Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IX. The Perfidy of Miss Brown
Peter Ruff came down to his office with a single letter in his hand, bearing a French postmark. He returned his secretary's morning greeting a little absently, and seated himself at his desk.
"Violet," he asked, "have you ever been to Paris?"
She looked at him compassionately.
"More times than you, I think, Peter," she answered.
"That," he exclaimed, "is very possible! Could you get ready to leave by the two-twenty this afternoon?"
"What, alone?" she exclaimed.
"No - with me," he answered.
She shut down her desk with a bang.
"Of course I can!" she exclaimed. "What a spree!"
Then she caught sight of a certain expression on Peter Ruff's face, and she looked at him wonderingly.
"Is anything wrong, Peter?" she asked.
"No," he answered, "I cannot say that anything is wrong. I have had an invitation to present myself before a certain society in Paris of which you have some indirect knowledge. What the summons means I cannot say."
"Yet you go?" she exclaimed.
"I go," he answered. "I have no choice. If I waited here twenty-four hours, I should hear of it."
"They can have nothing against you," she said. "On the contrary, the only time they have appealed for your aid, you gave it - very valuable aid it must have been, too."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"I cannot see," he admitted, "what they can have against me. And yet, somehow, the wording of my invitation seemed to me a little ominous. Perhaps," he added, walking to the window and standing looking out for a moment, "I have a liver this morning. I am depressed. Violet, what does it mean when you are depressed?"
"Shall you wear your gray clothes for traveling?" she asked, a little irrelevantly.
"I have not made up my mind," Peter Ruff answered. "I thought of wearing my brown, with a brown overcoat. What do you suggest?"
"I like you in brown," she answered, simply. "I should change, if I were you."
He smiled faintly.
"I believe," he said, "that you have a sort of superstition that as I change my clothes I change my humors."
"Should I be so very far wrong?" she asked. "Don't think that I am laughing at you, Peter. The greatest men in the world have had their foibles."
Peter Ruff frowned.
"We shall be away for several days," he said. "Be sure that you take some wraps. It will be cold, crossing."
"Are you going to close the office altogether?" she asked.
Peter Ruff nodded.
"Put up a notice," he said - "'Back on Friday.' Pack up your books and take them round to the Bank before you leave. The lift man will call you a taxi-cab."
He watched her preparations with a sort of gloomy calm.
"I wish you'd tell me what is the matter with you?" she asked, as she turned to follow her belongings.
"I do not know," Peter Ruff said. "I, suppose I am suffering from what you would call presentiments. Be at Charing-Cross punctually."
"Why do you go at all?" she asked. "These people are of no further use to you. Only the other day, you were saying that you should not accept any more outside cases."
"I must go," Peter Ruff answered. "I am not afraid of many things, but I should be afraid of disobeying this letter."
They had a comfortable journey down, a cool, bright crossing, and found their places duly reserved for them in the French train. Miss Brown, in her neat traveling clothes and furs, was conscious of looking her best, and she did all that was possible to entertain her traveling companion. But Peter Ruff seemed like a man who labors under some sense of apprehension. He had faced death more than once during the last few years - faced it without flinching, and with a certain cool disregard which can only come from the highest sort of courage. Yet he knew, when he read over again in the train that brief summons which he was on his way to obey, that he had passed under the shadow of some new and indefinable fear. He was perfectly well aware, too, that both on the steamer and on the French train he was carefully shadowed. This fact, however, did not surprise him. He even went out of his way to enter into conversation with one of the two men whose furtive glances into their compartment and whose constant proximity had first attracted his attention. The man was civil but vague. Nevertheless, when they took their places in the dining-car, they found the two men at the next table. Peter Ruff pointed them out to his companion.
"'Double-Fours'!" he whispered. "Don't you feel like a criminal?"
She laughed, and they took no more notice of the men. But as the train drew near Paris, he felt some return of the depression which had troubled him during the earlier part of the day. He felt a sense of comfort in his companion's presence which was a thing utterly strange to him. On the other hand, he was conscious of a certain regret that he had brought her with him into an adventure of which he could not foresee the end.
