It was a faint cynical murmur of a laugh. Its expression hardly disturbed the composition of his features.
"I fear, Lady Muriel," he said, "that your profession is ruined. Our friend - `over the water' - is no longer concerned about the affairs of England."
The woman fingered at her gloves, turning them back about the wrists. Her face was anxious and drawn.
"I am rather desperately in need of money," she said.
The cynicism deepened in the man's face.
"Unfortunately," he replied, "a supply of money cannot be influenced by the intensity of one's necessity for it."
He was a man indefinite in age. His oily black hair was brushed carefully back. His clothes were excellent, with a precise detail. Everything about him was conspicuously correct in the English fashion. But the man was not English. One could not say from what race he came. Among the races of Southern Europe he could hardly have been distinguished. There was a chameleon quality strongly dominant in the creature.
The woman looked up quickly, as in a strong aversion.
"What shall you do?" she said.
The man glanced about the room. There was a certain display within the sweep of his vision. Some rugs of great value, vases and bronzes; genuine and of extreme age. He made a careless gesture with his hands.
"I shall explore some ruins in Syria, and perhaps the aqueduct which the French think carried a water supply to the Carthage of Hanno. It will be convenient to be beyond British inquiry for some years to come; and after all, I am an antiquarian, like Prosper Merimee."
Lady Muriel continued to finger her gloves. They had been cleaned and the cryptic marks of the shopkeeper were visible along the inner side of the wrist hem. This was, to the woman, the first subterfuge of decaying smartness. When a woman began to send her gloves to the laundry she was on her way down. Other evidences were not entirely lacking in the woman's dress, but they were not patent to the casual eye. Lady Muriel was still, to the observer, of the gay top current in the London world.
The woman followed the man's glance about the room.
"You must be rich, Hecklemeir," she said. "Lend me a hundred pounds."
The man laughed again in his queer chuckle.
"Ah, no, my Lady," he replied, "I do not lend." Then he added.
"If you have anything of value, bring it to me . . . . not information from the ministry, and not war plans; the trade in such commodities is ended."
It was the woman's turn to laugh.
"The shopkeepers in Oxford Street have been before you, Baron . . . . I've nothing to sell."
Hecklemeir smiled, kneading his pudgy hands.
"It will be hard to borrow," he said. "Money is very dear to the Britisher just now - right against his heart . . . . Still. . . . perhaps one's family could be thumb screwed. . . . . .An elderly relative with no children would be the most favorable, I think. Have you got such a relative concealed somewhere in a nook of London? Think about it. If you could recall one, he would be like a buried nut."
The man paused; then he added, with the offensive chuckling laugh:
"Go to such an one, Lady Muriel. Who shall turn aside from virtue in distress? Perhaps, in the whole of London, I alone have the brutality - shall we call it - to resist that spectacle."
The woman rose. Her face was now flushed and angry.
"I do not know of any form of brutality in which you do not excel, Hecklemeir," she said. "I have a notion to, go to Scotland Yard with the whole story of your secret traffic."
The man continued to smile.
"Alas, my Lady," he replied, "we are coupled together. Scotland Yard would hardly separate us . . . . you could scarcely manage to drown me and, keep afloat yourself. Dismiss the notion; it is from the pit."
There was no virtue in her threat as the woman knew. Already her mind was on the way that Hecklemeir had ironically suggested - an elderly relative, with no children, from whom one might borrow, - she valued the ramifications of her family, running out to the remote, withered branches of that noble tree. She appraised the individuals and rejected them.
Finally her searching paused.
There was her father's brother who had gone in for science - deciding against the army and the church - Professor Bramwell Winton, the biologist. He lived somewhere toward Covent Garden.
She had not thought of him for years. Occasionally his name appeared in some note issued by the museum, or a college at Oxford.
For almost four years she had been relieved of this thought about one's family. The one "over the water" for whom Hecklemeir had stolen the Scottish toast to designate, had paid lavishly for what she could find out.
She had been richly, for these four years, in funds.
The habit was established of dipping her hand into the dish. And now to find the dish empty appalled her. She could not believe that it was empty. She had come again, and again to this apartment above the shops in Regent Street, selected for its safety of ingress; a modiste and a hairdresser on either side of a narrow flight of steps.
A carriage could stop here; one could be seen here.
Even on the right, above, at the landing of the flight of steps Nance Coleen altered evening gowns with the skill of one altering the plumage of the angels. It must have cost the one "over the water" a pretty penny to keep this whole establishment running through four years of war.
She spoke finally.
"Have you a directory of London, Hecklemeir?"
The man had been watching her closely.
