Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XI. The Thirteenth Encounter
The Marquis de Sogrange arrived in Berkeley Square with the gray dawn of an October morning, showing in his appearance and dress few enough signs of his night journey. Yet he had traveled without stopping from Paris, by fast motor car and the mail boat.
"They telephoned me from Charing Cross," Peter said, "that you could not possibly arrive until midday. The clerk assured me that no train had yet reached Calais."
"They had reason in what they told you," Sogrange remarked, as he leaned back in a chair and sipped the coffee which had been waiting for him in the Baron de Grost's study. "The train itself never got more than a mile away from the Gare du Nord. The engine-driver was shot through the head and the metals were torn from the way. Paris is within a year now of a second and more terrible revolution."
"You really believe this?" Peter asked, gravely.
"It is a certainty," Sogrange replied. "Not I alone but many others can see this clearly. Everywhere the Socialists have wormed themselves into places of trust. They are to be met with in every rank of life, under every form of disguise. The post-office strike has already shown us what deplorable disasters even a skirmish can bring about. To-day the railway strike has paralyzed France. To-day our country lies absolutely at the mercy of any invader. As it happens, none is, for the moment, prepared. Who can tell how it may be next time?"
"This is had news," Peter declared. "If this is really the position of affairs, the matter is much more serious than the newspapers would have us believe."
"The newspapers," Sogrange muttered, "ignore what lies behind. Some of them, I think, are paid to do it. As for the rest, our Press had always an ostrich-like tendency. The Frenchman of the café does not buy his journal to be made sad."
"You believe, then," Peter asked, "that these strikes have some definite tendency?"
Sogrange set down his cup and smiled bitterly. In the early sunlight, still a little cold and unloving, Peter could see that there was a change in the man. He was no longer the debonair aristocrat of the race-courses and the boulevards. The shadows under his eyes were deeper, his cheeks more sunken. He had lost something of the sprightliness of his bearing. His attitude, indeed, was almost dejected. He was like a man who sees into the future and finds there strange and gruesome things.
"I do more than believe that," he declared. "I know it. It has fallen to my lot to make a very definite discovery concerning them. Listen, my friend. For more than six months the government has been trying to discover the source of this stream of vile socialistic literature which has contaminated the French working classes. The pamphlets have been distributed with devilish ingenuity among all national operatives, the army and the navy. The government has failed. The Double-Four has succeeded."
"You have really discovered their source?" Peter exclaimed.
"Without a doubt," Sogrange assented. "The government appealed to us first some months ago when I was in America. For a time we had no success. Then a clue, and the rest was easy. The navy, the army, the post-office employees, the telegraph and telephone operators and the railway men, have been the chief recipients of this incessant stream of foul literature. To-day one cannot tell how much mischief has been actually done. The strikes which have already occurred are only the mutterings of the coming storm. But mark you, wherever those pamphlets have gone, trouble has followed. What men may do the government is doing, but all the time the poison is at work, the seed has been sown. Two millions of money have been spent to corrupt that very class which should be the backbone of France. Through the fingers of one man has come this shower of gold, one man alone has stood at the head of the great organization which has disseminated this loathsome disease. Behind him - well, we know."
"It is fitting that you should ask that question," Sogrange replied. "The name of that man is Bernadine, Count von Hern."
Peter remained speechless. There was something almost terrible in the slow preciseness with which Sogrange had uttered the name of his enemy, something unspeakably threatening in the cold glitter of his angry eyes.
"Up to the present," Sogrange continued, "I have watched - sympathetically, of course, but with a certain amount of amusement - the duel between you and Bernadine. It has been against your country and your country's welfare that most of his efforts have been directed, which perhaps accounts for the equanimity with which I have been contented to remain a looker-on. It is apparent, my dear Baron, that in most of your encounters the honors have remained with you. Yet, as it has chanced, never once has Bernadine been struck a real and crushing blow. The time has come when this and more must happen. It is no longer a matter of polite exchanges. It is a duel a outrance."
"You mean," Peter began -
"I mean that Bernadine must die," Sogrange declared.
There was a brief silence. Outside, the early morning street noises were increasing in volume as the great army of workers, streaming towards the heart of the city from a hundred suburbs, passed on to their tasks. A streak of sunshine had found its way into the room, lay across the carpet and touched Sogrange's still, waxen features. Peter glanced half fearfully at his friend and visitor. He himself was no coward, no shrinker from the great issues. He, too, had dealt in life and death. Yet there was something in the deliberate preciseness of Sogrange's words, as he sat there only a few feet away, unspeakably thrilling. It was like a death sentence pronounced in all solemnity upon some shivering criminal. There was something inevitable and tragical about the whole affair. A pronouncement had been made from which there was no appeal - Bernadine was to die!
"isn't this a little exceeding the usual exercise of our powers?" Peter asked, slowly.
"No such occasion as this has ever yet arisen," Sogrange reminded him. "Bernadine has fled to this country with barely an hour to spare. His offense is extraditable by a law of the last century which has never been repealed. He is guilty of treason against the Republic of France. Yet they do not want him back, they do not want a trial. I have papers upon my person which, if I took them into an English court, would procure for me a warrant for Bernadine's arrest. It is not this we desire. Bernadine must die. No fate could be too terrible for a man who has striven to corrupt the soul of a nation. It is not war, this. It is not honest conspiracy. Is it war, I ask you, to seek to poison the drinking water of an enemy, to send stalking into their midst some loathsome disease? Such things belong to the ages of barbarity. Bernadine has striven to revive them and Bernadine shall die."
"It is justice," Peter admitted.
"The question remains," Sogrange continued, "by whose hand - yours or mine?"
Peter started uneasily.
"Is that necessary?" he asked.
