The Career of Joan Carthew/Chapter 5
No. V.—THE COUP OF "THE PLANET."
IT is like stating that the world is round to say that London is the best of hiding-places. It is the best, because there are many Londons, and one London knows practically nothing about any of the other Londons. When, therefore, Mercy Milton disappeared from Northmuir House, Belgrave Square, Joan Carthew promptly appeared at the old camping-ground, the boarding-house in Woburn Place.
Joan was no longer penniless, and as far as Lord Northmuir was concerned, she was easy in her mind. A man of his stamp was unlikely to risk the much-prized "honour of his name" to seek her with detectives; while, unassisted, he would have to shrug his weary old shoulders and resign himself to loss and loneliness.
But ambition kindled restlessness. She grudged wasting a moment when her fortune had to be made, her permanent place in life fixed. Besides, she was dissatisfied with her adventure in the house of Lord Northmuir. She had not come off badly, yet it galled her to remember that in self-defence she had been driven to confess her scheme to its victim, and that—this expedient not proving efficacious—she had eventually been forced to run away like the coward she was not. On the whole, she had to admit that if Lord Northmuir had not in the end got the better of her, he had come near to doing so. The sharp taste of failure was in her mouth, and the only way to be rid of it was to get the better of somebody else—somebody disagreeable, so that the sweets of success might be unmixed with bitterness.
Existence as Lord Northmuir's adopted relative had been deadly dull; existence as his wife would have been worse; and the remembrance of boredom was too vivid still for Joan to regret what she had sacrificed. Nevertheless, she realised that it had been a sacrifice which she would not a little while ago have believed herself fool enough, or wise enough, to be capable of making. She wanted her reward, and that reward must be new excitements, difficulties, and dangers.
"I should like to do something big on a great London paper," she said to herself on the first night of her return to Woburn Place. "What fun to undertake a thrilling journalistic mission, and succeed better than any man! I wonder whether Mr. Bainbridge, who was a reporter on The Planet, is here still. He wasn't at dinner, but then he used often to be away. I must ask in the morning."
Joan went to sleep with this resolve in her mind, and before breakfast she had carried it out. Mr. Bainbridge was still one of Miss Witts' boarders, and had often inquired after Miss Carthew. He had come in late last night, was now asleep, but would be down to luncheon, and there was no doubt that he would be delighted to see the object of his solicitude.
All turned out as Miss Witts prophesied, and Joan was even nicer to the reporter than she had been before. He invited her to dine that evening at an Italian restaurant, and she consented. When they had come to the sweets, Mr. Bainbridge could control his pent-up feelings no longer, and was about to propose when Joan stopped him.
"We are too poor to indulge in the luxury of being in love," said she, with a sweet frankness which took the sting from the rebuff and dimly implied hope for the future. "I shall not marry until I am earning as much money as—as the man I love. I could not be happy unless I were independent. Oh, Mr. Bainbridge! if you do care to please me, prove it by introducing me to the editor of your paper! I want to ask him for work."
The stricken young man felt his throat suddenly dry. In his first acquaintance with Joan he had boasted of his "influence" with the powers that were upon that new and phenomenally successful daily, The Planet. As a matter of fact, the influence existed in Bainbridge's dreams, and there only. Sir Edmund Foster, the proprietor and editor, hardly knew him by sight, and probably would not recognise him out of Fleet Street. To ask such a favour as an introduction for a strange young girl, however attractive, was almost as much as the poor fellow's place was worth, but he could not bear to refuse Joan.
"Tell Sir Edmund that I have information, important to the paper, for his private ear," added the girl, reading her admirer's mind as if it had been a book.
"But—but if—er—you haven't really anything which he——" stammered Bainbridge.
"Oh, I have! I guarantee he shall be satisfied with me and not angry with you. Only I must see him alone. Tell him I come from"—Joan hesitated for an instant, but only for an instant—"from the Earl of Northmuir."
