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Monte Irvin raised his head and stared dully at Margaret Halley. It was very quiet in the library of the big old-fashioned house at Prince's Gate. A faint crackling sound which proceeded from the fire was clearly audible. Margaret's grey eyes were anxiously watching the man whose pose as he sat in the deep, saddle-back chair so curiously suggested collapse.
"Drugs," he whispered. "Drugs."
Few of his City associates would have recognized the voice; all would have been shocked to see the change which had taken place in the man.
"You really understand why I have told you, Mr. Irvin, don't you?" said Margaret almost pleadingly. "Dr. Burton thought you should not be told, but then Dr. Burton did not know you were going to ask me point blank. And I thought it better that you should know the truth, bad as it is, rather than--"
"Rather than suspect--worse things," whispered Irvin. "Of course, you were right, Miss Halley. I am very, very grateful to you for telling me. I realize what courage it must have called for. Believe me, I shall always remember--"
He broke off, staring across the room at his wife's portrait. Then:
"If only I had known," he added.
Irvin exhibited greater composure than Margaret had ventured to anticipate. She was confirmed in her opinion that he should be told the truth.
"I would have told you long ago," she said, "if I had thought that any good could result from my doing so. Frankly, I had hoped to cure Rita of the habit, and I believe I might have succeeded in time."
"There has been no mention of drugs in connection with the case," said Monte Irvin, speaking monotonously. "In the Press, I mean."
"Hitherto there has not," she replied. "But there is a hint of it in one of this evening's papers, and I determined to give you the exact facts so far as they are known to me before some garbled account came to your ears."
"Thank you," he said, "thank you. I had felt for a long time that I was getting out of touch with Rita, that she had other confidants. Have you any idea who they were, Miss Halley?"
He raised his eyes, looking at her pathetically. Margaret hesitated, then:
"Well," she replied, "I am afraid Nina knew."
"I think she must have known."
"The police have interrogated her," he said. "Probably she is being watched."
"Oh, I don't think she knows anything about the drug syndicate," declared Margaret. "She merely acted as confidential messenger. Poor Sir Lucien Pyne, I am sure, was addicted to drugs."
"Do you think"--Irvin spoke in a very low voice--"do you think he led her into the habit?"
Margaret bit her lip, staring down at the red carpet.
"I would hate to slander a man who can never defend himself," she replied finally. "But--I have sometimes thought he did."
Silence fell. Both were contemplating a theory which neither dared to express in words.
"You see," continued Margaret, "it is evident that this man Kazmah was patronized by people so highly placed that it is hopeless to look for information from them. Again, such people have influence. I don't suggest that they are using it to protect Kazmah, but I have no doubt they are doing so to protect themselves."
Monte Irvin raised his eyes to her face. A weary, sad look had come into them.
"You mean that it may be to somebody's interest to hush up the matter as much as possible?"
Margaret nodded her head.
"The prevalence of the drug habit in society--especially in London society--is a secret which has remained hidden so long from the general public," she replied, "that one cannot help looking for bribery and corruption. The stage is made the scapegoat whenever the voice of scandal breathes the word 'dope,' but we rarely hear the names of the worst offenders even whispered. I have thought for a long time that the authorities must know the names of the receivers and distributors of cocaine, veronal, opium, and the other drugs, huge quantities of which find their way regularly to the West End of London. Pharmacists sometimes experience the greatest difficulty in obtaining the drugs which they legitimately require, and the prices have increased extraordinarily. Cocaine, for instance, has gone up from five and sixpence an ounce to eighty-seven shillings, and heroin from three and sixpence to over forty shillings, while opium that was once about twenty shillings a pound is now eight times the price."
Monte Irvin listened attentively.
"In the course of my Guildhall duties," he said slowly, "I have been brought in contact frequently with police officers of all ranks. If influential people are really at work protecting these villains who deal illicitly in drugs, I don't think, and I am not prepared to believe, that they have corrupted the police."
"Neither do I believe so, Mr. Irvin!" said Margaret eagerly.