"I fear that it is," Sogrange replied. "We had a brief meeting of the executive council last night, and it was decided, for certain reasons, to entrust this task into no other hands. You will smile when I tell you that these accursed pamphlets have found their way into the possession of many of the rank and file of our own order. There is a marked disinclination on the part of those who have been our slaves, to accept orders from any one. Espionage we can still command - the best, perhaps, in Europe - because here we use a different class of material. But of those underneath, we are, for the moment, doubtful. Paris is all in a ferment. Under its outward seemliness a million throats are ready to take up the brazen cry of revolution. One trusts nobody. One fears all the time."
"You or I!" Peter repeated, slowly. "It will not be sufficient, then, that we find Bernadine and deliver him over to your country's laws?"
"It will not be sufficient," Sogrange answered, sternly. "From those he may escape. For him there must be no escape."
"Sogrange," Peter said, speaking in a low tone, "I have never yet killed a human being."
"Nor I," Sogrange admitted. "Nor have I yet set my heel upon its head and stamped the life from a rat upon the pavement. But one lives and one moves on. Bernadine is the enemy of your country and mine. He makes war after the fashion of vermin. No ordinary cut-throat would succeed against him. It must be you or I."
"How shall we decide?" Peter asked.
"The spin of a coin," Sogrange replied. "It is best that way. It is best, too, done quickly."
Peter produced a sovereign from his pocket and balanced it on the palm of his hand.
"Let it be understood," Sogrange continued, "that this is a dual undertaking. We toss only for the final honor - for the last stroke. If the choice falls upon me, I shall count upon you to help me to the end. If it falls upon you, I shall be at your right hand even when you strike the blow."
"It is agreed," Peter said. "See, it is for you to call."
He threw the coin high into the air.
"I call heads," Sogrange decided.
It fell upon the table. Peter covered it with his hand and then slowly withdrew the fingers. A little shiver ran through his veins. The harmless head that looked up at him was like the figure of death. It was for him to strike the blow!
"Where is Bernadine now?" he asked.
"Get me a morning paper and I will tell you," Sogrange declared, rising. "He was in the train which was stopped outside the Gare du Nord, on his way to England. What became of the passengers I have not heard. I knew what was likely to happen, and I left an hour before in a 100 H. P. Charron."
Peter rang the bell and ordered the servant who answered it to procure the Daily Telegraph. As soon as it arrived, he spread it open upon the table and Sogrange looked over his shoulder. These are the headings which they saw in large black characters:
RENEWED RIOTS IN PARIS THE GARE DU NORD IN FLAMES TERRIBLE ACCIDENT TO THE CALAIS-DOUVRES EXPRESS MANY DEATHS
Peter's forefinger traveled down the page swiftly. It paused at the following paragraph:
The 8.55 train from the Gare du Nord, carrying many passengers for London, after being detained within a mile of Paris for over an hour owing to the murder of the engine-driver, made an attempt last night to proceed, with terrible results. Near Chantilly, whilst travelling at over fifty miles an hour, the switches were tampered with and the express dashed into a goods train laden with minerals. Very few particulars are yet to hand, but the express was completely wrecked and many lives have been lost.
Among the dead are the following:
One by one Peter read out the names. Then he stopped short. A little exclamation broke from Sogrange's lips. The thirteenth name upon that list of dead was that of Bernadine, Count von Hern.
"Bernadine!" Peter faltered. "Bernadine is dead!"
"Killed by the strikers!" Sogrange echoed! "It is a just thing, this."
The two men looked down at the paper and then up at one another. A strange silence seemed to have found its way into the room. The shadow of death lay between them. Peter touched his forehead and found it wet.
"It is a just thing, indeed," he repeated, "but justice and death are alike terrible." . . .
Late in the afternoon of the same day, a motor car, splashed with mud, drew up before the door of the house in Berkeley Square. Sogrange, who was standing talking to Peter before the library window, suddenly broke off in the middle of a sentence. He stepped back into the room and gripped his friend's shoulder.
"It is the Baroness!" he exclaimed, quickly. "What does she want here?"
"The Baroness who? Peter demanded.
"The Baroness von Ratten. You must have heard of her - she is the friend of Bernadine."
The two men had been out to lunch at the Ritz with Violet and had walked across the Park home. Sogrange had been drawing on his gloves in the act of starting out for a call at the Embassy.
"Does your wife know this woman?" he asked. Peter shook his head.
"I think not," he replied.
"Then she has come to see you," Sogrange continued. "What does it mean, I wonder?"
Peter shrugged his shoulders.
"We shall know in a minute."
There was a knock at the door and his servant entered, bearing a card.
"This lady would like to see you, sir, on important business," he said.
"You can show her in here," Peter directed.
There was a very short delay. The two men had no time to exchange a word. They heard the rustling of a woman's gown, and immediately afterwards the perfume of violets seemed to fill the room.
"The Baroness von Ratten!" the butler announced.
The door was closed behind her. The servant had disappeared. Peter advanced to meet his guest. She was a little above medium height, very slim, with extraordinarily fair hair, colorless face, and strange eyes. She was not strictly beautiful and yet there was no man upon whom her presence was without its effect. Her voice was like her movements, slow and with a grace of its own.
"You do not mind that I have come to see you?" she asked, raising her eyes to Peter's. "I believe before I go that you will think terrible things of me, but you must not begin before I have told you my errand. It has been a great struggle with me before I made up my mind to come here."
"Won't you sit down, Baroness?" Peter invited.
She saw Sogrange and hesitated.
"You are not alone," she said, softly. "I wish to speak with you alone."
"Permit me to present to you the Marquis de Sogrange," Peter begged. "He is my oldest friend, Baroness. I think that whatever you might have to say to me you might very well say before him."
"It is - of a private nature," she murmured.
"The Marquis and I have no secrets," Peter declared, "either political or private."
She sat down and motioned Peter to take a place by her side upon the sofa.
"You will forgive me if I am a little incoherent," she implored. "To-day I have had a shock. You, too, have read the news? You must know that the Count von Hern is dead - killed in the railway accident last night?"
