Book One
Chapter XIV. A Warning From Mr. Pritchard
 

Tavernake hesitated for a moment under the portico of the Milan Court, looking out at the rain which had suddenly commenced to descend. He scarcely noticed that he had a companion until the man who was standing by his side addressed him.

"Say, your name is Tavernake, isn't it?"

Tavernake, who had been on the point of striding away, turned sharply around. The man who had spoken to him was wearing morning clothes of dark gray tweed and a soft Homburg hat. His complexion was a little sallow and he was clean-shaven except for a slight black moustache. He was smoking a black cigar and his accent was transatlantic. Something about his appearance struck Tavernake as being vaguely familiar, but he could not at first recall where he had seen him before.

"That is my name, certainly," Tavernake admitted.

"I am going to ask you a somewhat impertinent question," his neighbor remarked.

"I suppose you can ask it," Tavernake rejoined. "I am not obliged to answer, am I?"

The man smiled.

"Come," he said, "that's honest, at any rate. Are you in a hurry for a few minutes?"

"I am in no particular hurry," Tavernake answered. "What do you want?"

"A few nights ago," the stranger continued, lowering his voice a little, "I met you with a young lady whose appearance, for some reason which we needn't go into, interested me. To-night I happened to overhear you inquiring, only a few minutes ago, for the sister of the same young lady."

"What you heard doesn't concern me in the least," Tavernake retorted. "I should say that you had no business to listen."

His companion smiled.

"Well," he declared, "I have always heard a good deal about British frankness, and it seems to me that I'm getting some. Anyway, I'll tell you where I come in. I am interested in Mrs. Wenham Gardner. I am interested, also, in her sister, whom I think you know--Miss Beatrice Franklin, not Miss Tavernake!"

Tavernake made no immediate reply. The man was an American, without a doubt. Perhaps he knew something of Beatrice. Perhaps this was one of the friends of that former life concerning which she had told him nothing.

"You are not, by any chance, proposing," Tavernake said at last, "to discuss either of these ladies with me? I do not know you or what your business may be. In any case, I am going now."

The other laid his hand on Tavernake's shoulder.

"You'll be soaked to the skin," he protested. "I want you to come into the smoking-room here with me for a few minutes. We will have a drink together and a little conversation, if you don't mind."

"But I do mind," Tavernake declared. "I don't know who you are and I don't want to know you, and I am not going to talk about Mrs. Gardner, or any other lady of my acquaintance, with strangers. Good-night!"

"One moment, please, Mr. Tavernake."

Tavernake hesitated. There was something curiously compelling in the other's smooth, distinct voice.

"I'd like you to take this card," he said. "I told you my name before but I expect you've forgotten it,--Pritchard--Sam Pritchard. Ever heard of me before?"

"Never!"

"Not to have heard of me in the United States," the other continued, with a grim smile, "would be a tribute to your respectability. Most of the crooks who find their way over here know of Sam Pritchard. I am a detective and I come from New York."

Tavernake turned and looked the man over. There was something convincing about his tone and appearance. It did not occur to him to doubt for a moment a word of this stranger's story.

"You haven't anything against her--against either of them?" he asked, quickly.

"Nothing directly," the detective answered. "All the same, you have been calling upon Mrs. Wenham Gardner this evening, and if you are a friend of hers I think that you had better come along with me and have that talk."

"I will come," Tavernake agreed, "but I come as a listener. Remember that I have nothing to tell you. So far as you are concerned, I do not know either of those ladies."

Pritchard smiled.

"Well," he said, "I guess we'll let it go at that. All the same, if you don't mind, we'll talk. Come this way and we'll get to the smoking-room through the hotel. It's under cover."

Tavernake moved restlessly in his chair.

"What the devil is all this talk about crooks!" he exclaimed impatiently. "I didn't come here to listen to this sort of thing. I am not sure that I believe a word of what you say."

"Why should you," Pritchard remarked, "without proof? Look here."

He drew a leather case from his pocket and spread it out. There were a dozen photographs there of men in prison attire. The detective pointed to one, and with a little shiver Tavernake recognized the face of the man who had been sitting at the right hand of Elizabeth.

"You don't mean to say," he faltered, "that Mrs. Gardner--"

The detective folded up his case and replaced it in his pocket.

"No," he said, "we haven't any photographs of your lady friend there, nor of her sister. And yet, it may not be so far off."

"If you are trying to fasten anything upon those ladies,--" Tavernake began, threateningly.

The detective laughed and patted him on the shoulder.

"It isn't my business to try and fasten things upon any one," he interrupted. "At the same time, you seem to be a friend of Mrs. Wenham Gardner, and it is just as well that some one should warn her."

"Warn her of what?" Tavernake asked.

The detective looked at his cigar meditatively.

"Make her understand that there is trouble ahead," he replied.

Tavernake sipped his whiskey and soda and lit a cigarette. Then he turned in his chair and looked thoughtfully at his companion. Pritchard was a striking-looking man, with hard, clean-cut features--a man of determination.