"If it is Scotland Yard, my Lady," he said, "you will not require a direction. I can give you the address. It is on the Embankment, near . . . "
"Don't be a fool, Hecklemeir," she interrupted, and taking the book from his hands, she whipped through the pages, got the address she sought, and went out onto the narrow landing and down the steps into Regent Street:
She took a hansom.
With some concern she examined the contents of her purse. There was a guinea, a half crown and some shillings in it - the dust of the bin. And her profession, as Hecklemeir had said, was ended.
She leaned over, like a man, resting her arms on the closed doors.
The future looked troublous. Money was the blood current in the life she knew. It was the vital element. It must be got.
And thus far she had been lucky.
Even in this necessity Bramwell Winton had emerged, when she could not think of any one. He would not have much. These scientific creatures never accumulated money, but he would have a hundred pounds. He had no wife or children to scatter the shillings of his income.
True these creatures spent a good deal on the absurd rubbish of their hobbies. But they got money sometimes, not by thrift but by a sort of chance. Had not one of them, Sir Isaac Martin, found the lost mines from which the ancient civilization of Syria drew its supply of copper. And Hector Bartlett, little more than a mummy in the Museum, had gone one fine day into Asia and dug up the gold plates that had roofed a temple of the Sun.
He had been shown in the drawing rooms, on his return, and she had stopped a moment to look him over - he was a sort of mummy. She was not hoping to find Bramwell Winton one of these elect. But he was a hive that had not been plundered.
She reflected, sitting bent forward in the hansom, her face determined and unchanging. She did not undertake to go forward beyond the hundred pounds. Something would turn up. She was lucky . . . others had gone to the tower; gone before the firing squad for lesser activities in what Hecklemeir called her profession, but she had floated through . . . carrying what she gleaned to the paymaster. Was it skill, or was she a "child of Fortune?
And like every gambler, like every adventurer in a life of hazard, she determined for the favorite of some immense Fatality.
It was an old house she came to, built in the prehistoric age of London, with thick, heavy walls, one of a row, deadly in its monotony. The row was only partly tenanted.
She dismissed the hansom and got out.
It was a moment before she found the number. The houses adjoining on either side were empty, the windows were shuttered. One might have considered the middle house with the two, for its step was unscrubbed, and it presented unwashed windows.
It was a heavy, deep-walled structure like a monument. Even the street in the vicinity was empty. If the biologist had been seeking an undisturbed quarter of London, he had, beyond doubt, found it here.
There was a bridged-over court before the house. Lady Muriel crossed. She paused before the door. There had been a bell pull in the wall, but the brass handle was broken and only the wire remained.
She was uncertain whether one was supposed to pull this wire, and in the hesitation she took hold of the door latch. To her surprise the door yielded, and following the impulse of her extended hand, she went in.
The hall was empty. There was no servant to be seen. And immediately the domestic arrangement of the biologist were clear to her. They would be that of one who had a cleaning woman in on certain days, and so lived alone. She was not encouraged by this economy, and yet such a custom in a man like Bramwell Winton might be habit.
The scientist, in the popular conception, was not concerned with the luxury of life - they were a rum lot.
But the house was not empty. A smart hat and stick were in the rack and from what should be a drawing room, above, there descended faintly the sound of voices.
It seemed ridiculous to Lady Muriel to go out and struggle with the broken bell wire. She would go up, now that she had entered, and announce herself, since, in any event, it must come to that.
The heavy oak door closed without a sound, as -it had opened. Lady Muriel went up the stairway. She had nothing to put down. The only thing she carried was a purse, and lest it should appear suggestive - as of one coming with his empty wallet in his hand - she tucked the gold mesh into the bosom of her jacket.
The door to the drawing room was partly open, and as Lady Muriel approached the top of the stair she heard the voices of two men in an eager colloquy; a smart English accent from the world that she was so desperately endeavoring to remain in, and a voice that paused and was unhurried. But they were both eager, as I have written, as though commonly impulsed by an unusual concern.
And now that she was near, Lady Muriel realized that the conversation was not low or under uttered. The smart voice was, in fact, loud and incisive. It was the heavy house that reduced the sounds. In fact, the conversation was keyed up. The two men were excited about something.
A sentence arrested the woman's advancing feet.
"My word! Bramwell, if some one should go there and bring the things out, he would make a fortune, and would be famous. Nobody ever believed these stories."
"There was Le Petit, Sir Godfrey," replied the deliberate voice. "He declared over his signature that he had seen them."