"We read it in the Daily Telegraph," Peter replied.
"It is in all the papers," she continued. "You know that he was a very dear friend of mine?"
"I have heard so," Peter admitted.
"Yet there was one subject," she insisted, earnestly, "upon which we never agreed. He hated England. I have always loved it. England was kind to me when my own country drove me out. I have always felt grateful. It has been a sorrow to me that in so many of his schemes, in so much of his work, Bernadine should consider his own country at the expense of yours."
Sogrange drew a little nearer. It began to be interesting, this.
"I heard the news early this morning by telegram," she went on. "For a long time I was prostrated. Then early this afternoon I began to think - one must always think. Bernadine was a dear friend, but things between us lately have been different, a little strained. Was it his fault or mine - who can say? Does one tire with the years, I wonder? I wonder!"
Her eyes were lifted to his and Peter was conscious of the fact that she wished him to know that they were beautiful. She looked slowly away again.
"This afternoon, as I sat alone," she proceeded, "I remembered that in my keeping were many boxes of papers and many letters which have recently arrived, all belonging to Bernadine. I reflected that there were certainly some who were in his confidence, and that very soon they would come from his country and take them all away. And then I remembered what I owed to England, and how opposed I always was to Bernadine's schemes, and I thought that the best thing I could do to show my gratitude would be to place his papers all in the hands of some Englishman, so that they might do no more harm to the country which has been kind to me. So I came to you."
Again her eyes were lifted to his and Peter was very sure indeed that they were wonderfully beautiful. He began to realize the fascination of this woman, of whom he had heard so much. Her very absence of coloring was a charm.
"You mean that you have brought me these papers?" he asked.
She shook her head slowly.
"No," she said, "I could not do that. There were too many of them - they are too heavy, and there are piles of pamphlets - revolutionary pamphlets, I am afraid - all in French, which I do not understand. No, I could not bring them to you. But I ordered my motor car and I drove up here to tell you that if you like to come down to the house in the country where I have been living, to which Bernadine was to have come to-night - yes, and bring your friend, too, if you will - you shall look through them before any one else can arrive."
"You are very kind," Peter murmured. "Tell me where it is that you live."
"It is beyond Hitchin," she told him, "up the Great North Road. I tell you at once, it is a horrible house in a horrible lonely spot. Within a day or two I shall leave it myself forever. I hate it - it gets on my nerves. I dream of all the terrible things which perhaps have taken place there. Who can tell? It was Bernadine's long before I came to England."
"When are we to come?" Peter asked.
"You must come back with me now, at once," the Baroness insisted. "I cannot tell how soon some one in his confidence may arrive."
"I will order my car," Peter declared.
She laid her hand upon his arm.
"Do you mind coming in mine?" she begged. "It is of no consequence, if you object, but every servant in Bernadine's house is a German and a spy. There are no women except my own maid. Your car is likely enough known to them and there might be trouble. If you will come with me now, you and your friend, if you like, I will send you to the station to-night in time to catch the train home. I feel that I must have this thing off my mind. You will come? Yes?"
Peter rang the bell and ordered his coat.
"Without a doubt," he answered. "May we not offer you some tea first?"
She shook her head.
"To-day I cannot think of eating or drinking," she replied. "Bernadine and I were no longer what we had been, but the shock of his death seems none the less terrible. I feel like a traitor to him for coming here, yet I believe that I am doing what is right," she added, softly.
"If you will excuse me for one moment," Peter said, "while I take leave of my wife, I will rejoin you presently."
Peter was absent for only a few minutes. Sogrange and the Baroness exchanged the merest commonplaces. As they all passed down the hall, Sogrange lingered behind.
"If you will take the Baroness out to the car," he suggested, "I will telephone to the Embassy and tell them not to expect me."
Peter offered his arm to his companion. She seemed, indeed, to need support. Her fingers clutched at his coat-sleeve as they passed on to the pavement.
"I am so glad to be no longer quite alone," she whispered. "Almost I wish that your friend were not coming. I know that Bernadine and you were enemies, but then you were enemies not personally, but politically. After all, it is you who stand for the things which have become so dear to me."
"It is true that Bernadine and I were bitter antagonists," Peter admitted, gravely. "Death, however, ends all that. I wish him no further harm."
"As for me," she said, "I am growing used to being friendless. I was friendless before Bernadine came, and latterly we have been nothing to one another. Now, I suppose, I shall know what it is to be an outcast once more. Did you ever hear my history, I wonder?"
Peter shook his head.
"Never, Baroness," he replied. "I understood, I believe, that your marriage -"
"My husband divorced me," she confessed, simply. "He was quite within his rights. He was impossible. I was very young and very sentimental. They say that Englishwomen are cold," she added. "Perhaps that is so. People think that I look cold. Do you?"
Sogrange suddenly opened the door of the car in which they were already seated. She leaned back and half closed her eyes.
"It is rather a long ride," she said, "and I am worn out. I hope you will not mind, but for myself I cannot talk when motoring. Smoke, if it pleases you."
"Might one inquire as to our exact destination?" Sogrange asked.
"We go beyond Hitchin, up the Great North Road," she told him again. "The house is called the High House. It stands in the middle of a heath and I think it is the loneliest and most miserable place that was ever built. I hate it and I am frightened in it. For some reason or other, it suited Bernadine, but that is all over now."
The little party of three relapsed into silence. The car, driven carefully enough through the busy streets, gradually increased its pace as they drew clear of the suburbs. Peter leaned back in his place, thinking. Bernadine was dead! Nothing else would have convinced him so utterly of the fact as that simple sentence in the Daily Telegraph, which had been followed up by a confirmation and a brief obituary notice in all the evening papers. Curiously enough, the fact seemed to have drawn a certain spice out of even this adventure; to point, indeed, to a certain monotony in the future. Their present enterprise, important though it might turn out to be, was nothing to be proud of. A woman, greedy for gold, was selling her lover's secrets before the breath was out of his body. Peter turned in his cushioned seat to look at her. Without doubt, she was beautiful to one who understood, beautiful in a strange, colorless, feline fashion, the beauty of soft limbs, soft movements, a caressing voice, with always the promise beyond of more than the actual words. Her eyes now were closed, her face was a little weary. Did she really rest, Peter wondered? He watched the rising and falling of her bosom, the quivering now and then of her eyelids. She had indeed the appearance of a woman who had suffered.
