CHAPTER XVI MARKED MEN
"Captain Durnford?" I inquired of the hall-porter of the club next morning.
"Not here, sir."
"But he slept here last night," I remarked. "I have an appointment with him."
The man consulted the big book before him, and answered:
"Captain Durnford went out at 9:27 last night, sir, but has not returned."
Strange, I thought, but although I waited in the club nearly an hour, he did not put in an appearance. I called again at noon, and he had not come in, and again at two o'clock, but he had not even then made his appearance. Then I began to be anxious. I returned to the hotel, resolved to wait for a few hours longer. He might have altered his mind and gone to Eastbourne in search of Muriel; yet, had he done so, he would surely have telegraphed to me.
About four o'clock, as I was passing through the big hall of the hotel, I heard a voice behind me utter a greeting in Italian, and turning in surprise, found Olinto, dressed in his best suit of black, standing hat in hand.
In an instant I recollected what Jack had told me, and regarded him with some suspicion.
"Signor Commendatore," he said in a low voice, as though fearing to be overheard, "may I be permitted to speak in private with you?"
"Certainly," I said, and I took him in the lift up to my room.
"I have come to warn you, signore," he said, when I had given him a seat. "Your enemies mean harm to you."
"And who are they, pray?" I asked, biting my lips. "The same, I suppose, who prepared that ingenious trap in Lambeth?"
"I am not here to reveal to you who they are, signore, only to warn you to have a care of yourself," was the Italian's reply.
"Look here, Olinto!" I exclaimed determinedly, "I've had enough of this confounded mystery. Tell me the truth regarding the assassination of your poor wife up in Scotland."
"Ah, signore!" he answered sadly in a changed voice, "I do not know. It was a plot. Someone represented me-but he was killed also. They believed they had struck me down," he added, with a bitter laugh. "Poor Armida's body was found concealed behind a rock on the opposite side of the wood. I saw it-ah!" he cried shuddering.
"Then you are ignorant of the identity of your wife's assassin?"
"Tell me one thing," I said. "Did Armida possess any trinket in the form of a little enameled cross-like a miniature cross of cavaliere?"
"Yes; I gave it to her. I found it on the floor at the Mansion House, where I was engaged as odd waiter for a banquet. I know I ought to have given it up to the Lord Mayor's servants, but it was such a pretty little thing that I was tempted to keep it. It probably had fallen from the coat of one of the diplomatists dining there."
I was silent. The faint suspicion that Oberg had been at that spot was now entirely removed. The only clue I had was satisfactorily accounted for.
"Why do you ask, Signor Commendatore?" he added.
"Because the cross was found at the spot, and was believed to have been dropped by the assassin," I said.
The police had, it seemed, succeeded in discovering the unfortunate woman after all, and had found that she was his wife.
"You know a man named Leithcourt?" I asked a few moments later. "Now, tell the truth. In this affair, Olinto, our interests are mutual, are they not?"
He nodded, after a moment's hesitation.
"And you know also a man named Archer-who is sometimes known as Hornby, or Woodroffe-as well as a friend of his called Chater."
"Si, signore," he said. "I have met them all-to my regret."
"And have you ever met a Russian-a certain Baron Oberg-and his niece, Elma Heath?"
"His niece? She isn't his niece."
"Then who is she?" I demanded.
"How do I know? I have seen her once or twice. But she's dead, isn't she? She knew the secret of those men, and they intended to kill her. I tried to prevent them taking her away on the yacht, and I would have gone to the police-only I dare not."
"Well, because my own hands were not quite clean," he answered after a pause, his eyes fixed upon mine the while. "I knew they intended to silence her, but I was powerless to save her, poor young lady. They took her on board Leithcourt's yacht, the Iris, and they sailed for the Mediterranean, I believe."
"Then the name and appearance of the yacht was altered on the voyage, and it became the Lola," I said.
"No doubt," he smiled. "The Iris was a steamer of many names, and had, I believe, been painted nearly all the colors of the rainbow at various times. It was a mysterious vessel, but she exists no more. They scuttled her somewhere up in the Baltic, I've heard."
"And who is this Oberg?" I inquired, urging him to reveal to me all he knew concerning him.
