Chapter XX. The Code King
 

Major Euan MacTavish was packing. A heavy and well-worn leather portmanteau, much adorned with foreign luggage labels, stood in the centre of the floor. From a litter of objects piled up on a side table the Major was transferring to it various brown-paper packages which he checked by a list in his hand.

The Major always packed for himself. He packed with the neatness and rapidity derived from long experience of travel. As a matter of fact, he could not afford a manservant any more than he could allow himself quarters more luxurious than the rather grimy bedroom in Bury Street which housed him during his transient appearances in town. The remuneration doled out by the Foreign Office to the quiet and unobtrusive gentlemen known as King's messengers is, in point of fact, out of all proportion to the prestige and glamour surrounding the silver greyhound badge, an example of which was tucked away in a pocket of the Major's blue serge jacket hanging over the back of a chair.

"Let's see," said the Major, addressing a large brown-paper covered package standing in the corner of the room, "you're the bird-cage for Lady Sylvia at The Hague. Two pounds of candles for Mrs. Harry Deepdale at Berlin; the razor blades for Sir Archibald at Prague; the Teddy bear for Marjorie; polo-balls for the Hussars at Constantinople--there! I think that's the lot! Hullo, hullo, who the devil's that?"

With a groaning of wires a jangling bell tinkled through the hall (the Major's bedroom was on the ground floor). Sims, the aged ex-butler, who, with his wife, "did for" his lodgers in more ways than one, was out and the single servant-maid had her Sunday off. Euan MacTavish glanced at his wrist watch. It showed the hour to be ten minutes past nine. A flowered silk smoking-coat over his evening clothes and a briar pipe in his mouth, he went out into the hall and opened the front door.

It was a drenching night. The lamps from a taxi which throbbed dully in the street outside the house threw a gleaming band of light on the shining pavement. At the door stood a taxi-driver.

"There's a lady asking for Major MacTavish," he said, pointing at the cab. The Major stepped across to the cab and opened the door.

"Oh, Euan," said a girl's voice, "how lucky I am to catch you!"

"Why, Mary," exclaimed the Major, "what on earth brings you round to me on a night like this? I only came up from the country this afternoon and I'm off for Constantinople in the morning!"

"Euan," said Mary Trevert, "I want to talk to you. Where can we talk?"

The Major raised his eyebrows. He was a little man with grizzled hair and finely cut, rather sharp features.

"Well," he remarked, "there's not a soul in the house, and I've only got a bedroom here. Though we're cousins, Mary, my dear, I don't know that you ought to...."

"You're a silly old-fashioned old dear," exclaimed the girl, "and I'm coming in. No, I'll keep the cab. We shall want it!"

"All right," said the Major, helping her to alight. "I tell you what. We'll go into Harry Prankhurst's sitting-room. He's away for the week-end, anyway!"

He took Mary Trevert into a room off the hall and switched on the electric light. Then for the first time he saw how pale she looked.

"My dear," he said, "I know what an awful shock you've had...."

"You've heard about it?"

"I saw it in the Sunday papers. I was going to write to you."

"Euan," the girl began in a nervous, hasty way, "I have to go to Holland at once. There is not a moment to lose. I want you to help me get my passport viséed."

"But, my dear girl," exclaimed the Major, aghast, "you can't go to Holland like this alone. Does your mother know about it?"

The girl shook her head.

"It's no good trying to stop me, Euan," she declared. "I mean to go, anyway. As a matter of fact, Mother doesn't know. I merely left word that I had gone to the Continent for a few days. Nobody knows about Holland except you. And if you won't help me I suppose I shall have to go to Harry Tadworth at the Foreign Office. I came to you first because he's always so stuffy ..."

Euan MacTavish pushed the girl into a chair and gave her a cigarette. He lit it for her and took one himself. His pipe had vanished into his pocket.

"Of course, I'll help you," he said. "Now, tell me all about it!"

"Before ... this happened I had promised Hartley Parrish to marry him," began the girl. "The doctors say his nerves were wrong. I don't believe a word of it. He was full of the joy of life. He was very fond of me. He was always talking of what we should do when we were married. He never would have killed himself without some tremendously powerful motive. Even then I can't believe it possible ..."

She made a little nervous gesture.

