OLD NICK

“I wish to heaven the scent of Pat’s tobacco weren’t so d–d strong on
that handkerchief in the packet. It’s the blackest bit of evidence
against him!” Manners was saying to the detective, in Claremanagh’s
study, when a tap came at the door.

The two locked themselves in for their occasional seances in this room,
and Jack himself answered the knock. He was about to scold Togo for
disturbing him (a thing strictly forbidden to all except the Duchess)
when the sight of Lyda’s handwriting pencilled on an envelope caused
him to bite back the words.

“Who brought this?” he asked.

“A boy, sir,” replied the Japanese. “He is from some theatre. He said
he went first to the Tarascon Hotel, but they told him you’d left word
to have you called up here for anything important, so he came round.”

“Is he waiting for an answer?”

“No, sir. He was in a hurry to get back. He said there was no answer.”

Jack retired into the study with the letter and carefully, gently
opened the envelope. Even though he was eager to know what Lyda had to
say, he couldn’t deal roughly with anything she had touched. This was
not the only letter he had had from her, but it made his heart beat as
if it were the first.

“My dear friend,” she wrote with pencil, evidently in haste, “I have
something very important to tell you. I cannot put it well in a
letter. But it has to do with the Duchess, your cousin. She may be
running into some danger. I should like to save her from that if I
could! Come to the theatre and see me for a few minutes. I shall be
free at six precisely, after rehearsing my new dance of the ‘Swan and
the Cygnet’ with Mrs. Van Esten’s little girl. Then I shall have a few
minutes for you. Meanwhile, however, if you have time after getting
this, try to make your cousin’s maid tell if she knows where her
mistress has gone. Yours ever–Lyda P.”

This was all. But to Jack Manners it was sweet as the perfume of an
Eastern garden by moonlight–her perfume! It was all he could do to
wrench his mind from entranced thoughts of Lyda, to concentrate them
upon Juliet. Poor Juliet! He understood now why he hadn’t suffered at
seeing her after her marriage, or cared a single rap! It was because
he’d never been in love with her really, except as a dear, rather
trying cousin, and because what he’d called “love” had worn off even
before that, like thinly spread gilt on gingerbread! He had not known
what love was till the night when Lyda Pavoya’s eyes said to him with
their first blinding look, “You are _the_ man; I am _the_ woman.”

He believed in her utterly now, and if he had not, he would have wished
to kill himself. To know her, a good and glorious woman, made the
splendour of life.

“Why, Juliet has gone to the dress rehearsal of the roof-garden show,”
he remembered. That was the word she had left with Togo to give him
and Sanders on opening the door for them. But–Lyda was at the
rehearsal! And she hadn’t seen Juliet. Before sending such a message
to him she would have made certain that the Duchess hadn’t arrived! He
would have Simone down at once!

But Simone–the report came–was not in the house. She had gone out
with Admiral Beatty, the Duchess’s bull-dog. Neither Togo nor Huji
could say when she was likely to return. But Togo made a suggestion.
Nickson, the Duke’s English valet, might know something of her
movements.

“Nickson!” echoed Jack, surprised. “This is a new development, isn’t
it, Nick knowing anything about Simone? I had an idea there was no
love lost there.”

Togo ventured, on this encouragement, to smile dryly. At heart he had
as little affection for Mademoiselle as Old Nick had. He would have
liked to do her an ill turn in payment of many snubs, if it could be
managed safely. “There is not much love, Captain,” he said. “Perhaps
that is why Mr. Nickson watches Mademoiselle when she takes the dog for
a walk.”

“Is he afraid she’ll do Beatty harm?” asked Jack.

“I do not know, Captain. Mr. Nickson has not much talk. But perhaps
he would answer some questions.”

“Is he in the house?”

“Yes, Captain. I noticed he left soon after Mademoiselle, soon enough
to see where she went–as he often does these days now His Grace is
gone, and Mr. Nickson has not so much to keep him busy. But he is
back.”

“Ask him to come here,” said Manners. He spoke gravely, and as the
respectful Togo retired, threw Sanders a puzzled look. “Is there
anything in this?” he asked.

“That’s what I’ve been wondering myself,” vouchsafed the detective.

“You knew Old Nick was dogging Simone’s footsteps?”

“Yes, but I didn’t know why. I’ve been trying to find out.”

“How?”

“By having the said footsteps dogged on my own account.”

“You’ve had Simone shadowed?”

“Certainly. But that doesn’t necessarily imply suspicion. I’d be a
poor sort of chap at my job if I didn’t have every servant in the house
shadowed.”

“Great Scott! And without a word to me or my cousin!”

“I can’t bother you two with every detail. Besides, she or you might
have objected, and that would have made things awkward all around.”