The car rushed on into the darkness. Behind them lay that restless phantasmagoria of lights streaming to the sky. In front, blank space. Peter, through half-closed eyes, watched the woman by his side. From the moment of her entrance into his library, he had summed her up in his mind with a single word. She was, beyond a doubt, an adventuress. No woman could have proposed the things which she had proposed, who was not of that ilk. Yet for that reason it behooved them to have a care in their dealings with her. At her instigation they had set out upon this adventure, which might well turn out according to any fashion that she chose. Yet without Bernadine what could she do? She was not the woman to carry on the work which he had left behind, for the love of him. Her words had been frank, her action shameful but natural. Bernadine was dead and she had realized quickly enough the best market for his secrets. In a few days' time his friends would have come and she would have received nothing. He told himself that he was foolish to doubt her. There was not a flaw in the sequence of events, no possible reason for the suspicions which yet lingered at the back of his brain. Intrigue, it was certain, was to her as the breath of her body. He was perfectly willing to believe that the death of Bernadine would have affected her little more than the sweeping aside of a fly. His very common sense bade him accept her story.
By degrees he became drowsy. Suddenly he was startled into a very wide-awake state. Through half-closed eyes he had seen Sogrange draw a sheet of paper from his pocket, a gold pencil from his chain, and commence to write. In the middle of a sentence, his eyes were abruptly lifted. He was looking at the Baroness. Peter, too, turned his head; he, also, looked at the Baroness. Without a doubt, she had been watching both of them. Sogrange's pencil continued its task, only he traced no more characters. Instead, he seemed to be sketching a face, which presently he tore carefully up into small pieces and destroyed. He did not even glance towards Peter, but Peter understood very well what had happened. He had been about to send him a message, but had found the Baroness watching. Peter was fully awake now. His faint sense of suspicion had deepened into a positive foreboding. He had a reckless desire to stop the car, to descend upon the road and let the secrets of Bernadine go where they would. Then his natural love of adventure blazed up once more. His moment of weakness had passed. The thrill was in his blood, his nerves were tightened. He was ready for what might come, seemingly still half asleep, yet, indeed, with every sense of intuition and observation keenly alert.
Sogrange leaned over from his place.
"It is a lonely country, this, into which we are coming, madame," he remarked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Indeed, it is not so lonely here as you will think it when we arrive at our destination," she replied. "There are houses here, but they are hidden by the trees. There are no houses near us."
She rubbed the pane with her hand.
"We are, I believe, very nearly there," she said. "This is the nearest village. Afterwards, we just climb a hill and about half a mile along the top of it is the High House."
"And the name of the village," Sogrange inquired.
"St Mary's," she told him, "In the summer people call it beautiful around here. To me it is the most melancholy spot I ever saw. There is so much rain, and one hears the drip, drip in the trees all the day long. Alone I could not bear it. To-morrow or the next day I shall pack up my belongings and come to London. I am, unfortunately," she added, with a little sigh, "very, very poor, but it is my hope that you may find the papers, of which I have spoken to you, valuable."
Sogrange smiled faintly. Peter and he could scarcely forbear to exchange a single glance. The woman's candor was almost brutal. She read their thoughts.
"We ascend the hill," she continued. "We draw now very near to the end of our journey. There is still one thing I would say to you. Do not think too badly of me for what I am about to do. To Bernadine, while he lived, I was faithful. Many a time I could have told you of his plans and demanded a great sum of money, and you would have given it me willingly, but my lips were sealed because, in a way, I loved him. While he lived I gave him what I owed. To-day he is dead, and, whatever I do, it cannot concern him any more. To-day I am a free woman and I take the side I choose."
"Dear madame," he replied, "what you have proposed to us is, after all, quite natural and very gracious. If one has a fear at all about the matter, it is as to the importance of these documents you speak of. Bernadine, I know, has dealt in great affairs; but he was a diplomat by instinct, experienced and calculating. One does not keep incriminating papers."
She leaned a little forward. The car had swung round a corner now and was making its way up an avenue as dark as pitch.
"The wisest of us, Monsieur le Marquis," she whispered, "reckon sometimes without that one element of sudden death. What should you say, I wonder, to a list of agents in France pledged to circulate in certain places literature of an infamous sort? What should you say, monsieur, to a copy of a secret report of your late maneuvers, franked with the name of one of your own staff officers? What should you say," she went on, "to a list of Socialist deputies with amounts against their name, amounts paid in hard cash? Are these of no importance to you?"
"Madame," Sogrange answered, simply, "for such information, if it were genuine, it would be hard to mention a price which we should not be prepared to pay."
The car came to a sudden standstill. The first impression of the two men was that the Baroness had exaggerated the loneliness and desolation of the place. There was nothing mysterious or forbidding about the plain, brownstone house before which they had stopped. The windows were streaming with light; the hall door, already thrown open, disclosed a very comfortable hall, brilliantly illuminated. A man-servant assisted his mistress to alight, another ushered them in, In the background were other servants. The Baroness glanced at the clock.
"About dinner, Carl?" she asked.
"It waits for madame," the man answered.
Take care of these gentlemen till I descend," she ordered. "You will not mind?" she added, turning pleadingly to Sogrange. "To-day I have eaten nothing. I am faint with hunger. Afterwards, it will be a matter but of half an hour. You can be in London again by ten o'clock."
"As you will, madame," Sogrange replied. "We are greatly indebted to you for your hospitality. But for costume, you understand that we are as we are?"
