THE EPISODE OF THE ARREST OF THE COLONEL
How much precisely Charles dropped over the slump in Cloetedorps I never quite knew. But the incident left him dejected, limp, and dispirited.
"Hang it all, Sey," he said to me in the smoking-room, a few evenings later. "This Colonel Clay is enough to vex the patience of Job and Job had large losses, too, if I recollect aright, from the Chaldeans and other big operators of the period."
"Three thousand camels," I murmured, recalling my dear mother's lessons; "all at one fell swoop; not to mention five hundred yoke of oxen, carried off by the Sabeans, then a leading firm of speculative cattle-dealers!"
"Ah, well," Charles meditated aloud, shaking the ash from his cheroot into a Japanese tray—fine antique bronze-work. "There were big transactions in live-stock even then! Still, Job or no Job, the man is too much for me."
"The difficulty is," I assented, "you never know where to have him."
"Yes," Charles mused; "if he were always the same, like Horniman's tea or a good brand of whisky, it would be easier, of course; you'd stand some chance of spotting him. But when a man turns up smiling every time in a different disguise, which fits him like a skin, and always apparently with the best credentials, why, hang it all, Sey, there's no wrestling with him anyhow."
"Who could have come to us, for example, better vouched," I acquiesced, "than the Honourable David?"
"Exactly so," Charles murmured. "I invited him myself, for my own advantage. And he arrived with all the prestige of the Glen-Ellachie connection."
"Or the Professor?" I went on. "Introduced to us by the leading mineralogist of England."
I had touched a sore point. Charles winced and remained silent.
"Then, women again," he resumed, after a painful pause. "I must meet in society many charming women. I can't everywhere and always be on my guard against every dear soul of them. Yet the moment I relax my attention for one day—or even when I don't relax it—I am bamboozled and led a dance by that arch Mme. Picardet, or that transparently simple little minx, Mrs. Granton. She's the cleverest girl I ever met in my life, that hussy, whatever we're to call her. She's a different person each time; and each time, hang it all, I lose my heart afresh to that different person."
I glanced round to make sure Amelia was well out of earshot.
"No, Sey," my respected connection went on, after another long pause, sipping his coffee pensively, "I feel I must be aided in this superhuman task by a professional unraveller of cunning disguises. I shall go to Marvillier's to-morrow—fortunate man, Marvillier—and ask him to supply me with a really good 'tec, who will stop in the house and keep an eye upon every living soul that comes near me. He shall scan each nose, each eye, each wig, each whisker. He shall be my watchful half, my unsleeping self; it shall be his business to suspect all living men, all breathing women. The Archbishop of Canterbury shall not escape for a moment his watchful regard; he will take care that royal princesses don't collar the spoons or walk off with the jewel-cases. He must see possible Colonel Clays in the guard of every train and the parson of every parish; he must detect the off-chance of a Mme. Picardet in every young girl that takes tea with Amelia, every fat old lady that comes to call upon Isabel. Yes, I have made my mind up. I shall go to-morrow and secure such a man at once at Marvillier's."
"If you please, Sir Charles," Césarine interposed, pushing her head through the portière, "her ladyship says, will you and Mr. Wentworth remember that she goes out with you both this evening to Lady Carisbrooke's?"
"Bless my soul," Charles cried, "so she does! And it's now past ten! The carriage will be at the door for us in another five minutes!"
Next morning, accordingly, Charles drove round to Marvillier's. The famous detective listened to his story with glistening eyes; then he rubbed his hands and purred. "Colonel Clay!" he said; "Colonel Clay! That's a very tough customer! The police of Europe are on the look-out for Colonel Clay. He is wanted in London, in Paris, in Berlin. It is le Colonel Caoutchouc here, le Colonel Caoutchouc there; till one begins to ask, at last, IS there any Colonel Caoutchouc, or is it a convenient class name invented by the Force to cover a gang of undiscovered sharpers? However, Sir Charles, we will do our best. I will set on the track without delay the best and cleverest detective in England."
"The very man I want," Charles said. "What name, Marvillier?"
The principal smiled. "Whatever name you like," he said. "He isn't particular. Medhurst he's called at home. We call him Joe. I'll send him round to your house this afternoon for certain."
"Oh no," Charles said promptly, "you won't; or Colonel Clay himself will come instead of him. I've been sold too often. No casual strangers! I'll wait here and see him."
"But he isn't in," Marvillier objected.
Charles was firm as a rock. "Then send and fetch him."
In half an hour, sure enough, the detective arrived. He was an odd-looking small man, with hair cut short and standing straight up all over his head, like a Parisian waiter. He had quick, sharp eyes, very much like a ferret's; his nose was depressed, his lips thin and bloodless. A scar marked his left cheek—made by a sword-cut, he said, when engaged one day in arresting a desperate French smuggler, disguised as an officer of Chasseurs d'Afrique. His mien was resolute. Altogether, a quainter or 'cuter little man it has never yet been my lot to set eyes on. He walked in with a brisk step, eyed Charles up and down, and then, without much formality, asked for what he was wanted.
"This is Sir Charles Vandrift, the great diamond king," Marvillier said, introducing us.
"So I see," the man answered.
"Then you know me?" Charles asked.
"I wouldn't be worth much," the detective replied, "if I didn't know everybody. And you're easy enough to know; why, every boy in the street knows you."
"Plain spoken!" Charles remarked.
"As you like it, sir," the man answered in a respectful tone. "I endeavour to suit my dress and behaviour on every occasion to the taste of my employers."
"Your name?" Charles asked, smiling.
"Joseph Medhurst, at your service. What sort of work? Stolen diamonds? Illicit diamond-buying?"
"No," Charles answered, fixing him with his eye. "Quite another kind of job. You've heard of Colonel Clay?"
Medhurst nodded. "Why, certainly," he said; and, for the first time, I detected a lingering trace of American accent. "It's my business to know about him."
"Well, I want you to catch him," Charles went on.
Medhurst drew a long breath. "Isn't that rather a large order?" he murmured, surprised.
Charles explained to him exactly the sort of services he required. Medhurst promised to comply. "If the man comes near you, I'll spot him," he said, after a moment's pause. "I can promise you that much. I'll pierce any disguise. I should know in a minute whether he's got up or not. I'm death on wigs, false moustaches, artificial complexions. I'll engage to bring the rogue to book if I see him. You may set your mind at rest, that, while I'm about you, Colonel Clay can do nothing without my instantly spotting him."
"He'll do it," Marvillier put in. "He'll do it, if he says it. He's my very best hand. Never knew any man like him for unravelling and unmasking the cleverest disguises."
"Then he'll suit me," Charles answered, "for I never knew any man like Colonel Clay for assuming and maintaining them."
It was arranged accordingly that Medhurst should take up his residence in the house for the present, and should be described to the servants as assistant secretary. He came that very day, with a marvellously small portmanteau. But from the moment he arrived, we noticed that Césarine took a violent dislike to him.
Medhurst was a most efficient detective. Charles and I told him all we knew about the various shapes in which Colonel Clay had "materialised," and he gave us in turn many valuable criticisms and suggestions. Why, when we began to suspect the Honourable David Granton, had we not, as if by accident, tried to knock his red wig off? Why, when the Reverend Richard Peploe Brabazon first discussed the question of the paste diamonds, had we not looked to see if any of Amelia's unique gems were missing? Why, when Professor Schleiermacher made his bow to assembled science at Lancaster Gate, had we not strictly inquired how far he was personally known beforehand to Sir Adolphus Cordery and the other mineralogists? He supplied us also with several good hints about false hair and make-up; such as that Schleiermacher was probably much shorter than he looked, but by imitating a stoop with padding at his back he had produced the illusion of a tall bent man, though in reality no bigger than the little curate or the Graf von Lebenstein. High heels did the rest; while the scientific keenness we noted in his face was doubtless brought about by a trifle of wax at the end of the nose, giving a peculiar tilt that is extremely effective. In short, I must frankly admit, Medhurst made us feel ashamed of ourselves. Sharp as Charles is, we realised at once he was nowhere in observation beside the trained and experienced senses of this professional detective.
The worst of it all was, while Medhurst was with us, by some curious fatality, Colonel Clay stopped away from us. Now and again, to be sure, we ran up against somebody whom Medhurst suspected; but after a short investigation (conducted, I may say, with admirable cleverness), the spy always showed us the doubtful person was really some innocent and well-known character, whose antecedents and surroundings he elucidated most wonderfully. He was a perfect marvel, too, in his faculty of suspicion. He suspected everybody. If an old friend dropped in to talk business with Charles, we found out afterwards that Medhurst had lain concealed all the time behind the curtain, and had taken short-hand notes of the whole conversation, as well as snap-shot photographs of the supposed sharper, by means of a kodak. If a fat old lady came to call upon Amelia, Medhurst was sure to be lurking under the ottoman in the drawing-room, and carefully observing, with all his eyes, whether or not she was really Mme. Picardet, padded. When Lady Tresco brought her four plain daughters to an "At Home" one night, Medhurst, in evening dress, disguised as a waiter, followed them each round the room with obtrusive ices, to satisfy himself just how much of their complexion was real, and how much was patent rouge and Bloom of Ninon. He doubted whether Simpson, Sir Charles's valet, was not Colonel Clay in plain clothes; and he had half an idea that Césarine herself was our saucy White Heather in an alternative avatar. We pointed out to him in vain that Simpson had often been present in the very same room with David Granton, and that Césarine had dressed Mrs. Brabazon's hair at Lucerne: this partially satisfied him, but only partially. He remarked that Simpson might double both parts with somebody else unknown; and that as for Césarine, she might well have a twin sister who took her place when she was Mme. Picardet.
Still, in spite of all his care—or because of all his care—Colonel Clay stopped away for whole weeks together. An explanation occurred to us. Was it possible he knew we were guarded and watched? Was he afraid of measuring swords with this trained detective?