The lights of Paris flashed around them - the train was gradually slackening speed. Peter Ruff, with a sigh, began to collect their belongings.
"Violet," he said, "I ought not to have brought you." Something in his voice puzzled her. There had been every few times, during all the years she had known him, when she had been able to detect anything approaching sentiment in his tone - and those few times had been when he had spoken of another woman.
"Why not?" she asked, eagerly.
Peter Ruff looked out into the blackness, through the glittering arc of lights, and perhaps for once he suffered his fancy to build for him visions of things that were not of earth. If so, however, it was a moment which swiftly passed. His reply was in a tone as matter of fact as his usual speech.
"Because," he said, "I do not exactly see the end of my present expedition - I do not understand its object."
"You have some apprehension?" she asked.
"None at all," he answered. "Why should I? There is an unwritten bargain," he added, a little more slowly, "to which I subscribed with our friends here, and I have certainly kept it. In fact, the balance is on my side. There is nothing for me to fear."
The train crept into the Gare du Nord, and they passed through the usual routine of the Customs House. Then, in an omnibus, they rumbled slowly over the cobblestones, through the region of barely lit streets and untidy cafes, down the Rue Lafayette, across the famous Square and into the Rue de Rivoli.
"Our movements," Peter Ruff remarked dryly, "are too well known for us to attempt to conceal them. We may as well stop at one of the large hotels. It will be more cheerful for you while I am away."
They engaged rooms at the Continental. Miss Brown, whose apartments were in the wing of the hotel overlooking the gardens, ascended at once to her room. Peter Ruff, who had chosen a small suite on the other side, went into the bar for a whiskey and soda. A man touched him on the elbow.
"For Monsieur," he murmured, and vanished.
Peter Ruff turned and opened the note. It bore a faint perfume, it had a coronet upon the flap of the envelope, and it was written in a delicate feminine handwriting.
DEAR Mr. RUFF:
If you are not too tired with your journey, will you call soon after one o'clock to meet some old friends?
BLANCHE DE MAUPASSIM.
Peter Ruff drank his whiskey and soda, went up to his rooms, and made a careful toilet. Then he sent a page up for Violet, who came down within a few minutes. She was dressed with apparent simplicity in a high-necked gown, a large hat, and a single rope of pearls. In place of the usual gold purse, she carried a small white satin bag, exquisitely hand-painted. Everything about her bespoke that elegant restraint so much a feature of the Parisian woman of fashion herself. Peter Ruff, who had told her to prepare for supping out, was at first struck by the simplicity of her attire. Afterwards, he came to appreciate its perfection.
They went to the Café de Paris, where they were the first arrivals. People, however, began to stream in before they had finished their meal, and Peter Ruff, comparing his companion's appearance with the more flamboyant charms of these ladies from the Opera and the theatres, began to understand the numerous glances of admiration which the impressionable Frenchmen so often turned in their direction. There was between them, toward the end of the meal, something which amounted almost to nervousness.
"You are going to keep your appointment to-night, Peter?" his companion asked.
Peter Ruff nodded.
"As soon as I have taken you home," he said. "I shall probably return late, so we will breakfast here to-morrow morning, if you like, at half-past twelve. I will send a note to your room when I am ready."
She looked him in the eyes.
"Peter," she said, "supposing that note doesn't come!"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"My dear Violet," he said, "you and I - or rather I, for you are not concerned in this - live a life which is a little different from the lives of most of the people around us. The million pay their taxes, and they expect police protection in times of danger. For me there is no such resource. My life has its own splendid compensations. I have weapons with which to fight any ordinary danger. What I want to explain to you is this - that if you hear no more of me, you can do nothing. If that note does not come to you in the morning, you can do nothing. Wait here for three days, and after that go back to England. You will find a letter on your desk, telling you there exactly what to do."
"You have something in your mind," she said, "of which you have not told me."
