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An Amiable Charlatan by E. Phillips Oppenheim

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At a quarter to eight on the following Monday week Mr. Bundercombe and I
entered Luigi's restaurant. Louis himself advanced to greet us--the old
Louis, whose linen was irreproachable, whose bearing and deportment and
gracious smile all denoted the Louis of old. Mr. Bundercombe ordered
dinner and beckoned Louis to come a little nearer.

"Was there any trouble?" he inquired.

"For me, no," Louis replied; "but Monsieur Giatron--never, never have I
seen a man like it! He fetched out the note. 'Now,' he said, 'I take your
notice! You take mine! Ring up the police! Or shall I?'

"Then I tell him. I say: 'I don't believe the note bad at all!' He laughed
at me. He got it from the safe and laid it on the desk. 'Not bad!' he
jeered. 'Not bad!' Then he stood looking at it.

"Mr. Bundercombe, I see his face change. His mouth came wide open; his
eyes looked as though they would drop out. He bend over that note. He
looked at it and looked at it; and then he looked at me.

"'I don't believe that note ever was bad!' I say. 'I told you when you
charged me I didn't believe it. That is why I have made up my mind to give
you notice, to go away from here. And if that note is bad then you can put
me in prison.'

"Monsieur Giatron--he went back to the safe. He rummaged round among a
pile of papers and soon he came out again. He was looking pasty-colored.
'Louis,' he said, 'some one has been very clever! You can go to hell!' And
so, Mr. Bundercombe," Louis wound up, beaming, "here I am!"

CHAPTER XIII--"THE SHORN LAMB"

I never remembered seeing Mr. Bundercombe look more cheerful than when, at
his urgent summons, I left Eve in the drawing-room and made my way into
the study. He was standing on the hearthrug, with the tails of his morning
coat drooping over his arms and an expression on his face that I can only
describe as cherubic. Seated on chairs, a yard or so away from him, were
two visitors of whom at first glance I formed a most unfavorable opinion.
One was a flashily dressed, middle-aged man, with fair mustache, puffy
cheeks, and a superfluity of jewelry. The other I might at first have
taken for an undertaker's mute. He had an exceedingly red nose, watery
eyes, and was dressed in deep mourning.

"Paul," Mr. Bundercombe said, "let me introduce you to Captain Duncan
Bannister and Mr. Cheape, his solicitor."

The two men rose and bowed in turn. I found it difficult to maintain a
tolerant attitude, but I did my best.

"These two gentlemen," Mr. Bundercombe continued cheerfully, "have come
round to blackmail me."

"Sir!" Captain Bannister exclaimed, with a great show of anger.

"Mr. Bundercombe!" the person called Mr. Cheape echoed.

They made rather a poor show of it, however. Mr. Bundercombe, wholly
unperturbed by their righteous indignation, smiled still benignly upon
them.

"Come, come!" he expostulated. "This is a business interview. Why mince
words?"

Captain Bannister rose to his feet. He turned toward me.

"Mr. Bundercombe," he explained, "either willfully or otherwise,
misinterprets the object of our coming. It is possible that his
nationality may have something to do with it. I have always understood
that the standard among Americans with regard to affairs of honor is
scarcely so high as in this country."

"Mr. Bundercombe has a habit of taking a common-sense view of things," I
remarked. "I cannot criticize his attitude, because I am ignorant of the
particulars. Since he has sent for me, however, I presume that I am to be
informed."

"Quite so--quite so!" Mr. Bundercombe murmured. "You go ahead, Captain
Bannister. You tell your story."

"My story," Captain Bannister said, "is told in a very few words. I made
the acquaintance of Mr. Bundercombe in the smoking room at the Milan some
months ago. We met several times; and on one occasion I presented him to a
friend of mine, the widow of a colonel in the Indian Army, Mrs.
Delaporte."

At this stage, Mr. Bundercombe, who was quite irrepressible, winked at me
slowly. I took no notice of him whatever.

"On the particular evening to which I refer," Captain Bannister continued,
"it was suggested, by Mrs. Delaporte, I think, that we should go round to
her rooms and play _chemin de fer_. There were five of us altogether--Mr.
Bundercombe, Mrs. Delaporte, myself, a Mr. Dimsdale, and the Honorable
Montague Pelham, a young gentleman of the best family. When we arrived at
Mrs. Delaporte's rooms, however, it transpired that Mr. Bundercombe was
wholly ignorant of _chemin de fer_, and the game was accordingly changed
to poker.

"In the course of the game I was shocked to detect Mr. Bundercombe
cheating. For Mrs. Delaporte's sake I conceived it best to try and hush up
the matter entirely. I looked upon Mr. Bundercombe as a card sharper of
the ordinary type, and I simply blamed myself for having introduced him to
my friends. I accordingly made some excuse to terminate the party."

"Did any one else besides yourself," I inquired, "observe this alleged
irregularity?"

"Both Mrs. Delaporte and Mr. Dimsdale distinctly saw the very flagrant
piece of cheating that first attracted my attention," Captain Bannister
declared. "They understood at once the position when I suggested the
termination of the game. Our party broke up hurriedly. Since that day I
have not seen Mr. Bundercombe."

I turned toward my prospective father-in-law. Mr. Bundercombe for the
first time was looking a little annoyed.

"Do you mean to tell me," he said, addressing Captain Bannister, "that
both that young jay Dimsdale and Mrs. Delaporte saw me pass up that ace?"

"Without a doubt," Captain Bannister assented, a little taken aback.

"Guess my fingers must be getting a bit clumsy," Mr. Bundercombe sighed.
"Well, well! There the matter is."

"But, Mr. Bundercombe," I asked seriously, "what have you to say in reply
to Captain Bannister's statement?"

"Don't seem to me there's much to be said," Mr. Bundercombe replied.

"But he accuses you of cheating!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, I cheated all right!" Mr. Bundercombe admitted readily.

Captain Bannister turned toward me triumphantly.

"After that confession from Mr. Bundercombe before witnesses," he said, "I
do not imagine that our case will require very much more proof."

I was completely nonplussed--Mr. Bundercombe's confession was so ready,
his demeanor so unalterably good-tempered. I went on to ask, however, what
certainly seemed to me the most important question under the
circumstances.

"If you were content, Captain Bannister," I inquired, "to let the matter
drop a few months ago, why are you here now?"

"Aha!" Mr. Bundercombe exclaimed. "Put his finger on the crux of the whole
affair straight off! Smart young fellow, my son-in-law that is to be! Now,
then, Captain Bannister and Mr. Cheape, speak up like men and let us know
the truth. You let me walk out of that flat, Captain Bannister, and were
jolly glad to see the back of me. Why this visit with a legal adviser, and
both of you with faces as long as fiddles?"

Captain Bannister ignored Mr. Bundercombe and addressed me.

"Mr. Bundercombe," he said, "calling himself, by the by, Mr. Parker, as an
American card sharper was of no interest to us. We were simply ashamed and
disgusted to think that we should have permitted such a person the entree
to our society. When we discovered, however, that, instead of being a
professional card sharper," Captain Bannister continued, with emphasis,
"Mr. Bundercombe enjoys a recognized position in society, and that he is
reputed to be a man of great wealth, the affair assumes an altogether
different complexion."

"Worth going for, ain't I?" Mr. Bundercombe chuckled.

"I feel sure, Mr. Walmsley," Captain Bannister continued, "that some
portion of your sympathy, at any rate, as an English gentleman of social
distinction, will be with us in this matter. The affair we were content to
let drop against Mr. Parker, the adventurer, we feel it our duty to pursue
against Mr. Bundercombe, the millionaire."

"We would save time," I remarked coldly, "if you were to put your demands
into plain words. What is it you want or expect from Mr. Bundercombe?"

"Not what you appear to think, sir," Captain Bannister replied stiffly.
"We require from Mr. Bundercombe a written confession and his resignation
from the Sidney Club."

"The what club?" I asked dubiously.

"The Sidney Club," Captain Bannister repeated, with dignity. "The club in
question may not be very large, but it is quite well known, and I had the
misfortune to act as Mr. Bundercombe's sponsor there."

I glanced toward my prospective father-in-law. He nodded.

"They put me up for some sort of a pothouse," he admitted, "and I handed
over a tenner, I think it was, for my subscription. Rotten little hole
somewhere near the Haymarket! I've never been in since. I'll resign, with
pleasure!"

"And write a confession of your misdemeanor, sir?" Captain Bannister
persisted.

Mr. Bundercombe scratched his chin.

"I'll write an account of the whole affair," he remarked dryly.

Captain Bannister took up his hat.

"I regret," he declared, "that Mr. Bundercombe's attitude does not
encourage a continuation of this conversation. We will not detain you
further, gentlemen."

Mr. Cheape also rose. They moved toward the door.

"Much obliged to you for calling," Mr. Bundercombe said hospitably. "Drop
in and have a little game of cards with me any afternoon you like. I am a
bit out of practice, but I fancy I am still in your class."

Captain Bannister turned round suddenly. He replaced his hat upon the
table and stood with folded arms.

"Sir," he announced, "I have changed my mind. You have insulted me. Five
minutes ago I was prepared to treat you like a gentleman. I would have
accepted your resignation from the Sidney Club and your written apology.
Now I have changed my mind. You have slandered me, both by imputation and
directly."