“H’m! I see. Well, where does Simone go?”

“She goes, quite naturally, to a French café where she can drink her
native coffee and chat with compatriots in her native tongue.”

“Nothing much in that, then, it would seem.”

“No. Nothing much. Or–so it ‘would seem’, as you say.”

“All the same you’re putting two and two together?”

“That would be a mistake, from my point of view. The great thing is,
to see whether two and two put themselves together.”

“Shall I come in, sir?” asked the man known to the household as “Old
Nick,” when his tap on the door left ajar for him had not been answered.

“Yes, come in,” said Jack.

“Old Nick” was in reality not old. He might have been anywhere between
thirty and forty, and was the typical British soldier turned valet.
There was, however, a glint in his eye at times when fixed on a person
detested, which made his nickname not inappropriate.

“Togo thinks you may know when Simone is likely to return,” Manners
explained.

“She generally does about this time, sir. I’m expecting her any
minute.”

“Is it her movements or Beatty’s that interest you?”

Nickson swallowed discreetly. “May I speak out, sir?”

“That’s what we want you to do.”

“Well, sir, I was with ‘is Grice one wye or another all through the
war, and there’s nobody to me like ‘im–never was nor never will be.
So there it _is_! And when ‘e just vanished as you might say without
so much as tippin’ the wink to me, I was dead sure ‘e ‘adn’t gone of
‘is own accord. So I sets my wits to work the best I could, and I
listens to talk and I reads all that blinkin’ newspaper rot. Thinks I,
looks as if them beastly pearls has somethin’ to say in the business.
So I asks meself: ‘_Oo’s_ walked off with ’em, if any one, and is ‘is
Grice doin’ a flit in the ‘ope of trackin’ the bloke down? If them
pearls was ever _in_ this ‘ouse, they must ‘ave gone out again. _’Oo_
could’ a’ done the trick?’ Well, I never trusted Mam’selle the wye ‘er
Grice did. She ‘ad the run o’ the plice. It was just on the cards she
might o’ laid ‘er ‘ands on the combination for openin’ the safe.
‘Well, I puts _that_ in my pipe an’ smokes it. Strikes me she goes out
a bit more reg’lar for ‘er prominides with Beatty since that French
Mounseer brought ‘is packet o’ pearls, than she used to do. So I ‘as
the curiosity to foller at a respectful distance one dye, an’ sees m’
lidy step into a French restorong. Not long after, comes along
Mounseer of the pearls. I was sent to meet ‘im at the dock, but missed
‘im there, ’cause o’ some mistike about ‘is initials w’ere you wites
for the Customs men. But I seed ‘im ‘ere at th’ ‘ouse later when I
comes ‘ome to report to ‘is Grice. I recognized ‘im alright. The
question to my mind was w’ether ‘e’d chose that restorong ’cause ’twas
French or cause o’ Mam’selle.”

Jack’s eyes flashed to Sanders, who smiled.

“You and I have been rivals in this game, Nickson,” he remarked. “What
conclusion did you come to about Mademoiselle?”

Nickson flushed. “Didn’t know I was on your pitch, sir. But if yer
asks me, in my opinion ‘e comes for _’er_. Or else she comes for
_’im_.”

“A cat may look at a king!” said Sanders. “They’re compatriots. Why
shouldn’t they meet?”

“On the other ‘and, w’y _should_ they?” ventured Nickson. “_I_
wouldn’t if I was ‘im. And see ‘ere, sir, beggin’ your pardon, I know
you’re a detective, in a privit wye. I’ve told you all I done. But
t’ain’t all I _want_ to do. I want to find ‘is Grice. If you and the
Captain make any frontal attack, so to speak, will you tike me along?
I’d give my life for th’ Dook. And I might come in ‘andy, ‘oo knows?”

“Who knows, indeed?” echoed Sanders. “But you shall have the chance of
finding out when the time comes. And it may come soon–any day, any
hour, even any minute. Now, if you think Mademoiselle’s due back, I
suggest that you leave us, as we’ve sent for her here. If there’s
anything in your suspicions, we don’t want her to smell a rat.”

“Right you are, sir, and thank you, sir!” said Nickson. “I’ll be off
and leave all clear.”

“So, you actually suspect Simone? _And_ Defasquelle!” Jack turned on
Sanders when they were alone.

“I can’t go as far as that–yet. There’s no evidence against them–not
even circumstantial. There’s no crime in a flirtation between a man
and woman, both of the _Midi_, thrown together in a foreign land. I
meant to spring this on you only when or if I had cause to be sure. Up
to date, my indoors man at Rudin’s–that’s the French place in Twelfth
Street where they meet–hasn’t been able to overhear a word between the
two, though he speaks French. He’s acting as a waiter there now. He
has instructions to ring me up if he gets onto anything queer. And I
always leave word at home and the office where I’m going to be.”

