HE GRILL is the club most difficult of access in the world. To be placed on its rolls distinguishes the new member as greatly as though he had received a vacant Garter or had been caricatured in Vanity Fair.
Men who belong to the Grill Club never mention that fact. If you ask one of them which club he frequents, he will name all save that particular one. He is afraid if he told you he belonged to the Grill that it would sound like boasting.
The Grill Club dates back to the days when Shakespeare’s Theatre stood on the present site of the Times office. It has a golden grill which Charles the Second presented to the Club, and the original manuscript of “Tom and Jerry in London,” which was bequeathed to it by Pierce Egan himself. The members when they write letters at the Club still use sand to blot the ink.
The Grill enjoys the distinction of having without political prejudice blackballed a Prime Minister of each party. At the same sitting at which one of these fell, it elected, on account of his brogue and his bulls, Quiller, the Queen’s Counsellor, who was then a penniless barrister.
When Paul Preval, the French artist who came to London by royal command to paint the portrait of the Prince of Wales, was made an honorary member—only foreigners may be honorary members—he said, as he signed his first wine card, “I would rather see my name on that than a picture in the Louvre.”
At which Quiller remarked, “That is a devil of a compliment, because the only men who can read their names in the Louvre to-day have been dead fifty years.”
ON the night after the great fog of 1897 there were five members in the Club, four of them busy with supper, and one reading in front of the fireplace. There is only one room to the Club and one long table. At the far end of the room the fire of the grill glows red, and, when the fat falls, blazes into flame, and at the other there is a broad bow window of diamond panes, which looks down upon the street. The four men at the table were strangers to each other, but as they picked at the grilled bones, and sipped their Scotch-and-soda, they conversed with such charming animation that a visitor to the Club —which does not tolerate visitors—would have counted them as friends of long acquaintance, certainly not as Englishmen who had met without the form of an introduction and for the first time. But it is the etiquette and tradition of the Grill that whoever enters it must speak with whomever he finds there. It is to enforce this rule that there is but one long table, and whether there are twenty men at it, or two, the waiters, supporting the rule, will place them side by side.
For this reason the four strangers at supper were seated together, with the candles grouped about them and the long length of the table cutting a white path through the outer gloom of the room.
“I repeat,” said the gentleman with the black pearl stud, “that the days for romantic adventure and deeds of foolish daring have passed, and that the fault lies with ourselves. Voyages to the Pole I do not catalogue as adventures. That African explorer, young Chetney, who turned up yesterday after he was supposed to have died in Uganda, did nothing adventurous. He made maps and explored the sources of rivers. He was in constant danger, but the presence of danger does not constitute adventure. Were that so, the chemist who studies high explosives or who investigates deadly poisons passes through adventures daily. No, ‘adventures are for the adventurous.’ But one no longer ventures. The spirit of it died of inertia. We are grown too practical, too just—above all, too sensible. In this room, for instance, members of this Club have, at the sword’s point, disputed the proper scanning of one of Pope’s couplets. Over so weighty a matter as spilled Burgundy on a gentleman’s cuff ten men fought across this table, each with his rapier in one hand and a candle in the other. All ten were wounded. The question of the spilled Burgundy concerned but two of them. The other eight engaged because they were men of ‘spirit.’ They were, indeed, the first gentlemen of their day. To-night, were you to spill Burgundy on my cuff, were you even to insult me grossly, these gentlemen would not consider it incumbent upon them to kill each other. They would separate us and appear as witnesses against us at Bow Street to-morrow morning. We have here to-night, in the persons of Sir Andrew and myself, an illustration of how the ways have changed.”
The men around the table turned and glanced toward the gentleman in front of the fireplace. He was an elderly and somewhat portly person, with a kindly wrinkled countenance, which wore continually a smile of almost childish confidence and good nature. It was a face which the illustrated prints had made intimately familiar. He held a book from him at arm’s-length, as though to adjust it to his eyesight, and his brows were knit with interest.
“Now, were this the eighteenth century,” continued the gentleman with the black pearl, “when Sir Andrew left the Club to-night I would have him bound and gagged and thrown into a sedan chair. The watch would not interfere, the passers-by would take to their heels, my hired bullies and ruffians would convey him to some lonely spot where we would guard him until morning. Nothing would come of it, except added reputation to myself as a gentleman of adventurous spirit, and possibly an essay in the Tatler, with stars for names, entitled, let us say, ‘The Budget and the Baronet.’
“But to what end, sir?” inquired the youngest of the members. “And why Sir Andrew, of all persons—why should you select him for this adventure?”
The gentleman with the black pearl shrugged his shoulders.
“It would prevent him speaking in the House to-night. The Navy Increase Bill,” he added gloomily. “It is a Government measure, and Sir Andrew speaks for it. And so great is his influence and so large his following, that if he does”—the gentleman laughed ruefully—“if he does, it will go through. Now, had I the spirit of our ancestors,” he exclaimed, “I would bring chloroform from the nearest chemist and drug him in that chair. I would tumble his unconscious form into a hansom cab and hold him prisoner until daylight. If I did, I would save the British taxpayer the cost of five more battleships, some many millions of pounds.”
