Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter I. Recalled by the Double-Four
It is the desire of Madame that you should join our circle here on Thursday evening next at ten o'clock.
The man looked up from the sheet of note-paper which he held in his hand, and gazed through the open French-windows before which he was standing. It was a very pleasant and very peaceful prospect. There was his croquet lawn, smooth-shaven, the hoops neatly arranged, the chalk-mark firm and distinct upon the boundary. Beyond, the tennis court, the flower gardens, and, to the left, the walled fruit garden. A little farther away was the paddock and orchard, and a little farther still, the farm, which for the last four years had been the joy of his life. His meadows were yellow with buttercups; a thin line of willows showed where the brook wound its lazy way through the bottom fields. It was a home, this, in which a man could well lead a peaceful life, could dream away his days to the music of the west wind, the gurgling stream, the song of birds, and the low murmuring of insects. Peter Ruff stood like a man turned to stone, for, even as he looked, these things passed away from before his eyes, the roar of the world beat in his ears - the world of intrigue, of crime, the world where the strong man hewed his way to power, and the weaklings fell like corn before the sickle.
"It is the desire of Madame!"
Peter Ruff clenched his fists as he stood there. It was a message from a world every memory of which had been deliberately crushed, a world, indeed, in which he had seemed no longer to hold any place. Scarcely yet of middle age, well-preserved, upright, with neat figure dressed in the conventional tweeds and gaiters of an English country gentleman, he not only had loved his life, but he looked the part. He was Peter Ruff, Esquire, of Aynesford Manor, in the county of Somerset. It could not be for him, this strange summons.
The rustle of a woman's soft draperies broke in upon his reverie. He turned around with his usual morning greeting upon his lips. If country life had agreed with Peter Ruff, it had transformed his wife. Her cheeks were no longer pale; the extreme slimness of her figure was no longer apparent. She was just a little more matronly, perhaps, but without doubt a most beautiful woman. She came smiling across the room - a dream of white muslin and pink ribbons.
"Another forage bill, my dear Peter?" she demanded, passing her arm through his. "Put it away and admire my new morning gown. It came straight from Paris, and you will have to pay a great deal of money for it."
He pulled himself together - he had no secrets from his wife.
"Listen," he said, and read aloud:
RUE DE ST. QUINTAINE.
DEAR Mr. RUFF,
It is a long time since we had the pleasure of a visit from you. It is the desire of Madame that you should join our circle here on Thursday evening next at ten o'clock.
Violet was a little perplexed. She failed, somehow, to recognize the sinister note underlying those few sentences, "It sounds friendly enough," she remarked. "You are not obliged to go, of course."
Peter Ruff smiled grimly.
"Yes, it sounds all right," he admitted.
"They won't expect you to take any notice of it, surely?" she continued. "When you bought this place, Peter, and left your London offices, you gave them definitely to understand that you had retired into private life, that all these things were finished with you."
"There are some things," Peter Ruff said, slowly, "which are never finished."
"But you resigned," she reminded him. "I remember your letter distinctly."
"From the Double-Four," he answered, "no resignation is recognized save death. I did what I could and they accepted my explanations, gracefully and without comment. Now that the time has come, however, when they think they need my help, you see they do not hesitate to claim it."
"You will not go, Peter? You will not think of going?" she begged.
He twisted the letter between his fingers and sat down to his breakfast.
"No," he said, "I shall not go."
That morning Peter Ruff spent upon his farm, looking over his stock, examining some new machinery, and talking crops with his bailiff. In the afternoon he played his customary round of golf. It was the sort of day which, as a rule, he found completely satisfactory, yet, somehow or other, a certain sense of weariness crept in upon him toward its close.
Two days later he received another letter. This time it was couched in different terms. On a square card, at the top of which was stamped a small coronet, he read as follows:
Madame de Maupassim at home, Saturday evening, May 2nd, at ten o'clock.
In small letters at the bottom left-hand corner were added the words:
To meet friends.
Peter Ruff put the card upon the fire and went out for a morning's rabbit shooting with his keeper. When he returned luncheon was ready, but Violet was absent. He rang the bell
"Where is your mistress, Jane?" he asked the parlor-maid.
The girl had no idea. Mrs. Ruff had left for the village several hours before; since then she had not been seen. Peter Ruff ate his luncheon alone, and understood. The afternoon wore on, and at night he traveled up to London. He knew better than to waste time by purposeless inquiries. Instead he took the nine o'clock train the next morning to Paris.
