CHAPTER XVII THE TRUTH ABOUT THE "LOLA"
Throughout the long night I called many times at the hospital, but the reply was always the same. Jack had not regained consciousness, and the doctor regarded his case as hopeless.
In the morning I drove in hot haste to Bassett Road, Notting Hill, and at the address Olinto had given me found Muriel. When she entered the room with folding doors into which I had been shown, I saw that she was pale and apprehensive, for we had not met since her flight, and she was, no doubt, at a loss for an explanation. But I did not press her for one. I merely told her that the Italian Santini had given me her address and that I came as bearer of unfortunate news.
"What is it?" she gasped quickly.
"It concerns Captain Durnford," I replied. "He has been injured in the street, and is in Charing Cross Hospital."
"Ah!" she cried. "I see. You do not explain the truth. By your face I can tell there is something more. He's dead! Tell me the worst."
"No, Miss Leithcourt," I said gravely, "not dead, but the doctors fear that he may not recover. His wound is dangerous. He has been shot by some unknown person."
"Shot!" she echoed, bursting into tears. "Then they have followed him, after all! They have deceived me, and now, as they intend to take him from me, I will myself protect him. You, Mr. Gregg, have been in peril of your life, that I know, but Jack's enemies are yours, and they shall not go unpunished. May I see him?"
"I fear not, but we will ask at the hospital." And after the exchange of some further explanations, we took a hansom back to Charing Cross.
At first the sister refused to allow Muriel to see the patient, but she implored so earnestly that at last she consented, and the distressed girl in the black coat and hat crept on tiptoe to the bedside.
"He was conscious for a quarter of an hour or so," whispered the nurse who sat there, "He asked after some lady named Muriel."
The girl at my side burst into low sobbing.
"Tell him," she said, "that Muriel is here-that she has seen him, and is waiting for him to recover."
We were not allowed to linger there, and on leaving the hospital I took her back again to Notting Hill, promising to keep her well informed of Jack's condition. He had returned to consciousness, therefore there was now a faint hope for his recovery.
Day succeeded day, and although I was not allowed to visit my friend, I was told that he was very slowly progressing. I idled at the Hotel Cecil longing daily for news of Elma. Only once did a letter come from her, a brief, well-written note from which it appeared that she was quite well and happy, although she longed to be able to go out. The Princess was very kind indeed to her, and, she added, was making secret arrangements for her escape across the Russian frontier into Germany.
I knew what that meant. Use was to be made of certain Russian officials who were secretly allied with the Revolutionists in order to secure her safe conduct beyond the power of that order of exile of the tyrant de Plehve. I wrote to her under cover to the Princess, but there had been no time yet for a reply.
I saw Muriel many times, but never once did she refer to Rannoch or their sudden departure. Her only thought was of the man she loved.
"I always believed that you were engaged to Mr. Woodroffe," I said one day, when I called to tell her of Jack's latest bulletin.
"It is true that he asked me to marry him," she responded. "But there were reasons why I did not accept."
"Reasons connected with his past, eh?"
She smiled, and then said:
"Ah, Mr. Gregg, it is all a strange and very tragic story. I must see Jack. When do you think they will allow me to go to him?"
I explained that the doctor feared to cause the patient any undue excitement, but that in two or three days there was hope of her being allowed to visit him. Several times the police made inquiry of me, but I could tell them nothing. I could not for the life of me recollect where I had before seen the face of that man who had passed in the darkness.
One afternoon, ten days after the attempt upon Jack, I was allowed to sit by his bedside and question him.
"Ah, Gordon, old fellow!" he said faintly, "I've had a narrow escape-by Jove! After I left you I walked quickly on towards the club, when, all of a sudden, two scoundrels sprang out of Suffolk Street, and one of them fired a revolver full at me. Then I knew no more."
"But who were the men? Did you recognize them?"
"No, not at all. That's the worst of it."
"But Muriel knows who they were!" I said.
"Ah, yes! Bring her here, won't you?" the poor fellow implored, "I'm dying to see her once again."
Then I told him how she had looked upon him while unconscious, and how I had taken the daily bulletin to her. For an hour I talked with him, urging him to get well soon, so that we could unite in probing the mystery, and bringing to justice those responsible for the dastardly act.
"Muriel knows, and if she loves you she will no doubt assist us," I said.
