Infomotions, Inc.The Cab of the Sleeping Horse / Scott, John Reed, 1869-



Author: Scott, John Reed, 1869-
Title: The Cab of the Sleeping Horse
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): harleston; clephane; madeline spencer; spencer; harleston replied; harleston asked; harleston laughed; harleston remarked; harleston smiled; peacock alley; dupont circle
Contributor(s): Bright, Mynors, 1818-1883 [Translator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 62,950 words (short) Grade range: 7-10 (grade school) Readability score: 66 (easy)
Identifier: etext15094
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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Cab of the Sleeping Horse, by John Reed
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Title: The Cab of the Sleeping Horse

Author: John Reed Scott

Release Date: February 18, 2005  [eBook #15094]
[Date last updated: March 5, 2005]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE CAB OF THE SLEEPING HORSE***


E-text prepared by Juliet Sutherland, Josephine Paolucci, Joshua
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THE CAB OF THE SLEEPING HORSE

by

JOHN REED SCOTT

Author of _The Woman in Question_, _The Man In Evening Clothes_, etc.

Frontispiece by William van Dresser

A. L. Burt Company
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons

1916







[Illustration: SHE THREW UP HER HAND, AND A NASTY LITTLE AUTOMATIC
WAS COVERING THE SECRETARY'S HEART. Drawn by William Van Dresser.
(Chapter 24)]




CONTENTS


      I.--THE PHOTOGRAPH

     II.--THE VOICE ON THE WIRE

    III.--VISITORS

     IV.--CRENSHAW

      V.--ANOTHER WOMAN

     VI.--THE GREY-STONE HOUSE

    VII.--SURPRISES

   VIII.--THE STORY

     IX.--DECOYED

      X.--SKIRMISHING

     XI.--HALF A LIE

    XII.--CARPENTER

   XIII.--THE MARQUIS

    XIV.--THE SLIP OF PAPER

     XV.--IDENTIFIED

    XVI.--ANOTHER LETTER

   XVII.--IN THE TAXI

  XVIII.--DOUBT

    XIX.--MARSTON

     XX.--PLAYING THE GAME

    XXI.--THE KEY-WORD

   XXII.--THE RATAPLAN

  XXIII.--CAUGHT

   XXIV.--THE CANDLE FLAME





I

THE PHOTOGRAPH


"A beautiful woman is never especially clever," Rochester remarked.

Harleston blew a smoke ring at the big drop-light on the table and
watched it swirl under the cardinal shade.

"The cleverest woman I know is also the most beautiful," he replied.
"Yes, I can name her offhand. She has all the finesse of her sex,
together with the reasoning mind; she is surpassingly good to look at,
and knows how to use her looks to obtain her end; as the occasion
demands, she can be as cold as steel or warm as a summer's night; she--"

"How are her morals?" Rochester interrupted.

"Morals or the want of them do not, I take it, enter into the question,"
Harleston responded. "Cleverness is quite apart from morals."

"You have not named the wonderful one," Clarke reminded him.

"And I won't now. Rochester's impertinent question forbids introducing
her to this company. Moreover," as he drew out his watch, "it is
half-after-twelve of a fine spring night, and, unless we wish to be
turned out of the Club, we would better be going homeward or elsewhere.
Who's for a walk up the avenue?"

"I am--as far as Dupont Circle," said Clarke.

"All hands?" Harleston inquired.

"It's too late for exercise," Rochester declined; "and our way lies
athwart your path."

"I don't think you make good company, anyway, with your questions and
your athwarts," Harleston retorted amiably, as Clarke and he moved off.

"Who is your clever woman?" asked Clarke.

"Curious?" Harleston smiled.

"Naturally--it's not in you to give praise undeserved."

"I'm not sure it is praise, Clarke; it depends on one's point of view.
However, the lady in question bears several names which she uses as
expediency or her notion suits her. Her maiden name was Madeline
Cuthbert. She married a Colonel Spencer of Ours; he divorced her, after
she had eloped with a rich young lieutenant of his regiment. She didn't
marry the lieutenant; she simply plucked him clean and he shot himself.
I've never understood why he didn't first shoot her."

"Doubtless it shows her cleverness?" Clarke remarked.

"Doubtless it does," replied Harleston, neatly spitting a leaf on the
pavement with his stick. "Afterward she had various adventures with
various wealthy men, and always won. Her particularly spectacular
adventure was posing, at the instigation of the Duke of Lotzen, as the
wife of the Archduke Armand of Valeria; and she stirred up a mess of
turmoil until the matter was cleared up."

"I remember something of it!" Clarke exclaimed.

"By that time she had so fascinated her employer, the Duke of Lotzen,
that he actually married her--morganatically, of course."

"Again showing her astonishing cleverness."

"Just so--and, cleverer still, she held him until his death five years
later. Which death, despite the authorized report, was not natural: the
King of Valeria killed him in a sword duel in Ferida Palace on the
principal street of Dornlitz. The lady then betook herself to Paris and
took up her present life of extreme respectability--and political
usefulness to our friends of Wilhelm-strasse. In fact, I understand that
she has more than made good professionally, as well as fascinated at
least half a dozen Cabinet Ministers besides.

"Wilhelm-strasse?" Clarke queried.

Harleston nodded. "She is in the German Secret Service."

"They trust her?" Clarke marvelled.

"That is the most remarkable thing about her," said Harleston, "so far
as I know, she has never been false to the hand that paid her."

"Which, in her position, is the cleverest thing of all!" Clarke
remarked.

They passed the English Legation, a bulging, three-storied, red brick,
dormer-roofed atrocity, standing a few feet in from the sidewalk; ugly
as original sin, externally as repellent as the sidewalk and the narrow
little drive under the _porte-cochere_ are dirty.

"It's a pity," said Clarke, "that the British Legation cannot afford a
man-servant to clean its front."

"No one is presumed to arrive or leave except in carriages or motor
cars," Harleston explained. "_They_ can push through the dirt to the
entrance."

"Why, would you believe it," Clarke added, "the deep snow of last
February lay on the walks untouched until well into the following day.
The blooming Englishmen just then began to appreciate that it had snowed
the previous night. Are they so slow on the secret-service end?"

"They have quite enough speed on that end," Harleston responded. "They
are on the job always and ever--also the Germans."

"You've bumped into them?"

"Frequently."

"Ever encounter the clever lady, with the assortment of husbands?"

"Once or twice. Moreover, having known her as a little girl, and her
family before her, I've been interested to watch her travelling--her
remarkable career. And it has been a career, Clarke; believe me, it's
been a career. For pure cleverness, and the appreciation of
opportunities with the ability to grasp them, the devil himself can't
show anything more picturesque. My hat's off to her!"

"I should like to meet her," Clarke said.

"Come to Paris, sometime when I'm there, and I'll be delighted to
present you to her."

"Doesn't she ever come to America?"

"I think not. She says the Continent, and Paris in particular, is good
enough for her."

Harleston left Clarke at Dupont Circle and turned down Massachusetts
Avenue.

The broad thoroughfare was deserted, yet at the intersection of
Eighteenth Street he came upon a most singular sight.

A cab was by the curb, its horse lying prostrate on the asphalt, its box
vacant of driver.

Harleston stopped. What had he here! Then he looked about for a
policeman. Of course, none was in sight. Policemen never are in sight on
Massachusetts Avenue.

As a general rule, Harleston was not inquisitive as to things that did
not concern him--especially at one o'clock in the morning; but the
waiting cab, the deserted box, the recumbent horse in the shafts excited
his curiosity.

The cab, probably, was from the stand in Dupont Circle; and the cabby
likely was asleep inside the cab, with a bit too much rum aboard.
Nevertheless, the matter was worth a step into Eighteenth Street and a
few seconds' time. It might yield only a drunken driver's mutterings at
being disturbed; it might yield much of profit. And the longer Harleston
looked the more he was impelled to investigate. Finally curiosity
prevailed.

The door of the cab was closed and he looked inside.

The cab was empty.

As he opened the door, the sleeping horse came suddenly to life; with a
snort it struggled to its feet, then looked around apologetically at
Harleston, as though begging to be excused for having been caught in a
most reprehensible act for a cab horse.

"That's all right, old boy," Harleston smiled. "You doubtless are in
need of all the sleep you can get. Now, if you'll be good enough to
stand still, we'll have a look at the interior of your appendix."

The light from the street lamps penetrated but faintly inside the cab,
so Harleston, being averse to lighting a match save for an instant at
the end of the search, was forced to grope in semi-darkness.

On the cushion of the seat was a light lap spread, part of the equipment
of the cab. The pockets on the doors yielded nothing. He turned up the
cushion and felt under it: nothing. On the floor, however, was a woman's
handkerchief, filmy and small, and without the least odour clinging to
it.

"Strange!" Harleston muttered. "They are always covered with perfume."

Moreover, while a very expensive handkerchief, it was without
initial--which also was most unusual.

He put the bit of lace into his coat and went on with the search:

Three American Beauty roses, somewhat crushed and broken, were in the
far corner. From certain abrasions in the stems, he concluded that they
had been torn, or loosed, from a woman's corsage.

He felt again--then he struck a match, leaning well inside the cab so
as to hide the light as much as possible.

The momentary flare disclosed a square envelope standing on edge and
close in against the seat. Extinguishing the match, he caught it up.

It was of white linen of superior quality, without superscription, and
sealed; the contents were very light--a single sheet of paper, likely.

The handkerchief, the crushed roses, the unaddressed, sealed
envelope--the horse, the empty and deserted cab, standing before a
vacant lot, at one o'clock in the morning! Surely any one of them was
enough to stir the imagination; together they were a tantalizing
mystery, calling for solution and beckoning one on.

Harleston took another look around, saw no one, and calmly pocketed the
envelope. Then, after noting the number of the cab, No. 333, he gathered
up the lines, whipped the ends about the box, and chirped to the horse
to proceed.

The horse promptly obeyed; turned west on Massachusetts Avenue, and
backed up to his accustomed stand in Dupont Circle as neatly as though
his driver were directing him.

Harleston watched the proceeding from the corner of Eighteenth Street:
after which he resumed his way to his apartment in the Collingwood.

A sleepy elevator boy tried to put him off at the fourth floor, and he
had some trouble in convincing the lad that the sixth was his floor. In
fact, Harleston's mind being occupied with the recent affair, he would
have let himself be put off at the fourth floor, if he had not happened
to notice the large gilt numbers on the glass panel of the door opposite
the elevator. The bright light shining through this panel caught his
eye, and he wondered indifferently that it should be burning at such an
hour.

Subsequently he understood the light in No. 401; but then it was too
late. Had he been delayed ten seconds, or had he gotten off at the
fourth floor, he would have--. However, I anticipate; or rather I
speculate on what would have happened under hypothetical
conditions--which is fatuous in the extreme; hypothetical conditions
never are existent facts.

Harleston, having gained his apartment, leisurely removed from his
pockets the handkerchief, the roses, and the envelope, and placed them
on the library table. With the same leisureliness, he removed his light
top-coat and his hat and hung them in the closet. Returning to the
library, he chose a cigarette, tapped it on the back of his hand, struck
a match, and carefully passed the flame across the tip. After several
puffs, taken with conscious deliberation, he sat down and took up the
handkerchief.

This was Harleston's way: to delay deliberately the gratification of his
curiosity, so as to keep it always under control. An important
letter--where haste was not an essential--was unopened for a while; his
morning newspaper he would let lie untouched beside his plate for
sufficiently long to check his natural inclination to glance hastily
over the headlines of the first page. In everything he tried by
self-imposed curbs to teach himself poise and patience and a quiet mind.
He had been at it for years. By now he had himself well in hand; though,
being exceedingly impetuous by nature, he occasionally broke over.

His course in this instance was typical--the more so, indeed, since he
had broken over and lost his poise only that afternoon. He wanted to
know what was inside that blank envelope. He was persuaded it contained
that which would either solve the mystery of the cab, or would in itself
lead on to a greater mystery. In either event, a most interesting
document lay within his reach--and he took up the handkerchief.
Discipline! The curb must be maintained.

And the handkerchief yielded nothing--not even when inspected under the
drop-light and with the aid of a microscope. Not a mark to indicate who
carried it nor whence it came.--Yet stay; in the closed room he detected
what had been lost in the open: a faint, a very faint, odour as of
azurea sachet. It was only a suggestion; vague and uncertain, and
entirely absent at times. And Harleston shook his head. The very fact
that there was nothing about it by which it might be identified
indicated the deliberate purpose to avoid identification. He put it
aside, and, taking up the roses, laid them under the light.

They were the usual American Beauties; only larger and more gorgeous
than the general run--which might be taken as an indication of the
wealth of the giver, or of the male desire to please the female; or of
both. Of course, there was the possibility that the roses were of the
woman's own buying; but women rarely waste their own money on American
Beauties--and Harleston knew it. A minute examination convinced him that
they had been crushed while being worn and then trampled on. The stems,
some of the green leaves, and the edges of one of the blooms were
scarred as by a heel; the rest of the blooms were crushed but not
scarred. Which indicated violence--first gentle, then somewhat drastic.

He put the flowers aside and picked up the envelope, looked it over
carefully, then, with a peculiarly thin and very sharp knife, he cut the
sealing of the flap so neatly that it could be resealed and no one
suspect it had been opened. As he turned back the flap, a small
unmounted photograph fell out and lay face upward on the table.

Harleston gave a low whistle of surprise.

It was Madeline Spencer.




II

THE VOICE ON THE WIRE


"Good morning, madame!" said Harleston, bowing to the photograph. "This
is quite a surprise. You're taken very recently, and you're worth
looking at for divers aesthetic reasons--none of which, however, is the
reason for your being in the envelope."

He drew out the sheet of paper and opened it. On it were typewritten,
without address nor signature, these letters:

  DPNFNZQFEFBPOYVOAEELEHHEJYD
  BIWFTCCFVDXNQYCECLUGSUGDZYJ
  ENRYUIGYBSNRTDUHJWHGYZIPEPA
  WPPOIMCHEIPRFBJXFVWWFTZNJPY
  UFJDILDCEMBRVZDAYVAWALUMOFN
  FCVDPGLPWFUUWVIEPTKVIPUMSFZ
  NPSJJRFYASGZSDACSIGYUOFCEXA
  AOIDJJFCJPSONPKUUYVCVCTIHDP
  XMNOYKENHUSKHYMSFRRPCYWSLLW
  SMVPPUNEIFIDJLZRWEHPQGODFUZ
  TCEMQIQWNFYJTAALUMHJXILEEHY
  ISOVOAZUCUDINBRLUZICUOTTUSV
  LPNFFVQFANPVCYJHILTPFISGHCW
  HYICPPNFDOUOCLDUWEIVIPJNQBV
  ZLMIJRVKDSFRLWEGBKQYWSFFBEI
  YORHMYSHTECPUTMPJXFNRNEEUME
  ILJBWV.

"Cipher!" commented Harleston, looking at it with half-closed eyes....
"The Blocked-Out Square, I imagine. No earthly use in trying to dig it
out without the key-word; and the key-word--" he gave a shrug. "I'll let
Carpenter try his hand on it; it's too much for me."

He knew from experience the futility of attempting the solution of a
cipher by any but an expert; and even with an expert it was rarely
successful.

As a general rule, the key to a secret cipher is discovered only by
accident or by betrayal. There are hundreds of secret ciphers--any
person can devise one--in everyday use by the various departments of the
various governments; but, in the main, they are amplifications or
variations of some half-dozen that have become generally accepted as
susceptible of the quickest and simplest translation with the key, and
the most puzzling without the key. Of these, the Blocked-Out Square,
first used by Blaise de Vigenerie in 1589, is probably still the most
generally employed, and, because of its very simplicity, the most
impossible of solution. Change the key-word and one has a new cipher.
Any word will do; nor does it matter how often a letter is repeated;
neither is one held to one word: it may be two or three or any
reasonable number. Simply apply it to the alphabetic Blocked-Out Square
and the message is evident; no books whatever are required. A slip of
paper and a pencil are all that are necessary; any one can write the
square; there is not any secret as to it. The secret is the key-word.

Harleston took a sheet of paper and wrote the square:

  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
  BCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZA
  CDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZAB
  DEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABC
  EFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCD
  FGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDE
  GHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEF
  HIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFG
  IJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGH
  JKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHI
  KLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJ
  LMNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJK
  MNOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKL
  NOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLM
  OPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMN
  PQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNO
  QRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP
  RSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQ
  STUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQR
  TUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRS
  UVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRST
  VWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTU
  WXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUV
  XYZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVW
  YZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWX
  ZABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXY

Assume that the message to be transmitted is: "To-morrow sure," and that
the key-word is: "In the inn." Write the key-word and under it the
message:

  INTHEINNINTH
  TOMORROWSURE

Then trace _downward_ the I column of the top line of the square, and
_horizontally_ the T column at the side of the square until the two
lines coincide in the letter B: the first letter of the cipher message.
The N and the O yield B; the T and the M yield F; the H and the O yield
V, and so on, until the completed message is:

  BBFVVZBJAHKL

The translator of the cipher message simply reverses this proceeding. He
knows the key-word, and he writes it above the cipher message:

  INTHEINNINTH
  BBFVVZBJAHKL

He traces the I column until B is reached; the _first_ letter in that
line, T, is the first letter of the message--and so on.

Simple! Yes, childishly simple with the key-word; and the key-word can
be carried in one's mind. Without the key-word, translation is
impossible.

Harleston put down the paper and leaned back.

Altogether it was a most interesting collection, these four articles on
the table. It was a pity that the cab and the sleeping horse were not
among the exhibits. Number one: a lady's lace handkerchief. Number two:
three American Beauty roses, somewhat the worse for wear and violent
usage. Number three: a cipher message. Number four: photograph of
Madame--or Mademoiselle--de Cuthbert, de Spencer, de Lotzen. There was a
pretty plot behind these exhibits; a pretty plot, or he missed his
guess. It might concern the United States--and it might not. It would be
his duty to find out. Meanwhile, the picture stirred memories that he
had thought long dead. Also it suggested possibilities. It was some
years since they had matched their wits against each other, and the last
time she rather won out--because all the cards were hers, as well as the
_mise en scene_. And she had left--

His thought trailed off into silence; and the silence lasted so long,
and he sat so still, that the ash fell unnoticed from his cigarette; and
presently the cigarette burned itself into the tip, and to his fingers.

He tossed it into the tray and laughed quietly.

Rare days--those days of the vanished protocol and its finding! He could
almost wish that they might be again; with a different _mise en scene_,
and a different ending--and a different client for his. He was becoming
almost sentimental--and he was too old a bird for sentiment, and quite
too old at this game; which had not any sentiment about it that was not
pretence and sham. Yet it was a good game--a mighty entertaining game;
where one measured wits with the best, and took long chances, and played
for high stakes; men's lives and a nation's honour.

He picked up the photograph and regarded it thoughtfully.

"And what are to be the stakes now, I wonder," he mused. "It's another
deal of the same old cards, but who are players? If America is one,
then, my lady, we shall see who will win this time--if you're in it; and
I take it you are, else why this picture. Yet to induce you to break
your rule and cross the Atlantic, the moving consideration must be of
the utmost weight, or else it's purely a personal matter. H-u-m! Under
all the circumstances, I should say the latter is the more likely. In
which event, I may not be concerned further than to return these--" with
a wave of his hand toward the exhibits.

For a while longer he sat in silence, eyes half closed, lips a bit
compressed; a certain sternness, that was always in his countenance,
showing plainest when in reflective thought. At last, he smiled. Then he
lit another cigarette, took up the letter and the photograph, and put
them in the small safe standing behind an ornate screen in the
corner--not, however, without another look at the calmly beautiful face.

The roses he left lie on the table; the steel safe would not preserve
them in _statu quo_; moreover, he knew, or thought he knew, all that
they could convey. He swung the door shut; then swung it open, and
looked again at the picture--and for sometime--before he put it up and
gave the knob a twirl.

"I'm sure bewitched!" he remarked, going on to his bedroom. "It's not
difficult for me to understand the Duke of Lotzen. He was simply a
man--and men, at the best, are queer beggars. No woman ever understands
us--and no more do we understand women. So we're both quits on that
score, if we're not quite on some others." Then he raised his hands
helplessly, "Oh, Lord, the petticoats, the petticoats!"

Just then the telephone rang--noisily as befits two o'clock in the
morning.

"Who the devil wants me at such an hour?" he muttered.

The clang was repeated almost instantly and continued until he unhooked
the receiver.

"Well!" he said sharply.

"Is that Mr. Harleston?" asked a woman's voice. A particularly soft and
sweet and smiling voice, it was.

"I am Mr. Harleston," he replied courteously--the voice had done it.

"Oh, how do you do, Mr. Harleston!" the voice rippled. "I suppose you
are rather astonished at being called up at such an unseemly hour--"

"Not at all--I'm quite used to it, mademoiselle," Harleston assured her.

"Now you're sarcastic," the voice replied again; "and, somehow, I don't
like sarcasm when I'm the cause of it."

"You're the cause of it but not the object of it," he assured her. "I'm
quite sure I've never met you, and just as sure that I hope to meet you
today."

"Your hope, Mr. Harleston, is also mine. But why, may I ask, do you call
me mademoiselle? I'm not French."

"It's the pleasantest way to address you until I know your name."

"You might call me madame!"

"Perish the thought! I refuse to imagine you married."

"I might be a widow."

"No."

"Or even a divorcee."

"And you might be a grandmother," he added.

"Yes."

"And doing the Maxixe at the Willard, this minute."

"Yes!" she laughed.

"But you aren't; and no more are you a widow or a divorcee."

"All of which is charming of you, Mr. Harleston but it's not exactly the
business I have in hand."

"Business at two o'clock in the morning!" he exclaimed.

He had tried to place the voice, and had failed; he was becoming
convinced that he had not heard it before.

"What else would justify me in disturbing you?" she asked.

"Yourself, mademoiselle. Let us continue the pleasant conversation and
forget business until business hours."

"When are your business hours, Mr. Harleston--and where's your office?"

"I have no office--and my business hours depend on the business in
hand."

"And the business in hand depends primarily on whether you are
interested in the subject matter of the business, _n'est-ce pas_?"

"I am profoundly interested, mademoiselle, in any matter that concerns
you--as well as in yourself. Who would not be interested in one so
impulsive--and anything so important--as to call him on the telephone at
two in the morning."

"And who on his part is so gracious--and wasn't asleep," she answered.

Harleston slowly winked at the transmitter and smiled.

He thought so. What puzzled him, however, was her idea in prolonging the
talk. Maybe there was not any idea in it, just a feminine notion; yet
something in the very alluring softness of her voice told him otherwise.

"You guessed it," he replied. "I was not asleep. Also I might guess
something in regard to your business."

"What?"

"No, no, mademoiselle! It's impertinent to guess about what does not
concern me--yet."

"Delete the word 'yet,' Mr. Harleston, and substitute the idea that it
was--pardon me--rather gratuitous in you to meddle in the first place."

"I don't understand," said Harleston.

"Oh, yes you do!" she trilled. "However, I'll be specific--it's time to
be specific, you would say; though I might respond that you've known all
along what my business is with you."

"The name of an individual is a prerequisite to the transaction of
business," he interposed.

"You do not know me, Mr. Harleston."

"Hence, your name?"

"When we meet, you'll know me by my voice."

"True, mademoiselle, for it's one in a million; but as yet we are not
met, and you desire to talk business."

"And I'm going to talk business!" she laughed. "And I shall not give
you my name--or, if you must, know me as Madame X. Are you satisfied?"

"If you are willing to be known as Madame X," he laughed back, "I
haven't a word to say. Pray begin."

"Being assured now that you have never before heard my voice, and that
you have it fixed sufficiently in your memory--all of which, Mr.
Harleston, wasn't in the least necessary, for we shall meet today--we
will proceed. Ready?"

"Ready, mademoiselle--I mean Madame X."

"What do you intend to do, sir, in regard to the incident of the
deserted cab with the sleeping horse?" she asked.

"I have not determined. It depends on developments."

"You see, Mr. Harleston, you were not in the least surprised at my
question."

"For a moment, a mere man may have had a clever woman's intuition," he
replied.

"And, I suppose, the woman will be expected to aid developments."

"Isn't that her present intention?"

"Not at all! Her present intention is to avoid developments so far as
you are concerned, and to have matters take their intended course. It's
to that end that I have ventured to call you."

"What do you wish me to do, Madame X?"

"As if you did not know!" she mocked.

"I'm very dense at times," he assured her.

"Dense!" she laughed. "Shades of Talleyrand, hear the man! However, as
you desire to be told, I'll tell you. I wish you to forget that you saw
anything unusual on your way home this morning, and to return the
articles you took from the cab."

"To the cab?" Harleston inquired.

"No, to me."

"What were the articles?"

"A sealed envelope containing a message in cipher."

"Haven't you forgotten something?"

"Oh, you may keep the roses, Mr. Harleston, for your reward!" she
laughed.

She had not missed the handkerchief, or else she thought it of no
consequence.

"Assuming, for the moment, that I have the articles in question, how are
they to be gotten to you?"

"By the messenger, I shall send."

"Will you send yourself?"

"What is that to you, sir?" she trilled.

"Simply that I shall not even consider surrendering the articles,
assuming that I have them, to any one but you."

"You will surrender them to _me_?" she whispered.

"I won't surrender them to any one else."

"In other words, I have a chance to get them. No one else has a chance?"

"Precisely."

"Very well, I accept. Make the appointment, Mr. Harleston."

"Will five o'clock this afternoon be convenient?"

"Perfectly--if it can't be sooner," she replied, after a momentary
pause. "And the place?"

"Where you will," he answered. He wanted her to fix it so that he could
judge of her good faith.

And she understood.

"I'm not arranging to have you throttled!" she laughed. "Let us say the
corridor of the Chateau--that is safe enough, isn't it?"

"Don't you know, Madame X, that Peacock Alley is one of the most
dangerous places in town?"

"Not for you, Mr. Harleston," she replied. "However--"

"Oh, I'll chance it; though it's a perilous setting with one of your
adorable voice--and the other things that simply must go with it."

"And lest the other things should not go with it," she added, "I'll wear
three American Beauties on a black gown so that you may know me."

"Good! Peacock Alley at five," he replied and snapped up the receiver.




III

VISITORS


"The affair promises to be quite interesting," he confided to the
paper-knife, with which he was spearing tiny holes in the blotter of the
pad. "Peacock Alley at five--but there are a few matters that come
first."

He went straight to the safe, unlocked it, took out the photograph, the
cipher message, and the handkerchief, carried these to the table and
placed them in a large envelope, which he sealed and addressed to
himself. Then with it, and the three American Beauties, he passed
quickly into the corridor and to an adjoining apartment. There he rang
the bell vigorously and long.

He was still ringing when a dishevelled figure, in blue pajamas and a
scowl, opened the door.

"What the devil do you--" the disturbed one growled.

"S-h-h!" said Harleston, his finger on his lips. "Keep these for me
until tomorrow, Stuart."

And crowding the roses and the envelope in the astonished man's hands,
he hurried away.

The pajamaed one glared at the flowers and the envelope; then he turned
and flung them into a corner of the living-room.

"Hell!" he said in disgust. "Harleston's either crazy or in love: it's
the same thing anyway."

He slammed the door and went back to bed.

Harleston, chuckling, returned to his quarters; retrieved from the floor
a leaf and a petal and tossed them out of the window. Then, being
assured by a careful inspection of the room that there were no further
traces of the roses remaining, he went to bed.

Two minutes after his head touched the pillow, he was asleep.

Presently he awoke--listening!

Some one was on the fire-escape. The passage leading to it was just at
the end of his suite; more than that, one could climb over the railing,
and, by a little care, reach the sill of his bedroom window. This sill
was wide and offered an easy footing. If the window were up, one could
easily step inside; or, even if it were not, the catch could be slipped
in a moment.

Harleston's window, however, was up--invitingly up; also the window on
the passage; it was a warm night and any air was grateful.

He lay quite still and waited developments. They came from another
quarter: the corridor on which his apartment opened. Someone was there.

Then the knob of his door turned; he could not distinguish it in the
uncertain light, yet he knew it was turning by a peculiarly faint
screech--almost so faint as to be indistinguishable. One would not
notice it except at the dead of night.

The door hung a moment; then cautiously it swung back a little way, and
two men entered. The moon, though now low, was sufficient to light the
place faintly and to enable them to see and be seen.

For a brief interval they stood motionless. They came to life when
Harleston, reaching up, pushed the electric button.

"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he asked, blinking into their
levelled revolvers.

They were medium-sized men and wore evening clothes; one was about
forty-five and rather inclined to stoutness, the other was under forty
and rather slender. They were not masked, and their faces, which were
strange to Harleston, were the faces of men of breeding, accustomed to
affairs.

"You startled us, Mr. Harleston," the elder replied; "and you blinded us
momentarily by the rush of light."

"It was thoughtless of me," Harleston returned. He waved his hand toward
the chairs. "Won't you be seated, messieurs--and pardon my not arising;
I'm hardly in receiving costume. May I ask whom I am entertaining."

"Certainly, sir," the elder smiled. "This is Mr. Sparrow; I am Mr.
Marston. We would not have you put yourself to the inconvenience, not to
mention the hazard from drafts. You're much more comfortable in bed--and
we can transact our business with you quite as well so; moreover if you
will give us your word to lie quiet and not call or shoot, we shall not
offer you the slightest violence."

"I'll do anything," Harleston smiled, "to be relieved of looking down
those unattractive muzzles. Ah! thank you!--The chairs, gentlemen!" with
a fine gesture of welcome.

"We haven't time to sit down, thank you," said Sparrow. "Time presses
and we must away as quickly as possible. We shall, we sincerely hope,
inconvenience you but a moment, Mr. Harleston."

"Pray take all the time you need," Harleston responded. "I've nothing to
do until nine o'clock--except to sleep; and sleep is a mere incidental
to me. I would much rather chat with visitors, especially those who pay
me such a delightfully early morning call."

"Do you know what we came for?" Marston asked.

"I haven't the slightest idea. In fact, I don't seem to recall ever
having met either of you. However--you'll find cigars and cigarettes on
the table in the other room. I'll be greatly obliged, if one of you will
pass me a cigarette and a match."

Both men laughed; Sparrow produced his case and offered it to Harleston,
together with a match.

"Thank you, very much," said Harleston, as he struck the match and
carefully passed the flame across the tip. "Now, sirs, I'm at your
service. To what, or to whom, do I owe the honour of this visit?"

"We have ventured to intrude on you, Mr. Harleston," said Marston, "in
regard to a little matter that happened on Eighteenth Street near
Massachusetts Avenue shortly before one o'clock this morning."

Harleston looked his surprise.

"Yes!" he inflected. "How very interesting."

"I'm delighted that you find it so," was the answer. "It encourages me
to go deeper into that matter."

"By all means!" said Harleston, pushing the pillow aside and sitting up.
"Pray, proceed. I'm all attention."

"Then we'll go straight to the point. You found certain articles in the
cab, Mr. Harleston--we have come for those articles."

"I am quite at a loss to understand," Harleston replied. "Cab--articles!
Have they to do with your little matter of Eighteenth and Massachusetts
Avenue several hours ago?"

"They are the crux of the matter," Marston said shortly. "And you will
confer a great favour upon persons high in authority of a friendly power
if you will return the articles in question."

"My dear sir," Harleston exclaimed, "I haven't the articles, whatever
they may be; and pardon me, even if I had, I should not deliver them to
you; I've never, to the best of my recollection, seen either of you
gentlemen before this pleasant occasion."

"My dear Mr. Harleston," remarked Sparrow, "all your actions at the cab
of the sleeping horse were observed and noted, so why protest?"

"I'm not protesting; I'm simply stating two pertinent facts!" Harleston
laughed.

"We will grant the fact that you've never seen us," said Marston, "but
that you have not got the articles in question, we," with apologizing
gesture, "beg leave to doubt."

"You're at full liberty to search my apartment," Harleston answered.
"I'm not sensitive early in the morning, whatever I may be at night."

"The letter is easy to conceal," was the reply, "and the safe yonder is
an _impasse_ without your assistance."

"The safe is not locked," Harleston remarked. "I think I neglected to
turn the knob. If you will--"

"Don't disturb yourself, I pray," was the quick reply, the revolver
glinting in his hand; "we will gladly relieve you of the trouble."

"I was only about to say that if you try the door it will open for you,"
Harleston chuckled. "Go through it, sir," he remarked to the younger,
"and don't, I beg of you, disturb the papers more than necessary. The
key to the locked drawer is in the lower compartment on the right.
Proceed, my elderly friend, to search the apartment; I'll not balk you.
The thing's rather amusing--and entirely absurd. If it were not--if it
didn't strike my funny-bone--I should probably put up some sort of a
fight; as it is, you see I'm entirely acquiescent. Your tiny automatics
didn't in the least intimidate me. I could have landed you both as you
entered. I've got a gun of a much larger calibre right to my hand. See!"
and he lifted the pillow and exposed a 38. "Want to borrow it?"

"Why didn't you land us?" Marston asked, as he took the 38.

"It wouldn't have been kind!" Harleston smiled. "When visitors come at
such an hour, they deserve to be received with every attention and
courtesy--particularly when they come on a mistaken impression and a
fruitless quest."

The man looked at Harleston doubtfully. Just how much of this was bluff,
he could not decide. Harleston's whole conduct was rather unusual--the
open door, the open safe, the unemployed revolver, were not in
accordance with the game they were playing. He should have made a fight,
some sort of a fight, and not--

"The letter's not in the safe," Sparrow reported.

"I didn't think it was," said the other, "but we had to make search."

"You're very welcome to look elsewhere and anywhere," Harleston
interjected. "I'll trust you not to pry into matters other than the
letter. By the way, whose was the letter?"

"His Majesty of Abyssinia!" was the answer.

"Taken by wireless, I presume."

"Exactly!"

"Then, why so much bother, my friend?" Harleston asked. "If you do not
find it, you can get others by the same quick route."

"The King of Abyssinia never duplicates a letter."

"When," supplemented Harleston, "it has been carelessly lost in a cab."

"Just so. Therefore--"

"I repeat that I have not got the articles," said Harleston, a bit
wearily, "nor are they in my apartment. You have been misinformed. I
find I am getting drowsy--this thing is not as absorbing as I had
thought it would be. With your permission I'll drop off to sleep; you're
welcome to continue the search. Make yourselves perfectly at home,
sirs." He lay back and drew up the sheet. "Just pull the door shut when
you depart, please," he said, and closed his eyes.

"You're a queer chap," remarked Sparrow, pausing in his search and
surveying Harleston with a puzzled smile. "One would suppose you're used
to receiving interruptions at such hours for such purposes."

"I try never to be surprised at anything however _outre_," Harleston
explained. "Good-night."

The two men looked at the recumbent figure and then at each other and
laughed.

"He acts the part," said the elder. "Have you found anything?"

"Nothing! It's not in the safe nor the writing-table--nor anywhere else
that is reasonable. I've been through everything and there's nothing
doing."

"You're not going?" Harleston remarked.

"You're asleep, Mr. Harleston!" Marston reminded. "The letter is here:
we've simply got to find it."

"A letter is easy to conceal," the younger replied. "There's nothing but
to overturn everything in the place--and so on; and that will require a
day."

"So that you replace things, I've not the slightest objection,"
Harleston interjected. "Bang away, sirs, bang away! Anything to relieve
me from suspicion."

"It prevents him from sleeping!" Sparrow laughed.

"Also yourselves," Harleston supplemented. "However, you for it,
remembering that cock-crow comes earlier now than in December, and the
people too are up betimes. You risk interruption, I fear, from my
solicitous friends."

And even as he spoke the corridor door opened and a man stepped in.

From where he lay, Harleston could see him; the others could not.

"'Pon my soul, I'm popular this morning!" Harleston remarked, sitting
up.

Instantly the new-comer covered him with his revolver.

"What did you say?" Sparrow inquired from the sitting-room, just as the
stranger appeared around the corner.

Like a flash, the latter's revolver shifted to him.

"Easy there!" said he.

Sparrow sprang up--then he laughed.

"Easy yourself!" said he. "Marston, let this gentleman see your hand."

Marston came slowly forward until he stood a little behind but
sufficiently in view to enable the stranger to see that he himself was
covered by an automatic.

"For heaven's sake, Crenshaw," said Sparrow, "don't let us get to
shooting here! If you wing me, Marston will wing you, and we'll only
stir up a mess for ourselves."

"Then hand over the letter," said Crenshaw

"Do you fancy we would be hunting it if we had it?"

"I don't fancy--produce the goods!"

"We haven't the goods," Marston shrugged. "We can't find it."

Sparrow shook his head curtly.

"It's the truth," Harleston interjected. "They haven't found the goods
for the very good reason that the goods are not here. Plunge in and aid
in the search; I wish you would; it will relieve me of your triple
intrusion in one third less time. I'm becoming very tired of it all; it
has lost its novelty. I prefer to sleep."

"I want the letter!" Crenshaw exclaimed.

"I assumed as much from the vigour of your quest," Harleston shrugged.
"The difficulty is that I haven't the letter. Neither is it in my
apartment. But you'll facilitate the search if you'll depress your
respective cannon from the angle of each other's anatomy and get to
work. As I remarked before, I'm anxious to compose myself for sleep. You
can hold your little dispute later on the sidewalk, or in jail, or
wherever is most convenient."

"Mr. Harleston," said Marston, "do you give us your word that the letter
is not in your apartment?"

"You already have it," Harleston replied wearily.

"Then, sir, we'll take your word and withdraw."

"Thank you," said Harleston.

"He has it somewhere!" Crenshaw declared, fingering his revolver.

"My dear fellow," Marston returned, "we are willing to accept Mr.
Harleston's averment."

"He knows where it is--he took it--let him tell where it is hidden."

"What good will that subserve? We can't get it tonight, and tomorrow
will be too late."

"And all because of you two meddlers."

"Three meddlers, Crenshaw!" Marston laughed. "You must not forget your
sweet self. We've bungled the affair, I admit. We can't improve it now
by murdering each other--"

"We can make it very uncomfortable for the fourth meddler," Crenshaw
threatened, eyeing the figure on the bed.

"Haven't you made me uncomfortable enough by this untimely intrusion?"
Harleston muttered sleepily.

"What is your idea in not offering any opposition?" Crenshaw demanded.
"Is it a plant?"

"It was courtesy at first, and the novelty of the experience; but it's
ceased to be novel, and courtesy is a bit supererogatory. By the way,
which of you came up the fire-escape?"

The three shook their heads.

"I'm not a burglar," Crenshaw snapped.

"The burden is on you to prove it, my friend!" Harleston smiled.
"However, it's no matter. Just drop cards before you leave so that I can
return your call. Once more, good-night!"

