A man stood irresolutely before the imposing portals of Cainbury House, a large office building let out to numerous small tenants, and harbouring, as the indicator on the tiled wall of the vestibule testified, some thirty different professions. The man was evidently poor, for his clothes were shabby and his boots were down at heel. He was as evidently a foreigner. His clean-shaven eagle face was sallow, his eyes were dark, his eyebrows black and straight.
He passed up the few steps into the hall and stood thoughtfully before the indicator. Presently he found what he wanted. At the very top of the list and amongst the crowded denizens of the fifth floor was a slip inscribed:
"THE GOSSIP'S CORNER"
He took from his waistcoat pocket a newspaper cutting and compared the two then stepped briskly, almost jauntily, into the hall, as though all his doubts and uncertainties had vanished, and waited for the elevator. His coat was buttoned tightly, his collar was frayed, his shirt had seen the greater part of a week's service, the Derby hat on his head had undergone extensive renovations, and a close observer would have noticed that his gloves were odd ones.
He walked into the lift and said, "Fifth floor," with a slight foreign accent.
He was whirled up, the lift doors clanged open and the grimy finger of the elevator boy indicated the office. Again the man hesitated, examining the door carefully. The upper half was of toughened glass and bore the simple inscription:
"THE GOSSIP'S CORNER. KNOCK."
Obediently the stranger knocked and the door opened through an invisible agent, much to the man's surprise, though there was nothing more magical about the phenomenon than there is about any electrically controlled office door.
He found himself in a room sparsely furnished with a table, a chair and a few copies of papers. An old school map of England hung on one wall and a Landseer engraving on the other. At the farthermost end of the room was another door, and to this he gravitated and again, after a moment's hesitation, he knocked.
"Come in," said a voice.
He entered cautiously.
The room was larger and was comfortably furnished. There were shaded electric lamps on either side of the big carved oak writing-table. One of the walls was covered with books, and the litter of proofs upon the table suggested that this was the sanctorum.
But the most remarkable feature of the room was the man who sat at the desk. He was a man solidly built and, by his voice, of middle age. His face the new-comer could not see and for excellent reason. It was hidden behind a veil of fine silk net which had been adjusted over the head like a loose bag and tightened under the chin.
The man at the table chuckled when he saw the other's surprise.
"Sit down," he said--he spoke in French--"and don't, I beg of you, be alarmed."
"Monsieur," said the new-comer easily, "be assured that I am not alarmed. In this world nothing has ever alarmed me except my own distressing poverty and the prospect of dying poor."
The veiled figure said nothing for a while.
"You have come in answer to my advertisement," he said after a long pause.
The other bowed.
"You require an assistant, Monsieur," said the new-comer, "discreet, with a knowledge of foreign languages and poor. I fulfill all those requirements," he went on calmly; "had you also added, of an adventurous disposition, with few if any scruples, it would have been equally descriptive."
The stranger felt that the man at the desk was looking at him, though he could not see his eyes. It must have been a long and careful scrutiny, for presently the advertiser said gruffly:
"I think you'll do."
"Exactly," said the new-comer with cool assurance; "and now it is for you, dear Monsieur, to satisfy me that you also will do. You will have observed that there are two parties to every bargain. First of all, my duties?"
The man in the chair leant back and thrust his hands into his pockets.
"I am the editor of a little paper which circulates exclusively amongst the servants of the upper classes," he said. "I receive from time to time interesting communications concerning the aristocracy and gentry of this country, written by hysterical French maids and revengeful Italian valets. I am not a good linguist, and I feel that there is much in these epistles which I miss and which I should not miss."
The new-comer nodded.
"I therefore want somebody of discretion who will deal with my foreign correspondence, make a fair copy in English and summarize the complaints which these good people make. You quite understand," he said with a shrug of his shoulders, "that mankind is not perfect, less perfect is womankind, and least perfect is that section of mankind which employs servants. They usually have stories to tell not greatly to their masters' credit, not nice stories, you understand, my dear friend. By the way, what is your name?"
The stranger hesitated.
"Poltavo," he said after a pause.
"Italian or Pole?" asked the other.
"Pole," replied Poltavo readily.
"Well, as I was saying," the editor went on, "we on this paper are very anxious to secure news of society doings. If they are printable, we print them; if they are not printable"--he paused--"we do not print them. But," he raised a warning forefinger, "the fact that particulars of disgraceful happenings are not fit for publication must not induce you to cast such stories into the wastepaper basket. We keep a record of such matters for our own private amusement." He said this latter airily, but Poltavo was not deceived.