This conversation, following Lyda’s letter, had keyed up Manners’
nerves. He started as rather a sharp knock sounded on the door.

It was Simone. She was very neat and _chic_, and led Beatty, whose
bored look suggested that he had been denied his proper share of
exercise.

“_Monsieur le Capitaine_!” she purred; and bowed discreetly to the
detective. “Togo says Monsieur has asked for me the moment I am home.
I come. But the dog—-”

“Never mind the dog!” Sanders caught the word from Jack. “We’ve some
questions to ask you, Mademoiselle. Please stay where you are.”

His tone was rough, and he had put on a professional, hectoring air.
There had been no time to arrange a plan of action, but Manners guessed
what was in Sanders’ mind. He meant to try scaring Simone; and he
wanted to do it off his own bat. Jack trusted him, and was willing to
keep out of the business. Though the Frenchwoman’s black eyes appealed
to him–as her mistress’s relative–against the rude stranger, he sat
still and lit a cigarette.

“To begin with, where’s the Duchess?”

“At a rehearsal, Monsieur, of an entertainment Madame van Esten has got
up. Mademoiselle Pavoya will—-”

“We don’t want to hear about her. The Duchess isn’t at the rehearsal.”

“Then I do not know where she is. It is her affair, not mine.” Simone
looked the picture of injured innocence.

“Perhaps you _don’t_ know,” agreed Sanders. “But you see, you’ve made
so many of her affairs your affairs, it’s hard to tell where you draw
the line.”

The French maid turned pale in rather a repulsive way she had,
beginning at the lips, which she bit to keep their colour. From her
looks she might have been furious–or frightened.

“I do not understand you, Monsieur,” she almost spat.

“That doesn’t matter much. What does matter is, we understand _you_.”

Under her black-dotted veil Simone’s olive sallowness greened.
“Monsieur accuses me of–something?” Sanders grinned with the utmost
cruelty. “Well, what do you think?”

“I think a person has perhaps told lies about me, Monsieur!”

“Ah!” the detective leapt in his chair as if he had caught her–as if
she had given him a chance for which he’d waited. “Ah! What’s the
name of that person?”

The Frenchwoman began to feel sick. Her fears, though acute, had been
vague. Suddenly they became definite. She floundered. So much
depended on saying the right thing that she was terribly afraid of
saying the wrong one. She glanced at Captain Manners again, but he had
taken up a paper. To her horror it was the _Inner Circle_, which
Sanders had bought and brought in to discuss. Her knees turned to
water. She could not help giving a faint gasp. Her eyes were fixed on
the “Whisperer’s” page, which was held up–as if purposely. Both men
saw the stare: and into the minds of both sprang the same thought.

Jack had had it before. He had even hinted it to Juliet, who laughed
it to scorn, and remarked that she knew Simone better than he could
possibly know her. Sanders had had the thought, and mentioned it to
Manners. But there was no proof; and the Frenchwoman’s “shadower” had
never seen her go to the office of the _Inner Circle_. As for
letters–Sanders had put Togo onto watching for them. Simone had sent
out none at all from the house. Yet now that one bleak glare at the
open paper, and both men were as sure as if the woman had confessed.

“You think your editor has been talking, eh?” the detective said.
“That’s as may be. Anyhow, we _know_.”

The telephone bell rang. Jack took up the receiver. “Yes, Mr. Sanders
is here,” he replied to some question. “He’ll speak with you in a
second. Hold the line.”

Sanders bounded to the ‘phone. “Yes–yes–good!” were the only words
he said. But Jack knew he was speaking to his man at the café. Then
he turned again to Simone. “Come here and call your friend
Defasquelle,” he sharply ordered. “Tell him he must turn up at his
house at once or there’ll be a disaster for you both.”

Simone grasped the back of a chair, and clung to it. “I cannot,
Monsieur,” she gulped. “I know Monsieur Defasquelle only by seeing him
here. I—-”

“Don’t waste words,” Sanders cut her short. “It’ll be the worse for
you if you do. You’ve just been with him now, at Rudin’s. Call him up
at his hotel.”

“If–if I will not?” she stammered.

“Do you want to go to prison while he’s left free–to _marry his girl
in Marseilles_?”

That was a chance shot, but it found its billet.

“He _has_ no girl in Marseilles!” Simone shrilled.

“Oh, yes, he has. I have his _dossier_ from the Paris police. If you
get him here and make him tell the truth, I promise you that marriage
won’t take place.”

“I will call him,” said Simone, sickly pale. She flitted across the
room to the telephone.

Sanders rubbed his hands, and nodded to Jack. But Jack was glancing at
his wrist-watch.

