Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VI. The Little Lady From Servia
Westward sped the little electric brougham, driven without regard to police regulations or any rule of the road: silent and swift, wholly regardless of other vehicles - as though, indeed, its occupants were assuming to themselves the rights of Royalty. Inside, Peter Ruff, a little breathless, was leaning forward, tying his white cravat with the aid of the little polished mirror set in the middle of the dark green cushions. At his right hand was Lady Mary, watching his proceedings with an air of agonised impatience.
"Let me tell you - " she begged.
"Kindly wait till I have tied this and put my studs in," Peter Ruff interrupted. "It is impossible for me to arrive at a ball in this condition, and I cannot give my whole attention to more than one thing at a time."
"We shall be there in five minutes!" she exclaimed. "What is the good, unless you understand, of your coming at all?"
Peter Ruff surveyed his tie critically. Fortunately, it pleased him. He began to press the studs into their places with firm fingers. Around them surged the traffic of Piccadilly; in front, the gleaming arc of lights around Hyde Park Corner. They had several narrow escapes. Once the brougham swayed dangerously as they cut in on the wrong side of an island lamp-post. A policeman shouted after them, another held up his hand - the driver of the brougham took no notice.
"I am ready," Peter Ruff said, quietly.
"My younger brother - Maurice," she began, breathlessly - you've never met him, I know, but you've heard me speak of him. He is private secretary to Sir James Wentley - "
"Minister for Foreign Affairs?" Ruff asked, swiftly.
"Yes! Maurice wants to go in for the Diplomatic Service. He is a dear, and so clever!"
"Is it Maurice who is in trouble?" Peter Ruff asked. "Why didn't he come himself?"
"I am trying to explain," Lady Mary protested. "This afternoon he had an important paper to turn into cipher and hand over to the Prime Minister at the Duchess of Montford's dance to-night. The Prime Minister will arrive in a motor car from the country at about two o'clock, and the first thing he will ask for will be that paper. It has been stolen!"
"At what time did your brother finish copying it, and when did he discover its loss?" Ruff asked, with a slight air of weariness. These preliminary enquiries always bored him.
"He finished it in his own rooms at half-past seven," Lady Mary answered. "He discovered its loss at eleven o'clock - directly he had arrived at the ball."
"Why didn't he come to me himself?" Peter Ruff asked. "I like to have these particulars at first hand."
"He is in attendance upon Sir James at the ball," Lady Mary answered. "There is trouble in the East, as you know, and Sir James is expecting dispatches to-night. Maurice is not allowed to leave."
"Has he told Sir James yet?"
"He had not when I left," Lady Mary answered. "If he is forced to do so, it will be ruin! Mr. Ruff, you must help us Maurice is such a dear, but a mistake like this, at the very beginning of his career, would be fatal. Here we are. That is my brother waiting just inside the hall."
A young man came up to them in the vestibule. He was somewhat pale, but otherwise perfectly self-possessed. From the shine of his glossy black hair to the tips of his patent boots he was, in appearance, everything that a young Englishman of birth and athletic tastes could hope to be. Peter Ruff liked the look of him. He waited for no introduction, but laid his hand at once upon the young man's shoulder.
"Between seven-thirty and arriving here," he said, drawing him on one side - "quick! Tell me, whom did you see? What opportunities were there of stealing the paper, and by whom?"
"I finished it at five and twenty past seven," the young man said, "sealed it in an official envelope, and stood it up on my desk by the side of my coat and hat and muffler, which my servant had laid there, ready for me to put on. My bedroom opens out from my sitting room. While I was dressing, two men called for me - Paul Jermyn and Count von Hern. They walked through to my bedroom first, and then sat together in the sitting room until I came out. The door was wide open, and we talked all the time."
"They called accidentally?" Peter Ruff asked.
"No - by appointment," the young man replied. "We were all coming on here to the dance, and we had agreed to dine together first at the Savoy."
"You say that you left the paper on your desk with your coat and hat?" Peter Ruff asked. "Was it there when you came out?"
