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THE DEATH THAT LURKS UNSEEN.

By J. S. Fletcher.

Illustrated by Hounsom Byles.

 

Contents

CHAPTER I.
Mr. Lazardoff, Traveller.

ABOUT seven o'clock in the evening of the 2lst of October, 188-, I landed at Hull from Rotterdam with a few shillings in my pocket and no apparent prospect of replacing them when they should have been spent on bare necessaries. A week earlier I had sailed from the same port in order to make personal application to a commercial house in Antwerp, with whose manager I bad been in communication for some little time previously. I had found it difficult to obtain suitable employment in my own country, and, as I possessed a good knowledge of French and German, it seemed to me that I might try my luck in some of the commercial centres of the Continent. I heard of a house which was in want of an English correspondence clerk, and after some negotiations by letter I determined on running over to Antwerp in order to settle matters definitely. I bad an idea that if I presented myself in person I should have more chance of success than by writing a score of letters. Here, however, I was mistaken, for, after waiting two days for their decision, I was informed that the proprietors had decided upon engaging the services of another applicant.

It would have been folly to have remained in a strange country with no expectations and with such a small amount of money as was then in my possession, and I accordingly resolved to return to England at once. I bitterly regretted the loss of the two or three pounds which had been expended on my journey, and was only comforted by remembering that I had spent them in an honest endeavour to find work, and that I might have been successful after all, in which case the money would have been well laid out. But this thought, though all very well in theory, was anything but satisfactory when it came to be reduced to practice, for the fact remained that there I was in Hull with just five shillings and sixpence in my pocket, and no immediate prospect of earning more when that insignificant sum was spent. I walked away from the wharf in no pleasant or enviable mood, and I am afraid I almost encouraged myself in dark and gloomy thoughts. I remember wondering, with a sort of grim, cynical humour, how it was that a young man of two-and-twenty, strong, healthy, fairly well educated, and with three years' knowledge of commercial life, should find it so very bard to get on. I had then been six months out of work, owing to the failure of a company under which I bad held a clerkship, and I had exhausted all my small savings in endeavouring to find a new post. As I turned my last few shillings over I wondered if any stroke of good fortune would enable me soon to replace them with others. It would have to be soon, for I had absolutely no resources. I had sold or pledged most of my small belongings in order to raise my expenses from Leeds to Antwerp, and if I meant to return to Leeds that night from Hull a third-class ticket would cost almost the whole of my remaining capital. Yet what was there to do in Leeds if I returned? Why not remain in Hull over night, and have a look round in the morning? There were shipping offices there, mercantile offices, merchants' houses; surely I could find some employment amongst so many opportunities. It was worth attempting, at any rate; and I accordingly turned away from the station and retraced my steps towards the docks, intending to find some third-rate hotel where I could obtain cheap quarters for the night.

I was not very well acquainted with Hull at that time, but I remember passing along Whitefriargate and turning off to the right by a narrow street which led towards the great church in the market-place. It was very quiet there, for most of the houses seemed to be business establishments, and were closed for the night, and there were few people about. I walked along until I came to the back of the church. The wide piece of ground behind the west door was tenantless, but as I crossed it I saw the figure of a man hither and thither with quick, restless movements, as if he were a hound that seeks eagerly for the recovery of a lost trail. As I drew nearer to him I perceived that he ran with his head to the ground, for all the world like a dog that sniffs the wind, and I heard him muttering and talking to himself. He suddenly caught the sound of my footstep, and on the instant he stood erect, with his head slightly inclined to his shoulder, as though to listen. There was a lamp some thirty yards away, and as I crossed its thin stream of light he saw me. With a bound he was on me and had seized me by the lapels of my coat before I could put up an arm to keep him off. I uttered an angry exclamation and would have shaken him off, but he stopped me with a gesture.

"No—no-no!" he cried. "I would not hurt you—I am not a robber. But tell me you have found it—you have found it, eh? I will give you—oh, any reward that you ask—only say you have found it!"

I had taken a good look at this strange creature as he spoke. The faint lamplight showed me a tall, gaunt man of middle age, with fierce eyes gleaming from under an old hat, and a long, straggling beard of dead black hue flowing about his chest. I took him at first glance for a madman, and shook off his arm.

"Let go!" I said roughly. "I haven't found anything."

"You swear it?" he cried. "But I lost it hereabouts—it must have been hereabouts!"

And he began to hunt again, circling round me like a terrier that smells a rat. I felt my curiosity rising.

"Look here," I said, "what is it you've lost? If you've really lost something, and it's so very valuable, I'll help you to find it. But I can't do that unless you tell me what it is, you know."

The man came back to my side, evidently trying to master his emotion. He lifted his shabby hat and I saw great beads of sweat lying thick on his forehead. He pulled out a handkerchief—a great red cotton affair—and rubbed it over his face.

"Pouf!" he said, "I am losing my head—I am almost beside myself. I have lost a small parcel, a package, about as big as that"—he indicated the size with his hands—"and it is of the greatest importance that I should recover it. I had it safe over yonder"—he pointed to the east corner of the church, where it abuts on the market-place—"but when I came to the mouth of the street there"—he indicated the street which I had just left—"it was gone. It must be somewhere between those two points. I think I lost my head a little when I found it had disappeared," he said, smiting his forehead. "I have been running up and down—I must look systematically."

"Well, I'll help you," I said, feeling somewhat curious. "Just a little package, you say, about that size?"

"Just a little box of that size, tied up in brown paper. Find it, my dear sir, and I'll—ah, you shall be rewarded, I promise you."

"Show me what line you took in coming across here," I said, "and then I will go one way while you follow the other. If you lost it in this square, it can't be far out of your line of march."

"I came straight from yonder corner," he said, pointing towards the market-place, "round the church there, and straight across here towards that lamp-post. I had it at the corner; when I reached the lamp-post it was gone,"

I bade him go back to the corner and examine the ground carefully, while I returned towards the lamp-post. The light was dim and it was difficult to see anything on the flagged pavement, and ere I had gone many steps I had to have recourse to a box of matches which I happened to have in my pocket. Oddly enough, as I struck the first match and stared at the little belt of light which it made, my eyes fell on the man's package, lying close to my feet. I laughed at the vagaries of luck, and then, without troubling to pick it up, turned and gave a shrill whistle. The strange man was not thirty yards away, and on the instant he came running to my side. I struck another match.

"Is that your box?" I said, indicating the parcel at my feet. Now, if I had been struck by the man's behaviour and demeanour previously, I was simply astonished by his conduct when his eyes fell on the insignificant-looking little package revealed by the light of the match. He clutched at it as a hungry dog snatches at a bone, and hugged it to his breast with such a sigh of relief as I had never heard. Then, just as the match flickered and went out, I heard him gasp, and he grasped my arm and leaned his weight upon me. For a moment I thought he was going to faint, but he presently revived and stood erect again, though he still panted for breath. When he next spoke I scarcely recognised his voice; its tones had changed from nervous fear to extreme politeness.

