Chapter VII. The Gray Friar
 

So confident was Elaine that Kennedy was still alive that she would not admit to herself what to the rest of us seemed obvious.

She even refused to accept Aunt Josephine's hints and decided to give a masquerade ball which she had planned as the last event of the season before she closed the Dodge town house and opened her country house on the shore of Connecticut.

It was shortly after the strange appearance of the fussy old gentleman that I dropped in one afternoon to find Elaine addressing invitations, while Aunt Josephine helped her. As we chatted, I picked up one from the pile and mechanically contemplated the address:

"M. Del Mar, Hotel La Coste, New York City."

"I don't like that fellow," I remarked, shaking my head dubiously.

"Oh, you're--jealous, Walter," laughed Elaine, taking the envelope away from me and piling it again with the others.

Thus it was that in the morning's mail, Del Mar, along with the rest of us, received a neatly engraved little invitation:

Miss Elaine Dodge requests the pleasure of your presence at the masquerade ball to be given at her residence on Friday evening June 1st.

"Good!" he exclaimed, reaching for the telephone, "I'll go."

In a restaurant in the white light district two of those who had been engaged in the preliminary plot to steal Kennedy's wireless torpedo model, the young woman stenographer who had betrayed her trust and the man to whom she had passed the model out of the window in Washington, were seated at a table.

So secret had been the relations of all those in the plot that one group did not know the other and the strangest methods of communication had been adopted.

The man removed a cover from a dish. Underneath, perhaps without even the waiter's knowledge, was a note.

"Here are the orders at last," he whispered to the girl, unfolding and reading the note. "Look. The model of the torpedo is somewhere in her house. Go to-night to the ball as a masquerader and search for it."

"Oh, splendid!" exclaimed the girl. "I'm crazy for a little society after this grind. Pay the check and let's get out and choose our costumes."

The man paid the check and they left hurriedly. Half an hour later they were at a costumer's shop choosing their disguises, both careful to get the fullest masks that would not excite suspicion.

It was the night of the masquerade.

During the afternoon Elaine had been thinking more than ever of Kennedy. It all seemed unreal to her. More than once she stopped to look at his photograph. Several times she checked herself on the point of tears.

"No," she said to herself with a sort of grim determination. "No-- he is alive. He will come back to me--he will."

And yet she had a feeling of terrific loneliness which even her most powerful efforts could not throw off. She was determined to go through with the ball, now that she had started it, but she was really glad when it came time to dress, for even that took her mind from her brooding.

As Marie finished helping her put on a very effective and conspicuous costume, Aunt Josephine entered her dressing-room.

"Are you ready, my dear?" she asked, adjusting the mask which she carried so that no one would recognize her as Martha Washington.

"In just a minute, Auntie," answered Elaine, trying hard to put out of her mind how Craig would have liked her dress.

Somewhat earlier, in my own apartment, I had been arraying myself as Boum-Boum and modestly admiring the imitation I made of a circus clown as I did a couple of comedy steps before the mirror.

But I was not really so light-hearted. I could not help thinking of what this night might have been if Kennedy had been alive. Indeed, I was glad to take up my white mask, throw a long coat over my outlandish costume and hurry off in my waiting car in order to forget everything that reminded me of him in the apartment.

Already a continuous stream of guests was trickling in through the canopy from the curb to the Dodge door, carriages and automobiles arriving and leaving amid great gaping from the crowd on the sidewalk.

As I entered the ballroom it was really a brilliant and picturesque assemblage. Of course I recognized Elaine in spite of her mask, almost immediately.

Characteristically, she was talking to the one most striking figure on the floor, a tall man in red--a veritable Mephistopheles. As the music started, Elaine and his Satanic Majesty laughingly fox-trotted off but were not lost to me in the throng.

I soon found myself talking to a young lady in a spotted domino. She seemed to have a peculiar fascination for me, yet she did not monopolize all my attention. As we trotted past the door, I could see down the hall. Jennings was still admitting late arrivals, and I caught a glimpse of one costumed as a gray friar, his cowl over his head and his eyes masked.

Chatting, we had circled about to the conservatory. A number of couples were there and, through the palms, I saw Elaine and Mephisto laughingly make their way.

As my spotted domino partner and I swung around again, I happened to catch another glimpse of the gray friar. He was not dancing, but walking, or rather stalking, about the edge of the room, gazing about as if searching for some one.