"But who believed Le Petit," continued the other. "The world took him to be a French imaginist like Chateaubriand . . . who the devil, Bramwell, supposed there was any truth in this old story? But by gad, sir, it's true! The water color shows it, and if you turn it over you will see that the map on the back of it gives the exact location of the spot. It's all exact work, even the fine lines of the map have the bearings indicated. The man who made that water color, and the drawing on the back of it, had been on the spot.
"Of course, we don't know conclusively who made it. Tony had gone in from the West coast after big, game, and he found the thing put up as a sort of fetish in a devil house. It was one of the tribes near the Karamajo range. As I told you, we have only Tony's diary for it. I found the thing among his effects after he was killed in Flanders. It's pretty certain Tony did not understand the water color. There was only this single entry in the diary about how he found it, and a query in pencil.
"My word! if he had understood the water color, he would have beaten over every foot of Africa to Lake Leopold. And it would have been the biggest find of his time. Gad! what a splash he'd have made! But he never had any luck, the beggar . . . stopped a German bullet in the first week out.
"Now, how the devil, Bramwell, do you suppose that water color got into a native medicine house?"
The reflective voice replied slowly.
"I've thought about the thing, Sir Godfrey. It must have been the work of the Holland explorer, Maartin. He was all about in Africa, and he died in there somewhere, at least he never came out . . . that was ten years ago. I've looked him up, and I find that he could do a water color-in fact there's a collection of his water colors in, the Dutch museum. They're very fine work, like this one; exquisite, I'd say. The fellow was born an artist.
"How it got into the hands of a native devil doctor is not difficult to imagine. The sleeping sickness may have wiped Maartin out, or the natives may have rushed his camp some morning, or he may have been mauled by a beast. Any article of a white man is medicine stuff you know. When you first showed me the thing I was puzzled. I knew what it was because I had read Le Petit's pretension . . . I can't call it a pretension now; the things are there whether he saw them or not.
"I think he did not see them. But it is certain from this water color that some one did; and Maartin is the only explorer that could have done such a color. As soon as I thought of Maartin I knew the thing could have been done by no other."
Lady Muriel had remained motionless on the stair. The door to the drawing room, before her, was partly open. She stepped in to the angle of the wall and drew the door slowly back until it covered this angle in which she stood.
She was rich in such experiences, for her success had depended, not a little, on overhearing what was being said. Through the crack of the door the whole interior of the room was visible.
Sir Godfrey Halleck, a little dapper man, was sitting across the table from Bramwell Winton. His elbows were on the table, and he was looking eagerly at the biologist. Bramwell Winton had in his hands the thing under discussion.
It seemed to be a piece of cardboard or heavy paper about six inches in length by, perhaps, four in width. Lady Muriel could not see what was drawn or painted on this paper. But the heart in her bosom quickened. She had chanced on the spoor of something worth while.
The little dapper man flung his head up.
"Oh, it's certain, Bramwell; it's beyond any question now. My word! If Tony were only alive, or I twenty years younger! It's no great undertaking, to go in to the Karamajo Mountains. One could start from the West Coast, unship any place and pick up a bunch of natives. The map on the back of the water color is accurate. The man who made that knew how to travel in an unknown country. He must have had a theodolite and the very best equipment. Anybody could follow that map."
There was a battered old dispatch box on the table beside Sir Godfrey's arm - one that had seen rough service.
"Of course," he went on, "we don't know when Tony picked up this drawing. It was in this box here with his diary, an automatic pistol and some quinine. The date of the diary entry is the only clue. That would indicate that he was near the Karamajo range at the time, not far from the spot."
He snapped his fingers.
"What damned luck!"
He clinched his hands and brought them down on the table.
"I'm nearly seventy, Bramwell, but you're ten years under that. You could go in. No one need know the object of your expedition. Hector Bartlett didn't tell the whole of England when he went out to Syria for the gold plates. A scientist can go anywhere. No one wonders what he is about. It wouldn't take three months. And the climate isn't poisonous. I think it's mostly high ground. Tony didn't complain about it."
The biologist answered without looking up.
"I haven't got the money, Sir Godfrey."
The dapper little man jerked his head as over a triviality.
"I'll stake you. It wouldn't cost above five hundred pounds."
The biologist sat back in his chair, at the words, and looked over the table at his guest.
"That's awfully decent of you, Godfrey," he said, "and I'd go if I saw a way to get your money to you if anything happened."
"Damn the money!" cried the other.
The biologist smiled.
"Well," he said, "let me think about it. I could probably fix up some sort of insurance. Lloyd's will bet nearly any sane man that he won't die for three months. And besides I should wish to look things up a little."
Sir Godfrey rose.
"Oh, to be sure," he said, "you want to make certain about the thing. We might be wrong. I hadn't an idea what it was until I brought it to you, and of course Tony hadn't an idea. Make certain of it by all means."