If so, how had he found it out? I had an inkling, myself—but, under all the circumstances, I did not mention it to Charles. It was clear that Césarine intensely disliked this new addition to the Vandrift household. She would not stop in the room where the detective was, or show him common politeness. She spoke of him always as "that odious man, Medhurst." Could she have guessed, what none of the other servants knew, that the man was a spy in search of the Colonel? I was inclined to believe it. And then it dawned upon me that Césarine had known all about the diamonds and their story; that it was Césarine who took us to see Schloss Lebenstein; that it was Césarine who posted the letter to Lord Craig-Ellachie! If Césarine was in league with Colonel Clay, as I was half inclined to surmise, what more natural than her obvious dislike to the detective who was there to catch her principal? What more simple for her than to warn her fellow-conspirator of the danger that awaited him if he approached this man Medhurst?
However, I was too much frightened by the episode of the cheque to say anything of my nascent suspicions to Charles. I waited rather to see how events would shape themselves.
After a while Medhurst's vigilance grew positively annoying. More than once he came to Charles with reports and shorthand notes distinctly distasteful to my excellent brother-in-law. "The fellow is getting to know too much about us," Charles said to me one day. "Why, Sey, he spies out everything. Would you believe it, when I had that confidential interview with Brookfield the other day, about the new issue of Golcondas, the man was under the easy-chair, though I searched the room beforehand to make sure he wasn't there; and he came to me afterwards with full notes of the conversation, to assure me he thought Brookfield—whom I've known for ten years—was too tall by half an inch to be one of Colonel Clay's impersonations."
"Oh, but, Sir Charles," Medhurst cried, emerging suddenly from the bookcase, "you must never look upon any one as above suspicion merely because you've known him for ten years or thereabouts. Colonel Clay may have approached you at various times under many disguises. He may have built up this thing gradually. Besides, as to my knowing too much, why, of course, a detective always learns many things about his employer's family which he is not supposed to know; but professional honour and professional etiquette, as with doctors and lawyers, compel him to lock them up as absolute secrets in his own bosom. You need never be afraid I will divulge one jot of them. If I did, my occupation would be gone, and my reputation shattered."
Charles looked at him, appalled. "Do you dare to say," he burst out, "you've been listening to my talk with my brother-in-law and secretary?"
"Why, of course," Medhurst answered. "It's my business to listen, and to suspect everybody. If you push me to say so, how do I know Colonel Clay is not—Mr. Wentworth?"
Charles withered him with a look. "In future, Medhurst," he said, "you must never conceal yourself in a room where I am without my leave and knowledge."
Medhurst bowed politely. "Oh, as you will, Sir Charles," he answered; "that's quite at your own wish. Though how can I act as an efficient detective, any way, if you insist upon tying my hands like that, beforehand?"
Again I detected a faint American flavour.
After that rebuff, however, Medhurst seemed put upon his mettle. He redoubled his vigilance in every direction. "It's not my fault," he said plaintively, one day, "if my reputation's so good that, while I'm near you, this rogue won't approach you. If I can't catch him, at least I keep him away from coming near you!"
A few days later, however, he brought Charles some photographs. These he produced with evident pride. The first he showed us was a vignette of a little parson. "Who's that, then?" he inquired, much pleased.
We gazed at it, open-eyed. One word rose to our lips simultaneously: "Brabazon!"
"And how's this for high?" he asked again, producing another—the photograph of a gay young dog in a Tyrolese costume.
We murmured, "Von Lebenstein!"
"And this?" he continued, showing us the portrait of a lady with a most fetching squint.
We answered with one voice, "Little Mrs. Granton!"
Medhurst was naturally proud of this excellent exploit. He replaced them in his pocket-book with an air of just triumph.
"How did you get them?" Charles asked.
Medhurst's look was mysterious. "Sir Charles," he answered, drawing himself up, "I must ask you to trust me awhile in this matter. Remember, there are people whom you decline to suspect. I have learned that it is always those very people who are most dangerous to capitalists. If I were to give you the names now, you would refuse to believe me. Therefore, I hold them over discreetly for the moment. One thing, however, I say. I know to a certainty where Colonel Clay is at this present speaking. But I will lay my plans deep, and I hope before long to secure him. You shall be present when I do so; and I shall make him confess his personality openly. More than that you cannot reasonably ask. I shall leave it to you, then, whether or not you wish to arrest him."
Charles was considerably puzzled, not to say piqued, by this curious reticence; he begged hard for names; but Medhurst was adamant. "No, no," he replied; "we detectives have our own just pride in our profession. If I told you now, you would probably spoil all by some premature action. You are too open and impulsive! I will mention this alone: Colonel Clay will be shortly in Paris, and before long will begin from that city a fresh attempt at defrauding you, which he is now hatching. Mark my words, and see whether or not I have been kept well informed of the fellow's movements!"
He was perfectly correct. Two days later, as it turned out, Charles received a "confidential" letter from Paris, purporting to come from the head of a second-rate financial house with which he had had dealings over the Craig-Ellachie Amalgamation—by this time, I ought to have said, an accomplished union. It was a letter of small importance in itself—a mere matter of detail; but it paved the way, so Medhurst thought, to some later development of more serious character. Here once more the man's singular foresight was justified. For, in another week, we received a second communication, containing other proposals of a delicate financial character, which would have involved the transference of some two thousand pounds to the head of the Parisian firm at an address given. Both these letters Medhurst cleverly compared with those written to Charles before, in the names of Colonel Clay and of Graf von Lebenstein. At first sight, it is true, the differences between the two seemed quite enormous: the Paris hand was broad and black, large and bold; while the earlier manuscript was small, neat, thin, and gentlemanly. Still, when Medhurst pointed out to us certain persistent twists in the formation of his capitals, and certain curious peculiarities in the relative length of his t's, his l's, his b's, and his h's, we could see for ourselves he was right; both were the work of one hand, writing in the one case with a sharp-pointed nib, very small, and in the other with a quill, very large and freely.
This discovery was most important. We stood now within measurable distance of catching Colonel Clay, and bringing forgery and fraud home to him without hope of evasion.
To make all sure, however, Medhurst communicated with the Paris police, and showed us their answers. Meanwhile, Charles continued to write to the head of the firm, who had given a private address in the Rue Jean Jacques, alleging, I must say, a most clever reason why the negotiations at this stage should be confidentially conducted. But one never expected from Colonel Clay anything less than consummate cleverness. In the end, it was arranged that we three were to go over to Paris together, that Medhurst was to undertake, under the guise of being Sir Charles, to pay the two thousand pounds to the pretended financier, and that Charles and I, waiting with the police outside the door, should, at a given signal, rush in with our forces and secure the criminal.
We went over accordingly, and spent the night at the Grand, as is Charles's custom. The Bristol, which I prefer, he finds too quiet. Early next morning we took a fiacre and drove to the Rue Jean Jacques. Medhurst had arranged everything in advance with the Paris police, three of whom, in plain clothes, were waiting at the foot of the staircase to assist us. Charles had further provided himself with two thousand pounds, in notes of the Bank of France, in order that the payment might be duly made, and no doubt arise as to the crime having been perpetrated as well as meditated—in the former case, the penalty would be fifteen years; in the latter, three only. He was in very high spirits. The fact that we had tracked the rascal to earth at last, and were within an hour of apprehending him, was in itself enough to raise his courage greatly. We found, as we expected, that the number given in the Rue Jean Jacques was that of an hotel, not a private residence. Medhurst went in first, and inquired of the landlord whether our man was at home, at the same time informing him of the nature of our errand, and giving him to understand that if we effected the capture by his friendly aid, Sir Charles would see that the expenses incurred on the swindler's bill were met in full, as the price of his assistance. The landlord bowed; he expressed his deep regret, as M. le Colonel—so we heard him call him—was a most amiable person, much liked by the household; but justice, of course, must have its way; and, with a regretful sigh, he undertook to assist us.
The police remained below, but Charles and Medhurst were each provided with a pair of handcuffs. Remembering the Polperro case, however, we determined to use them with the greatest caution. We would only put them on in case of violent resistance. We crept up to the door where the miscreant was housed. Charles handed the notes in an open envelope to Medhurst, who seized them hastily and held them in his hands in readiness for action. We had a sign concerted. Whenever he sneezed—which he could do in the most natural manner—we were to open the door, rush in, and secure the criminal!
He was gone for some minutes. Charles and I waited outside in breathless expectation. Then Medhurst sneezed. We flung the door open at once, and burst in upon the creature.
Medhurst rose as we did so. He pointed with his finger. "This is Colonel Clay!" he said; "keep him well in charge while I go down to the door for the police to arrest him!"
A gentlemanly man, about middle height, with a grizzled beard and a well-assumed military aspect, rose at the same moment. The envelope in which Charles had placed the notes lay on the table before him. He clutched it nervously. "I am at a loss, gentlemen," he said, in an excited voice, "to account for this interruption." He spoke with a tremor, yet with all the politeness to which we were accustomed in the little curate and the Honourable David.
"No nonsense!" Charles exclaimed, in his authoritative way. "We know who you are. We have found you out this time. You are Colonel Clay. If you attempt to resist—take care—I will handcuff you!"
The military gentleman gave a start. "Yes, I am Colonel Clay," he answered. "On what charge do you arrest me?"
Charles was bursting with wrath. The fellow's coolness seemed never to desert him. "You are Colonel Clay!" he muttered. "You have the unspeakable effrontery to stand there and admit it?"
"Certainly," the Colonel answered, growing hot in turn. "I have done nothing to be ashamed of. What do you mean by this conduct? How dare you talk of arresting me?"
Charles laid his hand on the man's shoulder. "Come, come, my friend," he said. "That sort of bluff won't go down with us. You know very well on what charge I arrest you; and here are the police to give effect to it."
He called out "Entrez!" The police entered the room. Charles explained as well as he could in most doubtful Parisian what they were next to do. The Colonel drew himself up in an indignant attitude. He turned and addressed them in excellent French.
"I am an officer in the service of her Britannic Majesty," he said. "On what ground do you venture to interfere with me, messieurs?"
The chief policeman explained. The Colonel turned to Charles. "Your name, sir?" he inquired.