"I am more obliged to you, sir, than I can well say," he said. "Pardon this momentary indisposition. I have passed through a very trying experience, and I fear my nerves are not what they once were. I shall be better presently. Do you mind giving me your arm across the square towards yonder lamp?"

Somewhat dubious, but undoubtedly inquisitive, I gave him the help he asked for, and walked slowly to the street corner which I had left some ten minutes previously. There my companion paused, and in the full light of the lamp looked me carefully over, while I as carefully scrutinised him. I then found him to be a man of forty or forty-five years of age, tall, swarthy, black-bearded, keen of eye, and dressed in a large flowing cape of dark cloth, which completely enveloped him. Not an Englishman, I decided; and yet his English was perfect, and had no suspicion of a foreign accent in it.

"I spoke of reward just now," he said, when he had completed his inspection of me; "but, really, I scarcely know in what form to offer it to you. Of course, I couldn't see what you were in the dim light over there."

"Oh, never mind," said I, laughing. I couldn't help thinking that he was trying to get out of his promise. "That doesn't matter at all. Glad you've found your lost property. Good night."

I was moving away, but he laid a band on my arm.

"Stop," he said, "you don't go like that. If you had any idea of what a service you have done me—will you come and share my supper?" he said, suddenly interrupting himself.

I reflected for a moment. Surely, I thought, there could be no harm in accepting the man's invitation. It would save my own pocket.

"Thank you," I said. "I shall be very pleased to do so."

"That's all right," he said. "Come—I am staying at the Station Hotel—you won't mind walking there with me?"

"Oh, not at all," said I.

"Perhaps we had better introduce ourselves," he said, as we turned into Whitefriargate. "I am Melchior Lazaroff."

There was something in the way he pronounced his name that made me think he must he some person of distinction. But the names were unknown to me; they were certainly strange to the commercial world, whatever they might be to the worlds of science, or art, or letters.

"My name is Stephen Merrill," I said.

"Well, Mr. Merrill, you have done me a great service. I perceive that you do not know me by name. You will know more of the name in a week or two. I have just returned to Europe from one of the most important explorations of Central Australia that has ever been attempted."

"I am afraid I am very ignorant," I answered. "But I have really been too much engaged in my own affairs lately to read the newspapers—except the advertisement columns," I added, with a grim laugh.

He gave me a keen look.

"Oh!" he said. "Well you shall tell me all about that over our supper. Excuse me—I mean quite well by you—are you down on your luck, as you English say? "

"Pretty well so," I replied.

Mr. Lazaroff rubbed his hands.

"I'm glad chance threw you in my way," he said. "You've done me a greater service than you imagine, and I hope I shall be able to do something for you. But here we are at the hotel; I shall take you up to my room at once, and we will have a wash while supper is being served."

I perceived that the servants of the hotel knew Mr. Lazaroff, and had much respect for him. He divested himself of his sweeping cloak and shabby hat in the hall, and repealed a well-knit figure clad in a much-worn grey suit. If you had met him in the street, and judged him by his clothes, you would have said that he was either very poor or very rich. A poor man would have worn such clothes from necessity, a rich man might wear them from choice or whim, secure in his own position. I gathered that my host was a rich man; the bowing and subservient satellites who waited upon us at the hotel would not have paid so much attention to a poor one. Nor would a poor man have been able to afford such a meal as we presently sat down to. There were dishes of which I had never heard, and wines of which I had often heard but never tasted. I had fared somewhat poorly on board the Rotterdam steamer, and it suddenly dawned upon me, as I sat down to supper with Mr. Lazaroff, that I was ravenously hungry. I eyed the good fare with favour and felt thankful that I had been able to do my host a service.

We supped in a small, private room, and during the meal our conversation was chiefly of Mr. Lazaroff's travels. He appeared to have travelled in all quarters of the globe, and had amassed much out-of-the-way knowledge which to me was curious and interesting. A more table-companion I had never met, and I was genuinely sorry when the meal came to an end. We turned to the fire, and my host offered me a cigar which proved to be of an exceptionally fine brand. For a few minutes there was silence; then Mr. Lazaroff turned to me and with a peculiar smile said—

"I daresay you're curious to know why I made so much to do over the loss of my little box to-night?"

"I am, rather," I answered.

"You shall see the box," he said, and produced the brown paper package from the bosom of his coat. He unfolded two wrappings of paper and and exposed to view a third wrapping of waterproof cloth. When this was undone, there was an inner wrapping of silk, and when that fell away I saw a small box fashioned out of some material with which I was not acquainted. In size it resembled a fairly large cigar case; as regards appearance, it was one of the most elegant things I have ever set eyes on. Mr. Lazaroff did not hand it to me for closer inspection: he held it towards me and watched me narrowly while I gazed at it.

"That's very beautiful," I said. "I don't wonder you were concerned at thinking you had lost it. What's the material?"

"Porphyry. A beautiful piece of work, is it not? But it is not the little box itself, my dear sir, which is of such value; it is its contents. But even they are only valuable for me. However," he replaced the porphyry box in its various wrappings—you shall know more of this in time, I trust. Let us talk of yourself. Fill the glass. Now—tell me about your bad luck."

There was something winning, and at the same time commanding, about this man, and I soon found myself telling him freely of my recent doings, and particularly of the non-success which had attended my journey to Antwerp. When I had finished, he asked me several questions about my age, education, family, and so on, and the sat thinking silently for some moments. At last he looked up, giving me a sharp, straightforward glance.

"Well, Mr. Merrill," he said, "you have been of great service to me to-night, and I should like to return your good offices by serving you myself, so far as I can. I propose to remain in England—in London—for two or three months, in order to read a paper before the Royal Geographical Society. I want a secretary. Will you accept the post? You shall live with me, and your salary shall be twenty pounds a month, What do you say?"

"I say yes, most certainly, sir," I replied. "Your offer is too good to be declined. I am much obliged to you—and I hope I shall be able to do all that you wish."

"Your duties will not be heavy," he answered. "Well, now—when can you come to me. I go to London to-morrow morning—can you join me there on the following day?

"Ye-es," I said, "I think so. The only difficulty is—I have no money."

"Oh!" he said. "Never mind that. Allow me to hand you your first month's salary in advance." He took out a note-case and gave me two ten-pound notes—"There—now I suppose it will be necessary for you to return to Leeds before going up to town?"

"Yes," I said. "There are things there which I must get."

He took up a Bradshaw and turned over its pages. Then he looked at his watch.

"It is half-past nine o'clock," he said. "There is a mail train at midnight—will you travel by that, or remain, here overnight as my guest?"

Eventually I decided to travel by the mail. I had a friend in Leeds who would not object to being knocked up in the early hours of the morning, and I should have a longer day in which to transact my business. Mr. Lazaroff nodded assent.

"We have two and a half hours before us, then," said he. "Let me make you comfortable for that time. Take another cigar and refill your glass. there—now supposing I tell you something about my recent travels?"