All the gentlemen again turned and surveyed the Baronet with freshened interest. The honorary member of the Grill, whose accent had already betrayed him as an American, laughed softly.
“To look at him now,” he said, “one would not guess he was deeply concerned with the affairs of State.”
The others nodded silently.
“He has not lifted his eyes from that book since we first entered,” added the youngest member. “He surely cannot mean to speak to-night.”
“Oh, yes, he will speak,” muttered the one with the black pearl moodily. “During these last hours of the session the House sits late, but when the Navy Bill comes up on its third reading he will be in his place—and he will pass it.”
The fourth member, a stout and florid gentleman of a somewhat sporting appearance, in a short smoking-jacket and black tie, sighed enviously.
“Fancy one of us being as cool as that, if he knew he had to stand up within an hour and rattle off a speech in Parliament. I’d be in a devil of a funk myself. And yet he is as keen over that book he’s reading as though he had nothing before him until bedtime.”
“Yes, see how eager he is,” whispered the youngest member. “He does not lift his eyes even now when he cuts the pages. It is probably an Admiralty Report, or some other weighty work of statistics which bears upon his speech.”
The gentleman with the black pearl laughed morosely.
“The weighty work in which the eminent statesman is so deeply engrossed,” he said, “is called ‘The Great Rand Robbery.’ It is a detective novel for sale at all book-stalls.”
The American raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“ ‘The Great Rand Robbery’?” he re-repeated incredulously. “What an odd taste!”
“It is not a taste, it is his vice,” returned the gentleman with the pearl stud. “It is his one dissipation. He is noted for it. You, as a stranger, could hardly be expected to know of this idiosyncrasy. Mr. Gladstone sought relaxation in the Greek poets, Sir Andrew finds his in Gaboriau. Since I have been a member of Parliament I have never seen him in the library without a shilling shocker in his hands. He brings them even into the sacred precincts of the House, and from the Government benches reads them concealed inside his hat. Once started on a tale of murder, robbery, and sudden death, nothing can tear him from it, not even the call of the division bell, nor of hunger, nor the prayers of the party Whip. He gave up his country house because when he journeyed to it in the train he would become so absorbed in his detective stories that he was invariably carried past his station.” The member of Parliament twisted his pearl stud nervously and bit at the edge of his moustache. “If it only were the first pages of ‘The Rand Robbery’ that he were reading now,” he murmured bitterly, “instead of the last! With such another book as that, I swear I could hold him here until morning. There would be no need of chloroform then to keep him from the House.”
The eyes of all were fastened upon Sir Andrew, and they saw with fascination that with his forefinger he was now separating the last two pages of the book. The member of Parliament struck the table softly with his open palm.
“I would give a hundred pounds,” he whispered, “if I could place in his hands at this moment a new story of Sherlock Holmes—a thousand pounds!” he added wildly. “Five thousand pounds!”
The American observed the speaker sharply, as though the words bore to him some special application, and then, at an idea which apparently had but just come to him, smiled in great embarrassment.
Sir Andrew ceased reading, but, as though still under the influence of the book, sat looking blankly into the open fire. For a brief space no one moved, until the baronet withdrew his eyes and, with a sudden start of recollection, felt anxiously for his watch. He scanned its face eagerly and scrambled briskly to his feet.
The voice of the American instantly broke the silence in a high, nervous accent.
“And yet Sherlock Holmes himself,” he cried, “could not decipher the mystery which to-night baffles the police of London.”
At these unexpected words, which carried in them something of the tone of a challenge, the gentlemen about the table started as suddenly as though the American had fired a pistol in the air, and Sir Andrew halted abruptly and stood observing him with grave surprise.
The gentleman with the black pearl was the first to recover.
“Yes, yes,” he said eagerly, throwing himself across the table. “A mystery that baffles the police of London? I had heard nothing of it. Tell us at once, pray do—tell us at once.”
The American flushed uncomfortably and picked uneasily at the tablecloth.
“No one but the police has heard of it,” he murmured, “and they only through me. It is a remarkable crime, to which, unfortunately, I am the only person who can bear witness. Because I am the only witness, I am, in spite of my immunity as a diplomat, detained in London by the authorities of Scotland Yard. My name,” he said, inclining his head politely, “is Sears—Lieutenant Ripley Sears, of the United States Navy, at present Naval Attaché to the Court of Russia. Had I not been detained to-day by the police, I would have started this morning for Petersburg.”
The gentleman with the black pearl interrupted with so pronounced an exclamation of excitement and delight that the American stammered and ceased speaking.
“Do you hear, Sir Andrew?” cried the member of Parliament jubilantly. “An American diplomat halted by our police because he is the only witness of a most remarkable crime—the most remarkable crime, I believe you said, sir,” he added, bending eagerly toward the naval officer, “which has occurred in London in many years.”
The American moved his head in assent and glanced at the two other members. They were looking doubtfully at him, and the face of each showed that he was greatly perplexed.
Sir Andrew advanced to within the light of the candles and drew a chair toward him.
“The crime must be exceptional indeed,’ he said, " to justify the police in interfering with a representative of a friendly Power. If I were not forced to leave at once, I should take the liberty of asking you to tell us the details.”
The gentleman with the pearl pushed the chair toward Sir Andrew and motioned him to be seated.