In the conservatory, Elaine and Mephisto had seated themselves in the breeze of an open window, somewhat in the shadow.

"You are Miss Dodge," he said earnestly.

"You knew me?" she laughed. "And you?"

He raised his mask, disclosing the handsome face and fascinating eyes of Del Mar.

"I hope you don't think I'm here in character," he laughed easily, as she started a bit.

"I--I--well, I didn't think it was you," she blurted out.

"Ah--then there is some one else you care more to dance with?"

"No--no one--no."

"I may hope, then?"

He had moved closer and almost touched her hand. The pointed hood of the gray friar in the palms showed that at last he saw what he sought.

"No--no. Please--excuse me," she murmured rising and hurrying back to the ballroom.

A subtle smile spread over the gray friar's masked face.

Of course I had known Elaine. Whether she knew me at once I don't know or whether it was an accident, but she approached me as I paused in the dance a moment with my domino girl.

"From the--sublime--to the ridiculous," she cried excitedly.

My partner gave her a sharp glance. "You will excuse me?" she said, and, as I bowed, almost ran off to the conservatory, leaving Elaine to dance off with me.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Del Mar, quite surprised at the sudden flight of Elaine from his side, followed more slowly through the palms.

As he did so he passed a Mexican attired in brilliant native costume. At a sign from Del Mar he paused and received a small package which Del Mar slipped to him, then passed on as though nothing had happened. The keen eyes of the gray friar, however, had caught the little action and he quietly slipped out after the Mexican bolero.

Just then the domino girl hurried into the conservatory. "What's doing?" she asked eagerly.

"Keep close to me," whispered Del Mar, as she nodded and they left the conservatory, not apparently together.

Up-stairs, away from the gayety of the ballroom, the bolero made his way until he came to Elaine's room, dimly lighted. With a quick glance about, he entered cautiously, closed the door, and approached a closet which he opened. There was a safe built into the wall.

As he stooped over, the man unwrapped the package Del Mar had handed him and took out a curious little instrument. Inside was a dry battery and a most peculiar instrument, something like a little flat telephone transmitter, yet attached by wires to ear- pieces that fitted over the head after the manner of those of a wireless detector.

He adjusted the head-piece and held the flat instrument against the safe, close to the combination which he began to turn slowly. It was a burglar's microphone, used for picking combination locks. As the combination turned, a slight sound was made when the proper number came opposite the working point. Imperceptible ordinarily to even the most sensitive ear, to an ear trained it was comparatively easy to recognize the fall of the tumblers over this microphone.

As he worked, the door behind him opened softly and the gray friar entered, closing it and moving noiselessly over back of the shelter of a big mahogany high-boy, around which he could watch.

At last the safe was opened. Rapidly the man went through its contents. "Confound it!" he muttered. "She didn't put it here-- anyhow."

The bolero started to close the safe when he heard a noise in the room and looked cautiously back of him. Del Mar himself, followed by the domino girl, entered.

"I've opened it," whispered the emissary stepping out of the closet and meeting them, "but I can't find the--"

"Hands up--all of you!"

They turned in time to see the gray friar's gun yawning at them. Most politely he lined them up. Still holding his gun ready, he lifted up the mask of the domino girl.

"So--it's you," he grunted.

He was about to lift the mask of the Mexican, when the bolero leaped at him. Del Mar piled in. But sounds down-stairs alarmed them and the emissary, released, fled quickly with the girl. The gray friar, however, kept his hold on Mephistopheles, as if he had been wrestling with a veritable devil.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Down in the hall, I had again met my domino girl, a few minutes after I had resigned Elaine to another of her numerous admirers.

"I thought you deserted me," I said, somewhat piqued.

"You deserted me," she parried, nervously. "However, I'll forgive you if you'll get me an ice."

I hastened to do so. But no sooner had I gone than Del Mar stalked through the hall and went up-stairs. My domino girl was watching for him, and followed.

When I returned with the ice, I looked about, but she was gone. It was scarcely a moment later, however, that I saw her hurry down- stairs, accompanied by the Mexican bolero. I stepped forward to speak to her, but she almost ran past me without a word.

"A nut," I remarked under my breath, pushing back my mask.

I started to eat the ice myself, when, a moment later, Elaine passed through the hall with a Spanish cavalier.

"Oh, Walter, here you are," she laughed. "I've been looking all over for you. Thank you very much, sire," she bowed with mock civility to the cavalier. "It was only one dance, you know. Please let me talk to Boum-Boum."

