The thing began in the colony room of the Empire Club in London. The colony room is on the second floor and looks out over Picadilly Circus. It was at an hour when nobody is in an English club. There was a drift of dirty fog outside. Such nights come along in October.
Douglas Hargrave did not see the Baronet until he closed the door behind him. Sir Henry was seated at a table, leaning over, his face between his hand, and his elbows resting on the polished mahogany board. There was a sheet of paper on the table between the Baronet's elbows. There were a few lines written on the paper and the man's faculties were concentrated on them. He did not see the jewel dealer until that person was half across the room, then he called to him.
"Hello, Hargrave," he said. "Do you know anything about ciphers?"
"Only the trade one that our firm uses," replied the jewel dealer. "And that's a modification of the A B C code."
"Well," he said, "take a look at this."
The jewel dealer sat down at the other side of the table and the Baronet handed him the sheet of paper. The man expected to see a lot of queer signs and figures; but instead he found a simple trade's message, as it seemed to him.
P.L.A. shipped nine hundred horses on freight steamer Don Carlow from N. Y.
Have the bill of lading handed over to our agent to check up.
"Well," said the jewel dealer, "somebody's going to ship nine hundred horses. Where's the mystery?"
The Baronet shrugged his big shoulders.
"The mystery," he said, "is everywhere. It's before and after and in the body of this message. There's hardly anything to it but mystery."
"Who sent it?" said Hargrave.
"That's one of the mysteries," replied the Baronet.
"Ah!" said the jewel dealer. "Who received it?"
"That's another," he answered.
"At any rate," continued Hargrave, "you know where you got it."
"Right," replied the Baronet. "I know where I got it." He took three newspapers out of the pocket of his big tweed coat. "There it is," he said, "in the personal column of three newspapers - today's Times printed in London; the Matin printed in Paris; and a Dutch daily printed in Amsterdam."
And there was the message set up in English, in two sentences precisely word for word, in three news papers printed on the same day in London, Paris and Amsterdam.
"It seems to be a message all right," said Hargrave: "But why do you imagine it's a cipher?"
The Baronet looked closely at the American jewel dealer for a moment.
"Why should it be printed in English in these foreign papers," he said, "if it were not a cipher?"
"Perhaps," said Hargrave, "the person for whom it's intended does not know any other language."
The Baronet shrugged his shoulders.
"The persons for whom this message is intended," he said, "do not confine themselves to a single language. It's a pretty well-organized international concern."
"Well," said Hargrave, "it doesn't look like a mystery that ought to puzzle the ingenuity of the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of the metropolitan police." He nodded to Sir Henry. "You have only to look out for the arrival of nine hundred horses and when they get in to see who takes them off the boat. The thing looks easy."
"It's not so easy as it looks," replied the Baronet. "Evidently these horses might go to France, Holland or England. That's the secret in this message. That's where the cipher comes in. The name of the port is in that cipher somewhere."
"But you can, watch the steamer," said Hargrave, "the Don Carlos."
The Baronet laughed.
"There's no such steamer!" He got up and began to walk round the table. "Nine hundred horses," he said. "This thing has got to stop. They're on the sea now, on the way over from America: We have got to find out where they will go ashore."
He stopped, stooped over and studied the message which he had written out and which also lay before him in the three newspapers.
"It's there," he said, "the name of the port of arrival, somewhere in those two sentences. But I can't get at it. It's no cipher that I have ever heard of. It's no one of the hundred figure or number ciphers that the experts in the department know anything about. If we knew the port of arrival we could pick up the clever gentleman who comes to take away the horses. But what's the port - English, French or Dutch? There are a score of ports." He struck the paper with his hand. "It's there, my word for it, if we could only decode the thing."
Then he stood up, his face lifted, his fingers linked behind his back. He crossed the room and stood looking out at the thin yellow fog drifting over Piccadilly Circus. Finally he came back, gathered up his papers and put them in the pocket of his big tweed coat.
"There's one man in Europe," he said, "who can read this thing. That's the Swiss expert criminologist, old Arnold, of Zurich. He's lecturing at the Sorbonne in Paris. I'm going to see him."
