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I LOSE MY POST
The Duke solemnly closed the door. "Ray," he said, "I am glad that you are here. Something serious has happened. Mr. Ducaine, Lord Chelsford and I desire to ask you a few questions."
I bowed. What was coming I could not indeed imagine, unless Ray had already made the disclosure.
"The word code for the safe to-day was Magenta, I believe?" the Duke asked.
"That is correct, sir," I answered.
"And it was known to whom?"
"To Lord Chelsford, yourself, Colonel Ray, and myself," I answered.
"And what was there in the safe?" the Duke asked.
"The plans for the Guildford Camp, the new map of Surrey pricked for fortifications, and one or two transport schemes," I answered.
"Exactly! Those documents are now all missing."
I strode to the safe and looked in. It was as the Duke had said. The safe was practically empty.
"They were there this morning," I said. "It was arranged that I should examine the contents of the safe the first thing, and take any finished work over to the War Office. Do you remember who has been in the room to-day, sir?"
"Yourself, myself, and the woman whom you brought here an hour or so ago."
"Mrs. Smith-Lessing?" I exclaimed.
"Precisely!" the Duke remarked, drily.
"Did you leave her alone here?" I asked.
"For two minutes only," the Duke answered. "I was called up on the telephone from the House of Lords. I did not imagine that there could be the slightest risk in leaving her, for without the knowledge of that word Magenta the safe would defy a professional locksmith."
"You will forgive my suggesting it, your Grace," I said, with some hesitation, "but you have not, I presume, had occasion to go to the safe during the day?"
"I have not," the Duke answered tersely.
"Then I cannot suggest any explanation of the opening of the safe," I admitted. "It was impossible for Mrs. Smith-Lessing to have opened it unless she knew the code word."
"The question is," the Duke said quietly, "did she know it?"
Then I realized the object of this cross-examination. The colour flared suddenly into my cheeks, and as suddenly left them. The absence of those papers was extraordinary to me. I utterly failed to understand it.
"I think I know what you mean, sir," I said. "It is true that Mrs. Smith-Lessing is my stepmother. I believe it is true, too, that she is connected with the French Secret Police. I was there this afternoon--you yourself sent me. But I did not tell Mrs. Smith-Lessing the code word, and I know nothing of the disappearance of those documents."
Then Ray moved forward and placed deliberately upon the table the roll of papers which I had given up to him a few hours ago.
"What about these?" he asked, with biting scorn. "Tell the Duke and Lord Cheisford where I found them! Let us hear your glib young tongue telling the truth for once, sir."
Both the Duke and Lord Chelsford were obviously startled. Ray had always been my friend and upholder. He spoke now with very apparent enmity.
"Perhaps you would prefer to tell the story yourself," I answered. "I will correct you if it is necessary."
"Very well," he answered. "I will tell the story, and a pitiful one it is. This boy is watched, as we all know, for, owing to my folly in ignoring his antecedents, a great trust has been reposed in him. News was brought to me that he had been seen with his father and Mrs. Smith-Lessing in Gattini's Restaurant. Later, that he had found his way to their lodging. I followed him there. He may have gone there with an errand from you, Duke, but when I arrived he was doing a little business on his own account, and these papers were in the act of passing from him to his father."
"What are they?" Lord Chelsford asked.
"Your Lordship may recognize them," I answered quietly. "They are a summary of the schemes of defence of the southern ports. I was at that moment, the moment when Colonel Ray entered, considering an offer of five thousand pounds for them."
Even Ray was staggered at my admission, and the Duke looked as though he could scarcely believe his ears. Lord Chelsford was busy looking through the papers.
"You young blackguard," Ray muttered through his teeth. "After that admission, do you still deny that you told Mrs. Smith-Lessing, or whatever the woman calls herself, the code word for that safe?"
"Most certainly I deny it," I answered firmly. "The two things are wholly disconnected."
The Duke sat down heavily in his chair. I knew very well that of the three men he was the most surprised. Lord Cheisford carefully placed the papers which he had been reading in his breast-pocket. Ray leaned over towards him.
"Lord Chelsford," he said, "and you, Duke, you took this young man on trust, and I pledged my word for him. Like many a better man, I made a mistake. For all that we know he has secret copies of all the work he has done for us, ready to dispose of. What in God's name, are we going to do with him?"