"Mr. Pritchard, I am a clerk in an estate office. My people were work-people and I am trying to better myself in the world. I haven't learned how to beat about a subject, but I have learned a little of the world, and I know that people such as you are not in the habit of doing things without a reason. Why the devil have you brought me in here to talk about Mrs. Gardner and her sister? If you've anything to say, why don't you go to Mrs. Gardner herself and say it? Why do you come and talk to strangers about their affairs? I am here listening to you, but I tell you straight I don't like it."

Pritchard nodded.

"Say, I am not sure that I don't like that sort of talk," he declared. "I know all about you, young man. You're in Dowling & Spence's office and you've got to quit. You've got an estate you want financing. Miss Beatrice Franklin was living under your roof--as your sister, I understand--until yesterday, and Mrs. Gardner, for some reason of her own, seems to be doing her best to add you to the list of her admirers. I am not sure what it all means but I could make a pretty good guess. Here's my point, though. You're right. I didn't bring you here for your health. I brought you here because you can do me a service and yourself one at the same time, and you'll be doing no one any harm, nobody you care about, anyway. I have no grudge against Miss Beatrice. I'd just as soon she kept out of the trouble that's coming."

"What is this service?" Tavernake asked.

Pritchard for the moment evaded the point.

"I dare say you can understand, Mr. Tavernake," he said, "that in my profession one has to sometimes go a long way round to get a man or a woman just where you want them. Now we merely glanced at that table as we came in, and I can tell you this for gospel truth--there isn't one of that crowd that I couldn't, if I liked, haul back to New York on some charge or another. You wonder why I don't do it. I'll tell you. It's because I am waiting -- waiting until I can bring home something more serious, something that will keep them out of the way for just as long as possible. Do you follow me, Mr. Tavernake?"

"I suppose I do," Tavernake answered, doubtfully. "You are only talking of the men, of course?"

Pritchard smiled.

"My young friend," he agreed, "I am only talking of the men. At the same time, I guess I'm not betraying any confidence, or telling you anything that Mrs. Wenham Gardner doesn't know herself, when I say that she's doing her best to qualify for a similar position."

"You mean that she is doing something against the law!" Tavernake exclaimed, indignantly. "I don't believe it for a moment. If she is associating with these people, it's because she doesn't know who they are."

Pritchard flicked the ash from his cigar.

"Well," he said, "every man has a right to his own opinions, and for my part I like to hear any one stick up for his friends. It makes no odds to me. However, here are a few facts I am going to bring before you. Four months ago, one of the turns at a vaudeville show down Broadway consisted of a performance by a Professor Franklin and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Beatrice. The professor hypnotized, told fortunes, felt heads, and the usual rigmarole. Beatrice sang, Elizabeth danced.

People came to see the show, not because it was any good but because the girls, even in New York, were beautiful."

"A music-hall in New York!" Tavernake muttered.

The detective nodded.

"Among the young bloods of the city," he continued, "were two brothers, as much alike as twins, although they aren't twins, whose names were Wenham and Jerry Gardner. There's nothing in fast life which those young men haven't tried. Between them, I should say they represented everything that was known of debauchery and dissipation. The eldest can't be more than twenty-seven to-day, but if you were to see them in the morning, either of them, before they had been massaged and galvanized into life, you'd think they were little old men, with just strength enough left to crawl about. Well, to cut a long story short, both of them fell in love with Elizabeth."

"Brutes!" Tavernake interjected.

"I guess they found Miss Elizabeth a pretty tough nut to crack," the detective went on. "Anyhow, you know what her price was from her name, which is hers right enough. Wenham, who was a year younger than his brother, was the first to bid it. Three months ago, Mr. and Mrs. Wenham Gardner, Miss Beatrice, and the devoted father left New York in the Lusitania and came to London."

"Where is this Wenham Gardner, then?" Tavernake demanded.

Pritchard took his cigar case from his pocket and selected another cigar.

"Say, that's where you strike the nail right on the head," he remarked. "Where is this Wenham Gardner?

I don't mind telling you, Mr. Tavernake, that to discover his whereabouts is exactly what I am over on this side for. I have a commission from the family to find out, and a blank cheque to do it with."

"Do you mean that he has disappeared, then?" asked Tavernake.

"Off the face of the earth, sir," Pritchard replied. "Something like two months ago, the young married couple, with Miss Beatrice, started for a holiday tour somewhere down in the west of England. A few days after they started, Miss Beatrice comes back to London alone. She goes to a boarding-house, is practically penniless, but she has shaken her sister--has, I believe, never spoken with her since. A little later, Elizabeth alone turns up in London. She has plenty of money, more money than she has ever had the control of before in her life, but no husband."

"So far, I don't see anything remarkable about that," Tavernake interposed.

"That may or may not be," Pritchard answered, drily. "This creature, Wenham Gardner--I hate to call him a man--was her abject slave--up till the time they reached London, at any rate. He would never have quit of his own accord. He stopped quite suddenly communicating with all his friends. None of their cables, even, were answered."

"Why don't you go and ask Mrs. Gardner where he is?" Tavernake demanded bluntly.

"I have already," Pritchard declared, "taken that liberty. With tears in her eyes, she assured me that after some slight quarrel, in which she admits that she was the one to blame, her husband walked out of the house where they were staying, and she has not seen him since. She was quite ready with all the particulars, and even implored me to help find him."