The cavalier bowed reluctantly and left us.

"What are you doing here alone?" she asked, taking off her own mask. "How warm it is."

Before I could reply, I heard some one coming down-stairs back of me, but not in time to turn

"Elaine's dressing-table," a voice whispered in my ear.

I turned suddenly. It was the gray friar. Before I could even reach out to grasp his robe, he was gone.

"Another nut!" I exclaimed involuntarily.

"Why, what did he say?" asked Elaine.

"Something about your dressing-table."

"My dressing-table?" she repeated.

We ran quickly up the steps. Elaine's room showed every evidence of having been the scene of a struggle, as she went over to the table. There she picked up a rose and under it a piece of paper on which were some words printed with pencil roughly.

"Look," she cried, as I read with her:

   Do honest assistants search safes?
    Let no one see this but Jameson.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"My safe!" she cried moving to a closet. As she opened the door, imagine our surprise at seeing Del Mar lying on the floor, bound and gagged before the open safe. "Get my scissors on the dresser," cried Elaine.

I did so, hastily cutting the cords that bound Del Mar.

"What does it all mean?" asked Elaine as he rose and stretched himself.

Still clutching his throat, as if it hurt, Del Mar choked, "I found a man, a foreign agent, searching the safe. But he overcame me and escaped."

"Oh--then that is what the--"

Elaine checked herself. She had been about to hand the note to Del Mar when an idea seemed to come to her. Instead, she crumpled it up and thrust it into her bosom.

On the street the bolero and the domino girl were hurrying away as fast as they could.

Meanwhile, the gray friar had overcome Del Mar, had bound and gagged him, and trust him into the closet. Then he wrote the note and laid it, with a rose from a vase, on Elaine's dressing-table before he, too, followed.

More than ever I was at a loss to make it out.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

It was the day after the masquerade ball that a taxicab drove up to the Dodge house and a very trim but not over-dressed young lady was announced as "Miss Bertholdi."

"Miss Dodge?" she inquired as Jennings held open the portieres and she entered the library where Elaine and Aunt Josephine were.

If Elaine had only known, it was the domino girl of the night before who handed her a note and sat down, looking about so demurely, while Elaine read:

MY DEAR MISS DODGE,

The bearer, Miss Bertholdi, is an operative of mine. I would appreciate it if you would employ her in some capacity in your house, as I have reason to believe that certain foreign agents will soon make another attempt to find Kennedy's lost torpedo model.

Sincerely, M. DEL MAR.

Elaine looked up from reading the note. Miss Bertholdi was good to look at, and Elaine liked pretty girls about her.

"Jennings," she ordered, "call Marie."

To the butler and her maid, Elaine gave the most careful instructions regarding Miss Bertholdi. "She can help you finish the packing, first," she concluded.

The girl thanked her and went out with Jennings and Marie, asking Jennings to pay her taxicab driver with money she gave him, which he did, bringing her grip into the house.

Later in the day, Elaine had both Marie and Bertholdi carrying armsful of her dresses from the closets in her room up to the attic where the last of her trunks were being packed. On one of the many trips, Bertholdi came alone into the attic, her arms full as usual. Before her were two trunks, very much alike, open and nearly packed. She laid her armful of clothes on a chair near-by and pulled one of the trunks forward. On the floor lay the trays of both trunks already packed. Bertholdi began packing her burden in one trunk which was marked in big white letters, "E. Dodge."

Down in Elaine's room at the time Jennings entered. "The expressman for the trunks is here, Miss Elaine," he announced.

"Is he? I wonder whether they are all ready," Elaine replied hurrying out of the room. "Tell him to wait."

In the attic, Bertholdi was still at work, keeping her eyes open to execute the mission on which Del Mar had sent her.

Rusty, forgotten in the excitement by Jennings, had roamed at will through the house and seemed quite interested. For this was the trunk behind which he had his cache of treasures.

As Bertholdi started to move behind the trunk, Rusty could stand it no longer. He darted ahead of her into his hiding-place. Among the dog biscuit and bones was the torpedo model which he had dug up from the palm pot in the conservatory. He seized it in his mouth and turned to carry it off.

There, in his path, was his enemy, the new girl. Quick as a flash, she saw what it was Rusty had, and grabbed at it.

"Get out!" she ordered, looking at her prize in triumph and turning it over and over in her hands.