"After he ... did it," she went on, "I found this letter on his desk. It came to him from Holland. I mean to see the people who wrote it and discover if they can throw any light on ... on ... the affair ..."

She had taken from her muff a letter, folded in four, written on paper of a curious dark slatey-blue colour.

"Won't you show me the letter?"

"You promise to say nothing about it to any one?"

He nodded.

"Of course."

Without a word the girl gave him the letter. With slow deliberation he unfolded it. The letter was typewritten and headed: "Elias van der Spyck & Co. General Importers, Rotterdam."

This was the letter:

ELIAS VAN DER SPYCK & CO.
GENERAL IMPORTERS
ROTTERDAM Rotterdam 25th Nov.

Codes
A.B.C.
Liebler's

Personal
Dear Mr. Parrish,

Your favor of even date to hand and contents noted. The last delivery of steel was to time but we have had warning from the railway authorities that labour troubles at the docks are likely to delay future consignments. If you don't mind we should prefer to settle the question of future delivery by Nov. 27 as we have a board meeting on the 30th inst. While we fully appreciate your own difficulties with labour at home, you will understand that this is a question which we cannot afford to adjourn sine die.

Yours faithfully,
pro ELIAS VAN DER SPYCK & CO.

The signature was illegible.

Euan MacTavish folded the letter again and handed it back to Mary.

"That doesn't take me any farther," he said. "What do the police think of it?"

"They haven't seen it," was the girl's reply. "I took it without them knowing. I mean to make my own investigations about this ..."

"But, my dear Mary," exclaimed the little Major in a shocked voice, "you can't do things that way! Don't you see you may be hindering the course of justice? The police may attach the greatest importance to this letter ..."

"You're quite right," retorted the girl, "they do!"

"Then why have you kept it from them?"

Mary Trevert dropped her eyes and a little band of crimson flushed into her cheeks.

"Because," she commenced, "because ... well, because they are trying to implicate a friend of mine ..."

The Major took the girl's hand.

"Mary," he said, "I've known you all your life. I've knocked about a good bit and know something of the world, I believe. Suppose you tell me all about it ..."

Mary Trevert hesitated. Then she said, her hands nervously toying with her muff:

"We believe that Robin Greve--you know whom I mean--had a conversation with Hartley just before he ... he shot himself. That very afternoon Robin had asked me to marry him, but I told him about my engagement. He said some awful things about Hartley and rushed away. Ten minutes later Hartley Parrish committed suicide. And there was some one talking to him in the library. Bude, the butler, heard the voices. This afternoon I went down to the library alone ... to see if I could discover anything likely to throw any light on poor Hartley's death. This was the only letter I could find. It was tucked away between two letter-trays. One tray fitted into the other, and this letter had slipped between. It seems to have been overlooked both by Mr. Parrish's secretary and the police ..."

"But I confess," argued the Major, "that I don't see how this letter, which appears to be a very ordinary business communication, implicates anybody at all. Why shouldn't the police see it?..."

"Because," said Mary, "directly after discovering it I found Bruce Wright, who used to be one of Mr. Parrish's private secretaries, hiding behind the curtains in the library. Now, Bruce Wright is a great friend of Robin Greve's, and I immediately suspected that Robin had sent him to Harkings, particularly as ..."

"As what?..."

"As he practically admitted to me, that he had come for a letter written on slatey-blue official-looking paper."

The girl held up the letter from Rotterdam.

"All this," the girl continued, "made me think that this letter must have had something to do with Hartley's death ..."

"Surely an additional reason for giving it to the police!..."

Mary Trevert set her mouth in an obstinate line.

"No!" she affirmed uncompromisingly. "The police believe that, as the result of a scene between Hartley and Robin, Hartley killed himself. Until I've found out for certain whether this letter implicates Robin or not, I sha'n't give it to the police ..."

"But, if Greve really had nothing to do with this shocking tragedy, the police can very easily clear him. Surely they are the best judges of his guilt ..."

Again a touch of warm colour suffused the girl's cheeks. Euan MacTavish remarked it and looked at her wistfully.

"Well, well," he observed gently, "perhaps they're not, after all!"

The girl looked up at him.