"You know it very well," Charles answered. "I am Sir Charles Vandrift; and, in spite of your clever disguise, I can instantly recognise you. I know your eyes and ears. I can see the same man who cheated me at Nice, and who insulted me on the island."
"You Sir Charles Vandrift!" the rogue cried. "No, no, sir, you are a madman!" He looked round at the police. "Take care what you do!" he cried. "This is a raving maniac. I had business just now with Sir Charles Vandrift, who quitted the room as these gentlemen entered. This person is mad, and you, monsieur, I doubt not," bowing to me, "you are, of course, his keeper."
"Do not let him deceive you," I cried to the police, beginning to fear that with his usual incredible cleverness the fellow would even now manage to slip through our fingers. "Arrest him, as you are told. We will take the responsibility." Though I trembled when I thought of that cheque he held of mine.
The chief of our three policemen came forward and laid his hand on the culprit's shoulder. "I advise you, M. le Colonel," he said, in an official voice, "to come with us quietly for the present. Before the juge d'instruction we can enter at length into all these questions."
The Colonel, very indignant still—and acting the part marvellously—yielded and went along with them.
"Where's Medhurst?" Charles inquired, glancing round as we reached the door. "I wish he had stopped with us."
"You are looking for monsieur your friend?" the landlord inquired, with a side bow to the Colonel. "He has gone away in a fiacre. He asked me to give this note to you."
He handed us a twisted note. Charles opened and read it. "Invaluable man!" he cried. "Just hear what he says, Sey: 'Having secured Colonel Clay, I am off now again on the track of Mme. Picardet. She was lodging in the same house. She has just driven away; I know to what place; and I am after her to arrest her. In blind haste, MEDHURST.' That's smartness, IF you like. Though, poor little woman, I think he might have left her."
"Does a Mme. Picardet stop here?" I inquired of the landlord, thinking it possible she might have assumed again the same old alias.
He nodded assent. "Oui, oui, oui," he answered. "She has just driven off, and monsieur your friend has gone posting after her."
"Splendid man!" Charles cried. "Marvillier was quite right. He is the prince of detectives!"
We hailed a couple of fiacres, and drove off, in two detachments, to the juge d'instruction. There Colonel Clay continued to brazen it out, and asserted that he was an officer in the Indian Army, home on six months' leave, and spending some weeks in Paris. He even declared he was known at the Embassy, where he had a cousin an attaché; and he asked that this gentleman should be sent for at once from our Ambassador's to identify him. The juge d'instruction insisted that this must be done; and Charles waited in very bad humour for the foolish formality. It really seemed as if, after all, when we had actually caught and arrested our man, he was going by some cunning device to escape us.
After a delay of more than an hour, during which Colonel Clay fretted and fumed quite as much as we did, the attaché arrived. To our horror and astonishment, he proceeded to salute the prisoner most affectionately.
"Halloa, Algy!" he cried, grasping his hand; "what's up? What do these ruffians want with you?"
It began to dawn upon us, then, what Medhurst had meant by "suspecting everybody": the real Colonel Clay was no common adventurer, but a gentleman of birth and high connections!
The Colonel glared at us. "This fellow declares he's Sir Charles Vandrift," he said sulkily. "Though, in fact, there are two of them. And he accuses me of forgery, fraud, and theft, Bertie."
The attaché stared hard at us. "This is Sir Charles Vandrift," he replied, after a moment. "I remember hearing him make a speech once at a City dinner. And what charge have you to prefer, Sir Charles, against my cousin?"
"Your cousin?" Charles cried. "This is Colonel Clay, the notorious sharper!"
The attaché smiled a gentlemanly and superior smile. "This is Colonel Clay," he answered, "of the Bengal Staff Corps."
It began to strike us there was something wrong somewhere.
"But he has cheated me, all the same," Charles said—"at Nice two years ago, and many times since; and this very day he has tricked me out of two thousand pounds in French bank-notes, which he has now about him!"
The Colonel was speechless. But the attaché laughed. "What he has done to-day I don't know," he said; "but if it's as apocryphal as what you say he did two years ago, you've a thundering bad case, sir; for he was then in India, and I was out there, visiting him."
"Where are the two thousand pounds?" Charles cried. "Why, you've got them in your hand! You're holding the envelope!"
The Colonel produced it. "This envelope," he said, "was left with me by the man with short stiff hair, who came just before you, and who announced himself as Sir Charles Vandrift. He said he was interested in tea in Assam, and wanted me to join the board of directors of some bogus company. These are his papers, I believe," and he handed them to his cousin.
"Well, I'm glad the notes are safe, anyhow," Charles murmured, in a tone of relief, beginning to smell a rat. "Will you kindly return them to me?"
The attaché turned out the contents of the envelope. They proved to be prospectuses of bubble companies of the moment, of no importance.
"Medhurst must have put them there," I cried, "and decamped with the cash."
Charles gave a groan of horror. "And Medhurst is Colonel Clay!" he exclaimed, clapping his hand to his forehead.
"I beg your pardon, sir," the Colonel interposed. "I have but one personality, and no aliases."
It took quite half an hour to explain this imbroglio. But as soon as all was explained, in French and English, to the satisfaction of ourselves and the juge d'instruction, the real Colonel shook hands with us in a most forgiving way, and informed us that he had more than once wondered, when he gave his name at shops in Paris, why it was often received with such grave suspicion. We instructed the police that the true culprit was Medhurst, whom they had seen with their own eyes, and whom we urged them to pursue with all expedition. Meanwhile, Charles and I, accompanied by the Colonel and the attaché—"to see the fun out," as they said—called at the Bank of France for the purpose of stopping the notes immediately. It was too late, however. They had been presented at once, and cashed in gold, by a pleasant little lady in an American costume, who was afterwards identified by the hotel-keeper (from our description) as his lodger, Mme. Picardet. It was clear she had taken rooms in the same hotel, to be near the Indian Colonel; and it was she who had received and sent the letters. As for our foe, he had vanished into space, as always.
Two days later we received the usual insulting communication on a sheet of Charles's own dainty note. Last time he wrote it was on Craig-Ellachie paper: this time, like the wanton lapwing, he had got himself another crest.
"MOST PERSPICACIOUS OF MILLIONAIRES!—Said I not well, as Medhurst, that you must distrust everybody? And the one man you never dreamt of distrusting was—Medhurst. Yet see how truthful I was! I told you I knew where Colonel Clay was living—and I did know, exactly. I promised to take you to Colonel Clay's rooms, and to get him arrested for you—and I kept my promise. I even exceeded your expectations; for I gave you two Colonel Clays instead of one—and you took the wrong man—that is to say, the real one. This was a neat little trick; but it cost me some trouble.
"First, I found out there was a real Colonel Clay, in the Indian Army. I also found out he chanced to be coming home on leave this season. I might have made more out of him, no doubt; but I disliked annoying him, and preferred to give myself the fun of this peculiar mystification. I therefore waited for him to reach Paris, where the police arrangements suited me better than in London. While I was looking about, and delaying operations for his return, I happened to hear you wanted a detective. So I offered myself as out of work to my old employer, Marvillier, from whom I have had many good jobs in the past; and there you get, in short, the kernel of the Colonel.
"Naturally, after this, I can never go back as a detective to Marvillier's. But, on the large scale on which I have learned to work since I first had the pleasure of making your delightful acquaintance, this matters little. To say the truth, I begin to feel detective work a cut or two below me. I am now a gentleman of means and leisure. Besides, the extra knowledge of your movements which I have acquired in your house has helped still further to give me various holds upon you. So the fluke will be true to his own pet lamb. To vary the metaphor, you are not fully shorn yet.
"Remember me most kindly to your charming family, give Wentworth my love, and tell Mlle. Césarine I owe her a grudge which I shall never forget. She clearly suspected me. You are much too rich, dear Charles; I relieve your plethora. I bleed you financially. Therefore I consider myself—Your sincerest friend,
"Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons."
"Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons."
Charles was threatened with apoplexy. This blow was severe. "Whom can I trust," he asked, plaintively, "when the detectives themselves, whom I employ to guard me, turn out to be swindlers? Don't you remember that line in the Latin grammar—something about, 'Who shall watch the watchers?' I think it used to run, 'Quis custodes custodiet ipsos?'"
But I felt this episode had at least disproved my suspicions of poor Césarine.
THE EPISODE OF THE SELDON GOLD-MINE
On our return to London, Charles and Marvillier had a difference of opinion on the subject of Medhurst.
Charles maintained that Marvillier ought to have known the man with the cropped hair was Colonel Clay, and ought never to have recommended him. Marvillier maintained that Charles had seen Colonel Clay half-a-dozen times, at least, to his own never; and that my respected brother-in-law had therefore nobody on earth but himself to blame if the rogue imposed upon him. The head detective had known Medhurst for ten years, he said, as a most respectable man, and even a ratepayer; he had always found him the cleverest of spies, as well he might be, indeed, on the familiar set-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief principle. However, the upshot of it all was, as usual—nothing. Marvillier was sorry to lose the services of so excellent a hand; but he had done the very best he could for Sir Charles, he declared; and if Sir Charles was not satisfied, why, he might catch his Colonel Clays for himself in future.
"So I will, Sey," Charles remarked to me, as we walked back from the office in the Strand by Piccadilly. "I won't trust any more to these private detectives. It's my belief they're a pack of thieves themselves, in league with the rascals they're set to catch, and with no more sense of honour than a Zulu diamond-hand."
"Better try the police," I suggested, by way of being helpful. One must assume an interest in one's employer's business.
But Charles shook his head. "No, no," he said; "I'm sick of all these fellows. I shall trust in future to my own sagacity. We learn by experience, Sey—and I've learned a thing or two. One of them is this: It's not enough to suspect everybody; you must have no preconceptions. Divest yourself entirely of every fixed idea if you wish to cope with a rascal of this calibre. Don't jump at conclusions. We should disbelieve everything, as well as distrust everybody. That's the road to success; and I mean to pursue it."
So, by way of pursuing it, Charles retired to Seldon.