Then he went out.
Now that, as has been said, is how the thing began. It was the first episode in the series of events that began to go forward on this extraordinary night. One will say that the purchasing agent for a great New York jewel house ought to be accustomed to adventures. The writers of romance have stimulated that fancy. But the fact is that such persons are practical people. They never do any of the things that the story writers tell us. They never carry jewels about with them. Of course they know the police departments of foreign cities. All jewel dealers make a point of that. Hargrave's father was an old friend of Sir Henry Marquis, chief of the C. I. D., and the young man always went to see him when he happened in London. That explains the freedom of his talk to Hargrave on this night in the Empire Club in Piccadilly.
The young man went over and sat down by the fire. The, big room was empty. The sounds outside seemed muffled and distant. The incident that had just passed impressed him. He wondered why people should imagine that a purchasing agent of a jewel house must be a sort of expert in the devices of mystery. As has been said, the thing's a notion. Everything is shipped through reliable transportation companies and insured. There was much more mystery in a shipload of horses - the nine hundred horses that were galloping through the head of Sir Henry Marquis - than in all the five prosaic years during which young Hargrave had succeeded his father as a jewel buyer. The American was impressed by this mystery of the nine hundred horses. Sir Henry had said it was a mystery in every direction.
Now, as he sat alone before the fire in the colony room of the Empire Club and thought about it, the thing did seem inexplicable. Why should the metropolitan police care who imported horses, or in what port a shipload of them was landed? The war was over. Nobody was concerned about the importation of horses. Why should Sir Henry be so disturbed about it? But he was disturbed; and he had rushed off to Paris to see an expert on ciphers. That seemed a tremendous lot of trouble to take. The Baronet knew the horses were on the sea coming from America, he said. If he knew that much, how could he fail to discover the boat on which they were carried and the port at which they would arrive? Nobody could conceal nine hundred horses!
Hargrave was thinking about that, idly, before the glow of the coal fire, when the second episode in this extraordinary affair arrived.
A steward entered.
"Visitor, please," he said, "to see Mr. Hargrave."
Then he presented his tray with a card. The jewel dealer took the card with some surprise. Everybody knew that he was at the Empire Club. It is a colony thing with chambers for foreign guests. A list of arrivals is always printed. He saw at a glance that it was not a man's card; the size was too large. Then he turned it over before the light of the fire. The name was engraved in script, an American fashion at this time.
The woman's card had surprised him; but the name on it brought him up in his chair - "Mrs. A. B. Farmingham." It was not a name that he knew precisely; but he knew its genera, the family or group to which it belonged. Mr. Jefferson removed titles of nobility in the American republic, but his efforts did not eliminate caste zones. It only made the lines of cleavage more pronounced. One knew these zones by the name formation. Everybody knew "Alfa Baba" Farmingham, as the Sunday Press was accustomed to translate his enigmatical initials. Some wonderful Western bonanza was behind the man. Mrs. "Alfa Baba" Farmingham would be, then, one of the persons that Hargrave's house was concerned to reach. He looked again at the card. In the corner the engraved address, "Point View, Newport," was marked out with a pencil and "The Ritz" written over it.
He got his coat and hat and followed the steward out of the club. There was a carriage at the curb. A footman was holding the door open, and a woman, leaning over in the seat, was looking out. She was precisely what Hargrave expected to see, one of those dominant, impatient, aggressive women who force their way to the head of social affairs in America. She shot a volley of questions at him the moment he was before the door.
"Are you Douglas Hargrave, the purchasing agent for Bartholdi & Banks?"
The man said that he was, and at her service, and so forth. But she did not stop to listen to any reply.
"You look mighty young, but perhaps you know your business. At any rate, it's the best I can do. Get in."
Hargrave got in, the footman closed the door, and the carriage turned into Piccadilly Circus. The woman did not pay very much attention to him. She made a laconic explanation, the sort of explanation one would make to a shopkeeper.