At that moment she heard Elaine on the stairs. What should she do? She must hide it. She looked about. There was the tray, packed and lying on the floor near the trunk marked, "E. Dodge." She thrust it hastily into the tray pulling a garment over it.

"Nearly through?" panted Elaine.

"Yes, Miss Dodge."

"Then please tell the expressman to come up."

Bertholdi hesitated, chagrined. Yet there was nothing to do but obey. She looked at the trunk by the tray to fix it in her mind, then went down-stairs.

As she left the room, Elaine lifted the tray into the trunk and tried to close the lid. But the tray was too high. She looked puzzled. On the floor was another tray almost identical.

"The wrong trunk," she smiled to herself, lifting the tray out and putting the other one in, while she placed the first tray with the torpedo concealed in the other, unmarked, trunk where it belonged. Then she closed the first trunk.

A moment later the expressman entered, with Bertholdi.

"You may take that one," indicated Elaine.

"Miss Dodge, here's something else to go in," said Bertholdi in desperation, picking up a dress.

"Never mind. Put it in the other trunk."

Bertholdi was baffled, but she managed to control herself. She must get word to Del Mar about that trunk marked "E. Dodge."

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Late that afternoon, before a cheap restaurant might have been seen our old friend who had posed as Bailey and as the Mexican. He entered the restaurant and made his way to the first of a row of booths on one side.

"Hello," he nodded to a girl in the booth.

Bertholdi nodded back and he took his seat. She had begged an hour or two off on some pretext

Outside the restaurant, a heavily-bearded man had been standing looking intently at nothing in particular when Bertholdi entered. As Bailey came along, he followed and took the next booth, his hat pulled over his eyes. In a moment he was listening, his ear close up to the partition.

"Well, what luck?" asked Bailey. "Did you get a clue?"

"I had the torpedo model in my hands," she replied, excitedly telling the story. "It is in a trunk marked 'E. Dodge.'"

All this and more the bearded stranger drank in eagerly.

A moment later Bailey and Bertholdi left the booth and went out of the restaurant followed cautiously by the stranger. On the street the two emissaries of Del Mar stopped a moment to talk.

"All right, I'll telephone him," she said as they parted in opposite directions.

The stranger took an instant to make up his mind, then followed the girl. She continued down the street until she came to a store with telephone booths. The bearded stranger followed still, into the next booth but did not call a number. He had his ear to the wall.

He could hear her call Del Mar, and although he could not hear Del Mar's answers, she repeated enough for him to catch the drift. Finally, she came out, and the stranger, instead of following her further, took the other direction hurriedly.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Del Mar himself received the news with keen excitement. Quickly he gave instructions and prepared to leave his rooms.

A short time later his car pulled up before the La Coste and, in a long duster and cap, Del Mar jumped in, and was off.

Scarcely had his car swung up the avenue when, from an alleyway down the street from the hotel, the chug-chug of a motor-cycle sounded. A bearded man, his face further hidden by a pair of goggles, ran out with his machine, climbed on and followed.

On out into the country Del Mar's car sped. At every turn the motor-cycle dropped back a bit, observed the turn, then crept up and took it, too. So they went for some time.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

On the level of the Grand Central where the trains left for the Connecticut shore where Elaine's summer home was located, Bailey was now edging his way through the late crowd down the platform. He paused before the baggage-car just as one of the baggage motor trucks rolled up loaded high with trunks and bags. He stepped back as the men loaded the luggage on the car, watching carefully.

As they tossed on one trunk marked "E. Dodge," he turned with a subtle look and walked away. Finally he squirmed around to the other platform. No one was looking and he mounted the rear of the baggage-car and opened the door. There was the baggageman sitting by the side door, his back to Bailey. Bailey closed the door softly and squeezed behind a pile of trunks and bags.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Finally Del Mar reached a spot on the railroad where there were both a curve and a grade ahead. He stopped his car and got out.

Down the road the bearded and goggled motorcyclist stopped just in time to avoid observation. To make sure, he drew a pocket field- glass and leveled it ahead.

"Wait here," ordered Del Mar. "I'll call when I want you."

Back on the road the bearded cyclist could see Del Mar move down the track though he could not hear the directions. It was not necessary, however. He dragged his machine into the bushes, hid it, and hurried down the road on foot.

Del Mar's chauffeur was waiting idly at the wheel when suddenly the cold nose of a revolver was stuck under his chin.

"Not a word--and hands up--or I'll let the moonlight through you," growled out a harsh voice.