Bainbridge was impressed by the name and her air of self-confidence. Encouraged, he promised to use every effort to bring about the introduction, if possible, the very next day. If he succeeded, he would telegraph Joan the time of the appointment, which would certainly not be earlier than three in fche afternoon, as Sir Edmund never appeared at the office until that hour.
"Then I won't wait for the telegram and give him a chance to change his mind before I can drive from Woburn Place to Fleet Street," said Joan. "I will be at the office at three in the afternoon, and wait until something is settled, if I have to wait till three in the morning."
The next day, after luncheon, Joan chose her costume with extreme care, as she invariably did when it was necessary to equip herself for conquest. Radiant in pale blue cloth edged with sable, she presented herself at the offices of The Planet. There was a waiting-room at the end of a long corridor, and there she was bidden to wait; but instead of remaining behind a closed door, as soon as her guide was out of sight, she began walking up and down near the stairway where Sir Edmund Foster must sooner or later pass. She had never seen the great man, but she remembered his photograph in one of the illustrated papers.
Presently a tall, smooth-shaven, sallow man, with eagle features and bags under his keen eyes, came rapidly along the corridor, accompanied by a much younger, less impressive man, who might have been a secretary. Joan advanced, pretending to be absorbed in thought, then stood aside with a start of shy surprise and a look nicely calculated to express reverence of greatness. Sir Edmund Foster glanced at the apparition and let his eyes linger for a few seconds as his companion rang the bell of the lift, close to the wide stone stairway.
"When he hears that there is a young woman waiting to see him, he will remember me, and the recollection may influence his decision," thought Joan, who did not undervalue her beauty as an asset.
Perhaps it fell out as she hoped (things often did), for she had not read more than three or four back numbers of The Planet, which lay on the waiting-room table, when Ralph Bainbridge, flushed and tremulous with excitement, came to say that Sir Edmund had consented to see her at once.
Without seeming as much overpowered as he expected, the girl prepared to enter the presence of greatness. But she was not in reality as calm as she appeared. The thunderous whirr of the printing-machines had almost bereft her of the capacity for thought, just at the moment when she wished to think clearly. Her nerves were twanging like the strings of a violin which is out of tune, and it was an intense relief to be shot up in the alarmingly rapid lift to a quieter region. The rumbling roar was deadened on Sir Edmund's floor, and as the door of his private office closed on her, it was shut out altogether.
"Miss Carthew, from Lord Northmuir," the famous editor said. "I believe you have some interesting information for me." He smiled with a certain dry benignity, for Joan was very pretty, and he was, after all, a man. "I think I saw you downstairs."
"I saw you, Sir Edmund." Joan's manner was dignified now, rather than shy. "I trust you will not be angry, but within the last two hours everything has changed for me. Lord Northmuir, whom I know well through my cousin, Miss Mercy Milton, his ward (you may have heard of her; we are said to resemble each other), has now changed his mind about allowing the piece of information I meant for you to be published. He has forbidden his name to be used, but it was too late to stop that. I can only beg, for my cousin Miss Milton's sake more than my own, that you will not let the fact come to his ears; if it should, she will suffer."
"You need not fear that," Sir Edmund reassured her; "but if you have no information to give me, Miss—er——"
"I had to come and explain why I hadn't," Joan cut in. "I hope you won't blame poor Mr. Bainbridge for putting you to this trouble. It isn't his fault, and he doesn't even know."
"Who is Mr. Bainbridge? Oh, ah! yes, of course. Pray don't regard it as a trouble. Quite the contrary. But unfortunately I——"
"You would say you are a very busy man," Joan threw into the editor's suggestive pause. "I won't take up much more of your time. But I want to say that, although I have nothing of value, as I hoped, to tell, I shall have later, if you will consent to engage me on your staff."