“What am I to do?” he asked the detective in a low voice. “The time’s
almost here for me to keep my appointment with Mademoiselle Pavoya.”

“Go to it!” said Sanders. “I’m equal to Simone and Defasquelle. Now
I’ve got proof enough to bluff on–my waiter man ‘phoned that the pair
were talking about the pearls and apparently blackguarding each other!
I’ll strip them of their secrets like a tree of ripe fruit. But look
here, I have a ‘hunch’ that there’s more in this _Inner Circle_
business than meets the eye. Simone’s been a catspaw. There may be
wheels within wheels. When you go to meet Mademoiselle Pavoya take my
tip and accept Old Nick’s offer.”

“What, have him with me?”

“Yes, wherever Pavoya sends you.”

“She may not send me anywhere.”

“I think she will send you somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll pump Simone and
Defasquelle dry. When you get back I may have the pearls in pink
cotton!”

Manners was torn. He wished to hear what Simone said over the
telephone. He wished to stay and witness the scene through between
her, Defasquelle, and Sanders. But most of all he wished not to be
late for Lyda. _Nothing_ was worth that!

Jack arrived at the theatre just after Lyda had finished rehearsing a
dance which she herself had arranged for the charity fête with Mrs. Van
Esten’s spoiled little girl.

Mademoiselle Pavoya was in her dressing room, he was told, and was
expecting him. He went there quickly, afraid of being caught by
someone he knew on the way, and forced to stop and talk nonsense, for
the place was like a rabbit-warren–alive with pretty women and men who
thought they were Society incarnate.

Lyda wore the swan costume she had worn the first night of their
meeting–or one much like it; and the thought of that wonderful night
thrilled him. How had he lived before that time? Yet he had gone out
of her presence to doubt her truth, her honour! Never could he forgive
himself for that, never could he worship her quite enough to make up
for those hours of disloyalty.

She held out her hands to him, and he crushed first one then the other
against his lips. “My Swan Goddess!” he exclaimed. “You’re too
marvellous like this. I can hardly believe you’re flesh and
blood–that I’m not dreaming you. I love you so much!”

She drew her hands away, and pushed him back when he would have taken
her in his arms, wings and all.

“Perhaps you _are_ dreaming me!” she smiled, “Dreaming the woman you
think I am. And–you’re not to do _that_! My hands only!”

“Yet you said you cared! You said you’d never felt for any man as you
felt when our eyes first met.”

“Ah, I said that when you’d confessed doubting me, and begged
forgiveness, and vowed that nothing on earth or in heaven–or the other
place–could ever make you doubt again. I owed you some confession in
return.”

“Then it _was_ true?”

“Yes, it was true—-”

“And is still?”

“But–of course! I do not change. Yet we are to be friends and
nothing more until all is made clear–until even your cousin believes
in me and doesn’t think you’d be better dead than loving Lyda Pavoya.
If that day could ever come!”

“It will come–soon. Oh, Lyda, remember that first night–at your
house. You let me hold you in my arms then.”

“But that was as a _friend_. You understood, I know! I was so
stirred, so hard pressed, I wanted protection from someone sincere.
And you were the sincerest man I ever saw.”

“Yes, I did understand. I do now. And–I won’t bother you,
Lyda–though it’s hard work, this friendship business to a man who
worships a beautiful woman as I worship you. But it’s a bargain:
friendship till–the day. May it be to-morrow!”

“Amen!” she echoed, with one of her fleeting smiles that came so
seldom. “Now let us talk not of ourselves but of your cousin. We
ought to have begun with her!”

“No!”

“Yes. Because there may be danger. I’ll tell you quickly all I know.
You have met a friend–an acquaintance–of mine, the Comtesse de
Saintville?”

“Oh, yes–wife of a diplomat of sorts, isn’t she? I’ve heard you were
intimate.”

“That isn’t true; but she has Polish blood, and for that or some other
reason she likes to come to my house. I have been able to do her a
good turn now and then. I wouldn’t tell this to any one except you,
_mon ami_, but she’s a great bridge player, and loses more money than
she ought. Lately she got into a bad–what you call scrape. She asked
me to lend her a thousand dollars (you see, she dared not let her
husband know!) but I couldn’t. It was when I was putting aside every
_sou_ for Markoff. I could do nothing except promise to help later. I
do not love Sonia de Saintville, yet I am sorry for her. I was afraid
that in desperation she would do some stupid thing! The other day I
had a windfall. A friend in Paris who’d borrowed fifty thousand francs
sent it back to me. I’d never expected to see the money again! So I
‘phoned Sonia that now I could let her have the thousand dollars. She
answered that a thousand would no longer be of use. But two thousand
would save her. From the way she spoke, I understood that things were
very grave. I said she should have the two thousand. She came to my
house and I gave it to her in notes. I hadn’t seen her for days, and
she was looking ill–changed. I spoke kindly to the poor thing, and
she broke down. It is the confession she made which will interest you,
my friend. You would never guess! She had got into the power of that
_Inner Circle_ band.”

