Lauder Bartholomew knew a man who was farming in Uganda. It was not remarkable that he should suddenly remember his friend’s existence and call to mind a three years’ old invitation to spend a winter in that part of Africa. Bartholomew had a club. It was euphemistically styled in all the best directories as “Social, Literary and Dramatic,” but knowing men about town called it by a shorter title. To them it was a “night club.” Poorly as were the literary members catered for, there were certain weeklies, the Times, and a collection of complimentary timetables to be obtained for the asking, and Bartholomew sought and found particulars of sailings. He might leave London on the next morning and overtake (via Brindisi and Suez) the German boat that would land him in Uganda in a couple of weeks.
On the whole he thought this course would be wise.
To tell the truth, the Red Hundred was becoming too much of a serious business; he had a feeling that he was suspect, and was more certain that the end of his unlimited financing was in sight. That much he had long since recognized, and had made his plans accordingly. As to the Four Just Men, they would come in with Menshikoff; it would mean only a duplication of treachery. Turning the pages of a Bradshaw, he mentally reviewed his position. He had in hand some seven hundred pounds, and his liabilities were of no account because the necessity for discharging them never occurred to him. Seven hundred pounds—and the red bean, and Menshikoff.
“If they mean business,” he said to himself, “I can count on three thousand.”
The obvious difficulty was to get into touch with the Four. Time was everything and one could not put an advertisement in the paper: “If the Four Just Men will communicate with L——B——they will hear of something to their advantage.”
Nor was it expedient to make in the agony columns of the London press even the most guarded reference to Red Beans after what had occurred at the Council Meeting. The matter of the Embassy was simple. Under his breath he cursed the Four Just Men for their unbusinesslike communication. If only they had mentioned or hinted at some rendezvous the thing might have been arranged.
A man in evening dress asked him if he had finished with the Bradshaw. He resigned it ungraciously, and calling a club waiter, ordered a whisky and soda and flung himself into a chair to think out a solution.
The man returned the Bradshaw with a polite apology.
“So sorry to have interrupted, but I’ve been called abroad at a moment”s notice,” he said.
Bartholomew looked up resentfully. This young man’s face seemed familiar.
“Haven’t I met you somewhere?” he asked.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders.
“One is always meeting and forgetting,” he smiled. “I thought I knew you, but I cannot quite place you.”
Not only the face but the voice was strangely familiar.
“Not English,” was Bartholomew”s mental analysis, “possibly French, more likely Slav——who the dickens can it be?”
In a way he was glad of the diversion, and found himself engaged in a pleasant discussion on fly fishing.
As the hands of the clock pointed to midnight, the stranger yawned and got up from his chair.
“Going west?” he asked pleasantly.
Bartholomew had no definite plans for spending the next hour, so he assented and the two men left the club together. They strolled across Piccadilly Circus and into Piccadilly, chatting pleasantly.
Through Half Moon Street into Berkeley Square, deserted and silent, the two men sauntered, then the stranger stopped.
"I’m afraid I’ve taken you out of your way,” he said.
“Not a bit,” replied Bartholomew, and was conventionally amiable.
Then they parted, and the ex-captain walked back by the way he had come, picking up again the threads of the problem that had filled his mind in the earlier part of the evening.
Halfway down Half Moon Street was a motor-car, and as he came abreast, a man who stood by the curb—and whom he had mistaken for a waiting chauffeur—barred his further progress.
“Captain Bartholomew?” he asked respectfully.
“That is my name,” said the other in surprise.
“My master wishes to know whether you have decided.”
“If,” went on his imperturbable examiner, “if you have decided on the red—here is the car, if you will be pleased to enter.”
“And if I have decided on the black?” he asked with a little hesitation.
“Under the circumstances,” said the man without emotion, “my master is of opinion that for his greater safety, he must take steps to ensure your neutrality.”
There was no menace in the tone, but an icy matter-of-fact confidence that shocked this hardened adventurer.
In the dim light he saw something in the man’s hand—a thin bright something that glittered.
“It shall be red!” he said hoarsely.
The man bowed and opened the door of the car.
Bartholomew had regained a little of his self-assurance by the time he stood before the men.
He was not unused to masked tribunals. There had been one such since his elevation to the Inner Council.
But these four men were in evening dress, and the stagey setting that had characterized the Red Hundred’s Court of Justice was absent. There was no weird adjustment of lights, or rollings of bells, or partings of sombre draperies. None of the cheap trickery of the Inner Council.