"I'm off," said Marston. "Come along, Crenshaw, you can't do anything
more here, and we'll all forget and forgive and start fresh in the
morning."

"Start?" cried Crenshaw? "what for--home? I tell you the letter is
here--he took it, didn't he? He was at the cab."

"Will you also give your word that you didn't take a letter from the
cab?" Crenshaw demanded, turning upon Harleston.

"I'll give you nothing since you've asked me in that manner," Harleston
replied sharply; "unless you want this." His hand came from under the
sheet, and Crenshaw was looking into a levelled 38. Harleston had a pair
of them.

"Beat it, my man!" Harleston snapped. "None of you are of much success
as burglars; you're not familiar with the trade. You're novices, rank
novices. Also myself. I'll give you until I count five, Crenshaw, to
make your adieux. One ... two ... No need for you two to hurry away--the
time limit applies only to Mr. Crenshaw."

"It's quite time we were going, Mr. Harleston," Marston answered.
"Good-night, sir--and pleasant dreams. Come on, Crenshaw."

"Three ... four ..."

Crenshaw made a gesture of final threat.

"Meddler!" he exclaimed. Then he followed the other two.




IV

CRENSHAW


Harleston lay for a few minutes, brows drawn in thought; then he arose,
crossed to the telephone, and took down the receiver.

"Good-morning, Miss Williams," he said. "Has it been a long night?"

"Pretty long, Mr. Harleston," the girl answered. "There hasn't been a
thing doing for two hours."

"Haven't three gentlemen just left the building?"

"No one has passed in or out since you came in, Mr. Harleston."

"Then I must be mistaken."

"You certainly are. It's so lonely down here, Mr. Harleston, you can
pick up chunks of it and carry off."

"Been asleep?"

"I don't think!" she laughed. "I'm not minded to lose my job. Suppose
some peevish woman wanted a doctor and she couldn't raise me; do you
think I'd last longer than the morning and the manager's arrival? Nay!
Nay!"

"It's an unsympathetic world, isn't it, Miss Williams?"

"Only when you're down--otherwise it's not half bad. Say, maybe here's
one of your men now; he's walking down. Shall I stop him?"

"No, no, let him go. When he's gone, tell me if he's slender, or stout,
or has a moustache and imperial."

"Sure, I will."

Through the telephone Harleston could hear someone descend the stairs,
cross the lobby, and the revolving doors swing around.

The next moment, the operator's voice came with a bit of laugh.

"Are you there, Mr. Harleston?"

"I'm here."

"Well, your man was a woman--and she was accidentally deliberately
careful that I shouldn't see her face."

"H-u-m!" said Harleston. "Young or old?"

"She's got ripples enough on her gown to be sixty, and figure enough to
be twenty."

"Slender?"

"Yes; a perfect peach!"

"How's her walk?"

"As if the ground was all hers."

"I see!" Harleston replied. "What would you, as a woman, make her
age--being indifferent and strictly truthful?"

"Not over twenty-eight--probably less!" she laughed. "And I've a notion
she's some to look at, Mr. Harleston."

"You mean she's a beauty?"

"Sure."

"Call me if she comes back; also if any of the men go out. They are
strangers to the Collingwood so you will know them."

"Very good, Mr. Harleston."

He hung up the receiver and went back to bed.

If no one had come in and no one had left the Collingwood since his
return, the men must have been in the building--unless they had come by
another way than the main entrance; which was the only entrance open
after midnight. If the former was the case, then someone on the outside
must have communicated to them as to him.

With a muttered curse on his stupidity, he returned to the telephone.

"Miss Williams," said he, "there has been a queer occurrence in the
building since two A.M., and I should like to know confidentially
whether any one has communicated with an apartment since one thirty."

The girl knew that Harleston was on intimate terms with the State
Department, and with the police, and she answered at once.

"Save only yours, not a single in or out call has been registered since
twelve fifty-two when apartment No. 401 was connected for a short
while."

"Who has No. 401?"

"A Mr. and Mrs. Chartrand. It's one of the transient apartments; and
they have occupied it only a few days."

"You didn't by any chance overhear--"

"The conversation?" she laughed. "Sure, I heard it; anything to put in
the time during the night. It was very brief, however; something about
him being here, and to meet him at ten in the morning."

"Who were talking?"

"Mrs. Chartrand and a man--at least I took it to be Mrs. Chartrand; it
was a woman's voice."

"Did they mention where they were to meet, or the name of the man?"

"No. The very vagueness of the talk made its impression on me at that
time of night. In the daytime, I would not have even listened."

"I understand," said Harleston. "Call me up, will you, if there are any
developments as to the men I've described--or the conversation.
Meanwhile, Miss Williams, not a word."

"Not a word, Mr. Harleston--and thank you."

"What for?"

"For treating me as a human being. Most persons treat me like an
automaton or a bit of dirt. You're different; most of the men are not so
bad; it's the women, Mr. Harleston, the women! Good-night, sir. I'll
call you if anything turns up."

"All of which shows," reflected Harleston, as he returned to bed, "that
the telephone people are right in asking you to smile when you say
'hello.'"

It was a very interesting condition of affairs that confronted him.

The episode of the cab of the sleeping horse was leading on to--what?

Three men in the Collingwood knew of the occurrence, yet no one had come
in or gone out, and no one had telephoned. Moreover, they also knew of
Harleston's part in the matter. The girl had not lied, he was sure;
therefore they must have gained entrance from the outside; and,
possibly, were now hiding in the Chartrand apartment--if the telephone
message to No. 401 had to do with the occupant of the deserted cab and
the lost letter. Yet how to connect things? And why bother to connect
them?

He did not care for the vanished lady of the cab--he had the letter and
the photograph; and because of them he was to have a talk with an
interesting young woman at five o'clock that afternoon. The cipher
letter, which was the much desired quantity, was safely across the hall,
waiting to be turned over to Carpenter, the expert of the State
Department, for translation. Meanwhile, what concerned Harleston was the
photograph of Madeline Spencer and her connection with the case--and to
know if the United States was concerned in the affair.

At this point he turned over and calmly went to sleep. Tomorrow was
another day.

He was aroused by a vigorous pounding on the corridor door. It was
seven-thirty o'clock. He yawned and responded to the summons--which grew
more insistent with every pound.

It was Stuart--the envelope and the flowers in his hand.

"Scarcely heard your gentle tap," Harleston remarked. "Why don't you
knock like a man?"

"Here's your damn bouquet, also your envelope," said Stuart, "You
probably don't recall that you left them with me about two this morning.
I _do_."

"I'm mighty much obliged, old man," Harleston responded. "You did me a
great service by taking them--I'll tell you about it later."

"Hump!" grunted Stuart. "I hope you'll come around to tell me at a more
seasonable hour. So long!"

Harleston closed the door, and was half-way across the living-room when
there came another knock.

Tossing the envelope and the faded roses on a nearby table, he stepped
back and swung open the door.

Instantly, a revolver was shoved into his face, and Crenshaw sprang into
the hall and closed the door.

"I thought as much!" he exclaimed. "I'll take that envelope, my friend,
and be quick about it."

"What envelope?" Harleston inquired pleasantly, never seeming to notice
the menacing automatic.

"Come, no trifling!" Crenshaw snapped. "The envelope that the man from
the apartment across the corridor just handed you."

Harleston laughed. "You are obsessed with the notion that I have
something of yours, Mr. Crenshaw."

"_The letter!_" exclaimed Crenshaw.

"That envelope is addressed to me, sir; it's not the one you seem to
want."

"I suppose the flowers are also addressed to you," Crenshaw derided,
advancing. "Get back, sir,--I'll get the envelope myself."

"My dear man," Harleston expostulated, retreating slowly toward the door
of the living-room, "I'll let you see the envelope; I've not the
slightest objection. Put up your gun, man; I'm not dangerous."

"You're not so long as I've got the drop on you!" Crenshaw laughed
sneeringly. "Get back, man, get back; to the far side of the table--the
far side, do you hear--while I examine the envelope yonder beside the
roses. The roses are very familiar, Mr. Harleston. I've seen them
before."

Harleston, retreating hastily, backed into a chair and fell over it.

"All right, stay there, then!" said Crenshaw, and reached for the
letter.

As he did so, Harleston's slippered foot shot out and drove hard into
the other's stomach. With a grunt Crenshaw doubled up from pain. The
next instant, Harleston caught his wrist and the struggle was on.

It was not for long, however. Crenshaw was outweighed and outstrengthed;
and Harleston quickly bore him to the floor, where a sharp blow on the
fingers sent the automatic flying.

"If it were not for spoiling the devil's handiwork, my fine friend, I'd
smash your face," Harleston remarked.

"Smash it!" the other panted. "I'll promise--to smash yours--at the
first opportunity."

"Which latter smashing won't be until some years later," Harleston
retorted, as he turned Crenshaw over. Bearing on him with all his
weight, he loosed his own pajama-cord and tied the man's hands behind
him. Next he kicked off his pajama trousers, and with them bound
Crenshaw's ankles. Then he dragged him to a chair and plunked him into
it, securing him there by a strap.

"It's scarcely necessary to gag you," he remarked pleasantly. "In your
case, an outcry would be embarrassing only to yourself."

"What do you intend to do with me?" Crenshaw demanded.

"Ultimately, you mean. I have not decided. It may depend on what I
find."

"Find?"

Harleston nodded. "In your pockets."

"You dog!" Crenshaw burst out, straining at his bonds. "You miserable
whelp! What do you think to find?"

"I'm not thinking," Harleston smiled; "it isn't necessary to speculate
when one has all the stock, you know." Then his face hardened.

"One who comes into another's residence in the dead of night, revolver
in hand and violence in his intention, can expect no mercy and should
receive none. You're an ordinary burglar, Crenshaw and as such the law
will view you if I turn you over to the police. You think I found a
letter in an abandoned cab at 18th and Massachusetts Avenue early this
morning, and instead of coming like a respectable man and asking if I
have it and proving your property--do you hear, proving _your_
property--you play the burglar and highwayman. Evidently the letter
isn't yours, and you haven't any right or claim to it. I have been
injected into this matter; and having been injected I intend to
ascertain what can be found from your papers. Who you are; what your
object; who are concerned beside yourself; and anything else I can
discover. You see, you have the advantage of me; you know who I am, and,
I presume, my business; I know nothing of you, nor of your business, nor
what this all means; though I might guess some things. It's to obviate
guessing, as far as possible, that I am about to examine such evidence
as you may have with you."

Crenshaw was so choked with his anger that for a moment he merely
sputtered--then he relapsed into furious silence, his dark eyes glowing
with such hate that Harleston paused and asked a bit curiously:

"Why do you take it so hard? It's all in the game--and you've lost.
You're a poor sort of sport, Crenshaw. You'd be better at ping-pong or
croquet. This matter of--letters, and cabs, is far beyond your calibre;
it's not in your class."

"We haven't reached the end of the matter, my adroit friend," gritted
Crenshaw. "My turn will come, never fear."

"A far day, monsieur, a far day!" said Harleston lightly. "Meanwhile,
with your permission, we will have a look at the contents of your
pockets. First, your pocketbook."

He unbuttoned the other's coat, put in his hand, and drew out the book.

"Attend, please," said he, "so you can see that I replace every
article."

Crenshaw's only answer was a contemptuous shrug.

A goodly wad of yellow backs of large denominations, and some visiting
cards, no two of which bore the same name, were the contents of the
pocketbook.

"You must have had some difficulty in keeping track of yourself,"
Harleston remarked, as he made a note of the names.

Then he returned the bills and the cards to the book, and put it back in
Crenshaw's pocket.

"It's unwise to carry so much money about you," he remarked; "it induces
spending, as well as provokes attack."

"What's that to you?" replied Crenshaw angrily.

"Nothing whatever--it's merely a word of advice to one who seems to need
it. Now for the other pockets."

The coat yielded nothing additional; the waist-coat, only a few matches
and an open-faced gold watch, which Harleston inspected rather carefully
both inside and out; the trousers, a couple of handkerchiefs with the
initial C in the corner, some silver, and a small bunch of keys--and in
the fob pocket a crumpled note, with the odour of carnations clinging to
it.

Harleston glanced at Crenshaw as he opened the note--and caught a sly
look in his eyes.

"Something doing, Crenshaw?" he queried.

Another shrug was Crenshaw's answer--and the sly look grew into a sly
smile.

The note, apparently in a woman's handwriting, was in French, and
contained five words and an initial:

  _A l'aube du jour.
  M._

Harleston looked at it long enough to fix in his mind the penmanship and
to mark the little eccentricities of style. Then he folded it and put it
in Crenshaw's outside pocket.

"Thank you!" said he, with an amused smile.

"You forgot to look in the soles of my shoes?" Crenshaw jeered.

"Someone else will do that," Harleston replied.

"Someone else?" Crenshaw inflected.

"The police always search prisoners, I believe."

"My God, you don't intend to turn me over to the police?" Crenshaw
exclaimed.

"Why not?" And when Crenshaw did not reply: "Wherein are you different
from any other felon taken red-handed--except that you were taken twice
in the same night, indeed?"

"Think of the scandal that will ensue!" Crenshaw cried.

"It won't affect me!" Harleston laughed.

"Won't affect you?" the other retorted. "Maybe it won't--and maybe it
will!"

"We shall try it," Harleston remarked, and picked up the telephone.

Crenshaw watched him with a snarling sneer on his lips.

Harleston gave the private number of the police superintendent. He
himself answered.

"Major Ranleigh, this is Harleston. I'd like to have a man report to me
at the Collingwood at once.--No; one will be enough, thank you. Have him
come right up to my apartment. Good-bye!--Now if you'll excuse me for a
brief time, Mr. Crenshaw, I'll get into some clothes--while you think
over the question whether you will explain or go to prison."

"You will not dare!" Crenshaw laughed mockingly. "Your State Department
won't stand for it a moment when they hear of it--which they'll do at
ten o'clock, if I'm missing."

"Let me felicitate you on your forehandedness," Harleston called from
the next room. "It's admirably planned, but not effective for your
release."

"Hell!" snorted Crenshaw, and relapsed into silence.

Presently Harleston appeared, dressed for the morning.

"Why not spread your cards on the table, Crenshaw?" he asked. "I did
stumble on the deserted cab this morning, wholly by accident; I was on
my way here. I did find in it a letter and these roses, and I brought
them here. I don't know if you know what that letter contained--I do.
It's in cipher--and will be turned over to the State Department for
translation. What I want to know is: first--what is the message of the
letter, if you know; second--who was the woman in the cab, and the facts
of the episode; third--what governments, if any, are concerned."

"You're amazingly moderate in your demands," Crenshaw sarcasmed; "so
moderate, indeed, that I would acquiesce at once but for the fact that
I'm wholly ignorant of the contents of the letter. The name of the
woman, and the episode of the cab are none of your affair; nor do the
names of parties, whether personal or government, concern you in the
least."

"Very well. We'll close up the cards and play the game. The first thing
in the game, as I said a moment ago, Crenshaw, is not to squeal when you
are in a hole and losing."

A knock came at the door. Harleston crossed and swung it open.

A young man--presumably a business man, quietly-dressed--stood at
attention and saluted. If he saw the bound man in the chair, his eyes
never showed it.

"Ah, Whiteside," Harleston remarked. "I'm glad it is you who was sent.
Come in.... You will remain here and guard this man; you will prevent
any attempt at escape or rescue, even though you are obliged to use the
utmost force. I'm for down-town now; and I will communicate with you at
the earliest moment. Meanwhile, the man is in your charge."

"Yes, Mr. Harleston!" Whiteside answered.

"I want some breakfast!" snapped Crenshaw.

"The officer will order from the cafe whatever you wish," Harleston
replied; and picking up his stick he departed, the letter and the
photograph in the sealed envelope in his inside pocket.

As he went out, he smiled pleasantly at Crenshaw.




V

ANOTHER WOMAN


Harleston walked down Sixteenth Street--the Avenue of the Presidents, if
you have time either to say it or write it. The Secretary of State
resided on it, and, as chance had it, he was descending the front steps
as Harleston came along.

Now the Secretary was duly impressed with all the dignity of his
official position, and he rarely failed to pull it on the ordinary
individual--cockey would be about the proper term. In Harleston,
however, he recognized an unusual personage; one to whom the Department
was wont to turn when all others had failed in its diplomatic problems;
who had some wealth and an absolutely secure social position; who
accepted no pecuniary recompense for his service, doing it all for pure
amusement, and because his government requested it.

"It's too fine a day to ride to the Department," said the Secretary.
"It's much too fine, really, to go anywhere except to the Rataplan and
play golf."

Harleston agreed.

"I'll take you on at four o'clock," the Secretary suggested.

"If that is not a command," said Harleston, "I should like first to
consult you about a matter which arose last night, or rather early this
morning. I was bound for your office now. I can, however, give you the
main facts as we go along."

"Proceed!" said the Secretary. "I'm all attention."

"It may be of grave importance and it may be of very little--"

"What do you think it is?"

"I think it is of first importance, judging from known facts. If
Carpenter can translate the cipher message, it will--"

"The Department has full faith in your diagnosis, Harleston. You're the
surgeon; you prescribe the treatment and I'll see that it is followed.
Now drive on with the story."

"It begins with a letter, a photograph, a handkerchief, three American
Beauty roses--all in the cab of the sleeping horse--"

"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the Secretary.

"--at one o'clock on Massachusetts Avenue and Eighteenth Street."

"Is the horse still asleep, Harleston?"

"The horse awoke, and straightway went to his stand in Dupont Circle!"
Harleston laughed and related the incidents of the night and early
morning, finishing his account in the Secretary's private office.

"Most amazing!" the latter reflected, eyes half-closed as though seeing
a mental picture of it all.

Then he picked up the photograph and studied it awhile.

"So this is the wonderful Madeline Spencer--who came so near to throwing
our friend, the King of Valeria, out of his Archdukeship, and later from
his throne. I remember the matter most distinctly. I was a friend of the
Dalberg family of the Eastern Shore, and of Armand Dalberg himself." He
paused, and looked again at the picture. "H-u-m! She is a very beautiful
woman, Harleston, a very beautiful woman! I think I have never seen her
equal; certainly never her superior. These dark-haired, classic
featured ones for me, Harleston; the pale blonde type does not appeal.
The peroxides come of that class." Again the photograph did duty. "I
could almost wish that she were the lost lady of the cab of the sleeping
horse--so that I might see her in the flesh. I've never seen her, you
know."

Harleston smoothed back a smile. The Secretary too was getting
sentimental over the lady, and he had never seen her; though he had
known of her rare doings; and those doings had, it appeared, had their
natural effect of enveloping her in a glamour of fascination because of
what she had done.

"You've seen her?" the Secretary asked.

"I've known her since she was Madeline Cuthbert. Since then she's had a
history. Possibly, taken altogether she's a pretty bad lot. And she is
not only beautiful; she's fascinating, simply fascinating; it's a rare
man, a very rare man, who can be with her ten minutes and not succumb to
her manifold attractions of mind and body."

"You have succumbed?" the Secretary smiled.

"I have--twenty times at least. You'll join the throng, if she has
occasion to need you, and gives you half a chance."

"I'm married!" said the Secretary.

"I'm quite aware of it!"

"I'm immune!"

"And yet you're wishing to see her in the flesh!" Harleston smiled.

"I think I can safely take the risk!" smoothing his chin complacently.

"Other men have thought the same, I believe, and been burned. However,
if the lady is in Washington I'll engage that you meet her. Also, I'll
acquaint her of your boasted immunity from her _beaux yeux_."

"The latter isn't within the scope of your duty, sir," the Secretary
smiled. "Now we'll have Carpenter."

He touched a button.

A moment later Carpenter entered; a scholarly-looking man in the
fifties; bald as an egg, with the quiet dignity of bearing which goes
with a student, who at the same time is an expert in his particular
line--and knows it. He was the Fifth Assistant Secretary, had been the
Fifth Assistant and Chief of the Cipher Division for years. His superior
was not to be found in any capital in Europe. His business with the
secret service of the Department was to pull the strings and obtain
results; and he got results, else he would not have been continued in
office. His specialty, however, was ciphers; and his chief joy was in a
case that had a cipher at the bottom. Ciphers were his recreation, as
well as his business.

The Secretary with a gesture turned him over to Harleston--and Harleston
handed him the letter.

"What do you make out of it, Mr. Carpenter?" he asked.

Carpenter took the letter and examined it for a moment, holding it to
the light, and carefully feeling its texture.

"Not a great deal cursorily," he answered. "It's a French paper--the
sort, I think, used at the Quay d'Orsay. Have you the envelope
accompanying it?"

"Here it is!" said Harleston.

"This envelope, however, is not French; it's English," Carpenter said
instantly. "See! a saltire within an orle is the private water-mark of
Sergeant & Co. I likely can tell you more after careful examination in
my workshop."

"How about the message itself?" Harleston asked.

"It is the Vigenerie cipher, that's reasonably certain; and, as you are
aware, Mr. Harleston, the Vigenerie is practically impossible of
solution without the key-word. It is the one cipher that needs no
code-book, nor anything else that can be lost or stolen--the code-word
can be carried in one's mind. We used it in the De la Porte affair, you
will remember. Indeed, just because of its simplicity it is used more
generally by every nation than any other cipher."

"I thought that you might be able to work it out," said Harleston. "You
can do it if any one on earth can."

"I can do some things, Mr. Harleston," smiled Carpenter deprecatingly,
"but I'm not omniscient. For instance: What language is the
key-word--French, Italian, Spanish, English? The message is written on
French paper, enclosed in an English envelope.--However, the facts you
have may clear up that phase of the matter."

"Here are the facts, as I know them," said Harleston.

Carpenter leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and listened.

       *       *       *       *       *

"The message is, I should confidently say, written in English or French,
with the chances much in favour of the latter," he said, when Harleston
had concluded. "Everyone concerned is English or American; the men who
descended upon you so peculiarly and foolishly, and who showed their
inexperience in every move, were Americans, I take it, as was also the
woman who telephoned you. Moreover, she is fighting them."

"Then your idea is that the United States is not concerned in the
matter?" the Secretary asked.

"Not directly, yet it may be very much concerned in the result. We will
know more about it after Mr. Harleston has had his interview with the
lady."

"That's so!" the Secretary reflected. "We shall trust you, Harleston, to
find out something definite from her. Keep me advised if anything turns
up. It seems peculiar, and it may be only a personal matter and not an
_affaire d'etat_. At all events, you've a pleasant interview before
you."

"Maybe I have--and maybe I haven't!" Harleston laughed--and he and
Carpenter went out, passing the French Ambassador in the anteroom.

Harleston went straight to Police Headquarters. The Chief was waiting
for him.

"I had Thompson, your cab driver, here," said Ranleigh, "and he tells a
somewhat unusual but apparently straight tale; moreover, he is a very
respectable negro, well known to the guards and the officers on duty
around Dupont Circle, and they regard him as entirely trustworthy. He
says that last evening about nine o'clock, when he was jogging down
Connecticut Avenue on his way home--he owns his rig--he was hailed by a
fare in evening dress, top coat, and hat, who directed him to drive west
on Massachusetts Avenue. In the neighbourhood of Twenty-second Street,
the fare signalled to stop and ordered him to come to the door. There he
asked him to hire the horse and cab until this morning, when they would
be returned to him at that point. Thompson naturally demurred; whereupon
the man offered to deposit with him in cash the value of the horse and
cab, to be refunded upon their return in the morning less fifty dollars
for their hire. This was too good to let slip and Thompson acquiesced,
fixing the value at three hundred and fifty dollars, which sum the man
skinned off a roll of yellow-backs. Then the fare buttoned his coat
around him, jumped on the box, and drove east on Massachusetts Avenue.
This morning the horse and cab were backed up to the curb at their
customary stand in Dupont Circle, where they were found by officer
Murphy shortly after daybreak; before he could report the absence of the
driver, Thompson came up and explained."

"Can Thompson describe the man?" Harleston asked.

"Merely that he was clean-shaved, medium-sized, somewhat stout, wore
evening clothes, and was, apparently, a gentleman. Thompson thinks
however, that he could readily recognize the man, so we should let him
have a look at the fellow that's under guard in your apartment."

"It isn't he," Harleston explained. "He's slender, with a mustache and
imperial. It was Marston, likely. Did any of your officers see cab No.
333 between nine P.M. and this morning?"

"The reports are clean of No. 333, but we are investigating now. It's
not likely, however. Meanwhile, if there is anything else I can do, Mr.
Harleston--"

"You can listen to the balance of the episode--beginning at half-past
one this morning, when I found the cab deserted at Eighteenth Street and
Massachusetts Avenue, with the horse lying in the roadway, asleep in the
shafts...."

"What do you wish the police to do, Mr. Harleston?" the Superintendent
asked at the end.

"Nothing, until I've seen the Lady of Peacock Alley. Then I'll likely
know something definite--whether to keep hands off or to get busy."

"Shan't we even try to locate the two men, in preparation for your
getting busy?"

"H'm!" reflected Harleston. "Do it very quietly then. You see, I don't
know whom you're likely to locate, nor whether we want to locate them."

"The men who visited your apartment are not of the profession, Mr.
Harleston."

"It's their profession that's bothering me!" Harleston laughed. "Why are
three Americans engaged in what bears every appearance of being a
diplomatic matter, and of which our State Department knows nothing?"

"There's a woman in it, I believe; likely two, possibly three!" was the
smiling reply.

"Hump!" said Harleston. "A woman is at the bottom of most things, that's
a fact; she's about the only thing for which a man will betray his
country. However, as they're three men there should be three women--"

"One woman is enough--if she is sufficiently fascinating and plays the
men off against one another. Though you've plenty of women in the case,
Mr. Harleston, if you're looking for the three:--the one whom you're to
meet this afternoon; the unknown who left the Collingwood so
mysteriously; and the one of the photograph. If the other two are as
lovely as she of the photograph they are some trio. I shouldn't care for
the latter lady to tempt me overlong."

"Wise man!" Harleston remarked, as he arose to go. "I'll advise you
after the interview. Meanwhile you might have the cabby look at the
fellow in durance at the Collingwood. Possibly he has seen him before;
which may give us a lead--if we find we want a lead."

The telephone buzzed; Ranleigh answered it--then raised his hand to
Harleston to remain. After a moment, he motioned for Harleston to come
closer and held the receiver so that both could hear.

"I can see you at three o'clock," Ranleigh said.

"Three o'clock will be very nice," came a feminine voice--soft, with a
bit of a drawl.

"Very well," Ranleigh replied. "If you will give me your name--I missed
it. Whom am I to expect at three?"

"Mrs. Winton, of the Burlingame apartments. I'll be punctual--and thank
you so much. Good-bye!"

"Anything familiar about the voice?" Ranleigh asked, pushing back the
instrument.

Harleston shook his head in negation.

"I thought it might be your Lady of Peacock Alley, for it's about the
cab matter. She says that she has something to tell me regarding a
mysterious cab on Eighteenth Street last night sometime about one
o'clock."

"There are quite too many women in this affair," Harleston commented.
"However, the Burlingame is almost directly across the street from where
I found the cab, so her story will be interesting--if it's not a plant."

"And it may be even more interesting if it is a plant," Ranleigh added.
"If you will come in a bit before three, I'll put you where you can see
and hear everything that takes place."

"I'll do it!" said Harleston.




VI

THE GREY-STONE HOUSE


Harleston returned at a quarter to three, and Ranleigh showed him into
the small room at the rear, provided with every facility for seeing what
went on and overhearing and reducing what was said in the
Superintendent's private office.

Promptly at three, Mrs. Winton was announced by appointment, and was
instantly admitted.

She was about thirty years of age, slender, with dark hair and a face
just missing beauty. She was gowned in black, with a bunch of violets at
her waist, and she wore a large mesh veil, through which her
particularly fine dark eyes sparkled discriminatingly.

The Superintendent arose and bowed graciously. Ranleigh was a gentleman
by birth and by breeding.

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Winton?" he asked, placing a chair for
her--where her face would be in full view from the cabinet.

"You can do nothing for me, sir," she replied, with a charming smile. "I
came to you as head of the Police Department for the purpose of
detailing what I saw in connection with the matter I mentioned to you
over the telephone. It may be of no value to you--I even may do wrong in
volunteering my information, but--"

"On the contrary," the Superintendent interjected, "you confer a great
favour on this Department by reporting to it any suspicious
circumstances. It is for it to investigate and determine whether they
call for action. Pray proceed, my dear Mrs. Winton."

She gave him another charming smile and went on.

"I was out last evening, and it was after midnight when I got back to
the Burlingame. My apartment is on the third floor front. Instead of
going to bed at once, I sat down at the open window to enjoy the gentle
breeze. I must have dozed, for I was aroused by a cab coming up
Eighteenth and stopping before the large, grey-stone house opposite--the
rest of the houses are brick--which was unoccupied until two days ago,
when it was rented furnished. I live just across the street and hence I
notice these things--casually of course, as one does. I watched the cab
with languid interest; saw the driver descend from the box, which seemed
a bit peculiar; but when, instead of going to the door of the cab, he
went up the front steps and into the house--the door of which he opened
with a key that he took from his pocket--my curiosity was aroused. A
moment later, a man in evening dress came leisurely out and sauntered to
the carriage. It seemed to me he was interested in looking around him,
and at the houses opposite, rather than at the cab. He remained at the
cab, presumably in talk with those within, for several minutes.
Presently the door clicked and a woman stepped out, followed by a man.
The woman disappeared into the house. The two men drew in so close to
the cab that they were hidden from me; when they reappeared, they were
carrying a woman--or her body--between them. They hurriedly crossed the
sidewalk mounted the steps, and the house-door closed behind them
instantly. The noise of the door seemed to arouse the horse, doubtless
he took it for the door of the cab, and he started slowly up the street
toward Massachusetts Avenue. After walking a short distance, and in
front of a vacant lot near the corner, he halted--obviously he realized
that no one was holding the lines, and he was waiting for his driver to
return. Just then one of the men put his head out of the doorway, saw
that the horse was no longer before the house, and dodged quickly back.
I waited for further developments from the house. None came, except that
in one of the rooms a light was made, but it was behind closed shades.
Pretty soon the horse calmly lay down in the shafts, stretched out, and
apparently went to sleep. Disturbed by the occurrence, and debating what
I ought to do, I sat a while longer; and I must have dozed again, for
when I awoke the house was dark, and a man, a strange man, I think, was
standing beside the cab, and the horse was up. The man was gathering the
reins; he fastened them to the driver's seat, spoke to the horse, and
the horse moved off and into Massachusetts Avenue toward Dupont Circle.
The man watched him for a moment; then turned and went down
Massachusetts Avenue. After waiting a short while, I went to bed. This
morning, I decided it was well for you to know of the episode."

"And you have told it wonderfully well, Mrs. Winton," said the
Superintendent, "wonderfully well, indeed."

"You don't know how often I rehearsed," she laughed, "nor how much of
the essentials I may have omitted!"

"Not much, I fancy. However, you'll not object, I suppose, to answering
a few questions as to details."

"I wish you to ask anything that suggests itself," she replied. "I've an
appointment at the Chateau at five; just give me time to keep it."

"We'll get through long before five!" the Superintendent smiled, though
his shrewd grey eyes were coldly critical. It was most unlikely that she
was the Lady of Peacock Alley; yet all things are possible where a woman
is concerned, as he knew from experience. "About what time was it when
the cab stopped before the house?" he asked.

"About one o'clock, as near as I can judge," she answered.

"What was the interval between the driver's going into the house and
the man in evening clothes coming out?"

"Scarcely any interval--not more than a minute."

"Do you know how long a minute is?" said Ranleigh, drawing out his
watch.

"Not exactly!" she admitted.

"Do you mind if I test you?"

"Not in the least."

"Then tell me when it is a minute...."

"Now?" said she.

"Fourteen seconds!" he smiled.

"Fourteen seconds!" she exclaimed incredulously "It's not possible."

"You're considerably above the average, Mrs. Winton. However, it depends
much on what you're doing at the moment. Last night when you were
watching, not estimating, you probably were nearer right as to the
interval. When, may I ask, did the driver reappear?"

"He didn't reappear--at least that I saw; he may have come out of the
house while I dozed."

"Might not the man that you saw last have been he?"

"I'm perfectly sure it wasn't. The driver was medium-sized and stout,
this man was tall and slender. I couldn't have been mistaken."

Ranleigh nodded. Her story was testing up very well on the known points.

"Now, Mrs. Winton, can you give some description of the woman in the
case--her appearance--how she was dressed--anything to aid us in
identifying her?"

"I'm afraid I can't be of much help," Mrs. Winton replied. "She was, I
think, clad in a dark street gown. In the uncertain electric light, I
could not distinguish the colour--and the men were so close to her I had
little chance to see. About all I'm sure of is that it was a woman;
slender and about the average height. I did not see her face."

The Chief nodded again.

"What about the house, Mrs. Winton? Did you see anything unusual before
tonight?"

"I saw no one but the servants--though I didn't look quite all the
time," she added with a smile. "I'm not unduly curious, I think, Major
Ranleigh, under the, to me, unusual circumstances; and in mitigation of
my curiosity, I've told no one of the matter."

"You're a woman of rare discretion, Mrs. Winton," the Superintendent
replied.

"I fear I'm a busy-body," she returned.

"I wish then there were more busy-bodies of your sort. Tell me, could
you recognize the men?"

"Not with any assurance.--Neither could I recognize the occupants of the
house," she added. "The truth is, though you may doubt, that I scarcely
notice them; but one can't see a to-let-unfurnished sign on a house
opposite for six months, without remarking its sudden disappearance from
the landscape."

"I should say that you wouldn't be normal if you didn't notice--and
comment, too," Ranleigh declared. "And the Department is much indebted
to you for the information, and it appreciates the spirit that moves you
in the matter."

Mrs. Winton arose to go--the Superintendent accompanied her into the
hall, rang the bell for the elevator, and bowed her into it.

"Don't you wish to know the result?" he inquired with a quizzical
smile, as he put her in the car.

"I'm not unduly curious!" she laughed.

When he returned, Harleston was standing in his office lighting a
cigarette.

"It's infernally close, not to mention hot, in that cabinet of yours,"
he observed; "though one can see and hear."

"Ever see her before?" the Superintendent asked.

"I don't recall it!"

"Ever hear the voice?"

"No."

"What do you think of her?"

"Good to look at, truthful, sincere."

"And her story?"

"Simple statement of fact, I take it."

"Hum!" said Ranleigh.

"Which means?" Harleston asked.

"Nothing at present; may be nothing at any time. I never believe a story
till its truth is established--and then I'm still in a receptive state
of mind. However, it does seem true, and Mrs. Winton herself supports
it; which is enough for the time."

"At any rate, we've found the lady of the cab," Harleston remarked. "Or
rather we've located her as of one o'clock, which is shortly before I
happened on the scene."

"Is there anything in the description that corresponds to the lady of
the photograph?"

"It all corresponds; slight, above medium-height, dark gown--she affects
dark gowns;--but thousands of women are slight, above medium-height, and
wear dark gowns."

"At least it eliminates the very tall and the stout," Ranleigh observed.
"Let me ask you, what do you make of Mrs. Winton's appointment at the
Chateau at five, and her being gowned in black?"

"A mere coincidence, I think. What would be her object in telling this
story to you between three and four o'clock, and meeting me at five to
recover the lost document."

"Search me! I'm sure only of this: there are too many women in this
affair, Mr. Harleston, too many women! Man is a reasoning being and
somewhat consistent; but women--" a gesture ended the remark.

"Just so!" Harleston laughed. "And now for the Lady of Peacock Alley!"




VII

SURPRISES


Peacock Alley was in full gorgeousness when Harleston, just at five
o'clock, paused on the landing above the marble stairs inside the F
Street entrance and surveyed the motley throng--busy with looking and
being looked at, with charming and being charmed, with wondering and
being wondered at, with aping and being aped, with patronizing and being
patronized, with flattering and being flattered, with fawning and being
fawned upon, with deceiving and being deceived, with bluffing and being
bluffed, with splurging, with pretending, with every trick and artifice
and sham and chicanery that society and politics know, or can fancy.

Harleston was familiar with it all for too many years even to accord it
a glance of contemptuous indifference--when he had anything else to
occupy his mind; and just now his mind was on a lady in black with
three American Beauties on the gown.

He went slowly down the steps to the main corridor and joined the
buzzing, kaleidoscopic crowd.

Somewhere on the floor above, an orchestra was playing for the
_dansant_; and the music came fitfully through the chatter and
confusion. He nodded to some acquaintances, bowed formally to others,
shook hands when it could not be avoided; all the while progressing
slowly down the corridor in search of three red roses on a black gown.

And near the far end he saw, for an instant through a rift in the crowd,
the three roses on a black gown, but not the face above them; the next
instant the rift closed. However, he knew now that she was here and
where to find her, and he made his way through the press toward where
she was waiting for him.

Then the crowd suddenly opened--as crowds do--and he saw, on the same
side of the corridor and scarcely ten feet apart, two slender women in
black and wearing red roses; one was Mrs. Winton, the other he had never
seen.

It brought him to a sharp pause. Then he smiled. Ranleigh was right!
There were altogether too many women in this case. And which one was
waiting for him? He knew neither, but there was the chance that the one
he was to meet knew him.

And so he adventured it, walking slowly toward them, and taking care
that they should notice him.

They did.

Mrs. Winton glanced at him casually and impersonally.

The unknown, whose face was from him, turned sharply when he dropped his
stick, and looked at him unrecognizingly. As her eyes came down they
rested on the other woman.

She gave a subdued exclamation, arose and threaded her way to the
opposite side of the corridor.

Harleston, glancing back, saw the move, and swinging over he followed.
He would speak to her--meanwhile, he was looking at her. So far, at
least, both were good to look at; they must be good to look at in this
business, it is part of the stock in trade.

"Good afternoon, Madame X," he said, bowing before her.

"Why, how do you do, Mr. Harleston," she smiled, giving him her hand
and making room beside her on the settee. "I'm delighted to see you,
just delighted!"

"It is nice to meet again, isn't it?" he returned. "When did you get to
town?"

"Only yesterday! You live in Washington, now, don't you?"

"Yes, off and on. It's my headquarters for refitting and starting
afresh. What do you say to a turn at the _dansant_?"

"I'm ready, I'm sure," she replied. "Afterward we'll--"

"Discuss other matters!" he interjected.

She gave him an amused look, and they passed down the corridor and up
the marble steps to the elevator.

They were dancing the _Maxixe_ when they entered.

"Do you mind if we don't do it on the heels?" said she. "I think it's
prettier the other way."

"So do I," said he, and they drifted down the room.

