss me, Geoffrey," she cried wildly, springing towards me and
again entwining her soft arms about my neck.  "Kiss me once again--if
for the last time."

Our lips met for an instant, then slowly I disengaged myself and strode
towards the door.  In her refusal to throw light upon the incidents that
had so long held me perplexed and bewildered, I fancied she was
shielding someone.  Although crushed and downcast, I had resolved to go
forth into the world again with my terrible burden of sorrow concealed
beneath a smiling countenance.  I regretted deeply that I had sought
her, now that I was aware of the gulf that lay between us.

"Stay, Geoffrey!  Stay.  I cannot bear that you should go," she wailed.

Halting, I turned towards her, saying,--

"When I have learnt the truth, then only will I return.  Till then, I
can have no faith in you."

"But you are my husband, Geoffrey.  I love you."

She tottered forward unevenly, as if to follow me, but ere I could save
her she staggered and fell forward upon the carpet in a dead faint.

I rang the bell violently, then, with a final glance at the blanched
features of the woman I so dearly loved, I passed out, struggling
through the brilliant, laughing throng of guests in the great hall, and
was soon alone in utter dejection beneath the trees in the long, gas-lit
avenue.

CHAPTER THIRTY.

HONOUR AMONG THIEVES.

In brilliant sunshine, with the larks singing merrily in the cloudless
vault of blue, and the air heavy with the scent of hay, I drove from
Horsham station along the old turnpike road to Warnham Hall.  A carriage
had been sent for me, as usual, and as I sat back moodily, I fear I saw
little of interest in the typical English landscape.  The joys of the
world were dead to me, consumed as I was by the one great sorrow of my
life.  My mind was full of the tristful past.  I had reached London from
Paris on the previous night, and in response to a telegram from the
Earl, saying he had left Osborne and gone to the Hall, I had travelled
down by the morning train.

As we entered the park and drove up the broad, well-kept drive, the
startled deer bounded away, and the emus raised their small heads with
resentful, inquiring glance, but dashing along, the pair of spanking
bays quickly brought me up to the great grey portico.  As soon as I
alighted I handed over my traps to one of the servants and walked
straight to the great oak-panelled dining-room.

As I paused at the door, it suddenly opened, and a man emerged so
quickly that he almost stumbled over me.  Our eyes met.  I stood aghast,
staring as if I had seen an apparition.  In the semi-darkness of the
corridor I doubt whether my face was quite distinguishable, but upon his
there shone the slanting rays of light from an old diamond-paned window.
In a instant I recognised the features, although I had only seen them
once before.

It was the foppish young man who had been Ella's companion on that
lonely walk in Kensington Gardens.

Why he had visited the Earl was an inscrutable mystery.  He regarded me
in surprise for a single instant, then, thrusting both hands negligently
into his trousers pockets, strode leisurely away along the corridor, a
straw hat with black and white band placed jauntily at the back of his
head.  I watched him until he had turned the corner and disappeared,
then I entered the great old-fashioned apartment.

"Well, Deedes!" exclaimed the Earl, in a voice that was unusually
cheerful.  He was standing at the window gazing across the park, but my
presence caused him to turn sharply.  "Back again, then?"

"Yes.  I think I have fulfilled the mission," I managed to exclaim.
Truth to tell, this extraordinary encounter had caused me considerable
perplexity and annoyance.

"You have done excellently," he said.  "A telegram this morning from
Lord Worthorpe shows with what tact you put matters to him, and I am
glad to tell you that his interview with the President proved entirely
satisfactory.  I wired the news to Her Majesty only half-an-hour ago."

"I did my best," I observed, perhaps a trifle carelessly, for there was
another matter upon which I was anxious to consult my eccentric
benefactor.

"The task was one of unusual difficulty, I admit, Deedes, and you have
shown yourself fully qualified for a post abroad.  You shall have one
before long."

At other times I should have warmly welcomed the enthusiasm of this
speech, and thanked him heartily for the promise of a more lucrative
position, but now, crushed and hopeless, I felt that joy had left my
soul for ever, and merely replied,--

"I am quite satisfied to be as I am.  I do not care for the Continent."

"Why?" he inquired, surprised.  "If you remain in the Service here you
will have but little chance of distinguishing yourself, whereas in Rome,
Constantinople or Berlin, you might obtain chances of promotion."

"I have been already in St Petersburg, you remember," I said.

"Ah, of course.  But you didn't get on very well there," he said.  "It
is a difficult staff for younger men to work amongst.  You'd be more
comfortable in Vienna, perhaps.  Viennese society would suit you,
wouldn't it?"

"No," I replied, very gravely.  "I fear that henceforward I shall be,
like yourself, a hater of society and all its ways."

"Oh?" he exclaimed, placing his hands beneath his coat-tails, a habit of
his when about to enter any earnest consultation.  "Why?"

"Well, if you desire to know the truth," I said, "it concerns my
marriage."

"Ah, of course!" he observed, with deep sorrow.  "I had quite forgotten
that unfortunate affair.  Yet time will cause you to forget.  You are
young, remember, Deedes--very young, compared with an old stager like
myself."

"It is scarcely likely that I shall forget so easily," I said, after a
slight pause.  "Since I have been in Paris I have made a discovery that
has bewildered me.  I confide in you because you are the only person who
knows the secret of my wife's flight."

"Quite right," he said, regarding me with those piercing eyes shaded by
their grey shaggy, brows.  "If I can assist you or give you advice I am
always pleased, for the romance of your marriage is the strangest I have
ever known."

"Yes," I acquiesced, "and the truth I have accidentally learnt still
stranger.  I have discovered that my wife was never Ella Laing, as I had
believed, but that she really is the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Nicolayevna
of Russia."

"The Grand Duchess!" he cried, amazed, his eyes aflame in an instant.
"Are you certain of this; have you absolute proof?"

"Absolute.  I have seen her, and she has admitted it, and told me that
she masqueraded in England as Ella Laing because she desired to avoid
Court etiquette for a time," I said.

"Grodekoff lied," he growled in an ebullition of anger.  "I recognised
her at the Embassy ball when you pointed her out, yet the Ambassador
assured me that Her Highness was at that moment in Russia.  We have both
been tricked, Deedes.  But he who laughs last laughs longest."

He had folded his arms and was standing resolutely before me, gazing
upon the dead green carpet deep in thought.

"The mystery becomes daily more puzzling," he said at length, seating
himself.  "Tell me all that transpired between you."

I sank into a chair opposite the renowned chief of the Foreign Office
and repeated the conversation that had taken place at our interview,
while he listened attentively without hazarding a single remark.

"Then again she would tell you nothing," exclaimed the Earl, when I had
concluded.  "She refused absolutely to divulge her secret."

"Yes," I said.  "I promised to forgive if she would only tell me the
truth.  She refused; so we have parted."

"And what do you intend doing?"

"I intend to seek the truth for myself," I answered with fierce resolve.

"How?"

"I have not yet decided," I said.  "The reason she took such infinite
pains to conceal her identity is incomprehensible, but her firm
resolution to preserve her secret at all hazards appears as though she
is in deadly fear of exposure by some person or other who can only be
conciliated by absolute silence."

"Then we must discover who that person is."

I nodded, answering:--"I intend to do so."

Presently, after he had crossed and recrossed the room several times
with hands behind his back, murmuring to himself in apparent discontent,
but in tones that were undistinguishable, I turned to him saying,--

"As I entered, a visitor left you.  Who is he?"

"Cecil Bingham.  He is staying with me for a few days."

"A friend?"

"Well--yes," answered his Lordship, halting, and regarding me with no
little surprise.  "What do you know of him?"

At first I hesitated, but on reflection resolved to explain the
circumstances in which we had met, and slowly related to him how I had
encountered him with my wife in Kensington Gardens on that
well-remembered wintry afternoon.

The Earl grew grave, and after observing that Bingham had arrived on the
previous day to spend a week, he for some moments stood looking
aimlessly out of the window upon the broad park and the great sheet of
water glistening in the sunlight beyond.  Then, muttering something I
could not catch, he walked quickly back to the fireplace, and touched
the electric bell.

"Ask Mr Bingham to see me for a moment," he exclaimed, when the man
answered the summons, and in a few minutes the Earl's guest came in with
that affected jaunty air that had caused me to class him as a cad.

When he had entered, the Earl himself walked to the door and softly
closed it, then, turning, said in a hard, dry voice,--

"This, Cecil, is my secretary, Deedes, the husband of the woman known as
Ella Laing, with whom you have, I understand, been in correspondence,
and have met clandestinely on many occasions."

"What do you mean?" he cried, resentfully, glancing from the Earl to
myself.  "I know no one of that name.  You are mistaken."

"There is no mistake," answered the great statesman, coldly, at the same
time taking from an old oak bureau a large linen-lined envelope of the
kind used in our Department.  From a drawer he took one of his visitor's
letters, while from the envelope he drew forth a second letter.  At a
glance I saw that the latter was one of those mysterious missives signed
"X" that had been received by my wife.  Opening both, he placed them
together and handed them to me without comment.

They were in the same handwriting.

"Do you deny having written that letter?" asked the Minister, sternly,
at the same time showing him the note.  He made a motion to take it, but
suddenly drew away his hand.  His lips contracted, his face grew pale,
and with a gesture of feigned contempt he waved the Earl's hand aside.

"Do you deny it?" repeated my chief.

He was still silent--his face a sufficient index to the agitation within
him.

"You have endeavoured to deceive me," continued the Earl, harshly.  "You
have some fixed purpose in accepting my invitation, and coming here to
visit me, but you were unaware that already I had knowledge of facts you
have endeavoured so cunningly to conceal.  It is useless to deny that
you are acquainted with Deedes's wife, for he recognises you as having
walked with her in Kensington Gardens, while I have ascertained at last
who she really is--that her name was never Ella Laing."

He started at this announcement.  His lips moved, but no word escaped
him.

That the Earl should have learned the true name and station of my wife
apparently disconcerted him.  His complexion was of ashen hue; all his
arrogance had left him, for he saw himself cornered.  I stood glaring at
him fiercely, for was not I face to face with the man whom my wife had
met times without number, concealing from me all motive or duration of
her absences?  Some secret had existed between them--he was the man whom
she apparently feared, and whose will she had obeyed.  I felt that now,
at last, I should ascertain the truth, and obtain a key to the strange
perplexing enigma that had held me in doubt and suspicion through so
many weary months.

His shifty gaze met mine; I detected a fierce glint in his eyes.

"Well?" exclaimed his Lordship, as determined as myself upon seeking a
solution of the problem.  "Now that you admit these mysterious meetings
with Her Highness, perhaps you will explain their object."

"I admit nothing," he answered in anger, knitting his brows.  "Neither
have I anything to explain."

"See!" the Earl said, drawing Ella's photograph from the envelope.
"Perhaps you will recognise this picture?" and his bony hand trembled
with suppressed excitement as he placed it before him.

At sight of it my wife's strange friend drew a long breath.  He was
white to the lips.  Never before had I witnessed such a complete change
in any man in so short a period, and especially curious, it seemed, when
I reflected that he had been charged with no very serious crime.

"You may allege whatever it may please you," he said at last, with
affected sarcasm.  "But a woman's honour is safe in my hands."

"My wife's honour!"  I cried, with fierce indignation, walking towards
him threateningly.  I could no longer stand by in silence when I
recollected what Ella had said about being compelled to act according to
the will of another.  She had, no doubt, been under the thrall of this
overdressed dandy.  "Now that we have met," I exclaimed, "you shall
explain to me, her husband."

With a quick movement he strode forward as if to escape us, but in an
instant I had gripped him by the shoulder with fierce determination,
whole the Earl himself, apprehending his intention, placed his back
against the door.