The biologist extended his long legs under the table. He indicated the water color in his hand.
"This thing's certain," he said. "I know what this thing is."
He rapped the water color with the fingers of his free hand.
"This thing was painted on the spot. Maartin was looking at this thing when he painted it. You can see the big shadows underneath. No living creature could have imagined this or painted it from hearsay. He had to see it. And he did see it. I wasn't thinking about this, Godfrey. I was thinking the Dutch government might help a bit in the hope of finding some trace of Maartin and I should wish to examine any information they might have about him."
"Damn the Dutch government!" cried the little man. "And damn Lloyd's. We will go it on our own hook."
The biologist smiled.
"Let me think about it, a little," he said.
The dapper man flipped a big watch out of his waistcoat pocket.
"Surely!" he cried, "I must get the next train up. Have you got a place to lock the stuff? I had to cut this lid open with a chisel."
He indicated the tin dispatch box.
"Better keep it all. You'll want to run through the diary, I imagine. Tony's got down the things explorer chaps are always keen about; temperature, water supply, food and all that. . . . . Now, I'm off.
See you Thursday afternoon at the United Service Club. Better lunch with me."
Then he pushed the dispatch box across the table. The biologist rose and turned back the lid of the box. The contents remained as Sir Godfrey's dead son had left them; a limp leather diary, an automatic pistol of some American make, a few glass tubes of quinine, packed in cotton wool.
He put the water color on the bottom of the box and replaced them.
Then he took the dispatch box over to an old iron safe at the farther end of the room, opened it, set the box within, locked the door, and, returning, thrust the key under a pile of journals on the corner of the table. Then he went out, and down the stairway with his guest to the door.
They passed within a finger touch of Lady Muriel.
The woman was quick to act. There would be no borrowing from Bramwell Winton. He would now, with this expedition on the way, have no penny for another. But here before her, as though arranged by favor of Fatality, was something evidently of enormous value that she could cash in to Hecklemeir.
There was fame and fortune on the bottom of that dispatch box.
Something that would have been the greatest find of the age to Tony Halleck . . . something that the biologist, clearly from his words and manner, valued beyond the gold plates of Sir Hector Bartlett.
It was a thing that Hecklemeir would buy with money . . . the very thing which he would be at this opportune moment interested to purchase. She saw it in the very first comprehensive glance.
Her luck was holding Fortune was more than favorable, merely. It exercised itself actively, with evident concern, in her behalf.
Lady Muriel went swiftly into the room. She slipped the key from under the pile of journals and crossed to the safe sitting against the wall.
It was an old safe of some antediluvian manufacture and the lock was worn. The stem of the key was smooth and it slipped in her gloved hands. She could not hold it firm enough to turn the lock. Finally with her bare fingers and with one hand to aid the other she was able to move the lock and so open the safe.
She heard the door to the street close below, and the faint sound of Bramwell Winton's footsteps as though he went along the hall into the service portion of the house. She was nervous and hurried, but this reassured her.
The battered dispatch box sat within on the empty bottom of the a safe.
She lifted the lid; an automatic pistol lay on a limp leather-backed journal, stained, discolored and worn. Lady Muriel slipped her hand under these articles and lifted out the thing she sought.
Even in the pressing haste of her adventure, the woman could not forbear to look at the thing upon which these two men set so great a value. She stopped then a moment on her knees beside the safe, the prized article in her hands.
A map, evidently drawn with extreme care, was before her. She glanced at it hastily and turned the thing quickly over. What she saw amazed and puzzled her. Even in this moment of tense emotions she was astonished: She saw a pool of water, - not a pool of water in the ordinary sense - but a segment of water, as one would take a certain limited area of the surface of the sea or a lake or river. It was amber-colored and as smooth as glass, and on the surface of this water, as though they floated, were what appeared to be three, reddish-purple colored flowers, and beneath them on the bottom of the water were huge indistinct shadows.
The water was not clear to make out the shadows. But the appearing flowers were delicately painted. They stood out conspicuously on the glassy surface of the water as though they were raised above it.
Amazement held the woman longer than she thought, over this extraordinary thing. Then she thrust it into the bosom of her jacket, fastening the button securely over it.
The act kept her head down. When she lifted it Bramwell Winton was standing in the door.
In terror her hand caught up the automatic pistol out of the tin box. She acted with no clear, no determined intent. It was a gesture of fear and of indecision; escape through menace was perhaps the subconscious motive; the most primitive, the most common motive of all creatures in the corner. It extends downward from the human mind through all life.
To spring up, to drag the veil over her face with her free hand, and to thrust the weapon at the figure in the doorway was all simultaneous and instinctive acts in the expression of this primordial impulse of escape through menace.
