The crime club, p.16
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       The Crime Club, p.16

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER XVI

  STRANGE HAPPENINGS

  "By order of the Czar!"

  Westerham repeated the words, and his face was blank in its amazement.Lady Kathleen caught his expression and her own face changed. She sawthat Westerham's surprise was entirely genuine. She saw that he did notknow!

  "By order of the Czar!"

  Westerham repeated the words again, groping for some explanation ofthis extraordinary statement. He could find none. This, indeed, was thegreatest mystery of all.

  When he had slightly collected himself he drew a chair to the table andsat down heavily, facing Lady Kathleen.

  "Don't you think," he asked, "that we had better be plain with eachother?"

  Lady Kathleen's face was now a blank, as his own had been two minutesago.

  Almost roughly she brushed away the tears from her cheeks with the backof her hand, and set her mouth and squared her shoulders as thoughabout to do battle.

  "I cannot understand it," she said. "I cannot understand it at all.I had to distrust you, and so, though you declared you knew nothing,I did not believe you. But even if you know nothing it does not helpus in the least. I am not able to disclose anything at all. It's myfather's secret--not mine."

  Gently and persuasively Westerham urged her to tell him how the matteraffected herself. But she declined, and remained obdurate to the closeof the interview.

  Before he ceased his pleading, however, Westerham counselled her totell her father all that had passed, and begged her to urge LordPenshurst to send for him the moment she arrived back in London.

  This Kathleen consented to do, although she pointed out that her fatherwould in all probability decline to believe in Westerham's _bona fides_.

  He countered that argument by asserting that Lord Dunton would of acertainty establish his identity beyond all doubt. But still LadyKathleen demurred.

  "In any case," she said, "it would be exceedingly difficult to arrangea meeting. Frankly, I don't see how you can help us, and there is onlya week left."

  As she said this her eyes again filled with tears, and she clasped herhands with a despairing gesture.

  "That there is only a week left," persisted Westerham, "is all the morereason why I should be made acquainted with the facts at once."

  Kathleen, however, only shook her head and moaned a little to herself.

  Westerham did his best to console her, and she then told him that sheproposed to return to London by the afternoon's mail. Immediately onarriving in town, however, she would have to set out for Trant Hall,as the Premier was giving a dance there on the following night.

  "I trust," said Westerham, "that you will at least permit me to see yousafely home. It is not at all advisable that you should travel withoutan escort. I have every reason to be fearful on your account."

  Kathleen thanked him, but declined his offer of help.

  "There is nothing," she said, "to prevent your travelling in the sametrain or the same boat; and if you think it advisable, I shall begrateful to you for doing so. But I must implore you not to speak to meor to make any sign that you know me between here and London.

  "Matters have grown doubly bad since this morning. I have not only tofear the spies of Melun, but the agents of the Russian Government.Between the two I am afraid I shall have but little peace."

  Having said this, she rose and held out her hand to bid Westerhamgood-bye.

  "I can no longer refuse to believe in you," she said, "though I fearI shall have a harder task to convince my father than you had toconvince me. Good-bye, and thank you. I really feel that you would be apowerful ally, and if I can possibly persuade him to take you into hisconfidence I will."

  "That, of course, would be the better way," said Westerham. "I assureyou that I must have a great deal of knowledge of Melun which would beinvaluable to your father. Still, if he declines to tell me anything,remember that I am quite prepared to serve him blindly and in all goodfaith. I shall be quite content to wait for an explanation."

  On this he took his departure, and presently made his way to thestation, where he waited for the afternoon mail. Long before the trainwas due he saw Kathleen enter the railway station carrying a black bag.He gave no sign, and she, for her part, steadily ignored his presence.

  At Dieppe he watched her go on board the mail-boat, and then followedher to the saloon deck. There he kept her under surveillance, but madeno attempt to communicate with her in any way.

  Thus quietly watchful, he guarded her progress to London, where,at Victoria, he saw her enter a hansom and drive rapidly away. Histhoughts had been so busy with the things of the immediate present thatuntil he found himself alone at the London terminus he took no thoughtof what he should next do.

  He then decided that he would go to his greatly-neglected rooms inBruton Street in order to obtain some additions to his all-too-scantywardrobe, for, with the exception of a few things he had purchased whenhe left Walter's Hotel, he practically had nothing but the clotheshe stood up in; and these were the clothes with which he had been somysteriously furnished while he lay chloroformed at Mme. Estelle's.