"Apparently so," the young man answered. "It seemed to be standing in exactly the same place as where I had left it. I put it into my breast pocket, and it was only when I arrived here that I fancied the envelope seemed lighter. I went off by myself and tore it open. There was nothing inside but half a newspaper!"
"What about the envelope?" Peter Ruff asked. "That must have been the same sort of one as you had used or you would have noticed it?"
"It was," the Honorable Maurice answered.
"It was a sort which you kept in your room?"
"Yes!" the young man admitted.
"The packet was changed, then, by some one in your room, or some one who had access to it," Peter Ruff said. "How about your servant?"
"It was his evening off. I let him put out my things and go at seven o'clock."
"You must tell me the nature of the contents of the packet," Peter Ruff declared. "Don't hesitate. You must do it. Remember the alternative."
The young man did hesitate for several moments, but a glance into his sister's appealing face decided him.
"It was our official reply to a secret communication from Russia respecting - a certain matter in the Balkans."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"Where is Count von Hern?" he asked abruptly.
"I must use a telephone at once," Peter Ruff said. "Ask one of the servants here where I can find one."
Peter Ruff was conducted to a gloomy waiting room, on the table of which stood a small telephone instrument. He closed the door, but he was absent for only a few minutes. When he rejoined Lady Mary and her brother they were talking together in agitated whispers. The latter turned towards him at once.
"Do you mean that you suspect Count von Hern?" he asked, doubtfully. "He is a friend of the Danish Minister's, and every one says that he's such a good chap. He doesn't seem to take the slightest interest in politics - spends nearly all his time hunting or playing polo."
"I don't suspect any one," Peter Ruff answered. "I only know that Count von Hern is an Austrian spy, and that he took your paper! Has he been out of your sight at all since you rejoined him in the sitting room? I mean to say - had he any opportunity of leaving you during the time you were dining together, or did he make any calls en route, either on the way to the Savoy or from the Savoy here?"
The young man shook his head.
"He has not been out of my sight for a second."
"Who is the other man - Jermyn?" Peter Ruff asked. "I never heard of him."
"An American - cousin of the Duchess. He could not have had the slightest interest in the affair."
"Please take me into the ballroom," Peter Ruff said to Lady Mary. "Your brother had better not come with us. I want to be as near the Count von Hern as possible."
They passed into the crowded rooms, unnoticed, purposely avoiding the little space where the Duchess was still receiving the late comers among her guests. They found progress difficult, and Lady Mary felt her heart sink as she glanced at the little jewelled watch which hung from her wrist. Suddenly Peter Ruff came to a standstill.
"Don't look for a moment," he said, "but tell me as soon as you can - who is that tall young man, like a Goliath, talking to the little dark woman? You see whom I mean?"
Lady Mary nodded, and they passed on. In a moment or two she answered him.
"How strange that you should ask!" she whispered in his ear. "That is Mr. Jermyn."
They were on the outskirts now of the ballroom itself. One of Lady Mary's partners came up with an open programme and a face full of reproach.
"Do please forgive me, Captain Henderson," Lady Mary begged. "I have hurt my foot, and I am not dancing any more."
"But surely I was to take you in to supper?" the young officer protested, good-humouredly. "Don't tell me that you are going to cut that?"
"I am going to cut everything to-night with everybody," Lady Mary said. "Please forgive me. Come to tea to-morrow and I'll explain."
The young man bowed, and, with a curious glance at Ruff, accepted his dismissal. Another partner was simply waved away.
"Please turn round and come back," Peter Ruff said. "I want to see those two again."
"But we haven't found Count von Hern yet," she protested. "Surely that is more important, is it not? I believe that I saw him dancing just now - there, with the tall girl in yellow."
"Never mind about him, for the moment," Ruff answered. "Walk down this corridor with me. Do you mind talking all the time, please? It will sound more natural, and I want to listen."
The young American and his partner had found a more retired seat now, about three quarters of the way down the pillared vestibule which bordered the ballroom. He was bending over his companion with an air of unmistakable devotion, but it was she who talked. She seemed, indeed, to have a good deal to say to him. The slim white fingers of one hand played all the time with a string of magnificent pearls. Her dark, soft eyes - black as aloes and absolutely un-English - flashed into his. A delightful smile hovered at the corners of her lips. All the time she was talking and he was listening. Lady Mary and her partner passed by unnoticed. At the end of the vestibule they turned and retraced their steps. Peter Ruff was very quiet - he had caught a few of those rapid words. But the woman's foreign accent had troubled him.