He knew almost everyone on the floor; the women nodded to him, then
stared coldly at his companion; the men too stared at her--but not
coldly--and when they thought about it, which was seldom of late, nodded
to him, and resumed their staring.

And Harleston did not wonder--indeed, had it been otherwise, it would
have argued a sudden paucity of appreciation on the part of the smart
set there assembled. For this slender young person in black, a small hat
on her head, topping hair of flaming red, an exquisite figure and a
charming pair of slender high-arched feet, was worth anyone's staring,
be it either coldly or with frank interest. And she did not seem to know
it; which in this day of smug and blatant personal appreciation of one's
good points--feminine points--is something of a rarity in the sex. It
may be, however that Madame X was fully aware of her beauty, but she was
modest about it, or seemed to be; which amounts to the same thing.

They sat down at a remote table and Harleston ordered two cold
drinks--an apollinaris with a dash of lemon for her, a Jerry Hill for
himself. He noticed that the men were looking and wavering and he
deliberately turned his chair around and gave them his back. He had no
objection to presenting the Lady of Peacock Alley to his men friends,
but just at this time it was not convenient. The adventure was rather
unusual, and the lady altogether attractive and somewhat fascinating; he
chose, for the present at least, to go it alone. Moreover, they were to
meet on a matter of her business and by her appointment.

He had suggested the _dansant_ that he might study her. And the more he
saw of her, the more he was struck by her unaffected naturalness and
apparent sincerity. Not a word, not even a suggestion while they were
dancing, of the matter of the cab; it was as though she were just an old
friend. And her dancing was a delight--such a delight, indeed, that he
was reluctant to have it end. Somehow, one gets to know quickly one's
partner in the _dansant_.

"This is perfectly entrancing, Mr. Harleston," she said presently, "but
don't you think we would better hunt a retired corner and discuss other
matters?"

"If you will dine with me when we've discussed them," he replied.

"It's only six o'clock," she smiled; "will the discussion take so long?"

"It depends somewhat on when you wish to dine, and somewhat on the
character of the discussion."

Her smile grew into a quiet, rippling laugh.

"Come along," she answered. "I've found a secluded nook in the big
red-room downstairs. It's cozy and nice, and I've had the maid reserve
it for me. Afterwards," with a sharp stab of her brown eyes, "I'll
decide whether I'll dine with you."

The place was as she had said, cozy and nice and secluded; and he put
her into it--where the subdued light would fall on her face.

"Very good, sir," she smiled; "I am not afraid of the light."

"Nor would I be if I were you," he replied.

She shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly.

"Why fence?" she asked.

"Why, indeed?" he replied.

"And why, may I ask, did you meet me here this afternoon?"

"Curiosity--later, satisfaction and appreciation."

"And why do you think I wanted to meet you?"

"Heaven knows!" he replied.

"Suppose, Mr. Harleston, we resume the conversation just where we left
off last night. Your last remark then was that I had a chance to get the
articles, but no one else had a chance. I'm here now for my chance."

"And that chance depends on a number of contingencies," he replied:
"whether I have the desired articles; whether you have the title to
them, or the right of possession to them; whether they concern private
matters or public matters; if the latter, whether the United States is
concerned."

"We can assume the first," said she. "I know for a fact that you took
the articles in question from the cab, which you found deserted before a
vacant lot."

"How do you know it?" Harleston asked.

"Because, as I told you over the telephone, you were seen--in fact, I
saw you. I saw you light a match inside the cab, come out with the
envelope, look it over quickly, and put it in your pocket. You'll admit
these facts?"

"I am advised by my counsel that I'm not obliged to answer!" he laughed.

"On the ground that it will incriminate you?" she asked quickly. "Isn't
that tantamount to admitting the fact?"

"That is a matter of argument, it seems to me."

She smiled good naturedly and went on:

"As to your second contingency, Mr. Harleston; the envelope and its
contents were left with me for delivery to another party--which I
believe gives me the right of possession, as you term it. At any rate,
it gives me a better title than yours."

"If the party who left them with you had a good title," he amended. "If,
however, he obtained them from--a deserted cab, say--then his title
would be no better than you've put in me; not so good, in fact, for
according to your tale I have the envelope."

She shrugged again.

"Now as to your third contingency," she went on, "I am not able to say
what is the nature of the document, nor whom nor what nation it
concerns."

"You mean that you're ignorant of its contents and its nature?" he
asked.

She met his glance frankly. "I mean that I haven't any idea of its
contents or its purpose."

He slowly tapped his cigarette against the swinging brass ash-receiver.

"Wouldn't it be well, my dear Madame X, to lay your cards on the
table--all your cards?"

"I'm perfectly willing, if you'll do likewise," she replied instantly.

He looked at her thoughtfully.

"Very well," he returned. "Let me see your hand and you shall see mine."

"This one?" she smiled, holding it up.

He leaned over and took the long, slim fingers in the tips of his
own--and she let him.

"It's mighty pretty," he said, with assumed gravity. "Am I to have it
in place of the facts--or along with them?"

"Neither at present," withdrawing her hand. "Business first, Mr.
Harleston--and cards on the table."

"You're to play," he smiled, "and whenever you will."

Ordinarily he made up his mind very quickly as to another's sincerity,
but she puzzled him. What was the game? And if there were no game so far
as she was concerned, how did she happen to be in the very midst of it,
and trying to recover--or to obtain--the cipher letter and the
photograph? It was a queer situation? the reasonable inferences were
against her. Yet--

"I hardly know where to begin," she was saying.

"Begin at the beginning," he advised.

He must appear to credit her story that she was concerned only as an
innocent associate. And it was not difficult to do, sitting there beside
her in the subdued light, under the witching tones of her voice, and the
alluring fascination of her face. The face was not perfect; far from it,
if by perfect is meant features accordant with one another and true to
type. Her hair was flaming red; her eyes were brown, dark brown, a
certain pensiveness in them most inaccordant with the hair; her nose was
slender, with sensitive nostrils; her mouth was generous with lips a
trifle full; her teeth were exquisitely white and symmetrical--and she
showed them with due modesty, yet with proper appreciation of their
beauty.

Altogether she was a very charming picture; and throwing away his
cigarette, he lighted a cigar and settled back to watch the play of her
features and hear the melody of her voice. He was a trifle impressed
with the lady--and he was willing that the tale require time and
attention. Furthermore, it was his business to observe her critically,
so that he might decide as to the matter in hand. In the present
instance his business was very much to his liking, but that did not make
it any the less business.

Something of which the lady may have suspected and was prepared to
humour. A man must be humoured at times--particularly when the woman is
trying for something that can only be come at through his favour or
acquiescence.

"To begin at the beginning will make it a long story," she warned.

"Then by all means begin it there," he answered.

"You can endure it?"

"I'm very comfortable; we are alone; and the _light_ is admirable."

"Same here!" she smiled, with a tantalizing glance from the brown eyes.
"Can you start me?"

"I might, but I won't. The glory shall all be yours."

"I'm glad there is to be some glory in this affair; there's been little
enough so far. However, to begin."

"No hurry, my dear Madame X."

"Don't you want my decision as to dinner?" she asked.

"You can continue the narrative while we dine. Now to begin."

"Then vanish Madame X, and enter Mistress Clephane."

At that moment a woman and a man entered the room from the corridor by
the middle door, and crossed to a divan in the corner farthest from Mrs.
Clephane and Harleston. The former had her back to them; Harleston was
facing their way and saw them.

The man was middle-aged, bald, and somewhat stout--and Harleston
recognized one of his visitors of the early morning. The woman was
sinuous, with raven hair, dead white complexion, a perfectly lovely
face, and a superb figure. Harleston would have known that walk and that
figure anywhere and at any time even if he had not seen her face.

It was Madeline Spencer.




VIII

THE STORY


Harleston quickly swung his chair around so that the broad back hid Mrs.
Clephane and himself. He was quite sure that she had noticed the pair;
though when he glanced at her she was looking thoughtfully at him, as if
considering where to begin her story.

"Do you know the two who just came in and are sitting in the far
corner," he asked; "the slender woman and the bald-headed man?"

"No," she answered; "except that she is an exceedingly fine-looking
woman--as you doubtless have noted."

"I've noted other things!" he smiled.

"About her?"

"No, not about her."

She laughed, deliciously he thought.

"I best get on with my tale," she said. "So, once upon a time, which
means, to be accurate, about ten days ago, I took a steamer at
Cherbourg for New York. On the boat was a Madame Durrand, whom I had
known on the Continent and in London for a number of years. Neither was
aware of the other's sailing until we met aboard. I think that it was on
the fourth day out she asked me to come to her state-room; there she
told me that she was a secret agent of the French Government and the
bearer of a most important letter from a high official, written however
in his private capacity to their Ambassador in Washington; that she had
a presentiment ill fortune would befall her on the way; that there was
no one else on the ship in whom she trusted; and that she wanted me to
accompany her to Washington, and, if she were to meet with an accident,
to deliver the letter to the Ambassador. I consented, wishing to oblige
her, and being bound for Washington. She showed me where she carried the
letter, and gave me the verbal message that went with it, which was the
name of the Minister and that he sent it in his private capacity and not
officially.

"I'm not in the secret service of a government, as you doubtless can
infer from my knowledge of matters and use of technical language!" she
smiled. "And the affair rather fascinated me, I admit, by its
unusualness. Moreover, I knew Madame Durrand intimately--how intimately
may be inferred from the circumstances.

"Well, we landed, had our baggage chalked, and went to the Plaza for the
night. In the morning, we took a taxi to the Pennsylvania Station, were
held up by traffic, and were hurrying down the marble steps to catch our
train, when a man, hurrying also, jostled Madame Durrand. Her heel
caught and she plunged head first down to the landing. Of course men
sprang forward to her assistance and picked her up--with her wrist and
ankle broken. She was plucky, however, wonderfully plucky. She did not
faint, as I'm sure I should have done; she just turned ghastly pale--and
said to me, with a bit of smile, motioning for me to bend over her so
that none could hear:

"'I told you so, Edith. Here is where you come in.' She slid her hand
under her skirt, drew out the envelope, and slipped it to me. 'Hurry!'
she said. 'You can yet make the train.'

"But I was obdurate; I wouldn't leave her until she was in a hospital
and comfortable. And when she saw I meant it, she smiled--and fainted.
Well, instead of the ten o'clock train, I caught the twelve, which
should have landed me here at five, but a series of delays, due to
accidents ahead; put us at seven. It was, I thought, too late to deliver
my letter that evening, so I took a taxi here and had dinner. Then I
paid a short visit to some friends at the Shoreham and returned shortly
before midnight. I found two notices that I had been called on the
telephone at 10:15 and 11:00, by parties who declined to give their
names or leave a call. This struck me as queer since no one knew of my
being in town except my friends at the Shoreham. A moment after I
entered my room, the telephone rang. I answered. A man's voice came
back.

"'Who is that?' said he.

"'Whom do you want?' said I.

"'I wish to speak to Mrs. Clephane.'

"'Very well,' said I; 'I'm Mrs. Clephane.'

"'Oh, Mrs. Clephane, we have been trying for you since ten o'clock!'
said he. 'The Ambassador wishes to see you at once. Can you be ready to
come in fifteen minutes--we'll send a carriage for you?'

"'How did you know'--I began, then stopped. 'Yes, I'll be ready,' said
I; 'but let one of the staff come with the carriage.'

"'Oh, of course!' he replied. 'In fifteen minutes, madame?'

"I didn't fancy going out at midnight, yet I had undertaken the matter
and I would see it through. I had not changed from my travelling suit
and it hadn't a pocket in it; nor had I one such as Madame Durrand
employed, so I was carrying the letter pinned inside my waist. Now I
took it out and put it in my hand-bag, all the while thinking over the
affair and liking it less the more I thought. It was pretty late at
night, and there was something suspicious about the affair. I went to
the desk and hurriedly wrote a note to the friends that I had just left;
then I called a page, and ordered him to take it at once to the
Shoreham. On the envelope I had written the instruction that it was not
to be delivered until morning.

"As I finished, the telephone rang and Mr. and Mrs. Buissard, I think
that was the name, were announced as coming by appointment. I went down
at once. Mrs. Buissard was in evening dress, a pretty, vivacious woman,
Mr. Buissard was a man of thirty, slender, with a little black
moustache and black hair. Somehow I didn't like him; and I was glad he
had brought his wife--she was charming.

"They had a cab instead of a car or taxi. We got in and drove up
Fourteenth to H, and out H to Sixteenth. As we swung in Sixteenth, the
man leaned forward to the window on my side.

"'Look at that!' he exclaimed excitedly.

"As I turned to look, the woman flung her silk wrap over my head and
twisted it tightly about my neck.

"I tried to cry out, but a hand closed over my mouth and only a weak
gurgle responded.

"'Listen, Mrs. Clephane!' said the man, 'We mean you no harm. Give us
the package you have for the French Ambassador, and we will at once
return you to your hotel.'

"I'm pretty much a coward, yet I managed to hold myself together and not
faint, and to say nothing. I didn't care a straw for the letter, but I
didn't fancy being defeated at that stage of the game. I tried to
think--but thinking is a bit difficult under such circumstances. Just as
the wrap went over my head, my hand happened to be on my hand-bag. I
quietly opened it, dropped the letter close along the seat, and closed
the bag. Here was a slight chance to balk them--at all events, it was
the only course occurring to me at the moment.

"'Has she fainted?' asked the man.

"'I think so,' said the woman, 'or she is scared to death.'

"Here was a suggestion--and I took it. I remained perfectly quiet.

"'Well,' was his answer, 'we're almost there, and it's a lucky chance.
No trouble at all, Seraphina.'

"I had felt the cab round several corners; almost immediately after the
last it stopped. I'm a trifle hazy as to what they did; but finally I
was passed out of the cab like a corpse and carried into a house. There
the wrap was removed from my head; I blinked uncertainly, and looked
around in a bewildered fashion.

"'Where am I?' I gasped.

"The woman replied, 'You're in absolutely no danger, Mrs. Clephane. We
want the package you have for the French Ambassador; when we have it, we
will send you back to your hotel.'

"'What is to be done with the cab?' someone asked.

"'Nothing,' another replied. 'The horse will find his way to his stand;
he's almost there.'

"'But I haven't any package!' I protested.

"'Come, come!' the woman answered briskly. 'You have it about you
somewhere; that was what you were going to the Embassy to deliver?'

"'Who are you?' I demanded.

"'It matters not who we are--we want the package.'

"'The package is not with me,' I remarked. 'It's locked in the hotel
safe.'

"'Will you permit yourself to be searched?' she asked, with an amused
smile. I knew it was a threat.

"'I'm perfectly willing to submit to a search by _you_,' I said. 'The
quicker you set about it, the quicker I'll be released. I don't care for
these diplomatic affairs; they may be regular but they seem
unnecessarily dangerous. I was simply a substitute anyway, and I won't
substitute again; though how you people discovered it I don't see.'

"'Because you're new at the game,' she replied, as we passed into the
drawing-room.

"She closed the door--and I soon satisfied her that the package was not
concealed about me.

"'I may go now?' I inquired.

"'I think so, but I must consult the Chief,' she replied. 'I'll be back
in a minute.'

"They seemed high-class knaves at least; but it was quite evident that
the diplomatic game and its secret service were distinctly not in my
line. I want no more of them even to oblige a friend in distress. I hate
a mess!"

"I'm very glad for this mess," Harleston interjected. "Otherwise I
should not have--met you."

"And you are the only compensation for the mess, Mr. Harleston!" she
smiled.

She said it so earnestly Harleston was almost persuaded that she meant
it--though he replied with a shrug and a sceptical laugh.

"But the woman was long in returning," Mrs. Clephane resumed; "and after
a while I put out the light, and going to the window raised the shade.
The cab was no longer before the house; it had moved a little distance
to the left, and the horse was lying down in the shafts. As I was
debating whether to risk the jump from the window, a man came down the
street and halted at the cab.--That man was you, Mr. Harleston. The rest
of the tale you know much better than I--and the material portion you
are to tell me, or rather to give me."

"How did you know the man at the cab was I? You didn't recognize me in
the corridor, this afternoon."

"Oh, yes I did--but I waited to see if you would follow me, or would go
up to the other woman in black and roses."

"I never was in doubt!" Harleston laughed. "I told you, on the
telephone, that I could pick you out in a crowd; after a glimpse of you,
I could--" he ended with a gesture.

"Still pick me out," she supplied. "Well, the important thing is that
you _did_ pick me out--and that you're a gentleman. Also you forget that
your picture has been pretty prominent lately, on account of the Du
Portal affair; and besides you've been pointed out to me a number of
times during the last few years as something of a celebrity. So, you
see, it was not a great trick to recognize you under the electric
lights, even at one o'clock in the morning."

Harleston nodded. It was plausible surely. Moreover, he was prepared to
accept her story; thus far it seemed straightforward and extremely
credible.

"It was about three when you telephoned to me--where were you then?" he
asked.

"At the Chateau. They were kind enough to release me about three
o'clock, and to send me back in a private car--at least, it wasn't a
taxi. Now, have you any other questions?"

"I think not, for the present."

"Have I satisfied you that my tale is true?"

"I am satisfied," he replied.

"Then you will give me the letter?" she said joyfully.

"And what of the roses?"

"I presented them to you last night."

"And of this handkerchief?" drawing it from his pocket.

She took the bit of lace, glanced at it, and handed it back.

"It is not mine," she replied. "Probably it's the other woman's." She
held out her hand, the most symmetrical hand Harleston had ever seen.
"My letter, please, Mr. Harleston."

"I no longer have the letter," said Harleston.

"Then why did you--" she exclaimed; "but you can lay your hand on it?"

"I can lay my hand on it," he smiled--"whenever you convince me, or I
ascertain, that the letter does not concern directly or indirectly the
diplomatic affairs of the United States. You forget that was the
concluding stipulation, Mrs. Clephane. Meanwhile the letter will not,
you may feel assured, fall into the possession of the party who
attempted to steal it from you."

"What does it all mean?" she asked, leaning forward. "Who beside France
are the parties concerned?"

"It means that some nation is ready to take desperate chances to prevent
your letter from reaching the French Ambassador. What actuates it,
whether to learn its contents or to prevent its present delivery, I
naturally do not know." Then he laughed. "Would it interest you very
much to learn, Mrs. Clephane, that I was visited last night by three
men, who tried, at the point of the revolver, to force the letter from
me?"

"You surely don't mean it!" she exclaimed.

And with this exclamation the last doubt in Harleston's mind of Mrs.
Clephane's having aught to do with the night attack vanished--and
having acquitted her in that respect, there was scarcely any question as
to the sincerity and truth of her tale.

As it has been remarked previously, Mrs. Clephane was very good to look
at--and what is more to the point with Harleston, she looked back.

"I had all sorts of adventures, beginning with the cab of the sleeping
horse, three crushed roses, a bit of lace, and a letter," he laughed;
"and the adventures haven't yet ended, and they grow more interesting as
they progress."

"They didn't get the letter?" she asked quickly.

"They got nothing but the trouble of getting nothing," he replied.

"Where is the letter now, Mr. Harleston--is it safe from them?"

There was a note of concern in her voice, and it puzzled him. What else
did she know--or didn't she know anything? Was it only his habit in
diplomatic affairs to doubt everything that was not undoubtable.

"The letter," he replied, "is with the expert of the State Department
for translation."

"What language is it in?" she demanded.

"Cipher language--and a particularly difficult cipher it is. Can you
help us out, Mrs. Clephane?"

"I can't, Mr. Harleston; I don't know anything about ciphers. And I told
you the whole truth when I said that I neither knew what the envelope
contained nor its purpose. What disturbs me is how to explain to the
French Ambassador the loss of the letter."

"Tell him the exact truth," said Harleston. "It would have been better
possibly had you told him this morning."

"I thought you would return the letter to me," she replied.

"I likely should, had I seen you before I turned it over to the State
Department. Now that it has passed out of my hands, it is a matter for
the Secretary to decide."

"But he will be advised by you!" she exclaimed.

"Advised, yes,--dominated, no. The only chance of the letter being
returned to you, is that it does not affect this government."

"Diplomacy then is willing to stoop to any crime or to profit by any
wrong?" she mocked.

"I am afraid I must admit the accusation. Everything is fair in love
and war, you know--and diplomacy is only a species of war."

"Have I no redress for the outrage upon me, nor for the loss of the
letter by reason of that outrage?"

"I'm afraid you'll find the wheels of justice very slow-moving--when
they have to do with affairs diplomatic."

"But the letter, sir?"

"You must remember, Mrs. Clephane, that I found the letter in an
abandoned cab."

"And now that you know to whom it belongs," she flashed, "you will not
return it?"

"Because I can't! Which brings us back to where we started--and to
dinner."

"I will not dine with you!"

"Then let me dine with you!"

"No!"

"Fix it any way you wish, only so that we dine together," he persisted.
"I've the cosiest little table reserved for us, and--"

"Mr. Harleston," the page was calling. "Mr. Harles--"

Harleston turned, and the boy saw him.

"Telephone, sir," said he, giving Harleston the call slip.

"Will you excuse me a moment, Mrs. Clephane?" Harleston asked, and
hurried out--conscious all the while that Madeline Spencer and her
companion were watching him.

"This is Police Headquarters, Mr. Harleston," came the voice over the
wire. "Major Ranleigh wants to know if you will meet him at his office
at ten o'clock tonight. The Major was called out suddenly or he would
have telephoned you, himself!"

"I'll be on hand," Harleston replied, hung up the receiver, and hurried
back.

As he entered the red-room, he shot a covert glance toward the place
where Mrs. Spencer and her companion had been sitting.

They were gone!

"Yes! Yes!" said he under his breath, and turned toward the corner where
he had left Mrs. Clephane.

Mrs. Clephane was gone.




IX

DECOYED


Harleston faced about and surveyed the entire room. Then not content
with surveying, he deliberately walked through it, and satisfied himself
that Mrs. Clephane was not there--nor Madeline Spencer, nor her
bald-headed companion.

He took a turn up and down the corridor, and up and down again. They
were not there.

He even walked through the dining-rooms.

Nothing!

"Hum!" said he, at length--and returned to the red-room, and to his
chair. It was quite possible that Mrs. Clephane would be back in a
moment--yet somehow he doubted.

He waited for a quarter of an hour, and she did not come. He made
another tour of Peacock Alley, the lobby, the dining-rooms, and back to
the red-room.

Nothing!

He looked at his watch--it was half-after-seven o'clock. He would wait
fifteen minutes longer. Then, if she had not come, he would go about his
business--which, at present, was to dine.

He sat with his watch in his hand, looking down the room and at those
who entered.

The fifteen minutes passed. He put up his watch and arose; the wait was
ended.

He crossed the corridor to the dining-room.

"The table in yonder corner, Philippe," he said, to the bowing
head-waiter.

"One, Monsieur Harleston?" the man replied; and himself escorted him
over and placed him, and took his order for dinner. From which facts it
can be inferred that Harleston was something of a personage at the big
caravansary.

The clams had just been placed before him, and he was dipping the first
one in the cocktail, when Madeline Spencer and the bald-headed man
entered and passed to a table--reserved for them--at the far side of the
room. Harleston knew that she saw him, though apparently she had not
glanced his way. Here was another move in the game; but what the game,
and what the immediate object?

His waiter whisked away the clam cocktail and put down the clear
turtle.

As Harleston took up his spoon, a page spoke a word to Philippe, who
motioned him to Harleston's corner. The next instant the boy was there,
a letter on the extended salver--then he faded away.

Harleston put aside the letter until he had finished his soup; then he
picked it up and turned it over. It was a hotel envelope, and addressed
simply: "Mr. Harleston," in a woman's handwriting--full and free, and,
unusual to relate, quite legible. He ran his knife under the flap and
drew out the letter. It was in the same hand that wrote the address.

"DEAR MR. HARLESTON:

"I've just seen someone whom I wish to avoid, so won't you be good
enough to dine with me in my apartment. It's No. 972, and cosy and
quiet--and please come at once. I'm waiting for you--with an explanation
for my disappearance.

"EDITH CLEPHANE."

"Hum!" said Harleston, and drummed thoughtfully on the table. Then he
arose, said a word to Philippe as he passed, and went out to the
elevator.

He got off at the ninth floor and walked down the corridor to No. 972.
It was a corner and overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth
Street. He tapped lightly on the door; almost immediately it was opened
by a maid--a very pretty maid, he noticed--who, without waiting for him
to speak, addressed him as Monsieur Harleston and told him that Madame
was expecting him.

Harleston handed the maid his hat, stick, and gloves, and crossed the
private hall into the drawing-room.

As he passed the doorway, a heavy silk handkerchief was flung around his
neck from behind, and instantly tightened over his larynx; at the same
time his arms were pinioned to his side. He could neither make a sound
nor raise a hand. He was being garroted. At his first struggle the
garrote was twisted; it was be quiet or be strangled. And, queer as it
may seem, his first thought was of the garroters of India and the
instant helplessness of their victims. In fact, so immediate was his
helplessness, that it sapped all will to be otherwise than quiescent.

"Two can play at this game, Mr. Harleston," said a familiar voice, and
Crenshaw stepped out in front. "I'm in a better humour now, and more my
natural self; I was somewhat peeved in the Collingwood--due to late
hours, I think. By the way, it isn't an especially pleasant game for the
fellow who is it, Mr. Harleston? I'll take your answer for granted--or
we'll let my distinguished colleague answer for you--you know Mr.
Sparrow, sir?" as the man with the garrote put his head over Harleston's
shoulder. "Answer for Mr. Harleston will you, Sparrow?"

"No, it is not, Mr. Crenshaw," said Sparrow.

"I neglected to ask if you're not surprised to see me, Mr. Harleston?"

"I am indeed," said Sparrow.

"I regret that it was inconvenient for me to remain longer in your
apartment, Mr. Harleston--and so I exchanged places with your
detective," Crenshaw explained.

"I'm quite content, Mr. Crenshaw," Sparrow replied.

"Yes, certainly, and thank you, Mr. Harleston," Crenshaw smiled. "And
now, with your permission, sir, we shall inspect the contents of your
pockets, to the end that we may find a certain letter that you wot
of--also ourselves."

After the first warning twist, the garrote had been relaxed just enough
to permit Harleston breath sufficient for life, yet not sufficient for
an outcry; moreover, he knew that at the first murmur of a yell the
wrist behind him would turn and he would be throttled into
unconsciousness.

There was nothing to do but be quiet and as complaisant as his captors
wished, and await developments. And the irony of such a
situation--happening in the most crowded and most popular hotel in the
Capital, with hundreds of guests at hand, and scores of servants poised
to obey one's slightest nod--struck him with all the force of its
supreme absurdity. It was but another proof of the proposition that one
is never so alone as in the midst of a throng.

He smiled--somewhat chillily, it must be admitted--and whispered, his
speaking voice being shut off by the garrote.

"The quicker you look, the sooner I shall, I hope, be released from this
rather uncomfortable position."

"Good eye!" said Crenshaw. "You're a reasonable man, Mr. Harleston,
it's a pleasure to do business with you."

"Proceed!" Harleston whispered. "I haven't the letter with me, as you
should know. Do I look so much like a novice? Furthermore, if I am not
mistaken, I told you that I was going direct to the State Department to
deliver the letter for translation so how could I have it now?"

"We're not debating, we're searching," Crenshaw sneered; "though it may
occur to you that a copy is as easy of translation as the original.
However, we will proceed with the inspection--the proof of the caviare
is in the roe of the sturgeon."

"Then I pray you open the fish at once," said Harleston. "I can't assist
you in my present attitude, so get along, Mr. Crenshaw, if you please.
You interrupted my dinner--I was just at the soup; and you may believe
me when I say that I'm a bit hungry."

"With your permission," Crenshaw replied, proceeding to go through
Harleston's pockets, and finding nothing but the usual--which he
replaced.

He came last to the breast-pocket of the coat; in it were the wallet and
one letter--the letter that had brought Harleston here.

"It caught you!" Crenshaw smiled. "There's no bait like a pretty woman!"

Harleston raised his eyebrows and shrugged his answer.

"And a rather neat trap, wasn't it--we're very much pleased with it."

"You'll not be pleased with what it produces," Harleston smiled.

"It has produced you," the other mocked; "that's quite some production,
don't you think? And now, as this letter has served its purpose, I'll
take the liberty of destroying it," tearing it into bits and putting the
bits in his pockets, "lest one of us be liable for forgery. Now for the
pocket-book; you found something in mine, you may remember, Mr.
Harleston."

Harleston gave a faint chuckle. They would find nothing in his
pocket-book but some visiting and membership cards, a couple of
addresses and a few yellow-backs and silver certificates.

"The letter doesn't seem to be there--which I much regret, but these
visiting cards may be useful in our business; with your permission I'll
take them. Thank you, Mr. Harleston."

He folded the book and returned it to Harleston's pocket.

"I might have looked in your shoes, or done something disagreeable--I
believe I even promised to smash your face when I got the
opportunity--but I'm better disposed now. I shall return good for evil;
instead of tying you up as you did me, I'll release you from your bonds
if you give me your word to remain quiet in this room until tomorrow
morning at eight, and not to disclose to anyone, before that hour, what
has occurred here."

"After that?" said Harleston.

"You shall be at liberty to depart and to tell."

"And if I do not give my word?"

"Then," said Crenshaw pleasantly, "we shall be obliged to bind you and
gag you and leave you to be discovered by the maid--which, we shall
carefully provide, will not be before eight tomorrow morning."

"You leave small choice," Harleston observed.

"Just the choice between comfort and discomfort!" Crenshaw laughed.
"Which shall it be, sir?"

Harleston had been shifting slowly from one foot to the other, feeling
behind him for the man with the garrote. He had him located now and the
precise position where he was standing--one of his own legs was touching
Sparrow's.

At the instant Crenshaw had finished his question, Harleston suddenly
kicked backwards, landing with all the force of his sharp heel full on
Sparrow's shin.

Instantly the garrote loosened; and Harleston, with a wild yell, sprang
forward and swung straight at the point of Crenshaw's jaw.

Crenshaw dodged it--and the two men grappled and went down, fighting
furiously; Harleston letting out shouts all the while, and even managing
to overturn a table, which fell with a terrific smash of broken glass
and bric-a-brac, to attract attention and lead to an investigation.

He had not much trouble in mastering Crenshaw; but Sparrow, when he was
done spinning around on one foot from the agonizing pain of the kick on
the shin, would be another matter; the two men and the woman could
overpower him, unless assistance came quickly. And to that end he raised
all the uproar possible for the few seconds that Sparrow spun and the
woman stared.

Just as Sparrow hobbled to Crenshaw's aid, Harleston landed a short arm
blow on the latter's ear and sprang up, avoided the former's rush and
made for the hall-way.

At the same moment came a loud pounding on the corridor door. The noise
had been effective.

In a bound, Harleston reached the door; it should, as he knew, open from
within by a turn of the knob. But it was double-locked on the inside and
the key was missing.

He whirled--just in time to see the last of the mixed trio disappear
into the drawing-room, and the door snap shut behind them.

He sped across and flung himself against it--it was locked.

Meanwhile the pounding on the corridor door went on.

"Try another door!" Harleston shouted.

But by reason of the heavy door and the din, some time elapsed before he
could attract the attention of those in the corridor and make himself
understood. Then more time was consumed in getting the floor-maid with
the pass-key to the room adjoining the drawing-room of the suite.

By that time, the manager of the hotel had come up and put himself at
the head of the relief; and he was not in the best of temper when he
entered and saw the debris of the bric-a-brac and the table.

"What is the meaning of--" he demanded--then he recognized Harleston and
stopped--"I beg your pardon, Mr. Harleston! I didn't know that you were
here, sir; this apartment was occupied by--"

"Two men and a woman," Harleston supplied. "Well, it's been vacated by
them in deference to me."

"I don't understand!" said the manager.

"If you will have the baggage, which, I imagine, is in the bedrooms,
examined, and give me your private ear for a moment, I'll endeavour to
explain as much as I know."

"Certainly, Mr. Harleston," the man replied; and, directing the others
to examine the baggage, he closed the door of the drawing-room.

"First tell me who occupied this suite, when it was taken, and when they
came," said Harleston.

"One moment," said the manager, and picking up the telephone he called
the office. "It was, the office says, occupied by a Mr. and Mrs.
Davidson of New York City, who took it this afternoon about five
o'clock. They had made no reservation for it."

"Now as to their baggage."

The manager bowed and went out--to return almost instantly, a puzzled
expression on his face.

"Two new and cheap suit cases, each containing a couple of bricks and
some waste paper," he reported.

"Yes," nodded Harleston, "I thought as much. Mr. Banks, you will confer
a favour on me, and possibly on the government, if you will be good
enough to let this affair pass unnoticed, at least for the time. I'll
pay for the broken table and its contents, and a proper charge for the
rooms for the few hours they've been occupied. I overturned the table.
As for the rest--how I came to be here, and what became of the
occupants, and why the furniture was smashed, and why I have a slight
contusion in my cheek, and anything else occurring to the management as
requiring explanation, just forget it, please."

"Certainly, sir."

"Very good!" said Harleston. "Now wait one moment."

He went to the telephone and asked for Mrs. Clephane's apartment.

Her maid answered--with the information that Mrs. Clephane had been out
since five o'clock and had not yet returned.

Harleston thanked her, hung up the receiver, and turned to Banks.

"I have reason to believe that Mrs. Clephane, who is a guest of the
hotel, has disappeared. I was talking to her in the red-room at about
6:30, when I was called to the telephone. On my return, after a brief
absence, she was gone, and a frequent and thorough search on the first
floor did not disclose her. She was to have dined with me at
seven-thirty. She did not keep the engagement. I dined alone, and had
just begun the meal when a letter was handed to me asking that I dine
with her in her apartment, No. 972. I came here at once--and was held up
by two men and a woman, who sought to obtain something that they
imagined was in my possession. It wasn't, however, and we fought; and I
raised sufficient disturbance to bring you. You see, I have told you
something of the affair. The note was a forgery. This isn't Mrs.
Clephane's apartment, and her maid has just told me that her mistress
has not been in her apartment since five o'clock--which was the time she
met me. I am persuaded that she is a prisoner, and likely in this
hotel--held so to prevent her disclosing a certain matter to a certain
high official. What I want is for you to make every effort to determine
whether she is in this house."

"We'll do it, Mr. Harleston," the manager acquiesced instantly. "Come
down to the office and we'll go over the guest diagram, while I have
every unoccupied room looked into. In fact, sir, we'll do anything short
of burglaring our guests."

"I'll be right down," Harleston said; "after I've bathed my face and
straightened up a bit."

The contusion on his cheek was not particularly noticeable; it might be
worse in the morning; his collar was a trifle crushed and his hair was
awry; on the whole, he had come out of the fight very well.

He took up his stick and gloves, put on his hat so as to shade, as far
as possible, the cheek-bone, and went down to the private office.

There was, of course, the chance that Mrs. Clephane had lured him into
the trap, and had herself written the decoy note; but he did not
believe her guilty. Even though Crenshaw had adroitly implicated her,
he was not influenced. Indeed, he was convinced of just the
reverse:--that she was honest and sincere and inexperienced, and that
she had told him the true story of the letter and its loss. At least he
was acting on that theory, and was prepared to see it through. Maybe he
was a fool to believe those brown eyes and that soft voice and those
charming ways; if so, he preferred to be a fool for a little while, to,
if not, being a fool to her forever. He had, in his time, encountered
many women with beautiful faces and compelling eyes and alluring voices
and charming ways, but with none had they been so blended as in Mrs.
Clephane.

He did not know a thing as to her history--he did not even know whether
she was married, a widow, or a divorcee. Whatever she was, he was
willing to accept her as genuine--until she was proven otherwise.

All of which would indicate that she had made something of an impression
on Harleston--who was neither by nature nor by experience impressible
and, in the diplomatic game, had about as much sentiment as a granite
crag. In fact, with Harleston every woman who appeared in the
diplomatic game lay under instant and heavy suspicion.

Mrs. Clephane was the first exception.




X

SKIRMISHING


On the slender chance of finding Mrs. Clephane, Harleston made another
tour of the rooms and corridor on the first floor.

It was without avail--save that he noticed Madeline Spencer and her
escort were still at dinner. They did not see him--and he was very well
content. Later he would want a word with them--particularly with her;
and he preferred to meet her alone. She was a very beautiful woman, and
very alluring, and the time was, and not so long ago, when he would have
gone far out of his way to meet her; but another face--and
business--occupied him at present. Moreover, the business had to do with
Mrs. Spencer, and that shortly. Therefore he was content to be patient.
Mrs. Clephane first.

So he went on to the private office and the manager.

"I've just taken another look over this floor," he said; "Mrs. Clephane
is not to be seen."

"We paged her, also," returned Banks; "and we've had every vacant room
in the house examined without result. Here's the diagram; let us go over
it, perhaps we can get a lead from it. About half of the guests are
personally known to the hotel; they are either permanent guests or have
been coming here for a long time. However, pick out any that you suspect
and we'll try to find a way to get into their rooms. We are always at
the service of the government, particularly the State Department."

Harleston ran his eyes over the diagram, searching for Madeline Spencer.
It was barely possible that she was registered under one of her own
names. He found it at last--or thought he had: No. 717:--Madame Cuthbert
and maid.

"What do you know of her?" he asked, indicating No. 717.

"Nothing whatever, except that she seems to have plenty of money, and
looks the lady."

"When did she come?"

"Three days ago."

"What is No. 717?"

"Two bedrooms, a parlour, and a bath."

"I should like to know if she has had callers, and who they are; also,
if the house detective knows anything of her movements?"

"One moment, sir," said Banks--

"And you might inquire also," Harleston added, "as to the bald-headed
man who is her companion this evening?"

"Very good, sir," said Banks, and went out.

"I tell you there are quite too many women in this affair," Harleston
muttered--and went back to inspecting the chart.

And the more he inspected, the more hopeless grew his task. If Mrs.
Clephane had been lured to one of the rooms, it would be next to
impossible to find her. There were a hundred well-dressed and
quiet-mannered guests who seemed beyond suspicion; and yet it was in the
room of one of these unobtrusive guests, who had never so much as looked
at Mrs. Spencer, that Mrs. Clephane was held prisoner. There was small
hope--none, indeed--that a search of Madeline Spencer's apartment would
yield even a clue. She was not such a bungler; though that she was the
directing spirit in the entire affair he had not the least doubt. Her
photograph fixed the matter on her; and while he was quite sure she was
not aware of the photograph, yet she was aware of the letter, had made a
desperate effort to prevent its delivery, and now was making a final
effort to prevent Mrs. Clephane from advising the French Ambassador of
its loss.