It was a chamber of death into which he was ushered, dismal - yet, of its sort, unique, marvelous. The room itself might have been the sleeping apartment of an empress - lofty, with white paneled walls, adorned simply with gilded lines; with high windows, closely curtained now, so that neither sound nor the light of day might penetrate into the room. In the middle of the apartment upon a canopy bedside, which had once adorned a king's palace, lay Madame de Maupassim. Her face was already touched with the finger of death, yet her eyes were undimmed and her lips unquivering. Her hands, covered with rings, lay out before her upon the lace coverlid. Supported by many pillows, she was issuing her last instructions with the cold precision of the man of affairs who makes the necessary arrangements for a few days, absence from his business.
Peter Ruff, who had not even been allowed sufficient time to change his traveling clothes, was brought without hesitation to her bedside. She looked at him in silence for a moment, with a cold glitter in her eyes,
"You are four days late, Monsieur Peter Ruff," she remarked. "Why did you not obey your first summons?
"Madame," he answered, "I thought there must be a misunderstanding. Four years ago, I gave notice to the council that I had married and retired into private life. A country farmer is of no further use to the world."
The woman's thin lip curled.
"From death and the Double Four ," she said, "there is no resignation which counts. You are as much our creature to-day, as I am the creature of the disease which is carrying me across the threshold of death."
Peter Ruff remained silent. The woman's words seemed full of dread significance. Besides, how was it possible to contradict the dying?
"It is upon the unwilling of the world" she continued, speaking slowly, yet with extraordinary distinctness, "that its greatest honors are often conferred. The name of my successor has been balloted for, secretly. It is you, Peter Ruff, who have been chosen."
This time he was silent because he was literally bereft of words. This woman was dying and fancying strange things! He looked from one to the other of the stern, pale faces of those who were gathered around her bedside. Seven of them there were - the same seven. At that moment their eyes were all focused upon him. Peter Ruff shrank back.
"Madame," he murmured, "this cannot be."
Her lips twitched as though she would have smiled. "What we have decided," she said, "we have decided. Nothing can alter that, not even the will of Mr. Peter Ruff."
"I have been out of the world for four years," Peter Ruff protested. "I have no longer ambitions, no longer any desire - "
"You lie!" the woman interrupted. "You lie or you do yourself an injustice. We gave you four years, and looking into your face, I think that it has been enough. I think that the weariness is there already. In any case, the charge which I lay upon you in these my last moments, is one which you can escape by death only."
A low murmur of voices from those others repeated her words.
"By death only!"
Peter Ruff opened his lips, but closed them again without speech. A wave of emotion seemed passing through the room. Something strange was happening. It was Death itself, which had come among them.
A morning journalist wrote of the death of Madame eloquently, and with feeling. She had been a broad-minded aristocrat, a woman of brilliant intellect and great friendships, a woman of whose inner life during the last ten or fifteen years little was known, yet who, in happier times, might well have played a great part in the history of her country.
Peter Ruff drove back from the cemetery with the Marquis de Sogrange, and, for the first time since the death of Madame, serious subjects were spoken of.
"I have waited here patiently," he declared, "but there are limits. I want my wife."
Sogrange took him by the arm and led him into the library of the house in the Rue de St. Quintaine. The six men who were already there waiting rose to their feet.
"Gentlemen," the Marquis said, "is it your will that I should be spokesman?"
There was a murmur of assent. Then Sogrange turned toward his companion, and something new seemed to have crept into his manner - a solemn, almost a threatening note.
"Peter Ruff," he continued, "you have trifled with the one organization in this world which has never allowed liberties to be taken with it. Men who have done greater service than you have died, for the disobedience of a day. You have been treated leniently, according to the will of Madame. According to her will, and in deference to the position which you must now take up among us, we will treat you as no other has ever been treated by us. The Double-Four admits your leadership and claims you for its own."
"I am not prepared to discuss anything of the sort," Peter Ruff declared, doggedly, "until my wife is restored to me."
The Marquis smiled.
"The traditions of your race, Mr. Ruff," he said, "are easily manifest in you. Now hear our decision. Your wife shall be restored to you on the day when you take up this position to which you have become entitled. Sit down and listen."
Peter Ruff was a rebel at heart, but he felt the grip of iron.