"What do you suggest?" Lord Chelsford asked softly.
"My way would not be yours," Ray answered, with a hard laugh. "I am only half civilized, you know, and if he and I were alone in the desert at this moment I would shoot him without remorse. Such a breach of trust as this deserves death."
"We are, unfortunately," Lord Cheisford remarked, "not in a position to adopt such extreme measures. It would not even be wise for us to attempt to formulate a legal charge against him. The position is somewhat embarrassing. What do you suggest, Duke?"
I glanced towards the Duke, and I was surprised to see that his hands were shaking. For a man who rarely displayed feeling the Duke seemed to be wonderfully affected.
"I can suggest nothing," he answered in a low tone. "I must confess that I am bewildered. These matters have developed so rapidly."
Lord Cheisford looked thoughtful for a moment.
"I have a plan in my mind," he said slowly. "Duke, should I be taking a liberty if I asked to be left alone with this young man for five minutes?"
The Duke rose slowly to his feet. He had the air of one not altogether approving of the suggestion. Ray glowered upon us both, but offered no objection. They left the room together. Lord Cheisford at once turned to me.
"Ducaine," he said, "forgive me that I did not come to your aid. I will see that you do not suffer later on. But what in Heaven's name is the meaning of this last abstraction' from the safe?"
I shook my head.
"The woman could never have guessed the word!" I said.
"Impossible!" he agreed. "Ducaine, do you know why Lord Blenavon left England so suddenly?"
"Colonel Ray knows, sir," I answered. "Ask him!"
Lord Chelsford became very thoughtful.
"Ducaine," he said, "we are in a fix. So far your plan has worked to perfection. Paris has plenty of false information, and your real copies have all reached me safely. But if you leave, how is this to be carried on? I do not know whom I mistrust, but if the day's work of the Board is really to be left in 'the safe, either here or at Braster--"
"You must choose my successor yourself, sir," I interrupted.
"The Duke has always opposed my selections. Besides, you have prepared your false copies with rare skill. Even I was deceived for a moment just now by your summary. You don't overdo it. Everything is just a little wrong. I am not sure even now whether I should not do better to tell Ray and the Duke the truth."
"I am in your hands, sir," I answered. "You must do as you think best."
"They will be back in a moment. It is absurd to doubt either of them, Ducaine. Yet I shall keep silent. I have an idea. Agree to everything I say."
The Duke and Ray returned together. Lord Chelsford turned to them.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, coldly, "persists in his denial of any knowledge of to-day's affair. With regard to the future, I have offered him his choice of an arrest on the charge of espionage, or a twelve months' cruise on the Ajax, which leaves to-morrow for China. He has chosen the latter. I shall take steps of course to see that he is not allowed to land at any calling-place, or dispatch letters."
Ray smiled a little cruelly.
"The idea is an excellent one, Chelsford," he said. "When did you say that the Ajax sailed?"
"To-morrow," Lord Cheisford answered. "I propose to take Mr. Ducaine to my house to-night, and to hand him over to the charge of a person on whom I can thoroughly rely."
The Duke looked at me curiously.
"Mr. Ducaine consents to go?" he asked.
"It is a voyage which I have long desired to take," I answered coolly, "though I never expected to enjoy it at my country's expense."
The Duke rang the bell.
"Will you have Mr. Ducaine's things packed and sent across--did you say to your house, Lord Chelsford?"
"To my house," Lord Chelsford assented.
"To No. 19, Grosvenor Square," the Duke ordered. "Mr. Ducaine will not be returning."
Lord Chelsford rose. I followed his example. Neither the Duke nor Ray attempted any form of farewell. The former, however, laid some notes upon the table.
"I believe, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "that there is a month's salary due to you. I have added something to the amount. Until to-day I have always considered your duties admirably fulfilled."
I looked at the notes and at the Duke.
"I thank your Grace," I answered. "I will take the liberty of declining your gift. My salary has been fully paid."
For a moment I fancied I caught a softer gleam in Ray's eyes. He seemed about to speak, but checked himself. Lord Chelsford hurried me from the room, and into his little brougham, which was waiting.
"Do you really mean me to go to China, sir?" I asked him, anxiously.
"Not I!" he answered. "I am going to send you to Braster."
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