"It is perfectly understood," she assured him. "For myself, I rejoin you in ten minutes. A loose gown, that is all."
Sogrange and Peter were shown into a modern bathroom by a servant who was so anxious to wait upon them that they had difficulty in sending him away. As soon as he was gone and the door closed behind him, Peter put his foot against it and turned the key.
"You were going to write something to me in the car?"
"There was a moment," he admitted, "when I had a suspicion. It has passed. This woman is no Roman. She sells the secrets of Bernadine as she would sell herself. Nevertheless, it is well always to be prepared. There were probably others beside Bernadine who had the entree here."
"The only suspicious circumstance which I have noticed," Peter remarked, "is the number of men-servants. I have seen five already."
"It is only fair to remember," Sogrange reminded him, "that the Baroness herself told us that there were no other save men-servants here and that they were all spies. Without a master, I cannot see that they are dangerous. One needs, however, to watch all the time."
"If you see anything suspicious," Peter said, "tap the table with your forefinger. Personally, I will admit that I have had my doubts of the Baroness, but on the whole I have come to the conclusion that they were groundless. She is not the sort of woman to take up a vendetta, especially an unprofitable one."
"She is an exceedingly dangerous person for an impressionable man like myself," Sogrange remarked, arranging his tie.
The butler fetched them in a very few moments and showed them into a pleasantly-furnished library, where he mixed cocktails for them from a collection of bottles upon the sideboard. He was quite friendly and inclined to be loquacious, although he spoke with a slight foreign accent. The house belonged to an English gentleman from whom the honored Count had taken it, furnished. They were two miles from a station and a mile from the village. It was a lonely part, but there were always people coming or going. With one's work one scarcely noticed it. He was gratified that the gentlemen found his cocktails so excellent. Perhaps he might be permitted the high honor of mixing them another? It was a day, this, of deep sadness and gloom. One needed to drink something, indeed, to forget the terrible thing which had happened. The Count had been a good master, a little impatient sometimes, but kind-hearted. The news had been a shock to them all.
Then, before they had expected her, the Baroness reappeared. She wore a wonderful gray gown which seemed to be made in a single piece, a gown which fitted her tightly, and yet gave her the curious appearance of a woman walking without the burden of clothes. Sogrange, Parisian to the finger-tips, watched her with admiring approval. She laid her fingers upon his arm, although it was towards Peter that her eyes traveled.
"Will you take me in, Marquis?" she begged. "It is the only formality we will allow ourselves."
They entered a long, low dining-room, paneled with oak, and with the family portraits of the owner of the house still left upon the wall. Dinner was served upon a round table and was laid for four. There was a profusion of silver, very beautiful glass, and a wonderful cluster of orchids. The Marquis, as he handed his hostess to her chair, glanced towards the vacant place.
"It is for my companion, an Austrian lady," she explained. "To-night, however, I think that she will not come. She was a distant connection of Bernadine's and she is much upset. We leave her place and see. You will sit on my other side, Baron."
The fingers which touched Peter's arm brushed his hand, and were withdrawn as though with reluctance. She sank into her chair with a little sigh.
"It is charming of you two, this," she declared, softly. "You help me through this night of solitude and sadness. What I should do if I were alone, I cannot tell. You must drink with me a toast, if you will. Will you make it to our better acquaintance?"
No soup had been offered and champagne was served with the hors d'oeuvre. Peter raised his glass and looked into the eyes of the woman who was leaning so closely towards him that her soft breath fell upon his cheek. She whispered something in his ear. For a moment, perhaps, he was carried away, but for a moment only. Then Sogrange's voice and the beat of his forefinger upon the table stiffened him into sudden alertness. They heard a motor car draw up outside.
"Who can it be?" the Baroness exclaimed, setting her glass down abruptly.
"It is, perhaps, our fourth guest who arrives," Sogrange remarked.
They all three listened, Peter and Sogrange with their glasses still suspended in the air.
"Our fourth guest?" the Baroness repeated. "Madame von Estenier is upstairs, lying down. I cannot tell who this may be."
Her lips were parted. The lines of her forehead had suddenly appeared. Her eyes were turned toward the door, hard and bright. Then the glass which she had nervously picked up again and was holding between her fingers, fell on to the tablecloth with a little crash, and the yellow wine ran bubbling on to her plate. Her scream echoed to the roof and rang through the room. It was Bernadine who stood there in the doorway, Bernadine in a long traveling ulster and the air of one newly arrived from a journey. They all three looked at him, but there was not one who spoke. The Baroness, after her one wild cry, was dumb.
"I am indeed fortunate," Bernadine said. "You have as yet, I see, scarcely commenced. You probably expected me. I am charmed to find so agreeable a party awaiting my arrival."
He divested himself of his ulster and threw it across the arm of the butler, who stood behind him.
"Come," he continued; "for a man who has just been killed in a railway accident, I find myself with an appetite. A glass of wine, Carl. I do not know what that toast was, the drinking of which my coming interrupted, but let us all drink it together. Aimee, my love to you, dear. Let me congratulate you upon the fortitude and courage with which you ignored those lying reports of my death. I had fears that I might find you alone in a darkened room, with tear-stained eyes and sal volatile by your side. This is infinitely better. Gentlemen, you are welcome."
Sogrange lifted his glass and bowed courteously. Peter followed suit.
"Really," Sogrange murmured, "the Press nowadays becomes more unreliable every day. It is apparent, my dear Von Hern, that this account of your death was, to say the least of it, exaggerated."
Peter said nothing. His eyes were fixed upon the Baroness. She sat in her chair quite motionless, but her face had become like the face of some graven image. She looked at Bernadine, but her eyes said nothing. Every glint of expression seemed to have left her features. Since that one wild shriek she had remained voiceless. Encompassed by danger though he knew they now must be, Peter found himself possessed by one thought only. Was this a trap into which they had fallen, or was the woman, too, deceived?