"Oh, she does love me, Gordon, I know that," said the prostrate man, smiling contentedly, and when I left I promised to bring her there on the morrow.
This I did, but having conducted her to the bed at the end of the ward I discreetly withdrew. What she said to him I am not, of course, aware. All I know is that an hour later when I returned I found them the happiest pair possible to conceive, and I clearly saw that Jack's trust in her was not ill-placed.
But of Elma? No further word had come from her, and I began to grow uneasy. The days went on. I wrote twice, but no reply was forthcoming. At last I could bear the suspense no longer, and began to contemplate returning to Russia.
Jack, when at last discharged from the hospital, came across to the Cecil and lived with me in preference to the "Junior." He was very weak at first, and I looked after him, while every day Muriel came and ate with us, brightening our lives by her smart and merry chatter. She knew that I loved Elma and was also aware of the exciting events in Russia, Jack having told her of them during their long drives in hansoms when he went out with her to take the air.
One day I received a brief note from the Princess in Petersburg, urging me to remain patient and saying Elma was quite safe and well. There were reasons, however, why she was unable to write, she added. What were they, I wondered? Yet I could only wait until I received word to travel back to Russia and fetch her home. The Princess had promised to arrange everything.
December came, and we still remained on at the hotel. Once Olinto had written me repeating his warning, but I did not heed it. I somehow distrusted the fellow.
Jack, now thoroughly recovered, called almost daily at Bassett Road, and would often bring Muriel to the Cecil to tea or to luncheon. Often I inquired the whereabouts of her father and of Hylton Chater, but she declared herself in entire ignorance, and believed they were abroad.
One afternoon, shortly before Christmas, as we were idling in the American bar of the hotel, my friend told me that Muriel had invited us to tea at her cousin's that afternoon, and accordingly we went there in company.
The drawing-room into which we were ushered was familiar to me as the apartment wherein I had told Muriel of the attempt upon her lover's life.
As we sat together Muriel, a smart figure in a pale blue gown, poured tea for us and chatted more merrily, I thought, than ever before. She seemed quick and nervous and yet full of happiness, as she should indeed have been, for Jack Durnford was one of the best fellows in the world, and his restoration to health little short of miraculous.
"Gordon," he said to me with a sudden seriousness when tea had ended and we had placed down our cups. "I want to tell you something-something I've been longing always to tell you, and now I have got dear Muriel's consent. I want to tell you about her father and his friends."
"And about Elma, too?" I said in quick eagerness. "Yes, tell me everything."
"No, not everything, for I don't know it myself. But what I know I will explain as briefly as I can, and leave you to form your own conclusions. It is," he went on, "a strange-most amazing story. When I myself became first cognizant of the mystery I was on board the flagship the Renown, under Admiral Sir John Fisher. We were lying in Malta when there arrived the English yacht Iris, owned by Mr. Philip Leithcourt, and among those on board cruising for pleasure were Mr. Martin Woodroffe, Mr. Hylton Chater, and the owner's wife and daughter Muriel.
"Muriel and I met first at a tennis-party, and afterwards frequently at various houses in Malta, for anyone who goes there and entertains is soon entertained in return. A mutual attachment sprang up between Muriel and myself," he said, placing his hand tenderly upon hers and smiling, "and we often met in secret and took long walks, until quite suddenly Leithcourt said that it was necessary to sail for Smyrna to pick up some friends who had been traveling in Palestine. The night they sailed a great consternation was caused on the island by the news that the safe in the Admiral Superintendent's office had been opened by expert safe-breakers, and certain most important secret documents stolen."
"Well?" I asked, much interested.
"Again, two months later, when the villa of the Prince of Montevachi, at Palmero, was broken into and the whole of the famous jewels of the Princess stolen, it was a very strange fact that the Iris was at the moment in that port. But it was not until the third occasion, when the yacht was at Villefranche, and our squadron being at Toulon I got four days' leave to go along the Riviera, that my suspicions were aroused, for at the very hour when I was dining at the London House at Nice with Muriel and a schoolfellow of hers, Elma Heath-who was spending the winter there with a lady who was Baron Oberg's cousin-that a great robbery was committed in one of the big hotels up at Cimiez, the wife of an American millionaire losing jewels valued at thirty thousand pounds. Then the robberies, coincident with the visit of the yacht, aroused my strong suspicion. I remarked the nature of those documents stolen from Malta, and recognized that they could only be of service to a foreign government. Then came the Leghorn incident of which you told me. The yacht's name had been changed to the Lola, and she had been repainted. I made searching inquiry, and found that on the evening she was purposely run aground in order to strike up a friendship at the Consulate, a Russian gunboat was lying in the vicinity. The Consul's safe was rifled, and the scheme certainly was to transfer anything obtained from it to the Russian gunboat."