The next two hours passed away very pleasantly. Mr. Lazaroff's conversation was alike brilliant and interesting. At a quarter to twelve he accompanied me to the train, having previously given me his address in London. By his direction, one of the hotel servants brought me a travelling-rug; he himself pressed upon me a handful of cigars and a flask of whisky. We shook hands cordially, and the train carried me away. During the whole of the journey I had but two thoughts—one, of the strange chance which had thrown this piece of good fortune in my way; the other, of the contents of the little box which Mr. Lazaroff valued so highly.

 

 

CHAPTER II.
The Porphry Box and Its Contents.

I used part of the money which Mr. Lazaroff had advanced me in fitting myself out with clothes and linen, most of my old wardrobe having been sacrificed in the effort to keep body and soul together. I was not sure of the style in which my now employer would live in town (though his address, Mount Street, Berkeley Square, seemed to suggest aristocratic surroundings), but I reflected that the private secretary of a noted explorer must be at least respectable in appearance. I therefore left Leeds on the appointed day in possession of a good outfit, packed in a brand new portmanteau; and I could not help contrasting my condition, as I tucked myself comfortably up in Mr. Lazaroff's travelling-rug, with my almost penniless state barely forty hours previously. It seemed to me that I had really fallen on my feet, after all, and that the world was not quite so black as I had felt inclined to paint it.

It was towards the end of a grey afternoon in October that I reached London and drove to Mr. Lazaroff's house. I had only visited the Metropolis once before, and I was somewhat confused by the noise and bustle of its crowded streets. I sat gazing at the continually moving procession of men and vehicles until my cab turned into a quieter thoroughfare and pulled up before a house the exterior of which suggested a sort of aristocratic solemnity. It was certainly not a large house, viewed from the street, for its frontage was narrow, though it rose to the height of three or four storeys. While I stood looking at it the door opened and a boy in livery appeared on the threshold. Dim as the light was, I perceived that he was a negro, a full-blooded African, and deformed. He came out, addressed me by name very respectfully, and asked me to enter. From the hall I watched him pay the cabman, seize upon my portmanteau, and return to the house. As he closed the door and turned to me I noticed that he was undeniably ugly, and that his eyes were of an extraordinary keenness.

"Will you follow me to your room, sir?" he said. "Mr. Lazaroff is out at present, but he will return within the next hour."

I followed the negro up a softly carpeted staircase and into an exceedingly comfortable bedroom. A bright fire burnt in the grate, an easy chair was drawn up to the hearth-rug, and on a table at its side lay several newspapers and a book or two. The appointments of the room were handsome, and I felt that my good fortune was indeed following me.

The negro unstrapped my portmanteau and then left me to myself, but within five minutes he reappeared with a tea-tray, which he placed on the table near the fire. Then, telling me that he would inform me of Mr. Lazaroff's return if he should come in before I left my room, he withdrew once more. I poured out a cup of tea and sipped it slowly before changing my clothes and getting rid of the dust of the journey. The tea was of an exceptionally fine flavour, which seemed to be still further improved by one of the slices of lemon which accompanied it. Clearly, I thought, I shall have pleasant times with Mr. Lazaroff.

As I went downstairs, half an hour later, I met the negro on his way to inform me that Mr. Lazaroff had arrived. He preceded me to a room on the ground floor, and, throwing open the door, admitted me to the presence of my employer. A hasty survey of the apartment showed me that it was handsomely furnished, well stocked with books and pictures, and evidently the room of a man of taste and culture. My chief interest, however, was centred in Mr. Lazaroff. He was attired in an irreproachable frock-coat and dark trousers, and at his elbow stood a glossy silk hat. He rose from the desk at which he had been writing and shook hands with me. His greeting was hearty and cordial, and I felt at home on the instant.

"I was sorry to be out when you arrived," he said. "But, you see, I only arrived myself yesterday, and there has been much to do. I hope that Nero has attended to you properly?"

I replied that I had received every attention, and then, with a glance round the orderly apartment, ventured to remark that he seemed to have settled down very quickly.

"Ah, yes," he answered; "but of course this is not my own house, you understand. It has been lent to me during my stay in England by my dear friend Zoubkorski, whose name, as a scientist, is doubtless well-known to you. He himself is on a lecturing tour in the States—at least, he is on his way there. I regret that we did not meet before he left, but I dare say we shall see each other before the year is out. He and I are the dearest friends—all that's mine is his, and all that's his is mine. Very nice, isn't it?"

It was of no moment to me, so far as I could see, whether the home belonged to Mr. Lazaroff or to his friend Zoubkorski; it was exceedingly comfortable and well appointed. After the roar and bustle of the streets through which I had passed, it seemed very quiet, too. I could not help noticing that every room was thickly carpeted, and that the doors opened and shut with absolute noiselessness. I concluded that Mr. Zoubkorski was one of those men who love to pursue their studies in an atmosphere of perfect peace.

Mr. Lazaroff and myself dined that evening in a richly furnished dining-room. The dinner, served by the negro boy Nero and a smart waiting-maid, was of a quality to which I was not acccustomed, and I began to flatter myself that if I were to live in such style I should ere long become an epicure. Over our coffee and cigarettes Mr. Lazaroff informed me that his friend Zoubkorski was a man of wealth, who devoted his life to scientific research, principally in the direction of chemistry.

"And, by the by," he said, "I'll show you his laboratory—he has not only left me his keys, but made me free of his apparatus. Would you like to see it?"

"Yes, indeed," I answered, and followed him from the room towards the rear of the house. We presently came to a door hidden by a thick curtain, and when this was unlocked we found, another door behind it which seemed to me to be made of iron or steel, though it was covered with green baize.

"Zoubkorski insists on quiet, you perceive," said Mr. Lazaroff, laughingly, as he led the way into the laboratory, where a faint light burned. "Yes, that door is of solid steel, and see, there are solid steel shutters to all the windows. Once in here, you can't hear a sound of the outside world."

The laboratory was, I imagine, pretty much like all other laboratories. I knew little of science, and to me the apparatus so dear to the heart of Mr. Zoubkorski was simply a collection of jars, instruments, crucibles, retorts, curious-looking pipkins and pots and matters which I did not understand. I think Lazaroff saw that I was not particularly edified, for he soon led me back to the room in which he had first received me. There we established ourselves on either side oF a bright fire, in essy chairs, and Lazaroff produced his cigar-case. The negro Nero appeared presently with a decanter of whisky, a syphon of soda, and glasses. Lazaroff looked at me and smiled.

"On this our first night together," he said, "we may permit ourselves a little indulgence at an earlier hour than usual. Help yourself when you feel inclined. Now, I wanted to discuss two or three matters with you to-night, which I should like putting into shape to-morrow. Thanks; while you are on your legs you might give me some soda-and-whisky. There, now that we're comfortable I'll tell you of what I was thinking. I want you to comprehend the situation exactly. Here I am, Melchior Lazaroff, a Russian subject, just returned from an exploration of Central Australia such as no man ever made. I am known in my own country as an explorer, but what I have done before is as nothing to what I have just accomplished. I have discovered in Central Australia—mind you, in wilds which no European has ever penetrated—I have discovered—what do you think?"