Again there was a long silence whilst the man at the table ruminated.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"On the fourth floor of a small house in Bloomsbury," replied Poltavo.
The veiled figure nodded.
"When did you come to this country?"
"Six months ago."
Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.
"Why?" insisted the man at the table.
"A slight matter of disagreement between myself and the admirable chief of police of Sans Sebastian," he said as airily as the other.
Again the figure nodded.
"If you had told me anything else, I should not have engaged you," he said.
"Why?" asked Poltavo in surprise.
"Because you are speaking the truth," said the other coolly. "Your matter of disagreement with the police in Sans Sebastian was over the missing of some money in the hotel where you were staying. The room happened to be next to yours and communicating, if one had the ingenuity to pick the lock of the door. Also your inability to pay the hotel bill hastened your departure."
"What an editor!" said the other admiringly, but without showing any signs of perturbation or embarrassment.
"It is my business to know something about everybody," said the editor. "By the way, you may call me Mr. Brown, and if at times I may seem absent-minded when I am so addressed you must excuse me, because it is not my name. Yes, you are the kind of man I want."
"It is remarkable that you should have found me," said Poltavo. "The cutting"--he indicated the newspaper clip--"was sent to me by an unknown friend."
"I was the unknown friend," said "Mr. Brown"; "do you understand the position?"
"I understand everything," he said, "except the last and most important of all matters; namely, the question of my salary."
The man named a sum--a generous sum to Poltavo, and Mr. Brown, eyeing him keenly, was glad to note that his new assistant was neither surprised nor impressed.
"You will see very little of me at this office," the editor went on. "If you work well, and I can trust you, I will double the salary I am giving you; if you fail me, you will be sorry for yourself."
"That finishes our interview. You will come here to-morrow morning and let yourself in. Here is the key of the door and a key to the safe in which I keep all correspondence. You will find much to incriminate society and precious little that will incriminate me. I expect you to devote the whole of your attention to this business," he said slowly and emphatically.
"You may be sure----" began Poltavo.
"Wait, I have not finished. By devoting the whole of your attention to the business, I mean I want you to have no spare time to conduct any investigations as to my identity. By a method which I will not trouble to explain to you I am able to leave this building without any person being aware of the fact that I am the editor of this interesting publication. When you have been through your letters I want you to translate those which contain the most important particulars and forward them by a messenger who will call every evening at five o'clock. Your salary will be paid regularly, and you will not be bothered with any editorial duties. And now, if you will please go into the outer room and wait a few moments, you may return in five minutes and begin on this accumulation of correspondence."
Poltavo, with a little bow, obeyed, and closed the door carefully behind him. He heard a click, and knew that the same electric control which had opened the outer door had now closed the inner. At the end of five minutes, as near as he could judge, he tried the door. It opened readily and he stepped into the inner office. The room was empty. There was a door leading out to the corridor, but something told the new assistant that this was not the manner of egress which his employer had adopted. He looked round carefully. There was no other door, but behind the chair where the veiled man had sat was a large cupboard. This he opened without, however, discovering any solution to the mystery of Mr. Brown's disappearance, for the cupboard was filled with books and stationery. He then began a systematic search of the apartment. He tried all the drawers of the desk and found they were open, whereupon his interest in their contents evaporated, since he knew a gentleman of Mr. Brown's wide experience was hardly likely to leave important particulars concerning himself in an unlocked desk. Poltavo shrugged his shoulders, deftly rolling a cigarette, which he lit, then pulling the chair up to the desk he began to attack the pile of letters which awaited his attention.
For six weeks Mr. Poltavo had worked with painstaking thoroughness in the new service. Every Friday morning he had found on his desk an envelope containing two bank notes neatly folded and addressed to himself. Every evening at five o'clock a hard-faced messenger had called and received a bulky envelope containing Poltavo's translations.
The Pole was a keen student of the little paper, which he bought every week, and he had noted that very little of the information he had gleaned appeared in print. Obviously then Gossip's Corner served Mr. Brown in some other way than as a vehicle for scandal, and the veil was partly lifted on this mysterious business on an afternoon when there had come a sharp tap at the outer door of the office. Poltavo pressed the button on the desk, which released the lock, and presently the tap was repeated on the inside door.
The door opened and a girl stood in the entrance hesitating.
"Won't you come in?" said Poltavo, rising.
"Are you the editor of this paper?" asked the girl, as she slowly closed the door behind her.
