CHAPTER II WHY THE SAFE WAS OPENED
That day was an active one in Questura, or police office, of Leghorn.
Detectives called, examined the safe, and sagely declared it to be burglar-proof, had not the thieves possessed the key. The Foreign Office knew that, for they supply all the safes to the Consulates abroad, in order that the precious ciphers shall be kept from the prying eyes of foreign spies. The Questore, or chief of police, was of opinion that it was the ciphers of which the thieves had been in search, and was much relieved to hear that they were in safekeeping far away in Downing Street.
His conjecture was the same as my own, namely, that the reason of Hornby's call upon me was to ascertain the situation of the Consulate and the whereabouts of the safe, which, by the way, stood in a corner of the Consul's private room. Captain Mackintosh, too, had taken his bearings, and probably while I sat at dinner on board the Lola my keys had been stolen and passed on to the scarred Scotsman, who had promptly gone ashore and ransacked the place while I had remained with his master smoking and unsuspicious.
But what was the motive? Why had they ransacked all those confidential papers?
My own idea was that they were not in search of the ciphers at all, but either wanted some blank form or other, or else they desired to make use of the Consular seal. The latter, however, still remained on the floor near the safe, as though it had rolled out and been left unheeded. As far as Francesco and I could ascertain, nothing whatever had been taken. Therefore, we re-arranged the papers, re-locked the safe and resolved not to telegraph to Hutcheson and unduly disturb him, as in a few days he would return from England, and there would be time enough then to explain the remarkable story.
One fact, however, we established. The detective on duty at the railway station distinctly recollected a thin middle-aged man, accompanied by a lady in deep black, passing the barrier and entering the train which left at three o'clock for Colle Salvetti to join the Rome express. They were foreigners, therefore he did not take the same notice of them as though they had been Italians. Inquiries at the booking-office showed, however, that no passengers had booked direct to Rome by the train in question. To Grossetto, Cecina, Campiglia, and the other places in the Maremma, passengers had taken tickets, but not one had been booked to any of the great towns. Therefore it was apparent that the mysterious pair who had come ashore just prior to the sailing of the yacht had merely taken tickets for a false destination, and had re-booked at Colle Salvetti, the junction with that long main line which connects Genoa with Rome.
The police were puzzled. The two fishermen who sighted the Lola and first gave the alarm of her danger, declared that when they drew alongside and proffered assistance the captain threatened to shoot the first man who came aboard.
"They were English!" remarked the sturdy, brown-faced toilers of the sea, grinning knowingly. "And the English, when they drink their cognac, know not what they do."
"Did you get any reward for returning to harbor and reporting?" I asked.
"Reward!" echoed one of the men, the elder of the pair. "Not a soldo! The English only cursed us for interfering. That is why we believed that they were trying to make away with the vessel."
The description of the Lola, its owner, his guest, and the captain were circulated by the police to all the Mediterranean ports, with a request that the yacht should be detained. Yet if the vessel were really one of mystery, as it seemed to be, its owner would no doubt go across to some quiet anchorage on the Algerian coast out of the track of the vessels, and calmly proceed to repaint, rename and disguise his craft so that it would not be recognized in Marseilles, Naples, Smyrna, or any of the ports where private yachts habitually call. Thus, from the very first, it seemed to me that Hornby and his friends had very cleverly tricked me for some mysterious purpose, and afterwards ingeniously evaded their watchers and got clean away.
Had the Italian Admiral been able to send a torpedo-boat or two after the fugitives they would no doubt soon have been overhauled, yet circumstances had prevented this and the Lola had consequently escaped.
For purposes of their own the police kept the affair out of the papers, and when Frank Hutcheson stepped out of the sleeping-car from Paris on to the platform at Pisa a few nights afterwards, I related to him the extraordinary story.
"The scoundrels wanted these, that's evident," he responded, holding up the small, strong, leather hand-bag he was carrying, and which contained his jealously-guarded ciphers. "By Jove!" he laughed, "how disappointed they must have been!"
"It may be so," I said, as we entered the midnight train for Leghorn. "But my own theory is that they were searching for some paper or other that you possess."
"What can my papers concern them?" exclaimed the jovial, round-faced Consul, a man whose courtesy is known to every skipper trading up and down the Mediterranean, and who is perhaps one of the most cultured and popular men in the British Consular Service. "I don't keep bank notes in that safe, you know. We fellows in the Service don't roll in gold as our public at home appears to think."