"How much?" Mr. Bundercombe asked cheerfully.

"Five thousand pounds!" Captain Bannister answered firmly.

"How much more if I call you a lying, card-sharping swindler?" Mr.
Bundercombe demanded, with unabated good humor.

Captain Bannister looked dangerous, but he ignored the question.

"You have your terms, sir," he said. "Unless you are prepared to hand over
the sum of five thousand pounds, my solicitor, Mr. Cheape here, will at
once commence proceedings against you with reference to the affair in Mrs.
Delaporte's flat. Remember, we have four witnesses to bring into court as
to your having cheated--not including your son-in-law here, who heard your
confession. For any countercharge you might be disposed to make," Captain
Bannister concluded, "you have not a single scrap of evidence."

"Got me on toast, haven't they, Paul?" Mr. Bundercombe observed
cheerfully. "Five thousand pounds is a lot of money, Captain Bannister,"
he added. "I'll pay your taxi fare back to wherever you came from. That's
my best offer."

Captain Bannister turned toward the door.

"Come along, Mr. Cheape!" he said. "You know my address, sir. Talk this
matter over with your--with Mr. Walmsley, if you please. If we hear
nothing from you on Monday morning a writ will be issued."

"Before Monday," Mr. Bundercombe declared, in a hollow voice, "my body
will be found in the Thames. Kick 'em out, Walmsley, and look after the
coats in the hall!"

I infused a shade more civility into my leavetaking than Mr. Bundercombe's
words invited. As soon as the door was closed behind the two men I
returned to the study. Mr. Bundercombe was still standing upon the
hearthrug, but the smile had faded from his lips. He looked at me a little
anxiously.

"Rotten lot of thieves!" he remarked. "I told you they were here for
blackmail."

"It's a beastly affair," I pointed out gloomily, "You see, they've nothing
to lose, with a lawyer who's standing in with them, in taking the case
into court; and you're just up for a couple of very good clubs. What did
happen?"

"Simple as ABC!" Mr. Bundercombe explained. "You see these two fellows,
Dimsdale and Pelham, really looked like mugs. I knew that Bannister was a
wrong 'un from the first; and Mrs. Delaporte, of course, was in the thing.
When they proposed a game of cards I chipped in, thinking to watch the
fun. When we started playing Dimsdale and Pelham were the losers. Then
they began to get at me. Bannister palmed a king into his hand and I
palmed an ace. That seemed fair enough, eh?"

Mr. Bundercombe's expression as he looked at me was the expression of an
appealing child. I bit my lip.

"A minute or two later I tumbled to the whole situation," he went on.
"Dimsdale and Pelham weren't jays at all. It was a gang of four and they
raked me in for the mug. After I'd tumbled to that I must confess I took
some interest in the game. If they had given me another quarter of an hour
I should have won every chip there was going. My boy," Mr. Bundercombe
went on, a sudden grin transfiguring his expressive countenance, "it was
worth a fortune to see their faces!

"I was a bit out of practice, but I guarantee I'd make a living with my
fingers and a pack of cards anywhere yet and defy detection. I had 'em all
guessing before long; and, Paul, you should have seen their faces when
they tumbled to it! I tell you they bundled me out in double-quick time
and I laughed all the way home. Four sharks to pitch upon me as a victim!"

He began to laugh again, but the sight of my grave face checked him. He at
once assumed the appearance of a penitent.

"Where did you come across them again?" I asked.

"I met Mrs. Delaporte the other day," he said, "down at Ranelagh. We
chatted a little while. I couldn't feel any ill-will against the woman--
I'd enjoyed my evening so thoroughly. Then some people stopped and talked
to me, and she found out who I was. Soon afterward she began to throw out
hints of a willingness to marry again. Perhaps I wasn't very tactful.
Anyway she seemed a little huffed when she left me--and here we are! Say,
do you think those joshers can do anything?"

"It rather depends," I replied, "upon their own reputations. You'd better
let me make a few inquiries. I'll have to get off now, Eve's waiting. I'll
call round and see my solicitor later in the day."

"Shame to bother you," Mr. Bundercombe regretted. "So long!"

The affair Mr. Bundercombe had treated with his customary light-
heartedness seemed likely to develop most unpleasantly. Within forty-eight
hours he was the recipient of a writ from the firm of solicitors with
which Mr. Cheape was connected; and, though inquiries went to prove that
Captain Bannister, Mrs. Delaporte and their associates were certainly not
people of the highest respectability, there was yet nothing definite
against them. My solicitor, to whom I took Mr. Bundercombe, most
regretfully advised him to settle out of court.

"The friends Mr. Bundercombe is now making and may make in later life,"
the lawyer remarked, "will certainly not appreciate the adventurous spirit
that--er--induced him to make acquaintances among a certain class of
people. Therefore, in the interests of my client, Mr. Walmsley, as well as
your own, Mr. Bundercombe," he concluded, "I am afraid I must advise you,
very much against my own inclinations, to settle this matter."

Mr. Bundercombe left the lawyer's office thoroughly depressed.

"It isn't the money!" he declared gloomily. "It's being bested by this
little gang of thieves that irritates me!"

"I am sure," I told him, "that Mr. Wymans' advice is sound. If the case
goes into court and comes up before the committee--even of a rotten club
like the Sidney--I am afraid you would have to withdraw your membership
from the other places; and you might find the affair continually cropping
up and causing you annoyance."

Mr. Bundercombe heaved a mighty sigh.

"Well, we've got two days left," he said. "If nothing happens before then
I'll pay up."

* * * * *

Mr. Bundercombe rang me up on the morning of the last day appointed for
his decision.

"We've got a conference on, Paul," he announced dejectedly. "Will you come
round here for me at a quarter to eleven?"

I assented, and arrived at the house in Prince's Gardens a few minutes
before that time. Eve met me in the hall.

"Please tell me, dear," she begged, as she drew me into the morning room,
"why daddy is so low-spirited!"

"It isn't anything serious," I assured her. "It's just a little trouble
arising from one of his adventures. We shall get out of it all right."

"Poor daddy!" she exclaimed. "I am sure he has had no sleep for two
nights. I heard him walking up and down his room."

"Well, it will all be over to-day," I promised. "After all, it only means
a little money."

"Daddy does so hate to get the worst of anything," she sighed; "and I am
afraid, from the looks of his face, that this time he's in a fix."

"I am afraid so, too," I agreed. "Never mind; we have done the best we
can, and we are going to settle it up once and for all to-day. Perhaps
he'll tell you about it afterward."

We heard a door slam and Mr. Bundercombe's voice.

"He is asking for you," Eve whispered. "Hurry along and come back as soon
as you've got this business over."

I found Mr. Bundercombe exceedingly chastened, but in all other respects
his usual self.

"We are calling for Mr. Wymans," he said, "in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and
afterward we are going round to Mrs. Delaporte's flat. We are going to
meet Bannister there and his lawyer."

"Why do we concern ourselves in the matter at all?" I asked as we drove
off. "I don't see why we can't leave the lawyers to do this final
settlement."

Mr. Bundercombe shook his head.

"You leave too much to lawyers in this country," he remarked. "We
generally like to see the thing through ourselves over at home, even if we
take a lawyer along. This is an unpleasant business, if you like; but
there's no good in shirking it."

We called for Mr. Wymans and drove on to Mrs. Delaporte's flat. We were at
once admitted into an overheated and overperfumed room and found Captain
Bannister, Mrs. Delaporte, and Mr. Cheape awaiting us. Their demeanor
betokened anxiety. Mrs. Delaporte alone made a little conversation; and,
the habits of a lifetime asserting themselves, she made eyes at Mr.
Bundercombe.

Mr. Bundercombe, however, conducted himself very much like the deacon of a
chapel in the presence of his minister. His natural good humor seemed to
have departed. His manners matched the unusual solemnity of his attire.

"Madam," he said, bowing to Mrs. Delaporte, "Mr. Cheape and Captain
Bannister, I have suggested this conference because I believe in settling
these affairs myself and not leaving everything to lawyers--no disrespect
to present company. I have made an idiot of myself and I am ready to pay--
a certain amount."

Mr. Cheape rose to his feet. He was sitting in front of a writing desk,
with a clean sheet of paper in front of him, as though prepared to take
notes of the proceedings.

"So that there may be no possible misunderstanding," he intervened, "my
clients will take not a penny less than the five thousand pounds
mentioned."

"And I," Mr. Bundercombe declared sadly but very firmly, "will not give a
penny more than four thousand pounds."

Mr. Cheape shrugged his shoulders as though to intimate that the
conference was at an end. Captain Bannister made a few remarks to the
effect that if he had not been a moderate man, and willing to conduct the
affair in a gentlemanly manner, he should have asked for ten thousand.
Mrs. Delaporte alluded to five thousand pounds as though the amount
represented the outcome of a day's shopping. It was astonishing how little
they seemed to regard the value of money!

"Now," Mr. Bundercombe went on, "if I've brought you all together here on
false pretenses, I am sorry. There's nothing to be done in that case but
to say good morning and meet in the law court. But," he added, striking
the back of a chair with his clenched fist and looking more like Napoleon
than I had ever seen him, "I swear, by the word of Joseph H. Bundercombe,
which has never yet been broken, that I will not hand over one cent more
than four thousand pounds!"