Poltavo bowed. He was always ready to accept whatever honour chance bestowed upon him. Had she asked him if he were Mr. Brown, he would also have bowed.
"I had a letter from you," said the girl, coming to the other side of the table and resting her hand on its edge and looking down at him a little scornfully, and a little fearfully, as Poltavo thought.
He bowed again. He had not written letters to anybody save to his employer, but his conscience was an elastic one.
"I write so many letters," he said airily, "that I really forget whether I have written to you or not. May I see the letter?"
She opened her bag, took out an envelope, removed the letter and passed it across to the interested young man. It was written on the note-heading of Gossip's Corner, but the address had been scratched out by a stroke of the pen. It ran:
"Certain very important information has come into my possession regarding the relationships between yourself and Captain Brackly. I feel sure you cannot know that your name is being associated with that officer. As the daughter and heiress of the late Sir George Billk, you may imagine that your wealth and position in society relieves you of criticism, but I can assure you that the stories which have been sent to me would, were they placed in the hands of your husband, lead to the most unhappy consequences.
"In order to prevent this matter going any further, and in order to silence the voices of your detractors, our special inquiry department is willing to undertake the suppression of these scandal-mongers. It will cost you £10,000, which should be paid to me in notes. If you agree, put an advertisement in the agony column of the Morning Mist, and I will arrange a meeting where the money can be paid over. On no account address me at my office or endeavour to interview me there.
Poltavo read the letter and now the function of Gossip's Corner was very clear. He refolded the letter and handed it back to the girl.
"I may not be very clever," said the visitor, "but I think I can understand what blackmail is when I see it."
Poltavo was in a quandary, but only for a moment.
"I did not write that letter," he said suavely; "it was written without my knowledge. When I said that I was the editor of this paper, I meant, of course, that I was the acting editor. Mr. Brown conducts his business quite independently of myself. I know all the circumstances," he added hastily, since he was very anxious that the girl should not refuse him further information in the belief that he was an inconsiderable quantity, "and I sympathize with you most sincerely."
A little smile curled the lips of the visitor.
Poltavo was ever a judge of men and women, and he knew that this was no yielding, timid creature to be terrified by the fear of exposure.
"The matter can be left in the hands of Captain Brackly and my husband to settle," she said. "I am going to take the letter to my solicitors. I shall also show it to the two men most affected."
Now the letter had been written four days earlier, as Poltavo had seen, and he argued that if it had not been revealed to these "two men most affected" in the first heat of the lady's anger and indignation, it would never be shown at all.
"I think you are very wise," he said suavely. "After all, what is a little unpleasantness of that character? Who cares about the publication of a few letters?"
"Has he got letters?" asked the girl quickly, with a change of tone.
Poltavo bowed again.
"Will they be returned?" she asked.
Poltavo nodded, and the girl bit her lips thoughtfully.
"I see," she said.
She looked at the letter again and without another word went out.
Poltavo accompanied her to the outer door.
"It is the prettiest kind of blackmail," she said at parting, and she spoke without heat. "I have only now to consider which will pay me best."
The Pole closed the door behind her and walked back to his inner office, opened the door and stood aghast, for sitting in the chair which he had so recently vacated was the veiled man.
He was chuckling, partly at Poltavo's surprise, partly at some amusing thought.
"Well done, Poltavo," he said; "excellently fenced."
"Did you hear?" asked the Pole, surprised in spite of himself.
"Every word," said the other. "Well, what do you think of it?"
Poltavo pulled a chair from the wall and sat down facing his chief.
"I think it is very clever," he said admiringly, "but I also think I am not getting sufficient salary."
The veiled man nodded.
"I think you are right," he agreed, "and I will see that it is increased. What a fool the woman was to come here!"
"Either a fool or a bad actress," said Poltavo.
"What do you mean?" asked the other quickly.
Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.
"To my mind," he said after a moment's thought, "there is no doubt that I have witnessed a very clever comedy. An effective one, I grant, because it has accomplished all that was intended."
"And what was intended?" asked Mr. Brown curiously.
"It was intended by you and carried out by you in order to convey to me the exact character of your business," said Poltavo. "I judged that fact from the following evidence." He ticked off the points one by one on his long white fingers. "The lady's name was, according to the envelope, let us say, Lady Cruxbury; but the lady's real name, according to some silver initials on her bag, began with 'G.' Those initials I also noted on the little handkerchief she took from her bag. Therefore she was not the person to whom the letter was addressed, or if she was, the letter was a blind. In such an important matter Lady Cruxbury would come herself. My own view is that there is no Lady Cruxbury, that the whole letter was concocted and was delivered to me whilst you were watching me from some hiding place in order to test my discretion, and, as I say, to make me wise in the ways of your admirable journal."