I shook my head. He had bent towards me as he spoke, and at the last words laid his hand on my knee. He now rose, with a low, curious laugh, and walked across the room towards a safe which stood in one comer. Without uttering another word he unlocked this, drew out a drawer, and took from it a canvas bag. He came back to my side, and taking a newspaper from the table, laid it across my knee and shook out the contents of the bag upon it.

"There!" he said. "What are these things?"

I looked and saw a mass of what appeared to me to be dull bits of broken glass. An idea suddenly flashed across my mind. I looked from the things on my knee to Lazaroff's face, cynical and smiling.

"Diamonds?" I asked.

"Good boy!" he exclaimed, patting my shoulder. "Diamonds—and of the first water. Aye! there are no diamonds in the world like these, Merrill! Talk about your South African diamonds! Why—but stay, I'll show you something else."

He went back to the safe, and returned to me carrying a small package.

"Here's your old friend the porphyry bos," he said, smiling. "You perceive that it's still wrapped up very carefully." He began to divest it of its coverings. "There! Now, there's a secret in opening this box. You couldn't open it in a month. But—v'la!"

He pressed some corner of the porphyry box as he spoke, and on the instant the lid flew open.

I have often since that moment stared at the show of diamonds which you can see any day in Bond Street, but I never saw anything so glittering, so full of white fire, as the sight which dazzled me when the lid of the porphyry box sprang open. It was a dream of iridescent tight, indescribable, marvellous! I gasped. It seemed as if the shifting, changing, subtle light of the diamonds had taken my breath away. I think I closed my eyes; the next thing of which I was conscious was that diamonds and dull stones were both gone, and that Lazaroff was sitting opposite me again, puffing out wreaths of smoke from his cigar, and regarding me with lazy eyes.

"Those diamonds are a few that I have had polished," he said. "You perceive the importance of my discovery?"

"Yes," I answered. As a matter of fact, I did not realise it at all. I was simply stupefied.

"Now, this discovery," he said, "means more than yon would imagine. Why have I not taken the news of it to my own country first? For a simple reason, Merrill. This nation of yours is the first commercial nation in the world. It must be here in England that the discovery of diamonds in Australia must be first revealed. Now, the question is, how shall we reveal it? So far, Merrill, you are the only Englishman who knows my secret; and before any others know it there is much to be done. I wish, first of all, to be celebrated as the first explorer of Central Australia; next, to be known as the discoverer of diamonds there. I have already arranged to lecture to your Royal Geographical Society about my travels. I shall say nothing to them of the diamonds. Although I have come here, to London, first, the first person who must actually see my diamonds is the representative of the Czar in the country."

"The Russian Ambassador?"

"Exactly. I intend to present the polished gems which you have seen just now to his Excellency, as a gift foe his Imperial master, whom he is to meet shortly. Now the difficulty is to obtain an audience of his Excellency. Before I left Russia, four years ago, I was nobody. I had visited many countries, and explored some which Europeans do not usually visit; but I was not known, save to a few savants, who appreciated my work. Now that I have really achieved success, I intend to profit by it. What I propose is this: I must be what you call "boomed" in the London newspapers. To-morrow you shall devote yourself to concocting some little paragraphs—of course, with my assistance—which shall be sent round to the various newspaper offices. We will announce my arrival in London; we will hint at my wonderful discoveries in Central Australia; we will mention my forthcoming address to your Royal Geographical Society. I shall begin to be talked of; men of science will call upon me; I shall be invited out; I shall be what you call a lion, and eventually his Excellency will he obliged to recognise a fellow-countryman who has achieved something: To him—to him!—I shall reveal the secret of the diamonds. Then, my duty to Russia discharged, I shall place my discovery in the hands of your commercial world."

"I think I see what you mean," I said.

"That is well. To-morrow morning, then, we will begin our work, Now, for the rest of the evening, suppose we amuse ourselves by examining our friend Zoubkoreki's library. It is a matter of ten thousand regrets to me that Zoubkorski should have had this engagement. I long for a chat with him."

Next morning Lazaroff dictated to me several paragraphs bearing upon his exploration of Central Australia. The first, a general one, to be sent to every newspaper in London and to the principal agencies, ran as follows:—

"The celebrated Russian explorer, Melchior Lazaroff, who has spent the last three years in Central Australia, has arrived in London on his way to St. Petersburg, and is shortly to lecture before the Royal Geographical Society. Mr. Lazaroff, who had previously made important excursions in Northern Siberia, Equatorial Africa, and Western Australia, has during his last exploration made discoveries of a most remarkable nature, and there can be little doubt that his revelations before the learned Society just mentioned will prove to be not only interesting, but absolutely startling."

A second paragraph, forwarded only to a few leading financial newspapers, was to this effect:—

"Mr. Lazaroff, the celebrated Russian explorer, who has just returned from Central Australia, and who is to read a paper before the Royal Geographical Society at a recent date, is said to have made a discovery which will cause something like a panic amongst a certain section of City men. It is whispered that Mr. Lazaroff has not only discovered the REAL OPHIR, but that he has also found that its treasures are as tangible to-day as they were in the days of Solomon."

Mr. Lazaroff possessed a stylographic apparatus which enabled me to produce several copies of these paragraphs. By noon the next day I had despatched all of them to their destinations. After dinner that night we looked over the evening papers. One paragraph was duly inserted in each. At breakfast next morning we overhauled the great dailies: it was there, too, and in some of them there was a short editorial paragraph pointing out the probable advantages, scientific, commercial, and geographical, to be derived from a better acquaintance with Central Australia.

During the next few days Mr. Lazaroff was inundated with invitations. He was asked to breakfast with the Duke of This and the Marquis of That; to lunch with the Earl of Somewhere; and to dine with Lord Somewhere Else. Cards were left in shoals at his door. An enterprising editor called upon him with a most tempting offer; he received half a dozen letters from up-to-date publishers, suggesting that he should write an account of his travels. To all these blandishments Mr. Lazaroff was quite oblivious. He went nowhere; he accepted nothing in the way of invitations. Then people began to call upon him. In one afternoon came: the Secretary for the Colonies; Sir Titus Tetlow, the distinguished botanist; Lord Starfish, well known for his researches in metallurgy; Professor Flitcroft, the famous geologist, and Lady Troutbeck, the most renowned lion-hunter in London. To all these people Lazaroff turned a deaf ear. His whole time was spent in his friend Zoubkorski's laboratory, into which he did not allow even me to enter. He was engaged in experiments; nothing must disturb him.

But one morning he held up a letter and smiled at me across the breakfast-table. The Russian Ambassador proposed to visit the distinguished Russian traveller upon the morrow!

 

 

CHAPTER III.
Who Is Mr. Lazaroff?

The announcement of the Russian Ambassador's proposed visit appeared to afford Lazaroff the most lively satisfaction. He rubbed his hands gleefully and beamed upon me as I sat confronting him at the breakfast table. I could see from the gleam of his eye that he anticipated the best results from the coming interview.