The protests were this time a little weaker. Mr. Bundercombe sat with
folded arms, with his eyes fixed upon the ceiling and an air of being
altogether disinterested in the proceedings, while the three who comprised
the other party whispered together.

Presently Mr. Cheape rose to his feet.

"Mr. Wymans," he began, punctiliously addressing the lawyer first, "and
Mr. Bundercombe, my clients are only too anxious to end this unhappy
matter. They feel that their demands have been most moderate, but at my
advice they have consented to accept a reduction of five hundred pounds."

Mr. Bundercombe rose heavily to his feet.

"Mr. Wymans," he said, "and Paul, come along! I do not bargain. I wish you
all good morning."

He turned toward the door and we followed him. It was already opened when
we were called back. Captain Bannister and Mr. Cheape were whispering
eagerly together. Mr. Cheape rose once more to his feet.

"In order to prove," he announced, "how entirely devoid my clients are of
mercenary considerations, they agree, Mr. Bundercombe, to accept the sum
of four thousand pounds."

Mr. Bundercombe put down his hat again. Then he drew a sheet of paper from
his pocket.

"Condition number one, then," he observed, "is now agreed upon. We proceed
to condition number two. Mrs. Delaporte, Captain Bannister, and Mr.
Cheape," he went on earnestly, "I have been guilty of an indiscretion the
proof of which is in your hands. Having decided to make London my home for
a time, I desire once and for all to extinguish all possibility of this
affair ever cropping up again in any shape or form."

Mr. Cheape rose to his feet.

"Sir," he said to Mr. Bundercombe, "my clients will give you their written
undertaking that the affair shall be consigned to oblivion."

Mr. Bundercombe waved him down.

"My reasons for feeling so strongly on the matter," he continued, "will be
appreciated by you, Captain Bannister, as a man of position and in
society"--Captain Bannister bowed--"when I tell you that my future son-in-
law, Mr. Walmsley, M.P., has proposed me for membership in two of the most
exclusive clubs in London. This affair, therefore, must be killed beyond
any manner of doubt. I am handing over to you four thousand pounds, which
is a very considerable sum; but in return for it I desire that my future
immunity be purchased by your signatures to this document."

Mr. Cheape rose at once to his feet. "A document!" he observed. "Let me
read it." Mr. Bundercombe handed it over. Mr. Cheape read it out aloud:

"We, the undersigned, desire to apologize most sincerely to Mr. Joseph H.
Bundercombe for any allegations we have made against him with regard to a
certain episode that took place on March eighteenth, or thereabout, in the
flat of Mrs. Delaporte. We admit that we were mistaken in the supposition
which we certainly entertained at the time--that Mr. Bundercombe had been
guilty of cheating--and we withdraw such allegations unreservedly, and
tender our apologies."

"Ridiculous!" Captain Bannister exclaimed.

"Absurd!" Mrs. Delaporte echoed.

"I may add," Mr. Cheape joined in, "that I could not possibly recommend my
clients to sign such a document."

Mr. Bundercombe took up his hat.

"When I started out this morning," he declared, "I felt convinced that
this conference would come to nothing. I told Mr. Wymans here that I was
prepared to settle, but on my own terms--and my own terms only. I don't
want any undertaking not to molest me in the future. That isn't good
enough. I want to be able to show a document such as you have there, which
completely exculpates me from any charge that might at any time be
brought. And without it," he added, once more bringing his fist down upon
the back of the chair, "I do not part with one penny of my four thousand
pounds!"

Mr. Cheape read out a document he himself had prepared, but Mr.
Bundercombe waved it away.

"Come, Paul!" he said to me with a sigh. "Come, Mr. Wymans! I disclaim all
responsibility for the failure of this conference. I have done my best. It
cannot matter a snap of the fingers to our friends here in what form the
document is couched that they give me in exchange for my four thousand
pounds. Since they are so particular about a trifle, I have finished with
them!"

He led the way toward the door and there was an appearance of finality
about his tone and shoulders exceedingly convincing. We had reached the
threshold and were, indeed, indulging in a little skirmish as to who
should pass through the door first, when Mr. Cheape's resigned voice
checked us.

"My clients," he announced slowly, "will sign your document, Mr.
Bundercombe. They protest--they protest vigorously against its wording;
but they are anxious to show you in how large-spirited and gentlemanly a
manner they wish this affair to be concluded. Once more they yield."

Mr. Bundercombe, without any signs of exultation, returned to his former
place, put down his hat upon the chair and drew a checkbook from his
breast coat pocket.

"If you will give me a seat and a pen," he said, "I will write you a check
for the amount."

Captain Bannister stared at the checkbook. He glanced at Mr. Cheape and
Mr. Cheape very vigorously shook his head.

"I am sorry," he objected; "but my clients cannot think of accepting a
check in settlement of this matter."

Mr. Bundercombe began to show symptoms of annoyance.

"Bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Isn't the check of Joseph H. Bundercombe
good enough for you?"

Mr. Cheape laid his hand soothingly upon Mr. Bundercombe's shoulder.

"It isn't that we doubt your check, sir," he pointed out; "but in a
transaction of this sort it is best that no evidences of a lasting nature
should exist. A check is not, as you know, legal tender, and a check my
clients certainly could not accept."

Mr. Bundercombe folded up his checkbook and replaced it in his pocket.

"Then what are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"Where is your bank?" Mr. Cheape inquired.

"In Pall Mall," Mr. Bundercombe answered.

"Then I am afraid," Mr. Cheape decided, "there is nothing for it but to
ask you to repair there and cash your own check."

Mr. Bundercombe rose to his feet.

"All right!" he agreed. "I suppose we had better finish the affair while
we are about it. One of you had better come with me."

Captain Bannister promptly volunteered. He and I and Mr. Bundercombe
descended the stairs and entered the car. We pulled up in a few minutes at
the door of Mr. Bundercombe's bank.

"Will you come in with me?" Mr. Bundercombe invited, turning to Captain
Bannister.

Captain Bannister excused himself.

"I will wait here with Mr. Walmsley," he said, "if you will allow me."

Mr. Bundercombe departed inside the bank and reappeared in the course of a
few moments. His breast coat pocket was bulging. On our way back he drew
out five packets of banknotes, which he counted carefully. Captain
Bannister watched him out of the corner of his eye with a hungry
expression. We were only absent from the flat altogether about a quarter
of an hour, and the rest of the affair was promptly settled. The notes
were counted by Mr. Cheape, the document signed by Captain Bannister and
Mrs. Delaporte.

"I am sure," Captain Bannister declared, holding the notes in his left
hand, "that no one can be more glad than Mrs. Delaporte and myself that
this little affair has been concluded so amicably. If you will allow me,
Mr. Bundercombe, to offer you a little refreshment----" Mr. Bundercombe
sighed.

"Well," he said, "I suppose it's all in the day's work for you people. I
don't mind admitting, though, money wasn't so easily earned in my days
that I can watch four thousand pounds go without feeling it. Thank you;
that'll do nicely," he added, accepting the brandy-and-soda Captain
Bannister handed him.

Mr. Wymans looked on with stern disapproval and I must say I sympathized
with him. Mr. Bundercombe, however, not only drained the glass with relish
but accepted the outstretched hand of Captain Bannister and afterward
shook hands also with Mrs. Delaporte.

"If you are passing at any time----" she whispered in his ear.

I had had enough of it and I dragged Mr. Bundercombe away. We drove back
to Prince's Gardens in somewhat ominous silence. Mr. Wymans would have
taken his leave, but Mr. Bundercombe begged him to come into the library.

"One moment!" he insisted. "James," he said, addressing the butler, "Mr.
Wymans will stay to lunch. One moment!"

Mr. Bundercombe went to the telephone. Mechanically he handed me the
additional receiver. He asked for a number and presently received a reply.

"Say, is that Captain Bannister I am speaking to?" he said. "I thought I
recognized the voice. This is Mr. Bundercombe. Yes, yes!--No, there's
nothing we'd forgotten. I just rang you up, though, to give you a word of
advice. You want to be just a _leetle_ careful where you try to change
those notes!"

"What do you mean, sir?" I heard Captain Bannister demand in startled
accents. "What do you mean, Mr. Bundercombe?"

"Well," Mr. Bundercombe continued, "those notes are just about the
cleverest things I ever came across; but, after all, they aren't exactly
the genuine article. I got four thousand pounds' worth of them from a
young fellow I was interested in, and I had them put in a safe at my bank
so that no one should get into any trouble. It just occurred to me, since
we began our little negotiations, that I saw a good way of making use of
them. I had only four thousand pounds' worth; so I had to beat you down a
bit. However, that'll be all right, captain, only, as I say, use them a
bit carefully.... Jove! Ain't he making the telephone sing!" Mr.
Bundercombe added, turning to me. "I guess I'll ring off!" He put down the
receiver. Once more the accustomed smile was creeping over his face. Mr.
Wymans was looking dazed. The butler had entered the room with the
cocktails.