"I have nothing," he answered, firmly. "Upon my honor, I know of no possible cause of offense which our friends could have against me. Their summons is, I will admit, somewhat extraordinary, but I go to obey it absolutely without fear. You can sleep well, Violet. We lunch here to-morrow, without a doubt."
They drove back to the hotel almost in silence. Violet was looking fixedly out of the window of the taxicab, as though interested in watching the crowds upon the street. Peter Ruff appeared to be absorbed in his own thoughts. Yet perhaps they were both of them nearer to one another than either surmised. Their parting in the hall of the Continental Hotel was unemotional enough. For a moment Peter Ruff had hesitated while her hand had lain in his. He had opened his lips as though he had something to say. Her eyes grew suddenly softer - seemed to seek his as though begging for those unspoken words. But Peter Ruff did not say them then.
"I shall be back all right," he said. "Good night, Violet! Sleep well!"
He turned back towards the waiting taxicab.
"Number 16, Rue de St. Quintaine," he told the man. It was not a long ride. In less than a quarter of an hour, Peter Ruff presented himself before a handsome white house in a quiet, aristocratic-looking street. At his summons, the postern door flew open, and a man-servant in plain livery stood at the second entrance.
"Madame Ia Marquise?" Peter Ruff asked.
The man bowed in silence, and took the visitor's hat and overcoat. He passed along a spacious hall and into a delightfully furnished reception room, where an old lady with gray hair sat in the midst of a little circle of men. Peter Ruff stood, for a moment, upon the threshold, looking around him. She held out her hands.
"It is Monsieur Peter Ruff, is it not? At last, then, I am gratified. I have wished for so long to see one who has become so famous."
Peter Ruff took her hands in his and raised them gallantly to his lips.
"Madame," he said, "this is a pleasure indeed. At my last visit here, you were in Italy."
"I grow old," she answered. "I leave Paris but little now. Where one has lived, one should at least be content to die."
"Madame speaks a philosophy," Peter Ruff answered, "which as yet she has no need to learn."
The old lady turned to a man who stood upon her right:
"And this from an Englishman!" she exclaimed.
There were others who took Peter Ruff by the hand then. The servants were handing round coffee in little Sevres cups. On the sideboard was a choice of liqueurs and bottles of wine. Peter Ruff found himself hospitably entertained with both small talk and refreshments. But every now and then his eyes wandered back to where Madame sat in her chair, her hair as white as snow - beautiful still, in spite of the cruel mouth and the narrow eyes.
"She is wonderful!" he murmured to a man who stood by his side.
"She is eighty-six," was the answer in a whisper, "and she knows everything."
As the clock struck two, a tall footman entered the room and wheeled Madame's chair away. Several of the guests left at the same time. Ruff, when the door was closed, counted those who remained. As he had imagined would be the case, he found that there were eight.
A tall, gray-bearded man, who from the first had attached himself to Ruff, and who seemed to act as a sort of master of ceremonies, now approached him once more and laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Mon ami," he said, " we will now discuss, if it pleases you, the little matter concerning which we took the liberty of asking you to favor us with a visit."
"What, here?" Peter Ruff asked, in some surprise.
His friend, who had introduced himself as Monsieur de Founcelles, smiled.
"But why not?" he asked. "Ah, but I think I understand!" he added, almost immediately. " You are English, Monsieur Peter Ruff, and in some respects you have not moved with the times. Confess, now, that your idea of a secret society is a collection of strangely attired men who meet in a cellar, and build subterranean passages in case of surprise. In Paris, I think, we have gone beyond that sort of thing. We of the 'Double-Four' have no headquarters save the drawing-room of Madame; no hiding-places whatsoever; no meeting-places save the fashionable cafes or our own reception rooms. The police follow us - what can they discover? - nothing! What is there to discover? - nothing! Our lives are lived before the eyes of all Paris. There is never any suspicion of mystery about any of our movements. We have our hobbies, and we indulge in them. Monsieur the Marquis de Sogrange here is a great sportsman. Monsieur le Comte owns many racehorses. I myself am an authority on pictures, and own a collection which I have bequeathed to the State. Paris knows us well as men of fashion and mark - Paris does not guess that we have perfected an organization so wonderful that the whole criminal world pays toll to us."