"No. But you may have something in there which might be of value to them. You're often the keeper of valuable documents belonging to Englishmen abroad, you know."
"Certainly. But there's nothing in there just now except, perhaps, the registers of births, marriages and deaths of British subjects, and the papers concerning a Board of Trade inquiry. No, my dear Gordon, depend upon it that the yacht running ashore was all a blind. They did it so as to be able to get the run of the Consulate, secure the ciphers, and sail merrily away with them. It seems to me, however, that they gave you a jolly good dinner and got nothing in return."
"They might very easily have carried me off too," I declared.
"Perhaps it would have been better if they had. You'd at least have had the satisfaction of knowing what their little game really was!"
"But the man and the woman who left the yacht an hour before she sailed, and who slipped away into the country somewhere! I wonder who they were? Hornby distinctly told me that he and Chater were alone, and yet there was evidently a lady and a gentleman on board. I guessed there was a woman there, from the way the boudoir and ladies' saloon were arranged, and certainly no man's hand decorated a dinner table as that was decorated."
"Yes. That's decidedly funny," remarked the Consul thoughtfully. "They went to Colle Salvetti, you say? They changed there, of course. Expresses call there, one going north and the other south, within a quarter of an hour after the train arrives from Leghorn. They showed a lot of ingenuity, otherwise they'd have gone direct to Pisa."
"Ingenuity! I should think so! The whole affair was most cleverly planned. Hornby would have deceived even you, my dear old chap. He had the air of the perfect gentleman, and a glance over the yacht convinced me that he was a wealthy man traveling for pleasure."
"You said something about an armory."
"Yes, there were Maxims stowed away in one of the cabins. They aroused my suspicions."
"They would not have aroused mine," replied my friend. "Yachts carry arms for protection in many cases, especially if they are going to cruise along uncivilized coasts where they must land for water or provisions."
I told him of the torn photograph, which caused him some deep reflection.
"I wonder why the picture had been torn up. Had there been a row on board-a quarrel or something?"
"It had been destroyed surreptitiously, I think."
"Pity you didn't pocket the fragments. We could perhaps have discovered from the photographer the identity of the original."
"Ah!" I sighed regretfully. "I never thought of that. I recollect the name of the firm, however."
"I shall have to report to London the whole occurrence, as British subjects are under suspicion," Hutcheson said. "We'll see whether Scotland Yard knows anything about Hornby or Chater. Most probably they do. Not long ago a description of men on board a yacht was circulated from London as being a pair of well-known burglars who were cruising about in a vessel crammed with booty which they dared not get rid of. They are, however, not the same as our friends on the Lola, for both men wanted were arrested in New Orleans about eight months ago, without their yacht, for they confessed that they had deliberately sunk it on one of the islands in the South Pacific."
"Then these fellows might be another pair of London burglars!" I exclaimed eagerly, as the startling theory occurred to me.
"They might be. But, of course, we can't form any opinion until we hear what Scotland Yard has to say. I'll write a full report in the morning if you will give me minute descriptions of the men, as well as of the captain, Mackintosh."
Next morning I handed over my charge of the Consulate to Frank, and then assisted him to go through the papers in the safe which had been examined by the thieves.
"The ruffians seem to have thoroughly overhauled everything," remarked the Consul in dismay when he saw the disordered state of his papers. "They seem to have read every one deliberately."
"Which shows that had they been in search for the cipher-books they would only have looked for them alone," I remarked decisively. "What on earth could interest them in all these dry, unimportant shipping reports and things?"
"Goodness only knows," replied my friend. Then, calling Cavendish, a tall, fair young man, who had now recovered from his touch of fever and had returned to the Consulate, he commenced to check the number of those adhesive stamps, rather larger than ordinary postage-stamps, used in the Consular service for the registration of fees received by the Foreign Office. The values were from sixpence to one pound, and they were kept in a portfolio.
After a long calculation the Consul suddenly raised his face to me and said-
"Then six ten shilling ones have been taken!"
"Why? There must be some motive!"
"They are of no use to anyone except to Consuls," he explained. "Perhaps they were wanted to affix to some false certificate. See," he added, opening the portfolio, "there were six stamps here, and all are gone."
"But they would have to be obliterated by the Consular stamp," remarked Cavendish.