"I want your opinion on some jewels," she said. "I have a lot to do - no time to fool away. When I found that I could see the jewels to-night I concluded to pick you up on my way down. I didn't find out about it in time to let you know."
Hargrave told her that he would be very glad to give her the benefit of his experience.
"Glad, nonsense!" she said. "I'll pay your fee. Do you know a jewel when you see it?"
"I think I do, madam," he replied.
She moved with energy.
"It won't do to think," she said. "I have got to know. I don't buy junk."
He tried to carry himself up to her level with a laugh.
"I assure you, madam," he said, "our house is not accustomed to buy junk. It's a perfectly simple matter to tell a spurious jewel."
And he began to explain the simple, decisive tests. But she did not listen to him.
"I don't care how a vet knows that a hunter's sound. All that I want to be certain about is that he does know it. I don't want to buy hunters on my own hook. Neither do I want to buy jewels on what I know about them. If you know, that's all I care about it. And you must know or old Bartholdi wouldn't trust you. That's what I'm going on."
She was a big aggressive woman, full of energy. Hargrave could not see her very well, but that much was abundantly clear. The carriage turned out of Piccadilly Circus, crossed Trafalgar Square and stopped before Blackwell's Hotel. Blackwell's has had a distinct clientele since the war; a sort of headquarters for Southeastern European visitors to London.
When the carriage stopped Mrs. Farmingham opened the door herself, before the footman could get down, and got out. It was the restless American impatience always cropping out in this woman.
"Come along, young man," she said, "and tell me whether this stuff is O. K. or junk."
They got in a lift and went up to the top floor of the hotel. Mrs. Farmingham got out and Hargrave followed her along the hall to a door at the end of a corridor. He could see her now clearly in the light. She had gray eyes, a big determined mouth, and a mass of hair dyed as only a Parisian expert, in the Rue de la Paix, can do it. She went directly to a door at the end of the corridor, rapped on it with her gloved hand, and turned the latch before anybody could possibly have responded
Hargrave followed her into the room. It was a tiny sitting room, one of the inexpensive rooms in the hotel. There was a bit of fire in the grate, and standing by the mantelpiece was, a big old man with close-cropped hair and a pale, unhealthy face. It was the type of face that one associates with tribal races in Southeastern Europe. He was dressed in a uniform that fitted closely to his figure. It was a uniform of some elevated rank, from the apparent richness of it. There were one or two decorations on the coat, a star and a heavy bronze medal. The man looked to be of some importance; but this importance did not impress Mrs. Farmingham.
"Major," she said in her direct fashion, "I have brought an expert to look at the jewels."
She indicated Hargrave, and the foreign officer bowed courteously. Then he took two candles from the mantelpiece and placed them on a little table that stood in the center of the room.
He put three chairs round this table, sat down in one of them, unbuttoned the bosom of his coat and took out a big oblong jewel case. The case was in an Oriental design and of great age. The embroidered silk cover was falling apart. He opened the case carefully, delicately, like one handling fragile treasure. Inside, lying each in a little pocket that exactly fitted the outlines of the stone, were three rows of sapphires. He emptied the jewels out on the table.
"Sir," he said, speaking with a queer, hesitating accent, "it saddens one unspeakably to part with the ancient treasure of one's family."
Mrs. Farmingham said nothing whatever. Hargrave stooped over the jewels and spread them out on top of, the table. There were twenty-nine sapphires of the very finest quality. He had never seen better sapphires anywhere. He remembered seeing stones that were matched up better; but he had never seen individual stones that were any finer in anybody's collection. The foreigner was composed and silent while the American examined the jewels. But Mrs. Farmingham moved restlessly in her chair.
"Well," she said, "are they O. K.?"
"Yes, madam," said Hargrave; "they are first-class stones."
"Sure?" she asked.
"Quite sure, madam," replied the American. "There can be no question about it."
"Are they worth eighteen thousand dollars?"
She put the question in such a way that Hargrave understood her perfectly.
"Well," he said, "that depends upon a good many conditions. But I'm willing to say, quite frankly, that if you don't want the jewels I'm ready to take them for our house at eighteen thousand dollars."