Sir Edmund laughed. He evidently considered Joan as a spoiled darling of Society with a new whim. "My dear young lady!" he exclaimed, "in what capacity, pray? We do not devote space to fashions, even in a Saturday edition. Would you come to us as a reporter, like your friend Mr. Bainbridge?"
"As a special reporter," amended Joan. "I would undertake any mission of importance——"
"There are none going begging on The Planet. But" (this soothingly by way of sugaring a dismissal) "you have only to get hold of something good and bring it to me. For instance, some nice, spicy little item such as whether the Cabinet intend to issue an ultimatum to Russia. We would pay you quite well for that, you know, provided you gave it to us in time to publish ahead of any other paper."
"How much would you pay me?" asked Joan, nettled at this chaffing tone of the famous man.
"Enough to buy a new frock and perhaps a few hairpins; say a hundred pounds."
"That isn't enough," said Joan; "I should want a thousand."
Sir Edmund turned a sudden, keen gaze upon the girl; then his face relaxed. "We might rise to that. At all events, I'm safe in promising it."
"It is a promise, then?"
"Thank you. Let me see if I understand clearly. I'm not quite the baby you think, Sir Edmund. I read the papers—yours especially—and take, I trust, an intelligent interest in the political situation. Now, the latest rumour is that Russia is secretly planning a coup de main upon Constantinople. What you would like to know is whether there is truth in the rumour, and whether, in that event, England would declare war."
"Exactly. That is what all the papers are dying to find out."
"If you could get the official news before any of them, you would give the person who obtained it for you a thousand pounds. If, in addition, they, or one of them—let us say The Daily Beacon—got the wrong news on the same day, you would no doubt add five hundred to the original thousand; for revenge is sweet, even to an editor, I suppose, and The Beacon has, I have heard, contrived to be first in the field on one or two important occasions within the last few years."
This allusion was a pin-prick in a sensitive place, for Joan was aware that The Daily Beacon and The Planet were deadly rivals as well as political opponents. Bainbridge had told her the tale of The Planets humiliation by the enemy, and she had not forgotten. The Beacon had been able, at the very time when The Planet was arguing against their probability, to assert that certain political events would take place, and in time these statements had been justified, to the discomfiture of The Planet.
Sir Edmund frowned slightly. "The Daily Beacon possesses exceptional advantages," he sneered. "It is difficult for less favoured journals to compete with it for political information."
"I believe I can guess what you refer to." answered Joan. " I hear things, you know, from my cousin, Miss Milton." (This to shield Bainbridge.) "Lord Henry Borrowdaile, an Under Secretary of State, is a distant relative of Mr. Portheous, the proprietor of The Daily Beacon, and it is said that there has been a curious leakage of diplomatic secrets, once or twice, by which The Beacon profited."
"You are a well-informed young lady."
"I hope to earn your cheque as well as your compliment," said Joan. "Perhaps you will write it before many days have passed."
"It must be before many days, if at all."
"I understand that time presses, if you are to be first in the field, for the great secret can't be kept from the public for more than a week or ten days at most. But look here, Sir Edmund, would you go that extra five hundred if, on the day that your paper published the truth about the situation, The Beacon made a fool of itself by printing exactly the opposite?"
"Yes," said the editor, " I would."
"Well, we shall see what we shall see," returned Joan. She then took leave of Sir Edmund, who was certainly not in a mood to blame Bainbridge for an introduction under false pretences, even if he were far from sure that the beautiful Miss Carthew could accomplish miracles.
As for Joan, her head was in a whirl. She wanted to do this thing more than she had ever wanted anything in her life, though it had not entered her head a few moments ago. She would not despise fifteen hundred pounds; but it was not of the money she was dreaming as she told her cabman to drive to Battersea Park, and keep on driving till ordered to stop. The strange girl could always collect and concentrate her thoughts while driving, and this was her object now.