"This is the desired end," he said; "or, to be more exact, it is the step which will lead to it. My diamonds will be accepted by the Czar—their fame will be noised abroad all over Europe, and we shall be able to float our company with éclat. You shall have a good post in the company, Merrill."

"Thank yon," I replied. "I was not aware, though, that yon thought of promoting a company."

"Certainly, my dear sir, we must form a company! I tell you those diamond fields of mine are the richest in the world. We must have capital to work them. We shall have to get concessions and what not. Oh, yes, a great company, certainly! And we must not forget that 'twas I, Lazaroff, who discovered this new Ophir—nay, it is probably the real Ophir of Solomon. Talk of your South African diamonds! Pooh! Wait until the Central Australians are put on the market."

It seemed to me that Lazaroff was unduly excited that morning. He talked incessantly of the Ambassador's visit and of the advantages to be gained by making a present of some of his diamonds to the Czar. While he talked he occupied himself in unpacking some of his chests and trunks, which were full of curiosities collected during his recent travels. Some of these he arranged in Zoubkorski's study, so that the Ambassador might inspect them. Lazaroff told me the history of each article as he unpacked it. His memory was certainly remarkable, and his observations full of keen perception and rare scientific learning.

The Russian Ambassador called upon Mr. Lazaroff about noon. He was attended by an attaché, but the visit was in all other respects quite devoid of any ostentation or show of dignity. The two callers were immediately shown into Lazaroff's study, and introductions took place all round. I had wished to withdraw on the arrival of the Ambassador, but Lazaroff insisted upon my remaining in the room. I was somewhat uneasy at the prospect of meeting so great a man; but the Ambassador turned out to be exceedingly pleasant and cordial in manner, and his first exchange of conversation with Mr. Lazaroff put me at my ease.

"So you have just returned from Central Australia, Mr. Lazaroff?" said his Excellency, when the introductions were over. Mr. Lazaroff bowed.

"I understand that you have made some most important discoveries," continued his Excellency, who spoke in very good English. "Something of the nature of a new Ophir, eh?"

"I have certainly made several discoveries of great importance, your Excellency. The ethnographic and geological results of my exploration are remarkably satisfactory. Your Excellency is, of course, aware that the extreme centre of Australia had never previously been penetrated?"

"So I understand."

"It is now three years since I left St. Petersburg en route for Melbourne," resumed Lazaroff, "and I had little hope then of really achieving the object of my journey. How I have succeeded I shall shortly tell the world in my book on Central Australia."

"Ah, you are writing an account of your travels? And there, I presume, are some of the curiosities which you have collected in your wanderings? I trust you will not forget your native country, Mr. Lazaroff. There are museums, you know, in Russia as well as in England. By the by, of what province are you?"

"I am of Wesenburg, in Esthonia," replied Lazaroff. Then, reverting to the Ambassador's last remark, he added, "I assure your Excellency of my entire devotion to my own nation. My collection is shortly to be forwarded to St. Petersburg, whither I shall follow it as soon as my book is published in this country and I have arranged certain financial matters of moment."

"Financial? That reminds me that I have heard rumours of a somewhat startling nature with respect to your discoveries. Come, is it a great gold mine that you have found?"

"It is not gold, your Excellency; it is diamonds."

"Diamonds—in Central Australia?"

"It will give me great satisfaction to exhibit them to your Excellency. They are the finest diamonds in the world. I defy any expert to pronounce them inferior to those of South Africa."

While he thus spoke, Lazaroff walked over to the safe, unlocked it, and produced the bag of unpolished stones which he had shown me a week previously. He shook the stones out upon the centre table, and, with a half-careless gesture, invited his guests to look at them.

"Ah! diamonds in the rough," said his Excellency, fingering two or three of the largest stones. "And these are from Central Australia?"

"They are from the finest diamond field in the world, your Excellency. It will open up possibilities such as the South African fields can never afford."

"I am no judge of diamonds in the rough," said the Ambassador. "You have none that have been in the hands of the cutter, I suppose, Mr. Lazaroff?"

"I was about to show you a few specimens, your Excellency," answered Lazaroff. He had taken the porphyry box from the safe and was divesting it of its wrappings. "There are a small number of diamonds in this box which I have had cut and polished, and I have dared to hope that I might persuade your Excellency to present them to his Imperial Majesty the Czar. It would give me great pleasure to know that his Imperial Majesty was the first recipient of the marvellous diamonds."

Lazaroff opened the porphyry box and displayed the contents. The Ambassador and attaché uttered exclamations of surprise and pleasure.

"Marvellous, indeed!" said the Ambassador. "they are magnificent! What light! what supreme purity! It will indeed give me great pleasure to undertake such a duty, Mr. Lazaroff. Very fortunately, I leave for Berlin to-night, where I am to meet his Imperial Majesty, who visits the German Court on his way to Denmark. I shall certainly be pleased to present your diamonds. Dear me, how exceedingly fine they are! I suppose I am right in conjecturing that it is your intention to form a financial company here in London for the purpose of working the diamond fields of Central Australia?"

"Your Excellency apprehends me exactly. I thank your Excellency for your condescension in deigning to present these gems to the Czar. The package shall be delivered at the Embassy this afternoon."

Lazaroff was about to remove the diamonds from the table when the negro boy entered with a card. Lazaroff was about to shake his head; but he suddenly glanced at the card a second time, as though he remembered the name inscribed there.

"Bir Adolphus Jipson?" he said. "Have I not heard that he is a great authority on precious stones? Your Excellency, who knows London better than I do, may, perhaps, be acquainted with Sir Adolphus?"

The Ambassador replied that he knew Sir Adolphus Jipson very well indeed, and would much like him to see the diamonds. Lazaroff accordingly directed me to usher Sir Adolphus into the study. I found him in the hall—a little old man with keen eyes shining through large spectacles. I bowed him into the study, where the Ambassador introduced him to Lazaroff. Sir Adolplus's eyes almost immediately wandered to the heap of rough diamonds on the table.

"Ah!" he said. "I heard a little rumour in the City which led me to think that you had discovered a new diamond field, Mr. Lazaroff, and I confess that I called upon you this morning in order to attempt to persuade you to show me your specimens. I conclude these are they. May I examine them?"

"I shall feel much honoured," answered Lazaroff.

I was much struck by the fashion in which the old scientist examined the diamonds. He produced a glass from his waistcoat pocket, screwed it into his eye, pursed up lips and whistled softly to himself as he examined the rough stones. When he had finished, he turned an absolutely inscrutable face to Mr. Lazaroff.

"Have you had any cut?" he asked.

Mr. Lazaroff produced the porphyry box. When he opened it, and the glittering contents fell before Sir Adolphus's eye, I saw his face suddenly relax and then become inscrutable again. He went through the same process of examination with the polished as with the unpolished stones. At last he put them down and returned the glass to his pocket.

"Well, what is your opinion, Sir Adolpbus?" said the Ambassador, who had watched the old scientist's proceedings very narrowly.