"You bring later news from Paris than I myself," Sogrange proceeded, helping himself to one of the dishes which a footman was passing round. "How did you reach the coast? The evening papers stated distinctly that since the accident no attempt had been made to run trains."
"By motor car from Chantilly," Bernadine replied. "I had the misfortune to lose my servant, who was wearing my coat, and who, I gather from the newspaper reports, was mistaken for me. I myself was unhurt. I hired a motor car and drove to Boulogne - not the best of journeys, let me tell you, for we broke down three times. There was no steamer there, but I hired a fishing boat, which brought me across the Channel in something under eight hours. From the coast I motored direct here. I was so anxious," he added, raising his eyes, "to see how my dear friend - my dear Aimee - was bearing the terrible news."
She fluttered for a moment like a bird in a trap. Peter drew a little sigh of relief. His self-respect was reinstated. He had decided that she was innocent. Upon them, at least, would not fall the ignominy of having been led into the simplest of traps by this white-faced Delilah. The butler had brought her another glass, which she raised to her lips. She drained its contents, but the ghastliness of her appearance remained unchanged. Peter, watching her, knew the signs. She was sick with terror.
"The conditions throughout France are indeed awful," Sogrange remarked. "They say, too, that this railway strike is only the beginning of worse things."
"Your country, dear Marquis," he said, "is on its last legs. No one knows better than I that it is, at the present moment, honeycombed with sedition and anarchical impulses. The people are rotten. For years the whole tone of France has been decadent. Its fall must even now be close at hand."
"You take a gloomy view of my country's future," Sogrange declared.
"Why should one refuse to face facts?" Bernadine replied. "One does not often talk so frankly, but we three are met together this evening under somewhat peculiar circumstances. The days of the glory of France are past. England has laid out her neck for the yoke of the conqueror. Both are doomed to fall. Both are ripe for the great humiliation. You two gentlemen whom I have the honor to receive as my guests," he concluded, filling his glass and bowing towards them, "in your present unfortunate predicament represent precisely the position of your two countries."
"Ave Caesar!" Peter muttered grimly, raising his glass to his lips.
Bernadine accepted the challenge.
"It is not I, alas! who may call myself Caesar," he replied, "although it is certainly you who are about to die."
Sogrange turned to the man who stood behind his chair.
"If I might trouble you for a little dry toast?" he inquired. "A modern but very uncomfortable ailment," he added, with a sigh. "One's digestion must march with the years, I suppose."
"Your toast you shall have, with pleasure, Marquis," he said, "but as for your indigestion, do not let that trouble you any longer. I think that I can promise you immunity from that annoying complaint for the rest of your life."
"You are doing your best," Peter declared, leaning back in his chair, "to take away my appetite."
Bernadine looked searchingly from one to the other of his two guests.
"Yes," he admitted, "you are brave men. I do not know why I should ever have doubted it. Your pose is excellent. I have no wish, however, to see you buoyed up by a baseless optimism. A somewhat remarkable chance has delivered you into my hands. You are my prisoners. You, Peter, Baron de Grost, I have hated all my days. You have stood between me and the achievement of some of my most dearly-cherished tasks. Always I have said to myself that the day of reckoning must come. It has arrived. As for you, Marquis de Sogrange, if my personal feelings towards you are less violent, you still represent the things absolutely inimical to me and my interests. The departure of you two men was the one thing necessary for the successful completion of certain tasks which I have in hand at the present moment,"
Peter pushed away his plate.
"You have succeeded in destroying my appetite, Count," he declared. "Now that you have gone so far in expounding your amiable resolutions towards us, perhaps you will go a little further and explain exactly how, in this eminently respectable house, situated, I understand, in an eminently respectable neighborhood, with a police station within a mile, and a dozen or so witnesses as to our present whereabouts, you intend to expedite our removal?"
Bernadine pointed toward the woman who sat facing him.
"Ask the Baroness how these things are arranged."
They turned towards her. She fell back in her chair with a little gasp. She had fainted. Bernadine shrugged his shoulders. The butler and one of the footmen, who during the whole of the conversation had stolidly proceeded with their duties, in obedience to a gesture from their master took her up in their arms and carried her from the room.
"The fear has come to her, too," Bernadine murmured, softly. "It may come to you, my brave friends, before morning."
"It is possible," Peter answered, his hand stealing around to his hip pocket, "but in the meantime, what is to prevent -"
The hip pocket was empty. Peter's sentence ended abruptly. Bernadine mocked him.
"To prevent your shooting me in cold blood, I suppose," he remarked. "Nothing except that my servants are too clever. No one save myself is allowed to remain under this roof with arms in their possession. Your pocket was probably picked before you had been in the place five minutes. No, my dear Baron, let me assure you that escape will not be so easy! You were always just a little inclined to be led away by the fair sex. The best men in the world, you know, have shared that failing, and the Baroness, alone and unprotected, had her attractions, eh?"
Then something happened to Peter which had happened to him barely a dozen times in his life. He lost his temper and lost it rather badly. Without an instant's hesitation, he caught up the decanter which stood by his side and flung it in his host's face. Bernadine only partly avoided it by thrusting out his arms. The neck caught his forehead and the blood came streaming over his tie and collar. Peter had followed the decanter with a sudden spring. His fingers were upon Bernadine's throat and he thrust his head back. Sogrange sprang to the door to lock it, but he was too late. The room seemed full of men-servants. Peter was dragged away, still struggling fiercely.
"Tie them up!" Bernadine gasped, swaying in his chair. "Tie them up, do you hear? Carl, give me brandy."
He swallowed half a wineglassful of the raw spirit. His eyes were red with fury.
"Take them to the gun room," he ordered, "three of you to each of them, mind. I'll shoot the man who lets either escape."