Joan had never met Lord Henry Borrowdaile, but during her year at Northmuir House she had known people who were friends or enemies of the young man and his wife. She had her own reason for listening with interest to intimate talk about the character and private affairs of persons who were important figures in the world, for at any time she might wish to use knowledge thus gained. She did not believe, from what she had heard, that Lord Henry Borrowdaile, son of the Marquis of Wastwater, was a man to betray State secrets for money. He was "bookish " and literary, and though he was not rich, neither did he covet riches. But he did adore his beautiful young wife, and was said by those who knew him to be as wax in her hands. She was popular, as well as pretty; was vain of being the leader of a very gay set, and dressed as if her reputation depended upon being the best-gowned woman in London. Because Lady Henry posed as an ingénue, who scarcely knew politics from polo, Joan suspected her. "It is she who worms out secrets from her husband and sells them to Portheous," Joan said to herself. "Oh! to be a fly on the wall in the Borrowdailes' house for the next week!"
This wish was so vivid, that like a lightning flash it seemed to illumine the dim corners of the girl's brain. She suddenly recalled another story of the inestimable Bainbridge's, told in connection with the rivalry of The Daily Beacon and The Planet.
"An eminent statesman's servant told the secret of his master's intended resignation," she said to herself. "Why shouldn't a servant at the Borrowdailes'——"
She did not finish out the thought at the moment; the vista it opened was too wide to be taken in at a glance. But after driving for an hour round and round Battersea Park, the patient cabman suddenly received an order to go quickly to Clarkson's, the wigmaker. At the shop, the hansom was discharged, and it was a very different-looking fare which another cab picked up at the same door somewhat later.
About half -past five, a plump old country-woman, with a brown tissue veil over her ruddy, wrinkled face, waddled into a green-grocer's not far from South Audley Street. She bade the young man in the shop a wheezy "Good day," and asked if she might be bold enough to inquire whether Lady Henry Borrowdaile's housekeeper were a customer. Yes, the youth admitted with pride, for anything in their line which was not sent up from the Marquis of Wastwater's, in the country, they had the honour of serving her Ladyship.
"Ah! I thought how it would be, your place being so near, and the nicest round about," said the old country-woman. "The truth is, I have to go to the house on a disagreeable errand. I volunteered to do it for a friend, and I've forgotten the number. I've to break some bad news to one of the housemaids."
"Not Miss Jessie Adams, I hope!" protested the young man, blushing up to the roots of his light hair.
"Yes, it is poor Jessie," said the old woman. "You know her?"
"We've been walking out together the last six months. I suppose her father's took bad again, or—or worse?"
"He's living—or was when I left; but——" and the old-fashioned bonnet with the veil shook ominously. "Well, I must go and do my duty. I hope she'll be able to get home for a week or so."
A few minutes later, Joan, delighted with her disguise and the detective skill she was developing, rang the servants' bell at the Borrowdailes'. She had learned what she had hoped to learn, the name of one of the maids, and she had also learned something more—the fact that Jessie Adams had a father whose state of health would afford an excuse for absence; and the existence of a lover, who would probably urge immediate marriage if there were enough money on either side.
The old countrywoman with the brown veil was voluble to the footman who opened the door. She explained that she had news from home for Jessie Adams, and was shown into a servants' sitting-room, where presently appeared a fresh-looking girl with languishing eyes, and a full, weak mouth.
"Oh, I thought perhaps it would be Aunt Emmy!" exclaimed the young person in cap and apron.
"No, I'm not Aunt Emmy, but you may take it I'm a friend," replied the old woman. "Don't be frightened. Your father ain't so very bad, but your folks would be glad to have you at home if you could manage it. And, look here, my gell, here's good news for you. You may make a tidy bit of money by going, if you can get off at once—this very night. How much must you and that nice young man of yours put by before you can marry?"
"We can't marry till he sets up in business for himself, and it will take a hundred pounds at least," said the girl. "We've each got about ten pounds saved towards it. But what's ten pounds?"