"Speak!"  I cried wildly, shaking him in my anger.  "You shall tell us
the true nature of the secret between you and my wife, and prove your
statement to our satisfaction, or, by heaven, I'll thrash you as a
cunning, cowardly cur!"

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.

DUE EAST.

"Bah!" retorted the Earl's visitor, contemptuously, shaking himself free
with a sudden twist, and standing before me in defiance.  "I
understand," he cried, glancing towards the elder man before the door.
"You believe, gentlemen, that from me you can ascertain a key to certain
curious occurrences that have puzzled you.  But I may as well undeceive
you at once.  I can tell you absolutely nothing."

"But you shall tell us!"  I cried, angrily.  "I found you walking with
my wife in Kensington Gardens, and followed you.  It was apparent from
her demeanour that she feared you."

He smiled sarcastically, and answered with a flippant air:

"Perhaps she did.  If so, she certainly had cause."

"Why?  What power do you hold over her, pray?"  I demanded.

In his eyes was a mysterious glance.  He was scarcely the brainless
young dandy that I had imagined.

"It is hardly likely that I shall divulge to you a secret.  Remember
that your wife comes of one of the highest families in Europe, and the
slightest breath of scandal must reflect upon them."

"At what scandal do you hint?"  I asked, in fierce, breathless
eagerness.

"At what is best kept quiet," he answered, gravely.

His enigmatical words maddened me.  I felt that I could spring upon him
and strangle him, for I knew instinctively that he was my wife's enemy--
the man of whom she lived in deadly fear.  If only I could silence him,
she might then relate to me those long-promised facts.

"Then if you decline to prove that there is a concealed scandal, utter
no more of your lying allegations," I blurted forth.

He bowed deeply with mock politeness, and smiled grimly.

"Come," exclaimed the Earl at last, in a conciliatory tone, advancing
towards him and laying his hand upon his shoulder.  "Let us get at once
to the point.  It is useless to quarrel.  You decline to reveal to us
the nature of your curious friendship with the Grand Duchess--eh?"

"I do," he answered, firmly.

"Well," said the tactful old Minister.  "First carefully review the
situation, and you will, I think, admit that I have been your friend.
And how have you shown your gratitude?"

"By concealing from you a truth both hideous and terrible," he replied,
with apparent unconcern.

"But you can, if you will, give us some clue to this remarkable chain of
circumstances.  I appeal to you on behalf of Deedes, her husband," the
old man said.

"I am well aware of the reason you yourself desire to know the absolute
truth, Lord Warnham," he answered, after a brief pause, "but,
unfortunately, I am unable to tell you, because of certain promises
having been extracted from me."

"At least you can tell us from whom I may ascertain the true facts," I
cried.

He looked at me for an instant gravely, then answered in all
seriousness:

"The only person who knows the truth is Sonia Korolenko, the refugee."

"Sonia!" gasped the Earl.  "That woman is not in England, surely?"

"I think not," Bingham replied.  "But if you would ascertain the key to
the enigma, seek her, and she may explain everything.  That is as far as
I can assist you.  Remember, I myself have revealed nothing."

"She has returned to Russia," I observed.  "Have you any knowledge where
she is?"

"No, there are reasons why her whereabouts should remain unknown," he
answered, hesitatingly.  "She is in fear of the police."

"Do her friends know of her hiding-place?"

"No.  A short time ago I desired to communicate with her, but was
unable.  The last I heard of her was that she was living at Skerstymone,
a little town somewhere in Poland."

"If she can successfully elude the vigilance of the Russian police, I
can have but little hope of finding her," I said, doubtfully.

"Make the attempt, Deedes," the Earl suggested.  "I will give you leave
of absence."

"I intend to do so," I replied; and remembering my wife, lonely amid all
her splendour, I added, "The elucidation of the mystery is, as it has
long since been, the main object of my life."

In consultation we sat a long time.  This caddish young man of whom I
had been so madly jealous had now grown quite calm and communicative,
apparently ready to render me all assistance; yet to my questions
regarding my wife he was as dumb as others had been.  Now, more than
ever, the Earl seemed anxious to solve the strange problem.  With that
object he obtained from the library a section of the large ordnance map
of the Russian Empire, and with it spread before us we discovered that
Skerstymone was a little place remotely situated on the bank of the
Niemen river, within a short distance of the German frontier.  I had
long ago learned from Paul Verblioudovitch that my friend, the
well-known adventuress, had crossed the frontier at Wirballen, or
Verjbolovo, as it is called in Russian; but after that I knew nothing of
her movements.  Bingham seemed anxious to lead me indirectly towards the
truth, and after assuring me with a firm hand-grasp that the secret that
existed between himself and my wife was of a purely platonic nature, and
that he had throughout acted on her behalf, I ate a hasty luncheon and
again left the Hall on the first stage of my long, tedious journey
across Europe.  As I entered the carriage the old Earl and his guest
stood out upon the gravelled drive and heartily wished me "Bon voyage,"
and, waving them farewell, I was whirled away through the great park
that lay silent and breathless beneath the scorching sun.

At the bookstall at Horsham station I bought an early edition of the
_Globe_, and on opening it in the train my eyes fell upon the following
announcement in its "Court and Personal" column,--

"A marriage is arranged, and will shortly take place between Mr. Andrew
Beck, the Member for West Rutlandshire, who is well-known in connection
with African mines, and Miss Gertrude Millard, only daughter of Sir
Maynard Millard, Bart, of Spennythorpe Park, Montgomeryshire."

This was not exactly unexpected, for I had already heard vague rumours
that news of Beck's engagement would shortly be made public, therefore I
tore out the paragraph and placed it in my pocket-book, with the
reflection that my friend's marriage might be more happy than mine.

That evening about six o'clock I called at Chesham House, the Russian
Embassy, and obtained the signature of the Ambassador, Monsieur
Grodekoff, to my passport.  I did not, however, see Verblioudovitch, he
being absent at Brighton, therefore I left the same evening for
Flushing, and after a long and wearisome ride across Germany duly
arrived at Verjbolovo, one of the principal gates of the great Russian
Empire.  The formalities troubled me but little, for I had passed the
frontier on several occasions when stationed in St Petersburg.  After
getting my passport stamped I strolled up and down the platform gazing
about over the flat, uninteresting country, contemplatively smoking a
cigarette, and watching the crowd of tired, worried travellers
experiencing the ways of Russian officialdom for the first time.  Among
them was an elderly Russian lady who, travelling with her three
daughters, good-looking girls, ranging from eighteen to twenty-three,
had omitted to have her passport vised by a Russian Consul outside the
Empire.  So stringent were the regulations that, although they were
subjects of the Tzar returning to their own country, the officer would
not allow them to proceed, and all four were detained while the passport
was sent back to the nearest Russian consul in Germany to be "treated."

At first it had occurred to me to travel on to St Petersburg, and there
endeavour to learn from a police official of my acquaintance whether
Sonia Korolenko had been heard of lately, but on reflection I saw that
every precaution would no doubt be taken by her in order that the police
should not be made aware of her presence in Russian territory.  A
strange vagary of Fate it seemed that through my own action in obtaining
for her a false passport she had been enabled to escape, and that my own
endeavours had actually thwarted my own ends.  As I paced the railway
platform, with the brilliant afterglow shedding a welcome light across
that dead level country so zealously-guarded by the green-coated
sentries in their black and white striped boxes, and Cossack pickets,
each with his "nagaika" stuck in his boot, I remembered with failing
heart how this woman, whose fame was notorious throughout Europe, had
told me that once past this portal of the Tzar's huge domain all traces
of her would be obliterated completely.  This fact in itself convinced
me that she had never intended to travel direct to St Petersburg, and it
became impressed upon me that in order to trace her it would be
necessary to first visit the little out-of-the-world town of
Skerstymone, that was situated a long way to the north along the
frontier.  With that object I allowed the St Petersburg express to
proceed, and after an hour's wait entered a local train, alighting at a
small town euphoniously termed Pilwiszki, where I spent the night in an
exceedingly uncomfortable inn.

Next day I learnt with satisfaction that this town was situated on the
main post-road between Maryampol and Rossieny, and that about thirty
miles due north along this road was Skerstymone.  The innkeeper, at an
exorbitant figure, provided me with a rickety old cart and a pair of
shaggy horses, driven by an uncouth-looking lad, wearing an old peaked
cap so large that his brow and eyes were hidden.  An hour before noon I
set out upon my expedition.  Our way lay across the boundless Nawa
steppe, a plain which stretched away as far as the eye could reach
without a single tree to break its monotony, until at a wretched little
village called Katyle we forded a shallow stream, the Penta, and
presently passed through the town of Szaki.  Soon afterwards the road
became full of deep ruts that jolted us terribly, and for many miles we
travelled through a pine forest until at last we found ourselves at the
ferry before Skerstymone.

In the mystic light of evening the place, standing on the opposite bank
of the Niemen, presented a novel and rather picturesque aspect, with its
wooden houses, their green and brown roofs of painted sheet-iron, but
when landing from the ferry I was soon undeceived.  It was one of those
towns best seen from a distance.  The dirt and squalor were horrible.
For a fortnight I remained at the wretched little inn making inquiries
in all quarters, but could hear nothing of the pretty dark-eyed girl who
had earned such unenviable notoriety, and who in Vienna spent such an
enormous sum in a single year that her extravagance had become
proverbial, even in that most reckless of cities.  That she had been
here was certain from what Bingham had told us, and somehow I had an
instinctive feeling that here the dainty-handed refugee had assumed a
fresh identity, it being dangerous for her to proceed further into
Russia, so well-known was she.  Therefore, with fixed determination, I
still prosecuted my inquiries everywhere, until I found the police
regarding me with considerable mistrust, for the officers of public
order are everywhere ubiquitous in the giant empire of the Tzar.

The hot July sun shone on the dusty streets; through the open windows of
the white-washed barrack-like Government office the scratching of pens
could be heard; the "factors," agents who offer their services to
strangers, lolled in the shade, keeping a watchful eye upon any stranger
who might happen to pass by, and looking out eagerly for a "geschaft,"
or stroke of business.  The townspeople eyed me distrustfully as I
wandered aimlessly about the streets, where tumble-down hovels
alternated with endless expanses of grey moss-grown wood fences and
plots of waste ground heaped with rubbish and offal.  The place was full
of horrible smells, filth, rags, and dirty children, who enjoyed
themselves by rolling in the soft white dust.  At either end of the
noisy, evil-smelling place, a post-road led out along the bank of the
sluggish yellow stream, and at the entrance to the town on the German
side was a "schlagbaum," a pole painted with the national colours that
served as toll-bar, in charge of a sleepy invalided soldier in a dingy
old uniform with a tarnished eagle on his cap, who looked the very
incarnation of undisturbed slumber.

Life in Kovno was by no means diverting.  Truly Skerstymone was a
wretched, half-starved, miserable little place of terribly depressing
aspect, notwithstanding the brilliant sunshine and blue sky.

The long, gloomy days dragged by, but no tidings could I glean of Sonia
Korolenko.  It was evident that if she had ever been there she had
passed under some other name, and that her identity had been lost before
arrival there.

One warm morning, while seated outside a "kabak" moodily watching the
old women in the market selling their twisted rolls of bread called
"kalach," an ill-dressed man approached me, and, touching his shabby cap
respectfully, pronounced my name with strong Russian accent, at the same
time slowly sinking upon the wooden bench beside me.  He was tall and
square-built, with coarse but expressive features.  His long grey hair
was matted and unkempt; his low brow, protruding jaws, and the constant
twitching of his facial muscles reminded me of a monkey, but the stern
eyes shining from beneath a pair of bushy, overhanging brows, spoke of
indomitable energy, cleverness, and cunning.  They never changed; and
while the rest of his face was a perfect kaleidoscope whenever he spoke,
the expression of his eyes remained ever the same.