The room was evidently a drawing-room, very much like a hundred other drawing-rooms he had seen.
The four men who sat at equal distance before him were sufficiently ordinary in appearance save for their masks. He thought one of them wore a beard, but he was not sure. This man did most of the speaking.
“I understand,” he said smoothly, “you have chosen the red.”
“You seem to know a great deal about my private affairs,” replied Bartholomew.
“You have chosen the red—again?” said the man.
“Why—again?” demanded the prisoner.
The masked man”s eyes shone steadily through the holes in the mask.
“Years ago,” he said quietly, “there was an officer who betrayed his country and his comrades.”
“That is an old lie.”
“He was in charge of a post at which was stored a great supply of foodstuffs and ammunition,” the mask went on. “There was a commandant of the enemy who wanted those stores, but had not sufficient men to rush the garrison.”
“An old lie,” repeated Bartholomew sullenly.
“So the commandant hit upon the ingenious plan of offering a bribe. It was a risky thing, and in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand, it would have been a futile business. Indeed, I am sure that I am understating the proportion—but the wily old commandant knew his man.”
There is no necessity to continue,” said Bartholomew.
“No correspondence passed,” Manfred went on; “our officer was too cunning for that, but it was arranged that the officer’s answer should be conveyed thus.”
He opened his hand and Bartholomew saw two beans, one red and the other black, reposing in the palm.
“The black was to be a refusal, the red an acceptance, the terms were to be scratched on the side of the red bean with a needle—and the sum agreed was £1,000.”
Bartholomew made no answer.
“Exactly that sum we offer you to place us from time to time in possession of such information as we require concerning the movements of the Red Hundred.”
“If I refuse?”
“You will not refuse,” replied the mask calmly; “you need the money, and you have even now under consideration a plan for cutting yourself adrift from your friends.”
“You know so much——” began the other with a shrug.
“I know a great deal. For instance, I know that you contemplate immediate flight—by the way, are you aware that the Lucus Woerhmann is in dock at Naples with a leaking boiler?”
Bartholomew started, as well he might, for nobody but himself knew that the Lucus Woerhmann was the ship he had hoped to overtake at Suez.
Manfred saw his bewilderment and smiled.
“I do not ask credit for supernatural powers,” he said; “frankly, it was the merest guesswork, but you must abandon your trip. It is necessary for our greater success that you should remain.”
Bartholomew bit his lips. This scheme did not completely fall in with his plans. He affected a sudden geniality.
“Well, if I must, I must,” he said heartily, “and since I agree, may I ask whom I have the honour of addressing, and further, since I am now your confidential agent, that I may see the faces of my employers?”
He recognized the contempt in Manfred”s laugh.
“You need no introduction to us,” said Manfred coldly, “and you will understand we do not intend taking you into our confidence. Our agreement is that we share your confidence, not that you shall share ours.”
“I must know something,” said Bartholomew doggedly. “What am I to do? Where am I to report? How shall I be paid?”
“You will be paid when your work is completed.” Manfred reached out his hand toward a little table that stood within his reach.
Instantly the room was plunged into darkness.
The traitor sprang back, fearing he knew not what.
“Come—do not be afraid,” said a voice.
“What does this mean?” cried Bartholomew, and stepped forward.
He felt the floor beneath him yield and tried to spring backwards, but already he had lost his balance, and with a scream of terror he felt himself falling, falling….
“Here, wake up!”
Somebody was shaking his arm and he was conscious of an icy coldness and a gusty raw wind that buffeted his face.
He shivered and opened his eyes.
First of all he saw an iron camel with a load on its back; then he realized dimly that it was the ornamental support of a garden seat; then he saw a dull grey parapet of grimy stone. He was sitting on a seat on the Thames Embankment, and a policeman was shaking him, not ungently, to wakefulness.
“Come along, sir—this won’t do, ye know.”
He staggered to his feet unsteadily. He was wearing a fur coat that was not his.
“How did I come here?” he asked in a dull voice.
The policeman laughed good humouredly.
“Ah, that”s more than I can tell you—you weren’t here ten minutes ago, that I”ll swear.”
Bartholomew put his hand in his pocket and found some money.
“Call me a taxi,” he said shakily and one was found.