As to him, Mrs. Spencer was not concerned. His possession of the letter,
under such circumstances, effectually closed his mouth; if he happened
to know for whom the letter was intended, his mouth was closed all the
tighter. It was a rule of the diplomatic game never to reveal, even to
an ally, what you know; tomorrow the ally may be the enemy. Harleston
might yield the letter to superior force or to trickery, but he would
never babble of it.

The door opened to admit Banks.

"The detective has nothing whatever as to Madame Cuthbert," he
explained. "He says she is apparently a lady, and nothing has occurred
to bring her under his notice. For the same reason, no list of her
callers has been made--though the desk thinks that they have been
comparatively few. The man with whom she dined this evening is a Mr.
Rufus Martin. He has been with her several times. He is a guest of the
hotel--room No. 410."

"Can you have her apartment and Martin's looked over without exciting
suspicion?"

"I think we can manage it," Banks responded. "Indeed, I think we can
manage to have all the rooms inspected; I have already told the
detective what we suspect, and he has put on an employee's uniform and
with a basket of electric bulbs is now testing the lights in every
occupied room. The moment he finds Mrs. Clephane, or anything that
points to her, he will advise us."

"Good!" said Harleston. "Meanwhile, I'll have another look in Peacock
Alley."

He was aware that he was acting on a pure hunch. He realized that his
theory of Mrs. Clephane's imprisonment in the house was most
inconsistent with the facts. Why did they release her last night, if
they were fearful of her communicating to the French Ambassador the loss
of the letter? And why should they take her again this evening? It was
all unreasonable; yet reason does not prevail against a hunch--even to a
reasoning man, who is also a diplomat.

He sauntered along the gay corridor bowing to those he knew. As he
faced about to return, he saw Madeline Spencer, alone, bearing down upon
him.

The moment their eyes met, she signalled a glad smile and advanced with
hands extended.

"Why, Guy!" she exclaimed. "What a surprise this is!"

"And what a charming pleasure to me, Madeline," he added, taking both
her hands and holding them. "I thought you were in Paris; indeed, I
thought you would never leave the City of Boulevards."

"So did I, yet here I am; yet not for long, I trust, Guy, not for long."

"America's misfortune," he whispered.

"Or fortune!" she laughed. "It's merely a matter of viewpoint. To those
who have knowledge of the comparatively recent past, Madeline Spencer
may be a _persona non_. However--" with a shrug of her shapely shoulders
and an indifferent lift of her fine hands. "Won't you sit down, Mr.
Harleston; that is, if you're not afraid for your reputation. I assume
that here you have a reputation to protect."

"I'm quite sure that my reputation, whatever it be, won't suffer by
what you intimate!" he smiled, and handed her into a chair.

"You were much surprised to see me, _n'est-ce pas_?" she asked low,
leaning close.

"Much more than much," he replied confidentially.

"Honest?" she asked, still low and close.

"Much more than honest," he answered. "It's been a long time since we
met."

"Three months!"

"Three months is much more than long--sometimes."

She gave him an amused smile.

"I was thinking of you only last night," he volunteered.

"What suggested me?" she asked quickly.

"I suppose it must have been your proximity," he replied easily and
instantly.

"Wireless," she laughed, "or community of interests?"

"I don't know--the impression was vivid enough, while it lasted, for you
to have been in the room."

"Maybe I was--in spirit."

"I'm sure of it," he replied. "How long have you been in Washington,
Madeline?"

"You should have felt my proximity as soon as I arrived," she responded.

"I felt it nearing when you left Paris--and growing closer as time went
on. You see, I have a remarkable intuition as--to you."

"Charming!" she trilled. "Why not get a _penchant_ for me, as well?"

"Maybe I have--and don't venture to declare myself."

"You!" she mocked

"Meaning that I can't get a _penchant_, or that I am not afraid to
declare?"

"Both!" she laughed. "Now quit talking nonsense and tell me about
yourself. What have you been doing, and what are you doing?"

"At the very profitable and busy occupation of killing time," he
replied.

"Of course, but what else?"

"Nothing!"

"What, for instance, were you doing last night?"

"Last night? I dined at the Club, played auction and went home at a
seemly hour."

"Home? Where is that?"

"The Collingwood."

"And what adventure befell you on the way--if any?"

"Adventure? I haven't had an adventure since I left the Continent."

"Sure?"

"Perfectly. I wish I had--to vary the monotony."

She traced a diagram on the rug with the tip of her slipper.

"It depends on what you regard as an adventure," she smiled. "I should
think the episode of the cab, with what followed at your apartment, was
very much in that line?"

"Oh, to be sure!" exclaimed Harleston, with an air of complete surprise.
"However did--Great Heavens, Madeline, were _you_ the woman of the roses
and the cab?"

"You know that I wasn't!" she replied.

"Then how do you know of the cab of the sleeping horse, and what
followed?" he inquired blandly.

"I dreamed it."

"Wonderful! Simply wonderful!"

She nodded tolerantly. "Why keep up the fiction?" she asked. "You know
that I am concerned in your adventure--just as I know of your adventure.
I was on the street, or in the house, or was told of it, whichever you
please; it's all one, since you know. Moreover you have seen me with one
of your early morning callers, as I meant you to do." She leaned forward
and looked at him with half-closed eyes. "Will you believe me, Guy, when
I say that the United States is not concerned in the matter--and that it
should keep its hands off. You stumbled by accident on the deserted cab.
A subordinate blundered, or you would not have found it ready for your
investigation--and you've been unduly and unnecessarily inquisitive. We
have tried to be forbearing and considerate in our efforts to regain it,
but--"

"Regain, my dear Madeline, implies, or at least it conveys an idea of,
previous possession. Did Germany--I beg your pardon; did your client in
this matter have such--"

"I used regain advisedly," she broke in.

"Because of your possession of the lady, or because of your independent
possession of the letter?"

"You're pleased to be technical," she shrugged.

"Not at all!" he replied. "I'm simply after the facts: whether the
letter belongs to you, or to the mysterious lady of the cab?"

"Who isn't in the least mysterious to you."

"No!"

"Really, you're delicious, Mr. Harleston; though I confess that _you_
have _me_ mystified as to your game in pretending what you and I know is
pretence."

"You're pleased to be enigmatic!" Harleston laughed.

"Oh, no I'm not," she smiled, flashing her rings and watching the
flashes--and him. "You saw me, and you know that I saw you; and I saw
you and know that you saw me. Now, as I've said it in words of one
syllable, I trust you will understand."

"I understand," said he; "but you have side-stepped the point:--To whom
does this lost letter belong: to you or to--"

"Mrs. Clephane?" she adjected.

"Exactly: to you, or to Mrs. Clephane?"

"What does that matter to you--since it does not belong to _you_?"

"I may be a friend of Mrs. Clephane? Or I may regard myself as a
trustee for the safe delivery of the letter."

"A volunteer?"

"If you so have it!" he smiled.

She beat a tattoo with her slender, nervous fingers, looking at him in
mild surprise, and some disapproval.

"Since when does sentiment enter the game?" she asked.

"Sentiment?" he inflected. "I wasn't aware of its entry."

She shrugged mockingly. "Beware, old friend and enemy! You're losing
your cleverness. Mrs. Clephane is very charming and alluring, but
remember, Guy, that a charming woman has no place in the diplomatic
game--save to delude the enemy. She seems to be winning with you--who, I
thought, was above all our wiles and blandishments. Oh, do not smile,
sir--I recognize the symptoms; I've played the innocent and the beauty
in distress once or twice myself. It's all in our game--but I'm
shockingly amazed to see it catch so experienced a bird as Guy
Harleston."

"I'm greatly obliged, Madeline, for your shocking amazement," Harleston
chuckled. "Meanwhile, and returning to the letter; who has the better
title to possession, Mrs. Clephane or yourself?"

"As I remarked before, either of us has a better title to the letter
than yourself. Also--I have heard you say it many times, and it is an
accepted rule in the diplomatic game--never meddle in what does not
concern you; never help to pull another's chestnuts out of the fire."

"My dear lady, you are perfectly right! I subscribe unreservedly to the
rule, and try to follow it; but you have overlooked another rule--the
most vital of the code."

"What is it, pray!"

"The old rule:--Never believe your adversary. Never tell the
truth--except when the truth will deceive more effectively than a lie."

"That is entirely regular, yet not applicable to the present matter. I'm
_not_ your adversary."

"You say you're not--yet how does that avoid the rule?"

"Won't you take my word, Guy?" she murmured.

"I am at a loss whether to take it or not," he reflected; "being so,
I'm in a state of equipoise until I'm shown."

"Tell me how I can show you?" she smiled.

"I haven't the remotest idea. You know as well as I that if you were to
tell me truthfully why you are here, and what you aim to accomplish, I
couldn't accept your story; I should have to substantiate it by other
means."

"You mean that I can't show you?" she said sorrowfully.

He nodded. "No more than I could show you were our positions reversed."

What her purpose, in all this talk, he failed to see--unless she were
seeking to establish an _entente cordiale_, or to gain time. The latter
was the likelier--yet time for what? They both were aware that all this
discussion was twaddle--like much that is done in diplomacy; that they
were merely skirmishing to determine something as to each other's
position.

"I had hoped that for once you would forget business and trust me," she
said softly; "in memory of old times when we worked together, as well as
when we were against each other. We played the game then for all that
was in it, and neither of us asked nor gave quarter. But this isn't
business Guy,--" she had gradually bent closer until her hair brushed
his cheek--"that is, it isn't business that concerns your government.
You may believe this implicitly, old enemy, absolutely implicitly."

"With whom, then, has it to do?" he inquired placidly.

She sighed just a trifle--and moved closer.

"You will never tell, nor use the information?" she breathed.

"Not unless my government needs it?"

"_Peste!_" she exclaimed. "You and your government are--However, I'll
tell you." Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "It has to do with
England, Germany, and France: at least, I so assume. It has to do with
Germany or I wouldn't be in it, as you know."

"And what is the business?" he continued.

"I'm not informed--further than that it's a secret agreement between
England and Germany, which France suspects and would give much to block
or to be advised of. As to what the agreement embodies, I am in the
dark--though I fancy it has to do with some phase of the Balkan
question."

"Why would England and Germany conclude an agreement as to the Balkan
question--or any question, indeed--in Washington?" Harleston asked.

"I do not know; I'm quite ready to admit its seeming improbability.
Possibly Germany desired the experience of her new Ambassador, Baron
Kurtz, and didn't care to order him to Europe. Possibly, too, they chose
Washington in order to avoid the spying eyes of the secret service of
the other Powers. At all events, I've told you all that I know."

"Why are _you_ here?" he went on.

"I'm here to watch--and to do as I'm directed. I'm on staff duty, so to
speak. I'm not quite in your class, Guy. I've never operated quite
alone." She looked at him thoughtfully. "We two together would make a
great pair--oh, a very great pair!"

"I'm sure of it," he replied. "Sometime, I hope, we can try it."

"Why not try it now?" she said gently.

"I'm in the American secret service--and, you said, America is not
involved."

"Join with Germany--and me--for this once."

He shook his head. "I serve my country for my pleasure. Germany is
another matter. If, sometime, in an affair entirely personal to you,
Madeline, I should be able to assist you, I shall be only too glad for
the chance."

"You don't trust me," she replied sadly.

"Trust is a word unknown in the diplomatic vocabulary!" he smiled.
"Moreover, I couldn't do what you want even if I believed and trusted
your every word. You want the letter--the Clephane letter. I haven't
it--as you know. It's in the possession of the State Department."

"Then let it remain there!" she exclaimed.

"It probably will until it's translated," he replied.

"It's in cipher?"

Harleston nodded. "Do you know what it contains?" he asked.

"Unfortunately, I don't."

"You would like to know?"

"Above everything!"

"And until then you would not have the French Ambassador advised of the
letter, nor of the adventure of the cab?"

"Precisely, old friend, precisely."

"How will you prevent Mrs. Clephane telling it?"

"We must try to provide for that!" she smiled.

"Why didn't you keep her prisoner, when you had her last night?"

"That was a serious blunder; it won't happen again."

"H-u-m," reflected Harleston; and his glance sought Mrs. Spencer's and
held it. "Where is Mrs. Clephane now?" he demanded.

For just an instant her eyes narrowed and grew very dark. Then suddenly
she laughed--lightly, with just a suggestion of mockery in the tones.

"Mrs. Clephane--is yonder!" said she.

Harleston turned quickly. Mrs. Clephane was coming down the corridor.




XI

HALF A LIE


"Somewhat unexpected, isn't it?" Harleston asked.

"To whom--you, her, or myself?" Mrs. Spencer inquired.

"To you."

"Not at _all_. I'm never surprised at anything!" Then just a trace of
derision came into her face. "Won't you present me, Mr. Harleston?"

"Certainly, I will," he responded gravely, and arose.

"Another unexpected!" she mocked. "But she _is_ good to look at, Guy, I
must grant you that. Also--" and she laughed lightly.

"One moment," said he tranquilly, and turned toward Mrs. Clephane--who
had caught sight of him and was undecided what to do.

Now, smiling adorably, she came to meet him.

"The two beauties of the season!" he thought; and as he bowed over her
hand he whispered: "Not a word of explanation _now_; and play ignorance
of _everything_.--Understand?"

"I don't understand--but I'll do as you direct," she murmured.

"I want to present you to Mrs. Spencer--the woman whom, you will recall,
I asked you in the red-room if you recognized. Be careful, she is of the
enemy--and particularly dangerous."

"Everyone seems to be dangerous except myself," she replied. "I'm an
imbecile, or a child in arms."

"_I'm_ not dangerous to you," he answered.

"That, sir, remains to be proven."

"And I like your idea of the child in arms--provided it's my arms," he
whispered.

Her reply was a reproving glance from her brown eyes and a shake of the
head.

"I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs. Clephane," Mrs. Spencer greeted, before
Harleston could say a word. She made place on the divan and drew Mrs.
Clephane down beside her. "You're Robert Clephane's widow, are you not?"

"Robert Clephane was, I believe, a distant cousin," Mrs. Clephane
responded. "De Forrest Clephane was my husband. Did you know him, Mrs.
Spencer?"

"I did not. _Robert_--" with the faintest stress on the name--"was the
only Clephane I knew. A nice chap, Mrs. Clephane; though, since you're
not his widow, I must admit that he was a bit gay--a very considerable
bit indeed."

"We heard tales of it," Mrs. Clephane replied imperturbably. "It is an
ungracious thing, Mrs. Spencer, to scandalize the dead, but do you know
anything of his gayness from your own experience?"

Harleston suppressed a chuckle. Mrs. Clephane would take care of
herself, he imagined.

Mrs. Spencer's foot paused in its swinging, and for an instant her eyes
narrowed; then she smiled engagingly, the smile growing quickly into a
laugh.

"Not of my own experience, Mrs. Clephane," she replied confidentially,
"but I have it from those who do know, that he set a merry pace and
travelled the limit with his fair companions. It was sad, too--he was a
most charming fellow. Rumour also had it that he was none too happy in
his marriage, and that _his_ Mrs. Clephane was something of the same
sort. I've seen _her_ several times; she was of the type to make men's
hearts flutter."

"It's no particular trick to make men's hearts flutter," said Mrs.
Clephane sweetly.

"How about it, Mr. Harleston?" Mrs. Spencer asked.

"No trick whatever," he agreed, "provided she choose the proper method
for the particular man; and some men are easier than others."

"For instance?" Mrs. Spencer inflected.

"No instance. I give it to you as a general proposition and without
charge; which is something unusual in these days of tips and gratuities
and subsidized graft and things equally predatory."

Mrs. Spencer arose. "The mere mention of graft puts me to instant
flight," she remarked.

"And naturally even the suggestion of a crime is equally repugnant to
you," Mrs. Clephane observed.

"'As a general proposition,'" Mrs. Spencer quoted.

"And general propositions are best proved by exceptions, _n'est-ce
pas_?" was the quick yet drawling answer.

The two women's eyes met.

"I trust, Mrs. Clephane, we shall meet again and soon," Mrs. Spencer
replied, extending her hand.

"Thank you so much," was Mrs. Clephane's answer.

Mrs. Spencer turned to Harleston with a perfectly entrancing smile.

"Good-night, Guy," she murmured.--"No, sir, not a foot; I'm going up to
my apartment."

"Then we will convoy you to the elevator. Come, Mr. Harleston."

"It is only a step," Mrs. Spencer protested.

"Nevertheless," said Mrs. Clephane, "we shall not permit you to brave
alone this Peacock Alley and its heedless crowd."

And putting her arm intimately through Mrs. Spencer's she went on: with
Harleston trailing in the rear and chuckling with suppressed glee. It
was not often that Madeline Spencer met her match!

When the car shot upward with Mrs. Spencer, Harleston gave a quiet laugh
of satisfaction.

"Now shall we go in to dinner?" he asked.

Mrs. Clephane nodded.

"The table in the corner yonder, Philippe," Harleston said.

"Who is Mrs. Spencer?" she inquired, as soon as they were seated.

"You've never heard of her?"

"No--nor seen her before tonight. One is not likely to forget her; she's
as lovely as--"

"Original sin?" Harleston supplied.

Mrs. Clephane smiled.

"Not at all," said she. "Diana is the one I was about to suggest."

"She may look the Diana," he replied, "but she's very far from a Diana,
believe me, very far indeed."

"I am quite ready to believe it, Mr. Harleston." She lowered her voice.
"I have much to tell you--and," with a quick look at him, "also
something to explain."

"Your explanation is not in the least necessary if it has to do with
anything Mrs. Spencer said."

"Under the circumstances I think I should be frank with you. Mrs.
Spencer said just enough to make you suspect me; then she dropped
it--and half a lie is always more insidious than the full truth."

"My dear Mrs. Clephane," he protested, "I assure you it is not
necessary--"

"Not necessary, if one is in the diplomatic profession," she cut in.
"Murder and assassination both of men and of reputation, seem to be a
portion of this horrible business, and perfectly well recognized as a
legitimate means to effect the end desired. I'm not in it--diplomacy, I
mean,--and I'm mighty thankful I'm not. Mrs. Spencer cold as ice, crafty
as the devil, beautiful as sin, and hard as adamant, knowing her Paris
and London and its scandals--I suppose she must know them in her
profession--instantly recognized me and placed me as Robert Clephane's
wife. For I am his wife--or rather his widow. I lied to her because I
didn't intend that she should have the gratification of seeing her play
win. She sought to distress and disconcert me, and to raise in your mind
a doubt of my motives and my story. It may be legitimate in diplomacy,
but it's dastardly and inhuman. 'Rumour also had it that he was none too
happy in his marriage, and that his Mrs. Clephane was something of the
same sort--she was of the type to make men's hearts flutter.' You see, I
recall her exact words. And what was I to do--"

"Just what you did do. You handled the matter beautifully."

"Thank you!" she smiled. "Yet she would win in the end--with almost any
other man than you. She plays for time; a very little time, possibly. I
don't know. I'm new in this business--and can't see far before me.
Indeed, I can't see at all; it's a maze of horrors. If I get out of this
mess alive, I'll promise never to get mixed in another."

"Why not quit right now, Mrs. Clephane?" Harleston suggested.

"I won't quit under fire--and with my mission unaccomplished. Moreover,
this Spencer gang have ruffled my temper--they have aroused my fighting
blood. I never realized I had fighting blood in me until tonight. Mrs.
Spencer's ugly insinuation, topping their attempted abduction of the
evening, has done it. I'm angry all through. Don't I look angry, Mr.
Harleston?"

"You're quite justified in looking so, dear lady; as well as in being
so," Harleston replied. "Only you don't look it now."

"You're a sad flatterer, sir!" she smiled. "Believe me, had you seen me
in the room to which they decoyed me with a false message from you, you
would believe that I can look it--very well look it."

"So that was the way of it!" Harleston exclaimed "Tell me about it, Mrs.
Clephane. I was sure that you were a prisoner somewhere in this hotel;
to find you every room was being inspected."

"Why did you think I was a prisoner in the midst of all this gaiety?"
she asked.

"Because I was lured by a message purporting to be from you to the ninth
floor and garroted. I escaped. However, that is another story; yours
first, my lady."

"You too!" she marvelled.

He nodded. "And now we are sitting together at dinner, looking at the
crowd, and you're about to tell me your story."

"Thanks to you for having escaped and rescued me!" Mrs. Clephane
exclaimed.

"The management devised the way."

"But _you_ prompted it--you are the one I have to thank."

"If you insist, far be it from me to decline! It's well worth anything I
can do to--have you look at me as you're looking now."

"I hope I'm looking half that I feel," she replied instantly.

"A modest man would be more than repaid by half the look," he returned.

"Are you a modest man?" she smiled.

"I trust so. At least, I am with some people."

"You're giving every instance of it with me, though it may be a part of
the game; even the rescue may be a part of the game. You may be playing
me against Mrs. Spencer, and taking advantage of my inexperience to
accomplish your purposes--"

"You don't think so!" he said, with a shake of his head.

"No, I don't. And maybe that only proves my inexperience and unfitness."

For a moment he did not reply. Was _she_ playing _him_? Was it a ruse of
a clever woman; or was it the evidence of sincerity and innocence? It
had the ring of candour and the appearance of truth. No one could look
into those alluring eyes and that fascinatingly beautiful face and
harbour a doubt of her absolute guilelessness. Yet was it guilelessness?
He had never met guilelessness in the diplomatic game, save as a mask
for treachery and deceit. And yet this seemed the real thing. He wanted
to believe it. In fact, he did believe it; it was simply the habit of
his experience warning him to beware--and because it was a woman it
warned him all the more.... Yet he cast experience aside--and also the
fact that she was a woman--and accepted her story as truth. Maybe he
would regret it; maybe she was playing him; maybe she was laughing
behind her mask; maybe he was all kinds of a fool--nevertheless, he
would trust her. It was--

"I'm glad you have decided that I'm not a diplomat--and that you will
trust me," she broke in. "I'm just an ordinary woman, Mr. Harleston, just
a very ordinary woman."

He held out his hand. She took it instantly.

"A very extraordinary woman, you mean, dear lady," he said gravely. "In
some ways the most extraordinary that I have ever known."

"It's not in the line of diplomacy, I hope," she shrugged.

"Not the feminine line, I assure you; Madeline Spencer is typical of it,
and the top of her class--which means she is wonderfully clever,
inscrutable as fate, and without scruple or conscience. No, thank God,
you do not belong in the class of feminine diplomats!"

"Thank you, Mr. Harleston!" she said gently, permitting him, for an
instant, to look deep into her brown eyes. "Now, since you trust me, I
want to refer briefly to Mrs. Spencer's insinuation."

"Robert Clephane was all that she said--and more. Middle-aged when he
married me, before a year was passed I had found that I was only another
experience for him; and that after a short time he had resumed his ways
of--gaiety. Not caring to be pitied, nor to be so soon a deserted wife,
nor yet to admit my loss of attraction for him, I dashed into the gay
life of Paris with reckless fervour. I know I was indiscreet. I know I
fractured conventionality and was dreadfully compromised--but I never
violated the Seventh Commandment. Robert Clephane and I were not
separated--except by a locked door.

"Then one day some two years back, dreadfully mangled, they brought him
home. An aeroplane had fallen with him--with the usual result. That
moment saw the end of my gay life. I passed it up as completely as
though it had never been. The reason for it was gone. After a very
short period of mourning, I took up the quietness of a respectable
widow, who wished only to forget that she ever was married."

"I can understand exactly," said Harleston. "You shall never hear a word
from me to remind you."

"I've never heard anything to remind me of the past until this alluring
beauty's insinuations of a moment ago. That is why it hit me so hard,
Mr. Harleston. And why did she do it? Is she jealous of you, or of me,
or what?"

"She's not jealous of me!" he laughed. "I know her history; it's
something of a history, too.... Sometime I'll tell you all about it;
it's an interesting tale. Is it possible you've never heard in Paris of
Madeline Spencer?"

"Never!"

"Nor of the Duchess of Lotzen?"

"Great Heavens!" she cried. "Is she the Duchess of Lotzen?"

"The same," Harleston nodded.

"H-u-m! I can understand now a little of her--No wonder I felt my
helplessness before her polished poise!"

"Nonsense!" he smiled.

"Why should such an accomplished--diplomat want to injure me with you?"
she asked.

"She was not seeking to injure you in the sense that you imply," he
returned. "Her purpose was to put you in the same class as herself, so
that I should trust you no more than I do her; to make you appear an
emissary of France, in its secret service, playing the game of ignorance
and inexperience for its present purpose. For you, as a personality she
does not care a fig. To her you are but one of the pieces, to be moved
or threatened as her purpose dictates. In the diplomatic game, my lady,
we know only one side--all other sides are the enemy; and nothing, not
even a woman's reputation, is permitted to stand for an instant in the
way of attaining our end."

"Therefore a good woman--or one who would forget the past--has no
earthly business to become involved in the game," Mrs. Clephane
returned. "I shall get out of it the instant this matter of the letter
is completed--and stay out thereafter. Even friendship won't lure me to
it. Never again, Mr. Harleston, never again for mine!"

"I wish you would let it end right now," he urged.

"That wouldn't be the part of a good sport, nor would it be just to
Madame Durrand. She trusts me."

"Then inform the French Ambassador of all the facts and circumstances
and retire from the game," he advised.

"Shall I inform him over the telephone?" she asked.

"You would never get the Ambassador on the telephone, unless you were
known to some one of the staff who could vouch for you."

"I don't know anyone on the staff, but Mrs. Durrand has likely
communicated with the Embassy."

"If she has, she had given them a minute description of you, yet that
can not be used to identify you over the telephone."

"I hesitate to go to the Embassy without the letter," she said.

"Why do you hesitate?" he smiled.

"Because I--don't want to admit defeat."

"Which of itself will serve to substantiate your story. One skilled in
the game would have lost no time in informing the Embassy of the loss
of the letter. He would have realized that, next to the letter itself,
the news of its seizure was the best thing he could deliver--also, it
was his _duty_ to advise the Embassy at the quickest possible moment.
You see, dear lady, personal pride and pique play no part in this game.
They are not even considered; it's the execution of the mission that's
the one important thing; all else is made to bend to that single end."

"Then I should go to the French Embassy tonight with my story?" she
asked.

"You should have gone this morning--the instant you were returned to the
hotel! Now, unless Madame Durrand had written about you, it's a pretty
good gamble that the Spencer crowd has forestalled you."

"Forestalled me! What do you mean?"

"Mrs. Spencer admitted to me that your release was someone's blunder.
The normal thing was to hold you prisoner and so prevent you from
communicating with the Ambassador until they had obtained the letter or
defeated its purpose. That was not done; but Spencer, you may assume,
has attempted to rectify their blunder--possibly by impersonating you,
and giving the Marquis d'Hausonville some tale that will fall in with
her plans and gain time for her."

"Impersonating me!" Mrs. Clephane exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes. She knows all the material circumstance--witness the telephone
call that inveigled you into the drive up the Avenue, _et cetera_--and
she'll take the chance that you are not known to the Marquis nor any of
the staff, or even the chance that Madame Durrand has not yet informed
them. Indeed she may have taken precautions against her informing them.
A few bribes to the hospital attendants, carefully distributed, would be
sufficient. It's not everyone who could, or would venture to, pull off
the coup, but with Spencer the very daring of a thing adds to its
pleasure and its zest."

"You amaze me!" Mrs. Clephane replied. "I thought also that diplomacy
was the gentlest-mannered profession in the world--and the most
dignified."

"It is--on the surface. Fine residences, splendid establishments,
brilliant uniforms, much bowing and many genuflections, plenty of parade
and glitter--everything for show. Under the surface: a supreme contempt
for any code of honour, and a ruthlessness of purpose simply
appalling--yet, withal, dignity, strained at times, but dignity
none-the-less."

"Then it isn't even a respectable calling!" she exclaimed.

"It's eminently respectable to intimidate and to lie for one's
country--and to stoop to any means to attain an end."

"And you enjoy it!" she marvelled.

"I do. It's fascinating--and I leave the disagreeable portion to others,
when it has to do with those not of the profession."

"And when it has to do with those of the profession?"

"Then it's all in the game, and everything goes to win--because we all
know what to expect and what to guard against. No one believes or trusts
the enemy; and, as I said, everyone is the enemy but those who are
arrayed with us."

"So instead of being the finest profession in the world--and the most
aristocratic," Mrs. Clephane reflected, "a diplomat is, in truth, simply
a false-pretence artist of an especially refined and dangerous type,
who deals with the affairs of nations instead of the affairs of an
individual."

"Pretty much," he admitted. "Diplomacy is all bluff, bluster, buncombe,
and bullying; the degrees of refinement of the aforesaid bluff, _et
cetera_, depending on the occasions, and the particular parties involved
in the particular business."

"Again I'm well content to be simply an ordinary woman, whose chief
delight and occupation is clothes and the wearing of clothes."

"You're a success at your occupation," Harleston replied.

"Some there are who would not agree with you," she replied. "However, we
are straying from the question before us, which is: what shall I do
about informing the Marquis d'Hausonville? Will you go with me?"

"My going with you would only complicate matters for you. The Marquis
would instantly want to know what such a move on my part meant. I'm
known to be in the secret service of the United States, you must
remember. Furthermore your tale will accuse me of the taking of the
letter--and you see the merry mess which follows. I cannot return the
letter--it's in possession of the State Department. I'm far
transgressing my duty by disclosing anything as to the letter. Indeed,
I'm liable to be disciplined most drastically, even imprisoned, should
it chance that the United States was involved."

"You've told me nothing more than you've already told the Spencer
crowd," she objected.

"The difference is that the Spencer crowd are trying to obtain something
to which they haven't the least right--and I'm playing the game against
them. You see my peculiar position, Mrs. Clephane. I've told you what I
shouldn't, because--well, because I'm sure that you will not use it to
my disadvantage."

She traced the figures on her gown with the tips of her fingers, and for
awhile was silent--

"It's all so involved," she reflected; "such wheels within wheels, I am
completely mystified. I'm lost in the maze. I don't know whom to believe
nor whom to trust--except," and suddenly she smiled at him confidently,
"that I trust you."

He held her eyes with his own as he leaned forward across the table and
answered very quietly:

"I shall try, dear lady, to be worthy."

"And now," she laughed, "may I tell you what happened to me when you
were called to the telephone?"

"You may talk to me forever," he replied.

"And what as to the French Ambassador?" she asked.

"Bother the Marquis--he may wait until morning."

"Tomorrow, then, is beyond the forever?"

"Tomorrow may take care of itself!"

"Don't be sacrilegious, sir."

"I'll be anything you wish," he replied.

"Then be a good listener while I tell my tale. It was this wise, Mr.
Harleston. Immediately after you were called away, indeed you were
scarcely out of the room, a page brought a verbal message from the
telephone operator that my maid had been found unconscious in the
corridor of the eighth floor, and carried into 821. I hurried to the
elevator. As I entered the door of 821, I was seized from behind and a
handkerchief bound over my mouth and eyes. I then was tied in a chair,
and a man's voice said that no further harm would come to me if I
remained quiet until morning. I did not see the faces of my assailants;
there were two at least, possibly three, and one I think was a woman.
My feelings and thoughts until the electrician released me may be
imagined. It seemed days and days--and was somewhat uncomfortable while
it lasted. When released I hurried down to look for you--or to write you
a note of explanation if I couldn't find you. I'm sort of becoming
accustomed to being abducted and kindred innocent amusements. I suppose
the only reason they didn't kill me is that they can't kill me more than
once; and to kill me now would be too early in the game."

"Killing is rarely done in diplomacy," observed Harleston, "except in
large numbers; when it ceases to be diplomacy and becomes war. In fact,
only bunglers resort to killing; and if the killing be known it ends
one's career in the service. To have to kill to gain an end is
conclusive evidence of incompetency. I mean, of course, among reputable
nations. There are some thugs among the lesser Powers, just as there are
thugs among the _'oi polloi_."

"Then Mrs. Spencer is an accomplished--diplomat," Mrs. Clephane
remarked.

"She is at the top of the profession,--and as a directing force she is
without a superior."

"You are very generous, Mr. Harleston!"

"I believe in giving the devil his dues. Indeed, in handling some
affairs, she is in a class by herself. Her beauty and finesse and
alluringness make her simply irresistible. It's a cold and stony heart
that she can't get inside of and use."

"A man's heart, you mean?"

"Certainly. A man is in control of such affairs."

"Then Mrs. Spencer's presence here indicates that this letter matter is
of the first importance to Germany."

"It indicates that her business is of the first importance to Germany;
the letter may simply be incidental to that business, in that its
delivery to the French Ambassador will embarrass or complicate that
business. The latter is likely the fact."

"It grows more involved every minute," Mrs. Clephane sighed. "It's
useless to try to make me comprehend. I want to hear what happened to
you; such simple concrete doings are more adapted to my unsophisticated
mind."

"When I returned to the telephone, you were gone," he said; "I waited
awhile, then cruised through the rooms, then went back to our place and
waited again. Finally I went in to dinner, leaving word to be notified
the moment you returned. I was at my soup when a note was brought to me
saying that you had just seen someone whom you wished to avoid, and
asking me to dine with you in your apartment--and that you would explain
your disappearance. I went up at once to No. 972; and there encountered
pretty much similar treatment to yours,"--and he detailed the episode,
down to the time she reappeared in the corridor.

She had heard him through without an interruption; at the end she said
simply:

"I've absolutely no business in this affair, Mr. Harleston. When such
things can happen in this hotel, in the very centre of the National
Capital and among the throngs of diners and guests, it behooves an
ordinary woman to seek safety in a hospital or a prison. It seems that
the greater the prominence of the place, the greater the danger and the
less liability to arrest."

"In diplomacy!" he acquiesced.

"Then again, I say, Heaven save me from meddling in diplomacy!"

"Amen, my lady! Moreover," he added, as they arose and passed into the
corridor, "I want you as you are."

Once again their eyes met--she coloured and looked away.

"Play the game, Mr. Harleston," she reminded, "play the game! And thank
you for a delicious dinner and a charming evening--and don't forget
you've an appointment at ten."

"I had forgotten!" he laughed, drawing out his watch.

It was ten minutes of the hour.

"Take me to the F Street elevator and then hurry on," said she.

"And you will do nothing--and go nowhere until tomorrow?" he asked.

"I'll promise to remain here until--"

"I come for you in the morning?" he broke in.

"If I'm not abducted in the interval, I'll wait," and stepped into the
car. "Good-night, Mr. Harleston!" she smiled--and the car shot upward.

"Hum!" muttered Harleston as he turned for his coat and hat. "I may be
a fool, but I'll risk it--and I think I'm _not_."

It was but a step to Headquarters and he walked.

"The Superintendent," he said to the sergeant on duty in the outer
office.

"The Chief has gone home, Mr. Harleston," was the answer.

"Home?"

"Yes, sir, two hours ago; he'll not be back tonight."

"Get him on the telephone," Harleston directed.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Harleston.... Here he is, sir--you can use the 'phone in
the private office."

"Hello! Is that you, Ranleigh? Yes, I recognized the voice. Did you
telephone me at the Chateau about six-thirty?... You didn't?... You were
on your way home at that hour.... Yes, exactly; it was a plant.... Do
you know Crenshaw escaped from my apartment.... Yes, I saw him in the
Chateau this evening.... What?... Yes, better look up Whiteside at
once.... Yes, in the Collingwood.... Very good; I'll meet you there....
All right, I'll tell the sergeant."




XII

CARPENTER


Harleston took a taxi to the Collingwood, arriving just as Ranleigh came
up, and the two men went in together.

Whiteside was there; gagged and bound to the same chair that had held
Crenshaw.

The rooms were in confusion. Everything had been gone through; clothes
were scattered over the floor, papers were strewn about, drawers stood
open.

They released Whiteside, and presently he was able to talk.

"When did it happen?" Ranleigh asked.

"About five o'clock this afternoon, sir," Whiteside replied, in a most
apologetic tone. He knew there was no sympathy and no excuse for the
detective who let his prisoner escape. "The bell rang. I went to the
door--and was shot senseless by a chemical revolver. When I came to, I
had exchanged places with the prisoner, and he and another man were
just departing. 'My compliments to Mr. Harleston when he returns,' said
Crenshaw, as he went out."

"Describe the other man!" said Ranleigh.

"Medium sized, slender, dark hair and eyes, good features, looked like a
gentleman, wore a blue sack-suit, black silk tie, and stiff straw hat."

"It's Sparrow," Harleston remarked. "Did they take anything with them?"

"Nothing whatever that I saw, sir."

"You're excused until morning," said the Chief curtly.

The detective saluted and went out.

"I am exceedingly sorry I overlooked Whiteside when I escaped from
Crenshaw's garrote in the Chateau," Harleston remarked. "The simple fact
is, I clean forgot him until I was talking with you on the telephone."

"It's just as well, Mr. Harleston," Ranleigh replied. "It served him
right. He will be fortunate if his want of precaution doesn't cost him
his job."

"No, no!" Harleston objected. "Whiteside has been punished. I intercede
for him. Let him continue in his job, please."

"Very good, sir," Ranleigh acquiesced. "But he'll be informed that he
owes his retention entirely to you."

When Ranleigh departed, after hearing a detailed account of the
evening's doings at the hotel, Harleston sat for a little while
thinking; finally he drew over a pad and made a list of things that
required explanation, or seemed to require explanation, at the present
stage of the matter:

"(1) The translation of the cipher letter. This should explain Madeline
Spencer's connection with the affair.

"(2) Did the following persons, incidents, or circumstances have any
bearing on the affair.

"(a) The lone and handsome woman, who left the Collingwood at three that
morning.

"(b) The note 'a l'aube du jour' (signed) 'M,' found in Crenshaw's
pocket.

"(c) The telephone call of the Chartrand apartment at 12:52 A.M., by a
man who said that he was 'here' and to meet him at 10 A.M.

"(d) The persons in the Chartrand apartment the previous night.

"(e) After 1 P.M. no one entered the Collingwood by the usual way, and
no one telephoned; how, therefore, did anyone in the Collingwood know of
the incident of the cab, and of my connection with it.

"(f) Who is Mrs. Winton of the Burlingame apartments?

"(g) Why was she in Peacock Alley, wearing black and red roses, at five
o'clock this afternoon?"

Harleston read over the list, folded it, and put it in his pocket-book;
then he went to bed. There was plenty for him to seek, in regard to the
affair of the cab of the sleeping horse, but nothing more for the
Spencer gang to inspect in his apartment. Crenshaw had made a thorough
job of his investigation.

In the morning he took out the list and went over it again. They all
were dependent on the translation of the letter; if it did not show that
the United States was concerned in the matter, the rest became merely of
academic interest--and Harleston had little inclination and no time for
things academic. The difficulty was, that until the key to the cipher
was found nothing was academic which appeared to have any bearing on the
affair.

