No. II - The Story of the Queen’s Messenger
HE NECKLACE was a present from the Queen of England to the Czarina of Russia,” began the Queen’s Messenger. “It was to celebrate the occasion of the Czar’s coronation. Our Foreign Office knew that the Russian Ambassador in Paris was to proceed to Moscow for that ceremony, and I was directed to go to Paris and turn over the necklace to him. But when I reached Paris I found he had not expected me for a week later, and was taking a few day’s vacation at Nice. His people asked me to leave the necklace with them at the Embassy, but I had been charged to get a receipt for it from the Ambassador himself, so I started at once for Nice. The fact that Monte Carlo is not two thousand miles from Nice may have had something to do with making me carry out my instructions so carefully.
“Now, how the Princess Zichy came to find out about the necklace, I don’t know, but I can guess. As you have just heard, she was at one time a spy in the service of the Russian Government. And after they dismissed her she kept up her acquaintance with many of the Russian agents in London. It was probably through one of them that she learned that the necklace was to be sent to Moscow, and which of the Queen’s Messengers had been detailed to take it there. Still, I doubt if even that knowledge would have helped her if she had not also known something which I supposed no one else in the world knew but myself and one other man. And, curiously enough, the other man was a Queen’s Messenger, too, and a friend of mine. You must know that up to the time of this robbery I had always concealed my despatches in a manner peculiarly my own. I got the idea from that play called ‘A Scrap of Paper.’ In it a man wants to hide a certain compromising document. He knows that all his rooms will be secretly searched for it, so he puts it in a torn envelope and sticks it up where anyone can see it on his mantelshelf. The result is that the woman who is ransacking the house to find it looks in all the unlikely places, but passes over the scrap of paper that is just under her nose. Sometimes the papers and packages they give us to carry about Europe are of very great value, and sometimes they are special makes of cigarettes and orders to Court dressmakers. Sometimes we know what we are carrying, and sometimes we do not. If it is a large sum of money or a treaty, they generally tell us. But as a rule we have no knowledge of what the package contains; so, to be on the safe side, we naturally take just as great care of it as though we knew it held the terms of an ultimatum or the Crown jewels. As a rule, my confrères carry the official packages in a despatch-box, which is just as obvious as a lady’s jewel-bag in the hands of her maid. Everyone knows they are carrying something of value. They put a premium on dishonesty. Well, after I saw the ‘Scrap of Paper’ play, I determined to put the Government valuables in the most unlikely place that anyone would look for them. So I used to hide the documents they gave me inside my riding-boots, and small articles, like money or jewels, I carried in an old cigar-case. After I took to using my case for that purpose, I bought a new one, exactly like it, for my cigars. But to avoid mistakes, I had my initials placed on both sides of the new one, and the moment I touched the case, even in the dark, I could tell which it was by the raised initials.
“No one knew about this except the Queen’s Messenger of whom I spoke. We once left Paris together on the Orient Express. I was going to Constantinople, and he was to stop off at Vienna. On the journey I told him of my peculiar way of hiding things, and showed him my cigar-case. If I recollect rightly, on that trip it held the Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George, which the Queen was sending to our Ambassador. The Messenger was very much entertained at my scheme, and some months later when he met the Princess he told her about it as an amusing story. Of course, he had no idea she was a Russian spy. He didn’t know anything at all about her, except that she was a very attractive woman. It was indiscreet, but he could not possibly have guessed that she could ever make any use of what he told her.
“Later, after the robbery, I remembered that I had informed this young chap of my secret hiding-place, and when I saw him again I asked him about it. He was greatly distressed and said he had never seen the importance of the secret. He remembered he had told several people of it, and among others the Princess Zichy. In that way I found out that it was she who had robbed me, and I know that from the moment I left London she was following me, and that she knew then that the diamonds were concealed in my cigar-case.
“MY train for Nice left Paris at ten in the morning. When I travel at night I generally tell the chef de gare that I am a Queen’s Messenger, and he gives me a compartment to myself. But in the daytime I take whatever offers. On this morning I had found an empty compartment, and I had tipped the guard to keep everyone else out, not from any fear of losing the diamonds, but because I wanted to smoke. He had locked the door, and as the last bell had rung, I supposed I was to travel alone, so I began to arrange my traps and make myself comfortable. The diamonds in the cigar-case were in the inside pocket of my waistcoat, and as they made a bulky package I took them out, intending to put them in my hand-bag. It is a small satchel like a bookmaker’s, or those handbags that couriers carry. I wear it slung from a strap across my shoulder, and, no matter whether I am sitting or walking, it never leaves me.
