“Thirty-six, then back to ten.”
Mr. Grimm set the dial at thirty-six, and then, with his ear pressed closely against the polished door, turned the dial slowly back. Senor Rodriguez stood looking on helplessly, but none the less intently. The pointer read ten, then nine, eight, seven, five. Mr. Grimm gazed at it thoughtfully, after which he did it all over again, placidly and without haste.
“Now, we’ll look inside, please,” he requested, rising.
Senor Rodriguez unlocked the safe the while Mr. Grimm respectfully turned his eyes away, then pulled the door wide open. The books had been piled one on top of another and thrust into various pigeonholes at the top. Mr. Grimm understood that this disorder was the result of making room at the bottom for the bulk of gold, and asked no questions. Instead, he sat down upon the floor again.
“The lock on this private compartment at the top is broken,” he remarked after a moment.
“_Si, Senor_,” the diplomatist agreed. “Evidently the robbers were not content with only fifty thousand dollars in gold–they imagined that something else of value was hidden there.”
“Was there?” asked Mr. Grimm naively. He didn’t look around.
“Nothing of monetary value,” the senor explained. “There were some important state papers in there–they are there yet–but no money.”
“None of the papers was stolen?”
“No, Senor. There were only nine packets–they are there yet.”
“Contents all right?”
“Yes. I personally looked them over.”
Mr. Grimm drew out the packets of papers, one by one. They were all unsealed save the last. When he reached for that, Senor Rodriguez made a quick, involuntary motion toward it with his hand.
“This one’s sealed,” commented Mr. Grimm. “It doesn’t happen that you opened it and sealed it again?”
Senor Rodriguez stood staring at him blankly for a moment, then some sudden apprehension was aroused, for a startled look came into his eyes, and again he reached for the packet.
“_Dios mio_!” he exclaimed, “let me see, Senor.”
“Going to open it?” asked Mr. Grimm.
“Yes, Senor. I had not thought of it before.”
Mr. Grimm rose and walked over to the window where the light was better. He scrutinized the sealed packet closely. There were three red splotches of wax upon it, each impressed with the legation seal; the envelope was without marks otherwise. He turned and twisted it aimlessly, and peered curiously at the various seals, after which he handed it to the frankly impatient diplomatist.
Senor Rodriguez opened it, with nervous, twitching fingers. Mr. Grimm had turned toward the safe again, but he heard the crackle of parchment as some document was drawn out of the envelope, and then came a deep sigh of relief. Having satisfied his sudden fears for the safety of the paper, whatever it was, the senor placed it in another envelope and sealed it again with elaborate care. Mr. Grimm dropped into the swivel chair at the desk.
“Senor,” he inquired pleasantly, “your daughter and Miss Thorne were in this room yesterday afternoon?”
“Yes,” replied the diplomatist as if surprised at the question.
“What time, please?”
“About three o’clock. They were going out driving. Why?”
“And just where, please, did you find that handkerchief?” continued Mr. Grimm.
“Handkerchief?” repeated the diplomatist. “You mean Miss Thorne’s handkerchief?” He paused and regarded Mr. Grimm keenly. “Senor, what am I to understand from that question?”
“It was plain enough,” replied Mr. Grimm. “Where did you find that handkerchief?” There was silence for an instant. “In this room?”
“Yes,” replied Senor Rodriguez at last.
“Near the safe?” Mr. Grimm persisted.
“Yes,” came the slow reply, again. “Just here,” and he indicated a spot a little to the left of the safe.
“And _when_ did you find it? Yesterday afternoon? Last night? This morning?”
“This morning,” and without any apparent reason the diplomatist’s face turned deathly white.
“But, Senor–Senor, you are mistaken! There can be nothing–! A woman! Two hundred pounds of gold! Senor!”
Mr. Grimm was still pleasant about it; his curiosity was absolutely impersonal; his eyes, grown listless again, were turned straight into the other’s face.
“If that handkerchief had been there last night, Senor,” he resumed quietly, “wouldn’t you have noticed it when you placed the gold in the safe?”
Senor Rodriguez stared at him a long time.
“I don’t know,” he said, at last. He dropped back into a chair with his face in his hands. “Senor,” he burst out suddenly, impetuously, after a moment, “if the gold is not recovered I am ruined. You understand that better than I can tell you. It’s the kind of thing that could not be explained to my government.” He rose suddenly and faced the impassive young man, with merciless determination in his face. “You must find the gold, Senor,” he said.
“No matter who may be–who may suffer?” inquired Mr. Grimm.
“Find the gold, Senor!”
“Very well,” commented Mr. Grimm, without moving. “Do me the favor, please, to regain possession of the handkerchief you just returned to Miss Thorne, and to send to me here your secretary, Senor Diaz, and your servants, one by one. I shall question them alone. No, don’t be alarmed. Unless they know of the robbery they shall get no inkling of it from me. First, be good enough to replace the packet in the safe, and lock it.”
Senor Rodriguez replaced the packet without question, afterward locking the door, then went out. A moment later Senor Diaz appeared. He remained with Mr. Grimm for just eight minutes. Senor Rodriguez entered again as his secretary passed on, and laid a lace handkerchief on the desk. Mr. Grimm stared at it curiously for a long time.
“It’s the same handkerchief?”
“There’s no doubt whatever about it?”
“No, Senor, I got it by–!”
“It’s of no consequence,” interrupted Mr. Grimm. “Now the servants, please–the men first.”
The first of the men servants was in the room two minutes; the second–the butler–was there five minutes; one of the women was not questioned at all; the other remained ten minutes. Mr. Grimm followed her into the hall; Senor Rodriguez stood there helpless, impatient.
“Well?” he demanded eagerly.
“I’m going out a little while,” replied Mr. Grimm placidly. “No one has even an intimation of the affair–please keep the matter absolutely to yourself until I return.”
That was all. The door opened and closed, and he was gone.
At the end of an hour he returned, passed on through to the diplomatist’s private office, sat down in front of the locked safe again, and set the dial at thirty-six. Senor Rodriguez looked on, astonished, as Mr. Grimm pressed the soft rubber sounder of a stethoscope against the safe door and began turning the dial back toward ten, slowly, slowly. Thirty-five minutes later the lock clicked. Mr. Grimm rose, turned the handle, and pulled the safe door open.
“That’s how it was done,” he explained to the amazed diplomatist. “And now, please, have a servant hand my card to Miss Thorne.”
THE LACE HANDKERCHIEF
Still wearing the graceful, filmy morning gown, with an added touch, of scarlet in her hair–a single red rose–Miss Thorne came into the drawing-room where Mr. Grimm sat waiting. There was curiosity in her manner, thinly veiled, but the haunting smile still lingered about her lips. Mr. Grimm bowed low, and placed a chair for her, after which he stood for a time staring down at one slim, white hand at rest on the arm of the seat. At last, he, too, sat down.
“I believe,” he said slowly, without preliminaries, “this is your handkerchief?”
He offered the lacy trifle, odd in design, unique in workmanship, obviously of foreign texture, and she accepted it.
“Yes,” she agreed readily, “I must have dropped it again.”
“That is the one handed to you by Senor Rodriguez,” Mr. Grimm told her. “I think you said you lost it in his office yesterday afternoon?”
“Yes?” She nodded inquiringly.
“It may interest you to know that Senor Rodriguez’s butler positively identifies it as one he restored to you twice at dinner last evening, between seven and nine o’clock,” Mr. Grimm went on dispassionately.
“Indeed!” exclaimed Miss Thorne.
“The senor identifies it as one he found this morning in his office,” Mr. Grimm explained obligingly. “During the night fifty thousand dollars in gold were stolen from his safe.”
There was not the slightest change of expression in her face; the blue-gray eyes were still inquiring in their gaze, the white hands still at rest, the scarlet lips still curled slightly, an echo of a smile.
“No force was used in opening the safe,” Mr. Grimm resumed. “It was unlocked. It’s an old model and I have demonstrated how it could have been opened either with the assistance of a stethoscope, which catches the sound of the tumbler in the lock, or by a person of acute hearing.”
Miss Thorne sat motionless, waiting.
“All this means–what?” she inquired, at length.
“I’ll trouble you, please, to return the money,” requested Mr. Grimm courteously. “No reason appears why you should have taken it. But I’m not seeking reasons, nor am I seeking disagreeable publicity–only the money.”
“It seems to me you attach undue importance to the handkerchief,” she objected.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Mr. Grimm remarked. “It would be useless, even tedious, to attempt to disprove a burglar theory, but against it is the difficulty of entrance, the weight of the gold, the ingenious method of opening the safe, and the assumption that not more than six persons knew the money was in the safe; while a person in the house _might_ have learned it in any of a dozen ways. And, in addition, is the fact that the handkerchief is odd, therefore noticeable. A lace expert assures me there’s probably not another like it in the world.”
He stopped. Miss Thorne’s eyes sparkled and a smile seemed to be tugging at the corners of her mouth. She spread out the handkerchief on her knees.
“You could identify this again, of course?” she queried.
She thoughtfully crumpled up the bit of lace in both hands, then opened them. There were two handkerchiefs now–they were identical.
“Which is it, please?” she asked.
If Mr. Grimm was disappointed there was not a trace of it on his face. She laughed outright, gleefully, mockingly, then, demurely:
“Pardon me! You see, it’s absurd. The handkerchief the butler restored to me at dinner, after I lost one in the senor’s office, might have been either of these, or one of ten other duplicates in my room, all given to me by her Maj–I mean,” she corrected quickly, “by a friend in Europe.” She was silent for a moment. “Is that all?”