His confidence surprised me, and I immediately asked him how he had
ascertained my patronymic, to which he replied, not without
hesitation,--

"I am fully aware of your high nobility's object in visiting
Skerstymone.  You are seeking Sonia Korolenko."

"Yes," I replied, in the best Russian I could remember.  "Do you know
her whereabouts?  If you take me to her you shall have a handsome
reward."

He smiled mysteriously, and glanced so wistfully at my vodka that I at
once ordered for him a second glass of the spirit so beloved of the
Muscovite palate.

"Is your high nobility well acquainted with Sonia!"

I replied in the affirmative, offering him a cigarette from my case.  At
last I had found one who had met the dark-eyed girl of whom I was in
search.

"You know her," I said.  "Where is she?"

"In hiding."

"Far from here?"

"Well, not very," he answered.  "I could take you to her this very
night--if you made it worth my while."

"Why not in daylight?"  I inquired.

"Because the frontier-guards are here in swarms."

Then, in reply to my questions, he admitted that he was one of those who
obtained his living by smuggling contraband goods and persons without
passports across the frontier into and out of Germany.  Along the whole
of the Russo-German frontier there are bands of peasantry who live by
smuggling emigrants, Jews, malefactors, and others who have no permit to
leave the country, across into Germany by certain by-paths that remain
unguarded, notwithstanding the constant vigilance of the military.

"And what is Sonia doing at present?"  I inquired, after he had frankly
related to me his position in a low tone so that we might not be
overheard by any eavesdropper or police spy.

"She has always been a leader," he answered, laughing gaily.  "She is so
still."

"A leader of smugglers!"  I exclaimed, surprised that the pretty girl
who had been admired in every capital in Europe should adopt such a
hazardous, reckless life.

"Well, yes, if you choose to call it so," he said, rather resentfully, I
thought.  "We merely assist our countrymen to escape the police, and
they pay toll for our aid," he added.  "She heard you were inquiring for
her, here in Skerstymone, and has sent me as messenger to take you to
her.  She fears to come herself."

I looked steadily at the man, and saw for the first time that, although
a moujik, he was nevertheless a sturdy adventurer, whose brow was deeply
furrowed by hardship.

"And you wish me to pay toll like the others?"  I exclaimed with a
smile.

"If we act as guide we are surely entitled to something.  There are many
risks," he answered, puffing at his cigarette, afterwards examining it
with the air of a connoisseur.

"How much?"

"The high nobility is rich," he replied.  "He was once at the English
Embassy in St Petersburg.  Let us say two hundred roubles."

"Two hundred, to be paid only in Sonia's presence," I acquiesced
eagerly.  Truth to tell, I would have paid five hundred, or even a
thousand for safe conduct to her.

"It's a bargain," he answered, draining his glass.  "Meet me to-night at
ten o'clock at this place.  I hope you are a good walker, for we must
travel by the secret paths.  The post-road would mean arrest for me; it
might also go rather hard with you to be found in my company."

"I can walk well," I answered.  "To-night at ten."

Then I ordered more vodka, and after drinking success to our midnight
journey, he rose and left me, bending a good deal as he shuffled along
the street in his old frieze overcoat many sizes too large for him.

In any other circumstances I should have looked upon this
devil-may-care, shock-headed adventurer with gravest suspicion, for his
face was of distinctly criminal physiognomy, and his speech was that of
one utterly unscrupulous.  Yet when I remembered the allegations that
Sonia, the woman who lured the young Prince Alexis Gazarin to his death,
was an associate of the most desperate thieves in Europe, the fact that
she had sent him as messenger seemed by no means remarkable.  From what
he had told me it was apparent that this girl, whose beauty had brought
her renown and held her victims fascinated, had returned to her own
country and become leader of a desperate band of nomads who drove a
thriving trade by guiding fugitives from justice out of the Tzar's
dominions, and importing from Germany dutiable articles of every
description.

Sonia's offences against the law did not, however, trouble me much.  I
only desired to ascertain from her the truth regarding my wife, the
Grand Duchess, and in order to meet her was prepared for any risk.

Thus I placed myself in the hands of this villainous-looking rascal
whose name I did not know, and who had come to me entirely without
credentials.  My natural caution warned me that from every point of view
my midnight expedition was fraught with considerable danger, yet
thoughts of my sad-eyed wife whom I so dearly loved aroused within me a
determination to ascertain some key to the enigma, and I was therefore
resolved to accompany the unkempt stranger in face of any peril.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.

ON THE FRONTIER.

The first hour of our walk in the bright balmy night proved fresh and
pleasant after the stifling malodorous town.  My unknown guide was, I
soon discovered, a typical gaol-bird, the fact being made plain by the
scanty growth of hair on one side of his head revealed when he
inadvertently removed his cap to wipe his brow with his dirty hand.  His
strong knee-boots were well-patched, but he was out at elbow, and his
moustache and matted beard sadly wanted trimming.  He kept his
appointment to the moment, and declining my invitation to drink, we set
off together, ascending the low hill behind the town, and taking a
circuitous route back to the river bank.  By no means devoid of a sense
of humour, he strode along jauntily, laughing, joking, and making light
of any risk of capture, until I began to regard him with less suspicion.
That he was no ordinary moujik was certain, for he spoke of life and
people in Moscow, in Nijni, and even in Petersburg, his conversation
showing a more intimate acquaintance than could be acquired by mere
hearsay.  Our way at first was through narrow lanes of dirty wooden
houses, where the foetid odours of decaying refuse greeted our nostrils;
then, leaving the town, we ascended through some cornfields until,
suddenly descending again, we came to where the Niemen flowed onward
between its sedgy banks, its placid bosom a sheet of silver beneath the
light of the full moon.

Fully three miles we trudged along the post-road beside the river,
passing a solitary little hamlet.  Not a soul stirred, not a dog barked.
The place seemed uninhabited.  Now and then we passed a country cart
driven by some sleepy peasant who had imbibed too freely of vodka, until
we came to where a striped verst-post stood at the junction of another
narrower highway.

"That's the road to Jurburg, and to the frontier at Poswentg," my
companion remarked, in reply to my enquiry.  "It's too dangerous for
us."

"Why?"

"It swarms with frontier-guards," he answered, with a low laugh.  "We
have no desire to encounter any of these gentlemen this evening,
therefore we must presently take to the paths.  See!" and he nodded
upward to the sky, "The tail of the Great Bear points downwards.  We
shall have luck to-night."

"Is this the route you take with the fugitives?"  I asked, pausing to
take breath, and gazing around upon the lovely scene, for here the
moonlit river flowed among its osiers and rushes, across the great
grass-covered steppe.

"Yes," he answered.  "This is the only portion of our journey where
there are serious risks of detection, so let us hurry.  On a bright
night like this, a man can be seen a long way off.  The guards are too
fond of hiding along the banks, fearing that any German boats from
Endruszen may creep up the river."

I started forward again, and we both quickened our pace.  I now saw from
his demeanour that he feared an encounter, for at each unusual sound he
paused, his hand uplifted in silence.  At last, at a point where the
stream made a sudden bend, we left the river road and plunged into a
great marsh, where the reeds grew almost as high as ourselves, and where
our feet ever and anon sank deep into chill, slimy mud.  As soon as we
had left the river, my strange guide became as jovial as before, and
spoke entirely without restraint.  Fear of detection no longer troubled
him, for as we held on our way over the soft clay, the silence of the
calm night was now and then broken by his coarse laughter.  On that
flat, marshy land, each step became hampered by huge cakes of yellow mud
that clung to our boots, while often I sank with a splash ankle-deep in
water, much to my companion's amusement.  Whistling softly to himself,
he laughed at all misfortunes, assuring me that we should very soon find
drier ground, and that before dawn I should meet Sonia Korolenko, who
was awaiting me.

"She is your leader--eh?"  I asked.

"Well, of course," he answered, with a grim smile.  In the moonlight he
looked a shaggy, evil-faced ruffian, and more than once, when I
remembered that I had upon me a good round sum in notes and gold, I
regretted that I had trusted myself with him unarmed.  "The police drove
her from Vienna, from Paris, from London; so she has come to us."

"And is yours a paying profession?"  I asked interested.

"Generally," he answered, with that frankness that characterised all his
conversation.  "You'd be surprised how many people seek our assistance.
Some of our party are in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw, and make the
contracts with the fugitives; then they hand them over to us, and we do
the rest."

"You guarantee to put them on German soil, or bring foreigners into
Russia for a fixed sum?"

"Yes.  You would open your eyes if you knew some of the people I've
guided over this very path.  Sometimes it is a Jew peasant who has no
permit, and desires to emigrate to London, or to America; at others, an
escaped prisoner, a murderer, or a revolutionist, who is being tracked
down by the Security Section.  We always know why they are leaving
Russia, and make them pay accordingly.  Not long ago I brought a young
titled lady across here; accompanied her into Germany, and put her into
the train for Berlin.  We had a narrow shave of being captured, but she
gave me a thousand roubles when we parted."

"Why did she want to leave secretly?"  I asked.

"She had poisoned her husband somewhere down in Minsk, and the police
were in search of her," he laughed.  "Never a night passes, but one or
other of us cross the frontier."

"And you find it an adventurous game--eh?"

"Well, it is pleasant after ten years of Siberia," he answered grimly.
"I let loose the red rooster and burned down the barin's house in a
village in Tver.  He well deserved it.  I and two friends got away with
his money and jewels to Moscow, but one night, a week later, I had an
appointment to meet my companions opposite the fountain in the Lubyansky
Square, and was arrested."

"And you got ten years?"

"They made out that the barin got burned to death, so I was packed off
for life to Kara.  After ten years I managed to escape and become a
`cuckoo.'  Then after a year's wandering I succeeded in returning to
Moscow, where I found one or two old friends, and we started together in
this business.  We don't intend to fall into the drag-net of the police
again," he added with a sardonic grin, at the same moment drawing from
his trousers pocket a big army revolver.

"Do the frontier-guards ever trouble you?"

"Sometimes," he laughed.  "When we meet we always show fight.  Three
were killed in a brush with some of our party not long ago.  It will
teach them not to interfere with us for a little time."

Long ago I had heard of a gang of desperate characters who made the
strip of zealously-guarded territory between Germany and Russia a terror
to travellers, and the utter loneliness of the dismal place, and the
swaggering demeanour of my evil-faced companion increased my mistrust.

We left the swamp shortly afterwards, and strode out again across the
boundless undulating steppe that stretched away as far as the eye could
reach.  The moon had sunk lower in the sky, and a whitish cloud appeared
in the zenith which seemed to shine with a phosphorescent light.  Our
trackless path wound between low shrubs, and then, after another hour's
weary, lonely plodding across the grass-covered plain, we came to a
clump of trees where the underwood was thick and tangled.

I paused for a moment to gaze behind at the great expanse of flat,
uncultivated, uninhabited country we had traversed.  A mystery seemed to
plane over the boundless steppe.  The night wind played among the dry
grasses, and sad thoughts awakened in my soul.

Hist!... there was a slight rustling!  A reddish fur gleamed in the
moonlight so close to me that I could see the ears of a fox and its
bushy tail sweeping the ground.  It disappeared between the trees, and
my heart beat faster as together we went forward, bursting through the
underwood.  The twigs struck me in the face; I stumbled, gasped for
breath, and halted.  The wail of a night bird broke the silence.

At that moment I saw my companion bending at the foot of a solitary tree
that stood alone amid the tangled undergrowth.  There was a hole in its
trunk from which he drew forth something and placed it hastily in his
pocket.  Then, turning towards me, he took out a cigarette and calmly
lit it, saying,--

"We have nothing now to fear."