"He stands in great fear of the poor young lady, I believe, for it was at his instigation that Leithcourt and his friends took her on that fatal yachting cruise."
"And what was your connection with them?"
"Well, I was Leithcourt's servant," was his reply. "I was steward on the Iris for a year, until I suppose they thought that I began to see too much, and then I was placed in a position ashore."
"And what did you see?"
"More than I care to tell, signore. If they were arrested I should be arrested, too, you see."
"But I mean to solve this mystery, Olinto," I said fiercely, for I was in no trifling mood. "I'll fathom it if it costs me my life."
"If the signore solves it himself, then I cannot be charged with revealing the truth," was the man's diplomatic reply. "But I fear that they are far too wary."
"Armida has lost her life. Surely that is sufficient incentive for you to bring them all to justice?"
"Of course. But if the law falls upon them, it will also fall upon me."
I explained the terrible affliction to which my love had been subjected by those heartless brutes, whereupon he cried enthusiastically:
"Then she is not dead! She can tell us everything!"
"But cannot you tell us?"
"No; not all. The secret she knows has never been revealed. They feared she might be incautious, and for that reason Oberg made the villainous suggestion of the yachting trip. She was to be drowned-accidentally, of course."
"She is in St. Petersburg now. I left her a week ago."
"In Russia! Ah, signore, for her sake, don't allow the young lady to remain there. The Baron is all-powerful. He does what he wishes in Russia, and the more merciless he is to the people he governs, the greater rewards he receives from the Czar. I have never been in Russia, but surely it must be a strange country, signore!"
"Well," I said, sitting upon the edge of the bed and looking at him. "Are you prepared to denounce them if I bring the Signorina Heath here, to England?"
"But what is the use, if we have no clear proof?" was his evasive reply. I could see plainly that he feared being himself implicated in some extraordinary plot, the exact nature of which he so steadfastly refused to reveal to me.
We talked on for fully half an hour, and from his conversation I gathered that he was well acquainted with Elma.
"Ah, signore, she was such a pleasant and kind-hearted young lady. I always felt very sorry for her. She was in deadly fear of them."
"Because they were thieves?" I hazarded.
"But why did they induce you to entice me to that house in Lambeth? Why did they so evidently desire that I should be killed?"
"By accident," he interrupted, correcting me. "Always by accident," and he smiled grimly.
"Surely you know their secret motive?" I remarked.
"At the time I did not," he declared. "I acted on their instructions, being compelled to, for they hold my future in their hands. Therefore I could not disobey. You knew too much, therefore you were marked down for death-just as you are now."
"And who is it who is now seeking my life?" I inquired gravely. "I only returned from Russia yesterday."
"Your movements are well known," answered the young Italian. "You cannot be too careful. Woodroffe has been in Russia with you, has he not?"
I replied in the affirmative, whereupon he said:
"I thought so, but was not quite sure."
"And Chater?" I inquired; "where is he?"
"And the Leithcourts?"
He shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of ignorance, adding: "The Signorina Muriel returned to London from Eastbourne this morning."
"Where can I find her?" I inquired eagerly. "It is of the utmost importance that I should see her."
"She is with a relation, a cousin, I think, at Bassett Road, Notting Hill. The house is called 'Holmwood.'"
"You have seen her?"
"No. I heard she had returned."
"And her father is still in hiding from Chater?"
"He is still in hiding, but Chater is his best friend."
"That is curious," I remarked, recollecting the hurried departure from Rannoch. "They've made it up, I suppose?"
"They never quarreled, to my knowledge."
"Then why did Leithcourt leave Scotland so hurriedly on Chater's arrival? You know all about the affair, of course?"
He nodded, saying with a grim smile, "Yes; I know. The party up there must have been a very interesting one. If the police could have made a raid on the place they would have found among the guests certain persons long 'wanted.' But the arrival of Chater and the flight of Leithcourt had an ulterior object. Chater had never been Leithcourt's enemy."
"But I can't understand that," I said. "Why should Leithcourt have attacked Chater, rendered him unconscious, and shut him up in the cupboard in the library?"
"Was it Leithcourt who did that?" he asked dubiously. "I think not. It was another of the guests who was Chater's bitterest enemy. But Philip Leithcourt took advantage of the fracas in order to make believe that he had fled because of Chater's arrival. Ah!" he added, "you haven't any idea of their ruses. They are amazing!"