"The longer the man goes on, the worse he grows," he said to me one morning. "He's just like a tiger that has tasted blood. Every successful haul seems only to make him more eager for another. I fully expect now before long we shall see him down here."
About three weeks later, sure enough, my respected connection received a communication from the abandoned swindler, with an Austrian stamp and a Vienna post-mark.
"MY DEAR VANDRIFT.—(After so long and so varied an acquaintance we may surely drop the absurd formalities of 'Sir Charles' and 'Colonel.') I write to ask you a delicate question. Can you kindly tell me exactly how much I have received from your various generous acts during the last three years? I have mislaid my account-book, and as this is the season for making the income tax return, I am anxious, as an honest and conscientious citizen, to set down my average profits out of you for the triennial period. For reasons which you will amply understand, I do not this time give my private address, in Paris or elsewhere; but if you will kindly advertise the total amount, above the signature 'Peter Simple,' in the Agony Column of the Times, you will confer a great favour upon the Revenue Commissioners, and also upon your constant friend and companion, CUTHBERT CLAY,
"Mark my word, Sey," Charles said, laying the letter down, "in a week or less the man himself will follow. This is his cunning way of trying to make me think he's well out of the country and far away from Seldon. That means he's meditating another descent. But he told us too much last time, when he was Medhurst the detective. He gave us some hints about disguises and their unmasking that I shall not forget. This turn I shall be even with him."
On Saturday of that week, in effect, we were walking along the road that leads into the village, when we met a gentlemanly-looking man, in a rough and rather happy-go-lucky brown tweed suit, who had the air of a tourist. He was middle-aged, and of middle height; he wore a small leather wallet suspended round his shoulder; and he was peering about at the rocks in a suspicious manner. Something in his gait attracted our attention.
"Good-morning," he said, looking up as we passed; and Charles muttered a somewhat surly inarticulate, "Good-morning."
We went on without saying more. "Well, that's not Colonel Clay, anyhow," I said, as we got out of earshot. "For he accosted us first; and you may remember it's one of the Colonel's most marked peculiarities that, like the model child, he never speaks till he's spoken to—never begins an acquaintance. He always waits till we make the first advance; he doesn't go out of his way to cheat us; he loiters about till we ask him to do it."
"Seymour," my brother-in-law responded, in a severe tone, "there you are, now, doing the very thing I warned you not to do! You're succumbing to a preconception. Avoid fixed ideas. The probability is this man is Colonel Clay. Strangers are generally scarce at Seldon. If he isn't Colonel Clay, what's he here for, I'd like to know? What money is there to be made here in any other way? I shall inquire about him."
We dropped in at the Cromarty Arms, and asked good Mrs. M'Lachlan if she could tell us anything about the gentlemanly stranger. Mrs. M'Lachlan replied that he was from London, she believed, a pleasant gentleman enough; and he had his wife with him.
"Ha! Young? Pretty?" Charles inquired, with a speaking glance at me.
"Weel, Sir Charles, she'll no be exactly what you'd be ca'ing a bonny lass," Mrs. M'Lachlan replied; "but she's a guid body for a' that, an' a fine braw woman."
"Just what I should expect," Charles murmured, "He varies the programme. The fellow has tried White Heather as the parson's wife, and as Madame Picardet, and as squinting little Mrs. Granton, and as Medhurst's accomplice; and now, he has almost exhausted the possibilities of a disguise for a really young and pretty woman; so he's playing her off at last as the riper product—a handsome matron. Clever, extremely clever; but—we begin to see through him." And he chuckled to himself quietly.
Next day, on the hillside, we came upon our stranger again, occupied as before in peering into the rocks, and sounding them with a hammer. Charles nudged me and whispered, "I have it this time. He's posing as a geologist."
I took a good look at the man. By now, of course, we had some experience of Colonel Clay in his various disguises; and I could observe that while the nose, the hair, and the beard were varied, the eyes and the build remained the same as ever. He was a trifle stouter, of course, being got up as a man of between forty and fifty; and his forehead was lined in a way which a less consummate artist than Colonel Clay could easily have imitated. But I felt we had at least some grounds for our identification; it would not do to dismiss the suggestion of Clayhood at once as a flight of fancy.
His wife was sitting near, upon a bare boss of rock, reading a volume of poems. Capital variant, that, a volume of poems! Exactly suited the selected type of a cultivated family. White Heather and Mrs. Granton never used to read poems. But that was characteristic of all Colonel Clay's impersonations, and Mrs. Clay's too—for I suppose I must call her so. They were not mere outer disguises; they were finished pieces of dramatic study. Those two people were an actor and actress, as well as a pair of rogues; and in both their rôles they were simply inimitable.
As a rule, Charles is by no means polite to casual trespassers on the Seldon estate; they get short shrift and a summary ejection. But on this occasion he had a reason for being courteous, and he approached the lady with a bow of recognition. "Lovely day," he said, "isn't it? Such belts on the sea, and the heather smells sweet. You are stopping at the inn, I fancy?"
"Yes," the lady answered, looking up at him with a charming smile. ("I know that smile," Charles whispered to me. "I have succumbed to it too often.") "We're stopping at the inn, and my husband is doing a little geology on the hill here. I hope Sir Charles Vandrift won't come and catch us. He's so down upon trespassers. They tell us at the inn he's a regular Tartar."
("Saucy minx as ever," Charles murmured to me. "She said it on purpose.") "No, my dear madam," he continued, aloud; "you have been quite misinformed. I am Sir Charles Vandrift; and I am not a Tartar. If your husband is a man of science I respect and admire him. It is geology that has made me what I am to-day." And he drew himself up proudly. "We owe to it the present development of South African mining."
The lady blushed as one seldom sees a mature woman blush—but exactly as I had seen Madame Picardet and White Heather. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, in a confused way that recalled Mrs. Granton. "Forgive my hasty speech. I—I didn't know you."
("She did," Charles whispered. "But let that pass.") "Oh, don't think of it again; so many people disturb the birds, don't you know, that we're obliged in self-defence to warn trespassers sometimes off our lovely mountains. But I do it with regret—with profound regret. I admire the—er—the beauties of Nature myself; and, therefore, I desire that all others should have the freest possible access to them—possible, that is to say, consistently with the superior claims of Property."
"I see," the lady replied, looking up at him quaintly. "I admire your wish, though not your reservation. I've just been reading those sweet lines of Wordsworth's—
And O, ye fountains, meadows, hills, and groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves.
Forebode not any severing of our loves.
I suppose you know them?" And she beamed on him pleasantly.
"Know them?" Charles answered. "Know them! Oh, of course, I know them. They're old favourites of mine—in fact, I adore Wordsworth." (I doubt whether Charles has ever in his life read a line of poetry, except Doss Chiderdoss in the Sporting Times.) He took the book and glanced at them. "Ah, charming, charming!" he said, in his most ecstatic tone. But his eyes were on the lady, and not on the poet.
I saw in a moment how things stood. No matter under what disguise that woman appeared to him, and whether he recognised her or not, Charles couldn't help falling a victim to Madame Picardet's attractions. Here he actually suspected her; yet, like a moth round a candle, he was trying his hardest to get his wings singed! I almost despised him with his gigantic intellect! The greatest men are the greatest fools, I verily believe, when there's a woman in question.
The husband strolled up by this time, and entered into conversation with us. According to his own account, his name was Forbes-Gaskell, and he was a Professor of Geology in one of those new-fangled northern colleges. He had come to Seldon rock-spying, he said, and found much to interest him. He was fond of fossils, but his special hobby was rocks and minerals. He knew a vast deal about cairngorms and agates and such-like pretty things, and showed Charles quartz and felspar and red cornelian, and I don't know what else, in the crags on the hillside. Charles pretended to listen to him with the deepest interest and even respect, never for a moment letting him guess he knew for what purpose this show of knowledge had been recently acquired. If we were ever to catch the man, we must not allow him to see we suspected him. So Charles played a dark game. He swallowed the geologist whole without question.
Most of that morning we spent with them on the hillside. Charles took them everywhere and showed them everything. He pretended to be polite to the scientific man, and he was really polite, most polite, to the poetical lady. Before lunch time we had become quite friends.
The Clays were always easy people to get on with; and, bar their roguery, we could not deny they were delightful companions. Charles asked them in to lunch. They accepted willingly. He introduced them to Amelia with sundry raisings of his eyebrows and contortions of his mouth. "Professor and Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell," he said, half-dislocating his jaw with his violent efforts. "They're stopping at the inn, dear. I've been showing them over the place, and they're good enough to say they'll drop in and take a share in our cold roast mutton;" which was a frequent form of Charles's pleasantry.
Amelia sent them upstairs to wash their hands—which, in the Professor's case, was certainly desirable, for his fingers were grimed with earth and dust from the rocks he had been investigating. As soon as we were left alone Charles drew me into the library.
"Seymour," he said, "more than ever there is a need for us strictly to avoid preconceptions. We must not make up our minds that this man is Colonel Clay—nor, again, that he isn't. We must remember that we have been mistaken in both ways in the past, and must avoid our old errors. I shall hold myself in readiness for either event—and a policeman in readiness to arrest them, if necessary!"
"A capital plan," I murmured. "Still, if I may venture a suggestion, in what way are these two people endeavouring to entrap us? They have no scheme on hand—no schloss, no amalgamation."
"Seymour," my brother-in-law answered in his board-room style, "you are a great deal too previous, as Medhurst used to say—I mean, Colonel Clay in his character as Medhurst. In the first place, these are early days; our friends have not yet developed their intentions. We may find before long they have a property to sell, or a company to promote, or a concession to exploit in South Africa or elsewhere. Then again, in the second place, we don't always spot the exact nature of their plan until it has burst in our hands, so to speak, and revealed its true character. What could have seemed more transparent than Medhurst, the detective, till he ran away with our notes in the very moment of triumph? What more innocent than White Heather and the little curate, till they landed us with a couple of Amelia's own gems as a splendid bargain? I will not take it for granted any man is not Colonel Clay, merely because I don't happen to spot the particular scheme he is trying to work against me. The rogue has so many schemes, and some of them so well concealed, that up to the moment of the actual explosion you fail to detect the presence of moral dynamite. Therefore, I shall proceed as if there were dynamite everywhere. But in the third place—and this is very important—you mark my words, I believe I detect already the lines he will work upon. He's a geologist, he says, with a taste for minerals. Very good. You see if he doesn't try to persuade me before long he has found a coal mine, whose locality he will disclose for a trifling consideration; or else he will salt the Long Mountain with emeralds, and claim a big share for helping to discover them; or else he will try something in the mineralogical line to do me somehow. I see it in the very transparency of the fellow's face; and I'm determined this time neither to pay him one farthing on any pretext, nor to let him escape me!"