"Say, Paul," Mr. Bundercombe expostulated, "you didn't really think I was
parting with four thousand pounds to a sloppy gang like that, did you? I
knew a young chap who was very clever at making those notes," he explained
to Mr. Wymans. "I liked him and converted him; and I sent him over to the
States, where he's got a good situation and is working honestly for his
living. This was the remainder of his stock. I had 'em lying in the safe
deposit of the bank, meaning some day to destroy 'em. You've got that
apology all right?"

Mr. Wymans slowly smiled. He raised his glass to his lips.

"You are a very clever man, Mr. Bundercombe!" he said.

CHAPTER XIV--MR. BUNDERCOMBE'S LOVE AFFAIR

Mr. Bundercombe who, notwithstanding his wife's temporary absence in the
country, had not been in the best of spirits for several days, during the
course of our tête-à-tête dinner at Luigi's became suddenly and
unexpectedly animated. The change in him was so noticeable that I leaned
forward in my place to see what could have produced it.

Two people had entered the restaurant and were in conversation now with
Luigi about a table. Mr. Bundercombe, who in the affairs of every-day life
had no idea of concealing his feelings, was regarding them with every
appearance of lively interest.

"Paul," he whispered, "you must notice these two people. Watch them--
there's a good fellow!"

They took their places at a table almost opposite ours. The girl, though
she was more quietly and tastefully dressed and seemed to me to be better
looking, I recognized at once as Mr. Bundercombe's companion at Prince's
Restaurant on one memorable occasion.

The man I had never seen before. He appeared to be of about medium height;
slim, with a sallow skin; dark, sleepy eyes, which suggested the
foreigner; a mouth that, straight and firm though it was, turned up a
little at the corners, as though in contradiction of his somewhat indolent
general appearance. He was exceedingly well-dressed and carried himself
with the quiet assurance of a man accustomed to moving in the world.

"Most interesting!" Mr. Bundercombe murmured, having with an effort
withdrawn his eyes from the pair. "The girl you doubtless recognize. She
was once a typist in the office of Messrs. Harding & Densmore. She was
quite lately, as I dare say you remember, able to give me some very useful
information; in fact it is through her that Mr. Stanley did not leave this
country for South Africa with a hundred pounds in his pocket."

"And the man?" I asked.

Mr. Bundercombe was thoroughly enjoying himself. He drew his chair a
little closer to mine and waited until he was quite sure that no one was
within earshot.

"The man," he replied, "is one of the world's most famous criminals."

"He doesn't look it," I remarked, glancing across the room with some
interest.

Mr. Bundercombe smiled.

"Great criminals are not all of the same type," he reminded me
reprovingly. "That is where you people who don't understand the cult of
criminology make your foolish mistakes. Our friend opposite is, without a
doubt, of gentle though not of aristocratic birth. I know nothing of his
bringing up, but his instincts do all that is necessary for him. The first
time I saw him was in one of the criminal courts in New York. He was being
tried for his life for an attempted robbery in Fifth Avenue and the murder
of a policeman. He defended himself and did it brilliantly. In the end he
got off. There is scarcely a person, however, who doubts but that he was
guilty."

I looked across at the subject of our discussion with renewed interest.

"He shot him, I suppose?" I asked.

"On the contrary," Mr. Bundercombe replied, "he throttled him. The man has
the sinews of an ox. The second time I saw him was at a dancing-hall in
New York. He was there with a very gay party indeed; but one of them, the
wealthiest, mysteriously disappeared. Rodwell--Dagger Rodwell was his
nickname--came to England. I saw him once or twice just before I visited
you down in Bedfordshire. Cullen warned me off him, however; wouldn't let
me have a word to say to him."

"He doesn't sound the best companion in the world for your little typist
friend," I remarked.

Mr. Bundercombe glanced across the room and at that moment the girl
noticed him. She bowed and waved her hand. Mr. Bundercombe responded
gallantly.

"I fancy," he murmured, "that she can take care of herself. Come, I really
feel that I am in an interesting atmosphere once more."

Mr. Bundercombe's deportment was certainly more cheerful. For the last
week or two he had been depressed. He had paid visits with Eve and myself,
and devoted a reasonable amount of time to his wife. The demands on his
complete respectability, however, had been irksome. He was too obviously
finding no savor in life.

I really was not altogether sorry at first to notice the improvement in
his spirits, though my sentiments changed when, a little later in the
evening, the girl opposite left her place and came over to us. She greeted
Mr. Bundercombe with the most brilliant of smiles and he held her hand
quite as long as was necessary. He presented me and I learned that her
name was Miss Blanche Spencer.

"I must not stay long," she said, laughing. "The gentleman I am with is a
sort of cousin of mine and we don't get on very well; but I mustn't be
rude."

Mr. Bundercombe and she seemed to have a good deal to say to each other
and presently I noticed that their heads were drawing closer together. The
girl dropped her voice. She was proposing something to which Mr.
Bundercombe was listening with keen interest. I heard him sigh.

"If it weren't for certain changes," he explained regretfully, "I guess I
wouldn't hesitate a moment. But--"

I heard a whispered reference to myself as his daughter's fiancé and an
allusion to the continued presence of his wife in London. She nodded
sympathetically.

"Now if there were any other way," Mr. Bundercombe concluded, "in which I
could still further show my gratitude to you personally for a certain
little matter, why I'm all for hearing about it. I consider the balance is
still on my side."

She laughed.

"You're really rather a dear!" she declared. "Do you know I am thinking of
starting in business for myself?"

"Where, and what as?" Mr. Bundercombe inquired.

I shook open an evening paper and heard no more. The girl's leavetaking,
however, a few minutes later, was both reluctant and impressive. I felt it
my duty to allude to the matter as soon as we were alone.

"You know, sir," I said, "this helping young women to set up in business
is a proceeding that's very likely to be misunderstood over here. I am not
in the least sure that even Eve would quite approve."

Mr. Bundercombe smiled the smile of a man of the world.

"One can't tell one's womenkind everything!" he declared grandiloquently.

I was a little puzzled. I felt convinced that Mr. Bundercombe was
concealing something from me.

"Furthermore," I continued, feeling it my duty to speak frankly to my
future father-in-law, "a man of your position needs to be very careful
when he has financial transactions with a good-looking young woman like
Miss Blanche. The young lady herself might take advantage of it."

Mr. Bundercombe appeared to be giving my words full consideration.

"Well, well!" he said, a little vaguely. "We shall see. I don't mind
telling you, though, Paul, that I would have nothing to say to her first
suggestion--on your account, my boy. There's a scheme on foot in which her
interesting companion is concerned, which needs financing. I haven't the
least doubt that it is something entirely interesting--probably a mammoth
jewel robbery or something of the sort."

I looked across at the man, who seemed to be reproaching the girl for her
long absence. Almost at that moment he looked up and our eyes met for a
brief instant. There seemed to be nothing in his gaze beyond a measure of
polite and not too pointed interest. Nevertheless, when I looked away I
begged Mr. Bundercombe to call for the bill.

"I have had enough of this place!" I declared, a little abruptly. "Next
time Eve goes to bed with a headache I shall take you to the club."

* * * * *

I was walking down Bond Street with Eve one morning when my suspicions as
to Mr. Bundercombe and a certain matter were first roused. As we neared
the Piccadilly end I distinctly saw him vanish through a doorway on the
lefthand side. He was most carefully dressed and carried in his hand a
long paper parcel that could contain nothing but flowers. Upon some excuse
I prevailed upon Eve to cross the road. There was one small brass plate
only on the side of the entrance through which Mr. Bundercombe had
disappeared. It was scarcely larger than my hand and on it was engraved in
very elegant characters: BLANCHE MANICURE.

I made no comment at the time, but curiously enough that afternoon, as we
sat out under the trees at Ranelagh, Eve referred to the subject of her
parent. "Do you notice, Paul," she asked, "how much less we see of dad
lately?"

"He does seem to have been out a good deal," I admitted.

She glanced at me.

"You haven't any idea, I suppose--"

The glance and her tone were quite sufficient for me. I hastened to
disclaim all responsibility for Mr. Bundercombe.

"Your father," I assured her, "has never treated me with less confidence.
Whatever he may be doing at present, he is doing, let me assure you,
entirely on his own responsibility."

"Then I think, if you don't mind, please," she begged, "you must try and
get him to take you into his confidence. Of course," she went on, watching
idly a polo team canter into the field, "I do not wish you to feel that he
is in any way a responsibility. On the other hand, it does seem so queer,
Paul! He has taken to dressing most carefully and he leaves the house
regularly every morning at ten o'clock."

"You've no clew at all as to what he does with himself?" I asked.

"None," she replied, "except that I never saw any one with such
overmanicured nails as his. I never knew him to go to a manicurist in my
life, but he is obviously going to one nearly every day now or he couldn't
keep the polish on. If that helps in any way--"

"It might," I admitted with a sigh.

"There he is!" Eve exclaimed suddenly. "Coming toward us, too! Do please
take this opportunity, Paul, and see if you can find out anything. You
see, a week ago he seemed bored to tears, and now he has just that happy,
contented expression which he wears all the time when he is really engaged
in something outrageous. I will go and talk to your sister. I think she is
over there with Captain Green."

Mr. Bundercombe greeted me heartily and at once directed my attention to a
small tent where cool drinks were being served. I suffered him to lead me
in that direction and placed myself in his hands as regards the selection
of a suitable beverage. We found a small table and sat down. "Haven't seen
much of you lately, sir," I began.