  On arriving at Bruton Street the doorkeeper surveyed him withastonishment.

  "Why, sir! I was told that you had gone abroad."

  "Gone abroad!" exclaimed Westerham. "Gone abroad! Nothing of the kind."

  He denied the suggestion flatly, and, indeed, was so taken aback by theman's manner that for the moment he quite forgot he had in reality notonly been abroad but had returned again from abroad in the space oftwenty-four hours.

  The man stared at him steadily, and for all his self-possession,Westerham felt himself colour a little. But he reflected that it was nobusiness of the man's whether he went abroad or not. He requested himto take him up to his rooms in the lift.

  The man stared at him in greater astonishment than ever.

  "But they are empty, sir," he said.

  "Empty!" cried Westerham. "What on earth do you mean?"

  "I mean, sir," said the man, in an excited voice, "that your furniturehas been taken away. I understood that it was warehoused. A gentlemancalled here this afternoon, paid your valet and dismissed him, and thisafternoon a pantechnicon came and took away your things. The gentlemangave his card to the manager of the flat and told him that he was asolicitor. It all seemed fair and square, and as we knew--beggingyour pardon, sir--that you were an eccentric gentleman, we were notsurprised to hear that you were not coming back. As a matter of fact,sir," the man concluded lamely, "we thought that you had been a littleput out by the affair here a few days ago."

  "Do you really mean to tell me," said Westerham, slowly, as though hecould not believe his ears, "that everything has been taken away, evenmy clothes?"

  "Even your clothes, sir. Your valet packed them himself."

  "Good gracious!" said Westerham, more to himself than to the man, "andI have nothing but what I stand up in?"

  Then it struck him that he must take immediate action in the matter. Hesuspected Melun was at the bottom of this too, but could not conceivewhat motive the captain could possibly have for this last extraordinarymove.

  "Have you any idea," he asked, "where my valet went?"

  The man shook his head.

  "Nor where my things have been stored?"

  Again the man shook his head.

  "It was a big pantechnicon, sir," he said, "but to the best of myknowledge there was no name on it. I believe it did strike me as beingrather funny at the time, but I was busy and didn't take much accountof it. It is a most unaccountable thing, sir--most unaccountable. Icannot understand it at all. Have you any idea, sir, who your friendmight be?"

  Westerham shook his head, though in his own mind he had little doubt.

  "Well," he said briskly, "I must inform the police at once. This isa very serious matter. It is not so much the loss of the things thatannoys me, but the inconvenience to which I am put."

  He looked at the man sharply, and endeavoured to ascertain whether hecould trust him. He de
cided that the man looked honest, and slipped ahalf-sovereign into his hand.

  "In the meantime," he said to him, "say nothing to anyone. I will dealwith this matter in my own way."

  Deciding to take the bull by the horns at once, Westerham haileda passing hansom and drove to Melun's rooms, only, however, to beinformed that the captain was out of town. He tried threats, cajoleryand even bribery to extort information as to the captain's whereabouts;but the housekeeper was proof against all his efforts.

  It seemed as if she really did not know where the captain was.

  As he turned away, wondering in which direction he could next inquire,it suddenly occurred to him that he should ascertain if anything hadhappened to his motor car. He therefore took a second cab and drove toRupert Street, in which the garage was situated.

  As he entered the yard the manager stepped forward; and theastonishment on his face was even greater than that exhibited by thedoorkeeper at Westerham's flat.

  "I am afraid, sir," he said before Westerham had time to speak, "thatwe have made some terrible blunder. A gentleman called here thisafternoon and said that he had been asked to see me on your behalf. Hesaid that he had received a telegram from Holyhead asking him to seethat your car was sent up to Chester, as you would be staying there forsome days. Your man was to wait for you at the Blossoms Hotel."

  Westerham could scarcely disguise his anger.

  "What was this--gentleman like?" he demanded.

  "Well, sir," said the manager of the garage, eyeing him anxiously, "Ididn't take much account of him, though he appeared a very pleasantgentleman indeed. He was, I should say, tall and dark."

  "Hook nose and black eyes?" suggested Westerham, helpfully.

  "Just so, sir, just so."