So he sent for the manager of the Collingwood, and asked as to the
Chartrands. The manager's information, which was definite if not
extensive, was to the effect that the Chartrands were people of means
from Denver, with excellent social position there, and with connections
in Washington. They had been tenants of the Collingwood less than a
week, having sublet the Dryand apartment. It was a large apartment. Mr.
Chartrand was possibly forty-five, his wife thirty-eight or forty and
exceedingly good-looking. There was, of course, no record kept of their
visitors, nor did the house know who they were entertaining the previous
evening. He was entirely sure, however, that the Chartrands were above
suspicion. Mrs. Chartrand was a blonde, petite and slender; Chartrand
was tall and rather stout, with red hair, and a scar across his
forehead. As for the tall, slender woman who left the Collingwood at
three in the morning, he did not recognize her from the description; he
would, however, investigate at once.

That it might be Madeline Spencer, now that her presence in Washington
was declared, Harleston thought possible. "Slender, twenty-eight, walks
as though the ground were hers," the telephone operator had said. He
would get the photograph from Carpenter and let Miss Williams see it. If
she recognized it as Spencer, much would be explained.

He stopped a moment at the Club, then went on to the State Department.
As he turned the corner near the Secretary's private elevator, the
Secretary himself was on the point of embarking and he waited.

"You want to see me?" he asked.

"Just a moment, Mr. Secretary, since you're here," Harleston responded.
"I came particularly to see Carpenter. There has been a plenty doing in
that matter, but nothing worthy of report to you--except one thing.
Madeline Spencer is in town."

"The devil she is!" exclaimed the Secretary.

"And as beautiful, as fascinating, as sinuous, and as young as ever."

"She must be a vision."

"She is--and an extraordinarily dangerous vision."

"Only to you impressible chaps!" the Secretary confided. "She is not
dangerous to me, be she ever so beautiful, and fascinating, and
sinuous, and young. When will you present me?"

"When do you suggest?" Harleston asked.

"Tomorrow, at four?"

"If I can get the lady, certainly."

"Later she'll get me, you think!" the Secretary laughed.

"If she is so minded she'll get you, I have not the least doubt,"
Harleston shrugged.

"Then here is where you have your doubt resolved into moonshine."

"Very well; it won't be the first time I've had the pleasure of seeing
moonshine. I'll try to make the appointment for tomorrow at four."

"Self-opinionated old mountebank," Harleston thought, as he went down
the corridor to Carpenter's office. "I shall enjoy watching Spencer make
all kinds of an ass of him. 'You impressible chaps!--not dangerous to
me!' Oh, Lord, the patronizing bumptiousness of the man!... Have you
anything for me, Carpenter?" he asked, as he entered the latter's
office.

The Fifth Assistant was sitting with his feet on his desk, a cigar in
his mouth, his gaze fixed on vacancy.

"Damn your old cipher, Harleston!" he remarked, coming out of his
abstraction. "It's bothered me more than anything I've tackled for
years. I can't make head nor tail of it. Its very simplicity--or seeming
simplicity--is what's tantalizing. It's in French. Of so much I feel
sure, though I've little more than intuition to back it. As you know,
this Vigenerie, or Blocked-Out Square, cipher is particularly difficult.
I've tried every word and phrase that's ever been used or discovered. We
have a complete record of them. None fit this case. Can you give me
anything additional that will be suggestive?"

"Here's what I've brought," Harleston replied--and related, so far as
they seemed pertinent, the incidents of the previous afternoon and
evening.

"A French message in an English envelope, inclosing an unmounted
photograph of Madeline Spencer, a well-known German Secret Agent in
Paris," Carpenter remarked slowly; "and the letter is borne by Madame
Durrand to the French Ambassador. You see, my intuition was right? the
letter is in French; and as it is of French authorship the key-word is
French. That narrows very materially our search. Find the key-word to
the Vigenerie cipher of the French Diplomatic Service and we shall have
the translation."

"You haven't that word?" Harleston asked.

"We've got quantities of keys to French ciphers, and numerous ones to
the Blocked-Out Square, but they won't translate this letter." He took
up a small book and opened it at a mark. "Here are samples of the
latter: _ecclesiastiques, coeur de roche, a deau eaux, fourreau, chateau
d'eau_, and so on. But, alas, none of them fits; the French Government
has a new key. Indeed, she changes it every month or oftener; sometimes
she changes it just for a single letter."

"Then we must apply ourselves to obtaining the French key-word,"
Harleston remarked. "Can you--do it?"

"Maybe we can pilfer it and maybe we can't. At least we can make a brisk
attempt. I will give orders at once. In the meantime, if you'll keep me
advised of what happens, we may be able to piece your and my information
together and make a word."

"I'll do it!" Harleston replied and started toward the door. Half-way
across the room he suddenly whirled around. "Lord, Carpenter. what an
imbecile I am!" he exclaimed. "I fancy I've had the key-word all the
while and never realized it."

"There are too many petticoats in this case," Carpenter shrugged.

"Never mind the petticoats!" Harleston laughed. "Get out the letter and
try this phrase on it: _a l'aube du jour_."

Without a word of comment, Carpenter set down the cipher message, letter
by letter, and wrote over it _a l'aube du jour_. Then he took up a
printed Blocked-Out Square and with incredible swiftness began to write
the translation.

"Where did you get this 'at the break of day,' Harleston?" he asked as
he wrote.

"Found it in Crenshaw's pocket-book when he returned to hold me up,"
Harleston replied.

"Only this isolated phrase?"

"Yes--and signed with the single initial 'M.'"

"Hump!" Carpenter commented. "Mrs. Spencer's name, I believe you said,
is Madeline. I tell you there are too many women in this affair."

Suddenly he threw down the pen. "What's the use in going on with it. If
you can supply a key to this key we may arrive. Such an array of
unpronounceables may be Russian, it assuredly isn't French or English.
Look at it!" and he handed the translation to Harleston, who read:

  AGELUMTONZUCLPMUHRHUNBARGPUH
  PJICLWYIAOIWFPHLUOZFRXUFJWH
  WASNVDPS

"Good Lord!" said Harleston. "I pass. Did you ever see so many
consonants. I reckon my key-word isn't the key."

"Try being held up again," Carpenter advised; "you may succeed the
second time. If Madeline Spencer is the holdee, no telling what you'd
find."

"I'd find nothing," Harleston rejoined.

"You'd be holding a particularly lovely and attractive bit of skirts!"
Carpenter smiled.

"I don't want to hold that at present."

"Not even--Mrs. Clephane?"

Harleston raised his eyebrows slightly.

"What do you know about Mrs. Clephane?" he asked.

"That she's even lovelier and more attractive than Mrs. Spencer."

"You've seen her--you know her?"

"You told me," replied Carpenter.

"I told you!--I never referred to Mrs. Clephane's appearance."

"Exactly: your careful reticence told me more than if you had used tons
of words. I'm a reader of secret ciphers; you don't imagine a mere
individual presents much of a problem. I tell you there are too many
petticoats mixed up in this affair of the cab of the sleeping horse,"
Carpenter repeated. "Be careful, Harleston. Women are a menace--they
spoil about everything they touch."

"Marriage in particular?" Harleston inquired.

"Exactly!"

"A bachelor's wisdom!" Harleston laughed.

"Why are you a bachelor?" Carpenter shrugged.

"Because I never--"

"--found the woman; or have been adroit enough to avoid her wiles,"
Carpenter cut in. "And whichever it is, you've shown your wisdom. Don't
spoil it now, Harleston, don't spoil it now. Millionaires and
day-labourers are the only classes that have any business to marry; the
rest of us chaps either can't afford the luxury, or are not quite poor
enough to be forced to marry in order to get a servant."

"You would be popular with the suffragettes," Harleston remarked.

"Worldly wisdom of any sort is never popular with those against whom it
warns."

"An aphorism!" Harleston laughed.

"Aphorism be damned; it's just plain horse sense. Don't do it, old man,
don't do it!"

"Don't do what?"

"Don't fall in love with Mrs. Clephane."

"Good Lord!" Harleston exclaimed.

"Good Lord all you want, you're on the verge and preparing to leap
in--and you know it. Let some other man be the life-saver, Harleston.
You're much too fine a chap to waste yourself in foolishness."

"And all this," Harleston expostulated with mock solemnity, "because I
neglected to include a description of Mrs. Clephane."

"Neglected with deliberation. And with you that is more significant than
if you had detailed most minutely her manifold attractions. Look here,
Harleston, do you want this translation for yourself or for Mrs.
Clephane?"

"I want the translation because the Secretary of State wants it,"
Harleston replied quietly.

"Oh, don't become chilly," Carpenter returned good-naturedly. "If you
permit, I'll tell you something about a Mrs. Clephane--queer name
Clephane, and rather unusual--whom I used to see in Paris," glancing
languidly at Harleston, "several years ago. Want to hear it?"

"Sure!" said Harleston. "Drive on and keep driving. You won't drive over
me."

"It isn't a great deal," Carpenter went on, slowly tearing the consonant
collection into bits, "and perchance it wasn't your Mrs. Clephane; but
her name, and her beauty and charm, and Paris, and some other inferences
I drew, led me to suspect that--" He completed the sentence by a wave of
his hand. "She was Robert Clephane's wife--yes, I see in your face that
she is your Mrs. Clephane--and he led her a merry life, though if rumour
lied not she kept up with the pace he set. I saw her frequently and she
was as--well you have not overdrawn the 'reticence picture.' Shall I
continue?"

Harleston smiled and nodded.

"Doubtless you already know the tale," Carpenter remarked.

"I know only what Mrs. Clephane has told me," Harleston replied.

The Fifth Assistant Secretary picked up a ruler and sighted carefully
along the edge.

"I seem to be in wrong, old man," he said. "Please forget that I ever
said it or anything--you understand."

"My dear fellow, don't be an ass!" Harleston laughed. "I'm not sensitive
about the lady; I never saw her until last night."

"Quite long enough for a man disposed to make a fool of himself--if the
lady is a beauty."

"I'm disposed to hear more from you, if you care to tell me," Harleston
replied. "However, jesting aside, Carpenter, what do you know? Mrs.
Clephane is something of a puzzle to me, but I have concluded to accept
her story; yet I'm always open to conviction, and if I'm wrong now's the
time to enlighten me--the State comes first, you know."

"Are you viewing Mrs. Clephane simply as a circumstance in the affair of
the cipher letter?" Carpenter asked.

"Certainly!" said Harleston.

"Then I'll give you what I heard. It's not much, and it may be false;
it's for you to judge, in the light of all that you know concerning her,
whether or not it affects her credibility. Mrs. Clephane went with a
notoriously fast set in Paris, and her reputation was somewhat cloudy."

"I know of that," returned Harleston, "also that Clephane was a roue,
and generally an exceedingly rotten lot."

"Precisely--and her conduct as to him may be quite justifiable; yet
nevertheless it weakens her credibility; puts her story as to the letter
under suspicion. And there is one thing more: Clephane, you know, was
killed in an aeroplane smash. Did Mrs. Clephane tell you anything as to
it?"

"Merely referred to it."

"Well, at a dinner the night before, he effervesced that his wife had
repeatedly tried to poison him, and had told him only that evening that
she hoped the flight of the morrow would be his last, and that he would
fall so far it would be useless to dig for his remains. At the aviation
field the following day he appeared queer, and his friends urged him not
to try the flight; but he waved them aside, with the remark that maybe
Mrs. Clephane had drugged him and at last would win out. His fall came
a trifle later. Suspicion followed, of course."

"How do you know all this?" Harleston asked.

"From a man who was one of his intimates, and has reformed; and from
having myself been in the aviation field the day of the tragedy."

"You heard Clephane's remark?"

"I did."

"Hum!" said Harleston slowly. "A man of Clephane's habits will accuse
anyone of anything at certain times. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't
blame Mrs. Clephane, nor any other woman, for chucking such a husband
out of the boat. It's contrary to the Acts of Assembly in such cases
made and provided, but it's natural justice and amply justifiable."

"You don't credit it?" Carpenter asked.

"I can't. Moreover, didn't she change instantly her course of life and
disappear from the gay world?"

"I believe that is so."

"And hasn't she remained disappeared?"

Carpenter nodded.

"Then I'm inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. I'll trust
her, until I've seen something to warrant distrust--bearing in mind,
however, what you have just told me, and the possibility of my being
mistaken. I reckon I can veer quickly enough if--"

The telephone rang. Carpenter picked up the receiver.

"Yes, Mr. Harleston is here," he replied, passing the receiver across.

"Yes," said Harleston. "Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Clephane.... Very nice,
indeed.... Be delighted!... In ten minutes, I'll be there. Good-bye." He
pushed back the instrument. "Mrs. Clephane has telephoned that she must
see me at once. Meanwhile--the key-word, my friend."

Carpenter drummed on the table, and frowned at the door that had closed
behind Harleston.

"The man's bewitched," he muttered. "However I threw a slight scare into
him, and maybe it will make him pause; he is not quite devoid of sense.
Bah! All women are vampires."




XIII

THE MARQUIS


"Mrs. Clephane will be right down, Mr. Harleston," said the telephone
operator.

A moment later the elevator flashed into sight, and Mrs. Clephane
stepped out and came forward with the languorously lithe step, perfectly
in keeping with her slender figure. She wore a dark blue street suit,
and under her small hat her glorious hair flamed like an incandescent
aureole. She greeted Harleston with an intimate little nod and smile.

"You're good to come!" she said.

"To myself, I think I'm more than good," he answered.

"No, no, sir!" she smiled. "No more compliments between us, if we're to
be friends."

"We're to be _friends_," he returned.

"_Ergo_," she replied. "Sit down just a minute, will you?"

"I'll sit down for a month, if you're--"

"_Ergo! Ergo!_" she reminded him.

"I had not gotten used to the unusual restriction" he exclaimed. "You're
the first woman ever I met or heard of who dislikes compliments."

"I don't dislike compliments, Mr. Harleston; but compliments, it seems,
are given in diplomacy for a purpose; and as I don't understand anything
of diplomacy we would better cut them out--until we have finished with
diplomacy. Then you may offer as many as you like, and I'll believe them
or not as I'm minded."

"Have it as you wish!" he smiled, looking into the brown eyes with frank
admiration.

"Compliments may be conveyed by looks as well as by words," she
reproved.

"But of the feeling that prompts the look you can be in no doubt.
Moreover, a look is silent."

"Nonsense," said she. "Besides, I want to ask you a favour. You see, I'm
prepared to go out--and I want you to go with me. Will you do it?"

"It will have to be mightily against my conscience to make me refuse
_you_," Harleston replied.

"I'm glad you recognize a conscience," she remarked.

"I refer to my diplomatic conscience."

"And a diplomatic conscience is a minus quantity," she observed.

"What is it you would of me, dear lady?" he asked.

"I would that you should go with me to the French Ambassador, and help
me to explain the--now don't say you won't, Mr. Harleston--"

"My dear Mrs. Clephane, it is--" he began.

"It is _not_ impossible!" she declared. "Why won't you do it?"

"For your sake as well as for my own," he explained. "America and France
are not working together in this matter, and for me to accompany you
would result simply in your being obliged to explain _me_ as well as the
letter, besides leading to endless complications and countless
suspicions. Didn't I expound this last evening?"

"You did--also much more; but I've thought over it almost the whole
night, and I simply must get this miserable letter off my mind. Perhaps
Mrs. Spencer has forestalled me with the Ambassador and has given him
such a tale as will insure my being shown the door; nevertheless I'll
risk it."

"Why don't you get in communication with your friend Madame Durrand,"
Harleston suggested "and have her, if she hasn't done so already,
identify you to the Marquis?"

"I shall, if the Marquis is sceptical. I'll admit that I'm pitiably
foolish, but I don't want Mrs. Durrand to know how I've bungled her
matter until the bungle is corrected."

"I can quite understand," said Harleston gently.

"Oh, I know you are right," she murmured, "yet I'm afraid to go alone."

"Take some other friend with you; some well-known man who can vouch for
your identity."

"I know no one in Washington except the friends at the Shoreham, and
they are not residents here."

"Are you acquainted with any prominent woman?"

"No! I've lived in Europe for years--and while I have met over there
women from Washington it's been only casually. They won't recollect me,
any more than I would them, for purposes of vouchment or
identification."

"Then go alone."

"I will. It is the right thing to do. Yesterday I was thinking that you
had the letter and could return it to me. I waited. Today I can
appreciate your reason for withholding it--likewise the necessity for me
to go to the Ambassador with my story. And I shall tell him the _whole_
story; he may believe it or not as he is inclined. I'm only a volunteer
in this affair, and I've decided that for me the course of discretion
and frank honesty is much wiser than silently fighting back.
Furthermore, it does not estop me from fighting the Spencer gang."

"You have made a wise decision," Harleston commented. "Tell the
Ambassador, and be quit of the affair--and don't fight the Spencer gang,
Mrs. Clephane; it is not worth while."

She arose, and he went with her down the corridor and up the steps to
the entrance.

"Every action is suspected and distrusted in diplomacy," he said,
"therefore I may not accompany you. Someone would be sure to see us and
report to the Embassy that I had brought you--the natural effect of
which would be to make the Marquis disbelieve your tale. For you see,
until we have translated the letter, we cannot assume that America is
not concerned."

"And you will not think ill of me for disclosing your part in the
affair?" she asked.

"Quite the contrary," he smiled. "Moreover, it is the course for you to
pursue; to hold back a single thing as to me will result only in
distrust. Indeed, implicating me will help substantiate your story."

"You're very good and very thoughtful," she murmured--and once more
suffered him to look deep into her eyes.

"I am very willing for you to think me both," he replied. "Now I'm going
to call a taxi at the Fourteenth Street exit, and follow yours up
Sixteenth Street until I see you at the French Embassy. Tell your
chauffeur to drive down to Twelfth Street, up to H and then out to
Sixteenth. My taxi will be loitering on Sixteenth and will pick up yours
as it passes and follow it to the Embassy. Once there you're out of
danger of the Spencer gang. And let me impress you with this fact: tell
the story to someone of the staff. If you fail to get to the Ambassador,
get a Secretary or an Attache."

"I'll try to find someone who will listen!" she laughed.

"And I rather fancy you will be successful," he smiled. "It would be a
most unusual sort of man who won't both listen and look."

"Careful, Mr. Harleston!" she reminded.

He put her in the taxi; bowed and turned back into the hotel--wondering
why he had ever fancied Madeline Spencer.

Mrs. Clephane gave her orders to the chauffeur, ending with the
injunction to drive slowly.

As they swung into Sixteenth Street, a taxi standing before St. John's
Episcopal Church followed them; and Mrs. Clephane recognized Harleston
as its occupant.

At the French Embassy she descended and rang the bell, and was instantly
admitted by a liveried footman.

"I wish to see his Excellency the Ambassador!" she said, speaking in
French.

The flunky took her card and bowed her into a small reception room.

After a moment or so a dapper young man entered, her card in his
fingers.

"Messes Cleephane?" he inquired.

"I am Mrs. Clephane," she replied in French. "I wish to see his
Excellency the Ambassador on a most important matter."

"You have an appointment with his Excellency?" he asked, this time in
French.

"You are--" she inflected.

"His secretary, madame," the young man bowed.

"No, I have not an appointment," she replied, "but I come from Madame
Durrand who was the bearer of a cipher letter from the Foreign Minister.
Madame Durrand was injured as she was about to take train in New York,
and gave me the letter to deliver."

The secretary looked at her blandly and smiled faintly.

"You have the letter with you?" he asked.

"Again, no," she replied. "It is to explain its loss, and to warn the
Ambassador that I am here."

"His Excellency is exceedingly busy--will you not relate the
circumstances to me?"

"My instructions from Madame Durrand are most specific that I am to deal
only with his Excellency," Mrs. Clephane explained--with such a dazzling
smile that the secretary's eyes fairly popped. "Won't you please tell
him I'm here, and that I have a luncheon engagement at one o'clock."

The secretary hesitated. Again the smile smote him full in the face--and
he hesitated no longer.

"Come with me, Madame Clephane," he replied "His Excellency is occupied
at present, but I'll deliver your message."

Once more the smile--as opening the door for her he bowed her into an
inner office, and carefully placed a chair for her.

"A moment, madame," he whispered, disappearing through an adjoining
doorway.

Whereat Mrs. Clephane sighed with amused complacency, and waited.

Presently the door opened and the secretary appeared. "His Excellency
will receive you, Madame Clephane," he said.

"I thank you--oh, so much!" she whispered as she passed him--and the
look that went with the words cleared all her scores--and almost
finished him.

So much for a smile--when a beautiful woman smiles, and smiles in just
the right way, and especially when the man smiled on is a Frenchman.

The Ambassador was standing by a large, flat-topped desk in the centre
of the room, his back was to the light, which was generously given in
all its effulgence to his visitors. He was a small man and slight of
build, intensely nervous, with well-cut features, gray hair--what there
was of it--and a tiny black moustache curled up at the ends but not
waxed.

He came briskly forward and extended his hand.

"My dear Madame Clephane," he said in French, leading her to a chair,
"how can I serve you?"

"By listening to my story, your Excellency, and believing it," Mrs.
Clephane answered,--"and at the end not being too severe on me for my
misfortune and ignorance."

"That will not be difficult," he bowed, with a frank look of admiration.
"You come from Madame Durrand, I believe?"

"Yes--you know Madame Durrand?"

The Marquis nodded. "I have met her several times."

"I'm glad!" said she. "It may help me to prove my case."

"Madame is her own proof," was the answer.

For which answer he drew such a smile from Edith Clephane that in
comparison the secretary's smile was simply as nothing.

"Your Excellency overwhelms me," she replied. "I'm positively trembling
with apprehension lest I fail to--" she dropped into English--"make
good."

He laughed lightly. "You will make good!" he replied, also in English,
"Pray proceed."

And Mrs. Clephane told him the whole story, from the time she met Madame
Durrand on the steamer to the present moment--omitting only the
immaterial personal portions occurring between Harleston and herself,
and the fact that his taxi had escorted hers until she was at the
Embassy.

Her narrative was punctuated throughout by the Marquis's constant
exclamations of wonder or interest; but further than exclaiming, in the
nervous French way, he made no interruption.

And on the whole, she told her story well; at first she was a little
nervous, which made her somewhat at a loss for words; yet that soon
passed, and her tale flowed along with delightful ease.

"Now you have been a wonderfully gracious listener, your Excellency,"
she ended, "ask whatever questions you wish in regard to the matter; I
shall be only too glad to answer if I am able."

"Madame's narrative has been most detailed and most satisfactory," the
Marquis answered. "But let me ask you to explain, if you can, why Madame
Durrand has not made a written report of this matter to the Embassy?"

"I have no idea--unless she is ill."

"Broken bones do not usually prevent one from writing, or dictating, a
letter."

"It _is_ peculiar!" Mrs. Clephane admitted.

"What is the name of the hospital?" the Marquis asked.

"In the hurry and excitement I quite forgot to ask the name," she
replied. "The station officials selected it. I was thinking of
her--Madame Durrand, I mean--more than the name of the hospital. I don't
even know the street; though it's somewhere in the locality of the
station. It is dreadfully stupid of me, your Excellency, not to
know--but I don't."

"We can remedy that very readily," he said, and pressed a button. His
secretary responded. "Telephone our Consul-General in New York to
ascertain immediately from the railroad officials the hospital to which
Madame Durrand, who broke her ankle and wrist in the Pennsylvania
Station, at ten o'clock on Monday, was taken."

The secretary saluted and withdrew.

"Might not our friends the enemy have bribed someone to suppress Madame
Durrand's letter or wire?" Mrs. Clephane asked.

"Very possibly. It is entirely likely that they wouldn't be apt to stop
with the accident."

"You think they were responsible for Madame Durrand's fall?" she
exclaimed.

"Have you forgotten the man who jostled Madame Durrand?" the Marquis
reminded.

"To be sure! How stupid not to think of it. You see, your Excellency, I
am not accustomed to the ways of diplomacy and to assuming every one's a
rogue until he proves otherwise."

"You have a poor opinion of diplomats!" he smiled.

"Not of diplomats, only of their professional ways. And as they all have
the same ways, it's fair, I suppose, among one another."

"Did you tell Monsieur Harleston your opinion of our vocation?" he
asked.

"I did--somewhat more emphatically."

"And what, if you care to tell, did he say?"

"He quite agreed with me; he even went further."

"Wise man, Harleston!" the Marquis chuckled.

"Implying that he was not sincere?"

The Marquis threw up his hands. "Perish the thought! I imply that he is
a man of rare discrimination and admirable taste."

"Now won't you please tell me, your Excellency, if you credit, no, if
you _believe_, my story--and don't be a diplomat for the telling."

"My dear Madame Clephane, I do believe your tale--it bears the impress
of truth in what you've not done, as well as in what you've done. Had
you ever been in the service you would recognize my meaning. That the
abductors did not triumph was due first to their carelessness, and
second to chance, in the person of Monsieur Harleston. He plays the
game; and is violating no rule of diplomacy by his course in the affair.
Indeed he would be recreant to his country's service were he to do
otherwise. And France would infinitely prefer the United States to have
the letter rather than Germany. It's unfortunate, but it's not as
unfortunate as it might be."

"You make me feel much, oh, so much better!" Mrs. Clephane replied. "I
feared lest my blunder could never be forgiven nor forgotten; and that
Madame Durrand would be held responsible and would never again be
trusted."

The Ambassador smiled and shook his head. "I think you need not worry,"
he replied.

"And I'm perfectly sure, your Excellency, that if the United States is
neither directly or indirectly concerned in the matter of the letter,
and if you were to submit a translation of the letter to prove it, Mr.
Harleston will deliver to you the original."

"Did Monsieur Harleston tell you so?" the Marquis smiled.

"No, oh, no! I only thought that--"

"--in this one instance diplomats would trust each other?" he
interjected. "Alas, no! Monsieur Harleston would only assume the
translation to be false and given for the sole purpose of deception. I
should assume exactly the same, were our positions reversed."

"Couldn't you prove your translation by giving him the key to the
cipher?" she asked.

"My dear madame," the Marquis smiled, "such a thing would be
unprecedented--and would mean my instant dismissal from the service,
and trial for treason."

She made a gesture of defeat. "Well, you can at least have the letter
repeated by cable."

"Also we can cable the government to dispatch another letter," the
Ambassador soothed. "There are plenty of ways out of the difficulty, so
don't give yourself any concern--and the United States is welcome to the
letter. It will be a far day, I assure you, ere its cipher bureau
translates it."

He glanced at the clock. Mrs. Clephane arose.

"I'm sorry for the mess I have made," she said.

"Don't give it a thought," he assured her. "If you can help us, you will
be where?"

"I will be at the Chateau until this matter is straightened out--and
subject to your instant call."

"Good--you are more than kind; France appreciates it."

He took her hand, escorted her with gracious courtesy to the door, and
bowed her out.

Then he stepped to his desk and rang twice.

The First Secretary entered.

"Did you hear her entire story?" the Marquis asked.

"I did, sir," the First Secretary replied.

"You believe it?"

"Absolutely."

"Then set Pasquier to work to ascertain what this Madame Spencer is
about. Let him report as quickly as he has anything definite. I'll cable
Paris at once as to the letter."




XIV

THE SLIP OF PAPER


Madeline Spencer, leaning languidly against the mahogany table in the
corner of the drawing-room, drummed softly with her finger tips as she
listened.

"What is the use of it all?" Marston was asking. "We can't get the
letter. Harleston evidently told the truth; he has turned it over to the
State Department, so why not be content that it's there, and let well
enough alone?"

"I've been letting well enough alone by occupying them with the notion
that the letter is the thing most desired," Mrs. Spencer returned.
"Muddying the water, as it were, so as to obscure the main issue and get
away with the trick. Direct your attention here, if you please,
gentlemen! Meanwhile we escape from the other end."

"Mrs. Clephane was at the French Embassy this afternoon," he observed.

"At last she had a glimmering of sense!" Mrs. Spencer laughed. "Why she
didn't beat it there direct from the train I can't imagine. Such
ignorance is a large asset for those of us who know. I had thought of
impersonating her and amusing myself with d'Hausonville, but I concluded
it wasn't worth while. It _riles_ me, however, that the affair was so
atrociously bungled by Crenshaw and the others. What possessed them to
release Mrs. Clephane once they had her?--and what in Heaven's name made
them overlook the letter in the cab?"

"Search me!" Marston replied.

"There is no occasion to search you, Marston," she smiled, "I shouldn't
find very much except--placidity."

"Placidity has its advantages," he smiled back.

"It has; that's why I asked the Chief for you. You were not as happy in
your choice of assistants, Marston. They are a stupid lot. You may send
them back to New York. We'll handle this matter ourselves, with Mrs.
Chartrand's involuntary assistance."

"Very good, madame!" said Marston. "The trouble, you see, came with that
chap Harleston's butting into the affair. Who would have foreseen that
he would happen along just at that particular moment and scoop the
letter without turning a hair. It was rotten luck sure."

"It was all easy enough if the blundering fools had only exercised an
atom of sense," Mrs. Spencer retorted. "Mrs. Clephane couldn't deceive a
normal two-year-old child; she is as transparent as plate glass."

"She was clever enough to get rid of the letter in the cab, and to give
them the plausible story that it was locked in the hotel safe. And the
hotel safe was the reasonable place for her to leave the letter until
she had seen the Ambassador, and someone from the Embassy could return
with her and get the letter."

"Granted--if Mrs. Clephane were a wise woman and in the service. She
isn't wise and she isn't in the service; and both these facts are so
apparent that he who runs may read. She played the Buissards for fools
and won. If they had exercised the intelligence of an infant, they'd
have known that she had the letter with her when she left the hotel. You
got a glimmer of light when you thought of the cab--and Mrs. Clephane
told you that Mr. Harleston had stopped and looked at the sleeping
horse and then started him toward Dupont Circle. You came to me to
report--and I, knowing Harleston, solved the remainder of the mystery.
But with Harleston's entry the affair assumed quite a different aspect;
and it is no reflection on you, Marston, that your expedition to his
apartment didn't succeed; though somewhat later Crenshaw did act as a
semi-reasonable man, and secured the letter--only to foozle again like
an imbecile. The play in the hotel last night, as schemed by us, should
have gone through and eliminated Clephane and Harleston for a time; but
Harleston upset things by his quick action and sense of
danger--moreover, he guessed as to Clephane, for the management got wise
and made a search, and the dear lady found Harleston and me in Peacock
Alley--and she pre-empted him."

Marston blinked and said nothing.

"Why don't you say something?" she asked sharply.

"What is there to say that you don't already know," he replied placidly.

"Very little, Marston, about the subject in hand," she replied curtly.
"And now let us see how matters stand to date. First--the French
Ambassador knows that a cipher letter to him from his Foreign Minister
has been intercepted and is in the hands of the American State
Department. Second--as it is in letter cipher, there isn't much
likelihood of it being translated. Third--the matter covered by the
letter must be something that they are reluctant to send by cable; for
you know, Marston, that the United States, in common with European
nations, requires all telegraph and cable companies to forward
immediately to the State Department a copy of every cipher message
addressed to a foreign official. Maybe they are not able to translate
it, but of that the sending nation cannot be sure and it makes it very
careful, particularly when the local government is affected.
Fourth--France will have to choose between consuming a week in getting
another letter from Paris to Washington, or she will have to chance the
cable with the risk of America learning her message."

"What do you think France will do?" Marston asked.

"If the letter concerned my mission, she will risk the cable," Mrs.
Spencer replied. "She would far rather disclose the affair to the United
States, than to let Germany succeed."

"May she not be content now to warn the United States?" suggested
Marston.

"It's quite possible. All depends whether the letter concerns my
mission. We have been informed by the Wilhelm-strasse that it probably
does, and directed to prevent its delivery to the French Ambassador.
We've succeeded in preventing, but bungled it over to the United
States--the one country that we shouldn't have aroused. What in the
devil's name ails your assistants, Marston--particularly Crenshaw?"

"To be quite candid," Marston replied, "he had a grouch; he thought that
Sparrow and I flub-dubbed the matter of the cab, and deliberately tried
to lose him when we went to the Collingwood. And when he did come, he
drew his gun on us until he understood."

"What?" she exclaimed.

"He thought that it was a scheme of Sparrow to injure him in your eyes.
It seems that he and Sparrow are jealous of your beautiful eyes."

"What are you talking about?" she demanded. "What have I, or my
beautiful eyes, to do with Crenshaw and Sparrow?"

"What usually happens to the men who are associated with you in any
enterprise: they get daffy over you."

"Because they get daffy over me is no excuse for stupid execution of the
business in hand," she shrugged. "_You_ never have been guilty of
stupidity, Marston."

"Because I've managed never to be a fool about you--however much I have
been tempted to become one."

"Have been, Marston?" she inflected.

"Have been--and _am_," he bowed. "I'm not different from the
rest--only--"

She curled herself on a divan, and languidly stretched her slender
rounded arms behind the raven hair.

"Only what, Marston?" she murmured.

"Only I know when the game is beyond me."

"So, to you, I'm a game?"

"Of an impossible sort," he replied. "I admire at a distance--and keep
my head."

"And your heart, too, _mon ami_?"

"My heart is the servant of my head. When it ceases so to be, I shall
ask to be detached from the Paris station."

"Are you satisfied with your present assignment?"

"Much more than satisfied; very much more than satisfied."

She held out her hand to him, and smiled ravishingly.

"We understand each other now, Marston," she said simply; which tied
Marston only the tighter to her--as she well knew. And Marston knew it,
too. Also he knew that he had not the shade of a chance with her--and
that she knew that he knew it. It was Madeline Spencer's experience with
men that such as she tried for she usually got. There were exceptions,
but them she could count on the fingers of one hand. Harleston--though
for a time he was on the verge of submission--was an exception. And for
that she was ready to rend him at the fitting opportunity; the more so
because her own feelings had been aroused. As they were once before with
Armand Dalberg--who had calmly put her in her place, and tumbled her
schemes about her ears.

All her life there would be a weak spot in her heart for Dalberg; and,
such is the peculiarly inconsistent nature of the female, a hatred that
fed itself on his scorn of her.

She had dared much with Dalberg--and often; and always she had lost. The
Duke of Lotzen was only a means to an end: money and exquisite ease.
Left with ample wealth on his decease, she, for her excitement and to be
in affairs, had mixed in diplomacy, and had quickly become an expert in
tortuous moves of the tortuous game.

Then one day she encountered Harleston, and bested him. With a rare good
nature for a diplomat, he had taken his defeat with a smile, at the same
time observing her manifold attractions with a careful eye and an
indulgent mind for the past. Which caused her to look at him again, and
to think of him frequently; and at last to want him for her own--after a
little while. And he had appeared not averse to the wanting--after a
little while. Now, just as he was about to succumb, he was suddenly
whisked away by another woman--that woman simply a later edition of
herself: the same figure, the same poise, the same methods, the same
allurements; but younger in years, fresher, and, she admitted it to
herself, less acquainted with the ways of men. And now she had lost
him; and never would she be able to get him back. Another woman had
filched him from her--filched him forever from her, she knew.

Therefore she hated Mrs. Clephane with a glowing hate.

"Have you seen the--_man_?" Marston asked, when her attention came back
to him.

She nodded. "I've had a communication from him."

"Anything doing?"

"Not yet. He will duly apprise me. Meanwhile we, or rather I, am to
remain quiet and wait expectantly."

"He thinks you are alone?"

"Of course. He would be off like a colt if he thought that I had a corps
of assistants."

"The longer the delay the more chance France has to repeat the letter by
cable," Marston remarked.

"Certainly--but I shan't be fool enough to tell him so, or anything as
to the letter. He would end negotiations instantly."

"When are you to see him?"

"This afternoon at three."

"At Chartrands?"

"No, in Union Station."

"It's a long way to go," Marston observed.

"So I intimated, but without avail."

"Is he afraid?"

"No, only inexperienced in deception and over cautious. Moreover, it is
a serious business."

"Particularly since Harleston is on the trail?" Marston added.

Mrs. Spencer nodded again. "We'll pray that he does not uncover the
matter until we are up and away."

"If we pray, it should be effective!" Marston laughed.

"It likely will be--one way or the other," she returned drily. "However,
if we are careful, a prayer more or less won't effect much damage. It's
really up to the--man in the case. If he can get away with it, we can
manage the rest."

"And if he can't?"

"Then there will be nothing on us, unless the Clephane letter is
translated and implicates me by name--or Paris resorts to cable. If it
were not for France's meddling, it would be ridiculously simple so far
as we are concerned; everything would be up to the man."

"And you do not know who the man is, nor what he is about to betray?"
Marston asked.

"I do not--nor am I in the least inquisitive, despite the fact that I'm
a woman. I haven't even so much as tried to guess. I was ordered here
under express instructions; which are to meet someone who will
communicate with me by letter in which a certain phrase will occur.
Thereafter I am to be guided by him and the circumstances until I
receive from him a certain package, when I am instantly to depart the
country and hurry straight to Berlin. Whether I am to receive a copy of
a secret treaty between our friends or our enemies, a diplomatic secret
of high importance, a report on the fortifications or forces of another
nation, or what it is, I haven't the slightest idea. It's all in the
game--and the game fascinates me; its dangers and its uncertainty. Some
other nation wants what Germany is about to get; some other nation seeks
to prevent its betrayal; some other nation seeks to block us; someone
else would even murder us to gain a point--and our own employer would
not raise a hand to seek retribution, or even to acknowledge that we
had died in her cause. They laud the soldier who dies for his flag, but
he who dies in the secret service of a government is never heard of. He
disappears; for the peace or the reputation of nations his name is not
upon the public rolls of the good and faithful servants. It's risky,
Marston; it's thankless; it's without glory and without fame;
nevertheless it's a fascinating game; the stakes are incalculable, the
remuneration is the best."

"You're quite right as to those high up in the service," Marston
remarked, "the remuneration, I mean, but not as to us poor devils who
are only the pawns. We not only have no glory nor honour, but
considering the danger and what we do we are mightily ill paid, my lady,
mightily ill paid. The fascination and danger of the game, as you say,
is what holds us. At any rate, it's what holds me--and the pleasure of
working sometimes with you, and what that means."

"And we always win when together because we are in accord," she smiled,
holding out her hand to him. "Team work, my good friend, team work!"

He took the hand, and bending over raised it to his lips with an air of
fine courtesy and absolute devotion.

"And we shall win this time, Marston," she went on, "we shall sail for
Europe before the week is ended--I'm sure of it."

"I shall be satisfied if we never sail--or sail always," he returned,
and slowly released her fingers and stepped back.