"Ah! of course," exclaimed Hutcheson, taking out the brass seal from the safe and examining it minutely. "By Jove!" he cried a second later, "it's been used! They've stamped some document with it. Look! They've used the wrong ink-pad! Can't you see that there's violet upon it, while we always use the black pad!"
I took it in my hand, and there, sure enough, I saw traces of violet ink upon it-the ink of the pad for the date-stamp upon the Consul's table.
"Then some document has been stamped and sealed!" I gasped.
"Yes. And my signature forged to it, no doubt. They've fabricated some certificate or other which, bearing the stamp, seal and signature of the Consulate, will be accepted as a legal document. I wonder what it is?"
"Ah!" I said. "I wonder!" And the three of us looked at each other in sheer bewilderment.
"The reason the papers are all upset is because they were evidently in search of some blank form or other, which they hoped to find," remarked my friend. "As you say, the whole affair was most carefully and ingeniously planned."
We crossed the great sunlit piazza together and entered the Questura, that sun-blanched old palace with its long cool loggia where the sentry paces day and night. The Chief of Police, whom we saw, had no further information. The mysterious yacht had not put in at any Italian port. From him, however, we learned the name of the detective who had seen the two strangers leave Leghorn by the early morning train, and an hour afterwards the police-officer, a black-eyed man short of stature, but of an intelligent type, sat in the Consulate replying to our questions.
"As far as I could make out, signore," he said, "the man was an Englishman, wearing a soft black felt hat and a suit of dark blue serge. He had hair just turning gray, a small dark mustache and rather high cheek-bones. In his hand he carried a small bag of tan leather of that square English shape. He seemed in no hurry, for he was calmly smoking a cigarette as he went across to the ticket office."
"And his companion?" asked the Consul.
"She was in black. Rather tall and slim. Her hair was fair, I noticed, but she wore a black veil which concealed her features."
"Was she young or old?"
"Young-from her figure," replied the police agent. "As she passed me her eyes met mine, and I thought I saw a strange fixed kind of glare in them-the look of a woman filled with some unspeakable horror."
Next day the town of Leghorn awoke to find itself gay with bunting, the Italian and English flags flying side by side everywhere, and the Consular standard flapping over the Consulate in the piazza. In the night the British Mediterranean fleet, cruising down from Malta, had come into the roadstead, and at the signal from the flagship had maneuvered and dropped anchor, forming a long line of gigantic battleships, swift cruisers, torpedo-boat destroyers, torpedo-boats, despatch-boats, and other craft extending for several miles along the coast.
In the bright morning sunlight the sight was both picturesque and imposing, for from every vessel flags were flying, and ever and anon the great battleship of the Admiral made signals which were repeated by all the other vessels, each in turn. Lying still on those calm blue waters was a force which one day might cause nations to totter, the overwhelming force which upheld Britain's right in that oft-disputed sea.
A couple of thousand British sailors were ashore on leave, their white caps conspicuous in the streets everywhere as they walked orderly in threes and fours to inspect the town. In the square outside the Consulate a squad from the flagship were setting up a temporary band-stand, where the ship's band was to play when evening fell, while Hutcheson, perspiring in his uniform, drove with the Admiral to make the calls of courtesy upon the authorities which international etiquette demanded.
Myself, I had taken a boat out to the Bulwark, the great battleship flying the Admiral's flag, and was sitting on deck with my old friend Captain Jack Durnford, of the Royal Marines. Each year when the fleet put into Leghorn we were inseparable, for in long years past, at Portsmouth, we had been close friends, and now he was able to pay me annual visits at my Italian home.
He was on duty that morning, therefore could not get ashore till after luncheon.
"I'll dine with you, of course, to-night, old chap," he said. "And you must tell me all the news. We're in here for six days, and I was half a mind to run home. Two of our chaps got leave from the Admiral and left at three this morning for London-four days in the train and two in town! Gone to see their sweethearts, I suppose."
The British naval officer in the Mediterranean delights to dash across Europe for a day at home if he can get leave and funds will allow. It is generally reckoned that such a trip costs about two pounds an hour while in London. And yet when a man is away from his fiancée or wife for three whole years, his anxiety to get back, even for a brief day, is easily understood. The youngsters, however, go for mere caprice-whenever they can obtain leave. This is not often, for the Admiral has very fixed views upon the matter.
"Your time's soon up, isn't it?" I remarked, as I lolled back in the easy deck-chair, and gazed away at the white port and its background of purple Apennines.