  Westerham ground his teeth with rage. "Of course," he said to the man,"I do not blame you--I cannot--but you've been hoaxed. I sent no ordersabout my car. I intended it to remain here until I sent for it. I maywant it at any moment now, and the inconvenience and the loss of it maybe great. You'd better wire to Chester for the man to return at once."

  The manager of the garage was by this time greatly alarmed. His ownsuspicions led in the direction of theft, and the prospect of aconsiderable loss in reputation, if not a considerable loss in pocket,scared him very much.

  "Certainly, sir, certainly. And if in the meantime I can place anyother car at your service I shall be pleased to do so."

  "I'll let you know," said Westerham, and he walked abruptly away.

  He went rapidly westward and reached the park. There he sat down inthe darkness and made a further effort to understand the drastic andimpudent measures which Melun was taking.

  If he could have come across that person at that particular momentthere is little doubt but that he would have shaken the life out ofhim. Westerham's anger was seldom roused, but when it mastered him itwas terrible, and the effects were apt to be disastrous to the objectof his wrath.

  Now, turn things over in his mind as he might he could see littlechance of coming to any conclusion until he could obtain the truth fromMelun himself. But where was Melun? It would be ridiculous to make anyfurther inquiries at his house. Crow, too, would certainly know little,and Bagley less.

  True, there was Mme. Estelle. He would see her.

  Leaping to his feet, he almost ran to the cab-rank at Hyde Park corner,and, hiring a taxicab, ordered the man to make the best speed possibleto Laburnum Road.

  The man did his best, and in some twenty minutes' time the taxicabentered the little _cul-de-sac_, the features of which Westerham wasnow beginning to know too well.

  He rang the bell impatiently, but the door in the wall failed to open.He rang again and again, but there was no response.

  The driver of the taxicab surveyed his fare with some distrust.

  "It seems to me, sir," he said, "that your friends are not at home."

  Westerham's answer sounded very much like an oath.

  He gave one final pull to the bell, and finding even that last roughsummons ineffectual, turned to the man.

  "Look here," he said, "this may seem a rather curious business to you,but if you will help me I will pay you well. I am not at all sure thatthis house is as empty as it seems. Put your cab alongside the wall sothat I can climb over the top. I want to go investigating."

  The man grumbled something to the effect that it was not his business,but the sight of the magnificent inducement which Westerham immediatelyoffered him silenced his objections.

  Westerham climbed to the top of the cab and dropped over the wall intothe garden. He walked round the house and found it shuttered, dark andsilent.

  He whistled a long whistle to himself. "I wonder," he thought, "ifthe birds have flown. I wonder if they have chucked up the sponge. Iwonder----"

  A second thought, however, which occurred to him, as he proceeded toclimb over the garden wall again, was that it was much more likely thatthe house had been closed that evening in order that he might be cutoff from all sources of information.

  On further reflection, indeed, he came to the conclusion that this wascertainly the case. "But perhaps you imagine," he thought, mentallyaddressing Melun, "perhaps you imagine that I shall not come back. Wewill see."

  It was then nearly eleven o'clock, and Westerham had no course butto return to the Buckingham Palace Hotel, out of which he had rushedwithout bag or baggage on the night before.

  There he was greeted civilly, but by no means with effusion. LordDunton's visit on the previous afternoon had set a certain cachet onhis respectability, but at the same time his erratic movements did notmeet with the managerial approval.

  On the following morning he sought out Dunton, who told him that forthe moment Lord Cuckfield and Mendip would be silent.

  Unfortunately, Westerham's promise to Lady Kathleen prevented histelling Dunton over much. But fortunately Dunton, in spite of hisapparent vacuity, had both the good sense and the good manners never tobe over curious.

  Twice during the afternoon Westerham took a cab to Laburnum Road, andon the second occasion his peal at the bell was answered by the maid hehad seen on his previous visit.

  In reply to his queries the girl stated that Mme. Estelle, havingoccasion to go out of town the day before, had closed up the housebecause she did not like to leave the maids by themselves. Madamehowever, she told him, was expected back in the course of the evening;she thought about nine o'clock.

  The sense of coming action prompted Westerham to dine well. Unlikeother men, his senses and capacities were always at their best afterdinner.

  At nine o'clock he went back to Laburnum Road and was told that Madamewas at home. As he entered the pretty drawing-room Mme. Estelle cameforward to greet him with outstretched hand. But he kept his own behindhim.