"Added on to ninety it makes a hundred, and you can earn that by lending your place here for one fortnight to a niece of mine, who wants to be a journalist and write what the doings inside a smart house are like. She'd name no names, so you'd never be given away. All you'd have to do would be to tell the housekeeper your father was took bad, and would she let you go if you'd bring your cousin Maria in your stead—a clever, experienced girl, with the best references from Lord Northmuir's house?"
"My goodness me, you take my breath away!" gasped Jessie Adams. "How do I know but your niece is a thief who'd steal her Ladyship's jewels?"
"You don't know, except that I say she isn't. But, anyhow, what does it matter to you? You don't need to come back or ever be in service again. Here's the ninety pounds in gold, my dear. You can bite every piece, if you wish; and you've but to do what I say to get them before you walk out of this house. You settle matters with the house-keeper, and I'll have my niece call on her within the hour."
The girl with the languishing eyes and the weak mouth had her price, like many of her betters, and it happened to be exactly ninety pounds. Joan had brought a hundred, and considered that she had made a bargain. Jessie consented to speak to the housekeeper, and the countrywoman departed. By this time it was dusk. She took a four-wheeler and drove to the gates of the Park. In a dark and lonely spot the outer disguise was whisked off, and the paint wiped from her face. Underneath her shawl she wore a neat black dress, suitable for a housemaid in search of a situation. This, too, Joan had thoughtfully obtained at Clarkson's, whence her pale blue cloth had been despatched by messenger to Woburn Place. The bonnet was quickly shaped into a hat; the stuffing which had plumped out the thin, girlish form was wrapped in the shawl which had concealed it, and hidden under a bush. Joan's own hair was combed primly back from her forehead, and strained so tightly at the sides as to change the expression of her face completely. "Cousin Maria" was as different from Miss Joan Carthew as a mouse is from a bird of Paradise.
Cream could not be more velvety soft than Joan's voice, the eye of a dove more mild than hers, as she conversed with Lady Henry Borrowdaile's housekeeper. And she was armed with a magnificent reference. There had been a Maria Jordan at Lord Northmuir's, as housemaid, in Joan's day there, but the real Maria had gone to America, and it was safe and simple to write in praise of this young person's character and accomplishments, signing the document Mercy Milton. At worst, even if Lady Henry's housekeeper sent the reference to Lord Northmuir's housekeeper, the imposition could not be proved. Maria might have had time to come back from America, and Miss Milton, now departed, might have consented to please the housemaid by giving her a written recommendation.
But Joan's manner as an applicant to fill her cousin's place was so respectful and respectable, and the need to decide was so pressing, that Lady Henry's housekeeper resolved to accept Jordan, so to speak, on face value. That same night Jessie Adams went home (or somewhere else), and her cousin stepped into the vacant niche.
Meanwhile, Joan had, on the plea of picking up her luggage, driven to one or two cheap shops in the Tottenham Court Road, and provided herself with a tin box and a suitable outfit for a superior housemaid. She was thankful to find that she would have a room to herself, and delighted to discover that Jessie Adams and Mathilde, Lady Henry's own maid, had been on terms of friendship. Their rooms adjoined; Jessie had been teaching Mathilde English in odd moments, and Mathilde had often obligingly carried messages to the enamoured greengrocer.
Joan lost not a moment in winning her way into Mathilde's good graces, wasting the less time because she had already made preparations with a view to such an end. She had bought a large box of delicious sweets, which she pretended her own "young man" had given her, and this she placed at the French girl's disposal. It happened that Lady Henry was dining out and going to the theatre afterwards that night, and Mathilde, being free, visited Maria easily in her room, where she sat on the bed, swinging her well-shod feet and eating cream chocolates. Maria, in the course of conversation, chanced to mention that her "young man" was the partner of a French hairdresser in Knightsbridge; that the two were intimate friends; that the hairdresser was young, singularly handsome, well-to-do, and looking out for a Parisienne as a wife. This Admirable Crichton was in France at present, on business, Maria added, but he would return in the course of a fortnight, when Maria's "young man" should effect an introduction, as she was sure that Monsieur Jacques would fall in love at first sight with Mathilde.