“You cannot leave us now,” he exclaimed. “Mr. Sears is just about to tell us of this remarkable crime.”
He nodded vigorously at the naval officer and the American, after first glancing doubtfully toward the servants at the far end of the room, and leaned forward across the table. The others drew their chairs nearer and bent toward him. The baronet glanced irresolutely at his watch, and with an exclamation of annoyance snapped down the lid. “They can wait,” he muttered. He seated himself quickly and nodded at Lieutenant Sears.
“If you will be so kind as to begin, sir,” he said impatiently.
“Of course,” said the American, “you understand that I understand that I am speaking to gentlemen. The confidences of this Club are inviolate. Until the police give the facts to the public press, I must consider you my confederates. You have heard nothing and you know no one connected with this mystery. Even I must remain anonymous.”
The gentlemen seated around him nodded gravely. “Of course,” the Baronet assented with eagerness, “of course.”
“We will refer to it,” said the gentleman with the black pearl, “as ‘The Story of the Naval Attaché.’”
“I arrived in London two days ago,” said the American, “and I engaged a room at the Bath Hotel. I know very few people in London, and even the members of our Embassy were strangers to me. But in Hong Kong I had become great pals with an officer in your Navy, who has since retired, and who is now living in a small house in Rutland Gardens, opposite the Knightsbridge Barracks. I telegraphed him that I was in London, and yesterday morning I received a most hearty invitation to dine with him the same evening at his house. He is a bachelor, so we dined alone and talked over all our old days on the Asiatic Station, and of the changes which had come to us since we had last met there. As I was leaving the next morning for my post at Petersburg, and had many letters to write, I told him, about ten o’clock, that I must get back to the hotel, and he sent out his servant to call a hansom.
“For the next quarter of an hour, as we sat talking, we could hear the cab-whistle sounding violently from the doorstep, but apparently with no result.
“ ‘It cannot be that the cabmen are on strike,’ my friend said, as he rose and walked to the window.
“He pulled back the curtains and at once called to me.
“ ‘You have never seen a London fog, have you?’ he asked. ‘Well, come here. This is one of the best, or, rather, one of the worst, of them.’ I joined him at the window, but I could see nothing. Had I not known that the house looked out upon the street, I would have believed that I was facing a dead wall. I raised the sash and stretched out my head, but still I could see nothing. Even the light of the street lamps opposite, and in the upper windows of the barracks, had been smothered in the yellow mist. The lights of the room in which I stood penetrated the fog only to the distance of a few inches from my eyes.
“Below me the servant was still sounding his whistle, but I could afford to wait no longer, and told my friend that I would try and find the way to my hotel on foot. He objected, but the letters I had to write were for the Navy Department, and, besides, I had always heard that to be out in a London fog was the most wonderful experience, and I was curious to investigate one for myself.
“My friend went with me to his front door and laid down a course for me to follow. I was first to walk straight across the street to the brick wall of the Knightsbridge Barracks. I was then to feel my way along the wall until I came to a row of houses set back from the sidewalk. They would bring me to a cross street. On the other side of this street was a row of shops which I was to follow until they joined the iron railings of Hyde Park. I was to keep to the railings until I reached the gates at Hyde Park Corner, where I was to lay a diagonal course across Piccadilly and tack in toward the railings of Green Park. At the end of these railings, going east, I would find the Walsingham and my own hotel.
“To a sailor the course did not seem difficult, so I bade my friend good-night and walked forward until my feet touched the wooden paving. I continued upon it until I reached the kerbing of the sidewalk. A few steps further my hands struck the wall of the barracks. I turned in the direction from which I had just come, and saw a square of faint light cut into the yellow fog. I shouted ‘All right!’ and my friend’s voice answered, ‘Good luck to you!’ The light from his open door disappeared with a bang, and I was left alone in a dripping, yellow darkness. I have been in the Navy for ten years, but I have never known such a fog as that of last night, not even among the icebergs of Behring Sea. There one could at least see the light of the binnacle, but last night I could not even distinguish the hand by which I guided myself along the barrack wall. At sea, a fog is a natural phenomenon. It is as familiar as the rainbow which follows a storm, it is as proper that a fog should spread upon the waters as that steam shall rise from a kettle. But a fog which springs from the paved streets, that rolls between solid house-fronts, that forces cabs to move at half speed, that drowns policemen and extinguishes the electric lights of the music-hall, that is to me incomprehensible. It is as out of place as a tidal wave on Broadway.
“As I felt my way along the wall, I encountered other men who were coming from the opposite direction, and each time when we hailed each other I stepped away from the wall to make room for them to pass. But the third time I did this, when I reached out my hand, the wall had disappeared, and the further I moved to find it the further I seemed to be sinking into space. I had the unpleasant conviction that at any moment I might step over a precipice. Since I had set out I had heard no traffic in the street, and now, although I listened some minutes, I could only distinguish the occasional footfalls of pedestrians. Several times I called aloud, and once a jocular gentleman answered me, but only to ask me where I thought he was, and then even he was swallowed up in the silence. Just above me I could make out a jet of gas which I guessed came from a street lamp, and I moved over to that, and. while I tried to recover my bearings, kept my hand on the iron post. Except for this flicker of gas, no larger than the tip of my finger, I could distinguish nothing about me. For the rest, the mist hung between me and the world like a damp and heavy blanket.