He allowed the match to burn much longer than was absolutely necessary.
Instantly the thought flashed upon me that this light might be a signal
to some of his nefarious companions.

But together we went forward again; he jovial and amusing, I moody and
thoughtful.  His actions had aroused my suspicions.  I glanced at my
watch, and in the dim light distinguished that it was just past two
o'clock.  We had already been walking four hours.

Presently, chattering and laughing as we proceeded, we left the wide
rolling steppe and plunged into a great wood.  The forest was still as
death.  The moss-grown fir trees stretched out their huge arms as they
waved slowly to and fro like funeral plumes.  Little light penetrated
there, but now and then we could see the bright stars between the
branches as we went along a narrow winding track, the intricacies of
which were apparently well-known to my guide, for he went onward with
the firm, confidential tread of one who know the path, while I followed
him closely, the dead branches crackling beneath our feet.

Once or twice a noise fell upon his quick ear, and we halted, he
standing revolver in hand in an attitude of defence.  Each time,
however, we ascertained that we had no occasion for alarm, the noise
being made by some animal or bird startled by our sudden intrusion.
Then we resumed our midnight journey in single file.

During half an hour we proceeded, he leading the way, directing his
footsteps by marks upon the trunks of the trees, so near the ground that
they would have escaped the notice of any but those who knew of their
whereabouts.

Once I thought I detected a dark figure between the trees, and fearing
that it might be one of the sentries, whispered a word of warning to my
guide, but he reassured me by telling me that we were skirting the
frontier outside guarded territory, therefore there could be no danger.
Nevertheless, as he turned to me, I thought his furrowed face looked
darker, and his teeth gleamed whiter than usual.

We walked on.  The forest was silent, save for the soft whisper of the
pines.  Without uttering any word I was following closely the footsteps
of my guide, when suddenly, how it occurred I know not, I was conscious
of being stopped dead by my evil-faced companion, who, with a quick
movement, brought up his ready revolver to a level with my head.

Fate had played me an ugly trick.  One thought remained uppermost in the
chaos of wild, feverish fancies that seized me--the thought of the woman
who was my wife.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.

BAD COMPANY.

"Well," I managed to ejaculate, standing quite still, without moving a
muscle.  I saw that his attitude was one of determination, and that he
had been joined by a ruffianly-looking companion who had emerged from
the undergrowth as if by magic.

My only thought was of my past life.  How had I been able to bear the
suspicion and suspense so long?  I had borne it because the star of hope
had glimmered in the darkness.  And now the star had vanished, and the
hope was dead.  Darkness had fallen upon my soul, and a storm arose
within it like the chill whirling wind that swept across the steppe at
dead of night.  I could not think; I forgot where I was, forgot
everything except my anger.  My heart was full of blind despair.

I was conscious that the gaol-bird spoke.  He was demanding my money,
and threatening to put a bullet through my head if I refused.

"I promised you money on condition that you took me to Sonia Korolenko,"
I answered.  "I am ready to pay when you have fulfilled your part of the
contract."

Both men laughed heartily.

"We have no knowledge of her," declared the man who had been my guide.
"All we know is that you have money; if you don't hand it to us quietly
your grave will be in yonder heap of dead leaves."

"He'll be company for the others," observed the man with a fox-like
countenance, who had joined us, and was leaning upon an old Berdan
rifle.

"Then I understand you have brought me here, to this spot, on a false
pretence.  You mean to rob me?"  I said.  "You assured me that you were
Sonia's messenger, and so implicitly did I trust you, that I left my
revolver behind at the inn."

"That is no affair of ours," answered the old scoundrel, shrugging his
shoulders unconcernedly.  "Hand us over your money, and we are ready to
guarantee you safe conduct, either on into Germany or back to
Skerstymone."

"I'll pay you nothing, not even a rouble, na vodkou, until you take me
to your leader," I answered defiantly, for somehow I had from the first
been convinced of the truth of the man's assertion that Sonia was in
that neighbourhood.

"As we are unable to conduct you to the lady, whoever she is, we shall
therefore be compelled to use violence," observed my guide, glancing at
his companion, who nodded approvingly.  Then, still holding the muzzle
of his weapon to my face, he added with brutal frankness: "You'd better
make the sign of the cross now, if you want to.  It will be the last
chance you'll get.  When a man's dead and buried he can tell the police
nothing."

Well I knew the desperate character of these brigandish nomads, and
fully recognised that they were not to be trifled with.

"The people who come to us for aid never get across the frontier unless
they part with their money first," he continued.  "If they don't--well,
we put them to rest quietly and unceremoniously, and give them decent
burial.  A good many of all sorts, rich and poor, lie buried in these
woods.  You asked me whether it was a paying profession," he laughed.
"Judge for yourself."

He still spoke with that unaffected carelessness that had impressed me
when we had first met outside the dingy little "tractir" in Skerstymone.

"Come," cried the ragged, fox-faced man, impatiently, with an accent of
South Russia.  "We have no time to waste; we have many versts before us
ere dawn."

"Then you'd better be off, and leave me to find my way back as best I
can," I said, endeavouring to preserve an outward show of calmness.

Some noise, so faint that I did not distinguish it, caused both outlaws
to hold their breath and listen.  They exchanged quick glances.  They
had wandered thousands of versts across the "taiga" and the steppe, and
constantly on the alert to evade Cossack patrols and police, knew every
sound of the forest.  They had learnt to know the voice of the wood; the
speech of every tree.  The great firs rustle with their thick boughs,
the dark, gloomy pines whisper to one another in mystery, the bright
green leafy trees wave their dewy branches, and the mountain-ash
trembles with a noise like a faintly rippling brook.  They knew, to
their disgust, too, how those spies of the frontier, the magpies, hover
in crowds over the track of the man who tries in daylight to creep
unseen across the bare open steppe.

It was evident that the noise had for an instant puzzled them; yet,
after listening a moment, both became reassured, and re-demanded with
many violent threats whatever money I had upon me.

"I tell you I refuse," I answered.  "If you take me to Sonia you shall
have two hundred roubles each, with twenty more na vodkou."

"Then you do not wish to live?" exclaimed the man who had so cunningly
entrapped me.

"I will give you nothing," I said resolutely.

"Then take that!" he cried, wildly, and at the same time his revolver
flashed close to my face.

The shot echoed far away among the myriad tree trunks, but the bullet
passed harmlessly by my ear.

Ere he could fire a second time I sprang upon him, and clutching him by
the throat with one hand, with the other grasped the wrist of the sinewy
hand that held the revolver.  It was a struggle for life.

Again my antagonist drew the trigger, but the weapon was exploded in
mid-air.  Then his companion flung himself upon me in an endeavour to
drag me off.  This he was unable to do, and, apparently, fearing lest I
should succeed in wresting the weapon from his accomplice's grasp and
use it against him, he sought to stun me by raining blows with his
clenched fist upon my head.

A third time the ruffianly assassin's revolver went off with loud
report, but doing no harm.  At that moment, however, I was conscious
that my strength was failing me.  I was muscular, but against this pair
of hulking brutes I had no chance in a contest of mere physical power.

The repeated blows upon my skull dazed me, but hearing shouts resounding
in the darkness, I held on with grim, dogged courage, with the faint
hope that they might be Cossacks.  In the dim light I could distinguish
figures moving rapidly beneath the trees.  The forest seemed suddenly
alive with men, but at that instant the fox-faced ruffian, finding his
efforts unavailing, stepped back a pace or two, and lowering his rifle,
took deliberate aim at my breast.

I closed my eyes tightly and held my breath.

A shot rang out, followed by a burst of wild shouting, but finding
myself unharmed, I opened my eyes again.  In terror I glanced up, and
saw my fox-faced assailant lying face downward.  The cowardly villain
had evidently been shot at the very instant he had covered me with his
Berdan.

Half-a-dozen men sprang forward, and wrenching the revolver from the
scoundrel who had attempted to take my life, seized him in their strong
grasp, while I, breathless and exhausted, struggled up from my knees,
amazed at my sudden and unexpected delivery.

Some twenty men, an ill-dressed, ruffianly crowd, in patched cloaks and
dirty grey caps covering their long hair, surrounded me, talking
excitedly, bestowing opprobrious epithets upon the man who lay wounded
and groaning, and as I turned suddenly in wonder, I was confronted by a
peasant woman in a short skirt of some dark stuff, an ill-fitting
striped bodice, with a handkerchief tied about her head.

She uttered my name.  In an instant I recognised her.  It was Sonia.

"I arrived only just in time to save you," she explained, half
breathlessly, in English.  "The shots attracted us.  That villain,
Stepanovitch, whom I sent into Skerstymone to bring you here, no doubt
intended to take your money and decamp, but, fortunately, we caught him
redhanded.  He has long been suspected of doing away with people
entrusted to his care for conduct across the frontier, but I never
believed him capable of treating any of our friends as victims."

"He fired at me point-blank," I said, "although I was unarmed."

"What shall we do with him, little mother?" cried the excited crowd of
burly malefactors, dragging the man before the notorious woman, with
pleasant countenance, sonorous voice, and lively manners, whom they
acknowledged as leader.

"Tie him up to yonder tree and let him be shot," answered Sonia,
pointing out a lofty pine.  "Pick a marksman from among yourselves, and
do not shout so loudly.  Only one shot must be fired, for I believe the
guards are lurking about to-night, and more may attract them."

With yells of execration the crowd hurried away the unfortunate wretch
who had so treacherously treated the friend of their leader, and ere a
couple of minutes had elapsed he had been secured to the tree.  Then
they commenced haggling among themselves as to who should fire the fatal
shot.  It was a weird scene, this summary justice directed by a woman.
The choice fell at last upon a tall hulking fellow in ragged coat and a
hat of dirty sheepskin, who, addressed by the nickname of "The Goat," on
account of the shape of his beard, lifted his gun with a jeering remark
at the cowering wretch, and stepped back to take more deliberate aim.

"No," I cried, "don't let him be shot on my account, Sonia.  Give him
his life."

She shook her head, saying simply: "He betrayed my trust."

"I ask you to forgive him," I urged.  "At least grant me this favour."

She was undecided, and the outlaws hearing us speak in English, called
to their tall champion to stay his hand.

"Very well," she said, at last.  "I forgive him because you plead."

Without a word I pushed past the men surrounding us, and, taking out my
pocket-knife, severed the cord holding the terrified wretch.  The old
scoundrel, dropping upon his knee, kissed my hand amid the loud jeers of
his rough, brutal companions, then regaining his feet, took off his cap,
and looking towards heaven, made the sign of the cross.

"This, I hope, will be a lesson, Stepanovitch," exclaimed Sonia,
sternly, in Russian, advancing towards him.  "I forgive you only because
of the request of this Englishman.  Remember in future that the person
of any friend of mine, or any of our brothers, is sacred."

"Yes, I will, matoushka," answered the old villain, penitently.  "That I
will.  I owe my life to his high nobility's intercession.  I will not
again offend, little mother."

"Very well," she answered, abruptly; then, briefly explaining how they
had just returned from a hazardous trip across the frontier, during
which they were detected and followed by a Cossack picket, she gave the
order to return home, and we moved forward in single file along the
narrow secret paths which wound with so many intricacies through the
dark, gloomy forest.  As I walked behind her we chatted in English, she
telling me how she had been compelled to leave London unexpectedly, and
relating how she had fared since we had last met.  She, however, made no
mention of the nefarious trade she had adopted, and I hesitated to refer
to it.