“I took the cigar-case which held the necklace from my inside pocket, and the case which held the cigars out of the satchel, and while I was searching through it for a box of matches I laid the two cases beside me on the seat.
“At that moment the train started, but at the same instant there was a rattle at the lock of the compartment, and a couple of porters lifted and shoved a woman through the door and hurled her rugs and umbrellas in after her.
“Instinctively I reached for the diamonds. I shoved them quickly into the satchel, and, pushing them far down to the bottom of the bag, snapped the spring lock. Then I put the cigars in the pocket of my coat, but with the thought that now that I had a woman as a travelling companion, I should probably not be allowed to enjoy them.
“One of her pieces of luggage had fallen at my feet, and a roll of rugs had landed at my side. I thought if I hid the fact that the lady was not welcome, and at once started to be civil, she might permit me to smoke. So I picked her handbag off the floor and asked her where I might place it.
“As I spoke I looked at her for the first time and saw that she was a most remarkably handsome woman.
“She smiled charmingly and begged me not to disturb myself. Then she arranged her own things about her and, opening her dressing-bag, took out a gold cigarette-case.
“ ‘Do you object to smoke?’ ” she asked.
“I laughed and assured her I had been in great terror lest she might not allow me to smoke.
“ ‘If you like cigarettes,’ she said, ‘will you try some of these? They are rolled especially for my husband in Russia, and they are supposed to be very good.’
“I thanked her and took one from her case, and I found it so much better than my own that I continued to smoke her cigarettes throughout the rest of the journey. I must say that we got on very well. I judged from the coronet on her cigarette-case, and from her manner, which was quite as well bred as that of any woman I ever met, that she was someone of importance, and though she seemed almost too good-looking to be respectable, I determined that she was some grande dame who was so assured of her position that she could afford to be unconventional. At first she read her novel, and then she made some comment on the scenery, and finally we began to discuss the current politics of the Continent. She talked of all the cities in Europe and seemed to know everyone worth knowing. But she volunteered nothing about herself except that she frequently made use of the expression, ‘When my husband was stationed at Vienna,’ or, ‘When my husband was promoted to Rome.’ Once she said to me, ‘I have often seen you at Monte Carlo. I saw you when you won the pigeon championship.’ I told her that I was not a pigeon shot, and she gave a little start of surprise. ‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ she said, ‘I thought you were Morton Hamilton, the English champion.’ As a matter of fact, I do look something like Hamilton, but I know now that her object was to make me think that she had no idea as to who I really was. She needn’t have acted at all, for I certainly had no suspicions, and was only too pleased to have so charming a companion.
“THE one thing that should have made me suspicious was the fact that at every station she made some trivial excuse to get me out of the compartment. She pretended that her maid was travelling behind us in one of the second-class carriages, and kept saying she could not imagine why the woman did not come to look after her; and if the maid did not turn up at the next stop, would I be so very kind as to get out and bring her whatever it was she pretended she wanted?
“I had taken my dressing-case from the rack to get out a novel, and had left it on the seat opposite to mine, and at the end of the compartment furthest from her. And once when I came back from buying her a cup of chocolate, or from some other fool errand, I found her standing at my end of the compartment with both hands on the dressing-bag. She looked at me without so much as winking an eye, and shoved the case carefully into a corner. ‘Your bag slipped off on the floor,’ she said. ‘If you’ve got any bottles in it, you had better look and see that they’re not broken.’
“And I give you my word, I was such an ass that I did open the case and look all through it. She must have thought I was a Juggins. I get hot all over whenever I remember it. But in spite of my dulness, and her cleverness, she couldn’t gain anything by sending me away, because what she wanted was in the handbag, and every time she sent me away the handbag went with me.
“After the incident of the dressing-case her manner began to change. Either she had had time to look through it in my absence, or, when I was examining it for broken bottles, she had seen everything it held.
“From that moment she must have been certain that the cigar-case in which she knew I carried the diamonds was in the bag that was fastened to my body, and from that time on she probably was plotting how to get it from me.