“They were blackmailing her?”

“Yes, in a queer way. Did you ever suspect that Mr. Lowndes–‘Billy
Lowndes’ I hear him called–was for something in that paper?”

“Good lord, no! _Billy Lowndes_!–Not that I ever liked him. But I
didn’t think he was as big a rotter as that! He was in love with my
cousin Juliet, hard hit, before she married. And by a sort of
coincidence Lowndes’ sister Emmy–Lady West (you may have met her
war-working in Paris or London)–made rather an ass of herself over
Claremanagh.”

“Perhaps that partly explains–some things, if we can patch them
together. Listen! It was at Mrs. Billy Lowndes’, Sonia said, that she
lost most of her money. There’s a set there that plays very high.
They make the Lowndes’ flat a sort of private club. Sonia was
dunned–and frightened of her husband. Billy Lowndes offered to lend
her the whole lot. She thought, how good-natured! But soon she
learned it was not goodness. He wanted something. The condition was
that she should get the Duchess of Claremanagh to go and consult a
palmist, crystal-gazer person, a Madame Veno. Did you ever hear of
her?”

“No. Yes! By Jove, her name’s on the building of the _Inner Circle_!
The plot thickens.”

“But how?”

“Oh, Sanders and I have caught my cousin Juliet’s maid. We’re sure
it’s she who gave away things to the ‘Whisperer.’ Sanders is putting
her through the ‘third degree’ now. I couldn’t stop to hear it out. I
was due here. Besides, it looks as if the woman–Simone–was mixed up
in the disappearance of the pearls, with the chap who brought them from
France–Defasquelle. Perhaps this Veno person is in the affair, too.
And the whole business may be one–with ramifications.”

“That is what I’ve wondered–since Sonia confessed to-day what they
made her do. She was to go to the Duchess, and tell her that Madame
Veno had seen Claremanagh in the crystal–that she could help her find
him. Sonia suspected something queer. She was sure at once that
Lowndes was on that horrid paper–perhaps editor–of that vile
‘Whisperer’. And she’d heard the story about his being in love with
your cousin when she was Miss Phayre. So she told him she couldn’t do
this commission. Then Lowndes lost all his good nature. He threatened
that the ‘Whisperer’ of the _Inner Circle_ might get some new material
from him to whisper about: that there’d be paragraphs hinting of her
debts and the ruin of her husband’s career. That would have been the
end of all things for Sonia! So she consented, after all. She called
on the Duchess and told her that Madame Veno wanted to see her.”

“When was that?”

“Three days ago.”

“Juliet never breathed a word to Sanders or me. She left us in the
dark.”

“She would! Most women would. I should have let you know before, but
Sonia told me only to-day. I wrote at once and asked you to come.”

“Thank you, my White Swan. Many women in your place would have sat
still and let poor Juliet go to the devil for treating you in the
cattish way she has.”

“I’ve no grudge against her! I should have done so in her place,
if–if the man had been you, instead of Claremanagh.”

“Darling! You expect to keep me at arms’ length after that?”

“Yes–yes! Listen. The Duchess went to Madame Veno.”

“How do you know?”

“The Veno woman herself was to inform Sonia if she didn’t turn up. In
that case Sonia was to urge the Duchess. She–Sonia, I mean–was
forced to go to Veno’s place as if to have her hand read, because
_they_ wouldn’t risk anything in writing. Luckily she had to make only
one visit, because the very first time she was told the Duchess had
been there. She was to come again on the third day. That was all
arranged, though Sonia imagined that the Duchess didn’t _know_ this.
She was to think the arrangement was made later. But the third day is
to-day. Sonia thought the first call the Duchess made was late in the
afternoon, and something was dropped about the ‘same hour next time’.
I believe she must be at Veno’s at this moment. And if those _Inner
Circle_ people are in the thing, and it’s a plot of some sort—-”

“I’ll go there now!”

“What, to the _Inner Circle_ office?”

“Not first, anyhow. Maybe later. That depends! But now, to Madame
Veno’s.”

“Oh, I’m worried!” Lyda put out her hands, and laid them on his
khaki-clad arms. “They say these _Inner Circle_ people may be a nest
of crooks!”

“I don’t doubt ‘they’ are right for once! But I’m not going alone.”

“I thought your detective was busy with the maid and the pearl carrier.”

“He is. But you know Old Nick? You must! You couldn’t have known Pat
without Old Nick.”

“Good Old Nick! Of course I know him–since Paris, when Claremanagh
was ill at my house.”