The dark, good-looking fellow in his smart summer uniform leaned over the bulwark, and said, with a slight sigh, I thought-
"Yes. This is my last trip to Leghorn, I think. I go back in November, and I really shan't be sorry. Three years is a long time to be away from home. You go next week, you say? Lucky devil to be your own master! I only wish I were. Year after year on this deck grows confoundedly wearisome, I can tell you, my dear fellow."
Durnford was a man who had written much on naval affairs, and was accepted as an expert on several branches of the service. The Admiralty do not encourage officers to write, but in Durnford's case it was recognized that of naval topics he possessed a knowledge that was of use, and, therefore, he was allowed to write books and to contribute critical articles to the service magazines. He had studied the relative strengths of foreign navies, and by keeping his eyes always open he had, on many occasions, been able to give valuable information to our naval attachés at the Embassies. More than once, however, his trenchant criticism of the action of the naval lords had brought upon his head rebukes from head-quarters; nevertheless, so universally was his talent as a naval expert recognized, that to write had never been forbidden him as it had been to certain others.
"How's Hutcheson?" he asked a moment later, turning and facing me.
"Fit as a fiddle. Just back from his month's leave at home. His wife is still up in Scotland, however. She can't stand Leghorn in summer."
"No wonder. It's a perfect furnace when the weather begins to stoke up."
"I go as soon as you've sailed. I only stayed because I promised to act for Frank," I said. "And, by Jove! a funny thing occurred while I was in charge-a real first-class mystery."
"A mystery-tell me," he exclaimed, suddenly interested.
"Well, a yacht-a pirate yacht, I believe it was-called here."
"A pirate! What do you mean?"
"Well, she was English. Listen, and I'll tell you the whole affair. It'll be something fresh to tell at mess, for I know how you chaps get played out of conversation."
"By Jove, yes! Things slump when we get no mail. But go on-I'm listening," he added, as an orderly came up, saluted, and handed him a paper.
"Well," I said, "let's cross to the other side. I don't want the sentry to overhear."
"As you like-but why such mystery?" he asked as we walked together to the other side of the spick-and-span quarter-deck of the gigantic battleship.
"You'll understand when I tell you the story." And then, standing together beneath the awning, I related to my friend the whole of the curious circumstances, just as I have recorded them in the foregoing pages.
"Confoundedly funny!" he remarked with his dark eyes fixed upon mine. "A mystery, by Jove, it is! What name did the yacht bear?"
"What!" he gasped, suddenly turning pale. "The Lola? Are you quite sure it was the Lola–L-O-L-A?"
"Absolutely certain," I replied. "But why do you ask? Do you happen to know anything about the craft?"
"Me!" he stammered, and I could see that he had involuntarily betrayed the truth, yet for some reason he wished to conceal his knowledge from me. "Me! How should I know anything about such a craft? They were thieves on board evidently-perhaps pirates, as you say."
"But the name Lola is familiar to you, Jack! I'm sure it is, by your manner."
He paused a moment, and I could see what a strenuous effort he was making to avoid betraying knowledge.
"It's-well-" he said hesitatingly, with a rather sickly smile. "It's a girl's name-a girl I once knew. The name brings back to me certain memories."
"Pleasant ones-I hope."
"No. Bitter ones-very bitter ones," he said in a hard tone, striding across the deck and back again, and I saw in his eyes a strange look, half of anger, half of deep regret.
Was he telling the truth, I wondered? Some tragic romance or other concerning a woman had, I knew, overshadowed his life in the years before we had become acquainted. But the real facts he had never revealed to me. He had never before referred to the bitterness of the past, although I knew full well that his heart was in secret filled by some overwhelming sorrow.
Outwardly he was as merry as the other fellows who officered that huge floating fortress; on board he was a typical smart marine, and on shore he danced and played tennis and flirted just as vigorously as did the others. But a heavy heart beat beneath his uniform.
When he returned to where I stood I saw that his face had changed: it had become drawn and haggard. He bore the appearance of a man who had been struck a blow that had staggered him, crushing out all life and hope.
"What's the matter, Jack?" I asked. "Come! Tell me-what ails you?"
"Nothing, my dear old chap," he answered hoarsely. "Really nothing-only a touch of the blues just for a moment," he added, trying hard to smile. "It'll pass."
"What I've just told you about that yacht has upset you. You can't deny it"
He started. His mouth was, I saw, hard set. He knew something concerning that mysterious craft, but would not tell me.