"Huh! That's because I don't spend three parts of my time in milliners'
shops," Mr. Bundercombe replied.

"Where are you spending most of your time?" I asked, determined to take
the bull by the horns.

Mr. Bundercombe set down his glass.

"I've been expecting this," he remarked pleasantly. "Eve's been setting
you on to pump me, eh?"

I nodded.

"That's exactly it," I admitted. "We are due to be married in ten days. We
are neither of us anxious for anything in the way of an unfortunate
incident."

Mr. Bundercombe appeared to view with surprise the advent of a second
tumbler. He reconciled himself to its arrival, however, and handed money
to the attendant.

"I realize the position entirely, my dear fellow," he assured me. "I am
glad you have opened the subject up. I have been bursting to tell you all
about it; but I have hesitated for fear of being misunderstood."

I glanced at his nails.

"Of course," I observed slowly, "the position of an elderly gentleman with
a marriageable daughter and a wife," I went on bravely, "who finances a
young lady interested in manicuring in an establishment in Bond Street is
liable to misinterpretation."

Mr. Bundercombe was a little taken aback. He hid his face for a moment
behind the newly arrived tumbler.

"Kind of observant, aren't you?" he remarked.

"I saw you in Bond Street this morning," I told him, "you and a paper
parcel. You were entering the establishment, I believe, of Mademoiselle
Blanche, whoever she is."

"Small place, London!" Mr. Bundercombe sighed. "Were you--er--alone?"

"I was with Eve," I replied; "but she did not see you and I did not
mention the matter."

"My boy," Mr. Bundercombe decided, "I shall take you wholly into my
confidence. I am engaged in a big affair!" My heart sank.

"I can only pray to Heaven," I said fervently, "that the dénouement of
this affair will not take place within the next ten days."

"On the contrary," Mr. Bundercombe answered, leaning back in his chair and
looking at me, with the flat of one hand laid on the table and the palm of
the other on his left knee, "on the contrary," he repeated, "the
dénouement is due to-morrow."

"Glad you didn't consider us," I observed gloomily.

Mr. Bundercombe smiled.

"I find myself in this last affair," he remarked airily, "occupying what I
must confess, for me, is a somewhat peculiar position. I am on the side of
the established authorities. I am in the cast-iron position of the man who
falls into line with the law of the land. In other words, you behold in
me, so far as regards this affair, respectability and rectitude
personified. I may even choose to give our friend Mr. Cullen a leg up."

I was relieved to hear it and told him so.

"I presume," I said, "that Mademoiselle Blanche, of Bond Street, is
identical with the young lady who talked to us at Stephano's the other
night?"

"Say, you're becoming perfectly wonderful at the art of deduction!" my
future father-in-law declared. "Same person!"

"She seems quite attractive," I admitted, "with a taste for pink roses, I
think."

Mr. Bundercombe appeared to regard my remark as frivolous. He moved his
chair, however, and brought it closer to mine.

"I dare say you remember," he went on, "how the young lady proposed to me
that night that I should finance a little venture in which she and her
sleepy-eyed friend opposite were interested."

I nodded.

"Yes, I remember that."

"From that," Mr. Bundercombe continued, "she went on to suggest that I
should help her in the ambition of her life, which, it seems, was to take
a single room for manicuring a few clients. In an ordinary way I should
have refused that, too; and, if she had been hard up, begged to be allowed
to oblige her with a trifling loan--and ended the matter in that way. The
reason I didn't was simply because I felt convinced that her desire to
require a single room in the manicure business was somehow associated with
the scheme she had at first suggested. Therefore I temporized. I appeared
to be interested. I asked her in what locality she wished to commence
business. She never hesitated. There was only one place she wanted and
that was the room she's got. Just to test her I took her to see really
slap-up premises in another part of Bond Street. She pretended to look at
them, but never took the slightest interest. It was just one room she
wanted--and one room only.

"I realized that both she and her friend were either too desperately hard
up to engage that room or else they were particularly anxious to do it in
some one else's name. That was quite enough for me. I engaged the room."

I glanced once more at Mr. Bundercombe's nails. "You, at any rate," I
remarked, "have been a faithful customer."

"Paul," Mr. Bundercombe continued, "I am playing a part. I am playing the
part of a silly old fool. It isn't easy sometimes, but I am keeping it up.
I spend a good part of my time in that beastly little parlor, having my
nails done over and over again. The girl is bored to death; and I--though
I flatter myself I don't show it--I guess I'm bored to death too. I've
kept it up all right until now and the job comes off to-morrow. Miss
Blanche is convinced that my interest in her is sentimental and she has
occasionally not been quite so careful as she might have been. I have
picked up here and there certain small details that enable me to form a
very fair idea as to the nature of this venture in which I was invited to
participate. The last few days I have been hesitating whether I should
take you into my confidence or not. As it happens you have forced it. Have
you anything particular to do to-morrow?"

I thought for a moment. "Nothing very much until the late afternoon, when
I go down to the House," I replied.

"Then to-morrow you shall see the end of this thing with me," Mr.
Bundercombe promised. "If luck goes our way you will find we shall have
quite a pleasant few minutes."

Eve put her head in at the tent and we hastened to join her. She drew me a
little on one side.

"I think it's all right," I told her.

"I am so glad," she replied. "And, Paul, hadn't you better drop dad a hint
that Mrs. Bundercombe will be home to-morrow? I think he'd better have the
shine taken off his nails!"

* * * * *

At twelve o'clock the next morning I met Mr. Bundercombe by appointment in
the Burlington Arcade. We strolled slowly round into Bond Street. Mr.
Bundercombe was, for him, unusually serious. He looked about him all the
time with swift, careful glances. As we turned into Bond Street his pace
became slower and slower. Within a yard or two of the spot where I had
first seen him disappear he paused, and under pretense of talking
earnestly to me he looked up and down and across the street with keen,
careful glances.

At last, with a sudden turn he led the way into the passage. Together we
ascended the stairs. On a door almost opposite to us at the end of the
landing was another little brass plate, on which was engraved the name of
Mademoiselle Blanche. Mr. Bundercombe took a latchkey from his pocket and
opened the door, which he carefully closed after him.

"No one here!" I remarked.

"Not yet!" Mr. Bundercombe said, a little grimly. "From now onward you
will be able to understand certain things. Miss Blanche informed me that
to-day she had an invitation to go into the country. It was the only way I
could discover the day in which they were planning to bring off the coup.
If I had been an occasional visitor she might have risked my coming and
finding her away. Since, however, I presented myself every morning at
eleven o'clock she was forced to tell me. You understand as much as that?"

"Perfectly."

"You see where we are then," Mr. Bundercombe continued. "Has any reason
occurred to you for the young lady's unalterable decision that no other
spot in the whole of London would do for her manicure parlor?"

I looked out the window.

"We are next door to Tarteran's," I observed.

Mr. Bundercombe smiled approvingly.

"We are within a few yards," he said, "of the jeweler's shop that contains
more valuable gems than any other establishment in the world. We are at
the present moment within forty yards of a million pounds' worth of
jewels. When you come to reflect upon the character and the past of our
friend Dagger Rodwell, you will understand the significance of that fact."

I was beginning to share Mr. Bundercombe's obvious excitement. I, too, had
the feeling that we were on the brink of an adventure. He made me stand up
against the wall, by the side of the window, so that I could see down into
the street. He himself was farther back in the room.

"Follow my lead closely in everything, Paul!" he directed. "Meantime keep
your eye glued on the pavement. If things turn out as I expect there will
be a gray touring motor car outside Tarteran's shop in the course of a few
minutes. From that car will descend Dagger Rodwell. He will enter
Tarteran's. Watch, then, as though your very life depended upon it!"

I squeezed myself against the wall and looked down upon the never-ending
procession. The street was continually blocked with motor cars and
taxicabs. On the other side of the way streams of people were moving all
the time. I recognized many acquaintances even in those few minutes. And
then suddenly I saw the gray motor car. I held out my hand to Mr.
Bundercombe.

Without the slightest attempt at concealment, the man Mr. Bundercombe had
called Dagger Rodwell alighted from the motor and stood for a moment
looking into the windows of Tarteran's shop before he entered. He was
faultlessly dressed in morning clothes, smoking a cigarette and carrying a
silver-headed cane.

After some hesitation he entered the shop. Mr. Bundercombe drew a little
breath. He had been looking at another part of the street.

"Now things are beginning to move," he observed softly. "Come here, Paul!"

He pulled aside a little curtain behind which was a sort of cubicle--an
easy chair, a manicurist's stool and a table.

"Step inside here," he whispered; "quickly!"

I obeyed him, and in an instant he had entered a similar one. We were
scarcely there before I heard the sound of a key in the door. Through a
chink in the curtain I saw Miss Blanche. She pushed back the latch and
stood for a moment as though listening, her face turned toward the stairs
up which she had come.

If I had had any doubt but that tragedy was afoot that morning it would
have been banished by a glance at her face. She was terribly pale; her
hands were shaking. Rapidly she withdrew the pins from her hat, hung it
upon a peg and smoothed her hair in front of the looking-glass. Then,
though her hands were trembling all the time, she filled a bowl with hot
water and arranged a manicure set on a little table.