He left the policeman perfectly satisfied with the result of his morning’s work and drove home to his lodgings. By what extraordinary means had he reached the Embankment? He remembered the Four, he remembered the suddenly darkened room, he remembered falling—— Perhaps he lost consciousness, yet he could not have been injured by his fall. He had a faint recollection of somebody telling him to breathe and of inhaling a sweet sickly vapour—and that was all.
The coat was not his. He thrust his hands into both pockets and found a letter. Did he but know it was of the peculiar texture that had made the greenish-grey paper of the Four Just Men famous throughout Europe.
The letter was brief and to the point:
“For faithful service, you will be rewarded; for treachery, there will be no net to break your fall.”
He shivered again. Then his impotence, his helplessness, enraged him, and he swore softly and weakly.
He was ignorant of the locality in which the interview had taken place. On his way thither he had tried in vain to follow the direction the shuttered motor-car had taken.
By what method the Four would convey their instructions he had no idea. He was quite satisfied that they would find a way.
He reached his flat with his head swimming from the effects of the I drug they had given him, and flung himself, dressed as he was, upon his bed and slept. He slept well into the afternoon, then rose stiff and irritable. A bath and a change refreshed him, and he walked out to keep an appointment he had made.
On his way he remembered impatiently that there was a call to the Council at five o’clock. It reminded him of his old rehearsal days. Then he recollected that no place had been fixed for the council meeting. He would find the quiet François in Leicester Square, so he turned his steps in that direction.
François, patient, smiling, and as deferential as ever, awaited him. “The council was held at two o’clock,” he said, “and I am to tell you that we have decided on two projects.” He looked left and right, with elaborated caution.
“There is at Gravesend”—he pronounced it “Gwayvse-end”—”a battleship that has put in for stores. It is the Grondovitch. It will be fresh in your mind that the captain is the nobleman Svardo—we have no reason to love him.”
“And the second?” asked Bartholomew.
Again Francois went through the pantomime that had so annoyed his companion before.
“It is no less than the Bank,” he said triumphantly.
Bartholomew was aghast.
“The Bank—the Bank of England! Why, you”re mad—you have taken leave of your senses!”
François shrugged his shoulders tolerantly.
“It is the order,” he said; then, abruptly, “Au revoir,” he said, and, with his extravagant little bow, was gone.
If Bartholomew”s need for cutting himself adrift from the Red Hundred existed before, the necessity was multiplied now a thousand times. Any lingering doubt he might have had, any remote twinge of conscience at the part he was playing, these vanished.
He glanced at his watch, and hurried to his destination.
It was the Red Room of the Hotel Larboune that he sought.
He found a table and ordered a drink.
The waiter was unusually talkative.
He stood by the solitary table at which Bartholomew sat, and chatted pleasantly and respectfully. This much the other patrons of the establishment noticed idly, and wondered whether it was racing or house property that the two had in common.
The waiter was talking.
“… I am inclined to disbelieve the story of the Grondovitch, but the Embassy and the commander shall know—when do you leave?”
“Just as soon as I can,” said Bartholomew.
The waiter nodded and flicked some cigarette ash from the table with his napkin.
“And the Woman of Gratz?” he asked.
Bartholomew made a gesture of doubt.
“Why not,” said the waiter, looking thoughtfully out of the window, “why not take her with you?”
There had been the germ of such a thought in Bartholomew”s mind, but he had never given form to it—even to himself.
“She is very beautiful, and, it occurred to me, not altogether indifferent to your attractions—that kind of woman has a penchant for your type, and frankly we would gladly see her out of the way—or dead.”
M. Menshikoff was by no means vindictive, but there was obvious sincerity in his voice when he pronounced the last two words. M. Menshikoff had been right-hand man of the Grand Master of the Secret Police for too many years to feel any qualms at the project of removing an enemy to the system.
“I thought we had her once,” he said meditatively; “they would have flogged her in the fortress of St Peter and Paul, but I stopped them. She was grateful I think, and almost human… but it passed off.”
Bartholomew paid for his drink, and ostentatiously tipped the obsequious man before him. He remembered as he did so that Menshikoff was reputedly a millionaire.
“Your change, m’sieur,” said Menshikoff gravely, and he handed back a few jingling coppers and two tightly folded banknotes for a hundred pounds. He was a believer in the principle of “pay as you go” Bartholomew pocketed the money carelessly.
“Good day,” he said loudly.
“Au revoir, m’sieur, et bon voyage”, said the waiter.