"During these four years when you, my friend, have been growing turnips and shooting your game, events in the great world have marched, new powers have come into being, a new page of history has been opened. As everything which has good at the heart evolves toward the good, so we of the Double-Four have lifted our great enterprise onto a higher plane. The world of criminals is still at our beck and call, we still claim the right to draw the line between moral theft and immoral honesty, but to-day the Double-Four is concerned with greater things. Within the four walls of this room, within the hearing of these my brothers, whose fidelity is as sure as the stones of Paris, I tell you a great secret. The government of our country has craved for our aid and the aid of our organization. It is no longer the wealth of the world alone, which we may control, but the actual destinies of nations."
"What I suppose you mean to say is," Peter Ruff remarked, "that you've been going in for politics?"
"You put it crudely, my English bull-dog," Sogrange answered, "but you are right. We are occupied now by affairs of international importance. More than once, during the last few month, ours has been the hand which has changed the policy of an empire."
"Most interesting," Peter Ruff declared, "but so far as I, personally, am concerned - "
"Listen," interrupted the Marquis. "Not a hundred yards from the French Embassy, in London, there is waiting for you a house and servants no less magnificent than the Embassy itself. You will become the ambassador in London of the Double-Four, titular head of our association, a personage whose power is second to none in your great city. I do not address words of caution to you, my friend, because we have satisfied ourselves as to your character and capacity before we consented that you should occupy your present position. But I ask you to remember this. The will of Madame lives even beyond the grave. The spirit which animated her when alive breathes still in all of us. In London you will wield a great power. Use it for the common good. And, remember this - the Double-Four has never failed, the Double-Four never can fail."
"I am glad to hear you are so confident," Peter Ruff said. "Of course, if I have to take this thing on, I shall do my best, but if I might venture to allude, for a moment, to anything so trifling as my own domestic affairs, I am very anxious to know about my wife."
"You will find Mrs. Ruff awaiting you in London," he announced. "Your address is Porchester House, Porchester Square."
"When do I go there?" Peter Ruff asked.
"To-night," was the answer.
"And what do I do when I get there?" he persisted.
"For three days," the Marquis told him, "you will remain indoors, and give audience to whoever may come to you. At the end of that time, you will understand a little more of our purpose and our objects - perhaps, even, of our power."
"I see difficulties," Peter Ruff remarked. "There will be a good many people who will remember me when I had offices in Southampton Row. My name, you see, is uncommon."
Sogrange drew a document from the breast pocket of his coat.
"When you leave this house to-night," he proclaimed, "we bid good-by forever to Mr. Peter Ruff. You will find in this envelope the title deeds of a small property which is our gift to you. Henceforth you will be known by the name and title of your estates."
"Title!" Peter Ruff gasped.
"You will reappear in London," Sogrange continued, "as the Baron de Grost."
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"It won't do," he declared, "people will find me out."
"There is nothing to be found out," the Marquis went on, a little wearily. "Your country life has dulled your wits, Baron. The title and the name are justly yours - they go with the property. For the rest, the history of your family, and of your career up to the moment when you enter Porchester House to-night, will be inside this packet. You can peruse it upon the journey, and remember that we can, at all times, bring a hundred witnesses, if necessary, to prove that you are who you declare yourself to be. When you get to Charing-Cross, do not forget that it will be the carriage and servants of the Baron de Grost which await you."
Peter Ruff shrugged his shoulders.
"Well," he said, thoughtfully, "I suppose I shall get used to it."
"Naturally," Sogrange answered. "For the moment, we are passing through a quiet time, necessitated by the mortal illness of Madame. You will be able to spend the next few weeks in getting used to your new position. You will have a great many callers, inspired by us, who will see that you make the right acquaintances and that you join the right clubs. At the same time, let me warn you always to be ready. There is trouble brewing just now all over Europe. In one way or another, we may become involved at any moment. The whole machinery of our society will be explained to you by your secretary. You will find him already installed at Porchester House. A glass of wine, Baron, before you leave."
Peter Ruff glanced at the clock.
"There are my things to pack," he began -
"Your valet is already on the front seat of the automobile which is waiting," he remarked. "You will find him attentive and trustworthy. The clothes which you brought with you we have taken the liberty of dispensing with. You will find others in your trunk, and at Porchester House you can send for any tailor you choose. One toast, Baron. We drink to the Double-Four - to the great cause!"
There was a murmur of voices. Sogrange lifted once more his glass.
"May Peter Ruff rest in peace!" he said. "We drink to his ashes. We drink long life and prosperity to the Baron de Groat!"