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А Б В Г Д Е Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Э Ю Я


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It was a cold but dry November night in London, and I sat dining with Jack Durnford at a small table in the big, well-lit room of the Junior United Service Club. Easy-going and merry as of old, my friend was bubbling over with good spirits, delighted to be back again in town after three years sailing up and down the Mediterranean, from Gib. to Smyrna, maneuvering always, yet with never a chance of a fight. His well-shaven face bore the mark of the southern suns, and the backs of his hands were tanned by the heat and the sea. He was, indeed, as smart an officer as any at the Junior, for the Marines are proverbial for their neatness, and his men on board the Bulwark had received many a pleasing compliment from the Admiral.

"Glad to be back!" he exclaimed, as he helped himself to a "peg." "I should rather think so, old chap. You know how awfully wearying the life becomes out there. Lots going on down at Palermo, Malta, Monte Carlo, or over at Algiers, and yet we can never get a chance of it. We're always in sight of the gay places, and never land. I don't blame the youngsters for getting off from Leghorn for two days over here in town when they can. Three years is a bigger slice out of a fellow's life than anyone would suppose. But, by the way, I saw Hutcheson the other day. We put into Spezia, and he came out to see the Admiral-got despatches for him, I think. He seems as gay as ever. He lunched at mess, and said how sorry he was you'd deserted Leghorn."

"I haven't exactly deserted it," I said. "But I really don't love it like he does."

"No. A year or two of the Mediterranean blue is quite sufficient to last any fellow his lifetime. I shouldn't live in Leghorn if I had my choice. I'd prefer somewhere up in the mountains, beyond Pisa, or outside Florence, where you can have a good time in winter."

Then a silence fell between us, and I sat eating on until the end of the meal, wondering how to broach the question I so desired to put to him.

"I shall try if I can get on recruiting service at home for a bit," he said presently. "There's an appointment up in Glasgow vacant, and I shall try for it. It'll be better, at any rate, than China or the Pacific."

I was just about to turn the conversation to the visit of the mysterious Lola to Leghorn, when two men he knew entered the dining-room, and, recognizing him, came across to give him a welcome home. One of the newcomers was Major Bartlett, whom I at once recollected as having been a guest of Leithcourt's up at Rannoch, and the other a younger man whom Durnford introduced to me as Captain Hanbury.

"Oh, Major!" I cried, rising and grasping his hand. "I haven't seen you since Scotland, and the extraordinary ending to your house-party."

"No," he laughed. "It was an amazing affair, wasn't it? After the Leithcourts left it was like pandemonium let loose; the guests collared everything they could lay their hands upon! It's a wonder to me the disgraceful affair didn't get into the papers."

"But where's Leithcourt now?" I asked anxiously.

"Haven't the ghost of an idea," replied the Major, standing astride with his hands in his pockets. "Young Paget of ours told me the other day that he saw Muriel driving in the Terminus Road at Eastbourne, but she didn't notice him. They were a queerish lot, those Leithcourts," he added.

"Hulloa! What are you saying about the Leithcourts, Charley?" exclaimed Durnford, turning quickly from Hanbury. "I know some people of that name-Philip Leithcourt, who has a daughter named Muriel."

"Well, they sound much the same. But if you know them, my dear old chap, I really don't envy you your friends," declared the Major with a laugh.

"Why not?"

"Well, Gregg will tell you," he said. "He knows, perhaps, more than I do. But," he added, "they may not, of course, be the same people."

"I first met them yachting over at Algiers," Jack said. "And then again at Malta, where they seemed to have quite a lot of friends. They had a steam-yacht, the Iris, and were often up and down the Mediterranean."

"Must be the same people," declared the Major. "Leithcourt spoke once or twice of his yacht, but we all put it down as a non-existent vessel, because he was always drawing the long bow about his adventures."

"And how did you first come to know him?" I asked of the Major eagerly.