"My opinion, your Excellency, is that these are very fine stones—remarkably fine," said Sir Adolphus. He turned to Mr. Lazaroff again. "You found them in Central Australia?"

"That is so," replied Mr. Lazaroff.

"You had gone prepared for mining, then?" said Sir Adolphus.

"I had gone prepared for anything."

"Umph! Is the mine you worked likely to yield still further?"

Mr, Lazaroff smiled at the Russian Ambassador and waved his hands deprecatingly towards his questioner.

"All will be told in good time," he answered smilingly. "I must not say more until our company is formed."

"Ah!" said Mr Adolplins. "Of course not. Well, have you any objection, Mr. Lazaroff, to lending me two of your diamonds—one rough, the other polished—for a day or two? I sha'n't run off with 'em," he added, with a dry laugh.

Mr, Lazaroff had no objection whatever, but he regretted that the only polished stones in his possession were those in the porphyry box, and they, he said, were already destined for his Imperial Majesty the Czar, to whom his Excellency was shortly to present them,

"Oh, I see!" said Sir Adolphus. "First-fruits to your own country, eh? Quite right—quite right. Well, you'll lend me one of these rough ones, then I should just like to conduct an experiment upon it."

Mr, Lazaroff was only too delighted, and Sir Adolphus picked out one of the rough diamonds and carefully stowed it away in his purse. Then, after some desultory conversation about the other results of Mr. Lazaroff's exploration, the two gentlemen rose to take leave. Mr. Lazaroff arrested the Ambassador for a moment.

"The case of gems shall he conveyed to your Excellency by my secretary this afternoon," said he. "Permit me, before you leave, to explain to your Excellency the secret of opening this box, in which I propose to place the diamonds. Your Excellency perceives that it is of very delicate and beautiful workmanship. It is opened by a spring; you press with a finger and thumb there, and the lid flies back!"

The Ambassador listened carefully, promised to explain the secret to his Imperial Majesty on presenting the diamonds for his inspection and acceptance, and withdrew, offering Sir Adolphus a lift in his brougham. Mr. Lazaroff and I attended our visitors to the door, and in the hall the attaché addressed me in an undertone and in very excellent English:—

"I conclude, sir," said he, "that it is you who will bring the package to the Embassy this afternoon; and, as it will be necessary for you to inquire for me, may I ask you to remember my name—Captain Troubetzkoy?"

I bowed, and he passed on and followed the Ambassador and Sir Adolphus into the brougham. Mr. Lazaroff and I turned back into the house again.

"That is capital!" said he, rubbing his hands. "In three days every daily newspaper in Europe will be ringing with the praises of my beautiful diamonds. Accepted by the Czar—worn by the lovely Czarina! Why, it is the most splendid of advertisements. But come, I have work in the laboratory. May I trouble you to go into the morning-room and bring me the package of papers you will see there on the mantelpiece? They are on the left-hand side."

When I returned from this mission, Mr. Laaaroff was locking the safe wherein he had once more bestowed the precious stones. He took the papers from my hands, dictated to me a paragraph about the visit of the Russian Ambassador and the diamonds which were to be presented to the Czar of Russia, and then went off to the laboratory, leaving me to make copies and send them to the newspapers.

When we met at luncheon, Mr. Lazaroff laid by the side of his cover a small parcel very neatly done up in oiled silk. It was sealed in several places, and I made no doubt that it contained the gems. In this supposition I was correct. As soon as the meal was over he handed me the packet and bade me carry it to the Russian Embassy. He gave me particular instructions about staying nowhere on my way, and made me button my coat over the breast pocket in which I had placed the package. As I left the room he called me back.

"By the by," he said, "when you have discharged your errand to the Embassy you might drive down to the City and leave me this note in Threadneedle Street. I shall have no correspondence this afternoon, so don't hurry. A little fresh air will do you good."

I left the house and proceeded to the Embassy. At the door I was confronted by a gigantic porter, who, upon my mentioning Troubetzkoy's name, immediately conducted me into a small waiting-room. There the attaché presently joined me, and from his manner I judged that he was in haste and had no time for more words than were absolutely necessary.

"You have the package?" he said, holding out his hand for it. "Ah, yes; that is right. We are in so much haste here this afternoon, in consequence of his Excellency's imminent departure for the Continent, that I'm sure you will excuse me. The package will at once be placed in his Excellency's hands. Good day."

The whole proceeding was over in a minute or two, and I presently found myself outside the Embassy with the package left behind me. I had not felt over well pleased to carry anything so valuable in those crowded streets, and I was glad to be rid of it. I turned away from the West End towards the City, and, as it was a fine afternoon, I decided to walk as far as Charing Cross before taking a hansom for Threadneedle Street. Now that the diamonds were safely out of my hands I was in no particular hurry. I therefore sauntered along, gazing at the various objects of interest around me and at the crowds of people in the streets. There was much that impressed me in London, where I was a comparative stranger. But a I turned out of Trafalgar Square into the Strand, I saw something that for the moment made me forget everything. It was the face of the attaché Troubetzkoy, in a passing hansom, which was being driven along at a sharp pace. There was nothing wonderful in Troubetzkoy's being there; it was the expression in his face which surprised me. He looked like a man who wants to get somewhere in a violent hurry. I concluded that he was probably on his way to Charing Cross to make final arrangements for the Ambassador's departure, and dismissed the incident from my mind. It was about half-past two when I left Mount Street for the Embassy; by the time I had delivered Lazaroff's letter in Threadneedle Street, and returned, it was past six o'clock, the house was all in darkness; Nero had not even lighted the hall lamp. I rang and knocked; no answer came. I rang again and again, and a third time with increased force, but still there was no reply to my summons. As I stood there I heard footsteps coming along the quiet street, and presently a tall man came up and paused at my side. He gave me a keen glance in the light of the nearest gas-lamp.

"Is that where Mr. Lazaroff, the great explorer, lives?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "But I can't get any answer to the door. They must all be out; and yet I don't understand it. The servants ought to be in."

He gave me another sharp glance.

"Do you live there, too?" he asked.

"I am Mr. Lazaroff's secretary," I said rather haughtily.

"Oh!" he answered. "And how long have you been in his employ, may I ask?"

"Really," T said, "I don't quite see that that is any business of yours."

"It may or may not be," he answered; "but I may as well tell you that I am a police officer from Scotland Yard."

I stood staring at him with a sudden, instinctive fear.

"Is there anything wrong?" I asked. "I know nothing of Mr. Lazaroff except that he engaged me a fortnight ago."

The man gave a long look of scrutiny.

"Just come under this lamp a minute," he said. "I can see you've been duped. There; you may read that; it's a copy of a cablegram just received from the chief of police at Melbourne."

I took the slip of paper and read these words:—

"Man now in London calling himself Lazaroff an impostor. Real Lazaroff just arrived here from Fort Bourke after successful exploration."

I handed the paper back. What did it all mean?

 

 

CHAPTER IV.
The Fate Of Mr. Troubetzkoy.

The man from Scotland Yard was watching me keenly when I looked up at him. It seemed to me that, although he had said something about my being duped, there was still some suspicion in his glance. He folded up the paper and restored it to his pocket-book.