The big, dominant, aggressive woman made the gesture of one who cracks a dog whip.
"That's all right," she said. Then she turned to the foreigner. "Now, major, when do you want this money?"
The big old officer shrugged his shoulders and put out his hands.
"To-morrow, madam; to-morrow as I have said to you; before midday I must return. I can by no means remain an hour longer; my leave of absence expires. I must be in Bucharest at sunrise on the morning of the twelfth of October. I can possibly arrive if I leave London to-morrow at midday, but not later."
Mrs. Farmingham began to wag her head in a determined fashion.
"Nonsense," she said, "I can't get the money by noon. I have telegraphed to the Credit Lyonnais in Paris. I can get it by the day after to-morrow, or perhaps to-morrow evening."
The foreigner looked down on the floor.
"It is impossible," he said.
The woman interrupted him.
"Now major, that's all nonsense! A day longer can't make any difference."
He drew himself up and looked calmly at her.
"Madam," he said, "it would make all the difference in the world. If I should remain one day over my time I might just as well remain all the other days that are to follow it."
There was finality and conviction in the man's voice. Mrs. Farmingham got up and began to walk about the room. She seemed to speak to Hargrave, although he imagined that she was speaking to herself.
"Now this is a pretty how-de-do," she said "Lady Holbert told me about this find to-night at dinner. She said Major Mikos wanted the money at once; but I didn't suppose he wanted it cash on the hour like that. She brought me right away after dinner to see him. And then I went for you." She stopped, and again made the gesture as of one who, cracks a dog whip. "Now what shall I do?" she said.
The last remark was evidently not addressed to Hargrave. It was not addressed to anybody. It was merely the reflection of a dominant nature taking counsel With itself. She took another turn about the room. Then she pulled up short.
"See here," she said, "suppose you take these jewels and give the major his money in the morning. Then I'll buy them of you."
"Very well, madam," said Hargrave; "but in that event we shall charge you a ten per cent commission."
She stormed at that.
"Eighteen hundred dollars?" she said. "That's absurd, ridiculous! I'm willing to pay you five hundred dollars."
The American did not undertake to argue the matter with her.
"We don't handle any sale for a less commission," he said.
Then he explained that he could not act as any sort of agent in the matter; that the only thing he could do would be to buy the jewels outright and resell them to her. His house would not make any sale for a less profit than ten per cent. Hargrave did not propose to be involved in any but a straight-out transaction. He was quite willing to buy the sapphires for eighteen thousand dollars. There was five thousand dollars' profit in them on any market. He was perfectly safe either way about. If Mrs. Farmingham made the repurchase there was a profit of ten per cent. If not, there was five thousand dollars' profit in the bargain under any conditions.
They were Siamese stones, and the cutting was of an old design. They were not from any stock in Europe. Hargrave knew what Europe held of sapphires. These were from some Oriental stock. And everybody bought an Oriental stone wherever he could get it. How the seller got it did not matter. Nobody undertook to verify the title of a Siamese trader or a Burma agent.
Mrs. Farmingham walked about for several minutes, saying over to herself as she had said before:
"Now what shall I do?"
Then like the big, dominant, decisive nature that she was she came to a conclusion.
"All right," she said, "bring in the money in the morning and get the sapphires. I'll take them up in a day or two. Good-by, major; come along, Mr: Hargrave." And she went out of the room.
The American stopped at the door to bow to the old Rumanian officer who was standing up beside the table before the heap of sapphires. They got into the carriage at the curb before Blackwell's Hotel. Mrs. Farmingham put Hargrave down at the Empire Club, and the carriage passed on, across Piccadilly Circus toward the Ritz.
The following morning Hargrave got the sapphires from Major Mikos, and paid him eighteen thousand dollars in English sovereigns for them. He wanted gold to carry back with him for the jewels that he had brought out of the kingdom of Rumania. He seemed a simple, anxious person. He wished to carry his treasures with him like a peasant. The sapphires looked better in the daylight. There ought to have been seven thousand dollars' profit in them, perhaps more; seven thousand dollars, at any rate, that very day in the London market. Hargrave took them to the Empire Club and put them in a sealed envelope in the steward's safe.