“I could hear voices, but I could not tell whence they came, and the scrape of a foot moving cautiously or a muffled cry as someone stumbled were the only sounds that reached me.
“I decided that I had best remain where I was until someone took me in tow, and it must have been for ten minutes that I waited, straining my ears and hailing distant footfalls. In a house near me some people were dancing to the music of a Hungarian band. I even fancied I could hear the windows shake to the rhythm of their feet, but I could not make out from which part of the compass the sounds came. And sometimes, as the music rose, it seemed close at my hand, and again, to be floating high in the air above my head. Although I was surrounded by thousands of householders—thirteen—I was as completely lost as though I had been set down by night in the Sahara Desert. There seemed to be no use in waiting longer for an escort, so I again set out and at once bumped against a low iron fence. At first I believed this to be an area railing, but on following it I found that it stretched for a long distance, and that it was pierced at regular intervals with gates. I was standing uncertainly, with my hand on one of these, when a square of light suddenly opened in the night, and in it I saw, as you see a picture thrown by a biograph in a darkened theatre, a young gentleman in evening dress, and at the back of him the lights of a hall. I guessed from its elevation and distance from the sidewalk that this light must come from the door of a house set back from the street, and I determined to approach it and ask the young man to tell me where I was. But in fumbling with the lock of the gate I instinctively bent my head, and when I raised it again the door had partly closed, leaving only a narrow shaft of light. Whether the young man had re-entered the house or had left it, I could not tell, but I hastened to open the gate, and as I stepped forward I found myself upon an asphalt walk. At the same instant there was the sound of quick steps upon the path and someone rushed past me. I called to him, but he made no reply, and I heard the gate click and the footsteps hurrying away upon the sidewalk.
“Under other circumstances the young man’s rudeness, and his recklessness in dashing so hurriedly through the mist, would have struck me as peculiar, but everything was so distorted by the fog that at the moment I did not consider it. The door was still as he had left it, partly open. I went up the path, and after much fumbling found the knob of the door-bell and gave it a sharp pull. The bell answered me from a great depth and distance, but no movement followed from inside the house, and although I pulled the bell again and again I could hear nothing save the dripping of the mist about me. I was anxious to be on my way, but unless I knew my way there was little chance of my making any speed, and I was determined that until I learned my bearings I would not venture back into the fog. So I pushed the door open and stepped into the house.
“I found myself in a long and narrow hall upon which doors opened from either side. At the end of the hall was a staircase with a balustrade which ended in a sweeping curve. The balustrade was covered with heavy Persian rugs, and the walls of the hall were also hung with them. The door on my left was closed, but the one nearer me on the right was open, and as I stepped opposite to it I saw that it was a sort of reception or waiting room, and that it was empty. The door below it was also open, and with the idea that I would surely find someone there I walked on up the hall. I was in evening dress, and I felt I did not look like a burglar, so I had no great fear that, should I encounter one of the inmates of the house, he would shoot me on sight. The second door in the hall opened into a dining-room. This was also empty. One person had been dining at the table, but the cloth had not been cleared away, and a flickering candle showed half-filled wine-glasses and the ashes of cigarettes. The greater part of the room was in complete darkness.
“By this time I had grown conscious of the fact that I was wandering about in a strange house, and that apparently I was alone in it. The silence of the place began to try my nerves, and in a sudden, unexplainable panic I started for the open street. As I turned, I saw a man sitting on a bench which the curve of the balustrade had hidden from me. His eyes were shut and he was sleeping soundly.
“The moment before I had been bewildered because I could see no one, but at sight of this man I was much more bewildered.
“He was a very large man, a giant in height, with long, yellow hair which hung below his shoulders. He was dressed in a red silk shirt that was belted at the waist and hung outside black velvet trousers which, in turn, were stuffed into high, black boots. I recognised the costume at once as that of a Russian servant in his native livery, but what he could be doing in a private house in Knightsbridge was incomprehensible.
“I advanced and touched the man on the shoulder, and, after an effort, he awoke and, on seeing me, sprang to his feet and began bowing rapidly and making deprecatory gestures. I had picked up enough Russian in Petersburg to make out that the man was apologising for having fallen asleep, and I also was able to explain to him that I desired to see his master.
“He nodded vigorously and said, ‘Will the Excellency come this way? The Princess is here.’
“I distinctly made out the word ‘Princess,’ and I was a good deal embarrassed. I had thought it would be easy enough to explain my intrusion to a man; but how a woman would look at it was another matter, and, as I followed him down the hall I was somewhat puzzled.
“As we advanced he noticed that the front door was standing open, and, giving an exclamation of surprise, hastened toward it and closed it. Then he rapped twice on the door of what was apparently the drawing-room. There was no reply to his knock, and he tapped again, and then timidly, and cringing subserviently, opened the door and stepped inside. He withdrew himself almost at once and stared stupidly at me; shaking his head.
“ ‘She is not there,’ he said. He stood for a moment gazing blankly through the open door and then hastened toward the dining-room. The solitary candle which still burned there seemed to assure him that the room also was empty. He came back and bowed me toward the drawing-room. ‘She is above,’ he said; ‘I will inform the Princess of the Excellency’s presence.’