"Well?" he said, "what do you make of that?"

I shook my head.

"I don't understand it," I replied. "I know nothing of Mr. Lazaroff, or of the man who called himself by that name, except that he professed to be the explorer of Central Australia, from which he had just returned. Why, he had brought back trunks full of scientific specimens—he was showing them to the Russian Ambassador in his room this morning!"

"Oh, there's no doubt the man has made people believe he was Lazaroff. But the Russian Ambassador—what was he doing there?"

"He came to inspect Mr. Lazaroff's collection, and, more particularly, some specimen diamonds which he had discovered in Central Australia."

"Diamonds, eh? Well?"

By that time I began to perceive that there was certainly something wrong, and I determined to tell the whole story.

"I think I had better tell you all I know," I said. "If there is imposture going on, it may help you if I disclose everything that I have seen and heard."

"Just so," he answered. "But you shall tell it at headquarters. Come to the end of the street, we'll get a hansom there."

All the way to Scotland Yard my companion said nothing, and I had no desire to talk, for I was trying to collect my thoughts. We were soon in the presence of some police official of importance, and the man who had accosted me in Mount Street briefly told him under what circumstances he had come across me. The official motioned me to a seat.

"Now, sir," he said, "what do you know of this so-called Mr, Lazaroff and his doings since you joined him?"

I thought it best to begin at the beginning, so I described the whole story of my connection with Lazaroff, from the meeting behind the church at Hull to the delivery of the diamonds to the Russian Ambassador. The official listened with close attention.

"You actually delivered these diamonds, or, rather, a package which you believe to have contained diamonds, to the Russian Ambassador this afternoon?" he said, when I concluded.

"I handed the package to Mr. Troubetzkoy, one of his attachés, about three o'clock, at the Embassy."

"Did you see the diamonds placed in the package?"

"No, I saw them in the box when the Ambassador left the house in Mount Street, but I did not see the contents of the package handed to me by Mr. Lazaroff. It was wrapped up and sealed when I received it."

My interrogator considered matters.

"The Knssian Ambassador leaves Charing Cross at half-past nine to-night for Dover, en route for Calais and Berlin," he said. "He must be seen at once. The contents of that package must be examined. I must ask you to accompany me to the Embassy, Mr. Merrill. And, in the meantime, Stephens," be added, turning to the man who had brought me there, "let the house in Mount Street be searched—I will drive round there from the Embassy."

I followed my new custodian into the court-yard, and was presently seated by his side in a cab which drove swiftly away to the Russian Embassy. Like the lesser official, he was extremely reserved, but once or twice he put questions to me which seemed to suggest that he feared some plot. I, on my part, had already got my head full of ideas about Nihilists, Anarchists, Terrorists, and what not, and I turned hot and cold at the thought that I had, perhaps, been an unconscious tool in the hands of a relentless conspirator. By the time we drew up at the door of the Embassy I was in a state of considerable anxiety and excitement.

The hall of the Embassy was in some confusion—great piles of luggage were everywhere, and the porters and servants hurried here and there as if there were still much to be done ere the Ambassador started on his journey. The man who admitted me in the afternoon barred our way, but at a few whispered words from my companion he led us into the little waiting-room which I had previously seen. There we were presently joined by an aristocratic-looking man, in a sort of undress uniform, who appeared to recognise the Scotland Yard official. The latter drew him aside, and a whispered conversation took place between them. The man in uniform then withdrew, only to return in a few minutes and beckon us to follow him. "His Excellency has little time to spare, but he will see you at once," he said, as we passed up a flight of stairs.

"We found the Ambassador writing at his desk in a small cabinet. A secretary was similarly occupied close by, but at a sign he and the man who had shown us in left the room. The Ambassador looked at my companion, then at me. "I am much pressed for time, Inspector," he said. "I suppose your business is of great importance?"

"It may be of the most serious importance, your Excellency. To waste no words, you paid a visit, this morning to the house of a man giving himself out to be the distinguished Russian traveller, Melchior Lazaroff?"

"I did."

"You promised to deliver to his Imperial Majesty the Czar a package supposed to contain diamonds?"

"Supposed? But I saw the diamonds—very fine gems, indeed. If I mistake not, this gentleman—Mr. Lazaroff's secretary, is it not?—was present. I supposed when I saw you enter the apartment just now that you had brought me the package. I had just been thinking that if they were not here soon I should be obliged to leave London without them."

The Inspector turned upon me with a sharp look. As for me, I stared at the Ambassador.

"But—but I brought the package here at three o'clock!" I said.

"Ah!" said the Ambassador. "I have not received it. To whom was it delivered?"

"I have it into the hands of Mr. Troubetzkoy, the gentleman who accompanied your Excellency this morning," I replied. "He instructed me to do so when he left the house with your Excellency."

The Ambassador frowned.

"Then he exceeded his duty," he said. "A package of such importance should have been handed to me personally. However"—he touched a bell on his desk and gave some order in Russian to the servant who answered it. "But your presence, Inspector, how is that accounted for?"

The Inspector drew out a cablegram.

"We have reason to believe, your Excellency, that the man who passed himself off as Lazaroff is an impostor. If your Excellency will read this cablegram, received early this evening from Melbourne, you will understand why we attach some serious importance to the news given us by this young gentleman."

The Ambassador read the cablegram and looked at me in a surprised fashion.

"Do you know nothing of this man?" he said.

The Inspector anticipated me.

"He knew nothing, your Excellency, until a fortnight ago. He seems, so far as I can make out, to have been employed for the simple purpose of carrying the package from this man who called himself Lazaroff to your Excellency. He tells me that he has done practically no secretarial work, and that makes me feel sure that when the moment came for the conveyance of the package to your Excellency it was necessary that it should be brought here by some Englishman. It seems to me that the so-called Lazaroff dared not show himself at the Embassy."

The Ambassador seemed anxious and puzzled.

"In brief," he said, looking keenly at the Inspector, "you seem to think that there is something behind all this? What is in your mind?"

"I am afraid that the whole thing is a very cleverly and patiently devised scheme for putting an infernal machine in your Excellency's hands for conveyance to his Majesty the Czar," answered the Inspector.

The Ambassador grew more anxious. He suddenly let one hand drop on the desk, and the lines of thought on his face deepened.

"Ah!" he said. "I remember that this man showed me some secret spring by which the box opened! Great Heavens! could it have been—but why does not Troubetzkoy come?"

At that moment the servant entered. He spoke in Russian, and as he spoke I saw the Ambassador's face assume still further perplexity. He turned to the Inspector.

"Mr. Troubetzkoy left the Embassy shortly after three o'clock, and has not yet returned," he said. "That is most strange—he is to accompany me on my journey at half-past nine, and I had entrusted him with duties which should certainly have occupied him all the afternoon. At what hour did you deliver the package to Mr. Troubetzky?" he added, turning to me.

"At three o'clock, your Excellency. And at twenty minutes to four I saw Mr. Troubetzkoy driving in a hansom cab into the Strand from Trafalgar Square."

