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AT THE HÔTEL SPLENDIDE
"I asked you," the Baron remarked, helping himself to hors d'oeuvres, "to dine with me here, because I fancy that the little inn at St. Étarpe is being closely watched. Always when one has private matters to discuss, I believe in a certain amount of publicity. Here we are in a quiet corner, it is true, but we are surrounded by several hundreds of other people. They are far too occupied with their own affairs to watch us. It is the last place, for instance, where our friend from Mexonia would dream of looking for us."
The three men were seated at a small round table in the great dining-room of the Hôtel Splendide of Dinant-on-Sea. The season was at its height, and the room was full. On every side they were surrounded by chattering groups of English tourists and French holiday makers. Outside on the promenade a band was playing, and a leisurely crowd was passing back and forth.
"The lady whom we will continue, if you please, to call Madame de Melbain," the Baron continued, "has desired me to take you two gentlemen into our entire confidence. You are both aware that for eighteen months the suit for divorce brought by that lady's husband has been before a special court."
"One understands," Wrayson remarked, "that the sympathies of all Europe are with--the lady."
The Baron bowed.
"Entirely. Her cause, too, is the popular one in Mexonia. It is the ministry and the aristocracy who are on the other side. These are anxious for an alliance which will safeguard Mexonia from certain dangers to which she is at present exposed. Madame de Melbain, as you are both aware, comes from one of the oldest families of Europe, but it is a family without any political significance. The betrothal was completed before Frederick stood so near to the throne. If his accession had seemed even a likely thing at the time, it would not have been sanctioned. I speak as the staunch friend of the lady whose cause is so dear to us, but I wish you to grasp the facts."
There was a brief pause whilst a fresh course was served by an apologetic and breathless waiter. The three men spoke together for a while on some chance subject. Then, when they were alone, the Baron continued.
"The court, although powerful influences were at work, found itself unable to pronounce the decree which those in authority so much desired. All that those who were behind the scenes could do was to keep the case open, hoping that while living apart from her husband some trifling indiscretion on the part of Madame would afford them a pretext for giving the desired verdict. I need not say that, up to the present, no such indiscretion has occurred. But all the time we have been on the brink of a volcano!"
"The letters!" Duncan muttered.
The Baron nodded.
"About a year ago," he said, "Madame de Melbain received a terrifying letter from the miscreant into whose hands they had fallen. Madame very wisely made a confidant of me, and, with the Baroness de Sturm, I left at once for London, and saw this man. I very soon persuaded myself that he had the letters and that he knew their value. He asked a sum for them which it was utterly unable for us to pay."
"Did he explain," Duncan asked, "how they came into his hands?"
"He said that they were picked up on the battlefield of Colenso at first," the Baron declared. "Afterwards he was brutally frank. You see your death was gazetted, a fact of which he was no doubt aware. He admitted that they had been given to him to destroy."
Duncan leaned across the table.
"Baron," he said, "who killed that man? He cheated me of my task, but I should like to know who it was."
"So would a great many more of us," the Baron answered. "The fact is, we are in the curious position of having an unknown friend."
"An unknown friend?" Duncan repeated.
The Baron nodded.
"We paid that man two thousand a year," he said, "but he was not satisfied. He communicated secretly with the other side, and they agreed to buy the letters for ten thousand pounds. We knew the very night when he had arranged to hand them over to a man named Bentham in London. But we were powerless. We could not have found the half of ten thousand pounds. One thing only was tried, and that very nearly ended in disaster. An attempt was made to steal the letters. Mr. Wrayson will tell you about that--presently."
A maître d'hôtel paused at their table to hope that messieurs were well served. In a season so busy it was not possible to give the attention to every one they would like! Was there anything he could do? Messieurs were drinking, he noticed, the best wine in the cellars! He trusted that they approved of it. The young lady there with the diamond collar and the wonderful eyes? He bent a little lower over the table. That was Mademoiselle Diane, of the Folies Bergères! And the gentleman? He had registered under another name, but he was well known as the Baron X----, a great capitalist in Paris!
The maître d'hôtel passed on, well satisfied that he had interested the three distinguished looking gentlemen who dined alone. Wrayson, as soon as he was out of hearing, leaned over the table.