"But what was in the safe?" I asked.
"Fortunately nothing. But you see they knew that our squadron was due in Leghorn, and that some extremely important despatches were on the way to the Admiral-secret orders based upon the decision of the British Cabinet as to the vexed question of Russian ships passing the Dardanelles-they expected that they would be lodged in the safe until the arrival of the squadron, as they always are. They were, however, bitterly disappointed because the despatches had not arrived."
"Well, the only Russian who appeared to have any connection with them was Baron Oberg, the Governor-General of Finland, whose habit it was to spend part of the winter in the Mediterranean. From Elma Heath's conversation at dinner that evening at Nice I gathered that she and her uncle had been guests on the Iris on several occasions, although I must say that Muriel was extremely reticent regarding all that concerned the yacht."
"Of course," she said quickly. "Now that I have told you the truth, Jack, don't you think it was only natural?"
"Most certainly, dear," he answered, still holding her hand. "Yours was not a secret that you could very well tell to me until you could thoroughly trust me, especially as your father had been implicated in the theft of those documents from Malta. The truth is," he said, turning to me, "Philip Leithcourt has all along been the catspaw of Baron Oberg. A few years ago he was a well-known money-lender in the city, and in that capacity met the Baron, who, being in disgrace, required a loan. He was also in the habit of having certain shady transactions with that daring gang of continental thieves of whom Dick Archer and Hylton Chater were leaders. For this reason he purchased a yacht for their use, so that they might not only use it for the purpose of storing the stolen goods, but for the purpose of sailing from place to place under the guise of wealthy Englishmen traveling for pleasure. Upon that vessel, indeed, was stored thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of jewels and objects of value, the proceeds of many great robberies in England, France and Belgium. Sometimes they traveled for the purpose of disposing of the jewels in various inland towns where the gems, having been recut, were not recognized, while at other times, Chater and Archer, assisted by Mackintosh, the captain, and Olinto Santini, the steward, sailed for a port, landed, committed a robbery, and then sailed away again, quite unsuspected, as rich Englishmen."
"And the crew?" I asked, after a pause.
"They were, of course, well paid, and were kept in ignorance of what the supposed owner and his friends did ashore."
"But Oberg's connection with it?" I asked, surprised at those revelations.
"Ah!" exclaimed Muriel. "The ingenuity of that crafty villain is fiendish. Before he got into the Czar's favor he owed my father a large sum, and then sought how to evade repayment. By means of his spies he discovered the real purpose of the cruises of the Iris–for I was often taken on board with a maid in order to allay any suspicion that might arise if only men were cruising. Then he not only compelled my father to cancel the debt, but he impressed the vessel and those who owned and navigated it into the secret service of Russia. A dozen times did we make attempts to obtain secret papers from Italian, French and English dockyards, but only once in the case of Malta and once at Toulon did we succeed. Ah! Mr. Gregg," she added, "you do not know all the anxiety I suffered, how at every hour we were in danger of betrayal or capture, and of the hundred narrow escapes we have had of Custom House officers rummaging the yacht for contraband. You will no doubt recollect the sensation caused by the theft of the jewels of the Princess Wilhelmine of Schaumbourg-Lippe from the lady's-maid in the rapide between Cannes and Les Arcs, the robbery from the Marseilles branch of the Crédit Lyonnais, and the great haul of plate from the château of Bardon, the Paris millionaire, close to Arcachon."
"Yes," I said, for they were all robberies of which I had read in the newspapers a couple of years before.
"Well," she said, "they were all committed by Archer or Woodroffe and his gang-with accomplices ashore, of course-and never once did it seem that any suspicion fell upon us. While the police were frantically searching hither and thither, we used to weigh anchor and calmly steam away with our booty on board. We had with us an old Dutch lapidary, and one of the cabins was fitted as a workshop, where he altered the appearance of the stones, and prepared them ready for sale, while the gold was melted in a crucible and put ashore to be sent to agents in Hamburg."