We went in to lunch. The Professor and Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell, all smiles, accompanied us. I don't know whether it was Charles's warning to take nothing for granted that made me do so—but I kept a close eye upon the suspected man all the time we were at table. It struck me there was something very odd about his hair. It didn't seem quite the same colour all over. The locks that hung down behind, over the collar of his coat, were a trifle lighter and a trifle grayer than the black mass that covered the greater part of his head. I examined it carefully. The more I did so, the more the conviction grew upon me: he was wearing a wig. There was no denying it!
A trifle less artistic, perhaps, than most of Colonel Clay's get-ups; but then, I reflected (on Charles's principle of taking nothing for granted), we had never before suspected Colonel Clay himself, except in the one case of the Honourable David, whose red hair and whiskers even Madame Picardet had admitted to be absurdly false by her action of pointing at them and tittering irrepressibly. It was possible that in every case, if we had scrutinised our man closely, we should have found that the disguise betrayed itself at once (as Medhurst had suggested) to an acute observer.
The detective, in fact, had told us too much. I remembered what he said to us about knocking off David Granton's red wig the moment we doubted him; and I positively tried to help myself awkwardly to potato-chips, when the footman offered them, so as to hit the supposed wig with an apparently careless brush of my elbow. But it was of no avail. The fellow seemed to anticipate or suspect my intention, and dodged aside carefully, like one well accustomed to saving his disguise from all chance of such real or seeming accidents.
I was so full of my discovery that immediately after lunch I induced Isabel to take our new friends round the home garden and show them Charles's famous prize dahlias, while I proceeded myself to narrate to Charles and Amelia my observations and my frustrated experiment.
"It is a wig," Amelia assented. "I spotted it at once. A very good wig, too, and most artistically planted. Men don't notice these things, though women do. It is creditable to you, Seymour, to have succeeded in detecting it."
Charles was less complimentary. "You fool," he answered, with that unpleasant frankness which is much too common with him. "Supposing it is, why on earth should you try to knock it off and disclose him? What good would it have done? If it is a wig, and we spot it, that's all that we need. We are put on our guard; we know with whom we have now to deal. But you can't take a man up on a charge of wig-wearing. The law doesn't interfere with it. Most respectable men may sometimes wear wigs. Why, I knew a promoter who did, and also the director of fourteen companies! What we have to do next is, wait till he tries to cheat us, and then—pounce down upon him. Sooner or later, you may be sure, his plans will reveal themselves."
So we concocted an excellent scheme to keep them under constant observation, lest they should slip away again, as they did from the island. First of all, Amelia was to ask them to come and stop at the castle, on the ground that the rooms at the inn were uncomfortably small. We felt sure, however, that, as on a previous occasion, they would refuse the invitation, in order to be able to slink off unperceived, in case they should find themselves apparently suspected. Should they decline, it was arranged that Césarine should take a room at the Cromarty Arms as long as they stopped there, and report upon their movements; while, during the day, we would have the house watched by the head gillie's son, a most intelligent young man, who could be trusted, with true Scotch canniness, to say nothing to anybody.
To our immense surprise, Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell accepted the invitation with the utmost alacrity. She was profuse in her thanks, indeed; for she told us the Arms was an ill-kept house, and the cookery by no means agreed with her husband's liver. It was sweet of us to invite them; such kindness to perfect strangers was quite unexpected. She should always say that nowhere on earth had she met with so cordial or friendly a reception as at Seldon Castle. But—she accepted, unreservedly.
"It can't be Colonel Clay," I remarked to Charles. "He would never have come here. Even as David Granton, with far more reason for coming, he wouldn't put himself in our power: he preferred the security and freedom of the Cromarty Arms."
"Sey," my brother-in-law said sententiously, "you're incorrigible. You will persist in being the slave of prepossessions. He may have some good reason of his own for accepting. Wait till he shows his hand—and then, we shall understand everything."
So for the next three weeks the Forbes-Gaskells formed part of the house-party at Seldon. I must say, Charles paid them most assiduous attention. He positively neglected his other guests in order to keep close to the two new-comers. Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell noticed the fact, and commented on it. "You are really too good to us, Sir Charles," she said. "I'm afraid you allow us quite to monopolise you!"
But Charles, gallant as ever, replied with a smile, "We have you with us for so short a time, you know!" Which made Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell blush again that delicious blush of hers.
During all this time the Professor went on calmly and persistently mineralogising. "Wonderful character!" Charles said to me. "He works out his parts so well! Could anything exceed the picture he gives one of scientific ardour?" And, indeed, he was at it, morning, noon, and night. "Sooner or later," Charles observed, "something practical must come of it."
Twice, meanwhile, little episodes occurred which are well worth notice. One day I was out with the Professor on the Long Mountain, watching him hammer at the rocks, and a little bored by his performance, when, to pass the time, I asked him what a particular small water-worn stone was. He looked at it and smiled. "If there were a little more mica in it," he said, "it would be the characteristic gneiss of ice-borne boulders, hereabouts. But there isn't quite enough." And he gazed at it curiously.
"Indeed," I answered, "it doesn't come up to sample, doesn't it?"
He gave me a meaning look. "Ten per cent," he murmured in a slow, strange voice; "ten per cent is more usual."
I trembled violently. Was he bent, then, upon ruining me? "If you betray me—" I cried, and broke off.
"I beg your pardon," he said. He was all pure innocence.
I reflected on what Charles had said about taking nothing for granted, and held my tongue prudently.
The other incident was this. Charles picked a sprig of white heather on the hill one afternoon, after a picnic lunch, I regret to say, when he had taken perhaps a glass more champagne than was strictly good for him. He was not exactly the worse for it, but he was excited, good-humoured, reckless, and lively. He brought the sprig to Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell, and handed it to her, ogling a little. "Sweets to the sweet," he murmured, and looked at her meaningly. "White heather to White Heather." Then he saw what he had done, and checked himself instantly.
Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell coloured up in the usual manner. "I—I don't quite understand," she faltered.
Charles scrambled out of it somehow. "White heather for luck," he said, "and—the man who is privileged to give a piece of it to you is surely lucky."
She smiled, none too well pleased. I somehow felt she suspected us of suspecting her.
However, as it turned out, nothing came, after all, of the untoward incident.
Next day Charles burst upon me, triumphant. "Well, he has shown his hand!" he cried. "I knew he would. He has come to me to-day with—what do you think?—a fragment of gold, in quartz, from the Long Mountain."
"No!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," Charles answered. "He says there's a vein there with distinct specks of gold in it, which might be worth mining. When a man begins that way you know what he's driving at! And what's more, he's got up the subject beforehand; for he began saying to me there had long been gold in Sutherlandshire—why not therefore in Ross-shire? And then he went at full into the comparative geology of the two regions."
"This is serious," I said. "What will you do?"
"Wait and watch," Charles answered; "and the moment he develops a proposal for shares in the syndicate to work the mine, or a sum of money down as the price of his discovery—get in the police, and arrest him."
For the next few days the Professor was more active and ardent than ever. He went peering about the rocks on every side with his hammer. He kept on bringing in little pieces of stone, with gold specks stuck in them, and talking learnedly of the "probable cost of crushing and milling." Charles had heard all that before; in point of fact, he had assisted at the drafting of some dozens of prospectuses. So he took no notice, and waited for the man with the wig to develop his proposals. He knew they would come soon; and he watched and waited. But, of course, to draw him on he pretended to be interested.
While we were all in this attitude of mind, attending on Providence and Colonel Clay, we happened to walk down by the shore one day, in the opposite direction from the Seamew's island. Suddenly we came upon the Professor linked arm-in-arm with—Sir Adolphus Cordery! They were wrapped in deep talk, and appeared to be most amicable.
Now, naturally, relations had been a trifle strained between Sir Adolphus and the house of Vandrift since the incident of the Slump; but under the present circumstances, and with such a matter at stake as the capture of Colonel Clay, it was necessary to overlook all such minor differences. So Charles managed to disengage the Professor from his friend, sent Amelia on with Forbes-Gaskell towards the castle, and stopped behind, himself, with Sir Adolphus and me, to clear up the question.
"Do you know this man, Cordery?" he asked, with some little suspicion.
"Know him? Why, of course I do," Sir Adolphus answered. "He's Marmaduke Forbes-Gaskell, of the Yorkshire College, a very distinguished man of science. First-rate mineralogist—perhaps the best (but one) in England." Modesty forbade him to name the exception.
"But are you sure it's he?" Charles inquired, with growing doubt. "Have you known him before? This isn't a second case of Schleiermachering me, is it?"
"Sure it's he?" Sir Adolphus echoed. "Am I sure of myself? Why, I've known Marmy Gaskell ever since we were at Trinity together. Knew him before he married Miss Forbes of Glenluce, my wife's second cousin, and hyphened his name with hers, to keep the property in the family. Know them both most intimately. Came down here to the inn because I heard that Marmy was on the prowl among these hills, and I thought he had probably something good to prowl after—in the way of fossils."
"But the man wears a wig!" Charles expostulated.
"Of course," Cordery answered. "He's as bald as a bat—in front at least—and he wears a wig to cover his baldness."
"It's disgraceful," Charles exclaimed; "disgraceful—taking us in like that." And he grew red as a turkey-cock.
Sir Adolphus has no delicacy. He burst out laughing.
