XI. Presenting M. Gaston Max
 

Not venturing to turn on the light, not daring to look upon her own face in the mirror, Helen Cumberly sat before her dressing-table, trembling wildly. She wanted to laugh, and wanted to cry; but the daughter of Seton Cumberly knew what those symptoms meant and knew how to deal with them. At the end of an interval of some four or five minutes, she rang.

The maid opened the door.

"Don't light up, Merton," she said, composedly. "I want you to tell Garnham to go down to Mr. Leroux's and put the place in order. Mr. Leroux is dining with us."

The girl withdrew; and Helen, as the door closed, pressed the electric switch. She stared at her reflection in the mirror as if it were the face of an enemy, then, turning her head aside, sat deep in reflection, biting her lip and toying with the edge of the white doily.

"You little traitor!" she whispered, through clenched teeth. "You little traitor--and hypocrite"--sobs began to rise in her throat-- "and fool!"

Five more minutes passed in a silent conflict. A knock announced the return of the maid; and the girl reentered, placing upon the table a visiting-card:--

     DENISE RYLAND

     ATELIER 4, RUE DU COQ D'OR,

     MONTMARTRE,

     PARIS.

Helen Cumberly started to her feet with a stifled exclamation and turned to the maid; her face, to which the color slowly had been returning, suddenly blanched anew.

"Denise Ryland!" she muttered, still holding the card in her hand, "why--that's Mrs. Leroux's friend, with whom she had been staying in Paris! Whatever can it mean?"

"Shall I show her in here, please?" asked the maid.

"Yes, in here," replied Helen, absently; and, scarcely aware that she had given instructions to that effect, she presently found herself confronted by the lady of the boat-train!

"Miss Cumberly?" said the new arrival in a pleasant American voice.

"Yes--I am Helen Cumberly. Oh! I am so glad to know you at last! I have often pictured you; for Mira--Mrs. Leroux--is always talking about you, and about the glorious times you have together! I have sometimes longed to join you in beautiful Paris. How good of you to come back with her!"

Miss Ryland unrolled the Scotch muffler from her throat, swinging her head from side to side in a sort of spuriously truculent manner, quite peculiarly her own. Her keen hazel eyes were fixed upon the face of the girl before her. Instinctively and immediately she liked Helen Cumberly; and Helen felt that this strong-looking, vaguely masculine woman, was an old, intimate friend, although she had never before set eyes upon her.

"H'm!" said Miss Ryland. "I have come from Paris"--she punctuated many of her sentences with wags of the head as if carefully weighing her words--"especially" (pause) "to see you" (pause and wag of head) "I am glad . . . to find that . . . you are the thoroughly sensible . . . kind of girl that I . . . had imagined, from the accounts which . . . I have had of you." . . .

She seated herself in an armchair.

"Had of me from Mira?" asked Helen.

"Yes . . . from Mrs. Leroux."

"How delightful it must be for you to have her with you so often! Marriage, as a rule, puts an end to that particular sort of good- time, doesn't it?"

"It does . . . very properly . . . too. No man . . . no man in his . . . right senses . . . would permit . . . his wife . . . to gad about in Paris with another . . . girl" (she presumably referred to herself) whom he had only met . . . casually . . . and did not like" . . .

"What! do you mean that Mr. Leroux doesn't like you? I can't believe that!"

"Then the sooner . . . you believe it . . . the better."

"It can only be that he does not know you, properly?"

"He has no wish . . . to know me . . . properly; and I have no desire . . . to cultivate . . . the . . . friendship of such . . . a silly being."

Helen Cumberly was conscious that a flush was rising from her face to her brow, and tingling in the very roots of her hair. She was indignant with herself and turned, aside, bending over her table in order to conceal this ill-timed embarrassment from her visitor.

"Poor Mr. Leroux!" she said, speaking very rapidly; "I think it awfully good of him, and sporty, to allow his wife so much liberty."

"Sporty!" said Miss Ryland, head wagging and nostrils distended in scorn. "Idi-otic . . . I should call it."

"Why?"

Helen Cumberly, perfectly composed again, raised her clear eyes to her visitor.

"You seem so . . . thoroughly sensible, except in regard to . . . Harry Leroux;--and all women, with a few . . . exceptions, are fools where the true . . . character of a man is concerned--that I will take you right into my confidence."

Her speech lost its quality of syncopation; the whole expression of her face changed; and in the hazel eyes a deep concern might be read.