"But," Irvin pursued, exhibiting greater animation, "you inform me that a Home office commissioner has been appointed. What does this mean, if not that Lord Wrexborough distrusts the police?"
"Well, you see, the police seemed to be unable, or unwilling, to do anything in the matter. Of course, this may have been due to the fact that the traffic was so skilfully handled that it defied their inquiries."
"Take, as an instance, Chief Inspector Kerry," continued Irvin. "He has exhibited the utmost delicacy and consideration in his dealings with me, but I'll swear that a whiter man never breathed."
"Oh, really, Mr. Irvin, I don't think for a moment that men of that class are suspected of being concerned. Indeed, I don't believe any active collusion is suspected at all."
"Lord Wrexborough thinks that Scotland Yard hasn't got an officer clever enough for the dope people?"
"I take it that he has put up a secret service man?"
"I believe--that is, I know he has."
Monte Irvin was watching Margaret's face, and despite the dull misery which deadened his usually quick perceptions, he detected a heightened color and a faint change of expression. He did not question her further upon the point, but:
"God knows I welcome all the help that offers," he said. "Lord Wrexborough is your uncle, Miss Halley; but do you think this secret commission business quite fair to Scotland Yard?"
Margaret stared for some moments at the carpet, then raised her grey eyes and looked earnestly at the speaker. She had learned in the brief time that had elapsed since this black sorrow had come upon him to understand what it was in the character of Monte Irvin which had attracted Rita. It afforded an illustration of that obscure law governing the magnetism which subsists between diverse natures. For not all the agony of mind which he suffered could hide or mar the cleanness and honesty of purpose which were Monte Irvin's outstanding qualities.
"No," Margaret replied, "honestly, I don't. And I feel rather guilty about it, too, because I have been urging uncle to take such a step for quite a long time. You see"--she glanced at Irvin wistfully--"I am brought in contact with so many victims of the drug habit. I believe the police are hampered; and these people who deal in drugs manage in some way to evade the law. The Home office agent will report to a committee appointed by Lord Wrexborough, and then, you see, if it is found necessary to do so, there will be special legislation."
Monte Irvin sighed wearily, and his glance strayed in the direction of the telephone on the side-table. He seemed to be constantly listening for something which he expected but dreaded to hear. Whenever the toy spaniel which lay curled up on the rug before the fire moved or looked towards the door, Irvin started and his expression changed.
"This suspense," he said jerkily, "this suspense is so hard to bear."
"Oh, Mr. Irvin, your courage is wonderful," replied Margaret earnestly. "But he"--she hastily corrected herself--"everybody is convinced that Rita is safe. Under some strange misapprehension regarding this awful tragedy she has run away into hiding. Probably she has been induced to do so by those interested in preventing her from giving evidence."
Monte Irvin's eyes lighted up strangely. "Is that the opinion of the Home office agent?" he asked.
"Inspector Kerry shares it," declared Irvin. "Please God they are right."
"It is the only possible explanation," said Margaret. "Any hour now we may expect news of her."
"You don't think," pursued Monte Irvin, "that anybody--anybody-- suspects Rita of being concerned in the death of Sir Lucien?"
He fixed a gaze of pathetic inquiry upon her face.
"Of course not!" she cried. "How ridiculous it would be."
"Yes," he murmured, "it would be ridiculous."
Margaret stood up.
"I am quite relieved now that I have done what I conceived to be my duty, Mr. Irvin," she said. "And, bad as the truth may be, it is better than doubt, after all. You must look after yourself, you know. When Rita comes back we shall have a big task before us to wean her from her old habits." She met his glance frankly. "But we shall succeed."
"How you cheer me," whispered Monte Irvin emotionally. "You are the truest friend that Rita ever had, Miss Halley. You will keep in touch with me, will you not?"
"Of course. Next to yourself there is no one so sincerely interested as I am. I love Rita as I should have loved a sister if I had had one. Please don't stand up. Dr. Burton has told you to avoid all exertion for a week or more, I know."
Monte Irvin grasped her outstretched hand.
"Any news which reaches me," he said, "I will communicate immediately. Thank you. In times of trouble we learn to know our real friends."
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