"Oh, I see," he cried out, simply bursting with amusement. "You thought Forbes-Gaskell was Colonel Clay in disguise! Oh, my stars, what a lovely one!"
"You, at least, have no right to laugh," Charles responded, drawing himself up and growing still redder. "You led me once into a similar scrape, and then backed out of it in a way unbecoming a gentleman. Besides," he went on, getting angrier at each word, "this fellow, whoever he is, has been trying to cheat me on his own account. Colonel Clay or no Colonel Clay, he's been salting my rocks with gold-bearing quartz, and trying to lead me on into an absurd speculation!"
Sir Adolphus exploded. "Oh, this is too good," he cried. "I must go and tell Marmy!" And he rushed off to where Forbes-Gaskell was seated on a corner of rock with Amelia.
As for Charles and myself, we returned to the house. Half an hour later Forbes-Gaskell came back, too, in a towering temper.
"What is the meaning of this, sir?" he shouted out, as soon as he caught sight of Charles. "I'm told you've invited my wife and myself here to your house in order to spy upon us, under the impression that I was Clay, the notorious swindler!"
"I thought you were," Charles answered, equally angry. "Perhaps you may be still! Anyhow, you're a rogue, and you tried to bamboozle me!"
Forbes-Gaskell, white with rage, turned to his trembling wife. "Gertrude," he said, "pack up your box and come away from these people instantly. Their pretended hospitality has been a studied insult. They've put you and me in a most ridiculous position. We were told before we came here—and no doubt with truth—that Sir Charles Vandrift was the most close-fisted and tyrannical old curmudgeon in Scotland. We've been writing to all our friends to say ecstatically that he was, on the contrary, a most hospitable, generous, and large-hearted gentleman. And now we find out he's a disgusting cad, who asks strangers to his house from the meanest motives, and then insults his guests with gratuitous vituperation. It is well such people should hear the plain truth now and again in their lives; and it therefore gives me the greatest pleasure to tell Sir Charles Vandrift that he's a vulgar bounder of the first water. Go and pack your box, Gertrude! I'll run down to the Cromarty Arms, and order a cab to carry us away at once from this inhospitable sham castle."
"You wear a wig, sir; you wear a wig," Charles exclaimed, half-choking with passion. For, indeed, as Forbes-Gaskell spoke, and tossed his head angrily, the nature of his hair-covering grew painfully apparent. It was quite one-sided.
"I do, sir, that I may be able to shake it in the face of a cad!" the Professor responded, tearing it off to readjust it; and, suiting the action to the word, he brandished it thrice in Charles's eyes; after which he darted from the room, speechless with indignation.
As soon as they were gone, and Charles had recovered breath sufficiently to listen to rational conversation, I ventured to observe, "This comes of being too sure! We made one mistake. We took it for granted that because a man wears a wig, he must be an impostor—which does not necessarily follow. We forgot that not Colonel Clays alone have false coverings to their heads, and that wigs may sometimes be worn from motives of pure personal vanity. In fact, we were again the slaves of preconceptions."
I looked at him pointedly. Charles rose before he replied. "Seymour Wentworth," he said at last, gazing down upon me with lofty scorn, "your moralising is ill-timed. It appears to me you entirely misunderstand the position and duties of a private secretary!"
The oddest part of it all, however, was this—that Charles, being convinced Forbes-Gaskell, though he wasn't Colonel Clay, had been fraudulently salting the rocks with gold, with intent to deceive, took no further notice of the alleged discoveries. The consequence was that Forbes-Gaskell and Sir Adolphus went elsewhere with the secret; and it was not till after Charles had sold the Seldon Castle estate (which he did shortly afterward, the place having somehow grown strangely distasteful to him) that the present "Seldon Eldorados, Limited," were put upon the market by Lord Craig-Ellachie, who purchased the place from him. Forbes-Gaskell, as it happened, had reported to Craig-Ellachie that he had found a lode of high-grade ore on an estate unnamed, which he would particularise on promise of certain contingent claims to founder's shares; and the old lord jumped at it. Charles sold at grouse-moor prices; and the consequence is that the capital of the Eldorados is yielding at present very fair returns, even after allowing for expenses of promotion—while Charles has been done out of a good thing in gold-mines!
But, remembering "the position and duties of a private secretary," I refrained from pointing out to him at the time that this loss was due to a fixed idea—though as a matter of fact it depended upon Charles's strange preconception that the man with the wig, whoever he might be, was trying to diddle him.
THE EPISODE OF THE JAPANNED DISPATCH-BOX
"Sey," my brother-in-law said next spring, "I'm sick and tired of London! Let's shoulder our wallets at once, and I will to some distant land, where no man doth me know."
"Mars or Mercury?" I inquired; "for, in our own particular planet, I'm afraid you'll find it just a trifle difficult for Sir Charles Vandrift to hide his light under a bushel."
"Oh, I'll manage it," Charles answered. "What's the good of being a millionaire, I should like to know, if you're always obliged to 'behave as sich'? I shall travel incog. I'm dog-tired of being dogged by these endless impostors."
And, indeed, we had passed through a most painful winter. Colonel Clay had stopped away for some months, it is true, and for my own part, I will confess, since it wasn't my place to pay the piper, I rather missed the wonted excitement than otherwise. But Charles had grown horribly and morbidly suspicious. He carried out his principle of "distrusting everybody and disbelieving everything," till life was a burden to him. He spotted impossible Colonel Clays under a thousand disguises; he was quite convinced he had frightened his enemy away at least a dozen times over, beneath the varying garb of a fat club waiter, a tall policeman, a washerwoman's boy, a solicitor's clerk, the Bank of England beadle, and the collector of water-rates. He saw him as constantly, and in as changeful forms, as mediæval saints used to see the devil. Amelia and I really began to fear for the stability of that splendid intellect; we foresaw that unless the Colonel Clay nuisance could be abated somehow, Charles might sink by degrees to the mental level of a common or ordinary Stock-Exchange plunger.
So, when my brother-in-law announced his intention of going away incog. to parts unknown, on the succeeding Saturday, Amelia and I felt a flush of relief from long-continued tension. Especially Amelia—who was not going with him.
"For rest and quiet," he said to us at breakfast, laying down the Morning Post, "give me the deck of an Atlantic liner! No letters; no telegrams. No stocks; no shares. No Times; no Saturday. I'm sick of these papers!"
"The World is too much with us," I assented cheerfully. I regret to say, nobody appreciated the point of my quotation.
Charles took infinite pains, I must admit, to ensure perfect secrecy. He made me write and secure the best state-rooms—main deck, amidships—under my own name, without mentioning his, in the Etruria, for New York, on her very next voyage. He spoke of his destination to nobody but Amelia; and Amelia warned Césarine, under pains and penalties, on no account to betray it to the other servants. Further to secure his incog., Charles assumed the style and title of Mr. Peter Porter, and booked as such in the Etruria at Liverpool.
The day before starting, however, he went down with me to the City for an interview with his brokers in Adam's Court, Old Broad Street. Finglemore, the senior partner, hastened, of course, to receive us. As we entered his private room a good-looking young man rose and lounged out. "Halloa, Finglemore," Charles said, "that's that scamp of a brother of yours! I thought you had shipped him off years and years ago to China?"
"So I did, Sir Charles," Finglemore answered, rubbing his hands somewhat nervously. "But he never went there. Being an idle young dog, with a taste for amusement, he got for the time no further than Paris. Since then, he's hung about a bit, here, there, and everywhere, and done no particular good for himself or his family. But about three or four years ago he somehow 'struck ile': he went to South Africa, poaching on your preserves; and now he's back again—rich, married, and respectable. His wife, a nice little woman, has reformed him. Well, what can I do for you this morning?"
Charles has large interests in America, in Santa Fé and Topekas, and other big concerns; and he insisted on taking out several documents and vouchers connected in various ways with his widespread ventures there. He meant to go, he said, for complete rest and change, on a general tour of private inquiry—New York, Chicago, Colorado, the mining districts. It was a millionaire's holiday. So he took all these valuables in a black japanned dispatch-box, which he guarded like a child with absurd precautions. He never allowed that box out of his sight one moment; and he gave me no peace as to its safety and integrity. It was a perfect fetish. "We must be cautious," he said, "Sey, cautious! Especially in travelling. Recollect how that little curate spirited the diamonds out of Amelia's jewel-case! I shall not let this box out of my sight. I shall stick to it myself, if we go to the bottom."
We did not go to the bottom. It is the proud boast of the Cunard Company that it has "never lost a passenger's life"; and the captain would not consent to send the Etruria to Davy Jones's locker, merely in order to give Charles a chance of sticking to his dispatch-box under trying circumstances. On the contrary, we had a delightful and uneventful passage; and we found our fellow-passengers most agreeable people. Charles, as Mr. Peter Porter, being freed for the moment from his terror of Colonel Clay, would have felt really happy, I believe—had it not been for the dispatch-box. He made friends from the first hour (quite after the fearless old fashion of the days before Colonel Clay had begun to embitter life for him) with a nice American doctor and his charming wife, on their way back to Kentucky. Dr. Elihu Quackenboss that was his characteristically American name had been studying medicine for a year in Vienna, and was now returning to his native State with a brain close crammed with all the latest bacteriological and antiseptic discoveries. His wife, a pretty and piquant little American, with a tip-tilted nose and the quaint sharpness of her countrywomen, amused Charles not a little. The funny way in which she would make room for him by her side on the bench on deck, and say, with a sweet smile, "You sit right here, Mr. Porter; the sun's just elegant," delighted and flattered him. He was proud to find out that female attention was not always due to his wealth and title; and that plain Mr. Porter could command on his merits the same amount of blandishments as Sir Charles Vandrift, the famous millionaire, on his South African celebrity.
During the whole of that voyage, it was Mrs. Quackenboss here, and Mrs. Quackenboss there, and Mrs. Quackenboss the other place, till, for Amelia's sake, I was glad she was not on board to witness it. Long before we sighted Sandy Hook, I will admit, I was fairly sick of Charles's two-stringed harp Mrs. Quackenboss and the dispatch-box.