The sound of a bugle came from the further end of the ship, and immediately men were scampering along the deck beneath as some order or other was being obeyed with that precision that characterizes the "handy man."
"Why are you silent?" I asked slowly, my eyes fixed upon my friend the officer. "I have told you what I know, and I want to discover the motive of the visit of those men, and the reason they opened Hutcheson's safe."
"How can I tell you?" he asked in a strained, unnatural voice.
"I believe you know something concerning them. Come, tell me the truth."
"I admit that I have certain grave suspicions," he said at last, standing astride with his hands behind his back, his sword trailing on the white deck. "You say that the yacht was called the Lola–painted gray with a black funnel."
"No, dead white, with a yellow funnel."
"Ah! Of course," he remarked, as though to himself. "They would repaint and alter her appearance. But the dining saloon. Was there a long carved oak buffet with a big, heavy cornice with three gilt dolphins in the center-and were there not dolphins in gilt on the backs of the chairs-an armorial device?"
"Yes," I cried. "You are right. I remember them! You've surely been on board her!"
"And there is a ladies' saloon and a small boudoir in pink beyond, while the smoking-room is entirely of marble for the heat?"
"Exactly-the same yacht, no doubt! But what do you know of her?"
"The captain, who gave his name to you as Mackintosh, is an undersized American of a rather low-down type?"
"I took him for a Scotsman."
"Because he put on a Scotch accent," he laughed. "He's a man who can speak a dozen languages brokenly, and pass for an Italian, a German, a Frenchman, as he wishes."
"And the-the man who gave his name as Philip Hornby?"
Durnford's mouth closed with a snap. He drew a long breath, his eyes grew fierce, and he bit his lip.
"Ah! I see he is not exactly your friend," I said meaningly.
"You are right, Gordon-he is not my friend," was his slow, meaning response.
"Then why not be outspoken and tell me all you know concerning him? Frank Hutcheson is anxious to clear up the mystery because they've tampered with the Consular seals and things. Besides, it would be put down to his credit if he solved the affair."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I'm mystified myself. I can't yet discern their motive."
"But at any rate you know the men," I argued. "You can at least tell us who they really are."
He shook his head, still disinclined, for some hidden reason, to reveal the truth to me.
"You saw no woman on board?" he asked suddenly, looking straight into my eyes.
"No. Hornby told me that he and Chater were alone."
"And yet an hour after you left a man and a woman came ashore and disappeared! Ah! If we only had a description of that woman it would reveal much to us."
"She was young and dark-haired, so the detective says. She had a curious fixed look in her eyes which attracted him, but she wore a thick motor veil, so that he could not clearly discern her features."
"And her companion?"
"Middle-aged, prematurely gray, with a small dark mustache."
Jack Durnford sighed and stroked his chin.
"Ah! Just as I thought," he exclaimed. "And they were actually here, in this port, a week ago! What a bitter irony of fate!"
"I don't understand you," I said. "You are so mysterious, and yet you will tell me nothing!"
"The police, fools that they are, have allowed them to escape, and they will never be caught now. Ah! you don't know them as I do! They are the cleverest pair in all Europe. And they have the audacity to call their craft the Lola–the Lola, of all names!"
"But as you know who and what the fellows are, you ought, I think, in common justice to Hutcheson, to tell us something," I complained. "If they are adventurers, they ought to be traced."
"What can I do-a prisoner here on board?" he argued bitterly. "How can I act?"
"Leave it all to me. I'm free to travel after them, and find out the truth if only you will tell me what you know concerning them," I said eagerly.
"Gordon, let me be frank and open with you, my dear old fellow. I would tell you everything-everything-if I dared. But I cannot-you understand!" And his final words seemed to choke him.
I stood before him, open-mouthed in astonishment.
"You really mean-well, that you are in fear of them-eh?" I whispered.
He nodded slowly in the affirmative, adding: "To tell you the truth would be to bring upon myself a swift, relentless vengeance that would overwhelm and crush me. Ah! my dear fellow, you do not know-you cannot dream-what brought those desperate men into this port. I can guess-I can guess only too well-but I can only tell you that if you ever do discover the terrible truth-which I fear is unlikely-you will solve one of the strangest and most remarkable mysteries of modern times."
"What does the mystery concern?" I asked, in breathless eagerness.
"It concerns a woman."