“Her anxiety became most apparent. She dropped the great lady manner, and her charming condescension went with it. She ceased talking, and, when I spoke, answered me irritably or at random. No doubt her mind was entirely occupied with her plan. The end of our journey was drawing rapidly nearer, and her time for action was being cut down with the speed of the express train. Even I, unsuspicious as I was, noticed that something was very wrong with her. I really believe that before we reached Marseilles, if I had not, through my own stupidity, given her the chance she wanted, she might have stuck a knife in me and rolled me out on the rails. But as it was, I only thought that the long journey had tired her. I suggested that it was a very tedious trip, and asked her if she would allow me to offer her some of my cognac.
“She thanked me and said ‘No,’ and then suddenly her eyes lighted, and she exclaimed, ‘Yes, thank you, if you will be so kind.’”
“My flask was in the handbag, and I placed it on my lap, and with my thumb I slipped back the catch. As I keep my tickets and railroad guide in the bag, I am so constantly opening it that I never bother to lock it, and the fact that it is strapped to me has always been sufficient protection. But I can appreciate now what a satisfaction, and what a torment, too, it must have been to that woman when she saw that the bag opened without a key.
“While we were crossing the mountains I had felt rather chilly, and had been wearing a light racing coat. But after the lamps were lighted the compartment became very hot and stuffy, and I found the coat uncomfortable. So I stood up, and, after first slipping the strap of the bag over my head, I placed the bag in the seat next me and pulled off the racing coat. I don’t blame myself for being careless; the bag was still within reach of my hand, and nothing would have happened if at that exact moment the train had not stopped at Arles. It was the combination of my removing the bag and our entering the station at the same instant which gave the Princess Zichy the chance she wanted to rob me.
“I needn’t say that she was clever enough to take it. The train ran in the station at full speed and came to a sudden stop. I had just thrown my coat into the rack, and had reached out my hand for the bag. In another instant I should have had the strap around my shoulder. But at that moment the Princess threw open the door of the compartment and beckoned wildly at the people on the platform. ‘Natalie!’ she called, ‘Natalie! here I am. Come here! This way!’ She turned upon me in the greatest excitement. ‘My maid!’ she cried. ‘She is looking for me. She passed the window without seeing me. Go, please, and bring her back.’ She continued pointing out of the door and beckoning me with her other hand. There certainly was something about that woman’s tone which made one jump. When she was giving orders, you had no chance to think of anything else. So I rushed out on my errand of mercy, and then rushed back again to ask what the maid looked like.
“ ‘In black,’ she answered, rising and blocking the door of the compartment. ‘All in black, with a bonnet!’ The train waited three minutes at Arles, and in that time I suppose I must have rushed up to over twenty women and asked, ‘Are you Natalie?’ The only reason I wasn’t punched with an umbrella or handed over to the gendarme must have been that they probably thought I was crazy.
“WHEN I jumped back into the compartment the Princess was seated where I had left her, but her eyes were burning with happiness. She placed her hand on my arm almost affectionately and said in a most hysterical way, ‘You are very kind to me. I am so sorry to have troubled you.’
“I protested that every woman on the platform was dressed in black.
“ ‘Indeed, I am so sorry,’ she said, laughing; and she continued to laugh until she began to breathe so quickly that I thought she was going to faint.
“I can see now that the last part of that journey must have been a terrible half-hour for her. She had the cigar-case safe enough, but she knew that she herself was not safe. She knew if I were to open my bag, even at the last minute, and miss the case, I should know positively that she had taken it. I had placed the diamonds in the bag at the very moment she entered the compartment, and no one but our two selves had occupied it since. She knew that when we reached Marseilles she would either be twenty thousand pounds richer than when she left Paris, or that she would go to jail. That was the situation as she must have read it, and I don’t envy her her state of mind during that last half-hour. It must have been hell.
“I saw that something was wrong, and in my innocence I even wondered if possibly my cognac had not been a little too strong. For she suddenly developed into a most brilliant conversationalist, and applauded and laughed at everything even I said, firing off questions at me like a machine-gun, so that I had no time to think of anything else but of what she was saying. Whenever I stirred, she stopped her chattering and leaned toward me, and watched me like a cat over a mouse-hole. I wondered how I could have considered her an agreeable travelling companion. I thought I should have preferred to be locked in with a lunatic. I don’t like to think how she would have acted if I had made a move to examine the bag, but as I had it safely strapped around me again, I did not open it, and I reached Marseilles alive. As we drew into the station she shook hands with me and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat.