Mrs. Quackenboss, it turned out, was an amateur artist, and she painted Sir Charles, on calm days on deck, in all possible attitudes. She seemed to find him a most attractive model.
The doctor, too, was a precious clever fellow. He knew something of chemistry—and of most other subjects, including, as I gathered, the human character. For he talked to Charles about various ideas of his, with which he wished to "liven up folks in Kentucky a bit," on his return, till Charles conceived the highest possible regard for his intelligence and enterprise. "That's a go-ahead fellow, Sey!" he remarked to me one day. "Has the right sort of grit in him! Those Americans are the men. Wish I had a round hundred of them on my works in South Africa!"
That idea seemed to grow upon him. He was immensely taken with it. He had lately dismissed one of his chief superintendents at the Cloetedorp mine, and he seriously debated whether or not he should offer the post to the smart Kentuckian. For my own part, I am inclined to connect this fact with his expressed determination to visit his South African undertakings for three months yearly in future; and I am driven to suspect he felt life at Cloetedorp would be rendered much more tolerable by the agreeable society of a quaint and amusing American lady.
"If you offer it to him," I said, "remember, you must disclose your personality."
"Not at all," Charles answered. "I can keep it dark for the present, till all is arranged for. I need only say I have interests in South Africa."
So, one morning on deck, as we were approaching the Banks, he broached his scheme gently to the doctor and Mrs. Quackenboss. He remarked that he was connected with one of the biggest financial concerns in the Southern hemisphere; and that he would pay Elihu fifteen hundred a year to represent him at the diggings.
"What, dollars?" the lady said, smiling and accentuating the tip-tilted nose a little more. "Oh, Mr. Porter, it ain't good enough!"
"No, pounds, my dear madam," Charles responded. "Pounds sterling, you know. In United States currency, seven thousand five hundred."
"I guess Elihu would just jump at it," Mrs. Quackenboss replied, looking at him quizzically.
The doctor laughed. "You make a good bid, sir," he said, in his slow American way, emphasising all the most unimportant words: "But you overlook one element. I am a man of science, not a speculator. I have trained myself for medical work, at considerable cost, in the best schools of Europe, and I do not propose to fling away the results of much arduous labour by throwing myself out elastically into a new line of work for which my faculties may not perhaps equally adapt me."
("How thoroughly American!" I murmured, in the background.)
Charles insisted; all in vain. Mrs. Quackenboss was impressed; but the doctor smiled always a sphinx-like smile, and reiterated his belief in the unfitness of mid-stream as an ideal place for swopping horses. The more he declined, and the better he talked, the more eager Charles became each day to secure him. And, as if on purpose to draw him on, the doctor each day gave more and more surprising proofs of his practical abilities. "I am not a specialist," he said. "I just ketch the drift, appropriate the kernel, and let the rest slide."
He could do anything, it really seemed, from shoeing a mule to conducting a camp-meeting; he was a capital chemist, a very sound surgeon, a fair judge of horseflesh, a first class euchre player, and a pleasing baritone. When occasion demanded he could occupy a pulpit. He had invented a cork-screw which brought him in a small revenue; and he was now engaged in the translation of a Polish work on the "Application of Hydrocyanic Acid to the Cure of Leprosy."
Still, we reached New York without having got any nearer our goal, as regarded Dr. Quackenboss. He came to bid us good-bye at the quay, with that sphinx-like smile still playing upon his features. Charles clutched the dispatch-box with one hand, and Mrs. Quackenboss's little palm with the other.
"Don't tell us," he said, "this is good-bye for ever!" And his voice quite faltered.
"I guess so, Mr. Porter," the pretty American replied, with a telling glance. "What hotel do you patronise?"
"The Murray Hill," Charles responded.
"Oh my, ain't that odd?" Mrs. Quackenboss echoed. "The Murray Hill! Why, that's just where we're going too, Elihu!"
The upshot of which was that Charles persuaded them, before returning to Kentucky, to diverge for a few days with us to Lake George and Lake Champlain, where he hoped to over-persuade the recalcitrant doctor.
To Lake George therefore we went, and stopped at the excellent hotel at the terminus of the railway. We spent a good deal of our time on the light little steamers that ply between that point and the road to Ticonderoga. Somehow, the mountains mirrored in the deep green water reminded me of Lucerne; and Lucerne reminded me of the little curate. For the first time since we left England a vague terror seized me. Could Elihu Quackenboss be Colonel Clay again, still dogging our steps through the opposite continent?
I could not help mentioning my suspicion to Charles—who, strange to say, pooh-poohed it. He had been paying great court to Mrs. Quackenboss that day, and was absurdly elated because the little American had rapped his knuckles with her fan and called him "a real silly."
Next day, however, an odd thing occurred. We strolled out together, all four of us, along the banks of the lake, among woods just carpeted with strange, triangular flowers trilliums, Mrs. Quackenboss called them and lined with delicate ferns in the first green of springtide.
I began to grow poetical. (I wrote verses in my youth before I went to South Africa.) We threw ourselves on the grass, near a small mountain stream that descended among moss-clad boulders from the steep woods above us. The Kentuckian flung himself at full length on the sward, just in front of Charles. He had a strange head of hair, very thick and shaggy. I don't know why, but, of a sudden, it reminded me of the Mexican Seer, whom we had learned to remember as Colonel Clay's first embodiment. At the same moment the same thought seemed to run through Charles's head; for, strange to say, with a quick impulse he leant forward and examined it. I saw Mrs. Quackenboss draw back in wonder. The hair looked too thick and close for nature. It ended abruptly, I now remembered, with a sharp line on the forehead. Could this, too, be a wig? It seemed very probable.
Even as I thought that thought, Charles appeared to form a sudden and resolute determination. With one lightning swoop he seized the doctor's hair in his powerful hand, and tried to lift it off bodily. He had made a bad guess. Next instant the doctor uttered a loud and terrified howl of pain, while several of his hairs, root and all, came out of his scalp in Charles's hand, leaving a few drops of blood on the skin of the head in the place they were torn from. There was no doubt at all it was not a wig, but the Kentuckian's natural hirsute covering.
The scene that ensued I am powerless to describe. My pen is unequal to it. The doctor arose, not so much angry as astonished, white and incredulous. "What did you do that for, any way?" he asked, glaring fiercely at my brother-in-law. Charles was all abject apology. He began by profusely expressing his regret, and offering to make any suitable reparation, monetary or otherwise. Then he revealed his whole hand. He admitted that he was Sir Charles Vandrift, the famous millionaire, and that he had suffered egregiously from the endless machinations of a certain Colonel Clay, a machiavellian rogue, who had hounded him relentlessly round the capitals of Europe. He described in graphic detail how the impostor got himself up with wigs and wax, so as to deceive even those who knew him intimately; and then he threw himself on Dr. Quackenboss's mercy, as a man who had been cruelly taken in so often that he could not help suspecting the best of men falsely. Mrs. Quackenboss admitted it was natural to have suspicions "Especially," she said, with candour, "as you're not the first to observe the notable way Elihu's hair seems to originate from his forehead," and she pulled it up to show us. But Elihu himself sulked on in the dumps: his dignity was offended. "If you wanted to know," he said, "you might as well have asked me. Assault and battery is not the right way to test whether a citizen's hair is primitive or acquired."
"It was an impulse," Charles pleaded; "an instinctive impulse!"
"Civilised man restrains his impulses," the doctor answered. "You have lived too long in South Africa, Mr. Porter—I mean, Sir Charles Vandrift, if that's the right way to address such a gentleman. You appear to have imbibed the habits and manners of the Kaffirs you lived among."
For the next two days, I will really admit, Charles seemed more wretched than I could have believed it possible for him to be on somebody else's account. He positively grovelled. The fact was, he saw he had hurt Dr. Quackenboss's feelings, and much to my surprise he seemed truly grieved at it. If the doctor would have accepted a thousand pounds down to shake hands at once and forget the incident in my opinion Charles would have gladly paid it. Indeed, he said as much in other words to the pretty American for he could not insult her by offering her money. Mrs. Quackenboss did her best to make it up, for she was a kindly little creature, in spite of her roguishness; but Elihu stood aloof. Charles urged him still to go out to South Africa, increasing his bait to two thousand a year; yet the doctor was immovable. "No, no," he said; "I had half decided to accept your offer—till that unfortunate impulse; but that settled the question. As an American citizen, I decline to become the representative of a British nobleman who takes such means of investigating questions which affect the hair and happiness of his fellow-creatures."
I don't know whether Charles was most disappointed at missing the chance of so clever a superintendent for the mine at Cloetedorp, or elated at the novel description of himself as "a British nobleman;" which is not precisely our English idea of a colonial knighthood.
Three days later, accordingly, the Quackenbosses left the Lakeside Hotel. We were bound on an expedition up the lake ourselves, when the pretty little woman burst in with a dash to tell us they were leaving. She was charmingly got up in the neatest and completest of American travelling-dresses. Charles held her hand affectionately. "I'm sorry it's good-bye," he said. "I have done my best to secure your husband."
"You couldn't have tried harder than I did," the little woman answered, and the tip-tilted nose looked quite pathetic; "for I just hate to be buried right down there in Kentucky! However, Elihu is the sort of man a woman can neither drive nor lead; so we've got to put up with him." And she smiled upon us sweetly, and disappeared for ever.
Charles was disconsolate all that day. Next morning he rose, and announced his intention of setting out for the West on his tour of inspection. He would recreate by revelling in Colorado silver lodes.
We packed our own portmanteaus, for Charles had not brought even Simpson with him, and then we prepared to set out by the morning train for Saratoga.
Up till almost the last moment Charles nursed his dispatch-box. But as the "baggage-smashers" were taking down our luggage, and a chambermaid was lounging officiously about in search of a tip, he laid it down for a second or two on the centre table while he collected his other immediate impedimenta. He couldn't find his cigarette-case, and went back to the bedroom for it. I helped him hunt, but it had disappeared mysteriously. That moment lost him. When we had found the cigarette-case, and returned to the sitting-room lo, and behold! the dispatch-box was missing! Charles questioned the servants, but none of them had noticed it. He searched round the room not a trace of it anywhere.