"If only she would speak in her own language!" he muttered.
Lady Mary's hand suddenly tightened upon his arm.
"Look!" she exclaimed. "That is Count von Hern!"
A tall, fair young man, very exact in his dress, very stiff in his carriage, with a not unpleasant face, was standing talking to Jermyn and his companion. Jermyn, who apparently found the intrusion an annoyance, was listening to the conversation between the two, with a frown upon his face and a general attitude of irritation. As Lady Mary and her escort drew near, the reason for the young American's annoyance became clearer - his two companions were talking softly, but with great animation, in a foreign language, which it was obvious that he did not understand. Peter Ruff's elbow pressed against his partner's arm, and their pace slackened. He ventured, even, to pause for a moment, looking into the ballroom as though in search of some one, and he had by no means the appearance of a man likely to understand Hungarian. Then, to Lady Mary's surprise, he touched the Count von Hern on the shoulder and addressed him.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but I fancy that we accidentally exchanged programmes, a few minutes ago, at the buffet. I have lost mine and picked up one which does not belong to me. As we were standing side by side, it is possibly yours."
"I believe not, sir," he answered, with that pleasant smile which had gone such a long way toward winning him the reputation of being "a good fellow" amongst a fairly large circle of friends. "I believe at any rate," he added, glancing at his programme, "that this is my own. You mistake me, probably, for some one else."
Peter Ruff, without saying a word, was actor enough to suggest that he was unconvinced. The Count good-humouredly held out his programme.
"You shall see for yourself," he remarked. "That is not yours, is it? Besides, I have not been to the buffet at all this evening."
Peter Ruff cast a swift glance down the programme which the Count had handed him. Then he apologised profusely.
"I was mistaken," he admitted. "I am very sorry."
The Count bowed.
"It is of no consequence, sir," he said, and resumed his conversation.
Peter Ruff passed on with Lady Mary. At a safe distance, she glanced at him enquiringly.
"It was his programme I wanted to see," Peter Ruff explained. "It is as I thought. He has had four dances with the Countess - "
"Who is she?" Lady Mary asked, quickly.
"The little dark lady with whom he is talking now," Peter Ruff continued. "He seems, too, to be going early. He has no dances reserved after the twelfth. We will go downstairs at once, if you please. I must speak to your brother."
"Have you been able to think of anything?" she asked, anxiously. "Is there any chance at all, do you think?"
"I believe so," Peter Ruff answered. "It is most interesting. Don't be too sanguine, though. The odds are against us, and the time is very short. Is the driver of your electric brougham to be trusted?"
"Absolutely," she assured him. "He is an old servant."
"Will you lend him to me?" Peter Ruff asked, "and tell him that he is to obey my instructions absolutely?"
"Of course," she answered. "You are going away, then?"
Peter Ruff nodded. He was a little sparing of words just then. The thoughts were chasing one another through his brain. He was listening, too, for the sweep of a dress behind.
"Is there nothing I can do?" Lady Mary begged, eagerly.
Peter Ruff shook his head. In the distance he saw the Honourable Maurice come quickly toward them. With a firm but imperceptible gesture he waved him away.
"Don't let your brother speak to me," he said. "We can't tell who is behind. What time did you say the Prime Minister was expected?"
"At two o'clock," Lady Mary said, anxiously.
Peter Ruff glanced at his watch. It was already half an hour past midnight.
"Very well," he said, "I will do what I can. If my theory is wrong, it will be nothing. If I am right - well, there is a chance, anyhow. In the meantime - "
"In the meantime?" she repeated, breathlessly.
"Take your brother back to the ballroom," Peter Ruff directed. "Make him dance - dance yourself. Don't give yourselves away by looking anxious. When the time is short - say at a quarter to two - he can come down here and wait for me."
"If you don't come!" she exclaimed.