“No,” replied Mr. Grimm gravely, decisively. “I’m not satisfied. I shall insist upon the return of the money, and if it is not forthcoming I dare say Count di Rosini, the Italian ambassador, would be pleased to give his personal check rather than have the matter become public.” She started to interrupt; he went on. “In any event you will be requested to leave the country.”
Then, and not until then, a decided change came over Miss Thorne’s face. A deeper color leaped to her cheeks, the smile faded from her lips, and there was a flash of uneasiness in her eyes.
“But if I am innocent?” she protested.
“You must prove it,” continued Mr. Grimm mercilessly. “Personally, I am convinced, and Count di Rosini has practically assured me that–“
“It’s unjust!” she interrupted passionately. “It’s–it’s–you have proved nothing. It’s unheard of! It’s beyond–!”
Suddenly she became silent. A minute, two minutes, three minutes passed; Mr. Grimm waited patiently.
“Will you give me time and opportunity to prove my innocence?” she demanded finally. “And if I _do_ convince you–?”
“I should be delighted to believe that I have made a mistake,” Mr. Grimm assured her. “How much time? One day? Two days?”
“I will let you know within an hour at your office,” she told him.
Mr. Grimm rose.
“And meanwhile, in case of accident, I shall look to Count di Rosini for adjustment,” he added pointedly. “Good morning.”
One hour and ten minutes later he received this note, unsigned:
“Closed carriage will stop for you at southeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street to-night at one.”
He was there; the carriage was on time; and my lady of mystery was inside. He stepped in and they swung out into Pennsylvania Avenue, noiselessly over the asphalt.
“Should the gold be placed in your hands now, within the hour,” she queried solicitously, “would it be necessary for you to know who was the–the thief?”
“It would,” Mr. Grimm responded without hesitation.
“Even if it destroyed a reputation?” she pleaded.
“The Secret Service rarely destroys a reputation, Miss Thorne, although it holds itself in readiness to do so. I dare say in this case there would be no arrest or prosecution, because of–of reasons which appear to be good.”
“There wouldn’t?” and there was a note of eagerness in her voice. “The identity of the guilty person would never appear?”
“It would become a matter of record in our office, but beyond that I think not–at least in this one instance.”
Miss Thorne sat silent for a block or more.
“You’ll admit, Mr. Grimm, that you have forced me into a most remarkable position. You seemed convinced of my guilt, and, if you’ll pardon me, without reason; then you made it compulsory upon me to establish my innocence. The only way for me to do that was to find the guilty one. I have done it, and I’m sorry, because it’s a little tragedy.”
Mr. Grimm waited.
“It’s a girl high in diplomatic society. Her father’s position is an honorable rather than a lucrative one; he has no fortune. This girl moves in a certain set devoted to bridge, and stakes are high. She played and won, and played and won, and on and on, until her winnings were about eight thousand dollars. Then luck turned. She began to lose. Her money went, but she continued to play desperately. Finally some old family jewels were pawned without her father’s knowledge, and ultimately they were lost. One day she awoke to the fact that she owed some nine or ten thousand dollars in bridge debts. They were pressing and there was no way to meet them. This meant exposure and utter ruin, and women do strange things, Mr. Grimm, to postpone such an ending to social aspirations. I know this much is true, for she related it all to me herself.
“At last, in some way–a misplaced letter, perhaps, or a word overheard–she learned that fifty thousand dollars would be in the legation safe overnight, and evidently she learned the precise night.” She paused a moment. “Here is the address of a man in Baltimore, Thomas Q. Griswold,” and she passed a card to Mr. Grimm, who sat motionless, listening. “About four years ago the combination on the legation safe was changed. This man was sent here to make the change, therefore some one besides Senor Rodriguez _does_ know the combination. I have communicated with this man to-day, for I saw the possibility of just such a thing as this instead of your stethoscope. By a trick and a forged letter this girl obtained the combination from this man.”
Mr. Grimm drew a long breath.
“She intended to take, perhaps, only what she desperately needed–but at sight of it all–do you see what must have been the temptation then? We get out here.”
There were many unanswered questions in Mr. Grimm’s mind. He repressed them for the time, stepped out and assisted Miss Thorne to alight. The carriage had turned out of Pennsylvania Avenue, and at the moment he didn’t quite place himself. A narrow passageway opened before them–evidently the rear entrance to a house possibly in the next street. Miss Thorne led the way unhesitatingly, cautiously unlocked the door, and together they entered a hall. Then there was a short flight of stairs, and they stepped into a room, one of a suite. She closed the door and turned on the lights.
“The bags of gold are in the next room,” she said with the utmost composure.
Mr. Grimm dragged them out of a dark closet, opened one–there were ten–and allowed the coins to dribble through his fingers. Finally he turned and stared at Miss Thorne, who, pallid and weary, stood looking on.
“Where are we?” he asked. “What house is this?”
“The Venezuelan legation,” she answered. “We are standing less than forty feet from the safe that was robbed. You see how easy–!”
“And whose room?” inquired Mr. Grimm slowly.
“Must I answer?” she asked appealingly.
“Senorita Rodriguez–my hostess! Don’t you see what you’ve made me do? She and Mr. Cadwallader made the trip to Baltimore in his automobile, and–and–!” She stopped. “He knows nothing of it,” she added.
“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Grimm.
He stood looking at her in silence for a moment, staring deeply into the pleading eyes; and a certain tense expression about his lips passed. For an instant her hand trembled on his arm, and he caught the fragrance of her hair.
“Where is she now?” he asked.
“Playing bridge,” replied Miss Thorne, with a sad little smile. “It is always so–at least twice a week, and she rarely returns before two or half-past.” She extended both hands impetuously, entreatingly. “Please be generous, Mr. Grimm. You have the gold; don’t destroy her.”
Senor Rodriguez, the minister from Venezuela, found the gold in his safe on the following morning, with a brief note from Mr. Grimm, in which there was no explanation of how or where it had been found…. And two hours later Monsieur Boissegur, ambassador from France to the United States, disappeared from the embassy, vanished!
THE VANISHING DIPLOMATIST
It was three days after the ambassador’s disappearance that Monsieur Rigolot, secretary of the French embassy and temporary _charge-d’affaires_, reported the matter to Chief Campbell in the Secret Service Bureau, adding thereto a detailed statement of several singular incidents following close upon it. He told it in order, concisely and to the point, while Grimm and his chief listened.
“Monsieur Boissegur, the ambassador, you understand, is a man whose habits are remarkably regular,” he began. “He has made it a rule to be at his desk every morning at ten o’clock, and between that time and one o’clock he dictates his correspondence, and clears up whatever routine work there is before him. I have known him for many years, and have been secretary of the embassy under him in Germany and Japan and this country. I have never known him to vary this general order of work unless because of illness, or necessary absence.
“Well, Monsieur, last Tuesday–this is Friday–the ambassador was at his desk as usual. He dictated a dozen or more letters, and had begun another–a private letter to his sister in Paris. He was well along in this letter when, without any apparent reason, he rose from his desk and left the room, closing the door behind him. His stenographer’s impression was that some detail of business had occurred to him, and he had gone into the general office farther down the hall to attend to it. I may say, Monsieur, that this impression seemed strengthened by the fact that he left a fresh cigarette burning in his ash tray, and his pen was behind his ear. It was all as if he had merely stepped out, intending to return immediately–the sort of thing, Monsieur, that any man might have done.
“It so happened that when he went out he left a sentence of his letter incomplete. I tell you this to show that the impulse to go must have been a sudden one, yet there was nothing in his manner, so his stenographer says, to indicate excitement, or any other than his usual frame of mind. It was about five minutes of twelve o’clock–high noon–when he went out. When he didn’t return immediately the stenographer began transcribing the letters. At one o’clock Monsieur Boissegur still had not returned and his stenographer went to luncheon.”
As he talked some inbred excitement seemed to be growing upon him, due, perhaps, to his recital of the facts, and he paused at last to regain control of himself. Incidentally he wondered if Mr. Grimm was taking the slightest interest in what he was saying. Certainly there was nothing in his impassive face to indicate it.
“Understand, Monsieur,” the secretary continued, after a moment, “that I knew nothing whatever of all this until late that afternoon–that is, Tuesday afternoon about five o’clock. I was engaged all day upon some important work in my own office, and had had no occasion to see Monsieur Boissegur since a word or so when he came in at ten o’clock. My attention was called to the affair finally by his stenographer, Monsieur Netterville, who came to me for instructions. He had finished the letters and the ambassador had not returned to sign them. At this point I began an investigation, Monsieur, and the further I went the more uneasy I grew.
“Now, Monsieur, there are only two entrances to the embassy–the front door, where a servant is in constant attendance from nine in the morning until ten at night, and the rear door, which can only be reached through the kitchen. Neither of the two men who had been stationed at the front door had seen the ambassador since breakfast, therefore he could not have gone out that way. _Comprenez_? It seemed ridiculous, Monsieur, but then I went to the kitchen. The _chef_ had been there all day, and he had not seen the ambassador at all. I inquired further. No one in the embassy, not a clerk, nor a servant, nor a member of the ambassador’s family had seen him since he left his office.”
Again he paused and ran one hand across his troubled brow.