“Before I could stop him he had turned and was running up the staircase, leaving me alone at the open door of the drawing-room. I decided that the adventure had gone quite far enough, and if I had been able to explain to the Russian that I had lost my way in the fog, and now only wanted to get back into the street again, I would have left the house on the instant.
“Of course, when I first rang the bell of the house I had no other expectation than that it would be answered by a parlourmaid who would direct me on my way. I certainly could not then foresee that I would disturb a Russian princess in her boudoir, or that I might be thrown out by her athletic body-guard. Still, I thought I ought not now to leave the house without making some apology, and, if the worst should come, I could show my card. They could hardly believe that a member of an embassy had any designs upon the hat-rack.
“The room in which I stood was dimly lighted, but I could see that, like the hall, it was hung with heavy Persian rugs. The corners were filled with palms, and there was the unmistakable odour in the air of Russian cigarettes and strange, dry scents that carried me back to the bazaars of Vladivostock. Near the front windows was a grand piano, and at the other end of the room a heavily carved screen of some black wood, picked out with ivory. The screen was overhung with a canopy of silken draperies and formed a sort of alcove. In front of the alcove was spread the white skin of a polar bear, and set on that was one of those low Turkish coffee tables. It held a lighted spirit-lamp and two gold coffee-cups. I had heard no movement from above stairs, and it must have been fully three minutes that I stood waiting, noting these details of the room and wondering at the delay and at the strange silence.
“And then, suddenly, as my eye grew more used to the half-light, I saw, projecting from behind the screen as though it were stretched along the back of a divan, the hand of a man and the lower part of his arm. I was as startled as though I had come across a footprint on a deserted island. Evidently the man had been sitting there ever since I had come into the room, even since I had entered the house, and he had heard the servant knocking upon the door. Why he had not declared himself I could not understand, but I supposed that possibly he was a guest, with no reason to interest himself in the Princess’s other visitors, or perhaps, for some reason, he did not wish to be observed. I could see nothing of him except his hand, but I had an unpleasant feeling that he had been peering at me through the carving in the screen, and that he was still doing so. I moved my feet noisily on the floor and said tentatively, ‘I beg your pardon.’
“There was no reply, and the hand did not stir. Apparently the man was bent upon ignoring me, but as all I wished was to apologise for my intrusion and to leave the house, I walked up to the alcove and peered around it. Inside the screen was a divan piled with cushions, and on the end of it nearer me the man was sitting. He was a young Englishman with light yellow hair and a deeply bronzed face. He was seated with his arms stretched out along the back of the divan, and with his head resting against a cushion. His attitude was one of complete ease. But his mouth had fallen open, and his eyes were set with an expression of utter horror. At the first glance I saw that he was quite dead.
“FOR a flash of time I was too startled to act, but in the same flash I was convinced that the man had met his death from no accident, that he had not died through any ordinary failure of the laws of Nature. The expression on his face was much too terrible to be misinterpreted. It spoke as eloquently as words. It told me that before the end had come he had watched his death approach and threaten him.
“I was so sure he had been murdered that I instinctively looked on the floor for the weapon, and, at the same moment, out of concern for my own safety, quickly behind me; but the silence of the house continued unbroken.
“I have seen a great number of dead men; I was on the Asiatic Station during the Japanese-Chinese war. I was in Port Arthur after the massacre. So a dead man for the single reason that he is dead does not repel me, and, though I knew that there was no hope that this man was alive, still, for decency’s sake, I felt his pulse, and while I kept my ears alert for any sound from the floors above me, I pulled open his shirt and placed my hand upon his heart. My fingers instantly touched upon the opening of a wound, and as I withdrew them I found them wet with blood. He was in evening dress, and in the wide bosom of his shirt I found a narrow slit, so narrow that in the dim light it was scarcely discernible. The wound was no wider than the smallest blade of a pocket-knife, but when I stripped the shirt away from the chest and left it bare, I found that the weapon, narrow as it was, had been long enough to reach his heart. There is no need to tell you how I felt as I stood by the body of this boy (for he was hardly older than a boy), or of the thoughts that came into my head. I was bitterly sorry for this stranger, bitterly indignant at his murderer, and, at the same time, selfishly concerned for my own safety and for the notoriety which I saw was sure to follow. My instinct was to leave the body where it lay and to hide myself in the fog, but I also felt that since a succession of accidents had made me the only witness to a crime, my duty was to make myself a good witness and to assist to establish the facts of this murder.
“THAT it might possibly be a suicide, and not a murder, did not disturb me for a moment. The fact that the weapon had disappeared and the expression on the boy’s face were enough to convince at least me that he had had no hand in his own death. I judged it, therefore, of the first importance to discover who was in the house, or, if they had escaped from it, who had been in the house before I entered it. I had seen one man leave it; but all I could tell of him was that he was a young man, that he was in evening dress, and that he had fled in such haste that he had not stopped to close the door behind him.