"Then we shall have lost," Peter Ruff said, calmly. "If you don't see me again to-night, you had better read the newspapers carefully for the next few days."
"You are going to do something dangerous!" she protested.
"There is danger in interfering at all in such a matter as this," he answered, "but you must remember that it is not only my profession - it is my hobby. Remember, too," he added, with a smile, "that I do not often lose!"
For twenty minutes Peter Ruff sat in the remote corner of Lady Mary's electric brougham, drawn up at the other side of the Square, and waited. At last he pressed a button. They glided off. Before them was a large, closed motor car. They started in discreet chase.
Fortunately, however, the chase was not a long one. The car which Peter Ruff had been following was drawn up before a plain, solid-looking house, unlit and of gloomy appearance. The little lady with the wonderful eyes was already halfway up the flagged steps. Hastily lifting the flap and looking behind as they passed, her pursuer saw her open the door with a latchkey, and disappear. Peter Ruff pulled the check-string and descended. For several moments he stood and observed the house into which the lady whom he had been following had disappeared. Then he turned to the driver.
"I want you to watch that house," he said, "never to take your eyes off it. When I reappear from it, if I do at all, I shall probably be in a hurry. Directly you see me be on your box ready to start. A good deal may depend upon our getting away quickly."
"Very good, sir," the man answered. "How long am I to wait here for you?"
Peter Ruff's lips twisted into a curious little smile.
"Until two o'clock," he answered. "If I am not out by then, you needn't bother any more about me. You can return and tell your mistress exactly what has happened."
"Hadn't I better come and try and get you out, sir?" the man asked. "Begging your pardon, but her Ladyship told me that there might be queer doings. I'm a bit useful in a scrap, sir," he added. "I do a bit of sparring regularly."
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"If there's any scrap at all," he said, "you had better be out of it. Do as I have said."
The motor car had turned round and disappeared now, and in a few moments Peter Ruff stood before the door of the house into which the little lady had disappeared. The problem of entrance was already solved for him. The door had been left unlatched; only a footstool had been placed against it inside. Peter Ruff, without hesitation, pushed the door softly open and entered, replaced the footstool in its former position, and stood with his back to the wall, in the darkest corner of the hall, looking around him - listening intently. Nearly opposite the door of a room stood ajar. It was apparently lit up, but there was no sound of any one moving inside. Upstairs, in one of the rooms on the first floor, he could hear light footsteps - a woman's voice humming a song. He listened to the first few bars, and understanding became easier. Those first few bars were the opening ones of the Servian national anthem!
With an effort, Peter Ruff concentrated his thoughts upon the immediate present. The little lady was upstairs. The servants had apparently retired for the night. He crept up to the half-open door and peered in. The room, as he had hoped to find it, was empty, but Madame's easy-chair was drawn up to the fire, and some coffee stood upon the hob. Stealthily Peter Ruff crept in and glanced around, seeking for a hiding place. A movement upstairs hastened his decision. He pushed aside the massive curtains which separated this from a connecting room. He had scarcely done so when light footsteps were heard descending the stairs.
Peter Ruff found his hiding place all that could have been desired. This secondary room itself was almost in darkness, but he was just able to appreciate the comforting fact that it possessed a separate exit into the hall. Through the folds of the curtain he had a complete view of the further apartment. The little lady had changed her gown of stiff white satin for one of flimsier material, and, seated in the easy-chair, she was busy pouring herself out some coffee. She took a cigarette from a silver box, and lighting it, curled herself up in the chair and composed herself as though to listen. To her as well as to Peter Ruff, as he crouched in his hiding place, the moments seemed to pass slowly enough. Yet, as he realised afterward, it could not have been ten minutes before she sat upright in a listening attitude. There was some one coming! Peter Ruff, too, heard a man's firm footsteps come up the flagged stones.
The little lady sprang to her feet.
"Paul!" she exclaimed.
Paul Jermyn came slowly to meet her. He seemed a little out of breath. His tie was all disarranged and his collar unfastened.
The little lady, however, noticed none of these things. She looked only into his face.
"Have you got it?" she asked, eagerly.
He thrust his hand into his breast-coat pocket, and held an envelope out toward her.