“Monsieur,” he went on, and there was a tense note in his voice, “the ambassador of France had disappeared, gone, vanished! We searched the house from the cellar to the servants’ quarters, even the roof, but there was no trace of him. The hat he usually wore was in the hall, and all his other hats were accounted for. You may remember, Monsieur, that Tuesday was cold, but all his top-coats were found in their proper places. So it seems, Monsieur,” and repression ended in a burst of excitement, “if he left the embassy he did not go out by either door, and he went without hat or coat!”
He stopped helplessly and his gaze alternated inquiringly between the benevolent face of the chief and the expressionless countenance of Mr. Grimm.
“_If_ he left the embassy?” Mr. Grimm repented. “If your search of the house proved conclusively that he wasn’t there, he _did_ leave it, didn’t he?”
Monsieur Rigolot stared at him blankly for a moment, then nodded.
“And there are windows, you know,” Mr. Grimm went on, then: “As I understand it, Monsieur, no one except you and the stenographer saw the ambassador after ten o’clock in the morning?”
“_Oui, Monsieur. C’est–_” Monsieur Rigolot began excitedly. “I beg pardon. I believe that is correct.”
“You saw him about ten, you say; therefore no one except the stenographer saw him after ten o’clock?”
“That is also true, as far as I know.”
“Any callers? Letters? Telegrams? Telephone messages?”
“I made inquiries in that direction, Monsieur,” was the reply. “I have the words of the servants at the door and of the stenographer that there were no callers, and the statement of the stenographer that there were no telephone calls or telegrams. There were only four letters for him personally. He left them all on his desk–here they are.”
Mr. Grimm looked them over leisurely. They were commonplace enough, containing nothing that might be construed into a reason for the disappearance.
“The letters Monsieur Boissegur had dictated were laid on his desk by the stenographer,” Monsieur Rigolot rushed on volubly, excitedly. “In the anxiety and uneasiness following the disappearance they were allowed to remain there overnight. On Wednesday morning, Monsieur”–and he hesitated impressively–“_those letters bore his signature in his own handwriting_!”
Mr. Grimm turned his listless eyes full upon Monsieur Rigolot’s perturbed face for one scant instant.
“No doubt of it being his signature?” he queried.
“_Non, Monsieur, non!_” the secretary exclaimed emphatically. “_Vous avez_–that is, I have known his signature for years. There is no doubt. The letters were not of a private nature. If you would care to look at copies of them?”
He offered the duplicates tentatively. Mr. Grimm read them over slowly, the while Monsieur Rigolot sat nervously staring at him. They, too, seemed meaningless as bearing on the matter in hand. Finally, Mr. Grimm nodded, and Monsieur Rigolot resumed:
“And Wednesday night, Monsieur, another strange thing happened. Monsieur Boissegur smokes many cigarettes, of a kind made especially for him in France, and shipped to him here. He keeps them in a case on his dressing-table. On Thursday morning his valet reported to me that _this case of cigarettes had disappeared_!”
“Of course,” observed Mr. Grimm, “Monsieur Boissegur has a latch-key to the embassy?”
“Anything unusual happen last night–that is, Thursday night?”
“Nothing, Monsieur–that is, nothing we can find.”
Mr. Grimm was silent for a time and fell to twisting the seal ring on his finger. Mr. Campbell turned around and moved a paper weight one inch to the left, where it belonged, while Monsieur Rigolot, disappointed at their amazing apathy, squirmed uneasily in his chair.
“It would appear, then,” Mr. Grimm remarked musingly, “that after his mysterious disappearance the ambassador has either twice returned to his house at night, or else sent some one there, first to bring the letters to him for signature, and later to get his cigarettes?”
“_Certainement, Monsieur_–I mean, that seems to be true. But where is he? Why should he not come back? What does it mean? Madame Boissegur is frantic, prostrated! She wanted me to go to the police, but I did not think it wise that it should become public, so I came here.”
“Very well,” commented Mr. Grimm. “Let it rest as it is. Meanwhile you may reassure madame. Point out to her that if Monsieur Boissegur signed the letters Tuesday night he was, at least, alive; and if he came or sent for the cigarettes Wednesday night, he was still alive. I shall call at the embassy this afternoon. No, it isn’t advisable to go with you now. Give me your latch-key, please.”
Monsieur Rigolot produced the key and passed it over without a word.
“And one other thing,” Mr. Grimm continued, “please collect all the revolvers that may be in the house and take charge of them yourself. If any one, by chance, heard a burglar prowling around there to-night he might shoot, and in that event either kill Monsieur Boissegur or–or me!”
When the secretary had gone Mr. Campbell idly drummed on his desk as he studied the face of his subordinate.
“So much!” he commented finally.
“It’s Miss Thorne again,” said the young man as if answering a question.
“Perhaps these reports I have received to-day from the Latin capitals may aid you in dispelling that mystery,” Campbell suggested, and Mr. Grimm turned to them eagerly. “Meanwhile our royal visitor, Prince Benedetto d’Abruzzi, remains unknown?”
The young man’s teeth closed with a snap.
“It’s only a question of time, Chief,” he said abruptly. “I’ll find him–I’ll find him!”
And he sat down to read the reports.
A CONFERENCE IN THE DARK
The white rays of a distant arc light filtered through the half-drawn velvet hangings and laid a faintly illumined path across the ambassador’s desk; the heavy leather chairs were mere impalpable splotches in the shadows; the cut-glass knobs of a mahogany cabinet caught the glint of light and reflected it dimly. Outside was the vague, indefinable night drone of a city asleep, unbroken by any sound that was distinguishable, until finally there came the distant boom of a clock. It struck twice.
Seated on a couch in one corner of the ambassador’s office was Mr. Grimm. He was leaning against the high arm of leather, with his feet on the seat, thoughtfully nursing his knees. If his attitude indicated anything except sheer comfort, it was that he was listening. He had been there for two hours, wide-awake, and absolutely motionless. Five, ten, fifteen minutes more passed, and then Mr. Grimm heard the grind and whir of an automobile a block or so away, coming toward the embassy. Now it was in front.
“Honk! Hon-on-onk!” it called plaintively. “Hon-on-onk! Honk!”
The signal! At last! The automobile went rushing on, full tilt, while Mr. Grimm removed his feet from the seat and dropped them noiselessly to the floor. Thus, with his hands on his knees, and listening, listening with every faculty strained, he sat motionless, peering toward the open door that led into the hall. The car was gone now, the sound of it was swallowed up in the distance, still he sat there. It was obviously some noise in the house for which he was waiting.
Minute after minute passed, and still nothing. There was not even the whisper of a wind-stirred drapery. He was about to rise when, suddenly, with no other noise than that of the sharp click of the switch, the electric lights in the room blazed up brilliantly. The glare dazzled Mr. Grimm with its blinding flood, but he didn’t move. Then softly, almost in a whisper:
“Good evening, Mr. Grimm.”
It was a woman’s voice, pleasant, unsurprised, perfectly modulated. Mr. Grimm certainly did not expect it now, but he knew it instantly–there was not another quite like it in the wide, wide world–and though he was still blinking a little, he came to his feet courteously.
“Good morning, Miss Thorne,” he corrected gravely.
Now his vision was clearing, and he saw her, a graceful figure, silhouetted against the rich green of the wall draperies. Her lips were curled the least bit, as if she might have been smiling, and her wonderful eyes reflected a glint of–of–was it amusement? The folds of her evening dress fell away from her, and one bare, white arm was extended, as her hand still rested on the switch.
“And you didn’t hear me?” still in the half whisper. “I didn’t think you would. Now I’m going to put out the lights for an instant, while you pull the shades down, and then–then we must have a–a conference.”
The switch snapped. The lights died as suddenly as they had been born, and Mr. Grimm, moving noiselessly, visited each of the four windows in turn. Then the lights blazed brilliantly again.
“Just for a moment,” Miss Thorne explained to him quietly, and she handed him a sheet of paper. “I want you to read this–read it carefully–then I shall turn out the lights again. They are dangerous. After that we may discuss the matter at our leisure.”
Mr. Grimm read the paper while Miss Thorne’s eyes questioned his impassive face. At length he looked up indolently, listlessly, and the switch snapped. She crossed the room and sat down; Mr. Grimm sat beside her.
“I think,” Miss Thorne suggested tentatively, “that that accounts perfectly for Monsieur Boissegur’s disappearance.”
“It gives one explanation, at least,” Mr. Grimm assented musingly. “Kidnapped–held prisoner–fifty thousand dollars demanded for his safety and release.” A pause. “And to whom, may I ask, was this demand addressed?”
“To Madame Boissegur,” replied Miss Thorne. “I have the envelope in which it came. It was mailed at the general post-office at half-past one o’clock this afternoon, so the canceling stamp shows, and the envelope was addressed, as the letter was written, on a typewriter.”
“And how,” inquired Mr. Grimm, after a long pause, “how did it come into your possession?” He waited a little. “Why didn’t Monsieur Rigolot report this development to me this afternoon when I was here?”
“Monsieur Rigolot did not inform you of it because he didn’t know of it himself,” she replied, answering the last question first. “It came into my possession directly from the hands of Madame Boissegur–she gave it to me.”
Mr. Grimm was peering through the inscrutable darkness, straight into her face–a white daub in the gloom, shapeless, indistinct.
“I have known Madame Boissegur for half a dozen years,” Miss Thorne continued, in explanation. “We have been friends that long. I met her first in Tokio, later in Berlin, and within a few weeks, here in Washington. You see I have traveled in the time I have been an agent for my government. Well, Madame Boissegur received this letter about half-past four o’clock this afternoon; and about half-past five she sent for me and placed it in my hands, together with all the singular details following upon the ambassador’s disappearance. So, it would seem that you and I are allies for this once, and the problem is already solved. There merely remains the task of finding and releasing the ambassador.”