"Dear me," Peter Ruff said, "this is very interesting!"
"We have a trained army at our disposal," Monsieur de Founcelles continued, "who numerically, as well as in intelligence, outnumber the whole force of gendarmes in Paris. No criminal from any other country can settle down here and hope for success, unless he joins us. An exploit which is inspired by us cannot fail. Our agents may count on our protection, and receive it without question."
"I am bewildered," Peter Ruff said, frankly. "I do not understand how you gentlemen - whom one knows by name so well as patrons of sport and society, can spare the time for affairs of such importance."
Monsieur de Founcelles nodded.
"We have very valuable aid," he said. "There is below us - the 'Double-Four'- the eight gentlemen now present, an executive council composed of five of the shrewdest men in France. They take their orders from us. We plan, and they obey. We have imagination, and special sources of knowledge. They have the most perfect machinery for carrying out our schemes that it is possible to imagine. I do not wish to boast, Mr. Ruff, but if I take a directory of Paris and place after any man's name, whatever his standing or estate, a black cross, that man dies before seven days have passed. You buy your evening paper - a man has committed suicide! You read of a letter found by his side: an unfortunate love affair - a tale of jealousy or reckless speculation. Mr. Ruff, the majority of these explanations are false. They are invented and arranged for by us. This year alone, five men in Paris, of position, have been found dead, and accounted, for excellent reasons, suicides. In each one of these cases, Monsieur Ruff, although not a soul has a suspicion of it, the removal of these men was arranged for by the' Double-Four.'"
"I trust," Peter Ruff said, "that it may never be my ill-fortune to incur the displeasure of so marvelous an association."
"On the contrary, Monsieur Ruff," the other answered, "the attention of the association has been directed towards certain incidents of your career in a most favorable manner. We have spoken of you often lately, Mr. Ruff, between ourselves. We arrive now at the object for which we begged the honor of your visit. It is to offer you the Presidency of our Executive Council."
Peter Ruff had thought of many things, but he had not thought of this! He gasped, recovered himself, and realized at once the dangers of the position in which he stood.
"The Council of Five!" he said thoughtfully.
"Precisely," Monsieur de Founcelles replied. "The salary - forgive me for giving such prominence to a matter which you doubtless consider of secondary importance - is ten thousand pounds a year, with a residence here and in London - also servants."
"It is princely!" Peter Ruff declared. "I cannot imagine, Monsieur, how you could have believed me capable of filling such a position."
"There is not much about you, Mr. Ruff, which we do not know," Monsieur de Founcelles answered. "There are points about your career which we have marked with admiration. Your work over here was rapid and comprehensive. We know all about your checkmating the Count von Hern and the Comtesse de Pilitz. We have appealed to you for aid once only - your response was prompt and brilliant. You have all the qualifications we desire. You are still young, physically you are sound, you speak all languages, and you are unmarried."
"I am what?" Peter Ruff asked, with a start.
"A bachelor," Monsieur de Founcelles answered. "We who have made crime and its detection a life-long study, have reduced many matters concerning it to almost mathematical exactitude. Of one thing we have become absolutely convinced - it is that the great majority of cases in which the police triumph are due to the treachery of women. The criminal who steers clear of the other sex escapes a greater danger than the detectives who dog his heels. It is for that reason that we choose only unmarried men for our executive council."
Peter Ruff made a gesture of despair. "And I am to be married in a month!" he exclaimed.
There was a murmur of dismay. If those other seven men had not once intervened, it was becausethe conduct of the affair had been voted into the hands of Monsieur de Founcelles, and there was little which he had left unsaid. Nevertheless, they had formed a little circle around the two men. Every word passing between them had been listened to eagerly. Gestures and murmured exclamations had been frequent enough. There arose now a chorus of voices which their leader had some difficulty in silencing.
"It must be arranged!"
"But it is impossible - this!"