"Why, I laid it down here just two minutes ago!" he cried. But it was not forthcoming.
"It'll turn up in time," I said. "Everything turns up in the end—including Mrs. Quackenboss's nose."
"Seymour," said my brother-in-law, "your hilarity is inopportune."
To say the truth, Charles was beside himself with anger. He took the elevator down to the "Bureau," as they call it, and complained to the manager. The manager, a sharp-faced New Yorker, smiled as he remarked in a nonchalant way that guests with valuables were required to leave them in charge of the management, in which case they were locked up in the safe and duly returned to the depositor on leaving. Charles declared somewhat excitedly that he had been robbed, and demanded that nobody should be allowed to leave the hotel till the dispatch-box was discovered. The manager, quite cool, and obtrusively picking his teeth, responded that such tactics might be possible in an hotel of the European size, putting up a couple of hundred guests or so; but that an American house, with over a thousand visitors many of whom came and went daily could not undertake such a quixotic quest on behalf of a single foreign complainant.
That epithet, "foreign," stung Charles to the quick. No Englishman can admit that he is anywhere a foreigner. "Do you know who I am, sir?" he asked, angrily. "I am Sir Charles Vandrift, of London a member of the English Parliament."
"You may be the Prince of Wales," the man answered, "for all I care. You'll get the same treatment as anyone else, in America. But if you're Sir Charles Vandrift," he went on, examining his books, "how does it come you've registered as Mr. Peter Porter?"
Charles grew red with embarrassment. The difficulty deepened.
The dispatch-box, always covered with a leather case, bore on its inner lid the name "Sir Charles Vandrift, K.C.M.G.," distinctly painted in the orthodox white letters. This was a painful contretemps: he had lost his precious documents; he had given a false name; and he had rendered the manager supremely careless whether or not he recovered his stolen property. Indeed, seeing he had registered as Porter, and now "claimed" as Vandrift, the manager hinted in pretty plain language he very much doubted whether there had ever been a dispatch-box in the matter at all, or whether, if there were one, it had ever contained any valuable documents.
We spent a wretched morning. Charles went round the hotel, questioning everybody as to whether they had seen his dispatch-box. Most of the visitors resented the question as a personal imputation; one fiery Virginian, indeed, wanted to settle the point then and there with a six-shooter. Charles telegraphed to New York to prevent the shares and coupons from being negotiated; but his brokers telegraphed back that, though they had stopped the numbers as far as possible, they did so with reluctance, as they were not aware of Sir Charles Vandrift being now in the country. Charles declared he wouldn't leave the hotel till he recovered his property; and for myself, I was inclined to suppose we would have to remain there accordingly for the term of our natural lives and longer.
That night again we spent at the Lakeside Hotel. In the small hours of the morning, as I lay awake and meditated, a thought broke across me. I was so excited by it that I rose and rushed into my brother-in-law's bedroom. "Charles, Charles!" I exclaimed, "we have taken too much for granted once more. Perhaps Elihu Quackenboss carried off your dispatch-box!"
"You fool," Charles answered, in his most unamiable manner (he applies that word to me with increasing frequency); "is that what you've waked me up for? Why, the Quackenbosses left Lake George on Tuesday morning, and I had the dispatch-box in my own hands on Wednesday."
"We have only their word for it," I cried. "Perhaps they stopped on—and walked off with it afterwards!"
"We will inquire to-morrow," Charles answered. "But I confess I don't think it was worth waking me up for. I could stake my life on that little woman's integrity."
We did inquire next morning—with this curious result: it turned out that, though the Quackenbosses had left the Lakeside Hotel on Tuesday, it was only for the neighbouring Washington House, which they quitted on Wednesday morning, taking the same train for Saratoga which Charles and I had intended to go by. Mrs. Quackenboss carried a small brown paper parcel in her hands in which, under the circumstances, we had little difficulty in recognising Charles's dispatch-box, loosely enveloped.
Then I knew how it was done. The chambermaid, loitering about the room for a tip, was Mrs. Quackenboss! It needed but an apron to transform her pretty travelling-dress into a chambermaid's costume; and in any of those huge American hotels one chambermaid more or less would pass in the crowd without fear of challenge.
"We will follow them on to Saratoga," Charles cried. "Pay the bill at once, Seymour."
"Certainly," I answered. "Will you give me some money?"
Charles clapped his hand to his pockets. "All, all in the dispatch-box," he murmured.
That tied us up another day, till we could get some ready cash from our agents in New York; for the manager, already most suspicious at the change of name and the accusation of theft, peremptorily refused to accept Charles's cheque, or anything else, as he phrased it, except "hard money." So we lingered on perforce at Lake George in ignoble inaction.
"Of course," I observed to my brother-in-law that evening, "Elihu Quackenboss was Colonel Clay."
"I suppose so," Charles murmured resignedly. "Everybody I meet seems to be Colonel Clay nowadays except when I believe they are, in which case they turn out to be harmless nobodies. But who would have thought it was he after I pulled his hair out? Or after he persisted in his trick, even when I suspected him which, he told us at Seldon, was against his first principles?"
A light dawned upon me again. But, warned by previous ebullitions, I expressed myself this time with becoming timidity. "Charles," I suggested, "may we not here again have been the slaves of a preconception? We thought Forbes-Gaskell was Colonel Clay for no better reason than because he wore a wig. We thought Elihu Quackenboss wasn't Colonel Clay for no better reason than because he didn't wear one. But how do we know he ever wears wigs? Isn't it possible, after all, that those hints he gave us about make-up, when he was Medhurst the detective, were framed on purpose, so as to mislead and deceive us? And isn't it possible what he said of his methods at the Seamew's island that day was similarly designed in order to hoodwink us?"
"That is so obvious, Sey," my brother-in-law observed, in a most aggrieved tone, "that I should have thought any secretary worth his salt would have arrived at it instantly."
I abstained from remarking that Charles himself had not arrived at it even now, until I told him. I thought that to say so would serve no good purpose. So I merely went on: "Well, it seems to me likely that when he came as Medhurst, with his hair cut short, he was really wearing his own natural crop, in its simplest form and of its native hue. By now it has had time to grow long and bushy. When he was David Granton, no doubt, he clipped it to an intermediate length, trimmed his beard and moustache, and dyed them all red, to a fine Scotch colour. As the Seer, again, he wore his hair much the same as Elihu's; only, to suit the character, more combed and fluffy. As the little curate, he darkened it and plastered it down. As Von Lebenstein, he shaved close, but cultivated his moustache to its utmost dimensions, and dyed it black after the Tyrolese fashion. He need never have had a wig; his own natural hair would throughout have been sufficient, allowing for intervals."
"You're right, Sey," my brother-in-law said, growing almost friendly. "I will do you the justice to admit that's the nearest thing we have yet struck out to an idea for tracking him."
On the Saturday morning a letter arrived which relieved us a little from our momentary tension. It was from our enemy himself but most different in tone from his previous bantering communications:
"SIR CHARLES VANDRIFT—Herewith I return your dispatch-box, intact, with the papers untouched. As you will readily observe, it has not even been opened.
"You will ask me the reason for this strange conduct. Let me be serious for once, and tell you truthfully.
"White Heather and I (for I will stick to Mr. Wentworth's judicious sobriquet) came over on the Etruria with you, intending, as usual, to make something out of you. We followed you to Lake George—for I had 'forced a card,' after my habitual plan, by inducing you to invite us, with the fixed intention of playing a particular trick upon you. It formed no part of our original game to steal your dispatch-box; that I consider a simple and elementary trick unworthy the skill of a practised operator. We persisted in the preparations for our coup, till you pulled my hair out. Then, to my great surprise, I saw you exhibited a degree of regret and genuine compunction with which, till that moment, I could never have credited you. You thought you had hurt my feelings; and you behaved more like a gentleman than I had previously known you to do. You not only apologised, but you also endeavoured voluntarily to make reparation. That produced an effect upon me. You may not believe it, but I desisted accordingly from the trick I had prepared for you.
"I might also have accepted your offer to go to South Africa, where I could soon have cleared out, having embezzled thousands. But, then, I should have been in a position of trust and responsibility and I am not quite rogue enough to rob you under those conditions.
"Whatever else I am, however, I am not a hypocrite. I do not pretend to be anything more than a common swindler. If I return you your papers intact, it is only on the same principle as that of the Australian bushranger, who made a lady a present of her own watch because she had sung to him and reminded him of England. In other words, he did not take it from her. In like manner, when I found you had behaved, for once, like a gentleman, contrary to my expectation, I declined to go on with the trick I then meditated. Which does not mean to say I may not hereafter play you some other. That will depend upon your future good behaviour.
"Why, then, did I get White Heather to purloin your dispatch-box, with intent to return it? Out of pure lightness of heart? Not so; but in order to let you see I really meant it. If I had gone off with no swag, and then written you this letter, you would not have believed me. You would have thought it was merely another of my failures. But when I have actually got all your papers into my hands, and give them up again of my own free will, you must see that I mean it.
"I will end, as I began, seriously. My trade has not quite crushed out of me all germs or relics of better feeling; and when I see a millionaire behave like a man, I feel ashamed to take advantage of that gleam of manliness.
"Yours, with a tinge of penitence, but still a rogue, CUTHBERT CLAY."
The first thing Charles did on receiving this strange communication was to bolt downstairs and inquire for the dispatch-box. It had just arrived by Eagle Express Company. Charles rushed up to our rooms again, opened it feverishly, and counted his documents. When he found them all safe, he turned to me with a hard smile. "This letter," he said, with quivering lips, "I consider still more insulting than all his previous ones."
But, for myself, I really thought there was a ring of truth about it. Colonel Clay was a rogue, no doubt a most unblushing rogue; but even a rogue, I believe, has his better moments.
And the phrase about the "position of trust and responsibility" touched Charles to the quick, I suppose, in re the Slump in Cloetedorp Golcondas. Though, to be sure, it was a hit at me as well, over the ten per cent commission.