Mathilde pretended indifference, but she thought Maria the nicest girl she had met in England, far more chic than Jessie; and when she heard that her new friend longed to be a lady's maid, she offered to coach her in the art. Maria was gushingly grateful, for though she had (she said) already acted as maid to one or two ladies, they had not been "swells" like Lady Henry, and lessons from Mathilde would be of inestimable value.
"I suppose," she went on coaxingly, "that if I showed you I could do hair nicely, and understood what was wanted of a lady's maid, you wouldn't be took ill, and give me a chance to try my hand on Lady Henry? Practice on her Ladyship would be worth a lot of lessons, wouldn't it? My goodness! I'd give all my savings for such a chance in a house like this! Think of the help it would be to me afterwards to say I'd been understudy, as you might call it, to a real expert like Mathilde, Lady Henry Borrowdaile's own maid, and given great satisfaction in the part! It might mean a good place for me. I ain't jokin', mademoiselle. I've got twenty-five sovereigns saved up, and if you'll have neuralgia so bad you can't lift your head from the pillow for three or four days, those twenty-five sovereigns are yours."
"Mais, for me to have ze neuralgia, it do not make that milady take you for my place," said the laughing Mathilde.
"No, but leave that to me. You shall have the money just the same."
"All right," said Mathilde, giggling, scarce believing that her friend was in earnest. "I have ze neuralgia demain—to-morrow."
Joan sprang up and went to the new tin box. She bent over it for a moment, with her back to Mathilde; then she turned, with a stocking in her hand—a stocking fat in the foot, and tied round the ankle with a bit of ribbon. "Count what's there," she exclaimed, emptying the stocking in Mathilde's lap.
There were gold and silver, and even a little copper. Altogether, the sum amounted to that which Maria had named, and a few shillings over.
Mathilde was dazzled. What with this bird in hand, and another in the bush (the eligible hairdresser), she was ready to do almost anything for Maria. Later that night, in undressing Lady Henry, she complained of suffering such agony that she feared for the morrow. Luckily, should she be incapacitated for a short time, there was a girl now in the house (a young person in the place of the first housemaid, absent on account of trouble in the family) who had been lady's maid and knew her business. Lady Henry was too sleepy to care what might happen to-morrow—indeed, scarcely listened to Mathilde's murmurings; but when to-morrow was to-day, and a sweet-faced, sweet-voiced girl announced that Mathilde could not leave her bed, the spoiled beauty remembered last night's conversation. After some grumbling, she consented to try what Jordan could do; and while the second housemaid pouted over Maria's work, Maria was busy ingratiating herself with Lady Henry—ingratiating herself so thoroughly that Mathilde would have trembled jealously for the future could she have seen or heard.
Joan was one of those rare creatures, born for success, who set their teeth in unbreakable resolve to do whatever they must do, well. Being a lady herself, with all a lady's fastidious tastes, she knew how a lady liked to be waited upon. She was not attracted by Lady Henry, whom men called an angel, and women "a cat," but she was as attentive as if her whole happiness depended on her mistress's approbation. Mathilde was efficient, but frivolous and flighty, sometimes inclined to sulkiness; and Lady Henry, superbly indifferent to the sufferings of servants, decided that she would not be sorry if Mathilde were ill a long time.
Two or three days went by; Joan kept the Parisienne supplied with bonbons and French novels, and carried up all her meals, arranged almost as daintily as if they had been for her Ladyship. Mathilde was happy, and Joan was—waiting. But her patience was not to be tried for long.
On the third day, she was told that her mistress was dining at home, alone with Lord Henry. This was such an unusual event that Joan was sure it meant something, especially when Lady Henry demanded one of her prettiest frocks. A footman, inclined to be Maria's slave, was smiled upon, intercepted during dinner, and questioned. "They're behaving like turtle-doves," said he.