"Oh, I don't know. Somebody brought him to mess, and we struck up an acquaintance across the table. He seemed a good chap, and when he asked me to shoot I accepted. On arrival up at Rannoch, however, one thing struck me as jolly strange, and that was that among the people I was asked to meet was one of the very worst blacklegs about town. He called himself Martin Woodroffe up there-although I'd known him at the old Corinthian Club as Dick Archer. He was believed then to be one of a clever gang of international thieves."

"When I first met him he gave me the name of Hornby," I said. "It was in Leghorn, where he was on board a yacht called the Lola, of which he represented himself as owner."

"He left Rannoch very suddenly," remarked Bartlett. "We understood that he was engaged to marry Muriel. If so, I'm sorry for her, poor girl."

"What!" cried Durnford, starting up. "That man to marry Muriel Leithcourt?"

"Yes," I said. "Why?"

But his countenance had turned pale, and he gave no answer to my question.

"If these same Leithcourts are really friends of yours, Durnford, old fellow, I'm sorry I've said anything against them," the Major exclaimed in an apologetic tone. "Only the end of my visit was so abrupt and so extraordinary, and the company such a mixed one, that-well, to tell you the truth, the people are a mysterious lot altogether."

"Perhaps our Leithcourts are not the same as those Jack knows," I remarked, in order to escape from a rather difficult situation; whereupon Durnford, as though eager to conceal his surprise, said with a forced laugh, "Oh! probably not," and reseated himself at table. Then the Major quickly changed the topic of conversation, and afterwards he and his friend passed along to their table and sat down to eat.

I could not help noticing that Jack Durnford was upset at what he had learnt, yet I hesitated just then to put any question to him. I resolved to approach the subject later, so as to allow him time to question me if he wished to do so.

After smoking an hour we went across to the Empire, where we spent the evening in the grand circle, meeting many men we knew and having a rather pleasant time among old acquaintances. If a man who had lived the club life of London returns from abroad, he can always run across someone he knows in the circle of the Empire about ten o'clock at night. Jack was, however, not his old self that he had been before dinner. His brow was now heavy and thoughtful, and he appeared deeply immersed in some intricate problem, for his eyes were fixed vacantly when opportunity was afforded him to think, and he appeared to desire to avoid his friends rather than to greet them.

After the theater I induced him to come round to the Cecil, and in the wicker chair in the big portico before the entrance we sat to smoke our final cigars. It is a favorite spot of mine when in London, for at afternoon, when the string band plays and the Americans and other cosmopolitans drink tea, there is a continual coming and going, a little panorama of life that to a student of men like myself is intensely interesting. And at night it is just as amusing to sit there in the shadow and watch the people returning from the theaters or dances and to speculate as to whom and what they are. At that one little corner of London just off the Strand you see more variety of men and women than perhaps at any other spot. All grades pass before you, from the pushful American commercial man interested in a patent medicine, to the proud Indian Rajah with his turbaned suite; from the variety actress to the daughter of a peer, or the wife of a millionaire pork-butcher doing Europe.

"You've been a bit down in the mouth to-night, Jack," I said presently, after we had been watching the cabs coming up, depositing the home-coming revelers from the Savoy or the Carlton.

"Yes," he sighed. "And surely I have enough to cause me-after what I've heard from Bartlett."

"What! Did the facts he told us convey any bad news to you?" I inquired with pretended ignorance.

"Yes," he said hoarsely, after a brief pause. Then he added: "Bartlett said you could tell me what happened up in Scotland, where Leithcourt had shooting. Tell me everything," he added with the air of a man in whom all hope is dead.

"Well," I began, "the Leithcourts took Rannoch Castle, close to my uncle's place, near Dumfries. I got to know them, of course, and often shot with his party. One day, however, I was amazed to notice in one of the rooms the photograph of a lady, the exact counterpart of that picture which, I recollect, I told you when in Leghorn I had found torn up on board the Lola. You recollect what I narrated about my strange adventure, don't you?"