"So it seems," I said, nevertheless only half convinced that the Italian was telling me the truth. If it was really, as he had said, that the arrival of Chater and the flight was merely a "blind," then the mystery was again deepened.
"Then who was the man who attacked Chater?" I asked.
"Only Chater himself knows. It was one of the guests, that is quite evident."
"And you say that the flight had been prearranged?" I remarked.
"Yes, with a distinct motive," he said; then, after a pause, he added, with a strange, earnest look in his dark eyes, "Pardon me, Signor Commendatore, if I presume to suggest something, will you not?"
"Certainly. What do you suggest?"
"That you should remain here, in this hotel, and not venture out."
"For fear of something unfortunate happening to me!" I laughed. "I'm really not afraid, Olinto," I added. "You know I carry this," and I drew out my revolver from my hip-pocket.
"I know, signore," he said anxiously. "But you might not be afforded opportunity for using it. When they lay a trap they bait it well."
"I know. They're a set of the most ingenious scoundrels in London, it is very evident. Yet I don't fear them in the least," I declared. "I must rescue the Signorina Heath."
"But, signore, have a care for yourself," cried the Italian, laying his hand upon my arm. "You are a marked man. Ah! do I not know," he exclaimed breathlessly. "If you go out you may run right into-well, the fatal accident."
"Never fear, Olinto," I said reassuringly. "I shall keep my eyes well open. Here, in London, one's life is safer than anywhere else in the world, perhaps-certainly safer than in some places I could name in your own country, eh?" at which he grinned.
The next moment he grew serious again, and said:
"I only warn the signore that if he goes out it is at his own peril."
"Then let it be so," I laughed, feeling self-confident that no one could lead me into any trap. I was neither a foreigner nor a country cousin. I knew London too well. He was silent and shook his head; then, after telling me that he was still at the same restaurant in Westbourne Grove, he took his departure, warning me once more not to go forth.
Half an hour later, disregarding his words, I strode out into the Strand, and again walked round to the "Junior." The short wintry day had ended, the gas-lamps were lit, and the darkness of night was gradually creeping on.
Jack had not been to the club, and I began now to grow thoroughly uneasy. He had parted from me at the corner of the Strand with only a five minutes' walk before him, and yet he had apparently disappeared. My first impulse was to drive to Notting Hill to inquire of Muriel if she had news of him, but somehow the Italian's warning words made me wonder if he had met with foul play.
I suddenly recollected those two men who had passed by as we had talked, and how that the features of one had seemed strangely familiar. Therefore I took a cab to the police-station down at Whitehall, and made inquiry of the inspector on duty in the big bare office with its flaring gas-jets in wire globes. He heard me to the end, then turning back the book of "occurrences" before him, glanced through the ruled entries.
"I should think this is the gentleman, sir," he said. And he read to me the entry as follows:
"P.C. 462A reports that at 2.07 a.m., while on duty outside the National Gallery, he heard a revolver shot, followed by a man's cry. He ran to the corner of Suffolk Street, where he found a gentleman lying upon the pavement suffering from a serious shot-wound in the chest and quite unconscious. He obtained the assistance of P.C.'s 218A and 343A, and the gentleman, who was not identified, was taken to the Charing Cross Hospital, where the house-surgeon expressed a doubt whether he could live. Neither P.C.'s recollect having noticed any suspicious-looking person in the vicinity. "JOHN PERCIVAL, Inspector."
I waited for no more, but rushed round to the hospital in the cab, and was, five minutes later, taken along the ward, where I identified poor Jack lying in bed, white-faced and unconscious.
"The doctor was here a quarter of an hour ago," whispered the sister. "And he fears he is sinking."
"He has uttered no words?" I asked anxiously. "Made no statement?"
"None. He has never regained consciousness, and I fear, sir, he never will. It is a case of deliberate murder, the police told me early this morning."
I clenched my fists and swore a fierce revenge for that dastardly act. And as I stood beside the narrow bed, I realized that what Olinto had said regarding my own peril was the actual truth. I was a marked man. Was I never to penetrate that inscrutable and ever-increasing mystery?