"It is on that night," he said to Duncan, "that I come into touch with the affairs of which our friend has spoken. The man Barnes had a flat corresponding to mine on the floor above. I returned home about midnight and found a young lady, who was a complete stranger to me, engaged in searching my desk. I turned up the lights and demanded an explanation. She was apparently quite as much surprised to see me as I was to see her. It appeared that she had imagined herself in Barnes' flat. Whilst I was talking to her, the telephone bell rang. Some unknown person asked me to convey a message to Barnes. When I had finished she was gone. I sat down and tried to make head or tail of the affair. I couldn't. Barnes was a disreputable little bounder! This girl was a lady. What connexion could there be between the two? I fancied what might happen if she were surprised by Barnes, and I determined not to go to bed until I heard her come down. I fell asleep over my fire, and I woke with a start to find her once more upon the threshold of my room. She was fainting--almost on the point of collapse! I gave her some brandy and helped her downstairs. At the door of the flat was a cab, and in it was the man Barnes, dead--murdered!"
The breath came through Duncan's teeth with a little hiss. One could fancy that he was wishing that his had been the hand to strike the blow. The Baron glanced round casually. He called a waiter and complained of the slow service, sent for another bottle of wine, and lit a cigarette.
"I think," he said, "that we will pause for a moment or so. Mr. Wrayson's narrative is a little dramatic! Ah! Mademoiselle la danseuse goes! What a toilet!"
Mademoiselle favoured their table with her particular regard as she passed out, and accepted with a delightful smile the fan which she dropped in passing, and which the Baron as speedily restored. He resumed his seat, stroking his grey moustache.
"A very handsome young lady," he remarked. "I think that now we may continue."
"The girl?" Duncan asked quickly.
"Was your sister," Wrayson answered.
There was a moment's intense silence. Duncan was doing his best to look unconcerned, but the hand which played with his wineglass shook.
"How--was he murdered?"
"Strangled with a fine cord," Wrayson answered.
"In the cab?"
"There or inside the building! It is impossible to say."
"And no one was ever tried for the murder?" "No one," Wrayson answered.
Duncan swallowed a glassful of wine.
"But my sister," he said, "was in his rooms--she might have seen him!"
"Your sister's name was never mentioned in the matter," Wrayson said. "I was the only witness who knew anything about her--and--I said nothing."
Duncan drew a little breath.
"Why?" he asked.
"An impulse," Wrayson answered. "I felt that she could not have been concerned in such a deed, and I felt that if I told all that I knew, she would have been suspected. So I said nothing. I saved her a good deal of trouble and anxiety I dare say, and I do not believe that I interfered in any way with the course of justice."
Duncan looked across the table and raised his glass.
"I should like to shake hands with you, Mr. Wrayson," he said, "only the Baron would have fits. You acted like a brick. I only hope that Louise is as grateful as she ought to be."
"My silence," Wrayson said, "was really an impulse. There have been times since when I have wondered whether I was wise. There are people now at work in London trying to solve the mystery of this murder. I acted upon the supposition that no one had seen your sister leave the flat except myself. I found afterwards that I was mistaken!"
The Baron leaned forward.
"One moment, Mr. Wrayson," he interrupted. "You have said that there are people in London who are trying to solve the mystery of Barnes' death. Who are they?"
"One is the man's brother," Wrayson answered, "if possible, a more contemptible little cur than the man himself was. His only interest is to discover the source of his brother's income. He wants money! Nothing but money. The other is a much more dangerous person. His name is Heneage, and he is an acquaintance of my own, a barrister, and a man of education."
"Why does he interest himself in such an affair?" Duncan asked.
"Because the solution of such matters is a hobby of his," Wrayson answered. "It was he who saw your sister and I come out from the flat that morning. It was he who warned us both to leave England."
The Baron leaned forward in his chair.
"Forgive me, Mr. Wrayson," he said, "but there is a--lady at your right who seems anxious to attract your attention. We are none of us anxious to advertise our presence here. Is she, by any chance, a friend of yours?"
Wrayson looked quickly round. He understood at once the Baron's slight pause. The ladies of the French half-world are skilled enough, when necessary, in concealing their profession: their English sister, if she attempts it at all, attempts a hopeless task. Over-powdered, over-rouged, with hair at least two shades nearer copper coloured than last time he had seen her, badly but showily dressed, it was his friend from the Alhambra whose welcoming smile Wrayson received with a thrill of interest. She was seated at a small table with a slightly less repulsive edition of herself, and her smile changed at once into a gesture of invitation. Wrayson rose to his feet almost eagerly.
"This is a coincidence," he said under his breath. "She, too, holds a hand in the game!"
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