"I remember every word," was his answer. "Go on. What did you do?"

"Nothing. I held my tongue. But when I discovered that the fellow who called himself Woodroffe-the man who had represented himself as the owner of the Lola, and who, no doubt, had had a hand in breaking open Hutcheson's safe in the Consulate-was engaged to Muriel, I became full of suspicion."

"Well?"

"Woodroffe, after meeting me, disappeared-went to Hamburg, they said, on business. Then other things occurred. A man and woman were found murdered up in the wood about a mile and a half from the castle. The man was made up to represent my man Olinto-I believe you've seen him in Leghorn?"

"What! They've killed Olinto?" he gasped, starting from his chair.

"No. The fellow was made up very much like him. But his wife Armida was killed."

"They killed the woman, and believed they had also killed her husband, eh?" he said bitterly through his teeth, and I saw that his strong hands grasped the arms of his chair firmly. "And Martin Woodroffe is engaged to Muriel Leithcourt. Are you certain of this?"

"Yes; quite certain."

"And is there no suspicion as to who is the assassin of the woman Santini and this mysterious man who posed as her husband?"

"None whatever."

For some time Jack Durnford smoked in silence, and I could just distinguish his white, hard face in the faint light, for it was now late, and the big electric lamps had been turned out and we were in semi-darkness.

"That fellow shall never marry Muriel," he declared in a fierce, hoarse voice. "What you have just told me reveals the truth. Did you meet Chater?"

"He appeared suddenly at Rannoch, and the Leithcourts fled precipitately and have not since been heard of."

"Ah, no wonder!" he remarked with a dry laugh. "No wonder! But look here, Gordon, I'm not going to stand by and let that scoundrel Woodroffe marry Muriel."

"You love her, perhaps?" I hazarded.

"Yes, I do love her," he admitted. "And, by heaven!" he cried, "I will tell the truth and crush the whole of their ingenious plot. Have you met Elma Heath?" he asked.

"Yes," I said in quick anxiety.

"Then listen," he said in a low, earnest voice. "Listen, and I'll tell you something.

"There is a greater mystery surrounding that yacht, the Lola, than you have ever imagined, my dear old chap," declared Jack Durnford, looking me straight in the face. "When you told me about it on the quarter-deck that day outside Leghorn, I was half a mind to tell you what I knew. Only one fact prevented me-my disinclination to reveal my own secrets. I loved Muriel Leithcourt, yet, afloat as I was, I could never see her-I could not obtain from her own lips the explanation I desired. Yet I would not prejudge her-no, and I won't now!" he added with a fierce resolution.

"I love her," he went on, "and she reciprocates my love. Ours is a secret engagement made in Malta two years ago, and yet you tell me that she has pledged herself to that fellow Woodroffe-the man known here in London as Dick Archer. I can't believe it-I really can't, old fellow. She could never write to me as she has done, urging patience and secrecy until my return."

"Unless, of course, she desired to gain time," I suggested.

But my friend was silent; his brows were deep knit.

"Woodroffe is at the present moment in Petersburg," I said. "I've just come back from there."

"In St. Petersburg!" he gasped, surprised. "Then he is with that villainous official, Baron Oberg, the Governor-General of Finland."

"No; Oberg is living shut up in his palace at Helsingfors, fearing to go out lest he shall be assassinated," was my answer.

"And Elma? What has become of her?"

"She is in hiding in Petersburg, awaiting such time as I can get her safely out of Russia," and then, continuing, I explained how she had been maimed and rendered deaf and dumb.

"What!" he cried fiercely. "Have they actually done that to the poor girl? Then they feared that she should reveal the nature of their plot, for she had seen and heard."

"Seen and heard what?"

"Be patient; we will elucidate this mystery, and the motive of this terrible infliction upon her. Muriel wrote to me saying that poor Elma, her friend, had disappeared, and she feared that some evil had also happened to her. So Oberg had sent her to his fortress-his own private Bastille-the place to which, on pretended charges of conspiracy against Russia, he sends those who thwart him to a living tomb."