When at length we emerged from the forest, the wounded man being
assisted along by his companions, it was near morning.  The darkness had
gradually become less intense, the stars shone more faintly, and a
streak of dawn showed on the far-off horizon.  The pale light revealed
grassy plains as far as the eye could reach, and the fresh morning
breeze swept softly over the thick, green grass that promised an
abundant hay crop, such as the dwellers on the broad Kovno plains had
longed for for many years.  Soon after leaving the forest, however, the
party separated, arranging as meeting-place, when the moon rose on the
morrow, the third verst-post out of Wezajce, a small village five miles
distant.  All her associates, Sonia explained, lived in villages in the
vicinity, scattering themselves in order to avoid detection by the
authorities.  The villagers themselves, although well aware of their
doings, said nothing.  To all inquiries by Cossack frontier-guards or
police spies they remained dumb, for the simple reason that while
contraband trade could be transacted the village thrived, each of these
small, wretched little places receiving indirectly a portion of the
outlaws' profit.  In summer there were no empty barns or thistle-grown
threshing floors, and in winter the stoves in the huts were always
burning, and the "borstch," or soup, was never without its proper
proportion of buck-wheat gruel.

Many were the rumours of missing travellers and violent deaths in that
neighbourhood, but the villagers feared nothing from this adventurous
gang, who had grown more bold now that they were led by their "little
mother."  From what I gathered from my fair companion as we pushed
forward together towards the dim line of trees that bounded the steppe
in the direction of the sunrise, it appeared that the band had been in
existence for several years, but that a few months before, the leader, a
well-known escaped convict, was shot dead by a picket while creeping by
day across the Zury steppe, and that a proposal had been sent to her at
Skerstymone, where she was hiding, that she should become their head.
She admitted, with a smile, that the men who had just left us to return
to their various occupations were all of bad character, and that, almost
without exception, all had served long terms of imprisonment for robbery
or murder.

"But is not the assassination of those who have paid for guidance into
Germany quite unjustifiable?"  I exclaimed, reproachfully, as we walked
side by side across the long, dewy grass.

"How can I prevent it!" she asked.  "I do all I can to preserve the
lives of our clients, but with men of their stamp it is impossible to
stop it.  Nearly every one of the brotherhood would slit a throat with
as little compunction as lighting his cigarette: first, because it
avoids the risk of crossing the boundary, and secondly, because of the
money the victim has in his pockets.  Again, persons who accept our
escort are not those persons after whom any inquiry is made.  When they
are missed, their friends naturally conclude they've fallen into the
hands of the police, or have escaped abroad and fear to write.
Stepanovitch, for instance, does not obtain the rolls of notes he
sometimes has by importing contraband goods, neither could he afford to
keep a snug house down in Ludwinow, where he spends the winter, and is
regarded as a highly respectable member of the Mir."

"He is an assassin, then?"

Sonia smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

We were approaching a small village with a background of high pine
trees, situated on the edge of the great treeless plain.  Its name was
Sokolini, she told me.  Once, in the days of serfdom, it had been the
property of a landowner, but now, enjoying liberty, its emancipation was
attested by its half-ruined huts, whose bulging walls and
smoke-blackened timbers were supported by wooden props.  There were not
more than thirty houses, all of a similarly squalid, miserable
character, and as we entered the tiny place the cocks were crowing in
the yards, for the sun had by this time fully risen.

"Five miles through yonder forest as the crow flies brings us into
German territory," she said, indicating the dense wood behind the
houses, then pausing before the door of one of the tumble-down huts,
pushed it open, and invited me to enter.

The interior was one square room, with huge brick stove, the flat top of
which served as bed in winter, a low sloping ceiling and two small
windows with uneven panes of greenish glass that imparted to the rays of
light a melancholy greyish tint.  The bare miserable place was poorly
furnished with wooden chairs, a rickety table, and a very old moth-eaten
sofa covered with velvet that was once red, but now of faded brown.
Over the door was nailed a cheap, gaudy ikon, and on the opposite wall
was pasted a crude woodcut of his Majesty the Tzar.

The room was, indeed, in strange contrast to the dainty little
drawing-room in Pembroke Road.

While I threw myself into a chair worn-out by fatigue, she removed the
ugly wrapper from her head, and disappearing into a little inner den,
the only other room in the house, soon reappeared with a steaming
samovar, afterwards handing me tea with lemon.

The pale yellow sun struggling in through the thick green panes, fell in
slanting rays across the carpetless room, and as we sat opposite one
another sipping our cups we exchanged curious glances.  Ours had,
indeed, been a strange meeting.

She burst out laughing at last.

"Well," she said, "I see you are surprised."

"I am.  I did not expect you had exchanged your life in London for
this," I exclaimed.

"Ah!  I was horribly tired of inactivity there.  I had spent all my
money, and could do nothing in your country.  It is a drawback to be too
well-known," she laughed.

"But surely this life is attended by very serious risks," I observed,
noticing, as the sunlight fell across her hair, that she was still as
handsome as ever, notwithstanding her ugly peasant costume and clumsy
boots.

"Yes," she answered reflectively.  "Perhaps, in a little while, when I
have made more money I shall leave here and return to London.  One
cannot live without money."

"True," I answered.  "Yet life here must be terribly dull and monotonous
after Vienna and Paris."

"Ah!" she cried, with the slightest suspicion of a sigh.  "All that I
have forgotten long, long ago."

Her eyes were downcast, and I thought I detected tears in them.  I gazed
at her, this woman who was known in nearly every capital in Europe as
one of the most daring and enterprising adventuresses of the century,
half-fearing that she might still refuse to disclose her secret.

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.

OUTCAST.

She moved slightly, raised her cup to her lips with a coquettish air,
and on setting it down her dark bright eyes again met mine with
inquiring glance.

"Well," she exclaimed.  "Is it not strange that you, of all men, should
be in Skerstymone?"

"I came to seek you," I said, looking earnestly into her pretty face.

"For what reason?"

"Because by your aid alone can I regain my lost happiness," I answered
in deep earnestness.  "Once, before you left London, you made certain
allegations against Ella; but you failed to substantiate them, or to
fulfil your promise in exchange for your passport."

"Yes, I remember."

"She is now my wife, and I have come to hear the truth from your own
lips, Sonia."

"Your wife!" she gasped, glaring at me.  "Has--has she actually dared to
marry you?"

"Yes," I answered.  "She has dared, because she loves me."

She remained silent, with knit brows, for a long time engrossed in
thought.

Then briefly I told her how, after her departure, we had married, and
related how suspicion had been aroused within me by her clandestine
meetings with Cecil Bingham, her flight, and my subsequent discovery of
her true position.

"Then you are aware who she really is," she observed slowly at last.
"That she has dared to enter into a matrimonial alliance with you is
certainly astounding.  Indeed, it is incredible."

"Why?"  I inquired in surprise.

"There are the strongest reasons why she should never have become your
wife," she replied ambiguously.

"She lives apart from me.  She has returned to her house in Paris," I
said.

"Ah! it is best," she answered mechanically.  "It is best for both of
you."

"But we love one another, and although she fears to tell me the truth
regarding all this mystery that has enveloped her for so long, you,
nevertheless, are in a position to explain everything.  Therefore I have
come to you.  You were my wife's friend, Sonia," I went on.  "Tell me
why she has acted with all this secrecy."

"Her friend," she echoed blankly.  "Yes, you are right," she sighed.
"It was a strange friendship, ours; she, a Grand Duchess against whom
never a word of scandal had been uttered, and I--well I was notorious.
The people in Vienna and Paris pointed at me in the streets, and
fashionable women copied my manners and my dress.  Yet there was, nay
there still is, a strong tie between us, a tie that can never be
severed."

"Tell me of it," I urged, when, pausing, she turned her pale agitated
face away from me towards the small grimy window that overlooked the
great sunlit steppe.

"Once I believed that she was your enemy, and told you so.  I feared
that because of her position she would never marry you.  Yet it seems
she was really in earnest, therefore I now withdraw that allegation.
She evidently loves you."

"Yes, but we are living apart because she fears the revelation of some
terrible secret if she acknowledges me as her husband."

"And that is why you have come here--to learn of her past!" she cried in
a hoarse hollow voice, as if the truth had suddenly dawned upon her.

I nodded gravely in the affirmative, then told her of our meeting in
Paris, and her refusal to make any satisfactory explanation.

"I envied Elizaveta once," she said reflectively at last.  "I envied her
because she was so supremely happy in your love.  Yet it now seems as if
I, degraded outcast that I am, have even more happiness and freedom."

"You were once her friend--she visited you every day.  You can be her
friend now; and by telling me the truth, bring joy and confidence to
both of us.  You can make our lives happy, if you only will."

"No," she answered coldly, her face hard and set.  There was a cruel
look in her eyes.  "Why should I?  Why should I strive for the happiness
of one to whom I owe all my grief and despair?"

"Surely no misfortune of yours is due to her?"  I protested quickly.

"Misfortune!" she wailed, her eyes flashing.  "Would you not call the
loss of the man you love, misfortune?"  Then, in quieter tones, she
added with a sigh, "Ah, you don't know, Geoffrey, how intensely bitter
my strange, adventurous life has been.  You believe, no doubt, that a
woman of my character cannot love.  Well, I thought so once.  But I tell
you that in London I loved one man; the only man I ever met that I could
marry.  I had renounced my past, and sought to lead a new life when I
knew that he cared for me, and was preparing to make me his wife.  But
she, the Grand Duchess who tricked you so cleverly, came between us, and
we were parted.  Then I came here, to Russia, sought solace among my
former companions, the scum of the gaols and ghettos, and have now
descended in despair to what I am.  By her, the woman you ask me to free
from a terrible thraldom, I have been thrust back into hopelessness, and
have lost for ever the one chance I had of joy and love."

Then, covering her handsome face with her hands, she burst into a
torrent of tears.

"Come," I said, rising, and stroking her soft, silky hair.  Her arms
were upon the table, and she had buried her head in them, sobbing as if
her heart would break.  "Come, do not give way," I urged.  "Who was the
man you loved?"

"That concerns no one but myself," she murmured.  "Even she has never
had proof that we loved one another.  Yet to her is due all this grief,
that has fallen upon me."

Raising her head, she strove to suppress her emotion, and her brilliant
tear-bedewed eyes fixed themselves steadily upon mine.

"I may perhaps be able to assist you," I said.  "I did on a former
occasion."

"No," she answered, in a voice of intense sorrow.  "I have now grown
careless of myself, careless of life, careless of everything since I
left London.  With the man I loved so truly I could have been happy
always, yet she knew my past, and would allow me no chance to redeem
myself.  It is but what I deserve, I suppose, therefore I must suffer.
But can you wonder that, hating the world as I do, I entertain a certain
grim satisfaction in being leader of this ragged, ruffianly band of
frontier free-lances?"

"No," I answered, echoing her sigh; "I am scarcely surprised, yet I
cannot think that my wife, who was your friend, would willingly serve
you as you believe."

"She did," Sonia answered, again raising her sad, dark eyes.  "She alone
I have to thank for the sorrow that has wrecked my life."

"What was the name of the man you loved?"  I asked.  "Do I know him?"

"Yes, you know him; but his name is of no consequence," she answered
evasively, in a faint voice, lowering her eyes.  "My secret is best kept
in my own heart."

"If my wife did it unintentionally, without knowing you were lovers,
there is some excuse," I said, half apologetically.

"No," she answered, with sudden harshness.  "No excuse is possible.
There were other circumstances which rendered her conduct unpardonable."

"I really can't believe it," I said.  "I feel certain that she would
never have exposed you willingly."

"Alas!" she said at last, "the evil is now done, and the stigma cannot
be removed.  But you asked me to reveal certain facts that would place
her mind at rest, restore her confidence, and give her freedom.  I have
told you.  I have made a confession to you that no other person has had
from my lips."