Mr. Brown laughed long and softly.
"You are a clever fellow, Poltavo," he said admiringly, "and you certainly deserve your rise of salary. Now I am going to be frank with you. I admit that the whole thing was a blind. You now know my business, and you now know my raison d'Ítre, so to speak. Are you willing to continue?"
"At a price," said the other.
"Name it," said the veiled man quietly.
"I am a poor adventurer," began Poltavo; "my life----"
"Cut all that stuff out," said Mr. Brown roughly, "I am not going to give you a fortune. I am going to give you the necessities of life and a little comfort."
Poltavo walked to the window and thrusting his hands deep into his trouser pockets stared out. Presently he turned. "The necessities of life to me," he said, "are represented by a flat in St. James's Street, a car, a box at the Opera----"
"You will get none of these," interrupted Mr. Brown. "Be reasonable."
"I am worth a fortune to you," he said, "because I have imagination. Here, for example." He picked out a letter from a heap on the desk and opened it. The caligraphy was typically Latin and the handwriting was vile. "Here is a letter from an Italian," he said, "which to the gross mind may perhaps represent wearisome business details. To a mind of my calibre, it is clothed in rich possibilities." He leaned across the table; his eyes lighted up with enthusiasm. "There may be an enormous fortune in this," and he tapped the letter slowly. "Here is a man who desires the great English newspaper, of which he has heard (though Heaven only knows how he can have heard it), to discover the whereabouts and the identity of a certain M. Fallock."
The veiled man started.
"Fallock," he repeated.
"Our friend Fallock has built a house 'of great wonder,' to quote the letter of our correspondent. In this house are buried millions of lira--doesn't that fire your imagination, dear colleague?"
"Built a house, did he?" repeated the other.
"Our friends tell me," Poltavo went on,--"did I tell you it was written on behalf of two men?--that they have a clue and in fact that they know Mr. Fallock's address, and they are sure he is engaged in a nefarious business, but they require confirmation of their knowledge."
The man at the table was silent.
His fingers drummed nervously on the blotting pad and his head was sunk forward as a man weighing a difficult problem.
"All child's talk," he said roughly, "these buried treasures!--I have heard of them before. They are just two imaginative foreigners. I suppose they want you to advance their fare?"
"That is exactly what they do ask," said Poltavo.
The man at the desk laughed uneasily behind his veil and rose.
"It's the Spanish prison trick," he said; "surely you are not deceived by that sort of stuff?"
Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.
"Speaking as one who has also languished in a Spanish prison," he smiled, "and who has also sent out invitations to the generous people of England to release him from his sad position--a release which could only be made by generous payments--I thoroughly understand the delicate workings of that particular fraud; but we robbers of Spain, dear colleague, do not write in our native language, we write in good, or bad, English. We write not in vilely spelt Italian because we know that the recipient of our letter will not take the trouble to get it translated. No, this is no Spanish prison trick. This is genuine."
"May I see the letter?"
Poltavo handed it across the table, and the man turning his back for a moment upon his assistant lifted his veil and read. He folded the letter and put it in his pocket.
"I will think about it," he said gruffly.
"Another privilege I would crave from you in addition to the purely nominal privilege of receiving more salary," said Poltavo.
"What is it?"
The Pole spread out his hands in a gesture of self-depreciation.
"It is weak of me, I admit," he said, "but I am anxious--foolishly anxious--to return to the society of well-clothed men and pretty women. I pine for social life. It is a weakness of mine," he added apologetically. "I want to meet stockbrokers, financiers, politicians and other chevaliers d'industrie on equal terms, to wear the grande habit, to listen to soft music, to drink good wine."
"Well?" asked the other suspiciously. "What am I to do?"
"Introduce me to society," said Poltavo sweetly--"most particularly do I desire to meet that merchant prince of whose operations I read in the newspapers, Mr. how-do-you-call-him?--Farrington."
The veiled man sat in silence for a good minute, and then he rose, opened the cupboard and put in his hand. There was a click and the cupboard with its interior swung back, revealing another room which was in point of fact an adjoining suite of offices, also rented by Mr. Brown. He stood silently in the opening, his chin on his breast, his hands behind him, then:
"You are very clever, Poltavo," he said, and passed through and the cupboard swung back in its place.