"Monsieur Ruff amuses himself with us!"
"Gentlemen," Peter Ruff said, "I can assure you that I do nothing of the sort. The affair was arranged some months ago, and the young lady is even now in Paris, purchasing her trousseau."
Monsieur de Founcelles, with a wave of the hand, commanded silence. There was probably a way out. In any case, one must be found.
"Monsieur Ruff," he said, "putting aside, for one moment, your sense of honor, which of course forbids you even to consider the possibility of breaking your word - supposing that the young lady herself should withdraw - "
"You don't know Miss Brown!" Peter Ruff interrupted. "It is a pleasure to which I hope to attain," Monsieur de Founcelles declared, smoothly. "Let us consider once more my proposition. I take it for granted that, apart from this threatened complication, you find it agreeable?"
"I am deeply honored by it," Peter Ruff declared.
"Well, that being so," Monsieur de Founcelles said, more cheerfully, "we must see whether we cannot help you. Tell me, who is this fortunate young lady - this Miss Brown?"
"She is a young person of good birth and some means," Peter Ruff declared. "She is, in a small way, an actress; she has also been my secretary from the first." Monsieur de Founcelles nodded his head thoughtfully.
"Ah!" he said." She knows your secrets, then, I presume?"
"She does," Peter Ruff assented. "She knows a great deal!"
"A young person to be conciliated by all means," Monsieur de Founcelles declared. "Well, we must see. When, Monsieur Ruff, may I have the opportunity of making the acquaintance of this young lady?"
"To-morrow morning, or rather this morning, if you will," Peter Ruff answered. "We are taking breakfast together at the café de Paris. It will give me great pleasure if you will join us."
"On the contrary," Monsieur de Founcelles declared, "I must beg of you slightly to alter your plans. I will ask you and Mademoiselle to do me the honor of breakfasting at the Ritz with the Marquis de Sogrange and myself, at the same hour. We shall find there more opportunity for a short discussion."
"I am entirely at your service," Peter Ruff answered. There were signs now of a breaking-up of the little party.
"We must all regret, dear Monsieur Ruff," Monsieur de Founcelles said, as he made his adieux, "this temporary obstruction to the consummation of our hopes. Let us pray that Mademoiselle will not be unreasonable."
"You are very kind," Peter Ruff murmured.
Peter Ruff drove through the gray dawn to his hotel, in the splendid automobile of Monsieur de Founcelles, whose homeward route lay in that direction. It was four o'clock when he accepted his key from a sleepy-looking clerk, and turned towards the staircase. The hotel was wrapped in semi-gloom. Sweepers and cleaners were at work. The palms had been turned out into the courtyard. Dust sheets lay over the furniture. One person only, save himself and the untidy-looking servants, was astir. From a distant corner which commanded the entrance, he saw Violet stealing away to the corridor which led to her part of the hotel. She had sat there all through the night to see him come in - to be assured of his safety! Peter Ruff stared after her disappearing figure as one might have watched a ghost.
The luncheon-party was a great success. Peter Ruff was human enough to be proud of his companion - proud of her smartness, which was indubitable even here, surrounded as they were by Frenchwomen of the best class; proud of her accent, of the admiration which she obviously excited in the two Frenchmen. His earlier enjoyment of the meal was a little clouded from the fact that he felt himself utterly outshone in the matter of general appearance. No tailor had ever suggested to him a coat so daring and yet so perfect as that which adorned the person of the Marquis de Sogrange. The deep violet of his tie was a shade unknown in Bond Street - inimitable - a true education in color. They had the bearing, too, these Frenchmen! He watched Monsieur de Founcelles bending over Violet, and he was suddenly conscious of a wholly new sensation. He did not recognize - could not even classify it. He only knew that it was not altogether pleasant, and that it set the warm blood tingling through his veins.
It was not until they were sitting out in the winter garden, taking their coffee and liqueurs, that the object of their meeting was referred to. Then Monsieur de Founcelles drew Violet a little away from the others, and the Marquis, with a meaning smile, took Peter Ruff's arm and led him on one side. Monsieur de Founcelles wasted no words at all.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "Monsieur Ruff has doubtless told you that last night I made him the offer of a great position among us."