“ ‘I cannot tell you,’ she said, ‘how much I have to thank you for.’ What do you think of that for impudence?
“I offered to put her in a carriage, but she said she must find Natalie, and that she hoped we should meet again at the hotel. So I drove off by myself, wondering who she was, and whether Natalie was not her keeper.
“I had to wait several hours for the train to Nice, and as I wanted to stroll around the city, I thought I had better put the diamonds in the safe of the hotel. As soon as I reached my room I locked the door, placed the handbag on the table and opened it. I felt among the things at the top of it, but failed to touch the cigar-case. I shoved my hand in deeper and stirred the things about, but still I did not reach it. A cold wave swept down my spine, and a sort of emptiness came to the pit of my stomach. Then I turned red-hot and the sweat sprang out all over me. I wetted my lips with my tongue and said to myself, ‘Don’t be an ass! Pull yourself together, pull yourself together. Take the things out, one at a time. It’s there, of course it’s there. Don’t be an ass!’
“So I put a brake on my nerves and began very carefully to pick out the things one by one, but after five seconds I could not stand it another instant, and I rushed across the room and threw out everything on the bed; but the diamonds were not among them. I pulled the things about and tore them open and shuffled and rearranged and sorted them, but it was no use. The cigar-case was gone. I threw everything in the dressing-case out on the floor, although I knew it was useless to look for it there. I knew that I had put it in the bag. I sat down and tried to think. I remembered I had put it in the satchel at Paris just as that woman had entered the compartment, and I had been alone with her ever since, so it was she who had robbed me. But how? It had never left my shoulder. And then I remembered that it had—that I had taken it off when I had changed my coat and for the few moments that I was searching for Natalie. I remembered that the woman had sent me on that goose-chase, and at every other station she had tried to get rid of me on some fool errand.
“I gave a roar like a mad bull and I jumped down the stairs six steps at a time.
“I demanded at the office if a distinguished lady traveller, possibly a Russian, had just entered the hotel.
“As I expected, she had not. I sprang into a cab and inquired at two other hotels, and then I saw the folly of trying to catch her without outside help, and I ordered the fellow to gallop to the office of the Chief of Police. I told my story, and the ass in charge asked me to calm myself and wanted to take notes. I told him this was no time for taking notes, but for doing something. He got wrathy at that, and I demanded to be taken at once to his Chief. The Chief, he said, was very busy and could not see me. So I showed him my silver greyhound. In eleven years I had never used it but once before. I stated in pretty vigorous language that I was a Queen’s Messenger, and that if the Chief of Police did not see me instantly he would lose his official head. The fellow jumped off his high horse at that and ran with me to his Chief—a smart young chap, a colonel in the army, and a very intelligent man.
“I explained that I had been robbed in a French railway carriage of a diamond necklace belonging to the Queen of England, which Her Majesty was sending as a present to the Czarina of Russia. I pointed out to him that if he succeeded in capturing the thief, he would be made for life and would receive the gratitude of three great Powers.
“He wasn’t the sort that thinks second thoughts are best. He saw Russian and French decorations sprouting all over his chest, and he hit a bell and pressed buttons and yelled out orders like the captain of a penny steamer in a fog. He sent her description to all the city gates, and ordered all cabmen and railway porters to search all trains leaving Marseilles. He ordered all passengers on outgoing vessels to be examined, and telegraphed the proprietors of every hotel and pension to send him a complete list of their guests within the hour. While I was standing there he must have given at least a hundred orders, and sent out enough commissaires, sergents de ville, gendarmes, bicycle police, and plain-clothes Johnnies to have captured the entire German army. When they had gone he assured me that the woman was as good as arrested already. Indeed, officially, she was arrested; for she had no more chance of escape from Marseilles than from the Château D’If.
“HE told me to return to my hotel and possess my soul in peace. Within an hour he assured me he would acquaint me with her arrest.