"Ah, do not be pitiless," I cried imploringly, feeling assured that she
alone knew the truth.  Her assertion that she could restore my wife to
freedom meant, I knew, the removal of that dark cloud of suspicion and
dread that, overshadowing her, held her spellbound by fear.  "Think," I
urged, standing close to her, my hand resting upon the bare, unpolished
table.  "Once when you came to me, a stranger, and I rendered you a
service, you promised to perform one for me in return when I desired it.
I am now sorely in need of your friendship, and have come to you for
aid."

"We shall be friends always, I hope, Geoffrey," she answered quietly,
pushing back her dark hair from her brow.  Her head was untidy and her
hair tangled, for so callous had she grown that she took no heed either
of attire or personal appearance.

"Then you will, at least, fulfil your promise," I said.

"No," she replied, with dogged firmness.  "In this matter I absolutely
refuse.  I know how weary and wretched your life must be, with mystery
surrounding you as it does, and being compelled to live apart from the
woman you love; but, frankly, the fact that her cold, proud Highness
fears to acknowledge you, or tell you the truth, is a source of
satisfaction to me.  She has sown dissension, and is now reaping her
harvest of tears."

The cankerworm of care was eating out my heart, and I resolved to make
one final appeal to her better nature, albeit I saw from her demeanour
how embittered she was against Ella.

"No effort have I left unattempted to seek some solution of the
problem," I said.  "Yet all is unavailing.  I have sought the truth from
Cecil Bingham, but he refused to utter one word, and referred me to you.
He said you knew all."

"Cecil Bingham!" she cried, suddenly starting.  "Do you know him?  He
was your wife's friend."

"Yes," I answered.  "I know that, although I am unaware of the true
character of their relationship."

"Ah!" she ejaculated, and I thought she winced beneath my words.  "He
sent you here?"

"Yes," I said.  "But before seeing him I had endeavoured to obtain some
facts from another of Ella's acquaintances, Andrew Beck."

"Andrew Beck?" she repeated in a low, hollow voice, her brows
contracting as if mention of his name were unpleasant to her ears.  "You
were jealous of him once," she added in a hard, dry tone.

"Yea," I smiled.  "But I am so no longer."

"Why?  I thought from what Ella told me long ago that you had some
cause.  He certainly was one of her admirers."

"Yes.  But he's about to be married."

"Married!" she cried wildly, starting to her feet, her lips moving
convulsively.  "Andrew Beck?"

I nodded, for a moment surprised; but, suddenly remembering, I took from
my pocket-book the newspaper cutting announcing the engagement.

Eagerly her strained eyes read the three formal lines of print, then
hastily crushing the piece of paper in her hand she cast it from her
with a gesture of anger.  Her face was pale and determined, her thin
hands, no longer loaded with rings as they once had been, twitched
nervously, and I could plainly see the strange convulsion that the
unexpected intelligence had caused within her.

"Do you know the--the girl who is to be his wife?" she stammered
presently.

"No, we have never met," I answered.  "His marriage does not, however,
concern us for the moment.  It is of Ella and her strange secret that I
seek knowledge.  Tell me the truth, Sonia, so that I may be able to
place within her hand a weapon wherewith to combat this mysterious enemy
she fears."

There was a long pause.  Her breath came and went quickly in hot
convulsive gasps.  Her hands were so tightly clenched that their nails
were driven into the palms; her mouth was firmly set, and in her eyes
was a cold, stony stare.  The knowledge of Beck's intended marriage had
aroused within her a veritable tumult of passion.

"The truth!" she cried hoarsely at last, her hand upon her throbbing
breast.  "You ask me to clear suspicion from the woman whose whim it has
been to marry you and I refuse, because I should bring her happiness,
and remove from her the terror that now holds her enthralled.  But I
have reconsidered my decision.  I--"

"Ah, tell me!"  I exclaimed, interrupting her in my eagerness.

"I will speak because my disclosures, remarkable though they may be,
will not only bring peace to you and your wife, but will also prove a
trifle disconcerting to her companions.  Once they hunted me from town
to town as a criminal; they will now beg to me for mercy upon their
knees."

"Tell me.  Do not conceal the truth longer," I cried anxiously.

"No.  Only in Elizaveta's presence will I speak," she answered, in a
strained voice quivering with violent emotion.  "Let us start for Paris
to-night.  When the moon rises I will guide you through the forest into
Germany; we can cross the Jura by the bridge beyond Absteinen, and from
Tilsit take train to Berlin.  In two days we can be in Paris.  Take me
to her," she said with sudden eagerness, "and you shall both learn facts
that will astound you."

"I am quite ready," I said; "I knew you alone would prove my friend."

"No," she answered, regarding me gravely.  "No, Geoffrey.  It is a
secret full of grim realities and ugly revelations, which, when
disclosed, will, I fear, cause you to hate me, and count me among your
enemies.  But you seek the truth; you shall therefore be satisfied."

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.

CONFESSION.

"Her Highness has this moment returned from driving, m'sieur," answered
the big Russian concierge, when, accompanied by Sonia, I entered the
hall of the great house in the Avenue des Champs Elysees, and handed him
a card.

Then a second servant, in the blue-and-gold livery of the Romanoffs,
conducted us ceremoniously along the wide, soft-carpeted corridor to the
well-remembered room wherein I had taken leave of the woman I loved.  My
companion, in her neat, tailor-made travelling gown of dark grey cloth,
looked a very different person to the dirty, unkempt peasant woman who
led that band of desperate gaol-birds on the frontier, and as she
glanced around the fine apartment on entering, she observed, with a
slight sigh, that this was not her first visit.

The afternoon was breathless.  All Paris had left for the plages of
Arcachon, Dieppe, or Trouville, or the baths of Royat, Vichy or Luchon,
and the boulevards were given over to unhappy business men, _cafe_
loungers, and soft-hatted, gaping tourists in check tweeds.  The green
jalousies of the room were closed, the senses were suffused with a
tender and restful twilight, for the glare had been tempered to suit the
dreamy languor of that great mansion's world-weary mistress.  The open
windows admitted, with air, the faint sound of traffic from the Avenue.
A lad passing somewhere outside whistled a few bars from the gay
chansonette, "Si qu'on leur-z-y, f'rait ca," which Judic was singing
nightly with enormous success at the Summer Alcazar.  I noticed that
upon the piano there still stood my own photograph, while that of my
betrayer had been replaced by a picture of my wife.

With my back to the great tiled hearth, filled with ferns and flowers,
and surrounded by its wonderful mantel of Italian sculptured marble, I
waited, while Sonia, fatigued after our long and dusty journey, sank
into one of the silken armchairs, unloosened her coat, and sniffed at
her little silver bottle of smelling-salts.  Scarce a word had she
uttered during our drive across the city from the Gare de Lyon, so full
she seemed of unutterable sadness.

During several minutes we remained in silence, when, without warning,
the long doors of white-and-gold were flung open by the flunkey who,
advancing into the room, announced his mistress.

Next instant we were face to face.

"Ah!  Geoffrey.  At last!" she cried, with flushed cheeks, a smile of
glad welcome lighting up her pale countenance as she rushed towards me
with both hands outstretched.  A second later, noticing Sonia, she
suddenly halted.  Instantly a change passed over her face.  She was
unlike the gay, light-hearted girl who loved to idle up the quiet Thames
backwaters, or punt along the banks at sundown.  She was different from
the happy, trustful bride who had wandered with me during those autumn
days in quaint old Chateauroux.  She had none of the flush of joyous
youth, and the harder lines of resolve and determination were softened
by an expression for which there is no better word than consecration.
There were signs of endurance in her face, but it was the endurance of
the martyr, not of the champion.

Facing Sonia, she drew herself up haughtily, and demanded in French in a
harsh, angry voice,--

"To what, pray, do I owe this intrusion?  I should have thought that
after what has passed you would not dare to come here.  But I suppose
cool audacity is a characteristic which must be cultivated by a woman of
your character."

Sonia rose slowly from her chair, her features haggard and blanched, her
head bent slightly, as if in penitence.  No effort did she make to
resent the bitter, angry words my wife had uttered, but in a low tone
simply replied,--

"I have come here with Geoffrey, to tell you the truth."

"The truth!" echoed the Grand Duchess, with withering contempt.  "The
truth from such as you!  Who would believe it?"

"Wait!  Hear me before you denounce me," Sonia urged, in a strange,
hollow voice, that sounded like one speaking in the far distance.  "I do
not deny that my presence may seem unwarrantable.  I admit that between
us there can no longer be friendship, yet strange it is that, although
you are honest, upright and respected, while I am a social outcast,
spurned and degraded by all, there nevertheless exists a common bond
between us--the bond of love.  You love Geoffrey, the man who by law is
your husband; while I love another, a man you also know;" and her voice
faltered, "the man to whom you denounced me as base and worthless."

"Well?" asked Ella, standing stern, upright, full of calm, unruffled
dignity.  She still wore the cool-looking summer gown in which she had
been driving in the Bois, and had not removed her large black hat with
its long ostrich plumes.

"You are quite right, quite right," Sonia admitted in a voice trembling
with emotion.  "You were justified to undeceive him as you did.  I know,
alas! how black is my heart--how blunted is all the womanly feeling I
once possessed, like you.  But you have been nurtured in the lap of
luxury, while I, fed from infancy upon the offal of a slum, and taught
to regard the world from a cynical point of view, have grown old in
evil-doing, and am now a mere derelict in the stream of life.  Long ago
we met, and parted.  I treated you, as I did others, as an enemy.  We
have now met again, and I, conscience-stricken and penitent, have come
to atone for the past--to prove your friend, to beg forgiveness."

My wife shrugged her shoulders with a gesture of quick impatience.

"Ah!  You don't believe I am in earnest," cried the unhappy woman.  "Has
it never occurred to you that I alone can free you from the bond that
has held you aloof from your husband?"

"What do you mean?" cried Ella, with a puzzled expression.

"I mean," she answered, in a deep, earnest voice.  "I mean that if you
will make full and open confession to Geoffrey I will furnish you with
proof positive of the identity of the murderer of Dudley Ogle.  By this
means only can you obtain freedom from your bondage of guilt."

"My freedom!" echoed my wife.  She was pale as death; her hot, dry lips
moved convulsively, and she glanced at me in feverish apprehension.
"How can you give me my freedom?"

"By revealing the truth," Sonia answered.  "When you have told Geoffrey
all, then will I disclose the terrible secret that I have selfishly kept
from you because I envied you your happiness."

The silence remained unbroken for some moments.  Ella stood with her
gloved hands clasped before her.  The haughty demeanour of the daughter
of the Romanoffs had entirely forsaken her; with head bent she stood
immovable as a statue.  Terror and despair showed themselves in her
clear, bright eyes.  It seemed as though she mistrusted this woman of
evil repute, whose assertions half induced her to confess to me.

"Come," Sonia said, "speak, and freedom, love and happiness are yours."

Her breast, beneath its lace and flimsy muslin, heaved and fell.  Her
fingers hitched themselves nervously in the trimming of her gown.  Then,
at last, with sudden resolve, she turned, and with terror-stricken eyes
fixed upon me, said in English, in low, faltering tone,--

"To confess to you, Geoffrey, will cause you to hate, ah! even to curse
me.  After to-day I fear we shall part never again to meet."

"No, no," I cried, advancing to take her soft hand in mine.  "Tell me
your secret.  Then let us hear what Sonia has to reveal."

"Ah! mine is a wretched, horrible story of duplicity," my wife faltered,
standing in an attitude of deep dejection.  "Although I am a Grand
Duchess, the bearer of an Imperial name, I can hope for neither pity nor
mercy from you, nor from the world outside."

"Why?"

"Because I have foully deceived you.  I am a spy!"

"A spy!"  I gasped, amazed.  "What do you mean?"