"I have seen him, and I have defied him," I said.

"You have! Man alive! be careful. He's not a fellow who sticks at trifles," said Jack warningly.

"I don't fear," I replied. "Elma's enemies are also mine."

"Then I take it, old fellow, that notwithstanding her affliction, you are actually in love with her?"

"I intend to rescue, and to marry her," I answered quite frankly.

"But first we must tear aside this veil of mystery and ascertain all the facts concerning her," he said. "At present I only know one or two very vague details. The baron is certainly not her uncle, as he represents himself to be, but it seems certain that she is the daughter of Anglo-Russian parents, and was born in Russia and brought to England when a child."

"But from whom do you expect I can obtain the true facts concerning her, and the reason of the baron's desire to keep her silent?"

"Ah!" he said, twisting his mustache thoughtfully. "That's just the question. For a solution of the problem we must first fathom the motive of the Leithcourts and the reason they fled in fear before that fellow Chater. That Muriel is innocent of any complicity in their plot, whatever it may be, I feel convinced. She may be the victim of that blackleg Woodroffe, who, as Bartlett has told you, is one of the most expert swindlers in London, and who has already done two terms of penal servitude."

"But what was the motive in breaking open the Consul's safe, if not to obtain the Foreign Office or Admiralty ciphers? Perhaps they wanted to steal them and sell them to a foreign government?"

"No; that was not their object. I've thought over it many, many times since you told me, and I feel convinced that Woodroffe is too shrewd a fellow not to have known that no Consul goes away on leave and allows his ciphers to remain behind. When he leaves his post he always deposits those precious books either at the Foreign Office here or with his Consul-General, or with a Consul at another port. They'd surely ascertain all that before they made the raid, you bet. The affair was a risky one, and Dick Archer is known as a man of many precautions."

"But he is on extremely friendly terms with Elma. It was he who succeeded in finding her in Finland, and taking her beyond Oberg's sphere of influence to Petersburg."

"Then it is certainly only an affected friendship, with some sinister motive underlying it."

"She wrote a letter from her island prison to an old schoolfellow named Lydia Moreton, asking her to see Woodroffe at his rooms in Cork Street, and tell him that through all she was suffering she had kept her promise to him, and that the secret was still safe."

"Exactly. And now the fellow fears that as you are so actively searching out the truth, she may yield to your demands and explain. He therefore intends to silence her."

"What! to kill her, you mean?" I gasped, in quick apprehension.

"Well, he might do so, in order to save himself, you see," Jack replied, adding: "He certainly would have no compunction if he thought that it would not be brought home to him. Only he, no doubt, fears you, because you have found her, and are in love with her."

I admitted the force of his argument, but recollected that my dear one was safe in concealment, and that the Princess was our friend, even though I, as an Englishman, had no sympathy with the doctrine of the bomb and the knife.

I tried to get from him all that he knew concerning Elma, but he seemed, for some curious reason, disinclined to tell. All I could gather was that Leithcourt was in league with Chater and Woodroffe, and that Muriel had acted as an entirely innocent agent. What the conspiracy was, or what was its motive, I could not discern. I was as far off the solution of the problem as ever.

"We must first find Muriel," he declared, when I pressed him to tell me everything he knew. "There are facts you have told me which negative my own theories, and only from her can we obtain the real truth."

"But surely you know where she is? She writes to you," I said.

"The last letter, which I received at Gib. ten days ago, was from the Hotel Bristol, at Botzen, in the Tyrol, yet Bartlett says she has been seen down at Eastbourne."

"But you have an address where you always write to her, I suppose?"

"Yes, a secret one. I have written and made an appointment, but she has not kept it. She has been prevented, of course. She may be with her parents, and unable to come to London."

"You did not know that they had fled, and were in hiding?"