Joan had expected this. "That little cat has guessed or discovered that everything is settled, and she means to get the truth out of him this evening, so that somehow she can give the news to The Daily Beacon to-night, in time to go to press for to-morrow," the girl reflected.
She was excited, but the great moment had come, and she kept herself rigidly under control, for everything depended upon calmness and fertility in resource. "They will have their coffee in Lady Henry's boudoir," Joan reflected, "and that is when she will get to work."
She thought thus on her way upstairs, carrying a dress of Lady Henry's, from which she had been brushing the marks of a muddy carriage-wheel. She laid it on a chair, and saw on another a milliner's box. Her mistress had not mentioned that she was expecting anything, and Joan's curiosity was aroused. She untied the fastenings, lifted a layer of tissue paper, and saw a neat, dark green dress, tailor-made, with a toque made of the same material and a little velvet. There was also a long, plain coat of the same cloth, with gold buttons, and on the breast pocket was embroidered an odd design in gold thread.
Joan suddenly became thoughtful. This dress was as unlike as possible to the butterfly style which Lady Henry affected, and all who knew her knew that she detested dark colours. Yet this costume was distinctly sombre and severe; and the name of the milliner was unfamiliar to Joan.
"It's like a disguise," the girl said to herself, "and I'll bet anything that's what it's for. She went to a strange milliner; she made a point of the things being ready to-night; she chose a costume which would absolutely change her appearance, if worn with a thick veil. And then that bit of embroidery on the pocket! Why, it's a miniature copy of the design they print under the title of The Beacon. It is a beacon, flaming! She means to slip out of the house when she's got the secret safe, and somebody at the office of the paper will have been ordered to take a veiled lady with such a dress as this up to Portheous' private office, without her speaking a word. Well—a lady will go there, but I hope it won't be Lady Henry."
Without stopping for an instant's further reflection, Joan caught up the box and flew with it to her own room, where she pushed it under the bed. She then watched her chance, and when no one was in sight, darted into the boudoir, where she squeezed herself behind a screen close to the door. She might have found a more convenient hiding-place, but this, though uncomfortable, gave her an advantage. If the two persons she expected to enter the room elected to sit near the fireplace, as they probably would, Joan might be able to steal noiselessly away without being seen or heard.
She had not had much time to spare, for ten minutes after she had plastered herself against the wall, Lord and Lady Henry came in. They went to the sofa in front of the fire and chatted of commonplaces until after the coffee and Orange Marnier had been brought. Then Lady Henry took out her jewelled cigarette-case, gave a cigarette to her husband and took one herself. To light hers from his, she perched on Lord Henry's knee, remaining in that position to play with his hair, her white fingers flashing with rings. She cooed to her husband prettily, saying how nice it was to be with him alone, and how it grieved her to see him weary and worried.
"Is the old Russian Bear going to grab poor Constantinople, darling?" she purred. "You know, precious, talking to me is as safe as talking to yourself."
"I know, my pet. Thank Heaven! we shall be spared war, for Russia has suddenly and unexpectedly backed down. Constantinople is safe; the ultimatum we issued settled matters completely."
"Oh, then, the ultimatum was sent?"
"Yes. If Russia had held firm, nothing could have prevented war. But for obvious diplomatic reasons, the papers must not be able to state officially that any negotiations of the sort have ever taken place. There has been a rumour, but that will die out."
"Ah, well, I'm glad there won't be war; but as you're not a soldier, and can't be killed, it wouldn't have broken my heart. Kiss me and let's talk of something amusing. Your poor pet gets a headache if she has to think of affairs of State too long."