"But that night in Leghorn?" I said. "What happened to poor Elma?"
"I do not know," was Muriel's reply. "We were both on board together, and standing at the crack of the door watched you sitting at dinner that evening. Elma told me that she believed that there was a plot against your life, but why she would not tell me. She evidently knew of the proposed rifling of the safe at the Consulate. Oberg himself was also on board, locked in his own cabin. Elma must have overheard some conversation between the Baron and one of the others, for she was in great fear the whole time lest they might injure you. Yet it seemed, after all, as though their idea was the same as always, to worm themselves into your confidence. The instant, however, you went ashore, Chater, Woodroffe-whom you called Hornby-and Mackintosh, the captain-who, by the way, was an old ticket-of-leave man-went ashore, and, of course, broke into the Consulate. Then, as soon as they returned, Elma came to my cabin, awoke me, and said that the Baron was taking her ashore, and that they were to travel overland back to London. She was ready dressed to go, therefore I kissed her, and promising to meet her soon, we parted. That was the last I saw of her. What happened to her afterwards only she alone can tell us."
"But she is not the Baron's niece?" I said.
"No. There is some mystery," declared Muriel. "She holds some secret which he fears she may divulge. But of what nature, I am in ignorance."
"Then you say that your father has never taken any active part in the robberies?" I remarked.
"No. He commenced by lending money, and amassed a considerable fortune. Then avarice seized him, as it does so many men, and coming into contact with Archer and his friends, he saw that the idea of the yacht was a safe and profitable one. Therefore he purchased the vessel, and ran it at the disposition of the thieves, and subsequently under compulsion in the secret service of Russia, as I have already described to you. The profits were colossal. In one year my father's share was eighty thousand pounds."
"And where is your father now?" I asked.
"Ah!" she exclaimed sadly, her face pale and haggard.
"I have heard that the vessel was scuttled somewhere in the Baltic."
"That is true. Oberg's purpose having been served, he demanded half the property on board, or he would give notice to the Russian naval authorities that the pirate yacht was afloat. He attempted to blackmail my father, as he had already done so many times, but his scheme was frustrated. My father, because of his inhuman treatment of poor Elma, defied him, when it appears that Oberg, who was in Helsingfors, telegraphed to the admiral of the Russian fleet in the Baltic. The crew from the Iris were at once landed at Riga, and only Mackintosh and my father put to sea again. Ah! my father was desperate, for he knew the merciless character of that man whose victim he had been for so long. They watched a Russian cruiser bearing down upon them, when, just as it drew near, they got off in a boat and blew up the yacht, which sank in three minutes with its ill-obtained wealth on board."
"And your father?"
She was silent, and I saw tears standing in her eyes.
"There was a tragedy," Jack explained in a low, hoarse voice. "He and the captain did not, unfortunately, get sufficiently far from the yacht when they blew her up, and they went down with her."
And I looked in silence at Muriel, who stood with her head bent and her white face covered with her hands.
Almost at the same moment there was a low tap at the door, and the servant-maid announced:
"Mr. Santini, miss."
"Ah!" exclaimed Jack quickly, as Olinto entered the room. "Then you had my note! We have asked you here to reveal to us this dastardly plot which seemed to have been formed against Mr. Gregg and myself. As you know, I've had a narrow escape."
"I know, signore. And the Signor Commendatore is also threatened."
"By those who killed my poor wife, and who intended also to silence me," was his answer.
"The same who compelled you take me to that house where the fatal chair was prepared, eh?"
"It was Archer, who, fearing that you came to London in search of them, devised that devilish contrivance," he said in his broken English. Then continuing, he went on fiercely: "Now that I have discovered why my poor Armida was killed, I will tell the truth, and not spare them. Since you left Scotland, signore, I have been up in Dumfries, and have discovered several facts which prove that for some reason known only to himself, Leithcourt, while at Rannoch, wrote to both Armida and myself separately, making an appointment to see us at the same time at that spot on the edge of the wood, as he had some secret commission to entrust to us. The letter addressed to me apparently fell into someone else's hands-probably one of the secret agents of Baron Oberg, who were always watching Leithcourt's doings, and he, anxious to learn what was intended, made himself up to look like me, and kept the appointment in my place. Armida, having received the letter unknown to me, went up to Scotland, and was also there at the appointed time. What actually transpired can only be surmised, yet it seems that Leithcourt was in the habit of going up to that spot and loitering there in the evening in order to meet Chater in secret, as the latter was in hiding in a small hotel in Dumfries. Therefore those who formed the plot must have endeavored to throw suspicion upon Leithcourt. It is plain, however, as both myself and Armida knew the gang, it was to their interest to get rid of us, because the suspicions of the police had at last become aroused. Poor Armida was therefore deliberately enticed there to her death, while the inquisitive man whom the assassin took to be myself was also struck down."