Then a thing happened.
There was a sharp report and the figure standing in the doorway swayed a moment and fell forward into the room. The unconscious gripping of the woman's fingers had fired the pistol.
For a moment Lady Muriel stood unmoving, arrested in every muscle by this accident. But her steady wits - skilled in her profession - did not wholly desert her. She saw that the man was dead. There was peril in that - immense, uncalculated peril, but the prior and immediate peril, the peril of discovery in the very accomplishment of theft, was by this act averted.
She stooped over, her eyes fixed on the sprawling body and with her free hand closed the door of the safe. Then she crossed the room, put the pistol down on the floor near the dead man's hand and went out.
She went swiftly down the stairway and paused a moment at the door to look out. The street was empty. She hurried away.
She met no one. A cab in the distance was appearing. She hailed it as from a cross street and returned to Regent. It was characteristic of the woman that her mind dwelt upon the spoil she carried rather than upon the act she had done.
She puzzled at the water color. How could these things be flowers?
Bramwell Winton was a biologist; he would not be concerned with flowers. And Sir Godfrey Halleck and his son Tony, the big game hunter, were not men to bother themselves with blossoms. Sir Godfrey, as she now remembered vaguely, had, like his dead son, been a keen sportsman in his youth; his country house was full of trophies.
She carried buttoned in the bosom of her jacket something that these men valued. But, what was it? Well, at any rate it was something that would mean fame and fortune to the one who should bring it out of Africa. That one would now be Hecklemeir, and she should have her share of the spoil.
Lady Muriel found the drawing-room of her former employer in some confusion; rugs were rolled up, bronzes were being packed. But in the disorder of it the proprietor was imperturbable. He merely elevated his eyebrows at her reappearance. She went instantly to the point.
"Hecklemeir," she said, "how would you like to have a definite objective in your explorations?"
The man looked at her keenly.
"What do you mean precisely?" he replied:
"I mean," she continued, "something that would bring one fame and fortune if one found it." And she added, as a bit of lure, "You remember the gold plates Hector Bartlett dug up in Syria?"
He came over closer to her; his little eyes narrowed.
"What have you got?" he said.
His facetious manner - a that vulgar persons imagine to be distinguished - was gone out of him. He was direct and simple.
She replied with no attempt at subterfuge.
"I've got a map of a route to some sort of treasure - I don't know what - It's in the Karamajo Mountains in the French Congo; a map to it and a water color of the thing."
Hecklemeir did not ask how Lady Muriel came by the thing she claimed; his profession always avoided such detail. But he knew that she had gone to Bramwell Winton; and what she had must have come from some scientific source. The mention of Hector Bartlett was not without its virtue.
Lady Muriel marked the man's changed manner, and pushed her trade.
"I want a check for a hundred pounds and a third of the thing when you bring it out."
Hecklemeir stood for a moment with the tips of his fingers pressed against his lips; then replied.
"If you have anything like the thing you describe, I'll give you a hundred pounds . . . let me see it."
She took the water color out of the bosom of her jacket and gave it to him.
He carried it over to the window and studied it a moment. Then he turned with a sneering oath.
"The devil take your treasure," he said, "these things are water-elephants. I don't care a farthing if they stand on the bottom of every lake in Africa!"
And he flung the water color toward her. Mechanically the stunned woman picked it up and smoothed it out in her fingers.
With the key to the picture she saw it clearly, the shadowy bodies of the beasts and the tips of their trunks distended on the surface like a purple flower. And vaguely, as though it were a memory from a distant life, she recalled hearing the French Ambassador and Baron Rudd discussing the report of an explorer who pretended to have seen these supposed fabulous elephants come out of an African forest and go down under the waters of Lake Leopold.
She stood there a moment, breaking the thing into pieces with her bare hands. Then she went out. At the door on the landing she very nearly stepped against a little cockney.
"My Lidy," he whined, "I was bringing your, gloves; you dropped them on your way up."
She took them mechanically and began to draw them on . . . the cryptic sign of the cleaner on the wrist hem was now to her indicatory of her submerged estate. The little cockney hung about a moment as for a gratuity delayed, then he disappeared down the stair before her.
She went slowly down, fitting the gloves to her fingers.
Midway of the flight she paused. The voice of the little cockney, but without the accent, speaking to a Bobby standing beside the entrance reached her.
"It was Sir Henry Marquis who set the Yard to register all laundry marks in London. Great C. I. D. Chief, Sir Henry!"
And Lady Muriel remembered that she had removed these gloves in order to turn the slipping key in Bramwell Winton's safe lock.