"My dear," she stood up, crossed to Helen's side, and rested her artistic looking hands upon the girl's shoulder. "Harry Leroux stands upon the brink of a great tragedy--a life's tragedy!"

Helen was trembling slightly again.

"Oh, I know!" she whispered--"I know--"

"You know?"

There was surprise in Miss Ryland's voice.

"Yes, I have seen them--watched them--and I know that the police think" . . .

"Police! What are you talking about--the police?"

Helen looked up with a troubled face.

"The murder!" she began . . .

Miss Ryland dropped into a chair which, fortunately, stood close behind her, with a face suddenly set in an expression of horror. She began to understand, now, a certain restraint, a certain ominous shadow, which she had perceived, or thought she had perceived, in the atmosphere of this home, and in the manner of its occupants.

"My dear girl," she began, and the old nervous, jerky manner showed itself again, momentarily,--"remember that . . . I left Paris by . . . the first train, this morning, and have simply been . . . traveling right up to the present moment." . . .

"Then you have not heard? You don't know that a--murder--has been committed?"

"Murder! Not--not" . . .

"Not any one connected with Mr. Leroux; no, thank God! but it was done in his flat." . . .

Miss Ryland brushed a whisk of straight hair back from her brow with a rough and ungraceful movement.

"My dear," she began, taking a French telegraphic form from her pocket, "you see this message? It's one which reached me at an unearthly hour this morning from Harry Leroux. It was addressed to his wife at my studio; therefore, as her friend, I opened it. Mira Leroux has actually visited me there twice since her marriage--"

"Twice!" Helen rose slowly to her feet, with horrified eyes fixed upon the speaker.

"Twice I said! I have not seen her, and have rarely heard from her, for nearly twelve months, now! Therefore I packed up post- haste and here I am! I came to you, because, from what little I have heard of you, and of your father, I judged you to be the right kind of friends to consult." . . .

"You have not seen her for twelve months?"

Helen's voice was almost inaudible, and she was trembling dreadfully.

"That's a fact, my dear. And now, what are we going to tell Harry Leroux?"

It was a question, the answer to which was by no means evident at a glance; and leaving Helen Cumberly face to face with this new and horrible truth which had brought Denise Ryland hotfoot from Paris to London, let us glance, for a moment, into the now familiar room of Detective-Inspector Dunbar at Scotland Yard.

He had returned from his interrogation of Brian; and he received the report of Sowerby, respecting the late Mrs. Vernon's maid. The girl, Sergeant Sowerby declared, was innocent of complicity, and could only depose to the fact that her late mistress took very little luggage with her on the occasions of her trips to Scotland. With his notebook open before him upon the table, Dunbar was adding this slight item to his notes upon the case, when the door opened, and the uniformed constable entered, saluted, and placed an envelope in the Inspector's hand.

"From the commissioner!" said Sowerby, significantly.

With puzzled face, Dunbar opened the envelope and withdrew the commissioner's note. It was very brief:--

"M. Gaston Max, of the Paris Police, is joining you in the Palace Mansions murder case. You will cooperate with him from date above."

"Max!" said Dunbar, gazing astoundedly at his subordinate.

Certainly it was a name which might well account for the amazement written upon the inspector's face; for it was the name of admittedly the greatest criminal investigator in Europe!

"What the devil has the case to do with the French police?" muttered Sowerby, his ruddy countenance exhibiting a whole history of wonderment.

The constable, who had withdrawn, now reappeared, knocking deferentially upon the door, throwing it open, and announcing:

"Mr. Gaston Max, to see Detective-Inspector Dunbar."

Bowing courteously upon the threshold, appeared a figure in a dazzling check traveling-coat--a figure very novel, and wholly unforgettable.

"I am honored to meet a distinguished London colleague," he said in perfect English, with a faint American accent.

Dunbar stepped across the room with outstretched hand, and cordially shook that of the famous Frenchman.

"I am the more honored," he declared, gallantly playing up to the other's courtesy. "This is Detective-Sergeant Sowerby, who is acting with me in the case."

M. Gaston Max bowed low in acknowledgment of the introduction.

"It is a pleasure to meet Detective-Sergeant Sowerby," he declared.

These polite overtures being concluded then, and the door being closed, the three detectives stood looking at one another in momentary silence. Then Dunbar spoke with blunt directness:

"I am very pleased to have you with us, Mr. Max," he said; "but might I ask what your presence in London means?"

M. Gaston Max shrugged in true Gallic fashion.

"It means, monsieur," he said, "--murder--and Mr. King!"