“I thanked him, and complimented him on his energy, and left him. But I didn’t share in his confidence. I felt that she was a very clever woman and a match for any and all of us. It was all very well for him to be jubilant. He had not lost the diamonds, and had everything to gain if he found them; while I, even if he did recover the necklace, should only be where I was before I lost it, and if he did not recover it I was a ruined man. It was an awful facer for me. I had always prided myself on my record. In eleven years I had never mislaid an envelope nor missed taking the first train. And now I had failed in the most important commission that had ever been entrusted to me. And it wasn’t a thing that could be hushed up, either. It was too conspicuous, too spectacular. It was sure to invite the widest notoriety. I saw myself ridiculed all over the Continent, and perhaps dismissed, even suspected of having taken the thing myself.
“I was walking in front of a lighted café, and I felt so sick and miserable that I stopped for a pick-me-up. Then I considered that if I took one drink I should probably, in my present state of mind, not want to stop under twenty, and I decided I had better leave it alone. But my nerves were jumping like those of a frightened rabbit, and I felt I must have something to quiet them or I should go crazy. I reached for my cigarette-case, but a cigarette seemed hardly adequate, so I put it back again and took out this cigar-case, in which I keep only the strongest and blackest cigars. I opened it and stuck in my fingers, but instead of a cigar they touched on a thin leather envelope. My heart stood perfectly still. I did not dare to look, but I dug my finger-nails into the letter and I felt layers of thin paper, then a layer of cotton, and then they scratched on the facets of the Czarina’s diamonds!
“I stumbled as though I had been hit in the face and fell back into one of the chairs on the pavement. I tore off the wrappings and spread out the diamonds on the café table; I could not believe they were real. I twisted the necklace between my fingers, and crushed it between my palms, and tossed it up in the air. I believe I almost kissed it. The women in the café stood up on the chairs to see better, and laughed and screamed, and the people crowded so close around me that the waiters had to form a bodyguard. The proprietor thought there was a fight and called for the police. I was so happy I didn’t care. I laughed, too, and gave the proprietor a handful of coin and told him to stand everyone a drink. Then I tumbled into a fiacre and galloped off to my friend the Chief of Police. I felt very sorry for him. He had been so happy at the chance I had given him, and he would be so disappointed when he learned I had sent him off on a false alarm.
“BUT now that I had the necklace I did not want him to find the woman. Indeed, I was most anxious that she should get clear away. For if she were caught, the truth would come out, and I was likely to get a sharp reprimand, and sure to be laughed at.
“I could see now how it had happened. In my haste to hide the diamonds when the woman was hustled into the carriage I had shoved the cigars into the satchel and the diamonds into the pocket of my coat. Now that I had the diamonds safe again it seemed a very natural mistake. But I doubted if the Foreign Office would think so. I was afraid it might not appreciate the beautiful simplicity of my secret hiding-place. So, when I reached the police station and found the Princess still at large, I was more than relieved.
“As I expected, the Chief was extremely chagrined when he learned of my mistake and that there was nothing for him to do. But I was feeling so happy myself that I hated to have anyone else miserable, so I suggested that this attempt to steal the Czarina’s necklace might be only the first of a series of such attempts, and I might still be in danger from an unscrupulous gang.
“I winked at the Chief and the Chief smiled at me, and we went to Nice together in a saloon car with a guard of twelve carabineers and twelve plain-clothes men, and the Chief and I drank champagne all the way. We marched together up to the hotel where the Russian Ambassador was stopping, closely surrounded by our escort of carabineers, and delivered the necklace with the most profound ceremony. The old Ambassador was immensely impressed, and when we hinted that already I had been made the object of an attack by robbers, he assured us that His Imperial Majesty would not prove ungrateful.
“I wrote a swinging personal letter about the invaluable services of the Chief to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, and they gave him enough Russian and French medals to satisfy even a French soldier. So, though he never caught the woman, he received his just reward.”
The Queen’s Messenger paused and surveyed the faces of those about him in some embarrassment.
“But the worst of it is,” he added, “that the story must have got about; for, while the Princess obtained nothing from me but a cigar-case and five excellent cigars, a few weeks after the coronation the Czar sent me a gold cigar-case with his monogram in diamonds. And I don’t know yet whether that was a coincidence, or whether the Czar wanted me to know that he knew that I had been carrying the Czarina’s diamonds in my pigskin cigar-case. What do you fellows think? “