“The Russian servant I had found apparently asleep, and, unless he acted a part with supreme skill, he was a stupid and ignorant boor and as innocent of the murder as myself. There was still the Russian Princess whom he had expected to find, or had pretended to expect to find, in the same room with the murdered man. I judged that she must now be either upstairs with the servant, or that she had, without his knowledge, already fled from the house. When I recalled his apparently genuine surprise at not finding her in the drawing-room, this latter supposition seemed the more probable. Nevertheless, I decided that it was my duty to make a search, and after a second hurried look for the weapon among the cushions of the divan and upon the floor, I cautiously crossed the hall and entered the dining-room.
“The single candle was still flickering in the draught, and showed only the white cloth. The rest of the room was draped in shadows. I picked up the candle and, lifting it high above my head, moved round the corner of the table. Either my nerves were on such a stretch that no shock could strain them further, or my mind was inoculated to horrors; for I did not cry out at what I saw nor retreat from it. Immediately at my feet was the body of a beautiful woman, lying at full length upon the floor, her arms flung out on either side of her, and her white face and shoulders gleaming dully in the unsteady light of the candle. Around her throat was a great chain of diamonds, and the light played upon these and made them flash and blaze in tiny flames. But the woman who wore them was dead, and I was so certain as to how she had died that without an instant’s hesitation I dropped on my knees beside her and placed my hand above her heart. My fingers again touched the thin slit of a wound. I had no doubt in my mind but that this was the Russian Princess, and when I lowered the candle to her face I was assured that this was so. Her features showed the finest lines of both the Slav and the Jewess, the eyes were black, the hair blue-black and wonderfully heavy, and her skin, even in death, was rich in colour. She was a surpassingly beautiful woman.
“I rose and tried to light another candle with the one I held, but I found that my hand was so unsteady that I could not keep the wicks together. It was my intention to again search for this strange dagger which had been used to kill both the English boy and the beautiful Princess, but before I could light the second candle I heard foot-steps descending the stairs, and the Russian servant appeared in the doorway.
“My face was in darkness, or I am sure that at the sight of it he would have taken alarm, for at that moment I was not sure but that this man himself was the murderer. His own face was plainly visible to me in the light from the hall, and I could see that it wore an expression of dull bewilderment. I stepped quickly toward him and took a firm hold upon his wrist.
“ ‘She is not there,’ he said. ‘The Princess has gone. They have all gone.’
“ ‘Who have gone?’ I demanded. ‘Who else has been here?’
“ ‘The two Englishmen.’
“ ‘What two Englishmen?’ I demanded. ‘What are their names?’
“The man now saw by my manner that some question of great moment hung upon his answer, and he began to protest that he did not know the names of the visitors, and that until the evening he had never seen them.
“I guessed that it was my tone which frightened him, so I took my hand off his wrist and spoke less eagerly.
“ ‘How long have they been here?’ I asked, ‘and when did they go?’
“He pointed behind him toward the drawing-room.
“ ‘One sat there with the Princess,’ he said; ‘the other came after I had placed the coffee in the drawing-room. The two Englishmen talked together, and the Princess returned here to the table. She sat there in that chair, and I brought her cognac and cigarettes. Then I sat outside upon the bench. It was a feast day and I had been drinking. Pardon, Excellency, but I fell asleep. When I woke, your Excellency was standing by me, but the Princess and the two Englishmen had gone. That is all I know.’
“I believed that the man was telling me the truth. His fright had passed, and he was now apparently puzzled, but not alarmed.
“ ‘You must remember the names of the Englishmen,’ I urged. ‘Try to think. When you announced them to the Princess, what name did you give?’
“ ‘At this question he exclaimed with pleasure, and, beckoning to me, ran hurriedly down the hall and into the drawing-room. In the corner furthest from the screen was the piano, and on it was a silver tray. He picked this up and, smiling with pride at his own intelligence, pointed at two cards that lay upon it. I took them up and read the names engraved upon them.”
THE American paused abruptly and glanced at the faces about him. “I read the names,” he repeated. He spoke with great reluctance.
“Continue!” cried the Baronet sharply.
“I read the names,” said the American, with evident distaste, “and the family name of each was the same. They were the names of two brothers. One is well known to you. It is that of the African explorer of whom this gentleman was just speaking. I mean the Earl of Chetney. The other was the name of his brother, Lord Arthur Chetney.”
The men at the table fell back as though a trapdoor had fallen open at their feet.
“Lord Chetney!” they exclaimed in chorus. They glanced at each other and back to the American with every expression of concern and disbelief.
“It is impossible!” cried the Baronet. “Why, my dear sir, young Chetney only arrived from Africa yesterday. It was so stated in the evening papers.”
The jaw of the American set in a resolute square and he pressed his lips together.
“You are perfectly right, sir,” he said, “Lord Chetney did arrive in London yesterday morning, and yesterday night I found his dead body.”
The youngest member present was the first to recover. He seemed much less concerned over the identity of the murdered man than at the interruption of the narrative.
“Oh! please let him go on!” he cried. “What happened then? You say you found two visiting cards. How do you know which card was that of the murdered man?”
The American, before he answered, waited until the chorus of exclamations had ceased. Then he continued as though he had not been interrupted.