Once or twice she stopped to listen. Once, as though drawn by some
fascination she was powerless to resist, she moved to the window and
looked down into the street. Mr. Bundercombe remained motionless and I
followed his example. At the back of my cubicle was a window from which I
could still gain a view of the pavement. The streets were thronged with
people, and I noticed that the motor car, which at first I had missed, was
standing in a side street, almost opposite.

Suddenly I saw the man, for whose reappearance I was so earnestly waiting,
step casually out on to the pavement. He attempted to cross the street and
was quickly lost to sight in a tangle of vehicles. A second later I could
have sworn that I saw him back again at the entrance to the passage below.

Then I heard a shout from the pavement and I distinctly saw him clamber
into the motor car, which shot off as though it had started in fourth
speed. An elderly gentleman, who had rushed from the shop, was halfway
across the street already. There was a chorus of shouts; traffic was
momentarily suspended; a policeman started running down the side street.
Then I turned away from the window. There were sounds closer at hand--a
footstep on the stairs, swift and gentle.

In a moment the door of the little manicure room was opened and closed.
Dagger Rodwell stood there, pale and breathless. Not a word passed between
him and the girl. He dashed into the third of the little cubicles, and it
seemed to me that in less than thirty seconds he reappeared.

The change was marvelous. He was wearing a tweed suit and a gray Homburg
hat. His eyeglass had gone. Even his collar and tie seemed different. He
sat down before the girl and held out his hand. They listened. There was
plenty of commotion in the street--no sound at all on the stairs.

"We've done it!" he muttered. "They're after the car! They'll catch
Dolly!"

"He'll bluff it out!" she whispered.

"Sure! Don't let your hands tremble like that, you little fool! We're
safe, I tell you! Get on with your work."

Now the two were three or four yards away from the cubicle in which I was,
but almost within a couple of feet of Mr. Bundercombe's. From where I was
sitting I saw suddenly a strange thing. I saw Mr. Bundercombe's left arm
shoot out from behind the curtain. In a moment he had the man by the
throat. His other hand traveled over his clothes like lightning.

It was all over almost before I could think. Rodwell was on his feet with
a livid mark on his throat, and Mr. Bundercombe had stepped back with a
little shining revolver in his hand which he was carefully stowing away in
his pocket.

"Sorry to be a trifle hasty, Mr. Rodwell," he said. "I saw the shape of
this little weapon in your pocket and it didn't seem altogether agreeable
to me. We are not great at firearms over this side, you know."

Blanche and Rodwell stared at him. To complete their stupefaction I
stepped out of my cubicle.

"What sort of a game is this?" Rodwell muttered, though he was pale to the
lips. "Blanche----"

He turned toward her with sudden fierceness. She sat there, wringing her
hands.

"Mr. Bundercombe!" she exclaimed feebly. "Mr. Bundercombe!"

"So this is your silly old fool, is it?" Rodwell hissed. "This is the old
fool you could twist round your finger, who found the money for your
manicure parlor, and who was in love with you, eh? What are you, anyway?"
he added, turning furiously upon Mr. Bundercombe. "A cop? Is this why you
were trying to put up to me a few weeks ago?"

Mr. Bundercombe waved aside the accusation.

"Nothing of the sort!" he declared.

"Then what is it you want?" Rodwell demanded. "Is it a share of the swag
you're after?"

Mr. Bundercombe shook his head.

"I am afraid," he sighed, "there will not be any swag."

Rodwells face was the most vicious thing I had ever looked on; yet he kept
his head. Mr. Bundercombe and I were an impossible proposition to an
unarmed man.

"In the first place," Mr. Bundercombe said, "I must congratulate you most
heartily on your scheme. I saw your double bolt across the road and jump
into the car. Everyone's eyes were upon him. They never saw you slip round
into the passage. Your double is, I presume, well supplied with an alibi
and evidences of respectability?"

Rodwell nodded shortly.

"It's his own car and he's an automobile agent," he replied. "He'd been in
the next shop. The people there will be able to swear to him--he gave them
plenty of trouble on purpose."

"And you," Mr. Bundercombe murmured, "have the necklace?"

"I have!" Rodwell snapped. "What about it? I've got to divide with the
girl here. How much do you want?"

"Only the necklace!" Mr. Bundercombe replied.

Mr. Rodwell's geographical description of where he would see Mr.
Bundercombe first is too lurid for print. Mr. Bundercombe, however, only
shook his head, with a gentle smile upon his lips.

"If you're not a cop and you won't stand in, what in the name of glory are
you?" Rodweil spluttered at last.

"I am afraid I must describe myself as a meddler," Mr. Bundercombe
confessed; "an intervener. I stand midway between the law and the
criminal. I sympathize wholly with neither. I admire the skill and courage
you have shown to-day, but I also sympathize with the head of that
establishment whom you have relieved of possibly many thousand pounds'
worth of diamonds. I could not--"

Rodwell made his effort, but Mr. Bundercombe was more than ready.
Intervention on my part was quite unnecessary. Mr. Bundercombe's left arm
shot out like a piston-rod and the unfortunate victim of his blow remained
on the carpet, with his hand to his cheek.

"Quite in order, of course," Mr. Bundercombe remarked, "but absolutely
useless. Boxing was my only sport when I was a young man, to say nothing
of my remarkably athletic young companion. It won't do, Rodwell! You'd
better hand over the jewels. Give them to Miss Blanche and she'll hand
them to me. They're in a morocco case, I think, in your trousers pocket."

Rodwell produced them sullenly.

"It's your fault, you miserable little fool!" he muttered to Blanche. "I
ought to have known better than to have let you into the thing. Fancy
taking him for a mug!"

Mr. Bundercombe smiled a pleased smile.

"Come, come!" he said. "Things are not so bad. You might have been
caught!"

"Aren't you going to give information?" Rodwell asked quickly.

"Not a thought of it!" Mr. Bundercombe assured him, catching the case
Rodwell threw toward him. "I want, so far as possible, to see both sides
happy. Here, Paul; put these in your pocket!" he added, turning to me. "If
you take my advice, Rodwell," he concluded, "you'll stay where you are
until I return. I promise you that Mr. Walmsley and I will return alone,
and that I will give no intimation of your presence here to any person
whatsoever."

Rodwell was puzzled. He rose slowly to his feet, however, and walked
toward the basin at the other end of the apartment.

"All right!" he agreed sullenly. "I shall be here."

Mr. Bundercombe and I descended into the street. I was feeling a little
dazed. Mr. Bundercombe led the way into the Tarteran establishment, which
was still in a state of disorder. He asked to speak to the principal, who
came forward, still looking very perturbed.

"Sorry to hear of this robbery!" Mr. Bundercombe said. "Have they caught
the fellow?"

"They caught the man in the motor car," the manager groaned; "but he had
no jewels on him and my people can't swear to him. He seems to have a very
coherent story."

"Have you communicated with the police?" Mr. Bundercombe asked.

The manager stretched out his hand.

"Four of them are in the place now," he answered, a little despairingly.
"What's the good? The fellow's got away! He's got the finest necklace in
the shop with him, gems worth twenty thousand pounds."

Mr. Bundercombe nodded sympathetically.

"Have you offered a reward yet?"

"We can't do everything in ten minutes!" the manager replied, a little
testily. "We shall offer one, of course."

"What amount are you prepared to go to?" Mr. Bundercombe asked.

The man looked at him eagerly.

"Do you mean, sir--" he began.

Mr. Bundercombe stretched out his hands.

"You may search me!" he interrupted. "I have nothing in the way of jewels
on me. My name is Joseph H. Bundercombe and I have a house in Prince's
Gardens. This is my son-in-law-to-be, Mr. Walmsley, M.P. for
Bedfordshire."

The manager bowed.

"I know you quite well, sir," he said, "and Mr. Walmsley, of course; both
he and many of his relatives are valued clients of ours. But about the
jewels?"

"What reward do you offer?"

"Five hundred pounds," was the prompt reply; "more, if necessary."

Mr. Bundercombe smiled approvingly.

"Circumstances," he explained, "of a peculiar nature, into which I am
quite sure it will suit your purpose not to inquire, have enabled me to
claim the reward and to restore to you the jewels."

The manager gripped him by the arm.

"Come into the office at once!" he begged.

We followed him into a little room at the back of the shop. He was
trembling all over.

"No questions asked?" Mr. Bundercombe insisted.

"Not the shadow of one!" the manager agreed. "I don't care if--pardon me,
sir--if you stole them yourself! The loss of those jewels would do the
firm more harm than I can explain to you."

Mr. Bundercombe turned toward me and I produced the case. The manager
seized it eagerly, opened it, turned on the electric light and closed the
case again with a great sigh of relief. He held out his hand.

"Mr. Bundercombe," he said, "I don't care how you got these. I have been
robbed three times and put the matter into the hands of the police--and
never recovered a single stone! I'd shake hands with the man who stole
them so long as I got them back. How will you have the reward, sir?"

"Notes, if you can manage it," Mr. Bundercombe replied.

The manager went to his safe and counted over notes and gold to the amount
of five hundred pounds, which Mr. Bundercombe buttoned up in his pockets.