“Well, Nick’s going ‘over the top’ with me, as a volunteer. I don’t
know whether I shall find anything for him to do, but if so, he’ll be
ready!”

“Yes–yes! He’d do anything for Claremanagh.”

“And even for Claremanagh’s wife. Good-bye, my darling. Wish me luck.”

“I do–I do.”

“A kiss to speed the wish?”

“No. Only my hand. Wait!”

“How long–in God’s name?”

“Till–the Duke’s found–and the pearls.”

“Tell her two gentlemen for a consultation,” Jack Manners announced at
Madame Veno’s door, Nickson at his heels.

“Madame can see no more clients this afternoon, sir,” replied the neat
woman in black silk. “She closes for business at six, and—-”

“It’s not six yet,” cut in Jack.

“No, sir, but she has a lady with her now. I have orders to receive no
one else.”

“Can’t you forget those orders, and persuade her to make an exception
for us?” As he spoke, Manners took from his pocket a cigarette-case
and extracted from it a twenty-dollar bill.

It would have been simple–physically–to push past the spinster-like
person in black, but Jack could more easily have got over a high stone
wall. Luckily she liked the look of the bank-note.

“I might try, sir,” she hesitated. “If trying’s worth twenty dollars
to you.”

“It is,” he replied, promptly.

The money changed hands.

The woman in black silk ceased to bar the entrance with her neat person.

Jack walked into the flat, Nickson after him.

Again there was hesitation. Evidently their guide was not sure where
she ought to put them. Jack imagined that he could read her thoughts.
She feared to lead the forbidden visitors into the ordinary
waiting-room. Either there was someone there, or something that ought
not to be seen; or the room was next the one where Madame Veno was with
her “last client”–Juliet! In that case, words might be overheard
through a wall or door.

As he and Nick were invited into a dining room, Manners counted three
doors on the opposite side of the hall, all closed. Behind one of
those he believed Juliet to be hidden at that moment, probably in
process of being blackmailed. He made up his mind quickly as to a plan
of action, already half-decided on between Nickson and himself.

“We’re in no great hurry, so long as we see Madame sooner or later,” he
told the woman who had let them in. “We wouldn’t think of having you
interrupt her.”

“Oh! I shouldn’t dare do _that_, sir!” she broke in, pocketing the
twenty dollars. As she spoke, Jack caught a glance of awed respect
which she cast across the corridor.

“_The middle door_,” he said to himself.

“Of course not,” he said, aloud. “We’ll wait. How’ll you know when
the client goes?”

“I expect Madame will ring for me to open the front door, and let the
lady out. That’s what she usually does.”

“Very well, when the lady’s gone speak for us.”

Perhaps the black-silk woman wondered why the nice young gentleman
hadn’t given her ten dollars to try, and a promise of ten more if she
succeeded. But that was his affair. Personally, she didn’t expect to
succeed. She was not acquainted with Madame’s private business, but
there was certainly something of the first importance “on” this
afternoon. No clients had been admitted since four o’clock except the
beautiful blonde young lady who had announced herself the other day as
the Duchess of Claremanagh or some name like that. Before she was due
two gentlemen had come up and hadn’t given their names. But Madame had
expected them, and they were still with her when the Duchess arrived.
The black-silk woman had seen those gentlemen before, though never
together. She had not much curiosity about them, for she was not of a
curious disposition. That, Madame said, was one reason why she had
engaged her. She had been a stewardess on board ship, but had disliked
the sea, especially during the war, when she had been torpedoed once.
Madame had crossed with her on three occasions, and the last time had
offered her this place. Some things she had seen had surprised and
even shocked her a little, but she was well paid, and dry land was a
good deal better than that nasty grey wet thing, the sea!

She felt that she had done right in putting these two new gentlemen
into the dining room. If Madame firmly refused to see them, they might
possibly be smuggled away without her knowing they had actually been
let into the flat.

“That elderly party isn’t going to stay on watch,” Jack said to
Nickson, when they had been shut into the commonplace little room where
Madame Veno ate her meals. “There’s no uneasy curiosity in that meek
make-up.”

“That’s wot I was thinkin’ myself, sir,” agreed Old Nick.

“We’re in luck so far,” Jack went on. “It’s time to begin
reconnoitring.” He went to the door. “If that decent body is in the
hall, I shall ask her what time it is, and say my watch has gone
slow–which is more than my heart has!”

Nickson grinned.

Jack peered out into the white-and-red corridor. Nobody was there.
The red glass lamp suspended from the ceiling looked to him like a mass
of clotted blood.

He took two steps across to the middle door, and listened. Then he
returned hastily to Nick. “They’re in there! I heard the Duchess’s
voice. Sounds as if she were angry or frightened, or both. And there
are two or more men. You and I have got to open the door, locked or
unlocked.”