"Sure!" he answered. "I promised!"
She gave a little sob, and with the packet in her hand came running straight toward the spot where Peter Ruff was hiding.
He shrank back as far as possible. She stopped just short of the curtain, opened the drawer of a table which stood there, and slipped the packet in. Then she came back once more to where Paul Jermyn was standing.
"My friend!" she cried, holding out her hands - "my dear, dear friend! Shall I ever be able to thank you enough?"
"Why, if you try," he answered, smiling, "I think that you could!"
She laid her hand upon his arm - a little caressing, foreign gesture.
"Tell me," she said, "how did you manage it?"
"We left the dance together," Jermyn said. "I could see that he wanted to get rid of me, but I offered to take him in my motor car. I told the man to choose some back streets, and while we were passing through one of them, I took Von Hern by the throat. We had a struggle, of course, but I got the paper."
"What did you do with Von Hern?" she asked.
"I left him on his doorstep," the young American answered. "He wasn't really hurt, but he was only half conscious. I don't think he'll bother any one to-night."
"You dear, brave man!" she murmured. "Paul, what am I to say to you?"
"That's what I'm here to ask," he declared. "You wouldn't give me my answer at the ball. Perhaps you'll give it me now?"
They sprang apart. Ruff felt his nerves stiffen - felt himself constrained to hold even his breath as he widened a little the crack in the curtains. This was no stealthy entrance. The door had been flung open. Von Hern, his dress in wild disorder, pale as a ghost, and with a great bloodstain upon his cheek, stood confronting them.
"When you have done with your love-making," he called out, "I'll trouble you to restore my property!"
The electric light gleamed upon a small revolver which flashed out toward the young American. Paul Jermyn never hesitated for a moment. He seized the chair by his side and flung it at Von Hern. There was a shot, the crash of the falling chair, a cry from Jermyn, who never hesitated, however, in his rush. The two men closed. A second shot went harmlessly to the ceiling. The little lady stole away - stole softly across the room toward the table. She opened the drawer. Suddenly the blood in her veins was frozen into fear. From nowhere, it seemed to her, came a hand which held her wrists like iron!
"Madam," Peter Ruff whispered from behind the curtain, "I am sorry to deprive you of it, but this is stolen property."
Her screams rang through the room. Even the two men released one another.
"It is gone! It is gone!" she cried. "Some one was hiding in the room! Quick!"
She sprang into the hall. The two men followed her. The front door was slammed. They heard flying footsteps outside. Von Hern was out first, clearing the little flight of steps in one bound. Across the road he saw a flying figure. A level stream of fire poured from his hand - twice, three times. But Peter Ruff never faltered. Round the corner he tore. The man had kept his word - the brougham was already moving slowly.
"Jump in, sir," the man cried. "Throw yourself in. Never mind about the door."
They heard the shouts behind. Peter Ruff did as he was bid, and sat upon the floor, raising himself gradually to the seat when they had turned another corner. Then he put his head out of the window.
"Back to the Duchess of Montford's!" he ordered.
The latest of the guests had ceased to arrive - a few were already departing. It was an idle time, however, with the servants who loitered in the vestibules of Montford House, and they looked with curiosity upon this strange guest who arrived at five minutes to two, limping a little, and holding his left arm in his right hand. One footman on the threshold nearly addressed him, but the words were taken out of his mouth when he saw Lady Mary and her brother - the Honorable Maurice Sotherst - hasten forward to greet him.
Peter Ruff smiled upon them benignly.
"You can take the paper out of my breast-coat pocket," he said.
The young man's fingers gripped it. Through Lady Mary's great thankfulness, however, the sudden fear came shivering.
"You are hurt!" she whispered. "There is blood on your sleeve."
"Just a graze," Peter Ruff answered. "Von Hern wasn't much good at a running target. Back to the ballroom, young man," he added. "Don't you see who's coming?"
The Prime Minister came up the tented way into Montford House. He, too, wondered a little at the man whom he met on his way out, holding his left arm, and looking more as though he had emerged from a street fight than from the Duchess of Montford's ball. Peter Ruff went home smiling.