"Of course not. What I've heard to-night is news to me-amazing news."

"And does it not convey to you the truth?"

"It does-a ghastly truth concerning Elma Heath," he answered in a low voice, as though speaking to himself.

"Tell me. What? I'm dying, Jack, to know everything concerning her. Who is that fellow Oberg?"

"Her enemy. She, by mere accident, learned his secret and Woodroffe's, and they now both live in deadly fear of her."

"And for that reason she was taken to Siena, where some villainous Italian doctor was bribed to render her deaf and dumb."

He nodded in the affirmative.

"But Chater?"

"I know very little concerning him. He may have conspired with them, or he may be innocent. It seems as though he were antagonistic to their schemes, if Leithcourt and his family really fled from him."

"And yet he was on board the Lola. Indeed, he may have helped to commit the burglary at the Consulate," I said.

"Quite likely," he answered. "But our first object must be to rediscover Muriel. Paget says she is in Eastbourne. If she is there, we shall easily find her. They publish visitors' lists in the papers, don't they, like they do at Hastings?" Then he added: "Visitors' lists are most annoying when you find your name printed in them when you are supposed officially to be somewhere else. I was had once like that by the Bournemouth papers, when I was supposed to be on duty over at Queenstown. I narrowly escaped a terrible wigging."

"Shall we go to Eastbourne?" I suggested eagerly. "I'll go there with you in the morning."

"Or would it not be best to send an urgent wire to the address where I always write? She would then reply here, no doubt. If she's in Eastbourne, there may be reasons why she cannot come up to town. If her people are in hiding, of course she won't come. But she'll make an appointment with me, no doubt."

"Very well. Send a wire," I said. "And make it urgent. It will then be forwarded. But as regards Olinto? Would you like to see him? He might tell you more than he has told me."

"No; by no means. He must not know that I have returned to London," declared my friend quickly. "You had better not see him-you understand."

"Then his interests are-well, not exactly our own?"

"No."

"But why don't you tell me more about Elma?" I urged, for I was eager to learn all he knew. "Come, do tell me!" I implored.

"I've told you practically everything, my dear old fellow," was his response. "The revelation of the true facts of the affair can be made only by Muriel. I tell you, we must find her."

"Yes, we must-at all hazards," I said. "Let's go across to the telegraph office opposite Charing Cross. It's open always." And we rose and walked out along the Strand, now nearly deserted, and despatched an urgent message to Muriel at an address in Hurlingham Road, Fulham.

Afterwards we stood outside on the curb, still talking, I loth to part from him, when there passed by in the shadow two men in dark overcoats, who crossed the road behind us to the front of Charing Cross station, and then continued on towards Trafalgar Square.

As the light of the street lamp fell upon them, I thought I recognized the face of one as that of a person I had seen before, yet I was not at all certain, and my failure to remember whom the passer-by resembled prevented me from saying anything further to Jack than:

"A fellow I know has just gone by, I think."

"We seem to be meeting hosts of friends to-night," he laughed. "After all, old chap, it does one good to come back to our dear, dirty old town again. We abuse it when we are here, and talk of the life in Paris, and Vienna, and Brussels, but when we are away there is no place on earth so dear to us, for it is 'home.' But there!" he laughed, "I'm actually growing romantic. Ah! if we could only find Muriel! But we must to-morrow. Ta-ta! I shall go around to the club and sleep, for I haven't fixed on any diggings yet. Come in at ten to-morrow, and we will decide upon some plan. One thing is plainly certain; Elma must at once be got out of Russia. She's in deadly peril of her life there."

"Yes," I said. "And you will help me?"

"With all my heart, old fellow," answered my friend, warmly grasping my hand, and then we parted, he strolling along towards the National Gallery on his way back to the "Junior," while I returned to the Cecil alone.



CHAPTER XV JUST OFF THE STRAND | The Czar's Spy | CHAPTER XVI MARKED MEN