"I ask you now, sir," he said, "for your word of honor that you will not
have us followed or make any further inquiries into this affair."

"It is given--freely given!" the manager promised. "When you leave this
establishment I shall turn my back to you. You may hand over the notes to
whosoever you like upon the pavement outside and it won't concern me.
Nor," he added, "shall I tell the police for at least half an hour that I
have the necklace. They deserve a little extra trouble for letting the
fellow get away."

Mr. Bundercombe and I left the shop and ascended the stairs leading to the
manicure parlor. Rodwell, who had bathed his face and made a complete
change of toilet, was pacing up and down the little room. Blanche, too,
was there, still pale and weeping.

"Now," Mr. Bundercombe began, as he carefully closed the door behind him,
"I told you a few minutes ago I was neither on your side nor on the side
of the law. I am about to prove it. I have returned the jewels to
Tarteran's, no questions to be asked, and I've got the reward. There you
are, young lady!" he added, placing the roll of notes and a handful of
gold in her hand. "You have given me a week or so of intense interest and
amusement. There is your reward for it. If you want to divide it with your
friend it's nothing to do with me. Take it and run along. So far as
regards this little establishment the rent is paid for another three
months; but, so far as regards my connection with it, I think I needn't
explain--"

"That you've been fooling me!" the girl interrupted, a faint smile at the
corners of her lips. "Do you know, sometimes I suspected that you weren't
in earnest! And then one day I saw your wife--and I wasn't sure!"

"Good morning!" Mr. Bundercombe said severely. "Come along, Paul!"

CHAPTER XV--LORD PORTHONING'S LESSON

Mr. Bundercombe laid his hand compellingly on my arm. "Who's the
wizened-up little insect, with a snarl on his face?" he inquired of me
earnestly.

My slight impulse of irritation at such a description applied to one of my
wedding guests passed when I looked up and saw the person to whom Mr.
Bundercombe had directed my attention. I recognized the adequacy of the
wording."

"That," I replied, "is the Earl of Porthoning."

"Kind of connection, isn't he?" Mr. Bundercombe inquired.

I nodded.

"His son married my sister."

Mr. Bundercombe regarded him with a certain wistfulness which I did not at
that moment understand. Just then Lord Porthoning made his way toward us.
As I watched him approach I realized more than ever the justice of Mr.
Bundercombe's description. He was undersized, bent nearly double, and on
his wizened face and shining out of his narrow black eyes was an
indescribable expression of malevolence. Even the smile with which he
greeted me had something unpleasant in it.

"Well, Paul!" he exclaimed. "Well, my boy, so you're hooked at last, are
you?"

Considering that I was enjoying a few minutes' respite in my task of
helping Eve receive our wedding guests, the statement, though crude, was
obvious enough.

"Glad to see you, Lord Porthoning!" I said, lying miserably. "Do you know
my father-in-law, Mr. Bundercombe?"

Mr. Bundercombe extended his ready hand, which my connection, however,
appeared not to see.

"Yes, yes!" he admitted. "Some one pointed him out to me. I asked who on
earth it could be. No offense, mind," Lord Porthoning continued; "but I
hate all Americans and our connections with them. I have been looking at
your presents, Paul. A poorish lot--a poorish lot! Now I was at Dick
Stanley's wedding last week--married Colonel Morrison's daughter, you
know. Never saw such jewelry in my life! Four necklaces; and a tiara from
the Duchess of Westshire that must have been worth a cool ten thousand
pounds."

"I am sorry my wedding presents do not meet with your approval," I
remarked. "Personally I think it is very kind of my friends to send me
anything at all."

"Rubbish, Paul! Rubbish!" my amiable connection interjected irritably.
"Don't talk like an idiot! You know they send you things because they've
got to. You've been through it yourself. Must have cost you a pretty penny
in your time sending out wedding presents! Now you reap the harvest."

"I suppose," I observed dryly, "that yours is the reasonable point of
view."

"Absolutely, my dear fellow--absolutely!" Lord Porthoning declared. "Of
course you couldn't expect quite the same enthusiasm on the part of your
friends when you marry a young lady who is a stranger to all of them and
who comes from the backwoods of America. Can't think how it is you young
Englishmen can marry nothing, nowadays, unless it shows its legs upon the
stage or has a transatlantic drawl. I am going in to see if the champagne
they're opening now is any better. The first glass I had was horrid!"

My father-in-law watched him disappear through the crowd, and stood
patiently by my side while I exchanged greetings with a few newly arrived
friends.

"Say!" he observed presently, as soon as an opportunity rose for private
conversation. "He's a pleasant old gentleman, that connection of yours!"

"Glad you think so," I answered. "I don't call myself a bad-natured
fellow, and to-day I feel inclined to be friends with every one; but I
tell you frankly I can't bear the sight of Lord Porthoning. He has to be
asked, but he's like a wet blanket wherever he goes."

Mr. Bundercombe glanced round a moment. Then he leaned toward me. His
manner was earnest--almost pleading.

"Paul," he said, dropping his voice to a whisper, "don't you think it's up
to us to give a disagreeable little worm like that a bit of a lesson, eh?
His lordship has his own way too much. Now if you'll leave it to me I'll
give him just a kind of a scare--a shake-up, you know--no real harm; just
teach him, perhaps, not to open his mouth so much. What do you say, Paul?"

I turned and looked at my father-in-law. His expression was that of a
schoolboy begging for a holiday. His head was a little on one side, his
lips were parted in an insinuating smile. It was a weak moment with me. So
far as such a term can be applied to such an event, the wedding ceremony,
which was just over, had been a great success. Eve had looked simply as
beautiful as a beautiful girl can look on the one morning of her life.

My father-in-law had been dignified and correct in his behavior, and a
merciful misadventure of Mrs. Bundercombe with a policeman three days
previously, which had led to her being arrested with a hammer in her
satchel, had finally resulted in her being forced to partake of the
hospitality of Holloway for the period of fourteen days; in fact,
everything just then with me was _couleur de rose_.

The presents my crabbed connection spoke of so lightly had been
supplemented only an hour before by surely the most magnificent wedding
offering from my father-in-law that any man could have--the house in which
we were and the whole of the furniture. It was hard to refuse Mr.
Bundercombe anything. Before I knew exactly what had happened, my smile
had answered his.

"Well," I said, "I rely upon your discretion, Mr. Bundercombe. A little
lesson would certainly do Porthoning no harm."

Whereupon Mr. Bundercombe, fearing apparently that I might change my mind,
vanished among the crowd; and the matter, to tell the truth, disappeared
from my mind for a short time. I was surrounded by friends, and the
occasion, joyful though it was, possessed a certain unique sentimentality
that I found sufficiently absorbing. Eve brought me the latest telegram
from Mrs. Bundercombe, which we read together:

Insist upon ceremony being postponed! Am commencing hunger strike. Shall
be with you in three days.

"Your stepmother's intentions," I remarked to Eve, "may be excellent, but
I don't think they'll bring her so far as the Austrian Tyrol."

Eve's eyes were lit with laughter. A moment later, however, she sighed.

"Poor dad!" she murmured. "I'm afraid he'll have a terrible time when she
does come out!"

"He'd have a worse if she knew!" I rejoined, half to myself.

Eve looked at me suspiciously. She drew a little nearer.

"Paul," she whispered in my ear, "is it true that the inspector who had
her followed all that morning was a friend of dad's?" I shook my head.

"I am giving nobody away," I replied firmly. "Of course there were certain
troubles to be got over in connection with your mother's presence to-day.
You remember her saying, for instance, that she would break every bottle
of wine she found being served?"

Eve nodded.

"Perhaps," she murmured, with a half smile, "it is for the best. Where is
dad?"

I glanced round the room and at that moment I saw Mr. Bundercombe making
signs to me from the doorway. I hurried toward him and he drew me out into
the hall.

"Things are in train, Paul," he announced cheerfully. "Now all I want from
you is just the smallest amount of help in this little affair."

I looked at him blankly. I had forgotten all about Lord Porthoning.

"It's a very small share indeed," Mr. Bundercombe continued pleadingly;
"but such as it is it's up to you to take it on at this moment. There the
little insect goes into the cloakroom. He has gone for his hat and coat.
All you've got to do is just to follow him and ask him to come back for
one moment. That little room on the left, across the hall, is empty. Bring
him into that. Leave the rest to me."

"You're not going too far, are you?" I asked. "You see, after all, the old
blackguard is a sort of connection."

Mr. Bundercombe laid his hand on my shoulder.

"My boy," he said, "there will be nothing but just a little incident that
you can tell to Eve and laugh about on your way to the station. That I
promise you."

I nodded and crossed the hall. Lord Porthoning was preparing to leave.
"Have my car called up!" he ordered the footman from the doorstep. "Mind,
I'm not going to hang about on the pavement in this sun for any one. If
that's the motor waiting for the young people it'll have to get out of the
way. Lord Porthoning's car at once, young fellow! Hello, Paul!" he added.
"Come to see me off, eh?"

"Could I have just one word with you, Lord Porthoning?" I begged, as
casually as possible.

"Be quick, then! If I haven't wished you happiness it's because I can't
see what chance you have of getting it. But I suppose you're like all
other young fools on their wedding day--you think the sun's shining only
for you!"