Mr. Grimm sat perfectly still.
“And why,” he asked slowly, “are you here now?”
“For the same reason that you are here,” she replied readily, “to see for myself if the–the person who twice came here at night–once for the ambassador’s letters and once for his cigarettes–would, by any chance, make another trip. I knew you were here, of course.”
“You knew I was here,” repeated Mr. Grimm musingly. “And, may I–?”
“Just as you knew that I, or some one, at least, had entered this house a few minutes ago,” she interrupted. “The automobile horn outside was a signal, wasn’t it? Hastings was in the car? Or was it Blair or Johnson?”
Mr. Grimm did not say.
“Didn’t you anticipate any personal danger when you entered?” he queried instead. “Weren’t you afraid I might shoot?”
There was a long silence. Mr. Grimm still sat with his elbows on his knees, staring, staring at the vague white splotch which was Miss Thorne’s face and bare neck. One of her white arms hung at her side like a pallid serpent, and her hand was at rest on the seat of the couch.
“It seems, Miss Thorne,” he said at length, casually, quite casually, “that our paths of duty are inextricably tangled. Twice previously we have met under circumstances that were more than strange, and now–this! Whatever injustice I may have done you in the past by my suspicions has, I hope, been forgiven; and in each instance we were able to work side by side toward a conclusion. I am wondering now if this singular affair will take a similar course.”
He paused. Miss Thorne started to speak, but he silenced her with a slight gesture of his hand.
“It is only fair to you to say that we–that is, the Secret Service–have learned many things about you,” he resumed in the same casual tone. “We have, through our foreign agents, traced you step by step from Rome to Washington. We know that you are, in a way, a representative of a sovereign of Europe; we know that you were on a secret mission to the Spanish court, perhaps for this sovereign, and remained in Madrid for a month; we know that from there you went to Paris, also on a secret mission–perhaps the same–and remained there for three weeks; we know that you met diplomatic agents of those governments later in London. We know all this; we know the manner of your coming to this country; of your coming to Washington. But we don’t know _why_ you are here.”
Again she started to speak, and again he stopped her.
“We don’t know your name, but that is of no consequence. We _do_ know that in Spain you were Senora Cassavant, in Paris Mademoiselle d’Aubinon, in London Miss Jane Kellog, and here Miss Isabel Thorne. We realize that exigencies arise in your calling, and mine, which make changes of name desirable, necessary even, and there is no criticism of that. Now as the representative of your government–rather _a_ government–you have a right to be here, although unaccredited; you have a right to remain here as long as your acts are consistent with our laws; you have a right to your secrets as long as they do not, directly or indirectly, threaten the welfare of this country. Now, why are you here?”
He received no answer; he expected none. After a moment he went on:
“Admitting that you are a secret agent of Italy, admitting everything that you claim to be, you haven’t convinced me that you are not the person who came here for the letters and cigarettes. You have said nothing to prove to my satisfaction that you are not the individual I was waiting for to-night.”
“You don’t mean that you suspect–?” she began in a tone of amazement.
“I don’t mean that I suspect anything,” he interposed. “I mean merely that you haven’t convinced me. There’s nothing inconsistent in the fact that you are what you say you are, and that in spite of that, you came to-night for–“
He was interrupted by a laugh, a throaty, silvery note that he remembered well. His idle hands closed spasmodically, only to be instantly relaxed.
“Suppose, Mr. Grimm, I should tell you that immediately after Madame Boissegur placed the matter in my hands this afternoon I went straight to your office to show this letter to you and to ask your assistance?” she inquired. “Suppose that I left my card for you with a clerk there on being informed that you were out–remember I knew you were on the case from Madame Boissegur–would that indicate anything except that I wanted to put the matter squarely before you, and work with you?”
“We will suppose that much,” Mr. Grimm agreed.
“That is a statement of fact,” Miss Thorne added. “My card, which you will find at your office, will show that. And when I left your office I went to the hotel where you live, with the same purpose. You were not there, and I left a card for you. And _that_ is a statement of fact. It was not difficult, owing to the extraordinary circumstances, to imagine that you would be here to-night–just as you are–and I came here. My purpose, still, was to inform you of what I knew, and work with you. Does that convince you?”
“And how did you enter the embassy?” Mr. Grimm persisted.
“Not with a latch-key, as you did,” she replied. “Madame Boissegur, at my suggestion, left the French window in the hall there unfastened, and I came in that way–the way, I may add, that _Monsieur l’Ambassadeur_ went out when he disappeared.”
“Very well!” commented Mr. Grimm, and finally: “I think, perhaps, I owe you an apology, Miss Thorne–another one. The circumstances now, as they were at our previous meetings, are so unusual that–is it necessary to go on?” There was a certain growing deference in his tone. “I wonder if you account for Monsieur Boissegur’s disappearance as I do?” he inquired.
“I dare say,” and Miss Thorne leaned toward him with sudden eagerness in her manner and voice. “Your theory is–?” she questioned.
“If we believe the servants we know that Monsieur Boissegur did not go out either by the front door or rear,” Mr. Grimm explained. “That being true the French window by which you entered seems to have been the way.”
“Yes, yes,” Miss Thorne interpolated. “And the circumstances attending the disappearance? How do you account for the fact that he went, evidently of his own will?”
“Precisely as you must account for it if you have studied the situation here as I have,” responded Mr. Grimm. “For instance, sitting at his desk there”–and he turned to indicate it–“he could readily see out the windows overlooking the street. There is only a narrow strip of lawn between the house and the sidewalk. Now, if some one on the sidewalk, or–or–“
“In a carriage?” promptly suggested Miss Thorne.
“Or in a carriage,” Mr. Grimm supplemented, “had attracted his attention–some one he knew–it is not at all unlikely that he rose, for no apparent reason, as he did do, passed along the hall–“
“And through the French window, across the lawn to the carriage, and not a person in the house would have seen him go out? Precisely! There seems no doubt that was the way,” she mused. “And, of course, he must have entered the carriage of his own free will?”
“In other words, on some pretext or other, he was lured in, then made prisoner, and–!”
He paused suddenly and his hand met Miss Thorne’s warningly. The silence of the night was broken by the violent clatter of footsteps, apparently approaching the embassy. The noise was unmistakable–some one was running.
“The window!” Miss Thorne whispered.
She rose quickly and started to cross the room, to look out; Mr. Grimm sat motionless, listening. An instant later and there came a tremendous crash of glass–the French window in the hallway by the sound–then rapid footsteps, still running, along the hall. Mr. Grimm moved toward the door unruffled, perfectly self-possessed; there was only a narrowing of his eyes at the abruptness and clatter of it all. And then the electric lights in the hall flashed up.
Before Mr. Grimm stood a man, framed by the doorway, staring unseeingly into the darkened room. His face was haggard and white as death; his mouth agape as if from exertion, and the lips bloodless; his eyes were widely distended as if from fright–clothing disarranged, collar unfastened and dangling.
“The ambassador!” Miss Thorne whispered thrillingly.
A RESCUE AND AN ESCAPE
Miss Thorne’s voice startled Mr. Grimm a little, but he had no doubts. It was Monsieur Boissegur. Mr. Grimm was going toward the enframed figure when, without any apparent reason, the ambassador turned and ran along the hall; and at that instant the lights went out again. For one moment Grimm stood still, dazed and blinded by the sudden blackness, and again he started toward the door. Miss Thorne was beside him.
“The lights!” he whispered tensely. “Find the switch!”
He heard the rustle of her skirts as she moved away, and stepped out into the hall, feeling with both his hands along the wall. A few feet away, in the direction the ambassador had gone, there seemed to be a violent struggle in progress–there was the scuffling of feet, and quick-drawn breaths as muscle strained against muscle. The lights! If he could only find the switch! Then, as his hands moved along the wall, they came in contact with another hand–a hand pressed firmly against the plastering, barring his progress. A light blow in the face caused him to step back quickly.
The scuffling sound suddenly resolved itself into moving footsteps, and the front door opened and closed with a bang. Mr. Grimm’s listless eyes snapped, and his white teeth came together sharply as he started toward the front door. But fate seemed to be against him still. He stumbled over a chair, and his own impetus forward sent him sprawling; his head struck the wall with a resounding whack; and then, over the house, came utter silence. From outside he heard the clatter of a cab. Finally that died away in the distance.
“Miss Thorne?” he inquired quietly.
“I’m here,” she answered in a despairing voice. “But I can’t find the switch.”
“Are you hurt?”
And then she found the switch; the lights flared up. Mr. Grimm was sitting thoughtfully on the floor.
“That simplifies the matter considerably,” he observed complacently, as he rose. “The men who signaled to me when you entered the embassy will never let that cab get out of their sight.”
Miss Thorne stood leaning forward a little, eagerly gazing at him with those wonderful blue-gray eyes, and an expression of–of–perhaps it was admiration on her face.
“Are you sure?” she demanded, at last.
“I know it,” was his response.
And just then Monsieur Rigolot, secretary of the embassy, thrust an inquisitive head timidly around the corner of the stairs. The crash of glass had aroused him.
“What happened?” he asked breathlessly.