"Euan, dear," she said impulsively, "I knew you'd understand. Robin and Hartley may have had a row, but it was nothing worse. Robin is incapable of having threatened--blackmailed--Hartley, as the police seem to imagine. I am greatly upset by it all; I can't see things clear at all; but I'm determined not to give the police a weapon like this to use against Robin until I know whether it is sharp or blunt, until I have found out what bearing, if any, this letter had on Hartley Parrish's death ..."

Euan MacTavish leant back in his chair and said nothing. He finished his cigarette, pitched the butt into the fender, and turned to Mary. He asked her to let him see the letter again. Once more he read it over. Then, handing it back to her, he said:

"It's all so simple-looking that there may well be something behind it. But, if you do go to Holland, how are you going to set about your enquiries?"

"That's where you can help me, Euan, dear," answered the girl. "I want to find somebody at Rotterdam who will help me to make some confidential enquiries about this firm. Do you know any one? An Englishman would be best, of course ..."

But Euan MacTavish was halfway to the door.

"Wait there," he commanded, "till I telephone the one man in the world who can help us."

He vanished into the hall where Mary heard him at the instrument.

"We are going round to the Albany," he said, "to see my friend, Ernest Dulkinghorn, of the War Office. He can help us if any one can. But, Mary, you must promise me one thing before we go ... you must agree to do what old Ernest tells you. You needn't be afraid. He is the most unconventional of men, capable of even approving this madcap scheme of yours!"

"I agree," said Mary, "but how you waste time, Euan! We could have been at the Albany by this time!"

In a first-floor oak-panelled suite at the Albany, overlooking the covered walk that runs from Piccadilly to Burlington Gardens, they found an excessively fair, loose-limbed man whose air of rather helpless timidity was heightened by a pair of large tortoise-shell spectacles. He appeared excessively embarrassed at the sight of MacTavish's extremely good-looking companion.

"You never told me you were bringing a lady, Euan," he said reproachfully, "or I should have attempted to have made myself more presentable."

He looked down at his old flannel suit and made an apologetic gesture which took in the table littered with books and papers and the sofa on which lay a number of heavy tomes with marked slips sticking out between the pages.

"I am working at a code," he explained.

"Ernest here," said MacTavish, turning to Mary, "is the code king. Your pals in the Intelligence tell me, Ernest, that you've never been beaten by a code ..."

The fair man laughed nervously.

"They've been pullin' your leg, Euan," he said.

"Don't you believe him, Mary," retorted her cousin. "This is the man who probably did more than any one man to beat the Boche. Whenever the brother Hun changed his code, Brother Ernest was called in and he produced a key in one, two, three!..."

"What rot you talk, Euan!" said Dulkinghorn. "Working out a code is a combination of mathematics, perseverance, and inspiration with a good slice of luck thrown in! But isn't Miss Trevert going to sit down?"

He cleared the sofa with a sweep of his arm which sent the books flying on to the floor.

"Ernest," said MacTavish, "I want you to give Miss Trevert here a letter to some reliable fellow in Rotterdam who can assist her in making a few enquiries of a very delicate nature!"

"What sort of enquiries?" asked Dulkinghorn bluntly.

"About a firm called Elias van der Spyck," replied Euan.

"Of Rotterdam?" enquired the other sharply.

"That's right! Do you know them?"

"I've heard the name. They do a big business. But hadn't Miss Trevert better tell her story herself?"

Mary told him of the death of Hartley Parrish and of the letter she had found upon his desk. She said nothing of the part played by Robin Greve.

"Hmph!" said Dulkinghorn. "You think it might be blackmail, eh? Well, well, it might be. Have you got this letter about you? Hand it over and let's have a look at it."

His nervous manner had vanished. His face seemed to take on a much keener expression. He took the letter from Mary and read it through. Then he crossed the room to a wall cupboard which he unlocked with a key on a chain, produced a small tray on which stood a number of small bottles, some paint-brushes and pens, and several little open dishes such as are used for developing photographs. He bore the tray to the table, cleared a space on a corner by knocking a pile of books and papers on the floor, and set it down.

"Just poke the fire!" he said to Euan.

From a drawer in the table he produced a board on which he pinned down the letter with a drawing-pin at each corner. Then he dipped a paint-brush into one of the bottles and carefully painted the whole surface of the sheet with some invisible fluid.

"So!" he said, "we'll leave that to dry and see if we can find out any little secrets, eh? That little tray'll do the trick if there's any monkey business to this letter of yours, Miss Trevert. That'll do the trick, eh, what?"