"I am afraid," I retorted, a little nettled, "that I had not noticed the
absence of your good wishes. I wish to speak to you on another matter."

Lord Porthoning turned quickly and looked at me. There was a change in his
expression that puzzled me.

"Well, out with it!" he snapped.

I pointed to the door across the hall.

"I want you to step this way," I said firmly.

I expected an irritable outburst, but to my surprise he turned and
preceded me toward the door. We entered the room and found Mr. Bundercombe
there alone. Lord Porthoning looked from one to the other of us. His heavy
gray eyebrows were drawn together; his face was the embodiment of a snarl.

"Now what in the name of all that's reasonable," he began in his hard,
rasping voice, "made you bring me in here? I don't want to better my
acquaintance with that old man, your father-in-law! I'd a good deal rather
he'd stayed in his own country. I don't like the looks of him--I hate fat
men! Don't keep me waiting here, Paul. If you want my advice I'll give it
to you. If you want anything else you won't get it."

Mr. Bundercombe had moved softly round until he was standing with his back
to the door. His manner was the one he had assumed so successfully in
church--dignified, almost solemn.

"Paul," he said, "I asked you to invite this person in here because, now
that you are Eve's husband, I felt that the interests of your family must
be considered before my own inclinations. In my country we treat all men
alike, and I am bound to say that if you'd been married to Eve out in
Okata, and I'd seen any old skunk, whether he'd been an earl or what he
looks like--a secondhand clothes dealer--sneaking Eve's presents, I'd have
had him in prison before you'd reached the station."

"Mr. Bundercombe!" I exclaimed, horrified; it seemed to me that my father-
in-law was carrying this affair too far.

Lord Porthoning, from whom I had expected a torrent of fierce abuse, stood
looking at us both with an expression no written words could portray. His
cheeks were ashen. His hands, which were crossed upon the knob of his
cane, were shaking. Mr. Bundercombe extended his right hand.

"Sir," he concluded sternly, "for the sake of the conventions of the
country in which I find myself, and bearing in mind your connection with
my son-in-law, I have kept the police out of this interview. Be so good as
to hand over to Paul the emerald brooch you have secreted in your coat
pocket!"

The pall of silence seemed suddenly removed. Lord Porthoning leaned
forward. Then he began to talk. Any sympathy I might have felt for him,
any feeling I may have had that my father-in-law's retributive scheme was
of too drastic a nature, vanished before he had finished the first three
sentences. Mr. Bundercombe, upon whom he heaped abuse of the most virulent
character, remained unmoved. When at last Lord Porthoning paused for
breath, I turned toward my father-in-law.

"What does this mean?" I asked.

"It means," Mr. Bundercombe explained, "that this gentleman, who finds my
daughter's presents so inadequate, was actually leaving your house with an
emerald brooch belonging to Eve in the righthand pocket of his coat!"

Lord Porthoning was once more incoherent. This time, however, I stopped
him. I was already heartily sick of the affair, but at this stage I could
not back out.

"Lord Porthoning," I said, "there is no necessity for such vigorous
denials. The matter is easily arranged. You had better permit me to
examine the pocket in question."

"I'll see you and your common bully of a father-in-law in hell before I
allow either of you to touch me or my clothing!" my pleasant connection
declared fiercely. "Get out of my way, both of you! And be thankful if you
don't have to answer for this outrage in a police court!"

He swaggered toward the door. Mr. Bundercombe, who had appeared to stand
on one side, suddenly caught him by the shoulders.

"Feel in his right-hand pocket, Paul!" he bade me.

I did so and promptly produced the brooch. Lord Porthoning's eyes seemed
almost to start from his head. I could see that he suddenly became limp in
Mr. Bundercombe's grasp. His eyes were fixed on the jewels and his
amazement was undeniable. Mr. Bundercombe winked at me over his head.

"What is the meaning of this, Lord Porthoning?" I demanded as sternly as I
could.

My courage was failing me. I felt that the joke, after all, had been a
severe one. Lord Porthoning seemed almost on the point of collapse. His
eyes never once left the brooch which I was holding.

"I didn't take it!" he gasped. "I swear I didn't take it!"

I was anxious now to finish the affair.

"Lord Porthoning," I said, "I will take your word. You say you never took
the brooch. Very well; we will assume, for the sake of the family, that it
found its way into your pocket by accident."

Lord Porthoning felt his forehead. There were big drops of sweat standing
out there. There was something in his extreme agitation that was, in a
way, incomprehensible. He edged toward the door.

"I didn't take it!" he muttered. "Let me go! Let me get away!"

Mr. Bundercombe stood on one side. My hand was on the handle of the door.
I looked at my father-in-law questioningly. My sympathies were now almost
with the enemy, but I felt bound to see the affair through.

"It was you who discovered this little accident," I remarked. "I think you
will agree with me that it is best to say nothing more about it."

Mr. Bundercombe once more winked at me solemnly over the head of my
stricken connection.

"I quite agree with you, Paul," he said. "Under the circumstances we will
let nothing happen to disturb the festivities and harmony of the day. Lord
Porthoning certainly will not object if we just satisfy ourselves that the
brooch was the only instance of--momentary aberration; shall we call it?"

If Lord Porthoning's attitude had been a little mysterious before it was
absolutely incomprehensible now. He stood suddenly upright and brandished
his cane over his head.

"If either of you touch me," he shouted fiercely, "I'll break your skulls!
This is blackmail! I'll send for the police! Let me go!"

His sudden fit of anger, justifiable though it certainly seemed on the
face of it, nevertheless took both Mr. Bundercombe and myself by surprise.
The former, indeed, was in the act of opening the door, when he paused.
Once more he caught my connection by the collar and thrust his hand into
the other coat pocket. When he withdrew it it was filled with rings, a
bracelet and a pendant.

He threw them silently--a glittering heap--on the table. Without a word he
thrust his hand in once more and brought out a little black ivory carving
of a Japanese monk, which was perhaps one of the most valuable of my
offerings.

There was a blankness in Mr. Bundercombe's expression that I could not
understand.

I frowned. It seemed to me the affair had now gone much too far. Lord
Porthoning had staggered to a chair and was sitting there with his face
buried in his hands. He was a stricken man. I turned to my father-in-law.

"This is too much of a good thing, sir," I whispered angrily. "The brooch
was all right enough, so far as it went, and he deserved a lesson; but
these other things----"

A look in Mr. Bundercombe's face suddenly froze the words upon my lips. He
leaned over toward me.

"Paul," he declared earnestly, "on my honor I put nothing into his pocket
except the brooch. I knew no more of those things," he added, pointing to
the table, "than you did!"

I was speechless. Lord Porthoning looked up. I had never seen a face quite
like his in my life. One side of it seemed drawn with pain. He checked a
sob. His fingers gripped at the air as he spoke.

"Paul," he begged hysterically, "don't give me away! I give you my word of
honor--I give you my word as a Porthoning--I can't help it! You know what
they call the damned thing when women have it--kleptomania, isn't it? I
tell you I can't see these things without that same horrible, fascinating,
cruel instinct! My hands are on them before I know it. But----" he broke
off. "It's sending me mad, Paul; for, as I live, I never put hands on that
brooch!"

"How long has this been going on?" I asked, almost mechanically. "Perhaps
you are the reason that it has become the fashion to send detectives to
guard wedding presents."

"I am the reason!" Lord Porthoning confessed, his voice shaking. "Paul,
somehow I believe--I believe this has stopped it. You'll kill the
instinct. Listen! You are off directly. Let this gentleman, your father-
in-law, come round to my house. I will restore to him, I swear, every
article I have ever taken in this fashion. He can find out the owners by
degrees, and I promise that I will never again attend a wedding reception
so long as I live!"

Outside I could hear them calling for me. I glanced at the clock. It was
within a few minutes of the time fixed for our departure. Mr. Bundercombe
nodded to me.

"Very well," I agreed. "It shall be as you say."

"I'll wait here," Lord Porthoning said in a trembling tone. "Mr.
Bundercombe can come back for me after he has seen you off. He can go home
with me in the motor. Take--take care of those things."

Mr. Bundercombe covered them over with an antimacassar. We left Lord
Porthoning sitting there and went out into the hall, where Eve was already
waiting. Mr. Bundercombe was a little unnerved, but he pulled himself
together.

"Word of honor, Paul!" he declared; "I never saw the old rat take a thing!
I simply landed him with the brooch. It was not until he was going out
that I caught a glimpse of those other things in his pocket."

We drove off ten minutes later. I looked out of the motor as we swung
round into the main thoroughfare. Behind the window of the little sitting
room I saw the pale, almost ghastly face of Lord Porthoning. He caught my
eye and waved his hand weakly.

On the pavement in front of the striped awning stood Mr. Bundercombe--
large, beaming, both hands outstretched. Eve waved her handkerchief. As we
finally disappeared she glanced toward me.

"Has dad been up to anything, Paul?" she asked. "He has just that kind of
satisfied expression that always used to terrify me."

"Like a cat licking its whiskers after a stolen saucer of milk!" I
suggested.

She laughed.

"You mustn't make fun of dad," she begged. "He's such a dear!"

"I shall never attempt to make fun of your father," I assured her
fervently. "I think he is quite the most remarkable man I ever met! And
now----"

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