“We don’t know just yet,” replied Mr. Grimm. “If the noise aroused any one else please assure them that there’s nothing the matter. And you might inform Madame Boissegur that the ambassador will return home to-morrow. Good night!”
At his hotel, when he reached there, Mr. Grimm found Miss Thorne’s card–and he drew a long breath; at his office he found another of her cards, and he drew another long breath. He did like corroborative details, did Mr. Grimm, and, of course, this–! On the following day Miss Thorne accompanied him to Alexandria, and they were driven in a closed carriage out toward the western edge of the city. Finally the carriage stopped at a signal from Mr. Grimm, and he assisted Miss Thorne out, after which he turned and spoke to some one remaining inside–a man.
“The house is two blocks west, along that street there,” he explained, and he indicated an intersecting thoroughfare just ahead. “It is number ninety-seven. Five minutes after we enter you will drive up in front of the door and wait. If we don’t return in fifteen minutes–come in after us!”
“Do you anticipate danger?” Miss Thorne queried quickly.
“If I had anticipated danger,” replied Mr. Grimm, “I should not have permitted you to come with me.”
They entered the house–number ninety-seven–with a key which Mr. Grimm produced, and a minute or so later walked into a room where three men were sitting. One of them was of a coarse, repulsive type, large and heavy; another rather dapper, of superficial polish, evidently a foreigner, and the third–the third was Ambassador Boissegur!
“Good morning, gentlemen!” Mr. Grimm greeted them, then ceremoniously: “Monsieur Boissegur, your carriage is at the door.”
The three men came to their feet instantly, and one of them–he of the heavy face–drew a revolver. Mr. Grimm faced him placidly.
“Do you know what would happen to you if you killed me?” he inquired pleasantly. “You wouldn’t live three minutes. Do you imagine I came in here blindly? There are a dozen men guarding the entrances to the house–a pistol shot would bring them in. Put down the gun!”
Eyes challenged eyes for one long tense instant, and the man carefully laid the weapon on the table. Mr. Grimm strolled over and picked it up, after which he glanced inquiringly at the other man–the ambassador’s second guard.
“And you are the gentleman, I dare say, who made the necessary trips to the ambassador’s house, probably using his latch-key?” he remarked interrogatively. “First for the letters to be signed, and again for the cigarettes?”
There was no answer and Mr. Grimm turned questioningly to Monsieur Boissegur, silent, white of face, motionless.
“Yes, Monsieur,” the ambassador burst out suddenly. His eyes were fixed unwaveringly on Miss Thorne.
“And your escape, Monsieur?” continued Mr. Grimm.
“I did escape, Monsieur, last night,” the ambassador explained, “but they knew it immediately–they pursued me into my own house, these two and another–and dragged me back here! _Mon Dieu, Monsieur, c’est–!_”
“That’s all that’s necessary,” remarked Mr. Grimm. “You are free to go now.”
“But there are others,” Monsieur Boissegur interposed desperately, “two more somewhere below, and they will not allow–they will attack–!”
Mr. Grimm’s listless eyes narrowed slightly and he turned to Miss Thorne. She was a little white, but he saw enough in her face to satisfy him.
“I shall escort Monsieur Boissegur to his carriage, Miss Thorne,” he said calmly. “These men will remain here until I return. Take the revolver. If either of them so much as wags his head–_shoot_! You are not–not afraid?”
“No.” She smiled faintly. “I am not afraid.”
Mr. Grimm and the ambassador went down the stairs, and out the front door. Mr. Grimm was just turning to reenter the house when from above came a muffled, venomous cra-as-ash!–a shot! He took the steps going up, two at a time. Miss Thorne was leaning against the wall as if dazed; the revolver lay at her feet. A door in a far corner of the room stood open; and the clatter of footsteps echoed through the house.
“One of them leaped at me and I fired,” she gasped in explanation. “He struck me, but I’m–I’m not hurt.”
She stooped quickly, picked up the revolver and made as if to follow the dying footsteps. Mr. Grimm stopped her.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said quietly. “Let them go.” And after a while, earnestly: “If I had dreamed of such a–such a thing as this I should never have consented to allow you–“
“I understand,” she interrupted, and for one instant her outstretched hand rested on his arm. “The ambassador?”
“Perfectly safe,” responded Mr. Grimm. “Two of my men are with him.”
MASTER OF THE SITUATION
As the women rose and started out, leaving the gentlemen over their coffee and cigars, Miss Thorne paused at the door and the blue-gray eyes flashed some subtle message to the French ambassador who, after an instant, nodded comprehendingly, then resumed his conversation. As he left the room a few minutes later he noticed that Mr. Grimm had joined a group of automaniacs of which Mr. Cadwallader was the enthusiastic center. He spoke to his hostess, the wife of the minister from Portugal, for a moment, then went to Miss Thorne and dropped into a seat beside her. She greeted him with a smile and was still smiling as she talked.
“I believe, Monsieur,” she said in French, “you sent a code message to the cable office this afternoon?”
His eyes questioned hers quickly.
“And please bear in mind that we probably are being watched as we talk,” she went on pleasantly. “Mr. Grimm is the man to be afraid of. Smile–don’t look so serious!” She laughed outright.
“Yes, I sent a code message,” he replied.
“It was your resignation?”
“Well, it wasn’t sent, of course,” she informed him, and her eyes were sparkling as if something amusing had been said. “One of my agents stopped it. I may add that it will not be sent.”
The ambassador’s eyes grew steely, then blank again.
“Mademoiselle, what am I to understand from that?” he demanded.
“You are to understand that I am absolute master of the situation in Washington at this moment,” she replied positively. The smile on her lips and the tone of her voice were strangely at variance. “From the beginning I let you understand that ultimately you would receive your instructions from Paris; now I know they will reach you by cable to-morrow. Within a week the compact will be signed. Whether you approve of it or not it will be signed for your country by a special envoy whose authority is greater than yours–his Highness, the Prince Benedetto d’Abruzzi.”
“Has he reached Washington?”
“He is in Washington. He has been here for some time, incognito.” She was silent a moment. “You have been a source of danger to our plans,” she added. “If it had not been for an accident you would still have been comfortably kept out in Alexandria where Mr. Grimm and I found you. Please remember, Monsieur, that we will accomplish what we set out to do. Nothing can stop us–nothing.”
At just about the same moment the name of Prince d’Abruzzi had been used in the dining-room, but in a different connection. Mr. Cadwallader was reciting some incident of an automobile trip in Italy when he had been connected with the British embassy there.
“The prince was driving,” he said, “and one of the best I ever saw. Corking chap, the prince; democratic, you know, and all that sort of thing. He was one scion of royalty who didn’t mind soiling his hands by diving in under a car and fixing it himself. At that time he was inclined to be wild–that was eight or nine years ago–but they say now he has settled down to work, and is one of the real diplomatic powers of Italy. I haven’t seen him for a half dozen years.”
“How old a man is he?” asked Mr. Grimm carelessly.
“Thirty-five, thirty-eight, perhaps; I don’t know,” replied Mr. Cadwallader. “It’s odd, you know, the number of princes and blue-bloods and all that sort of thing one can find knocking about in Italy and Germany and Spain. One never hears of half of them. I never had heard of the Prince d’Abruzzi until I went to Italy, and I’ve heard jolly well little of him since, except indirectly.”
Mr. Cadwallader lapsed into silence as he sat staring at a large group photograph which was framed on a wall of the dining-room.
“Isn’t that the royal family of Italy?” he asked. He rose and went over to it. “By Jove, it is, and here is the prince in the group. The picture was taken, I should say, about the time I knew him.”
Mr. Grimm strolled over idly and stood for a long time staring at the photograph.
“He can drive a motor, you know,” said Mr. Cadwallader admiringly. “And Italy is the place to drive them. They forgot to make any speed laws over there, and if a chap gets in your way and you knock him silly they arrest him for obstructing traffic, you know. Over here if a chap really starts to go any place in a hurry some bally idiot holds him up.”
“Have you ever been held up?” queried Mr. Grimm.
“No, but I expect to be every day,” was the reply. “I’ve got a new motor, you know, and I’ve never been able to see how fast it is. The other evening I ran up to Baltimore with it in an hour and thirty-seven minutes from Alexandria to Druid Hill Park, and that’s better than forty miles. I never did let the motor out, you know, because we ran in the dark most of the way.”
Mr. Grimm was still gazing at the photograph.
“Did you go alone?” he asked.
“There’s no fun motoring alone, you know. Senorita Rodriguez was with me. Charming girl, what?”
A little while later Mr. Grimm sauntered out into the drawing-room and made his way toward Miss Thorne and the French ambassador. Monsieur Boissegur rose, and offered his hand cordially.
“I hope, Monsieur,” said Mr. Grimm, “that you are no worse off for your–your unpleasant experience?”
“Not at all, thanks to you,” was the reply. “I have just thanked Miss Thorne for her part in the affair, and–“
“I’m glad to have been of service,” interrupted Mr. Grimm lightly.
The ambassador bowed ceremoniously and moved away. Mr. Grimm dropped into the seat he had just left.
“You’ve left the legation, haven’t you?” he asked.
“You drove me out,” she laughed.
“Drove you out?” he repeated. “Drove you out?”
“Why, it was not only uncomfortable, but it was rather conspicuous because of the constant espionage of your Mr. Blair and your Mr. Johnson and your Mr. Hastings,” she explained, still laughing. “So I have moved to the Hotel Hilliard.”