He paced the room as he talked, not waiting for an answer, but running on as though he were soliloquizing. Presently he turned and swooped down on the board.

"Nothing," he ejaculated. "Now for the acids!"

With a little piece of sponge he carefully wiped the surface of the letter and painted it again with a substance from another bottle.

"Just hold that to the fire, would you, Euan?" he said, and gave MacTavish the board. He resumed his pacing, but this time he hummed in the most unmelodious voice imaginable:

She was bright as a butterfly, as fair as a queen,
Was pretty little Polly Perkins, of Paddington Green.

"It's dry!"

MacTavish's voice broke in upon the pacing and the discordant song.

"Well?"

Dulkinghorn snapped out the question.

"No result!" said Euan. He handed him the board.

Dulkinghorn cast a glance at it, swiftly removed the letter, held it for an instant up to the electric light, fingered the paper for a moment, and handed the letter back to Mary.

"If it's code," he said, "it's a conventional code and that always beats the expert ... at first. Go to Rotterdam and call on my friend, Mr. William Schulz. I'll give you a letter for him and he'll place himself entirely at your disposition. Euan will take you over. Holland is on your beat, ain't it, Euan? When do you go next?"

"To-morrow," said the King's Messenger. "The boat train leaves Liverpool Street at ten o'clock."

"You'll want a passport," said Dulkinghorn, turning to the girl. "You've got it there? Good. Leave it with me. You shall have it back properly viséed by nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Where are you stayin'? Almond's Hotel. Good. I'll send the letter for Mr. William Schulz with it!"

"But," Euan interjected mildly, after making several ineffectual efforts to stem the torrent of speech, "do you really think that Miss Trevert will be well advised to risk this trip to Holland alone? Hadn't the police better take the matter in hand?"

"Police be damned!" replied Dulkinghorn heartily. "Miss Trevert will be better than a dozen heavy-handed, heavy-footed plain-clothes men. When you get to Rotterdam, Miss Trevert, you trot along and call on William Schulz. He'll see you through."

Then, to indicate without any possibility of misunderstanding, that his work had been interrupted long enough, Dulkinghorn got up, and, opening the sitting-room door, led the way into the hall. As he stood with his hand on the latch of the front door, Mary Trevert asked him:

"Is this Mr. Schulz an Englishman?"

"I'll let you into a secret," answered Bulkinghorn; "he was. But he isn't now! No, no, I can't say anything more. You must work it out for yourself. But I will give you a piece of advice. The less you say about Mr. William Schulz and about your private affairs generally when you are on the other side, the better it will be for you! Good-night--and good luck!"

Euan MacTavish escorted Mary to Almond's Hotel.

"I'm very much afraid," he said to her as they walked along, "that you're butting that pretty head of yours into a wasps' nest, Mary!"

"Nonsense!" retorted the girl decisively; "I can take care of myself!"

"If I consent to let you go off like this," said Euan, "it is only on one condition ... you must tell Lady Margaret where you are going ..."

"That'll spoil everything," answered Mary, pouting; "Mother will want to come with me!"

"No, she won't," urged her cousin, "not if I tell her. She'll worry herself to death, Mary, if she doesn't know what has become of you. You'd better let me ring her up from the club and tell her you're running over to Rotterdam for a few days. Look here, I'll tell her you're going with me. She'll be perfectly happy if she thinks I'm to be with you ..."

On that Mary surrendered.

"Have it your own way," she said.

"I'll pick you up here at a quarter-past nine in the morning," said Euan as he bade the girl good-night at her hotel, "then we'll run down to the F.O. and collect my bags and go on to the station!"

"Euan," the girl asked as she gave him her hand, "who is this man Schulz, do you think?"

The King's messenger leant over and whispered:

"Secret Service!"

"Secret Service!"

The girl repeated the words in a hushed voice.

"Then Mr. Dulkinghorn ... is he ... that too?"

Euan nodded shortly.

"One of their leadin' lights!" he answered.

"But, Euan,"--the girl was very serious now,--"what has the Secret Service to do with Hartley Parrish's clients in Holland?"

The King's messenger laid a lean finger along his nose.

"Ah!" he said, "what? That's what is beginning to interest me!"