"Not by Chater, for he was in London on that night."
"Then by Woodroffe?" Durnford said.
"Without a doubt. It was all most cleverly thought out. It was to his advantage alone to close our lips, because in that same fatal chair in Lambeth old Jacob Moser, the Jew bullion-broker of Hatton Garden, met his death-a most dastardly crime, with which none of his friends were associated, and of which we alone held knowledge. He therefore wrote to us as though from Leithcourt, calling us up to Rannoch, in order to strike the blows in the darkness," he added in his peculiar Italian manner. "Besides, he feared we would tell the signore the truth."
"You have not told the police?"
"I dare not, signore. Surely the less the police know about this matter the better, otherwise the Signorina Leithcourt must suffer for her father's avarice and evil-doing."
"Yes," cried Jack anxiously. "That's right, Olinto. The police must know nothing. The reprisals we must make ourselves. But who was it who shot me in Suffolk Street?"
"The same man, Martin Woodroffe."
"Then the assassin is back from Russia?"
"He followed closely behind the Signor Commendatore. Markoff, a clever secret agent of Baron Oberg's, came with him."
Then for the first time I recollected that the man I had recognized in the Strand was a fellow I had seen lounging in the ante-room of the palace of the Governor-General of Finland. The pair, fearing that I should reveal what I knew, were undoubtedly in London to take my life in secret. Now that Leithcourt was dead, Woodroffe had united forces with Oberg, and intended to silence me because they feared that Elma, besides escaping them, had also revealed her secret.
"I trust that the Signorina Leithcourt has explained the story of the yacht and its crew," Olinto remarked. "And has also shown you how I was implicated. You will therefore discern the reason why I have hitherto feared to give you any explanation."
"Yes," I said, "Miss Leithcourt has told me a great deal, but not everything. I cannot yet gather for what reason she and her father fled from Rannoch."
"Then I will tell you," said Muriel quickly. "My father suspected Woodroffe of being the assassin in Rannoch Wood, for he knew that he had broken away from the original compact, and had now allied himself with Oberg. Yet it was also my father's object to appear in fear of them, because he was only awaiting an opportunity to lay plans for poor Elma's rescue from Finland. Therefore one evening Woodroffe called, and my father encountered him in the avenue, and admitted him with his own latchkey by one of the side doors of the castle, afterwards taking him up to the study. He knew that he had come to try and make terms for Oberg, therefore he saw that he must fly at once to Newcastle, where the Iris was lying, get on board, and sail away.
"With some excuse he left him in the study, and then warned my mother and myself to prepare to leave. But while we were packing, it appeared that Chater, who had followed, was shown into the study by the butler, or rather he entered there himself, being well acquainted with the house. Thus the two men, now bitter enemies, met. A fierce quarrel must have ensued, and Chater was poisoned and concealed, Woodroffe, of course, believing he had killed him. My father entered the study again, and seeing only Woodroffe there, did not know what had occurred. Some words probably arose, when my father again turned and left. Then we fled to Carlisle and on to Newcastle, and next morning were on board the yacht out in the North Sea, afterwards landing at Rotterdam. Those," she added, "are briefly the facts, as my poor father related them to me."
"And what of poor Elma-and of her secret? When, I wonder, shall I see her?" I cried in despair.
"You will see her now, signore," answered Olinto. "A servant of the Princess Zurloff brought her to London this afternoon, and I have just conveyed her from the station. She is in the next room, in ignorance, however, that you are here."
And without another word I fled forward joyfully, and threw open the folding-doors which separated me from my silent love.
Silent, yes! But she could, nevertheless, tell her story-surely the strangest that any woman has ever lived to tell.