Mr. Grimm was twisting the seal ring on his little finger.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made it uncomfortable for you,” he apologized. “You see it’s necessary to–“
“No explanation,” Miss Thorne interrupted. “I understand.”
“I’m glad you do,” he replied seriously. “How long do you intend to remain in the city?”
“Really I don’t know–two, three, four weeks, perhaps. Why?”
“I was just wondering.”
Senorita Rodriguez came toward them.
“We’re going to play bridge,” she said, “and we need you, Isabel, to make the four. Come. I hate to take her away, Mr. Grimm.”
Mr. Grimm and Miss Thorne rose together. For an instant her slim white hand rested on Mr. Grimm’s sleeve and she stared into his eyes understandingly with a little of melancholy in her own. They left Mr. Grimm there.
LETTERS FROM JAIL
For two weeks Signor Pietro Petrozinni, known to the Secret Service as an unaccredited agent of the Italian government, and the self-confessed assailant of Senor Alvarez of the Mexican legation, had been taking his ease in a cell. He had been formally arraigned and committed without bail to await the result of the bullet wound which had been inflicted upon the diplomatist from Mexico at the German Embassy Ball, and, since then, undisturbed and apparently careless of the outcome, he had spent his time in reading and smoking. He had answered questions with only a curt yes or no when he deigned to answer them at all; and there had been no callers or inquiries for him. He had abruptly declined a suggestion of counsel.
Twice each day, morning and night, he had asked a question of the jailer who brought his simple meals.
“How is Senor Alvarez?”
“He is still in a critical condition.” The answer was always the same.
Whereupon the secret agent would return to his reading with not a shadow of uneasiness or concern on his face.
Occasionally there came a courteous little note from Miss Thorne, which he read without emotion, afterward casting them aside or tearing them up. He never answered them. And then one day there came another note which, for no apparent reason, seemed to stir him from his lethargy. Outwardly it was like all the others, but when Signor Petrozinni scanned the sheet his eyes lighted strangely, and he stood staring down at it as though to hide a sudden change of expression in his face. His gaze was concentrated on two small splotches of ink where, it seemed, the pen had scratched as Miss Thorne signed her name.
The guard stood at the barred door for a moment, then started to turn away. The prisoner stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Oh, Guard, may I have a glass of milk, please?” he asked. “No ice. I prefer it tepid.”
He thrust a small coin between the bars; the guard accepted it and passed on. Then, still standing at the door, the prisoner read the note again:
“MY DEAR FRIEND:
“I understand, from an indirect source, that there has been a marked improvement in Senor Alvarez’s condition, and I am hastening to send you the good news. There is every hope that within a short while, if he continues to improve, we can arrange a bail bond, and you will be free until the time of trial anyway.
“Might it not be well for you to consult an attorney at once? Drop me a line to let me know you received this.
Finally the prisoner tossed the note on a tiny table in a corner of his cell, and resumed his reading. After a time the guard returned with the milk.
“Would it be against the rules for me to write an answer to this?” queried Signor Petrozinni, and he indicated the note.
“Certainly not,” was the reply.
“If I might trouble you, then, for pen and ink and paper?” suggested the signor and he smiled a little. “Believe me, I would prefer to get them for myself.”
“I guess that’s right,” the guard grinned good-naturedly.
Again he went away and the prisoner sat thoughtfully sipping the milk. He took half of it, then lighted a cigarette, puffed it once or twice and permitted the light to die. After a little there came again the clatter of the guard’s feet on the cement pavement, and the writing materials were thrust through the bars.
“Thank you,” said the prisoner.
The guard went on, with a nod, and a moment later the signor heard the clangor of a steel door down the corridor as it was closed and locked. He leaned forward in his chair with half-closed eyes, listening for a long time, then rose and noiselessly approached the cell door. Again he listened intently, after which he resumed his seat. He tossed away the cigarette he had and lighted a fresh one, afterward holding the note over the flame of the match. Here and there, where the paper charred in the heat, a letter or word stood out from the bare whiteness of the paper, and finally, a message complete appeared between the innocuous ink-written lines. The prisoner read it greedily:
“Am privately informed there is little chance of Alvarez’s recovery. Shall I arrange escape for you, or have ambassador intercede? Would advise former, as the other might take months, and meeting to sign treaty alliance would be dangerously delayed.”
Signor Petrozinni permitted the sputtering flame to ignite the paper, and thoughtfully watched the blaze destroy it. The last tiny scrap dropped on the floor, burned out, and he crushed the ashes under his heel. Then he began to write:
“My Dear Miss Thorne:
“Many thanks for your courteous little note. I am delighted to know of the improvement in Senor Alvarez’s condition. I had hoped that my impulsive act in shooting him would not end in a tragedy. Please keep me informed of any further change in his condition. As yet I do not see the necessity of consulting an attorney, but later I may be compelled to do so.
This done the secret agent carefully cleaned the ink from the pen, wiping it dry with his handkerchief, then thrust it into the half empty glass of milk. The fluid clung to the steel nib thinly; he went on writing with it, between the lines of ink:
“I am in no danger. I hold credentials to United States, which, when presented, will make me responsible only to the Italian government as special envoy, according to international law. Arrange escape for one week from to-night; use any money necessary. Make careful arrangements for the test and signing of compact for two nights after.”
Again the prisoner cleaned the steel nib, after which he put it back in the bottle of ink, leaving it there. He waved the sheet of paper back and forth to dry it, and at last scrutinized it minutely, standing under the light from the high-up window of his cell. Letter by letter the milk evaporated, leaving the sheet perfectly clean and white except for the ink-written message. This sheet he folded, placed in an envelope, and addressed.
Later the guard passed along the corridor, and Signor Petrozinni thrust the letter out to him.
“Be good enough to post that, please,” he requested. “It isn’t sealed. I don’t know if your prison rules require you to read the letters that go out. If so, read it, or have it read, then seal it.”
For answer the guard dampened the flap of the envelope, sealed it, thrust it into his pocket and passed on. The secret agent sat down again, and sipped his milk meditatively.
One hour later Mr. Grimm, accompanied by Johnson, came out of a photographer’s dark room in Pennsylvania Avenue with a developed negative which he set on a rack to dry. At the end of another hour he was sitting at his desk studying, under a magnifying glass, a finished print of the negative. Word by word he was writing on a slip of paper what his magnifying glass gave him and so, curiously enough, it came to pass that Miss Thorne and Chief Campbell of the Secret Service were reading the hidden, milk-written message at almost the identical moment.
“Johnson got Petrozinni’s letter from the postman,” Mr. Grimm was explaining. “I opened it, photographed it, sealed it again and remailed it. There was not more than half an hour’s delay; and Miss Thorne can not possibly know of it.” He paused a moment. “It’s an odd thing that writing such as that is absolutely invisible to the naked eye, and yet when photographed becomes decipherable in the negative.”
“What do you make of it?” Mr. Campbell asked. The guileless blue eyes were alive with eagerness.
“Well, he’s right, of course, about not being in danger,” said Mr. Grimm. “If he came with credentials as special envoy this government must respect them, even if Senor Alvarez dies, and leave it to his own government to punish him. If we were officially aware that he has such credentials I doubt if we would have the right to keep him confined; we would merely have to hand him over to the Italian embassy and demand his punishment. And, of course, all that makes him more dangerous than ever.”
“Yes, I know that,” said the chief a little impatiently. “But who is this man?”
“Who is this man?” Mr. Grimm repeated as if surprised at the question. “I was looking for Prince Benedetto d’Abruzzi, of Italy. I have found him.”
Mr. Campbell’s clock-like brain ticked over the situation in detail.
“It’s like this,” Mr. Grimm elucidated. “He has credentials which he knows will free him if he is forced to present them, but I imagine they were given to him more for protection in an emergency like this than for introducing him to our government. As the matter stands he can’t afford to discover himself by using those credentials, and yet, if the Latin compact is signed, he must be free. Remember, too, that he is accredited from three countries–Italy, France and Spain.” He was silent for a moment. “Naturally his escape from prison would preserve his incognito, and at the same time permit him to sign the compact.”
There was silence for a long time.
“I believe the situation is without precedent,” said Mr. Campbell slowly. “The special envoy of three great powers held for attempted–!”
“Officially we are not aware of his purpose, or his identity,” Mr. Grimm reminded him. “If he escaped it would clarify the situation tremendously.”
“If he escaped!” repeated Mr. Campbell musingly.
“But, of course, the compact would not be signed, at least in this country,” Mr. Grimm went on tentatively.
Mr. Campbell gazed straight into the listless eyes of the young man for a minute or more, and gradually full understanding came home to him. Finally he nodded his head.
“Use your own judgment, Mr. Grimm,” he directed.
A CALL ON THE WARDEN
The restful silence of night lay over the great prison. Here and there in the grim corridors a guard dozed in the glare of an electric light; and in the office, too, a desk light glimmered where the warden sat at his desk, poring over a report. Once he glanced up at the clock–it was five minutes of eleven–and then he went on with his reading.
After a little the silence was broken by the whir of the clock and the first sharp stroke of the hour; and at just that moment the door from the street opened and a man entered. He was rather tall and slender, and a sinister black mask hid his face from the quickly raised eyes of the warden. For a bare fraction of a second the two men stared at each other, then, instinctively, the warden’s right hand moved toward the open drawer of his desk where a revolver lay, and his left toward several electrically connected levers. The intruder noted both gestures, and, unarmed himself, stood silent. The warden was first to speak.
“Well, what is it?”