She paid him with a ravishing smile; and Madeline Spencer, when she
wished, could smile a man into fire--and out again. It was too soon for
the "out again" with Marston. He was very useful--he was not restless,
nor demanding, nor sensitive, nor impatient of others, nor jealous. He
was like a faithful dog, who adores and adores, and pleads only to be
allowed to adore. Moreover, he was a capable man and trustworthy;
dependable and far above his class. Therefore she took care that his
chains should be silken, yet at the same time that he be not permitted
to graze too far afield.

"I wonder," Marston was saying, after a little thought, "if Carpenter,
the Chief of the Secret Bureau of their State Department, might be
purchasable--if we made him a good stiff bid?"

"I don't know," she answered. "It isn't likely, however; he is too old
and tried an official to be venal. Furthermore we haven't any money at
hand, and my instructions are to act independently of the German
Embassy, and under no circumstances whatever to communicate with it. In
such business as we are engaged, the Embassy never knows us nor of our
plans. They don't dare to know; and they will calmly deny us if we
appeal to them."

"The money might be arranged," Marston suggested. "You could cable to
Berlin for it--and have it cabled back."

"It might be done," said she thoughtfully. "You mean to try Carpenter
for a copy of the cipher letter?"

"It won't do any particular harm, as I see it; it can't make us any
worse off and it may give us the letter. It's worth the trial, it seems
to me."

"But if Carpenter has not succeeded in finding the key-word, how will
the letter help? Do you expect to bribe the French Embassy also?"

"It may not be necessary," he replied. "I know a number of keys of
French ciphers; one of them may fit."

"Very well," said she quietly; "you are empowered to have a try at
Carpenter."

"Good--I'll start after it at once. Any further orders, madame?"

"None till evening," again holding out her hand--and again smiling him
into kissing it adoringly.

"A useful man, Marston!" she reflected when the door closed behind him.
"And one who never presumes. A smile pays him for anything, and keeps
him devoted to me. Yes, a very useful and satisfactory man. His idea of
corrupting Carpenter may be rather futile; and he may get into a snarl
by trying it, but," with a shrug of her shapely shoulders, "that is his
affair and won't involve me. And if he should prove successful, the new
French key-word which the Count, the dear Count, gave me just before I
left Paris, may turn the trick."

The Count de M---- was confidential secretary to the Foreign Minister,
and he had slipped her the bit of paper containing the key-word at a
ball, two evenings before she sailed on her present mission. He was not
aware that she was sailing, nor was she; the order came so suddenly that
she and her maid had barely time to fling a few things in a couple of
steamer trunks and catch the last train. She had fascinated the Count;
for a year he had been one of her most devoted, but most discreet,
admirers. He also was exceedingly serviceable. Hence she took pains to
hold him.

Languidly she reached for her little gold mesh bag--the one thing that
never left her--and from a secret pocket took several slips of paper.

"Why, where is it!" she exclaimed, looking again with greater care....
"The devil! I've lost it!"

However, after a moment of thought, she recalled the key-word, and the
rule that he whispered to her--also the squeeze he gave her hand, and
the kiss with the eyes. The Count had fine eyes--he could look much,
very much.... She smiled in retrospection.... Yet how did she drop that
bit of paper--and where?... Or did she drop it?... All the rest were
there. It was very peculiar.... She had referred to the De Neviers slip
on last Saturday--and she distinctly remembered that the Count's was
there at that time. Consequently she must have dropped it on Sunday when
she was studying the Rosny matter, and then she was in this room--and
Marston and Crenshaw and Sparrow were in the next room.--H-u-m.... Well,
the Count wrote in a woman's hand; and the finder cannot make anything
out of the words:

_A l'aube du jour_.




XV

IDENTIFIED


So it happened, that on the same day and practically at the same hour
Carpenter gave instructions looking to the pilfering of the French
private diplomatic cipher, Marston began to lay plans to test
Carpenter's venality, and Madeline Spencer betook herself to Union
Station to meet the man-in-the-case, whose face she had never seen, and
whose name she did not know.

She went a roundabout way, walking down F Street and stopping to make
some trifling purchases in two or three shops. She could not detect that
she was being followed, but she went into a large department store, and
spent considerable time in matching some half-dozen shades of ribbon. On
the way out she stepped into a telephone booth, and directed the
dispatcher at the Chateau to send a taxi to Brentano's for Mrs.
Williams. By the time she had leisurely crossed the street the taxi was
there; getting in, she gave the order to drive to Union Station by way
of Sixteenth Street and Massachusetts Avenue. As she passed the Chateau,
she saw Mrs. Clephane and Harleston coming out; a bit farther on they
shot by in a spanking car.

She drew back to avoid recognition; but they were too much occupied with
each other, she observed, even to notice the occupant of the humble but
high-priced taxi. At Scott Circle their car swung westward and
disappeared down Massachusetts Avenue; she turned eastward, toward
tomorrow's rising sun, Union Station, and the rendezvous--with hate in
her heart for the woman who had displaced her, and a firm resolve to
square accounts at the first opportunity. Mrs. Clephane might be
innocent, likely was innocent of any intention to come between Harleston
and her, but that did not relieve Mrs. Clephane from punishment, nor
herself from the chagrin of defeat and the sorrow of blasted hopes. The
balance was against her; and, be it man or woman, she always tried to
balance up promptly and a little more--when the balancing did not
interfere with the business on which she was employed. Madeline
Spencer, for one of her sort, was exceptional in this: she always kept
faith with the hand that paid her.

At Union Station she dismissed the taxi and walked briskly to the huge
waiting-room. There she dropped the briskness, and went leisurely down
its long length to the drug stand, where she bought a few stamps and
then passed out through the middle aisle to the train shed, inquiring on
the way of an attendant the time of the next express from Baltimore. To
his answer she didn't attend, nevertheless she thanked him graciously,
and seeing the passengers were beginning to crowd through the gates from
an incoming train she turned toward them, as if she were expecting
someone. Which was true--only it was not by train.

It had been five minutes past the hour, by the big clock in the station,
when she crossed the waiting-room; by the time the crowd had passed the
gates, and there was no excuse for remaining, another five had gone. The
appointment was for three exactly. She had not been concerned to keep it
to the minute, but the man should have been; as a woman, it was her
prerogative to be careless as to such matters; moreover she had found
it an advantage, as a rule, to be a trifle late, except with her
superiors or those to whom either by position or expediency it was well
to defer. With such she was always on time--and a trifle more.

As she turned away, a tall, fine-looking, well set-up, dark-haired,
clean-cut, young chap, who had just rounded the news-stand, grabbed off
his hat and greeted her with the glad smile of an old acquaintance.

"Why, how do you do, Mrs. Cuthbert!" he exclaimed. "This is an
unexpected pleasure, and _most opportune_."

There was a slight stress on the last two words:--the words of
recognition.

"Delightful, Mr. _Davidson_!" she returned--which continued the
recognition--taking his extended hand and holding it.

"Can't I see you to your car, or carriage, or whatever you're using?" he
asked.

"You may call a taxi," she replied; "and you may also come with me, if
you've nothing else to do."

"I'm too sorry. There has been a--mixup, and it is _impossible_ now,
Mrs. Cuthbert. _I have an important appointment at the Capitol._" Which
completed the recognition.

"When can you come to see me?" she asked. "I'm at the Chateau."

"I hope tomorrow, if I'm not suddenly tied up. You will be disengaged?"

"I've absolutely nothing on hand for tomorrow," she replied.

"Fine!" he returned. "I think I can manage to come about one and take
you out for luncheon."

"That will be charming!" she smiled.

"Where would you like to go--to the Rataplan?"

"Wherever you suggest," she replied. "I'll leave it to you where we
shall go and what we shall have."

"You're always considerate and kind," he averred. "If nothing untoward
occurs, it will be a fine chance to talk over old times, to explain
everything, and to arrange for the future."

"That will be charming!"

"And unless I am disappointed in a _certain matter_, I shall have a
surprise for you."

"I shall welcome the surprise."

"We both shall welcome it, I think!" he laughed. "It seems a long time
since I've seen you, Madeline," he added.

"It seems a long time to me, too, Billy. We must do better now, old
friend. Come to Paris and we'll make such a celebration of it that the
Boulevards will run with--gaiety."

"I shall come. Meanwhile--tomorrow." He raised his stick to the taxi
dispatcher. "I'm sorry to leave you," he confided to her.

"Let me take you as far as the Capitol," she urged.

"Not today. Wait until I come to Paris--then you may take me where you
will and how."

"I like you, Billy!" she exclaimed.

"And I've something more to tell you," he whispered, as he put her in
and closed the door. "The Chateau!" he said to the driver then stepping
back, he doffed his hat and waved his hand.

"Yes, I like you, Mr. Davidson," she smiled, as the taxi sped away, "but
I'll like you better when the present business is completed and I'm in
Paris--without you."

He was a handsome chap enough, and he would have considerable money when
the present business was completed, yet, somehow he did not appeal,
even to her mercenary side. Moreover she no longer dealt in his sort.
Time was when he would have served admirably, but she was done with
plucking for plucking's sake. She plucked still, but neither so
ruthlessly nor so omnivorously as of yore. She did not need; nor was she
so gregarious in her tastes. She could pick and choose, and wait--and
have some joy of _Him_ and take her time; be content not to pluck him
clean, and so retain his friendship even after he had been displaced.
With her now it was the man in high office or of high estate at whom she
aimed--and her aim was usually true. Neither with one of her tastes and
tendencies was monogamy apt to be attractive nor practiced--though at
times it subserved her expediency. At present, it was the Count de
M----, an English Cabinet Minister, and a Russian Grand Duke;--but
_discreetly_, oh, so discreetly that none ever dreamed of the others,
and the public never dreamed of them. To all outward appearances, she
dwelt in the odor of eminent respectability and sedate gaiety.

"Drive slowly through Rock Creek Park until I tell you to return," she
ordered the man when they had passed beyond the station; then withdrew
into a corner of the taxi, and busied herself with her thoughts.

It was almost two hours later that she gave him the Collingwood as a
destination.

At the Collingwood she dismissed the taxi, and without sending up her
name passed directly up to Mrs. Chartrand's apartment.

Miss Williams, who was on duty at the telephone desk, saw her--and
whistled softly. The instant the elevator door clanged shut, she rang
Harleston.

"If you can come down a moment, Mr. Harleston," she said softly, "I have
some interesting information for you; it may not be well to--you know."

"I'll be down at once," Harleston replied.

When he appeared, it was with his hat and stick, as though he were going
out.

"If anyone calls, Miss Williams," he remarked, pausing by her desk,
"I'll be back in about half an hour."

"Very well, Mr. Harleston," she replied. Then she lowered her voice.
"Your slender lady of the ripples, of the other night, has just come in.
She's young, and a perfect peach for looks."

"Who is she?" he asked.

"I don't know. She didn't have herself announced; she went straight on
up. Ben!" motioning to the elevator boy, "where did the slender woman,
you just took up, get off?"

"At the fou'th flo', Miss Williams," said Ben. "She went into fo' one."

"You're sure of that?"

"Yas, Miss," the negro grinned, "I waited to see."

Miss Williams nodded a dismissal.

"Four one is Chartrands' apartment," she remarked.

"Is this the lady of the ripples?" Harleston asked, handing her the
photograph of Madeline Spencer.

"Sure thing!" she exclaimed. "That's she, all right. How in the world
did you ever--pardon me, Mr. Harleston, I shouldn't have said that."

"You're not meddling, Miss Williams. But it's a long story--too long to
detail now. Some day soon I'll confide in you, for you've helped me very
much in this matter and deserve to know. In fact, you've helped me more
than you can imagine. Meanwhile mum's the word, remember."

"Mum, it is, Mr. Harleston," she replied, "For once a telephone girl
won't leak, even to her best friends."

"I believe you," Harleston returned. "Keep your eyes open, also your
_ears_, and report to me anything of interest as to our affair."

Miss Williams answered with a knowing nod and an intimate little smile,
then swung around to answer a call. Harleston returned to his rooms. The
happenings of the recent evening were quite intelligible to him now:

When the episode of the cab of the sleeping horse occurred, Mrs. Spencer
was in the Chartrand apartment. Marston, in some way, had learned of
Harleston's participation in the cab matter, and with Sparrow had
followed him to the Collingwood, entering by the fire-escape--with the
results already seen. The noise on the fire-escape was undoubtedly made
by them, and the long interval that elapsed before they entered his
apartment was consumed in reporting to her, or in locating his number.

One thing, however, was not clear: how they had learned so promptly of
Harleston's part in the affair, and that it was he who had taken the
letter from the cab. Either someone had seen him at the cab and had
babbled to the Marston crowd, or else Mrs. Winton or Mrs. Clephane had
not been quite frank in her story. He instantly relieved Mrs. Clephane
of culpability; Mrs. Winton did not count with him. Moreover, it was no
longer of any moment--since Spencer's people knew and had acted on their
knowledge, and were still acting on it--and were still without the
letter. The important thing to Harleston was that it had served to
disclose what promised to be a most serious matter to this country, and
which, but for the trifling incident of the cab, would likely have gone
through successfully--and America been irretrievably injured.

Madeline Spencer had assured him that the United States was not
concerned; that the matter had to do only with a phase of the Balkan
question. But such assurances were worthless and given only to deceive,
and, further, were so understood by both of them. Maybe her story was
true--only the future would prove it. Meanwhile you trust at your peril,
_caveat emptor_, your eyes are your market, or words to similar effect.
Of course he could cause her to be apprehended by the police, yet such
a course was unthinkable; it would violate every rule of the game; it
would complicate relations with Germany, and afford her adequate ground
for reprisals on our secret agents. A certain code of honour obtained
with nations, as well as with criminals.

As he opened the door, the telephone rang. He took up the receiver.

"Hello!" he said.

"Is that you, Mr. Harleston?" came a soft voice.

"It is Madame X!" he smiled.

"Still Madame X?" she inflected.

"Only to one person."

"And to her no longer," she returned. "What are you doing?"

"Thinking about coming down to dine with you."

"Just what I was about to ask of you. Come at seven--to my apartment. I
have something important to discuss."

"So have I," he replied. "I'll be along in an hour, or sooner if you
want me."

"I want you, Mr. Harleston," she laughed, "but I can wait an hour, I
suppose."

"Which may mean much or little," he replied.

"Just so.--You may try your diplomatic methods on solving the problem."

"My methods or my mind?" he asked.

"Your mental methods," she replied.

"I pass!" he exclaimed. "You may explain at dinner."

"Meanwhile, I recommend you to your diplomatic mind."

"Until dinner?"

"Certainly--and forever after, Mr. Harleston, be an ordinary man with
me, please."

"Do you fancy that a _seeing_ man can be just an ordinary man when _you_
are with him?" he asked.

"I'm not required to fancy you what you're not," she returned.

"In other words, I'm not a seeing man?"

"Not especially, sir.--And there's another problem, for your diplomacy.
_A bientot_, Monsieur Harleston."

He telephoned to the Club for a taxi to be at the door at a quarter to
seven; then dressed leisurely and descended.

"Any developments?" he inquired of Miss Williams.

"None," she replied. "Ripples hasn't come down yet."

"All right," said he. "Tell me in the morning--you're on duty then?"

She answered by a nod, the flash was calling her, and he passed on
toward the door--just as the elevator shot down and Madeline Spencer
stepped out.

"How do you do, Mr. Harleston?" said she, with a broad smile.

"Hello, Mrs. Spencer! I'm glad to see you," he returned. "If you're
bound for the Chateau or downtown, won't you let me take you in my car?
It's at the door."

"If you think you dare to risk your reputation, I'll be glad to accept,"
she replied.

"Is it a risk?" he asked.

"That is for you to judge," as he put her in.

"The Chateau?" he inquired;--and when she nodded he leaned forward and
gave the order.

"I was surprised to see you--" he began.

"Why pretend you were surprised to see me?" she laughed. "You were not;
nor am I to see you. We are too old foes to pretend as to the
non-essentials--when each knows them. The cards are on the table, Guy,
play them open."

"How many cards are on the table?" he asked.

"All of mine."

"Then it's double dummy--with a blind deck on the side."

"Whose side?" she flashed back.

"Yours!" he returned pleasantly.

"What am I concealing?" she demanded.

"I don't know. If I did--it would be easier for me."

"The one thing I haven't told you, I can't tell you: the precise
character of the business that brings me here. I've told you all I
know--and broken my oath to do it. I can't well do more, Guy."

"No, you can't well do more," Harleston conceded. "And I can't well do
less under all the--admitted circumstances; inferentially and directly
admitted."

"Why did you--butt in?" she asked. "Why didn't you let the cab, and the
letter, and well enough alone?"

"It was so mysterious; and so full of possibilities," he smiled. "And
when I did it, I didn't know that you were interested."

"And it would have made you all the more prying if you had known," she
retorted.

"Possibly! I've never yet heard that personal feelings entered into the
diplomatic secret service--and no more have you, my lady."

"Personal feelings!" she smiled, and shrugged his answer aside. "When
did you first know that I was concerned in this affair?"

"When I saw you in the Chateau," he replied--there was no obligation on
him to mention the photograph.

"Which was?" she asked.

"The evening I met you in Peacock Alley. How long then had you been
here?"

"Two days!"

"And not a word to me?"

"'Personal feelings do not enter into the diplomatic secret service,'"
she quoted mockingly.

"Precisely," he agreed, "We understand each other and the game."

It served his purpose not to notice the mock in her tones. He very well
understood what it imported and what prompted it. For the first time
the tigress had disclosed her claws. Hitherto it was always the soft
caress and the soothing purr--and when she wished, her caress could be
very soft and her purr very soothing. He had assumed that there were
claws, but she had hidden them from him; and what is ever hidden one
after a time forgets. And she had some justification for her resentment.
He admitted to himself that his attitude and manner had been such as
might cause her to believe that she was more to him than an opponent in
a game, that he was about to forgive her past, and to ask her to warrant
only for the future. And he had a notion that she was prepared to
warrant and to keep the warrant--even as she had done with the Duke of
Lotzen. Now it was ended. He knew it.

And she knew it, too. One sight of Mrs. Clephane with him and she
realized that he was lost to her: Mrs. Clephane had all her outward
grace and beauty, but not her past. Her woman's intuition had told her
in the red-room of the Chateau; she knew absolutely when she saw his
greeting to Mrs. Clephane in the corridor after her escape. She must go
back to her Count de M----, her Cabinet Minister, and her Russian Grand
Duke. The only two men she had ever cared for would have none of her,
despite her beauty and her fascination. Dalberg ever had scorned her;
Harleston had looked with favour, wavered, was about to yield, when
another--outwardly her _alter ego_, save only in the colour of her
hair--appeared and filched him from her. And whether Dalberg's scorn or
Harleston's defection was the more humiliating, she did not know.
Together they made a mocking and a desolation of her love and her life.
And as she came to hate with a fierce hatred the Princess whom Dalberg
loved, so with an even more bitter hatred she hated Mrs. Clephane who
had won Harleston from her. For while with Dalberg she never had the
slightest chance, and knew it perfectly, with Harleston there was the
bitterness of blasted hopes as well as of defeat.

And Harleston, sitting there beside her, the perfume of her hair and
garments heavy about him, read much that was in her thoughts; and some
remorse smote him--a little of remorse, that is--and he would have said
something in mitigation of her judgment. But a look at her--and the
excuse was put aside and the subject ended before it was even begun.
She was not one to accept excuses or to be proffered them, it were best
to let the matter rest. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clephane must be warned of the
danger confronting her.

He glanced again at her--and met her subtle smile.

"This Mrs. Clephane," she remarked with quiet derision, "wherein is she
different from the rest of us?"

"By 'us' you mean whom?" he asked.

"The women you have known."

"And seen?"

"And seen."

"You're exceedingly catholic!" he smiled.

"You're exceedingly exclusive--and precipitate; and you haven't answered
my question. Wherein is Mrs. Clephane different from the rest of us?"

"At the risk of being personal," he replied, "I should say that she is
very like you in face and figure and manner. If her hair were black, the
resemblance would be positively striking."

"Then, since we're on the personal equation, the difference is where?"

He threw up his hands and laughed to avoid the obvious answer, an
answer which she knew, and knew he wished to avoid.

"The difference is where?" she repeated.

"I shall let you judge if there is a difference, and if there is, what
it is," he replied.

"I wish to know _your_ mind, Mr. Harleston--I already know my own."

"Good girl!" he applauded.

"Please put me aside and consider Mrs. Clephane," she insisted. "Is she
cleverer than--well, than I am?"

"You are the cleverest woman that I have ever known."

"Is she more intellectual?"

"Preserve me from the intellectual woman!" he exclaimed.

"Is she more travelled?"

"I think not."

"Is she superficially more cultured?"

"I should say not."

"Has she a better disposition?"

"No one could have a better disposition than you have ever shown to me."

"Is she more fascinating in manner?"

"She couldn't be!"

"She _is_ younger?" tentatively.

Harleston did not reply.

"But very little--two or three years, maybe?" she added.

Again Harleston did not reply.

"Is her conversation more entertaining?" she resumed.

"Impossible!"

"Or more edifying?"

"Excuse me again!" he exclaimed. "Edifying is in the same class as
intellectual."

"Then all Mrs. Clephane has on me is a few years?"

He nodded.

"Other things don't count with you, I assume--when they're of the past,
and both have been a trifle tinctured."

She said it with affected carelessness and a ravishing smile; but
Harleston was aware that underneath there was bitterness of spirit, and
cold hate of the other woman. She had touched the pinch of the matter.
Both knew it, and both knew the answer. Yet she was hoping against hope;
and he was loath to hurt her needlessly, because Mrs. Clephane would be
sure to catch the recoil, and because he himself was very fond of
her--despite all and Mrs. Clephane. He had seen his mistake in time, if
it was a mistake, but that did not blind him to Madeline Spencer's
fascinating manner and beautiful person, and to the fact that she cared
for him. However, neither might he let pass the charge she had just made
against Mrs. Clephane. Yet he tried to be kind to the woman beside him,
while defending the woman who was absent, and, as is often the case
under such circumstances he played for time--the hotel was but a block
away--and made a mess of it, so far as the woman beside him was
concerned.

"Who are a trifle tinctured--and with what?" he asked.

She smiled languidly.

"That is scarcely worthy of you, Guy," she remarked. "You are aiming
at--windmills; at least, I think you are not suddenly gone stupid.
However, you do not need to answer. Mrs. Clephane, you think, is not
tinctured, and you know that I have been--several shades deep. In other
words, she surpasses me in your estimation in the petty matter of
morals. So be it; you're no fool, and a pretty woman cannot blind you to
the facts for long. Then we shall see which you prefer. The woman who
is honest about the tincture, or the woman who is not. Now let us drop
the matter, and attend strictly to business until such time as the
present business is ended,--and Mrs. Clephane appears as she is."

"So be it!" Harleston replied heartily, "We understand each other,
Madeline."

"Yes, we understand each other," she said laconically, as the car drew
in to the curb.

"So well, indeed," he continued, as he gave her his hand to the
sidewalk, "that I have to arrange for you to meet the Secretary of State
at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon."

"Where?" said she, looking at him narrowly.

"In his office. You would like to meet him, Madeline?"

"I don't know what your play is," she laughed, "but I'll meet him--and
take my chances. From all I can learn, the gentleman isn't much but
bumptiousness and wind. To either you or me, Guy, he should be easy."

"The play," Harleston explained, "is that the Secretary has heard of you
and wishes to see the remarkable woman who--almost upset a throne."

"His wish shall be gratified," she shrugged. "Will you come for me, or
am I to go to him--a rendezvous _a deux_?"

"I'll escort you to him--afterward it will depend on you."

"Very good!" she replied--"but all the same I wonder what's the game."

"The Secretary's wish and curiosity is the only game," he replied.

"Far be it from me to balk either--when something may result of
advantage to your--"

"--beautiful and fascinating self," he interjected.

She raised her eyebrows and laughed scornfully, as the lift bore her
upwards.




XVI

ANOTHER LETTER


Harleston sauntered through Peacock Alley; not finding Mrs. Clephane, he
had himself announced and went up to her apartment.

Outwardly he was impassive; inwardly there was the liveliest sensation
of eagerness and anticipation. He could not recall a time when he had so
much joy in living, and in the expectation of the woman. And when he
felt Mrs. Clephane's small hand in his, and heard her bid him welcome,
and looked into her eyes, he was well content to be alive--and with her.

"I've quite a lot to tell you," she smiled. "I'm so glad you could dine
with me--it will give us much more time."

"Time is not of the essence of this contract," he replied.

"What contract?" she asked, with a fetching little frown of perplexity.

"The contract of the present--and the future."

"Oh, you mean our friendship--and that you won't doubt me ever again?"

"Precisely--and then some," he confided.

"What is the 'some', Mr. Harleston?" frowning again in perplexity.

"Whatever may happen," he said slowly.

"You mean it?" she asked.

"I mean it--and more--when I may."

"The 'more' and the 'may' are in the future," she remarked. "Meanwhile,
what have you to report?"

"Very considerable," said he. "Mrs. Spencer was in the Collingwood, this
afternoon--in the Chartrands' apartment. And the telephone girl
recognized her as the woman who left the building on the night of
the--cab."

"That explains a lot to you!" Mrs. Clephane exclaimed.

"The explanation isn't necessary, except to complete the chain of
events," he replied. "We know the later and essential facts as to the
letter. There is just one earlier circumstance that isn't clear to me;
and while, as I say, it's immaterial yet I'm curious. How did the
Spencer gang know that I had taken the letter from the cab?"

"Oh!" Mrs. Clephane cried. "I fancy I can explain. You know I saw you at
the cab. Well, when they released me, I concluded I'd give them
something to think about, and I remarked that Mr. Harleston, of the
United States Diplomatic Service, had stopped at the cab, looked inside,
and then started the horse out Massachusetts Avenue. I thought I had
told you."

"You didn't tell me, but it's very plain now. Madeline Spencer inferred
the rest and instructed them how to act. And they came very close to
turning the trick."

"You mean to getting the letter?" she cried.

He nodded. "I had gone to bed, when something told me to take
precautions; I carried the letter across the corridor and gave it to a
friend to keep for me until morning. A short time after, the three men
called."

"Good Heavens!" she breathed. "What if they had gotten the letter."

"Unless they knew the key-word, they wouldn't have been any better off
than are we--I mean than is the United States."

"I'm France, am I?" she smiled.

"For only this once--and not for long, I trust," he replied.

"Amen!" she exclaimed, "Also for ever more. I'll be so relieved to be
out of it and back to my normal ways that I gladly promise never to try
it again. I'm committed to seeing this affair through and to aiding the
French Embassy in whatever way I can, both because I must keep faith
with Madame Durrand, and because my inexperience and credulity lost it
the letter. That done, and I'm for--you, Mr. Harleston!" she laughed.

"And I'm for you always--no matter whom you're for, nor what you may do
or have done," he replied.

For just an instant she gave him her eyes; then the colour flamed up and
she turned hastily away.

"Sit down, sir," she commanded--most adorably he thought; "I had almost
forgotten that I have something to tell you."

"You've been telling me a great deal," he confided.

She shrugged her answer over her shoulder, and peremptorily motioned him
to a chair.

"Madame Durrand has been located," she began. "The Embassy telephoned
me that she is in Passavant Hospital, getting along splendidly; and that
she duly wired them of her accident and of my having the letter, with an
identifying description of me. The wire was never received."

"It was blocked by a _present_," he remarked. "The wire never left the
hospital."

"So the Marquis d'Hausonville said. He also assured me that the letter
was of no immediate importance, and that steps were being taken to have
it repeated."

"Which may be true," Harleston smiled, "but it is entirely safe to
assume that he is acting precisely as though the letter was of the most
immediate importance. You may be sure that the moment you left him he
dispatched a cable to Paris reciting the facts, so that the Foreign
Office could judge whether to cable the letter or to dispatch it by
messenger. And he has the reply hours ago."--("Also," he might have
added, "our State Department--only it may not be able to translate it.")
"I should say, Mrs. Clephane, that your duty is done now, unless the
Marquis calls on you for assistance. You have performed your part--"

"Very poorly," she interjected.

"On the contrary, you have performed it exceptionally well. You, a
novice at this business, prevented the letter from falling into
Spencer's hands, and so you blocked that part of their game. No, no,
Mrs. Clephane, I regard you as more than acquitted of blame."

"You're always nice, Mr. Harleston!" she responded.

"Nice expresses very inadequately what I wish to be to you," he said
slowly.

Again the flush came--and her glance wavered, and fled away.

"Meanwhile," he went on, "I am quite content to know that you think me
nice to you."

She sprang up and moved out of distance, saying as she did so, with a
ravishing smile:

"Nice is comprehended in other pleasant--adjectives."

"It is?" said he, advancing slowly toward her.

"But you, Mr. Harleston, are forbidden to guess how pleasant, or the
particular adjective, until you're permitted."

"And you'll permit me to guess some day--and soon."

"Maybe so--and maybe not!" she laughed. "It will depend on the both of
us--and the business in hand. Diplomats, you are well aware, are given
to very disingenuous ways and methods."

"In diplomacy," he appended. "A diplomat, as a rule, is merely a man of
a little wider experience and more mature judgment--the American
diplomat alone excepted, save in the secret service. Therefore he knows
his mind, and what he wants; and he usually can be depended upon to keep
after it until he gets it."

"And to want it after he gets it?" she inquired.

"Don't be cynical," he cautioned.

"I'm not. The world looks good to me, and I try to look good to the
world."

"You have succeeded!" he exclaimed.

"I've about-faced," she went on. "Now I presume everybody trustworthy
until it's proven otherwise. Time was, and not so long ago, when I was
more than cynical; and I found it didn't pay in a woman. A man may be
cynical and get away with it; a woman only injures her complexion, and
makes trouble for herself. Me for the happy spirit, and side-stepping
the bumps."

"Good girl!" Harleston applauded--thinking of her unhappy spirit, and
the hard bumps she must have endured during the time that the late
deceased Clephane was whirling to an aeroplane finish. "You're a wonder,
Mrs. Clephane," he ended.

"Aren't you afraid you'll make me vain?" she asked.

"It can't be done," he averred. "You simply can't be spoiled; you're much
too sensible."

"La! la!" she trilled. "What a paragon of--"

--"everything," he adjected.

"Everything that I must be, if you so wish it."

"Just so!" he replied.

"Aren't you afraid of a paragon, Mr. Harleston?"

"Generally, yes; specifically, no."

"La! la!" she trilled again. "You're becoming mystic; which means
mysterious, which means diplomatic, which means deception--which warns
us to get back to the simple life and have dinner. Want dinner, Mr.
Harleston?"

"With you, yes; also breakfast and luncheon daily."

"You couldn't do that unless you were my husband," she replied
tantalizingly and adorably.

"I'm perfectly aware of it," he responded, leaning forward over the
back of the chair that separated them.

"But I'm not ready to take a husband, monsieur," she protested lightly.

"I'm perfectly aware of that also. When you are ready, madame, I am
ready too. Until then I'm your good friend--and dinner companion."

He had spoken jestingly--yet the jest was mainly pretence; the real
passion was there and ready the instant he let it control. As for Mrs.
Clephane, Harleston did not know. Nor did she herself know--more than
that she was quite content to be with him, and let him do for her,
assured that he would not misunderstand, nor misinterpret, nor presume.
So, across the chair's back, she held out her hand to him; and he took
it, pressed it lightly, but answered never a word.

"Now you shall hear the special matter I've got bottled up," said she.
"Whom do you think was here late this afternoon?"

"The Emperor of Spain!" he guessed.

"A diplomatic answer!" she mocked. "There is no Emperor of Spain; yet
it's not absolutely wide of the diplomatic truth, for it was Mrs.
Buissard--she of the cab, you'll remember."

"So!" Harleston exclaimed. "What's the move now; I fancy she was not
paying a social visit."

"You fancy correctly," Mrs. Clephane replied. "She came to the apartment
unannounced; and when I, chancing to be passing the door when she
knocked, opened it, and saw who was without, I almost cried out with
surprise. I didn't cry out, however. On the contrary, remembering
diplomatic ways, I most cordially invited her in. To do her justice,
Mrs. Buissard, beyond expressing hope that I had experienced no ill
effect from the occurrence of the other night, wasted no time in coming
to business."

"'Mrs. Clephane,' she said, sitting on the corner of the table just
where you are sitting now, 'I have a proposition to make to you--may I
make it?'

"I could see no reason to forbid, so I acquiesced.

"'And if you cannot accept straightway, will you promise to forget that
it was made?' she asked.

"Again I acquiesced. I admit, I was curious.

"'We assume,' said she, 'that between France and Germany you are
indifferent.'

"'Paris and Berlin have each their good points,' I replied.

"'Quite so,' she acquiesced; 'just now, however, we ask you to favour
Berlin and for a consideration.'

"'I don't want a consideration,' I smiled; 'tell me what's the favour
you seek?'

"'We ask you,' she replied instantly, 'to take a letter to the French
Ambassador and tell him that it is the letter Madame Durrand gave you in
New York, and that it has just been returned to you by the American
State Department.'

"'Have you the letter with you?' I asked.

"'I have,' she replied, producing it from her bag. 'It may not exactly
resemble the original.'

"'It doesn't,' said I.

"'But the French Ambassador won't know it,' she smiled. 'Further, so as
to make the matter entirely regular with you, you will receive an
appointment in the German Secret Service and five thousand dollars in
advance.'

"'Is it usual to--change sides so suddenly?' I asked.

"'You're not changing sides,' she explained. 'You've never had a side,
in the diplomatic sense. It is entirely regular in diplomacy for you to
take such a course as is proposed; there is nothing unusual about it.
And, my dear Mrs. Clephane, a position in the German Foreign Secret
Service is a rare plum, I can assure you, even though you may not care
to be--active in it.'

"Naturally, I understood. Mrs. Spencer thinking me the same type as
herself, without conscience, character, or morals, had evolved this plan
either to test me or to ensnare me. To test me, because she is jealous
of you; or to ensnare me because she wants to win out diplomatically--or
both, it may be. I am a poor hand at pretence; but I played the game, as
you would say, to the best of my ability. So I seemed to fall in with
her scheme; France was nothing to me; I had been given no option in the
matter of accepting the letter and attempting its delivery; I had done
all and more than could be expected of a disinterested person; I had
lost the letter but through no fault of mine. I was acquitted of further
responsibility; was at liberty to choose. And Mrs. Buissard agreed with
me in everything. In the end, I accepted the spurious letter for
delivery to the French Ambassador."

"Good!" Harleston applauded. "You're learning the method of diplomacy
very rapidly; fire with fire, ruse with ruse, deceit with
deceit--anything for the object in hand."

"It went against me to do it," she admitted, "but I'll pay them in their
own coin--or something to that effect. Of course, I've no intention of
delivering the letter to the French Embassy. I'll deliver it to you
instead."

"Delightful!" Harleston exclaimed. "You're a bully diplomat. However,
I'm not so sure that Spencer ever imagined her letter would reach the
Marquis. She's playing for something else, though what is by no means
clear. Let us have a look at the letter; maybe it will help."

She stood beside him as he cut the envelope and he took out the single
sheet of paper--on which was an assortment of letters, set down
separately and without relation to words.

"What is it," said she, "a scrambled alphabet?"

"Looks like it!" he smiled. "As a matter of fact, however, it's in the
Blocked-Out Square cipher--like the original lett--"

"Then they could read the original?" she cut in.

"Not unless they have its particular key-word--"

"Oh, yes; I remember now," said she. "Go on!"

"There's no 'go on,'" he explained. "Nor would it help matters if there
were. This letter is spurious; there is nothing to find from it, even if
we could translate it. It's intended as a plant; either for us or for
the Marquis; but I fancy, for us--so with your permission we will waste
no time on it further than to keep alert for its purpose. When were you
to receive the five thousand dollars?"

"I don't know!" she laughed.

"And the appointment to the German Secret Service?"

"I don't know; she didn't say and I didn't ask. I was too much occupied
with meeting her on her own ground and playing the game. I was crazy to
get the letter so I could show it to you."

"Which doubtless was what she too wanted; I can't see through her
scheme--unless it is to muddy the water while the main play is being
pulled off. And our men haven't discovered a single material thing,
though they have had Spencer and all the rest of the gang under shadow
since the morning after the cab affair."

The telephone buzzed. Mrs. Clephane answered it.

"Yes, Mr. Harleston is here," she said, passing the receiver to him.

"Hello!" said Harleston.

"Can you make it convenient to drop around here sometime this evening?"
Major Ranleigh inquired.

"Will ten o'clock do?"

"Yes."

"I'll be there," said Harleston.




XVII

IN THE TAXI


At ten o'clock Harleston walked into Ranleigh's office.

"I just wish to ask," said the Major, "if you want us to pick up the man
who met Mrs. Spencer this afternoon. It's against your orders, I know,
but this chap can be arrested without resulting complications, I think.
He's an American."

"Who is he?" Harleston asked.

"Snodgrass, an ex-Captain in the Army; a man of seeming independent
means, who lives at the Boulogne."

"I'm acquainted with him," returned Harleston. "I can't think that he's
crooked. I reckon Spencer's figure and face attracted him--or probably
he has known her in Europe."

"I'm only giving you the facts: he's the first man, other than those of
her entourage, that she has met since we've had her under surveillance.
It was at Union Station, this afternoon. She went there alone, after
loitering for an hour through the shops of F Street. In the train-shed
she chanced, seemingly by the veriest accident, upon Snodgrass. He
almost bumped into her as they rounded the news-stand. From their gaiety
they are old acquaintances; and after a word he turned and accompanied
her to the cab-stand and put her in a taxi. As far as the shadow saw,
there was no letter or papers passed--only conversation. And what he
managed to overhear of it was seemingly quite innocent of value to us.
He called her Madeline and she called him Billy, which isn't his name,
and invited him to Paris; so they must be pretty well acquainted. They
are to meet at one o'clock tomorrow. That's the first matter to report.
The second is that Marston is spying around the French Embassy. He has
walked up Sixteenth Street frequently since four o'clock, and never once
glanced at the big marble mansion when he thought anyone was looking.
His eyes were busy enough other times. Also he visited, after dark,
Paublo's Eating-House in the Division, and had a talk with
Jimmy-the-Snake--a professional burglar of the best class. We are
watching The Snake, of course. Something will be done at the French
Embassy tonight, I imagine. Finally, at nine o'clock, Marston went to
Carpenter's residence and was admitted. He came out fifteen minutes
later, and returned to the Chateau. I assume that Carpenter will tell
you of this errand."

Harleston nodded.

"What shall be done as to Snodgrass--also as to Mrs. Spencer and one
o'clock tomorrow?" Ranleigh asked. "Do you wish me to prevent the
meeting?"

"No," said Harleston, after a little consideration; "simply keep them in
view and follow them. I can't imagine Snodgrass being concerned in this
affair. It's the lady he's after, not her mission. It's likely he
doesn't even know she's in the Secret Service. However, keep an eye on
them; I may be mistaken."