The thin drift of yellow remained in the city; that sulphurous haze that the blanket of sea fog, moving over London, presses down into her streets. It was not heavy yet; it was only a mist of saffron; but it threatened to gather volume as the day advanced.,
At luncheon Hargrave got a note from Mrs. Farmingham, a line scrawled on her card to say that she would call for him at three o'clock. Her carriage was before the door on the stroke of the hour, and she explained that the money to redeem the jewels had arrived. The Credit Lyonnais had sent it over from Paris. She seemed a bit puzzled about it. She had telegraphed the Credit Lyonnais yesterday to send her eighteen thousand dollars. And she had expected that the French banking house would have arranged for the payment of the money through its English correspondent. But its telegram directed her to go to the United Atlantic Express Company and receive the money.
A few minutes cleared the puzzle. The office of the company is on the Strand above the Savoy. Mrs. Farmingham went to the manager and showed him a lot of papers she had in an official-looking envelope. After a good bit of official pother the porters carried out a big portmanteau, a sort of heavy leather traveling case, and put it into the carriage. Mrs. Farmingham came to Hargrave where he stood by the door.
"Now, what do you think!" she said. "Of all the stupid idiots, give me a French idiot to be the stupidest; they have actually sent me eighteen thousand dollars in gold!"
"Well," said Hargrave, "perhaps you asked them to send you eighteen thousand dollars in gold."
She closed her mouth firmly for a moment and looked him vacantly in the face.
"What did I do?" she said, in the old manner of addressing an inquiry to herself. "The major wanted gold and perhaps I said gold. Why, yes, I must have said I wanted eighteen thousand dollars in gold. Well, at any rate, here's the money to pay you for the sapphires. I'll telegraph the Credit Lyonnais to send me your eighteen hundred, and you can come around to the Ritz for it in the morning."
She wished Hargrave to see that the telegram was properly worded, so the stupid French would not undertake to ship another bag of coin to her. He wrote it out, so there could be no mistake, and sent it from Charing Cross on the way back to the club.
Hargrave had to get two porters to carry the leather portmanteau into his room at the Empire Club. Mrs. Farmingham did not wait to receive the sapphires. She said he could bring them over to the Ritz after he had counted the money. She wanted a cup of tea; he could come along in an hour.
It took Hargrave the whole of the hour to verify the money. The case had been shipped, the straps were knotted tight and the lock was sealed. He had to get a man from the outside to break the lock open. The man said it was an American lock and he hadn't any implement to turn it.
There were eighteen thousand dollars in American twenty-dollar gold pieces packed in sawdust in the bag. The Credit Lyonnais had followed Mrs. Farmingham's directions to the letter. Such is the custom of the stupid French! She had asked for eighteen thousand dollars in gold, and they had sent her eighteen thousand dollars in gold. Hargrave put one of the pieces into his waistcoat pocket. He wanted to show Mrs. Farmingham how strangely the stupid French had made the blunder of doing precisely what she asked. Then he strapped up the portmanteau, pushed it under the bed, went out and locked the door. He asked the chief steward to put a man in the corridor to see that no one went into his room while he was out. Then he got the sapphires out of the safe and went over to the Ritz.
He met Mrs. Farmingham in the corridor coming out to her carriage.
"Ah, Mr. Hargrave," she said, "here you are. I just told the clerk to call you up and tell you to bring the sapphires over in the morning when you came for the draft. I promised Lady Holbert last night to come out to tea at five. Forgot it until a moment ago."
She took Hargrave along out to the carriage and he gave her the envelope. She tore off the corner, emptied the sapphires into her hand, glanced at them, and dropped them loose into the pocket of her coat.
"Was the money all right?" she said.
"Precisely all right," replied the American. "The Credit Lyonnais, with amazing stupidity, sent you precisely what you asked for in your telegram." And he showed her the twenty-dollar gold piece.
"Well, well, the stupid darlings!" Then she laughed in her big, energetic manner. "I'm not always a fool. Come in the morning at nine. Good-night, Mr. Hargrave."