But Peter and Sogrange were both of them too wise to expend any more of their strength in a useless struggle. They suffered themselves to be conducted without resistance across the white stone hall, down a long passage, and into a room at the end, the window and fireplace of which were both blocked up. The floor was of red flags and the walls whitewashed. The only furniture was a couple of kitchen chairs and a long table. The door was of stout oak and fitted with a double lock. The sole outlet, so far as they could see, was a small round hole at the top of the roof. The door was locked behind them. They were alone.
"The odd trick to Bernadine!" Peter exclaimed hoarsely, wiping a spot of blood from his forehead. "My dear Marquis, I scarcely know how to apologize. It is not often that I lose my temper so completely."
"The matter seems to be of very little consequence," Sogrange answered. "This was probably our intended destination in any case. Seems to be rather an unfortunate expedition of ours, I am afraid."
"One cannot reckon upon men coming back from the dead," Peter declared. "It isn't often that you find every morning and every evening paper mistaken. As for the woman, I believe in her. She honestly meant to sell us those papers of Bernadine's. I believe that she, too, will have to face a day of reckoning."
Sogrange strolled around the room, subjecting it everywhere to a close scrutiny. The result was hopeless. There was no method of escape save through the door.
"There is certainly something strange about this apartment," Peter remarked. "It is, to say the least of it, unusual to have windows in the roof and a door of such proportions. All the same, I think that those threats of Bernadine's were a little strained. One cannot get rid of one's enemies, nowadays, in the old-fashioned, melodramatic way. Bernadine must know quite well that you and I are not the sort of men to walk into a trap of any one's setting, just as I am quite sure that he is not the man to risk even a scandal by breaking the law openly."
"You interest me," Sogrange said. "I begin to suspect that you, too, have made some plans."
"But naturally," Peter replied. "Once before Bernadine set a trap for me and he nearly had a chance of sending me for a swim in the Thames. Since then one takes precautions as a matter of course. We were followed down here, and by this time I should imagine that the alarm is given. If all was well, I was to have telephoned an hour ago."
"You are really," Sogrange declared, "quite an agreeable companion, my dear Baron. You think of everything."
The door was suddenly opened. Bernadine stood upon the threshold and behind him several of the servants.
"You will oblige me by stepping back into the study, my friends," he ordered.
"With great pleasure," Sogrange answered, with alacrity. "We have no fancy for this room, I can assure you."
Once more they crossed the stone hall and entered the room into which they had first been shown. On the threshold, Peter stopped short and listened. It seemed to him that from somewhere upstairs he could hear the sound of a woman's sobs. He turned to Bernadine.
"The Baroness is not unwell, I trust?" he asked.
"The Baroness is as well as she is likely to be for some time," Bernadine replied, grimly.
They were all in the study now. Upon a table stood a telephone instrument. Bernadine drew a small revolver from his pocket.
"Baron de Grost," he said, "I find that you are not quite such a fool as I thought you. Some one is ringing up for you on the telephone. You will reply that you are well and safe and that you will be home as soon as your business here is finished. Your wife is at the other end. If you breathe a single word to her of your approaching end, she shall hear through the telephone the sound of the revolver shot that sends you to Hell."
"Dear me," Peter protested, "I find this most unpleasant. If you will excuse me, I don't think I'll answer the call at all."
"You will answer it as I have directed," Bernadine insisted. "Only remember this - if you speak a single ill-advised word, the end will be as I have said."
Peter picked up the receiver and held it to his ear.
"Who is there?" he asked.
It was Violet whose voice he heard. He listened for a moment to her anxious flood of questions.
"There is not the slightest cause to be alarmed, dear," he said. "Yes, I am down at the High House, near St. Mary's. Bernadine is here. It seems that those reports of his death were absolutely unfounded. . . . Danger? Unprotected? Why, my dear Violet, you know how careful I always am. Simply because Bernadine used once to live here, and because the Baroness was his friend, I spoke to Sir John Dory over the telephone before we left, and an escort of half-a-dozen police followed us. They are about the place now, I have no doubt, but their presence is quite unnecessary. I shall be home before long, dear. . . . Yes, perhaps it would be as well to send the car down. Any one will direct him to the house - the High House, St. Mary's, remember. Good-by!"
Peter replaced the receiver and turned slowly round. Bernadine was smiling.
"You did well to reassure your wife, even though it was a pack of lies you told her," he remarked.
Peter shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
"My dear Bernadine," he said, "up till now I have tried to take you seriously. You are really passing the limit. I must positively ask you to reflect a little. Do men who live the life that you and I live, trust any one? Am I - is the Marquis de Sogrange here - after a lifetime of experience, likely to leave the safety of our homes in company with a lady of whom we knew nothing except that she was your companion, without precautions? I do you the justice to believe you a person of commonsense. I know that we are as safe in this house as we should be in our own. War cannot be made in this fashion in an over-policed country like England."
"Do not be too sure," Bernadine replied. "There are secrets about this house which have not yet been disclosed to you. There are means, my dear Baron, of transporting you into a world where you are likely to do much less harm than here, means ready at hand, and which would leave no more trace behind than those crumbling ashes can tell of the coal mine from which they came."
Peter preserved his attitude of bland incredulity.
"Listen," he said, drawing a whistle from his pocket, "it is just possible that you are in earnest. I will bet you, then, if you like, a hundred pounds, that if I blow this whistle you will either have to open your door within five minutes or find your house invaded by the police."
No one spoke for several moments. The veins were standing out upon Bernadine's forehead.
"We have had enough of this folly," he cried. "If you refuse to realize your position, so much the worse for you. Blow your whistle, if you will. I am content."
Peter waited for no second bidding. He raised the whistle to his lips and blew it, loudly and persistently. Again there was silence. Bernadine mocked him.
"Try once more, dear Baron," he advised. "Your friends are perhaps a little hard of hearing. Try once more, and when you have finished, you and I and the Marquis de Sogrange will find our way once more to the gun room and conclude that trifling matter of business which brought you here."