Nevertheless, the chauffeur managed to lurch out of the car and the bearded stranger, whose revolver it was, found that he would have to shoot. Del Mar was not far enough away to risk it.

The chauffeur flung himself on him and they struggled fiercely, rolling over and over in the dust of the road.

But the bearded stranger had a grip of steel and managed to get his fingers about the chauffeur's throat as an added insurance against a cry for help.

He choked him literally into insensibility. Then, with a strength that he did not seem to possess, he picked up the limp, blue-faced body and carried it off the road and around the car.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

In the baggage-car, the baggageman was smoking a surreptitious pipe of powerful tobacco between stations and contemplating the scenery thoughtfully through the open door.

As the engine slowed up to take a curve and a grade, Bailey who had now and then taken a peep out of a little grated window above him, crept out from his hiding-place. Already he had slipped a dark silk mask over his face.

As he made his way among the trunks and boxes, the train lurched and the baggageman who had his back to Bailey heard him catch himself. He turned and leaped to his feet. Bailey closed with him instantly.

Over and over they rolled. Bailey had already drawn his revolver before he left his hiding-place. A shot, however, would have been fatal to his part in the plans and was only a last resort for it would have brought the trainmen.

Finally Bailey rolled his man over and getting his right arm free, dealt the baggageman a fierce blow with the butt of the gun.

The train was now pulling slowly up the grade. More time had been spent in overcoming the baggageman than he expected and Bailey had to work quickly. He dragged the trunk marked "E. Dodge" from the pile to the door and glanced out.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Just around the curve in the railroad, Del Mar was waiting, straining his eyes down the track.

There was the train, puffing up the grade. As it approached he rose and waved his arms. It was the signal and he waited anxiously. Had his plans been carried out?

The train passed. From the baggage-car came a trunk catapulted out by a strong arm. It hurtled through the air and landed with its own and the train's momentum.

Over it rolled in the bushes, then stopped--unbroken, for Elaine had had it designed to resist even the most violent baggage- smasher.

Del Mar ran to it. As the tail light of the train disappeared he turned around in the direction from which he had come, placed his two hands to his mouth and shouted.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

From the side of the road by Del Mar's car the bearded motor- cyclist had just emerged, buttoning the chauffeur's clothes and adjusting his goggles to his own face.

As he approached the car, he heard a shout. Quickly he tore off the black beard which had been his disguise and tossed it into the grass. Then he drew the coat high up about his neck.

"All right!" he shouted back, starting along the road.

Together he and Del Mar managed to scramble up the embankment to the road and, one at each handle of the trunk, they carried it back to the car, piling it in the back.

The improvised chauffeur started to take his place at the wheel and Del Mar had his foot on the running-board to get beside him, when the now unbearded stranger suddenly swung about and struck Del Mar full in the face. It sent him reeling back into the dust.

The engine of the car had been running and before Del Mar could recover consciousness, the stranger had shot the car ahead, leaving Del Mar prone in the roadway.

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

The train, with Bailey on it, had not gained much speed, yet it was a perilous undertaking to leap. Still, it was more so now to remain. The baggageman stirred. It was now a case of murder or a getaway.

Bailey jumped.

Scratched and bruised and shaken, he scrambled to his feet in the briars along the track. He staggered up to the road, pulled himself together, then hurried back as fast as his barked shins would let him.

He came to the spot which he recognized as that where he had thrown off the trunk. He saw the trampled and broken bushes and made for the road.

He had not gone far when he saw, far down, Del Mar suddenly attacked and thrown down, apparently by his own chauffeur. Bailey ran forward, but it was too late. The car was gone.

As he came up to Del Mar lying outstretched in the road, Del Mar was just recovering consciousness.

"What was the matter?" he asked. "Was he a traitor?"

He caught sight of the real chauffeur on the ground, stripped.

Del Mar was furious. "No," he swore, "it was that confounded gray friar again, I think. And he has the trunk, too!"

       .       .       .       .       .       .       .

Speeding up the road the former masquerader and motor-cyclist stopped at last.

Eagerly he leaped out of Del Mar's car and dragged the trunk over the side regardless of the enamel.

It was the work of only a moment for him to break the lock with a pocket jimmy.

One after another he pulled out and shook the clothes until frocks and gowns and lingerie lay strewn all about.

But there was not a thing in the trunk that even remotely resembled the torpedo model.

The stranger scowled.

Where was it?