Joan did not wait for the end of the last sentence. She began with the utmost caution to move the farther end of the screen forward, until she could reach the door-handle. With infinite patience she turned the knob at the rate of an inch a minute, until it was possible to open the door. Then she pulled it slowly, very slowly, towards her. At last she could slip into the corridor, where she had an instant of sickening fear lest she should be detected by a passing servant. Luck was with her, however; but instead of seizing the chance to run upstairs unseen, she stopped, shut the door as softly as it had been opened, and then knocked. Lady Henry's voice, with, a ring of relief, called "Come in!" Joan showed herself on the threshold, and announced that a person from Frasquet's, of George Street, had called to say that by mistake a costume ordered by Lady Henry had been sent to the wrong address, but that search would at once be made, and the box brought to South Audley Street as soon as found.
Lady Henry sprang up with an exclamation of anger, and called down the vengeance of the gods upon the house of Frasquet.
"Might I suggest, your Ladyship, that I go with the messenger, and make sure of bringing back the box, if the dress is a valuable one?" asked Joan.
Lady Henry caught at this idea. Joan was bidden to run away and not to come back till she had the box. "I will give you a sovereign if you bring it home before midnight," she added.
Joan walked calmly out with the box from Frasquet's, took a cab, and drove to Woburn Place, where, in her own room, she dressed herself as Lady Henry had intended to be dressed. The frock and coat fitted sufficiently well, for Jordan and her mistress were somewhat of the same figure. An embroidered black veil, with one of chiffon underneath, completely hid her features; and, heavily perfumed with Lady Henry's favourite scent, at precisely a quarter to eleven she presented herself at the office of The Daily Beacon. A gesture of a gloved hand towards the flaming gold on the coat was as if a password had been spoken. She was conducted to a private office on the first floor, and there received by a bearded, red-faced man, who sprang up on her entrance.
"Well—well?" he demanded.
The veiled and scented lady put her finger to her lips.
"'Sh!" she breathed. Then, disguising her voice by whispering, she went on. "Russia intends to seize Constantinople. It's only a question of days, and we shall declare war. There! That's all, in a nutshell. I must run away at once."
"A thousand thanks! You're a brick!" Mr. Portheous pressed the gloved hand and left a cheque in it. "We shall go to press with this immediately."
Joan glanced at the cheque, saw it was for seven hundred pounds, and despised Lady Henry for cheapening the market. Her waiting cab drove her a few streets farther on, to the office of The Planet. A card with the name of Miss Carthew, and "Important private business" scrawled upon it, was the "Open, sesame!" to Sir Edmund Foster's door.
"Have you your cheque-book handy?" she nonchalantly asked.
"Quid pro quo." Joan rushed into her whole story, which she told from beginning to end, proving its truth by showing Mr. Portheous' cheque made out to Mrs. Anne Randall. "Lady Henry, no doubt, has an account somewhere under that name. She's too sharp to use her own," added the girl. "Do you believe me now?"
"Yes. You're wonderful. I shall risk printing the news exactly as you have given it to me."
"You won't regret your trust. But I don't want your cheque to-night. I'll take it to-morrow, when I can say: 'I told you so.'"
"Would you still like to come on our staff—at a salary of ten pounds a week?"
"No, thank you, Sir Edmund. I've brought off my big coup, and anything more in the newspaper line would be, I fear, an anti-climax. Besides, I want to play with my fifteen hundred pounds."
"What shall you do now?"
"Go back to the house which has the honour of being my home, change my clothes, hurry breathlessly to South Audley Street, and inform Lady Henry that her costume can't be found. She will then, in desperation, decide to send a note to The Daily Beacon, which, my prophetic soul whispers, she will order me to take."
"Shall you go?"
"Out of the house, yes—never, never to return, for my work there is done. But not to the office of The Beacon. Lady Henry's box shall be sent to her by parcel post to-morrow morning, and Mrs. Randall's cheque will be in the coat pocket. That will surprise her a little, but it won't matter to me; for, after having called here for my cheque, I think I'll take the two o'clock train for the Continent. I shall have plenty of money to enjoy myself, and I feel I need a change of air."
"You are wonderful!" repeated Sir Edmund Foster.