“That’s it, sir!” said Nickson. “But it won’t be locked. Why should
it? They don’t suspect nothin’, and if there’s two men, ‘er Grice
couldn’t get past ’em. You let me make a dash and see wot ‘appens,
sir!”

“No,” Jack decided, “the dash is my job. You stand by, and if there’s
any dashing from the wrong side of the door, you’ll know how to stop
it, male or female.”

“Yes, sir!”

Manners went again to the middle door. As he moved, Nickson closed in
behind him, a substantial bulk, and in his eyes the light which made
“Old Nick” his right name. He stood in such a position that if any one
rushed for the front door or even some back exit, escape could be made
only over his body. He saw that Captain Manners took hold of the
doorknob with his left hand. The right hand was in the outer pocket of
his coat, and Nickson knew what else was there. A similar thing was in
a similar pocket of his own coat. It had been given to him by the
Captain, whom he now liked and respected next to the Duke.

Suddenly Manners turned the handle and flung the door wide open with
such violence that it struck the wall. He strode into the room.
Nickson blocked the doorway, but seeing with one glance that there was
a door leading to another room, he took a step back to guard both.

It was a very green room–green as arsenic, he thought–lighted by one
lamp, like a big emerald, on a centre table. Looking in from across
the threshold, however, Nick could see four figures besides Manners’.
There was the Duchess, tall and strangely white in a black dress and
wide hat. There was another woman without a hat, also in black; a big,
common hussy she looked to Nickson, with an eye like a fierce snake’s.
And there were two men.

About the pair an odd thing was that they had some thin black stuff
tied over their faces. Captain Manners went for one man–the one who
seemed to show fight, and when the other (who hadn’t spied Nick yet)
made for the door, Nick received him in open arms.

The big woman squealed, and the Duchess shrank back against the wall,
then started forward again.

“Oh, Jack!” she cried, “they mustn’t be killed! They know where Pat
is. They say if they aren’t back there soon, someone will put an end
to him!”

Nick saw the woman, Madame Veno, he didn’t doubt, spring for the
electric-light button, but dragging his man with him, he was upon her
like a tiger. One hand was enough for the man, who must have been a
coward for he splashed about like a jelly with Nick’s fist in his
collar. The other hand seized Madame’s arm as it was stretched out,
and twisted it sharply. She gave a shriek, and sat down on the floor.
Then Nick became conscious of a stealthy intelligence in the jelly. It
was feeling toward his pocket, _the_ pocket. But before the groping
fingers reached their goal Nick had snatched out the Browning, and
pressed the muzzle against a crape-covered forehead.

There wasn’t much time for looking round just then, but Nickson had
done observation work in the war. The sixth of a second showed him
that Captain Manners had reached this identical stage in his programme:
which meant that each had a man at his mercy.

“Take your mask off,” ordered Jack.

“Same to you, my beauty,” echoed Nick.

The two obeyed.

“Bill Lowndes!” cried Manners.

“Know this brute, sir?” enquired Nick.

“I do!” Juliet gasped. “Oh! you horrid wretch! And Bill Lowndes! I
shouldn’t have dreamed—-”

“They’re nightmares, both of ’em,” broke in Jack. “Now, Juliet, don’t
be scared. That’s all rot about Pat being done away with. Nick and I
are going to save time by making these–these _skunks_–tell us where
he is. But we’ve a minute or so to spare. They’ve kept Pat safe, I
bet, for the sake of the ransom they meant to get out of you. There’s
a third-degree stunt going on in your house. Sanders is grilling
Defasquelle and Simone. It all comes back to this building that’s like
the web of a black spider–the _Inner Circle_–and we’ll repeat that
third-degree stunt here. Who’s this man you call a wretch?”

“His name’s Piggott,” Juliet panted. “He–was editor of a hateful
paper in London–_Modern Ways_–almost as vile as the _Inner Circle_.
Emmy West introduced me to him. She said he wasn’t bad really–if I’d
meet him he’d put nice things in his paper instead of
horrors–especially about Pat. I said ‘Yes’ for Pat’s sake–Emmy
insisted so. He came to Harridge’s, where I was staying, but before he
or I had time to speak, Pat was shown in. He gave one look, and begged
me to go out–to leave this man to him. I had never seen Pat like
that–and I went. I never even heard the wretch’s voice or I’d have
recognized it, I think. He came here and talked to me three days
ago–with this mask on. Now Bill Lowndes comes with him. I don’t know
yet how or why he should be mixed up—-”

“I do,” said Jack. “It’s because they’re both concerned with the
_Inner Circle_, on the floor below. They’ve had Simone in their pay,
selling them news, and as for the pearls—-”

“Oh! if you’ll let my husband go, I’ll tell you everything!” wailed
Madame Veno; stumbling up from the floor. “That’s my husband, Sam
Piggott. He’s got nothing to do with the _Inner Circle_, except a
little interest he’s bought, because the owner is my step-brother. I’m
English, and Sam’s Irish, and our being in this business is an
accident. It was all the Duke’s fault and Markoff’s fault—-”

“Shut your mouth,” grunted the big man whom Old Nick held–a man few
others could have held at all.