The telephone buzzed. Ranleigh answered, then passed the instrument
across to Harleston.

"Is that you, Harleston?... This is Carpenter. I've just had a most
amazing proposition made to me. It will keep until morning, but drop
around at the Department about nine-thirty and I'll unburden myself."

"Is it Marston?" Harleston asked.

"Exactly; however did you guess it?"

"However did you guess I was with Ranleigh?" Harleston laughed.

"I didn't guess; I called Mrs. Clephane, told her I wanted you--and
presto! There's small trick about that, old fox--except in knowing your
quarry. So long--and don't!"

"If you don't mind, Carpenter, I'll stop on my way home. I'm just
beginning to be interested."

"Come along!" was the answer.

"Carpenter--to explain a Marston proposition," Harleston remarked,
pushing back the instrument.

"They are muddying the water all around," Ranleigh commented. "So I
imagine they are about to make a get-away with the goods."

"Try to, Ranleigh, try to," Harleston amended. "They won't make a
get-away so long as we have Madame Spencer in our midst. Keep your eye
on the dark-haired loveliness; with her in the landscape the goods are
still here. Now for Carpenter."

"Permit me to suggest a taxi!" Ranleigh observed. "It's just as well
that you shouldn't wander about alone on the well-lighted streets of the
National Capital--"

"You think I might be suspended by the Interstate Commerce Commission,
or enjoined by the Federal Trades Commission, or be violating the
Clayton Anti-Trust Act?"

"You might be any and all of them, God knows--as well as contrary to
some paternal act of a non-thinking, theoretical, and subservient
Congress. However, I'm pinning my faith to you and hoping for the best;
Jimmy-the-Snake is cruising whether and whence and wherefore."

"Also besides and among!" Harleston laughed.

"Seriously, I mean it about The Snake," Ranleigh repeated; "and you'd
better have this with you also," taking a small automatic from a drawer
of his desk and handing it across. "You may have need of it; if you do,
it will be very convenient."

Harleston, descending from the taxi, found Carpenter waiting for him on
the front piazza.

"Your friend Marston is a very pleasant chap," he remarked; "also he has
a most astonishing nerve. He actually tried to bribe me for a copy of
the Clephane letter."

"How did you meet it?" Harleston asked.

"I was at a loss how to meet it--whether to be indignant and order him
out, or to be acquiescently non-committal. I chose the latter course;
and after a few preliminary feelers he came out with his offer: five
thousand dollars for liberty to make a copy of the original letter. I
thought a moment, then came back at him with the counter proposition: if
he would secure the key-word from the French Embassy, I would obtain the
letter; then together we would make the translation."

"Delightful!" Harleston applauded. "What did he say to that?"

"What could he do but accept? It was fair, and he had premised his offer
by a solemn assurance that the United States was not involved!"

"Delightful!" said Harleston again. "I reckon you've seen the last of
Marston."

"He said he would have the key-word by tomorrow night or sooner,"
Carpenter remarked.

"I suppose you parted like fellow conspirators," Harleston laughed.

"Yes; suspicious of each other and ready for anything. We were strictly
professional. Diplomatic manners and distrustful hearts."

"Do you think that Marston will try for the key-word?" Harleston asked.

"I do! He probably has it, or rather Spencer has it. Also I think he
will submit it for a test with the letter. He knows his attempt to bribe
me failed, and that the only way he can have access to the letter is to
come with the key-word. And you need not fear that I shall let him copy
the letter until after I've tested the key-word and found it correct."

"Where is the letter?" Harleston asked.

"Locked in the burglar-proof safe in my office."

"Who knows the combination?"

"Spendel, my confidential clerk."

"Trustworthy?"

"I would as soon suspect myself."

"Very good! Now, another thing: do you know Fred Snodgrass, an
ex-Captain of the Army, who lives at the Boulogne?"

"Casually," said Carpenter.

"Ever suspect him of being in the German pay?"

"No. However, he is an intimate friend of Von Swinkle, the Second
Secretary--if that's any indication."

"Rather the reverse, I should say. However, he met Madeline Spencer
yesterday in Union Station. The meeting was apparently accidental, and
so far as his shadow could see or hear was entirely innocent."

"I distrust the apparently accidental and the entirely innocent--in
diplomacy," Carpenter remarked. "We should keep an eye on Snodgrass."

"Meanwhile what are _you_ doing as to the French key-word--trying for
it?" Harleston asked, going toward the door.

Carpenter nodded. "I've got my lines out. I hope to land it in a few
days. If Marston has it, or gets it earlier, so much the better for us."

Harleston had walked a block before he recollected that he was obligated
to Ranleigh to go in a taxi. The one in which he had come from
Headquarters he had dismissed, not knowing how long he would be at
Carpenter's, and he had neglected to telephone for another. He would not
go back to Carpenter's; and, anyway, it was nonsense always to be
guarding himself from the enemy.

He had not a thing they wanted, nor did he know aught that would be of
use to them; and his directorship of the affair was not of great
importance; another, if he knew the facts, could take his place and see
the matter through. That was the important point, however. Time was
exceedingly material; and if the Spencer gang caused him to disappear
for a few days, they would have a free hand until Ranleigh or Carpenter
awoke to the situation. It was not exactly just to the cause for him to
take unnecessary chances. A drug store was but a short distance up the
street, on the other side; he would telephone from it for a taxi.

A moment later, with the honk of a horn, a yellow taxi rounded the
corner and bore his way.

He raised his stick to the driver, in event of him being free--and
stepped out from the sidewalk.

The man shook his head in negation and the machine flashed by--leaving
Harleston staring after it with a somewhat surprised and very much
puzzled frown.

Madeline Spencer was in the taxi--alone. Furthermore, she had not seen
him.




XVIII

DOUBT


At N, the next cross-street, the taxi turned west. Instantly Harleston
made for the corner. When he got there, the machine was swinging north
into Connecticut Avenue. He ran down N Street at the top of his speed.
When he reached the avenue the car was not in sight, nor was there any
one on the street as far as Dupont Circle; and as thoroughfares radiate
from the Circle as the spokes of a wheel from the hub, the taxi could
have gone in practically any direction.

So he gave over running--running after a taxi-cab was not in his
line--and resumed his walk northward. At Dupont Circle he found a lone
cab with a drowsy negro on the box; who came quickly to life, however,
at his approach.

"Cab, seh, cab?" he solicited.

"Which way did the yellow taxi go that just came up Connecticut Avenue?"
Harleston asked.

"Out Massachu'ts abenu', seh, yass seh.--Cab, seh?"

"Drive out Massachusetts Avenue," Harleston directed, getting in. "If you
see a taxi, get close to it."

"I'll do hit, seh, yass seh!" said the negro, as he climbed on the box
and jerked the lines.

But though they went out the avenue to beyond Sheridan Circle, and back
again, and along the streets north of P and west of Twentieth, no taxi
was seen--nor any trace of Madeline Spencer. They drove over the route
for more than an hour--and never raised a yellow taxi nor a skirt.
Finally Harleston abandoned the search and headed the cab for the
Collingwood.

Miss Williams was on duty when he entered, and she signalled him to the
desk.

"The Chateau has been trying to get you for the last half-hour," said
she. "Shall I call them?"

"If you please," he replied, "I'll wait here."

Presently she nodded to Harleston; he stepped into the booth and closed
the door.

"This is Mr. Harleston," said he.

"I recognize your voice, Guy, dear," came Madeline Spencer's soft
tones. "I'd know it _anywhere_, indeed."

"The same to you, my lady," Harleston returned. "Was that what you were
calling me for?"

"No, no!" she laughed. "I just wanted to tell you that I'm back at the
Chateau. I thought you might be interested, you know; you sprinted so
rapidly up N Street, and spent so much time driving around in a cab
searching for me, that I assume it will be a very great relief to you to
know that I am returned. It was such a satisfaction, Guy, to feel that
you were so solicitous for my safety, and I appreciate it, my dear, I
appreciate it. Meanwhile, you might wish to get busy as to my _alter
ego_. I saw her going up Sixteenth Street, as I was returning--a little
after eleven o'clock. Maybe _she_ needs assistance, Guy; you never can
tell. See you tomorrow, old enemy. Good-bye for tonight."

"I say--are you there, Madeline?" Harleston ejaculated; then asked
again. When no one answered he hung up the receiver and came from the
booth. Spencer, that time, had put one over him; two, maybe, for he
_was_ concerned about Mrs. Clephane. Spencer had gone without her
shadow, been free to transact her business, and returned--and all the
time she knew of passing him and his pursuit of her, and was enjoying
his discomfiture. To add a trifle more uneasiness, she had thrown in the
matter of Mrs. Clephane. Probably it was false; yet he could not be sure
and it troubled him. All of which, he was aware, Mrs. Spencer
intended--and took a devilish joy in doing.

Harleston made a couple of turns up and down the room; then he sat down
and drummed a bit on the table; finally he reached for the telephone. It
was very late, but he would call her--she would understand.

He got the Chateau and, giving his name, asked whether Mrs. Clephane was
on the first floor of the hotel. In a few minutes the answer came: she
was not; should they give him her apartment? He said yes. Presently a
sleepy voice answered. He recognized it as Marie--the maid--and had some
difficulty in convincing her of his identity. He did it at last only by
speaking French to her--which, as he had hitherto addressed her only in
French, was not extraordinary.

And, being convinced, she answered promptly enough that Mrs. Clephane
was not in--she had gone down-stairs about two hours ago telling her not
to wait up. She had no idea where Mrs. Clephane went; she had said
nothing about leaving the hotel.

"Ask her to call me at the Collingwood the moment she comes in," said
Harleston.

Then he got Ranleigh and told him of the Spencer episode and of Mrs.
Clephane's disappearance.

"You would better put Mrs. Clephane under lock and key--or else stay
with her and keep her from rash adventures," Ranleigh commented.

"I quite agree with you," said Harleston. "Meanwhile I might inquire
where was Mrs. Spencer's shadow while she was taxiing up the avenue?"

"I fancy he was on his job, though you may not have seen him," Ranleigh
replied. "His report in the morning will tell."

"I would sooner have a report as to Mrs. Clephane's whereabouts,"
Harleston remarked.

"I can't see what good she would be to them now?" said Ranleigh. "She
hasn't a thing they want."

"Granted; yet where is she? moreover, she promised me to do nothing
unusual and to beware of traps."

"She has the feminine right to reconsider," Ranleigh reminded him.
"However, I'll instruct the bureau to get busy and--"

"Wait until morning," Harleston interjected. "If Mrs. Clephane hasn't
appeared by nine o'clock, I'll telephone you."

Harleston leaned back in his chair frowning. Washington was not a large
city, yet under certain circumstances she could be lost in it--and stay
lost, with all the efforts of the police quite unavailing to find her.
It seemed improbable that she had been abducted; as Ranleigh had said,
they had nothing to gain from her. She could neither advance their plans
nor hinder them; she was purely a negative quantity. Spencer might be
striking at him through Mrs. Clephane, intending to hold her surety for
his neutrality, or to feed her own revenge, or maybe both. Yet, somehow,
he could not hold to the notion; it was too petty for their game.
Moreover, Spencer knew that it would be ineffective, and she was not one
to waste time in methods, petty or inefficient. Of course, it might be
that she had merely twitted him about the episode, as a jealous woman
would do.

And yet what could have taken Mrs. Clephane from the hotel at such an
hour, and without apprising her maid; and why was she driving up
Sixteenth Street? Or was Spencer's talk just a lie; intended to throw a
scare into him and give him a bad quarter of an hour--until he would
venture to call up Mrs. Clephane's apartment? And if he did not venture,
the bad quarter would last the balance of the night. At all events and
whatever her idea Madeline Spencer had succeeded in disturbing him to an
unusual degree--and all because of Mrs. Clephane.

At last he sprang up, threw on a light top-coat, grabbed a hat, and made
for the door. He would go down to the Chateau and investigate. Anything
was preferable to this miserable waiting.

The corridor door was swinging shut behind him, when his telephone
buzzed. He flung back the door and reached the receiver in a bound.

"Yes!" he exclaimed.

"I forgot to say, Guy," came Madeline Spencer's purring voice, "that
I'll tell you in the morning, if you care to pay me a visit, how my
_alter ego_ came to be on Sixteenth Street at so unusual an hour. It's
rather interesting as to details. By the way, you must be sitting beside
the receiver expecting a call; you answered with such amazing
promptness!" and she laughed softly. "Shall I expect you at eleven, or
will you be content to wait until we go to the Department at four?"

"I had just finished talking with Mrs. Clephane when you called,"
Harleston replied imperturbably, then laughed mockingly. "I'll be at the
Chateau for you at half-after-three; you can give me the details then. I
shall be delighted, Madeline, to compare your details with hers."

"I wonder!" said she.

"What do you wonder?" said he.

"Whether you are--well, no matter; we'll take it up this afternoon.
_Tout a l'heure, Monsieur Harleston_!"

He was turning once more toward the door, when the telephone rang again.

"Is that Mr. Harleston?" said Mrs. Clephane's lovely voice--and
Harleston's grin almost flowed into the transmitter.

"It is indeed!" he responded--then severely: "Where have you been, my
lady? You have given me a most horrible fright."

"I cry your pardon, my lord; I'll not transgress again," she laughed.
"And if you don't scold me I'll tell you something--something I'm sure
will be worth even a diplomat's hearing."

"Anything you would tell would be well worth any diplomat's hearing,"
said he; "only I shall always prefer to be the diplomat on duty when you
are doing the telling!"

"That's deliciously nice, Mr. Harleston; I--"

"Where are you now?" he demanded.

"At the Chateau--in my apartment. Anything more?"

"Nothing; except to pray you to be prudent and not do it again."

"I'll promise--until I see you." She lowered her voice--"Are you there,
Mr. Harleston?"

"I'm here--since I can't be with you there," he replied.

"Assuredly not! I'm not exactly in receiving attire. Meanwhile the
morning--and Madame Brunette's doings. Good-night, _Mon camarade_."




XIX

MARSTON


At nine o'clock the next morning, Marston tapped gently on the door of
Madeline Spencer's apartment, and was immediately admitted by the demure
maid; who greeted him with a smile, which he repaid with a kiss--several
of them, indeed--and an affectionate and pressing arm to her shapely and
slender waist.

"I suppose monsieur wants to see my mistress," said she.

"Now that I've seen you, yes, little one," Marston returned, with
another kiss.

"Have you seen me, monsieur?"

"Not half long enough, my love; but business before pleasure. There's
another now, so run along and do your devoir."

She fetched him a tiny slap across his cheek, for which she was caught
and made to suffer again; then she wriggled loose, and, with a flirty
backward kick at him, disappeared through the inner doorway.

In a moment she returned, dropped him a bit of curtsy, and informed him
that her mistress would receive him.

He rewarded her with another caress, which she accepted with assumed
shyness--and a wicked little pinch.

"I'll pay you later for the pinch!" he tossed back, softly.

She answered with an affected shrug and a wink.

"Elise _is_ remarkably pretty!" Madeline Spencer remarked when he
entered the boudoir. She was sitting up in bed, eating her rolls and
coffee--a bewildering negligee of cerise and cream heightening the
effect of her dead-white colouring and raven-black hair.

Marston drew in his breath sharply, then sighed.

"And _you_ are ravishingly beautiful, my lady," he replied.

"You like this robe?" she asked.

"I--like you; what you may wear is incidental. It merely increases the
effect of your wonderful personality."

"My good Marston!" she smiled. "What a faithful friend you are; always
seeing my few good points and being blind to my many bad."

"And being always," he added, bowing low, "your most humble and loving
servant."

"I know it--and I am very, very grateful." She put aside the tray and
languidly stretched her lithe length under the sheet. "What have you to
report, Marston?" she asked.

"I have to report, madame," said Marston, with strict formality of a
subordinate to his chief, "that I have procured the French code-book."

"Good work!" she exclaimed, sitting up sharply. "However did you manage
it?"

"By the assistance of one Jimmy-the-Snake. He visited the French Embassy
last night, and persuaded the safe to yield up the code. It would have
been better, I admit, to copy the code and then replace it, but it
wasn't possible. He had just sufficient time to grab the book and make a
get-away. Someone was coming."

"You've accomplished enough even though we don't obtain the letter" she
approved. "I shall recommend you for promotion, Marston."

She took the thin book and glanced through it until she came to the
key-words of the Blocked-Out Square--the last key-word was the one the
Count de M---- had given her. After all, the Count was not so bad; and
he was handsome; thus far dependable; and he was, seemingly at least, in
love with her. She might do worse.... Yet he was not Harleston; there
never was but one equal to Harleston, and that one was lost to her. She
shut her lips tightly and a far-away look came into her eyes. And now
Harleston, too, was lost to her; and--she lifted her hands resignedly,
and laughed a mirthless laugh. As she came back to reality, she met
Marston's curiously courteous glance with a bit of a shrug.

"Pardon my momentary abstraction," she said softly; "I was pursuing a
train of thought--"

"And you didn't overtake it," he remarked.

"I can never overtake it. I haven't the requisite speed. Did you ever
miss your two greatest opportunities, Marston?"

"I've missed my greatest," Marston replied instantly. "Oh--it was out of
my class, so I never started."

"It may have been a mistake, my friend," she observed; "one never can
tell until he's tried it--and failed. I mightn't have missed had I gone
on another schedule. However, the past is to profit by, and to forget
if we can't remember it pleasantly. So let us return to the business in
hand, Marston; it's a rattling business and a fascinating, and at it you
and I are not to be altogether despised," throwing him a bewitching
smile.

"Don't!" he exclaimed. "I'm not stone."

"Forgive me, my friend!" putting out her hand to him.

Marston simply bowed, "I think it wiser to refrain," he said gently, and
bowed again. "By all means let us to the business in hand."

He understood her nature better than she thought. The sympathy in her
was, for the moment, real enough, but it was only for the moment; the
love of admiration was the controlling note--what she sought and what
she played for. She felt the sympathy while it lasted, but it was the
effect as to herself, the selfish effect, that inspired the sensation.
When a beautiful woman stoops to sympathy, it is rare indeed that she
does not thereby arouse admiration for herself. Madeline Spencer may
have been cold and shrewd and selfish and calculating, yet with it all
she was warm-hearted; but the warm heart never got away with the cool
head--unless it was with that head's permission and for its benefit. She
played men--and men played her--but the man that had won was not yet to
be found. Two only of those whom she tried had failed to succumb to her
fascinating alluringness--and these two she had loved, and still did
both love and hate.

"Returning then to the code-book and the letter," said she. "How about
the latter; have you found Carpenter susceptible to persuasion?"

"To persuasion, no; to exchange, yes. Our agreement is that if I provide
the key-word, he will provide the letter in question. At ten o'clock
this morning the trick is to be turned."

"And if the translation concerns the United States, he simply would turn
the key upon you and hold you prisoner until the matter is cleared up."

"One must take some risks," Marston observed.

She nodded slightly.

"Which of these do you fancy is the key-word?" she asked.

"We shall try them in turn, beginning with the last: _a l'aube du jour_.
I've a hunch that we'll end there."

"And that you'll go into temporary confinement?" she smiled.

"My hunch stops with the key-word!" he smiled back.

"Your hunch as to the key-word is partially correct," she replied
slowly, "but it does not, however, reach quite to the last conclusion. I
may not explain now, Marston. Do you go to the meeting, with the
code-book as your only exhibit. It should be indisputable proof of your
good faith, and our honest belief that the letter does not concern the
United States. Moreover, you run no danger of imprisonment, for you'll
not effect a translation. But you must obtain a copy of the letter; it's
but a fair exchange for the French code, you know; and you're
permitted--nay you're authorized, in the interest of the service--to
allow Carpenter to copy the book if he will give you the letter to copy.
Furthermore, you may proceed leisurely in the process; there is no
particular haste; while they are occupied with the letter matter, there
is apt to be less activity along other lines. Only get a _copy of the
letter_; I have the key-word."

"You have the key-word!" Marston exclaimed.

She nodded. "I'm quite sure of it; and the code-book confirms me. It is
up to you to procure the letter; I'll do the rest, if any rest is
necessary. We may be headed for Europe by evening, Marston; in which
event, the cipher letter is of no consequence to us."

"You'll be glad to get back to Paris?" he asked.

"I shall, indeed--won't you?"

"I'm quite content anywhere, so long as I am working with you," he
answered. It was much as a faithful dog would wag his tail and snuggle
up for a pat of the hand.

She smiled straight into his eyes--a frank, appreciative smile, as
though an intimate camaraderie existed between them, and would never be
violated by either. She would have been in danger had she smiled that
way at some men; they would not have remained quiescent. And a little
more aggression by Marston might have been more conducive for
success--less of the faithful dog and more of the independent
subordinate and the equal human. As it was, he was only a plaything.

"Now, my friend, if you're done you may go," she said briskly. "I must
dress, and you're rather _de trop_ at such a time, however much you may
be welcome at another. And, Marston, don't miss the copy of the letter;
I'll expect you with it at seven; we'll make the translation together,
either here or on the train to New York. You're to accompany me, you
know. I've an appointment at one, and another at four, but I'll be here
at seven. If I'm detained, wait."

When Marston had gone she turned over and composed herself for sleep--it
was two hours until she had need to array herself for luncheon and
Snodgrass.... Yes, Snodgrass was a very good-looking chap; her drive
with him last night had been very satisfactory; he had the requisite
wealth, so it might be just as well to let him become fascinated. It
would be at least a momentary diversion; something to occupy her for the
loss of Harleston. She closed her eyes--and shivered ever so little.
Damn Mrs. Clephane! But for her she would not have lost him.

She flung off the cover and sprang up. There was a chance left and she
would try it. If it failed, she would not lose more than she had already
lost. If it won, she won Harleston!




XX

PLAYING THE GAME


She threw a kimono around her and hastened to the telephone.

"Get me," she said to the hotel central, "Mr. Harleston at the
Collingwood, the Cosmopolitan Club, or the State Department."

"I'll call you," said the operator--and Madeline Spencer leaned back in
her chair and waited.

Presently the call came.

"I have Mr. Harleston for you," said the operator and switched on the
trunk.

"Where are you, Guy?--this is Madeline Spencer," said she.

"I'm at the Collingwood, Madeline. Anything I can do for you?" was the
answer.

"Yes. Be here in an hour; I must see you."

"Important?"

"Yes."

"Then I'll be there at ten-thirty."

"You're always good!" said she softly.

"Not always," he laughed, "but I will be this time."

She dressed in feverish haste, yet with great care and attention to
effects. Her gown was a lustreless black silk, trimmed with gold and
made as plain as her modiste would--and the styles permitted. Her hair
was piled high, with an elongated twist; her dead-white complexion was
unmarred by powder or rouge, and beneath the transparent skin the blood
pulsed softly pink.

Her toilet finished, and passed upon in the mirror, she sent her maid on
a shopping expedition which would occupy her until noon, and even
hurried her off. She wanted no one about, not even Elise, when she made
her last play at Harleston.

Elise gone five minutes before the hour, she compelled herself to
outward tranquillity--while she strove for inward calm. And succeeding
wonderfully well--so well, indeed, that none would ever have suspected
the agitation seething under the cold placidity. Its only evidence was
in the gentle swing of her narrow foot, and the nervous play of her
slender fingers. And even these indications disappeared at the knock on
the corridor door; and she went almost blithely and flung it back--to
Harleston bowing on the threshold.

"Punctual as usual!" she greeted.

"Because I came to one who is always punctual," he replied, taking her
hand, nor dropping it until they were well inside the reception room.

"Sit down, old enemy," said she, sinking into a chair and pointing to
another--which she had been careful to place just within reach. "You've
nothing much to do for a short while, have you?"

"I've nothing much to do any time except to keep an eye on you!" he
laughed.

"Am I so difficult?" she asked.

"You keep me fairly occupied at all times--and sometimes rather more."

"At least I endeavour not to offend your eye!" she smiled, her head on
her hand, her eyes on him.

"The only difficulty is that you are too alluring," he returned. "One is
prone to forget that his business is not to admire but to observe
dispassionately and to block your plans. You're much too beautiful,
Madeline; you usually make monkeys of all of us, and while we're held
fascinated by your loveliness you scoop the prize. It's not fair, my
lady; you play with--loaded dice."

"Flatterer!" she said, melting into another pose.

"Flatterer!" he exclaimed. "If you could but see yourself now, you would
confess the truth of the indictment. You're the loveliest thing, and you
grow lovelier every day and younger. Positively, Madeline, you're a--"
he paused for words and raised his hands helplessly.

"I'm a what?" she murmured, leaning a bit toward him.

"I haven't the word; there isn't one adequate to the--subject."

"You actually mean that?" she asked, gliding into another posture, even
more alluring.

"You know I mean it," he declared. "Haven't we agreed to be honest with
each other?"

"I've been honest!" she answered.

"Meaning that I've not been?"

"Have you?" she inflected, "I wonder, Guy."

She might just as well have asked direct his feeling for Mrs.
Clephane--and he understood perfectly the question.

He nodded, slowly but none-the-less definitely.

She took a cigarette and lighted it with careful attention, then blew
the smoke sharply against the incandescent coal.

"Guy," said she, "I'm about to speak plainly; please don't
misunderstand; I'm simply a woman, now--a weak woman, perhaps; it will
be for you to judge me at the end." She smiled faintly.

"Not a weak woman, Madeline," he replied. "Your worst enemy would not
venture to call you that."

He wondered what more was coming, and at what directed. Her tone and
attitude and deprecation of self were new to him. He had never seen her
so; always she was the embodification of calm, self-reliance, poise,
never flustered, never disturbed. A weak woman! It was so absurd as to
be ridiculous, and she was aware of it. So what was the play with so
bald a notice to beware?

"No, no, Guy," said she. "You think it's a play, but it isn't. It's the
simple truth I'm about to tell you, and as truth I pray you take it."

"I'll take it as you wish it taken," he responded, more than ever
mystified.

She carefully laid her cigarette on the receiver, then arose and leaned
against the table, her hands behind her. He arose also, but she
declined the courtesy.

"Keep your seat," she said, "and don't be alarmed, I'm not preparing to
have you daggered or garroted. Entirely the reverse, Guy. I've decided
to offer terms: to capitulate; to throw the whole thing over; to betray
my mission and get out of the service forever. No, don't smile
incredulously, I mean it."

"Good Lord!" thought Harleston. "What is coming and where do we go?"
What he said, however, was:

"Wouldn't you be incredulous if our positions were reversed? Madeline
Spencer, the very Queen of the Service, betray her trust? Impossible!"

"Thank you, Guy," said she. "I've never yet been false to the hand that
paid me--and sometimes _I've_ paid dearly for keeping faith. Now for the
first time,--and the last time, too, for if successful the service will
know me no longer--I am ready and willing deliberately to make a failure
of my mission, if you will take that failure as conclusive evidence of
my good faith." She bent a bit forward and threw into her words and
tones and attitude every grace that she possessed. "Will you do it,
Guy?"

"When you ask that way," said Harleston, "who of mankind would refuse
you anything on earth."

She was alluring, wonderfully alluring. Time was, and that lately, when
he would have succumbed. But that time was no longer; beside the
raven-hair and dead-white cheek was now another face, with peach-blow
cheek and the ruddy tresses--and the peach-blow cheek and ruddy tresses
prevailed. And so he had responded, sincere enough, in tribute to her
loveliness and in memory of what had been.

And Madeline Spencer detected the absent note; but she ignored it. She
would go through with it--make her bid:

"Almost you say that as though you meant it!" she smiled, and forced his
hand. Now he must either deny or affirm.

"I do mean it," he replied. It was all in the game, and he was obligated
to be truthful only to Mrs. Clephane.

She looked at him contemplatively, trying to read behind his words.

"What is it, Madeline?" he asked.

"I wonder!" she said speculatively.

"Can't I answer?"

"Yes, you can answer--"

"Then ask me," he invited, seeking to get something that would afford
him an inkling of her aim. Assuredly she had him guessing.

For a moment she looked him straight in the eyes; then suddenly her
glance wavered, a faint flush crept from neck to cheek, and she smiled
almost bashfully.

"Guy," said she, "I ask you to forget our profession if you can, and
take what I am about to say as free from guile or expediency--and of
supreme importance to me. I'm just a simple woman now, with a woman's
desires and affection and hopes. I've come to the parting of the ways:
on one side lie power, excitement, loneliness; on the other,
contentment, peace, companionship. I'll choose the latter, if you're
willing. You have but to say the word and I'll give up everything,
confess what I'm here for, what I've done, and what is arranged for in
the future."

"Upon what condition, Madeline?" he smiled, more puzzled than ever. He
was almost ready to believe she meant it.

She caught her breath, hesitated, blushed furiously--and answered
softly:

"Upon the condition that you marry me."

For the instant Harleston was too amazed for words; and, despite all his
training in dissimulation, his surprise was evidenced in his face. Small
wonder he had been unable to make out the play--it was not a play; she
meant it. She was ready to throw her mission overboard to attain her
personal end.

"Will you marry me, old enemy?" she whispered, putting out her hand to
him and smiting him with a ravishing smile--a smile such as she had had
for but one other man. It had been utterly lost on that other, but it
had almost won with Harleston; and it might have won now with him but
for another's smile, she of the ruddy tresses and peach-blow cheek.

"My dear Madeline," said he slowly, holding her hand with intimate
pressure, "I cannot permit you to betray yourself for me. You are--"

"Quite old enough in the ways of the world," she interjected, "to know
my own mind. I love you, Guy, and unless I've mistaken your attitude,
you love me. When our minds meet in such a matter, why should anything
be permitted to intervene?" Her hand still lay in his; her eyes held
his; her personality fairly enveloped them. With lips a little parted,
she bent toward him. "It's a bit unusual, dear, for the woman to
propose, to the man, but we are an unusual two, and the business of life
has shaken us free from the conventions of the drawing-room and frothy
society. With us there need be no cant nor pretence nor false modesty,
because there is not the slightest possibility of misunderstanding."

"And yet, Madeline, we may not defy the right and permit you to
sacrifice yourself," he opposed. "There is a standard which neither cant
nor pretence nor false modesty can affect--the standard of honour."

"Honour!" she inflected. "What is honour, such honour, when a woman
loves."

"Nothing--and therefore must the love abide; honour can't abide once it
is lost."

She shook her head sadly. "I'm afraid it's not so much my honour as your
love," she said. "A week ago, and I would have had a different
answer--in fact, I would have been the one to answer and _you_ the one
to ask. You know it quite as well as I; for when you left me that
afternoon in Paris, expecting to return in the evening, you were ready
to speak and I was ready with the answer. Then fate, in the person of an
unsympathetic Foreign Office intervened, and sent you on the instant to
St. Petersburg. We never met again until in this hotel. I have not
changed, but you have. I fear your answer does not ring quite true; it
isn't like you. Why is it, Guy?"

Never a reference to Mrs. Clephane; never an intimation--and yet Mrs.
Clephane might as well have been in the room, so living was her
presence.

"Madeline," said he, lingeringly freeing her hand, "I hardly know what
to say nor how to say it. I'm embarrassed, frightfully embarrassed; yet
you have been frank with me so I must be frank with you--even though it
hurts. I'm distressed to have been such a bungler, such a miserable
bungler, such a blind fool, indeed. The false impression must be due to
me; assuredly, without the most justifiable cause you would not have
drawn the erroneous inference. And a man who is responsible for that
inference with a woman of your experience and ability, Madeline, must
be more or less a fool, even though his intentions have been absolutely
correct."

"Which leads where, Guy?" she mocked.

"Nowhere," he replied, "I'm trying to say something, and can't say it.
But you know what it is, Madeline. I'm sorry, supremely sorry. Let us
forget this little talk, and go on as though it hadn't occurred--playing
our parts in the present game and besting the other by every means in
our power. I can't accept your offer, because I cannot pay the
consideration. It still must be _a outrance_ with us, Madeline; no
quarter given and no quarter asked."

For a space she looked at him with cold repellence, eyes black as night.
Then her eyes narrowed and she laughed, a mirthlessly sarcastic laugh,
so low that Harleston barely heard it.

"Is red hair then prettier than black, Mr. Harleston?" she asked
mockingly; "or is Mrs. Clephane's character whiter than mine?"

"That is not worthy of you, Madeline," Harleston reproved. "You're a
good sport; hitherto you've taken the count, as well as given it,
without the flutter of an eyelash--and over far more serious matters
than your humble servant, who hasn't anything to give him value."

Again the sarcastic laugh. She knew he was playing the game, two games
indeed, the diplomatic and his own. He had never forgot himself nor
regarded her for one little instant.

"As a lecturer on morals, Mr. Harleston, you are a wonder," she mocked;
"you have almost succeeded--nay quite, shall I say--in convincing
yourself. And when you--a man--do that, what is to be expected of a
woman--who is alone in the world? So I must accept your argument, and
your conclusions, and be content with my duty--and"--with a sudden
ravishing smile--"if I best you, Guy, you will have only yourself to
blame. I won't send Mrs. Clephane a present, nor will I wish you joy of
her, nor her of you; but _you_ won't look for it, and _she_ would think
it somewhat presumptuous in me to assume to know you. These red-headed
women are the very devil, Guy, after they've got you landed--also
before, but in a different way."

"What's your game, Madeline?" he smiled. It had pleased her suddenly to
veer around and resume the play; and far be it from him to balk her.
"I'll admit you have me guessing."

"I thought you believed me, Guy. My game was you--and I've lost."

"Nonsense!" he replied. "I was inclined to think so at first; your fine
acting and man's conceit, I reckon. But my conceit has been punctured,
and you've slipped a bit in your acting; therefore, to descend to the
extremely common-place, the jig is up."

"And the next lead is yours!" she laughed back.

"That is precisely why I asked you the game--so I could make an
intelligible lead."

"Ask Mrs. Clephane!" she suggested.

"I'll do it," said he--and bowed himself out.

"Do it? Of course, you'll do it," Madeline Spencer gritted, as the door
closed behind him. "I've no chance, it seems, against a red-haired
woman. The other one also had red hair." She seized a vase from the
table at her hand, and hurled it across the room. It crushed in
fragments against the wall. "Damn Mrs. Clephane!" she said softly.




XXI

THE KEY-WORD


Promptly at ten o'clock Marston walked into Carpenter's office and sent
in his card.

It found Carpenter pacing up and down, and frowning at a paper spread
open on his desk. At the messenger's apologetically discreet cough, he
glanced around and took the extended card.

"Show him in!" he snapped, and swept the paper from the desk and into a
drawer.... "Good-morning, sir!" as Marston bowed on the threshold; then,
without any preliminaries: "What success?"

"I have the French code-book," Marston replied.

"With you?"

Marston drew out the slender book. "It embraces all their codes, I
believe," he remarked.

"H-u-m!" said Carpenter thoughtfully, retrieving the paper he had just
swept into the drawer. "How are we to work it, Mr. Marston?"

"As allies," Marston replied. "I'm perfectly willing to let you have the
book and everything in it, if you will let me have a copy of the letter.
I'm confident that the key-word is here; I'm equally confident that the
letter does not involve, either directly or indirectly, the United
States. I understand that the letter is in the cipher of the Blocked-Out
Square; in this book there are two pages and more of key-words to this
Square, the last dozen or so of which are added in writing. If the
letter is in that cipher, we should have no particular difficulty in
finding the key-word. I would suggest, however, that we first try the
last word on the list--maybe we won't have to go any farther."

"Very well," said Carpenter, briskly.

The advantage was all with him. If Marston thought the letter was only a
line and that he could remember the letters used, he was in for a shock.
No man living could remember twenty spilled alphabets; and if he
attempted to make a copy it could easily be prevented. The Fifth
Secretary spread the paper on the table.

"Here is a copy of the cipher letter in question--we had it made large
for convenience," he explained. "The original is in the safe; you'll wish
to compare it with the copy, so we'll have it here."

He gave the necessary order; when the letter was brought he passed it to
Marston.

"I'll read the copy, if you'll hold the original," he said; and
proceeded to call off the letters with amazing rapidity. "Correct, isn't
it?" as he ended.

"Yes!" said Marston returning the original to Carpenter. He wanted in
every way to disarm suspicion; moreover, a copy could be made more
readily from a large typewritten edition than from the small, written
original. "Now for the code-book and the last key-word--_a l'aube du
jour_, I think it is ... yes, _a l'aube du jour_, it is," and he handed
the book across. "Shall we try it first, Mr. Carpenter?"

"By all means," said Carpenter. "Shall I set it down, or will you?"

One would never have imagined from his expression or his intonation that
he had already tried _a l'aube du jour_ for the key-word and failed;
nor that why he had failed he now knew. The book was right as to the
word, and the slip that Harleston had taken from Crenshaw's pocket-book
confirmed it. _A l'aube du jour_ was not the key-word but the key-word
was constructed from it by some arbitrary rule; and that rule was
susceptible of solution. After he was free of this fellow Marston, he
would solve the problem quickly enough. It was as sure as tomorrow. The
prescience was come.

"About twenty letters should be enough for experiment?" he suggested,
taking up a test card.

When he had written the key-word and the letters under it, he, scarcely
without reference to the Blocked-Out Square, wrote the translation.
Marston did the same, very much slower.

"It doesn't fit!" Marston announced. "You can't make anything out of
AGELUMTONZN, and so forth."

"I can't!" Carpenter smiled--and waited. Would Marston suggest the
transposed or elided word?

"I'm disappointed," Marston confessed, "I thought sure we had it. Let's
try the next key-word in the book."

They tried it, and the next, and all the rest. None of them translated
the letter.

It took more than an hour; at the end, as a full measure of good faith
and because it was of no further use to him--he having preserved a
copy--Marston insisted that Carpenter retain the original of the French
code-book and have a copy made, after which the book could be returned
to him at the Chateau. During this hour and more his hand was in and out
in his side coat-pocket. When he left the room there went with him, in
that pocket, a copy of the original letter--roughly made by the sense of
touch alone, yet none the less a copy and sufficiently distinct to be
decipherable. For years Marston had practised writing in the dark and
under all sorts of handicaps. In his pocket, a number of small slips of
paper and a pencil were concealed. He would write a line, then take his
hand from his pocket; after a time he would shift the page of paper,
write another line, and then another, and so on until the copy was made.
And all the while he was so frankly communicative, with apparently not
the slightest intent to obtaining a copy--even tearing up the paper on
which were the various trial translations--that he completely deceived
Carpenter. When he left, the latter went with him to the elevator and
bowed him down.

"I don't quite understand their game," Carpenter chuckled, as he turned
away, "but it's no matter. I took all the tricks this morning and still
have a few trumps left. I thought he certainly would try for a copy of
the letter, but he didn't even attempt it. He may have committed it to
memory, but I'll chance it."