Again Peter blew his whistle and again the silence was broken only by Bernadine's laugh. Suddenly, however, that laugh was checked. Every one had turned toward the door, listening. A bell was ringing throughout the house.
"It is the front door!" one of the servants exclaimed.
No one moved. As though to put the matter beyond doubt, there was a steady knocking to be heard from the same direction.
"It is a telegram or some late caller," Bernadine declared, hoarsely. "Answer it, Carl. If any one would speak with the Baroness, she is indisposed and unable to receive. If any one desires me, I am here."
The man left the room. They heard him withdraw the chain from the door. Bernadine wiped the sweat from his forehead as he listened. He still gripped the revolver in his hand. Peter had changed his position a little and was standing now behind a high-backed chair. They heard the door creak open, a voice outside, and presently the tramp of heavy footsteps. Peter nodded understandingly.
"It is exactly as I told you," he said. "You were wise not to bet, my friend."
Again the tramp of feet in the hall. There was something unmistakable about the sound, something final and terrifying. Bernadine saw his triumph slipping away. Once more this man who had defied him so persistently, was to taste the sweets of victory. With a roar of fury he sprang across the room. He fired his revolver twice before Sogrange, with a terrible blow, knocked his arm upwards and sent the weapon spinning to the ceiling. Peter struck his assailant in the mouth, but the blow seemed scarcely to check him. They rolled on the floor together, their arms around one another's necks. It was an affair, that, but of a moment. Peter, as lithe as a cat, was on his feet again almost at once, with a torn collar and an ugly mark on his face. There were strangers in the room now and the servants had mostly slipped away during the confusion. It was Sir John Dory himself who locked the door. Bernadine struggled slowly to his feet. He was face to face with half a dozen police constables in plain clothes.
"You have a charge against this man, Baron?" the police commissioner asked.
Peter shook his head.
"The quarrel between us," he replied, "is not for the police courts, although I will confess, Sir John, that your intervention was opportune."
"I, on the other hand," Sogrange put in, "demand the arrest of the Count von Hern and the seizure of all papers in this house. I am the bearer of an autograph letter from the President of France in connection with this matter. The Count von Hern has committed extraditable offenses against my country. I am prepared to swear an information to that effect."
The police commissioner turned to Peter.
"Your friend's name?" he demanded.
"The Marquis de Sogrange," Peter told him.
"He is a person of authority?"
"To my certain knowledge," Peter replied, "he has the implicit confidence of the French Government."
Sir John Dory made a sign. In another moment Bernadine would have been arrested. It seemed, indeed, as though nothing could save him now from this crowning humiliation. He himself, white and furious, was at a loss how to deal with an unexpected situation. Suddenly a thing happened stranger than any one of them there had ever dreamed of, so strange that even men such as Peter, Sogrange and Dory, whose nerves were of iron, faced one another, doubting and amazed. The floor beneath them rocked and billowed like the waves of a canvas sea. The windows were filled with flashes of red light, a great fissure parted the wall, the pictures and book-cases came crashing down beneath a shower of masonry. It was the affair of a second. Above them shone the stars and around them a noise like thunder. Bernadine, who alone understood, was the first to recover himself. He stood in the midst of them, his hands above his head, laughing as he looked around at the strange storm, laughing like a madman.
"The wonderful Carl," he cried. "Oh, matchless servant. Arrest me now, if you will, you dogs of the police. Rout out my secrets, dear Baron de Grost. Tuck them under your arm and hurry to Downing Street. This is the hospitality of the High House, my friends. It loves you so well that only your ashes shall leave it."
His mouth was open for another sentence when he was struck. A whole pillar of marble from one of the rooms above came crashing through and buried him underneath a falling shower of masonry. Peter escaped by a few inches. Those who were left unhurt sprang through the yawning wall out into the garden. Sir John, Sogrange and Peter, three of the men - one limping badly, came to a standstill in the middle of the lawn. Before them, the house was crumbling like a pack of cards, and louder even than the thunder of the falling structure was the roar of the red flames.
"The Baroness!" Peter cried, and took one leap forward.
"I am here," she sobbed, running to them from out of the shadows. "I have lost everything - my jewels, my clothes, all except what I have on. They gave me but a moment's warning."
"Is there any one else in the house?" Peter demanded.
"No one but you who were in that room," she answered.
She shook her head.
"There was no companion," she faltered. "I thought it sounded better to speak of her. I had her place laid at table, but she never even existed."
Peter tore off his coat.
"There are the others in the room!" he exclaimed. "We must go back."
Sogrange caught him by the shoulder and pointed to a shadowy group some distance away.
"We are all out but Bernadine," he said. "For him were is no hope. Quick!"
They sprang back only just in time. The outside wall of the house fell with a terrible crash. The room which they had quitted was blotted now out of existence. From right and left, in all directions along the country road, came the flashing of lights and little knots of hurrying people.
"It is the end!" Peter muttered. "Yesterday I should have regretted the passing of a brave enemy. To-day I hail with joy the death of a brute."
The Baroness, who had been sitting upon a garden seat, sobbing, came softly up to them. She laid her fingers upon Peter's arm imploringly.
"You will not leave me friendless?" she begged. "The papers I promised you are destroyed, but many of his secrets are here."
She tapped her forehead.
"Madame," Peter answered, "I have no wish to know them. Years ago I swore that the passing of Bernadine should mark my own retirement from the world in which we both lived. I shall keep my word. To-night Bernadine is dead. To-night, Sogrange, my work is finished." The Baroness began to sob again.
"And I thought that you were a man," she moaned, "so gallant, so honorable - "
"Madame," Sogrange intervened, "I shall commend you to the pension list of the Double-Four."
She dried her eyes.
"It is not money only I want," she whispered, her eyes following Peter.
Sogrange shook his head.
"You have never seen the Baroness de Grost?" he asked her.
"Ah!" Sogrange murmured. . . . "Our escort, madame, is at your service - as far as London."