She looked at him with twinkling eyes.
"Go on, please," she said.
"I offered him a position of great dignity - of great responsibility," Monsieur de Founcelles continued. "I cannot explain to you its exact nature, but it is in connection with the most wonderful organization of its sort which the world has ever known."
"The 'Double-Four,'" she murmured.
"Attached to the post is a princely salary and but one condition," Monsieur de Founcelles said, watching the girl's face. "The condition is that Mr. Ruff remains a bachelor."
"Peter 's told me all this," she remarked. "He wants me to give him up."
Monsieur de Founcelles drew a little closer to his companion. There was a peculiar smile upon his lips.
"My dear young lady," he said softly, "forgive me if I point out to you that with your appearance and gifts a marriage with our excellent friend is surely not the summit of your ambitions! Here in Paris, I promise you, here - we can do much better than that for you. You have not, perhaps, a dot? Good! That is our affair. Give up our friend here, and we deposit in any bank you like to name the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand francs."
"Two hundred and fifty thousand francs!" Violet repeated, slowly.
Monsieur de Founcelles nodded.
"It is enough?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"It is not enough," she answered.
Monsieur de Founcelles raised his eyebrows.
"We do not bargain," he said coldly, "and money is not the chief thing in the world. It is for you, then, to name a sum."
"Monsieur de Founcelles," she said, "can you tell me the amount of the national debt of France?"
"Somewhere about nine hundred million francs, I believe," he answered.
"That is exactly my price," she declared.
"For giving up Peter Ruff?" he gasped.
She looked at her employer thoughtfully.
"He doesn't look worth it, does he?" she said, with a queer little smile. "I happen to care for him, though - that's all."
Monsieur de Founcelles shrugged his shoulders. He knew men and women, and for the present he accepted defeat. He sighed heavily.
"I congratulate our friend, and I envy him," he said. "If ever you should change your mind, Mademoiselle - "
"It is our privilege, isn't it?" she remarked, with a brilliant smile. "If I do, I shall certainly let you know."
On the way home, Peter Ruff was genial - Miss Brown silent. He had escaped from a difficult position, and his sense of gratitude toward his companion was strong. He showed her many little attentions on the voyage which sometimes escaped him. From Dover, they had a carriage to themselves.
"Peter," Miss Brown said, after he had made her comfortable, "when is it to be?"
"When is what to be?" he asked, puzzled.
"Our marriage," she answered, looking at him for a moment in most bewildering fashion and then suddenly dropping her eyes.
Peter Ruff returned her gaze in blank amazement.
"What do you mean, Violet?" he exclaimed.
"Just what I say," she answered, composedly. "When are we going to be married?"
Peter Ruff frowned.
"What nonsense!" he said. "We are not going to be married. You know that quite well."
"Oh, no, I don't!" she declared, smiling at him in a heavenly fashion. "At your request I have told Monsieur de Founcelles that we were engaged. Incidentally, I have refused two hundred and fifty thousand francs and, I believe, an admirer, for your sake. I declared that I was going to marry you, and I must keep my word."
Peter Ruff began to feel giddy.
"Look here, Violet," he said, " you know very well that we arranged all that between ourselves."
"Arranged all that?" she repeated, with a little laugh. "Perhaps we did. You asked me to marry you, and you posed as my fiancee. You kept it up just as long as you - it suits me to keep it up a little longer."
"Do you mean to say - do you seriously mean that you expect me to marry you?" he asked, aghast.
"I do," she admitted. "I have meant you to for some time, Peter!"
She was very alluring, and Peter Ruff hesitated. She held out her hands and leaned towards him. Her muff fell to the floor. She had raised her veil, and a faint perfume of violets stole into the carriage. Her lips were a little parted, her eyes were saying unutterable things.
"You don't want me to sue you, do you, Peter?" she murmured.
Peter Ruff sighed - and yielded.