Returning to his office he gave the code-book another careful inspection
and confirmed his impression as to its being authentic. Then he laid it
aside, and took up the letter and _a l'aube du jour_!

First he tried it in reverse position: _ruoj ud ebua'l a_. The
translation was gibberish. Then he wrote the first and last letters, the
second and next to last, the third and the third from last, and so on.
The result, too, was gibberish. Next he dropped the first word, 'a' and
tried the rest--still gibberish. He dropped also the 'l'--still
gibberish. Then, in turn, the 'a' of the third word the 'd' of the
fourth, the 'j' of the last word--all gibberish. Next he wrote the
key-word entire but transposed the 'a' from the first letter to the
last--still gibberish. He began with the _aube_--still gibberish.

"Damn!" said he.

He was persuaded that the key-word was in the sentence before him; the
code-book, Crenshaw's slip of paper, and his own hunch were convincing,
yet the combination was slow in coming.

_Du jour a l'aube_ was the next arrangement. He wrote it under the
printed words and began to apply the Square.

The D and the A yielded A; the U and the B yielded V; the J and the C
yielded E; the O and the D yielded R; the U and the E yielded T; the R
and the F yielded I.

"_Averti!_"

Carpenter gave a soft whistle of satisfaction. French, it was--his hunch
had not deceived him. The key-word was found!

Swiftly he worked out the rest of the cipher, setting down the letters
of the translation without regard to words. "_Averti_" was evident
because it was the first word. At the end, he had this result:

  AVERTIQUELALLEMAGNEAENGAG
  EUNOFFICIERADECELERLAFORM
  ULESECRETEDESETATSUNISEMP
  LOYEEACOLLODONNIERLAFULMI
  COTONPOURLAPOUDRESANSFUME
  EALARTILLERIEDEGROSCALIBR
  EETQUEMADELINESPENCEREMIS
  SAIREDELALLEMAGNEAPARISPH
  OTOGRAPHIECIINCLUSEAETECH
  ARGEEDELARECEVOIRNESEPEUT
  DECOUVRIRLENOMDUTRAITRESP
  ENCERESTPARTIEPOURNEWYORK
  SURLALUSITANIAQUIDOITARRI
  VERLEQUATORZEATOUTEFORCEI
  NTERCEPTEZLAFORMULEOUEMPE
  CHEZAMOINSQUELALLEMAGNENE
  LOBTIENNESPENCERSIMPORTAN
  TEALAFRANCE

There was not the least doubt as to it being in French--the last three
words, as well as the first, proved it; also that he had the correct
key-word. It only remained now to separate the result into words. And
this puzzle presented no difficulties to Carpenter; he quickly
marshalled it into form:

"_Averti que l'Allemagne a engage un officier a deceler la formule
secrete des Etats-Unis employee a collodonnier la fulmi-coton pour la
poudre sans fumeee a l'artillerie de gros calibre; et que Madeline
Spencer, emissaire de l'Allemagne a Paris,--photographie ci, incluse--a
ete de chargee la recevoir. Ne se peut decouvrir le nom du traitre.
Spencer est partie pour New York sur la Lusitania qui doit arriver le
quatorze. A toute force interceptez la formule; ou empechez a moins que
l'Allemagne ne l'obtienne. Spencer pas importante a la France._"

And under it he wrote the English translation: "Informed Germany has
induced an officer to betray United States secret formula for colloding
process of treating gun-cotton for smokeless powder for high power guns,
and that Madeline Spencer, a German Secret agent in Paris, photograph
enclosed herein, is delegated to receive same. Cannot ascertain name of
traitor. Spencer sailed Lusitania, due New York, fourteenth. Take any
means to intercept formula; or at least to prevent Germany obtaining it.
Spencer not essential to France."

_Spencer not essential to France!_ Surely this woman had great power,
either of knowledge or of friends; she resided in Paris, yet France was
reluctant to lift hand against her so long as she was on French soil.
Well, he would turn the matter over to Harleston; let him decide whether
it was to be thumbs up or thumbs down for her Alluringness. Furthermore,
the meeting with Snodgrass now assumed much significance. Snodgrass was
an ex-army officer. Harleston must be warned at once.

He tried for him at the Collingwood, the Cosmopolitan, the Rataplan, and
finally at the Chateau. He got him there.

"Can you come here at once?" he asked.

"Not well," said Harleston, "I've an appointment."

"Forget it!" Carpenter exclaimed. "I've found the key-word and made the
translation. It's serious--Very well, come right in; I'll be waiting."

Harleston scribbled a note to Mrs. Clephane and sent it up by a page; he
would be back in half an hour; would she meet him in the Alley.




XXII

THE RATAPLAN


A moment before Harleston's return, Madeline Spencer, stepping out of
the F Street elevator, was met by Snodgrass who had been walking up and
down the lobby. They took a taxi and sped away; followed closely by
another taxi, which their driver was most careful not to distance. A
second later Harleston entered the corridor. As he was about to greet
Mrs. Clephane, a man approached him and said:

"They have started, sir; Burke's just behind in a taxi--and both drivers
are wise. They're bound for the Rataplan."

"Follow them and wait just outside," Harleston ordered--and turned to
Mrs. Clephane. "I must go to the Rataplan at once," said he. "Let us
lunch there. The end of the affair of the cab of the sleeping horse is
in sight; I thought you might like to see it."

"I want to see it!" Mrs. Clephane exclaimed. "Have you found the
key-word?"

"Carpenter found it--I'll tell you about it on the way out. Come along,
little lady."

       *       *       *       *       *

"But why do you suspect Captain Snodgrass?" she inquired, when Harleston
had finished his account. "He would not have access to the formula,
would he?"

"The man that has access to such secrets never is the man who actually
delivers," he explained; "he has a confederate. Snodgrass is the
confederate, we think."

"Is this secret colloding process of gun-cotton so tremendously
valuable?" she asked.

"It's a secret for which any nation would give millions of dollars. It's
admittedly the most powerful explosive ever discovered, as well as the
easiest handled. Temperature, weather, ordinary shock have absolutely no
effect on it; in fire it simply chars and doesn't explode. Yet when it
is exploded by the proper method, lyddite, dynamite, and all the other
ites, are as a gentle zephyr in comparison. Now tell me about last
night; where were you?"

"After you left," she explained, "I wrote some letters, and then went
into the corridor to drop them in the chute beside the elevator shaft;
as I approached, the car came down with Mrs. Spencer in it. Something
impelled me to follow her; and running back I grabbed a cloak, and
dashed for the elevator, catching it on the fly. She wasn't in the main
corridor; on a chance, I hurried to the F Street entrance; I got there
just as she stepped into a taxi and shot away. Instantly I called
another taxi and told the driver to follow the car that had just
departed. He did for a little way; but in a sudden halt of traffic at
Vermont Avenue and H Street, where, you may remember, the street is torn
up, we lost the other taxi; and though we drove around the north-west
section for more than an hour on the chance that we'd come up with
it--my driver knew the other driver--we never did come up with it. But
as we rolled up to the Chateau, Mrs. Spencer was alighting from a
limousine with a tall, fine-looking, fair-haired chap who had the walk
of a military man."

"Snodgrass," Harleston observed.

"She saw me; and, with a maliciously charming smile, nodded and went
on. In the corridor I came on some friends and we talked awhile. Then I
went up to my apartment, got your message, and telephoned to you."

"Don't do it again," he cautioned. "It was very dangerous."

They turned in at the Rataplan and drew up at the carriage entrance.
Harleston helped Mrs. Clephane from the taxi and they passed into the
Club-House.

He inquired of the doorman whether Mr. Carpenter was in, and another
servant, who overheard the question, added that Mr. Carpenter was in the
dining-room. Harleston and Mrs. Clephane went directly in and to a table
next to Carpenter's. Three tables away were Madeline Spencer and
Snodgrass.

Harleston nodded to Mrs. Spencer and to Snodgrass, then spoke to
Carpenter and invited him over.

"I don't know if you will remember me, Mrs. Clephane," said Carpenter,
coming across. "I met you several years ago in Paris."

"Yes, indeed, Mr. Carpenter, I remember you!" Mrs. Clephane replied.

"Anything?" Harleston asked, without moving his lips.

"Nothing. I was here when they arrived," Carpenter replied in the same
manner--and went back to his table.

"Who is the woman with Harleston?" Snodgrass asked Mrs. Spencer. "I've
never seen her."

"A Mrs. Clephane," Madeline Spencer replied. "She's very good-looking,
isn't she?"

"I'm perfectly satisfied with the lady immediately in my fore," he
smiled. "I don't run to blondes--"

"When you're with a brunette!" she smiled back.

"I don't run to anyone when I'm with you," he replied with quiet
earnestness, leaning toward her across the table.

She shot him a knowing glance. Last night she had held him to strict
propriety. Today in the taxi she had deliberately set herself to
fascinate him, and had succeeded well. She had been demurely
tantalizing--holding him at a distance, letting him come a little
nearer, bringing him up sharply; all the tricks of the trade executed
with a perfection of technic and a mastery of effect. Snodgrass, with
all his experience, was but a novice in her hands; she always struck
directly at the affections--got them: and then the rest was easy. She
never lost her head, nor allowed her own affections to become involved;
save only twice--and both those times she had failed. Snodgrass, she had
learned through inquiries, had quite sufficient money to make him worth
her while; moreover, he was such a big, good-natured, dependable
chap--and a gentleman. If he had not been a gentleman he would not have
attracted Madeline Spencer for an instant. She dealt only in gentlemen.

She had not told Snodgrass of the Clephane letter, nor anything as to
Harleston except to refer casually to him as the confidential emissary
in delicate matters of the State Department. She had found that
Snodgrass was not the actual man in the case; that he was simply a
friendly confederate, or rather, to use his own words, "a friend of
Davidson." She had expected that the package or letter would be
delivered to her in the taxi; but Snodgrass had told her as soon as they
were started that Davidson would forward it to him at the Rataplan by
mail, not later than the two o'clock delivery. He would get it as they
were leaving and transfer it to her, accepting the consideration as
specified by Davidson, and receipting for it. He said flatly that he did
not want to know the contents of the letter; he was doing this favour
for Davidson. He understood that it was to be entirely _sub rosa_ and
that nothing must ever transpire as to it. Therefore he was prepared to
forget the entire episode the moment it was over; the epochal meetings
with her he would not forget, nor would he permit her to forget him if
constant devotion and assiduous attention were of avail. To which she
had made a most demurely fitting answer, and the conversation thereafter
grew exceedingly confidential. Oh, they were getting on very well indeed
when the Rataplan was reached. And they were still progressing very
well--in a discreetly informal way.

The entrance of Mrs. Clephane and Harleston was unexpected to Mrs.
Spencer; Carpenter was a stranger to her and she had thought nothing of
him; but when he spoke to Harleston, and seemed to know Mrs. Clephane,
she put him on the list of the enemy. She kept him there when Snodgrass
told her his name and position in the Diplomatic Service and that it
was reputed there was no cipher too difficult for him to solve.

"We would better be very circumspect," she said low. "I think that these
two men are here to watch us; they know that I'm in the Secret Service,
of Germany, and they're naturally suspicious of me."

"Carpenter was here when we came in," Snodgrass remarked. "He was
sitting in the lobby. However, if you prefer, I'll let my mail go until
evening."

"We can decide when we're through luncheon," she replied. "Haste is of
vital importance, my instructions say. I had hoped to get away on the
midnight train for New York, and to sail tomorrow for England."

"I had hoped to do the same!" he whispered.

"Really?" she asked.

"More than really! May I?" leaning forward.

"If you care to, Captain Snodgrass. It will be very pleasant to have you
on board."

"And afterward?"

"You may not care for the afterward," she murmured.

"I'll risk it!" he exclaimed. "We'll sail tomorrow."

"And the letter?" she asked.

"I'll get it for you--or have it along!"

"What about the consideration?"

"Hang the consideration. I'll pay it myself, if need be."

"No, no, my friend!" she laughed. "I'm not worth so much, nor anything
near it. And even though I were, I'd not permit the wasteful
extravagance."

She might have added that she had no objection whatever to his wasteful
extravagance, in fact, she would rather encourage it, if she were its
object. Only that must come later--after the present business was
finished, and they had sailed from New York. How long the extravagance
would continue was dependent on the depth of his purse and his
disposition.

"Wasteful extravagance does not apply where you are concerned," he
replied. "However, we'll let Germany pay the consideration, and I'll
have that much more to spend on you."

She rewarded him with one of her alluringly ravishing smiles and a touch
of her slender foot. She had him--and she knew she had him. She would
be Madeline Spencer once again--always having a victim, and always ready
for a fresh one. Since she had failed with Harleston, what mattered it
how many the victims, or what the price they paid.




XXIII

CAUGHT


"Mrs. Spencer and her friend have reached some sort of an
understanding," Mrs. Clephane remarked. "She just smiled at him
significantly and pressed his foot."

"I noticed the smile but not the foot business," Harleston chuckled.
"It's something quite personal to them, I take it!"

"Exactly; but what's the effect on the matter in hand? Does not this
_personal_ understanding signify that the delivery of the formula has
been arranged, maybe even effected."

Harleston nodded. With Madeline Spencer it was, he knew, business first
and personal matters afterward.

"I think we shall see the end of the affair of your cipher letter and
its ramifications before the afternoon is over," he replied.

"What about the French Embassy?" she asked.

"The Marquis has been advised that we have the translation. He will keep
his hands off, you may believe."

"You think either that Captain Snodgrass has the document in his
possession, or that he has given it to Mrs. Spencer?"

"Or that it will come into his possession before they leave the
Rataplan, and be transferred to her here or in the taxi on their way
back to town," he added.

"What if he transferred it to her on their way here?"

"Then she still has it--once she gets it in her possession she won't
part with it, even in her sleep, until she places it in the hands of the
official who sent her to America."

"And Mr. Carpenter was here to watch until you came?"

"Yes--and afterward; you see one of us might be called away. From the
time she and Snodgrass met at the Chateau this morning, they have not
been out of espionage and close espionage. So long as they are in a
taxi, or at the Rataplan, there is no danger of the document getting
away if either of them has it; but until we are certain that they have
it, we won't detain them; we want the document to aid us in running down
the traitor. I'm not at all sure that Snodgrass is aware of the
character of the document. He probably stipulated not to know; he will
be content with a division of the money--and with a chance to spend some
of it on Spencer; which spending she is quite ready to facilitate, as
witness the pleasant understanding they seem to have arrived at during
luncheon."

"What are you going to do, Mr. Harleston?" Mrs. Clephane asked.

"I think you will enjoy it better if you're not wise, little lady!" he
smiled. "Moreover, it depends on circumstances just how it's to be gone
about--except that it ends in the office of the Secretary of
State.--Hush!"

"The Secretary of State!" she exclaimed low.

"I've an appointment to take Mrs. Spencer to meet his Excellency at four
o'clock."

"And what are you going to do with me, Mr. Harleston?" she smiled.

"You mean at four o'clock, or permanently?"

"At four o'clock, sir," with a charming lilt of the head.

"Take you along."

"With _that woman_? Thank you!"

"No, with me."

"Didn't you say you had an appointment to take Mrs. Spencer?"

"I did!"

"You intend to keep the appointment?"

"I do!"

"Surely, sir, you don't imagine for a moment that I would go anywhere
with Mrs. Spencer!"

"No more than you imagine that I would ask it of you!" he smiled.

"It seems to me your meaning is somewhat obscure," she retorted.
"However, whether you don't mean it, or do mean it, I'll trust myself to
you because it's you, Mr. Harleston."

"Permanently, my lady?"

"Certainly not, sir. I refer only to this afternoon; I want to be in at
the end of the game."

"For me," said Harleston slowly, "it's been a very fortunate game."

"Games are uncertain and sometimes costly," she shrugged.

"When played with Spencer, they are both and then some," he replied.

At that moment Carpenter pushed back his chair and arose, nodded
pleasantly to Mrs. Clephane and Harleston as he passed, and went out.

"Will Mr. Carpenter be at the finish?" Mrs. Clephane asked.

"Probably; but he'll be in the lobby when we go through."

"They are going!" she whispered. "And they're coming this way."

As Mrs. Spencer and Snodgrass went by, the former with an intimate
little look at Harleston, said confidentially:

"I'll be ready at half-past three, Guy."

"Very good!" Harleston answered promptly--when she was past, he looked
at Mrs. Clephane.

"The cat!" she muttered; then smiled quizzically. "Such a pleasant air
of proprietorship," she observed.

"Too pleasant," he returned. "I've something to tell you as to it and
her, when the present matter is ended."

"Will it keep?"

He nodded. "I can tell it better then--and have more time for the
telling."

The headwaiter approached casually, as though surveying the table.

"Well!" said Harleston.

"He went to the private mail boxes; she's waiting in the lobby," the man
replied. "He received a small letter, which he opened; it enclosed only
another envelope, which he put in his pocket without opening. He
returned to the lobby and they left the Club-House."

Harleston nodded. "It's time for us to be moving," said he to Mrs.
Clephane. "Will you trust me?" he asked as they passed into the lobby,
at the far end of which Carpenter was sitting absorbed in his cigar.

"Absolutely!" she replied.

"And will you go with Carpenter; he understands? I'll be with you
shortly. I must act quickly now."

Carpenter arose as they neared.

"Just started," said he, and bowed to Mrs. Clephane.

"Mrs. Clephane understands," Harleston explained "I confide her to your
care. _A bientot._"

He hurried out. A taxi, waiting with power on, sped up; he sprang
aboard and it raced away.

As it neared the Connecticut Avenue bridge, the taxi slowed down a
trifle and the driver half-faced around.

"The other car is just ahead, sir," he reported.

"Very good," said Harleston. "Does the driver know we're behind him?"

"I've signalled, sir, and he's answered."

"Maintain the distance," Harleston directed.

"Yes sir," said the man.

Keeping about a hundred yards apart--the two cars sped down the hill and
around Dupont Circle to Massachusetts Avenue, thence by it and Sixteenth
Street to H. The one in the lead continued on toward Fourteenth.
Harleston's shot down Fifteenth, flashed over the tracks at Pennsylvania
Avenue, swung into F Street, and drew in at the Chateau just as the
other came around the Fourteenth Street corner, and rolled slowly up to
the curb.

As Snodgrass was assisting Madeline Spencer to alight--and taking his
time about it--Harleston glanced at his watch, sprang from his car, and
hastened over.

"This is fortunate, Mrs. Spencer!" he exclaimed. "Just after you left
the Rataplan the Secretary of State telephoned that he was summoned to
the White House at four, and I should bring you an hour earlier. On the
chance of overtaking you, I beat it after you. Now if Captain Snodgrass
will permit you, we have just time to get over to the Department."

"Will you excuse me, Captain Snodgrass?" she asked, with her compelling
smile.

"A Secretary of State may not be denied," Snodgrass replied. "In this
instance in particular I would I were his Excellency."

"Come and dine with me at eight," giving him her hand.... "Now, Mr.
Harleston, I am ready."

"What did you do with Mrs. Clephane?" she asked, when they were started.

"I left her at the Rataplan," he replied.

"Alone?"

"Oh no--with Carpenter, who chanced to be handy."

"The bald-headed chap, who spoke to you in the dining-room?"

"Exactly!"

"Carpenter is the chief of the Cipher Division, I believe you said."

"I don't recall that I said it, Madeline, but your information is
correct."

"I think I'll ask the Secretary for the letter," she remarked.

"Ask him anything you've a mind to!" Harleston laughed. "You've a very
winning pair of black eyes et cetera, my lady."

"I've never seen the Secretary!" she smiled.

"Small matter. He'll see you, all right."

"I'll make an impression, you think?"

"If you don't, it will be the first failure of the sort you've ever
registered."

"Except with you," she murmured.

"Good Lord!" he exclaimed. "You've had me going many times."

"Yes, Guy--but not now," she whispered.

"Now, I'm strong!" he laughed, bluntly declining the overture.

"Hence you are willing that I try my smiles on the Secretary," she
retorted.

"We are fellow diplomats," he countered. "You did me a good turn in the
Du Plesis affair; I'm trying now to show my appreciation. Moreover, it
will give Snodgrass an opportunity to reflect on your beauty and
fascinating ways--and to look forward to eight o'clock."

"It is pleasant to have something agreeable to look forward to," she
replied, ironically suggestive.

"Isn't it?" he approved. "I don't know anything more pleasant--unless it
is the finishing stroke of an _affaire Diplomatique_."

"Do you anticipate the finishing stroke to the present affair?"

"In due time."

"Due time?" she inflected.

"Whatever is necessary in the premises," he explained.

"It hasn't then gotten beyond the premises?"

"No, it hasn't gotten beyond the premises," he replied--with an inward
chuckle.

There was no occasion to explain that, by the latter premises, he meant
herself. His whole scheme was dependent on her having the traitorous
letter in her possession. He was quite sure Snodgrass had received it by
mail at the Rataplan; and why had he put the unopened envelope in his
pocket unless to give it to her on their way to the Chateau. And as he
(Harleston) had caught her as she alighted from the taxi, and had
hurried her off to the State Department, she must still have it. Of
course, there was the possibility that Snodgrass had not yet delivered
it; so Snodgrass was being looked after by others.

"Won't you give me a line on his Excellency, Guy?" she asked. "Is he
easy, or difficult, or neither?"

"I may not betray the weak points of my chief!" Harleston smiled.
"Moreover, here we are," as the taxi came to a stop on the Seventeenth
Street side of an atrociously ugly, and miserably inadequate building
that partially houses three Departments of the great American
Government.

"Am I to be left alone with the great one?" she asked, as they went up
the steps from the sidewalk.

"What do you wish me to do?" he inquired.

"Wait until I signal!"

"And if his Excellency signals first?"

"It will be for me to influence that signal," she replied.

They took the private elevator to the next floor. The old negro
messenger was waiting at the door of the reception room and he bowed to
the floor--a portion of the bow was for Harleston, but by far the
larger portion was for Madeline Spencer.

"De Sec'eta'y, seh, am waiting for you all at onct, Mars Ha'lison," he
said; and ushering them across the big room to the Secretary's private
office he swung back the heavy door and bowed them into the Presence.

As she passed the threshold, Mrs. Spencer caught her breath sharply, and
straightened her shoulders just a trifle. She saw where she stood, and
what was coming. Very well--she would defeat them yet.




XXIV

THE CANDLE FLAME


The Secretary was standing by the window; with him were Mrs. Clephane
and Carpenter.

"How do you do, Mrs. Spencer!" he said, without waiting for the formal
presentation.

She dropped him--Continental fashion--a bit of curtsy and offered him
her slender fingers; which, as well as the rest of her hand, he took and
held. Its shapeliness together with her beauty of face and figure were
instantly swept up by his appraising glance.

"Your Excellency is very gracious!" she murmured bestowing on him a look
that fairly dizzied him.

Small wonder, he thought, that she was reputed the most fascinating and
loveliest secret agent in Europe--and the most dangerous to the other
party involved; it would be a rare man, indeed, who could withstand such
charms, to say nothing of the alluring and appealing ways that must go
with them. If he only might try them--just to test his own fine power
of resistance and adamantine will! He shot a quick glance of suppressed
irritation at Harleston--and Madeline Spencer saw it and smiled, turning
the smile toward Harleston.

"I know what you are about to do," the smile said. "Now do it if you
can. You were afraid to trust me alone with this man; you knew how easy
he would be for me. Proceed with your game, Mr. Harleston--and play it
out."

Meanwhile the Secretary, still holding her hand, was saying:

"Let me present the Fifth Assistant Secretary of State, Mr.
Carpenter;--" and Carpenter received a smile only a little less dazzling
than that bestowed on his chief--"I believe you have met Mrs. Clephane,"
he ended, and only then did he release her hand.

"Yes, I have met Mrs. Clephane," she replied indifferently, and without
so much as a glance her way.

It was to be a battle, so why delay it?

"Your Excellency," said she, "when this appointment was made, some days
ago, I thought that it was merely to enable an insignificant woman to
say that she had met a great dignitary and famous man. I think so no
longer. It has assumed an international significance. I am here not as
plain Madeline Spencer but as Madeline Spencer of the German Secret
Service. It seems that a certain letter intended for the French
Ambassador has gone astray, and has come into your possession; therefore
I am to be asked to explain the matter, though I've never seen the
letter nor know the cipher in which, I am told by Mr. Harleston, it is
written. So what is it you would of me, your Excellency?"

"My dear Madame Spencer," said the Secretary, "what you say as to the
original reason for this little meeting, arranged by our mutual friend,
Mr. Harleston, is absolutely correct--except that it was a mere man who
was desirous of being presented to a beautiful and a famous woman. It
seems, however, that certain circumstances have suddenly arisen that
made it imperative for the meeting to be advanced half an hour--"

"What are those circumstances, may I ask?" she cut in.

"I shall have to request Mr. Harleston to answer. To be quite candid,
Madame Spencer, I can only infer them; Mr. Harleston arranged them."

She turned to Harleston with a mocking smile.

"I am listening, monsieur," she inflected. "What is it you, or rather
America, would of me?"

"The letter you have in your possession," said Harleston.

"The letter!" she marvelled. "Why, Mr. Harleston, you know quite well
that I never had the Clephane letter."

"Very true; we have the Clephane letter, as you style it; and we have
also a _translation_. What we want from you is the letter that Captain
Snodgrass took from his mail box at the Rataplan this afternoon, and
gave to you in the taxi on the way to the Chateau."

She smiled incredulously.

"Absurd, sir!" she replied. "Surely you are not serious!"

"Let me be entirely specific," he returned "I'll put all my cards on the
table and play them open."

"Double dummy, by all means!" she laughed, perching her lithe length on
the arm of a chair, one slender foot swinging slowly back and forth.
"Your play, monsieur."

"There is no need to go back farther than this morning," he observed.
"We knew that you were to meet Captain Snodgrass and lunch with him at
one o'clock at the Rataplan. Your man Marston, when he visited Mr.
Carpenter this morning, managed inadvertently to furnish the key-word of
the Clephane letter. Do you see whither your meeting with Snodgrass, an
ex-officer of the Army, in view of the translation of the letter leads,
Madeline? Marston, I might remark, was quickly apprehended; if he made a
copy of the letter, he had no opportunity to use it. Well, you went to
the Rataplan with Snodgrass--every movement you two made, from the time
you joined Snodgrass at the Chateau until I myself put you in my cab
when you returned to the hotel, was observed by numerous and competent
shadows. We were convinced that you were to receive the formula--"

"What formula, Guy?"

"The formula mentioned in the Clephane letter," he explained; "which
formula you received from Snodgrass during the ride back from the
Rataplan to the Chateau. He received it there by post, and got it from
his box as you were leaving. He even was foolish enough to open the
original envelope, and to put the one enclosed, unopened in his pocket.
You immediately took a taxi for the Chateau. My taxi was close behind
yours; and I caught you as you were alighting and hurried you off to--"

"This pleasant appointment!" she laughed. "I suppose, Guy, you want the
envelope and contents--which you assume Captain Snodgrass transferred to
me in the taxi; _n'est-ce pas?_"

"Exactly, Madeline."

"And it's three strong men and one woman against poor me," she
shrugged--"unless Mrs. Clephane is merely a disinterested spectator."

"I am always interested in what Mr. Harleston does," Edith replied
sweetly.

"Particularly when he is doing another woman," was the retort.

"It depends somewhat on the woman done," said Edith.

"Why are you here?" Mrs. Spencer laughed.

"To see the end of the affair of the cab-of-the-sleeping-horse."

Mrs. Spencer shrugged and turned to Harleston.

"Do you expect to end it, Guy?" she asked. "Because if you do, and this
formulaic letter, that you think I have, will end it, I am sorry indeed
to disappoint you. I haven't that letter, nor do I know anything as to
it."

"In that event you have the consideration which you were to pay for the
letter," Harleston returned.

"My dear Guy, where would I carry this consideration?" she laughed, with
a sweeping motion to her narrow lingerie gown that could not so much as
conceal a pocket.

"I don't imagine that you are carrying gold or even Bank of England
notes. You're not so crude. The consideration is, most likely, a note to
the German Ambassador, on the presentation of which the money will be
paid in good American gold. And I'm so sure of the facts that it is
either the formula or the consideration. The latter we shall not
appropriate; the former we shall keep."

"And if I have neither?" she asked.

"Then we get neither--though that is a consummation most unlikely."

"And how are you to determine?"

"By your gracious surrender of it!"

She laughed softly. "But if I am not able to be gracious?"

"I trust that we shall not be obliged to go so far." And when she would
have answered he cut her short, courteously but with finality. "You've
lost, Madeline; now be a good loser. You've won from me, and made me pay
stakes and then some--and I've paid and smiled."

"Exactly! You've paid; I can't pay, because one loses before one pays,
and I haven't anything to lose."

"You will prove it?" he asked.

"Certainly," said she. "Do you wish me to submit to a search?"

"I don't wish it, but you have left no alternative."

"Burr!" went the telephone.

The Secretary answered. "Here is Mr. Harleston," he said and pushed the
instrument over.

"This is Ranleigh," came the voice. "We've searched the man, also the
cab, and found nothing beyond some innocent personal correspondence.
We've retained the correspondence and let the man go."

"That, I suppose," Mrs. Spencer remarked as Harleston hung up the
receiver, "was to say that Mr. Snodgrass and the cab have been
thoroughly searched and nothing suspicious found."

"Your intuition is marvellous," Harleston answered. "Major Ranleigh's
report was that exactly. Consequently, Madeline, the letter must be with
you."

"How about the consideration that Captain Snodgrass received from me in
return for the formulaic letter?" she asked. "He doesn't seem to have
had it."

"Maybe you managed both to get the letter from him and to keep the
consideration. It would not be the first time I have known you to
accomplish it."

"Only once--against you, Guy!" she laughed.

Which was a lie; but scored for her--and, for the moment, silenced him.

She shot a glance at the Secretary. He was beating a tattoo on the pad
before him and looking calmly at her--as impersonal as though she were a
door-jamb; and she understood; however much he might be inclined to aid
her, this was not the time for him even to appear interested. On another
occasion, _a deux_, he would display sufficient ardour and admiration.
At present it must be the impassive face and the judicial manner. The
business of the great Government he had the honour to represent was at
issue!

There being no help from that high and mighty quarter, she turned to
Harleston.

"Well," with a shrug of resignation, "I've lost and must pay. Here,"
opening the mesh-bag that she carried, "is the--"

She threw up her hand, and a nasty little automatic was covering the
Secretary's heart.

He gave a shout--and sat perfectly still. Mrs. Clephane, with an
exclamation of fear, laid her hand on Harleston's arm. Carpenter was
impassive. Harleston suppressed a smile.

"Tell them if I can shoot straight, Guy," Mrs. Spencer said pleasantly;
"and meanwhile do you all keep your exact distance and position. Speak
your piece, Mr. Harleston--tell his Excellency if I can shoot."

"I am quite ready to assume it without the testimony of Mr. Harleston,
or ocular demonstration in this immediate direction," the Secretary
remarked with a weak grin.

"Tell him, if I can shoot, Guy," she ordered.

"I've never seen her better," Harleston admitted "though I'm not at all
fearful for your Excellency. Mrs. Spencer won't shoot; she's only
bluffing. If you'll say the word, I'll engage to disarm her."

"Meanwhile what happens to his Excellency?" Madeline Spencer mocked.

"Nothing whatever--except a few nervous moments."

"Try it, Mr. Secretary, and find out!" she laughed across the levelled
revolver.

"Train your gun on Mr. Harleston and test him," the Secretary suggested,
attempting to be facetious and failing.

Mrs. Spencer might be, probably was, bluffing but he did not propose to
be the one to call it; the result was quite too uncertain. He had never
looked into the muzzle of a revolver, and he found the experience
distinctly unpleasant--she held the barrel so steady and pointed
straight at his heart. Diplomatic secrets were wanted of course, but
they were not to be purchased by the life of the Secretary of State,
nor even by an uncertain chance at it.

"Mr. Harleston's life isn't sufficiently valuable to the nation," she
replied, "I prefer to shoot you, if necessary--though I trust it won't
be necessary. What's a mere scrap of paper, without value save as a
means to detect its author, compared to the life of the greatest
American diplomat? Moreover, the letter would yield you nothing as to
its meaning nor its author. The meaning you already know, since you have
found the key-word to the cipher; so only the author remains; and as it
is typewritten you will have small, very small, prospect from it." She
had read the Secretary aright--and now she asked: "Am I not correct,
your Excellency?"

"I think you are," the Secretary replied, "We all are obligated and
quite ready to give our lives for our country, if the sacrifice will
benefit it in the very least; yet I can't see the obligation in this
instance, can you Harleston?"

"None in the least, sir, provided your life were at issue," Harleston
answered. "For my part, I think it isn't even seriously threatened. If
Mrs. Spencer will shift her aim to me, I'll take a chance."

Mrs. Clephane gave a suppressed exclamation and an involuntary motion of
protest--and Mrs. Spencer saw her.

"Mrs. Clephane seems to be concerned lest I accept!" she jeered.

Mrs. Clephane blushed ravishingly, and Harleston caught her in the act;
whereupon she blushed still more, and turned away.

"Play acting!" mocked Madeline Spencer--then, shrugging the matter
aside, she turned to the Secretary. "Since we two are of one mind in the
affair before us, your Excellency," she observed, "I fancy I may take it
as settled. Nevertheless you will pardon me if I don't depress my aim
until we have attended to a little matter; it will occupy us but a
moment," making a step nearer the desk and away from the others, yet
still holding them in her eye.

"What is it you wish, madame?" the Secretary inquired a trifle huskily;
his throat was becoming somewhat parched by the anxiety of the
situation.

"I see you have on your desk a small blue candle; employed, I assume,
for melting wax for your private seal," she went on. "May I trouble your
Excellency to light the aforesaid candle?"

The Secretary promptly struck a match, and managed with a most unsteady
hand to touch it to the wick.

As the flame flared up, she drew a narrow envelope from her bag and
tossed it on the desk before him.

"Now," said she, "will you be kind enough to look at the enclosure."

The Secretary took up the envelope and drew out the sheet. It was a
single sheet of the thinnest texture used for foreign correspondence. He
looked first at one side, then at the other.

"What do you see, sir?" she asked.

"The sheet is blank," he replied.

"Try the envelope," she recommended.

He turned it over. "It also is blank," he said.

"Sympathetic ink!" Carpenter laughed.

"Just what we are about to see, wise one!" she mocked. "Now, your
Excellency, will you place the envelope in the candle's flame?"

The Secretary took the envelope by the tip of one corner and held it in
the blaze until it was burned to his fingers--no writing was disclosed.

"Now the letter, please?" she directed. And when Carpenter would have
protested, she cut him short with a peremptory gesture. "Don't
interrupt, sir!" she exclaimed.

And Carpenter laughed softly and did nothing more--being, with
Harleston, in enjoyment of their chief's discomfiture.

"The letter--see--your Excellency," she repeated with a bewildering
smile.

And as the flame crept down the thin sheet, just ahead of it, apparent
to them all, crept also the writing, brought out by the heat. In a
moment it was over; the last bit of the corner burning in a brass tray
where the Secretary had dropped it.

"Now, Mr. Harleston," said Madeline Spencer, lowering her revolver as
the final flicker of the flame expired, "I am ready to submit to a
search."

Harleston glanced inquiringly at the Secretary.

"The lady is with you," the Secretary remarked with a sigh of relief.

"Very well, sir," said Harleston. "Ranleigh has a skilled woman in the
waiting-room, she will officiate in the matter. We're not likely to find
anything, but it's to provide against the chance."--And turning to
Madeline Spencer: "Whatever the outcome, madame, you will leave
Washington tonight and sail from New York on the morrow; and I should
advise you to remain abroad so long as you are in the Diplomatic
Service."

And she--knowing very well that the search was necessary, and aware that
while there was nothing incriminating upon her yet from that moment,
until the ship that carried her passed out to sea, she would be under
close espionage--answered, pleasantly as though accepting a courtesy
tendered, and with a winning smile:

"I had arranged to sail tomorrow, Mr. Harleston so it will be just as
intended. Meanwhile, I'm at the service of your female assistant. She
will find nothing, I assure you."

"Give me the pleasure of conducting you to her," Harleston replied, and
swung open the door.

"If Mrs. Clephane will trust you with me," she inflected, flouting the
other with a meaning look; which look flitted across the room to the
Secretary and changed to one of interrogation as it met his eyes--calm
eyes and steady, and with never a trace of the interest that she knew
was behind them, yet dared not show--yet awhile.

And Mrs. Clephane answered her look by a shrug; and Harleston answered
that to the Secretary by a soft chuckle. As the door closed behind
them, he remarked:

"At a more propitious time."

To which she responded:

"Which time may never come." Then she held out her hand. "Good-bye,
Guy," she smiled.

"Good-bye, Madeline," said he; "and good luck another time--with other
opponents."

"And we'll call this--"

"A stale-mate! I didn't win everything, yet what I lost was of no
moment--"

"Do you think so?" she asked sharply.

"To my client, the United States," he added. "So far as I am concerned,
Madeline, we still are friends."

He put out his hand again; she hesitated just an instant; then, with one
of her rare, frank smiles, she laid her own hand in it.

"Guy," she whispered, "she wasn't as bad as she was painted; in fact,
she wasn't bad at all--and I know."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Your Secretary of State is a peculiar man?" Mrs. Clephane observed, as
she and Harleston came down the steps into the Avenue.

Harleston leaned over. "I'll confide to you that he is an egotistical
and insufferable old ass," he whispered.

"And yet he thinks he is a perfect fascinator with the ladies!" she
laughed. "Even now he is contemplating what a conquest he made of Mrs.
Spencer. It was great fun to watch her playing him; and then how
suddenly he pulled himself up and assumed a judicial manner--which
deceived no one. Certainly it didn't deceive her, for the flying look
she gave him, as she went out, was the cleverest thing she did. It told
him everything he wanted to know, and simply gorged his vanity. She may
be, doubtless is, a bad, bad lot; yet nevertheless I can't help liking
her--and for finesse and skill she is a wonder." Then she looked at him
demurely. "You're fond of her, Mr. Harleston, are you not?"

"I'm fond of her," he replied slowly; "but not as fond as I once was,
and not so long ago, I'll tell you more about it before we go in to
dinner this evening."

"I wasn't aware that we were to dine together In fact, I was thinking of
doing something else."

"But you _will_ dine with me now, won't you?" he asked meaningly.

Her eyes hesitated, and fell, and a bewitching flush stole into her
cheek; she understood that he asked of her something more than a mere
dinner. And, after a pause, she answered softly, yet not so softly but
that he heard:

"If you wish it, Monsieur Harleston."



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