"I cannot imagine," Tavernake said, "why any one should disbelieve her."

The detective smiled.

"There are a few little outside circumstances," he remarked, looking at the ash of his cigar. "In the first place, how do you suppose that this young Wenham Gardner spent the last week of his stay in New York?"

"How should I know?" Tavernake replied, impatiently.

"By realizing every cent of his property on which he could lay his hands," the detective continued. "It isn't at any time an easy business, and the Gardner interest is spread out in many directions, but he must have sailed with something like forty thousand pounds in hard cash. A suspicious person might presume that that forty thousand pounds has found its way to the stronger of the combination."

"Anything else?" Tavernake asked.

"I won't worry you much more," the detective answered. "There are a few other circumstances which seem to need explanation, but they can wait. There is one serious one, however, and that is where you come in."

"Indeed!" Tavernake remarked. "I was hoping you would come to that soon."

"The two sisters, Beatrice and Elizabeth, have been together ever since we can learn anything of their history. Those people who don't understand the disappearance of Wenham Gardner would like to know why they quarreled and parted, why Beatrice is keeping away from her sister in this strange manner. I personally, too, should like to know from Miss Beatrice when she last saw Wenham Gardner alive."

"You want me to ask Miss Beatrice these things?" Tavernake demanded.

"It might come better from you," Pritchard admitted. "I have written her to the theatre but naturally she has not replied."

Tavernake looked curiously at his companion.

"Do you really suppose," he asked, "that, even granted there were any unusual circumstances in connection with that quarrel--do you seriously suppose that Beatrice would give her sister away?"

The detective sighed.

"No doubt, Mr. Tavernake," he said, "these young ladies are friends of yours, and perhaps for that reason you are a little prejudiced in their favor. Their whole bringing-up and associations, however, have certainly not been of a strict order. I cannot help thinking that persuasion might be brought to bear upon Miss Beatrice, that it might be pointed out to her that a true story is the safest."

"Well, if you've finished," Tavernake declared, "I'd like to tell you what I think of your story. I think it's all d -d silly nonsense! This Wenham Gardner, by your own saying, was half mad. There was a quarrel and he's gone off to Paris or somewhere. As to your suggestions about Mrs. Gardner, I think they're infamous."

Pritchard was unmoved by his companion's warmth.

"Why, that's all right, Mr. Tavernake," he affirmed. "I can quite understand your feeling like that just at first. You see, I've been among crime and criminals all my days, and I learn to look for a certain set of motives when a thing of this sort happens. You've been brought up among honest folk, who go the straightforward way about life, and naturally you look at the same matter from a different point of view. But you and I have got to talk this out. I want you to understand that those very charming young ladies are not quite the class of young women whom you know anything about. Mind you, I haven't a word to say against Miss Beatrice. I dare say she's as straight as they make 'em. But--you must take another whiskey and soda, Mr. Tavernake. Now, I insist upon it. Tim, come right over here."

Mr. Pritchard seemed to have forgotten what he was talking about. The room had been suddenly invaded. The whole of the little supper party, whose individual members he had pointed out to his companion, came trooping into the room. They were all apparently on the best of terms with themselves, and they all seemed to make a point of absolutely ignoring Pritchard's presence. Elizabeth was the one exception. She was carrying a tiny Chinese spaniel under one arm; with the fingers of her other hand she held a tortoise-shell mounted monocle to her eye, and stared directly at the two men. Presently she came languidly across the room to them.

"Dear me," she said, "I had no idea that even your wide circle of acquaintances, Mr. Pritchard, included my friend, Mr. Tavernake."

The two men rose to their feet. Tavernake felt confused and angry. It was as though he had been playing the traitor in listening, even for a moment, to these stories.

"Mr. Pritchard introduced himself to me only a few minutes ago," he declared. "He brought me in here and I have been listening to a lot of rubbish from him of which I don't believe a single word."

She flashed a wonderful smile upon him.

"Mr. Pritchard is so very censorious," she murmured. "He takes such a very low view of human nature. After all, though, I suppose we must not blame him. I think that as men and women we do not exist to him. We are simply the pegs by means of which he can climb a little higher in the esteem of his employers."

Pritchard took up his soft hat and stick.

"Mrs. Gardner," he said, "I will confess that I have been wasting my time with this young man. You are a trifle severe upon me. You may find, and before long, that I am your best friend."

She laughed delightfully.

"Dear Mr. Pritchard," she exclaimed, "it is a strange thought, that! If only I dared hope that some day it might come true!"

"More unlikely things, madam, are happening every hour," the detective remarked. "The world--our little corner of it, at any rate--is full of anomalies. There might even come a time to any one of us three when liberty was more dangerous than the prison cell itself."

He nodded carelessly to Tavernake, and with a bow to Elizabeth turned and left the room. Elizabeth remained as though turned to stone, looking after him as he descended the stairs.

"The man is a fool!" Tavernake cried, roughly.

Elizabeth shook her head and sighed.

"He is something far more ineffective," she said. "He is just a little too clever."