“You have a prisoner here, Pietro Petrozinni,” was the reply, in a pleasant voice. “I have come to demand his release.”
The warden’s right hand was raised above the desk top, and the revolver in it clicked warningly.
“You have come to demand his release, eh?” he queried. He still sat motionless, with his eyes fixed on the black mask. “How did you pass the outside guard?”
“He was bribed,” was the ready response. “Now, Warden,” the masked intruder continued pacifically, “it would be much more pleasant all around and there would be less personal danger in it for both of us if you would release Signor Petrozinni without question. I may add that no bribe was offered to you because your integrity was beyond question.”
“Thank you,” said the warden grimly, “and it shall remain so as long as I have this.” He tapped on the desk with the revolver.
“Oh, that isn’t loaded,” said the masked man quietly.
One quick glance at the weapon showed the warden that the cartridges had been drawn! His teeth closed with a snap at the treachery of it, and with his left hand he pulled back one of the levers–that which should arouse the jailers, turnkeys and guards. Instead of the insistent clangor which he expected, there was silence.
“That wire has been cut,” the stranger volunteered.
With clenched teeth the warden pulled the police alarm.
“And that wire was cut, too,” the stranger explained.
The warden came to his feet with white face, and nails biting into the palms of his hands. He still held the revolver as he advanced upon the masked man threateningly.
“Not too close, now,” warned the intruder, with a sudden hardening of his voice. “Believe me, it would be best for you to release this man, because it must be done, pleasantly or otherwise. I have no desire to injure you, still less do I intend that you shall injure me; and it would be needless for either of us to make a personal matter of it. I want your prisoner, Signor Petrozinni–you will release him at once! That’s all!”
The warden paused, dazed, incredulous before the audacity of it, while he studied two calm eyes which peered at him through the slits of the mask.
“And if I _don’t_ release him?” he demanded at last, fiercely.
“Then I shall take him,” was the reply. “It has been made impossible for you to give an alarm,” the stranger went on. “The very men on whom you most depended have been bought, and even if they were within sound of your voice now they wouldn’t respond. One of your assistants who has been here for years unloaded the revolver in the desk there, and less than an hour ago cut the prison alarm wire. I, personally, cut the police alarm outside the building. So you see!”
As yet there was no weapon in sight, save the unloaded revolver in the warden’s hand; at no time had the stranger’s voice been raised. His tone was a perfectly normal one.
“Besides yourself there are only five other men employed here who are now awake,” the masked man continued. “These are four inner guards and the outer guard. They have all been bought–the turnkeys at five thousand dollars each, and the outer guard at seven thousand. The receipt of all of this money is conditional upon the release of Signor Petrozinni, therefore it is to their interest to aid me as against you. I am telling you all this, frankly and fully, to make you see how futile any resistance would be.”
“But who–who is this Signor Petrozinni, that such powerful influences should be brought to bear in his behalf?” demanded the bewildered warden.
“He is a man who can command a vast fortune–and Senor Alvarez is at the point of death. That, I think, makes it clear. Now, if you’ll sit down, please!”
“Sit down?” bellowed the warden.
Suddenly he was seized by a violent, maddening rage. He took one step forward and raised the empty revolver to strike. The masked man moved slightly to one side and his clenched fist caught the warden on the point of the chin. The official went down without a sound and lay still, inert. A moment later the door leading into the corridor of the prison opened, and Signor Petrozinni, accompanied by one of the guards, entered the warden’s office. The masked man glanced around at them, and with a motion of his head indicated the door leading to the street. They passed through, closing the door behind them.
For a little time the intruder stood staring down at the still body, then he went to the telephone and called police headquarters.
“There has been a jail delivery at the prison,” he said in answer to the “hello” of the desk-sergeant at the other end of the wire. “Better send some of your men up to investigate.”
“Who is that?” came the answering question.
The stranger replaced the receiver on the hook, stripped off his black mask, dropped it on the floor beside the motionless warden, and went out. It was Mr. Grimm!
NOTICE TO LEAVE
At fifteen minutes of midnight when Miss Thorne, followed by Signor Petrozinni, entered the sitting-room of her apartments in the hotel and turned up the light they found Mr. Grimm already there. He rose courteously. At sight of him Miss Thorne’s face went deathly white, and the escaped prisoner turned toward the door again.
“I would advise that you stay, your Highness,” said Mr. Grimm coldly. Signor Petrozinni paused, amazed. “You will merely subject yourself to the humiliation of arrest if you attempt to leave. The house is guarded by a dozen men.”
“Your Highness?” Miss Thorne repeated blankly. “You are assuming a great deal, aren’t you, Mr. Grimm?”
“I don’t believe,” and Mr. Grimm’s listless eyes were fixed on those of the escaped prisoner, “I don’t believe that Prince Benedetto d’Abruzzi will deny his identity?”
There was one of those long tense silences when eye challenges eye, when wit is pitted against wit, and mind is hauled around to a new, and sometimes unattractive, view of a situation. Miss Thorne stood silent with rigid features, colorless as marble; but slowly a sneer settled about the lips of Signor Petrozinni that was, and he sat down.
[Illustration: A long tense silence when eye challenges eye.]
“You seem to know everything, Mr. Grimm,” he taunted.
“I _try_ to know everything, your Highness,” was the reply. Mr. Grimm was still standing. “I know, for instance, that one week ago the plot which had your freedom for its purpose was born; I know the contents of every letter that passed between you and Miss Thorne here, notwithstanding the invisible ink; I know that four days ago several thousand dollars was smuggled in to you concealed in a basket of fruit; I know, with that money, you bribed your way out, while Miss Thorne or one of her agents bribed the guard in front; I know that the escape was planned for to-night, and that the man who was delegated to take charge of it is now locked in my office under guard. It may interest you to know that it was I who took his place and made the escape possible. I know that much!”
“You–_you_–!” the prince burst out suddenly. “_You_ aided me to escape?”
Miss Thorne was staring, staring at them with her eyes widely distended, and her red lips slightly parted.
“_Why_ did you assist him?” she demanded.
“Details are tiresome, Miss Thorne,” replied Mr. Grimm with the utmost courtesy. “There is one other thing I know–that the Latin compact will not be signed in the United States.”
The prince’s eyes met Miss Thorne’s inquiringly, and she shook her head. The sneer was still playing about his mouth.
“Anything else of special interest that you know?” he queried.
“Yes, of interest to both you and Miss Thorne. That is merely if the Latin compact is signed anywhere, the English-speaking countries of the world might construe it as a _casus belli_ and strike soon enough, and hard enough, to put an end to it once for all.”
Again there was silence for a little while. Slowly the prince’s eyes were darkening, and a shadow flitted across Miss Thorne’s face. The prince rose impatiently.
“Well, what is the meaning of all this? Are you going to take me back to prison?”
“No,” said Mr. Grimm. He glanced at his watch. “I will give each of you one-half hour to pack your belongings. We must catch a train at one o’clock.”
“Leave the city?” gasped Miss Thorne.
“Impossible!” exclaimed the prince.
“One-half hour,” said Mr. Grimm coldly.
“But–but it’s out of the question,” expostulated Miss Thorne.
“One-half hour,” repeated Mr. Grimm. He didn’t dare to meet those wonderful blue-gray eyes now. “A special car with private compartments will be attached to the regular train, and the only inconvenience to you will be the fact that the three of us will be compelled to sit up all night. Half a dozen other Secret Service men will be on the train with us.”
And then the prince’s entire manner underwent a change.
“Mr. Grimm,” he said earnestly, “it is absolutely necessary that I remain in Washington for another week–remain here even if I am locked up again–lock me up again if you like. I can’t sign compacts in prison.”
“Twenty-five minutes,” replied Mr. Grimm quietly.
“But here,” exclaimed the prince explosively, “I have credentials which will insure my protection in spite of your laws.”
“I know that,” said Mr. Grimm placidly. “Credentials of that nature can not be presented at midnight, and you will not be here to-morrow to present them. The fact that you have those credentials, your Highness, is one reason why you must leave Washington now, to-night.”
They paused in the office, the three of them, and while Miss Thorne was giving some instructions as to her baggage the prince went over to the telegraph booth and began to write a message on a blank. Mr. Grimm appeared at his elbow.
“No,” he said.
“Can’t I send a telegram if I like?” demanded the prince sharply.
“No, nor a note, nor a letter, nor may you speak to any one,” Mr. Grimm informed him quietly.
“Why, it’s an outrage!” flamed the prince.
“It depends altogether on the view-point, your Highness,” said Mr. Grimm courteously. “If you will pardon me I might suggest that it is needless to attract attention by your present attitude. You may–I say you _may_–compel me to humiliate you.” The prince glared at him angrily. “I mean handcuff you,” Mr. Grimm added gratuitously.
“I shouldn’t hesitate, your Highness, if it was necessary.”
After a moment Miss Thorne signified her readiness, and they started out. At the door Mr. Grimm stopped and turned back to the desk, as if struck by some sudden thought, leaving them together.
“Oh, Miss Thorne left a message for some one,” Mr. Grimm was saying to the clerk. “She’s decided it is unnecessary.” He turned and glanced toward her, and the clerk’s eyes followed his. “Please give it to me.”
It was passed over without comment. It was a sealed envelope addressed to Mr. Charles Winthrop Rankin. Mr. Grimm glanced at the superscription, tore the envelope into bits and dropped it into a basket. A minute later he was assisting Miss Thorne and the prince into an automobile that was waiting in front. As the car moved away two other automobiles appeared from corners near-by and trailed along behind to the station. There a private compartment-car was in readiness for them.