“The instant I read the names upon the cards,” he said, “I ran to the screen and, kneeling beside the dead man, began a search through his pockets. My hand at once fell upon a card-case, and I found on all the cards it contained the title of the Earl of Chetney. His watch and cigarette-case also bore his name. These evidences, and the fact of his bronzed skin, and that his cheek-bones were worn with fever, convinced me that the dead man was the African explorer, and the boy who had fled past me in the night was Arthur, his younger brother.
“I was so intent upon my search that I had forgotten the servant, and I was still on my knees when I heard a cry behind me. I turned and saw the man gazing down at the body in abject and unspeakable horror.
“BEFORE I could rise, he gave another cry of terror and, flinging himself into the hall, raced toward the door to the street. I leaped after him, shouting to him to halt, but before I could reach the hall he had torn open the door and I saw him spring out into the yellow fog. I cleared the steps in a jump and ran down the garden walk, but just as the gate clicked in front of me. I had it open on the instant, and, following the sound of the man’s footsteps, I raced after him across the open street. He, also, could hear me, and he instantly stopped running, and there was absolute silence. He was so near that I almost fancied I could hear him panting, and I held my own breath to listen. But I could distinguish nothing but the dripping of the mist about us, and from far off the music of the Hungarian band, which I had heard when I first lost myself.
“All I could see was the square of light from the door I had left open behind me and a lamp in the hall beyond it flickering in the draught. But even as I watched it the flame of the lamp was blown violently to and fro, and the door, caught in the same current of air, closed slowly. I knew if it shut I could not again enter the house, and I rushed madly toward it. I believe I even shouted out, as though it were something human which I could compel to obey me, and then I caught my foot against the kerb and smashed into the sidewalk. When I rose to my feet I was dizzy and half stunned, and though I thought then that I was moving toward the door, I know now that I probably turned directly from it; for, as I groped about in the night, calling frantically for the police, my fingers touched nothing but the dripping fog, and the iron railings for which I sought seemed to have melted away. For many minutes I beat the mist with my arms like a man at blind man’s buff, turning sharply in circles, cursing aloud at my stupidity, and crying continually for help. At last a voice answered me from the fog, and I found myself held in the circle of a policeman’s lantern.
“That is the end of my adventure. What I have to tell you now is what I learned from the police.
“AT the station-house to which the man guided me I related what you have just heard. I told them that the house they must at once find was one set back with others from the street within a radius of two hundred yards from the Knightsbridge Barracks, that within fifty yards of it someone was giving a dance to the music of a Hungarian band, and that the railings in front of it were about as high as a man’s waist and filed to a point. With that to work upon, twenty men were at once ordered out into the fog to search for the house, and Inspector Lyle himself was despatched to the home of Lord Edam, Chetney’s father, with a warrant for Lord Arthur’s arrest. I was thanked and dismissed on my own recognisance.
“This morning, Inspector Lyle called on me, and from him I learned the police theory of the scene I have just described.
“Apparently I had wandered very far in the fog, for up to noon to-day the house had not been found, nor had they been able to arrest Lord Arthur. He did not return to his father’s house last night, and there is no trace of him; but from what the police knew of the past lives of the people I found in that lost house they have evolved a theory, and their theory is that the murders were committed by Lord Arthur.
“The infatuation of his elder brother, Lord Chetney, for a Russian Princess, so Inspector Lyle tells me, is well known to everyone. About two years ago the Princess Zichy, as she calls herself, and he were constantly together, and Chaney informed his friends that they were about to be married. The woman was notorious in two continents, and when Lord Edam heard of his son’s infatuation he appealed to the police for her record.
“It is through his having applied to them that they know so much concerning her and her relations with the Chetneys. From the police Lord Edam learned that Madame Zichy had once been a spy in the employ of the Russian Third Section, but that lately she had been repudiated by her own Government and was living by her wits, by blackmail, and by her beauty. Lord Edam laid this record before his son, but Chetney either knew it already, or the woman persuaded him not to believe in it, and the father and son parted in great anger. Two days later the Marquis altered his will, leaving all his money to the younger brother, Arthur.
“The title and some of the landed property he could not keep from Chetney, but he swore if his son saw the woman again, that the will should stand as it was and he would be left without a penny.
“This was about eighteen months ago, when apparently Chetney tired of the Princess and suddenly went off to shoot and explore in Central Africa. No word came from him, except that twice he was reported as having died of fever in the jungle, and finally two traders reached the coast who said they had seen his body. This was accepted by all as conclusive, and young Arthur was recognised as the heir to the Edam millions. On the strength of this supposition he at once began to borrow enormous sums from the moneylenders. This is of great importance, as the police believe it was these debts which drove him to the murder of his brother. Yesterday, as you know, Lord Chetney suddenly returned from the grave, and it was the fact that for two years he had been considered as dead which lent such importance to his return, and which gave rise to those columns of detail concerning him which appeared in all the afternoon papers. But, obviously, during his absence he had not tired of the Princess Zichy, for we know that a few hours after he reached London he sought her out. His brother, who had also learned of his reappearance through the papers, probably suspected which would be the house he would first visit, and followed him there, arriving, so the Russian servant tells us, while the two were at coffee in the drawing-room. The Princess then, we also learn from the servant, withdrew to the dining-room, leaving the brothers together. What happened one can only guess.