“Shut yours–that’s more to the point!” said Nickson. Apparently he
meant the pistol’s point. And Piggott was silenced.

“Will you let him go if I tell you things?” repeated the woman,
shuddering at Nick’s gesture.

“That depends on how much you can tell,” decided Jack, coolly.

“I can tell _everything_,” she moaned.

“Begin by telling where the Duke is.”

Both men started, but collapsed. Madame Veno choked and went on:

“He’s in a room downstairs–in the basement. He’s been there all the
time. What happened was like this: The Duke came one night to the
office–I mean of the _Inner Circle_. He’d heard the editor would be
there. I may as well tell you he’d got an anonymous letter to say so.
It was found in his pocket. The Duchess’s maid or Mademoiselle’s
French pal is sure to have sent it, wanting to get the Duke out of
their way. And they _did_ get him out! It was the night of the first
‘Whisper’ about the pearls and Pavoya calling at the Phayre house. The
Duke got into the place by a trick–sent word by an office boy that he
had information to give. He was let into a room divided by a partition
from the one where my step-brother was–the editor. You have to say
what you’ve got to say by telephone there. You don’t see any one. But
the Duke guessed who was on the other side. He put the chair on the
table, and climbed up, so he could get over the partition. He’d
wrenched off the receiver from the ‘phone, to hit my step-brother with.
When he was going for him my husband heard the row, and ran in from
another room. He didn’t make any noise, but came up from behind and
cracked the Duke over the back of the head with a big ruler. He had a
right to do that, because the Duke horsewhipped him publicly in London
for what he’d published in _Modern Ways_, and spoiled England for us
both. That’s why we came to New York, and I took over the ‘Madame
Veno’ business. I was ‘Madame Ayesha’ in Bond Street, and wore
Egyptian dress. I told you it was an accident we were mixed up in
this. It wasn’t my husband’s fault. He _had_ to defend his
brother-in-law against a cowardly attack like that!

“As for Mr. Lowndes, he hated the Duke for marrying Miss Phayre–just
as Lady West (who used to send us lots of news about folks she didn’t
like in London and Paris) hated Miss Phayre for marrying the Duke. Mr.
Lowndes is one of the ‘Whisperer’ lot. I mean he’s one of several men
who put together the ‘Whisperer’ stuff that comes out under one name.
He was in the office that night, and so was Markoff the Russian! Your
private detective was after Markoff—-”

“More about him and the others by-and-by,” Manners cut her short almost
gently, “Nick, would you like the job of going down to look for the
Duke?”

“I would that, sir!” Nickson answered. “I’ll give this big chap a
smash the way he did ‘is Grice, and put him out o’ count for while I’m
way.”

“No need for that. See if he’s armed.”

Nickson “went through” his prisoner’s pockets. There was only a
pocket-knife, for Piggott and Lowndes had expected to meet no one more
formidable than the Duchess of Claremanagh.

Lowndes was also unarmed.

“That’s all right,” pronounced Jack. “I and a Browning can keep the
pair and Madame, too, in order. No, on second thoughts take her down
with you. She’ll show you the way, won’t you, Madame?”

“Needs must, when the Devil drives,” she snapped.

“Thanks for the compliment,” laughed Jack. “If any one knows the
gentleman by sight, it must be you!”

“I shall go with them,” Juliet said.

“Of course!” agreed Manners.

Madame Veno turned and glared at her. “You gave us away in spite of
your promise. You deserve to see what you _will_ see down there. A
dead man–killed by your husband. You’ll save your dear Duke only to
have him sent to the chair.”

Juliet gave her look for look. “I didn’t give you away. I did not
dream my cousin was coming here! And I’d know by your face, even if I
didn’t know Claremanagh, that he has killed no man. If there’s a dead
man where my husband is, someone else committed the murder.”

“Hear, hear! your Grice!” shouted Nickson, before he could remember to
be respectful.

Suddenly Juliet heard herself laughing. Then she began to sob: “Oh,
Pat–Pat! Nick, take me to him!”

Nickson flung Piggott across the room, and grabbed Madame Veno by the
arm.

The next thing the Duchess knew, the door had shut behind them. Jack
was left alone with the two men. But Juliet had forgotten Jack.