It was a long, dreary ride–a ride of utter silence save for the roar and clatter of the moving train. Mr. Grimm, vigilant, implacable, sat at ease; Miss Thorne, resigned to the inevitable, whatever it might be, studied the calm, quiet face from beneath drooping lids; and the prince, sullen, scowling, nervously wriggled in his seat. Philadelphia was passed, and Trenton, and then the dawn began to break through the night. It was quite light when they rolled into Jersey City.
“I’m sorry for all the inconvenience I have caused,” Mr. Grimm apologized to Miss Thorne as he assisted her to alight. “You must be exhausted.”
“If it were only that!” she replied, with a slight smile. “And is it too early to ask where we are going?”
The prince turned quickly at the question.
“We take the _Lusitania_ for Liverpool at ten o’clock,” said Mr. Grimm obligingly. “Meanwhile let’s get some coffee and a bite to eat.”
“Are you going to make the trip with us?” asked the prince.
Mr. Grimm shrugged his shoulders.
Weary and spiritless they went aboard the boat, and a little while later they steamed out into the stream and threaded their way down the bay. Miss Thorne stood at the rail gazing back upon the city they were leaving. Mr. Grimm stood beside her; the prince, still sullen, still scowling, sat a dozen feet away.
“This is a wonderful thing you have done, Mr. Grimm,” said Miss Thorne at last.
“Thank you,” he said simply. “It was a destructive thing that you intended to do. Did you ever see a more marvelous thing than that?” and he indicated the sky-line of New York. “It’s the most marvelous bit of mechanism in the world; the dynamo of the western hemisphere. You would have destroyed it, because in the world-war that would have been the first point of attack.”
She raised her eyebrows, but was silent.
“Somehow,” he went on after a moment, “I could never associate a woman with destructiveness, with wars and with violence.”
“That is an unjust way of saying it,” she interposed. And then, musingly: “Isn’t it odd that you and I–standing here by the rail–have, in a way, held the destinies of the whole great earth in our hands? And now your remark makes me feel that you alone have stood for peace and the general good, and I for destruction and evil.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Mr. Grimm said quickly. “You have done your duty as you saw it, and–“
“Failed!” she interrupted.
“And I have done my duty as I saw it.”
“And won!” she added. She smiled a little sadly. “I think, perhaps you and I might have been excellent friends if it had not been for all this.”
“I know we should have,” said Mr. Grimm, almost eagerly. “I wonder if you will ever forgive me for–for–?”
“Forgive you?” she repeated. “There is nothing to forgive. One must do one’s duty. But I wish it could have been otherwise.”
The Statue of Liberty slid by, and Governor’s Island and Fort Hamilton; then, in the distance, Sandy Hook light came into view.
“I’m going to leave you here,” said Mr. Grimm, and for the first time there was a tense, strained note in his voice.
Miss Thorne’s blue-gray eyes had grown mistily thoughtful; the words startled her a little and she turned to face him.
“It may be that you and I shall never meet again,” Mr. Grimm went on.
“We _will_ meet again,” she said gravely. “When and where I don’t know, but it will come.”
“And perhaps then we may be friends?” He was pleading now.
“Why, we are friends now, aren’t we?” she asked, and again the smile curled her scarlet lips. “Surely we are friends, aren’t we?”
“We are,” he declared positively.
As they started forward a revenue cutter which had been hovering about Sandy Hook put toward them, flying some signal at her masthead. Slowly the great boat on which they stood crept along, then the clang of a bell in the engine-room brought her to a standstill, and the revenue cutter came alongside.
“I leave you here,” Mr. Grimm said again. “It’s good-by.”
“Good-by,” she said softly. “Good-by, till we meet once more.”
She extended both hands impulsively and he stood for an instant staring into the limpid gray eyes, then, turning, went below. From the revenue cutter he waved a hand at her as the great _Lusitania_, moving again, sped on her way. The prince joined Miss Thorne at the rail. The scowl was still on his face.
“And now what?” he demanded abruptly. “This man has treated us as if we were a pair of children.”
“He’s a wonderful man,” she replied.
“That may be–but we have been fools to allow him to do all this.”
Miss Thorne turned flatly and faced him.
“We are not beaten yet,” she said slowly. “If all things go well we–we are not beaten yet.”
The _Lusitania_ was rounding Montauk Point when the wireless brought her to half-speed with a curt message:
“Isabel Thorne and Pietro Petrozinni aboard _Lusitania_ wanted on warrants charging conspiracy. Tug-boat will take them off, intercepting you beyond Montauk Point.
“CAMPBELL, Secret Service.”
“What does _that_ mean?” asked the prince, bewildered.
“It means that the compact will be signed in Washington in spite of Mr. Grimm,” and there was the glitter of triumph in her eyes. “With the aid of one of the maids in the depot at Jersey City I managed to get a telegram of explanation and instruction to De Foe in New York, and this is the result. He signed Mr. Campbell’s name, I suppose, to give weight to the message.”
An hour later a tug-boat came alongside, and they went aboard.
THE LIGHT IN THE DOME
From where he sat, in a tiny alcove which jutted out and encroached upon the line of the sidewalk, Mr. Grimm looked down on Pennsylvania Avenue, the central thread of Washington, ever changing, always brilliant, splashed at regular intervals with light from high-flung electric arcs. The early theater crowd was in the street, well dressed, well fed, careless for the moment of all things save physical comfort and amusement; automobiles, carriages, cabs, cars flowed past endlessly; and yet Mr. Grimm saw naught of it. In the distance, at one end of the avenue the dome of the capitol cleft the shadows of night, and a single light sparkled at its apex; in the other direction, at the left of the treasury building which abruptly blocks the wide thoroughfare, were the shimmering windows of the White House.
Motionless, moody, thoughtful, Mr. Grimm sat staring, staring straight ahead, comprehending none of these things which lay before him as in a panorama. Instead, his memory was conjuring up a pair of subtle, blue-gray eyes, now pleading, now coquettish, now frankly defiant; two slim, white, wonderful hands; the echo of a pleasant, throaty laugh; a splendid, elusive, radiant-haired phantom. Truly, a woman of mystery! Who was this Isabel Thorne who, for months past, had been the storm-center and directing mind of a vast international intrigue which threatened the world with war? Who, this remarkable young woman who with ease and assurance commanded ambassadors and played nations as pawns?
Now that she was safely out of the country Mr. Grimm had leisure to speculate. Upon him had devolved the duty of blocking her plans, and he had done so–merciless alike of his own feeling and of hers. Hesitation or evasion had never occurred to him. It was a thing to be done, and he did it. He wondered if she had understood, there at the last beside the rail? He wondered if she knew the struggle it had cost him deliberately to send her out of his life? Or had even surmised that her expulsion from the country, by his direct act, was wholly lacking in the exaltation of triumph to him; that it struck deeper than that, below the listless, official exterior, into his personal happiness? And wondering, he knew that she _did_ understand.
A silent shod waiter came and placed the coffee things at his elbow. He didn’t heed. The waiter poured a demi-tasse, and inquiringly lifted a lump of sugar in the silver tongs. Still Mr. Grimm didn’t heed. At last the waiter deposited the sugar on the edge of the fragile saucer, and moved away as silently as he had come. A newspaper which Mr. Grimm had placed on the end of the table when he sat down, rattled a little as a breeze from the open window caught it, then the top sheet slid off and fell to the floor. Mr. Grimm was still staring out the window.
Slowly the room behind him was thinning of its crowd as the theater-bound diners went out in twos and threes. The last of these disappeared finally, and save for Mr. Grimm there were not more than a dozen persons left in the place. Thus for a few minutes, and then the swinging doors leading from the street clicked, and a gentleman entered. He glanced around, as if seeking a seat near a window, then moved along in Mr. Grimm’s direction, between the rows of tables. His gaze lingered on Mr. Grimm for an instant, and when he came opposite he stooped and picked up the fallen newspaper sheet.
“Your paper?” he inquired courteously.
Mr. Grimm was still gazing dreamily out of the window.
“I beg pardon,” insisted the new-comer pleasantly. He folded the paper once and replaced it on the table. One hand lingered for just the fraction of a moment above Mr. Grimm’s coffee-cup.
Aroused by the remark, Mr. Grimm glanced around.
“Oh, thank you,” he apologized hastily. “I didn’t hear you at first. Thank you.”
The new-comer nodded, smiled and passed on, taking a seat two or three tables down.
Apparently this trifling courtesy had broken the spell of reverie, for Mr. Grimm squared around to the table again, drew his coffee-cup toward him, and dropped in the single lump of sugar. He idly stirred it for a moment, as his eyes turned again toward the open window, then he lifted the tiny cup and emptied it.
Again he sat motionless for a long time, and thrice the new-comer, only a few feet away, glanced at him narrowly. And now, it seemed, a peculiar drowsiness was overtaking Mr. Grimm. Once he caught himself nodding and raised his head with a jerk. Then he noticed that the arc lights in the street were wobbling curiously, and he fell to wondering why that single flame sparkled at the apex of the capitol dome. Things around him grew hazy, vague, unreal, and then, as if realizing that something was the matter with him, he came to his feet.
He took one step forward into the space between the tables, reeled, attempted to steady himself by holding on to a chair, then everything grew black about him, and he pitched forward on the floor. His face was dead white; his fingers moved a little, nervously, weakly, then they were still.