“Lord Arthur knew now that when it was discovered he was no longer the heir the moneylenders would come down upon him. The police believe that he at once sought out his brother to beg for money to cover the post obits, but that, considering the sum he needed was several hundreds of thousands of pounds, Chetney refused to give it to him. No one knew that Arthur had gone to seek out his brother. They were alone. It is possible, then, that in a passion of disappointment, and crazed with the disgrace which he saw before him, young Arthur made himself the heir beyond further question. The death of his brother would have availed nothing if the woman remained alive. It is then possible that he crossed the hall and, with the same weapon which made him Lord Edam’s heir, destroyed the solitary witness to the murder. The only other person who could have seen it was sleeping in a drunken stupor, to which fact undoubtedly he owed his life. And yet,” concluded the Naval Attaché, leaning forward and marking each word with his finger, “Lord Arthur blundered fatally. In his haste he left the door of the house open, so giving access to the first passer-by, and he forgot that when he entered it he had handed his card to the servant. That piece of paper may yet send him to the gallows. In the meantime he has disappeared completely, and somewhere, in one of the millions of streets of this great capital, in a locked and empty house, lies the body of his brother, and of the woman his brother loved, undiscovered, unburied, and with their murder unavenged.”
IN the discussion which followed the conclusion of the story of the Naval Attaché the gentleman with the pearl took no part. Instead, he arose and, beckoning a servant to a far corner of the room, whispered earnestly to him until a sudden movement on the part of Sir Andrew caused him to return hurriedly to the table.
“There are several points in Mr. Sears’ story I want explained,” he cried. “Be seated, Sir Andrew,” he begged. “Let us have the opinion of an expert. I do not care what the police think, I want to know what you think.” But Sir Andrew rose reluctantly from his chair.
“I should like nothing better than to discuss this,” he said. “But it is most important that I should proceed to the House. I should have been there some time ago.” He turned toward the servant and directed him to call a hansom.
The gentleman with the pearl stud looked appealingly at the Naval Attaché. “There are surely many details that you have not told us,” he urged—“some you have forgotten?”
The Baronet interrupted quickly.
“I trust not,” he said, “for I could not possibly stop to hear them.”
“The story is finished,” declared the Naval Attaché. “Until Lord Arthur is arrested or the bodies are found there is nothing more to tell of either Chetney or the Princess Zichy.”
“Of Lord Chetney, perhaps not,” interrupted the sporting-looking gentleman with the black tie; “but there’ll always be something to tell of the Princess Zichy. I know enough stories about her to fill a book. She was a most remarkable woman.” The speaker dropped the end of his cigar into his coffee-cup and, taking his case from his pocket, selected a fresh one. As he did so he laughed and held up the case that the others could see it. It was an ordinary cigar-case of well-worn pigskin, with a silver clasp.
“The only time I ever met her,” he said, “she tried to rob me of this.”
The Baronet regarded him closely.
“She tried to rob you?” he repeated.
“Tried to rob me of this,” continued the gentleman in the black tie, “and of the Czarina’s diamonds.” His tone was one of mingled admiration and injury.
“The Czarina’s diamonds!” exclaimed the Baronet. He glanced quickly and suspiciously at the speaker and then at the others about the table. But their faces gave evidence of no other emotion than that of ordinary interest.
“Yes, the Czarina’s diamonds,” repeated the man with the black tie. “It was a necklace of diamonds. I was told to take them to the Russian Ambassador in Paris, who was to deliver them at Moscow. I am a Queen’s Messenger,” he added.
“Oh I see!” exclaimed Sir Andrew in a tone of relief. “And you say that this same Princess Zichy, one of the victims of this double murder, endeavoured to rob you of—of—that cigar-case?”
“And the Czarina’s diamonds,” answered the Queen’s Messenger imperturbably. “It’s not much of a story, but it gives you an idea of the woman’s character. The robbery took place between Paris and Marseilles.”
The Baronet interrupted him with an abrupt movement.
“No, no!” he cried, shaking his arms in protest, “don’t tempt me! I really cannot listen. I must be at the House in ten minutes.”
“I am sorry,” said the Queen’s Messenger. He turned to those seated about him. “I wonder if the other gentlemen—?” he inquired tentatively. There was a chorus of polite murmurs, and the Queen’s Messenger, bowing his head in acknowledgment, took a preparatory sip from his glass. At the same moment the servant to whom the man with the black pearl had spoken slipped a piece of paper into his hand. He glanced at it, frowned, and threw it under the table.
The servant bowed to the Baronet.
“Your hansom is waiting, Sir Andrew,” he said.
“The necklace was worth twenty thousand pounds,” began the Queen’s Messenger. “It was a present from the Queen of England to celebrate——”
The Baronet gave an exclamation of angry annoyance. “Upon my word, this is most provoking!” he interrupted. “I really ought not to stay. But I certainly mean to hear this.” He turned irritably to the servant. “Tell the hansom to wait,” he commanded; and, with an air of a boy who is playing truant, slipped guiltily into his chair.
The gentleman with the black pearl smiled blandly and rapped upon the table. “Order, gentlemen,” he said. “Order for the story of the Queen’s Messenger and the Czarina’s diamonds.”
(To be continued...)