  "Pardon me," he said coldly, "but before I meet you on terms offriendship there are certain things which I want to know."

  Madame raised her eyebrows at him and smiled.

  "Indeed," she said, "what are they?"

  "In the first place, who stole my furniture and my belongings from myflat?" demanded Westerham.

  "Why should you ask me?" answered Madame, evasively.

  "Because," said Westerham, "I have not the slightest doubt in the worldthat Melun was the man who ordered their removal, and if Melun isresponsible then you are probably acquainted with the fact."

  "Very well," said Madame, quietly, "and I expect that it will do noharm for me to confirm your suspicions. Melun did order your things tobe removed."

  "But why?"

  Madame smiled again. "It was at my suggestion. It is impossible for meto give the reason; but I must ask you to believe that such a step wasnecessary for the greater security of your life."

  Westerham stared at her; the matter was entirely beyond hiscomprehension.

  "And the car," he demanded, "what of that? Was it you also whosuggested it should be sent on a bogus mission to Holyhead?"

  "It was. That step was also necessary in the interests of your saf
ety."

  Utterly regardless of Madame's presence, Westerham paced angrily up anddown the room for some minutes before he spoke again. Finally he turnedupon the woman and asked almost roughly where Melun was to be found.

  Madame shrugged her shoulders.

  "Do you decline to tell me?" asked Westerham.

  Madame shrugged her shoulders again.

  By this time Westerham had made up his mind as to how he shoulddeal with this woman. There had been ample time since he had leftLady Kathleen to reason out what she meant by the words that, as shepreferred death to dishonour, her death-warrant had been sealed. Forsome strange reason, still to be unearthed, the Czar's emissary hadordered that Kathleen must marry Melun and thereby ensure silence.

  How did Mme. Estelle stand in this matter? Westerham determined toascertain for himself at once.

  "Listen," he said almost gently. "Let us for a few moments try to talkas friends. It is imperative that I should see Melun at once. You arethe only person who can tell me where I can find him. And if you willcome to a bargain with me it may be to our mutual advantage.

  "If I tell you something which I think it is to your interest to know,and if you think the knowledge, when I have given it you, is worth it,will you in return tell me where Melun is?"

  "I will see," answered Mme. Estelle.

  "Are you acquainted with the fact," he asked suddenly, "that in aweek's time Melun will have arranged to marry the Lady Kathleen?"

  Madame went pale to the lips.

  "It's a lie!" she almost screamed. "It's a lie! It's impossible! He haspromised himself to me!"

  Westerham nodded thoughtfully. It was precisely as he had thought.

  "What I tell you," he said, "I believe to be absolutely true."

  Watching her closely, Westerham saw that Mme. Estelle was greatlyagitated.

  "To-night," she murmured, more to herself than to him, "to-night itcould be proved, if only I had a witness here whom I could trust."

  "Surely," suggested Westerham, "though we are on opposite sides in thisstruggle, you can take my word on a matter of this sort."

  "Yes, yes!" cried Mme. Estelle, eagerly, "you are a gentleman. I cantrust you. Oh, how I wish I could trust Melun!"

  Her voice trailed away and she lapsed into thought.

  Presently she roused herself as though with an effort and lookedWesterham in the face.

  "I will tell you how you can meet Melun if you will give me your wordof honour on two points. First, that you will return and tell me allthat passes, and, secondly, that you will not, whatever happens, do anyharm to Melun."

  "You have my word," said Westerham.

  Mme. Estelle sighed as though with relief, and after a few secondsspoke again.

  "What I am going to tell you now," she said, "will sound so incrediblethat you may possibly not believe me. I can scarcely believe it myself,except that there is practically no piece of folly which Melun will notcommit when he has one of his mad fits upon him. I sometimes think heis half-crazy.

  "To-night Lord Penshurst gives a ball at Trant Hall. The place will becrowded, and the women will be wearing jewels worth a king's ransom.

  "More, I think, out of bravado, and with a foolish notion of bringingmatters to a head, Melun is taking down half a score of masked men. Itwill be what I think you call in America 'a hold-up.'

  "Melun says that there is no risk in the business, that he and theothers are bound to get away, and even if he is caught he knows thePrime Minister will have to contrive his release. The hour planned forthis business is midnight."

  Without a second's hesitation Westerham leapt up from his chair andtook out his watch.

  "I have just an hour and a half to get there," he said.

 
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