"Listen; I will tell you," she answered, in a hard, strained voice,
swaying slowly forward and clutching at the table for support.  "Three
years ago, when my mother, the Grand Duchess Nicholas, was still alive,
we were spending some months as usual at our winter villa that faced the
Mediterranean at St Eugene, close to Algiers, and my mother engaged as
_valet de chambre_ an Englishman.  Soon this man grew, I suppose, to
admire me.  He pestered me with hateful attentions, and at last had the
audacity to declare his love.  As may be readily imagined, I scornfully
rejected him, treated him with contempt, and finding that he still
continued his protestations, meeting me when I went for walks along the
sea-road to Algiers, or under the palms and orange groves in the Jardin
Marengo, I one day in a fit of ill-temper, disclosed to my mother the
whole of the circumstances.  The fellow was at once discharged, but
before he left for Europe he wrote me a letter full of bitter reproach,
and expressed his determination to some day wreak vengeance upon me, as
well as upon a young Englishman whom he suspected that I loved.  His
suspicions, however, were entirely unfounded.  I, known at home and
throughout all our family by the pet name of `Tcherno-okaya,' or
`Sparkling Eyes,' a nickname taken from our Russian poet Lermontoff, had
met this young Englishman quite casually, when one day, while passing
through the Kasbah, I was insulted by two half-drunken Arabs, and he
escorted me home.  Then, when we parted, he told me that he was staying
at the Hotel de la Regence, opposite the great white mosque, and gave me
his name.  It was Dudley Ogle."

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.

THE THRALL.

"Dudley Ogle!"  I echoed in blank amazement.  "Are you certain that the
servant's suspicions were devoid of foundation?"

"Absolutely," she answered in quick breathlessness.  "In those days I
was supercilious and disdainful, being taught to regard my dignity as
Grand Duchess with too great a conceit to make a _mesalliance_.  My
mother used constantly to urge that in the marriages contracted by
members of our family love was not absolutely necessary--position was
everything.  Well, the months went by.  We left Algiers, returned to St
Petersburg, and soon afterwards my mother died, leaving me alone.  I
found myself possessor of great wealth, and when, after a period of
mourning, I reappeared in society, I was courted and flattered by all
sorts and conditions of men.  In a year I grew tired of it all and
longed to return to England, the land wherein I had spent many years of
my youth; therefore I engaged a woman to pose as my mother, and dropping
my title, went to London and lived there as Ella Laing.  Then I met
you," and she paused, looking earnestly into my face with her deep blue
eyes.  To me she had embodied everything that was fair, honourable, and
pure, yet I had dreaded some sinister peril from an unknown source.

"And we loved each other," I said simply.

"Yes," she went on fervently.  "But from the first I was fettered, being
unable to act as my heart prompted.  I loved you fondly, and knew you
wished to make me your wife, yet I dared not to risk such a step without
the permission of our House.  I went to St Petersburg, explained who and
what you were, and craved leave to marry you.  A family council was
held, but the suggestion was unanimously denounced as a piece of
sentimental folly.  Ah, shall I ever forget that night?  I pleaded to
them upon my knees to let me obtain happiness in your love, but they
were inexorable and refused.  At length, when in a moment of despair I
threatened that if shut out from love by the barrier of birth I would
end my life, a suggestion was made--a horrible, infamous one, prompted
by Makaroff, Minister of the Household.  Yet I was ready to commit any
act, to do anything in order to secure happiness with you.  Permission
was given me to marry you on condition that I entered the Secret Service
as spy.  I appealed personally to the Tzar, but in vain.  You were in
the Earl of Warnham's confidence, and it was seen that from you I could
obtain information which would be of greatest utility to our Foreign
Department."

"So you accepted," I said sternly.

"Yes.  I accepted their abominable conditions because I loved you so
well, Geoffrey," she said gloomily, her trembling hand upon my shoulder.
"It was not my fault, indeed it wasn't.  If I had known what was to
follow I would have killed myself rather than bring about all the
trouble and disaster for which I became responsible."

"No," I said, "don't speak like that."

"I would," she declared despairingly.  "What followed was a dark,
mysterious tragedy, while all the time I knew that you must suspect--
that, after all, you might forsake me.  Within a week after binding
myself irrevocably to the Tzar's army of spies I made a discovery that
held me appalled.  I found that my master, the man to whose will I was
compelled to submit, was none other than our discharged _valet de
chambre_--the man who two years before had declared his love.  At the
time my mother had engaged him he was already in the Secret Service, and
had no doubt kept watch upon us.  He came to me at `The Nook,' and,
exulting in the fact that I had become his puppet, renewed his
protestations of affection.  When, frankly, I told him that I hated him
and loved only you, he at once informed me, with a grin of satisfaction,
that the department in St Petersburg found it compulsory to obtain
possession of a copy of a secret convention at that moment being
concluded between your country and Germany, and that I must get
possession of it at any cost, through you.  It was in order that I might
betray you that the Imperial permission had been given to our marriage.
In indignation I refused, whereupon he threatened to expose me to you as
a Russian spy, and I saw only too clearly that any such revelation must
end for ever our acquaintance.  He cajoled, urged, threatened, and
explained all the elaborate precautions that had been taken by two
clerks in Russian pay at your Foreign Office in order that on a certain
day you should carry the precious document in your pocket, and how he
had prepared the dummy envelope sealed with your Minister's seal.  At
last--at last, after striving long and vainly against the performance of
this ignominious action that I knew must reflect on your honesty, I was
compelled to submit.  Ah! you can never know what agony I suffered.  I
verily believe that in those few days the terrible vengeance of that
scoundrel drove me insane.  The hideous ghost of the past causes me to
shudder whenever I think of it."

I echoed her sigh, but no word escaped me.  Her revelations were
astounding.  I had never suspected her of being actually a spy, although
the discovery of the stolen convention in her escritoire had lent colour
to that view.

"I deceived you," she went on in a hard, monotonous voice.  "But only
because I loved you so fondly, and dreaded that this man, who had long
ago vowed to wreck my life, would expose, and thus part us.  Yet I could
not bring myself to commit the theft.  How could I place upon you--the
man who was all in all to me--the stigma of having traitorously sold
your country's secrets?  The man who held me enslaved, and whose
attentions I had spurned, exulted in his malevolent revenge.  Once he
offered, if I would renounce all thought of you and treat him with more
cordiality, to commit the theft himself; but I refused, determined at
all hazards to remain with you as long as possible.  Once it was thought
that the secret convention would be sent to Warnham Hall, and I was
compelled to go down there to devise some means of obtaining it.  I
found Dudley staying in the village, and we returned to London together.
The end must soon come, I knew.  Therefore I lived on in daily terror
of what must follow.  At last the day dawned on which I had to meet you
at the Foreign Office, and filch from you the bond of nations.  After
breakfast I stood out on the lawn by the sunny river's brink,
contemplating suicide rather than your ruin, when there rowed up to the
steps Dudley Ogle, who hailed me, inviting me to pull up to Windsor, and
there lunch with him.  At once I accepted, and after embarking, told him
of my dilemma, and besought his assistance.  As you know, he was a good
amateur conjurer, and skilled in feats of sleight-of-hand.  Without
thought of the consequences, he resolved to commit the theft for my
sake, and when I had fully explained all the facts and given him the
dummy envelope that the cunning chief of the _Okhrannoe Otdelenie_ had
prepared, he turned the boat and put me ashore at `The Nook,' afterwards
rowing rapidly down to Shepperton to change and go at once to London."

"He did this because he loved you?"  I exclaimed sternly.

"No," she answered reassuringly.  "Poor Dudley was simply my friend.  He
called on you and extracted the document from your pocket while you
lunched together, because he saw in what a dilemma I was.  He knew I
loved you dearly, and never once spoke a single word of affection to me.
That I swear before Heaven.  What followed his visit to Downing Street
I have only a hazy idea, so full of awful anxieties was that breathless
day.  From Waterloo Station he telegraphed to me that he had
successfully secured the agreement and handed it to the chief of spies.
The latter, who had been waiting in Parliament Street expecting me,
seeing him, took in the situation at a glance, and approaching him,
asked for the document, which he gave up.  An hour afterwards, fearing
that you might suspect me, I telegraphed to you at Shepperton to dine
with us, well knowing that already the text of the convention was at
that moment being transmitted to Petersburg, and that war was imminent.
You came; you kissed me.  I loved you dearer than life, yet dreaded the
frightful consequences of the dastardly act I had instigated.  Suddenly,
while we were at dinner, and you were laughing, happy and unconscious of
the conspiracy against the peace of Europe, a thought flashed across my
mind.  I well knew that an awful conflict of armed forces must accrue
from my deep, despicable cunning, and it occurred to me, as I sat by
your side, that I would, using the secret cipher I had been provided
with, telegraph to St Petersburg in the name of the chief of spies,
assuring our Foreign Department that a mistake had been made.  I slipped
out, and running down to the telegraph office just before it closed,
sent a message to an unsuspicious-looking address, stating that the text
of the convention already sent had been discovered to be that of a
rejected draft, and not that of the actual defensive alliance which had
received the signature of the Emperor William."

"Then it was actually this message of yours that prevented war?"  I
gasped, in profound astonishment.

"Yes," she answered.  "Before receipt of my telegram all preparations
were being made for the commencement of hostilities, but on its arrival
the Tzar at once countermanded the mobilisation order, and Europe was
thereby spared a terrible and bloody conflict.  Ah! that was indeed a
memorable night, brought to a conclusion by a dark and terrible
tragedy."

Her astounding disclosures held me dumbfounded.  I remembered vividly
how, during our lunch at the Ship, Dudley had risen and gone out to the
bar to speak to an acquaintance.  It was at that moment, having stolen
the document from me, he glanced at its register number and imitated it
upon the dummy with which Ella had provided him.

"But how came you possessed of the original of the convention?"  I
asked.

"A week before I fled from you I received it by post anonymously," she
replied.  "When compelled by my enemy to leave you and return here to my
true position, I unfortunately left it behind, and knew that, sooner or
later, you must discover it.  The man who, with the Tzar's authority,
held me under the lash, still holds me, the plaything of his spite, and
threatens that if I allow you to come here and occupy your rightful
place as my husband, he will denounce me to the British Government as a
spy.  Hence I am still his puppet, still held by a bond of guilt that I
dare not break asunder."

"Be patient," urged Sonia, in a deep, calm voice.  "Be patient, and you
shall yet be free."

"Ah!  Geoffrey," sobbed my wife, her blanched, tearful face buried in
her hands, "you can never, I fear, forgive.  After all, notwithstanding
the glamour that must surround me as Grand Duchess, I am but a mean,
despicable woman who foully betrayed you, the man who loved me."

"You atoned for your crime by your successful effort to preserve the
peace of Europe," I answered.

"Yes, yes," she cried, with a quiver in her voice there was no mistaking
for any note save that of love; "but, alas!  I am in the power of an
unscrupulous knave who parted us because he saw me happy with you.  Can
you ever forgive me?  Can you, now you know of my unworthiness, ever say
that you love me as truly as you did in those bygone days at `The Nook'?
Speak!  Tell me?"

"Yes," I answered, fervently pressing her closely in affectionate
embrace.  "I forgive you everything, darling.  You sinned; but, held as
you have been by the hateful conditions imposed upon you by a base,
unprincipled villain, I cannot blame, but only pity you."

"Then you still love me, Geoffrey?" she cried, panting, gazing up into
my face.

For answer I bent until my lips met hers in a long fond caress.  In
those moments of ecstasy I was conscious of having regained the idyllic
happiness long lost.  Even though her story was full of bitter and
terrible sorrow, and rendered gloomy by the tragic death of her
self-sacrificing friend, the truth nevertheless brought back to me the
joys and pleasures of life that not long ago I believed had departed
from me for ever.