And the carriage rolled across Piccadilly into Bond Street in the direction of Grosvenor Square and Lady Holbert's.
The fog was settling down over London. Moving objects were beginning to take on the loom of gigantic figures. It was getting difficult to see.
It must have taken Hargrave half an hour to reach the club. The first man he saw when he went in was Sir Henry, his hands in the pockets of his tweed coat and his figure blocking the passage.
"Hello, Hargrave!" he cried. "What have you got in your room that old Ponsford won't let me go up?"
"Not nine hundred horses!" replied the American.
The Baronet laughed. Then he spoke in a lower voice:
"It's extraordinary lucky that I ran over to the Sorbonne. Come along up to your room and I'll tell you. This place is filling up with a lot of thirsty swine. We can't talk in any public room of it."
They went up the great stairway, lined with paintings of famous colonials celebrated in the English wars, and into the room. Hargrave turned on the light and poked up the fire. Sir Henry sat down by the table. He took out his three newspapers and laid them down before him.
"My word, Hargrave," he said, "old Arnold is a clever beggar! He cleared the thing up clean as rain." The Baronet spread the newspapers out before him.
"We knew here at the Criminal Investigation Department that this thing was a cipher of some sort, because we knew about these horses. We had caught up with this business of importing horses. We knew the shipment was on the way as I explained to you. But we didn't know the port that it would come into."
"Well," said the American, "did you find out?"
"My word," he cried, "old Arnold laughed in my face. 'Ach, monsieur,' he cried, mixing up several languages, `it is Heidel's cipher! It is explained in the seventeenth Criminal Archive at Gratz. Attend and I will explain it, monsieur. It is always written in two paragraphs. The first paragraph contains the secret message, and the second paragraph contains the key to it. Voila! This message is in two paragraphs:
"'"P.L.A. shipped nine hundred horses on freight steamer Don Carlos from N. Y.
"'"Have the bill of lading handed over to our agent to check up"
"'The hidden message is made up of certain words and capital letters contained in the first paragraph, while the presence of the letter t in the second paragraph indicates the words or capital letters that count in the first. One has only to note the numerical position of the letter t in the second paragraph in order to know what capital letter or word counts in the first paragraph.'"
The Baronet took out a pencil and underscored the words in the second paragraph of the printed cipher: "Have the bill of lading handed over to our agent to check up."
"You will observe that the second, the eighth and the eleventh words in this paragraph begin with the letter t. Therefore, the second, the eighth and the eleventh capital letters or words in the first paragraph make up the hidden message."
And again with his pencil he underscored the letters of the first paragraph of the cipher: "P.L.A. shipped nine hundred horses on freight steamer Don 'Carlos from N. Y."
"So we get `L, on, Don."
"London!" cried Hargrave. "The nine-hundred horses are to come into London!"
And in his excitement he took the gold piece out of his pocket and pitched it up. He had been stooping over the table. The fog was creeping into the room. And in the uncertain light about the ceiling he missed the gold piece and it fell on the table before Sir Henry. The gold piece did not ring, it fell dull and heavy, and the big Baronet looked at it openmouthed as though it had suddenly materialized out of the yellow fog entering the room.
"My word!" he cried. "One of the nine hundred horses!"
Hargrave stopped motionless like a man stricken by some sorcery.
"One of the nine hundred horses!" he echoed.
The Baronet was digging at the gold piece with the blade of his knife.
"Precisely! In the criminal argot a counterfeit American twenty-dollar gold piece is called a `horse.'
"Look," he said, and he dug into the coin with his knife, "it's white inside, made of Babbit metal, milled with a file and gold-plated. Where did you get it?"
The American stammered.
"Where could I have gotten it?" he murmured.
"Well," the Baronet said, "you might have got it from a big, old, pasty-faced Alsatian; that would be 'Dago' Mulehaus. Or you might have got it 'from an energetic, middle-aged, American woman posing as a social leader in the States; that would be `Hustling' Anne; both bad crooks, at the head of an international gang of counterfeiters."