I had omitted this detail in my story to the Inspector, and he now turned upon me with a sharp exclamation. The Ambassador, however, uttered a louder one.

"Ah!" he said. "I see—I see it all! I feared that Troubetzkoy was once again involved in financial embarrassment—he has stolen that package, whatever it may contain, under the impression that he has got fifty thousand pounds' worth of diamonds. That was the value which Sir Adolphus Jipson put upon them as we drove home together. Yes—yes—that must be the solution. But—what does that box contain? or, rather, what is that box?"

The Inspector remained lost in thought for some moments before, he answered the Ambassador's question. Then he looked up and shook his head.

"If your Excellency's surmise is correct," he said, "I fear Mr. Troubetzkoy will already have left England. He may have escaped to the Continent by the evening boat from Harwich—either Rotterdam or Antwerp are favourite places for the disposal of stolen gems. But, considering everything, is it worth while tracking him?"

"That I must leave to you," said the Ambassador, rising. "I am obliged to terminate our interview, for my train leaves London in half-an-hour. Be good enough to communicate with my secretary on these matters during my absence. You will, of course, communicate with our own police agents in London at once?"

The Inspector promised that all necessary steps should be taken both as regards the man calling himself Lazaroff and the missing Trodbetzkoy, and we then left the Embassy. Our cab was still waiting outside, and we got into it and drove to Mount Street. The Inspector was extremely thoughtful; but as we pulled up at the house he made a remark which I scarcely comprehended at the time—

"It will be strange if to-morrow does not bring a solution of the whole mystery!"

I had no time to ask him what he meant before we hurried into the house. There were half a dozen policemen in plain clothes there, and they seemed to have ransacked the place already. I went round the house with the Inspector, at his request. So far as I could sec, everything was exactly as I had left it early in the afternoon. In the dining-room the luncheon table remained uncleared; in the study there still remained the various objects of interest which Lazaroff had arranged there that morning, together with the papers and letters which I had left on my desk. But in every room and in the kitchens the fires had long died out, and the house was cold and cheerless.

At the Inspector's request I gave him full descriptions of the people who had occupied the house since I had known it—Lazaroff himself, the negro boy Nero, the waiting-maid Tatia, and the cook Marta. Then there seemed nothing more to be done, and the Inspector, after giving some further instructions to his men, desired me to return with him to Scotland Yard. When we arrived there he took me into his room and bade me take a seat.

"Pray don't consider yourself under arrest, Mr. Merrill," he said pleasantly. "I quite believe that you have simply been a dupe in this matter, and we have no wish to regard you in any other light. But I want you to stay here until we have got a little nearer to the solution of this strange mystery. So long as you can be useful to us we must have you within reach. You shall have supper and as comfortable a room as I can give you. As I said before, I shall be surprised if the morning does not give us a solution of the whole mystery."

Although I scarcely felt perfectly comfortable in my new surroundings, I recognised that there was nothing to be done but to acquiesce in the Inspector's proposal and to make the best of things. Ere long he had supper provided for me in his own room, and while I was eating it he was continually issuing orders and instructions, the exact tenor of which I did not hear. After supper be asked more questions and suggested many things which put certain occurrences at the house in Mount Street in a different light. I began to feel that if I had been of a more suspicious nature I should have suspected the man who called himself Melchior Lazaroff from the first.

At midnight the Inspector suggested that I should like to retire, and, on my replying in the affirmative, he showed me into a small, plainly furnished sleeping apartment which opened out of his office. I was soon in bed, but for some time the novelty of my situation prevented me from sleeping. I heard comings and goings in the next room, and the subdued murmurs of voices never seemed to cease. At last the monotonous sound acted like an opiate and I fell asleep and slept soundly.

When I awoke it was broad daylight, and on glancing at my watch I saw that it was already nine o'clock. I rose at once and dressed hastily. When I opened the door of the room my glance fell on the Inspector, who sat at his desk, just as I had last seen him the previous midnight. He was reading a newspaper, and he lifted his face from it to me with a nod and a smile, which seemed to say that all had turned out well during the night.

"Good morning, Mr. Merrill," he said. "I have been in your room twice since seven o'clock, but you were sound asleep. Well, your mystery is solved, I think. I said it would be strange if it were not solved by morning, did I not?"

"You did—but may I ask what the solution is?" I replied, feeling intensely curious and at the same time relieved.

The Inspector smiled.

"Well," he said, "I'm afraid you'll never know all the ins and outs of the matter—nor, perhaps, shall we—but you're welcome to know as much as the newspapers can tell you. There—read that."

He handed me a copy of the Daily Telegraph, and pointed to a paragraph printed in leaded type and headed, "Mysterious Affair in the East End." It ran as follows:—

"The sudden death of an unknown man took place in a private hotel in Silver Square, London Hocks, shortly before twelve o'clock last night. Earlier in the evening a tall, well-built man, of somewhat distinguished presence, but dressed in a ready-made suit of blue serge, took a room in the hotel and afterwards supped in the coffee-room. He was seen entering his room a little after half-past eleven, and just before twelve the landlord, Mr. Julius Heilbronner, who happened to be passing along the corridor, heard a sharp scream as of some person in mortal pain. Finding that it came from the stranger's apartment, he obtained help and broke open the door. On entering the room, Mr. Heilbrunner found its occupant lying across the hearthrug in an attitude that suggested a sudden spasm of terrible agony. Although scarcely three minutes had elapsed since hearing the scream, the stranger was quite dead and his limbs were terribly distorted. By his side lay a box of curious make and workmanship, and further examination of the room showed that he had evidently just removed the article from its wrapper of paper and oiled silk. The police at the nearest police-station were at once communicated with, but within an hour the authorities from Scotland Yard had arrived on the scene and taken charge of the case. So far the matter is surrounded with mystery, and the police display great reticence."

"And they will continue to display it," said the Inspector. "Well, do you understand, Mr. Merrill?"

"Not altogether," I said. "I suppose this man was Trouhetzkoy?"

"You are quite correct."

"But the cause of his death?"

"Well," he said, "that box was one of the cleverest pieces of devilish ingenuity that was ever devised, though it wasn't an absolutely original idea. It meant instant, horrible death to whoever pressed the spring that opened it. The only mark on the man's body was a slight puncture of the thumb. Our theory is that, when the spring was pressed by the thumb and finger, a concealed needle, hollowed and filled with some deadly poison, was driven hard into the former, with what result you know. You can imagine what would have happened had that box reached the person it was intended for?"

I nodded my head in silence.

""Well," he said presently. "I don't think you'll ever know much more than that, Mr. Merrill. And these people"—he tapped the newspaper lying on the desk—"won't learn any more of the real facts, either. There are some matter's which come under our notice that are best said nothing about. You'll take my hint, eh?"

From that day to this I have never heard another word of the pseudo-Lazaroff. But I have no doubt that I was his tool in one of the most cleverly devised plots that ever threatened a certain great person's life.


 

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1935, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.