Again and again our lips met with murmured words of tender passion--she
declaring that her crime had been flagitious and unpardonable, yet
assuring me of what I now felt convinced, that her love had been
unwavering.  If it were not that she had resolved to renounce her title
and become my wife she would never have fallen beneath the vassalage of
the infamous scoundrel who sought her social ruin.

Thus we stood together locked in each other's arms, exchanging once
again vows of love eternal, while Sonia stood watching us, sad, silent
and motionless, save for a deep sigh that once escaped her.  She knew
that supreme happiness had come to the woman she had once denounced as
my bitterest foe.

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.

CONCLUSION.

It was four o'clock on the following afternoon.  The black, iron-studded
doors of the Bank of England were just closing.  The beadle mopped his
brow.  The traffic around the Royal Exchange was becoming more
congested, as it generally does at that hour, and perspiring clerks
hurrying along Threadneedle Street sought the shady side, for the sun
was still powerful.  So hot indeed was the season that general
permission had been granted everywhere in the City to wear the jacket
suit and straw headgear reminiscent of Margate, in place of the
conventional silk hat and frock coat.  Although in the West the houses
were mostly closed, and thousands were absent in the country and by the
sea, the great, turbulent, bustling crowd that constitutes business
London showed no sign of inactivity or decrease as, accompanied by my
wife and Sonia, I walked up Old Broad Street to that pile of offices
known as Winchester House, through the swing doors of which passed a
constant stream of hurrying clerks.

By the lift we ascended to the second floor, and then passed down a long
corridor to a door on which was inscribed the name "Mr Andrew Beck."  We
entered a large office of business-like aspect, where some dozen clerks
were busy writing, and were informed that their principal, although
absent, would return in a few minutes, therefore we decided to wait, and
were ushered into a comfortable private room, one door of which opened
on to the corridor.

Scarcely had we been seated a few moments when the click of a latch-key
was heard in the door, and my friend Beck entered.  He was well-dressed
as usual, with a green-tinted carnation in his button-hole, and a glossy
hat with brim of the latest curl stuck a trifle rakishly upon his head.
The instant he confronted us the light died out of his face.

He drew himself up with a quick look of suspicion, while from his lips
there escaped a muttered imprecation.  Without further ado he turned on
his heel, as if preparing to make a hurried exit, but in a moment Sonia,
detecting his intention, sprang towards the door and prevented him.

"Well?" he asked, with a sorry endeavour to remain cool, "why are you
all here?  This is an unexpected pleasure, I assure you."

It was Sonia who, standing before him with dark, flashing eyes, answered
in a tone of fierce hatred and contempt,--

"I have come, Andrew, to present my congratulations upon your
forthcoming marriage," she said, with her pronounced foreign accent.

"They could have been conveyed by a penny stamp," he retorted
impatiently.

"You taunt me, do you?" she cried in a towering passion.  "You, the
cunning, cowardly spy whom I shielded because you professed love for me.
Had I spoken long ago you would have met with your deserts, either at
the hands of the Nihilists, or at those of justice.  Although myself a
criminal I yearned for love, and foolishly believing that you cared for
me, preserved the secret of your guilt, allowing you to wreck the
happiness of Geoffrey Deedes, the man who twice proved my friend, and of
Elizaveta, the only honest woman who ever spoke kindly to me or
endeavoured to induce me to reform.  Because you were chief of the
Tzar's spies and I was notorious, with plenty of money always at
command, you imagined that you held me irrevocably.  Well, for a time,
you did.  Your false protestations of affection caused me to refrain
from exposing your base, cunning, heartless infamy.  It was you, with
your renegade underling Renouf, who contrived to get me introduced to
Elizaveta in order to further your own ends; but it was you also, when
fearing that I might make some ugly revelations, made unfounded
allegations against me to General Sekerzhinski, and informed him of my
whereabouts, so that I was compelled to fly from Pembroke Road and seek
shelter where I could."

His eyes were fixed upon her with a look of fierce hatred, and he
muttered some incoherent words between his teeth.

"Yes," she went on defiantly, "I know you are anxious to close my lips,
because of the startling disclosures it is within my power to make.  The
Department in St Petersburg have in you a keen, cunning spy, but when it
becomes known throughout England that Andrew Beck, the popular Member
for West Rutlandshire, is in the pay of the Russian Government, do you
anticipate that you will still occupy your seat in the House of Commons,
or at the Committee you have so ingeniously obtained for the
investigation of the strength of England's defences?"

He started.  His face was ashen pale; his cigar dropped from his
nerveless, trembling fingers.

"Geoffrey," she went on, "has already heard from Elizaveta how cleverly
you tricked her, and with what dastard knavishness you compelled her to
instigate the theft of the secret convention.  She--"

"Then the world shall know that the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Nicolayevna
is in the Secret Service!" he cried fiercely.  "She has betrayed her
country and her kinsman, the Emperor!"

Sonia, smiling in contempt, said,--

"The denunciation will be your own condemnation."

"Why?  What have I to lose?" he asked indignantly.  "Your life.  The
police have not yet forgotten the tragedy at `The Nook.'"

He glared at her open-mouthed.

"Perhaps it may be well at this moment to recall some facts that you may
have found convenient to forget," she went on ruthlessly, while I,
standing beside Ella, drank in eagerly every word.  "You will remember
where you reduced the stolen document to cipher, imitating Dudley's
handwriting on the telegraph forms.  It was at my house.  The envelope
containing the agreement had been opened in the `cabinet noir' at the
Embassy, the intention being to replace it at the Foreign Office.  But
it was I who broke the seal.  In your hurry you left the document
behind, and even when you returned two hours later, your mind was so
full of other things that you did not remember it; so I gummed down the
cut edges, and sent it afterwards to Elizaveta.  When you came the
second time you had with you a pair of men's gloves.  Whose they were I
knew not, but you got me to sew inside the index-finger of the left hand
a tiny, jagged splinter of glass, and upon that glass, when you thought
I did not observe you, you smeared some of that fluid that Ruyandez, the
Haytian merchant, had given me long ago.  That poison I kept locked away
in a small cabinet, but many months before I had shown it to you and
explained that it was some of that used by the Obeah men, and so rapid
was it in effect that one single drop would cause paralysis of the heart
within five minutes without leaving any trace of poison.  You obtained a
key to that cabinet, for when I had gone from the room on that afternoon
I watched you unlock it, take out the reed containing the decoction, and
prepare the glove."

"Liar!" gasped Beck.  "I didn't touch it."

"The glove," she continued, "belonged to Dudley Ogle.  That day
Elizaveta had told him that you, a member of the English Parliament, was
the chief of Russian spies, and you feared lest he should expose you, as
no doubt he would have done if you had not, with cowardly cunning, taken
his life."

"Murderer!" cried Ella, amazed.  "You--you killed him!  Ah!  I suspected
it.  Tell us, Sonia, how it was accomplished."

"The gloves this man brought to my house were a pair he had taken up by
mistake when at Shepperton on the previous evening.  For cool and
desperate plotting, the manner in which he killed the man he feared was
astounding, for, having introduced into the finger of the glove the tiny
piece of glass, he, during that evening at `The Nook,' took out his
victim's gloves from his overcoat in the hall and replaced them by those
prepared.  When Dudley left to walk home he bade farewell to you, and at
once proceeding to put on his gloves, received a scratch on the finger
so slight as to be almost unnoticeable, yet within five minutes the
effects of the poison had reached his heart, and he was beyond human
aid."

"Amazing!"  I cried, regarding my whilom friend with intense loathing as
he stood before us, his face a ghastly hue.

"It's untrue!  Who will believe such a woman?" he cried.

"Everyone will," Sonia retorted quickly.  "See, here is the proof," and
she drew from her pocket a well-worn suede glove of dark grey, which I
recognised at once as being one of the kind always worn by Dudley.  "The
splinter of glass is still inside."

The man who had led the double life of spy and legislator, and who had
amassed a great fortune in his speculations in African gold, stood
livid, with terror-stricken eyes riveted upon the evidence of his crime,
like one transfixed.

"The Tzar will have no further employment for a murderer," exclaimed
Ella at last.  "Neither will the House of Commons permit a spy to sit in
its midst.  When I consented to enter the Secret Service of His Majesty,
it was with one object--to obtain permission to marry.  This I have
attained, and because of Geoffrey's generosity and free forgiveness I
have now no further fear of the opinion of the world or of revelations
by a man who is proved to be a murderer.  At last I have secured freedom
from your hateful tie."

"Then you intend to denounce me?"  Beck cried, glancing round with a
wild, hunted look.

"Twenty-four hours from now I shall place Lord Warnham in possession of
the whole of these curious facts.  If you are still upon English soil,
you will be arrested for the murder of my friend," I answered calmly.
"I see plainly how, while I left you alone with the dead man, you placed
in his pocket the brass seal found upon him, and how cleverly you
managed to introduce the bogus passport and evidences of forgery among
his possessions.  Yours was a devilish ingenuity, indeed."

"If I fly you will not follow?" he gasped eagerly.

"Wherever you may hide you will be followed by your guilt," I answered.
"A murderer can hope for no forgiveness from his fellow-men."

With his chin sunk upon his breast, and his wild eyes downcast, he stood
in silence, leaning heavily against the wall.  Then, slowly, with a
final look upon him, I passed out behind my wife and the pale-faced
woman who had so clearly substantiated her terrible charge.  The
vengeance he had sought to bring upon Ella had fallen upon him and
completely crushed him.

In the library at Berkeley Square on the following afternoon I explained
the whole of the startling facts, to the wizened, ascetic old Earl, who
sat speechless in amazement when he realised that Andrew Beck was
actually a foreign spy.  It was during the conversation that followed I
learnt that the man who had been loved by Sonia was Cecil Bingham, the
young country gentleman who, known to both, had sought to assist Ella in
unearthing the identity of Dudley's murderer.  Sonia had misjudged my
wife entirely, for she had never denounced her to Cecil, and the latter,
being at that moment a guest in the Earl's house, was sent for, and
before us all the pair became reconciled.

Elizaveta Nicolayevna, or Ella, as I still call her, has now renounced
her country, and become thoroughly English.  A year ago Lord Warnham,
assured of my wife's probity--for greatly to Monsieur Grodekoff's
dismay, she had given some valuable information regarding the activity
of the Russian Secret Service at Downing Street--appointed me to a
responsible post at our Embassy in Paris, so that we now live together
at the big white house in the Avenue des Champs Elysees, while Sonia and
Cecil are also married and live quietly in a quaint old manor-house near
Winchester.

It was only the other day, however, that we heard mention of Andrew
Beck, the popular legislator who so mysteriously accepted stewardship of
the Chiltern Hundreds.  There was a paragraph in the newspapers stating
that he had been found drowned in the Scheldt, near Antwerp, and foul
play was suspected.  Then Ella explained to me that the woman who had
passed as her mother, Mrs Laing, was, she afterwards discovered, a
well-known Nihilist, and it was in order to keep observation upon her
that the detective Renouf had entered her service.  This woman, whose
real name was Sophie Grunsberg, was greatly incensed against Beck on
account of certain false accusations he had made against members of the
revolutionary organisation, and there was little doubt that he had
fallen beneath their far-reaching vengeance.

Here, as I pen these last few lines of my strange story of England's
peril, my own betrayal, and my wife's fond love, Ella, with sweet, glad
smile, moves forward to stroke my hair with soft, caressing hand.  The
odour of sampaguita pervades her chiffons, stirring within me memories
of the past.  We are together in the room I know so well, with its great
windows overlooking the leafy Avenue.  It is warm, the sun-shutters are
closed, and from somewhere outside the gay air, "Si qu'on leur-z-y
f'rait ca" is borne in upon the summer wind.

At last our days are full of passionate love and idyllic happiness.
Verily there is great truth in those words of Holy Writ, "Whoso findeth
a wife, findeth a good thing."

The End.





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